Tuesday, August 30, 2011

ATimes: Finding the meaning of life... By Spengler

Why you won't find the meaning of life
By Spengler

Much as I admire the late Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who turned his horrific experience at Auschwitz into clinical insights, the notion of "man's search for meaning" seems inadequate. Just what about man qualifies him to search for meaning, whatever that might be?

The German playwright Bertolt Brecht warned us against the practice in The Threepenny Opera:
Ja, renne nach dem Gluck
Doch renne nicht zu sehr
Denn alle rennen nach dem Gluck
Das Gluck lauft hinterher.

(Sure, run after happiness,
but don't run too hard,
because while everybody's running after happiness,
it moseys along somewhere behind them).

Brecht (1898-1956) was the kind of character who gave Nihilism a bad name, to be sure, but he had a point. There is something perverse in searching for the meaning of life. It implies that we don't like our lives and want to discover something different. If we don't like living to begin with, we are in deep trouble.

Danish philosopher, theologian and religious author Soren Kierkegaard portrayed his Knight of Faith as the sort of fellow who enjoyed a pot roast on Sunday afternoon. If that sort of thing doesn't satisfy us (feel free to substitute something else than eating), just what is it that we had in mind?

People have a good reason to look at life cross-eyed, because it contains a glaring flaw - that we are going to die, and we probably will become old and sick and frail before we do so. All the bric-a-brac we accumulate during our lifetimes will accrue to other people, if it doesn't go right into the trash, and all the little touches of self-improvement we added to our personality will disappear – the golf stance, the macrame skills, the ability to play the ukulele and the familiarity with the filmography of Sam Pekinpah.

These examples trivialize the problem, of course. If we search in earnest for the meaning of life, then we might make heroic efforts to invent our own identity. That is the great pastime of the past century's intellectuals. Jean-Paul Sartre, the sage and eventual self-caricature of Existentialism, instructed us that man's existence precedes his essence, and therefore can invent his own essence more or less as he pleases. That was a silly argument, but enormously influential.

Sartre reacted to the advice of Martin Heidegger (the German existentialist from whom Jean-Paul Sartre cribbed most of his metaphysics). Heidegger told us that our "being" really was being-unto-death, for our life would end, and therefore is shaped by how we deal with the certainty of death. (Franz Kafka put the same thing better: "The meaning of life is that it ends.") Heidegger (1889-1976) thought that to be "authentic" mean to submerge ourselves into the specific conditions of our time, which for him meant joining the Nazi party. That didn't work out too well, and after the war it became every existentialist for himself. Everyone had the chance to invent his own identity according to taste. 

For complete article, read...

Sunday, August 28, 2011

malaysiakini: Why EC's arguments are seriously flawed by John R Malott

Why EC's arguments are seriously flawed
John R Malott
Aug 24, 11
10 friends can read this story for free
COMMENT There has been much informed discussion in Malaysia over the past two months about electoral reform, with thoughtful proposals from reformers and counter-statements by the government. 

In this article, the first of two, I take a look at some of the proposals that have been made and compare Malaysia's situation to that of other countries. 

Lowering voting age
From an international perspective, Malaysia's 21 year age requirement is out of step with the rest of the world. 

Wikipedia lists the voting ages in almost 240 countries and territories around the world, and overwhelmingly the predominant voting age is 18. Malaysia is one of only 12 countries where a voter must be 21. 

Let's look at Malaysia's Asian neighbours. You need be only 18 to vote in Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Laos, Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

In Indonesia and East Timor, it is 17; in South Korea, 19; and in Japan and Taiwan, 20. Together with Singapore, Malaysia is the only country in Asia to set the voting age at 21. 

Let's also take a look at other nations in the Commonwealth, whose governmental structures and constitutions have all been influenced heavily by the British. 

The voting age is 18 in Australia, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Bermuda, Canada, Ghana, India, Jamaica, New Zealand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uganda, the United Kingdom and Zimbabwe. Once again, Malaysia is an outlier.

In Malaysia, when citizens turn 18, they have the legal right to get married, have consensual sex, sign contracts, and buy alcohol and tobacco. They can leave school and work when they are 16, and they can drive when they are 17. 

