Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Azmi Sharom on the 12th General Election

News Clips (Malaysiakini)
27 February 2008

Malaysiakini's 2008 Election Special with law lecturer Dr Azmi Sharom

Camera: Maran Perianen
Editing: Indrani Kopal

(Original link: Azmi Sharom on the 12th General Election)

Don’t Be Afraid of Open Debate

Brave New World (The Star)
21 February 2008

Ideas are meant to be put through the crucible of debate; otherwise, they will never develop and never change."


Last week, it was announced that our next general election would be on March 8. About two weeks ago, 11 books were banned. Both things are related because they both are about the ability of Malaysians to make a choice.

And freedom, ultimately, is about the ability to make choices.

The 11 banned books are all about Islam. Some are arguments against Islam and some are what have been dubbed “liberal” interpretations of Islam.

Of all these books, I have read only one and that is Islam & Pluralisme. It is a collection of essays translated and edited by Al-Mustaqeem Mahmood Radhi.

Personally, I found the essays fascinating. They generally argue that pluralism exists in Islam and this can be seen in Quranic verses as well as in the actions of the Prophet Mohamed.

The underlying principle of those who support pluralism is the acceptance that all religions at their heart attempt to bring their followers closer to God.

With this as a core idea, it follows that all faiths must be given equal respect. This is an ideology of peace. It is an ideology of understanding and inclusiveness. It is the antithesis of exclusivity and arrogant bigotry.

It escapes me how a book that proposes such ideals can be banned. The only conclusion I can come to is that those in authority disagree with pluralism and they want to make sure that the Malaysian public are not privy to any arguments for it.

It boils down to what is basically the tyranny of thought: we disagree with these ideas and we will jolly well do all in our power to prevent you from reading about them.

Obviously, this stand against pluralism has its roots in dogma and, equally obviously, those who want the book banned are of the opinion that pluralism, or at least pluralism as suggested by this book, is un-Islamic.

It is their right to hold such an opinion, but to deny citizens the freedom to explore other opinions is not only authoritarian; it is also an insult to the intelligence of Malaysians.

Ideas are meant to be put through the crucible of debate; otherwise, they will never develop and never change. And the stagnation of ideas will ultimately mean the stagnation of human progress. This is why the banning of books is so destructive.

Regardless of what these books may contain, no matter how vile one feels their contents are, the only way to oppose it is by intelligent debate.

If an idea is bad, destroy it intellectually, or risk seeing it grow silently underground. And if you can’t destroy it intellectually, then perhaps it is time to re-examine your own world-view.

At the end of the day, banning books is stealing from us the right to make informed choices. Informed choices are also what elections are about.

Without the necessary information on all the political parties and candidates being made available to the voters, without full disclosure of the incumbent government’s record being done, elections become farcical.

Thank heavens for the Internet. It has given an avenue for Net-linked citizens to find out about events and ideas that may not be available in the more traditional media.

However, those who do not have access to cyberspace are still beholden to the usual sources of information. And these sources are in turn beholden to the incumbent government through restrictive laws (coincidentally the same laws that are used to ban books).

We are a democracy, true enough, but we are an infantile democracy. And the primary reason for this puerile state of affairs is mainly the lack of truly open debate in politics.

This, coupled with general cynicism about issues such as gerrymandering, has led to many citizens being totally disdainful of the entire election process. Personally, I think this is a defeatist view and I shall be voting in this election if I am able.

Monday, 25 February 2008

The Hardest Choice is Usually the Right One

Brave New World (The Star)
24 January 2008

Education should not be about getting good pass rates; it is about challenging and stretching the minds of our young people."


Every day we make decisions. Most are pretty easy, for example, choosing what to have for lunch. Unless, of course, you are making an office group lunch decision. That would require professional negotiators.

Other decisions are harder though, especially those where the benefits won’t accrue for a long time and may in fact cause hardship for the decision maker in the short term. Two recent events got me to thinking along these lines.

First was the Bali Action Plan on Climate Change, and second the recent decision by the Ministry of Education to dumb down the literature component in the Form Five Bahasa Malaysia paper.

The recent UN climate change meeting in Bali produced an action plan which had serious implications for developing countries.

In a nutshell, international climate change laws require developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 5% below 1990 levels by 2012. Developing countries only have a general obligation to reduce their emissions.

In international law, general obligations usually mean you don’t have to do very much at all. However, the Bali Action Plan has proposed that developing countries take measurable action to do their bit in fighting global warming. These activities are also to be monitored.

Therefore, our efforts will now be assessed and scrutinised. Although this falls short of an actual target on greenhouse gas reduction, it does mean that it will be harder to get away with doing nothing at all.

Malaysia has agreed to this Action Plan, and now it is up to our Government to take the necessary measures to live up to it. Already, the Department of Environment has planned to establish a multi-departmental body to look into measures to mitigate the effects of climate change.

This is an important step. Climate change is happening, and the effects are being felt by us right now.

