Sunday, February 13, 2011

Top headlines: 11/2/11

International headlines: Fall of the pharoah; Mubarak steps down

After 18 days of revolt, Egyptians around the world rejoiced as Hosni Mubarak finally gave in to his people's will and stepped down as president, handing over power to the military on Friday. The announcement was made by vice president Omar Suleiman; which was a contradiction to Mubarak's earlier speech the day before in which he said that he would be remaining in power till September when a "peaceful transition" will take place.

Despite the people's victory, this is by no means the end of the sruggle. If anything, this is only the beginning of a slow and painful reformation process for the country's political system. As we have witnessed during the ousting of Suharto in Indonesia and Thaksin Sinawatra in Thailand, there will be many challenges ahead. For starters, every single person responsible for the violent attacks during the demonstrations need to be brought to justice. Besides that, the interim government should also start taking measures to undo the various wrongs done during Mubarak's tenure in order to stabilize and improve the economy. Also, having the country under military control, depending on the situation, might prove to be a worse option, as we have seen in Thailand during the coup.

Regardless of the challenges ahead, the affects of Mubarak's resignation has affected his people psychologically. For the first time in 30 years they feel liberated and hopeful. Of course the optimism is not shared by all walks of life. The rich, particularly the ones that benefited from Mubarak's regime are preparing for the worse, as they would probably have a lot to lose.

Putting this situation in a Malaysian context, one can see why most Malaysians are still reluctant to vote for anyone else other than the ruling party. While many in the urban areas, particularly the youth seek change, majority of Malaysians still have a sense of dependency for the government. Despite the various allegations of corruptions and mismanagement of funds, most Malaysians tend to look past those flaws and see the government as a stable source of support. Maybe it's because unlike in Egypt, our society isn't as segregated economically. There is no definite line dividing the poor from the middle class, and the middle class from the rich. Be as it may, the government should really focus on improving their efforts to serve the people and not simply rest on their laurels. There are still many issues which needs to be resolve in this country. As for Egypt, it is now up to the people and their interim government to decide where to go from here.

Sources from Al Jazeera, The Malaysian Insider and BBC News

Local headlines: The fatwa council's verdict on Valentine's Day

It was decided by the fatwa council recently after a round of discussions that Valentine's Day be classified as "haram". Thus, celebrating it is to be discouraged within the Muslim community in Malaysia. In lieu with the recent announcement, JAKIM had organized various anti-Valentine's Day campaigns, the most prominent among them being the "Mind The Valentine's Day Trap" campaign, aimed to prevent Muslim youth from celebrating Valentine's Day. PAS representatives had also called for the Kedah, Kelantan and Selangor governments to work with local authorities to organize crackdowns on Muslim youth caught doing immoral activities during the celebrations. The biggest controversy sparked by this whole issue however involves a youtube clip of a local tv program in which an Islamic motivational speaker featured on the show, Datuk Ustazah Siti Nor Bahyah Mahamood, spewed out insulting comments towards the Christian community by equating promiscuity and sinful acts as Christian values.

Being a Muslim myself, I've learned over the years to not depend too much on the findings and verdicts of JAKIM. It's not like I'm blasphemously disagreeing with everything they say or do. I just find their methods and priorities not in order. First of all let's clear a few things up shall we? Valentine's Day is not a Christian celebration. Yes it does hold some significance to them, but ultimately it's nothing more than a by-product of capitalism. How else could you explain jacked up prices of candy and flowers? Surely back in the day Jesus didn't preach to the Christians to decorate their shops in pink and red every february the 14th, and get people to buy boxes of chocolates and roses for each other. Besides, as most of us are aware, many celebrate it to express unconditional love and affection. It does not necessarily have to be physical or sexual in nature. For instance, it's common to see children celebrate it with their parents as a show of appreciation, similar to how we usually celebrate mother's day or father's day.

