Finding common ground

It is not enough to say that we have Malay friends, that we dutifully attend Chinese New Year open houses every year, or that we admire kolams during Deepavali and spend a moment thinking vaguely of our siblings in E. Malaysia during, for example, Kaamatan.

It’s not enough to claim moral superiority over bigots by saying “I eat every day at the mamak’s with my friends of all races and it’s very mesra and muhibbah. It’s only racists in Umno/Perkasa/DAP/PAS/PKR [insert bogeyman here] who want to memecah-belahkan the Rakyat/Ummah/Community [insert own tribe here].”

What is the point of all this when in private or among “our own kind” we entertain and sometimes encourage the opposite idea? Malays are lazy, greedy, over-sexed and bodoh sombong despite (or maybe because of) having everything handed to them on a platter. Chinese are racists who, not content with making debt slaves of the Malays, are trying to appropriate for their dirty pig-eating selves fundamental guarantees of Malay political independence and religious expression. Indians are untrustworthy drunken wife-beaters fit for nothing but the estates and the legal profession. (We can ignore Lain-Lain entirely because they are invisible and do not matter.)

Some of us like to prattle on about some ancient fictitious Golden Age of the recent past where racism was unknown in this land and everyone walked down the street arm-in-arm singing happy songs about each other. We “remember” the time when we recognised no difference in creed, colour or tongue for we were all brothers and sisters under the same British sun; and now we self-righteously deplore the depths to which we have fallen since.

We look fondly on the story of Lat and Frankie and apply it not to our own lives (for those of us lucky enough to have had such a friendship) but to the country as a whole without thinking for a moment that maybe such friendships are possible only as a result of similarities in social class and language unity (English), rather than stemming from any deep wellspring of equal, sincere and universal regard for shared humanity.

Outside the urban centres we were perpetually at one another’s throats. Is it any wonder that the Putera-AMCJA alternative constitution failed so spectacularly to resonate in the hearts of anyone outside the broad Left? Or that the Rakyat in fact ran in the opposite direction towards the same race-based political parties we accuse today of having divided the country worse than the British could ever have done?

Why, even when articulating opposition to Partai Perikatan/Barisan Nasional do we inevitably flock to other exclusivist parties such as Partai Islam or the (notionally inclusive) DAP and Parti Gerakan?

And despite our complaining so loudly about inequality, racism and systematic religious oppression, we still haven’t found another way to express our hopes and fears in anything but the language of our enemies: Ketuanan Melayu, Malaysian Malaysia,Kerajaan Islam—it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the definition of our utopia is in direct opposition to those of our enemies.

(Take gender equality as a neutral example. There is a tendency to approach it from an exclusively feminist perspective, given that more or less attention should be paid to it in direct proportion to how much or little women have been oppressed in our community. But if the discourse is strictly exclusive to women, how does that differ from the discriminatory practices of men?)

We are daily given cause to go to war. The latest incident involving Joshua Wong has dragged up again the whole business of keeping silent about sensitive issues (sorry guys, you need to be logged in to Malaysiakini to read it. I will post a free-access report later, if I find one).

The problem with race-based parties is that the practice of consensus is a zero-sum game: a community gains something only at the expense of another. After a while, some things inevitably become taboo. Race, religion, political ideology, gender, education. This is because people are at first reluctant to jeopardise a fragile balance achieved through consensus—a noble enough reason, but within a generation reluctance turns into fear and the reasons for that fear become lost or obscured by “rights” and “privileges”.

We have to take a step back and find some common ground where it is safe for us to talk about these things. It has done us no good to keep silent: we have done this for 53 years and look at the result. Still the same. No, worse.

Two years ago I was intensely pissed-off by Syed Hamid Albar in Parliament (this was when I was still a correspondent) claiming more or less that Israeli oppression of Palestine was an issue exclusive to Muslims. I wrote my weekly column on this subject and was spiked by my colleagues who feared to offend the Home Ministry because I had quoted from the Qur’an (I am not Muslim). I understood their reasons: annual printing licences being at best a tenuous thing and too many people in the office needed their jobs to feed their families.

I withdrew the column for that week, and sent it to a fellow who published it on his blog. That fellow is a PAS Member of Parliament, and you can still read my original story on his page. However important and meaningful that gesture was to me personally, I am aware that it is sadly a bit insignificant in the broader scheme of things.

