Archive for June, 2013





Published in The Sun 23 June 2013

LEST I be thought a national moralist or a failed nationalist, I am moving away from the socio-political rantings of the last couple of weeks to the less contentious area of language which I’ve done some academic work in. Specifically, I’m interested in meaning – both the straightforward listing of semantic meaning in dictionaries as well as the more emotive pragmatic meaning of words in context.

In the field of linguistics, there is indeed a world of difference between semantics and pragmatics which are stand-alone fields of study. In semantics, the words of a language or its lexicon are described in terms of their denotative or referential meaning, that is what they denote or refer to in the language – thus their listing in a dictionary. For example “crocodile” refers to “a large predatory semiaquatic reptile with long jaws, long tail, short legs”.

In pragmatics, the meaning of words is determined by their use in a particular context of communication. The denotative meaning of a word can be expanded to include certain emotive meanings and connotations. For example in Malay the denotative meaning of “buaya” as “reptil bertubuh besar yang hidup dalam air” can be used informally to refer to a man with special prowess, for example “Tiger Woods betul-betul buaya di padang golf.”

As a language user, we choose the words we want to use when we communicate in speech or writing. In spontaneous speech or informal oral communication, we are less deliberate and have less time to mull over our choices. However even if we are not skilled language users, there is the advantage of being able to correct ourselves immediately or be corrected if our choice of words is unclear or inaccurate.

In a prepared speech or piece of writing, we have time to select the words we want to use to convey certain meanings and implications. We can explore the repertoire of words in dictionaries and thesauruses as well as the words in our own minds and pick the ones with the most bite or sting, that is if we want to “bite” or “sting”.

The words are there for posterity especially when they are communicated at a formal or official event. We can indeed hold a man or a woman to his or her word. When a person’s language consistently stings or has bite, he or she then acquires the reputation of being a good orator or a great writer.

Linguistic communication is intriguing for the range and latitude it allows the language user to have in influencing his hearer(s) and reader(s). In academia, language use is to a large extent “dry”, objective and analytical with little room for soppiness or sloppiness.

Accuracy of meaning is of the utmost importance, and terminology and terms are used in their denotative sense with specific definitions where necessary. We cannot guess or deduce the personality of the writers when they present their research findings at a conference or in a journal. It is the expert argumentation, analysis of data and original conclusions which classify the work as good, mediocre or bad. It has no emotional effects on the audience or readership.

At the other extreme are literary writings such as poems where writers have the licence to select the most emotive words to suggest personal, subjective meanings as in the following:

Between Madness and Poetry

If this is madness, let me rave and rant 
Outpourings of the mind, dreams left behind; 
Ghosts of childhood, demons of youth. 
Yearnings become thoughts etched in the mind’s eye 
Consuming reason, soaking the will dry.
The ebb and flow of mental tide
Rising like the angry wave,
Falling like the gentle wake.

If this is sadness, let me grieve and weep
Tears in the heart, sorrow and pain
Of loved ones passing, of days gone by. 
Memories well into pools of passion
Devouring spirit, my being left awry.
Providence like a fickle master
Beyond human comprehension,
Beyond the heart’s compassion.

If this is music, let me dance and sing
Stirrings of the senses, awakenings of the body; 
The child in my spirit, impulsive and free. 
Pain grows into rhythm, joy into melody 
Lifting thought and nerve to an elevated high, 
Solace to the intellect, comfort to the heart 
Inspiring like a symphony, 
Soothing like a lullaby.

If this is poetry, let me ponder and feel
Musings of the soul, reflections of the mind. 
A glimpse of paradise, a view of eternity 
In the labyrinth and flux of human destiny; 
Nourishing the promise of immortality, 
Manna in the wilderness of quests earthly 
Healing like a balm, 
Calming like a psalm.

I hope the words selected by the poet in the last two stanzas allow theSun’s readers to experience greater emotional meanings than those in the first two.







Published in The Sun on 9 June 2013

WHEN world leaders such as the then US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, endorsed the movement of moderates and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak made it his special platform at the international, regional and domestic levels, the express purpose was to counter the growth of religious extremism, in particular radicalism in the Muslim world.

The call for moderation was a timely move to galvanise the voices of international leaders in condemnation of terrorism, a dangerous trend which saw the systematic use of terror mainly by Muslim groups claiming to defend their territory and faith.

In the eyes of the perpetrators, they were reacting to the invasion and military occupation of their countries/territories in the Quranic spirit of jihad.

Western leaders aided by their media labelled this as “Islamic terrorism”, encouraging a wave of Islamophobia with its reactionary anger and deep-seated prejudice against Muslims.

There’s nothing more destructive than reactionary politics whether it takes place at the international or national level.

Branding and name-calling beget more of the same, and when this happens as a result of ignorance, misguided interpretation and prejudice, it creates a vicious circle of festering anger and aggression all waiting to burst at the slightest provocation.

It is of the greatest urgency, therefore, that all nations double their efforts to fight cross-border insurgencies as well as those within their own shores.

In Malaysia, moderation adopted the name wasatiyyah and The Wasattiyah Institute was officially established to promote moderation and harmony in Islam and to ensure modern Muslims adhere to the true spirit of the Quran, which is to spread love and peace.

According to their official website “The institute will interact with Muslim professionals, community leaders, scholars, students, non-government organisations and the masses in order to spread the word of peace and moderation as the basis of Islamic teachings.

It is also said that the institution is an alternative to combat terrorism and extremism that has been a plague in the Muslim world for so long.”

While national institutions and agencies have official roles and definitive functions, it is necessary for them to actively involve the public in realising them.

Ordinary Malaysians must hear the call for moderation clearly and be repeatedly reminded that the path of harmony is the right one, not only for Islam but also for the other faiths and denominations. Such calls from religious and community leaders have become too far and few between.

The voices of moderates who believe in peace, conscience and reason must prevail and ring louder across the spectrum of Malaysia’s multiethnic and multicultural communities to quell those that ironically scream out dissent and discord in the name of democracy.

And there are indeed many ordinary Malaysians who uphold the principles of moderation but are not speaking up publicly. Yet in emails and face-to-face communication, they provide the most calming and rational arguments.

Agreed, the issues of concern such as terrorism, violence and aggression and their causes, injustice and inequality, need urgent measures to contain them.

These small-group outbursts have the potential to escalate into mass protest if not sensitively handled by sensitive leaders.

However personal a cause is, leaders who are enlightened must surely know that inspiring rebellion against authority will only see citizens dissent in the same spirit of en masse revolt should they themselves step out of line.

Is this the national spirit that they want to instil and the legacy they wish to leave behind? Rather than stand and shout profanities, is it not better to sit down and engage one another sensibly?

It is time for moderate Malaysians to voice their concerns regarding this dangerous development in our society. Daily in the social media, blogs and internet news portals readers are fed with postings and comments which echo the discontentment among a certain sector of the outside community.

These are mainly the people who refuse to move out of their anti-establishment mood and authority-bashing mode into a more constructive discourse.

Mostly, they bring up the same issues of injustice and discrimination with the attendant problems of corruption and abuse (of authority). What they collectively fail to do is to analyse the issues objectively and suggest measures to improve systems and mechanisms.

For let’s face it, no nation is perfect; no government, faultless; no policy, flawless; no leader, invincible. But let’s move forward and better each in turn, or better still, simultaneously! Let’s learn from the furtive boo-boos in history and chart a modern path that is open and transparent.

If national policies have been unfair or discriminatory, they must be reformulated and efficiently implemented to demonstrate the spirit of democracy and egalitarianism that we so desire for our children and grandchildren. This is what all moderate Malaysians must speak up for.

June 2013