Ideals are like stars; we may never reach them, but we are guided by them

Posted on October 14, 2007



Number of signatures to the petition as at 2pm today : 3,198

Target : 5,000.

Have you read the petition to His Majesty the Yang DiPertuan Agung to ask for the establishment of a Royal Commission to look into and stop the rot in the judiciary and to return the judiciary to the rakyat?

To read the draft petition in English, please click HERE.

The actual petition, complete with the language of protocol, can be viewed HERE.

To sign up in support of this petition, please send your name and i.c. number to :


The title of this post is in fact that of a piece my friend, Helen Ang, wrote and sent to me this morning.

It appears below.


Haris may be indefatigable but I’m not. I’ve just informed the malaysiakini editor that I’m taking a sabbatical. A catalyst for my decision was the disappointing response to this site’s Save the Judiciary petition. 

While keeping the door open for me to drift back, Steven Gan was understanding and had a piece of advice for me. He suggested that I might want to “recalibrate” my expectations. I appreciate Steven’s careful choice of words, that he had not asked me to “lower” my expectations. He, more than anyone else, fully understands how Idealism is malaysiakini’s coin. 

And I realize that I had unconsciously calibrated my expectations to Haris’ target of 5,000 signatures. An attainable goal, I’d thought, and reckoned that the converted being preached to in cyberspace could be counted on to sign up. 

Malaysiakini had indirectly backed this petition through allowing me and KJ John a link in our columns as well making Amer Arshad’s a lead letter, also linked. Its news and editorial coverage favour a Royal Commission.  

A slogan-writing competition in the newspapers (the parallel world to ours) can easily attract 50,000 entries where readers are quite prepared to fill their name and IC no. in the contest forms. It feels to me now like cyberspace is unreality. The real world is where Malaysians are keen on things like penning insipid slogans in the hopes of winning a refrigerator.    

Doubtless, the state of the judiciary is of graver concern to lawyers than it is to those of us not in the legal fraternity. Nonetheless, it is one of the many troubles plaguing our country (the downslide in public healthcare being another) and an integral part of the big picture which is the ‘systemic corruption’.  

Putting our name to the petition is one way of saying: ‘We, the public, want a stop put to this rot’.  

Yet, what I see is Haris pleading and cajoling, prodding and scolding, and still the numbers are slow in coming. Mind you, clicking a mouse requires no one to really stick their neck out. Petitioners are not being asked to march on the street. If at this minimal level of effort there are so few takers, what more if greater or riskier involvement were to be demanded.  

The rot is status quo; therefore wanting to reverse the situation is challenging the status quo; which means tilting at our entrenched system bound by the nexus of Power, Privilege and Patronage. I’m figuring we’re not Datuks and Tan Sris here, and neither is Haris. What we would then require is strength in numbers for leverage and that’s when the pundits get to talk about ‘critical mass’ and ‘tipping point’.  

The inability to rally 5,000 people to commit indicates that this civil society initiative that Haris is spearheading has still got some way to go. His highly idealistic colleague Malik Imtiaz shared some views with me early this year: “At the end of the day, if enough people say something, the government has to listen. 

“How many people have actually stood up? You get Charles Santiago and his crew … but at the end of the day, every civil society initiative that we see is 10 people, 20 people, then you get some 200 people turn up at some function somewhere and that’s it.”    

The fewer persons there are sharing the load, the heavier the burden on the core twenty. Haris is one of those shouldering more than his fair share. I’d like to lend some insight, if I may and gleaned from my own exposure to the Malay milieu, on the high price I believe he’s paying.  

Some stone-throwers accuse me of Islamophobia; of Haris it is “Si Murtad tu”. The ulamas walk out of the room when Haris steps in and refuse to sit at table with him. As for me, I’m confronted by the dreadfully pinched, cast-iron faces of Chinese who – ‘count-me-out’ – exclaim: “Why are you courting trouble by talking against Islam and Malays?” 

I’m not bloody ‘against’, I’m ‘for’!  

We … ought to be ‘for’ freedom of religion for Lina Joy, ‘for’ freedom of conscience and movement for Revathi, ‘for’ places of worship for all, ‘for’ access to justice for ones caught in the secular-syariah bind; and ‘for’ affirmative action to help poor Indians and anyone else who has fallen through the cracks.  

We may sound like dissonant voices but aren’t we kites rising against the wind, not with it? Go with the flow here, and the way the wind blows is to the slough of despond.  

As a non-Muslim, non-Malay, taking the above stance does not cost me as much as it does Haris Ibrahim. He is going much harder against the grain and I can well imagine the hostility he has to put up with from the narrow-minded crowd. I have an idea too of the thorns that lined the path which has led him to the People’s Parliament.   

But if Haris and the small band of Muslims including SIS had not thrown their weight behind Article 11, the line drawn on the sand could have been interpreted to be even more adversarial. As it is, there was already painted the deliberately polarising picture of two demarcated ‘Us vs Them’ camps facing off. It wasn’t the non-Muslims picking a fight with Islam; the stymied coalition had really been a redoubt.  

If we believe in something, we can try to do what we can meaningfully as individuals. Haris is an energetic organiser. But I’m taking time-out and a step back because I don’t wish for my writing to be a personal crusade and I really, really don’t want to turn into an insufferably earnest moralist.  

Lina Joy has been a recurrent theme in my essays and finally in a Merdeka eve piece, I confessed that like Lina I could not get married. This disconcerting public revelation was laying bare a facet of my private life and possibly invading the privacy of my two Malay ex-boyfriends and their families.   

Writing to persuade or writing for a cause is emotionally draining, and a terrible balancing act. My rationale had been to underscore the point that national politics have the potential to impact the most intimate areas of our lives, and that Lina – what she had tried so hard to do instead of bending to expediency – personally means a lot to me.  

My ‘Leaving Joy behind’ article was wrenching to write and though it was cathartic, I’m coming around to believe that it also marked the point where I fell off the tightrope.  

Haris is still hanging on but I’m saddened by what I can only describe as the (nothing short of) stony indifference on the larger part of the public to the petition. It’s not his, Haris’ petition; it’s the people’s petition.  

But it’s also more than the sum of its parts. Isn’t the core of it about our willingness to each stand up and be counted? 

Unless we’re George Soros who can afford to put his money where his mouth is, for the rest of us it’s a trade-off: idealism and activism balanced with making a decent living, or among the younger generation like Nat Tan and his girlfriend, idealism pitted against opportunity cost.  

But when everybody prefers to just let somebody else get things done, the higher the cost will be on lone individuals; or exacting an unbearable price like on Namewee, the 24-year-old student rapper who did the MCA’s dirty job for that useless party.  

Haris fortified me when he said he and his wife were braced for the consequences of his activism. His affairs are all in order should the authorities suddenly decide his being at large ain’t so hot.  

I remember him saying too that Nelson Mandela spent 26 years in prison. If that’s his idea of reassurance, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. But nowadays, I think there’s more to grieve about than there is cause for joy, especially for the majority of Malaysians who are neither well-off nor well-connected.    

And I wonder if we can remain steely enough to make things better “for the sake of Malaysia” and whether more disillusioned idealists will be lost to the ‘real world’ because so few people care at all.