28 December 2005

Wednesday December 28, 2005
Ignominious end
What an ignominious way to end the year! The Government admits that it got Parliament to pass a law that was unjust and discriminatory to half the population. As a member of that particular half, I am gobsmacked.
How could this have happened? The Women, Family and Community Development Ministry claims to have found even more flaws in the new law than even the women’s groups. And they kept quiet? All because they wanted to keep a promise to standardise the Islamic family laws? Does that make sense? Why risk looking like fools by rushing to pass a seriously flawed law? Why not make sure it is clear of the kinks before presenting it to anyone?
The NGOs that protested that the laws were unjust had presented 42 pages of objections to the new amendments way back in January 2002. It will be interesting to see how many more pages of flaws the Ministry came up with, and then still allowed the laws to go through Parliament unchanged. If they knew it was discriminatory to women, how could the Ministry, set up to ensure that women are treated justly in this country, have let it pass? Was someone sleeping on the job? Or did political expediency triumph once again?
And how easy will it be to amend flaws in an already passed law? (It makes you wonder whether this episode is typical, that in fact numerous flawed laws are passed through Parliament each year.)
Let us get it straight what this new law means. In its zeal to be “gender-neutral” in a field that was never level in the first place, whoever drafted this law amended it in such a way that rights that originally were given to women are now also given to men. This, mind you, on top of the many more rights that men already enjoyed.
Previously whatever a Muslim woman brought into a marriage remained hers and whatever husband and wife acquired together during the marriage could be divided between them if the marriage was dissolved. Thus whatever she owns in her own name remains hers. But with the new amendments, if he should, say, pay for some renovations, then he can claim the property as his as well. What’s more he can claim any gifts he gave her as also his. Thus if the marriage fails, he can demand that all this supposedly joint property be sold and the proceeds shared between them. And then he can merrily use the proceeds for his own use, including marrying someone else. Great!
If that’s not bad enough, in the good old days, if a Muslim man wanted to marry someone else, he had to justify it as just and necessary. Meaning that he could not, by marrying another person, be unjust to his first wife and his children with her. The new law, however, has amended this to say “just OR necessary”. Which means if he says that it is really imperative for him to marry another (perhaps because he’s knocked her up), then he can. So forget the justice part, let’s make it easy to get married, and married, and married.
And get this: already Muslim men can divorce their wives anytime they want for whatever reason they want, while women used to have to rely on 12 conditions husbands don’t fulfil to get the court to consider telling them to free their wives. Now they get those 12 conditions as well. Great! I used to be able to complain if he didn’t provide me with household help, now he can divorce me if I don’t get him someone to polish his shoes!
If anyone wants to argue that this is Islamic law, then it implies that Islamic law is unjust and discriminatory. Yet Islamic law upholds women’s rights. How to explain these contradictions then? What has this done to the image of a religion based on equality, justice and compassion?
How to rectify this? First the law must not be gazetted until all these flaws are corrected. There is precedent for this. The Domestic Violence Act was not gazetted for two years after it was passed by Parliament because some people objected to it. (In that case, they put on hold a law that was actually beneficial to women. Do we detect legislative misogyny at work here?).
In the meantime, a new law that upholds the principles of justice and non-discrimination for women should be drafted. It should be subject to widespread consultation and public scrutiny and debate. After all we are supposed to be a democracy.
This whole episode just shows what happens when women are riled. They cannot simply be bulldozed into accepting laws that disadvantage them. I feel proud of the 19 women Senators who stood up against this law even though they were finally forced to pass it anyway. And I thank Sisters in Islam and the other women’s groups for waking the Senators and the public up. But shame on the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry for letting it through the Lower House, and shame on Members of Parliament for letting down half their constituents. If only we could withdraw our votes for them.
Here’s to a 2006 that treats women with more respect.

22 December 2005

Wednesday December 14, 2005
Closing the gap

A young boy gets slashed in the stomach and dies. Another young man gets beaten unconscious and needs a blood clot removed from his brain. All of a sudden, parents have even more to worry about than usual.
Life in Kuala Lumpur is violent as it is. Every day we read about bag snatchings, robberies, assaults, rapes and murders, all within the few square miles that make up this metropolis many of us call home. For the most part, we hope that the police do something about it. But these two recent incidents are causing a lot of talk among parents.
Let me correct that, they’re causing a lot of talk among middle-class parents who are wondering how safe is it to let our kids out clubbing at night. Before, it was unsafe enough and to be called up in the middle of the night to go to a police station to rescue them after some club raid was a very real possibility. But at least they were not going to be hurt. But now the likelihood that it is actually dangerous out there is a chilling thought.
We need to look carefully at why these two incidents happened. In both cases, these young men were escorting young women. This is exactly what we tell our daughters to do – never walk the streets alone at night. And no doubt parents of sons also tell them to ensure that their girlfriends and sisters are always safe when they are out.
In both cases, they encountered other young men who, perhaps emboldened by their numbers, decided to demand attention from the young women. To which, being the gentlemen they have been brought up to be, their escorts reacted – with disastrous consequences. So what do we tell our sons to do in these circumstances? Don’t escort your female friends? Make sure you have other male friends with you? Always be armed and ready to fight?
This will only cause the violence to escalate. Instead perhaps we should take a close hard look at the Kuala Lumpur social milieu and identify where the potential triggers for violence are.
I think that these incidents are ultimately rooted in the social inequality that is rampant in Kuala Lumpur. The wealthy educated young, those with the bright futures, are increasingly living side by side with the ones who feel there isn’t much hope at all. Kids spill out of clubs in their designer clothes, speaking their MTV-accented English straight into the turf of the Mat Rempits hanging out at mamak stalls in their tatty jeans and slippers. Our Mat Rempits aren’t all that poor, at least not on a global scale, but they do feel left out of things because they cannot afford to have the clothes, cars and girls that their wealthier counterparts can. Unsurprisingly resentment builds up.
Resentment, however, isn’t an excuse for slashing or beating up somebody. Nobody deserves that. But if we understand that underneath it all, there is an underclass that is seething with frustration because they cannot attain even half of the things they see others having, then perhaps we can take measures to at least diffuse these tensions.
Malaysia makes much of promoting harmony among the different ethnic groups. But we should also think of promoting harmony among the different classes of people. That can only be done by actually trying to remove the barriers between the classes, by promoting equality and greater opportunity for those who don’t feel they have any.
Violence in society is just symptomatic of some deeper trouble. People don’t steal from others if they feel that they all have the same amount of wealth. The yakuza notwithstanding, look at Japan where everyone feels they are middle-class and where street crimes are rare. People don’t slash someone and then coolly walk into a convenience store to buy cigarettes, unless they have no empathy at all for their victim.
In the short term, we need to educate young people to be more alert and conscious of their surroundings and be more sensitive to people around them. Roaring up in expensive cars to eating places is bound to elicit negative remarks. Looking condescendingly at those who don’t have as much is going to stir resentment. We need to teach our more privileged kids to respect others as equals.
At the same time, we need to find ways to ensure better opportunities for those who feel left behind. We need to give people hope that they too can enjoy life but in a legitimate way. The desire to be materially equal to others is also what leads to people taking shortcuts to wealth, including corruption, get-rich-quick schemes and drug trafficking. We need to emphasise that wealth and achievement comes through hard work, not luck and connections.
If these violent expressions of frustration can be reduced through religious education, then let’s have religious education that teaches young people to value other people’s lives and how to deal with conflict, not just about how they should dress and what sex lives they should not have.
It’s not easy; social transformation never is. But unless we are resigned to live in an unsafe environment, we’d better take a good, hard look at our society and take action.

