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Personal Photography Society Travels

[2914] Madness in a holy shrine

I have an English translation of the Masnavi at home. It has been on my shelves for years but I have never read it full, much like my collection of Kafka’s, or writings of Robert Nozick and Bertrand Russell, or even the Koran.

The Masnavi feels like a reference material. You do not read it whole. You open the pages once in a while and read a verse or two or three now and then.

There is criticism that most established English translations have stripped the Islamic religion out of Rumi’s poems. That have made the Masnavi secular for a wider audience outside of the Muslim world; Rumi has been removed from his Islamic context. Meanings have been corrupted from its original intention.

My miseducation had misdirected my expectations when I was in Konya visiting Rumi’s tomb. He died here in the 13th century when this part of Turkey was ruled by the Seljuks. The tomb is officially called the Mevlana Museum. Rumi, or in full Jalal Ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, was a teacher, a master, a Maulana. But the tomb was no museum. It is a major shrine. And the population of Konya, I was told, is deeply religious but in a different way.

Growing up as a Muslim in Malaysia with religious education pummeled into me early on with questions discouraged, I had come to think of shrines as something absolutely unorthodox, bordering cultish. The religious authority in Malaysia strongly discourages worshipping at shrines fearing it could lead to effective apostasy at worst. In Keramat in Kuala Lumpur, a Muslim shrine was removed by the government to prevent the Malays from visiting it. By a long shot, Malaysia is not Saudi Arabia. But some aspects of it could be felt.

Rumi's tomb

And so it was a sight to see people coming in droves into the large shrine praying in front of Rumi’s large heavy sarcophagus.

The stone coffin, itself under a massive tall green dome, is lifted off the ground by a set of four legs. I, a person whose understanding of Rumi had been divorced from the Islamic context and understanding of Islam must have had approached puritanism from the perspective of these devotees in this shrine, was dumbstruck by the religiousness surrounding me. I did not expect to be in a pilgrimage, but I found myself stuck inside one.

It was all around me. Old women in black dressing covered from head to toes without a veil prayed toward Rumi’s remains while tearing up. There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger… and Rumi the teacher. It was as if Rumi was a prophet himself. The Masnawi after all was nicknamed the Persian Koran. I was unprepared for this. Their devotion was true.

Many were determined to make their way to the front, pushing those in the way out harshly. A majority of them were Turks, but I spotted some Iranians too and other foreigners by listening to the language they spoke. They must have seen me as a nuisance, a foreigner standing in the way, not praying as they did.

As I observed, I came to disapprove what I saw. It was not so much due to my religious education, but rather due to the situation at hand. I can understand how holy the experience could be, but in the believers’ eagerness to reach for the scared, they pushed and shoved others in their way with a greediness and disrespect that should have no place in a holy place. The madness was understandable but disagreeable. It felt too worldly to deserve a place in this tomb beside the maulana.

I frowned each time I was pushed aside.

I felt angry but relented. If I needed to be patient, perhaps here inside the tomb was a place to practice patience. After all, I came with a secularized understanding of Rumi. I had no rights to judge them.

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History & heritage Politics & government Society

[2898] Visual representation is history repeating itself

They say history repeats itself. Wikipedia in fact as a page calls historic recurrence describing the phenomenon.

I have been thinking how this is relevant to this age of hyperconnectedness with information overload that is increasingly becoming beyond the capacity of human beings to analyze and verify. We already have the too long don’t read culture that permeates everywhere. When I was working at a unit inside the Financial Times, we were told to write a piece no longer than a thousand words and ideally, 500. I found that a constant challenge, with all the nuances that needed to be explained to audience without the prerequisite backgrounder.

A majority of people simply do not have the stamina to read long, whatever the reason. And social media does not accommodate nuances very well, whatever the reason. This failure to provide room for context does not do justice to truth, and instead creates room for misunderstanding or disinformation.

This is a challenge for a libertarian like me who believes in free speech but at the same time finding myself exasperated seeing rampart disinformation spread not only directly by humans, but also bots.

