30 May 2019

Getting the ‘right sort’ of education
Sunday, 26 May 2019
by marina mahathir

I just finished a wonderful book that everyone should read: Educated by Tara Westover.

It is the true story of a Mormon girl from rural Idaho who grew up in a survivalist family with parents who mistrusted authority so much that they refused to send their children to school, never vaccinated them and would treat them at home when they were ill, even when they had very serious and life-threatening injuries.

Despite that horrific childhood, Westover managed to attend university at 17, work­ing so hard that she eventually went to Cam­bridge and Harvard Universities. The book has sold over two million copies worldwide.The best books are those that talk about universal human values. Westover’s book will resonate with many Malaysians. We will recognise the conservative background she comes from and realise that we’re not the only people like that. And we might learn something from that indomitable human resilience and spirit that manages to overcome the most unimaginable odds and make something of themselves.

But the most important message in the book is the importance of education. Westover recalled that when she went to university, she attended a class on Shakespeare because she “had heard of the word” but in fact didn’t know anything about him or what he wrote.

She had never heard of Islam until Sept 11 happened. She didn’t know how to write essays or even why people bathed with soap. But through sheer determination and hard work, she ended up with a doctorate from Harvard.

Westover’s thesis about education is that you need it to enlarge your world, that without it, you will believe that the entire world is what is immediately around you and that every human being is just like you. You will think that everyone thinks like you.

Education, done the right way, opens up your mind to the vast expanse of the universe and the limitless knowledge within it. It makes you understand and appreciate how things work, what motivates people to do what they do. If you get the right sort of education, it should make you both curious about many things and also empathetic towards other people.

To be sure, not all so-called educated people have minds that are open to the possibilities of this world of ours. That’s perhaps because our definition of education is so limited. We often think that because we have a certificate we can put on the wall,

we are “educated”. That’s such a common assumption that people will go to great lengths to get fake degrees to give themselves that veneer of prestige.

But it’s always bemused me that while everybody grumbles constantly about getting places in our universities, nobody actually questions the quality of education they are getting. I really do think the fact that we’re such an uncurious people says a lot about the type of education we are getting. How is it that there are so few in-depth studies on the very many social issues we face?

Ask any recent graduate what books they have read, outside their required course reading lists. Indeed, ask their teachers what they have been reading. Have they been reading to expand their minds or just because they have to pass exams?

I don’t know why nobody worries that the books that sell the most in Malaysia are romance books.

But ultimately if you at least know how to read, you will, with some encouragement, grow to enjoy reading books, even very long ones. If the story is absorbing enough,

books are far more satisfying than reading Whatsapp messages or even articles online.

Witness how kids plough through the entire Harry Potter series, regardless of how many pages each volume is. When you start trying to ration the pages of a book you’re reading because you don’t want it to end, you know you’re on to a good one.

Back to education. Let us reassess what we define as education in our country. When we do, we’ll find that we really have not been educating our people much at all, especially when we see that we have so many literalists but not literate people in our midst. How else do we explain the amount of rubbish that is believed and circulated on social media?

Education has become ideological instead of something fundamental for all human beings, indeed a basic human right. When someone can’t even do the sort of basic research to check when particular stamps are issued, you know they have had no education. When someone thinks privilege and position trumps any sort of hard work, then their lack of educational foundation is telling.Of course, we’re not the only ones whose education is limited. A recent survey of Americans found that 56% disagreed that Arabic numerals should be used in the United States. If we had the same survey here, would 60% of our people insist that we should use only Arabic numerals? Both results come from the same ideological reason: because they are Arabic.If we don’t do anything drastic about our education system soon, chiefly if we don’t ensure our children are educated in the true sense of the word, then we can expect to lose out in the world. Ask any of our children who are studying abroad how hard it is to cope with not just the intricacies of language, but the type of critical thinking they are required to do.

Our children need to be exposed to the sciences and the humanities not just for the knowledge, but for their own personal development. It’s important to know geography so that we understand that the world is big. It’s equally important to understand the history of the world so that we won’t repeat the mistakes of the past. Everybody needs to know science as it affects every aspect of our lives.

There’s nothing to be proud of when we only know the names of celebrities and brand names. We only make fools of ourselves when we think calling a corrupt person BossKu is cool; we don’t even see how self-serving that is and how it demeans everyone who follows him.

