Author William Deresiewicz urged students to reflect and think before committing to improving the world. (Harrison Jones/GW Today)
By B.L. Wilson
At elite private colleges, the social cost of dissent is high and progressive consensus tight, according to William Deresiewicz, author of the best-selling book, “Excellent Sheep,” comparing universities to what sociologists call “total institutions” such as monasteries, prisons, mental institutions and the military.
This is notwithstanding the desire of students at colleges like George Washington University to have an impact and make the world a better place.
“Your generation is to be commended for this new spirit that is broad among America’s youth,” Dr. Deresiewicz said, “a zeal for activism and social justice that hasn’t been seen since the 1970s.”
Dr. Deresiewicz told students that “reflection, contemplation, analysis, study – in a word thought” should precede their commitment to making the world a better place.
Mount Vernon, located in Fairfax County, Virginia, was the plantation home of George Washington, the First President of the United States. The property alongside the Potomac River was first owned by Washington’s great-grandfather back in 1674, who became a successful tobacco planter through the help of slave labor and indentured servants. Young George Washington came into possession of the estate in 1754, when he was about 23 years old, but he didn’t become the property’s sole owner until 1761. The estate served as the centerpiece of Washington’s military and political life,and the site stands as a powerful symbol regarding the birth of the American nation.
Introducing the author to students and faculty crowded into Ames Hall on the George Washington University Mount Vernon Campus, Maria Frawley, executive director of the University Honors Program and professor of English, said, part of his book’s subtitle, “The Way to a Meaningful Life” is what appealed to her. “It is what all of us educators and students care most about,” she said.
Recent tensions on college campuses between freedom and equality and the struggle over restrictions on offensive speech, Dr. Deresiewicz said, prompted him to come up with a response.
He contended that the homogeneity of student populations at elite college campuses who often are from liberal upper and middle classes, multiracial, but predominantly white accounts for a progressive dogma of opinion that almost approaches religious dogma.
“Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity – principally the holy trinity of race, gender and sexuality – occupy the center of the discourse,” Dr. Deresiewicz said. “The assumption, on the left, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth.
“The central purpose of a real education, as in liberal arts education,” he said, “is to liberate us from what Plato called doxa or opinion by teaching us to recognize it, to question it and to think our way around it.”
A liberal arts education includes not only disciplines such as the humanities, English, history, philosophy but also the sciences in which the pursuit of knowledge is conducted for its own sake, he said.
You read King Lear not to master it, he suggested. “You read King Lear for what it does to you, for the way it changes you,” he said, “and hopefully that experience enhances your mind’s capacity for experience, and the ability to learn from it.”
Bringing the talk back to where he began, Dr. Deresiewicz said the humanities lead to reflection on the big questions that are persistent questions because no one has the answers. “The heart of reflection is self-reflection,” he said. “The essence of knowledge is self-knowledge.”
Reflection, he said, can help students achieve wisdom, an application of knowledge often associated with age. “For all the desire to change the world,” he said, “it will likely take a long time to have the real power to do so.”
Asked where he would draw the line in making students uncomfortable, Dr. Deresiewicz said even though right wing groups are often deliberately provocative, he agreed with a University of Chicago dean that colleges should provide no spaces safe from debate and uncomfortable discussions.
Allen Wang, a GW freshman and an international business major, said, “Students come to GW because it is very powerful in specific tracts such as international affairs and public health. But the talk was extremely topical and eye-opening and, more importantly, inspiring because of the spirit Dr. Deresiewicz tried to communicate about academic uncertainty and the truth.”
Greetings from Kuala Lumpur and Phnom Penh for Xmas and 2018
Dr. Kamsiah Haider in Kuala Lumpur and Din Merican in Phnom Penh wish all our friends and associates around the world a Merry Christmas 2017 and prosperous New Year, 2018. We are indeed grateful for your warm friendship and support we enjoyed during 2017. We forward to working with you in the coming year and together we can make our world a better place.
We have little time for politicians and ideologues as they are a crop of egoistic, misogynistic and greedy people. All we have to do is to look at Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan and other places to see for ourselves their handiwork. People are their victims, especially women, children and the elderly. They have lost the moral high ground and we must put our differences aside and work hard for peace.
