Sunday, 30 December 2012

What’s in store for New Year?

Brave New World (The Star)
27 December 2012


There will be no more predictions next year. Just like the end of the world fiasco, we have had some loony predictions in this country. And the thing is we have all been proven wrong.


Can he do it? The author's last resolution is to be patient with Andre Villas Boas and not to call for his head until at least one more full season in charge. - AFP
Villas Boas and not to call for his head until at least one more full season in charge. -Can he do it? The author's last resolution is to be patient with Andre AFP

THE failure of the world to end has really messed up my plans.

I thought that one of two things could happen. Either giant meteors/tidal waves/earthquakes/would crush me in which case nothing would matter any more.

Or the world would be in such a total panic facing the Armageddon, that I would not be noticed for a while.

Either way, I would not have to write this week’s column and be able to take a nice little break.

With any luck the accounting department would be in such disarray, they might still even pay me.

Alas, the world did not end, just as the accounting department will never ever pay me more than what they think I am due.

So here I am earning my keep for the last time in 2012.

Usually, end of year opinion pieces take the form of reminiscing about the year that has gone by.

I don’t want to do that. Instead I want to share my New Year resolutions with you.

I must declare, however, that I don’t believe in resolutions and the few times I have tried have ended in dismal failure.

However, seeing that I am still alive and the world has been spared, perhaps an extra effort is due.

I resolve to listen to or read the opinion of people whose philosophies I find nauseating for at least a few minutes/paragraphs before being violently sick.

After all you need to hear what they are saying before you can rebut them, otherwise you would be a knee jerk reactionary. Which is what they usually are.

I resolve to not make any more predictions. Just like the end of the world fiasco, we have had some loony predictions in this country which everybody, yours truly included, have taken part in. And the thing is we have all been proven wrong.

What is it about predictions? I think the people who like making them are those with a serious superiority complex.

They feel the urgent need to be better than others. They get a tingly feeling in the pit of the stomach when they can turn around and say “I told you so. Aren’t I smart?”.

Well, I don’t want to be like that. Especially when my predictions are always so wrong.

The one I am talking about here is of course the next general election.

Over the last year in particular, I have heard and I have given wisely considered possibilities as to when the elections will be held.

All told with a sage knowing look and the gentle stroking of a non-existent goatee.

How wise we all sounded and how utterly stupid we have all been shown to be.

Well, no more. It’s time to be Buddhist about this: we can’t tell when the darned thing is going to be so there is no point pretending we do and we can’t do anything about selecting the date, so let’s not worry about it.

My last resolution is to be patient with Andre Villas Boas and not to call for his head until at least one more full season in charge.

So what if this is the first time I am watching my beloved Tottenham Hotspur play in such a way that I actually nod off.

So what if I can make no sense of his tactical genius. He needs time, he deserves time.

Well, there you have it, my three New Year resolutions.

And you know what, I bet that by the time this hits the newsstands, Spurs would probably have lost to Aston Villa, I would be screaming, “sack the Portuguese”; and if any idiot has a different point of view from me, I’ll vomit all over their shoes.

Whoops! Messed this resolution business up again.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Rotating parties for better governance

Going The Distance (Selangor Times)
14 December 2012


IN my last article I wrote about the importance of changing the system of local government that we have. By that I meant we should reintroduce local government elections as well as overhaul the Local Government Act in order to ensure a more transparent and accountable local authority.

There are also other institutional changes which are desperately needed in this country.

Keeping to local governments, the law which exempts them from any legal action being taken against them is also something which has to be looked at.

For example, the Ampang local government was immune to any legal action for supposed negligence in the decision making which led to the Highland Towers tragedy.

But, in case I appear to be harping on too much on local government, let us spread our sights a bit further.

The Election Commission used to be an independent body and its members had the security of tenure similar to those on the Bench. That was changed in the 60s however. What was also changed was the power of the EC to draw the boundaries for the electoral constituencies.

Now the EC commissioners are there at His Majesty’s pleasure and the power to delineate constituencies lie in the hands of Parliament. This means that the independence of the EC is questionable as they can be fired at will and whoever has the majority in Parliament will undoubtedly draw the electoral boundaries to suit them and not to ensure a fair representation of the people in this country.

There are many other examples of course but I shall not go into them here. Needless to say the system of governance we have now is built around the concept of patronage.

Those in authority owe their position to a master. This leads to a feudal mentality as well as the ever present suspicion that work is done not on a professional level with the interest of the nation at heart, but instead it is done to serve a political patron.

This systemic malaise that we have can of course be changed by anyone with legislative power and the requisite will to do something about it. But is it possible to find anyone or any group with the nobility of spirit and strong sense of fairness to do so; especially if the status quo suits their own purposes.

The answer is sadly in the negative, which is why changes in government are crucial.

When one is on the other side, then one suddenly longs for neutral government machinery and a level playing field. Take Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad for example; the paragon of Southeast Asian authoritarianism. When Tun Abdullah Badawi was in power and Dr Mahathir was simply an old age pensioner who was not in favour with the current administration, he found himself blocked out of the mainstream media.

Suddenly the man who was in charge during Operasi Lalang which saw the shutting down and subsequent cowing of the print media, was lamenting about the lack of freedom of expression. He had to resort to writing a blog to get his, oh so numerous, gems of wisdom across.

Of course now that the reins of power have passed, you don’t see him lamenting any more as he has all the platforms that an octogenarian can possibly want.

My point is that political parties must be kicked in and out of power because this will have a positive effect on the mundane government of machinery; the civil service, the various commissions, the judiciary, the Attorney-General’s Chambers, local government and numerous other public institutions.

As long as any one political party feels that they will govern forever, this change will not occur.

Overzealous officials on ‘khalwat’ trail

Brave New World (The Star)
12 December 2012

Religious departments across the country have many and varied responsibilities. Arguably one can say there are far more pressing matters than making sure couples don’t smooch.


AREN’T there more important issues to make a big deal of? Seriously, is this khalwat thing really of national interest?

First off, there is no way a non-Muslim can be charged for khalwat.

It is a syariah offence and thus simply does not apply to those who do not profess the religion of Islam.

So the incessant use of the term khalwat to describe the “offence” that these non-Muslim people have been charged with in Kelantan is inaccurate.

The term may spice the story up somewhat, but the real “offence” is that of “indecent behaviour”.

Secondly, and this is the subtext, I have seen in the reporting of this issue, is that this is a problem caused by PAS.

Come on, are our memories so short? A few years ago there was a non-Muslim couple fined for indecent behaviour or something like that in Kuala Lumpur; hardly a PAS bastion.

Therefore any attempt at making this a political party issue is totally missing the point. It is not.

The real issue here I submit is two-fold.

Firstly, it is about overzealous civil servants who obviously have taken it upon themselves to be the moral guardians, nay, moral guardian superheroes, of this country.

What can one say about such folk? Some people just love throwing what little authority they have around.

However, what is more important is the second issue which is systemic.

Fix the system, and the first problem will disappear too.

The second issue is about the existence of these laws themselves. And just to be crystal clear they exist in Pakatan states and Barisan states too. This is not a party political issue. This is an issue about the role of the Islamic departments in the nation.

Why do we have such laws in the first place?

For me, it seems a bit creepy and slightly perverted. I mean, who are these people who go lurking around parks in the dead of night?

Do they have to pass a test before they can get the job? Perhaps, they must have the ability to crawl through bushes with minimum sound. Khalwat Ninjas in other words.

Frankly, I think that this “job” is demeaning. No matter how you may couch the job description, at the end of the day, you are a peeping tom.

Looking at the responsibilities of religious departments across the country, it is obvious that there are many.

Arguably, one could say there are far more pressing matters than making sure couples don’t smooch.

For example, education is a big job for these departments, because it covers not only religious primary and secondary schools but also pre-school.

Perhaps it would be better to ensure that these institutions are not only well run and of high quality but that they also prepare their school leavers for the challenges of life in the twenty-first century.

And if you really want to nab people, I gather that a lot of divorced fathers are not living up to their end of the bargain and are escaping payment of maintenance and the like.

And what about finding new and innovative ways to improve the effectiveness of the tithe collections and distribution?

There are also research units in these religious departments and there is a plethora of subjects facing the Muslim community that could do with research.

Unemployment, corruption, substance abuse are just some of the ills faced by the Muslim community and work can be done here. And by work I mean progressive forward thinking work, not the usual knee jerk reaction of “these problems exist because people are not religious enough”.

