Tuesday, 18 November 2014

GDP is Only Part of the Story

Sin Chew Jit Poh
19 November 2014

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The recent Khazanah report on GDP in Malaysia is very interesting. My take on it is that there is a very big discrepancy between the GDP of Kuala Lumpur compared to the rest of the country. This is especially true of the two northern states of Kedah and Perlis and the east coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu. The report I read made no mention of Sabah and Sarawak.
This discrepancy is really quite huge with the nominal GDP of KL being almost seven times higher than that of Kelantan. This is worrying indeed because it is obvious that income distribution is very much focussed on the capital. It is worrying but not surprising. In a capitalist system it will be quite common to see that the centres of commerce will be where the money is.
 
But income and income distribution is only part of the story. I contend that what is most important is the overall quality of life. So, the part of the report that should cause most worry is the fact that many households, in particular rural households, still do not have basic amenities like running water and flush toilets. These small things are vital to not only easing one’s life ((it is no easy task hauling water from one place to another) but also health.
 
Other important factors that contribute to a quality of life is the confidence that there is social safety net. By this I mean that there is good public health care, schooling and other fundamental facilities. Public healthcare is vital so that our people do not have to fear getting sick (unlike in places like America where healthcare is a business and one is held hostage by the insurance companies) and public education is important so that there is the opportunity for upward social mobility. In other words, it doesn’t matter if our GDP is high, what really matters is what is being done with it.
 
And even with GDP being high in KL, really, how rich do you have to be to enjoy the good life? Let us take an example I am familiar with; university lecturers. A professor will be earning quite lot of money based on the national average. I dare say he will be in the higher brackets of earnings. Yet if we compare a professor in the early 1970s to one today we will see that although the chap from the earlier time (you can recognise him by his flared trousers and sideburns), is earning a smaller pay packet, he can buy much more with it.
 
Taking the old fashioned test that you should spend four month’s salary on a car and three year’s salary on a home, the 70’s prof can buy an imported European model and a bungalow. A current prof can buy a Myvi and if he is fortunate a three room medium sized apartment. So even amongst the high income earners, wages has gone up, but the quality of life not necessarily so. Add to this, concerns about public healthcare meaning the need for health insurance and concerns about education meaning the need for private schooling for children, and then we can see that life can be an economic struggle.
 
So, just who is benefitting from this high GDP of ours? It is not the rural folk. It is not necessarily even the high income city folk. Who indeed?

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Zoo Negara Must Be Run Well

Brave New World (The Star)
12 November 2014

Allegations of corruption and mismanagement are shocking, since this oasis for the people has important conservation and historical roles.

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(Sections edited out by The Star are in red)



I like our Zoo Negara. In fact I like it a lot.

If one goes early in the morning, just after it opens, the crowds are sparse and one can wander around at leisure. It is a very nice place to walk around too. Large shady trees mean it does not get too hot and when there are few people about, it is actually very peaceful.

Looking at the animals is fun of course. Generally speaking the enclosures are well thought out and naturalistic and the animals look healthy. Not to say that there can’t be improvements. The penguin enclosure is quite sad; it looks cramped and in need of a serious upgrade. And the monkeys and gibbons would be green with envy if they could see how much better the apes have it. While the chimpanzees and orang-utans have huge true-to-life open enclosures, the moneys and gibbons are in drab, albeit fairly spacious, cages.

Right now, the main attraction is of course the pandas. I can’t remember their names (they have two different names each from what I can tell), but they are very cute. They live in their spanking new purpose built air conditioned home and look like lazy tai-tais lounging around their luxury palace. The male panda reminded me of my students as he sat leaning against a rock with his head in his paws. Many young men take exactly that same position as they nap in my class.

That is not to say the other animals are not exciting to observe. The last time I was there, the white tiger fancied himself as a bit of star, leaping into his moat acrobatically to the thrill of the watchers. I was half expecting him (or her, I can’t tell) to strike a pose after each leap. And once I saw an amorous giant tortoise. Believe me, there is nothing quite as funny as a randy giant tortoise. By the time he clambered onto the female, I think she had fallen asleep.

