22 December 2014

Trying to determine if a TV programme is threatening to one’s faith can be a real challenge.

YOU can read very interesting things in the news these days, some of which can be rather puzzling. At a conference on entertainment and Islam recently, a paper presenter said that many people have asked him how to tell if a TV programme is threatening or not to their faith.

I really had to wonder who these people were and why this was such a problem. Most people can tell within five minutes of watching a programme whether it’s any good or not.

Perhaps it is harder to tell if an interesting programme, say about the mating habits of bees, will shake your faith but what most sensible people do is to see if it makes them feel uncomfortable or not.

If it does, then their faith is probably shaky. And the most obvious thing to do is naturally to switch it off.

I don’t particularly like scary horror type programmes not because I think they would shake my faith but because I don’t find them enjoyable. So I switch channels to something more innocuous like Downton Abbey.

Apparently in Victorian times, nobody ever does any public displays of affection so I reckon that’s pretty safe for anyone.

But the paper presenter actually spent a lot of time thinking about these questions from people presumably without on/off buttons on their TVs nor channel-changing remote controls. So he then proposed that all TV programmes should carry halal and haram certificates.

OK, all those who volunteer to certify the haram programmes, please put up your hands!

What would probably happen is that 90% of the programmes will wind up in one way or another with a haram certificate while the rest would be deemed kosher.

That is probably because the criteria for halalness is going to be very strict and long. How long should the tudung be? How tight can her sleeves be? How many sequins is too much? Is that a hipster or a halal beard? These are all questions to be decided by arguably the least hip people in the country.

But the scenario that plays in my mind is this.

Here is a Muslim household where the head of the family, a man of course, is sitting in front of the TV feeling somewhat guilty about the choice of channels he has before him.

He thinks he should just watch the religious programmes but really he would rather watch the hot Indonesian or Latin American actresses on all those never-ending soap operas. But no matter what he does he keeps being tempted to switch back to those channels.

He sits there chained to his armchair unable to move from in front of the TV, hapless at all the choice in front of him. During the Olympics the problem is worst. There’s women’s beach volleyball, women’s swimming, women’s gymnastics. What threats to his faith!

Of course women are not so threatened by this terrible dilemma because they are busy cooking, cleaning, helping the kids do their homework that they simply have no time to watch the TV.

Besides they’ve already been warned that during the World Cup they are not to watch any matches because the sight of those nice athletic long legs might do something bad to their insides.

Still, wives have been blamed too for not switching the channels for their husbands from women in swimsuits to women in hijab.

But the men, seated with their t-shirts pulled tight over their big nasi-lemak-filled bellies, are at real risk. They are helpless.

They cannot get out of their seats and go do something else, like go for a walk, play with their kids, help their wives with the washing up. They are stuck and therefore their faith is endangered. Hence, the need to have a whole conference to discuss this.

Meanwhile there is a huge financial scandal that is threatening to turn the entire population into paupers, climate change is causing floods, mudslides and turning people out of their homes by the dozens, there are hungry and homeless people in our streets, more and more poverty in our faces today. And the siege in Sydney means yet again Muslims are going to be stereotyped as terrorists.

But none of these are as important as which TV programmes will get us to heaven and which will not. And whose fault it is really for producing programmes which put us on the fast-track to hell.

I’m going to spend my time either reading, watching good dramas on TV and going out to visit friends for Christmas. In fact the only thing worth watching is actually my waistline.

Meanwhile may I wish everyone Merry Christmas and a new year that is more hopeful, joyful and peaceful than 2014 was!


04 December 2014


I AM often asked if there will ever be a woman Prime Minister in this country. My answer to that is always no. The current system is stacked against women, regardless of whichever party they might be in. It is difficult for women to become Prime Minister on their own merit.

But it is interesting to me that people, many of them men, should keep asking me this. I think it is because people are so tired of the lack of talented leaders in this country that they want a different type altogether. And it might as well be a woman.

We only have nominal leaders, not real ones. We have people who are put in positions of leadership whether they have the talent for it or not. And unfortunately, most of the time they are decidedly talentless.

For instance, true leaders would have some vision of where they want to take the country. But more importantly, they would be able to articulate that vision over and over again so that people know that they are consistent and committed to it.

Instead, not only do we not know what the vision of our leaders are but they remain completely inconsistent, chopping and changing as they please. This confuses people, and yet they have the gall to blame others for that confusion.

Real leaders step up to the plate when things go wrong. They have personal values and principles which drive them and they are not afraid to stand up for themselves.

Thus, if anyone says or does something which they find abhorrent, they will speak out, even when the offender might be someone on their side. To them, when something is wrong, it is wrong, regardless of who does it. It is not wrong only when people they don’t like do it, and right when people they like do it.

Sadly, what we often see are leaders without principles, ready to follow wherever the loudest voices are. They actually believe that loud is might and soft is meek, and therefore are ready to sacrifice the majority for the interests of a few. Over time their consciences become hardened until they sleep soundly at night despite the many wrongs they are committing daily.

A true leader speaks no words but his own, because those are the only ones that are authentic to him. He will not speak the words of others, especially without vetting them first. He has no need for disturbing visuals, as if he was speaking to a class of illiterate schoolchildren who would not understand a single word he said otherwise. He would be wise enough to know that to manipulate people’s emotions through images is the lowest trick in the book.

No leader worth his salt believes his own public relations or basks in false glory, boosted by artificial means.

A leader needs to be clear-eyed about his own popularity, and to be humble about it. There is nothing more grotesque than a leader puffed up with pride and hot air.

Such a leader would get away with it if there were nothing to compare him with. Unfortunately within his neighbourhood he has counterparts far more visionary and certainly far more humble than he.

Unfortunately too, we live in an age where we can follow what other leaders do very closely. And then we find our own wanting.

Leadership by example is not a new concept. But what examples are our leaders setting? When they can be humble, they instead have hubris. When they can be kind, instead they are uncaring especially of the poor and marginalised. When they have the opportunity to do the right thing, they don’t. When they can be gracious, they are not.

Is it any wonder then that people learn from these examples to be arrogant, uncaring and even corrupt? When we look at the number of incidences of people being simply unkind to each other, sometimes violently, doesn’t it make us wonder why it is happening?

