27 October 2012

Both sides seem to campaign on the premise that voting for the other side means a dubious future. But what I would really like to know is how voting for any side would lead to a bright future.

SOMETIMES I am prone to wonder what politics, and politicians, are for. Are they there to make life better for us by leading us, or are they there for some other reason which has very little to do with us?
I ask this because despite the ever-shifting election date, there is no doubt that election campaigning has begun. Every day we get told by one side that voting for the other side is a very bad idea.
If we vote for one side, we are told, our lives will become even more miserable although it is neither clear how, nor why it would be even more than it is today.
The other side, on the other hand, then tells us that voting for the incumbent means more of the same misery.
What is beginning to be obvious to me is that if we vote for either side, we’ll wind up miserable. That’s hardly what I would call a choice.
The default setting for all our politicians, regardless of who they are, seems to be to automatically disagree with whatever the other side does.
Indeed one of our esteemed ministers was quoted to have said that it is the duty of those on his side of the bench to oppose whatever those on the other side says.
That, to me, sounds as if he is also saying ‘leave your conscience and your brain to one side and just do what you’re supposed to do’.
Which really makes me wonder where that leaves the rest of us.
We are wooed like reluctant lovers every five years with every conceivable goodie thrown at us by the incumbent.
The other side, not quite having the wherewithal, tries to persuade us that more of the same is not really what we want. They may be right but on the other hand they can’t really tell us what it is that we need either.
There are plenty of issues that I don’t trust either side on.
For a start, I don’t believe that either side is good for women, both being equally conservative. Neither side, for instance, has promised to put more women in ministerial positions.
In fact, neither has even mentioned that they would put more women candidates up for election, obviously thinking that this would mean fewer places for male ones.
Even if they did have women ministers, what’s the bet that they would still hold the ‘soft’ and ‘feminine’ ministries, like the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry or Tourism Ministry instead of the more prestigious ones like Finance, Education or Trade and Industry?
Both sides seem to campaign on the premise that voting for the other side means a dubious future. But what I would really like to know is how voting for any side would lead to a bright future.
In fact I’d like them to sketch out that bright future for us all, one where we would really be united, working towards some common goals. I’d like to be able to have some hope instead of all the doom and gloom that voting for the ‘wrong’ side will inevitably bring us.
Right now voting for anyone makes me feel like I’m caught between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea.
It would be great if some of our political leaders would say “if I were elected, I would bring us all together because we have no time to be disunited.”
And really mean it, with real action instead of hiding behind sloganeering.
But why do we even leave our future in the hands of politicians?
A recent survey by a public relations company found that most people have very little trust in their politicians, corporations and media.
Yet we are still stuck in a system where the running of our country is still entrusted to the very people we mistrust.
Every day I find this making less and less sense. There are non-politicians who have much more common sense than the average YB. And really, do we need any special skill beyond common sense to run this country?
I guess what I wish is for normality to return rather than this hate-filled divisive climate that we have to endure these days.
If Mitt Romney’s campaign sounds like a war on women and anyone who isn’t white and rich, our election campaigns sound like a war on everybody, even though it is the same ‘everybody’ who has to vote our government in. If that makes sense, I don’t get it.
Maybe what we should do is instead of the political parties putting up candidates, we the people should just name whom we want and vote them in, regardless of affiliation.
I bet we’d really get a good team there.

31 August 2012

We often like to believe what we want to believe, often because the real facts challenge us too much. It is far easier to wallow in our prejudices than to seek out the truth in anything.

