For my son, when he grows up, this site will be my legacy for him. The decisions his mother and I made for him, to understand them, to learn from them and to lead a life without prejudice and to succeed in it on his own merit.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Year That Was

Malaysiakini’s Top 10 News of 2008

Groundbreaking change does not happen overnight, at least not in Malaysia where it takes a special blend of circumstances to rouse people to fury.

That process started late last year and spilled over into this year. From then, it was only a matter of time until pent-up frustration burst. And it did.

History was made, but it did not stop there. It has been an exhilarating and inspiring year - it will be a long time before anyone climbs down from the emotional high.

Counting down, we take you through the best and the worst of 2008.

10 Breaking down barriers

It started off as a lonely crusade by residents against a highway concessionaire, but ended up in a power tussle at the very top that has ended relatively happily-ever-after.

Flashback to 2005 when determined residents of Bandar Mahkota Cheras began their stand-off against an unwavering Grand Saga Sdn Bhd.

The company built a concrete barrier across an access road to a new highway. Residents were forced to take a longer route out of their housing estate and through traffic jams - incidentally via the toll booths - to get to the highway.

Forming an action committee, they filed a suit against the company. To get their point across, no fewer than 18 protests were held at the site of the barricade, drawing the police to ‘dispersal duty’ including arrests.

The ding-dong situation came to a head after the March 8 general election. The change of government in Selangor to one under Pakatan Rakyat was the ray of light the residents needed.

Documents showed that the barricade was on state land, so officials ordered that it be dismantled. Residents tore it down with alacrity on April 21, only for Grand Saga to rebuild it two weeks later, under the supervision of some 200 police personnel.

Clashes ensued, the worst of which occurred on May 27 when more than 10 people were seriously injured. Technician Chang Jiun Haur alleged he was repeatedly beaten by police personnel.

Police countered that Chang had run over an officer while leaving the scene in his car, and investigated him for attempted murder. However, he was then charged with reckless driving.

The Selangor government’s intervention produced a U-turn in the federal government’s position, which had been widely seen as supportive of the highway concessionaire up to then.

Visiting the scene after the fracas, Works Minister Mohd Zin Mohamed announced that the access road would stay open until the court disposes of the residents’ legal suit.
The Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) has held an inquiry into the allegation of “excessive force” used against Chang. Its report is still pending.

WHAT’S NEXT: It will be an anxious wait for residents in general and Chang in particular, as the saga winds down.

9 Altantuya still haunts us all

Who was involved in the killing of Mongolian national Altantuya Shaariibuu? Not political analyst Abdul Razak Baginda, according to the Shah Alam High Court which acquitted him of abetment on Oct 31 without calling for his defence.

The prosecution decided not to appeal, a first in such cases. But lawyer Karpal Singh, who is holding a watching brief for Altantuya’s family, has filed for review of the judgment.

In the meantime, two ‘elite squad’ police personnel - Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar - will have to make their defence against the primary charge of murder.

Two years after Altantuya’s death in 2006, the case still threw up surprises. Opposition MPs even took the matter to Parliament, seeking unsuccessfully to file a special motion to debate it in view of the allegations that have surfaced.

Private investigator P Balasubramaniam caused a sensation with details of his statutory declaration (SD), which alleged that deputy premier Najib Abdul Razak had links with Altantuya and that she had demanded RM500,000 in commission for closing a deal on the purchase of submarines.

The next day, though, Balasubramaniam retracted the document in a second SD. Najib duly denied any relationship with Altantuya or that pressure had been exerted on Balasubramaniam to withdraw his allegations.

As police began a probe into the conflicting SDs, Balasubramaniam and his family went ‘missing’ but were later confirmed to be living in a neighbouring country.

Blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin added to the mix with a purported expose claiming that Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor had been at the scene of the crime with two army personnel. Rosmah denied this and the army officers are suing Raja Petra for defamation.

The irrepressible blogger then revealed that senior lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah had exchanged text-messages with Najib, in seeking Razak’s release while under remand.

Following his acquittal, Razak rose to the defence of Najib and Rosmah, saying they were not involved in the case - and that the issue had nothing to do with the Scorpene submarine purchase.

WHAT’S NEXT: Hope is ebbing that the ‘real’ story behind the gruesome incident will ever come out. But there is still the rest of the murder trial to go, alongside the police probe and defamation suit.

8 Chua rises from the ashes

In January, then MCA vice-president Dr Chua Soi Lek saw his political career end abruptly as he owned up to his part in a sex scandal that had been secretly video-taped and circulated earlier.

Admitting “I am the man in the tape”, he initially said he would allow the prime minister and MCA president Ong Ka Ting to decide his fate, hinting that he was a victim of a political conspiracy within the party.

But in less than 24 hours, he announced his immediate resignation from all party and government posts.

There was no writing him off. In the party election 10 months later, he made an incredible comeback as he was elected deputy president.

He faced off main rivals secretary-general Ong Ka Chuan and vice-president Donald Lim on Oct 18, winning with a mere 114 votes.

Chua had the general election results to thank for this, with the rank-and-file screaming for accountability over MCA’s abject performance as well as for reforms.

WHAT’S NEXT: The immediate question is how MCA will handle this hot potato, for he seeks to return to the cabinet. However, his ‘tainted’ past and rivalry with new party president Ong Tee Keat stand in the way.

7 Hits and misses for judiciary

Try as they might, politicians were unable to get it right about the judiciary. For every apparent step forward, there has been a hidden step backwards - from the appointment of a new chief justice to the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) Bill.

Zaki Azmi replaced Abdul Hamid Mohamad as chief justice in October, but has been dogged by senior lawyer and Bukit Gelugor parliamentarian Karpal Singh who is most unhappy over the appointment.

This follows Zaki’s alleged admission of ‘bribery’ as a practising lawyer, although he has clarified that he was misquoted in a news report.

Also drawing criticism was the government’s ex-gratia payment of more than RM10 million to six senior judges - including former Lord President Salleh Abas - who were sacked in 1998. It appeared that offering them an apology would have been better appreciated.

In December, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi tabled the JAC Bill, dubbed by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mohd Nazri Abdul Aziz as the “first step to judicial reform”.

Others were less certain, but their reservations did not stop the Dewan Rakyat from rushing it through.

During the year, too, Sarawak High Court judge Ian Chin made the astounding revelation that then premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad had subjected some judges to “boot camp treatment” and had intimidated judges into making pro-government decisions.

This led to a public exchange between the two, ending with the former opting for early retirement in view of the stress suffered.

WHAT’S NEXT: Now that the JAC enactment has killed off the dream of independence, will the judiciary have sufficient pride to redeem itself without ‘external’ help?

6 Police ‘protection’ for the vocal

THE ISSUE: To say that the police took enforcement of the Internal Security Act (ISA) to ridiculous extremes this year would be an under-statement.

Even by its standards, the force did not cover itself in glory when it hastily detained Sin Chew Daily journalist Tan Hoon Cheng after her report on an incendiary speech by Bukit Bendera Umno division head Ahmad Said in Penang.

Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar, at one point, said this was for “her own protection” as death threats had been received. But, giving in to instant pressure from many quarters - including Barisan Nasional component parties - the police released Tan within 18 hours.

DAP’s Seputeh parliamentarian Teresa Kok and Malaysia Today editor Raja Petra Kamarudin, were held for longer periods after their arrest on Sept 12. Raja Petra won freedom through a rare victory in court.

The arrests triggered a series of protests and candlelight vigils by civil society groups, while BN component party PPP threatened to leave the ruling coalition if there are no substantive amendments to the ISA by the next general election.

Worse for the BN, de facto law minister and prominent UMNO member Zaid Ibrahim resigned to protest the arrests. His subsequent presence at opposition-led events resulted in him being sacked from the party.

WHAT NEXT: The BN has ‘no intention’ of amending the ISA, let alone repealing it. The ball is back in the court of those who want to see the last of it.
5 Fuel price highs and lows

The government raised the petrol price to RM2.70 in June - a jump of 40.6 percent that left consumers severely traumatised as the direct and indirect impacts were felt.

The decision was made in order to cut spiraling expenditure on subsidies, said to amount to RM56 billion this year, and was the latest in a series of price hikes that began last year.

Bewildered analysts and economists wondered why Malaysia, a net producer of crude oil, was withdrawing subsidies at a time when national oil and gas company Petronas was making record profits.

Opposition parties got into stride, organising protests, even as Pakatan Rakyat claimed that it would do better as the new federal government on Sept 16.

