State of fear

I think it is utterly disgraceful that we should openly talk about the fact that, on encountering a policeman, our first reaction should be fear. “Most people associate the police with punishing us for doing something wrong (although we haven’t),” said a clinical psychologist in the Sunday Star on July 18.

No one even bothers to say what the correct response is any more (reassurance, in case you’ve forgotten), and a few paragraphs later in the story Michael Chong says that people are rightly perplexed because of all the bogus cops out there: “If they stop [because they are told to by someone appearing to be a policeman], they might get robbed but if they don’t, they might get shot.”

Robbery by a false cop, or shot by a real one. These are your choices. Be robbed then, if you value your life, for clearly the Royal Malaysian Police does not. I am obviously not making this up (it’s in The Star, so it has to be true, right?)

Unlike these chaps, however, my first reaction on seeing any policeman is contempt. Yes they are armed with idiot-proof Glocks or Sig Sauers, but that does not earn respect. It provokes the same kind of sensation as when I come across a rabid animal (this used to happen daily when I worked from Parliament).

Now some idiot social commentators advise us to demand and pay close attention to the authority cards (i.e. warrant cards) the police must produce when they detain us.  Two questions: have you ever seen such a card prior to being detained by a cop? If not, how they hell are you supposed to tell if it is in fact a warrant and not, for example, a local library card? Secondly: if the thug is about to rob/rape/shoot you, don’t you think asking for an authority card is on par with assaulting a tank with a bouquet of carnations?

This reminds me of  a 2007 case  in which a film producer was was gaoled and fined (one day, RM100) for yelling at a traffic cop and showing him the finger because he was apparently making a cataclysm of the already messy traffic situation at the Hang Tuah-Imbi intersection. I used to work in that part of town and know that junction well. I have in fact done the same thing a number of times. Read the court report, if you like, but I want to quote a section of it anyway:

Prosecuting officer C/Insp R. Rukumar asked that she be fined and jailed for the offence, saying she had insulted a government official.
He said something bad could have happened had the traffic policeman concerned lost his patience.
When asked by Magistrate Aizatul Akmal Maharani what he meant by that, C/Insp Rukumar said the traffic policeman could have lost his cool and took out his firearm.
Fortunately, he did not do that and only arrested the accused. After sentencing Koh, Aizatul Akmal reminded her not to repeat the act.
“Even I have to show respect to policemen,” he said.

My immediate reaction was: what the fuck is wrong with the magistrate? I insult government officials all the damned time in the newspaper, on the street, at the coffee-shop, to other government officials, to the government official him or herself, etc. I do not remember a law or an order by gazette anywhere suggesting that I exempt public servants from public contempt.

So I wrote a letter in response, which The Star ran, but I have since lost the link to it:

I am appalled to learn that I might be shot by a policeman for no other reason than that he has lost his patience (“Filmmaker jailed for insulting policeman,” April 28).

Surely there are clear procedures establishing precisely under what conditions an armed uniformed policeman is permitted to unholster his revolver, and I cannot believe that showing him my middle finger qualifies as any kind of threat to life or property.

The primary duty of the police is to protect, and this country will have truly gone to the dogs if public safety can be threatened by a simple gesture, however vulgar.

Sadly, this episode admits that a person without sufficient maturity or clarity of mind can be recruited into the force and entrusted to carry a loaded firearm.

If, as the prosecuting chief inspector said, “the traffic policeman could have lost his cool and took out his firearm” for no greater reason than being shown the finger, what more can we expect of the same policeman in a high-risk situation demanding accurate threat assessment and split-second judgement?

It disappoints me that the sitting magistrate did not require further comment on this matter.

U-En Ng, Kuala Lumpur

To this day the Inspector-General insists on making a state secret of his Standing Orders regarding the use of weapons. And now we even have the gall to ask: “oh yes, people are confused. Should they stop and be robbed, or flee and be shot?”

Whose fault is that?


Book of Babel

When I was very small I decided one day to write something on the wall with a marker pen. I cannot remember what it was but I do remember thinking that I had expressed an original idea.

Some time later I decided that it was impossible to express any original idea because there was likely no such thing as an original expression. Anything that can be said in any language has probably already been said by someone somewhere somewhen. Language limits thought; we can’t think what we cannot say, and even if we could there would be no point because there’s no way to communicate what we patently can’t. I learnt later that this was similar to what some structuralists were saying about epistemology. My original idea about reality being constructed by language was not, in fact, original.

This reminds me of the story by Borges about the Library of Babel, which is really the whole universe consisting entirely of interlocking hexagonal rooms, each of which contains four shelves of books. People live in it, die in it, etc. (Umberto Eco made use of this idea in his book The Name of the Rose, and you can see it in the movie adaptation starring Sean Connery. Hellboy was in it too.)

