Sunday, 13 March 2016

Personal reflections from the dock

Brave New World (The Star)
2 March 2016


HELLO. It’s been a long time since I wrote this column. There was nothing glamorous or sinister about this silence.
I had decided to take a break in late January and it felt so good to not have a deadline that the break just went on through all of February.
Anyway, as usual with Malaysia, so much has been happening in the last month. And typically of Malaysia as well, none of the things that have been happening were actually earth shaking. It’s not as if we have been invaded by a neighbouring country or anything like that.
Still, it’s all generally awful stuff. I mean we have the police now dictating what can or cannot be studied.
So a group of people want to study about Marxism, one of the most important and influential philosophies in the world; no chance, say the cops. Since when did they become the arbiters of intellectual activity?
The press have been getting a battering. Online news portals getting banned; threats to whip journalists for offences against the draconian Official Secrets Act; it is all so mad that it feels like a really bad acid trip.
Not that I would know; never having had a bad acid trip. But I am guessing that if some aging disciple of Timothy Leary were to experience life in Malaysia, he or she might feel like they are having an unwelcome flashback.
And now it seems that leaders can’t be satirised.
What those who stalk the corridors of power don’t seem to understand is that satire is a tool of the weak.
If you have the power, expect the powerless to make fun of you if they don’t like you. If you can’t take it, then don’t stand for office. Toughen up, for goodness sake.
So much to write about and it is so difficult because I am completely rusty. Therefore I am going to treat this article like a warm-up game. Just write about something a bit more personal until I am fit enough to trudge into the mire that is Malaysian politics and law.
Here we go then; five things I’ve learnt since being charged for sedition.
Number one. The benches in the dock for accused persons are really very uncomfortable. Sitting on hard wood for ages really plays havoc on the gluteus maximus.
I don’t know why it has to be so. Come on, a few cushions will do wonders and you can get them cheap at any pasar malam. After all, those who are in the dock are not yet guilty, they are merely accused, so why the buttock torment?
Number two. The Sedition Act must go. And it must go now. But I already knew this, as do millions of Malaysians.
Number three. The acoustics in court are awful. It’s a real strain to hear what the people up front are saying. And considering the people up front holds one’s fate in their hands, it is very important to hear what is happening.
It also can lead to some awkward moments. There was a time when I was in the dock with another chap who had the same first name as me. Because the acoustics were so bad we were never sure which one of us was being called.
So there were moments of ludicrousness where we both stood, thinking we were summoned, only for the court staff to gesture furiously for one of us to sit.
Naturally we couldn’t really tell whom they were gesturing to so there was a time where we both popped up and down like a couple of demented meerkats.
Number four. There are many good people out there. Family, colleagues, students, friends and strangers.
When I was acquitted, I was quoted as saying I was thankful. It is to them that I am thankful.
Number five. Always be nice to your friends in school.
This includes the strange highly intellectual one who scared everybody with his fearsome intellect as he raised a withering eyebrow and glowered at you from over the top of whatever unbelievably thick book he was reading.
It also includes the little good-natured kid whom the older boys took great pleasure in ordering around like a plump minion; pinching his round cheeks as his reward.
Be nice to them all, because you never know. One day they may grow up into hot-shot lawyers who will save your poor tortured buttocks from a fate far worse than hard benches.

Child Act amendments are welcome

Brave New World (The Star)
20 January 2016


THE Child Act is being amended to increase the penalty for child neglect. The penalty will also be increased for leaving a child (defined as anyone under the age of 18) at home unattended.
It is hard to properly analyse the amendments without seeing the Bill, but I imagine by and large this is a welcome addition to the law. Nobody wants to see children left in a situation where they could get hurt or suffer.
The Women, Family and Com­munity Development Ministry acknowledges that in Malaysia now, it is hard for families to survive with just one income, so often both parents have to work. But they insist the law needs to be there to protect children.
Like I said, no one is saying our children should not be protected but it seems like the issue is being looked at from a very narrow perspective. The fact of the matter is that the cost of living is getting higher and wages are not.
Mothers and fathers work. In fact, according to some, we should be working more than one job.
Childcare is an issue. Why then is there no talk about ensuring proper childcare services? Where are the laws that make it mandatory for work places (both private and public) to provide quality crèches and day care services?
It is one thing to climb onto one’s high horse and criticise parents. It is quite another to think up solutions which could help parents and I don’t see any of that.
While we are on the topic of children, although Malaysia is party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we are severely lacking in some areas. One of these is education.
The Constitution does not actually say that our children have a right to education. This is not so bad because in reality, primary education is compulsory for all citizens. International human rights standards only really demand primary education as an absolute right.
However, note that I said citizens have access to primary education. The same cannot be said of children of those who are here because they are refugees, or whose parents are undocumented workers.
The argument that is used is that if we truly provide education for all children who are in this country, then it will encourage so-called illegal immigrants to come here so that their kids will have the benefit of studying in Malaysian schools.
This is an awful argument because I don’t think that will be foremost on people’s minds if they decide to come and work here (documented or otherwise). More importantly, children should not be deprived because of the status of their parents.
It is not their fault if their parents are undocumented or are refugees. Why then should their future be jeopardised for something that is beyond their control?
Family values and the love of children are seen as such wonderful things, especially in a conservative country such as this. But unless real measures are taken to help the family amidst living situations that are getting progressively harder, and until we embrace the idea that all children deserve protection and nurturing regardless of their status, then all that is being provided is mere lip service.

Going for a Nobel Prize

Brave New World (The Star)
6 January 2016

If we want gritty realism from Malaysian writers and directors, a review of the laws which impact on them would help.