On the occasion of Christmas and the New Year 2018, may we ask Michael Jackson to sing for us his famous song, Make The World a Better Place. –Dr. Kamsiah Haider and Din Merican.
Malaysia’s Talented First Lady of Jazz–Dato Sheila Majid
COMMENT | I was first introduced to Sheila Majid’s music when I was 12. My father played me “Sinaran” and “Lagenda”, and told me that Malay artistes have a “bigger” vocal cord – they are able to belt higher musical keys. Indeed, Sheila Majid was the legend in her genre, the “Queen of Jazz”.
Sheila Majid singing Dia–What a Voice and What a Talent
I renewed my interest in her last year when she appeared for an interview on BFM, in which her larger-than-life personality shone through. Her straight-talking character and her latent rebellion reminded me of activist and writer Marina Mahathir, whom I deeply adore.
Sheila will always be special to me.In some sense, it was inevitable that she would provide a concise summary of her general concern towards this country in a widely-shared tweet. With 280 characters, she pointed to the pressing economic conditions of Malaysia – a situation surely experienced by many.
But there were dissenters. Not chiefly on the content of her tweet; instead, on her right to have a say on issues outside of singing.
The critics admonished her in two ways: first, by saying she had no right to comment on socio-economic issues; second, that she had no expertise to comment on anything of that sort.
‘No right to comment’
The flamboyant TV personality Mohamed Azwan Ali (photo) said that Sheila had no right to comment on issues regarding cost of living, because she is who she is today because of the government.
The Weido Azwan Ali–The Brother of Selangor Menteri Besar, Dato’ Seri Azmin Ali
Her wealth, success, “Dato” title, and millions of followers were all contributed by the UMNO government, and thus Sheila loses her right to publicly comment on the state of the country.
With due respect, this argument is hard to support. It grossly underestimates the musical talents of Sheila Majid and the vast Malaysian population who supported her in more ways than one.
Sheila has never received formal vocalional training and instead taught herself to sing; her fans kept her going in the good times and the bad. They recognised that she had talent. And she worked hard for her success.
While the government might have contributed financially to the entertainment industry, these are at best a fulfillment of governmental responsibility using taxpayers’ money rather than an act of UMNO generosity.
UMNO would have a hard time proving that Sheila Majid wouldn’t have succeeded if UMNO was not there to assist her.
Additionally, receiving government support, if at all, does not come with an attached condition of silence. Government funding does not displace a citizen’s constitutional right to freedom of expression, even if that criticism is against the government. In fact, holding the government to account is the right and responsibility of a citizen, and it continues regardless of which political party governs the country and regardless of how well they do.
It is precisely because a government’s decision affects the largest segment of the population that it should never be granted immunity from criticism.
And since Sheila Majid is as much a citizen of this land as anyone else, she should never lose that right simply because she has (supposedly) succeeded with the help of the government.
‘No expertise to comment’
UMNO information chief Annuar Musa (photo) and many others have said that singers like Sheila Majid should never comment on socio-economic issues because they have no expertise in doing so, and that they should stick to singing.
The Tainted Former MARA Chairman, Annuar Musa
Again, this is another poor argument. First of all, it assumes that commenting publicly on issues like cost of living, low wages, unemployment, and debt levels somehow requires a specific expertise.This is surely untrue since everyone who has a stake in this country should be accorded the space to speak his or her mind, and the open market of dialectical discussions should resolve any untruths.
But more importantly, the statement of “no expertise” also assumes that somehow members of Parliament and ministers have greater expertise in running the country. If anything, the elite position of politicians puts them out of touch with the common man and daily realities; their internal politicking, posturing, and powerplay often serve no benefit to the general welfare of the people.
The declining status of the country today, in real and perceived terms, should be evidence enough that politicians are not the ones with the greatest expertise in running the country.
Sheila Majid may not be an expert on socio-economic issues. There is something that must be acknowledged: singers and songwriters do not live in a vacuum. They too are daughters, sisters, and mothers who have concerns, just like the rest of us. Furthermore, Sheila is smart and well informed.
You do not need to be an economist or a political scientist to have a conscientious and empathetic view of the plight of the nation. And you certainly do not need any expertise to earn that right to speak up on the things you care about.
