31 December 2015

Instead of waiting for others to make improvements, maybe we should start by changing ourselves first.

It is finally the end of a very long year. As I meet with friends and others at various gatherings over the holidays, the mood is sober and pessimistic.

A year ago, we all wished for a better year in 2015 after the disastrous year that was 2014. But sadly, 2015 has not proven to be uplifting.

The hole we find ourselves in has been dug even deeper and we cannot see how we are to get out of it. Despite the seemingly bright outlook our leaders would have us believe, ordinary people everywhere, especially the young, know that things are tough.

Life in the city is expensive, more so if your salary barely keeps your head above water. Your hopes of living close to your job are slim, so you are forced to live further out, which means having to pay more for transport. Each month ends with very little spare change.

That is, if you have a job. For our graduates coming out of university, real life is a shock. Nothing they learnt in our public universities has prepared them for workplaces that value soft skills that they have not been taught.

The good jobs are the ones that require working fluency in English. Yet they are being told that they are a superior community that does not need it. Such a disconnect with the realities of life leads to frustration.

To divert attention from these frustrations, they are told that it’s someone else’s fault and the only way to ease the pain is to turn to God.

Other less devout people may annoyingly have better jobs and lives but they are at least not going to heaven, while you are assured.

It is this type of thinking that leads to even more resentment, which perhaps makes people unable to think clearly and see what is truly the problem. That those who keep telling you that you are unjustly suffering are actually the ones who are causing it. And that they can provide you with few answers beyond that redemption will come in the afterlife. Meanwhile, you have to feed your family.

This is the real dilemma we are in today –those we rely on to lead us into the future are in fact dragging us backwards and justifying it as salvation.

The more insecure our futures, the more they try to secure theirs by telling us that we are constantly in danger from outside forces and only they can protect us.

Foolishly, we believe them and hand over even more of our lives.

Perhaps I am being overly pessimistic. Perhaps things can be better. I hope so and I pray the following wishes for 2016 will come true:

1. That ordinary people will finally wake up from their stupor and realise that if we do nothing to save our country now, we’ll be looking at decades of misery.

2. That while some people’s ideas of how things will be better may sound fine in theory, real life may not pan out quite that way. History has shown that when you buy too much into politicians’ promises and give up any checks and balances, it will be really difficult to undo these later.

3. That greed and hypocrisy, the hallmarks of 2015, will finally be recognised and called out on, regardless of who it is. When people blithely insist that there is nothing wrong with taking money meant for orphans to pay for their trips abroad, or use people’s savings to pay dubious loans, then you know that honesty has become extinct.

4. That we return to the values that used to be considered good. Values such as honesty, trustworthiness, integrity and even courtesy and respect are now no longer considered values to be upheld. Instead, we see blatant dishonesty being exalted while those who dare to speak the truth are punished.

5. That we realise this constant need to prohibit and punish those who give alternative opinions and perspectives will eventually bite us back. Not just because the world is watching but because there are so many examples of countries that do this and are totally miserable places to live in.

Unless, of course, our leaders truly don’t care whether we are happy or not.

6. That we stop believing the constant lies and fantastical stories that we are being told. Our leaders live in parallel universes from us, where agencies that have done their utmost to divide people are praised for bringing “unity and peace”, where the greatest danger to us are liberals rather than the greedy and dishonest politicians.

7. That we start being a more considerate and thoughtful society, rather than one that is quick to condemn anyone who is different.

I hope we become a kinder society where we empathise more with those who have less and are proud of those who do well, rather than finding fault with them. I would love to see our society become more big-hearted rather than be so judgmental.

I don’t know if any of these are too much to ask. Perhaps change can only happen when we change ourselves, when we stop waiting for others to make the change for us.

Today our beloved Malaysia needs us, the people, more than ever. Let us not let her down.

Try and have a happy new year, folks!

17 December 2015

Many think it means the right to absolute freedom rather than basic rights such as the right to life, to dignity, to a nationality, to education and to work.

OCCASIONALLY you get a request from someone from a country so new to you that you can’t resist agreeing to a meeting. That was how I sat down today with a young PhD candidate from Estonia to chat about our two countries.

Admittedly I had to begin by asking him where Estonia was. It is a tiny country neighbouring Finland and Latvia in eastern Europe with only about 1.3 million people, less than the population of KL.

We are both interested in the issue of human rights in our countries and noted many similarities, particularly in misunderstandings of what human rights means.

In Estonia, much as in Malaysia, people think that human rights means the right to absolute freedom rather than the very basic rights that all human beings should enjoy, such as the right to life, to dignity, to a nationality, to education and to work, among others.

Those who argue against human rights think that it means people have the right to walk naked in public or to take drugs or some other anti-social behaviour.

Without proper education on what human rights actually is, both Estonians and Malaysians have the same negative perceptions about it.

Estonians and Malaysians also seem to have similar attitudes towards migrant workers and refugees. Being part of the European Union, Estonians are able to work without much difficulty anywhere in Europe.

At the same time there is a huge debate there on whether to let Syrian refugees in based on as yet unfounded fears such as that they will take jobs away from Estonians. Given that Estonia is only slated to take in 300 refugees out of the hundreds of thousands washing up on European shores, the fears seem to be exaggerated, possibly by politicians out to make a quick vote.

What is more, Estonia is hardly the first choice of any migrant worker from other parts of the world.

