25 September 2015

Last week was pretty groundbreaking when it came to getting rid of old taboos, even though they came from unexpected quarters.

IN the past week we’ve seen many taboos being broken.

The taboo on assembling in public to demonstrate was of course already broken some time ago, but until last week it was taboo for any pro-government people to do the same.

Then there was the taboo on laying hands on the police.

That was broken too when red-shirted demonstrators last week injured some policemen because they were stopped from going into a certain area of Kuala Lumpur.

Of course some people immediately disassociated themselves from these unruly demonstrators.

This was a privilege they didn’t allow anyone from Bersih to do.

Then there was the taboo against calling people names.

When I was little, the Malay word for pig was considered something nobody well brought-up ever mentioned in polite company.

This has stood for so long that someone decided to substitute it with the Arabic word “khinzir”, just so you could talk about the same animal without offending anyone’s sensibilities.

Last week that taboo was broken when some two-bit BBQ fish seller called a whole community pigs.

Obviously with the intention of insulting them and then disingenuously explaining that it can’t be offensive since the target community loves eating it.

What would be the point of insulting people with supposedly non-insulting words?

Then some genius broke yet another taboo, by associating his religion with something not just negative but despicably so.

These would be the same people who insist that Islam is a religion of peace while threatening other people and then claiming that racism is OK in Islam.

Has there ever been a peaceful but racist society anywhere in the world?

Does this person realise which infamous figures he’s keeping company with?

He might as well have said “I’m a totally nasty person and proud of it.”

So yes, last week was pretty ground breaking when it came to getting rid of old taboos, even though they came from unexpected quarters.

I suppose the old Malay pride in being well-mannered, soft-spoken and dignified is now dead and gone too.

Which is rather ironic considering that this undignified show of force was meant to uphold Malay ‘dignity’.

The interesting thing was that all of this may be for nought.

Before the red rally, a survey showed that a majority of Malays didn’t support it.

Last week’s shenanigans probably converted no one to the cause.

Few people were clear what it was about apart from some vague idea about protecting Malay dignity.

I’m quite sure if someone in the middle of the crowd had started chanting “Tolak GST”, the entire Padang Merbok would have joined in too.

After all, they are the ones most affected by rising prices.

Not much dignity if you have to cut back on essentials for your family.

Meanwhile more sensible Malaysians decided to celebrate Malaysia Day for what it really is: a day of togetherness and unity in diversity.

Some of us had a picnic in KLCC park complete with balloons and cake for Malaysia’s 52nd birthday.

Total strangers dropped by and sat under the trees, made friends with one another and chatted about anything and everything under the sun.

It was clear that we all had no problems with one another despite differences in background and that we all truly loved our country.

We ended our picnic by singing the national anthem.

Something that was missing at Padang Merbok.

In another part of town, a whole day of festivities showcasing every culture in Malaysia was met with great enthusiasm.

People tried different foods, watched cultural performances, witnessed a full Peranakan wedding, listened to music and basically spent time with one another in a warm togetherness.

Our hearts burst with pride when Sean Ghazi sang a beautiful rendition of Tanah Pusaka.

This followed once again by the whole crowd singing NegaraKu.

Like midnight last August, everyone there owned the anthem, regardless of which Malaysian community they came from.

All of us were determined that Malaysia Day was a day of joy, fun and happiness and not one of anger and violence.

We wanted our photos to be of people genuinely enjoying themselves and at peace with one another.

We went home feeling good about ourselves.

I don’t know if the other crowd felt the same but I do hope that ‘fun’ would at least be one of words they would describe their event with.

One major difference between the red rally and previous yellow ones was easy to discern.

If you don’t mass-produce placards and banners and you make your own because you believe in a cause, the chances are you’ll come up with some truly witty ones.

Amidst anger about current issues, we could still laugh at such creativity.

Instead of laughing at people.

11 September 2015

On Malaysia Day, let’s leave the Red Shirts to do their business.

ON Aug 29, Malaysians proved something very important – that it is possible to come together in common cause and do it peacefully. No more can we believe anyone who says that any gathering of more than five people is bound to be disorderly and violent.

Bersih 4 proved that people can be disciplined and orderly in big crowds. They obeyed instructions not to breach the barriers at Dataran Merdeka and they cleaned up afterwards.

In between they marched, they put up posters to express their feelings about current issues, they made and listened to speeches, they sang, they camped out and they ate. And they did all this peacefully, in great camaraderie with one another.

This time, I could not be in the country to join my fellow citizens in protest. Instead, I joined some 1,000 Malaysians in London on the same day to demonstrate for the same cause.

