22 December 2006

The articles are captured from the original writer, MsMarina (with her permission). SambalBelacan is just compiling articles to make easier to find. Any comments received will remain un-respond because it's not mine.
Reach her at her very own blog at http://rantingsbymm.blogspot.com Please.

Wednesday December 20, 2006

A matter of tolerance


HO HUM, here we go again. Is there no end to this ceaseless blaming of all forms of evil on women, just because they may not want to cover their heads? But I am really heartened by the many sensible retorts by various people, mostly ordinary citizens, who rightly pointed out that we really should get past the habit of blaming women for the bad things that happen to them, and letting perpetrators get away.

I’m sure that the Majlis Perbandaran Kota Baru values all of its citizens and doesn’t really intend to discriminate just against women, no matter how natural the impulse might be. I’m sure given half the chance, besides dreaming up more and more rules for women, those MPKB wise men can also come up with rules for their male denizens just to show that they can be fair.

Here therefore are some rules I would suggest that the MPKB (and in fact all other local authorities) implement for men:

1. Men who do not use deodorant will be fined RM500. Body odour can cause offense to other people, of both sexes. Furthermore, some people find the musky sweaty fragrance that some men give off quite, um, arousing. Therefore this can be considered a hazard to public morality. Hence, stiff fines should be imposed to prevent any untoward incidents. Perhaps a deodorant company can be roped in to sponsor a campaign for the prevention of offensive odours.

2. Men who do not have clean fingernails will be fined RM500. Our religion exhorts us to always keep ourselves clean. Hands should always be washed especially before eating. Hence, it stands to reason that blackened fingernails imply a clear distance between soap and hands. Perhaps the MPKB could hand out free nail brushes and have classes on how to use them. No woman should be expected to handle anything that has been touched by any male with dirty fingernails.

3. Men must dress decently or be fined a minimum of RM500. Decently means clean clothes, pants that are not about to drop off and shoes, not slippers. We might even consider unmatched clothes and dirty sarongs as indecent. And oh yes, the Visible Panty Line rule should extend to those who insist on wearing white robes too.

4. Men who look at women up and down, up and down, regardless of how the women are dressed should be fined RM10,000 or 10 strokes of the cane. This should apply to any man, regardless of race, religion or rank, as the Quran clearly exhorts men to “lower their gaze”. Extra fines and extra strokes should also be imposed for those who, besides leering, also make weird noises and um, ungentlemanly remarks. No exemptions will be given for remarks made in Arabic.

5. Men with greasy hair, overlong nose and ear hairs and unkempt beards will be reprimanded for being aesthetically offensive. Perhaps a campaign sponsored by shampoo and shaving cream companies might be useful. Overlong untrimmed beards may harbour all manner of cooties, and are therefore just as unhygienic as dirty fingernails (sometimes all of these are found on the same person). Therefore these types of men can be deemed public health hazards. Women should be allowed to carry disinfecting sprays to protect themselves from such dangers.

6. Men may not wear makeup, such as black eyeliner, and overbearing fragrances, especially those meant to cover the pungency of unwashed bodies. Only the smell of soap will be tolerated.

I’m sure the MPKB really can’t argue with these simple rules. Wouldn’t it be nice if they set the example for all the other towns and cities in Malaysia if they could boast the cleanest and best-smelling men in the country?

While we are on the subject of dress, I want to congratulate that Bahraini woman who won the 200-metre gold medal at the Asian Games. It just goes to show that women can do anything, if they put their heart and soul into it. But before anyone gets too excited about how wearing the hijab somehow contributed to her medal, let us not forget the training that she obviously put in, not to mention the sheer dedication and commitment to her sport that would also have been required. If all it takes is a hijab to win races, then we should get all the men to cover up as well and see how they do.

And let me nominate for the Breath of Fresh Air Award, the new Mufti of Perlis, for his courage in saying the right thing, and in restoring our faith in the justice and equality inherent in Islam. May he always stand his ground, and be the vanguard of change that we so badly need.

I wish everybody a Happy 2007!

08 December 2006

Dear all,

This is me, SambalBelacan. Only yesterday I received and read comment from the actual writer of these amazing articles, MsMarinaMahathir. Apparently, she felt a bit inconvenient knowing that I cetak rompak her work. Believe me, I don’t have any intentions except that I don’t want to see these articles end up to be pembungkus nasi lemak or into tong sampah… or disappear from the web.

Yesterday also, I did send a message to her (finally find a way to reach her) asking minta kebenaran for me to continue doing it. I explained to her that I took my own liberty to copy and paste from the news, and I dare not to change a word. I thought I want to keep it and so that I can access them easily. I did it because I like collecting good articles.

OK, about the comments. Since I’m not really her, the best I can do is leaving the comments remain un-responded.

Why now? Why only now I explain this. To be honest, I don’t know. I did this since last year and trust me, I didn’t take any advantages or manipulate them. I thought it was unnecessary to explain since that all I did is copy & paste – until yesterday.

Now, it’s all up to her and to all readers too, to decide. Should I delete everything or continue? Here I am, asking for forgiveness from all of you for this disturbing. You may just shoot me dead or save me alive.


p/s: reach the real MarinaM here… http://rantingsbymm.blogspot.com . Please

07 December 2006

The articles are captured from the original writer, MsMarina (with her permission). SambalBelacan is just compiling articles to make easier to find. Any comments received will remain un-respond because it's not mine.
Reach her at her very own blog at http://rantingsbymm.blogspot.com Please.


Wednesday December 6, 2006

Early AIDS intervention


SOME people have opined that I should stop writing about ‘mushy’ things like AIDS and write more hardhitting stuff in this column. Given that I only write about AIDS twice a year out of 26 columns, I really wonder where I got this ‘mushy’ reputation from.

In any case, since this is December, I will dedicate this column to AIDS again. Why? Because it hasn’t gone away. And because we still insist on doing empirically unproven interventions rather than things that have been shown to work.

In conjunction with World AIDS Day, Negri Sembilan announced that it will begin mandatory premarital HIV testing for all Muslim couples. Joining states like Johor, Pahang, Selangor, Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, Perak and Perlis, this means that no Muslim can get married without being tested for HIV.

It is not clear why this is being done. If the intention is prevention of sexual transmission, there has yet to be empirical evidence that it works.

I detect a certain naivete that only married couples have sex and therefore liable to pass on the virus, unless, of course, people who have premarital or extra-marital sex deserve to get infected.

As with much in Malaysia, we do things not because it is the right thing to do but because we want to show that we are doing something, regardless of effectiveness.

In contrast, in the United States, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended near-universal HIV testing, which means that everyone who goes to a university student clinic, hospital emergency wards and walk-in clinics as well as free clinics across the country are given an HIV test routinely.

On the face of it, the CDC recommendation seems to support what we are doing here in Malaysia. But a closer examination reveals very great differences.

For one thing, the goal of universal testing in the US is to get people into treatment early.

As most people in the early stages of HIV infection display no symptoms, they are unlikely to obtain treatment until their immune systems are severely compromised. This would make treatment not only more difficult but also more expensive.

The goal of mandatory testing in Malaysia is merely to identify who is HIV-positive and who is not. If it were aimed at referring people for treatment early, then it would be run by the health departments of each state, not the Islamic religious departments.

Secondly, testing in the US is now being promoted to everybody, regardless of whether they are getting married or not, whatever religion they may be.

Unlike many here, US doctors recognize that you don’t have to be married to be infected, nor is sexual transmission the only way to become infected.

Thirdly, while those found HIV-positive in Malaysia are not prohibited from getting married, it is unclear what counseling is given to not only help them deal with their HIV status but also to prevent transmission to others.

Specifically, they need to be told about condoms and not to share needles. Without this, the stated aim of prevention is unlikely to work.

It is not only newly married couples who are at risk of infecting each other; there are certainly a large number of long-married couples who have become infected. Common sense will tell you that premarital testing would have no effect here.

Fourthly, universal testing is not the same as mandatory testing. Nobody is forcing you to get tested. However, if you are a person at risk and you don’t get tested, you would be depriving yourself of early treatment.

Mandatory premarital testing is punitive; take the test or else forget about getting married. Not getting married, however, is not the same as not having sex.

It is worth knowing that the World Health Organisation does not support mandatory premarital testing.

As a member of the WHO, we are contravening this.

As much as we like going our own way, this would only be supportable if we had a sound scientific basis for doing this.

In the case of mandatory premarital testing, we don’t. It does not prevent people from getting infected, least of all women, as long as nothing is done to change the power dynamics in a marriage that allows men to do what they want without giving women any say. That is the crux of women’s vulnerability to HIV.

As the Minister of Health has reported, the numbers of women becoming infected in this country is rising rapidly, including since 2001 when the first mandatory premarital testing programme began in Johor.

The question we are not asking is this: why are the state religious departments running HIV testing programmes? Is this a way out of our obligation to conduct sound public health practices, replacing them with moral-laden unscientific and expensive ones instead?

04 December 2006

Friday November 24, 2006

Strange mindset


LOOKING at recent developments, I think there should be a new association registered for the propagation of the shallow and superficial. It should be called, for short, the SS.

The SS is open for membership to people who have nothing better to do with their lives than look for monsters under their beds, enemies in their blankets or crosses in their buns. The first members of the SS are the people who believe that the path to hell is paved with ice-cream biscuits.

