Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The fight for justice

I used to work for the Presidential elections in Afghanistan and hence still have a lot of concerns and passion for the electoral operation there. In the midst of all the preparation for the Parliamentary Election in September 2005, I was filled with a sense of fear.

I chose not to renew my contract with the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), a body which is part the UN and part the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of Afghanistan, last year simply because of my intolerance towards the practices of nepotism and corruption within the electoral management in the region I was responsible for.

Despite a long and carefully articulated letter to the headquarters backed with facts and cases, my effort to make a change in the system fell on deaf ears.

The only response I received was, “You write beautifully!” which of course was an insult to me.

By then, I realised that nothing I did would ever change the system particularly when those who were in the position to make decisions did not seem to care much about the integrity of the process. I guess when you can’t beat them...my own position is not to join them.

This year, things are different although not without fear. I am finally a human rights officer being assigned to the Political Rights Verification Campaign (PRVC), a joint United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission project. The project is aimed at verifying whether there is a conducive environment for a free and fair election in Afghanistan.

In a country where intimidations from local commanders, anti-governmental entities, pro-Taliban supporters and corrupted senior governmental officials are just part of an Afghan’s daily affairs, it is indeed a very difficult operation but no doubt a much needed one.

From working for the election previously to assessing the credibility of the election, I was very excited.

It is my duty to collect information of those who violate the principles of non-intimidation, non-partiality and non-discrimination.

Thankfully the people I am working with are true human rights defenders with great principles and true sense of integrity. So, my work is not really something I fear for.

My fear is this. Given the new electoral system and laws, each province is given a specific number of seats depending on the size of the population.

According to the constitution and the electoral laws, women are required to fill at least 25 per cent of the total seats, which of course is a huge step for a country like Afghanistan. I doubt that women actually fill up more than 10 per cent of the parliamentary seats in all established democratic countries.

Due to the Single Non Transferable Vote (SNTV) electoral system, only independent candidates are allowed to contest in the elections and not political parties.

The candidates can belong to a specific political parties but he or she is not allowed to contest under the political party’s name.

With the recent completion of the candidate nomination period, the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) has registered more than 6,000 candidates. There is yet a vetting process to be carried out in order to produce the final candidate roll.

The only criterion for a candidate to be deemed ineligible is if he or she has been or is convicted of a crime by a competent court. The culture of impunity is well known in Afghanistan due to the weakness of the rule of law institutions.

There are still many provincial courts in the country, which are not functioning at all due to the lack of qualified judges and prosecutors. Most judges are trained in the Sharia Law and have no in-dept knowledge of civil and criminal laws or procedures. In addition to that, the judiciary system is reputable for being corrupted.

Having said all this, it is not difficult to deduce that the vetting process for electoral candidates will not provide any impact and on the extreme, means nothing at all.

It has been more than a week since the end of the candidate nomination period and a few hundreds candidates have somehow gave up on the contest even before it has begun. There are only two explanations for this.

Firstly, some of the candidates must have been intimidated or threatened by stronger candidates backed by dominant political parties.

There have been many unverified reports of intimidation and self-censorship all over the regions and although the UN has no credible evidences to back these allegations up, nobody who has stayed in Afghanistan long enough will dispute them.

Secondly, due to the specific number of allocated seats, the exercise of “pre-selection” of candidates has taken place in many places. It is not difficult to assume that in certain regions or provinces, the political race will run along the line of ethnic groups.

For instance, in order to have “favoured” candidates win the election by default, it is logical to intimidate other candidates into withdrawing their nominations.

So, these are my fear. Sometimes I feel that my effort and time are wasted here. Many times I fear for the Afghans who truly want to see their children grow up in a peaceful country without intimidation or discrimination.

With the recent bombing and killings of innocent Afghans in a mosque in Kandahar, my fear becomes magnified. If the Afghans do not start to pick themselves up, I doubt anybody else could. Those who truly want to make a change are often being killed or terrorised.

How then, could things change? Am I deluded to believe that things will change for the better for these people?

Yes, these are the reasons why I have been asking myself what the hell am I doing here. And what makes me think twice to stay? As Andrew Beckett, a character played by Tom Hanks in Philadelphia said, “What I love most about the law? I love most about the law is because not often but very occasionally, you are a part of justice being done.”

So, what has kept me here despite being frustrated and disappointed, is that the little faith left in me says perhaps, just perhaps, I might be a part of justice being done in Afghanistan.

