Now or never

Is there such a historical consensus, as Muhyiddin Yassin insists vehemently, that there would be no more Chinese independent schools in Malaysia?

This question is immaterial. In this country, the federal constitution has been amended umpteen times and even trampled on so that Umno dominance could be ensured, hence the truculent desire to regain a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

If laws can be disregarded and even abused, why can’t a mere consensus that is without any legal or constitutional basis be disposed of to make way for something that may be beneficial to the nation?

After all, Malaysia was first founded as a secular state, but the country has witnessed increased Islamicisation over the years, with no end in sight. It would therefore be utterly unfair if one blames racial disunity solely on the existence of the vernacular schools, as Mahathir Mohamad so arbitrarily and irresponsibly does.

I am a product of Chinese education in Malaysia, and would be quick to attribute Foon Yew High School in Johor Baru – along with others – for nurturing my growth as a person. In particular, I am grateful to Cikgu Mariam who had taught the Malay language and culture faithfully to the students for more than three decades. It was not an easy task when one considers the purely Chinese-speaking environment.

The more I look back, the more I agree with Henry Adams, an American educator, that a teacher affects eternally; he/she can never tell where his/her influence stops’.

This is certainly the case with Cikgu Mariam. My respect for and interest in Malay culture would probably have been halved without her.

However, under Umno hegemony, non-Malays, as well as non-Umno Malays, are perpetually perceived as less patriotic, with their commitment to nation-building under the closest scrutiny.

In the name of fighting terrorism and forging national unity, Mahathir in 2003 resorted to clamping down on religious schools sponsored by PAS or other non-Umno Muslim groups. One should therefore not be surprised by the strong antagonism on the part of PAS supporters against the senile old man.

While Mahathir’s argument that the religious schools were being used by certain quarters to sow hatred against the government was valid to some extent, the same can be said of Umno which has turned national schools into a gigantic and horribly effective brainwashing machine!

Regarded as ‘less Malaysian’

Then again I must say among the non-Malays, those who have gone to a Chinese or a Tamil school are often regarded as ‘less Malaysian’ for the simplistic and erroneous reason that these schools ‘reinforce the racial divide’.

In other words, a Malaysian who has gone to a vernacular or an independent Chinese school is required to work doubly or even triply hard to prove his/her ‘Malaysian credentials’, although many of them have contributed no less than any other Malaysians even in terms of paying taxes.

Paradoxically, for all their pretense to safeguard national culture and language, neither Najib Abdul Razak nor Hishammuddin Hussein was educated locally, and I am certain they don’t send their children to a national school either. So why is Muhyddin not questioning the loyalty of his cabinet colleagues to the country?

If Umno and other BN parties are so obsessed with national education, perhaps they should pass a law that all state assemblypersons, parliamentarians and cabinet ministers – as well as heads of government-linked companies (GLCs) – must have attended a national school. But they will not do so because the first to resign would be Najib and Hishammuddin!

People are encouraged to speak a common language for understanding, yes, and we have been doing this for years. Still, having more non-Malay language schools may not necessarily undermine national solidarity.

In some way, religious and ethnic diversity policies are made scapegoats because of our excessive fascination with the Singaporean model when it comes to nation-building.

Truth be told, it irks me whenever others cite Singapore as a success story: high growth, efficient economy and one language. Ask the Malays there how they feel about the erosion of the Malay language under the People’s Action Party. The fact is: the standard of Chinese and Malay has dropped drastically on Lee Kuan Yew’s watch!

This is not to deny the fact Singapore is a flourishing economy, but not to be missed out are the examples of other countries that are doing equally well – or even better – while promoting multiculturalism: Canada, Sweden and Switzerland spring to mind.

The Swiss may speak German, French, Italian or Romansh, but no-one is a lesser Swiss because of that. Most importantly, they at the same time tend to speak far better English than an average Singaporean or Malaysian!

Can we talk more about the Swiss alternative rather than the ‘Singapore miracle’ that is achieved with authoritarianism and suppression of mother-tongue education?

In 1991, Mahathir promulgated his Vision 2020 for the country. Since then, a disproportionate chunk of national resources has been channeled to mega-infrastructure and fanciful projects, enriching most of his cronies and entrenching the culture of corruption along the way.

