Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Operation Lalang and the ISA

Brave New World (The Star)
25 October 2017


TUN Dr Mahathir Mohamad gave an interview to an online news portal a few days ago about Operation Lalang in 1987.
I found the interview to be infuriating and here is why.
Firstly, he tried to absolve himself from any blame by saying the detention was done by the police and on police advice. Gosh, I had no idea he was such a malleable prime minister.
Let me explain how the Internal Security Act (ISA), which was repealed in 2012, worked. When they detained a person initially, it was done at the discretion of the police.
This was when you got a bunch of cops, normally heavily armed, arresting you, usually in the middle of the night.
This detention could last up to 60 days. After those 60 days the detention could be extended to another two years, and another and another ad infinitum.
This longer detention was done at the discretion of the Home Affairs Minister, who was Dr Mahathir at that time.
Nowhere in the law did it say he must obey the advice of the police. The discretion was his and he must take the responsibility of locking people up without trial and putting families into a terrible state of affairs.
Anything else is cowardly.
Then he went on to make light of the detentions, saying that most were released quickly. Yes, sure. This is true, if you were a Barisan Nasional member who was detained.
If you were an opposition member, then you were detained for close to two years.
This may seem like nothing to some but let me say this: when you are detained without trial and the length of your detention is uncertain, as it is totally within the discretion of some minister, this is no small matter.
Can you imagine how distraught a person would be, not knowing when they would be released and being helpless and unable to care for their loved ones?
What about the spouses and the children who don’t know when they will see their father or mother free again? And for what? Com­mitting a crime?
No, because some people accused them of being a threat to national security, with not one ounce of evidence proffered before an impartial court.
The ISA was an unjust law used in an unjust manner. But oh, apparently the ex-PM thought so too and he tried to get rid of it.
But the cops wouldn’t let him. My God, how disingenuous can you get?
You had the power, not the police, and you had 22 years to do something about it.
He went on to say that he had vilified some people to win elections.
Did he also lock people up without trial to win elections?
After all, those who were locked up longest were primarily his direct political opponents.
There will be those who will tell me to shut up. These are the pragmatists, who would rather the past be forgotten so that there can be victory today.
Yeah well, I can’t stop them from acting and behaving as they wish. We are living in an age of pragmatism winning over principle, after all.
And I know with certainty that the ex-PM will never apologise. It is not in his character to admit ever being wrong.
But for goodness sake, don’t insult us with the garbage that he has been spouting.
It presumes we are stupid, and it is an unforgivable insult to the detainees and their families who suffered so much.

Calling on all the non-voters

Brave New World
11 October 2017

Even if you’re disillusioned, you should take part in the democratic process and cast your ballots.