Could it be that unkindness is all that they see from our leaders and they therefore equate that with power over others? Rather like abused children who become abusers themselves, abused citizens are just as likely to do the same.

It is totally weird logic to say that violence in the form of draconian laws is the only way to ensure stability. This is a bit like saying that if we beat our children every day, they will become obedient. They may indeed cower in submission. But they will grow up twisted and unhappy.

Perhaps it is time we abandoned the colonial system of having our leaders chosen by only a few and chose them directly instead.

21 November 2014

IMAGINE if you will, a band of warriors making their way through some tall grass. They are armed to the teeth because they are convinced that within the dense foliage, there are untold numbers of hostile parties ready to attack them at any time.

As they make their way, not the least bit quietly, their nerves tensed, they are on the constant lookout for enemies.

At the slightest sound or the faintest whiff of a possible attack, they pounce, with clubs and spears, and do their best to beat their presumed enemy to death.

It’s a take-no-prisoners approach, judge first before asking questions.

Except that there is nobody to question once the warriors are done with them.

In this way, the warriors believe they are guarding the tall grass territory that they live in.

The “enemy” is always unseen, they believe, so anything that seems different must be treated with suspicion at best, immediately “dealt with” at worst.

To do nothing is to allow these opponents to breed and their ideas to spread “like a cancer”.

But the tall grass hides the true picture of what is happening because it hides the warriors’ vision.

They can only see what is at the sparse top of the grass and not what is underneath, where discontent is seething.

The warriors cannot see that they are standing on the shoulders of those underneath and the glimpses and sounds of the “enemies” they see and hear, and whom they attack immediately, are simply the attempts by those underneath to find air to breathe in the upper reaches of the grass.

In the undergrowth of the grass lie many humans hiding in the shadows fearful of the warriors.

They work hard to keep the habitat growing, and for so long they have been quietly contributing to it as much as they can. But the warriors won’t have it.

The grass, they say, is only for the cleanest, purest warriors, of which there are only a few.

Those who do not fit into their definitions of “clean” and “pure” besmirch their habitat and therefore must either be gotten rid of or be rehabilitated to cleanse them of their “impurities”.

The warrior class is a special one. To qualify, they have to be of a certain community and be male.

The few females allowed to join can only do so if they agree with everything their male leaders say and do.

All must agree never to use their brains, only their voices, and it helps that they have many outlets at which their voices can be heard and listened to.

Brawn is everything, might is always right, loud is proud.

The problem with being a warrior, however, is that one is required to have one’s nerves perpetually on edge, beneath a paper-thin skin.

One must be ready to see ghosts behind every door, crucifixes on every cookie, proselytisers under every carpet and porcine DNA in high-calorie junk food.

Conviction of one’s own rightness is a must, even when it is scientifically proven that one is wrong.

Science is simply not the warrior’s forte; therefore science is an unnecessary inconvenience.

Meanwhile, outside the land of the tall grass, where the grass is cut to a level where everyone can breathe the same air and be all seen and heard, people are progressing.

Every day, someone gets a chance in the sunlight to show an invention that makes life better for everyone, regardless of who they are.

Innovators are rewarded and nobody pays attention to those who want to go back to the days of the tall grass.

But the warriors who live in the tall grass, because they cannot see beyond the grass they live in, do not fathom how far behind they are being left.

Innovators who need air to breathe in order to be creative are trampled on, so eventually they escape the grass to live in lands with shorter ones.

Anyone who complains of the unjust access to air is shot down immediately, and told that only those defending the right to keep the grass tall and dense are allowed to breathe.

Zoom out and looking at the globe from afar, we see that there are fewer and fewer patches of tall grass.

Everywhere people are cutting the grass short to give everyone a chance in the sunshine, recognising that it is in everyone’s nature to yearn for fresh air to breathe.

With sunlight, everyone is happy and friendly with one another. The land of the short grass is calm and peaceful.

In the land of the tall grass, the warriors thrash wildly and fiercely at everything that moves, not realising that underneath there is in fact nothing.

07 November 2014

The trouble with silence is that nobody knows what it means, so we can only make up reasons.

I READ a curious piece of news the other day where one of our bigwigs said that by not criticising us, President Barack Obama is actually supporting us with his silence.

I don’t even know where to start with this apart from it making a good Monday morning laugh. As some people have pointed out, since when do we need the United States’ approval for anything?

And secondly, when did we start reading people’s minds that we know what they are thinking when they don’t say anything? Could it be that we are simply number 1,000th on Obama’s list of priorities?

It just intrigued me, this line of thinking that silence means assent. You can extrapolate it to so many things.

If our leaders say nothing to cases of Bibles being confiscated or threatened with burning, does that mean they approve? When some people behave incredibly badly, making out that they are superior to other citizens and we hear nothing from our leaders, does this mean they agree with them? Or when they have absolutely nothing to say about the many abuses of the Sedition Act that are carried out, can we assume that it means they think there is nothing wrong with extending the jurisdiction of the Act way beyond what it is meant for?

This is the trouble with silence. Nobody really knows what it means. So we can only make up reasons, just as that bigwig is making for Obama. If I were the President of the US, I’d swat that nonentity away for his presumption.

Maybe there is a culture of “silence is assent” in our society. The best way to assure agreement in this way is by not telling anyone what trouble they are in. So that if they don’t speak up, it must mean they don’t have any objections.

Hence, perhaps, the reason why a state religious authority kept quiet about their fatwa that named Sisters in Islam as deviant.

If we didn’t find out before the three-month deadline, then surely we must agree to it! Ta da! Did they actually expect us to then go around introducing ourselves as “Sesat in Selangor”?

Silence equals assent speaks volumes, ironically, about the lack of transparency in lawmaking in our religious institutions.

Are laws made from whims and fancies of certain people? Should there not be more ­rigour in ensuring standards of justice are met before they can be passed? Should it not be so watertight that if it is met with so much negative feedback, the authorities can give their reasons why they passed it without much hesitation? Or what does silence mean in this case? Oops, maybe?

