10 October 2014

We always seem to think that we have no choice when it comes to doing evil, but plenty of choice to do good things that we then don’t exercise.

THERE are times when I just want to give up. One of those times recently was when I saw a tweet calling on people not to buy the latest Proton model because its name supposedly signifies the one-eyed false Messiah.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I have no idea whether it’s a good car or not but I do know that the person who wrote the tweet not only has a poor command of English but has the sort of brain that sees evil under every rock. It’s not a great brain, admittedly, but the owner seems proud to display it.

But more importantly this was yet another example of the Malaysian propensity to attach religious symbolism to everything.

A café latte foam might conjure up a face and everyone assumes it must be someone important, because why would unimportant faces appear in milk froth?

Parties, and indeed any form of fun, are the Devil’s way of distracting us from turning ourselves into stultified robots. Why, even the delicious and undoubtedly sensual taste of ice cream is something to be wary of, especially when they come with what might look like a religious symbol (if you had that turn of mind) on them.

What is it about us that we can’t take anything just for what it is? Why does everything have to be a conspiracy theory of some kind? Apparently we Asians (and Arabs and probably Africans too) are incapable of ever thinking for ourselves and therefore if we ever demand things like freedom of speech and other basic democratic freedom, we must surely be manipulated by someone else. Never mind that we once fought for our independence without anyone else putting the idea in our heads.

It is a patronising and condescending, not to mention racist, attitude about our own kind. And it is really the upshot of an education system that is geared towards keeping our minds small, and an environment that downgrades science and scientific fact in favour of superstition, rumours, whims and gossip.

Somehow, using our brains has fallen into disfavour, while the wackiest ideas spread like wildfire.

I see endless bizarre stories being spread through social media that, were anyone inclined to pause and think for a bit, would not make sense to a rational mind. But then if we are constantly being told not to think, to accept that there are many things that simply have no explanation, why should we be surprised that people are constantly seeing shadows where there are none?

Not thinking leads people to support the idea that we have no choice in our lives. If we disapprove of a concert or an event, we do have the choice not to go to it, especially if we are required to buy tickets first. If someone puts a beer in front of us, we do have the choice not to drink it.

As human beings with brains, we do have agency, meaning that we can make our own choices.

We are not puppets controlled in such a way that we are unable to resist anything. This is the sort of thinking that blames victims for what happens to them. If we had no agency and therefore no choice, then how can we blame men for raping or killing?

They apparently had no choice but ironically the victims could choose not to put themselves in such situations.

It’s funny how we always seem to think that we have no choice when it comes to doing evil but plenty of choice to do good things that we then don’t exercise. Doing good works is also something we can exercise our agency to do, or not. Yet nobody ever says they involuntarily did something good simply because someone put an orphan or a homeless person in front of them.

If we are religious and assume that we constantly have to guard against the Devil’s evil influence, how is it that we are never appreciative of God’s good influence over us to be kind and compassionate? Instead, we sometimes even treat people inhumanely and kill innocent people supposedly in the name of the Divine. In fact we always also have a choice to do none of these, also in the name of the Merciful and Compassionate.

This cult of unthinking is based on the assumption that we must always submit to things we don’t understand because we can never verify them. Yet we are given clear instructions: “And never concern thyself with anything of which thou hast no knowledge: verily, [thy] hearing and sight and heart – all of them – will be called to account for it [on Judgment Day]! (Chapter 17, verse 36, translation by Assad)”.

26 September 2014

A lot of strange things have been going on that must surely be a sign of the end of something.

THERE is a belief among some people that one of the signs of the end of times is when really strange things start to happen. I was never one of those because often “strange” can be quite subjective. There are some who think women taking leadership positions is one of those strange events.

But of late I have had to revise my view of this, although it may not coincide with the same theories that those people have. It is true, however, that a lot of strange things have been going on that, to me, must surely be a sign of the end of something. Maybe it’s not quite the end of the world, but certainly the end of an era, at least for some people.

For instance, we are now seeing this bizarre phenomenon of the nation’s top cop deciding that if anyone has the temerity to be “biadap” (rude) about his law enforcement agency or even himself, then he’ll use the Sedition Act against us.

Now, I don’t recall that the Act actually says we can’t pass a snide remark or two about the agency. After all we are all familiar with that remark “itu biasa lah” whenever we’ve had the misfortune to have to report a bag-snatching or a petty theft.

