Saturday, August 23, 2014

Reading Rehman Rashid

I remember meeting Rehman Rashid at the Cooler Lumpur Literary Festival in 2013 despite knowing for certain that Rashid on the other hand, would have no recollection of me.

I had no idea how he looked like prior to that, but it might as well be as such or I would have avoided him. You see, I am cursed with the inability to behave like a normal human being when coming into contact with figures I am at awe with. To impose such affliction on someone like Rashid would have been mortifying to say the least.

I remember standing alone outside the event venue waiting anxiously for the Poskod Journalism Campus keynote address to start. Shifting my weight from one foot to the other, I pretended to look busy. On hindsight now, I have no idea how I thought I could possibly achieve that effect since I wasn’t doing anything, not even with a book to keep me company. So I was naturally grateful when a tall, slim man of about 40 or 50 (I can’t be sure because his face lacked the intensity of wrinkles one would come to expect with hair as white as his) approached me.

He held out his hand and introduced himself politely. I reciprocated by shaking his hand, still completely oblivious of who he was. For the life of me, I can’t seem to remember whether he had introduced himself with his full name or just Rehman, which could easily be mistaken as Rahman.

Although Rashid towered over me, he spoke as if we were peers of equal size and height, little did I know that baritone voice of his would fascinate me with his keynote address later that morning.

I can’t recall our conversation. It must had been perfunctory, but I remember being distracted by his sense of style. He was wearing dark denim pants (I think they might had been slightly frayed at the ankles) paired with a button-up shirt fitted loosely over his slender frame and polished black brogues. Nothing out of the ordinary except for the patterned bohemian sling bag hanging on his shoulder. It was strange that a man with such polished speech and manner should be seen voluntarily in public with a bag that seems more appropriate for a dreadlocked Rastafarian.

No one knows this but what Rashid said in his keynote address that morning changed the way I write. He was as good an orator as he is a writer. He was fascinating and witty. His messages, powerful and inspiring.

Rashid lamented how journalists are becoming egotistical and self-centred, that there are too many opinion pieces (and bloggers) but very little real journalism displayed in the media these days. His traditional view of journalism has made him a target of ridicule and criticism in the past, especially by bloggers; understandingly so for his patent public display of disaffection towards them. As harsh as he sounded in his opinion, I personally don’t think Rashid was being critical of the democratisation (or digitalisation) of the written expression and ideas, but more of the content. I think this is what many of his critics fail to understand.

Rashid asserted that the role of a journalist is to bring newsworthy stories of the everyday men and women on the street to the readers at home. He said nobody should care what a journalist thinks because a journalist’s job is not to think but to report.

I’ll be honest that I am constantly tempted to indulge my ego by writing an opinion piece, thinking that I have the carte blanche to comment on anything and everything, and people would give a damn about it. I still do it because it is easier surfing the net as research than engaging in meaningful conversations with people on issues I want to write about. The thing is, when I do the former, I often find my pieces to be utter rubbish.

Carl Bernstein, famed for his Watergate scandal reports said that good journalism is “trying to obtain the best attainable version of the truth” and the best way of doing so is by “being a good listener. Listening to source after source after source.” I believe Rashid was trying to tell us the same thing that day in his keynote address. He taught me that a good writer does not write to serve one’s ego but to be the voices of other people.

It took me four days to finish A Malaysian Journey. It would have taken me a much shorter time but for the frequent interruptions that came from a full-time job. Everytime I had to put the book down, I found myself willing for the day to speed up so that I could go back to it again.

For someone who had been pretty much ignorant of Malaysian politics until the age of 25, the book offers a lucid and easy-to-read narratives of some of the most important events that have helped shape much of Malaysia’s political landscape and its people today. I understand Malaysia much more in just one sitting of the book than six years of Malaysian history classes in school.

Rashid was very clever to write subject matters that could’ve easily run into the risk of being terribly dry, heavy and boring, in a prose which was both suitably beautiful and engaging to the readers. He was as delightful to read as Preeta Samarasan and Tan Twan Eng.

A Malaysian Journey proves that Rashid is a writer of conscience. He did not make himself out as some sort of a hero. There is a raw honesty in his account of his career as a journalist, being a Malay who benefits from the National Economic Programme, and the racial politics that would subsequently inflict such a gruesome wound on the nation that will take a long time before it heals.

Rashid approached the 16 chapters in his book by interlacing them in two separate styles – one chapter would unfold his voyage across Malaysia, often making sure the characters he met remained the hero or heroine, and the next of a significant national event that had taken place in the country chronologically.