They do not, however, have the right to vote until they are 21. Why does this age gap exist? 

Malaysia's age limit clearly is out of step with the rest of the world and also is inconsistent with the legal rights it grants its citizens at an earlier age, from marriage through employment. 

Extending the campaign period

machap by election nomination 030407 wan ahmadBersih 2.0 advocates extending the campaign period to 21 days, but the Elections Commission is opposed to it. EC deputy chief Wan Ahmad Wan Omar says that a shorter period is sufficient for a nation of Malaysia's size and technological sophistication. 

However, a number of Malaysian advocates of electoral reform have pointed out that in years past, Malaysia's election campaigns extended beyond 21 days. 

Let's take a look at Wan Ahmad's justification for a short campaign and examine the campaign periods in other Commonwealth countries, with which Malaysia shares a political heritage. 

The 2010 Australian elections were announced on July 17, and the polls were held five weeks later, on Aug 21. 

Using Wan Ahmad's logic, Australia needs a longer campaign period because it is a big country. So let's look at some smaller-sized places, which also are technologically sophisticated. 

The 2010 elections in the United Kingdom were announced on April 12 and held on May 6. That is a campaign period of 24 days.

This year's parliamentary elections in New Zealand were announced on Feb 2, but they will not be held until Nov 26, almost 10 months later!

What about Singapore, a nation that is only 582 sq km in area, just 0.2% of Malaysia's size? Their Parliament was dissolved on April 19 of this year, and the elections were held on May 7, which was 20 days later. 

Wan Ahmad argues that the length of a campaign period is correlated to a country's size and sophistication, but as the examples of the UK, New Zealand, and Singapore show, the argument doesn't hold water. 

Finally, while Malaysia's land area is smaller than other India or Australia, the physical separation of the nation into its eastern and western halves has an impact on national election campaigns. The flying distance between Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu is 1,624 km. 

That is just 42km short of the distance between Bombay and Calcutta, and 123km less than the distance between New Delhi and Chennai. So for political leaders who need to criss-cross the country, the length of the campaign is important.

Using indelible ink

Bersih 2.0 advocates the use of indelible ink, which has proven to be a low-tech but effective method to prevent electoral fraud. EC deputy chief Wan Ahmad has made a number of points in opposition. 

First, Wan Ahmad claims that Malaysia's Constitution would need to be amended, because the government cannot deny a registered voter his or her right to vote. This is incredibly perverse logic. 

pulau ketam village head election 310711 indelible ink 02The purpose of indelible ink is not to prevent someone from voting; it is to prevent someone from voting twice, fraudulently and illegally. It is a crime-prevention and not a vote-prevention measure. Furthermore, when the government imported indelible ink for the 2008 elections, no one claimed then that the Constitution needed to be amended. 

Wan Ahmad's second argument is chauvinistic. He says that indelible ink is for poorer, less sophisticated countries like India and Indonesia. Sophisticated countries like Malaysia deserve a more high-tech system like biometrics. 

But then, in the same breath, he says that voters in the countryside are not sophisticated, and that they could be duped by people who dip their fingers in ink before they vote. So which is it - are Malaysians sophisticated or not?

nepal election indelible ink 230408 casting voteIndelible ink has been in use in Indian elections since 1952, and there have been no accusations of fraud. The peasantry have not been duped. True, there have been problems in the Philippines because they used a lower quality ink that can be removed easily.
But Indian ink - which is what the Malaysian government imported in 2008 - stays on the skin for 72 hours and cannot be removed. 

The irony is that many Malaysians believe that the proposed high-tech biometric system will lead to more fraud and more problems, not less. The equipment and database will be under the control of the government. Some blog reports say that the Malaysian companies that provide this kind of equipment have close political and family connections to government leaders. 

Furthermore, as we all know, any computer system and database is only as good as the information that we put into it. High-tech systems are also prone to crash. 

Can Malaysia deploy biometric equipment to thousands of polling places across the country, train personnel, and ensure both electricity and Internet connectivity, especially in the rural areas? A low-tech solution - indelible ink - seems easier, cheaper, and more reliable.