When we are disrespectful to elders just because we are born into privilege, it not only betrays the lack of wisdom that comes from a limited education but also a dysfunctional upbringing.

We’d better do something quick for the sake of our children.

And meanwhile, let me wish you all Selamat Hari Raya Aidil Fitri, maaf zahir dan batin.

Other books Marina recommends to read for pleasure: Dadland by Keggie Carew, Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello and We That Are Young by Preti Taneja.

30 April 2019

Let’s have a happy first anniversary
Sunday, 28 Apr 2019

AS the cliche goes, time has whizzed by. Wasn’t it just yesterday we were queuing up by the thousands at polling stations, and then getting together with friends to wait for the results? And waited and waited?

Meanwhile, our phones buzzed with unofficial results. Yet on TV we were made to twiddle our thumbs until the early hours of the morning. Another long tense wait followed. We voted for the government we wanted and yet we didn’t know for an entire day whether it would be sworn in.

Who doesn’t remember the emotions of that day? The camaraderie at the polling stations, the frustration of people not being allowed to vote past closing time despite the extra-long queues, the exhilaration of winning and then that long agonising wait for the new government to take over.

Whichever side you may be on that day, all Malaysians should take pride in one thing: in this chaotic violent world today, we were arguably the only developing country that changed governments – after sixty years! – in the best way possible, through the ballot box.

It was certainly a new experience for everyone, to see a new government sworn in.

Faces we had barely seen in the news were suddenly ministers.

But how refreshing that was to see a Cabinet that looked like us, instead of a bunch of tired and jaded entitled folk who had been there too long.

But reality can be a hard bone to swallow. Only those who believe in fairy tales could have expected things to become wonderful overnight.

We didn’t get extra change in our pockets and justice and equality the day after the elections.

There are only four people in the Cabinet who have actual experience in governing, two at the Federal level and two at the state level. It’s not a skill that one picks up overnight.

Furthermore, they were inheriting an almost broken machine that had to be fixed up first. Some patience is needed.

Having said that, one year on, the government’s track record is uneven.

On the one hand, we are finally seeing some people being brought to court. The media has a new freedom, which even they are finding it hard to get used to.

I read a letter from a teacher who praised the Education Minister for lessening the burdens put on teachers in schools.

The Environment Minister was very proactive and quick in dealing with the Sungai Kim Kim toxic fumes disaster.

I’m sure there is more but we just don’t hear about them.

The good news is being overwhelmed by the bad news. Partly this is because of the relentless attacks by the opposition.

I do wish they would behave like a good opposition because a good democracy always needs one.

But they’ve become single-issue fanatics. Everything is only about race and religion.

I do understand that they are unable to talk about corruption without a lot of the mud splashing back on their faces but seriously, are there no other policy issues that they are interested in?

What are their views on climate change for instance? Or equal pay for equal work for women?

What do they think about the attacks on Yemen, causing the deaths of 5200 civilians, and a further 50,000 deaths from famine?

What are their views on genocide, say, in Myanmar, and what do they think is the best way to deal with it? What do they think is the appropriate response to attacks on houses of worship around the world that cause so many deaths?

What is their stand on nuclear arms? On what issues would they be willing to join the government in a bipartisan stand?

I would really like to know the answers to these. Is it simply too much to expect this from the opposition or from their paid trolls on social media?

I live in hope though because if they intend to rule again, the least we can expect is a government that can sing more than one note.

But we cannot lay the entire blame on an opposition deprived of ideas.

The government too needs to stop looking like amateurs. I don’t understand why a government that was so soundly voted in should get defensive at all about any of their policies. Especially social policies.

Why be afraid to raise the age of marriage and ban child marriage altogether? Why attack minorities who voted for you just because the other side keeps baiting you on them?

Why the need to respond to every single thing that reporters ask you about? Some things benefit from better investigation and longer reflection.

Other things are best left to the technical people who actually know what they’re talking about.

I think some people forget that they’re now in government and they don’t have to fight for media coverage anymore.

The one thing I really wish this government had done from the beginning is to have some sort of coordinating mechanism so that ministries no longer work in silos.

This was a huge problem in the old government when, for example, the Health Ministry didn’t know how international trade agreements affected them simply because they were negotiated by the International Trade and Industry Ministry.

Or how only the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry dealt with gender issues when in fact women are affected by policies from every ministry.

In Indonesia, there is such a thing as a Coordinating Minister whose job is to ensure horizontal cooperation between ministries.

Something like that would be very useful here too in my opinion.

But since it’s the first anniversary coming up soon, let me end on a positive note.

I remember the days when we all felt like there was not enough air to breathe, when hate poured out of our TV screens like poisoned rivers, when nobody could even fly a balloon without being arrested and taken to court. Those days must never return.

For at least the next four years, I wish to see a kinder, gentler and fairer government – one that considers every single citizen in this land a Malaysian, whether they voted for it or not.

I’d like to have a government that respects us all and not treat us like ignorant children, that spends its resources on what would benefit all of us and not on monitoring imaginary insults.

It would be terrific if this was a government that raised the level of intellectual discourse in this country, that doesn’t ban books but instead invites people to debate them in an orderly civilized way.

A government that shows us through very clear values and by example how to be exemplary citizens.

It’s not just about putting down the other side, it’s also about how you raise the bar for governance.

Raise standards and the other side will have to keep up. And the rakyat wins either way.

Happy first anniversary in advance, Pakatan Harapan. And happy first anniversary, rakyat Malaysia Baharu.

31 March 2019

Get your scepticism on
Sunday, 31 Mar 2019
by marina mahathir

SOMETIMES when I read the horrific toxic messages that go around WhatsApp groups, I have to wonder about my people. Do we enjoy being whipped up into agitation? Do we find reading bad news pleasurable? Is it really blissful to wallow in ignorance? Don’t we mind being manipulated by irresponsible people?

I once came across an old handbook of “bazaar Malay” produced by the British Allied Land Forces in 1945 as they prepared to return to Malaya after the Japanese occupation ended. Besides the instructions on how to speak simple Malay, albeit not always grammatically or pronounced correctly, there are guides to “knowing Malays”. It seems that Malays are friendly “mannered” people who are quite happy to help, “provided they are not intimidated, shouted at or insulted”.

Why they did not refer to the other people living in Malaya at the time remains a mystery. Perhaps they meant to condescend to one lot of folks at a time.

What interested me is that trope of how we are really nice people until we are intimidated, shouted at or insulted. There is probably some truth in this, because it suggests that we have some dignity and pride in our psychological makeup, that we will stand up to any form of affront from other people. We are cooperative if we are asked politely and we won’t stand for any insults. All well and good.

But what do we find these days? First of all, we are intimidated, shouted at and insulted by our own people. Was this something we learnt from our former colonisers on how to “control” people?

Just use heavy-handedness and loudness, never mind who’s right or wrong? Insult people by telling them they’re ignorant of democracy, while at the same time limiting democratic space? Rush to the police station to make reports, without ever bothering to find out what the actual issue is?

I am really puzzled by this. But even more, I am bemused by the willingness of so many people to be intimidated and to swallow whole whatever is fed them, despite the fact that what is being shoved down their throats are really insults to the intelligence. Have we become so indolent that we are unwilling to use our brains to be a bit more sceptical of what we are told?

I see people who accept the mis-characterisations of very simple events as gospel. A women’s march becomes an LGBT march. An international convention becomes a threat to sovereignty. A plan to save an institution becomes a conspiracy to destroy it instead. Some of these are things made up by people with evil on their minds, people who are intent to destroy, not support and develop a nation. Some are paid to pass on these disgusting messages especially on social media. They are soldiers of unhappiness and despair whose only aim is to make us disgruntled and frustrated.

I’m not saying that everything we are facing now is wonderful or that our new government is getting everything right. Very often our current ministers are also capable of insulting our intelligence. But nothing beats the outrageous lies that are being perpetrated on social media which people pass on and on. Everybody really needs a good dose of scepticism. Or do we just love to believe conspiracy theories, even the most unlikely ones, because they sound so fantastic that they must be true. Fact is supposed to be stranger than fiction, right? So, if someone tells us that a two-headed half-cat half-dog appeared in their backyard, we must believe this. Because these things happen.

And we think this makes us smart?

