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The Star - Musings - The way to defend women’s rights (12 March 2015)
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The way to defend women’s rights

We don’t want you to just love us, we also want you to respect us as equals.

ON International Women’s Day this year, some Afghan men did an extraordinary thing. They paraded in Kabul wearing the burqa to draw attention to the issue of women’s rights in their country, or rather the lack of women’s rights.

In most countries, events on International Women’s Day are mostly by women and for women. Rarely do men ever do something to show that they too are concerned about the violation of women’s rights. When men do, they are often ham-fisted about it.

Last year, I was on a panel with two other prominent women, talking about issues affecting women at work, when an earnest young man stood up to ask how a wife can support her husband in his work.
This was a fine example of male tone deafness and the inability to understand the milieu he was in and therefore the clanging awkwardness of that question.

I have also been at women’s forums where men get up to declare how much they love women and manage to sound condescending and creepy at the same time. We don’t want you to just love us, we also want you to respect us as equals.

Men can also be blindsided by the dazzle of a few women. When there is an outstanding woman whom men respect, they tend to think that these women are exceptions. To them, it is not normal for women to be so good at what they think of as men’s jobs, so these women are not the rule but the exceptions that prove it. I have seen men become totally dumbfounded when asked to name expert women in a particular field apart from the one they see in the papers all the time.

They assume that no others exist. A little research, with the assistance of their female assistants, would have unearthed many.
In some cases, men think they are doing women a favour by “defending” them in very masculine ways.

In India, a mob attacked a jail where a suspected rapist was being held, stripped him naked and then beat him to death.
What difference does this actually make to the female victim, who would still be shunned by society, and to other women who still face the same dangers every day?

This murderous act was done more to avenge the honour of the men to whom the woman “belonged”, rather than in defence of the woman herself.
And interestingly enough, when I posted an article about the Delhi rapist blaming his victim for her own death, among the many violent reactions from men was one calling him a derogatory female epithet.

The highest insult to a man is to call him a woman because we are still lesser beings.
In our own country, we can hardly find any man who would stand up publicly in support of women’s rights. Instead we have men who can find a myriad of justifications why women get raped, beaten, summarily divorced, denied positions of leadership and so on.

When women call them out on it, they retreat and then deny what they said or wrote. But how many men, from the same community, told him off? Did their silence mean they agreed with him? There are many men out there who do not believe that women deserve to have such horrific treatment meted out on them.

These men are well aware that women gave birth to them and cared for them until adulthood and that they have sisters and wives whom they would never wish such violence on.
But at the same time they are cowed by the culture of macho-ness where to talk about women’s rights is to be a traitor to their sex.

Where sometimes even their own sexuality can become suspect, just because they defend women. That such a culture can be also oppressive to them is something they are oblivious to. Why should any man be vilified just for being a decent human being?
When we teach young boys that violence towards those they perceive as weaker than them is all right, then we should also prepare them to live in a world where there will be nothing except violence all the time.

They will have to spend their time always having to fight either someone weaker or someone stronger than them. Why would we want to subject our sons to this? Won’t they ever get sick of it? Gender inequality may seem like fair sport to some but studies have proven that it does nothing except drag a whole society down to its most primitive levels. Gender equality, exemplified by less violence against women, benefits both sexes and allows a country to progress. Perhaps we should ask the misogynists whether what they really want is a society with only men?

> Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good.” Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes that she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.
The Star - Musings - It all boils down to education (26 February 2015)
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It all boils down to education

The root of all sorts of societal problems, including religious radicalism and violence, is in the schools.

IN the end it all boils down to the same thing: education. I was reading an international newspaper and two articles struck me because of their similarities. One was a story about the French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. Vallaud-Belkacem is the first woman to be made Education Minister in France.

More remarkably, she is both a Moroccan immigrant and Muslim. Vallaud-Belkacem has been put in charge of educating young French people about the dangers of radicalism, the type of so-called religious fervour that led to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. She believes that schools have a big role to play in this. And indeed she is living proof.

The minister was born in Morocco but went to France with her mother and older sister to join her construction worker father. There, her five younger siblings were born and the entire family lived in poverty in a small northern city. Vallaud-Belkacem credits the French education system with giving her the opportunities she has had, and which allowed her to enter politics and eventually be where she is now.

But she also understands that it is the poor education that most immigrant youth, especially Muslim youth, receive that drives them to become radicalised and to want to take up arms against their perceived enemies, both at home in France and abroad.

These youth are poorly educated because of discrimination. At the same time, that poor education sets them up for even more discrimination, especially in the job market. This creates frustration and anger and makes them vulnerable to the sort of easy answers that radical preachers may provide.

The other story was about Nigeria where stereotypes about the Muslim North and the Christian South abound. The author of the article, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, a Christian, recalled that when she was growing up, there were special boarding schools that were set up to help the different Nigerian communities understand one another.

These schools offered a high quality education and had quotas for the different communities so that they had a diverse mix of students. However, there was a persistent problem of poor education in the north of the country. The quota system ensured that many northerners got jobs but often without the same level of education as the southerners.