I was particularly peeved with the way the Ustazah, as well as various other Islamic experts who commented on the issue equated sinful activities(maksiat) with Christian values. What I've noticed with most Malay-Muslims in Malaysia, educated or otherwise, is that they are still confused with the usage of the terms "liberal" or "western" with "Christian". To them, "western"="English"(Orang Putih/Mat Salleh/Inggeris/Caucasians)=Christians. Thus in the minds of most Muslims here, every aspect of western life, even the negative ones is considered to be derived from Christian teachings. I believe this mind set came about as a result of British colonialism. Clearly though, no religion teaches people to live in sin. Even in the Quran itself, there is a verse telling Muslims that the closest to them in faith are the Christians; "...and nearest among them in love to the believers wilt thou find those who say, "We are Christians": because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant. And when they listen to the revelation received by the Messenger, thou wilt see their eyes overflowing with tears, for they recognize the truth: they pray: 'Our Lord! we believe; write us down among the witnesses." - verse 82 and 83, Surah Al Ma'idah.

I can never undestand how JAKIM can find time to condemn this and that, but can't sit down and focus on more productive activities that would not only benefit the community, but also the Muslims in particular. Instead of coming up with fatwas on clearly petty issues(like with the football jerseys), why not come up with campaigns to help ex drug addicts, convicts or alcoholics get back on their feet? Why not find ways to help single mothers or rape victims? Why not find ways to lower the divorce rates among Muslim couples? Why not do something to help the poor(which the last time I checked, still consisted of mostly Malay-Muslims)? Isn't that the purpose of the Zakat? Why are there still people living off the streets or in makeshift huts? Shouldn't the money reach them by now? The teachings of Islam can actually be a powerful tool for social and economic development. They just need to set their priorities straight. If a Muslim's faith is tested and shaken by trivial matters as they have so often claimed, then clearly most Muslims here have little faith in their own religion, let alone have enough knowledge about it. 

Personally as a Muslim, I just don't agree with the idea of having a panel of "experts" telling me what to do. I don't mean this to offend anyone, but Islam does not work in the same way as the Catholic church. There's a reason why you never hear the phrase "of mosque and state". It's simply because Islam was created without such hierarchies. It's a religion open to reasoning and interpretation, within certain boundaries of course, but a democratic one nevertheless. We do not have "god's representatives" in Islam as we believe all man are created equal. There for all man should have equal access to Quranic knowledge, and thus are equally knowledgeable and qualified to debate on matters pertaining the religion.

FYI, Valentine's Day holds little significance for me. It's just one of those dates that passes me by, unnoticed, every year. Also I would like to apologize if I accidentally offended anyone in this article. The opinions are of mine and mine alone.

Sources from The Malaysian Insider and NST

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Top headlines: 4/2/11

International headlines: Day of departure; Egyptian protests continues

The protests in Egypt continue to dominate the international headlines this week. Tahrir Square became center stage as the thousand strong anti-Mubarak protesters grew into millions. Dubbed as the "March Of The Millions", it was a move initiated by Egyptian opposition leaders on the 1st of February, calling on the Egyptian people to march from Tahrir Square to the presidential palace in Heliopolis demanding Mubarak's resignation.

However, the demonstrators this week were met with violent opposition from pro-Mubarak supporters as well as police and military personnel sympathetic to Mubarak. Anti-Mubarak protesters were attacked with various weapons, not excluding Molotov cocktails and rocks, leaving at least 13 killed and 1200 injured. Various analysts have speculated that the pro-Mubarak forces are hired by the government regime itself as a means to stop the demonstrations from gathering more momentum. Besides the demonstrators, journalists too were made as targets of the attacks by security officials and pro-Mubarak supporters, leaving 1 of them dead. The UN, various world leaders and the global media community have condemned the violence inflicted on the demonstrators and journalists covering the events.

On Friday the 4th, another march to Heliopolis were to take place right after Friday prayers. Dubbed as the "Day Of Departure", it was supposed to be a deadline for Mubarak to give in to the people's demands and surrender his powers. In a show of unity, Christian and non-Muslim Egyptians formed a human chain around the Muslims who were performing Friday prayers, to protect the congregation from any potential disruptions.

