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.