Politics & government Society

[2847] We care because we are capable of empathy

It’s a big, big interconnected world out there. And that interconnectedness, ironically, makes the world smaller is a non-physical sense. Economically, socially and politically. Our lives are no longer affected purely by domestic matters. To some, the foreign affairs segment in the newspapers is an abstraction but for some others, the lines demarcating domestic and foreign concerns are blurry.

These remain the days of globalization still, however the Trumps, the Le Pens, the Farages and all those who long for a smaller world are trying to rewind the clock. They may yet be successful but for now they have a lot to undo. In the meantime, many have multiple homes and multiple affiliations with friends traversing national boundaries, opposing such undoing and rewinding.

For Malaysians, the war in Ukraine so far away across the Asian continent painfully proves the fact foreign affairs are home affairs too. Many Malaysians could not find the country on the map, but it still has an impact on the Malaysian psyche. And Malaysians did care for development in Bosnia during the Balkan War and in Kosovo. They do care about the conflicts in Palestine, in Syria and in Iraq. And to take a trivial example, there are Malaysians who care about the fate of foreign, English Premier League teams, despite not being English themselves.

The refugee crisis in Myanmar is also a Malaysian concern, because these oppressed men, women and children are coming to or passing by Malaysia. Whether we like it or not, we have to act in one way or another. Pretending the imaginary lines on a 2-dimensional map as an impregnable wall ensuring that is not our problem will not help by one bit. And to turn back the boats is not just an illiberal policy, it is heartless.

In the several years after the 9/11 attack, I became a victim of profiling at US airports, just because of my nationality and my Arab-sounding name. Security personnel would put me under extra security measures and screening. That discouraged me from leaving the US for home for the next four years for fear I would face immigration troubles upon reentry at the airports. I knew of other international students who needed to report to the Homeland Security office regularly, and I feared being subjected to the same requirement as an entry condition.

And so, I spent my entire time as a student in Michigan travelling throughout the US, reaching New York, DC, Miami, San Francisco, St Louis, Chicago, Sioux Falls and more. I remember how it felt like to drive the car through the Great Plains from the Great Lakes, or how peaceful it was staring into the night sky from the bottom of the Tuolumne Canyon just north of Yosemite in California. I learned to love America for the wonders it brought to my young mind.

Indeed, my political beliefs to a large degree were shaped in the US. However flawed the US is with all of its hypocrisies, it is still the greatest liberal democracy that the world has. It is the Athens, the Rome, the Baghdad, the Cordoba and the Delhi of our time. Just because of that, I looked up to it. Because of this and because I spent a significant portion of my early adult life there, if I had a second home, the US would be it.

When Trump and his followers do what they do, and among others equating the US to Russia, I feel that is an undoing of what the United States of America is supposed to be in my eyes, a foreigner, who looks kindly to the east across the Pacific. Trump is killing the US that I know, and by that, threatening the idea of liberal democracy all around the world (even in Malaysia where our democracy is becoming increasingly flawed and more authoritarian). That makes me angry.

The Trump’s ban, now challenged in the courts, adds further to the anger. My alma mater, the University of Michigan, is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. And I am entertaining thoughts of returning to Ann Arbor to catch the festivities and walk down the memory lane. Trump’s ban, could potentially affect me. I still remember my experiences at various US airports during the Bush era. I thoroughly dislike the discrimination and I do not wish on others what I went through.

So, I do care for things that if happening in the US. The world is interconnected enough that I have real attachments to the US. Needless to say, I have friends in the US too.

But one does not need to have personal ties to the US to be worried about development in the US. It is just like how some of us are concerned about the oppression in Xinjiang, or in Iran, or in Egypt, or in the Philippines or anywhere else without the need to have any personal connection.

Even if we cannot think of ways which a reclusive, protectionist US could affect Malaysia — it will by the way: HSBC economists think Malaysia will be one of the top four economies to be worst affected by a protectionist US — we can still care because we have empathy for other human beings. Injustice or discrimination anywhere is still wrong and we can take a position on the matter. We can make personal judging based on our values. We have enough room for empathy those near and far beyond our shores.

Because of our capacity of empathy and because of the interconnectedness of the world we live in, it is outrageous to think we have to choose between caring US-based or Malaysia-based issues. Both are causes for concerns. I care for the deplorable things happening in the US, and at the same time, I care about the 1MDB corruption scandal, or the blockade in Kelantan, along with other injustices in the Malaysian society I am living in.

Indeed, it is a false dichotomy having to choose the US or Malaysia. There is no reason why a Malaysian needs to choose between the two. We can be concerned for both, and more.