IT has come to my attention that there is apparently a growing number of young people who are so disillusioned with politics and politicians in this country that they have decided not to vote. I am uncertain what the numbers are as I am unaware of any poll being conducted on this topic.
For all we know, this phenomenon could just be coming from a small group of vocal, urban sophisticates who are too cool for school and feel the need to distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi.
Nevertheless, if there are large numbers of totally uninterested or utterly fed-up youths out there, some sort of response would be prudent. I am certain they would not be reading this, because young people generally don’t care what old fogeys like myself have to say; but here are my thoughts on the matter anyway.
Firstly, I am actually quite sympathetic to the feeling of cynicism towards Malaysian politics. A complaint that I have read and one which I sympathise with is that some feel that no party (or coalition) represents them and their values.
The blurring of the lines amongst the political parties has been upsetting indeed. Disappointment is the general feeling that I have.
For example, I am disappointed (and not a little embarrassed) that I was duped by PAS in the last two general elections into thinking that they have become more progressive. Whatever change that I perceived turned out to be a thin veneer, easily shattered by the death of the late Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat.
And to see the other opposition parties cozying up to the fourth Prime Minister still makes me squirm. Despite their protestation that the old man is now fighting their cause, this new alliance does appear to show that realpolitik will triumph over principle when push comes to shove.
This is further reinforced when he helps create a new party to oppose the Government. And hey, guess what? It’s race-based. Talk about realpolitik.
However, if we want a new party to be formed, it simply is not realistic to hope it will happen in the current climate. The fact of the matter is the parties that have been created in the past 20 years, at least the ones with a feasible chance of winning anything, have been breakaways from existing parties (Amanah, PKR, PPB) and they have had big personalities to capture the imagination (PKR, PPB). If we are going to have a new party start from scratch, it will be very difficult indeed.
The reason is that the stakes of elections are simply too high. A political party will compete at the state level or the federal level.
There is nothing smaller to dip your toes in and to build grassroots support. In other words: we don’t have local elections.
In my view, it is vital that local elections be reinstated. This is because local government issues are the ones that affect most people’s lives most immediately.
Local government therefore ought to be accountable via the ballot box. But also, at this level a new party can build their reputation and experience before going up to the big fights.
Can we get local elections again with the incumbent Government? I doubt it. The only way is to change things and the only way to do that is to vote. So if you long for a new party to vote for in the future, you need to vote now.
My second point is that if we don’t use the democratic process (such as it is), what else do we use? In a country where the agencies that can elicit change are truly independent, for example the administration of justice, then elections are not necessarily the only way to get things done.
For example the judiciaries in countries like India, the Philippines and Britain have been instrumental in creating ground-breaking changes in the law regarding the right to life, the environmental rights of future generations and the freedom of expression. Can we expect such changes now?
Can a new Government make these necessary changes? Only time can tell, but that is part of the democratic process.
They may make promises and it is up to us to make sure they keep those promises. You can’t even start that process by not voting.

The demands are escalating

Brave New World (The Star)
27 September 2017


THE decision by the authorities to ban the proposed beer festival for security reasons has left some unconvinced.
The Inspector-General of Police has cited fear of possible attacks, after the police received intelligence that a militant group was planning to sabotage the event.
But some wonder whether the whole thing only became a big deal when some PAS chap made it a big deal. In other words, some see the root cause of the ban as religious intolerance.
This episode, as irritating as it is, is not by any stretch of the imagination the first of its kind.
We have already had issues like opposition to the building of non-Muslim houses of worship; the imposing of dress codes in public buildings; the ban on the use of the word “Allah” for non-Muslims.
Now we even have self-appointed guardians of the Muslim community demanding that public consumption of alcohol in their neighbourhood be stopped.
The list goes on.
And all this is done because of so-called Muslim sensitivities.
I just want to make a few observations.
Firstly, it appears to me that the authorities are giving way to those making the threats.
This beer festival thing for example; if there are threats being made towards people who are merely having a frothy beverage, then surely it is those who threaten who should be stopped. Not the other way around.
It would appear that in Malaysia, thuggery (especially when clothed in religiosity) will always win and victims are told to shut up and go home and not cause trouble.
This is very weird. It is like saying to a person who gets carjacked, “Well, who asked you to drive a fancy car?”
Secondly, my country is becoming a pit of intolerance and it appears that the imposition of one community’s so-called values and so-called morals is to be imposed on everyone, regardless of whether they share those same values and morals or not, is a norm.
This is oppression.
Thirdly, we are heading towards being a ghetto nation. Where because of the intolerance that abounds, there will be a Muslim ghetto and a non-Muslim ghetto.
We are heading towards a system where the two communities are separated. Is this far-fetched? Not if you live in a country where a school segregates cups, and laundries refuse to accept the clothes of non-Muslims.
Fourthly, all this talk by some politicians that Muslim laws and policies are only for Muslims is nonsense.
The conservative elements of this country want to impose their views and their way of life on everyone.
To say otherwise would be simply lying.
Finally, I would like to point out that there does not appear to be any strong political stand against what is happening in this country.
I understand why you won’t hear such a stand from Umno and PAS: PAS digs imposing its moral values and Umno is the newfound defender of Islam so it will not go against PAS on such matters.
However, what about the opposition parties? Especially those with a strong Malay/Muslim membership?
Is the lack of fight against this state of affairs which disrespects individual rights, plurality and secularism merely political expediency? After all, it is so easy to be demonised in this country by the so-called moral guardians.
Well, perhaps it is then time to make a stand based on principle. Everyone in this country has a right to live their lives according to their own belief systems.
No one has the right to impose their own belief systems on others. Is this too dangerous a political position to take?
If that is so, then the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
My country, which used to be a place of diversity and plurality, will slowly but surely become a monocultural, monoreligious behemoth with no space for those who do not fit in the mould of the oppressors.