LANCE Armstrong is no ordinary cyclist. He has won seven Tour de France trophies after having recovered from testicular cancer.
By all accounts that would make him superhuman. Unless you believe he doped himself with high-performance drugs.
Recently, he gave up the fight against the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to prove his innocence, which meant that although he had already retired from cycling, he was banned from any competitive cycling and stripped of all his titles.
To many, his giving up meant that he was guilty. But as one US columnist pointed out, he had passed 500 dope tests already.
It was only the testimony of 10 people who said they saw him taking the drugs that kept the USADA on his back.
The whole case illustrates how fallible any human endeavour can be.
On the one hand, cycling is a sport riddled with doping scandals. So it is normal to suspect any super-achiever of cheating.
On the other hand, it is also a sport where drug tests are routine.
So either the tests are no good or Armstrong did not cheat. We can’t have it both ways.
And sports is a field where the means of testing are extremely rigorous.
The poor Chinese swimmer who won a gold medal at the Olympics and then immediately faced accusations of doping also passed her test. But what really shut people up was when people like Michael Phelps stood up for her.
Either they’re all in on it, or she simply was superb.
Human perception can therefore be fuzzy.
We often like to believe what we want to believe, often because the real facts challenge us too much.
It is far easier to wallow in our prejudices than to seek out the truth in anything.
Now imagine a field that is as impossible to subject to empirical testing like politics.
There is probably no field more vulnerable to the vagaries of human foibles and prejudices than politics, except perhaps religion.
And in some cases, the two fields are conflated allowing for even more vulnerabilities.
There are many people who refuse to believe that religion can be subject to human interpretation. They believe that whatever they believe is true.
That is often because they have been told that by someone else whom they believe has some authority.
Therefore, if that person tells them something that is in fact incorrect, they will not verify it. Nor will they believe it could ever be wrong. In this way, myths work their way into beliefs and then are difficult to challenge.
For example, for years many Muslims believed that the recently deceased astronaut Neil Armstrong heard the azan when he was on the moon and that made him convert into Islam.
There has never been proof of either phenomenon and the man himself repeatedly denied it.
But as soon as he died, the myth is repeated all over again.
Similarly, once an E-mail went around with photographs of the graves of the supposed giants that once roamed the earth.
This E-mail circulated among lots of otherwise well-educated people but all it took was a little research into the origins of the photos to show that it was a clever photoshop exercise. But how easily we can be fooled when we so want to believe in something.
Perhaps we are so easily fooled because we are often too lazy to check on anything.
This is why it is so easy for some people to pull the wool over our eyes, or the kepiah to keep things localised.
Someone just needs to have a facility with words, preferably in a foreign language, throwing in some difficult to challenge “facts” and they’ve got us.
Furthermore, we all like to think of ourselves as objective persons, able to assess everything in a clear rational way.
I can’t count how many times men say things about women’s issues, without the slightest inkling how insensitive and crass they sound.
One had the gall to attend a women’s conference and then talk about how much he loved women.
I guess he assumed we would all smile and be grateful.
Similarly, when talking about politics, everyone thinks they are being absolutely objective and rational.
But with few exceptions, I have to wonder.
Few people spend time with people with different views from them so they rarely get any insights into alternate perspectives.
Sometimes people can even be persuaded to believe in things they used to oppose if someone they believed in persuaded them to.
Which goes to show that just as in cycling, stringent tests dealing with facts mean very little when it comes to politics.
Worse still when one stirs religion into the brew.

07 June 2012

The newly-inserted Section 114A of the Evidence Act is another example of a law that was rushed through Parliament without much debate and discussion, to the detriment of us all.

