Of Repentance and Penitence

Of Repentance and Penitence

by Dr. Oh Ei Sun
Sabah Times

These few weeks were indeed packed with events and commemorative days. Last week we celebrated, among other’s, Teacher’s Day, which has become a national occasion when we pay tribute to not only teachers, but indeed all those who undertake the tough and often thankless job of educating the precious minds of the country.

As the son of a teacher (my mom was a school teacher for 34 years), and as a teacher myself, Teacher’s Day is for me a day of reflection on the state and future of education, not so much for the much-vaunted national development effort, but in developing wholesome characters in millions of precious young minds. And perhaps a brief lesson in history from another part of the world could help.

In 1957, just a few weeks after Malaya attained its independence, another smaller-scale, but no less momentous event took place in the provincial town of Little Rock, the capital of the state of Arkansas in the United States. Nine young black men and women were escorted by US Army personnel to attend Little Rock Central High, a hitherto all-white school.

The past entrenched racism of the American South would be a subject for future writing. It suffices to mention here that for almost a century after the liberation of black slaves in the US, officially sanctioned racist treatments abounded primarily in the American South. The images of separate toilets for “White” and “Colored” still haunt us today. Most schools there were either exclusively white or black, with far superior teaching resources reserved for the former.

The US Supreme Court, in its landmark 1954 case, Brown v. Board of Education, declared such segregated school systems unconstitutional, and ordered that schools should be integrated. Nevertheless, many local school systems and residents, mostly in the South, were still resistant to such change.

In 1957, nine black students registered for Little Rock Central High. When the news spread, some white residents organized protests near the school. Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, no friend to the black civil rights movement, ordered Arkansas National Guard to join in and block the entrance of these students into the high school. It created a national uproar and shook the conscience of a nation.

President Dwight Eisenhower, after failing to persuade Governor Faubus to stand down, ordered federal troops from the elite 101st Airborne Division to escort the “Little Rock Nine” to school everyday. The immortal image of the young men and women walking to school flanked by federal troops has since become a milestone in the American black struggle for equal treatment.

The “Little Rock Nine” saga epitomizes the “true” emancipation of black people in the American South. It crystallizes the lofty ideal that enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal, and they are endowed… with certain inalienable rights, and among these, are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. The federal troops who performed their duties admirably were also deserving of praises, for they braved the intimidating crowds to ensure that nine fellow black citizens have their life and liberty protected, and could pursue their future happiness free of fear by receiving the same quality of education as their white brethrens.

But the American federal government, under President Eisenhower, should receive the most accolades for acting swiftly and courageously to use public tools to protect the legitimate rights of their minority citizens. It enshrines one of the basic tenets of true democracy, that the rule by the majority must be tempered by respect for the minority.

The American educational system has of course come a long way since the infamous days of the “Little Rock Nine”. In American campuses today, students from various nationalities, including those from Sabah, can be seen mingling with and learning from each others. And the American culture is one of “no shame in apology”. Most Americans today are aware of the evil of racism, of judging and treating people simply based on color, sex or religion. They repent their past, sometimes overly so, and they try to pay penitence by doing their best to right the wrongs.

Today the sculptures of the “Little Rock Nine” stand proudly in front of the Arkansas State Capitol. In 1999, they received the prestigious Congressional Gold Medals. In 1996, they appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show face to face with some of the white students who tormented them back then. The American sense of repentance and penitence is simply astounding!

The same, alas, could not be said about at least some of our local politicians. After nonchalantly offended the feminine dignity of a fellow MP, and despite heavy criticisms from all circles here and abroad, the two offending MPs meekly offered at worst “no apology” and at best only lame ones. And this only after first withdrawing and re-issuing the so-called “apologies”!

What kind of convoluted, half-hearted, excuse-ridden, blaming-others gibberish are these? Not a single word was meant to assuage the offended feelings of the victimized MP! Let me get this straight: If you insult Dr. Oh’s manhood, you should apologize to all men but not Dr. Oh in particular, is it? What kind of warped view of social discourse is this?

And it is equally cheeky and offensive of them to drag the government into the picture, proclaiming that they were merely defending the government in uttering those offensive words. O, so the end justifies the means, is it? Can you imagine Tony Blair defend his government in Parliament by making fun of his female colleagues? What kind of negative message is this sending to our young impressionable children? “Hey, as long as you think it is for a good cause, you may use offensive words, go ahead, just do it!”

