Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Mourning our mentors and leaders

Brave New World (The Star)
30 April 2014

When the generation above us move on, then whom are we to turn to for advice, for support, for encouragement?


IT has been a horrible month.
Over the last thirty days or so, I have paid my final respects to three people whom I have always held in the highest regard; Irene Fernandez, Bernard Khoo and Karpal Singh.
Apart from the obvious feelings of sadness and sympathy for their families, I was struck by an overwhelming sense of loss. It would be fair to say that Irene, Bernard and Karpal were not spring chickens.
They were all of a generation of whom I would normally be calling aunty and uncle. Although I dare say that if ever I did try to call Bernard “uncle” he would have in all likelihood hit me on the head with his pipe.
But because they were older and more experienced, I had viewed them as mentors and leaders.
I do not, for one second, claim that they personally were mentors to me, as my contact with them was not extensive, but in an odd way, I felt that by virtue of being junior to them, it was as though they were on the front line in the battles for justice and fair play and I was merely trailing in their tracks. In a weird way, this was quite comforting.
But when the generation above us move on, then whom are we to turn to for advice, for support, for encouragement? Which trail can we follow now that the trailblazers have died?
It was this sense of loss that permeated my feelings as I went from one wake to another. With each passing one, the feeling just got stronger.
It has taken some time for this miasma of gloom to lift, but lift it has for if there is anything I can learn from these three people is that there are many avenues when seeking change.
One only has to recognise them and grab them. They did it and so can anyone, with the requisite will.
Individually, they have all done so much to further the cause of justice in Malaysia. Collectively, they represent the many facets of activism in this country.
Irene chose the path of working in a non-governmental organisation, focusing primarily on issues of migrant workers and their rights. Karpal famously and successfully took the route of party politics and Bernard did all that he could as an ordinary citizen of this country; expressing himself through his blog and participating in as many civil society initiatives as he could.
Did they make a difference? I would say that they did. It is easy to be cynical in this country of ours seeing how bad things are and continue to be.
But how much worse would things be if Irene and people like her did not raise awareness and fight for the rights of the migrant worker? Just how out of control would the government be if it was not for Karpal and his colleagues battling in Parliament and beyond?
And if it weren’t for citizens like Bernard making claims for greater rights and dignity, the complacency of the powers that be would be tenfold as they cannot be trusted to uphold such values and only the sustained cries of the ordinary citizen could force them to make whatever (paltry) concessions that they have made.
No one said that freedom and rights are easy to come by; the powerful do not relinquish their power without a fight. It is a constant battle and even when the day comes and Malaysia has the semblance of a democratic humanist state, the battle will continue in the form of what Thomas Jefferson called “eternal vigilance”.
These three outstanding people may be gone, but they have showed us the many ways with which we can continue with this effort, this struggle. It is up to us to take up that mantle and in the words oft spoken by Karpal; “we carry on”.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Karpal Singh's Funeral

