Originally published in A MAZE. Magazine Issue #1: WOMEN 

Photo credit: Shannon Grant

Photo credit: Shannon Grant

Women are starting businesses twice as quickly as men. Now, these game-changers are beginning to meet their own needs.

In 2011, independent game developer Brianna Wu faced one of the most terrifying moments in her career that had nothing to do with Gamergate harassment. Her lead animator, Amanda Warner, had just told her that she was pregnant.

Wu, the outspoken founder of indie-game development studio Giant Spacekat was then working on Revolution 60. It was to be the company’s very first game, slated to be released in 2013. Warner was her best employee – they had founded the company together – and this was crunch time. How would they make it?

But when Warner had first sat Wu down to break the news to her, Wu had already braced herself for the worst: was she moving? Quitting? Found a new job? A pregnancy was going to be tough, Wu thought, but they could work with it. They had to. Wu decided to bet the future of the company on it.

BETWEEN 1997 AND 2014,

Women need work arrangements that cater to their needs and, increasingly, women are the ones who are meeting those needs. With Wu at the helm, the all-woman team at Giant Spacekat has become a poster child for feminism in the games industry, where 76 percent of all developers are men.

There are tons of room for women-led game development, Wu told me. “Even as recently as five years ago, women were only 17 percent of the games market,” said Wu. “Today we are 49.6 percent of the games market. That’s a really big disconnect in the people who are making games and the people who are consuming games. With a majority-female team, there’s room for that kind of culture and life experience to inform the game, to make it something that appeals to women in a way that games made by men for women can’t.”

Leading an all-female team was not part of Wu’s original plan, but that composition has become Giant Spacekat’s opportunity to stand out from a male-dominated market. “I never set out to make a majority-female company, but I found that the friendships I was making and the people I wanted to work with to make the kind of games I was passionate about – games that were heavy in narrative – were women. Women were honestly the most qualified people I could find to do these jobs.”

Research shows that women do do things differently. Dawn Bonfield, a materials engineer and president of the UK-based Women’s Engineering Society, explained to me that most women see themselves through their personalities, rather than through what they do.

“Women often want to see the broader context of what they are doing,” Bonfield added. “When asked to wire up a circuit to get a light bulb to come on, girls are far more likely to be motivated to do it if they know that the light bulb is helping a deaf person realise that somebody is ringing the doorbell, rather than just for the sake of getting the bulb to come on.”

Simple differences, but these can make all the difference. I asked Wu how her all-women team has been changing the game. “If you look at the characters in Revolution 60, they’re gorgeous,” she said. “But look at the way we animate the camera in that game. The camera never lingers on a character’s boobs or butt. It’s always pointed at their face. We’re very careful to portray them as women and people first.”

Including women in at least 50 percent of the playtesters – a closer reflection of the game consumer demographic – also revealed important lessons that would ultimately impact the final design of Revolution 60. “When we got men to playtest the game’s combat engine, we would get comments like: “The combat is too slow!” or “I want to be able to attack quicker!” Men would sit down and hammer the iPad like that trying to destroy everything,” said Wu.

“But when we brought women into the studio to playtest, we found that women appreciated the more rhythm-based, timing-based combat. They didn’t want to attack constantly. They wanted to attack at the right moment. What we kind of did was we split the difference there.”

“I think if Giant Spacekat had not been a company led by women, we wouldn’t have been so careful and so respectful to go get so many female playtesters,” said Wu. “We didn’t just assume that the men were correct; we really listened to everyone.”

Not enough women in tech and games? The solution is simple, she says. “One of the problems in tech is that it’s so male-dominated that men tend to look for mirrors of themselves to fill these positions,” said Wu. “I think the way to solve the problems in tech is basically: Hire more women.”

“Women are so historically discriminated against in the games industry that I do think there is space for a women-led company.”


It’s not just in games. Giant Spacekat belongs to an increasingly expanding demographic of women-led companies that are doing things differently. Between 1997 and 2014, the number of women-owned businesses in the United States rose 68 percent, twice the growth rate for men. Male-dominated business environments have long overlooked the needs of female employees, but with the rise of women entrepreneurs across the board, many women in other sectors are now step- ping in themselves to directly meet those needs.

Photo credit: Shannon Grant

Photo credit: Shannon Grant

“This data holds true for other countries as well to some extent,” explained Felena Hanson, founder of HeraHub, a fast-expanding business that provides a coworking space focused on female entrepreneurs and professionals. “In the US, some are predicting that up to 60 percent of the knowledge-based workforce will be independent by 2020. People are working in a more independent way.”

And increasingly, many of these independent workers will be women. “Women want more work-life balance,” said Hanson. “They want to be able to spend more time with family and have the flexibility to work from 10pm to midnight because they want to pick up their kid after school and take them to soccer practice.”

Like Giant Spacekat, HeraHub was born out of a need. When Hanson, a tech startup employee for nine years, left the scene to run her own consulting business and started looking around for a suitable coworking space, she realized that most spaces were skewed towards a younger male demographic. She felt like an outsider. “At the time, I was in my late 30s and I wasn’t at the point of my life when I wanted to hang out with 20-year-old guys who were playing beer pong in the corner,” said Hanson. “It’s a great environment but it just wasn’t right for me.” She sensed an opportunity and set out to fill in the hole in the market.


HeraHub, though not exclusive to women, is notable for its spa-inspired aesthetic, with running water, candles and live plants. The company invests a lot of time and effort in building up a supportive community of like-minded and aspirational women at its coworking space. “When women are in an environment where they feel safe and supported, they operate differently,” said Hanson. “They ask more questions. They ask for more help because they feel like nobody is going to say: well, you should know that. Starting a business is difficult. You have to be relatively vulnerable and open to ask the tough questions.”

As Giant Spacekat works to expand on the venture capital circuit, Wu is experiencing exactly the sort of challenge Hanson describes. “Networking is difficult,” she said. “I find myself being excluded from a lot of social circles. If you’re a dude on the VC circuit, it’s a relatively comfortable space for you. But for me there’re so many problems and challenges we have and there’s no one to kind of look to or talk to for advice. We’re forced to solve them ourselves. It is immensely challenging.”


The majority-women environment at Giant Spacekat and HeraHub’s coworking spaces has opened up room for honest conversations about what it takes to be a working woman. “At our company, when somebody has period cramps for the day, we’re like: go take a nap. Do what you’ve got to do. There’s no shame in that,” said Wu. “There’s a really open culture.”

But, she says, it is motherhood that is currently one of the most overlooked realities of a woman’s working life.

“When we talk about the harassment of women in tech or sexism in tech, I think we talk about sexual harassment of 20-something women a lot,” said Wu, who had been forced to flee her home last year after receiving multiple rape and death threats at the height of Gamergate aggression. “But I see a complete absence of talking about how mothers are discriminated against in the games industry. The games industry is so dominated by crunch and overloaded work schedules that…I think it goes unnoticed by a lot of men here…that after women have kids, they generally leave game development. Because the environment is just not conducive to that. In a very male-dominated video game environment, these issues just don’t come up.”



