20 May 2016

In addition to what we learn in school, other people we meet can give us valuable lessons, too.

MONDAY this week was National Teacher’s Day. I had lost touch with this day until a friend reminded me in a rather unique way.

Although we usually think of teachers as the ones in school, my friend used a broader definition of “teacher” and thanked all the people she had learnt something from in life including, to my surprise, me.

Going by the conventional definition, I did have a lot of good teachers. I can remember my primary school teachers, Miss Ong who came to school in a bright orange flared skirt, and Miss Chew whom everyone adored so much, we all cried when she was transferred.

I had teachers who gave me my love of the English language and who made sense of Mathematics to me, who guided me all the way through my exams and believed that I had more potential than I thought.

I had a History teacher who taught me to organise my thoughts so well when writing essays that I still use her method today. And last year I visited my old Physics teacher and found out that although I always thought I was quiet, she remembered me as very opinionated.

Of course, there must have been teachers who were also mean and nasty but time seems to have softened my memory of them. In any case, I don’t remember them being too awful and none of them were bullies like those I hear about today.

My teachers taught us a lot about values, about the need to be aware of what is going on not just in our country but also around the world, about right and wrong.

If anyone says I am well educated, I have to say that my education started well in my childhood and continued all the way until adulthood.

As I grew up I had many more teachers, some of whom were in unexpected quarters. When I first started working on HIV issues and knew nothing about any world different from my own, my teachers were all the people who were most affected by the epidemic.

I remember Jack, the first Malaysian to ever come out as a person living with HIV, teaching me how to use non-discriminatory language when I wrote about the people most vulnerable to the disease.

Drug users and sex workers told me their life stories and taught me that some people have been dealt really bad cards in life yet they soldier on, especially when other people depend on them for survival.

All of these people taught me that every human is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their circumstances in life. And I think that’s an important part of everyone’s education.

A great teacher is one who is able to make you see something so clearly that the world never looks the same again afterwards. Dr Jonathan Mann was the first director of the Global Programme on AIDS at the World Health Organisation, and then went on to head the Institute of Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.

In 1994, I was fortunate enough to hear Dr Mann articulate a human rights approach to health that made more sense to me than anything I had ever heard before. From that day I really wanted to learn more from Dr Mann but it was only four years later that I got to meet him at a conference in Geneva.

I really should have used that opportunity to talk to him as much as I could but I thought I had time. Sadly, only two months later, Dr Mann and his wife were killed in the crash of Swissair 111 off the coast of Nova Scotia. In the worst possible way, I learnt that we must always make full use of every opportunity given to us.

Of course, I have had many other teachers as well. Women’s rights activists are a particularly inspiring lot, Muslim women activists even more so because they are often misunderstood by everyone.

Women like Amina Wadud, Asma Lamrabet, Kecia Ali and our local Zainah Anwar, Norani Othman and the late Dr Nik Noriani have so much knowledge based on both scholarship and the lived realities of women that their detractors can do no more than question their credentials.

Yet all round the world, their work is resonating with women, including me, because it provides hope, something we don’t find anywhere else.

So we go through life meeting many teachers, not just the ones at school. School teachers may be the ones we meet first but we should always be open to all sorts of other teachers in our lives, sometimes who we don’t even recognise at first.

Education doesn’t end with school. Too bad not everyone learns that.

05 May 2016

I CAME across this great quote the other day. It’s by a filmmaker called Pierre Sauvage who, as a child, was saved by German villagers during the Holocaust. Interviewing the villagers as an adult, he found out one thing: “Those who agonise, don’t act. Those who act don’t agonise.”

In other words, when it comes to doing the right thing, people who do take action don’t spend a lot of time thinking of what might be reasons not to do it.

That’s probably true about all the people who want to do good in society. If they see someone in need, they start thinking of how to help them, not hoping that someone else will.

That’s how people start soup kitchens, collect clothes and essentials when disasters happen or read for the blind. Or get into boats to run supplies to refugees stranded at sea.

People like that don’t think about how much work it would take, how much it would cost or what risks they would face. All those are just problems to solve, not barriers to action. People like these are can-do people and a lot of the time, they are quite effective.

On the other hand, there are the agonisers who may have good hearts but spend so much time agonising over every possible consequence of their potential action that they wind up being too slow or not doing anything at all.

If Pierre Sauvage’s saviours had agonised about saving him and several thousand others, he would likely not have survived to become a filmmaker.

I remember one reader’s response to a column I did about the late Princess Diana who had not hesitated to hug HIV-positive people in hospitals and consequently set an example against the stigma and discrimination that such people faced. “We can’t do that,” said the indignant reader. “What if they are a different sex from us?”

Suffice to say that one of the reasons we remember Diana to this day is because she did not agonise over such matters. Every human in distress needs comfort. It was not about her, it was about them.

Most of us, me included, spend a lot of time agonising over the big decisions in our lives. If it’s going to cost money, change our usual life or involve some personal risk, then of course we are going to think it over thoroughly. Few people rush into buying homes, marrying someone and moving to a foreign country or undergoing major surgery without mulling over many factors, and taking our time about these decisions.

But when we’re thinking about other people and doing right by them, then mulling too much may not be the best response. Especially when the mulling involves thinking up imaginary reasons not to do something.

I know people who worry about whether they should put their thoughts in a blog, for instance, before they write a single word. They believe that it would attract negative reactions from the authorities because they’ve seen what happens to other people’s blogs.

That’s exactly the type of self-censorship that the authorities want, where people worry so much about consequences that they don’t write a single word. The thing is, it may be that what they write will attract not that much attention at all from the people they fear, or very little relative to other people. That may sound disheartening but if you’re worried about nasty consequences, then why should it be an excuse for not expressing your thoughts?

Similarly I get lots of people who say that they cannot do what I and a lot of other activists do because they stand to lose so much. Well, so do we. Being locked up, even for a night or two, is tough and something I hope I never have to experience. But activists do what they do because they believe in it. They don’t agonise, they act.

If we see something terribly wrong happening around us which will lead to so much future suffering, it would be so easy to close our eyes and ears and wish it would all go away by itself. But it won’t unless we act.

That’s why there are people who, regardless of race, religion, age, station in life and political beliefs, are taking action to try and right what is wrong. It may seem futile to some but it’s a lot better than doing nothing. People who act can always hold their heads up high that they tried to do something, and not passively let misery rain upon them. Foolish they may seem to some but a lot of people are, as Nelson Mandela once said, making choices that reflect their hopes, not their fears.

So, ask yourself, are you an agoniser or a person who acts?