Monday, November 20, 2017

Perfect Proportion

Anyone who knows me knows that 2001 was a defining year in my life. In one horrible series of events, the course of my life was charted. I hated how my religion was hijacked when 19 people hijacked those airplanes. I hated how hate was so widespread. I hated how the world was divided between us and them. I hated how we flamed the fire further with more atrocious acts by those proclaiming to believe in the same God. I hated how all these hatred stem from ignorance. So, I decided to make it my lifelong profession to bridge this knowledge gap.

More importantly, during days when I would cry reading the news, I always told myself, God must have had a better plan. There must be a reason for these horrible events. The Most Merciful and the Most Gracious would not have left us downtrodden for so long. It is my belief that nothing happens out of vain. Even when I was a young girl, I saw how dialogue was opened. Conversation was started. Real understanding began to be fostered. Personally, I saw it in Pittsburgh. I was blown away by not only the acceptance of the community, but also by their eagerness to learn about Islam. On my first day of class, I knew change was coming.

Last week, I heard the news of the hijab Barbie manufactured by Mattel. We are talking about legitimate Barbie, real Barbie, and not a knockoff brand of a female doll. Mattel designed a Barbie wearing hijab in honor of Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first hijab wearing American Olympic medalist. And I cried. I am someone who appreciates pioneers and brand loyalty is very high to me. To know I no longer need to buy a cheap hijab wearing doll for my daughters is a huge relief. And I believe we were only able to get here through a slow process of understanding, tolerance, and the acceptance that Muslims in the West are no longer second-class citizens. Muslims are not just the doctors who live next door to you or the ones with a Shawarma shop down the road. Muslims have just as much aspiration to be acknowledged and celebrated as part of society. We are normal.

As I said, this is not something that came about overnight. I have witnessed over the years a growing number of portrayal of Muslims in Western media. Yes, it is not just Muslims; there has been an increase in diversity on television to include more minority groups. But as a Muslim, it is glaring to me when a show decided to put a hijab wearing character into the narrative matter-of-factly. I cry tears of joy every time. I can think of the ‘P&G Thank You, Mom’ commercial for the 2018 Winter Olympics and the banned Pepsi commercial starring Kendall Jenner. These are just some examples I can think of right now. But it is apparent that Muslims—usually presented by a hijab wearing female—are no longer alien and misunderstood. There is a new level of understanding on the belief and practices of 1.7 billion Muslims. For me, that is the most beautiful thing.

Of course, the world is not all rosy and peachy. Islamophobia is still there. Unfair discrimination based on religion is still there. Nationalists who think Muslims who are born in the West should go ‘home’ are still there. Yet, it is crucial for us to believe that for every person who hates us out there, someone is willing to take us in shelter. I have faith in humans. Who else am I going to turn to?


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Election of the Youth, by the Youth, for the Youth

Malaysia is facing a general election in the next few months as stipulated by the country’s constitution. There has been amped up efforts by the Election Commission, through its Election Academy, to get more youths to register as voters. These are all good measures in a democratic country. However, for years, there has been rumblings especially by the opposition, to make registration and voting compulsory.

While it sounds like common sense, there is a good argument against making voting compulsory. Firstly, in a liberal-democracy, the people should have the right to vote for the incumbent, the opposition, or not to vote at all. Usually, voters go out to vote as an expression of their political will. However, there may be a section of the population that is disillusioned by the political scene that their sense of political efficacy is affected. As a result, they could not even make up their mind who to vote for.

Of course, one can argue that as a citizen, it is their responsibility to decide on the future leader of our country. But another way to see it is that they may not feel that the opposition can do much anyway, so why bother rocking the boat. In this sense, by not voting, they are showing their support for the status quo. On another hand, if they truly want the current government to continue leading the country, the argument goes, they should make their voices heard. However, as disillusioned youths, maybe it does not matter to them who rules. Maybe, that should not be blown into a bigger issue.

These youths who do not have an established political attitude, may not make informed decision if they are forced to vote. Without interest in politics or the sense of political efficacy, they may vote based on the voting behaviour of their peers. How is that much better?

Voting should not be made compulsory. Let those who are politically aware do the hard work of comparing parties to choose the lesser of evils. If the youths feels their voices are not acknowledged, they may rise on their own, without mandatory registration or voting as it did in 2013 when 84% of voters went out to vote. This is relatively high among countries that do not have compulsory voting.

