Wednesday, 18 April 2012

A cute display of defiance

Brave New World (The Star)
19 April 2012

It is good that students are becoming more outspoken and imaginative in the assertion of their right to expression. But are their demands reasonable?


THE students are occupying Merdeka Square! Well, that’s a bit too dramatic, isn’t it? It is hard to describe a few little tents looking like a Smurf village as an “occupation”. Still, there is a small bunch of students hanging out at Merdeka Square making demands. I think this rather cute display of defiance is heartening. Sure, it is probably quite unsightly, these tiny tents looking like pimples on the otherwise smooth face of our Dataran, but to me it is good that students are becoming more outspoken and imaginative in the assertion of their right to expression. Besides, they are not hurting anyone. About their demands. The main thing that they want, if my understanding is correct, is free education and no more student loans. Is their demand reasonable? I believe so. Free higher or tertiary education is not necessarily a right. If we look at the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, only free primary education is an absolute right. Free higher education, however, while not an out-and-out right, is deemed an important aspiration. Signatories to this treaty have to make sure they move towards free higher education. Malaysia is not a party to this treaty. There­fore, under international law, the Govern­ment is not bound by this principle. My point is not whether Malaysia must provide free university education. My point is that what the students are demanding is reasonable and, in fact, recognised by the vast majority of nations in the world as a noble aspiration. But here is something else to consider. The current system of student loans has been severely criticised in other jurisdictions that practise it. The key issue is that young people enter the working world severely burdened even before they have started. This makes them immediately creatures of debt and severely restricts their ability to explore their full potential as they have to quickly get jobs that can pay the bills. In the long run, this inhibits creativity, entrepreneurship and the overall development of the nation. Now, Pakatan Rakat has been making promises with regard to education. One of them is that they will provide free higher education. Like I said, this is a noble ideal. The question is, of course, how will this be funded? Would more prudent and honest government spending provide the necessary funds? Or perhaps a more efficient tax system, where big wigs earning big money have to cough up what is due, rather than get their high-powered accountants to run circles around the revenue service? There is, however, one promise that Pakatan made which I do have some serious problems with, and that is the promise to build more universities. This country labours under the misconception that higher education means university education, and the more we have the better it is. I beg to differ. Higher education, that is to say education after secondary school, is diverse and encompasses universities, polytechnics, community colleges, vocational colleges, etc. Each caters to a different need and each has an important role to play. Not all secondary school graduates have the necessary strengths to go to university. Even today, there are many undergraduates who would really be better served in a more technical and less academic institution. Putting them in university does a disservice to them, their fellow students and the institution itself. Furthermore, who would staff all these new universities? High quality academics who can teach and do research are hard to come by. Especially considering the awful pay and working conditions most of us labour under. It would be far better if whoever is making the educational policies in this country think about diversifying our institutions of higher learning. Universities may appear more prestigious, but if these new universities are populated by staff and students who are not up to the task, then all we will have are white elephants producing shoddy papers and unemployable graduates.
This final paragraph was not published in The Star
I think I’ll meander over to the Dataran to have a look at these
students camped there. They might be unsightly (but then I find students
unsightly in the best of times), but at least they are bringing to fore a very
important issue and I hope that this occupation is the beginning of real and
meaningful changes.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Informed, not phony, reasons work better

