30 November 2020

Piecemeal responses not helping our vulnerable
Sunday, 29 Nov 2020

A report from the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) on what school shutdowns will do to children’s education had some alarming things to say. Published in May this year, among other things it warned that “evidence for unexpected temporary school closures and reduced instruction time suggests that school closures will reduce educational achievement both in the short and long term”.

It also added that children from disadvantaged backgrounds “are likely to be affected more than others by school closures, with fewer family resources and less access to online learning resources to offset lost instruction time”.

I am amazed that the CEP commissioned such a report so early in the pandemic, but that’s what a culture of intellectual curiosity does for you. Meanwhile I’m wondering whether there is anything similar that examines the impact of school closures in our country.

I’ve only managed to find a report done by Unicef Malaysia that highlighted three very stark numbers: youth unemployment is likely to rise from the already high 11% in 2019, school closures affect some four million children and half a million children from low-income households have been deprived of the supplementary school meals programme that provides them with the nutrition they need for their growth.

We know that except for those parents who have already been homeschooling their children, it is really not easy to teach children at home. Even if you had all the books and equipment you need, teaching children their schoolwork takes a lot of patience and perseverance. And that is if you don’t have your own work and the housework to do as well.

What if you don’t have the devices such as laptops or iPads that you need so that children can follow their lessons online? In rich households switching to online learning should not be a problem. Not only do they have the means to follow school subjects online, but they have a wealth of other books and games to keep their brains stimulated.

It’s a different story in low-income households. A study involving more than 670,000 parents and 900,000 students in Malaysia found that about one-third do not own any devices at all. If they’re lucky, there’ll be at most one laptop to be shared by everyone.

Some families are so poor that the children have to wait until their father comes home from work to use his phone to look up their lessons. That is not always the solution either. As we also now famously know from a young girl in Sabah, having a device is one thing, connectivity is another thing altogether.

The assumption is of course that our teachers are geared up to provide lessons online at all.

The Education Ministry has provided guidelines to parents and teachers on this new form of school. But questions remain. Do teachers themselves have the means and devices to set up online lessons at all? After all they too have homes with children who need all their attention.

In the face of all this, with the current lockdowns continuing seemingly with no end in sight, it is hardly surprising that tensions are rising within the home. Parents are worried about their jobs and wondering if they will continue to have one into the new year.

Some have already lost their jobs and finding it difficult to pivot into other income-generating occupations.

With children constantly at home, bored and restless, is it any wonder that the parents’ patience is tried? The seemingly made-on-the-fly CMCO order restrictions often bring more hardship than help. A good example is the two-persons-per-car rule. It has created all sorts of problems for parents even with one child because they can never travel as a family anywhere, not even to hospital. Even the three-people-per-car rule makes no sense, from an infection control point of view, when they are all together at home anyway.

Due to all these restrictions and worries, domestic abuse has gone up, a phenomenon we have seen all over the world. Do we simply shrug our shoulders at it? We have to be more alert to protect victims and would-be victims who are inevitably women and children.

The Women, Family and Community Development Ministry needs to be more proactive in setting up systems to detect cases and provide help, in collaboration with NGOs. This is the time for new approaches to an old heightened problem, not denials.

The Education Ministry should also be concerned that whole
generations of children are going to be handicapped by their lost year of education.

How are they planning to remedy the situation?

Surely this is an urgent problem to address if we are to get back on our feet quickly once this pandemic is over.

We have always emphasised the importance of education for the country’s development. Why then is it that we hear so little from the Education Ministry of their plans? Is it enough to just budget for laptops now when children are unable to read?

Children are resilient but we still need to keep their brains stimulated. How are we to address that when there are so many unequal households, as evidenced by the number of B40s the government needs to subsidise? Where is the forward planning?

I’d suggest that temporary community schools in PPR flats be set up to give some class time to kids even if only two hours a day, taught by paid teachers (preferably those living in the same area). This would help not only to keep the children’s skills up, it would also occupy them for a while and provide some relief to their besieged parents. Even if it’s just playtime or storytelling, I believe it would help.

But schools should open soon with strict SOPs. New rules have to be devised to protect everyone. This is the time for innovative thinking.

The fallout from closing schools has an economic impact beyond that on our children. School canteen businesses and bus drivers are suffering just from the one act of closing schools. How many others are affected by this? Gardeners, cleaners, general workers?

Like many social issues, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for whole-of-government responses, not piecemeal ones. All we are seeing these days are what looks like ad-hoc policies that seem short-termed in focus. Is that because our leaders don’t expect to stay long?