Indeed, research showed that people who leave the country for jobs elsewhere outnumber those who come into the country for any reason by some 25,000.

Equally puzzling is the proposed ban of the hijab and niqab (face-covering) by the Estonian government.

Considering that their Muslim population is only about 1000-strong, most of whose women wear neither the hijab nor the niqab, one has to wonder about the logic of this proposed ban.

Some of the advocates of the ban said that while there is no need for it now, it was necessary to have it to prevent the so-called future influx of hijabed and niqabed women, presumably among the 300 refugees they are taking in.

Isn’t it wondrous that politicians everywhere practise the same kind of logic?

If one were a student of the illogicality of politicians, one would have had a wealth of material last weekend.

There was the fellow who, obviously thinking himself very original, declared that the uniforms our national airline’s female flight attendants have worn for the last 30 years are in fact “Jewish” designs and therefore should be abolished.

Considering that these uniforms were designed by the UiTM School of Fashion, this seems a rather awkward accusation to make. Besides, I don’t know many Jewish women who wear the sarong kebaya.

Then there was the fellow who said our leader is appointed by God. And since God makes no mistakes, our leader cannot be bad or wrong.

It makes you wonder why they even have elections for their leaders. Why not just wait for a giant arrow from above to point out the Right Guy, preferably accompanied by a bright light and some Arabic music?

I am just waiting for the day when the Arrow suddenly alights on the head of the Right Girl. Then all hell will break loose and they will decide that elections are still the best way because then you can fix it to pick the Right Guy.

After a whole convention baying for race and religion, one of our leaders then asks Muslims to show that Islam is a religion of peace in order to counter Islamophobia. He must have gone to the same school as right-wing Estonian politicians.

Apparently, when you say nasty things about other people and faiths, that is a peaceful act. It is only when you take up arms against them, that you’re not being peaceful and should be arrested and incarcerated.

In the former act, you are merely exercising your human rights while in the latter, you’re just being unsociable and even crazy.

Meanwhile in the real world, Jews in the United States are protesting against Islamophobia, Muslim Palestinians are donning Santa Claus outfits and singing carols along with their Christian friends and Germany is taking in 300,000 Syrian refugees.

I am looking forward to roast turkey, mince pies, peace on earth and goodwill to all humankind.

Merry Christmas everyone!

07 December 2015

DRIVING along in the middle of George Town last weekend, I spied a Malay couple in full wedding finery taking photographs in front of one of the restored old buildings. I couldn’t stop to take photos of them but I was intrigued because you rarely see this in Kuala Lumpur.

According to my friends in Penang, these days you see all sorts of marrying couples taking their pre-wedding photos in the heri­tage district of George Town.

“There was even a Malay couple taking photos in the Khoo Kongsi!”

I suppose young couples getting married simply want memorable photos of themselves in scenic settings and George Town obviously offers many such places.

I was in Penang for the Georgetown Literary Festival, an annual event showcasing literary works by Malaysian and foreign wri­ters.

My hosts put me up in a boutique hotel in the heart of Little India, a beautiful old building renovated into an upmarket version of a backpacker’s hotel.

The ground floor coffeeshop opens up into the street and you can sit there and watch the hustle and bustle of the predominantly Indian section of town.

The street life was lively and diverse. On one side was what looked like a rather dilapidated coffee shop selling the usual Penang specialities like char kuey teow and laksa.

One afternoon my host got me puttu with brown sugar and coconut, a treat I haven’t had since childhood. Dinner one night was thosai with dhal curry round the corner at a well-known nasi kandar restaurant.

I was speaking at several sessions at the festival and the venues were all within walking distance, which gave me the opportunity to look closely at the shops and other activity going on along the streets. It’s the sort of thing I would do in Europe but rarely get a chance to do in KL.

What is abundantly clear is that the awarding of the Unesco heritage city status to George Town has revived the city like nothing else, with beautiful old buildings being restored and turned into interesting shops, cafes and galleries while the life of the original denizens of the areas goes on uninterrupted.

Walking the streets becomes a cultural experience because you can see so many things, so much colour and so much life. There is an organic feel about it, as if a nice clean splash of water has been poured over these areas so that people woke up and felt okay to be themselves again.

And culture is a good way to do it. George Town has the advantage of being small enough that you can walk everywhere, unlike KL.

And what’s good is that the cultural festivals that go on are organised by people who know and understand culture and what makes a good festival.

The state mostly gives the go-ahead and then stays out of it. This means that you can have a vibrant event with performances and talks that are a bit more edgy and different. This is what attracts people to them.

KL of course has its share of cultural events too and there have been many good ones recently, the KataKatha festival being one. But our disadvantage is that KL is so big and venues are far apart and necessitates driving to them.

Also the venues are often in malls, which dampens the atmosphere somewhat. Going to events becomes a major effort and some days you just can’t muster the energy to go to them.

Even then, sometimes you don’t even hear about what’s going on. I may be more tapped in than most to arts and cultural events in KL but I always find it puzzling when people think that nothing is happening in the city at all.

There is a lot going on but unfortunately we are so bad about publicising these events. For example, recently there was a month-long arts festival in KL but there was a woeful lack of publicity about it.

It’s as if the entire budget went to the productions with nothing left over for marketing. So people don’t know and don’t go, and the entire festival is deemed a failure. Then we stop it altogether or cut the budgets even more, without considering that all such festivals take time to build up their reputation.

Arts and culture give us a respite from the incessant ugly politics that we are subject to every day these days.

