30 May 2017

Thursday, 18 May 2017
BY MARINA MAHATHIR
 
Recent acts of violence against the less powerful are symptoms of an even bigger problem.

AN assistant warden beats an 11-year-old boy so badly, his legs need to be amputated, his suffering so great that he eventually dies.

Some men beat up another man who honks while they are praying.

A 12-year-old girl pulls out of a chess tournament after the director deems her clothes too provocative.

We are rightly outraged by all these events, which range from the ridiculous to the outright cruel and criminal. We write letters to the papers, sign petitions and rage all over social media about these people. Yet we are not remarking on the underlying thread among them all.

And that is anger. What all these incidents have in common is a seething anger in the perpetrators that lies just below the surface, waiting for something to bring it out into the open. What could possibly cause a grown man to abuse a child so badly, if not for some deep seated anger about something that may or may not be related to the child? And yet our outrage is not universal, with various parties willing to defend him and bail him out.

Similarly with the beating up of a man who had the apparent temerity to interrupt people at prayers with honking. If you’re concentrating on communing with God at Friday prayers, you would notice nothing externally at all. Secondly, one should come out of prayers feeling serene and calm, not angered and violent.

And thirdly, anyone who has had the misfortune to park in the wrong place on a Friday knows very well the frustration of not being able to move their car. This I blame on town planners and architects who routinely build mosques and other houses of worship without adequate parking space.

I have just started reading a book by the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra called Age of Anger. His book agrees with me that many people, as individuals, are very angry these days.

His theory, however, is based on his vast reading of history. That people often react with anger when they feel left out of the grand sweep of history, and are vulnerable to having these feelings exploited by various autocrats and demagogues to a very unsatisfactory end.

When a person feels left out from what he sees makes the elites of a society happy – wealth and power mostly – but he feels powerless to gain any entry into that elite, then he reacts in the one way that makes him feel powerful, with violence.

It is no coincidence that these acts of seemingly irrational violence are carried out by very ordinary people. Feeling insignificant can be humiliating, especially in a society where men of a specific race and religion, are constantly told they are superior. Why therefore, do these superior beings have to constantly struggle in such anonymous humiliation?

Thus an anger begins within a person when he realises that all the aspirations he is told he should have by sheer virtue of his race and religion – that God-given entitlement – are simply not going to come true.

Not unless he knows someone, not unless he toadies to someone just a bit more important than him, who toadies to another slightly more important person, all the way up that hierarchy.

All this does is point out how low down the food chain he is and this only makes him feel hopeless. And angry. So he looks around for someone even less powerful than him. A little boy. A little girl. A member of what he believes is an inferior race and religion. And takes it out on them in varying degrees of violence, including fatally.

I’m not saying that we should excuse this behaviour at all. But when you see this ever-growing list of acts of violence – against women, children, people of other faiths, sexual minorities – any reasonable person has to wonder what is going on.

I doubt our leaders haven’t noticed these incidents but they appear to have kept silent. They know very well that these incidents are symptoms of rage ... against them. For not fulfilling promises, not of a smooth path to heaven, but of a decent and dignified life on Earth. Where every single person feels that he has an equal chance in life. As Mishra points out, this rage isn’t limited to certain people only. Nor is it a new phenomenon.

“Then (in the early 20th century) as now, the sense of being humiliated by arrogant and deceptive elites was widespread, cutting across national, religious and racial lines.”

He continues, “The crises of recent years have uncovered an extensive failure to realise the ideals of endless economic expansion and private wealth creation. Most newly created ‘individuals’ toil within poorly imagined social and political communities and/or states with weakening sovereignty. ...Their isolation has also been intensified by the decline or loss of post-colonial nation-building ideologies, and the junking of social democracy by globalised technocratic elites.”

The angry young man justifying his racist or violent acts in Malaysia with religion is not much different from the supporters of far-right politicians like Marine Le Pen or even Donald Trump.

They are suspicious of the elites who seem to have everything while they have nothing, yet they cannot help but allow the very same elites to lead them by the nose to a promised land that they delude themselves will materialise someday.

But ultimately it doesn’t, at least not in the way they expect it to. They do not fathom that while their job is supposedly to ensure a heavenly future, their secular rivals are being rewarded for preparing their charges for a comfortable life on earth.

How could they be subjected to such injustice when they’re fulfilling, so they’ve been told, God’s wishes? This is a rage we need to pay attention to. Because history has shown that unless this rage is properly dealt with, the results can be catastrophic.

We are not like France, a country with enough sensible people not to allow a demagogue like Le Pen to gain ultimate power. Nor are we even like the United States where despite Trump, there is an active and vocal resistance and the institutions that can keep him in check.

We are not listening to warnings. That is a recipe for tragedy.


18 November 2016

Those who equate the anti-Trump protests with local protests against our Government are ignoring some key differences.

WELL that was a shocker, wasn’t it? The Unthinkable won against the Unpalatable! Who would have thought!

It turns out that if some people had actually thought properly, they would have seen it coming. They would have seen the despair in parts of the country where people have felt left behind and left out. They might not have so easily dismissed all the bad behaviour and attitudes, to see that what actually fuelled them was fear (racism and misogyny also comes from fear). They might have not taken him literally but more seriously, as the voters did.

But there you have it, the most unthinkable President of the United States ever, a former bankrupt, reality TV show star and self-confessed groper. Someone that all of us have to live with for at least the next four years.

The ever-opportunistic social media propagandists in our midst spared no time in trying to equate the anti-Trump protests with our local protests against our own Government. They ignored a few things.