For example, climate change has not affected the average rainfall in our country, but it has affected the intensity of rainfall. That is to say, we get the same amount of rain but it tends to come in more concentrated downpours. The most obvious repercussion of this is flooding.

We thus have to make sure that the citizens of this nation do not suffer any more than we need to by taking into our planning considerations the various possible effects of climate change.

But according to the plan, we have to do more. We also have to seriously start reducing our own greenhouse gas emissions. These types of action will undoubtedly be unpopular among some quarters, but the Government must take the necessary steps regardless.

It must have the moral courage to do the right thing, even though any benefits that we may get from such action won’t be felt until the current crop of ministers are dead, or at least out of office.

Combating climate change is vital because the future of our children is at stake. Ensuring that our education system is as good as it can be is vital also for the same reason.

The decision by the Education Ministry to introduce “pop culture” books into the syllabus of Form Five Bahasa Malaysia, at the expense of books by our National Laureates (because they are supposedly too difficult), is doing a great disservice to our children.

The Malay language literati have been up in arms at this decision – and rightly so – because they find it an insult to our language and our literary giants.

I agree. And it also shows very poor decision-making. When faced with the problem of students being unable to comprehend “more difficult work”, the answer is not to make the work easier because that would be lowering educational standards.

Sure, you might get a better pass rate, but at what cost? Education should not be about getting good pass rates; it is about challenging and stretching the minds of our young people.

Without this mental challenge we will be producing a generation of ignoramuses and this cannot possibly be good for the country.

As harsh as this may sound, exams are created to separate those who are academically inclined and those who are not. Making sure everybody passes means that that distinction can’t be made, and this in the long run would mean the wrong people would be doing the wrong thing.

There is no shame in not getting the right kinds of grades in order to move on academically. Some of our kids are that way inclined, and some are not. For those who are not, opportunities must be given to them to find their own path.

I work at the end of the academic chain and, believe me, if a student comes in when he should not be there, he suffers, his fellow students suffer, the lecturers suffer, the institution suffers and, ultimately, the nation suffers.

It’s so easy to just say “Let’s make the literature component simple so it won’t be tough on the kids”. It’s hard to say “Let’s make sure our teaching is better and more innovative so that these kids can understand”.

It’s easy to say “Let’s just keep on doing what we are doing and develop our economy like there’s no tomorrow”. It’s hard to say “Let’s make sure we don’t develop at the expense of tomorrow”.

We are faced with decisions constantly. We have to make choices where the easy one may be awfully tempting. But often, it is the hardest choice which is the right one.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

What's Dear to the Malaysian Heart

Malaysia Today (unpublished Brave New World)
08 January 2008

It would appear that sexual indiscretion is a concept that repulses us on a basic level whereas financial misdeeds are too distant, too impersonal, for the same kind of righteousness to flare."


I’ve really got to thank Chua Soi Lek. The number of jokes that have been zipping around for the past week or so has been amazing. My personal favourite is about the new Ministry of Health warning on packets of contraceptives. Brilliant stuff (e-mail me if you haven’t heard it).

Personally, I could not care less that he has resigned. After all Barisan Nasional politicians are not exactly an endangered species. There are loads of them lurking about and to replace one is not a problem. Furthermore, they look and behave very much like each other in my opinion. Rather like zebras.

It’s funny though that it takes a lurid video to make this resignation happen (incidentally, I haven’t seen said video, primarily because the sight of middle aged men getting it on is likely to give me nightmares). It appears that sex scandals are the thing to get politicians into serious trouble.

I mean outrageous mismanagement of public funds like the Port Klang Free Zone fiasco, where land worth 95 million ringgit in 1999 was bought in 2002 by the Port Klang Authority, a government agency, for 1.08 billion, seems to have been forgotten. Sure there was a cursory investigation by the Public Accounts Committee, but as yet there is no answer to the basic question of how land can jump ten times in price over three years, and how the PKA can be so imprudent as to pay that price. The PKA has been chaired by MCA politicians for almost twenty years. But since they all have kept their pants on or at least have not been video taped with their pants off, no heads rolled.

It is the same overseas too. Bill Clinton was impeached because he had a thing for girls with big hair (which reminds me of my Canadian African pal who said Clinton had such bad taste in women that if he were to put on a big wig, Bill would hit on him too). And yet when George W Bush lied to the nation about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, sending the nation to war causing the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, nothing happened to him. Semen stains on an intern’s dress obviously carry more weight than blood on a president’s hands.

What is it about people that something as petty as sex gets them all hot and bothered? Sorry, let me rephrase that. Why does sordid sex get people all angry and righteous when other types of scandals don’t? At least not to the point that politicians lose their job. Our Puritanism seems to be reserved for the squalid as opposed to the kinds off issues which affect us all, like the less titillating matter of the PKFZ.

Perhaps we are only able to feel upset over an issue when it is something we can understand on a gut level as opposed to a more intellectual level. If this is the case, it would appear that sexual indiscretion is a concept that repulses us on a basic level whereas financial misdeeds are too distant, too impersonal, for the same kind of righteousness to flare.

