Have you thought about (HYTA) the many crackdowns, censorships and conflicts?

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For most of us ordinary folks who don’t have the privilege of an inheritance or an advantageous environment, worrying about what happens in the world is a bit difficult since our personal (and never-ending) struggles to make ends meet are daunting. But for those who do find time, it has been an exponentially uphill task to be optimistic about the future of humanity.

The Brussels bombing is but one of many fanatical ideological assaults the world has had to bear, but it is also symbolic of the many escalated conflicts YET to come. Without any intervention, people of faith can always be counted on to burn each other’s mosques, temples and churches. Even within faiths, Sunni and Shia Muslims continue to massacre each other – just like the bloodbath between Northern Irelands’ Protestants and Catholics (albeit for political reasons too). And there’s no reasoning with these fundamentalists.

Faith conflicts have always existed but now transplanted in a modern context, the consequences are absolutely terrifying. What do you think will happen if ISIS got their hands on a minituarised nuclear weapon? Do you think they will have last minute moral qualms? Do you imagine them repenting, faces blushed red, like in cliched Disney movies? A single detonation, and unimaginably large swathes of land become uninhabitable – and that’s not counting the millions who would die first. These scenarios are not flights of fantasy. The Brussels jihadis had initially planned to infiltrate a nuclear plant.

Even if faith is left out of the equation, it’s hard to be positive about the affairs on the world stage – North Korea’s propaganda machine rolls on and it continues trumpeting threats of a ‘nuclear retaliation’. Like a petulant child who had his teddy bear taken away from him, North Korea is keen to remind us that its presence is not to be forgotten. But it’s hardly any better with China who has recently given a blanket (and non-negotiable) imperative that ALL state media must be absolutely loyal to the government. Not only does China manipulate its history textbooks, props up lies as truths, it ruthlessly kidnaps, threatens and publicly parades (by shaming) any dissenters. And it’s now forcefully insisting democratic Hong Kong teach its beliefs, values and loyalties through carefully ‘selected’ teaching material.

And there’s Turkey where President Erdogan has been jailing dissenters, cracking down at the smallest slight, and even those who poke fun at him find themselves suffering the full fury of judicial ‘law’. He’s since forcibly shut down a news outlet that opposed him, and recently, demanded that a satirical video (that’s actually kind of true) be taken off Youtube. Turkey has nothing compared to Russia though. Russia is the indisputable monarch of dissolving the opposition, which in literal terms, is the process of assassinations (through poisoning) and inexplicable disappearances of political opponents.

Even America, often hailed for its democracy, is now largely run like an oligarchy (small group of elites in charge). Money is now inseparable from politics. By ‘funding’ (or donating to) a political campaign, corporations guarantee themselves a position of influence and assurance for favourable policies. The one candidate who opposes these (and therefore sets himself up against the incumbent oligarchy) is Bernie Sanders. But since the oligarchy controls the media, Bernie’s received minimal coverage, had his victories played down, and most written pieces about him are almost always negative.

What about Singapore? We certainly don’t have the same freedom (or right) to free speech, and we score very poorly for press freedom. Like China, we are often reminded of our father figure who almost always did no wrong. But unlike China, we don’t crackdown as regularly on discourses that criticise policies (though some would disagree) and if you look hard enough, there’s some breathing room to be had for something to be said.  But we do live in a very controlled and sterilised animal experiment, almost like mice in their specially built parks where every knob and tube have been calibrated for that perfect equilibrium. Though not obvious, Amos Yee was a litmus test and it’s made clear that you are either with the government’s position or be stripped of all privileges.

I always find it darkly entertaining that the single largest enemy humanity can face is always itself.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) the future of humanity?

Have you thought about (HYTA) what you strongly believe in? (ISIS’ bombing of Brussels)

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“With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, you will need religion.” – Steven Weinberg

About a year ago when I still taught, I settled myself in a quiet spot of a nondescript restaurant and prepared preliminary notes on the philosophy of basic morality that I had intended to teach someone with (after returning to school) when one of my colleagues decided to lounge with me.

Over a simple fare and light drinks, she told me she married her husband because she believed he would help her become a better Muslim. I congratulated her quietly. As an observer, I didn’t quite share her joy but I was glad she seemed happy.

You see, I always feel that while we should marry someone who helps us maximise our inner potential – and therefore love is both a highly educational and emotional process – I failed to see how a stern subscription to a religion would help pave the way to be ‘better’.

Someone who truly cares for us should always begin with a healthy dose of skepticism: how do we know this belief is worth having? What makes it true? Rather than assume something is undeniably true (without any evidence), one should start peeling away at a belief so that all that’s left is the core.

And does the core stand up to scrutiny? With religion, it doesn’t. Walking past the macabre graveyard of thousands of now deceased ancient religions, cults and tribal beliefs, it takes only some investigative effort and critical thinking to understand the problems that come with believing something (or anything) without paying close attention to evidence. A long time ago, people believed  in Zeus and Hercules with the same fervour as they did now, and they were ALL wrong.

