Saturday, September 20, 2008

What I have learned from my father

When I was approached by my university alumni to write about my work experiences with the United Nations in East Timor and then Afghanistan, I did not know how to sum them up in a succinct manner. I was told that I have about a page only to illustrate my three years experience there.

There are too many stories to tell as the extensive personal experiences I had, in possibly two of the world's most untapped countries, were more significant and profound than just the confinement of my work. Hence, I would like to send a simple message which will hopefully provide an impact on our perception of what we call freedom and independence.

While growing up, my father has always tried to execute his paternal duties by imparting a great deal of his wisdom to my brother and I. But one, which would eventually become the most valued mantra is when he told me that the most important and perhaps under-rated solution to the world's suffering is for each individual to learn to be independent and self-sufficient.

His advice reverberates, “If each and every one of us is able to look after ourselves and not being a burden to our family and country, then there will be lesser problems in the world.” After serving three years in post-conflict countries like East Timor and Afghanistan, I finally learn and understand what he told me so many years ago.

The United Nations has invested massive political and development efforts in East Timor and Afghanistan by assisting both nations to rebuild through democratic means, at the request of their own people. During these times, the people's will towards independence and democracy were clear, with the exception of certain anti-democratic groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and pro-Indonesian sympathizers in East Timor.

They made it clear that they want to be free nations which will abide by democratic and human rights values. After all, the years of violence and destruction of family members and property have brought nothing but pure human sorrow and suffering. Hence, the international community, not just the United Nations, but also the European Union, various inter-governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations and donor countries welcomed these historical moves through political and economic interventions. The whole international movement was needless to say, inspired and hopeful.

A few years have passed since I was in East Timor, involving directly in the elections process. After all these years of efforts poured into the country, we all witnessed the recent riot and chaos in East Timor after what seemed to be the result of the armies' dissatisfaction towards the government.

This led to deaths of innocent people and the sacking of the former Prime Minister. What we have not left behind in that small country was the lesson that violence and bloodsheds do not solve any problems. But again, these people who have witnessed and experienced years of unrest and killings would have learned it better than most of us who are fortunate enough not to experience war.

In Afghanistan, apart from the obstacles and challenges casued by the Taliban, tribal and factional fighting are ongoing. Women and girls are still treated as sub-humans by their own family and community. All these in the name of greed, power and the misinterpretations of strict cultural and religious practices.

My opinion is that, unless the people themselves change, nothing else will. Until a post-war nation truly understands the impact of disunity and disrespect towards human rights and pledges not to ever see history repeats itself, our efforts are just in vain.

I personally do not agree that peace and unity can be imposed or forced upon. It has to come from within each individual although early education and exposure to human rights values can make a change. Direct force without the consent or will of the individual will only result in a situation of a landmine waiting to blow up at any time.

The recent warning given by our Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage for corporate buildings and so called well-heeled houses to raise the Jalur Gemilang on Merdeka Day appears to be petty and unreasonable in my opinion. Patriotism itself cannot be imposed upon without the same will by the people. It would be meaningless and may I say, merely a fa├žade.

The degree of the rakyat's patriotism cannot be measured by the numbers of Jalur Gemilang flying on 31 August, particularly if it has been imposed upon. It is difficult for me as a rakyat Malaysia to feel patriotic when the government uses its power and intimidation like this.

I think it is time for countries that have been spared by the horrors of war to reevaluate what is really important and not to take what we already have for granted.

However, I have never regretted leaving the comfort and familiarity of my home to work in countries like this. By witnessing the ways of life in such countries firsthand has made me appreciate simple things like being able to buy goreng pisang at the warung on the roadside without fearing the possibility of an explosion caused by suicide bombers or being able to turn on the lights in the middle of the night just because there is electricity around the clock.

Above all, my own experiences have taught me to value my own freedom and independence, but what is more important for me to tell my future children is that in order to achieve that, we have to start by taking responsibility of our own lives.

If everyone can practice this mantra, then there will truly be lesser problems in the world today.

Written on 30 July 2006

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