Author Archives: wcw

Only the brave teach

Show of solidarity: Fellow teachers and unionists gathering at the Seremban magistrate court last month in support of Cikgu Azizan (centre in white).

ONE tight slap – I still vividly remember that hard, stinging smack across my cheek as my teacher flew into a fit of rage after I did something naughty as a primary school pupil at St Xavier’s Institution in Penang.

I can’t recall which teacher hit me, but there must have been more than one. They pinched my stomach and even my nipples. Many of my classmates can attest to that, even 40 years on.

There was also the occasional caning, which I felt was an act of gross injustice and, perhaps, even one of perversion on the part of our disciplinary teacher. To me, back then, he was an unfair individual, and my opinion still stands. To this day, I have no idea why I was caned and not given the chance to defend myself.

But, bless his soul, because he has passed on. Most students from back then would have forgiven him by now, for he probably knew not what he was doing.

However, one thing is certain – as far as I know, none of us returned home and complained about this disciplinary action to our parents.

Comedian Harith Iskandar always reminds his audience that if one complained to their parents, they can expect to get another tight slap that “would burn your face and send an electrifying chilling effect to all parts of your body,” and consequently, leave a lifetime’s reminder.

So, the smartest thing to do, as most older Malaysians can testify, was to keep quiet. Of course, we also warned our classmates, some of whom were our neighbours, to swear to keep things under wraps and not tell their parents about the drama at school.

The caning and slaps, by disciplinary standards, were the “final” punishments. We surely remember the use of rulers, feather dusters, belts, black board dusters and in my case, even a shoe that flew in my direction.

And I wasn’t even in the naughty boys’ category. I didn’t get into fights or was caught loitering with the bad hats after school.

As one writer, Adrian Lee Yuen Beng, wrote in Aliran: “The teachers were our ad hoc parents who taught with joy and passion, and like their predecessors, never demanded any recognition. They customarily stood at the back of the class, silently rejoicing as the students celebrated their exam success.

“We received an education steeped in tradition as mission schoolteachers took teaching seriously; it was not a mere job, but a vocation, nay, a calling.

“Our teachers were proud of their lessons and believed in their form of education. They shaped us into intellectuals, sportspersons, politicians, educators, religionists, physicians and other important societal figures.”

Fast forward to today – and it’s the total reverse. The guilty party – the student – runs home to complain to his parents.

Now, the father and mother fly into a rage and decide to confront the teacher at school the following day. What unnecessary drama!

Adding insult to injury, the parents then seek the help of a politician, who has likely been deprived of the media’s glare for a while. Then, all three confront the teacher.

Lodging a police report is, of course, the next thing they do, and to embarrass the teacher and school further, they call for a press conference.

This is modern Malaysia. Perhaps, today’s family is smaller. There are only one or two children in a family, and they are, invariably, pampered.

During my time, there were at least four or five siblings and even so, we were still regarded a small family. Dad was always too busy earning a living, trying to put food on the table, so, he was thankful that the teacher played surrogate father, at least during school hours. The lesser-educated father would have been equally respectful of teachers. After all, it’s accepted that teachers mould the character, calibre and prospects of their students.

However, the modern-day father thinks he’s smarter and earns more than the teacher, his condescending and confrontational attitude not boding well for the situation.

He probably thinks the teacher has a dead-end job or is too busy distributing business cards to pupils for after-school tuition.

But, for an old-school type like me, I find it difficult to accept news of teachers being hauled to court for purportedly hurting their students.

Honestly, don’t the police and prosecutors have better things to do than to charge these teachers who were merely trying to discipline the children – responsibilities which may have been neglected by their caregivers?

In December, a teacher facing the charge of hurting his student, was given a discharge not amounting to acquittal by the magistrate’s court.

Magistrate Mohd Zaki Abdul Rahim delivered judgement after the prosecution told the court that they wished to withdraw the case.

Azizan Manap, also known as Cikgu Azizan, claimed trial to the charge of slapping an 11-year-old male student on the left cheek in April for indiscipline, the misdemeanour including sniffing glue, bullying and playing truant.

He was charged under Section 323 of the Penal Code for voluntarily causing hurt and was left facing a jail term of up to a year, a fine of RM,2000, or both, upon conviction.

Leading up to his discharge, several hundred people, including fellow teachers, gathered at the court in a show of solidarity for Cikgu Azizan.

By all means, go ahead and Google it: there are numerous reports of teachers threatened or roughed up in schools, and surprisingly, we seldom hear of offensive parents charged in court for criminal intimidation or causing bodily harm.

We have now been made to understand that the old ways don’t work anymore. The children need counselling and their hair needs to be stroked to motivate them. Have these methods worked better? That remains to be conclusively proven.

One thing’s for sure, though, the tight slap was unbeatable in my time in instilling discipline. Now, when I enter a lift, the millennials are too busy looking at their handphones, so don’t expect them to address you as “sir” or even greet you.

You’d be lucky if they called you “bro” and gave you an enthusiastic high-five, instead.

Would the proverbial one tight slap work today in curing disciplinary ills? Hardly likely.

Let the games begin

IBRAHIM Suffian, who has made a name for himself for his many surveys, walks a fine line. He gets shot at each time the findings of a survey don’t favour a particular party.

If his survey touches on the high cost of living here, he riles up Putrajaya. That’s what happened when a recent study revealed that despite the Government’s continued efforts in highlighting the country’s economic growth and addressing the cost of living, a large number of Malaysians are still left lamenting their economic woes.

His methodology, including sampling size, location and margin of error, was immediately called into question.

The chief of the Merdeka Center said a survey found that 15% of Malaysians are skipping meals to save money while some 11% are reported to have pawned their belongings to make ends meet.

The survey, carried out by the Merdeka Center from Nov 4 to 14 last year, involving 1,203 registered voters, was conducted to gauge voter perception on current developments and functioned as a follow-up to a similar survey done in January.

Ibrahim found himself in the crosshairs of pro-government bloggers and commentators in social media. He, like many Malaysian journalists, faces the same predicament in an emotional and highly divisive political scene ahead of the coming general election.

It will worsen once the campaign begins since our countrymen largely prefer to listen to and believe what they want.

This time, though, Opposition supporters are upset with Ibrahim, with some accusing him of going on the take by releasing his findings which favour Barisan Nasional.

Last week, Ibrahim gave a talk at CIMB on the general election, noting with confidence that Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak would continue to be Prime Minister.

He described Barisan’s projected victory as “a near certainty” and that the support for Najib is growing, although not yet on par with that enjoyed in the 2013 elections.

Ibrahim added: “Barisan is 13 seats from regaining a 2/3 majority, may be in a position to regain.”

During his presentation, Ibrahim – referring to one slide titled “Opposition Prospects Slim to Zero” – said PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang “appears keen to prevent a Pakatan win” and that the “redelineation would favour Barisan in some seats and Selangor”.

He predicts the elections “may see the loss of Kelantan and Selangor” but that “non-Malay Opposition seats will not be affected”.

What Ibrahim shared isn’t exactly earth-shattering news. Others, like the respected London-based Economist magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore, have offered the same projection. Likewise the Swiss-based multi-national financial services company, Credit Suisse.

