21 December 2013

Instead of seeking revenge, true leaders should seek to bring reconciliation to the people.

SOME 16 years ago I had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela at a private dinner that I invited myself to. My parents were there as was Graca Machel, soon to be his wife. I don’t remember anyone else being there, perhaps our then High Commissio-ner to South Africa. But it was a dinner I shall never forget.
Madiba (his clan name) was friendly and charming. He did not look like a man who only a few years before had spent 27 years in prison, some of it in solitary confinement. He told stories of his past with no trace of bitterness or rancour, and exhibited a joy in life that was infectious.
After dinner, we were standing around when Madiba approached me. He had heard I was working in HIV/AIDS, a cause for which he was a passionate champion, especially since South Africa had the highest percentage of people, 20%, infected with HIV at the time. “What you’re doing,” he said, “is so important. You must keep at it.”
I’d like to say that we had a long drawn out conversation. But the truth is that I was so overwhelmed by being spoken to so personally by Nelson Mandela that I could barely talk. All I could think of was that he knew of my work and was giving me advice and the thought rendered me speechless.
I do remember that we did take some photographs but I don’t know where they are. But they cannot have been very good. Madiba’s eyes had suffered a great deal from his years in Robben Prison so he could not tolerate camera flashes. So we took a photograph in very bad light without the flash.
I think the aura and charisma of the great man emanated to all who saw him. He walked through the hotel lobby and everybody stopped to watch him and to say hello. He had such a twinkle in his eyes and a great big smile that there was nobody who could stay sombre in his presence. The next day, we waved him off at the airport and it really felt like our lives seemed lessened by his absence.
I had another opportunity to hear him speak at the World AIDS Conference in Bangkok in 2004. Once again he was powerful and persuasive in his message to end the stigma and discrimination against People Living with HIV. But I did not get to meet him. Instead, I was immensely flattered and honoured to share a panel with his wife Graca Machel and to find that she actually remembered me. She is truly a gracious woman who lives up to her name.
Watching Graca Machel’s sorrow at Madiba’s funeral was truly heartbreaking. You felt his absence in her life but you also felt his absence in the whole world.
Leaders such as Mandela are so rare these days that to lose him feels a bit like not having enough oxygen. All around us we see so-called leaders who do not lead, who care nothing about moving our country forward and who cause disunity and instability while at the same time accusing others of the same.
We have people in power who have not tasted anything close to the suffering that Mandela did, yet have the gall to compare themselves to him and their party’s struggles to his. Our leaders have no charisma and everything they say makes us angry or depressed, never uplifted. Worse, they are bent on blaming others for their failures and being revengeful.
Mandela suffered immeasurably during his years in prison. Yet he emerged ready to forgive and bring about reconciliation instead of seeking vengeance against those who oppressed him and his people. He set an example not just for his people but also for all of us the world over.
What example, on the other hand, have our so-called leaders set for us? That power is to be used to go after those who are weakest and least able to defend themselves? What bravery! That those who don’t agree with them should be shut up? What gallantry! That those who oppose should be punished as much as possible? Such magnanimity!
Suffice to say that none of our leaders should ever be mentioned in the same breath as Nelson Mandela. Because none of them is capable of ever saying this: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. Because love comes more naturally to the human heart than the opposite.”
Farewell Madiba, rest in peace.
(And to everyone, Merry Christ-mas and a Happy New Year.)
The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

07 December 2013

Members have been reassured that they can be as frank as they want.

