Azmi Sharom, human being
Written by straits-mongrel
Written by straits-mongrel
Dr Azmi Sharom will speak this evening (Sat, Oct 30) at this month's SABM Dinner Lecture, an event that is sold out. A couple of months earlier, we met the man in his office at Universiti Malaya in the hope of uncovering what makes this soul tick
Candid: A scowl begins to escape when Azmi talks about racism.
YOU know him as the law academic with the semi-tochang hairstyle, those piercing eyes framed in black plastic; eyes that can burn a bigot in a flash. You probably remember his bold pieces in Brave New World, his fortnightly column in The Star (The Real Social Contract, We must never allow the mob to rule, Under Threat? What Threat?).
One of academia's few good men, many say. He's a brave one, echo others.
The man rolls his eyes. "What's so extreme about what I do anyway? Look, the stuff that matter to me - human rights, equality, fundamental liberties - these are values of a human being. I'm just being human. Being human! I don't carry a bomb, I'm not plotting a coup, I don't come anywhere near being a threat to national security."
Welcome to the world of Azmi Sharom, where in crisp humour-laced lines, it's a given that a spade is called a spade. The main question is what are you going to do about it.
"All too often we hear racists stepping up to make announcements - tuntutan ni, tuntutan tu - and we get all flustered," he observes in a frown. "We can't let these types dictate how we feel. If some bigot says 'Go back to where you belong', a whole bunch of us end up moping in one corner and feel all hurt.
"But why should we care?" he asks incredulously, his head slightly cocked.
"It should be 'We're born here. We belong here, equally as much as you. Equal, geddit?' That's how it oughta be. There's just not enough of standing up to these people. Take charge of your lives, folks.
"Sure it's not easy - there're two tiers where racism is perpetuated. One, it's in the institutions - it's embedded in government policies; you've read all about them especially in the alternative news. I needn't elaborate on that; it's boring. Two, personal attitude. This one's insidious. It lurks inside so many of us. The very same people who cry out against racism bear racist tendencies themselves. You just need to listen to conversations to know what I mean.
"We can fight both, and we should. We need to take possession of our lives again. And mean what we say, for crying out loud."
Inspiration for a good fight: Bruce Lee memorabilia tells quite a bit about the man:).
Azmi's office in the Law Faculty of University Malaya reveals an organised person - books and folders have their place yet they sit in spontaneous fashion, not ordered like soldiers. Looking about, you also catch the man's sense of humour and his life's pace - there's a South Park 60's-style alarm clock that shows 11:36 and 46 sec. It's stopped. On the wall above the door hangs another clock. It's stopped too. And Azmi doesn't wear a watch. Time has ceased being a linear arrow, it seems; what's to hurriedly measure about time anyway?
"These changes we seek, they're not going to happen overnight. But as more and more citizens get informed about human rights and equality, we will see that ethnicity doesn't matter any more.
"In my own case, it took me years to burn that away," says the Environmental Law specialist. "Today I don't give a hoot about it anymore. But it took time. I grew up in Penang. My parents are apolitical - there was no politics on the dinner table - but, you know, ethnicity is everywhere. It's always at the back of the mind, a bothersome bug.
"Of course, the good thing about growing up in Penang is you cannot date if you're a racist. I mean, Chinese girls were everywhere," his mischievous side shows.
Just souvenirs: "Hey, they are wrongful only if I use them. Nothing wrong in owning them. You got to know your rights."
The dare-to-think side of Azmi we know today was forged on foreign soil.
"My dad sent me to the UK to do my 6th Form - his personal funds by the way. Two key lessons I learned. I remember the teachers being openly critical of government policies. We were in Economics class, and the teacher was rationally ripping apart Thatcher's tax policies. I learned that there was nothing wrong with being critical. When rational it is, in fact, constructive.
"The second was getting engaged in honest conversations with other Malaysians of different background. A friend, half-Indian ethnicity, basically told me this: 'We just want to be equal'."
Sheffield University, where Azmi would go on to read Law, was also a plough to the young man's newly-tilled mind. "Sheffield was left-wing. There was a lot of discussion about fundamental justice and human rights issues. I was very exposed to different 'right' views with regards to the law. Generally, the premise was there has to be a strong sense of Justice. This I try to apply in my own teaching."
More than an education, Azmi also borrowed other aspects of Sheffield U's bohemian lifestyle. ("Guys, you got to have a life.") He jams in a band.
Loyal buddy: The guitar sits close by his desk, and there's no dust on it too.
"Please, to begin with, I don't have a band. Rather, my friends tolerate me in the group. But yes, music is a good outlet. I still play futsal too," says the man who tried one year of law practice and hated it. "I make space for recreation. Maybe it's easier for me as an academician to find the time, but hey, the lawyers have faster cars. They can get to places faster."
And as an academic in a public institution, might there be boundaries where he's prevented from venturing? "Honestly, I haven't been in a situation where I have to hold back. Of course, you need to know your rights. And your parameters. You need to stay informed."
And a parting advice for the concerned citizen: "Internalise. Really internalise the good stuff. All those questions about equality, they can only be answered by someone who truly lives by it. It's as simple as this, 'If I am a human being, how can I be treated otherwise? Equally so, how can I treat others otherwise?'."
And you realise there's really nothing extreme in what Azmi Sharom is saying. It's all fundamental.
Human being stuff.
Powered by ScribeFire.