Would saying that such a remark is not be­coming of law enforcement officers be consi­dered “biadap”? Would saying that our top cop’s performance in front of the world media during the MH370 press conferences was far short of impressive make us liable to be arrested? If yes, then there are lots of people who would be in handcuffs by now.

Today you can get done in for giving an expert opinion that some governance processes were not legally kosher, or for saying that elections are the time for us to change governments if we wanted. Isn’t that what elections are for?

Undoubtedly some people have been foolish enough to let loose on social media things they would only say privately to friends. But that’s a very Gen Y thing to do, say everything you feel and put it up for all to see. It doesn’t necessarily mean you mean it, nor that you even had much reason to say it. But those get hauled up, too. Will this actually stop more ill-considered opi­nions being aired? I doubt it.

Yet these are the sorts of strange things that one can get charged for these days. Even stranger is the penchant for the same said officer to refuse to obey the laws under which he should operate. In all our 57 years of nationhood, there has never been confusion among our law enforcement officers as to what laws they are supposed to obey.

Suddenly, these days they are easily confused. And when compelled by the courts to do their job, they find the country’s top legal man, whose job is to protect the Federal Constitution, to become their lawyer.

That’s a lot of firepower to fight one poor beleaguered mother who just wants to have her children with her. They must think she’s darn powerful to warrant this type of abuse of the courts.

I even think that the UPSR leaks, as well as the response to it, are also a sign of the end. For one thing, why so much panic over an exam that 12-year-olds sit for? And secondly, although the leakers should be punished, why bother making all 473,175 pupils re-sit it?

Leak or not, the smart ones are still going to get good results. So we might as well wait for the results of the entire exam and see if there are any real anomalies such as those who normally don’t do well suddenly getting all As. Frankly, I doubt it.

So these strange events, as well as some others, are a sign that an era is coming to an end. Perhaps it is the end of doing things the same old way when things are changing rapidly every day. It is the end of a time when people all think and see things the same way. Nor is it any longer a time when people will not voice what they don’t like.

Einstein said that the surest sign of insanity is doing the same things repeatedly while expecting a different result. In our case, we are seeing the same things done more incompetently while expecting love and respect in return.

I’m not sure what to call that.

12 September 2014

When legislation is clear on crimes yet law enforcers ignore them, the public loses its sense of what is lawful and what is not. 

THERE were two stories I read recently which were published side by side. One was about a 71-year-old man caught in a khalwat situation with a 14-year-old girl. Next to it was a story from India in which a 16-year-old boy was desperate to stop his parents from marrying off his 14-year-old sister but sadly was too late.

I was struck by one thing: neither of these stories included the words “statutory rape”.

Section 376 of the Malaysian Penal Code defines statutory rape as sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of 16 whether or not she has given consent.

Discounting the second case because it is outside Malaysia, why didn’t the police go after the 71-year-old man for statutory rape? And why did the reporter not bring it up?

At a time when politicians and law enforcers keep harping about the citizenry always obeying the law, how did they get to ignore it? Two cases have made a mockery of our statutory rape law that carries a mandatory jail term of 20 years and mandatory whipping for each count upon conviction.

One was when the court refused to jail Nor Afizal Azizan for raping a 13-year-old girl as “taking into account that he is a national champion, the Court of Appeal ruled that it is not in the public interest as Noor Afizal has a promising future”.

Good thing the South African court trying Oscar Pistorius isn’t thinking that way because he certainly has a brighter future than Noor Afizal.

Then in the same month, the Penang Sessions Court released Chuah Guan Jiu who had been convicted on two counts of raping his 12-year-old girlfriend because “the sexual act was consensual and that he is a school dropout”.

The judge also took into account that this was Chuah’s first offence, and that he was considering his future.

Hopefully his future doesn’t include continually raping his girlfriend for another four years until she reaches the age of consent.

When the law is clear on these crimes yet judges ignore them, then what is the public to make of it?

The public loses its sense of what is lawful and what is not.

Three years ago, a movie was made, the premise of which was that a young woman was sold into prostitution by her uncle, then bought by a rich man who repeatedly raped her.

Then in order that she would not feel any more shame, she begged the man to marry her, which he eventually did. Women sighed, men cried and the movie became a box office hit.

A few years later, a 40-year-old man raped a 13-year-old girl and then paid her parents to marry her. Might he have seen the same movie and thought that was the way to handle things?

Another movie had the female protagonist raped at the end, and the perpetrator going scot-free.

When I asked the Censor Board, in a separate meeting why they let that go, their reply was “because she was a gossip”.