I finally left Afghanistan after living there for 2 years. Although I managed to survive a death threat, I eventually succumbed to eczema. Unfortunately, I felt that I have left without leaving much impact.

This was first published in The Malaysian Insider on 27 March 2010.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Colmar Tropicale – A Berjaya Failure

The only thing that’s French here is my husband. Seriously.

After working hard and neglecting my husband for weeks, we decided to take a short weekend break from the heat of the city. Since we had been to Genting Highland and Cameron Highland, we decided to hit Colmar Tropicale in Bukit Tinggi this time. Plus, my husband was feeling rather homesick.

I don’t normally write hotel reviews but this time, I thought I would. It isn’t as much as because it was so good that I needed to rave about it, but it was so insufferably painful that I would like to warn anyone who happens to read this to steer clear from this God awful place.

To say that there’s nothing good about it, would be untrue. The only one good thing about it is the photographer who took the photos for its website here. He/she was so good that he/she made the whole thing looked much better than it really is.

Our RM312 superior room came with two complimentary large nails sticking out from one of the bed posts where the wooded knob had came off. The sharp ends were pointing upwards. I was speechless when I first saw it. It was one of the few times when I regretted not bringing my camera.

The hallway of the hotel was dirty and the whole place smelled musty and old. I think it is fair to say that whoever owns this place has no right to charge anyone the RM10 entrance fee, much less hotel rooms that cost anything above RM80.

What was more appalling is how it’s shamelessly called a French-themed resort. Apart from the poor imitation of French Alsatian architecture, French boulangerie and French dessert, the only thing which was authentically French was my husband. We fought hard not to throw up the RM12 mille feuille we ordered for dessert.

We were very annoyed when the hotel put on a movie from one of the Astro movie channels which was projected onto a large screen in the middle of the open court yard.  It wasn’t even a good movie. There was nothing French about watching Rob Schneider’s body being possessed by a female stripper.

When I said this to my husband, he cried out incredulously, “There is nothing French about playing a movie on a big screen in the middle of a public square, while people are trying to eat and have a conversation!”

Well, in the end, we have to admit that the movie wasn’t completely frivolous. The whole place was so ridiculously boring that the resort had to do something without having to spend much, right?

Seriously, for those who are thinking to go there, please don’t. You have to trust me. They shouldn’t have called the place Colmar. It should be called cauchemar instead. If you’re French, you’ll know what I mean.

Please see here for other reviews about this place.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sex, Lies and Videotape by Steven Soderbergh

Sex Lies Videotape One of the first few lessons you learn when trying to market a product is to come up with a catchy name. If that doesn’t work, then aim for a provocative name such as this 1989 movie written and directed by Steven Soderbergh.

I’ve heard the accolades received by this movie and I’ve heard it being quoted in other movies. Naturally, I was intrigued and it wasn’t until tonight that I managed to watch it for the first time.

The verdict? Very interesting and thought-provoking. In fact, it was even better than I thought.

Confession. From the title itself, I first thought that it would be some kind of a raunchy erotica, starring James Spader. Hmm..interesting, right?

Truth be told, if I had watched it several years ago, the movie might have disturbed me as much as Last Tango in Paris is disturbing me now. But fortunately, I think it’s a daring, honest and original screenplay.

If you’re expecting to see Andie McDowell’s naked body in the movie, then you’ll be sorely disappointed. In fact, there is hardly any display of intimate scenes. At least not visually. Instead, you’ll be well compensated and stimulated by its script,  which makes it extremely clever.

I don’t really want to write about what the storyline is all about. Suffice to say that there’s a lot of emotional riddles waiting to be solved bit by bit as the movie progresses and it explores one of the most basic human needs, sex; and methods of self-preservation, lies. The videotape is just a means to get one of them and to expose the other.

I’ll leave with one scene I particularly like just to give you an idea of what I was talking about:

Ann: Did he touch you?
Cynthia: No.
Ann: Did you touch him?
Cynthia: No.
Ann: Did anybody touch anybody?
Cynthia: Well... yes.
Ann: Don't tell me... don't tell me... don't tell me. You didn't!
Cynthia: I did.
Ann: You didn't!
Cynthia: I did.
Ann: You didn't!
Cynthia: I did!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Human after all versus Humanity for All (Part I)

Commemorating International Women’s Day I would like to post this essay, written on 9 June 2005.

