The Struggle of Expression

In answering two seemingly simple questions (i) where do I find the time to write and (ii) how do I dare write what I do, I end up with a soul searching meditation about how difficult it is to be a human being in Malaysia.

I am often asked where I find time to write. I am also often asked where I find the courage to write what I do – which is to be critical of our nation’s politicians, judges, police, government agencies, and even fellow lawyers, just to name a few.

As an aside, I am amused that I am even asked these questions simply because aside from the occasional ‘good ‘un!’, I get more complaints than compliments. Not that I mind. I prefer it that way. Being complimented too often is very damaging to one’s ego – damaging because it creates the false illusion that I am better than I really am. It is therefore better to keep the blinkered view that I am not read than more read. I have found contentment with the usual complaints about my essays or posts – that they are too long, too bombastic, too pompous sounding, too deep, use too many uncommon words, and a whole host of other complaints. They are so familiar as to be reassuring!

Now, I propose to address the latter question first as it makes the former question easier to answer.

Let me first declare at the outset that I am not a brave or even courageous man, and have never thought of myself as one. Most times, I feel myself to be the little boy who couldn’t shut up and wonders why everyone is so silent when the naked Emperor passes by (whereas Art Harun to me is the elder brother next to me who also cannot shut up and even points out how ugly and hairy the nude Emperor is). So for myself, an intense sense of naivety and curiousity drives me more than that nobler quality of courage.

For there are many more far braver and courageous men then myself, such as Raja Petra Kamaludin, Karpal Singh, Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim, all those who were detained under the Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA), those judges that decided with the law and their conscience, locally; Ghandi, Mandela etc. internationally. In citing them as examples, I do not hold these people as absolute paragons of other noble virtues such as intellect, accountability, eloquence, etc.; but because of what they have been through, I can appreciate what courage it takes to get through and stay true to their cause.

And in saying that, I am not saying I agree with everything they say or do, I do not.

I simply wish to point out that these men possess and others like them, possess – a great deal of courage in not having given up for standing and defending what they believe in. How many of us can withstand the battery of personal reputational attacks and physical incarceration, detentions and attempts to ruin them using the awesome resources of our entire country, and still hang on to try and do what they feel is right?

I know many who are too ready to give up their beliefs and resistance for the barest promise of security, who would demand for their rights and yet demand others protect it for them, who want a better future and think it is enough to do so by ranting eloquently about the injustice of it all out of earshot of anything that looks remotely like an authority. I often wonder if I would have sufficient courage of conviction should such a moment claim me.

It is only too easy to be apathetic like them because it takes real effort to care, to get involved, to read and understand what is going on, to contemplate it and then sit in front of this screen as you do now and write what I do.

But that is not the end of it, because after the thinking, the drafting and the writing I still have to push that ‘Publish’ (for the blog) and ‘Send’ (for the email). That is the hardest part, for me, anyway. The reading, thinking and writing are the easy parts because I do not think it takes much intellect to see what is so wrong, going wrong and heading for utter disaster in our country and government on a daily basis. The mainstream media is every day replete with blatant injustice and attempts at deception.

The struggle is pushing that button and launching my thoughts into society and exposing myself, my thoughts and my very soul to everybody.

By ‘everybody’ I do not simply mean those who agree with me. I especially mean those that disagree with me; that dislike or even hate me because they think I have offended them; that think I am a nuisance or worse, a threat to be eradicated; that want to harm me because they think I am their enemy; that move in those powerful and influential circles of society and find my criticisms sting more than it should, or was meant to.

Many are mistaken by thinking because I criticize and write so regularly, it gets easier each time. The truth is that it gets harder each time. There is more agony, soul-searching and anxiety with each essay or critical opinion I untether from myself. There is the great temptation to soften and euphamise what I wrote or think, to be less demanding with the truth so that I do not seem to offend, even to be false and not express what I really think.

There is that awesome struggle to convince myself that what I think or have to say is important and necessary, and is not a waste of everybody’s time and effort.

Let me discuss a recent example of this. It relates to an article I wrote about Augustine Paul.

I wrote that piece a few hours after reading and contemplating it. The words came quite easy after the contemplation. What I published was only the second draft after a few minor revisions of the first. I then sat in front of the computer until the early hours of that morning struggling with myself whether it should be published. I sat there paralyzed with fear and loathing working through all the anxieties the thought of sending that piece out inspired.

