Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A message for 2009: Make love, not war!

Battle of the Hands Series

I thought I will not write anything more for this year but I can’t help but to put up this last post for 2008.

I was feeling rather down thinking about what will happen to the world next year after I read the news about what’s happening right now in Gaza. A friend, in all good intentions and concern for my state of being, tried to cheer me up by spreading her positive outlook to life.

She shared this technique where I should visualise conflicting nations making peace with each other today. Then she said I should try to visualize someone whom I would like to hug at the stroke of midnight.

No one came to mind. To be honest, I am not such a positive person to begin with and much less trying to deal with my feelings through positive interventions. When I have decided that a person is hateful, I often don’t try to think positively of that person. I am sure many of you may share the same opinion on this.

How often when you actually visualize slapping someone you don’t like just for the pleasure and comfort of it even though you don’t really have the guts to do so? Remember Ally McBeal?

On the other hand, we tend to visualize ourselves doing all sorts of intimate things to people whom we like. So, it is rather difficult for me to do it the other way.

After some thoughts, someone did came to mind, but I am not going to dwell on this because whoever this person is, it’s not the point.

I will try it though because I think that there is really nothing left to do this year but to make peace with whoever or whatever that has hurt or upset us. It’s about letting go (even if it’s just for that one minute) and even if it fails, at least there is one split moment of peace in your heart. After all, I don’t think there is even one minute of peace in this world for a long time now.

If you need to make peace with someone this year, who will it be? (It doesn’t have to be someone you know personally. It can be an influential person, etc.)

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The year that was 2008

As we usher in the new year, here are some of my picks of  global events that made the 2008 headlines. I have deliberately deleted news from Malaysia because I am sure many Malaysian bloggers are ahead of me on this.

This year, events from the Middle East, particularly Iraq, and Afghanistan will not be included. Recurring incidents of suicide bombings, tribal violence, US military attacks resulting in civilian deaths, kidnapping and murder of foreign aid workers and not to mention the age-long conflict between Palestine and Israel (which has exacerbated even more from the recent news) , have become all too stale.

For those who have missed some significant political events that have occurred throughout the year, this article will hopefully provide you with a gist of it.

Sore Loser of the year

Robert Mugabe The choice was either Zimbabwean Robert Mugabe (see picture) or Kenyan Raila Odinga, but in the end the decision was quite clear.

In January this year, hundreds died in tribal violence in Kenya when Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, won the Presidential election. Disgruntled supporters of opposition Raila Odinga, who is a Luo, carried out violent attacks against the Kikuyus. Finally, both rivals reached a power sharing deal where Odinga was declared as the Prime Minister.

But no one can be as sore as Robert Mugabe. After losing the Presidential election in Zimbabwe to opposition party Movement for Democratic Change leader, Morgan Tsvingirai, he refused to concede. The High Court ruled that Tsvingirai won the election by 47. 9% and a run-off election was necessary since neither candidate won more than 50%.

Tsvingirai dropped out from the run-off race after his supporters were subjected to violence and intimidation. He was detained several times by the police and many of his supporters were killed in government-back violence against the opposition.

In the end, another power sharing deal was signed between the two. Mugabe remained as President and Tsvangirai, Prime Minister.

Good luck to these countries. If the leaders can not even compete honourably, do they think they can share power harmoniously?

Biggest greed of the year

Nothing can compare to the melamine-tainted milk powder scandal in China, causing hundreds of thousands of  infants hospitalized for kidney complications and four dead. In order to fool the actual content of protein, Sanlu,  the company responsible for the irresponsible and unscrupulous act, increased the  quantity allowed for melamine in the milk powder.

The Chinese government is still ignoring the affected parents’ call for legal recourse. And Sanlu is now declared bankrupt with a USD292 million debt.

Months after, it is now reported that there may be high content of melamine in seafood from China. Let’s not forget the same scandal in pet food not too long ago.

What next, China?

Biggest reformist of the year

Kim Jong Il Is North Korea finally trying to end its reputation as one of America’s  axis of evil?

In May, it gave US officials about 18,000 pages of documents detailing its efforts in 1990, 2003 and 2005 to reprocess plutonium for nuclear weapons. A month later, it handed over to China a list of its nuclear facilities and information on the amount of reprocessed plutonium it possesses, in exchange for the removal of its name from the US’s terrorism list. It also asked for the lift of sanctions against it. It went further to destroy a cooling tower at its main reactor in Yongbyon.

Finally, in October, the US removed North Korea from its terrorism list, which paved the way for the latter to allow international inspectors access to its nuclear plan.

Anti-dissidents crackdown of the year

Choices were between China and Thailand.

Olympic torch relay protest in Paris

In anticipation of the 2008 Olympics Game hosted by China, the world took the opportunity to protest against human rights abuses in Tibet. Chinese journalists, human rights activists and scholars were arrested and imprisoned, in its attempt to crackdown on anti-governmental protest. Media censorship was carried out in order to prevent the Chinese population from having access to critical information on China.

Violent clashes were carried out by the government against Tibetan monks. Majority of people in the autonomous region of Tibet, especially the younger generation, has called for full independence from China but the prospect looks bleak when the latter repeatedly states that any attempts to separate both are doomed to fail.

Many Tibetans say they were an independent nation before communist troops invaded in 1950, while Beijing says the Himalayan region has been part of its territory for centuries.

In another part of Asia, anti-government protest, albeit violent, was more successful.

Samak_Sundaravej In September, the Thai government declared a state of emergency when violent clashes erupted between supporters of the People Alliance for Democracy calling for the resignation of  Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej (see photo above) and pro-government groups.

Samak was forced from office when Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled that he violated the constitution by being paid to appear on a cook show. He was replaced by First Deputy Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat.

A month later, anti-government protest became deadly when two people were killed and more than 400 wounded in fighting between security forces and anti-government protesters.

The protestors then took siege of the Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok, calling for the resignation of Somchai, whom they labelled a proxy to exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

In December, the Constitutional Court ruled that the governing party engaged in fraud during the 2007 elections and forces Prime Minister Somchai from power and bans  party members from politics for five years.

The protesters ended their weeklong blockade of the airport and Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat Party, was elected as the new Prime Minister.

The latest news shows that pro-Thaksin supporters are now protesting in the streets against the new Prime Minister. 

Friendship of the year

新华社照片,台北,2008年12月23日
    “团团”“圆圆”住进台北新家
    12月23日,“团团”“圆圆”在适应新家环境。
    赠台大熊猫“团团”“圆圆”12月23日下午5时许搭乘台湾长荣航空公司专机抵达台北桃园机场;随后换乘专车,于晚间7时30分许抵达它们的新家——台北市立动物园新光特展馆。
    新华社发We know how China has threatened to use force against Taiwan if the latter breaks away from the Motherland.

This year, Taiwan elected a new President, Ma Ying-Jeou of the Nationalist Party, who favours closer ties with mainland China.

As a sign of goodwill, China presented two giant pandas, named Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan (when combined they mean “unity”) to Taiwan.

Let’s hope that the pandas will start playing their diplomatic role soon. They can forget about enjoying steamed corn buns and bamboo shoots all day.

Natural disaster of the year

In May 3, Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma, killing 78,000 people and leaving a million homeless. 28,000 people were reported missing.

A few weeks later, an earthquake hit Sichuan, Gansu and Yunan provinces in China, killing 70,000 people. This was China’s worst disaster in three decades. Nearly 900 students were trapped in Juyuan Middle School when the school collapsed during the earthquake. Later in September, China admitted for the first time to shoddy construction which might have caused the school to collapse.

A landmark report was issued by China recently, openly acknowledging its needs to review construction work in majority of schools especially in rural areas.

Careful, China. You may be the world’s most populous country but it may not last for long if you continue.

Defeat of an unnatural disaster of the year

After a 13-year manhunt for Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb President during the war in Bosnia, he was arrested and charged for genocide and war crime against non-Serb civilians on July 21. He was found outside Belgrade despite altering his appearance and had been openly practising alternative medicine in Serbia. He is now facing trial at the UN International Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia.

Karadzic orchestrated the massacre of almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995 in Sebrenica.

Justice triumphs as well  for the 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus who were massacred in Rwanda in 1994 within a span of 100 days.

In December 18, the UN International Tribunal on the Rwandan Genocide found Theoneste Bagosora, a Hutu general, guilty of involvement in the  massacre.

Most valuable treasure of the year

I have a feeling that water will be a cause for war in the future as we face climate change as a result of environmental degradation. In fact, it has happened already in Egypt and Ethiopia where both countries are prepared to enter into conflict over  water dispute at the Blue Nile gorge.

Anyway, Australia revealed that an ancient underground water basin the size of Libya formed between 100 to 250 million years ago, holds the key to Australia avoiding a potential water crisis.

This Great Artesian Basin covers 1.7 million sqkm and holds 65 million gigalitres of water, about 820 times the amount of surface water in Australia. It slowly tops up 1 million megalitres of water a year as rain filters through porous sandstone rock and trapped in the underground basin. A hydro geologist said that the water will fulfil Australia’s needs for 1,500 years.

Oil-rich nations may finally enjoy some peace when developed countries turn to Australia for water exploitation in the future.

Biggest “Blast”  of the year

In November 26, the world was shocked by a series of  terrorist attacks on two five-star hotels, a train station and a cinema  in Mumbai, India,  killing 170 people and leaving 300 wounded. Deccan Mujahidin, a previously unknown group, claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Indian officials said the way that the ten gunmen carried out the attack was both stunning in its brutality and duration. It took Indian forces three days to end the siege.

India was quick to point a finger at Pakistan although the latter had denied having any involvement in the attacks. Such accusation further strains an already tense relationship between the two countries. Recent news said that Pakistan has already redeployed its military troops from Afghanistan to its border with India. Inside news I’ve received indicate that aid organizations have issued security warning to staffs in Pakistan in anticipation of a looming potential threat.

Indian and U.S. officials said they believe the militant Islamic group Lashkar-e-Taiba was involved.  In December 7, Pakistani troops raided a camp run by Lashkar-e-Taiba in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, and arrest several militants, including Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the man suspected of organizing the attack. A few days later, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, was placed under house arrest.

Execution of the year

Bali BombersIn Indonesia, Bali bombers, Amrozi, Imam Samudra and Mukhlas a.k.a Ali Ghufron were executed by firing squad on November 9. They were convicted for masterminding the 2002 bombings in Bali which killed 2002 people, mostly tourists.

Many people, especially families of the three were outraged by  photos of their dead bodies being uploaded on the internet.

War of the year

Since the election of Mikheil Saakashvili  as President of Georgia in 2004, fighting between Georgia and South Ossetia has started, albeit sporadically. The President intends to resume control over the breakaway enclave which won a de facto independence in early 1990s.

In August 7, Georgian soldiers attacked South Ossetia and was retaliated by  separatists in South Ossetia, resulting in the death of about a dozen troops and civilians.

A day after, Russia entered Georgia with military troops and tanks to support South Ossetia. The former intensified its military involvement by moving its troops into Abkhazia, another breakaway region to launch airstrikes at Tbilisi, capital of Georgia. The airstrikes carried out in Gori, a strategic town 64km  from Tbilisi, killed about 1,500 civilians, prompting thousands of people in South Ossetia to flee their homes.

To cut the long saga short, leaders of the European countries, USA and NATO warned Russia to end the conflict in Georgia but Russian defied the warning until a peace broker led by the French was carried out.

Then Russia went on to ignore the peace deal and continued to station its troops in Gori. It then signed a cease-fire agreement but went on to defy it again.

A week later, Medvedev unilaterally recognizes South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent regions, only to be denounced by the US and its allies.

Russia and Georgia sever diplomatic ties from each other and this marks the first time that the former has cut off formal relations with one of its former republics.

After a month of conflict, Russia finally  removed troops from Georgia by mid-October and permited 200 observers from the EU to keep watch over the conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Independence Day of the year

In February 17, Kosova declared independence from Serbia. The US, UK, Germany and France became the first few nations to recognize its sovereignty. Malaysia became the 51st country to recognize its independence.

Constitutional revolution  of the year

In Nepal, the Maoist party won majority seats in the Constituent Assembly election in May, resulted in a majority vote to dissolve the 239 year-old monarchy to form a republic. King Gyanendra was forced to step down within 15 days.

At least, they didn’t chop off his head!

Step down of the year

Former Pakistani President, Pervez Musharraf faced impeachment on charges of violating the constitution and misconduct of suspending the country’s constitution and firing the Chief Justice and other judges on the Supreme Court in 2007.

In August 18, Musharraf resigned as President but adamantly refused to admit any wrongdoing. He claimed that the reason for his step down was to put the country’s interests above “personal bravado”. Yeah, right!

Fidel Castro However, the pick has to go to Cuban leader Fidel Castro who finally resigned after being in power for 49 years. He was the longest reigning dictator in power. His brother Raul Castro resumed his position.

The comeback of the year

22putinb250 We all thought that we would not be able to catch a glimpse of that toned 56 year-old Russian body again.

After serving two terms (from 2000-2008) as President of  Russia,  Vladimir Putin returned to serve as the Prime Minister of Russia on May 8, after Dmitri Medvedev became the new President.

Person that made history  of the year

Barack Obama Histories are being made every day but this one will probably be remembered for an indefinite period of time.

In November 4, Democrat, Barack Obama became the first African American President of the United States of America.

Well, I don’t really want to dwell into this because next year is what really matters for this guy.

Best Headline of the year

I know I said earlier on that I shall not touch on any news from the Middle East but this is definitely worth a mention. After all, I think it is the headline of the year.

Who will ever forget Muntader al-Zaidi after his shoe throwing performance in December 14?

The Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at George Bush and called the latter “a dog” at a news conference in Baghdad.  The latter managed to dodge on time. Damn! If only Bush could practise his quick reflex in avoiding in-coming shoes on other matters, the world would be a much happier place to live in.

The only beneficiary from this act which many have condemned and others supported, is the Turkish shoemaker who made the famous footwear (apparently some Saudi offered USD1 million for them). Sales of his shoes have surged since then while the man responsible for bringing him fame is being imprisoned and charged for aggression against a President. If convicted, Muntader al-Zaidi face a 15-year jail term. After apparently being beaten up in jail, he has issued an apology to the President of Iraq. I wonder if he would rather die than say sorry to the victim?

Our very own Foreign Minister, Rais Yatim in a public speech, praised the Iraqi Shoe Thrower. Careful, Rais…if everyone starts to throw shoes at world leaders, our very own Jimmy Choo may go bankrupt!

I am saving the best for last:

Most shameful exit of the year

I couldn’t possibly not pay tribute to George Bush in his final year as the President of the United States of America. The International Herald Tribune (IHT) wrote that one good thing Bush brought to Iraq is a surge in shoe sales!

Bush’s legacy includes war with Iraq without the UN’s sanction and a mismanaged war in Afghanistan. Bush has been careless with his foreign policies on both countries, without having clear plans on what to do with the countries once his troops entered the countries. His only guiding principles are to send more troops and more war.