Dream of unity remains elusive

More than two decades later, the dream of national unity remains elusive while Malaysia is becoming fragmented as never before. The chief culprit? Not religious or vernacular schools, but greedy and selfish ruling and business elites whose needs can never be satisfied. Growing inequality and the widening income gap are dividing our society, making the poor angry, the rich anxious and everyone else more suspicious of each other.

And we have all been taken for a ride by the false promise of Vision 2020, through which Mahathir and his cohorts were highly successfully in consolidating their powers and accumulating their ill-gotten wealth, a tradition that has been duly followed by their successors.

In retrospect, if we were to adhere to the broken vision of ‘one people, one language and one Malaysia’, rather than exploring other more sustainable models, the powers-that-be – and these could include a future government made up of PAS – would sooner or later add one more condition, one religion that is.

Anyone who is ill at ease with this scenario is therefore duty-bound to defend the constitutional Malaysia that is multiracial, multireligious and multicultural, and one way to start fighting is to argue the case for religious and vernacular education.

Trust me, this country is big and generous enough to include everyone. And I promise I won’t be jealous or outraged even if you speak wonderful Javanese or excellent Shakespearean English although I may not understand a word of it.

It is either now or never. Period.

JOSH HONG studied politics at London Metropolitan University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. A keen watcher of domestic and international politics, he longs for a day when Malaysians will learn and master the art of self-mockery, and enjoy life to the full in spite of politicians.

First published in malaysiakini.com

Halting the wheels of injustice

In the aftermath of the Bersih 3.0 massive protest last week, one of the pressing questions to ask is: why should Dataran Merdeka have been ordered off-limits in the first place? Malaysians’ right to peaceful assembly is unequivocally enshrined in the constitution, and since when has the nation’s highest law been superseded by a municipal by-law?

It is beyond doubt that the government and the police are now working in unison to shift the blame onto the participants by playing up the alleged breaching of the barricades. On this, I have only one thing to say: a genuinely democratic government elected by the people through a clean, transparent and fair electoral process will be least likely to be in a haste to perceive its citizens as potential rabble.

By sealing off the Dataran and securing a court order to ban the public from setting foot on it, the mayor and his political masters had done just that.

Najib Abdul Razak’s paltry argument that the authorities had to resort to extreme precaution for fear that the crowds would end up occupying the Dataran permanently simply cannot stand up to scrutiny. Had the organisers and the protesters come with this intention, it would not matter whether it was held in Stadium Merdeka or elsewhere.

If the apprentice prime minister had indeed been so wary over a plan as such, why did his cohorts offer several “more suitable” venues? Would it make any difference had the participants been bent on wreaking havoc?

It is precisely because we are an orderly and peaceful lot that we had insisted on the Dataran. It would also present an opportunity for the public to break Umno’s monopoly on the discourse of nation-building. My friends in Thailand were amazed that we had only prepared to occupy the historical square for one afternoon and promised to vacate it thereafter, for any public mobilisation on this scale in Bangkok would more often than not last for days, if not weeks.

Najib and his paranoid team should truly be grateful and relieved that Malaysians had served them a notice well in advance and also pledged cooperation. But it was the police – acting with the connivance of a shamelessly cunning government – that once again tarnished Malaysia’s image as a friendly country.

Instead of acknowledging its excessively violent reaction and making amends, the police made the utterly ludicrous claim that the officers on duty could not tell journalists apart from perpetrators, effectively implying that it was perfectly justifiable for them to resort to violence. It is as good as saying the police from now on would be given the right to shoot indiscriminately while chasing a robber, and there would be no legal recourse.

I fully understand the Bersih 3.0 committee was duty-bound to ensure public security, especially when the presence of the elderly and other relatively vulnerable groups was expected. The consent not to breach the barricades – reluctant it certainly had been – was therefore arguably acceptable. However, all the indicators point unmistakably to a police conspiracy, in which the crowds were lured into thinking all hurdles were cleared for them to enter the Dataran.

I personally witnessed how Tian Chua, the Batu MP, and several individuals – Malays and Indians – negotiated with the police near Jalan Parlimen, just across the road from the Bandaraya Buildings. Minutes later, the police withdrew and the FRU trucks started to leave. The crowds burst into cheers and began to rush towards the Dataran. Yet my gut feelings were right: it was a trick, and tear gas and water cannon were fired into the crowds from the other end in no time!