The Islamic Studies Faculties in our public universities are huge and they produce graduates who are well versed in Islamic law, economics and theology.

There is in other words a pool of highly qualified workers who can delve into substantively trying to improve the lot of the community.

These are merely suggestions of course but I believe that with focused effort and energy much can be done to have a profound and positive effect on the community. And surely this would make these bodies far more relevant to the development of the nation.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Why ideals are a must in life

Brave New World (The Star)
28 November 2012

Declarations look good at first glance, but read between the lines and one will find escape routes to shirk the very responsibilities spelt out for those in power.


IN the last couple of weeks I have been told that I am really quite a pathetic fellow; out of touch, overly idealistic and generally quite sad.

This is quite a common accusation, one that has been thrown at me in the past, and added to the fact that I work in a university, that old chestnut of making my living quarters in an ivory tower often comes into play as well.

My comments on university rankings not being the be all and end all when selecting where to study was dismissed as wishful thinking.

I was told in no uncertain terms that parents will look at rankings to choose a university for their children.

Oh, incidentally, for the sake of accuracy, in my last column, I should not have said Leeds was higher ranked than Nottingham. They are not. I should have said Sheffield, or Manchester or Durham instead.

And at a talk where I said “meaningful public participation should occur in developmental and environmental issues”, again I was painted as some trippy hippy freak who really should just sit quietly in a VW van listening to Hendrix and burning incense. Frankly, this sounds like a very enticing idea.

However, all these barbs (admittedly they were thrown at me in a gentle and humorous manner) got me thinking. Why do I bother with these ideals? No one seems to care any way. The world is a hard, calculative and oft times, a cruel place. Pragmatism, not idealism, will ensure survival, both literally and metaphorically.

I guess this is true, if mere survival is what one aspires for. I can’t buy into this thinking though. Yes, when one is floating in the clouds of principles and ideals, one may lose track of the realities of the world and one’s ideas become no more substantive and useful as “insignificant fluff”. But pragmatism without the overarching and necessary restraints of idealism is dangerous, too.

If we live our lives without aspirations, then what is to prevent the strong and the crass to rule? Without a higher ideal, then so many things become utterly pointless.

A case in point is the Asean Human Rights Declaration. Personally, I view this document as something positive. It has its problems, and I shall deal with them later, but within the context of Asean.

It is important because for decades the issue of human rights was not really part of the Asean agenda. It was only in the Asean Charter of 2007 did the countries of Asean formally recognise human rights as an essential value. And now, we have this declaration which spells out the human rights that in principle Asean agrees has to be protected.

I say “in principle” because the Asean Human Rights Declaration is, in international law parlance, a “soft law”.

By this, it is meant that it is merely a statement of principle, it is not a binding law as say a treaty is. Therefore, legally it would be rather difficult to insist that the Asean governments comply with this declaration.

This does not mean that they do not have a moral responsibility and it is up to the people of Asean to keep pressing their governments to respect the Declaration and to make the necessary domestic legislation to give legal weight to these “soft law” principles and make them hard.

Surely our erstwhile leaders did not sign the declaration for fun.

They agreed to these principles, so let’s make sure they live up to them.

Aside from the lack of legal obligation, another criticism of the Declaration is that it appears to provide loopholes for its signatories.

For example, Article 7 begins with the emphatic statement that “all human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated”.

So far so good, but it closes with “the realisation of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context bearing in mind different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds”.

The following article continues in this vein and states “the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition for the human rights and fundamental freedom of others, and to meet the just requirements of national security, public order, public health, public safety, public morality, as well as the general welfare of the peoples in a democratic society”.

Suspicious, is it not? Signatories of this document have left themselves a method of avoiding their responsibilities.

All they have to say is: “Oh, we are restricting your rights for the reason of national security/public morality/general public welfare … take your pick.”

Now, only an idiot would think that human rights mean the rights to do anything at all. I may have freedom of speech but I do not have the right to defame someone; my freedom of assembly does not mean I can trespass on another’s property.

So, naturally there will be restrictions on rights, but the issue here is that there must be restrictions on the restrictions.

And that is the crux of the matter. What prevents those in power from using the excuse of morality or security or whatever else to place so many restrictions on our rights that they become utterly meaningless?

The answer I submit is aspirations; idealism and principle.

Only when we have people in power, and by this I mean the legislature, executive and judiciary,  who have the aspiration of protecting rights as far as possible; who believe that human rights are an ideal, not an imposition on governments; and who have the conviction to live and make decisions according to these principles; only then can the Asean Human Rights Declaration have any meaning.

Maybe I am not being pragmatic; perhaps the thin air in my ivory tower has made me light headed and foolish; but I don’t care, because the alternative to living without aspirations, ideals and principles is not worth contemplating.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Importance of local government elections

Going the Distance (Selangor Times)
23 November 2012


THE Batu Caves condominium project has raised some interesting talking points. The most obvious of these, the one taken up by the many comments I have read on the internet, is the sheer bald faced cheek of the BN government.

For the Prime Minister to promise the ending of an unpopular project if his party is elected into power beggars belief when it is the local authority which was appointed by his very own party which gave the approval in the first place.

Then for the MCA to chip in by saying that the Pakatan state government was at fault for not stopping the project themselves is akin to a thief saying the theft is the fault of the victim because he did nothing to stop it happening.

But then, this level of ridiculousness is to be expected. Let’s look at something a bit more constructive than the shamelessness of some politicos.

For me, this whole fiasco serves as greater proof that there has to be a complete overhaul of our local governments.

Firstly we need to bring back local government elections. The current system of appointment of councillors by the state government is simply not democratic.

There is also the danger of councillors being beholden to the ones who appointed them.

Instead they really should be beholden to the people who live in the area.

Furthermore, although I know there are many local authorities and councillors who work very hard and make themselves accessible to their “constituents”, what is truly needed is the institutionalising of a system where they are structurally answerable to the people.

There are far too many cases of local authorities acting in a high handed manner simply because they know that ultimately there is very little that the ordinary folk can do. The argument that you indirectly select your local government by the state government you vote for does not hold water.

This is because the job of the state government is very different from the job of the local government. There are broader political and policy issues that come into play when choosing your state representative. A local representative need not even be affiliated with any party.

What people want are councillors who are dedicated and work hard on local issues. State-wide, let alone national issues, does not come into the equation of tree trimming, drain clearing and garbage collection.

But even the reintroduction of local government elections is not enough. There has to be a total review of the Local Government Act with all undemocratic and un-transparent provisions removed.

As it is local governments can work in secrecy and this is because the Act allows them to.

The Selangor State’s introduction of the Freedom of information Bill is a good thing but by itself it is not enough.

The entire local government machinery has to be opened up as much as possible so that there can be close scrutiny by the public.

At all levels of government in Malaysia, Federal, state and local, what is clear is that the future depends on the opening of democratic spaces and the democratisation of government machinery.

Too many cases of corruption and incompetence have been coming up. People are people, they are fallible, they are greedy and they are weak.

What we need is a system where they can’t succumb to temptation without being discovered and without being punished for their transgressions.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

There’s more to a varsity than rankings

Brave New World (The Star)
14 November 2012

It is unwise to choose a university purely based on its position in the ranking table as many excellent universities are not even ranked.


I GOT a few comments from my last article saying that rankings were a good thing and you need to rank universities to know which are better than the others. And the fact that I was speaking against rankings means I am firstly, not progressive and secondly, lazy. Well, I can’t really argue with the second accusation.

Be that as it may, let me make my position clear. I am not against rankings per se. What I am against is the formation of university policies based on the ranking criteria, for reasons I talked about two weeks ago.

Furthermore, depending on what you are looking for in a university, you may find excellent universities which are not ranked. I am thinking of some very good American liberal arts colleges where students get an excellent holistic education but because publications are not high on the university’s agenda, they rank poorly.

The reason why the issue of university education is being discussed again in this column is because I just read that the Deputy Prime Minister was going on about how Malaysian universities should be ranked in the top 100 so that we can attract more local and foreign students.

There are of course some advantages to studying here rather than abroad. Firstly, our universities are dead cheap compared with European, American and Antipodean colleges. Secondly, if you are studying a country-specific field, like law, it might be better for you to just learn Malaysian law right from the start.