They give us beautiful experiences which all human beings need in order to feel human. They also get us to think about the times we live in, in a different way.

In Penang I listened as young people asked extremely intelligent questions about the fairly esoteric subject of translation. And suddenly I felt hope. Not everybody is like what we see on our TV news.

20 November 2015

Governments should go after those who committed the bloody violence, but individuals should not blame whole groups of people for this latest tragedy.

THE nightmare is upon us again. More violence and bloodshed, more hate and more tears.

I spent Saturday morning searching for news of friends and family in Paris. A look at the locations of the incidents on a map showed that some of them were very near where an aunt of my daughter’s lives, so we had some anxious hours waiting to hear from her.

Thankfully, all our friends and relatives are safe.

Relief gave way to sadness and depression. Grief at the many lives lost, of young people who decided to go out and enjoy themselves that night.

This is every parent’s nightmare, that you let your children out because they are grown up enough and know how to take care of themselves. But then how could we have protected them from this?

How can we tell them that a football ­stadium, a concert hall and restaurants are unsafe places to be?

Or how to escape from a bomb or a gun-toting madman?

I wonder what mothers in the United States tell their children in the wake of all those shootings at schools? Surely not “don’t go to school”?

The most depressing thought is that the blame and recriminations will begin immediately.

Violence begets more violence, in the form of actual warfare most obviously but also more subtly in the form of words spoken or written, or actions taken, to corral certain people supposedly in the interest of “security”.

There is nothing new in this.

After the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, between 110,000 and 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on the Pacific Coast were forced to relocate and incarcerated in camps in the interior, despite there being no evidence that they were at all disloyal to the country that most of them had been born in.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.

The Commission’s report, titled Personal Justice Denied, found little evidence of Japanese disloyalty at the time and, concluding the incarceration had been the product of racism, recommended that the Government pay reparations to the survivors.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act, which apologised for the internment on behalf of the US Government and authorised a payment of US$20,000 (RM87,665) to each individual camp survivor.

The legislation admitted that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership”.

History, however, tends to be ignored, especially in the heat of anger.

The aftermath of Sept 11 ignored the lessons of World War II and undoubtedly they will be ignored again now.

The most favoured response is more violence, although this has never been proven to work, unless we count the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the results of which are still debatable.

Far more insidiously depressing is the discovery that individuals are quick to blame whole groups of people for this latest tragedy, based on nothing more than speculation. Despite the fact that only a few people directly caused these murders, some are quite happy to take exceedingly discriminatory action against an entire community so that they may be “safe”. I wonder what assumptions lie beneath these?

Were the dead uniformly of one race and religion, when the population of France is as diverse as any country these days?

Yet there are some who don’t hesitate to suggest that every Muslim everywhere should be considered suspect.

Given that some live in a Muslim-majority country, how do they expect to even leave their house every day if they are going to worry that every Muslim they meet is waiting to kill them?

And since when have discriminatory acts against whole groups of people ever tamed them?

The black population of South Africa never took apartheid lying down.

African Americans fought against racial discrimination with the civil rights movement.

In our country, more and more people are opposed to race-based policies.

In all cases, the initial lack of response from governments has meant a withdrawal of support for that government and sometimes open rebellion.

Why therefore do we think that any discriminatory act against a particular faith community is going to elicit a different reaction?

What examples do we have of people willingly accepting humiliating discriminatory measures against them?

By all means, governments should go after the perpetrators of such bloody violence for the sake of the security of their people. But governments are no more rational than the human beings who lead them.

Between January 2012 and November 2015, there were almost 40 cases of fatal shootings at schools, colleges and universities in the US but the government has done nothing to stop access to guns.

Why should we expect rational responses by governments to cases of mass murders in even more public places?

Their only response to mass murder has been more mass murder, preferably far from their shores.

Meanwhile, we should examine our own attitudes towards others to see if we consider ourselves peacemakers, bridge builders or warmongers.

It starts in our own neighbourhoods, communities, villages, towns, cities and countries. And we should reflect whether what the Japanese-Americans in their internment camps suffered was just.

05 November 2015

Malaysians have a tendency to not appreciate something until we’ve lost it.

IN an effort to lose some weight recently, I went on a diet which required me to eat smaller portions of healthy food.

When food suddenly became a precious commodity, I found myself eating more slowly and savouring each bite. The same thing happens during Ramadan when you find yourself appreciating food more because you haven’t had any all day.

Similarly, after months of unheal­thy haze, the return of blue skies and sunshine last week prompted everyone to take out their cameras to record something that we had never really noticed or appreciated before.

I found myself letting the sun beat down on my face and enjoying the warmth, as if I lived in a temperate climate unused to such an abundance of Vitamin D.

And yet, before we lost those rays all these months, we would complain about how hot it was and how our air-conditioners, already turned down to freezing temperatures, just couldn’t cope.

Is it a particularly Malaysian trait to appreciate things only after we’ve lost them? Or do we simply not think of that possibility, so we fritter them away as if there were no tomorrow?

We don’t appreciate our trees and forests until they are gone and we finally make the link between their disappearance, the heat and flooding. We even demand that trees in housing estates are cut down because we hate sweeping up fallen leaves, and then find ourselves keeping our air-conditioners on all day. Then we complain about electricity rate hikes.