If we want the youths to vote, do not force them. Encourage them by letting them know that they are being heard. When the youths band together, they can move mountains. Or at the least, vote for young leaders as they did in Canada, France, Austria, and more recently New Zealand.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Viva la vide (live life)

A lot of people do not get why I am so obsessed with the American education system. Besides the fact that it is very rigorous (6 years to complete a PhD), the thing that I learned the most from my time in Pittsburgh that I carry until today is WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AN EDUCATOR. Before I went to Pittsburgh, I was taught under Malaysia’s system for 13 years (including for my pre-Uni, because let’s face it, those are MALAYSIAN teachers). What is it that I meant by the 'Malaysian education system'? They are meant to PUNISH rather than to REWARD students. I brought this issue up during my second BTN (Biro Tata Negara). The facilitator looked me in the eyes and said, “Malaysian students are not as mature as American students.”

What am I talking about specifically? Let’s put it this way. I was a foreign student thrown into the American system for the first time; therefore, 1) I am NOT a native English speaker, and 2) I had been taught in a different system my whole life. However, I graduated from Pittsburgh with a 3.99 CGPA (I only got one A- and that was a systematic issue as no student got high marks in that class). My point? As much as I am a hard-worker, there is no doubt in my mind that the lecturers chose to reward rather than to punish me. They saw my efforts and they graded me based on that. Me being a kiasu student, I took it a step further by making sure I met each of my lecturer so that he or she can put a face behind the name. They also appreciated my effort to improve by seeking their assistance. I did the same thing at the LSE.

Speaking of the LSE, even though I did not graduate with distinction, I GRADUATED from the LSE with merit. Yes, it was more stringent, and being at the LSE reminded me a lot of Malaysia's education system (exam-based). Nevertheless, because I put in so much effort, I got praised by a few of my lecturers in class. My LSE lecturers. They are world-class academicians. Why? Because they are not interested in nit-picking my mistakes. They wanted to EDUCATE me. That is my point. I learned what it means to be an educator. An educator is someone who motivates his or her students to continue this beautiful life-long journey of learning. In fact, I always tell my students that I am a political science student just like them. Once you are an academician, you become a life-long student.

I like to think that I am re-paying my debt by exercising the same principle to my students. Case-in point: from my very short experience as a lecturer, I was able to convince two of my students from different departments to minor in political science. They got interested in the subject. How did I do it? I pointed out their efforts and I downplayed their shortcomings. I have to take into consideration the fact that they are not political science majors, and they had ZERO interest in politics at the start of semester (MANY of them admitted to me that they got interested in politics after taking my class). I like to give them the time and space to get acquainted with the subject and to improve, because that was what my lecturers in Pittsburgh did to me. With their guidance, I graduated summa cum laude and among the top 2% of my class. I want the same thing for my students.

So what is wrong with the Malaysian education system? Malaysian educators are here to show you how horrible you are and not how you can improve. There is a difference between the two. My final words: go critique your own academic work. (That’s my civil way of saying, “Go *bleep* your *bleep*"). Mic-drop.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Of Hypocrisy and Absurdity in Malaysia

Is there any doubt that misogyny is well and alive in Malaysia?

Last Sunday, dozens of men competed for the title of Mr. Malaysia. You know what it is. Men, in their shorts, showing off their six-packs and other muscles in order to prove that they are the best bodybuilders in the country. Do you hear a viral ruckus over it? Of course not, because they are men. Look, I’m not here to tell you what you should or should not do, but to all Malaysians, especially Malay Muslims, can we have some consistency please? Most of the contestants are Malay Muslims, but somehow it is acceptable for them to parade their bodies on stage because it is a sport. Has everyone forgotten the cruel, unnecessary attack on national gymnast, Farah Ann Abdul Hadi for wearing a leotard? She actually won two gold medals at the 2015 SEA Games for our country. Again, I’m not interested to get into a debate of what’s wrong and what’s right. But I am interested to point out a few things about our religion that these conservative Muslims may have missed while proactively imagining themselves as moral policemen.

First of all, hijab and modesty apply to both men and women. It’s not just the role of the women to cover herself up in order not to tempt men, but men are also supposed to be modest in dressing, as in, not showing off their excessiveness. I know the limits of a man’s aurat, but modesty is more than aurat. It is a state of mind and physical form of worship.

For my second point, I would like to point to an oft-cited ayat, but seldom fully understood, much less fully practiced: "Tell the believing men to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what they do." (24:30) God actually commands men to lower their gaze. When you see an attractive lady, you are not supposed to stare further, but to lower your gaze! Now, these social media trolls who unabashedly slammed Farah Ann for her leotard showing off the shape of her genitalia, where did your eyes linger? If you truly understand Islam, the moment you saw her picture, turn your eyes away and keep your comments to yourself. You are just giving away your lack of understanding by being anonymous keyboard warriors.