At HeraHub, too, Hanson noticed that many women were leaving their corporate jobs once they had a child. As a result, the coworking space caters to many working mothers by providing lactation rooms so that those who are still breastfeeding can have a private space to pump their milk. “And because it’s a female-focused environment, they feel comfortable putting their breast milk in the refrigerator without bagging it up and making it secretive,” laughed Hanson. “I mean, can you imagine a woman breastfeeding in a gaming, technology environment with a bunch of guys? I just can’t even imagine what would happen.”

Overall, women are more likely to leave their full-time jobs in male-dominated sectors following maternity leave. Bonfield believes this is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to increase the number of British women engineers above the abysmal figure of 7 percent. The materials engineer still remembers how she herself went from being a high flyer in an engineering company to somebody languishing in a dead-end role simply because she didn’t go back full-time after having a child.

“They were just not set up for part-time working and my career really suffered,” Bonfield recalled. “I put it down to poor management and an uninformed manager rather than a company policy, but the effect was the same. I left the sector, and have never returned. This is common for a lot of women who would otherwise now be in senior roles.”




For Wu, integrating these concerns into her studio is a way of setting an example. “It’s really important to me that a woman can have a child and still work at my company,” said Wu. “I think a mother brings more perspective to the table and not less. I feel like I have a responsibility as CEO and frankly, as a very visible public figure, to kind of raise these issues in my professional life, in the way I run my company.”

“I feel like we’re charting new waters, to say: look, guys, women are 50 percent of the consumers. We need to be closer to being 50 percent of the developers. And for us to become 50 percent of the developers, we need to change the culture of development a bit. And I think Giant Spacekat is a very bold experiment in creating an environment that is comfortable to women.”

Wu, who is now in her mid-30s, struggled mightily with the question of having children. “When you see a mother with kids, doesn’t a part of your heart just tug?” she asked me. “In a way that feels like it’s been hardwired into your brain? Do you feel that too? It is so emotional. Sometimes I hang out with Amanda and her daughter and it makes me feel like I’m missing an important adventure. So that’s what that’s about. It’s about that longing inside of me.”

“I think that’s something a lot of women struggle with at my age. Those are the questions after your 20’s: What is my life about? What is important to me? Where am I going? The answer I have personally come to is that I want to be a kind of figurehead for women in tech. And kind of fighting some of these battles for the long-term good of women in this field. I feel that that’s a very respectable life mission for me.”

At this point, I suggested to Wu that she is, in fact, a sort of mother figure for women in the tech industry. “To a degree, I think I am,” said Wu after a moment’s pause. “I guess I’ve never thought about that but it’s probably true.”




Today, Wu still remembers the initial despair she felt about her lead animator’s pregnancy with utter clarity. “When I first heard Amanda was pregnant, my first instinct and reaction was terror for my company,” she said. “I have a lot of stereotypes in my mind about mothers. I was very worried about that.”

But not one to be easily daunted, Wu set out to make it work. She talked to female friends who had had experience managing and working with pregnant employees. “What they told me constantly was: communication is key, setting expectations is key, giving her space is key,” she said. “So every single week I would go talk to Amanda and I would say: ‘What are your goals for this week? What are you feeling? What is reasonable to expect of you this week?'”

“It was that constant communication that led us to work out something that was fair to everyone involved,” said Wu. “I’m not gonna lie to you and tell you that her productivity didn’t suffer. It did. But in the long run, I’ve gotten a very loyal and particularly skilled employee who’s much happier with her life. She loves being a mom.”

After her birth, Warner’s daughter Emma became a common sight at Giant Spacekat. “At first, having a meeting with a kid around felt strange – largely because it’s not really done in professional circles,” said Wu. “But I quickly got used to it and realized it’s not a big deal. I realized that respecting Amanda meant Amanda’s child. Work should never ask a parent to choose between their job and their child.”


In 2014, Wu’s bet paid off. The four-woman studio released Revolution 60, which quickly became known for its all-female cast and cinematic narrative. “A rarity on mobile platforms,” noted The Guardian.

And the Giant Spacekat family is growing. Natalie O’Brien was six months pregnant when she was hired. “I wasn’t even going to send over my resume,” the company’s administrator, told me over email. “But Bri and Amanda didn’t blink an eye. They interviewed and hired me knowing my situation, and have been extremely supportive over the first month of my employment.”

“I think we’ve got to have more honest conversations like that,” said Wu. “Something that I prize very much at Giant Spacekat is that we really do have a very open culture. There’ve been days when Amanda’s been up all night with her child and I’ve been like: just take the day off.”

“I think there’s this kind of competitiveness in American corporate culture where you kind of keep all this stuff hidden. It’s time to have honest conversations about it.”


If you liked this article, check out the rest of A MAZE. Magazine Issue #1: WOMEN.

Originally published in A MAZE. Magazine Issue #1: WOMEN 

Illustration by James Harvey

Illustration by James Harvey

When Consentacle was first announced at the Sex Games panel at last year’s Different Games conference, heads turned. Sex and tentacles?! A cooperative card game for two players, Consentacle represents a consensual sexual encounter between a curious human and a tentacled alien. Players have to figure out how to build trust and do sexual things with each other, even if they can’t communicate easily.

What to make of Consentacle? Is it brilliant? Icky? Different? To me, what one of the most fascinating things about Consentacle is how it sets out to quantify the unquantifiable: sex. Actions like winking and penetrating are assigned a certain number of Satisfaction Tokens and totaled up at the end of a game, and players can interpret those numbers using a table provided with the card deck (see: rules.) I talk with Naomi Clark to find out the process behind one of the most original card games currently out there.

A Sex Game Or A Game About Sex?

Krystle: Tell me a secret. How did you decide on the number of Satisfaction Tokens given or taken for each action? Did you have long and, I imagine, fun reflective sessions over how to quantify sexual acts?

Naomi: Hah! Unfortunately it’s not anything particularly exciting. The game has an arc with more tentative actions that tend to happen near the beginning, but also recur throughout, building up towards the more intense and difficult maneuvers to pull off – the things that take more trust. Those actions were always the ones I intended to be more racy and worth blushing about. As for the exact numbers, however – it was a process that involved a lot of math and simulating theoretical games in a spreadsheet. Totally not sexy – which of course is part of the amusing paradox of the whole thing, what makes the game feel like “Love in a Time of Systems” to me.

Krystle: Consentacle is like an entire economic system in and of itself! How did you come up with the mechanics of it all? Why so system-oriented?

Naomi: System is a huge area of interest for me when I design games. Although I wouldn’t say it’s the only thing or even the most important thing, it’s an ingredient in my work that I always want to keep an eye on, or a lens that I always want to make sure that I peer through. So much of our interaction with the world, with other humans, with various constructed experiences is mediated by systems, even if looking at everything that way is far from the whole truth. There was something horribly appealing to me about dealing with the economy of trust, love, and sex; these are sacrosanct facets of life to most of us, things we like to think of as being beyond the influence of economies and numbers and rules – but of course, systems around us are influencing our relationships at a deep level all the time. I don’t just mean through overt economies like money, but also in scarcity and difficult limitations of care, and trust, and affection, of structure-born differences between people and the expectations of society about relationships.

All of that was in my unconscious mix as I began working on Consentacle, although it took some time for me to be able to articulate it. The system of Consentacle isn’t the aspect that brings mystery, intimacy, or ineffable qualities of connection to the experience of playing it – I have to rely on the players for that, and maybe I should. After all, I’m just the person trying to set the stage or arrange furniture for a party, I’m not even there most of the time when people play my game. The system is, though not the villain of the piece, definitely part of what constitutes a shared struggle, the backdrop that’s defining what you go through together.

