Saturday, October 31, 2009

Deepening political crisis in Malaysia

I observe with great concern the deepening political crisis in Malaysia. By 'political crisis' I do not mean the constant bickering and convenient patch-ups of  factions within political parties, the hip-hopping of legislative members, in and out, or across party affiliations, nor do I mean the fluctuating fortunes of political parties at the polls, be it general or by-elections. Of these we have a plenty, of daily occurences, the staples of mass media, pundits, punters, speculators, adventurers, as well as long term investors. I do not mean the financial but the political kind.

Now I say a 'deepening' crisis. It might be legitimately asked, how do I know? Unfortunately there are measures to say perhaps I am not wrong. How I wish I am mistaken and perhaps just imagining

One measure is the extent of it. In the past, we use to have one main play occupying the centre stage. Be it one battle royal for UMNO presidency, or that of component party of ruling coalition, and perhaps on the side, one or two tid-bits on the scandals in the opposition ranks, just the usual kneedling of the 'small punks', the 'kuci rats' of an opposition. The political mood among the public then was the daily excitement and stimulant of watching a major 'cock-fight' in town, good for conversation at home, coffee shops and the office.No real contest based on serious issues, scandals, just contest between individuals and personalities, of warlords jockeying for party posts and positions.

But now, we have a more widespread and pervasive frictions and conflicts. So many and simultaneously. The press, the media and the internets have a frantic time covering them all. This is not the case of the camp fire in keeping with the nature and fun of politics. This is a general picture of conflagration, the uncontrollable situation of bush fire, fast spreading,consuming and destroying. UMNO, MCA, MIC, Gerakan, PAS, PKR, PR, just a quick listing, and I am sure I missed out a lot. The legislative assembly in Perak, Selangor, Trengganu, Kedah... and many many more. This is like 'durian runtuh' of a different kind. A big picture of attrition and crumbling. Now all this is matched with a picture of social (not to  mention economical) deterioration. In a single newspaper page we have rape, murder, robbery, corruption, incest, sex and drug offences, not of the ordinary kind but outlandish in its blatant flouting of law and order. Two parallels running, the political and the social, conjuring the bigger picture of a country going down the drain.

There is another unmistakable measure of the depth of our political crisis. There is widespread cynicism and scepticism everywhere. There is mounting criticisms not only pertaining to abuses,scandals, wrong doings and irregularities, but those which go deeper into the legitimacy of our vital institutions themselves. The whole saga of Anwar Ibrahim from sacking, prosecution, to political meanderings, had been very damaging. Initially his politics criticised and challenged only the reputation of individual judges, but soon widened to undermining respect for the judiciary itself. In the beginning the opposition made issue of individual police abuses and indiscipline, but soon undermined the reputation and legitimacy of the police force, the instution itself. By now the police force has been so demonised that it is considered kind of heroic to have a scuffle with them, or to literally bite them!

There is now a big storm brewing on this score, this unhealthy trend of  undermining the legitimacy of vital institutions. I am referring to the politics of Perak. It started when the opposition could not and did not get to appoint its candidate as the Mentri Besar of Perak, and had to settle for a compromised candidate of its own choice. As a result, the opposition saw the ruler and the state constitution as serious stumbling blocks to its design. When hip-hoping politics backfired and caused the opposition to lose the state of Perak to BN, and opposition manoevering to win the support of the ruler in reverting its fortune failed, the opposition decided to widen its criticism beyond that of individual ruler to the instution of monarchy itself. The relevant  statements of opposition leaders over the Perak crisis bear testimony to this development.

This developing and deepening crisis is visibly demonstrated by the latest posting by RPK and the ensuing debate provoked, orchestrated perhaps, by it in the internet. While the content of RPK's posting pertain to alleged abuses or corruption, the crafting of it certainly points to casting aspersions on the monarcy itself. The effects are alreading showing in ensuing debates.

Like I say, the crisis is  spreading and deepening. From isolated and far- in- between conflicts of the past to a conflagration. From cynicism and scepticism towards individual integrity to the legitimacy of vital institutions themselves. It is no longer a case of bad people running good institutions, but simply a case of evil institutions . Damn the police, the judiciary, the rulers, damn all except...In the history of social movements this points to anarchy and revolution, when all is scrapped and history starts afresh...if you are successful that is! Otherwise it is endless cycles of anarchy and chaos.

 I am reminded of what Datuk Seri Najib, PM once said, on how extraordinary times require extraordinary solution. He said it in the limited context of ushering in Liberalisation, replacing the NEP. I think there is a dire need  now for him to widen the context and application of his precept. More than ever, I would humbly submit, these are extraordinary times indeed!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Our Little Sacrifices- The tragedy of Kuala Dipang, Kampar

Our deepest condolence to the families of Dina Deve Nathan (11 years) , Divya Shree Vasudevan (12 years) and M. Devatharshini (11years) in their bereavement.

More details emerged in yesterdays Malay Mail, 28 October 2009. Besides the moving stories on the pain suffered by bereaving families, other details are merging into a general picture. We learned that investigations and inquiries are being conducted on various aspects of the accident. Even possible corruption or irregularities are being looked into.

