Tuesday, 15 April 2014

When making assumptions becomes a sin

Brave New World (The Star)
16 April 2014

From learning comes understanding and knowledge. Knowledge sets us free, for it is ignorance that keeps people fearful.


THERE is a chapter in the Quran which I particularly like. It is Chapter 49, also known as “The Private Rooms”.
I like it for several reasons. It opens with an admonishment to the believers for not behaving respectfully towards the Prophet. This includes things like shouting when talking to him.
But I especially like verses four and five where God tells the believers off for yelling for the Prophet from outside his private rooms instead of waiting patiently for him to come out on his own accord.
This verse humanises the Prophet for surely it shows that he is a man like any other man and he would like some quiet “me time” thank you very much.
When you are God’s messenger, then one can imagine that your followers could get a bit irritating with their constant demands on you, up to the point of going to your home and yelling for you to come out and speak to them. I picture seventh century Medinans could get pretty boisterous.
The chapter goes on about how one group of Muslims should not act as though they are better than another and certainly there should not be any oppression of those who disagree with you.
But the verses I would like to highlight here are verses twelve and thirteen.
Verse twelve warns against the making of assumptions as some assumptions are sinful. Verse thirteen reminds people of their same source, coming as they do from the one man and the one woman and it also states that humans were created of differing tribes and races so that we might know one another.
A stronger call for mutual respect and understanding would be hard to come by.
Which brings me to the Easter Musical advertisements in Seremban.
They are in Bahasa Malaysia (which the last time I checked is the national language and therefore is for all of us), and some groups have said that this is a plot to entice Malays (ie Muslims) to the event and, I suppose, once there; convert them en masse or something equally nefarious.
That is a pretty strong accusation to make; and it is based on an assumption, which as is said in the Quran, could very well be a sinful thing to do.
Furthermore, what is wrong if someone wants to go to an Easter Musical, or any other religious celebration? Are we also not encouraged to “know one another”?
How does one know about other people without learning about what they do? From such learning, there will come understanding and knowledge.
Knowledge sets us free, for it is ignorance that keeps people fearful as there is nothing quite as scary as the unknown. And if we fear others, that is when evil deeds come bubbling up.
Oppression and suppression are cousins to ignorance and fear.
But then, who am I to speak, eh? I am not a graduate from Al-Azhar and I can’t speak Arabic. All I have is a God-given brain and a translation of my Holy Book.
To many people that is simply not good enough. Right then, let’s do this from a secular perspective, shall we?
Firstly, using our national language is not a crime. Secondly, it is a group’s right to advertise their event in whatever language that they want.
Thirdly, it is utterly and completely insulting to people of Malay ethnicity to suggest that they are so simple-minded that they could be enticed to an event simply because it is advertised in Bahasa Malaysia.
To me, whichever way you look at it, religious or secular, this recent example of paranoia is obtuse to the extreme.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

The B-Side April 2014: Farewell to the Dame


Ambiga Barred from UM

Sin Chew Jit Poh
11 April 2014


Ambiga Sreenevasan was barred by university authorities from speaking at an event organised by the students of the Faculty of Law, University of Malaya. The reasons for this barring are a mystery at the moment, but doubtlessly it will have to do with Ambiga’s supposed anti-government stance.

This little episode is of course extremely embarrassing to me because it happened in my Faculty. I wish to make it clear here that the Faculty had nothing to do with the barring. To the best of my knowledge that order came from the Student Affairs Department. It seems odd that a university would not understand the principle of free speech, seeing as how this is a right which is intrinsically linked to the concept of academic freedom. But then, I have long ceased to be surprised at how some people who should value certain principles simply don’t do so.
Be that as it may, what I wish to discuss here is about the reaction to this little blot on UM’s reputation. Perusing the comments pages of several internet news sites, there appears to be this constant cry about how lousy Malaysian universities are and how they are certainly not world class. This is all well and good, but one has to ask the question; what do we mean when we say “world class”?

Some commentators point to the various international rankings that show Malaysian universities as being low on the list. This is a good reference point, if what you are concerned about is purely academic publications, number of international staff and students, and the reputation of the university amongst their peers.

My point is that even if a university is utterly devoid of freedom for their students, that is to say, their student body are strictly controlled and they have no room to organise themselves; this does not mean that they will necessarily do badly on the ranking tables because student freedom is not one of the criteria that these ranking organisations look at.

Conversely, having an independent, free and autonomous student body does not mean that the university will shoot up the rankings. Therefore, I am very cautious about using international rankings as the only method of judging a university’s quality.

