Thursday, August 23, 2012

BEYOND THE MAPLE TREES

With the conclusion to the 'I Cry for You, Malaysia' series, it's time to take stock of my surroundings, look ahead, and assess the future. Hey, you can't expect me to despair aloud over Malaysia all the time, right?

Then again, the West is in pretty big trouble too.
North America is in trouble, but don't stop there. Look deeper.
I haven't seen much of Canada yet, so this will be more about some broader trends and challenges. Having said that, what I have seen (out of the back of a car at 9 pm) has been pretty impressive. Guelph is a cool small town, with trees everywhere, large houses, and pretty cool weather (even if the Canadians say it's summer). Oh, and by the way, there is a local alternative to Starbucks here, called Tim Horton's.

I'll not lie, these are tough times for the West, and even more so for my generation. Unemployment is only part of the problem; low wage growth, high student debt, the proliferation of low-paying internships, and budget cuts are all adding up to burden what Newsweek calls Generation Screwed. 

To top that off, there has been an increased hostility towards immigrants of late, though not in Canada. Yay me.
Whatever some may say, North America has always needed and been built on immigration.
Even so, for the bold, there is a lot to seize. This may be just the time to be here, not despite, but because of the West's problems. Thomas L. Friedman (my current author-to-drool-over) quotes John Gardner, who calls the energy-climate change conundrum as 'a series of great opportunities designed as insoluble problems'.

To be sure, Mr. Gardner probably didn't have agriculture in mind. But you can apply his quote to every major problem in the world of farming. Climate-change resistance, nutrient efficiency, reduced water supplies, limited land for farm expansion and so on. The way I see it genetic engineering is a major potential solution to most, if not all, these problems. 
In his book, Mark Lynas debunks common Green stances against genetic engineering and nuclear power as a solution to the world's energy and environmental problems.
Make no mistake, there is a lot to do beyond simply getting the grades. Anyone who wants to fix crops, revolutionize alternative energy or transform energy usage patterns needs to grab at research stints, field trips and so much more. And hope regulatory climates in the West, especially Europe, don't get in the way of promising  research.

With bated breath, crossed fingers and grim determination, so we go.

PS- To those who missed it, Parts 1, and 2 of 'I Cry for You, Malaysia'. Part 3 is linked to above.
Part I- An opinion on mosque and state.                             




Tuesday, August 21, 2012

I CRY FOR YOU, MALAYSIA- PART III

We, as a nation, as a collective whole, have lost the promise of that day, nearly 55 years ago.
When I was a kid, I was an unabashed patriot. It all seemed so simple back then. Mahathir Mohammad was a demigod, Malaysia was the best nation in the world, and there was more than enough reason to sing 'Keranamu Malaysia' as loudly as possible every National Day. I even wanted to become a soldier at one point. 

Growing up does funny things to the world around you. In Malaysia, that meant exposes about corruption, or learning what Mahathir had done to his once-darling deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. And the courts. And the press. Many of the people I'd grown up with became solidly, vehemently anti-government. I held out a little longer, I think; that and debating mean I see the current political situation with a (slightly) different set of lenses.

As I prepare to leave, and to hopefully begin a career and life abroad, I recall the times friends have suggested I stay, said that I could help fix Malaysia. I have many answers to this question, none of which will satisfy those people who'll give me grief for not 'menabur bakti kepada tanah air'.

I think the first has to do with a simple reality: that if I do want to help feed the world, to find solutions to the precarious state of global food supplies, I can't do it here. Biotech initiative after biotech initiative has fallen by the wayside, and the country doesn't have the scientific, legal, or financial infrastructure that will make truly beneficial GM research feasible. The way I see it, the global food situation is a transnational issue, and blind nationalism is an obstruction to really helping the people who need it most. 

If I succeed at what I intend to achieve, Malaysia will reap its benefits. Don't worry.