06 December 2005

Wednesday November 30, 2005
Lip service is useless
It's another World AIDS Day tomorrow and there is some good news to announce. According to the latest UN AIDS report, sustained efforts “have yielded decreases in HIV incidence among men who have sex with men in many Western countries, among young people in Uganda, among sex workers and their clients in Thailand and Cambodia, and among injecting drug users in Spain and Brazil.” Also, prevention programmes that were begun some time ago are finally bringing down HIV prevalence in Kenya, Zimbabwe and urban Haiti.
That’s it. For the rest of us, it’s still gloom and doom. Some 40.3 million people are now living with HIV, 4.9 million of them newly added in the last year. And 3.1 million adults and children died of AIDS last year.
What is going wrong? You would think that a global pandemic that has killed more than 25 million people since it was first recognised in 1981 – making it “one of the most destructive epidemics in recorded history” – would grab more attention. Indeed it has: government leaders talk about it at major gatherings, the rich ones pledge money, the less rich ones clasp their hands in gratitude. But still, more people are getting infected and more and more are dying, more than half a million of them children in the last year alone.
What is happening? National responses to HIV/AIDS in many countries can be summed up in two words: lip service. In 2001, every single country in the world, after much time-wasting wrangling, agreed to implement the recommendations in the UN General Assembly Special Session’s Declaration of Commitment. Yet, in 2005, most have not. One of the agreed-to recommendations is that by this year, most young people would have access to HIV education. Why then are we in Malaysia still talking about whether or not to have HIV (and sex) education in schools?
Two years ago, the World Health Organisation rolled out its much-vaunted three-by-five access to treatment programme. This means that by 2005, three million people around the world would be on antiretroviral (ARV) therapy. Has it happened?
More than one million people in low- and middle-income countries in the past two years are living longer and more productive lives because they have had access to ARVs and between 250,000 and 350,000 deaths were averted because of it. But this is still far short of the target. In Malaysia, the government announced that it would provide up to 4,000 Malaysians living with HIV with ARVs, even though it is estimated that about 7,000 actually need them. Yet only about 2,500 are actually getting the treatment. Has anyone looked into why exactly the rest are not coming forward? (We cannot assume that everybody will read the papers or watch TV the one time this was announced.) Do they know where to go and will they get fair and professional treatment when they do go?
Prevention is another thing. As long as we remain queasy about realistic prevention programmes – and that means promoting condom use consistently to ensure safer sex by everyone, and harm reduction programmes for injecting drug users – we will never make a dent in the course of the epidemic.
Why aren’t we in Malaysia doing enough prevention? Firstly, because it means having to deal with things we don’t want to deal with, such as drug use, and sex outside marriage, among young people and between people of the same sex.
Secondly, when we do try and deal with them, we refuse to use programmes that have been known to work, preferring to believe that we are so unique that we need our own. We refuse to promote condoms because we think it causes more people to have sex. Yet from the evidence from countries where condom programmes have been comprehensive and long term, the results are showing.
Thirdly, we need to do programmes at a scale that actually makes a difference. Fourthly, we need to seriously deal with stigma and discrimination.
The stigma of AIDS derives from its perceived associations with death, with shame and with behaviour that we regard as anti-social. It also comes with fear of infection. But with treatment, having HIV does not necessarily mean one gets AIDS or dies anymore. Not everybody who has HIV is a drug user, sex worker or gay, as the 17.5 million HIV-positive women, mostly married to only one partner, will attest. Fear of infection can be reduced through intense and accurate facts about how HIV is and is not transmitted. Dealing with stigma and discrimination also means not tolerating cruel and inhuman statements coming from people who may not know much about HIV, even though they hold positions of authority.
When are we seriously going to walk the talk?
For updates on the global AIDS pandemic, go to www.unaids.org

21 November 2005

Wednesday November 16, 2005
Will this register?
It's really amazing this Malaysian propensity for finding more ways to make life difficult for its own people than necessary. The latest is this ruling that Malaysian kids with foreign parents intending to go into public local schools must register that fact.
Let me first of all register my particular interest in this. I have a Malaysian child who is scheduled to start Year One in a public school in January. And guess what, she has a foreign father. So this means that I am affected by this ruling, the logic of which I fail to see.
Let me also lay on the table something else here. Twelve years ago, my older daughter also entered a local school. She was neither born in Malaysia, nor holds Malaysian citizenship because she was born before our Constitution was amended, disallowing me from bestowing on her the right to take up my citizenship.
At the time I worried about whether the school would take her in, but they did and nothing was said. (And yes, I will allow that the fact of who her maternal grandfather is may have something to do with it, though I myself never brought it up.)
In a time when many middle-class Malaysian parents want to put their children in private schools or in international schools, let me explain why I did not and do not plan to do so at the primary level. I feel very strongly that despite the many justified complaints about our education system these days, I want to send my children to local schools not so much for academic but for social reasons.
I want them to realise that there are kids from different backgrounds in our country, not just ethnically but also in terms of class. Not every child goes to school in a big car nor gets to go abroad for holidays. Even though by virtue of where we lived, my older daughter’s schoolmates were not all that different in background, still I felt she was likely to mix better than if she went to private schools.
It was also important to me, because my older girl is half-European but lives here, that she be in an environment where she could be culturally rooted in Malaysia. I did not want her to be a “third culture” child, like the children of expatriates who never live in the home countries of either parent and therefore felt no attachment to either nation. I wanted her to speak Bahasa Malaysia like a native, to feel at home among the cultural idioms of her playmates, to not feel alienated in a country that is in fact home. It is primarily for this reason that, even though I could have, I did not put her in an international school.
Unlike my older daughter, her younger sister was born here and therefore is a Malaysian citizen. I still had to suffer the humiliation of not being able to sign for her Malaysian passport because at the time, Malaysian women still could not be guardians to their own children. But she is Malaysian.
For school, I wanted her to follow her sister’s footsteps for all the same reasons as before, and was happy that the school accepted her. Yet now, despite all this, she faces possible discrimination because her father is not Malaysian. What else could be the reason for wanting to register a foreign parent?
Every child has the right to education, regardless of nationality. It is one of the most important rights we can give any child because it lays the basis for that child’s future. Even if we gave the right of entry to public schools to children who are half-foreign or even all foreign, isn’t one of the benefits the fact that the schools will turn them into Malaysians in soul, if not on paper? What would I say to my child when the only country she calls home will not allow her to go to the same school as other kids who call Malaysia home? Yes I may have alternatives for her education but not everybody does. Who is this ruling aimed at? Are we discriminating not just by nationality but also by class?
Let us think long and hard before we do anything that limits children’s access to education. Is it really true that foreigners are taking over our schools, or is that a convenient myth in difficult times? Even so, why should Malaysian children suffer just because they happen to be born to one parent who is not Malaysian? Are we trying to say that Malaysians should only marry one another and no one else? Is that realistic in this globalised world? That coconut shell is still over the heads of our policy-makers it seems.

15 November 2005

Wednesday October 19, 2005
Nature’s wrath
Well, this has been a banner year for disasters, hasn’t it? It’s taken in almost all the natural elements: water (tsunami), wind (hurricanes), earth (earthquake). God forbid, there will be a fire disaster next.
Added to that are the health epidemics. Bird flu, dengue, TB, malaria, polio and let’s not forget that HIV is still there, quietly spreading its way while our attention is focused elsewhere. And as if we can’t feel gloomy enough, there was the haze.
You can forgive people for thinking that all these disasters portend something bigger. When nature strikes with such force and fury as the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the Pakistan earthquake, people revert to almost mythical beliefs about divine anger. Some people in Aceh thought the tsunami was visited upon them because there had been parties on the beach.
In the United States, evangelist Pat Robertson blamed Hurricane Katrina on the choice of Ellen deGeneres, an openly lesbian comedian, to host the Emmy awards. Apparently, the last time she hosted the Emmys was in 2001, which was of course the year of 9/11. Obviously one of the first things that fly out of the window in times of distress is logic. (God watches the Emmys?)
Even if God is sending a message of some sort, it sure looks like an equal-opportunity message. First, He sends a tsunami to the Muslims in Aceh and Buddhists in Thailand and Sri Lanka, not to mention several thousand tourists of varied faiths. Then a hurricane right into the heart of the Deep South of the United States, home mostly of the conservative Southern Baptists, ardent Bush supporters all. Then there was the earthquake in very Muslim, very poor Pakistan. Come to think of it, there have been several fire disasters in Paris where hostels and apartment buildings for poor African immigrants were burned down, causing loss of lives.
Which makes you wonder about all those who claim to know what God is up to by pointing to these disasters. So who’s actually right or wrong? Maybe God is just angry with everyone. Which wouldn’t be surprising considering how little we care for one another.
The thing about natural disasters is that we tend to assume that nothing can be done about them, that fate has decreed that they should happen and we should simply accept it. But does this have to be so? Japan has earthquakes all the time, some of them very serious as in the Kobe earthquake 10 years ago. But death tolls and damage are never on the scale of those we see in other countries. That’s mainly because people are well-informed about what to do in times of disaster, and rescue and relief services are well-prepared.
There is nothing natural about the fact that it is poor people who suffer most in disasters. Even in a wealthy country like the United States, we saw how the poorest suffered far greater hardship than the ones with average incomes. Simple things like being able to afford a car made all the difference between life and death.
In Turkey and most recently in Pakistan, the poorly built homes of the poor collapsed first. Relief was hampered by remoteness. Rich people don’t live in remote areas. Surely God isn’t discriminating against the poor.
If countries spent less on arms and more on the basic facilities for their people, surely they could do better for them when disaster strikes. If people respected others as human beings, they would not put them in hovels that are fire traps. Or leave them in villages that have no roads, which makes it impossible for rescue services to get through. It’s simply a matter of caring.
Ultimately the greatest disaster is poverty and inequality. That takes thousands of lives every day. But it’s not big news. It doesn’t give us spectacular photos of grief-stricken people crying over the children. Women and children who can’t read don’t make interesting photographs. The people in Pakistan who are suffering now from the effects of the earthquake were not in good shape before. They’ve gone from having very little to having nothing. The question is, do we now bring them up to the same levels of abject poverty as before, or better?
Some good did come out of the tsunami, at least in Aceh where a peace agreement has been brokered. The same hasn’t happened in north-east Sri Lanka. Now we see the man-made disaster of discrimination and oppression in the southern part of our neighbour expanding every day. Nobody ever learns, that’s the true tragedy of it all.

