Sunday, October 18, 2009

Constitutional amnesia?

“You’ve been selected to work as a Civic Education Officer,” a woman with Filipino accent told me on the phone.

“Oh, great! Thank you.” I replied happily.

It wasn’t until I received my job description later that I realised civic education had nothing to do with teaching children on how to become courteous, kind and responsible citizens.

I was the first batch of students who experimented with the new education curriculum when Pendidikan Sivik was changed to Pendidikan Moral. In Moral classes, amongst other things, we learned that if we saw a banana peel lying haphazardly on the floor, we were supposed to pick it up in order to prevent someone else from potentially slipping and injuring themselves.

I finally understood what it really meant when my job description stated that my main duties were to plan, coordinate and implement activities that create and promote awareness amongst the Timorese on their new Constitution, along with their rights as eligible voters and citizens of Timor Leste.

As my work progressed, it began to dawn on me that as young Malaysians, many of us do not really know what our Constitution was all about and, most importantly, the significance of it.

There were moments when I literally felt a sense of sadness because as a “prosperous” country, as opposed to Timor Leste, we are civically bankrupt. It is almost as if we have progressed so quickly that we have forgotten the fundamental basis of what makes our country independent and sovereign.

The saddest thing of all is, it has only been 52 years and we are already taking our constitutional inheritance, something earned through blood and years of struggles and sufferings endured by our fore parents, for granted.

The Timorese may not have much in terms of economic security, but they had one thing that was rightfully theirs: a newly independent country. Like a clean slate, they had a new Constitution, a newly elected president and above all, a citizenship for the first time in their lives.

Thousands of adults, accompanied by their children, would stand in queues every  morning, from Monday to Friday, waiting patiently to be registered as voters before the first presidential election. Once their personal details were entered into laptops, photographs and finger prints taken, they waited with unconcealed glee before receiving their brand new voter registration card. They giggled and laughed shyly as soon as they saw their photos on the cards. When some of them accidentally lost their cards, you could see their distressed faces as they lined up impatiently to get a new one.

When they were told that they would be receiving civic education, they rejoiced in the thought of getting to know their new country and their rights as Timorese, not second-class Indonesians.

In most villages, the four Timorese educators and I were treated like dignitaries. We scheduled our meetings in advance so that the women could plan and organise their domestic chores, and the men, their farming work in advance.

Even before our team arrived at the village centres, hundreds of villagers could be seen from afar, gathered quietly in front of their community halls or churches. Children were less inhibited as they ran towards our approaching car, followed by cacophonies of undecipherable chatter and laughter.

They welcomed us warmly as we shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with the suco (village) or aldeia (sub-village) chiefs. When the meeting finally commenced, they would sit silently on the floor as we took them through customised flip-charts, illustrating the Constitution.

Occasionally, there would be one or two who raised their hands to ask questions or state their comments during the session. Unlike Afghanistan, the women participated freely, although with less vigour.

“Can I also be the president of Tim-Tim (the pet name used by Timorese in reference to Timor Timor) one day?” A Pak would ask sheepishly and his question was greeted by roars of laughter from the others.

“During the Indonesian occupation, where do we have HAM (short for Hak Asasi Manusia or human rights)?” another Pak lamented. “How do we know our votes will be secret?” an Ibu asked shyly.

Most of the time, these meetings lasted for more than three hours. Our Timorese educators’ voices would be hoarse from giving long lectures and answering questions while I usually observed in silence, but not without curiosity. The language used was Tetum and while nearly all understood Bahasa Indonesia and had no problem conversing in it with me, most preferred to use the official language amongst themselves.

At the end of the meeting, some villages presented us with “tais”, a typical Timorese hand-woven scarf, as tokens of their appreciation. We stood humbly before the chiefs as they wrapped the scarves around our necks one by one while the congregations applauded our effort. By the end of my mission, I must have had collected more than a dozen of them.

This was one of the things I loved most working at grassroots level in Timor Leste.  We went with nothing to offer except information and yet the communities welcomed us with open arms.

It was in Timor Leste that I had heard of people talking about the Constitution and human rights so passionately. It may be a nation with a high illiteracy rate, yet there was a strong sense of activism amongst the people. Nearly all the adults I met had either directly or indirectly fought for the independence of their country. As a result, they treasure and understand the value of their Constitution, a powerful symbol that signifies their existence as a free and independent nation.

After fifty two years of independence, we as Malaysians are now experiencing collective amnesia. Never have I once heard or spoke of the Federal Constitution with my family or friends. How could we when our education system does not teach us its values and meaning. We were too occupied trying to pass our Moral examinations and what does that get us today, when young urban Malaysians are becoming more obnoxious and rude?