AS often happens, e-mails pop up in my inbox with interesting headlines. While I usually save them to read later, I had to open this particular e-mail immediately because it had my name in it.
To my horror, I found an article purportedly written by me being circulated to much salutary praise.
Normally, I would either ignore it or leave it to readers to judge whether I really wrote such an article.
It would be obvious, I thought, to those who have followed my columns all these years that the style in that article, the photo byline notwithstanding, was definitely very different from mine.
Indeed, the reason I was passed the article was because some people who are very familiar with my writing style had their suspicions.
But I cannot rely solely on the goodwill of my readers anymore. With the new amendment to the Evidence Act 1950 which just came into being – it won’t matter if my so-called “article” was full of grammar and spelling mistakes which I wouldn’t normally make – I would be deemed as having written it until I can prove otherwise.
The newly inserted Section 114A of the Evidence Act provides for the following:
> Owners, hosts, administrators, editors or sub-editors of websites or social media accounts are deemed responsible for any content that has been published or re-published on their site whether by themselves, persons impersonating them or any other persons;
> Subscribers of a network service which was used to publish or re-publish any content are deemed responsible for the publication; and
> Owners or individuals in custody of an electronic device that was used to publish or re-publish any content are deemed responsible for the publication.
Basically, this means that until you can prove you are innocent of these charges, you are considered by the law as guilty.
This is a complete reversal of the usual “innocent until proven guilty” axiom in most courts of law.
You can imagine the chill that went through my spine when I read this law. Over the years, not only have I been impersonated in articles and comments but also in real life.
Now all of these people will be encouraged to do more because of this law. They will know that I will have to spend so much time, energy and expense to fight to prove my innocence in the courts that they will get away pretty much scot-free.
Furthermore, while I’m trying to prove that I didn’t write these articles, they can continue to keep writing them with impunity.
Who, therefore, is this law meant to protect? And how could such a law have been passed?
Once again, this is another example of a law that was rushed through Parliament without much debate and discussion, to the detriment of us all.
More importantly, it is a huge threat to the freedom of speech that is enshrined in our Federal Con­stitution, a freedom already threatened by so many other laws.
The Government is hoping that this new law will curb postings by anonymous bloggers and commentators who are critical of the Government. Which may sound well-intentioned; I am also a target of many of these.
But, at the same time, this law is more far-reaching because it makes owners of blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts responsible for anything that appears on them.
If someone posts an anonymous comment on my blog or Facebook page that somebody else does not like, then I’m instantly responsible for it even if I don’t know who the poster is in real life.
It can also work the other way round. Anyone can pretend to be a government official or politician and make a critical or defamatory posting on a government or political website.
Actually, there can be lots of such postings on any website and the owner, including presumably the Government, will be held responsible for them.
I’m not even sure what can be done by anyone to seek redress for that. Talk about an incentive to spam people with all sorts of nasty comments!
It makes you wonder how laws are made in this country. Already one law, the Election Offences Act, had to be retracted after it had been passed because it was found to be detrimental to all sides in an election.
Surely this was a result of not giving the law enough scrutiny and debate in Parliament. If more time had been given, then surely such faulty laws would not have been passed in such a form.
Doesn’t this also make you worry about the other laws passed in such a hurry as well? What traps lurk within them that we don’t know about, and which we could unknowingly get caught in?

11 April 2012

Kuala Lumpur may not be Paris, and we may not yet be ready for fashion photographer Helmut Newton’s nudes, but to ban ballet seems a very unsophisticated thing to do.

I WAS in Paris recently and with some free time one Sunday afternoon, I decided to see an exhibition at the Grand Palais, one of the city’s many museums.

My husband had suggested I go and see the retrospective of the work of the famous fashion photographer Helmut Newton who died in 2004.

Although Newton’s job was to showcase the designs of fashion designers like Yves St Laurent, he had a very particular vision of how he presented the clothes.

Invariably, his models are beautiful, strong, even athletic, women. Not for him any coy poses, his photos show women in almost confrontational stances.

That cold spring afternoon the line to see the Newton show snaked down the street.

Young and old, Parisians and tourists shivered for up to two hours to hand over €11 (RM44) for entry to the exhibition.

Inside, they were met with a huge exhibition, dozens of photos throughout his long career as well as a video made by his wife, June.

They were also greeted with literally huge works.

Gigantic photos lined the walls of some of the exhibition rooms, almost all of them of nude women, full frontal, standing tall and proud.

Unflinching and powerful, the exhibit has generated some debate as to whether Newton was a misogynist or a feminist.

I am inclined, having viewed the entire exhibition, to think he was the latter, albeit an unconscious one.

As I toured the exhibition, I watched the crowd as much as I looked at the photographs.

People treated the show with the same respect as they would an exhibition of the Old Masters.

They knew this was art and the work of a great photographer.

They paid good money to view this.

Confronted with the nudes, nobody sniggered or threw up their hands in horror.

Nobody ran out of the room screaming in moral indignation.

I have read no reports of anyone being inspired to rape anyone after being exposed to Newton’s work. There were no protests outside the museum.

There could be several explanations for the calm Parisian reaction to Newton.

Some might say that they are so morally degenerate that they have become immune to the sight of such full frontal nudity.

On the other hand, we can also say that the French are such mature and sophisticated people that they know when something is art and, therefore, worthy of respect, and when something is sleazy and pornographic and, therefore, is not.

Those who may disapprove always have the option of saving their money and staying home.

I flew home from the cold weather in Paris to the heat of home to find myself transported to another world, not just meteorologically.

While thousands of Parisians queued to view Newton’s exhibition, back home, a troupe of classical ballet dancers, fully dressed ones, were banned from performing in Malaysia to a much smaller but also paying audience.

