The Power of Writing Regained


June 11, 2017

The Power of Writing Regained

by Dean Johns@www.malaysiakini.com

After confessing in my column last week that depression was threatening to rob me of what I’ve long relied on as my last-ditch defence against the total disempowerment of despair – the power of writing – this week I have to admit that it didn’t help very much.

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It certainly didn’t do anything to dispel my lack of faith in the biblical alleged wisdom that “confession is good for the soul”, if only for the sole reason that I’m incurably skeptical about the existence of any such metaphysical entity.

But my confession was apparently cathartic or otherwise psychologically beneficial enough to my spirits as to restore my powers of written speech.

And kind comments on the ensuing column from two perennially-supportive pseudonymous Malaysiakini readers, JesuisAnwar and HaveAGreatDay, whoever they actually are, have greatly sustained my spirits since. So much so as to inspire me to the thought that it may not be depression per se that has been threatening to leave me lost for words all this while, but disappointment.

Disappointment at how little I feel I’ve achieved, both quantitatively and qualitatively, in my by now quite lengthy lifetime, and also at my apparent inability to redress these deficiencies, or at least make the most of the rapidly-dwindling time I have left to do so before death.

Or, to put this another way, I’m both metaphorically and literally dying to write as many and as meaningful words as possible before I reach my final full stop.

Unhappily, however, to return to the subject of disappointment for a moment, I’ve left so many of life’s fundamental questions so unnoticed, unexamined and unwritten-about, that I’m virtually dumbstruck with confusion as to which of them is most worth spending, my or indeed anybody’s last words on.

So rather than striving to have my final say on them all at once, as I’ve been so unproductively doing in my panic to meet my final, indeed terminal deadline, I’d better get myself focused, and fast.

By being smart enough, for a start, to think of my remaining writing time not simply in terms of how to best to “spend” it, as I see I thoughtlessly did two paragraphs ago, but how to invest it most intelligently on worthwhile topics or at least avoid squandering much if any more of it on trivia and trash.

Like, to cite the most vivid example of the latter types of topic than I can think of, in light of the almost 500,000 words I’ve wasted on them in this Malaysiakini column over the past 11 years, the corrupt, incompetent and ruthlessly truthless members and countless crimes and other misdeeds of Malaysia’s miserable, ever-misruling UMNO-BN regime.

Not that I’m promising to never mention them again, you understand, as long as Malaysiakini keeps generously granting me space on its site. But in future, I intend to mention this gruesome gang and all the world’s many other similarly blundering, plundering and people-repressing regimes only, if possible, in the context of or in relation to issues that are far more fundamentally interesting and important.

Like power, for instance, whose multitudinous and endlessly paradoxical manifestations are as all-pervasive in human lives and affairs as they are everywhere else in what we call the universe, and yet seems to me generally poorly comprehended or even perceived.

And like truth, which mankind seems to have spent its long history striving on the one hand to define, seek and discover, and on the other hand, and often simultaneously, seeking with equal if not greater determination, to ignore, avoid, contradict or deny.

In the process so apparently totally losing sight of the many and various meanings, purposes and perversions of truth as to seriously entertain the ludicrously ahistorical proposition that, because we can all post opinions on the net and the US has elected a lying pest like Donald Trump, we’ve reached the age of “post-truth”.

Another perennially pressing topic for as many last words as possible, of course, is the one that had inspired the ancient ethical philosophers, Western and Eastern alike, to ask “how should life be lived?”

But here the kind of confusion that’s been leaving me lost for last words starts to kick back in again. Because it’s impossible to consider and discuss ethics without consideration of truth and power, as well as what it means to be successfully and fully ‘human’.

A thought that brings me to what seems to me to be the ultimate topic for my or any other human who’s on a mission to make the most of his or her wits and words, last or otherwise: the exhortation carved in stone outside the Temple of Apollo at Delphi to “know thyself”.

This, of course, in light of the unfathomable complexities of and confusions and conflicts between our animal instincts and human intellects and conscious and unconscious minds, is paradoxically impossible.

In fact, as Socrates, my favourite philosopher, demonstrated to his own satisfaction and the outrage of his fellow Athenians, who for his pains condemned him to death for blasphemy and misleading the youth of the city, that nobody really knows anything.

And over a thousand years later, Frenchman René Descartes similarly set out to challenge every belief he had for which he could find insufficient support, and found that the only one he was left with was, as he famously expressed it in Latin, Cogito, Ergo Sum, or “I think, therefore I am”.