More importantly, there are liberal values and among them are that we all are created equal and all should have the same fundamental rights. This applies all around the world, not just in and around your small neighborhood.

In time when anti-liberal populists are turning national policies inward, it will be most disappointing to have liberals retreating to a small-world cocoon as well. Such inward retreat would be a betrayal of liberal belief, that liberal values are universal in nature and not provincial. We fight racism, discrimination and everything bad out there by staying true to our liberal values, not by abandoning it.


[2566] We hold these truths to be self-evident…

…that all Men are created equal…

Conflict & disaster Society

[2473] A world without Iraq

I was almost late for my morning history class. I ran as fast as I could while trying to keep my balance on ice and snow. By the time I entered the classroom, I was gasping for air. For the not very athletic me, it was not easy to breathe hard during a cruel Michigan winter. As I settled in my seat thinking my heart was about to explode and my lungs collapsing, the instructor said, “Today will be about what ifs. What if you were early?”

The class burst into laughter at my expense.

After several minutes of friendly pokes, the instructor began to share his plan for the day. “But seriously, today will be about what ifs.” What if Venice and other cities had not monopolized the spice trade? What if old European powers were unsuccessful at colonizing Asia? What if Dien Bien Phu did not happen? What if the United States had not entered the Second World War? There were many more what ifs.

We were discussing colonialism in Asia and we were exploring the importance of certain events by trying to imagine an alternative history where those events did not occur. It required a broad understanding of history.

It also required all of us in the class to do our voluminous readings. A lot of us, being freshmen and still patting ourselves on our backs for getting into a storied school, did not finish our reading. We gave it a stab anyway. We had enough imagination to run wild.

That old memory reran in my mind as President Barack Obama finally, for better or for worse, fulfilled one of his election promises. The US is officially withdrawing from Iraq after more than eight years since the invasion that toppled the former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The withdrawal ceremony was being telecast ”live” on CNN. As I sat in my chair listening to Leon Panetta making his speech, my mind wandered to Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and the rest of the Arab world. Remembering my freshman lesson, I asked myself, ”What if the US had not invaded Iraq back in 2003?” Would Saddam Hussein’s regime have become a victim of the Arab Spring?

We will never know but nobody can say that would have been impossible. Whether a person is supportive of the war or vehemently rejects the invasion, he or she cannot deny that Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator.

That makes his removal desirable to some extent. If the 2003 invasion was legitimate in some ways, many in the anti-war camp would support or at least not reject the invasion. If Saddam Hussein was toppled organically by Iraqis just like how Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali were toppled, many more would support the regime change.

An Arab Spring for Iraq would have been ideal. It would have removed a dictator without causing bad blood among various sides. Yes, it would be eight years later but in a time of terrorism and religious extremism, a world without the 2003 invasion of Iraq could have spurred deeper co-operation between the US and those that mattered.

A world without the war would have the US possibly swamped with goodwill of the kind it received in the aftermath of the September 11 attack but soon after squandered in the run-up to the 2003 war.

It could be the case, or it could not. Just as Japan in the Second World War made the colonized natives realize that colonial European powers were not invincible, the US invasion also reminded the Arabs that their dictators were not gods.

Sure, the United States of the 2000s was not Japan of the 1900s that was seriously underestimated first by the Russians and then later all the colonial powers in South-east Asia. Still, what is possible is not always evident until somebody makes it a reality. The US with its unmatched military might removed Saddam Hussein. The US made possible a regime change.

Or — this might sound repulsive, especially for those in the anti-war camp but consider this — the Arab Spring might not have happened without the 2003 invasion.

An alternative reality without the war would have taken away the realization of the possibility, and possibly affected the psyche of the Arabs. What was possible would have remained only one of the possibilities deep in the minds of ordinary men, never to surface to the real world.

A world without the war also would have taken away the anger against the US. The US in many parts of the Middle East and Northern Africa had close relationships with many Arab dictators. The relations were maintained in the name of stability and much to the detriment to the freedom agenda.

The ordinary man in the streets of the Arab world, already with a low opinion of the US, saw the relationship as a constant reminder of how much they disliked their own autocrats. This only added to local frustrations that had nothing to do with the US directly. All that anger and frustration, along with the cumulative effect of all those issues, created a momentum to push history to converge to a point that sparked the Arab Spring.

Without the war, part of the momentum would not have existed. The cumulative anger without the invasion might not have been enough to start the Arab Spring. That sans-Iraq anger might have been just a weak undercurrent, never to surface and threaten the dictators’ expensive boats, rocked gently by the pleasant waves.

