Friday, August 9, 2019

Uh-Oh (This is a Political Post)


The 2018 general elections presented a conundrum to a democrat like me. Yes, most of you, my readers, know perfectly well which coalition I voted for. But it was not as simple as it appeared.

I voted for Pakatan Harapan not because I truly believe in the coalition’s democratic potential. In fact, I was one of those people who truly hated their populist manifesto, and just by going through it, I knew they had no confidence of winning the election. More importantly, I entertained the idea of not voting because I didn’t want to re-elect a former prime minister who had had his chance.

Although I joined in the chorus of “Malaysia Baharu”, privately, to those closest to me, I expressed my doubt. How “baharu” can Malaysia be if we just elected a leader from “zaman lama”? For me, I see it clear as day. There was no “Malaysia Baharu”. At the very least, I laughed at the irony of “Malaysia Baharu” being helmed by a former prime minister who had led the government for 22 years in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. That seems like eons ago, now.

There were two things that made me doubt the coalition, especially with the addition of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia. Firstly, like I expressed to those closest to me, I have doubted the intention of those who formed and joined Bersatu. For the simple reason that if they truly believed in the reformasi movement, why didn’t they join one of the other parties already available?

Maybe I’m na├»ve. I do understand the political motivation behind the creation of Bersatu. None of the other then-opposition parties had the support of the rural Malay voters, and it is impossible to win the election without the support of this group of electorates. But on an individual basis, why didn’t these new Bersatu members—except for former UMNO members—joined PKR or DAP or Amanah before GE-14? Did they join Bersatu simply to gain political power or to fight for justice and equality as done by PKR and DAP for decades prior?

My second grouse is the role of Mahathir. Yes, again, I understand the political calculation of bringing him on board. His leadership definitely brought success to Pakatan Harapan in a way that has evaded Anwar Ibrahim for decades. Tun has the trust of the Malays. It just seems that everyone has suddenly forgotten the allegation of nepotism and cronyism during his first tenure as prime minister. I know that kleptocracy is the ‘in’ word these days, but there were other words filling the alternative media in the first decade of the 21st century. Sometimes I think it is true that “Melayu mudah lupa”. People say give him a chance, as people do have the ability to change for the better. Maybe I’m just a pessimist. I’m not sure how much someone in his 90s can change when he has lived the previous nine decades a certain way.  

Just to be clear, I’m talking specifically about his political ideology. I am refraining from using the word authoritarian or dictatorship. Like Tun himself said, he would be the only “dictator” to resign. He is a politician. But is he a democratic politician? In the literature, we know there is a difference between a change in political behaviour and one of political ideology. The former simply means he has changed his outward conduct to appear more democratic. For example, choosing to form a new party to compete against the party that gave him a platform many years ago. Yet, it is very difficult to ascertain if a person has changed his or her political ideology to become more democratic because that is more entrenched. At the end of the day, it is our ideology that directs our behaviour.

People also say that if Anwar can forgive him, so should the rest of the country. This is when I had to check myself from giving my rude eye-roll. Anwar is a politician himself! Of course, he has forgiven Tun, because he knows without Tun’s support, he will never be the next prime minister. Anwar is a calculative politician himself, and that is how he has survived until today. God knows, maybe he has sincerely forgiven Tun, and I do hope so. But that is not reason enough to put someone in the highest office in government.

Why do I sound so bitter? Because I can see my prediction slowly unfolds itself right now. I’ve always had respect for Tun, even post-1998, but not for any democratic credentials he may have, but for his statesmanship. No one can deny Tun is a great statesman. Without him, who knows what Malaysia would look like today. When I was in the LSE, I only needed to say “Malaysia” and my classmates would say “Mahathir”. That is how synonymous he is with this nation.

Since he is such a great statesman and politician, I know that nothing happened in the country without his astute calculation. I am starting to question everything. From his “equal” distribution of ministerial positions, to his appointment of first-term MPs as ministers, to his acceptance of former UMNO members to join Bersatu, and to his CALL for more UMNO members to join Bersatu. When you say that the Malays are weak, you are implying that the non-Malays are gaining strength. This, in my opinion, is a very smart move to gain the attention of the Malays. For that, I am in awe of Tun as a strategist. Maybe I am too invested in the reformasi movement that I cannot fathom why we would want to sleep in the same bed with our ideological nemesis? In the name of democracy, let there be healthy opposition.

So why did I vote for Harapan? Because like I always tell my students, politics is about choosing the lesser of evils. I’m not saying that all politicians are evil, but I believe in the saying “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. These politicians are in the game to gain power. Nothing morally wrong with that! We need people who are ambitious to run the government. But as mindful citizens, we need to always be on guard. Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Harapan, both have their flaws. But “tepuk dada” and ask yourself, which coalition would do less damage to the country. Some of my students answered PAS. Fine.