Only the most hardcore Opposition voters believe that the Barisan government will collapse in the coming general election.

Much of this enthusiasm comes from wishful thinking, coupled with the belief that the iconic Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad will deliver the Malay votes.

Note that even anti-establishment supporters are not saying Parti Keadilan Rakyat or Parti Amanah Negara, but Dr Mahathir. That in itself suggests that the two Malay-based Opposition parties are not sufficient in making the required changes.

More importantly, without the predominantly Malay electorate, nothing is likely to change.

Winning a general election is more than just securing popular votes. Changes to the parliamentary seats this time will make it even tougher for the Opposition to unseat the Barisan, especially with some Malay seats.

The DAP will hold onto its urban seats and may even win more popular votes, but that won’t increase its numbers. The figure will remain, more or less, the same, but with the redelineation changes coming up, the Opposition party may even lose a few seats.

Truth be told, angry DAP voters can’t dispose of Najib despite their loud voices because the political system and gerrymandering effect will not amount to that. That is how the first-past-the-post voting system, based on the Westminster electorate method, works. This means, the candidate with the most votes wins.

This is in contrast to the European proportional representation system, where seats are allocated based on a specific threshold of votes and the number of votes obtained.

But Chinese and Indian votes are crucial in tightly-fought, predominantly Malay constituencies, especially if Barisan and PAS are contesting, but a three-way fight between Barisan, PAS and Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia or Amanah/PKR now looks on the cards.

And after the 2013 debacle, it is almost certain that the non-Malays will not be supporting PAS this time around.

In fact, they should be worried if the Malays vote for PAS instead of Barisan. In the end, as the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for.”

Chinese Opposition voters are fond of telling each other that “their Malay friends have given up on Barisan and will back the Opposition this time”.

There are elements of truth in this in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Perak, and possibly parts of Johor, but a “Malay tsunami” is not anywhere on the horizon.

Said analyst Wan Saiful Wan Jan, the chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs: “Umno is entrenched in the psyche of both rural and urban Malays. Dislodging it from that position is not going to be easy.

“In fact, I think among the Malays, the urbanites are more difficult for Pribumi to attract than the rural villagers. They may be more educated and analytical, but in reality, they have a lot more to lose if a change were to occur.

“The urban, middle- and upper-class Malays also tend to complain in private, but the pretend heroism does not follow outside of their comfort zones. Pribumi will have trouble getting them into its ranks before GE14.”

In short, many Malays have benefited, one way or another, from the system, and they are unlikely to want to rock the status quo.

But while Ibrahim believes that a 2/3 majority may be possible for Barisan, it will be most challenging for the coalition to hit that target.

In most democracies, and not just in Malaysia, it has become increasingly difficult to obtain that kind of huge mandate. Clear examples include the United Kingdom and Australia.

It doesn’t help the Opposition’s cause that a feud seems to have erupted between Dr Mahathir and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim before the first vote has even been cast.

It strengthens the perception that the game plan is merely to, first, finish Najib off, and then finish each other off after that.

A time to ponder

Dream holiday: Utsjoki was the ideal place for the writer to briefly escape the realities of life and catch the magnificent Northern Lights ― Dr Frieder Loesel

UTSJOKI is a tiny, remote county in the northernmost part of Finland and is one of the coldest places on Earth.

This year, I decided to celebrate Christmas with my wife in a place that is completely cut off from the crowd and noise.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that this place was so quiet I could hear my stomach growl during digestion.

It is usually in total darkness this time of year, when the temperature plummets to -25˚C.

Mornings at 9am reveal nothing but pitch darkness.

Norway is just 200m from my hotel and the border post is cons­tantly unmanned. I could walk across to the other side on the frozen river, or just take a stroll on the border bridge.

We were 80km from the Arctic Ocean, and when the winds blow, this place becomes a frozen land.

Skies are grey for two to three hours, and then the moon makes an appearance, eerily, in the afternoon.

With a population of roughly 1,200 in an area of 5,144.52sq km, there are probably more reindeer and elk here. In fact, there are some 15,000 reindeer who call this place home.

Utsjoki is the home of Finland’s native people, the Sami, who make up 46.6% of the population, with the rest Finnish.

The Sami people are indigenous folk of Northern Europe living in parts of northern Sweden, Norway and Finland, and the cone-shaped shelter they lived in, called Kota, are like the tepees of the native Indians in the United States.

Utsjoki was chosen because I wanted to find time and the right place to ponder and reflect on my life. I will turn 57 in May next year.

I have never considered this age to be old, often refusing to accept the reality that one is recognised as a senior citizen at 55, even though the retirement age has been raised to 60. Age is just a number to me.

You won’t see me joining a line dancing class or taking a trip on a cruise for two weeks with those of my age group, where the probability of us reminiscing about dead singers, would be very high.

I stubbornly pay the full price for my cinema tickets instead of producing my MyKad for the 50% discount entitled to senior citizens.

But one cannot escape certain realities in life, even though the mind and body are in good shape and kind to me, or so I’d like to think.

The coming year looks difficult for me.

My father turns 93 in June and he no longer recognises me. In fact, he does not even know my mother anymore.

It has been really tough for her as she will be 87 in 2018, and she is not exactly in the pink of health.

Being a caregiver – waking up at 2am daily because my dad would be up by then – has been extremely difficult on her.

If my mom sleeps through, my dad might fall and hurt himself. His frail body won’t withstand such missteps.

We tried putting him in a nursing home to ensure mom gets rest and recuperates, but the relocation lasted only two weeks. His condition deteriorated because the nurses were unaccustomed to his health needs, so he ended up in hospital instead.

My Langkawi-born dad does not indulge in idle chatter but enjoys speaking to anyone in Bahasa Malaysia, in his heavy northern accent. The nurses were glad they could keep him talkative, but it was a short-lived stay.

Believe it or not, my dad has not taken many regular holidays in all his working life. In fact, he didn’t stop working until a few years back.

So when I asked him, jokingly, a few weeks ago, if I could take him on a trip to Langkawi, he replied that it would not be possible because “I need to work.” When I asked him why he still wanted to work, he retorted:

“If we do not work, how are we going to put food on the table?”

It’s amusing, really. But such simple banter between me and my old man may be nothing more than a memory soon.

That is why I am so fearful of the days and months ahead.

So, Utsjoki was the ideal place for me to briefly escape the realities of life. I wanted to breathe freely and take in the fragrance of the forest, and simply feel and appreciate God’s creations and marvels.

Looking at my dad, who worked hard all his life, I don’t envy being in his position. So, I wrote up a bucket list that I wanted to tick down.

My work as a journalist has enabled me to travel to exotic and faraway places in all continents, but the time has come to take trips – slow-paced ones – with my wife. Importantly, holidays and not work trips.

After failing to experience the Northern Lights in Iceland last year, the stay at this border town of Norway-Finland was most rewarding.

God has been extremely kind. The aurora borealis appeared in the skies almost every night of our stay, and it is certainly the most spectacular of all natural wonders.

The bouncing, dancing lights are surely a spectacle of the universe, providing an eerie but true spiritual awe of His power. Forget the scientific explanations in Google that I still can’t grasp after reading them several times.

