Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Shiny moment to slimy movement

Brave New World (The Star)
19 December 2018


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THIS is my final piece for 2018. So I want to wish all of you an advance Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
And what a year it has been. If at the end of 2017 you told me that in 2018 we would have a new government and there would be a fistful of Barisan Nasional bigwigs in court being charged for multiple crimes, I would have laughed in your face and asked you to share whatever it was you were smoking. But here we are.
And man, in May there was no need for any sort of substance, legal or otherwise, to feel high. The euphoria was practically tangible. Not for half the population, granted, but for those who voted for change. It was a moment of not just happiness but great pride.
As a university lecturer, I am often travelling abroad (Asean only for small fish like myself) speaking at conferences.This year, I got to use my country as an example of how people can peacefully change a government and how the democratic process can still work despite the filthy laws and tricks that those in power used and got up to. For a brief shining moment, we were the symbol of not just democracy but also a movement away from repressive regimes. Not just for our region, but the whole world. I have never felt so proud.
Besides being a wonderful achievement by itself, the election in May also marked a shift in the way that people were thinking. Suddenly, there was hope for the future.
The new government will be corruption-free and progressive and we can start moving forward. Moving forward in a manner that took the interest of all Malaysians at heart. No more politicising of race and religion. No more disrespecting of human rights.
Well, that went south pretty quick. Within a few short months, we have seen the government backing down to ignorance and racial fear-mongering as it made a U-turn on the promise to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Icerd).
This was particularly painful because all the points that were raised by the opponents of the treaty were founded on outright lies.
The Icerd allows for – indeed it demands – affirmative action if it is needed. This is exactly what our Constitution says as well, where the special position of Malays and Natives of Sabah and Sarawak can be protected via quotas and the like as long as it is “necessary” and “reasonable”.
To say otherwise is to lie.
With all the machinery at its disposal, the government did not put up a convincing attempt to try to convince the Malays (and it was mainly the Malays who objected) that they had nothing to fear. And how sad is it to live in a country where we can’t say loud and proud that we disagree with racism.
Then there is the U-turn on local elections. This was promised to us and now we are told that it can’t happen because it will be racialised. Exactly how this will occur is not made clear. Once again, Malaysians are expected to just listen to Uncle Government because it knows better than us.
As the year comes to a close, instead of yuletide cheer and end-of-year merrymaking, we are now faced with the repulsive sight of slug-like creatures crawling out of their political party to slide towards those in power.
The noxious slime coating their bloated bodies leaves a trail of toxic mucus as they crawl with large pleading eyes to be admitted into a party that has not lost.
If they think that the stench of their previous loathsome life while in power is not going to stick to them like cat poo on the sole of a heavily threaded running shoe, then they are delusional.
But what is this? There is a possibility they will be accepted? Oh no! I realise this is the season of goodwill but this is too much, man.
It is not all over. There is still time to do good work. Institutions can still be reformed.
Ministers learning the ropes can still become experts and do a good job. And as much as we must criticise every bump in the road to reform, we must not give up on the agenda to change this country for the better.
The year started off like any other year – cynical but with the slightest sliver of hope. In the middle of the year, we had one of the most unexpected and significant things to have happened to us as a nation, and now at the end of the year, we are once again brought down to earth.
It is impossible to stay as wide-eyed and optimistic as we were a few short months ago. But we must continue to hope and continue to strive. After all, that’s what we have been doing all this time.