There are a lot of other considerations as well. Maybe without the war, the US would have enough money to bail out Europe. Maybe, Obama would not have been elected as the president. Maybe, we would be still swimming in cheap oil. Maybe. Maybe. Who knows, really?

At least we know one part of history is ending. At least we know the next chapter is a whole new world, for whatever it is worth.

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 Malaysian Insider on December 18 2011.


[2462] With a fail-safe, no reason for supercommittee compromise

The failure of the supercommittee to agree on the distribution of US budget cut is not much of a news. It has been expected. Leaks of how difficult it was to reach a common ground made it way to news reports .

More importantly, the impact of the failure is not too big because the fail-safe automatic cut is going to happen anyway. Both the unsurprising result and the minimal impact of the failure are signified through the low level of attention given by the media on the issue. Focus on the failure is not nearly as intense as focus on the earlier downgrade of US debt by S&P’s.

In retrospect, the fail-safe mechanism is a brilliant political maneuver. It was a result of uneven bargaining where deficit hawks, perhaps irresponsibly, held the US government at random and squeezed as much juice as possible out of the situation. Default or cut it. It was a Hobson’s choice: default was out of the question. And now here we are with the fail-safe mechanism.

While the fail-safe mechanism now ensures the implementation of the USD1.2 trillion budget cut over the next 10 years, it may have also contributed to the failure of compromise. If the members of the supercommittee — whom belongs to competing political parties and we know they serve their political bias — know the cut is going to happen anyway with its distribution already apportioned, why compromise when a compromise angers your voters base?

In a way, the supercommittee is really a lame duck committee. No incentive to action with every incentive to do nothing.

History & heritage Liberty

[2230] Of US Chief Justice John Roberts on Bill of Rights

There was a debate in Australia last year regarding adoption of its own bill of rights. Yes, as shocking as it first sounded to a foreigner like me, Australia does not have its own bill of rights.

Although the Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts insisted several times that he does not intend to participate in that Australian debate, I believe it is hard not to make a connection between his recently concluded lecture in Sydney and the debate in general. An article by the Financial Review reveals that he delivered another lecture on bill of rights in Melbourne yesterday.

It was just days ago when the New York Times ran a story how the US Supreme Court under Roberts is the most conservative in decades. One could not tell where he sits on the political spectrum based on the lecture however. I definitely could not as I stood at the back of the lecture theater.

The US at its independence in 1776 did not have a bill of rights. Its adoption itself was not automatic. As Roberts said, its adoption did not derive from the first principle but rather, it was through a political process. That political process was not too conducive to its adoption, regardless of the fact that it was eventually adopted later.

The US Chief Justice mentioned several theories why the Bill of Rights was not adopted early with respect to July 4 1776 and the ratification date of the US Constitution. If my memory is not one belonging to a goldfish, he mentioned that the weather as one of them. An uncharacteristic sweltering Philadelphian summer was making further discussion on the Constitution of the US unbearable. Most understood that a discussion on Bill of Rights would lengthen an already long meeting further and most wanted it to end.

Another theory, revolves around a matter of priority. The US was a young country then and there were multiple challenges that required to be addressed urgently. Despite history of individual freedom in America, bill of rights simply was not one of them.

Furthermore, the 13 founding states have already in one way or another have their own bill of rights although interpretations differ. For instance, some states have freedom of assembly included while others do not.

Although these factors may contribute to the late adoption of the Bill of Rights, nothing was more important than the division between the Federalists and the anti-Federalists. The anti-Federalists feared that an adoption of a national Bill of Rights might take power away from the states and to the federal government.

The battle regarding the Bill of Rights, according to Roberts, was really a proxy battle between the Federalists and the anti-Federalists. The anti-Federalists were playing up to states’ fear of losing influence to a powerful federal government.

When James Madison — who later became the fourth US President — proposed the then controversial Bill of Rights in the Congress, he had to personally see the Bill through it. When he pushed it, the Congress decided to have a committee to contemplate on the matter. Roberts said this in a humorous manner, perhaps as an acknowledgement how things move slowly at the Capitol Hill.

Roberts contrasted this to Madison. He stressed how notoriously hardworking Madison was. He joked that two of Madison’s Vice Presidents died in office.

Unwilling to let the matter drag, Madison sat in the committee and had the committee completed its work in only a week time, maybe, much to the chagrin of the Congress. There were some other political barriers but those were eventually overcome as the slowly anti-Federalists lost interest in defeating the Bill.

By December 15 1791, the influential Bill of Rights came into effect.