Tuesday, 17 February 2015

You can’t be ‘partly’ free

Brave New World (The Star)
18 February 2015

Contrary to recent ratings, freedom may not be absolute in reality but the aspiration of freedom is.

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IN the Freedom House report entitled “Freedom in the World 2015”, Malaysia was classified as “partly free”.
Now I am certain that if this report is noticed by the powers that be (highly unlikely), then the usual claptrap will come pouring forth like “the researchers are biased”, “this is a foreign plot to destabilise us” and for good measure, “the Freedom House is sponsored by Israel”.
I read the report and it says absolutely nothing that we don’t already know. Although I imagine if you have zero knowledge about this country, then it might be a useful taster on the realities of political and civil liberties in Malaysia.
I just wonder how useful these kinds of reports are to us here on the ground. Freedom House has been active in international human rights for 40 years and they describe themselves as an advocate group.
I like advocate groups, but I think their usefulness is more applicable to the national or local level.
Let’s be frank, the only international bodies that can influence a country are other governments. This can take the form of United Nations-authorised activities like sanctions or individual pressure.
However, individual pressure only works if the one that is asserting the pressure is far more powerful than the one being pressured.
Freedom House is an American organisation and seeing as how its president is golfing buddies with our Prime Minister and it wants us to be on board with it for its free trade agreement, I seriously doubt that Freedom House is capable of influencing its government.
Any pressure from the US government would be little more than lip service.
This is no big deal – realpolitik is the way of the world. Besides, I have always felt that for sustainable change to happen, it must come from within and not externally.
It’s nice to get international support, but it would be foolish to place too much hope on it.
Anyway, what I really want to know is how can we be “partly” free? Is freedom something that can be subdivided? I mean, you can’t be “partly” pregnant or “partly” bald. You either are or you are not.
I suppose freedom is conceptual and therefore you can classify a nation as “partly” free. The thing is that all nations are only “partly” free. This is because there is no such thing as absolute freedom.
Hey, can you feel that? I think the ground is shaking because the Inspector-General of Police is doing a jig. “Freedom is not absolute” is exactly the kind of thing that he and his ilk like to say and here I am endorsing their view.
But hold your horses, big boy. Freedom may not be absolute in reality, but the aspiration of freedom is. No one can be absolutely free, but if the aspiration of freedom is not there, then any limitations on it will be excessive.
And that is what happens here. We have men and women in power who appear to have no appreciation of the aspiration of freedom at all.
They seem to treat freedom as a hindrance to them. What should occur instead, from my not-so-humble point of view, is that freedom ought to be the ideal and therefore any limitation on it would have to be very carefully considered to ensure that the ideal is disturbed as little as possible.
This does not appear to occur in our country, either in the making of law or the implementation of law. That is why we are “partly” free.
Be that as it may, I hope that you will have “absolute fun” this holiday season. Happy Chinese New Year, everyone!

What is Pakatan's Future with Anwar in Jail


Sin Chew Jit Poh

12 February 2015

 

So, Anwar Ibrahim is going to go to jail. His chances of being in government again are effectively over but I think he will still be an influential player in Malaysian politics. But right this moment, I think the most important thing to remember is that a wife will lose her husband, children will lose their father and grandchildren their grandfather. My thoughts go to Anwar’s family.

 

Apart from the personal issues of this case, what of the political? The key question is what will happen to Pakatan? Much has been said that Anwar is the glue that holds the coalition together. And that once he is locked away, Pakatan will just crumble away.

 

This may be true but I don’t think if Pakatan breaks up now that it will be because of Anwar’s conviction. I think that the problems are so deep (especially between the DAP and PAS), that no amount of superglue is going to help.

 

Can Pakatan survive? I am not sure. If they continue with politics as usual, then I doubt it. They will need to have a paradigm shift away from the usual horse trading and empire guarding. Pakatan players, especially the younger ones (the old ones are probably fossilised in their ways), need to go back to the spirit of 2008.

 

They need to once again focus on the big picture. The big picture is that we need the democratic process to be vindicated with a peaceful change of government. There was a time when the Pakatan was able to find common ground for the coalition and then just concentrate on that common ground.

 

Now it’s all about pushing their party interest first. It’s about wondering who is going to be Prime Minister, how many cabinet seats each party will have; in other words it is politics as usual. This may be OK if the players are able to work together civilly and always with the bigger picture at the back of their minds.

