July 15, 2010

I am what I believe

Posted in Religion, The Cause at 7:15 pm by egalitaria

I was invited last Friday to speak at an event jointly organised by Empower and SIRD (Strategic Information and Research Development Centre) entitled “I am what I believe”. A rather intriguing topic to begin with, the objective of the forum was to bring a diverse range of youth together to discuss the role of religion in politics and the fine workings between the two. The speakers represented the fields of law (Aston Pava from the Bar Council), feminist activism (Nazreen Nizam from Sisters in Islam), social and community work (Mrithula Shiva from the URI, United Religions Initiative), and public policy (myself).

Though I did not have a text, I was asked to prepare a summary of what I wrote for the purposes of their record-keeping and report. So here we go. A rough outline of what I said last Friday evening at MBPJ, with about 30-odd young people sacrificing their night out to have some solid discussion on the religious-political sphere in Malaysia.

The Relationship between Faith and Politics

Tonight I will speak on two over-arching topics in relation to faith and politics; the first will outline my personal background and the reasons for which I subscribe to the principles I believe in today, and thereafter I will try to address the problems that are currently being faced in Malaysia.

I’d like to firstly put a caveat that I am not speaking on behalf of the state government. However, because I do wear that particular hat, I do have a certain amount of experience and exposure in the realm of policy-making from a state government’s point of view. Hence, I speak as a policy analyst, one with experience in government, and one who happens to have been brought up in the tradition of the Christian faith.

My heritage is therefore one of Christian tradition. Having grown up in an environment of relative conservative spirituality, the ‘church’ had us believe that much of what constitutes Christianity is essentially to do with one’s spiritual health – the relationship between self and God, the divine. Most of our teachings were centred upon how to improve one’s spirituality, with a particular focus on the afterlife. However, as I started becoming exposed to public issues such as corruption, injustice, cost overruns (such as the Istana we are now faced with), abuse of power, discrimination of minorities and a host of other issues, I realised that the public-private divide was a myth, for someone whose faith so fundamentally describes the personhood of someone.

Again, I am only speaking based on my own experience. The division between the public and private spheres in this instance was difficult, especially since the ethos that drove me as a person – those very principles of justice, honesty, truth, accountability – were the same things that I would project onto the public sphere. Faith and politics were hence intimately intertwined insofar as social justice was concerned. For example, the efforts to fight slavery in the past stemmed precisely from faith principles (or the interpretation of what those religious principles were to that particular group of advocates).

My premise is therefore that for those whose faiths so intensely drive their being, it is not possible to extricate one from the other. The problem arises, however, when there are varying interpretations of opinions on public morality; or when policymakers begin to take it upon themselves to consciously legislate public morality. This, again, is entirely possible, if and only if, the leader concerned is able to rationally consider what is the greater good for all. This means that policy decisions must be made for ALL from different backgrounds, and these differences must be taken into consideration.

Living in Southeast Asia and Asia, for example, it is inevitable that any of us would have had some sort of exposure to religion growing up and even at present. To say strictly that there IS a separation of the two is utopian for some but impractical for most. Given this reality, how then do we approach decision-making for the public at large?

Let’s focus on Malaysia right now. The problem in our country is that there is a tight and interrelated nexus between the issues of race, religion and politics. Race and religion so fundamentally describe identity. The nexus is therefore between identity and faith, identity and power, which are extremely strong ties. Without delving too deeply into history, the Iranian Revolution in 1979 without a doubt spurred Muslims in Malaysia towards a religious wave. Again, this is too sweeping a generalisation and I am not doing justice to historical political discourse, but what resulted from these trends were the emergence of political parties in a race towards being more Islamic than the other: UMNO and PAS. I do not doubt the genuine intentions of many, but there have certainly been strategic steps taken for political expediency purposes, on both sides. Therefore this establishes that religion in Malaysia ties too closely with politics for us to have a rational discussion on the theoretical relationship between faith and politics – or rather, the prescriptive notion of what ought to be in place.

