The Joint-Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG)* will be hosting the “Aiyoh… Wat Lah?! Awards” today, aimed at highlighting sexist, misogynistic, homophobic and/or transphobic statements made by those in authority and published in the media. Yeah so, big deal right?
Politicians have been saying silly things for years now, why should we pay attention now, you ask? Perhaps it is worth remembering that, judging from what’s happening around the globe, now is the time to act for change. Malaysia itself is in the midst of a catalytic period that might just hurtle us to the path of greater freedom. But more than that, it is far more worth remembering that we tend to overlook the power of words. Words are powerful beyond our estimated beliefs, and if we ignore this, we rule out the fact that a person’s life can change with a simple statement. Words can disparage the human spirit, and torture minds weary from self-doubt.
Fear and ignorance a lethal combination
Abusive remarks, as well as the ignorant remarks recognised by the Awards are part of a deeper problem that can be explained by the statements itself**. These phobic statements are called such because they come from a place of fear. The person making the statements understands the world from a perspective of fear, which perhaps could translate to a fear of the unknown. This fear stems from ignorance – from refusing to step outside one’s comfort zone. As fallible human beings, we are twitchy and anxious outside our comfort zone, striving to minimise the displeasure by quickly running back behind our imaginary barriers. Fear coupled with ignorance can be responsible for impending our ability to critically reason and if there’s something Malaysians are scared of, it’s definitely critical thinking. This system certainly recognises the power of words, as they’ve banned over a thousand books in the past 30 years. They clearly do not want us to arrive at any decision based on our own capabilities and reasoning.
Broken public institutions: our schools
In Malaysian society, critical thinking is almost a crime which brings us to a pertinent issue facing our beloved country: the atrocious state of the education system. An elderly man I spoke to told me his teacher paid for his school fees because he so badly wanted the young boy to have an education – this is what education was like in the 1960’s. Teachers cared about their students back then. Now we have teachers who hurl racist slurs at their students with absolute disregard of the consequences. There is a growing concern from various parties, not just the Opposition like the Najib administration will have you believe, about the state of our education system; we are limping behind, lagging and sore like a wheezing alcoholic getting on a bus. The current regime has a lot to deal with in the education portfolio yet there seems to be no steady reform and they seem perfectly happy to chug along in what they describe as “the best education system in the whole world.” There was a buzz a month ago when it was announced that Najib and members of his cabinet were meeting representatives from the State University of New York to learn about a reform program called Strive; but of course ministers were quick to say that the module will be altered to suit ‘local preference’. In Malaysia, this could mean anything, and you can be sure reforms won’t come easy. My own knowledge of WW1 was embarrassingly sparse when I came out of high school. In college, I sat and listened, stupefied that my knowledge of world history was so shallow. Malaysians, let us take a moment to thank Dr. Mahathir for the one thing he did right which was to leave the Internet to its own devices, in his overzealous quest for Vision 2020.
But how do we learn?
So it is obvious that a serious revamp in education is what we direly need, but I think we need to take a step further back from the picture and think about the ways in which we relate to each other. It cannot be said enough that education does not only come from formal schooling. It starts in the home, with the child’s parents. It continues at school, as well as outside of the school compounds, extending to interactions in our wider circle. Friends, friends of friends, your mother’s friends, the man down the road, the women who sell you kuih-muih early in the mornings, our politicians, our newspapers – there are so many ways in which we learn things and un-learn things. Isn’t life itself one long learning process? It is also about the questions you ask, or don’t ask. How do you and I relate to each other, and how do we relate to ourselves? How do we talk to ourselves? What voice is it that we listen to in our heads, is there a voice? Is it a voice of reason? Fear? Are you even aware of the voice that is constantly talking, chiding, goading and nudging your sense of self?
The voice within
“You’re not stupid. You came to seek for help. You are brave & powerful for taking this step. You are not stupid.” For a domestic violence survivor, this is a powerful statement and one that literally throws open a window of light for them. It can take years to decide to leave an abusive environment – it is not as easy as it looks. DV survivors come out of an extremely hostile space; where the pain is not simply manifested physically. It is the threats and the bullying in the form of abusive words that finally shatter the already broken spirit. If you keep being told that you are stupid, you better believe it’s going to eat at your self-confidence. Sometimes the scars don’t heal for years; with the help of a counsellor, DV survivors learn to stop replaying the abusive voices in their heads. The healing process starts from within. The power of what you tell yourself cannot be underestimated.
Assuming accountability and taking responsibility
So if what we tell ourselves is so important, it shouldn’t matter what anyone else says, right? Unfortunately it does, because as you now know, words do hurt, and they do matter. We need to hold these public figures and institutions responsible and educate the public about expecting and adhering to a higher standard of behaviour. It is about taking back the power from these oppressive institutions and holding not just them, but each and every one of us accountable for the consequences of spoken words.
*AWAM is part of the JAG group and has been vocal about violence against women for 27 years with no signs of stopping. Which is why we are also going to be part of an exciting campaign at KDU university this coming Thursday. KDU is the proud host of the “Your Words Hurt” campaign and has invited AWAM to be part of this. We stand in solidarity to be aware & mindful of the words we say to each other, the words we say to ourselves and the words we use in our everyday lives.
**The statements will be released later today after the awards show. Keep yourself posted here for updates. Follow AWAM on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/#!/AWAMMalaysia I speak as an individual, but I have no qualms about shamelessly promoting AWAM’s agenda of non-violence & equality 😀