Betraying the public trust

This, coupled with the deliberate disruption of mobile phone services which had crippled communication between the organisers and the participants, was no doubt a sinister plan to discredit the entire movement. Quite clearly, the police – by charging into the crowds with a vengeance – have betrayed the public trust while the Najib administration has lost its legitimacy completely.

My heart goes out to all those journalists who had to endure physical harm in order to cover the otherwise joyful and carnival-like event. But my solidarity will only be with those who care earnestly about truth, integrity and justice in a tightly controlled and horribly manipulated media environment in Malaysia.

In other words, I will never wear black for the likes of Zainuddin Maidin, the so-called Tokoh Wartawan Negara but in actual fact a veteran Umno propagandist, Wong Chun Wai, the piper who never fails to play for whoever becomes MCA president, and Tay Tian Yan, a Sin Chew deputy editor-in-chief who lauded unashamedly Najib “the reformist” for pushing “Malaysian democratic progress 10 years, or even 20 years, forward”, only to have egg on his face with every policy flip-flop and PR disaster of his idol.

These “media professionals” are nothing but craven lickspittles, and they can keep their datukship (or future datukship) with them, for there is no better testament to their gullibility and servility.

In any case, the biggest protest in Malaysia’s history has been an empowering experience for many. I saw people who took pictures right in front of FRU trucks, and would not hesitate to explain to the police why they had to be there when questioned. After decades of subjugation to Umno’s fear tactics and paternalistic rule, Malaysians have finally found the courage to rediscover the vital significance of active citizenship.

But the mayhem that followed laid bare the abusive and corrupt nature of the Umno regime, under which much injustice has occurred. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian who sacrificed his own life in order to remind his fellow Germans of Hitler’s evil rule, once said that “we are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice; we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

After Bersih 3.0, it is no longer viable for Malaysians to just reach out to those who have been subjected to the abuse of the naked power. It is high time that we jam the spoke of the wicked wheel by removing this immoral government that rules with blatant lies, skulduggery and brute force.

JOSH HONG studied politics at London Metropolitan University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. A keen watcher of domestic and international politics, he longs for a day when Malaysians will learn and master the art of self-mockery, and enjoy life to the full in spite of politicians.

This was first published in Malaysiakini.

Anwar, US, our foreign policy

What a pity, that a near-forgotten intellectual behemoth (by Malaysian standards, what else?) seems to have been plucked from oblivion by you-know-who to hit at Anwar Ibrahim again. There really is so much bad blood between the two although Chandra Muzaffar was supposed to quit his short tryst with politics more than a decade ago.

In the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, is Malaysia a US target of regime change? This appears to be a grave concern for Chandra, whose anti-American streak often borders on paranoia and is matched only by that of Mahathir Mohamad, in whom he now finds a staunch ally in his crusade against Washington and Anwar.

The late Samuel P. Huntington sparked one of the most heated debates in the academic circle with his Clash of Civilizations theory nearly two decades ago.

The problem with the Huntingtonian argument is that it is statist and reductionist in nature, conveniently overlooking the impact that non-state actors can have in influencing government policy.

For instance, when Huntington expected the so-called Protestant and Catholic states to join hands in guarding against an imminent Chinese threat and Islamic menace, what happened was two major west European powers – France and Germany – opted to stay out of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, not because of principle, but pragmatism, national interests and pressure from a strongly sceptical electorate.

Chandra is, unfortunately, showing similar symptoms as an overly and unreasonably suspicious scholar, so much so that his illogical anxieties have got the better of his otherwise (or erstwhile?) rational mind.

But before I rebut several of his contentions, I must say some of his concerns are valid, especially as regards the heightened tension in the South China Sea.

Unable to confront China alone, the Philippines and Japan have formed an alliance to halt Beijing’s attempt at asserting further Chinese sovereignty over the disputed Spratly Islands.

Naval exercises between the two countries—blessed by Washington—are set to begin soon. The Chinese leaders are well aware of the things and, watching from a distance, have promptly announced a sharp increase in defence expenditure.

At the same time, Vietnam has been adroitly positioning itself vis-à-vis China with the assistance of the US and, to a lesser extent, Russia.

