Saturday, 26 January 2008

We Need Skilled Workers

Brave New World (The Star)
28 June 2007


Stories about how badly Malaysian employers treat foreign workers are no longer a rare occurrence. The media should be commended for exposing such cruel and inhuman acts, which chip away at our national image.

Such despicable acts also go against the very grain of our national policy of 'Prosper thy neighbour’, which was initiated by our former prime minister and welcomed in the region.

To try using public relations to change perceptions in the wake of such sordid and ugly exposures of ill-treatment, abuse and cheating is foolish and a waste of time and resources. It only treats a festering wound on the surface.

We have to have the courage to admit that our over dependency on foreign labour – both legal and illegal – is fuelled by the motive to bloat profits for stakeholders or save more for families at the expense of the foreign help.

And to argue that one bad story on abuse does not negate the many personal accounts of honourable employers is not going to clear our reputation in the global arena. It is therefore timely for the nation to start thinking outside the box in an effort to make the country less dependent on foreign labour.

Here is some food for thought that the relevant parties and agencies should give further consideration to.

Make maid employment a skills-based industry. Having a curriculum to train and certify maids to meet local and international standards will create a pool of human resources in the country, and be a career pathway for our young as well as senior citizens who are currently losing out on so many job opportunities.

The building industry needs to give greater commitment and support to the churning out of qualified locals to meet the demand for skilled and semi-skilled labour.

This will also ensure that our young have an attractive career pathway to meet the current and future needs of the nation.

Properly regulated and promoted, we may eventually even be able to export such ‘knowledge workers’ and bring in foreign exchange.

Expose all employers and labour agencies that are suspected and found to be guilty of profiteering and/or abusing foreign labour.

The authorities must act fast and assertively on such culprits.

As the nation is moving into a full-fledged service economy, it certainly pays to start thinking and acting fast in preparation for the times ahead. Building our own skilled and semi-skilled ‘service industry’ will pay dividends.

The thousands of young who drop out of school after completing SPM and the many thousands retiring in the coming years can be tapped to fill such job openings.


Friday, 25 January 2008

A Lesson from Myanmar

Brave New World (The Star)
14 June 2007

"Transparency is one of the key factors of a democracy. It leads to efficiency, as one can’t hide behind secret meetings and the fog of blame and counter blame. Alien nation: Suu Kyi’s supporters protesting in Yangon last month. "


The usual suspects from one side will chime in with their predictions of doom and gloom. And the usual suspects from the other side will choose to ignore those calls or claim western bias or some such nonsense.

It is at times like this that I ask myself, who cares? Apart from the urban middle classes, does anybody care about human rights, democracy and all those other words liberals like myself get all hot and bothered about? Frankly, there are times that I doubt it.

Fortunately, I have friends who are kind enough to show me the error of my ways. Not by lecturing or preaching, but by existing. One such friend, who shall remain nameless, is a Myanmar political refugee who has been living here for the past 15 years.

He left Myanmar because he was a supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy, and harsh repercussions by the military junta for people such as him was a certainty.

When he left he was a second-year law student. Now he makes his living by being the best-read car polisher in the Klang Valley. My friend wants to go home, and a few months ago he was hopeful that the Lady would be released from her house arrest and that it would be safe for him to do so.

Those hopes have since been shattered and he will have to remain, washing cars and living life with a cheerful optimism I can only admire.

We may seem to be a million miles from Myanmar in terms of democracy and human rights. But even a million miles can be reached one step at a time. It is the constant vigilance against those little steps to tyranny that makes up the struggle. It is the regular guardedness against complacency that has to be maintained.

But why do it? Especially if it appears that no one really cares? The answer is because, despite what little despots might say, democracy is good for our country; and I would contend that at this point in our history it is absolutely necessary. Yes, even for the Government.

One of the things I have noticed, particularly these last few weeks, is a lack of confidence in the government machinery. This is especially vivid in the public reaction to the high-profile murder trial of Razak Baginda.

There appears to be a lack of confidence in the sincerity of the Attorney-General’s Chambers. The last-minute change in the prosecuting team and the subsequent delaying of the case has led to numerous conspiracy theories that ultimately question if we the Malaysian public will ever get to know the truth, and if justice will truly be done.

This cynicism is not good for any government. A government needs the trust of its people if it is to be able to do its work properly. Without this trust, even when things are being done with the best possible intentions, a nagging doubt as to its truth will surely undermine such efforts.

For example, we need to know that when the Ministry of Health says there is no dengue epidemic that this is so; and that it is not spin-doctoring to cover up an unpleasant fact that might pose a danger to the tourism industry.

This sad state of affairs is partly due to the lack of transparency in our system of governance. And transparency is one of the key factors of a democracy. Transparency leads to efficiency, as one can’t hide behind secret meetings and the fog of blame and counter blame, like the recent fiasco regarding our shoddy public buildings.

Democracy and human rights go hand in hand. Any effort to move away from these two ideals must be challenged. No matter how useless it may seem. And who better to do it than the urban middle classes?