The origin point for many of the mechanics in Consentacle was in Net- runner, another two-player card game with a lot of play that swirls around intimacy and communication and hidden information, but with a very different theme and a competitive structure. I actually ended up imbibing too much Netrunner while I was in the early stages of designing Consentacle and had to pull back to go in a different direction; games like Hanabi and puzzles like the Towers of Hanoi were also pretty key influences.


Krystle: Competitive models of gameplay traditionally rely on numbers to determine who wins and loses. Consentacle does the opposite; its collaborative gameplay allows for a range of possible outcomes. Why did you choose to do that?

Naomi: I’m interested as a game designer and as someone who thinks about games in terms of the number of unexplored possibilities for what some people have called “disequilibrial outcomes.” Traditionally, this just means winning and losing: although both sides of a competitive game tend to start out roughly balanced, if the game is such that one side must win, that balance is disrupted. There are so many other possibilities to disrupt a placid or relatively equal starting point, though, and so many different processes or journeys along the way. In making a game about sex, I always knew that I didn’t want a mandate where one player would “win at sex” – a kind of problematic idea if it’s the way to talk about or have sex – so I looked for alternatives. Something should happen, you should go from the beginning to the end of the game and things should change, but that doesn’t have to mean winning and losing.

Krystle: Hmmm… What about players who are all out for competitive sex?

Naomi: Despite the guiding philosophy of “sex shouldn’t be about winning,” some players who relish competition have asked whether it’d be possible to do a competitive version where one player DOES win! I’m actually kind of interested in that direction – but only on top of a game that successfully encompasses sex without winning. After all, we can imagine a consensual, delightful sexual encounter where partners agree that someone’s going to win and someone’s going to lose, right? Well, hopefully, imaginative people can and everyone else can at least think about say… wrestling.

Krystle: How do playtesters respond? Do they deviate from the way they would approach real-life sexual interaction during the game? Do they think of sexual interaction differently after the game?

Naomi: I can’t say for sure whether anyone plays Consentacle in the way that they would approach sex, but I don’t think so? It’s extremely fun to watch when players get into innuendo and think- ing about things like »Restrain or Bite?« together, whether out loud or silently – but it’s absolutely not a measure of the game’s success for me whether this resembles or influences the way they actually have sex. Consentacle is a game about consent, trust and communication, and of course I believe deeply in practices of consent and my game reflects that; however, none of that means the game has a single lesson or message to impart about it. In other words, Consentacle is not meant to be a sex-education tool to try and convince people to have consensual sex; it’s an experience that two people can have together where they can enjoyably explore and mess around with these subjects, and I have to trust players to do so responsibly. (I mean, it’s right there in the title, as well as the rules.)

Krystle: I’d imagine that a highly regulated game system recreating the deeply amorphous experience of romance and attraction may be too much for players who just want to use the game as, you know, a sex game. For sex.


Illustration by James Harvey

Naomi: I always knew that the experience of play – beyond and above the systems shuffling around it – was going to come from players, but I did have some worries that some players might get too bogged down in the numbers. Thankfully, the atmosphere of sex, and dirty moves, and the communication that’s necessary to play Consentacle overwhelmed that aspect of it. That might not be giving enough credit to the system, though – the fact that you clamber around on it together while playing does a lot to create a hard structure that you’re pushing against while flirting, being suggestive, getting excited together, and I think hard structures can have a really beneficial role in intimacy.

Krystle: I love your suggestion (in a Kotaku interview) that unusual or alien body parts can act as a metaphor for queer sexuality or strange relationships that we have to our bodies. Can you tell me more about how Consentacle is resonating with queer and trans people?

Naomi: Most of what I hear from other queer and trans people about this is just that they love the idea, and they love the theme. I feel like I sense, in their enthusiasm, the same kinds of things that make those themes really important to me: all of the alienness, strange body parts, and dealing with embodied differences. I might be projecting a little bit, but that’s OK; part of the great thing about making a game and seeing other people play it is that in other people’s gut-level responses, you get to feel less alone with your own reactions to the world.

Krystle: I’ve seen some pictures out there of plastic tentacles that players can wear on their fingers. (I loves it. So. Much.) What are they for? Will that be in the final version?

Naomi: Those were actually little plastic finger-toys that I bought from a novelty store, and handed out to players at the No Quarter opening event where the game was first played. They’re not strictly speaking part of the game – they’re more like party favors – but I definitely saw a lot of players using them during the game to, let’s say, effectuate some non-verbal communication with their partner. I still have a bunch of them, so I’m likely to include them as some kind of backer reward if there’s a Kickstarter for the game. You don’t need them to play, but all sorts of homemade or personally-provided tentacles could come in handy as accessories to deepen your satisfaction.

Krystle: James Harvey’s illustrations for Consentacle are so perfect. They’re sensual in the way only the best manga can be and, amazingly, not at all icky! What was the art design process like? Did you have any specific directions for him or did he just go wild with the project?

Naomi: I was really lucky to be able to work with James, and he did such a fantastic job with the artwork (not to mention some helpful critique for my graphic design) that I feel like the illustrations are very much the star of the show in some ways – or at least the exciting opening act. When I work with illustrators I tend to overspecify a lot. I write fairly detailed descriptions of the characters and what they’d be doing on each card – and then I attach a lot of caveats like: “But no, seriously, these are just suggestions, if you have another idea I would totally love to see it and explore it!” I’m sure some of my collaborators have found that more annoying than others, but as someone with a lot of ideas in my head who can’t draw or program all that well, I tend to spurt them all into words. Thankfully, James was really good at doing both – he used my ideas and also expressed them in his own style, in a way that was even cooler that I could envision.



Krystle: There seems to be some conflation out there over Consentacle and Tentacle Bento, the very game that angered and inspired you to do it better. What do you think is behind all that confusion?

Naomi: The only people I’ve seen conflating this are the controversy-manufacturing agitators associated with a certain gaming-related hashtag that’s generated a lot of harassment. Because one game is not-so-subtly about playing a tentacle monster who’s out to grab sexy girls, and the other game is explicitly about consensual sex, there’s a serious lack of reading comprehension going on. Consentacle is a reaction to the problems in Tentacle Bento and also involves tentacles, but that’s about where the similarity ends, since the two games play completely differently. Still, I’ve seen accusations that Consentacle is somehow a clone of Tentacle Bento and other even wilder conspiracy theories. The intellectual dishonesty involved is really just a means to rile people up into a never-ending outrage against “social justice.” I’m not really all that worried by it, since even a cursory inspection of the two games and their history makes it pretty clear what the real story is.


Illustration by James Harvey

Krystle: Some commentators have suggested that Consentacle – despite it being a response to reclaim tentacle sex for the good – is not trigger-free. Does that make sense to you? Is it possible to love goofy tentacle sex without going into icky territory?

