Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Bucking the set trend

Brave New World (The Star)
31 May 2012

There is a constant need to grow and push intellectual boundaries, without which there can only be stagnation and eventually regression.

THE recent ban on Irshad Manji’s book and the Kota Baru ruling that all future buildings must be Islamic in nature raise some disturbing issues. However, I realise that because both matters have an Islamic component to them, any rational discussion becomes difficult as emotions tend to subsume reason.

This being the case, I shall proceed to discuss both in a generic manner, being bored as I am with the ranting of the holier than thou. The topic of this week’s column therefore is “why book banning and architectural dictates are bad for you”.

Let us deal with the latter first. It is not unusual to have city councils make rulings on the type of buildings that they would allow to be built. This is especially true in towns with very strong historical and cultural flavours.

New buildings in Bruges (France - this was put in by my editors. Of course Bruges is in Belgium NOT France. DUH!), for example, have to fit the general architectural style of the town as a whole.

This is because Bruges is a Unesco heritage site and the town’s authorities want to maintain a certain uniformity to the place. No glass walled McDonalds. Merci.

However, any sort of control like this has to be for a jolly good reason. And there has to be a logic to it. Taking the Bruges example, the style in question is distinct to the town.

Architects and town planners have a clear picture in their mind when designing and approving buildings. This would not be the case, however, if the Bruges local government had demanded that their buildings be built in a “European style”.

What is “European” after all? Classical Roman? Ottoman (as long as it is west of the Bosphorus)? Russian Tsarist Onion Dome?

An order as vague as this, therefore, makes no sense.

Furthermore, one has to be very careful with edicts regarding architecture, lest they fall foul of cultural norms. This is particularly true in pluralistic societies.

Another concern is that such rules may actually stifle architectural innovation. In this day and age, where energy conservation is becoming imperative, innovative design would appear to be the way of the future and should not be limited.

And if one worries about ugly modern buildings, well, sometimes new things take some getting used to. After all, the much photographed Palace of Westminster (London, England - at least they got this one right!) was considered hideous when it was first built.

Besides, if you are building an ugly (but environmentally clever) building in a less than attractive town in the first place, what is the big deal?

Now on to the second topic, book banning.

Book banning is the act of the despotic and mindless. It is an act of intellectual barbarism. Burning books in my view is a violent act against thought.

One counters bad ideas by confronting them with better ideas. If one reacts in a violent manner then one is little better than the Athenian government that had Socrates put to death or the Abbasid government that imprisoned and flogged Imam Hanafi on the mere premise that they disagreed with these philosophers.

In order for humankind to develop, there is a constant need to grow and push intellectual boundaries. Without this mental expansion, there can only be stagnation and eventually regression.

In this process, naturally, there will be new concepts that one might feel uncomfortable with; especially if they question the status quo, and if they threaten one’s intellectual comfort zone. Well, to these people, I have only one word to say: “tough”.

Banning books is only done by those without the intellectual capacity or the confidence to put forth a better counter argument.

They may hide behind supposed noble ideals such as “protecting the weak minded from such awful ideas”, but in the end this thin veneer of self-declared altruism hides an arrogance that the “common man or woman” is incapable of making rational decisions, and a fear of their own cerebral shortcomings.

The fact that book banning can only be done by those in power makes it all the more repulsive because it is these very people who have the resources and infrastructure to effectively put their own views forward to the masses.

At the end of the day, these recent developments indicate a mindset that favours form over substance and an anti-intellectualism that does not bode well for the progressive development of this country.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Of burgers and butts

Brave New World (The Star)
17 May 2012

The recent wave of protests has set a precedence of sorts, where it appears that it is perfectly all right to gather anywhere just as long as you ask first.


WHAT a week it has been; full of surprises that had me reeling from the improbability of it all.

The police, it seems, have learnt their lesson after Bersih 3.0 and are now the paragons of liberty and freedom – the freedom to assemble to be exact. It would appear that today it is perfectly all right to gather anywhere just as long as you ask them first.

It is okay, therefore, to set up stalls on the road in front of people’s houses. You can even cook food in your stalls.

I was always under the impression that this kind of activity required some sort of city council permission.

After all, there are health and food safety issues to be considered. Obviously, I was wrong.

It is also okay to organise exercise classes on the road in front of people’s houses. Why, the exercise can even be quite risqué, with the swaying of large bottoms in the air.

I suppose that if I were to speak to the men in blue, they would say that these activities were safe because not many people were involved, unlike Bersih 3.0 with the tens of thousands of participants.

Well, seeing as this is their logic, and seeing as some sort of precedence has been established here, I think any future protests should be in the same vein.

No more giant gatherings but instead lots and lots of mini ones. The cops can’t possibly say no because then they would be hypocrites of the first order, and surely hypocrisy is not in their Standard Operating Procedure.

May I suggest that the burger sellers and the aerobic dancing ex-army gang be used as a template? But with more imagination.

For example, a group of citizens can open a little stall in front of the Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s house. I think the stall should be a recycling stall. People can go to this stall and bring all those, now useless, science and math school textbooks in the English language and leave them there for recycling.

Or perhaps a stall in front of the Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s house offering a demonstration of model building. I am thinking along the lines of Airfix models.

You know, little battleships, bombers, submarines, fighter jets, that kind of stuff. After all, he used to be Minister of Defence. I am sure he would like it. Why he might even try his hand at a model or two.

However, may I suggest that any such gathering and protest be done in a non-discriminatory way?