Malaysia is unique in the Muslim world in that fatwa can actually become law once gazetted. This means that if anyone contravenes them, you can be subject to some sort of punitive action. Which is why some fatwa, such as those against smoking or Amanah Saham, are not gazetted since it would mean an overwhelming number of people would have to be hauled off to jail.

Someone must have thought that with this fatwa, only a small number of people would be punished so why not? Except that the fatwa itself is very wide since it covers “organisations, individuals and institutions” that subscribe to “liberalism and pluralism”.

By that undefined measure, just about anybody who thinks differently can be caught by it. The courts will be kept very busy trying everyone, as if they didn’t already have a backlog of divorces and child maintenance cases that they haven’t dealt with yet.

If the message that differing opinions will not be tolerated is obtuse to some, there are plenty of young people who get it immediately. And they don’t like it.

We get letters and e-mails of support from so many young people who say that they can’t take all this repression any more. They have the brains to think for themselves, they say, to decide for themselves what they should or should not do in life. They want to learn more about their faith, but not in this sledgehammer style, through omission or silence, by simply not being allowed to talk about issues.

Every day our religious authorities make themselves less and less relevant to our young by their condescending attitude towards them.

In this case, it would be a mistake to think that the silence of the young means they approve or they agree with all that our authorities do.

If you look and listen carefully, they are speaking in many different ways, not necessarily in the bureaucratic way that our authorities normally do. Each attempt to clamp down on them only emboldens them more.

Perhaps if our leaders did some mind-­reading, they’d see that the silence doesn’t mean anything they thought it did.

23 October 2014

Sometimes it feels like we are being asked to despise an ever-growing list of people and things.

LAST Sunday, an extraordinary young man organised an extraordinary event. Having lived his life being afraid of dogs, he decided to overcome this fear and help others to do the same by inviting people to get to know some dogs. He got all the necessary permissions, promoted it and on the day, almost a thousand people, Muslims and non-Muslims, turned up.

By all accounts, the event was a success and people left enlightened and happy. Unfortunately, among those whose role in life is seemingly to keep us all ignorant, there was great unhappiness. Who is this young man who could get so many people out of their beds on a Sunday morning? How come they all seem to be smiling and, goodness gracious, enjoying themselves?

Thus, to no one’s surprise, they immediately started to condemn him and all those who took part in the event. Never mind that the intention of those who attended was to learn about one of God’s own creatures and how to treat them kindly.

The organisers had done everything right, including having someone give a talk on the Islamic viewpoint on dogs and having all the ingredients needed for the ritual cleansing after touching wet dogs. Yet this was not good enough for our authorities.

I often wonder if what bothers our “religious” authorities most is not so much the actual religious ins and outs of any event or action, but anything that would challenge their so-called authority and certainly anything that makes someone else popular.

The organiser of the Touch A Dog event did not intend for the event to insult anyone. After all, those who felt uncomfortable about it could always stay home.

I suspect that the response against the event only came about when they realised that quite a lot of people turned up. They had probably assumed that few would do so because they thought that everybody had already bought their so-called opinions against dogs. Lo and behold, about 500 or so Muslims did not!

Apparently, coming together to learn about animals as well as how to be kind and compassionate towards them will lead everyone down the slippery slope to even more nefarious acts.

I didn’t realise that kindness is now considered despicable but then the world has turned upside down. What’s next, the rabid types ask, Touch a Pig Day? Others ask if this will lead to How to Be An Adulterer classes, though I would suggest that we already have plenty of those.

How is it that nobody thinks that acts of kindness and compassion will lead to more acts of generosity and goodwill? If people can be kind to dogs, then we might just put a stop to things like throwing stones at them or the abandoning of puppies.

Where does it say that it is okay to beat or starve animals? And why should those who are kind to them be condemned? My aunt used to take in stray dogs and cats rather than allow them to be left to the elements.

The couple in Kedah who cares for dogs, however, was forced to move. Ignorance seems to lead to nothing but cruelty. Are we actually proud of that?

I believe that Malaysians, both Muslims and non-Muslims, are just dying for someone to tell them something positive, which is why they responded so well to the event. We all know what the big sins are and we know how to avoid them.

However, we are so rarely told how to get along with one another, how to live in harmony with one another, as well as with other living things in our environment.

All we are getting these days is how to hate an ever-growing list of people and things. How much energy are we to spend on hate? And how does hating anything and everything make us happy and better Muslims?

Why is it that if we are to hate anything, we are not encouraged to direct hatred towards the corrupt, the ignorant and the cruel? Why are we never taught to revile injustice, rather than revere it as some people in power do?

Chapter 5, verse 8 of the Quran says: “O you who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in your devotion to God, bearing witness to the truth in all equity; and never let hatred of anyone lead you into the sin of deviating from justice.

“Be just: this is closest to being God-conscious. And remain conscious of God; verily, God is aware of all that you do.” (translation by Assad)

If hatred can lead us to the sin of injustice, then perhaps it stands to reason that the opposite, love, can lead us to the virtue of justice. Isn’t that what we should be striving for?

10 October 2014

We always seem to think that we have no choice when it comes to doing evil, but plenty of choice to do good things that we then don’t exercise.

THERE are times when I just want to give up. One of those times recently was when I saw a tweet calling on people not to buy the latest Proton model because its name supposedly signifies the one-eyed false Messiah.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I have no idea whether it’s a good car or not but I do know that the person who wrote the tweet not only has a poor command of English but has the sort of brain that sees evil under every rock. It’s not a great brain, admittedly, but the owner seems proud to display it.

But more importantly this was yet another example of the Malaysian propensity to attach religious symbolism to everything.

A café latte foam might conjure up a face and everyone assumes it must be someone important, because why would unimportant faces appear in milk froth?

Parties, and indeed any form of fun, are the Devil’s way of distracting us from turning ourselves into stultified robots. Why, even the delicious and undoubtedly sensual taste of ice cream is something to be wary of, especially when they come with what might look like a religious symbol (if you had that turn of mind) on them.