I humbly submit and hope that the quality of our government does not stoop to the level of these offending MPs. I am heartened to learn that after this inglorious issue was first publicly discussed in Sabah (in this very column) last Monday, at least two female assistant ministers in the state government (led by the same coalition as that at the federal level) came out to unequivocally condemn the offending MPs.

And media and NGOs are again being made scapegoats. Is it not the media’s rightful role to report the shameful incident and to reflect the indignant views of the general public? Is it not the proper function of the women’s NGOs to advocate their related causes and to register their displeasure over such offensive acts? Some people are in serious need of lessons in democracy again, and I am willing to offer them.

In many other developed parts of the world, when people make a mistake, they admit it wholeheartedly and apologise unreservedly. Then they try to make amends for their wrongs, individually and as a society (as in the later, celebratory treatment of the “Little Rock Nine”). This kind of noble stance unfortunately has not taken roots in our local culture. We still have much to learn about repentance and penitence.

  1. #1 by sotong on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 7:44 am

    This is a result of decades of bad leadership and role model.

    Too much pride and arrogant. No/little leadership with decency, responsibility and accountability.

    Generations are affected and their impact on the country and society is significant.

  2. #2 by k1980 on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 9:30 am

    Sourced from http://asiasentinel.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=255&Itemid=31

    “The rope that Pak Lah has given to the bright but arrogant and immature Khairy also surpasses belief. He may yet be hanged by it. …The fact that most of Malaysia’s leaders have been only partially of Malay stock – Indian, Thai, Turkish, etc origins come to mind is quietly forgotten as UMNO chiefs play the race card at every opportunity with phrases of racial supremacy that sound borrowed from South Africa of the apartheid era. “

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 9:38 am

    Evidently one can’t compare the cultural milieu and psche of the Americans with that of UMNOputras.

    The first settlers and founders of America were non-conformist Pilgrim Fathers who set sail in the Mayflower for the promised land in 1607 to escape the religious strictures and social intolerance of old England. Their 3rd president Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence/Constitution was a horticulturist, architect, archaeologist, paleontologist, author, inventor and inellectual all rolled into one, who as far back as 6 years shy of 200 years ago really believed that the social distictions between men were artificial, that all men were born equal and that the only virtue and talents (merits) distinguish them. Abraham lincoln’s fight for abolition of slavery was a natural intellectual reponse to the irroconcilability of saying “all men are created equal – except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” Brown v. Board of Education then gave impetus to The Civil Rights Movement of 1950s and 1960s.

    Our Constitution is (by way of understatement) somewhat different : it was structured upon the so called “Social Contract” of privileges for indigenious Malays in exchange for citizenship for migrants. It is structured upon the inequality between the dichotiomy of 2 classes of citizens (Bumiputra & Non Bumiputra), whatever Article 8(1) of our Federal Constitution may say about equality before the law. [But even byond this in the context of the wider Asian context, our culture is patriarchal – even the sacred religious texts have been interpreted with patriarchal slant –denigrating (some would refer the word relegating to secondary status) the position of women].

    The Jasin and Kinabatangan MPs are a product of this culture. It is a supremacist culture upheld by their party : any one who challenges the hegemony of their party must be opposed and if necessary vilified by whatever means including sexist insults. It is a process, which is executed with a touch of pride and self-righteousness rather than apology or remorse….

    Now we all know guilt is an emotion that rises after a transgression of one’s own or cultural values. Shame is different : it is about what other significant others think about our actions and behaviour.

    As guilt is based on one’s own beliefs from culture that a thing done was wrong, this “guilt culture” is a real bulwark against transgression and wrong-doing.

    Not necessarily in the case of shame : for example those around may think that we are pious and that it wrong and impious to engage in sexual peccadillos. But we ourselves may think that there is nothing wrong (colloquially) to hit the sack with attractive persons of the opposite sex. It is after all a natural biological imperative. We then feel “shame” only if our escapades were discovered, exposed and adjudged by significant others around.

    Otherwise – and for so long as the chances of our sexual indiscretions being discovered are minimal or that even upon discovery, we will be protected from exposure – then and in such a scenario, we will have no compunction in continuing to fornificate like rabbnits!

    There is then a major difference in not doing something because of internalised cultural values that it is wrong and doing the wrongful act produced guilt from that of not doing something to preserve reputation and honour and avoid shame. In the latter case (shame culture), the down-side is that it is no bar to secret wrong doing, and we would still do it, if we perceive we won’t get caught!

    Both guilt and shame are hence influenced by culture but they don’t necessarily intersect.