What about politics here? Off the table. Completely. For starters, I don't have very much faith in the system as it is. I'm talking about all sides of it. The parties, the press, the electorate, all of them. As I told a friend recently over coffee, I don't think me or my ideas are going to get very far over here. Call that what you want, that's just the way I see it. 

Plus, I don't entirely trust myself with power anyway. It's very easy to lose your moral direction, and believe me when I say I think I'm vulnerable.

The truth is, I'd want very much to come back, to never give up on Malaysian food, the people or all the other cool things the inner patriot once loved about Malaysia. But there are bigger issues at stake, and I just can't tackle them here. This, I think, is a sentiment many students share.

I will keep hoping and wishing for genuine progress in Malaysia, because the seven year old who thought the Petronas Twin Towers were the coolest thing in the whole world has never truly gone away. For now, I'll shed a quiet tear, and say a silent prayer. God bless you, Malaysia. 

I CRY FOR YOU, MALAYSIA- PART II

I think, if asked to say what makes me saddest about my country, my answer would be the nature and level of political dialogue in general, and the upcoming election in particular. The God-honest truth is, to me, this election is really a choice between a rock and a hard place. 

Now, let's not be hasty to judge my calculus here. If I could vote in the election, my vote would go to the Opposition coalition, but only in the interest of opening up the political climate and eventually forcing both parties to start coming up with really intelligent, non-populist policy discourse.

My belief is the Opposition is not going to really bring the change I'd like to see in this country. The truth is, they've based their pitch on two pillars: the first, that the National Alliance has ruled long enough, and the second, that the Alliance's long rule has led to unforgivable corruption in nearly every level of government.

The Opposition's contention on corruption is welcome and essential for the nation, but I wonder how much they are overstating their immediate ability to combat the problem.
This corruption focus has been the core of nearly everything the Opposition has talked about. Deficit growing too big? End corruption. Funds needed to improve public services. End corruption. And so on. You hardly hear much else from Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim and Co.

Now, I'm not saying the increased heat on corruption is a bad thing. But there are two main reasons I won't give the Opposition as much credit for it as many others do. The first is the sheer scale of the problem. Much of the Opposition calculus underestimates the simple reality that in a nation where corruption is as prevalent as ours, getting rid of it is not going to happen as easily, quickly, or thoroughly as many of their other presumptive policies require. 

Second, after corruption, what then? If you ask me, much of what's in the Opposition's Common Policy Platform isn't really very different from what the National Alliance could come up with. No successful democracy can thrive with one party in support of heavy government intervention in the economy, and the other proposing more government intervention in the economy (which is clearly a separate issue from PARTY intervention in the economy). 

The Pakatan Rakyat's Common Policy Platform and their First 100 Day promises range from the  'not enough' to downright scary.
I want the abolition of the special rights and privileges. I want a serious discussion on ending any and all subsidies and price controls. I believe we need a party that's going to fight for a minimally sized federal government (again, which is quite different from fighting for keeping parties away from business). I believe we need a party that can start putting forward the case for ending most forms of redistribution of wealth, instead of simply deciding what's the best way to redistribute income. And I want parties to allow members to speak their minds freely, without being tossed out for challenging official party doctrine. 

Sometimes, I wonder if Mr. Ibrahim will have the political courage to  ask the people to do some difficult but necessary things.
I desperately want to see this somewhere, ANYWHERE, in our political situation. But I don't. So for me, an Opposition vote isn't a vote of faith in them, but more a desire that, with the rise of a real two party system, we can see a move towards some real, realistic policy. I'll credit the Opposition for their boldness and commitment to cleaner government, but Malaysia needs far more than just that.

Monday, August 20, 2012

I CRY FOR YOU, MALAYSIA- PART I

In Malaysia, religion plays an outsize role in daily life, far more than as simply a personal guide to virtuous living. Enshrined in the Constitution as the official religion, it is the basis for many laws, and tales of it's enforcement in people's lives colour national discourse. For more than fifty years, that has been the way it is.

