Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Hypocrisy in international relations

Brave New World (The Star)
25 November 2015

Issues of good governance, democracy and human rights will always be low on the agenda of any country when dealing in foreign affairs.


THE first American president to visit us was Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s. His reasons for visiting were probably the same as President Barack Obama’s: security (although in those days it was about the “threat” of Vietnam and the feared domino effect of nations falling under the thrall of Communism, whereas now it’s Islamic State) and economy (although then it was probably more about ensuring we keep on supplying tin and rubber whereas now it’s about keeping us from being too influenced by China).
Whenever the President of the United States visit another country, he is bound to make waves of some sort. According to oral history (i.e. my mum and dad), when LBJ came here all sorts of craziness ensued, like the inexplicable chopping-down of strategic trees; as though some renegade monkey was going to throw himself at the presidential convoy.
Our Prime Minister at the time, Tunku Abdul Rahman, wasn’t too fussed about the visit, saying that Johnson needn’t have come at all.
Obama’s visit wasn’t quite as colourful, with security measures being limited to thousands of guns and the closing of the Federal Highway (no more monkeys in KL) and all our leaders expectedly excited and giddy.
What I found interesting about Mr Obama’s trip is his consistent request to meet with “the youth” and civil society. He did it the last time he was here and he did it again this time.
This is all well and good; he’s quite a charming, intelligent fellow and he says soothing things. So what if he gave us a couple of hours of traffic hell (in this sense, the American Presidency is fair for he treats his citizens and foreigners alike: I have been reliably informed that whenever Obama visits his favourite restaurant in Malibu, the whole town is gridlocked by security measures. What, you can’t do take away, Barack?).
Anyway, I see no harm in all these meetings. But then neither do I see any good. At least not any real and lasting good, apart from perhaps the thrill of meeting one of the most powerful people on earth and having him say things that match your own world view.
The world of social media went a bit loopy when a young man at the “town hall meeting” with youths asked the President to raise issues of good governance with our Prime Minister, to which he replied that he would. And maybe he did, but at the end of the day, so what?
Frankly that’s all he will do, a bit of lip service, because issues of good governance, democracy and human rights will always be low on the agenda of any country when dealing in international affairs. They may make a big song and dance about it, but they don’t really care.
And before you accuse me of anti-Americanism, I believe this applies to most, if not all, countries. The Americans like us because we appear to be hard in the so-called “war on terror”.
They need us, not because we are such a huge trading partner, but because they want us on their side (by way of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement) in the economic battles that they have been, and will be, continuing to fight against China.
We see this behaviour of putting self-interest over any sort of serious stand on principle happening again and again. Why is it that the United Nations Security Council did nothing when Saddam Hussein massacred thousands of Kurds using chemical weapons, but took hurried military action when he invaded Kuwait?
Perhaps it is because at the time of the Kurdish genocide, Saddam was fighting Iran which was deemed by some, at least, as the great enemy. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, even if he is a genocidal butcher.
It is trite to mention the hypocrisies that abound in international relations. Anyone with the vaguest interest in world affairs can see it. To expect any less is naïve.
Besides, there is another danger of having a big power like the US mess around with our national problems. If they do so, it will be all too easy for the rabid so-called nationalists amongst us to scream that foreign intervention is leading to loss of sovereignty and national pride. Their “patriotism” will muddy the waters, adding issues to confuse people when there need not be any added issues at all.
The point of this article is this – for those of us who want to create a nation with true democracy and respect for human rights, we’re on our own folks.

Paris Killings

Sin Chew Jit Poh
18 November 2015
The killings in Paris are vile. All efforts should be taken to punish the offenders.


But I hope that it is remembered that this is not a Muslim issue. Why do I say that when it looks quite clear that the killers had an Islamist agenda.


Well, most deaths caused by ISIS are Muslim. ISIS suicide bombers killed 43 people and injured I00 in Beirut. In Turkey they killed 128 and injured 500. And this was in October and November of this year. Just before Paris.


There are other examples of course but I only raised these two because of their proximity to the Paris killings. My point is, the evil acts done by groups like Isis is a humanitarian issue and not a religious one because these creatures make no distinction about whom they kill.