What sets A Malaysian Journey apart from other books infused with political flavor is Rashid’s style of writing. It does not possess that unguarded bitterness found in most of Kee Thuan Chye’s writing, neither is it as intellectually pompous as Farish Noor’s. Kee tends to spit while Farish Noor shows off what he knows. Rashid? Well, he tells stories.

In my book, A Malaysian Journey has made Rehman Rashid one of the most memorable Malaysian writers of our time. I thank him for writing this book for he has made it possible for me to embark in an important journey in this place I call home.

This article was first published by The Malaysian Insider here.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Fight sexual harassment the way of Sun Tzu

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting – Sun Tzu
After an hour of scissor jumps, squats, high kicks and punches at a fitness club, I decided to head home for a shower. Highly aware of the unattractive sweat stains on my chest, back and armpits, I rushed discreetly to the lift, hoping I would be alone, until a bald man dressed in sweats appeared behind me.
I recognised him immediately from a YouTube video I saw only about a week ago. He competed in a yoga competition where he did a headstand with his hands stretched far behind his shoulders. I thought he was slightly wobbly in his attempt but still, pretty impressive.
“Now you’re looking very sexy,” he said to me as I was about to compliment him on his yoga skills.
“What? Excuse me?”
I didn’t know polite introduction was passé.
“All that sweat, it makes you sexy. Sweat releases a type of scent. Pheromone,” he said.
He flashed me a grin, revealing two rows of perfectly white and even teeth. To be honest, if he hadn’t opened his mouth, I would have thought he was kind of cute.
When caught in a situation like this, I’m often confronted by these thoughts – should I tell him off straightaway or should I wait to give him the benefit of the doubt? Maybe I am too sensitive. Maybe he didn’t mean to be offensive. Maybe he didn’t know he’s being offensive.
“Pheromone? I thought only men release pheromone,” was my choice of response to him.
My tactic was to get him to think about sweat in a scientific manner. I thought Sun Tzu was in me and I, in him.
“Ohhh no. We all release pheromones. That’s how we attract each other,” he replied confidently.
My strategy seemed to have failed but fortunately enough, someone younger and definitely prettier caught his attention.
“Hi! How are you married?” he asked the girl cheerfully and then pretended to correct himself. “Oops! I meant how are you?” Without remorse, of course.
He chuckled at his own joke while the girl stepped forward to give him a hug, an indication they knew each other.
Just as I thought it would be interesting to observe their interaction with each other, the lift opened with a loud ping revealing a man standing inside. We all stepped into the lift and stood in silence until we parted ways at different floors.
Many men who read this probably think what the yogi said to me wasn’t a big deal at all. Why do women put up such a fuss when a guy makes sexual comments about her? Can’t they see it as a compliment instead?
Well, here’s the thing in case you don’t already know: Many women do not like strangers (or even men they know) commenting on their sexuality simply because it’s something private and intimate. Given, there are possibly women who love and welcome this kind of comments but I don’t think I had given this man any reason to think so.
My friend Andy claimed that men get upset with women who find it offensive when being sexually hit on because they secretly wish women would do the same to them. I don’t know whether that’s true but I think if most men don’t find themselves being sexually hit on by women, it could be because women in general think it’s an unacceptable social act, which then perhaps means men shouldn’t be doing it either.
Sexual harassment is a violation of a person’s dignity, body and private space. It’s a violation because it is premised on the basis that a person’s body belongs to that person only and nobody has the right to assume or act otherwise.
I remember a particular bus trip I took with my girlfriends when I was about 15. When we got on the bus, there were only two empty seats left at the last row of the bus. Mei Ling and I took the seats while Carol and her younger sister, Grace, sat on our laps.
Five minutes into what turned out to be a pretty bumpy ride, a hand reached out from my right to stroke Grace’s bare thighs. Startled, I turned to see who the offending hand belonged to. He smiled at me with a look that seemed to say, “So, whatcha gonna do about it, huh?”
I heaved Grace up to her feet, stood up and turned to face the man. I can’t remember how my girlfriends reacted to this sudden outburst but I remember staring disgustedly into the man’s eyes for the rest of the journey. I said nothing but I made pretty damn clear to him that I was watching him, with judgment.
I was decidedly brave that day because the man triggered a memory I had kept a secret for a very long time. When I was ten, my English teacher rubbed himself against my buttocks while I was reading an essay in front of the classroom. I did nothing about it and I told no one. My inaction would forever plague me because I’ve often wondered how many other innocent girls had also become victims of his despicable act.
Sexual harassment is criminal for the simple fact that men in these stories think they have every right to touch something that doesn’t belong to them or say something that could potentially rob a woman of her dignity. Do they think they have absolute power and authority to do so? Or is it because a young innocent girl is defenseless and hence makes for easy prey? Or perhaps, a woman’s body is public property?