There is already so much misery in the world without us needlessly adding to it with false stories. There are still people starving, being bombed, having to run away from their countries on precarious journeys, being beaten up daily, that we don’t need to drown people in more depressing stories which aren’t grounded in fact.

Or worse, twist facts to suit our own ends, even when the net result is actually more unhappiness.

The thing is, some of the spinning that is being done online and viralised is only meant to make a few people happy and the majority forever in chains, if not literally but at least mentally. I don’t understand why we don’t worry about our people’s lack of scepticism and critical analysis of anything they are told. Our students who go overseas often find that they are severely handicapped by their inability to look at anything they are taught with a critical eye. Their overseas counterparts then shine in class while they flounder. It is the result of our woeful education system but we don’t seem to see the long-term impact of this. We are breeding robots who are only able to think, do or say what they are programmed to.

I saw opponents of a particular international statute cite the arguments put forward by some white guy as justification for not signing it. It’s interesting that in wanting to defend so-called sovereignty and privileges they still needed to refer to a Western person as if that is the only way to establish authority. But nobody seemed to have taken the trouble to look up the guy and see what a dubious person he is. Incredibly, white guys are considered really good when they support whatever position you want them to regardless of whether they actually have any credibility at all. This must account for the number of people who think Hitler was cool, without realising that the Fuhrer would just as soon send them to the ovens too for the simple reason of not being Aryan. By the way, white supremacists would secretly admit to admiring old Adolf as well if they wouldn’t get arrested for saying it publicly. You know, the type that shoots people up in mosques. All bred from the same Hitlerite petri dish.

When I see the type of nonsense that passes for news going around social media and WhatsApp, its hardly surprising that there is such a mental health crisis these days. More and more people are depressed and I’m pretty sure that it is because, besides actual bad news that floods them daily in the media, of all the fake and distorted stuff that pings into their chat groups relentlessly every minute of the day. None of it is happy news. None of it makes you feel better about yourself or about your neighbours and country. Sure, occasionally there are some well-meaning homilies about friendship or gratitude or cute cat pictures. But the majority of the stuff is guaranteed to make you ill. Considering that some of these things come in all night, don’t you wonder about the health of people who never seem to sleep?

I think we need to get a grip and really examine what we are doing to ourselves. Sure, we need to voice out our concerns on what we think is not right. But can we at least promise ourselves to first take a deep breath and not jump on the online podium the minute we read something; second, find out whether what we’re reading is true or not, and third, write a cogent argument against whatever we disagree with, backed by facts? Can we remember that the “information” we get are often sent by people who are paid to make up stuff just to make us angry?

Can we honestly call ourselves an intelligent people, rather than a gullible one?

28 February 2019

All upside down
Sunday, 24 Feb 2019
by marina mahathir

I REMEMBER more than a year ago feeling dizzy because I thought the world had turned upside down. Things that used to be true were then declared fake, values that used to be upheld were discarded and their opposites lauded instead.

I remember feeling disorientated; something felt very wrong but it was not discussed out in the open.

Turned out I was not the only one who felt that way.

Enough of us couldn’t ignore that niggling feeling in our gut and decided enough was enough and threw the people with confused values out. I thank the Almighty every day for saving us from that disaster.

I read about an incident when a young minister who had gone to campaign for the Semenyih by-election had been verbally abused and attacked.

That was bad enough but when I read the comments, I realised that for some people, their values are totally based on their loyalties, rather than principles, and these can get very warped.

Many suggested that if you venture into “enemy territory”, then you should expect violence. Really? This is news to me. Unless of course our politics scene is now ruled by that sort of gangster mentality.

Previously anyone could go and campaign during an election or by-election without expecting violence. That was the sort of country and people we were. Now has violence become the norm?

Worse still, some people were actually proud of it. Poor things, nothing else in their lives to be proud of perhaps? (And all this coming from self-proclaimed champions of the Malay race, the race that used to be lauded for our good manners.)

This is not the only upside-down value we are seeing these days. Some people see nothing wrong in promoting their colleagues’ wives to special positions, even excusing this as “women empowerment”.

If this is to support the 30% allocation for women on boards and other decision-making positions, then they must show the total number of women appointed and what their qualifications are.

I have no doubt that some very qualified women are married to public figures. In that case, publish the candidate’s full CV and the requirements of the position and let the public judge.