If the working classes and the rural segments of our society seem uninterested it is, in a way, perfectly understandable.

It is inconceivable that when one is worried about the next meal, or the upcoming school fees, matters such as the freedom of a person to choose who he wants to worship, or that this country seems to be sliding away from its secular democratic foundations, will be of any great interest.

As I chat with my friend, I am struck by a realisation. I am lucky to live in Malaysia and not in Myanmar. However, this feeling is bereft of smugness or arrogance. I do not think about how wonderful we are compared with our Asean partner up north. Instead I am convinced we have to fight even harder to make sure we don’t turn into them.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Let's Learn From the Past

Brave New World (The Star)
31 May 2007

"We need to learn from the past because it affects the present and, more importantly, if we are to move forward."


I have just read Kua Kia Soong’s latest book, May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969. As with Kua’s earlier works, it is written in a passionate style that drives the narrative forward with a sense of urgency, so much so that reading it was a pleasure. A rather brief pleasure, I might add, as it is a pretty slim volume.

I think that this is an important book. It raises issues and questions that challenge the “official” story of the riots and it adds new information that is vital if we as a nation are ever to truly understand that horrible period of our history.

However, I also think that it is not as sensational as the hype may lead one to believe.

The central thesis of Kua’s book is that the May 13 riots were planned by Tun Abdul Razak and the Malay capitalist class of the time in order to destabilise the country and overthrow the aristocratic ruling class symbolised by the Tunku.

Once this was achieved, they then had a free hand to set their own “Malay Agenda”, which saw an entrenchment of special treatment for the Malays, their own grip on power, and through that, ample opportunity for them to make lots and lots of money.

There certainly appears to be very strong secondary evidence that the thugs who went on a rampage were organised, and the rise of the Malay capitalist class may well have been the result of the May 13 riots, but I am afraid I can’t see the evidence to show that it was all part of a larger conspiracy involving the second most powerful man in the country at the time.

This is for two main reasons. Firstly, the “declassified documents” were largely press reports and opinions from diplomatic circles. These by themselves are valuable in the sense that they give a perspective on the riots that is at odds with the official line that we have been fed over the past 38 years. But, they are just that, the eyewitness accounts and opinions of various individuals.

The accounts must be taken seriously but the conclusions that one makes from those accounts as well as the conclusions of some of the individuals quoted (that there was a major conspiracy behind the riots) hardly amount to solid evidence of the fact.

The second reason for my doubts is the recent book by Ooi Kee Beng, The Reluctant Politician, based on the personal memoirs of Tun Dr Ismail. In his diaries, Ismail described Razak’s reaction to May 13 as one of befuddlement, confusion and fear. Not exactly the reaction of a man who had planned the whole thing from the start.

Of course, this is my personal opinion and we can argue about whose is better until the cows come home, but the point is that until we can get our hands on more concrete evidence, the theory that a high-level-conspiracy-planned May 13 has to remain just that – a theory.

Even so, the book is still of great importance. The accounts of journalists at the time point to a degree of organisation amongst the Malay thugs who gathered in Kampung Baru. The success of the opposition may have been a cause of unhappiness and distress, but the violence that followed does not look as though it was a spontaneous act that was out of control. This has tremendous resonance to us today.

The way May 13 is portrayed by those in power is that it could “just happen”. This threat of sudden violence has worked wonders in cowing the general populace. Threaten Malay privileges, and violence will “just happen”. This book shows that violence does not “just happen”. On such a large scale, it needs two things: planning and the poor performance of the security forces.

Planning seems to have occurred with thugs being summoned to and organised at Harun Idris’ house in Kampung Baru, the main source of the violence (please note, I do not contend that there was no planning; what I questioned above was just how far back and how high up the planning went).

And the security forces did not seem to have done their work well to crush the violence before it spread. In particular, the military was accused of not enforcing the law (curfew) fairly. This may have been the result of incompetence or, as the book contends, inherent racism within the military itself.

The book has used previously classified documents to help us see a new dimension to the tragedy. And it is indeed a tragedy – in particular for the Chinese community of this country who suffered the most deaths and who were the most targeted in the security clampdown that followed; and in general to all of us for it was a shameful period in our history.

Kua has taken a step towards uncovering what really happened on May 13, 1969. There have been calls here and there that we should let the past remain where it is. I do not agree. The past affects the present and we need to have a clearer picture of it in order to move forward.

We need to get as close as possible to the truth in order for us to be free of the spectre of that day. In that sense, I pray that this book will not be banned or anything dumb like that, and that we use it as a stepping-stone to get a truly independent inquiry started.

