17 July 2015

It’s great to meet youths who want to change things. 

I’VE been told that recently I’ve become strident and fierce in my columns. This was a bit of a surprise; I thought I’ve always been fierce and strident. But I suppose my readers see a noticeable uptick in the tone of my columns these days, hence the comments.

Is it surprising though? I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s holding my head in despair at the endless drama that our country is experiencing daily these days.

It would be one thing if it were a drama where everyone goes home happy at the end of it. But here we seem to slide from bad to worse, on a greasy slope with no brakes.

I’m not going to comment on the “high-level” goings-on since that is well covered everywhere. Except to say thank God for the alleged “whistleblowers” and “leakers” whoever they might be because if it were not for them, we would still be in the dark, not realising that our entire carpet is being pulled from under us. There must be some people with a conscience after all who can no longer tolerate the blatant disregard for our people anymore.

I was talking to some young people recently who want to spread the “virus” of positivity among our people because there is so much negativity around that it cannot be good for anyone. It’s wonderful to meet young people who are not yet jaded and disillusioned and who have the energy to want to change things.

They are right; there is too much negativity around, coupled with apathy that is unproductive. We complain endlessly but forget that complaining by itself does nothing except make others complain, too.

Indeed, while it is certainly part of the Malaysian make-up to constantly grouse about something or other, of late it’s taken a mean-spirited tone as well. There is undoubtedly much to complain about these days but at the same time there are many Malaysians, mostly ordinary people, who are doing many things to change our social landscape, to make it more open and accepting, to build peace and create harmony in our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious mix.

Some of these efforts may be one-off, some may take a while to bear fruit, and some may not work at all. But far more important than the immediate results is the process of engagement with one another towards a common goal through an event, shared interests or anything else that brings people together.

We’ve seen ordinary people step up so many times over the years, to help one another, to show that Malaysian citizens are so much better than their failing and flailing leaders. We’ve banded together to help those affected by the floods in Kelantan, we feed the homeless, we’ve demanded a humanitarian response to the boat people floating about in the Indian Ocean. Always a step or two ahead of our Government.

Yet I see people being unkind and mean spirited about these efforts for unexplained purposes. If people are doing good, why put them down? What are those who are willing to roll their sleeves up and help others doing that might affect those who do nothing, except perhaps make them feel some shame for their own inertia?

Is the cynicism about everything so bad that we can’t even differentiate between sincere and insincere efforts? Or is it just our addiction to putting down everything others do as simply a craving for publicity?

I don’t blame our cynics entirely. After all we look to our leaders to set the example of good behaviour. When they completely fail us, how can we complain when our people do the same? How can we excoriate anyone for thinking wombats and pigs are the same when we don’t have leaders who display any higher level of knowledge anyway? How can we check those who pass on unfounded rumours of racial riots when some of our leaders are often quick to do the same? When our leaders are silent on these issues, how can anyone feel optimistic that reason will prevail?

We’re all looking for positive inspiration these days and yet it’s so hard to find any. Our leadership is too lazy even to remind us of the need for restraint during Ramadan, and has nothing to say when people go overboard. In its absence, we have to inspire ourselves.

Perhaps we need this holiday weekend to come up with some inspiration. Perhaps if we take a break from the news and focus on family and the joys of celebration, we can recover our reasonable centre.

With that, I’d like to wish everyone a Selamat Hari Raya, maaf zahir batin. May the advent of Syawal bring an end to the current madness and instead usher in new light and new hope, God willing.

03 July 2015

I’M usually quite unshockable but occasionally I see something that really knocks my socks off. That was my reaction upon seeing a video recently. It was not pornography or anything mildly like it but it was still horri­fying.

In the video, two Caucasian men found that their car had been blocked by a pasar Ramadan stall.

Understandably they asked the stall owner how they might get the car back.

Less understandably, the stall owner started screaming and shoving at them.

Others joined them and all were shouting and manhandling these two men.

Some even yelled at them to “balik lah ...” (go home), although it is unclear where to.

What was shocking to me, besides the fact that this was obviously during Ramadan when we are meant to exercise restraint, was the sheer over-reaction to something which could have been resolved so easily.

Surely it is reasonable to ask someone who is blocking your car what to do about it?

Surely the response should have been an apology, followed by an explanation of when the stall would pack up for the night, thereby releasing the car.

What was the need for all the shouting, screaming and shoving?

I don’t think any civilised person watching this video could have felt anything but embarrassed, as I did.