But if nothing else it proved to me that we must encourage ourselves to tear down the walls that separate us, even by a fragment of a brick at a time, and to do that requires just a bit of courage—not just to help yourself, but to help the fellow on the other side of the wall.


Mamak, satu ayam goreng.

“The 1Malaysia concept is more popular than Milo, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), the badge and logo of 1Malaysia has no competition because some like chicken and some may not like to eat chicken, but everyone likes 1Malaysia,” said Najib” — Bernama, Apr 22, copychecked HAZ MCD RV JRL.

Well my happy friends, our Prime Minister has just compared his benevolent all-encompassing ecumenical messianic prophesy to a Snack Plate and an over-sweetened chocolate drink. Good for the body, good for the soul. Sic transit in gloria mundi.

This is very funny, but it also points a withered bone at a much more serious problem. The other day I ranted about the mess we make, and the subsequent chest-thumping we engage in when nobody seems capable of cleaning it up (thank you for reading it). Now here we have its twin: prostitution. We are all back-alley hos and sell ourselves, body  and soul, without knowing what we buy in return.

Disagree? KFC! Milo! Think of all the ghetto jokes you can make. Better than the Zimbabwe thing which is getting a bit old.

Take the ridiculous Hulu Selangor by-election, for example. In the greater scheme of things (not much greater, if you think about it) Hulu Selangor does not matter.

Najib, in all his wisdom, has gone and declared that Hulu Selangor is a referendum on his 1Malaysia bullshit and his latest tactic to steal from the poor and give to his wife, I mean the New Economic Model.

Well excuse me pink-lips. I speak for myself. The people of Hulu Selangor do not vote for me. Or did you think this was Umno and you could get away with bribing your Delegates at the Mesyuarat Agung and then proclaiming it a national victory?

[Note to self. Najib said this: “Jika saya tidak bernilai, beliau (Obama) sudah pasti tidak menemui saya. Tetapi sekarang pembangkang mengadakan cerita  bahawa saya melutut kepada AS.”

Woi pembohong, nilai engkau tepat RM77 million. Bukan saja pembangkang yang buat pasal. Aku sendiri mendakwa. Kalau sanggup menjual buntut sendiri, jual lah. Buat hal Anwar meliwat Saiful, buat lah. Aku tak peduli. Tetapi jangan jual maruah Ra’ayat Malaysia kepada sesiapa. Pengkhianat!]

So what if estate workers are paid RM200-something a month? So what if children have no schools and their parents no paying work? So what if housing estates for the middle class have been abandoned?

Do you honestly care?

What has any of it to do with your life?

The Nut Graph and Malaysiakini are on the right track asking Kamal Alan Nathan, or whatever the hell that spineless goat’s name is, questions about federal policy. That’s the job of a federal MP, in case we’ve forgotten, and the MIC man’s jellyfish evasiveness should tell you something that you really, really, ought to have known since 1957: politicians are cheap and, since we keep re-electing the same pack of thieves to Parliament, so are we. (There is also the question of his academic credentials, which you can read about and decide for yourself at RPK’s, but you’d have to be incredibly stupid to fake something like that and not expect to be found out.)

Zaid Ibrahim, erstwhile Umno fatcat, has not been asked the same questions by the same people. This is unfair and wrong. The portals might think we already know what his stand is on things like the Internal Security Act and that we must be aware that he blogs here on WordPress. At the very least he resigned on principle from the Cabinet and from Umno, even if he was embroiled in some nonsense while punching his ticket in the Kelantan division some years ago, and that should be enough for a die-hard ABU fanatic.

It is not. It should never be. But it also doesn’t matter because we’re not voting. The people of Hulu Selangor are. And they, like us, can be bought with promises, gimmicks, and Khalid Ibrahim’s bribes, hand-kissing, back-slapping, more feel-good nonsense, KFC and Milo.

The only thing Hulu Selangor proves is how quickly we get taken in and swept along with the general tide of pro-BN or pro-Pembangkang electoral tomfoolery. I mean, do we really need to have nationwide by-elections every damned day just to get government policy moving?