Looking up at the skies, away from noisy cities and the demands of corporate life, has given me plenty of time to think and reflect.

It is also good for one to feel really small and inconsequential. And let’s not forget the so-called priorities and urgencies in life, which in reality, aren’t the most important.

I apologise if this piece has been too self-indulgent, given my period of solitude.

But as we head towards another busy, if not exciting year ahead, let us always remind ourselves that life, health and time with family and friends are the most precious – not divisive, emotional politics, even if it’s an election year.

We must find space for ourselves to think deep and identify what matters most.

When you read this, I should be up in the air, homeward bound, bracing myself to wake up to the demands of the daily grind.

I wish everyone a Happy New Year and best wishes for the future. Stay positive for the challenges ahead, because we’re certainly going to need to be strong, whatever life throws at us.

The storm over Jerusalem

A picture taken on December 19, 2017 shows a partial view of the Jerusalem's Old City with the Dome of the Rock on the right. -AFP

THERE’S nothing more dangerous than a powerful but ignorant leader who spews a combination of toxic religious and political plans on the advice of a group of people who think they are acting on God’s instructions.

I am talking about US president Donald Trump, who has threatened the world by pressing leaders to align themselves with his decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The leaders were about to vote on a United Nations General Assembly resolution, calling for the superpower to drop this controversial move last week.

US representative Nikki Haley wrote to her fellow ambassadors, warning them that she and Trump would be “watching as the ballots are cast” and that the president “will be taking their votes personally.”

She went on to say that she had been directed by Trump to “report back on those countries who voted against us”, adding that “we will take note of each and every vote on this issue”.

Now, that’s not even a threat – it’s outright blackmail. Trump is in danger of letting the US lose its place as a world leader at the rate he is dragging the country down with his irrational thinking. In fact, to some, China has already overtaken the US in terms of world leadership.

But Trump’s strong words didn’t instil the kind of fear expected, with more than 100 countries overwhelmingly voting against his plan, despite his threats to cut aid to those who did precisely that. A total of 128 countries voted in support of the resolution, nine voted “no” while 35 others abstained, including Canada, the Philippines, Mexico, Bhutan, Croatia and Australia.

The nine countries which voted against the resolution include Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Togo and the US. These are mostly tiny island countries which depend heavily on the US to survive. Likewise, the two Central American nations.

But like a spoilt brat, Haley sulked following the UN voting and said, “the US will remember this day in which it was singled out for attack in this assembly” and that the US will place its embassy in Jerusalem, regardless. The US Embassy is currently in Tel Aviv.

Trump has painted himself into a corner. He now looks like a bully who is at odds with what the world thinks.

It doesn’t help that his bunch of evangelical Christian advisers from the rural Bible Belt seem convinced that Jerusalem is the right of the Jews.

But try talking to the Christians who live in the West Bank city of Palestine. Two weeks ago, Christians staged a protest outside the legendary Church of the Nativity, the site thought to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

The Christians also turned off tree lights in Bethlehem to protest the White House announcement.

The evangelical voters in the US who backed Trump unequivocally in last year’s presidential elections are obviously ignorant of the rights and needs of Christians in the homeland of their religion.

There are plenty of other ill-informed people elsewhere, too. Many, including some Malaysians, see the current controversy as a case of Palestinian Muslims being further oppressed. In truth though, it is much more complex than that.

The minority Christians also share the same anger as the Muslims because the issue isn’t about religion, but land and resources. Christians from Palestine suffer the same injustices as their Muslim brethren.

Palestinian Christians have seen their lands robbed from them and they get the same treatment as their Muslim brothers when they enter Israeli-occupied areas.

And Jews are not Christians, and not all Israelis or Jews are Zionists as many are secular Jews who don’t practise Judaism and detest the way their country is being run.

The danger here is that many Malaysians lump all Israelis under the category of the “hated orang Yahudi”, like how some evangelical Christians typecast all Israelis as God-fearing and righteous “God’s chosen people.” But welcome to the 21st century – the situation isn’t that straightforward.

Rev Mitzi Raheb, a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem reportedly said: “The Bible originated in Palestine, not in the Bible Belt, but people in the Bible Belt read the Bible in a way that really makes our lives difficult.”

Other prominent Christian leaders have questioned Trump’s decision, including Pope Francis; the Archbishop of Canterbury, who heads the Church of England and is the leader for Anglicans worldwide; and the heads and patriarchs of the various churches in Jerusalem. Egypt’s Coptic Church opines that the decision had disregarded the feelings of millions of Arabs.

As anger festers and grows, memories of my pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 2005 came flooding back.

Malaysians are not allowed to travel to Israel since we have no diplomatic ties with the country, but thanks to the flexibility and tolerance of the Malaysian government, restricted trips to Jerusalem are allowed for religious purposes.

My guides were a Muslim driver, Ahmad Badawi, and Arab Christian, Jeries Farra. The latter spoke excellent Bahasa Indonesia as he often had to chaperone Indonesian pilgrims, the largest number of visitors from South-East Asia to Jerusalem. Obviously, Farra also knows the Bible well, quoting verses in Bahasa Indonesia.

For the Malaysians, the trip was an eye-opener as it allowed us to draw a clearer distinction between Judaism-practising Jews and Christians.

Despite certain similarities, the Jews do not accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah. In fact, ultra-Orthodox Jews openly dismiss Christ.

My guides became emotional when Farra spoke about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories as he shared his personal experiences. When I was there, the wall separating West Bank and Israel was being built.

But what we saw broke our hearts. At checkpoints, I saw how many Palestinians, including those with babies, were sometimes made to wait for hours under the scorching sun while their documents were checked. Most of the time, they were humiliated. Hence, the simple act of entering their hometowns can become a six-hour ordeal, affecting their productivity and hampering their movement.

And in a strange way, most of the Biblical sites in the towns of Bethlehem, Jericho and Nazareth, all important names in the Bible, are in predominantly Muslim areas.

A Muslim family holds the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried.

The key is about 800 years old, and having Muslims in charge of the key has kept the peace between the different Christian denominations over the control of the church.

The Greek Orthodox, Armenian and the Roman Catholic denominations share custody of the site, where tensions often run high over governance of its various sectors.

This is how Christians and Muslims have co-existed for centuries in Jerusalem.

Our tour leader, Inbam Solomon from World Discovery Travel (M) Sdn Bhd, repeatedly appealed to us to purchase the wares of these Palestinians, stressing that they need our help. Many of us bought more than we needed to lend support to the Palestinian cause.

Many of them were Muslims selling Christian religious items. It is also not unusual to see Muslims entering churches.

The last thing these Palestinians want is disruption to their daily lives – each time political unrest surfaces in the West Bank, the pilgrims stay away, which affects their livelihood.

And with Malaysia, the Immigration Department sometimes even stops issuing permits.

For the Palestinians, their plight is not an Islamic or Muslim issue, as widely assumed by many Malaysians, but a case of injustice and violation of human rights, including being stripped of the land belonging to them.