We are eager to buy cars for ourselves but then complain about traffic jams – caused by other motorists, of course. The building of public transport facilities such as the LRT is meant to ease the congestion but meanwhile, we complain about the inconvenience their construction causes.

It’s not as if those of us currently in cars are going to use public transport much anyway when it is ready. No, we’ll stay in our cars and continue complaining, thank you very much.

The only way to get people to use public transport is to have incentives to use it and disincentives to drive cars, but what would some people do without their chauffeur-driven Mercedes?

Maybe we need a tipping point when traffic jams become so frustratingly bad that it becomes a major incentive to use public transport. Then we might see our politicians using the LRT like everyone else.

The point, really, is that we have a tendency to not appreciate something until we have lost it. Take our wonderful multi-ethnic, multireligious society. The way things are going, one day we may look back with nostalgia at a time when we all got along without any problems.

Despite some assurances by our politicians that they value our diversity, we find ourselves unable to trust their words when we know that often, they aren’t matched by their actions.

Harmony to some of them means accepting things “in the Malaysian way”, even though we are increasingly finding that the long-term effects are injustices that fewer people are willing to put up with.

I read with barely controlled nausea one speech which talked about the need for democracy, good governance and human rights as the way to fight extremists and terrorists, as if extremists are the only reason to have democracy in our country. The majority of us who aren’t extremists don’t deserve it somehow.

But perhaps we deserve to lose some of the things that we have always enjoyed due to our own laxity and penchant for taking things for granted. We don’t seem to appreciate how quickly we are losing so many of our freedoms, for example.

Every day, through one law or other, our freedom to say what we feel about anything is being curtailed. Some of us may think that the way to avoid trouble is to simply not say anything. But then we become complicit in the curtailing of our own freedoms, which are guaranteed by our own Constitution.

We think none of these will matter to the majority of us – only troublemakers need worry. But given the almost random nature of the current persecutions of people who speak their minds, how do we know we won’t be next?

We might think that only “famous” people need to watch themselves, yet there are many previously unknown people who have been caught for one thing or another. We might not care too much about them now, until one day it’s us cooling our heels in a lockup.

There would be no point in being nostalgic then, to finally appreciate our right to speak once we’ve lost it. Once it’s out of the gate, it’s hard to bring it back. Better to do all that we can to protect it now.

23 October 2015

THERE are few things more dispiriting than returning from a holiday where you had unexpected blue skies to a homeland where you can hardly see anything outside the plane window.

What quirk of climatic times do we live in when I was travelling in a temperate country which had more sunshine than the tropical one which I was born and raised in?

Looking at the grey sky, you can’t help thinking that the haze is a perfectly apt metaphor for the state of our country, where everything is blurred, opaque, difficult to fathom, unresolvable and ultimately bad for one’s health.

But let’s talk about the physical impact of the haze first. In all the years since we’ve had this big smoke floating over and around us – and I can remember it as far back as 1990 – this year’s seems exceptionally bad. I don’t recall the haze lasting as long as this, and being as thick as this. We can actually smell the smoke and clearly see ash flying about. It’s like breathing in the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag.

What must this do to our lungs? Is anyone monitoring the health of those most vulnerable to breathing difficulties like young children, old people, asthmatics, people with HIV? I’m fairly fit and yet I feel sometimes as if my chest is congested.

I know of at least one asthmatic who passed away recently, possibly because her condition was aggravated by the haze. Are there any studies at all on what this haze does to our health?

Has there been a time when schools had to be closed as much as they have been? What happens to our children’s education, such as it is? What about those who have exams coming up? How do they cope without guidance at school?

And for some parents, having kids at home means having to take leave in order to watch over them. Which employer is going to be cold-hearted enough to refuse to let them take the days off? In which case, how many workplaces are going to be shorthanded because of this?

When the air finally clears, is anyone going to count the cost of this haze, in terms of lost productivity, in healthcare costs, in school hours lost? Or as usual, do we not worry about things we can’t see as yet? Years from now, will we look back to these lost times and wish we had been more attuned to what all this really means?

Meanwhile, as if there isn’t enough to depress us already, we hear that the haze may last all the way until March. Not only do we have to put up with ever murky wheelings and dealings by those whom we are supposed to trust, a ringgit which may soon be worth more lining bookshelves, ever-increasing prices, the constant need to force the public to swallow fantastic explanations for obviously dubious financial manoeuvrings, but we literally are having our oxygen cut off day by day.

Surely even our esteemed politicians are breathing the same air? Or do they live under some bubble into which fresh air is pumped? I’m not sure how that accounts for the inanities that come out of their mouths though.

It doesn’t help that along with the deficit in clean breathable air, we also have a major trust deficit in what the authorities would have us believe. API readings remain unconvincingly low when you can hardly see anything outside. Since they are presumably breathing the same air, are our authorities also happy with lying to themselves?

And if they are happy fudging the truth about things which affect them, what about things that only affect us the people?

It’s getting more difficult these days to present a good face to the world about what my country is like. It would be nice to be able to boast about more than just our food and our multicultural make-up.

But when you read about countries like Nigeria which elected a president who is fervently going after those who have been stealing their country blind, or that Canada rejected a racist and Islamophobic prime minister in their most recent elections, then you start to feel as if you’re being left behind. It’s a very sinking feeling.

What we need are leaders who inspire us to be better than we are, who tell us the truth about things so that we can deal with them realistically but at the same time give us hope that they will all get better. We need them to not just talk about the future but also take action to make that brighter future happen. Instead we get what sounds suspiciously like false cheer and empty promises, among much murkiness.

Much like our skies.

25 September 2015

Last week was pretty groundbreaking when it came to getting rid of old taboos, even though they came from unexpected quarters.

IN the past week we’ve seen many taboos being broken.

The taboo on assembling in public to demonstrate was of course already broken some time ago, but until last week it was taboo for any pro-government people to do the same.

Then there was the taboo on laying hands on the police.

That was broken too when red-shirted demonstrators last week injured some policemen because they were stopped from going into a certain area of Kuala Lumpur.

Of course some people immediately disassociated themselves from these unruly demonstrators.

This was a privilege they didn’t allow anyone from Bersih to do.

Then there was the taboo against calling people names.

When I was little, the Malay word for pig was considered something nobody well brought-up ever mentioned in polite company.

This has stood for so long that someone decided to substitute it with the Arabic word “khinzir”, just so you could talk about the same animal without offending anyone’s sensibilities.

Last week that taboo was broken when some two-bit BBQ fish seller called a whole community pigs.

Obviously with the intention of insulting them and then disingenuously explaining that it can’t be offensive since the target community loves eating it.

What would be the point of insulting people with supposedly non-insulting words?

Then some genius broke yet another taboo, by associating his religion with something not just negative but despicably so.

These would be the same people who insist that Islam is a religion of peace while threatening other people and then claiming that racism is OK in Islam.

Has there ever been a peaceful but racist society anywhere in the world?

Does this person realise which infamous figures he’s keeping company with?

He might as well have said “I’m a totally nasty person and proud of it.”

So yes, last week was pretty ground breaking when it came to getting rid of old taboos, even though they came from unexpected quarters.

I suppose the old Malay pride in being well-mannered, soft-spoken and dignified is now dead and gone too.

Which is rather ironic considering that this undignified show of force was meant to uphold Malay ‘dignity’.

The interesting thing was that all of this may be for nought.

Before the red rally, a survey showed that a majority of Malays didn’t support it.

Last week’s shenanigans probably converted no one to the cause.

Few people were clear what it was about apart from some vague idea about protecting Malay dignity.

I’m quite sure if someone in the middle of the crowd had started chanting “Tolak GST”, the entire Padang Merbok would have joined in too.

After all, they are the ones most affected by rising prices.

Not much dignity if you have to cut back on essentials for your family.

Meanwhile more sensible Malaysians decided to celebrate Malaysia Day for what it really is: a day of togetherness and unity in diversity.

Some of us had a picnic in KLCC park complete with balloons and cake for Malaysia’s 52nd birthday.

Total strangers dropped by and sat under the trees, made friends with one another and chatted about anything and everything under the sun.

It was clear that we all had no problems with one another despite differences in background and that we all truly loved our country.

We ended our picnic by singing the national anthem.

Something that was missing at Padang Merbok.

In another part of town, a whole day of festivities showcasing every culture in Malaysia was met with great enthusiasm.

People tried different foods, watched cultural performances, witnessed a full Peranakan wedding, listened to music and basically spent time with one another in a warm togetherness.

Our hearts burst with pride when Sean Ghazi sang a beautiful rendition of Tanah Pusaka.

This followed once again by the whole crowd singing NegaraKu.

Like midnight last August, everyone there owned the anthem, regardless of which Malaysian community they came from.

All of us were determined that Malaysia Day was a day of joy, fun and happiness and not one of anger and violence.

We wanted our photos to be of people genuinely enjoying themselves and at peace with one another.

We went home feeling good about ourselves.

I don’t know if the other crowd felt the same but I do hope that ‘fun’ would at least be one of words they would describe their event with.

One major difference between the red rally and previous yellow ones was easy to discern.

If you don’t mass-produce placards and banners and you make your own because you believe in a cause, the chances are you’ll come up with some truly witty ones.

Amidst anger about current issues, we could still laugh at such creativity.

Instead of laughing at people.

11 September 2015

On Malaysia Day, let’s leave the Red Shirts to do their business.

ON Aug 29, Malaysians proved something very important – that it is possible to come together in common cause and do it peacefully. No more can we believe anyone who says that any gathering of more than five people is bound to be disorderly and violent.

Bersih 4 proved that people can be disciplined and orderly in big crowds. They obeyed instructions not to breach the barriers at Dataran Merdeka and they cleaned up afterwards.

In between they marched, they put up posters to express their feelings about current issues, they made and listened to speeches, they sang, they camped out and they ate. And they did all this peacefully, in great camaraderie with one another.

This time, I could not be in the country to join my fellow citizens in protest. Instead, I joined some 1,000 Malaysians in London on the same day to demonstrate for the same cause.

We started off in front of our High Commission where people held up banners and posters and listened to a few speeches, waved at High Commission officials and then walked to Whitehall where we stopped near Downing Street, before ending up at Trafalgar Square where we sang NegaraKu in the rain.

There were only two policemen watching over us, which again proved that we don’t need a big police presence to ensure that we behaved.

In some 40 cities all over the world, Malaysians gathered for Bersih, all without incident. It just goes to show that violence at protests are not caused by protesters but by the use of tear gas and water cannons. We have to commend the police for realising this simple fact this time.

Now, there is talk of a counter-rally, which has already been declared illegal but which insists, like Bersih, to carry on anyway. I am all for freedom of speech so generally, no matter how despicable, I would not stop anyone from expressing their opinions.

