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.

Minimum wage is about dignity

Brave New World (The Star)
12 September 2018

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MALAYSIA has the fifth highest number of public holidays in the world. This is all well and good, but in this newspaper business, we lowly columnists are often forced by our harsh editors to submit our pieces well ahead of holidays so that they can go and sit on a beach somewhere.
(Editor’s note: Nope, no beach in sight.)
And as everyone knows, lots can happen in Malaysia in a few days. This being the case, I apologise for the hurried nature of this article. And if it becomes stale between writing and publication, blame my editor.
There are two things I want to speak about this week. The first is this business about teaching in English in Sarawak. According to a news portal report, the Education Ministry stated in a written parliamentary reply that it was against the use of English as the medium of instruction in government schools in Sarawak.
One of the grounds of this stand is that such a move is unconstitutional as Bahasa Malaysia is the official language as stated in Article 152 of the Federal Constitution. According to this article, all activities by public authorities (which includes schools) have to be conducted in BM.
However, the thing is, there are special provisions for Sabah and Sarawak in the constitution. The one most relevant here is Article 161, which states that both the Borneo states are free to use English until 10 years after Malaysia Day. But after that date, if there are going to be any changes, these must be accepted by the two states via their legislature.
So, what this means is that even if there are federal laws making BM the lingua franca of schools in Malaysia, this can only apply in Sabah and Sarawak if they accept it.
Regardless what laws and policies have been made by Parliament or the federal government, with regard to the use of English, if there is no Sarawak state legislation accepting this, then it does not apply.
The question is, of course, whether Sarawak has ever made such a state law. If not, then in my opinion, the Education Ministry is mistaken and Sarawak can teach in English if it wants to.
The second thing I want to discuss is the minimum wage. RM1,050. Seriously? This is so low. The cost of living is insanely high and this figure seems very small.
Naturally, the government will say that the economy is in poor shape and this is what is feasible. I’m no economist, but will a decent minimum wage cause businesses to go bankrupt? Are our businesses now so close to collapsing that by having higher wage bills, we will have homeless CEOs begging for spare change to make their BMW payments?
I don’t know. What I do know is how annoyed I felt at a totally callous comment I heard on the wireless this morning.
I can’t remember the name of the person who said it, but this dude said the minimum wage would only help foreign workers because they were the ones earning less than RM1,050.
And then he went on to say that this is bad because all these foreigners would just remit more money back home and this would be bad for the nation. Wow. That’s a great argument. Let us not give foreigners decent pay because all they will do is send it home to help their families.
A minimum wage is about allowing people to live with a modicum of dignity. It should reflect the realities of the day and not be merely symbolic. And it should apply to all human beings who work, regardless of what passports they hold.