Sedition Act should not be used again

Brave New World (The Star)
5 December 2018

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SO, the Sedition Act has reared its little pimply head again. This time in relation with the Seafield temple riots.
This is all quite confusing to me because I thought there was a moratorium on the use of this archaic and undemocratic law.
However, news reports suggest the opposite with the men in blue reportedly investigating four cases under the Sedition Act.
Now, I will be the first to admit that I think some of those being investigated are highly unpleasant individuals. And yes, there is most definitely a frisson of schadenfreude that courses through me when I think that they may be getting their just desserts. If the police are investigating people under the Sedition Act, will it not be pointless if there is no prosecution under that law because it is the government’s policy not to use it? Would it not be wiser to simply start investigations using laws that we can guarantee will be enforced?
A quick perusal of the Penal Code shows several provisions that could be used against these thuggish fools.
There is Section 298A where uttering words designed to hurt members of a particular religious group can lead to one-year jail.
Or Section 503 and 504 which is about criminal intimidation and intentional insult with the objective to provoke a breach of the peace.
These offences, if found to have been committed, could lead to two years in prison.
Until we come up with a law against hate speech and hate crime, it is perhaps best to use the Penal Code for such things as opposed to the Sedition Act which can so easily be abused to quell genuine and peaceful dissent.
Let us be frank. There are some serious plonkers out there. Those who are intent to stir up racial problems for their own warped and nefarious reasons.
I don’t like them and I want them to be punished.
However, we have to keep the big picture in mind. The values of a nation must not be shaped by the brutal and the stupid. It must be shaped by principles of justice.
This being the case, using an unjust law, even against the unjust is not acceptable. There are other options available, use them instead.
Punish those who deserve it but in a way which respects the rule of law and democracy. Only in this way can we assure that our nation remains pure even if we have the filthy living amongst us.

Racist views must be countered

Brave New World (The Star)
21 November 2018

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AS I am writing this, I am getting ready to go to Bernama TV for some programme or other. I’ve been told that we will be discussing issues such as human rights and judicial independence.
I’ve also been on government-run radio stations to talk about the ­lowering of the voting age and on several private broadcasters to discuss a variety of issues.
I am not listing all these things to show off. But it is just that for all our grouses and complaints, this kind of exposure to the media would have been impossible under the old regime.
The laws that can be used against the media are still in place, and therefore, until this changes, there will always be the danger of them being used.
But the point is, at this moment, they are not, and there is a palpable sense of having the freedom to express oneself.
It is very key that those who are hoping for a Malaysia that is democratic, inclusive, plural and progressive, make full use of this freedom. There has to be a concerted effort at putting forward progressive views in a manner that is understandable and clear.
It is so important because at the moment, the opposition is working on a very dangerous platform indeed.
Left in the lurch by the electorate, Umno is now desperately seeking relevance. And they are doing this by falling back into their comfort zone, which is to make everything about race and religion.
It is their right, of course, to do so, but there has to be a counter-narrative. I think Umno has given up on any idea of getting a broad mandate and support from Malaysians of all creeds, ethnicity and faiths.
Their recent activities point to them focusing on the Malay demographic and raising hot-button issues that they believe will get Malay people on their side.
The increasing flirtations with PAS is also ominous because there is the constant nagging concern that these two will try to form a super-Malay coalition. Let’s not forget that in the last general election, PAS and Umno received an estimated 70% of the Malay votes.
If these two were to become political partners, then politics in this country will not be about policies and ideas and instead be divided on that crudest of divisions – race and (seeming) religiosity. This is not healthy for the country.
What then can be done? I am quite certain that at the end of the day, most Malaysians, regardless of ethnicity, are concerned mainly with bread-and-butter issues. It is vital therefore that the government counteracts its opponents by making all our lives better in a practical and meaningful manner.
In the meantime, there also has to be a constant countering of the kinds of racist and supremacist talk being spouted by those desperate enough to do anything to reclaim power. We have greater freedom of speech now, so let us not allow the bigoted to drive the agenda and instead make sure that a different narrative can be heard.
There are those who will never back down from their stance, but there are many who have only heard one view. Now is the time to provide an alternative to as wide an audience as possible.

Lies that keep inequality alive

Brave New World (The Star)
7 November 2018


Some people are relying on false arguments to whip up objection to an international convention on racial discrimination. 

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I WAS looking forward to enjoying some chapati and muruku, but instead I received a WhatsApp from an old school friend with a disturbing forwarded message.
This mate of mine asked me if this message, which was about the consequences of Malaysia ratifying the Inter­na­tional Convention on the Elimina­tion of All Forms of Racial Discrimi­nation (ICERD), was accurate.
I normally don’t read forwarded messages, but this one was disturbing because it was so inaccurate that I feel I must respond. Especially if it is making its rounds.
Let me deal with the issues raised by the writer of this message. I won’t mention his name because heaven only knows if it is indeed his name.
Point one: Joining the ICERD will mean that the sultans won’t be rulers anymore and that Islam won’t be the official religion of the country.
This is false. The sultans are sultans not because of racial discrimination but because of ‘familial discrimination’.
Officially I am Malay, but I can’t be a sultan because I am not from any royal family. And the Conven­tion says nothing about the official religion of the country. So I don’t know what the writer is on about regarding Islam.
Point two: With the ICERD, horrors, anyone can be prime minister, even, shudder, non-Malays.
Well, actually the Constitution says that already. The PM is the person who has the confidence of Parliament. That’s all. No mention of race, ethnicity or gender. Gosh, has this dude read the Constitu-tion?
Point three: No more 10% discounts for housing for Malays.
Actually there should not be 10% discounts in the first place. The Constitution only allows for affirmative action that is specifically spelt out in the Constitution itself.
There are provisions for quotas in business permits, education and civil service jobs, but nothing about discounted houses.
The final point is really about the special position of the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak, which is provided for in the Consti­tution. There’s a whole list that the writer goes through including education institutions, certain military units and of course the famous Article 153 of the Constitution.
Actually, Article 1 of the ICERD says that affirmative action to advance certain groups (due to existing inequalities) is not considered racial discrimination.
Article 2 then goes on to say that governments shall take these measures if they are needed. In other words, affirmative action is actually a requirement.
The only thing is that it is only acceptable as long as it is necessary. This being the case, as long as the Malays are backward and need help compared to everybody else, then I suppose it is necessary.
What it also means is that affirmative action must have an objective and once that objective is achieved, then it ought to stop.
Our Constitution is actually in line with that principle. Article 153, which provides for the special position of the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak, states that the King, under advice from the government, may set quotas (for business, education and civil service) for as long as it is reasonable to do so.
If parity is achieved, then surely it is reasonable to stop. This is in line with the ICERD.
Unless of course the writer of the message forwarded to me wants the Malays (and natives of Sabah and Sarawak) to be forever given special help, regardless of their standing and position in society.
If that is the case, then why not be honest about it and say that the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak are of a different class of citizenry and everybody else is second class.
That would at least be honest – racist and bigoted, sure, but at least honest.

Slippery slopes of pathetic excuses

Brave New World (The Star)
24 October 2018

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ONE of the advantages of being a university lecturer is that we often get to read very good work from our students.
Jeong Chun Phuoc is a PhD student of mine and according to his work for me and his publications, it is clear that the laws regarding hillslope developments are poor and poorly enforced.
Before we go on, I mention Jeong by name not because I favour him over my other students, but I seriously don’t want to be accused of plagiarism. Unlike some professors I won’t mention.
Anyway, the Environmental Impact Assessment requirements for hillslope developments do not require several key things, such as rainfall patterns and geological reports.
This does not mean, however, that these things can’t be demanded for by the authorities.
Look, the country has faced landslides before and, more often than not, they have been as the result of heavy rain.
The volume of rainfall has become more intense (with some theories laying the blame on climate change) and this means greater danger.
This is nothing new, and therefore not to consider such things is negligent. The deaths in Penang due to the recent landslide have to be subject to a thorough and independent investigation.
If the work being done was careless and if there were things that could have been done to mitigate such events, then this must be exposed.
It is no good saying that this is the work of god.
If there were things that could have been done, then they should have been done.
And this is something that can’t be blamed on the previous government. DAP has been leading the Penang government since 2008.
In 10 years, Pakatan Rakyat and now Pakatan Harapan have had more than enough opportunities to impose good practices in the manner of how land in the state is being used, regardless of the weaknesses of the existing laws and the practices in other states.
Meanwhile, the comedy of Umno continues. The ongoing spate of arrests and investigations by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commi­ssion has recently been compared to Operation Lalang of 1987.
It has been alleged that the current government is unfairly quashing dissent and in that way is ensuring a weak opposition and one-party rule.
Oh, the irony. As if the previous government never tried to quell dissent.
Let me just explain a few things. Firstly, Operation Lalang used the Internal Security Act, which means that people were being detained without trial.
All those now charged with money laundering, criminal breach of trust and corruption will face trials in open court.
Secondly, those detained under Operation Lalang were never accused of any specific crime but were instead detained under the flimsy pretext of protecting national security.
And to use more recent history, there were scores who were investigated and charged because they voiced opinions that the previous government did not like.
Those being investigated and charged now are not being oppressed for political beliefs or dissenting views. They are being accused of common crime, pure and simple.
There has to be evidence offered to the court and then based on that evidence, a conviction occurs or not.
This could take years and the opportunity for defence is there. Unlike under the dead and unmissed ISA.
So, there is a huge difference between what is happening now and what happened 30 years ago.
If Umno wants to be a strong opposition (and it should try), perhaps it would be better to stop making pathetic excuses for people who are associated with such gross corruption and find some better leaders instead.