The books in Borges’ Library contain every possible permutation of a series of basic characters, and hence the sum of books contains a lot of nonsense, as well as at least one readable book and very possibly all readable books ever written, or ever will be written. He then goes on to build a very crafty story about how some librarians have gone puritanical and move around destroying books they deem nonsense, while others believe that, among all these possible books, there must be at least one complete and coherent catalogue of all the coherent books in the Library. They also believe that someone has already read this (the Man of The Book) and they go about looking for him.

Later, Willard Quine pooped the party and said that the Library wasn’t actually infinite because there will come a time when everything that can be written has been written. Worse, he then proceeded to create the Library by reducing it to basic binary terms: two sheets of paper, on one a dot, on the other a dash. With these two sheets anyone could now create any number of Morse permutations and thereby replicate the contents of the Library. This is what happens when logicians tell stories.

In my work (and therefore a very large part of my life) I have come across, used, depended on and lived by various kinds of dictionary, lexicon and concordance. Each of these represents to me a mini-Babel Library containing anything that can be said, has been said, and might be said in that language. It is a silly idea because people invent new words every day—this is true for the majority of my work, but not in my private time when I deal with dead or dead-ish languages.

Consider the Classical Arabic word مَأْبُور, which E.V. Lane gives as “A dog that has had a needle given him, to eat, in bread: and, with ة‎, applied to a sheep or goat (شــاة‎) that has eaten a needle in its fodder, and in whose inside it has stuck fast; in consequence of which the animal eats nothing, or, if it eat, the eating does it no good.” It applies metaphorically to people who are easily deceived. Poor animals, but I like this as an example of dictionaries being elemental accounts, still very much alive, of how people perceive the world, then, now, or always, that is not reducible to 1s and 0s, dots and dashes.

NB, Lane’s is a notoriously expensive lexicon, but you can now have it free here in djvu (for which you need to download a reader separately). You can get it in pdf elsewhere too.

Sometimes I think that when we learn something new, we don’t really learn it so much as uncover something that has been occulted. This implies that everything was revealed at some point in the past. Other times I think it is the other way around, and that we are born into darkness and must daily fight to establish, and re-establish meaning.

Neno (17 January 1930 – 2 July 2010)


Toh Puan Norashikin Mohd Seth

Doc Ismail and Neno at Heathrow, 1969. Pix: NST, in Ooi Kee Beng's "Reluctant Politician" ISEAS, 2006.

Toh Puan Norashikin Mohd Seth, who died on July 2, 2010, aged 80, was the wife of the late Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, and her unwavering strength and support for her husband did more to help the nation navigate its way through crisis and independence than has hitherto been acknowledged.

Her husband famously did not suffer fools gladly (even the Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, once attempted to escape his wrath by climbing out of a second-floor window), and she herself was warm if taciturn, maintaining throughout her long life a devotion to public service that brooked neither reward nor recognition.

She and Ismail were introduced to each other by their parents and married in January of 1950. Life, according to her family, may have resembled that of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion: a mere 21 years old, she had completed her schooling but was very much a young Malayan woman of her times, whereas her husband was already an urbane pipe-smoking medical graduate of Queen’s College in the University of Melbourne.

Doc Ismail, Neno and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. at the UN, October 1958. Pix by Robert W. Kelley for LIFE Magazine

She took quickly to her husband’s national-service mission, however, and, on his appointment as Ambassador to the United States and Malaysia’s first permanent representative to the United Nations, learnt swiftly to manage not only his welfare but that of the entire Embassy as well.

This work was made all the more onerous by Malaya’s fresh independence and Ismail’s near-fanatical devotion to duty. Only after she fainted for half an hour at a diplomatic dinner did her husband resolve, unless he received “instructions to the contrary”, to allow her the “pleasant duty” of accompanying him on official tours. Still, she grew to become a fair bridge player and mastered the dark arts of Johor cuisine—the couple rarely dined out on their own, always preferring to entertain visiting dignitaries with Norashikin’s own cooking at home.

The character of both husband and wife, such that both took a dim view of any unofficial “reward” no matter how supremely merited (Ismail frequently threatened to gaol anyone who offered him such) is now little more than a vestige of the past, and it is perhaps the mark of that era that, when ill health forced Ismail to retire from the Cabinet in 1967, the family found itself without any money.

Ismail had exhausted his savings on a house in Kuala Lumpur and was now obliged to get a job despite his cancer, but Norashikin, likewise frugal with domestic expenditure, counted this a small price to pay for the improvement of her husband’s health through a complete break from government.