Naomi: I definitely can’t claim that Consentacle is trigger-free – after all, there are any number of things that can be triggering for people, and the intersection of tentacles and sex evoke a lot of incredibly unpleasant associations. With Consentacle I wasn’t trying to simply evade those associations; the word I chose for the title of the game is a reversal of the “tentacle rape” associations and hopefully it’s an obvious statement that it’s possible to turn tentacles around. I don’t expect everyone to care as much about “reclaiming tentacles” as queer people, or people with various kinds of feelings about normative bodies, or people who are just into good, consensual tentacles, and I understand the reactions of people who are too squicked out by the idea or the imagery. If it was an easy idea to explore, there wouldn’t be as much need to reclaim it from an awful context! I’m hopeful that Consentacle plays a small part in that, even though it’s not as explicit as some other “consensual tentacle sex” search results out there…

Krystle: Never-mind the haters; Consentacle is getting a lot of love out there. Let’s talk about upcoming plans! How will the final version of Consentacle look and feel like? How can we get our hands on it?

Naomi: Plans are still in progress for bringing Consentacle to a wider audience. I’m in the process of redesigning a few things about the game based on the ways I’ve seen people play with it and some ideas that I didn’t have time to fully explore in the first limited showing of the game. I also know that I’d like to commission James Harvey to create some more amazing illustrations to round out the set, since the current edition reuses some artwork on the alien and human versions of the same card. I’m busy with a lot of projects and with teaching game design, so I don’t have a real solid timeline yet, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to announce something in 2015! This might involve Kickstarter, or some other form of crowd-funding, and there might be a print-and-play option that would make it possible for the game to really get out there. Until then, all the consensual tentacle fans out there will have to be patient!

Learn more about how to play Consentacle and get more behind-the-scenes updates from Naomi Clark’s devblog

Originally written for my final project at the Sciences Po Paris School of Journalism, dated 27/05/2013. PDF version here.

Suicides in France: A Public Act?

From subways to self-immolation, public suicides are becoming disturbingly frequent in the country of joie de vivre. That can leave a toll on witnesses and those unwittingly involved in ending a life. Photography by Jérôme Verony.

suicides in france - a public act?

The morning before Valentine’s Day, a dark-haired man in a black coat stood at the far end of a subway platform, counting down until the next train arrived. It was around 9am at Odéon, a busy hour at a centrally located métro station. He wouldn’t have to wait long. As the figures “0:00” started blinking on the overhead clock and the tunnel filled with the roar of an approaching train, the man took a deliberate step towards the platform edge. He bent over, put his hands on the ground, and quickly lowered himself onto the train tracks. The horror of what was about to happen instantly dawned on everyone on the platform. Screams of “Non!” filled the station. The man disappeared as the train slammed into him. It was over in seconds.

Standing two paces away from the suicide, Fanny saw everything. “I saw him go down,” she said. “I had the reflex to turn away. There was a loud thud. Everybody was screaming.” The train screeched to an emergency halt in the middle of the station. On board, people lurched and toppled forward like a line of dominos from the inertia. “The passengers didn’t know what had happened,” said Fanny. “But they saw the faces of the people on the platform and I think they understood.” The 26-year-old marketing manager had been idly watching the man from behind just moments before he ended his life, and the horror hasn’t left her since. In her mind, she still sees the man on the tracks. He had been standing sideways, frozen in a sort of stride. At the time she’d had the wild and absurd thought that he would never cross the tracks on time. “I remember thinking: what is he doing?” she said. “But there was no doubt about it, he wanted to die.”

After the impact, people had quickly made for the stairs, emptying the platform. “There was someone continuously screaming and sobbing,” said Fanny, who believes it might have been the train conductor, a middle-aged woman. “But she couldn’t have done anything. Nobody could have. It happened so fast.”  The indelible memory of how the tunnel went cold like a crypt that morning still gives her the chills. “It was like a place of death,” she said. “It didn’t feel like a place you go to everyday.” Fanny declined to share her full name, saying her experience could not compare to the grief faced by the man and, by now, his family.

There are 11,000 suicides in France each year, a fraction of the 195,000 people hospitalised following a suicide attempt annually. According to OECD figures, France has one of the highest suicide rates in Western Europe – twice that of the United Kingdom and 40 percent higher than in Germany and the United States. It is the first cause of mortality for French people in their thirties. A further 2,200 people take their lives each year without making the official lists. Many family members jump on the slightest shadow of doubt and would sooner call a death an accident than a suicide – a possible remnant of French Catholicism, which considers voluntary death a sin. The fact that there is no option to list “suicide” as a cause of mortality in French death certificates and no systematic inquiry into the causes of non-natural deaths – unlike in most European countries – further helps to mask these numbers.

Many different reasons can drive a person to suicide, and it is often a challenge to decipher the motives behind such a final, fatal decision. But in France, suicides tend to be more public in nature than anywhere else, lending a particular authority to what voluntary death means. In the most recent context of the euro-crisis and growing disillusionment with the country’s future, the phenomenon of public suicide is being seen as a sort of protest against society’s failing conditions. Above all, it is sparking a painful and contentious debate over France’s oppressive workplace conditions and its consequences.


Last Tuesday, May 22, a 78-year-old man entered the Notre Dame cathedral amidst a throng of tourists, went up to the altar, stuck a shot-gun into his mouth, and pulled the trigger. Dominique Venner was a far-right award-winning historian who had been campaigning hard against the government’s decision to legalise gay marriage, signed into law last weekend by French president François Hollande. “New spectacular and symbolic actions are needed to wake up the sleep walkers and shake the anaesthetised consciousness,” Venner wrote on his blog, just hours before the act.

On May 16, a 50-year-old man with a history of mental health problems forced his way into a nursing school near the Eiffel Tower and shot himself in front of 12 school children aged six and seven. Later, one boy told a French news channel that he had thought the school had been invaded by terrorists.

On February 13, a jobless man burnt himself to death in front of a public job search agency in Nantes. Frustrated after a long period of futile job-hunting, 33-year-old Djamal Chaar wanted his self-immolation to be a public statement about France’s socio-economic malaise. He hasn’t been the only one. At least a dozen men and women have set themselves on fire since 2011 for similar reasons.

The overall suicide rate, while stable, has actually decreased slightly over the last few years. Yet despite this decline, railway suicide is becoming an increasingly common form of these “spectacular and symbolic” deaths. French transport operators are relatively discreet, referring to railway deaths as accidents graves or serious accidents, but it is no secret that suicides on the rails are a disturbingly frequent phenomenon. France’s national railway SNCF sees up to 400 fatal accidents each year, of which a large majority are voluntary deaths – almost double the annual number of suicides on British railways. The phenomenon is on the rise: according to SNCF president Guillaume Pépy, there were 30 percent more railway suicides in 2012 than in the preceding four years. In the Paris métro, which carries the highest volume of traffic in Europe after Moscow, at least one person kills himself in the subway every three days. Paris transport authority RATP says there were 195 such suicides in 2008. By contrast, the New York subway averages about 26 suicides a year.

“There is a collective dimension to this particular type of suicide,” explained Rébecca Hartmann, a psychologist who has been working for France’s national railway for nine years. Although large French firms have in-house doctors, SNCF went a step further in 1997 to create a specialised department dedicated to providing psychological support for staff, as they kept running into suicide attempts. To die by throwing oneself before a train, according to Hartmann, is a cry to the collective. “It’s not at all like a suicide in one’s room,” she said. “It’s not a private affair. The idea is to shout out to the collective about one’s poor wellbeing. The person knows that this will affect hundreds of people who are stopped in their day, so there is a message somewhere to society.”