However, I question the wisdom of choosing a university purely based on its position in the ranking table. For example, I chose to go to the University of Nottingham for my Masters degree because it has a superb international law programme.

Rankings-wise, it’s not so great compared with many other English universities, but it had what I wanted. If rankings were my criteria, then I would have gone to the higher-placed Leeds (my mistake, Leeds is lower than Notingham, so let's replace it with Manchester or Sheffield or Durham. My point remains the same - I would still have chosen Nottingham regardless of ranking) and enjoyed the kind of winter that would make brass monkeys nervous.

My alma mater for my doctorate is not even on the rankings list that I looked at. Yet, the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies was without a doubt the place to be when doing a thesis exploring Malaysian law in the international context. Plus my supervisor was an expert on the subject matter.

In short, rankings had nothing to do with my decision making. Neither does it have to do with any of my advice to young people looking for a university.

For instance, if a school leaver asks me about which Malaysian university they should apply to for law, my advice would be based on the overall leanings of a particular university. This one is more liberal than the others, that one is very conservative, and so on and so forth.

The ultimate decision of course lies in the individual and what he or she is seeking in their legal education.

But here lies the crux of the matter. When it comes to undergraduate candidates, for those who have a choice, I will always say, go abroad if you can. Why is that? Let me explain.

The real key to a good undergraduate university education in my mind is not whether their lecturers are regularly publishing in ISI journals. It is whether they are teaching the subjects you want and teaching it well. And even then, what goes on in the classroom is only a small part of the equation. The kind of experiences you have outside the lecture halls are more important.

Will you be able to experience the freedom to explore all sorts of views and thoughts away from your comfort zone? Will you enjoy self-governance and independence? Will you be able to take part in cultural experiences unhindered by the value systems of some higher authority? Will you be able to express yourself without any fear?

These are the questions I would be asking because more than just the studying of a subject, it is the overall experience that an undergraduate has that will shape him or her, making their university experience more whole and ultimately making them more employable.

Treat your students like schoolchildren and you will get schoolchildren graduates. Let them be adults with all the responsibilities and you will get mature graduates.

At this time, and I don’t see things changing in the near future, Malaysian universities fall short where the undergraduate experience is concerned. Am I being unpatriotic? If I am, than that is akin to saying the statement “Malaysia does not provide good skiing holidays” as being unpatriotic.
Just as we have no snow, neither do we have, in our current situation, universities that will be a truly enriching experience for the school leaver. And that has absolutely nothing to do with rankings.

(The last paragraph was part of the full article that I submitted. Don't know why  The Star changed it to something that was the same with what I said, but so much duller!)

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Death knell for higher education

Brave New World (The Star)
31 october 2012

There is a growing obsession with form over substance and nowhere is this more evident than in the unhealthy interest taken with university rankings.


THIS month marks the 22nd year I have worked as an academic.

In that time, I have seen many changes in the university. There have been, of course, some improvements since those early days.

For one thing, technology has transformed things for the better.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane.

The very first publication I wrote went through this rather painful process.

First, I had to go to the library and find the relevant cases and journal articles. Then having taken copious notes, I went back to my office where I proceeded to write out my thoughts with an ancient device known as a pen.

Having completed this task, I would send my scratching to a lovely lady in the general office downstairs whose job title was “steno”.

She would type out what I wrote, give it back to me to check and then I would return it to her with any corrections. Finally, it would be placed into a pocket made of paper known as a stamped envelope and posted to the publisher.

Now, all cases and statutes including many journals are online. I type my work myself (with the computer checking my spelling and grammar) and when I am done I e-mail the stuff to the publisher.

All in the comfort of my office where I can play Flight of the Hamsters in between constructing sentences filled with gems of wisdom.

I will be the first to admit that I am quite old-fashioned in many ways, but I can categorically say that I don’t miss the days before the Internet and Word.

Progress, unfortunately, is not always positive. And it saddens me to say that over these last two decades I have seen changes that in my opinion ring the death knell for higher education.

In my opinion, the key problem is that those who decide the direction of our universities have lost track of the values that have to underpin these institutions in order for them to play a meaningful role in society.

There is a growing obsession with form over substance and nowhere is this more evident than in the unhealthy interest taken with university rankings.

Politicians harp on about it, so the Government makes it a priority. Because the Government wants higher rankings, the vice-chancellors start ranting about it too.

Rankings have become the raison d’etre for universities.

The quick fix then becomes the holy grail, hence universities look to the ranking criteria and they focus their efforts on doing all they can to meet those criteria.

This blinkered modus operandi then leads to some seriously contorted developments which ignore the principles that are necessary for the proper foundations of truly good universities.

Academic autonomy is one of those principles.

A university is a complex organisation. It is unlike a factory where there is by and large one goal and usually one method with which to achieve the said goal with the best quality and efficiency.

Even in one faculty, there are many variations. Take, for example, the Faculty of Arts – you have departments as diverse as English and Geography; Urban Planning and Gender Studies; International Studies and Indian Studies; the list goes on.

You can’t possibly be laying down a single criterion for quality for such a diverse group. But that is what happened.

Nowadays, if you want to prove your quality, the only way you can do it, which is embraced by universities, is if you publish in the journals recognised by the ranking organisations.

It doesn’t matter if you are an English professor who publishes well-received novels, or if you are a Gender Studies lecturer who uses your knowledge for women’s activism.

What about the fine arts? Shouldn’t the creation of new ideas in dance and theatre take precedence over an article in some obscure (but acknowledged by the rankers) journal which only a handful of people will read?

Increasingly, the thinking of universities is it is our way or the highway.

Such a top down approach cannot work because each academic unit in a university has its own expertise and its own value system.

This has to be respected because they themselves should know how to advance their discipline both in an academically and socially meaningful manner.

Autonomy brings with it the necessary flexibility for each department and each academic to chart the necessary course which will improve themselves and their own disciplines.

And who should know better what that course should be than those who have trained in that discipline.

I am not against the publishing of works in reputable journals. I acknowledge that they are important to the advancement of academic thought.

What I am saying is that the diversity of academia means that there are numerous methods to determine quality. And the best way to achieve quality is by having true academic autonomy so that those who know best are the ones who determine the way to achieve the best.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Building a more just and caring nation

Brave New World (The Star)
17 October 2012

It is important for us to embrace the ideal that all sectors of society must be helped if they need help.


IT has been said many times in this column that as a nation we need to move away from race-based politics and policy-making.

Whenever the issue is raised, however, there will normally follow responses that refer to the inequitable distribution of wealth in the country. The usual argument is that Malays still make up the largest number of poor and thus require affirmative action.

I agree that the largest number of poor households is still largely Malay. This being the case, if we discard ethnic-based policy-making and focus purely on poverty alleviation, the largest group that would be receiving help will still be Malays.

The difference with a colour-blind policy, however, will be two-fold.

Firstly, as a nation that purports to hold civilised values, it is of vital importance for us to embrace the ideal that all sectors of society, regardless of their skin colour, must be helped if they need help.

Secondly, it is unsustainable for us to continue to be governed based on race for there is no way we can grow successfully as a nation if there is a deep and abiding sense of division among us.

As the saying goes, talk is cheap. If one were to take this route, how does one go about it?

Surely the priority should be towards the building of a more equitable society, in terms of income, education, opportunities for development and institutional fairness.

Fortunately, two NGOs have decided to take the bull by the horns and have come up with an interesting suggestion.

Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia (SABM) and the National Human Rights Society (Hakam) have drafted a proposed law called the Social Inclusion Act (SIA).

The SIA does not actually provide immediate answers or quick fixes.

Instead, it proposes a method through which we can develop policies that will be beneficial to Malaysians who are disadvantaged and marginalised.

What it suggests is the creation of a Social Inclusion Commission. This commission will consist of seven people who are knowledgeable and experienced in the issues at hand, i.e. poverty and social marginalisation.

The shortlist is to be drawn up by a bipartisan parliamentary committee. The committee then passes the shortlist to the Prime Minister who then advises the Yang DiPertuan Agong who finally makes the appointments.

In other words, the commissioners will not be appointed on the say-so of one person.

There is also a strict requirement of disclosure in the SIA where commissioners are bound to disclose any interest they, their family members or associates might have with any matter which is related to their work.

This commission is to be responsible to Parliament to whom they will have to report regularly. These reports are also to be made available to the public.