It was an unpleasant surprise therefore when I read about complaints against the Zoo lodged with the MACC which suggest corruption, poor treatment of animals and mismanagement. I have not seen the report and the Minister in charge has said the claims are “being verified”.

Well, I hope they are “verified” as soon as possible. The Zoo is more than just an example of ex-situ conservation (as espoused by the Biological Diversity Convention of which we are a party), but it is also an important historic institution with an essential role to play for the people of this country.

Lest we forget, the zoo was the brainchild of Tunku Abdul Rahman who said that the people of the city needed a place where they can go and relax and enjoy themselves with their families. Learning something from the experience is also a bonus (for example I didn’t know that pandas once lived in Myanmar and Vietnam).

Tunku understood the need for a natural peaceful oasis that people can retreat to and if I am not mistaken he had in mind all the people, not just the wealthy. It is important therefore that the zoo is run well. From a humanitarian point of view, the animals must be well cared for. On a social point of view, the zoo cannot be an elitist treat.

Keeping the price low means of course we can’t compete with the top zoos of the world. I don’t really care about that. I think it more important that apart from providing a sanctuary to animals, a zoo also plays a role in providing a community service. You can’t do that with astronomical prices.
 
So if those prices can be kept low if we manage the zoo better and if there is no corruption, and if that same good governance means the animals are better cared for, then action must be taken. Perhaps it is not that big an issue for many, considering the “wealth” of problems we are faced with.

Perhaps. But as I wandered around the zoo enjoying the sights sounds and yes, the smells, along with many ordinary Malaysians, it was a moment when I did not have to think of the political, economic, societal and legal rubbish that occurs in this country. Instead I could smile at the antics of the animals. I don’t know about anyone else, but that tiny escape means a lot.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Big Powers Don't care About Us

Sin Chew Jit Poh
5 November 2014
 
Just how big a role does the international community play with regard to our own domestic issues? With regards to democracy and human rights, I would say very little indeed.
 
Yet both the ruling party and the opposition behave as though foreign governments are somehow important. Recently opposition politicians went on a tour of Australia to talk to the politicians over there about the troubles we have at home. Will this make any difference to the Australian government’s relationship with us? I don’t think so.
 
The ruling party in the meantime were busy showing off, in particular about our country’s election onto the United Nations Security Council. Somehow this legitimises the government as a shining example of moderation and democracy. Really? Let us have a quick look at the permanent members of the Security Council shall we. Russia and China are not exactly the poster boys of human rights are they?
 
In short, unless they will have something to gain from us, foreign governments do not care one bit about what happens within our shores. Foreign opinion leaders, academics, NGOs and citizens may care, but their governments do not.
 
The super powers only care whether the leaders of nations are their friends or not. The method of leadership; be it a democracy or a dictatorship does not matter one bit to them. Anyway let’s face it; Malaysia is a small fry on the international stage. In terms of geopolitics, we are minnows therefore short of ensuring that trade goes on business as usual do not expect any foreign government to give two hoots about us.
 
What I am trying to say is that it is pointless to look to foreign governments as an ally to fight oppression at home. They don’t care and they never will. We have to take responsibility for our own destiny and fight for what is right ourselves. There is no cavalry across the water waiting to come to our aid. We are on our own. Let’s get on with it.
 

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Lessons from a bloodsucker

Brave New World (The Star)
29 October 2014

Just as we fight the dengue epidemic, let’s tackle other problems that need to be sorted out for the good of all.