ABU, yes, but what about those of us who do not subscribe to PKR’s Umno-in-opposition politics, or the DAP’s unrepentant chauvinism, or PAS’s conservatism (yes I exclude Khalid Samad, Dr Zul, Hatta Ramli, Siti Mariah and the rest of those pro-People troublemakers) — or for that matter the whole destructive mess of hyperpartisan Malaysian politics?

Can there be no meeting point between Muslims, non-Muslims; Malays, non-Malays? Can there be no work towards showing, once and for all, that this silly Marxist thesis-antithesis division is a false dichotomy created for the purpose of fooling us into blasphemous idol-worshipping lunacy?

You tell me.

Enemy of the People

We are all familiar with the litany of sins: twenty-two years of authoritarian rule under which the perpetuation of unjust laws, moving in tandem with the increasing politicisation of race, education and religion; and the growing dependence on money as the universal medium, have turned the state into a creature of evil.

In 1998-1999 the whole business came to a head. The impotent “People”, having suffered silently and for too long under this yoke, rallied to the cause of Anwar Ibrahim, late protégé of that geriatric villain Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and once the brightest star within that putrid, corrupt fascist behemoth the Nazi Party, I mean, the United Malays National Organisation.

The People rallied to the banner of Freedom, Justice, and Democracy without understanding a word of anything because not a single comprehensible word was spoken in their defence, and because we were too busy chanting slogans to ask. Anwar, once Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of the very same regime now unmasked as a kleptocratic dictatorship (and really you would have had to be daft to think any such unmasking necessary) was the Prodigal Son, returned and transformed, into a kind of oriental Moses.

Alternative policies weren’t necessary (remember that was during the time of the Asian Financial Crisis), action plans were irrelevant. All that mattered was the Promised Land to which he and his kind proposed to lead us. Where was that, exactly?

To be charitable, Anwar did not have much time to articulate an alternative before he was arrested, abused, tried and sentenced in a kangaroo court filled with incompetent prosecutors whose failed attempts at misdirection were saved only by the dismal rants of that mindless automaton, the late S. Augustine Paul.  I speak no ill of the dead, but I make an exception for that cadaverous monkey who, as much as Eusoff Chin, Hamid Omar, and V.K. Lingham, prostituted the judiciary for a pittance in the dark corridors of the Prime Minister’s Department.

Ten years later on March 8 Anwar, and we, had another chance to change our common political future, but again we failed and even now we are engrossed with questions of private morality—whether Zaid Ibrahim drinks bourbon or owns race horses, or both, or whatever; whether Khairy Jamaluddin drinks, whether Hishammuddin Hussein got wasted on a tin of Anchor, etc. Why is this important?

Why, in Malaysia, is it more important to believe what a politician says than to judge her by what she does as a legislator? Why do all political parties fail consistently to provide social leadership and seek instead to appeal to the lowest, most vulgar, denominator and turn that into a public virtue?

Hitler distinguished between “members” and “supporters” of his party UMNO, I mean, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party:

“The greater and more essentially revolutionary an idea is, the more activistic its membership will become, since the revolutionary force of a doctrine involves a danger for its supporters, which seems calculated to keep cowardly little shopkeepers away from it.

“They will privately regard themselves as supporters, but decline to make a public avowal of this by membership. By virtue of this fact, the organisation of a really revolutionary idea obtains as members only the most active among the supporters won over by propaganda.

“And precisely in this activity of a movement’s membership, guaranteed by natural selection, lies the premise for equally active future propaganda as well as a successful struggle for the realisation of the idea.” (Mein Kampf, Vol 2, Ch XI. No I am not saying Nazism is good; but it is good to be aware of Nazi tactics, and I shall even use them for antifascist ends if you trust me enough.)

Our parties, on the other hand, seek perpetually to make members of everyone. We proceed from the base assumption that strength is good, and strength lies in numbers, and we replace activism with the whatever we can get, as long as there is a lot of it. It doesn’t matter if it’s the frothing hyperventilation of diseased fanatical sheep.

How else do you explain the quick descent of the democratic process in Hulu Selangor, even as I write this, into the juvenile hell of Molesworth & Co.? How do you explain the giddy complaisance of the MIC politician, Kamalanathan, in cozying up to the very same brand of bigot who might very well describe him, in Parliament itself, as a “toddy-drinking darkie” who should “go back to the estates” or even better, India?