I’ve had girlfriends who complain about men who make them squirm with discomfort. These are men who touch them unnecessarily, refer to them as "sexy lady" or send them pornographic material. There are also men who take the liberty of sending women text messages that are filled with sexual nuances. The funny thing is, these men almost always behave differently in person; ie they appear to be polite and respectful when you see them face-to-face. This just means that you can never really tell the identity of a sexual harasser. They can vary from a random stranger walking on the street to someone you already know who is married with children.
Sexual harassment is a big deal because it reduces a person’s worth by stripping away their dignity. The common emotions that can go through a victim range from:
• Helplessness – Eg. Feeling all alone and not knowing who to turn to for help.
• Shame, guilt, self-doubt – Eg. I must be slutty if he thinks he can say all those things to me. I must have asked for it.
• Awkwardness – Eg. I don’t know what to do or how to behave if I see him again.
• Fear – Eg. Will he do something to me if I see him again?
• Betrayed – Eg. He is my teacher. How could he do this to me?
• Confused – Eg. I want him to stop but will he hurt me if I tell him off?
• Self-resentment – Eg. Why didn’t I do anything about it?
All these emotions can have a negative impact on a person’s relationships or ability to focus at work because the person becomes too pre-occupied with these emotions.
I have had experiences where I don’t ever want to see or talk to the person who said inappropriate things to me simply because I feel utterly uncomfortable in his presence. I worry incessantly about bumping into that person if I know he is within my premises. To inflict such emotional arrest on someone is harassment. Unless you’re on the receiving end of it, you can’t even begin to understand the debilitating effects it has on a person who is sexually harassed.
It can be difficult to report someone for sexual harassment. There’s always the fear of making something so private and humiliating public, but here are some things we can do privately to reinstate our dignity and restore the power that has been stripped away from us.
• Let the person know what he did is wrong, you don’t want it and he needs to stop.
It doesn’t have to be verbal communication. Write to the person rationally and clearly, leaving no room for doubt that you want him to stop. Do not say it in a joking or apologetic way – no emoticons with half winks or smiles because a harasser will take any opportunity to turn that against you if it ever gets worse or nasty later.
Letting the person know takes away that sense of helplessness. It puts you back in charge which in turn puts the sexual predators off because they often get a kick out of asserting power over those whom they think are vulnerable.
• Show the person what he did is unacceptable through your body language.
Like the bus incident, I avoided causing a scene by letting the offender knew through persistent eye contact. Trust me, bad people often become uncomfortable when they are looked straight in the eyes. The man in the bus shifted uncomfortably in his seat and avoided eye contact after a while.
It takes courage to face your harasser but tell yourself if you don’t, you may resent yourself later for not doing anything when you had the opportunity to.
• Pretend to be confident even when you’re really not.
Like Anna Leonowens’ advice to her son in The King and I, do whistle a happy tune when you’re feeling afraid of your adversary. You may feel utterly uncomfortable in his presence and would rather avoid him if you can, but what if you work together? Your office may be too small for you to hide.
Put on a brave show by appearing confident in front of him. Give him that look which says "I know something that you don’t" and this may put him on suspense as to whether you have said something to your superior or colleagues. Sexual harassers often cash in on the bet that you’re far too weak and scared to tell anyone but if he starts to suspect you may actually have, he’s likely going to think twice about behaving badly again.
• Tell someone about it.
Make sure it’s someone you trust and will act in your best interest.
There are many reasons why some women keep the harassment to themselves. Mainly, they are afraid of being judged. For instance, women who feel unattractive are afraid to tell someone they are being sexually harassed for fear of being ridiculed. “Right, as if someone would sexually harass an ugly person like you.” Like the culprits, victims of sexual harassment vary in their profiles. No one is immune to it.
Another common reason for keeping it a secret is the fear of being judged as the culprit. “Who ask you to dress so provocatively? You totally asked for it.”
Confiding in someone not only allows you to unburden yourself and receive support, it also provides you with a witness should you decide to pursue a formal complaint against your harasser. Who knows? Maybe the person you confide in had a similar experience with the same harasser? Knowing you’re not alone will provide you great comfort and courage to go through this episode.
• Document every detail.
Spare no details and be specific right down to the date and time when the incident happened. Sexual harassment is very hard to prove. It usually boils down to my words against yours. If you do find the courage to let the person know, do it in writing if you can. You may not be ready yet to take any formal action against the culprit but you may in the future. When you do, you’ll be grateful that you’ve kept all the information you need to state a strong case against him.
As a person who has been a victim of sexual harassment, my ultimate aim is not to punish the offender but to make him stop the harassment. Getting into an ugly fight or publicly humiliating the person need not be an option and sometimes can even be counter-productive because the harasser can get defensive or violent.
Confronting your harasser takes a lot of courage and it’s never easy, but if you manage to, you’ll feel empowered, liberated and proud for standing up for yourself, knowing that you may have played a part in stopping the guy from preying on other women.
This article was first published at the Malaysian Insider on 29 May 2014. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