Kuala Lumpur may not be Paris, and we may not yet be ready for Newton’s nudes.

After all, some years ago, an exhibition of Ferdinand Botero’s fat nude sculptures was axed in case some of us got too excited by the sight of giant breasts and bums.

But still, to ban ballet seems a very unsophisticated thing to do.

After all we have dozens of little girls dressing up in tutus for their ballet lessons every weekend.

I myself did ballet as a tiny tot. I don’t think my parents were setting me up for a life of immorality when they sent me to ballet class.

But the point is really this: why should the authorities decide for us what or who we should or should not see?

Especially when we are talking about paying money to attend such shows.

By that alone, the audience is limited and, therefore, whatever alleged “immoral” impact our authorities imagine would naturally be severely curtailed.

Nobody is being forced to watch anything.

Even though the ban has subsequently been lifted, the damage has already been done.

Is it too much to ask that there be a stop to this nonsense?

We are fast gaining a reputation as a place that no artiste wants to come to. But more importantly, why should people who know nothing censor culture and the arts?

In a country where a movie about a rapist is celebrated, why do we censor dance performances, women singers and men who are simply not macho?

Which is more harmful?

Or are even our arts censors keeping one eye on the elections, and somehow imagine that ballet would be an issue we should vote on?

20 March 2012

If mass conveyance of messages is unclear or late, then one is likely to get the wrong message and make the wrong decision.

I WAS at the airport the other day waiting for a flight. As always, I kept my ear out for announcements about boarding times and was surprised to find the public announcement system faint and unclear.

I had thought there is no longer any such thing as less than crystal clear announcements at airports so that passengers can never find excuses for being late at the gate.

Worse, in some of the airline lounges, there are no announcements at all and you have to rely on your own watch to ensure you get to your gate on time.

Which led me to think of how important the mass conveyance of messages is. If they are unclear or late, then you are likely to get the wrong message and make the wrong decision next.

If the announcement about gate changes is too soft or too late, then you’re likely to find lots of very stressed people rushing from one gate to another, hoping not to miss their flights.

I suppose those who work the airport PA systems hardly ever make the wrong announcements. And I must say that those at our airports are usually clear in their pronunciation so you get their messages quickly and concisely.

In some countries, however, the accents can be confusing but luckily there are always alternative ways of checking flight information.

I do wish all public announcements had the clarity of airport announcements.

Unfortunately, other forms of mass announcements tend to be unclear, and sometimes even misleading. And unlike airport announcers, sometimes the lack of clarity is actually deliberate.

Of late, public announcements in this country seem to be particularly prone to obfuscation. If one only relied on them, then one is likely to get a very skewed view of the world.

Most recently, there was a video on an African warlord that went viral all over the world. It called on everyone who sees it to not just pass it along but to donate to help get rid of the warlord. This is the modern form of the PA system, the Internet video.

But almost as soon as it gained popularity, people started writing articles, i.e. other forms of public announcements, that gave a more nuanced analysis of the issue involving the warlord and questioning whether the aims of the organisation behind the video were truly honourable or, at best, somewhat naive.

Whichever way anyone felt about the whole campaign, the availability of these alternative perspectives allowed us to hopefully make a more intelligent assessment on whether we would support the cause or not.

Being able to assess leaves the power to decide in our hands.

The Internet, not being controlled by anyone, is a many-headed PA system. It can convince you of one argument or another, or it can leave you confused.

But it does allow power to remain in the person who uses the Internet to decide one way or the other.

13 March 2012

Nobody disagrees that we should have sex education. But with the impasse that we have now, the more aware and concerned parents have to do their own educating.

I MAY be getting long in the tooth these days but I’ve always held high hopes for the youths of today.

Everywhere I go, whether here in this country or abroad, it is the young people who I find most enthusiastic and energised about the world, ever eager to contribute to society in one way or another.

As much as we like to think of the youths of today as lethargic and apathetic, there are certainly also plenty who are bright young things, sparkling with new ideas.

I saw that recently at the United Kingdom and Eire Council of Malaysian Students (UKEC) conference in London where many of the students got up to ask some really sharp questions.

And I’ve seen that with the young women students at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh.

Every visit I’ve had there has been nothing short of inspiring.

Of course, let’s not forget the youth-led revolutions in the Middle East, where they have helped to mobilise people using social media.