Shouldn’t public matters be more of a concern than private matters? I appreciate the argument that Chua is setting a bad example to our youth and all that, although because I am not his wife, I frankly can’t be bothered about what he does in his spare time. I am however bothered about our eroding fundamental liberties, detention without trial, misuse of public funds, corruption, an ailing judiciary, the loss of our secular democracy, abuse of power and leadership driven by political expediency. Call me crazy, but I think these things are more vital then a copulating codger.

Chua is definitely no saint. He is definitely no hero either, as some might want us to believe. He is just some old guy who could not keep his John Thomas in check. That’s all, nothing more, nothing less, and if we want to crucify him for being ham sap, there are many others, the corrupt, the incompetent and the wicked, who deserve the same.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Nothing New in New Year

Brave New World (The Star)
27 December 2007

It should suggest progress but over time, the magic of the new year has waned."


For a long time now I have disliked the New Year. I enjoy New Year's Day. After all, it’s a public holiday and public holidays are wonderful things.

It’s New Year's Eve that I don’t like. The jollity and counting down the seconds all feel a bit false. “C’mon have a good time, it’s New Year's Eve!” It may be New Year's Eve to you mate, but to me it’s Monday night.

I didn’t always feel this way. Many, many years ago when I was a small boy, New Year Eve was a big deal.

It was the night before a new year. Imagine that, a brand spanking New Year, shiny and fresh, pregnant with promise.

I would stay up till midnight eager to watch the birth of nineteen whatever it was. I don’t know what I was hoping for – something magical, I guess. It was as though the New Year brought us closer to a brighter future, one with flying cars.

But over time, every New Year started to feel just like the old one. The same old problems, and not a personal jet pack to be found. 2008 appears to be no different. Sometimes I think we are stuck in time.

New years suggest progress, but there is scant evidence of this around, at least politically. When the Prime Minister came into power, he promised more openness in government. And this supposed openness has been touted by his people as a sign of a maturing democracy. Indeed there was a brief period when things were looking rather hopeful on that front.

However, his government needs to work harder on this.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Greater openness will mean dissent, will mean conflict, and will mean the outpouring of anger. You just have to deal with it. And dealing with it does not mean the use of the ISA.

Neither does there appear to be any intellectual progress. The recent fiasco regarding the use of the word Allah by a Catholic newsletter, culminating in the effective ban on the publication, reflects a thinking that is mind numbingly infantile.

There is the false declaration that Allah is a Muslim word to be used only by Muslims. There was no attempt by the powers that be to answer publicly to the fact that the word is Arabic and means literally The God. “Al” means “the” and “Lah” means “God”.

Furthermore, the Abrahamic religions all have the same root language. This being the case, it is not correct to say that Allah as a word is exclusive to Muslims.

Linguistic quibbles aside, what gets to me is the presumption that Malaysian Muslims will get confused if they were to ever get a hold of this Catholic newsletter and see the word Allah in it.

For one thing, it is not as if this newsletter is on sale openly. It can’t be anyway because there are laws preventing the producers from doing so.

For another thing, I think that a Muslim who may chance upon a copy would probably be able to tell that this is a Christian publication. The references to Jesus being the son of God and that sort of thing would probably give it away.

It’s a new year, but we are still plodding along in the same old way. Living in a stunted democracy where to expect intelligent discourse from those who wield the reins of power seems too much to hope for. Rather like waiting for flying cars and personal jet packs.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

An Ill-advised Choice

Brave New World (The Star)
13 December 2007

We need to examine and improve the appointment system of judges. This has to be done by a Royal Commission that is totally impeccable."


At the time of writing, Tottenham Hotspurs are languishing in 16th place in the English Premier League. For a team so full of talented goal scorers, this is a very sad place to be indeed.

Even in this miserable season, we have scored more goals than almost anyone. Unfortunately we also let in more goals than almost anyone.

A lot of hope was placed on Juande Ramos, the ex-coach of Sevilla, when he replaced Martin Jol a few months ago. (That was a sorry episode in Spurs history – Jol should not have been dismissed in the manner he was, but that is another story).

That hope is now teetering a little bit. Sure, we have qualified for the next round of the UEFA Cup, but our league results are ordinary at best and dismal at worst (losing 2-3 to Birmingham when we were leading, for God’s sake!).

It is always the case that when a new boss comes in, hopes are raised that there will be positive changes.

Ramos arrived at White Hart Lane with the amazing reputation of shaping Sevilla, a moderate team in the Spanish Primera Liga, into two-time UEFA Cup champions. Last year, he even got them into the Champions League.

His skill – and this made Spurs fans drool – was that he was able to maintain Sevilla’s attacking flair while at the same time shoring up their defence.

We have plenty of attacking flair – Robbie Keane is an Irish terrier, Jermaine Defoe a wonderful little poacher, and Dmitar Berbatov, when he is actually aware he is on the pitch, produces magic.

Our defence, on the other hand, especially without the injured Ledley King, kind of flaps about.

