Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Desperately seeking real unity

Brave New World (The Star)
26 November 2009


ON Sunday night I was with a group of chaps and we were jumping, dancing and shouting with joy.
Looking back now, it occurred to me that if someone had photographed us, we would have made wonderful poster boys for unity (albeit highly unattractive poster boys). We were your classic Melayu, Cina, India group (with apologies to my indi­genous fellow citizens).
No, I was not taking part in some plastic 1Malaysia campaign. This moment was a genuine one with real feeling. The reason for our unbridled muhibbah celebrations was Tottenham Hotspur’s 9–1 victory over Wigan.
It was an amazing night which started (as it always does with long-suffering Spurs fans) with cautious optimism, building to happiness at what was looking like a solid victory, and culminating in ecstatic disbelief that we were watching a historical game unfold.
I suppose the authentic nature of our oneness that night was due to the fact that we shared a common goal and a common endeavour.
And that is the key to any true sense of unity – an overarching ideal that transcends petty differences like the colour of your skin, the god/s that you worship and the food that you eat.
I have written before about gross displays of racism in this country. And I have been critical of those in power who pander to such feelings, indeed, who perpetuate it with their bigoted gesturing.
I have called many times for governance that does away completely with ethnic-based policies and laws.
These elements remain in our country and they continue to scupper any efforts of achieving a sense of Malaysian-ness.
All efforts must be made to exorcise them from our national psyche and system of governance. However, it would be folly to wait for these “big” issues to be settled before we did anything.
We must not fall back on our old “Hang Tuah” complex wishing for some hero to come swooping down and with a Herculean effort solve all our problems overnight.
Instead, we must reclaim our country by making changes ourselves, within our own personal orbits.
And we must make it clear to those who lead and who wish to lead, that we will tolerate no such garbage from them.
In this light, I was happy and honoured to take part in the launch of the Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia movement in Penang on Nov 15.
The SABM is a non-aligned movement made up of volunteers who are basically spreading the message of creating a Malaysia where our different cultures are celebrated but with the belief that we are all Malaysians first.
They advocate a non-ethnic brand of politics and governance with the protection of our human rights via the Federal Constitution (for more information go to http://www.saya
Although they are not aligned to any political party, it does not mean they are not political.
By this I mean they advocate that citizens use their power to voice dissent (at the very least through the ballot box) and to push for change from the grassroots up.
In this way, the SABM does not provide yet another organisation seeking a leadership role; instead it aims to empower citizens to instigate changes themselves.
An interesting aspect of the launch in Penang was that the organisers had requested Malay participants to bring a friend who was not of their ethnic group and vice-versa.
It came as no surprise to me to find that the majority of the participants (despite their obvious earnestness) were unable to do so.
To me, this shows that where ethnic relations are concerned, this country has reached a crisis point.
True, we have not (yet) got the experience of skinhead fascists prowling the streets, but in a way our situation is more perilous as it is quiet and swept under the carpet by superficial shows of supposed unity.
We have accepted racism as a way of life and when it happens, it is seen as a norm.
Using a trite example: How often have you seen advertisements for housemates with an ethnic prerequisite?
And no one blinks an eyelid, because we have allowed this to be part of our flesh and blood.
The number of participants at the SABM launch was small, and as I said, it did not go on as the organisers had hoped it would.
However, instead of finding this discouraging, I find it means that such movements like the SABM are needed more than ever.
They are taking their message across the country starting early next year, and it is a message that has to go out.
Yes, they are idealistic and yes, they are utopian. And I count myself as one of those idealistic people longing for a Utopia.
Unrealistic? Perhaps. But without such higher hopes and goals, we will forever be squabbling and scratching around in the divisive, exclusionary, bigoted, unkind, nation state of our own making.
In the meantime, every time there is a Spurs match on, I will be watching it with my pals.
And I am secure in the knowledge that they see me not as Azmi Sharom, Melayu, but Azmi Sharom the loyal Spurs supporter who can’t analyse a game to save his life.

Postscript: I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Arsenal fans for having the second highest margin of victory so far in this season.

Freedom to agree or disagree

Brave New World (The Star)
November 12, 2009

"Our own laziness and lack of self-belief are producing high-handed action by some authorities."