The temptation of making this a Muslim vs Non-Muslim issue is dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, this is exactly what Isis, Boko Haram and likeminded terrorist groups want. They want the world to be divided into two. Black and white. Muslim and non-Muslim. In this way they clearly draw the lines of the conflict that they wish for.


Also by making this a Muslim versus Non-Muslim issue what one will be doing is to ignore the fact that the thousands of people fleeing into Europe now are running from the very cruelties of Isis. Therefore by lumping these refugees (who are mostly Muslim) into the same pot as Isis, what one is doing is victimising the victims even more.

Fury is a natural reaction to incidences like this. But it would be unwise in the extreme to allow our anger to cloud our good sense. Because when we do that, not only will be unable to see what the real issues are, we will also be making things a whole lot worse.


Monday, 16 November 2015

Much ado about nothing – again

Brave New World (The Star)
11 November 2015

Apart from new arrivals that have been given citizenship, the term ‘pendatang’ does not apply to most Malaysians.


WHAT is the big deal about the word pendatang?
Well, on the face of it, nothing much really. It is just a word.
But taken in the context of this lovely nation of ours, it is an unpleasant word indeed.
It is used to describe non-Malays and therefore the implication is that the Malays were the original inhabitants of this place.
All right, why is this a bad thing?
Firstly, it is hypocritical to the core. Just look at our Government and you will see so-called original Malays with an immigrant in their ancestry, sometimes just one generation away.
How come they are not called pendatang whereas the Peranakan who can trace their ancestries back hundreds of years are?
Also, it is hopelessly short-sighted. It talks as though immigration into this land happened only in the past hundred years or so.
This is clearly not true as this nat­ion has been shaped by people from faraway lands for hundreds of years.
Bujang Valley shows that there was a Hindu/Buddhist culture and civilisation in Kedah two thousand years ago. Were Hinduism and Buddhism indigenous to the Malay Archipelago? Not in the slightest – it came from India.
Therefore, our earliest known civilisation was Indian.
And who brought Islam to the Malaccan Empire in the 15th century? Indian Muslim traders.
The Malay language, culture and even religion all came from the so-called pendatang.
So for those screaming Malay pride, well, look back a bit and you will see all the things you scream about, religion and culture, owe so much to India. They should be giving thanks to the pendatang.
Another thing that sticks in the craw is how that word does not have any meaning anymore for the vast majority of Malaysians.
How can a person be an immigrant when they are born and raised here? So apart from new arrivals that the Government has given citizenship to, the term immigrant or pendatang simply does not apply to most Malaysians.
So, why is Perkasa and those of their ilk so enamoured of the word?
It is because it gives them power. It justifies all policies and laws which favours one ethnic group (theirs) over all others.
It hints at two classes of citizenry. It is a wonderful word for bigots who feel that they are entitled to special treatment ad infinitum.
What can we do about it? Actually, apart from countering the arguments of whoever is spouting such divisive language, I don’t think we should do anything to them.
It is their right to speak after all, and as long as there is no incitement to violence, it is their right to allow faecal matter to drip out of their mouths.
However, if anyone in power speaks like that, then we should do something about it. We should show that no such racist deserves to hold the reins of power. This also applies to those seeking power.
We should condemn them as hard as we can and ultimately we must strive to make sure they are either kicked out of office or are not voted into office at all.
But ultimately, my thoughts about the pendatang issue is this.
Those who scream the loudest about “them pendatang” having to be grateful to be here and how the Malays are the original people and therefore deserve to get special treatment till the end of days; what these people are doing is showing how weak they are.
They want us divided because they know they do not have the ability to stand proud without the Government helping them to stand.
They are in fact screaming about how pathetic they are.