However, even with such an awesome reputation, Ramos has not produced the miracle that Spurs seem to need. One has to be patient, I suppose. After all, he has proven himself in Spain.

Unlike Zaki Azmi, the new Court of Appeal president. As a judge, he has proven himself not at all. He was appointed to the Federal Court in September and now, a scant three months later, he is heading the second highest court in the land.

It is all rather bizarre, especially in the light of recent events like the Lingam tapes and the judiciary facing a crisis of confidence. Now, for all we know, Nazri Aziz MP might be correct when he says that Zaki Azmi is a jolly good fellow, who is as straight as they come.

But I am afraid this is just not quite good enough in this day and age. Especially when one considers the intimate links that Zaki has with the ruling party.

At a time when executive interference with the judiciary is such a sore point, the person who is chosen to head the Court of Appeal, and very possibly to head the entire judiciary when the present Chief Justice retires in about a year’s time, was the legal adviser, chairman of the election committee and deputy chairman of the disciplinary board of the main party in the Cabinet.

At this stage of the Malaysian judiciary’s history, his appointment strikes me as, at the very best, a rather ill-advised choice. It is hardly the sort of choice to instil confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary.

Let me make myself clear, I am in no way suggesting Zaki is less than honest. I don’t know him. But that is the point.

As a citizen, I should be given the necessary information to have some sort of inkling as to why Zaki was chosen over many far more senior judges. (As he has been a judge for only three months, this means that almost everyone on the bench is his senior.)

Just what are the qualities that make him so well suited for this important post? Of course, the selection of judges in this country is shrouded in secrecy, and it is unlikely we will ever find out.

What this appointment has shown is that the judicial system in our country desperately needs an overhaul. The Royal Commission that has been promised us should be given the authority to look at the entire system and not be limited to just the Lingam tapes issue.

In particular, we need to examine and improve the appointment system of judges.

It goes without saying that this has to be done by a Royal Commission that is totally impeccable lest the debacle that we find ourselves in just continues.

Monday, 18 February 2008

The Ballot Box and Protests

Brave New World (The Star)
29 November 2007

For democracy to have any sort of meaning, it must be part of our lives every day ."


Kuala Lumpur has been a busy place of late. Roads closed, people marching around, sometimes in colour-coordinated outfits. It all made our capital that much more hectic and more colourful than usual.

Politicians too have been more hectic and colourful than usual.

The common thread of comments from members of the ruling party is that all these protesters are merely tools of the Opposition and, besides, we are a democracy and you can always let your feelings be known at the ballot box. Why take to the streets? It is not our way.

Allow me to deal with these two points: the ballot box and the idea that protesting is not “our way”.

Let’s look at the ballot box first. Every four of five years, it rises up from its resting place and it is supposedly all the democracy we need.

This is a bit of a silly idea because democracy is not like some mythical beast that slumbers for years and then rears its head every now and then to be fed.

Democracy, if it is to have any sort of meaning, must be part of our lives every day.

If one were to think that the ballot box is the be-all and end-all of democracy, then one is playing a zero-sum game.

It’s all or nothing, either you are with us or against us.

This is an oversimplification of George Bush proportions.

It is not just opposition people who engage with the Government. Ordinary people and civil society want to have a say, too.

Furthermore, there are people who support or even like most of what the ruling party does but disagree with some of its decisions. Surely, they have the right to voice their concerns?

That right of dissent is a vital component in a democracy, as it helps to ensure that governments are aware that their responsibility and culpability to citizens is something that exists all the time.

The question is how that dissent should be expressed.

Yes, the ballot box is one way but it is pretty much an all-or-nothing method of dissent.

One example of its downside is the slow registration process.

I know of young people who have registered to vote for months and yet their names still do not appear in the register.

Just how difficult is it to place someone on the electoral roll?

In this age of computers and MyKad, it should be a matter of hours or at the most days. Not months.

Furthermore, I can’t see the logic of having some large parliamentary seats with many voters and some tiny ones with very few.

The division of constituencies is such that in the last general election, on average the ruling party needed 16,000 votes to get a seat while the opposition parties needed 180,000 votes for each of their seats.

Another method of dissent is through the press. An argument against a dissenting press is that a totally free press is dangerous and the people are not ready for it.

Well, no one is saying that the press has to be totally free. Everybody is bound by laws.

The issue in question is the extent of repression that those laws exert.

As long as the Printing Presses and Publications Act exists, we can say that our press, despite good intentions, is on a short leash.

How much coverage can you give to dissenting voices when the object of those voices’ anger could whip away your licence to publish at any time?

What other methods are available then to show dissent? Handing in politely worded documents to the powers that be is all well and good, but sometimes an issue is so big that people want to express themselves.

They want to come together in a show of solidarity and to make as big an impact as possible.

For example, when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice turned up, there were people in the streets.

Maybe what is really meant is that opposing the government on the streets is not “our way”.

But then didn’t Umno organise demonstrations against the Malayan Union? That was opposing the government, wasn’t it?

Oh yes, that was in a different situation. There were no ballot boxes and the press was controlled by the British.

A democracy needs dissent. It needs a free press; it needs people to express themselves.

Anything less is disrespecting our inalienable and fundamental freedoms.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

It’s a Tricky Proposition

Brave New World (The Star)
1 November 2007


The separation of powers is a strange concept indeed. On the face of it, it appears to be a simple enough thing. The three branches of government – the executive (Cabinet), the legislature (Parliament) and the judiciary – have to be separate and independent of one another.

This is to ensure that each body acts as a check and balance against the other, ultimately protecting the citizens from any form of despotic government.

But things are never so clear-cut. Because we use the Westminster model of parliament, our executive is selected from the majority party in the legislature.

Therefore, the Cabinet members sit in two branches of the Government. And party politics being what it is, the majority party in the legislature in turn will be loyal to the Cabinet.

In some more mature democracies, you may see rebellion within the ranks, where MPs of the ruling party vote against the proposals of the Cabinet, but that does not happen here.

The legislature thus cannot be said to be a very effective check and balance to the executive. Especially since that second branch of the legislature, the Senate, is appointed directly by the executive.

This makes it all the more important in this country to have a strong and independent judiciary – one that can make sure the Cabinet does not behave in a way that exceeds its powers and that the legislature does not make laws that are unlawful according to the Constitution.

Again, we see that things are not so cut-and-dried.

The judiciary, at least in this country, is selected to all intents and purposes by the Prime Minister, who is the head of the executive.

There is nothing particularly unique here, this happens in many other countries, too, where the lines between the executive and the judiciary are blurred.

In the US, for example, the President chooses the judges of the Supreme Court. Like I said, separation of powers is a strange concept indeed.

However, there are key differences between places like the US and Malaysia. For one thing, governments change over there.

So, even if a conservative President chooses a conservative judge, he will be sitting on a Bench that is populated also with liberal judges chosen by an earlier liberal President.

Furthermore, once the man (until Hilary Clinton actually wins, it’s still “man”) is out of the Oval Office, then any sort of personal allegiance (if any) will also disappear.

And here is the crunch – judges in the US have a job for life. They sit in their robes on their judge’s chair until the law clerks have to pry their cold, dead bodies from it.

And what is more, there has been no firing of judges; so that means they can do their jobs without any fear or favour.

Back home, this is obviously not the case. The removal of Salleh Abbas in 1988 showed us that judges could be dismissed in a method that is legally unsound and procedurally dubious.

Up till that point, although our judiciary had the tendency of being rather conservative and timid, it had been independent. And perhaps more importantly, it was respected due to that independence.

Since 1988, things have changed, leading to what I would say is a crisis in the judiciary.

Now, we can bury our heads in the sands of political convenience and self-interest and just say, “Crisis? What crisis?” but that would be ignoring the reality.

Realities like the High Court judge who was so fed-up with the state of the judiciary and the behaviour of some of its members (including the top judge of the time) that he had to resort to writing a surat layang in the mid-90s to vent his anger.

The fact that no disciplinary or defamation action has been taken against this judge speaks volumes.

Or, another High Court judge who said in his final judgement that when deciding over the validity of a by-election in 2001, he was actually instructed to decide in a particular way.

And now, of course, the infamous video clip showing, allegedly, a lawyer brokering the post of the Chief Justice like a contractor brokering a tender.

This is not to suggest that the judiciary is a lost cause.

There are still judges who make decisions which surprise and astound, not so much by their brilliance, because the principles espoused in the judgements are fundamental and basic, but because one has all but given up hope that such simple concepts of justice could be seen and heard in our courts.

Justice Hishamudin Mohamad Yunus is one such man, consistently upholding Constitutional principles over draconian laws. One hopes that he will remember that a legacy such as his is far more important than the trappings of high office.

But he is one man. And even though there are others like him, the institution itself is under threat.

All the sad events mentioned earlier suggest this and by themselves deserve serious and independent investigation. Put together, they demand it.

The separation of powers is a fragile thing. In reality there are many grey areas, especially in the appointment process, but if the integrity of the men and women who make up the three bodies of the Government is intact, then those grey areas fade to nothingness because the practice of separation of powers becomes as pure as possible.

In a system where a politician can say the Chief Judge is answerable to him, where the Federal Court can actually say the separation of powers and democracy are not the aspirations of the Constitution, the separation of powers is clearly as ephemeral as a dream, and it is high time something is done to make sure the judiciary is once again clean and independent.

If we don’t demand this, then one day the protection that the Bench is supposed to provide will disappear entirely. We will be living in a country that is not a democracy, and we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Wah! We are Now a Space Power

Brave New World (The Star)
18 October 2007


You might not know this, but there have been a lot of unhappy rumblings in Malaysian society regarding our space programme.

Actually, that is not accurate. We don’t really have a “space programme”, do we? After all, it’s not like we are pushing the technological frontiers and designing cutting-edge manned spacecraft.

No, to be more precise, we have an astronaut-training programme. Whoa, whoa, that is not true either. We didn’t train anyone; we paid the Russians to train our astronaut.

