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!