Which is to say, problematic. For starters, it protects the continued violation of a basic human right, that of freedom of religion. Islam's status means that its commandment that adherents never leave the faith is enforced with chilling rigidity by the State Religious Departments. This is in direct contravention of Articles 2 and 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the former states 'everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms.... in this Declaration, without distinction of... religion', while the latter not only affirms freedom of religion, but also affirms a right to conversion
We've ratified the Declaration. How about truly putting it into practice, and not ignoring the bits that challenge our status quo?
But this isn't simply a matter of violating abstract freedoms. The reality is, religion is a human construct, and needs to update its collective psychology every now and then, and conversions are a crude but effective way of both indicating if that is happening, and an incentive to stay relevant and disciplined. Take this mechanism away, and religious thinking begins to ossify. That's likely why many youth see their religious leaders as anachronistic and why social ills are becoming more prevalent among Muslim youth.

The no-conversion rule has a significant impact on other religions in Malaysia, as they are banned from proselytizing to Muslims. Arrests of supposed proselytizers aside, the rule has led to a mindset of suspicion and hostility, with the some Malay newspapers particularly prone to spread baseless rumours about the simplest things, choking off cross-cultural exchange and deepening the divide. Also, Islam's protected status means the official Sunni Islam of the Shafi'i school of thought can rely on security forces to act against other sects, instead of going head to head in real theological debate, which further solidifies the sense of invulnerability and disconnect.
The sheltering of Islam by its official status means clerics will eventually grow further and further away from its flock.
Islam's status also means it has been intensely politicised. You hear stories of parties saying voting for them is the Islamic thing to do, and in Malaysia, any moral misstep can be career assassination. Not only does this distract from real, productive policy discussion, it  also taints the beauty of Islam as a religion. History shows the comfort of state patronage breeds corruption in a religion's higher echelons; religion becomes another tool of statecraft, instead of an internal moral compass.

Crude, but broadly accurate. Need I say more?
Plus, religion is an intensely private relationship between you and God/Allah. Thrusting it nakedly into the public eye infuses it with tribalism, anger and partisanship, bespoiling its beauty.

As I leave Malaysia, one of my greatest wishes is for no religion to hold an official status here, that conversion and preaching can occur freely, and that the Sharia legal system can be reformed to make it truly subservient to civil law and used in family cases that ONLY affect Muslims. Sure, it's been done one way for 55 years now, but that doesn't automatically preclude change.

This is my first cry for you, Malaysia.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

PAUL RYAN- NOT BAD, BUT....


Weeks of speculation finally culminated Saturday with Mitt Romney’s announcement of Paul Ryan as his running mate for the 2012 US Presidential election. And it isn’t hard to see why. With his youth and popularity, Mr. Ryan brings a powerful energy to the ticket, and a sense of warmth that the often-wooden Mr. Romney lacks on the trail. Plus, as a wonkish budget guru, there is no risk of him saying anything overwhelmingly stupid, a la Palin.

Having said that, though, adding Mr. Ryan to the ticket probably made it a whole lot harder.

The two men have an obvious chemistry, and Mr. Ryan is far more comfortable talking to voters on the trail.
We’ll start with his economic and fiscal ideas. Mr. Ryan has not been one of those obstructionist Republicans, content to vote no to a Democratic bill and stop there. Rather, he has been particularly pronounced in championing alternative budgets and deficit reduction plans of his own.  There are two problems with the Ryan plans (The Roadmap for America's Future Acts and alternative budgets in 2009, 2010 and 2012).

The first is its treatment of Medicare and Medicaid. On the former, Mr. Ryan’s plan calls for defined payments to seniors, who can then use the money to buy private or government insurance plans. Mr. Ryan assumes competition between providers will drive insurance costs down, and the plan’s proposed payouts are to increase at a rate slightly more than GDP grows. Mr. Ryan wants Medicaid funding to be slashed by $ 735 billion over ten years, and the cash given back to states to spend as they see fit.