Oh, blow it all. That is still wrong. He is not an astronaut; he is a cosmonaut. The terms, according to Nasa, mean different things but, according to the Russians (and us), they mean the same thing.

Oh, this is all so confusing. All right, all right, let us start over again.

You might not know this, but there have been a lot of unhappy rumblings in Malaysian society regarding our paying the Russians buckets of money – the amount of which the Malaysian public is not 100% sure about – to train a bloke to be a spaceman (as accurate a definition I can think of, because he is a man and he is in space).

Yes, it is true. This wonderful achievement of the country – to find a handsome, clean-cut, healthy, intelligent fellow and pay someone else to get him into space – is being sneered at in some cynical quarters.

If you happen to be one of those people, I say to you: tsk, tsk, tsk. Where is your sense of patriotism? Where is your child-like optimism?

Going into space is a big deal. Just ask Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth, two space tourists who did not have the luxury of buying Russian jet fighters to contra the costs of their cosmic flights. Coincidentally, one of the nasty things people are calling our Malaysian spaceman is “space tourist”.

For your information, unlike the two gentlemen mentioned above, our spaceman is not a tourist. No, no, no. He is going to do experiments, important experiments.

Apart from important experiments, he is going to be doing so much good in other ways. For example, he has opened the doors of opportunity for ordinary Malaysians. One of these days, I might go to space. To conduct experiments.

Don’t laugh because it is possible, for if the good doctor has proven anything, it is that if the Government is willing to spend a bit of money, anyone can go to space. Kind of like a galactic AirAsia.

Let us not forget all those little schoolchildren who are being inspired as you read this. They are going to know that Malaysia Boleh.

We can do all sorts of things. We are now a space power!

The next time their school computer lab collapses, or their teachers get demoralised due to poor pay, they can tell themselves that it all does not matter because we are a space power!

Last but not least, the spaceman is going to land on earth brimming with new scientific know-how. I am sure he will be able to use this newfound knowledge to help the country.

There is a great deal of high-tech equipment around that keeps malfunctioning. The traffic lights on Jalan Universiti, Kuala Lumpur, used to have a countdown, but it doesn’t work now.

And all that experience with space station to earth video conferencing will come in mighty useful in Dataran Merdeka, where the super high-tech giant TV screen broke down just when eager patriotic Malaysians gathered to watch the Soyuz rocket blast off.

So, all you naysayer types are very wrong and misguided. You should be like me and embrace our spaceman programme. Sit back and think of the glory that is “Malaysia the Space Power” while you unwrap a Raya ketupat.

Wait a minute; that is a great idea for a space experiment. How does unwrapping Raya ketupats fare in zero gravity ??

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Justice and Fairness are Universal Values

Brave New World (The Star)
4 October 2007

"Life is not all black and white. It’s much more complex, and in between elections issues will arise which need not be motivated by partisan politics."


In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a trend among some politicians. When faced with any sort of difference of opinion by civil society, they blame the opposition parties.

It would appear that the opposition parties are the masterminds behind disagreements with the powers that be. And all groups that disagree with the government are tools of the opposition.

The Trade Unions: tools. University students not of the Aspirasi group: tools. The Bar Council: tools.

Wow! I did not realise that the opposition were such a powerful lot.

They have done so much to disguise their power. Really, they are like the ninjas of the political world. You think they are not there, but they are.

And they have all these amazing magical skills to make intelligent men and women pawns – or, to use the right terminology: tools.

Who would have thought that possible? After all, the opposition have a total of only 20 seats in Parliament, out of 219. Not only that, but considering how powerful and influential they are, they have had to sweat to get those measly 20 seats.

Taking the total number of votes cast and the total number of seats available, on average, the BN needed 16,000 votes to win a seat. The DAP needed 50,000; PAS had to get 150,000 and Keadilan needed a whopping 500,000 for their solitary seat.

This allegation that the opposition are behind everything not only gives too much credit to them, but is also an insult to the people of Malaysia. Do politicians actually believe that Malaysians can’t think for themselves?

Furthermore, this attitude doesn't reflect a mature view of politics. “If you are not with us, you must be in the enemy’s camp. I don’t like you. I won’t friend you”. It’s all terribly primary school.

When will politicians grow up and realise that life is not as simple as being pro-BN or pro-opposition? Politics is more complex than that and, in between elections, issues will arise which need not be motivated by partisan politics.

The minimum wage is not about partisan politics. Neither is the demand for free and fair elections on campus or the calls for a clean judiciary. I'm sure even the BN and their supporters believe in these values of fair treatment and justice.

Sure, the opposition will take any sort of disagreement with the Government as a good thing and they will milk it for what it’s worth.

But they are politicians and all politicians do this. To condemn the opposition for a trait which is the life-blood of all politicians is a serious case of pots calling kettles black.

At the end of the day, what concerns me is the level of public debate in this country. We always moan and groan that the people of Malaysia are politically immature. There is more than a kernel of truth in that.