Indeed, France’s high suicide rate is being widely seen as a sign of the country’s socio-economic malaise. When Hollande called the self-immolation of Djamal Chaar a “personal drama” in March, he was met with scorn. To the French, public suicides are widely understood not as acts of personal drama but as an outcry against an ailing society. It is not difficult to see where this angst is coming from: France is experiencing its highest unemployment rate in 17 years, leading to increased pressure in the workplace. The country’s waning influence in the European Union has led Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, to ask if France is “a peripheral country” – a burning point of shame for the French, who have been eyeing Germany’s stable economic growth and burgeoning political clout following the euro-crisis.


Various studies have sought to capture France’s moody disposition during this time. A 2012 European quality of life survey, commissioned by the European Union, found that the French are the least optimistic about the future after Greece, Portugal, Italy and Slovakia. A public opinion survey released by Pew Research Centre this month concluded that the French are becoming dispirited faster than anyone else in Europe. A recent study by sociologist Claudia Senik at the Paris School of Economics went even further: her study, titled “The French Unhappiness Puzzle”, suggests that it’s not the crisis, silly – gloominess just happens to be an integral part of French culture. The consensus is overwhelming: something is rotten in the state of France.

It is unsurprising then that in such a context, public suicides are being seen as cries of protest. Sociologists say these are emanating from “the most vulnerable” in society. Typically, suicide is considered an act of desperation for those who are unable to accept or deny their social circumstances. But in France, the public aspect of suicide gives the act a particularly vindictive tone. It is a ghastlier version of the child in tears throwing a fit, whose intuition is: “One day I’ll die and you’ll be sorry.” Each public suicide is – so goes the reasoning – akin to holding a mirror to the face of society. The idea is that this will force society to examine itself for having created the hopeless conditions for such wasted lives. The message is being delivered in collective overtones, and increasingly, it is being heard. In an op-ed for leading newspaper Le Monde, French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg proclaimed that “today…individual suffering is a declaration that has value for acting on a common problem.” But what is the common problem?

For the past three years, Fabienne Leonhart has been working at Suicide Écoute, a 24-hour hotline that receives 22,000 calls a year. Over the telephone, Leonhart’s grandmotherly voice has a calming and non-judgmental tone – an important quality that has played a part in pulling hundreds away from the brink of death. According to the 43-year-old, it is too simplistic to single out a factor as the main cause of suicidal depression. The answers could be a conflation of anything ranging from mental health issues to workplace stress. “Which caused what? It’s impossible to say! It can all be related,” said Leonhart, who has fielded crisis after crisis from callers with obvious mental health problems such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The conundrum, she says, is whether to read depression as a cause or as a symptom: is something caused by depression or the other way around?

Since the economic crisis, however, Leonhart admits the hotline has been receiving an increasing number of calls from people who have unemployment or work-related issues. “We are in a difficult economic climate,” she said. “There’s no denying that there is an enormous amount of pressure in companies. It is a phenomenon of the crisis.” When asked how she went about convincing these people not to kill themselves, Leonhart swiftly corrected the question. ”It’s not that they want to die,” she said, sounding a bit pained. “They want to stop suffering.”

Involuntary killers

Suicide always leaves behind the indelible aspect of trauma. And in the case of a public suicide, this trauma extends beyond the circle of family and friends to complete strangers. Few experience this as frequently and as intimately as train conductors, who are the first to see the silhouette of a person on the tracks, the last to see him or her alive, and the ones who are directly implicated in the destruction of a life. It is a peculiar and rather grotesque hostage situation. “Although railway suicide is a violent decision,” explained French national railway psychologist Hartmann, “it is also an act of passivity”, since it transfers the act of killing to someone else. In this case, a train conductor and his train unwittingly become the agents of destruction. “The train conductors are thus taken hostage,” writes Éric Fottorino, former editor of Le Monde, in his latest book Suite à un accident grave de voyageur. “Their machine becomes part of the machination. A person wants to die. Another especially does not want to kill. He kills, despite himself.”


“When it happens, there is practically nothing we can do,” said Cédric Gentil, a train conductor who blogs for French newspaper Liberation and author of Mesdames et messieurs, votre attention s’il vous plaît. “By the time you understand what is going on, it’s too late. The distance needed to bring the train to a stop is too long.” The 33-year-old still vividly recalls the woman who had leapt in front of his train a few years ago. Horrified, he had acted instantly. He pulled the emergency brakes, hit a switch that released sand onto the tracks, and cut off the electric current in the rails. These gestures would later be extremely important, not only for the woman, but for Gentil himself.

Then he waited helplessly until the train came to a halt. “When you’re in that situation, the wait is endless,” said the tall, brown-haired man. “I felt as though time was passing in slow-motion.” Once the train finally stopped, he could no longer see the woman from his window. Heart in his shoes, Gentil came out of his cabin and looked in front of his train. He had stopped just 40cm in front of the woman. She was dazed but completely unharmed.

Most of Gentil’s colleagues have not been so fortunate. According to Hartmann, every train conductor experiences on average one railway suicide attempt during his career. Many risk prolonged psychological trauma and some enter depression, often replaying the death in their minds. In 2012, SNCF’s team of psychologists made 50 emergency on-site visits to the scene of the suicide in order to quickly stem the overwhelming sense of shock and guilt. “Even though they know in theory that they couldn’t do anything to prevent it, they go through the ‘what ifs’,” said Hartmann. “It is a feeling of total helplessness, to have been active in the death of someone.”

One of Gentil’s female colleagues struggled from crippling guilt after running into two suicides. “She took a long time to get over the first one,” said Gentil. “She was really traumatised. Then it happened again. It’s like all the work that she’d had gone through to recover, it’s as though it’s for nothing.” For Gentil’s friend, the memory of the man’s face is particularly horrifying. The person killing himself had stood on the tracks and stared directly into her face, as though to “defy her”, until her train rammed into him.

“I’ve asked myself many times why people choose to die this way,” said Gentil. “We talk about it a lot amongst us. I don’t think it’s an innocent act.” Amongst train conductors, there is a flash of anger against railway suicides that appear premeditated. Gentil remembers being confused by the simultaneous relief and rage he felt when he was speaking to the woman who had tried to kill herself. “I was facing her alone, nobody else would have heard me if I had said how I felt to her,” said Gentil, suddenly looking very tired. “But out of respect for the woman, I could never have done it.” Instead, he said to her: “Don’t worry, you’re safe now. Help is coming.”

Gentil has no illusions about how lucky he had been this time. “I don’t ask if it’ll ever happen to me,” he said of the possibility of killing someone who jumps in front of his train. “I ask when. It’s like having the sword of Damocles hanging above my head. I know it’s going to fall on me someday, I just don’t know when or where.”

It is never a clean death. Gentil says it can take firemen at least three hours to recover the grisly remains of a body. “They have to look for pieces of the corpse under the train or in the tunnel where it’s very dark and difficult to see,” he explained. “Sometimes someone will have to move the train a bit backwards in order to remove the body.” Only half of the suicide attempts are successful and survivors are never quite whole again. “A train weighs hundreds of tons,” said Gentil, who drives the RER A, a suburban train with one of the highest volumes in the world at 1.2 million passengers a day. “If people do survive, they are mutilated for life.”