Having said that, any university worth its salt must provide the maximum freedom to its staff and students. Staff must be free to research what they want and to publish and speak about that research. Student autonomy has to be respected in the form of independent self-governance, and their intellectual, social and political endeavours must not be controlled by university authorities.

Will such measures make a university “world class”? Frankly I don’t know and I don’t care. What it will do is ensure vibrant research and publication on the part of their academic staff and a student body that will be independent, mature and intellectually unafraid. This by itself is something to be proud off. Unfortunately, these values do not seem to be high on the agenda of our universities. World class or not, high rankings or not, this shortcoming makes them all the poorer.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Rakyat Times: A Scheme To Keep The Malays Intelectually Simple

10 April 2014


It seems the link above is broken so I have posted the article below:


It came as no surprise that the government has decided to ban the film “Noah”. It goes against Islamic teachings apparently. I think most Malaysians would consider this a petty issue. To a certain extent they are correct. After all, if you really want to watch the movie, I can guarantee that you’ll be able to get it from your friendly neighbourhood DVD pirate soon. The only thing you will miss out on is the big screen experience.

 However, I see more than just a loss of a cinematic treat. There is of course the clear threat to artistic freedom and the danger of future threats using Islam as an excuse. I mean, gambling is against Islam, so does this mean that movies like “The Sting” and “Maverick” can’t be shown here?

But, what I am concerned about is a more subtle point than that. Over the last few years there appears to be a concerted effort to ensure that the Muslim population in this country are treated like simple minded children. What they are allowed to read, watch and listen to is to be determined by a bunch of unelected men who have taken it upon themselves to be the moral guardians of the Muslim populace.

I think it is not morality they are concerned about. Sure, they will say it is about protecting souls from hellfire and all that, but I think the real objective is to ensure that Muslims in this country are kept intellectually stunted. When you are told what you can consume intellectually, then it will lead only to a stagnation of the mind. A laziness of the brain which will result in a populace that not only can’t think independently but will also just follow whatever the authority figure tells them.

That is the ultimate prize, to have close to sixty per cent of the population stupid, unquestioning and docile. In that way you can hang on to your power indefinitely. The ban on “Noah”, the Ultraman comic book and Irshad Manji’s “Allah, Liberty and Love”, they may look like bans on vastly diverse works, but their banning it is all part of the same scheme; to keep the Malays in this country intellectually simple.

And it does seem to be working. We are already living in an intellectually slow country. This is why certain groups with their wicked causes gain such traction. Use the right words and terms; for example “we are defending Islam”, or “we are defending Malays”, and all sense of rational thought will go out the window and you will have a bunch of unquestioning followers.

Do people have a right to object to the film “Noah”? Sure they do, just as they have a right to object to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”. Should they have a right to ban it and determine what I can or cannot watch? No they don’t. For it is my right to read, watch and listen to what I want. You can tell me what I am doing is wrong in your opinion, but no man should be able to stop me and only God has the right to determine if I have sinned.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Disturbing legal implications

Brave New World (The Star)
2 April 2014

Two recent cases raise the issue of what amounts to sedition and why one can’t question or challenge a ‘fatwa’.