He was also careless about the Israeli-Palestine issue, uttering noble thoughts but with no follow up, as IHT put it.  He was careless in delegating power to Vice President Dick Cheney, allowing the latter to undermine negotiations with North Korea.

Nothing has hurt the US’ reputation more than the controversies surrounding Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In March, Bush vetoed a bill to ban severe interrogation techniques used by the CIA against those suspected of link with terrorist organizations.

Now, thanks to Bush, the world is going bankrupt with unemployment rate reaching its highest in five years.

So, I think, Bush deserves more than just shoes being hurled at him. Don’t you think?

bush_bookupsidedown Bye bye, Bush!

To end this long article, I would like to quote The Terminator, Yes, not any wise man or woman, but The Terminator. It says that human being’s nature is to destroy themselves. So it seems, with all the conflict and killings that are happening in our world  in the name of greed and power.

Nevertheless, do try to have a happy 2009!

Monday, December 29, 2008

We want to save the world!

Earth in your hand 

I had an interesting conversation with a humanitarian worker over dinner last Saturday. We were discussing about the best approach to use when providing capacity building to national institutions.

We both agreed that the best way is to take the inclusive approach whereby consultations are carried out consistently in order to allow full participation from local staffs.

It was interesting how we have both met many expats who arrive in a developing country and start to make all sorts of unilateral decisions without as much as asking whether the national institution welcomes them or not. This I-know-best mentality is not only patronizing and insulting, but also has a very negative impact on what they are supposed to be doing there. At the end, they don’t build the capacity of the people, but simply dictating or as I like to say sometimes, colonizing.

Then, very often, I have come to notice certain foreign humanitarian workers who “victimise” their local staffs unnecessarily. I don’t know whether I have put it in the right way but just so there is no misunderstanding, allow me to clarify.

For instance, they tend to see people from developing countries as helpless and weak, hence in need of constant rescuing. Simply put, they see them as “poor things”. It’s a bit like if you’re an African, you need to be pitied because your skin colour has subjected your race to years of discrimination and slavery. So, you’re excused from all expectations. Or, if you have a form of disability, then you’re not allowed to be criticised for any wrongdoing.

Yes, that’s right. Instead of realising that their behaviour constitutes pitying someone, they think that they are being kind and compassionate.

The thing is, pitying someone for whatever reasons it may be, does no good to that person. While one must never discriminate, one should also apply the same standard regardless of whether the person is from a developing country, suffered from a violent conflict or in any disadvantaged position. For, isn’t expecting less from someone just because he or she is African or living with disabilities a form of discrimination too?

If our role is to help promote the capacity of these people, then we should put aside whatever background they come from and focus on getting the best out of them. By pitying them will not help them to go far.

I used to be naive and think that I would like to save the world. But now, from the years I have spent living and working in post-conflict countries, I realise that this is just wishful thinking.

If you decide to work in humanitarian field, I hope you won’t leave thinking that you will be saving the world because at the end of the day, you don’t. All you can do is help and at best, do whatever you can so that these people will be able to achieve self-sustainability and independence. 

If you manage to do that, then it is the best thing you could have ever done.

 

Growing up without parents in the Philippines

I grew up with both parents living at home. My father was a busy man as he was constantly working hard to build his career.  So, he didn’t really have the luxury to take my brother and I anywhere during school holidays and I remember feeling bitter about this.

My mother supported my father during all those crucial years of setting up a business. I think they realised how important it was for them to be at home as much as they could and therefore  decided to set up the office at home. So, my mother was always there taking care of our needs while juggling to help my father with his business.

They might had been busy at that time, but they have never failed to provide us with the attention and guidance needed while we were growing up. Looking back now, I consider myself very lucky despite not being able to go to the cinema, circus or theme park like my other friends.  At the end of the day, I grew up witnessing how hard they have worked in order to provide us with better lives and as a result of that, I learn to be appreciative of them.

There are many parents who do not have the opportunity to stay at home to look after their children and hence the children do not have the privilege of having their parents with them when they are growing up.

I read recently on the paper about children in the Philippines. More and more parents are working abroad and it seems that Philippines have one of the biggest migrant workers in the world. Very often, they have to leave their children behind with other relatives and visit them only once a year, if they are lucky enough. In the mean time, they send their hard earned money home to their children.

Some parents have expressed concern about their fear  for the way their children are being brought up; often without proper parental guidance and hence very likely to pick up bad influences. Teenage pregnancy is a huge problem.

Then, there are many who do not understand why their parents have to work abroad or appreciate the sacrifices they make by spending the money they receive from their parents on frivolous things.

When you read this, it’s understandable how heartbreaking it must be for these parents. At the same time, they are not the only victims as the children suffer as much from long term neglect and feeling of abandonment. Without proper role models, the money received don’t really mean much except to compensate for the absence of their parents.

In the end, it is a tough situation where you have the parents leaving home to earn a better living so that they can secure the future of their children but on the other hand, due to their absence, these children are not able to understand or see the purpose of it all. The means doesn’t really justify the end.

With this in mind, an organization has been set up to provide these children a place to get together and do all sorts of activities. It is hoped that while their parents are away, they will at least spend their time constructively in the presence of responsible adults who care for their interest.

Other countries facing the same problem should try to adopt similar approach. While it is important for parents to secure whatever economic means they possibly can, they should never forget the purpose to begin with.

Friday, December 26, 2008

A lesson in “savoire faire”?

I read this somewhere:

An American was writing a book on French idioms-phrases that cannot be translated directly and often mean something other than their literal meaning, such as "to catch his eye." He was particularly vexed with the correct translation of the phrase savoire faire.

At a cocktail party in Paris, he happened upon three French businessmen conversing in a corner of the room. He approached them, explained the purpose for his visit to France and asked each of them what they thought "savoire faire" really meant.

The first one said, "Suppose I come home from work early one afternoon and find my wife in a liaison with another man. I would say to them 'Excuse me.' That would be savoire faire."

"I somewhat agree," said the second man, "but I would say to them, 'Excuse me, please continue.' That would show real savoire faire."

Finally, the third man, with an amused smile on his face, spoke up and said, "I have a totally different perspective than you do. I would say to them, 'Excuse me, please continue.' If they did, they would have savoire faire!"

Savoire faire in French means “to know how” or “world wisdom”. It defines a person who is refine, cultured, sophisticated, wise and basically knows what to do or say in a social setting.

The French pride themselves as the creator and master of savoire faire and they would like to dispute how Brits are well-known for their gentlemanly manners, if they can.

When I first met my husband, he gave me some lessons on savoire faire. For instance, when a man and a woman climb up a flight of stairs, the man should go before the woman. It is deemed rude to have a full view of the woman’s derriere from behind. And if a man dines with a woman, he must always allow the woman to choose the seat first before he settles down to sit. This is so that the woman will be given the best seat in the restaurant.

I must confess that coming from a patriarchal society, I was not used to such treatment, but be rest assured that I am getting to used to it!

You’ll notice that a lot of the savoire faire the French talk about have to do with how men treat women. (At the end of the day, it’s how well the men behave which will get the women in bed. If you don’t believe me, read Stephen Clarke’s books which make fun of the French culture.)

Anyway, tonight I had another lesson on savoire faire (I’ve said it enough times now that the words are starting to grow on me).

My husband and I went to this much rave about French restaurant in Phnom Penh called Van’s Restaurant. It’s probably one of the most chic and high end restaurant in Cambodia. Not surprising since it is set in a majestic old colonial mansion on Street 13.