At the end of the day, what I can see is that the so-called lessons that the ruling party wishes us to learn from May 13 are not really the lessons we should be learning from it. The lesson is not how easily violence can occur if the Malaysian people “step out of line”; the lesson to me is that violence can occur if those in power feel they can get something from it and if they forget that their responsibility is to us, all of us.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Of Silly Rules and a Bung-ling Jester

Brave New World (The Star)
17 May 2007

"It would be nice to take politicians down a peg or two every now and then to remind them that they are where they are because of us. "


Life, as M. Nasir once sang, is like a rollercoaster. You have your ups and you have your downs. Sometimes you cry and sometimes you laugh like a loon. Just ask Sheffield United and West Ham United supporters. The past couple of weeks have been a little like that.

Maybank’s instructions that all the law firms working for them must have a bumiputra component in their make-up made me pretty annoyed.

Yes, it is fundamentally unfair to the lawyers who happen to be born non-Malay; yes, it is doubtful that they have the authority to make such a request; but what really irritated me is that this is the very sort of thing that undermines affirmative action.

Affirmative action is meant to give a leg up to those who need it. No one can deny that thirty years ago there were very few Malay lawyers around. The NEP has done a lot to fix that. We can debate the rightness of the NEP some other time.

My point is that there are plenty of Malay lawyers now, and many of them got to where they are because they got government scholarships to go abroad or they were let into local universities under the quota system.

What Maybank tried to do is in fact saying that despite all the help that these men and women obtained, they still need help now. This is exactly the sort of thing that makes people mad. Just how much of a leg up does one need?

You are already qualified lawyers, for goodness’ sake. Act like one. Work hard and go out there and prove that you are just as good as any other lawyer.

It is true that Maybank made a hasty withdrawal from their position because of the public outcry (which goes to show that public outcries do work).

But the damage has been done.

This episode has shown that a major Malaysian institution was set on having a race-based affirmative action policy in a situation where it is totally uncalled for.

This does not bode well for us either in terms of race relations, or for the economic well-being of the country.

When are they ever going to understand that without a merit-based system as a genuine aspiration we will all suffer, because when the best are not doing the best work, we get nothing but mediocrity.

But life is about balance, and before the froth started to drip on my T-shirt something really amusing happened.

Now, a lot has been written about the MPs who think that making jokes about a fellow parliamentarian’s menstrual cycle is the height of Dewan Rakyat wit. Those pieces have been very, very angry. That is perfectly understandable.

I, on the other hand, think that what Bung (oh, how apt a name) did – although not what he said – was great.

All right, before I get furious e-mails from women (and sensitive men in touch with their feminine side), please let me explain myself. I am one of those people who think that politicians are given far too much respect.

After all, they are only where they are because of us. It would be nice therefore to take them down a peg or two every now and then to remind them of this fact.

This would normally be the job of satirists and the like and could take the form of the written word or stand-up comedy or even television puppet shows. Unfortunately, we don’t have very much of that in these parts.

In Shakespearean plays, the fool plays an important role. As he frolics and clowns around, underneath the silliness he is actually the voice of reason.

By virtue of his being seen as merely a joker, he gets away with saying truths that others may not dare to. In this way, the King’s shortcomings are oft exposed and he is shown to be a fool himself.

We don’t have many people who can play the Shakespearean fool in Malaysia, someone who can show up those in power. But with clowns like Bung in our Parliament, we don’t really need to, as they are more than capable of being fools themselves.

And what wonderful comedic support he has, too.

When one of their fellows said a totally despicable thing and then gets off scot-free, many cheered. Oh, how they cheered.

Hurrah, one of us has made a “joke” that we would be ashamed to make in front of our mothers, but never mind, he got let off. Hip, hip, hurrah!

Or what about the woman MP who defended this jester Bung? I simply must remember my best period joke to tell her if we were ever to meet. I am sure she will find it humorous and in the best possible taste.

Indeed, Bung the fool has plenty of supporting players to make that comedy stage we call our Parliament a truly funny place indeed.

How I laughed. And I think I can hear the world laughing along with me.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

No, Don’t Give in to the Monster!

Brave New World (The Star)
19 April 2007

"The US likes to think that liberalisation is the best way to help developing countries, but this is not necessarily true."


orror films; I can’t stand them. I hate being scared and not being able to do anything about it. I mean when that girl crawled out of the well in The Ring, all I could do was whimper into my popcorn. Furthermore, the protagonists are so dumb. If someone said to me, “If you watch this video, you’ll die in a week”, I’d say, “No thanks, man, I’d rather watch Rush Hour 3 and die immediately.”

And why is it when it’s so obvious that something monstrous is lurking behind a closed door, the scantily clad heroine just has to step through it?

Now, speaking of heroines (though perhaps not scantily clad) and monsters, our very own Minister of International Trade and Industry appears to be heading straight into the clutches of the United States of America and its proposed Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

It all but makes me want to scream, “No, Rafidah! I’m sorry, I mean, no, Datuk Rafidah! No! Don’t go there! You’ll doom us all!”

Now, why the scepticism? OK, let’s start with some basics. An FTA is essentially about the liberalisation of trade within a group of countries or between two countries.

It seeks to reduce or eliminate trade barriers to each other’s markets.

Trade barriers are things like tariffs and quotas on imports. Without such barriers, we will have what is known as an “open market” where goods and services will be able to flow more easily between the nations.

