December 3, 2007

Funny reactions

"What! I can’t believe he said that! It’s so not funny!" I protested in disbelief.

"Well, his eyes ARE really small … why are you over-reacting?" my friend asked, half laughing.

I haven’t been watching much TV these days. Maybe that’s why I was so surprised at the kind of humour I saw at the weekend on TV. I was watching what looked like a Malaysian talk show when its two hosts walked up to a boy of Chinese descent with really small eyes in the crowd. They then started talking to him with a heavy Chinese put-on accent, obviously trying to be funny. Then one of them asked him to "open his eyes". To which the boy replied that his eyes were like that. To ensure maximum comedic effect, that host went on to make fun of his "slitty" eyes another two times. The poor boy didn’t seem quite sure how to react, but with the camera on him and possibly a few million people in Malaysia watching, he probably made the right choice to laugh along reluctantly. What was really funny was that the host who made fun of the boy, had eyes that were not much bigger than his, except that he was not of Chinese descent.

I was getting annoyed watching the kid being a target of racist jokes in front of the whole nation. Was I over-reacting just because I didn’t find it funny but disgusting instead? I wasn’t going to burn anything or hunt anyone down to make my point.

Was it is because it triggered memories of when I was 18, a group of European students walked past me and one of them pulled her eyes from the sides to make them look slitty, asking if I was from China? Never mind that I have big eyes, but the fact that I looked Chinese was sufficient for them to make fun of me with this stereotype.

So I had big eyes and the kid in the talk show had small ones but we were still made fun of anyway. Does it make a difference whether there was truth to these jokes or not? No, because the point is that in both instances, a stereotype was used to make fun of the other; from the bad Chinese-accented speech to the emphasis of a "racial marker" to put one in his or her place and to differentiate one as the "other".

Some might shrug racist jokes off and say it’s no big deal. They may even use them to make fun of their friends and each other. However, bantering amongst friends is quite different from a situation where one from a position of power makes fun of another in a disadvantaged place. In the controversy surrounding The Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, it is worth noting that the offensive cartoons were done by the dominant culture in the west to make fun of Muslims in a society where there is already a history of Islamophobia and a marginalised Muslim community.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that we should start banning people from making racist jokes, especially in Malaysia where it’ll just be another slippery slope to have anything and everything under the sun banned just because it offends someone for the silliest reasons. But neither should we be saying that it is okay to misuse and abuse "free speech" to defend bigotry, as some misguided people have done in regards to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons.

Watching that TV talk show and reflecting upon my friend’s comments was a good reminder to keep our reactions in check when an injustice occurs, and also our reactions towards other’s reactions. As there may be times when we are too quick to dismiss certain quarters as being "over-sensitive" or "over-reacting" without understanding the bigger picture and context of the grievances. If only everyone acts with maturity and responsibility to find out whether what we are doing is really building or breaking bridges between communities in our society. Stereotyping is really just a lazy and irresponsible way to form conclusions, and in some cases, to entertain.

October 11, 2007

At the sidelines of Independence

You know that feeling when you're really looking forward to something but you get slapped in the face instead? Well, not literally of course although that could happen and if so I hope you had some help there.

On a less dramatic note, this could be like what some Malaysians call 'potong-steam'; when you've ordered a delicious looking ice kacang on a menu but get a small bowl with bits of nuts swimming in a puddle of pink and green instead. The biggest of such disappointment for me this year might just be what was supposed to be the best Merdeka celebration ever.

I've always watched the festivities on television but this year was- as you know - 'special'. I found myself somewhere near Merdeka square itself with a great view of the city skyline, on the eve of Merdeka.

'We'll be able to see the fireworks from here. Best-nya!' Someone said in glee.

Or so we thought. Upon countdown, one could tell that people around sensed that something was very, very wrong. Never mind that there were no fireworks, but we were treated to a series of self glorifying long speeches by ministers instead; the abbreviations of the ruling party's coalition were mentioned as though the ruling party is all that Malaysia is made of; there was no regard or space for anyone else that fell outside of it. The gigantic symbol of the ruling party projected on a building forming the backdrop says it all.

Is that what Merdeka means? The glorification of an exclusive few without regard to other Malaysians who has contributed to our country at the expense of our tax money? Slowly we started to realize that we were not really witnessing the merdeka celebrations at all, but rather, what seemed more like a political rally. To make the whole experience even more painful, our Malaysian flag was hoisted by someone who has yet to contribute to our country in any significant way while having shown questionable ways in which to garner political support. I have never felt ashamed being a Malaysian apart from that very moment.

After that fiasco, I made it a point ever more so to attend the 50:44 Malaysia Merdeka event held at Central Market, organized by a coalition of civil societies to remember the people that built this nation for the past 50 years since Independence and 44 years since becoming Malaysia. As opposed to the official celebrations, I felt proud being a Malaysian at this event; knowing that despite the circus that goes on, there are committed Malaysians who are working towards a future that is more just and inclusive.