Come back, Jho Low

Brave New World (The Star)
29 August 2018

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I HAVE never written about Jho Low before because of embarrassment. He is a Penang boy and that just fills me with deep shame. We Penang boys are cool. We don’t do things like blow hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of dollars to propose to a woman and then fail. Twice.
Women are naturally drawn to our strange accents and beach tans. We don’t need money to be a failure. We can do that for free. This chap has done something that will make any self-respecting Penang person shudder with disgust – spend money and get nothing in return.
And now he has gone and done something worse – playing the victim.
Come on, man. Is there no end to his despicable effort to stain the good name of Penang? We are tough island folk. We don’t play the victim. And even if we do, it’s only so that we can get a refund or something.
Anyway, this Jho Low fellow is in hiding somewhere. By the way, what is with the name? It sounds like a really sad attempt to sound cool. Seriously, you are either cool or you are not cool. The guy on the road to Batu Ferringhi who dances while he makes your burger, he’s cool. When you look like a plump spoilt brat but you give yourself a name that sounds like a cross between a Latina diva and some rapper, that is not cool.
Back to my story. He is a victim because according to him, the Malaysian government does not believe in the rule of law.
Well, this may have been true at one point. But there is a new go­vernment and as far as I can see, they are trying to comply with the rule of law. If they are not, some of Jho Low’s closest friends would be in jail by now.
He thinks he will not get a fair trial because the public has already made up their minds about him. Gosh, poor chap. All this while he has been keeping such a low profile, diligently doing his work and not spending money on celebrities like some attention-craving loser, is it?
If he is such a victim and he has not been pilfering the money of Malaysians, come and face trial. Many of us have had to face trial in this country. Many of us did not run away. Come home, Jho boy, come home and prove your innocence.
But I doubt he will. Firstly, because he thinks that the money laundering charges against him are merely a distraction to keep the public eye away from the injustice of his boat being seized.
That is a really brilliant argument. It is the most self-deluded line of reasoning I have ever heard in my life. Kudos to Jho Low for getting a lawyer who has a mind that can think in a way that normal people need certain banned substances to achieve.
Anyway, the little guy may be a blight on the good name of my state, but he is no fool. He will be hiding away in some luxury place in a country with no extradition treaty with Malaysia. Without such a treaty, it is very hard to get him back here.
There are ways, but they need government-to-government agreements and this chap is as slippery as a well-fed eel. He will wriggle away, I am sure.
Personally, I want him back. To face a fair trial, sure, but also so that I can get a movement going to formally reject his status as a Penangite. He can always make Pekan his new hometown.

Time to do away with Sedition Act

Brave New World (The Star)
15 August 2018

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THE 100th day of the Pakatan Harapan Government is coming up. It is this Friday, if my math does not fail me. The coalition has promised to do 10 things within 100 days of forming the Federal Government and some have been fulfilled, like the abolishment of the Goods and Services Tax and the reintroduction of fuel subsidies.
Others may not have been fulfilled, but perhaps some progress has been made. I hope that come the end of the week, Pakatan will give us a report card explaining what has been done, what has not been done, and how it is going to ensure that it will be done.
But what of the other promises that have been made? Just how much time are we to give to those for which no deadline has been set?
For example, under Promise 27 of its election manifesto, Pakatan Harapan said it would abolish what it described as oppressive laws. Number one on the list of laws that it promised to do away with is the Sedition Act.
This has not happened yet, but then legislative changes take time and I, for one, can be patient.
What I cannot understand, however, is why the law is still being used.
Activists Fadiah Nadwa Fikri and Asheeq Ali Sethi Alivi are both being investigated under this law for allegedly saying things against the monarchy.
Now, before we get too carried away, let us remember that these two people are being investigated. At the time of writing, they have yet to be charged. It could ultimately come to nothing if the Attorney General decides not to press charges.
And if I am not mistaken, at this point it is the police who are doing the investigating and they said investigations are normally the result of a police report made by someone.
In other words, somebody did not like what Fadiah and Asheeq said, thinking it was seditious. These persons lodged police reports, which were then acted on.
Supporters of the Government will say these investigations are not direct acts of the Government (unless the Government is the one that made the police reports).
Furthermore, aren’t the police supposed to do their job without fear or favour? If there is a report and there is a law that may have been broken (no matter how bad the law is), then they are duty-bound to investigate.
This is all true, but it is not satisfactory. The Government has promised that this law would be abolished. Therefore, it does not make sense that while we wait for it to be done, this law – which Pakatan itself has described as oppressive – continues to be used.
While we wait for Parliament to do its job, something must be done to ensure that the Sedition Act is not used, even though it continues to exist.
Civil society has suggested a moratorium on the Act. It is up to the Government to explain why this has not been done.
Anything less will show a lack of commitment to a very important promise.