As investigations are going on, it is only proper we reserve judgement as to  the exact cause or blame of the tragedy. Nevertheless, we refuse to attribute it  simply to fate. At the very least, based on the scanty details at this juncture, a general picture is emerging, that of sloppiness: sloppiness of planning, of anticipation, of maintenance, of preparedness, the lack of care and due diligence,  as well as callous disregard for the sanctity of human life. We reserve our judgement as yet on the role played by greed and self-aggrandisement.

A picture published in the Malay Mail seems to say much. Actually the bridge did not so much as 'collapse', suggesting a breakdown of parts of the bridge over the river. The picture indicates quite clearly the bridge simply 'came undone', with the foundation simply giving away, cleanly! Now that has got to be either irregularity or gross sloppiness.

The tragedy of Kuala Dipang may be unique in manifestation, but I believe the same principle is at work throughout our national life. Sloppiness reigns supreme everywhere, exacting heavy human costs. It is not necessarily a bridge the next time, could be a bridge, a building, a condominium, even a whole section of a road, just anything really.

Our only regret is that in Kuala Dipang, Kampar young children, ten eleven year old, had to experience a tragedy. We are relieved that many cheated death, which was possible only with the Grace of God. The danger they survived would have been formidable even for sporting or atheletic adults. See for an idea of the danger involved.

As for little Dina, Divya and M. Devatharshini, they had been our little sacrifices to sloppiness. Let us draw a lesson from the tragedy, to act and say no more,  never ever again!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A pocketful of dreams, with holes!

Read the newspaper today. So the 2010 Budget is out. I gather it has a three pronged goals of developing a high income economy, achieving a holistic and sustainable development and ensuring the well-being of the people. Then it sets out the priority areas on which it would spend to achieve the desired outcome. So as a budget, it is very much in character of one, about good intentions, and the money to be spent in support. Another universal characteristic of a budget seems to be in place: the goodies must be spread around, or to be seen as such, for the winning of hearts and minds.

 So I would say, stripped to its barest elements and fundamentals, it is very much the usual budget. Only time will tell if good intentions and money allocated actually translate into the well-being of the people. Time will bear witness if a budget degenerates into a plundering, pilfering, squandering or cheating exercise.

Pray excuse my lack of exuberance. It is not altogether unfounded, for we have been down the road before. Experience of the past , and for countless times, dictate caution, vigilance and reserved judgment for the moment.

 Take for instance the whole NEP saga. The Malays, bumiputras, in whose name it was promulgated, gained little in substance, but attracted much ill-will and stigma. The non-Malays, wrongly perceiving that all or most Malays waxed riches with little effort, felt denied. Both Malays and non-Malays see themselves as victims of injustice, while seeing the opposite camp as the perpetrators. In truth a small group of Malays and non-Malays gained hugely by playing heroes of their people and whipping the blame game. The NEP as implemented, or rather abused, did not usher in a ‘holistic and sustainable’ development but succeeded well in dividing the nation.

The particular context of the 2010 Budget makes it very crucial and important. Firstly it is the maiden budget of Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak as the Prime Minister. Hence the budget is an important indicator of the thinking of the man at the helm, which will set the direction for the years ahead. Secondly, it is a budget in times of heightened political wariness or cynicism in terms of ethnic relations. Thirdly, it is a time of serious economic downturn. The GDP growth for 2008 was 4.6%, while the projection for 2009 is -3%. It seems the private sector, on which the PM is relying upon heavily to pull off his budget, is also shrinking. The private sector used to contribute about 30% to the GDP in the 1997-98 prior to the Asian financial crises, but below 10% currently. To sum it all, this is a budget that cannot afford to miss, for this will spell disaster for the nation!

The best of plans, the noblest of intentions, would come to naught if hijacked, side tracked and subjected to greed and opportunism. I won’t make issue of krrrrruption or krrrrronism for populist propaganda. However, I would caution our leaders, planners, administrators to mind those ‘holes in your pockets!’ It upsets and saddened me to read of civil servants abusing claims, suppliers and contractors overcharging and over quoting, civil servants and businessmen colluding in false claims, billions disappearing in the black hole of ghost accounts, kickbacks and fake consultancies, and the whole complex of human ingenuity for self aggrandizement.

 All these eat into the budget, undermining its ‘value for money’ aimed at by the Prime Minister in his speech. It seems to me that in the past the bigger the project, the bigger are the holes in the nation’s pockets.

Initially I intended to discuss the substantive aspects of the budget. On the question of setting priorities, niches and remodeling the economy. The advisability of cutting  public spending by cutting subsidies. On boosting the financial sector, banks, the stock exchange and Islamic finance. The development of the regional corridors and the beefing of IT industry. The promotion of tourism and green companies. The support for medium size businesses and the granting of AP’s for stimulating the automobile industry. The boosting of Iskandar Development Region, the residents of which shall be paying less income tax than the rest of the country.

Easy visas for talented expatriates, and for the spouses of Malaysian women who may not be as talented. On attacking food and fuel subsidies , which may not be a good idea. On the suitability of the new sources of revenues. On the subject of spreading the goodies for students on broadband facilities, for the common man in the street, in the name of social justice.

