Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Mind those shackles

Brave New World (The Star)
23 January 2013


OUR university students have been in the news recently. The most high profile coverage of course went to K.S. Bawani, the UUM law undergraduate whose attempt at getting her views across at a university forum was rather unceremoniously shut down by an overzealous moderator who apparently did not like what the young woman had to say.

What might have slipped under the radar of readers were the opinion piece on the poor standard of Malaysian graduates (in particular their grasp of English) and also the story about the overall quality of our law graduates.

All three stories are inter-related but apart from the very specific issue of English competency, the other concerns are vaguer in nature. A main critique of our graduates is their supposed inability of independent thought and action.

First off, I would like to say that sometimes, maybe, just maybe, we can be a bit too harsh on our young people. For goodness sake, most of us were absolutely gormless and idiotic when we first graduated. We had to learn to be competent in our respective careers, we had to gain experience and with that the confidence to speak our mind and strike out by ourselves.

But apart from that little call for empathy, I do agree that our graduates can be more assertive and independent minded. The question is what can be done about it.

As a lecturer, I have always felt that one of our duties is to make sure that our classroom environment is one where discussions and disagreements can occur in a way that students feel safe and not intimidated. This is so they can explore their thoughts in a nurturing atmosphere. Whether they choose to use it or not is entirely up to them, but in my experience, it can and does happen.

However, the classroom is only a small part of the student experience. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is a miniscule part of their personal growth. There is only so much life lessons that one can learn in an Environmental Law lecture or a Calculus tutorial. It is life on campus where you learn about independent living, self-governance, facing different ideologies, politics and social interaction.

As much as lecturers would like to achieve in our classrooms, if life on campus is stilted and controlled, then our students will not get the full advantage of a university education. If universities are intent on controlling their students (and they are believe me), then don’t be surprised if our graduates are not all that you may want them to be. Unless what you want are obedient and subservient workers.

This brings me to Bawani. The main point here is not the rudeness of the moderator in grabbing the student’s microphone and talking about a variety of long suffering fauna, the real point is the types of so called forums that students are exposed to. Ideally, students themselves must be given the maximum freedom to organise their own forums. Let them sort out who they want to hear to speak and let them sort out the logistics. No need for the Student Affairs Department to poke their long noses into it.

If we leave our students alone, bound only by the same laws that bind the rest of us, free to express what they want and to govern themselves (with unions, not some toothless council), then we are giving them a lesson in life as an adult. Then we will see graduates who are far more than merely twenty-three-year-old school leavers.

With regard to English proficiency, it is a problem which has to be dealt with in the entire education system. Universities are not remedial centres, but that is what we have become. I have students who have to attend English language classes, when they should be using that time more constructively, like irritating intolerant moderators.

I am not criticising my language teaching colleagues, they are very good and dedicated. What I am questioning is the need for my students to have language lessons in the first place. Shouldn’t primary and secondary school have sorted this out?

Finally I want to talk about law education. First off, I want to say that law schools and the legal community should and must work together all the time to improve the quality of our education. But, the relationship must be one of collaborators. We academics are not and will not be the coolies of the legal community. We will not lie down while they tell us what they want.

Now, I am not being pugilistic and I am not itching for a fight with either the A-G, or the Chair of the Bar or the Chief Justice (although that would make pretty good reality TV), what I am saying is that there has to be an understanding about our respective roles.

A law faculty’s job is not merely to provide lawyers. Our job is to provide a university education and at the end of it our graduates have an academic qualification.

There is of course some grey area in “professional” courses like law. The final year of our students studies, for example, have subjects which are much more geared towards professional practice rather than academic study.

But this does not mean we are a vocational school and that we will produce readymade lawyers. That is not and cannot be our purpose.

If we do our job well (and I believe we can improve a lot), then what we should produce are thinking men and women, with a strong foundation in the concepts of law and an ability to think for themselves and deal with the challenges of their respective career choices (not necessarily in law).

I mean if you want a young lawyer to know how to do the technical stuff of a law practice, surely some, if not much of that pragmatic type learning should be done during the chambering period.

Surely the Bar must take some responsibility too. What are the duties of a chambering master?

Are they bound to teach a set of knowledge and skills, or do they get away with having our graduates make photocopies for nine months?

There is much to be done for our higher education and a lot of the things that need to be done require some major systemic overhauls. But even without that, we can still make headway.

If our students desperately need language lessons, then the university should provide it, at least until things improve in primary and secondary schools.

If there is a disconnect between industry and academic institutions then we must ensure that there is a constructive partnership between academia and the world outside in thinking up ways of improving ourselves.

But at the end of the day, the most important thing to me is that we must stop treating our university students like children; this includes the university administration, us lecturers and anyone else who may wander into our midst.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Peaceful is as peaceful does

Going the Distance (Selangor Times)
18 January 2013


AS I was sitting in Merdeka Stadium on Saturday with a couple of friends, watching the venerable old lady of independence fill up with people, I playfully wondered if photographers from the mainstream media had been there earlier to take a photo of an empty stadium to be used as “evidence” that no one turned up.