Going The Distance (Selangor Times)
6 April 2012


There have been two consistent arguments used by the Barisan to persuade the
electorate to vote for them. The first and more popular claim is that we should
vote for them because they have experience.
The experience argument is a risky one because it can so easily be used against you.
I remember Corey Aquino, to the roar of thousands of yellow clad Filipinos,
saying “They say I have no experience. Yes, I have no experience. No experience
of corruption and no experience of stealing from the people.”
Experience is well and good but it is not the be all and end all.
It is a self-serving argument because in a system like ours, who has the most
experience? Why, the Barisan of course. Fifty-four years of uninterrupted
experience. If we use the experience argument, then the logical conclusion is
that Barisan will never ever be voted out.
A rather odd democracy that will be.
Furthermore, even at the very lowly level of our place of work, far from the
lofty heights of Parliament, we can see that the injection of fresh blood and
new ideas may be the very thing that is needed.
I say this reluctantly as I have been working in the same place for 22 years
and am now considered an old fogey with nothing to offer.
Besides, this idea that the Pakatan has no experience in governing is not
that accurate anyway. They do. PAS has been in charge of Kelantan for decades,
and since 2008, they have had Kedah while DAP has been governing Penang and PKR
The claim that Barisan should make is that their opponents can’t govern well,
not that they have no experience in governing.
In many ways, Malaysians are enjoying the ability to make informed choices
for the next election, more so than we have had before.
Our sources of information have grown and with a bit of discernment there is
much we can learn. However when it comes to actual governance and bread and
butter issues, I tend to shy away from the press.
Instead I speak to people. I live in Selangor and I have friends and family
in Penang and Kedah. It is not difficult to ask people how their lives have
changed, or not, under a Pakatan government.
The second argument that I have heard from the Barisan that if we do not vote
for them there is a danger of a hung Parliament.
The idea behind this argument is that there will be chaotic scenes in
Parliament with the majority hanging on a knife’s edge. King makers will appear
and whoever forms the government won’t have the strength that comes from a solid
This too is not a very strong argument. It is very difficult for the
Malaysian Parliament to be hung because there are only two major coalitions. It
is unlikely that the seats will be so evenly distributed that it will be
uncertain which group has the majority. It is also unlikely that there will be a
situation where a king maker is required. We do not have a significant third
political party.
In the UK, there are the Liberal Democrats apart from the mighty Labour and
Conservative parties. And for years they have been rather the laughing stock of
the British political world, but recently they have been the deciding factor in
the elections as neither Labour nor the Conservatives had a strong enough
majority and an alliance with the third party was necessary.
Where is the third party in Malaysia that could spoil a straight two-way
fight? Ibrahim Ali and Zaid Ibrahim? I don’t think so.
The point here is that there are many reasons to use to choose our next
However, experience and the phony fear of a hung parliament should not be
amongst them.

Still early days in Myanmar

Brave New World (The Star)
5 April 2012

Asean is calling for an end to sanctions on Myanmar and early reports seem to suggest that the European Union will be sympathetic to such a move. But this may be jumping the gun way too early.


IT is heartening indeed to read the news coming from Myanmar that the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi has won at least 40 of the 45 seats contested in the recent by-elections held in that country. Initial reports indicate that Suu Kyi herself won 90% of the popular vote, a testament to her long-lasting popularity despite being held under house arrest for the best part of the last two decades. Also interesting is the news that the NLD even won seats in the newly formed capital of Naypyitaw, a constituency which many thought would remain in favour of the military-controlled ruling party.
It would appear that across the board the people of Myanmar want a change to happen. But it is still early days, and as a Burmese friend of mine said, these are tiny steps. The ruling party still holds over 600 seats in their legislature, and for any real change to happen we need to wait and see what occurs in a full general election; not only what the election results will be like, but the behaviour of the ruling party in the run-up to the elections. Myanmar has long been the worst performing country in the Asean region when it comes to human rights and respect for democratic practices. The brutality of the regime has led to many deaths, some visible to the world, as with the killings during the Saffron Revolution, and many more hidden from sight as a result of executions and torture. One can’t help but worry what the regime’s reaction will be like in the face of such a clear and unequivocal challenge on its authority. Would there be sufficient space for the opposition to voice their opinions? Would a general election be free and fair? And, heaven forbid, would there be any more anti-democracy crackdowns? These are questions that linger. Yes, indeed it is still early days. Yet, we already have Asean calling for the end of sanctions on Myanmar. And early reports seem to suggest that the European Union would be sympathetic to such a move. It seems to me that this is jumping the gun way too early. As it is, Asean has never taken the atrocities that happen in Myanmar seriously; trade has never stopped. And even on a political level, there has not been the mildest public slap on the wrist of Myanmar’s regime by Asean members. The Asean way of non-interference appears to have gone as far as non-caring. Perhaps this has to change now with the signature and ratification of the Asean Charter which upholds human rights, democracy and the rule of law as official Asean aspirations. But looking at how quickly Asean is asking for a return to normalcy with regard to the world’s relationship with Myanmar, I doubt that it will seriously uphold these noble words. And as for the West, it is almost laughable at how eager it appears to be in wanting to jump back into bed with the Myanmar regime. As it is, the West was never completely out of bed with the regime as many Western companies, particularly those in oil and gas, continued to work in Myanmar even through the worst of times. What little the world has done to apply pressure on Myanmar surely must not stop suddenly simply based on the results of these by-elections. As Suu Kyi said, this small victory was a victory of the people. And how could it be anything else. The people of Myanmar have been fighting for freedom and democracy for the longest time, and I would submit that they have done so practically by themselves. It is far too early to just leave them to their fate now with the normalising of relations with Myanmar. Surely we must wait until at least there are clearer signs that the freedom so longed for has truly started to be felt by the brave people of this nation.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Freedom of Religion and Fear Mongering

