What Future for Democracy?

We are often told that in poor countries, democracy is a luxury, and we should focus on feeding the hungry. However, this is a misleading “either-or”. Famines don’t happen in democracies; and democracies that trade with each other don’t go to war.

Where in the world do we find a political party that lost a general election being installed as the “government” of that country by a President who belongs to that minority party himself?

Nowhere but Sri Lanka: a country which in the 1950s was regarded as a beacon for good governance in the postcolonial world, but is now in grave danger of joining the growing list of failed democracies. The new regime installed a month ago has been decisively rejected in a no-confidence vote by the country’s parliament (in the midst of violent attempts in the chamber itself to scuttle the vote). But the regime still clings to power while lacking political legitimacy. It is backed by a large Buddhist-nationalist faction in the country who regard the newly installed Prime Minister (who was ousted as President in 2015) as a “war hero” as well as one of their own. No foreign government, except China, has hitherto recognized the regime. But the country is economically and politically paralyzed. And, despite public protests and demonstrations, mainly in the capital Colombo, large sections of the population appear simply apathetic.

Such apathy, coupled with the gangsterism that has replaced a civil political culture in Sri Lanka, is rooted in massive institutional failures that go beyond parliament and an easily-muzzled judiciary. For many years now, the island’s schools and universities have ceased to be places where students learn critical thinking or how to engage with those from other ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds. Education and the media have become ideologically polarized.

As for religious communities, they tend to live in self-enclosed ghettos, and have ceased to be forums where men and women are equipped with the moral habits indispensable for public life. Indeed, notions such as “the common good”, “the rule of law”, or “conflicts of interest” are little understood, not least among those entrusted with the education of the young, whether in schools or religious institutions.

In my last post, I mentioned the shifting political stances of the Roman Catholic church around the world. In Sri Lanka, the RC church comprises a significant 7 per cent of the population, compared to less than 1 per cent of Protestants. While there are several Roman Catholic priests and nuns who are politically active at the grassroots in promoting justice and reconciliation, the middle-class laity (among whom are found leading politicians, bureaucrats and judges) are largely theologically ignorant and often complicit in wrongdoing. And it is difficult for the RC Bishops to challenge authoritarianism in politics when they themselves are under the thumb of an autocratic Cardinal who is morally compromised and more Buddhist than Christian in his public pronouncements: for instance, claiming recently that a “Buddhist country” like Sri Lanka does not need the “Western religion of human rights” – thus denying his own church’s social doctrine!

In countries like Sri Lanka, the long-term task of building free and accountable institutions is where Christians should devote their energies. It is not simply a constitutional crisis we face, but a deeper moral crisis. Conversion— personal and cultural—goes hand-in-hand with legal and economic change. We are often told that in poor countries, democracy is a luxury, and we should focus on feeding the hungry. However, this is a misleading “either-or”. Famines don’t happen in democracies; and democracies that trade with each other don’t go to war.

“If someone takes away your bread, he suppresses your freedom at the same time. But if someone takes away your freedom, you may be sure that your bread is threatened, for it depends no longer on you and your struggle but on the whim of a master.”- Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Contrary to what is stated in typical undergraduate-level texts on political theory, the first modern political revolution occurred not in France or the US, but in 17th-century England. The English Civil War saw, for a few brief years, the replacement of monarchy by a sovereign parliament. The English dissenters (“Puritans”, “Diggers” and “Levellers”), opposed absolutism on theological grounds and championed freedom of conscience and religious worship. Oliver Cromwell’s ragtag army of common people held formal open debates all over England to determine what kind of government should replace the defeated monarchy. What an utterly remarkable moment in history.

Although Cromwell’s Commonwealth did not last long, his experiment was far-reaching. While monarchy was restored, there was no going back on the sovereignty of Parliament in the government of the English people. And the refugees and immigrants who fled across the Atlantic to New England continued the political experiment begun under Cromwell. Little wonder that in New England immediately after the American Declaration of Independence, slavery was banned (while it continued in the South), women’s rights advanced, and a level of political maturity reached that was unsurpassed anywhere in the nineteenth-century world.

Many otherwise well-educated Americans are ignorant of how much they owe to the English Civil War and its aftermath. Words like Puritan and Calvinist are usually used as “sneer words”: they have become caricatures of gloomy, uptight religious fanatics. Little do we realise how indebted to such men we are in our modern political discourse about equality, rights, the rule of law, and representational democracy.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat who traveled around the newly-independent United States observing its culture and institutions, had no such illusions. In his classic work, Democracy in America, written in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, he observed: “Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions, for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it… I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere belief in their religion—for who can search the human heart?—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.”

Recovering the rich heritage of Christian political theology is the first step towards the Church learning to speak truth to power and contributing to the building of free and accountable institutions.

First published on Vinoth’s blog.

The bogeyman isn’t our enemy

by Philip Golingai

Malaysians should be wary of those who use divisive tactics to grab power at the expense of unity and harmony.  

CAN you feel the heat?

I do. The religious and racial tension in our country has gone up a notch or two the last one week.