What has happened to the sopan santun (manners) that we are known for, more so during Ramadan?

I grew up having manners drilled into me and if there’s one thing I am old-fashioned about, that would be it.

So I find it hard to understand when people are rude for no apparent reason.

Those who follow me on social media will recall a recent episode when I had to give a little lesson in courtesy to a young man.

He has since apologised and I’m sure it wasn’t normal behaviour for him.

But where would young people learn about manners but from adults?

When we have parliamentarians saying the rudest things to fellow Members of Parliament and mostly getting away with it, when we have adult men who think it’s funny to go shake their posteriors at a woman’s house, when we have people flying off the handle over the simplest things, why would not our young also devalue courtesy and politeness?

If you’re polite, it is not news and you don’t become famous.

But if you’re crass and crude, you get headlines and everyone remembers your name.

There may be reasons for rage but what I don’t get is the infantile way it gets expressed.

Name-calling, jeering and shoving is the way of juvenile hooligans, not mature adults.

Have we regressed to such a childlike state that those are the only ways we can express rage?

What next, mass foot-stomping?

Everything today points towards a society that is encouraged to express itself in mob-like behaviour.

One person needs to just say that they are offended by something and for no rhyme or reason, entire hordes of people decide that they should be offended, too.

Indeed they even look at ways to be offended.

And when you have leaders who say that the onus is on minorities to behave a certain way so as not to offend the majority, what else could you expect in response?

Are we all supposed to live in such a way that we constantly have to look out for offen­ces imagined in other people’s heads?

Every time we go out, are we supposed to be always on the lookout for ways to avoid offending total strangers?

We might go to a government department where, as taxpayers, we may reasonably expect fast and efficient service.

Instead we are treated as if we are offensive creatures because of our choice of clothes.

How does the sight of anyone’s legs affect the efficiency of the service?

If such a sight was too distracting, even through an opaque desk, then there is something wrong with the person serving the customer, not the customer herself.

Why do people whose salaries depend on us paying our taxes get to play both fashion and moral police?

All this could so easily be solved if we had the type of leadership who would come out and say that we should all stop this nonsense about petty things and focus instead on more important issues.

For example, how to get our currency to rise again, or how to manage the high cost of living, or how we can work on bringing people together, rather than tearing them apart.

But obviously, with a leadership so silent they might as well not exist, the anarchy of bad manners continues unabated. Is it a symptom of something?

Do people get ruder because they feel rudderless?

Doesn’t anyone want to know?

19 June 2015

ON social media there lurks a creature called the troll. What a troll aims to do is to make life miserable for someone.

He (and sometimes she) does this by posting nasty comments about that person, or instigating others to also troll the person.

Wikipedia describes a troll as “a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chatroom or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion”.

I was at a recent forum listening to an American woman, Lindy West, who had a real problem with trolls on Twitter.

Suffice to say that women are often the target of trolls.

West seemed to have been a specific target, mostly because she is a large-sized woman with very confident feminist views.

One troll was particularly vicious, attacking her relentlessly.

But to cut a long story short, West finally met the troll and he admitted to her that the reason he trolled her was because he hated the fact that unlike him, she was a confident happy person despite being plus-sized.

In other words, he trolled because he had his own issues.

Which is a useful thing to remember when one gets trolled.

It’s not you that has a problem, it’s them.

And you have two choices of what to think about them: ignore them or feel sorry for them.

While West managed to sort things out with one troll, it is of course not possible to, as she said, hold hands with every single one.

Ultimately, you can’t solve their problems for them, especially when they don’t even think they have problems.

In our dear country, the advent of social media has given rise to not just one troll, but a multitude of them.

They snipe at you for any reason at all, for what you say, or don’t say, for what you wear or don’t wear, for whatever you do.

They seem to spend their entire lives thinking up nasty things to say, frequently misspelled and with the sort of perverse logic that only people with damaged frontal lobes can muster.

Nothing pleases a troll more than to whip others into one big hysterical mob over an issue that they made up in their own sick minds.

And because people know that trolls punish non-followers by then training their sights on them, most people conform and join the mob. It’s safer that way.

Our Malaysia seems to have become a nation of trolls.

At the slightest thing, without any provocation, a troll makes a suggestion and suddenly a heaving mass of hysteria begins, aided by a media ever-watchful for sensationalism.

Like a ball of dough, the troll gathers more and more adherents until it grows into one seething globe of rage, spitting venom at the poor victim, uncaring about what hurt might be caused.

Yet, these same people would be the first to feel insulted should anyone have the temerity to suggest that there may be something wrong with their moral compass.

Hiding behind self-proclaimed piety, they shout their indignation with name-calling, insults and insinuations.

You have to pity the Malaysian troll. What poor unfulfilled lives do they lead that the only joy they can get has to come from making someone else miserable?

How boring are their lives that someone else’s hard-earned achievement is taken as an offence to their own suspect morals?

While their target can list “Won two gold medals at the SEA Games” on their curriculum vitae, what can they put on theirs other than “Looked at her outfit and imagined her private parts”?

There is a certain psychosis that afflicts trolls.

And when there are so many trolls in this country of ours, you can’t help but think that the entire nation is suffering from a psychosis as well.

And what is so surprising about it?

We have leaders who are often no better than trolls, making up issues when there aren’t any.

What is a minister who claims that a design on a telekung that looks like a crucifix is a plot to convert Muslims but an official troll?

Is not a religious leader who declares so many things haram that one can barely get out of bed without sinning nothing more than a troll in a robe?

With these types of leaders, who can blame the masses for their madness?

We need to recognise that it is a madness that we are experiencing and having to bear these days.

And like lunatics in the asylum, there can be no happy end to this.

05 June 2015

Taking on another culture could result in the obliteration of our own

WHEN I was in university in Britain, I was always very irritated with one particular fellow student. She was English, pale as a lily, with reddish hair but she had a habit of always dressing in a sari complete with a pottu on her forehead.

What particularly annoyed me was whenever we had a student disco, she would be on the dance floor doing her version of Indian classical dance. Imagine doing the Bharata Natyam to Carl Douglas’ Kungfu Fighting!

It took me a while to understand why I was so incensed by her. To me, her wearing a sari and dancing in a disco the way she did was insulting to an ancient culture. I had grown up watching Indian classical dance and I knew what a refined and sophisticated art form it is. Therefore, I found this bastardisation of such an art form, which dancers take years to perfect, a real insult not just to India but to all of Asia.

I now know that what incensed me is something called “cultural appropriation”. This means the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is of an oppressed people’s cultural elements by members of the dominant culture. This would include wearing certain ethnic clothes in totally inappropriate settings or using cultural items for the wrong occasion.

Of course, in our globalised world where we know a lot more about different cultures and very often appreciate them for their beauty, we incorporate all sorts of things from all over the globe into our everyday lives. Some people now live in homes described as “Balinese-style” for example, although few realise that the modern version of the Balinese home is already a form of cultural appropriation by Westerners who moved to the island.

We might wear Indian jewellery with western gowns or quilted jackets with frog buttons in places other than China.

In Asia, we are used to borrowing from each other in so many ways – in our clothes, our language, our food, even some of our customs.

Let us not forget that we also appropriate much of Western culture into our daily lives. We wear Western dress such as jeans, we dance to hip-hop music, eat burgers and pizzas and even celebrate some holidays such as Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.

Admittedly, most cultural appropriation is very shallow; we rarely know the origins or history of anything we take on. Mostly we simply join in the fun and there’s little harm in them.

Westerners too are often ignorant of the origins of our cultural elements but then they often profit more from them than we do, which should be a source of concern.

But what if some of the cultural appropriations we do are actually harmful to us? What if we appropriate another culture so completely that we obliterate our own?

By the strict definition of cultural appropriation, a dominant culture appropriates elements of a weaker one. But in Malaysia we find a weak culture appropriating elements of stronger ones. Mostly we have been taking on the easiest elements of Western culture such as the dress, music and food. But we have not taken on other elements such as being on time, general cleanliness or driving safely.

Some of us on the other hand, in not wanting to take on Western cultural elements, have instead taken on that of the Middle East. Mostly this has taken the form of dress but also sometimes in language and even music.

For instance, clothing meant for dry desert climates is now used in our hot and humid one. Arab words have replaced accurately descriptive Malay ones.

As cultural appropriations rely on stereotypes of the foreign cultures being taken on, the understanding of these is often shallow. Some see everything about Western culture as dangerous and bad, while at the same time seeing all that is Middle Eastern as good.

This is partly because of the perceived religious flavour of Middle Eastern influences. Some even think that the language spoken in paradise is Arabic.

Whichever way one sees it, our own culture is undoubtedly being eroded. How many people know much about Malay history, language or the arts? So many of our authentic performing arts are no longer allowed to be performed.

The craftspeople that carve, weave and sculpt are getting harder to find. All the elements that make up our culture, including our dress, architecture, customs, are disappearing through neglect.