They also find their homes raided almost nightly, on the pretext of the intrusions being security checks. It is pure intimidation and harassment, and such humiliation can only brew ire and consequently, lead to retaliation. Over 600,000 Israelis are now living on land that has been illegally taken away from the Palestinians.

Trump’s actions of playing with a highly sensitive and volatile issue is complicating the resolve for peace in that area. He has set back all efforts made by his predecessors. In fact, the peace process is just about dead now.

Wanting to move the US embassy to Jerusalem is as good as declaring that the entire city of Jerusalem an eternal part of Israel, including the eastern portion, where many Palestinians – both Muslims and Christians – live, and where the Palestinian Authority hopes to set up a capital once a Palestinian state is up and running.

Trump has played into the hands of radical Islamic groups which are constantly looking for reasons to strike in the name of religion.

To put it simply – this move is hardly worth it. He has alienated almost the entire UN, the world, both Muslims and Christians, and especially the Palestinians, who are most affected.

And to do this at a time when we think of Bethlehem the most – as we celebrate the birth of Christ tomorrow – hardly makes sense.

After all, Christmas isn’t Christmas ‘till it happens in your heart, as the song goes.

The royalty and Dr Mahathir

THE Council of the Royal Court in Selangor is more than a feudalistic, ceremonial body. Headed by His Royal Highness the Sultan of Selangor, it is, in fact, a relevant and powerful panel which advises him on virtually all issues.

The role and function of the 19-member body is to aid and advise Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah in exercising his role. The panel comprises his son (Selangor Raja Muda Tengku Amir Shah Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah), the royal members, the elders and the Mentri Besar.

One of its members is Jen Tan Sri Hashim Mohamed Ali – brother-in-law of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

The decision of the former premier to return two awards conferred by the Sultan has put Hashim in an embarrassing spot. More humiliatingly, his sister, Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali, also handed her awards back.

Dr Mahathir was the recipient of two medals of honour – one in 1978 from then Selangor Sultan and the other from the current Ruler in 2003. On Thursday, Hashim, along with the rest of the panel, joined Tuanku to participate in an Air Doa Selamat ceremony at Istana Bukit Kayangan in Shah Alam.

The ceremony, ahead of Tuanku’s birthday, had just ended at 4pm when a representative showed up at the palace to return the awards on behalf of Dr Mahathir.

In the words of an eyewitness, it was “neatly packed” with an accompanying letter from a long-time private secretary who had served him since his days as Prime Minister.

The surprising spectacle, to put it bluntly, went down badly with most members of the Royal Court. Hashim, in the eyes of some members, though blameless, was still apologetic.

Dr Mahathir’s decision to return the awards came shortly after the Ruler publicly expressed his unhappiness with Dr Mahathir over the latter’s comments about the Bugis being “pirates”.

In an interview with The Star, the Sultan had also remarked that Dr Mahathir suffered from “inferiority complex” and that the former PM would only “burn down the whole country” with his deep hatred.

They were strong words indeed. However, Dr Mahathir was expected to merely accept the remarks and criticism in good faith as advice from a highly respected Ruler, and not end up sulking like he did.

The Sultan of Selangor is among the most senior Rulers and he was clearly expressing the sentiments of his fellow Sultans.

That itself is a vital point – that all nine Rulers shared a stand against Dr Mahathir’s actions and this wasn’t the sentiment of merely one.

“This is the concern of all Malay Rulers. The nine of us,” said the Sultan of Selangor, referencing the misuse of race and religion ahead of the general election.

Dr Mahathir is not the first person to return honours awarded by Selangor, as erroneously reported by certain factions of the media.

In 2011, former Selangor Mentri Besar, Dr Mohamed Khir Toyo, “temporarily” returned the state award, which carries the title “Datuk Seri”, following his corruption charge. And when he was convicted in 2015, the title was altogether withdrawn by the Sultan.

Dr Mahathir’s returning of the awards has won him the admiration of his supporters, including those who have backed him from day one, along with those who once detested him but now lauding his switch to the Opposition bandwagon.

Then, there are those who feel that Dr Mahathir has, once again, crossed the line. The first time was when he sat next to DAP strongman Lim Kit Siang to begin the Opposition pact.

To the Malay voters in the rural heartland, it is something they find difficult to comprehend, especially after he spent his entire political career labelling the DAP racists and extremists.

The coming general election will be a test to see how much the majority of Malay voters are prepared to accept these dramatic and radical changes in the Opposition’s bid to bring down the Najib administration.

But his fellow Opposition leaders are certainly unsure. Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, who is now in DAP, sent out a tweet urging the Sultan “to be careful with his words. No one is immune when the country burns”.

Truth be told, it sounded like a warning to Tuanku. And certainly, to rebut a Sultan in such an uncouth manner is not ingrained in Malay values, culture or psyche.

Zaid found it surprising that no one, at least publicly, was ready to join or defend him, attested to by his tweet later that he felt alone in his crusade.

In fact, Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Azmin Ali called for an explanation and demanded Zaid to take responsibility for his statement, while DAP’s top brass distanced themselves from his indiscretion.

No one being prepared to rebuke royalty speaks volumes of how sensitive it is perceived for a politician to take on or feud with them.

Dr Mahathir’s brashness is well-known, but the difference this time around is that he is no longer in Umno. He is now in the Opposition.

He needs all the support he can get, and antagonising the Rulers may not be the best way to help the Opposition’s cause. The Sultan of Johor has no love lost for Dr Mahathir, and His Majesty has openly made his stand known. Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar also said he was hurt by the remarks of Dr Mahathir on the Bugis community.

And don’t forget that His Majesty carries plenty of respect and influence in Johor, a state eyed by the Opposition, especially Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, of which Dr Mahathir is chairman.

But that’s not the end of his problems either. The 92-year-old politician has offered himself to be an “interim Prime Minister” but no one has responded because PKR, DAP and Amanah probably have Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in mind, should Pakatan Harapan win.

There is no doubt that Dr Mahathir’s name continues to resonate with many sections of the Malay community, especially among the older ones. After all, for the longest time, he was the only PM they knew, with him at the helm for 22 years.

No one can erase what he has done to build Malaysia into a modern nation. He made Malaysians proud. But at the same time, his iron-fisted and authoritative rule continues to leave an unpleasant taste, a legacy of his time in charge.

It is also a fact that Dr Mahathir left an indelible impression on Malaysia history, so much so foreigners are often heard uttering his name in awe when we say we are Malaysians. No one can dispute his great work.

But the challenge for him now, in his twilight years, is to see if Malaysians are prepared to let him lead the country again.

Even for those who would vote for the opposition, they find the thought illogical. Dr Mahathir’s problem has always been his inability to let go.

He wanted Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to implement things his way, and he expected the same of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

Dr Mahathir has given the impression that only he has exacting standards, therefore, he has to be left to run the show, again.

None of his deputies when he was PM, like Tun Musa Hitam and Anwar, could work well with him.

Only the late Tun Ghafar Baba did but that’s probably because he did not see the mild-mannered Ghafar as a threat.

For practical reasons, the Opposition, which is unable to galvanise the battle in the absence of Anwar, see Dr Mahathir as a useful ally. But should Pakatan Harapan win, a fresh round of feuds will surely surface.