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I JUST came back from lunch and I am feeling a little bit worried. I was bitten by some mosquitoes, you see, and from their black and white markings, reminiscent of the Luftwaffe and equally deadly, I can tell they are the dreaded Aedes type.
Considering the fact that we are amidst an epidemic, I guess for the next day or so I’ll be checking my temperature every hour and Googling the symptoms of dengue fever when I am not pressing my hands against my sweaty brow. If I miss the next article, you’ll know who to blame: some disease-carrying blood-sucking insect.
Seriously, why on earth do the Aedes mosquitoes exist? Why did God make them?
Or if you prefer the non-religious approach, why did they evolve? Is there some sort of Darwinian reason for nature to create such a good-for-nothing pest?
This got me thinking about what benefit this insect can bring. And believe it or not, I did find something. Perhaps they have no use on a practical level, but metaphorically, they do have a purpose.
You see, these wicked insecta diptera are equally wicked to everyone. They don’t care what colour you are.
They only care what colour your blood is. They will happily shove their evil little proboscis into anybody. They are equal-opportunity disease mongers.
Perhaps there is something we can take from the Aedes mosquito. They are a problem that affects all Malaysians, regardless of whatever category we fall into. This is the same with so many of the other trials and tribulations we face or are going to face.
The petrol price hike is like the Aedes mosquito. So is the proposed free trade agreement that we might sign up for (although there are many who welcome this particular insect).
The Goods and Services Tax might bite us in the unmentionables. The education system might be an itch on the bottom. The poor state of the environment might give us delirium-riddled fever.
These things affect all of us. So why can’t we deal with them as we deal (or try to deal) with dengue? With a policy that doesn’t care about who is catching the disease, but instead works on the basis that here is a problem that needs to be sorted out for the good of all.
Why does everything have to be about this ethnic group or that ethnic group, this religion or that religion? It is as though public discourse in this country is trapped in some interminably obtuse record player with a scratched LP that keeps jumping and playing the same screechy cacophonous noise again and again.
By focusing on the irrelevant, we are getting nowhere nearer to figuring out how best to move on. I want to end with a quote from the Rulers in the Reid Commission. They said that they “look forward to a time not too remote when it will become possible to eliminate communalism as a force in the political and economic life of the country”.
This was in 1957. Why does it feel like we have not moved towards those aspirations at all? Why do we keep allowing the small-minded to determine the public discourse, where one is persistently fighting bigotry and idiocy instead of spending effort getting to grips with the big issues that affect us all?
If ever there was a need for enlightened leadership to lay out a progressive and not regressive agenda, now is the time.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Rudeness Should Not be a Crime

Sin Chew Jit Poh
24 October 2014

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There is a stereotype about Malaysians that says we are a very polite people. I am not sure how true this is. Maybe once upon a time this was a reality, but nowadays I don’t see much politeness in my day to day life here in the capital city. Perhaps it is because I live in a big city that I feel this way. Maybe in the smaller towns, people are still polite to one another and treat one another with civility and friendliness.
 
Having said that neither are we especially rude. It happens of course, but quite rarely, to the point that when it does occur it feels rather jarring. Generally speaking we don’t see people shouting at each other. Of course on the internet people can be very rude. Also you get examples of extremely rude people in political settings, like at the anti-sedition protest in Penang recently which was broken up by a bunch of extremely uncouth thugs.
 
Rudeness is unpleasant of course, but the question I want to ask here is should it be illegal? I am speaking specifically about Wong Hoi Cheng and M Krishnan, who both have incurred the wrath of the authorities as a result of their “rude” actions.
 
Wong had likened the Inspector General of Police to a Nazi military commander and Krishnan had posed for a photo holding his slipper against a picture of the Prime Minister.  Both actions were done apparently as an angry action to the police arresting scores of Penang Voluntary Patrol Unit and the rising cost of living respectively.
 
Krishnan was arrested and detained for a few days but as yet has not been charged. Wong has been charged under section 504 of the Penal Code. It is possible that Krishnan may be charged with the same section. If we look at section 504 it says:
 


“Whoever intentionally insults, and thereby gives provocation to any person, intending or knowing it to be likely that such provocation will cause him to break the public peace, or to commit any other offence, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”



Looking at this section, insulting someone can be a crime but it seems that the insult has to fulfil two components for it to be an offence. First is the insult itself and secondly that the insult will result in some sort of breach of peace or any other offence.  
 