THERE are about 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. Broadly speaking, these 1.5 billion are divided into two distinct denominations; the Sunni and the Shi’ite.
The Sunnis are further broken into four major schools of thought (or mazhab) and these are the Shafii, Hambali, Maliki and Hanafi.
The Shi’ites have three major mazhab and these are the Twelvers, Ismailis and Zaidis.
Within each broad denomination and mazhab there are further groupings and ideologies.
Amongst the Sunnis for example there are the literalist Salafis (which Saudi Arabian Wahhabism falls under).
Then there are certain cross-denominational movements like the mystical Sufis.
Any basic textbook will describe these different schools of thought within the Muslim world.
It is nothing particularly new or exciting.
Well, it can be exciting if one who is raised in the Sunni tradition finds oneself in an Ismaili mosque, not knowing it is an Ismaili mosque.
This is what happened to me many years ago.
I had found a mosque within walking distance from my house in Middlesex, England.
It looked very nice and I thought it would be good to go to Friday prayers there.
I should have guessed this was not Shafii territory anymore when I saw that everyone was dressed in the same kind of robe and when the prayers did not seem to have any end in sight.
Standing out like a sore thumb in my black jeans and black leather jacket, I prostrated along with the rest for what seemed to be a heck lot of prostrations until finally, at the end of what was the umpteenth prayer, the gentleman next to me kindly said, “We are finished now, you can go home.”
My point is that within the rich tapestry of world religions, even within a particular religion, there will be many differing views and ways of thinking.
It is an unfortunate but natural tendency amongst followers of a particular faith or even a group within a particular faith to think that they have the real deal and that everyone else is either wrong or misguided in some way.
I remember a Methodist pastor telling me with some amusement how a Catholic once said to him, in all earnestness, “you know, we Catholics view you Protestants as Christian, too.”
As a pluralist, I would like to think that all people have a right to believe what they want in any way they want; the only proviso being the golden rule, which is to not do unto others what you would not want done unto you.
In other words, if you aren’t hurting anyone, go ahead and do what you are happy with.
This is of course not the way things are in Malaysia.
Although our Constitution guarantees religious freedom to all people, it does place restrictions on proselytising to Muslims.
This includes Muslim-to-Muslim proselytising, which is why we have laws requiring permits and the like for anyone to preach to Muslims.
Datuk Dr Muhammad Asri Zainul Abidin, the former Mufti of Perlis, experienced this law first-hand when he was arrested by the Selangor Islamic Department.
The question here is why we should have such laws in the first place.
It has been argued that such laws are necessary to ensure public order.
There have been arguments, for example, that Dr Asri has been preaching a brand of Islam that is different from mainstream Malaysian orthodoxy and this has caused “unease” amongst Muslims who have heard him speak.
This is of course conjecture. Besides, if some sensitive souls may be uncomfortable with what we say, it would be a rather pathetic reason to curb such a fundamental right as the freedom of speech.
Short of incitement to violence, there should be no limitations on speech.
However, let us assume this was the case, that Dr Asri had been causing “unease”.
The question then becomes, why on earth is this so?
I have read some of his works and there are times I agree very strongly with him.
For example, his attacks on “khalwat squads”, poor treatment of Muslim converts by those in authority and the downright narrow-minded practice of not allowing non-Muslims into mosques.
I believe these were necessary stands to take.
Coming from a person with the requisite “qualifications” and goatee, I was hoping such statements would begin to take the practice of Islam in this country away from petty perversions, racist dogma and exclusivity.
I don’t agree with some of the other things he has said, for example his criticism of the Islam Liberal movement in Indonesia.
But surely that’s the point: he has his views and one is at liberty to agree or disagree.
The reason why there is “unease” is because for generations, Muslims in this country have not been encouraged to think for themselves.
On the contrary, we are told to obey those who know better, and that is that.
So, when an authority figure says something different from another authority figure, there is a moral panic of sorts.
To me the root issue here is not Dr Asri’s right to speak.
Instead, it is about a mindset of subservience to religious authority that is so entrenched that the very thought of ideas different from the mainstream is enough to “justify” high-handed action.
The Islamic authorities in this country prefer to keep the Muslim populace in their thrall.
In that way, their word is law, and their power and influence are maintained.
And we, through laziness and lack of self-belief, have let them do so. The arrest of Dr Asri is the logical conclusion of this state of affairs.

Let's not forget the value of the rule of law

Brave New World (The Star)
October 29, 2009

"Those who should know better are forgetting the values enshrined in our Constitution, thus the Bar Council’s education campaign."