Merdeka day has passed and it is largely back to business as usual for most. Having said that, this year's celebration at merdeka square probably had an influence on what I can and will do as a Malaysian when the time comes, even if it is a reactionary one. I will remember this year's official merdeka celebrations for sure, but all for the wrong reasons.

(First draft for The Sun, sept 2007)

August 23, 2007

Damned if you do, damned if you don't?

I PRESSED the button for my queue number and out came the tiny printout. On it, the
large bold numbers read – “1444”.

Great, I thought. The whole process is doomed from the start. No matter how you add these numbers up, its literal meaning in Chinese still refers to an impending doom.

“Chinese?” The guy behind the counter asked when my turn came.
That was usually visually quite obvious but credit must be given to him for not making assumptions.

“Eh, Malaysian lah!” I tried to joke with him but he didn’t find it funny. I nodded.

“Religion?” he asked. I attempted to form an answer precise enough for the purpose,
while my mind worked in parallel trying to find real reasons as to why this information was needed. In between my mumblings and him asking if I was “Buddha”, my faith was sealed. Well, on my voter registration form, that is.

“What’s the point of voting?” a friend asked me on my way to the post office to register myself. “The outcome’s always the same anyway,” he said. “The problem of ‘phantom voters’ never quite goes away. And haven’t you heard how voting district boundaries keep changing?” Wow, really? What a system! So resourceful and flexible, who says our country works like anything but that?

Is this whole voting process really doomed from the start, or at least a “pointless”
exercise? The mechanisms/laws just aren’t strong enough to keep democracy healthy. What our media can or cannot say can be determined by the powers that be. Oh yes, and there’s the fear. Just recently a blogger was arrested. It’s enough to strike fear in all moderate and good thinking Malaysians who had something to say in the interest of nation building. It’s quite a neat package we have here really; a well-oiled system to perpetuate the current state. At least until our oil money runs out.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t?

What’s most annoying are Malaysians who bemoan the problems in our country while vehemently believing that nothing can be done. That is as good as saying “everything is fine, at least for me”. Or, if they’re working and living abroad, “Our country’s
heading downhill, but you can continue to rot back there”. Well, if everyone thinks like that then surely our country will be like what it says on my post office queue number printout – 1444.

But that’s just a lazy way to go about things. Everyone knows how to complain and everyone’s a critic. In the spirit of Chinese numerology, you can call these people
5354 (neither here nor there). If only everyone does something about it instead of only complaining. I don’t know about you, but I’d really like to see our tax money being used wisely. And I’d like to support leaders who envision an equal society and who work on realising it, not by giving bold press statements that are meaningless given that our media lacks bite.

Even so, whatever is reported in the mainstream papers can be a worrying reflection of the kind of governance we have. Take the case of the recently victorious Broga
residents against the incinerator project. The government’s decision as reported inthe media to cancel the project was due to high costs involved, and not because of any protest. No mention of how and why it was approved in the first place. It’s patronising as well disregards the people’s concerns. Sometimes we forget it is our tax money that is being used, 1.5 billion of it. I would want to know how it is being used.

Voting is not the only thing we can do, but it is something we can and must do to have our say. Don’t be too bothered by 5354 people who see only 1444, but exercise
whatever means we have in our control to create a better country.

The purpose of education

"So what is your project about?' I asked the boy 'interviewing' me for his school project. He became really busy noting my details down while asking his friends to tend to my query. There was some confusion amongst them and they finally concluded that they had no idea what it was about. One boy commented that even their teacher did not know what it was about.

These kids, smelling of a day's sweat, were obviously collecting data simply because they were told to, without knowing what it was for. Allowing them to embark on a project without knowing what it was really about was a worrying sign. They left me in disbelief until I recalled how I never knew what my high school project was about and how I don't remember my teacher trying to explain it to us. Perhaps our big class of 40 had something to do with it. School was about being obedient and quiet in class. A teacher's attempt to encourage us to speak up in later years were no match to our years of serious training to blend in; it was a culture whereby those voluntarily speaking out were branded 'gila glamour' (glamour seeker/crazy) or something to that effect.

My conclusion was that I didn't learn much during my school days here. Fortunately I (and many others I hope) did at later years that led to my development of mind-set and world-views. I was left wondering what the purpose of education is in our malaysian context, and if our current education system is succeeding in achieving them?