The trouble is I have a problem trying to figure out what the so-called Red Shirts stand for. They seem to want to protest for the sake of protesting against protesters, specifically Bersih protesters. But while we are clear about the issues that Bersih espouses, we don’t really know what the Red Shirts are spoiling for a fight for.

I suppose it’s fair to assume that since the Red Shirt rally is anti-Bersih, then they must want all the opposite of whatever Bersih’s 200,000 participants want. Let’s look at what these are:

Bersih wants free and fair elections. I suppose the Red Shirts must therefore want unfree and unfair elections, possibly the only way any of them can hold any public position. If they were fluent in English, I would recommend their slogan be “Stack the Deck”.

Secondly, Bersih 4 is demanding for a clean government. It must therefore mean that the Red Shirts are demanding for a dirty government, one in which money decides everything from whoever gets to govern to what policies and laws are made. I wonder how many Reds actually think they will have a say in any government policies, given that few of them are likely to be millionaires. Millionaires don’t need BR1M.

Speaking of which, Bersih 4’s third demand is for action to save our economy. As our ringgit plummets to depths never seen before and everything becomes extremely expensive for us, obviously we need to see concrete moves being taken to ensure that we don’t become relegated to “least developed country” status.

But since the Red Shirts are taking issue with Bersih, I must assume that they won’t mind if our country descends to a level at par with some of the poorest countries in the world. Maybe they hope to go abroad to find work like some of our neighbours.

Fourthly, Bersih 4 is demanding for the right to dissent. This means the right to disagree, respectfully, with anyone, including the Government. Since the Red Shirts are already exercising their right to disagree with Bersih, they really should not have any problems with this demand. However, I do think that the right to dissent means having a vocabulary that contains more than one word – “stupid” – to describe those you don’t like.

So, on Sept 16, the Red Shirts would like to emulate Bersih by having their own “illegal” rally on a day meant to celebrate our unity in diversity. I don’t know how the Reds intend to express diversity since thus far they have looked monoracial and monogendered. And unity with yourself doesn’t really count for much.

Perhaps on Malaysia Day, we should all just stay home and watch the breaking-bricks-with-your-head display from afar. Or attend other fun events elsewhere. They can bring their own food and drink from home. And let’s see if they’ll clean up afterwards.

27 August 2015

I’VE been noticing a disturbing phenomenon recently among my brethren. It is a type of mob behaviour where groups of people will attack a person online, usually female, accusing her of immorality based totally on something superficial, usually her dress.

It happened with the gymnast who was criticised for her regulation gymnastics leotard instead of being cheered for her gold medal. And it happened again when a seven-year-old girl was taken to task for wearing a two-piece bathing suit while on holiday with her parents.

To attack a little girl with an as-yet-unformed body who was holidaying with her parents seemed to me to be beyond reason. There is something else going on here besides the apparent self-righteousness.

If one wants to seem devout and to admonish someone for supposed unIslamic behaviour, there are recommended ways to do it. Online slut-shaming isn’t one of them.

I’m no psychologist but it is interesting to me that as our society gets more “religious” (at least by some people’s definitions), there is increasing mob behaviour against anyone deemed to not fit into those definitions.

Sadly our authorities’ idea of religiously correct behaviour involves more restrictions every day. Their key word is “don’t”, rather than “do”. Thus, people are told every day of the things they must not do if they are keen to end up in heaven.

Apparently there is a list of 70 major sins that we can do to ensure that we go to the wrong place. Odd, considering I was brought up to understand that Islam is a very easy religion with very few major sins, defaming people being one of them.

When people are told daily that they cannot do so many things, and yet they see that some people can freely do them, then resentments mount. How is it that some people can wear what they want but I cannot? How is it that some people can do what they want but I cannot?

What we thus have is an inequality of freedoms, and I believe this is closely tied to the inequality of wealth in this country.

If you have money, you are likely to go to better schools, have more job opportunities, travel more and buy whatever you want. The world is pretty much open to you.

If you don’t, then you have none of these options.

The income inequalities in this country are well documented.

Not only is there a huge swathe of people with very low incomes in this country but the gap between them and the very wealthy is getting bigger. But not a lot is being done to narrow these gaps, apart from giving the poor handouts which are one-offs and unsustainable. Besides, as the saying goes, they don’t teach a man to fish.

Thus, the way to assuage the feelings of those at the bottom is by telling them that while they may not have much, their advantage is that they are more likely to go to heaven. Rich people are apparently more prone to sinning, so be happy that you are poor but heading in the right direction. Hence the poor spend what they have on the right rituals, the right clothes, making sure their children are well educated religiously if nothing else. They will be rewarded some day, they are promised.

But meanwhile the bills need to be paid. The kids are getting nowhere because the schools are not preparing them for a productive life.

Food and public transport are getting more and more expensive. GST hits them harder.

Still our politicians and ulama tell us salvation is at hand if only we keep on that straight and very narrow path.

It’s hard going but we believe in them. Even when it’s clear that there’s not much joy in our every day lives.

Meanwhile, how is it that some of our brethren have the freedoms that we don’t have? How is it that they can go on holidays abroad and buy fancy clothes, not all of which are syariah-compliant? How is it that they can smile and laugh with impunity? Aren’t they afraid of going to hell by enjoying heaven on earth?