22 September 2005

Wednesday September 21, 2005
Asking the right questions
I TRY to be fair to people as much as I can and the other day I had a major epiphany. I realised that I really had not been very fair to our religious officials by constantly criticising them for their obsession with topics that are either trivial or beyond their field of expertise. Then it occurred to me that the reason they feel compelled to comment on little topics like whether it is okay to kiss people’s hands or not or whether reality shows promote immorality is because that’s what the media keeps asking them.
I think the media should realise that they are really insulting our religious lot by asking them these questions. Nobody asks Really Important people these questions because, frankly, it is beneath them to answer them. But there they are, our self-sanctified guys, having to endure these silly questions all the time, and then getting flak for it. It’s really not their fault!
Therefore I have decided to provide a list of questions that the media should ask our religious leaders in order to show them the respect they deserve. Here are some of them:
What do you think should be done to reduce global poverty?
The world’s richest 500 individuals own a combined income that is greater than that of the poorest 416 million. What do you think should be done about reducing this massive gap between rich and poor in the world?
70% of the world’s people are uneducated, with only minimal schooling. Do you think this is a bad thing, and what would you do about it?
According to the latest UNDP Human Development Report, every hour 1,200 children die around the world, mostly because of poverty. What do you think would be the best way to help children such as these?
Income inequalities are not the only thing that disadvantages people. Gender inequalities also play a part. In India, the death rate for children aged 1-5 is 50% higher for girls than it is for boys. In Pakistan, two million more girls would be in school if there were gender parity. What do you think should be done to address these gender inequalities?
According to the report also, the development of any country is influenced by the status of women in that country. Hence, Malaysia ranks only 61st in the Human Development Index (HDI) because women make up only 13% in Parliament, 24% in managerial and administrative positions and only earn 47% of men’s income. Nothing much has changed for women for the past 30 years. But we are not the worst off. The countries with the least empowered women are all Muslim countries, including Pakistan and Yemen. What do you think of this?
Although terrorism in developed countries is most in the news, in fact the poorest countries in the world experience more conflict. These conflicts only fuel under-development. For instance, nine out of the 10 countries with the lowest HDI have experienced conflict at some point since 1990. Conflict also plays a part in five out of 10 countries with the lowest life expectancy, in nine out of 10 countries with the highest infant and under-five mortality rates and in eight out of 10 countries with the lowest primary school enrolment. What do you think should be done to resolve conflict so that these countries may prosper?
How much of a rise in fuel prices do you think people can take?
What do you think can be done to prevent cross-border environmental problems such as the haze?
What do you think should be done so that disabled people are not left behind in our country’s development?
Our country spends only 2% of GDP on health and 2.8% of GDP on military expenditures in 2003. Do you think this is right?
What do you think of the Millenium Development Goals? Malaysia failed one of the 6th MDG, which relates to health. What do you think we can do to redress this?
In 1975, 37.7% of our population lived in urban centres. Since then, our people have become more urbanised with 63.8% in 2003 and a projected 71% by 2015. Is this a good or bad thing, and should politicians recognise this fact and act accordingly?
While we are ranked 61 in the Human Development Index, many Muslim countries are ranked even lower, even so-called “rich” countries such as Saudi Arabia (77). There are also many Muslim countries ranked very low such as Iran (99), Egypt (119), Pakistan (135) and Yemen (151). The small oil-rich United Arab Emirates are the highest-ranking Muslim country at 41. What do you think of this?
I wait with bated breath.

12 September 2005

Wednesday September 7, 2005

Independence and freedom


Since we have been celebrating our 48th birthday this past week, I thought it was an opportune moment to reflect on some of the words we like to toss about these days. It seems to me that abuse of words is a major Malaysian disease these days and perhaps it’s high time we formed an association for the protection of the true meaning of words.

In 1957, our founding fathers and mothers declared that we were “merdeka” from the yoke of colonial rule. Now these days we may translate that word as “independence” but “merdeka” did and does still mean “freedom”. We were celebrating our freedom from being under the rule of other people in our own land and the ability at last to make our own decisions for the good of our people.

Nowadays “freedom” isn’t used anymore to describe that day four dozen years ago because it’s become a bad word. These days, say you want freedom and some people immediately think that you want to take drugs and parade around naked in the streets. We want our kids to be independent but oh no, we don’t want to give them freedom. Heaven only knows what they might do with freedom!

I say that we should reject this abuse of the word “freedom” and reclaim its good meanings. All those years ago when we declared ourselves free, we wanted the right to self-determination, to chart the course of the future for ourselves in our own way. This we have done admirably and it’s not harmed anyone. We claimed the right to speak up and be heard as an equal and respected member of the global community.

So why then should we deny that same freedom to our own people within our own boundaries? Why is it that the freedom that is good for us as a country is bad for individuals within the country? Imagine if everyone had assumed that a free Malaya would be a bad thing, would naturally cause chaos in the world. We would never be where we are today. Yet we can deny our own, especially our young, that same freedom to speak up, to find their own paths in life, albeit with guidance from their elders.

When people want freedom to follow their own spiritual journeys, we clamp down on them as if this would bring the end of the world, even when there aren’t many of them. Speaking up, reading widely and learning on our own are freedoms that are thought of as evils. On that August day so many years ago, our fundamental freedoms were enshrined in our Constitution. Yet these days, those freedoms are being abused daily, with most of us completely unaware. How we insult our foreparents and their hard work in gaining our freedom this way!

What other words do we abuse these days? Take “human rights”. It is interesting to me that we use these words liberally when talking about foreigners we like in Palestine and in Bosnia, while at home talking as if human rights are some infectious disease that needs to be eradicated. Some people again talk about human rights as if this means that we are all asking for the right to marry people of the same sex.

As if this is the most important thing in the world when there are still women, children, the disabled, the poor and marginalised who cannot enjoy full rights as human beings. By that I mean, basic human rights to education, to healthcare, to citizenship, to what every human being needs to live in dignity. To distort the words “human rights” as a way of distracting from these basic issues is an age-old trick. We have to recover the true meaning of these words; that in itself would be an act of respecting human rights.

Lastly, another truly abused word is “religious”. These days the image of religious people is for the most part a negative one. Religious people, thanks to a few publicity-loving types, are viewed as unsympathetic, given to opinions based on personal whims, love to tell people the very many things that they shouldn’t do rather than what they should and can do, wholly uninterested in giving workable solutions to people’s real problems.

Worse still are the types who claim to be religious and then call for other human beings to be punished, and even killed, for acts they consider sinful, a list that is far longer than what we normally think of as sins. The question is, if these people take on the role of judge, jury and executioner, then what would be left for God to do?

I think we should also reclaim and redefine the meaning of religious. Religious people should be gentle and genteel, serene and worldly wise, attuned to the real needs of their people and what is happening in this fast-developing world. They should decline to offer opinions on issues that they know nothing about, humbly deferring instead to those who know more. They should be able to listen and engage in discussion because this is what will lead to enlightenment for all, including themselves. They should extend their hand to the needy in real ways. When was the last time we saw a religious public official sitting down among orphans or the disabled? When will they decide simply to be human?

29 August 2005

Wednesday August 24, 2005

Another take on reality shows


The other day, while reading the newspaper, a light bulb went off in my head (not a common occurrence). It dawned on me that there must be no stupid people in Malaysia.

