Saturday, May 2, 2009

Azmi Sharom on Malaysian Democracy


By Azmi Sharom
The Star Online | Thursday April 30, 2009

That many African countries are in a mess is, to a certain extent, due to the way the colonial powers carved up the continent.

WHEN I landed at KLIA last week, there was an annoying high-pitched whine in my ear. At first, I thought it was the engine of the plane cooling down.

But upon closer listening, I figured out that it was actually a chorus of whining voices saying: “Oh, we have another by-election coming up. How awful. What a waste of public funds. Moan. Moan. Moan. Whine. Whine. Whine.”

It was particularly irritating to hear such complaints, especially in the light of where I had just been. I was in Ghana for work, and speaking to colleagues from West Africa was a real tonic.

The world tends to see Africa as a place where chaos rules; and let’s admit it, when we do, there is more than a hint of smugness on our part.

How often have we heard the pompous comments that Ghana and Malaysia both obtained independence in the same year but look at us now compared to them?

Yes, it is true that many African countries are a mess; and even when they are blessed with natural resources, they are also cursed with corruption and violence.

To a certain extent, this is due to the way the colonial powers carved up the continent, drawing borders that suited their imperialist dreams, but not the natural divisions of Africa.

Thus, communities long at war with one another suddenly found themselves part of the same nation state. Not a recipe for success.

Yet despite all this, there is optimism and hope. Take Sierra Leone, for example. The vicious civil war the country suffered for almost a decade, fought over diamonds, is barely over.

The memories and the pain of that conflict are still fresh. And yet there is optimism there. An optimism borne on the hope that democracy gives.

They have the ability to choose their leaders and speak their minds — and that is a boon in a country that is economically in ruins.

In a nation where 70% are illiterate and electricity is a luxury, radio has become the main source of news and information.

And radio stations in Sierra Leone are blossoming, providing not just entertainment but, more importantly, a critical eye cast upon a government that is suddenly accountable to its people.

And believe me, their radio is way freer than ours. That this has been so in Sierra Leone is because not only have the people gone through the trauma of war, they have also suffered the frustration of having no voice.

In Ghana, the democratic process seems to have re-established itself firmly. A peaceful change of government via elections, a steadily growing economy and public safety make it the shining light among African nations.

At the workshop I attended, the Education Minister gave the opening address. He entered the little seminar room with no entourage, no fanfare, and he gave a speech lauding academic freedom and promising a new Freedom of Information law.

He looked and sounded like a servant of the people rather than some overblown “tuan”.

Of all the new friends I made, only the one from Ethiopia was pessimistic about the future of her country. I asked her: “If you had free and fair elections, would that attitude change?”

She looked at me like the moron that I am and said: “Of course it would.”

Over here, the moans grow loud at the prospect of another by-election and I can only shake my head in bewilderment.

The fact that we have by-elections at all is something to be proud of. And I believe by-elections are worth the cost. Speaking of which, I wonder just what the fuss about costs is all about.

Sure, there will be some overtime pay to the police, but considering how badly they are paid in the first place, I think a few million ringgit of honestly earned OT would be a good thing for them.

Besides, wouldn’t the bulk of the cost be borne by the respective political parties in their campaign efforts? Lest we forget, campaign funds should come from party, not government, coffers.

And lest we forget, if it were not for the ballot box, Sagong Tasi and his orang asli community in Selangor could still be denied the money owed to them for the loss of their ancestral lands.

That case went before the Court of Appeal which decided against the state government, then under Barisan Nasional. The latter appealed against the decision. Then the March elections ushered Barisan out of the Selangor Government.

Now, to the delight of the orang asli, the current state government has said it will drop the appeal.

Would this have happened if there had been no change in government? I don’t think so.

It seems that we Malaysians are so unappreciative of democracy that when the practice of this ideal becomes a little “inconvenient”, we start to get anxious.

The fact of the matter is, our democracy is still infantile and we have a long way to go.

In the meantime, we must press on. For we cannot hope for good governance until all the politicians in this country are made to realise that we can put them in power and we can also boot them out.

Neither can we hope for good governance until we appreciate this power and use it.

Having spoken with my new African friends, I am convinced more than ever that the alternative of not defending and using our democratic right, is unthinkable.

If pressing on means another by-election, then so be it.