If there is an important lesson here for politicians, whether those in office, aspiring to be elected, or returning from retirement, it is this – leaders come and go, but Rulers remain. Dr Mahathir has learnt the consequence of putting them down previously.

The present Rulers were merely Raja Muda and Tengku Mahkota when Dr Mahathir, who was prime minister then, removed the legal immunity of the royalty in an amendment to the Federal Constitution in 1993. But now, they appear to be striking back.

Istana Bukit Kayangan, to where Dr Mahathir returned the medals, was once stripped of police sentries, guards and outriders, to humiliate Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah.

In a picture of failing fortunes with cut budgets, the roof of the palace, at one time, leaked, too, the carpet getting soiled in the process.

And like most things in life, things have come full circle, and in the past 20 years, the roles seem to have changed.

A living legend from Guangdong

From the land of Sun Yat Sen and Ip Man, a new giant has emerged; one who has changed the face of real estate in China and other countries. 

THERE are a few legendary figures in Guangdong, the coastal province of southeast China, which borders Hong Kong and Macau.

Older people will remember this province as Canton or Kwangtung, the ancestral home of Cantonese-speaking Malaysians of Chinese origin.

I am a third generation Malaysian Chinese whose grandfather came from a lychee and longan producing county known as Gaozhou or Kochow, in its Cantonese name.

It is just a four-hour drive from Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, and still remains a laid-back place of mainly farmers.

Humbling experience: The writer with Yang at his Country Garden Group headquarters in Guangdong.  

Guangdong is the home of the nationalist Sun Yat Sen, the father of China’s republican revolution, and if he had his way, Cantonese, rather than Mandarin, would have been the republic’s official language.

This is also where kung fu grandmasters, Wong Fei Hung and Ip Man, came from or more precisely, the town of Foshan.

Tales of their heroic acts have been made into movies, especially that of the latter, who was the teacher of the late martial arts actor Bruce Lee.

But over the past few days, I had the privilege of meeting a new Guangdong legend – billionaire Yang Guoqiang, or Yeung Kwok Keung, his Cantonese name.

He is the chairman and founder of the Country Garden Group, one of the largest real estate developers in China. According to one report, his family assets are worth 45.5 billion yuan (RM28bil). He is regarded as super-rich.

His 36-year-old daughter Yang Huiyan created world news when she became the mainland’s richest person at the age of 25 when her father transferred 70% of his holdings to her in 2007 just before taking his firm public in Hong Kong.

She is now the largest shareholder of Country Garden Holdings. She is on the list of the richest in China with a net worth totalling US$5.1bil (RM21bil), according to a survey by Singapore-based consultancy Wealth-X.

Country Garden is China’s No. 6 property developer in terms of sales and has a market capitalisation of US$61.87bil (RM252bil).

Like many rags to riches Chinese tycoons, Yang Guoqiang does not flaunt his wealth. He is simple with a down-to-earth personality.

A black Mercedes-Benz – an old model – which was parked at the entrance of the headquarters where 10,000 employees work, looks unpolished.

He showed up for this interview in a simple-cut blue suit. It looked oversized and for sure, it was not Zegna-designed. He was also not wearing any shoes, quite happy with his room slippers.

The 63-year-old businessman, who speaks Cantonese in thick Shunde or Soon Tuck accent, eagerly shared his plans to expand outside of China.

His company also entered the Hong Kong market for the first time in June, acquiring a redevelopment project in Kowloon City for HK$610mil. The company also has residential projects in Australia.

He spoke of the many sales galleries that have been set up in numerous cities such as Dubai, Jakarta and Taipei.

Well aware of the capital outflows that have affected potential Chinese buyers, it is clear that the company is also eyeing other buyers.

But at this point, his favourite destination is Johor Baru, where Forest City is taking shape.

“If Dubai can become a sprawling city from a desert, I do not see why Johor Baru cannot do the same, if not, better. JB has such a great economic potential,” he said at his office. To him, Johor Baru is in a strategic location.

With an experienced eye for a good location, Yang said he felt “really good” when he first saw the area surrounding the Forest City project.

At its sales gallery near the company headquarters, Country Garden shouts loudly about Forest City’s location being “just 2km away from Singapore”.

Forest City is a benchmark project for Country Garden, with a building area of 1,370ha, investment of RM170bil, and estimated to provide more than 220,000 job opportunities in Johor by 2035.

It will be the company’s largest international project. As it is adjacent to Singapore, it is easily accessible via the Second Link. First phase units include apartments ranging from 75 to 175sq m and bungalows from 250 to 550sq m. The development, just off the coast of Tanjung Kupang, is expected to house hundreds of thousands of residents upon completion.

A keen golfer, Yang said he was looking forward to the 18-hole golf course, designed by golf legend Jack Nicklaus and his son, Jack Nicklaus II, and scheduled to be completed next year. There will also be two other golf courses.

Obviously a fan of Nicklaus, he waved for his assistant to show me an autographed picture of the retired American golf professional.

He is also very proud of an award that he received from the Sultan of Johor; again, asking his assistant to show me the medal and decorations that he keeps in his office.

“We are both Datuk,” he said. But I corrected him, pointing out a big difference as his award is from Johor, and that His Majesty Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar rarely confers such titles.

While many Malaysians are both amazed and sceptical at the size of the Forest City project, mainland Chinese have long known the track record of this man. Every project in China is built on a gigantic proportion, so it is quite difficult for the average Malaysian to grasp the size of the Chinese integrated townships built by Country Garden unless they come to Guangzhou to see it for themselves.

Its Phoenix City development project, which started in 2002, took about 20 years to achieve its current state. Originally occupying a 667ha land area, the project gradually expanded to about 30,000 homes and 150,000 residents with nine schools and four commercial areas.

The company, which was set up in 1992 and listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 2007, has a track record of over 300 projects with about 70,000 employees on its payroll.

The Country Garden headquarters is located in a huge township of apartments and three-storey villas complete with schools and hospitals.

There is a hotel, run by the company, which displays framed words of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates on the lift landing of every floor.

One of the quotes reads:

“Life is not fair – get used to it. The world doesn’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself.”

It’s an advice that Yang obviously relates to. He is one of the richest and most powerful men of China but he started with nothing.

He runs one of the top 10 Chinese property development companies but he began merely as a brick layer. His fortune changed when he began buying up land and developing them. He has always made it compulsory to build schools in his townships – both as a selling point and also because he holds dearly to the importance of education.

“I remember when I was 16, I couldn’t even pay that seven yuan (about RM4) school fees of that year. I had to go back to farming. Thankfully my teacher went to my house to tell my father (a farmer) that I was not bad in my studies,” he said in one news report. Eventually, he received a scholarship to cover the fees with some allowances.

Today, he runs a high school that provides free education for children from poor families all across China. Since its inception in 2002, more than 2,000 have graduated from the school, with almost all entering universities. He also runs two vocational training institutes that provide classes for free.

The students are picked by a team from Country Garden which criss-crosses the country each year to select the smart ones from impoverished villages. They are not just given free education; boarding, allowances, fares to travel home each year and even money for parking are provided.

