20 May 2016

In addition to what we learn in school, other people we meet can give us valuable lessons, too.

MONDAY this week was National Teacher’s Day. I had lost touch with this day until a friend reminded me in a rather unique way.

Although we usually think of teachers as the ones in school, my friend used a broader definition of “teacher” and thanked all the people she had learnt something from in life including, to my surprise, me.

Going by the conventional definition, I did have a lot of good teachers. I can remember my primary school teachers, Miss Ong who came to school in a bright orange flared skirt, and Miss Chew whom everyone adored so much, we all cried when she was transferred.

I had teachers who gave me my love of the English language and who made sense of Mathematics to me, who guided me all the way through my exams and believed that I had more potential than I thought.

I had a History teacher who taught me to organise my thoughts so well when writing essays that I still use her method today. And last year I visited my old Physics teacher and found out that although I always thought I was quiet, she remembered me as very opinionated.

Of course, there must have been teachers who were also mean and nasty but time seems to have softened my memory of them. In any case, I don’t remember them being too awful and none of them were bullies like those I hear about today.

My teachers taught us a lot about values, about the need to be aware of what is going on not just in our country but also around the world, about right and wrong.

If anyone says I am well educated, I have to say that my education started well in my childhood and continued all the way until adulthood.

As I grew up I had many more teachers, some of whom were in unexpected quarters. When I first started working on HIV issues and knew nothing about any world different from my own, my teachers were all the people who were most affected by the epidemic.

I remember Jack, the first Malaysian to ever come out as a person living with HIV, teaching me how to use non-discriminatory language when I wrote about the people most vulnerable to the disease.

Drug users and sex workers told me their life stories and taught me that some people have been dealt really bad cards in life yet they soldier on, especially when other people depend on them for survival.

All of these people taught me that every human is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their circumstances in life. And I think that’s an important part of everyone’s education.

A great teacher is one who is able to make you see something so clearly that the world never looks the same again afterwards. Dr Jonathan Mann was the first director of the Global Programme on AIDS at the World Health Organisation, and then went on to head the Institute of Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.

In 1994, I was fortunate enough to hear Dr Mann articulate a human rights approach to health that made more sense to me than anything I had ever heard before. From that day I really wanted to learn more from Dr Mann but it was only four years later that I got to meet him at a conference in Geneva.

I really should have used that opportunity to talk to him as much as I could but I thought I had time. Sadly, only two months later, Dr Mann and his wife were killed in the crash of Swissair 111 off the coast of Nova Scotia. In the worst possible way, I learnt that we must always make full use of every opportunity given to us.

Of course, I have had many other teachers as well. Women’s rights activists are a particularly inspiring lot, Muslim women activists even more so because they are often misunderstood by everyone.

Women like Amina Wadud, Asma Lamrabet, Kecia Ali and our local Zainah Anwar, Norani Othman and the late Dr Nik Noriani have so much knowledge based on both scholarship and the lived realities of women that their detractors can do no more than question their credentials.

Yet all round the world, their work is resonating with women, including me, because it provides hope, something we don’t find anywhere else.

So we go through life meeting many teachers, not just the ones at school. School teachers may be the ones we meet first but we should always be open to all sorts of other teachers in our lives, sometimes who we don’t even recognise at first.

Education doesn’t end with school. Too bad not everyone learns that.

05 May 2016

I CAME across this great quote the other day. It’s by a filmmaker called Pierre Sauvage who, as a child, was saved by German villagers during the Holocaust. Interviewing the villagers as an adult, he found out one thing: “Those who agonise, don’t act. Those who act don’t agonise.”

In other words, when it comes to doing the right thing, people who do take action don’t spend a lot of time thinking of what might be reasons not to do it.

That’s probably true about all the people who want to do good in society. If they see someone in need, they start thinking of how to help them, not hoping that someone else will.

That’s how people start soup kitchens, collect clothes and essentials when disasters happen or read for the blind. Or get into boats to run supplies to refugees stranded at sea.

People like that don’t think about how much work it would take, how much it would cost or what risks they would face. All those are just problems to solve, not barriers to action. People like these are can-do people and a lot of the time, they are quite effective.

On the other hand, there are the agonisers who may have good hearts but spend so much time agonising over every possible consequence of their potential action that they wind up being too slow or not doing anything at all.

If Pierre Sauvage’s saviours had agonised about saving him and several thousand others, he would likely not have survived to become a filmmaker.

I remember one reader’s response to a column I did about the late Princess Diana who had not hesitated to hug HIV-positive people in hospitals and consequently set an example against the stigma and discrimination that such people faced. “We can’t do that,” said the indignant reader. “What if they are a different sex from us?”

Suffice to say that one of the reasons we remember Diana to this day is because she did not agonise over such matters. Every human in distress needs comfort. It was not about her, it was about them.

Most of us, me included, spend a lot of time agonising over the big decisions in our lives. If it’s going to cost money, change our usual life or involve some personal risk, then of course we are going to think it over thoroughly. Few people rush into buying homes, marrying someone and moving to a foreign country or undergoing major surgery without mulling over many factors, and taking our time about these decisions.

But when we’re thinking about other people and doing right by them, then mulling too much may not be the best response. Especially when the mulling involves thinking up imaginary reasons not to do something.

I know people who worry about whether they should put their thoughts in a blog, for instance, before they write a single word. They believe that it would attract negative reactions from the authorities because they’ve seen what happens to other people’s blogs.

That’s exactly the type of self-censorship that the authorities want, where people worry so much about consequences that they don’t write a single word. The thing is, it may be that what they write will attract not that much attention at all from the people they fear, or very little relative to other people. That may sound disheartening but if you’re worried about nasty consequences, then why should it be an excuse for not expressing your thoughts?

Similarly I get lots of people who say that they cannot do what I and a lot of other activists do because they stand to lose so much. Well, so do we. Being locked up, even for a night or two, is tough and something I hope I never have to experience. But activists do what they do because they believe in it. They don’t agonise, they act.

If we see something terribly wrong happening around us which will lead to so much future suffering, it would be so easy to close our eyes and ears and wish it would all go away by itself. But it won’t unless we act.

That’s why there are people who, regardless of race, religion, age, station in life and political beliefs, are taking action to try and right what is wrong. It may seem futile to some but it’s a lot better than doing nothing. People who act can always hold their heads up high that they tried to do something, and not passively let misery rain upon them. Foolish they may seem to some but a lot of people are, as Nelson Mandela once said, making choices that reflect their hopes, not their fears.

So, ask yourself, are you an agoniser or a person who acts?

21 April 2016

YOU have to hand it to some people. They can be quite barefaced hypocrites when it suits them.

The same people who say that “too much freedom is a bad thing” can suddenly invoke freedom of speech when someone they like is banned from speaking. Usually it’s not someone telling them anything new, because new ideas would require thinking. And thinking, of course, should be banned.

But if someone confirms their opinions, no matter how wrongheaded they may be, then suddenly a whole new breed of “human rights defenders” sprout up.

These are what I call the Human Rights Are Good But (HRAGB) defenders. They are ready and willing to fight to the death to defend their own human rights. But not anyone else’s.

So for example, if anyone with a different point of view wants to speak, these HRAGB will protest because those people will cause “confusion”.

By now we should know that anyone who can think is likely to be confused while those who cannot, or refuse to, are the “enlightened” ones. This is the Age of Inverted Meanings after all.

But if they or their ilk want to speak and others protest, then immediately the protesters are trampling on their so-called freedom of speech. Never mind if they use that freedom to tell others that they may not speak and if they do, they ought to be prepared for dire consequences.

It makes you reflect on how the word “freedom” has been so abused these days. If you talk about the freedom to think, others will come back and talk about the freedom to be sheep. If you talk about freedom of expression, they will talk about the freedom to conform to oppressive norms. And nothing gets more abused than the term “freedom of religion”.

To most people who think, freedom of religion means the freedom to decide what faith you want to adhere to, free from coercion of any sort. It means that you are able to study all the faiths that interest you and decide on the one that sits best with you spiritually. It may well be that in the end, it is the same faith that you were born in that most resonates with you, but the journey to that discovery is actually what strengthens it.

