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!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Illiberal Liberal

America has a new president. Even if I am no longer physically present in the country, my home of three short years still holds a special place in my heart. In fact,  I always joke that I've been an American since I was nine. Today, however, I shall not bore you with my thoughts or analysis on the inauguration, the unique speech given by President Trump, or even the Women's March that followed. I am mostly interested in the violent protests, on the streets and on twitter, by the liberals towards Trump's supporters. 

I am all for public demonstration and our democratic right to protest to show our disdain or support for a specific cause. There is also nothing wrong in portraying your thoughts and emotions peacefully online. Even if it won't affect immediate change, it is useful as a means to educate the masses. But I definitely do not support the arrogance of telling 63 million people that their ideas and beliefs are plain wrong. You may argue that they are violating basic principles of human rights, but most of these ideas are debatable and still without a conclusion today for the simple reason that roughly half of the population cannot agree with the other half.

As a political liberal myself, believe me when I say that it tortures me to come face to face with the reality that there are as many conservatives in the world as there are liberals. But last year I learned something that has stuck with me ever since. While a lot of people do not like Wan Saiful Wan Jan either for his politics or personality, I once worked for him and I can tell you that a lot of times he just makes sense. At a talk I saw him last year he said, "Do not be an illiberal liberal". Since then I cannot get that quote out of my mind.

I was once an illiberal liberal too. I cannot fathom how and why anyone in this day and age can still hold on to conservative ideas. In the case of Malaysian Muslims, ideas that have NO precedence in basic Islamic teachings or even political history. They are just ideas conjured up by a specific group of people at a specific time under specific circumstances. But the fact is people still hold on to these ideas because of familiarity and to maintain peace in society. Is that entirely wrong? Well, educating ourselves is a much better option. Do they hurt society? Well, that is totally arguable too. But I realized if I am ever to call myself a true liberal--a believer in the freedom to choose and to think--how can I question the choice made by other people that may economically or politically benefit them. Who am I to say they are wrong? That's what democracy is about. And I choose democracy over dictatorship any day. 

Friday's inauguration may be a hard pill to swallow especially since Mrs. Clinton won the popular vote. Trust me, I know what it feels like. I was filled with anger and disappointment too in 2013. Yes, maybe the system needs an overhaul for an election result to fairly represent the people's choice both in the USA and Malaysia. But more importantly, there is no need to spread further hate towards others who are merely different from you. They are not criminals. As liberals, we are supposed to uphold the virtue of tolerance and diversity, and it does not mean just among us. 

Anyway, they already had a difficult first day. No spinning from the Press Secretary can sway people's opinion over the FACT that there was a much lower physical turnout on Friday compared to eight years ago. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Beautiful, Passionate, Dedicated

I’ve been going back and forth for months on whether I should write this entry. With the passing of Carrie Fisher, I felt it is time someone say something, and thus my decision to put my thoughts into words. What do I have in common with Princess Leia, you may ask. Well, I hope a lot. But it is how people remember her that gave me the encouragement I needed.  Besides praising her role in the Star Wars universe, most eulogy also praises her role in bringing Bipolar Disorder, and mental illness in general, to mainstream media in the 1980s.

Personally, after years of questioning my own sanity, God finally responded with an answer. In 2016, I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). I don’t need to go into details about the symptoms and causes as they are easily found online. But I would like to share my own experience. Only God knows the exuberance I felt when the psychiatrist spit the words out. Instead of denial, I was relieved. Finally someone was able to put a label to what I’ve been living with for half of my life. I’m not exaggerating. If someone scours through just this website, the symptoms are written all over. But I did not have anyone piecing them all together.

I started going to treatment in 2015. Unfortunately I was not properly diagnosed. I self-diagnosed as Anxiety. When I was told I have BPD, everything, and I literally mean everything, starts to make sense. My life starts to make sense.

Just like how Carrie Fisher refused to let her Bipolarity defines her, I shall not let BPD defines me. Just as any physical illness, it is just something I have to live with, but it is not my entirety. To the contrary, similar to how we applaud someone with a physical illness being able to get up and go on with life, it is time not only for our society to accept the reality of mental illness, but also to provide support and understanding. As someone suffering from mental illness, I can tell you first-hand that it is not easy to go through the simplest of daily routine. I never know if today is going to be a good or a bad day. I don’t know if I am going to be Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. I just have to wing it as I go. It is difficult.

I am not writing this entry to ask for pity. I am also not asking for people I know to walk on eggshells around me. I am writing to tell you that being diagnosed with a mental illness is not a death sentence. Yes it is a very difficult life. But look where I am now. I am only nearing 28 and I already have my PhD in the pipeline. I have two beautiful daughters. I can achieve whatever my heart desires. I just have to put extra effort than the normal person. If I wanted to, I can use BPD as an excuse to not get anything done in life; instead I am able to lead as normal a life possible in spite of my illness. If anything, my BPD makes me stronger.

Given my penchant for Hollywood, I have been thinking a lot about some of my favourite movies: Thirteen, Silver Lining Playbook, (500) Days of Summer, My Week with Marilyn, Blue Jasmine, Black Swan and Gia. All of these movies have a character with BPD. I used to watch some of these movies over and over. Somehow I felt that I can relate without knowing exactly why. Now I know. They are stories about my life. Take for example My Week with Marilyn. I remember after watching the movie I blurted out that Marilyn Monroe is now my hero. My mum gave me a weird look. I explained that I can understand how difficult it must be for her to overcome her anxiety and be who the world expects her to be. Or take Jennifer Lawrence's character in Silver Lining Playbook. She said that maybe people like us know something that normal people don't. I like that line because I have always been a believer that in order to be a genius, you need to be mad. Before anyone starts rolling their eyes, take it with a grain of salt as something a crazy person tells herself in order to make sense of her presence on earth.

Again, the purpose I am writing this entry is to de-stigmatize mental illness. It is real. It is not the devil. It is caused by some traumatic childhood experience, just as how a physical illness is brought about by excessiveness. It can never be cured, but psychiatrists are working on how best to limit the symptoms. Let’s applaud them. People like the psychiatrist who finally diagnosed me is the reason I am able to look my illness in the eyes and say, “Hi, nice to meet you. But you have met your match.”