If everything goes according to plan, Hanoi will see six Russian-made Kilo-class submarines by 2014. No longer dogmatic, the Vietnamese understand perfectly well that maximum of political benefits could be gained with minimum of endeavour if more stakeholders are on board, hence Russia’s active participation in upgrading Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay naval facilities and also other oil exploration projects.

Contradictions in international relations

What makes the whole scenario interesting is that both Vietnam and the Philippines—and also Indonesia and Thailand for that matter—enjoy increasingly closer trade relations with China. Still, economic interdependence has failed to translate into mutual trust and confidence.

Historically, small kingdoms in Southeast Asia were quick to seek acknowledgment and protection from the neighbouring powers—be it India, China, Majapahit or even Siam—for the sake of survival. Unlike other regions in the world, flourishing trade ties often grew along frictions, conflicts and even wars in Southeast Asia.

China has been at pains to project itself as a benign maritime power harking back to the era of Admiral Zheng He.

But Beijing now appears to have overplayed its cards by hugging some of the Southeast Asian countries so tightly that they are now in a haste to find a way out of the overbearing relationship, Burma being a case in point.

Having relied on the Chinese Big Brother to ward off western-imposed sanctions for years, it finally dawned on Rangoon that the more tango partners the better.

Aung San Suu Kyi (left) is fully cognizant of the political realities, but does the Lady have a choice other than to play her part well as a poster girl?

Little wonder Geoff Wade at the National University of Singapore has been arguing profusely that Admiral Zheng He was not a benevolent emissary as Beijing makes him out to be. After all, debunking the myth of the Muslim eunuch as a messenger of peace is essential to countering China’s claim to be a friendly giant.

I have mentioned several countries in the region: Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam, which are strategically vital to US interests by virtue of their sizes of population, military importance and economic potentials.

This aside, Singapore’s support for Washington is a given and this has been proven true time and again. It also indicates convincingly the limit of cultural affinities: largely Chinese it may be, Singapore knows how to hedge its bets between China and the US.

With the US bent on restoring its influence in Southeast Asia, which China perceives to be its backyard traditionally, it is of utmost importance that all parties are committed to solving contentious issues by peaceful means.

But where does it leave Malaysia? This is where Chandra exposes his ignorance to the fullest.

Malaysia is of course not completely insignificant, yet it is not as strategically pivotal as Chandra allows himself to be deluded into thinking (or imagining) as such. Living in Bangkok, I know how this great metropolis came to be what it is today.

It is the geographical advantage—at the heart of Indo-China—and the Vietnam War that propelled the Thai capital to be the darling of the western world. According to Joshua Kurlantzick’s latest book The Ideal Man, the CIA used to have the largest operation in the region not far from Bangkok.

But where is Malaysia? Why would the world’s sole superpower want to take the trouble to engineer a regime change in a tiny, sometimes self-aggrandizing state like ours? It would be much more worthwhile, cost-effective and rewarding for the White House to work on more influential countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore.

Bowing to blowing world winds

Once a common policy is in place, Malaysia would be the odd one out. Looking back at history, I can safely say our leaders hate to be left out in the cold and will fall into line in no time. Whether Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat, it ain’t gonna make much difference.

The fact is, the US and other countries that are cautious of China’s charm offensive in Southeast Asia are fairly certain the Najib-led government is inclined towards the west, as evidenced in Rosmah’s relentless but shameless pursuit of academic accolades from Australia and the US!

Finally, even if Anwar makes it to prime minister, I seriously doubt he would make drastic changes in Malaysia’s foreign policy and orient it against China.

During the 1950s through to the 70s, when Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book trumped MBA study material, Beijing had its communist brethren disrupt Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Today, China’s economic interests overlap with Southeast Asia and vice versa in more ways than one.

Moreover, Southeast Asian nations cannot afford to put all eggs in one basket, and will invariably seek a diplomatic alignment among all the major powers. They know full well why Washington is keen to make a comeback this time, and there is no guarantee the geostrategic mooring will last into posterity.

Last but not least, a Pakatan Rakyat government will be made up of PAS, PKR and DAP. Any attempt to revise Malaysia’s foreign policy root and branch will need the consent of all the component parties.

Why has Chandra failed to mention the highly probably backlash from PAS if Anwar chose to gear foreign policy towards the US’ grand scheme of things at the expense of the Palestinian issue, or to pedal away from the ever-closer trade ties with China, even to the chagrin of the DAP?

Quite clearly, Chandra’s obsessive hatred of Anwar has so severely crippled his once admired intellectual prowess that he can no longer think out of the box.

Let me end this article by reminding him that one fundamental difference between the Pakatan Rakyat and the BN is that the former is formed on an equal footing, while the latter exists at the mercy of Umno.

The once brilliant mind of the Malaysian academy deserves to be told of the raw truth in spite of himself.

(First appeared in www.malaysiakini.com)

Disease Carriers We Once Were

Like many others who have grown increasingly adverse to the emasculated mainstream press, I hardly buy The Star. So huge thanks to Nat, whose recent posting alerted me to a highly xenophobic piece penned by Wong Chun Wai, the group chief editor of the best selling English daily in Malaysia.

Last week, a Myanmar worker succumbed to leptospirosis at a Penang hospital. Given the current climate of fear over Influenza A (H1N1), Wong perhaps felt compelled to write that ‘migrants workers are bringing in infectious diseases’, and that ‘it would not be wrong to say that Malaysia is facing the emergence and re-emergence of diseases because of these foreigners’.

In what must have looked like an ominous coincidence, Lim Sue Goan, a senior columnist at Sin Chew Daily, wrote on the same day that ‘I would sometimes hold my breath when a migrant worker passes me by’ simply because they might ‘bring in a disease that has long been extinct’.

Throughout human history, weak minorities in anywhere of the world have been subjected to prejudice and unjustified scrutiny, even made to bear the brunt whenever a pandemic takes place. Discrimination seems like an age-old habit that is hard to kick.

London’s East End has been a place where migrant workers gathered and departed since the Industrial Revolution. Even today, some street names in the once depressed and crime-infested district of the British capital still reflect 19th century exoticism.

Pekin Street, Nankin Street, Canton Street and Ming Street are just a short walk away from one another and together they stand as a testimony to the erstwhile presence of the Chinese coolies who sailed thousands of miles to the great metropolis for greener pastures.

In her seminal book ‘Sons of the Yellow Emperor: The Story of the Overseas Chinese’, Lynn Pan records that the Chinese in England at the time congregated according to where they originated, and took up professions accordingly: the Cantonese were mostly firemen, boatswains or seamen; the Hainanese largely worked in the kitchens while most of the stewards were from Ningbo in the Zhejiang province.

‘Church of St. Confucius’

The arrival of the relatively small but significant number of Chinese in England inevitably aroused fear among the local communities. Unaccustomed to seeing ‘yellow’ faces and concerned about the various diseases that these new migrants – having spent months at sea in extremely overcrowded and unhygienic conditions – might bring in, the right wing London Gazette once ran a ‘sensational’ headline that read ‘Hold Your Breath When You See A Chink!‘.

The Morning Chronicle, where Charles Dickens once worked, sometimes ran stories of sporadic brawls or racist incidents involving the Chinese at East End. In any case, the ‘Sons of the Yellow Emperor’ now found themselves nothing more than an undesirable element or, worse, disease transmitters at the power centre of the British Empire.

Across the Atlantic in the US, stories of Chinese coolies being exploited and discriminated against were equally, if not more, heartrending. When the Pacific Railroad was completed, Harper’s Weekly published a lithograph showing a Chinese man dressed in a baggy Chinese tunic and trousers standing with a Western lady in Victorian costume celebrating their marriage in front of the ‘Church of St. Confucius’.

The message could not have been plainer: Should the Chinese be given the right to citizenship now that the railroad is completed? And would the union between the East and the West, and the cultural fusion that may ensue, represent a threat to the White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant foundations of the US?

Chinese coolies contributed tremendously to the economic development of California and the American West, but their presence created festering resentment among other immigrant communities leading to series of anti-Chinese riots between 1871 and 1885 for which the stereotyping of the Chinese by the mainstream media at the time must be held responsible.

For instance, The Illustrated Wasp once published a lithograph, entitled ‘The Consequences of Cooliesm’, calling for the White working classes to put aside their differences and unite against the Chinese coolies who were seen as encroaching on the rights of others.

It was also common for the American general public to shun the Chinese and the Japanese because they were perceived to be special carriers of virulent and deadly strains of venereal disease.

Infested with venereal disease

The 19th century mainstream media and publications relished in playing up these issues, but a rational discussion on the lack of public health facilities for the newly arrived migrant workers was conspicuously absent.

All this negative and discriminatory coverage successfully generated more animosities among the races, and led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 that disqualified Chinese coolies from citizenship.

Closer to home in the Malay Peninsula, Chinese coolies from Fujian and Guangdong were brought in by the colonial administration to work in the booming mining industry. Many of the labourers were cheated by unscrupulous middlemen and found, to their horror, the inhabitable conditions during the journey.

The ‘piglets’, as the Chinese coolies were popularly known, were shipped in overcrowded boats without sanitation, with many dropping dead of cholera and other tropical diseases. Those who made it to the Peninsula only saw their health deteriorate further in the following years.

In those days, the health system was established specifically for the Whire rulers and the social elite – Europeans and non-Europeans alike. As John Farley once wrote, colonial medicine existed primarily ‘to make the tropics fit for the White man to inhabit’. Public health provision was beyond those who could barely afford it.

Even the now squeaky clean and excessively hygienic Singapore used to be infested with venereal disease in the early 20th century. A report by the Straits Settlements authorities revealed that as many as 683 out of 1,000 mental patients – most of whom coolies and maids – did not survive in 1900. For the poor and the downtrodden, hospital was akin to a place where death awaited.

Medical anthropologist Lenore Manderson writes in her book ‘Sickness and the State’ that coolies from India and China tended to live in appalling conditions devoid of even decent health care facilities, and years of living next to excrement of their own resulted in malaria and dysentery.

Meanwhile, other historical documents prove that these migrant workers were not necessarily natural virus carriers. Tuberculosis, common among the working classes at the time, was predominantly caused by overcrowded living conditions and the lack of ventilation. When the colonial government came to its senses and began to improve the health care system accordingly, the health of the coolies dramatically improved.

Descendants of the coolies

The colonialists may have departed, but post-independence Malaysia has inherited the exploitative model of development nonetheless. Pretty much the colonial master, we want cost- effectiveness and economic expansion minus workers’ rights to public health.

Is it not ironic that the inequalities in health status that were prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are still alive and kicking in Malaysia today, affecting the poor and the marginalised communities such as migrant workers?

As Andrew Khoo of the Bar Council has excellently rebutted, it was the fact that ‘the government is incarcerating foreign nationals in places and under conditions which are totally unhygienic’ that is partly responsible for the recent outbreak of leptospirosis.

Another dilemma confronting the migrant workers, documented or otherwise, is that their access to health facilities in this country is often hampered by bureaucratic hurdles.

There is nothing new under the sun. One may fear their presence in our midst or even seek to exclude them socially but, the fact remains that migrant workers, like our forefathers and foremothers, have toiled and tilled to make Malaysia what it is today. In short, they are the ‘Sin Keh’ (new guests) of our time.

While our ancestors went through hardship and xenophobic experience, the mainstream media today is doing the same to these new ‘others’. Most ironically, many of those who write disparagingly about the migrant communities happen to be the descendants of the coolies.

Or perhaps Wong of The Star and Lim of Sin Chew think they are from one of the prominent families in British Malaya just like Lee Kuan Yew and Tan Cheng Lock, who most probably were spared the plight of being denied proper health care in British Malaya?

Originally published in Malaysiakini on 22 May 2009. Republished with permission from the author.

MCA ≠ Chinese, Umno ≠ Malays, and etc…

Some years ago on a MAS flight to London, an Indian Malaysian hostess asked me: What do you study?

And I said politics.

She uttered, ‘Oh, so you want to be like Lim Liong Sik is it?’

You can imagine my bafflement on hearing this. Anyway, my cheekiness got the better of me as I found myself telling her that had I really desired a political career, I would most probably do better than Lim, the MCA president at the time.

That was not all. I once had teh tarik and some kueh mueh at a Malay stall one fine afternoon. The owner struck up a conversation with me, and I told him I was interested in politics. Immediately, he told me the wakil rakyat in the district was an MCA fella, and suggested that “mungkin kamu boleh gantikan dia selepas dia letak jawatan” (perhaps you can replace him after he has resigned).