Sin Chew Jit Poh
23 April 2014


I can’t wait to hear what excuses the police will give for not turning up in sufficient numbers to help with crowd control during the late Karpal Singh’s state funeral. Neither could I wait to hear the reasons given by some newspapers for giving the scantiest coverage of the same event.
One would have thought that the cops, with their inherent fear of large crowds would have been in Penang in huge numbers. And really, when one of the biggest names in Malaysian politics passes away and an estimated fifteen thousand people turn up to say goodbye, this does not merit front page news coverage?
Oh well, whatever the reason these institutions have for behaving the way they did does not really matter. This is because despite the fact that the police were nowhere to be seen, Karpal Singh’s state funeral went off smoothly. Sure there were many disappointed people who could not get into the hall to pay their last respects, but there was zero untoward incidents as the state government used their own volunteers to help with the traffic and crowd control.
And if many of the print media think that by shoving the story deep in their papers it will somehow belittle this great opponent to the government, then they are very mistaken. This can be seen by the outpouring of grief and respect shown to the man either in the flesh by those who travelled from all over the country to Penang, or in the furious activity on the internet, which apart from a few ignorant and “kurang ajar” morons, have been affectionate and grateful to Mr Karpal’s sacrifices for the betterment of this country.
In a way it is fitting some members of the press and the police have acted in this way. By doing what they did, they have given the public the opportunity to show that their will is stronger. When united there is no need to depend on the police to maintain order. And when determined there is no need to depend on usual sources for information and for our own expression.
By shunning Karpal Singh’s state funeral, these institutions have helped the people to make a point that would have made the late MP proud. That people power can trump any sort of political machinations.
Karpal Singh was a giant figure in Malaysian politics, but he was well aware that what should matter is not any individual but the right principle. And in his case what is right are constitutionalism, rule of law, democracy, human rights and social justice. And these principles must be taken up not by any one person or one party but by all citizens who believe in them.
Of course the lack of police and the lack of newspaper coverage is not a great obstacle to overcome. We have far greater battles to fight in the form of unprincipled leaders, religious bigotry, racism, extremism, oppressive laws, corrupt institutions, the list goes on. But even so, the people have shown what they can achieve together in the face of an unsupportive police and press. It just takes a little more effort to show what we can do in the face of institutionalised injustice.
It feels right that we displayed that potential at Mr Karpal’s funeral; a man who championed the empowerment of the people.


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

When making assumptions becomes a sin

Brave New World (The Star)
16 April 2014

From learning comes understanding and knowledge. Knowledge sets us free, for it is ignorance that keeps people fearful.


THERE is a chapter in the Quran which I particularly like. It is Chapter 49, also known as “The Private Rooms”.
I like it for several reasons. It opens with an admonishment to the believers for not behaving respectfully towards the Prophet. This includes things like shouting when talking to him.
But I especially like verses four and five where God tells the believers off for yelling for the Prophet from outside his private rooms instead of waiting patiently for him to come out on his own accord.
This verse humanises the Prophet for surely it shows that he is a man like any other man and he would like some quiet “me time” thank you very much.
When you are God’s messenger, then one can imagine that your followers could get a bit irritating with their constant demands on you, up to the point of going to your home and yelling for you to come out and speak to them. I picture seventh century Medinans could get pretty boisterous.
The chapter goes on about how one group of Muslims should not act as though they are better than another and certainly there should not be any oppression of those who disagree with you.
But the verses I would like to highlight here are verses twelve and thirteen.
Verse twelve warns against the making of assumptions as some assumptions are sinful. Verse thirteen reminds people of their same source, coming as they do from the one man and the one woman and it also states that humans were created of differing tribes and races so that we might know one another.
A stronger call for mutual respect and understanding would be hard to come by.
Which brings me to the Easter Musical advertisements in Seremban.
They are in Bahasa Malaysia (which the last time I checked is the national language and therefore is for all of us), and some groups have said that this is a plot to entice Malays (ie Muslims) to the event and, I suppose, once there; convert them en masse or something equally nefarious.
That is a pretty strong accusation to make; and it is based on an assumption, which as is said in the Quran, could very well be a sinful thing to do.
Furthermore, what is wrong if someone wants to go to an Easter Musical, or any other religious celebration? Are we also not encouraged to “know one another”?
How does one know about other people without learning about what they do? From such learning, there will come understanding and knowledge.
Knowledge sets us free, for it is ignorance that keeps people fearful as there is nothing quite as scary as the unknown. And if we fear others, that is when evil deeds come bubbling up.
Oppression and suppression are cousins to ignorance and fear.
But then, who am I to speak, eh? I am not a graduate from Al-Azhar and I can’t speak Arabic. All I have is a God-given brain and a translation of my Holy Book.
To many people that is simply not good enough. Right then, let’s do this from a secular perspective, shall we?
Firstly, using our national language is not a crime. Secondly, it is a group’s right to advertise their event in whatever language that they want.
Thirdly, it is utterly and completely insulting to people of Malay ethnicity to suggest that they are so simple-minded that they could be enticed to an event simply because it is advertised in Bahasa Malaysia.
To me, whichever way you look at it, religious or secular, this recent example of paranoia is obtuse to the extreme.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

The B-Side April 2014: Farewell to the Dame


Ambiga Barred from UM

Sin Chew Jit Poh
11 April 2014


Ambiga Sreenevasan was barred by university authorities from speaking at an event organised by the students of the Faculty of Law, University of Malaya. The reasons for this barring are a mystery at the moment, but doubtlessly it will have to do with Ambiga’s supposed anti-government stance.