What is it about us that we can’t take anything just for what it is? Why does everything have to be a conspiracy theory of some kind? Apparently we Asians (and Arabs and probably Africans too) are incapable of ever thinking for ourselves and therefore if we ever demand things like freedom of speech and other basic democratic freedom, we must surely be manipulated by someone else. Never mind that we once fought for our independence without anyone else putting the idea in our heads.

It is a patronising and condescending, not to mention racist, attitude about our own kind. And it is really the upshot of an education system that is geared towards keeping our minds small, and an environment that downgrades science and scientific fact in favour of superstition, rumours, whims and gossip.

Somehow, using our brains has fallen into disfavour, while the wackiest ideas spread like wildfire.

I see endless bizarre stories being spread through social media that, were anyone inclined to pause and think for a bit, would not make sense to a rational mind. But then if we are constantly being told not to think, to accept that there are many things that simply have no explanation, why should we be surprised that people are constantly seeing shadows where there are none?

Not thinking leads people to support the idea that we have no choice in our lives. If we disapprove of a concert or an event, we do have the choice not to go to it, especially if we are required to buy tickets first. If someone puts a beer in front of us, we do have the choice not to drink it.

As human beings with brains, we do have agency, meaning that we can make our own choices.

We are not puppets controlled in such a way that we are unable to resist anything. This is the sort of thinking that blames victims for what happens to them. If we had no agency and therefore no choice, then how can we blame men for raping or killing?

They apparently had no choice but ironically the victims could choose not to put themselves in such situations.

It’s funny how we always seem to think that we have no choice when it comes to doing evil but plenty of choice to do good things that we then don’t exercise. Doing good works is also something we can exercise our agency to do, or not. Yet nobody ever says they involuntarily did something good simply because someone put an orphan or a homeless person in front of them.

If we are religious and assume that we constantly have to guard against the Devil’s evil influence, how is it that we are never appreciative of God’s good influence over us to be kind and compassionate? Instead, we sometimes even treat people inhumanely and kill innocent people supposedly in the name of the Divine. In fact we always also have a choice to do none of these, also in the name of the Merciful and Compassionate.

This cult of unthinking is based on the assumption that we must always submit to things we don’t understand because we can never verify them. Yet we are given clear instructions: “And never concern thyself with anything of which thou hast no knowledge: verily, [thy] hearing and sight and heart – all of them – will be called to account for it [on Judgment Day]! (Chapter 17, verse 36, translation by Assad)”.

26 September 2014

A lot of strange things have been going on that must surely be a sign of the end of something.

THERE is a belief among some people that one of the signs of the end of times is when really strange things start to happen. I was never one of those because often “strange” can be quite subjective. There are some who think women taking leadership positions is one of those strange events.

But of late I have had to revise my view of this, although it may not coincide with the same theories that those people have. It is true, however, that a lot of strange things have been going on that, to me, must surely be a sign of the end of something. Maybe it’s not quite the end of the world, but certainly the end of an era, at least for some people.

For instance, we are now seeing this bizarre phenomenon of the nation’s top cop deciding that if anyone has the temerity to be “biadap” (rude) about his law enforcement agency or even himself, then he’ll use the Sedition Act against us.

Now, I don’t recall that the Act actually says we can’t pass a snide remark or two about the agency. After all we are all familiar with that remark “itu biasa lah” whenever we’ve had the misfortune to have to report a bag-snatching or a petty theft.

Would saying that such a remark is not be­coming of law enforcement officers be consi­dered “biadap”? Would saying that our top cop’s performance in front of the world media during the MH370 press conferences was far short of impressive make us liable to be arrested? If yes, then there are lots of people who would be in handcuffs by now.

Today you can get done in for giving an expert opinion that some governance processes were not legally kosher, or for saying that elections are the time for us to change governments if we wanted. Isn’t that what elections are for?

Undoubtedly some people have been foolish enough to let loose on social media things they would only say privately to friends. But that’s a very Gen Y thing to do, say everything you feel and put it up for all to see. It doesn’t necessarily mean you mean it, nor that you even had much reason to say it. But those get hauled up, too. Will this actually stop more ill-considered opi­nions being aired? I doubt it.

Yet these are the sorts of strange things that one can get charged for these days. Even stranger is the penchant for the same said officer to refuse to obey the laws under which he should operate. In all our 57 years of nationhood, there has never been confusion among our law enforcement officers as to what laws they are supposed to obey.

Suddenly, these days they are easily confused. And when compelled by the courts to do their job, they find the country’s top legal man, whose job is to protect the Federal Constitution, to become their lawyer.

That’s a lot of firepower to fight one poor beleaguered mother who just wants to have her children with her. They must think she’s darn powerful to warrant this type of abuse of the courts.

I even think that the UPSR leaks, as well as the response to it, are also a sign of the end. For one thing, why so much panic over an exam that 12-year-olds sit for? And secondly, although the leakers should be punished, why bother making all 473,175 pupils re-sit it?

Leak or not, the smart ones are still going to get good results. So we might as well wait for the results of the entire exam and see if there are any real anomalies such as those who normally don’t do well suddenly getting all As. Frankly, I doubt it.

So these strange events, as well as some others, are a sign that an era is coming to an end. Perhaps it is the end of doing things the same old way when things are changing rapidly every day. It is the end of a time when people all think and see things the same way. Nor is it any longer a time when people will not voice what they don’t like.

Einstein said that the surest sign of insanity is doing the same things repeatedly while expecting a different result. In our case, we are seeing the same things done more incompetently while expecting love and respect in return.

I’m not sure what to call that.

12 September 2014

When legislation is clear on crimes yet law enforcers ignore them, the public loses its sense of what is lawful and what is not. 

THERE were two stories I read recently which were published side by side. One was about a 71-year-old man caught in a khalwat situation with a 14-year-old girl. Next to it was a story from India in which a 16-year-old boy was desperate to stop his parents from marrying off his 14-year-old sister but sadly was too late.

I was struck by one thing: neither of these stories included the words “statutory rape”.

Section 376 of the Malaysian Penal Code defines statutory rape as sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of 16 whether or not she has given consent.

Discounting the second case because it is outside Malaysia, why didn’t the police go after the 71-year-old man for statutory rape? And why did the reporter not bring it up?