On the face of it, I don’t see how Wong’s statement can fulfil the second component. But of course ultimately that is for the court to decide. The question remains however as to why the police have decided to use their resources to charge him. Seriously, was what he said going to cause a breach in public order or result in other crimes?
 
I think the law was designed for situations where a person insults another person to the point that a fight ensues. I am not sure it is meant to protect public figures from rude comments from people who are angry at how you do your duty.
 
Now perhaps the IGP and the PM were very upset by the acts of these two men. Perhaps they are sensitive people and it hurt them badly. Perhaps, I don’t know, but being the object of anger and the occasional rudeness is the price one pays when holding high public office. Sure it is not nice and sure it is probably not in line with our culture, so sure these men can be scolded and told off by their own fellow Malaysians, but it is not correct for the law to be used to punish them.
 
This would mean that the law is used in a manner to protect the powerful from criticism. And criticism comes in many forms, including insults. It’s not nice, but then if you are not tough enough to take it, perhaps you shouldn’t be in public office.
 
Anyway, since the police are so keen on criminalising insults, perhaps they should investigate all those people who have been insulting Syed Azmi Alhabsi. Syed Azmi recently organised an event where people, including Muslims are encouraged to touch dogs in order to get over their prejudices against the animals. Quite a sweet thing to do I think, but not everyone shares this view.
 
Syed Azmi has been insulted vehemently by some angry Muslims and these insults have also been followed by calls of inflicting violence, even death on the poor chap. Surely this clearly falls under section 504 of the Penal Code. It would be interesting to see what the cops do.
 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Protecting the right to speak

Brave New World (The Star)
15 October 2014

When you allow people to express themselves peacefully and when you ensure one group does not harass another group, what you would be achieving in the long term is a peaceful society.

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LAST Sunday a group of people gathered at the Speakers Corner in Penang to protest against the Sedition Act. They did not get very far because a bunch of, now how shall I put this politely, unruly humans shouted abuse at them and harassed them to the point where it was impossible to continue.
Now I think these fellows who wanted to stop the gathering have just as much right as anyone else to voice their opinion. Apparently, they will defend the Sedition Act till their dying breath.
What a wonderfully dedicated lot of humans they are; so very committed, so very brave. Maybe they should get a medal.
However, I would like to point out a small point regarding the right to assemble and to speak.
This is not meant for those courageous men who so fearlessly chased away a couple of tourists from Speakers Corner. I am sure their craniums are already full to overflowing with whatever it is they like to put in there and I doubt there is any room in that space between their heroic ears for any new ideas.
No, this message is for the police. I want them to know about certain international standards regarding protests and counter-protests. I am using international standards because I am certain our men and women in blue would like to be an international-standard police force. Surely they want to be seen as one of the best police services in the world.
Anyway, back to the lesson. Everyone has the right to assemble and speak their mind on issues they think are important.
Conversely, those who dislike their point of view also have a right to assemble and speak their minds.
The job of the police, nay, the duty of the police, is to allow both groups the space with which to express them.
However, when you have competing groups, the blood might rise a bit higher than normal and thus, there could be a possibility of unpleasant clashes.
This is why it is the police’s job, nay, duty, to ensure the groups are kept separate.
In this way, everybody’s right to expression is upheld.
It is not the police force’s job to pick sides. It is not their job to allow one group to chase another one away.
In fact, it is the antithesis of what they are supposed to do.
Now ideally I would like to have a police force which truly appreciates the values of a democratic country.
It would be wonderful beyond belief if they understand that when they protect the citizen’s right to speak, what they are in truth protecting is the very essence of our independent nation – that is to say, a nation built upon the promise of civil liberties, democracy and the rule of law.
However, if this is too abstract a concept to be passed on, allow me to make another argument.
When you allow people to express themselves peacefully and when you ensure one group does not harass another group, what you would be achieving in the long term is a peaceful society.
Let me explain. If I am going to organise a protest and I know there will be a bunch of unruly humans who will try to break my gathering up, I could do one or two things.
Firstly, trust the police to keep us apart.
Or secondly, gather a group of people to confront the unruly humans. The second option could very easily lead to fisticuffs and a whole lot of overweight men wheezing for breath.
Wouldn’t it be better if the cops were to just do their duty and prevent such things from happening?
After all, they are always going on about how important peace and security is.
Besides, wheezing fat men are most unsightly.
By the way, in case the police think it is better not to let people gather at all, may I point out two things? Firstly, it is our right to gather and to express ourselves.
And secondly, if you don’t allow people to speak peacefully and if they get frustrated at the suppression of their rights, that is when people turn to unlawful means to get their message across.
Therefore, no matter how you look at it, if the police of Malaysia are truly concerned about peace, then they have to get their act together and start behaving according to international standards of respecting everybody’s right to express themselves.
Here ends the lesson.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Vernacular Education