That same low quality education meant that the northerners also did not value education for their own people, leading to a constant downward spiral of frustration due to the lack of opportunities despite the richness of resources in the region. This thus created conflict with southerners who were more educated and thus could avail themselves of better opportunities.

Needless to say, the north is also the home of Boko Haram, a violent group that has a particular distaste for education, particularly Western-style education. The exploits of Boko Haram are now well known and suffice to say that only uneducated people would think nothing of sending out eight-year-old girls as suicide bombers.

The point of these two stories is clear: the root of all sorts of societal problems, including religious radicalism and violence, is education. More specifically, the type of education we provide our children will predict what they will do in the future.

Poor quality education, that does not prepare our children for a competitive global market, will be the root of all sorts of trouble, including the kind where a 14-year-old girl thinks it’s exciting to go to Syria to marry a gun-toting stranger she met on Facebook.

We are seeing now the beginnings of the true results of our messed-up education system. Our young people are unable to think beyond what is immediate and exciting. They actually believe that you can get to heaven by killing people for reasons they are unable to articulate. These are not illiterate people but are certainly not educated in the broadest sense of the word.

On social media we find many people who are unable to reason things out, or to accept different points of view. They are absolutely certain they are right, mostly because people they see as authoritative have convinced them that authority is always correct, even when those in authority tell them to do things that are patently wrong, such as to discriminate against or kill those different from them.

Not all human beings are equal, is a mantra they are hearing every day. “All men are not equal”, by the way, was the chilling ideology I happened to read at the site of the former headquarters of the SS, the Nazi stormtroopers, in Berlin recently.

And the propaganda the SS used had an uneasy familiarity to it. And what is propaganda after all but another form of public education?

Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good.” Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes that she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.
The Star - Musings - How to define moderate (12 February 2015)
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How to define moderate

The moderate person knows that you don’t need to comment about every single thing just because you cannot be an expert in everything.

OF late, there’s been a lot of talk about how moderate Malaysians need to rise and speak up against the extremists in our country. While this is certainly a much-needed call, we find that definitions tend to get in the way.
For example, everyone denies being an extremist and claims to be moderate.

It seems that in this country, as long as you don’t pick up a gun and go and shoot someone, you’re not an extremist.
Those who certainly spout violent and hate-filled language are not yet defined as extremist even though their talk may spur some followers to do the worst imaginable one day.

After all, if they can make the effort to go join a band of brigands who have no qualms about chopping off heads and burning people alive, why wouldn’t they be as motivated at home?
If everyone is now claiming to be moderate, there is a need to further define what would be the true characteristics of such a person.

There are indeed differences between true moderates and those merely pretending to be one.
For one thing, a true moderate respects another person’s point of view even when those views are patently abhorrent. For a moderate, freedom of speech and expression is a very important value.

A non-moderate however can barely tolerate any viewpoint that is contrary to theirs and would rather they were not allowed to speak at all. If they had to engage with another group, it would only be to convince the others that they are wrong and must immediately convert to the non-moderate perspective.

No middle ground there.
Secondly, the non-moderate believes that there needs to be a law for everything. Without punitive measures, they believe that people will simply all go wild and do all sorts of crazy things. For example, according to them, people cannot be trusted to not walk the streets naked if there was no law against it.

True moderates on the other hand trust that an average human being in our country has quite a bit of common sense and will not simply be anti-social just because they can. Malaysians, like most Asians, do care what people think of them and that acts as a major deterrent to any sort of bizarre behaviour.

For example, gathering a large group to go and shake posteriors in front of someone’s house cannot, by any measure, be considered a common sense act and, therefore, anyone who does that cannot rightly be called moderate.
Moderates tend to speak in a careful way.

Every word is considered well before spoken or written and tends not to be overblown or exaggerated because that would be immodest and therefore immoderate.
On the other hand, a non-moderate person tends to shoot his mouth off, verbally and in writing, refuse to apologise, organises people to show support with unoriginal slogans and then sits back while his boss gives a lame excuse for his bad behaviour.

It stands to reason that many non-moderates are a bit lacking in the integrity department.
It might be fair to say that maturity is also a hallmark of the moderate person. The moderate person knows that you don’t need to comment about every single thing just because you cannot be an expert in everything.

You especially cannot spend all your time making police reports about everything other people say and do, not least because this may give the impression that you have plenty of time on your hands and have no need to earn a living like other people.

The non-moderate, however, thinks nothing of filing multiple police reports in a single day on anything that comes to mind that they can spin as insulting to themselves. In this way they keep our already harried police force busy trying to work out what precisely their complaints are and not out chasing all manner of crooks, including those stealing public money.

In fact, perhaps we can define extremists as those who spend their time wasting taxpayers’ money by making all sorts of facetious police reports, especially those that are not actually crimes. And we should also ask why they have the luxury of spending all day at police stations, sometimes wearing outrageous costumes, without the need to have any sort of job.

