Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Vernacular Education

Sin Chew Jit Poh
9 October 2014


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.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

An identity crisis for PAS

Brave New World (The Star)
1 October 2014

This could be merely a stage in their development, and it is affecting not just them, but also their partnership with DAP and PKR and ultimately the voter.


BREAKING up is hard to do. Or so Neil Sedaka would have us believe.
Looking at what is happening with Pakatan Rakyat it seems that this classic Sixties pop song should be their soundtrack.
Or perhaps we should look to music that is a bit more rock, something a bit harder. How about “Should I stay or should I go”, by the Clash?
Yes, I think the Clash is more fitting.
This is because it does not seem clear at all whether PAS will stay on in Pakatan or go their own way (hey, that is a Fleetwood Mac song).
As a party, they are giving out such mixed signals that they seem to have more identities than David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust phase.
Now it is not uncommon for people or organisations to go through some sort of identity crisis.
In fact it may be a good thing, an evolution from one thing to another.
The Beatles were still very much the Beatles throughout their career but there is a huge difference between the long-haired messiahs of the White Album and the cherry mop tops of Please Please Me. (Crikey, once I start on this music thing, I can’t seem to stop).
So it is the same with PAS.
It is not such a big deal that they seem to be suffering from an institutional dissociative identity disorder; it could be seen as merely a stage in their development.
Unfortunately their condition is affecting not just them, but also their partnership with DAP and PKR and ultimately the ordinary voter.
On the one hand, you have some PAS leaders saying the future with Pakatan is strong and that the party should be more progressive; and on the other hand we have a party strongman saying that their partners in Pakatan are little more than bullies and others lamenting the loss of their “core values” and that perhaps it is best for PAS to go it alone.
Basically, what is happening is the tension between the “progressives” and “conservatives” bubbling up to the surface.
I suppose there was a certain naiveté amongst some people (myself included) regarding the character of PAS.
Over the last eight years or so, there was a belief that PAS had changed. It was modernist and inclusive, and had moved away from its insular and traditionalist past.
This view was encouraged by certain individual PAS leaders whose eloquence and forward-thinking attitudes made one believe that there were more similarities between PAS and their partners than differences.
Hence a viable coalition opposition (and perhaps a viable new Federal Government) was a real possibility.
How exciting it all seemed.
Now of course we see that the conservative voices in PAS were not being made redundant by the “new” PAS; instead they were merely keeping quiet.
They were always there; we just chose to ignore them.
I wonder if their Pakatan partners also chose to ignore them.
If this is the case, then they can’t do that any more.
The future of the coalition is at stake and they really need to get together and see if they can truly work with one another and to provide the voters with that seductive “government in waiting” that they proffered just last year.
PKR and DAP can help this process by not being so antagonistic to their partner.
At least while they are still ostensibly partners.
The same goes for PAS.
The infighting that is going on, made more lurid with colourful language like “the beheading” of a PAS Penang councillor, does nothing for reasoned discussion between the political parties, neither does it engender any sort of confidence amongst the people.
What their political fortunes would be if there is a split remains to be seen.
I would guess it would make all of the parties suffer.
The loss (with a bigger majority for Brisan Nasional) at the latest by-election seems to suggest this is so.
Just which party risks losing more is hard to say, but without a doubt the biggest winner if Pakatan breaks up would be Barisan.
So they really need to get their act together and make their minds up one way or the other whether they should stay as a team or break up.
But if they do decide to stick with it, there is one question that needs to be first answered and that is, to paraphrase Eminem, “Will the real P.A.S. please stand up, please stand up, please stand up”.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

PAS and Pakatan Rakyat

Sin Chew Jit Poh
24 September 2014


It looks like the Selangor crisis has come to an end; at least for the moment. There are many constitutional issues that can be raised about the appointment of Azmin Ali as the new Menteri Besar, but I do not want to go into that here.

Instead I wish to discuss the impasse between PAS and their partners PKR and DAP which appears to have been settled for now. PAS did not want Wan Azizah to be MB, and PKR has grudgingly accepted Azmin Ali as the new MB. Therefore there is nothing to fight and argue about anymore. However, any peace between the component parties of Pakatan Rakyat is fragile at best. Sure things look like they have calmed down, but fundamental core issues have not been settled.

The first amongst this is the sheer venom that the PAS President has poured out during the recently concluded PAS Muktamah. His anger at the two PAS Selangor state assemblymen who decided to respect the agreement between the PR partners and go with PKR’s choice of MB (Wan Azizah) was far from statesman like. It not only denigrates the two individuals but it also poured scorn on the partners of PAS.