Just two months later, the government began reducing fuel prices through a monitoring scheme based on drop in the world price. Since August, there have been seven reductions.

WHAT’S NEXT: Absolutely no cheer, as prices of essential goods are not coming down and job losses as well as falling incomes take away any relief felt by motorists.

4 Deja vu in sodomy charge

The ‘Sodomy 2.0′ version unfolded on June 28 when PKR de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim’s 23-year-old former aide Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan lodged a police report. He claimed to have been sodomised by Anwar in a condominium in Damansara.

To many, it was unreal. Ten years ago, Anwar had faced a similar charge which saw him being jailed until the conviction and sentence were overturned on appeal in 2004.

In the latest episode, he was arrested on July 16 by balaclava-clad police - a scene reminiscent of that in 1998 - but freed a day later after being questioned and made to undergo a medical examination.

His supporters claimed that the government would detain him pending trial, ostensibly to prevent his campaigning for the Permatang Pauh by-election. But when Anwar claimed trial on Aug 7, he was freed on a RM20,000 personal bond.

Much else has happened outside the courtroom, including the allegation that Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak had a ‘hidden hand’ in the matter since he had met with Saiful prior to the complaint. Najib has denied this.

Saiful’s complaint was challenged when a medical examination - done on the same day he lodged the police report - allegedly found no signs of sodomy.

He then swore on a Quran in a mosque to back his claim, but the shadow of political interference fell over this as well. The imam who witnessed the oath-taking said he was instructed to do so.

WHAT’S NEXT: The sodomy trial has not made much headway since August, as technical arguments have prevailed. The court is expected to hear the substantial arguments in the coming year.

3 Clash of the titans

Wouldn’t something be amiss in Malaysian politics if the nation’s top two leaders aren’t pitted against one another? The year did not disappoint in this respect.

BN’s disastrous showing in the March general election brought out a metaphorical keris in Umno - this time the business end of it was pointed at party president and premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Initially, it was unclear who was holding the dagger, given the groundswell of discontent over the coalition’s ‘gift’ to the opposition – four state governments, failure to re-take Kelantan and voters’ rejection of many veteran leaders.

Although ‘undur Pak Lah’ messages appeared on banners in public, Abdullah’s decimated team backed his leadership. Former party head Dr Mahathir Mohamad merely intensified the noisy bombardment from the sidelines.

Abdullah came undone when the economy came under pressure due mainly to the spike in global crude oil price and the US credit crunch. There was no hiding the resentment now.

Adding to the panic, PKR’s Anwar Ibrahim drummed up his claim of being able to take over the federal government by Sept 16. With Umno due to hold elections in December, the tussle at the top fed into the bickering at the bottom.

Abdullah finally reacted, swapping his finance portfolio for Najib’s defence portfolio and holding out the lure of direct transition to his deputy. It might have worked except that Umno vice-president and senior minister Muhyiddin Yassin took exception to the cosy arrangement.

On Sept 21, at the Umno supreme council meeting, Abdullah was confronted by the very leaders who had supported him. They pushed him to state by Oct 9 if he planned to contest the polls, before the nomination process began.

In what appears to be a face-saving move, although Abdullah claimed that it was done to prevent the rift from widening, a compromise was struck with Najib.

Polls were moved to March and Abdullah agreed to relinquish the presidency – by convention, also the premiership – to Najib if the latter had enough support in the party. Najib took the post uncontested, with 98 percent of the nominations.

WHAT’S NEXT: There is trepidation about a return to the dark days of ‘Mahathirism’ under Najib’s tenure, alongside talk that the out-manoeuvred Anwar is only biding his time to let the latter’s skeletons out of the closet. Muhyiddin’s moves merit a close watch as well.
2 Anwar completes his comeback

The Aug 26 Permatang Pauh by-election was called after incumbent Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail of PKR vacated the parliamentary seat, so that her husband Anwar Ibrahim could return to active politics.

Dubbed as the ‘mother of all by-elections’, it was held at a time of intense speculation about a takeover of the federal government by Pakatan Rakyat through defections from ruling lawmakers.

The contest was hyped by PKR as Anwar’s ‘road to Putrajaya’, possibly as a morale booster for more BN parliamentarians to cross over to the opposition alliance.

Anwar had held the seat from 1982 but was unable to contest the 1999, 2004 and 2008 general elections due to his conviction for corrupt practice and subsequent five-year ban on participation in active politics. The prohibition was lifted in April this year.

During the 10-day campaign, BN played up the sodomy allegation against Anwar but PKR pulled out its trump card at the eleventh hour when an imam admitted that he was instructed to witness an oath-taking ceremony by accuser Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan.

The campaign saw money pouring into the constituency from both BN and PKR.

Anwar made a triumphant return with a bigger majority of 15,671 over his rivals - BN’s Arif Shah Omar Shah and Akim president Hanafi Hamat - and was sworn in as Opposition Leader in Parliament.

WHAT’S NEXT: Watch the Jan 17 Kuala Terengganu by-election, the second since the general election in March. Will the BN make an impact or will it see the loss of another seat?

1 Public whipping for BN

When Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi announced the dissolution of the Parliament on Feb 13, many BN politicians thought that the 12th general election would see the ruling coalition retaining its two-thirds majority in Parliament.

However, Malaysians decided otherwise on March 8 after a 13-day campaign, and deprived BN of its majority in the House. The opposition won 82 out of 222 parliamentary seats, with an all-time high of 31 seats for PKR, 28 for DAP and 22 for PAS.

Equally devastating for them was that opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat won four states and retained Kelantan - all of it contributing to BN’s worst results in electoral history.

BN partners MCA, Gerakan, MIC and PPP all suffered heavy defeats, with casualties including their national leaders. Umno, which had claimed that it could win enough seats to form the federal government on its own, only won 79 seats, falling way below its projection.

Voters dealt the telling blow because of issues such as inflation, shortage of goods, fuel subsidies, rising crime, mismanagement, corruption, tainted elections and racial inequality.

Simmering anger among Indian Malaysians - long regarded as BN loyalists - resulted in a swing towards the opposition.

WHAT’S NEXT: PM-to-be Najib Abdul Razak can expect a torrid time when he takes over in March, as he faces not just political turmoil but economic uncertainty - not to mention a waiting Anwar Ibrahim.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