How DO they pay for their daily nasi lemak?
There may be other ways to differentiate the true moderate from the false one. There aren’t, for example, many publicity hounds who can convince anyone they are actually moderate in their views. They understand very well that extreme views make for good TV. So virtually anyone you see too often in the mainstream media is probably suspect. Meanwhile, the rest of Malaysia is trying to get by on their increasingly less moderate incomes.

Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good.” Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes that she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.
The Star - Musings - Comparative religion from the earliest years (29 January 2015)
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Comparative religion from the earliest years

The idea is that young children will become used to diversity naturally and hopefully grow to become adults who are respectful of religions other than their own.

FOR three consecutive years I’ve been invited to speak to a group of Norwegian students visiting Malaysia about the work that my colleagues and I do on Muslim women’s rights. These students are learning about different faiths in order to be better able to teach comparative religion back home in Norway.

Instead of merely learning about all these religions in theory, every year, their university organises a trip for them to visit various South-East Asian countries to observe first-hand how these religions are lived and practised.

In Norway, every child learns about comparative religion from the age of six with the idea that they will grow up understanding the diversity of faiths and beliefs in their society and the world today, and respecting all the faiths equally. The books they use are vetted and approved by the respective religious authorities, so, for example, the Norwegian Islamic authorities approve the books on Islam.

The students who came to listen to me will eventually become the teachers of those Norwegian school kids. Lest anyone think they only get to listen to “liberals” like me, they also meet and talk to all sorts of people with knowledge on the religious landscape in our country, including in our universities. This is to ensure that they get a balanced picture of things in Malaysia.

I was really impressed by this approach by the Norwegian government to address potential issues in a rapidly diversifying society. Obviously, one of the ways to avoid conflict in society is by ensuring that everybody understands each other.

Including comparative religion in their school curriculum from the earliest years means that young children will become used to religious and cultural diversity naturally and hopefully will grow to become adults who are respectful of religions other than their own.

In a study comparing the English and Norwegian comparative religious curriculums and how schoolchildren reacted to them, most of the students viewed the classes positively, with one student saying, “It is important to understand religions in order to understand humans, sort of improving our social intelligence a little.” It is interesting that Norway, with a population of under six million people, 82% of whom are Lutheran Christian, is so concerned about the possible conflict that ethnic and religious diversity might cause that from 1997 the country decided to educate people on other religions.

Undoubtedly, the concern was well-founded when in 2011, Anders Behring Breivik, a self-confessed fascist and hater of multi-culturalism, murdered 77 people, blaming Norway for allowing immigrants into the country. Norway, too, is home to many right-wing groups claiming white supremacy and that Muslims are taking over Norway, despite being all of 3.6% of the population.

Perhaps it is in the nature of supremacist groups everywhere to make up stories about threats to their people without the need for supporting evidence. Still, the policy of educating children about religions other than their own is a step in the right direction. And bringing students to countries where those other religions are the faith of the majority helps to humanise those faiths, and prevents the stereotyping that extremists like to do.

It’s too bad that if anyone were to raise the issue of including comparative religion lessons in our schools, our own religious supremacists would undoubtedly go ballistic, claiming that this was a plot by a Muslim-majority government to Christianise their people, as ironic as that may sound.

Obviously, supremacists all work from the same manual. There is no evidence that learning about different religions in school, with each (including atheism by the way) given equal weight, has led to the conversions of anyone to another religion. It does, however, based on my experience with these Norwegian students, lead to far more intelligent questions than from those of my own faith.

Meanwhile, few people here in Malaysia are coming up with any bright ideas on how to reduce the polarisation that everyone acknowledges is a growing problem in our society. The best that anyone can come up with is putting everyone in the same school, which would be a good solution if the standard of education in those schools was higher (as measured globally) and if everyone was taught to respect differences.

But the way they are now, even many Muslims do not want to send their children there if they can afford it. Our children live in a multi-religious society where they won’t be able to avoid noticing that different people worship differently.

If they ask questions of adults around them, do we take our inability to answer as a personal affront or as an opportunity to learn? The former is the arrogant way while the latter is more humble. Which should we choose if we genuinely want peace and harmony?

> Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good”. Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes that she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.
The Star - Musings - The answer lies in between (15 January 2015)
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The answer lies in between

by marina mahathir

While some claim freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend, others claim such freedom of speech led to the violence in Paris.

JUST when we thought the year might get off to a good start, Paris happened. In three days, 20 people were killed; 12 in the original attack, five hostages in two related incidents and three of the assailants.

By any measure this was a terrible tragedy, causing pain and suffering to all the families of the dead and injured.

Sadly, it will also cause lasting pain to the French Muslim community, in particular, and all Muslims elsewhere, in general, because once again, the entire community has been linked unjustly with extremism and violence.

Debates now rage about the value of freedom of speech. Some people say that in any democratic society we must have freedom of speech including the freedom to offend.

Others say that it is that very freedom of speech that has led to this violence.
Like most things in life, the answer probably lies in between. Some commentators have pointed out that while satire is certainly part and parcel of a democratic society, it is usually aimed at the powerful as a way of pointing out their foibles and abuses.