I WAS very surprised that Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for literature this year. Don’t get me wrong, I think he is an excellent writer. Believe it or not, I do occasionally read things other than football reports, and I have enjoyed Ishiguro’s work tremendously.
However, I always thought that the Nobel Prize for literature was given to authors who are so complex and hyper intelligent that they seem to be from another planet. I have tried to read the books of some of these folks – Naipaul, Saramago and Gao, to name a few. And I haven’t managed more than 20 or 40 pages. It’s not because the books were awful. It’s just that they were too difficult.
Contrast this to Ishiguro’s breakthrough book The Remains of the Day. My Japanese mate introduced it to me and I read it in one night. It was a jolly good read, but it wasn’t particularly challenging.
But then, can we be surprised? After all, Bob blinking Dylan won the prize last year. Seriously? “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man? …The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” Seriously?
Again, I am not dissing Bob. I think that Blood on the Tracks is an awesome album; it’s the best break-up album money can buy. And I remember fondly hearing him sing unintelligibly at, of all places, the Putra World Trade Centre. But is he up there with Neruda?
Musical Genius Bob Dylan and a Man of Peace
Okay, at this point, you may be saying that I am being elitist. Maybe I am, but not in the way that you may think. After all, I freely admit that I am not smart enough to get the works of the Nobel winners that I have tried to read. How can I be elitist when I clearly don’t understand them?
I guess what I am trying to say is that it is good to have some crazy mad high standard of human achievement; something to look up to and admire. A gold standard that perhaps in our own small way we can aspire to.
The same goes for sport. As sweet as it is to see the Falkland Islands badminton team huff and puff away at the Commonwealth Games, it is the elite in sport that truly captures the imagination.
It is when we bring things down to a lower or in the case of television, the lowest, common denominator that we start to lose that aspirational element of human endeavour. Why train and work hard to be a good actor when you can simply be obnoxious and have your own reality TV show?
And so it is in politics. I want leaders who are smarter and more able than me. They should be people who have a grasp of the world that I don’t have, in order for problems to be solved and governance to be good. If we just go for the popular and the lowest common denominator, then any Tom, Dick or Donald can be a leader and that could be disastrous.
All people are created equal. That is something I believe in. But not everybody can achieve equally. Some are just stronger or smarter or more talented.
It is one thing to acknowledge those who can be appreciated by a wider audience, who are more like “one of us”. But if we do that all the time, then what is there to aspire to? What is there to inspire?
Azmi Sharom (email@example.com) is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
I am fascinated with Bamboo. It is Nature’s gift to mankind because it is versatile and durable. Dr.Kamsiah and I plant bamboo in our home, no. 26, Jalan SS22/39, Damansara Jaya, Petaling Jaya to enrich our environment and attract the birds.
Have a good weekend.–Dr. Kamsiah Haider and Din Merican
This hotel pianist once wrote songs for Sudirman and toured with P. Ramlee. Jon Chew tells his extraordinary story.
At three o’clock, Tuesdays to Sundays, underneath the gold-leaf dome roof of the grand five-star Hotel Majestic in Kuala Lumpur, a man hunches over a black Yamaha piano. He wears a bow tie, a white jacket, and a hearing aid on his left ear. Slowly, he takes out a small turquoise clock, and leaves it on the left-hand ledge. He places a file of loose sheet music next to him. He takes a pause. Then, he begins to play.
He doesn’t smile. His fingers dance on a white ivory floor, born again like a young ballerina’s joy at touching the ground with the tip of her toes. He starts with “Moon River”, segues into “Top of the World”, then flows into the classic “As Time Goes By”. He is 75 years old.
For 45 minutes, history’s greatest pop songs are seamlessly twisted in the pianist’s hands. Still, no smile.
The Majestic Hotel, Kuala Lumpur
Hotel Majestic —which first opened its doors in 1932, and relaunched in December, 2012 to much fanfare—is a building that doubles as a treasure trove of Malaysian history. Former patrons claim the Allied forces of World War II conspired within the walls of this hotel; the inaugural meeting of the Independence of the Malaya Party, held by Datuk Onn Jaafar, took place here in 1951.
Dato’ Ooi with Tan Sri P. Ramlee, both are from Penang
Today, as every day, guests are spending a cloudy afternoon basking in the Majestic’s colonial luxury. A group of girls eat scones on embroidered sofas. Some aunties chatter while sipping the house-blended Boh Cameronian tea. Waiters decked in white jackets walk around in brisk fashion. The only constant is the sound of music that floats in the air, the last thing anyone would remember.
Yet, unbeknownst to everyone present in this room, the old man hunched over the piano is Ooi Eow Jin. 38 years ago, Ooi Eow Jin (known to hotel staff as Uncle Ooi) was one of the music industry’s most sought-after composers.
It was Ooi who once toured with P. Ramlee, who conducted the most lauded orchestra in the land, and who wrote the first song ever recorded in a studio by a revered Malaysian singer: Sudirman.
Ooi will always have a love affair with hotels. In 1960, he became one of the first resident pianists at the E&O Hotel in Penang, and entertained guests every night in their lounges for three years. On one of these nights, Alfonso Soliano, a jazz hero, music arranger and the founder of the seminal RTM Orchestra, came to the hotel for drinks.
The Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Penang
“It was at that place when he first heard me,” says Ooi as we sit at a corner of the Majestic before his session. His voice is brittle, strung-out. His thoughts jump between past and present. Sometimes he stops, and leans forwards to ask you to repeat your question. He wonders why we’re sitting here in conversation.
Well, you have an interesting life.
“I don’t know what is there to write about me,” he says, words rattling gently inside a soft, time-worn box. “I’ve been doing this for too long.”
But of the details on the night that changed his life, his memory is still as clear as a full moon. “I was playing that night, and he heard me,” he recalls. “He got interested, started asking questions about me with his friends. After I played, he got a hold of me personally and asked, ‘Why don’t you come to KL and play with the Orchestra?”
“Those days, the RTM Orchestra was the biggest thing to happen to music.”
This was a big deal. Soliano had moved from his part-time job playing keyboards at nightclubs to starting an orchestra at then-Radio Malaya in 1957. When television broadcasting was introduced in 1963, the RTM Orchestra became one of the most widely-watched music acts in the country.
It was a fork-in-the-road moment for the then-24 year old Ooi, and he left his day job as a government clerk and took the risk of moving to the capital. “Imagine people saying, ‘You are crazy. You’ve got a full-time salaried government job, and you’re leaving it for a contract job.’” He wags his finger, reminding you that one generation will always admonish another for choosing uncertainty over certainty. “But that was my calling. I couldn’t be a clerk if there was something like this in front of you. Those days, the Orchestra was the biggest thing to happen to music.”
Radio Malaya Band with Alfonso Soliano in the early 1960s
Ooi would spend the next 17 years in the RTM Orchestra. “It was a great experience playing all kinds of music. To have the orchestra there, that’s something, you know? That… that really took my heart away.” Soliano would groom Ooi to become the orchestra’s senior arranger, giving him opportunities to conduct concerts, and teaching him how to compose a piece of music. “He guided me. He wanted me to depend on my ears. ‘What you hear, you play’, he would tell me.’”
Ooi’s career would soon intersect with another artiste looking for his own break in life. In 1976, a young singer with a songbird’s voice by the name of Sudirman Arshad took part in a nascent reality show called Bintang RTM. In the final round, Ooi arranged a Broadway medley that would help Sudirman win the competition. “I used two songs. One of them was ‘Cabaret’, and the other was ‘Big Spender’. I arranged those two songs for him, and he got first prize because of that.”
The two became friends, and Ooi wrote the first song Sudirman ever recorded inside a studio, a soulful number titled “Teriring Doa”. History tells us that Sudirman would become an Asian phenomenon, pulling in 100,000 people in a Chow Kit Road open air concert, tabbed as “Malaysia’s Number One Entertainer”.
The Legend –Sudirman Haji Arshad
Ooi wrote the first song Sudirman ever recorded inside a studio, a soulful number titled “Teriring Doa”.
“One thing I know of Sudirman is that he is a very, very humble man, a very nice person to know,” Ooi says. “Every time he meets me, when he was famous, he would say, “Mister Eow Jin, I can never forget you for what you’ve done for me. Imagine someone like that saying like that about you.” He looks down, humbled by the power of a sincere compliment. “It makes your heart melt.”
