Tuesday, February 9, 2010

When forgiveness actually hurts

I do break the law. Not often, but sadly I do.

I don't always necessarily admit my guilt but there comes a time when voluntary admission of culpability is crucial for me.

For those who are used to driving along Sri Hartamas/Mont Kiara highway by the Security Commission, they would know that it's a rather popular spot for speed check, especially during the weekend and festive season.

I don't know why but I have my suspicion that perhaps it's considered an affluent area rather than a possible fact that drivers tend to speed along that highway.

I've been caught for speeding on that highway twice and yes, I was guilty as hell. Both times, I got away with it.

"So, boleh samankah (can I give you a fine)?"

This seems to be the standard operating line since the police officer asked the same question at both times when I was stopped.

"Ya, samanlah (yes, go ahead)."

And this would be my standard answer.

The first time it happened, the officer "pretended" to take down my details and told me that a fine would be sent to my home address. I use the word "pretended" because the fine never came.

The second time when I was stopped, I started cursing under my breath and was upset with myself for getting another fine. This was my third traffic offence in less than 2 months. I had already contended against two previous parking tickets because I believe it wasn't my fault in both instances.

The officer this time, didn't allow me to go as easily.

"Betulkah, Amoi? Saya kasi saman, ya (Really, Miss? I give you a fine, ok?)?"

"Tuan, saya kan dah langgar undang-undang. Jadi sepatutnya saya kena samanlah. (Sir, I've violated the law. Hence, I should be given a fine)," I insisted.

"Hmm...kerja kat mana, Amoi? (Where do you work, Miss?)"

"Di Majlis Peguam (At the Bar Council)," I answered.

"Oh yakah? Saya tak pernah saman peguam, tau. (Oh really? I've never given a fine to lawyers before, you know).”

“Tak pe lah. You boleh pergi, Amoi. Saya tak saman.(Never mind. You can go, Miss. I won't give you a fine)," he added.

"Eh, kenapa tak saman, Tuan? (why aren't you giving me a fine, Sir?)"

"Tak pe lah. You dah mengaku salah. Selalunya peguam-peguam lain tak mengaku dan mereka marah-marah. Amoi ini lain. Kalau kita stop pemandu, tak semestinya bagi saman (Never mind. You've admitted your mistake. Usually, lawyers don't admit their guilt and they get angry. Miss, you're different. If we stop you, doesn't mean we'll give you a fine)," he explained.

"Selamat Hari Raya (Happy Chinese New Year)!" He wished me as I slowly drove away.

I should feel relief for getting away with this but deep down, I was upset and angry.

I drove away wondering how many people that day got away with a fine and how many didn't. I had a feeling none.

When the officers asked, "So, boleh samankah?"

Their motive was clear and it hurts.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Ignorance is not an option

This article was written on 28 January 2010 for the Malaysian Bar website. 

MyConstitutionWhen the Constitutional Law Committee (ConstiLC) decided to adopt “Merakyatkan Perlembagaan” as its slogan, it had good reasons. On top of trying to sensitise the Malaysian population on the content of the Federal Constitution, the ConstiLC upholds the notion that the Federal Constitution belongs to all Malaysian citizens regardless of age, gender, race, religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation, economic or social class, physical ability or the lack of it, etc.

Since the launch of the MyConstitution Campaign (the Campaign) in November 2009, the ConstiLC continues to receive on average, one request a week from various civil society groups to provide talks or workshops on the Federal Constitution. So far, the ConstiLC hasn’t turned down any of them.

On January 19, St. Francis Xavier (SFX) church hosted the ConstiLC by organising a “Conversations on the Constitution” session entitled “Relevance of the Federal Constitution: How does it affect us?”. 100 parishioners turned up. It was to be the first in a series of forums to be held at SFX; each coinciding with a theme of the Campaign’s nine phases. (For those who were not privy to the nitty-gritty details regarding the organisation of this talk, it was organised way before the High Court decision on the “A-word” was delivered.)

The panel speakers were from the ConstiLC; Edmund Bon, Paul Linus Andrews, Shad Saleem Faruqi and Leong Yeng Kong. Maha Balakrishnan made her debut as moderator for the evening and her questions ranged from something as straightforward as: “What are the things that people take for granted but are guaranteed by the Federal Constitution?” to others which were not so simple but instead, provoked much thought.

For instance, she asked,”What happens when there is a conflict between the rights of two citizens?” and proceeded to give the example of how the right to freedom of religion under Article 11 of the Federal Constitution is balanced between different citizens in a community when there is a dispute over the use of a loudspeaker for azan prayers and the ringing of the bells in a temple.