Building a wall between those candidates and their husbands might be a good idea too.

As children we are often told to think before we speak, so that we don’t say anything offensive to others. I do think that it’s equally offensive when people open their mouths and say things that are completely tone-deaf.

When women find themselves victims of abuse and violence, there should be outrage.

Instead, often there is victim-blaming, including that she should not have been out alone. Women frequently have no choice but to go out on their own. And when you need to get into a lift, are you supposed to wait until there are lots of people in it? Especially so early in the morning?

Another case of upside-down values: misrepresenting one’s qualifications. First of all, have we as a society put so much premium on having a degree that we don’t care anymore what quality is involved? Is this why all that our folks care about is getting their children into universities and not what sort of education they are getting?

Apart from that, for whatever reason a person needs to misrepresent their qualifications, I have to wonder what they tell their children. We constantly remind our children to study hard in school, scold them when they don’t do well and celebrate when they do. We expect them to burn the midnight oil when they go to university because we know that a good degree gives them a head start in life.

But if you get your degree without doing any of these, how do you explain this to your own children? Or do you tell them that it’s okay not to work hard because they can still get a good position anyway, by embellishing their educational credentials?

That only works in certain fields but in the private sector at least, or indeed in any company or organisation that cares about the quality of its employees, those credentials will be scrutinised very closely.

I once went to Harvard Business School on a short course where they were trying to see if business principles can be applied to the running of non-governmental organisations. It was a great experience and I learnt a lot. But I cannot say I got a degree from Harvard Business School.

Such warped thinking needs to be corrected. It is a hundred times better to say that you have no degree but have the savvy and street smarts to rise up in the world than to pretend that you have a non-existent degree.

There is nothing wrong with not having a degree; lots of amazing people have made it without one. The degree you get from the university of real life is sometimes better than any paper one.

Of course, if you have a degree, and, even better, a post-graduate one, then you are expected to think and speak at a level that should be more sophisticated than the pedestrian one that most people do.

Which makes me wonder if we should scrutinise every public figure’s academic credentials, given the whimsical way they often speak.

The new Malaysia has no room for thugs, fakes, conmen, snake oil salesmen and all the other charlatans we see coming out of the woodwork these days.

We need people who have integrity, who know their stuff, who have principles and who are unafraid to act on them. Good leaders set the tone for the country, they provide the moral examples that the rest of us follow.

We have already had the leaders who bent the rules to their advantage, who made lying permissible and naturally their followers slithered in their footsteps.

But we’re tired of all that. We’ve seen where dishonesty has taken us, as it has so many countries around the world. We deserve better than that.

31 January 2019

Girls are to blame for everything
Sunday, 27 Jan 2019
by marina mahathir

That seems to be the wrong-headed thinking in some circles. What we need to do instead is teach our children that sexual harassment and sexual violence arise from an environment that does not treat girls and boys equally.

IF it were not for one sharp-eyed mother, we would never have found out how deep the rot in our schools is. There it was, that page in a textbook blithely telling our Year Three girls what shame and horror await them if they forget to close the door while changing clothes.

Year Three, folks! Nine-year-olds being told that the entire weight of the honour of their families rests on their thin shoulders. And the not-so-subtle implication that if you don’t wear appropriate clothes, if you walk in dark alleys and don’t close room doors, you will suffer from emotional pain, have no friends, and your families will undoubtedly disown you for shaming them.

Who in their right mind tells children this? Only sick people.

If this is an official document from the Education Ministry, there must have been a process through which it was commissioned, vetted and approved. How does this process work? Did somebody say they need a document on sexual harassment, somebody writes any old rubbish that comes into their heads, and it gets approved and printed?

Notice that not the slightest bit of brain power went into this process. Nobody asked what the best approach for an undoubtedly serious and growing problem would be. Nobody thought to consult people who have some expertise on this issue. Women’s groups, perhaps, or psychologists or child rights advocates.

Imagine if we needed to curb the problem of rape and we simply commissioned an official publication that declared that all boys above the age of 12 should be locked up because of the likelihood that their burgeoning hormones would make them uncontrollable. Boy, would there be an uproar!
But when it comes to girls, no such uproar erupts. Whoever was in charge of producing this gem of a teaching aid was totally oblivious to the sheer wrongheadedness of the entire approach.