We often talk about education in terms of literary statistics but the reality is that in many countries its purpose ends up being to feed the capitalist machinery. Is education merely the teaching of certain specific knowledge and skills to create a stable workforce? If so, a workforce for whom and towards what? Or, should education also be for something less tangible but to empower individuals to be a force for positive social change? Aside from earning a living, I am inclined to include the latter definition as to the real purpose of education. According to this purpose and definition, an 'educated person' will not be a scientist from who uses science to perpetuate sexism, and certainly not an oxford graduate who speaks in a racially divisive manner. Perhaps an educated person should include her or him as one who is able to perceive and treat others to be equal to itself. Most of us would fall short by that standards, but it is nevertheless an ideal we should strive for.

No one denies that our education system plays a major role in shaping Malaysia's future. Apart from what seems like a system to churn out an obedient and unquestioning workforce, our education policies seem to be reactionary to different demands from different groups in our society, rather than what should be a cohesive plan towards nation building.

As much as our education system produces the minds that shapes our society, it is in itself a reflection of our society. So how do we push for changes in our education system? Do we have a say on how things are run? Does our media reflect the real concerns of our people? How do we present our concerns to those who can make those changes? Perhaps it all starts in the actions of each and everyone of us to influence each other and our decision makers.

May 28, 2007

Want changes? Do something!

Oh, enough already! Sexist MPs, public fund wastages, environmentally unsustainable policies, and no press freedom to perpetuate the whole madness. Despite all that, fear not for we can always take matters in our own hands. Here are some mini projects that we can start off with.

Green gyms

"It's going to be the end of the world! We've got to do something! But what can we do?"

Green gym was inspired by desperate cries of people realising the seriousness of climate change. We need energy but the all-powerful energy/oil companies aren't going to embark on sustainable ways to provide them yet; at least not until we run out of oil and boil our earth to bits in the process (or freeze, depending on how the climate changes, or where you are apparently).

Now, there are many ways to harness clean energy besides burning cheap CO2-emitting coal or gas, such as harnessing them from the growing number of urbanites pointlessly running on thread-mills and riding stationary bicycles in gyms. What a waste. Sure they're exercising but why not make them useful too. Think of the gym as one big and complex dynamo battery.

We can take this further and implement this system in our homes! That way everyone has to exercise regularly.

"If you want lights tonight you better run on your thread-mill first!" We can then have a "green" and healthy society! How wonderful.

Ok, so green gyms won't provide us with all the energy we need and I honestly don't know how feasible that is, but the point is that there are so much energy wastages around and also alternatives to the way we're destroying or using up our limited resources.Ê

Bodyguards for women

"Damn, I wish I had bodyguards!" my friend Mariam lamented in frustration. Well, why not?

Lobbying for legislation that protects women's rights can be an arduous affair. What more when we have sexist MPs. In the meantime, we will just have to deal with our day-to-day problems ourselves.

Aggression is a way which some men use to intimidate or bully women. Mariam had the worse experience simply having to hire a lorry when "moving house". She was "persuaded" to pay an exorbitant sum for services she didn't need. It was complete extortion and bullying. When patronising her didn't work, the male mover's demeanour became aggressive with the aim to intimidate and threaten.

There is nothing in our law that women can use against intimidation, unless words like "I will beat/kill you" were actually said. Mariam's visit to the police was met with the following response, "Lain kali biar dia pukul sajalah, baru ada kes!" (Next time let him hit you so you can have a case!)". It doesn't look like Mariam has many options.

Well, Mariam has had enough of being bullied and intimidated. She wants gender-sensitised "bodyguards" on-call for women when encountering "at risk" situations. Had there been "bodyguards" with her that day, chances were that she would not be intimidated. Anyone who wants to help her kick start this project, please email Why wait for changes to happen from the top when we can do something about it now? A community in Bario, Sarawak, is doing just that.

Community-based micro-hydro project

In 1999, the former Rural Development Minister officially opened a mini-hydroelectric project in Bario, Sarawak. The project which cost the federal government RM12 million failed and was abandoned after only one day in operation because the river was too small to generate power for the dam's power station. Now, their community has been organising themselves and raising their own funds to install a smaller micro-hydro system instead. This will provide the village with a constant supply of clean and renewable energy at the fraction of the cost of diesel power. (Volunteers can contact them at

Such initiative for community-based renewable energy has already been successfully implemented elsewhere in Belaga, Sarawak. Built at a cost of RM180,000, a 10 kilowatt-capacity micro-hydro dam has been providing constant and sustainable source of energy to light their bulbs at night and develop their cottage industries, without affecting much of the environment.

Simply being pessimistic and ranting about our problems alone is a bad reflection of our own community. We can be proactive to make positive changes in many ways.

Published in The Sun Mon, 28 May 2007

April 30, 2007

A convenient deception

Watching the documentary film 'An Inconvenient Truth' recently was a good reminder of how terrible we are at how we choose to live out life when the result of our actions are not apparent in the immediate future. Just like the proverbial frog that slowly boils to death in lukewarm water, the human race may just not react fast enough to save its own skin.