Come election time, we think about which party will serve the interest of our individual races the best. Many do not even bother to register as voters, what more exercising their rights to vote.

Come Merdeka Day, it’s all about waving the Jalur Gemilang and displaying our patriotism and love for our country. But what is our country and who are we showing our affection for? Is our country represented by the government, or by 26 millions Malaysians?

I think it’s time for all of us to go back to where it had first begun, when we had collectively decided that we, the rakyat (not the government), shall be free and it is us who decide what our Constitution is.

Let our forgetfulness be a temporary amnesia, not a permanent one.

Do share with me your understanding of our Federal Constitution and how we can create better awareness amongst Malaysians on what it means.

This article appeared on The Malaysian Insider on 16 October 2009 under the same title.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The World March for Peace and Non-Violence, Kuala Lumpur – 10 October 2009

Candle lighting

The quiet and posh residential area in Jalan Bangkung, Bangsar, was hit by a tidal wave of loud music, vibrant live performances, piercing whistle blows and screams by throngs of people from all walks of life and (not forgetting) smoky scent of grilled meat, last night.

Sounds rowdy enough? Yes, but all for a good cause and it was done peacefully as well.

I usually go to Jalan Bangkung for two reasons; the restaurants and Bali Ayu spa. Last night was special because a group of NGOs; Voice of the Children, Women’s Aid Organization, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, NurSalam, World Without War and restaurant group Maxim Image (owners of Cava, Leonardo and Opus) came together to organize an event where Malaysians could gather in one place to express their solidarity and commitment to peace and non-violence. The night was marked by a candle-lighting ceremony and a not-so-solemn walk with lanterns around the strip of restaurants.

Clown and child Cava Menu

What I find interesting was how men, women and children from all ages and races were able to shed their cultural and political differences by holding hands and partying the night away. I smiled watching a man of about 60 years old with seemingly mild demeanour, clapping and dancing to the rhythm of hip drum beats. There were two men in the same age group; an Indian and a Sikh, waving the Jalur Gemilang at the front of the stage, while being observed by a foreigner who grinned with amusement.

Pet dogs of all shapes and sizes were not left out from the event as well. Many owners brought their furry friends to participate in the lantern march, much to the envy of neighbouring dogs, barking ruefully from the inside of gated residences. It was amusing observing some of them chastising their over-zealous pooches trying to sniff around the lower regions of those walking at the front.

It was also an expressive night where ordinary people displayed slogans on banners and T-shirts from “Stop violence against women”, “Are you a registered voter?” to “Love us, not eat us”. My favourite was, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind” by Mahatma Gandhi and one which says, “I am woman, hear me roar”.

Percussionist Party

The live performances were refreshing, energetic and pretty darn entertaining but nothing still touch the people quite as much as Michael Jackson’s Heal the World when it came on the loud speaker.

What I saw last night taught me one lesson. We can achieve unity and peace as a multi-cultural nation, if we want to. It was rare for me to see Malaysians of all races gathered together in a place where pork, beef and alcohol were served with the present of dogs, and non-Chinese children  took to the street with Chinese lanterns of all shapes and sizes. Nobody came out and accused anyone of being disrespectful of any particular religion but instead focussed on respecting each other’s diversity without compromising their own.

I wish everyday could be like this and not just during an annual event. We should remind ourselves each day that we need to heal the world and make it a better place.

Peace to everyone!

Jalur Gemilang2 IMG_9327 Stop violence against women

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Losing my virginities

If I can describe Timor Leste in one word, it would be, “Virginal.”

This small island saw very little development despite being a former Portuguese colony during the 16th century and became part of an occupied territory of Indonesia until 2002.

It was almost as if its coloniser and occupier had deliberately wanted it to remain as a child with learning disabilities. This was not congenital by nature but one that had been created and shaped as such through a long process of involuntary subjugation by the Indonesian government.

However, like many children who are unexposed to external elements, Timor Leste maintained a kind of purity and innocence which baffled the minds of those who live in this day and age. After all, it should by now surpass the age of a minor and embark life as a young adult like the rest of its neighbouring peers.

Timor Leste has the most beautiful and untouched beaches I’ve seen in my entire life. If paradise does indeed exist on earth, they will be a coveted choice. There was hardly any concrete buildings in the capital city of Dili (except those that have been implanted by the international community during the period of transitional power at the start of the 21st century).

As you depart further from Dili, such simple and ordinary concrete structures we’re accustomed to are being swallowed by nature, pregnant with the sort of silence which can only be achieved through the absence of motorized vehicles. Majority of rural Timorese live in small thatched huts constructed from mud, wood and dried leaves. Those who are slightly better off live in houses made of naked cement walls and tin roofs.

Such was the level of simplicity that during the night, it felt almost as if everyone had gone to bed with the sun. With no electricity, there was total darkness and calm, except when you looked up at the sky, the millions of sparkling stars could not look any bigger and closer.

Timor Leste was my first United Nations mission and it’s true when they say that your first mission is often the most memorable and in my own personal view, the most exciting as well. I was entering unexplored territory. Very much like sex a la Malaysian style, I had heard very little of it but was left to my own imagination to figure out what it was really like. So, I fantasised about it and when I finally lost it, I was craving for more.

As with sex, there were minor glitches and momentary periods of emotional and physical adjustment. The biggest challenge and discomfort I had while in Timor Leste was having to confront my fear of the fearless cockroaches that were plenty and had the knack of flying amok in small spaces.

It was hell for me when it was time to go to bed. While I could seek refuge under the protective mosquito net, I was left completely vulnerable when the call of nature announced itself in the middle of the night.

Guided by only the smallest maglite torch you could find, I felt like a blind person waiting to be devoured by the vicious cockroaches. As if that wasn’t enough, more were waiting to taunt me in the loo.

I had to fashion an effective way to relieve my bladder without having a series of panic attack every night. The method of choice was admittedly primitive but no, I did not resolve to wearing diapers (hell, it was painful enough having to pack sufficient supply of sanitary products and diapers would have taken up precious space for indispensable items such as wet wipes, books and Knorr tom yum cubes).

Suffice to say that a 1.5 litre plastic bottle sliced into half did the trick.

Growing up in a privileged environment, I had to engage in laborious work in Timor Leste for the first time. One common task was to carry and transport heavy boxes of project supplies and this was usually performed alone. Don’t ask me where the men were but thanks to them, I developed strong arms and I was in my best form.

However, when I went home for my break after a few months, the first thing Mom said to me was, “Hmmm…your hands. They’re not as smooth as before. They’re so rough now, like the hands of a coolie. What exactly were you doing there?!”

The other challenge was to pass my driving test and the vehicle of choice was the crude but extremely sturdy Tata Sumo 4x4. I was obviously out of practice when it came to driving a stick shift but thankfully, the Political Counsellor for the Chinese Embassy, one of the first few international delegates I encountered by chance, gave me a crash course a day before.

Even though I passed the test, I still struggled to manoeuvre the vehicle which nearly cost my life once when it rolled dangerously backward on a strip of narrow and curvy road by the edge of a steep cliff. Once I mastered it, a normal six-hour drive became five and my best record was four and a half as soon as I learned to identify unique landmarks which helped me to navigate my way easily through 215km of barren landscapes.

Of course, these were minor challenges compared to the many new and exciting experiences I had in my first mission. I would subsequently find myself losing my “virginities” over and over again.

I had my first experience of staying in a floating hotel in Dili. Amos was a massive boat which offered camp-style accommodation before any other hotels were built on lands. Lodgers had to share tiny compartments cramped with bunk beds, small suspended televisions offering HBO and BBC channels and a flooded shower room every time one took a shower. But it was also on the Amos that I had witnessed the most glorious sunset in my life.

It was in Timor Leste that I first flew on a four-seater helicopter, small enough to have intimate access to breathtaking views from all angles through the transparent windows on all side.

Hopping on one of these was as easy as riding on chartered buses, scheduled to transport us to villages on isolated mountains deep in the jungle, twice a week.

It was one of the few things I lived for in Timor Leste and the novelty never really wore off.

Ultimately, it was having my own private beach in “The Blue Lagoon” fashion that made my experience in Timor Leste truly memorable. Eight years ago, nobody would have heard of Los Palos, Tetuala and Jaco Island, what I considered as the “holy trinity” of Lautem district.

I spent hours basking in the sun on white sand as soft as talcum powder and snorkel alongside fishes, sea turtles and coral reef that would make any certified divers and crystal glass turn green with envy. It was also the first time I slept on the beach and woke up with the sight of a whale at a distant horizon. I was instantly humbled by its grace and enormity.

All these happened eight years ago and sometimes I wonder whether it’s still as virginal as I first saw it.

This was previously posted at The Malaysian Insider on 6 October 2009 under the title Paradise found…and lost?