Which leads to the question, are they going to be partners for much longer? After all it is not just the PAS president who seems to be growing colder towards this alliance. There are strong forces within PAS, primarily from the more conservative elements of the party that seem to be in the same frame of mind.

I do not pretend to be an expert on PAS internal affairs. I am not a member and therefore this opinion is purely that of an outsider’s. In the last two general elections PAS has won much support from citizens who would not traditionally be considered PAS supporters. In fact it is because of this support that caused the delineation of state seats in Kedah to backfire on the ruling party in 2008.

The changing of electoral boundaries to make more areas in Kedah “mixed” was intended to dilute the number of Malay voters in several Kedah constituencies. The thinking behind this is that PAS only gets their support from Malays. What a shock it must have been to see that those same non-Malay voters who were thought to be anti PAS voting for the Islamist party in great numbers to the point that the state government fell into PAS control.

This support could partly be explained by the electorate wanting change, and they would vote for anyone as long as it was not BN. There is some truth to that, but it should also not be forgotten that PAS as a party has become more palatable to their non-traditional supporters in the past few years.

The moderate and pragmatic approach of their more progressive members made many think that there are more similarities than differences between PAS, DAP and PKR. Thus a workable government in waiting was there for the taking. The progressives in PAS moved away from the rhetoric normally associated with PAS and spoke instead of common ground, compromise and co-operation. They were more flexible in their ideology and much more inclusive. To the extent that you had PAS Supporters Clubs popping up all over the country consisting of non-Muslims who because of their religion could not join PAS proper.

This aspect of PAS support ought not to be forgotten. If the party moves away from this line of thinking and if they do not evolve into an entity which can appeal to a broader support base, whatever gains made in the past two elections may be lost. The question for PAS therefore is one of identity. If they are unhappy with the way things are and if they wish to return to a more hard-line approach to issues of faith and governance, which may well lead to the breaking up of the PR, then they must be prepared for a radical shift in their political fortunes.



Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Freedom, with the right limitations

Brave New World (The Star)
17 September 2014

There is a need for some laws and controls over people who would defame others or call for unacceptable things, like genocide.


IN the past few weeks there has been a lot of discussion, indeed in some cases one might say uproar, over the use of the Sedition Act.
I have no wish to talk about the Act itself because it has been done to death in recent times. Furthermore, I am currently rather intimately involved with the Act as I was charged under it earlier this month.
Instead, I would like to go back to the fundamental issue here, which is freedom of expression. Clearly the Sedition Act curbs freedom of expression. Is this a bad thing? Well, not necessarily.
You see, despite what some quarters might believe, no one in his right mind would want absolute freedom of expression. That would be ludicrous.
However, before we begin to discuss what sort of restrictions on expression there should be, let us first examine our attitudes towards this particular freedom itself.
Naturally I can’t speak for anyone else, so this is a purely personal take. I think that the ideal is absolute freedom.
In other words, absolute freedom of expression is the best thing to have. Unfortunately, we all know that in this world, reason and ­honesty are sometimes in short supply.
Therefore, there is clearly a need for some sort of laws and controls over people who would defame others or call for unacceptable things, like genocide.
However, when thinking about the controls and laws you want to impose, a person’s fundamental belief system comes into play.
Hence, if you are like me and believe that total freedom is the ideal, then any restriction would be most carefully thought out and applied in order to disturb the ideal as little as possible.
Thus, freedom of expression itself is to be protected as much as possible and any limitation must infringe as little as possible on said freedom.
There is no need to defend freedom of expression because it is a given, conversely one has to defend the need for laws that curb those freedoms.
Now, if you don’t believe that freedom is the ideal, then things would look very different indeed.
Because there is no inherent appreciation of freedom, one would make laws that curb those freedoms to whatever extent one thinks is necessary for one’s own interest.
Perversely, the laws restricting said freedoms become the given and freedom of expression has to be justified.
This is most undesirable because of all the civil and political rights that exist, freedom of expression is arguably the most important. Well, to be honest, in my point of view, it is the most important right of all.
So many other rights are intimately linked to freedom of expression, such as assembly, association, faith and the right to have a democratically elected government.
Some people criticise freedom of expression as being an esoteric thing, something that bothers the so-called intelligentsia and not the ordinary man on the street. After all, how does speaking one’s mind put food on the table?
I would argue against such an idea. It is true that freedom of expression won’t feed the poor in a direct manner but, without it, how on earth can we expose poor policies that perpetuate poverty, or corrupt practices that take public money away from doing good and into the ­pockets of the dishonest, or wasteful ineffi­ciency?
To conclude, I reiterate the value of freedom of expression and its importance in making society a better place free from tyrants and despots.
But, what about the limitations that I mentioned earlier? What sort of control should there be?
I would suggest that any laws that curb freedom to express oneself ought to be limited to matters such as incitement to violence, civil defamation and perhaps hate speech.
But whatever law one wants to create, great care must be taken in its drafting; great effort must be made in allowing as much open debate as possible and underlying it all the ultimate ideal of absolute freedom must always be kept in mind.
Of course any law, no matter how well drafted, would be an absolute mockery of justice if it is applied in an unequal manner, so the enforcement of the law must also be unpreju­diced.
Now being the proponent of free speech is not an easy thing because one has to respect the right of everyone to express themselves, even those who may vehemently disagree with one.
So I shall end this column by saying, feel free to criticise what I have just said. After all, it’s your right.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Academic Freedom