Last Saturday, I had an inkling that this would happen when I watched on Facebook Live an Umno and PAS gathering in Pasir Salak, Perak. The two frenemies gathered to oppose any move by Malaysia to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

The rhetoric at the gathering included words and phrases such as “amok”, “J.W.W. Birch” and “May 13”.

(Birch was a British resident of Perak who was speared to death by followers of Dato Maharajalela while bathing in Pasir Salak on Nov 2, 1875.)

As if the religious and racial tension in Malaysia was not heated enough, a video clip of a shopper berating a beer promoter surfaced on Monday.

I cringed when I saw that it involved a Chinese and a Malay.

When there is an incident involving people of different races, it can turn racial and potentially divide Malaysians.

Mohamad Edi Mohamad Riyars, known as Edi Rejang, scolded a Chinese woman who was offering beer samples to shoppers in the non-halal section of a supermarket in Kuala Lumpur. He used the words Bumi Melayu, Boleh cakap Melayu? (Can you speak Malay?) and “F*** You” and showed his middle finger to her.

Many Malaysians, regardless of race and religion, condemned the man’s actions. But there were those who defended it.

Edi Rejang has apologised for his actions, saying that he was not racist as he sent his child to a Chinese school and he had friends who were Chinese.

End of story. And Malaysians can move on?

Probably not. As there are Malay rights groups that want to turn Edi Rejang into their poster boy.

Edi Rejang’s “momentary” lapse of judgment is an example of the ugly Malaysian.

But it gives a skewed picture of Malaysia. It is not the Malaysia I know.

The Malaysia I know is where Malaysians celebrate their diversity. It is a country where we don’t allow our race or religion to divide us.

Here’s my Malaysia as I live it.

On the day Umno and PAS were gathering to oppose ICERD, I was organising a four-hour lunch playdate for my 10-year-old daughter, a Catholic Kadazandusun, and her BFF (best friend forever), who is coincidentally a Malay.

They study at the same school in Subang Jaya, Selangor. They are BFFs probably because both have empathy and they love the same YouTube channels.

For lunch, I made sure I ordered McDonald’s as it is certified halal.

This is very different when I was growing up in Kota Kinabalu in the 1970s and 1980s, when Malaysians were not too concerned about halal and non-halal food or space.

When I sent my daughter’s BFF home, her dad thanked me for hosting his kid. He also said kind words to me as he knew I was returning to Sabah because someone in my family was critically ill.

There were no “halal” or “ICERD” issues dividing us. What we most probably wanted was for our kids to live harmoniously in a bumi Malaysia that did not differentiate whether you are Kadazandusun, Iban, Bajau, Melanau, Indian, Chinese or Malay.

That evening, I left bumi Melayu – to use Edi Rejang’s words – and was back in my home state, which some say together with Sarawak is the real Bumi Malaysia as we are muhibbah.

(Translated to English, muhibbah means willing and sincere acceptance of others, of genuine respect for others, of the fellowship of citizens and the kinship of humanity.)

In Kota Kinabalu, my wife and I had breakfast with her BFF, who is coincidentally a Bajau Muslim.

When you have someone critically ill in your family, you need all the help you can get. And my wife’s BFF was there to help orang susah (people in difficulty).

There was no ICERD to divide us. Especially in Sabah (and Sarawak), where most people want the ICERD ratified.

We were talking politics and I brought up the ICERD issue.

“Itu KL punya pasal. Kita di sini mana peduli (That is a KL issue. We, in Sabah, do not care),” she said.

But judging from the postings in my Sabah WhatsApp groups, Saba­hans are concerned about what is happening in Peninsular Malaysia with regard to ICERD. Video of ICERD protests and fake photographs of protesters armed with knives are shared.

They are worried that the ICERD issue might turn bloody.

I did not want to write about Edi Rejang and ICERD as I thought the situation was getting to be too racist. I wanted to write about how a death could not be foretold.

But I couldn’t avoid the noise.

There are forces out there who are playing the racial card. They want to use it to gain power at all cost.

What is worrying is how they will ratchet up the religious and racial tension. Will they use the old trick like throwing a pig head in a mosque or cow head in a temple?

But it seems such tricks do not work anymore. They don’t stir racial or religious tension as Malaysians have wised up.

Let’s hope the latest bogeyman – ICERD – will not have this effect either.

First published in thestar.com.my.

Sheep and goats

In case we are unclear about where certain political parties, politicians and civil society groups stand, I think the ICERD issue has made things crystal clear.

ICERD is about saying no to racial discrimination. And the PH Government wants make Malaysia a signatory, like most of the countries in the world. In truth it does not change much, and we certainly don’t have to be a signatory. But at the very least it is a statement that we agree with the concerns of ICERD.

Yesterday the PH Government put out a statement to say that it no longer intends to sign onto ICERD. To my mind this is the right move as the issue is being exploited to deepen the very thing it seeks to end.

PAS now says that the planned rally to protest ICERD on December 8 will continue but will now be a celebration of victory and gratitude.

Hadi, the PAS president had earlier said it was compulsory for Muslims to oppose ICERD as its ratification would place Islam on the “same level” as other religions in the country.

