Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Operation Lalang and the ISA

Brave New World (The Star)
25 October 2017


TUN Dr Mahathir Mohamad gave an interview to an online news portal a few days ago about Operation Lalang in 1987.
I found the interview to be infuriating and here is why.
Firstly, he tried to absolve himself from any blame by saying the detention was done by the police and on police advice. Gosh, I had no idea he was such a malleable prime minister.
Let me explain how the Internal Security Act (ISA), which was repealed in 2012, worked. When they detained a person initially, it was done at the discretion of the police.
This was when you got a bunch of cops, normally heavily armed, arresting you, usually in the middle of the night.
This detention could last up to 60 days. After those 60 days the detention could be extended to another two years, and another and another ad infinitum.
This longer detention was done at the discretion of the Home Affairs Minister, who was Dr Mahathir at that time.
Nowhere in the law did it say he must obey the advice of the police. The discretion was his and he must take the responsibility of locking people up without trial and putting families into a terrible state of affairs.
Anything else is cowardly.
Then he went on to make light of the detentions, saying that most were released quickly. Yes, sure. This is true, if you were a Barisan Nasional member who was detained.
If you were an opposition member, then you were detained for close to two years.
This may seem like nothing to some but let me say this: when you are detained without trial and the length of your detention is uncertain, as it is totally within the discretion of some minister, this is no small matter.
Can you imagine how distraught a person would be, not knowing when they would be released and being helpless and unable to care for their loved ones?
What about the spouses and the children who don’t know when they will see their father or mother free again? And for what? Com­mitting a crime?
No, because some people accused them of being a threat to national security, with not one ounce of evidence proffered before an impartial court.
The ISA was an unjust law used in an unjust manner. But oh, apparently the ex-PM thought so too and he tried to get rid of it.
But the cops wouldn’t let him. My God, how disingenuous can you get?
You had the power, not the police, and you had 22 years to do something about it.
He went on to say that he had vilified some people to win elections.
Did he also lock people up without trial to win elections?
After all, those who were locked up longest were primarily his direct political opponents.
There will be those who will tell me to shut up. These are the pragmatists, who would rather the past be forgotten so that there can be victory today.
Yeah well, I can’t stop them from acting and behaving as they wish. We are living in an age of pragmatism winning over principle, after all.
And I know with certainty that the ex-PM will never apologise. It is not in his character to admit ever being wrong.
But for goodness sake, don’t insult us with the garbage that he has been spouting.
It presumes we are stupid, and it is an unforgivable insult to the detainees and their families who suffered so much.

Calling on all the non-voters

Brave New World
11 October 2017

Even if you’re disillusioned, you should take part in the democratic process and cast your ballots.

IT has come to my attention that there is apparently a growing number of young people who are so disillusioned with politics and politicians in this country that they have decided not to vote. I am uncertain what the numbers are as I am unaware of any poll being conducted on this topic.
For all we know, this phenomenon could just be coming from a small group of vocal, urban sophisticates who are too cool for school and feel the need to distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi.
Nevertheless, if there are large numbers of totally uninterested or utterly fed-up youths out there, some sort of response would be prudent. I am certain they would not be reading this, because young people generally don’t care what old fogeys like myself have to say; but here are my thoughts on the matter anyway.
Firstly, I am actually quite sympathetic to the feeling of cynicism towards Malaysian politics. A complaint that I have read and one which I sympathise with is that some feel that no party (or coalition) represents them and their values.
The blurring of the lines amongst the political parties has been upsetting indeed. Disappointment is the general feeling that I have.
For example, I am disappointed (and not a little embarrassed) that I was duped by PAS in the last two general elections into thinking that they have become more progressive. Whatever change that I perceived turned out to be a thin veneer, easily shattered by the death of the late Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat.
And to see the other opposition parties cozying up to the fourth Prime Minister still makes me squirm. Despite their protestation that the old man is now fighting their cause, this new alliance does appear to show that realpolitik will triumph over principle when push comes to shove.
This is further reinforced when he helps create a new party to oppose the Government. And hey, guess what? It’s race-based. Talk about realpolitik.
However, if we want a new party to be formed, it simply is not realistic to hope it will happen in the current climate. The fact of the matter is the parties that have been created in the past 20 years, at least the ones with a feasible chance of winning anything, have been breakaways from existing parties (Amanah, PKR, PPB) and they have had big personalities to capture the imagination (PKR, PPB). If we are going to have a new party start from scratch, it will be very difficult indeed.
The reason is that the stakes of elections are simply too high. A political party will compete at the state level or the federal level.
There is nothing smaller to dip your toes in and to build grassroots support. In other words: we don’t have local elections.
In my view, it is vital that local elections be reinstated. This is because local government issues are the ones that affect most people’s lives most immediately.
Local government therefore ought to be accountable via the ballot box. But also, at this level a new party can build their reputation and experience before going up to the big fights.
Can we get local elections again with the incumbent Government? I doubt it. The only way is to change things and the only way to do that is to vote. So if you long for a new party to vote for in the future, you need to vote now.
My second point is that if we don’t use the democratic process (such as it is), what else do we use? In a country where the agencies that can elicit change are truly independent, for example the administration of justice, then elections are not necessarily the only way to get things done.
For example the judiciaries in countries like India, the Philippines and Britain have been instrumental in creating ground-breaking changes in the law regarding the right to life, the environmental rights of future generations and the freedom of expression. Can we expect such changes now?
Can a new Government make these necessary changes? Only time can tell, but that is part of the democratic process.
They may make promises and it is up to us to make sure they keep those promises. You can’t even start that process by not voting.