And then I stopped in my track and changed my mind about discussing the budget substantively. It is not the main thrusts of the speech that did it, but the closing lines at the very end! The Prime Minister said: ‘Our recent success in Bagan Pinang has sparked our zeal to embark on this journey of transformation to lift our beloved nation to greater heights’. I wonder had BN lost the by-election of Bagan Pinang, would the budget be a very different one ? The Prime Minister then continues: 'Indeed, this budget touches the heart and soul of all Malaysians. Indeed, this is an earnest and sincere contribution from the government to the people’ Well, why the bipolarity of the ‘government’ and the ‘people’? Why is a budget a ‘contribution from the government to the people’? I have always thought of it as a duty and service of the government of the day in managing public fund.

 According to the theories of the sub-conscious, it is the small slips that are most revealing of the real thinking. Maybe I am reading too much into this. I shall attribute these statements to a zealous speech writer with an overworked mind. Anyway the closing lines were received with thunderous applause from the government supporters in the Dewan Rakyat. The effects desired by the speech writer had been achieved!


Sunday, October 18, 2009

A fool's guide to the history of the opposition

Read the newspaper this morning, a bit on politics. There's this bit about someone from the opposition going on a half-year leave. The supernovas of Malaysian politics have done it again, they grabbed the headlines and generated much interests. Is it a 'leave', a prelude to 'exit', or as some party statements suggest, a 'sabbatical' of sort to will a magic formula of historical proportion that could inspire and unite the bickering and splaying coalition of the opposition. Well, six months is too long for 'leave', or run up to an exit. It may be too short though to sort out long standing problems of the opposition, that have long deep roots in the nations history, the solution of which had alluded a great many leaders and personalities. But then this could well be one of those rare and momentous chapter in history when a political genius and ideologue comes along and leaves his mark on the nation's destiny. Who knows?

To sort out some of my perplexities concerning our opposition and its strange ways, I thought I would hazard a simple history of Pakatan Rakyat just for my own understanding. Now I know this strange brew was concocted out of PAS, DAP and PKR. Each of very different genealogy and pedigree.

PAS was a scion of the old Malay Congress of the 40's and early UMNO. In its early days, its ideology was a blending of Malay nationalism and Islam. Over time it quickly shed its nationalistic flavor in order to distinguish itself from UMNO, and concentrated on its own brand of 'Islam'. Its basic character and orientation  remains a very deep seated orthodoxy, symbolized by its staunch vision of an 'Islamic state', openly proclaiming or muting it according to political exigencies.It had tried in its evolution to shed the image of orthodoxy, tempering it with images of 'professional', 'democracy', 'flexibility', 'intellectual', 'inclusiveness', 'universalism',  but overall had not been convincing enough to shed or temper its general image of orthodoxy and dogmatism.

DAP is a 'scion' of the pre-separation PAP, and in basic ideology a staunch proponent of the slogan 'Malaysian-Malaysia'. Its idea of what the Malaysian nation ought to be therefore tends to question the Malay roots or origins of Malaysia,with the corollary then of questioning some aspects of the constitution, and more specific provisions pertaining to the Malays. Like PAS, the DAP had attempted to temper its image of chauvinism with the branding of 'democracy', 'multiracialism', 'pluralism', 'inclusiveness', 'political pragmatism', but had not been all too convincing either. Its basic image to many Malaysians remains that of a chauvinistic Chinese party.

PKR has an interesting genealogy or pedigree. It used to be the lilliputian Parti Rakyat. In the past, it was so pathetic that it attracted more sympathy than empathy.Representing the left or socialism, it was burdened with Marxist slogans and terminologies. It was a common joke then that at the end of every fiery and spirited oratory on the campaign trail, party leaders would be asked by perplexed members of the audience pray tell us what is 'bourgeoisie', 'proletariat'. or 'dialectic materialism'? Parti Rakyat could not win a single seat in its entire history. Right to its last days, Parti Rakyat never officially recognised Malaysia.

Then came along an Adviser, who picked up the liliputian party, dusted it, changed its name from Parti Rakyat to Parti Keadilan Rakyat (never mind the 'rakyat' is  still there), reoriented it from the historically broad struggle of the' proletariat', 'dialectical materialism', to sort out 'historical contradictions', to rehabilitate the ' bourgeoisie', to challenge capitalism and foreign investment, to a new cause of paving a single path for one individual to Putrajaya. This part of it certainly reminds me of the history of the National Socialist German Workers Party under the leadership of Hitler.

Now to pave the way to Putrajaya, PKR or the former PR ( Parti Rakyat) is too small. It was huge only in its revolutionary dream and historical struggle, and that had been 'bonsai' down. PAS and DAP, the irreconcilable forces and 'basic contradictions' of Malaysian history had to be brought into the act. Why not? They both boast of great resources, party machinery, and powerful emotive appeal. More importantly they were both trying to temper their image and appeal. Hence the convergence of interests and deal. The rest of it, as we all know, is history. Though not quite all the way to Putrajaya yet!

Sophisticated political theories are beyond me. I can only learn from the simple folks. There is this saying, 'gajah sama gajah bertempur, pelanduk mati ditengah-tengah'. A rough translation would be 'elephant and elephant clash, the mouse deer trampled in between'. Can this be a future scenario, when PAS and DAP clash in the long run, with PKR squashed in between? When all PKR's nimbleness and schemes avail naught?