This despite the fact that muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, UAE, Algeria, Pakistan, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

UMNO president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has questioned today the validity of the statement by the Prime Minister’s Office to not ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

He claimed the statement could only be considered valid if it was signed by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad himself, and later brought to Parliament so that it could be recorded in the official hansard.

He said the Opposition is nonetheless thankful over the decision, claiming it was affected by several anti-ICERD protests across the country in past few weeks.

Khairy Jamaluddin has called for the resignation of Foreign Affairs Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah over the blunder surrounding the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) but also urged the organisers of the proposed Dec 8 anti-ICERD rally to call off the programme following the PMO’s announcement after the organisers said it would go on, but on grounds of celebration.

“The government has shelved plans to ratify ICERD. This is the time to ‘lower the temperature’ of the country’s politics. It’s better not to carry on.

Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) labelled the decision appalling and said that the Government and government leaders failed to show moral leadership when it was most needed.

HAKAM regrets the decision but understands that the issue has been twisted to spread fear and divisiveness. It also objected to calls for the foreign minister’s resignation.

DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng today called on the Chinese community to be wary of extremists trying to stoke tensions among the Malay community using the issue concerning the ratification of a UN rights treaty.

There are those who celebrate the notion that Malaysia will not stand for equality, those who are thankful that this is so and wants to go on with the political games, those who view leadership as doing the right thing regardless of the situation, those who choose to view the situation in its broader context, those who advise caution.

A street sign is more than just a sign

By Tajuddin Rasdi (Dr Mohd Tajuddin is Professor of Architecture at a local university.)

In this article, I would like to emphasise that I do not wish to criticise any authority given the right to change street names.

However, I would like to share my personal thoughts about how a street name can have a powerful effect on our common heritage of building this country together as a nation of many “nations”.

Although some would shout “Ketuanan Melayu” or “Ketuanan Islam”, truth be told, for three centuries we have become a new nation based on the intersected history of our peoples.

History and our heritage are what bind us together. Not one of us Malaysians living in the world now can claim that our path and passage of life had never intersected with other races and faiths and that these did not have a huge impact on our lives.

We stand today in all our glory and faults, each one of us, because of those who stood before us, our parents, relatives, friends, neighbours, teachers, lecturers, leaders and so many more.

The clear sense of the greatness of God is simply that He/She does not need anyone to stand on … but we all do. Trying to change road names is easy but denying the truth of who we are and whence we come is folly of the biggest kind.

Once upon a time, I did not care two cents about our architectural heritage or street names. I was brought up with a modernist-functionalist tradition of architecture and the environment-behaviour framework of analysis at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, in the US, where I received my BSc and Master of Architecture.

My idols were architects like Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Henry Sullivan. The first three were Europeans while the last two were Americans.

I read what they wrote and believed that true architecture must be based purely on the present function using the best technology available within the minimalist tradition of economy and structural expression. Beauty is simply the expression of technology over the functions that were needed in the building. No more, no less.

The mantra of my architecture was “less is more” and “form follows function”. In this design approach, there is no place for history and architectural historical precedence. Like Le Corbusier, I imagined new cities like his Ville Contemporaine and Ville Radiuse depleted of traditional streets, masonry buildings and nooks and crannies and cobbled streetways. What was needed was a vision of Utopian dreams of concrete and steel, soaring in mind-boggling structures carrying thin light glass glistening in the sun.

No place for old buildings, worn streets and leaning bell towers.

But as I aged, I found that the true city is not concrete, steel and glass. It is not technology used to give way to cars and vehicles.

The true city is the imprint of memories of people who have struggled to build roads, donated money and time to construct places of burial, spiritual beings setting up houses of worship of various faiths, helping the blind find meaning through training centres and many more dramatic stories of people intersecting with people; the Malays, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians, the English and so many others.

I began to take a real interest in heritage and its efforts in conservation because of two incidents. First was an interview I did with a 70-year-old architect born in Kuala Lumpur. The other was a translation book project with Badan Warisan Malaysia.

In my interview with the Malay architect, I asked him what he thought was a Malaysian architectural identity.

The architect gave a two-hour talk of rambling thoughts on topics ranging from his childhood up to his struggles as an architect, and I thought he had missed the question entirely. This was to be expected as architects are usually brought up in the “artistic” method of training and find great difficulty unravelling their ideas in the strict Cartesian construct which I was trained as an academic to do.

However, when I began to transcribe his comments in order to make an analysis, his words began to form a strong idea about what it meant to be a Malaysian … before embarking on what concrete and steel would look like.

The architect explained how he felt his life was simply a product of all the people who had “imprinted” something on him. He talked about his English headmaster at his missionary school who caught him drawing graffiti and “punished” him by making him draw a whole mural.

The architect also recalled his Chinese teacher who saw his potential and encouraged him to enter a national art competition which he won at the tender age of 14. He recalled his Chinese friend in secondary school who cycled with him all over Kuala Lumpur and how he frequented his house like a second home.

The architect spoke of how his Chinese friend’s mother would always buy back some rice and side dishes from outside to ensure he had a halal lunch or dinner, even though he did not insist on this.

He told a story about how he and two Chinese boys built a raft and floated in the river for 20km and how, when his father found out, all of them got a beating. When the Chinese parents heard that their boys were also beaten by a Malay parent because of their exploits, they came to thank him!

Like Anwar Ibrahim says, we must consider a Malay child, a Chinese child, an Indian child, a Kadazan child, an Orang Asli child as OUR children. Then and only then can we dream of a true Malaysia.

I have always felt, as a Muslim, that the Prophet Muhammad taught me no less than what Anwar had said.

The second incident that drew me to understanding heritage was a translation project on the history of the various streets and buildings in Kuala Lumpur.

I learned the history of peoples and buildings on Jalan Ampang, Jalan Bukit Nanas, Jalan Pudu, Jalan Parlimen, Brickfields and many more.

In the folder of Jalan Bukit Nanas and Brickfields, I discovered schools, churches and recreational buildings set up by Christian missionaries. Bukit Nanas Convent, Methodist Girls School and St John’s Institution are tributes to the Christian English men and women as well as many Chinese philanthropists such as Loke Yew.

Do we deny that many of us Malays were taught at these missionary schools?

I went to St Marks in Butterworth and my wife hails from Convent Bukit Nanas. Our lives crossed with those who were not of our faith and race. This is what the architect was talking about. Our “intellectual blood” and our “social blood” had become mixed and we were no longer lone Malays but full-blooded Malaysians!

The union of my wife and I produced our children, much like the union of the many faiths and races produced who we are now and where we are presently.

Changing the name of Jalan Marsh, named after Madam Mabel Marsh, the head teacher of the Methodist Girls School for 30 years, to Jalan Tun Sambanthan 4 seems a bit sad. Why would Tun Sambanthan need more than one road named after him?

The book by my former students Mariana Isa and Maganjeet Kaur titled “Kuala Lumpur Street Names: A Guide to their Meanings and Histories” is a wonderful kaleidoscope of our multiculturally rich nation.

I learned about Cikgu Lim Lian Geok who was said to be the “pejuang” or fighter of the mother tongue, and the birth of the Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools.

Other Malays may think this person disrupted “the concept of Malaysia” but I happen to think Cikgu Lim helped in the enrichment of Malaysia. Cikgu Lim’s memorial stands on a spot along Jalan Maharajalela.

As an academic in architecture history, I understand that there are no ideas or influences that can stand totally apart from anything. All ideas, concepts and thoughts must come from somewhere and are influenced mostly by references from another race, religion or culture.

To think that one ethnic group can stand solely apart is arrogant, bigoted and backward.

I read also that the building of our Masjid Negara began with funds donated by all races regardless of their faith. I understand the same was true for Masjid Negeri in Negeri Sembilan. I understand from my architect friend that the Bangsar Mosque was built on an expensive site given by a Chinese developer in exchange for some concession on plot ratios.

I understand that many of our Malay parents send their children to Chinese schools. Many of these Chinese schools were funded by Chinese towkays in our nation’s history.

I understand that the first Istana Negara was a renovated mansion belonging to a Chinese towkay named Chan Wing. I understand that the first Parliament house was an addition to the house belonging to towkay Eu Tong Seng.

Shall we deny the facts of our history? Shall we ignore that our paths have crossed into many different cultures? Shall we refuse to acknowledge that our “social blood, our political blood and our economic blood” have mixed in the union of history of our parents, grandparents, relatives and friends to produce the offspring we call “Malaysian”? Do we deny this?

So, fellow Malaysians, what is there in the name of a street? It is none other than our Malaysian heritage and identity. If we deny the simple gesture of writing smaller case Chinese, Tamil or Jawi letters over larger case Malay spelling, we miss reminding our people that we really are a product of our common past as we endeavour to rebuild a new nation for all.

First published in freemalaysiatoday.com

The season to be jholly?

When I saw the images in one whatsapp group I belong to, I thought they were funny in a Malaysian humour kind of way. Malaysians like lame puns and use them to poke fun at serious issues. Just look at the way we abuse Najib’s name.

And soon the media started to cover the story and I found that this was not an individual’s attempt at humour but a store selling “jholly” products with a Christmas theme.

Apom Store is a shop selling products that showcases the quirky side of Malaysian culture (Apom stands for “A Piece of Malaysia”) and has released a line of “Jholly” Christmas gifts featuring a mascot with a resemblance to fugitive businessman Jho Low, the central figure in the 1MDB case.

I was somewhat surprised to read that Hannah Yeoh took exception to this via Twitter and Facebook. This was also picked up by the media.

“Actually I don’t find this funny at all. Christmas is about celebration of the Greatest Gift for mankind, the One who is righteous and perfect in all His ways. Nothing like the 1MDB players at all,” she wrote.

Expanding on this, she expressed disagreement with the notion of associating Christmas with the 1MDB corruption scandal.

However, Yeoh stressed that she was not forcing her religious beliefs on any party and was simply expressing her views.

“Feel free to celebrate Christmas and the holiday season whichever way you choose but don’t deny me the space to point this out as simply not funny.”