In case there are still people out there who only read the mainstream papers and therefore have been blissfully cocooned in ignorance, a group of defenders of the faith have lodged a report that a certain brand of ice-cream biscuits have (Christian) crosses on them, and therefore this is a grave threat to our faith. If any of us were unaware that all it takes is ice-cream to melt our faith, now we know.

The SS would comprise of people who really believe that their faith needs to be protected from confectionery, lipstick, books, magazines, songs, maybe even SpongeBob SquarePants. Everything should be scrutinized for their ability to creep into one’s soul and destroy one’s beliefs. Having laws that allow for this scrutiny would apparently show how superior and strong their religion is.

The SS are not in the least bit interested in any real issues that might truly be threats to their community. Not for them the trivial matters of poverty and hunger nor of people being bombed to death every day in Iraq or Palestine, or dying of diseases such as AIDS. Nay, these are unimportant compared to the dangers of ice-cream and lipstick.

In case anyone thinks I am making this up, some people might remember that in the days before the United States invaded Iraq, an e-mail listing out the brands of cosmetics one should not use because their lipsticks were not halal was passed around. Undoubtedly, several hundred thousand dead Iraqis later, those who boycotted those lipsticks feel very good now.

Let us not forget other SS members, those who should be conferred the special title Simple-Minded and Stupid, otherwise known as SMS. These are the sorts who believe every little message that comes into their hot little phones, no matter how unlikely.

Without even asking simple questions like “Is it true?”, they pass them on as if they were, well, gospel. Even worse, instead of just relying on electronic gadgets, which one can always blame technology for, they pass on these messages verbally to other members of the SS, all of whom accept everything the SMS say is literally The Word of God.

The alleged Word of God is then borne into action by Korrupt Kombative Knuckleheads, otherwise known as the KKK. These will do things like throw firecrackers into churchyards, destroy temples and raid married people’s bedrooms. Pretty soon we may find them dressing up in bedsheets and stringing up people they don’t like on trees.

One thing about the SS, the SMS and the KKK is that they never take responsibility for anything. Unlike hijackers, kidnappers and terrorists who want to be known as people who do bad deeds, the Malaysian versions don’t own up to anything. If SS or SMS talk about how Other People are bad, and the KKK then go and string up people by their necks, the SS and SMS simply put their hands up and say, “But I never told them to do that. I only mentioned these things in passing.”

Thus they can pass out simpleminded but dangerous messages without having to take the consequences. Unlike Other People who are constantly being threatened with all sorts of Dire Consequences should they so much as open their mouths. This is how less than a dozen people talking peace and goodwill can be told to shut up in the face of 10,000 talking war and hate. It’s the same sort of argument some Neanderthals make about cameras peering in inappropriate places; the victims shouldn’t have worn skirts.

The sad thing is that an association like the SS would have so many members in this country. While those who are reasonable, moderate and tolerant are getting marginalized every day.

The voice of hate is these days so much louder than the voice of peace, love and inclusiveness. Just as we don’t see the supreme irony of trumpeting our religious superiority while at the same time claiming that it only takes biscuits to destroy us, we don’t see the irony of extolling ourselves as a superior race while at the same time insisting on crutches and handouts.

13 November 2006

Wednesday November 8, 2006

Outrageous events


IT’S NOT the first time that I’m feeling that life in this country is surreal but certainly these past few weeks have scored higher than usual on the “is-this-really-my-country” register.

First we get reams of news about people who have quite blatantly abused their power. A humongous house built illegally with heaven knows whose money. Blatant disregard for rules and regulations, not to mention propriety. Very fudged “truths”. I would even venture that disrespecting people’s intelligence should also be considered a crime.

It’s interesting to see how after quite rightly crucifying the guy, the rehabilitation promptly starts. First a large section of what should have been a news page is devoted to how the feng shui of his house was wrong and that’s why he’s in so much trouble. Does this mean that all any crook has to do is make sure his house is properly aligned and he’ll get away with anything? Maybe we should employ a whole bunch of feng shui sleuths to size up big houses immediately.

Then there’s the astounding spectacle of the formerly Gucci be-shaded politician all red-eyed and puffy bemoaning the way life has been so horrible lately when all he’s ever done is help people. (We should perhaps look at what “help” actually means.)

And our ever-curious media swallows it whole, accepts his refusal to answer questions (couldn’t he at least have said it would have been sub judice, assuming he will go to court at some point?) and then talks about his “simple wooden home where he lives with his 11 kids and their spouses and children as well as his aged mother”.

I reckon any tour of squatter settlements around KL will reveal quite a few families in the same boat, none of whom have the means to improve their living conditions by building a palace, legally or illegally.

Then we have the equally sorry spectacle of our over-testosteroned gung-ho religious zealots who tried to “catch” a non-Muslim foreign couple in their 60s for khalwat. And don’t we love the defence given by the Kedah Jabatan Ugama that essentially they were just doing their job?

It strikes a poor simpleton like me that if you bang on people’s doors and they answer in what must have been obviously American-twanged English, it would be fair to conclude that a) they are foreign, and b) they are likely not to be Muslim. Unless this was actually a way of trying to show Mr Bush who’s boss, in Langkawi at least.

By the way, let us not get upset about this episode just because it hurts our tourism industry. Our own people have had to endure this ridiculous policing of our private lives for ages and how many times have such “enforcers” made mistakes such as this with their own community?

Malaysia stands alone with only Saudi Arabia and Iran in this type of state intrusion into people’s lives. Does anyone think that tourists are impressed if we confine this to just our people? Maybe we should start doing khalwat tours and charge tourists to accompany our religious officials on their raids and see if arrivals increase.

Then we poor dumb Malaysians get told that we cannot do anything about politicians on the take because hey, it’s an in-house matter and it doesn’t affect us outsiders at all. Sorry? Politicos have nothing to do with the rest of us? Don’t we “outsiders” vote them in every few years? You mean to say that our anti-corruption agency was set up just to deal with those of us not fool enough to join a political party? That’s a great recruitment ploy, I must say.

When people complain that those of us who provide intelligent criticism of the workings of our country are spoiling the image of Malaysia, it makes me wonder how these guys I just mentioned enhances it.

Apparently being dumb, arrogant, corrupt, bigoted and zealous is better for our image than being smart, upright, fair-minded citizens. Am I missing something here or has the world turned upside down?

Maybe if we don’t travel outside our country and don’t care about the image of our country (although some Ministers keep reminding us we should), it’s okay to gloss over these outrageous events. But if, like me, you travel overseas and meet well-read people, it’s hard to know where to put our faces.

We need someone to restore our moral bearings, someone who just says outright that these things are wrong, no fudging, no excuses. Someone who understands that these events bring shame to our country, not pride. Otherwise an entire continent might not want to be associated with us if this is what “Truly Asia” really means.

30 October 2006

Wednesday October 18, 2006

Learning from differences


SOMETIMES we just don’t know when we’ve got something good going. There I was at the Women’s Forum in Deauville, France, with some 800 of the most dynamic women in the world listening to a man talk about the need for diversity in the workplace and in our lives.

Carlos Ghosn is the President and CEO of Renault in France, as well as the President and CEO of Nissan in Japan. By those designations alone, he is a unique individual. But given his background, it isn’t surprising. Born of Lebanese parents in Brazil, Ghosn was educated and worked in Brazil, Lebanon, France, the United States and then Japan. He is diversity incarnate.

Goshn came to the Women’s Forum with an interesting take on globalisation. For globalisation to work, he said, it must recognise the diversity of identities. It’s not about making everyone uniform, it’s about understanding and making diversity an asset. He asserts that when people are denied their identities, whether ethnically, culturally, religiously or in terms of gender, then that’s when clashes occur.

Therefore when companies go to other countries and try to replicate the whole work environment that they are used to at home, they will be unlikely to succeed. They have to recognise what the country and the society they are in looks like, and reflect that in the work environment. He claims that companies that mix expat and local management do better in their foreign investments than those that rely only on expats.

Diversity also means looking at gender balance in the workplace at all levels. Goshn told the story of his experience in the completely male-dominated Japanese auto industry where women make up only 1.9% of management positions. Yet, of the six million cars sold in Japan annually, women buy one-third and another one-third is bought by couples where the woman’s opinion matters a lot. So it made sense to bring more women into the auto industry or risk agitating two-thirds of their customers. Putting his money where his mouth is, Nissan started putting women into their showrooms, resulting in better sales from those outlets.

Goshn also said one thing that was so obvious but so profound: we mostly learn from people who are different from us. How true is that? It is only when we sit down to talk with people from different backgrounds to us, who have been educated differently, who have different experiences and opinions, that we learn something new. At the same time, they also learn something from us. If we spend all our time with people who are exactly the same as us, then we never grow as individuals and as people.

When I listened to him, I thought how lucky we are in Malaysia to already have all the ready-made ingredients for incredible progress and development! We only have to step out the door to meet diversity in all its manisfestations: different ethnic groups, different cultures, different religions, different outlooks and ways of life.

Of course, we have a lot in common too, bound together by this land we call home. Yet we should recognise how rich we are to have that mix and what we can do with it.

In a globalised world that is making diversity a buzzword, we should by right have the least trouble adapting.

And if what Carlos Ghosn says about globalisation working when identities are respected is true, then who has better experience in that than Malaysians?

