Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Sarawakians have spoken

Friday, April 4, 2014

With love from the people she tried to protect

Goodbye Irene, gone but not forgotten.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

So, is it now a crime to have Muslim sounding names?

I USUALLY try to refrain from commenting on issues pertaining to religion due to the sensitive nature of the topic but there are times when I feel compelled to speak up, especially when injustices are committed in the name of religion.

Last week carried 'Malaysia achieves another first: Christian woman convicted of Khalwat'. The misunderstanding stems from the fact that the 42-year-old woman –  a reflexologist – goes by the name ‘Halimah’.

Any person with their head screwed on right would have dropped the case as soon as they discovered the mistake, but no, not the Penang Islamic Religious Department (Jaip).

In the midst of this, Penang Religious Affairs, Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs committee chairman Datuk Abdul Malik Abul Kassim defended Jaip, saying the Mutiara Traditional Herbal Centre that employed the Indonesian national could have avoided trouble with religious authorities by not employing a person with a "Muslim sounding" name.

The owner of the centre, Datin Josephine Ong, was spot on when she said Abdul Malik knows "nuts" about Indonesians.

Those who are well read, travel often to Indonesia or even those who bother to chat with local Indonesian workers will know that it is hard to tell the religious background of an Indonesian through their name.
Muslims and Christians in that country tend to share names such as Rita, Diana, Anna, Natalia, Hannah, Angeline, Kristina, Kris, Ricky and Nasution among others.

In Indonesia, Muslims and Christians even have Hindu sounding names such as Lashmi, Mina, Saraswaty, Putra, Putri, Dewa, Dewi, Gunawan and Surya among others. I know of at least one Muslim woman, who works in an international non-governmental organisation who named her daughter Nala (which means nice) and her son Mahesa (which means great lord in Sanskrit). Bandung born Indonesian artist Krishnamurti Suparka is a Muslim, as is Indra Rukmana the son-in-law of former Indonesian president Suharto.

Even here in Malaysia I have had Indian Muslim friends by the name of Meena and Asha. The list of names is long, but I’ll not say too much as I may risk confusing Jaip who may start going after Hindus in Penang.

This is becoming a major embarrassment and concern in this country, ignorant religious authorities who have too much of an ego to admit and rectify a mistake when they have made one. The apt term for them is ‘bodoh-sombong’ used to refer to people who are dumb but put on a mask of pride to hide it.

I met Halimah last week. She is illiterate, demure and timid by nature – someone whom bullies can pick on easily.

So Jaip turns up on Dec 8, 2011, drags her out of her workplace based on her Muslim sounding name saying she has committed khalwat. They haul her to court and read her the charge in a language she doesn’t understand.
She can’t read what has been written down either, and there is no lawyer or translator to help her. She is then charged and sentenced to 14 days in jail and a RM3,000 fine by the Syariah lower court and this was upheld by the Syariah High Court. The case is currently at the Syariah Appeals Court level. 

All this time and effort wasted, despite the fact that she has submitted her baptism certificate and necessary documents to prove that she is a Christian.

What is the point Jaip?

Why does Halimah have to suffer because you are ignorant about the culture in her home country? 

We know you may have religious honour and such to protect, but is this what religion is all about?

I thought religion was all about justice and fairness and protection for those who are weak and oppressed. Aren’t you doing the exact opposite?

I don’t think you are protecting the honour of the religion you are authorised to uphold if that’s what your intention was. If anything, you are giving it a bad name.

Logically how can the Syariah High Court ask Halimah – who confesses to not practicing either Islam (the religion of her mother) and Christianity (the religion of her father) despite being baptised – to recite Christian prayers in court under duress?

How is the Syariah court suddenly an authority in deciding whether one is Christian by the prayers he or she recites?

I’m a Catholic, I know how to say the rosary, but I have no idea how an Anglican Christian, Methodist Christian, Syrian Christian, Greek Orthodox Christian or host of other Christian denomination would respond if they were asked to pray. I don’t think that even the Pope can tell for sure what prayers are being recited by followers from different denominations and people from different parts of the world – some chant, some sing, some dance and some pray quietly in their own way and in their own languages.