For a while I felt I was insensitive to my faith because I had not caught the issue she was raising.

But somehow the matter stayed on my mind and I have come to disagree with her action.

Notwithstanding the fact that this was a merchandising effort that is completely in line with the business model of the shop, I felt her point that Christmas is about Christ is wrong.

The fact that she was reacting to drawings of a fat man in a santa hat, saying “Jho, Jho, Jho” with phrases referencing shopping and drinking already tells me what she identifies as Christmas. And this Christmas is not about Christ.

And to enter this space to proclaim her beliefs and “denounce” what others were practising is rude and insensitive.

She mitigates her action somewhat with her statement, “Feel free to celebrate Christmas and the holiday season whichever way you choose but don’t deny me the space to point this out as simply not funny.”

But even this felt high-handed. Who is she to give permission to others to do what they would for their Christmas? And, is this really her space to express her opinion about what others are doing, in their own space, without harm to anyone (except Jho Low to a very slight extent)? I think not. Not, if her point is that Christmas is about Christ.

At this point you might ask: is this really worth writing an article over?

The thing is, as I was mulling this over, Oktoberfest kept coming to my mind. People wanted to celebrate Oktoberfest. But some religious personalities (or others who claim to represent muslim interests) say to celebrate a drinking festival openly is an affront to them.

And so some state governments banned Oktoberfest.

Oktoberfest is not about Islam. It is not aimed at muslims. It has nothing to do with them. But they want to encroach on Oktoberfest and demand their sensitivities be respected.

And I felt Hannah was doing the same even though she put it nicely.

And I want to speak out against this. We are multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-religious and if we cannot respect other people’s space, even though it offends us, but are caught up on our own space and our rights and our sensitivities, then we contribute to the division.

ICERD revisited

I was dismayed by headlines of demonstrations against ICERD by the malay-muslim community, led by UMNO-PAS.

Then the next day the headlines read, “Malay-Muslims will ‘run amok’ if ICERD ratified, Zahid warns”.

Mahathir though had a good ripose: ICERD won’t cause riots unless Zahid stirs up trouble.

But the writing is on the wall. At a gathering to oppose ICERD on Saturday, Zahid openly called for a merger between UMNO and PAS, for race and religion.

“Let us set aside our differences in the name of Islam, Malays, Malaysia and bumiputra and merge.

“It was a mistake for us to fight each other,” the Umno president said, adding that he would be willing to lead the merger.

And today, UMNO and PAS MPs went after Waytha in Parliament calling him a racist and a liar for his remarks caught on video some 10 years ago when interviewed on Dutch TV.

Waytha Moorthy is the minister in the PM’s department, tasked with matters of national unity. He was the one who announced the Government’s intention to ratify ICERD.

At that Parliamentary session, Waytha said regarding ICERD,

“This matter has been brought to the attorney general’s attention and if there are any conditions where Malaysia must make any adjustments on Article 153, the government will not ratify ICERD. That is a guarantee.

“The government believes that with the dialogue, discussion and consultation sessions with the public, they will be able to accept the government ratifying this human rights instrument,” said Waytha.

He also gave his “personal” view that Article 153 of the Federal Constitution, which allows for Bumiputera privileges, does not discriminate.

This article by Zurairi AR gives a good background to the Waytha video controversy. His conclusion is worth noting:

Perhaps Umno, PAS and the Islamist lobby should just come clean that the reason behind the demonisation of Waytha is simple and too transparent: To paint him as the figurehead for the ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and thus, the perfect reason to block the move.

But even before this explosion of sentiment against ICERD, there were voices of caution. Boo Su-Lyn wrote an article titled “Why ratify ICERD now?” She makes a good point.

Don’t get me wrong; I think the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) is a great United Nations treaty.

But ratifying ICERD would require a total change of mindset and how things are done in Malaysia, not least the ruling political parties’ own race-based membership structures.

Malaysia must move, sooner rather than later, towards equality.

But to do that, I believe it is more effective to start by changing some things locally first and holding lots of town hall meetings with the public, not just select NGOs, before taking the significant step of ratifying a UN treaty.

Racial superiority, unfortunately, is still socially acceptable in Malaysian society.

Now in the face of growing sentiment, PH is beginning to backtrack on the matter.

Mahathir: Impossible to ratify ICERD

Azmin: Malays, Bumiputeras need not worry about ICERD

The PKR deputy president said Putrajaya is not in a rush to accede to the convention, and Pakatan Harapan (PH) has already started working towards an equal distribution of wealth based on needs, and not race.

“There is talk that we supposedly want to ratify the international convention to ensure the elimination of racial discrimination. I would like to tell you that we in PKR have done so much earlier by ensuring that all races received equality and justice in the distribution of economy.

“That is why the economic policies introduced by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim are based on needs, and not race.

Lim Guan Eng: DAP to leave ICERD ratification to PM, won’t be drawn into racial debate.

Anwar: Postpone ICERD implementation, focus on economy.

PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim said the people should not be too focused on matters that could divide unity of Malaysians.

“We need to continue to support Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s leadership. We need to generate reforms and changes. There are other pertinent issues such as the price of rubber, increase in price of goods… the economy.

