Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Returning to rationality

Brave New World (The Star)
10 December 2014

Amidst the pessimism and cynicism, both the old and the young are looking for constructive ways to stop the rot.


PERHAPS it is just me, but I get the sense that the prevailing mood in Malaysia is one of pessimism and uncertainty. Right now, I do not know where the country is headed and I am not optimistic that we are going in the right direction.
The Rukun Negara is famous for its five principles but as a preamble to those principles, the document lays down what was deemed to be the aspirations of the country and they are: to be a democratic, progressive and modern nation with an equitable sharing of wealth and a liberal approach towards our multiculturalism.
It is a very forward-thinking list of aspirations. Yet at the moment, it does not feel like we are moving forward at all. In fact, the converse is true – we appear to be inexorably moving backwards.
The price of living is going up and yet for the vast majority of us, income does not appear to be matching this rise.
Faith in institutions of governance is low, as can be seen in the cynical responses towards the Commission of Inquiry (its royal status seems to be a matter of some confusion) regarding the so-called “Project IC” in Sabah.
Divisive and downright nasty voices of extremism, bigotry and racism appear to have carte blanche to spread their poisonous ideology without even a whimper of protest from the powers that be.
In fact, some of those voices appear to be coming from the powers that be themselves.
Repressive and oppressive laws are not only embraced with gusto, but are going to be made even more repressive and oppressive. And the voices that support them use such noble words to defend these laws – words like “security” and “unity”.
Yet they do not provide one iota of proof as to how these laws, which are incidentally selectively used, are going to achieve all these wonderful ideals.
My worry, therefore, is that we are headed towards becoming a poorer nation. Poorer in the sense of material security, human freedom and dignity, progressive thinking and peace.
I see no sign whatsoever that those whose hands we have given the power to govern care one jot about this. All that they seem to care about is maintaining the status quo.
But the status quo is not working. The way things are done in this country is not going to help us grow and develop.
The status quo will prevent us from nurturing progressive ideas with which to provide the intellectual vitality needed to thrust us into the 21st century.
In fact, it will keep us in a state of division, superstition, feudalism and backwardness.
In the beginning, I said perhaps I am the only one who feels this way. I do not think so.
I see a hunger for improvement amongst the young. Our youths today are miles ahead of youths twenty years ago.
They have access to information and methods of communication that my generation can only dream about. And many of them realise that things cannot remain as they are.
I also see the older generation despairing at the direction this nation is taking, to the point that they are willing to put name to paper in a desperate call for a return to values of rationality and moderation.
I see many ordinary Malaysians who are tired of feeling helpless, looking for constructive ways to stop this rot.
In short I see pessimism, but I also see a definite conviction to say enough is enough. It is time to reclaim this country from the divisive, small-minded and retrogressive.
It is time, and many are ready.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Landslides in Cameron Highlands

Sin Chew Jit Poh
3 November 2014


Last month landslides in Cameron Highlands killed five people and injured five more. Hundreds of people had to be evacuated to safety. Last year there was a similar incident in Cameron Highlands as well. Why does this keep happening?
One possibility is because there is over development in the highlands. The loss of vegetation, for whatever purpose, be it agriculture or building work, causes rain to rush into rivers which in turn leads to fast rising waters leading to flash floods and landslides.
Any primary school student can tell you that surface vegetation is vital in absorbing rain water. Such vegetation also helps prevent landslides because their roots hold the earth together. This is simple science and you do not need to be a geologist to understand.
This being the case, why do these incidences still occur? Bear in mind that with climate change, rainfall patterns become more extreme with heavier more intense rainfall becoming more and more common, thus posing a greater danger to hill stability.
We have laws that can prevent such occurrences. The Land Conservation Act being one of them. In a nutshell, the law allows for control over any development in hill land. This includes the complete banning of any development on land beyond a certain gradient.
The question is does this law apply in the development projects on Cameron Highlands? And if it does apply, then why was it not properly enforced?
Another law that may be used to prevent landslides is the Environmental Quality Act, namely the provisions in the act for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA). This law makes it compulsory for certain projects to have an EIA done. Theoretically speaking if a project poses a danger to the environment then it should say so in the EIA report and this being the case, then such a project should not be allowed to continue. The threat of landslides should surely be one of the considerations.
The problem with the EIA system we have is that it is quite easily circumnavigated. For example the projects that require an EIA are decided based on size. Therefore it is quite easy to circumnavigate the requirement by simply breaking a project up into smaller parcels. Furthermore, hill development per se is not one of the types of activity that requires an EIA.
It is clear to me that such loss of lives, livelihood and homes is not acceptable. We have laws that could be used to prevent such things from happening. It is important therefore to ensure that the laws are as sound as possible and that they are also enforced as strictly as possible.
These are real problems that affect real people’s lives and these are the kinds of things that the government and their agencies should be working on. Instead our leaders seem to be more concerned about using draconian laws to attack imaginary threats.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Respect and engage