How did something so profound occur to me so suddenly? I figured that everyone who merits a quotation in our papers must be very smart, no matter what they said, because surely otherwise the media would not quote them.

It occurred to me that if a person with some sort of title says something, and the papers actually take them seriously, they must have at least some modicum of intelligence. Otherwise surely the appropriate reaction is to fall down laughing. But there they are, all over our papers, taken very seriously indeed by our media as if they were founts of genuine wisdom.

Is it only me who thinks it is supremely ironic that while various government types are denouncing reality shows as unIslamic and should be haram – especially because there are open demonstrations of affection between people – those on the other side of the political fence are happily wooing the winner to their state to give concerts to his fans there? How weird is it that someone who spouted a government slogan (albeit unconvincingly) on the show should then accept hospitality offers from the Opposition?

I am not one of those people who cannot go out on Saturday nights because I have to get my weekly dose of tears. But I did take a belated interest in this show because I think it is something of a phenomenon with all sorts of social implications. It is a show about dreams where ordinary people, the kids of the average Malaysian with the slightest glimmer of talent, can become famous. People of all walks of life follow this real life drama every week, willing their favourites to make it (and of course helping them along with millions of SMSes.)

One look at the audience every week will tell you that to cast aspersions on any of the contestants is to risk alienating a substantial portion of the population. Not only the mothers and aunts in the audience adore these kids but also thousands of others at home. Witness the tumultuous welcome they received when they went home, even the ones who didn’t win.

Has someone forgotten that these are voters? Why on earth do we alienate them?

I think we need some perspective about reality shows. By all means, we should not copy everything blindly especially the more useless ones where one has to find the perfect man or woman from a selection of pretty dubious candidates. Or the ones where they test couples’ fidelity to each other by putting all sorts of temptation in the way.

But what exactly is the harm of these talent shows? Oh sorry, there were some wise words about how cavorting on stage with the opposite sex makes one want to take drugs. (Personally I think you need to take drugs to be able to watch some of the cavorting.) Does everything lead to bad stuff? Does everything have to be immoral? Aren’t our people able to simply have fun?

I’m sorry, I refuse to think that the makciks in the AF audience are participating in immorality. What are we saying about their darling Mawi? He likes nasyid and girls who wear the tudung, after all.

I think it’s not a bad thing to have reality shows that have some educational value beyond the purely voyeuristic appeal. It would be interesting to have a Malaysian version of The Apprentice though I’m not sure I can think of a local Donald Trump. Besides what are they going to teach besides needing to know all the right people?

Would it be too much to ask that we read about really smart people in our media? Or aren’t the really smart people saying anything? Are we afraid that that old saying about keeping your mouth shut when you don’t know anything rather than opening it and confirming to everyone that it’s true actually holds water? But then there are any number of people who are happy to spout off on everything, while at the same time denying other people the right to say anything about their so-called area of expertise. Why on earth should we treat them with such reverence?

Unless they are right, we’re too stupid to tell the difference.

12 August 2005

Wednesday August 10, 2005

Let them speak


I’ve always thought that Malaysians are disinclined towards self-reflection and analysis. Why this should be so could probably be blamed on an education system that does not encourage independent thinking and questioning, as well as a dislike for confronting anything unpleasant. This is all very well if you never have to face it for yourself. But lately I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to witness this and you want to just curl up in embarrassment.

First I was at an overseas conference where a Malaysian government official was presenting a paper on a subject that was controversial and has few supporters in the international community. I was surprised that he had accepted the invitation to speak in the first place but having done so, I thought he must have worked out a convincing argument. To the utter bemusement of everybody, he presented a paper more suited to a high school student than a senior government official. Not only was it devoid of any scientific justification, it bore no logic at all.

It made me realise that some officials must live in an insular world where they have no idea what the rest of the world thinks and therefore naively present arguments that they don’t even realise will not hold water among well-informed people. Then they are shocked at the strong reaction they get. Now if they can then respond by presenting cogent reasons for their viewpoint, they might have saved a modicum of respect. But instead they simply give up and refuse to take the challenge of engaging in a debate. Everybody is then left dissatisfied.

I thought this was just an aberration until I witnessed the same inability to read an audience and present an intelligent analysis of a situation from an even more senior official. Perhaps when we are used to an uninformed unquestioning audience, we tend to underestimate the intelligence of every one we face.

It wouldn’t have alarmed me, if I thought that there was a new generation of Malaysians who could be different. So I went to a seminar hoping to listen to more interesting viewpoints. I did find some but not from anyone I didn’t already know. In a panel where university lecturers spoke and students asked questions and ventured opinions, I was struck by how some supposedly highly-qualified academicians had the same inability to provide a rational analysis of real situations and instead resorted to vague generalisations and illogic. Unsurprisingly the students were no better, asking unoriginal questions and spouting well-worn phrases that elicited applause from their own crowd. Not a single student asked any questions which were at all provocative or revealed some real thinking.

I suppose we should not blame our students’ lack of thinking skills when people who don’t have them either are teaching them. (And I know it isn’t just me saying this; some visiting academicians have embarrassingly mentioned the same thing). Students are also not going to stand up and say anything different for fear of attracting derision both from their lecturers and their peers. This is not a country that values original thinking and difference much after all.

The sad thing is, when you get young people by themselves, away from adults that they depend on, they can be very different. They can express opinions that don’t imitate others and you can appeal to their common sense and inherent goodness. But how much opportunity do we give young people to do this safely and without attracting some sort of punishment?

Yet if we expect the next generation to compete on an international level, we have to nurture their ability to speak and stand up for themselves. The types that I’ve been listening to will only be laughed at overseas.

I know what I speak of. As a young university student overseas, I was shocked to find that not only did people have vastly different opinions than me, they were more than willing to tell me exactly why I was wrong. The first few times I would retreat wounded into my room and cry with frustration at my own inability to defend my views. I also wondered how much of my views were in fact my own or just regurgitation of someone else’s. In time I got better at thinking out issues and putting across my opinion. I also learnt that it isn’t the end of the world if everybody disagreed with you.

We have to do something concrete about nurturing the thinking skills of our young people because otherwise they will not survive in the larger world. For a start we could be more stringent about the intellectual abilities of those who teach them. We can also create an environment that would be safe and encouraging for our young people to express themselves. Only then can we hold our heads high wherever we are.

28 July 2005

Wednesday July 27, 2005

Globalisation of fear


When we hear the word “globalisation”, we think immediately of McDonald’s and Starbucks, and moan the fact that it seems to go only one way. True globalisation will probably only exist when people can buy nasi lemak at corner stalls in New York.

But one aspect of globalisation hardly ever merits a mention. And that is the globalisation of fear, grief and rage. In the past 10 years I have had to feel this globalisation of emotions, particularly fear and grief, four times. Two were for natural disasters, the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and the recent tsunami, and two others were for man-made tragedies – the Sept 11 events in the United States and the recent July 7 bombings in London.

In all four events, I feared for friends in all the affected areas and started working the phones and e-mails trying to find them. I found my friend Sunita from Kobe safe and sound after one week. During the recent tsunami I had friends in Phuket and Sri Lanka whom I nervously waited for news for several days. All were safe, though some had narrow escapes.

When Sept 11 happened, I immediately thought of friends who lived in Lower Manhattan and my cousin who lives in Washington DC. It took many long distance phone calls, frantic e-mails and unnerving days of waiting before I received confirmation that they were all fine. (One who was not fine was an uncle who suffered a heart attack and passed away after watching the dreadful events in his hotel room in Chicago.)

On July 7, I got the news just as I was packing to leave for Europe. It felt like a nightmare all over again. Having studied in Britain, I have some very close friends in London. One of them, Dharshi, a Sri Lankan, commutes to London every day from Cambridge, arriving at King’s Cross station, to go to work. I called their handphones and their homes and there was no response. A few agonising hours later, one SMS came back: We are OK. But not from the most vulnerable of them all, Dharshi.

When I got to Europe, I kept calling and SMS-ing. With every non-response, my stomach got even more tied up in knots. It was not until some 36 hours after the bombing happened that I finally got news of Dharshi. She had actually come into King’s Cross station during the evacuation alert and had decided to take the Northern Line underground to go to work. This was the subway line that it is speculated the alleged bomber on the bus was supposed to have taken but somehow did not. It was lucky for Dharshi; not so lucky for 16 other people on the bus.

I found my other friend Chris the next morning. The feeling of relief that all my friends were safe was intense. I’m sure that was the same for everyone else in London and elsewhere who had to search for their friends and loved ones. But it must be nothing compared to the grief of those who learnt that theirs were no more.

