Saturday, July 19, 2008

Balancing Views - Dr Chandra & the Ghost of Mahathir

Working within the “Sphere of Influence”

The recent conference on “Rethinking Human Rights” organised by JUST provided another dimension to the whole issue of human rights, which in the past had been interpreted mainly by Western NGOs and governments. But, controversy erupted when a few local human rights activists expressed displeasure over the choice of speaker for the conference’s key-note address :
Dr Mahathir. ANAS ZUBEDY shares with us his views. (Aliran Monthly 1995:14)

Two years ago while reading Dr Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” I stumbled upon an age old wisdom practised by many effective and pragmatic leaders of the past who focused on things they could do first within their set of ideals rather than spending precious time hitting hard on areas that they have no control over. Dr Covey, calling it “pro-activity” stresses that proactive people focus their energy and time within their Circle of Influence no matter how small the circle is. Reactive people (the opposite of pro-activity) on the other hand waste their time in their Circle of Concern, an area which they do not have real control.

A proactive person, while concentrating on areas they can do something about create an energy that is positive, enlarging and magnifying, causing their Circle of Influence to increase. A reactive person while believing that they are doing something because they are “concerned” focuses effort on the weakness of other people, the problem of the environment, and circumstances over which they have no control. The negative energy generated, combined with neglect in areas they could do something about, causes their Circle of Influence to shrink.

It was perhaps with pro-activity in mind that Just World Trust (JUST) and its Director Dr Chandra Muzaffar organised an International Conference on Rethinking Human Rights on 6 -–7 December 1994 at the Legend Hotel, Kuala Lumpur. Focussing primarily on Western global dominance and its impact on human rights, the conference managed to attract the support of the Malaysian government and press.

However, certain individuals and organisations have expressed concern and some, outright opposition to the choice of Dr Mahathir as the person to deliver the keynote address and to officiate at the conference. This was mostly due to Dr Mahathir’s past record as national leader in Malaysia and legislation like the ISA, OSA, etc.

I have yet to hear or read of any other major opposition either to the topics and direction of the conference, the choice of paper-writers, moderators (Note that Musa Hitam, a former DPM of Malaysia was also a moderator), etc. My brief inquiry with Sivarasa Rasiah, a committee member of Suaram (seem as foremost amongst the NGOs opposed to the conference) seems to support this.

In short, while other matters were brought forth, like insufficient emphasis on women’s issues, the human rights situation in the South, the choice of the venue, etc., it is the “ghost” of Dr Mahathir that haunts the dissenters. I will deal with this problem towards the later part of this article. First let us evaluate the conference as it should, ie., in totality.

I propose to use a method known as the PMI. The PMI is a powerful thinking tool proposed by creative guru Dr De Bono. According to De Bono, one of the biggest faults of thinking is the use of it to back up an opinion that has already been formed by first impression, slight thinking, prejudice or tradition. By using the PMI method, “P” being the plus/good points, “M”. the minus/bad ones and “I” for areas which are interesting to note, a switch could take place. Instead of using intelligence to support a particular prejudice, now it is used to explore the subject further.


1. Did the conference manage to reach the organiser’s objectives?
I believe any projects undertaken by an individual or organisation must first live up to their own objectives. JUST was set up amongst other reasons to develop public awareness about the inequities and injustices in the existing global system and to create a better understanding at the popular level, as to how control and domination of the global system by a priviledged minority challenges human dignity and social justice in both the First World and the Third World, in both the North and the South.

Judging from the level of public interest generated by the conference’s messages, the high level of media coverage, and the number and quality of participants, paper-writers, etc the conference was par-excellence in reaching JUST’s objective. Furthermore one must note that JUST is a very new organisation and the conference was their first major event.

In short, the conference managed to identify JUST at the popular level with its major objective. (One may want to note that Suaram, in dissenting may be living up to their organisation’s objective. Hence, they are working within their scope of interest. Could somebody please do a PMI on Suaram’s reaction?)

2) Creating Awareness : Rethinking Human Rights

In brand marketing or brand building, creating awareness is most important in a product launch. Thus, creating awareness for the need to Rethink Human Rights is most important at this point of time. One does not expect the masses to know the subject deeply. Should people have in mind the idea of re-looking, rethinking or just the words “human rights” at this juncture, there would be enough reason to celebrate.