    However, in the culture of the ruling party, the negative of guilt and shame intersect here and there is, by culture, neither guilt nor shame in taunting another fellow female MP in the Opposition “Mana bocor? Batu Gajah pun bocor setiap bulan”!

    The fact that such sexually nuanced remarks had been uttered before by our ‘honourable’ wakil raykat shows that they really don’t feel anything wrong about them beyond harmless jokes.

    There can subsist no guilt. Neither is there shame because significant others of the same party thumped their tables in endorsement and victorious celebration of the defeat of DAP’s motion to commit the duo to the Privileges Committee. Even top Ministers make apologist statements in defence of these remarks.

    No wonder the public apology is faked. One cannot realistically expect transgressors to fake sincerity of remorse guilt or shame where they don’t feel an iota of it.

    They did it for political expedience of appeasing women’s groups and not alienating the women’s votes.

    They don’t share the outrage of those outraged because equality or respect of women (interpreted as inclusive of not making sexual laced jokes of them) is politically correct only in the context of Thomas Jefferson’s and Abraham Lincoln’s culture, which in the wider world stage, especially in the contested grounds of Iraq and Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East the two cultures are still in conflict and fought out ala Samuel Huntington’s fashion, without yet a decisive victor.

    So too in the smaller stage of this country, something perhaps the Dr. Oh Ei Sun should reflect upon (the cultural prism) when discoursing on “Repentance and penitence” .

  4. #4 by Godamn Singh on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 10:38 am

    “We still have much to learn about repentance and penitence.”

    What repentance and penitence are you talking about? A foreigner visiting Kuala Lumpur for a day would be aghast at how unbelievably rude our drivers are.

    We never say, “Please” and never say “Thank you” let alone understand their meaning.

  5. #5 by Godamn Singh on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 10:49 am

    “The same, alas, could not be said about at least some of our local politicians. After nonchalantly offended the feminine dignity of a fellow MP…”

    I do not understand why all this howling and screaming about the behavior of two Members of Parliament when their behavior is representative of a wide cross section of the community – be it Malays, Chinese or Indians.

    Why do we continue to howl and scream at the sexist behavior of some and not the others? To be ‘sexist’ is to be prejudiced against women – or at least that is what ‘sexism’ is. That, unfortunately fits the description of the average Malaysian.

    The average Malaysian is never chivalrous, never sensitive and never fair to their women. How many would give up their seats to women when in a bus or train?

    Ask readers in this blog how many times they give up their seats, or give way to women when entering the lift or a room because they are women.

  6. #6 by W.O or Wilson on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 11:46 am

    An excellent article.

    Dr Oh has managed to capture the total lack of decency and education in some of our local politicians.

    It was truly a shameful day for Malaysia when BN politicians kept silent, defended and even attempted to justify the actions of the two MPs. To me, that just highlighted the incredible chasm that exist between our MPs, and more pointedly, our democratic system with the rest of the democratic world. Members are expected to vote along party lines and defend their parties to the death – with no consideration for the welfare of the people they represent nor bring value-judgements of decency, morality and common sense into question.

    The media, NGOs etc for once were stirred into action – and that’s the way they should ALWAYS be – providing the function of the “fourth estate” and establishing themselves as the check and balance that our very screwed-up (I struggle for a more fitting word…failing?) system of democracy desperately needs.

    It is my hope that all Malaysians don’t remain apatheic towards incidents as such – the dignity and equality of unalienable rights for all man is certainly something worth fighting for – many have died defending this and similar causes.

    As the saying goes…”Fool me once, shame on you…fool me twice, shame on me…”

    Let’s hope the majority of Malaysians awake from their casual slumber and inertia and not be fooled by this government again…and evoke the neccesary changes by voting this government out.

  7. #7 by bbtan on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 12:01 pm

    The “tetuan” fellow in Johor may be reminiscing the days when the prophets were owning some slaves. The next best thing to being a master of slaves is to be a tetuan to fellow Malaysians.

  8. #8 by Jan on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 12:06 pm

    So long as the insult is directed at the Opposition, a Chinese or a non Bumi it’s OK. This seems to be the unwritten rule of the ruling party.
    Fong Po Kuan happens to be all three.

  9. #9 by W.O or Wilson on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 12:18 pm

    An excellent article. Dr Oh has done a fine job of narrating the utter lack of decency in some of our local politicians while illustrating the neccessary and basic virtues of democracy that were gleaned from history…and the people who weren’t afraid to stand up for what was right; who were in fact, were prepared to face death for their cause to be advanced.

