Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Save Penang's Heritage

Sin Chew Jit Poh
28 August 2014

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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.

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"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.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

What is to be Done With Selangor

Sin Chew Jit Poh
13 August 2014

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What is to be done with Selangor? It is a complete mess and there appears to be no way out of the current impasse.

Ideally, the Menteri Besar should resign. I say this because he is MB by virtue of winning his state seat, and he won that seat by virtue of being a PKR candidate. Therefore when his party does not support him any longer, the correct thing to do will be to step down. That is the correct thing to do. Legally he does not actually have to do anything. Allow me to explain.

The MB is appointed by the Sultan on the basis that he has the support of the state legislature. The best way to know if an MB no longer has that support is by holding a vote of no confidence. According to the case of Stephen Kalong Ningkan v Tun Haji Openg [1966], such a vote can only take place on the floor of the legislature. Since the Selangor state legislature is not sitting, this vote cannot be conducted.

Now, Tan Sri Khalid has obtained the approval of the Sultan to continue as MB. He says that he has the support of the state legislature. The DAP and PKR have questioned the truth of this claim because according to them, all their state legislative assemblypersons as well as a few PAS assemblypersons have agreed that they want Wan Azizah to be the new MB. In other words they claim that the majority of the house does not support Khalid.

For me, who is right and who is wrong is a moot point. I believe that the proper way to determine whether Khalid still has support is by having vote of no confidence in the state legislative assembly. Procedurally, this way is more transparent and it also shows a respect for the legislative house and the state constitution.

Unless and until this vote is held, the Sultan is correct in continuing to support Khalid’s tenure as MB. To do otherwise would be unwise as it could open the door to all sorts of opaque practices. Even if it seems obvious that Khalid no longer has the support of the house, for example by signed declarations of the majority of the state assemblypersons, I still think that the best way to go would be to follow procedures carefully i.e. have a vote of no confidence in the state legislature, and then if the MB loses, he really ought to resign.

By respecting the proper procedures, the Pakatan Rakyat will be showing that they adhere to procedural propriety and the rule of law. As it is many people in Selangor are fed up with the way things are.  If the Pakatan try to overcome this impasse by using methods which are not completely transparent and according to the state constitution it will only add to the sense of unease that the people are already feeling.

This situation has been very poorly managed by the Pakatan. If they do not do things properly in their efforts to replace the Menteri Besar, public opinion of them will fall even lower. The state legislative assembly sits in November, it is best to be patient and wait until then to do the needful.

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

People need to get govts to act

Brave New World (The Star)
6 August 2014

Governments are not doing anything about the Gaza issue, and they will continue to do nothing, unless the citizens upon whom their power depends, demand they do something.

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If one person dies, it is a tragedy. If a million die, it is a statistic.
This is a quote attributed to Stalin. It is grotesque and inhumane, but no less than one would expect from such a monstrous dictator.
Perhaps this idea is what goes through the head of Netanyahu as his forces continue to kill civilians in Gaza.
First, make a huge hue and cry about Israeli dead (few in number thus qualifying as tragedies), then go on to kill hundreds of Palestinians (the more the better as then the deaths will become a mere statistic).
Netanyahu will go on and on about the right to defend his country and how their cause is just, but the fact is this most recent act of barbarity against the Palestinian people goes against all the basic tenets of humanitarian law.
How is the destruction of hospitals and schools a defensive measure?
Not that the Israeli government cares about law. Their continued occupation of the West Bank? Declared unlawful by the United Nations.
Their so called security wall? Declared unlawful by the International Court of Justice. Their continued “settlements” in Palestinian territory? It is again unlawful as it is colonialism in all but name.
And what happens to Israel? Nothing. Everybody knows that the United States will always be there in their corner, no matter if it is a Republican government or a Democratic one.
The European countries, perhaps still plagued by guilt from the second world war and fears of being deemed anti-Semitic (though how opposing a government can be seen as being against a religion is beyond me), will cough and make small sounds of disgruntlement but do nothing. In the meantime, people die.
The hypocrisy of the world, including the Arab world (Egypt is now Israel’s best buddy), has been documented time and again by people like Robert Fisk, Edward Said, John Pilger and Noam Chomsky, and can’t be summarised here. And it is this hypocrisy which feeds and fuels radical groups like Isis, thus it endangers not just the west but everyone in the world.
Israel’s actions and the non-action of the planet’s big powers is not the only atrocity that we face.
There are many others, but it is arguably one of the biggest threats to world security.
For if such blatant disregard for law can be executed and surreptitiously endorsed, then what is to stop others from disregarding law?
For me, this is not a religious matter. It matters not one single bit to me that the Palestinians are mainly Muslim and the Israelis are mainly Jewish.
A wrong is a wrong, regardless of who commits it and who suffers from it. Gaza and the barbarity that is being heaped on it is a humanitarian issue. It is a human rights issue. It is an issue with far reaching consequences for world peace.
Unless and until it is dealt with in that way by all the right thinking people in the world, regardless of their own personal faiths, then it would be difficult to see a way out.
For let there be no mistake, governments aren’t doing anything and they will continue to do nothing, unless the citizens upon whom their power depends, demand they do something.

Leadership Crisis in Selangor

Sin Chew Jit Poh
3 August 2014

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The Pakatan coalition does not have an easy job. Because we, as a nation have never had a proper two party system, the opposition will always be faced with the question “can they govern”?
This means that not only do they have to battle a political giant, in the form of the Barisan, with so much wealth and influence at its disposal; they have to battle public perception as well.
In the last two general elections, the people have been supporting the Pakatan in growing numbers. In the last election, they won the popular vote. The sentiment behind this support I believe is because of dissatisfaction with the Barisan and also a sense that “we should give Pakatan a chance”.
Of course, we all know that they did not manage to take Putrajaya, but they did manage to control several state legislatures. After the last election, Penang, Selangor and Kelantan are controlled by Pakatan. Kelantan has been under a PAS administration for many years, and with all due respect to Kelantan, that is not a place where most Malaysians look to see if Pakatan can govern well.
The focus has been on Penang and Selangor. Both states have their issues and problems, but Selangor has been in the spot light recently, for all the wrong reasons.
There is clearly a leadership crisis, with PKR wanting to replace the Menteri Besar, with a new one. This is not a particularly strange thing. The problem is that the whole process has been very messy and it does not engender public confidence in Pakatan.
The messiness takes the form of several things. The public spats between important Pakatan players, is unsightly and undignified. The use of social media to call one another names is childish and gives the distinct impression of immaturity. And naturally it provides ammunition for the coalition’s detractors and enemies.
Also the apparent split between PKR and DAP on one side and PAS on another with regard to the decision of replacing the Menteri Besar reflects a certain fragility in the strength of the coalition. This is made worse by some PAS members making noises about joining forces with the Barisan.In principle, I see no issue with a ruling party wanting to change their leader. There may be good reasons why Khalid should be changed. There are of course those who support him and think that his style, of quietly going about his work without political grandstanding, is a very good thing. Such differing views are natural and healthy; it is up to the Pakatan to decide which argument is stronger and then based on that choose a new Meneteri Besar or stick with the current one.
And as much as I sympathise with Selangor citizens who feel they want things to remain as they are, let us not forget that in our system of governance, the people do not choose the Prime Minister or the Menteri Besar; we choose a party, and they in turn decide who they want to lead. Therefore, if Pakatan want to replace Khalid, that is their prerogative and we the people can either make our feelings known by voicing our disagreement or by voting against them if we feel their choices are bad.
No, changing the Menteri Besar is not the issue. The issue here is the naïve way that disagreement within the Pakatan has been allowed to spill out into the public domain. The issue here is the seemingly growing rift between PAS and its partners. The issue here is that this whole fiasco has made Pakatan look divided and worse still incompetent.
Like I said earlier, I believe that people voted the way they did because they were dissatisfied with Barisan and they wanted to give Pakatan a chance. Pakatan must not depend only on the dissatisfaction of the people; they have been given a chance, they must not waste it.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Avenues for justice for MH17

Brave New World (The Star)
23 July 2014

Suspects can be tried under the principle of universal jurisdiction and if it can be shown that a government was responsible, via the principles of state responsibility, they too can be held accountable.