An imposing brand of ‘democracy’

Brave New World (The Star)
13 September 2017

PKR’s alliance with PAS is as problematic as it is pragmatic. 

PAS has often maintained that many of its proposals are aimed only at Muslims. Therefore, when the party wants to introduce its version of Islamic criminal law, it as­sures non-Muslims that they will not be affected. Neither will they be affected by any possibility of public whippings once the Kelantan government gets round to implementing it.
Besides, the PAS leaders are holy men who know what God wants and what they propose are all Islamic laws.
The non-Muslims had best not get involved at all. And Muslims should not oppose the proposals in any way either, because to do so would mean you are not a good Muslim or are even an infidel. Then you will burn in hell.
In other words, let’s all sit back and let PAS do whatever they want. They know best. They are holier than we miserable sinners anyway.
I have always found such an attitude repulsive. I don’t care if it is being made by your run-of-the-mill secular despot or those who cloak themselves in supposed religiosity. Anything that has an effect on the lives of the people in a democracy should and must be debated by anyone who wants to. Otherwise, it is not a democracy.
I confess that PAS had me fooled. From the late 2000s until the death of its spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat in 2015, I honestly thought that it had moved away from its reactionary and provincial roots to being a more forward-thinking, inclusive and progressive party. It seemed then that it was more concerned about good governance and less about crass religiosity.
I was taken by the likes of Khalid Samad, Datuk Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa, Dr Mohd Hatta Ramli and their ilk. I was particularly impress­ed by Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, who spoke intelligently and always had a kind word even for folks like me, who I am sure must be an aberration to him.
But even in the heady days between 2007 and 2015, one could see that there was a tension between the progressives and the conservatives of PAS.
There were times when the strain between these two sides could be seen in the progressives as they struggled to keep on point while at the same time trying to appease the party’s more traditionalist members.
Anyway, that’s all in the past. The progressives, as we know, are now away from PAS and have formed Amanah. Good luck to them.
But PAS is still alive and kicking. Except now they are totally under the control of the mullahs. These are men who seem to have no problem cosying up to the ruling party and who are intent on pushing their conservative agenda into public life.
But, they say again and again that many of their proposals will affect only Muslims.
Just how far this is true is open to question. As it is, emboldened by its friendship with the ruling party and its supposed greater political clout (holding in its hands the power to cause havoc in the coming general election by forcing three-cornered fights), PAS is making sounds that it wishes to impose its values on everyone regardless of faith.
The recent attack on a beer festival to be held in the capital next month is a case in point. Thinly veiled threats about how the event will lead to “extremist behaviour” abound, along with uninformed claims that the festival will lead to rapes and a variety of other vices.
The PAS leaders acknowledge that the event will only be for non-Muslims. But how can you guarantee Muslims won’t attend, they scream. Also, the event will make Muslims angry. So shut it down.
So, the party’s religion-based acts will not affect non-Muslims, huh?
Pull the other one, mate. When people have power, they will use it and they will use it on anyone they choose. It doesn’t matter if you are a run-of-the-mill secular tin-pot dictator or if you clothe yourself in the garbs of religiosity.
This is the face of PAS. Now, I have no problems with that actually because it is better to know exactly what a person or a party is.
I still believe in a democracy and people must be free to choose who they want. It is best therefore to know who it is exactly they are voting for.
The problem here is PKR’s continued desire to work with PAS. This muddies the waters tremendously.
I understand the pragmatic reasons why PKR is doing so. It is terrified of any three-cornered fights (and perhaps this is justified). But knowing exactly what PAS is about, does PKR expect the voters to also just put aside principles and ideologies and be just as pragmatic?
Unless of course PKR has no problem with the imposing of personal beliefs onto the general public, the humiliation of public whippings, and the total disregard for the plurality that this country is based upon.