Spare us the righteous anger

Brave New World (The Star)
1 August 2018

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I sometimes wonder what it is that these Umno fellows eat and drink. I would not have thought that such self-delusion could be possible unless one was scoffing “special” mushrooms on a regular basis.
For example, Umno Youth chief Datuk Dr Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki took offence with some comments made by Human Resources Minister M. Kulasegaran.
He must resign, the youthful fellow yells. His comments are divisive and seditious and will cause disharmony amongst the people. And if he doesn’t resign, he must be sacked, he screams.
What did the minister say? It depends how you want to interpret it.
Basically, when speaking in Tamil at an event in Nilai recently, Kulasegaran said that Indians have been on the Malay Peninsula for hundreds of years, as proven by the Hindu ruins in the Bujang Valley.
He then went on to assert that Indians were not “pendatang” but instead “they” were.
The question is, who is the “they” he was referring to? The minister said he was referring to those who would call Malaysian ethnic Indians “pendatang”.
People like the Umno Youth chief would say Kulasegaran was referring to all Malays. If such is the case, then it is super offensive and the minister’s head must roll.
Wow. Such hypocrisy. How many times have Umno ministers been unapologetically racist, telling non-Malays to leave the country and “go back to where they belong”? Have these people been fired or forced to resign? Of course not.
(Incidentally, the Human Resources Minister has apologised if he caused offence.)
And even now, the Umno machine (with their best pals from PAS) go on about how it is better to vote for someone Malay and Muslim regardless of his capability or indeed his integrity.
If anyone plays the race card, it is Umno and those of their ilk (which now seems to include PAS).
So please, Umno Youth leader, do us a favour and spare us your righteous anger.
I know that race and religion is all these sort go on and on about because it is all they know.
They scream about Malay rights and Muslim rights being under threat without defining those terms and without offering any evidence such a threat even exists.
This is what they do. This is the only thing they know how to do.
But Malaysians can rise above that. We can, all of us, regardless of ethnicity, see that when those who are intellectually bankrupt go on and on about some imaginary problem based on race and faith, it is because they have nothing to say of any actual intellectual value.
We changed our government in a peaceful manner. We showed to the world that democracy can work. Even when the odds are stacked against you. Even when the system is designed to ensure the victory of one side over the other.
We showed the world that if enough of us come out and vote and if enough of us take the trouble to do the hard work of PACAs (polling agents and counting agents), we can make a difference.
I am now somewhere in Yorkshire – in the West, where democracy is taken for granted and where people are so complacent that their laziness to even go out and vote has put Britain in the madness of Brexit and the Americans in the madness of Trump.
We have already shown how we can change things, despite the odds, by sheer effort of enough people.
Now we need to show that sustainable change can occur and we can move away from the vile and regressive with patience and reason.
We have to make small-minded voices redundant by firmly and surely working in a manner to benefit all Malaysians and not use the poisonous and toxic narrative of race and faith that only serves the few.