Yet look at how we throw these opportunities away. Every day we protect our ethnic and cultural turfs as if these exclusive pens are going to make us better, when in fact they will make us worse. We build walls around our identities to supposedly protect them, when in fact we are dooming them to extinction because we close ourselves off to the new ideas that will ensure our survival.

We forget that in our small-minded need to supposedly protect ourselves, we are also losing the opportunity to enrich others with our knowledge and experience. Unless we have such an inferiority complex that we think we have nothing to offer the world.

I feel ashamed and embarrassed when I listen to politicians arguing about their racial turfs as if this inherently demonstrates their superiority. I feel insulted when my fellow religious brethren claim that to simply wish people of other faiths well would amount to losing their own. I want my world to be diverse but not peopled by small minds.

I want to tell my fellow citizens of every race and religion that it is because I live among them and know them, that my life has been so enriched and enlivened. And I would not want it any other way. Happy Deepavali and Selamat Hari Raya to all.

11 October 2006

Wednesday October 4, 2006

Time for reflection


MY daughter ShaSha was in tears the other morning. She had intended to fast for half the day but while getting dressed for school, had forgotten and had eaten some cereal. So mortified was she that she refused to go to school. I had to spend a lot of time persuading her that she had done no wrong and that she could still fast if she wanted to. Eventually she agreed and after calming down, as I left her at school, she said she would still “fast” until lunchtime.

As children, we all wanted to fast. The idea of not having to eat seemed like a good thing, rather than having our mothers nag us to finish our rice and vegetables every day. What’s more, fasting was what grown-ups did, so to fast meant that, even if you’re only seven like my ShaSha, you are one step towards being grown-up. And oh, the joys of the breaking of fast with all the sweet drinks and kuih and all manner of good things to eat! I even enjoyed getting up in the wee hours for sahur, since it is the only time we get to eat in our pyjamas.

From her Ugama lessons at school, my daughter could recite all manner of puasa protocol. She can tell you when you don’t need to fast and how you need to replace missed days. But somehow her teacher had failed to tell her that at seven, it is not compulsory to fast yet. This is the sort of omission that makes for grief like the breakfast incident. She thought she had done something really bad.

To console her, I told her something which I had been told long ago in my own childhood and which has remained with me until today. I told her that when she thinks of good things to do, God immediately records it as merit, while if she thinks of something bad to do, then God waits until she actually does it to record it as demerit.

Nothing proved to me more that God is fair than this story, that He blesses good thoughts and even more good deeds. But knowing well human frailties, He allows us to think of nasty things yet doesn’t condemn us until we actually do them. I think understanding the compassion and forgiveness of God was what made her decide to carry on fasting despite her small mistake.

I wish often that adults would remember these particular traits of God, which we would do well to try and emulate. One can think of so many nasty things about other human beings but there is no real reason to act upon those thoughts by doing, saying and writing them in order to cause hurt and humiliation. No doubt there are many things that need to be said but there are equally many ways to say things. Rationally and calmly is one way that takes the sting out of one’s criticism without necessarily distracting from the substance of what one wants to say.

Yet many of my countrymen and women seem to unleash every single thought that occurs to them without once thinking whether what they say truly enlightens those on the receiving end, or just reflects back on themselves. I read comments on the Internet and have to wonder how countering racism with even more racism achieves anything. Lying, no doubt, has its uses but only for people with no conscience I suppose. Unfortunately, I have encountered many untruths about myself but it seems useless to do anything about them. I just have to take consolation that Someone knows the truth.

In this good month of Ramadan, we are supposed to not only cleanse ourselves physically by fasting but also mentally and spiritually. It may be a month that tempers the behaviour of Muslims but I find that in our country, our fellow citizens of other religions also tend to get more subdued. I know several who also fast during Ramadan, not just to keep their Muslim friends company. One friend, a Catholic, decided to fast during Ramadan, as a kind of offering to God because his mother has cancer. It’s also nice to know that those non-Muslims who just thought of fasting but then didn’t still got points for the thought.

Our thoughts do not necessarily get more benign during Ramadan. Indeed some people may use hunger as an excuse to be testier about everything. But at the same time, the restraint from eating also has the effect of restraining us from everything of a malicious nature. It makes you at least stop and think. And how many of us could do with that extra second of reflection?

Maybe what being religious is really about is pausing to reflect on what effect everything we say and do has on another person.

25 September 2006

Wednesday September 20, 2006

It’s only polite


WHEN I was about five years old, my dad spanked me for sticking my tongue out at our gardener, Pak Hashim. In our house, along with telling lies, this was a major sin. My nanny used to tell me that God would cut my tongue if I stuck it out, especially to older people.

Respect for older people was the credo of our family. We children were not allowed to be rude to anyone older, no matter who they were. This was why Pak Hashim, whom in fact we adored because he told us endless Sang Kancil stories, had the right to complain to my parents whenever we treated him with disrespect. And my parents took his complaints seriously and punished us accordingly.

Unsurprisingly, good manners became a major lesson of my childhood. I am notorious for constantly reminding my children to say “please” and “thank you”. None of them are allowed to call older people by their first names; they had to be “Kakak”, “Abang”, “Uncle” or “Auntie”.

It seems that I am old-fashioned in thinking this way. Good manners, which is the way we treat other people with consideration and respect, seems to be something that has flown out the window. We pride ourselves on Asian courtesy and hospitality but every day we see examples of rudeness and lack of consideration for others, whether on the roads or in the service industries.

Like everything else, courtesy depends on example. Children who are brought up by well-mannered parents learn these social rules early in life. What they don’t learn from their parents, they learn from observing the customs of wherever they live.

When I went to boarding school away from my home state and met schoolmates from other states, I observed they had different customs and I learnt to adapt. Living overseas also means having to adapt to different social rules; doing so is only polite.

The reverse can also be true. If we constantly see bad manners and behaviour, we think that is the norm and adapt accordingly. Impressionable children are particularly vulnerable to this. Thus we cannot completely blame them for bad behaviour without looking at the examples that are being set by adults around them every day.

We cannot expect children to learn good manners when they see leaders of our country behaving in impolite, crude and uncouth ways. These days almost anything goes when it comes to name-calling. Some public figures have no qualms at all about badmouthing people much older and wiser than them, just because they disagree with them. Instead of the old adage that the higher you go in life, the more humble you should be, arrogance seems to be the norm.

That Readers’ Digest report that gave us such poor marks for courtesy only surveyed the behaviour of ordinary people; imagine what they would have given us had they surveyed politicians!

Perhaps some people think that courtesy and politeness is too restrictive, even undemocratic. One should be able to say what one wanted about another person, regardless of how malicious and unkind your words might be, especially if you don’t like the other person.

Maligning the other person’s character seems to be a right but only for people in high positions where they feel they are untouchable, or those who hide under the cover of anonymity. Try to be rude about someone higher up the social pecking order than you (and be silly enough to do it under your own name) and see what happens! You get accused of being un-Malaysian!

I think nothing reveals people more than when they talk about other people. Name-calling and other forms of arrogant behaviour only reflect back on the name-caller. You have to wonder about their own upbringing; what did they learn in their childhood that makes them mouth off in this way? What are they so afraid of that, instead of reasoned argument, they take the easy route of maligning others? What is arrogance but a cover for some inadequacy? Sometimes you can even feel pity for them.

My worry is that with these examples, we will be bringing up a whole generation of people who lack the basic good manners that would allow them to live with one another, in our diverse society, in peace and harmony.

If everybody feels that it’s okay to constantly take and give offense, then we’ll spend our time constantly fighting. That’s not to say that we should not complain if someone is rude to us. But then why have reason to complain in the first place?

Sometimes I think we need to protect our children from witnessing such behaviour on the part of public figures. Rudeness is bad enough but how do we shield our children from hypocrisy?

11 September 2006

Wednesday September 6, 2006

Restrictions on women


IN 1993, I had one of the most profound experiences of my life. I went on the umrah (lesser pilgrimage) to Mecca and Medinah, Islam’s holiest cities, an experience that left me with two distinct impressions.

Firstly, there was no difference in what was required of men and women to perform the umrah. And secondly, that some of the rituals, particularly the sa’y, which commemorates Hajar’s search in the desert for water for her baby son Ismail (later to become a Prophet), were tributes to women, womanhood and motherhood.

I completed my umrah feeling newly enlightened and affirmed in my belief that Islam does not discriminate between men and women.

The saying goes that “man proposes and God disposes” but sometimes people act as if God only makes recommendations that we can chose to accept or ignore. This past week, according to news reports, Saudi clerics have proposed imposing restrictions on women’s access to the holiest site in Islam, the Kaaba. “The area is very small and so crowded. So we decided to get women out of the ‘sahn’ (Kaaba area) to a better place where they can see the Kaaba and have more space,” they said.

There are several problems with this explanation. Firstly, it is not so much a question of being able to see the Kaaba as being able to be near the Kaaba. If all Muslim men and women merely wanted to see the Kaaba, we can look at it on TV. But we know that touching al-hajar al-aswad (the black stone) at its south-western corner is the ideal way of initiating the tawaf ritual (circumambulation), and we love to caress the Kaaba’s walls and clutch the kiswa (the black cloth draping the Kaaba). Being shunted off to some remote corner of the Masjid-il-Haram effectively denies women access to this.