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THIS is what I know. Malaysia Airlines is not to blame for the deaths of the people on MH17.
The aircraft was flying on a route deemed safe by the authorities. I also know that it is beyond arrogance to presume the deaths of innocents were the result of God’s wrath. Who are these people who think they have an insight into God’s intentions?
This is what I know. A missile shot down MH17.
Somewhere out there, someone or a group of people have killed close to three hundred people. I also know that the scene of the crime has been tainted, probably beyond any salvation, by a group of thugs with automatic rifles.
These thugs have kept investigators away from the site and they have been belligerent and threatening to those whose job is to simply find out exactly what happened. I also know that Russia has been recalcitrant to the extreme.
In a situation like this, one would have thought that allowing independent investigators to the site would be a given. But instead, there had to be a special meeting of the United Nations Security Council called to come out with a declaration that such access has to be allowed.
And Russia, a permanent member of the council, had to be dragged by its stubborn heels before it would agree. Even then, there is still great uncertainty whether this agreement will be reflected by real cooperation on the ground.
At the time of writing, Malaysia is supposed to have received the aircraft’s black boxes, and the remains of those who died are supposed to be on the way back so that their families can lay them to rest.
I hope that the black boxes will be examined properly by experts. Not only to extract the information that they hold, but also to determine whether they have been tampered with.
For days they have been in the control of those who are, in all bluntness, suspects of this horrific crime. One is entitled to be cautious as to the integrity of these pieces of equipment.
Much has been said about the Prime Minister’s supposed timidity in the face of this catastrophe. This may be true, but in a way I am quite sympathetic with his dilemma.
We are a small country with very little clout. The bodies of our dead were in the hands of militarised thugs; the black boxes, so important in the search for the truth, were in the hands of the same people. Antagonising such people may not have been the wisest thing to do.
But now that we have the boxes and that we have the bodies of the deceased, it is time to think about what can be done. It is fairly clear in my mind that an international crime has been committed.
Unfortunately, neither Malaysia, Ukraine or Russia have ratified the Rome Statute and are thus not members of the International Criminal Court. This means that one avenue for justice is problematic, but it does not mean that there aren’t any ­others.
The crime committed can be classified as a crime against humanity and as such gives rise to universal jurisdiction. This means if suspects can be found and apprehended, they can be tried anywhere in the world.
Other grounds of jurisdiction also exist in international law. Trying those responsible for this barbaric act is not difficult.
Neither is such action limited only to those who pulled the trigger. If it can be shown that a government was responsible in some way, for example by the provision of the weapons used to commit homicide, then via the principles of state responsibility, they too can be held accountable.
I can’t imagine the pain and the heartbreak felt by the friends and families of those who died. I will not even try to say some words of comfort for it can only sound hollow.
What I will say is this: there are avenues open to try to find justice. Lord knows that in this world, justice is not necessarily a given. The wicked get away too often. But we must try. For the sake of those we lost, we must try.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Negara-Ku Initiative

Sin Chew Jit Poh
20 July 2014

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The Negara-Ku initiative has been receiving quite a lot of press recently. Fundamentally it is a group of NGOs which have got together with the specific purpose of providing a voice against racism and religious extremism. To counter such practices, they propose that there is a return to good governance, democratic practices and the rule of law.

It is all very basic and simple and I can’t see how any right minded person can oppose it. I guess that is the key term: “right minded”. This is because there are plenty without that quality. Already we see accusations that the group is anti-Malay and anti-Islam. Of course such accusations are completely and utterly without any evidence to show how this can be so.

 
Then there are the usual accusations that the Negara-Ku initiative is really a Pakatan lobby in disguise. Again there is no evidence proffered to such a claim. But then, what else can one expect. If people are actively against non-discrimination and religious tolerance; then logic can’t really be their strong point. To paraphrase the song: “what’s so wrong about peace love and understanding”?

 
One of the challenges about being a liberal is that we respect the right of all people to have their view and to express it. This is very different from the fascists in our midst who are more than happy to shut people up if they don’t agree with them.  So, we must endure the utter rubbish that is spewed by the small minded, and patiently prove them wrong. Ignoring them is not an option. Many in pre-war Germany ignored Hitler as a joke, and see what happened there.

 
I am afraid that bigots and racists must continuously be stood up to, no matter how tiring and boring it gets. The alternative is to give the impression that their worldview is the accepted worldview and this is intolerable.
 
This brings me to another criticism of the Negara-Ku initiative. There are those who, although they agree with the sentiments of the group are questioning the need for its existence. I can see the logic to this criticism because there are lots of NGO’s and NGO coalitions which already speak out for equality and tolerance.


However, to my knowledge, Negara-Ku is specifically and only about this particular issue. It is not really bogged down by election reform, or education, or legal changes, as such. It is there to simply provide a counterpoint to the extremists in the country.

 
And this is very important because the people in Malaysia who are right minded are desperately looking for a voice to speak up against these destructive forces in our country. Not everyone has access to write in the newspaper or to be on television, but this does not mean they do not worry about what is happening to this country of ours.

 
An initiative as focussed as Negara-Ku, specifically dealing with racism and bigotry, and putting up a united front against those who threaten to drive our country into the gutter, is an absolute necessity. This is because like I said earlier, bigots and racists must be faced down and secondly, the good people of this country must know that they are being faced down. Without a concerted opposition to these dark forces, many will lose hope.

 
It is for these reasons that I endorse the Negara-Ku initiative.