What they don’t tell you in Biology class

I had the rare occasion of meeting a childhood friend after 25 years. Sylvia looked just the same as I have remembered her. Slim, fair, perhaps a little older as her pore-less facial skin no longer radiates that ridiculously pinkish glow it once used to.

At 39, she looks better than many women younger than her. Hell, she looks better than me.

As a child, I had always admired Sylvia. I wanted to be just like her. She had that quiet beauty about her and I honestly think she was completely obliviously of it, making her even more appealing. She had a gentle soul. She was smart, athletic and yet graceful. I thought she had it all. So when we reconnected recently, I was eager to find out how life had unfolded for her all these years.

When I saw how little she has changed physically, I imagined life is treating her well.

“I never thought I wanted one but now it’s kinda too late. I wish I had known earlier.”

I thought our dinner had gone splendidly despite my initial nerves. We ate, drank and talked for three hours but those were the words I took home with me that night, along with a bag of left-over barbecued spare ribs. She still eats like a bird.

When Sylvia told me she has been trying to have a baby through in vitro fertilisation for the past two years without much success, I was stunned for two reasons. First, there are not many women of her age whom I know who want a baby and second, the increasing number of women seeking fertility treatment in Malaysia.

According to Sylvia, it’s an emerging multi-million ringgit industry and it’s only the beginning because she pre-empts more fertility clinics infesting the city to feed the increasing demands of couples with reproductive health problems.

“If you don’t believe me, just visit any fertility clinic in the Klang Valley. The queues would make you think that Aphroditus has left town,” Sylvia laughed while I wondered why she mentioned Aphroditus instead of Aphrodite.

I’ve known Sylvia as the type who keeps things pretty much to herself. She listens more than she speaks and so the fact that she revealed something so intimate that night convinced me that she thought it was important for me to know.

“I hope I’m not stressing you out by telling you this. I don’t think women should suddenly readjust their lives because they think time is running out.” She said apologetically. I thought I saw that familiar pinkish hue on her cheeks for a split moment.

Throughout our conversation, I was conscious of the fact that Sylvia was trying hard not to appear desperate. For instance, when she talked about how empty she felt of her 10-year marriage, finally understanding her Mother’s wisdom that every couple eventually needs children in their lives, she would quickly followed the thought by reasserting how much she enjoys her career as an artistic director for an advertising company.

Like 70% of Belgian women who had their eggs frozen, Sylvia wished that she had done hers much earlier. A Belgian study carried out last year revealed that women who freeze their eggs in hope of improving their fertility in later years wish that they have done it at an earlier age. I had also read that American women feel the same way too. I wonder whether this holds true for Malaysian women as well.

Since I have no authority to speak on behalf of all Malaysian women, I shall share a brief history of my family’s fertility.

It was probably in their late teens when my Grandmothers had their firstborns. Both went on to have more than 10 children each, discounting those not carried to full term. The rate of miscarriage was quite high then but the lack of contraceptive awareness made reproductive rate even higher. So it wasn’t surprising for reproductively healthy women my Grandmothers’ generation to have an average of seven to ten children easily.

About half a century later, Mom gave birth to my brother at the age of 29. I was conceived two years later. We are only two but Mom’s siblings have an average of three children each. Dad’s have more.

I suppose it was considered late for a woman back in the 70s to give birth at the age of 29 but my parents had their reasons. Dad had just started his own business and Mom was there to support him every step of the way. Mom told me that it was one of the toughest time of their lives. The constant thought of failure and losing all their savings inevitably meant endless hours of hard work and sleepless nights. Mom said it was all worth it because what would be the use of hoping for a successful business if not to secure her children’s future?

I have just turned 38, married with no children. Both by choice. When I look at the circle of people I spend my time with, I am not an exception but rather the norm. Most of my friends are single and childless. I suspect they are happy just the way they are although I can’t be sure because these things can often be sensitive and private. So I try not to ask.