Yet are our champions of racial superiority fighting for these? While they constantly blame others for the inferiority they feel, what are they doing to keep the true elements of their once-proud culture alive and well?

22 May 2015

We could have signed the United Nations Convention on Refugees and we could also have dealt with the source of the problem.

IF there is one thing that Malaysians are very bad at, it is preventing something bad before it happens.

We treat everything as if it was fated to happen, and nothing could be done to prevent it.

Thus, if there is a fatal car crash, there is no mention of the seat belts that could have saved lives. If kids get brutally bullied in schools, it is treated as a one-off incident rather than a problem that should be tackled in a comprehensive way.

Even with a preventable disease like HIV/AIDS, nobody wants to do practical prevention work. It’s as if by instituting prevention policies, we are admitting we have a problem and that would be bad for our image.

Therefore, it’s better to not do any prevention work and allow things to get to such a head that our image, such as it is, goes down the tubes.

Thus, it is with our latest Rohingya “problem”. The issue is not new and has been festering for decades.

Persecuted in Myanmar, the Rohingyas, along with other Burmese minorities, have been making their way here for a long time.

We are not the only country “targeted” by them. There are many refugee camps in Thailand already.

But knowing their desperate need to escape, human traffickers have taken advantage of the situation and promised, for a sum of money, to take the Rohingyas to Malaysia where apparently there is a population hungry for cheap labour.

I don’t know why the early Rohingya arrivals have not written home to tell the truth about their situation in Malaysia, that we are not as welcoming as they thought.

As Malaysia has not signed the United Nations Convention on Refugees, all such arrivals are treated simply as illegal immigrants with all the stigmatising connotations.

They cannot work, they cannot go to school, they cannot go to our hospitals, their entire existence is dependent on the charity of some non-governmental organisations and yet we complain that they seem to be always behaving as if they’ve done something wrong.

Pregnant refugee women ­cannot go to our hospitals to deliver their babies safely because they face arrest. Then, we tut-tut if we find dead babies, and possibly their mothers, in some bush somewhere.

But I suppose even Malaysian unfriendliness is preferable to the outright murderous hostility they face back in Myanmar.

All this could have been ­prevented of course if only we were not so averse to prevention. We could have signed the UN Convention and that would have enabled us to treat these refugees as people in need, rather than as criminals.

We could have dealt with the source of the problem, the way Myanmar has treated its minorities, including by simply declaring people who have lived there for hundreds of years non-citizens with merely a stroke of the pen. But then, who’s to know if some of us wouldn’t have done the same thing if we were in the same position?

After all, we’re constantly threatening our own minorities to go back to “where they came from”. Could it be that our reluctance to deal with Myanmar is because actually, we “understand”?

Most Malaysians are unaware that we have some 140,000 refugees already in our country if you just count those registered with the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency.

They come from many different countries, most escaping conflict.

Would you not try to take your family to safety if you faced annihilation every day? Some people have asked why, since these refugees are mostly Muslim, don’t Muslim countries take them? For one thing, some of these refugees are escaping Muslim countries in conflict and there are many countries near them that are already housing refugees by the millions for decades already.

For another, some third countries are picky about who they will take in, and poor Muslims with not much skills tend to be very low priority.

In any case, refugees choose countries to escape to based on their own means. Poor Rohingyas are unlikely to choose Australia because it is really beyond their reach.

In any case, 140,000 refugees is a pittance compared to the estimated 16.7 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2013.

Believe it or not, the country with the most number of refugees in 2013 was one that is poorer than us, Pakistan, with 1.6 million.

Afghanistan is the largest source country for refugees though Syria must surely be exceeding even that by now. According to the UNHCR, “conflict and persecution forced an average of 32,200 persons per day to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere, either within the borders of their countries or in other countries.”

Since we’re very proud of our stability and relative prosperity, it makes sense that people like the Rohingyas prefer us to other countries. But what a shock they will get.

Our government seems quite happy to let people die of starvation and exposure out in the open sea because apparently that’s what we Malaysians want.

The fact that so many Malaysians are appalled by this, and are mobilising to help them, shows how untrue this assertion is. The Rohingya “problem” is not going to go away just because we refuse to help them.

Saying that they will keep coming if we feed and shelter them is being simplistic. As long as their situation in Myanmar is dire, they will keep getting into flimsy boats and coming to our shores.

So if we’re happy to have dead bodies constantly wash up on our beaches, then we can keep turning our heads the other way.