No shades cos the future not bright

Nine Years, Five Schools, One Broken Education System
By John Lee at
I think a lot of you might have stumbled across my personal website, Infernal Ramblings in the past, or perhaps read one of the weekly columns I write for The Malaysian Insider. Although I am of course interested in political affairs, I would just like to emphasise that I remain politically unaffiliated, and that I think a vigorous debate about education in Malaysia should be encouraged, because fewer things can be more important than the future of our country and our people. For my first post, I thought I would introduce my educational background and give you a better idea of where I am coming from, and why I care so much about education.
My parents are both graduate degree-holders, and actually met when they were pursuing their Masters degrees. I was born in Japan while my dad finished his post-doctoral work, and then moved to Singapore, where my father taught at Nanyang Technological University for about six years; two of my siblings were born there. My family moved back to Malaysia when I was six, just before the economic crisis. In 1997, I started primary school at SRJK(C) Damansara, and my youngest sister was born.
Damansara was where my love-hate affair with education probably began. I had not attended kindergarten, so I was probably less prepared than many of my peers for primary school, especially in a Chinese-medium setting. I had been a prolific reader as a child, and had actually read some of my father's old secondary school textbooks by the time I was seven, so it was not for a lack of smarts that I had a hard time. I think I found it difficult to cope with the adjustment, and the new languages - Malay and Chinese - I was being exposed to.
So, halfway through the school year, my parents transferred me to Sekolah Sri Kuala Lumpur, a private school in Subang Jaya. I was not happy there either. Although I did well in my classes, I was picked on by my classmates, and spent most of my free time reading books I borrowed from the well-stocked school library; I would borrow a book during the first recess period, read it between classes, and return it and borrow another during lunch period. Two of my clearest memories from this time are the librarian's frequent shock that I could read books so quickly, and how happy I was every time we had library period on Thursdays. I also remember my intense exposure to Malay during this time - the school enforced a strict policy of speaking in Malay during classes, and so I was forced to pick up the language quickly. Ultimately, because I could not relate well with my mainly upper-class and expatriate classmates, and because my parents could not afford the tuition, I transferred again to a public school, SK Bandar Utama Damansara, at the end of primary two.
Of all the schools I have attended, I can confidently say that SKBUD was the best, without question. I made some of the best friends of my life there, and enjoyed the attention from some of the most dedicated teachers I have ever encountered. The headmistress, Datin Fatimah, ran the school with what some might call an iron fist. Unlike many other SKs, the student body was by and large disciplined, and the school made an effort to treat all students fairly, regardless of race.
I was rather surprised when I left the school and found that other schools stream students into classes based not only on academic performance but also race, and that all delegations for interschool competitions had to be "racially balanced"; in SKBUD, you sunk or swam based on your performance, and nothing else. Our school was never the best on any objective scale; most of our students came from poor families and it was considered a stunning success if more than two classes in any year had a 100% pass rate for all subjects. But looking back, I can easily say that my formative years in SKBUD are what made me the idealist I am today about education, and what made me believe that we can do so much more for our students.
I began my secondary schooling in SMK Tropicana. The Tropicana student body was an odd one; I think there were few students from middle class backgrounds. Most students were either from the low-income Kampung Cempaka, or the very high-income suburbs surrounding the school. The teachers, although very nice people, did not always seem dedicated. A lot of them often seemed to be unavailable because of training, and there was a high turnover rate, with teachers frequently joining and leaving the faculty. The main bright spot of my time at Tropicana was my involvement in scouting; I joined the scout troop there, and enjoyed it thoroughly. But ultimately, my parents transferred me yet again; the roads leading to the school were poorly planned and constantly jammed at rush hour; it was just too stressful to drive me to and from school.
The last school I attended, and the one I am most attached to after SKBUD, was SMK Bandar Utama (3). Unfortunately, it made a rather opposite effect on my perception of education: if SKBUD made me see the promise education holds, SMKBU3 made me see how terrible a school system can be if things do not go the right way. The teachers - again, all really nice people - often seemed uninterested in students and more interested in doing whatever suited them. Teachers often only went through the motions of teaching classes, and I think most of us who understood what was going on only did so because we learned from tuition or the textbooks. More than one teacher remarked to us that they were hardly needed since most of us just went to tuition classes anyway. While I had some good teachers - Puan Rozita made moral education, one of the most stupid and worthless subjects ever, worth our time - I had a lot of horrid ones too. One science teacher marked me down as wrong for citing the white fur of polar bears as an example of adaptation, because it was not the answer given in the book. She left the school soon after, and the temporary teacher who replaced her marked me down for describing white blood cells as part of the immune system, because in her words, "red blood cells protect from sick."
My time at SMKBU3 was also marked by a lot of harebrained schemes that can only be described as petty corruption. The school attempted to force all students into taking additional tuition classes and computer classes, and duly charged parents for this. Only official school tracksuits, socks and labcoats could be worn - again, parents were charged for the privilege, at prices much higher than those outside. The year after I left the school, a minor scandal erupted when some teachers attempted to appropriate funds raised for a charity. Of course, the teachers didn't just abuse parents and charities; students got their share too. That same year, a student hit his head against a pole while playing football after school hours; the impact was such that you could actually see the bone of his skull. Although teachers were still on campus, for some reason (possibly legal issues) they refused to take him to the hospital; a student ended up driving him instead.
To top it all off, I have to say that SMKBU3 was one of the most racially polarised schools I have ever seen. The Chinese-dominated administration and faculty often emphasised Chinese interests and issues; the student body followed suit. My classmates who had attended other SKs for primary school, who were and are not some of the most openminded people in the world, even remarked on how racist many of our Chinese-educated classmates seemed, and often made an effort to distance themselves from them. I did not encounter this when I was in Tropicana, not to the same extent; some of my best friends when I was in form one there had been Chinese-educated, and no such barriers seemed to exist. Meanwhile at SMKBU3, those from other racial backgrounds retaliated; one Malay teacher infamously told her students that non-Malays were hopelessly disloyal and could never be trusted to defend the country. As far as I know, she was never disciplined and the incident was hushed up, because we never heard of the matter again.
Now, these were all reasons why I decided to drop out of school rather than transfer yet again, but the main impetus, really, was this: I had had enough of the system. We hear a lot of complaints about rote learning in our schools; about incompetent or lazy teachers; about racial polarisation; about the lack of emphasis on extracurriculars; about how exam-oriented our schools are; so on and so forth. These are all problems with the system; I do not blame my teachers for the way they have acted because as far as I am concerned, they are products of a school system that does not respect them either. (I always thought it was ridiculous that besides teaching, teachers have to worry about filling out menial paperwork and angry parents, all for an insanely low salary; of course they would rather devote their time to creating other streams of income and avoiding work as much as possible.) I could have transferred to a less horrid school, but to what end? I might have marginally better teachers, possibly more active extracurricular groups to join, but I would be working from the same syllabus and curriculum from within the same system - a system that I saw and still see as horribly broken.
When I was in form three, I decided I wanted out. I did not know where to begin in getting out, though, and neither did my parents. My father knew, however, that American universities rely on the SAT to gauge the abilities of prospective entrants; he suggested I take it. When the results came back, I was near the top percentile in every category. So, we began to look around, and asked local colleges what it would take to accept me for a diploma or pre-university program of some sort; all required the SPM or equivalent. The equivalent, then, was the GCE O-levels. I took seven subjects for my O-levels, and studied by myself for the next four or five months, sitting for the O-levels around the same times as my PMR.
After I got my results back, I registered for the A-levels at KDU College. My experience at KDU was something altogether different, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. As a college student, you have a lot more freedom and independence than you would ever have in form six or secondary school. My lecturers were dedicated and friendly with their students, and although I do have some complaints (I would not recommend KDU as your ideal option), it was a breath of fresh air after all those years in the school system. I finished my A-levels almost two years ago, and left shortly afterwards for Dartmouth College, where I am presently majoring in economics.
There is fortunately not a lot to say about my university life so far, except that I am enjoying it, and that I enjoy the greater freedom the American liberal arts philosophy gives to students. I have taken classes in English, Chinese (my Chinese has a rather pronounced Beijing accent as a result), history, and political science; I even have the option of majoring in any of these subjects, if I really want to. Dartmouth has provided me with financial aid allowing me to attend even though my family cannot afford the high tuition fees and other living costs. This is why I am a strong advocate of American education for anyone interested in pursuing their studies overseas; I think it is something not enough Malaysians consider as a choice.
So, now that we've come to the end of my life story (as far as education is concerned), I hope you have a better idea of why it is I think the way that I do. A lot of the things I have written about education on my own website and in my column for the Malaysian Insider have proven controversial, and that is because I am coming from a rather controversial and unique background. I have explored almost every kind of education possible; I have been to a Chinese school, a private school, an SK, two SMKs, and I have even been homeschooled if you count those four months I spent teaching myself for the O-levels. I have had friends who went to Chinese independent schools, missionary schools, and MRSMs. I believe any and all of these paths are viable ones to take, but at the same time, through my experiences and those of others, I have also found that they all have their imperfections and deep flaws.

My hope is that through dialogue and debate, especially on this blog, we can delve further into the successes and failures of the different educational streams and choices in this country; that we can figure out how to fix what is rotten and retain what is excellent. I believe that at a very fundamental level, our national public school system is failing our students, and that there are ways to fix it; I also believe that at a very fundamental level, many of our alternatives to the public school system have been succeeding, and that there are ways to learn from them in rehabilitating and repairing our public school system.

My future posts will usually not be this long, but I hope you've been able to bear with my recounting of the experiences which have shaped how I see our education system today. Although you and I may (indeed, probably) disagree about the best way to reform our school system, I look forward to having a productive dialogue about the successes and failures of the different streams of education in our country, and how to learn from them.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

It means roughly like that loh!

Islam and the Malay Mindset: What Went Wrong?
M. Bakri Musa

This was the topic for a small group discussion at a recent seminar organized by Kelab UMNO New York/New Jersey. I was a passive participant at this dialogue, at least initially.

In the ensuing discussions, the students duly reaffirmed the greatness of Islam, citing many ready examples. Islam emancipated the ancient Bedouins out of their Age of Jahilliyah (Ignorance), and did it all within a generation. Islam then spread as far westward as Andalusia and eastward right up to China. In the process Islam inspired and created great civilizations and empires that lasted till at least the early part of the last century.

After over 1400 years however, Islam (at least the physical empire, though not the faith) was done in by European colonialism. With colonialism’s ending, there was a quick resurgence of Islam. Today it is the faith of a quarter of the world’s population, and fast growing.

Islam has been part of the Malay world for well over half a millennium. It is very much an integral part of our “Malayness” such that the statutory definition of a Malay is tied to the faith. Our embrace of Islam remains firm if not enhanced, despite being under complete Western (specifically British) colonial domination for a good portion of the time.

With the resurgence of Islam, Malays like Muslims everywhere yearn for the return of those earlier glorious days. Thus far that is all there is to it – just a yearning; much of the Muslim world remains tragically mired in poverty, with its citizens deprived of their basic human dignity and rights.

In Malaysia, the achievement gaps between Malays and non-Malays continue to widen despite the political leadership and public institutions being dominated by Malays. This glaring disparity remains a continuous source of communal angst, triggering more than just a few occasions of mass “acting out” behaviors as keris wielding and shrill calls for Ketuanan Melayu.

Why is Islam unable to emancipate Malays as it did the ancient Bedouins? What went wrong? Being true believers, the students rightly asserted that there is nothing wrong with this great faith, rather with our understanding – and thus practice – of it.

We are obsessed with rituals at the expense of appreciating the essence of Islam, the students observed. The universal message of Islam is lost with the associated Arabism, they continued. We are consumed in being Arabs, or at least aping them in the belief that it is the same thing as being Islamic or pious.

In teaching our young we are too preoccupied with being punitive and not enough with being positive. When they are naughty or grab a toy from another child, we would admonish them by saying that God would punish them by burning them in hell. Such concepts are beyond the comprehension of young minds, except to imprint on them horror-filled images of suffering and torture.

A more understandable and thus effective way would be to teach those children to imagine how they would feel if someone were to steal their toys. Such an approach would also be an excellent way to impart upon them the Golden Rule, to do unto others what you want done to you, a basic precept in all faiths.

We make our young recite and even memorize the Quran at a very early age without expending commensurate time and effort in teaching them the meaning or significance of those verses in our every day lives. We have reduced this great religion to a series of rituals instead of being a guide to a “total way of life” that is righteous, pleases Allah, and leads to a harmonious society. We pray, fast, pay our tithe, and undertake the pilgrimage but then go right ahead and accept bribes, neglect our jobs, and ignore our families and society.

We go to great lengths avoiding pork and improperly slaughtered chicken and cows, rightly considering them haram, but we have no compulsion in accepting bribes or neglecting our duties.

The students did a credible job of societal self-introspection. As they were summarizing their conclusions to present to the larger group, I enquired how we as a society have strayed from the central message of Islam. More relevantly, how could we rediscover the essence of Islam so that it too would do for us what it did for the ancient Arabs?

Taqlid, Bidaa, and Tajdid

Taqlid and bidaa are two central concepts in the learning and transmission of Islam. Taqlid refers to following the teachings of those more learned and pious than and before us. Specifically, it refers to adhering to the practices of one of the established schools of jurisprudence or mahdhab.

The Arabic root of the word means to place a collar around the neck, as we would to guide an animal. The operative word there is “guide,” to lead us along the straight path.

Malay villagers however, do not put a collar around our kerbau (buffalo) rather a ring through its nose. It serves the same purpose, and more. For in addition to leading the animal we also effectively control it.

Therein lies the problem. Does taqlid mean letting us be guided or be controlled? Is taqlid a collar slung loosely around our neck to nudge us to the left or right as a rein to a horse, or a ring pierced through our nose as with our kerbau? There is a vast difference between paying deference to precedents (as lawyers and judges do) versus being held captive by them. If it were the latter, slavery would still be legal in America.

Likewise with bidaa; with every khutba the Imam would duly warn the flock of the awesome Hellfire that awaits those who would dare engage in bidaa. Invariably the word is translated as “innovation.” “Innovation” means more than just change; it implies change for the better, and thus something commendable and to strive for. Bidaa obviously does not mean innovation; it is closer to corruption or adulteration, hence the dire warning against partaking in it!

My point here was to sensitize the students to the potential treacherous trap in interpreting the meaning of words especially where translations were involved. Such dangers exist even without translations, as words can change their meanings and connotations over time. During the prophet’s time for example, poets were held in low regard, as clearly stated in some Quranic verses, as they used their talent to mock the prophet.

Thus when a religious scholar quotes a verse from the Quran or hadith and then confidently assert with such certitude, “And the verse means … ,” that belies an arrogant mindset, impervious to reasons and intolerant of differing interpretations. A more humble and also accurate way would be to add the proviso, “When approximately translated.” Translations are at best approximate and provisional.

Our Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., anticipated this erosion and corruption of the faith, as had happened to earlier revelations to other prophets before him. Hence the Quranic references to the appearance of a “prophet amongst us every hundred years” to renew the faith by getting rid of the inevitable accretions of extraneous practices and beliefs that would inevitably develop over time. “Prophet” here of course means “leader,” as to Muslims Muhammad, s.a.w, was the Last Prophet.

This concept of renewal or tajdid is a long established tradition in Islam. However, we cannot have renewal if we remain a slave to precedents, or if we consider every change a bidaa or an affront to taqlid. Islam has never been short of reformers, right from the first rightly-guided caliphs to the rationalists Mutazilites and many modern-day reformers. Like reformers in other faith, some have paid dearly for their attempts.

America with its freedom provides fertile ground for the renewal of Islam. America is also fortunate in having many brilliant Islamic scholars who have been driven away from their native land for their innovative ideas. To their folks back home, these reformers are engaging in bidaa, a mortal sin.

We are also fortunate in America to have the freedom to explore the rich and varied traditions of our faith. In Malaysia you could be detained under the ISA for reading Shiite literature! To put that in perspective, that is the same punishment if you were to engage in subversive or communist activities. Add to that the favorite past time of our leaders: banning books and restricting speakers! That ring through our noses can be very restricting!

What went Right

To end the students’ discussion on a positive note, I asked them to consider the flip side of their query, to ponder what went right. I nudged them to imagine what would have happened had Islam not landed on our shores.

One student reacted with horror at that prospect as we would then still have our animist ways and Hindu beliefs. At which point I enquired whether the Balinese (who are racially Malays) are somehow inferior to us because they are not Muslims. Or for that matter the Protestant Bataks in Sumatra.

As that seemed to dampen the discussion, I volunteered that there are many things that went right with Islam and Malays. Seeing it strictly from my professional perspective, I am glad that Malays are Muslims. When I was a surgeon in Malaysia, I never saw a single case of alcohol-related injuries among Malays. Before America had its strict drunk driving laws, a large part of my work as a surgeon was to repair the horrible damages wrecked by drunks. In the Philippines, alcohol-related crimes and injuries are rampant.

I wish our Quran would have similar explicit prohibitions against drugs and corruption as it does against alcohol!

On a higher level, Islam introduced the written word to our world. Once a society adopted a written culture, there is a quantum lap in its intellectual development. Yes, before the arrival of Arabic Malays had Sanskrit, but that was a dead language. Many of the ancient Malay literature are adaptations of stories from the Middle East, and our language borrows heavily from Arabic.

On that positive note we ended the discussion. What went wrong is not with Islam rather how we have missed the essence of this great faith in our obsession with its peripherals.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Going up the down road

