Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Courage and fear

Frank dropped in to visit me (and buy some books) yesterday. He is an interesting one: a mathematician, a photographer, and a lover of arts and literature. (I always get the eye-roll when I tell anyone that I also enjoy reading books on mathematics. So there. He, of course, is an academic; quite a different level that.)

We were talking about over-intellectualising everything, reading more into a situation than there is. I told him the story of my housekeeper, recently diagnosed with a malignant growth in her breast. Panic, panic, panic: that is, by everyone else, except her. I was shocked too, but also a little taken aback by her passive response. Was she in denial? Was everyone else simply doing the Chicken Little, the-sky-is-falling, dance on her behalf, with limited understanding of the situation? Why don’t you panic, damn it! Or did she really not understand the implications?

“She is like a cat,” I said to Frank. “Simply living; taking life in its stride.”

“Meow, meow. Scratch, scratch, scratch,” Frank responded, understanding.

We are supposed to be living in an age of knowledge, but there is so precious little of it. All we do is panic. Chemicals in fruits and vegetables: panic. In meat: panic. Franken food: panic. Fracking (whatever that is): panic. Transfat: panic. Mercury poisoned fish: panic. Climate change: panic. Antibiotics: panic. Medicines: panic. Street crime: panic, etc, etc, etc. Everything is bad: panic!

We have thousands of things to panic about and we do it remarkably well, which brings me to another story.

Why is there a television in the police station?

This happened two weeks ago. (Why am I writing about it only now? Frank suggested I should.) I was out on my daily 6.30-am walk with my stick and my Doberman. Dawn was just breaking, so I could see, but not very clearly. Three motorcycles rode past. Then they turned around. I froze on the spot. Something was wrong.

Across the road in front of the kindergarten on Jalan Kasah, a man was dropping off his wife who worked there, as he did every morning. The three motorcycles surrounded the MPV. Knives and machetes came out, and the six punks set about to mug the couple holding daggers to their throats, with me right across the road barely ten feet away. I mind ticked, evaluating my choices. There was no way I could take on six armed punks, with my dog, a stick and a bad knee, not to mention (ahem), as a sexagenarian.  I could have released my dog on them, except that there would have been mayhem. The punks could have hurt the couple badly in panic, and I would have been defenceless if they turned on me. So I did the only thing I could: shouted like hell to wake some neighbours nearby. Nobody came out, although several people watched from afar.

I don’t how long this went on: maybe a minute, maybe less. I’m not sure if they got what they wanted when they got on to their bikes to ride off, swearing, waving fists and weapons at me. One rider threw something in my direction from about six feet away. I was not hit.

I went up to the couple. The woman was hysterical and the man looked dazed. I told him that she needed to see a doctor, indicating his MPV, but I don’t think he understood. Just then, another neighbour plucked up enough courage to come near. “She needs to see a doctor,” I told him. "Yes, yes," he said and took charge of the situation.

I was outraged and angry at my helplessness, at the helplessness of my entire neighbourhood that was being victimised daily, as I walked home. I was in no mood to hang around and talk. I spoke to my next-door neighbour, the security rep for our street, and he promised to get something done. This was the third mugging I had witnessed on our street in a month.  I saw the first two as the gang was getting away. (Same gang; I recognised the faces.) This was full frontal.

Throughout the day, I was still outraged and angry, but in control. Then the next day I was struck by another emotion: inexplicable fear. I began to hyperventilate and I couldn’t focus on anything. I became incoherent. (I think I asked someone where I could buy a samurai sword.) All sorts of things went through my head. Was I in shock? Was this PTSD? What was I thinking? But what else could I have done? I could have been killed. I chewed off a few heads on the phone that morning (which I am sorry for). Sorry, innocent bystanders. Are you going to make a police report? Whatever for? I might as well speak to my furniture!

Even after two weeks, the feeling is still there, but at least I feel well enough to write about it. I guess it will take a long time for it to go away completely. If it does.

As I was coming to work this morning, I glanced inside the Balai Polis Bangsar Baru. Can someone tell me why they have a large screen television in a police station?

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Malaysia's fact-free zone

Malaysia_shoutingOr, so much noise, so little signal. Like listening to a short-wave radio.
I will start with two stories. The first one is quite benign; the second, not.
Silverfish Books has always had a section on philosophy, theology and metaphysics; not quite the 'idiot's' guide to religion, but something more thought-provoking. Two lovely young women came up the stairs once, to show us some books by a religious group (some would call them a cult) that I had heard of, and to ask us if we would stock them. "Sure," we said, and told them our terms. Their next question was, "Where will you shelf them?" "We have a few shelves for religion," we explained, whereupon, they said that theirs was not a religion but a way of life. So, big mouth, me, asked, "Do you know of any religion in the world that claims not to be a way of life?" They were politely offended, stunned and silenced. They withdrew quietly, taking their books with them, sticking to their beliefs, even if it meant not disseminating the 'word'.
The second incident happened when I was in the university. I stayed in a hostel with five blocks, mine quite creatively called E-Block. There was the usual inter-block rivalry over all sorts things like sports, like who could shout the loudest, who could piss the furthest (it was a mostly men's hostel), fart the most times, and so on. We would often tease visitors from the other blocks and greet them with water filled balloons, often missing on purpose, but getting a great laugh from it. Then one night, it turned ugly. It started with some E-blockers hooting at a group of visitors from another block who had come to work on a tutorial with some friends. It then progressed to shouting, name calling, object throwing, chasing with sticks and ending in fisticuffs. I watched in horror, shock and confusion; they were all my friends!
I remember the kindergarten wisdom: united we stand, divided we fall. Rubbish: as individuals, we stand; united, we are a mob, bullies. William Golding got it spot on in the Lord of the Flies, the story of a group of British boys stuck on an uninhabited island after a plane crash, who try to govern themselves with disastrous results.
There was an interesting story in The New Yorker on-line by Maria Konnikova recently, I Don’t Want to Be Right, about a study by Brendan Nyhan, a professor of political science at Dartmouth on parental attitudes toward vaccination and other subjects, and how it is almost impossible to change a perception, once formed; and how ineffective factual correction is . The story says: 'Nyhan’s interest in false beliefs dates back to early 2000, when he was a senior at Swarthmore. It was the middle of a messy presidential campaign, and he was studying the intricacies of political science and came to the conclusion that “The 2000 (US presidential) campaign was something of a fact-free zone ...” It appears it’s almost impossible to get people to change a belief or attitude, even when they are way off the truth.
In the first story, I guess no amount of logic would have changed the belief of the two women that theirs is the only 'way of life' that existed. The second is stranger because there was no belief system involved except maybe superiority. Curiously, they still get together every year and behave like they did when they were students in campus. Arrested development? Superiority complex? Beats me. Another friend, Ikram, who also attended the 30th anniversary bash with me, dropped in to Silverfish a few days after the event and said, "Shall we do that again in another 30 years?" I laughed. It was my sentiment exactly.
Running a bookshop like Silverfish is fraught with danger, given the quasi-intellectual nature we appear to project. We love the free exchange of ideas (many ambassadors visit us for that reason), but when some people insist that we should agree with them no matter what, it becomes difficult to say the least. They don't understand, that while we may call a spade a spade, we are not always interested in taking sides; that even if we do chose a side, facts remain unaltered. It became really bad during the run-up to GE13, and no amount of factual correction made a difference. Unfortunately, even a whole year after GE13, it still hasn't stopped, and this will probably continue to GE14.
Another quote from the story: "In a study, Kelly Garrett and Brian Weeks looked to see if political misinformation ... that was corrected immediately would be any less resilient than information that was allowed to go uncontested for a while. At first, it appeared as though the correction did cause some people to change their false beliefs. But, when the researchers took a closer look, they found that the only people who had changed their views were those who were ideologically predisposed to disbelieve the fact in question. If someone held a contrary attitude, the correction not only didn’t work—it made the subject more distrustful ..."
"Shouting, shouting, shouting," says good friend and academic, Sumit Mandal, of Malaysian politics. The less you have to say, the louder you shout it.
Which brings us to another quote from the story: "False beliefs, it turns out, have little to do with one’s stated political affiliations and far more to do with self-identity: What kind of person am I, and what kind of person do I want to be? All ideologies are similarly affected."
In other words, you may shout as much as you want, but people are not dumb; they know what they want. They are watching you. Or, is that merely wishful thinking?

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Malaysia, the "swing" state

What lousy timing: I was in the USA when Obama was traipsing through our backyard. I kept up with what was going on by reading online, with the local newspapers seemingly uninterested in the goings of a small third world country of no consequence. Where are you from? Malaysia ... you know, where that plane disappeared? Oh yes, of course. I remember the plane, but I forget the name of the country. Oh, well. Finally, on April 28, there was a photograph of Obama and a bunch of excited teenagers on page A6 of the NYT with a report on the visit In Malaysia, Obama Works to Mend Troubled Ties.

Why did Obama decide to come to Malaysia, anyway? We are a nothing country in their scheme of things, a fourth division or non-league player. Anyway, that was the impression I got from reading three American newspapers daily for the ten days I was there. Could Obama's visit be due to the way China has been flexing its muscles in the region? This was abundantly clear during the MH370 search; nobody wanted Chinese ships in their territorial waters! Or could it be due to our shaky human rights record? Even Myanmar appears to have moved ahead on that front. The TPP could have been another reason but, seriously, are we the only country standing in the way of a predatory trade agreement?

It didn't add up. The bulk of the NYT story was about the niceties and platitudes that heads of states exchanged publicly when they visited one another, making plenty of meaningless noises. (We don't know what they spoke about during private conversions, though.)

The NYT reported Obama saying things like, "We are working more closely together than ever before," 'treading gingerly on human rights issues, and saying', "The prime minister is the first to acknowledge that Malaysia still has some work to do on these issues, just like the United States ...", pleading lack of time and not lack of concern for not meeting with opposition leaders ... and yadda, yadda, yadda: typical non-statements and plenty of soft shoe dancing that we have grown to expect during visits of presidents and prime ministers, kings and queens, and others representing them, besides the fake pomp and pageantry. (Some would simply call it bullshit.) Obama's comment about non-Muslims was reported, although I would argue that 'no country in world can afford to ignore half its population, men and women of any religion' would have been a better way to put it. Especially, if they are the ones paying the rent.

"On Sunday, president Obama visited Malaysia to underscore how much has changed in the last 16 years (since Al Gore's visit) -- not the lest in this country's attitude towards the United States, which has evolved from deep seated suspicion to a cautious desire for cooperation." Really? Perhaps, if NYT reporters had looked out of their windows, they might have noticed some protesters and placards on the streets. Maybe, they were too preoccupied with Syria and Ukraine to bother. In truth, nothing much has changed in the last 16 years. If anything, the situation is now worse. True, we do not have a vituperative leadership spewing bile at the US at every turn like 16 years ago, but merely one that's unready, unwilling and unable. And perhaps, clueless.

There was one bit in the story that I found quite interesting, though. (And the NYT does have a reputation for having the inside track on some White House thinking). The newspaper said, "White House officials liken Malaysia to a "swing state" in Southeast Asia, falling somewhere between the free-wheeling democracy of the Philippines, and the rigid one party authoritarianism of Laos. Encouraging Malaysia's evolution into a more open society, could make the country a model for the rest of the region." Whoa! Now, this is making sense, and becoming scary. Is that why Obama thought it necessary to visit Malaysia?  Are these our choices: either become a shining democracy or a failed state, a rigid dictatorship? There is no need to guess which way the US will lean, but one can't help but wonder if they are underestimating Sauron's army again. It has a whiff, too, of the the domino theory all over. If we fail, will we destabilise the entire region? Will it become an excuse for China to try to fill the vacuum? Will Malaysia become the new US battleground for world democracy?

When I was in school in the sixties, I remember Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos being crowned the King and Queen of Asia by the western press. Philippines was the 'darling' country of the Asian continent, the sign of progress. It took only 20 years for it to be reduced to a basket case, surviving by exporting their women around the world to wash other peoples' dirty clothes. Is this a lesson? Yes, but one we're likely to avoid learning anything from. In Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red, master miniaturists deliberately blind themselves with needles so as not to be influenced by change or reality that might affect their 'perfect' paintings. And certainly not by the truth or knowledge. Jose Saramago, too, used a similar metaphor of political vision control quite devastatingly in his novel, Blindness.

Well, things do change fast, and failures come quickly.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Karpal Singh: Champion of the invisibles (1940-2014)

(First a declaration. I am not a politician, and never have been one. I have no political affiliation, my friends come in all political stripes, and I am not a member or ever have been a member of any political party. I never knew Karpal, and never met him.)

I was on my usual early morning walk, when another regular stopped, hesitated and said, "Lawyer Karpal died in an accident ... last night ... this morning ... 1.30 ...". He was too emotional to continue, and shrugged and raised his palm to the heavens. "What? When ... where did you hear this ... did you read this?" I stammered avoiding the most important question, "Which Karpal?" I knew the answer to that, but I did not dare say it, hoping desperately to be wrong. (Just like when I heard John Lennon was shot three decades ago.)

Only a week ago, I was having a discussion with my friend-politician-former MP-lawyer, Yusmadi. We meandered from Vaclav Havel to Gandhi, took several twists and turns and arrived at Jokowi. "Impossible in Malaysia ..." he seemed to say. "How about Nik Aziz? Karpal?" I asked. We debated for a while and finally agree. These two were indeed giants who rose above the normal wrestling-in-the-filth politicians.

It feels as though Karpal has been in my political consciousness for ever, and he looms even larger in death. He was not everybody's idea of a cuddly teddy-bear type politician; he could bite, scratch and spit, and often. He was often infuriatingly bloody-minded; almost unforgiving in politics. But he was equally bloody-minded about justice and fair-play. He spoke up for the small people; the invisibles, the underdogs, and the underclass; those who are ignored when policies are discussed, when laws are passed, when the country is looted, when contracts are dished out, and right there when rights are trampled. He was relentless, and he went on in that vein for four decades. Like a Dobermann, he would never let go.

Karpal never wavered; he never looked for the easy solution, for expediency. It had to be done right, and it had to be the right thing. In a way, he was not a politician at all, and this is my highest compliment. He was too honourable; too much of an intellectual, too much of a lawyer. To misquote Albert Einstein: "Generations to come ... will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon Malaysia." He gave us voice. He dared us to speak, and we spoke. He dared us to stand up and be counted. And we did. We became not so invisible any more. We may have disagreed intellectually sometimes, but never with his spirit.

Yang Berhormat Karpal Singh s/o Ram Singh, lawyer, politician and Member of Parliament, do rest in peace. You have done far more than your share. Thank you for showing us how it is done; we will take it from here.

(The op-ed piece below was written the day before Karpal's fatal accident. It would be dishonest of me to suggest that I wrote it for him, but he did loom large in my discussions with Yusmadi, and that sparked this article. And it just feels right to dedicate this piece to the 'champion of the invisibles'.)

Raman Krishnan
Silverfish Books

OP-ED: The invisibles

I don't know of anyone in the book industry who is not aware of the Penguin-Random House merger. A new conglomerate called Penguin Random House (or Penguin House) has been formed and the process of registering the company is (from all current knowledge) going on smoothly in all countries in the world, except Malaysia. When Penguin Books Malaysia tried to register the new company in Kuala Lumpur (they moved from PJ to KL last year) they were told that they could not use the name because they were not selling houses! They were apparently told that it was a rule that the company name must reflect their business. So instead of arguing with that ... that ... whatever ... behind the desk, they have retained the name Penguin Books Malaysia. Also, apparently, it would not have been a problem in Selangor. So, there you are.

Hilarious and ridiculous as it sound, I am not surprised. I can almost hear the dialogue: (Say this in a high-pitched nasal voice that irritates like hell), "No-oo, cannoo-oot. You canno'ot use the name. After, peoples thinks you jual rumah, kan?" Can you imagine Amazon Malaysia trying to registered a company here. Are you selling water?

