Friday, November 28, 2008

All Gaga over Yoga

“Missed a bullet, somehow, I sense.”

First it was a ban on yoga for Muslims because of what apparently were Hindu elements – though yoga didn’t seem to bother the most conservative of other religious groups, even the ones who taught that Harry Potter was the Antichrist. Then it seems that the National Fatwa Council may have stepped into the territory of the Sultans, and one can only guess if the advice from the Raja Muda of Perak to take time to study matters in order to avoid hasty decisions may suggest that the ban was indeed hasty.

On one hand, non-Muslims aren’t practically affected by this whole brouhaha on yoga. We’ve been chugging down beer (still legal in Selangor!) and chomping on piggy meat as happily as Muslims have been munching on beef burgers (better not tell the powers-that-be that the cow is a sacred animal to Hindus or they just may make that haram too).

But there was this thing about the Information Ministry getting involved, and the Prime Minster declaring that yoga is alright minus the chanting as “I believe that Muslims are not easily swayed into polytheism." (The Star, 27 November) – I’m not polytheistic myself but I did find that it carried a disrespectful tone to Hindus. Something like if Buddhists were told that attending Hari Raya open houses was okay because they are faithful enough not to be swayed into monotheism.

And of course if Mahathir has to remind us not to make it into a religious issue (and what kind of issue was it then? An economic one?) then we have to think twice about it. It’s like the guy who may have just accidentally spat in front you on purpose. It may have been pure coincidence, but when he says, “Now, don’t take that personally,” you may just start to wonder.

Somehow we’re losing the idea that unity in this country will always be founded on diversity. That we should embrace the idea that there is a form of exercise – more so than tai-chi or chi-gong – that actually brings together people of all races. That it just might be another area of common ground, of conversational currency, when Muslims visit their friends during Chinese New Year.

The one time a government official made any sense in these sorts of decisions was in regards to Shanon Ahmad’s controversial political parody, Shit. After rumours of whether it was bad taste or free speech and the idea of banning a book by Sasterawan Negara, a decision was made that ignoring it was the wiser option than making it an even bigger deal. In this light, the final irony may indeed be that the popularity of yoga may actually increase – if not for the critical opposition to the idea that yoga has religious implications from progressive Muslims like Marina Mahathir and Azmi Sharom, then certainly the idea that you hide things that are on some level, at the very least, interesting.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Malaysia: as one chooses to see it, or as one chooses to believe in it

The way the world is, is often the way we choose to see it – and that is the crux of racial politics in Malaysia.

Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed, soon after saying that a Malaysian of any descent can rise to lead the country, pessimistically blogged that racial politics are far from over. Predictably he hit out on both sides of the aisle. His old adversaries on the Opposition bench were described as: “…PAS, a very Malay Muslim party, and DAP, a Chinese dominated party. Even the Keadilan is made up of violently racist Hindraf Indians, Chinese dissatisfied with the MCA's representation of the Chinese in BN and self-serving Malays who could not find a place in the other Malay parties.” In a clever uppercut, Mahathir’s new opponents in the Barisan Nasional were chastised as having failed to live up to their responsibilities, which in his opinion was the cause of the March 2008 election results – and not racial politics.

It sounds convincing, a long-time premier selflessly imparting his wisdom of leadership to a people who are naïve daydreamers. But just perhaps it is, instead, a cynical icon living in a past he created, resistant of change, who chooses to see only the world as he always has, where he is right and everyone else is wrong.

Parties cannot change their histories – whether it is PAS’s connection to theology or DAP’s old connections to the PAP. And while we’re on history, Malaysians have a great tendency to have a very selective history. Like viewing Hang Tuah a little differently when one finds out he was ethnic Chinese, or wayang kulit once we realize it has Hindu links. Or putting Datuk Tan Lian Hoe on the frying pan.

What anyone can do is instead to learn from it to better affect the present, including forming a non-Muslim wing to PAS, electing a Malay to the upper ranks of the DAP, and the leader of Keadilan choosing a “ketuanan rakyat” stance when campaigning for office in Permatang Pauh– a strategy that proved triumphant against an Umno stance which included a characterization of the Chinese in this country as “squatters”. At the initial protest rally after the arrest of reporter Tan Hoon Cheng who brought that comment to print, a major highlight was the arrival and support of representatives of PAS, the so-called “very Malay Muslim party”.

Eventually even the Barisan Nasional had to concede a realization of the way the wind was blowing, seen in proposals to include direct, non-racial entry into the BN, and opinions from various quarters in Gerakan considering a departure from the coalition.

Mahathir’s view fits his ideal just a little too well. His old enemies are wrong as always, and if only the Barisan allows him to be the Lee Kuan Yew-type backseat driver, all would be well. How sad then that even well into retirement our so-called Bapa Wawasan looks to the past, rather than the longer term vision of what potential lies in our people.

He writes: “When the Barisan Nasional did badly in the March 2008 General Election, foreign observers and many in this country were jubilant because they claim that it marked the demise of racial politics and racial parties in Malaysia.
I did not agree with this simplistic view and I had put my thoughts on this blog. I believed that it was rather protest against the failures of the Abdullah Government that caused many Barisan Nasional members and supporters to vote for the opposition.”

My dear Dr M, of course it was a protest against the Abdullah Government which, one might point out, could not have been there without your initial support. But why on earth could it not also finally be a start – a good, healthy Malaysia Boleh start – away from racial politics?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Malaysia Mudah Lupa?

You have to give that RPK some 'respek', man. Never mind that he was willing to languish in Kamunting - and that he knew it was coming and kept on rollin'. Never mind that he hitched his luck to someone who wasn't exactly a sure bet.

You have to salute him, and those like him, who were willing to be martyrs for a cause. Just because the cause was worthy, and not necessarily because the people whom the cause battles were really as worthy as the battle.

We've not entirely worthless as patriotism goes, but we're - how shall I put it - rabbit hopping on a high jump event. The bar is always high (and for that matter, the Malaysian Bar was a test of strength as well) and it's supposed to be. If it weren't, the value of the win wouldn't be as worthy either. We'll have the heat-of-the-moment rallies when a new political party is born, or when elections come along. Heck, we might even deny a two-thirds victory and send some states over the other side and call it a 'tsunami'. But chances are that when it's just about civil liberties and human rights, and not about the price of wan tan mee doubling, Mahathir had the right idea. Malaysia mudah lupa.

How so, you say? Well, Umno has decided to put into the line of succession one whom RPK's wife said would "throw away the key" and leave her husband in detention the rest of his life. So much for the voice of dissent, the cries for reform from within. Anwar, on whom RPK publicly placed his own fate, has waffled on his takeover plans, and with it, RPK's freedom. And as time passes by, even the man himself has worried that Malaysians would forget about him.

Abdullah Badawi insulted the public recently saying that the real way to combat high prices would be to not buy at high prices. Never mind that it's his fault we have those prices to begin with. Ironically enough, the only people who unwillingly fit his plan are those who are fed on less than five ringgit a month. Those under the ISA.

I was never that crazy about Malaysia Today, to be honest. But I recognize that it was for all of us, even if in a slightly caffeinated state. And for that, I say to all who read these letters, jangan mudah lupa.

Here's to you, RPK.