Public universities feel the pinch

Brave New World (The Star)
28 October 2015


DEAR, oh dear, Budget 2016 has not been kind to public universities at all. There has been an average cut of 15% for all university funding. Some unlucky ones have their budget slashed by as much as 27%.
Naturally, there have been some rumblings, namely that such cuts are inconsistent with the Govern­ment’s claim that we are going to produce world-class universities, on par with Oxford no less.
How can such a thing be done if we spend less money on our universities?
Actually, this cut does not come as a surprise to me at all.
The Government has been saying it wants to do this for many years already. In fact, we can expect even more cuts over the next few years.
One of the reasons why they want to spend less money on universities is because they believe that universities should be autonomous.
This may sound a bit weird and that is because it is.
You see, when one talks about autonomy in the context of higher education, what it means is that institutions of higher learning are relatively free to manage themselves, determine their academic policies and have their own educational values free from state interference.
However, when the Government talks about university autonomy, what they mean is that the universities are free from government funding.
I kid you not, they view economic autonomy as a value in itself.
Therefore, by cutting university funding, universities are less dependent on Government for money and they become more autonomous; isn’t that what academics have been screaming for all these years? We should rejoice.
Of course they say nothing about the increase of any real academic autonomy with the reduction of funds; where the poorer we become, the less they will interfere in our campuses.
But then, that would just be asking for too much.
Therefore, we have a situation where universities will get progressively less money but the Govern­ment will still have all sorts of influence in our affairs.
It sounds like a wonderful situation for the powers-that-be.
Right, now that we have got all that weirdness out of the way, let’s look at the situation with a dose of pragmatism.
Money is being cut. What can universities do?
They can try to raise their own funds. You can see this happening already.
Public universities are experimenting with setting up private higher education institutions. They are also planning to do things like establishing private medical facilities.
These are all plans to fully utilise existing expertise in moneymaking ventures.
I don’t like this development because I think there is just so much we have to focus on just to get our universities up to “decent” (let alone Oxford) standards instead of trying to be financial moguls.
But I don’t blame the university administrations, as what choice do they have, really?
If funds from the Government are going to dry up, you need to survive somehow.
At the end of the day, is all this going to make our universities better? Honestly, I don’t think so.
Most universities in the world are largely dependent on public funding.
Only the United States has a very extensive system of private universities. But then they also have a long-standing tradition of getting money from alumni and other forms of fund-raising.
Throwing us into the deep end and expecting Malaysian universities to be as self-sufficient as US private universities is really asking for too much.
One of the major sources of income that private institutions have is the very high fees they charge students.
Is this the path we want to go down? I know that most of my students are not from wealthy families. It would be unacceptable to charge them fees which are too high.
Let’s not forget that we are far from being a high-income nation. Besides, people with money tend to send their children abroad anyway.
This tendency to send our children overseas is something that foreign universities are happy to exploit.
For example, in Britain, where public funding is being cut as well, some universities have tried to make up the shortfall by taking in as many foreign students as they can, for these students pay more fees.
Can we follow their lead?
Are we able to provide the sort of prestige education that foreign students are willing to pay through the nose for?
I don’t think we are at that level yet.
Foreign students come here because we provide affordable education and once that is gone, I doubt we can attract many.
To conclude, the cutting of funding to our public universities is not going to help us make our universities better.
We are at a stage where we don’t have the experience of fund-raising and we are not good enough to charge what we like.
And neither are our people wealthy enough to pay astronomical fees.
The Higher Education Ministry has said that there will be no increase in fees despite the lower Budget allocation, but how long can that be sustained?
Therefore, the situation in which public universities find themselves at the moment, I fear, is simply untenable.

A literalist interpretation of the law

Brave New World (The Star)
14 October 2015

Recent judgments have an impact on basic freedoms such as that of expression.