The demands are escalating

Brave New World (The Star)
27 September 2017


THE decision by the authorities to ban the proposed beer festival for security reasons has left some unconvinced.
The Inspector-General of Police has cited fear of possible attacks, after the police received intelligence that a militant group was planning to sabotage the event.
But some wonder whether the whole thing only became a big deal when some PAS chap made it a big deal. In other words, some see the root cause of the ban as religious intolerance.
This episode, as irritating as it is, is not by any stretch of the imagination the first of its kind.
We have already had issues like opposition to the building of non-Muslim houses of worship; the imposing of dress codes in public buildings; the ban on the use of the word “Allah” for non-Muslims.
Now we even have self-appointed guardians of the Muslim community demanding that public consumption of alcohol in their neighbourhood be stopped.
The list goes on.
And all this is done because of so-called Muslim sensitivities.
I just want to make a few observations.
Firstly, it appears to me that the authorities are giving way to those making the threats.
This beer festival thing for example; if there are threats being made towards people who are merely having a frothy beverage, then surely it is those who threaten who should be stopped. Not the other way around.
It would appear that in Malaysia, thuggery (especially when clothed in religiosity) will always win and victims are told to shut up and go home and not cause trouble.
This is very weird. It is like saying to a person who gets carjacked, “Well, who asked you to drive a fancy car?”
Secondly, my country is becoming a pit of intolerance and it appears that the imposition of one community’s so-called values and so-called morals is to be imposed on everyone, regardless of whether they share those same values and morals or not, is a norm.
This is oppression.
Thirdly, we are heading towards being a ghetto nation. Where because of the intolerance that abounds, there will be a Muslim ghetto and a non-Muslim ghetto.
We are heading towards a system where the two communities are separated. Is this far-fetched? Not if you live in a country where a school segregates cups, and laundries refuse to accept the clothes of non-Muslims.
Fourthly, all this talk by some politicians that Muslim laws and policies are only for Muslims is nonsense.
The conservative elements of this country want to impose their views and their way of life on everyone.
To say otherwise would be simply lying.
Finally, I would like to point out that there does not appear to be any strong political stand against what is happening in this country.
I understand why you won’t hear such a stand from Umno and PAS: PAS digs imposing its moral values and Umno is the newfound defender of Islam so it will not go against PAS on such matters.
However, what about the opposition parties? Especially those with a strong Malay/Muslim membership?
Is the lack of fight against this state of affairs which disrespects individual rights, plurality and secularism merely political expediency? After all, it is so easy to be demonised in this country by the so-called moral guardians.
Well, perhaps it is then time to make a stand based on principle. Everyone in this country has a right to live their lives according to their own belief systems.
No one has the right to impose their own belief systems on others. Is this too dangerous a political position to take?
If that is so, then the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
My country, which used to be a place of diversity and plurality, will slowly but surely become a monocultural, monoreligious behemoth with no space for those who do not fit in the mould of the oppressors.

An imposing brand of ‘democracy’

Brave New World (The Star)
13 September 2017

PKR’s alliance with PAS is as problematic as it is pragmatic. 

PAS has often maintained that many of its proposals are aimed only at Muslims. Therefore, when the party wants to introduce its version of Islamic criminal law, it as­sures non-Muslims that they will not be affected. Neither will they be affected by any possibility of public whippings once the Kelantan government gets round to implementing it.
Besides, the PAS leaders are holy men who know what God wants and what they propose are all Islamic laws.
The non-Muslims had best not get involved at all. And Muslims should not oppose the proposals in any way either, because to do so would mean you are not a good Muslim or are even an infidel. Then you will burn in hell.
In other words, let’s all sit back and let PAS do whatever they want. They know best. They are holier than we miserable sinners anyway.
I have always found such an attitude repulsive. I don’t care if it is being made by your run-of-the-mill secular despot or those who cloak themselves in supposed religiosity. Anything that has an effect on the lives of the people in a democracy should and must be debated by anyone who wants to. Otherwise, it is not a democracy.
I confess that PAS had me fooled. From the late 2000s until the death of its spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat in 2015, I honestly thought that it had moved away from its reactionary and provincial roots to being a more forward-thinking, inclusive and progressive party. It seemed then that it was more concerned about good governance and less about crass religiosity.
I was taken by the likes of Khalid Samad, Datuk Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa, Dr Mohd Hatta Ramli and their ilk. I was particularly impress­ed by Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad, who spoke intelligently and always had a kind word even for folks like me, who I am sure must be an aberration to him.
But even in the heady days between 2007 and 2015, one could see that there was a tension between the progressives and the conservatives of PAS.
There were times when the strain between these two sides could be seen in the progressives as they struggled to keep on point while at the same time trying to appease the party’s more traditionalist members.
Anyway, that’s all in the past. The progressives, as we know, are now away from PAS and have formed Amanah. Good luck to them.
But PAS is still alive and kicking. Except now they are totally under the control of the mullahs. These are men who seem to have no problem cosying up to the ruling party and who are intent on pushing their conservative agenda into public life.
But, they say again and again that many of their proposals will affect only Muslims.
Just how far this is true is open to question. As it is, emboldened by its friendship with the ruling party and its supposed greater political clout (holding in its hands the power to cause havoc in the coming general election by forcing three-cornered fights), PAS is making sounds that it wishes to impose its values on everyone regardless of faith.
The recent attack on a beer festival to be held in the capital next month is a case in point. Thinly veiled threats about how the event will lead to “extremist behaviour” abound, along with uninformed claims that the festival will lead to rapes and a variety of other vices.
The PAS leaders acknowledge that the event will only be for non-Muslims. But how can you guarantee Muslims won’t attend, they scream. Also, the event will make Muslims angry. So shut it down.
So, the party’s religion-based acts will not affect non-Muslims, huh?
Pull the other one, mate. When people have power, they will use it and they will use it on anyone they choose. It doesn’t matter if you are a run-of-the-mill secular tin-pot dictator or if you clothe yourself in the garbs of religiosity.
This is the face of PAS. Now, I have no problems with that actually because it is better to know exactly what a person or a party is.
I still believe in a democracy and people must be free to choose who they want. It is best therefore to know who it is exactly they are voting for.
The problem here is PKR’s continued desire to work with PAS. This muddies the waters tremendously.
I understand the pragmatic reasons why PKR is doing so. It is terrified of any three-cornered fights (and perhaps this is justified). But knowing exactly what PAS is about, does PKR expect the voters to also just put aside principles and ideologies and be just as pragmatic?
Unless of course PKR has no problem with the imposing of personal beliefs onto the general public, the humiliation of public whippings, and the total disregard for the plurality that this country is based upon.

Thoughts about liberty on National Day

Brave New World (The Star)
30 August 2017

In the midst of the celebrations, let’s ponder what freedom means to all of us.

