Feb 12, 2016

    Only with humour can Malaysia 'move on'

    FIRST of all, let me wish everybody Gong Xi Fa Cai. May the Year of the Monkey be one of prosperity and happiness, despite the depressing circumstances facing Malaysia now.

    What depressing circumstances? Well, the country's economy is hardly what anyone would call dynamic. I know many retailers and businesses are saying that things have really slowed down, even during the festive seasons.

    Things are simply more expensive to import, what with the ringgit in the doldrums. The Goods and Services Tax (GST) hasn't helped, of course. And virtually nobody was fooled by the 3 per cent reduction in Employees Provident Fund contributions.

    Then, there is just the state of things. We're now facing a government which literally thinks that, one, it can do what it wants with impunity and, two, that we are all fools who will believe anything it says.

    If you say something it doesn't like, here's what will happen to you: If you're not a well-connected person, they'll charge you with all sorts of crazy things, including for saying things within your professional capacity, drawing cartoons or dropping balloons.

    If you're a well-connected person, your way out may be well lubricated with lots of monetary inducements. Proof of this is that the first act of the new leader is to ask his boss for money, which he gets instantly.

    Then, you get the endless stream of untruths about a supposed very big gift. I decided to read up on Arab gift-giving customs and learnt a few things. It's a very delicate issue.

    For one thing, if you're a subordinate, you simply do not give gifts to someone ranked higher than you. Royalty is presumably ranked way above any commoners, regardless of whatever position they may have at home.

    Subordinates may, of course, be given gifts but the value of the gift has to be carefully calibrated: not too expensive and not too cheap either.

    One interesting fact: If you're a man, you should never give gifts to an Arab man's wife or even ask about her. I wonder if it works the other way round.

    But what does cross many cultures, especially Middle Eastern and Asian ones, is that you should never return a gift. It would be considered grossly insulting. If it is inappropriate, then the recipient should return it immediately with a polite note explaining why.

    You certainly don't wait for a while before returning it and, that too, while retaining some of it. I can't think of a single culture where this would be considered polite. Perhaps some cultural anthropologists can enlighten us.

    Perhaps this is why there has been some consternation among the alleged gift-givers about the return of this gift. They must be wondering: "Does he mean to insult us?"

    They seem pretty sure it cannot have been a gift but rather an investment because it would make more sense. I think there is a book to be written called Saving Face For Dummies.

    Meanwhile, back in Malaysia, someone has the awful job of having to explain all this and is truly making a hash of it.

    "I know, but I can't tell you" is thundered in the same breath as "I don't know why they gave it. It's personal!" All the while, papers are waved which should have been under lock and key.

    And as all sorts of international authorities are piping up about the inappropriateness of all this, some bright spark tries to lecture them about not interfering in our internal affairs while forgetting that if we put money into overseas accounts, it is no longer internal.

    And then there are people who think the world is as gullible as Malaysia when they can blithely say that they received gigantic commissions for doing "a job", yet feel the need to reinvent themselves as a scholar. Isn't the very concept of gigantic commissions problematic?

    How do we keep our sanity amidst all this monkey business? Why, with our unique Malaysian sense of humour, of course.

    It's so easy to know who's on the right side of things: it's those people who draw and write the wittiest responses to all the nonsense.

    Oh, I forgot: it's "let's move on".


    The writer is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues.