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.

20 June 2014

We were once a civil and progressive country, but day by day, it seems like we are no longer the country we once were.

THERE are many things that I love about this country that I was born in and have lived in my whole life. But when it starts to give me knots in my stomach and a constant feeling of dread, I can’t help but wish it were another type of country, one where everybody feels easy and comfortable living in it.

It would be all right if things that happen actually make sense but every day things make less and less sense. I am starting to dream about living in a different type of country where everyone can go their own way and live in peace without harassment from anyone.

In another type of country, people are not afraid to apologise when they’ve done something wrong. Indeed, they come out as more honourable people. Instead, we have people whose main stock in trade is hubris. It is what makes them unable to lift charges against people who have done no wrong, leaving them forever in suspended animation.

Hubris is what makes some people unable to backtrack on a mistake they made, finding ever more convoluted justifications for it. Pure arrogance is what makes them dis- obey court orders and say they answer to nobody else. Never mind that this is exactly the sort of attitude that leads to the anarchy that they themselves fear.

In another type of country, the police would just follow the law and not think up interpretations that keep them sitting on their hands in the face of injustice. Especially, when it involves children and the mothers they should always be with, by any type of law.

If this was another type of country, when people have been slack at their jobs and this led to many fatalities, they would resign. We now know that had some people paid better attention and taken quick action, the fate of MH370 might not be still a mystery today more than 100 days after it disappeared.

In another country, the highest officials in charge of our skies would have stepped down from their jobs because that is the honourable thing to do. But who cares about honour or respect in this country?

If we were another type of country, we would stop declaring war on our own people. The so-called war on drugs has stopped neither drug trafficking nor drug addiction. Now, we are going to have a war on the homeless.

Without understanding the reasons why people are living on the streets, a war on them would be akin to waging a war on refugees and blaming host countries for being too generous while doing nothing about the violence in their home countries that drove them to leave in the first place. But it is so much easier to declare war than to wage peace. Ask George Bush.

If we were a rational, compassionate country, we would be declaring a war on the increasing violence against women and children and stop the abuses, gang rapes, kidnappings and murders. How do our officials tasked with protecting women and children justify their existence otherwise?

If we were a sensible country, we would stop lauding the mean and the vile as heroes. We would stop fearing the consequences of showing compassion and fairness towards those suffering injustice. We would just be plain decent folk doing the right thing by people.

If we were a normal country, we would never be proud of being unable to control ourselves and possibly inflicting violence on others. We would never insist on having laws to keep ourselves under control, even while we claim to be pious.

In fact, normal people are usually ashamed to describe themselves as having potential for violence. But we are not living in a normal country anymore.

If this was another country, the very idea of chopping off anyone’s hands for stealing or stoning people for adultery would be too repulsive to even discuss. But today, these punishments are what people seriously think will solve all our problems. The bankruptcy of ideas is there for all to see.

If this were a place where things made sense, a woman could never be divorced years after her husband died. Or get her wedding interrupted by officials from another religion. Or had her burial delayed because of a long-forgotten alleged conversion. Or had her underaged children taken away from her by a husband who converted to another religion. Isn’t it funny how these things always seem to happen to women?

Yet we were once a civil and progressive country. Where people respected one another and got on fine. Once we eschewed violence of any kind, and certainly not on one another. Today, we even go to foreign countries and blow ourselves up.

We are no longer the country we once were. The question is, why?

06 June 2014

Without knowing the underlying causes for such violence, how would we be able to prevent it?

LAST week was a particularly horrific and sad week in our country. A man abused his toddler stepson to death. A killer made a little girl his gruesome victim. Over 10 men and boys raped a teenage girl. The mother of another teenager, who was raped by two men, whipped one of the men in public.

As if these horrors were not bad enough, a little girl accidentally fell to her death in a shopping mall.

Most of us would be forgiven for thinking that the entire country needs a flower bath to get rid of what seems to be a dark cloud hovering over us.

But maybe we are not far wrong because there do seem to be bad vibes over our land, fuelled by so much aggravation, angst and animosity among us. Perhaps we are spending so much time arguing over things that don’t really matter that we have neglected what really does matter.

And what does matter? For one thing, the safety of our people, especially our women and children, matters very much.

Every time something as dreadful as child abuse, rape or murder happens, a huge outcry ensues and many newspaper column inches are written anguishing about it, with calls for ever more severe punishment for perpetrators.

Indeed, such perpetrators must be caught and punished so that we all feel safe again.

Let us not forget that the killer of little Nurin Jazlin has never been caught. But let’s also do more about prevention.

Prevention involves investigating and understanding the circumstances under which these crimes happen.

Do people really wake up and think of killing their children that day? Or is that the tragic result of a build-up of stresses and strains that could have been mitigated if only there was help?

Could a rape by people known to a victim have been averted by more vigilant neighbours, directly or indirectly, or by an environment that was different?

If the mother of the murdered child had not been homeless, would the child have fallen prey to the killer so easily?

