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Thoughts

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.

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

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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.

Originally written for ASEFUAN‘s blog, about going to India and finding that not all was as I’d expected:

Child of Rajasthan

A village child near the desert town of Jaisalmer, India, not more than 30 minutes from the border of Pakistan

I have long had a fascination for India. At university, I picked up Hindi, signed up for a class on Indian cinema, and even joined Bollywood dancing. As a Malaysian, I thought I was immune to the sort of romanticised overtures many tend to associate with the subcontinent. We are both fiercely multicultural and corrupt countries, after all. With such academic preparation and an imagined cultural affinity with India, I thought I was ready for a two-month sojourn in Hindustan.

I was wrong.

India defies imagination. Photographs and writings from the region often suggest a politically troubled land filled with raucous colours and scents, a culture of spirituality and kitsch. Most of it is true. But any traveller will tell you that no amount of readings from the Lonely Planet and your South Asian studies classes can prepare you for the full experience.

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Holy cows loiter all over India’s streets

Andreas and I travelled for a month in the north of India, starting out with a week in Rajasthan. Rajasthan was the stuff of tourism ads, flourishing and colourful, but it was frighteningly dirty. We saw dogs eat cow shit off rubbish-spotted roads, and I fell ill from food-poisoning in Jaisalmer. We felt the sensory crush of heat waves and the traffic and the throngs of people squeezed in around you everywhere and the public pissing and the potholed roads and cow and goat and dog faeces and the homeless rickshaw cyclers and the rubbish sitting in piles reeking openly in sun and rain. As we took it all in, city after city in Rajasthan, we couldn’t imagine what the poorer parts of India (72% of the country’s people still live in rural areas) must look like. The picture we were getting did not sit well with the oft-touted image of India as a rising superpower.

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I was happy when we left for the mountains. We spent two weeks travelling from Srinagar to Leh, roving through the Indian Himalayas from one end of India’s northernmost state to the other. As we moved further away from Pakistan towards Tibet, we saw the landscape around us shift gradually from Muslim Kashmir into Tibetan Buddhist Ladakh.

The nerve-wrecking and arduous journey we took through the unpaved mountain roads and high passes was at least 3100m above sea-level, and it was devastatingly beautiful. Munich-born Andreas was not very impressed by Kashmir, which resembled the Alps, but was constantly in awe of Ladakh’s high-altitude desert mountains. I was less calm during the journey. At any moment, I thought we would slip off a cliff and plunge into the abyss below us. In the jeep, we made jokes about dying. It was terrifying, but the adrenalin kept me awake for the breathtaking view.

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The floating garden of Kashmir’s Dal Lake

For the first time in my life, I saw glaciers. I hadn’t come to India expecting that.

Later, when I interned at AFP’s bureau in New Delhi for a month and read the dispatches we put out on the wire, I felt as though the India I had experienced had been distilled completely into ideas. Our stories were about political deadlock, poverty and corruption scandals. The biggest story of the month was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s sudden announcement that India would now be easing in major foreign retailers. In a matter of weeks, I had to go from being a tourist to a journalist. The
timelessness of deserts, mountains and faces was now replaced by up-to-date news.

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A couple whose son went missing months ago, one of 15 cases per day in New Delhi

At every bend, I realised that my initial fascination with India had not waned, but was now imbibed with cynicism. Politicians were caught up in deadlock after deadlock in parliament, over allegations of scandal and strong opposition by the BJP and CPI towards Congress’s push for a more open economy. Some were rallying with strong words about how the small retailers and the agricultural workers would be the first to suffer from such changes in reform. But I couldn’t help but think all these big debates were unlikely to be understood by my grocer, even though he told me vehemently that Walmart was going to destroy his business.

But won’t it be good for India? I wanted to ask him. It will create more jobs. Many of your more rural counterparts won’t have to come to the city to languish homelessly in its streets and pull rickshaws. More money will be spread out. It may improve your supply chains. Haven’t you had enough of your closed and provincial economy?

Slack-jawedCommunist Party of India (CPI) members at a FDI protest rally in September, some of whom admitted to having been bused in and had no understanding of the issue

Communist Party of India (CPI) members at a FDI protest rally in September, some of whom admitted to having been bused in and had no understanding of the issue

No use. My grocer was a staunch supporter of opposition party BJP. But even the layman without political affiliations is still strongly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of village life. I wondered if this was the sort of mentality that was hindering India from truly achieving the superpower status everyone was talking about five years ago. With 1.2 billion people, India is the only country that has the scale and potential to reach China’s economic stature. Its pharmaceutical and IT sectors are renowned to be world-class, testament to India’s ability to compete with fully developed countries. But in its streets and its parliament, this power feels smothered. Wherefore India?

I found the disillusionment of going to India both humbling and liberating. The India I experienced was potent, proud, but unhappy. It had not turned out to be the stuff I had prepared myself for, but it had become all the more compelling for it. I look forward to going back.