    The courage of the ‘Little Rock Nine’ compared to the cowardice of our local politicians in standing up against the debated issue presents a striking contrast in advances and streams of thought. On paper at least, it shows we are 40 years behind even imperfect democracies like the US. When was the last time you saw an MP cross the floor in the Dewan Rakyat and vote against his party in Malaysia? When was the last time you saw a BN MP exercise his/her judgement and vote on bills according to his/her sense of morality, conscience and plain common sense?

    It is truly my hope that the disgusting actions of the two boorish and uneducated MPs finally stir the general populance in Malaysia out of their inertia and casual slumber. That there are causes such as the basic, inalienable rights of a human being that are worth defending – there are some things more important that just ensuring a closeted comfortable living for yourselves.

    The saying goes “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me…” Let’s hope Malaysians will finally come to the fore and not be shamed again and again by the hypocritical and persistent unfufilled promises of the current government. Start by using the power that has been entrusted to you; VOTE for a change. It’s the least you can do.

  10. #10 by k1980 on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 12:26 pm

    Keling Di India adalah Melayu di Malaysia? From http://malaysia-today.net/blog2006/beritankom.php?itemid=4801

    Abdul Jabbar Muthalif yang dilahirkan di Karasil Patti, daerah Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu, India datang ke Sabah pada 1983 untuk menjadi tukang jahit di Kudat, Sabah namun terpaksa menjadi pelarian Imigresen apabila gagal memperbaharui Visa. …Jabbar diberi kad pengenalan biru H 0488213 dan isterinya, Aysha Bte Abdul Ghani yang didatangkan khas dari India semasa dia menjalankan perniagaan restoran di Kota Marudu turut mendapat kad pengenalan projek H 0488215. Aysha yang lahir di Kampung Ranganathapatti, Tamil Nadu, India memujuk suaminya berpindah ke Kota Kinabalu setelah mendapat bantuan daripada DPIM untuk membuka restoran di Kampung Air, Kota Kinabalu dan mengusahakan kembali restoran mereka di Telupid dan Kota Marudu…

  11. #11 by crosstalk on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 12:52 pm

    Real shame.Many of us have lived and worked here for 3 generations or more are still branded as non bumi.Illegal immigrants whether individuals or with wives n children are granted citizenship n bumi status as long as they are islam and know the ‘loopholes’.This is gross injustice.Real shit n shame.

  12. #12 by Jimm on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 1:59 pm

    There will be enough evidence about the wrong doings within the policies. We are part of the system. Someone just have the upper hand of the situation and turn it to their upmost advantage.
    Easy come, Easy go… this is the simple conclusion about this country. No one really held on to the responsible part right to the truth. Because truth hurts.
    We still compares the color among us rather the the opportunities that we can gain by staying united and excel.
    Since we don’t appreciate what was ‘gifted’ to us, then it is only right to say that things will be gone too ..

  13. #13 by Ramsey on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 3:27 pm

    The two MPs obliviously were taught empathy which is generally acquired during childhood. They are just old fashion Bigots.

  14. #14 by Cinapek on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 3:44 pm

    Dr Oh’s narration pointed out a very stark difference between the way our leaders handle such sensitive issues and the enlightened way the American leaders did.

    In the US, President Eisenhower personally intervened to safeguard the rights and freedom of the minority. In our case, our leaders not only maintain an “elegant silence” but actually condone and encourage such bestial acts by calling it a joke. By doing so, they are sending a message that they agree with the actions of the two uncouth specimens. They even went further and made excuses for them by saying that they cannot control their emotions once provoked. Only animals are not expected to control their emotions. Higher evolved species such as humans are able to think through what is right and wrong and should be able to control their emotions. That is why we have laws to punish those who fail to do so. And in this case, these two should fall into that category of those who failed and should be punished.

    Also in the same breadth, the UMNO leaders tried to lecture YB Fong she must control her emotions and accept such disgusting personal attacks as the norm in Parliament. This kind of hypocritical behaviour from the top is the real cause and encouragement for the “Parliamentary Mat Rempits” to behave the way they do.

    And the other reason why the fundamental concept of protection of minority rights will succeed in the US and fail here is if a shove comes to a push, you can bet your last dollar(and it will be your last) our Armed Forces will side the majority.

  15. #15 by Billy on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 7:26 pm

    Like they say in leadership management studies, “It breeds from the top!”

  16. #16 by Count Dracula on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 9:15 pm

    Cinapek, you are stating the obvious.

    Why do you think they call the armed forces “tentera di -Raja” and the police “Polis di-Raja” – if it is not to protect the Agong? The Agong is a powerful symbol of Malay political hegemony duh!!

