Archive for March, 2016

09
Mar
16

PERSONAL VENDETTA?

Published in NST & The Sun
Monday, 7 March 2016

Events in my personal life as well as those unfolding daily in the country have made me realize how bare the threads of diversity, multiculturalism and inclusiveness are in the fabric of the nation.

Despite pledges made by political leaders to uphold national unity and interethnic integration, the reality is that when it comes to the crunch, Malaysians disperse into their socio-cultural, economic and political silos – silos which run parallel to one another but never meet to boast of a unified national philosophy as embodied in the Rukun Negara.

Malaysians lead disparately separate lives, coexisting and avoiding conflict as best we can, for should open confrontations occur they may be well be bloody ones, considering heightened emotions over critical issues such as the political scandals and financial misappropriations. We therefore hedge our words and release ambivalent statements as guarded politicians expertly do, or indulge in racial slurs and bigotry as the anointed ones confidently get away with.

But still, most of us put on that fake smile, or place our palm against our heart or hug one another to express solidarity. We try so hard to be civil and coexist for the practical reason of getting along, eking a living for some and making pots of money for others.

Realistically, I believe that coexistence should be brandished and embellished as a national philosophy, not the ethereal idea of unity.

But do I support the current line-up of distinguished Malaysians standing side by side for the cause of political inclusiveness? And do I applaud their move to form a united citizen front in pursuit of a common cause, that of petitioning for the removal of a democratically elected Prime Minister? Do I believe in their promise to do the right thing for the sake of our beloved country?

Well, to be fashionably ambivalent and evasive my answer is Yes and No.

In the course of leading a multicultural citizen movement, the Association of Voices of Peace, Conscience and Reason (PCORE) for the last five years, and managing the diversity of beliefs, views and opinions of the association’s EXCO and members, I realise more and more that hard work is key but sincerity and honesty are vital to running an organisation.

Truth will surface at some point and God help me if I have been lying. Admitting one has erred may be a hard pill for one’s pride to swallow but it is the only way. Covering up one’s track of lies and fibs is counter productive as one will be ensnared in and by the vicious cycle of untruths. In the end, no one escapes the fairness of God’s law and providence.

While I see the current move to set up a multiethnic political front as the precursor to the establishment of a truly multiethnic political party and a unity government, I would implore the motley group of political veterans and activists to get their intention or nawaitu right. Please be sincere and get rid of your personal vendetta. Looking at the line-up and the pledge of support from absent ones, it is quite obvious quite a few have axes to grind.

I would say “Yes” to genuine respect and understanding among Malaysians of different religious and socio-cultural backgrounds but “No” to any one individual, group or community attempting to dominate – not UMNO, not DAP; not the Malays, not the Chinese. By virtue of their role, leaders may be dominant but only to the exten that they represent the voices of real consensus, not contrived ones.

Most of all I would urge these political movers and shakers to search their own conscience before pointing a finger at others; search your own soul before becoming holier than thou and accusing others of committing the very “crimes” you yourself committed not so long ago.

Speak your mind with reason and logic and stop employing spin doctors and members of hidden forces to do your work for you – and that at exorbitant rates. Only then will Malaysia and its people receive the blessings of the Almighty. Only then will we be at peace.

09
Mar
16

RITES OF PASSAGE

LESSONS MY PARENTS TAUGHT ME

RITES OF PASSAGE
By Halimah Mohd Said

Birthdays are certainly rites of passage which mark one’s entry into the next year of one’s life. The first birthday I celebrated was my twenty first way back in 1967 when I was a second year University of Malaya undergraduate. The “party” I had at home was not with my family but with my varsity girl friends – Doreen, Phaik Kim, Soon Hock, Foong Kwan, Anucia – who drove down to No 4 Lake Road.

My parents did not consider birthdays an important rite of passage and did not see the need to formally acknowledge their children’s turning 21 years of age which, in many societies, marks the transition into full adulthood. Growing up In Seremban, the passage of time from one birthday to the next moved without a fuss: sans cake and candles to blow; sans sweets, savouries and fizzy drinks to gorge; sans balloons and streamers and all other trimmings to make the birthday party a blast; and without the beautifully-wrapped gifts to open with great anticipation. In our family luxuries were scarce as necessities were prioritised. My parents taught us to be frugal.

