08 May 2015

One involves an ‘anti-hysteria’ kit; the other a penchant for porn. Maybe what’s needed is a scientific cure, and not mere mumbo jumbo.

TWO stories this past week made me despair about our education system, indeed our entire educational environment.

One was the story about one of our local universities having come up with an “anti-hysteria” kit costing more than RM8,000. I really would not know where to put my face if ever asked by foreign friends about this.

Without giving a single shred of evidence, or any explanation about how it even works, a university lecturer, backed by his supervisors, proudly unveiled what he deemed a “scienti­fic” way of dealing with all sorts of supernatural beings which apparently cause hysteria, mostly in boarding schools. Rarely have we seen the words “scientific” and “supernatural” in the same purportedly serious sentence.

But worse than the fact that time and money were wasted on such a ludicrous project were some of the reactions to it.

Some comments criticised critics for being irreligious snobs, accusing them of only praising inventions made by (presumably unbelieving) Westerners while deriding local ones.

What they fail to understand is that Western universities, and even many in the East, are not spending their resources researching ways to deal with goblins and ghosts, but are instead trying to find ways to cure diseases such as HIV and cancers or, like two young women from Columbia University, a way of helping victims of natural disasters with the help of a solar-powered LED light.

But worse than these ill-informed comments is the fact that the launch of the anti-hysteria kit was at the Education Ministry building in Putrajaya. Does this mean that the MoE actually endorses this?

If it does, then it truly illuminates what the officials there think about education, that it is simply a conduit to feed our young with mumbo jumbo, and while you’re at it, make money as well.

Considering that all this hysteria only occurs in government boarding schools, mostly religious ones, and never at private secular ones, or at public universities, never private ones, could it be that the inventor of this kit believes the market for it is actually the Government?

Imagine if the MoE purchased a kit for every single boarding school it runs, much like first aid kits or fire extinguishers. Someone would certainly make a pretty penny. Like everything else procured in this way, who cares if it works or not?

The other disturbing story is the one about an otherwise bright boy caught and jailed in London for downloading, making and distributing child pornography. Both the story and the reaction by Malaysians are puzzling me.

How does a very intelligent boy get into a prestigious university like Imperial College, and then totally blow his life away like this? What sort of background did he have that led him to this incredibly depraved crime?

If he came from the same school system as all other Malaysian kids, one that apparently stressed religious and moral values, how could he have gone down this incredibly sick path?

Few people seemed to have noted that this boy was not just delving in any pornography; he was downloading and distributing child pornography. Do people even understand what that means?

The Crimes Against Children Research Centre (CACRC) in the US defines child pornography as “the visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct includes acts such as intercourse, bestiality and masturbation as well as lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area”.

The London police said that the 30,000 images and videos they found on his computer and other devices were some of the worst they had ever seen. Most people seemed to have also missed one point: he was not only downloading images of children being sexually abused, he was making them.

The CACRC reports that, “Most children exploited are pre-adolescent. Some children appear to have been subjected to physical as well as sexual violence.”

Do you think five years of jail is enough for such a person? Have any of our religious leaders condemned this terrible crime?

Yet his sponsors seem to think that he was only sentenced to nine months and would be home in about four weeks. I don’t know on what basis they are disputing the British newspaper reports when one can simply go to the court and check what the sentence was. All they seem to be concerned about is recovering their scholarship money.

But when he comes home, what is to be done with him? Oh I know, send him to the “scientist” with the anti-hysteria kit. Surely it was just mischievous goblins that made him abuse young children.

There are even his “supporters” online who insist that we must not shame him in public. These are the very same people who are quick to publicly shame anyone, especially women, who make lifestyle choices they may not agree with. Yet this boy is a certifiable danger to our children. He needs rehabilitation, of the scienti­fic psychological kind, not mumbo jumbo.

Both these stories are sad testimonies to the state of our education system. I’d like to think they are aberrations. But given the sympathe­tic response to both by officials and some of the public and the inability to see what is wrong with these two cases, I think they are not.

27 April 2015

If at home we don’t have any tolerance for people who disagree with us, how do we explain how IS treats differences in beliefs and views so violently?

A BRIGHT spark in our Cabinet recently said that women joined the Islamic State (IS) because they were lonely. Actually women join all sorts of things if they are lonely – gyms, clubs, mosques and churches, amongst others, that are usually within their own vicinity. It doesn’t explain, however, why there are a lot more men joining IS than women. Could they be even lonelier?

The Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) has declared that they will now go on an all-out war against IS’ influence. Of course this is a good thing and should be supported. But for any outside observer, it is too easy to see how Jakim’s good intentions will fail. The gap between such intentions and reality is simply too large.

Jakim may think that issuing a fatwa against IS is the right move. In fact, it makes hardly a dent. For one thing, most people are not aware of any such fatwa. Secondly, such a fatwa is going to be ignored by IS recruiters because they obviously do not respect Jakim’s authority anyway. And their own fatwas, or opinions, on why it is a good thing to join IS are far more seductive to certain impressionable people, male or female.

Saying that it is unIslamic to take up violence is certainly correct. Wanting to die a martyr’s death, especially by suicide and killing others at the same time, is also forbidden in Islam. But it is not enough to stop at defining a terrorist merely as one who takes up arms and violence. We need to look more holistically at the issue of IS and who it directs its terror at.

For a start, who is IS fighting and inflicting violence on? Thus far they have terrorised just about anyone who disagrees with them, whether they are other Muslims especially Syiahs and other Sunnis who don’t agree with them, non-Muslim civilian populations such as the Yezidis and Christians, foreign humanitarian workers, journalists and just about anybody who refuses to pledge allegiance to their cause.

So, the first thing we have to teach young people is to learn to accept that people have different views and beliefs. How do we do this when every day someone of a different opinion or faith is being persecuted just for disagreeing with the dominant faith or government or, for that matter, just being different? If at home we don’t have any tolerance for people who disagree with us, how do we explain how IS treats differences in beliefs and views so violently?

What is the difference between the way IS treats Syiahs in Syria, for instance, and the way we do here, except for the degree of violence?

This violence has forced huge numbers of ordinary Syrians to flee their homes. More than three million have fled to neighbouring countries, increasing the burden on their already strained societies.

Another six million people are internally displaced, meaning that they are forced to leave their homes to look for shelter from IS within their own country. But as IS expands the territory under its rule, these people have to constantly move to look for safety.

Think of what this feels like, to be constantly afraid, to be unsure of how to feed their children, to have no access to healthcare, schools and jobs. IS has also done a good job of destroying infrastructure in Syria so that humanitarian aid cannot even reach these beleaguered civilians.

Why have we said nothing about these refugees? Why have we not extended help to them? And while we extend our sympathies to similar situations nearby, why then do we treat refugees in our own land so badly?

Then there’s the way IS treats women. There is a horrific Human Rights Watch report based on interviews with women and girls who have escaped IS, telling of the systematic abductions, rape, torture and murder of women in the IS-held territories.

Most of the women were Yezidi, a small community in Syria, but some were also Muslim. Some of the horror stories involved girls as young as 12, raped by gangs of IS fighters. Many were sold as slaves, with IS claiming it is Islamic to do this to prisoners of war.

To counter IS at home, we thus need to teach our young to respect women and girls. We should have zero tolerance for violence against women and girls, regardless of what they wear, say or do.

How do we do this when Jakim is silent when women are threatened with rape for giving a different opinion on issues? Why are women constantly attacked just for speaking up?

This is why Jakim’s ‘war’ against IS will fail. As the Malay saying goes, ‘cakap tak serupa bikin’ or ‘not walking the talk’. But there is another word for this: hypocrisy.

10 April 2015

When children spend most of their waking hours only around those who are similar to them, they tend to believe that this environment represents the world.

OCCASIONALLY I get nostalgic about my school days and how different things were then. When I was growing up in a small town, my parents sent me to the local mission school because it was known for its high academic standards. The school was run by Catholic nuns and not many Muslim girls went there because some parents were concerned that their daughters might be “influenced”.

They were partially right, though not in the way they expected. As far as I know, all the Malay girls who went to the convent school remained devout Muslims. But we did absorb enough of Christianity to not fear it.

To this day I know the Lord’s Prayer but I don’t find it superior to the Alfatihah, just different. When I did my A-levels in History and studied the Reformation, I already knew enough about Christian history to know what they were reforming from. Most of all, the nuns drilled in us a strict discipline in behaviour, according to our motto, “Simple in virtue, steadfast in duty.”

I then continued my secondary education in an all-girls boarding school. The school was an elite one, all of its students creamed off from various schools around the country through an entrance exam.

Superficially all the students were racially homogenous. In reality, I had never come across so much diversity despite having come from a more heterogenous school in my hometown.

In my old school, everyone spoke the same way and knew the same things in our limited small-town experience. But at boarding school I came across girls who not only came from very different circumstances than I but also spoke with accents so different that sometimes I could not understand them.