Prior to this conference, the term “human rights” was virtually non-existent in the vocabulary of the majority of Malaysians. What more the concept of human rights been prominently featured in our mass media. One does not need to elaborate why.

The conference was just a “product launch”. It was just the tip of the tip of the iceberg of what is needed for human rights and the rethinking of it. The awareness and interest generated is a good platform for further campaigns. (Could we have achieved this if JUST had used the traditional approach of the NGOs?)

3) Quality of Papers presented and the wide areas covered

While 15 to 20 minutes per speaker was too short a time for presentation, most of the speakers managed to forward a very good overall picture of their ideas. Reading their papers in total, one will find most of them of high quality, informative and a good start in our long journey in the quest to rethink and reformulate human rights.

The areas covered from one plenary session to another were holistic and covered most major areas in dealing with the job of rethinking human rights. Furthermore, once edited and compiled into a book, the papers presented will reach a larger group of people.

4) A first of its kind and a catalyst for a common front.

The conference was the first concerted effort at looking at the pattern of global dominance and its effect on human rights. It is a great leap forward. It has also acted as a catalyst to string together organisations, intellectuals and activists both from the North and the South. Forming a common front between these groups is crucial for further action. In short, the conference has provided a platform for networking.

5) A critical look at Western dominance and the last 500 years of human history

Is it not time yet for inhabitants of this world to reflect on the last 500 years as this century sees the dissolution of direct colonisation? The conference through some of the paper writers (and the PM’s speech) provided a good start to analyse where we (the human race) were, where we are now and where we should be heading.

6) People of different backgrounds, organisations and orientation working together

The organising of the conference witnessed the coming together of individuals from different organisations working towards a common cause. Members from JUST, ABIM, the IKD, the Protocol and Security Division and the International Conference Unit with the Prime Minister’s Department, etc were pooled together. This will serve as an eye opener for the groups to understand one another and serve as a good start for future cooperation. Each seeking to understand rather than acting counter productively in relation to other groups’ objectives. By such a close relationship and by such groups working together, we can urgently address issues of universal concern and not adopt a ‘holier than thou’ attitude which will not only separate and keep people apart, but also prevent each other from progressing.


1) Did the conference manage to reach the organiser’s objective?

While locally and probably in the Third World, the conference did manage to receive wide coverage, the lack of interest from the western media towards the conference meant that the people of the North will not be touched by the message. As they form a very important group in JUST’s endeavour to Rethink Human Rights, not reaching them is a setback. (Here JUST may want to look within its own circle of influence and maximise what they can do to expand it).

2) Creating Awareness : Rethinking Human Rights.

The local population may be confused with the issue as their basic level of knowledge with regards to human rights is still lacking. A call to Rethink Human Rights assumes that one has already the knowledge of the current concept i.e. the current viewpoints, approach and practice. Hence, the average person will need to take a big jump forward. Some, or perhaps many, may become confused.

As for the people of the North, the lack of coverage meant no awareness was created.

3) NGOs at loggerheads

The friction arising between the NGOs as a result of a differing approach and emphasis towards the issue may serve to divide their voices. While personally I take this as a temporary disequilibrium, arising from JUST embarking on a new strategy, this friction, if not handled properly, may increase.
4) Exploitation by Opportunistic Leaders from the South

Opportunistic leaders from the South may exploit the endeavour to Rethink Human Rights to propose a version of human rights that will perpetuate their interests. Coupled with the lack of understanding among the masses in the South, they may be able to manipulate the situation to legitimise their own hidden agendas.

5) West Bashing

Some felt that the conference was per-occupied with ‘West-bashing’. While a complete reading of the actual papers presented will prove otherwise, certain presenters did express anger and portray hatred towards the West openly. Perhaps it was the emotional display of anger that allowed some to see this conference as a “West-bashing” party.

If it is true that the anger and hatred approach was espoused, then it will prove negative to the objective of the conference.

(Note : Should one find an article per se as being critical of the West, this should not be equated with West-bashing as this is the topic at hand. While there were certain speakers who expressed anger, there were those like Prof Mahmoud Ayoub who was really compassionate and cautioned against such acts.)