Meanwhile, back home, someone who calls himself Yoof was making a rare visit to a bookstore, probably heading to the magazine section to look for short reads on cars and football, when he came to a screeching halt in the kiddie section upon seeing a book called Where Do Babies Come From?.

Instantly donning his righteous cap, he quickly scanned this book meant for eight-year-olds, utterly shocked at learning how babies are made (all this time he thought they came from Aisle B at Tesco), blushed and made the sort of thoughtful decision that only Yoof can make: ban this book, it’s obscene!

While youths elsewhere are conducting revolutions and changing the course of their countries, ours are banning children’s books. Way to go, Yoof!

For decades, the seemingly endless debate in our country about sex education has revolved around only one question: who should do it?

Teachers are reluctant to handle the awkward questions that may arise while parents think it’s better done in the more formal setting of school.

Nobody disagrees that we should have sex education.

The best formula is actually to have both teachers and parents do it; teachers do the fact-based bits while parents deal with the many emotional issues that are bound to come up.

But with the current impasse that we have now, where essentially our kids are not getting any sex education, the more aware and concerned parents have to do their own educating.

Every day we read of children being sexually abused, unwanted babies being born and often dumped while sexually-transmitted diseases including HIV continue to spread.

It’s obvious that to at least prevent some of these, we need to educate our children about both their bodies and about sex.

There have been enough studies overseas to show that there is a strong correlation between good school-based sex education and low rates of teenage pregnancies.

Now, if parents want to educate their children – they have every right to do that – then some teaching aids are needed. Good simple books are very helpful.

When I asked the inevitable question at age 11, my mother brought out a cartoon book, not unlike Peter Mayle’s, to explain the facts of life to me. It helped her and me a lot.

I suppose the easily shocked Yoof is not a parent yet or is going to leave the educating of his children to someone else (the Internet perhaps?).

And our equally easily shocked Home Ministry, which is probably embarrassed that it was caught out sleeping for the past 30 years, immediately banned the book.

So now, perhaps Yoof would like to check all the Education Ministry’s materials on sex education, too. Or perhaps, the ministry can write its own sex education book. No doubt a book that says babies are made when Daddies put their ahem-ahem in Mummies’ dot-dot-dot would really be helpful.

By the way, you’ve heard the story of the nurse who told a woman to put her diaphragm at her “door” and then was puzzled when the woman came back a few months later pregnant, right? Turns out that she’d been putting it at the door to her bedroom.

Meanwhile, Yoof and friends have offered to go through every single book there is to ensure that no others will make them blush.

I think that’s a great idea really. It’ll keep them well occupied, make them better informed and perhaps improve their English. Might be a way to keep Mat Rempits off the streets, too.

The rest of us, meantime, will carry on with, oh you know, unimportant things like trying to survive in this economy and bringing up our kids to be decent well-educated children

25 February 2012

We learn much folk wisdom – some couched in semi-superstition – either from other people or simply from experience.

I USED to muse that there seems, these days, to be a lack of common sense, the wisdom that comes from basic knowledge and experience. Everyone seems to be more interested in fantasising about imaginary things or providing far-out solutions when simpler ones may do.

People in leadership positions seem to have the least common sense of all, probably because they think people expect something different from them instead of the obvious.

I am reminded of this more and more lately. People are so obsessed with getting from A to Z that they skip over B and C and don’t realise that the wisest outcome is in fact D.

So we get, for example, people who think the ultimate goal is to bring out a website in English but who forget that in order to do that, one needs to first find someone competent in English to do it.

Or who, without checking a simple encyclopedia, wish the wrong people greetings for a religious festival. All it takes is some care and common sense.

There are of course worse examples. Sometimes it makes better sense to say nothing than to open one’s mouth and disclose that one’s head is full of rubbish. It can be jaw-droppingly embarrassing for all observers, if not for the one speaking.

Sometimes we can’t blame those laying out such nonsense. Common sense comes from having some basic knowledge handed down from teachers and guides, as well as lived experiences and just plain intelligence.

Getting websites so excruciatingly mistranslated or sending out wrongly targeted tweets is not so much the fault of whoever wrote them but whoever supervises them.

If supervisors and leaders have not had the sense to lay down some basic rules and procedures, then it’s not surprising that such faux pas happens.

