Saturday, May 26, 2012

Certain things in life need not change...

Modern life is full of changes. They are necessary and we associate changes with modernity and progress.But deep in our hearts we know that we sometimes miss "the good old days". We know that some of the changes are not always for the better. We must admit that some of the things we call modern and progressive are in fact, regressive.We hate the changes made, or even regretted them, but would be too proud to accept out mistake. Worse, som changes once made cannot be retracted. We cannot just switch back to the old ways once the old values are destroyed.

The trouble in trying to say that certain things need not be changed in life is that, overall things are better now than before. We certainly don't want to go back to the time of bullock carts, horse carriages, oil lamps, deep wells for drinking water, foot messengers etc. For most people today even a TV or an Internet breakdown or service interruption is a torture, an unacceptable deprivation. We love what we have today, yet groaned about many changes which suddenly appear to be taking us in the opposite direction - to social decay and destruction.

What for example? In the extreme case just look at the arms race, the manufacture of sophisticated armaments and weapons of mass destruction. Wasn't it nice when we didn't have all these to put us in danger of a sudden holocaust? Wasn't it better to have a quarrel or a war using swords and daggers where you must really face your enemy before you can cut him down or be slaughtered yourself. Now thousands can be killed by just clicking a switch. You never really see the victims shudder and die.

A most controversial item on the question of whether the old ways are better than the new is with regard to primary education and education in general. Boys and girls, and even young men and women are now receiving programmed or canned education directed at developing their intelligence and skill to go into certain profession. But the social, moral and ethical bases of education seemed to be missed out thus producing young men and women often said to be conceited, lacking respect for the old people including their own parents, and in pursuing their own interest would not hesitate to step on the heads of their friends and colleagues.They become bullies and incorrigibles even while in primary schools because teachers could no longer use the cane to bring them into line. We hear today (NST May 26) the president of the Malaysian PTA associations calling out for the teachers to be given the power to cane errant students in order to bring back the good discipline in schools. If nothing is done to improve the deteriorating discipline, we might next see students shooting their teachers with a handgun, as had happened in the US.

In Malaysia all the vocational schools are now to become colleges, vocational colleges, to prepare the youths to become trained functionaries. The Universities too will more and more offer subjects that will produce trained manpower ( and women power too of course) ready for use by the labor market. What do we see today about these young so-called professionals? Do they appreciate the literature, the culture and the history of the nation, the non-material things that hold the country and the people together more than than common economic and material goals? As we see things today, politics can play havoc with nations, societies, communities and even families. Only the common social, cultural and ethical values, often inculcated in the junior classes can hold people together, and the education system seems to be very weak in developing that area of human concern. Even old and time-honored institutions like marriage and families are falling apart because of the lack of common social, cultural and historical base to hold them together

I like to bring a simple example of a failure in the education system which can have a profound effect on our society. In the primary and secondary schools in Malaysia, music has never been taught. Almost all adults who had no special education in music are musically illiterate and can't read the musical notes. Could they, therefore, really appreciate the musical composition of great musicians like Mozart,Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky,Bach etc or even the great musicians of their own country both now and before Yes, they can always appreciate the jazz, rock n roll, the blues, the "dangdut" etc, when they hear it over the TV or radio. But can they appreciate the classics,the concerto, the symphony, sonata, opera etc. To many of the young today, as long as the music has a lot of beat and rhythm, it's loud and strong making one moves with it, that's good music. To really appreciate music you must be able to read music. To just enjoy the sound, of course everyone can do that.

We now face the the young Malayians not being able to speak good English as a second language.So plans are afoot to train our English teachers in England again, Brinsford-Lodge style.At one time we really look down on Malaysians who tried to speak English like the Englishmen - using correct grammatical English and even the pronunciation. Now, do we want to bring back that tradition? All we want is correct grammar and usage - not the hot-potato-in-the-mouth sound. Well, it goes to prove that something that we did in the old days were good. Like emphasizing the three Rs in education-reading, writing, and arithmetic. Now, some children in the lower secondary schools could not master even those, although the education system has undergone numerous changes. Not all the changes that we have brought today are good. Indeed some of the old things need not change at alall. There are just too many of the old things that we miss today.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

High Cost of Books....

