21 October 2016

DON’T we all have moments when we dream of being led by inspiring leaders, rather than the dim wet blankets we currently have? Don’t we wish we could listen to them and feel our hearts soar with hope, rather than having to figure out what is the latest mumbo jumbo nonsense they are dishing out?

Like many Malaysians bored with the clowns we see in our media, I have turned to watching the American elections. It is an activity I do with horrified fascination.

On the one hand, the long complicated process of electing a president and Congress gives us an opportunity to really get to know the candidates, rather than the hurried two-week dash we call our elections.

From a list of several candidates at the beginning all aiming to get into the White House, it gets whittled down quite brutally to only two, which is a relief given the jaw-dropping awfulness of some of the candidates.

Then every bit of detail about the final two contenders is examined with journalistic microscopes. It is their stated policies that come under the closest scrutiny, not just their looks. Unlike in our beloved land where lacklustre political parties openly state that they want to field young, pretty and sexy candidates. Female ones, of course.

In some cases in the US election, there is no need to have a microscope because they themselves lay out all their flaws for the world to see, albeit unintentionally.

I’m sure there was a significant number of Malaysians who watched the presidential debates, a totally novel idea in our so-called democracy. And we watched not just the words but the tics and quirks that sometimes tell you more about a person than what they say.

I personally don’t think much of either candidate and I’m very glad I don’t have to vote. It’s a choice between the not-great and the even-worse. And the even-worse is so grotesque, you have to sometimes wonder if this is real or a movie. Except that movies would not also have the enormous impact on the lives of those of us who can’t vote.

But one thing good about the US: nobody truly awful gets away with it. When a video came out that the candidate with the testosterone had said some pretty despicable things about women, he was pilloried by all but the most diehard supporters.

He is reeling from the onslaught and bleeding potential voters.

Whereas if the same thing happened here, supporters would actually outnumber critics.

We’ve seen it happen before where our supposed elected representatives felt free to insult women and then only had their wrists slapped while they issued a half-hearted apology.

Not that the said US presidential candidate is contrite at all.

In fact, he is behaving in the way we are familiar with: blame the victim, blame the opponent, blame the media, blame the world. Should we check his birth certificate in case he was born here?

But no less than the First Lady of the United States decisively took him down in a speech so impassioned it had me wondering if the wrong woman candidate was standing for election.

Michelle Obama’s speech was the sort that many women dream of listening to because it made the insult to women a mainstream issue. Indeed it was a speech many of us, regardless of sex, dream of listening to: full of conviction, focused, articulate and inspiring.

Instead, we live in a country where even women politicians will not convincingly defend women and where we have to put up with the sort of schoolboy politicians who think tearing down tall buildings is a legitimate way to deal with opponents. This is now the final stretch towards electing the new US president and nobody knows what will happen.

The polls say one thing but as Brexit showed us, reality can be something else.

The key is motivation to vote. The Republican candidate may be floundering but his supporters are extremely motivated and will turn out to vote.

His opponent’s supporters don’t seem as galvanised, except perhaps women voters who cannot stomach a boorish groper as their leader.

Whether they, as well as other minority groups summarily dismissed by him, will be enough is the mystery question.

Over here, on social media at least, people seem to be motivated towards change. Which means nothing unless it turns into action.

Over four million eligible voters have not even registered to vote.

If they don’t register in good time before our own elections, they cannot participate. So let’s not talk about change unless we’re motivated enough to register as voters.

Meanwhile, I’m going to ignore our local horror show for a while in favour of the one happening thousands of miles away. Popcorn!

06 October 2016

Class reunions are a reminder of an education where we learnt about the world, about how to treat one another and how to write properly.

THE year 2016 seems to be the year of reunions for me. Early this year, I was reunited with my alma mater, the University of Sussex – quite a nostalgic experience, even if the student population has grown five-fold and some old faculty buildings have been pulled down.

Later this month, I will be reuni­ted with some of my small circle of friends in Kobe, Japan, where I lived for more than two years and where my older daughter was born.

Last weekend, though, I had a reunion with some of my oldest friends from the school I was at the longest: St Nicholas Convent in Alor Setar. It had been one year in the planning and we exceeded our aim of getting at least 60 alumni to attend.

A reunion with old friends can be a risky endeavour. You’re likely to meet up with old schoolyard enemies, open up old wounds and be reminded of things you’d rather forget.