Through our tertiary lens, darkly
Terrence Netto
Education is the race between civilization and oblivion, said Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in wide ranging remarks that virtually paraphrased H. G. Wells, the British futuristic writer, who once described education as the race between civilization and catastrophe.
While not comparably apocalyptic in tone, the PKR supremo, in recent speeches in the Dewan Rakyat on the Budget estimates on education and on amendments to the University and University Colleges Act, looked through our educational glass and felt impelled to report darkly.
“Our slumping economic fortunes are traceable to the recession in our education quality,” he said. “We are a nation at risk,” he cautioned. Anwar saw as indivisible the link between educational quality and economic competitiveness.
“Our competitors in the region, once flailing in our wake, have caught up and are now ahead of us. We have lost our once frontal position in the region in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation,” said Anwar.
He cited several indices of decline such as the annual survey by the Times Higher Educational Supplement which saw our premier University Malaya fluctuating in the nether regions, if not actually bundled out of the publication’s annual top 200 classification. Anwar also quoted from studies and comments made about Malaysian education over two decades, including a survey done in 1983. All of them, he claimed, flagged the declension in our educational standards.
He described as “alarming” statistics recently collated by the Human Resources Ministry that found a rate of 70% unemployment among graduates of our public universities. He said this figure together with findings of 26% unemployment among graduates of private universities in Malaysia and 34% joblessness among graduates of foreign universities, especially from among Middle Eastern institutions, substantiated the perception of malady in educational quality.
The PKR leader had no doubt about the primary causal factor on the domestic front. “The in-built curbs on innovative and creative thinking contained in the University and University Collleges Act are to blame,” he opined.
Anwar equated the mediocrity percolating through our institutions of higher education as suggestive of the condition described by Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish philosopher whose seminal work, The Captive Mind, mapped out the paralysis in the intellectual terrain in soviet states before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
“The sad fate that has befallen students in higher institutions has seeped into intellectual circles inhabited by our artists and thinkers. Robotic thinking engendered by the fetters on the intellect imposed by the University and University Colleges Act has spread its tentacles through the fabric of our society,” said Anwar.
He held that the continuing slide in our educational standards placed the country at risk, not just economically, but also socially and morally. He described amendments to Section 15D of the University and University Colleges Act, whereby an undergraduate could have his place suspended by the Vice Chancellor of his university, as boding more ill for the cause of universities as arenas for intellectual questing.
Further, Anwar criticized changes to Section 16A of the same Act that placed academic staff of public universities on the same plane as civil servants under the provisions of the disciplinary regime contained in the Disciplinary Act governing the latter.
“Though academicians in public universities are paid by the government, it is a grave misconception of the essence of their role and function to equate them with civil servants. It is a violation of the principle of academic freedom and autonomy without which true academic excellence cannot be attained,” he commented.
In summation, Anwar said Malaysia was at a grave juncture in its trajectory as independent nation where the evident loss of its economic competitiveness in the global sweepstakes was directly attributable to the decline in its educational standards and the minds of its graduate population, spawned by the mediocrity in local universities.
“The rot must be stopped; the decline has to be arrested. No investment, no effort in qualitative improvement in the higher educational sector is without its returns in the short term, more so in the longer term,” he said.
“We are never mistaken when we fret for the future of learning among our young,” said Anwar.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Dinosaurs must unite to avoid extinction

The Three Hard Truths - The Case for Full Inclusive Democracy
By Suflan Shamsuddin for The Malaysian Insider

There are 3 hard truths about politics in Malaysia, whether you like it or not:

* Race and religion remains the primary criterion for political choice (meaning to say, that a significant number of votes are cast essentially in support of or in rejection of race/religious-based politics).

* Any party that lacks the support of a key community in Malaysia is 'non-inclusive' and is seen as hostile to such community's interest.

The more asymmetrical and non-inclusive are the choices of opposition political parties at an election, the greater the risk of social instability and the likelihood of government intervention to quell such volatility.

* The government's intervention to manage social instability is somewhat legitimised by the fact that behind it lies a coalition of political parties that is 'inclusive' in nature (the Barisan Nasional), in that it represents and has the support of all key Malaysian communities under a power-sharing model.

Unfortunately though, there is a clear conflict of interest between this duty to intervene to manage societal instability and the natural desire to remain in power and to implement its policies.
And it is this conflict that will play havoc with our nation building ambitions, no matter the best of intentions.

What is the impact of these hard truths? Well, given how asymmetrical and non-inclusive political choices are in Malaysia, with the presence of a disparate group of non-inclusive and contradictory bedfellows in Pakatan Rakyat (in particular DAP and PAS), social instability occasioning government intervention remains high. In the past, before the advent of PKR and its success of bringing both PAS and DAP into Pakatan Rakyat, the volatility was even worse, given that PAS and DAP are non-inclusive and operated independently on opposite sides of the political spectrum. One only needs to look back at the Mahathir era for examples of how such volatility was managed by executive intervention.

What shape does such intervention take? There are 'power prerogatives' which are exercised to quell dissent, such as the application of laws like the ISA, the control over the media, the judiciary, and intellectual freedom, the restraint of governmental transparency, and the containment of intra-party and inter-party strife and uprisings, just to name a few. There is also patronage, exercised in favour of those whose skills, network and influence might help protect the status quo.

The notion of Ketuanan Melayu and similar mantras are utilised to highlight the marginalisation of certain communities as a means to justify the incumbent's political relevance (to support the premise that it is better to select the devil you know, than the non-inclusive devil that you don't, who will do nothing to help such marginalised communities).

The net effect of this intervention is a deeply divided country where there is little trust in its democratic institutions, the government, and the rule of law.

And things have got from bad to worse, particularly since 1969, when such societal instability truly ruptured, and exposed our worst characteristics.

Are the March 8 election results a sign that we are moving in the right direction? Unfortunately not.

Because for so long as there remains doubt as to the credentials of Pakatan Rakyat as a truly inclusive, stable, power-sharing coalition that can represent the interests of all Malaysians, the executive and Barisan Nasional will continue to intervene to manage perceived social instability using the same tactics as they did before with the same dire consequences, regardless of who is at its helm.

All reforms introduced (including with regards to, for example, the Judicial Appointments Commission and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission) will be good in form, but not in substance, because the executive needs to retain its teeth to maintain societal equilibrium, and by doing so, ensure the status quo. Barisan Nasional will also continue to encourage the rupture of Pakatan Rakyat.

If indeed Pakatan Rakyat collapses, for whatever reason, then the country will revert to a situation in which there is even more social instability for which executive intervention becomes even more justified. And the merry-go-round will continue ad nauseam, until the country is one day torn apart and blood is spilt on the streets.

What is important to notice is that, if my analysis is correct, then all sides of the political divide are equally culpable for the state that we are in. The opposition parties are culpable for maintaining their non-inclusive configuration that creates the threat of societal volatility; and the government parties are culpable, for being unable to manage the conflict that is created when intervening to manage the social instability created by the presence of such asymmetric and non-inclusive political opposition parties.

The Malaysian electorate is also to blame; some, for continuing to demand the right to make selfish non-inclusive political choices that suits their narrow interests but is hostile to the interest of other communities; and others for flaunting their chauvinism under the banner of a 'seemingly' equitable and inclusive political joint venture of the Barisan Nasional.

We must realise our collective guilt as to why we are where we are, and set aside our differences to address this problem as a nation once and for all. We must reset our paradigm and fix the fundamentals.

So what is the real answer to this conundrum? It is actually very simple; although it requires political tenacity and courage from all sides. Firstly, PAS, DAP and PKR must merge into a single inclusive power-sharing party or coalition that can truly appeal to all Malaysians.

Secondly, parliament must by a change in the law and constitution, exclude any non-inclusive parties from ever participating in the Malaysian democratic process, other than by way of being in a stable inclusive coalition.

Thirdly, the Barisan Nasional government must then earnestly dismantle the mechanisms by which executive intervention would have otherwise been exercised, since asymmetrical and non-inclusive parties that create the societal instability for which such intervention might have been justified, would now have been removed permanently.

So the solution requires compromise on all sides. Once that happens, than the powers of a free market democracy, in which two equally inclusive alternative choices that is acceptable to all Malaysians, will play its role to ensure that transparency, good governance and the rule of law will be protected, no matter whether it is Pakatan Rakyat or Barisan Nasional that is in power.

Only then will we have the makings of a stable, united, democratic and free country.

To this end, I implore both the government and the opposition parties to sit down together and work this critical change for the sake of the country.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Big Brother says so

Staying at the Top

When someone either struggles to get to the top or was placed there by a powerful faction, the desire to hang on to this power (after tasting it sweetness) undoubtedly becomes paramount. This is the nature of the beast and humans are at the apex of the animal kingdom. We call it human nature as a distinction from the rest of the living creatures.