MUCH to my surprise, I was appointed to the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) last week. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have plenty of trepidation when I was asked just a few days before the launch to sit on this council. Did it mean I have to tone down this column for instance?
But I felt a bit reassured when I saw some of the names of others appointed to the council, specifically the younger people there. To be sure there are not enough women there (only six) and it could do with more really young people, those in their 20s and 30s. There is only one Opposition MP on it and we hope that the still vacant spots in the line-up can be filled with more.
Of course, the cynicism started almost as soon as the news got out. Many of us on the NUCC had already predicted that. Several of us mentioned the “trust deficit” among the public of anything the government does and gave some reasons for why this was so.
This is probably going to be our biggest obstacle, establishing our credibility to do what we are tasked to do, which is to work out ways in which we can restore unity to our increasingly polarised country.
To do that, we have to be up front and clear about what is causing the polarisation. Several of us on the council are keen to do that, and indeed have said that if we cannot be very frank, then there is no point in doing this.
We were assured that we could be as frank as we want. We were also clear that we want to keep the process an open one. Hence, followers of those of us who have Twitter could follow what we were talking about in real time.
Indeed, one of our first suggestions was that the NUCC should be on social media, with a Facebook page and Twitter account. This way we can hear people’s views directly, besides the face-to-face meetings I believe are in the offing.
I can only speak for myself but I think for this council to work, it needs to do so in very different ways from any other similar bodies. It needs to innovate and be proactive.
Personally I would have liked if there had not been a president and deputy president appointed already, with all due respect to the current ones.
It would have been great if we either elected among ourselves who would chair or chose the less obvious people to chair.
That would immediately set it apart and break the normal protocol of doing things. Perhaps it’s my NGO background where we always try to operate more democratically but I think if we did things differently, we might make some progress on that trust deficit.
We haven’t had a real formal meeting yet but I’m hoping another NGO tradition can be transplanted to this. And that is, from the outset to get members to introduce themselves and state how they see the workings of this council and what they hope it will achieve.
We are a diverse group so it cannot be assumed that we all know each other. And more importantly, we need to know that we are all on the same page and want to achieve the same goal, unity.
To me, the first thing we should do is establish that this council will operate in a democratic way and because we are all going to roll up our sleeves to work, then we should all be treated equally. All protocol should be set aside.
The expectations on us are high, perhaps too high. Unity is not just a goal but a process, so all we can do in our two years is to set Malaysians back on the road to the togetherness we used to have.
It is ludicrous to think we would have all the answers in six months as some have suggested. If we can do one or two things that work, then I think we will build the confidence that it can be done.
So I think at this early stage, there is still some hope. I’m grateful that many people have kindly given the thumbs up to my appointment.
But it’s an awesome responsibility. Still I think at least we will give it a go and if we fail, it won’t be for want of trying. I always believe that you never really lose if you are sincere and willing to work hard.
2014 is round the corner and after a difficult rancorous year, perhaps we need to put aside our misgivings and cynicism and be optimistic. Positivity begets positivity, God willing.
> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

23 November 2013

Here, you are surrounded by optimistic and enthusiastic young people with the zeal to do well not only in China, but in the globalised world.
I JUST took a short trip to Beijing to attend a conference on women. It has been seven years since my last trip and 28 years since my first. In 1985, China was gingerly opening up to the world. People still wore blue Mao jackets and rode around mostly on bicycles. There were few hotels of the standard we were used to in Malaysia.
Today, so little of that Beijing remains. Tall glittery skyscrapers abound. Shopping malls carry every type of international luxury brand and people dressed as if they had just walked out of the pages of Vogue China that just celebrated its 100th edition by commissioning the photographer Mario Testino to shoot the entire issue.
Sitting at the French bakery chain Comptoirs du France, I saw a fashionable young couple walk by with their miniature dog. The dog wore a Chanel sweater....
When I arrived at the vast modern Beijing Capital airport, a young volunteer from the conference received me. She was a graduate student at Beijing University, spoke perfect English and was extremely efficient in getting me to my hotel and comfortably settled.
In fact, throughout the conference, a whole bevy of eager young volunteers shepherded us through the programme with remarkable efficiency, politeness and charm. Whenever a special request was made, they followed through until it was fulfilled.
I also met some impressive young female entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. There is now a generation of young Chinese who had been educated abroad and who are returning to start their own businesses or head companies.
The head of McKinsey in China is a Beijing-born woman as is the head of SK China, South Korea’s third largest company. Additionally, young women are using their cosmopolitan education to start businesses. The organiser of the conference was a 27-year-old former chess champion born in Chengdu.
Another 27-year-old has combined the experience of her education at both a Swiss finishing school and Harvard Business School to start a business giving etiquette lessons to Chinese wanting to venture out into the world beyond their own country. They have an acute sense that to succeed in this globalised world, they need to discard provincial habits and tastes.
The most impressive person I met, however, was Zhang, a taxi driver. I hopped into his taxi at my hotel and asked him to take me to Panjiayuan, the flea market. Taxis in Beijing are very clean and neat except that they tend to smell of cigarettes. But they are safe and as long as you get someone to explain to the taxi driver where you want to go in Mandarin, you will get there in one piece.
So I was not expecting Zhang to turn round and wish me a good afternoon. It turned out Zhang spoke pretty decent English. When I asked him why, he said he decided to learn it because he wanted to communicate with his international passengers and he loved to practise with them.
Indeed, Zhang proved to be a gem, not only did he take me to the flea market and wait until I was done but he also took me to find some other items I was looking for, drove me around Tiananmen Square so I could take photos and then took me back to my hotel, all the while chatting merrily in English.
(Some were however a bit cynical about Zhang, that he should by coincidence have picked me up that day. Apparently, there are no such coincidences in China.)
China does still have many problems, Beijing’s terrible pollution being just one. And no doubt there are huge gaps between the cities and the countryside. But there are enough eager young educated and entrepreneurial Chinese today ready to take the lead in almost everything, both domestically and perhaps even internationally. The socialist slogans are now found only on posters you can buy at the flea market.
For a few days, I had a break from home news because there is no Facebook or Twitter in China. It was nice to be with optimistic and enthusiastic young people wanting to do so much, instead of the angst-filled navel-gazing we indulge in back home and the thousands of ways we find to bring people down.
We seem to think that our country is special when we should be worrying about how this giant country only a few hours away is poised to leave us in the dust, despite our headstart.
I did meet one young Malaysian currently working in Shanghai who wants to come home to start a new IT enterprise. It was so refreshing to meet someone who is still eager to invest in his own country. I just hope that our daily nonsense does not crush his eagerness.
The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

09 November 2013

Sarawakians are used to living with such religious diversity and have no time for the sort of angst that we over in the peninsula have.

