Wednesday, 22 July 2015

A ‘pasembur’ of ancestries

Brave New World (The Star)
22 July 2015

Growing up on an island, I think this realisation must have seeped into my consciousness.


YESTERDAY I spent six and a half hours in my car crawling from north to south. It wasn’t too bad an experience because I was with people I loved and we entertained ourselves with general silliness. But then I suppose I was in a good mood and even an aching left leg, the result of constantly working the clutch, did nothing to dampen that mood.
The past few days have been perhaps the best Raya I have had since childhood. For the first time in what feels like the longest time, all the people I loved were under the same roof and everyone was just so relaxed and happy. It was truly a time that made one feel grateful.
Apart from family I also had the chance to meet up with old friends from Francis Light School. Obviously, coming from a school with a name like that, my home state is Penang.
It was a blast seeing pals whom I have not seen in 34 years. We’ve all aged, obviously, and grown (some more than others), but upon close inspection, one can see the little boys with whom I used to play and study.
I am of course completely biased, but Penang folk make me laugh. I think it has something to do with our dialect. And sitting there drinking coffee with my mates, I laughed real hard.
It’s not just what was said but the way it was said that got to me. I may be wrong but I think we are the only people who use the term “marka” for girls. Just exactly what “marka” means I have no idea, so if there are any cunning linguists out there, please drop me a line.
And there is something schizophrenic about Penangites and the way we talk. All the aku and hang is crude. As is our utter refusal to use the “r” sound, replacing it either with a “q” (it’s Gelugoq, not Gelugor) or with a guttural sound impossible to put in words, that is rather akin to a bronchial patient clearing his throat in the morning.
All this makes us sound like a bunch of roughs, yet at the same time we refer to ourselves in a most infantile manner. To hear grown men call themselves chek when talking to their elders, makes it seem like we are using baby talk way into middle age. It is a very odd mixture indeed.
As are we. Looking around my table at my friends, one thing struck me very clearly and that is we are all obviously island boys, but at the same time we are equally obviously from a variety of ancestries. A pasembur of ancestries, you can say. I suppose all of us at the table would be classified as Malay, but to believe in some form of racial purity would be stupid beyond belief if one were to just look at us.
Growing up on the island, I think this realisation must have seeped into my consciousness. And so, although I appreciate the differences in ethnicity for the colour and cultural richness it provides our lives, I also realise that to be hung up over it is ultimately silly.
Now, as much as I enjoyed my little reunion, I am also aware that it’s not as if my rediscovered chums and I are going to be hanging out all the time. Unlike Stephen King’s assertion in his story Stand by Me, I don’t believe that primary school friends are the ones to last for life.
This is because at that age, we hadn’t really developed yet. All we were concerned about was play.
As we got older, our lives took different paths, and our personalities harden into what they are now. This means that at the end of the day we will not necessarily gel with one another.
Be that as it may, the memories we share do give us a bond. What the boys of Francis Light whom I met do not realise, and I was too embarrassed to tell them, was that I really looked up to them when I was a child.
They were talented sportsmen, street-smart and tough town kids. I on the other hand, as they so accurately pointed out that evening, was blessed with the legs of a stool and was quite a soft suburbanite.
But whatever the differences, we all played together and our only criteria for friendship was whether someone was nice or not. Perhaps the season, as well as an overdose of my mother’s rendang, has made me sentimental, but I hope that my friends feel the same way too.
That despite all the changes we have gone through and all our differences, there was a time when we really understood what was important.
Selamat Hari Raya everybody.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Low Yat "Riots"

Sin Chew Jit Poh
15 July 2015


I am sure you heard about the big fight in Plaza Low Yat Bukit Bintang on Sunday.
As soon as it happened talk spread like wildfire that there was going to be racial riots. I suppose I can see how this kind of panic can occur. After all the two sides fighting one another were ostensibly of different ethnic groups. On one side there was the Chinese and on the other there was the Malays.
The initial fight in the early evening (over what exactly is unclear although a mobile phone was involved), seemed to be little more than rowdy youths trying to solve their problems through fighting. Things took a turn for the worrying when later that night a large group, reportedly two hundred strong, turned up at the Plaza causing more violence interspersed with racist language being used.
It was natural therefore to suspect the worse.
However, let’s look at things with a more objective eye. The group of Malays that appeared at Low Yat late Sunday night were reportedly from a group called Perkida. This is a so called NGO with very strong links to UMNO.
So far, so suspicious. But who are these people and what are their motivations. Are they really Malay supremacists? Well, yes, the language that they use surely points in that direction.
However research done on them and published in a book called “Misplaced Democracy” suggests that their primary interest is making money. Politically they will do whatever it takes to help them make more money. In other words, one would have to question the motives of their actions that night.
So, this being the case, apart from defending oneself if caught up in this sort of nonsense, it would be wise to take a breath first and really consider if racial tensions are so bad that there will be a huge outbreak of violence. Or if this episode is being driven by people with their own agendas which may have nothing to do with race but everything to do with power, influence and money.
If we overreact, then these people will get exactly what they want (whatever that might be). It is far wiser to think for a minute and question deeply, about the state of things. This country is facing serious problems and our people, regardless of race are facing serious hardships like unemployment and the rising cost of living. Hardships created by incompetent and perhaps corrupt governance.
Is it really in any of the ordinary people’s interest to be fighting and killing one another? I don’t think so. So let the thugs do their thing, while us ordinary Malaysians, look out for one another and make sure that we do not inadvertently serve their agenda.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