I really wish our media would probe these cases a bit more deeply. What would cause a whole group of men and boys to band together to rape that young girl?

It was reported that they were high on drugs. What goes on in that village that there can be so many men taking drugs and assaulting girls with impunity?

Is there a larger problem here of unemployment, boredom and rep­ression? In the wake of Elliot Rodger’s mass murders, there were a lot of articles analysing his motivations and mental state.

I wish there were also the same not just for this gang rape, but also the others to see if there are some underlying causes for this violence. Without knowing these causes, how would we prevent it?

Regarding the child who died of abuse, once again we should look at the backstory. There can never be an excuse for child battery but when you look at a young, twice-married mother with many children, you can see how the stresses of such circumstances may make a person snap.

Not all young parents abuse their children, but very often those who do tend to have married and had their children at a young age.

Perhaps they were married off to prevent illicit sex, with no contraceptive advice and little preparation for parenthood.

This particular mother was only 31 and the dead child, aged six, was her fourth. Did her husband find the needs of her children taking away her attention from him?

To me, it’s yet another reason to not allow young people to marry before they are ready for the many responsibilities of marriage and parenthood.

The background of the mother of the murdered child is also a sad tale. With her husband in prison, she was left with three young children and no way of caring for them.

Leaving two with relatives, she was left homeless with her youngest and spent all her time wandering the city and living on the generosity of friends.

Where is our Welfare Department for vulnerable families of prisoners like these? When we send men to prison, do we check on how their families would survive? Or don’t we care?

Our many social problems need to be examined in a much more holistic way than they are now. But that takes intelligence, leadership and compassion.

There can’t be anything more callous than a Minister who blames homelessness on the “generosity of Malaysians”, as if to live on the dangerous streets is a lifestyle choice. Perhaps she should spend a night serving at soup kitchens.

As long as such arrogant blindness prevails, we will never solve these problems. And the violence will continue.

23 May 2014

No presidential speechwriter ever wrote a speech for his boss totally on his own.
THE other day I gave a speech in front of a bunch of women who both learn and teach public speaking. Which meant that I had to work hard on my speech, to make sure that it made sense and that I knew it well enough to sound convincing.
In fact I work hard every time I have to give a speech.
I am unable to say anyone else’s words so I have to write every word myself.
Before I do that, I have to read and research my topic so that I can speak with some credibility.
Then I try and write a different speech each time even if I’m talking about more or less the same things, if nothing else for me not to get bored and let that boredom creep into my voice.
Being sincere and passionate about your subject is to me very important.
Which is why I don’t understand how some politicians can get up and simply read out a speech that they’ve never seen before.
At least that’s what it sounds like when you read that they’ve made a speech full of terms they don’t understand, as well as invented new nonsensical ones.
I do get it that some people are too busy to write so many speeches themselves.
In that case, they employ really great speechwriters.
President John F. Kennedy employed Theodore “Ted” Sorenson who wrote his inaugural speech in 1961 that included that famous line “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist William Safire wrote speeches for President Richard M. Nixon and until recently Jon Favreau was Director of Speechwriting for President Barack Obama.
British Prime Ministers also have their speechwriters but Winston Churchill was so skilled an orator, he wrote all his speeches himself.
It’s obvious we don’t have our own Winston Churchill. At the same time, we obviously don’t have a Ted Sorensen either.
In any case, no presidential speechwriter ever wrote a speech for his boss totally on his own.
A major policy speech starts off with discussions between the speechmaker and his entire policy team on the points that need to be made.
Then the speechwriter writes a draft setting the general tone of it. The final speech still has to be vetted and finalised by the person giving it.
If there is anything unclear in the speech, it has to be thrashed out completely because otherwise the public will surely demand to know what it all means.
Thus it is strange that any politician would ever consider giving a speech full of terminology that made no sense and which he would then be forced to clarify. Nor is clarification on Facebook a good substitute for issuing a proper statement.
If I were caught in such a situation, I would haul up whoever wrote the speech, bend their ears until they yelled in pain and tell them they are never to write a speech again. Actually I’d just fire them.
But maybe I’m being generous in suggesting that there are people who are fooled into making speeches that they had no hand in writing, where literally the speechwriters put words that they did not believe in their mouths. But to actually deliver such a speech, without a thought for the many implications of its words, leaves many issues unaddressed.
If that speech is to be believed, then the logical follow-up is to withdraw from all human rights bodies that Malaysia is a member of, including the United Nations.
To be a member of the Human Rights Council which Malaysia is, makes no sense.
There might not even be any point in being a member of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) that does recognise human rights too, albeit with some tweaks. And domestically, Suhakam should be disbanded.
But if human rights are bad for Malaysians, how do we talk about violations overseas?
How do we describe the plight of the Palestinians or of the Rohingyas if not as human rights violations?
What do we call concern about them if that is derided as mere “human rightism”?
When people are deprived of their homeland, nationality, food, shelter, education, jobs and healthcare, how do the anti-human rights people describe the situation? The way things should be?
Or do they simply not care?