A survey by the National Population and Family Development Board revealed that the average age of marriage amongst Malaysians is 33. It could be higher now since the data is slightly outdated. Apparently, the number of those who are not married by the age of 30 has doubled since 2007. The common reasons given are that women are finding it harder to find men with equal or better educational qualifications and they have higher expectations in men than before. According to a local university associate professor, the fact that women are getting married later explained the rapid increase of infertility rate.

Many of the women I know are fiercely independent, professionally successful and generously kind. They love their jobs and enjoy their independence and why shouldn’t they? They’ve earned it by working hard and proving they can be as good as men in a society that is still patriarchal at large. Modern women make it clear to the world that they are not defined by their husbands or children. Marriage and parenting have become an option, rather than the norm.

I don’t think the single women I know are averse to marriage or children at all. In fact, I am sure many make good wives and mothers. Not wanting to settle for just anyone has been the common reason I’ve heard. The truth is, I think modern women are caught in two separate worlds – transitioning from a world that was intent on keeping them in supporting roles to one that suddenly expects them to be heroines. I believe somehow along the way, women begin to enjoy their newfound stardom but yet, they are unable to abandon their embedded biological code programmed since time immemorial to ensure the continuous survival of humankind.

I must admit that women have themselves as much to blame for making this transitional period very difficult. We can be very unkind to one another. For example, there are mothers who scorn at single women for living what they deem as irresponsible and selfish lifestyle while single women at the peak of their careers judge stay-at-home Moms as losers who cease to exist but for their children.

I spoke to my friend Siew Mei a couple of months ago and she said one of the most honest things I’ve heard in a long time.

“We’re so afraid of being judged that as women, we can’t even say out loud we want a baby for fear of being seen as a walking biological time bomb waiting to explode. It’s so not sexy anymore for women of our time to admit we want to be mothers, as if acknowledging our biological role is so shameful these days,” she said bitterly. “For the longest time I’ve lied to myself and my friends. I pretended not to have any interest in having a baby simply because I am not seeing someone. If I had a partner who wanted a baby with me, I would be the first one on that train to motherhood.”

Siew Mei is still waiting to find a suitable man who wants to be the father of her child. The last time I checked, she was still optimistic.

Now, here’s the thing I learned from Sylvia which I wish I had been told during Biology class many years ago. Many of us are aware that a woman’s fertility decreases with age. Biology says that each woman is born with a fixed number of eggs. Once a reproductively healthy woman hits puberty, an egg will be released from her ovary to her uterus every 28 days. If the egg is not fertilised by a sperm, it will shed as menstruation and this cycle repeats itself, provided the woman becomes pregnant. Therefore, a woman in her 40s would have less eggs than when she was 20 which then makes logical sense that her fertility would have reduced with age.

What was not told in Biology class is that our bodies release the best eggs first, saving the worst for last. This is also one of the reasons why the chances of delivering a healthy baby becomes lower with older women. It isn’t just because we have less eggs or our bodies are likely less fit or healthy, it’s also because we start “producing” F grade eggs.

“The doctor said I have less than 10% chance of pregnancy. Even if successful, I should have pre-natal testing to ensure my baby is normal. Apparently, if I had sought treatment before I was 35, I would have a greater chance of pregnancy but I didn’t think I wanted children then,” Sylvia said regretfully.

I asked her whether she would have reconsidered her choice if she had known this information earlier.

“Yes, definitely yes. When the doctor told us that we have the final option of fertilising another woman’s egg with my husband’s sperm, I nearly gagged. You can’t believe how humiliating it was for me to hear the doctor described the egg donors as ‘younger women in their 20s’. That their eggs are of ‘top quality’. I felt so shameful and inadequate.”

Sylvia later confessed that she had put her career and freedom above her marriage. Having a baby was on her list of things to do but it was right at the bottom, even after a trip to Bhutan. She thought she could put off motherhood as late as possible. After all, she has always maintained a healthy diet and lifestyle. She thought if Hollywood celebrities are popping babies in their 40s, why couldn’t she?

“By the way, smoking seriously reduces a woman’s fertility. It makes your eggs disappear. Seriously. I’m not kidding.” Sylvia cautioned although I had no idea why she thought I smoke.

I never thought my meeting with Sylvia could give me so much food for thought. For a start, I never thought someone as perfect as her could ever find herself stuck in this situation. I must confess that it also made me uncomfortable for the mere fact that it challenges my own choice.

She was however right by saying, “I don’t think women should suddenly readjust their lives just because they know time is running out but at least such information would allow us to make informed choices. I regret not knowing because I think I would have done what I could possibly can to ensure that I have the possibility of delivering a healthy baby.”