These days I find great solace in one development though. Everyone seems to have gone 'rakyat', be it the opposition  or the governing party or coalition. The recent UMNO General Assembly is a clear sign. All the major speeches have gone 'rakyat'. I must say never have the rakyat been this important. The Malay saying 'enggang sama enggang, pipit sama pipit' ( hornbills with hornbills, sparrows with sparrows) had been jettisoned! 'Enggangs' had been told to go to the 'pipits', to be 'pipit' minded. Let us see if indeed the 'enggangs' are capable of this!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Curse of the New Broom

A new regime always wishes to start afresh. It will herald its era with new symbolism, pronouncement and declaration. With this it hopes to distant itself from past liabilities or historical burden. In this respect, it has some parallels with the rituals of ‘exorcism’, ‘mandi bunga’ or‘ tolak bala’. It may share some elements in common with the use of talismans or ‘tangkal’ in warding off or keeping at bay evils and misfortunes.

With the new direction and resolve, it also hopes to make a mark, leave a stamp in history, to testify to its accomplishment and contribution. This is true of the new CEO who launches a new logo and corporate image, or the high-ranking bureaucrat who launches a new slogan and a public campaign, or even the new president of a NGO who introduces one of those vision and mission statements.

I suppose politicians and new regimes are no exempt. Perhaps in their case, the pressure and temptation to unload historical burden, and to make a mark of their own, is far greater for the simple reason the stakes are much higher.

To herald a new era or ethos with new slogan and campaign demands much discretion, judgment and wisdom. Without these, the loftiness of ideals alone cannot carry them through minefields along the way. Far from shedding historical burden of the past, a new symbolism or campaign creates and accumulates more. Though it may leave a mark of its own, a stamp in history, it is not of that intended. It may then be stigmatized as ‘new broom sweeps clean’ or as the Malays would have it ‘hangat-hangat tahi ayam’.

This is precisely what happened to Islam Hadhari heralded by the former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. Firstly it was launched at a time of contentious issues concerning religion. Hence it raised the guards of many non-Muslims, breeding suspicion. Neither did it win over the Muslims, who saw nothing much in it since in their reasoning Islam is sufficient to sustain their lives without a ‘new religion’ or version of it. Hence, in terms of simple credit and debit, Islam Hadhari did not gain much converts or support, but only alienated many people. Secondly, there was the matter of substance. It was so poorly conceived that people were at a loss. Few knew what Islam Hadhari was, many had their own version of it, and even more were confused by it. The confusion and haziness then allowed the opposition to have a field day picking at it, undermining and discrediting it.

The confusion was such, it was a common ridicule then that no one knew what Islam Hadhari meant because there were at least 40 versions of it circulating. This necessitated more explanation from leaders and officials, but the more they tried, the more versions of Islam Hadhari we had. In the end, Islam Hadhari simply fizzled away.

To me the tragedy of Islam Hadhari lies in this. If we care to see what the former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi meant by it, according to the documents, it was simply some good values like integrity in the civil service, ideal of excellence, ideal of service, value of knowledge and innovation and many other laudable values( I have problems listing these because I must confess I was myself confused by Islam Hadhari , and find it hard to remember now) Now isn’t it tragic that Abdullah Badawi had to use a new slogan just for this, one that was equally contentious as it was befogging? His regime could have just implemented these ideals effectively without attracting all the liabilities for his regime. The values and ideals he sought to subsume under Islam Hadhari were universal values already existing in Islam and in all the great religions and traditions of Malaysians.

Now PM Datuk Sri Najib Abdul Razak had heralded his own regime with the new slogan of 1Malaysia. I sincerely hope the PM would avail himself of good advice in doing so. The paths of sloganeering and launching public campaigns are perilous. It is in cognizance of this truism that emperors and leaders of the past surrounded themselves with wise men, as well as magicians. These were supposed to guide their patrons safely by means of wise counsels, as well as efficacious rituals, help them dissociate from the past and make a mark of their own, not foundering on the way as the proverbial ‘new broom sweeps clean’.

Personally may I give an advice? Beware of the curse of a new broom. It makes the sweep short lived, sloppy, and even worse in the wrong direction!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ibn Khaldun and Bagan Pinang

Congratulations to BN on its by-election victory at Bagan Pinang! So BN had succeeded in checking the thrust of the PR horde southwards. It was indeed a significant by-election, a watershed so to speak. Apart from the question of the seat, Bagan Pinang have had a rather sombering effect on both the victor and the vanquished. I am referring here only to the result, and not to the actual psychological or moral effects on the victor and the vanquished. I think they can both draw vital lessons from Bagan Pinang and its people, if they have the moral courage and introspection to do so.

Ibn Khaldun, the medieaval Muslim thinker and founder of sociology, studied the rise and fall of dynasties in his monumental 'Muqadimmah', or 'Introduction to History'. In general terms he noted that more or less dynasties lasted about three generations. Now if we take approximately one generation to be about 30 years, this would make it about 90 years. He refers to the dynastic stages to be respectively that of 'the founder', 'the builder' and 'the destroyer'.