In addressing the issue of a secular vs. an Islamic state, I believe the definition of the term secular or secularisation is interpreted differently by different quarters, and therein lies the difficulty of discourse. A secular state does not necessarily mean one that is completely non-religious. This just means that the country is not legally defined or shaped or dictated by those religious principles, for example as mentioned above the legislating of public morality. In any case, even without those legal tags that we place upon Malaysia, can we not be satisfied to say that the country is in fact Muslim in ethos nevertheless?

The more interesting question to me, therefore, is then to what extent can personal beliefs inform our policy decisions? Should they at all? In the courts, through government administration? I believe that faith can inform and influence our decisions, but only to the extent that it benefits the greater good for all. The important consideration is that of people of multiple religions being affected as a result of any public policy decision.

And yet, more and more issues besiege us daily. There are the issues of the “Allah” controversy, temple relocation, church-burning, Kartika and caning as a result of alcohol consumption, apostasy and the list continues. My personal conviction is that we ought to ask ourselves where we are at the cross-roads, where we want to go and how is it we are to get there? We must be able to work on faith principles and common values that can be applied to the public sphere. I can think offhand of initiatives such as working on poverty, the right to water, refugee issues, humanitarian aid, and so on. There is a need to recognise common ground, that of respect, dignity, trust. The Common Word Document that was sent by leading Muslims around the world to the Church community was an epitome of such respect for a common belief in one God and that of loving thy neighbour.

This work has to begin with the young, as I believe some would be too encumbered with baggage of their own beliefs and that of their heritages (including that within the Christian faith) to progress further. More people of such thought projections should be empowered to speak up and express their opinions, without the religious agenda being hijacked by a select few. More avenues must be given, such that religious views are not exclusive to those who are legally or administratively given the right to speak or define one’s personal beliefs. We must be able to break free from the insecurities, fears of identity that have burdened our own communities for far too long.

What are the right avenues to work on this agenda? Through profession (the vocation that one chooses to take up i.e. law, policy), involvement in civil society (NGOs like Perkasa are powerful but to speak up means forming and joining other NGOs to have a critical mass and show voice and power), politics (being involved in actual decision-making or supporting those in politics who share your views), the media and Internet (Web 3.0 is powerful as a source of influencing opinions far and wide). Ultimately, it’s about education and opening of the mind. Remember this. Leaders make decisions based on what they believe the people want. Enough people believing and displaying publicly that they desire traditional, classical religion to be less defined within the law, will eventually lead the way to that end. This, after all, is democracy.

July 14, 2010

Selangor Fulfills Commitment on Right to Information

Posted in Selangor, The Cause at 9:55 pm by egalitaria

Download the FOI Draft Enactment HERE.

The idea for a Freedom of Information Act is not a new one. Many a conference and public forum has called for such an enactment even prior to the March 8th General Election. In other countries, it varies from being known as a “Freedom of Information” to a “Right to Information” Act (the latter is true for countries in India). When Pakatan Rakyat stepped into power in Selangor, this was a prime opportunity for the state government to put into practice what it has always called for at the Federal level.

The process was not necessarily an easy or a direct one. The enactment was drafted by several parties, and went under the scrutiny of the State Legal Advisor in its final stages. The issue of the Official Secrets Act (OSA) and how that would work was one issue on everyone’s minds. Administratively, which agencies would be covered? What would the mechanisms be? Who makes the decisions? All these questions are hopefully answered in the draft enactment…

Which has been finally tabled for first and second reading TODAY at the Selangor State Legislative Assembly! Let today be a historic day, with an unprecedented enactment, either at the State or Federal levels. The next step is for the newly elected Select Committee (chaired by YB Saari Sungib) to decide on how to proceed, which would include several rounds of public consultation. After collating the feedback and having various (thorough I am sure) discussions, table it for the third and final reading.

We must ensure that the implementation of this FOI enactment takes place efficiently, lest it becomes a mere justification for living up to our own self-imposed standards of transparency and public accountability. Officers with traditional and conservative views will need to be given training and exposure, to operate on the principle of information availability with only narrow exceptions.