In terms of communication, increasingly, there is a move towards graphics. In the past, at least I feel so, graphics were merely an assistive tool. Charts for instance enhance the experience of reading complex proses. It is never easy to read, for instance, the real gross domestic product rose 4.9% year-on-year in the second quarter of 2019 over whatever percent growtn in consumption and import, or the consumer price index increased by 1.1% from a year ago, which was an acceleration from 0.7% year-on-year inflation in the previous month. Each word is contextualized and requires preexisting knowledge. A person unfamiliar with the lingoes would be lost in the sea of letters: level versus flow, base versus base, the second derivative versus the third derivative all happening simultaneously that even the best of us will make mistakes. Math clarifies these things to some levels, but charts will clarify it all the way to the bottom for all through simplification.

Charts can be dumb too, But when it is dumb, it is easy to see quickly with the necessary basic skills, unlike complex verbose proses requiring additional brain power.

And charts are only a subset of graphics. Or infographics… whatever that redundant phrase means these days.

But graphics are becoming more than that now. Rather than an augmenting tool, I feel it is becoming the tool in disseminating information regardless of its truth. This is especially so on social media with respect to political messaging.

So, in the age of information overload that discourages reading and killing nuance, graphics are king.

This reminds me of the days of old when murals in Christian churches, friezes like bas-reliefs, and paintings were the main means of communication at a time when the population was largely illiterate. I remember clearly a famous scene from the Hindu story of the Churning of the Milky Ocean carved on the wall of one of Angkor Wat’s long corridors. The wall would show the Devas and the Asuras of pulling a long large snake acting as a rope wrapped around a mountain churning the Ocean of Milk. I could understand the bas-relief by just looking at it, though to have the full picture, I would have to read the story through text, or have someone taught me the legend.

Perhaps there is a parallel here if we contextualize illiteracy given itself time. In the modern era, illiteracy is turning into the lack of discipline to read textual nuance, while in the past illiteracy was the inability to read text.

The solution to both are graphics, or visual representation of an idea.

When I say history repeats itself, I mean we are down going back to visual representation as a means of popular communication. The then and now contexts of returning back to visual representation maybe different, but it is a repeat of past trend nonetheless.

I have a value judgment to make here on top of this. Perhaps the historic recurrence is damning in the sense that despite our massive advancement and improvement in mass education, we are becoming more stupid collectively. Technological progress in terms of information is becoming so advanced that we cannot cope with it. Relative to the frontier of information, we are being left behind so far as information becomes more massive and impossible to process by us individually without the aid of any machine.

In the past, we individually perhaps could catch up with the frontier of information even as the frontier was expanding. We could get darn close to it if we wanted. We could be polymaths.

However today, the frontier is expanding faster than we can ever hope to catch-up. We are made stupid by our own success. And visual representation is a tool to address our regression that we have to rely on it once again.

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Economics Politics & government Society

[2895] Lim Teck Ghee is exaggerating, but Pakatan has no choice but to do better

It was a hobby of sort of mine to attend public forums (fora?) a long time ago when I had time to kill. The late 2000s was a period of flourishing of civil society, and there were plenty of forums going on all around KL, from the most mundane to the most seditious.

At one of them, I remember a lawmaker admitting to exaggerating while making political claims, though he claimed not by much. He reasoned such exaggeration was meant to jolt people into action. A dry statement of fact alone would not inspire, with many surrendering to nonchalance on big issues.

I do see many exaggerations out there today. One of them is about how Vietnam is overtaking Malaysia.

Such event is a possibility. After all, history is filled with instances of countries falling from grace. Myanmar was once among the richest colonial economies in Southeast Asia and today, it is far behind multiple other countries that used to do worse. Malaya used to be at par with South Korea in terms of economic wellbeing but now, Malaysia is far behind the East Asian country, though we are doing not so bad.

But reasonable projections based on existing economic growth, population growth and several other factors point towards how Vietnam-overtaking-Malaysia scenario is possible but unlikely. Already having one of the oldest demography in the region – specifically 31 years old versus Malaysia’s 29 – with nominal GDP per capita at a quarter that of Malaysia, it is highly likely Vietnam would take quite some time with great difficulty to converge with Malaysia’s level, much less pass it.