The development of a nation certainly depends on a good reading habit among its citizens. The intellectual capacity of the nation's population as a whole will determine the level of progress a nation can achieve, quite irrespective of its wealth in natural resources. Even when the elites of a nation are very well-educated and well-trained, if the masses lag behind in their self-education through reading, the wheels of change and progress can be slowed down very much.

One is never surprised to see people reading a book while traveling in a plane, train, cars and buses in the western countries. The habit has also caught on in Japan and urban China. I mean just ordinary citizens, not professors, executives, teachers, students etc for whom reading is a must and is their job. But in the developing countries, to see an ordinary citizen (not the elites mentioned)glued to a book while traveling, sitting in a coffee=-shop or resting under the shade, is quite a rare sight. Reading a newspaper, a magazine or some promotional advertisements and colorful consumer handouts, yes. But not a book, a novel or some professional magazines.

Why? There are a thousand and one reasons. Public transports are normally packed in the developing countries, uncomfortable and no air-conditioning.The temperature is often very high and people are sweating. Even the air-conditioned restaurants and cafes are often too crowded to promote a reading habit or the lightings are not that conducive. In some cases the piped music is just deafening. And now in this age of electronic gadgetries, people would rather talk on their handphones, listen to their favorite music and songs, or watch the TV rather than do some lonesome reading.

Nonetheless the government and book publishers are certainly doing their best to promote a healthy reading habit among the populace, as is the case in Malaysia.Writers are being encouraged to write, publishers are encouraged to publish more books on general knowledge, book festivals are being held every now and then, awards are given out for writers, funds issued to support publication etc, etc. No complain there.

But, look at the cost price of books as written on the covers. Any good book certainly costs more that RM20-RM30. The cheap sales and discounted prices are of course available but such books are often not to palatable to read ( with the exception of used books, of course). You need at least a hundred bucks to get a few good books. Even Dr Mahathir's book, Doctor in the House, is not something that you can acquire with the balance of your budget for the supermarket to buy necessary household items. Of course a hundred bucks for books is nothing to those earning a four or five figure income. What about those earning at or just above the minimum wage? Remember that there are also the text books to buy for the kids. And are they really cheap? Not for those in the higher forms. Oh yes, the government did issue a RM200 coupon to assist parents in buying books for their school children. But we are talking about books for the average citizens, those that make up the majority of the population.
Some books cost as high as RM200 or RM300 or more.Forget the Coffee Books in glossy colors and beautiful prints meant for the rich. I am talking about books for general reading, like the novels which cost more than RM30 each. A small book containing religious poems that I saw at the recent International Book Fest costs RM90 (by foreign poets) and RM45 (by local poets).

Admittedly the books are printed on expensive glossy papers with elaborate cover designs. Are we trying to produce books for library decoration or of reading. Why don't we publish on cheaper newsprints of a higher quality than some cheap books produced in the Philippines, India and Indonesia.If books can be bought at less than RM20, I think more people will buy them..and hopefully read them. One reason for the books being too costly is because the distributors take some 30-50% of the sale price. Dewan Bahasa set the standard in this matter and all publishers must accept the example to get their books sold. The government should look into this issue as a matter of urgency as well as the issue of the skyrocketing price for houses. Unless there is some control in this matters, the recent increases in pay would not mean much in terms of promoting the reading habit in Malaysia, while housing developers become filthy rich catering for the wealthy.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Persistent Signs of Underdevelopment

Many aspects of life in the towns and cities of Malaysia would show that we are already a developed nation. The growth of urban infrastructure and high-rise buildings, the maddening traffic jams in urban centers, the throng at supermarkets and shopping malls, the pomp and ceremony of national celebrations and anniversaries, the sophistication of trade fairs and business promotions, the grandeur of sports and cultural activities, all point to a level of development similar to that of the developed nations.

