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.

31 July 2014

Some claim these unseen hands operate through us being a democratic nation, where we get to vote our leaders into power and also have a say in what we want for our country.

LET me first wish everyone Selamat Hari Raya, maaf zahir batin. This Ramadan has been a particularly sad one with the MH17 tragedy, especially when it came so soon after the disappearance of MH370. Our hearts and prayers go to all those who lost their loved ones in both tragedies.

But even without MH17, Ramadan was no less rancorous with attempts to ban soup kitchens and bad-tempered drivers behaving without restraint towards old people.

Then in a misplaced attempt to be “even-handed”, some radio stations made the perpetrator look like a celebrity, much to the disgust of many.

Whatever it was, a month that is supposed to be about restraint and moderation turned out to be ill-tempered.

I can’t help thinking that if it hadn’t been for the very sobering effect of MH17, things would have been much worse.

Not that we can truly expect the rest of the year to be calm and peaceful.

Already people whose sole purpose in life seems to be being as divisive as possible have declared that democracy is an evil invention of the West that we should not follow.

Its worst effect, it seems, is that it gives “citizens the right to determine their own future”.

Funny, I thought that’s why we wanted independence from our colonisers, so that we could decide the future of our country for ourselves.

But I suppose their argument here is that we are still not independent because there are many “hidden hands” actually steering our path.

The thing about these “hidden hands” is that apparently they operate through us being a democratic nation where we get to vote our leaders into power and also have a say in what we want for our country.

Thus, an undemocratic concept like the “hidden hands” operates through being democratic.

So if we didn’t have democracy, their logic goes, these invisible unknown hands wouldn’t control us.

The funny thing is there must be a lot of these unseen hands around the world since there are so many democratic countries.

If they vote in the people we like, then the hidden hands fail.

But when they vote in people we don’t like, then those hands managed to win.

Since it is democracy that works in both cases, it’s hard not to think that those hands are really inconsistent.

So perhaps we should follow the undemocratic nations where the hands are not hidden at all, like, for example, Saudi Arabia?

So after 57 years of democracy, more or less, there are now people who think this is not a good idea. Not that they have any idea what should replace it, apart from that we should have an “Islamic” state. But a true Muslim state is a democratic one. Indeed the Quran warns us against despots and tyrants.

In chapter 4, verse 135, the Holy Book says “O You who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding equity, bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God, even though it be against your own selves or your parents and kinsfolk. Whether the person concerned be rich or poor, God’s claim takes precedence over [the claims of] either of them. Do not, then, follow your own desires, lest you swerve from justice: for if you distort [the truth], behold, God is indeed aware of all that you do!” (Translation by Assad).

There are some whose sense of history seems to have little to do with facts.

The Constitutional monarchy, they claim, existed long before we became independent.

Which is an interesting re-telling of history, given that we did not have a Constitution before independence.

So what was “Constitutional” about the sultanates before then? Is that what they are proposing we revert to?

There are others who claim we should not have democracy because our Federal Constitution doesn’t contain the word.

I do love selective literalists who don’t know their history.

Did our forefathers clamour for independence because they wanted to be under anyone else’s yoke?

Why on earth did they decide we should have a Parliament we should vote for in elections if they did not want democracy?

Do they have to spell out every single word or did they know that “self-determination” meant democracy and nothing else? Perhaps people in 1957 were more intelligent than today?

And as for claiming we should not have democracy because it’s not mentioned in our Federal Cons­titution, I find this disingenuous of the selective literalists.

After all, they’re quite happy to want to do things that aren’t mentioned in the Quran. Like, the punishment for apostasy or for drinking. Or to do the opposite of things enjoined in the Quran such as not respecting people’s privacy and raiding them in their homes.

18 July 2014

While there are bigots there too, they are seen as mostly cranks and don’t get much airplay in the media.

SOMETIMES you need distance to have some perspective. I was just in Tokyo again to speak at a women’s conference.

One night I had the opportunity to have dinner with some 80 Malaysians living, studying and working in Japan. As always, Malaysians living abroad are just Malaysians, and not divided by race.

They introduced themselves mostly by state and by what they are doing – which truly covers a whole range of things from setting up Malaysian restaurants to working in Japanese and multinational companies to setting up their own IT companies to do some very innovative work.

What I found most interesting is that they speak to one another in English, Malay AND Japanese, thus adding another layer of common understanding among them. It was refreshing to be among them because conversation with these Malaysians is so much less toxic than at home.

Their group, which actually numbers some 2,400, meet fairly regularly and talk about what’s happening at home, thus giving lie to the notion that Malaysians abroad don’t care about Malaysian issues.

According to them, they have had heated debates about issues like hudud but it doesn’t break up the group. That should really be applauded. I can’t imagine anything similar back home.

Meanwhile, staying connected with what’s happening in Malaysia through social media becomes a real chore. Oh, for some civility in our discourses!

To be in a country where people are so considerate of each other that they won’t even subject others to embarrassing personal noises and then read of the way we talk to each other back home, is surreal.

If the cleanliness of toilets is the mark of modern civility, then Japan wins hands down. And this is also a country where when a male politician makes sexist remarks about a female colleague, the government actually feels embarrassed and makes him apologise.

No hope of any such thing back home, of course. Our ministers can make condescending remarks about the poor and homeless, even in a month where we are meant to be restrained in our words and deeds.

