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Monday August 31, 2009

A history that belongs to all


By TUNKU HALIM

Ours is a success story that deserves to be told and told well to our young in the classroom to foster better understanding and unity. Through textbooks, sports and interaction, educators should eliminate ethnic stereotypes. Through the imaginative teaching of the history of Islamic, Chinese and Indian civilisation, educators could foster greater understanding among different ethnic groups. Raja Dr Nazrin Shah, the Raja Muda of Perak THE first time I spent many hours in close proximity with so many children of other races was when I entered Standard One. Here was a truly multiracial experience. There is within many of our schools the living and breathing essence of multiracial Malaysia. Children of all races study and play there together. To them friendship is the most important thing. Race and religion are furthest from their young minds.

History helps us understand who we are and where we have come from. This, in turn, allows us to appreciate other races whose ancestors too may have come from afar. And all of us, their descendants, are lucky enough to meet and mingle on this soil which we call home. Tunku Halim

Such are the benefits of diversity. Yet, we do not need to spend much time in the history classroom or lecture hall to know that race, religion and culture sometimes dominate and can often be misused. Whether its called Tawarikh, Sejarah or History 101, we have learnt that nations and empires have fallen apart due to this. There are sadly too many examples across the length and breath of history that show how race and religion can not only divide a country but bring its normally peaceful people into armed conflict. So how did so many races end up here? In our Sejarah classroom, we learn that the Chinese first arrived in Malacca in the 15th century. Their descendants are known as the Babas. In the 1850s, many Chinese moved to the British Straits Settlements of Singapore, Malacca and Penang, their descendants are known as Straits Chinese. It was these businessmen that brought in many Chinese from Southern China, known as sinkeh or newcomers to work in the tin mines on the Malay Peninsula. Old temple sites tell us that Indians had visited and traded with our land of gold from at least the 3rd century. In the late 19th century, the British brought the many peoples from the subcontinent in to work in the rubber, sugar and coffee plantations. As for the Malays, many arrived here from across the Malay archipelago. The Bugis, Minangkabaus, Javanese, Acehnese are but some of the peoples who have made Malaysia their home. It is, however, the Orang Asli from the Malay Peninsula, the Ibans and Kadazans and other indigenous peoples from Borneo, and the Northern Malays who can justifiably claim that they have always dwelled here. But, if we are not regressing too far into prehistory, it is likely that even their ancestors had to have settled here from somewhere else. History helps us understand who we are and where we have come from. This, in turn, allows us to appreciate other races whose ancestors too may have come from afar. And all of us, their descendants, are lucky enough to meet and mingle on this soil which we call home. Our forebears may have journeyed here centuries ago but it is the inward journey, one of mutual respect and trust, we should continue today.

At school though, I found history boring and too focused on memorising dates. It was only whilst doing research for my late fathers biography, that I discovered how wonderful our history really is. I was inspired by Charles Dickenss A Childs History of England and decided to write a book for all Malaysias children, including, of course, my own son and daughter. A Childrens History of Malaysia turned history into a narrative. It became a bestseller and has even been translated into Japanese and published by the Japanese School in Johor. This year, I published History of Malaysia A Childrens Encyclopedia. I hope that with its full colour illustrations and attractive layout it will draw even more children, and perhaps adults too, to the subject. It is also designed as a reference book as all historical information is divided into different sections and time periods. It also includes, for the first time, a colourful and detailed time chart of Malaysias history. For me, the encyclopedia is a celebration of our fascinating past. I am sometimes asked which side of history I have taken. My reply is that history should be taught in an all-inclusive, unbiased manner, without political undertones. I know that some have objected to terms like ketuanan Melayu being used in text books and allege that the contributions of other races have been downplayed. When it comes to teaching world history, others feel that there has been an over emphasis on Islamic civilisation. I am pleased to say that the contents of my encyclopedia are uncontroversial and politically neutral. Our unique history has created a country in which people of many different races, religions and cultures now live peacefully. Prior to independence, some feared that as soon as British rule was over, the locals would turn against each other As our first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, wrote in his regular column in this newspaper 34 years ago: Each race was wary of the others, each wished to preserve their own identity, safeguard its own interests the crux of the problem of unity in diversity was simple to state but not easy to