He laughed rather heartily, but I wasn’t quite amused.

In fact, I couldn’t really get cross with the nice hostess and the friendly pakcik for associating the MCA with me, could I?

Given the decades-old raced-based political arrangements in the country that resulted in conflation between political and ethnic identity, each and every Malaysia seems condemned to live with this unpleasant reality, however much we may dislike it.

Whenever a Chinese Malaysian student fails to be awarded a JPA scholarship despite having scored x number of As, he/she is almost certain to blame a Malay for stealing it from him/her, “because they got Umno mah”.

It is not that I am not sympathetic with the scores of Chinese students who are missed out on public scholarships every year. Quite the contrary, I often feel my blood boiling on hearing the same story year after year.

But what makes me uncomfortable is that many seem to find a Malay scapegoat for everything that goes wrong, and associate the person with Umno. No matter how much we detest the MCA acting as the sole representative of the Chinese in Malaysia, we tend to make the same mistake by first thinking “Melayu tu Umno” and, second, seeing each and every Malay as a beneficiary of the much-abused NEP who thrives “at our expense”.

It is entirely not dissimilar from the distorted view (thanks to Utusan!) of the Chinese and, to a lesser extent, the Indians, that we prosper because we all “had a head start over the Malays”.

So, I am very much heartened by the updated version of Dr. Syed Husin Ali’s book The Malays: Their Problems and Future, which gives an in-depth look into the root causes behind the series of social and economic ills facing the Malay community. I never see these as “their problems”; rather, I regard them as my personal challenges as well, because I very much hope to share this land with them and therefore care about them, just like I care about the Indians and the Orang Asli communities.

Dr. Syed, of course, is among the Malaysian scholars that I admire most. I wish I had been able to attend his book launch and listen to his speech. Thanks to the Internet and the flourishing blogsphere, I can now read it online* while being away from Malaysia. (http://dinmerican.wordpress.com/2008/06/17/dr-syed-husins-speech-at-launch-of-the-malays-their-problems-and-future/)

Do you think your destiny should not be bound up with that of the MCA? Then you must also stop Umno from deluding you that only it can secure the future of the Malays. Getting a copy of Dr. Syed’s book should be a good start towards this process. Enjoy.

But Many Who Are First Will Be Last ..

Many years ago, the Chinese church that I attended in London saw a sudden surge in asylum-seekers from Fujian province of China. Despite the joy of singing praises to the Lord in unison and the clapping of hands, the gulf between this “particular group” of worshippers and the rest of the congregation was too conspicuous to be overlooked.

What marked these new arrivals out from others in the church were their lack of basic English skills, low level of education, and working class background.

I remember one of the worshippers posing a question in a bible study group: “Is it acceptable for one to manipulate the Christian faith for gaining refugee status?”

Suddenly, silence ensued.

Quite clearly, the person who raised the issue was concerned whether or not Jesus would allow his name to be used “in vain.”

Evidence gathered by the British Home Office at the time showed that the number of asylum-seekers who claimed to be persecuted by the Chinese authorities on account of their Christian belief had been steadily on the rise, but we were also aware that many cases were rejected by the British authorities for lacking a “well-founded” fear of persecution.

As a part-time caseworker for a legal firm, I used to accompany them to the Home Office for a refugee status determination interview. Indeed, some of them even had a hard time naming the four Gospels, not to mention recalling the twelve disciples one by one. I would certainly forgive the interviewing officer for casting serious doubt on their credibility.

Recently, I met an Iranian man who claimed to be a Christian and fled the country purportedly to avoid persecution by the Islamic government there. An in-depth chat with him however made me wonder if he too “used” Jesus for his own purpose, as his knowledge of the Bible and conversion experience seemed full of contradictions and discrepancies.

But again, who am I to judge if these people are not “bona fide” Christians but “bogus” asylum-seekers?

Every human being is entitled to pursue a happy life, but not everyone of us is in a position to do so. As far as professionals in various fields are concerned, they are often spoilt for choice when it comes to seeking greener pastures.

The same, of course, cannot be said of those who are on the lower rungs of the social ladder. Michael Chong, head of the MCA Public Service and Complaints Department, has over the years handled no less than a few dozen cases in which young Malaysians were caught by foreign authorities for working illegally. The better-off Malaysians may see these people as a “shame” to the nation, but many of them were merely eking out a living in a foreign land, albeit “illegally”.