Dr Azmi Sharom is a law teacher.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Where Malaysia is headed (Part 9)

No words can express what I desire for my beloved country and my planet more vividly than these images...

Dedicated to those who dare dream a new dawn of joy, freedom
and love in Malaysia

Where Malaysia is headed (Part 1)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Where Malaysia is headed (Part 8)

Reclaiming your sovereign power as an individual is the greatest gift you can offer your nation and your planet. Only when you cease being a mere statistic and become whole and real (or royal) as a person do you begin to add value to your community.

Every ignoble and discordant act you might possibly commit that classifies you as less than an exemplary citizen is prompted by either fear or greed or both.

Fear of the stick and greed for the carrot is how you and your ancestors have been subject to external control for countless generations. This time-tested management approach can only work if your level of consciousness is approximately that of a beast of burden. It has little or no effect on those who can think independently and originally.

How, you may ask, does one achieve independence and originality of thought after decades of conditioning via our parents, our schools and universities - indeed, our entire cultural matrix which serves to format our minds so we can't help but identify with a specific race, religion, football club or political party?

KNOW THYSELF: this admonition inscribed in gold on the portico of the Apollo Temple at Delphi has existed for perhaps 25 centuries and has been variously attributed to Pythagoras (right), Socrates, Solon and Heraclitus. Some authorities say the inscription ought to read: "Know Thyself - and thou shalt know all the mysteries of the gods and of the universe."

In any case, Gnothi Seauton or Know Thyself is central to the teachings of the Hermetic philosophers whose tutelar spirit, Hermes Trismegistos, was revered as the incarnation of Thoth, Egyptian god of scribes, and Hermes, messenger of the Olympian pantheon. Thoth and Hermes form the axis of the Western esoteric tradition and the mystery schools they established have much in common with the Eastern esoteric schools initiated by Gautama Buddha, Patanjali and, later, Padmasambhava.

They essentially teach that the path to liberation is very narrow and admits only awakened individuals, not the sleeping masses. What this implies is that you can only arrive at a true understanding of the divine by becoming a fully conscious human - in other words, a Buddha.

You can't do it by subscribing to a religious doctrine or
prepackaged belief system - no matter how devout or pious you appear to be to others - or believe yourself to be. Being generally law-abiding, driving on the "correct" side of the road, and strictly adhering to a set of prescribed observances doesn't make you a fully conscious human being.

Whether you're a church-going Christian, sutra-chanting Buddhist, bhajan-singing Hindu or Koran-reciting Muslim, you're unlikely to break free of your cultural and social formatting unless you turn your attention inwards, towards your own core being where you can reconnect with your Essential Self - which is what makes you unique as well as universal as an incarnate soul.

In the 13th century the famous Sufi poetMowlana Jalaluddin Rumi (left), kept these esoteric teachings alive in his works, effectively bridging the Eastern and Western mystery traditions. And yet, Rumi is more popular in the West than in the Middle East or Malaysia where Islam predominates. Why?

Most orthodox religions frown on and often vigorously persecute the mystical cults within their midst. Public behavior can be monitored and regulated by external authority but not private investigations of the numinous and the transcendental.

That's why these ancient practices are branded as "deviant" and those caught are subject to harsh punishment - the way "heretics" were severely tortured before being burnt alive at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition (which, incredibly, lasted from 1478-1834). It's revealing that in this day and age even harmless, peaceable cults like Ayah Pin's Sky Kingdom in Terengganu or Li Hongzhi's Falun Gong in China have been viciously attacked by governments insecure about the power they exert over people's private beliefs.

Ayah Pin and the Sky Kingdom he anchored for a while in Terengganu

But how relevant are these mystical notions in the frenzied hurly-burly of the post-industrial age?

For those who feel trapped in the 3D Matrix of endless production and consumption, the way out is really the way in. It's more a process of unlearning old programs rather than learning new techniques or disciplines. Each program you manage to manually override, bypass or uninstall is one impediment less to your own enlightenment and liberation from the soul-destroying, will-sapping treadmill of business-as-usual.

Now that ancient esoteric wisdom and cutting-edge science appear to be converging, we have the benefit of a whole new range of conceptual tools in the form of more precise terminologies with which to remodel our perceptions of reality.