Permitting foreign observers

When Wan Ahmad was asked last July whether Malaysia would invite foreign groups to observe the country's next elections, the EC deputy chief became emotional and nationalistic: “Why do we need foreigners... commenting on our election system? They don't know our election laws. They don't understand our values.” 

It is a matter of pride, he said. Malaysians would be hurt by the negative comments of foreign observers. “They are foreigners. Who are they? Why do we need Germans commenting on our election system?” 

The irony is that he made these comments just as his boss, Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof, was in Thailand on a five-day trip with four other Malaysian election commissioners to observe the Thai elections. The Malaysian group had been invited by the Thai Election Commission, along with 11 other countries.

As in Malaysia, voters in Thailand are divided on the question whether their elections are free and fair. An Asia Foundation survey in 2009 found a split - 47% of those Thai surveyed said their elections are free and fair, while 48% disagreed. 

But when asked whether the presence of election observers would give them more confidence that the results of the elections were fair, 62% said yes. Only 34% said that it would not. 

From that point of view, it is in the government's interest to invite both domestic and foreign groups to observe the next elections. The heavy-handed government crackdown last July 9 against the Bersih rally certainly got the world's attention and raised international concern that all might not be as it seems in Malaysia. 

The government says that elections are free and fair. The world needs to be assured about the strength and integrity of Malaysia's democracy. Inviting foreign observers is not an issue of national pride; it is a question of national interest.

JOHN R MALOTT was the US Ambassador to Malaysia, 1995-1998, and continues to follow developments in that country closely.

malaysiakini: Electoral reform: How does Malaysia fare? by John R Malott

Electoral reform: How does M'sia fare?
John R Malott
Aug 27, 11
10 friends can read this story for free
COMMENT This is the second of two articles about proposals that have been made for electoral reform in Malaysia, counter-statements by the government, and how Malaysia's situation compares to that of other countries.

Allow overseas voting

Many Malaysians have called for voting rights for all Malaysians who live abroad, and not just for government workers and military who are assigned overseas or Malaysians studying in foreign countries.

There are over one million Malaysians living overseas, but according to Election Commission deputy chief Wan Ahmad Wan Omar, only 2,500 of them are eligible to vote.

NONEThe government has not provided any convincing reason why all Malaysians overseas should not be permitted to vote. However, two days ago EC chairperson Abdul Aziz Yusof (left) said that "hopefully" all registered voters living overseas will be able to vote in the next general election.

To date, the government has resisted allowing overseas Malaysians to vote out of concern that many of the Malaysians who live overseas do not support Umno or its coalition partners. In addition, the ethnic reality is that many of the Malaysians living overseas are non-Malay, and likely not to vote for Umno.

So Umno's conclusion is that permitting overseas Malaysians to vote therefore might work against its interests.

There is no clear international consensus on what right citizens who live overseas have to vote in their home countries.

The ACE Electoral Knowledge Network examined the practices of 214 countries and territories. It reports that 115 countries, just a little over half, permit their citizens to vote from abroad. Malaysia is one of those countries. The other 99 countries and territories do not allow overseas voters.

ACE says that 80 of those 115 "OK to vote" countries do not impose any conditions on overseas voting, except that the voter must be a citizen. However, the other 35 countries, including Malaysia, impose restrictions. Those restrictions concern either the reason or the length of time that a person is overseas.

Malaysia is one of a number of countries to impose "activity-based restrictions." Why are you overseas? In Malaysia's case, only diplomatic officers and students abroad may vote. A number of other countries have the same conditions, such as India, Singapore, and Israel.

pulau ketam village head election 310711 votingSome countries, usually those that do not impose "activity-based" or job-related restrictions, impose a time restriction. The assumption is that a citizen who has lived abroad for a number of years and perhaps become a permanent resident in another country should not be eligible to vote in national elections.

Australia, for example, denies the right to vote to any Australian citizen who has lived abroad for more than six years. For the UK, it is 15 years. For Germany, it takes 25 years before a German citizen overseas loses the right to vote.

In short, there is no clear international consensus. Half of the world's countries do not permit overseas voting. But of those that do, Malaysia has some of the more restrictive conditions.

A national discussion about the eligibility of Malaysians overseas to vote therefore would be a useful part of the dialogue on electoral reform.