An open market would theoretically mean greater competition, which leads to better efficiency and ultimately more economic development.

This is all well and good if the playing field were level and if you were talking about two equal partners. The reality, though, is that each country is at a different stage of development and we are not all created the same.

When we are dealing with an economic and military powerhouse like the US, this inequality becomes even more obvious.

The US likes to think that liberalisation is the best way to help developing countries.

This is because without the government providing protection from foreign competition, local industry will simply have to improve. This is not necessarily true.

When a market which was previously protected is suddenly opened up, there will be a surge of cheap imports, and local companies may not be able to reduce their prices to compete without making losses. They could end up closing shop.

The exporting country, on the other hand, particularly if it is very rich, can absorb any losses it may make; and when their competitors are out of business, they can swoop in and charge whatever they like.

There is an element of serious unfairness here as well. If we look at history, all the economic superstars of today – the US, South Korea, Japan, etc – had protectionist policies when they were starting out. So, they are saying that what was good for them is not good for us.

Be that as it may, it is possible that Malaysia does not want to be left behind in the FTA craze. After all, Singapore has an FTA with the US. It may be that we fear losing out on the lucrative US market if we don’t play ball.

The question is, how much of that US market is open to our goods anyway?

Let’s take agriculture as an example. Will our farmers be able to sell their products to the US at a cheaper rate and therefore be more attractive to the American consumer?

It is unlikely, for although the US may open up access to their markets, their own farmers are subsidised so heavily that they can afford to produce at a loss and still stay in business.

So, while Pak Abu of Kedah is working his fingers to the bone to sell his crops as cheaply as possible, Billy Joe Bob of Arkansas can be as inefficient as he likes and still sell his goods dirt cheap because his losses are covered by a hefty government subsidy.

As an example, after Mexico agreed to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), its import of cheap corn from the US tripled and local farmers went bust. Two million Mexicans have found themselves out of work since the NAFTA.

Besides, the Americans are mean negotiators and they won’t budge on terms which will endanger their own industry. In their FTA negotiations, the Australians failed to get the US to lift the quota on Australian sugar.

South of the Causeway, the Singaporean textile industry is now bound to a clause in its FTA with the US which says they can only use local or US yarn if they want their clothing to be exempt from US import duty.

This means they can’t buy cheaper raw materials from other parts of the world, making their goods more expensive and less competitive. It also means US inspectors have the power to come into Singapore to check that the sneaky natives don’t try to slip in any yarn which is not Yankee Yarn.

An FTA with the US can also be dangerous to our health. They will almost certainly demand clauses that stop us from doing things like making laws that require the proper labelling of food.

Here, I am talking about food with Genetically Modified Organisms in them. In this day and age, it is possible for genes from different biological organisms to be spliced into another organism.

I for one would like to know if the tomato I’m eating is nothing more than a tomato.

The Malaysian Government is on its way to pass legislation to make labelling a necessity so that I will know just that.

The US doesn’t like labelling, however. They think it is prejudicial to their heavily genetically modified products, so they will almost certainly insist in their FTA that such laws are not passed.

It’s basically them saying: “You don’t have a right to know what our food export consists of because you might not want to buy it and that is not ‘free trade’.”

There are so many points to ponder, but I want to raise just one more health-related issue – and that is the matter of drugs.

Patented drugs are very expensive. Fortunately, a generic drug, one that uses the same formula but not the brand name, can be produced cheaply.

It is the production of generic drugs which provides developing countries with affordable treatment for their citizens.

The legality of producing generic drugs is too complicated to explain in the space I have here, but take my word for it, it’s all above board and perfectly OK, even according to the World Trade Organisation.

US FTAs, however, usually have clauses which make it much harder to produce generic drugs, usually through the extension of the patents of the original drug- makers.

What does this mean in everyday life? Well, drugs which might have cost hundreds of ringgit may now cost thousands. For people who are dependent on cheap generic drugs, the FTA can very well be a death sentence.

It could be that all these fears have been dealt with by the heroes of MITI and the US monster has been tamed. But we don’t know, as everything is confidential.

What is needed right now is the opening up of the negotiation process between us and the US. The people need to see what is being negotiated because at the end of the day, it is the lives of ordinary Malaysians which will be affected.

Surely we have a right to have a say.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Perak Prince Has Hit the Nail on the Head

Analysis (The Star)
5 April 2007


Coming from Penang, I feel a little weird around royalty. We are just not used to them, you see. In fact, there is a family legend on my Mom’s side that illustrates this.

My great granddad was from Penang and he moved to Kedah to take up a teaching post. While working in his garden, a group of men came up on horseback. The ensuing conversation went something like this:

“Hello,” said my ancestor.

“Don’t you know who I am?” asked the lead horseman imperiously.


“I am your Sultan!”


Or something like that.

I must confess that great-grandpa’s temporary cluelessness has been passed down to me. So at functions with royalty, I stand when others stand, sit when they sit and generally try to be inconspicuous. I don’t pay much attention to their speeches either because the “beta’s” and “titah’s” confuse me.