 

If not, if they work on the basis of personal and party interest, then the coalition will crumble. Our dreams of a proper Malaysian democracy will die. The Barisan will dance with joy. And Anwar and his family’s sacrifices would have been in vain.

Damage done in 130 words

Brave New World (The Star)
4 February 2015

There are ways to tell consumers to shop smart without using race or religion to justify the decision.

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AM I at all surprised by the Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister’s rant against the Chinese, sorry Chinese traders, no, sorry, “stubborn” Chinese traders? Not in the slightest.
This sort of language has become the norm in this country, not only amongst the lunatic fringe but even amongst those in power.
What I found interesting were the amazing leaps of logic that the minister made.
First, he posted on Facebook that Malays should boycott Chinese businesses. They oppress us, you see, because they keep prices high.
Then he jumped to another topic. Some Chinese businesses that sell food are of dubious halal status. Whoa, from unjustifiable high prices to halal in one breath.
But no, he was not finished. He then linked a particular Chinese-owned company with an opposition party. And not just any opposition party, but one “known” to be anti-Islam. All this in a posting of just under 130 words.
Here is a man capable of tremendous dexterity. If there was a competition for mental and verbal gymnastics, he would win a gold medal – he is Olympian in his skills.
But wait, that was not all. After the Facebook posting became public, the minister clarified himself. He said that he did not mean for Malays to boycott all Chinese businesses, but only “stubborn” Chinese businesses that keep their prices high. What intellectual agility!
There is nothing vaguely distasteful about his statement then. He was merely trying to start a movement of “consumer power”.
If the prices are high, it is the consumer who can control it by boycotting all those evil and “stubborn” Chinese traders.
However, after having calmed down for a bit (the minister’s cerebral acrobatics left me a little light-headed), I have one issue to raise. Actually I have a few issues to raise but I don’t have the minister’s mental agility, so I shall just stick to one.
Is the Agriculture Ministry privy to some information that us mere mortals have no access to?
The information I am concerned about here is the data on “stubborn” traders. I mean, how many of them are there? Why are they all Chinese? Are there no “stubborn” Kadazan or Malay traders? How about Javanese or Sikh traders?
I am in no way going to suggest that perhaps the minister, in his touching concern for consumers, is being selective in his choice of “victim” and “oppressor”.
Maybe he does have firm data that only the Chinese oppress consumers and the only consumers who are being oppressed are the Malays.
Surely that must be the case because if you care about all Malaysians, then you should say something like “if the consumer is aware that a trader has kept prices unjustifiably high, then they should shop elsewhere”.
It says the same thing, but without any mention of race or ethnicity. There is no use of inflammatory language with one group oppressing another.
Then again, as I pointed out before, maybe the minister has access to information that we humble and ordinary citizens do not.

Race in Forms

Sin Chew Jit Poh
Final week of January 2015

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The Sabah and Sarawak state governments have changed all their government forms so that there is no longer the “other” box when it comes to filling in your race. So below the usual “Malay”, “Chinese” and “Indian” boxes there is a blank space with which you can fill in what you like. This is particularly pertinent in Sabah and Sarawak as there are so many ethnic groups there. Furthermore to be considered “other” is quite insulting.

 

This bit of news has generally been well received, with many commentators saying that the rest of the country should follow suit. This raises the question however as to why should we put down our ethnic group when filling in forms? Another question is why is this a sensitive issue.

 

To answer the first question; I am not sure why a race or ethnicity section is necessary for anything. What does my ethnicity got to do with me getting a loan or applying for a job? Perhaps there is some use for it when taking the census. Perhaps. But apart from curiously wanting to know what the demographic break up of your country is what other reason can there be?

 

It can matter if decisions are made based on ethnicity. And here we get to the crux of the matter. Because we practice race based affirmative action in this country with the recipients being Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak, the ethnicity of a person becomes an issue.

 

I have said it before and I will say it again, that if we are to have affirmative action, then it should be needs based as opposed to race based. I believe in affirmative action as I know that not everyone has the same advantages in life. Therefore it is only fair to level the playing field. I disagree with it being done on the basis of race because this can lead to unfairness.

 

And frankly this is why the whole race in forms thing is so sensitive. Not only is there unhappiness with the affirmative action programmes in this country, not because there is out and out disapproval of said programmes, but because of the arguably unfair and unconstitutional methods of implementation; there is also a nasty trend of racism in this country.

 

There is often an unpleasant racist undertone in so many things that happen here. Take the proposed condominium project in Keramat in KL. If I was to oppose the project it would be on the basis that it is only good for the rich, or it will cause traffic chaos, or any number of things. But the protestors have given the whole thing a racist slant by saying the project will attract Chinese people into a Malay area.