WHEN I was a little girl in Alor Setar, I thought that Malaya did not extend any further than my home state. I did eventually learn that in fact it was much bigger when we visited my grandparents in Kuala Lumpur. But for a long time, my child geographical imagination was severely limited.
As an adult, of course I have been all over the country. And despite being a pretty small one, there are distinct differences in environment, atmosphere and attitudes in dif­ferent parts of the country, not to mention different dialects and food.
There is enough variety already within peninsular Malaysia without us even experiencing what is on offer over the water, in Sabah and Sarawak.
It is this diversity that makes our country wonderful.
Recently, I was invited to Kuching to speak to some young people about social media and whether it contri­butes to social cohesion.
I always jump at the chance to cross the water and it was a bit of a shock to realise that I hadn’t been to Kuching for some five years.
Besides the many culinary joys to be found there, it is always interesting to check out what Sarawakians are up to.
My hosts were two NGOs – Angkatan Zaman Mansang (Azam) and the Islamic Information Centre (IIC) – both coincidentally run by women.
Azam was set up 30 years ago to do development work among Sarawakians.
Today, they focus a lot on youths and support young people to do many things, including volunteering to bridge the gap between urban and rural youths.
The IIC is only five years old but it was set up with some particular missions in mind. The first is to educate Muslims about Islam, the second is to educate non-Muslims about Islam and the third, and most interesting of all, is to educate Muslims about other faiths.
Muslims make up only 30% of Sarawak’s population, so it would be difficult to avoid other faiths in daily life.
So IIC set out to build relationships between the different faiths so that they may understand each other better.
The centre itself strives architecturally to be inclusive, borrowing elements from the housing styles of different ethnic groups in Sarawak, including the Iban, Bidayuh, Orang Ulu, Malay and Chinese.
Their surau holds Friday prayers in English and provides translations in various local languages so that no one feels alienated in those surroundings.
Their resource centre contains many books on religion, particularly Islam, but their CEO was very proud to inform me that it contains a Bible as well.
Besides talks and panels for Muslims on Islam, they also often hold talks for non-Muslims on various aspects of the faith. And to educate Muslims about other faiths, they take groups of Muslims to visit other houses of faith to learn about them.
Last year, they organised a forum with Azam on fasting, and how it is found in every religion.
This year’s forum on social media was organised by both NGOs in the Christian Ecumenical Worship Centre and was attended by young people of every faith, including a visiting group of Muslim students from a public university in the peninsula.
Everyone was very relaxed, ate lunch together and the programme was designed so that those who had to go off to Friday prayers had ample time to get to the mosque.
While such a forum may have raised eyebrows in the peninsula, or may even not have been organised out of fears of vocal criticism from certain parties, these types of events are not at all unusual for Sarawak.
Sarawakians are used to living with such religious diversity and have no time for the sort of angst that we over here have.
Some families have members of different faiths, so excluding some people from family events and festivities is simply not an option.
I listened with astonishment the big-heartedness of the local religious authorities.
For instance, every year at the Maal Hijrah (Muslim New Year) cele­brations, alongside the usual Muslim recipients of the Tokoh Maal Hijrah awards, there is always a non-Muslim, one recognised for his or her efforts to foster better relations between the different faith communities.
What’s more, the Maal Hijrah parade also includes a contingent of non-Muslims.
For someone from KL, used to the ever greater segregation on the basis of religion, this information was jaw-droppingly awesome.
But it is also sad to think of such harmony as being unusual.
Once upon a time it was not uncommon either in our part of the country.
We respected and lived with each other and did not claim names and beliefs to be exclusive to us.
But with changing attitudes, I feel as if I need to go to Kuching just to breathe.
> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

31 October 2013

It takes courage to stand one’s ground, but the greatest reward is the ability to sleep at night, knowing that one’s conscience is clear.