And therein lies the problem. Back when Mr. Ryan came out with his deficit plan, the bill received a great deal of fanfare from Republicans before it quietly sunk under the radar. One of the main reasons for this was seniors, for whom Medicare is an extremely emotive issue, and a plan that makes them pay significantly more out of their own pockets, as the Congressional Budget Office reports, is not going to go anywhere.

Mr. Ryan with his 2012 budget proposal 'The Path to American Prosperity'
Political commentators are already voicing concerns on the impact such a budget would have on one of the most important states this election- Florida, where seniors are a more powerful force than they are anywhere else in the nation. A July 9 Rasmussen Reports poll gave Mr. Romney 46% support to Mr. Obama's 45%, which means anything could happen from now until November.  

The Romney campaign had always been rather vague on specific economic and fiscal policy. Now that Mr. Ryan’s given the ticket details, he’s given a new boost to Barack Obama’s constant line of attack that a Romney presidency would gut the middle class to enrich the wealthy. That would be the second problem with Mr. Ryan’s deficit plan- it calls for eliminating all taxes on capital gains, interest, and stock dividends and to cut the top tax rate by a full ten percentage points.

A snapshot of what the Obama team has (unsurprisingly) said about Mr. Ryan. Expect more of the same from the President's team.
With all that, it’s hard to see why Mr. Romney would want to burden his (probably intentionally vague) campaign with such politically troubling detail. In my opinion, conservatives would have voted for unexciting Mr. Romney anyway; that’s how much they dislike Mr. Obama. The question from here on out is simple: will Messrs. Romney and Ryan do well enough at explaining the economic rationale of such an extensive hacking of the welfare state to independents? Maybe; Mr. Romney is a businessman after all, but I'm skeptical.

It has been famously said that the job of Vice President is ‘not worth a bucket of warm piss’. Still, recent vice presidents have been pivotal enough- look at Dick Cheney on national security and Joe Biden on the Afghanistan-Pakistan conundrum. Mr. Ryan looks to be as important, whether he eventually emerges a help or hindrance.  

Monday, August 6, 2012

STEP UP REVOLUTION- A NERD'S TAKE


This isn’t exactly a review of the movie, since I don’t watch enough movies to qualify as even a half decent authority on the subject. Rather, this is a chronicle of a whole chain of thoughts triggered by the film, starring Kathryn McCormick and Ryan Guzman (with a brief but noteworthy appearance by Adam Sevani).

Not usually what I watch, but sometimes, you need to kill time and end up pleasantly surprised.
This is as far as I’ll go about the film’s quality: its dance sequences are excellent, though the climactic sequence takes some time to get the punch of the earlier dances. The story is banally predictable, and the acting nothing special, except maybe when McCormick goes all seductive. So yeah, watch it if you like slick moves, don’t if you’re into good acting and properly developed original plots.


The final dance sequence in the movie, a choreographic feast, not so much a good story.
The aforementioned train of thought emerged because the movie not-very-convincingly posits some chillingly relevant questions about (youth) protest movements and the common man vs. capitalism. (Cough-Occupy-Cough).  In the movie, the dancers use well-choreographed flash mobs to rally public support against a move to develop their neighborhood, only to lose it with one stunt that takes a strident, angry, and militant tone instead.

In many ways, this is what happens when a group that has a grievance with a well-entrenched, more powerful adversary first puts its case forward. Piquing public interest and eventually support is, in liberal democracies, the easiest way for the little guy to stand up to the big bully. The fact is, however, that the public is both very tentative about change, and apathetic when the challenge to authority is posed by a small group with little direct connection to the broader populace.

These two contentions, taken together, seem to suggest that the movement to rally the public must be something people don’t see as threatening or dangerous. The first flash mob against the development fits this perfectly; it is cheeky, sharp and bold,but above all, nonviolent.