RECENTLY I’ve been faced with a rather hurtful question. How can I teach my students the law?
This may seem like a weird question. After all I work in a law faculty. My students are there to study the law. What else am I to teach, then?
But there is a sting in the question. There is an implication to this seemingly simple query.
The question really should be: “how can I teach my students the law when the law seems to disregard such fundamental principles as constitutionalism and the rule of law”?
Looking at recent developments, it comes as no surprise that this question arises.
In a space of a fortnight the Federal and Appeal Courts of this country have taken retrograde steps pushing back any small advances we may have made in the realm of the right to assemble, the right to life and the right to expression.
They have done this by con­tradicting earlier decisions, by using technicalities and by interpreting the Constitution in a li­tera­list manner which leaves the door wide open for tremendous abuse of our human rights.
There are too many cases to be discussed in the space that I have, so I would like to only focus on the Ezra Zaid (pic) case.
Ezra was charged under Selangor Syariah legislation because his company had published a Malay translation of Irshad Manji’s book Allah, Liberty and Love.
The Selangor Enactment on Syariah Offences makes it a crime to publish or even have in one’s possession any book which they deem as being against “Islamic Law”.
This book was deemed such and so Ezra was charged.
He brought the case to the civil court and argued that the Selangor enactment was unconstitutional.
His argument was very simple. The Constitution is explicit in sta­ting that only Parliament could make laws restricting our freedom of expression.
This law was clearly a restriction on the said freedom and it was not made by Parliament, it was made by the Selangor state legislature. One would have thought this was an open-and-shut case.
Unfortunately, the Federal Court did not view it that way.
I have not had access to the judgment but according to reports they held that the Selangor Enactment was not about expression as such, and more about the punishing acts that go against the “precepts of Islam” which the states are Constitutionally allowed to make law on.
This literal interpretation of the Constitution is flawed in several ways. Firstly, any laws made in this country must be in line with the Constitution as a whole.
For example, the state can make land laws. What if one day they make a law where they can simply confiscate people’s property. Surely this law would be invalid, because the Constitution actually protects our rights to property.
Following this, any laws made for Syariah purposes are also subject to the protections provided for in the Constitution. Just because the purpose of the law is to protect “the precepts of Islam”, whatever that may be, it still cannot be in contradiction of our fundamental liberties.
Secondly, one must examine the effects of the law. The law in question affects the freedom of expression of Muslims.
It does not matter one bit what the purpose of the Selangor law is, its effect is felt on the freedom of expression and as such it cannot be deemed lawful because only Parliament can make laws with such effects.
What this judgment means is that Muslims in this country can kiss their rights goodbye.
All the state legislators have to do is make Syariah laws and say it is for the purposes of upholding the “precepts of Islam” and they can take away our freedom of expression, assembly, association, religion, property, education, freedom from slavery and even life.
Do I sound alarmist? Perhaps, but with the highest Civil Court of this land, staffed by learned men and women who have sworn to uphold the Constitution, having seemingly washed their hands of the responsibility of protecting all Malaysians from oppression, I don’t think I am being too far off the mark.
Which brings me back to that question I’ve been asked recently; “how can I teach my students the law?”
My answer is simple. I will continue to teach them what the law is but more importantly I will teach them what the law should be.
They need to know what the law ought to be in order to be able to participate in our continuing ef­forts to fix it. For let there be no doubt, the law is broken.