There were all sorts of characters, from the natural leaders to the shy ones to the sporty and the musically talented. They were all academically smart or they would not have been there.

But what was new to me was to meet girls who were super-smart, with multiple distinctions in a time when 7As really meant something. I was also used to a certain sort of face, darker perhaps with traces of the subcontinent. But at boarding school I met some real beauties and a vast array of faces denoting ancestral origins from continents far different from mine.

It was there that I learnt that while we may be outwardly the same because of race and religion, in fact each individual had a different story to tell. My history was similar but also dissimilar from all the other girls’.

The school gave us many opportunities to bond with one another despite our different stories, through healthy competition in academics, sports, music and theatre and many of us stayed connected over the years through alumni get-togethers. Whatever our origins became immaterial.

One thing I recall, that is worth remarking on because it is rare these days, is how mixed our teachers were. The whole spectrum of peninsular Malaysia was represented in our teachers.

There was a Mr Tan who taught us Physics, Miss Aru who taught us English, Cik Khairiah who taught us Bahasa Malaysia and Mr Yan for Mathematics. What was more, there were also foreign teachers who were placed in the school.

Miss Bryers, from the United States, had the bluest eyes and wore the sarong kebaya very fetchingly. Miss Ida came from the United Kingdom and Mr Alcock from Australia taught us to play softball. And a music teacher came every week to train our national prize-winning choir.

Thus besides academics, my schoolmates and I benefited from being exposed to all sorts of different people, both from among ourselves and among our teachers. We accepted that diversity as given, because that was what it took to turn out many generations of high-achieving girls ready to take on the world. And indeed many of my chums went on to excel in their careers.

I don’t know what it is like nowadays in that school. But I do know that in terms of exposure to difference and diversity, our schoolchildren’s experiences are far more limited today.

Not only do they mostly know others within their own ethnicity but also within their own social class. Those who can afford it have left for schools they considered more academically rigorous, whether vernacular, private or international. The national schools have become depleted of diversity.

When children spend most of their waking hours only around those who are similar to them, they tend to believe that this environment represents the world. Little prepares them for a life where different races, religions, classes and creeds mix. Unsurprisingly, this lack of preparation coupled with the stereo­typing born of unfamiliarity, is a recipe for potential conflict.

26 March 2015

Regardless of whether we can actually implement amputations, floggings and stoning, the mentality is already implanted.

A STAPLE of the news these days is the many barbaric acts of the group known as the Islamic State or IS in Syria.

Every day we are treated to news of their threats as well as actual acts of murder and mayhem against every person or group they don’t like.

They particularly specialise in the most gruesome ways of killing people, such as by beheading or burning them to death alive. And those are the lucky ones. Those left alive, especially women, are forced to endure the lifelong stigma of rape and abuse.

Over here, we widen our eyes in horror at such atrocities. Our officials are at pains to point out that these acts of barbarism are unIslamic and they have had significant success in arresting various people on their way to Syria to join IS.

Sermons are written to impress on us that we should not participate in this violence because of the very real fear that some people may get such a taste for it over there that they may want to do the same back home.

But we seem to be missing something here. Nobody needs to actually go to the Middle East in order to become barbaric.

Here at home we have moved one step closer to becoming very IS-like already. Regardless of whether we can actually implement any of these measures – amputations, floggings, stoning – the mentality is already implanted. All in the most official and “democratic” way too.

If anyone has the temerity to protest any of it, why, out come the daggers!

Thousands of fingers eagerly tap their keyboards to issue death or rape threats to anyone who has the courage to point out that the “laws” we want so much to implement should be the least of our priorities.

How can we have laws that require amputations for thieves when so many are in poverty? Why do we want to punish people in unQuranic ways?

If IS does not exist in physical form in our country, it sure exists in the heads and fingers of so many of our people.

Despite being followers of a religion that does not allow killing or any kind of injustice towards our fellow humankind, they think they are doing their “religious” duty by doing exactly the opposite. Baying like a pack of hounds for blood, the mob descends on anyone who speaks out, especially if they are female and Muslim.

To them, to think differently and to actually voice concerns is to de­­viate from the programme. We have to be like them, programmed to be obedient. And bloodthirsty.

If our authorities cannot see the connection between these acts of aggression towards those with different opinions and their futile attempts to stop people from joining IS, then they are either unintelligent or purposely blind. If IS is the nadir of a civilised society, then we are heading there, make no mistake.

Where are the voices to condemn IS? Instead we have so much illogical and ignorant thinking that one wonders if we should preserve those brains to be studied somewhere in the future when we hopefully regain our sanity.