I wrote this while sitting in my bedroom in Kabul, Afghanistan — it goes out to all the women in Afghanistan. While most of the world was busy getting on with their lives, I saw you and learned from you.

Facing my laptop in a 18sqm room, staring at the white door with assorted winter jackets and coats hanging on a row of metal hooks, nothing came to my mind. I sat there for a few minutes staring into what my brain perceived as an empty space, just wondering what the hell am I doing in this God-forsaken place?

The image of a forlorn-looking man holding up a placard bearing the words “God has left this country” flashed before my eyes. I remember seeing this image before; somewhere in a movie I am sure.

My altruism vanished bit by bit. There is nowhere for me to go and nothing for me to do in this room of about 18sqm. Just the feeling of utter frustration seeping into my soul.

This is not what it’s supposed to be. I’m not supposed to be feeling this way.

It was my 17th month in Afghanistan. A country where nothing seems to appear normal, at least not the way we understand normal. It’s a country where I can’t seem to accurately describe who its inhabitants of about 23 millions are. It’s a country where you get in and the next thing you know, you want to get out as quickly as you can but somewhere in between there is still something holding you back.

What is it? Is it the sense of obligation as a fellow human being? Or is it because we keep telling ourselves that we can do better?

Things just seem to be getting harder each day. I find myself confined within the space of a small room; either in my office or in my temporary accommodation. It is easier for one to engage in any kind of immoral acts within the confine of one’s private space than to go for an innocent stroll out in the open air.

What an irony, isn’t it? The fact that I could not walk to the nearest grocery store because I want to buy a carton of milk frustrates the hell out of me. Nevertheless, the situation where I’m forced to live life as if I am an inmate in a small cell provides me with ample of time to think.

The many stories revealed to me — the human rights officer — sometimes haunt me, leave me feeling devastated, hopeless and angry.

Zuhal*, a young Afghan woman, was married to Tariq* for 8 years. Shortly after their marriage, Tariq left for Iran in search of a better life while leaving her behind with his family. Meantime, eight years passed and the war against the Taliban a dark past. For many, it was a time to rejoice and the time to rebuild their country. It was time for God to finally come back.

In conclusion, it was the start of many hopeful beginnings.

But not for Zuhal. Being caught by her father-in-law with her male neighbour in a room at night, she was sentenced to death by a local religious leader. The report I received indicates that she was not even alone with her neighbour while she was caught.

Instead of demanding for justice and begging for her life, her parents surrendered to humiliation without protest. In order to redeem their loss of honour, the only thing left to do was to condone and support her condemnation. She was hung to death while her alleged “partner in crime” survived with 100 lashes of the durra.

I often asked myself while reading this case over and over again, “Who the hell is this man to have such power over one person’s life?”

Someone once told me, “You are nobody unless someone makes you somebody.”

So, my thought is that this man has gained such power simply because the people have given him that power to condemn someone to death. I thought only God has that kind of power.

Unless the Afghans start to wake up and think about the values of human beings, many people will rise up like this man and continue to wantonly assert their power over innocent people like Zuhal. I say she’s innocent because after all, one of the principles of the rule of law is the presumption of innocent until proven guilty.

In Zuhal’s case, she was never arrested and charged for a crime in an open court. She was simply judged guilty, even by her own family, who had allegedly carried her outside their house, placed her on a table, tied a noose around her neck and left her to die by hanging. Zuhal’s own mother confessed that she had killed her daughter out of shame and disgrace.

A 12 year-old girl and her alleged rapist were arrested recently and charged for the crime of adultery. The girl claimed that she was drugged and raped by the man. While in detention, her father persistently seeks for her release. Having seen the case of Zuhal, the UN officer handling the case advised the prison authority not to release her for fear that she would be killed by her own family due to shame and dishonour.

Many women face similar fate because there are simply not enough qualified lawyers in Afghanistan to defend them. At such a time, I feel completely hopeless and tormented over the fate of the women in Afghanistan.

I don’t know what else to do for them.

I believe in the freedom of religion. Yes, I do. I believe that everyone has the right to practice his or her own religion. But what I truly abhor is how certain people use religion to exploit and subsequently cause the suffering of others. What I truly regret is how certain people seem to blindly believe something they perceive as the sacred teachings of a religion without searching for the truth.

In essence, I believe that all religion teaches the same values of justice, compassion and peace. I really do. But when 12 innocent civilians’ lives were taken away during a riot as a result of the people’s anger and retaliation towards the American’s alleged desecration of the Qur’an in Guantanamo Bay, I begin to question the purpose and even more the source of such outrage.