Sin Chew Jit Poh
12 September 2014


“To impose any straightjacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of the nation. No field of education is so thoroughly comprehended by man that new discoveries cannot yet be made. Particularly is that true in the social sciences where few, if any, principles are accepted as absolute”.
Chief Justice Earl Warren (1957)

This quote is part of a judgment made by Chief Justice Warren of the United States Supreme Court in a case that dealt with academic freedom. I think it perfectly encapsulates the value of academic freedom and the need to protect it.

In short it states that we need academic freedom in order for a nation to develop properly. Ideas need to be expressed freely and debated in order for the best solutions to be found. In some countries, like Indonesia, academic freedom is considered so important that it is actually protected specifically by law.

But what exactly is academic freedom? It is of course closely related to the freedom of expression. The difference is of course is that it is specifically referring to the academic context. Therefore it would mean that a n academic should have the freedom to research, publish and teach freely.

“Freely” does not mean absolute freedom of course. There will be limitations to academic freedom and the main (and some would argue the only) limitation has to be that of academic rigour. What is meant by academic rigour is that whatever an academic says, or publishes must be backed by sound research and reasoning.

If an academic’s work is found to be lacking either through poor research methodology, poor reasoning or the lack of academic honesty (for example through plagiarising), then his or her “punishment” will be the harsh criticism by their peers leading to a loss of credibility and respect. This in turn could lead to practical consequences such as their career suffering.

Up till now, the discussion has been about freedom strictly within the context of universities. But what about the role of academic freedom outside the university? Can the principles of academic freedom still apply?

I would argue that if an academic is speaking outside the university context (that is to say outside academic conferences, lectures and publications); the principle of academic freedom ought to still apply if he or she is speaking within their own field of expertise.

The reason I say this is because if academia is to free itself from the accusations of living in an ivory tower, then they have to somehow make their work and their expertise relevant to the public at large. A common term for such people is that they become public intellectuals.

By examining current affairs and matters of general concern, and applying their own expert take on the matter, an academic would be helping by providing ideas and thoughts on how to improve the situation. In this way the knowledge held will be put to good practical use for the sake of the community at large.

When an academic moves out from the university and into the public sphere, putting forward ideas that are from their research work and expertise, they are in fact making academia more relevant to the community. And as such academic freedom should also apply in public discourse.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Save Penang's Heritage

Sin Chew Jit Poh
28 August 2014


I just received an email with a petition to save Soonstead. What is Soonstead you may ask? Well, it is mansion in Penang. One of the many along Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, formerly known as Northam Road also known as Millionaires Row.

For those of you not familiar with Penang, the nickname of the road gives a hint as to the type of domiciles you find there. That stretch of road which connects Gurney Drive and Georgetown was at one time the address of choice for all those wealthy tycoons of Penang.

It is, or used to be when I was a child growing up on the island, one mansion after another. The fronts of the buildings were large lawns and the backs of the houses looked onto the sea. Now there are some hideous modern developments on the road and the character of the place is being chipped away. It appears that Soonstead is going to be next.

The plan is not to totally demolish the building, just parts of it, and then there will be built on the land a high rise luxury hotel. That seems to be the trend in Penang; keep some bits of these old buildings and then build something large and modern around it.

I suppose in the minds of the planners, you are saving heritage (Georgetown is a UNESCO heritage city you see), at the same time making money hand over fist. Sounds nice in theory except that what usually happens is the heritage building is dwarfed by an ugly monstrosity and you get a sort of mutant amalgam. Next time you are in Penang, keep an eye out for these mutants.