DO you remember VK Lingam? You don’t? Let me refresh your memory.
He is a lawyer who, at least at one point, was said to have had a lot of influence on the judiciary. So much influence in fact that he was found to have been brokering judicial positions.
Normally I am coy about making blunt statements like this, due to memories (vague and sleepy as they are) of my classes on the topic of defamation, but this is not me making a bold statement. This is the finding of the Royal Commission established to investigate the authenticity of a videotape which had VK Lingam in it.
The video shows Lingam talking to a judge and promising to ensure his promotion. The Commission found that the tape was real; the person talking on the tape was VK Lingam; he was talking to Judge Ahmad Fairuz; and indeed the appointment and promotion of judges do appear to have been open to manipulation from private citizens and members of the Cabinet (in the case of that video, Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor).
Do you remember now? Correct, correct, correct, he is the man in the scandalous Lingam tape.
Well, it seems that the Commission’s proposal that these men be investigated under several laws (such as the Anti-Corruption Act) is not going to be taken to the logical conclusion of a trial, because the government has decided there is not enough evidence.
Bizarre, isn’t it?
You have a tape with serious implications about our judiciary and prima facie unsavoury activities authenticated by a Royal Commission, and they say there is not enough evidence.
Come on, just last week Tian Chua the Pakatan MP was found guilty of biting a policeman on, at least as reported in the press, little more evidence than the policeman in question basically saying “he bit me, honest he did, he bit me.”
How much evidence do you need?
Why is this a serious matter? Well, the judiciary is a crucial part of our system of government; a system of government which, according to the Constitution, practices a separation of powers.
That is to say, to ensure that despotism does not rule, the people who make the laws (Parliament), the people who enforce the laws (Cabinet) and the people who decide on any question of law (the judiciary) are kept apart to avoid any one body or person from having absolute power.
The judiciary must therefore be as independent as possible so that they can do their job without fear or favour, and so that the citizens of the country can have faith in the system.
If we do not want to live in a dictatorship, then an independent judiciary is a fundamental element of our system of governance that must be protected.
Having lawyers brokering positions in the judiciary along with Cabinet ministers in the tawdriest manner imaginable does not bode well for the independence of the judiciary or its dignity.
This matter is important to the founders of this nation, which is why you find it enshrined in the Constitution.
The Constitution is the document that lays down all the basic principles required to run our country in a particular manner. Ours has determined that our country is one which practices a secular, democratic system with separation of powers.
Without this foundation, the governance of this country will be rudderless and its citizens bereft of important protections spelt out in the Constitution.
The importance of this document cannot be emphasised enough, and in this light it is heartening that the Bar Council’s Constitutional Law Committee has decided to launch a first-of-its-kind awareness programme called the My Constitution Campaign (Kempen Perlembagaan Ku).
I really dislike campaigns. They usually smack of lip service and sometimes are embarrassing (1Toilet anyone?), but this is one campaign that I think is necessary.
It will basically be about spreading information regarding the Constitution to the Malaysian public in a style that is easily understood and digested.
This will take the form of booklets, citizen service advertisements and public forums.
The campaign begins at 3pm on Nov 13 at the Bar Council (open to all), and hopefully they will enjoy some success.
Now, I do not for one second believe that the My Constitution Campaign is going to create an entire population well versed in the Constitution.
I have no delusions that people will be talking about it with the same vigour as they do about whatever reality singing and dancing programme on the telly right now, but what I hope it will achieve is to ensure that those of us who do care about our lives and our futures; those who think that good governance and justice are important aspects of life, will at least have a better understanding of this, the supreme law of the nation, which was created with those values as its ideals.
It is an understanding that those who have decided to drop the Lingam case seem to lack.

Hoping for change

Brave New World (The Star)
October 15, 2009

"The Nobel Peace Prize should not be given lightly, and neither should corruption and political office be mentioned in the same breath."