There was total silence when I reminded them that in our country, rape is a crime.

When people who are supposed to uphold the law ignore it, they have no right to lecture the public about not adhering to it.

Recently an ex-senator, someone who for a time helped to make our laws, told a woman that even if she gave him “unlimited freedom”, he wouldn’t rape her.

Outrage exploded on Twitter but not in the mainstream media. How can a former lawmaker talk like that?

Does he think that women would be grateful if he raped them? And therefore by refusing to, he was insulting her?

Obviously he thought his lower appendage was more powerful than his brain.

The fact that the word “rape” floats so easily out of someone’s mouth, especially a former lawmaker’s, and that movie scriptwriters think nothing of making rape an unpunished part of the plot, points to something very disturbing: that there are a lot of people who think nothing about rape, and that they confuse it with sex.

Sex is a consensual act of love. Rape on the other hand does not involve mutual consent, and is often a violent act.

Statutory rape assumes that a young girl, still legally defined as a child, just doesn’t know what she is doing, even if she seemingly consented to it.

I wonder how these judges, politicians and movie directors would feel if it were their daughters or sisters who were in the same dilemma? Would they be so forgiving because the rapist had a supposedly brighter future than the victim?

What if it was the victim who had the bright but now extinguished future?

28 August 2014

Sometimes, political and social problems arise out of some very basic issues
of survival.

I LIKE to read odd books sometimes. In particular, I like to read books about the human condition, not so much the philosophies behind it but as much as can be learnt from reality as possible.

One of the authors I really enjoy reading is Jared Diamond, an Ameri­can academic, best known for his books such as Guns, Germs and Steel, Collapse and his latest, The World Until Yesterday.

Diamond is known as a polymath, a person “whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of know­ledge to solve specific problems”.

Prof Diamond is an expert on physiology, biophysics, ornithology, environmentalism, history, ecology, geography, evolutionary ecology and anthropology. Today at age 76, he is Professor of Geography at the University of California Los Angeles.

Reading any of Diamond’s books really makes you understand the world in a different way because of his ability to weave together diffe­rent threads of knowledge.

For instance, in his book Collapse, which discusses why some societies collapse while others are resilient, he points out that what we think of as political and social problems arise out of some very basic issues of survival.

In the case of Rwanda, famously depicted as a civil war between the Hutu and the Tutsi, at its most basic, it was about the tensions that arise when people are so squeezed toget­her that the amount of land they have to grow food on is too small to be productive.

Similarly, in The World Until Yes­terday, which compares traditional hunter-gatherer societies with state societies (ie the “developed” world), when people are asked why they go to war with each other, the answers are usually simple things like “reven­ge”, “women” or “pigs” or “cattle”.

But at heart it is about ensuring the survival of the society you live in, no matter what the size.

He backs up these assertions by the many anthropological, archaeological and historical studies that have been done about societies around the world and shows that we cannot really judge them all by the same values.

For instance, we may think that tri­­bal societies in places such as Pa­­pua New Guinea or parts of Africa are “backward” but that is because we are judging them by our stan­dards.

Indeed, there is much to admire in their attitudes towards children and in the way they resolve disputes.

On the other hand, there is much about “modern” society today which these tribal people would find ap­­palling, especially in the way we sometimes treat our old people.

This is not to say that everything about these tribal hunter-gatherer communities is wonderful.

Until relatively recently, many of them lived in a constant state of warfare and things such as infanticide were very common, for the most practical reasons.

Most of us would not want to give up the benefits of living in a settled centralised state for such nomadic hand-to-mouth lifestyles.

But there are some things which we do which are not that far off from those “pri­mitive” habits.

Diamond compares only Western lifestyles with the tribal communities he did field studies on. Which means that the contrasts can be big.

If he had studied Asian societies, however, he would have found us somewhere in the middle.

For instance, the Asian extended family and the way our children are cared for by many adults, not just their parents, is more akin to the way hunter-gatherer communities in Papua New Guinea or the Amazon live.

The way we coddle our children too is more similar to those com­munities than to that of Western parenting, which stresses indepen­dence.

Yet children from these hunter-gatherer communities are observed to become very confident adults who are well versed in many adult responsibilities such as foraging for food, caring for children and protec­ting their communities; while children brought up in the Western style often grow up very protected but unable to take on adult responsibilities when they come of age.

For instance, we disapprove of early marriage because our children are often unprepared to be parents even after being biologically ready.