You know right away that it would be a costly meal as soon as you enter the restaurant. So, as soon as we settled down, we were given two menus toute suite by a waitress who did some sort of a curtsy every time she set something on our table, much to our amusement. I couldn’t help but giggled every time she did it. Yes, not very savoire faire of me but I couldn’t control myself.

After surfing through the mouth watering array of gourmet food, I realised that there was no price attached to any of the dish. I turned to my husband and pointed out the error. He reassured me that this was normal in such a restaurant.

I was confused and I told him that this was just not right. How could we order whatever we wanted without knowing how much it would be? I feared that I might get a heart attack when the bill arrives later.

My husband, probably tired of my often frugal attitude, asked me to choose my dish and stop questioning. I managed to shut up for awhile but the price-less menu kept nagging me throughout the meal. I would ask my husband to guess how much would this and that cost, etc.

He finally gave up and in order to shut me up, he told me that he knew precisely how much everything we ordered cost.

Well, you see..in such a restaurant, it is customary that only the men’s menu comes with the price but not the women’s. It is considered rude if a woman knows how much the man would be paying for her meal.

Now, what would a feminist say about that??

 

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Fate unknown for the Guantanamo Bay detainees when Obama takes office

In anticipation of President-elect Barack Obama’s potential decision to release more than 200 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, many European countries are now debating whether they should assist in resettling some of the detainees.

The main motivation for doing so is the fear that once the detainees return to their homes, they risk being tortured. Only two countries have publicly announced their involvement in the resettling programme; Germany and Portugal. Meantime, Denmark has refused to have any form of involvement,  stating that it has nothing to do with the detainees.

I think much of the debate lies in defining the term “resettle”,  which raises much of my own curiousity.

Many questions need to be answered before any decision can be made.

1. If the US decides to release them, does that mean they will be free from any prosecution, whether in the present or future? If no, are they going to be detained indefinitely in countries that receive them and where will they be prosecuted?

2. Will the resettling package include reunification of family members, if they are free from any charges?

3. Will  the resettling package include assistance in integrating them in the community? Will they face stigmatization which can be equally bad as torture? The question is, will the society of the country which receives them accept them as part of their community?

4. What if the detainees want to go home? Will they be given that choice?

5. How and who will compensate for the time spent, treatment and status they have received during their detention in Guantanamo Bay, bearing in mind that some of them have been detained for more than 5 years without being charged?

These are pertinent questions that require careful consideration and answers, not just for the detainees but the rest of the world.

Barack Obama may have won the Presidential election and became the first African American president, but will he manage to clean up the mess left behind by the Bush Jr administration? Looks like the economic crisis is not the only problem America has thrown to the world.

Obama has inherited a country which has so much to account for and his charisma will not be the only thing which he can depend on.

Happy New Year, Obama! or should I say, bon courage?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Garfield may have to curb his appetite in Guangdong

odiedrool 

smgar

I read a recent article by the Los Angeles Times with much amusement. It is about Beijing’s protest against their Cantonese counterparts’ appetite for feline meat and we’re not just talking about wild cats like tigers, which are controversially poached for their perceived medicinal properties. We’re talking about the small, cute, cuddly and domesticated house cat.

There is a well-known saying about the Chinese’s gastronomic culture. The Chinese will eat anything that walks, crawls, hops or flies. Ironically enough, due to the increasing number of Westernized middle class people, many Chinese are beginning to draw the line between eating Odie and Garfield. So, it is OK to eat a dog but not a cat? Doh!

Apparently, dogs are still being eaten in many parts of China but only in Guangdong, do people eat cats. The following are purportedly the competing arguments:

  • Cat lovers and… well those who are not that crazy over Garfield dim sum:

Cats are to be cuddled, not eaten!”

Guangdong people are the most unprincipled of the human species! They would eat their mothers-in-law if there was no law.”  (This is new! I’ll remember to quote this the next time I write another piece about mother-in-law.)

“Oh, we really need a cat here. There are mice in the empty lot.”  (I really like the practicality of the Chinese people.)

  • People of Guangdong:

“Cat meat is good for women. You can eat it in the summer or winter. It is very light. Men usually prefer dog. It is like yin and yang.”  (I have no idea how did the Chinese know so much about the nutritional value of food. It seems like everything is good for you!)

I recommend Guangdong’s most famous recipe, "dragon fighting tiger”. A dish made with both snake and cat. The distinctiveness comes from the competing power of the ingredients. Delicious!” (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is so last season)

You just have to boil the cat for a long time. It has a very nice fresh taste.”  (You don’t mean chicken??!!)

  • Animal rights activist:

You can judge how advanced a civilization is by the way it treats its animals.”  (Aaahhh…the Chinese won’t be the only culprit. Remind me again. How do they make foie gras in France?)

These cats are badly mistreated in their final moments, crammed as tightly as tomatoes into crates so they can’t breathe, and clubbed into semi-consciousness before being thrown alive into boiling water.” (Fuck these bastards who are doing this!)

This is a crime that humiliates all Chinese people.” (Yes, they don’t like losing face.)

_______________________________________

In Guangdong, it doesn’t matter whether a cat is a tom or tabby, young or old. All it matters is its weight.

Selling at USD2.64 per kg, Garfield will be a purr-fect catch.

IMG_2384

How can anyone eat this? This is Obama, our psychotic kitten doing an impersonation of “Puss in Boots” in Shrek.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Joy to the world!

Christmas stockings 

I know I have expressed a lot of criticism towards Malaysia and it is time for me to show my appreciation towards this country of mine. There is one great thing about Malaysia and I don’t think anyone can deny this.

Every year, every ethnic or religious groups come together to celebrate and share their individual festivals freely. Although real unity among these diverse groups of Malaysians still have much to be desired, at least public holidays are declared, invitations to open houses are extended, gifts and greetings are  exchanged and last but not least, the spirit and festive mood can be seen all over the country, especially shopping malls.

It may all seem so commercialised and in fact one of the most profitable seasons for many businesses, but it doesn’t reduce the festive mood and spirit of the people, particularly children and those who have been away from home.

I had a chance to return home a few weeks ago and needless to say, I made my regular trips to the mall to shop for things which I cannot find in Cambodia. Since it is the Christmas season, the whole mall literally glitters with anything conceivably Christmassy, all but real snow (a pity!).

I don’t really know why but Christmas seems to be a time when shopping malls simply go mad and excessive with the decorations. Perhaps it’s because all the things which signify Christmas is so magical and foreign; the angel, Santa Claus, snow flakes (even if it’s made of cotton), reindeers, candy canes,  sleigh bells, giant socks, pine trees, stars, poinsettias, etc.

When you look at Chinese New Year, what is so magical or special about “ang pows” (red packets), mandarin oranges,  kumquat trees, pussy willows or fire crackers? Come Hari Raya, I am just shivering with excitement when I see the ketupat (squarish rice dumpling wrapped in weaved palm leaves). I have to say though that Deepavali is kind of exciting with its display of colours and array of smells. But, Christmas is just…. magical.

Thankfully, the decorators do know what they are doing  as they manage to create that Christmas atmosphere without fail. The only shortcomings are the fact that the moment you walk out from the mall, the feeling seems to disappear although you have probably bought more Christmas stuff than necessary, mainly induced by the jolly but  also treacherous carols and jingles being played at the mall.

I was nearly seduced  into buying a fake Christmas tree just so I could have the pleasure of decorating the tree despite the fact that I wasn’t going to be home during Christmas. Fortunately, the Scrooge reminded me on time that it would be merely frivolous.

Table Anyhow, I decided to take advantage of the situation and held a dinner party for a group of close friends. It was supposed to be a belated birthday celebration for all of us, but I threw in a surprise of my own. I put together some Christmas paraphernalia and substituted the tree with my dining table. After all, Christmas isn’t really Christmas without good friends, food, drinks and all things red, green, silver and gold.

 Table2 Santa

Now that I am back in Cambodia, I can’t believe that the Christmas spirit has finally caught on. A lot more mellow and less extravagant, shops, restaurants and buildings are being decorated with flashing fairy lights and Christmas knick-knacks. The same Christmas carols are being played and you can’t help but to hum along. Although Christmas isn’t really a public holiday here, suffice to say that what has initially being a Western concept, is now being celebrated all over the world.

I think that should essentially be the spirit of Christmas. It is not about the snow, reindeer, tree, Santa Claus and presents, it’s about taking the time and effort to put them up so that everybody can share and join those who do celebrate them.

Here’s wishing you a joyous and peaceful Christmas. Do remember your family, friends and those who are less fortunate during this season.

Santa3

Sunday, December 21, 2008

What is the value of your work?

I had a job interview not too long ago. It was a first stage interview where the organization asked some preliminary basic questions about my availability, willingness to travel, etc. Just as everything seemed to be going well, out popped the inevitable question of salary expectations.

Now, I was prepared for that question and prior to the interview,  had rehearsed the appropriate answer in my mind. I was ready to give the standard answer of how I feel that the salary offered should be compatible with my qualification and work experience. However, I am willing to consider whatever salary they are planning to offer me.

So feeling slightly smug that I had nailed the question well, the interviewer persisted in asking me to provide her with a figure. I tried to avoid giving her a straight answer and I’ll tell you why.

First of all, I have no idea at all what is the range of salary given by this specific organization. Since it is not the United Nations, I assume that it is much lower and I don’t expect anything close to it. However, it is an international organization with its headquarters in San Francisco and the job I applied for is a regional managerial position. So, it can’t be that low. But there is no way for me to know unless she tells me.

Secondly, I didnt really want to give her a much lower figure than what the organization is willing to offer lest they may take advantage of the situation and pay me less than what I would  have deserved. I also didn’t want to appear humble by undermining my own value.

I tried to approach her question cautiously because I felt that whatever answer I eventually gave her would be crucial in determining whether I would get to the second stage of interview. If I gave too high an expectation, they would think that I am too “expensive” and hence eliminate me. If I gave too low, then I could potentially decrease my own value and lost whatever bargaining power I might still have.

My attempt to stick to my original line did not work as she insisted that I gave her a numerical answer, rather than just blah blah blah….and in the end, I caved in. I gave her a figure which to me, was reasonable according to the Malaysian standard (how would I know what is the American standard?)

I don’t know. Sometimes, I feel like I am short changing myself and I am never good at negotiating  to my own advantage. My friend said that I am a lousy haggler.   I just think that negotiation is not all about one party getting the most out of it, but for both parties to be satisfied with the outcome.

With this job, I am not expecting to be paid ludicrously well because I need to keep in mind that it is a non-profit making organization. My expectations should be reasonable. However, I think I deserve to be paid reasonably well for my qualifications, experience and work ethics.

I think, an organization should not be the only one who has the right of asking  this sort of question to potential candidate. Instead, the latter should be able to ask how much value would the organization place on his/her professional qualifications. Unfortunately, many interview guidelines would tell you that it is never appropriate for the interviewee to pop that question.

Potential employees are always made to feel that they are beneath the organization and hence at their mercy. Let’s face it, unless you’re being head hunted or professionally recognised, you don’t really have much power to negotiate anything.

For me, the important thing is that I stay honest to myself and the organization. I will not ask for more, but I won’t settle for less as well. Neither unreasonable expectation nor fake humility will get me what I want.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Bid for IJN on hold

So, much has been said about the potential privatization of the National Heart Institute (IJN) and today’s news comes as a reminder that not all is lost in the Malaysian hearts.

Prime Minister Ahmad Badawi has decided to put off the bid by Sime Darby to take over IJN, most likely a result of a petition signed by all IJN’s medical consultants. 

I have been highly critical of the state of things in Malaysia but there comes a time, often rare, but yet worthy of great applause and validation. The medical consultants’ petition is one of them. Read below.

19th December 2008

Statement from IJN medical consultants

We read with concern the perceived perception that the medical staff of IJN are demanding higher pay and will leave IJN if these demands are not met.

We feel it is important that these negative perceptions are correctly put into context.

The institution was set up in 1992 as a corporate body directly under the purview of Ministry of Finance. Its board of Directors include representatives from Ministry of Health and MOF to ensure its direction and objectives of providing good quality and affordable medical care to Malaysians from all walks of life are adhered to.

In that respect, IJN has done and continue to do well, both in maintaining its moral as well as financial obligations. The institution has been self-sustaining since its inception (and has been able to pay year end bonuses annually without fail). For 2007 and up to end Nov 2008, we have accumulated 285,764 number of outpatients, performed 15,084 cardiac catheterization interventions including angiograms and angioplasties, 6,094 heart and lung surgeries, 7 mechanical hearts and heart and lung transplants surgeries.

As true with any organization of our size, there will be people leaving the organization at various times in order to pursue different career paths. Over the last 7 years of operation, out of a total of 35 consultants, only 7 have left IJN to work either in local or overseas private centres. Therefore, our consultants' annual attrition rate is only 3%, and we have responded consistently over time to promote our home grown talents to fill up the voids accordingly. Currently, 75% of IJN consultants have been in their posts for more than 10 years.

All of us are salaried based on a different pay scale than that of the MOH though not at par with the private centres. Periodic review of salary scale is usually undertaken, subject to approval from Ministry of Finance.

As proven from our consultants' attrition rate and longevity in serving this institution, it is logical to surmise that on the whole we are happy with the current scheme and proving it by remaining with IJN. Many of us have served more than 10 years, excluding time spent within the MOH Hospitals prior to setting up of IJN.

Being responsible employees of IJN, we are not in the position to dictate the outcome of the privatization proposal from Sime Darby to the stakeholders of IJN. However, the perception that the privatization proposal is in response to demands for higher remunerations by its medical staff is misconceived and must be corrected accordingly to safeguard and preserve the trust placed upon us by our patients.

In America we trust, indeed we must

So this young American chap walked into the Red Cross office in Phnom Penh asking for help. He said that he is a missionary and would like to help the orphans here.

He was told by the officer in charge that he should try to find assistance somewhere else since the Red Cross doesn’t really handle random and individual request. The officer then suggested several other options; the American Embassy, American NGOs, Christian relief organizations, etc.

Out of curiosity, the officer asked the chap what brought him to Cambodia. He answered, “God.” As if prompted by divine intervention, the chap started to express his religious conviction; that  Christianity is the only religion and all the other denominations are just fluff.

After a few minutes of listening to his theological rant, the officer replied, “To me, all Gods are one, whether it’s for the Catholics, Protestants or Presbyterians.”

In the end, the officer just had to ask, “So, what kind of Christian are you?”

The chap answered, “Well, my mother is Jew and my father is American.

I bet you that the officer was very tempted to throw a shoe at the chap.

p/s: This is a true story by the way.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Brain drain and now the heart too?

I have a friend (“E”), whom I have known since we were 13 years old. E is probably one of the most intelligent women I know, a consistent straight A student. When we were 15, she received the ASEAN scholarship and went on to study in Singapore. As soon as she completed her A-Level examination, she received another scholarship from a government agency in Malaysia to study medicine in the United Kingdom.