At a time when politicians and law enforcers keep harping about the citizenry always obeying the law, how did they get to ignore it? Two cases have made a mockery of our statutory rape law that carries a mandatory jail term of 20 years and mandatory whipping for each count upon conviction.

One was when the court refused to jail Nor Afizal Azizan for raping a 13-year-old girl as “taking into account that he is a national champion, the Court of Appeal ruled that it is not in the public interest as Noor Afizal has a promising future”.

Good thing the South African court trying Oscar Pistorius isn’t thinking that way because he certainly has a brighter future than Noor Afizal.

Then in the same month, the Penang Sessions Court released Chuah Guan Jiu who had been convicted on two counts of raping his 12-year-old girlfriend because “the sexual act was consensual and that he is a school dropout”.

The judge also took into account that this was Chuah’s first offence, and that he was considering his future.

Hopefully his future doesn’t include continually raping his girlfriend for another four years until she reaches the age of consent.

When the law is clear on these crimes yet judges ignore them, then what is the public to make of it?

The public loses its sense of what is lawful and what is not.

Three years ago, a movie was made, the premise of which was that a young woman was sold into prostitution by her uncle, then bought by a rich man who repeatedly raped her.

Then in order that she would not feel any more shame, she begged the man to marry her, which he eventually did. Women sighed, men cried and the movie became a box office hit.

A few years later, a 40-year-old man raped a 13-year-old girl and then paid her parents to marry her. Might he have seen the same movie and thought that was the way to handle things?

Another movie had the female protagonist raped at the end, and the perpetrator going scot-free.

When I asked the Censor Board, in a separate meeting why they let that go, their reply was “because she was a gossip”.

There was total silence when I reminded them that in our country, rape is a crime.

When people who are supposed to uphold the law ignore it, they have no right to lecture the public about not adhering to it.

Recently an ex-senator, someone who for a time helped to make our laws, told a woman that even if she gave him “unlimited freedom”, he wouldn’t rape her.

Outrage exploded on Twitter but not in the mainstream media. How can a former lawmaker talk like that?

Does he think that women would be grateful if he raped them? And therefore by refusing to, he was insulting her?

Obviously he thought his lower appendage was more powerful than his brain.

The fact that the word “rape” floats so easily out of someone’s mouth, especially a former lawmaker’s, and that movie scriptwriters think nothing of making rape an unpunished part of the plot, points to something very disturbing: that there are a lot of people who think nothing about rape, and that they confuse it with sex.

Sex is a consensual act of love. Rape on the other hand does not involve mutual consent, and is often a violent act.

Statutory rape assumes that a young girl, still legally defined as a child, just doesn’t know what she is doing, even if she seemingly consented to it.

I wonder how these judges, politicians and movie directors would feel if it were their daughters or sisters who were in the same dilemma? Would they be so forgiving because the rapist had a supposedly brighter future than the victim?

What if it was the victim who had the bright but now extinguished future?

28 August 2014

Sometimes, political and social problems arise out of some very basic issues
of survival.

I LIKE to read odd books sometimes. In particular, I like to read books about the human condition, not so much the philosophies behind it but as much as can be learnt from reality as possible.

One of the authors I really enjoy reading is Jared Diamond, an Ameri­can academic, best known for his books such as Guns, Germs and Steel, Collapse and his latest, The World Until Yesterday.

Diamond is known as a polymath, a person “whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of know­ledge to solve specific problems”.

Prof Diamond is an expert on physiology, biophysics, ornithology, environmentalism, history, ecology, geography, evolutionary ecology and anthropology. Today at age 76, he is Professor of Geography at the University of California Los Angeles.

Reading any of Diamond’s books really makes you understand the world in a different way because of his ability to weave together diffe­rent threads of knowledge.

For instance, in his book Collapse, which discusses why some societies collapse while others are resilient, he points out that what we think of as political and social problems arise out of some very basic issues of survival.

In the case of Rwanda, famously depicted as a civil war between the Hutu and the Tutsi, at its most basic, it was about the tensions that arise when people are so squeezed toget­her that the amount of land they have to grow food on is too small to be productive.

Similarly, in The World Until Yes­terday, which compares traditional hunter-gatherer societies with state societies (ie the “developed” world), when people are asked why they go to war with each other, the answers are usually simple things like “reven­ge”, “women” or “pigs” or “cattle”.

But at heart it is about ensuring the survival of the society you live in, no matter what the size.

He backs up these assertions by the many anthropological, archaeological and historical studies that have been done about societies around the world and shows that we cannot really judge them all by the same values.

For instance, we may think that tri­­bal societies in places such as Pa­­pua New Guinea or parts of Africa are “backward” but that is because we are judging them by our stan­dards.

Indeed, there is much to admire in their attitudes towards children and in the way they resolve disputes.

On the other hand, there is much about “modern” society today which these tribal people would find ap­­palling, especially in the way we sometimes treat our old people.

This is not to say that everything about these tribal hunter-gatherer communities is wonderful.

Until relatively recently, many of them lived in a constant state of warfare and things such as infanticide were very common, for the most practical reasons.

Most of us would not want to give up the benefits of living in a settled centralised state for such nomadic hand-to-mouth lifestyles.

But there are some things which we do which are not that far off from those “pri­mitive” habits.

Diamond compares only Western lifestyles with the tribal communities he did field studies on. Which means that the contrasts can be big.

If he had studied Asian societies, however, he would have found us somewhere in the middle.

For instance, the Asian extended family and the way our children are cared for by many adults, not just their parents, is more akin to the way hunter-gatherer communities in Papua New Guinea or the Amazon live.

The way we coddle our children too is more similar to those com­munities than to that of Western parenting, which stresses indepen­dence.

Yet children from these hunter-gatherer communities are observed to become very confident adults who are well versed in many adult responsibilities such as foraging for food, caring for children and protec­ting their communities; while children brought up in the Western style often grow up very protected but unable to take on adult responsibilities when they come of age.

For instance, we disapprove of early marriage because our children are often unprepared to be parents even after being biologically ready.

But children in tribal communities, who have not only been obser­ving their parents daily but also have had to help care for younger siblings, know exactly what to do should they have children even at very young ages.