WHEN I was a little kid, Merdeka was always a holiday that I enjoyed. The most important thing, of course, was that there was no school. The second most important thing was that there was TV in the morning. A very rare thing indeed.
I would sit in front of the 12-inch black-and-white set that my family had, with some chocolates, and watch the parade.
Since I was a red-blooded boy, the sight of tanks and soldiers was most thrilling. Yes, it all sounds quite pathetic, but this was the 70s; we got our fun where we could find it.
Naturally, the entire concept of “Merdeka” was a vague thing for me. Of course, I understood that it meant we were once under the control of the British and now we are not. This was a good thing, because some white dude wasn’t in charge of us anymore. Very simplistic, I know, but then I was a simple little fellow.
Now that I am a little bit less simple, I am able to grasp the more subtle ideas of “Merdeka”. For example, if we are free from the Brits, then what is it that we are free to do?
Choose our leaders, certainly. And it seems that we have done just that. We have chosen the same people again and again and again for the past 60 years.
They are still our leaders, even though the popular vote went the other way in the last general election.
Is this freedom?
Another thing that we are free to do is to live our lives with dignity. This means to me that we have the right to speak and the right to express our thoughts freely. We should not be tied down by repressive laws. Neither should we be in a situation where national leaders can dictate who can or cannot discuss proposed laws based on their religion.
Alas, laws designed by the British to quell dissent are still with us and it would appear that the religious orthodox in the country would like nothing more than to be given free rein to do what they like on the basis that they are more religious than the rest of us.
Is this freedom?
There should not be the humiliation of people because of supposed crimes. But now we are on the verge of seeing public whippings.
Is this freedom?
There should be governance based on fairness. But our smartest young people are bound by rules which are so vague and open-ended that their universities are given the most absurd discretion to punish them for simply practising their civil liberties.
Is this freedom?
Needless to say, this Merdeka will be particularly gaudy and celebratory, what with the success of the SEA Games.
So there will be distractions aplenty. So many, indeed, that we won’t have time to ask: is this freedom?

It should not have led to violence

Brave New World (The Star)
16 August 2017


THE recent fracas at new Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia’s Mahathir Show ... I mean their Nothing to Hide 2.0 forum, raised some amusing reactions.
In case you have been binge-watching Game of Thrones, what happened was a bunch of thugs disrupted the event by getting violent. Chucking a chair, setting off flares, hurling water bottles, and of course no political fight would be complete without a flying flip-flop.
In the aftermath of the incident, one cop said the organisers would also be summoned to give statements. I wonder if this is some sort of unique police procedure that I have never heard of. In the event of a crime, investigate the victims.
I can see it now:
“Officer, I was mugged.”
“Oh, really? Let me ask you some questions. Have you ever taken martial arts classes? Were you by any chance making yourself a target by looking too wealthy? Why on earth were you walking around in that area anyway?”
But it wasn’t just the cops being funny. The politicians and their people were making me chuckle too.
A ruling party press secretary said the rampaging morons were actually dissatisfied members of the Opposition. I wonder how he came to this far-fetched conclusion.
Someone has been immersing himself in conspiracy theories and unless he has some firm evidence that the Opposition really was into inflicting self-harm, then this could be very much a case of “Misleading the Public 101”.
Even the “victims” were saying some funny stuff. The president of Pribumi, when confronted with the possibility of the cops investigating them, said that this was unreasonable as they were politicians and therefore would not be able to identify bad guys from good.
Now, I know he was talking about the agent provocateurs in their cunning disguises of Pribumi’s Armada (youth wing) T-shirts but his statement was ironic to the extreme.
Politicians don’t know how to distinguish bad guys from good? I see. Now I know why the country is in such a mess!
Of course the incident was a shameful one and perhaps some may find my levity a bit off colour. But then, anyone who has observed politics in this country knows that thuggish behaviour is something that has been part of the political landscape for decades.
Peaceful conferences have been disrupted by politically affiliated goons; private individuals have been harassed; political activists have been threatened and attacked; entire areas have been closed off by bullies to prevent opposition politicians from entering.
The list goes on. And all done to ensure only the narrative of the status quo is heard.
This most recent event is nothing new. It is only capturing the imagination because a central character in this episode is an ancient ex-premier. An ex-premier during whose reign some of the thuggish activities I mentioned above occurred.
Again, the mischievous head of irony pops up. However, if it takes an attack on an old man for the masses to see that this kind of gutter politics has no place in a democracy, so be it. Some good may come out of all this.
And I hope that we begin to see that regardless of whether we like the message a person is saying, you do not ever counter it with violence. Those who do so are showing that they are bereft of intellect and the ability to put forward counter-arguments. In other words, they are showing that they would lose in an intellectual debate and therefore are likely in the wrong.

There’s good news and there’s bad news

Brave New World (The Star)
2 August 2017

First came a surprise ban, but it was followed by an inspiring, heartwarming Court of Appeal decision.