The commission, once established, has the responsibility to address issues of poverty reduction, income inequality, institutional discrimination, capacity building for marginalised and vulnerable communities, and the provision of social safety nets.

They are to then draft policies to deal with these issues and governmental plans of action are to be made in line with these policies.

There is a close link between the commission and Parliament, with the commission having the responsibility not only to report to the House but to also take all necessary steps to involve MPs in the development and implementation of their plans.

To me, this proposed law is attractive for many reasons.

Firstly and most crucially, it is concerned with the most vulnerable and needful sectors of the Malaysian community.

Secondly, it provides for a transparent modus operandi.

Thirdly, its work is closely intertwined with Parliament, thus respecting the democratic system.

And finally, it functions on the premise that concerted research has to be done in formulating policies.

Naturally, there is much work to be done to refine the SIA.

However, it is a bold first step forward for the country and it ought to be taken seriously by anyone who is serious about creating a nation which is more just, inclusive and caring.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Can bully boy tactics win?

Going The Distance (Selangor Times)
12 October 2012


Oh what a glorious night! Twenty-three years of humiliation, with nothing but self-deprecating humour to comfort oneself, finally laid to rest on that one glorious night.

I am talking of course about last Sunday (Sept 30) when Tottenham Hotspur finally defeated Manchester United in a League game at Old Trafford.

Needless to say, being a Spurs man for over 30 years, I am experienced enough to know these moments can soon be overshadowed by an awful performance against some “smaller” team.

However, for the moment, allow me to crow! After all, we had to endure so much. For example, Pedro Mendes’ almost winning goal against them which was disallowed as having not crossed the line in 2005; even though it was at least a metre in the goal. Or the time we led by two at half-time, only for them to put in five after the break.

How the unwashed hordes in red taunted us. Even last Sunday, they thought that history was going to repeat itself.

Two-nil up and I was receiving texts telling me to brace myself for there will be another astounding comeback. And they almost did. They battered us black and blue in the second half but we held on.

The place I was watching the game (a Spurs haunt) was filled with grown men in lily white cowering behind walls and chewing fingernails bloody, as we counted the seconds. But the elation at the final whistle; oh the joy as “Glory Glory Tottenham Hotspurs” (a song they stole from us incidentally) rang around the place… unforgettable!

After the chanting and dancing ended and I was driving home alone, I wondered if such an unlikely victory can occur against the ruling party in the next general election.

After all, the similarities between Manchester United and the BN are numerous.

They are both used to winning to the point that they feel it is their god given right. Referees are always thought to be on their side.

On the rare occasion that they do lose it is everybody’s fault except their own. The press is cowed by them….the list goes on.

Of course I am being facetious; who knows what’s going to happen at GE13?

However, the constant speculation of the past year is positively irritating.

Why we can’t simply have a set election time is beyond me. Then we won’t have ridiculous scenes where the Opposition are pointing out what is clearly an election budget as being an election budget and the government vehemently disputing something which is as obvious as Khir Toyo’s makeover.

So, with the budget being what it is, elections are surely just around the corner right? Perhaps, but if they are, then why is the government doing so many silly things?

Attacking Suaram for a few supposed accounting oddities looks very much like selective prosecution. Having a mega feast for a chief minster’s son during a time when people are expected to be frugal and careful seems a bit rich and cocky. Going on a witch hunt against NGOs based on some laughable excuse that they are insidious foreign agents sounds like desperation to me. And harassing Bersih leaders at immigration looks like good old-fashioned malice.

All these things (and this is within a space of a couple of weeks) does not make any sense to me.

Do those in power actually believe this is going to help them? Hardcore BN supporters will vote for them regardless and the converse will go for those who are staunchly opposition.

But do they honestly think that the fence sitters are going to be wooed by these bully boy tactics and wildly flimsy accusations?

It is all beyond me and in a way I am thankful that I can’t put myself in their heads.

Obviously what goes on in there is just too strange for me to comprehend.

It is better to just sit back and watch what will happen; rather like watching Alex Ferguson putting on an aged team against a young squad with wings on their heels.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Minister must be there for Question Time

Brave New World (The Star)
3 October 2012

Although not compelled by law, a Cabinet minister should turn up during parliamentary debate over matters that concern his or her job.


OVER the last two weeks, I attended a couple of forums: one was a discussion organised by a private university on the topic of civil liberties in Malaysia, and the other was the launch of a book written by Mohamad Tajuddin Mohamad Rasdi titled Why Listen to Your Vice-Chancellor.

At the former, a Cabinet minister was the main speaker and a fellow academic and myself were to provide responses for his speech.

Unfortunately, he had to leave for another engagement before our turn came, so he did not hear what we had to say.

I did not begrudge him this though because, firstly, he was apologetic and polite and, secondly, it was way past office hours and even ministers deserve their own time.

At the other event, it was my turn to play runaway. The function was launched by a chief minister but I had to scoot because I had a class to teach and so did not hear his talk.

Once again, the host and other speakers were gracious and understanding.

Sometimes, we can’t turn up for events and even when we can we have to run off early. Nothing wrong with that, especially if the event is something voluntary and not part of your job or responsibility.

However, there are occasions when one must be there. An example would be meetings between management and unions. There is no point in having these types of meetings if the boss does not attend and instead sends his underling who can’t make a decision and may not even be fully aware of the issues at hand.

Another example is the presence of the Finance Minister at the parliamentary debate over the national budget. There is no law that compels him or her to turn up, but for a matter as fundamental to your job as this there is no excuse not to be fully available throughout the debates.

To do anything less is to do a disservice to the foundations of our system of governance and that is the parliamentary system.

Parliament is not only a place where laws are made, it is also a place where debates occur and questions are asked. The reason for this is not just to give our MPs something to do but it is for the sake of transparency, a vital component to a democracy.

Now, I know nuts about economics and fiscal policies, and I would rather watch paint dry than watch a parliamentary debate on such issues, but there are those who do know and would be able to offer a rational analysis of such a debate.

Therefore, parliamentary openness is a necessary mechanism for public accountability and check and balance.

In this light, I hope that whoever is in power in the future that they try to ensure certain practices be put in place in our Parliament.

It is not just the Budget speech where it is important to have the minister in charge available – it is more far reaching than that. It should be the norm that whoever is in charge of a portfolio be available for cross-examination.

And what about the head honcho himself? The Westminster exercise of having one session specifically for Prime Minister’s Question Time is something that ought to be emulated here.

Prime Minister’s Question Time (in Britain is for half an hour every Wednesday) allows people to see and hear for themselves the issues that their elected officials think are important and to see how the premier reacts.

And think about it, such a thing as PM’s Question Time is something that can be of use to all parties. An opposition with idiotic questions can help the ruling party.

And a Prime Minister who can intelligently respond to questions can only do his or her reputation a world of good. Of course the converse is true.

Like so many things in our country, we have the institutions in place but there is a consistent misunderstanding of the spirit of these institutions. Such an understanding is what distinguishes foetal democracies from mature ones.

> (Errata: In my last article I said that the US launched a missile attack on Baghdad as a response to a threat of George Bush’s life in 1998. The actual year for that particular incident was 1993. Apologies.)

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Killing innocents is never the answer

Brave New World (The Star)
19 September 2012

Violence only begets violence, and once more the poorest and the weakest suffer most.


IN 1998, the Clinton administration approved a cruise missile strike on Baghdad. It missed its target (an Iraqi military installation) and hit a civilian home killing the residents.

The strike was approved in response to the “guilt” of some Iraqis who had supposedly threatened the life of George Bush the elder. It did not seem to matter that the trial for said crimes was not even over yet when the missile was launched.

My point is that it does not take much for American government-sponsored violence to be unleashed on a country.

In this light, the death of Christopher Stevens, the American Ambassador to Libya, along with several of his colleagues could have severe repercussions on innocent people.

The Obama administration seems to be practising restraint for the moment, but one can question if a more hawkish government would act in the same way. As it is, Mitt Romney is making Bush-like sounds of war.

The catalyst for all this is that utterly obscene and reprehensible video insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

As of this moment, it appears that it was made by a petty crook with a shady past, and it was supported by odious right-wing groups.

These loathsome creatures can be said to be simply hatemongers, but it can also be said that whether on purpose or not, they are agents provocateurs for the hawks of America who are just itching for an excuse to wreak even more destruction on West Asia.

And nothing would serve their wicked intentions more than scenes of death and violence inflicted on American lives and property, shown with salivating eagerness by so-called news channels like Fox.

It does not matter that ordinary Libyans were the first to react in trying to save Stevens, it does not matter that the Islamic Orthodoxy, most notably the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, has condemned the killings.

The act of a shrill few would be used to colour the Islamic world as violent and sub-human.

In this light, it is of even more importance that Islamic countries that want to, rightly, protest against the film also be equally strong in their stand against the inflicting of violence. It is important because to do otherwise would be playing right into the hands of those who would wish harm unto them.

Let me be clear, this disgusting work of hatred naturally raises feelings of anger. Ordinary people as well as governments have every right to express that anger, but that expression must stop at the point of violence.

As it is, there are serious problems facing the people in Muslim countries. A quick look at the national poverty indicators of Egypt, Iraq and Sudan (where some of the biggest protests are reported) show a poverty rate of 20%, 22% and 45% respectively.

To put things in context, the Malaysian national indicators put the poverty rate at 4%. The death toll in Syria as a result of their civil war is pushing 30,000 and it has the further worrying undercurrents of being a Shia versus Sunni conflict.

In other words, the Muslim world and their leaders have far deeper and more pressing problems to contend with than the hatemongering of some people who would be happy if peace, stability, true democracy and prosperity were denied the people of the region.

The surest way to ensure the dignity of the Muslim world is the efficient and equitable distribution of their vast resources. It is to find ways to get beyond sectarian and ethnic divides.

With a prosperous, happy and educated populace, there will be the strength to brush aside idiots bent on causing strife and war.

Success is the best form of victory, and working towards that success will be the best answer to those who would wish ill towards you. The killing of innocent people would just be aiding them.

Friday, 14 September 2012

New wine, old wineskin

Going The Distance (Selangor Times)
14 September 2012


It is telling that during the Suhakam inquiry into the Bersih 3.0 rally a police officer revealed when questioned that he did not know that the right to assemble was constitutionally guaranteed for the people of this country.

This lack of knowledge is of concern naturally because we are talking about a public servant with a great deal of power (he can shoot us with his pistol after all), and it is important that he understands that the limits on his power does not depend simply on whatever Standard Operating Procedure he may have but also our rights as citizens.

However, knowledge can be gained. Police officers do take courses and some of these courses will have components of Constitutional Law in them. I have taught a diploma course on Constitutional Law and the officers in my class appeared to have grasped the concept.

Knowledge, therefore, is not really the issue here; it is the corresponding attitude towards that knowledge which truly matters.

In the past few weeks there have been many incidents that illustrate the paradox that occurs when one pays lip service to a principle without truly understanding its importance and ideals.

The Peaceful Assembly Act was supposed to be a law that would allow a more liberal approach to public gatherings, but instead we see it being used to actually hinder such gatherings.

The Janji Demokrasi gathering was deemed illegal before it occurred because proper procedures for asking permission was not followed as demanded by the Act. Investigations on organisers and participants of Janji Demokrasi are also currently being conducted, again under the auspices of the Act. A green rally in Pahang is being investigated because a person who is deemed underage by the Act was suspected of taking part.

All this fuss over what were peaceful gatherings.

I have said before that there was little wrong with the previous laws (the Police Act) regarding public gatherings. The Police Act gave a lot of discretion to the police to allow or not allow public gatherings, this is true; however if there was a proper understanding and appreciation of the Constitution, the police should, by and large, allow any public gathering as long as it is not dangerous or violent in nature.

The problem with the Police Act was one of attitude and not the law per se.

This same attitude persists and it can be seen in the implementation of the new Peaceful Assembly Act.

What is needed in the country therefore is not even more, so called liberal laws, but a true appreciation and respect for the human rights of the people of this nation. The police have to understand that their role is not simply about enforcing the law for whatever government is in power.

Their role is to enforce the law in the spirit of the Constitution and the freedoms that it guarantees for everybody.

Speaking of attitudes, the furore over some people stepping on the pictures of Datuk Seri Najib Razak also reflects an unfortunate attitude that is still prevalent amongst Malaysians, or at least some segments of Malaysians.

Frankly, it does not bother me in the slightest that photographs are being stepped on. It bothers me if the actual person is being stomped or if there is a real threat to their life, but stepping on the picture? So what? Big deal.

It is rude sure, but we are not talking about some deity or religious symbol here. We are talking about an elected official; and obviously an elected official that some people dislike very much.

The outrage and subsequent investigations and arrests show that there is still this feudal mentality amongst some quarters that raises what are essentially public servants onto the pedestal of Rajas.

There is far too much subservience in our society. Observe functions where a minister turns up. Immediately there will be the sound of shuffling chairs as people stand up. Why should we do so? Why the grovelling and hand kissing? Democratically elected officials are just like any one of us and to afford them such obsequiousness is unseemly and an affront to the entire idea of democracy and equality amongst all people.

Recent events have thrown into clear light once again how far we have to grow as a nation in order to be a true democracy. How much there is still to be done before there can be a deep and meaningful appreciation of our rights as human beings and the need to cast off any remnants of feudalism from our shoulders in order for us to live with the dignity that those same rights are meant to ensure.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Have independent mediation service

Brave New World (The Star)
5 September 2012

This should be considered as going to court is a costly and unpleasant business for most people and really should be avoided.


KARL Llewellyn (pronounced “loo-well-lynn”, I think) was an American jurist with a Welsh name.

He came up with his Law Jobs theory which I vaguely remember from my first year in law school.

According to him, law has to fulfil five “jobs” and they are:

> To avoid conflict;

> Settle disputes;

> Accommodate changes in society;

> Establish a structure for authority; and

> Establish procedural rules to accomplish these tasks.

It is interesting to note that the first “job” of law is to avoid conflict.

Although I am uncertain if Llewellyn (actually, I once heard that the proper Welsh pronunciation is “cluergh-well-learn”, but I could be wrong) had intended for there to be a hierarchy in his law jobs, I would posit that if such a hierarchy did exist, then conflict avoidance should be at the top.

After all, wouldn’t it better if we didn’t get into fights in the first place?

Two examples come to mind and both are about residents in disparate parts of the country worried about nearby developments.

The residents of Bukit Koman in Raub have been fighting for years against a gold mining facility in their area because they claim that the use of cyanide in the operations has created health problems for them.

Over in Kuala Lumpur, some residents in Taman Tun Dr Ismail have been up in arms against the Mass Rapid Transit Corporation (MRT), whose proposed train tracks just metres from their homes are causing worries both in terms of their well-being and the worth of their homes.

In both cases, could these conflicts have been avoided in the first place?

There already exist certain laws which should pre-empt problems such as these.

The Town and Country Planning Act (TCPA) and the Environmental Quality Act’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) requirements are two that come readily to mind.

But both these laws, although well-intentioned, do have shortcomings.

Primary amongst them is just how far public opinion is taken into consideration in the final decision making.

It has to be clearer how public feedback is taken and also, there has to be transparency in the final decision making to ensure that said feedback was properly considered.

Added to this, some sort of independent mechanism for mediation (something which currently does not exist) should also be considered as going to court is a costly and unpleasant business for most people and really should be avoided.

It is far too easy to label opposition to factories, new roads, rail tracks, mining operations and what have you as political issues.

Surely, people don’t get agitated unless they are rightfully worried.

Of course any issue can be turned political especially since final decisions on such matters lie in the hands of the government of the day, but one has to be non-partisan and look beyond that.

In any society, there will almost inevitably be conflicts of interest.

This is even truer when the society is as large, modern and complex as ours.

What has to be done, regardless of whom are the law makers, is to ensure that such conflicts are minimised.

And when it comes to the well-being of the people of a country, this should be even more evident.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Double standards in sentencing

Brave New World (The Star)
22 August 2012

There are times we hail court decisions and there are times we find them bizarre. But if we ignore the incredible disparities in some court decisions, it is only at our own peril.


HOSLAN Hussein gets one year in jail for inaccurately chucking (he missed) his slippers at a judge. Noor Afizal Azizan gets a fine and zero jail time for raping a 13-year-old girl.

It boggles the mind. Hoslan’s sentence, in my view, was very harsh and over the top.

But even if one were to believe that the sanctity of the courts is so fragile that a punitively deterrent punishment is required for the flinging of footwear, it is impossible to ignore the incongruous disparity in the punishments meted out to these two men for crimes of such vastly different seriousness.