 

And the PAS President has actually said that local elections could lead to racial riots. It is insane how race and ethnicity has become such a horrible thing. I think that the concept of ethnicity is mainly harmless. It gives us our identity and culture. But when it is used to promote racist ideas and cynically used for political gain; it makes me understand why it is such a hot button topic and it makes me think we should ban all mention of race and ethnicity in every single form that has to be filled.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

The responsibility to protect forests

Brave New World (The Star)
21 January 2015

Forests are under state jurisdiction, but Parliament can pass laws to make the various state laws uniform and to meet international obligations.

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INDISCRIMINATE logging in the east coast has been attributed as one of the causes of the terrible floods that we have suffered this year. To my knowledge, there has been no study conducted to verify this claim although, of course, it is very possible.
Any school child will tell you that forested areas (especially on hills) are vital to the environment. They act as catchment areas, help to absorb rainwater and hold the soil together. All these actions are important not only for our water supply but also to prevent water rushing uncontrollably down from the highlands and to stop soil erosion; both factors in flood control.
Whose responsibility is it, then, to protect our forests? According to the law, forests are under the jurisdiction of the states. The Federal Government only has power over forests in the federal territories; which is not much at all, seeing that Putrajaya, Kuala Lumpur and Labuan are not exactly overrun with jungle.
The main law that governs forest on the peninsula is the National Forestry Act. This is a law made by Parliament. “Hold on”, I hear you say, “why is Parliament making laws for something in the states’ jurisdiction?”
Well, the Constitution allows Parliament to do so if the purpose is to make the various state laws uniform. Before the National Forestry Act, each state had its own forest law and it differed from one another.
After the Act was made, the states then took it upon themselves to turn the text of the law into state legislation by making it a state enactment passed by their legislative assembly. So, even though the law has its origins in Parliament, the fact remains that it is the state governments who have power over their forests and they are the enforcers of the law.
The Federal Government, via its National Forestry Department, has always advised states to establish protected forests, but at the end of the day there is no compulsion for this advice to be followed. States will always be tempted to exploit their forest resources as it is a major source of income. This could lead to poor practices and poor enforcement of existing laws.
Is there anything that can be done by the Federal Government? Theoretically, yes.
The Constitution allows Parliament to make laws even if the topic falls under state jurisdiction, if the reason for making those laws is in order to implement international obligations. There are a few international laws that are relevant to the forests that Malaysia is party to.
There is the Tropical Timber Agreement, but in my opinion this is not a very strong law and it does not impose any serious obligations, as it is more of a guideline. A more useful international treaty to explore will be the Convention on Biodiversity.
According to this treaty, there is an obligation for member countries to protect biological diversity by having what is known as in situ conservation. In situ conservation means that one protects the ecosystem in order to protect the biodiversity in it.
It is not inconceivable, then, for Parliament to make forest protection laws in order to fulfil this obligation, even if it means overriding state wishes. I doubt it will happen, though. We need only look at another international treaty to see why I say so.
The Ramsar Wetlands treaty is another international law meant to protect an ecosystem (in this case, wetlands). Malaysia is a party and our obligation is to establish as many protected wetland areas as possible. We have done so, with Ramsar sites in Pahang, Johor, Sabah and Sarawak.
But, although this is an international obligation and the Federal Government is perfectly within its rights to either make a new federal law or use an existing one to create and protect those sites, it has instead chosen to allow the states to use their own laws. In other words, the Federal Government is not willing to tread on state government toes with regard to land and forest, even if it is in order to live up to its international duties. Instead, a path of co-operation is chosen.
This is all well and good, but what about situations where the states’ practice is causing great harm, not only to the environment but also to their people? Shouldn’t the Federal Government play hardball then?
Ah, now we enter into the realm of politics. There will always be concern that if the Federal Government does do this, then will they do it impartially, or will they aim to control states held by the opposition and not by the ruling coalition?
Furthermore, because the sources of income of the states are relatively few, such a move would cause outrage. Thus, to conclude this rather bleak (and let’s be frank, deadly dull) article, to properly deal with our forest situations would require some really heavy-duty research and work involving not just the forest laws but also issues such as state income as well.

Monday, 19 January 2015

No Way to Treat a Hero


Sin Chew Jit Poh
14 January 2015
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Major Zaidi Ahmad is a bona fide hero. He served in war torn Bosnia; saved the life of a colleague and served his nation with distinction for over two decades. He also served the nation in a non-military way. In the last general election, when he found out that the so called indelible ink was in fact washable, he made a police report and reportedly he told the press about it too.