So what happens now?

Brave New World (The Star)
8 July 2015


IN Superman 3, the second worst Superman movie ever made, Richard Pryor plays a computer genius working as a low-level office drone. He steals money from his company by just taking a few unnoticed pennies from each pay cheque. Because there are so many pay cheques, the pennies amount to a lot.
Robert Vaughn, the villain and company owner, gives up immediately on catching the culprit as he has left no trail. He says that the thief would just lie low, and only an idiot would draw attention to himself. As he says that, cue Pryor’s character zooming into the car park in a brand new Ferrari.
Somehow I am reminded of this scene when I read about the supposed US$700mil (RM2.6bil) of 1MDB funds transferred into the Prime Minister’s account. I mean seriously, if there were wrongdoing, you would take all that money and put it into a local AmBank account in your name? What? You want the convenience of making withdrawals from your local 7/11?
If these allegations are true, either there is some unfathomable stupidity at work here, or hubristic arrogance, or both. Be that as it may, we still do not know the whole truth of the matter as the investigations are not complete and the documents that justified The Wall Street Journal writing its expose have not been revealed to us, the people.
Therefore, to save myself from any lawsuits, I shall make no accusation.
But it is all very serious indeed. We are talking about a huge amount of money reportedly transferred into these accounts just before the last general election. The implications are tremendous.
What is clear is that the Prime Minister’s department and his supporters have done nothing but issue denials and of course conspiracy theories which naturally involve the Jews. The Prime Minister himself has not made an outright denial that these accounts were in his name, instead coyly stating that he has not used 1MDB money for his personal use. All of this is wholly unsatisfactory.
So the question remains, what happens now?
There seems to be a huge buzz of activity with investigations from all sorts of agencies and talk of defamation suits. But all said and done, will all this sound and thunder satisfy the people or will it signify nothing?
I have said many times in the past that for an ordered society, we must have institutions that we can trust. The Barisan-led government has over the years made all our supposedly independent institutions get into bed with the executive.
And thus we have a serious trust deficit in these bodies. This being the case, I fear any findings made by them will be met with scepticism.
I am reminded of another story, this time Robert Bolt’s play turned film A Man for All Seasons. There is a scene where Sir Thomas More’s son-in-law argues that in order to get a villain the laws should not stand in the way. The scene goes as follows:
ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
ROPER: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man’s laws, not God’s – and if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
It is ironic that now, in order to clear his name, the Prime Minister needs the laws and institutions of this country to be neutral and trustworthy.
Unfortunately they are no longer deemed to be so. His vindication depends on bodies which people don’t trust and that means any vindication will be pointless.
And all these calls for him to take leave while the investigation continues, well, I think that is all just pointless noise. If we don’t trust the executive to not influence all these investigative bodies, what does it matter if the person investigated is sitting in his office or sitting in a luxury resort in Dubai? What, there’s no such thing as phones and email?
Anyway, this mess the country finds itself in is, in my view, due to the erosion of democratic principles and the necessary institutional structures needed to support them that has occurred for decades. Thus to quote Lou Reed: you’re gonna reap just what you sow.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Lost Aspiration