President Karzai upon finding out the looting and burning down of private and governmental properties, including a public library, condemned the act by stating that while these people were furious at the desecration of the Qur’an, two hundred more Qur’ans perished in the fire that same day.

What is the purpose of believing in a religion when human lives are not being valued, for isn’t the basis of all religion boils down to respecting each other’s lives and not desecrate what God has created?

Am I missing something here because I don’t seem to understand?

This was first published in The Malaysian Insider on 21 March 2010 under the title Humanity for All.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Who says there’re some things that just don’t change?

Sitting in my car, driving slowly through traffic, these thoughts came to my mind.

At 33, I am at that age where I've lived through the 70s, 80s, 90s, the turn of the 21st century and now. This means, I've lived in an era where there were no portable computers, internet and a time when Mom used to do everything herself without the help of Kitchen Aid or super nanny.

Here are some scenarios to illustrate the change of time.

On catching up with old friends

Our parents' time:

"It's been a long time since I've seen Muthu. Remember how he used to ponteng class? I wonder whether we should give him a call and arrange for a get together?"

Now:

"Aiyah! No needlah. Just add him as your friend in Facebook and you can find out everything that's going on in his life from there. No need to waste time and money to meet up."

On dating

Our parents' time:
"Eee!! Don't wantlah. All these match-making and blind-dating is so old fashion. How will I know whether he's handsome or not?"

Now:

"I think I'm falling in love with this guy I met on the internet last year."
"Wow! That's great. So, he didn't disappoint you when you finally meet?"
"No, no, I've not met him but his profile photo is so cute and he's so funny online!"

On TV soap opera (but now it's called series)

Our parents' time:

"Hey, tomorrow night is no good! It's Man in the Net. Very exciting episode and I'm dying of suspense.” 

Now:

"I watched 4 seasons of Sex and the City over the weekend and when I couldn't get up for work on Monday, I just called in sick."

On writing:

Our parents' time:

"Your son's penmanship is superb. There's so much character and elegance to it. You know, you can tell a lot about a person from his handwriting."

Now:

"Wow, this is lovely! Is it Trebuchet or Tahoma?"

Monday, March 15, 2010

What our future leaders think about the MyConstitution Campaign workshop

MyConsti_logo We’ve perhaps read or heard of the Reconstituting Earth V02 workshop carried out as part of the MyConstitution Campaign activities by the Constitutional Law Committee of the Bar Council. But have we heard of the participants’ views on the workshop?

Ka Ea, the Executive Officer of the Constitutional Law Committee, gets a chance to speak to some of the participants at the MyConstitution Youth Legal Awareness workshop organised with Sisters in Islam (SIS) on 6th and 7th March 2010 at the Armada Hotel, Petaling Jaya.

“What gives meaning to rights is if people are aware of them and will fight to defend them.”

LINGS, a 25-year old from Penang, graduated from the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) last year. He studied law and takes a keen interest in human rights and public interest issues. It’s no wonder that the Constitutional Law Committee has spotted him in various other workshops around town. To say that he might be a workshop junkie is an understatement.

Lings does more than just attend workshops. He is a member of Kumpulan Aktivis Mahasiswa Independen (KAMI) whose aim is to create awareness amongst university students on national or public interest and human rights issues. Apart from conducting workshops, they disseminate information and encourage students to engage in active discussion on literally any issues through a blog called Diskopi (http://www.diskopi.wordpress.com), an acronym for Diskusi Santai Kopi. 

When you speak to Lings, you will soon realise that he is a true believer in education being a key solution to most problems in Malaysia. When asked what angers him most about our country, he replied spontaneously, “Corruption. Corruption is a heinous crime. Education will solve the problem.

This may explain why he has such a penchant for workshops. Lings told me that he has conducted 2 workshops on human rights advocacy for KAMI. By participating in other workshops, he learns a lot and hence will be able to impart this knowledge to others.

He said he has enjoyed the MyConstitution Youth Legal Awareness workshop because different people with different backgrounds were able to come together and learn from each other without fear of repercussion when speaking up openly and freely. He said he finally understood the strong connection between civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights.

He said that it’s wonderful that lawyers are doing something for the layperson. This shows that they are “becoming effective intellectuals” rather than just intellectuals.

