Thursday, 26 December 2013

The good people in our midst

Brave New World (The Star)
25 December 2013

They may be flawed, but their attempts at reaching something high and noble, no matter how grand or how small, is an inspiration and a comfort.


MY Students Union building in Sheffield University was called the Nelson Mandela building. There was a photo of the man along with a small write-up on his struggle near the entrance of the union. The picture showed a heavy set person, with a tough face bordering on thuggish.
In 1990, I was in my final year and I remember watching the telly along with millions around the globe as Mandela was released from prison. It was a shock when the reporter announced his arrival. This tall, thin and extremely kindly looking man was not the image I had in mind.
Of course, harsh incarceration of almost three decades will change a man, but still, his appearance was a surprise. As was his philosophical stance with regard to the future of his country.
Justice was not to be obtained through retribution; instead it was to be through confession of past atrocities and following that, reconciliation.
He was convinced that the mere acknowledgement of evil having been done was sufficient to help close the door on a horrid history in order to move forward.
He was correct, of course. And he had the moral authority to persuade the rest of the nation. After all, this was a man who was jailed for almost 30 years simply for believing in equality.
If he could find it within himself to supress the need for vengeance, then who can argue?
In this way, the new South Africa started life not with blood on its hands, but with the much braver and harder choice of beginning existence based on forgiveness.
Naturally, there were critics of Mandela upon his release. His decision to stand for president and in that way to embroil himself in the tawdry world of real politics, frustrated some who thought that he would have served a better role as an elder statesman who could rise above the petty concerns of normal politicians.
I think history has proven that he was correct to do what he did. For it was only his force of personality and his moral standing that enabled him to steer South Africa out of the darkness that was apartheid in those uncertain early days.
I do not think anyone else could have done the same, and if it meant Mandela getting his hands grubby in politics and its manoeuvring, if it meant making poor decisions that may take some of the gloss away from his history, then that is a small price to pay.
A year after his release, I was unbelievably fortunate to find myself in a hand-me-down suit and borrowed academic robes, sitting in Dewan Tunku Canselor of Universiti Malaya, seeing and listening to the great man himself in person as he received an honorary degree.
Of course I had no opportunity to personally meet him, but that did not matter, I was in the presence of a key figure in 20th century world history and it was an amazing moment.
So, did the life of Mandela mean anything to me? Of course it did. He was a shining example of not only courage, determination and righteous zeal; he was also a paragon of patience, wisdom and compassion. He sets the standards for those seeking societal justice. His is the kind of leadership that one aspires to. Few public figures in history can make that claim, and in our current world I can’t think of any.
But one does not have to look to distant figures for examples on how to live. If a person is lucky, then he would find people closer to himself who could provide the same kind of wisdom and kindness.
I have been extremely fortunate in that regard for my life has crossed paths with many men and women far better than myself and to whom I would turn when in need of guidance, or sometimes, just a kind word.
One of those people is the late Professor P. Balan of the Faculty of Law, Universiti Malaya.
Prof Balan passed away a week after Mandela did, and it is to my regret that I was not in the country to pay my last respects.
I was the colleague of Prof Balan for 20 years. He was part of the flesh and bone of the faculty, having taught there from its second year of inception. Thousands of students have benefitted from his clear teaching style and his kindly ways. Thousands of lawyers in this country will have their memories of the professor and I dare say that most of those will be fond ones.
I did not teach the same subjects as he did and so our contact was not extensive. However, what little contact we did have was meaningful. It does not matter if it was about raking his encyclopaedic brain for some legal point or other, or if it was to get advice about a faculty matter. He was always there and his advice always wise.
Soft-spoken and gentle, he had the quiet authority to be able to tell a young hotheaded lecturer to cool it and pull on the brakes once in a while, and more importantly perhaps, he had an inherent basic decency to convince that self-same hothead, to actually stop, listen and take on said advice.
Careful, considerate, kind and always respectful, Prof Balan was the consummate professional and a wonderful teacher. A person whose example I would happily turn to.
In this festive period, I am reminded to be thankful. In a world which is full of people, both in the public arena and one’s own more personal sphere, who are deceitful, hypocritical and mean, let us not forget the good men and women who do exist. Be they a public figure far away, or someone just down the corridor from us.
Nobody is perfect and I am loathe to paint anyone as saintly and worthy of blind hero worship. But there are many who have a common basic decency and the strength to live their lives based on that core value.
They may be flawed, but their attempts at reaching something high and noble, no matter how grand or how small, is an inspiration and a comfort.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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