The exercise was to have been curative, and indeed might well have been but for the fateful day when Norashikin ran into Puan Sri Catherine Lim in a Kuala Lumpur street, and thereby learnt that the latter’s husband, Finance Minister Tan Sri Tan Siew Sin (as he then was), intended to withdraw his party from the Alliance that very afternoon of May 13, 1969.

Ismail attempted to put a halt to it, sensing correctly that the resulting upheaval would cause a bloodletting, but by then it was already too late and the events of that evening have since been the blackest in Malaysian history.

Again Norashikin put her country above herself and her family and reluctantly agreed to her husband’s rejoining the Government. Despite support from her father-in-law, the Senate President Dato’ Abdul Rahman Yassin (who wrote a terse letter to his son admonishing him for breaking his promise to his family to leave politics), this would prove to be a terrible sacrifice.

Four years later, Norashikin discovered she was pregnant with the couple’s seventh child. Ismail had suffered three serious heart-attacks by then, but felt duty-bound to remain in office as long as the health of the Prime Minister, Tun Razak Hussein, (who had leukaemia) remained unclear. Fearing he would not survive and worried that his family would be destitute since his re-entry to the Government put paid to any hopes he entertained at holding down a City job, Ismail asked that his wife terminate her pregnancy.

She was still recovering in hospital when he suffered his final heart attack on the evening of Aug 2, 1973. Ismail was acting Prime Minister at the time of his death, and news of his passing was delivered to his wife only at 5.30 the following morning when she recovered from sedation.

Norashikin thereafter maintained a dignified retirement, dedicating much of her time to the Puteri Islam Movement, which she helped co-found in 1969 with Dato’ Lily Majeed and Datin Rahmah Osman to foster moderate Muslim values in the young. She stood down in 1995 and was succeeded by Datin Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.

Very much in keeping with her attitude towards public service, Norashikin offered only the barest acknowledgement of any praise for her husband’s legacy or her own achievements. When, in 2009, the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre staged a musical commemorating her husband’s last days alive, she merely enquired why all the women-characters were so terribly weak-willed.

Norashikin Mohd Seth, or “Neno” as she was known, was born on January 17, 1930, in Johor Baru and grew up in an independently-minded family that had a strong commitment to duty. Her father, Dato’ Mohamed Seth Mohd Said was the State Secretary of Johor from 1953 to 1956 (in which capacity he was involved posthumously in a territorial dispute with Singapore), and, as Deputy Menteri Besar, represented the Johor executive at Independence talks in London.

Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar Al-Masyhur ibni Abu Bakar was an Anglophile, but also a nationalist. Pix from HMSO.

Sultan Ibrahim of Johor, fearing greater British meddling in an independent Federation, publicly called for Johor’s secession and instructed Mohamed Seth to reject the Tunku’s proposals in London. The Deputy Menteri Besar, however, defied his ruler and committed the state to the Merdeka project, earning both the wrath of the Sultan and his banishment from the state.

Norashikin then married into another prominent and rebellious Johorean family—Ismail’s father Abdul Rahman Yassin having led a rebellion against Sultan Ibrahim in February 1946 by criticising the latter’s quick accession to the Sir Harold MacMichael’s Treaty establishing the Malayan Union as a British Colony. Abdul Rahman and his six fellow-agitators, including his son Suleiman (later High Commissioner to Australia), and son-in-law Dr Awang Hassan (later Tun, and Governor of Penang) were summarily ejected from government service. (Abdul Rahman would be re-established only in 1959 with his appointment to the presidency of the Senate.)

Dato’ Sir Onn Jaafar, the founder of the United Malays National Organisation, with whom her husband would on occasion clash in Parliament, was a distant relative, and her brother General Tan Sri Mohd Ghazali Seth, later Chief of Armed Forces, commanded an infantry battalion during the Konfrontasi and directed the Rajang Security Command against communists operating in Sarawak.

Norashikin is survived by her daughters Zailah and Badariah, and her sons the former Member of Parliament for Sungei Benut Mohd Tawfik, Mohamed Tarmizi, Zamakhshari, and Mohamed Ariff. She was accorded a state funeral on Saturday, 3rd July 2010, and was buried at the Warrior’s Mausoleum in the National Mosque, close to the grave of her beloved husband.

Norashikin Mohd Seth died very much the way she lived: with humour, courage, and dedication and without reward or honours of her own.


I wrote this at the request of Tawfik Ismail and with his help.

UPDATE 1: Seth’s tribute to his grandmother appeared in the New Straits Times, July 6, 2010. Here is the link.

UPDATE 2: This obituary appeared in theSun, also on July 6, 2010. Here is a copy: