Sunday, January 3, 2010

Traffic jams and human rights in Malaysia

Traffic jams in Kuala Lumpur are something many would gladly live without. Surprisingly, I’m beginning to see the bright side of it. That is, if I’m in a taxi.

Traffic jams provide ample time for taxi drivers to start a calm conversation which usually ends up being a cathartic session. My own observations show that each driver has his own opinion and prejudice but they all share a common grouse and the height of their provocation is always the government, regardless of his race.

When I was asked to write about human rights in Malaysia for this article, my first thought was gee, where do I start? Truthfully, what makes it harder is the fact that I haven’t lived in Malaysia in the past couple of years to write about it authoritatively.

Thankfully, I have these taxi drivers to bring me up to speed, even if it’s only one aspect of what is wrong with our country today and in my opinion, they’re all interconnected. They also taught me that the prime minister’s ideal of 1 Malaysia fails miserably.

Most of us know that it would be fair to surmise that freedom of religion, expression and peaceful assembly, deaths in police custody, preventive detention, sexuality and indigenous rights are some of the top 10 human rights issues in Malaysia. With 1,000 words at my disposal, I’m going to cut to the chase. If you’re expecting this article to be an executive summary of the human rights condition in Malaysia, you’ll be sorely disappointed. SUARAM and SUHAKAM’s annual reports will serve that purpose.

My own conclusion is that human rights in Malaysia will only improve once corruption ends and respect for the rule of law begins.

Even taxi drivers know this and they gain this intelligence just by observing the traffic jams from the inside of their beat-up Protons. Just so you know, the short film “Meter” isn’t really a fair representation of all taxi drivers.

“Wow, the traffic is really bad!” I exclaimed from the back of a taxi I took from a shopping mall recently. It was close to eight as I rushed to do some last-minute Christmas shopping on a Thursday night.

“Hmmm… biasalah (it’s normal). You want to know why?”

I wanted to answer because there are too many cars in the city and shopping is after all Malaysians’ favourite hobby, only second to eating, but the Malay driver’s answers were more analytical.

“Thanks to our government, they allow these shopping malls to be built right in the middle of a busy intersection. Ah, you tengok (look at this). This is not new. They know how many cars are passing through here and why do they build only two lanes? Patutlah (of course), jam!”

“We are working-class people who work hard all day. Time is important-kan? Every minute wasted is every penny lost. Every construction built, is every penny earned for them. The more construction there is, the more money they make-lah!” He sighed.

As we crawled past behind the mall, a couple was seen snuggling in a dark corner.

“Eh! Apa,ni (what’s this)? Celebrating Christmas-kah?”

He shook his head and said disapprovingly, “Hmm… macam-macam you boleh tengok sekarang (you can see all sorts of things these days). Men looking more like women and women behaving like men. Ya, Allah. What is happening to this world?”

I found myself pulling the collar of my shirt tightly together for the rest of my ride home.

“You know what H1N1 is?” A talkative Chinese driver asked me a few days later and it was obvious that he wasn’t testing my knowledge of the disease. He waited impatiently for me to tell him I didn’t know the answer so that he could share his brilliant joke.

I shook my head.

He said gleefully: “Aiyah, you don’t know-meh?”

“It’s Hishammuddin1, Najib1. So if you get it, die-lor.” I smiled politely while he chuckled out loud, obviously pleased with his joke.

Before I could comment, he continued: “You know-ah. All this bird flu, swine flu, not as dangerous as H1N1, you know! What kills us are Hishammuddin and Najib!”

“Really? Why?” He finally sparked my interest.

“Errr… you Chinese, right?” Even if I’m not, I wasn’t going to admit it and spoil the fun.

“We, Chinese, will not live in peace as long as Hishammuddin and Najib rule this country. Everything is about the Malays.”

“But don’t you think it’s not just a Chinese problem?” I challenged.

“Yes, yes, you’re right. Every race has a problem. The Indians are so poor, they become gangsters. The Chinese feed corruption and Malays [they] feed off the government. What is our government doing about this? Nothing! Why should they? In the end, the Malays are the ones who untung-mah (benefit).”

At the end of my ride, I learned more about this new disease called H1N1 from the taxi driver than from the paper.

Perhaps the most intelligent conversation I had was the one with an Indian taxi driver. He blamed traffic jams on poor public transportation and bad traffic regulations. He said that if we improve on the LRT lines, provide better bus services and impose zoning laws where one-driver-vehicles are prohibited from entering the city at peak hours, the traffic would be better.

“But why would the government do that? They rather build flyovers without proper planning. The construction jams up the whole city and then, what do they do? They build more flyovers! That’s where they get all the money, what. Our government is so corrupt that nothing works in this country,” he said with genuine frustration.

“I’m telling you the truth because I know from experience. I was a police for seven years at the Thai border. I worked hard but earned peanuts. If you want to earn more, you makan suaplah (take bribes). Many people do it but I refuse. So now, I’m a taxi driver-lah!”

“Boss, I think it’s better if you keep to your left. It’s faster,” I offered my opinion as we arrived at a road I take regularly after work.

“Oohh… so now you know the roads better, huh?” he said sarcastically.

Moral of the conversations is that we can all talk about human rights abuses in Malaysia but until the problem of traffic jam is solved in this country, they will go nowhere. If our government is unable to solve a basic problem such as road infrastructure, do you honestly think it can with bigger problems like the ISA?

Happy New Year to all! Let’s hope traffic conditions will improve next year.

This article was first published at The Malaysian Insider on 2 January 2010 under the same title.

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