WHEN parents try to teach their young children certain values and behaviours, consistency is the key.
When you tell children that lying is wrong, then they must never catch you telling untruths.
If you say there’s no money to buy some fancy new toy, then you can’t come home with a brand new car without them wondering how come you can afford that.
Children have natural radar for hypocrisy. It is tuned to catch any inconsistencies, white lies or complete untruths that parents spout because these grate against the natural sense of fairness that kids have.
And every time they catch their parents out, a small bit of parental authority erodes.
This anti-hypocrisy radar is only maintained if the child doesn’t then learn that to be hypocritical is more rewarding than to be true to one’s own conscience.
If they find that there is nothing to be gained from telling the truth, and everything to gain from fudging facts, then the children grow up with their moral compass askew.
They learn not to take responsibility for their own misdeeds but to blame others for it.
Thus you get stories, for example, about kids who blame their maids for not putting their homework in their schoolbags on the day they are meant to pass them up.
Unfortunately there are more and more adults behaving in this way these days.
I can only assume that once they did have a conscience, believed in certain things but along the way grew to learn that being true to that conscience is no way to get ahead in life.
As children, they might have had a strong sense of justice, of instinctively knowing when something is unfair.
But when they become adults, that instinct is put aside because it’s not a ticket to advancement. Besides if everyone else is doing it, why be the exception?
To be the exception requires the strength of moral character that is able to withstand the pressures that come from others, whether family, colleagues or bosses.
It also requires the courage to take whatever blowback that might come from standing one’s ground, some of which undoubtedly will have implications to more than one’s self.
But for those with such courage, the greatest reward is the ability to sleep at night, knowing their conscience is clear.
These days I find myself wishing I knew more people of such moral fortitude because they do seem thin on the ground.
I see people who have no qualms about making themselves popular by preaching the oppression of those who have no voice.
I shudder to read of people who blithely believe that the rule of law should only apply to themselves but not to others.
If one were ever to accuse them of any crime, they immediately plead that they are innocent, but they accord no such consideration to those they don’t like.
They say that those of us who open our mouths in protest have no respect for the law, when they themselves barely hesitate to override those very same laws.
The tragic thing is that these types of people think they are leaders, because in the popularity contests they indulge in, they win.
Never mind if their means of winning would hardly fit a child’s description of fairness, what matters most is that they win.
I look at the lineup of the so-called leaders we have and I have to despair.
Not a single one of them would be anyone I would look up to.
None are names that would come immediately to mind as those who could take us confidently into the future, to take our place among the best in the world.
Instead I see people whose minds remain in an ancient age where might is always right, and the majority always wins. And a fat wallet is everything.
Many years ago I was in a country much poorer than ours where I met a young politician who seemed just the type of dynamic leader the country needs.
There were rumours that he would stand for election as the mayor of their capital city.
But when I asked him, he replied that he was not going to.
“It takes a million US dollars to have a running chance of winning that post,” he said.
It wasn’t that he did not have the money because he came from a wealthy family but he did not feel that was the right thing to do.
Today I saw a quote about how much it takes to stand for party elections in our country.
It costs four times more to run for elections in a party of three million members than to stand for mayor of a city of 18 million.
Enough said.
The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

12 October 2013

Many Muslims are quick to defend their religion as one of peace, but very often words are not enough because the actions that many Muslims do in the name of Islam are neither peaceful nor just.