What is confusing for us Malay­sians is that we are very much a society in transition, not quite a so­­cie­ty living hand-to-mouth but not quite yet a modern one, despite our buildings and gadgets.

Our attitudes towards many things hark back to a different type of society where everyone knew each other and relationships were set in certain ways. But things have changed very rapidly for us.

We should, therefore, take heed of Diamond’s main discovery in Col­lapse: if as a society we do not adapt fast enough to change, we will face collapse.


15 August 2014

To be effective in calling for change, there needs to be an organised strategic campaign with an educational component.

THESE are emotional times. My, these are emotional times. Nerves are frayed, amidst grief, tension and a general feeling of loss and depression.

We’ve had a bad year undoubtedly and there’s still more time to go before 2014 is over and we feel trepidation while wondering, what other bad thing will befall us next?

Still, despite all this, there is no reason for us all to lose our minds, to be irrational in the way we react to very important things.

Let me make this clear: what Israel is doing to Gaza is unconscionable and rightly condemned by the whole world.

I also think the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a global campaign to increase the economic and political pressure on Israel to end its occupation and colonisation of Palestinian lands, to give full equality to Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and to respect the right of return of Palestinian refugees, is effective.

However, I do think that most Malaysians do not understand what BDS is all about.

The BDS website makes clear what is meant by boycott, divest and sanction.

“Boycotts target products and companies (Israeli and international) that profit from the violation of Palestinian rights, as well as Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions.

“Anyone can boycott Israeli goods, simply by making sure that they don’t buy produce made in Israel or by Israeli companies. Campaigners and groups call on consumers not to buy Israeli goods and on businesses not to buy or sell them.”

The BDS movement is very clear that it is about boycotting Israeli goods.

Now, how many Israeli goods are there in the Malaysian market? Given our stringent laws, probably none.

A burger made in an industrial kitchen in Malaysia is still a Malaysian burger, as is the person making or selling it.

BDS explains “individual consumers can show their opposition to Israel’s violations by participating in a consumer boycott of Israeli companies, goods and services or of international companies involved in Israeli policies violating Palestinian human rights and international law.

“A consumer boycott works in two ways: firstly by generating public awareness about Israeli apartheid and occupation as well as international support for it and secondly by applying economic pressure for change.”

Again it emphasises “Israeli companies, goods and services” and “international companies involved in Israeli policies violating Palestinian human rights and international law”.

So what Israeli companies, goods and services are available in Malaysia? Where are our oranges and olives from?

One major Israeli fruit juice exporter Priniv has reported that “a deal to export fresh fruit juices to Sweden has been called off after they refused to export the produce in a way that would make it easier to conceal the fact it was produced in Israel.

“Customers in Belgium and France have also made similar requests. Priniv director Ido Yaniv attributed the drop in sales to Israel’s ongoing attack in Gaza”.

There is one Israeli product available here in Malaysia that nobody has called for a boycott of – Waze. Too afraid of getting lost?

Divestment means “targeting corporations complicit in the violation of Palestinian rights and ensuring that the likes of university investment portfolios and pension funds are not used to finance such companies.

“These efforts raise awareness about the reality of Israel’s policies and encourage companies to use their economic influence to pressure Israel to end its systematic denial of Palestinian rights”.

What does “complicit in the violation of Palestinian rights” mean? It means investing in the development of arms that are then used to kill Palestinians, for example.

Have we checked whom we buy our military weapons and equipment from?

Finally, sanctions “are an essential part of demonstrating disapproval for a country’s actions. Israel’s membership of various diplomatic and economic forums provides both an unmerited veneer of respectability and material support for its crimes.

“By calling for sanctions against Israel, campaigners educate society about violations of international law and seek to end the complicity of other nations in these violations.”

Remember the sanctions against Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in power?

Who in Malaysia is calling for the same on Israel?

The point is that to be effective in protesting against Israel and calling for change, some brainwork needs to be done. It is not about standing in front of burger restaurants and yelling at them, much less harassing, threatening and humiliating Malaysian workers.

As the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa has shown, BDS works.

But it needs to be an organised strategic campaign with an educational component. No point in the ignorant capitalising on people’s emotions for their own ends.

Boycotts only work if the targets are clear and the actions have an impact. Does Israel really care if you spat on some poor cashier in KL? I’m afraid not.

31 July 2014

Some claim these unseen hands operate through us being a democratic nation, where we get to vote our leaders into power and also have a say in what we want for our country.

LET me first wish everyone Selamat Hari Raya, maaf zahir batin. This Ramadan has been a particularly sad one with the MH17 tragedy, especially when it came so soon after the disappearance of MH370. Our hearts and prayers go to all those who lost their loved ones in both tragedies.

But even without MH17, Ramadan was no less rancorous with attempts to ban soup kitchens and bad-tempered drivers behaving without restraint towards old people.

Then in a misplaced attempt to be “even-handed”, some radio stations made the perpetrator look like a celebrity, much to the disgust of many.

Whatever it was, a month that is supposed to be about restraint and moderation turned out to be ill-tempered.

I can’t help thinking that if it hadn’t been for the very sobering effect of MH17, things would have been much worse.

Not that we can truly expect the rest of the year to be calm and peaceful.

Already people whose sole purpose in life seems to be being as divisive as possible have declared that democracy is an evil invention of the West that we should not follow.

Its worst effect, it seems, is that it gives “citizens the right to determine their own future”.

Funny, I thought that’s why we wanted independence from our colonisers, so that we could decide the future of our country for ourselves.

But I suppose their argument here is that we are still not independent because there are many “hidden hands” actually steering our path.

The thing about these “hidden hands” is that apparently they operate through us being a democratic nation where we get to vote our leaders into power and also have a say in what we want for our country.

Thus, an undemocratic concept like the “hidden hands” operates through being democratic.

So if we didn’t have democracy, their logic goes, these invisible unknown hands wouldn’t control us.

The funny thing is there must be a lot of these unseen hands around the world since there are so many democratic countries.

If they vote in the people we like, then the hidden hands fail.

But when they vote in people we don’t like, then those hands managed to win.

Since it is democracy that works in both cases, it’s hard not to think that those hands are really inconsistent.