Secondly, and even more importantly, this is the first time in 1,400 years that anyone has proposed this. The Masjid-il-Haram or Forbidden Mosque (that is, forbidden to non-Muslims) is the only place in the Muslim world where men and women are not separated in worship. This has been ongoing for almost 15 centuries, linking us through a continuous chain of historic tradition that binds us to the Prophet in a deeply profound manner. All of a sudden, somebody decides that chain needs to be broken.

In Surah 66 of the Quran, titled Al-Tahrim or Banning, God asks Prophet Mohamad: “O Prophet! Why bannest thou that which Allah hath made lawful for thee?” While the context was specific to a particular situation, nevertheless the theme of these divine words is clear: what God says is halal, humankind cannot turn into haram (and vice versa). It stands therefore that for 1,400 years, God has had no problem with women praying at the Kaaba. Why change now?

Sure, there is a crowd problem at the Masjid-il-Haram especially during the Haj season when over two million pilgrims descend on the Holy Cities. But why solve this through gender discrimination? When the numbers of all-male pilgrims start to be overwhelming, would ethnic discrimination be the next way to solve that problem?

In Surah Al-Ahzab, God responded to complaints by women through the Prophet that there is no mention of them in the Quran and therefore some people had interpreted this as meaning that women do not matter. “Lo! men who surrender unto Allah, and women who surrender, and men who believe and women who believe, and men who obey and women who obey, and men who speak the truth and women who speak the truth, and men who persevere (in righteousness) and women who persevere, and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their modesty and women who guard (their modesty), and men who remember Allah much and women who remember – Allah hath prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward.” (33:35).

The message of this ayat is that God viewed both men and women as His creations and therefore both had access to His attention if they believed in Him. In other words, God does not discriminate between the sexes. Why, therefore, should we?

I read about this new restriction on women with dismay. My experience in Mecca had affirmed my belief that my religion, Islam, is one that upholds equality and justice. I had faced no restrictions during the umrah and it remains in my memory a most moving and humbling experience. I stood by “God’s House” where, for centuries, millions of men and women had come to do their duty to God and had felt equally God’s mercy and beneficence. In imposing these new restrictions, does that mean that women are now undeserving?

28 August 2006

Thursday August 24, 2006

The way we were


ONCE in a while, and getting more often these days, I get into a state of mind where I start thinking of where else in the world I might want to live. It’s been surprisingly hard to think of anywhere that would really suit me. I thought Bali would be nice but hard as it may be to believe, I think I would tire of lying around in a sarong getting massaged all day. Few other nearby countries appeal very much. Besides, if I’m going to be so close by, I might as well stay home.

I can’t think of any country in the West I’d really like to live in either. Sure I’ve visited many and have enjoyed those trips. But living there is another question. I could never live in the United States or Britain without every day wanting to tear my hair out at the idiocies of their governments. Nor could I live in Australia if I have to suffer listening to Howard every day. South America where I’ve never been has some appeal. Might be fun to learn to tango in Argentina.

The point is I really can’t think if anywhere I’d like to live in except Malaysia which is and has always been home. I love many things about this country, most of all the fact that it is multiracial and multireligious. I’ve said this before but when I used to live in very homogenous Japan, coming home felt like going from a black-and-white movie to a colour movie. It was so great to see so many different types of faces, hear so many languages, eat so many types of food each and every day. I like the easy lifestyle and my many friends. Why would I trade all this in for countries where I would always be considered an alien?

The thing is, in my darkest moments, I don’t recognise this country as the one I call home. I see increasing segregation among the different races in schools and universities and I worry about what Malaysia our young will inherit. Will it be the Malaysia that is a role model for multiracial harmony everywhere or will it be some other Malaysia where people get away with saying the most racist and supremacist things as if it was their right to say so?

I listen to some of our politicians and religious figures and I wonder whether we should call them Malaysians at all. (But then one poll says that some people identify themselves by religion first and nationality last.) Some people are even saying that the whole foundation of this country, the Constitution, is wrong. I reckon that’s not much different from burning the flag really.

I’d feel better about it if our leaders were protecting the idea of Malaysia with more gusto. On the contrary, I see the same leaders playing to the gallery. It would be nice if it was a gallery of tolerance and respect but it’s one of hate and suspicion. It’s one where everything is a zero-sum game; if you get it, I lose; therefore I have to get it so that you’ll lose. Win-win? They think that’s a Burmese name.

I grew up in a Malaysia where people cared enough and didn’t care enough. They cared enough about their neighbours to help when needed, but they didn’t care about their neighbours’ private business as a matter of respect. Now everybody wants to poke their noses into everyone’s private business, including into the impossible-to-verify one of personal faith. As a result, people take on the shallowest accoutrements of faith just to keep busybodies at bay. Even that is not enough for the sanctimonious sharks. They need blood, and cutting off chicken heads won’t be enough.

You can almost feel a near-hysteria in the air that, for some people, their country is being threatened by some kafir poltergeist. But then their “country” is one that comprises only one type of people, practises one religion exclusively, tolerates no diversity of opinion nor discussion, assumes the moral superiority of only one race and condescendingly tolerates the existence of others.

Their country is one where they wouldn’t dream of going into the home of someone of another religion, let alone eat with them, where the slightest thing is a threat to faith and therefore should be banned, where thinking is deemed satanic, where judgments are made on people at the smallest excuse, where people who are cruel, moralistic and sanctimonious are lauded as heroes of the race, where lies are blatantly told to get around everything.

I don’t know about you but that sad and confusing place is not my Malaysia. For Merdeka this year, I’d like to have it back please.

14 August 2006

Wednesday August 9, 2006

Limitations on speech


I MUST say that I am at a loss as to what to write about this time. My head is full of things but no ideas come for this column.

For the past 17 years or so, I have written about all the things that I care about; women’s rights, children and young people’s rights, censorship, HIV/AIDS, politics and politicians and more recently, the impact of harsh and rigid interpretations of religion on our people.

In the past few years, I’ve felt that I’ve become a bit of a grump so occasionally I try and lighten the mood by talking about something relatively trivial. But the many people I meet or who write to me have encouraged me by saying that what I write about resonates greatly with them, that I somehow say things that they have been thinking about but don’t feel they can say.

I’ve never felt constrained in talking about whatever got my goat that fortnight, except by the need to be civil and my 800-word limit. Not everyone would agree that I’m always civil; certainly my editors have been known to edit out a line or two where they thought I have been a bit too irreverent about some people in authority, particularly those inclined to wear white robes.

But now I don’t know what to write about. I had wanted to write about how the environment in our local schools is turning out little racists (including my daughter) but I guess I can’t because that’s sensitive. I thought also of writing about how I’ve become addicted to reading blogs recently but then lately, the Internet and the blogosphere particularly have been deemed seething hellholes of lies and misinformation so I can’t talk about that either, at least not in the bastion of truthfulness, the mainstream media.

I’d like to talk about my religion and how self-appointed defenders have painted it as one that so lacks compassion, ignores justice and fairness and promotes inequality between men and women and between those professing it and those not. But then some people have cited me as one of those who really should not be allowed to talk because apparently I give the country a bad name. I guess people who storm forums, write untruths, scream and shout at people with different opinions give a better image of our beloved country. So I can’t talk about this either.

So what can I talk about? I don’t really know anymore. I guess the only safe things to talk about these days are cooking, celebrity gossip and fashion perhaps. None of which I am interested or good at writing about. Should I migrate to the cyberworld? But then, writing my column online would be like waving a red flag to all the keyboard-happy can’t-think-of-anything-nice-to-say-about-anyone lot out there and I really would rather not have a life more stressed than it is already.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that life is mostly about the mundane; getting up every day, sending kids to school, buying groceries, sending the car for servicing, that sort of thing. It would be great to be able to just get on with these, if one’s mind doesn’t get distracted by worries and concerns about what sort of country, now approaching its 50th year, my children will grow up in.

I look constantly for little glimmers of hope, that in fact, everyone in this country has to get on because we are so dependent on one another. But it would be nice if we could be inter-dependent comfortably, better still warmly, and with mutual respect. I don’t understand why I and some of my friends who have always spoken respectfully of everyone are the ones being censured while the ones who are blatantly being supremacist are not. How the world has turned upside down!

There are countries less advanced than us, like Pakistan, where people have a lot of space to say what they want. Some here may argue that that’s why they are not as developed as us.

On the other hand, there are also countries more advanced than us who also give people plenty of leeway to criticise, complain and argue. Many developing countries are also finding that the road to progress is bolstered by providing the many freedoms that their people hunger for, including that for speech.

We on the other hand are trying to emulate the least progressive countries, and are actually proud of it. I don’t know how given current circumstances, which admittedly are not new, we are going to take our place in the world. Unless the world is about to implode, in which case it’s a moot question. What a cheery thought!

31 July 2006

Wednesday July 26, 2006

Shift in focus needed


I RECENTLY visited my favourite museum in Istanbul. The Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) was built in 537 AD as the most magnificent of churches by Emperor Justinian, filled with beautiful mosaics of Christian saints. When the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, the church was converted into a mosque.

At first the Turks preserved the mosaics and frescoes but in the 16th Century they plastered over the figures since Islam forbids human representations.