It might seem elitist to actually have friends in so many countries abroad to worry over. But the world gets smaller every day with easier travel and communications, so this globalisation of fear and grief is going to affect more and more people. While we don’t have to have friends in these affected places to empathise and sympathise, knowing someone makes it even more real and chilling.

And even while you can make intelligent guesses as to what motivates these things, it doesn’t dissipate the pain at seeing so many needless deaths and injuries. And what is worse, feeling that lingering pain of once more being lumped together with violent destructive people just because, on the surface of things, we have a common faith.

Having felt such fear and grief for events so far away, today I felt a total rage when reading that the father of one of the alleged pilots of the Sept 11 planes actually praised the London bombings and called for more! (On July 21, there were more, albeit less deadly.) We have to wonder what lost moral compass such a person has to call for more deaths, including those of Muslims.

He even said that the Muslims who condemned the bombings should be declared traitors to the faith. What a perfect way to project Islam! It only confirms that it is not a peaceful non-violent religion to those who are prejudiced, and to those who have suffered at the hands of these bombers.

Looking at reactions to all this violence, I am convinced that violence by all parties begets nothing but more violence. Violence is physical and structural. It is not limited to bombs; it also means repression of people by the state or those powerful enough to act as a state.

Invading other people’s countries is an act of violence; therefore it should be no surprise that people react violently. Killing people on public transport is also an act of violence and invites more. As we feel more insecure, people spend more on “security” but it makes us only feel more oppressed because we always lose our freedom. Let us never be fooled that violent acts will give us peace, freedom and democracy.

04 July 2005

Words of war
Wednesday June 29, 2005

Maybe we should just blame George Bush. The man who started the very abstract war on terrorism that then morphed into a very real war on people can surely be held responsible for the prevailing obsession with being war-like about everything. Or maybe, he should at least be blamed for a general pervasive macho-ness all over the world, all swagger and no substance.

Today I read in the papers that there is now a campaign called “War on Unruly Teens”. Now which genius thought of that? Or rather, which male genius thought of that? Only men can think that the use of the word “war” is OK, even against young people in our country.

What have our young people done to warrant having adults launch a war against them? What does “unruly” mean? Is this yet another knee-jerk response to bullying in schools?

When we use the word “war” against a group of young people, or any people for that matter, what does that really mean? To George Bush, the war against terror has meant demonising whole communities of people based on their faith, and marching into countries to occupy them, a very twisted way of giving them “freedom”. So when we declare war on “unruly teens”, does that we mean we will have posters demonising groups of young people? Does that mean that we will put young people we deem “unruly” away in order to make them toe the line? Isn’t that what we are doing with National Service anyway?

Young people, especially young women, can rightly feel that some adults must just hate them. They work hard like they are exhorted to; they still don’t get anywhere unless they kick up a fuss. They don’t behave the way adults define good behaviour, they get a war waged on them, funded no doubt by taxpayers’ money. I’m not saying anyone should be excused by bullying but when adults are constantly bullying young people, what example are they supposed to follow? If adults respond to teens by waging war on them, what is so surprising if they respond to weaker kids by also, in a way, warring with them?

Constantly using the word “war” against everything creates an atmosphere that subtly encourages violence and an aggressive way of solving things. People not toeing the line; let’s whip ’em. Women exercising their right to not wear a headscarf, let’s fine them. (Only PAS can try and make themselves sound good by saying they’ve been “considerate” for the past three years). People who stay home reading the Quran rather than going to mosque, let’s call them deviants. (Reading the Quran makes you a deviant? Hello?) Similarly branded are people who praise God through rock music. (For God’s sake, at least they talk about God!)

What on earth is happening? Is this country just going crazy? Obviously nobody believes in the power of education anymore. Perhaps that’s because people who come up with these ideas are somewhat lacking in the same? How does anyone choose their path in life but through education about their options? If we don’t provide them with that education, or if we skew it to only provide the options that we think are right, is it any wonder that they choose the wrong ones?

Or is it, in the style of George Bush, an impatience with approaches to problem solving that require much study and thought, that may take some time to show results, that doesn’t yield much business opportunities for t-shirt and banner makers, that doesn’t lend opportunities for photo taking with VIPs? Let’s get ‘em quick and fast and then move on to the next thing, damn the trail of suffering we might leave behind. There are Dubyas all over the world.

Of course people are going to get upset with me for comparing them with Dubya. But when you look at it; the sheer machoness, the sanctimonious attitudes, the dislike of women, the absolute belief that they have God behind them, the desire to inflict violence upon other people, it all sounds the same to me.

If we are going to wage war at all, why not wars on poverty, on inequality, on injustice? If every year kids do not get duly rewarded for their hard work, let’s wage a war on that obvious injustice. If there is a problem with bullying in schools, why not wage war on the conditions that make this possible, rather than individuals? Why not remove conditions within our society that allows people to bully others weaker or different than them? None of this requires campaigns that even mention war. In fact why not begin by banning the word “war”?

Unless, of course, we really don’t believe in peace.

20 June 2005

Wednesday June 15, 2005
The real Malaysia

Sometimes life is like a movie script. Let me tell a little story about Malaysia that should really make it onto celluloid.

The other day a young Indian fellow called Mike, who happens to work for me, finally got married to his girlfriend Zai, a Malay girl. The wedding reception took place in a suburb of KL at Zai’s parents’ home.

Or rather, as is normal in our city, on Zai’s street. The whole street had been cut off for the wedding, decorated with arches and tents, turning it into a street party that Sunday.

Despite the heat, the entire neighbourhood seemed to have turned up for it as well as many of Mike and Zai’s friends and colleagues.

Pink was the theme colour, ranging from what the bride and groom wore, the matching outfits that the bride’s family could be identified by and the yards of pink satin that swagged the pelamin, the windows of the modest single storey terrace house, and the bridal lunch table.

A local band entertained with the latest Malay pop songs while everyone tucked into the nasi minyak buffet.

What was fascinating was the fact that the wedding was really a microcosm of urban Malaysia.

Here was Mike, who is Indian, marrying his Malay girlfriend after a long courtship. Their friends and neighbours were of all races who came and went as is customary, helping themselves to the food and adding to the pile of presents for the newlyweds.

When Mike, resplendent in pink songket, accompanied by his sari-clad mother arrived, they were greeted by the requisite kompang and a short silat demonstration.

Despite the humble setting, Mike and Zai’s wedding lacked for nothing in terms of all the essential elements.

When they sat on the pelamin, Mike’s mother began the merenjis ceremony with a little Indian tradition.

She gave Mike a gold chain to put around Zai’s slender neck and then she herself placed another gold necklace on her new daughter-in-law who responded with a respectful kiss of her hands.

Then everyone followed suit in the usual manner, sprinkling scented water on the couple in the traditional blessing.

What makes this a particularly quirky slice of Malaysia is the fact that Mike happens also to be a champion bodybuilder (he is the bantamweight Mr Malaysia).

His fellow bodybuilders, of course, also came and we were treated to the sight of a good number of crew-cut guys with very impressive muscles and tiny waists.

And just to prove that Malaysians can be disciplined when they want to be, all these guys sat together and ate only grilled fish because they have a competition coming up!

(The groom himself didn’t take a day off from his strict diet just because it was his wedding either.)

Observing Mike and Zai’s wedding, aside from thinking it would make a great movie (an interracial romance between a bodybuilder and a Siti Norhaliza look-alike; how’s that for an original premise?), it made me wonder what the real Malaysia is. Is it the Malaysia as envisioned by some of our public figures, divided by ethnicity and religion, full of territorial claims? Or is it this simple portrait of neighbours and friends brought together by a wedding, that reliable social unifier?

When people make hateful claims about the superiority of one way of thinking or belief over another, I wonder what it means to families like Mike’s and Zai’s where people of different beliefs have become related? I remember listening to a Christian woman once talking about her Muslim son and grandchildren and wondered how could she possibly be unmoved by laws that affect them.

In Malaysia, we are not as homogenous as we like to portray ourselves and many of us do have relatives and close friends who come from different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds.

Our kinship ties are forged by marriage and shared interests and these can be strong. To try and differentiate us through state policy would be akin to trying to cut through a piece of silk cloth, so beautiful in one piece, ruined when torn.

Maybe if we started making movies that did reflect real life, we would have a more realistic approach to social harmony. If it wasn’t completely true, nobody could make up Mike and Zai out of their imaginations. We keep thinking, through our movies and through our approaches to governance, that Malaysia is a uniform and obedient society that conforms to some politician’s or bureaucrat’s dull black and white dreams.