But children in tribal communities, who have not only been obser­ving their parents daily but also have had to help care for younger siblings, know exactly what to do should they have children even at very young ages.

What is confusing for us Malay­sians is that we are very much a society in transition, not quite a so­­cie­ty living hand-to-mouth but not quite yet a modern one, despite our buildings and gadgets.

Our attitudes towards many things hark back to a different type of society where everyone knew each other and relationships were set in certain ways. But things have changed very rapidly for us.

We should, therefore, take heed of Diamond’s main discovery in Col­lapse: if as a society we do not adapt fast enough to change, we will face collapse.


15 August 2014

To be effective in calling for change, there needs to be an organised strategic campaign with an educational component.

THESE are emotional times. My, these are emotional times. Nerves are frayed, amidst grief, tension and a general feeling of loss and depression.

We’ve had a bad year undoubtedly and there’s still more time to go before 2014 is over and we feel trepidation while wondering, what other bad thing will befall us next?

Still, despite all this, there is no reason for us all to lose our minds, to be irrational in the way we react to very important things.

Let me make this clear: what Israel is doing to Gaza is unconscionable and rightly condemned by the whole world.

I also think the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a global campaign to increase the economic and political pressure on Israel to end its occupation and colonisation of Palestinian lands, to give full equality to Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and to respect the right of return of Palestinian refugees, is effective.

However, I do think that most Malaysians do not understand what BDS is all about.

The BDS website makes clear what is meant by boycott, divest and sanction.

“Boycotts target products and companies (Israeli and international) that profit from the violation of Palestinian rights, as well as Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions.

“Anyone can boycott Israeli goods, simply by making sure that they don’t buy produce made in Israel or by Israeli companies. Campaigners and groups call on consumers not to buy Israeli goods and on businesses not to buy or sell them.”

The BDS movement is very clear that it is about boycotting Israeli goods.

Now, how many Israeli goods are there in the Malaysian market? Given our stringent laws, probably none.

A burger made in an industrial kitchen in Malaysia is still a Malaysian burger, as is the person making or selling it.

BDS explains “individual consumers can show their opposition to Israel’s violations by participating in a consumer boycott of Israeli companies, goods and services or of international companies involved in Israeli policies violating Palestinian human rights and international law.

“A consumer boycott works in two ways: firstly by generating public awareness about Israeli apartheid and occupation as well as international support for it and secondly by applying economic pressure for change.”

Again it emphasises “Israeli companies, goods and services” and “international companies involved in Israeli policies violating Palestinian human rights and international law”.

So what Israeli companies, goods and services are available in Malaysia? Where are our oranges and olives from?

One major Israeli fruit juice exporter Priniv has reported that “a deal to export fresh fruit juices to Sweden has been called off after they refused to export the produce in a way that would make it easier to conceal the fact it was produced in Israel.

“Customers in Belgium and France have also made similar requests. Priniv director Ido Yaniv attributed the drop in sales to Israel’s ongoing attack in Gaza”.

There is one Israeli product available here in Malaysia that nobody has called for a boycott of – Waze. Too afraid of getting lost?

Divestment means “targeting corporations complicit in the violation of Palestinian rights and ensuring that the likes of university investment portfolios and pension funds are not used to finance such companies.

“These efforts raise awareness about the reality of Israel’s policies and encourage companies to use their economic influence to pressure Israel to end its systematic denial of Palestinian rights”.

What does “complicit in the violation of Palestinian rights” mean? It means investing in the development of arms that are then used to kill Palestinians, for example.

Have we checked whom we buy our military weapons and equipment from?

Finally, sanctions “are an essential part of demonstrating disapproval for a country’s actions. Israel’s membership of various diplomatic and economic forums provides both an unmerited veneer of respectability and material support for its crimes.

“By calling for sanctions against Israel, campaigners educate society about violations of international law and seek to end the complicity of other nations in these violations.”

Remember the sanctions against Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in power?

Who in Malaysia is calling for the same on Israel?

The point is that to be effective in protesting against Israel and calling for change, some brainwork needs to be done. It is not about standing in front of burger restaurants and yelling at them, much less harassing, threatening and humiliating Malaysian workers.

As the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa has shown, BDS works.

But it needs to be an organised strategic campaign with an educational component. No point in the ignorant capitalising on people’s emotions for their own ends.

Boycotts only work if the targets are clear and the actions have an impact. Does Israel really care if you spat on some poor cashier in KL? I’m afraid not.