WHENEVER Islam is attacked for being violent and oppressive, many Muslims are quick to defend their religion as one of peace.
At each attack, the same words are trotted out as if these alone would be evidence of such truth. In fact, very often the word are not enough because the actions that many Muslims do in the name of Islam are far from being peaceful or just. Worse still, that the injustices and violence are mostly inflicted on other Muslims.
How is it possible to classify the burning of houses of worship of other faiths, or the abuse, and sometimes killing, of people of other faiths or other Muslim denominations as peaceful? How do we classify the rape of Mukhtar Mai, the Pakistani woman given to another family because of an alleged wrong done by her brother, as just? Or the shooting of Malala Yousufzai?
Nearer home, how do we proclaim Islam as a just religion when the poor disproportionately are unable to obtain justice in our courts, when women have to spend energy and money they don’t have going in and out of court to get what is rightfully theirs and their children’s from irresponsible husbands?
What sort of justice is it when a woman who, fed-up with the long drawn out process, insists that the court punish her by whipping her is seen as a good Muslim woman, while men who repeatedly ignore court orders are not seen as bad Muslim men?
What sort of justice is it that women are invariably blamed for all of society’s ills but never men?
This week, a gross act of injustice has been done by the Federal Territory syariah court to a young woman who had the misfortune of being female and Muslim when confronted by Federal Territory Islamic Religious Department (Jawi) officials looking for someone to arrest.
They could not arrest her non-Muslim boss nor could they charge her employers.
So they picked on her and subjected her to unabating harassment to this day.
Never mind that the civil courts found that they had no right to raid the bookstore before the book they sought was even banned. Never mind that the civil courts lifted the ban on the book.
If the conditions for her arrest no longer exist, it stands to reason that whatever charges against her must be withdrawn.
After all, the courts have said that the book is not banned, therefore, how can she be charged for selling a banned book?
Here is where hubris trumps justice. Instead of gracefully withdrawing the charges against her, Jawi did a duplicitous thing.
In order not to be cited as being in contempt of the civil High Court’s order to lift the ban, they said they respected the court’s orders.
But then they said that the syariah judge had the power to make his own judgement on the case.
And he duly did, by refusing to withdraw the charge.
In what universe is this justice? In what world does this contribute to the image of Islam as a religion of justice and of peace? And what are the implications of this incredible judgment?
Firstly it means that no bookstore, except perhaps those selling Islamic books, may employ any Muslim at all since they will be held responsible for the content of each and every single book in the inventory that may contradict Islamic teachings. Does this mean that all bookstores must now summarily fire all their Muslim employees?
What about other employers that may have in their workplace things that are also considered unIslamic, such as alcohol?
Does this now mean that no Muslim may be employed in hotels, restaurants, even on our national airline? At a time when jobs are already hard to come by, how do we help anyone with this ridiculous judgment?
And it’s ridiculous because it makes no sense.
The court session was only meant to be a formality to withdraw the charges against the woman, since logically speaking, there is no reason to charge her. But the judge decided to prolong the case, make it even more controversial and perhaps even trigger a constitutional crisis. All for what purpose?
Meanwhile a young woman, who has worked hard to get to where she is, has to continue living with this charge over her head. That she has done so with great equanimity is testimony to her fortitude and courage.
Or perhaps, as a Muslim she knows this verse better than the judge: “Behold, God enjoins justice, and the doing of good, and generosity towards [one’s] fellow-men; and He forbids all that is shameful and all that runs counter to reason, as well as envy; [and] He exhorts you [repeatedly] so that you might bear [all this] in mind.” (Surah An-Nahl, Verse 90, translation by Muhammad Assad).
The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

30 September 2013

While it is true that security is a constant issue, I wonder if the real reason behind it is that feeling of uncertainty or a lack of confidence and anxiety about ourselves.

SINCE we are all worried about security these days, I decided to look up the meaning of “insecurity”.
Besides the feeling of being constantly in danger or under threat, insecurity also means “a feeling of uncertainty, or a lack of confidence and anxiety about yourself”.
While we worry daily about the many crimes being committed in our neighbourhoods with no real solution in sight, sometimes I wonder if we have a security crisis or an insecurity crisis.
While it is true that security is a constant issue, I wonder if the real reason behind it is that feeling of uncertainty or a lack of confidence and anxiety about ourselves.
These feelings of security and insecurity are of course related.
On the one hand, the very people who should make us feel secure are in fact making us insecure.
How certain do we feel about our future when we see hesitant and sometimes absent leadership at times when we most need it?
How can we not feel anxious when the leadership is silent on the things that matter to the citizenry?
As a citizen, I want a decent life for my family, my fellow citizens and myself. This, anyone would think, is quite basic and common to everyone.
I want to be able to have a roof over my head, education for my kids, the opportunity to earn a decent living and affordable healthcare when I need it.
When a human being is unable to have these basics, then they start to feel that most normal of human instincts, insecurity.
If enough people feel that way, then that’s a recipe for instability and mass insecurity.
It is not possible for any country to be stable if many of its people feel hungry or deprived of the most essential ingredients to lead a normal life.
Countries rise and fall based on these simple facts. Once inequalities start to spread, then it is only normal that insecurity, in the sense of danger, follows.
I was talking to a friend who has been working abroad a lot about a situation that he found very stark since he’s been back.
There are people who seem to be caught in a quagmire of debt that they simply cannot get out of.
The vicious cycle of inability to access what a person needs which leads to overuse of credit, which leads to an inability to pay, which then leads to getting loans at high interest rates from unscrupulous persons, seems never ending.
It leads to insecurity not just for the original borrower but also for all those within his or her family circle.
Recently, two leading religious figures have spoken about this terrible crisis that many face, of easy credit and crushing debt.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, warned that the ease at which money, in its virtual form, not in exchange for actual goods and services, is available has led to much misery among people.
Most recently, Pope Francis talked about the same thing, how the pursuit of money for its own sake has brought with it “a culture where the weakest in society suffer the most” and often, those on the fringes “fall away”, including the elderly, who he said were victims of a “hidden euthanasia” caused by “neglect of those no longer considered productive”.
I have yet to hear the Muslim equivalent of this, of concern for a global system that is increasing insecurity of people everywhere.
Instead, I hear a different insecurity, of one where there are constant so-called moral attacks, usually by imagined assailants. Where limited interpretations of religion are to be enforced because otherwise the religion will disappear, despite evidence to the contrary.
In some ways, these self-appointed guardians of religion have reason to worry.
Every action of theirs is self-defeating. For every cruelty they inflict on those who are weak, they lose more adherents.
For every injustice they perpetuate, there are people who leave disgusted. For every justification they give to inequality, people baulk and root for equality.
When we look at the most unstable countries in the world, inevitably they are also the ones with masses of poor people.
Economic injustice breeds problems not just within countries, but externally as well.
It leads to mass migration of people to look for work, and sometimes it brings violence.
It thus makes sense to prioritise dealing with such injustice.
Instead, we see our leaders behaving like people anxious about protecting their own comforts rather than anyone else’s.
This they do by distracting us from real issues, by telling us that some small groups of people, even dead ones, are a threat, by refusing to let some people speak or even be seen in our media.
So I have to ask: Who’s the insecure one?
> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