The losing candidate herself has not disputed the results, affirming the credibility of the US election system, despite winning the popular vote. And since the US still is a democracy, it is the right of its citizens to protest against their new President-elect. They are not necessarily disputing the election results and saying that the election is rigged, just that they don’t like the new President.

That is what is known as freedom of speech and expression, and is well established as the First Amendment in the US Constitution, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

On the other hand, some of us have doubts about our election system, especially with the recent proposed redelineation exercise. And despite Article 10 in our Federal Constitution which grants us freedom of speech, the freedom to assemble peaceably and the right to form associations, these rights are restricted by other clauses and laws.

So to compare the anti-Trump protests with our local protests is comparing apples with durians. Even Republican politicians there, despite now having a very strong government, are not complaining about these protests. Whereas ours, who are perhaps not feeling as secure as the Republicans, whine at every single contradictory opinion.

But this much is true; minorities in the US are not going to have a good time with a Trump administration. Already there are reports of hate speech and actions against Muslims, African-Americans and gays, indeed anyone who is not white and heterosexual.

Much like post-Brexit, the election of Trump seems to have given licence to all those who have resented being “politically correct” all these years to let it all out. It’s not pretty.

It is particularly not pretty to see the lack of sympathy of some of those who are a minority in our nation for those very vulnerable minorities in the US. Apparently human rights is not as universal as one might think.

In the US, minority groups have realised that they have to stand in solidarity with one other – whether religious, social, racial or gender minorities – in order to protect the human rights of all. They have understood that the US Constitution protects everyone, not just some people. This is something which we Malaysians have yet to understand. It is hypocritical to insist on our own human rights while ignoring the fact that others have rights too.

Perhaps one thing that is similar between the American electorate and the Malaysian one is our propensity to believe fantastic stories, especially if they confirm our own biases. Many fake news sites, mostly originating in Eastern Europe, have been publishing news stories which sound true but are in fact not. But many people have spread these news stories, mostly because they sound like something they want to believe. These types of things can make a difference in elections, if people believe them.

The encouraging news is that, according to a Reuters survey, most Malaysians do not believe the news, especially in the mainstream media. But that doesn’t mean they won’t believe news from other sites without checking whether it is true or not. We have a tendency to take these stories both literally and seriously, although a sceptic would have easily punched holes in them. And we are very prone to reacting to certain trigger words, without really knowing why.

The new Trump world has up-ended everything Americans have ever thought they knew. They should consult us on how to deal with it, since we’ve been trumped for a while now.

07 November 2016

THREE old friends, an American, a Filipina and a Malaysian, recently sat down to have coffee.

After a long session of catching up on family news, the talk turned to current issues.

Naturally the issue of national leadership came up. One bemoaned the fact that an orange-skinned self-confessed groper was actually running for president, another complained about her uncouth and seemingly deranged leader while the last could only blush with embarrassment when asked by her friends why her own leader was still there.

All three agreed that there must be some strange cloud hanging over our countries that we should all be saddled with men who are as imperfect as leaders as we have.

Of course, for one of us, there was still a good possibility that another leader might be elected, someone less imperfect.

For another, she only has to put up with him for six years although during that time he can inflict severe damage on her country.

But for the final one of the three, the possibility of the country going down the tubes because of an avaricious leader was all too real, with no end in sight.

It was interesting that when discussing our individual national situations, the one most familiar with dictatorship immediately recognised the signs of impending danger.

The creating of internal and external enemies, the getting rid of all those who know too much, the silencing of critics, the demonising of unsupportive former allies, the use of state enforcement agencies against citizens.

All these have been used before by other authoritarian leaders, and my friend’s eyes widened with alarm when I described what was happening back home.

In our country, there is a large number of us who are willing to overlook major faults such as kleptocracy as long as our elected leaders make laws that basically reduce us to infants with brains too undeveloped to know what’s good for us.

I read an article about our neighbouring leader’s assertion that nobody need fear if they hadn’t done anything wrong. He was referring, of course, to the killing of thousands of alleged drug sellers and users but I still shuddered with the familiarity of it.

The trouble is, when there is no standard process of judging who has committed a crime or not, how does anyone know if they have done something wrong?

The rule of law as determined by a Constitution that everyone respects is the only true protection for the innocent.

But in our case, when people can be arrested for wearing t-shirts, throwing balloons, drawing cartoons, making private comments or making public comments in their professional capacity, when labels are used to demonise people and there is little opportunity for them to clarify what they stand for, just about anyone can be considered to have done something “wrong”.

The only “right” people are those who say that yes, the emperor’s clothes are beautiful. Are we living in North Korea?

How come, my friends ask, we don’t say anything about all these injustices? Some of us do, I say, but not enough. Most people are busy trying to make a decent living and putting food on the table for their kids.

But, they also said, there will be no decent living if your leadership gets it wrong and you have no idea how long it will take to get back on track.

I know, I said, but we Malaysians are submissive people who’ve had it pretty good for so long that we can’t imagine having a different life. And it may well be too late for us already.

It got awkward when my friends asked if all the weird things that happened in my country – such as the banning of the words “hot dog” – were normal.

No, I said, it’s not normal at all. Once we were a sensible and calm people, not quick to take offence at shadows invented by our masters. But perhaps these are but distractions from the many real crimes taking place, for the media to have something to talk about since they cannot talk about really important stuff.

Or perhaps the real crime is the infantilisation of our people, so much so that we have to be constantly told that we are confused.

To be protected from being offended by a sausage is apparently more important than to be protected from those who would steal from us. Such is the upside down world we live in today.

Perhaps the only thing we can cling to is that in this gloomy world, what doesn’t change are friendships amongst people, across communities and nations. I at least take comfort in knowing that despite decades of separation and political winds and whimsies, friendships can and do last.

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?