The ramifications of each railway suicide touch thousands. It takes seconds for a suicide to throw a line into complete bedlam, and hours before things go back to normal. Traffic is disrupted for at least three hours, a halt that snowballs into more cancelled trains and delayed schedules. This knock-on disruption is likely the point of such a public death. Yet for the most part, passengers who are not privy to this cinema of horror react either with indifference or simple irritation. “It’s sad but true,” said Gentil. “When most passengers realise there’s been another serious accident, they roll their eyes and go: ‘Pfffff’!” In his book, Fottorino points out the irony of this final failure: “Unknown till the end, they are the et ceteras,” he writes. Despite their public act of desperation, “nobody will try to remember them…the ones who try to shake up the very society that rejects its most vulnerable.”

But it’s not entirely true. First-hand witnesses like Fanny are often stirred by what they have seen. The trouble is finding the company they crave. In the virtual world, many witnesses eventually find their way to public transport forum blogencommun.fr. They anonymously share their experiences in comments threads so they can feel less alone in their shock and grief; there is a certain comfort in the familiarity of the reactions of other witnesses. For days after the métro suicide, Wolf hungrily scoured the internet for something, anything, to lace a human feeling around what she had seen. It was on this forum that she found some solace and my request for an interview. Wolf needed to talk about it. It helped her feel better.

A form of protest against the workplace? 

The growing drama of suicides in France is putting the focus on large firms, many of which shed thousands of employees through ‘voluntary’ departures between 2006 and 2008. In 2008, the media spotlight fell on France Télécom for its wave of 30 suicides each year. Although this number is in line with the French national average of suicides and thus not especially high, some of these acts were especially dramatic. One man allegedly stabbed himself – harakiri-style – in the middle of a meeting. A woman leapt from a fifth-floor office window. Another employee jumped off a highway bridge. Similar stories abound from La Poste and Renault. Perhaps because some work-related suicides have been particularly imaginative and perhaps because they are the simplest to identify and control for, they have become a frequent headline in French media. In March, Le Monde dedicated a spread to la souffrance au travail, where a series of articles analysed French suffering in the context of high workplace stress, unemployment, social tensions, and suicides.

Side-by-side, the numbers and commentary are compelling. According to the Economic, Social, and Environmental Council (Cese), at least 400 suicides each year are directly related to work dissatisfaction. In a 2008 survey of 1,210 employees, Etienne Wasmer, a labour economist at Sciences Po, found that many experienced work-related disorders (mood 72%, sleep 70%, psychological disorder 52%), anxiety (60%), and abnormal fatigue. According to the OECD, the French incidence of depression was about twice that of Germany’s in the mid-2000s. One governmental study found that French consumption of anti-depressants amounted to 543 billion euros in 2000. At France Télécom, some employees keep anti-depressants on their desks, out in the open.


“For too long, mental suffering at work has been considered as the exclusive result of the personality of the employee,” wrote Michel Debout, a prominent doctor and one of the founders of the National Union for Prevention of Suicide, in one of the articles published by Le Monde. “Managers try to make this a medical problem: they speak of ‘fragile people’ and rarely of ‘people made fragile’.”

Indeed, the French are increasingly outraged at the capitalist ills of large private firms. Last year, former France Télécom CEO Didier Lombard was probed for the firm’s many suicides in 2008, the result of harsh and surreal administration that placed unnecessary pressure on workers in order to get them to voluntarily resign. On May 7, a leaked internal document dated 2006 reveals how Lombard had spearheaded the aggressive shedding of 22,000 workers by 2008. In the document, Lombard declared: “We need to stop being the mother hen…In 2007, I will make these departures happen one way or another, by the window or by the door.”

To explain the particularly violent case of France Télécom and the country’s persistently high levels of workplace dissatisfaction overall, some economists have pointed fingers at France’s rigid labour regulation. According to a 2012 study by Wasmer, high levels of stress are typical in countries with a lot of job protection. Indeed, with its generous employment protection, France has one of the worst levels of workplace stress amongst OECD countries. It is an ironic proposition about the perverse effect of “too much” job security: when labour regulation makes it too difficult and costly to fire employees, managers resort to piling pressure onto workers or neglecting them until they resign. According to Wasmer, firing someone can be as personal and formalised as “filing for a divorce”. The result is varying levels of workplace harassment, known in France by the more profound term harcèlement moral. And with the current economic climate, more employees are willing to suffer workplace harassment than to look for a new job. The price of job security becomes their mental and emotional wellbeing. “Employees initially feel that they are doing this for their family, their children, so they are capable of accepting a lot,” said Jean-Louis Bally, a member of the Observatoire de stress, an independent organisation composed of academics and labour activists and whose main purpose is to monitor and lobby against large firms that create risques psycho-sociaux – occupational stress and suicide risks. “But when it becomes personal, when the management starts to disdain them, they become unhappy,” said the 69-year-old. “They take more sick leave, they fall into depression, and eventually you get suicides.”

The former France Télécom employee has strong views on whether enough prevention is being done in large firms. “It depends how you view prevention,” said the white-haired, bespectacled man contemptuously. “If you view it the way big companies do, then prevention is just about hiring psychologists to help depressed people. But that’s just treating the consequence, not the cause.” In truth, there may be no better way to do it. Most outreach programmes, including the French government’s national strategy for tackling suicides, are also based on identifying and providing psychological support to those at suicidal risk.

Venner, Chaar, and hundreds of other unknown suicide victims appear to grasp intuitively the social implications of self-destruction. Unhappy with their lives and with the societal conditions that made this unhappiness possible, they lashed out at the world by choosing violent and public deaths. It is their final act of vindication, the ultimate protest. In France, voluntary deaths like theirs are laden with social value, intended by the suicidal and interpreted as such by the living. The collective unity of this understanding is perhaps unsurprising, given the country’s particular cultural and intellectual authorities. Although he argued against the act himself, philosopher Albert Camus, whose works are taught in many French high schools, famously declared that suicide was the only serious philosophical question: it represented the rejection of an absurd life in a mute world. France also gave us Emile Durkheim, the father of sociology, who in 1897 presented the world’s first monograph on none other than the topic of suicides. In his seminal work, Durkheim stripped away the moral overtones of the church, presenting suicide for the first time as an explicable social phenomenon. Voluntary death is an act of choice, he reasoned, the terms of which are entirely those of this world: it is a rejection of life by those who are poorly integrated in society and morally confused.


But it may be the French Revolution that best explains the sentiment behind France’s public suicides. According to Patrice Higonnet, professor of French history at Harvard University, voluntary death was seen as a libertarian and individualised gesture. Suicide – l’acte le plus libre – was just one more facet of man’s right to be free. During the French Revolution, Jacobins and Montagnards alike saw communitarian value in public self-destruction. Voluntary death would “shame their enemies and serve as a pedagogical example” for their peers. These suicides were, Higonnet explained in a 1989 conference, assertions of martial dignity and political high-ground.