The effects of the Egyptian protests were particularly felt through out the middle east as well as in Malaysia. For many governments in the middle east, it was a wake up call of sorts, demanding them to change their game plan to incorporate more people friendly policies lest they want their citizens to revolt against them. For the Malaysian government, the concern was more for the safety of Malaysian students studying there and the efforts needed to make sure they return home safely.

There were also anti-Mubarak rallies here in Malaysia organized by various NGO's as a sign of support for the people of Egypt. These rallies ended with the police forcefully dispersing the crowd and arrests being made. One would suggest that the events in Egypt resonated well with any citizen of any country seeking true democracy and transparency in the government. It holds true for Malaysians too, in the sense that for too long we are bound and restricted by the shadow of the ISA, various unreported human rights violations and police brutality inflicted upon many Malaysian citizens. Similar too the situation in Egypt, many citizens in the middle eastern countries as well as in Malaysia had to cope with decades of ongoing corruption by the ruling governments, and any efforts to rectify the situation so far have been stifled by the ones in power.

As we have witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt, the common folk are starting to realize their rights and the power they actually have in their hands to topple their government when they need to. It would be wise for any ruling party, anywhere in the world to be more sensitive to the people's demands to avoid such a thing from happening to them.

Sources from Al-Jazeera and BBC News

Local headlines: Floods down south

Locally, it was the massive floods in the states of Johor, Pahang, Melaka, Negeri Sembilan and Sabah that made the headlines through out the week. Johor being the worst hit, had 2 casualties as a result of the floods, while 2 other deaths were reported in Melaka and Negeri Sembilan respectively.

In response to the event, 356 relief centres were opened throughout the country to house the 60 389 victims affected by the flood, from 13 826 families. Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yasin had announced that helicopters  would be used to send supplies to the affected areas which were not accessible by trucks or boats. 20 army platoons were also deployed to assist the flood victims. Later that week, prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, his wife Datin Rosmah, as well as the Menteri Besar of Johor, Abdul Ghani Othman personally visited the affected areas to hand out supplies.

According to the prime minister via consultation from the meteorology department, the flood was caused by irregular weather; "the amount of rainfall the state received in a day was equivalent to that received in two months". Experts have chalked it up to global warming as the main cause for the sudden occurrence. Later that week as the rain began to ease up, many families were allowed to return home.

The recent floods were comparable to the 2006 floods, "which saw more than 60,000 people relocated, 17 reported deaths and over RM1.5 billion in economic damage across the months of December 2006 and January 2007". It was reported that the costs for repairs to federal roads as a result of the recent flood was RM40 million. According to the deputy prime minister, priority will be given to the state of Johor to carry out projects such as the deepening and straightening of rivers to avoid similar flash floods from happening in the future.

The actions of the federal government during the crisis were definitely commendable. They responded instantly and managed the crisis well. Supplies reached the victims without any interruptions and further deaths were prevented. I believe that if they were more consistent with their service to the people, and applied a similar approach to other aspects of their governance, they might be able to solve many of the social and economical problems plaguing the country.

Sources from NST and The Malaysian Insider

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Top headlines: 28/1/11

International headlines: Mass protests in Egypt

Dominating the international news this week are the mass protests in Egypt, in which thousands demonstrated, demanding the resignation of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. What started out as a peaceful demonstration after Friday prayers, escalated into chaos when the riot police tried to disperse the crowd through the use of rubber coated bullets, tear gas and water cannons. In retaliation, the crowd immediately started to attack the police vehicles, and later set fire to government buildings, a police station, the ruling party's headquarters and converged on state television offices.

As a result of the protests, President Mubarak has fired his entire cabinet staff, and called for night-time curfews in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. Also, the influential opposition figure Mohamed El Baradei being placed under house arrest after he himself joined in the demonstrations. 13 deaths were reported in Suez and 5 in Cairo. Apart from the arrests and casualties, the Mubarak government had also ordered a massive crackdown on the Muslim brotherhood, the most influential opposition party in Egypt.

