24 March 2016

I GREW up with perhaps a heightened awareness of God. As a child I was told that if I ever told a lie, God would cut off my tongue.

If I ever fancied myself as well off, I was admonished that there was absolutely no one on earth richer than God.

If I tried to hide from my elders after doing something naughty, I should rest assured that even if they couldn’t see me, God always could.

Small wonder that I was mostly an obedient little girl, terrified of both my parents’ and God’s wrath. It took me many years to understand that God was not as terrifying as all that, that He will forgive you if you’re really really sorry and that the worst thing is to hurt someone by telling lies. But I never got over the belief that everything I do can be seen and judged by an Omnipotent Being who will one day ask me to account for it all.

Apparently not everyone believes this. Not counting atheists, there are people who claim to believe in God but seem to have no awareness of constantly being watched. They think that as long as other humans don’t see what they do, they’re okay. Until they get caught, of course.

It’s astounding to read that a ­government official recently got caught for siphoning off RM100mil to buy first class tickets and expensive handbags for his family. How come nobody noticed any of this for so long?

Or rather, and perhaps this is what this fellow counted on, people noticed but decided to mind their own business. There’s something to be said for respecting people’s privacy of course. But did they forget who else is watching?

In fact, sometimes people don’t even bother to hide anymore. It’s all out there for everyone to see, unabashedly. We all lap it up, buying magazines to read and gawk over all those diamonds and cars. But we rarely ask where they come from, or at most we might snigger a bit and then turn the page.

This turning-the-page attitude of ours is what allows all these things to happen. We look, we wonder and then we move on. Which is exactly what the corrupt want us to do. So we are really complicit in their crimes.

Why should we be surprised therefore that when we finally say something, they turn round and unleash all sorts of charges against us, including for disobedience? We had obediently turned our heads away all these years, how dare we look harder now! And the more we look, the tougher the backlash is.

Last week we were told that disobedience to our leader is akin to disobedience to God. Oh my, my! But isn’t our first duty to be ­obedient to the All-Seeing God?

In Chapter 4, verse 135 of the Holy Quran, God says to us: “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!”

Sounds very clear to me that ­obedience to our leaders is conditional on whether they are being just to us or not. Justice and upholding equity is meant to be our leaders’ main concern, as it is with all of us. So when we see them doing wrong, especially by treating us like naughty children, why should we not say something?

God repeats this in Chapter 5, Verse 8: “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.”

My holy Book also repeatedly reminds us to never ascribe divinity to anyone other than God. This is the greatest sin in my understanding because it undermines the core belief in One God.

Yet there are people who keep equating their own human qualities and foibles to the Divine. We must never criticise them because that would be like criticising God, they say. Surely this must be the height of hubris.

But they get away with it because we are silent and look away. Who then do we fear more, them or the Almighty?

14 March 2016

SOMETIMES you need to be confronted with ugly reality in order to make you pause and think. This happened to me when I visited the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre just outside Phnom Penh recently.

Also known as the “Killing Fields”, Choeung Ek was, before 1975, a two-hectare orchard filled with longan trees and watermelon, although part of it was also a cemetery for the Chinese community nearby. Between 1975 and 1978 however, this tiny plot of land became the execution ground for 20,000 Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge for no other reason than that they were educated city folk and not peasants.

It is a surreal experience visiting Choeung Ek. For one thing, it is a silent place. In order to be respectful of the dead, visitors walk around with an audio guide and headphones that tells you the history of the place.

It even includes the voices of survivors. It is hard to imagine the horror that took place in this quiet place but some of the exhibits bring the point home.

I remember seeing a piece of red rag, part of someone’s clothing, on the ground and being caught between the urge to pick it up and the realisation that this was what some poor soul wore before he or she met his or her brutal end.

Or it may have been a child’s shirt. One of the most unnerving sights at Choeung Ek was the “killing tree”.

It is a tree on which are hung hundreds of cloth wristbands in remembrance of the children and infants who died there. They died in a way so cruel, it brings shudders to the spine. They were simply held by their legs and bashed against the tree until they died, often while their mothers were forced to watch.

Visiting Choeung Ek gives you pause to reflect on the nature of the human mind. How was it that an otherwise gentle people could succumb to such collective madness that they were willing to kill so many of their friends, neighbours and even parents? Three million people out of a population of only eight million died from starvation, torture or outright murder. Anyone above 50 years old today would know someone who died in those hellish years.

Of course this was not the only example of collective murderous brutality. It has happened in Germany, in Rwanda and Bosnia.

When you look at the types of torture and murder, including by beheading, practised by the Khmer Rouge, you can’t help but think of the Islamic State today in Syria and elsewhere.

Human beings have a propensity to do this over and over again it seems.

None of this happens overnight, although it can go from mild craziness to outright insanity in a very short while. If you go to the exhibition on the site in Berlin of the former headquarters of the SS, the paramilitary organisation that was eventually found guilty of crimes against humanity for its role in the Holocaust, you will find some unnerving information.

They implemented Nazi policies including the burning of books by authors labelled “un-German”, marginalising those labelled political opponents or enemies of the state and using newspapers to spread Nazi propaganda.

“All men are not equal” was the slogan the Nazi leadership used to justify the exclusion and extermination of anyone who was not of Aryan stock, people they called sub-human. Just as the Khmer Rouge defined anyone not a peasant as somehow a traitor to the “egalitarian” vision of society that they had.

As a society, we in Malaysia are not anywhere near these sorts of brutalities. But it is easy to slip into a subtler version of the mindset without noticing.

Sometimes, the demonising of groups of people because they are different, due to nationality, religion, creed and class trips off our tongues subconsciously. The use of the media to propagate discriminatory stories and untruths about people is becoming the norm.

The demand to prove our patriotism, loyalty and faithfulness or to be deemed traitors to nation and religion is a constant needling noise. The banning of anything that might make people think differently and question things is becoming a regular occurrence.

All these terrible events in history finally ended because there were people who retained their humanity and decided to risk their lives and do something about it. In the end, it will always be the people who wake up from their stupor and take action who will save their country.

It is easy to either deny any such thing would ever happen to us, or to complain endlessly but ultimately do nothing. Or worse, criticise those who are trying to do something at great risk to themselves.

Or is the Malaysian credo “As long as my nasi lemak is still there every day, I don’t care what happens”?