When this person is challenged, his (or her) automatic reactions are to fight back. When his position is being questioned, he will hit back hard at those whom he deems it “kurang ajar” to doubt his status and his caliber. Additionally, he will find comfort and reassurances when those that positioned him there come to his rescue. Neither does he cares if these people redeems a pound of flesh from him at a later stage or possess another agenda in their overall scheme of things. Neither will he care if his precarious position will not last or the actions sustaining him by these third parties will eventually destroy the nation.
When the populace baulks at such preferential treatment and opportunities being accorded a group of such “chosen” people, those that have been entrusted the role and responsibilities of governing a nation of diverse races and religions, simply alter their strategies. They made it a law and introduce other supporting legislations to back it up. No questioning permitted, as it is illegal. No alterations allowed, as it is illegal. Non-accountability as provided by these statutes. Non-requirement of judicial oversight.
No referendum required, period.Henceforth the initiation of a mentality that places one certain race above all. They call it “Supremacy”. And from this racial group comes the Chosen Ones.
Those that have been tested for their undying and unfailing faithfulness to the top of the hierarchy and those related to them. This forms the crux of the power brokers that rule havoc all over the Promised Land. No dissention tolerated but certainly no supporting words and deeds going un-rewarded. The sharing of the pie amongst the membership of this elitist gang with the crusts being awarded to those of other races who have proven their loyalty and the falling crumbs for the groveling populace.
By serving out minute portions of the uneaten pie at certain pre-calculated intervals, these “protected” (by law) people controls the masses and manipulate each and every situation to their personal advantage. They assume overall command of the media and the supposedly independent enforcement agencies. Even the hereditary rulers are not exempt from this. Those they are unable to coerce, they incarcerate them. Those that manage to escape from this dragnet, they exile them permanently or attempt to extradite them back to face the consequences of their wrath and to be made an example of.
So what is incarceration? Look at Nelson Mandela and his years behind bars before being triumphant at the end. Here, it is made to look as if it is the most dire of consequences but unfortunately that is not the last card that can be played. Treason against an elected government in times of conflict has a mandatory death sentence. It is the same here as it is in many countries around the world. One can safely assume that our nation is not at war and henceforth this does not apply. Wrong, our country is still under the declaration of emergency and it is akin to being in a war, and yes, the government here can legally execute a person for treason. Remember, it is the law and what better method to permanently and effectively shut someone up for good other than having this “thorn” effectively removed from the living?
Can’t do that? Well, this might serve to be educational to the readers but our country’s rulers have proclaimed a total of five emergencies since its independence with only one being retracted.
That means that there are still four “states of emergency” being effective here and among one of these is one that was proclaimed during the confrontation with Indonesia. Our country (as it is) is still at war with Indonesia and the rules of engagement regarding treason by a citizen is still summary execution by firing squad.Will the leaders of our country go to that extreme in order to protect their interests? Will the people on top subject their populace to such corporeal punishment to safeguard their positions? Will the judicial permit such harsh treatment of the denizens of this nation? Are these severe actions justified and are those affording it remain non accountable?
No, there is no such thing in a non-communist country where religion is an essential aspect of life. If we are not made responsible for our actions when we are still breathing, we will be ultimately answerable to our Maker after we stop breathing. It is as simple as that. But what of the living? Fortunately (or unfortunately), our countrymen are not as politically willed as our neighbors up north where the “power of people” is so very commanding that it is capable of shutting down international airports and disrupting the economic progress of a nation. Reality check: In this nation of ours, one can have the whole cake and get away with it, subjected to politics, race and religion of course. Those already having reached the top will do anything to stay there. Those fighting to reach the top had better be correctly politically aligned and those of us at the bottom will get stampeded. The worst insult is not dying but that nobody in the international community cares about it.
Hakim Joe

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Pedra Branca - How we lost The Rock

"They did their research, for thirty years. We did ours, with what they have."
Pedra Branca: Behind the scenes

SINGAPORE, Dec 20 — Pedra Branca was in the spotlight last year when the International Court of Justice in The Hague heard Singapore and Malaysia make their case for the island. A new book by Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar and Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, who played key roles in the case, sheds light on previously undisclosed facets of the case.

The first inkling that something was afoot came in 1977, when Singapore's Foreign Affairs Ministry (MFA) learnt that a Malaysian navy lieutenant commander had made inquiries about the status of Pedra Branca. Then in April the following year, the then Counsellor at the Singapore High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, Kishore Mahbubani, reported back on a conversation he had with a Malaysian Foreign Ministry official. The Malaysians claimed to have completed a study showing that Horsburgh Lighthouse belonged to them.

The official said they would be writing to Singapore to claim sovereignty over Pedra Branca, where the lighthouse had stood since 1851, although no such communication was received.

In May 1978, Jayakumar, then dean of the National University of Singapore's Law Faculty, was in Geneva assisting the ministry for the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). He received a telex from then MFA deputy secretary Tan Boon Seng asking him to head to London right away to search for colonial documents on Pedra Branca that could not be located in Singapore.

After consulting Koh, then Singapore's permanent representative to the United Nations, Jayakumar spent a few days looking up documents at the India Office in London and the Public Record Office in Kew. He returned with a microfilm of documents. But he could not unearth an 1844 letter that Straits Settlements Governor W.J. Butterworth wrote to the Johor Rulers, apparently about the island. He did, however, find copies of Johor's replies referring to Peak Rock, another island.

While at both offices, Jayakumar was asked if he was the person who had come two days earlier for similar documents. He concluded that the Malaysians must be searching for the same material.

Not long after, in December 1979, Malaysia published a map that, for the first time, included Pedra Branca as Malaysian territory. The move drew a formal protest from the Singapore Government.

Attempts to settle

Prime ministers on both sides raised the matter when they met for bilateral talks or at international events.

In a foreword to the book, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who was prime minister at the time, said that while Singapore was surprised by Malaysia's claim in 1979, “I saw no need for this claim to trouble our bilateral relationship”.

“I went out of my way to persuade Malaysian PM Hussein Onn, under whose watch this claim was made, to settle the issue in an open and straightforward manner,” Lee wrote. “I found Hussein fair-minded when we discussed the Pedra Branca issue during his visit to Singapore in May 1980. He said both sides should search for documents to prove ownership of Pedra Branca.”

After Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad took over in 1981 and visited Singapore in December that year, he and Lee agreed that both sides should exchange documents to establish the legitimacy of their respective claims.

Then in the late 1980s, in what was an unprecedented unilateral move, Lee instructed then Attorney-General Tan Boon Teik to go to Kuala Lumpur and show Singapore's documentary evidence to his Malaysian counterpart.

“I was prepared to take that step to get the Malaysians to know that we had a powerful legal case,” he wrote.

“But I also understood that it was difficult for any leader to give up sovereignty claims unilaterally.” This was why he proposed to Dr Mahathir in 1989 that if the matter was not settled after a document exchange, the dispute should be referred to the International Court of Justice.

The need to find a political solution to the dispute became more urgent as throughout the 1980s, Malaysian Marine Police boats began to make regular incursions into waters around Pedra Branca.

The Singapore navy was under strict instructions to avoid escalating matters, and both sides acted with restraint.

Dr Mahathir was aware of the need not to let the situation get out of control, the authors note in the book. In 1989, he made an unannounced boat trip to the vicinity of Pedra Branca to personally size up the situation.

Recounting his visit at a function in Kuala Lumpur last year, Dr Mahathir said his boat was immediately intercepted by two Singapore naval vessels. As he did not want to cause an international incident, he asked his own boat to leave.

In 1994, Malaysia agreed to refer the matter to the ICJ.

Jayakumar and Koh noted that after studying Singapore's documents, Malaysian officials indicated privately that Singapore had a strong case, and that their claim was weak.
Why did they persist in their claim? The authors say the issue had become politicised, and it would probably have been untenable for a Malaysian leader to be seen making a territorial concession.


Before the ICJ could decide the case, both sides had to sign a Special Agreement consenting to the court hearing the case and specifying the precise question on which the court was to decide.

This took three rounds of talks over four years, and eventually both sides agreed that the court would be asked to determine whether sovereignty over each of three close maritime features — Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh, Middle Rocks and South Ledge — belonged to Malaysia or to Singapore.

From early on, Singapore set up an inter-ministry committee on the case, bringing together officials from the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC), MFA, the Defence and Law ministries and other relevant agencies.

A significant document they found was a 1953 letter from Johor's acting state secretary expressly disclaiming title over Pedra Branca — which the then Communications Ministry located in its archives in 1977.

Key members of the Singapore team, including the international counsel who would argue the case at the ICJ, visited Pedra Branca for a first-hand feel.

The book also reveals that Jayakumar made his own boat trip to the island as early as 1988 with then Communications and Information Minister Yeo Ning Hong — and faced a storm so huge that the ropes securing their lifeboat snapped and the crockery on board was smashed.

Two men on a fishing boat they passed by earlier that day died in that storm.

Once Malaysia agreed to a third party settlement before the ICJ in 1994, Jayakumar asked Sivakant Tiwari — then head of the civil division at the AGC — to list international lawyers who could help argue Singapore's case.

The team also decided to put forward Koh as Singapore's judge ad hoc on the ICJ as he had wide international diplomatic experience. A state can appoint such a judge when it appears before the ICJ and does not have its national on the bench.