Thoughts about liberty on National Day

Brave New World (The Star)
30 August 2017

In the midst of the celebrations, let’s ponder what freedom means to all of us.

WHEN I was a little kid, Merdeka was always a holiday that I enjoyed. The most important thing, of course, was that there was no school. The second most important thing was that there was TV in the morning. A very rare thing indeed.
I would sit in front of the 12-inch black-and-white set that my family had, with some chocolates, and watch the parade.
Since I was a red-blooded boy, the sight of tanks and soldiers was most thrilling. Yes, it all sounds quite pathetic, but this was the 70s; we got our fun where we could find it.
Naturally, the entire concept of “Merdeka” was a vague thing for me. Of course, I understood that it meant we were once under the control of the British and now we are not. This was a good thing, because some white dude wasn’t in charge of us anymore. Very simplistic, I know, but then I was a simple little fellow.
Now that I am a little bit less simple, I am able to grasp the more subtle ideas of “Merdeka”. For example, if we are free from the Brits, then what is it that we are free to do?
Choose our leaders, certainly. And it seems that we have done just that. We have chosen the same people again and again and again for the past 60 years.
They are still our leaders, even though the popular vote went the other way in the last general election.
Is this freedom?
Another thing that we are free to do is to live our lives with dignity. This means to me that we have the right to speak and the right to express our thoughts freely. We should not be tied down by repressive laws. Neither should we be in a situation where national leaders can dictate who can or cannot discuss proposed laws based on their religion.
Alas, laws designed by the British to quell dissent are still with us and it would appear that the religious orthodox in the country would like nothing more than to be given free rein to do what they like on the basis that they are more religious than the rest of us.
Is this freedom?
There should not be the humiliation of people because of supposed crimes. But now we are on the verge of seeing public whippings.
Is this freedom?
There should be governance based on fairness. But our smartest young people are bound by rules which are so vague and open-ended that their universities are given the most absurd discretion to punish them for simply practising their civil liberties.
Is this freedom?
Needless to say, this Merdeka will be particularly gaudy and celebratory, what with the success of the SEA Games.
So there will be distractions aplenty. So many, indeed, that we won’t have time to ask: is this freedom?

It should not have led to violence

Brave New World (The Star)
16 August 2017


THE recent fracas at new Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia’s Mahathir Show ... I mean their Nothing to Hide 2.0 forum, raised some amusing reactions.
In case you have been binge-watching Game of Thrones, what happened was a bunch of thugs disrupted the event by getting violent. Chucking a chair, setting off flares, hurling water bottles, and of course no political fight would be complete without a flying flip-flop.
In the aftermath of the incident, one cop said the organisers would also be summoned to give statements. I wonder if this is some sort of unique police procedure that I have never heard of. In the event of a crime, investigate the victims.
I can see it now:
“Officer, I was mugged.”
“Oh, really? Let me ask you some questions. Have you ever taken martial arts classes? Were you by any chance making yourself a target by looking too wealthy? Why on earth were you walking around in that area anyway?”
But it wasn’t just the cops being funny. The politicians and their people were making me chuckle too.
A ruling party press secretary said the rampaging morons were actually dissatisfied members of the Opposition. I wonder how he came to this far-fetched conclusion.
Someone has been immersing himself in conspiracy theories and unless he has some firm evidence that the Opposition really was into inflicting self-harm, then this could be very much a case of “Misleading the Public 101”.
Even the “victims” were saying some funny stuff. The president of Pribumi, when confronted with the possibility of the cops investigating them, said that this was unreasonable as they were politicians and therefore would not be able to identify bad guys from good.
Now, I know he was talking about the agent provocateurs in their cunning disguises of Pribumi’s Armada (youth wing) T-shirts but his statement was ironic to the extreme.
Politicians don’t know how to distinguish bad guys from good? I see. Now I know why the country is in such a mess!
Of course the incident was a shameful one and perhaps some may find my levity a bit off colour. But then, anyone who has observed politics in this country knows that thuggish behaviour is something that has been part of the political landscape for decades.
Peaceful conferences have been disrupted by politically affiliated goons; private individuals have been harassed; political activists have been threatened and attacked; entire areas have been closed off by bullies to prevent opposition politicians from entering.
The list goes on. And all done to ensure only the narrative of the status quo is heard.
This most recent event is nothing new. It is only capturing the imagination because a central character in this episode is an ancient ex-premier. An ex-premier during whose reign some of the thuggish activities I mentioned above occurred.
Again, the mischievous head of irony pops up. However, if it takes an attack on an old man for the masses to see that this kind of gutter politics has no place in a democracy, so be it. Some good may come out of all this.
And I hope that we begin to see that regardless of whether we like the message a person is saying, you do not ever counter it with violence. Those who do so are showing that they are bereft of intellect and the ability to put forward counter-arguments. In other words, they are showing that they would lose in an intellectual debate and therefore are likely in the wrong.

