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.

Liberty Politics & government

[2878] The anti-ICERD protest is a chance to show this government is different from the past administration

This is the first significant protest the current government faces. And this is yet another opportunity for this government to demonstrate that it is different from the previous corrupt racist, fascist regime.

That can be shown by accommodating the protest as much as possible with a view of not being explicitly hostile to it either through speech or action, but by guaranteeing the safety of the protest participants and others while they exercise their rights to freedom of assembly and speech.

I participated in all of the Bersih protests and each time, there was always a dread feeling inside of me expecting the worst to happen. Such feeling was warranted.

Previously, government-controlled media always delivered threatening messages to the masses ahead of any large protest. May 13 without fail was the boogeyman.

My first taste of tear gas happened while I was standing amid a large crowd near the Maybank tower.

I have been chased by the police before. At one time, an officer pulled a gun near Jalan Raja Laut after chaos erupted. There was a time when I walked by a security personnel during a protest, and he verbally abused me.

And the laying out of barbwire and other actions like the conspicuous rolling out of anti-riot assets with security personnel all equipped with armor always threatened the atmosphere of the protest.

Furthermore, it was common knowledge that the party in power then sent provocateurs to create chaos, and create a reason for the security personnel to come in and break the protest.

All this should be avoided by this government. The police should hold back and not purposefully threaten the crowd. No provocateur should be sent by anybody associated with the ruling parties and the government.

It is by backing off from these provocative tactics that we can show to the world that the government is self-assured and strong.

The function of a government within the context of its citizens exercising their rights is to protect those rights and the people who are practicing it peacefully.

We can disagree with the agenda of the protest participants, however racists they are, but we should also respect their right to assemble peacefully.

We can be different and we must be different. We can show to them that there is another way. We do not need to beat our chest to show our confidence and strength.

That is the best way to blunt their message: that we are different and better.

Politics & government Society

[2831] Corrupt patriotism will eat us all

It is September 15, the eve of Malaysia Day. As I walk out of the train station into the atrium of KL Sentral, I see rows of the Malaysian flags draping down from the ceiling. Those red and white stripes are unmistakable.

The flag-flying fervor has not been as strong as it had been in the previous years. Perhaps all those third-world corruption controversies have dampened that patriotic sentiment. As it should be. Corruption the scale of 1MDB and Najib Razak should worry many, raise questions and stop us from engaging in petty excitement.

Even in its weakened form however, displays of patriotism disturb me. Here we live in an age where patriotism all around the world is increasingly provincial in nature, and that its jingoist version functions as a vehicle for racists. These racists would be fascists the moment they are given power, democratically or otherwise.

I dream of a cosmopolitan liberal society. I have never stopped believing so even as the idea gets bashed and its weaknesses get revealed by the receding tides. And that liberal ideal does not sit well with unmitigated patriotism.

The usual kind of patriotism that goes against cosmopolitan values typically targets outsiders.

But another version eats the society inside out, whenever it is unclear who the outsiders are. And in this cosmopolitan country we live in, it is never easy to differentiate between the insiders and the outsiders cleanly. It is a mixture of everything. An attempt at nativism would divide our society.

I fear, that is what Malaysian patriotism is turning into, especially when used by the corrupt in power. It turns patriotism onto us Malaysians. Anxious to preserve power despite their wrongdoings, the corrupt are trying to distract us the population from personal crime and justify their hold to power by claiming outsiders are interfering in our affairs. And increasingly, those Malaysians who disagree with the corruption of those in power are being labelled as traitors, working in cahoot with outsiders.

Near Kerinchi in Kuala Lumpur as well as other places, I have noticed yellow and black posters pasted on walls deriding those protesting against Najib Razak’s corruption as “talibarut Amerika.” It is a strong Malay term translating into spies, saboteur, stooges and anything similar. All invested in them the connotation of betrayal.

And to be a patriot is not to work with outsiders, as the narrative goes. Outsiders are out to destroy “us”, they say, as if it is “us” Malaysians whom benefited from the multibillion dollar corruption by the men and women sitting in the desolate distant Putrajaya.