What if Halimah were a Hindu or Buddhist and told to pray? She could have uttered some gibberish and passed it off as chants or prayers in Sanskrit? Would the religious authorities or the Syariah Court even know what she was saying?

What if she’s an atheist?

Does it even make sense for the Syariah court to ask Halimah, a Christian who does not fall under their jurisdiction to stand in the dock and pray so that it can decide what religion she practices?

This whole episode is ridiculous and reeks of injustice. Some might ask me why I am bothered by this. It’s not my problem in any way.

Well, my first name – Maria – is Muslim sounding too. So should I dust off my baptism certificate and start carrying it around in anticipation of meeting the most ignorant of authorities?

And more importantly, I have a right to be bothered and speak up, in view of the increasing number of non-Muslims like Halimah being dragged to the Syariah court for the most ludicrous reason.

Of course we are told that that court will be fair as it will act on the fairness of Islamic principles, and I have no doubt that Islam as other religions do promotes justice, fairness and all things good.

But I can’t say the same for some of the authorities tasked to uphold the sanctity of the religion. They are doing quite well in giving it a bad reputation instead.

How can fairness be applied by those who act in the most unjust of ways to begin with? It is because of this that I doubt that justice will ever be served for non-Muslims who have the misfortune of being dragged through Syariah proceedings.

Why is this being allowed? Who checks on the religious authorities when they themselves act in ways that go against their religion? Who are they accountable to? Who brings them to justice?

Frankly I don’t see an end to this predicament, but till then all the rest of us can do is to speak up against the injustices we see. We owe it to people like Halimah who are bullied because they can’t do so themselves.

[Maria J Dass is a freelance journalist who has covered issues that affect people and communities in the country for over 14 years. She hopes to do her part to put things in order for future generations in this country. This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not represent the view of nor the blogger].

Monday, March 31, 2014

To China, cool it, please.

In the beginning, I felt great sympathy for the families in China who lost their loved ones in the MH370 tragedy.  But when their criticisms of us started to go on an overdrive, I told myself, enough is enough.  It is alright to be angry, frustrated, exasperated and suffering in anguish, but to call us "murderers", "stupid", "liars" and "inferior race", I believe it is time to draw the line.  To the celebrities who are not directly involved in the tragedy, it was really repulsive to see them egged the victims' families on when some good sense should have prevailed to try to calm the situation. Even until today, not a single shred of evidence points to the fact that the plane went down in the Indian Ocean.  It has been further confirmed that the wreckage the SAR teams picked up from the waters did not even belong to the plane.  To the Chinese, please .... cease and desist.

Here is an article written by Josh Hong.

The pains and sorrows of the anguished families of the MH370 crew and passengers deserve global sympathies. I would not use the much-abused “I know how it feels”, for I have never been in the kind of tragic situation to fully grasp and appreciate the immensity of the suffering that they have been going through for the past three weeks, and I pray earnestly that none of us would have to go through it again.

It involves 239 lives and 15 nationalities, and all of them should rightly be kept in our prayers. No more, no less.

I would even concede the Chinese families do have the right to express their grief in a hysterical manner, or to protest outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing (with the connivance of the Chinese authorities, no doubt). If the entire Chinese citizenry wants to boycott Malaysia, I would be fine with it, too. As long as they do not put any life in danger, so be it. The Chinese have to learn to exercise their democratic right in one way or another somehow, and someday.

But when the media reports in China - from the communist mouth piece People’s Daily (and its English-language sister publication Global Times) to the Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV - highlight persistently “152 Chinese nationals on board”, it smacks of ugly nationalism and parochialism, as if the other 87 people do not count as much. That is sickening, to say the least.

I don’t think Malaysians and other nationals who have loved ones on that ill-fated flight would suffer less emotionally than the Chinese. Hence, for any media organisation to keep repeating things like “the Chinese government must do more to show that it can protect rightfully the interests of the citizens of a country that may one day exert far greater influence in the world” (according to one Phoenix TV commentator) is sheer arrogance and insensitivity.

I remember well how the Chinese media chastised their US counterparts (CNN in particular) in no uncertain terms the latter’s focus predominantly on the American victims and their families in the aftermath of the Sept 11 attacks, and rightly so.