I recently had a request for an interview for a student research project. Reading their proposed project, I was appalled by the entire premise of their topic, one so nonsensical that had it been a foreign university, they would have been laughed out of their room.

But then I realised that it’s not the students’ fault. Such a research proposal should really not have passed by their supervising faculty at all.

Their lecturer should have questioned them much more, made them read more background material to come up with something that made better sense.

Then I had the awful realisation that maybe the lecturer, too, thought it was a topic worth researching.

In our lifetime we learn much folk wisdom either from other people or simply from experience. Some are couched in semi-superstition.

Our mothers would tell us not to cut our fingernails at dusk. It may have sounded a bit mystical but the real lesson was that if we cut them at a time when the light was bad, the chances are we’re likely to cut ourselves.

Or we would be told to close our mouths with our hands when we yawned so that the Devil would not enter our bodies, when in fact it was so that we would not rudely display our open mouths to other people.

When dealing with the public, simple psychology will often do. Nobody really likes to be berated all the time. Often gentle persuasion works better.

Most people have a certain innate sense of decency and justice, so will tend to take the side of the underdog. Thus wielding a stick too heavy-handedly over someone much weaker will only elicit sympathy for that person.

Being humble, even if suspect, usually wins over arrogance. Doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.

But repeatedly, all we see is the opposite of such common sense. Perhaps some people feel the need to be too clever, or assume that the audience must be simply too stupid.

This is the worst mistake of all. If there’s one of you and millions of them, chances are there are probably lots of people much smarter than you out there and they’ll outgun you with brains any time.

The trouble is, like those students, once there is no common sense at the top, the bottom takes the same cue and loses all ability to think clearly, too. Whatever is the prevailing logic on high, no matter how absurd, becomes everyone’s logic, too.

The illogic when unquestioned is accepted as gospel. Thus a talk becomes a seminar, a party becomes an orgy, a gathering a riot. The simple matter of supporting evidence is ignored.

Where on earth will this collective stupidity lead us?

Will it make us stand tall and proud as Malaysians, punching above our weight, as someone put it, all round the globe? Or will it make us increasingly isolated and provincial?

Or don’t we care?

11 February 2012

If ever there’s a phobia one can promote, it should be a true loathing of graft in any form, regardless of it being the petty everyday variety or the major million dollar ones.

I’VE been thinking about phobias lately because there seem to be so many around. I have a phobia about snakes; I simply don’t like their slitheriness. I know lots of people who have phobias about spiders, cockroaches or even cats.

To have a phobia means to have both a fear and a loathing of something. There are people who have a total phobia about germs, and are obsessed with keeping things clean, because they fear if they don’t, they may get ill.

Phobias have nothing to do with evidence or reasonableness; most times they are irrational. Hence it was with that 21st century pheno­menon called Islamophobia, the fear and loathing of Muslims by those of other faiths.

It leads to all sorts of irrational acts, including blaming Muslims for every single human infraction there is, and insisting that they are going to do things that they have no intention of doing, for example, setting up syariah law in the United States.

Witness the current Republican primaries. Almost every candidate has said something Islamophobic as a way, they think, of getting votes among the conservative right-wing Christian population.

In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron has said that the biggest threat to multi-culturalism is young Muslim men. What else would account for such a shocking and outrageous generalisation but a phobia about Muslims?

It has to be said that such religious phobias do not go one way only. The response to Islamophobia has been Christianophobia, where Christians are irrationally blamed for every social ill and accused of plotting to take over Muslim countries.

(This fantasy always prompts the question in my head of why anyone would want to take over a Muslim country these days, when so many are ill-managed and under-developed.)

Judanophobia, the fear and loathing of Jews, also known in the West as anti-Semitism, is another one that goes a long way back, although Judaism is often wrongly conflated with Zionism.

There are some common features to these phobias. The first is that the target of the phobia is not one that the phobic actually knows. Most of the most rabid Islamophobes have never met a Muslim in their lives.

Secondly, it always involves reducing the human target of the phobia to negative stereo­types: “All Jews are tight-fisted” or “All Muslim women are submissive.” If you point out anyone who doesn’t fit the stereotype, then they are regarded as exceptions to the rule.

It helps to remember that every time we stereotype any group, someone somewhere is also stereotyping us. And those stereotypes about us are no more reasonable than any we make of other people. But what do phobics care about such fairness?