Much has been said about the judge’s unbelievable comment when sentencing Noor Afizal. Apparently being a national bowler with a bright future is enough to let you escape jail time for rape.

Actually, what is this “bright future” the judge is thinking about? The man is a child rapist; he confessed to it. He should not be allowed to represent the country in anything at all.

And in case you think there are mitigating issues in this case, namely that the sexual act was supposedly consensual, allow me to argue otherwise.

In this case, the girl was under the age of consent. This means the crime committed is statutory rape. The issue of consent does not even arise in such cases.

The reason for this is because we as a society have long ago determined that the young girls of our community deserve protection.

It does not matter in the slightest that children mature at different rates; what matters is that in general, this society believes that girls under the age of 16 are not yet ready to make decisions regarding their own sexual activity.

There are mental, psychological and also physiological elements to this need for protection.

The sexual act by itself could have implications for a child’s well-being, but a child from our society would surely be traumatised in the event that she got pregnant and had to face either childbirth or abortion.

Furthermore in immature bodies, the experience can also be seriously harmful physically.

I use the term “a child from our society” because I realise the age of consent will differ from nation to nation and culture to culture.

But in the case of statutory rape, there is no room for comparative anthropology. What matters is what we value for our girls.

I always believe that Malaysians care for our children. We want them to have a sound and safe childhood so that they can go to school and build a strong foundation for their future.

This is why we want to protect them for as long as possible, for it is this safety that helps to establish an environment where they can mature and flourish at a pace which we believe is healthy.

The judge in making his decision could not possibly have been thinking about this bigger picture. For if he had, he would have realised that his judgment was not only about Noor Afizan and the girl he violated, but also about all the girls in this country and our collective concern for them.

He has in effect dealt a blow to one of the few noble values that the people of this country universally accept — that our children should be cared for and be protected.

It was pointed out to me that Noor Afizal was NOT fined but the money he paid up was a surety. I regret this sloppy mistake but it does not detract from the main thesis that the judge made a decision which in my opinion was not appreciative as to WHY we have a Statutory Rape law in the first place.


Thursday, 9 August 2012

Really, you can’t make it up

Going The Distance (Selangor Times)
10 August 2012


Rais Yatim should be given a present from people like myself who write current affairs articles.
Just when one is catching one’s breath after laughing so hard at his suggestion to create a vigilante martial arts group to patrol our streets, he then stumbles headlong into another controversy.
Well, to actually call it a controversy may be giving the man too much credit. More like an embarrassing blooper.
We are talking of course about the government’s recent efforts at organising the Merdeka celebrations. In particular the song with lyrics written by Rais himself called “Janji Ditepati”.
Now, propaganda, especially during the Merdeka celebrations, is nothing new for the current government. They have been doing it for as long as I can remember. But never has the propaganda been so crude and so self-serving.
The lyrics of the song, apart from having absolutely no poetic value whatsoever, would have made Goebbels proud in the utterly unsubtle espousing of the virtues of the Barisan government’s recent policies and its hectoring demands for loyalty.
Our man in the Ministry of Information, Communication and Culture, in a moment where I imagine that he fancied that having a job with “culture” in its title means that he has some sort of qualification to be “artistic”, has in one fell swoop soured our annual celebrations of independence.
And the government needs all the help it can get to whip up some sort of cheer this coming Aug 31. Felda stocks are falling; the prosecution of Rafizi Ramli has backfired and even poor Lee Chong Wei can’t make the ultimate sacrifice by having Rosmah hug him and a gold medal in front of the world press.
Speaking of Chong Wei, I actually feel rather sorry for the chap.
The fact of the matter is; he is simply not as good as Lin Dan. He put up a good show however, particularly in the first and third sets, but if the other man is better, well, he is more likely to beat you.
I do have one criticism though. And no, I am not going to savage the poor fellow like M Manoharan did. I remember Mano as a kind gentleman and this does not change that view, but by golly, for a politician, he was more than a little naïve to so publicly say what he did.
The chap Chong Wei has lost already, no need to whack him for his lack of style. It’s rather mean spirited.
One thing Mano said did ring a bell for me though: the millions of ringgit promised Chong Wei if he had won. This mentality of giving huge amounts of money to successful athletes seems to me to be a rather curious use of resources.
Firstly, it sends the wrong signal. It puts on the back burner the desire to win for the sake of honour, for self, and perhaps for country too.
In a competition like the Olympics, it rankles even more because it is in principle at least a competition which is about honour not material gain.
Unlike other competitions, there is no prize money to be won, just a medal.
Furthermore if those who are willing to place so much money for one swift moment of glory have so much to spare, wouldn’t it be better to put all that ringgit in developing our sports in general?
Malaysia has a bigger population and more wealth than countries such as Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Jamaica and Ghana. Yet they can succeed at events such as the World Cup and the Olympics. What are we doing wrong?
I am no expert in sports, but it does not take much to see that if our fastest 100 meter dash was run 20 years ago and has yet to be beaten; that if our team of amateur footballers can qualify for the 1980 Olympics but now our full pros struggle against Myanmar; something is not right.
I don’t see why the country can’t rise above corruption, narcissism, nepotism, racism and plain incompetence, to create sportsmen and women in a range of disciplines to stand up, be counted and take the fight to the rest of the world.
That is the kind of thing that will help to make the nation as a whole feel proud and happy to be Malaysian. Not some half-baked excuse of a song.

Oddities in law

Brave New World (The Star)
8 August 2012

To the layman, what PKR’s Rafizi Ramli and former bank clerk Johari Mohamad did was for the greater public good when they exposed a scandal involving millions of ringgit which came from public coffers. So why prosecute them?


IN the past two weeks a couple of legal oddities have come to light. The first is with regard to the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) and the second is with the University and University Colleges Act (UCCA).

The WPA has come into focus because of the arrest and charging of Rafizi Ramli and Johari Mohamad under the Banking and Financial Institutions Act (Bafia).

The question on many people’s mind is: Why are they being charged since what they did was to expose certain banking documents that uncovered the National Feedlot Centre scandal? In other words, shouldn’t these two men be protected by the WPA?

Let’s break down the legal situation in this case.

On the face of it, Rafizi and Johari did breach the Bafia. Rafizi exposed private banking documents and this is in contravention of section 97 of Bafia, while Johari is accused of aiding him and this falls foul of section 112.

To the layman, however, what they did was not for private gain but for the greater public good, exposing a scandal which involves millions of ringgit which came from public coffers. Why then should they be punished?

Now, here is where the legal oddity comes in. If we look at section 6 of the WPA, we find that a person can make a disclosure of information and he could be protected if that disclosure is not specifically prohibited by any written law. Rafizi’s disclosure is clearly prohibited by the Bafia.

Secondly, according to section 6 of the WPA, this disclosure ought to be made to an enforcement agency, which Rafizi did not do as he made the disclosure to the press.

Therefore, it does appear that the charging of these two men does not go against the letter of the law.

Whether it goes against the spirit of the law and of recent pronouncements made by the Government that they are against corruption, is another story altogether.

I would argue the section 6 provision that a disclosure must not be specifically prohibited by any law is problematic and should be removed from the WPA.

From my understanding, even if Rafizi had gone to an enforcement agency, for example the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, he would still be unprotected as a whistle blower because the information he is disclosing to them is prohibited by the Bafia.

Yet, in this case, the uncovered information is important as it can help in the battle against corruption.

I submit that what is important is not whether the disclosure goes against any laws; what we should be focusing on is the effect of the disclosure.

That is to say, if the disclosure exposes a serious crime or evidence of corruption, then the fact that by disclosing the information the whistle blower is in breach of a law should not be a factor.

If the action of the whistle blower is for the public good, then this should be a defence against any law he may have broken.

Taking criminal law as an example: if I hit a man, then I have committed a crime. However, if I hit him because he would stab my mother if I did not, then I have a defence under the law.

With this in mind, it struck me as strange that the Attorney-General has seen it fit to prosecute Rafizi and Johari.

From my argument above, there is a shortcoming in the law, particularly the WPA.

What these two men did was in the public interest. There is no likelihood that the breach of the Bafia in this case is going to cause any serious implications.

After all, the only people who have anything to fear are the corrupt.

So, if there are concerns that foreigners won’t put their money in our banks, I would say they do not have anything to fear if they are not corrupt.