In 1935 the Ayasofya was turned into a museum and today it is remarkable not only architecturally but also because it is one of the few places where you can see Islamic symbols of worship alongside Christian ones. Our guide was proud to point out that the Ottoman sultans never destroyed the Christian artwork in the Ayasofya, recognising them as part of the heritage of their people. Restoration work is ongoing on the entire museum including the frescoes.

I realised that the respect and magnamity of the Ottoman sultans all those years ago must have been because they were absolutely secure in their faith. There was no need to destroy another religion’s place of worship, especially one so beautiful, when they had absolute confidence in their own faith and when they knew they would go on to build other beautiful buildings such as the Suleimaniye and the Blue Mosques. Such was the thinking of more than 500 years ago.

I wish people today felt as secure in themselves and their own faiths, and not see threats under every rock. It seems that if we so much as mixed with people of other faiths, or looked at icons of others, we are very likely to lose ours.

How weak we are, and how powerful we allow others to be! Therefore we need to be always penned in, protected by the most rigid of barriers. I read in wonder that according to some people, 100,000 Muslims have apostasized. How does one ever verify this number when if even one person seeks to change their religion, they will not be allowed to? It is a system guaranteed to ensure that we can never verify such numbers.

Why not focus on the more easily verifiable number, those who convert into the religion since these are very welcomingly registered?

It is a bit surprising that the very guardians of our faith are those raising alarms about the people we have “lost”. Does this mean they have not been doing their jobs? If they were CEOs of companies, this would constitute a loss and they would likely be fired. I get the feeling sometimes that we do know we are doing things wrongly, that instead of attracting people with a religion that promotes justice, equality, compassion and freedom, we are bludgeoning people with one that is joyless, uncaring, rigid and restrictive.

But for some reason, we are unable to return it to its true form because some people think that this dour interpretation is all there is. I have to wonder how a God that created so much beauty, wonder and joy in the world could be represented by such gloom.

So our insecurity leads us to keep the gates of the pen shut as tightly as possible, even as some of our people strain to get out. Yet in the Quran, God says, “Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth has been made clear from error. Whoever rejects false worship and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold that never breaks. And Allah hears and knows all things.” (Surah al-Baqarah: 256)

And more: “If it had been your Lord’s will, all of the people on Earth would have believed. Would you then compel the people so to have them believe?” (Surah Yunus: 99)

The supreme irony of it all is that there have been those who have cast aspersions on the faith of the Muslims who defend the right of people to not believe. Yet if those same human rights defenders were to say, “Okay then, since you doubt my faith, don’t count me in this club”, the same accusers would refuse to let them be anything but Muslims. So the message is clear: it’s quantity, not quality. No matter how nominal or even unbelieving, let’s just keep everyone with the same label in the pen.

“So if they dispute with you, say I have submitted my whole self to Allah, and so have those who follow me. And say to the People of the Scripture and to the unlearned: Do you also submit yourselves? If they do, then they are on right guidance. But if they turn away, your duty is only to convey the Message. And in Allah’s sight are all of His servants.” (Surah Al Imran: 20)

17 July 2006

Wednesday July 12, 2006

Double standards


SOMETIMES I think some people are right when saying that Malaysians are easily confused. We perpetually contradict ourselves without even being aware of it.

One of the concepts we are almost always confused about is the concept of freedom of speech. There are some people who don’t believe that anyone should have any freedom of speech but at least we know exactly where they stand. Then there’re the people who do believe in being free to say what you want and we know where they stand too. But then there’s that confused section whose general stand is “only people who agree with us should have the freedom to speak; everyone else should be made to shut up”.

Some time ago a group of people complained about how the media shut them out from a particular debate. Rightly, they complained about censorship and I side with them completely on that. But then they went on to say that the media really should not publish irritating columns by people such as me. Now which is it; freedom of speech or censorship? You can only have one, not both. If you want space for your views, then you must also allow views by people who don’t agree with you. That’s called democracy.

I saw that again recently in a letter to the editor which complained about not being allowed to have peaceful protests. I was rah-rahing the letter-writer until I came to the end when he said that the media should really shut down or censure the opinions of certain personalities. Again, which does he want?

I don’t know whether it is just cultural or a result of our force-down-your–throat education system but we have great difficulty entertaining the idea that people with diverse opinions should have equal space with us. We hide behind the amorphous concept of “sensitiveness” to ensure that contrary opinions don’t collide with each other. Either one takes the politically correct view or not at all.

But what if the politically correct view isn’t the right one, or at the very least needs refining? How does that happen if no other opinion is allowed to see the light of day?

That’s when the secret weapon comes out. Their opinion is divinely sanctioned. Therefore contrary opinions must surely be divinely forbidden. How anyone knows this with such certainty is a mystery. Surely they aren’t suggesting they are the Voice of God?

The plurality of voices has existed since the beginning of time. Over thousands of years, people find a way to talk to one another, to discuss and come to some consensus. Sometimes a lot of blood is shed to achieve this but surely we have come a long way since then?

There are some people who claim that having freedom of speech (or freedom of anything) means allowing the profane, the immoral and the hateful. But in most countries, there is some form of law that disallows such speech. In Germany you cannot say anything to glorify the Nazis. In Britain freedom of speech is limited by laws against “hate speech”, ie words that cause one group of people to hate another. In Malaysia supposedly we should be sensitive to the feelings of our different communities and not say anything to offend them. (Except maybe in Parliament?)

But I get the impression that such sensitivity only goes one way. People are exhorted not to hurt the feelings of one particular group, while some members of that group blithely say insulting things about others with no conscience at all. They talk as if the slightest contact with these others would taint their own people. Is this not hurtful? Yet these are the same people who complain about not being allowed to speak if anyone protests against them. Freedom to say vile things about others? I’m not sure about that.

There is always talk that rights and freedom should always be tempered with responsibility. Well I completely agree. But let’s walk the talk, shall we? I wonder if some of the things said by public figures in this country are responsible, especially when they claim divine authority? I see people defending them solely on the basis that they are holding taxpayer-paid posts. Claims are made that they are correct with no specific examples given (for example, there are those who claim that there are ungodly activities that go on at kongsi Raya events but without ever specifying what). How responsible is that?

When we allow freedom of speech that is fair to all, as well as hold people to high standards of evidence and truthfulness, then we will clear confusion. While our stand on this remains wobbly, then it’s no wonder that people think double standards is the norm.

03 July 2006

Wednesday June 28, 2006
True meaning of pluralism
If there’s one thing that can be said about globalisation, it’s that sometimes you wonder where you are. You look out your window, whether you’re in KL, New York or Manila and you see McDonald’s and for a minute there, you’re not sure what country you’re in.
I was just reading about my fellow women writers around the world and came across one who would make Attila the Hun look like a lamb. Ann Coulter is a conservative writer with a capital C.
On Sept 12, 2001, she responded to the World Trade Centre attack by saying, “we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” She told a Vietnam War veteran that “people like you caused us to lose that war”.
In 2001, she said, “women should be armed but should not be allowed to vote.” Or what about this: “I have to say I’m all for public flogging. One type of criminal that a public humiliation might work particularly well with are the juvenile delinquents, a lot of whom consider it a badge of honor to be sent to juvenile detention. And it might not be such a cool thing in the ‘hood to be flogged publicly.”
And in case we don’t know where her political sentiments lie: “The thing I like about Bush is I think he hates liberals.” Most recently she called 9/11 widows “witches” just because they want to know what happened.
In case anyone thinks she’s just joking, I met a reporter who actually interviewed her and she told him that what gives liberals chills is that she actually means everything she says. And he believes her.
Now what gave me that feeling of not knowing where I am is when I open our own newspapers and read about people warning about the dangers of liberalism and pluralism.
Oh my, Ann Coulter on my own doorstep! They should get together, the blonde with a penchant for high slit dresses and the guys in long gowns. So much in common to talk about!
I looked up pluralism and this is what it is defined as: “Pluralism is, in the general sense, the affirmation and acceptance of diversity. The concept is used, often in different ways, in a wide range of issues. In politics, the affirmation of diversity in the interests and beliefs of the citizenry, is one of the most important features of modern democracy”.
Religious pluralism is somewhat trickier. Islam, like most other monotheistic faiths, views itself as the only true path for following the will of God and going to Paradise. But the Quran also accepts diversity of religions as created by God:
“For every one of you did We appoint a law and a way, and if Allah had pleased He would have made you (all) a single people, but that He might try you in what He gave you, therefore strive with one another to hasten to virtuous deeds; to Allah is your return, of all (of you), so He will let you know that in which you differed”. (Surah 5, verse 48).
So it’s a bit difficult to be Ann Coulter if you’re a faithful Muslim. What more if you live in a pluralistic multicultural multi-religious country like ours.
Liberalism is also another of Ann Coulter’s targets, which puts her exactly in the same camp as some people here.
According to my encyclopaedia, “Liberalism is an ideology, philosophy, and political tradition that holds liberty as the primary political value. Broadly speaking, liberalism seeks a society characterized by freedom of thought for individuals, limitations on power, especially of government and religion, the rule of law, the free exchange of ideas, a market economy that supports relatively free private enterprise, and a transparent system of government in which the rights of minorities are guaranteed. In modern society, liberals favour a liberal democracy with open and fair elections, where all citizens have equal rights by law and an equal opportunity to succeed.”
I can’t argue with that really, although there are people who claim that liberalism is the freedom to wear bikinis in Parliament. Which goes to show how shallow some people are. The only problem with liberalism is that people who are liberal tend to be very liberal with the people who aren’t and who are certainly not grateful for that courtesy in any case.
Imagine an international convention of the Illiberals and the Anti-Pluralists. Just think who would be there. President Bush would deliver the keynote opening address titled “There is No Room for Pluralism: Everyone Should be the Same.” Some of our guys could speak on “Liberalism: The Devil’s Way – Forget about Caring for Other People”. There would be workshops where different fundamentalists can compare notes.
In one room photographs of prominent liberals would be pinned up so that delegates can throw mud at them. Everyone would be united in their common hatred.
Guess that’s what globalisation means.