I went to one reunion where an old schoolmate made the fateful mistake of reminding me why we never got on, thinking that the old episode was funny rather than hurtful.

This reunion had none of that. Although some of us couldn’t remem­ber some of our old schoolmates, we were still joined by a common love and a shared history with a school that sadly does not exist anymore.

Some people still looked the same, albeit with an expanded waistline, some people had changed their whole look (thus making it difficult for those of us with memories of young schoolgirls) and some already had grandchildren galore.

But we still had fun remembering our old teachers and their idiosyncrasies, the types of innocent naughtiness that schoolgirls could get up to in those far simpler days. We remembered the nuns who were also our teachers and who taught us how to behave well, at least according to them.

I remember silence was consider­ed a great virtue. There were also amusing attempts by the nuns to warn us about boys.

“If a boy asks you to meet him, do not go!” the Irish nun thundered, which raised curiosity about what a boy would want to meet me for!

It’s really odd what tiny details the memory records. I remember my Year One teacher’s bright orange skirt and the wonderful white slingback shoes my Year Six teacher wore.

The friends I had been in kindergarten with even remembered the types of activities we had then. Everyone remembered, with some affection, the very fierce Domestic Science teacher we had.

At our gala dinner, we showed old photographs, sang old songs and simply chatted away about old times. The next day, we had a brunch at the site of our old school (predictably enough, now a mall) and took a group photograph at the old school sign.

And then spontaneously, we were all invited to visit a friend whose home was in the middle of padi fields and who laid out a spread of typical Kedah dishes.

I look back at that weekend as a reminder of what we have lost in the years since then. For one thing, we all speak English very well, having been drilled in its grammar and use by some excellent teachers.

We had a well-rounded primary education where we learnt about the world through General Know­ledge, about how to treat one ano­ther in Civics and even how to write properly, first in single letters and then in cursive.

We all remembered when we moved from using pencils to the more grown-up pens, and how we constantly smudged our fingers with ink.

Convent schools in those days were not particularly diverse, mostly because Malay parents were uncomfortable about sending their daughters to be taught by nuns.

Malay girls were thus a minority but despite the big cross on the main school building, Christian imagery on the corridor walls and songs at assembly, none of us have ever left our faith.

We never felt oppressed or sidelined. We went to our Ugama classes, while our Catholic friends went to catechism. The rest of the time we moaned collectively about homework, exams and strict tea­chers.

We ate together, played together, joined the same clubs and participa­ted in the same performances.

When we saw one another again, some after 40 years or so, it was as if time had stood still in our friendships. Hugs were abundant and warm. Sentimental old me couldn’t hold back tears upon seeing my childhood chum’s mother. Their family and ours had spent a lot of time together.

We’re still talking and reminiscing about those times now that we’ve parted again. And we’re well aware that we had something precious which must be preserved.

Will our collective children and grandchildren be able to say the same?

09 September 2016

ONE of the things I like to tell young people is that if they do well at school, they will have more choices in life. Having choices is one of the great privileges in a human being’s life and many of us are working to ensure the greatest number of people have the ability to make the most choices for themselves as they see best.

Hence, for example, we work so that parents have a choice of where they can send their kids to school.

If their choices are limited because of poverty, then we have to address that, by either ensuring that their few options are nevertheless good ones or that they can earn enough to be able to have a wider selection to choose from.

The days are long gone when we did not have choices in our life partners. Nowadays, for better or for worse, we make our own choices.

We choose to better our lives or sometimes we do not, but it is still our choice and we live with the consequences of either one.

We also choose every few years who gets to rule us, and we live with the consequences of that too.

Although we don’t always have to put up with bad choices, we are certainly free to let our choices know that we disapprove of what they say and do. We didn’t hand over our right to have a say once we voted them in.

So choice is really the ultimate privilege and all of us should be working towards a situation where the gap between those who have the most choices and those who have the least is as narrow as possible.

Having a just and equitable society is also a choice. Steering a nation towards such a society, or not, is also a choice for our leaders and it’s amazing how they sometimes fail to exercise that choice, usually by saying that they had no choice.

However, like many things these days, the meaning of the word “choice” can be different to different people. For most of us, it means the freedom to decide something based on an array of options.

If I decide I need to get fitter, I have many different types of exercise regimes I can try and I just have to choose the one that best suits me.

But for some people, the right choice is the one that they, and only they choose, and everyone else’s choice is wrong.