But for some people, freedom of religion only means the freedom to embrace one religion and not to ever even consider any others. And for those who happen to be born in a family of that religion, then there is no freedom to decide for themselves, once they are mature enough, to leave it. Or indeed to make the conscious decision to stay. We are supposed to have free will after all.

Such is the distorted version of freedom that some people believe in. Freedom of speech means essentially “I am free to abuse you but you are not free to abuse me”. It also means that “I am a sensitive human being while you are some hard-shelled creature that I don’t recognise”.

I also often hear people talking about “too much freedom”. This is a very curious term because where is the “just enough” bar? Some people have even described the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a document that gives people “excessive” freedom and that “some religions” do the same.

Anyone who actually reads the UDHR will realise that the human rights it describes are very basic and universal (the right to a name, or the right to the highest attainable level of health for example) and that all religions talk about human rights and responsibilities.

The right to life goes hand in hand with the admonition not to kill, for example. There is no such thing as a religion that gives “too much freedom” unless it is some small cult led by a dubious charismatic leader. Certainly none of the major religions of the world can be described that way.

The hypocrisy that some people exhibit about freedom knows no bounds. They defend the right to dress as they want while sneering at those who are different. They tut-tut at personal sins while blithely ignoring major sins like corruption. They talk about always obeying God while at the same time forgetting God’s injunctions to always be just.

What do we do in the face of such hypocrisy? We have to keep calling them out.

When they put on a pious face and then lie, we have to say so. When they chastise others for being sinful, then we should ask if they have no sins themselves. When they are blatantly unjust, those of us who consider ourselves believers must heed God’s word to put right the injustice.

Only then can we have that most desirable freedom from hypocrisy.

07 April 2016

MALAYSIANS are having to get used to a schizophrenic life. The other night many of us watched a thrilling Moto3 Grand Prix race in Argentina when 17-year old Khairul Idham Pawi became the first Malaysian ever to win it.

Tears welled up with pride when the NegaraKu was played as he stood there on the podium. After endless bad news, this was a much-needed moment of joy. Congratulations, Khairul Idham and his team.

Meanwhile, back home on the very same night, we had yet another moment of infamy when the Federal Territory “religious” authorities raided a closed-door event in a five-star hotel and wanted to arrest everyone in the room.

Their alleged crime? For being transgendered people who, by the way, were citizens having a private dinner to relax and enjoy one another’s company.

If it were not for one brave and feisty female lawyer who happened to be there, God knows what would have happened.

She knew what rights every citizen has and asked the right questions, forcing the “religious” officers to back off. (I am putting the word “religious” within quotes because I don’t think what they did was very religious.)

In the end, they let everyone go except for one of the organisers, but made a lengthy police report against them (which they did not show the organisers, so they don’t know what their “crime” is) while the female lawyer also made a police report against the “religious” authorities for abuse of power.

Why does this keep happening? Under what laws do these “religious” authorities operate and why bring the media along with them to record these raids?

We should ask the media owners whether they actually have a policy of allowing their employees to follow these “religious” authorities on these raids, and why.

These types of raids are not new. It seems no one is safe.

I met a couple married for more than 20 years whose sleep in a hotel was disturbed in the night by a raiding party. Why should they have thought this particular couple was a khalwat case?

On reflection, the couple figured out that firstly it was because they had checked in late at night (they were to attend a wedding the next day in that small town) and had done so separately.

And secondly, they realised that the only people who could possibly have alerted the authorities must have been the hotel staff.

This was not the only mistake the “religious” authorities have made.

There was that well-known case of the foreign non-Muslim couple who were raided for khalwat in Langkawi and the case of the CEO of a local think tank who was sharing a hotel room with his own aged mother.

Was there ever a word of apology for the embarassment and inconvenience? Of course not, because apparently “religious” work requires no humility. Let’s not even go into the cases where they have caused people’s deaths.

Which brings me to a matter often overlooked. How would our “religious” authorities know about possible khalwat cases in hotels? Is it because hotel staff tell on them?

When anyone registers and pays to stay in a hotel, or holds a function in a hotel, is it not a contract between the hotel and the guest?

Doesn’t the hotel have any obligations towards their guests, including protection of their privacy? Is some guests’ money worth less than others’?

In the case of the married couple I met, they think the hotel staff get a commission for each “successful” raid. Is this not corruption? What is religious about this?

In the case of the dinner that was raided, it was not held in some cheap hotel in the shadier parts of KL, but a five-star hotel in the Golden Triangle.

What is the hotel going to do about the money they have been paid for the dinner?

Should every reception desk clerk now be obliged to ask each registering guest what religion they are, and then warn them that they may be subjected to raids by the “religious” authorities regardless of whether they’ve done anything wrong or not?

Can you imagine what the reaction is going to be? But if they don’t do that, then I think every guest who has been so humiliated is entitled to sue the hotel.

Perhaps someone should make an app where you can check which hotels are the sort to allow such busts and which don’t.

This means that those who don’t protect their guests’ privacy will be avoided at all costs. This might stop these ridiculous raids.

Otherwise the continued harassment of citizens will continue. Our brief moment of pride in Khairul Idham will continually be overshadowed by these events of unIslamic arrogance.

24 March 2016

I GREW up with perhaps a heightened awareness of God. As a child I was told that if I ever told a lie, God would cut off my tongue.

If I ever fancied myself as well off, I was admonished that there was absolutely no one on earth richer than God.

If I tried to hide from my elders after doing something naughty, I should rest assured that even if they couldn’t see me, God always could.

Small wonder that I was mostly an obedient little girl, terrified of both my parents’ and God’s wrath. It took me many years to understand that God was not as terrifying as all that, that He will forgive you if you’re really really sorry and that the worst thing is to hurt someone by telling lies. But I never got over the belief that everything I do can be seen and judged by an Omnipotent Being who will one day ask me to account for it all.

Apparently not everyone believes this. Not counting atheists, there are people who claim to believe in God but seem to have no awareness of constantly being watched. They think that as long as other humans don’t see what they do, they’re okay. Until they get caught, of course.

It’s astounding to read that a ­government official recently got caught for siphoning off RM100mil to buy first class tickets and expensive handbags for his family. How come nobody noticed any of this for so long?

Or rather, and perhaps this is what this fellow counted on, people noticed but decided to mind their own business. There’s something to be said for respecting people’s privacy of course. But did they forget who else is watching?

In fact, sometimes people don’t even bother to hide anymore. It’s all out there for everyone to see, unabashedly. We all lap it up, buying magazines to read and gawk over all those diamonds and cars. But we rarely ask where they come from, or at most we might snigger a bit and then turn the page.

This turning-the-page attitude of ours is what allows all these things to happen. We look, we wonder and then we move on. Which is exactly what the corrupt want us to do. So we are really complicit in their crimes.

Why should we be surprised therefore that when we finally say something, they turn round and unleash all sorts of charges against us, including for disobedience? We had obediently turned our heads away all these years, how dare we look harder now! And the more we look, the tougher the backlash is.

Last week we were told that disobedience to our leader is akin to disobedience to God. Oh my, my! But isn’t our first duty to be ­obedient to the All-Seeing God?

In Chapter 4, verse 135 of the Holy Quran, God says to us: “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!”

Sounds very clear to me that ­obedience to our leaders is conditional on whether they are being just to us or not. Justice and upholding equity is meant to be our leaders’ main concern, as it is with all of us. So when we see them doing wrong, especially by treating us like naughty children, why should we not say something?

God repeats this in Chapter 5, Verse 8: “O YOU who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in your devotion to God, bearing witness to the truth in all equity; and never let hatred of anyone lead you into the sin of deviating from justice. Be just: this is closest to being God-conscious. And remain conscious of God: verily, God is aware of all that you do.”

My holy Book also repeatedly reminds us to never ascribe divinity to anyone other than God. This is the greatest sin in my understanding because it undermines the core belief in One God.

Yet there are people who keep equating their own human qualities and foibles to the Divine. We must never criticise them because that would be like criticising God, they say. Surely this must be the height of hubris.

But they get away with it because we are silent and look away. Who then do we fear more, them or the Almighty?