However skeptical about my own and others’ beliefs that I am, I certainly don’t kid myself that I’m in Socrates’ or Descartes’ class. But I’d most certainly consider my life far from wasted if I could come up with enough sensible and sincere last words to finally feel satisfied at the end with an epitaph along the lines of “I wrote, therefore I was”.


DEAN JOHNS, after many years in Asia, currently lives with his Malaysian-born wife and daughter in Sydney, where he coaches and mentors writers and authors and practises as a writing therapist. Published books of his columns for Malaysiakini include ‘Mad about Malaysia’, ‘Even Madder about Malaysia’, ‘Missing Malaysia’, ‘1Malaysia.con’ and ‘Malaysia Mania’.

Legendary Motorcycle Author Robert Pirsig Dies Aged 88


June 8, 2017

COMMENT: What do Farouk A. Peru, a much younger man at least a few decades apart chronologically speaking, and I (78 years old last May) have in common? Well for starters, we are Facebook pals; we  love to read and pen our thoughts in print; we appreciate culture and the arts and all things of beauty; we are unafraid to express our views openly and critically; we are Muslims; we are Malaysians and we enjoyed reading ZEN.

We admire Singapore’s Pak Othman  Wok, and Robert Prisig who wrote Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (first published  in 1974 and that was when I read it). Both men have since died, and May God Bless their souls.

I stumbled upon Farouk’s article  on Prisig’s magnum opus and also learned of his passing in The Malay Mail this evening (see below).

Like Farouk, I recommend the Zen book (which is subtitled An Inquiry into Values) to my young readers. It is tough reading at first, but it gets easier as you go along with the help of a good English dictionary. But to assist you, I would recommend The Guide Book  To ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE by Ronald L. DiSanto, Ph.d and Thomas J. Steele, S.J., Ph.d (New York: William Morrow, 1990). I congratulate Farouk for reading the book and for his article.–Din Merican

Legendary Motorcycle Author Robert Pirsig Dies Aged 88

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance author Robert Pirsig has died at the age of 88. Pairing motorcycles with philosophy, Pirsig was responsible for inspiring countless motorcycle journeys and road trips.

The book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” sits on bookshelves all over the world. It’s by no means a book about Zen, nor is it a book that tackles the mechanics of motorcycles – it’s a story about a father and son journey aboard a motorcycle that takes them across the western United States. It’s not necessarily a road trip book either. In fact, it’s hard to classify exactly what the book is, but that doesn’t matter – and that’s the beauty of it. It was a book that appealed (and still appeals) to audiences over the world, and is an essential book for any motorcyclist. If you’ve ever been drawn to the road, you and Pirsig would have a lot in common.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence authot Robert Persig

Robert Pirsig: 1928 – 2017

An announcement by Peter Hubbard, the Executive Editor of William Morrow & Co, recently announced the death of one of our favorite authors. Robert Persig passed away on April 24th 2017, “after a period of ill health.”

Zen was first published back in 1974. Pirsig had been rejected by more than 100 publishers before the iconic, semi-autobiographical book ever hit the stores. Despite the difficulty finding a publisher, Zen became a best seller. Pirsig described the nature of the book as an effort to “set out to resolve the conflict between classic values that create machinery, such as a motorcycle, and romantic values, such as experiencing the beauty of a country road.”

Robert and Chris Pirsig

Born in Minneapolis, Robert Pirsig was very well educated and went on to earn a degree in Philosophy, working as a technical writer and English teacher before suffering from mental illness. His battle with mental illness resulted in a motorcycle trip with this son Christopher in 1968 through the western United States, which would become the inspiration for his story.

The preface to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is the best way to sum up his iconic book: “What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.”

Robert Pirsig and his motorcycle

If you haven’t read it, we urge you to pick up a copy and enjoy Pirsig’s journey along with him and his son. It’s a great American story and should be celebrated – and a fantastic read for all of those who appreciate the liberty and freedom associated with the open road.

Here’s to you Robert Pirsig, and thanks for your wonderful insights. You will be missed.

Robert Pirsig

“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility, it’s right. If it disturbs you, it’s wrong, until either the machine or your mind is changed.” – Robert Pirsig 1928 – 2017

Read Robert Prisig’s ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENCE

By Farouk A. Peru (April 28, 2017)

Not one but two writers whose works made an impact on me died. It seems that 2017 is doing to authors what 2016 did to artistes! I had written about the death of Othman Wok and now I find out Robert Pirsig has died.

Often at times, authors or film-makers are defined by a single work but that work is a true magnum opus. They never again replicate the sheer tremor of these works but they do not have to. The deed is done; they have imprinted their names in the annals of literary history.