Raja Nazrin of Perak’s speech two days ago at a Bar Council do was a bit different though. For one thing, he wasn’t using royal language. For another, he was speaking about a pressing issue in the country, in a manner that was, for a royal address, detailed and pointed.

The topic was about nation building and the first point he made was that at the core of the nation-building process was the need to have a citizenry that actually felt that they were a part of that nation.

I am glad the prince said this because it can’t be stressed enough that this is a major problem in Malaysia as more and more people are feeling disillusioned with the way they perceive themselves to be treated. There is a loss of a sense of belonging and an isolation of spirit that comes from being seen as the other.

It is one thing to have policies that favour one group over all others; it is another thing to make the other groups feel totally left out and uncared for.

When affirmative action becomes oppressive and when respect for one group is not matched with equal respect for another, what we will have is an atmosphere of cynicism and anger. This is not conducive to the well-being of the nation, be it economically, politically or socially.

His Highness (see, I’m learning the proper terms as I write) went on to say that in order to continue to grow as a united country, we must reject extremism and bigotry with dialogue and civil action. Tolerance and forward thinking ought to be the order of the day and inclusive participation as opposed to enforced solutions, the method of overcoming problems.

Underlying all this is a need for the total respect and protection of the Federal Constitution.

This call to look unto the Constitution as the guiding light this nation needs to adhere to is not new or revolutionary, but coming from Raja Nazrin, it takes on a certain resonance.

To the royalists out there, it is a call for the adherence to the law from a ruler. To me, it is an indication that things have reached a point where the direction this country is taking is a matter of concern of such importance that it affects not only the man on the street but also a man who could not be further away from it.

If now is not the time to make sure our country reaches for the ideals of fairness and justice, so that together we can grow as a nation, then I have no idea when is.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

The Civil Court Must Decide

Brave New World (The Star)
5 April 2007

"The Constitution is the supreme law of the land and when those in power, in particular the judiciary, ignore these constitutional provisions, they are flying in the face of the foundations of our government and our legal system."


What kind of country do you want to live in? It appears to me that today in Malaysia, there are two possible answers to this question. There are those who want to live in a secular constitutional democracy and there are those who want to live in a theocracy.

Differing opinions is nothing new and does not in itself pose any problems. What does pose a problem however is when one tries to achieve one’s objectives through unlawful and insidious means.

But before we get into that, let’s have some definitions. A democracy is a system of government where we the people elect our representatives. They in turn govern the country, making laws and so forth.

Ultimately, power lies with the people. We put them in positions of power and if we don’t like our leaders and the laws they make, we can simply vote them out.

A democracy is also a system where certain freedoms are guaranteed, such as free speech and the freedom of association – all necessary components for a democracy to work properly in the first place.

A theocracy, on the other hand, is not governed by elected officials but by a religious head of state or a religious group. Unlike in a democracy, ordinary people have no say in the laws that are made.

This is because since the laws used in a theocracy are divine, only those with the necessary credentials can make any sort of decision regarding them.

An example of a theocracy is Iran. Sure, they have elections; President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his trendy windbreaker is evidence of this. However, his authority is subservient to the Ayatollahs who are the final decision-making authority in the country.

The country we live in now is a secular constitutional democracy. The supreme law is a secular document – the Federal Constitution. The supreme law of the country is not the Torah, not the Bible, not the Quran, not the Vedas.

Islam is given special mention in the Constitution as the religion of the Federation. What this means is that Islam is identified as the official faith of the nation.

This is reflected in government ceremonies and the like. If this country was meant to be an Islamic theocracy, then the Constitution should have said so. It does not.

Personally, I think it is great that we live in a democracy. I think it vital for human dignity for us to have a say in the way our lives are to be governed, and this includes the laws that rule us.

By giving away that power to legislate, be it to an individual or to a group of individuals, in essence what we are doing is giving up our right to be treated equally as free men and women.

There are those who would prefer to be governed by the rules of a holy book or perhaps more accurately, by the interpretation of that holy book by a select few. Well, good for you, I say. If that is what you want, then fine.

But this means the laws of this country have to be changed to accommodate that. This means the
entire Constitution will have to be rewritten. To do this, all one needs is to ensure that two-thirds of the lower and upper houses of Parliament are in agreement as well as all the nine sultans. Once this is achieved, then hey presto, we can chuck out that horrible secular Constitution and put in a wonderfully religious one.

Until this happens, however, and it must be respected. It guarantees certain things like the freedom to choose what faith one wants to follow; it lays down the Constitution is still the supreme law of the land certain rules like which court has jurisdiction over which types of persons. When those in power, in particular the judiciary, ignore these constitutional provisions, they are flying in the face of the foundations of our government and our legal system.

Maybe there are those in the judiciary who fear to make certain decisions lest they appear unreligious and are branded nasty things, like apostate. Well, if that is your concern, then you should not be holding office, should you? After all, your oath of office is to uphold the Constitution, not any particular religious dogma.