NEW SCHOOL YEAR

Instead, the transition from one school year to the next was deemed an important event in the family calendar, creating much stir among the siblings as we acquired new things: a new school uniform to replace the old one we had outgrown; a pair of new, stark white BATA shoes as last year’s discoloured ones were discarded; a new, bigger school bag for the thicker text, lab and exercise books. The first day of each school year was eagerly awaited for the ritual of going into the new classroom, meeting the new class teacher and interacting with our new classmates.

One year older means one class higher – the vital passage of time which marks our school-going years.

For me, the transition from nine years at the all-girls Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus to two years of sixth form at the co-ed King George the Fifth (KGV) in 1963 was especially exciting as it marked an important milestone in my educational and emotional development. I felt I had grown up. From the protective environment of a Convent education managed and taught by strict nuns and female lay teachers (except for Mr Siew, the Chemistry teacher), I was thrust into a school filled with an almost even mix of the two sexes both among students and teachers. This was indeed a significant rite of passage!
PRINCIPLES AND VALUES

The principles and values I picked up from my mentors – Miss Vanar, Miss Goh, Sister Ann, Sister Veronica, Mr Ung, Mr Andrews – have left an indelible mark on my character. They were the best role models and embodied the highest ideals of mentorship – committed, compassionate, concerned.

Learning is a pleasure when imparted by people who really care for you.

My father’s contributions to my two alma mater helped to hone in some great values in me and the young people he was blessed to serve. Being a doctor, he gave generously of his time and knowledge to provide free medical treatment to the Convent orphans, some of whom were sick and disabled having been abandoned by their parents. Every weekend Dr Said would visit the Convent sisters and their charges. With stethoscope and medicines in hand, he would examine the orphan girls and dispense the cough mixture and paracetamol. Those with more serious ailments were referred to the Seremban general hospital where he was a government doctor. His service to KGV was in the form of a series of evening lectures on genetics and inherited diseases, organised by the school biology club and opened to both students and teachers. Having taken numerous slides of patients with yaws, elephantiasis and deformities he would show them to the roomful of enthused audience. Thus the eager young minds were introduced to and inspired by the world of medicine.

The most outstanding set of values I learned from my father, teachers and mentors that best marks life’s rites of passage are immortalised in Rudyard Kipling’s poem IF:

PREGNANCY AND BIRTH

From my mother I also learned that in order to avoid the cruel hand of fate and the curse of disease and deformity, the traditional Malays observe certain cultural rites of passage which stem more from adat (customs) than the religion of Islam. These include the rites and rituals which mark the changes in a person’s life from one stage to the next. Later, I was intrigued to discover that many of the superstitions and beliefs upheld by primitive Malay and other communities are premised on scientific knowledge which, unknown to them, find their way into the life of the communites influencing their customs and practices.

As a young wife pregnant with child for the first time, I was told repeatedly by my mother never to tease or mock a person with a deformity lest the foetus I was carrying became inflicted with one. I was told by my mother in law to look only at photographs of beautiful people so that my child would grow to be a good-looking person. More importantly, my husband was told that my mengidam or pregnancy cravings in the first trimester had to be fulfilled lest I became kempunan (to be in a quandary, nervous, desperate because of an unfulfilled yearning) and an untoward incident befell me. And so, not wanting to disappoint my mother, I dutifully yearned for some of the most exotic dishes in her recipe collection – masak lemak cili padi, pencuk daging salai, dodol telur – sourced from her kampung Nyalas, my father’s kampung Linggi and the state of Pahang where they lived for eleven years. And so in my pregnancy I became a popular spokesperson representing the food cravings of other members of the family.

In the seventh month of my pregnancy, a ceremony called lenggang perut was held where prayers were chanted and a special doa’ selamat was read to ask for Allah’s mercy in granting me and the baby a safe delivery. Mak Minah Bidan, the midwife, performed the ritual of rubbing a paste made from herbs, lime and holy water all over my well-endowed stomach in front of a gathering of ladies. Prayers have a way of instilling hope and confidence in us mere mortals that the Almighty will heed our wishes and grant us a safe passage.

