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?