THE banning of the book Breaking the Silence: Voices of Moderation – Islam in a Constitutional Democracy came as a surprise to me.
I wasn’t surprised that it was banned. The Government has banned around 2,000 books since 1960. It’s not exactly a bestseller.
Full disclosure here folks: I have a chapter in this book. I can hardly remember what I wrote, but it was about fundamental liberties in the Federal Constitution.
Anyway, the point I am trying to make is that the book is a collection of measured and scholarly articles, with a foreword by former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, not some rabble-rousing diatribe. And yet it was deemed to be prejudicial to national security.
No explanation was given how this is so.
I presume, therefore, that the Home Ministry thinks that a reasoned and thoughtful discussion of the place of Islam in our Malaysian democracy is somehow a threat. It is difficult to see how this could be so, in a moderate Muslim nation.
However, before I could get too upset about how reasoned discussion is banned and how a moderate and rational examination of the relationship of Islam and the state can be a dangerous thing, there came a wonderful decision by the Court of Appeal.
The case was essentially about a Muslim couple wanting their child to have its father’s name as his or her surname.
Unfortunately, the child was born less than six months after the parents got married.
According to a fatwa by the Fatwa Council, this meant that the child was illegitimate and therefore could not carry the father’s name.
Instead, he or she was to have “Abdullah” as his or her surname.
The court held that as long as the Births and Deaths Registration Act was fulfilled, a child can have the name of his or her father as his or her surname.
The National Registry Department is not bound by a fatwa unless the fatwa has gone through a legislative process and is made into law.
In this situation, this was not the case.
From a legal point of view, I found this decision to be very welcome indeed. The syariah laws we have are drafted in such a way as to suggest that a fatwa has to be obeyed.
If it is not, then a person can face penalties. This is even if the fatwa was not made into law by going through the normal legislative process.
This in effect, in my point of view, means that a non-elected body can make proclamations that automatically become law. This is unacceptable in a democracy. And the Court’s decision appears to support this contention.
To have a non-elected religious body with the power to effectively make law is to live in a theocracy. We are not a theocracy; we are a democracy.
If you want to live in a theocracy, fine, that is your right to want such things.
So by all means campaign for it, win enough seats in Parliament, change the Constitution and Bob’s your uncle.
In the meantime, we are a democracy – which means only the legislature can make laws; no one else. Deal with it.
But what I found truly astounding and moving about the judgment was that there was so much compassion and humanism in it.
The Court stated that to force the child to have “Abdullah” as his or her surname when the father’s name was something else was to stigmatise the child.
From the moment school starts there will be questions about why the father’s name is not the child’s surname. And if the child has siblings, they will have different names. This could be traumatic for the child.
This demonstration of caring by the Court is a wonderful thing to behold.
And yet, such caring seems to be in short supply among some quarters who are screaming that a child deemed illegitimate must not carry the father’s surname.
This is quite strange to me. I always thought that Islam does not believe in the concept of original sin.
That is to say, children are born pure and sinless. There is no need for any religious rites to purify them.
This being the case, why are some Muslims so intent on ensuring that sinless children have to suffer for the acts of their parents? It seems to me that these people don’t have that one element that makes religion worthwhile –compassion.

Uneasy over additional judges

Brave New World (The Star)
19 July 2017


THE recent furore about the appointments of the Chief Justice of the Federal Court and the President of the Court of Appeal is a bit confusing. Yes, I know, for someone in my profession, this is not a wise confession to make. But hey, I never said I was smart.
There are some sounds being made that the appointments of these two men will lead to a constitutional crisis similar to the one that struck our judiciary in 1988. Perhaps it will, but I seriously doubt it would capture the imagination in the same way.
You see, the 1988 crisis, where the Lord President (as the Chief Justice was then called) was sacked and five other judges were suspended, was a pretty clear-cut story.
The bad guys and the good guys were more easily identifiable. The Lord President was sacked for trying to defend the integrity and independence of the judiciary.
The grounds used to sack him were tenuous and the decision was made by a tribunal headed by a person who would take over the post of Lord President if the incumbent was dismissed. Conflict of interest, anyone?
The fingerprints of the Executive were all over this fiasco. The courts had made several decisions not in favour of the ruling party in that time period and the Prime Minister at the time was having none of it.
Thus we see not only an unjust procedure being used, we also see the erosion of the separation of powers between the Executive and the Judiciary.
The situation before us now is slightly more subtle than that.
To the best of my ability, I believe that what it boils down to is this.
The new Chief Justice (CJ) and Pre­sident are not young. In fact, they turned 66 this year. The retirement age of a judge is 66 years, with a possible extension of six months.
Not a very pleasant combination of numbers, but what can you do?
Anyway, since they were both appointed this year, it would seem that their tenures would be fairly short indeed. So far, so uncontroversial. But the thing is, they are now going to be serving a term that goes beyond their maximum retirement age. How is this possible?
The Constitution does provide that an ex-judge can be appointed as an “additional judge” even if they are above the maximum age. What the previous CJ did, before his retirement, was to recommend to the King the appointment of the two men as “additional judges”.
This is a bit weird because the CJ and the President were still in active duty when the last CJ appointed them as additional judges.
The wording of the Constitution is unclear on whether the CJ can recommend additional judges in advance.
If this is allowed, then it means that a CJ can have power and influence even after he has retired.
Imagine a boss calling the shots even though he or she is on pension and sitting on a beach in Phuket. Like I said, it is weird.
Furthermore, the Constitution states that an additional judge is someone who “has held high judicial office”. The key term here is “has held”.
This implies that additional judges are to be appointed from those who have retired and a CJ who wishes to appoint such judges can only look to the pool of ex-judges. Is it possible, therefore, to make the decision to appoint people when they have not yet retired?
It is not for me to guess what the previous CJ was thinking when he made these decisions. After all, we are not buddies and I have never spoken to him. There­fore, it would be folly for me to make any wild guesses.
But what I will say is that whether they like it or not, the judiciary has suffered from a lack of public confidence – a cloud that has never totally dissipated since 1988.
It is imperative, therefore, that things are done in a manner that closely adheres to the Constitution and does not raise any question as to motivations and agendas.
The judiciary does not need such things and neither does the nation.