True satire that aims to bring justice in society never targets the weak and marginalised, voiceless people who look to others to bring their problems to society’s attention. As one tweet brilliantly put it, “I think satire should be a punch aimed up at the powerful, not a blow rained down on the weak.”

I wonder sometimes what would happen if some of our rabid supremacists decided to launch a satirical magazine to draw cartoons of minorities in this country.
On the other hand, there are comments from some people that events like Charlie Hebdo “prove” that we need the Sedition Act.

This is simply another way of saying that those journalists deserve to be killed because they were asking for it. If France had had a Sedition Act, they reason, then the magazine would have been stopped much earlier from drawing those cartoons, and the French Muslims would have been happy, despite being marginalised, suffering from poverty, unemployment and all the other things that generally breed disgruntlement. We seem to have a propensity to blame the victims for their troubles, much like we blame women who get raped for the way they dress or for being out at night.

I’m not sure how the Sedition Act that targets people talking and writing about local issues is going to stop Malaysians from going to join the Islamic State, arguably the most serious danger we now face.
Perhaps some people did not notice that the first policeman who was killed, brutally shot in the head as he lay wounded, was a Muslim called Ahmed Merabet.

In a moving tribute to his dead brother, Malek Merabet said: “My brother was Muslim and he was killed by two terrorists, by two false Muslims…Islam is a religion of peace and love. As far as my brother’s death is concerned it was a waste. He was very proud of the name Ahmed Merabet, proud to represent the police and of defending the values of the Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity.”
More than anything, Ahmed Merabet underscored what this was really about.

That this was a killing of French people by French people, not of non-Muslims by Muslims. Just as, at one time, Northern Irish people killed other Northern Irish people. Undoubtedly one set of people felt disgruntled by treatment from the other and a small number decided that violence was to be their response.

To then tar an entire community, as if every single member is a likely killer, is surely compounding the injustice.
Framing this tragedy entirely in Muslim/non-Muslim terms is of no use when life is much more complicated than that.

Not only was one of the murdered policemen Muslim, so was one of the employees of the Jewish grocery where two gunmen held hostages. Lassan Bathily was hailed a hero for saving the lives of several hostages by hiding them in a freezer room. Malek Merabet made the same point: “I address myself now to all the racists, Islamophobes and anti-Semites.

One must not confuse extremists with Muslims. Mad people have neither colour or religion,”
Which is a really pertinent point. Only mad people think that the way to solve problems is to gun down a bunch of cartoonists. On the other hand, it is also not reasonable to clamp down on people who are already downtrodden, or who already have no outlet to air their grouses and not expect some form of reaction. We should perhaps be thankful that in our country this reaction only comes in the form of peaceful demonstrations, articles and Facebook comments.

The real lesson to be learnt from the Charlie Hebdo tragedy is that inequality has consequences. But that may be lost on some people.

> Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good”. Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes that she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.
The Star - Musings - The year of the Malaysian citizen (1 January 2015)
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The year of the Malaysian citizen

by marina mahathir

I WAS afraid that this first column of the year would be a depressing and doleful one. 2014 had been remarkable for its sheer awfulness, with not one but three plane accidents in the region, the worst floods in our history and any amount of angst among our people due to the words and actions of various groups.

Would 2015 be better or worse?
But for every action, there is a reaction and happily these reactions have also been unexpected and gratifying. In January, when a church was a possible target of violence, a group of people turned up to give out flowers to churchgoers and did much to ease the tension of that day.

That was the birth of a group called Malaysians for Malaysia (M4M) that set out to promote unity and harmony among their fellow citizens.
M4M then went on to organise the Walks in the Park in several cities that gave Malaysians the opportunity to simply gather and do things together.
When MH370 and MH17 happened, M4M was on hand to unite Malaysians with the Walls of Hope that allowed thousands of Malaysians and others to pour out their grief and hopes for the safety of the passengers of the former and prayers for the souls of the passengers of the latter.

M4M is certainly not the only group that sprang up to bring Malaysians together, not just in grief, but also in volunteerism.
When there was a threat to shut down soup kitchens, KLites banded together to keep them going and even started new ventures to support the existing ones.

Various individuals and groups have formed to do all sorts of charity work to help the poor, the marginalised, disabled and even animals. Civil society has stepped up and is going from strength to strength, a healthy sign.

Then when the worst floods ever in our history turned several states into exact replicas of countries far less developed than us, with people stranded and starving, Malaysians truly showed how generous and kind they can be.

Collection centres for relief goods were set up in various neighbourhoods and when the calls for volunteers spread through social media, dozens showed up.
I visited one and was truly moved and heartened by not only the number of people lending their time and energy to the effort to pack and send off the goods but how diverse they were.

They were young, old, male, female and represented every ethnic group including expats. And they worked side by side and took instructions from supervisors cheerily. There are even people who have organised convoys of cars and trucks to try and reach the stranded folks on the east coast with tonnes of food and other essentials.