In the first stage, that of 'the founder', the dynasty is usually hardy, resourceful, disciplined,committed to the dynastic goal, and therefore is able to establish itself successfully. In the second stage of 'the builder', the dynasty works hard to consolidate and established itself further. This stage is usually associated with greater success than 'the founder' as the dynasty is more established with greater resources and authority at its command. The third stage of 'the destroyer' is the period of decline, and eventual fall, because of corruption, oppression,injustice and general decadence.

Now UMNO have had its corresponding or parallel stages. UMNO members always lament the days gone by when UMNO members and leaders used to be committed, capable of sacrifices and championed the cause of the rakyat in its early days, meaning the era of 'the founder'. Then UMNO had seen the heights of its power and influence, overseeing the path to development and nation-building, the stage of 'the builder'. Now it has been about 62 years or so from its founding in 1946/47. It should now be chronogically in the third stage of 'the destroyer'. And the early signs and symtoms are more than evident, I must say.

 Is there something in the theory of Ibn Khaldun on the rise and fall of dynasties? Well, just to be sure, UMNO or its BN components should draw some moral lessons from Bagan Pinang, now that the voters had graciously given them the mandate. UMNO does not have to be fatalistic or historically determined. It should prove Ibn Khaldun wrong by fulfilling its oath of reforms and rejuvenation. For certainly if they are genuinely bent on reforms and renewal, their setbacks at the last General Election can be reversed. Otherwise, it would  be just a question of  'the destroyer' fulfilling his historical destiny!

Bagan Pinang has vital lessons for PR too, all too many. Their decline can come to pass too. It doesn't have to be 3 generations. Rocky Bru's observation is accurate. Instead of sombering PR, the defeat at the by-election had made them feel even hollier and all -mighty.They blamed the voters, rather admonised and insulted them, for voting the BN. Their response to defeat is sneering and condescending to the rakyat. The rakyat is deemed 'immoral' for so voting. In fact not only immoral but stupid too!

 One PR comment arrogantly recommends that PR abandons the southern states and its 'immoral' and 'stupid' people,  concentrate instead on Penang, Kedah, Perak, Selangor, Kelantan, where the people are 'moral' and 'smart'. In short, voting PR is 'moral' and 'smart', while voting for the BN is 'immoral' and 'dumb'! What arrogance and condescension! and from a coalition arrogating itself to be the moral and spiritual champion of the people's cause. What a sad thing for Malaysian democracy!

If PR is capable of self and moral introspection, the messages are clear. Judging by the comments, the voters reject double moral standards, hollier than thou attitude and arrogance in victory at previous polls. more important lesson. If you adopt the higher moral ground, you must live up to it. Should you fall short, the people would deem you even lower than those you accuse of 'immorality or corruption' since at least they do not make claims of saintliness!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Revelation and History: Comment on Che Det and Hukum Allah

Over the weekend, I surfed Che Det and read this simply written yet profound article entitled 'Hukum Allah'. I find the article of great significance for Malaysians, both for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, as it raises very fundamental questions on the place of religion in our lives and the nature of our religious orientation against the backdrop of a fast changing world. Being struck by the significance of the questions raised, I tried to respond and comment, but alas failed. When it comes to IT, I am ashamed to say I am a kind of a dinosaur, still grappling with the rudiments of it. Admittedly I am of that old school more comfortable with pencil and the brown school exercise book for jotting down my thoughts. So excuse me if I merely jot down my response to Che Det's excellent and significant piece here, more in the way of personal note. I hope however people should visit Che Det and read the thought provoking article 'Hukum Allah' for yourself.

The specific example of fasting, its rituals, the permissible of it or otherwise aside, Che Det's basic argument runs as follows. These days there are many who are prone to prescribing religious precepts and rules of conduct, all in the name of 'Hukum Allah' or 'God's Law'.Yet, he noted, upon further investigation or reflection, there is nothing really in the teaching of Islam to suggest so. He extends his observation to other social practices like banning education for women, killing women deemed to have 'dishonored' the family by their indiscretions, and so on. Then Che Det raised the fundamental questions:  Shouldn't we ascertain  if indeed certain precepts prescribed by theologians are indeed 'God's Law'? Could there be misinterpretation or misrepresentation, deliberate or unintentional? If indeed the precepts decreed by them are 'God's Law', how do we account for the discrepancies among theologians? How do we account for the excesses? Doesn't Islam enjoin fairness and justice in its teaching and laws? Could there be vested interests hiding behind the veneer of religious authority and aura?

I find such probing to be significant as it raises the following fundamental points. There is a big gap between revealed religion and laws in the concrete texture of living.The gap is as wide as that between Revelation and human action in history. The one,  truly of God, while the other of human will and human agency. While Revelation sets down basic broad guidelines and principles, the translation of these into laws, norms and values are undertaken by man acting and living in history. Now the compounding of the two, of God and human agency, of Revelation and history, is the root cause of many human conflicts in the past, as well as in contemporary societies.