So perhaps we should follow the undemocratic nations where the hands are not hidden at all, like, for example, Saudi Arabia?

So after 57 years of democracy, more or less, there are now people who think this is not a good idea. Not that they have any idea what should replace it, apart from that we should have an “Islamic” state. But a true Muslim state is a democratic one. Indeed the Quran warns us against despots and tyrants.

In chapter 4, verse 135, the Holy Book says “O You who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding equity, bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God, even though it be against your own selves or your parents and kinsfolk. Whether the person concerned be rich or poor, God’s claim takes precedence over [the claims of] either of them. Do not, then, follow your own desires, lest you swerve from justice: for if you distort [the truth], behold, God is indeed aware of all that you do!” (Translation by Assad).

There are some whose sense of history seems to have little to do with facts.

The Constitutional monarchy, they claim, existed long before we became independent.

Which is an interesting re-telling of history, given that we did not have a Constitution before independence.

So what was “Constitutional” about the sultanates before then? Is that what they are proposing we revert to?

There are others who claim we should not have democracy because our Federal Constitution doesn’t contain the word.

I do love selective literalists who don’t know their history.

Did our forefathers clamour for independence because they wanted to be under anyone else’s yoke?

Why on earth did they decide we should have a Parliament we should vote for in elections if they did not want democracy?

Do they have to spell out every single word or did they know that “self-determination” meant democracy and nothing else? Perhaps people in 1957 were more intelligent than today?

And as for claiming we should not have democracy because it’s not mentioned in our Federal Cons­titution, I find this disingenuous of the selective literalists.

After all, they’re quite happy to want to do things that aren’t mentioned in the Quran. Like, the punishment for apostasy or for drinking. Or to do the opposite of things enjoined in the Quran such as not respecting people’s privacy and raiding them in their homes.

18 July 2014

While there are bigots there too, they are seen as mostly cranks and don’t get much airplay in the media.

SOMETIMES you need distance to have some perspective. I was just in Tokyo again to speak at a women’s conference.

One night I had the opportunity to have dinner with some 80 Malaysians living, studying and working in Japan. As always, Malaysians living abroad are just Malaysians, and not divided by race.

They introduced themselves mostly by state and by what they are doing – which truly covers a whole range of things from setting up Malaysian restaurants to working in Japanese and multinational companies to setting up their own IT companies to do some very innovative work.

What I found most interesting is that they speak to one another in English, Malay AND Japanese, thus adding another layer of common understanding among them. It was refreshing to be among them because conversation with these Malaysians is so much less toxic than at home.

Their group, which actually numbers some 2,400, meet fairly regularly and talk about what’s happening at home, thus giving lie to the notion that Malaysians abroad don’t care about Malaysian issues.

According to them, they have had heated debates about issues like hudud but it doesn’t break up the group. That should really be applauded. I can’t imagine anything similar back home.

Meanwhile, staying connected with what’s happening in Malaysia through social media becomes a real chore. Oh, for some civility in our discourses!

To be in a country where people are so considerate of each other that they won’t even subject others to embarrassing personal noises and then read of the way we talk to each other back home, is surreal.

If the cleanliness of toilets is the mark of modern civility, then Japan wins hands down. And this is also a country where when a male politician makes sexist remarks about a female colleague, the government actually feels embarrassed and makes him apologise.

No hope of any such thing back home, of course. Our ministers can make condescending remarks about the poor and homeless, even in a month where we are meant to be restrained in our words and deeds.

And while there are bigots in Japan too, they are seen as mostly cranks and don’t get much airplay in the media. Ours, on the other hand, are free to say any crazy thing they want, confident that they will not only be covered but actually lauded.

At the women’s conference, I spoke about how Muslim women are getting more empowered all around the world.

I didn’t expect any real interest in it but at the reception afterwards, the participants queued up to talk to me, patiently waiting their turn as each woman and I had a short conversation and then took photographs.

Imagine how long the 10th or 12th person, let alone the 20th, had to wait if each one took five minutes with me. But nobody hogged my time and everyone politely waited.

No doubt somebody will say that it is because Japan is so homogenous that it is much easier to get on with one another. And speaking the same language helps in keeping the same norms and values within the community. That may be true to some extent.

But while Japan may seem racially homogenous, there is still a certain amount of diversity in terms of types of Japanese people. Not all Japanese men are “salarymen” these days and although still behind compared to other countries, the women are moving forward, so much so that their Prime Minister has a plan for “womenomics”.

And while they may all speak the same language, they also now speak other languages much more than before. None of the women who chatted with me needed a translator. Many had lived and worked abroad and some were running big multinational companies. So they were a very sophisticated group.

But being homogenous does not preclude extending the same norms and values to non-Japanese. Go to any store and you won’t get any less than the usual high standard of service. That’s because every employee knows that the reputation of the store is on their shoulders. I have yet to meet an indifferent salesperson or someone who didn’t know how to answer a query I had.

Being helpful is part of their value of being considerate of others. Perhaps we should send our ministers and civil servants to Japan to learn this.

I noticed in talking to some of the Malaysians in Japan that they have absorbed some of these values, which is a really good thing.

Unfortunately, it may make it difficult for them to adapt to life back home again. Imagine going to a store and asking a salesperson something and they simply disappear rather than admit they don’t know the answer.

04 July 2014

Our concern should make us look at the state of our young men today, particularly the Muslim men at the bottom of the social scale.

SO we finally stepped over the line. When the first Malaysian suicide bomber died in Syria, we finally put to rest the idea that Malaysian Muslims would never do this. For so long, we have believed that suicide in itself is a sin and such drastic action is sinful because it harms and kills innocent people. But now these concepts seem not to hold water any more.

In the age of social media, not only are our youth going off to fight wars in a foreign land, they are even boasting about it to all their friends back home via Facebook and Twit­ter.

They need this self-advertising in order to ensure that everyone thinks of them as heroes and warriors, fighting for a cause that nobody really understands.

After all, by joining the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), they are fighting other Muslims, not people of other faiths.

But why should we be surprised at this development? For the past year or so, Malaysian Muslims have been bombarded by propaganda against Syiahs in the mosques and in the media.