Still from the first mob against the development.
  As often happens, many within the movement often get frustrated with the slow pace of change or feel the leadership isn’t going to the core of the problem. Subsequently, they take things into their own hands, feeling a more direct and confrontational approach might be the answer. The next mob uses smoke canisters, more aggressive moves and angry slogans, culminating in a brawl with security and arrests. The developers, having regained public sympathy, get permission to build.

The militant tone of the next mob costs the dancers a lot of support, and leads to a fracture in the movement.
It’s tempting, at this point, to conclude that all protest movements must thus be Gandhi-esque and avoid violence to have a chance of success. But that’s na├»ve, and not quite right. I believe militant wings of protest movements are a key factor in encouraging entrenched interests to seek a settlement with the moderates. The radicals may or may not shut up (historically, many do), but the demands of the little guy have been largely met, and the opposing public desires for normalcy and justice are satisfied.

Also, it’s healthy for the moderates; they’re forced to ensure they maintain their nimbleness, energy and quality of ideas.

The challenge, then, is for the protest movement to ensure its main face is always a strong moderate, even if the radicals are adept at grabbing headlines. Sure, the Black Panthers received a lot of press, but ultimately, Martin Luther King Jr. knew how to draw public attention to the moderates in the black revolutionaries. As our world is riven by more and more public displays of disaffection, we all hope they learn these lessons, if not necessarily from the film. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

ON NUMBERS AND THE FUTURE

Not too long ago, The Star frontpaged a report on falling street crime figures that was celebrated by the government, but met with much skepticism by the public. Subsequent well-publicised snatch thefts and mall carpark robberies had the government scrambling to respond, while deepening the public sense that the numbers are a sham.

I don't like dismissing government statistics out of hand; I think reflexively rubbishing the numbers is both excessively pessimistic and rather unreasonable. Still, street crime figures, to me, tell another story, and not just because of the many tales from victims turned away from lodging police reports.

It will take a concerted effort, and a lot of time, for Malaysian trust in the police, and thus belief in their safety, to improve


Before I get into that, I'm going to comment briefly on public perceptions of their safety. The reason much of the public doesn't buy the figures is simple: there is, at present, an immense crisis of trust with Malaysian law enforcement. The aforementioned tales play a part, as do the stories of corruption, violence against suspects in custody and lack of frequent patrols in many urban areas. But remedying this will take more than just responding to those complaints, and a very long time indeed, so in the foreseeable future, Malaysians will be more pessimistic about their safety than the numbers make reasonable to be.

Moving to the main thrust of the piece: what else do street crime figures tell us? I will give the government and the police some credit for the fall in street crimes, but then, they only tell part of the story. Street crimes are, after all, committed mainly by youth, out of need. As the Malaysian economy grows, I believe it is more likely that crime will move into the shadows, out of the public eye. I speak, of course, about organized crime, international syndicate activity and corporate crime.

Does the government have the gumption to stand up to the vested interests that profit from corporate crime?

Malaysia's international record on people and drug smuggling has to improve significantly, and it doesn't appear that government policy focuses adequately on corporate crime. Enforcement of laws on the latter issue are fragmented among five different agencies; meanwhile, Malaysia remains a Tier 2 nation on the US State Department's human trafficking watch list.

As the nation's per capita income continues to grow (and hopefully more inclusively than at present), socioeconomic improvement means less people will turn to street crime to get by. However, it also means a bigger lure for, shall we say, more professional crime. This simple fact means the nation needs to ask itself two questions. The first is this: Will the government be able to shift its resources and focus to the latter?

Over time, more crime will move out of dark alleys, and into the gilded halls of wealthy and ruthless syndicates.
The second question? Will Malaysians continue to press their government on crime once it fades into the shadows?