Brave New World (The Star)
26 November 2015


IN Parliament on Monday, Deputy Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Wan Jaafar had reportedly brushed aside Kuching MP Chong Chien Jien’s queries about secessionist activities in Sabah and Sarawak.
The Minister was supposed to have said that the number of such people consist of frustrated ex-politicians and is small and insignificant.
He backed this up by saying his “intelligence” (meaning sources) told him so.
Ah, the famous; “I know better than you because I have all the information” argument.
It is such an irritating argument because they never actually tell us anything about their “superior” knowledge and intelligence so there is no way of verifying its validity.
Be that as it may let us put aside that galling old tactic so favoured by those in power for a moment.
The Minister also says that there will be efforts made by the Government to try to extradite those calling for secession from overseas.
From his remarks, it appears that the country where these secessionists are operating from is Britain.
I presume that if the Government is successful (which I doubt as Britain generally does not extradite people for political reasons), then they will be punished using one of the myriad laws we have for such purposes.
Let me make myself crystal clear at this point; I do not want to see a break up of Malaysia.
I do not want to see any state going off on their own.
This is not based on any legal obligation, it is purely emotional.
I will be sad to see this odd amalgam of states, each with its own distinct dialect, culture and personality drift apart.
But I also think that being dismissive and high-handed is not the way to keep us together.
Actually it can be totally counterproductive.
The fact of the matter is that there are those calling for the secession of Sabah and Sarawak.
Whether they are small or big, what has to happen is that there must be engagement; not brushing them aside and not punishing them.
Look, Sabahans and Sarawakians have grievances.
On record, there has been much unhappiness regarding issues such as Project IC; the sense that their wealth goes mainly to the peninsula; the fear that the extremism blooming in the West is going to infect their cherished culture of acceptance and openness; and the list goes on.
Groups and individuals who are unhappy with the way things are, who think that the Malaysia Agreement has not been respected, must be engaged.
If they are deemed illegal and driven underground, this makes civil discussions difficult, if not impossible.
Worse, it will convince some that they have a case because why would you try to shut up a group with differing views unless it is because you can’t provide convincing counter arguments?
These grievances must be discussed openly and solutions must be found and if mistakes have been made in the past, then they must be admitted to and apologies tendered coupled with clear efforts at rectifying said mistakes.
This will require honesty and also humility.
Anything less is simply not good enough.
If one goes into this waving one’s big bad law, threatening people who disagree with you and acting in a generally arrogant manner, one will only be making things worse.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

GDP is Only Part of the Story

Sin Chew Jit Poh
19 November 2014


The recent Khazanah report on GDP in Malaysia is very interesting. My take on it is that there is a very big discrepancy between the GDP of Kuala Lumpur compared to the rest of the country. This is especially true of the two northern states of Kedah and Perlis and the east coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu. The report I read made no mention of Sabah and Sarawak.
This discrepancy is really quite huge with the nominal GDP of KL being almost seven times higher than that of Kelantan. This is worrying indeed because it is obvious that income distribution is very much focussed on the capital. It is worrying but not surprising. In a capitalist system it will be quite common to see that the centres of commerce will be where the money is.
But income and income distribution is only part of the story. I contend that what is most important is the overall quality of life. So, the part of the report that should cause most worry is the fact that many households, in particular rural households, still do not have basic amenities like running water and flush toilets. These small things are vital to not only easing one’s life ((it is no easy task hauling water from one place to another) but also health.
Other important factors that contribute to a quality of life is the confidence that there is social safety net. By this I mean that there is good public health care, schooling and other fundamental facilities. Public healthcare is vital so that our people do not have to fear getting sick (unlike in places like America where healthcare is a business and one is held hostage by the insurance companies) and public education is important so that there is the opportunity for upward social mobility. In other words, it doesn’t matter if our GDP is high, what really matters is what is being done with it.
And even with GDP being high in KL, really, how rich do you have to be to enjoy the good life? Let us take an example I am familiar with; university lecturers. A professor will be earning quite lot of money based on the national average. I dare say he will be in the higher brackets of earnings. Yet if we compare a professor in the early 1970s to one today we will see that although the chap from the earlier time (you can recognise him by his flared trousers and sideburns), is earning a smaller pay packet, he can buy much more with it.
Taking the old fashioned test that you should spend four month’s salary on a car and three year’s salary on a home, the 70’s prof can buy an imported European model and a bungalow. A current prof can buy a Myvi and if he is fortunate a three room medium sized apartment. So even amongst the high income earners, wages has gone up, but the quality of life not necessarily so. Add to this, concerns about public healthcare meaning the need for health insurance and concerns about education meaning the need for private schooling for children, and then we can see that life can be an economic struggle.
So, just who is benefitting from this high GDP of ours? It is not the rural folk. It is not necessarily even the high income city folk. Who indeed?