The birth of a baby is a significant rite of passage for the mother who has been carrying the fetus for nine months and undergoes a painful and traumatic delivery. Thus, she has to be given special food and care during the “confinement” period of thirty or forty days when she is literally confined to the home. Here she is given only healing foods foregoing the “cooling” foods such as watery fruits and vegetables.

Having a doctor father and midwife mother who were both western-trained, my confinement period was not too restricting and I was allowed to enjoy the daily serving of spinach, liver and chicken soup which in some conservative households were pantang or taboo foods. In the Malay kampung of old, women who had just delivered a baby were fed a daily diet of rice and salted fish and could drink only small amounts of warm water. Besides the dietary requirements, other healing procedures were observed such as body massage or urut to calm tense muscles. Traditional herbs and concoctions such as fresh turmeric, jamu and ma’jun were consumed to help restore the functions of the female reproductive organs.

Such is the respect for a mother in Islam, for heaven lies under the soles of her feet.

BLESSED AND BLESSINGS

For the newborn baby the first rite of passage takes place at about three months when the baby is blessed by family and friends. The simple ceremony is traditionally called jejak tanah (to step on the ground) but has evolved into an upbeat socio-cultural cum religious event called berandam surai (grooming). The ritual sees the introduction of the young infant to his community to invite their blessings and that of Allah.

For each of my twelve grandchildren, a majlis aqiqah was held where two goats were slaughtered for a grandson and one goat for a granddaughter and the meat cooked and served to guests. This religious sacrifice is to ensure one is assisted and protected by a beast of burden in facing the trials and tribulations in the next world. During the ceremony, besides the prayers and doa’, the infant is given a taste of dates and honey, the two foods considered most sustaining among Muslims.

In Sya Allah and God willing these social, cultural, religious rites of passage observed by parents and the values and principles they embody will endow their children and grandchildren with the blessings and confidence to manage their lives with ease in this world and for all eternity. Amen!

09
Mar
16

LEFT AND RIGHT

LESSONS MY PARENTS TAUGHT ME

Left And Right
By Halimah Mohd Said

Like nature’s temporal distinction between “day and night”, the human body is classified into the binary divide of “left and right” from the head right down to the toes. If we measure the two sides of our bodies such as our arms and legs we realise that they are not quite equal in length or size. Our facial features – eyes, nose, mouth, ears – are not exactly symmetrical. Somehow, nature has made one side – usually the right – a little bit larger or stronger than the left. Our major internal organs – brain, heart, lungs, kidneys – have right and left parts each with different but complementary functions.

The view of life and the diverse phenomena surrounding it as existing in a scheme of opposities is prevalent in many civilisations and cultures. Hinduism, for instance, holds the belief that the cosmos comprises two opposite halves – the passive and active; the gross and the subtle; the right and the left – which complement each other to form a unified whole, This distinction between the right and the left is strictly adhered to in Indian culture where the right is considered pure and sacred and used for ceremonial rituals as well as daily activities like eating, receiving and offering. The circular cosmic scheme of opposites which create a whole exist in the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang where night turns into day and day turns back into night. Yin – the female energy of the human psyche – guides intuitive and creative thinking, while yang – the male energy – controls inductive and deductive thinking. This corresponds to modern scientific knowledge of the functions of the left and right hemisphere of the human brain. In Christianity the right hand of God is the favoured hand in images of Jesus sitting at God’s right side and John, the loyal disciple, sitting on his right in The Last Supper..

Across the world’s population, there is a strong bias towards right-handedness. Nine out of ten or roughly 90 percent of people, use their right hand for writing, eating, handing out or picking up things and doing other daily activities. It is a fact that many common tools such as knives and scissors are designed solely for use by right-handed people, Left-handedness is therefore thought to be a problem and children showing this tendency are corrected from an early age. Throughout history this right-handed bias has created a host of socio-cultural habits and beliefs which pervade our daily lives and govern our lifestyle choices. Just as day brings sunlight and good cheer and night brings darkness and fear, the right side of things creates a more positive response than the left.