We started off in front of our High Commission where people held up banners and posters and listened to a few speeches, waved at High Commission officials and then walked to Whitehall where we stopped near Downing Street, before ending up at Trafalgar Square where we sang NegaraKu in the rain.

There were only two policemen watching over us, which again proved that we don’t need a big police presence to ensure that we behaved.

In some 40 cities all over the world, Malaysians gathered for Bersih, all without incident. It just goes to show that violence at protests are not caused by protesters but by the use of tear gas and water cannons. We have to commend the police for realising this simple fact this time.

Now, there is talk of a counter-rally, which has already been declared illegal but which insists, like Bersih, to carry on anyway. I am all for freedom of speech so generally, no matter how despicable, I would not stop anyone from expressing their opinions.

The trouble is I have a problem trying to figure out what the so-called Red Shirts stand for. They seem to want to protest for the sake of protesting against protesters, specifically Bersih protesters. But while we are clear about the issues that Bersih espouses, we don’t really know what the Red Shirts are spoiling for a fight for.

I suppose it’s fair to assume that since the Red Shirt rally is anti-Bersih, then they must want all the opposite of whatever Bersih’s 200,000 participants want. Let’s look at what these are:

Bersih wants free and fair elections. I suppose the Red Shirts must therefore want unfree and unfair elections, possibly the only way any of them can hold any public position. If they were fluent in English, I would recommend their slogan be “Stack the Deck”.

Secondly, Bersih 4 is demanding for a clean government. It must therefore mean that the Red Shirts are demanding for a dirty government, one in which money decides everything from whoever gets to govern to what policies and laws are made. I wonder how many Reds actually think they will have a say in any government policies, given that few of them are likely to be millionaires. Millionaires don’t need BR1M.

Speaking of which, Bersih 4’s third demand is for action to save our economy. As our ringgit plummets to depths never seen before and everything becomes extremely expensive for us, obviously we need to see concrete moves being taken to ensure that we don’t become relegated to “least developed country” status.

But since the Red Shirts are taking issue with Bersih, I must assume that they won’t mind if our country descends to a level at par with some of the poorest countries in the world. Maybe they hope to go abroad to find work like some of our neighbours.

Fourthly, Bersih 4 is demanding for the right to dissent. This means the right to disagree, respectfully, with anyone, including the Government. Since the Red Shirts are already exercising their right to disagree with Bersih, they really should not have any problems with this demand. However, I do think that the right to dissent means having a vocabulary that contains more than one word – “stupid” – to describe those you don’t like.

So, on Sept 16, the Red Shirts would like to emulate Bersih by having their own “illegal” rally on a day meant to celebrate our unity in diversity. I don’t know how the Reds intend to express diversity since thus far they have looked monoracial and monogendered. And unity with yourself doesn’t really count for much.

Perhaps on Malaysia Day, we should all just stay home and watch the breaking-bricks-with-your-head display from afar. Or attend other fun events elsewhere. They can bring their own food and drink from home. And let’s see if they’ll clean up afterwards.

27 August 2015

I’VE been noticing a disturbing phenomenon recently among my brethren. It is a type of mob behaviour where groups of people will attack a person online, usually female, accusing her of immorality based totally on something superficial, usually her dress.

It happened with the gymnast who was criticised for her regulation gymnastics leotard instead of being cheered for her gold medal. And it happened again when a seven-year-old girl was taken to task for wearing a two-piece bathing suit while on holiday with her parents.

To attack a little girl with an as-yet-unformed body who was holidaying with her parents seemed to me to be beyond reason. There is something else going on here besides the apparent self-righteousness.

If one wants to seem devout and to admonish someone for supposed unIslamic behaviour, there are recommended ways to do it. Online slut-shaming isn’t one of them.

I’m no psychologist but it is interesting to me that as our society gets more “religious” (at least by some people’s definitions), there is increasing mob behaviour against anyone deemed to not fit into those definitions.

Sadly our authorities’ idea of religiously correct behaviour involves more restrictions every day. Their key word is “don’t”, rather than “do”. Thus, people are told every day of the things they must not do if they are keen to end up in heaven.

Apparently there is a list of 70 major sins that we can do to ensure that we go to the wrong place. Odd, considering I was brought up to understand that Islam is a very easy religion with very few major sins, defaming people being one of them.

When people are told daily that they cannot do so many things, and yet they see that some people can freely do them, then resentments mount. How is it that some people can wear what they want but I cannot? How is it that some people can do what they want but I cannot?