What would happen in GE-15? At this point, no one knows. But if the country decides to vote Barisan Nasional back into power, I have no problem with that. See, I’m a democrat. I believe in the democratic process to choose our government. Democracy is a process; it is not the outcome. I support the people’s right to vote in a free and fair election. That is all I have ever wanted. For as long as I can remember, Malaysia has never had a free and fair election. 2018 was NOT a year where we had free and fair elections. Yet, Harapan was able to dethrone Barisan Nasional. I tear up every time because it reminds me of the “people’s power”.

If the people decide Harapan is a one-term government, so be it. Japan had the same experience and so did Mexico. The important lesson is that as a nation, we have proven to the world that we were able to change administration peacefully, and thus the people shall not worry if one day we decide to change administration again. It can be done, and it can be done without blood being shed. That is the victory.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

University Teacher


This post is dedicated to my graduating students. Congratulations!




I never seriously wanted to be a teacher. Never. I know myself. I am too impatient for the job requirement. When I used to tutor my high school friends, I would get easily frustrated when, for example, they couldn’t understand calculations for trigonometry or calculus just because Add Math came naturally to me. If I could understand it, why couldn’t they? I was hot-headed. My friends used to joke that they wanted to put my picture on their table during exam because they feared my angry face.

In college, I had friends who actually wanted to be lecturers. They talked about their dream to sit in front of a class full of students to share their wisdom and philosophy. I would just listen to those dreams. That was not my dream.

My dream? I wanted to work in the field. During my scholarship interview with JPA, I said that I wanted to be a political analyst, not really understanding what it means. I just wanted to work whether it be in a political party, or an NGO, or a think-tank, or perhaps as a special officer. But I never seriously thought of pursuing a master’s degree, much less a doctorate. I remember being an undergraduate and thinking I have spent ALL my life being studious, I REFUSED to continue my study. I thought I was sick of studying.

But then, life gets in the way and God has his plan for me. Just for the heck of it, like most of my current students, I applied to a few universities to do my master’s degree. I got accepted to all three of my dream universities: Columbia in New York, Georgetown in DC (with a personal email by the professor congratulating me on my acceptance), and the LSE in London. As someone who is quasi-superstitious, I felt God was giving me a huge nudge to do it. So, instead of applying for jobs, I spent my final semester and the following summer break applying for a scholarship. 

But the old Syaza returned following my graduation from the LSE. I WANTED TO WORK. No PhD! Even though by then I had two personal invitations by faculty members at IIUM and UM to do my PhD and become a lecturer, I said, “nope, nuh-uh”. Enough studying. Time to work. So, I did. For a year I tried working and it turns out…I HATE working as an executive. Sitting behind a desk with a manager breathing down my neck was NOT for me.

Leaving behind a steady paycheck, I went back to IIUM, accepted their offer to fund my doctorate and the rest is history.

So, now, how do I feel about teaching? I. Love. It.

I thought I would hate teaching. I used to tell myself that when I joined IIUM I would dedicate myself to research, and teaching would be secondary. Thus, I surprised myself very much when I accepted a part-time teaching position at a private college knowing that teaching would take me away from doing research. But guess what? I’ve loved every minute of it.

Why do I love teaching? Because it gave me hope. When I talk to my students, I realize that there is a glimmer of hope for Malaysia. Our youth are not as hopeless as the media makes them out to be. They just need guidance and some support. When I allow them to talk freely, a discourse materializes in class on issues that are close to my heart, namely the role of religion in politics. Coming from the US and the UK, I was pessimistic on how serious Malaysian students are to understand the separation between the private and public spheres. To my surprise, they understand. Not all of them agree with me, which is fine, but at least they are willing to listen and discuss. That gives me joy. And that is all the motivation I need to continue teaching.

So, the moral of my story is, you never know where life is going to lead you. I know it is scary graduating with a political science degree; it’s not medicine or engineering, so what should you do for a living? I’ll tell you; the sky is the limit. Seriously. Because with a political science degree, you don’t have to be boxed into a specific profession. I’ll just end with what I always say to my first- and second-year students: it does not matter what is your major as long as you do your BEST at it, because if you are good, people will come knocking on YOUR door.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Use Us

Since I am still officially on maternity leave, I have somewhat been isolated from the outside world for the last two and a half months. But a few days ago, I started my routine again of listening to news on the radio and I heard—for the thousandth time--a news item, which should no longer be newsworthy by now, about how our local graduates are not equipped with the right skills to face the challenges of working today. Probably yes, probably no; but as a college professor, I can only speak of what I know.

And this is what I know.

Yes, besides the science and technical fields such as medicine and engineering, we college professors do not really teach specific ‘skills’. But like I’ve rambled in front of my students before, do not underestimate the knowledge and other life skills gained in class regardless of a student's major, whether it be political science or Quran and Sunnah.

The most important skill one learns in university, in my opinion, is the ability to write convincingly. Most people I know does not appreciate the importance of a good writing skill. Writing is not about language proficiency. Instead, writing is related to our thought processes. I always tell my students not to write long winding sentences. It only shows that a person's mind lacks focus. But if someone can write coherent sentences that result in a coherent paper, it shows that the mind is trained in such a way to think analytically and in a structured manner. If a paper lacks coherence in terms of argument, points made, and conclusion, it shows that a person has not really thought an issue through. If a student has not even ‘thought’ about something, how can he or she be expected to ‘explain’ it well.

Analytical skill has always been touted as what’s missing among our graduates. I say, instead of sending them to do two years internship for them to get lost in the machinery, that time is better spent sharpening their ability to analytically think through a problem and to provide the necessary solution in writing form. A person does not need much to be able to do that besides the skill of thinking. And trust me, even in Industry 4.0, that skill will never be outdated.

Skill numero dos: speaking. Again, the same complaint we hear every year. Our graduates can’t speak to save their lives. Similar to writing, when we talk about ‘speaking’, we don’t mean language proficiency. Although being proficient in English would be helpful as it boosts one’s clarity in speaking, more importantly, the ability to speak in front of an audience is related to the confidence that one gains to speak one’s mind. Where do we learn this? During class discussion. During class presentation. If students cannot even speak up in class, what makes them think they would be able to speak up in a meeting in the real world? To convince their bosses to give their proposal a chance? Brush up on that skill at university first; no where else will one get the opportunity to focus on learning to stand one's ground, to argue with facts, and to know when to concede defeat.

Which brings me to my next point. Communication skill is also about respecting another’s opinion. In other words, the skill of listening. It is in university that you learn no one has all the right answers, all the time. We college professors argue over the smallest to the biggest points. That is how we evolve as human beings. Where else would you be lumped with people from different walks of life, with nothing to do but to ponder and debate on important issues, if not in university?

Some of my students have also made mention that they would love to have technical-based courses included in their program. In my humble opinion, those courses they mentioned (software-based, mostly) can either be self-taught or requires a weekend or two to learn. But what you get in a traditional class setting is something that cannot be taught in one weekend. I guess there's a reason this method of passing on knowledge has been ongoing for centuries.

What other skills do they always mention as important? Working in a group. Done. In class, there will always be projects that need more than three people involved.

The point I am making is to stop chastising the university system. There is nothing wrong with putting people through four more years of formal tertiary education. It is never about the facts learned in class (which most of us would forget anyway after graduation), but the development of an important set of skills including patience, perseverance, and dedication. All other technical skills can be obtained later in life. But as young adults, they need to learn to speak their mind, to provide solutions to unique problems, and the ability to think as mature adults.

A university is a place to produce thinkers. It is not a factory line producing employees. Good employees are basically good people who can think on their feet. Let’s focus on producing good people first. The rest will fall into place.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Babe In Total Control of Herself

Ten years ago, as a student, when my good friend Zaim asked me if I was a feminist, my answer was a playful "no". I remember the conversation until today. I justified it by saying that men and women are different, period (pun intended). But after getting married and especially after becoming a mom--a working mom--I am now a STAUNCH feminist. I even feel like God trusts me with three daughters because I am the right person to make them strong and independent feminists.

My initial foray into feminism started when I first got interested in equal pay. Like most lay person, I did not believe that there is a pay gap between males and females. It doesn't make sense to a young professional because when we first started, of course, we were all paid the same. But what happened after a certain period? So, I did little research on the subject and found that there is a real pay gap between males and females across the world, across professions, and across positions. Women are paid less in general because most women work in low-paying jobs, and women are also paid less compared to men with the same job title. Why? Apparently because males are more valuable to a company. Why? Because someone has to be home for the children. Even if a couple doesn't have children, someone has to clean and cook, and guess who has to carry that burden?

Don't read this as a scathing write-up against my husband or men in general. I have massive love and respect for my husband, father and brother. But society...man, society... When are we going to move away from patriarchal thinking. Society rewards men who stay at work until midnight, but society expects women to go home at 5 for the kids. While her male colleagues are brushing up on their work, the females are at home brushing the kids' teeth. Some may say that is how it has always been. Men bring in the dough, women are the caregivers. But my God how many times have I heard male speakers try to drill in our heads that we need two incomes to live comfortably. Women have to help their husbands financially as a sign of love. Don't husbands have to show love to their wives? Don't children deserve two parents to grow up well?