“If I am financially able, I would even consider freezing my eggs because if I have no problem spending thousands of ringgit traveling, why not preserving something which one day could become life?” She added.

In vitro fertilisation is an extremely costly procedure. It averages between RM10,000 to RM18,000 per cycle of fertilisation. A couple can easily spend up to RM50,000 for a small chance of getting a baby. What hope does it leave for those who have no financial means?

I think in the midst of trying to educate children on safe sex, we have forgotten the importance of reproductive health. We are so concerned about not getting pregnant that somewhere along the line, we’ve forgotten how to.

The original article was first published here on 3 May 2014.


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Is freedom of expression a problem?

French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala became an instant household name in France when he was banned from performing his anti-Semitic stand-up comedy routine. He is notoriously known for implying that a renowned Jewish journalist belonged in a gas chamber. 

Dieudonné may have become one of the most hateful personalities in France but many of his haters still believe that he should not be banned from performing.

It is not very often that the French court decides to restrict freedom of expression, a sacred institution in France. The other time it was done was when it prohibited the wearing of all religious headgear in public school, and more recently the wearing of a full-face veil in public spaces.

I found it interesting that France, a country that gave birth to Voltaire – known for his “I may disagree with what you say but I will defend to my death your right to say it” quote – appear  more willing to use court power to silent offensive speech and curtail the expression of religious identity.

I was told that the majority of the French disagree with the court’s ban on Dieudonné’s comedy show despite many who think he’s a hateful bigot and found his jokes extremely offensive and borderline violent.

I also learned that many French people believe that while the ban against hate speech is wrong, religious headgear isn’t (and other symbols for that matter) because they are two separate matters.

“Dieudonné’s jokes are more than just racist comedy. If you watch his videos online, you’ll see that he’s inciting violence and hatred against the Jew. What he does is criminal. But you [the court] cannot ban his show because that’s against freedom of expression. We cannot allow that to happen in France. It’s much too sacred,” Philippe, a French expatriate said when asked what he thought of the ban on Dieudonné.

“What the court should have done was to give him a prison sentence or a huge fine. There is sufficient evidence to charge him for inciting violence. But to ban his show, that’s just ridiculous.”

Philippe’s concern obviously lies in the protection of freedom of expression, something he considers sacred and cannot be violated.

I was told that the majority of the French are outraged by Dieudonné’s anti-Semitic jokes but like Philippe, they are more concerned that the judiciary may fall into a slippery slope.

“We couldn’t care less about Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. Who the hell is this guy anyway? If civil liberty groups are upset about the ban, it’s definitely not to defend what he did. It’s to defend our right to freedom of expression. We cannot allow the ban to happen because who knows what else will be banned in the future?” Philippe insisted.

“People need to understand this. Objecting the ban does not equate to defending racist behaviour. They are two separate issues,” he added.

Guillaume, another French expat, agreed with Philippe. Although he disagrees with Dieudonné’s racist behaviour, he wished people would stop giving him so much attention.

“I don’t really care about him. He did not exist in my life before but now because of this fracas, everybody knows him and they are giving him way too much importance.  He’s become so popular. Why? There are other more important things that deserve my attention,” said Guillaume.

What is true for Philip seems to hold true for Guillaume as well. According to both, freedom of expression must not be restricted. But what I find even more intriguing is that the duo feel that the French court’s consistent upholding of the ban on religious headgear (more prominently the face-veil worn by Muslim women) in the public sphere is completely justified.

What’s the difference?

“Well, for centuries we’ve suffered the imposition of the Catholic Church. France is a secular country now. There’s no room for people who want to impose their religion on others. You go to school to learn, not to practise your faith. We did not say you can’t have a religion. All we’re saying is religion has no place in the public sphere. You can do what you want in private. That’s your business,” Philippe asserted.

I argued that wearing a headscarf does not mean a person is imposing her religion on others. It is well within one’s right to express one’s religious identity and to practise one’s religious teaching.

“I really doubt that these people are merely expressing their religious identity. I think they are trying to Islamise the country. They are deliberately provoking the public with their religious attire,” Philippe said.

I looked at Guillaume to hear what he had to say about this. He remained silent and appeared to be in deep thought. Perhaps he may disagree with Philippe this time.

Philippe meanwhile continued to express strong feelings against the wearing of religious headscarf in public. He said that those who insist on practising their religion openly should live elsewhere. France is not a country for them.