AH, the mental acrobatics of our great leaders. In some speech or another, the Deputy Prime Minister challenged Malaysian authors to win the Nobel Prize for literature by the year 2057.
In the same speech he also lamented that we haven’t produced anything as successful as the Harry Potter series.
Then for good measure he also said we haven’t produced a television serial as popular as Korea’s Winter Sonata.
In one speech he has taken his listeners from thoughts of the impenetrable (at least to my little brain) Jose Saramago, to the world of a bespectacled boy wizard, swooping finally onto saccharine melodrama acted by androgynous cookie cutter-people. See what I mean; mental acrobatics.
Well, at least he was reasonable enough to give our writers 40 years to achieve this challenge of his.
In that 40 years, a lot could happen.
Perhaps one of the things that could happen is that we lose all the oppressive laws that may jolly well scare our burgeoning writers from actually writing anything close to resembling the realities of our world.
If we want gritty realism in our novels, then maybe within that 40 years someone will be able to write a story about a man using a warped legal system to steal his children away from his ex-wife.
A legal system that swathes itself in supposed religiosity while at the same time legitimising acts of sublime cruelty.
How the foundations of such a thing lies in the twisted national ethos of racial and religious superiority. An ethos which has stripped away any semblance of humanity and empathy from the bones of the nation.
Maybe someone can write something like this without fear of being cited for sedition.
Or if you want populist books to appeal to children of all ages, then why not a supernatural tale of a special bomoh school for talented children?
They can learn to cast spells and control toyols while at the same time getting up to all sorts of adolescent hijinks.
Maybe someone could write a series like that without concerns that his or her writing about the supernatural and fantastical will get the book banned for despoiling the faith of the impressionable youth.
And if we want a successful TV series, I have a wonderful idea.
The Scandinavian series The Bridge, about how a Swedish police officer has to work with a Danish officer in a cross-boundary crime, is a great show.
It was redone for the American market (American officer and Mexican officer) and the British Market (British and French; although the Brit show was called The Tunnel as there is no bridge between England and France).
So, my idea is this: let’s make a Malaysian version. If not a series, just a movie will do.
We could call it The Causeway.
We could have an uptight Singaporean policewoman having to work with a Malaysian policeman to solve the mystery of a dead body found right smack in the middle of the causeway.
Apart from the usual fun to be had with culture clashes, differing work ethics and, dare I say, sexual tension, the show can delve into high level corruption and murder most foul.
Or will this not pass the censorship laws that stifle the creative juices of our auteurs?
Now, I know some of you will smack me for being such a wuss. After all great literature and film have come out of countries with far harsher laws than ours. That is true, I will admit.
However, I can’t see how creativity can blossom if we are in a stifling environment.

Let’s make Malaysia a class act

Brave New World (The Star)
23 December 2015


Despite wanting to think of nothing but indulging in Christmas buffets, I found myself reading an old case the other day (what can I say; it’s my job). It was the Government of Kelantan v the Government of the Federation of Malaya (1963). Basically that was the time when the state government objected to the formation of Malaysia because it said that it was never consulted.
The Kelantan Government lost because the judge found that there was nothing in the Constitution that compelled the Federal Government to consult with the states on the creation of Malaysia.
Anyway, I am not going to give a constitutional law lecture here.
The reason I raise this case is because I found the opening statement by the judge fascinating.
Let me repeat it here (OK, I admit, I am copying long quotes because I am in holiday mood and I’m taking the easy way to fill up column inches).
However, on to Chief Justice James Thomson.
“Before dealing with this application I would express my great appreciation of the assistance I have derived from the arguments of counsel. I would make it clear that if I do not discuss these arguments with the thoroughness which they deserve, it is not due to any discourtesy but due to the necessity of disposing of the application today,” he said.
“I would also express my appreciation of the temperance and restraint with which counsel on both sides have stated their case and, in particular, of the acceptance by each side of the sincerity of the other.
The difference between the parties are clearly very profound. That they should have been prepared to discuss them here with such moderation and sympathy for each other’s point of view augurs well for the future of the country”.
Notice he started off with thanking the lawyers for their assistance and then effectively apologising for not having the time to discuss their arguments in depth. Manners maketh the man, as they say.
Furthermore, as the second paragraph shows, it wasn’t just the judge who behaved in a polite manner.
The lawyers too were commended for their civility towards one another and how they practised restraint despite being on diametrically opposed camps dealing with a passionate subject matter.
This opening statement by the judge and his description of the behaviour of the lawyers just reeks of class.
It is that intangible quality that raises one above the crude and the crass.
To be able to do battle without resorting to lowering oneself to the basest of speech and action.
To be able to act with humility even when one holds the highest judicial office in the land.
My goodness, how we are lacking such class today.
If the powerful are corrupt, can we be surprised if the lowly are too? If the high and mighty behave like thugs, can we be surprised if the hoi polloi do so too?
In present times, one would be hard-pressed to find examples of those with the power and the influence over society acting in a way that is dignified and noble.
On the contrary, we have men and women purporting to be leaders but behaving in a manner that ought to be scorned if conducted by the meanest of the citizenry, let alone those who stalk the corridors of power. In short, we don’t have any class.
I am struck and quite saddened by the Chief Justice’s last sentence, where he points out that such good behaviour as displayed by the lawyers on both sides augured well for the nation. I believe he would be disappointed to see that his prophecy was far from accurate.
Be that as it may, this is no way to end my Christmas article.
I declare that we the people can bring a bit of class to this sad little country of ours.
We can do so by behaving in a manner that does not pander to the crass and the uncouth. We battle them, of course, but with dignity and with honour.
We do not lower ourselves to their level. We can show some class.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year everybody!