19 June 2006

Wednesday June 14, 2006
The truth is out
WONDER of wonders, a study that actually publicly says some tough things! I’m referring to the results of the 2001 International Medical University survey of 4,500 Malaysian adolescents that was featured in the Sunday Star.
You have to forgive my wonderment; I am just so used to surveys that either sidestep the issues, declare that everything is going just great or simply don’t publish the results because they gave a less than rosy picture of our society. There was once a survey of Muslim women done by an Islamic institution that didn’t even ask if religion played any role in their lives. Let’s not ask the difficult questions in case we don’t like the answers, right?
I guess it’s because IMU is a private university that they can actually release less than palatable results. And guess what, the results show that some of our teens are not the clean-scrubbed well-behaved children we’d like them to be. They smoke, they drink, they take drugs, they have sex, they sometimes try to kill themselves, and sometimes succeed. Not news to NGOs, counsellors and any teenager with the least bit of sensitivity to his surroundings. Our kids are having problems but who’s listening to them?
To be fair, we’ve tried to address some of these problems. But almost always from an adult perspective, with very little input from young people themselves. Time and time again, “just say no” campaigns have failed but we keep seeing the same tired slogan repeated endlessly in big expensive advertising campaigns. Do they work? We don’t know because nobody tracks the effectiveness of these campaigns with indicators that are actually measurable.
Young people have problems saying no even when they know the negative consequences of what they do because they don’t know how to deal with peer pressure. We tell kids to say no without telling them how. As adults we have forgotten how important it is for young people to be accepted by their peers. What more in this conformist society where we regularly disparage any form of individualism. So if a young person is trying to assert his or her individuality by refusing to go along with the crowd, he or she risks ostracism and isolation. Considering how often adults themselves yield to peer pressure and act like sheep, why should we be surprised that teens act the same way?
The other important finding from the survey is that adults, especially parents, simply cannot get away with the old “do as I say, not as I do” approach. Parents who smoke have no moral authority to tell their kids not to smoke. Kids can see through hypocrisy every time. If parents set bad examples, their children will follow, just as if they set good examples, they will also follow them. I don’t know any brats that come from nice parents. Their brattiness has to come from somewhere. This is why teachers have a problem when parents complain if their kids are punished. Basically they know that they can’t change the kids without changing the parents.
This is not to say that school has no place at all for positive influences. Young people can learn many good things at school. As long as these are taught well, and every effort is made to ensure that every child gets the information they need. But they can’t get it if they are distracted by other problems, they find school a scary place because of bullying and they get no help in actualizing the positive information they receive. Our school system is very much a one-way delivery system; as we long as we deliver the information, we think the job’s done. What the kids actually do with it seems not to be our concern.
And let’s repeat it, we need sex education in school. The survey reported that only 5.4% of the adolescents said they had ever had sexual intercourse. But sexual activity covers a wide spectrum of behaviours, intercourse being only one.
A study in the United States recently found that teens who are sexually active tended to lie about taking abstinence pledges previously. On the other hand, teens who took such pledges also tended to lie about previous sexual activity. In other words, teens are not going to tell the truth about sexual activity to adults. In our country, where there is so little sex education, even teens’ definitions of sexual activity may be inconsistent.
If we want to truly help our young, we need to face up to the truth about them. If this means having to talk about smoking or sex to 10-year-olds, then that’s what we have to do, as unpalatable as that may seem.

31 May 2006

Wednesday May 31, 2006

Fact or fiction?


AMIDST the endless chatter about The Da Vinci Code recently, a British survey revealed that almost half of the people who had read it thought it was likely to be true. Considering that the book is billed as fiction, how can this be?

Perhaps we cannot blame these people. These days it is so hard to tell fact from fiction that anyone would get confused. Take the case of another book, A Million Pieces by James Frey, that was supposed to be biographical until it turned out that the author had made up some of the stories in it. Either way, it sold millions of copies so maybe people don’t mind being confused.

But this confusion is not limited to books. Fiction is often aggressively touted as fact so that other objectives may be achieved. The one that most comes to mind is the one about how Iraq needs to be invaded because they have Weapons of Mass Destruction. When this turned out to be irrefutably fictional, other little fairytales were trotted out as hardcore fact. The latest is that “the election of a constitutional government in Iraq justified going to war”, cheerily announced by President Bumble and Prime Minister Bee. That’s rather like saying that the marrying of the Prince justified Cinderella being careless enough to lose an expensive pair of glass slippers that night. Isn’t hindsight great?

There are numerous other examples of fiction touted as fact. Abstinence prevents HIV. Polygamy is good for women. Our schools are really good. Our MPs are intelligent and sensitive people. We have an open society. Every bit of gossip and rumour we hear is true and comes from reliable sources.

The latest marvellous one is that men can be charitable by marrying women without having to be responsible for them. This only confirms my contention that in this country we promote lots of sex and lust as long as it’s legal. A friend of mine made a good point; at least prostitutes get paid for their services. In kahwin misyar, women don’t even get that!

Then there’s fact derided as fiction. Price hikes hurt people. Our universities are not fabulous. Lelaki Komunis Terakhir is a security threat. MPs seem to get away with anything. We are nowhere near solving our drug problem. Our mainstream papers don’t report all the news that’s fit to read.

No wonder people get confused. We seem to be living in parallel worlds. One is the hunky dory one where everything seems to be going great, where one can simply adapt one’s lifestyle to suit our shrinking wallets, convince ourselves that laws are just meant for bad people and not us, pat ourselves on our backs that we can endure any misery without having to demonstrate or protest like other people. Then there is the real one where people are really finding it hard to make ends meet, where we can see obvious corruption and abuse of position, where women really have a rotten deal, where segregation is becoming an increasing reality.

The worst fiction of all, and for some reason this is one bit of fiction that almost everybody believes, is that nothing can be done and we should resign ourselves to it. We could take that as fact and then have to live with the fiction that we are a democracy. I suppose over time we can make ourselves believe anything at all.

It used to be, for example, that teachers, doctors, lawyers and the like used to get into politics because, having seen the realities of life for ordinary people, they decided that the only way to help was to get into Parliament. That was fact dealing with facts. Nowadays people aim to get into Parliament using the fiction that they wanted to help others when the fact is often that the only people helped are themselves. We should take a close look at those who make claims about helping others, usually those who have the same interests as themselves, and see what they have actually done to help those really in need. Then, based on those facts, let’s stop this fiction that they are there to serve the nation.

I don’t know about you but the fact for me is reading the news daily, our politicians are losing credibility daily. Already they are our least trusted people (wasn’t it funny that none wanted to make a comment on that?), but with all the recent pronouncements, is it any wonder that our confidence gets eroded even more? Did we actually elect these people? What on earth possessed us?

To stop living in a fictional world where we think everything is fine when they are actually not, we, as citizens, need to take more responsibility. If a politician says something objectionable or stupid, we should boo them loud and clear. We mustn’t close one eye to it all.

22 May 2006

Wednesday May 17, 2006

HIV on the rise


ROHANI is a 17-year-old girl whom anyone would mistake for being only 14. At age 12, her stepfather started to rape her. When she was 14, he died. Soon after, her mother also died, like her husband, of AIDS. Rohani got tested and was found to be HIV-positive.

Sent to live with her grandmother, she found her way to the hospital where she was put on anti-retroviral drugs. Now she feels better and wants to go back to school. But she remains an introverted girl, perhaps because of the horrific life she has experienced so far. Rohani was one of about 40 women I met in Kota Baru not too long ago, all of them HIV-positive. An NGO there, Persatuan Prihatin was set up two years ago by an extraordinary staff nurse Zaimah Hussin, along with two dedicated doctors, Dr Maheran Mustafe and Dr Norliza Ariffin. As a counsellor at the Tengku Ampuan Zainab Hospital, Zaimah became concerned about the number of HIV-infected women she was seeing, about eight or nine new cases a month. Today Prihatin has a membership of over 100 women, all of them infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

There have been many articles written about Prihatin in the past few months. They are doing extraordinary work but rarely do these articles explain what the phenomenon of Prihatin really means.

Firstly, it is very clear that women are becoming infected with HIV in our country in ever-increasing numbers. The 100-over members of Prihatin are all from one state; who knows what is happening in other states? Secondly, despite this, nobody seems to be alarmed at all. The Health chapter in the 9th Malaysia Plan mentions HIV/AIDS but said nothing about the increasing number of women becoming infected, a sure sign that the epidemic is making inroads into the general population.