14 September 2013

The importance of respecting a person’s dignity is also tied to respecting their bodily integrity.

ONE of the things that we try to impart to our children is the value of human dignity, where we try and teach them to respect others, never to shame others in public and to always conduct ourselves with decorum.
Our pity is often cast on those whose lives have fallen apart and who have to bear the indignities that society can wreak on the indigent and the ill.
We know that the importance of respecting a person’s dignity is also tied to respecting their bodily integrity. Hence our concern – some would say, obsession – with the way people, especially women, are dressed.
The ostensible reason is that it protects a person’s physical integrity.
A dignified person is therefore a whole person, respected and respectful.
Imagine therefore my horror and shock at a story of an ustazah in a school who, disbelieving her female students who said they could not pray because they had their period, decided to check their underwear to see if they were telling the truth.
It must be a special kind of sick sadist that thinks that checking another person’s underwear is a viable way of carrying out their duties. It is a blatant abuse of power over those who are unable to refuse the command.
Mothers rarely ask to look at their young daughters’ underwear except with very good reason, such as if they suspect they are ill. Why then does a teacher who otherwise has no business to touch the bodies of our children feel she can do this with impunity?
Imagine the effect it will have on the students. It is bad enough not to be believed but to be violated in this way must surely have an effect on their self-esteem.
Do we not care if we bring up children with low self-esteem or is that the idea, to create a whole generation of subservient girls?
More insultingly, it is done in the name of religion.
It just points to the sheer ludicrousness of public ritual as an indicator of piety.
I don’t know what KPI the ustazah had that she had to ensure that every single girl under her charge prayed every day.
Yet for all the praying, which presumably she does too, she still could not trust her own charges. If they say they cannot pray that day, then really she should just trust them and leave it in the hands of the Almighty.
Apparently this sort of thing is not uncommon in our schools and even in Muslim schools elsewhere. A friend told of how when she was in school, girls had to indicate on a chart when they had their period. If their period lasted more than 15 days, then this was cause for speculation that they were lying and therefore liable to be subject to punishment for not praying.
I have to wonder what punishment is reserved for boys who try to excuse themselves from prayers since there are no similar indicators for them. Should girls be punished merely because of biology?
The reaction of most of my friends who heard this story is that the parents of the girls should sue the teacher and the school.
Schools are after all meant to be spaces that are safe for our children.
Safety does not just mean physical safety but safety from the sort of mental abuse that this sort of physical “inspection” causes.
But the chances are that the parents won’t. Firstly, they are likely to feel embarrassed about the whole thing and secondly, who are they to dispute a teacher, and a religious teacher at that, who has power over their child for most of the day? They are also likely to be shamed for not keeping tabs on their daughters’ prayer schedules themselves.
In other words, such abusive teachers are likely to carry on this behaviour knowing that nothing much will happen to them.
What do we teach our children when we behave like this? We teach them that power over someone weaker is everything, that the powerful can do anything, especially humiliate a powerless person.
We teach our children that their bodies are not theirs, and yet at the same time we scold and punish them if they allow the “wrong” people to touch them. Is an ustazah, even if she is of the same sex, the right person? Some people will say she was only looking and not touching. That’s splitting hairs really.
It is things like these that make parents lose trust in our schools and our teachers. Schools are where our children should be able to grow as human beings, to fulfil their potential to be contributing members of society.
Instead, we are turning them into humiliated people who may well turn into future abusers themselves.

31 August 2013

The voiceless and powerless are further discriminated by divisive issues.

SOMETIMES we need to look at our country from a long distance to truly see it as it is.

I have been travelling for the past two weeks and while it is nice to totally switch off news from home, occasionally I can’t help it.

Predictably enough there is hardly ever any news that makes me homesick.

Instead, there is only news that makes me sick at heart.

The whole resort surau (place of worship) issue blew up right after I left and honestly reading about it from afar makes me want to shake my head at the ridiculous lengths our politicians will go to supposedly garner popularity.

I won’t repeat the numerous sensible arguments so many have put forward against taking punitive action against the resort manager for what is at worst a naive mistake.