New opposition must reignite hope

Brave New World (The Star)
30 September 2015


THE Opposition has now officially regrouped. DAP, PKR and the PAS breakaway party, Amanah Harapan, have formed a new opposition coalition. Goodbye Pakatan Rakyat, hello Pakatan Harapan. Is this a good thing?
Well, it can’t be any worse than the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) which over the last couple of years has become more and more dysfunctional. Many, including myself, felt that PR’s days were numbered anyway. The very public split between DAP and PAS and the less well publicised disagreements between PKR and PAS meant that things were becoming untenable.
In 2008 and 2013, PAS managed to convince many voters that they had transformed into an inclusive, moderate and forward thinking party. What really happened was that their progressive faction became their public face and the traditionally non-PAS supporters were taken by their intelligence and their progressive message.
We did not see, or we chose not to see the fact that they were only part of PAS. The conservatives were always there and their stance and beliefs are simply not very palatable to those outside their traditional support group.
This schizophrenia was simply not sustainable. After PAS broke ranks by opposing PKR’s Kajang move and then insisted on trying to introduce Hudud in Kelantan (despite having agreed with their PR partners that matters like Hudud could not be decided unilaterally), it became clear that the gang was not all in the same boat.
Plus, with PAS there is always the spectre of Umno lurking in the shadows; that coy flirting between the two parties, with occasional sweet utterings of “Malay Unity” suggesting a coupling between the two.
Which is not to say PKR and DAP have been blameless. Whatever their reasons may be, the Kajang move was, to many voters, still little more than crass politicking.
And the DAP really could have behaved in a more statesman-like manner when disagreeing with PAS, instead of coming over all crude as if they were in a street fight. However, ultimately, PAS was heading off on their own path; a path that even a large number of their own leaders and members could not stomach, hence the creation of Amanah. The breakup of PR simply had to happen.
So, can the new Pakatan Harapan do better? They haven’t really started on a good foot, have they?
At their first official meeting and launch they have already alienated Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM). Sure, PSM was never a part of PR officially but they have always largely worked with and co-operated with the opposition coalition.
And they are, I believe, a very good partner to have. The PSM has made inroads without glamorous appeal or huge party machinery. Their success has been on the back of hard toil at the grassroots level; building trust and belief slowly by doing good works for those in need. Such dedication and principle is not to be scoffed at and in an era where it is more than easy to be cynical about politicians, such a party ought to be embraced.
And so this spat really is disappointing. Especially since it appears to be based on well, nothing really. At its core are the reasons why PSM was not invited to join Pakatan Harapan. It’s a case of he said, she said, followed by name-calling. It seems extremely childish and I, for one, cannot understand why they can’t simply put all their cards on the table, stop trying to cover their respective bottoms in an effort to look good, find out what really happened, put their respective egos in the closet, say sorry, shake hands and then move on.
And how should they move on? I think what the people want is clarity. Clarity as to the aspirations and objectives of this new coalition. We need to see firm policies and ideas of how to rescue this beleaguered nation of ours. We need intelligence and we need politics of principle.
Ah, and here’s another problem: principle. It sounds so good but does it have a place in realpolitik? When Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour Party leadership in England, there was a split in opinion.
Many were very happy that a person with very well defined left wing policies came into the fray. By doing so, he has given voters an actual choice between the Conservatives and Labour, based on principle. Unlike the Blair years when, due to his abandonment of core Labour principles, elections became a choice between the Tories or Tory Lite.
But there are those who say that Corbyn being so far to the left has effectively made Labour unelectable. They say that “middle England” can’t accept such a radical prime minister. And thus the conundrum is to either stand on principle or be pragmatic and fluid in order to be more viable.
The same issue seems to be raising its head here. It would be nice if Pakatan Harapan could lay down their manifesto and ideology and try to win the next election based on that.
But the fear lingers that without PAS, they cannot win Putrajaya. I have no idea if this is the case – the analysis of voting figures is so complicated it looks like it is written in Sumerian by the Ananaki to me.
But whatever the figures show, PKR seem keen to somehow keep on working with PAS. But how can this work?
The animosity between PAS on one side, and DAP and Amanah on the other, is thick enough to cut with a knife. It seems unlikely at this point that PAS will officially be part of the new opposition coalition (and I for one would not want them to be anyway).
What then is left? Co-operation during the next elections in order to avoid three-cornered fights?
But if this is to be, will PAS agree to co-operate not only with PKR but also with Amanah and DAP? Again, at this point that does not seem likely, as they’ve all been busy publicly hating one another.
This is a huge conundrum, in particular for PKR. Do they put 100% into the new coalition or do they keep on trying to work with PAS, who have publicly poured scorn and vitriol on PKR’s partners? Are we going to see politics of principle or pragmatism?
It is all far too early to tell. But one hopes that Pakatan Harapan will be able to sort themselves out. Many pundits have taken great pains to point out how previous opposition coalitions have failed.
They seem to suggest history will repeat itself. This may be true in the light of the PR split.
But we ought to remember that PR actually won four state governments in 2008, they won the majority vote in 2013, and they are currently running two of the more successful states in the nation.
But more than that, they really gave Malaysians hope for a genuine two party system. Sure PR has now crumbled, but they gave us hope. Pakatan Harapan’s job now is to reignite that hope.