WHAT a funny week it has been. One man gets a prize despite having done nothing to deserve it and another gets a prize despite having done something which should have prevented him from getting it.
I am speaking of US President Barack Obama and local politician Tan Sri Mohd Isa Samad. Boy, I never thought I’d use these two names in the same sentence.
Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize came out of the blue and of course the question on everybody’s mind was, what on earth did he do to deserve it?
Apparently it is for the “hope” that he has given to a world totally “bushed” from America’s cowboy “diplomacy” of the past eight years.
Well, if making people feel good is a factor to be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize then I nominate Barry Manilow for bringing joy to countless millions of housewives around the world (with his music, of course).
Another reason given by the Nobel people is the “potential” that he has shown for bringing peace to the world. This is very weird. For one thing, his “potential” has not been particularly promising.
America is still at war in Iraq and Afghanistan and in fact its presence in Afghanistan appears to be getting even stronger, what with the call from the senior US military commander there, General Stanley A. McChrystal, for 40,000 more troops.
And the so-called peace process between Palestine and Israel sees America basically letting the Israelis do whatever they want.
Jewish settlements in Arab land continues, United Nations Human Rights Council Judge Richard Goldstone’s (a Jew incidentally) condemnation on the attacks on Gaza is brushed aside by the United States and the Palestinians are told to go to the negotiating table with no conditions attached, basically tying their hands behind their backs.
So, forgive me if I don’t see how Obama is going to achieve this “potential” as the architect, or at the very least a big wheel in the achievement of world peace.
And what if he doesn’t live up to this expectation? What if things get worse? Does he have to give the prize back?
Don’t get me wrong, Obama is so much more palatable than Bush and I’m certain diplomatic ties between America and the rest of the world is going to be much, much better under him.
But the Nobel Peace Prize should not be given lightly and the reasons why he has been bestowed this honour seems to me to be rather frivolous and premature.
Now, over to our little corner of the world. Isa Abdul Samad has given something for the Umno people to crow about.
He won the by-election in Bagan Pinang and added some 3,000 votes to Umno’s majority.
This is Umno’s first major victory in all the by-elections after the 2008 general election.
It’s all a little strange because Isa, as everybody knows, was found guilty of money politics by his own party and has just served out his punishment.
Some may say that the man has “done his time” and should not be stopped from competing in the elections.
Normally I would agree, but not in this case. Money politics is corruption; it is not a “technical offence”, whatever that might be.
In light of the fact that corruption is one of the banes of Malaysian public life, choosing him as their candidate (and now having him as an assemblyman) is to my mind akin to allowing a convicted paedophile to be a kindergarten teacher after he has served his time.
There are some offences which should bar one from certain jobs.
Corruption and political office is one of those situations.
Having said that, the people of Bagan Pinang obviously do not consider corruption to be such a big issue, which is why they gave Isa such a nice majority.
What is interesting to note is the very large (40%) swing among non-Malay voters away from the Pakatan. Whatever their reasons for this loss in faith, Pakatan, in particular PAS, has to take note.
They have to figure out what went wrong and try to rectify it. Denial and angry accusations are not going to help.
It’s been a funny old week. We have two men, both receiving prizes that maybe should not have gone to them.
Only the future can tell if this will have any significant effect at all.

Growing up in an age of innocence

Brave New World (The Star)
October 1, 2009
"Childhood is the time of great innocence. Friends will be friends because we get along, and there’s no ‘other’."


I WENT to Francis Light 1 primary school in Jalan Perak. This was in Penang, naturally, because which other state will have a school named after Francis Light?
The school was (is) in a poor part of town and most of the children were street smart and tough.
I, on the other hand, was a soft suburbanite who only went to this school, miles away from home, because of my father’s strange “sense of history”.
I suppose Sekolah Bukit Lancang does not have the same historical resonance as “Francis Light”.
Be that as it may, I had a wonderful time there, partly due to the fact that I was fat and too large to be picked on by my fellow undernourished pupils.
I am not one for sentimentality, but looking back, it was indeed a time of great innocence.
My “best friend” depended on who sat next to me.
So, in Standard One, it was a little chap with curly hair called Syed.
We used to play on the roots of the giant trees surrounding our school, pretending that if we fell off, the “buaya” would eat us; very exciting stuff, and not a Gameboy in sight.
In Standard Three, my best mate was Alan.
Strangely enough, we have both ended up on the same career path.
He, too, is a law lecturer, but he’s on the wrong side of the Cause­way.
Unfortunate for us, as he is a far better academic than me.
Standard Four saw me perpetually hanging around with Ganesan, a kid fatter than myself who had a wonderful brain rich with imagination.
Obsessed as he was by food, he was convinced that heaven was a place where everything was made of edible stuff.
Knowing my dietary restrictions and concerned about his pal after death, Ganesan once told me, “Azmi, in heaven, you don’t have to worry. You can eat pork because the pigs will be made of pink jelly.”
I think he has emigrated to Australia.
In my last year there, I was in a little gang of misfits consisting of Sultan, Zahir and Suresh — I think that was his name.
Oh, but I’m getting old; I can see his face so clearly and remember that he was petrified of cockroaches, but what is his name?
Friends were friends because we got along. That’s all.
And teachers were liked or disliked because of what they did.
Cikgu Syed was well respected because he was cool.
Mr Goh could play the guitar and sing; groovy.
Cikgu Zubaidah was loved because she was utterly dedicated to us.
And there was Mrs Gopal who was rather feared because she was such a disciplinarian.
So much so that when I bumped into her on the streets while I was in Form 3 and she looked at me and said “Ah, Azmi, why are you not in school”, I trembled and mumbled some excuse about it being break time between SRP papers.
The fact that by then I was a head and a half taller than her made no difference at all.
There are others, of course, friends and teachers. Some were enemies and some were seriously disliked, but the point is there was no sense of the “other”.
“Unity” depended purely on personality. That is the way with children.
But when you have a situation where the “real world” divides us and insists on our differences, whatever childhood innocence will dissipate and be replaced with something else. Something divisive and exclusionary.
In this light, will the idea of having a “multiracial hostel” be anything more than simply a PR exercise? I seriously doubt it.
As long as we go on the way we are, as long as our system of governance does not change, as long as there is no true sense of belonging for all people in this nation, then any superficial attempt at “national unity” will be as illusory as pink jelly pigs.