As Carl Sagan succinctly puts it: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” In his spectacular debate against Tony Blair, Christopher Hitchens once outlined in his closing statement that religion for everything it says, has the gall to offer not a single shred of evidence. It’s why religion is called the ‘leap of faith’ – belief without thinking. Seen that way, religion demands a surrender of the rational mind, a price which in my opinion, is too great a payment.

And now, with yet another ISIS suicide bombing (Brussels), I am still surprised at how people insist ISIS isn’t Islamic. They are, because they interpret the Koran word for word, literally. The truth that ‘moderates’ have to face up to is that the Koran (and the Bible among many ‘holy’ books) contains an unprecedented amount of stupidity and barbarism that’s incompatible with our modern secular values, and consequently, easy to distort and exploit by fundamentalists.

At least for the two main monotheistic religions, one only has to read their ‘holy books’ and you will find plenty of threats for not believing, examples of genocide, rape and explicit violence that would make modern day horror movies a lullaby by comparison. Those who see absolutely no contradictions (and many religious folks indeed don’t) have clearly surrendered (and lost) their rational minds. The eye of reason has been gouged out of them.

Modern religion has conveniently cherry-picked choice phrases from their holy texts, read them in increasingly abstract and figurative ways because a literal reading (which justified religious wars like the Inquisition) was for the longest time, considered the absolutely infallible way of interpreting divine directive. It would now be so laughably bad in modern times so some beating around the bush is needed.

It is worth noting that most, if not all of the moral principles outlined in religions were already known to us through very early Western and Eastern philosophy. With what happened at Brussels, though I won’t argue for religion to entirely disappear, I would say that now more than ever, we need to have a great deal less of faith and a great deal more secularism and skepticism.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) religion and its role in society?

Have you thought about (HYTA) the memories in your life?

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Defining human life is eminently difficult. To think deeply on it seems to fall within the province of would be dreary philosophers; to put it in lean terms might be an affront to many who – without a choice – traversed the cruel marshes of human poverty and horrific sickness; and to be expressed through faith is an intellectually dishonest simplification. Living is both complex and simple, and will not yield to being so simply captured in a phrase. It has a right to be stubborn.

For me though, life is nothing more than the acquisition of memories. From the day we breathe, it has been a grand treadmill in which memories are ceaselessly produced, one more vivid than the other. Life is but a dizzy swirl of memories, a deeply personal repository of dreams, a limitless hinterlands of what we were and will be.

Don’t memories define our personalities and decisions? When we are hurt, we learn from the first painful memory how to avoid it as best as we can. We use memories to look back at ourselves and define a new point for us to aspire towards. To be a better person must first depend on our memories of failures. As such, we live by memories and die by them. Nothing is more contemptible than to be robbed of memories through disease or age.

But there is also nothing more pleasurable than holding on to unique memories. Perhaps it’s the first time we are drawn very closely to someone we bind very deeply with and we go through a mighty struggle to make sense of it all; if not, maybe it’s the thrill of something forbidden – the more it’s not allowed, the more we want it, the more we crave for it; or it might be the first taste of genuine power, the drawing of first blood, and it becomes richly intoxicating.

These haikus of memories are waypoints for our future decisions. As we filter through them, decisions are narrowed. Based on these pillars of memories and with a little reflection on the side, we kind of figure out what we want in a friend, job or soulmate. And memories never really fade. Even traumatic memories that are deliberately left unpacked and forgotten continue to nudge us, ever so slightly, towards what we like and should avoid.

Life then is a train of memories, always moving forward, always charting new vistas and tracking the lows and highs. Who we like, who we love, what we become, and what we decide to do for the rest of our lives, is perhaps not the mystery we might believe it to be. We need not look to the unknown stars in the dusky sky or the vast firmament of our imagination for answers. We need only to look within the rich albums we already have.

Isn’t life nothing more than the acquisition of memories?

So have you thought about (HYTA) what memories are especially important to you?

Have you thought about (HYTA) the joke that is Saudi Arabia?

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If what happens on the world stage is any indication of human progress, then we are certainly not far from extinguishing the poor candle of reason. If there was  a weather-vane of moral guidance, now it’s certainly been gutted and tossed out the window.

The crown prince of Saudi Arabia has recently been awarded France’s highest honour for ‘great efforts in countering terrorism and extremism’ – darkly amusing considering that the European Union has admitted that Saudi Arabia is one of the largest sponsor of Islamic terrorism. And it’s a point that has been affirmed by the American secretary of state, Hiliary Clinton.

Let’s put a few things in perspective. Saudi Arabia, in the last few decades, has spent inordinate sums of money (in the billions) trying to spread its fundamental ideology of Sunni Islam throughout the world – a law that marginalises women and allows for beheading over petty crimes and of course, the criminalisation of questioning Islam.

It’s a merry crockpot of asinine ideology basted with equally reprehensible dictatorial directives because the Saudi royal family for all their abuses of power and self-violation of Islamic laws (through their behaviour), are apparently exempted from the idiotic doctrines they cruelly enforce on their local populace.