Ooi gets up from his seat, and returns soon after with a CD in his hand. It is a compilation of twenty compositions, a greatest-hits collection he gives out to friends. It’s part of a personal canon that encompasses over 60 Malay pop songs, a nostalgic walk-through of the local music industry’s heyday.
Singing Sensation Dahlan Zainuddin
He penned the weepy hit “Masa Berlalu” for singer Salamiah Hassan, the mother of current jazz singer Atilia; other singles include Dahlan Zainuddin’s “Lagu Untukmu”and Yunizar Hoessein’s “Kisah Gadis Sepi”. He wrote the entire soundscape for Yassin Salleh’s blockbuster film Dia Ibukuin 1981, along with the theme song sung by the popular M. Nasir. He would rub shoulders with industry luminaries that spanned the entire region; names like Gigi Villa, the Alleycats and Frances Yip all sought out Ooi’s ability to twist an American ballad sound around a Malaysian tongue.
“I have something that will knock you down.” He takes out a photograph, and lays it on the table. It is a black-and-white snapshot of a boyish, bespectacled Ooi wearing an army uniform. He is standing next to P. Ramlee on the shores of Sebatik Island off Tawau.
Industry luminaries sought out Ooi’s ability to twist an American ballad sound around a Malaysian tongue.
Ooi played for the Malaysian legend during a tour of 21 army barracks in Borneo in 1965, bringing A-class entertainment to the armed forces. “We were quite near the Indonesian camps, and we could hear gunfire sometimes, at a distance… A few of us would fly in on helicopters into these camps, and we would do on-the-spot performances for the soldiers.”
By any generation’s estimation, this is unquantified success. But as Ooi deep-dives through his past, something escapes his grasp like grains of sand. For all the credits, his name rarely comes up in any historical tome of Malaysian music.
When asked about his success, Ooi pinches the skin of his wrist. “I am the only one amongst so many Malay composers. I was the first non-Malay composer to write Malay songs for films,” he says. “There is something, when I tell you, you’ll feel a bit sad. You know FINAS [National Film Development Corporation Malaysia]? I won the prize for best theme music for one movie, you know? After they announced the prize for best theme song for the movie, you what came out in the papers the next day? Nothing came out.”
His voice becomes unsteady. “You devote so much to this, and you get nothing out of it. Just because of…” And he pinches his skin again.
Older guests who come to the Majestic Hotel—some fans of the RTM Orchestra, or simply those who listen to artistes like Sudirman and are homesick for a piece of history—still remember Ooi. “Some will come up and say, ‘Hey, you formerly from RTM Orchestra ah?’ Ya lah, I’m now doing a new job.” By a twist of fate, the Filipino quartet who plays in the evenings after Ooi’s session are the Solianos, a family ensemble who are all children of the late Alfonso Soliano, Ooi’s mentor.
Many years later, Ooi still plays because it is a calling that he cannot quiet. “How do you retire? Unless you are too sick to play? I will play until I cannot play. Because there is nothing else to do.” Ooi has also seen his only two sons through tragedy; the eldest had a brain tumour in his twenties that has resulted in two serious operations, and his youngest son died of leukaemia as a youth. “These are just the sad things of my life I put away. I store it away somewhere, and try to pretend it didn’t happen.”
He comes to us after his first session. He sits on our table, and a waitress brings him a cup of coffee. Instead of drinking one of the hotel’s hinterland imports, this cup is made from a three-in-one instant coffee mix from Malacca, a sachet he gives to the kitchen to specially brew for him every day. He grabs her hand, and pats it like a grandfather.
“Thank you.” He looks up and smiles at her, paying forward the kindness once shown to him a long time ago. “You are a very nice lady.”
“No problem, Uncle.”
He leans forward, eyes tainted in fading black. “Did you hear me?” He looks back at us for an answer.
We could hear you.
“I’m always not sure whether people can hear me from back here.”
Soon, he returns for his second 45-minute session. The medleys will fill the room. But all around him, the music stays silent.
UPDATE: As of 30th June 2015, Mr Ooi has retired as a pianist, aged 77. However, friends rallied around by organising a fund raising concert to help the pianist through his family difficulties.
On 7th September 2015, Mr Ooi was conferred a Datukship by the state of Penang. Poskod.MY is honoured to have played a small role in bringing wider attention to this music man.