Tuesday, June 15

Causes of reflection this Raya

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SELAMAT Hari Raya and Maaf Zahir Batin to all my readers. My Aidilfitri article last year imagined how places and inanimate objects would normally witness the energy of people celebrating; once again, they will have to wait as grim milestones are still crossed. As I write, Malaysia has seen over 6,000 new cases in a day for the first time, and variants of concern threaten our population even as the vaccination drive is supposed to pick up pace. On this, as with other aspects of our fight against Covid, disagreements remain: on the role of the private sector, the ability of states to procure vaccines, or whether certain geographical areas or industrial sectors should get priority.

The government must be guided by data, and it is critical to evaluate the experience of other countries and learn from their mistakes. But when there are still people who deny the safety and efficacy of vaccinations, winning enough hearts (or rather, lungs) and minds to achieve herd immunity may take longer than necessary. Public confidence in decision-makers is crucial in persuading people to change their behaviour.  With a continued state of Emergency and no parliamentary meetings, by now most Malaysians have formed opinions about how key politicians, civil servants and advisors (even celebrities!) are performing.

Alongside this, one neglected area of public policy has come under the spotlight: the need to tackle rape culture in Malaysian schools, thanks to the bravery of 17-year old Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam, who used TikTok to call out her teacher who made a repugnant ‘joke’ about rape.  As her post gained traction, testimonials of similar statements and sexual harassment emerged, with calls to #MakeSchoolASaferPlace.  Sadly, the reaction of her school, the Ministry of Education and the police have been lacklustre, while Ain herself has been the target of even more threats, including of rape itself.  One despairs that our society can produce such despicable individuals, but that must galvanise all of us to ensure that every school is truly a safe place for everyone.

Another cause inundated social media this Hari Raya, following the abhorrent violence in Palestine, escalating on the last Friday of Ramadan (also what we call Malam 27) when Israeli riot police attacked worshippers praying at the Al-Aqsa mosque, followed by further violence in East Jerusalem and inter-communal violence in Israeli towns before attention shifted to Gaza, where airstrikes have killed dozens of children.

As usual, much of the international media is covering the story as if this is a conflict between entities of equal power, ignoring the context of decades of oppression, annexation and denial of human rights – indeed, one reason for renewed anger is a pending Israeli court decision that would evict Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah in favour of Jewish settlers.  An eloquent excoriation of the coverage was provided by Husam Zomlot, Palestinian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, on BBC’s Newsnight.

Sympathy with the Palestinian cause has long been strong in Malaysia, with messages of solidarity and appeals for donations to help prominent across online platforms and chat groups. Reading through some of the discussions, I am reminded of my time chanting “Freedom for Palestine!” while waving a Palestinian flag through London. While my fellow protestors certainly believed in the cause, some took the opportunity to promote other agendas as well, conflating different issues as if to equate one cause with others: I had to explain to British friends that supporting the Palestinian cause does not mean being a socialist!

The context in Malaysia is obviously very different, but also prone to conflation of different issues: supporting innocent Palestinian civilians does not mean expressing a preference for Fatah or Hamas, nor is it a commentary on the changing face of Middle Eastern geopolitics.

One strand worth reminding is that there are, of course, Palestinians already here in Malaysia who need our help. Some have secured a journey to a better future: since 2014, five Palestinian children have attended Ideas Academy which was co-established by the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas). In similar vein, many Malaysians get outraged about the treatment of Rohingya in Myanmar, but forget about those who have already managed to escape to Malaysia: over the years, Yayasan Chow Kit has helped 55 Rohingya children.

There are many things we can do to help the Palestinians and Rohingya, but one policy change would uplift those who are here enormously: sign and ratify the UN Convention on Refugees, pledge to offer protection and uphold their dignity.

Even in a pandemic-stricken world, such an act would strengthen our position as we fight for the rights of people in other parts of the world.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas and trustee of Yayasan Chow Kit.