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Zoo Negara Must Be Run Well

Brave New World (The Star)
12 November 2014

Allegations of corruption and mismanagement are shocking, since this oasis for the people has important conservation and historical roles.


(Sections edited out by The Star are in red)

I like our Zoo Negara. In fact I like it a lot.

If one goes early in the morning, just after it opens, the crowds are sparse and one can wander around at leisure. It is a very nice place to walk around too. Large shady trees mean it does not get too hot and when there are few people about, it is actually very peaceful.

Looking at the animals is fun of course. Generally speaking the enclosures are well thought out and naturalistic and the animals look healthy. Not to say that there can’t be improvements. The penguin enclosure is quite sad; it looks cramped and in need of a serious upgrade. And the monkeys and gibbons would be green with envy if they could see how much better the apes have it. While the chimpanzees and orang-utans have huge true-to-life open enclosures, the moneys and gibbons are in drab, albeit fairly spacious, cages.

Right now, the main attraction is of course the pandas. I can’t remember their names (they have two different names each from what I can tell), but they are very cute. They live in their spanking new purpose built air conditioned home and look like lazy tai-tais lounging around their luxury palace. The male panda reminded me of my students as he sat leaning against a rock with his head in his paws. Many young men take exactly that same position as they nap in my class.

That is not to say the other animals are not exciting to observe. The last time I was there, the white tiger fancied himself as a bit of star, leaping into his moat acrobatically to the thrill of the watchers. I was half expecting him (or her, I can’t tell) to strike a pose after each leap. And once I saw an amorous giant tortoise. Believe me, there is nothing quite as funny as a randy giant tortoise. By the time he clambered onto the female, I think she had fallen asleep.

It was an unpleasant surprise therefore when I read about complaints against the Zoo lodged with the MACC which suggest corruption, poor treatment of animals and mismanagement. I have not seen the report and the Minister in charge has said the claims are “being verified”.

Well, I hope they are “verified” as soon as possible. The Zoo is more than just an example of ex-situ conservation (as espoused by the Biological Diversity Convention of which we are a party), but it is also an important historic institution with an essential role to play for the people of this country.

Lest we forget, the zoo was the brainchild of Tunku Abdul Rahman who said that the people of the city needed a place where they can go and relax and enjoy themselves with their families. Learning something from the experience is also a bonus (for example I didn’t know that pandas once lived in Myanmar and Vietnam).

Tunku understood the need for a natural peaceful oasis that people can retreat to and if I am not mistaken he had in mind all the people, not just the wealthy. It is important therefore that the zoo is run well. From a humanitarian point of view, the animals must be well cared for. On a social point of view, the zoo cannot be an elitist treat.

Keeping the price low means of course we can’t compete with the top zoos of the world. I don’t really care about that. I think it more important that apart from providing a sanctuary to animals, a zoo also plays a role in providing a community service. You can’t do that with astronomical prices.
So if those prices can be kept low if we manage the zoo better and if there is no corruption, and if that same good governance means the animals are better cared for, then action must be taken. Perhaps it is not that big an issue for many, considering the “wealth” of problems we are faced with.