This little episode is of course extremely embarrassing to me because it happened in my Faculty. I wish to make it clear here that the Faculty had nothing to do with the barring. To the best of my knowledge that order came from the Student Affairs Department. It seems odd that a university would not understand the principle of free speech, seeing as how this is a right which is intrinsically linked to the concept of academic freedom. But then, I have long ceased to be surprised at how some people who should value certain principles simply don’t do so.
Be that as it may, what I wish to discuss here is about the reaction to this little blot on UM’s reputation. Perusing the comments pages of several internet news sites, there appears to be this constant cry about how lousy Malaysian universities are and how they are certainly not world class. This is all well and good, but one has to ask the question; what do we mean when we say “world class”?

Some commentators point to the various international rankings that show Malaysian universities as being low on the list. This is a good reference point, if what you are concerned about is purely academic publications, number of international staff and students, and the reputation of the university amongst their peers.

My point is that even if a university is utterly devoid of freedom for their students, that is to say, their student body are strictly controlled and they have no room to organise themselves; this does not mean that they will necessarily do badly on the ranking tables because student freedom is not one of the criteria that these ranking organisations look at.

Conversely, having an independent, free and autonomous student body does not mean that the university will shoot up the rankings. Therefore, I am very cautious about using international rankings as the only method of judging a university’s quality.

Having said that, any university worth its salt must provide the maximum freedom to its staff and students. Staff must be free to research what they want and to publish and speak about that research. Student autonomy has to be respected in the form of independent self-governance, and their intellectual, social and political endeavours must not be controlled by university authorities.

Will such measures make a university “world class”? Frankly I don’t know and I don’t care. What it will do is ensure vibrant research and publication on the part of their academic staff and a student body that will be independent, mature and intellectually unafraid. This by itself is something to be proud off. Unfortunately, these values do not seem to be high on the agenda of our universities. World class or not, high rankings or not, this shortcoming makes them all the poorer.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Rakyat Times: A Scheme To Keep The Malays Intelectually Simple

10 April 2014


It seems the link above is broken so I have posted the article below:


It came as no surprise that the government has decided to ban the film “Noah”. It goes against Islamic teachings apparently. I think most Malaysians would consider this a petty issue. To a certain extent they are correct. After all, if you really want to watch the movie, I can guarantee that you’ll be able to get it from your friendly neighbourhood DVD pirate soon. The only thing you will miss out on is the big screen experience.

 However, I see more than just a loss of a cinematic treat. There is of course the clear threat to artistic freedom and the danger of future threats using Islam as an excuse. I mean, gambling is against Islam, so does this mean that movies like “The Sting” and “Maverick” can’t be shown here?

But, what I am concerned about is a more subtle point than that. Over the last few years there appears to be a concerted effort to ensure that the Muslim population in this country are treated like simple minded children. What they are allowed to read, watch and listen to is to be determined by a bunch of unelected men who have taken it upon themselves to be the moral guardians of the Muslim populace.

I think it is not morality they are concerned about. Sure, they will say it is about protecting souls from hellfire and all that, but I think the real objective is to ensure that Muslims in this country are kept intellectually stunted. When you are told what you can consume intellectually, then it will lead only to a stagnation of the mind. A laziness of the brain which will result in a populace that not only can’t think independently but will also just follow whatever the authority figure tells them.

That is the ultimate prize, to have close to sixty per cent of the population stupid, unquestioning and docile. In that way you can hang on to your power indefinitely. The ban on “Noah”, the Ultraman comic book and Irshad Manji’s “Allah, Liberty and Love”, they may look like bans on vastly diverse works, but their banning it is all part of the same scheme; to keep the Malays in this country intellectually simple.