Nobody told them to do it, nobody ever paid them to do it. They just did it because their fellow citizens were suffering and this was the right thing to do.
You have to wonder where those self-proclaimed champions of race and religion are in these times and what they would say about these multiracial, multireligious efforts to send aid to flood victims. Indeed one of the happiest things that has happened in 2014 is the emergence of voices calling for more common sense in the way we discuss things in our country.

The Group of 25 has been a pleasant surprise and has inspired more people to speak out against extremists and racists.
Young people especially have welcomed this new development, having previously despaired of a positive future in this country.

They have responded by organising petitions and writing articles of support for the G25, most notably by a multiracial group of 33 prominent citizens and a group of young Islamic Studies graduates from Middle Eastern universities.
These developments have really brought hope to many concerned Malaysians.

So perhaps when you look at it from this perspective, things were not so bad after all in 2014, despite the major tragedies. While we mourn those we lost, and sympathise with those who are suffering in the floods right now, we can also rejoice in the fact that 2014 was really the year that The Malaysian Citizen showed that their natural kindness and generosity enabled them to respond much faster and more efficiently than any politician can. This is truly community leadership at its best.

For 2015, perhaps we can put our hopes in The Malaysian Citizen and therefore be more optimistic about the coming year.
Their sense of unity that arises out of a sense of fairness is fully developed. What The Malaysian Citizen has shown is that there is no law needed to foster unity. They will unite naturally against suffering and injustice. The only proviso is obvious: keep the politicians out of it.

> Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good”. Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes that she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.
The Star - Musings - So, what do you want to watch? (18 December 2015)
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So, what do you want to watch?

by marina mahathir

Trying to determine if a TV programme is threatening to one’s faith can be a real challenge.

YOU can read very interesting things in the news these days, some of which can be rather puzzling. At a conference on entertainment and Islam recently, a paper presenter said that many people have asked him how to tell if a TV programme is threatening or not to their faith.

I really had to wonder who these people were and why this was such a problem. Most people can tell within five minutes of watching a programme whether it’s any good or not.

Perhaps it is harder to tell if an interesting programme, say about the mating habits of bees, will shake your faith but what most sensible people do is to see if it makes them feel uncomfortable or not.
If it does, then their faith is probably shaky.

And the most obvious thing to do is naturally to switch it off.
I don’t particularly like scary horror type programmes not because I think they would shake my faith but because I don’t find them enjoyable. So I switch channels to something more innocuous like Downton Abbey.

Apparently in Victorian times, nobody ever does any public displays of affection so I reckon that’s pretty safe for anyone.
But the paper presenter actually spent a lot of time thinking about these questions from people presumably without on/off buttons on their TVs nor channel-changing remote controls. So he then proposed that all TV programmes should carry halal and haram certificates.

OK, all those who volunteer to certify the haram programmes, please put up your hands!
What would probably happen is that 90% of the programmes will wind up in one way or another with a haram certificate while the rest would be deemed kosher. That is probably because the criteria for halalness is going to be very strict and long.

How long should the tudung be? How tight can her sleeves be? How many sequins is too much? Is that a hipster or a halal beard? These are all questions to be decided by arguably the least hip people in the country.
But the scenario that plays in my mind is this. Here is a Muslim household where the head of the family, a man of course, is sitting in front of the TV feeling somewhat guilty about the choice of channels he has before him. He thinks he should just watch the religious programmes but really he would rather watch the hot Indonesian or Latin American actresses on all those never-ending soap operas.

But no matter what he does he keeps being tempted to switch back to those channels.
He sits there chained to his armchair unable to move from in front of the TV, hapless at all the choice in front of him. During the Olympics the problem is worst.

There’s women’s beach volleyball, women’s swimming, women’s gymnastics. What threats to his faith!
Of course women are not so threatened by this terrible dilemma because they are busy cooking, cleaning, helping the kids do their homework that they simply have no time to watch the TV.

Besides they’ve already been warned that during the World Cup they are not to watch any matches because the sight of those nice athletic long legs might do something bad to their insides.
Still, wives have been blamed too for not switching the channels for their husbands from women in swimsuits to women in hijab. But the men, seated with their t-shirts pulled tight over their big nasi-lemak-filled bellies, are at real risk.

They are helpless.
They cannot get out of their seats and go do something else, like go for a walk, play with their kids, help their wives with the washing up. They are stuck and therefore their faith is endangered. Hence, the need to have a whole conference to discuss this.

Meanwhile there is a huge financial scandal that is threatening to turn the entire population into paupers, climate change is causing floods, mudslides and turning people out of their homes by the dozens, there are hungry and homeless people in our streets, more and more poverty in our faces today.

And the siege in Sydney means yet again Muslims are going to be stereotyped as terrorists.
But none of these are as important as which TV programmes will get us to heaven and which will not. And whose fault it is really for producing programmes which put us on the fast-track to hell. I’m going to spend my time either reading, watching good dramas on TV and going out to visit friends for Christmas.