26 October 2020

The constantly changing order of the day



THEY weren’t kidding when they said when it rains it pours. Except that there was nothing pouring out of our taps but grief.

In the past two weeks there have been at least twice (or was it more? I lose count) when millions of people have had no water because the supply had been polluted or cut. In fact, one incident came so fast on the heels of another that people barely had time to shower in between. There must be a lot of smelly people in the Klang Valley these days through no fault of their own.

But this is the time to find fault. As it is, we already have to endure a CMCO whose rules change so often that keeping up with them needs the skills of one of those performers who can change outfits faster than you can sing happy birthday.

Tracking CMCO rules requires a particular gift for mental dexterity. It makes you wonder whether they keep hard copies of decisions they made in the past, or did they dump them in the trash as soon as they’re done with them. That must be the reason why each time they lock us down, they invent something new.

For the few people paying attention, there’s also the political change games, also known as the Hunger (for Power) Games, one of which we all blame for the current pandemic state we’re in. The Director General of Health recently admitted that 448 people returned from Sabah and then tested positive.

Amid them, let us not forget, were some politicians who blithely walked around in a poor imitation of Donald Trump. Our DG then “noted” that “after implementing border control, the number of returnees from Sabah have (sic) dropped significantly”. The glaring omission of course is the date of implementation of that control.

What’s more, does dropping the number of returnees mean they were left to stew in the Sabah Covid pot?

Then, if any of us care at all anymore, there was supposed to be a change at the top almost a month ago. Except that there wasn’t. And now there’s supposed to be one again. Except there isn’t because the person who should be the headmaster to the unruly pupils in Parliament has decided to relinquish his duties to the head prefect. The headmaster who once knew the rules has now decided the head prefect knows better.

The only constant is change. Nobody has qualified that by saying they meant change for the better.

Since everyone is forming their own party these days, maybe the rakyat should establish their own.

We can’t call it Parti Rakyat because I think that’s taken but may I suggest the name I thought of during that interregnum in February when we didn’t know who our leader was? It’s called Party of Really Fed-Up Malaysians or PARFUM.

It will be a party open to anyone. There is only one criterion for admission; you must not stink. By that, I mean not from the bodily odours that emanate from people who are showering less often than usual but those who give off that smell from keeping skeletons in their cupboards.

To join, applicants must ensure that they pass the sniff test. They’ll be graded by how hard we have to pinch our noses when they come by (and stand not less than one metre away of course). Those that make our noses wrinkle up even behind our masks will be shown the door immediately. The wearing of perfume to hide one’s malodorous character will not be allowed.

On our scale, the more expensive the fragrance, the more likely it covers a tainted body.

Some might argue that smell tests aren’t necessarily transparent or democratic. This insults the intelligence of the average person, the one who’s had to put up with so much manure all this year.

Our noses are so attuned now to the different types of olfactory stimulation, we could find jobs at the fragrance factories in France.

We might be uncertain still of what smells good, but we sure know what offends our sense of what reeks, let alone our sense of decency.

Our membership would comprise people who emanate cleanliness, who use soap on their bodies and in their mouths, whose minds look to everybody’s future, not just their own. They’d have to not be too jaded nor have abandoned hope.

Losing hope is like leaving a cat wounded in a road accident to die slowly. Eventually nobody can bear the stench and leaves.

So, what do you reckon? Shall we go for it? This doesn’t have to be registered by any government agency because you know, agency is not what they have. We should leave aside bureaucracy because sometimes they make our noses crease suspiciously as well.

Nor should we have any President, Deputy Presidents, Vice-Presidents, Ketua Wanita, Ketua Pemuda, Ketua Puteri and all the various ketua all the way down the line.

We should discard these crabs forever scrambling so hard to get out of the bucket that they stay out in the sun too long. We should eat them quickly to avoid getting sick.

Meanwhile it would be nice if someone cared enough to express even a smidgen of sympathy for those who have had no water for days.

Someone who might treat it as an emergency issue, or even an issue of security. People who’ve had to endure no water to flush toilets are likely to riot after a while. They’re likely to find water cannons a relief rather than daunting.

And is anyone even interested in finding out why our rivers keep getting polluted? Or are those polluters also able to leap over fences to escape?

There’s really a bad pong here.

30 September 2020

Hope in the new and young


Sunday, 27 Sep 2020

By Marina Mahathir

IN a year of many disappointments it’s not often that you get two exciting developments happening in the same month.