Thirteen years later, E is still in England, working in a hospital in London and training to be a cardiac surgeon. In a way, I am proud to know someone as brilliant as E and we often try to persuade E to return home since Malaysia is in desperate need of more medical experts of her calibre. Sadly, her response is that the country lacks incentives and professional motivations.

Malaysia is stuck in a quagmire, in its attempt to entice local foreign graduates to return home. It has no one to blame but itself, considering the fact that the national economic policy of Bumiputera special privileges has a lot to do with it. As many non-Bumiputeras are being deprived of equal opportunity to study in local universities, they are forced to further their studies overseas.

Once there, they have the sweet taste of knowing that it is merit and not skin colour, which will be highly valued in the job market. In addition to that, many feel that a local salary will not be able to compensate for the amount of university fees already paid by their parents.

Today, I read on the news that the Malaysian National Heart Institute (IJN), one of the leading medical heart centres in the region, will be privatised. IJN, currently owned by the Ministry of Finance, has held a reputable record in serving high quality medical services to disadvantaged people. Although the Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak has assured the public that the government will continue to ensure that the centre will not marginalised the poor, many have raised concern as to whether this will be practised in reality.

I wrote an article not too long ago (When you are rich, you can afford to be sick”) emphasising the profit-making orientation of private hospitals in Malaysia. Now, I can’t help but raise the question of “when you are sick, can you afford this kind of kick?”

It is bad enough that we do not have sufficient first-class doctors and surgeons, now the government is giving away the only one institute which seems to have served its purpose well, to a bunch of capitalistic vultures, waiting to feed on sick but “juicy” people.

In matters of the heart, is it wise for the government to make such a decision? Perhaps, time can tell and let’s hope that it will continue to heal as well.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Dealing with gambling

There is a tendency for all of us to point a finger of blame at many things, all except the root or cause of it. A clear example is religion. When Al-Qaeda takes responsibility for the bombing of the World Trade Centre, many were quick to blame Islam without realising that the real culprit or evil behind this is men.

Today, I read an interesting piece of news on the local paper. It says that an Australian man is suing a casino in Australia for targeting his gambling addiction which causes him to lose millions in a gambling spree. I should actually rejoice when I read this because there are a few things in this world which I truly loath and one of them is casino. I have a problem giving respect to any profit-making institution which feeds on other people’s misfortune.

However, I can’t help but conclude that not only is this man a loser, he is a sore loser. To me, there is no difference between this man and a sex addict who sues a scantily clad woman of tempting him to rape her. It’s like saying that if you have a weakness or disease, you are released from all forms of responsibilities or liabilities.

It seems that this man has a good case and he might actually win. Apparently, according to gaming law, casinos are not supposed to allow someone who is a bankrupt or in huge debt to enter the casino. It seems that this casino has discovered that the man has lost millions of dollars at a casino in Las Vegas and hence targeted him. When you read this, you have to wonder why would a casino be stupid or greedy enough to target someone who is already in huge debt? How would the casino benefit from him if he continues to lose, which is what precisely happened?

In any case, if this man wins his case, one can’t help but to think that it does pay to have an addiction and it doesn’t matter if you lose at the roulette table because you still have a chance to strike that jack pot in court.

I can’t help but feel a strong dilemma concerning the legalization of establishments such as the casino. On one hand, I feel that there is a sort of senseless double standard being practised here. For example, it is legal to operate but not if you benefit from someone who is basically in “deep shit”. So, it’s OK to screw someone who still has a chance at financial stability but not if they are already screwed. Where is the freaking sense in that?

The other double standard is how the casino is banned from Muslims but not the others. Should gaming rules be based on religion and not the fact that it is a social vice which ruins family, relationships, economy and lives? So, who gives a fuck if you non-Muslims gamble off all your money and have the loan sharks come after your family with your blood all over them? We don’t care!

Well, my other dilemma is quite obvious. At the end of the day, it is a personal choice. People should be given the right to do whatever they want with their lives. If they want to gamble, then let them as long as they accept responsibilities for their actions. Unfortunately, we all know that with gambling, it’s not that simple. Very often family members are being dragged down when shit hits the fan.

So in the end, who actually wins?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Religion, Faith and Culture

Faith_compressed

My birth certificate states that I am “Buddha” under religion although I think my grandparents were Taoists. My parents are both Atheists. When I was 17, I tried to embrace Christianity and later attended the Anglican Church religiously. Then, when I was 25, I decided to explore Islam and spent about two years learning and practicing the religion.

I am curious about Judaism and Confucianism and even more intrigued by Sikhism and Hinduism. What am I then? I don’t really know and I am contented with not knowing.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “religion” is defined as a particular system of faith and worship or a form of recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny to warrant obedience, reverence and worship.

So, if this is what defines religion, then I think I do have one because deep down, I believe in a higher divine power that has created all living things and each with a purpose. Although I have no idea who or what this divine power is, there is faith in me that it exists. This is my particular system of faith.

Now, I do wonder whether all these so-called religions practised by people around us today deserve to be called religion at all. For a start, many of them are either borne with the religion attached to them (such as my case), brought up to believe that this is the religion they belong to or conversion through marriage or adoption.

I would like to argue that what we understand as religion is actually a cultural practice. According to the Webster New World Dictionary, “culture” is the development, improvement and refinement of the mind, emotions, interests, manners and tastes, as well as arts, ideas, customs and skills of a given people in a given period of time. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the intellectual side of civilization.

If you notice, all the religions as we know of today; Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc. were in fact revealed to a group of people at a specific period of time and through them, different practices were adopted and then continued to be practised for centuries later. Many religions have contributed to the development of great civilizations, arts, science, medicine, etc. In fact, if I remember my History lessons well, Islam was revealed to end the age of “jahiliah” or pagan ignorance.

Sure, they would like to believe that these practices were divine order and claim that it is through faith that they believe. My question is, is it really faith or cultural upbringing that they believe? After all, what they know about their religions are from secondary sources.

When a child is borne of a Hindu family, she is taught that cows are sacred and she is told to offer prayers and worship to the Hindu Gods. If she is being brought up in a Christian family, she learns that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and her Saviour. She will follow her parents to church every Sunday and told to repent her sins. If she is Muslim, then she will be told that pork and alcohol are completely forbidden in Islam. This child, depending on which family she is being borne into, will learn the Holy Scripture of the religion and have her believe that this is the religion she belongs to.

While some children may be lucky enough to be given an opportunity to learn about other religions and eventually an option to choose, many do not. Is this called faith then and more importantly, does this qualify as a religion?

I have known a couple of people who identify themselves as Muslims and yet, they consume alcohol but never pork. Does that mean they are not Muslims? I don’t know and I don’t question anymore because to me, it is irrelevant. I do not associate Islam as a religion, but merely a cultural practice. Does that mean they do not have a religion? Again, I don’t know because it depends on their system of faith. If they have faith that there is a divine power above who determines their lives and deaths, then does it really matter to me whether they drink alcohol or not?

I left the Anglican Church because I thought that I have committed a sin which is frowned upon by the church and refused to embrace a religion without fully practising what it preaches. Then, I question this so-called religion. Did I commit a sin because “someone” says so, or because God says so? Well, God hasn’t answered to me yet.

To me, faith has to come from within. I have no faith in a religion which makes me feel guilty about everything and instil in me a fear which I don’t truly comprehend. On the other hand, I have faith in a religion which teaches compassion, kindness, honesty, peace and love. Other practises that come with it are just cultural and even philosophical.

Having said this, cultural exchanges enrich our lives simply for the fact that it helps us to foster understanding, friendship and wisdom. This is probably one thing which allows me to hang on to my faith; a divine Creator who has made us all so uniquely different and yet we need not feel the fear of losing our faiths in Him/Her/It, for if you truly believe, it’s in you.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Travel manners

Thanks to Osama and his buddies, it takes forever now to go through security check points at the airport. Airports have been for the longest time, one of the most hostile places on earth. Now, it’s just hell. The number of people, restless brats, rude and unfriendly security staffs and of course the bloody metal detectors are enough to drive me insane.

Before the 90s and even before the emergence of low cost airlines like Air Asia, not many people get to travel. Now, “everyone can fly” and to be frank, it doesn’t mean everyone should fly! Parents who cannot seem to control their kids at home shouldn’t think that they can in public. Then, there are those who just park their trolleys wherever they want to. The worse kinds are those who think that the queuing line at the check-in counters lead to freebies and will not stop  at anything just to be ahead of you.

What about those who are so obsessed with their mobile phones  and can’t seem to turn it off even when the flight is about to take off? Then, just so that people will make no mistake about the fact that they can afford to have a mobile phone, they have to yell into their phones loud enough even for those listening to their iPods to hear.

What would normally take just a few minutes at the luggage scan and security check points are now taking longer than necessary because people don’t seem to understand what the metal detectors do. So  instead of trying to limit the amount of metal on themselves, they seem to pile it up.

I know some of you want to travel in style, but please note that the airport is just not the place to show off your fashion sense. People who are there tend to have only one goal, to get in, fly and get out. After waiting for hours to check in, flight delays, luggage collection, etc. they are not going to be patient and much less be interested in what you are wearing.

So here are some tips to make things easier for everyone at the airport:

1) Try to make use of the 21st century technology. If you have internet at home, do check in online. This will save you and others a lot of time at the check-in counters.

2) Pack your bags according to the airline regulations. If you are not prepared to pay for excess baggage, don’t try to think you can load up for free. This is a plane you’re talking about, not a train or bus. Every weight counts.

3) Don’t keep bottles of liquid above the allowed limit in your hand carry luggage/bag. If you’re a mother, find out what you need to do to carry those milk bottles, etc.

4) If you carry prescriptive medicines with you, please keep  the certified prescription list with you.

5) Don’t wear a belt, accessories, boots, piercings, watch, hat. The best attire to wear is rubber sneakers, loose pants and top. Sure, you might look like an old hag but you’ll breeze through security checks. If you absolutely must wear anything else other than to cover your modesty, keep them in your hand carry bag and wear them after you have gone through the check points.

6) Try to occupy your child/children’s time by bringing fun stuff for them to do. If necessary, discipline them. People won’t judge you for trying to control your kids.

7) Turn off your ring tone and set it to vibration. If you need to talk, try not to yell.  Try to get over the fact that you’re not the only one who has a mobile phone.

8) Try not to obstruct common paths with your trolley and do keep an eye on it at all times. There is a reason for this.

Some say that it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. I say, let’s at least try to make the journey a little bit friendlier and nicer.

Bon Voyage!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Losing my virginity to a suckling pig

I attended a family wedding a few weeks ago and  started taking an interest in learning the cultural traditions of a Chinese wedding. I discovered that the suckling pig dish served at the wedding banquet symbolises the virginity of the bride.

Suckling pig

Then I got into thinking about the significance of virginity in our society today. When I was a little girl, my mother taught me that my virginity was a  valuable asset, something which I should protect at any cause, at least until I was married.

For as long as I could remember, I had often heard how my Mother, Aunts and  Cousin Sisters talked about how this girl and that girl had “lost out” to some guys. In Chinese, we don’t literally call it losing one’s virginity, but instead, losing out (as opposed to gaining/making a profit). It’s hard to translate it accurately but basically it means  that the girl has allowed herself to be given to someone and hence, lost her value.

For a long time, many other cultures and societies have given similar, if not more,  significance to virginity. The chastity and purity of a woman are so important that some had even gone through insurmountable lengths to protect and defend it. While the practice of chastity belt is now long gone, what still remain are other forms of more severe and painful methods; female genital cutting, as practised in Eastern African countries and stoning to death in some Islamic countries.

I was lucky that I am not brought up in these countries and the only consequences of losing out were shame and judgment by others. My mother managed somehow to  instil in me that I should not lose out to any man and I must confess that I grew up in fear of losing it. It was truly a big deal for me.

So I waited and waited until I was old enough and you know what? It was not such a big deal after all. Although it was not in the most ideal of situation as it was with an infantile pig of a man, the type which my mother warned me about, I did not feel that I have lost my value. I had the consciousness of understanding that it was a consensual decision as I was not pressured, tricked or coerced into it and most importantly,  my worth is not measured by my virginity. If no other men would ever marry me because I was not a virgin, then he was simply the wrong man.

In a way, I felt that it has changed my life but I no longer live in fear of losing it. Now, when I looked back at that phase of my life, I quickly realise that how girls have been misled into thinking that their virginities are their most prized assets, objects of great desire and value for love and marriage. If they fail to safeguard their virginities before marriage, they deserve to be condemned for reducing their own worth.

Here’s news for you. Virginity is not the most important thing in life and definitely not the biggest asset you have. As you grow up, you will soon realise that life will constantly challenge you with other matters of greater importance, of more significance. You will be facing various issues when you are a wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, colleague, etc. When your child is sick, you won’t be sweating about losing your virginity. When your husband is unemployed, you probably wish that you have lost it to someone else!

How you will learn to face and deal with these issues, are what’s important. How you grow and become the woman that you are, are your worth and value. Women are not borne into preserving their virginities for men. There are more to life than that one special man, to whom you are brought to believe is the only one worthy of you.

Having said this, I am not advocating for girls to go out tonight and start losing their virginities to anyone. At the end of the day, it is your body and something which belongs to you alone. So, if you decide to give yourself to someone for the first time, make sure that it is what you want and that you are emotionally prepared to deal with whatever consequences you may have to face. It will change your life, but it doesn’t close it (unless you live in countries governed by severe religious code of law).

Last word of advice, do practise safe sex. Unwanted pregnancies and sexual transmittable diseases are consequences much worse than a suckling pig.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bapu of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the International Human Rights Day on 10 December, I have posted an article which I wrote on June 2003 for the Malaysian Bar Council’s official newsletter, formerly called Infoline. This article has been edited for clarity.

The International Human Rights Day is celebrated every year in remembrance of the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. While it is not a binding legal treaty, it has been unanimously adopted by all UN member states as a significant document which expresses the aspirations of the world towards protecting and promoting the respect for human rights.

Gandhi

I am not a writer but my recent trip to India has compelled me to share one of the most inspiring teachings left behind by one of the world’s most blessed figures, Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

I was never an avid museum-goer but visiting the Gandhi Smriti Museum in New Delhi proved to be the highlight of my trip to India, something which I will remember forever. I never thought I could learn so much about the true meaning of justice, humanity, compassion and peace within the hour I spent at the museum. To sum it all up, Gandhiji (as fondly referred to by the Indians) is indeed the Bapu of all the fundamental human rights values we aspire to achieve today.

I have spent several years trying to familiarise myself with human rights work. After awhile, the so many ideals I hold so dearly seem to evaporate slowly but surely against time. It was always difficult to maintain that same level of faith and commitment. I thought my trip to India had turned out to be what I needed most.

One of the things I find most surprising in a very disconcerting way was the fact that throughout the one year of my studies in International Law of Human Rights, I did not remember reading anything about Gandhiji’s work. As I stood reading Gandhiji’s vision and dream for India, I realise that most of the principles and values on human rights and equality that he had lived and breathed were also enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). He had preached the principles of unity, equality, liberty, peace and justice before 1948, the year in which the UDHR was established. Although the United Nations Commission then chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt wrote the Declaration as an aftermath of the Second World War, Gandhiji had way in advance tried to pass on those values to his people.

Gandhiji united a nation of 300 million people through his peaceful approach and led India to the path of independence from the British. And I thought to myself, how lucky it was for the Indians to have such a revolutionary figure.

Gandhiji is famous for his principles such as the satyagraha or truth force whereby unjust laws are opposed with the force of truth and moral consciousness instead of violence. He once said, “I firmly believe that freedom won through bloodshed or fraud is no freedom.” His display of peaceful resistance during the British colonialism in India is truly laudable and something which the world should seriously reflect on in such a time where we are guarded against acts of terrorism and territorial aggression.

He also believed in the principle of equality during a time when India was strongly guided by the caste system. He treated those who were then labelled as the “untouchables” with equal respect and compassion. He promoted equal opportunities for women and advocated their rights to education. He wanted a united India where Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs live in harmony and peace.

Gandhiji could very well be a theologian, having read and mastered all the Holy Books of all the main religions in the world. He spent most of his remaining life promoting inter-faith values amongst the people of India. Although India and Pakistan are yet to resolve the persisting political conflict in Kashmir, I was delighted to witness the pluralistic community in India. Apart from Malaysia, India has been the most diversified country in terms of religion and culture I have been to. Hence, I think Gandhiji has again accomplished a great deal.

We recently had an inter-religious council workshop and I was surprised that nobody quoted Gandhiji’s values on inter-faith. If he had been alive today, I personally feel that he would have been the best person to engage in international peace talks.

He once said and I quote, “I believe in fundamental truth of all great religions of the world. I believe that they are all God-given and I believe that they were necessary for the people to whom these religions were revealed. And I believe that, if only we could all of us read the scriptures of the different faiths from the standpoint of the followers of those faiths, we should find that they were at bottom all one and were all helpful to one another.”

When I read this, I looked back and asked myself how many Gandhis does the world have? How often do we come across such a man, who not only possessed but lived by the principles he truly believed in? Many people would say that figures such as Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela come a close second. I have no doubt that they have each in their own personal ways contributed to the betterment of their societies.

These personalities were Nobel Peace Prize Laureates and if we look further back, many other great figures were awarded prestigious prizes in recognition for their contribution to humanity. Henry Dunant, the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross received the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. Others include Mother Teresa in 1979, Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991 and Yasser Arafat in 1994.

In 2001, the UN and Kofi Annan jointly became the recipients of the much coveted prize for his international peace-building effort as the Secretary-General of the UN. During that time, I was still serving as a UN Volunteer in East Timor. I remember receiving a personal message from Sergio Viera de Mello, the current Chairman of the United Nations Human Rights Commission and the Under Secretary-General for the UN Transitional Administration for East Timor (UNTAET). He congratulated all the peacekeepers and volunteers in East Timor as we were technically representatives of the UN. I remember feeling exhilarated and proud, often joking that I was indirectly a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Gandhiji never received the Nobel Peace Prize. One may argue that he was never given what he deserved but I would say that he never needed the prize for anyone to acknowledge and recognise the legacy he had left behind for not only India but humanity as a whole. For a man who had turned up at the Buckingham Palace before the British Royal Family in just his loin cloth, such materialistic recognition would have meant nothing to him. So perhaps we could all do some serious thinking and compare how little the UN has achieved and how much Gandhiji has accomplished and touched the world.

His dreams for India were never fulfilled entirely during his lifetime. Poverty, corruption, political and religious conflicts are still prevalent today. Did he die in vain? I hope not for I think his teachings should not be confined to India alone, they should be a model and inspirations to all especially for those who believe in the UDHR.

To me, the UDHR is definitely not a Western concept as so many Asian leaders tend to claim. Gandhiji, a true bona fide South Asian man, had then exercised his rights to peaceful assembly and demonstration in order to liberate his people and free them from the yoke of slavery, discrimination and ignorance. I believe that his dreams would have been in vain if we no longer believe in the principles of the UDHR.

If my writing has appeared too idealistic, I will not apologise for it. How could one point a finger at another who has been given a huge dose of hope and faith in humanity from the legacy left behind by this blessed soul?

If you think that you need that dose, do visit the Gandhi Smriti Museum. If it is too much of an effort, you can still choose to watch Ben Kingsley on video as Gandhi, bearing in mind that it may not achieve quite the same effect. But hopefully it will help to inspire you today, in commemoration of the International Human Rights Day.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Dumb and Dumber

There is actually one American reality game show that I like and watch it whenever I get a chance. Yes, the word is finally out. I am a fan of America’s Next Top Model (ANTM). I like it mainly because I think Tyra Bank is one of the most creative, animated, dramatic and funny hosts. She doesn’t mind making a fool of herself and she actually bring her experience as a former supermodel into the show. Compared to Heidi Klum, this girl actually knows how to entertain.

So, I am now watching Cycle 10 and usually, I don’t have much opinion about the contestants. They are often pretty but stupid. But I have to confess that I enjoy watching them making a complete clown out of themselves. It’s part of the fun.

Katarzyna Surprisingly, in this cycle, I was rather taken by Katarzyna (see photo) . What set her apart from the other girls was definitely not her beauty although she does have that Eastern European look unlike some of the boring colourless blondes. I thought she was intelligent compared to the rest. She took great photos, she seemed nice to the others and she approached the whole competition professionally.

Unfortunately, Tyra thought she lacked personality. Yes, they sure like their girls to be boisterous and extrovert. It’s like back in school again. If you tend to be someone who sits at the back of the class and never raises your hand to show off how smart you are, it means you’re boring.

Anyway, in her last photo shoot, I was surprised when Katarzyna became the first contestant who actually asked Tyra, who was also the photographer, what her vision was for the photo. Normally, the contestants just receive directions and follow instructions. They are like marionettes, only made of flesh and blood.

When the judges were deliberating the results, comments were made that Katarzyna’s photos were too sterile. One of them said that it was like as if she was using her brain too much and thinking a lot while posing. I got to tell you that these judges can be idiots. Very often, a good photographer would actually ask a model to think so that the facial expression doesn’t come out vacant. So, what the hell do they want? Damn it! (Yes, I’ve crossed over from being a fan to total obsession.)

Worse of all was when the new judge, Czech “Legendary Supermodel” Paulina Porizkova said that she preferred models who don’t use their brain. Gasp! That’s it…time to start that anti-addictive ANTM patch.

Of course, Katarzyna was eliminated, much to my chagrin. A Cornell University graduate, working in finance and didn’t seem bitchy at all, was eliminated.

We often have prejudice over pretty girls. If they are pretty, they are dumb. It seems like you can’t have it all. Of course, I do want to kill that rare girl who seems to have it all but at the same time, I do appreciate and admire her. It’s like a rare vintage car which you kick yourself watching other people drive it, but it doesn’t stop you from admiring the car.

What is sad though is how a certain sector of industry expects these girls to fulfil a certain stereotype. I do question now whether it’s the girl who is really dumb, or it’s the industry which is dumber.

I know I shouldn’t take this seriously but hey, at least I haven’t lost my perspective of life.