I am going to put my cards on the table. I believe in freedom of
religion. Completely. This means that I believe in the right of people to
practice their religion as they see fit and this includes their right to

This is a human right which can be found in the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights. I also believe that the major religions in the world,
including Islam, also espouse the freedom of religion.

My belief however is not reliant on international law nor is it
reliant on religious doctrine. I believe because faith in my opinion is perhaps
the most personal thing that we as human beings can experience and any attempt
to control it by any authority is not only an insult on our human dignity but
also ultimately utterly and totally pointless.

That is my belief and as far as Malaysia is concerned it amounts to
little more than a hill of beans. In our country there is no complete freedom of
religion. The Constitution guarantees the freedom of everyone to choose their
religion and the Supreme Court has confirmed this, but yet, the practice of the
state governments do not respect this. If you are a Muslim and you convert out
of Islam, in some states you can and will be punished.

The Constitution also allows the control of proselytizing. No
person can proselytize to Muslims if the state government makes the necessary
laws to control such actions. This includes Muslim to Muslim

This is the reality in our country.

In this light, as infuriating as Hasan Ali has been with his claims
of mass proselytizing of Muslims to Christianity, he is actually pointing out a
crime. If what he says has any truth to it.

Apart from the bigger issue that ultimately I am of the opinion
that anyone can proselytize to anyone else if they want to, I have to accept
that the law in this country is that they can’t. My concern with Hasan Ali is
that he is fanning the flames of distrust by claiming, with no evidence
whatsoever that the proselytizing he is claiming to happen is a massive
Christian conspiracy.

It is laughable to think that the Christian community in this
country, with the plethora of restrictions and problems that they have in the
practice of their faith, with the attacks on their publications and the banning
of their Malay language bibles and the difficulties they face with building
their houses of worship, would choose to add to their woes by coming up with a
complex conspiracy which is not only against the law but will also bring
unwanted negative attention on them. Furthermore, what possible good can it gain
the Christian community to take such massive risks? Do Hasan Ali and his ilk
honestly believe that 17 million Muslims in this country will be converted and
the nature of this nation’s character will change? Like I said, it is

The sad thing is that unfortunately there will be enough people who
will be blinded by the rhetoric and take what he says, with little more than a
questionable video which anyone can make, as hard evidence of this massive
conspiracy. Already a decidedly anti-Christian forum has been organised in Johor
which has as its basic theme the idea of a threatening Christian movement to
convert Muslim young.

I have always said that fear mongering by certain Muslims in this
country, those in positions of authority and those with a high public persona,
is nothing more than a smoke screen to hide their own deficiencies. If Muslims
are leaving their religion, and I do not for one second believe that it is a
large phenomenon, then the questions that the religious scholars and authorities
should be asking is where are we going wrong? Islamic teaching is all pervasive;
so there is no shortage of that, so perhaps they are doing it wrong. Instead of
pointing fingers to some ludicrous conspiracy, they need instead to look deep
into themselves.

This country teeters on the edge of an ethnic and religious schism.
This need not be so. We have more in common than we have differences and we need
to work together in peace to ensure a good future for all of us. I agree with
Abdul Rani Hasan of PAS, that there are far more pressing matters in this
country to worry about. The last thing we need are people who sow the seeds of
division for reasons, I am glad to say that I do not have the warped capacity to