In responding to this question, Shad admitted that there is no easy way to resolve such dispute. However, he believes that it is important to step into the shoes of others and learn to look at the world through their eyes when confronted with a delicate issue such as those related to Article 11. He quoted former UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold, who once said, “to be truly objective, one must be subjective”.

Shad recalled how Malaysian leaders in the 1950s were fond of dialogues and there is a need for the leaders of today to return to that quality and spirit. In his usual calm and dignified manner, Professor Shad said, “Nobody got everything [at that time] but everybody got something.”

Both the panelists and audience were candid and honest which made the talk worthwhile. It was clear that many are concerned about the government’s lack of effective implementation of fundamental rights and liberties under the Federal Constitution. Some went as far as to question the relevance of having the Campaign to promote constitutionalism. Losing faith in their religion may not be an option, but many have clearly lost faith in the government’s ability to rule the country justly and intelligently.

A disconcerting revelation however was the overwhelming sense of hopelessness and helplessness felt by some of the parishioners in terms of how far they think Malaysia has moved away from the ideals that were laid out by our founding fathers. Such is their conviction that many are willing to contemplate migration.

When the floor was opened for questions and answers, it was obvious that most people were not as eager to understand the constitutional aspects of Madam Justice Lau Bee Lan’s recent judgment on the “A-word” issue as they were anxious to know whether as Malaysians, are we ready for change? Despite the air of frustration, all speakers remained optimistic. Each one of them had something inspiring to impart.

Leong believes that enlightenment will free Malaysians from fear. It would be wrong for the government to keep the population ignorant, and to instill a sense of fear in them. Instead, the government should be the one to fear its citizens.

Edmund shared Leong’s sentiment by echoing the need for greater empowerment of and activism by the people. He said the results of the general election in 8 March 2008 are significant proof of this.

When one member of the congregation asked whether this Campaign is too idealistic and the ConstiLC ignorant of the realities facing the nation today, Shad answered, “Facts should not guide ideals. It should be ideals that guide facts. Otherwise, we’ll never move. We’ll remain static. It is our duty to prepare the people to reach those ideals.”

He continued to provide a personal anecdote. “Sometimes, I could be teaching a class of 100 students. Perhaps, I won’t be able to inspire all of them. But if say, 10 students managed to show interest and potential, it is enough for me. It is something.”

Paul told the story of Emmett Hill, a 14 year-old African American who was murdered in Mississippi for purportedly whistling at a Caucasian woman. The main suspects were all acquitted but later admitted to the murder. The murder of Emmett Hill eventually became one of the leading events that inspired the American Civil Rights Movement.

Hill’s murder took place in 1955; 179 years after the independence of the US. That was how long it took and even longer before the first African American became President.

Paul asked, “If not now, when?” The point made was to show the insignificance of time when something is right and necessary. Emmet Hill’s violent death could have been avoided if the rights movement had started way earlier.

It was clear at the end that all speakers agreed the Campaign is necessary for everyone - Parliamentarians, Cabinet members, civil servants, Judges or those sitting in the audience; because change can only happen when there is awareness and it starts from us. We are ultimately responsible for all the changes made to the Federal Constitution. Who we vote into power also determines the destiny of our country.

Whether the speakers managed to present their views convincingly, the talk was effective as it allowed different people to express and share their fears and doubts in a safe space, something much needed in this country.

In addition, it is comforting that at so many levels, we witnessed genuine fellowship displayed by Muslims and Catholics under the same roof. Importantly, it finally dispelled my own ignorant assumption that Muslim Malaysians are barred from stepping into churches.

As Maha would say, “Knowledge is power and ignorance is not an option.”

Let’s all take this wisdom with us as we start this new year.

For more information on the MyConstitution Campaign, please click here.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What truly matters to you?

A woman, feeling frustrated and overwhelmed by her demanding boss, asks the latter one day, “Are you going to die tomorrow?”

Taken aback by her question, he asks her why she had asked such a curious question.

“Well, the hours that you’ve worked and the way you’ve always said everything is urgent, it’s as if you’re trying to do everything you can before you die,” she answers truthfully.

In order to appear unfazed, her boss answers arrogantly, “Well, supposing yes, I AM going to die tomorrow. Now, will you please do what I’m asking you to?”

“Well, then. Supposing you ARE going to die tomorrow, are you telling me that this is the most important thing that would have mattered to you?” The woman persists.

“Yes,” he answers.

“Alright then. If you say this is what matters most to you, I’ll respect a dying man’s wishes. But, in future, if I tell you that I won’t be able to work during weekends because I would like to help my children with their homework, visit my elderly parents, celebrate my best friend’s birthday or shop for Christmas dinner, would you please ask me the same question and respect my dying wishes as I have of yours?”