20 July 2013

It is also the time to show the strength of our faith, our spirit and our discipline.

IT is the first week of Ramadan and as always the body is taking time to adjust. I feel lethargic and sleepy and it takes enormous will to work up the energy to go to work.
But bills don’t stop needing to be paid, letters answered or columns written during this one month of fasting.
I just have to wait a few days before I get used to the daytime deprivation of food and water and will feel normal again.
I like Ramadan because it gives me a sense of a break from the usual routines. Just because there isn’t a break in the middle of the day for lunch makes me rework my daily schedule so that I can get home early enough to rest before the breaking of the fast.
But I expect there to be days when I work right up till buka puasa and won’t even notice it.
Most of all, I’m hoping for some benefits from not eating after a year of mostly undisciplined indulgence in all the wrong types of food.
For me, Ramadan is a time of restraint, reflection and respect. By that, I mean not just refraining from food and drink but from the worst sides of ourselves.
At other times we may be bad-tempered, inconsiderate, gossipy and unthinking but during Ramadan we are supposed to put those sides of us on hold, at least in theory.
I read about how a woman was beaten by her husband because she didn’t wake him up early enough for sahur. It really makes you wonder why the spirit of Ramadan, on its very first morning, was so lacking that a man could be driven to violence in this way.
No doubt there will be some who blame the wife for being “derelict” in her duty to wake her husband but I have to ask: could he not have woken himself, and even if she woke him late, was violence the proper response to this?
Ramadan gives us time to reflect on many things. I like waking up for sahur because the early hours of the morning, amidst the cool and the solitude, gives me time to think about many things.
Sometimes it’s just practical things, like making lists on what I have to do for Raya. Other times, it’s about what it means to honour the spirit of Ramadan.
I try and think of good things I want to be and do and not about things that make me angry or sad. I make a promise to myself to deal with difficult things with greater equanimity.
If people gave themselves time to reflect more during this month, then perhaps they would not do things hastily without thinking of the possible consequences.
If you set out to do something obviously insulting, would you not expect some reaction to it? Did you think about how you will deal with this reaction?
On the other hand, faced with such blatant attempts at publicity, do we succumb to our basest instincts and provide the reaction that would generate the desired attention? Restraint and reflection should really be practised on all sides, but especially by the ones fasting.
Which leads me to respect another part of the spirit of Ramadan.
Yes, in this country, people need to respect that it is Ramadan and that most people are fasting. But on the other hand, those who are fasting are also obliged to respect others who may not be fasting.
We are, compared with many Muslim countries, already one of the most tolerant in that we don’t shut down totally just because many of us are fasting.
In other countries, they simply turn their daily schedules upside-down. Whatever you do in the daytime, such as eat and work, happens at night instead. In actual fact, precious little work gets done and the whole month becomes festive.
But the practical side of us knows that the world is not going to stop just because some of us are fasting.
We still need to work during regular hours because that’s when the rest of the world is working.
Indeed I’m grateful for this because sleeping all day just makes me grumpy and lethargic.
But fasting doesn’t mean we have an excuse to do shoddy work. That means we have no respect for our work and those who employ us. Nor does it give us the licence to demand respect from others.
To say that others have to be extra-respectful or sensitive to us because we are fasting is demeaning and disempowering. It is a bit like being disabled and asking for more crutches to shore up our weaknesses.
Ramadan is after all the time to show the strength of our faith, our spirit and our discipline.

13 July 2013

Many issues cut across boundaries and require several different ministries to cooperate in order to find solutions instead of only working in isolation.

WHEN it comes to some issues, I sometimes wonder if they’re too important to leave to mere politicians to handle.
There we were with smoggy skies and unbreathable air again. I repeat, again. After the previous bad experiences and many promises by our leaders that they would do something about it, not only did the haze return, it was actually worse.
Did we learn anything from the last time? It started down south in our neighbouring country. They were choked out completely.
You would think that we would start wondering whether we would be hit next. Instead we twiddled our thumbs and watched as the haze made its way north, disrupting everything along the way.
Could we not have foreseen this? And therefore could we not have done something quicker to at least mitigate it? Or issue warnings to those most vulnerable or susceptible to be alert to the risks to their health? Before the 100% rise in asthma cases actually occurred?
I don’t know what it is about our country that we are so resistant to actually doing anything about prevention. No, I misstate that: we love preventive actions, especially if they involve detention or the prevention of so-called immoralities. Mostly, by methods for which there is no evidence of their effectiveness. But to do the actual hard work of studying and analysing an issue in order to find a fact-based implementable solution seems to be beyond us.
On Monday, I sat in a plenary session at the 7th International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Pa­tho­genesis, Treatment and Prevention and listened to a doctor from Cambodia talking about their ap­­proach to managing the global epidemic.
He described the progression of their HIV programme as Cambodia 1.0, 2.0 and now 3.0 supported with a lot of analysis of their data. I truly don’t know how accurate his analyses were but I was impressed at the issues that they were striving to address, including sensitive ones like sex work.
Although I have not been involved in HIV for seven years now, what seems obvious to me is that at most, we are at Malaysia 1.5 when it comes to HIV. That is because we are one of the few countries in the region to have implemented harm reduction programmes and to provide free anti-retroviral treatment to Malay­sians living with HIV. But that was a while ago and although that’s something we should be proud of, we really have not moved on.
Trying to get updated statistics on HIV is difficult enough. But even more difficult is trying to get analyses of the statistics, or of other factors that contribute to the HIV epidemic, whether on the prevention or treatment side.
I listened to a South African professor talk about the issues of transitioning care for children with HIV who grow into adults, and wondered if anyone here was also thinking of the same thing.
The same is true of every government department, not just health.
It would be interesting to know if the new Youth and Sports Minister will commission studies to truly find out why some of our young men become Mat Rempit, or get into drugs, or are so absent from our tertiary institutions. Or are those issues to be left to the police, or to Education?
If there is anything new our current Government can do to truly make a difference, it would be to recognise that many of these issues are cross-cutting and need the engagement and cooperation of several ministries working together and not in isolation.
Similarly, our Women, Family and Community Development Ministry would do well to get someone to do a truly in-depth study of why child marriage or incest happens and what can be done to prevent these. Or why children keep drowning during the school holidays. Do we even really have facts on why so many babies get abandoned?
However, we seem to have no appetite for knowing the real reasons why these issues arise in our society. Instead we would rather rely on speculation based often on someone else’s shallow knowledge or worse, prejudice. This was how we got ridiculous “guidelines” on how to spot gay people, all of which seem to be based on watching a cheap telenovela.
If we are going to seriously right whatever is wrong in our society, we need to face them squarely.
Today I heard a presentation on the dismal state of the Malayan tiger and it’s obvious that the problem is human greed, in all of its forms. But unless we own up to that, then we can bid our tigers goodbye. How sad would that be?
We need to be able to hold up a mirror to ourselves and simply accept what we see. Then find realistic ways to make us be better so that we look better.