Lings also commented that the hotel was too posh. He said this while digging into his dessert taken from a generous buffet spread serving a sampling of more than 10 types of dessert during lunch time. I teased him that he wouldn’t have been able to enjoy these if it was held somewhere else.

He grinned sheepishly and said the organisers could have held the workshop in a community hall and used the cost to fund more participants. I nodded my head shamefully but deep inside hoped that one day, Lings and I could be good friends.

I then turned to HAFIZUDDIN who was sitting next to Lings. Hafizuddin is a 21-year old, second year law student in UKM. He is also a member of KAMI. The petite, bespectacled and bubbly student is also fast becoming a familiar face within the activist circle. He was last spotted at the Conversations on the Constitution forum on Federal State Relations at the Annexe Gallery on 11 March.

Hafizuddin’s political peeve is the lack of independence in our judiciary system, in which he considers as the most important branch of our constitutional institution. He said since Malaysia does not really have absolute separation of powers within the three main institutions, the judiciary cannot afford to be partial. He went on to quote Montesquieu’s infamous words, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It sends a chill down my spine when I hear young Malaysians quoting old philosophies from the Western world.

Hafizuddin believes that the only way to change the state of our country is through the Federal Constitution and that is the exercise of a two-third majority vote in Parliament. This means, it’s important for Malaysians to learn the significance of their votes.

He said that KAMI conducted a survey at the UKM campus not too long ago. 150 respondents participated and the results showed only 5% of the students are interested in constitutional issues. Of those who are interested and know what’s going on in the country, they do not know what they can do to help make that change.

After talking to Hafizuddin, I have a strong feeling that together with his buddy, Lings (both of them appeared inseparable during the workshop), they will change the landscape of youth activism in universities.

JOANNE is a 22-year old, final year psychology student at HELP College. She volunteers at the All Actions Women Association of Malaysia (AWAM) as a psychological counsellor. She said that the workshop has been useful because she didn’t even have rudimentary knowledge of the law prior to this. At AWAM, sometimes she receives calls from the public asking her about the legal aspect of human rights and she was not able to provide help or answers. 

She said now that she has attended the workshop, she finds it bizarre that nobody within her circle of friends or family members ever talk about the Federal Constitution or even human rights.

She finally sees how some cultural teachings have manifested in ignorance amongst so many people. From the Reconstituting Earth V02 workshop, she discovers her own prejudices which she wouldn’t have otherwise. For example, she always thought that all Malays will defend their rights to special privileges. Since the workshop, she has talked to some Malay participants and realised that many do not actually support these discriminatory practises. Many are ashamed and some even admitted that Syariah Law can violate rights.

We’re living in a dangerous society where people are forming their own perception and understanding of things. We’re no longer good role models for our future generation. Parents, teachers and the government are not teaching us to cast away these prejudices but instead, reinforcing them.”

Joanne admitted that she did not know anything about the Federal Constitution prior to this workshop. However, when she sat through the session learning about the different types of rights, she realised that in fact, there isn’t any need for anyone to teach people to think about human rights. People have the ability to think about it on their own because in the end, a lot of the issues discussed are related to each and everyone’s life. Instead, what is needed is for people to start talking about it.

She said that she doesn’t want the knowledge gained from the workshop to stop at the point when the workshop ends. She will talk to her family, friends and acquaintances about what she has learned from the workshop. She also hopes that Malaysians will learn to have the courage to voice out when there is an abuse.

Joanne left behind a powerful quote, “What gives meaning to rights is if people are aware of them and will fight to defend them.”

Finally, I talked to AZLAN, a 22-year old law student at the Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM). Azlan looks like someone who loves to travel. He lives in Johor but studies in Kedah and he travelled all the way to Petaling Jaya for the workshop alone.

I enjoyed talking to this soft-spoken and eloquent student. In his slightly Americanised accent, he told me about his own life struggle. When his fellow classmates learned that he would be attending a workshop organised by SIS, they called him a heretic. This was not the first time.

He started bearing the cruel taunts of his classmates since he did research on the Lina Joy case. When he did a presentation on the case, many students were shocked and disgusted by his conclusion that freedom of religion applies to Muslims in Malaysia. Since then, he’s been called an infidel and many other hurtful names.

I asked him what gives him the strength to go on studying in such an insufferable environment?  He said that only God knows his true intention and that’s enough for him. He is glad that he is able to participate in a workshop where he could share his thoughts with like-minded people. He is not able to speak about issues like this at home since none of his family members try to understand him.