What we thus have is an inequality of freedoms, and I believe this is closely tied to the inequality of wealth in this country.

If you have money, you are likely to go to better schools, have more job opportunities, travel more and buy whatever you want. The world is pretty much open to you.

If you don’t, then you have none of these options.

The income inequalities in this country are well documented.

Not only is there a huge swathe of people with very low incomes in this country but the gap between them and the very wealthy is getting bigger. But not a lot is being done to narrow these gaps, apart from giving the poor handouts which are one-offs and unsustainable. Besides, as the saying goes, they don’t teach a man to fish.

Thus, the way to assuage the feelings of those at the bottom is by telling them that while they may not have much, their advantage is that they are more likely to go to heaven. Rich people are apparently more prone to sinning, so be happy that you are poor but heading in the right direction. Hence the poor spend what they have on the right rituals, the right clothes, making sure their children are well educated religiously if nothing else. They will be rewarded some day, they are promised.

But meanwhile the bills need to be paid. The kids are getting nowhere because the schools are not preparing them for a productive life.

Food and public transport are getting more and more expensive. GST hits them harder.

Still our politicians and ulama tell us salvation is at hand if only we keep on that straight and very narrow path.

It’s hard going but we believe in them. Even when it’s clear that there’s not much joy in our every day lives.

Meanwhile, how is it that some of our brethren have the freedoms that we don’t have? How is it that they can go on holidays abroad and buy fancy clothes, not all of which are syariah-compliant? How is it that they can smile and laugh with impunity? Aren’t they afraid of going to hell by enjoying heaven on earth?

Thus the mob behaviour happens. How to justify someone else’s freedoms except to cast them as being sinful? It doesn’t matter if they are innocent children, they have to be as suppressed as our children are. Only then can there be equality in oppression, the logic goes.

Politicians may not notice this, and may even encourage this as a cover-up for their failures. But if the inequalities in income are not addressed, the inequalities in freedoms will continue to breed ever-greater resentments and who knows where this will lead to.

Something to ponder on this August 31. Are all our people equally merdeka?

14 August 2015

I RECENTLY attended a conference where the keynote speaker, a renowned academic, talked about science and conscience. One of the slides he showed was a quote from Sophocles, the Greek “tragedian” or playwright (496-406BC) which went: “There is no witness so terrible and no accuser so powerful as conscience which dwells within us.”

In most people, the conscience does play a big part in directing the way we behave.

It may come from the values our parents or teachers instilled in us or maybe it is something inherent in us, but the conscience is that little nagging voice in us that makes us feel guilty or ashamed when we have done something we shouldn’t have.

From childhood, that voice tells us that taking something that is not ours is wrong, or cheating in exams is unfair, or calling people names is hurtful. It’s that uncomfortable feeling when we’ve done one of these things and then didn’t own up to or apologise for it.

Everyone has a conscience in one way or another. Some psychologists say that we are born with an innate sense of fairness that either develops or lessens, depending on what happens in our lifetimes.

In any case, people have enough of a conscience to realise that some actions are regarded as anti-social behaviour and therefore must be hidden from others if done.

Consequently, nobody openly declares that they are going to steal, cheat or do anything that common sense says we should not, especially if we want to live among other people.

Our conscience is also that nasty feeling in our stomachs when we tell a lie.

When we were kids, we knew what would happen if we were ever caught lying to our parents. We might tell them that we had not got our report cards yet but it was difficult to keep a straight face when they kept questioning us about it.

Eventually the pressure would become too much to bear and we had to shamefacedly hand over our red mark-filled card and wait for Dad’s fearsome wrath.

Those memories of the consequences of lying usually stayed with us until adulthood, training our conscience on the virtues of honesty. As horrible as it may be sometimes, it is usually better to own up when we’re at fault.

This assumes that the things we need to own up to are fairly innocuous things, like our age or the fact that we forgot to pay a bill on time.

But our conscience can only be burdened with so much; if you do something really terrible, then we need to stop that conscience pricking us or else we cannot sleep at night.

Thus we start inventing justifications for the terrible things we did, or start telling ever bigger lies in order to cover up what we did.

After a while, we start to believe our own lies and even that we never did anything wrong.

I have known some consummate liars and I often wonder how they keep track of every lie they tell.

Everything depends on keeping every story unimpeachable, and making sure that nobody is able to compare stories with anyone else.

It must be a terrible strain and at some point you’re bound to trip up. And that’s where things start to unravel.