However, I can see very clearly that in the MH370 incident, the Chinese media have failed to live up to the standards that they had demanded of the West.

For nearly three weeks, Phoenix TV and the Apple Daily in Hong Kong have been like a rumour mill, churning out sensationalising news one after another, such as “Beijing has taken over the investigations because of MAS’ incompetence”, although MAS, being a civil aviation company, has no role to play in the search and rescue operations.

The other day, a CCTV panel was still boasting about how well the Chinese navy and radars had been doing, with the “small nations in South-East Asia paling into insignificance”, and so on and so forth.

But didn’t China also make mistakes?

There is simply too much misinformation and disinformation since the crisis happened, and what the Chinese media will not tell their audiences is that MH370 has since turned into a litmus test for China’s capabilities as an emerging superpower.

Needless to say, the US has again demonstrated its superior command of a critical situation as such, and the fact that Malaysia appears to be working more closely with Washington, London and Canberra is totally unpalatable to Beijing.

A trusted trade partner

Yes, the Chinese have ample reasons to be livid. For decades, they have dumped in money and resources into cultivating closer ties, trust and goodwill with the South-East Asian countries, hoping that all these investments would one day bear fruit beyond their wildest imaginations. As far as bilateral relations are concerned, much has been achieved since the 1970s and Malaysia has long been considered as a trusted trade partner to China.

Be that as it may, power entails not only the necessary economic prowess, but also the capabilities to dictate and influence global events. In this regard, Japan and Germany serve as a good example. Both countries have for decades been the locomotive in their respective region, but neither of them has been able to play a political role that would consummate with their economic strengths.

As David Shambaugh has observed, a mere global presence does not equal having global power unless a nation can influence events in a particular region or realm, for shaping the desired outcome of a situation is the essence of influence and exercise of power.

In short, China, for all its pretense, remains nothing but a lonely giant across the world. It is defintely a global actor, but not a global power. It never really has a strategic partner in South-East Asia, let alone genuine friend. Even Myanmar, once a “staunch ally”, resorted to ‘back-stabbing’ Beijing when Yangon chose to realign itself with the US and the West several years ago.

Meanwhile, the cordial ties between Cambodia /Laos and China are only sustained by their respective autocrat, which may not survive once either Hun Sen or Choummaly Sayasone is gone.

The Philippines and Vietnam have clashed with China over territorial disputes, while Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand tread cautiously between Beijing and Washington. Still, they will more likely than not side with the US when push comes to shove.

As for the predominantly Chinese Singapore, the island state’s foreign policy has long been anchored on pragmatism, meaning that it will not deviate from the US-centric Weltanschauung so long as Washington’s political, economic, military and technological supremacy remains intact.

Like it or not, South-East Asia traditionally harbours strong suspicions towards China's ultimate intentions. Even in terms of soft power, India has historically exerted far more cultural and religious influence on Indochina and the Indonesian archipelago than China, as is easily noticed even today.

Therefore, in a region that is rather wary of or even hostile towards its charm offensive, would China want to risk losing Malaysia as a relatively friendly partner?

First in region to recognise People’s Republic

After all, Malaysia is the first country in South-East Asia that recognised the People’s Republic of China, and will soon be celebrating the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations.

In terms of foreign policy, Malaysia has taken a more balanced approached as compared to even Singapore, which has recently got on Beijing’s nerves when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong openly reminded the Chinese authorities to exercise caution in the dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

I mean, hold Malaysia accountable by all means in the MH370 incident, but all this can be achieved without all the hype, sensationalism and unnecessary jingoism on the part of the state-sponsored Chinese media and certain officials.

If Beijing allows the anti-Malaysia sentiment to go overboard, my fear is that it would only send a very wrong message to South-East Asia as a whole, and drive the countries in the region further into the US sphere of influence, which is a self-fulfilling prophesy, no less, something that is equally undesirable to me.

But the crisis also presents Malaysia with a dilemma - do we still want to put all the eggs in one basket, banking on Chinese tourists and investors to boost our economy?

I, for one, certainly hope that the confidence of Chinese investors in Malaysia is so low that they will stop driving up property prices and enriching BN cronies at our expense.

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.