In fact, it’s far better and more colourful than that.

What we need is to always ensure that it is these simple portraits of real life that are constantly polished and shined. Otherwise life in Malaysia would be very drab indeed.

07 June 2005

Wednesday June 1, 2005
More things not to do

Some people may recall a column of mine which gained some infamy because I talked about how while Malaysians are misinterpreting what Malaysia Boleh means, they are also not paying attention to what they tak boleh. I gave examples of Malaysians running around trying to make the biggest this or the longest that, none of which enhances anybody’s life, while at the same time ignoring the very many things we cannot do, mostly think and speak.

Well, guess what? In the time since then (not that long ago), not only have people stopped trying to paint the biggest batik sarong or sew the longest selendang, which is a blessed relief, but the list of things that we cannot do has expanded. Now we possibly cannot go to the movies with male relatives or friends unless we put up with them sitting separately from us; we have to freeze every time the call to prayer is heard; we can barely watch any live entertainment at all; there are more and more states where some of us cannot get married unless we submit to a test that we don’t understand and will bring us any amount of grief. The list, as I said, is only getting longer.

What happened? Did we take our eyes off the ball for a second and someone swatted it away? Or did we purposely choose to ignore what was happening, or just chose not to say anything? We’ll pay dearly for it some day.

We have to be aware that the country which we love is changing, and not in a good way. There are more and more un-elected people making policies in this country, few of which are any good to most of us, and we are letting them do it. Why then do we have elections every five years?

I recall that in the last elections, most of us chose a government that promised us more tolerance, more openness and more freedom. We gave a clear mandate to them to do all that they promised because we wanted to be able to express ourselves more, have more opportunities in life, which necessitates more openness and choices.

But we are not getting it. Or at least some of us are getting choked even more while the rest of us are simply ignored. The lovely multiethnic, multicultural Malaysia that is our pride and joy is simply crumbling because, and I have heard some people openly say it, there are people who would like to make it mono-ethnic, monocultural and mono-religious. That’s not the Malaysia I grew up in, not the Malaysia I want my children to live in. Not the Malaysia I love.

What is next? Is there absolutely nothing that cannot be thought of entirely in terms of religion, morals and sex? (As I’ve said before, people who are so obsessed with sex can’t be getting much of it, or have too much of the wrong kind. We should ask for public audits of politicians’ sex lives. That might explain some of the idiocies). Next, we have to have separate compartments in public transport facilities. Airlines will be obliged to have curtained off separate seating for male and female passengers. Or there has to be male-only and female-only buses and train carriages. (I can see them nodding in agreement). Or how about Muslim-only and non-Muslim-only transport?

Since everyone likes to fuss about entertainment, what about sports? What about football? With large crowds of people getting highly emotional about men in shorts, surely this is cause for concern. How about making footballers wear trackpants? How about banning women from going to watch football? But that would mean all-male crowds that may also lead to bad things. How about banning football altogether?

People may say I’m getting hysterical about this. But what’s the difference between these examples and all those people who said that those who don’t believe the state should interfere in our private lives are asking for people to parade in bikinis in Parliament? (If you ask me, the mostly male MPs would love it.) Why is it that only some people are allowed to make giant logistical leaps? At least my leaps in logic are a lot more feasible.

Wake up everybody! If we don’t watch out, this country that we have given so much to, and which has given us so much, will be gone. We have a democracy and we have to hold on to it. Let’s stop allowing people we did not elect make the rules that govern our lives.
Wednesday May 18, 2005
Be bold

LAST Sunday (May 15) was International AIDS Memorial Day (IAMD), the day we take time off to remember the millions of people who have died of AIDS. These people were not strangers to us; they were fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, children and friends, people who left us because of a disease that they did not wish to have.

On IAMD, as usual every year, Malaysians Living with HIV/AIDS get together to not only remember those who have gone, but to meet with one another, network and share stories, both joyful and sad. It is a day to remember that they are not alone. In fact, with over 60,000 people having been infected in our country, they are becoming less and less alone.

What is the lot of Malaysians Living with HIV/AIDS today? On the one hand, they could not have a better chance of survival. Treatment for those with the virus has become so much cheaper, from RM2,000 a month five years ago to less than a hundred today.

For those who cannot afford even that, the Government has said that it will provide free medicines for up to 7,000 people with HIV/AIDS, a highly commendable move. This was to be achieved through the importation of generic drugs from India that are far cheaper than the originals from the United States. But recently the Indian parliament passed the Patents Act that effectively made the manufacture of generics an impossibility. What does this mean to our noble efforts to help our fellow citizens survive?

While we can be pretty cheerful about treatment, on all other scores, Malaysians with HIV have never had it so bad. While they suffer from the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV, there are moves to increase this suffering by among other things, suggestions to isolate them on islands and to criminalise those who allegedly knowingly infect others (would this include men who refuse to wear condoms to protect their wives?).

While other countries including China and Vietnam are enacting anti-discrimination laws, we are moving the other way, each day finding ways to ensure that our fellow citizens are hounded even more. We shed tears for children infected with HIV but we do nothing to ensure that when they reach adulthood they do not suffer from discrimination on the basis of their HIV status. (Do we have laws to protect HIV+ children from discrimination in schools?) Is that because we think that these innocent children will never reach adulthood anyway? And that adults with HIV deserve the suffering?

In my 12 years working in this field, I have never been so despondent. While other countries have gained knowledge on how to deal effectively with HIV, we have only moved backwards. To have someone in 2005 talk about isolating people with HIV, an approach that was discredited very early on in the epidemic, is something we should be ashamed of. Yet there are so many people who take pride in their ignorance, not to mention their lack of compassion.

I have just been in a meeting of delegates from the Non-Aligned Movement on HIV. One of the strongest messages from the African countries that have so much experience in HIV/AIDS is that demystifying and de-stigmatising HIV/AIDS is crucial to effective prevention. As long as people remain ignorant of the facts about the virus and its modes of transmission, we will never contain it.

As long as people are unclear as to how the virus can and cannot be transmitted, they will have doubts. And it is these doubts, fuelled by misleading statements by public figures and sensational stories in the media, that leads to stigma. A recently published study of four countries on HIV-related stigma done by the International Centre for Research on Women shows that we are not alone in doing this. The roots of stigma in all countries are the same, and the effects are just the same; it causes the spread of the disease.

One of the most disastrous effects of calls to isolate people is that any programme we have to get people to be tested for HIV will fail. Why should anyone get tested if they know that if they are found HIV+, they will be put away? It is simple human psychology; you can never get people to do things that they know will bring a detrimental outcome. (People who are addicted to drugs do not think of it as detrimental because it is pleasurable.) Yet without getting people to voluntarily go for testing, we cannot counsel them for prevention of infection to others. Nor can we provide them with the early treatment so crucial to survival.

We need to ask why HIV should be singled out for this sort of treatment when other infectious diseases, such as Hepatitis, are not? Is it because it is incurable? Neither is diabetes or even the common cold. Is it because it is associated with death? So is cancer, yet we have so much sympathy for cancer patients.

Is it because we link it with immorality? Yet there are 40 million people all over the world with the virus. Are we saying that they are all immoral people? And since 95% of them come from developing countries, are we then saying that there is more immorality in the developing world than the West? Why is it that the West has less HIV, not more, than the poorer countries?

Political leadership is the single most important deciding factor in any successful HIV response. Every country that has managed to reduce its infection rates has been the ones where political leadership has been strong.

In Uganda, where infections went from 16% of adults to 6%, the President heads the National AIDS Task Force.

In Senegal, a Muslim country that has maintained its infection rates at just 1.5% by early education for its people as well as the distribution of 10 million free condoms, the AIDS prevention programme has the support of its political and religious leaders.

Even Iran is taking concrete steps with a strategic plan placed directly under the President which, among other things, allows for needle exchange programmes for drug users and the distribution of condoms among prisoners.

We have a choice at this juncture. We can continue as we are, refusing to do much more than superficial attempts at prevention while at the same time allowing non-experts to usurp the role of those who should have the expertise. Or we can be bold and take steps that we already know work. We must challenge the prevailing excuses for not doing the right things. In the end the numbers will tell. One day we will wake up to find we have a very serious epidemic on our hands. Then there will be no one to blame but ourselves for our complacency.
Wednesday May 4, 2005
Laws that promote good

The other day I watched in fascinated horror as a man crossed a busy road while sms-ing. Completely oblivious to the cars passing by him, his confidence that they would avoid him was something to behold. If any of them had hit him, and God forbid, killed him, there would have been much anger thrown at the “careless” driver and mourning over the loss of a human life. But it was a human being who was pretty careless with his life nevertheless.

