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.