Well, they did not do that, but the spinning of the event was only slightly less repulsive than my imagination.

Amongst the English language papers, the most generous coverage reported on how it was a peaceful rally. Little or nothing was said about the implications of this rally and much was said about how wonderful the police were.

Let me talk about the second point first.

A question that struck me is this: what was the difference between the Jan 12 rally and the ones before? Well, the answer I came up with is that in the past, trouble only occurred when the police did not allow people to gather peacefully.

In other words, I do not think that Malaysians are inclined to riot and do damaging things. It is only when heavy-handed tactics are used that things get out of hand. If you can call people running for their lives choking on tear gas “out of hand”.

January 12 has shown up the government to be the paranoid bully boy that it is. Cooking up excuses to prevent peaceful gatherings and then taking such drastic measures that it appears that their self-fulfilling prophecies have come true.

The people of this country are by and large peace loving and when left to their own devices are not going to get up to mischief.

And please spare me the smug comments about how Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s wonderful Peaceful Assembly Act is the reason the rally went so well. The Act was in place when the participants of Bersih 3 got gassed and beaten.

The reason why the rally was peaceful is because the police was peaceful.

The other point that was not covered by the mainstream press is the implications of this rally.

The one theme that I gathered from the speeches of the majority of non-political party speakers was that the time for taking a neutral stance is over.

The clarion call was very clear, from the labour movement, the student movement, the orang asli network, the socially marginalised, the mother tongue educationists; it is time to change government if things are to improve.

And judging by the size of the crowd, only the most delusional will come to the conclusion that this rally is not a clear sign that this call for change has very broad support.

The time for such mega rallies is now surely over; at least for the moment. People have lives to lead and it does take a lot of time, resources and energy for the organisers as well as the participants for such things. It is now time to do the talking via the ballot box.

If Pakatan Rakyat has any sense they will build on the momentum of this gathering, get their act together and go all out in pushing forward their vision of the future of this country and how they are the best people not to just defeat BN; but to lead.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

People and smartphones

Brave New World (The Star)
9 January 2013

They say living in the technological age and being wired to the Web is deemed necessary to get ahead in the modern world.


I AM a bona fide techno-phobe. It took me years to buy a handphone. Even now I use a model which can kindly be called quaint.

I like it very much though. It is small and, therefore, jeans-friendly.

It has a nifty little game involving the shooting of small coloured balls which I can play when at a loose end. I can call people and send text messages. What more do I need?

Besides, it is one of those phones that flip open, so I look rather like Captain Kirk requesting Scotty to beam me up every time I use it. Cool.

Obviously, I am not one of those who wax lyrical about how beautiful the iPhone 5 is. How it feels so sensual to the touch and how awesome its numerous apps are. “Oh! look at this app, it tells me where I am. How brilliant is that?”

Yes well, if I need to know where I am, I look up and take in my surroundings.

So, even if I was a young man with a pay cheque of less than RM3,000, I won’t be clogging up the Internet with my request for a smartphone rebate.

Now, it seems very generous of the Government to make this offer of RM200 off a smartphone for all these semi-impoverished young folk; it is just that I wonder what it could possibly be for?

Surely it has nothing to do with the thousands and thousands of new young voters lurking around, so why this largesse?

From what I gather, it is to make our youth connected to the Internet wherever and whenever.

After all, we are living in the technological age and being wired to the Web is deemed necessary to get ahead in the modern world.

Really? I wonder.

Has there been a study about what people actually do with smartphones? Do they keep up to date with the news and do research while waiting for the LRT?

Or are they more likely to be Facebooking or tweeting?

Between expanding one’s mind with the virtually bottomless source of information on the information superhighway and writing mindless drivel full of unfathomable short hands and smiley faces, I bet many would choose the latter.

Don’t get me wrong, if it gives you a thrill to announce to the world that you had eaten a most fantastic beef noodle (with the requisite smiley face), then go for it.

I am sure the world is dying to partake in your dietary habits. What I question is whether taxpayers’ money should go into giving you that pleasure.

Perhaps it is important in the modern working environment that one has a smartphone.

I gather that some companies prefer to use the Internet for communication with their employees rather than old-fashioned text messages.

It just strikes me that if you need to be connected to the Internet for work purposes, shouldn’t your employer get you a company phone?

Like I said, I don’t know if there was any research done as to the value of the type of activities that people get up to on their smartphones, so I could be wrong.

If there was work done though, I would sure like it if someone was kind enough to point it out to me.

But they’ll have to call or send me an SMS though – my phone can’t receive anything else.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The B Side

BFM the radio station started an online magazine called the B Side. It is generally only accessible via tablets like the i-pad and other new fangled things I don't understand. However, if you are like me and are not tech savvy, the links below would lead you to the articles I have written so far.The title of my column is "Walk on Part" a reference to Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here". Since my Selangor Times column is in reference to a movie (Rocky BTW) and the Star column in reference to a book written by Aldous Huxley, I thought a song reference was due!