How else do you explain the absence of talk about democratic obligations rather than perpetual screaming for rights and privileges?

And how else do you explain 53 years of Perikatan-Barisan Nasional despotism?

Well, whose fault is that? The politicians? They merely tell you what you want to hear, promise you things you covet but which they are unable to give and—here’s the funny bit—were yours by right in the first place. Wang for the Rakyat. A new school. Land titles. Justice. Freedom. Democracy.

We, the People, are idiots and exult in our own ignorance.

In this sense I prefer to continue living under Mahathir’s regime: at least then my enemy was one man and he was honest enough not to dodge. Now my enemy is almost the entire population led by fools parading around as saints.

And if anyone wishes to remind me of vox populi, vox Dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God), I beg to draw attention to the full quotation: Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, Vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit. (But they ought not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, for the restless mob ever approaches insanity.)

It is imperative that we eject from political office that international disgrace Najib Razak, as well as the vertically-challenged human worm that follows him about, before the two of them pauperise the rest of us for their explosive, unsinkable purposes. But who for the sake of this wonderful country do we propose to replace them with?

Therein lies the rub, doesn’t it? We have no bloody idea, and we don’t damned well care.

Tyger Tyger

In March 1858 Sir J. Elphinstone, MP for Portsmouth, said in the House of Commons that “there was one insuperable obstacle to the colonisation of the island of Singapore, and that was the immense number of tigers that swam over from Johore, from which State Singapore was separated by no more than a small stream. Scarcely a day passed without some native being carried off bodily by those animals.”

This was cited by Sjovald Cunyngham-Brown, the very colourful and final Resident Commissioner of Penang, in his book The Traders, as an example of British governmental lunacy and he promptly ridicules Elphinstone (“The reader will be able to stand just so much of this, but no more.” I shall write about SCB another day).

When I was growing up in Kuala Lumpur in the 70s and early 80s it was rare, but still entirely possible, to hear stories about people meeting their end by being eaten by tigers. That was how we thought Jim Thompson went, although the venerable Capt Rivers has shed some new light on that mystery.

Also, my father was one of Templer’s Budak Boys, a very strange term, in the Federation Military College in Port Dickson and later Sungei Besi, and frequently went out into the jungle to learn how to navigate and I suppose look for Communists (but more frequently they learnt simply how to get lost spectacularly). He told me some bloodthirsty stories of tigers eating people that, sadly, I did not pay enough attention to and now cannot remember. He also told me about being chased by a crocodile up the Perak River, which is undoubtedly true, but rather difficult to imagine today.

People get eaten by tigers only very, very rarely now. But that is because the tigers are starving, and when they are inevitably killed by outraged villagers in retaliation, we find their carcasses so emaciated that I, for one, wonder how it is they had enough strength to attack in the first place.

The truth is some of us eat tigers, and more of their population has been lost to ridiculous Chinese witch doctors peddling cures for male sexual embarrassment for which there is now, with the availability of the blue pill, utterly no excuse, than to the vengeance of villagers. There are also criminals such as Anson Wong who has denied involvement in plans to build a Tiger Park in Penang, but I don’t believe him, and would like to dump him in the jungle if I have the chance. I will also happily criticise the Chief Minister even if he doesn’t think it constructive. I respect what he has done in the past in the causes of justice and freedom from tyranny, but there are better ways to make money. A tiger sanctuary, managed by conservationists, is acceptable. People can come and see the tigers if they want (this will help save on food bills also); but to make a commercial venture out of a “tiger farm” is an obscenity.

Malayan tigers, rampant, are our heraldic supporters not just nationally but in Johore also (there was some truth to Elphinstone’s story, apparently, though only a little).

But the truth is today they are neither rampant, nor supporters. They are dying and need our support in turn, and which it seems too few of us are prepared to give.

What does that tell us?

(More here

The tiger is our national animal. Our heritage. But today only less than 500 of them remain in the wild. As Malaysians, we need to stand up and protect our heritage. Speak to your children. Speak to your leaders. Everyone of us can make a difference.

For further information, please visit MYCAT (, WWF Malaysia ( and Department of Wildlife & National Parks (

What price victory?