So, what's the solution? I don't believe anything will change until society decides to change. Stop punishing men (financially) who choose to go home early to be with his family. Stop expecting women to drop everything to be home when the kids are unwell. I have seen it around me. Female colleagues taking days off because the kids are unwell, the kids have to go to science camp, the kids have to... Almost every time I wanted to scream "Where's the dad?!" Working mothers have ambitions too, but she still has clothes to dry, dishes to wash, etc. Many times I've heard bosses/managers told their female subordinates that they can't do a job because they have to be home early. In my head I am sarcastically asking "And the men don't have to be home, why? Aren't the kids his as well? Isn't the home his too?"

I love it when I read stories of people like Mark Zuckerberg who took months-long paternity leave. This would allow for a more level playing field. I am not blaming 'men'; I am blaming society. How are men expected to take long paternity leave if his employer only allows 3-7 days leave? Some women take as long as 6 months to 1 year off to care for her baby because it is difficult to find trusted help. And when she starts working again, she would be behind her other colleagues. And that's only the beginning of how gender pay gap happens.

I am not just expressing my dissatisfaction here. I am currently involved in a research that is studying inequality at the workplace. It happens. But most of us are too used to it that we don't even see it happening in front of us. We women have been too kind for so long, accepting whatever is offered as if our service is worthless because it worths less. May I remind these women that they make up a majority of students in universities; they make up the majority of honor graduates. Demand your right. Believe me, the world suffers without strong women, not just to be behind strong men, but to be the leaders that we are. Remember the famous quote: "You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation."

Don't let a man call us a bitch because we like to adhere to a dateline. Don't let a man call us a bitch because we are organized. Don't let a man call us a bitch because we demand a pay rise. They have done all these the entire history of humanity. When women do the same, they are called names to a point that men fail to recognize the bitch they're calling are mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters. I believe most men have one of the above.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Unity in Diversity

The Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) has been in the news for the typical reason of possible national unity disintegration if it were to be recognized. While it is understood that the matter is complex and can’t be discussed in a short opinion piece, there are two main issues I would like to put the spotlight on.

The first issue brought up by Malay nationalists is the need to uphold or memartabatkan Bahasa Melayu. I do agree that as Malaysians, we need to at least have a basic grasp of Bahasa Melayu. But who are we kidding when we equate Bahasa Melayu with national unity? Sure, when we go to the mamak restaurant, workshop, or night market, we can hear Bahasa Melayu is the choice of language being spoken by the different races. But among (middle-class) neighbors, colleagues, or friends, I often hear English as the chosen language. Does it erode the affability among us? I don't think so.

As I have previously argued[1], language is not the make or break of national unity. We recognize Bahasa Melayu as the official language of the country, but it doesn’t mean we have to speak Bahasa Melayu in our daily life and it does not make us any less Malaysian if we choose English or any other language as our lingua franca. In fact, as a democrat, I am truly against the idea of imposing anything on anyone. When we force people to inherit an identity-marker that they are not comfortable with, it would lead to further frustration and dissent. To me, the feeling of being unwelcomed and unwanted for your choice of language is what would lead to national disunity. On the other hand, when people feel safe and secure to be who they really are without being discriminated against, there is a higher likelihood that they would carry the national flag with pride wherever they go.

The second argument is the need to learn our history. As a history aficionado, I will always support the importance of teaching and learning history. But as any other subject taught under our national school system, it is not the name of the subject that matters, but the learning outcome. What do our kids learn from their history class? I can safely say they learned nothing. It has even become cool to say that history is boring (which makes me a bore as well, perhaps). While I use to feel sad that my peers are so uninterested in the history of their own country, I now hold less grudge against them because, to be honest, our history class taught us nothing. It asks us to memorize some names and dates but avoided addressing the more important questions of “What do we learn from this?”, “How to avoid history repeating itself?”, and “Is there another interpretation of the same event?” These questions and the answers that follow will lead to further unity, not knowing the name of someone from a hundred years ago.

This brings me to my final argument, which is that as Malaysians, we need to move beyond superficiality as a nation. Being a Malaysian should go beyond speaking a certain language, going to a certain school system, or taking a certain exam. Call me an extreme liberal, but I truly believe it is time we speak of values when we speak of being Malaysian: tolerant, kindness, respect for the rule of law, respect for human rights, openness, etc. 

Identity is never fixed. The Malays today are not the same as the Malays from 500 years ago. We used to be divided along ethnic lines but now we call each other, simply, Malays. So why can’t the concept of a 'Malaysian' parallel this trajectory?



  • [1] Mohamad Shukri, S. F. (2017). The Role of Ethnic Politics in Promoting Democratic Governance: A Case Study of Malaysia. Intellectual Discourse 25(2), pp. 321-339