Thursday, 21 March 2013

Oh! How little have we changed

Brave New World (The Star)
20 March 2013

Egyptian kings loved their massive mega projects, all built to announce their greatness as well as to instil awe and fear among the populace. Today, all around the world, we see the same mad egotism practised by the powerful.
Many years ago, when I was in the Sixth Form, I took a class on Egyptology as part of my extracurricular activities. I remember looking forward to my first lesson. After all, ancient Egypt sounds frightfully exciting what with pharaohs, pyramids, sphinxes and the like. Unfortunately I found it all painfully tedious.


The teacher was not the most riveting person in the world, I can’t even remember if he or she was a man or a woman, but the real culprits were the books we were referred to. They were drier than a mummy’s armpit. Thick ponderous things loaded with unpronounceable names of kings and places, which did not capture a sense of the period or even the high drama of which there is bound to be plentiful in an empire that spanned nearly four thousand years.


Foolishly, when it came time to fill up my university applications, I put Egyptology under “interests”. It looked jolly intellectual in my form. But I had learnt next to nothing and during one interview when I was asked about what I found interesting about ancient Egypt, I managed to mumble “it was very, very large”. Pathetic.


Fortunately, nowadays books on the Egyptian empire are being written in a far more accessible style. And I am not talking about the kooky “the pyramids were built by engineers from Atlantis using anti-gravity technology” type books. I mean proper scholarly works like “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt” by Toby Wilkinson.


One aspect I find interesting when learning about people from long, long ago, is that how little has changed. Egyptian kings loved their massive mega projects; all built to announce their greatness as well as to instil awe and fear amongst the populace. Power and propaganda were the primary means to keep the peasants in check and amongst the elite, nepotism and kingly favours ensured a ruling class beholden to the mighty monarch.


Even the form that the propaganda takes has familiar undertones. For the masses, there were ostentatious displays like coronation celebrations which seek to emphasise the divinity of the king. These were elaborate and gaudy shows that were designed to completely bowl over the average Egyptian.


Amongst the intelligentsia, and remember, very few people can actually read in those days, there was written (or engraved to be more accurate) works proclaiming the supremacy and magnanimity of the monarch.


Today, all around the world, we see the same mad egotism practiced by the powerful; giant structures that stroke the fragile psyche of their commissioners, overt displays of power and influence to maintain control and blinding propaganda to maintain it all.


Have we not changed in all these millennia? I would like to think that we have and I believe the root change is education. The vast majority of people who lived during the time of the pharaohs were working class folk who strived and toiled under the most hideous conditions simply to survive. The life span of the average person did not reach far past thirty with many dying during the teen years. Hit forty and you are deemed incredibly old (compare this to the many pharaohs who ruled for scores of years).


Today we struggle too, but the difference is that most of us can read. And with this ability it is possible for ideas to be disseminated widely. Ideas that have developed over the course of human history that says we should not be in the thrall of absolute power; that all of us, peasant and prince alike have an inherent dignity. And one way that this dignity is expressed is by our ability to choose our leaders. No more pharaohs thank you very much. We choose who leads.


Yes, it is true, by and large the lives of the powerful remains vastly different from that of the person on the street. And the longer they are powerful, the more distant they become. But the difference between us and the peasants of Thebes three thousand years ago is that collectively we have power they can only dream off.


In the climate of the times, let us not forget that power. Let us not forget how far we have come as a species. Let us not forget that we have to use our power or risk losing it forever, because those with authority will always hunger for more, and it is up to us to say when they have had enough.

In the published version, I had to replace the passages in red (above) with the following:
The peasants of ancient Thebes three thousand years ago can only dream of the kind of power that we 21st century “peasants” collectively have.

They had no say on who ruled them but thank heavens we do.


Tuesday, 5 March 2013

No justification in invasion

Brave New World (The Star)
6 March 2013

Despite the emotional calls of the invaders that they are simply taking what is theirs, what they have done is deeply wrong and unlawful. In international law there is no justification for the use of arms except in self-defence.


THINGS are moving so quickly in Sabah, that I dare not make any comment on the current situation, since what is “current” seems to change by the hour.

From the start, let me say that it is sad and regrettable that there has been so much loss of life. Our thoughts ought to go to the dead, but perhaps more importantly to those they leave behind.

I am still befuddled as to why this has happened at all.

The claims made by the invaders that Sabah belongs to the Sultanate of Sulu and therefore they are justified in taking it, is very doubtful.

Historically, it is true that Sabah fell under the jurisdiction of Sulu, but this was handed to the British via a treaty.

It follows that when Sabah joined Sarawak, Singapore and Malaya to create Malaysia and in this process gain independence from the British, the arrangement between the British and the Sulu Sultanate then simply transferred to the new federation.

Of course the treaty itself can be re-examined. Or the manner in which the Sultan of Sulu agreed to the agreement can be questioned; perhaps he was coerced or tricked.

But even if this was to be done, it has to be done peacefully and not by force of arms.

In international law there is no justification for the use of arms except in self-defence.

There is no element of self-defence here, it was an invasion.

And here again, another legal conundrum arises for the Sultanate of Sulu does not exist as an international legal entity. It is not a sovereign state.

The Philippines is a sovereign state and they clearly did not order this attack.

So, in effect, this crisis is the result of private individuals and thus outside the ambit of international law.

Be that as it may, the effect is still the same as one army attacking another; violence and the people of Sabah living in fear.

I believe that despite the emotional calls of the invaders that they are simply taking what is theirs, what they have done is deeply wrong and unlawful.

All that remains is to hope that this episode can end soon without further loss of life.

I have no doubt the Malaysian armed forces will be victorious; it is just a matter of how soon and with how many casualties.

What we don’t need at this time is the politicking of the situation.

Seriously, all these conspiracy theories going around, if they were true could only mean that all politicians in this country on both sides of the divide are utterly mentally dead.

Neither Barisan nor Pakatan can gain from this crisis.

Depending on who you talk to, both sides are accused of having a hand in the incitement of this invasion.

Seriously, I know they are politicians, but even they can’t be that stupid.

If Pakatan did this and they were found out, they will be traitors and their future will be ashes.

The same goes for the Barisan. And what good would a situation like this gain them?

There is talk about the elections being put on hold if this goes on because the Government will declare an emergency. Would an emergency really help them gain popularity and legitimacy? I don’t think so.

Once this is all over we can have a proper impartial investigation to find out the full story of this sad chapter in our lives.

But until then, I hope that all this tasteless politicking can be put aside and that peace will be restored as soon as humanly possible.