“ICERD is not something urgent that needs to be addressed immediately. We can postpone its ratification,” Anwar said in his maiden speech as party president to adjourn PKR’s 13th congress today.

As I have said in a previous article, I see ratification of ICERD as a statement of where Malaysia stands vis-a-vis racial discrimination. It is a voluntary exercise and reservations are allowed against articles that are problematic.

But some people speak of ICERD as handing over the sovereignty of the country to some external group and this notion is extrapolated to a constitutional conflict.

And this has led to the exploitation of the issue to fan racial and religious emotions. Listen to this person who was protesting ICERD (concluding paragraph):

“As a Muslim and Malay, I oppose the ratification of ICERD. Everyone has been treated fairly before this and there is no need for Malaysia to ape the West,” he said.

Perhaps people like Boo Su-Lyn and Azmin are right: Let’s just do the right thing without putting a label on it. And perhaps the time will come when it will be obvious to everyone that ICERD ratification changes nothing.

The PKR 2018 Election

It began on 22 September and after 8 weeks, the PKR 2018 Election has drawn to a close, or maybe not.

“I don’t know why (they are celebrating). We have yet to reach the end (of the poll),” she (the PKR President) told reporters after launching the Astro Junior Championships U15 (Regional) badminton tournament, here.

According to the official website, there were 76 positions at the central level and 10,212 at division level, contested.

It was certainly a huge undertaking and having done so using a new untried e-voting system, it was also a huge risk.

It would have been more sensible to hold division elections separate from the central elections but my guess is that they have no time left as their last election was in 2014.

With the whole process taking so long to complete, following the election was a challenge but the media basically boiled it down to team Azmin and team Rafizi.

Essentially Team Azmin has won, except for Azmin himself, as the results for the deputy president position hangs on a balance.

Perhaps the most relevant thing arising from the election so far is the damage to PKR’s reputation.

Responding to an article I shared about a statement the PKR secretary-general made regarding the membership of the Julau branch, which went from hundreds to thousands in 1 day, my niece’s husband commented, “Getting worse this party”. That from a person who rarely makes political observations.

Even before the election, I had written an article about the accusations thrown at Azmin by Rafizi, and the way Rafizi paraded his close ties with Anwar, questioning whether justice is still at the forefront of the party.

More pertinent is Ambiga’s response,

Ambiga said they were about to “lose the moral high ground to call themselves reformists” if the unsavoury situation at the party polls continued.

She also questioned the veracity of 13,000 new registered voters in the party in Julau, Sarawak within just one day in June, ahead of the cutoff date for new members to be eligible to vote.

“After all, they saw through the shenanigans of the last government and threw them out. Thirteen thousand increase in members in one day? Really?” she added.

Perhaps the most damaging is the controversy surrounding Julau.

It seemed that the PKR secretary-general explained that the 13,000 new registered voters in the Julau division came from the Julau MP Larry Sng, who joined the party on May 11, having contested as an independent.

But that did not stop claims that some were actually dead people, and thousands share the same address, and others were people who did not know they are now PKR members, and still others who actually still belong to rival political parties.

The controversy did not end there. On the day of election at Julau, Rafizi (according to some reports) claimed that some of the tablets used in the voting system have been compromised by the presence of a malicious program. The election results were then suspended.

The police came into the picture, a technical man sent by PKR to help supervise the election in Julau was arrested, and the compromised tablets were seized.

There were other issues: Some Malacca and Negri Sembilan divisions had to hold their election again as slow internet access hampered the process. A wireless jamming device was found at 1 election center. Several incidents of violent protests occurred.

The fact that there were acts of violence and sabotage are of little consequence in the sense that these are events that cannot be anticipated or prevented. One can only mitigate the damage and provide clear information that will allay suspicion of fraud or interference.

In this I find PKR wanting. For a party that have been insistent on clean and fair elections for more than a decade, it should be familiar with all the issues involved in the integrity of elections.

On the matter of the membership of the Julau division, the secretary-general came out to say,

“The PKR HQ received the 12,000-over applications from Julau on June 12. The deadline was the 26th. Then the party leadership approved the applications for Julau and more than 400,000 applications from all over Malaysia.

“After that, the new memberships become open for objections, with the final date being July 17. The onus is on the branch to object. We did not receive any objections from them,” he said when contacted by Malay Mail.

He stressed that only members from Julau may object to the new membership applications.

Saifuddin explained that while the authority to evaluate the authenticity of suspect memberships was with the central leadership, it could not do so independently of a formal complaint from the affected branch.

When such reports are filed, he said the party’s application committee will investigate.

“But as a non-Julau member, can we reject the names submitted? We can’t because there were no objections from them,” he said.

Basically he said that the veracity of members is not the responsibility of the PKR HQ.

But with a 1-member-1-vote system, the 13,000 Julau members would have more weight than 30 PKR divisions in Sarawak, which according to PKR central committee member Latheefa Koya, stands at 9000.