“He who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation; for a man who wishes to act entirely up to his professions of virtue soon meets with what destroys him among so much that is evil. Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.” — Nicolò Machiavelli.

How can a virtuous politician prevail over her enemies who will not hesitate to use every means at their disposal to effect her utter destruction? How can goodness triumph when it is so easily overcome by so much evil?

The answer has often been to use their own weapons against them. Weapons are tools, and tools are morally neutral. Guns don’t kill; people do.

So we argue, and so Khalid Ibrahim justifies his use of the official instruments of the state government to fight a party-political campaign in a by-election. So also does the Parti Keadilan government justify handing out electoral goodies-that-are-not-goodies: they are benefits the government intended long ago to distribute, and the timing is thus merely fortuitous.

I have never had a problem with Machiavelli’s views, but I condone the employment of morally ambivalent political consequentialism—of ends justifying means—only when the damnation of the individual that uses it, and the price of its use, is abundantly clear. Kill a child to save a thousand more. Assassinate a saint to save a million. Shoot a family to force a terrorist to give up the location of a target. None of these things is morally praiseworthy. All of these things are utterly damnable, but they are often an acceptable, and sometimes inescapable, price that we must pay for the security and greater good of the state when all other solutions fail.

Is this the same as what Parti Keadilan now chooses to do?

Ask yourself whether we so very certain of Pakatan Rakyat’s objectives for government that we are prepared to jettison the moral obligations of that coalition for the sake of a minor political victory against the deplorable Barisan Nasional. This is perfectly acceptable if we understand exactly what it is that we are doing, and are prepared to accept the consequences of a terrible sacrifice of principle for the sake of achieving a commensurate victory.

But is victory in Hulu Selangor equal to what is being asked of us? For more than 20 years we have rightly condemned the political practices of the Barisan Nasional as repugnant—as the prostitution of democratic imperatives for the sake of power and its preservation. Now we are asked to accept those same practices as our own, without thinking that their use will undoubtedly make us no better than those we seek to oppose.

For what?

That the Barisan continues to use these tools is not sufficient reason for degrading ourselves especially when we have sought, very hard, to establish a new legitimacy in moral opposition to the barbarous kleptocracy of the old. And it is more than a betrayal of the mandate for change—it is the perpetuation of the same self-serving tyranny of the Barisan under the guise of freedom and liberty. It is less than a lie.

It is a vain attempt to mask the stench of our own filth with the manufactured odour of false sanctity. It presents the Malaysian public with a ridiculous simulacrum that disguises not the truth, but the entire absence of truth: that there is no truth to the Pakatan Rakyat, if it persists in this, just as there is none in the Barisan Nasional. That there is, and always has been, only power in our empty bank. That our attempt to change the world has miscarried. Again.

He who fights monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

Apa ertinya merdeka?

Alangkah baiknya setiap tahun kami ra’ayat Semenanjung meraikan Hari Merdeka dengan perarakan berderet-deret dan berpakaian seragam warna-warni, seiras dengan perbarisan lintas hormat Rusia soviet dulu. Alangkah baiknya kami ra’ayat jelata masih begitu bertuah dikurniakan pemimpin-pemimpin yang bijaksana, prihatin dan sentiasa mengambil berat tentang kesejahteraan orang ramai.

Alangkah baiknya kami diberi ruang melahirkan rasa cinta yang tidak kunjung padam, demi seluruh penduduk Tanah Melayu, terhadap pemimpin2 tersebut. Alangkah baiknya kami dibernarkan, tidak, kami digalakkan mengejar kekayaan masing2, seolah-olah kekayaan adalah hawa nafsu yang harus dimuaskan sekenyang-kenyang, selama 53 tahun kemerdekaan yang telah dinikmati kita.

Apakah maksud benar merdeka dan adakah kemerdekaan terhad kepada sentimen2 ini?

Tidak dinafikan sesiapa bahawa perkataan “merdeka” berasal daripada bahasa Sanskrit, iaitu sebuah bahasa Indo-Aryan yang merupakan bahasa purbakala negara India yang kemudian menyumbang dan mengayakan bahasa2 moden di rantau Nusanatara seperti Melayu, basa Jawa, Thai, Tagalog, Kemboja, Vietnam, dan lain2.