The fact domestically, the corrupt are trying to save their skin and bring everything else down, is forgotten conveniently. Purposefully distraction, digression and misdirection happen to shift attention from 1MDB and Najib Razak’s corruption. Words are being inverted and subverted the way Orwell had imagined.

And so I look at the show of patriotism warily. I wonder when it would turn to people like me who would like to see the corrupt in prison instead of in Putrajaya.

I know on the other side of that corrupt patriotic wall is fascism. I will not worship that wall. Without a chisel, I will stay away.

Conflict & disaster Politics & government Society

[2776] The excuse for doing nothing

I had a short consulting stint once long ago with a small firm. I think I can say that a lot of consultants like sexy terms but the one phrase that comes to my mind today is ”analysis paralysis”: the analysis goes on and on in an infinite loop, leaving no space for action at all.

Analysis paralysis is becoming an excuse to do nothing as we face a refugee crisis in the Andaman Sea. Since the crisis is complex, there are so many questions begging an answer.

Should we let them in? Where would we house them in Malaysia if we do? How long should they stay? Should Malaysia bear the cost alone? Should they be allowed to work in Malaysia? Should someone else take them later? Should we not put pressure on Myanmar to stop persecuting the Rohingyas, to accept the Rohingyas as equal and thus address the issue at its root cause? Would more come if we let the refugees reach our northern shores? Are most of them legitimate refugees? How do we get to the smugglers? How do we prevent this from snowballing?

Not all answers are forthcoming. As a layperson, I definitely do not have the answers. Even those in power struggle to provide any.

In the absence of clear answers, shamefully our default action is doing nothing except for turning the boats back to the open sea. Casually reading the news, we know that there are deaths as governments stand still with doors shut. They have nowhere to go as their food and water supply dwindle.

Our own government is under pressure to open up but sadly they can take heart from some members of public — be they columnists, letter writers, activists or just a voice on the internet — suffering from analysis paralysis. They want all the questions to be answered first before we do anything else beyond turning the boats away, leaving the weak and the oppressed to the sharks.

How long it will take to answer the questions, nobody knows. These Malaysians, paralyzed by questions, are so afraid of making mistakes that they must have their certainties. Do not be emotional, they would say. ”Think, think!” shout the Vulcan-wannabes, effectively telling the government to stay on course.

The truth is that there will be nothing to think about when all the refugees die. Solutions that come too late are no solution at all. So I charge these Malaysians as lacking urgency.

They are those in the exam halls wanting all the time in the world to complete their papers. Think however much you want. Take your time. But when the time is up and the sheet is empty, you will get an F.

We are a relatively rich country, even as the corrupt powers that be brew their financial scandals in Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, even as we have poor of our own. And we are perpetually in need of workers. Our country is young and we need all the manpower to build our infrastructure. We can afford to have the refugees in while we find a solution to the mess.

But I feel the issue is never about money. Instead, we are short on humanity.

All of that analysis paralysis is just a way to hide our heartlessness.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malay Mail on May 21 2015.


[2747] Food racism: It still stinks!

I think a lot of us Malaysians have engaged in those long never-ending debates about racism before. The problem with these debates is that they are framed within the context of Malaysian citizenry and more often than not, they ignore the universal value of equality across the human race. This gives rise to hypocrisy among those who believe in equality among Malaysians. They disapprove of racism against Malaysians, but have no problem practicing it against foreigners.

I write this as a reaction to the proposal in Penang to ban foreigners from becoming cooks in that state. I find the rationale behind the proposal extremely flimsy: the state government wants to preserve food authenticity. It is about protecting Penang heritage.

This assumes cooking styles and recipes cannot be learned, with cooking being an innate special ability. It assumes there is something special about Penang people cooking Penang cuisine.