Come to think of it, in our more mundane world of secular living, we do make such distinctions between legitimate authority and misrepresentation, between what's legitimate and what's fraudulent,  of legitimate power and the usurpation or abuse of it. Sometimes I wonder,  shouldn't we be even more discriminating and uncompromising when it comes to the fundamental question of God, Revelation and history? Failing to do so is to compromise God and Revelation,  allowing some men to usurp and  misrepresent, enabling them to 'play god' in society.

Now the kind of responses or comments evoked by Che Det's article is as interesting as the article. They are indeed very revealing of our religious orientation. To begin with, the voluminous response or comments clearly suggest that people are strongly attached and deeply rooted in religion, in this case Muslims and Malays. This is further confirmed by the intensity or vehemence of the comments, be it in support or objection to the article. Then the respective position taken by the commentators, broadly falling in three categories. Quite a significant number find the article objectionable, plainly telling Che Det to 'butt out' from the field of theology, bordering on charging him with blasphemy! He is disqualified from thinking on his religion  on the following grounds: he is a medical doctor, not a theologian, of limited knowledge in religion, and delving in an exclusive area reserved for the divinely appointed few.

Then we have the more polite, diplomatic and word mincing kind of opposition, gently and kindly counselling Che Det to render to the Lord the things that are His, and to render to  Ceasar the things that are Ceasar's, differing only in tenor, not in substance from the first category. Thirdly  we have the occassional support and endorsement of the article. On the whole, the first and second category can be said to constitute the majority.

In other words, if we were to adopt the article as a sort of 'election platform', definitely it would not end in an election victory. Now isn't this a somewhat sad statement on the nature of our religious orientation, and the place of free will and legitimate human judgement in it?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A nation of strangers and aliens?

In our recent push towards nation-building under the banner of 1Malaysia, it is often expressed and emphasised that we, the various communities of Malaysia, should respect and understand each other. Malaysians are enjoined not to merely tolerate but accept each other. Malaysians are persuaded to see their cultural diversity as a source of strength, making for unity, rather than a cause of political and social discord.

All this is well and good, even lofty and beautiful. But alas, all these wise and pious exhortations would remain ideational and little else ( I am chewing my words and relying heavily on euphemism), if they remain untranslated into meaningful policies, planning, pratice and institutionalisation. If they are merely confined to the sterile domain of rhetorics, they differ little from
 idle talk and self-delusion.

Before Malaysians can understand and respect other communities than their own,  there must be enough contact between them in the first place, contact of the kind that is meaningful, that bonds and builds consensus of values and ideals. It is idle talk to expect different communities of different cultural background to understand and respect each other, to see cultural diversity as a source of strength, if there is no sufficient contact and the sharing of common life experience in the first place! I would not be exaggerating if I say that presently we know so little of each other. so as to succumb ever so easily to prejudices, stereotyping and mutual-suspicion.

Now we all know that our Malaysian realities do not exactly afford many opportunities for such meaningful contact and relationship among the various communities. What with the divide-and-rule policy of old and new, economic activities along communal lines, rural-urban dichotomy, divergence of education process, diversity of background and cultural history and many more divisive factors.

 All this conjures up a grim picture of a very divided nation, of strangers and aliens, of divergent paths and existence, doomed never to meet and know each other, what more to understand and respect: strangers and aliens, who would never cultivate any relationship of sufficient depth, to appreciate each other's history and culture, so as to see the diversity between them is indeed a source of strength, common and universal to each other.

It is within this context that I see the importance of a common national education system for young Malaysians. A national education system where our young can learn,   understand and therefore appreciate each other. A common experience of growing, learning, discovering the self, in a truly Malaysian or national atmosphere at an early age and stage of their lives.

Such common experience, in meaningful relationship with each other, is crucial for the moulding of the future citizens of Malaysia. Only through such common experience of growing and learning can our young develop the mutual understanding, respect and appreciation of their common humanity, albeit their cultural diversity.

The issue of a common national education system is an important one for the survival of our Malaysian nation. This is not a quesion of 'ours' or 'theirs', of 'us' or 'them'. This is about our common identity and shared destiny. We have to give our young the historical opportunity to be in touch with one another, to bond, to share, to emphatise, to share dreams, in short to be a nation in the future.

The writings of KijangMas, raising the alarm against deepening polarisation merits our deep concern. Polarisation has encroached into many areas of common life, steadily reducing what should be our common 'national space'.  The sadness of SatD over the dearth of our national identity and shared aspirations ("souless" nation) should alarm us. So should the many writings of our wonderful bloggers in the same vein (too many to mention here).

Polemics and discourses on nation-building is normally complicated, heated and long drawn. This is inevitable as we know that the task of nation-building is not an easy one. But at the end of the day , the real question is whether DO WE WANT to be a nation, or continue to be strangers and aliens the rest of our lives, as well as those of our future generations.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Poor Man's index to growth and national development

I have a confession to make. All the learned and technical indexes of the economists, financiers, consultants, planners escape me. Being of simple mind and alien to the financial hubs pulling the strings of our national economy, I find them unfathomable. The maze of charts and the jargons accompanying them overwhelm me. Besides, the magnitude of interests represented are really enormous, beyond the imagination of the small man and the simpletons in the street. Just how many of them know, I wonder, how to write one billion or trillion!