In the case of Robert Pirsig, that work is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (henceforth, Zen, first published in 1974 ). This narrative has been available in Malaysian bookshops since my own childhood, as I remember.  However, it was only in the early 90s when I picked up my first copy. It was after my SRP and the bookshop was the MPH in Section 14 which has long since closed down.

It was in the New Age/spirituality/philosophy section and I needed something completely different from the boring schoolwork I had been ingesting since the beginning of 1991.

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Zen was not about actual Zen (the Buddhist originated tradition), as I found out on the bus home. Rather it was about a journey undertaken across the American north from Minnesota to California by the unnamed narrator and his son, accompanied by their friends for the first half of their journey.

It was set in the 60s or early 70s. What attracted me to it at first was the journey itself. I loved narratives of long-forgotten places. America, being the gigantic nation that it is, has plenty of places which are unknown even to Americans themselves.

One could liken the geography and culture to the milieu found in Annie Proulx’s works and the visuals akin to the film Brokeback Mountain. Of course, the tagline of Zen being “An Inquiry into Values”, one would rightly expect a philosophical discussion.

One would not be disappointed either but Pirsig delivers it so surreptitiously that readers would feel as if they had “gone under” in surgery and woken up with some philosophical knowledge!

Pirsig ingeniously used the literary device of a third person, thought to be the alter ego of the narrator. He named him Phaedrus who, like the Phaedrus coined by Plato in his dialogues, was an interlocutor, midwifing the truth for readers through his own experiences.

Phaedrus had mental health issues like Pirsig himself but was a child prodigy. These similarities are obviously telling us who Phaedrus represents.

Rereading this book in 2014 (I had found a milestone edition with an introduction by Pirsig himself), I found that Pirsig may have oversimplified philosophy just a little.  His East/West dichotomy saying Eastern is more intuitive and the West more rational had become too simplistic for my liking. Perhaps if he meant dominant trends in each tradition, I would have been more amenable to his view.

To me, philosophy as a subject cannot be extricated into several self-containing traditions. Rather it is a complex network of ideas which feed off its own nodes which we may not even be aware of.  Plato, for example, may have derived his ideas from Egyptian thought, thus undermining the very idea of Western philosophy!

Be that as it may, I would still highly recommend Zen to anyone who is looking for a digestible story while at the same time expand his philosophical mind. The book has, after all, sold five million copies. No small feat for a manuscript rejected 121 times before finally getting published!

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

 http://www.themalaymailonline.com/opinion/farouk-a.-peru/article/why-you-should-read-zen-and-the-art-of-motorcycle-maintenance#sthash.5FDvKLu7.dpuf

The Paradoxes of Power–On Being Brutally Frank


June 7, 2017

The Paradoxes of Power–On Being Brutally Frank

by Dean Johns@www.malaysiakini.com

Image result for The Paradoxes of Power

Having struggled against what Winston Churchill famously deplored as the ‘black dog’ of depression through most of my life, I’d kind of hoped to have it trained or even totally tamed by now.

But as I head into old age, I find it’s hounding me more relentlessly than ever. So relentlessly, in fact, as to threaten to rob me of the very weapon I’ve long relied on as my last-ditch defence against its deadly aggression, writing.

Thank goodness, however, the thought of being both mentally and verbally dumbstruck by depression paradoxically strikes me as just too depressingly disempowering for words.

Especially in light of my recent realisation in the course of university studies I’ve embarked on as an adjunct to writing in my counter-attack against terminal depression, that so much remains to be thought and written about power in its every manifestation from the multifarious and mostly still mysterious forces that drive and/or comprise the entire universe, to the combination of physical, mental and verbal powers that make us humans the most powerful of all currently-known animals.

Except, of course, for all those ‘lesser’ creatures with the power to either keep us alive, like the ‘good’ micro-organisms in our digestive systems do, or else, as in the cases of so many viruses and virtually countless other so called ‘germs’, to kill us off in great numbers.

In short, the human race is paradoxically both the most powerful living force on Earth, and powerless to exist without lots of apparently less-powerful animals, not to mention without continuing supplies of the planet’s vegetables, minerals,drinkable water and breathable air.

A situation that seems to me well within most people’s intellectual powers to appreciate and act on. But unfortunately the power of the human mind is paradoxical to such an extreme degree as to be little if anything short of pathological, as demonstrated by our numerous environmental, economic and political atrocities.

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Knowledge may well be power, as Francis Bacon declared, but the first false lesson that most of us learn, in our ignorant, impotent infancy, is that our very helplessness or total lack of power paradoxically makes us all-powerful in our demands on those around us.