Taking on the Fourth Estate

Brave New World (The Star)
5 July 2017


What’s the real reason for the demand that Qatar shut down the Al Jazeera Arabic channel?
WHAT is the similarity between Donald Trump and the Saudi Government?
Well, apart from a penchant for sword dancing, they both have taken a hard line on the free press.
Both have taken different levels of action, though. Trump, being the type of person that he is, reacts with thin-skinned petulance when the press say things he disagrees with or when they criticise him. His fingers will reach for his phone and tweets will come flying out as fast as his little digits can type.
These tweets are in equal mea­sure childish, misogynistic and – how shall I put this delicately – lacking in any sort of sophistication.
He has, however, upped the ante recently by having a video of him “wrestling” posted.
This is an old video from when he was merely a media mogul and had some sort of role in the WWE and it was, of course, staged. The thing is the video has been changed a bit with the wrestler’s face superimposed with a CNN logo.
So far, so infantile. It’s a bit less funny when you think that recently a Republican candidate actually body-slammed a journalist from The Guardian because he did not like his line of questioning. A strangely prescient wrestling move that Trump applauded. Of course.
The American press feel a little under siege and nervous because they argue that what their president is doing is essentially saying it’s OK to attack the press and their members, even in a physical way.
Of course, one could pooh-pooh this as a bunch of entitled journos being a bit limp.
After all, unlike many journalists around the world, the Americans do not suffer governments who actually have oppressive laws and the lack of ethics to use those laws against the press. Nor are they subject to brutal murders and other acts of serious violence.
Still, knowing how some Trump supporters are – again, how shall I put this delicately – simple, I suppose these concerns can be given some credence.
The situation is somewhat diffe­rent in the Middle East. The Saudis and their allies are attacking Qatar, at the moment only economically. The reason is ostensibly that Qatar is supporting terror groups.
The rights and wrongs of this claim are not the subject of discussion here.
Neither will I discuss the irony of a country that exports a most lite­ralist brand of Islam, which provides the ideological grist for terrorist mills, calling another nation supporters of terror.
The point I want to talk about is that among the terms that the Saudis have made on the Qataris if they want the blockade lifted, is that Qatar must shut down their news channel, Al Jazeera Arabic (AJA).
Here’s the thing though: is that really the reason for it or is it because AJA is the only Arabic-language news channel that is consistently critical of the governments (mostly unelected) in the Middle East?
That they provide aspirations for democratic governance and civil liberties, and that they give space to voices which would normally be suppressed in the Arab world?
At the end of the day, I think it boils down to simply this: there are governments and leaders that do not like being criticised and they will do all that they can to shut the media up.
They will try to justify their attacks on the press, whether it be by screaming “fake news” in every other sentence, or by claiming that the media is biased against them, thus casting aspersions on the vali­dity of reports; they can use laws to cower the press; or they can go the whole hog by threatening war.
And what is the press to do? Roll over and play dead? Merely think of their livelihoods and their shareholders?
Or does it keep striving and pushing? Does it keep on working in a professional, well researched, impartial manner, to provide news that can be relied on?
Because in this age of the Internet, there is a lot of rubbish floating around, and as retro as this may sound, the mainstream press (and by this I mean all journalistic endeavours that are professional and working within the ethical boundaries of their profession, including online news portals) is still vitally important.
If the media does not play their role as the Fourth Estate properly, the question then is, what is their purpose?

There should be no extra punishment

Brave New World (The Star)
7 June 2017


Once a sentence has been pronounced, it should be carried out according to the book and without any additional measures.
WHEN a person is found guilty of a crime in Malaysia; what are the usual punishments?
It depends on the type of offence, of course, but generally the worst possible punishment is death by hanging, followed by whipping, incarceration and finally a fine.
Personally, I think the death penalty should be done away with.
This is not because I believe that it is wrong in principle, but because no legal system is perfect and therefore if there is a risk, no matter how small, that an innocent person may be found guilty, then it is unconscionable that there should be a punishment as final as death available on the books.
Whipping is, from my point of view, a form of torture and torture is clearly against international customary law. Thus, it should also not be part of our legal system.
Furthermore, to make matters worse, the death penalty and whipping are being used for crimes that in my view do not merit such harsh and cruel penalties.
Drug offences should not carry the death sentence as it does nothing to stop the drug problem and it is also always used only on the small fry at the very bottom of the illegal drug trade, and these are often desperate or ignorant people.
Whipping as a punishment is also used for inappropriate offences like immigration crimes.
I think there can be absolutely no justification of beating someone simply because they do not have the right papers on them.
Be that as it may, these are the penalties in our country for crime.
So when a person is in police custody or in jail, then they can only be punished by the methods made available by the law. Anything else is unlawful and wrong.
This is why death in custody cases should be taken into serious consideration.
A person should not die when under the care of the criminal justice system. They are there to serve their punishment and nothing else.
Therefore, it is the responsibility of the authorities to ensure they are properly cared for until they have served their sentences.
They have no right to beat people in custody and if they do it, then they should not only be fired but they should also be criminally prosecuted.
There have been civil cases brought against policemen who have hurt inmates and detainees.
Former constable V. Navindran was ordered to serve three years’ jail in 2015 after his appeal against his conviction for the custodial death of A. Kugan was rejected, but there have not been many criminal convictions.
What is a crime? A crime is an offence that, although it may affect only a few victims, is yet deemed to be an offence against society. This is why the state prosecutes crimes and not the individual victim.
This being the case, a crime, in a way, reflects the values of society. It is a crime for those in authority to beat detainees under their charge.
Stories of poor treatment in custody are worrying because the frequency with which they occur suggests a normalisation of such behaviour, on the part of those who are charged with fighting crime.
This mindset cannot be allowed to continue, on the part of the authorities as well as on the part of ordinary folk who may feel that undesirables (like criminals) deserve what they get.
As a civilised society, our laws determine the punishment for those who break the law.
There can be no other extra punishment meted out by anyone.
To allow such acts would be most barbaric indeed.

BNW Show 4 May 2017: Culture of Fear

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Free speech must be for all

Brave New World (The Star)
25 April 2017

Even if we disapprove of what they say, we should defend to the death their right to say it.
ONE of the difficulties about defending the freedom of speech is that one has to defend speech that one likes as well as speech that one does not.
In the past week there have been two free speech issues that have been of interest in the country. One is regarding Zakir Naik and the other about a truly unfunny television presenter.
Let’s deal with Zakir first. Right off the bat, I want to say that I don’t think anyone should be banned from speaking unless what they say incites violence.
It does not matter if what they say is hurtful, that is not sufficient ground for censorship.
The very same reasons used to defend Zunar’s right to create his highly critical cartoons and not face criminal charges can be used for Zakir.
The problem here is that Zakir’s treatment is patently hypocritical. Can you imagine a Christian preacher being critical of Islam getting not only the freedom to hold large scale lectures but also to get Permanent Resident status?
Exactly. It won’t happen. So the special treatment given to Zakir is indicative of a Government that is biased.
For me, that is the core of the issue: that this Government is selective regarding whose freedom they respect and whose they don’t.
Not only is this freedom given to a person whom many find offensive, they also give him a PR. This is so odd because the fact that he is under criminal investigations in several countries would normally bar him from such a privilege.
It is even stranger considering that there are thousands of honest people born in this country, who can’t get status and yet this person can.
And he is obviously ever so grateful, encouraging people in this country to vote for his benefactors.
But back to the issue of speech. The TV presenter who made fun of Watson Nyambek’s name is clearly in the wrong profession. He was supposed to be funny but merely ended up making a fool of himself.
As such it would be understandable if his employers ended his services. It would also be totally understandable if Watson wanted to take some sort of civil action.
However, it was reported that a police investigation is to be opened based on the possible use of the Penal Code; specifically the provision of insulting a person with the intention to breach the peace.
I think this law was meant for immediate situations where people are verbally abusive and this leads to violence.
This is not the case here; the presenter was being a total idiot, and he should get what is coming to him, but criminal charges should not be part of that.
If criminal law is used too freely against speech and expression, it can be used to suppress legitimate dissent.
I dislike the things that Zakir says. I find that TV presenter to be a total prat. But in the matter of free speech, unfortunately if we want it for ourselves we have to want it even for the offensive and the foolish.