solve; it meant patience, tolerance, confidence and quiet persuasion, and such necessary qualities must be given and shared by all. Today, we can proudly say, after more than half a century as an independent nation, Malaysia is often held up as an example of how harmony can be achieved in a multiracial society. Recently, an upcoming Malay sculptor held an exhibition of his works. The art gallery was owned by a Chinese Buddhist lady and the exhibition was officially opened by a Hindu Indian doctor, an exMalaysian High Commissioner to Singapore. The sculptures were bought by Malays, Chinese and Indians who were either Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or Christians. Where else in the world could you find this? Only Malaysia. This is but one example of such multi-ethnic harmony from the many that occurs daily across the nation. Though Malaysia is undeniably a success story, we cannot be complacent. We should revisit that classroom with the aim of promoting even greater unity, for what is learnt in school, from primary to secondary, will be taken into adult life. Classrooms all over the country could further cultivate not only mutual trust of other races but stronger ethics too. For in an increasingly complex 21st century, we do require moral principles to guide us. An ethicallyminded society will be a harmonious one. A person with better moral values will naturally have a greater understanding of all Malaysians of whatever race or creed. Everyone is viewed as a fellow human being. A person of such integrity will lead a better, more meaningful life and will necessarily, together with other virtuous citizens, create an even better nation. Such moral integrity can forge a unity that will be the envy of the world.

Monday August 31, 2009

We dont need fences to be good neighbours


Monday Starters - By Soo Ewe Jin

Spirit of muhibbah depends on how we interact TODAY is Aug 31 and so it is good to reflect on our country. My family has been in the country for six generations and although I have dreams of writing a Roots-like epic novel like Alex Haley, I have never even stepped foot on the so-called motherland. I am sometimes not seen as ethnically Chinese and that can be hilarious at times, especially during the fasting month when I am asked to prove my identity before I can be served. In my very muhibbah neighbourhood, we have all sorts of people with different political beliefs (many of them card-carrying members), but even when we disagree, we do so without being disagreeable. I find it enriching that whenever we gather, we can put aside our differences and embrace one another as neighbours. In the Merdeka season, most of us happily put up the national flag because we believe in the country, never mind that we are actually ruled by two different governments at the state and federal levels. One of the most touching moments for me personally this year was when Makcik Mahani and her son Jo, together with Makcik Jamilah, took a flight to Penang to see my 85-year-old mother. My mother, since she came to stay with us more than 20 years ago, had become like the resident Nenek in the neighbourhood. With her Baba-Nyonya roots, and the fact that she always wears a sarong like our Malay neighbours, she blended in well. Although her command of the Malay language was functional, she got on well with everyone. My neighbours missed her as she had been back in Penang for some time, though they keep in touch by phone.

So when they took that day trip to see my mother, I thought at first they were visiting Penang and would drop by to see her along the way. But they had planned the trip just to see her. Their morning flight was delayed to the afternoon. By the time they reached Penang, they only had slightly less than an hour with my mother, before they headed back to the airport to take the flight back. My mother, of course, was overjoyed to see them and I am told that many tears were shed in that short but meaningful meeting. I shed tears too knowing that these good neighbours would go through so much trouble to make an old woman happy. I believe our attitude towards our fellow citizens depends very much on how we interact with our neighbours first. But in our modern urban lifestyle, we may have very little in common with our neighbours, other than our houses being near to one another. My boys went to national schools, primary and secondary, that were within walking distance. Their friends and their teachers lived near enough for us to bump into outside of school hours. I am glad that over the years, they have built up a wide circle of friends that transcends race and religion. On the way to work last week, my son asked me why the term pendatang is so often used by politicians when the fellow citizens we interact with on a day-to-day basis never made us feel unwelcome. Today, when I think of how Malaysian we have tried to live our lives by, I am transported back to my growing-up years in Jelutong, Penang. My late father was known as Bapa Soo to one and all. He was a lowly-paid clerk but highly respected by neighbours and colleagues for being a helpful person all around. At work, my dad was a unionist and our home became a gathering of all sorts of people during the union meetings. While the Chinese would eat the best food in the house, the Indians and the Malays also had special meals prepared. The Jelutong nasi kandar was a popular option. On many special nights, there would be ronggeng and modern dances in my house. Today, that house is no more, having finally been flattened for development. We did not get much compensation, but the memories cannot be destroyed. And the most wonderful memories, apart from family togetherness, as I remember Aug 31, are that of a very muhibbah atmosphere where we are together as one.

In my own little way, I am reliving that in the hustle and bustle of Petaling Jaya. Today, this is my 1Malaysia. Deputy executive editor Soo Ewe Jin is thankful that when he was not well, his neighbours took turns to cook dinner for his family, serving them the full potpourri of Malaysian cuisine.