The B-Side November 2012 -- Boleh fikir mah
The B-Side December 2012 -- The new civil disobedience
The B-Side January 2013 -- The A-List

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

People to the fore

The Star
1 January 2013

It may have been four tumultuous years since the 2008 general elections, but we can look forward to 2013 optimistically, safe in the knowledge that while the Malaysian people have become vocal about many issues, they have remained largely civil about it.


PART of my instructions for this piece was to write about my hopes for the future of politics in this country. After giving it some thought, I came up with one big New Year’s wish.

I wish that some boffin would invent a device all politicians have to wear.

It would be akin to a large ugly hat. It should look like something which is desperately trying to appear “high tech”. Kind of like the props that you find in a particularly bad episode of Star Trek.

Apart from the advantage of being able to identify politicians from afar so that you can either approach them or run away, this device would give off electric shocks every time the wearer lies, makes a hypocritical statement or raise God’s name in vain. In this way, we can wean out the dodgy ones right away.

But then, looking at some of our politicos, I think quite a few of them might actually enjoy the occasional kinky electric shock.

Oh, well, back to the drawing board.

Actually, I am being unfair to our politicians. They are not all unbearable. Since the last general elections, there have been a few bright sparks (on both sides of the political divide – though more on the opposition side, I must admit) who have been making intelligible and intelligent sounds. A refreshing change from the usual Neanderthal grunts we are used to. Mind you, those grunters still exist, but there is more of a counter-balance now.

The fact that this new batch of politicians are relatively young, bodes well, in that one can hope that when the aged obtuse retire or get voted out, their replacements will at least have greater-than-average intelligence. And political debate will be logical, reasoned and smart minus the sexist, racist and circular arguments that drift up from the gutter every now and again.

The biggest change over the past four years, though, is not in the hallowed and leaking halls of parliament, but on the streets. The people of Malaysia have changed. The most obvious indication of this change is the fact that street demonstrations are starting to become almost a normal thing here. From the massive Bersih and Himpunan Hijau rallies to the smaller demos and sit-ins like the Occupy Dataran movement.

What is amazing about these gatherings is that a very large number of the participants are not youthful rabble-rousers but middle-class, middle-aged gents and ladies who a few years ago would rather be at home sipping tepid tea and watching cookery shows rather than braving the Malaysian rain – both natural and chemical-laced.

It seems to me that the cloak of fear that has retarded any thought, let alone expression of displeasure aimed towards the powers-that-be, has been lifted. After decades of hushed whispers and furtive glances over the shoulder when being critical of the government, for fear that the Special Branch has somehow managed to infiltrate even private living rooms, Malaysians are being pretty darned vocal.

The status quo is being challenged and in a way never before seen in Malaysian politics. The challengers cross ethnic, religious and class boundaries. And this, in my opinion, indicates that issues are now the cause celebre for the Malaysian people, not narrow ethnic views or individual idol worship.

Of course, the Malaysian bug bear of race still exists. It is impossible to think that a few years can see to the end of the country’s favourite political weapon. And there are those who will shamelessly churn out the race ticket for their own agenda.

And from underneath rotten logs of wood and damp rocks, there have been groups crawling out into the sun to have their day in the spotlight; groups which are blatantly racist and divisive. It is of no surprise, of course.

They have always been there but the events of the last few years have shaken their comfortable existence.

Personally, I am glad it has come to this. There is nothing more annoying than a pimple that lies under the skin. You can’t really pop it because it can’t be seen and you risk scarring your skin. Far better to have it burst forth in all its pus-filled glory so that you can identify it, and deal with it with a dollop of cream and a nice squeeze.

The same goes for those with deplorable ideology. Far better to have them where they can be seen and challenged in the open.

Staying on this theme of racial divisiveness, one must say there have been some serious incidents in the last four years. Fire-bombed churches and severed cow and pig heads have vied for our attention on top of the shrill, hate-filled speech we are more accustomed to. Once again, none of this is particularly surprising, but what is surprising is the reaction to such incidents.

There is a calmness that tempers the expected feelings of anger, and this speaks volumes. It shows that, on the whole, the vast majority of the Malaysian people will not be provoked and will not rise to the bait.

We have reached a point where what matters is good governance, clean politics and the respect for democracy and human rights. Communalist thinking is taking a back seat to these things and no matter what a few mindless idiots will do, by and large we will not lower ourselves to their level.

And I think that the government has noticed this. They can’t be so blind as to not notice. Therefore the Internal Security Act has been replaced; the Peaceful Assembly Act introduced and the printing Presses and Publications Act amended. Whether these changes are purely cosmetic or substantial, I do not have enough space here to delve into. But what is certain is that without this newly expressed political maturity from the citizens, such changes, as superficial as they may be, would not have happened at all.

We are a different country today. What has changed in the last four years is that there is a sense of empowerment in us. What I hope for in the future is that it will continue and grow.