There’s a reason for the law on statutory rape

Brave New World (The Star)
12 April 2017

The goal is to protect girls who are not mature enough to make complicated decisions with far-reaching consequences.
DATUK Shabudin Yahaya has really caused a furore with his statements in Parliament about statutory rape.
Having read transcripts of his speech in Parliament, I came to see that some of the comments made about him are unfair. He does not condone rape, for example. But be that as it may, I have some issues about what was said.
Firstly, there seems to be confusion about the meaning of statutory rape. Statutory rape means that any sex with a girl under the age of 16 is rape.
Her consent is beside the point. I found it disturbing that in his speech there appeared to be a distinction made between rape (rogol) and consensual, albeit illicit, sex (zina).
This is missing the point totally about the law regarding statutory rape, because the whole concept of the law is that children do not have the ability to give their consent, by virtue of the fact that they are too young.
So, sex with an underage girl is rape; no matter what the circumstances.
One argument that he also seems to be making is that some girls under the age of 16 are mature. One presumes that he means mature enough to consent to sex.

Again, this misses the point. The law is there to protect as many girls as possible.
The fact of the matter is our society as a whole thinks that girls under 16 should be protected from sexual predators and are not grown up enough to make decisions as complicated and with such far-reaching consequences like choosing to have sex or not; thus we have this law and it is a strict liability law (meaning the intention of the offender and the consent of the victim is irrelevant: if the act is done, then a crime is committed. End of story).
As an example, we have laws about drink driving. There is a limit which a person can drink and drive; beyond that he is committing an offence.
It does not matter if there are a few people who can hold their liquor and drink a lot and still be able to drive (I am not condoning this at all, just making an example).
The fact is, it is deemed that most people can’t drive safely if they drink beyond a certain point, and thus the law covers everybody. This is how protective laws work.
Another point that he made which I find most concerning is the statement that girls who reach puberty are “spiritually and physically” ready for marriage. How does he know? I don’t know where this comes from, but I am guessing it is from his religious beliefs.
Look, the whole concept that people (boys and girls) can marry upon reaching puberty is a rule created 1,400 years ago in a time where people’s life expectancy was very short.
Things are different now; children stay children longer regardless if they are able to produce semen or are menstruating.
They have school to go through to prepare themselves for the future. They are not likely to die at 30 so there is no urgent need to procreate before they croak. Surely the changing times should be taken into consideration.
Finally, the thing that worried me the most is the objectifying of girls, the statement about how some young girls have bodies of women.
This is most unsettling.
Girls are girls and until they reach the age of 18 they deserve the protection afforded to children.
They are not sexual beings and should not be treated as such because they are too darn young.
This blase treatment about the safety of our girl children, to me, reflects a type of misogyny.
It commodifies and objectifies them and as such is in breach of Article 5(a) of the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which Malaysia is party to.
The article reads as follows:
States Parties shall take all appropriate measures: to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.
Seeing as how an MP from the ruling party seems to be unable to shake off his misogynistic viewpoint (whether intentional or not) based on what appears to be his “social and cultural” patterns, it would appear that this sorry little affair just goes to show how far this Government has to go before it can begin to give women and girls the respect that they are due.

Allow room for critical thinking

Brave New World (The Star)
29 March 2017


FIVE school teachers have been given show cause letters by the Education Ministry for being “excessively” critical of the Government in public forums and the like. I wish I could find out what they said; it would be nice to see what “excessive” is.
The Education Minister also said that civil servants should be loyal to the Government and any criticism should be done via the “correct channels”. But all this silencing of educators is not undemocratic, he says because it is done via the law – namely the General Orders which civil servants are bound by.
How quaint.
These are really old justifications that have been used for decades.
Firstly, one has to wonder what “proper channels” there are and whether they are effective or not. If these channels are not open to the public (and I am certain by “proper” it is meant “discreet”) then they can easily be ignored.
Secondly, just because a law exists to silence people, that does not make it right. A power provided by legislation can be just as undemocratic as an unfettered discretionary power.
These five teachers are facing the beginnings of disciplinary action for things which they did outside of the classroom. But the Youth and Sports Minister has chipped in saying that things done within the classrooms should not be used as a “political platform”.
Well, sure, it would be unseemly and inappropriate for any sort of political campaigning to be done in classrooms. Kind of pointless as well, since schoolchildren can’t vote.
But I wonder; what if a history teacher decides to point out the fact that Umno was late in joining the calls for independence and in fact the originator for that call was the Malayan Left. Would this be political?
And that is just within the context of schools. Universities offer courses and have departments whose entire purpose is to examine critically what happens in society, which includes what the Government does.
A Social Science Department that does not cover race-based policies in the country will not be doing its job. An economics department that does not explore the effect of corruption on the well-being of the country will not be doing its job. A law faculty that does not criticise unjust laws and judgments will not be doing its job.
However, recently, public universities have received a circular, once again written under the authority of legislation meant to control civil servants, where we have been told that we can’t say or do anything that could be deemed as manifesting disloyalty to King, country and government.
Well, I can tell you that makes my job as a Human Rights and Environmental Law lecturer very simple then.
I think I can just turn up to class for the rest of the semester with a guitar and sing Kumbaya with my students for an hour.
Of course I won’t do that. This is because my responsibility as a lecturer, and a teacher’s responsibility, is first and foremost to our students. Our job is to broaden their horizons and to show them not just what is, but what should be.
As long as what is being taught is backed up by good research and sound reasoning, then what is said should not be penalised.
If we do our jobs well, we produce thinking graduates and by this we serve the people and the nation. Not the Government.
It is not just teachers and lecturers who have been under the cosh recently; university students have not escaped either. Nowadays any show of dissent from students will ensure disciplinary hearings. But one student in particular has had the full force of so called anti-terrorism laws, and all the intense pain and stress that implies for her and her family, used against her.
Siti Nor Aishah Atan was a Master’s student in Universiti Malaya. She was apparently doing research on terrorism, and as part of her work she had in her possession, surprise surprise, books related to the subject. She was arrested last year for being in possession of “illegal” books.
The High Court released her on the grounds that there was no evidence that the books were “illegal”. She was then rearrested and detained without trial under the Prevention of Crime Act for 60 days.
Upon her release she was made to wear an electronic tag and report to the police once a week. Meanwhile, the Attorney-General’s Chambers, unhappy with the High Court, appealed the decision and she was detained without trial again, now under the Special Offences (Special Measures) Act.
My question is this: Siti has been under investigation and watch since September last year; she has been detained for two months, and she has had her movements monitored, so why the need to detain her further? Unless, this girl from Terengganu, is some sort of genius terrorist mastermind (which is the reason why one presumes the AG’s Chambers are so dogged) or the investigating agencies are utterly incompetent for not being able to find enough evidence to charge her properly in court.
Besides, what she was doing was research. Surely in the face of very real terrorist threats the world over, such research should be carried out and not punished.
But then, in a land where civil servants are expected to be docile and lecturers are faced with restrictions which are designed to cow them into total intellectual impotence, logic does not really come into the equation.