Before we can critically dissect this news piece, we must first know the history behind how the protests could have started. Firstly, one should consider Mubarak's tenure as President; he has been in power for 30 years now(he was elected in 81'). His long presidency has seen many allegations of corruption; among them include him adjusting policies to benefit the private sector in order to secure votes. There were also rumours that he intended to hand over the government to his son when he retires, to the chagrin of the opposition and those who want a truly free democratic system. Like most countries within the region, due to government mismanagement, unemployment, corruption and rising of prices of goods have been plaguing the country for the past few years. Many see such situations as the driving force for change.

Many experts also see the protests being a part of a domino effect, it's start being the uprising in Tunisia 2 weeks ago.  The Tunisian uprising saw long time president Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali's rule finally toppled after 23 years. Many within the region see it as a sign of hope; that change is indeed possible, with solidarity and the strength of numbers. Clearly the Egyptians showed solidarity in their resolve. Despite the internet and mobile phone connection disruptions, and the blocking of facebook and twitter within the nation, protests carried on as planned. "Hacktivists"(hacking activists) got involved with the protests by launching cyber attacks on sites deemed as anti-wikileaks; in other words, sites which were pro-Mubarak and pro-government.

Sources from BBC news and Al-Jazeera

Local : Decision on the "Interlok" issue

Back at home, the government's decision on the Interlok issue made the biggest headline this week. It was announced by the Deputy Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yasin that the controversial novel will continue to be used in schools, but sections which were deemed offensive and inappropriate would be edited. An independent panel consisting of linguists, academicians, literary figures, and representatives from Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and the Indian community would be set up to review the contents of the novel.

To those unfamiliar with the novel, Interlok was recently made a compulsory literature text for form 5 students taking the Bahasa Malaysia subject in Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, Selangor, and Negri Sembilan. The novel started out as an entry for a national writing competition by national laureate Abdullah Hussain in 1967. The novel has already been used in schools since the 70's. It only came to attention recently when the government decided to make it a compulsory read for students. The Indian community in particular were outraged by the decision because the novel contains the usage of the word Pariah, a derogatory term.

To justify it's use, literary scholars deemed it acceptable as the novel is merely depicting the life of the main 3 races in Malaya in the 1900's till independence, in which various terms were the norm back in the day. They claim that such words should be kept in there, not to offend, but simply to describe the socio-political environment in pre-independence times. Thus the main argument here is whether to retain the novel as it is, in it's unadulterated form, or to remove it from the school syllabus, or at the very least edit the offensive bits out from it's pages.

One could say the Interlok issue here is quite similar to the debate regarding the use of "Injuns" and "Niggers"(derogatory terms used to describe native Americans and Afro-Americans respectively) in The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, considered as one of the "great American novels" by writer Mark Twain. Like Interlok, the reason for the usage of offensive terms is due to it's setting; the novel depicts life in late 19th century Mississippi, when such words were not yet considered as offensive. Ironically both novels have a strong stance against racism, which is why Interlok was picked up; to promote unity in lieu of the current 1Malaysia concept.

Personally I think the issue has been overblown and dragged on unnecessarily. Is it coincidence that the issue was brought up amidst the preparations for the Tenang by-elections. Clearly both sides are politicizing this issue in order to rally support. A columnist from the Malaysian Insider questioned the timing of the protest. "Why now?". The word Pariah has been a derogatory term for decades, presumably even before independence. If the novel had already been used in schools since the 70's, why take so long to finally voice out their disregard for it? Is it because the government is supposedly more liberal and open to public opinion? Or is this simply manner of diversion for political parties? Maybe they see it as an opportunity to be heroes  and offer solutions to a problem which they had started in the first place. Whatever the reasons may be, it is clear that for our society to progress faster, we must stop politicizing every single issue we encounter. Such unnecessary debates and arguments takes up the people and the government's time. Thus both sides are unable to focus their efforts on far more productive activities which could benefit the economy and our society. Instead of constantly bringing up issues of race, religion and language, why not focus on improving the transportation system or reduce the unemployment rate in the country? I think it would benefit everyone if we all learn to prioritize.

Sources from The Malaysian Insider and NST

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A self portrait: Information consumption through the media and it's effects (Revised edition)

How has information consumption changed for me? As we grow we find different ways of answering this particular question. For now, almost 20 years of media consumption had a profound effect on my views on life, society, politics, religion and education.