Thirdly, while some people may complain about being the targets of phobias, they also often have no problems having phobias about other people.

Many Muslims who complain about the injustices and oppression wrought by Islamophobia have in turn no qualms about oppressing their own women or groups who may not fit into their idea of mainstream Islam.

Homophobia, for instance, is a pretty routine reflex among many Muslim men, especially those men who are the most likely to be picked out at an American airport for further questioning.

In the end, we have to ask in what ways do phobias like these help to advance society? If the US becomes more Islamophobic, will it make Americans happier, richer or safer?

If Muslim countries become more Christiano­phobic, will their people be less hungry and better educated?

If our societies allow homophobia to become the norm, will our schools be better and our public transport more efficient?

Are phobias even worth using to get votes? At the beginning of this year, Jamaica’s People’s National Party won a landslide victory on a platform that explicitly rejected homophobia and promoted greater inclusiveness.

What’s more, Jamaicans even elected their first-ever female prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller. It just goes to show that using negativity to win votes is a losing strategy because people really want positive and inclusive leadership.

Perhaps, if there was a phobia to promote, it should be a phobia about corruption. Our society should develop a true loathing of corruption in any form, whether it is the petty everyday variety or the major million dollar ones.

We should get to the point where instead of joking about it, the very mention of any form of bribe would be met with severe disgust and rejection.

Coupled with this should be a phobia for the sense of entitlement and impunity that some people enjoy while disregarding other people’s feelings. Instead of simply putting up with this, we should collectively and decisively say it’s simply not acceptable.

Now, that would surely be worth a vote or two.

25 January 2012

Howls of protest are heard when attempts are made to block hate speech, which is ironic because very often the speaker has no interest in respecting anyone else’s rights either.

I JUST returned from a symposium on social media, freedom of expression and incitement to hatred in Asia.

Forty Asian delegates as well as Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, gathered to discuss what is happening in our countries and what can be done to meet the challenges that the Internet, particularly, poses.

The good news is that Malaysia is not the worst country when it comes to laws restricting freedom of speech on the Internet.

This is not to say we don’t have such laws but we are still grappling with the whole issue.

Delegates told of how, in some countries, if anything said by an individual online offends anyone, then the person who said it can be prosecuted.

Thus, if you opine that someone is a nobody, or that you don’t like someone’s hairstyle, then that person can say he’s offended by it and report you.

In many countries, there are laws preventing people from insulting various entities, including the government, royalty and religion.

The trouble is often the definition of insulting is vague and governments tend to be insulted on behalf of other people who may not care at all.

But that would be reason enough for them to prosecute someone.

Thus this leads to much abuse by these governments, especially towards people they don’t like.

The right to freedom of expression is of course balanced by responsibilities.

As Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, the exercise of the right to freedom of speech carries with it special duties and responsibilities and therefore may be subject to certain restrictions.

However, these shall only be such as provided by law and are necessary “for respect of the rights and reputations of others” and “for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals”.

Our own Article 10 in our Federal Constitution allows the freedom of speech, assembly and association, but is then restricted by certain other provisions and laws.

For instance, it should be clear to everyone that child pornography, which violates the rights of children, should be prohibited and nobody should object to the blocking of such websites.

However, the Special Rapporteur reports that most governments rely solely on blocking of such websites and not on prosecuting those who produce them.

Also, despite child pornography being a by-product of child trafficking, most governments have done very little to tackle this root cause of the problem.

Another legitimate restriction to free speech is to censure hate speech, especially those that incite others to violence.

Even these have to be carefully enacted, so that only speech where there is a clear and immediate danger of violence occurring towards anyone or group is restricted.

We know that sometimes people say things in the heat of the moment they don’t really mean or intend to carry out.

On the other hand, sometimes there are people of influence who seem to encourage their followers or supporters to take steps to harm others.

Those are the ones that need restricting or even prosecution.

The other issue is privacy.

In order to be able to express their opinions freely, people need to have their right to privacy protected.

However, we now see governments requiring real name verification before comments can be made online.

This discourages many people in countries where there is legitimate fear of persecution for different views.

Even worse, there is little done when the personal details of people are posted online causing them to be harassed and even threatened.

We have seen very little will in governments to protect the privacy and security of these individuals, just because they may have different views.