This little incident illustrated a rather typical attitude of my fellow citizens, something I call the abrogation of responsibility. If there is something that necessarily endangers our lives, we expect others to take responsibility to ensure that we are not endangered, rather than taking our own responsibility to prevent such a danger to ourselves.

Like the man crossing the street, we expect others to avoid harming us and we will blame them if they do, denying our own responsibilities in contributing towards that harm. Similarly, if we as drivers run red lights and then get into an accident, we rarely blame ourselves for breaking traffic rules. Rather, we blame the other person for not looking out for us.

This attitude carries over many different situations. To give an example from a field I know too well, one of the main reasons why many people want to know who is HIV-positive is so that those people can be blamed if we become infected. We need to put them away, some people say, so that the rest of us will be protected. Even though the fact is that it is our own behaviour that determines whether we get infected or not. If it is other people’s fault when we become infected, how is it that so many people, including doctors and nurses, can mingle with those who are HIV-positive and stay perfectly healthy? Surely it is because they take their own responsibility not to become so? The odd thing of course is that if other people become infected, it is always their own fault. Whereas, if we ourselves were to become infected, we expect people to understand that we are not to be faulted. Such is our logic of denial.

Not too long ago, a local newspaper asked the public if they knew of harsh penalties that could be imposed on them for trespassing so-called moral laws. Most did not know but, whether truthfully or not, said that these laws were needed because otherwise they themselves would go wrong. I find it odd that people who do not see themselves as particularly immoral should feel that they needed such laws to control their lives, laws that they did not even know existed just a minute before. Do we really need laws to ensure we behave ourselves? Or do we behave ourselves because our own values tell us that certain behaviours are unacceptable? Which comes first? Putting the entire responsibility on the law to control our behaviour suggests that we are all essentially bad people who would be completely wild if we did not fear punishment.

I don’t steal because I think stealing is inherently wrong. I also think most people think so too, although we need the law to take care of the few people who decide to steal anyway. Similarly with lying, cheating, driving dangerously and any number of things that, because they would harm others and myself, I simply would never do. But as far as things that I think about or do privately which does not affect others, I don’t think there needs to be laws to make sure I do or don’t do them. It’s a bit like those metal detectors at airports these days. They may be able to detect weapons, but even if a person walks through them clean, what the machines cannot do is detect an evil heart.

What we need are laws that do promote goodness in the best sense of the word. Laws that promote care and compassion, that send a message out that goodness gets rewarded, rather than bad behaviour gets punished. We could have laws that prevent discrimination against people with HIV for instance, or that ensure that disabled people have equal access to opportunities and facilities just like able-bodied people, just because non-discrimination is an ethic that is right. Or ensure that the poor are not left behind in our development. We need a well-intentioned and tolerant environment that enables good behaviour, rather than having an environment that simply tries to limit bad behaviour. If someone pushes that tolerance to the limit with unsociable behaviour, then punitive action needs to take place. But the point is whether it harms others or not immediately, not speculatively in some future time.

We need to enable everyone to take responsibility for their own actions. Most of it is done through education. It can be done; all it takes is the will and the patience. Considering that patience is a virtue, it also seems odd that some people have totally lost faith in education, and believe that punishment is the only way to get people in line. Are we therefore saying that the only way to get other people to be virtuous is for us to put virtue aside? Now that’s really abrogating the responsibility of being good role models, no?
Wednesday April 6, 2005
The late Puan Sri Naimah, a pillar of strength

Sometimes people come into your life and you can’t foresee what impact they are going to make. Last week many of my colleagues and I mourned the death of Puan Sri Naimah Hasbi after a long illness. In the newspapers, she was recognised only as the wife of the former Minister Tan Sri Sulaiman Daud. In fact she was much, much more.

Puan Sri Naimah Hasbi in her younger days. Her compassion and helpfulness are an inspiration to many.
I can’t remember when I first met Puan Sri Naimah but in 1993 she welcomed me to a dinner that ended with my being made the Chair of the Malaysian AIDS Foundation. Puan Sri was a founding Trustee and remained so until her death on March 26.

Many people of her standing sit on Boards and do little but Puan Sri was not one of those. She not only came to every single meeting of the Board and took an interest in everything that was discussed but also attended every event and function we organised during those years, if she was in town and available. If we asked her to attend something on our behalf, she always graciously obliged. She chaired for a time our Paediatric AIDS Fund committee that provided financial support to children infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.

It was not just Puan Sri Naimah’s commitment that inspired us all. Her attitude towards everything was an example to everyone. She was always cheerful and interested. Never one to have airs, she would come to our events, armed with her ever-present camera and mix around with everyone, including people living with HIV/AIDS, as naturally as if they were her own friends and neighbours. Perhaps she had more empathy than most with those who had problems. Unlike many, she was willing to learn, often coming to seminars to listen and to ask questions. Always she was clearly sincerely sympathetic to people with HIV/AIDS and was never one to make judgments on people.

Helping others came naturally to Puan Sri. If she felt that it would benefit someone to meet and discuss an issue with another party, she would organise it and even host it at home. If she heard that someone had arthritis and felt they would benefit from a massage, she would personally take the person to the masseuse. How she fit in all this helpfulness while managing a home and family as well as her commitments to several other organisations is a wonder to us all. But you could always count on her.

We will all remember Puan Sri Naimah for her openness and her courage in the face of her own illness. She never hid the fact that she had cancer. Often she would come to meetings and cheerily announce that she had just come from her chemotherapy treatment. Never once did she display any self-pity. Indeed she remained her perfectly dressed self, determined to not let her illness dictate her life, until almost the end.

A year ago, Tan Sri Sulaiman quietly requested us not to invite his wife to any more meetings because he did not feel she was up to it. She herself did not think so and occasionally an invitation would slip through and she would drive herself to our office, perfectly turned out as always. But it was clear then that her husband was right to worry. Puan Sri was lucky in having a caring husband and family who never left her side throughout her illness. They too are an inspiration to us all for their unending love and dedication.

Many of us working in HIV/AIDS in Malaysia will miss Puan Sri Naimah. She was like a mother to us all, gently pushing us along the difficult roads. She showed us that with care, compassion and courage, we can tackle anything.

May God bless her soul and may she rest in peace. Al-fatihah.
Wednesday April 20, 2005
Moral terrorism

Sometimes we think we are so unique in the world. But just a little reading makes us realize that there are so many parallels with other people, despite what looks like inherent differences.

This coming week, the leader of the majority Republicans in the United States, Senator Bill Frist, is participating in a telecast geared towards labeling the opposition Democrats as acting “against people of faith.” This is because the Democrats are opposing the nomination of judges with extremely conservative views. But, as columnist Frank Rich of the New York Times says, Senator Frist and his allies do not mean people of all faiths, only those of their faith.

In the US these days, politics is becoming increasingly enmeshed with religion, or, at least, one religion. The government and its supporters are determined to impose their particular beliefs onto all their citizens regardless of their own individual faiths.

This seems to go entirely against the Constitution of the United States that forbids the imposition of religious views on Americans, since people escaping religious persecution, after all, founded it.

This mixing up of religion and politics has meant that government policy is completely dictated by specific beliefs, and not necessarily evidence. Thus, for example, US funding for HIV/AIDS programmes anywhere in the world is unavailable for anything that includes sex education, condoms or harm reduction. Instead they are only available for strictly abstinence-only programmes that have never been proven to work.

People of no faith

The reason Senator Frist is so upset about any blocking of appointments of the “right” judges is because the US courts had refused to allow the government to interfere in the case of Terry Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged woman whose husband and doctors wanted to cease her life support system, and whose parents didn’t.

The courts decided it was a private matter. So Frist thinks that if the “right” judges had been in the courts, they could have forced Schiavo’s doctors and husband to keep her on life support, as they already have for the past 15 years even though there was no hope for her recovery.

That’s one thing. But it’s quite another thing to then label people who oppose that move as acting against people of faith. Basically he’s saying that those who disagree with him are people of no faith, godless heretics determined to destroy society. Sound familiar to you?

It’s the oldest trick in the book for people of a certain political ilk to try and gain cheap points by claiming that those who disagree with them have suspect religious credentials. They try and claim the supposed higher moral ground yet at the same time preach intolerance and discrimination.