The biggest joke? (And I mean this in a very serious way rather than a cliched rhetorical question) Saudi Arabia is the head of the UN human rights council. Given that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is a wheezing joke and to this very point of time, still remains a wicked parody, this ‘award’ bestowed by the French is a twisted distortion and a sobering reminder that money and power move the world, not good intentions.

Why else do you think France would confer this absurd honour on Saudi Arabia? Because Saudi Arabia has the second largest oil reserve in the world, is the most powerful Gulf regime (which is the most oil-dense region of the world) and has liquid cash that flows into the pockets of many politicians. (The Malaysian prime minister embroiled in the recent scandal claims that the 681 million dollars  were ‘donated’ to him by the Suadi Royal family).

Worse, America, which has often been called out for being a hypocritical moral police, is doubtlessly unlikely to ever salvage its reputation. America trades heavily with Saudi Arabia on not just oil but also on military weapons that Saudi Arabia has been been known to use to deliberately target civilians (and even the hospitals of Doctors without Borders). Being trade partners in bed together, America has been quiet on Saudi Arabia’s frequent violation of human rights.

Though it shouldn’t come as too much a surprise since much of history has often been chequered with struggles of power and convenient acquiescing to the mighty, I wonder sometimes if there’s a point to moral and ethics. The best people who think and apply them are ironically (and usually) the people who are not interested in power, and if they were in power, would not survive long.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) Saudi Arabia (again)?

Have you thought about (HYTA) who is most significant to you?

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The answer seems deceptively simple and just like it’s easy to mistake the sparkling, quiet reflection in the lake for the twinkling stars in the heavens, who’s most significant to us may not necessarily be our parents or our immediate close friends.

We are influenced by many people and influence runs deep and far, swift and relentless, and branches into numerous scintillating rivulets. We are the sum total of all accumulated sights seen and missed, people met and forgotten, love lost and given.

However, scattered amidst the iridescent colours, one ray, ethereal and majestic, flows brighter, stronger and more independent than the rest. For this single pulsing ray of light, the heart listens a little longer, beats a little faster.

Sometimes in our lives, we encounter a person who gives us the key to our own heart, the voice to our own identity and provides us a flourishing hanging garden for self-growth, self-experimentation and repeated adventures into life. We see things clearer, think better and are better poised to live life on our own terms.

Such a significant person has influence that roots itself deeply in our thoughts and actions. Our every gesture, our every laugh, our every perception is as a consequence, interpreted through the lens of this person’s influence, even if we never ever realise it.

Sometimes such a person might be an unusual thinker, perhaps younger or older, perhaps a maverick or conformist, or perhaps possessed of something indescribably different. Sometimes, it can’t be explained. And in this person’s company, regardless of time spent, we change for the better, and we allow ourselves to be changed.

Eventually when we are ready to anchor ourselves on the stage of life, we realise that even if this person no longer exists, or even if our memory fails us bit by bit, piece by piece, we will bear the remnants of this person’s complex, absorbing influence till the day the curtains fall.

Such a person is a precious commodity, a significant barter of immeasurable worth, and rarely, sadly, do they last. But we will always echo their influences, even if we don’t remember them, or if the fates are unkind. One thing’s for sure though: life is infinitely poorer without this person’s existence.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) who is most significant to you in your (until now) life?

Have you thought about (HYTA) what it means to gossip?

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We have all been there before: someone walks in as words tumble out of our mouths. This is followed by the ensuing awkward silence, the uncomfortable fidget, a slight blush. Eyes are averted and relationships are often irrevocably strained.

To gossip is to talk about someone who if they were present, would not appreciate what we had to say. Though we may revel in it, we do feel a slight twinge, almost as if our conscience is reminding us that we are engaged in an activity that’s potentially harmful.

Gossiping therefore, is a moral act. Words can hurt people and break bones. Every sentence we utter lines up with our convictions. Our voices, our words, our conversational gestures, they all seek to reinforce our core beliefs – to persuade or dissuade others. Words change minds. Words revise opinions.

Because we use gossip to establish intimacy within a group, it also means some people will be excluded. We take pleasure in affirming our moral code repeatedly. And we usually position ourselves as nigh infallible – we seat around a scared round table from which our judgements are handed down unkindly.

Perched from our haughty stone towers, we hope to feel superior – after all, there’s safety in numbers, and the larger the crowing flock, the greater the comfort. Such an act is a fine example of groupthink: our tendency to act, think and speak differently when we are with a crowd.

The worst kinds of human behaviour always begin with groupthink. Look no further than religious persecutions or political rhetoric.

Yet amusingly, though we do not wish for others to gossip about us, we rarely use that as a base to justify why we shouldn’t talk bad about others. For most people, it completely escapes them that the very act of a conversation (not just gossiping) is a great moral force.

Gossiping should be done intelligently and like criticisms, should be handled with a set of ethics that recognises that every person and every situation is different. We should pay close attention to the words we say because just like looking deep into a person’s eyes can snare one for life, so too can what we say lift a person up high, or hurt them very deeply. And we should blunt our knives even at the worst of times.

So, have you thought about (HYTA) what gossiping means to you?