Of course, girls must protect their own honour and modesty! Of course, they will have to face dire consequences if something happens to them. Of course, they are the only people responsible for anything bad that happens to them.

To think that the Education Ministry, the entire education system, school principals, teachers and most parents did not pick up on this until this one parent pointed it out. All those women in our education system, did they think it was OK to talk to schoolgirls like this? To tell them that it’s so easy to lose their worth?

If this from the Education Ministry was bad, what issued forth from the Women, Family and Community Develop-ment Ministry is worse simply because it is the ministry with a focus on women and should know better.

In a series of Instagram memes, the ministry held forth on the dangers of premarital sex and pregnancy. The issues are real but how do pronouncements on social media along the lines of “Abandoning babies is a crime. Don’t start it.” help a teenager who finds herself pregnant and is terrified of what her parents will say? How do you tell teens that they can get pregnant even if they have sex only once when they can’t make the connection between copulation and conception?

I don’t know what it is about Malaysians but when something like this happens, we act as if it is the first time it’s ever happened. We live in such silos, ring-fenced by our own prejudices, that we learn nothing from anything outside these narrow confines.

Let me remind everyone of the story of a young woman called Noor Suzaily Mokhtar, a computer engineer who, in 2000, was raped and murdered by a bus driver while on her way to work. She was wearing very modest clothes, including a hijab, and was simply sitting in a bus in broad daylight.

In what way does Suzaily’s case relate to that page in the textbook we are showing our nine-year-olds or to those social media campaigns aimed at youth? Not at all. Because when girls are sexually harassed or worse, it has nothing to do with how they dress, where they are, or how they behave. It’s because a sick male, who’s often physically stronger, decides that this female can be taken advantage of. Or worse.

We need to teach our children that the wrongness of sexual harassment and sexual violence (and surely we agree they are wrong?) does not derive from the supposedly bad behaviour of the victim but from an environment that does not treat girls and boys equally.

If we think of girls as inferior, then it subliminally gives out the message to boys that they can treat girls badly. If we keep hammering into our boys that they are superior, both physically and mentally, then we are setting up a situation where the reality of their lives will simply not meet their expectations. And mayhem will ensue.

Imagine telling a boy that he is the best, top of the heap, just because he is a boy. And then he finds that he doesn’t automatically come out top in class. In fact, a girl (or several girls) has beaten him to the top. How does this make sense to him? He’s been told repeatedly that girls are not as good as him, how come they’re ahead of him?

We see this scenario repeated over and over again as girls keep their heads down and work hard while boys, and later on men, walk around cocksure that their place in the world is secure. And then they find out it’s not. Those “inferior” women are achieving more and earning more. Life is not as it should be.

How else do they keep women in their place but to go back to the drawing board? Start in school where they are most easily influenced. Tell girls they are not equal, that they are responsible for everything bad in the world from those young years and they will bow down and obey.

And the powers in charge of our schools and in our government departments facilitate this by publishing and distributing the type of trash that we saw recently.

Perhaps people are simply not aware of what they are doing. Perhaps they thought this is the normal way to teach children about how to protect themselves. Some-one has convinced them that social media is the only medium that young people read so let’s just bung in some aphorisms on morals. I don’t buy that excuse, unless we accept that ignorance is the normal condition of the civil service.

It’s weird, isn’t it, that the same people who would condemn girls who have been sexually harassed or raped to a lifetime of shame are also the ones who think it’s OK for them to redeem themselves by marrying their rapists? I’m curious, though, how helpful these messages are if the harasser is within your own family? Is that why there is the admonition to always close the door when you’re changing clothes? In case your father or brother sees you and gets ideas?

As adults, we are here to protect our children. We can only do that through a genuine concern for their wellbeing, both physically and emotionally, by ensuring that every space they are in, whether it is the home, school or any public place is a safe one for them. If we hold them responsible for what happens to them, then we are abrogating our responsibilities as parents, guardians and teachers.

The Education Ministry is revising that page. The Women, Family and Community Development Ministry has not yet taken down those Instagram messages. How many young people have seen them by now? Imagine a young girl reading them and thinking that not a single adult will ever stand up for her. How securely will she grow up?