I think Vietnam belongs to the same group as Thailand (and China): countries that will grow old first before they grow rich. The situation in Thailand is far worse: median age is 39 years old with nominal GDP per capita about seven tenths of Malaysia. Both Vietnam and Thailand are handicapped by with a quickly ageing population, leaving them with not much time for hastened growth. This is orthodox growth economics of course. Behind many of the leading growth models, beyond capital accumulation, tech progress and human capital, is population growth. Unfavorable demography usually leads to slower growth.

But again, it is not impossible for Vietnam to overtake Malaysia. Low likelihood, but still possible. There could be one event or two disrupting Malaysia’s and Vietnam’s growth path. It is hard to predict those events from happening compared to growth projection based on current scenario. But this is where exaggeration can help: it brings up fresh possibilities to take us out of our boring model forming our reasonable basis. It spices things up, opening up room for creative scenario planning.

Lim Teck Ghee claimed that Pakatan Harapan was “an unmitigated disaster for reform from whichever aspect or way you look at” at a public forum. He listed down his disappointments to back it up. “Education, governance, race relations, religious relations, the debacles of Icerd, Zakir Naik, the Melayu Dignity Congress and more. The list of political disappointments and failures keeps growing.”

Yes, there have been disappointments and I share them too. But I am never that naïve to believe all changes will take place from Day One, especially given the way Pakatan Harapan achieved the mandate to rule in the last general election. It is inevitable for democratic compromises to take place frequently, no matter how much one wants to stand one’s ground. This is not a technocratic dictatorship. It is a democracy, and increasingly less flawed at that.

But calling Pakatan Harapan as an unmitigated disaster, I would argue strongly, is an exaggeration given the reforms that have been carried out so far.

I can list those reforms. My favorite is the wider implementation of open tender throughout the public sector: democratic compromise has led to even contracts reserved for Bumiputras being given out via open tender and no longer given out directly most of the times. There are exceptions, but I feel many of them can be explained well. Indeed, for a monster organization unused to open tender system, implementation problems were aplenty and starting totally afresh was not always possible. But by and large, there are more and more adoption of open tender, creating a new culture that makes everybody afraid of dishing out direct contracts. Remember, just less than two years ago, nobody in the public sector would bat an eyelid for giving out direct contract. Direct negotiation was the norm.

Other examples of executed reform include fairer broadband internet market, more independent Parliament with all of its new Select Committees, more independent anti-corruption commission, freer press and even in education, the move away from exams towards a more liberal education.

And there are many more coming our way with good progress made: greater transparency in the public sector in the form of the shift towards accrual accounting and the establishment of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) within the 5-year mandate.

Almost none of the reforms that have happened or expected to happen would take place under the previous administration riddled with corruption led by a shockingly and outrageously dishonest leader, trapping the country’s institutions in a sticky thick morass that would scare any institutionalist away. To me, a disaster would have been a complete no-change scenario.

There clearly has been substantial change since May 9 2018. Only a blind man would deny that.

I cannot know his true intention, but from the perspective I have shared, perhaps Lim Teck Ghee’s exaggeration is needed to jolt us out into action. There are disappointments. And that means we have to work harder to overcome all those barriers to change.

Pakatan Harapan voters had high hopes – they still have great hopes – that Pakatan Harapan would achieve great things and completely change Malaysia for the better. Pakatan Harapan is better than Barisan Nasional, but Pakatan has no choice but to do better to match those great expectations.

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Politics & government Society

[2893] We are too eager fighting our culture war

There are hard positions in our society. It is the product of years of abuse and mistrust, and it will not go away anytime soon. One small issue that rekindles our prejudice in the smallest of ways would ignite a culture war sucking almost everybody in the most unproductive manner.

Some culture wars are worth the fight. Our society does need a can opener to open up its canned mind, especially so when too many of us are so coddled inside our small world to the point that wrongs go unchecked and eventually become a right. It has become so bad that many are beginning to be scared of doing the right thing, just because such action would hurt the feeling of immature persons on the internet armed with incomplete or even downright inaccurate information. Explicitly racist behavior should be called out. Some things just have to be done lest we slide to an equilibrium that is so unbearable that migration would be the only way out.

But a lot of the culture wars we are fighting today are unnecessary.