Would Augustine Paul’s allies in the judiciary retaliate against me by shutting me down in court or deciding my case unfavourably just to get at me? Would his friends and allies work to get at me out of court perhaps? Was I being fair in my consideration and assessment of him? Was there some good of him that I missed out? Was it even necessary for me to write what I did? What was in it for me? Would anybody give a damn? All these questions and more invaded me, assailed me in all directions and forced me to the point I wanted to give it up.

And it is like this for me with each and every meaningful or significant article, essay, opinion or view I express. I may sound confident, certain and impervious but that is just my prose. Behind that edifice of words lies that awesome struggle with doubt, fear and uncertainty. It sometimes feels as if the more sure I sound in my prose, the less sure I am of it in my mind. You cannot see it in my finished essay but if you are sensitive enough, I am certain you would feel those elements resonate in my words, glimpse the slivers of it between the paragraphs, if not feel it reverberate throughout the entire essay or posting.

Those elements actually broke through in my piece Mea Culpa where I wrote two almost opposing essays to the church attacks that occurred earlier this month. I laid those two side by side to demonstrate that struggle. You can see that struggle within myself most clearly in that essay that you would be forgiven for thinking I have a multiple personality disorder.

So what is it that gives me the strength to make that final push of the button?

For myself, it is not courage. Really, it isn’t.

My natural and first instinct and reaction to an issue is like many others – save myself first, don’t cause trouble, smile and pretend the Emperor is not naked. But after that passes, I am sometimes seized if not driven and compelled by that need for expression that I believe is so deeply ingrained, but easily lost, in every human being on this planet.

It is that simple need to express myself. It is in this need that I too hope that my views might find resonance in others and contribute constructively to society. This same need is that same need that compels others to paint, to play music, to sing, to speak to one another, to wear the things we do. It is that simple need to be a human being and to care for another human being.

That’s what I have to and must keep telling myself when those thoughts of doubt, fear and uncertainty swirl about and plague me. I must keep reminding myself that what I am doing is simply being human and that is not an evil in itself. It is completely, unavoidably natural.

You would think those simple thoughts are easy to hold on to and apply.

In this modern life, it is the simplest things that are the hardest sometimes to grasp, never mind apply.

That difficulty, that struggle for expression in this increasingly totalitarian country of ours reflects the increasing difficulty and struggle to be a human being in our society. There are too many layers of hypocrisy, of illusions, of deceit, of materialism that stifle and confine our humanity, and paralyze our ability to be human beings. These layers force us and cage us to be what we are not – static, categorized, machine-like, statistical data.

Politically, I am not a human being of Chinese-Malay heritage, English speaking, locally and English educated, terribly liberal minded and opinionated, with many friends and family, for example.

In Malaysia, politically, I am reduced to a mere Malay-Muslim. That’s it.

But even then I have no freedom to define what it means to be a Malay-Muslim for myself. I cannot because my government tells me that as a Malay-Muslim, I am easily confused, I must be grateful to the government, I must be ‘glocal’ (global but local, whatever that means), that I am easily offended and disturbed, that I always wear underwear on Valentine’s Day, I am not good enough to compete with my non-Malay-Muslim brothers and sisters, that they cannot use the word ‘Allah’ – all the things I am not and hope never to be (except the part about the underwear).

But that is what our government has done – they have reduced our humanity. And seem to be doing to the point that we are not merely becoming less human, but more inhuman. By becoming more inhuman, we become more hypocritical, more impatient, less forgiving, less understanding. We become more like the material possessions we so desperately hoard – superficial, lifeless and lost. And in becoming thus, we become more frustrated and angry without any idea how to get out of that rut. In our ignorance, we end up clinging even more desperately to our material wealth than to finding and expressing our loves, our cares, our (to quote Joseph Campbell) ‘bliss’.

And that is where we are today.

In recognizing this, I do not claim to be free of it. I struggle too with these materialistic urges, the passion to hate, the safe harbour of silencing myself. I am simply marginally more aware of it and so hopefully in a better frame of mind and position to struggle against these personal failures of mine.

It is this humility to admit failings, doubt and uncertainty that we so lack in our society and government. In becoming inhuman we have forgotten our humanity. We have forgotten that as humans we can never escape these qualities and so must be forgiven for them instead of being held in contempt. That with humans, we can only become certain from doubt. Show me a perfect person and I will show you the most inhuman of us.

We fear failure so much that we end up only thinking through our lives in terms of success and failure. When really in life, those things are as Kipling wrote, If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat these two imposters just the same‘. I am beginning to understand why he calls success and failure ‘imposters’. These twin instances are merely opportunities for the tests of our character. Nicholas Nassim Taleb has persuasively argued how random success is in his book ‘Fooled by Randomness‘. There is some element of skill but success requires a whole lot of luck as well. You must be ready when luck comes your way.

Those tests of character are demonstrations of our humanity and commitment to the human being. Do we puff our chest out arrogantly and walk triumphantly about when we win or are successful or do we use that to help, nurture and educate others? If we fail, do we give up or do we still keep trying until we succeed? How we answer our success and failures directly relate to our closeness to the human being. Success and failures are in themselves meaningless. It is how we deal with them that gives that success and failure, and ourselves meaning.

So coming back to the second question – where do I find my courage?

I find it in those opportunities to express my humanity, my human being. It is in human being that I recover and find that courage to speak up, to say what I need to say, to say it the best I can and say it as far as I can. Because each time I deny my self-expression, the less human I become. Inhumanity can seep in at any time so I must always be vigilant against it.

This need for expression is not the great acts of courage you read about – it is the common basic courage that should be and must be possessed by all of us if we are to be truly human beings. That is why when many of us do not dare speak out, are paraylzed by the overwhelming fear to even voice our opinion – it is because our government has not just taken and wasted our resources, it has not simply denied us our rights; what they have done is robbed our humanity from us. They have stolen our ability to be human and so to care for one another.

Whenever we feel that fear seize us whenever that moment to speak up, to act, to do the right thing and be counted for arrives, that is a part of our humanity dying. We may still walk, talk, earn a living, but in truth we are dying and only waiting for death to evidence what happened a long time ago.

Which one of us feels content not saying what so desperately needs to be said?

Though I am physically dying, I do not want my spirit to do so as quickly. I want to live in the fullest sense. I want to say I gave it as much as I possibly could given the circumstances of my life before I die and hopefully help as many as I can along the way to living a better, more contented life in the little ways that I can. I don’t want to be a waste to society because as a human being I know I am already a parasite on our beautiful earth and in some ways ruining it.

I appreciate now that to be more human also entails a lot of pain, disappointment and struggle. But if that is the path to be as human as I possibly can, I have no choice but to reach for it, to try and seize it, and hang on to it for the alternative is to be less human, if not inhuman, and a living death.

Now that I have answered the second question, I can now turn to the first question – Where do I find the time to write? The answer is that I don’t find the time. I just have to make the time whenever my sense of humanity grips me so hard I cannot deny it, or whenever I am strong and honest enough to seize it. So don’t be surprised to find me writing or typing in the courtroom, in the canteen, in the car, in the car park, at the mall, just about anywhere, in the strangest of positions. That is when I am making the time.

Finally, if my mere speaking up and doing things that I cannot help but do in my attempt to be a human being is considered an act of courage – it does not speak of my possession of such a virtue – rather it is an indication that there is not enough of us making that struggle towards claiming if not seizing their humanity.

I certainly hope that will change in time so that we may all enjoy the rich chorus of speaking from our souls.

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Fahri Azzat practices the dark arts of the law. Although he enjoys writing and reading, he doesn't enjoy writing his own little biographies of himself. Like this one. He wished somebody else would do it for him. He has little taste in writing about himself in third person. He feels weird doing it. But the part he finds most tedious is having to pad up the lack of his accomplishments, or share some interesting facts about his rather uneventful life, as if there were some who found that oh-so-interesting; as if he were some famous person, like Michael Jackson. When he writes these biographies, the thought, 'Wei, Jangan Perasaan- ah!' lights up in his head. So he usually just lists what he got involved with, positions he held and blah, blah. But this time. Right here. Right this very moment. Uhuh. This one. This one right here. He's finally telling it like it is.

Posted on 13 February 2010. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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