1) Awareness will actually turn into understanding

It will be interesting to see if the high level of coverage will also make more people seek to understand, discuss and later take action on issues pertaining to human rights locally and at the international scene. Will the average Malaysian manage to grasp the underlying concept of human rights and use the knowledge regardless of where the violation originates North or South?

2) Actual Follow Up

Will there be an actual follow up i.e. an expanding mechanism to the concept of Rethinking Human Rights or will this whole endeavour turn into an end in itself? Will NGOs make full use of the plus points or tear each other apart with the minus points? Will the NGOs be preoccupied with the ghost of Mahathir, or will they concentrate on the crux of western dominance, the dominant paradigm causing the worst violation of human rights?

Will the books, articles and papers presented fill the hearts and minds of people or will they decorate their shelves?
Will the conference spark off more discussions, public forums, articles, books about the subject? For example, will there be a sequel to the conference?

In short, what form will the follow-up take?

3) The Realisation of the leadership in the South

Will the leadership in the South realise that they themselves are practising the same concept as the Western powers albeit on a lesser scale? Will Mahathir, for instance, see that to be more effective and believeable at the international scene, he must first practise what he preaches within his own Circle of Influence?

4) To what extent did opportunistic leaders manage to exploit the conference for negative ends?

Will the conference serve them more than the sublime quest to rethink and reformulate human rights? How far will the NGOs work together to ensure this is minimised? Or will they be helping those leaders by way of arguing amongst themselves instead?

5) Awareness of the people from the North and elites of the South

Will people of the North become aware of their current practice and its effects on the people of the South? That their current life-style helps perpetuate the misery of a large portion of the human race? That the last 500 years of exploitation has supported their current state?

Will the elites of the South become aware that they are no better than their western counterparts?

How will these two groups react to the awareness?

6) What will the next 500 years hold?

What will the immediate future be like? Will the current concern continue with added vigour or will it assume a more positive trend? Will the next 500 years see a more balanced world? Will the situation in the South improve? Will the South some day in the future replace the North as the dominant exploiter? (With the current economic growth rates and the twists and turns of history, one never knows)

7) The breaking up of NGOs into two groupings

Will there be a breaking up of NGOs into two groups? One inclined to agree with JUST’s approach and the other towards Suaram’s? Or will the NGOs see both groups as similar in their quest but just different in strategy and emphasis? Thus, there is no need to be inclined towards either – instead we need to realise the need to respect each other’s style and approach.

(Note : I am positive that more PMIs can be generated. However, I will stop here)


To profit from the conference and to ensure the quest for human rights proceeds towards a better end, one must maximise the plus points gathered so far, minimise the minuses and monitor, control and guide the ‘interesting points to note’ towards the creation of more plus points. Here is where we must handle the misgivings about the conference pointed out by certain individuals and groups.

For instance, Indai Lourdes Sajor from the Asian Women’s Human rights Council may want to organise another conference that could be entitled “Global Domination and its impact on Women” as a follow up to this conference. (Indai was concerned that the women’s issue was not discussed at the conference. While the conference was already packed with so many aspects of western dominance, and more so since it is already over, it would be more beneficial if we concentrate on the future and use this platform to proceed with this important related issue. Any takers for this idea?)

Suaram, on the other hand, concerned with the possible manipulation of the conference by leaders of the South, may want to organise a similar conference entitled “Western Domination and Third World Leaders”. Another group may want to organise one that focusses purely on the economy while someone else may want to focus on arts and culture. The list could go on.

It is however, important for us to deal with the ‘ghost’ of Mahathir as it seems to be that this particular thorn is clouding many from focussing on the crux of the problem.

The Ghost of Mahathir

It amazes me how one normal human being like Mahathir has assumed such a powerful influence over intelligent thinking humans to such an extent that they make their decisions based on his presence or absence in officiating and delivering a keynote address at a function. A man like him, who is a drop in the ocean compared to the vastness of the problem, will come and go. He, you or I were not present in 1492 when Colombus landed on the soils of the New World. He too is as helpless as you and I when confronted with the dying children in Africa or the thousands of women raped in Bosnia- Herzegovina.