Monday, July 16, 2012

MAKING OUR SOCIETY BLIND

I've been very scared lately by a whole host of loud voices demanding the death penalty for snatch thieves. As far as public demands go, this is probably one of the most bone-headed and barbaric ones to come our way in recent years.


Many people are incensed by continued stories of people dying due to bad falls after snatch thefts, but I'd like to respectfully point out that snatch thieves are not hardened killers. None of them sets out with the intention to kill anyone during a theft, and intent is important in criminal cases; to want to hang people who 'technically' killed someone sets us on a whole slippery slope of serious events. We are screaming overloud at what is actually a very small (but attention grabbing) part of the snatch theft picture. 


Snatch theft is an issue guaranteed to ignite passions and inflame emotions, neither of which are good guides to effective law-making.
In any case, we don't hang accidental murderers. We call that manslaughter. A poor kid who snatched a bag to feed himself isn't a vicious murderer who regards the death as a bonus point. Logic suggests that it's an extra burden for him to live with.


The death penalty, I'm sure we all realize, is largely useless as a deterrent to anything. Malaysia hasn't experimented much with its' death penalty, but many countries who have abolished capital punishment report no increase in crime following its abolition. Criminologists, by an 88.2% majority, do not believe the death penalty is an effective deterrent, as reviews of pro-deterrent studies reveal that they 'fall apart under close scrutiny' (Jeffrey Fagan, director of the Centre of  Crime, Community and Law at Columbia Law School). 


Statistics suggest the death penalty isn't a deterrent. Another statistical analysis here, by John Donnohue and Justin Wolfers, shows estimates of lives saved by the death penalty are fundamentally flawed.

In any case, the death penalty is barbaric. We as a society do our moral standing no credit when we stoop to the levels of asking for revenge. Of the vast range of punishments in the penal system, the death penalty, due to its terminal nature, is the only one that doesn't seek to reform the prisoner or put him to service, so all it serves is a primal desire to see someone die for ending another life, since we know it isn't an effective crime prevention measure. 


We as Malaysians pride ourselves on our hospitality, kindness and acceptance. How the Chinese, Malays and Indians treat each other is only part of that story. An arguably more important part is how we treat the migrant worker, the homosexual, the drug addict, the criminal. It is my belief that as long as we cannot find it in our hearts to be the better person than a killer, we have no right to call ourselves a civil society. 


Need I say more?
Part of the reason we gravitate towards such tools as the death penalty is that it's a simple, blunt force tool that appeals to our baser natures. In fact, truly solving street crimes like snatch thefts requires distinctly unglamorous tools, like more inclusive economic growth, an elevation of vocational education and reform of local policing measures. Just like everyone will rally around a catchy, Kony 2012 style campaign, but not a long term fix to the underlying problem of democracy and structural poverty in Africa. 


For that, to me, is the real problem. Our education system is too broken to be truly counted on as a way out of hardcore poverty anymore, and quality skills training doesn't nearly reach as many youths as it should. It might also be an idea to devolve more powers to local councils and local police units. They, after all, can better understand the community and respond more effectively to local crime and socioeconomic concerns.


I'll not pretend snatch thefts- and crime in general- isn't a serious problem in our society. The question is, are we so keen to throw away the last remaining vestiges of civility in our nation in order to 'save' it?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

THE SEARCH FOR HOPE CONTINUES

These days, American politics does not inspire much confidence in anyone. Sadly, it could get worse, as eleven states- Texas, Georgia, and Tennessee among them- have passed strict laws requiring photo IDs before a person can vote. State governors say the new rules are meant to curb voting fraud, but in practice, the new laws will prevent many legitimate voters from casting their ballots.


The voters shut out are primarily, black, poor and elderly. On the whole, 11% of eligible voters don't have updated, state issued photo IDs; the percentage rises to 25%, 15% (among those making less than $ 35 K a year) and 18% respectively. These groups are likelier to lack driver's licences, be born out of state, work multiple jobs or have disabilities, which means they cannot afford the extensive and expensive paperwork required for state IDs. Many government services have never needed state IDs, and things like employee and student cards are not accepted by many of the states' new laws.