This was a good thing to do. If the indelible ink was washable, then the security it was supposed to provide against multiple voting then becomes illusory. This will then lead to serious doubts about the validity of our elections, as well as the honesty of the authorities which said the ink was indelible. These are serious issues and they are of great public interest.

For this service to the nation, Major Zaidi has been court martialed and his punishment is dismissal from the Air Force. I suppose it could have been worse, he could have been put in jail and the Military Court said that the sentence reflects his excellent service record.

I am not familiar with Military law, nor am I familiar with military attitudes, culture and traditions, so I can’t tell if what happened to Major Zaidi is acceptable amongst his brothers and sisters in arms. However as a civilian, I can’t but help feeling distraught that a civically conscious man has lost his career because he has a conscience and because he cares about democracy in this country.

According to the judge, Major Zaidi is being punished because he made a statement to the press without permission. I realise of course that discipline in the military is of extreme importance. But I wonder, surely the nature of the “disobedience” ought to be taken into consideration.

Major Zaidi’s comment about the indelible ink has nothing to do with military matters or security matters in general. The issue is one of importance to all people in the country and it is a serious issue. At the end of the day, the armed forces are there to protect the nation. Surely one of the things it is meant to protect as well are the values of the nation. Is not democracy one of those national values?

I grant that Military law is harsher than civilian law and it has its own ethical systems. Perhaps the judges in the Court Martial had no choice but to punish Major Zaidi. I just find it impossible to accept that his punishment is so harsh when considering that what he did was in no way disloyal to the nation. In fact the opposite is true, what he did was to show great concern for the nation. It just seems to be a shoddy way to treat a Malaysian hero.

Looking back to the future

Brave New World (The Star)
7 January 2015

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I AM watching Back to the Future II at the moment, gently chortling to myself. Not that it is so funny (the first one was much better), but because it is set in 2015; this year. And man do they get their predictions wrong. Where are the fusion-powered flying cars, the hover boards and self-lacing shoes?
But just as I was enjoying watching how far off Zemeckis and co were, a sudden sobering thought hit me. If Back to the Future were to be remade (or rebooted) today, then when Marty McFly goes back in time, it will be back to 1985. That’s when I was in secondary school. In other words I have become Marty’s parents.
It feels like it was yesterday that I was sitting in the Rex theatre in Georgetown (having played truant) watching Doc Brown and his flux capacitor making time travel possible. How I laughed at the quaintness of 1955 America. And now, teenagers probably laugh at the quaintness of the Eighties.
There is much to laugh at, actually. Carrot cut trousers, stonewash denim, Kajagoogoo. Man, when on earth did my generation become quaint? How apt it is that as we enter a new year, I am reminded about just how many years have passed me by.
Anyway, enough moaning; it is time to look back to the future.
I wonder what 2015 is going to be like. If I had my own DeLorean with the flux capacitor, I would hit 88mph and take a peek. I am especially curious to see if the genuine hope of 2008 will still be around.
2014 saw cracks appearing in the Pakatan. Will those cracks develop into full blown fissures?
PAS is chomping at the bit to get their Hudud plans underway. Ironically it is only an act of God that got them to slow down for a bit. However, once the flood waters recede properly and life resumes a semblance of normality, I am sure they will clamber back onto their favourite hobby horse.
And when they do, could the Pakatan stick together? DAP is dropping hints of a break up. PKR has said nothing, still trying to play the bridge-builder but will that be possible when there is such a massive split in ideology? And if DAP does leave, will the other two stay together or will PKR leave with them?
Furthermore, if left alone will PAS strike out as a lone wolf or will they be tempted by the siren call of Umno? Incidentally, if Umno and PAS do join, I wonder what they will be called? The Pan United Malay Muslim National Organisation (Pummno)?
Whatever happens, one thing is clear, if the PR does break up in 2015 then it will feel like we have not moved forward to the future but back to the past; with no clear two-party system and a divided opposition taking votes from one another.
The only ones who will be jigging with glee in such a scenario would of course be the BN and their supporters.
It is still early days of course, and I am loathe to make predictions, but I think this year is going to be a very crucial one politically. The BN is way past their prime, there is infighting in Umno and this should be fertile ground for the opposition. Yet the opposition too can’t get their act together and there is a heavy smell of divorce in the air. What will happen is anyone’s guess.