But the reasoning should be deconstructed to its logical end, right up to its building blocks. If we are worried about food heritage, then perhaps some Malaysians should be banned from making some Malaysian food.  Chinese cooks should not be allowed to make Malay food. Malay cooks should not be allowed to prepare Indian food. Run the logic of innate cooking ability for every single ethnic group and see if you like the results.

The differentiation between Malaysian and foreign cooks is just a pretty veneer hiding the ugly prejudice. One might argue there is a difference between racism and anti-immigrant sentiment: we are not discriminating against a race but against immigrants in general. But deep down there beyond artificial categorizations, is there really a difference between racism and xenophobia? Both definitions have more than a tinge of prejudice in it. Xenophobia is just racism by another name, it smells just as stink.

Besides, the proposed ban will likely affect foreign workers from poor countries. What if the cooks are of European origin? Would we worship them as gods instead? That line separating racism from xenophobia looks thin and blurry, if there is even a line in the first place.

Additionally, around the internet, the question of hygiene has been raised to suggest foreign workers are dirty people and of poor health, supporting the proposed ban and more importantly, revealing a crasser form of racism. The counterpoint on hygiene is that if you have gone to any of the stalls in Penang manned by the locals, you would conclude hygiene is not a priority of those hawkers. I definitely concluded so when I ate my noodles and cendol on Macalister Road in George Town recently.

I am not a good cook myself but I did try cooking when I was away as a student abroad. It appears to me that you can learn cooking and what makes it good is practice. I do not practice my cooking but I am quite certain if you learn and practice something, you will be good at it. If you intend to work as a cook, then you will need to go the extra mile to be good at it.

After all, we have Chinese Malaysian cooks making relatively good roti canai on Goulburn Street in Sydney. Does that make it less authentic? I ate the roti canai anyway and ordered another. I am sure there are more examples of that in Malaysia and all around the world. If we truly bought into the point about food authenticity and heritage, then these Malaysians should be condemned for cooking something belonging not to their ethnic heritage. But we do not.

In fact, a lot of us are proud of them for spreading Malaysian culture abroad. And for those of us who travel, sometimes we miss the food from home and we are thankful we can find Penang food just around the corner in Chicago, for instance. Some of us cannot eat anything else but Malaysian food even after years of living abroad, mixing only in Kampung Malaysia in London and elsewhere, which is a bit worrying but let us not go there for now.

So, why would it be okay for Malaysians to cook Malaysian food but not foreigners? Simple. We advocate equality among Malaysians, but to hell with others. In my books that prejudice comes close to racism.

At the end of the day, the judge is the customers. If they like you, they will patronize your stalls or restaurants, paying you good money for a good meal. If you are a bad cook, whoever you are, Malaysian or not, the photo-snapping hungry crowd will not visit your establishment all too often. We do not need the government to tell us we cannot buy food from certain parties. We can decide that ourselves.

The Penang proposal is not the only example of that kind of racism. When the Federal Territory Minister wanted to ban the homeless and soup kitchens from the Kuala Lumpur city center, civil society stood up against him and all the state machineries under his control. In defending the proposal, among others, the minister said most of the homeless and beggars were foreigners anyway (not true because based on news reports, City Hall ”relocated” 965 homeless persons in 2013, with about 13 per cent of them foreigners). In his imagination, that makes the proposal more palatable. Since the homeless were foreigners, he thought he could do whatever he wanted, forgetting that foreigners are human beings too.

And this does not stop there. Some of us think immigrants are lesser beings. That is why we abuse them. How many times have we heard of foreign maids abused in Malaysia? Some of us want them out completely, putting all kinds of blame on immigrants, regardless whether it is true or not. Low wages? Immigrants! No jobs? Immigrants! Rising crime rate? Immigrants! Low women labor participation rate? Immigrants!

Of course, really, they do not mean all immigrants and definitely not those under the Malaysia My Second Home program. Oh no, not the so-called high-skilled workers. Just immigrants from certain poor countries.

Citizenship grants us certain rights, but that does not make non-citizens less human. They bleed red too, like Malaysians.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malay Mail on July 17 2014.