Makna perkataan “merdeka” atau “merdeheka” dalam Bahasa Sanskrit kurang jelas. Ada kemungkinan besar ia terdiri daripada dua perkataan, iaitu “maha” (besar) dan “ardika” (jiwa) yang sebaik sahaja digabungkan bermaksud “kebebasaan”, atau dengan lebih tepat “kebebasan daripada pengabdian”. Sebagai contoh, kamus Marsden menjelaskannya seperti berikut:

مردهيکي JAV. free, freed from slavery, manumitted. Orang mardīka a freed man, a manumitted slave, libertus, libertinus. Samoā-nia kāwan-kāwan-nia de lepas-kan-nia mardīka he has liberated all his domestics. Sāya atau mardika a slave or a freed man. Iäng me-mardikā-kan atau iäng de mardikā-kan he who bestows freedom, or he who is made free. Bri ūlih-mu akan dāku argā-mu maka mardikā-lah añgkau do thou pay me thy value, before I (consent to) make thee free.

(Nota: “manumitted” itu maknanya membebaskan melalui perbuatan sendiri, iaitu, daripada bahasa Latin manu tangan, dan mittere lepas, dan pemetikan terakhir itu yang sungguh menarik pemikiran saya — tak tau di mana Che’ Marsden jumpa ungkapan itu. Tak apa lah.)

Ada yang percaya bahawa istilah “merdeka” pada mulanya dikaitkan dengan hamba2 yang dibawa oleh pedagang, penjajah, dan penginjil Ferringhi. Hamba2 malang ini terdiri daripada budak2 Pantai Malabar, Koromandel, Kalkuta, Goa, Ceylon dan daerah lain dalam lingkungan pengaruh politik Ferringhi. Setelah “dijinakkan” menyukai kehidupan rumah penjajah, budak2 ini dibaptiskan dan seterusnya di bebaskan. Mereka disebut sebagai kaum merdequa, atau mardijker dalam bahasa Belanda, iaitu “bebas” yang kemudian dipungut menjadi “bebas daripada penjajah” pada zaman pra-Merdeka.

Bebas daripada penjajah itu ertinya apa? Penjajah Europah sudah lama mengundurkan diri daripada kerajaan2 Asia (tentang benda neo-colonial seperti Starbucks, McDonalds, dan lain-lain itu saya tak kisah lah. Itu hal persendirian.) Yang memang wajar adalah ra’ayat Malaysia disebut sebagai kaum bebas dan merdeka.

Ia kah? Bebas dan merdeka. Persoalannya, apakah wujud kemerdekaan kalau ra’ayat Malaysia hari ini berada di dalam keadaan di mana minda sendiri lebih cenderung kepada  pendekatan totalitarian? Jangan kiralah politik ke, undang2 zalim seperti ISA, Akta Penghasutan dan AUKU. Fikir sekejap tentang sistem pemerintahan masyarakat di mana sebahagian besar daripada warganegara lebih percaya akan pemimpin politik dan bukan hati nurani sendiri. Yang lebih percaya akan laba dan bukan kesejahteraan satu sama lain.Yang lebih seronok berbaris-baris sepanjang jalan demi menunjuk kekuatan perjuangan sendiri, sekalipun perjuangan itu berfikiran sempit dan jahat. Yang langsung tidak peduli penderitaan orang lain.

Apakah itu merdeka?


It is probably time to spring Matthias Chang from gaol. He’s been in there for over 24 hours, is on a hunger strike, and that is about enough ammunition I think it wise to give the crazed chap—or we shall never hear the end of it when he comes out.

Chang may or may not have had a hand in hobbling the judiciary together with that pitiful disgrace that looks like, sounds like, but apparently isn’t V.K. Lingam; he may or may not be a rabid anti-Semite unable to differentiate the State of Israel from Jews in general. His book designs certainly induce vomitting (see for yourself).

The point is not Chang’s views; nor what he is alleged to have said (or not said) in court. It is not about what he has done in his service as political secretary to Dr Mahathir Mohamad, nor is it about his peculiar suit against American Express (I confess I have no idea what that was all about, but heard it had something to do with Antarctica).