Provide fair access to media
Well-informed voters - which can come only from the free flow of information about parties, candidates, and their positions - are essential to a healthy democracy. Bersih 2.0 has called for free and fair access to the media for all political parties.

There have been many international reports that support Bersih's position. Reporters without Borders places Malaysia 141st out of the 178 countries in its Press Freedom Index.

The US Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices declares that Malaysian opposition parties are unable to compete on equal terms with the governing Umno-dominated coalition because of restrictions on campaigning and freedom of assembly and association.

The State Department reports that "news of the opposition is tightly restricted and reported in a biased fashion."

Let's take a look at the ways in which information about parties, candidates and their positions are disseminated in Malaysia.

1) The state-owned and controlled media, RTM and Bernama, are supposed to be public institutions for all citizens in Malaysia, because they are supported by all taxpayers regardless of their political affiliation.

In reality, RTM and Bernama have become propaganda arms of Umno and BN. RTM evens uses taxpayers' money to broadcast Umno's political assemblies. RTM and Bernama take their political direction from the prime minister and the Information Ministry. They praise the ruling parties and castigate and demonise the opposition.

In other countries with publicly-owned broadcast systems - for example, the UK, Australia, Japan, and the United States - access is provided to all political parties, and an effort is made to be politically impartial.

EC deputy chief Wan Ahmad has said that he cannot compel newspapers and television stations to report on the opposition. That, of course, is true. It is not within the EC's authority. But it is within the government's authority and therefore a legitimate topic for discussion.

NONE2) In Malaysia, privately-owned newspapers and television stations are owned by companies under the control of Umno, MCA and MIC, and can disseminate their views freely, to everyone.

By contrast, there are no television or radio stations owned by supporters of the opposition, and opposition newspapers cannot be sold openly. They can only be distributed to party members, a clearly discriminatory practice.

3) Wan Ahmad says that despite these restrictions, the opposition and its supporters have access to alternative media sources, meaning the Internet and its websites and blogs. That also is true. But it does not make for a level-playing field. The opposition is forced to campaign with one hand tied behind its back. They have a rifle, but the other side has a cannon.

Some alternative sites clearly are supporters of the opposition. Others (like Malaysiakini) try to provide a point of view that is more balanced than the mainstream media. As a result, their reporting does not always please Malaysia's rulers.

These alternative media outlets therefore have been subject to government harassment, such as the denial of service attacks that were launched against Malaysiakini during the recent Sarawak elections. This too cuts off the free flow of information to Malaysian voters.

Over two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press." Organisations and governments throughout the world have made it clear what they think about press freedom in Malaysia. It is no wonder that Malaysia ranks 141st in the world - even below Zimbabwe.

Ensure an impartial EC

Around the world, there probably are thousands of different ways in which governments at all levels - national, state, and local - organise and conduct elections. Because of this great variety, foreign analysts would not insist that there is one "right way" to organise and manage elections. Instead they would focus on some basic principles.

There are a number of questions that should be asked to determine whether elections are being conducted in a fair manner:
  • Is the organisation that is responsible for conducting the elections impartial, or does it favour one party over another?
  • Can the same be said about the leadership and staff employees of that organisation? Do they carry out their work in an impartial manner?
  • Is the organisation subject to political interference?
  • Are the decisions and actions of the organisation transparent, and are they fair? Do they treat both the government and the opposition equally?
Numerous academic studies conducted by both foreign and Malaysian academics have concluded that over the years, the independence and impartiality of Malaysia's election commission has been lost. In many cases, this is because its independence has been stripped by parliamentary action. So it is not fair to blame everything on the personnel who lead the commission.

However, various unfortunate statements by Malaysia's election officials have only reinforced the view that they favour one party over another. For example:

In 2007, then EC Chairman Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman said that "there is only one regime in this country that is capable of running (the country)."
Abdul Rashid went on to say that he was on the same wavelength as his friend, senior Umno leader Sanusi Junid, about what the country needs. "If we don't agree, then we are in trouble, because I run the elections," he said.

kuala terengganu parliament by election spr ec announcement  051208 wan ahmad wan omarEC deputy chief Wan Ahmad (right) has taken to writing articles in Utusan Malaysia, owned by Umno, saying that the opposition is engaged in 'dirty tricks' and trying to scapegoat the EC in order to promote their political ambitions.