Sometimes, it is not just the privacy of these individuals that are violated but also those of their families and friends.

Clearly, in Malaysia, these violations of privacy and of freedom of speech overall are made not just by the government, and by their supporters, but also by those opposing them.

Hate speech has of late been allowed free reign on the Internet.

Every time a blog owner tries to block someone who posts hateful comments, we get accused of restricting freedom of speech, which is ironic because very often the blocked person has no interest in respecting anyone else’s rights either.

Unfortunately, most Malaysians are complacent about these issues.

But as the Special Rapporteur pointed out, the freedom of speech, opinion and expression facilitates other rights such as the right to information, to education, to take part in cultural life and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress.

Violations of free speech, whether through laws or just intimidation, affect all of us.

We should always be watchful when it happens.

09 January 2012

The last year was one where there were particularly high levels of obliviousness. Why not, in 2012, for the sake of doing something different, have a campaign called “End Stupid Statements”.

IT’S 2012 and if the Mayans are to be believed, the world ends this year. For me, the world didn’t start well because we got up on New Year’s Day to dry pipes. No water in the toilets is not what you call a fresh start to the year.

Could someone make a resolution to replace the old pipes in Bangsar, please?

Otherwise, we Bangsarites will go on a shower strike and stink the place out until our demands are met.

And, yes, our smelly mob will assemble in the streets to protest.

For some other Malaysians, especially some students, the New Year certainly did not start well at all. It makes one sigh again with frustration.

Let us see this clearly; the only people capable of using force on others are the ones with the batons and guns.

Generally, those aren’t civilians, and especially not students.

If this is the way the year is going to start, then we have learnt nothing from 2011, nor will we do anything new in 2012.

We will continue to exhibit our fears by clamping down on those who think differently, or who are simply different.

We display our paranoia by immediately looking for who is behind those who think differently.

We cannot imagine that people can think for themselves, without someone telling them how and what to think and do.

It’s the ultimate indictment of our education system, that every single thing anyone does, especially if contrary to what the establishment wants, must be attributed to a sheeplike disposition to be led.

Well, surely, if those who are contrarian are doing it because they are sheep, then those who are conformists are also sheep.

After all, everyone went through the same school system, no?

The last year, for me, was one where there were particularly high levels of obliviousness among those who rule us.

Oblivious to what people really think and want being chief among them.

Whether it’s deliberate or not, I can’t tell, but somehow there’s mild comfort in believing that it’s just natural gormlessness, and not willful blindness.

I am hoping that this year will be a year of greater imagination.

It would be nice if our leaders suddenly had the imagination to trust their people to be able to think on their own.

And to trust that people thinking on their own is not necessarily a bad thing, nor necessarily a move that will backfire.

I’d also like our leaders to start believing that their people are generally good people, who get on with one another and simply want to live their lives as best as they can.

And they can do all that without any interference from those who think they are leading us.

I don’t need anyone to tell me how to get on with my neighbours; I already do.

I do need someone to tell off those people who keep telling me to constantly be suspicious of my neighbours, including when they are nice to me.

Apparently this is only because they want to dislodge me from my faith.

In that case, my being nice to them must be equally effective at dislodging them from their beliefs.

Why not then have “Be Nice to Your Neighbours” campaigns?

Indeed, why not in 2012, for the sake of doing something different, have a campaign called “End Stupid Statements”.

Every statement uttered by a public figure that simply does not stand up to scrutiny gets printed on a big banner and then symbolically thrown into a giant dustbin at Dataran Merdeka.

My first candidate: Jews and Christians Are Taking Over the Country! (My test for the credibility of that statement is to ask: what for?).

I’m sure it’ll be a full dustbin.

But what am I saying?

We have an election to look forward to, which means there’ll be an endless supply of dumb utterances from all sides of the fence.

We should arm ourselves with deflectors to shield us from the inanities that are bound to rain upon our poor heads.

Or helmets at the very least, because it’s bound to injure our craniums.

But let me remain optimistic.

The first person that says all Malaysians are equal under our Constitution gets my vote.

Or who says, men and women are equal, or who outlaws child marriage.

And I’ll even give some grudging respect to the first person who says: “I lied, I’m sorry, I’ll step down now.”

But I suppose that would be like expecting to see porcine flying objects. Life trundles on, folks.

Try and have a good year!