Yes, your votes do count in the next election

Brave New World (The Star)
1 March 2017

The window for registering to vote could be narrowing, so don’t throw away your privilege and responsibility.
I GATHER that there are over four million eligible voters who are yet to register. Most of these people are young, that is to say in the 21 to 29-year-old range.
Word from those who work in voter registration is that there is a prevailing feeling amongst the youth that although they may not like the ruling party, they also don’t like the opposition. In other words, they feel that there is no one that they want to vote for.
A feeling of disillusionment is also appa­rently flowing through the urban middle classes who may feel let down by the disunity amongst the opposition parties, as well as perhaps a feeling of hopelessness due to the fact that the electoral system seems to be so flawed – thus meaning a lower voter turnout.
Heaven knows I can sympathise with all of the feelings above. However, I think staying away from the polls is not the best thing to do. If we want change to happen in the country then everything that can be done, must be done.
It is important to know that the elections are not the be-all and end-all. They are merely one tool with which to work for change. Of course, ideally, one can just go about one’s life and only worry about politics once every four or five years, but that is simply not the case here.
There is too much going on that will have a profound effect on the nation and our lives. Corruption; new laws which impose disproportionate penalties; public institutions that are poorly led and facing a trust deficit; the list goes on.
It won’t be easy to make the changes necessary to make this country well, and I can understand the pessimism that leads to the belief that the current crop of politicians are not the people to do it. But having said that, it would be folly to just ignore the elections.
At the end of the day, whether we like it or not, elected members of parliament and state legislative assembly persons are the ones who make laws and influence policy. Therefore they have to constantly show that their position is by virtue of us.
There are other methods to do so, of course. We can pressure and lobby them persistently and constantly, but why not use elections as well? The political elite in this country need to know what it feels like to win and to lose and they need to understand that we are the ones to determine that.
Although in the past, elections were relatively simple affairs where the voter had basically a choice of two to make, nowadays we have the great possibility of three-cornered fights. Although this plays into the hands of the incumbent, they are still important elections to take part in for they are an opportunity to show the competing parties whether the voter supports their individual manifestos.
What about the uneven constituencies? I agree, things are weighed so heavily in the favour of Barisan Nasional that it all seems a bit pointless. However, win or lose, the popular vote is still an important statistic. Not to those who win via gerrymandering, but for those who wish to continue to strive for a changed Malaysia, for the popular vote is an important form of legitimacy.
All in all, it is better to be part of the election system than not. If the elections are in September, which is a high possibility, then the end of March is the last chance to register to vote if one is to be certain of the chance to do so in GE14.
If you or anyone you know have not done so, I implore you to change that. Then we can get on with the business of changing the country. No matter what the GE14 results are.

Is it a thriller or a soap opera?

Brave New World (The Star)
15 February 2017


SOMETIMES it is good to step back and look at things dispassionately.
Let’s take the resignation of the four key DAP members in Malacca. As usual, when such things happen, accusations fly back and forth.
Terms like traitor are bandied around and it’s all very hot. But this is Malaysia and things like this just get forgotten by the general public after a while. A short while actually.
This being the case, I doubt that these resignations will have any serious consequences. In the next election, I seriously don’t think that the foursome will have any luck if they stand as independents.
Sure, it makes the party look bad and the Barisan Nasional will be jumping over each other to score political points, but so what?
Politically speaking, the country is as divided as it can be. I think people’s minds are pretty much made up as to which side of the fence they are sitting. If anything, there might be a sense of being fed up with it all and there may be a sense of disillusionment amongst some quarters.
I can’t say for certain, of course, as there has been no report of such a survey conducted, but my sense is that the optimism of the last two general elections is depleted.
Anyway, in the bigger picture, some infighting in DAP amounts to a hill of beans.
So, as a dispassionate observer, what do I think will be interesting?
For me, it is the “will they or won’t they” question hanging over PAS and Umno. As it stands, these two remind me of Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in the early days of that excruciating TV show, Moonlighting. I leave it to you to imagine which party is Willis and which is Shepherd.
People were fascinated to see if these two characters would finally get it on. I have the same feeling watching PAS and Umno in their elaborate courtship dance. They are now both defenders of Islam, it would seem, and there’s hand-holding and shared legislative ambitions. The courtship seems obvious; it is just the consummation that is not quite clear yet.
PAS has already said it will not work with DAP and Amanah. This means that unless there is a cataclysmic split in Harapan, there will be two opposition blocks: Harapan and PAS.
This would play straight into the hands of the BN because the only feasible winner in a three-cornered fight will be them. Surely PAS knows this, so what will their game plan be? Go for it alone and risk losing seats? They already said they won’t work with the Opposition. So what does this mean? Will they finally fall into the loving arms of Umno?
Only time will tell, but I wish they would just get on with it. There’s only so much coy flirtation one can take in any soap opera.