With a background like France’s, suicide turns – perversely – into an index of high civilisation. As in “tell me your suicide rate and I will tell you your cultural sophistication,” explains Al Alvarez in his book The Savage God. Richard Brody, a Francophone film critic at the New Yorker and one of several commentators who criticised Senik’s happiness study, believes so too. A “self-consciously intellectual” society like the French, he wrote in March, may just be less willing to say they are happy. The unfortunate price of this sophistication, of course, may be the country’s high suicide rate.


But for all the grandiose intellectual overtures and thoughtful academic studies surrounding suicide in France, too much scrutiny is still considered taboo. Most studies tiptoe around meaningful details such as linking demographics and causes to modes of suicide. For example, SNCF’s department of psychological support may specialise in railway suicides, but they have yet to compile data on what sort of people throw themselves in front of trains. “It’s a taboo subject,” said Hartmann carefully. “We don’t have any study on the profile – so to speak – of people who kill themselves. Why choose a train over overdose? It is delicate to interpret this. We should avoid hasty interpretations.” The SNCF psychologist is not the only one to use such cautious language; although suicide is a trending point of discussion in France, talk of the phenomenon often takes on a tone of clinical reverence, inevitably creating distance from the subject itself.

It raises a troubling question: is it possible to understand the motives of suicide from a perspective so rationalised and formal that we use language the suicidal does not? Camus himself declared that not naming things properly adds to the misfortune of the world. Perhaps, suggests Fottorino in his book, it is impossible to understand something well without being tempted by it too, thus the reluctance to tread the murky waters of a suicidal mind. The problem is contagion: talking about suicide “can give ideas, like dangling fire before a pyromaniac.” It is amongst the reasons for which French transport operators prefer to call suicides “serious accidents”, explained Gentil. First, “it’s a legal thing.” You can’t call a suicide a suicide unless a formal police investigation concludes as such. Second, “the word suicide is too strong,” he said. “It would make people uncomfortable.”

These euphemisms no longer soften the blow for certain métro users like Fanny. More than ever, the term brings her back to that cold morning when she watched the man disappear under a train. Although she was badly shaken by the incident, she forced herself to go back the next day. “You have to resume your journey, your life, your day,” she said. “I knew I had to face it sometime, so it was better to do it as soon as possible.” Standing where she had last seen the man alive, she gingerly checked the railway tracks for any sign of his suicide from the day before. There wasn’t a trace. Around her, people behaved as though nothing had ever happened. This time, the train docked normally, and people got on and off. Like so many others before this one, the loss of a life had made but a fleeting dent in the clockwork of Paris. But some things will never change for those involuntarily involved in a public suicide. A couple of paces away from Fanny, a woman stood a little too close to the edge of platform. The sight made her go cold.

You read every beautiful thing you can find, fall in love with a fresh patch of writing, push your snout through the mud, nose around in new thoughts, lose yourself in this complex scent, then you go back to Roald Dahl for a bit of a breather and get all blown away again and wonder if there’s any point to any beauty if it’s not simple enough so that even children can see the magic.

Of course the very afternoon I sat down and made a draft of my summer reading list, I ended up on my first guilty detour. But I’d just unpacked and nicely arranged my graphic books at the boyfriend’s parents’ place in Munich and Les Meilleurs Ennemis – bought more than a year ago – looked up at me beguilingly from a long line of books on the shelf, asking if I was ever going to get to it. I’d always been drawn to the book’s cover, with the Barbary pirate’s sweeping dagger-moustache and worldly tangerine red turban. Red, you quickly realise, because of the amount of bloodshed in this book.

les meilleurs ennemis

Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations, Part One: 1783-1953

Hardcover (120 pages)
Publisher: Futuropolis (France), SelfMadeHero (US)
Release date: 25 August 2011(France), 15 May 2012 (US)

Written by Jean-Pierre Filiu, Middle East expert and alumnus of Sciences Po (from which I’m finally graduating hey), and illustrated by David B., acclaimed graphic novelist best known for his harrowing autobiography L’Ascension du haut mal, the book is a tightly-packed graphic history lesson. It has been translated into English as Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations, Part One: 1783-1953 (with a much less attractive cover). As you can probably guess from the title, this is no light read and borders on the academic. “An academic comic book?!” I hear you exclaim. Yes, the sort that is only possible in France.

David B. is the reason why I first picked up this book and also why I managed to finish it in one sitting. Dark, violent, surreal: these are beautiful conceptual illustrations that occasionally verge on the abstract but manage to carry the visual weight of the bloody history of two regions. Though no stranger to non-fiction, this has been the most political and grounded subject yet for David B., who usually delves into the dark matter of nightmares and unworldly associations in his stories. That influence is seen again here, with some intriguing images such as three-faced men and familiar haunting ones harking back to the Holocaust. His childhood obsession with Genghis Khan seems to have surged back into the pages, with incredible detail in numerous battle scenes. Unsurprisingly, he  picked up an award for the art. 

Using Gilgamesh as a parable for US foreign policy

Using Gilgamesh (middle panel) as a parable for US foreign policy

Told in four parts – (I) An old story, (II) Babary pirates, (III) Oil, (IV) Coup d’état – this book is the first instalment of an informative linear history of US-Middle East relations that begins with the parable of Gilgamesh’s destructive ambitions, drawing a horrific parallel with the human toll of the many conflicts spurred and prolonged by the US.

Sadly, that’s where the flow and poignancy of the storytelling ends. Filiu’s writing lacked true narrative power. The best academic writing can be absorbing and thought-provoking, but without an authorial voice driving it, Les meilleurs ennemis is a shipwreck of facts – years and characters follow one another without the barest thread of a story holding it altogether. I often felt like I was reading a series of history flashcards (albeit accompanied by great art). Many consecutive panels begin along the lines of “In 1816,” “In 1830,” “In 1805″… followed by a fact or an event with minimal narrative. Given Filiu’s manuscript, it makes you wonder at the effort David B. put into the book to make it come to life. The subject itself and the critical perspective (mainly of but not limited to the US) taken by this book holds so much promise for a deeply absorbing tale, but there is a painful lack of a storyteller here. I almost wish a journalist had taken on this project instead of an academic/intellectual.

But I’d still pick up the second volume. Though dense and staggered, Les meilleurs ennemis is an informative and worthwhile read. I was left with especially strong feelings over the retelling of the CIA’s involvement in Iran’s 1953 coup d’état. It still boggles me that a country that prides itself on defending democracy and liberty calculatedly ousted a democratically elected leader over oil interests. This book is likely to inform and enrage you over the incredible hypocrisy and hubris of US foreign policy, just be prepared to take your time when reading it.


Oil pipes snake through this chapter as a visual narrative device

On the night of May 5th, just as the results of Malaysia’s general election were becoming apparent, signalling yet another five-year rule for ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN), pleas for foreign intervention started going viral on social media. Petitions to the White House as well as to the United Nations were created on Sunday night, with hundreds of thousands of Malaysians sharing and signing them within hours. Memes such as this one were created, urging Queen Elizabeth to take over Malaysia because “I don’t want it independent this way.” Hundreds switched their profile picture to black, mourning what they called the “death of democracy”.