When speaking with Azlan, he reminded me of myself when I was younger. I remember how difficult and devastating it was living a completely different life from the ones my parents wished for me.

Azlan said that if there is one piece of advice he could give the world, it would be to urge people to try to understand each other before making any judgment. He said it’s important for people to study, analyse and understand a specific issue before forming opinions based solely on emotion. Many people have suffered as a result of this.

Azlan’s story teaches me that sometimes, we forget how difficult it is for youths to express themselves. In our quest to teach them to be more aware and vocal about their rights, we have forgotten to teach them how to bridge that gap between themselves and the older generations. We have forgotten how to understand them.

Perhaps, it also tells us that the MyConstitution Campaign shouldn’t be limited to the young ones only.

This article was taken from the Malaysian Bar website. This was written as a web report for the MyConstitution Campaign on 15 March 2010.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

When a beauty queen is valued for more than just her looks

MyConsti_logo What makes you think the Ms. World beauty queen is still in the prime of her youth and hence able to produce beautiful and healthy offspring in a new world order?

What makes you think that the religious teacher is Catholic?

What makes you think that the Indian farmer is a man?

These are the questions that forced the participants of the “Reconstituting Earth V2” session to think about.

My own thought was: If a gay rock climber and mineralogist is expected to be the sole male procreator in a new world order, does that mean we’re denying him his right to practise his sexual orientation?

On 7 February 2010, the Constitutional Law Committee had the pleasure of conducting this workshop at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS)’s “Constitution and Constitutionalism: Understanding the Rule of Law” workshop in ILKAP, Bangi.

At 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning, having a thought-provoking and interactive session such as this (as opposed to a lecture) was a wise choice on the part of the organisers. 30 participants from different professional backgrounds gathered in 3 groups of 10 to discuss and debate which six individuals from a list of 25 deserved to be given a chance to live in a new planet while Earth is going to be destroyed.

Don’t worry. Earth is here to stay for the moment. This is a hypothetical scenario created by the Constitutional Law Committee as a way of encouraging participants to think whether their assumptions and prejudices are necessary and good for society. For a thorough understanding of what the workshop module constitutes, please click here for observations by Aniza Damis which created a storm since its release recently.

One needs to be present at the workshop to fully appreciate that it makes no difference what one’s political affiliation or social status is, as everyone has his or her own prejudices. It was amazing that participants included those from the legal, political, diplomatic, academic, medical, religious, activist, commercial, writing and student communities. I believe it was a rare occasion to have someone from UMNO, PAS, Gerakan and even the Anwar Ibrahim Club to gather under the same roof simply to learn about the Constitution and the rule of law.

What I like most about the workshop was how comments from individual participants ranged from the humourous to the ethical, such as, what gives us the right to choose who deserves to be saved and who not?

One group said they chose the human rights activist and politician because they are both needed to “balance each other out”.

My own personal favourite is this:

The disabled foot soldier/sailor was chosen because he is strong and has survival skills and yet due to his disability, he won’t be able to engage in war.

It’s not often when you hear a group talk so positively about someone with a disability.

To end this, below were the key phrases used by participants when describing their chosen six:
·    Educated
·    Preferably female
·    Possesses knowledge and skills
·    Ethnicity is not important
·    Most probably a male
·    Female for procreation
·    Disability could potentially hamper
·    A lesbian serves no purpose in procreation
·    Adaptability of human beings
·    Fertile
·    Young
·    Good and strong genes for breeding
·    Ability to work is important
·    Appearance is important
·    Everyone has the ability to teach something
·    An engineer knows more than a teacher
·    Religion cannot be taught but something you believe in
·    Multi-functionality
·    Visionary
·    Diversity

And last but not least, beauty queens these days are intelligent.

This article was written as a web report for the Malaysian Bar website. Click here to view.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Do unto others quietly as you would like them do unto you

Tahir2

Since I started working again, it has become more difficult to meet the deadlines for this column.

The luxury of having the time to ponder over what to write and then indulge in the writing process itself has diminished considerably.

Besides, I am not much of an intellectual. My previous essays shall bear witness to this. Much of my inspirations are drawn from personal experiences rather than intelligent analysis of current socio-political issues. Therefore, I must confess that being constantly assaulted by new workload on a regular basis, I haven’t had the time to feel inspired lately.

Anyway, a few days ago, I received a pleasant surprise from an old Afghan colleague of mine.

