31 January 2014

We often put far less effort into forming an opinion than into choosing what we eat, buy or even wear.

THESE days if you walk into a coffee bar, you find yourself faced with an overwhelming variety of choices. You can have strong, weak, with milk, without milk, several different types of milk and in several sizes.
It can be confusing but eventually you make a choice, even if it is for the simplest version possible.
The point of the modern coffee bar is that you have choices and you can decide for yourself, even if it is to finally just walk out without ordering anything.
But how to do you make these choices? For a first-timer, the variety can be just too much and some guidance from someone would be helpful. But as you get more educated about the coffee, eventually you become confident enough to know what you like and make your own decision.
These days we are faced with choices in almost every area of our life.
We can choose to do many things or to do nothing. We can choose to do useful things or waste our time. We can choose to wear bright colours or dull ones. Every single waking minute we make choices on where to go and what to do.
We can also make choices in what we think about things. And yet somehow when we make our choices about our thoughts, we put less consideration into them than we do for choosing coffee or cars.
When we are in a situation where we have to make a choice, we consider many things.
If we need to choose a mobile phone to buy, we’ll read up about it, ask friends for their opinions and eventually decide on one which both suits our needs and our wallets.
We will take our time to make the decision that is right for us.
Whether we are making choices about where to eat, where to go on holiday, what insurance to buy or whom to marry, we think a lot about them.
Yet when it comes to having an opinion about something, we spend much less time. We read headlines and short articles and already decide that we know what to think about something.
The media tell us what to think about some issues and we accept their directions with very little questioning.
It doesn’t seem to occur to us that like everything else, we have a choice in what we think about many things and the choices can be as varied as coffee.
But there are so many of us who believe that we have no choice in our thoughts. Whether out of laziness or fear, we follow the way others, or our leaders, say we should think because we don’t realise that even in this we have choices.
We may well come to the same conclusion but we never think that we should go through the same decision-making process as we do for all other choices in our lives.
And yet we think of ourselves as autonomous human beings with the faculty to make independent decisions.
It always astounds me how many people use the same words to talk about things as our leaders and media use.
Few people seem to realise that they actually can use a vocabulary that is bigger than what is given to them.
Instead they limit themselves to the same words, which in effect means they also limit their own thinking about the issue.
This is why when people disagree with something, their arguments are often so limited.
Despite facts that can prove otherwise, they continue to use the same arguments over and over again, as if continued repetition will one day make it come true.
To find new facts or to be more creative with what they already know is too hard for some, or they think there is no other choice but to think the way they always have.
Perhaps it is a consequence of our less than stellar education system where our children are told that their choices are limited to only whatever their teachers tell them.
It is a system that insists that the only right choice is to obey authority regardless of whether they are doing the right thing or not.
So our kids grow up not realising that there are many more choices in the world, and that the best ones are perhaps the ones they are never told about.
Fifty-seven years after independence, our people live in this mistaken belief that they have the agency to make all the choices they need to make. But in fact every single day their choices are narrowed, instilled mostly by fear.
We blind ourselves to this situation because we think our leaders are making the right choices for us.
But what if they aren’t?
The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

18 January 2014

IN light of recent events and with the lack of guidance from up top on how to conduct ourselves in an argument, I thought I would volunteer some tips on How to Win an Argument in Malaysia.

1. Decide what stance you want to take on something. It doesn’t have to be based on facts or logic, just what you felt when you woke up this morning, especially if you got up on the wrong side of the bed.
2. Don’t consult anyone on the facts of the matter. What matters is how you feel about it. The grumpier it makes you feel, the better.
3. I take that back. Do consult your boss about it. If he looks doubtful, persuade him that he doesn’t have to do the arguing, you will do it. It’ll make him look serene, if somewhat vacant.
4. Pick on a target. Ensure that they are people who are unlikely to be able to fight back. The best targets are those whom most of us would never have noticed until you point them out. This is what makes you a pioneer.
5. Fire the first salvo and make sure the media hears it. Don’t write it down, just shout it out. If they look blank, it’s only because they don’t understand what you’re saying. If anyone says you don’t make sense, it’s only because their brains are in the wrong place.
6. Watch the ensuing hoo-hah. With glee.
7. If anyone says you don’t know the law, ignore it. You are not concerned with the laws of mere earthlings. Even though occasionally, you do aspire to be an earthling lawmaker.
8. Get your mates to shout out variations of the same thing you just said. This will make it sound as if a lot of people agree on the same thing. They don’t have to sound nice and polite. That’s for wimps.
9. While you’re at it, take a swipe at any other group that has the temerity to look askance at what you say. Women, for example. Women really should just shut up and put out. Whatever did we give them the vote for?
10. Meanwhile, assure the boss that everything’s being taken care of. The media and everyone’s talking about it every day. You could never get this many column inches by doing the same old, same old, make nice stuff.
11. If anyone has the cheek to say you’re talking nonsense and are not worth commenting on, try to act as if you don’t care. But make sure the media knows what you think about it when you don’t care.
12. If the public thinks other people make more sense than you, tell them they are confused. Confused is what everyone else is. You, on the other hand, are crystal clear. They are wrong.
13. Make sure none of the voices that sound different from you get heard. Who needs such cacophony anyway? Yours is the only harmonious one there is. So, make sure that the papers and TV only air your views. They need to sell anyway, the poor things.
14. Never enter into a debate except through statements in the media. And try not to get on the liberal colonial language media, even the one owned by Arabs. That was a muff-up, sending that young fellow who doesn’t speak very well to that TV station. Who knew that they would send some slick, smooth-talking chap up against him?
15. Grand media gestures, especially if they’re TV-friendly, are the way to go. Those bum-shaking dudes a few years ago were really inspiring.
16. If anyone outside the country dares to complain about what you’re saying, tell them to butt out. This is Malaysia. We are different. Never mind if we still want to have the same mobile phones, TVs, handbags and cars as anyone else in the world. Get it right, we are different.
17. That doesn’t mean that anyone within the country is allowed to be different though. No way. How can we have harmony if everyone is different? No, we must all be on, how do you say it, the same sheet! In fact, if we can all look the same, even better. But we’ll start with thinking the same first.
18. If our foreign brethren start saying that we haven’t got it right, ignore them. They may be able to read our holy texts like they’re reading the newspaper but that doesn’t mean they know anything. Why don’t they just stick to getting oil out of the ground and leave us alone?
19. And those foreign brethren who are laughing at us, obviously they’re colonial stooges and have breathed the air in the West for so long, it’s gone to their heads. It’s Malaysian haze they should all be breathing! Why do you think our brains work this way?
20. History? Who cares about history? We are making history by being the first country to create problems where none exist. Who else can claim that?
Happy arguing!
> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