And while there are bigots in Japan too, they are seen as mostly cranks and don’t get much airplay in the media. Ours, on the other hand, are free to say any crazy thing they want, confident that they will not only be covered but actually lauded.

At the women’s conference, I spoke about how Muslim women are getting more empowered all around the world.

I didn’t expect any real interest in it but at the reception afterwards, the participants queued up to talk to me, patiently waiting their turn as each woman and I had a short conversation and then took photographs.

Imagine how long the 10th or 12th person, let alone the 20th, had to wait if each one took five minutes with me. But nobody hogged my time and everyone politely waited.

No doubt somebody will say that it is because Japan is so homogenous that it is much easier to get on with one another. And speaking the same language helps in keeping the same norms and values within the community. That may be true to some extent.

But while Japan may seem racially homogenous, there is still a certain amount of diversity in terms of types of Japanese people. Not all Japanese men are “salarymen” these days and although still behind compared to other countries, the women are moving forward, so much so that their Prime Minister has a plan for “womenomics”.

And while they may all speak the same language, they also now speak other languages much more than before. None of the women who chatted with me needed a translator. Many had lived and worked abroad and some were running big multinational companies. So they were a very sophisticated group.

But being homogenous does not preclude extending the same norms and values to non-Japanese. Go to any store and you won’t get any less than the usual high standard of service. That’s because every employee knows that the reputation of the store is on their shoulders. I have yet to meet an indifferent salesperson or someone who didn’t know how to answer a query I had.

Being helpful is part of their value of being considerate of others. Perhaps we should send our ministers and civil servants to Japan to learn this.

I noticed in talking to some of the Malaysians in Japan that they have absorbed some of these values, which is a really good thing.

Unfortunately, it may make it difficult for them to adapt to life back home again. Imagine going to a store and asking a salesperson something and they simply disappear rather than admit they don’t know the answer.

04 July 2014

Our concern should make us look at the state of our young men today, particularly the Muslim men at the bottom of the social scale.

SO we finally stepped over the line. When the first Malaysian suicide bomber died in Syria, we finally put to rest the idea that Malaysian Muslims would never do this. For so long, we have believed that suicide in itself is a sin and such drastic action is sinful because it harms and kills innocent people. But now these concepts seem not to hold water any more.

In the age of social media, not only are our youth going off to fight wars in a foreign land, they are even boasting about it to all their friends back home via Facebook and Twit­ter.

They need this self-advertising in order to ensure that everyone thinks of them as heroes and warriors, fighting for a cause that nobody really understands.

After all, by joining the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), they are fighting other Muslims, not people of other faiths.

But why should we be surprised at this development? For the past year or so, Malaysian Muslims have been bombarded by propaganda against Syiahs in the mosques and in the media.

Alleged Syiahs are arrested and few care what happens to them. Our Home Minister has even declared Syiahs unIslamic, something even the ra­bidly anti-Syiah Saudis have never done.

Syiahs make up only about 10% of the world’s Muslims and even fewer in number in Malaysia compared to Sunnis.

Yet our Inspector-General of Police insisted that if we do not control Syiah activities in Malaysia, it “could lead to militant activities. We do not want what happened in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to happen here, do we?”

Well, he’s wrong on two counts. The Malaysian militants going to fight with Isil in Syria are all Sunnis, and if Syria doesn’t happen here, then they’ll just go to Syria. If they survive, they’ll eventually bring it home.

Another Malaysian on a humanitarian mission to Syria who met one of these jihadists, had this to say: “Most of them who join are fanatics, mat rempits, those without high education or were from problematic families. Some of them committed some big sin and were told that they could purify themselves by taking part in the jihad. They want a short cut to hea­ven.”

This is an important clue as to what drives these young men to join a war that is far away from home. When home is dull and problematic, a fo­­reign war with the promise of hea­ven sounds infinitely more exci­ting.

Getting heads broken at their motorbike races on Friday nights pales in comparison to actually holding an AK47 and killing another human being.

Back home if you kill someone you might get punished for it. Here in Syria, you’ll go to heaven. What could be better than that? Even the clothes are cooler.

If anyone is worried about this development, and they certainly should be, then the answer is to look at the state of our young men today, particularly the Muslim men at the bottom of the social scale.

The ones who drop out of school early and face a future of either unemployment or menial work. The ones who take drugs in order to make their dull and bleak everyday lives slightly more interesting.

And we need to take some responsibility for these young men. We’ve been telling them that as Malay Muslim men, they are superior to everyone else and entitled to everything in this country.

Yet when they fail to attain any of these, when this so-called entitlement only goes to those with better connections than them, we discard and neglect them and call them names such as rempit.

We prohibit them from being anything but what we want them to be, and while we sneer at them, we also glorify and romanticise the violence in their lives through movies and novels.

The hero apparently always gets the girl, even if he has to rape her first.

But in real life, this doesn’t happen. The girls would rather they had a good job and a decent car.

As drug-ridden fishermen or mechanics, they will never earn enough to win the girls of their dreams.

That rage sometimes leads them to take it out on the nearest girls, the ones in their own villages. Why not? After all, society will always blame the girls anyway.

It is likely these are the types of young men who wind up being wooed by jihadist recruiters with promises of adventure, excitement and a free pass to heaven where the best girls are waiting.

We are complicit in the wasted lives of these young men. We may wring our hands in disbelief now but we’ve been moulding them for this for years. Why should we be surprised now?

Maybe some deeper reflection on our responsibility is needed this Ramadan.