I wonder if we were to pile up this amount in ringgit, piece by piece, bundle by bundle, would the height surpass the twin towers, or at least equals it. The Twin Towers is a measure comprehensible to me, it being iconic and highly visible from many places in Kuala Lumpur.

Being limited such, in mind and understanding, I have to resort to more digestible indexes of national growth and development. Indexes which are more amenable to the senses, those I can actually see, touch, smell, experience and access directly. Call it the Poor Man's Index, if you will.

One important index would be the state of one of our venerable institutions, the bus stop or terminal. If one has to que for more than 45 minutes, standing in discomfort, not quite in an environmentally friendly atmosphere, then the index should be pointing to backwardness. Then the citizens have to devote at least another 15 minutes just to get on board to head for home. The boarding at terminals are usually tedious and slow due to the policy of opening only half door as part of que management, ensuring the 40 queing citizens slip in one by one in a single file.

The process is greatly slowed down further by the ticketing system, by which a passenger slips in the fare into the slot, the bus driver presses the buttons on the ticket machine , which creaks out the ticket cm by cm, ticket by ticket for the queing passengers. So in the end lucky you got on board. Never mind even if just standing, huddled body to body, and jammed pack, for a seat is indeed a luxury and a lottery.

Now why am I resorting to such mundane matters as index to our national growth or backwardness?Now public transportation, the reliability or otherwise of it, is indeed a real index of the quality and standard of living for the masses. Never mind the index about Malaysia becoming 'high-income economy' or 'developed nation'. The state of our public transportation determines how soon you get home to be with the family, to rest and recuperate for a new day of work, to hazard some leisure, maybe indulge a bit in self-improvement, or plainly enjoy the evening with families over some entertainments, then be on time for work the next day with reasonable comfort and reliability. It is realistic and important index to our progress or backwardness because it impacts directly on the lives of the masses.

The stress and frustration of long queues, of being jammed pack, the tension of minding pickpockets, and of simply feeling the waste of precious life over a matter which in more 'developed' nation is a matter of routine. It shouldn't be too much to ask of our planners who are adapt at handling sophisticated indexes dealing with billions! But just look at our bus or train hubs. The conditions at peak hours or on the eves of festivals always remind me of the war times train station scenes in classic Second WW movies.

There is another powerful index in the arsenal of the Poor Man's measure of growth and backwardness. The state of the environment. In various areas of KL, not too far or well-hidden from the tourist spots, we have pure garbage a plenty dumped in the open. What abundance for the city crows, rats and cockroaches and other rodents. The system of garbage collection and disposal can certainly do with a bit of improvement.

Such index is easily fathomable to my simple mind, for it invades my senses and experience directly. One can see garbage piling, crows and rats having a field day, the stench invading the nostrils, the eyes can behold and wonder at the scene unfolding. Never mind about the index to 'national productivity' or ' GNP'. The Poor Man's index of environment is more sensate, direct and less confusing.

Why is such index relevant to the masses? Well, normally such pollution and neglect is in the areas they live in. They are the ones who have to live with the stench and co-exist with the crows and rats. The discomfort and affront to their health, aesthetic sense, and indeed human dignity, certainly strikes their consciousness directly. In other words, it is very much part and parcel of their quality or standard of living.

In this respect I don't think they differ radically from those fortunate to be living in more prosperous and environmentally pleasing areas. Never mind all those abstract theories, measures, concepts and sophistries on 'competitive edge' or ' rankings'. Simply enable us to live with dignity in an environment that is decent, aesthetically pleasant and garbage free.

There is another indicator of growth or backwardness according to the Poor Man's Index of national progress. It detects a pattern of development where progress is not national or universal, but confined to pockets of affluence and prosperity. In these pockets and islands of affluence and luxury, the elite, the super rich, the upper and middle class take shelter or refuge from the surrounding sea of backwardness. In this cocoon like existence, they insulate themselves from the conditions and encroachment of backwardness.

Within these cocoons, they demand and create high standards of living or quality of life surpassing even those of 'developed nations'. What's my point? It is neither covetousness or envy, but simply that backward national elite, who avail themselves of the cocoons, normally prefer to flee backwardness and insulate themselves, rather than tackling the problem head on , achieving meaningful development for all.

There is a part of reality well understood by the Poor Man's Index of national growth and stagnation. There comes a stage when a backward national elite is interest bound to maintain the backward status-quo. Why? Simply because they thrive in it. An inefficient bureaucracy is welcome, for it creates the idle conditions for corruption. Who would want to offer bribes or corruption with an efficient clean bureaucracy around, since all needs are being attended to fairly and hassle free?

A backward elite would deem a dynamic and socially just national planning threatening since it invariably upsets the massive networks of patronage, connections, tie-ups, kickbacks, fast-tracks, turn-keys deeply rooted in backwardness. As a consequence, the masses would have to content themselves with their dire conditions for sometime yet.

Come to think of it, the Poor Man's Index to National Growth and Stagnation can indeed be a powerful tool of social education for the masses. It teaches them this sophisticated process known as national development, albeit only in its rudiments, proper to the understanding of the simple minded. As for the more sophisticated, therefore the more mysterious and perplexing aspects of it, they are best left to the experts and the all knowing.

May one day the Poor Man's Index to national growth and stagnation be given some serious consideration!