The issue is Order 52 1A if the Rules of the High Court, which for the benefit of people who like this kind of thing, goes thus:

(1) If a contempt is committed in the face of the Court, it shall not be necessary to serve formal notice to show cause, but the Court shall ensure that the person alleged to be in contempt understands the nature of the offence alleged against him and has the opportunity to be heard in his own defence, and the Court shall make proper record of the proceedings.

(2) Where a Judge is satisfied that a contempt has been committed in the face of the Court, the Judge may order the contemnor to appear before him on the same day at the time fixed by the Court for the purpose of purging his contempt.

(3) Where such person has purged his contempt, by tendering his unreserved apology to the Court, and the Judge considers the contempt to be not of a serious nature, the Judge may excuse such person and no further action shall be taken against him.

(4) Where such person declines or refuses to purge his contempt, then the Judge shall sentence him.

This bit was inserted in 2000 by way of PU(A) 342/2000 after some agitation. But even then the nature of contempt and the limits of its punishment weren’t defined either here or anywhere in the relevant enabling legislation (the Federal Constitution and the Courts of Judicature Act).

Why is this a problem? Common law principles provide judges broad latitude in deciding, in any situation,what amounts to contempt. It also provides discretion in demanding and obtaining a fit remedy if the contemnor refuses to apologise.

This may work well enough in countries with strong independent legal traditions and where judicial activism is limited by learning and good sense. But what constitutes contempt? This all depends on whatever fool idea enters the judge’s head at the time. What is a fitting punishment? Answer ditto. Is this a good thing in a country where judges have, as a rule, made a habit of abnegating their own authority?

Am I in contempt right now by writing this seditious bit of nonsense? No, if we agree with the argument made by Raja Aziz Addruse 10 years ago. Contempt of court should not be relied on to preserve the dignity, if any, of a particular judge but to preserve the purity of justice. This is nice, but even then isn’t very clear sometimes: does arguing with a judge in court interfere with the due course of justice?

I’m not sure if anyone remembers this now, but in 1998 S. Augustine Paul (then in the High Court) committed Zainur Zakaria (now playing for the other team) to three months gaol for applying to discharge Abdul Gani Patail (now Attorney-General) and Azahar Mohamed (now not sure what he’s doing) on grounds that the latter two cooked up evidence against Anwar Ibrahim. How the hell did his application qualify as contempt? I have no idea but that was what Augustine Paul, in his now thankfully irrelevant wisdom, thought at the time.

Zainur won his appeal in the Federal Court three years later and Augustine Paul died unforgiven. There were other contempt cases that made the headlines (such as the one involving judge R. K. Nathan and Bar chief Sulaiman Abdullah), but this was the most celebrated at the time.

The charge against Matthias was that he lost his “cool”, whatever that is supposed to mean, “walked out of the witness box and thereafter left the Court during the Court proceeding.” (Page two of the committal order is here). His people have protested his coolness, and the losing of it, as a defect in the committal, but I have no idea if they will do anything about it.

Now then, suppose you are hauled up before an incompetent High Court Judge—this really doesn’t take much imagination, does it? Halfway through the show the other side makes an outrageous claim, say, that you have an extra head, and that this is against the order of nature and you should therefore be hanged.

“Ho, ho,” says the judge. “That is quite a thing.”

“No, m’lord,” you say. “That is a lie. Look I have only one.”

“Well I say you have two. Do you mean to call me a liar?”

“That you are, m’lord. With respect.”

“Pshaw. I shall hear of no such thing.”

“I must protest m’lord! This is an outrage,” you say, perhaps your face, or one of them, is a little red now. “I feel I must seek satisfaction from the Lord Chief Justice.”

“I say,” says the judge, “that is contemptible. Apologise, or cough up RM150,000, or you shall to gaol without passing go and withoutyour paltry $200 Monopoly money. Whatever it is, you shall do so in seven days.”

And that is that.  Say sorry, have two heads and be hanged by one of them; cough up the money; or join Matthias in the new weight-loss programme at His Majesty’s pleasure.

The Commonwealth demanded that contempt be defined by statute. This is a good thing, provided the Bill is properly drafted by people, and not monkeys. The Bar apparently did come up with something a while ago, but I have not heard about it since.