In fact the only thing worth watching is actually my waistline.
Meanwhile may I wish everyone Merry Christmas and a new year that is more hopeful, joyful and peaceful than 2014 was!

> Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good.” Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes that she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.
The Star - Musings - True leaders (4 December 2014)
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True leaders

I AM often asked if there will ever be a woman Prime Minister in this country. My answer to that is always no. The current system is stacked against women, regardless of whichever party they might be in.

It is difficult for women to become Prime Minister on their own merit.But it is interesting to me that people, many of them men, should keep asking me this. I think it is because people are so tired of the lack of talented leaders in this country that they want a different type altogether.

And it might as well be a woman.We only have nominal leaders, not real ones. We have people who are put in positions of leadership whether they have the talent for it or not.

And unfortunately, most of the time they are decidedly talentless.For instance, true leaders would have some vision of where they want to take the country. But more importantly, they would be able to articulate that vision over and over again so that people know that they are consistent and committed to it.
Instead, not only do we not know what the vision of our leaders are but they remain completely inconsistent, chopping and changing as they please. This confuses people, and yet they have the gall to blame others for that confusion.Real leaders step up to the plate when things go wrong.

They have personal values and principles which drive them and they are not afraid to stand up for themselves. Thus, if anyone says or does something which they find abhorrent, they will speak out, even when the offender might be someone on their side.

To them, when something is wrong, it is wrong, regardless of who does it. It is not wrong only when people they don’t like do it, and right when people they like do it.Sadly, what we often see are leaders without principles, ready to follow wherever the loudest voices are.

They actually believe that loud is might and soft is meek, and therefore are ready to sacrifice the majority for the interests of a few. Over time their consciences become hardened until they sleep soundly at night despite the many wrongs they are committing daily.A true leader speaks no words but his own, because those are the only ones that are authentic to him.

He will not speak the words of others, especially without vetting them first. He has no need for disturbing visuals, as if he was speaking to a class of illiterate schoolchildren who would not understand a single word he said otherwise. He would be wise enough to know that to manipulate people’s emotions through images is the lowest trick in the book.

No leader worth his salt believes his own public relations or basks in false glory, boosted by artificial means. A leader needs to be clear-eyed about his own popularity, and to be humble about it. There is nothing more grotesque than a leader puffed up with pride and hot air.

Such a leader would get away with it if there were nothing to compare him with.

Unfortunately within his neighbourhood he has counterparts far more visionary and certainly far more humble than he. Unfortunately too, we live in an age where we can follow what other leaders do very closely. And then we find our own wanting.

Leadership by example is not a new concept. But what examples are our leaders setting? When they can be humble, they instead have hubris. When they can be kind, instead they are uncaring especially of the poor and marginalised. When they have the opportunity to do the right thing, they don’t.

When they can be gracious, they are not.Is it any wonder then that people learn from these examples to be arrogant, uncaring and even corrupt? When we look at the number of incidences of people being simply unkind to each other, sometimes violently, doesn’t it make us wonder why it is happening? Could it be that unkindness is all that they see from our leaders and they therefore equate that with power over others? Rather like abused children who become abusers themselves, abused citizens are just as likely to do the same.

It is totally weird logic to say that violence in the form of draconian laws is the only way to ensure stability. This is a bit like saying that if we beat our children every day, they will become obedient. They may indeed cower in submission. But they will grow up twisted and unhappy.Perhaps it is time we abandoned the colonial system of having our leaders chosen by only a few and chose them directly instead.

> Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good.” Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes that she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.
The Star - Musings - Warriors who lack vision (20 November 2014)
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Warriors who lack vision

IMAGINE if you will, a band of warriors making their way through some tall grass. They are armed to the teeth because they are convinced that within the dense foliage, there are untold numbers of hostile parties ready to attack them at any time.

As they make their way, not the least bit quietly, their nerves tensed, they are on the constant lookout for enemies.
At the slightest sound or the faintest whiff of a possible attack, they pounce, with clubs and spears, and do their best to beat their presumed enemy to death. It’s a take-no-prisoners approach, judge first before asking questions.
Except that there is nobody to question once the warriors are done with them. In this way, the warriors believe they are guarding the tall grass territory that they live in. The “enemy” is always unseen, they believe, so anything that seems different must be treated with suspicion at best, immediately “dealt with” at worst. To do nothing is to allow these opponents to breed and their ideas to spread “like a cancer”. But the tall grass hides the true picture of what is happening because it hides the warriors’ vision.

They can only see what is at the sparse top of the grass and not what is underneath, where discontent is seething. The warriors cannot see that they are standing on the shoulders of those underneath and the glimpses and sounds of the “enemies” they see and hear, and whom they attack immediately, are simply the attempts by those underneath to find air to breathe in the upper reaches of the grass.

In the undergrowth of the grass lie many humans hiding in the shadows fearful of the warriors.
They work hard to keep the habitat growing, and for so long they have been quietly contributing to it as much as they can.