Wan Ahmad added, "BN has never attacked or put down the EC. That is the difference between PAS, DAP, PKR and BN."

Critics of the EC say that BN has no reason to attack or put down the EC, as the EC is doing BN's work.

In response to Wan Ahmad's comments, Bersih 2.0 issued a statement saying that the EC "continues to make comments that are less in the spirit of working together towards cleaner elections and more in the spirit of defending an incumbent party against contenders."

Bersih called on Wan Ahmad and the EC to end their war of words with political parties.

"Recent comments that have been made threaten the public image of impartiality that the EC needs to have to maintain public confidence. It is more the job of the deputy chairperson of a political party to make political criticisms than it is the deputy chairperson of the EC."

That is a sentiment with which most of the world would agree.

JOHN R MALOTT was the US Ambassador to Malaysia, 1995-1998, and continues to follow developments in that country closely.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

JK Rowling's Speech at Harvard Commencement

Text of JK Rowling Speech at Harvard Commencement

President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all, graduates.

The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and convince myself that I am at the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion.

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can’t remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’ joke, I’ve come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable goals: the first step to self improvement.

Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that have expired between that day and this.

I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

These may seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.

I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension. I know that the irony strikes with the force of a cartoon anvil, now.

So they hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics; they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of all the subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.

So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.

Now you might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but that is not wholly so. Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs. Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid the rent in my early 20s by working at the African research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them. I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to speak against their governments. Visitors to our offices included those who had come to give information, or to try and find out what had happened to those they had left behind.

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given the job of escorting him back to the Underground Station afterwards, and this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just had to give him the news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard, and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life.

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of trouble, people who have been kind enough not to sue me when I took their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I wish you nothing better than similar friendships. And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:

"As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters."

I wish you all very good lives.

Thank you very much.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

FMT: An ignoramus or an idiot? by Lim Teck Ghee

An ignoramus or an idiot?
Lim Teck Ghee
FMT August 22, 2011

Since his appointment in 2009 as the Home Minister, Hishammuddin has been lurching from one self-inflicted debacle to another.

The statement by the Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein that the presence of more illegal workers compared to the legal ones is a cause of concern and could undermine national unity reveals either an ignoramus or an idiot.

Did he expect many less illegals given the super-efficiency of his ministry and the other government agencies sharing responsibility on this vital matter of securing our borders against unauthorised intrusion and stay in the country?

According to the current ongoing exercise, as of Friday, a total of 2,088,358 foreign workers had been registered, of whom 1,135,499 were illegals.

Probably everyone else in the country, except Hisham, knows this number is an under-estimate and a very large number are still waiting to be processed or are avoiding being included in the count altogether.

Since his appointment in 2009 as the minister in charge of this portfolio, Hishammuddin has been lurching from one self-inflicted debacle to another.

From bending over backwards to defend the indefensible conduct of demonstrators in the infamous cow head incident to his most recent use of repressive force against the Bersih rally, he has shown a standard of leadership of this important ministry which must be plumbing new lows or matching those lows attained by Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Perhaps he has not had time to study and understand the situation with illegals in Malaysia, given the many important distractions posed by alleged anti-national and possibly terrorist groupings such as those Parti Sosialis Malaysia members recently taken in under the Emergency Ordinance for having on their possession Che Guevara and other communist attire; or the Bersih supporters who needed tear-gassing and a big clout on their thick skulls for upsetting the traffic flow on a weekend; or the MoCS supporters who want to ungild the lily white and ‘incorruptible’ reputation of one of the country’s most trusted and respected leaders through their potentially inflammatory Kuching walk rally aborted on “friendly police advice” – and by the way, is Hishammuddin related in any way to Taib Mahmud?