Thus the mob behaviour happens. How to justify someone else’s freedoms except to cast them as being sinful? It doesn’t matter if they are innocent children, they have to be as suppressed as our children are. Only then can there be equality in oppression, the logic goes.

Politicians may not notice this, and may even encourage this as a cover-up for their failures. But if the inequalities in income are not addressed, the inequalities in freedoms will continue to breed ever-greater resentments and who knows where this will lead to.

Something to ponder on this August 31. Are all our people equally merdeka?

14 August 2015

I RECENTLY attended a conference where the keynote speaker, a renowned academic, talked about science and conscience. One of the slides he showed was a quote from Sophocles, the Greek “tragedian” or playwright (496-406BC) which went: “There is no witness so terrible and no accuser so powerful as conscience which dwells within us.”

In most people, the conscience does play a big part in directing the way we behave.

It may come from the values our parents or teachers instilled in us or maybe it is something inherent in us, but the conscience is that little nagging voice in us that makes us feel guilty or ashamed when we have done something we shouldn’t have.

From childhood, that voice tells us that taking something that is not ours is wrong, or cheating in exams is unfair, or calling people names is hurtful. It’s that uncomfortable feeling when we’ve done one of these things and then didn’t own up to or apologise for it.

Everyone has a conscience in one way or another. Some psychologists say that we are born with an innate sense of fairness that either develops or lessens, depending on what happens in our lifetimes.

In any case, people have enough of a conscience to realise that some actions are regarded as anti-social behaviour and therefore must be hidden from others if done.

Consequently, nobody openly declares that they are going to steal, cheat or do anything that common sense says we should not, especially if we want to live among other people.

Our conscience is also that nasty feeling in our stomachs when we tell a lie.

When we were kids, we knew what would happen if we were ever caught lying to our parents. We might tell them that we had not got our report cards yet but it was difficult to keep a straight face when they kept questioning us about it.

Eventually the pressure would become too much to bear and we had to shamefacedly hand over our red mark-filled card and wait for Dad’s fearsome wrath.

Those memories of the consequences of lying usually stayed with us until adulthood, training our conscience on the virtues of honesty. As horrible as it may be sometimes, it is usually better to own up when we’re at fault.

This assumes that the things we need to own up to are fairly innocuous things, like our age or the fact that we forgot to pay a bill on time.

But our conscience can only be burdened with so much; if you do something really terrible, then we need to stop that conscience pricking us or else we cannot sleep at night.

Thus we start inventing justifications for the terrible things we did, or start telling ever bigger lies in order to cover up what we did.

After a while, we start to believe our own lies and even that we never did anything wrong.

I have known some consummate liars and I often wonder how they keep track of every lie they tell.

Everything depends on keeping every story unimpeachable, and making sure that nobody is able to compare stories with anyone else.

It must be a terrible strain and at some point you’re bound to trip up. And that’s where things start to unravel.

When they do, there is a mad scramble to keep things together which necessitates more and more lies. That conscience, that nagging voice, that inner compass that tells us where true north is, becomes muffled and ignored altogether.

Yet it has a way of peeking out and showing itself in odd ways; the inability to look anyone in the eyes, a voice that isn’t convincing, a hand that is shaky.

They are signs that can be seen by a shrewd observer though perhaps not by those who prefer not to.

Luckily for societies, not everyone becomes devoid of conscience completely. Otherwise they would become totally lawless and dysfunctional.

By and large, most people still obey traffic lights because they know it is a good thing to do. And they also do get angry at people who don’t.

They may tolerate the odd person running a red light but not if it becomes an epidemic because obviously it becomes very dangerous for everyone. It is those people who still have their consciences who will save society.

Today when everything in our society seems to be crumbling, when our leaders have become the ones who run red lights, we have to rely on those traffic cops who still have the conscience to do their jobs correctly, without fear or favour.

If we get rid of traffic cops so that we can run red lights with impunity, then we might as well be a society before there were laws regulating our behaviour on the roads.

Imagine if our conscience stopped being our red light.

30 July 2015

SINCE everyone in this country is an expert in giving advice to everyone else, I thought I would join in and generously give my totally unsolicited counsel to all those aspiring to join cupboards or closets of any kind. Any likeness to anything familiar around us is naturally a complete coincidence.

First of all, please get it out of your head that you are wanted or needed because you have expertise of any kind. Who cares if you have a double degree in How to Make Anything Good and How to Make Anything Better? What you need is a PhD in How To Make Your Boss Feel Good, with a minor in How To Make Your Boss Look Really Good. It would also help if you have expertise in How To Clean Up Messes, especially if it involves getting rid of Messy People.

Secondly, you have to audition for the job. Don’t ever expect to be picked out of obscurity like some Cinderella. Let’s not forget that Cinders didn’t really get an invitation to the Ball – her ugly stepsisters did. And they worked hard for it by making sure they got noticed.

So find a way to get attention. Never mind if it means making a spectacle of yourself. Who cares if you look and sound like a fool as long as your potential Boss likes it? The path to position and lucre is strewn with puffery and pomp! Pledge loyalty, even if nobody asked you to. That counts as double points.

Thirdly, always be humble and say you had not expected this at all but it must have been Divine Intervention. Who in their right mind would question what the Almighty wants? And He must have spoken through his vessel, your soon-to-be Boss. George W. Bush said God made him President to do His will on earth. Surely if an American can claim that, we can too.