Terence McKenna ranks among the most eloquent of spokesmen for the emerging vision of a world radically transformed by the alchemical union of science and mysticism. Described as a "writer, philosopher, psychonaut and ethnobotanist" by Wikipedia, McKenna dedicated his life to researching plant-based entheogens, sensory and neurological exciters like psilocybin and ayahuasca - and achieved a consummate understanding of the intimate links between art and shamanism.

Allow me to quote at length from Terence McKenna as he discusses his classic work, The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History

"...what we need is a new myth, what we need is a new true story that tells us where we're going in the universe and that true story is that the ego is a product of pathology, and when psilocybin is regularly part of the human experience the ego is suppressed and the suppression of the ego means the defeat of the dominators, the materialists, the product peddlers. Psychedelics return us to the inner worth of the self, to the importance of the feeling of immediate experience - and nobody can sell that to you and nobody can buy it from you, so the dominator culture is not interested in the felt presence of immediate experience, but that's what holds the community together.

And as we break out of the silly myths of science and the infantile obsessions of the marketplace, what we discover through the psychedelic experience is that in the body, IN THE BODY, there are Niagaras of beauty, alien beauty, alien dimensions that are part of the self, the richest part of life. I think of going to the grave without having a psychedelic experience like going to the grave without ever having sex. It means that you never figured out what it is all about. The mystery is in the body and the way the body works itself into nature. What the Archaic Revival means is shamanism, ecstasy, orgiastic sexuality, and the defeat of the three enemies of the people. And the three enemies of the people are hegemony, monogamy and monotony!

And if you get them on the run you have the dominators sweating, folks, because that means you're getting it all reconnected, and getting it all reconnected means putting aside the idea of separateness and self-definition through thing-fetish. Getting it all connected means tapping into the Gaian mind, and the Gaian mind is what we're calling the psychedelic experience. It's an experience of the living fact of the entelechy of the planet. And without that experience we wander in a desert of bogus ideologies. But with that experience the compass of the self can be set, and that's the idea; figuring out how to reset the compass of the self through community, through ecstatic dance, through psychedelics, sexuality, intelligence, INTELLIGENCE. This is what we have to have to make the forward escape into hyperspace.
Now you may be wondering what all this trippy stuff has got to do with the way ahead for Malaysia...

Well, the universe is an interconnected, interdependent network of dynamic interactions. Our identities are not at all static. They evolve as we mature. Even as we attempt to define ourselves as individuals, we are being defined - or confined - by our immediate environment, our familial and societal ties, our national ideologies, and everchanging geopolitical scenarios.

Terence McKenna's personal obsession with "escape into hyperspace" is just his way of investigating possible escape routes from the entropic 3D Matrix.

McKenna's switched-on way of thinking illustrates the unpredictable non-linearity of evolutionary solutions. Our so-called future may resemble nothing of our so-called past - indeed, it rarely ever does!

Many of us are in the habit of driving towards the future while gazing into the rearview mirror of the past. This might explain why humans rarely notice until it's way too late the 20-wheeler truck coming straight at them from the opposite direction. Isn't that reason enough to start acquiring 360-degree peripheral vision?

Where Malaysia is headed (Part 9)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Where Malaysia is headed (Part 7)

Most people I know blame "most people" for being recalcitrant sticks in the mud.

For example, if I suggest we test out the honor system by leaving a crate of bottled water unattended with a sign that says "Just drop one ringgit in the box, thanks!"... most people will immediately argue that the idea won't work - because "most people" will simply help themselves to a bottle and walk off without paying. Indeed, some people may even decide to cart away the entire crate!

This is why I consciously avoid using the phrase "most people." When you begin to think in terms of "most people" it indicates you're caught up in statistical pseudo-reality; you're approaching life quantitatively rather than qualitatively.

Most people... oops... many of us have heard Benjamin Disraeli's famous quote: "There are essentially three types of lies. Lies, damned lies, and statistics." Statistical thinking implies that the more people believe in something, the more likely it is to come true.

To a certain extent this is demonstrably so. If a vast majority of humans believe the death penalty effectively deters serious crimes, the few voices in the wilderness calling for the abolition of capital punishment will be ignored. Same goes for ridiculously repressive laws like the ISA and archaic statutes outlawing fornication and "sexual acts against the order of nature."