Perhaps. But as I wandered around the zoo enjoying the sights sounds and yes, the smells, along with many ordinary Malaysians, it was a moment when I did not have to think of the political, economic, societal and legal rubbish that occurs in this country. Instead I could smile at the antics of the animals. I don’t know about anyone else, but that tiny escape means a lot.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Big Powers Don't care About Us

Sin Chew Jit Poh
5 November 2014
Just how big a role does the international community play with regard to our own domestic issues? With regards to democracy and human rights, I would say very little indeed.
Yet both the ruling party and the opposition behave as though foreign governments are somehow important. Recently opposition politicians went on a tour of Australia to talk to the politicians over there about the troubles we have at home. Will this make any difference to the Australian government’s relationship with us? I don’t think so.
The ruling party in the meantime were busy showing off, in particular about our country’s election onto the United Nations Security Council. Somehow this legitimises the government as a shining example of moderation and democracy. Really? Let us have a quick look at the permanent members of the Security Council shall we. Russia and China are not exactly the poster boys of human rights are they?
In short, unless they will have something to gain from us, foreign governments do not care one bit about what happens within our shores. Foreign opinion leaders, academics, NGOs and citizens may care, but their governments do not.
The super powers only care whether the leaders of nations are their friends or not. The method of leadership; be it a democracy or a dictatorship does not matter one bit to them. Anyway let’s face it; Malaysia is a small fry on the international stage. In terms of geopolitics, we are minnows therefore short of ensuring that trade goes on business as usual do not expect any foreign government to give two hoots about us.
What I am trying to say is that it is pointless to look to foreign governments as an ally to fight oppression at home. They don’t care and they never will. We have to take responsibility for our own destiny and fight for what is right ourselves. There is no cavalry across the water waiting to come to our aid. We are on our own. Let’s get on with it.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Lessons from a bloodsucker

Brave New World (The Star)
29 October 2014

Just as we fight the dengue epidemic, let’s tackle other problems that need to be sorted out for the good of all.


I JUST came back from lunch and I am feeling a little bit worried. I was bitten by some mosquitoes, you see, and from their black and white markings, reminiscent of the Luftwaffe and equally deadly, I can tell they are the dreaded Aedes type.
Considering the fact that we are amidst an epidemic, I guess for the next day or so I’ll be checking my temperature every hour and Googling the symptoms of dengue fever when I am not pressing my hands against my sweaty brow. If I miss the next article, you’ll know who to blame: some disease-carrying blood-sucking insect.
Seriously, why on earth do the Aedes mosquitoes exist? Why did God make them?
Or if you prefer the non-religious approach, why did they evolve? Is there some sort of Darwinian reason for nature to create such a good-for-nothing pest?
This got me thinking about what benefit this insect can bring. And believe it or not, I did find something. Perhaps they have no use on a practical level, but metaphorically, they do have a purpose.
You see, these wicked insecta diptera are equally wicked to everyone. They don’t care what colour you are.
They only care what colour your blood is. They will happily shove their evil little proboscis into anybody. They are equal-opportunity disease mongers.
Perhaps there is something we can take from the Aedes mosquito. They are a problem that affects all Malaysians, regardless of whatever category we fall into. This is the same with so many of the other trials and tribulations we face or are going to face.
The petrol price hike is like the Aedes mosquito. So is the proposed free trade agreement that we might sign up for (although there are many who welcome this particular insect).
The Goods and Services Tax might bite us in the unmentionables. The education system might be an itch on the bottom. The poor state of the environment might give us delirium-riddled fever.
These things affect all of us. So why can’t we deal with them as we deal (or try to deal) with dengue? With a policy that doesn’t care about who is catching the disease, but instead works on the basis that here is a problem that needs to be sorted out for the good of all.
Why does everything have to be about this ethnic group or that ethnic group, this religion or that religion? It is as though public discourse in this country is trapped in some interminably obtuse record player with a scratched LP that keeps jumping and playing the same screechy cacophonous noise again and again.
By focusing on the irrelevant, we are getting nowhere nearer to figuring out how best to move on. I want to end with a quote from the Rulers in the Reid Commission. They said that they “look forward to a time not too remote when it will become possible to eliminate communalism as a force in the political and economic life of the country”.
This was in 1957. Why does it feel like we have not moved towards those aspirations at all? Why do we keep allowing the small-minded to determine the public discourse, where one is persistently fighting bigotry and idiocy instead of spending effort getting to grips with the big issues that affect us all?
If ever there was a need for enlightened leadership to lay out a progressive and not regressive agenda, now is the time.