  17. #17 by undergrad2 on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 9:25 pm

    “The first settlers and founders of America were non-conformist Pilgrim Fathers who set sail in the Mayflower for the promised land in 1607 to escape the religious strictures and social intolerance of old England.” Jeffrey

    I’m sorry, Jeffrey the normally wise one on this blog!

    The first settlers were not the white Europeans. Even the Chinese were here before the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers. The first settlers, as you and I know, are the native Americans who have been systematically decimated today to a mere 1 million out of a total population of some 280 million, by wars and diseases like smallpox brought by the Europeans.

  18. #18 by DarkHorse on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 9:41 pm

    Excuse Dr. Oh, but what has American history got to do with the ill-mannered and uncouth behavior of two country bumpkins in Malaysia’s Parliament??

    A motion to censure the two ought to have been moved by the DAP MPs right after the remarks were made. Remarks like these in Parliaments is an outrage to not only the female MP at which they were directed but to all right thinking Malaysians of either gender, political affiliations etc.

    Let’s see it for what it is. It is bad behavior. The fact that it came from two government MPs is a mere coincidence. Both sides have politicized the matter beyond what is reasonable – and that has to stop some time.

    The “average Malaysian is sexist” as one readers puts it. All you have to do is take a bus ride and see how many men give away their seats to women passengers, or whether working Malaysian men give way to women when entering a room or an elevator.

    The incident involving the two MPs is not about being sexist. They made derogatory remarks and should be censured. Period.

  19. #19 by lakshy on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 10:12 pm

    Who is going to do censure them? We have a pm who is indecisive and not in the least bit firm……

    Of course the rakyat can censure them at the next elections!

  20. #20 by Oldman on Monday, 21 May 2007 - 10:15 pm

    I for one am glad that this incident happened. It clearly shows the true colour of some MPs and Cabinet members. They pride themselves as elected representatives but beyond that there is nothing noteworthy except for their arrogance. There is a Malay saying, “Ibarat padi menguning; semakin berisi, semakin menunduk.” Perhaps what Spiderman said in the latest offering rings true – “with great power comes great responsibility” …. and a great dose of humility too! Admiting one’s mistake and apologizing for it is not a sign of weakness. It speaks volume of maturity. Truly what’s lacking in some of our MPs today is maturity and accountability. In some cases they have elevated themselves to be “demi-gods.” What a crying shame for a nation that is fast approaching 50 years of independence …. and yet we some MPs caught in a time-warp uncivilized thinking mentality. Wake up before the rest of the world zoom pass us.

  21. #21 by WFH on Tuesday, 22 May 2007 - 5:31 am

    Dr Oh’s 2nd last sentence was:-
    “….This kind of noble stance unfortunately has not taken roots in our local culture. …”

    I like that.

    There cannot be roots when there are no viable seeds to plant in the first place. The Government has so successfully ingrained into minds of the very many of our amazing race’s population for nearly 40 years – that they are the supreme race in the country, to the extent that many (true, not all) within this amazing race can be considered to be already ‘GM’ – -Genetically- Government Modified seeds. Therefore, nothing of the kind of Malay society can ever, ever, take root. At least not in the forseeable future.

  22. #22 by WFH on Tuesday, 22 May 2007 - 5:32 am

    Please strikeout. not delete ‘-Genetically-‘… Ta….

  23. #23 by bbtan on Tuesday, 22 May 2007 - 10:37 am

    I applaud you, undergrad2, the normally fair-minded one on this blog. Your sympathy towards the North American Indians is admirable. I am sure you sympathize with Malaysia’s own natives too.
    I believe you can urge our government to do more to help the true bumis in alleviating their poverty.

  24. #24 by Godamn Singh on Tuesday, 22 May 2007 - 12:47 pm

    Yes. He told me he has sent a fax to the Prime Minister. But will they listen to him after years of denial and neglect?? Why don’t you organize a demonstration? It will be a good photo ops for you if you intend to stand for elections.

    Let’s not manipulate the aborigines of Malaysia to prove a point. Let’s not regard them as a specie of human beings facing extinction unless protected. They are like you and me. They are not objects to be toyed with.

  25. #25 by bbtan on Tuesday, 22 May 2007 - 11:23 pm

    Thank you for your kind advice, Godamn Singh.
    How to demonstrate Godamn Singh?
    How to manipulate the Aborigines, Godamn Singh?
    Who “regard them as a specie facing extinction”?.
    By the way, did you advice undergrad2 to demonstrate for the American Indians in the USA?.

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