Similarly, when enough of us decide that institutions such as monarchies or secret police agencies have done more harm than good, it's almost certain these institutions will soon be dismantled and relegated to a niche in some museum.

The sultans can make any number of speeches defending their own exalted status. But in a rapidly changing social, cultural and political climate where enough of us have begun to probe beyond the surface of events, what these grand panjandrums say will be subject to intense scrutiny. If their speeches come across as self-serving, insincere or hollow-sounding rhetoric, people will neither be impressed nor swayed - no matter how posh the accent or how expensive the costume. Respect must be earned. It cannot be gained at gunpoint.

The concept of royalty is a carryover from a colonialistic age fast fading. An age when rigid social hierarchies and caste stratifications governed human affairs. 19th-century British colonizers gained a foothold in the Malay states by installing themselves as official advisors (Residents, they were called) to local warlords and thugs they then enthroned as Sultans (an honorific borrowed from the Turks), with whom they had signed mutually beneficial contracts. Thereafter the natives were encouraged to address the White Man as Tuan, thereby according him the same status as their own fake monarchs.

What does "tuan" mean? Is it not a contraction of "Tuhan" - meaning "Lord"? And is it by sheer coincidence that no distinction is made between a celestial and terrestrial lord?

My friend Joe Kidd is a study unto himself. I first encountered him as the lead singer of a popular thrash metal band called Carburetor Dung. Later I discovered Joe Kidd had acquired the stature of a cult leader amongst the hippest segment of disaffected urban youth who had formed themselves into a commune called the Republic of Brickfields. Joe was a pioneer in the Malaysian anarcho-punk underground. He edited and published the first indie zines in circulation, produced an impressive catalog of indie albums, and linked up with a worldwide network of like-minded young people. He approached everything with a refreshing irreverence and began calling everybody "Boss" - whether they were jaga kereta  (car park attendants) or corporate moguls. I was much taken with Joe's egalitarian approach. By tagging everybody "boss" Joe was making a significant statement. Each of us is ultimately his or her own boss.

This is soundly supported by cutting-edge quantum physics which has finally discovered the fractal nature of existence. The center is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere - which means reality is never static. So much for the status quo.

Tuhan - the concept of sovereignty, of lord or ladyship - resides within each of us (at least as an inherent potentiality) - just as the Orang Asli say Tuhan can be found in all lifeforms, animal or vegetable, mineral or devic, human or divine. For anyone to claim a monopoly of exaltedness or divinity is a travesty of natural justice, if not an outright scam.

Thus you will find in Orang Asli communities an unwritten egalitarianism - the basis of democratic governance - wherein even a child is recognized as a future adult and therefore entitled to exercise a certain degree of free will (provided his actions do not seriously endanger himself or others).

Village council in Samoa

The batin  or headman of any village is regarded as a "first among equals" - someone who has accepted responsibility for the overall well-being of his anak buah  or extended family. As such, the batin's residence is often slightly larger than the others, since he may have to convene an occasional assembly of the village elders or entertain visitors from the outside world. But not considerably larger, and rarely so ostentatious as to cause ripples of envy amongst his anak buah  and make them feel inferior.

Village council in Tanzania

In ancient Athens where the notion of democracy is supposed to have first appeared, a deme  constituted the smallest administrative unit. The word deme  or demos  essentially meant a village, and was synonymous with "the people" as in rakyat. Fifty representatives from each of ten tribes were elected to serve for one year as the Council, whose main function was to prepare the agenda for meetings of the Assembly comprising all male Athenian citizens 18 years of age and above (Athenian women enjoyed special status as citizens but were denied political rights).

Despite the gender discrimination and inherent flaws in the system, Athenian democracy flourished for around 200 years - until the rise of Macedonia as a military power - first under Philip and then his famous son, Alexander, from whom our Malay rulers claim descent. Isn't it rather amusing - and also pungently ironic - that the aggressively imperialistic bloodline that destroyed Athenian democracy continues its undemocratic rule via its unlikely descendants in the far-flung Orient?

Meeting of the Perak State Assembly under the Democracy Tree, 3 March 2009
You have a problem with fat cats or what?

"most people
fear most

a mystery
for which
no word
- e.e. cummings

Where Malaysia is headed (Part 8)