And it does seem to be working. We are already living in an intellectually slow country. This is why certain groups with their wicked causes gain such traction. Use the right words and terms; for example “we are defending Islam”, or “we are defending Malays”, and all sense of rational thought will go out the window and you will have a bunch of unquestioning followers.

Do people have a right to object to the film “Noah”? Sure they do, just as they have a right to object to “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”. Should they have a right to ban it and determine what I can or cannot watch? No they don’t. For it is my right to read, watch and listen to what I want. You can tell me what I am doing is wrong in your opinion, but no man should be able to stop me and only God has the right to determine if I have sinned.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Disturbing legal implications

Brave New World (The Star)
2 April 2014

Two recent cases raise the issue of what amounts to sedition and why one can’t question or challenge a ‘fatwa’.


THE recent conviction of Karpal Singh under the Sedition Act and the charging of Kassim Ahmad under the Federal Territories Syariah offences law raise some disturbing questions with serious implications as to where we are headed as a democratic nation.
First, let us look at the Sedition Act. The trouble with this law, a remnant of British colonialism, is two-fold. First, its basic premise is that criticism of authority should be controlled. This in itself is already an affront to democracy.
Second is its open-ended nature. Just what exactly amounts to sedition, for example. However, up until the Karpal Singh case, I thought there was one defence in the Sedition Act that was pretty strong.
Something is not seditious if you are pointing out that the object of your criticism has done something wrong, especially in the context of their constitutional limitations. This appears so clear to me that it seemed unlikely any court could find a way around it.
Alas, that is exactly what seems to have happened to Karpal. He basically said that the decision made by the Sultan of Perak of choosing a new Mentri Besar for the state in 2009 could be questioned in court.
I can’t for the life of me see what is seditious about that. Is the Sultan limited by the Constitution and the law in the discharge of his powers? Yes, of course he is. And if there is a dispute as to whether he acted lawfully or not, could he not be questioned? Again, of course he should, for we live in a constitutional and not an absolute monarchy.
And lastly, if there is to be a questioning of the acts of a member of the royalty, is there a lawful manner with which this can be done? Again the answer is yes, because we have the Special Court which was designed specifically for the royals and inserted into our Constitution by the Government.
Even within the authoritarian nature of the Sedition Act, there seem to be limits as to what can be deemed seditious. I thought those limits were clear enough. It appears that I am wrong.
What is of concern is that even when an act clearly falls within the allowable limits of a law, this does not appear to make any difference at all. Thus, the reach of a poor law becomes even greater and all that much more oppressive.
The second thing I want to talk about is the charging of Kassim Ahmad. This case raises some serious problems with some of the Syariah laws we have in this country.
According to the Syariah Offences law of the Federal Territories, it is an offence to question and speak in contradiction to a fatwa made by the mufti.
This fatwa need not be gazetted, that is to say made into law, just its mere exclamation is enough to give it weight of law. Needless to say, fatwas which have been gazetted can’t be questioned either.
Firstly, one wonders why one can’t question or challenge a law? If a fatwa is gazetted and made into law, what makes it different from any other law? Why can’t it be challenged? I can criticise the Contracts Act so why can’t I criticise any other thing which affects my life?
But what is really disturbing is the fact that a fatwa, which is after all merely an opinion, can carry the weight of law even without going through the legislative process of debate and voting. This in effect means that one person’s words suddenly become akin to a law for we cannot challenge it and if we do we can face a fine and jail.
This is frightfully undemocratic and can lead to some horrific scenarios. What if a mufti passes a fatwa saying that any sort of dissension against the civil government is wrong?
According to the Federal Territories law, any challenge of fatwa can be punished. What kind of democracy are we living in if a person’s statement by itself can have such authority?
Much has been said about how Malaysia is edging towards a more liberal and open democracy. Laws have been repealed or changed and steps (albeit baby steps) have apparently been taken.
What these two events show is that there are still some very undemocratic laws in existence, they are still being used and any hope that we are becoming more democratic is hopelessly naïve.