There’s good news and there’s bad news

Brave New World (The Star)
2 August 2017

First came a surprise ban, but it was followed by an inspiring, heartwarming Court of Appeal decision.

THE banning of the book Breaking the Silence: Voices of Moderation – Islam in a Constitutional Democracy came as a surprise to me.
I wasn’t surprised that it was banned. The Government has banned around 2,000 books since 1960. It’s not exactly a bestseller.
Full disclosure here folks: I have a chapter in this book. I can hardly remember what I wrote, but it was about fundamental liberties in the Federal Constitution.
Anyway, the point I am trying to make is that the book is a collection of measured and scholarly articles, with a foreword by former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, not some rabble-rousing diatribe. And yet it was deemed to be prejudicial to national security.
No explanation was given how this is so.
I presume, therefore, that the Home Ministry thinks that a reasoned and thoughtful discussion of the place of Islam in our Malaysian democracy is somehow a threat. It is difficult to see how this could be so, in a moderate Muslim nation.
However, before I could get too upset about how reasoned discussion is banned and how a moderate and rational examination of the relationship of Islam and the state can be a dangerous thing, there came a wonderful decision by the Court of Appeal.
The case was essentially about a Muslim couple wanting their child to have its father’s name as his or her surname.
Unfortunately, the child was born less than six months after the parents got married.
According to a fatwa by the Fatwa Council, this meant that the child was illegitimate and therefore could not carry the father’s name.
Instead, he or she was to have “Abdullah” as his or her surname.
The court held that as long as the Births and Deaths Registration Act was fulfilled, a child can have the name of his or her father as his or her surname.
The National Registry Department is not bound by a fatwa unless the fatwa has gone through a legislative process and is made into law.
In this situation, this was not the case.
From a legal point of view, I found this decision to be very welcome indeed. The syariah laws we have are drafted in such a way as to suggest that a fatwa has to be obeyed.
If it is not, then a person can face penalties. This is even if the fatwa was not made into law by going through the normal legislative process.
This in effect, in my point of view, means that a non-elected body can make proclamations that automatically become law. This is unacceptable in a democracy. And the Court’s decision appears to support this contention.
To have a non-elected religious body with the power to effectively make law is to live in a theocracy. We are not a theocracy; we are a democracy.
If you want to live in a theocracy, fine, that is your right to want such things.
So by all means campaign for it, win enough seats in Parliament, change the Constitution and Bob’s your uncle.
In the meantime, we are a democracy – which means only the legislature can make laws; no one else. Deal with it.
But what I found truly astounding and moving about the judgment was that there was so much compassion and humanism in it.
The Court stated that to force the child to have “Abdullah” as his or her surname when the father’s name was something else was to stigmatise the child.
From the moment school starts there will be questions about why the father’s name is not the child’s surname. And if the child has siblings, they will have different names. This could be traumatic for the child.
This demonstration of caring by the Court is a wonderful thing to behold.
And yet, such caring seems to be in short supply among some quarters who are screaming that a child deemed illegitimate must not carry the father’s surname.
This is quite strange to me. I always thought that Islam does not believe in the concept of original sin.
That is to say, children are born pure and sinless. There is no need for any religious rites to purify them.
This being the case, why are some Muslims so intent on ensuring that sinless children have to suffer for the acts of their parents? It seems to me that these people don’t have that one element that makes religion worthwhile –compassion.