Sunday, December 18, 2011

Talking ‘bout evolution

This article was first published on The Malaysian Insider on 12 December 2011.

As a child, it was mandatory to obtain Mom and Dad’s permission before I could leave the house. It was also mandatory to inform them of my whereabouts at all time. Thankfully, I was mature enough to understand that the rules were imposed in my best interest. Hence, I followed them without much resistance.

Dad was however, particularly unreasonably strict. He would go to the extent of forbidding me from participating in optional school trips and innocent outings with my cousins. There were times when I would spend days prior to the actual trip obsessing about how I would ask Dad’s permission, only to know that the answer would be a strict no. I would resort to political tactics by using Mom as an ally. Sometimes it worked, but most of the time it ended up in failed negotiations and days of cold war that followed.

You see, Dad is a reclusive and introvert person. He believes in traditional values based on hard work and sacrifices. He believes that one must sacrifice frivolous pursuits and individualistic wants in order to maintain harmony and achieve academic and professional success. He also believes that if you release a horse’s rein, the horse will go wild and never return once it has tasted freedom.

So I grew up feeling in awe and at the same time resentful of Dad. I respect and admire him for his integrity and honourable pursuits and yet I can never agree with this particular principle of his that restriction is necessary to keep a person from straying. Perhaps, that is one of the reasons why I’ve become fiercely independent and suffocate under authoritative environment.

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity of accompanying a group of young American fellows on a private tour of Malacca. The tour guide was an elderly man who takes great pride in his origin as a bona fide Malaccan. He was the perfect person for the job as he was knowledgeable, passionate and eloquent in his narrations.

I was particularly amused by his footnotes, some of which were not entirely relevant to the purpose of that tour. You see, he avidly shared his strong condemnation of the government’s destructions of historical monuments and treatment of indigenous people. He was a sympathiser when it came to the topic of corruption and he even claimed that he works closely with indigenous tribes to protect their lands. You could see that he abhors some of the government’s policies and was not ashamed to express it, even before a group of foreigners.

After the tour, a few of us, including the elderly gentleman, stopped at on old-fashioned coffee shop on Jonker Street to have coffee. I brought up the subject of the Bersih 2.0 rally in the most innocent of manner and asked what he thought about it.

Indeed, he got pretty heated up but to my surprise, he was extremely critical of the demonstrators. He said that he did not condone the rally at all. He agreed that dissent is necessary but definitely not Bersih 2.0’s method of choice. He argued fervently that assembly of any kind in protest of the government is not the Malaysian way. National harmony must not be compromised at all cost.

When asked what else could be done if all diplomatic negotiations have failed, he was unable to produce a convincing answer. When asked how a peaceful assembly can be harmful, he struggled to articulate his thoughts. His point of argument was solely from a cultural perspective. It’s simply not the Malaysian way of doing things.

I found the juxtaposition of his contrasting views intriguing and could only conclude that he belongs to an older generation of Malaysians who still hold on to certain traditional values that are simply too strong to let go.

There are lessons to be learned from these two stories. I grew up in a generation that places greater value and appreciation for human rights and liberty as result of economic progress and globalisation. We are no longer isolated from the rest of the world and hence, are able to evaluate, compare and conclude for ourselves that respect for human rights and true democracy is fundamental towards progress and human evolution. Some would say that this is solely a Western concept but seriously so what? Isn’t it na├»ve to say that we want to be as progressive as Sweden but only insofar as its economy is concerned but not its form of democracy? Isn’t the very piece of garment worn by most Malaysians on a daily basis influenced by Western fashion? Besides, honestly what is the Malaysian way? Is the Malaysian culture based on corruption and abuse of power?

Democracy and respect for human rights is synonymous to progress. Brutal killing as a form of entertainment in a gladiator arena is a thing in the past. Child abuse and gender discrimination are now prohibited by our laws and they were not plucked out of thin air. It would be extremely foolish of the government to believe that all Malaysians of my generation would be content with just economic progress and half assed implementation of selected rights according to their whims and fancies.

Nature would dictate that human beings will continuously fight for their own survival. Once they’ve succeeded in that, they will move on to fight for freedom and progress. It’s called evolution and has been historically proven by the fall of great dictatorial empires.

Some would argue that there are those who genuinely reject progress and it’s only a selected few who impose on them the notion of progress. As true as it may be, the key word here is choice.

Dad’s method of discipline was wrong. If I had in any way betrayed his trust, he would have the right to punish me, but not to restrict me from the very start. The same applies to those who want to go on a peaceful street protest. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but that choice must be presented to those who have the desire to do so. Punish those who abuse that right but not those who want to exercise that right responsibly.

Evolution is part of nature and it will happen whether we want it or not. There comes a time when every child will want to grow up to become a free adult. The question is when and how. This is something the government must think about.