11 January 2014

As we reflect on the past year, let’s resolve to be strong and wake up to reality in 2014.

ALTHOUGH this is my first column for 2014, I’m actually writing this still in 2013. So let’s call this a transitional column with a review of the past year and maybe some hopes for the coming one.
Personally, 2013 was not a bad year for me. I made two resolutions at the beginning of it, which I have mostly kept.
One was to brush up on my French so I have been going fairly regularly to classes all year.
The other was to keep a diary and I’m happy to say that I’ve written something every day for at least 340 days in 2013.
But I can’t say the same for our beloved country.
The year 2013 was one where we became more fractious, more disunited, more angry. Some people, to my mind, have completely lost the plot.
It was a year where a regular occurrence, the general election, became the excuse for so much rancour on all sides, and afterwards, very little self-reflection.
We now have a government in power which is disliked but yet unable to understand why that is so. And it is responding by thinking that all that the people want is more religion and to be bought.
Even then, it is failing miserably. Throwing monetary goodies at people, as any fool should know, is a short-term measure. People want to feel good all the time, not just for a day or two.
There is a simple premise behind election promises and pledges: they need to be kept.
Either that or rely on people’s short-term memory. Which isn’t reliable by any measure.
It’s astounding to me that simple logic doesn’t apply to the way our politicians think.
If you want people to like you, just be nice to them. And being nice doesn’t include finding bogeymen under every rock and being nasty to them.
We don’t want our lives enhanced through the misery of others; we’d like everyone to be happy, thank you.
It’s plain to any intelligent Malaysian (and dear Government, there are more of us than you think) that all this going after small groups of defenceless people are just a distraction.
If 1,500 people are a danger to us all just because they have slightly different beliefs, then we are bestowing on them more power than they have.
Similarly with all the other dangers and insults we keep dreaming up. All it shows is that we are a weak people and “they” are incredibly powerful.
We are now being led by people who are ignorant, unschooled and yet proud to be so.
We have celebrated the Gregorian new year for ages, so how did it suddenly become a Jewish celebration?
We have wished our fellow Malaysians the best during all our festivities, so how did it suddenly become a threat to our faith? Or is our faith so fragile that it can hardly withstand anything?
The other day, I had to worry about what paper I wrapped a gift in, in case the recipient got offended. This is how ludicrous it has become.
But what is truly ludicrous is the silence from the top.
What sort of leadership do we have which only mouths platitudes about moderation and unity, yet has absolutely nothing to say about the type of extreme pronouncements made not only by so-called NGOs, but also by some parts of government? Are they oblivious or scared? And if they are scared, why?
Once upon a time, we used to say “Malaysia Boleh”, that Malaysians were capable of achieving anything.
Today, we might as well say “Malaysia Tak Boleh” because every day there are more and more things that we are told we cannot do.
We are told we cannot be nice to each other because it might endanger the faith of some of us.
We are told that we cannot talk frankly because some people, obviously with weaker constitutions than the rest of us, might get offended.
We cannot do anything without treading on eggshells because some people have paper-thin skins.
So basically, the Malaysians we are most supposed to be proud of are those with weak faith who need constant government help and have such an inferiority complex that anything and everything that anyone else does better is offensive to them.
These are the people who think that the fastest way to heaven is to oppress other people. Lovely!
And our leader would rather spend time defending family foibles than to speak up for the most vulnerable and defenceless in society. How embarrassing is that?
So my wish for 2014 is that more Malaysians will wake up and realise the danger our country is in.
That to survive in the world today is by being strong. And strength comes from being educated and in tune with the realities of the world, not living in some fantasyland filled with bigots.
> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.