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?