One example is the teaching of Malay calligraphy-Jawi in school. The Jawi controversy besetting us recently reveals what we have known for the longest time: we live in a sensitive society – sensitive is only a euphemism that would not take much to decipher. We do not need such controversy to tell us that. The whole episode came to surface through an oversight within the government. The course was set several years back. Too few people noticed it that it developed its own procedural momentum that in the end forced all of us into a situation where no one could paddle back, without incurring significant political cost.

This reminds me of a scene from the movie War Game where the artificial intelligence holding the trigger to a nuclear holocaust, after going through all simulations, concluded that the only way to win is not to play the game.

Too bad that we have no time machine to use, no restore point to return. To abuse slightly the meaning of the Malay idiom, terlajak perahu boleh diundur, terlajak kata buruk padahnya.

Another example is the conversion bill in Selangor. We know religion and child conversion are subjects our overall society unable to deal with coolly. So, we all should approach it with care. Yet, the Selangor state government thought pushing the controversial bill through was the wisest course of action. Not only that, once we were given the chance to pull the brake halting our vehicle resting dangerously close by the cliff, the state government instead insisted on playing the game that nobody would win. Has it got this bad that the game has to be played anyway?

Our society is damaged and this is not the most incisive observation of the day. The last election gives all of us a chance to repair it, and be better. This government is reforming our institutions that for so long abused have been for personal gains. The trust deficit is still there. That is a huge barrier to fight.

I truly believe for Malaysia to get to the next level of development, we need to improve our institutions. We do not need more big malls, more tall buildings.

And those institutions are not merely government institutions like the parliament, the police, the judiciary and anything of the like. It is also about our social capital, that is trust among ourselves.

Culture wars, especially the unnecessary and avoidable ones, do not build trust. Instead, it erodes it and makes bridge-building harder.

Yet, we all are too eager to fight it. And to one-up the others online (adversaries who we likely have never met in real life, or even human bots), we type the harshest words and switch on our scorched earth mode to burn everything that moves.

And god, there are so many other things to do. Yet, here we are with our culture. All heat, no light.

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Politics & government Society

[2879] Illberal troubles besetting the West liberate liberals elsewhere

Development in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe where racist and fascist sentiments are hogging the headlines is worrying. It has been going on for some years now and it is proving to be a long-term trend rather than just an election-cycle blip.

One of many reasons why it is a concern worldwide is that major countries that used to be associated strongly with liberalism now are more reluctant in defending liberal values globally as they struggle to contain domestic problems at home. Some are even uninterested in doing so because, arguably, they no longer believe in liberal values. For instance, it is quite fanciful to think that Donald Trump believes in liberal values.

But it is not all bad news. Difference circumstances exist throughout the world. Indonesian and Malaysian societies for instance, exist in a context that is different from the one in the US and the UK.

Liberals in places like Malaysia from time to time get accused as being Western puppets or having their minds colonized by the West. When the Western world was the leader of the free world so-to-speak, the accusation had been used by local conservatives to mean that liberalism was alien to the local society and served foreign interest. When Bersih was busy protesting, the BN machinery was quick to link the movement to outside interest like George Soros. To be fair, Malaysian liberals do look abroad for help and inspiration while living in an environment that might be unfriendly to them.

I do not think such accusation is a uniquely Malaysian experience. When a large Iranian protest partly fueled by Iranian liberals erupted in 2009, one of the most popular opinions out there was for the US then led by Barack Obama to not be too vocal in their support of the protest and instead let the locals do their thing, out of fear the Iranian religious establishment would run the propaganda that the protest was fueled by outsiders, and ignore the legitimacy of the protest.

However, today, I think that accusation is starting to lose its traction.

I believe so because liberalism in the Western world – I use the West here in the general popular sense referring to the North America and Europe while keeping in mind the problematic definition as well as the fact there are places where liberal values are still held closely, like in Canada – is in trouble and as a result, the West is losing its role as the prime example of a liberal society.

As the West loses its role, liberals elsewhere get a chance to prove that they are liberals not because they look up to the West, but because they believe in principle that transcends geography and culture. And more importantly, the West does not control the local liberals. With the West in trouble and even local liberals starting to condemn the illiberalness of the West, the accusation that local liberals are Western puppets are becoming less and less relevant.

In other words, illiberal troubles besetting the West liberate liberals elsewhere.