Sin Chew Jit Poh
2 July 2015


Most of us would know about the Rukunegara; the five principles which are supposed to be the foundations of a national ethos. Not that many will know that there is a preamble to the five principles.
The preamble consists of five points but I would like to focus on only one for this article. This is the last point in the preamble and it states that “Whereas our country Malaysia nurtures the ambition of building a progressive society that will make use of science and modern technology”.
Looking at this line, what strikes me are the words “progressive society” and “science and technology”. What this aspiration means to me is that we are to move forward as a society in a rational and scientific manner. To make progress based on reason and logic and by implication move away from irrationality and backwardness.
This was our aspiration in 1970 and yet today we still behave as though we are living in the dark ages. Petty issues become national talking points because of small minded people (usually men) who unfortunately hold positions of authority.
Thus for many days one can’t open the newspaper without reading about some poor young woman being criticized for her athletic outfit. Criticized by men who seem incapable of simply turning the channel if they don’t like to see her in her leotard. Nor are they capable to see their own hypocritical sexism and misogyny for if you think the young lady’s outfit as indecent, why then was there no uproar about men who wear a tiny garment  literally known as “a pouch” while they strut on a stage flexing their muscles?
Or what about stupid rules which envisions the fall of society as we know it if a woman’s knees were to be seen in a government building. What kind of idiot will think that it is alright to force their own backward view as to what constitutes decency and what does not on the world. Especially when we are talking about government buildings which by definition means that these are places paid for and maintained by the people’s money for the purpose of serving the people (with exposed knees or not).
Now of course in any society there will always be those whose mind work on values more suited to a millennia ago. After all there are millions of us and naturally there will be all sorts of people with all sorts of mindsets. In our country you see reason and rationality triumph occasionally. For example in the recent case concerning those moronic tourists on Mt Kinabalu, the judge made a wonderful decision which punished the idiots as well as satisfying local customs without pandering to the more extreme voices which would blame a bunch of brainless fools for the seismic shifts of the earth.
In other words, if we have wise men and women in actual positions of decision making, it does not matter how crazy some of our people might be, it won’t have any serious effects because at the end of the day rationality will prevail. In other words if those in leadership positions think progressively then regressive voices will be little more than empty noises.
Unfortunately, I am not sure even if good leadership is sufficient. If we look at our situation now, the misogynistic comments on our gymnast’s outfit came from the head religious civil servant of one of our states; we have an ex top judge who seems incapable of understanding that our Constitution is a secular one; we have a leader who is misguided enough to think that building a house of worship using funds of a scandal plagued body will somehow absolve it of any suspicion in the eyes of a gullible public.
In other words, all these backward voices unfortunately doesn’t just come from the masses but amongst the upper echelons of those holding power. If that is the case, what about the rest of the country? This being so, just how much hope does anyone have in redirecting this lost country back towards “building a progressive society that will make use of science and modern technology”.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

A not-so-imaginary case study

Brave New World (The Star)
24 June 2015


ONE of the methods that we use in university when teaching is to give our students a scenario and have them try and solve the problem based on what they have learnt.
So, for a bit of fun, let’s try it here. Pretend you are a student and below is an assignment question.
There is a university and it is facing some difficulties. The campus has been having water supply problems – namely water is not reaching the various residential colleges.
There are 13 colleges and their water supply has been erratic. When there is a supply, the water is oftentimes dirty.
This has led to great inconvenience and also to problems of hygiene.
Five of those colleges had no water at all for four to five weeks.
Water has to be brought by lorries into the colleges. The students can see these water trucks being filled just at the entrance of the campus, which makes them wonder why there is no water deeper in the campus where their colleges are. The water company claims that this is because of the poor pipes within campus.
Naturally, the students are very upset. They approach the university with their complaints and are told that the problem is due to the water company and that the university is working on it.
After weeks of this situation continuing, they decide to take matters into their own hands by organising three separate actions.
The elected student council arrange a forum to discuss what can be done about their water woes.
They then organise a peaceful demonstration where at the end of it they hand a memorandum to the elected Member of Parliament in that constituency. And finally they put together a donation drive amongst the public where the money collected will be used to buy bottled water for the students living in dry colleges.
Place yourself in the shoes of the university administration.
Choose one from the following possible actions and explain why you chose that particular action.
a. You do nothing.
b. You engage with the students (through their elected council) explaining exactly what the university is doing and at what stage your attempts at rectifying the situation are. You are as open as possible, offering evidence as to what you think is the cause of the problems.
c. You take disciplinary action against 13 students. Some are the organisers of the three events (that is to say they are members of the elected student council whose job it is to watch out for student welfare) and others are students who merely attended said functions.
You state that the students did not get the university’s permission to organise such things as required by the university rules.
You also point out that a loud hailer was used during one or more of these events and this was again done without the university’s permission. And for good measure, you point out that the actions of the students had tarnished the good name of the university.
Postscript: The above scenario is not made up but is based on a real situation happening currently. Guess which measure the university chose?

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

End of PR

Sin Chew Jit Poh
17 June 2015


So, The Pakatan Rakyat is dead according to the DAP.


In practical terms they are quite right. This is a situation of PAS making. Their dissent against the coalition over the past couple of years, led by their increasingly belligerent president has made the situation of the PR very precarious indeed.


But it is their undebated decision to break ties with the DAP in their last Muktamar, that was the final straw. The DAP cannot be expected to want to continue working with a party that is so clearly opposed to them.


Ostensibly this decision by PAS is based on vocal criticisms of the DAP against the plans of PAS to implement hudud in Kelantan. The thing is PKR has also opposed it although in a less vocal manner. Yet they don’t seem to want to cut ties with PKR.


But the situation is far from settled. PKR now has the task to decide what it wants to do. The thing about the PR is that it is not an “official” organisation as (if I am not mistaken) it has not been registered as an actual entity.


Therefore it is a coalition based on mutual agreement and not by law as such. This being the case, its position is fluid and unclear.


And it is this lack of clarity which is going to be a problem for the opposition. The people need to know just who they are voting for. This means that if an opposition coalition is to exist it has to be crystal clear what their common platform is. The DAP and PAS are no longer partners, PKR must now decide who they want to move into the future with.


And they should decide this fairly quickly. The recent fiasco has made the public lose faith in the PR and worse perhaps even in the entire Malaysian democratic process. In order to restore that faith, they need to get their act together as soon as possible and work hard while there is still time before the next General Elections.


Personally I think PKR and DAP should just wish PAS all the best and wave them on their way. Not only has PAS been going on their own provincial tangent over the past two years, but it is clear that the very forces within the Islamist party that made PR what it is are no longer welcome.


By rejecting the “progressive” group within their party the PAS faithful has shown not only ingratitude but also a serious short-sightedness.


The only reason PAS has the popularity that it enjoyed over the last eight years or so has been because of the tireless work of the progressive who strived to move PAS away from its past into a future where overarching principles of justice was more important than any shallow expressions of piety.


Without this faction, the party can only hope to maintain support in its traditional heartlands. Perhaps that is what they want. The current crop of PAS leaders seem more concerned with race and religion than they are about good governance and justice. Maybe they will be happy to work with UMNO to maintain the Malay agenda whilst in return they are allowed to romp in their little rural enclaves free to implement whatever laws they want.


Whatever their motivations, it would be wise for the PR to break up now. PKR and DAP can start fresh, look for other partners and once again provide the country with a viable alternative. PAS can go their merry way and good luck to them.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Think before you ask anything

Brave New World (The Star)
10 June 2006


THE Thought Police of George Orwell’s 1984.
What a wonderful creation. The ultimate symbol of authoritarian madness; where your very own personal thoughts are controlled.
The Thought Police, or Thinkpol in the novel’s Newspeak, became for generations the shorthand of the behaviour of dictatorships and undemocratic governments everywhere.
If one feels that oppression and suppression were getting out of hand, one says things like “Well, it’s just like the bloody thought police, isn’t it?”
Of course in reality, most of the time people exaggerate. I mean, seriously, how can governments control what goes on in your head? They can control your speech, they can control what you read, but they can’t really control what you think. Or can they?
They can’t but they jolly well will give it their best shot.
Two weeks ago there was a press conference held by a man named Wan Sulaiman Wan Ismail. Wan Sulaiman hails from Perak and is a small businessman.
He was charged earlier this year by the Perak Islamic Affairs Department (Jaip) for “deriding Quranic verses and the Hadith”.
What was this man’s crime? How did he “deride” the Quran and the Hadith? Why, by studying his own religion and when faced with questions and issues that puzzled him, going to the religious authorities to ask for advice and to have a discussion.
That is how Wan Sulaiman got into trouble. In his own study (and wasn’t the very first line of the very first revelation to Muhammad: “Read”?) he found questions he could not answer. He went to the very people who hold themselves out as the authorities of Islam, the Perak Mufti’s office, Jaip, the Perak State Mosque and the Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim).
From what I gathered, he was not there to cause trouble but merely to deepen his understanding.
The authorities were not happy as to how he was thinking and being unable to force him to think like them, decide to prosecute him.
Think about that for a second.
You can’t convince someone to think like you, so you prosecute them.
Think of how obscene that last sentence was. That is what is happening.
Wan Sulaiman was not a preacher, he was a private man. We know that the Government can control our freedom of expression (excessively), but to control our private thoughts?
Just to tell you what else they did, when they raided his home they took away his private notes (reminiscent of 1984’s Winston Smith and his diary). And when they found some of his notes pasted on a wall, they said that this was an offence as those thoughts were hanging in a “public space”. It was a wall in his house!
Now this poor man sits waiting for his day in court. His business has suffered, his family has shunned him, and he is suffering because he thinks differently from the authorities.
The Thought Police may not be so fictional after all.
A fund has been set up for Wan Sulaiman at https://freedom