What then keeps us at the backwaters of modernization and development? Or serves as reminders of the fact that we are not yet that modern or sophisticated?

Many I'm sure will straightway point to the existence of rural villages all over the nation, still living in substandard housing with substandard infrastructural facilities. We find such villages sometimes just a few kilometers aways from the urban centers.They of course proliferate in the remote areas of the country, hidden by thick (though rich) forestland and jungle as compared to the well cared-for estates and Felda resettlement areas. Many of these areas are the homes of aborigines and the forest tribes who feel uncomfortable living in houses made of brick and mortars.

But even the western countries which comprise the so-called developed world including the developed eastern countries like Japan and North Korea and the southern island of Australia and New Zealand, have their rural or tribal/aboriginal population. That doesn't make them underdeveloped. Some of the Latin American countries are as developed as any on their North American counterpart. Yet they too have a large number of low-income and "poor" population and the country countries cannot be called underdeveloped.

What then are the primary signs of underdevelopment? I would think that they include not just economic indicators like low income, sprawling urban and rural poverty, inadequate infrastructural facilities, shabby housing areas with old and dilapidated houses, the lack of medical and educational facilities etc. If so then Malaysia can already be considered as highly developed for we don't see such situation anymore.But there are other social and cultural factors that to me indicate the country's lack of a claim to being fully developed. These include small and simple things like the lack of civility and decorum when driving on the road and not keeping to your lane or giving adequate signal before crossing it,
throwing rubbish and food wrappers out of the car while driving,respecting the right of others when moving in a crowded place like a shopping mall or supermarket, giving an applause after an artist finishes a performance, even queuing up for services which in Malaysia has recently improved very much.

What I'm saying is that there are still many little social and ethical things that the Malaysian public don't observe which can make the Malaysian society appears as still underdeveloped. There is no way that I can list them all but we get embarrassed or even shameful when we see it happening. Things like a couple of Malaysians talking and laughing very loudly in a quite and cozy restaurant or cafe, noisily clearing your throat and spitting in the public,leaving a picnic area or a table without clearing the rubbish you created, and shopkeepers allowing the corridor in front of their shops to be dirty or messy.

We seldom see such things happening in the so-called modern and developed society, Yes we do see some of the unruly youths or anti-social elements breaking the social and ethical code of conduct. But they do not represent the society as such.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Money Politics

Is there anything at all that can be done today without using money? I really wonder for even when comforting myself in the bathroom the electricity bill will increase, the water bill will go up,and more toilet papers must be purchased. Even digging a hole in the backyard or unclogging the drains needs money to buy the necessary equipment or chemicals to be used.

So how can the huge wheels of government function without lots of money. And how can the political parties function to get elected into the government without spending huge sums of money to win the election?

It's therefore nonsensical to say that money politics is a "no-no". Everything that a political party needs to do to win an election must be financed. The question is whether it will be financed by the political party concerned or, if the party is now in power,by the government. What and where is the dividing line between work and expenses which can be paid by the government and that which must be paid by the political parties or by the politicians who would like the work to be done?

Simple questions but the answers can be very messy. Modern day government would have already planned all that it would like to do in the next few years (usually called the master plan of 3,4,5 years and even longer, beyond the 5 year life of the current government). The major projects to be undertaken would already have been identified. But many smaller projects, sub-projects, tasks and new and urgent work have not.The need to get these works done is often identified towards the end a government's term and the approach of a fresh election. That's when money is dished out in response to any demand which is backed by some political pressure.Millions are dished out to win over the unhappy or dissatisfied electorates.