Despite his generous charitable contributions, he has a policy – no schools should be named after him. One middle school is, however, named after his late brother Guohua. That school costs him 4.1mil yuan (RM2.5mil) a year to run.

Perhaps his one indulgence is food. According to his assistants, he has hired one of the best Cantonese-cuisine chefs in Shunde district to cook for him.

Corporate social responsibility runs big in the company. His current interest is to revitalise poor villages, with the hope of making the people become self-sustaining through agro-tourism.

A team of staff, many holding huge graphs, was standing next to him as I entered his office. The projects had occupied his morning.

There are no signs of Yang slowing down. In fact, he literally ran to another meeting, along with his staff, after seeing this writer off at the lift.

Every trip to China has been an eye-opener and also a reminder that Malaysians have plenty to catch up with when it comes to China. It is a country that is focused, determined and ambitious. It will not allow unproductive issues to distract what it plans to do.

As one China thinker said, the United States isn’t worried that China has a communist system but it is worried that it has embraced capitalism and beaten them at their own game.

Fearing the death of a dialect

Like most Penangites who are proud of their heritage, the writer is troubled that Hokkien isn’t spoken as much as it used to be. 

IF there’s one clear feature that separates Penangites from the rest of the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, it is the distinct northern-accented Hokkien.

It doesn’t matter whether we are in Kuala Lumpur, Johor Baru, London or Timbuktu but we can pick up a Penangite whenever we hear this northern style dialect with its rich sprinkling of Malay words that denotes its nyonya-baba linguistic roots.

But each time I return to Penang, I can feel the linguistic changes that are taking place. Whether we realise it or not, Penang Hokkien is slowly disappearing.

Mandarin is quickly taking over this unique Penang Hokkien dialect and for sure, English is also being affected in daily conversations.

Penangites are fiercely proud of their Hokkien as it is entirely different from the one spoken in Singapore, Taiwan or Xiamen in China.

As older Penangites, perhaps we can be a little snooty, as we sometimes dismiss the Hokkien spoken elsewhere as somewhat crass and unrefined.

Only the Hokkien spoken by the Chinese community in Medan closely mirrors that of Penang Hokkien, presumably because of the proximity between Penang and the Indonesian city.

Whether rightly or wrongly, or plainly out of ignorance, Penangites feel the sing-song delivery sounds better.

Words such as balai (police station), balu (just now), bangku (stool), batu (stone), cilaka/celaka (damn it), campur (to mix), jamban (toilet), gatai/gatal (itchy) gili/geli (creepy), sabun (soap) and kesian (pity), are an integral part of the Penang Hokkien dialect.

If the person is not from Penang, then he or she has to be from Kedah, Perlis or Taiping.

Even Penangites of other racial groups can easily speak, or at least understand Hokkien. My fellow moderation advocate, Anas Zubedy, speaks excellent Hokkien. So do my colleagues executive editor Dorairaj Nadason and sports editor R. Manogaran.

But the daily use of the dialect is rapidly being replaced by Mandarin. Go to most coffeeshops today and the hawkers or helpers are likely to tell you the price of food in Mandarin.

I am feeling a little uncomfortable because I am a very parochial and sentimental Penangite. It doesn’t help that I do not speak Mandarin.

Although I am a Cantonese, Hokkien is the spoken language in my family home and the changes that are taking place do have an effect.

Even most of the Penang state government leaders are not from Penang. Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng was born in Johor and grew up in Melaka.

Senior state exco member Chow Kon Yeow is from Kuala Lumpur but he studied in Universiti Sains Malaysia. Deputy Chief Minister II Dr P. Ramasamy is Sitiawan-born but he spent most of his time in Selangor.

Exceptions are the children of the late Karpal Singh – state exco member Jagdeep Singh Deo and Bukit Gelugor MP Ramkarpal Singh Deo – and other state assemblymen.

The Penang Monthly bulletin, in its May issue, dramatically headlined the situation “Penang Hokkien on life support.”

In an interview with Penang Monthly, the Penang Hokkien Language Association secretary Ooi Kee How was quoted as saying that “people think there’s no benefit in learning or speaking Hokkien, which is not true. Yes, you can survive if you do not speak Hokkien; you can get by with speaking only one language your entire life.”

“But the thing is, something will diminish. Our creativity, our cultural identity, will decline. A lot of innovations will disappear, because different languages shape the way we think differently.”

And what has brought about the decline of the Penang Hokkien? It’s a combination of factors. For one, a whole generation of Penangites have been educated in Chinese schools, at least at the primary level.

This is unlike the older generation of Penangites like me, who are now in the 50s, who attended schools using English as a medium of instruction. In the absence of Mandarin, we spoke mainly Hokkien and English but people in their 30s and 40s find it more comfortable conversing in Mandarin – and for sure, not English.

Then there is this huge impact of Chinese TV shows, especially over Astro. They are entirely in Mandarin, with shows from mainland China and Taiwan, and in Hokkien, which is spoken in a manner more similar to those used in Melaka and Johor.

It is no surprise that the sales staff at malls also expect the Chinese community to speak in Mandarin, and understandably they will begin the conversation in Mandarin – because you are expected to know the language.

There is also the impact of China as the new economic powerhouse of Asia, if not, the world. Mandarin has taken over the dominant spot as a language with economic value, and certainly prestige. That is the reality but it may well be at the expense of a rich heritage.

Catherine Churchman, a lecturer in Asian Studies, in the School of Languages and Cultures in Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, who studied the Taiwanese and Penang Hokkien dialects, reportedly said: “Penangites have become increasingly used to hearing Taiwanese Hokkien, but the Taiwanese are not used to hearing Penang Hokkien.

“Simply replacing Malay loan words with the Taiwanese equivalents does not turn Penang Hokkien into Taiwanese Hokkien either. The grammatical structure of Penang Hokkien is different.”

Fearful of the danger of Penang Hokkien dying, Penang Monthly further quoted Churchman as saying “languages often die the same way, and one of the reasons is simply the existence of a generation gap.”

That melodious Penang Hokkien may not be heard, decades from now, if this frightening trend continues.

The multi-plot in politics

Good rapport: Najib and Hadi at a rally for the Rohingya in Kuala Lumpur last year.

As the clock ticks towards GE, it’s getting harder to read between the lines in Malaysian politics.

BY now, anyone following the country’s politics would have to admit that it is getting much harder to read. 

It is said that there are no permanent enemies in politics and that politics is the art of the possible. But in Malaysia, the politicians are doing what is seemingly the most impossible.

And it is not just the politicians but the voters as well but we will come to that later. We will start off with the politicians.

The most talked about event last week must be the visit of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak to jailed opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who is in hospital following a shoulder operation.

The visit was followed up by his deputy, Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi – who was at one time an ally of Anwar.

Both the Umno leaders took along their wives, sending out signals that this was beyond just a hospital visit. For sure, the presence of their spouses made it comfortable for Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.

Maybe we are reading too much into these visits. Is there a deal in the making? After all, Najib and Anwar have one common nemesis – Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. It was Dr Mahathir who got Anwar sacked from the Cabinet and subsequently jailed six years until 2004 on charges of sodomy and corruption.