Objections built on false grounds

Brave New World (The Star)
18 July 2018

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I CANNOT begin to tell you how angry I am at the objections raised regarding Tan Sri Richard Malanjum’s elevation to Chief Justice.
All forms of opinion are welcome, of course, and everyone has a right to object.
However, the sheer obtuseness of the objections and the language being used reflect both profound ignorance and a vile worldview.
The primary concern about Malanjum in the new post is that he is non-Muslim. Coupled with the fact that the new de facto Law Minister and the Attorney General are also non-Muslims, this has got some people’s knickers in an almighty twist.
And besides, how can a kafir (their words, not mine) be allowed to hold such power.
Right, let me sort this lot out.
Firstly, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in our laws that says the Chief Justice (or the AG and any minister) has to be of any particular faith.
Nothing. Get that?
Secondly, these people seem to have no idea how laws are made in this country or how the judiciary works. The CJ does not make decisions on his own. Sitting in the Federal Court as he does, he is always part of a panel.
Furthermore, the CJ, AG and Law Minister do not make the laws. Laws are made in Parliament.
They are debated and voted for by 222 MPs.
The “three amigos”, therefore, cannot control the passage of any law, Islamic or otherwise.
The Law Minister, being an MP, has one vote. But that is it – just one vote. So they can’t influence legislation.
I don’t know how to make this any simpler.
A big deal is made about Malanjum’s decision in the Lina Joy case.
For those who have forgotten, Lina Joy was a Malay woman born into a Muslim family who converted to Catholicism. She wanted to change her status on her identity card and was prevented from doing so. The case was fundamentally about whether she had the freedom to choose her faith.
According to some, Malanjum’s dissenting judgment shows that he is anti-Islam. Rubbish. Utter and total rubbish. His decision in that case was not anti-Islam; it was in accordance with the Constitution.
He dealt head-on with the issue at hand, which is whether a person has freedom of religion in this country. The answer is an emphatic yes because the Constitution says all persons have the freedom of religion. Not non-Muslims only, all persons.
The other two judges did not deal with the issue.
They instead focused on the procedural, saying that Lina had to leave the faith via the Syariah Court for her new status to be recognised. And just a side note: there weren’t two majority judgments. One judge wrote the majority agreement and the other simply agreed.
So, let me get this straight. A judge who follows the rules – and the Constitution is the main rule of the land – is somehow a bad judge? Why? Because he is not a Muslim? How bigoted is that?
You know, it is the right of these folk who want to have an Islamic state in this country to ask for it, campaign for it and argue for it.
I have always said this and I maintain it now. However, it has to be done within the rules of this country.
If you want Syariah law to be the only law, if you want non-Muslims to be unable to hold certain posts (or perhaps these bigots don’t want them to hold any post at all), then campaign for it.
At the next general election, make that your manifesto, that you will change the Constitution and you will make Malaysian law Syariah law and that you will ensure non-Muslims be kept in their place with no major positions for them.
Get the requisite majority and change the Constitution. But be honest, for heaven’s sake.

Do we have a Cabinet of change?

Brace New World (The Star)
4 July 2018

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INTERNAL party politics bore me. It’s like watching a particularly quarrelsome family next door. It has nothing to do with me and is at best a momentary distraction. So, I really could not care less if there were arguments within Pakatan Harapan regarding the number of ministerial posts each party got.
I am concerned however that the number of women in the Cabinet hardly make up 20%. Wasn’t there a promise of 30% women representation among policy makers?
That being the case, isn’t the Cabinet the primary policy maker? I don’t appreciate any fancy wordplay and political wheedling to get out of this important obligation.
There are those who disagree with quotas. I am not one of them. If it is done to achieve substantive equality and in a transparent manner, and if there is a sunset clause – that is to say all quotas will be abolished once parity is achieved – then I think it is a necessary measure to push-start an agenda, in this case gender equity.
With regard to the appointments in general, well, good luck, people, and get to work.
Amongst the new batch, I am glad to see Datuk Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa in charge of religious matters. He has proven time and again that his is an inclusive and progressive view on how matters of faith should be dealt with.
I hope that he will be able to steer us away from the divisive, invasive, supremacist and intolerant religious narrative that the past government had been using.
However, I am most excited with Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah as the Foreign Affairs Minister. He has promised to ratify a whole slew of human rights treaties, which is long overdue.
Did you know we are not even party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture? What, we like torture?
If we do ratify a whole bunch of new treaties, then obviously it means I will have to change my syllabus! Some of my research students will also have to modify their work because they started writing under a regime that was quite indifferent to human rights.
Actually, come to think of it, Saifuddin is making my life difficult. Darn it.
My own selfishness aside, I am looking forward to seeing what changes all these new ministers are going to make. And I hope they do a very good job.
I say this because it is imperative they prove that this country can move away from the type of governance of the past and life will be better for everyone.
The Opposition at the moment appears to want to remain in the past. This can be seen by the selection of Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as president of Umno.
Obviously, Umno people like how the party has been operating, so they chose a person who has been key in that modus operandi.
Umno still has significant support amongst the Malay demographic as does PAS. So if the Opposition takes over in the next general election, we will be trudging back to the bad old days.
The ball is in the court of the new Pakatan Harapan government. It is up to the current leaders to show the nation that a new way of doing things will be good for all of us. That is the only sure way to ensure that GE14 does not become a mere blip, albeit a very grand blip, in this country’s history.