This idea that women should cover up for men does not stop online, obviously. I am still shocked that today, in the 21st century, victim blaming is still high in Malaysia. What is victim blaming? Saying that a woman deserves to be sexually assaulted by the way she dresses. Whatever your views are on the way a woman dresses, there is no justification for rape. OK, let’s dial it down. Whatever your views are on the way a woman dresses, there is no justification to call her names and to insult her. Do you really think that is what our beloved Prophet would do?

Call me a feminist, call me an idiot. But make no mistake, misogyny is a sickness that is not going away in our country.

There is a hadith from Imam Malik’s Muwatta which I find appropriate to end this post: “The Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace, passed by a man who was chiding his brother about modesty. The Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace, said, 'Leave him. Modesty is part of Iman (faith).’ ” Rather than joining in a tirade against this man’s brother, what did our loving Prophet do? He told the man to leave his brother alone. Insulting someone for his or her lack of modesty is not the way of our Prophet. Then what in the world do you mean that you are speaking on behalf of Islam when you insult other people for the way they dress and act?

Back to the Mr. Malaysia competition, again I repeat, I am no Islamic scholar. I am not here to tell someone how they should or should not dress. But please, I beg fellow Malaysians, if you can compromise with males showing off their aurat in the name of sport, show the same respect and understanding to females. If you feel it is necessary to review female attire for sports, please do the same for men. It is time for everyone, male and female, to take the high road and say stop this hypocrisy against women. Equality.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Open Season is Here

I vowed to myself I would not make the same mistake I did with the US presidential election, which is not calling it when I have a strong gut feeling over the result. I’ve never been good at trusting my own instinct and analysis, but I’m not going to make the same mistake again. Before I end up sounding pretentious if it is announced soon we are going to have an election, let me put it in words NOW: the Malaysian 14th general election will be held by the end of the year. Maybe some of you would say, “We know that!”, that is not necessarily the consensus. I have a bet going on with someone who works in the industry—the political industry that is—who is so confident the prime minister will not call the election until 2018. However, in a year, so many things could go wrong and it would be an opportunity missed for the government.
Here’s my take on it.
Firstly, the economy is rebounding. Before some of you diehard Pakatan supporters come at me saying both of your pockets have been burned, I ask you to think again. How many of you have gone on a holiday within the first five months of 2017? How many of you have your baju rayas nicely hung in your wardrobe even though Ramadhan is still two weeks away? Yes, GST was an evil creation by the government, but following some setbacks in domestic consumerism (which is still ongoing), Malaysians have now adjusted their spending habits without compromising their economic sentiment. All those rumblings on the street, though definitely founded, are not really represented in the numbers. Our exports went up in the first quarter on 2017, and our growth has been projected above earlier expectations. Unemployment rate is still manageable, even though our youths are still struggling to find good jobs. We can guess which side the youths are voting for. But otherwise, 1MDB has settled their debt, which is good for Malaysians who have always had short-term memory.
Secondly, it is mighty stupid for the government not to take advantage of the chaos that is the opposition pact. Sure, some have pointed out that it is a good start for the opposition to come up with one banner. But the question is, who is going to stay under that banner? A populist party, a leftist party, a rejected-by-UMNO party, and all the other opportunists who do not care about finding a common ground to work together from the get-go. Let’s just start with how ideologically apart they are. They are a coalition of convenience, not a coalition of governance. There is nothing wrong with that. We do practice first-past-the-post in our electoral system and they are just strategizing as any political party should. But their strategy can be thrown out the window if they cannot find an agreement with PAS. The way I see it, so long as the current leadership is still at the helm of PAS, the party will not compromise its principle in exchange for seats. Admirable, definitely; risky, they know that.
Finally, I’m going to predict that the next election will be held sometime between September and November of this year. In my humble opinion, it would be a waste if the government does not seize the opportunity to hold the election in September. The Malays would have just celebrated Eid ul-Adha, thus a celebratory feeling would still be in the air. Malaysians would have just experienced a feeling of coming together following the SEA Games, which uncoincidentally would end on our National Day. Malaysians would be on a high with a camaraderie spirit that has been missing for a few years. Diwali would be around the corner so the Indians would also be in a joyful spirit. They can’t hold it too close to the end of the year because everybody is leaving for their annual trip oversea (remember how we are not short on money for travelling?). Even though my betting partner said that the government would be too busy with the SEA Games, I argued that it is exactly what the government needs.
Oh, and another indicator that GE-14 is right around the corner is the mudslinging that has been going on in the media for close to two months now. The machinery is oiled and greased.
Happy making-a-decision-for-the-next-five-years-of-our-country!