It is well known that while Anwar and Dr Mahathir are said to be now on the same side – at least, on the surface – the reality is that both are using each other to topple Najib.

It’s a case of let’s first get rid of the Barisan Nasional government in the coming general election; then we figure out how to get rid of each other after that.

But beyond conspiracy theories and imagination running wild, let’s not forget that the PM had also visited PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang when he was hospitalised.

And I am pretty sure that Najib will visit Dr Mahathir if he is unwell. It won’t look good for Najib if he doesn’t.

The current relationship between Umno and PAS is surely stranger than fiction. Both parties have had deep rooted rivalry for decades.

Their grassroots members can’t tolerate each other and for years, they won’t even pray in the same mosque. Families have broken up over this political rivalry, especially in the east coast states, and name calling is almost a norm. PAS labelled Umno members kafir or infidels.

But now, Najib and Hadi appears to have reached some form of understanding, with what the latter has termed the “politics of maturity” or merely expediency for many.

Perhaps, both Umno and PAS now have a common enemy. Your enemy is also my enemy, we can assume. The common hatred is Parti Amanah, comprising former PAS leaders, who are now in Pakatan Harapan, with PKR and DAP.

Still, it won’t be wrong to expect Umno, through Barisan Nasional, squaring off with PAS in the elections, especially in Kelantan and Terengganu. Don’t expect Umno to give PAS a walkover.

Joining in the fray would be for sure, Amanah. So a three-way fight for the Malay votes is almost certain in many Malay majority seats in the rural seats.

Over at the urban areas, there are more sentiments that are difficult to comprehend. Ask the average pro-opposition voter in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Perak, a sizeable number will want to see Barisan’s defeat.

Their anger towards Barisan is overwhelming. We can expect many urban seats to go to DAP or PKR where these two parties are strong.

Like in the 2013 general election, they hope to see Barisan walloped. In that polls, PAS was the darling of the opposition front.

Many Chinese voters embraced PAS, finding excuses to suggest that hudud was acceptable. At DAP ceramah, many spoke of how non-Muslims would be spared and only corrupt Barisan leaders would have their arms amputated.

It’s a different story now. PAS is the loathed Talibans. Many seemed to have forgotten that they were heaping praises on Islamic rule just five yeas ago. Go to YouTube and watch such talk at these ceramah.

Many would cringe seeing themselves singing the late Teresa Teng’s hit song, The Moon Represents My Heart, at political gatherings in their declaration of love for PAS. (The symbol of PAS is a full moon.) DAP leaders would probably now say it’s not them, even if they are seen on old videos saying a vote for PAS is a vote for DAP.

And just one or two years ago, and perhaps, even now, many Chinese voters still cannot accept the ultra-Malay stand of Perkasa. Mention Perkasa, the political pressure goes up in the Chinese community but in another case that is stranger than fiction, many Chinese voters are cheering for Perkasa leaders who are now in the leadership of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.

Pribumi’s Penang chief Marzuki Yahya was the former Perkasa chairman for Penang. The Selangor Parti Pribumi chief Abu Bakar Yahaya was the former Perkasa chief in the state.

Mejar Annuar Abdul Hamid, who is the Kedah deputy chief, was also a former Perkasa leader. The biggest name from Perkasa to join Parti Pribumi was Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman who is now a party vice-president.

And of course, Dr Mahathir was the patron of Perkasa. Pakatan’s condemnation of Perkasa’s right-wing Malay politics is now a thing of the past and many Chinese voters are hoping that Dr Mahathir will deliver the Malay votes in the rural areas.

Not many care about the reality that Pribumi is struggling to put an organisation in place; its branches and divisions are still not formed. It has yet to convene an annual general meeting as the clock towards the GE ticks away.

Amanah has been a let down. There is talk that it can only get about 10,000 members and that it is struggling to find its place in Pakatan Harapan.

In short, in the Malay heartland where the predominant Malay voters call the shots, it is a choice between Barisan – read Umno – and PAS. There are 54 parliamentary and 96 state seats with predominantly Felda settlers; these are all rural, Malay majority seats.

If the Malays vote for the opposition – it may well be PAS. Not Pribumi or Amanah. PAS is the last thing that the urban Chinese voters would want after their flirtation with the Islamist party ended up as a nightmare.

The reality is that even if every Chinese cast their vote for the opposition, it won’t make much impact.

It will be the over 70% of Malay votes that will determine the outcome of the general election.

At stake is 222 parliamentary seats, with only about 22 Chinese majority seats. There is no Indian majority seat.

With the exception of Penang and the racially-mixed Selangor where PKR holds sway, there is a saying that we should be careful what we wish for.

Go ahead, make that choice

The right choice: Most Malaysians are fully aware of the lines of decency and law when it comes to appropriate attire.

Every individual has the right to choose how he or she wants to dress. And we don’t need the authorities, whether secular or religious in nature, to interfere in this very personal aspect of our life. 

We have to be consistent – if we think no one should be forced to wear a piece of clothing or head gear, then, by the same principle, we should not discriminate against anyone choosing to wear the hijab.

What people feel like wearing (or not) is really no one else’s business, providing it stays within the lines of decency and law, which we are fully accustomed to.

Malaysian women don’t need a security guard to decide if their skirt is of an “appropriate” length, before being allowed to enter a government building simply because he sees himself a moral guardian. But in most cases, these security personnel are only acting on the instructions of their employers.

More often than not, and judging from the pictures posted on social media by these subjected women, it’s obvious how heavy-handed these guards can be.

My long-time secretary, Imma, decided to wear the hijab a few years back. She wasn’t sure how I would react to it since she is familiar with my liberal outlook in life and political stand.

She is aware I dislike conventional and rigid rules, be it corporate or political. She also knows how hypocritical politicians masquerading as religious experts, or vice-versa, are not my favourite people.

And although she has been my secretary for two decades, she was still reluctant to seek my opinion on the matter, and instead, chose to seek my wife’s thoughts.

My wife, who knows me completely, assured her that I would definitely support her decision.

Basically, what my colleagues choose to wear – whether it is an unconventional dress or hijab – really isn’t my concern as the capability of an employee is measured by his or her productivity and efficiency.

If she chooses to wear the hijab, I take it as her personal right and decision. If a person says his apparel reflects his religious obligation, then we respect it, regardless of our faith or race.

My favourite aunt, a Muslim convert, and her women family members all wear the hijab. And so do many of my friends.

None of them have become terrorists, if that is the concern of international managements.

By the same token, many of my Muslim women friends and colleagues also choose not to wear it.

That does not mean they are less religious. On the contrary, they showcase the important values of God-loving people in their daily lives. In essence, no one should be forced or coerced into doing something they don’t want to do.

If someone decides to colour their hair orange or go blonde, so what? It’s common knowledge that many people keep their hair black when they are greying.

Is black a politically and “religiously correct” colour compared to others? Do we pass judgment according to the colour of one’s hair?

Recently, newsfeeds picked up on how some major hotels are forbidding their Muslim staff, who take care of the front-line customer service, from wearing headscarves.

It was reported that the Malaysian Labour Centre of the Union Network International (Uni-MLC) recently claimed that hotel employees complained about Muslim staff in the hospitality and tourism industries being told to remove their headscarves.