But one of Singapore's counsel, Prof Alain Pellet, had reservations about Koh being Singapore's judge ad hoc as this could attract objections because he was involved in preparing Singapore's case. Koh could have withdrawn from the team, but after weighing all the considerations, the Government decided to rule out Koh as judge ad hoc as it was not worth running the risk of having Malaysia object to his appointment.

Singapore then decided on Judge P.S. Rao from India, who had been closely involved during negotiations on Unclos. But another dilemma emerged when then Attorney-General Chan Sek Keong was appointed chief justice in 2006. While he had been closely involved in steering Singapore's preparations, some in the team were concerned that his inclusion in the team could raise eyebrows. This was because it was unusual for the chief justice of any country to plead before the ICJ.

“Would it blur the distinctions between the executive and the judiciary? Would foreign critics who attack the independence of our judiciary use this as an additional argument?” the authors write.

After discussions, the team felt it was important that Singapore had the best talent to win the case. And so it was in Singapore's interest to have Chan continue his work on the case. The matter was discussed with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Cabinet colleagues, who had no doubts that Chan would be an asset, and that there was nothing improper about him leading Singapore's team to The Hague.

It helped that Chan, Koh and Jayakumar had known one another for a long time and were law school contemporaries. Then Attorney-General Chao Hick Tin was also a close friend. Each of Singapore's three prime ministers also took a deep interest in the management of the dispute and preparations for the case. “They showed full confidence in the team and did not attempt to micro-manage,” the authors said of Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong.

Scouring the archives

As preparations for the case picked up pace, the team consulted local and foreign experts on international law and Malay history. Tiwari chaired a committee to coordinate the effort systematically with MFA, the Ministry of Defence, the Maritime and Port Authority and National Archives.

From 2003 to 2006, the Archives deployed five full-time staff and 10 part-timers to locate archival records relating to Pedra Branca, piracy, the Malay concept of sovereignty and the status of the Sultan of Johor, among others.

They spent over 20,000 research hours, identified more than 2,000 records, transcribed 650 historical manuscripts and acquired copies of records from Britain, India, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand.

During the oral hearing at The Hague last year, Archives staff were on standby here to assist the Singapore team.

Without their help, the AGC and international counsel would not have the materials with which to write their pleadings, the authors note.

Among the gems they uncovered was a letter written by the Dutch colonial authority in Indonesia acknowledging Pedra Branca as “British territory”, which Singapore used as evidence to back its case.

Koh, Jayakumar, Chan and Chao were to argue Singapore's case along with four international counsel — Queen's Counsel Ian Brownlie from England, Rodman Bundy from the United States, Frenchman Alain Pellet and Italian Loretta Malintoppi. The team and counsel met several times to prepare written pleadings, counter-arguments and replies. Jayakumar even approached Senior Counsel Davinder Singh for an independent and neutral view on the pleadings of both sides.

The team was encouraged by his response — that Singapore had the better argument.
At the hearings

Countries traditionally appear before the court in alphabetical order. But Malaysia's counsel Elihu Lauterpacht disagreed — presumably because he wanted Malaysia to have the last word. He suggested tossing a coin. But Singapore rejected this as being flippant, and both sides agreed to let the court decide. In September 2006, the registrar said the court drew lots: Singapore would go first.

While disappointed, Singapore took the development in its stride, going ahead on the basis that “in starting first, we would be able to make a strong and lasting impression on the judges while their minds were still fresh”.

To prepare for the oral hearing, Jayakumar, Koh, Chan and Chao had a filmed rehearsal of their speeches at the MFA in October last year. A second rehearsal was held two weeks later, and a third at the Supreme Court, where Chan and Jayakumar made their case before Appeal Judges V.K. Rajah and Andrew Phang.

The mood of the team before it departed for The Hague was “calm, confident and upbeat”.

“Although confident, we reminded ourselves not to be smug or underestimate the strength of the Malaysian legal team, which included several international legal luminaries. We knew they were going to give us a good fight.”

Both Jayakumar and Koh wrote that the Singapore and Malaysian media reported on the hearing in a balanced manner. They said that “when Malaysia was presenting its case, The Straits Times did such a good job reporting on Malaysia's arguments that we were told that some Singaporeans were betting 60:40 that Malaysia would win the case!”

“We did not know whether the punters had changed the odds after reading Singapore's presentations in the second round, but we were confident that we had answered all of Malaysia's points and left them with nothing substantial to say in their final speeches, except to spring a new argument on us,” they said.

Key factor for success

The authors note that while the legal arguments, well-written pleadings, persuasive oral arguments of team members and very good international counsel were all important to the successful outcome, the most important factor was that all agencies here worked closely together over three decades.

“The Pedra Branca story is an excellent illustration of the 'whole of government approach'.”

Although Singapore was awarded sovereignty over only Pedra Branca, MM Lee said in his foreword in the book that Singapore accepted the judgment without any qualification: “Whichever way the judgment went, it is better for bilateral relations that a conclusive judgment has been made. This allows us to put aside this issue and move on to other areas of cooperation.”

Summing up, he said that Singapore must remain committed to upholding the rule of law in the relations between states.

If negotiations cannot resolve disputes, it is better to go to a third party than to allow the dispute to fester and sour ties. This was his approach, which his successors have also subscribed to. — Straits Times Singapore

International Court of Justice case

The Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands, the seat of the International Court of Justice.

On 21 December 1979, the Director of National Mapping of Malaysia published a map entitled Territorial Waters and Continental Shelf Boundaries of Malaysia showing Pedra Branca to be within its territorial waters. Singapore rejected this "claim" in a diplomatic note of 14 February 1980 and asked for the map to be corrected. The dispute was not resolved by an exchange of correspondence and intergovernmental talks in 1993 and 1994. In the first round of talks in February 1993 the issue of sovereignty over Middle Rocks and South Ledge was also raised. Malaysia and Singapore therefore agreed to submit the dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), signing a Special Agreement for this purpose in February 2003 and notifying the Court of it in July 2003. The case was heard at the Peace Palace in The Hague between 6 and 23 November 2007.

The ICJ delivered its judgment on 23 May 2008. It held that although Pedra Branca had originally been under the sovereignty of Johor, the conduct of Singapore and its predecessors à titre de souverain (with the title of a sovereign) and the failure of Malaysia and its predecessors to respond to such conduct showed that by 1980, when the dispute between the parties arose, sovereignty over the island had passed to Singapore. The relevant conduct on the part of Singapore and its predecessors included investigating marine accidents in the vicinity of the island, planning land reclamation works, installing naval communications equipment, and requiring Malaysian officials wishing to visit the island to obtain permits. In contrast, Johor and its successors had taken no action with respect to the island from June 1850 for a century or more. In 1953 the Acting Secretary of the State of Johor had stated that Johor did not claim ownership of Pedra Branca. All visits made to the island had been with Singapore's express permission, and maps published by Malaysia in the 1960s and 1970s indicated that it recognized Singapore's sovereignty over Pedra Branca.

Like Pedra Branca, the Sultan of Johor held the original ancient title to Middle Rocks. As Singapore had not exercised any rights as a sovereign over Middle Rocks, the ICJ determined that Malaysia retained sovereignty over this maritime feature. As for South Ledge, the ICJ noted that it fell within the apparently overlapping territorial waters of mainland Malaysia, Pedra Branca and Middle Rocks. As the Court had not been mandated to draw the line of delimitation with respect to the territorial waters of Malaysia and Singapore in the area in question, it simply held that sovereignty over South Ledge belonged to the state which owned the territorial waters in which it is located.

Reactions to ICJ decision

Although both Malaysia and Singapore had agreed to respect and accept the ICJ's decision, Malaysian Foreign Minister Rais Yatim later said his country had renewed its search for the letters written by Governor Butterworth to the Sultan and Temenggung of Johor seeking permission to build Horsburgh Lighthouse on Pedra Branca. He noted that the rules of the ICJ allowed a case to be reviewed within ten years if new evidence was adduced. In response, Singapore's Law Minister K. Shanmugam said that the city-state would wait to see what new evidence the Malaysian government could come up with.

A week after the delivery of the ICJ's judgment, the Foreign Ministry of Malaysia asked the Malaysian media to cease using the Malay word Pulau ("Island") for Pedra Branca and to refer to it as "Batu Puteh" or "Pedra Branca". On 21 July 2008, in response to questions from Singapore Members of Parliament about Pedra Branca, the Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Balaji Sadasivan stated that the maritime territory around the island included a territorial sea of up to 12 nautical miles (22 km/14 mi) and an Exclusive Economic Zone. This was condemned by Malaysia's Foreign Minister Rais Yatim as "against the spirit of Asean and the legal structure" as the claim was "unacceptable and unreasonable and contradicts the principles of international law". In response, a Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said that Singapore first stated its claim to a territorial sea and Exclusive Economic Zone on 15 September 1980, and reiterated this claim on 23 May 2008 following the ICJ's judgment. Both statements had made clear that if the limits of Singapore's territorial sea or Exclusive Economic Zone overlapped with the claims of neighbouring countries, Singapore would negotiate with those countries to arrive at agreed delimitations in accordance with international law.