If religious dogma is your thing, then be a religious judge in a religious court. Leave the High Courts in the hands of those who understand what their job is.

What has been happening over the past few years in this country is an insidious move towards a theocratic state. When the religious freedoms of individuals are not respected (no matter how repulsive one might feel it is), when normal governmental decisions dealing with matters such as health have to be referred to religious authorities, when the doors of the civil court, the only court open to non-Muslims, are slammed in their faces in total disregard of the Constitution, we are losing sight of the secular principles upon which this country is meant to be run on.

This issue of the courts is an important one, because the courts must protect the Constitution, and in this respect, the civil courts are the highest courts in the land because it is only they who have the authority to do so.

The Syariah Court deserves respect, as it is a constitutionally created body. But it too must abide by the principles of the Constitution. One of these is that it is meant only for Muslims. It does not matter if the Syariah Court is the fairest, most just court in the universe, it does not matter if its judgments are perfect; it is only meant for Muslims and a non-Muslim should not be forced to go to a forum where they do not have a right to be there. Or, for that matter, a desire to be there – since the Syariah Court rules according to the tenets of a religion, and to wish to be subject to that, one has to have the prerequisite faith.

So, back to my original question, what kind of country do you want to live in? I know which one I want, and I trust so do you.

You have a right to want to change the country to a theocracy according to your aspirations, and I have a right to want to keep it pluralistic and secular, according to mine. My only contention is, if you want to change what we have, do it properly. Do it lawfully.

Friday, 18 January 2008

The Key Word is ‘Plan’

Brave New World (The Star)
22 March 2007

"Economic considerations aside, it is important that we do not develop in such a way that our future prosperity is threatened by present-day short-sightedness."


There are some jobs which sound so un-sexy. Chemical engineer conjures images of boffins in lab coats getting excited over the smells in their test tubes; accountants were once maths nerd presidents of the chess club; and urban planners ? hmm, who actually chooses to be an urban planner?

However, all three of these jobs are very important. After all, no one can sniff test tubes better than a chemical engineer; if there was no such thing as accounting, then society would have to feed ex-maths nerd chess club presidents; and without urban planners, we won’t have water catchments, designated industrial areas and flood-free housing estates.

Hold on ... but our water catchments get turned into quarries, illegal factories are legalised, and we do get massive floods. This means that either our planners are not doing a good job or their plans are being ignored.

Planning laws in this country are governed by the Town and Country Planning Act.

It’s not a perfect piece of legislation, in my opinion, primarily because there is far too little room for any meaningful public participation incorporated into it.

Be that as it may, it is what we have, and if properly used and properly enforced, planning laws are the first step towards a sustainable environment.

Basically, this is how it works. Local planning authorities draw up structure and local plans which determine the type of development that the designated area is going to experience over a period of years.

In this way, one can make sure that industrial projects do not appear in the middle of a housing estate; the housing estates are not built in dangerous areas; and there are sufficient green spaces so that life is not an endless horizon of concrete and tarmac.

If on the other hand, urban plans are disregarded, or if the planning process itself is not far-sighted enough, then we are just looking for trouble.

Take the case of the quarry in Gunung Jerai. In a piece of forest designated and gazetted as water catchment in the structure plan, a company has been given permission to operate a quarry.

This not only makes no sense from an environmental point of view; it also appears to be against the law.

Water catchments are vital not only for the preservation of water supplies, they are also important as a buffer against flooding as forested land cover absorbs water which would otherwise run unimpeded into inhabited spaces.

There has yet been no study that I know of with regard to why the recent floods that hit Johor were so devastating, but it would not be a surprise to me if poor planning were one of the causes.

Then there is the recent decision by the Selangor Government to legalise illegal factories. If factories are built illegally, there must have been a reason why they should not have been built in the first place.

One of the reasons is that the land upon which they were built was meant for other purposes.

In which case, planning that takes into account pollution and how much the surrounding environment can absorb such pollution is being ignored.

The argument that once they are legalised, these factories can be better controlled makes no sense because it’s jolly easy to control illegal factories – you shut them down.

Which makes me wonder, how on earth did these factories get to operate for so long anyway? It’s not as if we are talking about illegal DVD sellers with their ability to slip away into the night.

These are factories, for crying out loud. They tend to stay in one place.

Then there is the mother of all arguments – the one that we tend to fall back on when nothing else makes sense. It’s economically important for these factories to stay open. It’s economically important for the quarry to operate.

Well, it’s equally important that the citizens in this country live in a well-planned community that is conducive to good health. It’s equally important that we do not develop in such a way that our future prosperity is threatened by present-day short-sightedness.

By all means plan for economic prosperity. But the key word here is “plan”. Working in an ad hoc manner where decisions are made as and when, with no eye to the future, is ultimately going to do us so much more harm than good. Just ask the Johoreans.

Disclaimer: Before I get angry e-mails from engineers, accountants and urban planners with attached photographs to prove how alluring they are, let me just say that my brother is an engineer, some of my best friends are accountants, and my father was almost an urban planner. None of them are sexy.

An Open Letter to Mustapa

Opinion (The Star)
11 March 2007


ear Sir,

Firstly, allow me to congratulate you on your new posting. It must be said though that you are not to be envied, for you are now faced with a Herculean task.

But, where are my manners? You have no idea who I am. I could be a complete nutcase.

Well, I’m an academic in a Malaysian public university. Which some people might consider a nutcase, anyway. But I’m very proud to be an academic.

It’s a noble profession, and it matters not that my students earn more than me within a few years of graduating and that little children run screaming from my hideously outdated clothes. It’s a calling to be an academic, and I care passionately about it.

That is why I’m writing to you. You see, there is much that is wrong with our universities and much that can be done by the Ministry to put things right.

You may not believe that my one purpose in writing to you is the improvement of our institutions, but let me assure you, we true academics (as opposed to wannabe politicians in lecturers’ clothes) don’t have hidden agendas.

Over the past few years, there has been this mantra chanted by the Government and university leaders: “We want our universities to be world-class universities.” Unfortunately, this mantra does not have any explanatory notes, so we don’t really know what “world-class” means. However, let us assume that a world-class university has the following:

  • Graduates who are employable, not only here but also abroad;
  • Academic staff who are respected worldwide;
  • Research and publications that are recognised by reputable international journals/publishers;
  • An academic programme that is recognised worldwide;
  • An academic atmosphere that can attract quality national and foreign students and staff.

If we accept these criteria as valid, what then can be done to achieve it?

Universities are not hampers

Universities are not rewards to be handed out. It has happened in Terengganu and the same has been promised to Kelantan. “Vote for us and we will give you a university.”

This may make political sense, but it does not make any academic sense. A lot of planning is needed to ensure that the resources are sufficient to create a university of quality.

Malaysia is not a very rich country – we can’t afford petrol subsidies, for goodness’ sake – and we definitely can’t afford to stretch our limited economic and intellectual resources to build universities in such a blasé manner.

Universities are not fast-food joints

They should instead be high-class restaurants. Universities have to be elitist in order to produce quality research and graduates.

An elitist university means that only the best candidates are taken in as students and only the best staff are hired. Classes and exams can then be pitched at a higher standard.

Furthermore, the resulting smaller student numbers mean seminars and tutorials can be truly conducive to discussions, and lecturers will have less of a teaching burden in order to concentrate on research.

This is not to say that higher education as a whole must be elitist. There are other forms of higher education institutions that can cater to school leavers who don’t make the cut, such as polytechnics and community colleges.

If you love your universities, you must set them free

Academics and students must be free to think and to express themselves.

Yes, I understand that this is Malaysia and freedom is seen as a dirty word by some, but without it, there is little hope of achieving “world-class” universities.

Intellectualism cannot grow in a repressive atmosphere.

We all know that in this country, there are many laws that restrict our freedom to express ourselves, but the irony is that for lecturers and students there are additional laws levelled at them.

You must be aware of the University and University Colleges Act – that wonderful piece of legislation designed to ensure that university students are little more than secondary school pupils.

You may not be aware, however, of the Statutory Bodies Discipline and Surcharge Act which affects academics who are the employees of statutory bodies.

According to this law, we can’t say anything for or against government policy without getting ministerial permission first.

Now, this may be all right for a mathematician quietly thinking up new formulae with which to calculate the possibility of Malaysia ever qualifying for the World Cup.

But for social scientists, it is akin to having the Malaysian football team play football without using their feet (which is perhaps something that they do anyway, looking at previous results).

The simple fact of the matter is that universities should first and foremost be the birthplace of ideas and original thought, discussion and debate, and this can’t be achieved with such laws hung around our necks.

And in case you’re worried that greater freedom will make our campuses hotbeds of radicalism, please let me put your fears to rest.

The number of students in this day and age who really care about matters beyond Akademi Fantasia is very small indeed.

Most students just want to graduate and as quickly as possible get into debt to pay for their three-bedroom flat and Proton Waja.

Universities need Mandelas

If there is one thing that Malaysian universities need, it is good leadership. And by a good leader, I mean a Vice-Chancellor who has the qualities of an outstanding intellectual, manager and diplomat, who can ensure that academic principles are paramount, not political expediency.

That promotions are given based on merit, not patronage. That students are treated like adults, not children. And finally, that the university is run on the highest ideals of civilisation and intellectualism, not self-aggrandisement and base toadying.

An outstanding academic leader, someone who can efficiently organise the place, represent the institution with dignity and command the respect of those working under him, or her, is a rare creature indeed.

To seek out such a person, may I suggest that the search committee your predecessor was talking about be made a reality.

This search committee, however, must be independent and transparent. It must not be hindered by any political agenda and must instead pick the candidates based on ability – and ability alone. Factors such as race, creed, gender and nationality should not be a consideration.

Perhaps we’d like to take lessons from elsewhere. Oh, before you think I’m suggesting a “study trip” abroad (with the usual sightseeing and cultural diversions), let me make it clear that I think the taxpayers’ money need not be wasted in such a fashion. After all, writing an e-mail is probably all you need to do to get the necessary information.

You may wish to start with New Zealand universities. I say New Zealand because the VC of Auckland University was recently poached by Oxford to be its Vice-Chancellor. The first non-English VC of Oxford since, well, since forever.

Now, that’s world-class, don’t you think? And from a country much smaller than us where the sheep outnumber the humans. Amazing.Well then, Sir, I think I’d best sign off now. You must have loads to do. Oh, before I forget, if you want to lighten the workload of your officers, may I make a last suggestion?

Why don’t you just leave the day-to-day running of the universities in the hands of the universities? I bet the Ministry has enough on its plate without having to decide about trivial things like professorial promotions and the approving of leave for academics to go to conferences and holidays overseas.

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read my letter. Good luck with your endeavours. Until next time, I remain,

Yours sincerely,

Thursday, 17 January 2008

The Right to Think

Brave New World (The Star)
8 March 2007

"Malaysians have their thinking cut out for them. The father knows best line is very much apparent even as we strive for first world status with an intellectually outstanding citizenry."


his is a true story.

I was once visited by a communist. No, no, this is not an adventure story about being attacked in the jungles of Pahang. The visit happened in my flat in Sheffield when I was a first year student. The communist in question was some English dude with shaggy hair and a paunch. If I remember correctly he was clad in pretty worn out denim. No tiga bintang cap in sight. And he was not carrying a rifle which was some World War Two relic. Instead he was selling The Socialist Worker, which in the late eighties was the UK communists’ paper of choice.

It is a reflection of my sad state of affairs that I invited him in. Yes, I was afraid he was going to drag me into the forests of the Peak District and hold me for ransom, but I had no friends and I was pathetically lonely. We spent an hour chatting about communism and how the mainstream press was nothing but capitalist propaganda. He then sold me three copies of the Socialist Worker for forty pee each.

I then settled down and read all three copies (incidentally, if there are any Special Branch officers reading this; let me assure you, this was twenty years ago and I have since lost those papers. Please don’t come knocking asking for them). The conclusion that I came to after reading them was; “If The Times is nothing but capitalist propaganda, then this is nothing but communist propaganda”. I never bought another copy and stuck to my usual sources of news (The Independent which I read openly and The News of the World when no one was looking).

The point of this tale is; if the idiot teenager as I was then could come to his own conclusion as to what is propaganda and what is not, then why can’t the vast majority of Malaysians do the same? Surely we are discerning enough to be able to read, listen to or watch something and come to our own fairly reasonable understanding of what it is and how valid it is to our lives and values. I am certain that we are not so stupid as to be little more than gelatinous glop waiting to be shaped by the first hand that comes upon us. Or are we?

According to the powers that be, we jolly well are. That’s why Amir Muhammad’s Village People’s Roadshow was banned by the Censorship Board (at the time of writing, an appeal is under way). It also explains why, without having actually seen the movie, the Ministry of Home Affairs banned his earlier film The Last Communist. The latter was apparently banned because someone who also did not see the film complained about it in the press. Communists are bad you see and any attempt to show them in any light whatsoever which is not bad, must also be bad. And we the people, if exposed to such works, are too dumb to be able to come to any other conclusion that the communists were not bad.

I’m not saying that the communists were heroes or villains. That is not the purpose of this article. All I am saying is that I am sick and tired of being told that the Malaysian public, and this includes me, is so immature and obtuse, that we need some higher power telling us what we can or can not watch, listen to or read. And that this state of affairs is for our own good.

This attitude not only smacks of a paternalism that is totally incompatible with a democratic state, it is also downright insulting. If we continue to allow our minds to be exposed only to what is deemed correct by those with the power, then we are subjecting ourselves to the worse kind of propaganda, one that is the result of ignorance. And this sort of propaganda is far more damaging then any old rag sold door to door by English communists.

Because if a population is not allowed to expand its horizons by studying new things, by exposing their minds to different ideas, then there is no way we can develop that “first world mentality” which we are supposed to have. It is vital that opposing views are given the light of day. It is only in this way that a finer more accurate opinion is formed. And it is only in this way that the validity or the invalidity of an idea is determined.

Sure, it is annoying when people don’t agree with you. I’ve been a teacher for sixteen years and a father for around the same time; there are occasions when I have been tempted to resort to “because I said so”! But one can’t have one’s cake and eat it too. If I want my students and my children to be thinking people, they must be allowed to think differently from me. If those with the power really want an intellectually outstanding citizenry, the same rules apply.

Unless of course, that is not what they want. Unless of course, a docile, ignorant populace is the best sort of populace. In that case, we have only ourselves to blame, if all we do is bleat into our cups of teh tarik and not reclaim that most fundamental of our rights, the right to think for ourselves. The right to think freely. The right to think.