On the matter of the compromised tablets in Julau,

The chairman of the PKR Party Election Committee (JPP) Datuk Rashid Din said in a statement here that the matter was detected by the ‘Unit Sistem & IT JPP’ at 2pm at the Julau Voting Centre after the devices failed to function as usual.

”A report was sent to seek the feedback of the JPP Cyber Security Team in Petaling Jaya.

”The information received said the software was used to erase the e-voting application in the tablet, steal data, change the password and control the tablet using a remote-controlled computer,” he said.

He said the unit had taken several immediate steps to overcome the problem by changing the voting mode to offline, to switch off the Device Administrator privilege and to install the ‘Prey Anti-Theft’ application from the ‘Application Manager’.

As those who are familiar with software will know, these claims are quite farfetched. (See too this response from the Prey software developer.)

Subsequently the JPP has issued a statement saying the Julau election results have not been compromised.

The whole point of using an e-voting system is:

1. It can be made relatively tamper proof
2. It is more efficient, with checks made almost instantly
3. It can provide an audit trail
4. Results can be available very quickly

The revelation that you can change the voting mode to offline is quite shocking as it is a compromise.

The fact that votes can be lost via a poor internet connection is shocking. There should be several points for data storage, with the cloud as the final destination. Together with an audit trail, the developer of the system should be able to ascertain the veracity of the data.

That the tablets used can be compromised by the installation of unauthorised software is shocking. If access is so easy how can you assure the public of its integrity?

However, the reported acts of sabotage are, to my mind, a red herring. 7 tablets compromised out of 76 used in 1 division election has a miniscule effect. On top of this what was done, if indeed, was to remove the e-voting program. It would take insider knowledge and great skill and access to compromise the data. Similarly the jamming device. Some people want to cast aspersions on the veracity of the process. But a clear technical explanation can clear the air.

What is even more shocking is the amount of unverified information given out to the public over the past few days, including the involvement of the police. And the lack of clear, professional input on what is a technical matter. A PKR man was arrested and then released. Yet no word on him since.

But for me, the most shocking is the slow release of the results of the election.

I am sure everyone can still remember the anxiety on May 9 when the Election Commission were slow to announce the results of the elections.

In the case of PKR only the elections held in weeks 1-3 have official results announced. In an e-voting system, how can you have so much to deal with in the “peti undi ragu”?

In the meantime we get all sorts of unofficial results in the media.

I can understand the Azmin camp’s impatience in claiming victory. Just as Mahathir did early on May 9 when the unofficial results became clear.

For the President of PKR, who suggested that unnamed infiltrators may be behind the Julau controversies, the election is not over yet.

“I am waiting for JPP to make a decision. I am leaving that (to them) as we want the election to be conducted independently,” she added.

Even though she has her own preferred candidate.

ICERD

The introduction on the Wikipedia page on ICERD says,

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) is a United Nations convention. A third-generation human rights instrument, the Convention commits its members to the elimination of racial discrimination and the promotion of understanding among all races. Controversially, the Convention also requires its parties to outlaw hate speech and criminalize membership in racist organizations.

The Convention also includes an individual complaints mechanism, effectively making it enforceable against its parties. This has led to the development of a limited jurisprudence on the interpretation and implementation of the Convention.

The convention was adopted and opened for signature by the United Nations General Assembly on 21 December 1965, and entered into force on 4 January 1969. As of January 2018, it has 88 signatories and 179 parties.

Positive discrimination policies and other measures taken to redress imbalances and promote equality are specifically excluded from the definition of racial discrimination.

Of note is Article 7, which obliges parties to adopt “immediate and effective measures”, particularly in education, to combat racial prejudice and encourage understanding and tolerance between different racial, ethnic and national groups.

The key controversy of ICERD is the presence of dispute resolution mechanisms, including allowing any dispute over the interpretation or application of the Convention to be referred to the International Court of Justice. However the Convention allows signatories to lodge reservations against any specific articles.

Seen as a whole, ICERD is a convention that was initiated by the UN more than 50 years ago, aimed at the elimination of racial discrimination and the promotion of racial understanding and tolerance.

It is quite shocking that Malaysia, being a multi-racial community, is still not a signatory to this convention.

The recent focus on ICERD in Malaysia is due to the fact that it is on the PH Manifesto because Mahathir raised the matter in his speech to the UN.

Some groups have spoken against, and even demonstrated against, the move to be a signatory. PH intends to honor its Manifesto make Malaysia a signatory but suggests that discussions be held first before doing so. A wise move, given that there is so much misinformation about the matter.

However it looks like Syed Saddiq, the Youth and Sports minister, did not get the memo and asserted that the PPBM Youth wing will reject Malaysia’s ratification of ICERD if it weakens or erodes the rights under Article 153 of the constitution, the monarchy, the position of Islam or any other rights enshrined in the Federal Constitution.

“This means that changes must be on what Malaysians want without outside interference. We reject any attempt by outsiders to pressure or threaten us to review any law in Malaysia or provisions in the constitution if Malaysia ratifies the ICERD.

“PPBM Youth urges the government to reconsider ratifying the ICERD if it leads to Malaysia’s laws being on the same level as international laws because this could lead to socio-economic imbalance and the erosion of certain rights,” Syed Saddiq, who is Muar MP, said in a statement today.

