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?

14 March 2016

SOMETIMES you need to be confronted with ugly reality in order to make you pause and think. This happened to me when I visited the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre just outside Phnom Penh recently.

Also known as the “Killing Fields”, Choeung Ek was, before 1975, a two-hectare orchard filled with longan trees and watermelon, although part of it was also a cemetery for the Chinese community nearby. Between 1975 and 1978 however, this tiny plot of land became the execution ground for 20,000 Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge for no other reason than that they were educated city folk and not peasants.

It is a surreal experience visiting Choeung Ek. For one thing, it is a silent place. In order to be respectful of the dead, visitors walk around with an audio guide and headphones that tells you the history of the place.

It even includes the voices of survivors. It is hard to imagine the horror that took place in this quiet place but some of the exhibits bring the point home.

I remember seeing a piece of red rag, part of someone’s clothing, on the ground and being caught between the urge to pick it up and the realisation that this was what some poor soul wore before he or she met his or her brutal end.

Or it may have been a child’s shirt. One of the most unnerving sights at Choeung Ek was the “killing tree”.

It is a tree on which are hung hundreds of cloth wristbands in remembrance of the children and infants who died there. They died in a way so cruel, it brings shudders to the spine. They were simply held by their legs and bashed against the tree until they died, often while their mothers were forced to watch.

Visiting Choeung Ek gives you pause to reflect on the nature of the human mind. How was it that an otherwise gentle people could succumb to such collective madness that they were willing to kill so many of their friends, neighbours and even parents? Three million people out of a population of only eight million died from starvation, torture or outright murder. Anyone above 50 years old today would know someone who died in those hellish years.

Of course this was not the only example of collective murderous brutality. It has happened in Germany, in Rwanda and Bosnia.

When you look at the types of torture and murder, including by beheading, practised by the Khmer Rouge, you can’t help but think of the Islamic State today in Syria and elsewhere.

Human beings have a propensity to do this over and over again it seems.

None of this happens overnight, although it can go from mild craziness to outright insanity in a very short while. If you go to the exhibition on the site in Berlin of the former headquarters of the SS, the paramilitary organisation that was eventually found guilty of crimes against humanity for its role in the Holocaust, you will find some unnerving information.

They implemented Nazi policies including the burning of books by authors labelled “un-German”, marginalising those labelled political opponents or enemies of the state and using newspapers to spread Nazi propaganda.

“All men are not equal” was the slogan the Nazi leadership used to justify the exclusion and extermination of anyone who was not of Aryan stock, people they called sub-human. Just as the Khmer Rouge defined anyone not a peasant as somehow a traitor to the “egalitarian” vision of society that they had.

As a society, we in Malaysia are not anywhere near these sorts of brutalities. But it is easy to slip into a subtler version of the mindset without noticing.

Sometimes, the demonising of groups of people because they are different, due to nationality, religion, creed and class trips off our tongues subconsciously. The use of the media to propagate discriminatory stories and untruths about people is becoming the norm.

The demand to prove our patriotism, loyalty and faithfulness or to be deemed traitors to nation and religion is a constant needling noise. The banning of anything that might make people think differently and question things is becoming a regular occurrence.

All these terrible events in history finally ended because there were people who retained their humanity and decided to risk their lives and do something about it. In the end, it will always be the people who wake up from their stupor and take action who will save their country.

It is easy to either deny any such thing would ever happen to us, or to complain endlessly but ultimately do nothing. Or worse, criticise those who are trying to do something at great risk to themselves.

Or is the Malaysian credo “As long as my nasi lemak is still there every day, I don’t care what happens”?

25 February 2016

Some of us have become rather obsessive about the religious pristineness of our food and are perpetually on the lookout for whoever may next cause offence.

ONE of the fascinating things about India is the food. While there is a wide variety of all sorts of cuisine from all over the large country, one thing that you will always see in every restaurant menu are two categories: vegetarian and non-vegetarian.

A large number of people in India are vegetarians, that is, they eat no meat at all. Then there is another lot of people who are non-vegetarians, that is, they do eat meat. Of the meat-eaters, there are those who don’t eat beef because of their religion, and those who don’t eat pork, also because of their religion.

There is then potentially all sorts of confusion to be caused by all these different food preferences. There is the possibility of non-veg people being offended by restaurants that only offer veg food, or the other way round. Meat-eaters are at great risk of being offended if they happen to walk into a restaurant that serves meat that they are forbidden to eat.

The odd thing is that rarely is there any confusion at all among Indians regarding which restaurants to go to. Virtually every restaurant serves the food that anyone can eat, whether they are vegetarian or non-vegetarian, non-beef or non-pork eaters. People sit side by side and order whatever they want. There is no need to practise culinary apartheid.

Recently there was a case where some villagers in India beat a Muslim man to death because they thought he was eating beef. It has to be noted that all this is occurring in a scenario where a rightwing political party has gained power.

After his death, tests of the meat in his fridge showed that, poor as he was, he may have been eating mutton and not the more expensive beef. It just goes to show that anyone can kick up a fuss about food, if provoked enough, even to fatal consequences.

Malaysians are not dissimilar. We love our food. And some of us are rather obsessive about the religious pristineness of our food. Which is not the same as being obsessive about hygiene, I might add.

So if someone should suggest that the 1000-calorie-a-bite bar of chocolate should have the slightest hint of porcine DNA, without so much as demanding to see the lab test reports, our people will go hysterical.

Ever-alert that someone wants to taint their pristine bodies, the same bodies that consume more sugar than any other South-East Asian country, their antennae are perpetually tuned to whoever may next cause offence, intentionally or otherwise.

Now unlike India where people speak English and understand that ‘no’ means ‘no’, in Malaysia, ‘no’ can mean ‘maybe got something else which someone insidiously put in because they want to taint us’.

Thus a sign that says ‘no pork’ doesn’t just mean that. It also means ‘we won’t know if there is anything else we shouldn’t be eating.’ It is a wonder how Muslims in Malaysia haven’t starved to death from food anxiety every day. What on earth do they do when they travel?

Of late I’ve noticed restaurants with names that make it so clear exactly what they serve that nobody with half a modicum of brain could fail to realise what food of the non-vegetarian kind it is. But even then there is room for confusion.

If people are so protected from the sight of little fat pink creatures with curly tails to the point that even the movie Babe was once banned (funny, I never knew movies were free in Malaysia!), then they may not recognise the icons used in the restaurant’s graphics. When we start seeing people exiting restaurants in a panic all of a sudden, we’ll know what happened.

At that point, I’m sure our ever-righteous leaders will step in with a law to ban restaurants from serving pork in order to save fragile Muslim souls from ever being offended, regardless of whether they ever go into those restaurants or not. Never mind that there is a much higher likelihood of Muslims dying of diabetes from too much nasi lemak and fast food than from inhaling the smell of non-halal food.

All of these are of the utmost importance these days. Our bodies must be presented on Judgment Day in pure form, never mind if they are flabby and overweight from unhealthy halal eating habits and lack of exercise.

Never mind also that the brains these bodies are attached to are atrophying from lack of use. Never mind also that the hands attached to these bodies sometimes handle money that may not be righteously earned.

These are all irrelevant. What matters is that we must be perpetually on guard against all manner of insults and intent to injure.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is passing us by.