However, if politicians are unable to debate issues and instead choose to go for the cheap shot of using the opposition as if they were the source of all problems, that is disingenuous.

How on earth are we going to develop a thinking Malaysian society when some politicians in the country can’t seem to be able to do just that?

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Producing First Class Human Capital

Brave New World (The Star)
20 September 2007

"The Action Plan of the National Higher Education Strategy will bring about some major changes in university governance, leadership and academic staff management, teaching and learning methods, and research and development."


A hundred years of Merdeka will see this society, this nation, achieve the unimaginable. We will have Nobel Laureates...our students and professors will dominate Ivy League universities and our own universities will be citadels of excellence for international scholars.”

This is not a prediction from the Amazing Criswell, or any other stage psychic; this is a quote from Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Sure, I know that the Prime Minister is just getting us all fired up and inspired. But unfortunately, having been intimately involved in higher education in Malaysia all my adult life, I am a tad cynical and this kind of “rah, rah, rah, lets go get them” motivational talk just makes me depressed. Achieve all that in 50 years? I’ll be happy to just have respectable, decent Malaysian universities in 50 years, let alone “citadels of excellence”.

Fortunately, the good people at the Higher Education Ministry aren’t so cynical. Using this Prime Ministerial Vision as a guide, they produced a National Higher Education Strategy along with an Action Plan to see it properly implemented.

I have read the Action Plan. It basically focuses Malaysian higher education objectives for the production of “Human Capital with First Class Mentality”.

These “human capital” are people who are really smart and their qualities include (but are not limited to) being trilingual, business-savvy, masters of their core subject, great communicators, team players and in their spare time helpers of orphans. With a critical mass of such folk, Malaysia can then achieve all that the Prime Minister had said we would.

To produce these super humans, our higher education institutions must improve, which is where the Action Plan comes in. According to the Plan, improvements will happen through some serious changes in university governance, leadership and academic staff management, teaching and learning methods, and research and development.

In line with these institutional changes, there will also be some other additional developments; the most interesting of these, at least to me, is the establishment of “Apex Universities”.

Looking at the Action Plan, it is clear that the Higher Education Ministry is not clueless. The basic strategies are sound and they have obviously taken into account some of the ideas that academics have been putting forward for years.

For example, university boards will be given greater autonomy from the ministry in decision-making; the appointment of the vice-chancellor will be through an open advertisement and the deciding body is to be an independent committee; there may be changes in the pay scheme for lecturers to attract better people; university courses will be more holistic (i.e. students will have to do subjects outside the comfort zone of their majors) and reality-based.

As these changes are occurring in all universities, one or two will be anointed apex university. “Apex Universities” are the top universities in the country, determined by a ministry criterion (yet to be finished) and they will be given more freedom with regard to matters like student intake and staff remuneration. In return, these elite universities must get themselves high up international rankings.

On paper these are fine strategies. My concern, however, is not so much with what is in the Action Plan but with what is not in it. First and foremost, the Action Plan needs a statement that universities will be solely merit-driven and no longer chained to racial concerns. This is especially true of the “Apex Universities”.

If we don’t do this, there is no way we are going to attract all the top brains in the country. Admittedly, the Plan says that only the best will be recruited, from the V-C to staff to students, and this implies a colour-blind policy. But this is Malaysia and race-based decision-making is part of our flesh and bone. To start to break away from it we need a clear and emphatic statement from the ministry.

Autonomy for the university boards is well and good but it must be remembered that autonomy also means political autonomy. And although the idea of an autonomous board and an independently chosen vice-chancellor are without doubt part of the ministry’s plans, does this mean that these people are truly free from any sort of political interference?

If it does not and if Umno wishes to have its fingers in higher education, then no matter what the noble intentions of this Plan is we will be stuck with decisions being made on political grounds and not academic grounds. This will only spell disaster.

If the Government is serious about universities improving, then they have to take off their party hats and let the universities be truly free of political meddling.

Then there are the students; there is much said in the Plan about better courses and graduate training schemes, yet as usual, absolutely nothing about freeing our young people from the utterly stifling University and University Colleges Act and the nonsense that Student Affairs regulations and rules imposed on them. Until our campuses become a hot bed for free thought and discussion, free association and conscience, our graduates aren’t going to be much improved.

A final point: as academic staff members in a public university my colleagues and I have been subjected to many, many grand schemes, all supposedly meant to improve us. In the end, such schemes, like the ISO certification, have made life a bureaucratic nightmare with no academic improvements to be seen.

Still, these are early days. We shall have to give the ministry a chance to prove that their plan works.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

The Doctor and His Patient

Brave New World (The Star)
23 August 2007

And the scene opens:

The scene is an ordinary doctor’s office. Rather drab, with old yellowing posters.

The doctor is listening to his own heartbeat with his stethoscope while absentmindedly depressing his tongue with a tongue depressor. There is a knock on the door.


Doctor (surprised): Come in, come in.

A middle-aged man with a paunch and a very bad comb-over enters. There is a sickly pallor to his skin and his clothes have seen better days.