Under a supposed halo that they give to themselves, they defame others by besmirching their reputations as loyal citizens and faithful believers and call for the harshest sanctions against them. Not exactly the type of serene actions you would expect from people who believe in the peaceful possibilities of faith.

Shout them down

Let’s not forget that people like Senator Frist supported the invasion of Iraq. In this he and his like are very much supported by various American faith-based groups, some of whom speak a language which very much appeals to the same types of politicians in our country, and in fact have made some inroads here.

Their method is simple; forget the need to have any evidence of anything, or the need to have respectful discussion and debate. Just work on people’s emotions by saying that those people don’t believe enough in their religion, if at all, fixate on outward appearances and just simply shout them down.

To organize a telecast geared towards condemning people is a pretty sophisticated form of shouting people down. I just hope this form doesn’t take root here.

But shouting and shutting down of anyone trying to present a different view is pretty standard operating procedure here. In a country where people dislike confrontation, slander and defamation is the norm.

Attack the other person’s morals first off. If the other person is a decent person, they will simply not respond because basing a discussion on individual morality goes nowhere.

So we are forced to put up with personal insults, knowing that the whole idea of the other side is to simply shut the discussion down, not advance it. I call that moral terrorism.

We could wind up like the current situation in the United States if we are not vigilant. The only difference is that in the US, there are people who have the courage to publicly denounce these acts of moral terrorism. Here there are far too few of us and it’s hard going. Moral courage, exactly what we need to combat this intolerance, is in short supply. We should shed tears of despair.
Wednesday March 23, 2005
First World appearance, Third World mentality

We pride ourselves on many things, we Malaysians. And well we should, because we just have to travel to some other developing countries to realize how advanced and easy life is in ours. We have just about everything here. We have good roads, most people have been educated (even as the education system needs reviewing), we can easily go see a doctor whenever we need to (though sometimes it can be expensive) and we have a lot of leisure activities to partake in (even though most don’t require us to do much more than sit down).

We are very First World in many ways. But it’s one thing to be ahead in appearances, yet another to be developed mentally.

Take that oft-quoted Malaysian irritation, our driving. Is it me or are our roads getting more anarchic by the day? Is going through red lights, driving while sms-ing and changing lanes without signalling now socially acceptable? Or throwing rubbish out of the car? Recently, I saw a car stop just after a toll booth, the occupants open their boot and blithely throw their junk at the side of the road. I am half-inclined to put a megaphone in my car just so that I can shout at such people: “Shame on you!” But then, considering they were doing it in full view of hundreds of other drivers, they probably have no sense of shame at all.

Or that other bugbear: ignoring RSVPs. As anyone who’s ever organised an event or wedding knows, Malaysians don’t RSVP. Or they won’t until the last minute. Or they will say they’re not coming only to change their minds at the eleventh hour. This causes enormous headaches for the hosts. And here’s another rule: the more important you are, the more likely you are to ignore RSVPs. You think that if you decide to just show up, perhaps because you can’t find a golf partner on that day, or you just realized that you might be missing the event of the year, then the hosts will smilingly accommodate you.

I once organised a private family anniversary party where three uninvited guests showed up. It was a small party with limited seats and it was hell trying to re-arrange everything so that these guests could join in. But they were simply so unembarrassed to show up, because they were so sure that they were too important to be turned away. I’ve never been able to look at them with much respect since.

Another major irritation is the way we sometimes show so little respect to guests. While we can be extravagantly hospitable, we do have some odd habits. One is talking away while someone is giving a speech or performing some music. The person giving the speech or performing isn’t deaf and can certainly hear the buzz of conversation from the audience.

Only just recently a renowned jazz pianist had to endure playing to an audience that pretty much ignored her and chatted away regardless. Small wonder she finished her set quickly and walked off the stage.

Mind you, this type of rudeness is not limited to those in front of the stage. I was once making a speech and the VIP onstage with me carried on a loud conversation with the person next to her, oblivious to the fact that the entire audience could see what she was doing. I guess it never occurred to them that anyone would ever treat them with the same disrespect because they are, after all, VIPs.

But the thing is, does becoming a VIP mean you can abandon all courtesy to those supposedly below you? Surely that only reflects on you and your upbringing. Winning elections obviously doesn’t necessarily bestow class.

How do we expect our young people to behave with respect to others when their leaders don’t? Go into any store and how many salespeople actually greet you with a smile, attend to your queries or say thank you after you’ve purchased anything? But then, whom would they learn that from?

We get disrespect from many of our leaders when we so much as query what they are doing, so that only sets the tone for our young. If questioned, just give some glib answer and carry on as if the questioner is a little irritating fly.

We will never be developed until we learn to respect other people regardless of station and until we become more considerate of others. We have to learn to think of others before ourselves, to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and learn to empathise. We might complain about the so-called decadence of the developed world but then they have more facilities for the disabled and those who are needy than we do. Why is that? Perhaps because to be developed, it’s just not enough to be able to build fabulous buildings and roads, you also need to develop the humanity inherent in all of us.
Wednesday March 9, 2005
Unequal learning in our education system

As the cliché goes, kids say the darndest things. My older one, who admittedly will soon not be a kid anymore, had a particularly insightful thought the other day. “You know, Mum,” she said. “If I had stayed at school at home (in Malaysia), I would never have read half of the books I’ve read today.”

To explain, my daughter is in school in another country. I sent her away because I had begun to worry about the type of education she was getting, and the type of socialisation she was exposed to. I felt that, mentally, she was not being stretched, and that her creative instincts were being stifled, and that with some of her friends, she was becoming yet another mall-rat. So I sent her abroad to a rugged boot camp for a year and then continued her schooling in boarding school.

The thing about her little insight was that she was not saying it to feel superior to anyone. She followed this statement with another that made my heart clutch. “I feel sad,” she said, “because my friends who didn’t come over with me didn’t have this opportunity.” In that moment, my daughter, who sometimes makes me bang my head in frustration for her silliness and sheer teenage irresponsibility, displayed an understanding of the inequalities of the world far more than I ever did at her age, when I didn’t have half her privileges.

She understood, first of all, that she is lucky to have had the opportunity to study in an environment far more open than she would have had at home. She also understood that privilege costs her parents money, and it is something to be always grateful for. But she also understood that it was unfair that her friends did not have the same opportunity for whatever reason, and because of that, they may be losing out on something, and that was sad. She wanted the friends she had grown up with to move along in the world at the same pace as her, but that was not to be. I asked her if she ever discussed the books she was reading (for pleasure and as school work) with her friends at home and she said wistfully that she didn’t even try because it was so different from what they were doing. She is currently reading Dante’s Inferno, which she thinks is “pretty cool”.

When we think that education is the key to our children’s future, it seems unfair that not all children get a fair deal with it. It is one thing to give our kids the basics, it is another thing to try and unearth from them their true potential as thinking, living, breathing and creative human beings. And to do this, we have to expose them to as much of the world as possible, to allow them to assess, evaluate and judge for themselves.

But if our education system does nothing more than force-feed them what we think is right for them and leave them no room to explore ideas on their own, then all we are doing is creating a whole bunch of automatons who are not going to know how to live in this changeable globalised world. We will have people who are afraid of others, of taking risks, of things or people that are different from what they are used to. Without these types of challenges, our kids’ minds and indeed souls do not hone into the resilient mature characters we want them to be.

It is a system that only breeds inequality. If our education system leaves no room to think, and only one type of thinking is allowed, then discrimination against anything different will naturally set in. That’s the first type of inequality. Then the parents who don’t like this type of education will look for ways out of it, by firstly going to private schools within the country. This then creates another sort of separation and inequality, where our kids will then only mix with certain types of kids, and grow to believe that that’s all there is in the world.

Then the next step is for parents who can afford it (and more and more seem to be able to) to send kids abroad at earlier and earlier ages. This then creates even more separation and inequality with kids who have to remain at home, as my own daughter had pointed out. Instinctively, she had recognised that, despite the many years of friendship, soon the way she was being educated would start putting a wedge of difference with her old friends, and it would take enormous maturity and effort to not let those friendships fade. Ironically, in many ways, her current educational environment, albeit elite, stresses community service, and allows her to mix with a greater diversity of kids, and in this way does more to promote equality than her public education back home.

It’s an age-old subject, our education system. While the current discussion about too much homework is good, it still doesn’t do anything about our concept of education itself, especially that exams are still the mainstay of our system. We’ve only got one chance to get it right with our kids; how much longer are we going to blow it?