It is here that political and societal or developmental objectives become inseparable. Projects necessitated by a political need can be easily brought under the approved government development plan and be financed fully by the government. After all the project is still for the purpose of promoting the welfare and wellbeing of the public although it could have been forced on the political leadership by some pressure group whose support the political party in power needs badly. Many of such projects emerge as the political party in power stepped up its campaign to gain more support for the coming election and millions can be dished out each day.

The promise of money for projects which had never been included in the set long term plan, raises the issue of whether such promise amount to corruption. Sometimes the demand for the project arises only when the leaders of the political party in power ie. the government, go to certain areas to campaign, or merely to explain government policy or just to meet the public.As a result millions are promised for projects approved almost on the spot. The approval may even take the form of a bargain - "You give us your support and we approve the project which wil cost so many hundreds of million." How then can we stop the opposition from saying that such promises border on corruption? The opposition will certainly not be able to offer such promises as it does not control the development fund of the nation.

Is this not money politics or is money politics confined to actually giving some money to people to vote for certain candidates contesting an election for certain positions in the party - in other words buying votes? Is buying support with the promise of giving money for projects, not included in the term? If not does it constitute corruption? If neither then what is it and is it morally and ethically sound? I kept scratching my head to find an answer until a lot of hair has already fallen.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Street Protests..

After seeing many of the video clips on the 28th April BERSIH 3.0 event showing the actions of the yellows (protestors) and the blues (police), I should say that both parties were influenced by the mob psychology rather than rational arguments. The action of the yellows in bursting through police barricade certainly calls for threatening reaction. But the kicking and punching of some youths in yellow sitting peacefully in the compound of Masjid India while the muazan was calling the Muslims to prayer, appears most irrational and emotionally driven. The more so when a group of blues started kicking and punching a helpless victim while his friends merely shouted their objection and did not come to help.

The overturning of a police patrol car was certainly done in an angry-mob spirit. But then a police car plowing throng a throng of unarmed people was not a wise thing to do either. Especiaally when there was a suspicion that someone could have been trapped underneath the car.

And now the police are going after some characters who are shown on video to be actively involved in provoking the police (or attacking the police with stones and sticks) or c causing material damage to public property. Is that fair when they were under the influence of a mob psychology as were the police when they thrashed the youths in yellow at Masjid India? Hundreds of protestors have been detained, we hear. They certainly would be Malay youths and students who could never employ the best lawyers around to defend them, while the non-Malay organizers of the event get their lawyers around to defend their case if charged.

The entire pandemonium and wild skirmish seemed to start from the ban on using the Dataran Merdeka and blocking all roads leading towards the venue. All stadiums were offered as optional venues but BERSIH organizers refused to accept the offer.Of what good is a stadium for a street protest. one may ask. It's only good for the police to facilitate crowd control while the crowd is the essence of a public protest movement. An open place somewhere else should have been offered if the city center was to be avoided.

No,one cannot blame the government for doing what it has to do to counter the opposition from hiding behind the public protest movement. And no one can blame the police for doing what it has to do to control the crowd. What can be questioned is not what has to be done but HOW COULD IT BE DONE? Lao Tsu said that the best way of winning a war is to win it without a fight. The best victory is won by not fighting. Couldn't we learn something from this philosophy? The government could have easily preempted the use of the Dataran Merdeka for some other purpose to move the protest to some other dates and some other place. Better still was to remove the causes of the protest or minimize its scope. The police can't just "close the door for any other discussion/negotiation"?. That's very peremptory and inappropriate in a democratic society.

I think the police has to rethink matters and not just issue orders not to do this and that. People with political freedom and freedom of choice want to know why certain things, not to their liking, are done. Make them appreciate the need for doing something before it is done, not try to explain (with lots of excuse), after it's done. In psychology we say make people want to do something and the thing will get done very easily. Don't try to stop a river but channel the water elsewhere if you want to avoid a flood in a certain area.

Protest movement and street protests will continue to take place in a democratic society for people have a right to state their case. There are thousand and one ways of letting people be heard. But stop them from ventilating their feelings, and democracy is sacrificed.