One is the Sabah state election that should be over by the time you read this. Win or lose, they signal a new kind of politics in our poor beleaguered country, one that goes beyond the usual empty chatter about race and religion. It’s so nice to see a leader that, unlike some that come to mind, has not inhaled the toxins that usually pervade our political parties, despite having spent years in the peninsula.

His talk about unity, of everyone in this land, and not just unity among some people, is exactly what we need to hear in this polarised fractured world. Ordinary people are simply tired of listening to people fighting. We just want people who think of all of us as one unit, not different groups that need to be played off against one another.

I like to think that GE14 gave a lot of voters permission to not put up with rubbish anymore. Out of the many amusing videos coming out of Sabah, my favourite has to be the one where a group of women in traditional dress are confronting a campaigning politician with signs demanding to know what happened to the promises they made at the last election, none of which presumably were fulfilled. He was left speechless, not knowing what to say when accountability was demanded of him. And that is exactly what elections should be about, the Day of Accounting every five years or so.

The other exciting thing is the formation of a youth-led party. Anyone who watched the Digital Parliament a few months ago would have been impressed by the performance of the 222 young people who each digitally represented all the constituencies in our real Parliament.

If they didn’t, they are just sourpusses who know very well that the real MPs would not have fared well against their online counterparts. Almost every one of the young wakils were well-prepared, knew what they wanted to talk about and presented their points articulately and with confidence.

Some of them were only 15 years old but seemed far more mature than their real counterparts. No one called each other names, made dirty jokes or interrupted people just to stop them talking. And they had Speakers who gave each of them equal time.

Watching the young people of the Digital Parliament gave me hope that we can salvage this nation of ours so torn asunder by toxic politics. They have shown that the young have much to contribute to nation-building and should not be insulted and put down as little kids fooling around while the adults lead.

Where has this so-called adult leadership actually gotten us? Maybe we should re-define what it means to be a grownup. After all, so many of them have reduced parliamentary sessions to mere playground gamesmanship.

The thing is no matter how much you shout about racial or religious rights, it’s not going to get anyone a job besides the temporary one of a rent-a-mob, with a T-shirt thrown in. You can’t actually feed your baby with it.

Even if you do make it to the big time, with your own chauffeur, Mercedes and starlet wife, you’ll still be caught out every time you open your mouth. With people having to work from home, it’s easy-peasy to look up the college you purportedly attended to see if it really exists on terra firma or merely in the smoke-filled reaches of your mind.

Young people want you to show them the money. Not outright cash of course in the manner you’ve grown accustomed to but in sustainable honestly-earned form.

In other words, they want the jobs that let them live a decent life, hopefully better than their parents’, with some measure of freedom to do what they like.

Just look at Thailand where young people are showing their stuff, coming out in droves to demand a better government than what they have now. It’s moving because it is so dangerous. But they have the numbers and they have adult support. I’d venture that their parents are inspired by their courage.

Indeed, courage is what is sadly lacking in our country. The courage to do and say what is right, not what is expedient. Or perhaps, the right things are what is expedient because people are, like those women in Sabah, just tired of hearing empty platitudes once every few years, words said for effect and nothing else.

If someone says we’ll all have to work hard together to make things better, that is more real than saying, “Here’s some money, now go and vote for me.” I might be able to buy a chicken with it this week while you’re campaigning but not next week after you’ve lost.

So nothing is more exciting to me than to see young people – truly young people – take the lead because I want to retire into old-fogeyness and let someone else worry about the state of things. Sure, they’ll make some mistakes but that’s part of life. After all we’ve already made a lot and didn’t always learn from them.

That’s not to say that our young should learn their way through the old system of doing things. They should in fact be tearing down the infrastructure that’s been in place and that’s obviously rotting and about to break down.

When we mean new and young, we mean new and young, especially given that the Covid-19 pandemic has upended everything. Nothing will go back to “normal”. Nor should they, because “normal” is what got us to where we are.

Talking about political gamesmanship, because I have an early deadline, I can’t comment on what’s going to happen by Sunday. But I suspect, it’ll be not much.

31 August 2020

The real meaning of Merdeka


Sunday, 30 Aug 2020

By Marina Mahathir

As we celebrate our 63rd National Day, we need to take heed of the colonialisation cloaked in local colours still prevalent around us.

IT’S our 63rd Merdeka tomorrow and as is my habit every year, it turns my mind to thinking about this word “Merdeka”. In English, it is often translated as either “independence” or “freedom”.