One person says we should look to Nigeria for the “successful” implementation of hudud. I suppose that’s why Nigeria is such a successful country that their citizens are all over the world trying to make money.

Another person suggests that we must be on the right track because we are neither IS nor “liberal” so we must be nicely middling and moderate.

Sermons blare this warped definition of moderate every Friday. If you’re not with us, you’re either a liberal or an IS bandit. I would rather be a liberal who cares when people receive death threats than a “moderate” who keeps silent when citizens are faced with such violence. A truly moderate government protects its citizens from violence, rather than encouraging it by saying nothing.

I would like to ask our Prime Minister one question: are some of us Malaysians worth less to him than others? If so, may we know which ones and why? Should the “worthless” ones wear stars on their foreheads so that everyone knows who they are and can do what they want to them? If this differentiation is legal in the law, will our law enforcement officers stand by mute when something bad happens?

I fear for my country. We have so many good people in this land; kind, courteous and compassionate people. Unfortunately we have poor leaders, self-serving ones who care for nothing except for power, and who care for no one except themselves. I wonder how long before the mob realises that their so-called “heroes” don’t care about them either.

Meanwhile, all they’ve succeeded in doing is to divide people with hate. Lovely.

12 March 2015

We don’t want you to just love us, we also want you to respect us as equals.

ON International Women’s Day this year, some Afghan men did an extraordinary thing. They paraded in Kabul wearing the burqa to draw attention to the issue of women’s rights in their country, or rather the lack of women’s rights.

In most countries, events on International Women’s Day are mostly by women and for women. Rarely do men ever do something to show that they too are concerned about the violation of women’s rights.

When men do, they are often ham-fisted about it. Last year, I was on a panel with two other prominent women, talking about issues affecting women at work, when an earnest young man stood up to ask how a wife can support her husband in his work.

This was a fine example of male tone deafness and the inability to understand the milieu he was in and therefore the clanging awkwardness of that question. I have also been at women’s forums where men get up to declare how much they love women and manage to sound condescending and creepy at the same time. We don’t want you to just love us, we also want you to respect us as equals.

Men can also be blindsided by the dazzle of a few women. When there is an outstanding woman whom men respect, they tend to think that these women are exceptions. To them, it is not normal for women to be so good at what they think of as men’s jobs, so these women are not the rule but the exceptions that prove it.

I have seen men become totally dumbfounded when asked to name expert women in a particular field apart from the one they see in the papers all the time. They assume that no others exist. A little research, with the assistance of their female assistants, would have unearthed many.

In some cases, men think they are doing women a favour by “defending” them in very masculine ways. In India, a mob attacked a jail where a suspected rapist was being held, stripped him naked and then beat him to death.

What difference does this actually make to the female victim, who would still be shunned by society, and to other women who still face the same dangers every day? This murderous act was done more to avenge the honour of the men to whom the woman “belonged”, rather than in defence of the woman herself.

And interestingly enough, when I posted an article about the Delhi rapist blaming his victim for her own death, among the many violent reactions from men was one calling him a derogatory female epithet. The highest insult to a man is to call him a woman because we are still lesser beings.

In our own country, we can hardly find any man who would stand up publicly in support of women’s rights. Instead we have men who can find a myriad of justifications why women get raped, beaten, summarily divorced, denied positions of leadership and so on.

When women call them out on it, they retreat and then deny what they said or wrote. But how many men, from the same community, told him off? Did their silence mean they agreed with him?

There are many men out there who do not believe that women deserve to have such horrific treatment meted out on them. These men are well aware that women gave birth to them and cared for them until adulthood and that they have sisters and wives whom they would never wish such violence on.

But at the same time they are cowed by the culture of macho-ness where to talk about women’s rights is to be a traitor to their sex. Where sometimes even their own sexuality can become suspect, just because they defend women. That such a culture can be also oppressive to them is something they are oblivious to. Why should any man be vilified just for being a decent human being?

When we teach young boys that violence towards those they perceive as weaker than them is all right, then we should also prepare them to live in a world where there will be nothing except violence all the time.

They will have to spend their time always having to fight either someone weaker or someone stronger than them. Why would we want to subject our sons to this? Won’t they ever get sick of it?

Gender inequality may seem like fair sport to some but studies have proven that it does nothing except drag a whole society down to its most primitive levels. Gender equality, exemplified by less violence against women, benefits both sexes and allows a country to progress.

Perhaps we should ask the misogynists whether what they really want is a society with only men?