We have all had these experiences at 'gomen' offices. The moment you step in, you'll feel like you have swallowed a dozen sleeping pills; time will slow to a crawl and gravity will fail. And when you manage to finally speak to someone who is not knitting, or at a Tupperware party, or having a cigarette in the lift lobby, or pegi minum (out for a drink), or on kursus (on a course), who is an actual intelligent life form, you will be so delirious with joy that your spouse will become suspicious that you've been smoking something. (Happened to me.) Kafka had nothing on these people, man!

Malaysia ta'boleh

It was not always like this, though. I joined the service in the early seventies, when it was still a privilege to work in the civil service, although snide remarks about chamblem (salary) and kimblem were already circulating. (Both Tamil words.) Promotions were based on seniority, and every thing seemed fair. Sometimes there were seeded players and favourites who went ahead. We tolerated that mostly, because there still was respect. Even if you worked under someone junior to you, there was mutual respect. To be fair, some deserved their out-of-turn promotions.

As we neared the eighties, talk of kulitfication (qualifications based on skin colour) became rampant. We resigned to being second class, and that we had to run three times faster simply to keep our place. Then it became worse. From second class, we became the invisibles. Nobody noticed us. It was as though we didn't exist. Running didn't help, no matter how fast.  By the start of the nineties,  it became so strange that we would talk about who was getting promoted and transferred where as if we ourselves didn't exist! Scary, huh? In Ralph Elison's novel, the Invisible Man, was the underclass, hiding from the world, living underground, and stealing electricity. But we were top professionals at our peak.

Inevitably, many with lower threshold for pain left; some sooner, others later. (Could this be deemed constructive dismissal?) Many went overseas. Those who remained in the service chose to grit their teeth, live in ignominy and humiliation, swallow any pride they had left for the tiny crumbs that fell off the table, and did just enough work to maintain a weak pulse before they retired. They chose a life of JM Coetzee's Disgrace. They were sometimes respected by their bosses, often decades their junior in seniority and experience. Often not. Sometimes, they were shouted at like schoolboys. (Have you seen a senior officer cry? I have.) After 20 years, it was time to leave. On rare occasions, there were the token promotions.

Half the population in now invisible (except when they want our money or votes). There was a report two years ago that one million Malaysians lived overseas, and that most were professionals. For the invisibles who are professionals, a job in the country is no longer an option, let alone one in the civil service. 50,000 students leave the country for tertiary education every year. Most don't come back. In the sixties, the best students attended the one local university. The rest went overseas. Today, the invisibles who can barely afford it would not  consider a place in a local university, even if awarded on a silver platter.

In the story Tash Aw wrote for The New York Times recently, he worried about world perceptions of Malaysia. That was washed down the drain years ago. At Silverfish Books, we often receive visitors from the US. Before they arrive they would read up about the country, including the glowing reports about 'the good Muslim nation' in the New York Times and the Washington Post. But it didn't take long after landing here for reality to sink in, and leave them shell-shocked.

The bomoh's act sort of summed up the MH370 debacle (of handling it, that is). Decades of lateral transfers, bypassed promotions, ignored seniority, solid bullet-proof glass ceilings and a million professionals overseas, has a price. The civil service is bloated with mediocrity and incompetence; a place for lifetime employment, a pension and no work. It's almost like rent-seeking. Despite everything, there are some good people still there (doing the work of ten others). But how much can they handle? The rest survive with a bodoh sombong (dumb arrogant) attitude, bullying and playing blame games. (When a school teacher can slap a deputy minister in public and get away with it, it says it all ...  you owe me a living!)

The emperor has lost all his clothes, and he stands stark naked. But will he learn anything? Unfortunately, that's not likely. After Merdeka, some ministers asked Malaysian professionals if they were ready to take over the administration. There was a resounding 'yes'. And they did a good job, too. What if we were asked that question again? Can you do the job?

Malaysia memang ta'boleh.