Wednesday, January 31, 2007


Here’s an indication of how deep-seated our prejudices are. A Kenyan student expresses his exasperation in a recent letter to the Star about shoddy treatment on the basis of his skin colour. In a country that perpetuates the myth of special positions and rights, and elevates external forms of religious piety, it is perhaps not surprising that we have little but a veneer of respectability to cover up our innate racism.

Kenyan student feels like an outcast

I AM a 20 year-old Kenyan student and have been in Malaysia for the past two years. In that time, I have had to deal with dirty looks, open stares and even outright rudeness just because of how I look.

If I take a seat in a train, half the time, no one will take the seat next to me no matter how packed the train is and, most of those who do, will be highly uncomfortable and face away from me.

If I walk into a shop, I’ll get startled looks and the sales people will look at each other (I can just hear them thinking “you serve him!”) before one approaches hesitantly to assist me.

When I actually make conversation with anyone, one of the first questions they ask me (doesn’t matter if it’s a salesperson, fellow commuter or a taxi driver) is “When are you going back to your country?”

I had to perform an internship stint at a certain company, and interns from Holland and Japan were welcomed way more warmly and fit in far better than I ever could.

A few Malaysians have had bad experiences with Africans of a particular nationality, and they generalise that all Africans are money-laundering thieves.

It’s hard to integrate into society and make friends, and as a result, most of my fellow African students have gotten disenchanted and cannot wait to finish their studies and go back home.

Not a day goes by that I don’t feel stigmatised and made to feel like an outcast on account of how I look and it hurts a lot.

Is this really the tolerant, racially harmonious Malaysia that we read about every day? Is it only selectively tolerant? Why Malaysians? Why?


What embarrasses is not merely the shameful treatment of foreign visitors and migrant workers to our shores (read this, this, this, and this) but the way in which authorities callously dismiss these reports as “only a small number,” and the audacity with which we offer to teach other nations how to live in racial harmony. At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, our PM delivered a keynote address titled “Rules for a Global Neighbourhood in a Multi-Cultural World” by drawing on “Malaysia’s experience as a model of racial unity and religious harmony in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural setting.” At a time when Malaysians are feeling more and more polarized than ever, our politicians must be careful about patting their own backs to avoid sounding like empty echoes of hollow men.

Related link:
World Econmic Forum, Davos - Go to Davos Conversations to link to partners carrying blogs and videos on the event.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

What's the point in doing good?

It had to happen: scientists believe they have finally found out how our brain is hardwired for altruistic acts even if they did not benefit the individual or give it any survival edge. In the Jan 21 online issue of Nature Neuroscience, the author of a new research, Scott Huettel, an associate professor of psychology at Duke University Medical Center, in Durham, N.C. had this to say:

"Perhaps altruism did not grow out of a warm-glow feeling of doing good for others, but out of the simple recognition that that thing over there is a person that has intentions and goals. And therefore, I might want to treat them like I might want them to treat myself."

Huettel and his group defined altruism as acts "that intentionally benefit another organism, incur no direct personal benefit, and sometimes bear a personal cost."

"We went into this experiment with the idea that altruism was really a function of the brain's reward systems -- altruistic people would simply find it more rewarding," he said. But instead, a whole other brain region, called the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC), kicked into high gear as altruism levels rose.

The pSTC is located near the back of the brain and is not focused on reward. Instead, it focuses on perceiving others' intentions and actions, Huettel said.

Be that as it may, whereever the 'altruism button' may be located in the brain, eventually we all have to choose if it is at all worthwhile to do good, whether on a personal or a larger social level. The Bible of course is more direct, saying that we were created for good works as God's workmanship, "which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Eph 2:10). Bishop of Chelmsford and Chairman of Christian Aid John Gladwin says that it's God's self-revelation that motivates us to good works and to care for God's world.

God has revealed himself in Christ and in the biblical witness to Christ, and that the truth of his self-revelation is objective in its character, absolute in its quality and universal in its application. The gospel is in fact, the authentic meta-narrative.

It is because this is God’s world, and he cared for it to the point of incarnation and crucifixion, that we are inevitably committed to work for God’s justice in the face of oppression, for God’s truth in the face of lies and deceits, for service in the face of abuse of power, for love in the face of selfishness, for cooperation in the face of destructive antagonism, and for reconciliation in the face of division and hostility.