Think twice before deporting Syrian

Brave New World (The Star)
10 October 2018


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HASSAN Al Kontar, the Syrian man who had been living in KLIA2 since March, is currently in police custody. I am sure you have heard of this man; after all, his story is interesting and has parallels with a particularly saccharine movie. Except there’s no Catherine Zeta Jones.
Due to a series of immigration issues, Al Kontar ended up in limbo in KLIA2 with no valid passport and absolutely no desire to return to Syria. Why does he not want to go home?
Well, according to him, he originally did not want to go back because he would have been forced to join the army. Something he did not want to do in the civil war-torn country as he did not want to kill his fellow Syrians. A conscientious objector then.
Now, if he does go back he will doubtlessly be punished for his political stand. Amnesty Interna­tional reports that there is a high likelihood that not only will he be punished, but his life may well be in danger too.The Deputy Home Minister has also said that he was offered to be sent to friendly countries to wait out his application to go to Canada.
This, it is said by the Deputy Minister, was an offer he rejected. I do not know if this is the case as there has been no statements from Al Kontar, being detained as he is.
Let’s look at this from the legal perspective. From the angle of international law, Al Kontar does appear to fit the description of a refugee.
He faces the possibility of serious harm if he returns to Syria because of his political views (anti-war) and he will most definitely not get any protection from his government. In fact, they are the ones who may cause him harm.
This being the case, what can Malaysia do? Unfortunately, Malay­sia is not obliged to follow the international law as we are not party to the Refugee Convention.
This does not mean, however, that we should just send him back. The situation in Syria is horrific and it is morally reprehensible to send a person to a place where harm may befall him simply because he ­refuses to kill.
There is no doubt that Al Kontar has breached the Immigration Act. However, the Act does say that the minister has the discretion to exempt him from the provisions of this law.
This is something I urge the government to do. There is the possibi­lity of allowing him to stay here while waiting for Canada to approve his application (the UNHCR in Malay­sia has already registered him).
What is imperative is that he must not be sent back to Syria or any other country that may even remotely consider sending him back to his homeland.
On another issue, I noted with some amusement that Rais Yatim complained about the possibility of Wan Hamidi Hamid being appointed the Bernama CEO. This is because he may politicise the institution.
This is quite laughable – is there any news agency in this country that is not politicised?
Besides, and this is an important point, Bernama is a government agency. It has often been mistakenly claimed that Bernama is like the Malaysian Reuters. This is simply not true.
Reuters is a private body and is thus independent from any government. Not so with Bernama.
It is more akin to RTM, seeing as both of them are directly under the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia. Thus it is not surprising that the current government would want someone they like to head Bernama.
Besides, let’s take a look at Bernama’s Board of Directors, shall we? Currently, we have four permanent members from government departments and one from UiTM.
There are six permanent representatives of newspapers and they are all from papers which are either owned by the current opposition or had in the past shown extreme political fondness for the previous government. If Hamidi is chosen, he won’t exactly be joining a PH-loving bunch of folks.
Perhaps the objection to Hamidi is because he used to be top dog at the Rocket (DAP’s paper). This is true, but he also used to work for the New Straits TimesThe Star and The Sun.
In other words, he is a newspaper person through and through. The experience is there. What truly matters now is not whether he has close relations with one of the parties in the ruling coalition, but how he does his job, whether he will have the integrity to make Bernama as impartial as possible – something which under the previous government would have been extremely difficult.
Unless Bernama (and RTM) are changed to follow the BBC model, it is pointless to expect any government to choose anyone to head it unless it is someone of their choosing and liking.
It is far more important that they choose someone who is able, competent and honest. Only time will tell if Hamidi is that person; and he needs to be given the chance to show that he is.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Tricky path to university independence