We should also now include as a clarion call for the Federal Government to take up the initiative. In the very least, some reform must be done to address the archaic laws of the OSA, Printing Presses and Publications Act, and a slew of other Acts which have continuously served to restrict and muzzle freedom of expression and of media.

Thanks to YB Elizabeth Wong (Chair of the FOI Taskforce) and team, they’ve compiled the Media Reports below here. Enjoy:

S’gor tables ground-breaking FOI Bill (Malaysiakini)
Enakmen kebebasan maklumat (Malaysiakini)
‘Bil kebebasan maklumat ‘ceroboh’ perlembagaan’ (Malaysiakini)
Selangor merakyatkan informasi (Malaysiakini)
BN says FOI encroaching on Federal powers (TheEdge)
Amid media clampdown, S’gor tables FOI Bill (Malaysia Chronicle)
巫统议员批雪资讯自由法违宪 黄洁冰:阳光是最好的消毒剂 (Malaysiakini)
雪政府提呈资讯自由法 决策与行事摊在阳光下 (merdekareview)
指大臣有解密权无必要立法 国阵:雪州资讯自由法违宪 (merdekareview)
《资讯自由法令》让人民监督政府 拯救被腐蚀的机制 (Therocknews)
BN opposition attacks Selangor’s Information bill (TheMalaysianInsider)

July 10, 2010

Democratising Women

Posted in Malaysia, Selangor, Tricia's Writings at 3:16 pm by egalitaria

The July edition of the Penang Economic Monthly is out! This time I co-author a piece with gender expert Dr. Cecilia Ng on the issue of Democratising Women. Gender and politics in Malaysia is changing rapidly with the Pakatan Rakyat having a significant number of women representatives. What have the Selangor and Penang state governments done to advance the gender reform agenda?

Democratising Women

Tricia Yeoh and Cecilia Ng

Part of the excitement associated with the post-political tsunami of March 8th 2008 when Pakatan Rakyat (PR) took over four (now three) state governments was that it signalled a greater democratisation of the country’s polity. This process certainly includes the transition towards making the practice of deeply entrenched public power more transparent and accountable, the debates of which have indeed since flourished at both Federal and State levels. Today, we have both the Barisan Nasional and PR component parties championing the labels of transparency and accountability in a political market competition of sorts, the evaluation of which is at the public’s disposal, and the results of which are tabulated at elections – or so the process ought to be.

That said, another fundamental aspect of this process of ‘greater democratisation’ is that of inclusive citizenship, where all individuals in society should be empowered to contribute to the formation and practice of public policy – the drawing upon private citizens into public spheres so to speak. Academics have argued that although democracy is premised on the idea of universal citizenship where everyone has the right to be treated equally under the law, it tends to reflect the male and heterosexual citizen. The redefinition of politics is therefore necessary to challenge the practice of it being essentially male-dominated and heteronormative.

And Malaysia?

The same is true of Malaysia, whose male-dominant political representation has resulted in gender-skewed policies and practices. Who can forget, for example, one Parliamentarian’s brash remarks referring to a fellow woman Member of Parliament’s menstrual cycle in utterly distasteful humour? More serious, however, are the impacts of such similar strains of thought upon the laws that govern the country, and in turn, the implications of those on women. One of the solutions has been through a model of ‘fast-tracking’ to redress the historic exclusion of women, where more and more countries are adopting quotas, as temporary measures, for increased political representation for women. The goal is to ensure both descriptive and substantive representation of women in the political arena.

There are 13.9 million women in the country, making up % of the national population. The participation rate of women in the Malaysian labour force increased from 44.7% in 1995 to 46.4% in 2009, which is relatively low compared to neighbouring countries like Thailand (70%), Singapore (60.2%) and Indonesia (51.8%). In positions of decision-making, the number of female Members of Parliament increased from 5.3% to 10.4% between 1990 and 2009. Women now account for 30.5% of top public sector management positions in 2010, a rise from 6.9% in 1995. However, in the private sector women only make up 6.1% of Malaysia’s corporate directors.