For example, in a country that prides itself on freedom and equality, France is incredibly adamant that some of its female population, specifically Muslims, may not have the choice of what to wear on the beach. And it will actually enforce this limit on choice by law.

Or even against the law, since some mayors have decided to disobey the court order to overturn the ban on burqinis.

Here is a funny situation; normally court orders give you no choice but to obey. Yet here we are with municipal authorities exercising their “choice” to disobey the law.

The ostensible excuse for the burqini ban is apparently security, although how a woman in a figure-hugging swimsuit much like a diving suit may be a security threat is a question nobody wants to answer.

Someone commented that it’s the mindset, not the dress. Well that’s correct, although why would we suppose that every woman who wants to be modestly dressed for the beach is also thinking of bombing some place? And since when has modesty been a crime?

The sexism in this ban is so obvious. Any man can go to the beach in an outfit that would betray nothing about him, yet statistically he is just as capable, if not more so, of endangering others.

How can you tell what’s in his head when he’s lying there in surf shorts like anyone else? Or is the next step simply banning any Muslim from Europe’s beaches?

At home we may protest these bans by calling out the hypocrisy of countries that purport to uphold human rights. But we are no better at choice either.

We too believe that the best choice is what we think it is and not what an individual thinks is best for him or her. So if a woman makes the choice to put on the tudung, she is applauded. But if she makes the choice to take it off, hell on earth descends.

It seems there is no greater betrayal than by people who make their own choices in life, rather than bending to the choice of the self-righteous masses.

Worse still if they actually dare to be happy afterwards. And heaven forbid if it’s women exercising their right to choice!

26 August 2016

With the exception of the spoilsports, the rest of us came together to cheer as one.

THE Rio Olympics finally arrived and this time we had the best medal haul ever, four silvers and one bronze.

We may not have heard Negaraku being played at the victory ceremonies but we did see the Jalur Gemilang being raised five times, more than ever before. Tell me your heart didn’t burst with pride when you saw that!

The hours put in by our athletes, the hard work, the pain, the sweat, the sacrifice, all of these culminated in these medals.

Of course we are disappointed that we didn’t get a gold but we did come very, very close.

Whatever it is we have world-class Olympians and we should rightly be proud of that. Congratulations to our badminton players, our two synchronised divers and our keirin cyclist!

The Olympics may come only once in four years but for everyone in the world, it’s an opportunity to watch the fittest and strongest compete for sports glory for their countries.

It’s amazing to see the most famous and the least known compete together and sometimes deliver a few surprises.

There seems to be a big difference between competing for individual glory and for your country. Winning for your country seems to be more moving and easily brings out the tears.

And while everyone roots for their own countrypersons, we can all be inspired by the stories of athletes from other countries, especially those who had overcome all odds to come and compete.

This year there was a special team of refugees and although none of them won anything, understandably given their circumstances, watching them participate highlighted their humanity and reminded us that refugees have abilities just like anyone else.

We watched athletes who never gave up, no matter how badly things turned out for them.

Sandra Perkovic, the defending champion and discus-thrower from Croatia had two fouls (disqualified throws), which put her at risk of elimination before she threw one so good that she won the gold.

If you’re a champion, you don’t let failure discourage you, you give your all one last time.

For us in Malaysia, once again the Olympics is the opportunity to come together to root for our national athletes.

We forget our differences, settle ourselves in front of our TVs preferably with friends and family, and yell encouragement to our fellow Malaysians competing at the highest level.

We laugh together, we smack our foreheads in frustration together, we cry together and we cheer together. For a short while we are united.

But there are always spoilsports. Apparently some people think that commenting on the most inane matters is more likely to get them to heaven than compliments for sporting achievement.

There was the newspaper which described a silver medal as disappointing while celebrating a bronze medal in another event. Unsurprisingly, these mean-spirited headlines caused much consternation.

As expected, the crotch-watchers and tut-tutters were out in force, ready to police what our female athletes wore rather than how they performed.

Someone actually described Pandelela Rinong’s outfit as ‘incomplete’ although it is unclear what sport it was incomplete for.

It was certainly correct for her sport, diving.

Interestingly enough, there was no excessive praise for the female athletes who wore ‘religiously correct’ outfits, perhaps because they didn’t get very far in their events.

Ultimately, you just have to watch the female team events such as synchronised diving or gymnastics to realise that the hundreds of hours of practice it takes to get their routines perfect matter so much more than their costumes.