Summary of facts

  1. If he has still not been briefed by his ministry officials on the foreign labour issue, this quick summary of facts, figures and other considerations may be useful.
  2. The 10th Malaysian Plan document has a chart showing that the number of foreign workers in the country exceeded two million-plus in 2008. This figure has most likely increased rather than decreased.
  3. The current hi-tech, super hi-cost biometric exercise seems to have registered only half of all workers with permits and probably fewer than half of those without.
  4. The presence of so many foreign workers is not only due to economic factors but also to Umno’s political agenda which everyone in the country, except the non-Malay Barisan leaders and parties are aware of.
  5. Thanks to ‘enlightened’ Umno and Barisan policies, the Malaysian economy and society is hopelessly and irredeemably addicted to foreign workers.
  6. The great majority of foreign workers work a lot harder for a lot less than their Malaysian counterparts. They deserve to be treated with fairness and respect, and we should resist any witch-hunt aimed at blaming them for self inflicted socio-economic and political ills.
  7. The profits in the foreign labour market have generated pervasive corruption amongst all levels of the police force, the Immigration Department, Rela, agents and other agencies – public and private.
  8. The extortion of payments, services and loyalty from this marginalized segment and use of them as a pawn in the demographic and racial power game will continue whatever the changes in policy and new stances adopted for public consumption unless there is a regime change.

Some analysts who have observed the Home Minister closely – he is after all a graduate from the University of Wales and London School of Economics – are of the opinion that he is not an ignoramus or idiot.

He is a political animal aiming for the top position through scrupulous or unscrupulous means.

According to the latest hot news in the internet, there is more behind the Home Minister’s new found enthusiasm for pursuing the registration of foreign workers.

One is the claim that the new biometrics system is the cash cow for the coming Umno elections. Much of this hot news cannot be verified but readers can visit this website for details.

Dr Lim Teck Ghee is the director of the Centre for Policy Initiatives.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Is the Singapore Model Sustainable for Future Economic Growth?

Is the Singapore Model Sustainable?

Beijing-born Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) political economist Professor Huang Yasheng had criticized Singapore 's state-linked enterprise model dominated by its two giant sovereign wealth funds GIC and Temasek Holdings as a sure-fire way to stifle the economy in the long run.

In a recent speech made at the Civil Service College, Prof Huang urged Singapore to rethink the Temasek model and warns that Singapore's state management model has milked this system for all it is worth.

The private sector is the best way to grow the economy. It has the most productive, most innovative and entrepreneurial culture. The state-owned enterprise system doesn't give you that. You are already hitting the wall. Retaining this strategy could mean sacrificing future growth that is possible only through a bigger, more dynamic private sector, he said.

Prof Huang felt that governments should not get involved in venture financing as they are using taxpayers' monies and questions how the government can defend its decisions to invest in failing individuals and projects.

Nine out of 10 investment projects fail. Does the government have such a high tolerance for risk? It's taxpayers' money, right? I don't think, politically, it's legitimate for the government to keep investing in failing individuals and failing projects. How do you defend these decisions, he asked.

Temasek Holdings is led by the wife of Singapore's prime minister Ho Ching. It had lost billions of dollars in failed overseas investments such as Thailand's Shin Corp, Australia's ABC learning, and U.S's Merrill Lynch. Ho Ching is an engineer by training.

GIC has been headed by Lee Kuan Yew since its inception in 1981, a lawyer by profession who has never worked in the financial industry before.

Prof Huang opined that Singapore should expand its private sector in order to compete with China and India :

Maybe a better way is for the government to fund more basic research and then allow universities, private equity firms, venture capital firms and rich individuals to take care of the rest. That is because even when the state sector is well managed, it is not as innovative as the private sector, he says. From a technological development point of view, you need a bigger private sector to compete, to come up with new products, processes and technologies, to better compete with India and China .

Under Singapore's state-model enterprise, civil servants are often placed in leadership positions in its major state-linked companies and research agencies. For example, the current head of A*STAR is Lim Chuan Poh, a former Chief of Army with no prior experience in the private sector.

Prof Huang felt that creative thinking is often in short supply with civil servants leading the charge due to the culture they are immersed in:

Civil service culture is about discipline. It's about execution. It's about efficiency. Entrepreneurial culture is about challenging the authorities, questioning the existing ways of doing businesses, moving away from the routines and norms. It's about the unconventional, rebellious and diverse. These values are almost polar opposites.