In terms of life and living in a society, I've become more aware of the issues that are constantly plaguing our society. What I've noticed based on the headlines I read on the news, humankind in general have a tendency to repeat their mistakes over and over. Essentially, the problems that are affecting our society now are exactly the same as it always has. Hence, I have developed a habit of "turning off" and "tuning out" from the media every now and again. I find that even if I miss a week's worth of news, I won't be left out that far behind. In terms of the "same old issues" I've been referring to, it includes problems such as corruption, unemployment, government mismanagement, racism and prejudice, and other problems which have existed with humanity since the dawn of civilization.

The media has also shaped my view on politics and politicians. I find that when one is after power, regardless of how wholesome his or her upbringing was, it will eventually corrupt them sooner or later. It's this insatiable thirst for power which has caused lies on a national and even worldwide scale, caused wars even within a society and so on. I believe that one's perspective is formed first and foremost through one's upbringing, and for me personally, my parents played a significant role in that. When I was younger, I used to see the world as black and white. It was mostly due to me being a child watching Power Rangers and anime, where the subject matter for each episode would be good versus evil. That mentality soon seeped into my everyday life. For example, back then the political splinter party Semangat 46 to me represented the "good guys" while UMNO were the villains. My father was very active in Semangat 46, and as an impressionable young boy, I knew nothing (nor even really cared for that matter) about politics and the people's struggle. That was the only way I could make sense of it all, by comparing political struggles to Power Rangers. In my formative years later on, it was my father who influenced me the most. He always had books lying around the house, its topics ranging from Islam to local politics, science, economics and education. When I was old enough to understand the importance of reading, I just grabbed whatever I could find from his ever growing collection. From there, I also learned to research things I don't understand online. After years of reading from my father's personal library, as well as doing various independent research I begin to have my own views on life and society in general. I start to have a more neutral stance on a lot of things, especially on politics. I realized that there are both good and bad people on both sides of the political divide. I see genuine, honest-to-god representatives of the people trying their best to improve the lives of their communities. On the other hand I also see politicians; hypocritical con artists who would go the extra mile just to fill up their pockets; by taking advantage of others. Both types of people exist within every single political group in the world.

Besides politics, information and media consumption has also affected my views on religion. Ironically the media has shaped me into a better Muslim, particularly after the events of 911. Growing up in a Malay Muslim family, we tend to associate turbaned, jubah wearing "alim people" as the best example of a good Muslim. After all, how often do we see an imam or a high ranking JAKIM official in t-shirts and jeans? Of course with the events of September 11, such "alim" people were treated by society as if they might spontaneously combust into flames. Personally, I don't treat "alim" people any differently now than how I did before. The difference is that after researching more about my own religion, I've learned to not judge people simply by the way they dress. A devout and knowledgeable Muslim to me today, does not need to have a long beard or an Arabic accent. A good Muslim should be calm, moderate (which is one of the main ideas in Islam) and reasonable. He or she should be respectful and accommodating to the needs of others, while at the same time remain firm with his or her principles and believes. With all the commotion regarding the cow-head protests, the "Allah" issue and the "Guan Eng's name in the Friday prayer sermon" issues, I've come to realize that even turban-clad individuals are very political people; thus easily bought for a price. It made me realize that religion should not be politicized by anyone, for its consequences are disastrous. While we're on about religion, I've also come to have a different view on atheism. I see it as but another form of religion; a religion of non religion, as they too have a strong belief (that god doesn't exist). Even atheists have their own brand of highly spirited advocates, condemning the "backwardness of religion".

Constant exposure to it has also affected my views on the media itself. While it's still my main source for knowledge and as a window to the world outside, I'm also a lot more cautious with accepting the content it provides. I personally think there is no such thing as unbiased reporting. A piece of information will always be presented in a particular way which the presenter feels is doing the story justice, or is in line with what he or she feels or believes. Take for example, our school history syllabus. Many Malaysians take it for granted and take everything they learned as the truth. Of course this isn't always the case. As many would learn, history books (not just in Malaysia, but throughout the world) were written to portray the dominating force as the status quo, and their actions justified as facts. History is after all written by victors. What about the ones who lost though? What if they were the ones who were right all along? So ironically, through high school history books, I've learned to read both sides of a story before drawing a conclusion. One particular individual who opened my mind to see things that way was a media lecturer in Taylors College, Mr. Indie. He thought us to question things, especially when its details are sketchy at best. He thought us to ponder on the what if's in life.