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July 4, 2010

Selangor’s Freedom of Information Enactment

Posted in Selangor, The Cause at 4:47 pm by egalitaria

It’s taken a while, but the Selangor Freedom of Information Enactment will finally be tabled for its first reading at the upcoming State Legislative Assembly sitting! It will be interesting to see how the Federal Government reacts to this, although they should not be too concerned since only state-related documents will be of relevance here.

BFM Radio interviewed me earlier in the week (it was aired on Monday 7.30am, which I unfortunately missed). The podcast is available here. I spoke about our plans to table the enactment, as well as what the draft roughly contains.

One of the issues was whether or not the Official Secrets Act would interfere with our enactment. The answer (broadly speaking, since there are many technical details that one could write on) is no: Only state-agencies’ information will be made transparently available to the public. Federal agencies’ documents, classified by the Federal Government, are not relevant in this case. However, the Selangor Menteri Besar has the authority under Section 2A of the OSA to declassify certain documents, the power of which he has already exercised numerous times over the past two years (on issues like Bukit Botak etc.).

This is not the final draft yet and there will be several stages to go, like a Select Committee to be formed, public opinion gathered based on the existing document, and then second reading after taking those recommendations and suggestions into account.

World Cup Project: Gol?

Posted in Malaysia, Outside Malaysia, Tricia's Writings at 4:39 pm by egalitaria

Amir Muhammad and team always seem to have some project or other up their sleeve. I appreciate their creativity in a Malaysian society that is just too willing to go with the flow, without any initiative on new and fresh ideas. So their project Gol? is yet another addition, a breath of fresh air to the stale rot, I mean, political condition, of Malaysia. They’ve gathered authors to write on their experiences and thoughts whilst watching the 2010 World Cup being staged in South Africa, from local mamak stalls and such. It’s been interesting to observe the variety of writing styles and content of each author.

I was invited to contribute a piece on the last Quarter Final match, between Paraguay and Spain. Yes, Spain won. And yes, my piece lacks football punditry (I am not a football pundit), and is bone-dry as it analyses history and policy somewhat. But here it is for your consumption.

Paraguay vs. Spain

by Tricia Yeoh

The world is flat, and so is the football field. But the international flavour of any World Cup offers other historical sub-themes that are unseen at face value. Here you have the gathering of once-upon-a-time colonisers and their former colonies, put together in the spirit of apparent sporting unity and brotherhood. Never mind that their forefathers once had you under their thumb for centuries, putting you in a position of subordination. No, the World Cup erases all national memory. Come to the pitch and think about the game. Nothing else matters.

Or does it?

This psychological love-hate relationship of coloniser-colony is something Malaysians have equally struggled with. The British left us with infrastructure, schools, language, and a legal and constitutional framework of governance, which were positive contributions. But they also initiated a divide-and-rule system, conveniently classifying our wide variety of ethnicities into categories of ‘race’, which we have inherited today, causing us to think of Malaysians as largely homogeneous definitions of “Malay, Chinese, Indian”. We have not been able to rise above this particular negative effect the British left behind. In fact, this tragedy and its political consequences may be the singular cause for all other problems faced, including Malaysia’s inability to shine in international football.

This quarter-finals pitted Spain against its former colony, Paraguay. Although Paraguay achieved its independence relatively early compared to other Spanish conquests in South America, almost 300 years of authoritarian Spanish rule had a detrimental effect on their people, in terms of poverty, lack of access to education and undemocratic practices. Paraguay would thereafter succumb to dictatorship and civil unrest, leading it to a struggling economy which still exists today, with about 60% of its people living in poverty.

But their fighting spirit at Ellis Park tonight bore no resemblance to these conditions. Although the first half ended with no goals on either side, Paraguay showed its brute confidence and bravado in pushing forward, never giving up despite their disadvantaged position. They were, after all, up against the team that topped the bookmakers’ odds in winning the World Cup (that is, before Spain’s first game).

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