When I have to ask what's the point in doing good, I don't know if a warm fuzzy feeling is enough to push me over the brink, to keep me going. It is more likely the fact that this is God's world, and that he gave his life for it which therefore makes every act of good a redemptive one.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Arthur and George

George Edalji, the oldest son of an east Indian clergyman and a Scottish mother becomes a solicitor in the early 1900s. The mild-mannered George grows up in a deeply religious home, with no more ambition than a quiet life of legal practice, relishing his modest fame as writer of the seminal Railway Law for the "Man in the train." It is life’s great irony that men such as George who are least interested in the emotional heft of social activity find themselves at the center of public curiosity.

The reclusive half-Indian is accused of mutilating farm horses in what is sensationalized as the ‘Great Wyrley Outrages,’ and sentenced to jail. Falsely accused too, as it turns out. It also appears the Edalji family had quietly endured abusive letters, victims of cruel hoaxes and harassment from persons unknown for a number of years prior to George’s incarceration. That all these meanness point to some relentless persecution of sorts, culminating in George’s grave injustice did not earn any sympathy from the authorities. Not from an indifferent judiciary, and least of all, an obviously jaundiced police force. The absolutely bizarre circumstances surrounding the case lead renowned personalities to campaign for George’s pardon and compensation, but to no avail.

Enter Arthur. That’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the failed ophthalmologist and celebrated creator of the world’s most memorable fictive detective, Sherlock Holmes. Arthur applies his considerable deductive powers to champion George’s innocence. Oddly enough, whether out of naiveté or benevolence, George did not see the colour of his skin as the cause of his woes. Piecing together circumstantial evidence Arthur challenges the police’s charges, exposes their racism, helps overturn George’s conviction, and reinstates the latter’s right to practice law again. How the two contrasting lives - one larger than life, the other obscure – converge, forms the basis of Julian Barnes’ excellent retelling of that odd acquaintance in late Victorian England.

Arthur is almost twenty years George’s senior. The former was blessed with acuity and a quick mind, while the latter suffered from astigmatism. The two drifted away from the Church of England into agnosticism, one into Spiritualism and the other into settled ambivalence. Arthur’s father lived out his years in an infirmary as a depressive and epileptic, separated from the family; it was his beloved but domineering 'Mam' who single-handedly kept the family together.

George, on the other hand, shared his father’s room into adulthood, and was invariably shaped by the parson’s proud and severe disposition. Arthur’s literary invention gave the world Sherlock Holmes while George’s misfortunes eventually led to the establishment of the court of appeals. I can almost see why the story attracted Barnes.

When I was young I used to imagine what another child my age would be doing at the exact moment on the other side of the globe, living in a world so far removed from mine, twins sharing the same time (if not space) in history. The story of Arthur and George is intriguing in the same manner. Julian Barnes cuts back and forth in his narrative, recreating the life and times of two near polar opposites brought providentially together in a story that, as they say, is stranger than fiction. The internalizing of tragic and comic impulses helps the reader to empathize with Barnes’ characters and makes the complex tale a humane and eminently believable one. And yet, it is a story that did take place.

Arthur and George was nominated for the 2005 Man Booker Prize.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Floods in Johor

It’s an unmitigated disaster alright. The floods in Johor, although subsiding, are causing unease as weather reports point to more rain in the days ahead. Last month’s rain which triggered the worst floods in 100 years devastated homes, displaced over 100,000 people and killed 15 according to various reports. The damage is going to put a dent in Pak Lah’s high-impact development plan for Johor (dubbed the Iskandar Project) which was planned as a showcase of the recently launched 9MP. But for now, flood victims are in dire need of food supplies and cash. Health concerns are rising and at least 2 persons were reported to have died due to contaminated water.

I’m glad to hear that churches are quietly dispatching help. NECF is encouraging churches to mobilize volunteers to help in clean-up, and distribution of food and cash. Meanwhile CREST (Crisis Relief Services and Training) was among those that responded at the start of the crisis. Another Christian NGO Harapan Komuniti which was involved with tsunami victims in Kedah is also helping out in Muar, while a major church in KL raised over RM100,000 towards flood relief. All these signs of engagement in our community are a testimony of churches living out their mandate to love their neighbours, to be a city on the hill. Malaysian churches commendably responded with compassion in the wake of 2004's catastrophic tsunami by sending aid and volunteers to far-flung places in Aceh. This time, disaster is in our own backyard. In times like this, nothing fleshes out the gospel more than a genuine helping hand. God knows Malaysia needs it.