I mean if you are going to protest against the Government, then protest in front of all the houses of the Cabinet members, unlike the burger men and aerobic dancers who seem to have singled out Ambiga Sree­nevasan.

Why don’t they flip their sausages and wave their bottoms at national laureate A. Samad Said’s house? What about Bersih steering committee member Hisha­muddin Rais? He might feel left out.

BFM Interview: How A Nation Should Move On After A Crisis

11 May 2012

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Peaceful assembly a legal right

Brave New World (The Star)
3 April 2012

The Bersih organisers, the police and DBKL should have met and sorted out the logistics of getting such a huge number of people together in Dataran Merdeka for a couple of hours.


WITHIN hours of Bersih 3.0 being over, I received an angry e-mail from a reader asking me in no uncertain terms: “Are you happy now?”

The writer was furious at the scenes of violence, and I suppose I was a convenient and appropriate target for his vitriol.

After all, I have been a consistent supporter of the right to assemble and have gone on record (along with nine other concerned citizens) to demand that the Government allow Bersih 3.0 to go on without harassment at Dataran Merdeka.

Well, to answer the question, of course I am not happy that people, mostly participants, were injured during Bersih 3.0.

However, some perspective is needed here.

If thousands of people set out to cause trouble, the damage and injuries would have been astronomical.

The fact that the number of injured was minuscule only serves to confirm that the vast majority of people went there with peaceful intentions.

The police have been going on about how there would have been no trouble if the organisers had just listened to them and staged a sit-in at a stadium.

This makes them look reasonable to the casual observer.

Why insist on going to Dataran Merdeka when alternatives were offered?

I beg to differ. The issue is not about alternatives; the issue is about the constitutional right of the people to gather in public spaces.

According to our Constitution, and a plethora of international legal documents relating to human rights, the only limitation and consideration that authorities should take into account is with regard to national security and public order.

Traffic jams are not a national security or public order issue.

This being the case, the organisers, the police and DBKL should have got together and sorted out the logistics of getting such a huge number of people together in Dataran Merdeka for a couple of hours.

The duty of the authorities is to facilitate this right, not to offer alternatives based on their own convenience.

The violence on Saturday is unfortunate and regrettable.

It is hoped that all culprits will be brought to book.

I would also hope that if there is to be another Bersih rally in the future, less prominence should be given to political parties.

It is of course within the rights of political parties to take part in Bersih events, especially if they too have been calling for clean and fair elections.

However, in order to minimise the usual accusations that Bersih is a mouthpiece for Pakatan Rakyat, it would be prudent if, in the future, the role of political parties be more one of solidarity, with no need for speech-making and the like.

However, what has almost been forgotten amid the accusations, blaming and finger-pointing, is that the largest ever group of Malaysians rallied together to demand clean and fair elections.

The fact that so many people would take their feelings to the streets surely indicates that there is an important groundswell here.

Our right to choose our leaders must be done in a way that is above suspicion. The question that remains is: “Are those who matter listening?”

Only the uncaring will not care

Going the Distance (Selangor Times)
4 April 2012


If the government is not quaking in their boots after last weekend, then they must be in total denial.

Conservative estimates put the number of people at the Bersih gathering in the 80,000 to 100,000 region. That is at least twice as big as Bersih 1.0 in 2007.

Commentators, including myself, were doubtful that any significant number would turn up at Bersih 3.0.

Rally fatigue we said. To be proven wrong and in such a huge way, is humbling.

The people of this country are fed up and they are willing to let their feet do the talking.

I refuse to take part in speculation that there were those in the rally planted there to cause trouble until much more evidence is shown. But what is clear is that even though there was trouble, the fact that only a handful of policemen were hurt only goes to show that the vast majority of people at the gathering were there with peaceful intentions.

No matter how much the government may spin the issue, the facts speak for themselves.

The chaos would have been indescribable if 80,000 people set out with the express intention to create havoc. This was clearly not the case.

What we have are Malaysians from all walks of life, from differing ethnic backgrounds and from different social strata, getting together demanding that their right to choose their leaders not be undermined by corrupt and unjust laws.

Which makes the recent changes in election laws, taking away the right for candidates to have their own observers at polling stations and at the vote counting to ensure that all is above board, an ironic recipe for disaster.

It is ironic because any government which harps on about how fair it is, can’t possibly be expected to be believed if they make such a law which is the complete antithesis to fairness and transparency.

It is a recipe for disaster because if there is any doubt at all that the next elections are not clean and fair, the people of Malaysia have shown that they have the courage and the fortitude to demand what is right.

What concerns me at this time is that the government not only doesn’t care about making sure our electoral system is fair, they also don’t seem to care about the consequences if that same system remains unfixed.

I have said many times in the past that a clean electoral system is a diffuser of political chaos.

When people feel that a party has won or lost fair and square, there is no need to take to the streets. There is after all the next time an election is called and you can make changes then.

It is only in the face of a brutal and unfair system that anger spills over.

It happened in the Philippines, in Indonesia, in Egypt and many other places where people felt they either had no voice or their voice had been disregarded by a flawed and corrupt election.

A government that truly respects democracy understands this.

They will be willing to lose an election in the hope and expectation that they will be able to fight another day and win back the power they lost if they have the right ideas. They will also understand that a lasting peace depends on a sound democracy.

Only a government that is totally obtuse and totally uncaring about anything else except their own precarious clutch on power will fail to realise the importance of a fair electoral system.

It is now up to the Najib administration, over the next few weeks and months, to show what kind of government it is.