Fourthly, don’t be picky about what you are given. Just be grateful! What does it matter anyway? It all comes with nice perks like a nice house (there must be a renovation budget), a nice car with a driver, first-class travel for you and the Mrs, and all sorts of other things you’ve only heard about from others but can now experience firsthand.

So what if the work is crushingly dull? Someone else can read all those papers for you and give you a summary. And oops, if you miss a few things in there, there are lots of people you can blame, even despatch clerks. Why worry? You’ve hit the big time.

Fifthly, now that you’ve got it, your job is to smile and nod your head. Vigorously. All the time. Get yourself photographed with the Boss as much as possible, preferably looking at him with utter adoration. If you can hold up a suitably adoring placard, that’s even better. However, some have found that this is no insurance for job security. Maybe practise hand-kissing as an alternative.

Sixthly, let’s not forget that you are a package deal, which your spouse is a part of. Train her well because her job is as important as yours. Quite the opposite from you, her job is not to compete with her Boss.

So make sure that if you want to buy pretty expensive things for her (and now you can!), don’t let her wear them in front of her Boss, especially if she looks quite hot in them. Support local brands and dress your other half in them. Leave the international imports to her Boss and coach her in the right admiring phrases to murmur.

Seventhly, ever seen the TV series Entour­age? That’s what you need, an entourage. Surround yourself with all sorts of folks who can be given menial jobs dressed up as important ones by putting them in the right clothes. No Big Man is without his entourage to carry bags, check him in at airports, that sort of thing. Never ever have to do a single thing yourself again.

Eighthly, be part of an entourage yourself. It is highly important that you keep yourself within your Boss’ line of sight at all times because you don’t want him to forget you exist or overlook you the next time he wants to clear out his cupboard. So follow him everywhere; after all, that is your main job.

It’s also your spouse’s job to be a handmaiden in her Boss’ entourage so if she gets called upon to serve, give her your blessing. It will be rewarding.

There you have it – eight tips for succeeding in life in our dear country. The folks out there who have to actually work to survive each day wish you lots of luck. Drop some crumbs some time.

17 July 2015

It’s great to meet youths who want to change things. 

I’VE been told that recently I’ve become strident and fierce in my columns. This was a bit of a surprise; I thought I’ve always been fierce and strident. But I suppose my readers see a noticeable uptick in the tone of my columns these days, hence the comments.

Is it surprising though? I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s holding my head in despair at the endless drama that our country is experiencing daily these days.

It would be one thing if it were a drama where everyone goes home happy at the end of it. But here we seem to slide from bad to worse, on a greasy slope with no brakes.

I’m not going to comment on the “high-level” goings-on since that is well covered everywhere. Except to say thank God for the alleged “whistleblowers” and “leakers” whoever they might be because if it were not for them, we would still be in the dark, not realising that our entire carpet is being pulled from under us. There must be some people with a conscience after all who can no longer tolerate the blatant disregard for our people anymore.

I was talking to some young people recently who want to spread the “virus” of positivity among our people because there is so much negativity around that it cannot be good for anyone. It’s wonderful to meet young people who are not yet jaded and disillusioned and who have the energy to want to change things.

They are right; there is too much negativity around, coupled with apathy that is unproductive. We complain endlessly but forget that complaining by itself does nothing except make others complain, too.

Indeed, while it is certainly part of the Malaysian make-up to constantly grouse about something or other, of late it’s taken a mean-spirited tone as well. There is undoubtedly much to complain about these days but at the same time there are many Malaysians, mostly ordinary people, who are doing many things to change our social landscape, to make it more open and accepting, to build peace and create harmony in our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious mix.

Some of these efforts may be one-off, some may take a while to bear fruit, and some may not work at all. But far more important than the immediate results is the process of engagement with one another towards a common goal through an event, shared interests or anything else that brings people together.

We’ve seen ordinary people step up so many times over the years, to help one another, to show that Malaysian citizens are so much better than their failing and flailing leaders. We’ve banded together to help those affected by the floods in Kelantan, we feed the homeless, we’ve demanded a humanitarian response to the boat people floating about in the Indian Ocean. Always a step or two ahead of our Government.

Yet I see people being unkind and mean spirited about these efforts for unexplained purposes. If people are doing good, why put them down? What are those who are willing to roll their sleeves up and help others doing that might affect those who do nothing, except perhaps make them feel some shame for their own inertia?

Is the cynicism about everything so bad that we can’t even differentiate between sincere and insincere efforts? Or is it just our addiction to putting down everything others do as simply a craving for publicity?

I don’t blame our cynics entirely. After all we look to our leaders to set the example of good behaviour. When they completely fail us, how can we complain when our people do the same? How can we excoriate anyone for thinking wombats and pigs are the same when we don’t have leaders who display any higher level of knowledge anyway? How can we check those who pass on unfounded rumours of racial riots when some of our leaders are often quick to do the same? When our leaders are silent on these issues, how can anyone feel optimistic that reason will prevail?

We’re all looking for positive inspiration these days and yet it’s so hard to find any. Our leadership is too lazy even to remind us of the need for restraint during Ramadan, and has nothing to say when people go overboard. In its absence, we have to inspire ourselves.

Perhaps we need this holiday weekend to come up with some inspiration. Perhaps if we take a break from the news and focus on family and the joys of celebration, we can recover our reasonable centre.

With that, I’d like to wish everyone a Selamat Hari Raya, maaf zahir batin. May the advent of Syawal bring an end to the current madness and instead usher in new light and new hope, God willing.