As soon as an agreement was inked between Beijing and London in 1984 for the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, the territory began to witness a dramatic rise in the migration of “religious professionals” to western countries. Naturally, some of them ended up in London, and found themselves worshipping the same God alongside the less fortunate brothers and sisters from Fujian.

How sad, that the issue of “genuineness” should have been raised at all in spite of the fact that both groups of people had chosen to leave their places of habitual residence for a (hopefully) more secure future. If our faith in the Lord was ever so great enough to move mountains, perhaps we would all have opted to stay put to see through the hard times in our respective “homelands”.

And who are we to judge if some of these “lesser” Christians would not turn out to be more “bona fide” than you and I in the future? After all, we are all saved by sheer grace alone.

“But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30)

A Response To Grace Under Fire

If one has not read the feature interview with Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Grace Under Fire, (link restored) in the Star today, I would encourage you to read it now.

Tears were welling in my eyes as I was reading it, but they were the tears of joy for sure. The interview tells the transformation of a low-key Malaysian doctor-cum-housewife into a reluctant politician, and then into an inspiring opposition leader in her own right!

But why should I, a keen watcher and commentator of Malaysian politics, be so deeply moved by the story of one of the most famous women in the country? Should I not have known it well by now?

Kak Wan’s journey over the last ten years is certainly not new to me. But it is her simpliciy, humility, perseverance and fortitude that distinguish her from other politicians.

Here is a political wife who was, all at a sudden, made to endure state persecution and media attack of myriad forms against her husband. She could have chosen to weep in her room (which I am sure she must have on occasions), but decided to put on a brave face and to seek justice not only for her husband, but for Malaysians of all races as well.

Ten years on and all her efforts have not been in vain. But what has always struck me most is her sheer willingness to forgive.

I remember not long after Anwar Ibrahim was released from the Sungai Buloh jail, Kak Wan stated that she had forgiven those who were behind the conspiracy. Now, she refuses to criticize Chandra Muzaffar who had made damaging remarks about Anwar on the eve of the 12th General Election. Instead, she is gracious enough to acknowledge Chandra’s contributions in the early days of Parti Keadilan Nasional, as the party was then known.

Reading Kak Wan’s interview, I cannot help thinking about Tun Mahathir Mohammad, our former prime minister.

The man was, as we know, once so powerful and high-handed. When he arbitrarily declared Malaysia tan Islamic state, much of the Christian community was deeply concerned but was too timid to speak out.

I still hold to my view that the plethora of religious controversies over the last two years did not happen overnight; they were the indirect outcomes of the failure of the churches to make a clear stand when Mahathir practically chose to dishonour our Federal Constitution on that fafetful day of 29 September 2001.

But look at the man now: he is bitter, resentful, insecure, and obstinate as ever. He has been going around the country seizing every opportunity to chatise Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi over various issues, while refusing to face up to his own wrongdoings when he was in charge. He is also adamant that he was not in the wrong when it comes to the sacking of Tun Salleh Abas as Lord President in 1988, which started the rot in Malaysia’s judiciary.

Of course, our former prime minister also does not think he had acted unjustly against Anwar in 1998 either.

I must make it clear that I hold no personal grudges against Mahathir; in fact, I still respect him for some of the things that he has done for the country, such as giving the nation a vision, and having demonstrated his valour to rein in the sultans.

But we cannot run away from the raw fact that Malaysia became more divided and segregated under his administration, not to mention the manipulation of the judiciary to serve his own agenda.

Being part of the Mahathir generation, I sincerely hope the former prime minister will come to terms with his own failings and mistakes, and to earn back the status of a statesman that he will then rightfully deserve.

Really, I am not too sure if he is a happier man now than when he was in power. Compared to Kak Wan’s positive and optimistic spirits, Mahathir’s bitterness and resentment are just all over the place. Every sarcastic word and smile of his testifies that.

As Christians, surely we should pray earnestly for all the leaders, past and present. And I would dedicate my first Micah Mandate prose to the man who is still finding it hard to let go of power nearly five years after he stepped down.

I would like to end my sharing with Hebrews 12:15:

“See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”