THE recent conviction of Karpal Singh under the Sedition Act and the charging of Kassim Ahmad under the Federal Territories Syariah offences law raise some disturbing questions with serious implications as to where we are headed as a democratic nation.
First, let us look at the Sedition Act. The trouble with this law, a remnant of British colonialism, is two-fold. First, its basic premise is that criticism of authority should be controlled. This in itself is already an affront to democracy.
Second is its open-ended nature. Just what exactly amounts to sedition, for example. However, up until the Karpal Singh case, I thought there was one defence in the Sedition Act that was pretty strong.
Something is not seditious if you are pointing out that the object of your criticism has done something wrong, especially in the context of their constitutional limitations. This appears so clear to me that it seemed unlikely any court could find a way around it.
Alas, that is exactly what seems to have happened to Karpal. He basically said that the decision made by the Sultan of Perak of choosing a new Mentri Besar for the state in 2009 could be questioned in court.
I can’t for the life of me see what is seditious about that. Is the Sultan limited by the Constitution and the law in the discharge of his powers? Yes, of course he is. And if there is a dispute as to whether he acted lawfully or not, could he not be questioned? Again, of course he should, for we live in a constitutional and not an absolute monarchy.
And lastly, if there is to be a questioning of the acts of a member of the royalty, is there a lawful manner with which this can be done? Again the answer is yes, because we have the Special Court which was designed specifically for the royals and inserted into our Constitution by the Government.
Even within the authoritarian nature of the Sedition Act, there seem to be limits as to what can be deemed seditious. I thought those limits were clear enough. It appears that I am wrong.
What is of concern is that even when an act clearly falls within the allowable limits of a law, this does not appear to make any difference at all. Thus, the reach of a poor law becomes even greater and all that much more oppressive.
The second thing I want to talk about is the charging of Kassim Ahmad. This case raises some serious problems with some of the Syariah laws we have in this country.
According to the Syariah Offences law of the Federal Territories, it is an offence to question and speak in contradiction to a fatwa made by the mufti.
This fatwa need not be gazetted, that is to say made into law, just its mere exclamation is enough to give it weight of law. Needless to say, fatwas which have been gazetted can’t be questioned either.
Firstly, one wonders why one can’t question or challenge a law? If a fatwa is gazetted and made into law, what makes it different from any other law? Why can’t it be challenged? I can criticise the Contracts Act so why can’t I criticise any other thing which affects my life?
But what is really disturbing is the fact that a fatwa, which is after all merely an opinion, can carry the weight of law even without going through the legislative process of debate and voting. This in effect means that one person’s words suddenly become akin to a law for we cannot challenge it and if we do we can face a fine and jail.
This is frightfully undemocratic and can lead to some horrific scenarios. What if a mufti passes a fatwa saying that any sort of dissension against the civil government is wrong?
According to the Federal Territories law, any challenge of fatwa can be punished. What kind of democracy are we living in if a person’s statement by itself can have such authority?
Much has been said about how Malaysia is edging towards a more liberal and open democracy. Laws have been repealed or changed and steps (albeit baby steps) have apparently been taken.
What these two events show is that there are still some very undemocratic laws in existence, they are still being used and any hope that we are becoming more democratic is hopelessly naïve.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Post Kajang By Election

Sin Chew Jit Poh
28 March 2014


The Kajang by election is now over. It did not capture the imagination of Malaysians as a whole because naturally we were more concerned about the fate of the tragic flight MH370. Now that it is all done and the PKR has won as expected, what can we learn from this little political episode?


Very little actually. The result was not a surprise as I don’t think many people thought that the BN would win. Neither did anyone really think that the BN would lose their deposit. Lim Kit Siang’s call for the by election to be a referendum against the BN and its treatment of Anwar Ibrahim was perhaps a tad optimistic. The fact of the matter is that the conviction of Anwar Ibrahim is not going to convince BN supporters to switch sides.


No matter how unjust it may seem to his supporters, the shock of his first trial and poor treatment at the hands of the authorities is something that lies in the past. The lines are now already drawn and those who support the Opposition and those who support the BN are more or less fixed as can be seen by the almost identical results of the Kajang by-election.


Of course both sides have decided to spin the results in their favour. The MCA claim that they are slowly getting back Chinese support while the PKR has pointed to the fact that they have obtained a bigger percentage of the votes and that there are signs that the Malay vote and the youth vote are in their favour.


They both may well be correct, however the numbers we are talking about are very small plus the low voter turnout also means that any analysis could not be very accurate. So where does this leave the political situation in Selangor?


Actually, as far as I can see it is back to square one. The whole reason that PKR forced the by election was to get Anwar into the Selangor state legislature and then hopefully have him appointed Menteri Besar. That can’t happen now and so everything remains the same as before.


Anwar cannot be the white knight to take over the state government and in doing so be on hand to directly deal with the sensitive political situations that their enemies will be raising (like the Allah issue). Neither could he now be the head man and therefore put an end to the supposed Azmin/Khalid rivalry.


We are left exactly where we started except a lot of time, expense and effort has gone into a by-election. What happens now is completely up to the PKR and their Pakatan partners. If there is a feud in PKR between Azmin and Khalid, are they going to let it get out of hand? Will the lust for power get in the way of the bigger picture? And what is the bigger picture? It is both pragmatic and ideological.


The pragmatic aspect is to continue to show the country that the Pakatan can rule (albeit at the state level) and do a good job of it. On the ideological level, it is up to them to show that they are concerned more about the positive development of the country rather than any petty political infighting and power grabbing.


It sounds so simple, but human nature has a way of making simple things complicated. The ball is now in the Pakatan’s court. It is up to them to provide an alternative the nation can embrace or they can show that politicians will always be nothing more than politicians, regardless of their party.