But the warriors won’t have it.
The grass, they say, is only for the cleanest, purest warriors, of which there are only a few. Those who do not fit into their definitions of “clean” and “pure” besmirch their habitat and therefore must either be gotten rid of or be rehabilitated to cleanse them of their “impurities”.

The warrior class is a special one. To qualify, they have to be of a certain community and be male. The few females allowed to join can only do so if they agree with everything their male leaders say and do. All must agree never to use their brains, only their voices, and it helps that they have many outlets at which their voices can be heard and listened to.

Brawn is everything, might is always right, loud is proud.
The problem with being a warrior, however, is that one is required to have one’s nerves perpetually on edge, beneath a paper-thin skin. One must be ready to see ghosts behind every door, crucifixes on every cookie, proselytisers under every carpet and porcine DNA in high-calorie junk food.

Conviction of one’s own rightness is a must, even when it is scientifically proven that one is wrong. Science is simply not the warrior’s forte; therefore science is an unnecessary inconvenience. Meanwhile, outside the land of the tall grass, where the grass is cut to a level where everyone can breathe the same air and be all seen and heard, people are progressing.

Every day, someone gets a chance in the sunlight to show an invention that makes life better for everyone, regardless of who they are.
Innovators are rewarded and nobody pays attention to those who want to go back to the days of the tall grass.

But the warriors who live in the tall grass, because they cannot see beyond the grass they live in, do not fathom how far behind they are being left. Innovators who need air to breathe in order to be creative are trampled on, so eventually they escape the grass to live in lands with shorter ones.

Anyone who complains of the unjust access to air is shot down immediately, and told that only those defending the right to keep the grass tall and dense are allowed to breathe. Zoom out and looking at the globe from afar, we see that there are fewer and fewer patches of tall grass.

Everywhere people are cutting the grass short to give everyone a chance in the sunshine, recognising that it is in everyone’s nature to yearn for fresh air to breathe.
With sunlight, everyone is happy and friendly with one another.

The land of the short grass is calm and peaceful.
In the land of the tall grass, the warriors thrash wildly and fiercely at everything that moves, not realising that underneath there is in fact nothing.

Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good.” Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes that she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.
The Star - Sharing the Nation - A lot more to learn (7 June 2015)
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A lot more to learn

by zainah anwar

THE Education Minister recently expressed shock at the poor performance of Malaysian students in the PISA 2012 survey of over 500,000 15-year-olds in 64 countries on their levels of knowledge and skills in reading, mathematics, science and problem solving.

In every single domain, we are ranked at the bottom 10% to 15% of countries surveyed. For a high middle-income country that prides itself in spending at least 20% of its annual budget on education, something is seriously wrong with the way these resources are allocated and used.

The return on investment is dismal. I visited the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) website and found the summary page for Malaysia. The findings are scary.
The Government owe the rakyat answers as to why we continue to perform so badly in spite of all kinds of reforms that have taken place over decades and the money spent annually on education.

Somehow we still have not gotten it right, while our competitors in the region are flying high. Yes, we now have the Education Blueprint, yet another reform effort. Obviously the 2006-2010 Blueprint did not achieve the results planned for given the rock bottom performance of Malaysian 15-year-olds, and the need for yet another Blueprint.

One can only pray that those in charge have the will, dedication and passion needed to ensure the outcomes of the 2013-2025 Blueprint address the dire weaknesses identified by this comprehensive survey. Let’s look at the scores and ranking.

In terms of reading, Malaysia is ranked 58 out of 64 countries. About 52.7% of those surveyed could not read beyond the minimal Level 1. In Singapore, only 9.9% of its 15-year-olds are at that poor performance level. At the top proficiency levels 5 or 6, only 0.1% of our students made it there, compared to 21.2% in Singapore.

Only two other countries have a lower percentage of top performers than Malaysia. In spite of the annual parade of students scoring double digit As on the front pages of our newspapers, by international standards our education system is actually not producing top performers.

Our examinations obviously measure content knowledge, not analysis and interpretation, the real skills needed to survive and thrive in a knowledge economy. This is not surprising in a culture that punishes those who do not conform, who ask difficult questions, who give answers out of the box. And in the domain of religion, it can actually be a criminal offence to ask questions or have a different understanding of Islam than the one sanctioned by the religious authorities.

In a society where those with power are obsessed with maintaining control, dominance, compliance, uniformity and conformity, it can only be expected that our education system eventually reflects those values, in spite of attempts at reform.

I looked at the assessment framework of the survey and found that what PISA measures is not just the capacity to read and understand literal information, but how students retrieve information, form a broad understanding, develop an interpretation, reflect on and evaluate both the content and the form of a text. How do you teach a student to interpret, reflect, analyse, evaluate a text? How are the teachers trained to be able to impart these skills?

A friend who has a son in Form 1 is shocked that his English literature text book on the Swiss Robinson Family is not only so thin, but also filled with pictures fit for a nine-year old. Are we dumbing down our students and the syllabus so that more can score strings of As? The PISA test requires students to read selected texts and answer a series of questions to evaluate their capacity to interpret and analyse.