When people have apologised, magnanimity requires that we accept it. Not accepting apologies reeks of arrogance. After all, even God accepts those who repent.

In fact, the one striking thing about the recent many occurrences of the ease of offendedness was not only the sudden thin-skinnedness of politicians and religio-politicians but also the audience for this.

When it comes to religion, we are always exhorted to do everything for God.

Even given that some people actually think getting offended is a good thing, I have to ask: are we doing this for God or simply for other human beings, especially those whose votes we need in the coming elections?

If it is the latter, then we are already wrong. If it is the former, then why would Almighty God not only choose to speak through the Home Minister but choose the taking away of permanent residency as His chosen form of punishment?

Nor is the destruction of places of worship something that is sanctioned by the God some of us purport to represent.

As many have pointed out, places of worship often go through various incarnations.

The Kaaba itself was once a temple of idolatory until Prophet Muhammad cleansed it of its idols. Today, it is Islam’s holiest site. If the Kaaba can be so easily converted as a holy place from one faith to another, what more a humble resort surau?

Honestly, from afar, our politicians and their band of followers simply look stupid.

There are far more important things to worry about than whether rooms can be used for one faith or another, or who one calls God or whether everyone fits into one uniform faith box or not.

All over the world people are dying from hunger and war. How does the destruction of one surau help them?

In Britain, everywhere I go, I see posters gently requesting people to donate to causes in developing countries, to help people have clean water, simple medical treatment or for children to go to school.

The football association has just started a campaign for tougher penalties against racism, sexism and homophobia.

These are all positive things to do because those who are voiceless and powerless will feel more protected.

In contrast, in our country, every day we only see more calls for the voiceless and the powerless to be even more marginalised and discriminated against.

And the worst thing is, not only do we think this the right and – gallingly – the religious thing to do, but we are actually proud of it.

If we only read our religious books, then we would know that we should actually be ashamed.

17 August 2013

FIRST of all, let me wish everyone a Selamat Hari Raya Aidil Fitri, maaf zahir batin.

This year, the idea of forgiveness seems more poignant than ever, given the rancorous Ramadan we just had.
I don’t recall a month more full of anger and tension than this year’s fasting month, ironic given that it is a month when believers are supposed to exercise restraint not only from food but also in thought, word and deed.
But the beginning of the month of Shawal gives us an opportunity to press the reset button.
We ask for forgiveness from our parents, family and friends for whatever wrongs big or small we may have done them in the past year including harsh words and rash deeds, and we forgive those who may have wronged us as well.
I was quite touched reading on Facebook the many status updates asking for forgiveness at Hari Raya by and from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Malaysians seem to understand the spirit of the Raya season very well, regardless of their religion.
In fact in spite of the many upsetting events during Ramadan, there was still much that we can celebrate as Malaysians.
One was the #Fast4Malaysia event organised by some friends of mine and I to foster unity through a common experience, fasting. On that one day, July 31, non-Muslim Malaysians all over the country and even overseas fasted in solidarity with Muslims to understand what it feels like to not have any food or water from dawn to dusk.
About 60 of us woke up at 4.30am to gather at a 24-hour eatery in Bangsar to havesahur, the pre-fast meal. Many of us knew one another but it was heartening to see people we didn’t know join in.
One young Chinese man came alone and was immediately invited by a young Malay family to sit with them. Another young woman drove all the way from Shah Alam to join in. Two Indian women happened to walk in the same restaurant without knowing what was happening but decided to join in when they learnt why we were there.
There was a sense of camaraderie among us that was truly unifying.
Some first-timers were nervous about how they would cope but everyone else assured them it would be fine. All day on social media like Twitter, people encouraged each other.
Many young Muslims were thril­led and fascinated that their non-Muslim friends were joining them in the fast that day and gave many tips on how to manage the hunger.
Non-Muslims chatted all day about their experience. They uploaded photos of what they ate at sahur and then later on photos of themselves breaking the fast with family and friends.
Some people organised special buka puasa gatherings at home, in their offices and restaurants.
Many blogged about their experience which was overwhelmingly positive. One teacher was at first greeted with incredulity by her fasting students which then became respect that she was joining them for the day. There were even some who continued to fast even after July 31 because they enjoyed the experience.
Even overseas Malaysians joined in. New Zealand was the first to sahur and break fast while Norway was the last. Thus, we were connected through this experience not only with our immediate friends and family, but also with those overseas – Malaysians linking hands around the world.
It’s a pity that such a unifying event got so little coverage from the mainstream media and no mention at all from our leaders except for a few young Opposition politicians.
Perhaps they should look up the #Fast4Malaysia Tumblr site to see how civil society can unite Malaysians in the sort of organic way that politicians cannot. There were no financial inducements, no sponsorship, no T-shirts involved.
People went Dutch at sahur and buka puasa although some generous people hosted meals in their homes for their friends. Many made new friends along the way.
The main outcome was something no politician nor even religious leader could have engendered, mutual respect. Non-Muslim Malaysians, having fasted themselves, renewed their respect for their Muslim fellow citizens who do this for a whole month each year.
Muslim Malaysians, in return, gained a new respect for their non-Muslim compatriots for attempting something which they had no obligation to perform. Both sides experienced something very precious for one another, empathy.
Of course, as is typical, there were detractors and cynics.
Some questioned why fasting should be the experience we used, seeing it as an attempt to impose one religion’s obligation over non-adherents.
This was an ironic question given that the organisers came from all faiths. But we simply took the opportunity of Ramadan to respond to the many upsetting events during the month. If anyone has other creative ideas that can also unify people in the same way, then they should also do it. God knows we need many of these.
Many asked if we would do this again next year and every year. The answer is we don’t know. This was an attempt at uniting Malaysians at a time when there was much that was (and still is) divisive.
We hope that there will be no more need for it in the future. But if there is, then we might. Or we might think of something else we can do that can bring us all together.
Ultimately it is a citizen initiative to bring peace at a time when our leaders fail us. And the more they fail us, the more ordinary Malaysian citizens need to find creative ways to keep us together.