Now, to fix the WPA will take time. But surely, until that is done, the A-G can use his discretion to simply not prosecute these two men in this particular case. Does he not want to fight corruption?

The second legal oddity is a seeming contradiction in the UCCA.

The Deputy Minister for Higher Education pointed out that the amended UCCA allows university students to join political parties, yet at the same time it does not allow any party political activity on campus.

I agree with the Deputy Minister; this is a rather odd state of affairs. However, I don’t think it is the biggest issue with regard to the UCCA.

From my decades long experience with university students, joining a political party is not high on their list of priorities.

After all, what kind of political nerd are you to want to join a political party at the age of 19? The only thing you will experience from doing so is the loss of interest from the opposite sex.

No, from a political context what is more important is their general right to expression, assembly and association.

It would be churlish to say that the UCCA has not been improved by the recent amendments. For example, there is now a presumption that a student can join any group unless it is illegal or unless the university says they can’t. In the past, they could not join any organisation at all without the express permission of the university.

However, these improvements are rather shallow. Dig a little deeper and you will see that students can still be severely punished by the university for exercising their constitutional rights.

This is because the universities have disciplinary rules which do not respect the students’ constitutional rights. They all have very broad “offences” such as spoiling “the good name of the university” in their rule books.

So, if students take part in a perfectly legal demonstration for example, the university disciplinary board can still punish them for “spoiling the good name of the university”.

And this discipline board can really disrupt their lives. They can suspend or even expel a student with immediate effect.

This means that even if the student goes through the appeal process, he may have already wasted a semester or even longer.

The punishment takes effect before the appeal process can run its course.

Therefore, the university still has far too much power and seeing as it is unlikely they will temper this power with a respect for human rights and the Federal Constitution, the issue of the UCCA goes much further than whether a student can wave party political flags from his dorm window.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Scripts for Tinseltown

Going the Distance (Selangor Times)
27 July 2012


Hollywood, having run out of ideas, has turned to Malaysia for inspiration. Below are two potential blockbuster movies which draw their plots from the pages of Malaysia’s newspapers.

Austin Powers and Dr Yes-No The nefarious Dr Yes-No is a villain of eel like slipperiness. He has the amazing ability of saying totally contradictory things in order to further his own cause.

Hence the name Yes-No.

He is able to write a heartfelt thesis on the evils of detention without trial and then spin around faster than a speeding bullet to support detention without trial.

Truly he is an incredible character and a worthy opponent to Austin Powers, the international man of mystery.

In this latest instalment of the Austin Powers franchise, Austin and his new sidekick Miss Pinky Bottoms, have to battle Dr Yes-No and his wicked plan to take over the world. Can Austin stop him?

It will be difficult for although Austin Powers has the skills to perfectly execute his famous judo chop, and Miss Pinky Bottoms is pretty handy with her customised pink escrima sticks, they will be faced with an army of highly trained martial artists.

Under the guise of doing community service, Dr Yes-No recruits martial artists from all over the world to fight crime.

It all begins swimmingly as patrols of men and women in matching gis and bare feet march the streets to protect the innocent.

Soon, they are everywhere. In housing estates, shopping malls, car parks, office buildings, industrial areas, fishing ponds and even government complexes.

People feel so much safer when they know they are a karate chop or a taekwondo kick away from safety.

However, with the public’s confidence at a high, and with the police all taking long leave seeing as their job is being done for them for free, the true nature of Dr Yes-No’s plot becomes apparent.

His army runs amok, taking over city after city. No one can withstand their highly skilled unarmed combat skills and before long Dr Yes-No is in control of everything. Can Austin and Pinky stop him?

You can find out in December 2012 at a cinema near you.

Mission Impossible V: The Impossible Mission Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is faced with his most impossible Impossible Mission ever in this fourth sequel of the hit series.

Moving away from the high octane formula of the first four movies, this one goes for something cerebral, more in line with Mr Cruise’s aging body.

Ethan is on a well-deserved holiday in the Bahamas when he gets a package. He opens it to find a DVD of Battlefield earth.

He puts it on and instead of seeing John Travolta in dreadlocks; he hears a familiar voice with a familiar offer. His mission if he chooses to accept it will not be to thwart some megalomaniac. No, it is much, much harder.

He has to attempt to make the Malaysian National Harmony Act something totally different from the Malaysian Sedition Act.

Somehow, he will have to make a law which stifles free speech and makes a mockery of democratic principles look as though it does not stifle free speech and make a mockery of democratic principles.

Not only that, he would have to convince people that a legal system which has been blatantly picking and choosing upon whom they will impose the Sedition Act, would not do the exact same thing with the National Harmony Act.

In the past four MI movies, we see Ethan Hunt struggling with and finally overcoming the unfeasibly difficult odds placed before him.

This time we will see him wonder whether he should even try.

Will he or won’t he? Mission Impossible V: The Impossible Mission opens on Election Day, so we can’t be sure when you will get the answer.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Stop playing race game

Brave New World  (The Star)
25 July 2012

The country has changed so much since 1969 that to keep using the argument that we are on the verge of race war is rather obsolete.


I WAS wondering when it was going to happen; when certain quarters were going to dust off that old chestnut of May 13, 1969, and use it as a political tool.

It all seems terribly coincidental that as the general election draws nearer, suddenly race riots get inserted into political speech, and a movie about May 13 is apparently waiting to be released.

The country has changed so much since 1969 that to keep using the argument that we are on the verge of race war is rather obsolete.

Let’s look at some facts. Firstly, the vast majority of the Malaysian population were not even born in 1969.

This means that first-hand knowledge of that terrible time is simply not part of most of us. Without that emotional connection, I believe that younger Malaysians are willing to question the feasibility of such a thing happening again.

And really, could it? In 1969, the politics of the nation was so very clearly divided along racial lines. The Opposition was not united as it is today. PAS won 12 seats, DAP 13 and Gerakan 8.

They were not part of a coalition and each stood on its own, therefore it was possible to play the race game because, in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor in particular, the Opposition had the face of “the other”.

Today, with the Pakatan coalition in existence, the Opposition is a much more complex animal. If the Opposition wins, how can the race card be played when two of the component parties are so predominantly Malay?

Let’s take a look at recent events that has got some powerful people’s knickers in a twist.

In particular the Bersih demonstrations of 2007, 2011 and 2012. The demographics of these events were multi-ethnic and became even more multi-ethnic with each progressive one.

By the time of this year’s Bersih demonstration, the make-up of the people who took part was much closer to the make-up of the country as a whole. However, the predominant ethnic group was still Malay.

This goes to show that the political divide, not of political parties but of ordinary citizens, can no longer be conveniently divided along ethnic lines.

Significant numbers of Malaysians, regardless of their background, can be united when they have a common political goal, in this case clean and fair elections.

Furthermore, ethnic Malays can be vocally unhappy with the status quo. In the present-day scenario, it is ridiculous to say that the politics in Malaysia is simply a matter of Malays versus Non-Malays.

And let us look at the 2008 elections. The results were unprecedented and surprised most people. I remember that night very well, as the results became clear that Barisan had lost their two-thirds majority and five state governments.

I decided to drive around Kuala Lumpur, just to see what would happen. And what happened? Nothing.

The streets were quiet. No celebratory parties, no processions, no fireworks; nothing.

The Opposition and their supporters on the streets were as muted as the Barisan and their supporters.

No gloating, no taunting, no excuses at all to provoke a reaction from the supporters of the powers-that-be.

I am certain that if a similar result is achieved in the next elections, the same would happen. There will be no provocation from the opposition and their supporters.

That is not to say there will not be any trouble. Recent events in this country have proven that there are gangs of thugs who are willing to be violent for political purposes.

The thing is though, I believe that the Malaysian public are not going to rise to the bait.

I fervently hope we will show them that we are better than them, we are nobler than them and they are nothing but hooligans with delusions of grandeur.

No, the danger that faces this country will not come from race riots.

If we have trouble in Malaysia, it will be if there is a prolonged disrespect for true democratic principles.

If the election process is not transparent and fair, if the result of a clean election is not respected, then and only then should we start to worry.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Interesting read on the monarchy

Brave New World (The Star)
12 July 2012

Although the book ‘Ampun Tuanku’ can be critical, it does so in a constructive manner with an underlying theme that suggests the monarchy has a role to play in Malaysian society and with greater thought and wisdom, this role can be a positive one.