As I am familiar with such sentiment, often expressed by those who think we (the Malaysian minority) are complaining too much and should leave the country, it dawned on me that freedom of expression wasn’t really the issue here. It was the fear of France losing its secular identity and Islamaphobia that had prompted such different opinion.

I had an epiphany - there are people who are equally as afraid of the threat of converting into Islam as much as the threat of converting out of Islam. I begin to see some sort of a resemblance between religious and anti-religious fanatics.

When I pointed this out to Philippe, he argued vehemently that it wasn’t just the Islamic headscarf that he has an issue with, but all religious headgear and symbol.

“Do you know that Muslims are now demanding public schools in France to serve halal food? I mean, what next?” Guillaume finally broke his silence and that was sufficient for me to deduce that he shared the same sentiment as Philippe.

The French courts may try their best to apply restrictions on constitutional rights as consistently as possible, the French public are quite split on the two issues. This is precisely what makes freedom of expression an extremely grey area. No matter how it is being applied, there will always be someone who is unhappy somehow, somewhere.

To me, freedom of expression is not the problem. What becomes problematic is the hypocrisy of human being – “I will defend my right but not yours”.  

Freedom of expression must be for everyone which is why, it should only be restricted when it is absolutely necessary and within the law. There is no fast rule on what entails necessity. It must always be judged contextually and from both sides of the perspectives.

What could potentially be a solution to address polarity is the emphasis on critical thinking by our society, a faculty so lacking these days.

For many centuries, the Socratic Method or what is commonly known as critical thinking has been the pillar of the finest teaching institutions in the world. Famous for his quote “an unexamined life is not worth living”, Socrates distinguished intellectual and free minds from ignorant fools although he was sentenced to death for making a mockery out of the ancient Greek Gods and the Athenian ruling elite.

His student, Plato, created the first institution of higher learning in the Western world and wrote Dialogues, a book where characters argue a topic by asking each other questions.

The Socratic Method further inspired Plato to expound on his theory of dualism, separating perception from idealism. He illustrated this theory using the cave metaphor – people living in a cave can only see the light within the parameter it is projected upon, hence depriving them from seeing the big picture or external realism as he would call it. Here lies another reason why freedom of expression must not be restricted to allow peripheral points of view.

Plato’s Academia and Dialogues are both famous for promoting critical thinking. The presiding philosophy was that all school of thought must be given equal opportunity for discourse so that students and readers can make their own judgment after careful analysis.

The American Association of University Professor agrees with Plato’s philosophy and thus adopted a Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Code which says:

“Freedom of thought and expression is essential to any institution of higher learning. Universities and colleges exist not only to transmit knowledge. Equally, they interpret, explore, and expand that knowledge by testing the old and proposing the new. This mission guides learning outside the classroom quite as much as in class, and often inspires vigorous debate on those social, economic, and political issues that arouse the strongest passions. In the process, views will be expressed that may seem to many wrong, distasteful, or offensive. Such is the nature of freedom to sift and winnow ideas.

On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden. No viewpoint or message may be deemed so hateful or disturbing that it may not be expressed.”

The code went on to prescribe measures that can be taken to address incivility, intolerance, offensive and harassing behaviour, all short of banning free speech. Click here for the full code.

Freedom of expression can be both empowering and disempowering at the same time. To me, it should not be restricted whenever possible because it can be used to empower more than it can disempower.

As a woman, I may be offended by a disempowering video objectifying women as sex symbols but as a human rights activist, freedom of expression is an inviolable right that must be defended at a reasonable cost. It is because of freedom of expression that human rights values are imparted and upheld all over the world on a daily basis. Finding a balance between these competing interests is not easy and requires time and wisdom to understand. 

To me, it is easier to correct a harm caused by an expression than to correct one that is caused by a ban on expression. For example, the public can challenge an offensive expression through criticism and counter argument when there is space which allows freedom of expression but it becomes extremely difficult to expose and correct wrongdoing in an environment where freedom of expression is being curtailed.

Plato’s theory of dualism explains the inevitability of two opposing views which makes it difficult to judge an issue as simply black or white. As such, the solution should never be to restrict the expression of these two opposing views, but to encourage the audience to think about the views as critically as possible and come to their own conclusion.

Shielding an adult from distasteful or offensive form of expression is not a heroic act. In fact, it can be disempowering and it can perpetuate ignorance. Not only are you treating the adult like a child, you’re saying that you know better. This is an offence many Malaysian politicians are committing on a daily basis. 

Fighting injustices and human stereotypes is not about restricting offensive or distasteful content. It’s about educating and empowering men, women and children on a daily basis to think critically about such content so that they can learn to make informed judgment on their own.
Freedom of expression is not the problem. The lack of it is.