When they do, there is a mad scramble to keep things together which necessitates more and more lies. That conscience, that nagging voice, that inner compass that tells us where true north is, becomes muffled and ignored altogether.

Yet it has a way of peeking out and showing itself in odd ways; the inability to look anyone in the eyes, a voice that isn’t convincing, a hand that is shaky.

They are signs that can be seen by a shrewd observer though perhaps not by those who prefer not to.

Luckily for societies, not everyone becomes devoid of conscience completely. Otherwise they would become totally lawless and dysfunctional.

By and large, most people still obey traffic lights because they know it is a good thing to do. And they also do get angry at people who don’t.

They may tolerate the odd person running a red light but not if it becomes an epidemic because obviously it becomes very dangerous for everyone. It is those people who still have their consciences who will save society.

Today when everything in our society seems to be crumbling, when our leaders have become the ones who run red lights, we have to rely on those traffic cops who still have the conscience to do their jobs correctly, without fear or favour.

If we get rid of traffic cops so that we can run red lights with impunity, then we might as well be a society before there were laws regulating our behaviour on the roads.

Imagine if our conscience stopped being our red light.

30 July 2015

SINCE everyone in this country is an expert in giving advice to everyone else, I thought I would join in and generously give my totally unsolicited counsel to all those aspiring to join cupboards or closets of any kind. Any likeness to anything familiar around us is naturally a complete coincidence.

First of all, please get it out of your head that you are wanted or needed because you have expertise of any kind. Who cares if you have a double degree in How to Make Anything Good and How to Make Anything Better? What you need is a PhD in How To Make Your Boss Feel Good, with a minor in How To Make Your Boss Look Really Good. It would also help if you have expertise in How To Clean Up Messes, especially if it involves getting rid of Messy People.

Secondly, you have to audition for the job. Don’t ever expect to be picked out of obscurity like some Cinderella. Let’s not forget that Cinders didn’t really get an invitation to the Ball – her ugly stepsisters did. And they worked hard for it by making sure they got noticed.

So find a way to get attention. Never mind if it means making a spectacle of yourself. Who cares if you look and sound like a fool as long as your potential Boss likes it? The path to position and lucre is strewn with puffery and pomp! Pledge loyalty, even if nobody asked you to. That counts as double points.

Thirdly, always be humble and say you had not expected this at all but it must have been Divine Intervention. Who in their right mind would question what the Almighty wants? And He must have spoken through his vessel, your soon-to-be Boss. George W. Bush said God made him President to do His will on earth. Surely if an American can claim that, we can too.

Fourthly, don’t be picky about what you are given. Just be grateful! What does it matter anyway? It all comes with nice perks like a nice house (there must be a renovation budget), a nice car with a driver, first-class travel for you and the Mrs, and all sorts of other things you’ve only heard about from others but can now experience firsthand.

So what if the work is crushingly dull? Someone else can read all those papers for you and give you a summary. And oops, if you miss a few things in there, there are lots of people you can blame, even despatch clerks. Why worry? You’ve hit the big time.

Fifthly, now that you’ve got it, your job is to smile and nod your head. Vigorously. All the time. Get yourself photographed with the Boss as much as possible, preferably looking at him with utter adoration. If you can hold up a suitably adoring placard, that’s even better. However, some have found that this is no insurance for job security. Maybe practise hand-kissing as an alternative.

Sixthly, let’s not forget that you are a package deal, which your spouse is a part of. Train her well because her job is as important as yours. Quite the opposite from you, her job is not to compete with her Boss.

So make sure that if you want to buy pretty expensive things for her (and now you can!), don’t let her wear them in front of her Boss, especially if she looks quite hot in them. Support local brands and dress your other half in them. Leave the international imports to her Boss and coach her in the right admiring phrases to murmur.

Seventhly, ever seen the TV series Entour­age? That’s what you need, an entourage. Surround yourself with all sorts of folks who can be given menial jobs dressed up as important ones by putting them in the right clothes. No Big Man is without his entourage to carry bags, check him in at airports, that sort of thing. Never ever have to do a single thing yourself again.

Eighthly, be part of an entourage yourself. It is highly important that you keep yourself within your Boss’ line of sight at all times because you don’t want him to forget you exist or overlook you the next time he wants to clear out his cupboard. So follow him everywhere; after all, that is your main job.

It’s also your spouse’s job to be a handmaiden in her Boss’ entourage so if she gets called upon to serve, give her your blessing. It will be rewarding.

There you have it – eight tips for succeeding in life in our dear country. The folks out there who have to actually work to survive each day wish you lots of luck. Drop some crumbs some time.