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MALAYSIA STEPS FORWARD



Published: Tue, June 5, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Washington Post: It is always tempting to proclaim grand trends in international politics: to see the forward march of democracy or, alternatively, a backsliding toward authoritarianism; to see economic progress or, alternatively, regression to failed-state chaos. But recent events in Malaysia illustrate the muddle that confuses all these trend lines. Between retreat and progress is a large area where the two forces stand in agitated equilibrium. And in that area, the difference between a step forward and a step back can depend on the courage of a few individuals.

Hishamudin Mohamad Yunus, a high court judge in Kuala Lumpur, recently ordered the release of two anti-government activists who had been jailed for seven weeks without trial. Their detention had been part of a sweep of 10 opposition critics who were locked up under the Draconian Internal Security Act. Human rights activists in Malaysia feared the worst for them. Four of the detainees had been denied both family visits and a chance to meet their lawyers; others faced the prospect that, rather than their being released when their initial detention term expired June 10, a further order might be signed by the home minister that would keep them in for two more years. That further detention is still possible, and the two activists just released might yet be rearrested. For the moment, however, Malaysia has taken a step forward.

Colonial times: The manner of the release was especially heartening. Judge Hishamudin criticized the government for failing to provide evidence of the alleged plot for which the activists had been arrested. "The grounds for the arrest must be clearly stated," he said in his judgment. "The arresting officer cannot parrot the provisions of the (Internal Security Act) for detaining the applicants. He must show that he has reason to believe that the applicants had acted or were about to act in a manner prejudicial to the country." And the judge went on to suggest that Malaysia should abolish the act, which was created in colonial times by the British to fight a communist insurgency that died out long ago.

In the current climate in Malaysia, that took courage; but then courage is regularly required of authoritarianism's critics. Ezam Mohamad Noor, one of the eight who remain in detention, visited The Post last year during a spell away from his country; he expected that he would be arrested if he returned home, and yet he returned nonetheless. Journalists at critical news Web sites, such as the popular Malaysiakini.com, face the prospect of having their offices raided and their equipment confiscated. There was a time when people said the Internet would lead inexorably to greater freedom. But it turns out that this is true only if brave people take personal risks along the way.

BEAUTY TOTALITARIANISM

The Providence Journal: Perhaps it is not surprising that a young British girl's parents are planning to give their daughter a very special sweet-16 present -- bigger breasts. After all, as Jenna Franklin, who turns 16 in August, put it: "You've gotta have breasts to be successful."

The London media have had a bit of a feast with this story, as the unique birthday present filled the nation's tabloids and airwaves. In the Daily Express, the front-page headline read "Jenna is pretty and intelligent. So why on earth is her mother (who has had two breast-implant operations herself) buying breast implants for her 16th birthday?"

So why the big deal? After all, hundreds of thousands of women have similar procedures each year, risking their health to conform with the skewed societal expectations of the female body. And to hear Jenna tell it, getting a breast implant is as routine as, say, having your wisdom teeth out.

"Every other person you see on the television has had implants," she said. "If I want to be successful, I need to have them, too."

Double-take: But Jenna is 15. Fifteen. And to hear a 15-year-old girl treating a breast implant like a new dress or a set of cosmetics (other more traditional birthday gifts that can help beautify young women), it gives people cause for a double-take. Have we really gotten to where young women think there is nothing wrong with permanently altering their bodies and subjecting themselves to long-term health risks? Maybe we have. Or maybe worse, we've created notions of beauty that leave women with no other choice.

For example, a recent Pennsylvania State University study showed that girls as young as 5 were suffering from body-image problems. "There are so many young girls who are depressed or bothered about the way they look," Jenna's mother, Kay, told the Daily Express.

"So if you can do something about it, that's great." And in fact, Kay Franklin, who runs a cosmetic-surgery advisory service, really did do something, though not what she intended. By agreeing to give her daughter this "gift," she created a public spectacle that has created a valuable dialogue.

We could criticize the Franklins for bad taste or bad judgment, but the blame might better be placed on the more amorphous forces that have led Jenna to believe that breast implants are a simple silicone secret of success. Hopefully, as cases like Jenna's become the focus of public scrutiny, people will begin to realize just how far we've gone in accepting, and even demanding, arbitrary and unhealthy standards of physical beauty.




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