Why the US travel ban is pointless

Brave New World (The Star)
1 February 2017


PRESIDENT Donald Trump’s executive order to ban anyone from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering America is not only discriminatory, it is also foolish and pointless.
Let’s examine why, shall we?
The biggest terrorist attack on American soil is the Sept 11, 2001 airplane hijacks and crashes.
Who were the people involved? They were Saudis. Strangely enough, Saudi Arabia is not on the list above. Which makes one wonder whether Trump is really serious about stopping terrorists (who are exclusively Muslim, naturally) from entering his wonderful country or he is just making a great big show-and-tell to make his voters happy.
Furthermore, since 2001, according to the New America Foundation, 82% of terrorist attacks in America have come from American citizens and Permanent Residents. And according to the Cato Institute, an American is over 250 times more likely to be killed by ordinary homicide than a terrorist attack.
So by taking aim at the peoples of these seven countries, what we have, therefore, is a policy that is utterly misguided and pointless.
Well, maybe I am being overly harsh. There is a point to this policy. It makes racist, misinformed bigots happy. That is surely a good thing for Trump. Also, it is great news for the Islamic State and their ilk because the “Great Satan USA” now has a leader who is an Islamophobe and proud of it. Trump is the ideal poster boy for extremist recruiters.
And what can the world do about it?
In Britain, the answer is to be as subservient as possible. Theresa May, the British PM, was the first world leader to go rushing to pant at Trump’s door and she was quite happy to excuse his vile policies as something within his right to do. The United States has its policies and we have ours, is roughly what she said when asked. How convenient.
However, the people of Britain have not been so pliant. Nearly 1.5 million have signed a petition demanding that the planned state visit of Trump be cancelled. It takes only 100,000 signatures to force a debate in the House of Commons. Within hours, this number was exceeded many times over.
Now, will the government cancel the visit? Of course not, the Brits have no friends in Europe any more so they have to play ball with the Americans. It would be nice for the government to admit that this is the case.
Instead, we have seen the usual political squirming along the lines that Trump was democratically elected and thus we have to respect the will of the American people. How wonderfully hypocritical.
When America chose to cut all aid to Palestine because the people of that country voted Hamas into power, it was perfectly acceptable for them to disregard the democratic will of the Palestinian people.
Of course, their reasoning was that Hamas was a “terrorist” organisation.
If it is acceptable to not respect the democratic choice of a country because you don’t like their elected leaders, why then is it not acceptable for a country to minimise relations with a country that voted a misanthropic, uninformed bigot into power?
If you don’t have the guts to do so, just admit it. Please don’t hide behind the false high horse of respecting democracy, as it seems that the powerful are more than happy to disrespect democracy when it suits them.

BNW Show 13 April 2017: Romance Untuk RU 355

BNW Show 5 April 2017: The Debate Debacle

BNW Show 1 February 2017: Unshackle our Students

BNW Show 26 January 2017: The Language of Citizenship

Thursday, 19 January 2017

BNW Show 18 January 2017: Brilliant Books

BNW Show 11 January 2017: Start Today Save Tomorrow

Justifying funding for higher education

Brave New World (The Star)
18 January 2017


I GREW up on the Universiti Sains Malaysia campus because my father worked there. Our house was a short bike ride away and my brother and I used to cycle all over the place. It was really a beautiful campus with old colonial-era buildings set on hills overlooking the sea.
We swam in the old pool with its high diving board and we had school concerts in its halls (using our insider connections). On Fridays and Hari Raya, we would pray in the university mosque.
So, I am very fond of the place.
I am therefore relieved that the university chose to cancel a seminar on black magic.
Now, having an academic seminar on black magic is not by itself a bad thing. Whether we like it or not, people believe in the thing and as such it is worthy of sociological and anthropological study. However, the seminar in question was dealing with it as though it is a scientific fact with medical repercussions.
It is one thing to study what people and communities believe; it is quite another to give such belief scientific credence when there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that these “beliefs” are “fact”. If one were to be charitable, one could say that such an endeavour is of questionable academic merit.
And yet this is not the first time that public universities have done such things. We have had a university produce “possession kits” to help those taken over by spirits, for goodness sake.
Why would institutions of higher learning be doing such things?
Well, the answer is obvious. There are academic staff in these universities who believe in such things. They believe in spirits and possession and spells. And this is not surprising at all.
Malaysians are a superstitious people and although no study has been conducted (now, there is an idea for a true academic study), I am certain that the majority of our people think that magic (black or otherwise) is real.
Now, I am not here to criticise what people choose to believe in. As long as you are not hurting anyone, go ahead, knock yourself out and believe what you want.
However, universities must be places where personal belief systems must not be confused with what makes a topic worthy of academic study.
Universities must take their research and other academic activities seriously, otherwise they run the risk of not being taken seriously.
As it is, Malaysian universities are under serious threat as our funding has been cut to the point where, over time, we will have difficulty even paying our staff.
As such, the work that we produce and the graduates that we produce must be as good as possible so that the Government won’t have the justification to cut our funds any more.
It is said that in terms of percentage of gross domestic product, Malaysia is one of the countries that spend the most on institutions of higher learning and yet, in terms of international recognition, we don’t do so well. The question, then, is why this is so.
Clearly, there has to be proper investigation as to where the money is going. Is there wastage?
For example, in infrastructure development, are we paying what ought to be paid?
Apart from firming up on the types of academic endeavours we take part in and smashing any corruption if it exists, universities can do other things to improve. Here are some suggestions that will cost no money whatsoever.
First and foremost; stop harassing the students. If they have a point of view and they want to express it, then let them do so.
If you treat university students like school children, you will get school children graduating.
Secondly, if the staff want to use their expertise to give their opinions publicly, let them do so. We are often accused of staying in our ivory towers and yet university management don’t like us speaking our mind to the public at large.
As public universities, our money comes from the people.

Our responsibility therefore is not just to our students and the academic community, but also to the people, and what we can do best is share our knowledge to try to deal with problems of the day.

BNW Show 28 December 2016: Some Cheer for the New Year