Opposition Pakatan Rakyat supporters cheer on for candidate Hannah Yeoh, defending her seat in Subang Jaya. May 4th, 2013. CC / Flickr / Hitoribocchi

These have been some of the more extreme reactions amidst the collective despair of Malaysians who had voted for the opposition party and who were highly anticipating the end of BN’s 56-year rule. It was crushing for me personally to hear the results, but simultaneously shocking to see how Malaysians were reacting to them. I stayed glued to my laptop that day, watching my Facebook and Twitter feeds refresh with growing wrath in response to the flickering numbers of the election results.

It is a thick wave of disappointment that is being further fuelled by allegations of electoral fraud and sour, divisive remarks by BN politicians. Bersih, a local NGO that campaigns for electoral reform, is withholding recognition of the election’s results as they claim it was “marred with violations of election laws, code of conduct and endless political violence from the beginning to the end”. In response to BN’s worst election showing in history, its politicians have been blaming ungrateful Chinese voters and the Chinese “tsunami“.

Yet these are not new problems. Highly racialised politics and vote manipulation have been around since the country’s independence. Throughout the 60s and 70s, my parents watched their parents and the rest of the neighbourhood’s first-generation Chinese migrants – who barely spoke any Malay – coerced into buses that would take them into the next village. There, they casted their ballots in a process they did not understand and for parties they did not even recognise. They were told that if they didn’t do so, they would be sent back to China.

Malaysians are reclaiming political agency

“Kami mahu ubah” was a key slogan in this year’s election. It translates as “We want change”. May 4th, 2013. CC / Flickr / Hitoribocchi

The real novelty of this year’s election is the startling level of engagement of Malaysian civil society. Voter turnout was pegged at 80 percent, highest in the country’s history. The scale of anticipation leading up to Sunday and the overwhelming displays of collective disappointment following the results that night are unprecedented. Before 2008, the predominant sentiment was “anyone but BN” and then a resigned shrug at the announcement of BN’s expected victory. When BN first lost its two-thirds majority in parliament in 2008 most voters were overwhelmingly surprised, almost in jubilant disbelief at the change they brought with their votes.

Expectations have grown exponentially since then. It suggests that the Malaysian electorate is regaining its agency in a political process that was once frozen by soft authoritarianism – a term used by political scientists to describe a system that “softens” authoritarian rule with selected democratic features. Since the previous election people have become more personally invested in nation-building than ever, aligning themselves to movements that purport to oust a corrupt incumbent government. Former colleagues of mine and previously apolitical friends volunteered to be polling agents and independent observers. Many more participated in the huge Bersih rallies leading up to the election and in yesterday night’s post-election rally to protest the results.

Indeed, the despair and extreme disappointment that many felt on Sunday night was the strongest show of solidarity in the country that I have ever witnessed. To me, the extreme and far-ranging reactions towards BN’s latest victory are evidence of Malaysia’s growth pains at experiencing the first election that has ever felt this “real”. By believing in and anticipating ‘ubah’, the Malay word for change, opposition coalition Pakatan’s defeat felt like the first real loss for an electorate that is not traditionally accustomed to political engagement. This is especially true for those in their early to mid-20s, like myself, who anticipated change with their very first vote.

Xenophobia during the elections

Viral video of a suspected fraud voter being forced to sing the national anthem to "prove" he was Malaysian. Source: Facebook

Viral video of a suspected fraud voter being forced to sing the national anthem to “prove” he was Malaysian. Source: Facebook

But the freshness of the experience is creating a feverishness that cuts both ways. The fervent political mobilisation across the board is also causing a paranoid wave of xenophobia and fear-mongering amongst voters. Malaysians urged each other all weekend to bust phantom voters or what many were calling “hantu”, which means ghost in Malay and carries derogatory connotations – all in an effort to counter electoral fraud following allegations that Prime Minister Najib Razak had paid for flights to move tens of thousands of voters into marginal constituencies for Sunday’s election.

Individuals were singled out and harassed based on their appearance, with vigilante “ghost-busters” circulating videos and photographs of them and their identity cards widely online. In one viral video (pictured above), a suspected fraud voter was forced to sing the national anthem in front of a crowd of Chinese voters to “prove” he was Malaysian. He slipped up on one word, causing a man to jump belligerently on the mistake and a whole group of people to roar at him to get lost. He is one of many alleged Bangladeshis, referred to derogatorily as “Banglas” by many Malaysians, who became a victim of discrimination and harassment on Sunday.

In the heat of the moment, the irony of trying to oust incumbent BN with its race-based policies while hunting down Bangladeshis appear to have been lost on many over-enthusiastic voters. Part of the reason was the spread of unverified information and fear-mongering claims through social media and mobile technologies, causing paranoia and fear amongst many voters. These messages fuelled public insecurity and motivated excessively aggressive behaviour towards the ‘other’ – i.e. non-Malaysians.

Lack of reliable information


Indeed, reliable and level-headed information was a rare thing on Sunday. A stampede of alarmist pictures and messages claiming all sorts of things including the arrival of buses of Bangladeshis at various voting stations, suspicious blackouts across the country, and the “magical” appearance of ballot boxes were viralised online as well as through texting and Whatsapp, fanning public rage. Most of this information continues to be unverified and a concrete link to the doctoring of election results has yet to be proven.

Even the numbers of the election results were disputed across different sources throughout the night, creating confusion amongst the electorate. Suspicious of mainstream media, some did not know where else to go to consult live updates of the election results. Facebook user Jason Lim wrote on Sunday: “This election is so freaking confusing and non-transparent. I can’t find impartial information anywhere, even if I were trying to just find the facts. How come the Counting Agents are silent? Why are numbers different depending on the sources I visit?”

A handful of websites such as MalaysiaKini and the Democratic Action Party‘s (DAP) ubah.my provided live coverage of the results, but these were reportedly too slow and inconsistent. No organisation managed to pick up on and address the tide of rumours spreading online.

Growth pains of moving away from soft authoritarianism

These are growth pains of Malaysia’s slowly maturing civil society. After 56 years of BN’s rule, people are emerging from the trappings of soft authoritarianism to increasingly participate in the political process, whereby people mobilise, express political beliefs, and protest for positive change. From the many comments on social media, it was clear that many still do not fully grasp the concept of democracy as their own, calling it a “first world mentality”, and misunderstanding it as a status that could be earned by a country’s economic and social merit.

In view of the xenophobic and often racist comments flooding online feeds, some claimed despairingly that Malaysia did not “deserve” democracy. In view of what many saw as unfavourable election results, some claimed melodramatically that democracy was “dead”. For outsiders to Malaysian politics who were seeing such exchanges online (like the viral pleas for Queen Elizabeth to reclaim her colony) for the first time, most Malaysians must have appeared desperately passionate and simple.

Yet there is a lot to commend in terms of how far Malaysian civil society has come. The swift outcry and mobilisation in response to the election results is yet another sign of the increasing progressiveness of the electorate. Just five years ago, I could not comment publicly on Malaysian politics without my parents hushing me, saying that I was asking for trouble. This cautiousness has since evaporated. My father was one of the most active Facebook users on Sunday, spreading and sharing any information related to the election (yes, even the rumours).

Democracy is far from dead in Malaysia. In fact, it is more alive than ever. Certainly more is happening on the ground than ever before. Malaysians were hoping for a change in government, but this is ‘ubah’ too. And it is coming from the bottom-up. Can BN, the longest ruling coalition in the world, meet them halfway?

Note: Originally posted here.