From the time he was born, my only brother Yusof was quicker with his left hand than his right. My mother, who was influenced by the taboos and superstitions in her Malay kampung upbringing, tried very hard to correct what she thought was a disability in her only son. She told us how each time baby Yusof reached out with his left hand, she would give it a tap, put it down and pull out his right hand. When he was bigger and could eat with his fingers as the Malays do, he was instructed at each meal to use the fingers in his right hand. This he learned to do after being sternly warned that it was haram or forbidden in Islam to use the left hand for eating.

Educated in the sciences, my father did not see anything abnormal in being left-handed and allowed his son the freedom to develop his motor skills unimpeded. Thus, in school Yusof was confidently left-handed for classroom work and sporting activities. As my father rightly predicted, he would do very well academically earning top marks in his favourite subject biology, where he dissected plant and animal specimens with his left hand. In sports, he overcame his initial awkwardness and became a good badminton and tennis player. A further blessing was that of all the seven siblings Yusof had the most beautiful cursive handwriting and produced the finest pencil sketches of birds and animals. Later on in his career as a plastic surgeon, his left-handedness was never a barrier to his performing the most delicate harelip operations, an area in which he specialised.

As Muslims parents, my father and mother made sure their seven children were raised in a household where Islamic teachings and beliefs, rituals and practices were routinely observed. Besides the rules and principles laid out in the Quran, Muslims faithfully abide by the code of conduct and behaviour documented in the traditions of Prophet Muhammad SAW known as the Hadith. These include the etiquette for cleaning and cleansing; eating and drinking; greeting and praying; and a host of other daily activities, as Islam is considered a way of life.

Through the religious teachers – ustaz (male) and ustazah (female) – who taught us to read the Quran from the time we were five, my parents initiated us into performing our daily prayers or solat, Before reading the Quran or performing the solat, we were taken through the Muslim ritual of cleansing called wudu’ or ablution. This involves the use of running water to clean the face, hands and legs starting with the right side while chanting the prescribed doa or holy verse. Thus, we were carefully instructed in the use of the index finger of the right hand when pointing to the Quran during recitation, washing the head, neck then the right shoulder and hand first before the left and so on.

In Malay-Muslim culture, be it the hand, the leg or any other part of the body, the right hand side is always given a higher status, preference or position in terms of positivity. In the daily ritual of eating, we children were often reminded of the Prophet’s injunction “If one of you eats, he should eat with his right hand. And if he drinks something, he should drink with his right hand. For indeed, Satan eats and drinks with his left hand.” And so it was that in the preparation of food and drink and in serving them to our guests, the right hand was always used. We were told to receive offers of food and drink or gifts with our right hand and never with our left. In showing people the way or to their seats, we were instructed to use our right thumb not the index finger which is considered impolite.

The right leg is also accorded a higher status in daily practices such as stepping out of the house, entering a mosque or getting into a car. I remember my mother reminding me to use my right leg every time I stepped out of the house to go to school or back to university after the long vacation. Apparently some enthusiastic religious teachers tell the children they teach to enter the toilet using their right leg in order to distinguish themselves from the evil beings who use their left limbs. It is only in the ritual of cleaning our bodies after toilet use that we are told to use the left hand, and in this case, the use of the right hand is strictly forbidden.

And as a mother, this is what I have passed down to my three children and as a grandmother, to my twelve grandchildren. I hope and pray they will also share these Muslim beliefs about right and left, about right and wrong with their own families. This is all the more important as we see families divided and growing apart because they do not share common values and interests or speak a common “language”. The intergenerational gaps are growing wider by the day as the advancement of knowledge and the spread of information in all fields is too fast and furious for us, the family elders, to catch up.

We have only to look at our own families to realise how far behind we are in the use of technology compared with our children and grandchildren. I am amazed at how advanced my grandchildren are in the use of their IPhone and IPad which they deftly operate with the fingers on both the right and left hand. They are ambidextrous in the use of modern gadgets and therefore do things much faster, sometimes at lightening speed.

My daughter’s thirteen year old daughter, Zara, is especially clever in using her IPhone functions and restored my WhatsApp twice after it was accidentally deleted. Last week over dinner, Zara clicked a candid photo of me and in seconds produced her photoshopped interpretation of what she thinks her Nini really is – a silly old ninny or better still, an eccentric witch. (picture).

Yes – we should learn from the younger generation to be as cool and clever as they are or as right and left as modern technology allows us to be!




March 2016
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