A familiar juxtaposition in India: beauty and waste

old books make me think of sex. though in those days i did not think of sex as sex. they make me think of MAD magazine, of afternoons sitting on the scratched marble floor in our old house in Taman SEA, when 婆婆 was still living with us and most agile with a cane, when i still slept on a thin mattress in the same room as my parents, when my world was just the neighbourhood and when i was still running around catching tadpoles from the drain behind our house in a competition with the neighbourhood boys.

they make me think of sex – though at the time sex to me was that incomprehensible taboo of adults stripping naked and getting close to each other – because of the way those old magazines smelled. a sophisticated waft of stale talcum powder which i had thought was dust, of dry armpits, of the skin of an old person… it was a peculiar scent that to me blended in with images of a world filled with adult secrets like naked bodies, full breasts and erect nipples, pubic hair. lust was incomprehensible to me at the time, yet there were books on the shelves in the living room which nobody read or seemed to even remember, filled with pointed references to this mystifying idea of copulation and nakedness. graphic books filled with lewd and rabid imagery that were not meant for children, much more non-american ones, but were handed to me anyway because my unwitting parents believed all comics were meant for children. in this way, MAD’s cover wide grin with the gap in his front teeth and oval american freckles somehow became as much a part of my limited childhood consciousness as the bland adventures of peter and jane.

opening up the pages of Read Yourself Raw, i am again hit with the same wave of warped erotica that accompanied those scrambled afternoons of indiscriminate readings. the book is as old as i am, but i am somehow still feeling young and tainted – all over again – from the same talcum powder smell and the even starker brutality of these comics that make no pretensions to mollycuddle my sensibilities. only now the exhiliration, revulsion and confusion that i am met with comes with a host of new considerations: am i still just too young, or am i now just too asian, too conservative, too undiscerning for such literature?

contemporary writing, and by this i suppose i mean post-90’s writing, doesn’t seem to even touch the same level of haunting talcum powder sensations that RYR does. is it because i’m not reading enough?

…is easily the most intelligent and serious “do gooder” institution i have ever come across. i am going through its blog posts and discussions on microcredit vs. microsavings and i am just completely blown away by the quality of thought going into the project.

A is probably the only one who knows this right now but ineffective NGOs are a major pet peeve of mine, right up there with pet shops and poor education policy. more specifically, i am skeptical of most self-proclaimed “do gooder” organisation that lives off the marketing of volunteerism as a consumer good or service.

what do i mean? i don’t believe volunteers should have to pay for a true volunteer experience beyond providing for their personal living costs. i don’t believe donation is a moral substitute for actually doing something useful to help people in need, even more so when no homework is done to check if the donated funds will be spent effectively. just because an organisation has an inspiring mission statement on resolving such-and-such issue in such-and-such impoverished region doesn’t necessarily make it capable of fulfilling its objectives.

there are too many organisations that live off the morally earnest and gullible by offering the option of volunteering in various exotic locations as though international aid is some sort of petting zoo tour. even more numerous are those which parade its causes in the vein of activist fundamentals, without objective research to back up its methods or enough objectivity to see where efficiency and progress is lacking in achieving its outcomes. just because an organisation exists to do something ethically commendable does not make that organisation commendable in and of itself, and does not make it necessarily deserving of donated funds or the precious time of a volunteer.

what irritates me above all though is the holier-than-thou attitude some of these more activist-like orgnisations give across. just because one cares an extraordinary amount about some issue doesn’t mean one sits a step above on the moral step ladder.

to know i’m clearly not the only one with a healthy level of skepticism vis-à-vis NGOs and the like, and that something intelligent is being done about researching their effectiveness (or lack thereof) makes me extremely happy. more than that, i am impressed and absolutely inspired. kudos, kudos, my cup runneth over, and all that.

The self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc in a Buddhist protest against Ngo Dinh Diem’s leadership, Saigon, 1963

watching the video today left me in such a state of disbelief and shame that it was all i could think about for many hours after. i felt the heat of the fire lick the back of my eyes and i nearly broke into tears in class. could i possibly imagine the variety of unhappiness and anger that must have driven Thich to set himself up in flames? the Buddhist resistance seems eerily akin to what the non-bumiputra resistance could be like. and yet of course nobody in godforsaken Malaysia today could ever be as passionate or desperate as he was, sitting calmly till his death for the sake of carrying the message of a just cause. i wanted to cry, to scream, to flail my arms in agony for him. i couldn’t believe his meditative posture, cross-legged and firm, all the way until he fell onto his back and gave himself in to the hungry flames. never before had i ever felt the blow of politics and religion so keenly on my own burning cheek. perhaps i will never understand the ridiculous technicalities of the subject within the sterile confines of academia, but i will never forget the burning motivations behind such an act.

just realised for the first time that the left navigation bar of Al Jazeera‘s homepage actually lumps South Asia with Central Asia – with South abbreviated to an ignonimious S. couldn’t help thinking what a pisser it must be for those from either region to have to share one measly news section. you would think that the expansive demographic of more than 1.2 billion people deserve a wee bit more titular dignity on a news page. as it is, the notion of Asia seems to be quite unfairly hegemonized by North East Asia and that little red dot. should this fallaciousness really be encouraged? the convergence of Central/S. Asia – two completely unique regions – into such a singular category of interest strikes me as a very blunt red cherry topping off an already existing, unconsciously tactless and sadly popular observance of the regions’ négligeabilité.

my first thought was to label the plight as “ignominy”, but apparently the word doesn’t mean what i thought it should. my second thought was to say “negligibility”, but then i realised i was manglais-ing the french verb for neglect. at any rate, the word i’m looking for doesn’t exist in either language, but i think it should. and in my dictionary it would be listed as: the quality of being easily overlooked; being a wallflower; “the ~ of particular populations are publicly presented on certain international news websites”.

that said, i suppose at least Central Asia gets a mention. the BBC seems to have tactfully left it out and subtly merged “all other news” underAsia Pacific. clever.