He also criticized Singapore's education system for not producing diversity in ideas and unconventional ways of solving problems and warns that Singapore risks going down in history as an economic has-been if it fails to exploit the potential of its private sector.

Prof Huang had hit the nail on the right spot about the macroeconomic problems plaguing Singapore “its one-dimensional political economy. However, he is not aware of the political implications of the Temasek model which serves two purposes: one, to ensure the continued political hegemony of the ruling party, or rather a select group of people and two, to keep the citizenry weak so that no alternative centers of power can emerge to challenge the status quo.

As entrepreneurs are fiercely independent, unconventional and rebellious by nature, they cannot be brought easily under control or co-opted into the system. Having a few rich self-make millionaires running around will pose a threat to the political elite, as Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra and South Korea 's Lee Myuang Bak had shown.

Unfortunately, for a repressive, insecure and paranoid regime which is bent on complete control and dominance at all costs, it is unlikely to see the profound wisdom in Prof Huang's words and Singapore will have to pay the price for its ignorance one day when we are overshadowed completely by China and India .

FMT: Shocking racial disparity in civil service.... by Joseph Tawie

Shocking racial ‘imbalance’ in civil service

Joseph Tawie
 | August 20, 2011
The Chinese community make up less than two percent of the Malaysian government service.
KUCHING: Change, like charity should begin at home.  Likewise Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak should have begun implementing his 1Malaysia concept within the civil service first before attempting to ‘teach the world’.
Alas this has not happened and Najib, according to Sarawak DAP has failed miserably in improving the racial composition of the civil service.
The situation is a poor reflection of his seriousness in implementing the 1Malaysia concept.
“He (Najib) has been shouting about the concept for the past two years, and yet the racial composition between the Malays and Chinese in government departments has not improved,” said Sarawak DAP secretary Chong Chieng Jen.
According to Chong,  he had asked the PM, during the recent sitting of Parliament, to disclose the total number of civil servants in all the ministries and the racial breakdown of Malays, Chinese, Iban and Bidayuh staff.
He said he had asked for the update on number of civil service staff in the government’s employ up to 31 March 2011.
The revert, he received was shocking.
“In the Prime Minister Department, there are about 31,297 Malays to 797 Chinese. This is about two percent.
“And it is no better in majority of the other ministeries.
“Based on the reply given to my question in Parliament there is a big discrepancy between the Malays and Chinese civil servants.
“The worst is in the Rural Development and the Federal Territory Ministry where there are 2,442 Malays to 18 Chinese or less than one percent of the Chinese,” said Chong, who is also Bandar Kuching MP.
Listing out the detailed breakdown of Malay and Chinese civil servants, Chong said there was a clear ‘imbalance’ in racial compositions in all government departments, agencies and ministeries.
“It also clearly shows Najib’s 1Malaysia slogan is a mere slogan.
“There is no concrete policy to implement the 1Malaysia concept.
“There has been no improvement in the racial composition even after he announced the concept…even his department is worse than average.
He said: “There is no improvement in the racial composition based on the racial breakdown in the
“It shows that Najib is not the PM for all, but the prime minister for one single race,” Chong said after releasing the Malay to Chinese staff breakdown in the various ministries.
He listed out the reply from the PM’s department as below:
Ministry of Youth and Sports 2,980 Malays, 32 Chinese,
Ministry of Home Affairs 40,263 Malays to 614 Chinese;
Ministry of Works 6,221 Malays to 156 Chinese,
Ministry of Health 130,106 Malays to 9,500 Chinese,
Ministry of Finance 15,835 Malays to 508 Chinese,
Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1,215 Malays to 53 Chinese
Ministry of Education 273,791 Malays to 43,669 Chinese
Ministry of Tourism 455 Malays to 19 Chinese
Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development 5,461 Malays to 75 Chinese
Ministry of Information, Communication and Culture 8,839 Malays to 402 Chinese
Ministry of Higher Education 15,012 Malays to 334 Chinese
Ministry of Transport 9,028 Malays to 205 Chinese
Ministry of Defence 12,078 Malays to 113 Chinese
Ministry of Housing and Local Government 11,363 Malays to 173 Chinese