From reading an extract from a novel to a product notice on peanut content and the right of the buyer to return the product. What PISA evaluates is called “reading literacy” whether the Malaysian 15-year-old is understanding, using, reflecting on and engaging with written texts, in order to achieve one’s goals, develop one’s knowledge and potential, and participate effectively in society.

At level 1, the reader is only asked to locate explicitly stated information, recognise the main theme of a text or make a simple connection between information in the text and common every day knowledge. In the 2009 PISA survey, 44% of Malaysian students performed at this level. Instead of doing better in the 2012 survey, a further 8.7% dropped into this level.

At level 2, the reader is asked to locate information which may need to be inferred, understand relationships, or construe meanings when information is not prominent. Only 31% of the Malaysian students could perform at this still low level. PISA also measures students’ engagement, drive and self-belief. Again not surprisingly, the survey finds Malaysians at the bottom.

They are less likely to report that they are quick to understand, seek explanations, link facts together easily, and/or like to solve complex problems. Malaysia ranks 55 out of 64 countries. The dismal findings of the level of knowledge and skills in mathematics (rank 61/64) and science (55/64) reflect similar distressing realities of the Malaysian education system. While 40% of Singapore students performed at the top level in mathematics, only 1.3% of Malaysians achieved that level.

The only piece of good news is that Malaysia is one of the few countries where girls outperform boys in all three subject areas – reading, mathematics and science, with the biggest gender gap in reading. PISA conducts an assessment domain in the area of problem-solving competency.

It believes the study of an individual’s problem-solving strengths offers a window into their capabilities to employ basic thinking and other general cognitive approaches to confronting challenges in life. It provides a basis for future learning, for effective participation in society and for conducting personal activities. Again, Malaysia scores close to the bottom.

Of the 42 countries surveyed, Malaysia ranks at 37 with half of the students reaching only level 1 performance. Only one other country did worse than Malaysia in terms of the percentage of top performers at proficiency levels 5 or 6.

While our mathematics mean score has improved since the 2009 survey (still, only three other countries did worse than us), the scores for reading and science have fallen. A significant percentage, if not the majority of Malaysian students, continue to perform at below minimum proficiency level as defined by PISA.

While the Government might tout that its education budget is high, the survey found that the cumulative expenditure by educational institutions per student aged six to 15 is actually one of the lowest among PISA-participating countries and economies (rank 45/49).

Obviously, either the money went largely to tertiary education and other expenses or the total budget is just not high enough to produce the outcomes envisaged. Another disturbing, but not surprising finding, is the gap in performance between Malaysian students in government and private schools – one of the highest gaps in participating countries, with the gap in Mathematics the biggest.

So obviously the rich who are able to afford private education for their children are getting a better deal in setting up their children for life, while over 90% of those surveyed who go to government schools are being disadvantaged because of a failing education system. In the 2009 PISA survey, 80% of the participating schools (121/152) fell into the poor performance bracket.

About 13% made it to fair and only 7% entered the good performance bracket. None was great or excellent. I could not locate this score in the 2012 survey. Just comparing Malaysia’s performance to Singapore (which ranks second in mathematics, third in reading and science and first in problem-solving), what these scores and rankings mean is that 15-year-olds in Malaysia are performing as if they have received the equivalent of almost four years less schooling in reading, mathematics and science compared to the Singapore 15-year-olds.

If these data do not wake up our authorities to the dire straits we are in, I don’t know what else will. If we are serious in believing in the PISA philosophy that learning outcomes at school are a powerful predictor for the wealth and social outcomes that countries will reap in the long run, then those in charge of the education system and the parents who worry about their children’s future must crack the whip.

The Education Blueprint promises a major transformation by 2025. By then, Malaysia will be in the top one-third of the PISA ranking, it states. And standards for student outcomes and learning practices will be benchmarked against the high performing education systems.

The focus will be on higher order thinking skills such as application and reasoning, and not just content knowledge. This means looking at the success of the top five countries and economies – Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan – and even Vietnam, ranked a high 17.

Almost two years have passed since the Blueprint was launched. Is performance on track? How has recruitment into teachers training colleges changed to attract the brightest? How has pedagogy changed to enable students to develop high order thinking skills? There must be better transparency and an annual progress report presented to the public.

I hope the Parents Action Group for Education Malaysia will take up the cause in demanding and monitoring the implementation of the Education Blueprint and access to the full results and analysis of the PISA survey and how the Government uses this data to guide implementation and monitor outcomes.

The Blueprint notes that internationally, education system reforms fail for common reasons – insufficient will, time and commitment from all political and ministry leaders; inability to stay the course under intense challenges from those opposed to the changes; paralysis in the face of polarising debates led by teachers and other stakeholders, resistance to change amongst teachers, or capacity gaps within the ministry. It points out that while these obstacles are daunting, research shows it is possible to overcome them and deliver fundamental improvements in as little as six years. So please get cracking and transform these words into deeds.
  • The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.
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