Sin Chew Jit Poh
9 October 2014

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Every now and then some person or other will say that vernacular schools should be banned. Ostensibly the reason given is that they somehow breed disunity, primarily because vernacular schools generally cater to children of one ethnic group. Hence Chinese students go to Mandarin schools; Indian children go to Tamil schools and so on and so forth.
 
There is an assumption that this division of children based on ethnic groupings from an early age is not conducive to national unity. There are some subtleties that this argument does not take into account. For example mandarin schools need not be mono-ethnic as more and more non-Chinese parents are sending their children to such schools. I am uncertain about the ethnic composition of Tamil schools.
 
Secondly is whether such segregation is truly the reason for any disunity in the country? This would require a much more thorough study being conducted based on the attitudes and perceptions of graduates from vernacular and national schools. Another point that is missed out is the existence of Islamic religious schools. These schools are also generally mono-ethnic in their make-up. Are they also to be blamed for any disunity in the country?
 
Before we go on to other pragmatic considerations, let’s look at what the law says. The Constitution states in Article 152 that “The national language shall be the Malay language provided that no person shall be prohibited or prevented from using (otherwise than for official purposes), or from teaching and learning, any other language and nothing in this Clause shall prejudice the right of the Federal Government or of any State Government to preserve and sustain the use and study of the language of any other community in the Federation.”
 
In other words the existence of vernacular schools is protected by Article 152 of the Constitution just as affirmative action for Malays and Natives of Sabah and Sarawak are allowed for under Article 153. It is ironic that those who challenge the continuation of vernacular schools are usually the very same people who would defend Article 153 to the nth degree. Why defend one aspect of the Constitution and not another I wonder?
 
Anyway, my own personal view is that ideally all children went to the same type of school. It would be great if those schools also had excellent classes on mother tongue education depending on its situation (Sabah schools might want classes on Kadazan for example) and if the general quality of teaching is top class. But at the end of the day, I think it is healthier if children regardless of ethnicity or class went to school together.
 
Why do I mention class? That is because it is not just vernacular schools and religious schools which are the options open to parents. There are also now a fast growing number of private and international schools and these are only an option to people from the wealthier classes of the community. This is also a form of segregation where wealthy children will be kept in a bubble far from the reality of the lives of the vast majority of Malaysians. This too can be unhealthy.
 
Which leads to my final question; why do parents send their children to the schools that they choose? What are the criteria for the choices made? I doubt that there are many parents who will say it is because they don’t want their children to have a feeling of unity with their fellow Malaysians. The answer would in all likelihood be that they send their children to schools where they thing their offspring will get the best education.
 
Therein lies the ultimate answer. If you want young Malaysians to go to national schools then you better make sure that those schools are staffed by competent and inclusive minded teachers; are secular in their approach (so that children of differing faiths all feel comfortable there); and ultimately that they provide an excellent education. Parents want what is best for their child. Questions of unity are not one of those considerations when choosing a school. Excellence is. Keep that in mind the next time talk of national schools versus any other type of schools crop up.