In August 2008, Rais said Malaysia took the view that Singapore was not entitled to claim an Exclusive Economic Zone around Pedra Branca as it considered that the maritime feature did not meet internationally recognised criteria for an island, that is, land inhabited by humans that had economic activity.
What were they trying to do?
IN THE HAGUE - AT A glance, the two pictures look alike. Both have Horsburgh Lighthouse and Pedra Branca in the foreground.But look again - at the background which shows the Johor mainland, with Point Romania and a hill named Mount Berbukit. In one picture the hill is highly visible; in the other, it is hardly visible.Therein lies the photographic illusion that Malaysia had created to exaggerate the closeness of Pedra Branca to Johor, Singapore said yesterday at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.
The first photograph, which Malaysia had shown the court last week, was taken by a camera using a telephoto lens.The second photograph was taken by Singapore, using a camera lens that approximates what the human eye sees. As a result, the Malaysian photograph exaggerated the height of Mount Berbukit by about seven times, Singapore's Attorney-General Chao Hick Tin said when he presented the two photos before the court.He described it as 'an attempt to convey a subliminal message of proximity between Pedra Branca and the coast of Johor'.
But it was not an accurate reflection of what visitors to Pedra Branca would see if they were looking towardsthe Johor mainland, he said. Mr Chao was speaking before the ICJ as the hearing over the Pedra Branca dispute enters the third week. Yesterday was the first day of Singapore's rebuttals against Malaysia's oral arguments made last week.
Both countries are appearing at the ICJ to resolve their dispute over the sovereignty of the island 40km east of Singapore and which stands at the eastern entrance of the Singapore Strait. Last week, Malaysia had also claimed the photo in question was taken from an online blog or weblog. The implication was the photo came from an independent source.
But yesterday, Mr Chao raised questions about the blog: .'This blog site is a most unusual one. It was created only last month. There is no information on the identity of the blogger and the photograph used by Malaysia was only put on the website on Nov 2 2007, four days before the start of these oral proceedings,' he said.
Mr Chao also sought to debunk Malaysia's claim that Pedra Branca was near Point Romania in Johor. The phrase 'near Point Romania' was used in an 1844 letter from the Temenggong of Johor to Governor Butterworth in Singapore.
In that letter, the Temenggong gave permission for the British to build a lighthouse on any island near Point Romania. Malaysia claimed the phrase included Pedra Branca, and that the letter showed Britain acknowledged Johor's sovereignty over the island.
Mr Chao said the letter did not refer to Pedra Branca but to Peak Rock which, in 1844, was where the British planned to build a lighthouse. He pointed out the distance between Pedra Branca and Point Romania was six times that between the latter and Peak Rock. In an 1846 letter, Governor Butterworth explained his original preference for Peak Rock as the site of a lighthouse because Pedra Branca was 'at so great a distance from the main land'.
Singapore's rebuttals yesterday were launched by Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar. He highlighted five 'baseless allegations and insinuations' that Malaysia had lobbed against Singapore and rebutted each in turn. Among them was Malaysia's charge that Singapore wished to 'subvert' long-established arrangements in the Singapore Strait.On the contrary, he said, it was Kuala Lumpur that tried to alter the status quo through the publication of a map in 1979 that altered its maritime boundaries with seven of its neighbours. That was also the map that sparked the current dispute.
Prof Jayakumar said he was disappointed that Malaysia had resorted to such allegations in its bid to win the case. 'We should seek to win by stating objective facts and submitting persuasive legal arguments, and not by resorting to unfounded political statements and making insinuations damaging to the integrity of the opposite party,' he said.

Friday, December 19, 2008

They want to stay behind

Can We Embrace Change With An Open Mind?
By LIM MUN FAH, Sin Chew Daily

2008 will become history in a matter of days, but many things will not follow its footsteps into history. The taut relationship among the different races and religions in this country has been a major issue besetting us over the past one year.

Prime minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who will leave the office next March, has admitted that during the economic downturn, the rift between the Malay majority and the Chinese and Indian communities has deepened, and this is the greatest threat the nation is currently facing.

On this, the prime minister has proposed to set up an institution through which different communities can express their dissatisfaction or frustration. The PM's proposal has to some extent reflected the prevailing situation in this country, but that proposal also leaves much to be deliberated.

Indeed, by allowing all races to voice up their dissatisfaction, the proposal will protrude our openness and liberty while consolidating mutual understanding among the different races. However, it could also be a double-sided blade that if abused, may invite even greater misunderstandings and conflicts.

51 years after independence, racial integration and national solidarity remain nothing more than a nice outfit. While appearing gaudy and harmonious, they are in reality extremely fragile.

In the March general elections, the public stirred up a massive tsunami with their ballots, bringing Barisan Nasional, which had been in firm control of this country for half a century, to its knees. The administrations of five states fell into the hands of Pakatan Rakyat, while BN also lost its two-thirds majority advantage in the Parliament.

All post-election analyses pointed to the notion that it was a major watershed in the country's political history, and the election outcome reflected the public's abhorrence and detestation towards racist politics, allowing the ideals of bipartisan politics to see the possibility of fulfillment for the first time ever.

Nevertheless, looking back at what have taken place during the past one year, we can't help but lament at the numerous deplorable, detestable and pitiable incidents, and grow increasingly worried and uneasy over the trend of heightening racial and religious segregation.

Over the past one year, the narrow global perspectives, conservative religious fundamentalism and escalating racist discourse of some people have not only shocked us, but also disheartened us.

The issues of language, Malay privileges, equity, "pendatang," Hindraf, controversies over Chinese road signs as well as the question of social contract... have all created immense waves in our society, triggering aggressive debates between the Malays and non-Malays.

As a matter of fact, many controversies have been blown out of proportion, thanks to the fanning by irresponsible politicians, so that they continue to get heated up, propagate and expand, and touch on the sensitive nerves of the different ethnic groups living in this country. This has resulted in tense relations while entrenching the contradiction and cleavage among the races.

If left uncontrolled, such a trend will push the nation to the brink of disintegration while annihilating this land that we have come to love so much. This is no longer an issue of the Malay dilemma, or a crisis of the Chinese or Indian communities. It has evolved into a dilemma or crisis that entails the entire nation.

The prime minister has said Muslims and non-Muslims have been thinking of things from their own perspectives, and there has not been a leadership that can effectively check these two powerful disintegrating forces, such that religious extremists could get so emboldened and fearless in their acts.

What the prime minister has said clearly depicts our existing inter-racial and inter-religious relations as well as rigorous challenges we are now facing. Transcending religious gaps and constructing racial harmony has been a slogan we have been chanting aloud, as well as a dream the government has been piling up for us over the past 51 years. The question is: what kind of approach should be the right way that will eventually lead us to national unity?

The issue of singularism or pluralism is yet another bone of contention of late. We cannot simply accuse the Malay community of conservatism and narrow-mindedness, as we have a fair share of Chinese and Indian Malaysians who also fall into the same category of people. But one thing we cannot deny: as many new generation Chinese and Indians are well versed in both BM and their mother tongues (some even have good commands of the English language), and are able to read and receive information expressed in different languages, they are therefore having a better understanding of the Malay society, than the Malays' understanding of the Chinese and Indian societies.

Renowned Malay commentator Karim Raslan has highlighted in his article The Modern Malay Dilemma that the country's existing education system does not augur well for the Malays to learn the cultures and languages of other races. The resistance towards external ideas and influences has gradually eroded the job opportunities of this community, gravely jeopardising its long-term prospects. If this kind of mentality is not instantly rectified, the attitude of arrogance and isolationism will only get intensified. Karim Raslan concluded that a "globalised" Malay is only a step away from a true "Malaysian." But are we going to embrace change with an open mind?

When faraway United States is producing its first ever black president, the above words of Karim Raslan should serve as an inspiring point to ponder for the prime minister, who has made "the cooling of tense racial and religious relationships in this country his final mission before bowing out of politics."
(Translated by DOMINIC LOH)