Independence seems to be the more common interpretation. Our foremothers and fathers fought hard to regain the right to determine the course of our country for ourselves. No more would other people, no matter how well-meaningly they couch their intentions, tell us what’s good for us because they assume they know better.

That’s the central conceit of colonialism, that colonisers know better than the colonised. The root of that assumption is of course racism, that certain races are superior to others and therefore, out of the so-called generosity of their hearts, they should impart their advanced knowledge to inferior ones.

That this entire project benefited the colonisers more than the colonised should not be ignored. The basis for empire is always economics, not altruism. While we may get sentimental about the systems that the British left us, make no mistake those very systems ensured they could rule us for 130 years with impunity and made them lots of money to grow their economies, not ours.

The legacies they left us are not only a parliamentary system and road signage but also laws like the Sedition Act, meant to ensure that the “natives” never got uppity towards their masters. Today we use it against our own people, with no sense of irony at all. But then again, irony has never been our strong suit.

I sometimes wonder if, in the name of “independence”, and in throwing off the yoke of colonisation, we have attempted to also discard the traits that we feel enabled us to be ruled over by foreign powers. In some ways shaking off the submissive stereotype and becoming more self-confident is useful to withstand the inevitable onslaught of globalisation. But self-confidence can easily morph into hubris, in believing that absolutely nobody is better than us, a belief as unfounded as bleach curing Covid-19.

All you need do is to travel out into the world and you’ll realise that there are plenty of things that other people do better than us, from ensuring clean toilets to better public transport to preserving their cultural heritage to just plain sensitivity and kindness to those who are different from them.

Instead, in believing that self-puff-uppery is a necessary condition of ‘independence’, we have now made shamelessness a trending trait. Today there are people who show off their riches and lifestyles without the slightest hint of coyness about how they got them. Young boys with no known qualifications, never mind track records of hard work and achievement, post Instagram photos of themselves on private jets with the hashtag #youngbillionaire.

Fathers, already holding high office with not a modicum of expertise, unashamedly write on their official letterheads a request to put their sons on corporate boards supposedly to give them “experience”. Presumably they want to experience first-class air tickets and fast cars but do not have the patience, let alone the brains, to get them the normal way.

Then there’s the lot who feel no shame in touting their VIP credentials to get away with rules and regulations. At the height of the MCO, there were people, whose only credential is a bloodline, going about visiting people while everyone else had to stay home under pain of excessive fines and jail terms.

There are many of us who would like to be able to travel abroad for necessary reasons but who are deterred by the need to quarantine ourselves in a hotel for 14 days when we get home. But if you are a VIP, you can go for a pleasure trip with your entire family, come home and not quarantine at all. In fact you shamelessly go to all sorts of meetings as if you’d not been anywhere.

No matter how many apologies and how many months’ salary is given up, the point is that, had there not been a whistleblower, we would never have known about this double standard, one that could potentially have endangered other people. I wonder what that old lady who got fined RM8000 and had to endure half a day’s jail felt when she read that.

Then there’s the Great Unashamed One. Once upon a time the idea of a criminal conviction is one that we hope never to have or never gets found out should we have one. Even Harvey Weinstein had the self-awareness not to be seen in public too much once his charges of sexual harassment were made known.

Here, in this era of extraordinary shamelessness, a vice treated like a virtue, we go around wielding the thickest of skins declaring our innocence at every opportunity. The bright side of it is that it constantly reminds us of the crimes committed, and hopefully spurs closer interest in the many more charges to come.

The other definition of Merdeka is of course freedom. There are some people who define freedom as something bad and immoral as if the only freedoms anyone wants is to go around dressed half-naked. When after World War II colonised people talked about freedom, it was not the right to dress how they wanted that they were concerned about. Colonisation was a bit like having that police officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck; it makes you unable to breathe. Your opportunities were circumvented by the colour of your skin.

Today, despite our supposed independence, we’re still gasping for breath. Our opportunities are determined not just by the colour of our skin but by whether we toe the party line or not. And the current doctrine is shamelessness, in its most full blown form. How else can someone tout his ability to write support letters as the reason why people should vote for him? Would such a gormless candidate have become head of a women’s wing if all other candidates had not been first expelled from the party?Few seem to notice that this is just colonialisation cloaked in local colours. Preceding our rules, regulations and laws with religious invocations doesn’t make them just. If anything, injustice just insults the religions you hide behind.

You have to believe people are inferior and stupid to swallow some of the excuses handed out like cheap candy. Politicians as check-and-balance guardians of companies? Defections based on principles? Right...