In conclusion, I can honestly say being exposed constantly to different forms of media has shaped me into a better, all rounded human being. It has also made me more aware of my surroundings, and made me more careful and wary of the manipulative aspects of the media which we consume on a regular basis.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Top headlines 21/1/11

International: Return of "Baby Doc" Duvalier to Haiti

Making the international headlines this week would be the surprise return of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier's from his self imposed 25 year exile. Upon arrival, he was arrested by the Haitian police the next day. He was formally charged with corruption, theft and misappropriation of funds on the 18th of January and would be subjected to a court date some time later.

Many human rights groups and Haitian communities through out the world in particular have openly expressed their outrage towards the dictator's return, as he was responsible for the many deaths and tortures of Haitians. He was also the reason why many fled the country in the first place back in the 80's. 

As for the purpose of his return, he claims that he returned simply to help the reconstruction efforts of Haiti and that he's not there for politics. Many speculate on his actual reason for return due to his timing; he arrived on Sunday the 15th, which was the day Haiti was supposed to hold a second round of elections to elect the successor to outgoing President Rene Preval.

Sources from BBC news, Al Jazeera, NST, and The Malaysian Insider

Local: Tenang By-Election

Locally, the the Tenang By-Election seems to be the most featured news item. It will be a straight fight between BN candidate Mohd Azahar, 39, who is the former Rengit assistant land administrator in Batu Pahat, and PAS’ Normala Sudirman, who is PAS' Labis Muslimat chief and a former teacher. This will be the 14th by-election since the 2008 "political tsunami", but the first by-election in Johor since the 2008 general election. The by-election was called after the seat's incumbent, Datuk Sulaiman Taha of BN passed away on the 17th of December 2010. This event in particular has the most effect on the locals of Tenang who want to see more development and job opportunities available. On a nation wide scale, the result of this by-election would most probably determine the date of the next general election, depending on BN's success or failure.

As it has always been, political news tend to dominate the front pages of our local newspapers and news sites. "Why politics?", one might ask. Well for a start, as much as some of us would hate to admit, politics determines the effectiveness of ruling policies and systems, thus determining the well being of a society. We as Malaysians in particular are a very politicized society. Contrary to popular belief I think most of us know our rights as a citizen, our rights to vote and our rights to demand change for the better. Particularly after the 2008 elections, more and more people are starting to voice out their frustrations with the current ruling government. However one thing that still plagues most Malaysians(including the highly educated) is the tendency to be strictly partisan to one's own party. To me, this is a problem because there are honestly good ideas and good people from both sides of the political divide.

Another reason would be due to the fact that mainstream media in Malaysia are very controlled and tightly regulated by the government. In a way, mainstream media is pretty much the ruling government's personal "twitter account", updating the public about their progress and their latest developments. Hence the media are abuzz when elections are around the corner. In order to win more votes they would highlight their recent achievements and play the blame game with the opposition. On the other hand, since the aforementioned politcal tsunami of 2008, opposition parties now have a much louder voice in the media than before. Particularly with the rise of credible alternative news sources, they too now play the blame game; revealing every single mismanagement and inadequacy issues the government had neglected to mention. Due to this, almost every issue is politicized at some point, especially the so called "sensitive issues" pertaining race, religion and socio-economical distribution. Politics in Malaysia are often overly dramatized too by both sides of the political divide to gain sympathy for their causes.

One of the issues recently highlighted was PAS representative Normala's insistence to not shake hands with men. Many politicians and observers are harping on this idea, suggesting that it would be hard for the people to trust her. To her credit, it's her own personal belief. You can't really fault anyone for something as trivial as that. It would be better for us too focus more on how a candidate performs and what they will bring to the table, rather than their personal choice of etiquette.


Sources from NST and The Malaysian Insider