These armchair critics can make mean comments all they want but how many of them can say that they have stood on the world stage, competed with the best in the world and actually beat some of them?

How many of them can one day tell their grandchildren that they were Olympians, and even medallists, members of a very exclusive club?

I watched the athletes at the victory ceremonies and had to recognise that that is an experience I will never have.

It’s a truly humbling realisation.

Indeed humility, with a few exceptions, seems to be the stock character of top athletes.

Joseph Schooling, Singapore’s first ever gold medallist, could hardly believe he had beat his hero Michael Phelps in the 100m butterfly event.

Mo Farah, the British distance runner, has dedicated every gold medal he has won to each of his four children.

We watched so many winners thank God first for their win before showing their joy.

Every four years we watch the ultimate sporting event with all their triumphs and heartbreaks and learn a few things about dedication and passion.

And for a few weeks we take a tiny break from the negativity, bloodymindedness and dishonesty we have to face around us every day.

14 July 2016

Preachers can have a tremendous influence on desperate souls looking for answers to their troubles, and the latter may take everything literally.

IT seems as if the last month has been marked by nothing but violence. Beginning with Orlando, Istanbul, then Dhaka and then the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, followed by those of several police officers in Dallas, everywhere you looked, there was bloodshed, as if the whole world had gone to war with one another.

And we weren’t spared either. First an apparent first attack by Islamic State at the Movida club and then what seemed like a spate of gunshot killings in Kuala Lumpur’s suburbs.

The Inspector-General of Police became concerned enough about the killings to set up a special taskforce to investigate them.

Meanwhile, reams of articles are written about the profiles and motivations of the perpetrators in Orlando and Dhaka particularly. It turns out that these perpetrators were far more complicated people than any stereotype could predict. Which just goes to show the limitations of profiling anyone.

Indeed, stereotypes were very much defied in the Dhaka attack. Rather than being poor, disaffected youth who might have been led astray by men wearing robes and bearing money, the attackers were in fact young men from upper middle class families, who went to good schools and even studied abroad at private universities in Malaysia.

These were young men who were thought to have everything going for them. Until they started disappearing, only to re-appear carrying out an extremely vicious attack, even killing young people of the same background.

In the investigations into their backgrounds, much has been made about who could have influenced them. Perhaps theirs is an abject lesson in what all human beings need: spiritual succour.

Could it have been that while these kids had every material comfort, what they did not have was comfort for the soul? And so they went looking, and as fate would have it, found the ones that were easiest to understand, where blame could be laid on others, rather than on showing compassion and kindness in order to nurture the soul?

There have been suggestions that some of us have made too much of the influence of particular religious personalities and politicians in creating the sort of climate in which young people get attracted to IS ideologies. This is disingenuous, to say the least.

For one thing, nobody sets out to become a politician or a religious preacher without the aim of influencing people. That is the whole point of these jobs.

Whatever they say is lapped up by many people because it is assumed by the public that what they say must be important simply because of who they are. Politicians can turn what they say into laws and policies which will affect people’s behaviour. For example, if they pass a law that says you must wear seatbelts in the car, you have to do it or face censure.

Religious personalities may not always be able to pass laws but their influence can be even more powerful, because often people assume that what they say is the word of God.

Certainly those who do not have much religious knowledge (and thus far studies have suggested that IS members know very little about religion) are particularly susceptible to whatever they say because they have no other point of reference. They do not see these pronouncements as mere opinion or only one out of many interpretations, only that these words come directly from God’s vessel, the preacher.

It is even more disingenuous to say that those words were misunderstood. A person who does not allow for different interpretations of God’s words in the Quran cannot claim that he can’t help it if people understand his words differently from what was intended. Unless you’re unequivocal about what you mean, you can’t blame others for supposedly misinterpreting what you said.

Supporters of such people claim that they can’t be that influential anyway. Again, this is disingenuous.

If these preachers have only marginal effect on people’s lives, they would not be able to fill arenas with ticket-buying devotees. For sure, some people may go for the halal entertainment value but you never know what desperate soul might go to find answers to his or her own troubles and then take everything literally. After all, these preachers preach certainty. If you follow me, you WILL go to heaven. A potent message, which isn’t limited to Muslims only.

Ironic, isn’t it, that the ones who always call for the banning of Western performers because they might influence our young are also the ones who don’t believe that consevative preachers have any influence at all? At least Beyonce has never told her audience to go out and terrorise anyone.