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Trusting the experts

Sheila Majid
RECENTLY, I shuddered to read a quote by performing artiste Sheila Majid in an interview she did with The Nut Graph. I shuddered because her quote reminded me too much of another quote I’d read earlier in The Star by Dr Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad, senior fellow/director at the Institute of Islamic Understanding.

Towards the end of her interview, Sheila was quoted as saying: “Today people with no expertise whatsoever are giving opinions in whatever fields they like. Leave it to the experts!” That sounded much like Dr Wan Azhar when he wrote, among others: “Let us affirm the general position that matters of religion do not fall under the purview of any lay[person] on the street, even an educated one, as there are conditions to be met. Let us maintain the status quo that religion is the business of those qualified experts and professionals.”

Don’t get me wrong. I am a fan of Sheila. And ok, I declare I am not a fan of Dr Wan Azhar. I have criticised his views once before. But in this instance, both of them are from two different fields: one music, the other religion. Yet both share a similar view: leave things to the experts presumably because the common person does not know what he or she is talking about.

Experts only?

Non-experts in singing have no say
in the conduct of the music industry?
Now I am not a singer.  My family can well attest to that even though I used to sing in my school’s choir and my college’s chorus, and can reasonably hold a tune. I also took piano lessons till Grade 8, and listen to a wide range of music. But I am not a singing nor music expert by any means. Similarly I took courses on the history of philosophy of religion in university, and further gained a post-graduate diploma in Christian Studies from a local seminary. I am invited to speak from time to time in churches. But, despite these, I wouldn’t call myself a religious expert.

Bearing this in mind, am I expected to shut up and leave it to the “experts” to decide the course and conduct of the music industry and religious discourse respectively in this country?  Do I not have a say?

That is indeed what Dr Wan Azhar is saying. He clearly disagrees with human rights activists when he writes: “The Muslim and non-Muslim detractors simply defy authoritative religious precepts, authentic knowledge, reliable authorities, irrefutable historical facts, the rules of reason and logic, and the rules of ethics and morality. In the process, they have consciously or unconsciously become atheists, agnostics, sophists, and secularists.”

According to Dr Wan Azhar, people who speak when they do not understand cause confusion and ignorance, and are additionally downright rude. There is even a hint, in his writing, of, “blame it on your parents, who didn’t bring you up properly.”

Free, prior and informed consent

One response to the views of both Sheila and Dr Wan Azhar is to ask who are the followers or adherents of music and religion. The danger of asking this question is to risk the slippery slope of a consumerist-type response. This is where the market’s primacy is touted, and the wide availability of choice is hailed as a common good. The public, whether they are called clients or consumers or customers or the congregation, sample what is on offer and decide what they like.

Religious leaders shouldn’t be bothered
with feedback from the public?
(© rovaro |

No, the purists will retort. Decisions like that cannot be made by the common person. What information do they have? What is the basis of their decision? How do they know what they would like? How do they know what is good for them in the long-run? Religion, at least, is too sacred, too holy, to be offered at the altar of the public square and debated over in public. And even musicians have been known to argue about artistic purity and aesthetic appeal.

Clearly, the likes of Dr Wan Azhar would disagree with the fundamental premise underlying the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Various portions of the declaration speak of “free, prior and informed consent”.

It is contended that those in authority over us, even the powers-that-be in the music and recording industries, must practise this concept of “free, prior and informed consent” before making or implementing laws, rules and regulations, or terms and conditions that will affect us.

This concept is based on the recognition that all people are inherently equal in dignity and respect. This ought to be true even, some would say especially, within a religious system. The idea of a self-appointed paternalistically-minded authority which makes decisions without the “free, prior and informed consent” of those on whose behalf decisions are made is contrary to any notion of fairness.

People have an inherent right to make decisions about matters that affect their lives. Experts and scholars have a duty to present intellectually honest reasons for a particular view. They must also present and address in a fair way any and all alternative views which do not agree with theirs.

Their role is to contribute to the debate, not to decide for the common person. We can think for ourselves.

(© Paul Brunskill |

There are those who will decide voluntarily to surrender their right to choose in favour of others whom they trust and respect. It is their right so to do. But the surrender or submission by some cannot be taken to apply to all and sundry. It does not confer upon that paternalistically-minded authority the right or licence to make decisions affecting everyone.

And certainly we should be extremely cautious and hesitant about applying such decisions and enforcing them through the might and machinery of government or legislative fiat.

Power and authority should not be granted to any body without the right for the common person to call such body to account. Elected governments especially, but even commercial enterprises, should be wary of creating and then delegating power to bodies which subsequently, Frankenstein-like, take on a life of their own, and render them beyond control.  This is the ultimate danger of leaving things to the experts. favicon

Andrew Khoo is the Bar Council’s human rights committee chairperson, but is writing here in his personal capacity.

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One Response to “Trusting the experts”

  1. Hwa Shi-Hsia says:

    I think you’re taking Sheila Majid’s quote out of context. The bit immediately preceding that, she said “Keep politics out of our music, keep it out of sports. When everyone wants to put their two cents’ worth when they don’t even know the subject, it is worrying.” The problem she highlighted is that politicians have a bad habit of making all kinds of ridiculous declarations that they’re going to ban this and that or promote this and that on the spur of the moment when something becomes popular.

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