And though life rudely disabuses us of this illusion by the time we’ve achieved the power to walk and talk, we’re so enraged by the realisation that we’re not, after all, all-powerful, that we throw tantrums characteristic of the stage commonly known as the ‘terrible twos’.

Next thing we know, the process called ‘education’ apparently imbuing us with the alleged power of knowledge, but at the same time disempowering us in our ability to distinguish mathematics-style fact from historical and other versions of opinion or outright fantasy like religion, all the while subjecting us to a regime of discipline designed to turn us into just-powerful- enough-to- be-useful citizens, or what French intellectual-academic Michel Foucault (1926-84) called ‘docile bodies’.

Docile bodies are, of course, precisely the kind of workers, consumers and subjects most desired by exploitative economic so-called elites and repressive, self-serving political regimes.

And thus, for those of us aspiring to sufficient power to live our lives to their full potential, it’s vital to be able to perceive the power dynamics of our society if we’re not to become passive victims of it.

For this reason I’m a great fan of Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), the renowned French sociologist, anthropologist and educationalist who investigated the possibility for people to grow outward and upward from their ‘habitus’ (environment of birth and upbringing) through the achievement of a share of not just economic, but also social, cultural and other forms of ‘capital’, a term he equated with power.

And even more helpful, at least to me, are the various forms or vectors of power that Proctor (2002), Cattaneo 2010) and others have identified as indicators of the dynamics of power in any given situation.

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In Malaysia, for example, it’s abundantly clear that the UMNO-BN regime perceives itself as having ‘power over’ rather than, as it piously pretends, ‘power with’ the people. In fact it plainly has ‘power for’ its own members, cronies and supporters.

And that it shamelessly employs its ‘historic power’ (which in UMNO-BN’s case includes the power to rewrite history in its favour), and not only its ‘role power’ (witness its obsession with grandiose titles and ‘honours’), but also its ‘religious power’.

Though frankly this last is a debatable blessing, as the persistent claims by current Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and his Deputy that they’ve been chosen by Allah could be interpreted as either chosen to lead the people or sent as a curse to mislead and bleed them.

But in any event, in their determination to cling to their ‘power over’ the people, they leave no stone unturned in their efforts to strictly limit Malaysians’ ‘freedom to’ oppose, criticize or achieve legal protection against or redress from them, and ‘freedom from’ repressive laws and constant surveillance.

All of which goes to explain that obviously one of the reasons I’m feeling more depressed than usual right now is that I’m still failing to help rid Malaysia of these crooks despite writing almost 500 columns over the past 11 years, or in other words doing everything within my power to do so.

And besides the disempowerment of disappointment, there’s also  the fact that advancing age is inevitably robbing me of muscle-power, staying-power and every other kind of power you can think of, except, I fondly if possibly mistakenly hope, brain-power.

Unlike the ancient Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who, though he still appears both mentally and physically hale and hearty, seems to have progressed, or rather regressed all the way through his second childhood back to his second bout of infancy, complete with its paradoxical illusion of omnipotence.

Meanwhile Mahathir’s and my relative junior, Najib, is still fighting hard to stave-off the ultimate power paradox proposed by G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), the so-called Master-Slave Dialectic.

In many peoples’ opinion, Najib turned from his own Master to Rosmah’s Slave long ago. And soon, if only the US Department of Justice would get its act together, we all look forward to his dialectic or even electoral transformation from high-flyer to felon.

Fareed Zakaria GPS–Trump’s First Overseas Trip as 45th POTUS


May 30, 2017

Fareed Zakaria GPS–Trump’s First Overseas Trip as 45th POTUS

 

Military Loyalty is to King and Country, not UMNO


May 25, 2017

It is elementary, military loyalty is  to King and Country, not UMNO

by S. Thayaparan@www.malaysiakini.com

Image result for king of malaysia 2017

 

If you feel that strongly about something, you have an obligation to try and change my mind.”

– Aaron Sorkin

While some armed forces personnel – active and retired – have nothing but vitriol for my writings for Malaysiakini, I am glad to report on an anecdotal level at least, there has been far more support – most often qualified – for what I write amongst serving and retired members of our security services.

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Loyalty to King and Country

Anecdotal levels are of course cold comfort when the reality is that most people would rather not say anything unless cloaked in anonymity and people often confuse the echo chambers they live in as the “real world”, which is unfortunately far more complicated and diverse than what they read online.

I have always disliked the propagandising of the security services and while I believe that there are many people who do the hard work of keeping our country safe, they are hampered by the petty fiefdoms of their immediate superiors and hobbled by a self-serving political apparatus. The latter is more interested in maintaining political hegemony than by ensuring that these institutions are independent and serve the people of Malaysia.