This year, my suggestion for the most appropriate theme for our Merdeka celebrations is “Freedom from Bull Manure”.

27 July 2020

Of masks and masking


Sunday, 26 Jul 2020

By Marina Mahathir

MASKS strapped, we venture out into the world with a sense of trepidation.

Will this little piece of pulp fibre be enough to protect us from the unseen enemy? Will that vicious virus settle on the front of our face covering only to lift off, scatter and settle on our noses just as we remove that mask in relief? Will the mask really protect us or merely lull us into a sense of uncomfortable comfort?

Every day when I strap on my newly-ordered cotton vintage-print masks, my mind turns to what masks really mean in these much-changed times.

On the one hand, masks protect both the wearer and those they encounter. We watch on TV in puzzled amazement at Americans adamant that they will not don them because they object to the government telling them what to do, even when it’s for their own good.

Sometimes they invoke God as the reason why they will not cover up. I read aghast about a 30-year old man who died from a Covid-related illness after attending a “Covid party”. Believing that the virus is a hoax, he had gone to mingle with presumably asymptomatic Covid-infected people. We now know that you don’t have to show symptoms to infect others.

Then there was the French bus driver who was beaten to death merely for telling some passengers to wear masks while on board his bus. Has the world gone mad?

The pandemic seems to have made humans lose their bearings completely. Or perhaps it has only blown the lid off what was already smouldering underneath, that we do in fact harbour a tendency towards selfishness, viciousness and prejudice.

Masks do not only protect, they also conceal. They hide smiles and grimaces alike, unless we are very adept at interpreting the crinkles by the eyes.

But we don’t need physical masks to hide the character of a person, that has the ability to reach out beyond any facial covering and reveal itself. We only need eyes to see beyond the superficial, the outer skin of a person, the slick presentation designed to convey an impression to particular audiences.

Since February this year, besides the masking of faces for everyone’s protection, we’ve also seen the unmasking of the true nature of those we once trusted. What Trojan masks were put on to suppress real intentions! What sleight of hand to unveil the beast that brooks no dissent, that blithely whips up hatred and imposes the most callous cruelty on helpless people.

Yet so many, after being told that they will be protected by a piece of cloth, and soap and water, willingly acquiesce and even cheer on the beasts, tut-tutting instead at those who see through the thin veils. Caring only about the here and now and not the long-term miseries so discreetly planted in our midst by our seemingly gentle “father” and his thuggish cohorts.

In the rest of the world, the unmasked have revealed their full selves, not even bothering to cover their disdain for those who think differently. We stand alone in being both masked and unmasked, concealing our true intentions with a benign paternalism. But it’s a care that is reserved for only some, even though the virus is the great leveller and differentiates between no one.

Our lives have changed in just a few short months. We are now trained to become paranoid about a being so minute that we cannot see it, while at the same time blinding ourselves to equally dangerous ones within sight. We also wilfully shut our eyes to how much we have removed ourselves from the openness and hospitality that we used to be proud of, to being not only closed-minded but actively and proudly showing how we allow our basest instincts to inflict cruelty on others. And we don’t even consider the idea that we are being manipulated, not to our own benefit but to the advantage of a few.

We laugh at an orange clown called Trump for whom facts, science and expertise don’t matter because they don’t serve his political agenda. But do we also ignore facts and logic for the same ends? If social distancing and wearing masks is what helps to stop a pandemic in its tracks, how do we justify detaining people in crowded centres and then blaming them for getting infected? Our latest policy is to once again impose hotel quarantines on those returning from abroad, an unacknowledged sign that it is our own people, not foreigners, who are arriving with the virus.

There seems to be an inability to think through policies by those who make them. If it is now illegal to rent accommodation to illegal immigrants (by which they mean refugees, people whose visa ran out during the MCO and are unable to renew them, those who cannot leave the country because we closed the airports and those migrant workers whose work permits got revoked because their employers closed down their projects), it means that people get thrown out into the streets, with no shelter. We don’t need any foreign media to tell us that the sight of poor starving people, including children, sleeping in our streets isn’t good for our image. Instead we should emulate the judge who recently declined to impose the whipping sentence on some refugees, recognising that they had already suffered enough, and we need not add to their misery. Compassion does still exist.

Although the future looks mostly dark at the moment, we may well recover from this pandemic, provided we have a government that can manage it competently. But the real question is, will we ever recover from the pandemic of greed and hate that has also been unleashed?