I had spent two years living in Afghanistan back in 2003. During that period of time, I had met some remarkable Afghans. One of them was a young chap named Mohammad Tahir.

Thanks to Facebook, Tahir managed to find me and added me as a friend recently. We had not been in touch for more than five years.

When I looked at his profile photo, I was shocked to see a slightly blurred image of a portly man who used to be a boy who weighed no more than 45kg. (He probably says the same of me.)

Although his eyes were concealed by a pair of sunglasses, I recognised his smile on the photo instantly.

I was not able to tell much of him by looking at his photo except to strike my own conclusion that he is probably living a much better life now. At the same time, I wondered whether it was biologically possible for someone so thin to gain that much weight within five years!

Once I accepted him as a friend, he wasted no time in sending me this message (the sentences have been touched up to provide better clarity):

“Dear Madam Ka Ea Lim. I am really happy to find you in Facebook. Please accept my warm regards. I hope that you are well in your daily routine. I looked for your email address or any other ways to contact you but to no avail. So it is really great to find you now. I want to say something about myself. I am no longer the Tahir who was a child whom you once took care of. I am now a man. I have two children. My daughter is four years old and my son, one and a half. I will never forget you when you gave me the opportunity to work with the UN during the first Presidential election. It was the first step in my life. Except you, all the other Electoral officers were against my recruitment due to my age. I am always grateful to you for this. I am now working as a Language Assistant for an American company.”

When I read this message, I was stunned because I had no idea of the impact I had made in his life.  I didn’t even do anything to deserve this except to demand for the recruitment of what I saw as the most suitable candidate for the role of an electoral public information officer.

Tahir received my support because what others saw as a juvenile and inexperienced boy, I saw a young man with great potential and a secret weapon.

Tahir

You see, he was a musician who played local traditional music. He was also extremely likable. He had a humble and sunny disposition and what appeared to be a natural ability to feel and care for others deeply.

In the end, nobody regretted the choice that was made. Not only did Tahir impart vital voter registration information through his music, he brought joy and comfort to so many Afghans who had been deprived of music for so many years.

He reminded them the beauty of life and how it felt like for one’s soul to be stirred by the strings of a dombura again.

Tahir also reminded me of the time when we had to fight hard with Taliban sympathisers who refused to allow the local women to participate in anything outside the boundaries of their homes.

Our fight did not go in vain when we saw the women smiled and with their eyes shut as they rocked their bodies forward and backward gently and quietly to the soothing sound of Tahir’s voice.

For many, it might have been a picture of complete bliss and utter happiness but to me, each of the women looked as if Tahir was singing for her alone and the songs written were just for her and no one else.

Women at the concert

This is what I remember most about Tahir. Not of what he owed me or what I had done for him. But I must confess that I do secretly revel in the thought of giving him something and at some level perhaps also helping to change his life.

I have been trying to think of someone who had helped change my life positively without him or her intentionally doing so. In the beginning, no one came to mind but after much probing, I realise that many people have played that role.

What I realise is this.  It is not often when someone whom we know comes along and tells us how indebted they are towards us but it is even rarer for us to acknowledge the act of a stranger; such as the woman who prompts you to her parking space as she is about to leave the mall, the man who hops on his motorbike so that he can guide you back to the main road when you’re lost, the waiter who returns your missing passport and a child who makes you burst into unrestrained laughter as he dances clumsily but yet uninhibitedly in the middle of the mall.

These strangers have helped to create an impact to my life. They continuously remind me of the goodness of this world and the people living in it. Without such random and unintentional acts of kindness or sheer innocence, I would have given up my faith in humanity a long time ago.

One of the most intriguing advices I’ve read from H. Jackson Brown Jr.’s Life Little Instruction Book is to make someone happy without the person knowing it. It sounds like a real challenge because most of the time, not only do we want the person to know it, we want the entire world to see it (such as in my case now that I’ve told the story).

But let me say this, if you manage to do so, it is undeniably one of the most wonderful feelings you can ever get.

And so, I wrote to Tahir:

“I just want to tell you 3 things. You’re a delight to work with. You brought something so beautiful and joyful to so many people. You made a huge impact through your music, positivism and beautiful smile. I will never forget that.”

“You’re who you are today because of you and I wish you all the happiness you deserve.”

Please share with me - what sort of kindness have you shown to others lately?

This article first appeared on The Malaysian Insider under the title, “Do Unto Others Quietly…” today.