The former meanwhile hampers the legitimacy of these institutions by eroding public confidence by its official statements, but more damagingly by engaging in practices that apes the accepted political culture that has resulted in our country being categorised as a kleptocracy.

Malaysian Armed Forces Veterans Association (PVATM) Deputy President Sharuddin Omar’s rejoinder to old soldiers, or in my case old sailors, “to the principle that we are always loyal to the current government” misses the point about loyalty, obligation and serving the country.

On a professional level, while I have always observed the chain of command, truth be told my duty – however, you define it – was always to the men and women under my charge. This of course is old school military thinking but one shared by many old timers who put the welfare of the men and women under their charge ahead of politics, racial or religious. Times have changed, of course.

While many would dismiss this veteran’s association as just another government appendage, I was impressed that they disavowed former soldier Mohd Ali Baharom’s (aka Ali Tinju) racist actions in the strongest possible terms. As reported in the media – “His actions are contradictory and incompatible with the principles and practices of all armed forces veterans in the country.

“In the future, we also hope that the media will only relate the actions of Ali Tinju as that of an individual and a Malaysian civilian, and not that of a Malaysian armed forces veteran,” said the association.

Quoting the Malay proverb “kerana nila setitik, rosak susu sebelanga” (one bad apple spoils the whole barrel), the association expressed hope that its reputation and that of all armed forces veterans would not be ruined by the actions of one man.

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Many retired armed forces veterans make a distinction between loyalty to the institution and the people who make up those institutions. While I get that principle, I have never been unable to separate the office from the individual. To me, if the person in the office is corrupt then why bother defending the institution? I would much rather channel my energies in advocating change rather than spend my time defending the institution.

Honestly, what really bothers me is not that the “gomen is corrupt” but rather that our security apparatus is riddled with the kind of scandals that should make every retired armed forces personnel hang their heads in shame. To list the numerous corruption scandals perpetrated by service people is disheartening and we cannot solely blame the hegemon for that.

But what does loyalty to the government mean?

Compromised institutions

Does it extend to postal vote fraud? Remember in 2011, when four retired military personnel admitted they were marking postal ballots on order from higher up? To recap – “The four – Major (Rtd) Risman Mastor, Kamarulzaman Ibrahim, Mohamed Nasir Ahmad and Mohd Kamil Omar – said they were ordered by their commanding officers to mark postal votes for the hundreds and thousands of personnel who were out in the field.

“Their expose today is the second after an ex-army man came forward earlier this month, making a similar claim that he was ordered to mark postal votes for other personnel.”

The problem with advocating loyalty to compromised institutions is that armed forces personnel who have served with distinction and honour are tarnished by those who would dishonour the codes they claim to hold in service of their political masters. Besides the existential threat that a certain religion poses, this has been one of my main themes that I have revisited – unfortunately – over the years.

I wrote about how the armed forces was sinking in UMNO’s quagmire – “(Navy chief) Abdul Aziz (Jaafar), if you remember was one of the service chiefs lined up behind (looking rather sheepish) Armed Forces chief General Zulkifeli Mohd Zin when he made an emotional appeal, which also included subtle threats and comments which were unacceptable, not to mention unprofessional, for an officer holding the highest rank in the military to make. He made this appeal when confronted with accusations by retired service personnel of vote/voter manipulation in the armed forces.”

Another example is when the current Prime Minister had a sit down with retired personnel to discuss the Lahad Datu incident.

As reported to me by concerned retired service personnel – “The whole atmosphere seemed surreal to some who attended. When the Prime Minister walked in, ‘Negaraku’ was sung and the armed forces marching song ‘Barisan Kita’ (which one general quipped ‘Has the song been annexed by Barisan National?’) also got an airing. Apparently, it got quite comical when one retired air force general was frothing at the mouth that stern disciplinary action should be taken against generals who showed support for the opposition, the PM was chuffed up of and reminded those who attended that ‘spirit of this general’ was what was needed.”

These days many young people are speaking up. I am not talking about mainstream oppositional politics. I am talking about young people who rightly feel that current establishment politics is nothing but the same manure but with a different shovel.

What veterans should be doing, and this applies to anyone who has worked in the civil or security services, is to encourage these young people in their efforts to change the paradigm. We had it our way and we should encourage and support those people who truly believe in what this country could be.

Ultimately when we pledged to serve the King and country, our oath goes far beyond loyalty to the government. We are really serving the people of this country and our loyalty is with them. It does not matter if you support the establishment or the opposition, your loyalty should be with the people and not with political elites, especially when they dishonour the institutions you pledged to serve and protect.

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.