Doctor: Ah, Mr Essiah? Mr Malachi Essiah? Here for the test results, eh?

Malachi (coughs): Good morning, doctor. Yes I am, and please call me Mal.

Doctor: Yes, yes, jolly good, jolly good. Please sit down, Mal.

The Doctor shuffles some papers looking for Mal’s test reports. Eventually, he finds them.

Doctor: Righto, here we are.

Let’s see, let’s see. (He reads the report.) Hmmmmmm.

Malachi: Is something the matter, Doctor? Am I all right?

Doctor: Hmmmmm.

Time passes.

Malachi: Doctor, you are worrying me.

Doctor: Huh? What? Oh sorry, I was trying to decipher what’s written here. Bloody doctors can’t write.

Malachi: But you are a doctor.

Doctor: I am? Oh yes, I am. Of course, of course. Yes, I am. Well, Mal, it doesn’t look good, I must say. You’re 49 years old and ?

Malachi: 50 next week.

Doctor: Really? Well, then, an early “Happy birthday to you!”

As I was saying, you are going on 50 and you’ve made a right royal mess of things, haven’t you?

It says here that everything is out of whack. I take it you are a man of means.

Malachi (proudly): Oh yes. I have made much money in my time. My business has been growing and growing.

Doctor: So has your waistline, from the looks of things. And your cholesterol level. And your blood pressure.

Seems you’ve been putting money before everything else, eh? The only thing that hasn’t grown is your hair.

Mal glares at him.

Doctor: Sorry, it’s a little joke.

Mal keeps on glaring.

Doctor: Yes, well. Errr ... moving along. You have gout. That is a rich man’s disease, you know. Too much red meat. And your arteries are pretty clogged up. Also, it would appear ? hmmmm ... tell me, do you have trouble pooping?

Malachi: Pooping?

Doctor: Yes, you know, pooping. To poop. To pass poop.

Malachi: Oh. Yes, now that you mention it ... it can be a bit of a ... a bit of a ?

Doctor: Strain?

Malachi: Yes, yes ... strain.

Doctor: Not surprising, Mal, since you are all blocked up: constipated, as they say in medical journals.

You have crap in you that must date back years. You can’t go around carrying that kind of baggage with you, Mal.

You must let go. Wash it out. I hear a coffee enema might do the trick.

Malachi: A what?

Doctor: A coffee enema, you shove a tube up your whatsit, pump in the coffee and it all flows out.

You’ll be clean as a whistle and feel much better for it.

Malachi: That sounds uncomfortable.

Doctor: If you don’t cleanse your gut of poop, sir, I can guarantee that such discomforts will be the least of your worries.

Malachi looks at the floor. He is obviously upset.

Doctor: Look here, old fellow. There is still hope, you know. Don’t be so crestfallen.

Right now your main concern should be your heart.

You have been mistreating it and it shows.

Your heartbeat is irregular and your stress test shows you can’t walk up a flight of stairs without being out of breath.

Malachi: What should I do?

Doctor: This calls for a total change in lifestyle and attitude.

Change your diet to something healthier. Eat good things.

Purge your body of the corruption that years of high living without any consideration to yourself have brought.

Malachi: But, Doctor, I am not all bad, you know. I take good care of my liver. I drink a very expensive tonic that takes care of my liver.

Lots of money I have spent on it.

My cousin brother’s wife’s uncle’s second son direct sells it to me. It’s a very good company, Conway.

Doctor: Hmmm, well, I must admit your liver is not in any danger of collapsing but really it is still showing the same wear and tear of any 50-year-old liver. The tonic has done very little except keep your liver in the state it has always been.

Besides, you must take care of your entire body.

You can’t just say I’ll take care of one bit and leave the others.

If you do that, everything will shut down and even the parts you take care of will be dead.

Malachi is quiet. The Doctor gets up to stand next to him.

He puts his hand on Malachi’s shoulder, which is brushed off rudely.

Malachi: You know what, Doctor. I don’t believe you. I feel fine.

Doctor: Look, you are deluding yourself. You are not fine. You are on the verge of collapse.

Malachi: That’s what you say, but I am going to get a second opinion.

I think you are biased and you have a hidden agenda. Maybe you want me to buy your medicine, huh?

Doctor: I want no such thing. You are my patient; I am here only to care for you.

Malachi: Hah! That’s what you say only. Well, I think you are an alarmist fraud. I am going to go to my son-in-law’s doctor. He will tell me I am fine.

The Doctor sighs resignedly.

Doctor: Very well then. I can’t force you to listen to me. Whatever happens, I hope you will take care of yourself. I’ll be here if you need me.

Malachi gets up to leave. He adjusts his waistband and flattens his comb-over. As he leaves, the Doctor calls out.

Doctor: Mal. Would you like a vitamin C tablet? It’s sweet.

Malachi: I am not a child, doctor. I am going to be 50 years old.

Doctor: (To himself: You could have fooled me). (To Mal) Oh yes, of course you are. Happy Birthday, Mal.