Clearly this young politician is fast learning Malaysian Political Speak, the ability to cover all the important concerns of race and religion without needing to understand the issues at hand and still sound as if he is open to reason.

Azmi Sharom has written a simple and clear response to some of the fallacious assertions against ICERD that are making the rounds on WhatsApp. The minister should spend a few minutes reading it.

My take on the matter is simple. Racial discrimination is shameful and it should not take much thought to proclaim that Malaysia stands with the rest of the world on this matter.

It is true given our history that the outworking of such a stance can be tricky as the lines between discrimination and affirmative action may not be easy to define. Throw in the fact that the constitution also enshrines certain key agreements, not just among the races but also with respect to East Malaysia, and you can see that some clear guidelines need to be laid down.

But the broad goal should not be in dispute. And those who do dispute it, and think that equality is NOT a goal that Malaysia should aspire or subscribe to, clearly have in mind, however they may disguise it, racial discrimination, or in their case, racial supremacy, or apartheid.

As Azmi Sharom wrote in his conclusion:

Our Constitution is actually in line with that principle. Article 153, which provides for the special position of the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak, states that the King, under advice from the government, may set quotas (for business, education and civil service) for as long as it is reasonable to do so.

If parity is achieved, then surely it is reasonable to stop. This is in line with the ICERD.

Unless of course the writer of the message forwarded to me wants the Malays (and natives of Sabah and Sarawak) to be forever given special help, regardless of their standing and position in society.

If that is the case, then why not be honest about it and say that the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak are of a different class of citizenry and everybody else is second class.

That would at least be honest – racist and bigoted, sure, but at least honest.

Cultural Wars

I came across an article entitled “White evangelicals are the sleeping giant of the 2018 midterms” recently.

The author claimed that conservative evangelical Christians are an important support base for Donald Trump and the Republican Party. In an effort to explain why this is so, despite an overwhelmingly popular view that Trump and the Republicans have been unfair, unjust and unmerciful in their views and policies towards the weak and marginalised, he has tried to look at Trump’s presidency from the point of view of this group of people.

The white evangelical community views the Trump era as a fundamental realignment of American politics, with the Christian right reasserting itself after eight years of Barack Obama. They understand that if Republicans lose the House or, even worse, the House and Senate in the midterm elections, their agenda is at risk. On the surface, the GOP is leaning into a fear-based white identity campaign, but underneath, evangelicals have a whole set of other issues they care very deeply about that have nothing to do with immigration or crime.

Essentially the writer framed the community’s concerns as cultural: abortion, gender, LGBTQ issues, US-Israel relations. The most important is the control over the Supreme Court that rules on many of these issues.

Seen from that point of view, the Trump administration has been wonderful:

  • defining gender as binary (male and female);
  • removing recognition of LGBTQ in the education space;
  • encouraging policies that discourage and restrict abortion;
  • moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem;
  • securing the return of 3 men held prisoner in North Korea, one of whom is a missionary;
  • and most of all, 2 new members of the Supreme Court who are conservative Christians, swinging the balance to the right.

I think it is important to at least note that a cultural war has going on in the US (and exported worldwide), most easily identified by the “battlefield” over LGBTQ. I have placed battlefield in quotes because I think that this battle has been largely lost to the liberals and they now control the narrative. What has once been an issue of homosexuality now includes bisexuality, pan-sexuality and perhaps others as well. There is now no norm and sex has been moved from a moral issue to one of choice. Any attempt to reverse this is now viewed as an act of bigotry, hate and denial of a person’s rights.

This removal of what has been a cultural absolute is but one of many and I do think that all absolutes will be systematically attacked.

The battle against many cultural norms have been sophisticated and nuanced. The narrative has moved away from “wild Roman orgies” to tender love, personal struggle, suffering discrimination and hatred, justice and acceptance. Movies portraying LGBTQ issues have moved to teenaged protagonists.

Unfortunately, Christian response has often been awkward, relying on black and white, this or that, “I must be right because I represent God’s point of view” arguments, and ignoring the liberal’s challenge for us to be able to present our values with integrity, and to articulate these truths in the context of love, hospitality and sacrifice that underlines the Gospel.

And this, I believe is the failure that is behind what we see in the US these days and the Church is in danger of becoming once again, the villain.

Vinoth Ramachandra writes in his article,

A globally renowned American Christian leader told me a few days ago: “You must understand that Americans are largely an ignorant, uneducated people.” That ignorance, he went on to say, is widely prevalent among the white conservatives of suburban as well as rural churches. This perhaps is the largest “unreached peoples’ group” in the world, a people who need to be converted from fear to love, from prejudice to hospitality, from patriotism/civil religion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In our own context in Malaysia, these challenges confront the Church, especially when we have another religious voice that has strong conservative views. It is important that we do not reflexively take the opposing view and lose the truths that we hold, or unthinkingly support views that discriminate the marginalised. We need to not only articulate the nuances of righteousness and mercy, justice and love, but also to express these truths in our actions, our programs and our institutions.