10 August 2013

We have to stop falling for ploys that divide us and resist by coming closer together to be more united.

FROM age three until I was 15, I went to a Convent school in my hometown, Alor Setar.
There, both nuns and lay teachers taught me and the few other Muslim girls in the school, perhaps four or five in each class.
As far as I know, every single one of them has remained Muslim to this day.
Our school building had a large cross on the roof and photos of Jesus on the walls.
At school assembly, we listened quietly as other students sang the Lord’s Prayer.
The nuns were covered head to toe in white and we liked some and feared others because of their strictness in class.
But mostly, we were used to them and didn’t have much curiosity about their lives.
We did not, however, grow up totally devoid of our own religion.
We had compulsory Ugama classes and on Saturdays, we had Quran-reading classes.
This was in addition to whatever classes our parents might arrange for us at home.
Nobody ever accused us of being less than regular Muslims, with less religious education than those who went to other schools.
And we got on with everyone.
If I went to a birthday party at a non-Muslim friend’s home, they made sure the food was halal.
During Ramadan, we still went to the canteen but simply did not eat.
None of us looked in envy – or resentment – at our friends eating. For that month, that was just the way things were.
I don’t remember that we had to be protected from the sight or smell of food.
Our parents had taught us that what fortified us on those hot days was our faith and our niat or intention in fasting.
Nor do I remember any of our friends trying to tempt us into breaking our fast by dangling food in front of us.
I wish I could recall what we did on the days when we couldn’t fast.
Did we simply go to the canteen and eat?
Could it be that in the years since I was a child, despite being subjected to more religious education, our faith is on more shaky ground than before?
That it needs to be protected by indestructible walls built by the state because none of us can be trusted to believe on our own?
Today, everything is apparently a threat to our faith, from yoga, dressing in non-gender-specific ways to seeing people eat when we can’t.
Nobody has any faith in faith any more.
Fasting, for example, is hard only for the first few days.
After the body, and more importantly, the mind, adjusts, life goes on as normal.
There is no necessity to constantly guard against temptation unless we want to imply that we are weak creatures and it won’t take much to make us fall off the wagon, so to speak.
There is, therefore, no need for the astonishing amount of grumpiness from all sides this Ramadan.
Instead, we should be endeavouring to make things light and easy for everyone, do charitable work and bring people together.
Yet, we see the opposite happening, whipped up by some of our leaders, including religious ones who really should know better.
I think it is time we built a resistance to the false causes that our leaders sometimes impose on us.
On a day-to-day basis, we all get along, just as we did in my childhood.
Yet, things have also changed a lot, and it is understandable that many of us get frustrated and furious with it.
But as that old adage goes, “don’t get mad, get even”.
We should get even by resisting being manipulated into the fears that our leaders want us to feel.
We should refuse to fall for any of the games that they play, which result mostly in making us feel more angry and fearful.
We have to stop falling for ploys that divide us and resist by coming closer together to be more united.
There are plenty of ways in coming together if only we thought more creatively.
This week, many of us Malaysians of every race and religion got together to spend one day of fasting together.
Muslims who are fasting anyway reached out to their non-Muslim friends to share in either having the pre-fast meal or in the breaking of the fast together.
Non-Muslims joined in fasting to experience what it feels like to not have any food or water from sun-up to sundown.
It is when we share an experience together that we are brought closer together.
Today there are so many ways in which we are far apart, that we don’t understand one another any more.
We need to take action to change that. We need to resist.