Texas Governor and former presidential candidate Rick Perry has declared his support for the law. His state's version would allow concealed-carry handgun licences as valid ID, but not employee or student IDs.
The scale of disenfranchisement is far more extensive than any fraud the laws seek to prevent. Fraud is not, as supporters of the laws claim, a serious issue in American elections- a 2011 report by the Republican National Lawyers Association found 400 election fraud prosecutions in the US over the past decade, not even one per state per year. Between 1997 and 2010, in Kansas, there were 7 convictions for voter fraud, none for voter impersonation- the true kind of fraud voter IDs would stop.


By contrast, the new laws could adversely affect more than five million voters. As it is, in 2008, 2.2 million registered voters did not vote because they lacked proper ID.


More than anything, the new laws appear to be the latest weapon in a tragically vitriolic campaign for November's elections, as if the attack ads weren't bad enough.
 To me, this move is nakedly political, coming as it is in states under Republican control, some of which are key battlegrounds this November. Seeking an advantage in a close election, Republicans must surely have realised the new laws will bar many voters who traditionally vote Democratic. One Republican official in Pennsylvania said as much, even. 


Eric Holder, who recently called the new laws 'poll taxes' , has, as Attorney General, the power to prevent the laws' implementation.
If states insist on laws like this, even though they don't solve the true fraud that DOES occur in American elections, then they should also undertake a commitment to provide free IDs to everyone who lacks it.


Under the Voting Rights Act of 1964, states with a history of discrimination must obtain permission from the Department of Justice or the Appeals Court of the Washington D.C. Circuit to change election laws, and its likely both these institutions will strike down many of these laws. Still, if Republicans agree there is a crisis of faith in American politics, they should realize it is not at the ballot box, but up on Capitol Hill, where the word 'compromise' has long been forgotten.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

THE 2012 ADDRESS

It’s 2012. If you’re still into the whole Mayan calendar thing, this is our last year. But does it matter?

No.

What does matter, then?

To me, it’s simple. It matters that we as a society are too simplistic, too willing to take too many things at face value. It matters that we refuse to think deeply, that we do not commit ourselves to rational and insightful discourse about the things that matter. It matters that we are content to get by, to do good enough, when all over the world, there are peoples who need change just to go to sleep with a full stomach. It matters that we think protests and activism are cool, but refuse to contribute to the intellectual climate that makes it possible. It matters that our icons are people who are famous for God knows what, and not thinkers, scientists, activists and the like.  

Granted, there’s a lot (maybe too much) wrong with the world. And there are many obstacles that come in our way. Inequality, poverty, lousy teachers and so on. But none of us should surrender to these. None of us should make these excuses for giving in to simple escapism and cheap thrills.

Whether we are 8, 18 or 80, we should never be content with what’s already there. If you’re a doctor, ask how a drug/treatment could be more effective. If you’re a lawyer, don’t be content with the laws as they are. If you… well, you get my drift. At least, I hope so.

So this year, let’s start to be hungry to learn. Pick up some good books, on science, on politics, on different cultures, ways of thinking and ways of living. How you want to end up is entirely up to you; knowing a little bit about everything, or everything about a little bit. Heck, some combination of the two, if it pleases you.

Do more. If the newspapers feature some disaster, don’t forget it the next month. Track the victims’ progress. Or get to know a culture few have heard about. Everyone knows about Brazilian samba. How about the Yanomamo Indians?

And for heaven’s sake, let’s all learn to have a good argument without insulting the opposing party. Yes, I’m talking to you too, Malaysian politicians.

Here’s to an enlightening 2012. Live. But more importantly, learn.
                                   
'Life without knowledge is death in disguise’
Talib Kweli