Penang needs the money too

Brave New World (The Star)
September 17, 2009

"George Town as a Unesco heritage site may have to play second fiddle to ‘twin’ Malacca if petty politics gets in the way of responsible governance."


IN November last year, then Prime Minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Abdullah Badawi said that RM50mil would be allocated to Penang and Malacca for conservation purposes. That’s RM25mil each.
The reason for this is because the cities of George Town and Malacca are on the Unesco World Heritage list. This means that in the eyes of the UN, our two cities are of such value and worth that they are a heritage, not just for Malaysia but for the entire planet.
Quite an honour really and our Prime Minister at the time recognised this. Good for him, I say.
Both the towns have truly beautiful bits (I grew up on the island and have over the years enjoyed many an evening strolling the streets of Malacca); but they both need money to conserve, preserve and restore those beautiful bits.
Then, this week, I read that the money was not going to Penang. I have no solid news as to whether it is going to Malacca or not, but the minister in charge, Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim, most definitely said the money would not be given to Penang.
He said that the money promised by Abdullah was a “misconception”.
This got me to scratching my head. How can “The Federal Government is going to give Penang RM25mil for conservation purposes” be misconceived?
It’s not as if Abdullah said something vague like “The Federal Government is going to give a town somewhere in the north of the peninsular an undisclosed amount of money for some purpose or other. Maybe.”
But then, I am not surprised really. Rais once wrote an impassioned plea to rid the nation of the ISA and then later said it was a fine and dandy law. I guess his book was a misconception.
I am also not surprised because Penang is no longer under Barisan Nasional rule. Malacca still is, and from my informants I gather that 40 heritage projects have been appro-ved there.
This is not the only example of differential treatment. Agriculture Minister Datuk Noh Omar gave an order in July to all civil servants in his ministry to not attend meetings with opposition state governments, upon pain of disciplinary hearings.
He said this is because money for agriculture projects come from the Federal Government, so why should they cooperate with the Opposition state governments?
Let me explain a little about federalism to these two gentlemen. In a federal system, you have a Federal Government with its own powers. You have state governments with their own powers. They each exist in their own worlds but there will be situations where they have to cooperate, and there will be situations where they have responsibilities to one another.
Now, if the Federal Government has a responsibility, for example, to develop agriculture or if it placed the responsibility upon itself, like making a promise for money to be used for heritage conservation, then it has to live up to that responsibility.
This is a responsibility between two governments — federal and state. It is not about political parties. This is a question of good governance, and once elections are over those in power have a duty to us, the people of this country, to get on with governing properly, fairly and indiscriminately.
The people of Penang, indeed the world, will risk seeing a heritage site neglected. For what? Cheap political points?
I would also like to remind Rais that once a site has been declared a world heritage, then the nation has an international obligation to care for it. Being the sophisticated man of the world that he is, well versed in international laws, I am sure he understands this.
Yesterday was Malaysia Day. We have come a long way in terms of infrastructure and wealth. It’s a shame that our political maturity is still so stunted that we are unable to draw a line between governance and party.
If we are to blossom into the true democratic country that we have the potential to be, then it is high time we grew up.