I suppose one question that could be raised is why should we care about these old houses commissioned by rich men long dead? For me, the first reason is that these buildings are beautiful. They are aesthetically pleasing and they display workmanship and craft which are long gone. And beautiful buildings need not be old mansions. Simple kampong houses too have their own elegance and loveliness.

The trouble with kampong houses is that they are made of wood and it is virtually impossible to find truly antique houses which are in a state where they can be restored. And this raises another point. Most of our heritage is not built of stone, they are made of wood.

There is a dearth of architectural history in Malaysia because of our building culture (wood) and climate (hot and wet and rot inducing). Therefore, whatever structures we have that can link us to our past should be protected.

Why should they be protected? A pragmatic answer will be that such sights helps to improve the tourist trade. People like to look at old things and learn about history. It is therefore of some amusement to me to see how tourism is dealt with in Melaka. It appears that it is not enough that the town is rich with some incredible architectural specimens that reflect various key stages of our history; there is some sort of pathological drive to make the place a sort of amusement park and market for cheap tourist cack. This distracts from the dignity and history of the town, which is a shame.

However, apart from money, it is important that we preserve and conserve these pieces of our past because they are tactile examples of what we were and from that what we have become. In other words they are part of our identity. In this period of time just before Merdeka day and Malaysia Day, surely we should be reflecting on identity and our heritage is most definitely a part of that. I certainly hope the Penang government will think along these lines as well.

If you think Penang's heritage mansions are worth preserving, sign this petition to Save Soonstead!


There is still reason to cheer

Brave New World (The Star)
20 August 2014

Concepts that were alien to most people just 20 years ago, such as civil liberties and human rights, are becoming part of the lingua franca.


"WRITE something with a Merdeka theme”.
That was the request made by my editor. Since he has never requested anything of me before, I feel rather obliged to try. But it is easier said than done.
There’s a whole bunch of stuff already written on this theme within the pages of this paper and I really do not know what I can possibly add. I mean, how many ways can you say that we have lost the sense of unity that existed in 1957; or that there has been an erosion of certain democratic values; or how ethnic relations seems to have deteriorated.
Actually, sometimes I wonder whether we look back to 1957 with rose-tinted glasses. Was it really that much better? There is a tendency to be overly kind to the past when one is being nostalgic. I mean, when Merdeka comes round now, I get a bit irritated because the jingoistic flag waving seems out of sync with the numerous problems that we are facing.
Unemployed and underemployed young people; racist and fascist groups running around; the crumbling of democratic institutions; all these things place a pall over any sort of celebration. Add to this of course the awful tragedies that the nation has suffered with the two crashed airliners and it does seem that any sort of festivity seems out of place.
Yet when I think back to my boyhood, Merdeka was a great laugh and I get all warm and fuzzy inside. For one thing, it meant no school and me and my little pals would joyfully scream “Merdeka” as we left the class; our temporary independence from the clutches of our teachers giving real meaning to the word.
Plus, on Merdeka Day there was that wonderful novelty of television in the morning. Sure it was just a bunch of people marching around, but as a red-blooded young man, the sight of tanks and armoured trucks never failed to get me excited. So, when I think back to my own small Merdeka day experiences, it is always with a sense of happiness and not cynicism.
Could it not be the same thing when as a nation we collectively look back to 1957? Perhaps we are being too harsh on ourselves now and too generous with our recent past. I don’t know, but it would be an interesting subject for some historian to study.
Anyway, what about this year’s Merdeka day? Numerically, it is quite interesting. We obtained independence in 1957 and now we are 57. I wonder how many people are going to choose those digits at the local betting shop.
Flippancy aside, is there anything to cheer about? I would like to think so. Sure, there’s a whole lot of nastiness floating around, and politicians on both sides of the divide have been acting in a manner that has induced head shaking of seismic proportions, but I think there are a few reasons to be optimistic.
The people of this country are far less fearful of the powers-that-be compared to the past. We are more willing to criticise those who wield influence. Concepts that were alien to most people just 20 years ago, such as civil liberties and human rights, are becoming part of the lingua franca.
And there is, I believe, a growing desire to want to “do something” in the face of developments which we think are a threat to the nation and the people of the nation.
It is now just a matter of focusing our energies so that we can hold the powerful in check and the extremists at bay. Many people are already thinking in that way.
If we can turn those thoughts to meaningful acts, then we would be celebrating Merdeka in the most meaningful way, for we would be ensuring that the shackles of the British have not been exchanged with our own home-grown tyranny and cruelty.