The chapter on Women also makes no mention of any concern about this except to say that there should be more awareness about HIV/AIDS among women. The recently announced National Strategic Plan on HIV/AIDS in turn relegates women to marginalized groups, making it seem as if they are marginal to the problem rather than increasingly central. This will affect how we prioritise prevention.

Experience from all around the world shows that AIDS is rapidly becoming feminised. As more women become infected, the consequences for society are disastrous.

We lose not just wives and mothers but caregivers and nurturers, farm workers, teachers, nurses and factory hands. Children become orphans, the elderly are left to care for their grandchildren. If anyone thinks this is only happening in Africa and elsewhere, they are wrong.

The rising number of cases among women in Malaysia is invisible and silent, which makes it deadlier than anything else. As much as people seem to sympathise with women who get infected by their husbands (which is mostly the case), few HIV-positive women dare to declare themselves for fear of being shunned. Most of them are poor, barely able to feed themselves and their children on less than RM200 a month. This drives them to find ways to survive that includes finding new husbands without necessarily informing them of their status. Prihatin tries to counsel them and their potential spouses to ensure everyone understands what is involved.

If we look at the phenomenon of women becoming infected, then it is obvious that when there is inequality between men and women, women become very vulnerable. Our society tolerates the idea of men being “weak” when it comes to affairs of the loins, yet refuses to make the obvious link with disease. We recognize that women are vulnerable yet refuse to empower them in any way so that they may say no to unsafe sex.

We think mandatory testing is the answer, yet this only tells us about a person’s status at a certain point in time. It does not give women any power to ensure that their status remains HIV-negative in the future when we also condone a man’s right to do as he pleases, because we tolerate, and sometimes even promote, men’s so-called “predatory” nature. We condemn men after they have done something wrong, but subtly encourage their machismo beforehand while at the same time ensuring that women have no power to protect themselves.

This Sunday (May 21) is International AIDS Memorial Day when we remember the thousands of Malaysians who have died of AIDS, and the many thousands of families and children left bereaved by their deaths. We would do well to ponder how many more deaths there will be in the future, all due to our neglect and unwillingness to take real steps to protect people. Is empowering women to protect them so unpalatable because it will up-end the status quo between the sexes?

15 May 2006

Wednesday May 3, 2006
The followers
A FRIEND was relating how after her daughter had read the Da Vinci Code, she had wanted to read the Bible. Which is not in itself a bad thing except that she was concerned that an impressionable young mind would not be able to differentiate fact from fiction. Also it seemed that perhaps what was needed is a Da Vinci Code-type book for Muslims to spark off the same level of interest in young people in their own religion.
Except that if anyone tried to write a similar thriller based around Islam, they’d be hounded and pilloried and threatened with death, thousands would riot in protest and people who would never have been able to read the book either because they are illiterate or can’t afford it would have died.
Such is the difference between our religions. While there are many Christians who are upset about the book and movie, they are countering it with seminars and other educational events to balance what is being said in the book, even if the book is only fiction. There have not been Da Vinci Code-related riots or deaths thus far. Which speaks volumes for the adherents of the faith.
It would be nice if everyone could brush off similar challenges and say “we are strong enough to withstand any attack”. Even if a book or a movie becomes a runaway hit, compared to the total number of any faith’s followers, the numbers sold can never match it. Books are by nature, in a world where illiteracy is still common, a luxury item. As are American movies, no matter what arguments people make about cultural imperialism.
I remember when there were riots over Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, President Benazir Bhutto commented wryly that the people who were dying over the book were those who would never have read it, or possibly even heard of it if someone hadn’t whipped them into a frenzy. A similar situation arose with the cartoons. As insensitive as they were, they were still not worth dying over.
The point is that people’s impressions of a religion are often related to the behaviour of its adherents. Some religions are thought of as simply kooky because its followers behave strangely. Some are viewed as benign and peaceful because its followers resolutely will not harm a fly.
But when people, supposedly in the name of religion, riot, burn and kill, it can’t help but give the impression of a religion that advocates this, no matter how much we point out that nowhere in religious texts itself does it say you should do this. And unfortunately we get the whole spectrum, from men who publicly insult women on a daily basis without censure to the real crazies.
Recently in New York I had to suffer the embarrassment of having to listen to a Muslim man say to a non-Muslim woman at a forum, “Don’t mess with Muslims, we have nuclear weapons!” There I was trying to dispel stereotypes about violence-prone Muslims and in one fell swoop, this nutcase confirmed every stereotype there was.
I think the only people who can dispel stereotypes about Muslims are women. While there are certainly some conservative women, even when these speak out they will naturally change perceptions because in a world where Muslim women are perceived to be perpetually hidden behind curtains, their sheer presence and articulateness will be noticed. What more if they are able to argue rationally in a calm manner.
Thus far there have been very few Muslim men in the international media who give a good impression. We might argue that the Western media selects who they interview in order to perpetuate stereotypes, which is true and that is a problem for all of us. A man or woman who looks like the archetypal wild-eyed conservative is far more telegenic than someone who looks like everyone else. Channel surfers are far more likely to stop at the sight of someone they think of as alien to their culture than if they see someone too similar to them. To stop this means having to make a concerted effort to come together as one community and decide on a sophisticated media strategy. But sadly coming together as one united community is a challenge in itself.
If we do manage as a global community to change other people’s perceptions of us, the benefits would be many. Our own people might think more kindly of each other so peace would reign within. And because within ourselves, we respect diversity, we can do the same with others. Then peace would truly have a chance.

24 April 2006

Wednesday April 19, 2006

Show of affection


JUST when I thought there was hope, it all gets dashed again.

Not too long ago, I happened to witness a young Malay CEO of a public-listed company kiss his wife goodbye as they parted ways after lunch. I thought, how sweet, a man who is not embarrassed to show that he loves his wife.

Soon after that, I was on the train from the airport when I happened to overhear the man in the next seat, also a Malay, talking on his mobile phone. It was obvious he was talking to his young daughter who must have just sat for her exams. He was solicitous, encouraging and affectionate. He ended the call by telling his daughter he loved her. I thought, ah how nice to hear a father who is not shy about declaring his love for his daughter.

I began to think that we do have good men after all, men who love the women in their lives openly and without feeling embarrassed. Affection is a Malaysian trait.

Not for long. Along comes a judge who declares that public displays of affection are unMalaysian. Really?

I have written about this many times before and I don’t feel like repeating myself. But in a world where there is so much hate and violence, should we not be encouraging love and affection rather than trying to ban them? In what way is holding hands disorderly conduct? Will people riot if they see a couple hold hands or even kiss each other? At the most, people might blush. But become disorderly in the way we see on TV in other countries? I don’t think so. Our lives are fuller than that.

The way we perceive things change over time because we become more educated and more exposed. Once upon a time, men in our country used to walk around holding hands. Absolutely no sexual connotations in that, just the way friends treat each other.

Westerners who came here used to remark on it because they found it strange. In their countries, only homosexual men are likely to do that. Nowadays we don’t see it anymore because somewhere along the way, we have come to think of it as not normal. Perhaps we have imbibed Western values in our attitudes towards same-sex physical shows of affection. But that was definitely Eastern; one just has to travel in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh to see the same thing. Maybe one day with globalisation, that too will disappear in their countries.

I am glad the Cabinet has decided to halt any attempts by local councils to draw up these morality by-laws. It is, as many people have said, a futile thing because no one will be able to agree on what would constitute decent conduct. Some people get hot under the collar over people, even married ones, holding hands and having their arms around each other. In that case, my own parents, already in their 80s, will probably get arrested several times over. Some people think that hugging is too much. Tell that to the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Dr Mustafa Ceric, who greeted me with a bear hug the first time I introduced myself to him. There are people who think kissing is obscene. Then my entire clan, who kiss each other all the time, will be thrown into jail every time we get together.

Just to illustrate how different people see things differently, in Tangerang, outside Jakarta, Indonesia, the local authorities have decreed that only people related to each other can kiss in public but only for five minutes. Does this mean that I can kiss my husband for five minutes, take a breather, kiss for another five minutes, take another break and start again? Does this mean that there will be dozens of council officials going around with stopwatches? This is what happens when people have nothing better to do.

Besides providing ample opportunity for abuse and corruption, you have to wonder about the people who think these laws are a good idea. Do they have so little love and affection in their lives that they have to make the lives of others miserable? While some people may say that these sorts of physical displays need not be done in public, surely most of us are intelligent enough to tell the difference between affection and lewdness? Nobody is having sex in public; if they were, there are already laws against it. Besides, even if nobody is showing any affection in public, it certainly doesn’t mean that there isn’t any sex, illicit or otherwise, going on in private.

But then maybe that’s the plan: first we start with public affection. Next we go after private affection. Love will be banned entirely in this country.

31 March 2006

Wednesday March 22, 2006

A first for women


Sometimes history is made without us even realising it. There we stood, my two sisters Hanis, Nori and I, to make a case for why justice for Muslim women in this country needs to be of paramount concern to everyone. With trembling hands, we read from letters which women (and one man) had written asking for help, for information, to protest.

One woman complained about a husband who provided nothing for her and their children, another of being beaten, still another of discovering upon her husband’s death an ex-wife who then claimed his savings. A father of three daughters complained about the amendments to the Islamic Family Law that eroded their rights and suggested a campaign to promote silence as a sign of refusal by future brides to ensure that no woman is compelled to have her rights taken away from her. Many asked questions about their rights in the courts, whether judges would listen to them and grant them justice, or would the many injustices simply continue? until when?