ZAID Ibrahim’s book Ampun Tuanku is a challenge. Not in the sense that it is a difficult read. On the contrary, it is a very easy book to go through because Zaid writes in a conversational style.

Perhaps a little too conversational as sometimes he sounds like an old dude repeating himself.

But that little gripe aside, considering the complexity of the topic, this is in no way a “heavy” work and is surprisingly accessible.

No, this latest book from Zaid is a challenge on two fronts. Firstly, it challenges many preconceptions as to the role of the monarchy in Malaysia. This is an intellectual challenge and it is personal to the reader.

The second challenge is to the nation as a whole.

Dealing as it does with the touchy subject of Malaysia’s royalty and their role in a constitutional government, it would be interesting to see whether there is sufficient maturity in our populace to take the book as what it is, a thoughtful, legally argued and respectful analysis of one of the oddest (some would say unique) institutions in the world.

In the light of how this country seems to be so anti-intellectual, where decisions are made by policy makers founded on base instinctual responses as opposed to intellectual rigour, it would be interesting to see if Ampun Tuanku will evoke the Neanderthal reaction we have come to expect in Malaysia when people are faced with ideas they disagree with.

That, however, is a problem for another day. The purpose of this article is to examine some of the arguments made by Zaid.

It ought to be pointed out here that the book is at pains to maintain a respect for the institution of the monarchy.

It is critical at times but it is all done strictly within the confines of the idea that we live in a constitutional monarchy and there is never any hint that this should change.

On a general level, Zaid explores the legal limits of the monarchy as well as the leadership role that it can play in a society that is multi-ethnic and multi-religious.

In this way, although the book can be critical, it does so in a constructive manner with an underlying theme that suggests the monarchy has a role to play in Malaysian society and with greater thought and wisdom, this role can be a positive one.

For me, the most interesting issue that he raises is the discretionary powers of the Sultan or the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. A brief perusal of the Federal Constitution will reveal that there are actually very few situations where the royals have any real power.

Almost all of their decisions are to be made under advice of the Government.

“Under advice” in the context of our Constitution means that they must follow what the Government tells them to do.

One of the few seemingly absolute discretions that they appear to have is the appointment of the Prime Minister (at Federal level) and the Mentri Besar (at the state level).

I have always thought this power was pretty clear and the only limitation is that the King or the Sultan makes his choice based on his perception as to which individual will have the confidence of the House.

Zaid goes further than this and he contends that the decision made by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong or the Sultan cannot be based solely on his prerogative and his idea as to who will hold the confidence of the House, but must be based on what the members of the House themselves say.

In other words, if one group has the clear majority and they have selected a leader among themselves, then the ruler has no choice but to pick that individual to be either the PM or the MB.

Zaid argues that the only time when the Yang di-Pertuan Agong or Sultan can use his own judgment is when there is a situation of a hung Parliament or state legislature. Anything else would make a mockery of the democratic system which we uphold.

Like I said, he challenges perceptions for his view is subtly different from the one I have held for many years, and I must admit that there is coherence to his argument.

He does this throughout the book and it must be said that it is timely.

Our current political situation is different from anything we have faced before.

The upcoming elections may see a Parliament and the various state legislatures looking like something we are not used to, with majorities being razor thin.

It is even more important, therefore, that everyone, royal and commoner alike, understands thoroughly the powers and the limitations of the powers of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and Sultan as their role then becomes crucial to the democratic nature and future of the nation.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Misrule worse than no rule

Brave New World (The Star)
28 June 2012

Can someone be charged for an offence when at the material time there was no offence?


NIK Raina Nik Abdul Aziz is accused of committing a crime, the “crime” being the distribution of a book which the Federal Territory Islamic Religious Department (Jawi) does not like.

If the sentence above sounds a bit odd, that is because it is.

Nik Raina is a manager in a bookstore. She is not an owner of a bookstore, she is an employee.

Therefore, she does not have any say with regard to what book is being sold. She just manages the shop, as her job title entails.

Now she is being charged in the Syariah Court for distributing a banned book.

But it is a book, it must be said here, that at the time of the supposed offence was not actually banned.

Therefore, it was not illegal to sell the book at the time.

Jawi raided the shop she was working in on May 23. Copies of the book were confiscated during the raid. The book was effectively deem­ed illegal on June 14.

So, on what grounds was Jawi confiscating the books? It is not based on the law, that is for sure, because no law was passed banning it until 22 days after the raid.

The only reason that can exist is that Jawi disapproved of this book and took it upon itself to take action even though there was no legal ground upon which it could do so. In other words, they didn’t like the book so they decided to raid a shop and take the book.

Does this sound odd to you? Does it sound like the action of a despotic state? It does to me.

How can a person be charged for an offence when at the time of the so-called wrongful act, there was no offence? You can’t possibly do that to a person.

There are constitutional provisions against such things. It is known as protection from retrospective legislation.

In other words, if you decide to make it illegal to wear yellow today, you can’t charge someone for wearing yellow yesterday. To do so would lead to an incredible injustice and the complete breakdown of the rule of law.

Now, because Jawi is an Islamic body, there are some who believe they are above criticism. I beg to differ; it is because they are a religious entity that they must be open to criticism, especially if they behave in a way that is unjust.

This is because as a religious agency they have an even greater responsibility to not tarnish their actions with acts of cruelty, meanness and vindictiveness. For by doing so they demean the very faith that they are supposed to be upholding.

But that is by the by. Any agency, be it religious or secular, has no right to treat people in this way.

They have no right to seize private property on their whim, and they have no right to charge someone for a crime that does not exist.

That is the bottom line. If we allow anyone to do so, we are simply throwing away our democracy and the protection that the rule of law provides us.

The charm of old cinema

Brave New World (The Star)
14 June 2012

Times have changed and the memories of the past have long faded with the new experience.


I WENT to the cinema recently. I could not possibly watch The Avengers on a tiny little television screen now could I?

I don’t normally go to the cinema because I don’t like my films butchered by ham-fisted troglodytes with delusions of being my moral guardian. Nor do I enjoy doing battle with the crowds and the nightmare that is known as “finding parking in a KL mall”.

There was a time when fighting a crowd at the cinema meant fighting a crowd of other cinema-goers. Not ten thousand people buying groceries, washing machines, smart phones and what have you. I am speaking of course of the days when we had standalone cinemas, each showing just one movie.

Growing up in Penang, the main cinemas for overseas films were the Cathay, Odeon, Rex and Capitol – all either on or near Penang Road. It was a ritual of sorts that as soon as my parents allowed me to wander around by myself, every Saturday my brother and I would catch the Yellow Bus from Gelugor to town where we will meander Komtar loitering in “tape shops” ordering our custom recorded pirated cassette of all the latest hits from the comely but disinterested girl behind the counter.

“You got Alphaville? Tarzan Boy got or not? Who sang Gold ah?” Piracy haute couture!

Then inevitably, we would make our way to one of the cinemas mentioned above to get our weekly dose of escapism. Many a classic 80s flick was watched with kuaci skins crunching beneath our feet. Return of the Jedi, Back to the Future, Revenge of the Nerds, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Classics all.

But then we were not too discerning so there was also The Beast Within, Battle Beyond the Stars, and heaven forbid, Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure.

Being spoilt we would fork out the three ringgit fifty to get the balcony seats, although there were times when the only tickets available were in the cheap seats.

I still get a sharp remembered pain in my neck when I think of Rocky V which I watched 5ft away from a 50ft screen in the seat at the extreme right, first row. I also get a pain when I think of the laboured plot and painful acting, but that is beside the point.

I am being unduly nostalgic of course. The grandeur of these old ladies of cinema, even during my time, had long faded.

The majesty of the large halls with those velvet curtains that separate the real world from the one of make believe, were already faded and dusty.

And of course the choices we had were very limited. Plus we had to wait months, if not years before a movie from abroad would come to our shores.

Now, generally, the cinema experience does not come with the worry that a rat might run over your feet. Needing a pee does not induce a cold sweat of terror and we receive Hollywood movies even before those living in Hollywood get to watch them.

Times change, and the days of the standalone is past. We can make things better (for example, no more censorship with a realistic and well enforced certification system please, thank you very much) and for some things there is no turning back.

By and large the change is good. It is better to embrace the change, rather than stubbornly fight it. You can’t defeat progress – in the way our cinemas are built, or anything else for that matter.