One must also note that as a human being he too is not an absolute Satan only bent on doing wrong, or an absolute angel with one hundred per cent goodness. He is just a normal human being. He has done wrong, he has done right. Just like you and I. He has spent a considerable amount of energy and time fighting for the South. JUST and Chandra see this as good enough for him to officiate at the conference. He has also detained a good number of people using the ISA. Suaram and Sivarasa see this as not good enough for him to officiate at a human rights conference. Are we all not acting within our own “logic bubble”? Let it be at that. Proceed with the more important issues.

It is sad to see many hours wasted on unimportant things. It is sadder to see that many are more preoccupied with whether Chandra has been bought over by the government or Dr Mahathir. When the local dailies featured both man “bersalaman” or shaking hands, many perceived that as Chandra having lost his fire. He had succumbed to the powers that be. (Note : this is not the first such incident. A similar situation took place earlier this year between these two men at an IKIM function.)


Let me provide an alternative evaluation. The man Chandra extended his ‘Salam’ to the man – Mahathir – who had once separated him from his family and friends – without a trace of hatred or vengeance. Not only did he not succumb to the powers that be, he did not succumb to the power of hatred….which is more natural to do. He has not lost his fire; he, on the contrary, showered Mahathir with compassion as he willingly extended his hands regardless of what Mahathir had done.

You see, people like Chandra are non-reactive persons. They are guided by strong principles which they keep close at heart. Before any of us labels a man like him as “Mahathir’s man” or accuses him of this or that, we must remember that he has clocked in more hours in fighting for human rights, truth and justice than many of us put together. So give the man more credit.

Has he forgotten about the ISA? Put it this way. While you and I were watching television as Operation Lallang took place in 1987, he was one of those rounded up. His family had to face the traumatic experience of not knowing when Chandra would return. Do you really think he has forgotten the ISA? Or, has he found something more significant to look into?

I am not saying that he has no faults. For example, personally I do find Chandra is sometimes carried by emotions while delivering his talks. But, I have known this man personally since 1986. I have read most of his works and followed Aliran’s viewpoints since then. If you think that Chandra has been bought over, I wish to provide an alternative viewpoint. Have you read how similar Wawasan 2020 is to Aliran’s ideals and writings since 1977? Who influenced who here? Anyway, why don’t you also compare the arguments on international issues put forth by the government in the last few years to Chandra’s and Aliran’s writing of 10 years ago?

Chandra’s goals have not changed. The change that took place is actually in our perception of him. Many, guided by hatred of the man Mahathir or the government, have forgotten the Chandra that we knew. I would like to quote an example. Earlier this year, Chandra’s article on Islam, the Malay Race and Tolerance was carried in the NST. Someone then exclaimed, “Look, Chandra has changed direction. He is saying good things about the Malays now!”. In fact, the article was written by Chandra some 15 to 20 years ago. (I guess the change of perception towards him also took place at the NST. You win some, you lose some). So please check, who has changed.

While his goals remain, his platform and emphasis have changed. Thus, he will carry this emphasis in his future activities through a new platform, i.e. JUST. Let us not allow our hatred towards others, make us judge him or others like him in the wrong light.

Now let us get back to Suaram, Sivarasa and Mahathir. I propose we try to practise a Gandhian philosophy. Hate the Sin and not the Sinner. Thus, if the sinner officiates at a particular function, we are not overly lost. We, of course must remind ourselves of the sins and most of all not practice them ourselves within our own Circle of Influence.

In fact, I propose another alternative. It is perhaps a better and more productive challenge for Suaram to try to sell the idea of abolishing the ISA as a positive point to Mahathir. Sell him the idea that he will be far more convincing and respected by both peoples of the North and South as he will be seen as a leader who practices what he preaches. Do this with compassion and not in a confrontational approach. If you choose a confrontational approach, he will just shut you up, and you become “Bagai anjing nyalak bukit”. Convince him that by not doing so he is just one more supporter of the West that he condemns. As Ibn Khaldun, the great medieval historian wrote, “The conquered people, adopt the forms, ideas and manners of the conquering people.”

Most of all, let us all be focused. Let us work together for the common good. Let us all respect each others’ ideas even if we do agree with them.


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