Brave New World (The Star)
26 September 2018

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HE government of the day is facing a conundrum. Well, I think there is one. I don’t know if the government feels the same way.
You see, there are certain institutions that ought to be independent, or as independent as possible, from government interference. I’m not talking about institutions like the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commis­sion, the judiciary, the Attorney General’s Chambers and the like.
That has been discussed before in greater detail by cleverer people than me. I am speaking of universities.
Ideally, universities are autonomous from government. It is normal and acceptable if the government was to engage with universities regarding things like the general needs of the nation.
For example, there could be a greater need for IT graduates. And universities, being public bodies, would do well to try to be of use in achieving nation-building goals.
However, what they do on campus and how they do it should be up to them.
For instance, I find it ridiculous that the government can dictate the type of courses that universities should have and that it has so much influence in the selection of university management.
Why do I oppose such influence? Well, a university is a place of learning where we teach and where we hopefully generate new knowledge. In order to do this, we need freedom to think and express ourselves. We also need to be free to set our own academic agenda.
Governments are led by politicians. They therefore will always have their own political agenda. Such an agenda must not be allowed to enter the campus because it may very well be at odds with our aims and objectives of quality education and research.
I understand that public universities get their funding from the taxpayers, so some sort of accountability is called for. But please remember, we get our funds from you the people and not from any political party.
Therefore, our responsibility is to do the best we can for you.
The results can be direct, perhaps your children are able to enter local universities, or indirect, where we produce better graduates and research that may end up serving you better.
However, to do this, we must not be bound by any political agendas or misguided and politically motivated concepts of what makes a university good.
Hence the need for autonomy. Autonomy is not being free from accountability. It means being free from interference and it also ultimately should mean better quality universities.
So where does the accountability come from? Ideally, universities should be accountable to the University Board.
(The board used to be called the University Council, which sounds cooler and more dignified. The name became University Board in the 1990s, when the government, making yet another misguided decision, thought universities should be more like corporations and forced the change.)
This board should consist of eminent people, not just from higher education but also the public at large. The board members are the ones who oversee broad policy issues and they are the ones who take the lead in choosing a vice chancellor (VC), with the help of a properly constituted search committee.
As it stands, the Education Minister can impose all sorts of conditions and obligations on universities and he is the one who selects the VC as well as sets the VC’s KPIs (key performance indicators).
As I said, this should not be the case. But then, at the moment, there is a conundrum. Even if the board is given the powers it should have, will this mean that there will be an improvement? Not necessarily, because the current crop of university management in all public universities are those selected by the old regime.
This means (with apologies for generalising) that many, if not most of them, will be of the same mindset as the old regime – a regime that did not respect academic freedom and did not understand academic autonomy.
So, what does the Education Minister do? Should he stick to principles and give universities autonomy now?
Or should he use the powers that he has inherited and make sweeping changes, ensuring more independent-minded folks are in positions of authority before he steps back and allows universities to be autonomous.
I am leaning towards the latter. Unfortunately, sometimes in order to fix something, drastic measures have to be taken first in order for the foundations to be strong before one starts rebuilding. Having said that, the choices for the new faces of university management must be done in such a way that those chosen are truly qualified and independent-minded individuals.
Those within the same political circles of the current government need not apply.