This article was first published here on 13 February 2014.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Stop feeling happier

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to feel happier about the world, I have got news for you, buddy. It is not happening.

Misery is here to stay and unfortunately, you are part of it.

The truth is, I have been unhappy for a while. There you go, I finally said it.

If you think I’m another self-indulgent writer who is taking advantage of the media to whine about how unhappy I am, you’re absolutely right. But I will tell you now that I take no pleasure in doing so because I would rather be the bearer of good news on this New Year if I could.

Well, it began to dawn on me how unhappy I have been when the media recently reported that a French company has successfully produced the world’s first self-regulating artificial heart transplant. Instead of being thrilled with the technological marvel, I scorned at it.

I scorned at it because seriously, do we really need human beings to live longer?

Here are some words to describe human beings – capitalist, authoritarian, hypocrite, sadist, fanatic, xenophobe and racist.  I mean, look around you. Misery is everywhere and we, the human beings, are responsible for it.

For those who truly know me, I usually have a sarcastic or cynical comeback for most things. People who constantly post positive things on their Facebook or say only positive things about the world make me feel uncomfortable. Do not get me wrong, it is not that I do not want to share their positivity, I just do not buy it. I wish they would just cut the crap and stop pretending that everything is okay.

I had a conversation with a colleague about what it means to save the planet. This is what he said, “The term saving the planet is so deceitful because the planet does not really need saving. It has the ability to heal itself. If we are really concern about saving the planet, then we must be rid it of ourselves because our mere existence is harming the planet. So people should stop using the term ‘save the planet’ because what they really mean is to save human beings, not the planet.”

I appreciated him for cutting the crap.

I have been unhappy for a while because I know the world is not getting better and I do not have to look far to see this. Just look at what we’re doing to each other in Malaysia and how our government is intent on making us unhappy.

You see, the general rule is that many of us have to slog away at least five days a week for many years before we can live the lifestyle we want, unless we are born on a silver platter, win the lottery or steal.

On top of paying our home loan, car loan, electricity bill, water bill, sewerage bill, service and maintenance fee, tuition fee, legal fee, sinking fund, pension fund, insurance, road toll, road tax, assessment tax, service tax, and income tax, a part of our hard-earned income will eventually be stolen to benefit a few people while we pinch here and there just to save up for the things that will make us happy. So let me tell you now that as a taxpayer, I am extremely unhappy but what can I do?

If I refuse to pay my taxes in protest, I will be punished by the very same government whom I’m protesting against.

When things look bleak and if I want to turn to God for wisdom, I am told by people who simply have no business in my personal life that I cannot address God the way I want to.

If I want to express my unhappiness out loud, I am reminded to leave the country.

If I am serious enough and decide to lobby for mass support, I will be accused of overthrowing the government.

If I decide to seek legislative change through the ballot, I may never see change because the politicians who share my sentiment will not have fair access to the media and resources to reach out to the majority of the people.

I had dinner with an NGO partner this week and we talked about how to run successful awareness campaigns. I could tell he was not impressed with street protests and thought the original Occupy movement failed to maintain the momentum it garnered from the beginning. He was convinced that public satire will pressure the authority into respecting human rights and democracy.

The sad truth is, shaming does not work in this country. Believe me, many people have tried.  Satire has no place in this country. It is like those offending drivers who stick their middle fingers at you just because you honk at them for cutting into your lane without signaling. That is who we are. We reward the bad guys and punish the good ones. 

I have been unhappy because this government has never lifted a finger to help NGOs that promote human rights, democracy and good governance. For years, these NGOs are made the enemy of the state while groups propagating racial hatred are allowed to flourish.

The Auditor General’s report will tell us that the wastage generated by our civil servants year after year would have secured the funding of many NGOs for many years. As I often say, their spare change would have made these NGOs millionaires. Instead, many are forced to depend on irregular sources of funding through the goodwill of people other than this government.

So my fellow Malaysians, we cannot afford to be happy now. If anything, we need to be extra unhappy and continue to express that unhappiness because I know what the top people are doing. Do not think I have been fooled for a second. Creating religious and racial polarity among us is a classic example of trying to distract us from focusing on how they have led this country and its people into ruin.

My fellow Malaysians, please do not be fooled by the people who tell you that you should be happy, that things are not that bad. To these people, I will tell them to wake up and smell the rotting flesh before they are turned into carcasses.

Here is an Unhappy New Year message to all – stop trying to feel happier about the world. Instead, make it happier.

This article was first published in The Malaysian Insider on 9 January 2014.