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!)