The centre revealed this was also happening to hospitality and tourism students applying for internships.

The Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) had reportedly defended its members’ policy of prohibiting their frontline staff from wearing the tudung, claiming it an international practice which should not be considered discriminatory.

In many conservative Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, men are receptionists and perhaps, this is how the hotel managements circumvent the rules.

In Kuwait, for example, many of the hotel women receptionists are foreigners, mainly Filipinos, and they do not wear the hijab. It is the same in Bahrain and Qatar, where the hijab is not a requirement.

But in Iran, many women work as receptionists and other front-line positions, and they are required to wear the hijab. Admittedly, the managements are local and there are no franchised hotel chains such as the Hilton or Le Meridien.

Still, what one decides to wear is a personal choice. If we allow these hotels to impose their rules here, then this fight for freedom of choice and expression will fall a step back.

As the Centre For A Better Tomorrow (Cenbet) president, Gan Ping Sieu rightly said, “therefore, these multinational companies imposing dress codes that are insensitive to local settings are no different to civil servants who try to impose their personal values on the public’s dress code.”

“Embracing diversity can go a long way in building the much-needed bridges in a society riven by radicalised elements.”

He added that Cenbet supports the call to rebuke the ban on headscarves because the hospitality industry should reflect the country’s diversity.

A compromise can be made, though: international hotel chains can customise their uniforms to work culturally and exhibit its corporate colours and lines, not unlike the uniforms of the cabin crew of some Arab airlines.

Ultimately, every individual has the right to dress as they please. Any kind of state-enforced rule, such as the ban on the hijab in France, is intolerable.

We don’t need the authorities, be it secular or religious, to interfere in every aspect of our lives.

In the words of the famous imam of the New York Police Department, Khalid Latif: “How we see people is not indicative of who they are, but how you see people will tell you a lot about yourself, and if you perceive somebody solely through the way that they dress, the colour of their skin, whether they have a certain accent or not – then we should ask ourselves why do we judge people this way.”

Wanted: Leaders who listen

Turning a blind eye: The grumblings over exposed hills are growing louder but little is being done to rectify the situation.

MY family home in Kampung Melayu, Air Itam in Penang, is more than 56 years old. That’s about my age, and it has never been hit by floods. Not once!

But last week, my parents – dad is 92 years old and mum, 86, – had their sleep rudely interrupted sometime after 1am by water gushing into their home.

They have been sleeping on the ground floor for years now because they are too old to climb the stairs to their bedroom.

The water that flowed into their room almost touched the top of their bed but fortunately, one of my nephews and his wife from Kuala Lumpur were staying over that night.

It was so fortunate that they were there to calm my anxious parents down and assure them all would be fine. They managed to comfort my stunned folks, who had never experienced such an unpleasant situation before. My father had to be carried to the room upstairs as the house remained flooded throughout the early morning.

Our home was filled with layers of mud the next day and the cars parked outside were all damaged. They sadly look like write-offs.

My father’s pride and joy, his first-generation Proton Saga car – which he bought in 1985 – is now unusable.

A week on, my brothers and nieces are still cleaning up the mess from the massive flood. They haven’t had the time or mood to even assess the financial losses.

And bound by a common sentiment as Penangites, they are tired of the blame game, a trade the state’s politicians have plied to near-perfection.

How many times can the finger be pointed at the previous government, with the incumbent almost 10 years in power? And how many more times can we blame it on torrential rain, which came from Vietnam – or wherever? Worst of all is, when discussions are mooted on flood issues, the voices of the people are swiftly silenced.

It appears that even to talk about hillslope development, one would have to contest in the elections, or be perceived to be challenging the state government, or more extremely, be some kind of lackey in cahoots with the Federal Government.

Blaming everyone else except oneself is simply a way of covering up one’s weaknesses. But the discerning public, in a maturing democracy with heightened transparency and a huge middle class like Penang, will not tolerate such short-term manoeuvring for long.

Suddenly, civil society – a buzzword among politicians – has vanished, with NGOs now regarded as irritants and an affront to the state establishment. Politics is apparently the monopoly of politicians now.

As the National Human Rights Society aptly puts it, “With the benefit of hindsight, we are sure that the Penang government now realises that they should not so readily malign civil society, howsoever obliquely – for the legitimate and well-founded articulation of matters of great concern to civil society.

“This is because it undermines the fundamental values of a functioning democracy and the fundamental human rights of the populace at large.”

Perhaps, the state political elites, many of whom aren’t pure blood Penangites, don’t realise the state is the home of a vibrant civil society, with many active NGOs and activists who are respected influencers of society.

Having walked through the corridors of power and appreciated power’s pleasures, perks and the adulation it brings, maybe it is becoming much harder for people to take criticism. This is, in fact, a reflection of the arrogance of power.

Many have developed thin skin now, with little tolerance for the slightest form of criticism. If anyone even dares raise their voice, an army of cybertroopers, hiding behind anonymity, are unleashed to attack them.

Freedom of speech, it seems, is only the domain of the opposition, with some media (regarded as unfriendly) unceremoniously ridiculed and questioned for their attendance at press conferences.

There are politicians from the Federal Government, too, who are shamelessly cashing in on the flood situation in Penang.

Their relief work must be splashed across news pages, and they have to be seen wading through the flood waters for dramatic purpose. Phua Chu Kang’s iconic yellow boots could likely be the hottest item in the state, as politicians bask in the media’s glare.

Ridiculous remarks have also been passed, one even blaming the state government, saying it has earned the wrath of God.

The rain and floods will go away, eventually. Penangites are stakeholders in the state, and they don’t only make up politicians. The state doesn’t belong to the state government or the opposition.

Caught up in the thick of the action, we seem to have forgotten that the hills are crumbling even without rain. As a stern reminder, just last month, a landslide buried some people in Tanjung Bungah. Investigations on that tragedy are still ongoing.

Basically, the trees – which act as sponge on the hills – are gone. We don’t need to be soil experts to know that.

The grumblings are growing louder because the hills have been progressively going bald in recent years. But the voice of discontent has fallen on deaf ears.

Penangites are alarmed at what they are seeing, and they don’t like it one bit, as much as they understand that land is scarce on the island and property developers need to source some to build homes on.

While it’s easy to hang the Penang state government out to dry for its follies, it’s difficult to ignore how the floods in the east coast states have become annual affairs, too. So, what effective flood mitigation plans have been put in place there?

Kelantan has suffered senselessly, and after more than a year of having been subjected to Mother Nature’s havoc, many victims have yet to recover from their losses. Flooding is obviously nothing exclusive and doesn’t discriminate. Every state has, unfortunately, experienced it in some shape or form.

So, irrespective of location, when life returns to normal, you can expect the politicians to resume their old denying ways.

If there’s a thread that binds our politicians – regardless of which side of the political divide they come from – it is their inability to apologise for their mistakes, despite waxing lyrical about accountability.

Don’t expect them to say sorry, because an apology would be admission of guilt, or worse, a sign of weakness in their realm of inflated egos.

And to put things into perspective, perhaps we could learn a lesson from a quote by prominent American pastor Andy Stanley – “Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.”