Sunday September 6, 2009

Be bold and push harder


Thats the message NGOs have for Suhakam, whose powers are limited. THERE were lofty expectations when Suhakam was formed on Sept 9, 1999. A decade on, many human rights advocates feel the commission has not lived up to them. Last years notice by the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions (ICC) to Suhakam over its failure to comply with the Paris Principles (which set international standards for independent national human rights institutions) and the threat of a possible downgrading in its rating bring various concerns into focus.

Demonstrators flee as anti-riot police fire tear gas shells near Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur on Aug 1, to disperse a mass street protest against the ISA.

If downgraded, Suhakam will, among other things, lose its right to speak at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Edmund Bon, chairperson of the Bar Councils Constitutional Law Committee, says: Suhakams numerous fact-finding reports on issues such as police brutality, freedom of assembly, education, children, women, the indigenous community and poverty have very progressive recommendations that are in line with international human rights norms.

But the government has consistently refused to adopt the recommendations. Thus, while more abuses and violations have come to the fore through Suhakams reports, the authorities have not been active in solving the problems. However, Bon notes people are aware that Suhakam continuously gives civil society and victims of rights abuses a platform to air their grouses. It has also been able to make human rights a normative subject in our society. Human rights is no longer seen as a dirty word. More Malaysians understand its demands now and there is less fear and more acceptance of its principles.. Still Bon thinks Suhakam lacks bite and most observe that although it has potential, its efforts appear to be consistently thwarted. Says K. Shan, the campaigns co-ordinator for Amnesty International Malaysia: Suhakam has played a good responsive role in visiting detention centres, which helps prevent torture, and some of its commissioners are very committed. But in the larger picture, it has failed. Inquiries are often done selectively and there are times when Suhakam adopts a defensive role. It also behaves like a civil service and can be bureaucratic when it comes to registering complaints. Shan adds that the commission needs to be bolder, considering how the government has chosen to ignore it from the start. It doesnt really seem to engage the public actively or push the human rights agenda. He thinks Suhakam was more visible during (Tun) Musa Hitams tenure, especially for condemning police action during the KESAS highway protests in 2000. Most agree that the federal governments failure to debate the commissions annual reports in Parliament shows a lack of genuine respect for the commission. Thats the least the government should do if its sincere about improving Malaysias human rights record, says Dr Chandra Muzaffar, president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST).

Family members and friends of A. Kugan scuffle with riot police outside the forensic department of Universiti Malaya Medical Centre.

Thanks to the cybermedia, many issues have come to the forefront. However, the states response to human rights activists leave a lot to be desired. The right to peaceful assembly is a clearly established human right, yet the state tends to restrict this in accordance with its political needs. Now the government has promised to review restrictive laws such as the ISA; we shall see how far it goes. How much Suhakam has contributed is debatable, but it had a role to play. It is unfortunate that some of Suhakams excellent reports on human rights violations have not been given proper attention by the authorities. If the government is serious about listening to the will of the people, voices like Suhakams cannot be ignored, Dr Chandra adds. Indeed, many civil society organisations have called for amendments to the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act 1999 (Act 597), under which Suhakam was established. Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) was among 44 NGOs that petitioned the government last year, calling for wider powers and mandates to be accorded Suhakam to promote and protect human rights in the country. John Liu, Suarams documentation and monitoring coordinator, elaborates: Among other things, we asked for Suhakams structural autonomy from the government and that it should report to Parliament, instead of the Prime Ministers Department. The selection of Suhakams commissioners should be transparent, consultative, free and fair, with public participation. The candidates should be credible, independent and competent in the field of human rights. Commissioners should serve full-time like those in national human rights institutions in the Asean region and focus exclusively on human rights work, Liu adds. Their tenure should be extended to five years and the practice of re-appointment should immediately be dispensed with to ensure autonomy.

The groups also called for specific amendments to Act 597. The definition of human rights under Section 2 of Act 597 should be amended so that Suhakams jurisdiction can be widened to cover rights relating to life, liberty, equality and dignity of the individual as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights laws, Liu says. Section 12(2) should be amended to prevent the limitation of Suhakams power of inquiry by the simple means of taking matters to court. The commission should have the power to prosecute human rights violators. Womens Aid Organisation (WAO) executive director Ivy Josiah says: Suhakam raised the bar for human rights in the country but its mandate is limited. I would like to see individual commissioners embracing their roles and thinking out of the box to improve its effectiveness. Suhakam must be seen to respond promptly and publicly. For instance, sentencing model Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarnor to be whipped for drinking beer is an act of violence by the state. Suhakam should be very visible in leading opposition to this. Liu is critical of the commissions cautious stand on religious freedom. Despite acknowledging freedom of religion as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Suhakam has maintained a rather safe position.