Chicken, egg and the national language

There is this classic of a slogan ' Bahasa Jiwa Bangsa', which can be roughly rendered in translation as ' Language the Soul of the Nation'. Its a classic of sort because it has been around for a long time, right from the time of the early years of the inception of our nation. It has been the battle cry of patriots, nationalists, leaders in establishing the foundation of our nation.

Indeed it contains much truth, for the national language does indeed represent one important aspect of national identity. Apart from it symbolic value, it is suppose to be also the medium of communication, interaction, socialisation and the cement bonding the people into a nation. In this respect, the national language is indeed 'the soul of the nation

The official or national status of a language is no guarantee of its richness and dynamism in national life. A good example perhaps would be the state of the Malay language in Singapore. Malay still enjoys the status of ' national language' . Despite this however, the language does not reflect it in terms of widespread usage and acceptance in national life. In reality Malay is only the living language for perhaps a section of the Malay community itself. Even the younger, university educated generations of the community are slowly but surely loosing the spontaneous, natural and eloquent use of it. The economic , psychological, social and emotional value towards it can safely be said to be dwindling.

It is only rarely that we find a young Malay holding his or her own in Malay beyond a few sentences in a conversation without mixing with English. What makes it worse is the psychological and emotional association of Malay with lower social economic status. Hence the tendency to demonstrate familiarity and eloquence with English, or even unfamiliarity with Malay, with higher self-esteem.

It has to be said though, while official or national status does not guarantee the dynamism or living status of a language, its absence, given other things being equal, would definitely kill a language, or at the very least stunts it. In Singapore, for instance, 'official' campaigns to promote the Malay language, the mother-tongue policy in the education system, or the continuing use of Malay for ceremonial purposes like military drill, help to keep the language afloat. By the way, the national anthem is still 'Majulah Singapura', though I doubt it is understood by too many Singaporeans!

Before a language can be the medium of our soul and the mover of our spirit, we have to love, cultivate, develop and enrich it. Infuse it with our spirit and to the full extent of our humanity and life experience, for only then can it be 'the soul of our nation'. In this respect then, isn't it equally true to say that ' Jiwa Bahasa Bangsa'? rendered roughly ' The Soul the Language of the Nation'? Regretfully, we Malaysians had been guilty of collectively rendering the national language souless, then making a much neglected national language 'the dead soul of a nation', to borrow a Gogolian expression.

So let us be mindful that while the national language is charged with the task of being the soul of our nation, our soul is very much a determinant of its richness and dynamism in fulfilling that all important role in our national life. is a bit of a chicken and egg problem!

This gives me a chance to digress a bit to revisit PPSMI. Well at the end of the day, it is not really the language that matters in moulding the scientific and logical thinking of our younger generation. It is more our curriculum, the quality of teaching that would prevail in the end. Be it bahasa Malaysia or English, like I say it is a matter of the spirit or soul.
If the curriculum and teaching, reflected in the medium of instruction, do not genuinely reflect and exude commitment to the scientific spirit and enquiry, we would certainly fail in our science and maths education. So, to bring the chicken and egg back, first infuse whatever the teaching medium is with the scientific spirit through an imaginative and creative curriculum, for only then can it perform the task of sending the scientific spirit of our young soaring!

Humming a nation!

Music had played important roles in human history. At battlefields music was used to heighten idealism, sense of purpose and courage. At more sombre moments like funerals, music conveyed the emotions, either mourning death or celebrating life in the face of it. At weddings, the music of romance and merriment set the mood. Even religious rites and forms of worship relied on the conditioning of music to work up the devotional spirit. Of course music had always been an integral part of revelry and orgy right from ancient times to the present.

Hence I can understand and appreciate the recent development in Malaysia of encouraging the composing and broadcasting of a collection of patriotic songs. I would say some of the songs are indeed catchy, melodious, creative and inspiring enough, with good and relevant lyrics for nation building. It should be said though that the hook in a song, or in most songs, do run the risk of becoming a cliche. In fact I am given to understand that the hook ' 1Malaysia' is necessary element to put a song in good stead to win awards and the quite substantial cash prize.

Beware though, an overworked hook may spoil a song, the lyrics, turning a good composition into a cheap propaganda, quite akin to the commercials that often ruined our favourite shows! I dare say a truly inspiring song, with powerful, honest, politically disinterested lyrics can truly be even more inspiring.

More importantly, nation building demands truly great vision, political will and act of statesmanship. This is particularly so in a relatively new political entity, yet to be a nation in strict terms, as in the case of Malaysia. The forging of a nation out of divisive diversity, of true democracy out of demo-cracy, of genuine responsible freedom out of chaotic lunacy, of common destiny, demands nothing short of great leadership. Even then there is no guarantee of success in the stupendous task called nation building. Great leaders though, go down heroically and never for the want of trying or sacrificing.

I hope our Malaysian leaders could rise to the occasion in nation building, for we know, given the immense problems we face, the task is a bit more difficult and complicated than humming national songs, beyond symbolic political acts and campaigns. Had it been otherwise, we could all simply sing ourselves into a nation. Considering the manner we are going about in nation-building, we may well have to face the music of failure instead, with all its dire consequences!