Alleged Syiahs are arrested and few care what happens to them. Our Home Minister has even declared Syiahs unIslamic, something even the ra­bidly anti-Syiah Saudis have never done.

Syiahs make up only about 10% of the world’s Muslims and even fewer in number in Malaysia compared to Sunnis.

Yet our Inspector-General of Police insisted that if we do not control Syiah activities in Malaysia, it “could lead to militant activities. We do not want what happened in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to happen here, do we?”

Well, he’s wrong on two counts. The Malaysian militants going to fight with Isil in Syria are all Sunnis, and if Syria doesn’t happen here, then they’ll just go to Syria. If they survive, they’ll eventually bring it home.

Another Malaysian on a humanitarian mission to Syria who met one of these jihadists, had this to say: “Most of them who join are fanatics, mat rempits, those without high education or were from problematic families. Some of them committed some big sin and were told that they could purify themselves by taking part in the jihad. They want a short cut to hea­ven.”

This is an important clue as to what drives these young men to join a war that is far away from home. When home is dull and problematic, a fo­­reign war with the promise of hea­ven sounds infinitely more exci­ting.

Getting heads broken at their motorbike races on Friday nights pales in comparison to actually holding an AK47 and killing another human being.

Back home if you kill someone you might get punished for it. Here in Syria, you’ll go to heaven. What could be better than that? Even the clothes are cooler.

If anyone is worried about this development, and they certainly should be, then the answer is to look at the state of our young men today, particularly the Muslim men at the bottom of the social scale.

The ones who drop out of school early and face a future of either unemployment or menial work. The ones who take drugs in order to make their dull and bleak everyday lives slightly more interesting.

And we need to take some responsibility for these young men. We’ve been telling them that as Malay Muslim men, they are superior to everyone else and entitled to everything in this country.

Yet when they fail to attain any of these, when this so-called entitlement only goes to those with better connections than them, we discard and neglect them and call them names such as rempit.

We prohibit them from being anything but what we want them to be, and while we sneer at them, we also glorify and romanticise the violence in their lives through movies and novels.

The hero apparently always gets the girl, even if he has to rape her first.

But in real life, this doesn’t happen. The girls would rather they had a good job and a decent car.

As drug-ridden fishermen or mechanics, they will never earn enough to win the girls of their dreams.

That rage sometimes leads them to take it out on the nearest girls, the ones in their own villages. Why not? After all, society will always blame the girls anyway.

It is likely these are the types of young men who wind up being wooed by jihadist recruiters with promises of adventure, excitement and a free pass to heaven where the best girls are waiting.

We are complicit in the wasted lives of these young men. We may wring our hands in disbelief now but we’ve been moulding them for this for years. Why should we be surprised now?

Maybe some deeper reflection on our responsibility is needed this Ramadan.

20 June 2014

We were once a civil and progressive country, but day by day, it seems like we are no longer the country we once were.

THERE are many things that I love about this country that I was born in and have lived in my whole life. But when it starts to give me knots in my stomach and a constant feeling of dread, I can’t help but wish it were another type of country, one where everybody feels easy and comfortable living in it.

It would be all right if things that happen actually make sense but every day things make less and less sense. I am starting to dream about living in a different type of country where everyone can go their own way and live in peace without harassment from anyone.

In another type of country, people are not afraid to apologise when they’ve done something wrong. Indeed, they come out as more honourable people. Instead, we have people whose main stock in trade is hubris. It is what makes them unable to lift charges against people who have done no wrong, leaving them forever in suspended animation.

Hubris is what makes some people unable to backtrack on a mistake they made, finding ever more convoluted justifications for it. Pure arrogance is what makes them dis- obey court orders and say they answer to nobody else. Never mind that this is exactly the sort of attitude that leads to the anarchy that they themselves fear.

In another type of country, the police would just follow the law and not think up interpretations that keep them sitting on their hands in the face of injustice. Especially, when it involves children and the mothers they should always be with, by any type of law.

If this was another type of country, when people have been slack at their jobs and this led to many fatalities, they would resign. We now know that had some people paid better attention and taken quick action, the fate of MH370 might not be still a mystery today more than 100 days after it disappeared.

In another country, the highest officials in charge of our skies would have stepped down from their jobs because that is the honourable thing to do. But who cares about honour or respect in this country?

If we were another type of country, we would stop declaring war on our own people. The so-called war on drugs has stopped neither drug trafficking nor drug addiction. Now, we are going to have a war on the homeless.

Without understanding the reasons why people are living on the streets, a war on them would be akin to waging a war on refugees and blaming host countries for being too generous while doing nothing about the violence in their home countries that drove them to leave in the first place. But it is so much easier to declare war than to wage peace. Ask George Bush.

If we were a rational, compassionate country, we would be declaring a war on the increasing violence against women and children and stop the abuses, gang rapes, kidnappings and murders. How do our officials tasked with protecting women and children justify their existence otherwise?

If we were a sensible country, we would stop lauding the mean and the vile as heroes. We would stop fearing the consequences of showing compassion and fairness towards those suffering injustice. We would just be plain decent folk doing the right thing by people.

If we were a normal country, we would never be proud of being unable to control ourselves and possibly inflicting violence on others. We would never insist on having laws to keep ourselves under control, even while we claim to be pious.

In fact, normal people are usually ashamed to describe themselves as having potential for violence. But we are not living in a normal country anymore.

If this was another country, the very idea of chopping off anyone’s hands for stealing or stoning people for adultery would be too repulsive to even discuss. But today, these punishments are what people seriously think will solve all our problems. The bankruptcy of ideas is there for all to see.

If this were a place where things made sense, a woman could never be divorced years after her husband died. Or get her wedding interrupted by officials from another religion. Or had her burial delayed because of a long-forgotten alleged conversion. Or had her underaged children taken away from her by a husband who converted to another religion. Isn’t it funny how these things always seem to happen to women?

Yet we were once a civil and progressive country. Where people respected one another and got on fine. Once we eschewed violence of any kind, and certainly not on one another. Today, we even go to foreign countries and blow ourselves up.

We are no longer the country we once were. The question is, why?