At the end, when all three of us said that we hoped and prayed that fairness and justice for Muslim women in this country would prevail, there was silence and then applause. I wasn’t sure whether people were just shocked at first, and then applauded our “performance”.

Then all three of us read our own personal statements. For me, this moment was of enormous significance. So many of our audience told us they were moved to tears when we spoke. I think it was not just what we said but also the fact that we were saying it.

All three of us were invited to do this, not just because as women we were all personally concerned about the misinterpretations of our faith that have resulted in injustice, but also because we each have pedigrees that place us in very public positions. As someone who has been publicly castigated for being “ignorant” and a “bad Muslim”, I have some experience in taking these sorts of public stands and exposing myself to pretty violent negative reactions. Hanis had none while Nori has some. It therefore involves a lot of personal risk to do this, especially if you’re basically a gentle soul who would never hurt a fly – like Hanis – or someone young, like Nori. I would therefore like to personally congratulate both my sisters for their enormous courage and thank them for their solidarity with their many less privileged sisters in this country.

What made this moment historical is that it has never happened before. Compared with many countries in our region, daughters of political leaders have generally stayed out of the public eye. I know I have been the exception but I became a public figure by choice because I took on a cause that needs to be discussed in the open. Besides I am essentially a writer with an inborn social conscience. But until now I have strongly resisted being tagged with the title First Daughter (the title rightly does not exist in our country; it is foreigners who like to use it) as well as being associated with other so-called First Daughters, especially those with dubious social contributions.

But times are a-changing. Along with the continuing progress of women in our country, personal laws notwithstanding, comes greater awareness that women’s issues are hidden away only at great cost to society. Therefore it is no wonder that the daughters of leaders have also become more educated, and, having been brought up with the right values at home, cannot and will not keep quiet.

There is no guarantee of course that any so-called First Daughter is going to be doing and saying the right things each time (just think of the Bush twins). But last Saturday, at least three of us proved that right now we are lucky in being united in our values, concerns and hopes. We knew that by taking such a public position we had taken on an enormous responsibility, but one that our consciences are perfectly comfortable with.

I think the wish of all three of us was that with this significant act, we give our sisters who are suffering injustices in this country hope. We would like them to know that they are not alone, that they have in us champions who empathise with them and who are willing to fight for their rights. We believe that as women who have positions of privilege, we have an enormous capacity and a responsibility to bring attention to issues that affect women in this country. Furthermore, as women who believe in the inherently just spirit of our faith, one in which the Almighty explicitly states that men and women are equal, it is therefore our duty to not keep silent.

All women need to speak out. Let’s hope we just encouraged more to do so!

17 March 2006

Friday March 10, 2006

No cheer for Muslim women


IN 1948, one of humankind’s most despicable ideas, apartheid, was made into law in South Africa where racial discrimination was institutionalised. Race laws touched every aspect of social life, including a prohibition of marriage between non-whites and whites, and the sanctioning of “white-only” jobs. Although there were 19 million blacks and only 4.5 million whites in South Africa, the majority population were forced to be second-class citizens in their homeland, banished to reserves and needing passports to travel outside them, even within their own country. It was only in 1990 that apartheid began to crumble and South Africans of all colours were finally free to live as equals in every way.

With the end of that racist system, people may be forgiven for thinking that apartheid does not exist anymore. While few countries practise any formal systems of discrimination, nevertheless you can find many forms of discrimination everywhere. In many cases, it is women who are discriminated against. In our country, there is an insidious growing form of apartheid among Malaysian women, that between Muslim and non-Muslim women.

We are unique in that we actively legally discriminate against women who are arguably the majority in this country, Muslim women. Non-Muslim Malaysian women have benefited from more progressive laws over the years while the opposite has happened for Muslim women.

For instance, since the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976, polygamy among non-Muslims was banned. Previously men could have as many wives as they wanted under customary laws. Men’s ability to unilaterally pronounce divorce on their wives was abolished and, in its place, divorce happens by mutual consent or upon petition by either spouse in an equal process where the grounds are intolerable adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion of not less than two years, and living separately for not less than two years. Compare that to the lot of Muslim women abandoned but not divorced by their husbands.

Other progressive reforms in the civil family law in the late 1990s were amendments to the Guardianship Act and the Distribution Act. The Guardianship of Infants Act 1961 was amended to provide for equal guardianship for both father and mother, rather than the previous provision where only the father was the primary guardian of the children. In contrast, the Islamic Family Law still provides for the father as the sole primary guardian of his children although the mother is now allowed to sign certain forms for her children under an administrative directive.

The Distribution Act 1958 was also amended to provide for equal inheritance for widows and widowers, and also granted children the right to inherit from their mothers as well as from their fathers. Under the newly proposed amendments to the Islamic Family Law, the use of gender-neutral language on the issue of matrimonial property is discriminatory on Muslim women when other provisions in the IFL are not gender-neutral. Muslim men may still contract polygamous marriages, may unilaterally divorce their wives for the most trivial of reasons and are entitled to double shares of inheritance.

These differences between the lot of Muslim women and non-Muslim women beg the question: do we have two categories of citizenship in Malaysia, whereby most female citizens have less rights than others? As non-Muslim women catch up with women in the rest of the world, Muslim women here are only going backwards. We should also note that only in Malaysia are Muslim women regressing; in every other Muslim country in the world, women have been gaining rights, not losing them.

01 March 2006

Wednesday February 22, 2006
Khatami speaks
In the 1970s when Ayatollah Khomeini came into power in Iran, the world was presented with a vision of Islam that was dour and uncompromising. The Ayatollah never smiled, at least not in the media, his dull robes gave the impression that Islam disapproved of colour.
Iranian women suddenly covered themselves in black from head to foot, and thereon the image of the Muslim woman became embedded in the global imagination as inseparable from that of the Iranian woman. Not only that, it also became embedded in the minds of certain Muslims that that is what a Muslim woman should look like. As a result, Muslim women who don’t dress like that have had to suffer stereotyping ever since from both non-Muslims and Muslims.
The other stereotyping that has occurred is that Iranian mullahs are uniformly dour, dull, strict and dislike women. So it was an interesting revelation the other day when former President Khatami of Iran, in KL for a conference, asked to meet NGOs working on women and Islam issues. About 10 of us gathered to see him for the one-hour meeting. He asked us to introduce our work, and ourselves, and then he spoke and answered questions.
The first impression of Khatami is that he is not dour. A man with kind eyes, he displayed a warmth and sense of humour that one doesn’t expect from religious men. That he wanted to know what was going with Muslim women in Malaysia was already a surprise. But certainly we welcomed the opportunity to inform him and seek his opinion.
Khatami was indeed a surprise in several ways. For one, his view on Islam is more progressive than one would expect. He thinks that for Islamic societies to progress, we must have education and science and technology. But for this to happen, we must have democracy. And to have democracy, we must have freedom of thought and women’s rights.
“There are some traditionalist views which are not related to Islam which have taken on incorrect Islamic views...the best way to counter these views is to encourage women’s presence in society,” he said.
He stressed that countries must have democratic forms of government. Otherwise no wealth or science and technology is achieved or will not last long. “The most important need for Islamic countries is to achieve democratic governments and then acquire science and technology,” he argued.
However, there are particular difficulties in Islamic countries. Firstly, there exist traditional views and thoughts which have taken on an “Islamic” exterior and that includes “discrimination, depriving women of rights and regarding men as superior.”
This has resulted in two injustices, “the injustice to women and other weaker classes, and the injustice to Islam itself by saying that the first injustice is Islamic.” (Could we have been forgiven for wishing at that moment that various politicians and religious officials had been there to hear this?)
Khatami said that our most important duty is to solve the paradox of promoting women’s growth while keeping families strong. But we must provide the grounds for the education and “intellectual effort” of women “so that they can defend their own rights.” And he is putting his money where his mouth is by establishing the Centre for Civilisational Dialogue in Geneva that has three women trustees, “because it is not possible to have dialogue without women.”
Not only were his views on women progressive, even his views of religion in society were quite surprising. He believes that religion should not be based on static principles because “with time and changing questions and equations, these principles will lose effectiveness. Therefore we must change the principles.... If we insist on these principles, then Islam will fail.”
Now how radical is that? Not that he was saying that religion had no place, but that it “is not important for religion to intervene in the social life of people.” What was more important was how religion could be read in a way that it offers new thoughts in approaching current problems. If not, “this will lead to the destruction of society. If things are imposed in the name of religion, then this will cause people to dislike religion.”
For people to like religion, even for religion’s own survival, Khatami thought that we must have freedom of thought. We must have the ability to think for ourselves. “Where religion and freedom of thought have confronted each other, both have suffered. But if we read religion as conforming to (the idea of) freedom of thought, then freedom will ensure that religion will not become regressive. If we have an interpretation of religion in favour of freedom, then we will be able to achieve much. Otherwise religion will be wiped out of social life.” Hear that, those who like to ban books?
Khatami came into power in Iran because of his progressive views. Unfortunately he was not able to deliver on them, not least because the traditional forces against him were still very strong. Which is the tragedy of the Islamic world really, that even in a supposedly modern country like ours, the backward have the upper hand.