Even when scientists all agree that human activity caused the unprecedented rise in global temperature, we have yet to change significantly the way we live in order to have a sustainable future.

What has changed, it seems, are how environmental concerns are being used as marketing or branding strategy. The CEO of YTL Corporation recently proclaimed himself to be a 'tree hugger' and a 'greenie'. There was something quite incongruent to the whole picture. Perhaps it is because his company makes a healthy profit out of producing greenhouse gases from power plants, and cuts trees to develope luxury apartment. No matter how healthy a cigarette company claims it makes its cigarettes to be, them funding cancer research and then calling themselves 'public health activists' would be highly perplexing.

In any case, a corporation that sponsors/funds green campaigns when they are contributors to global warming or of any environmental pollutants should be a case of attempting to 'pay back' to the ecological debt they created, rather than a self-sacrificing exercise that many seem to perceive it to be.

I stumbled upon a new development called 'Sepang Gold Coast' on Bagan Lalang beach one weekend and was told that it was a joint venture between the Selangor state investment arm and an Indonesian company. Huge signboards there claimed it to be eco-friendly. I asked a representative/staff there why this is so and he didn't seem to know why either. Unless this is a case of a badly informed staff, I shudder to think how eco-friendly a development of this size can be that will take up 22km of our shoreline. What seems likely is that there will be a few wealthy parties profiting from investing in the luxury resort. What is uncertain and unlikely, is how this mega development would result in that area being better off environmentally.

Environmental awareness has not reached a level where it is easy for the public to see through marketing ploys, and it is becoming more and more trendy and convenient for companies to be 'eco-friendly' without actually being so. Good intentions and bad executions in building and development also spell disaster. If a developer clears and build on one of the few remaining forested area in KL, no amount of environmental self-labeling or green advertisement should mean anything good. If a company claims to be environmental friendly and to protect million year old rainforest on an island surrounding their luxury development, ask instead why they chose to develop on that previously undisturbed island that would inevitably mean destruction and disturbance to its environment?

Aside from playing on the public's level of environmental awareness, the danger of mis-using words like 'conservation, greenie, or eco-friendly' is that it trivializes and dilutes its meaning and the cause in which many sincere and concerned people are working on. As such, we should be careful in using these words that is meant to represent values crucial for our future existence. We're in times where real human suffering is happening as a result of global warming greatly accelerated by uncontrolled human activity, and will likely be experiencing more unless a major change happens. Watch 'An Inconvenient Truth', find out what you can do, and watch out for those who mis-use and trivialize the cause.

The writer dedicates this article to the real 'greenies' out there for their inspiration and contributions; real 'greenies' who often work behind the scenes without fear or favour.

(Original draft. Edited article first published in The Sun 28 march 2007)

March 6, 2007

Beauty of rituals

Think of the word ritual and we usually associate it with practices or ceremonies performed for symbolic reasons. Sometimes, the significance and purpose of a ritual is forgotten and we do it out of tradition. Witnessing a "water blessing ceremony" recently, it struck me as to how beautiful the purpose and meaning of a ritual can be; it was an act so moving that everyone present was moved to tears.

To an alien, pouring water onto someone's hands using a conch shell would seem to be a strange practice, as with piercing our bodies, or shaking hands when we meet. But if you're familiar with Thai weddings, (or if you've just googled up "water blessing ceremony") you will know that this is a common ceremony done at Thai weddings; the couple, joined by a lei of flowers tied together with string and placed on the couple's heads, signifying their unity, is seated at a table with their hands held over a cushion. The bride's mother and father, followed by the rest of the guests, bless the couple by pouring water over their palms with a conch shell as they wish them well for their future. I came to know of this ceremony at a wedding where the bride was Thai. While watching the couple being blessed by their family members, tears welled in the guests' eyes while some wept. As I watched the ritual, the meaning and purpose of it became much more salient than any other wedding ceremonies I have been to.

This was because the guests knew that both women took two years to convince their families to participate in their wedding. They also knew that it took a lot of love and support from friends and families to be involved in the entire wedding process, when many were resistant to the idea in the first place. It was not just a party or gathering with friends, but an affirmation of their relationship blessed and acknowledged by those that mean the most to them. The value of such an affirmation is sometimes taken for granted at most weddings, but is a scarce and valuable ritual for gay couples, when parents or loved ones knew no other than a prejudiced society.

In a society or family where same-sex relationships and open expressions are taboo, the water blessing ceremony became very meaningful and purposeful; it provided a way in which to express their love and acceptance.

The significance of this ritual as observed then is also telling of such difficulties faced by gay couples. Prior to this, I would have thought it unimaginable for a traditional Asian family to affirm a gay relationship so publicly. It took two years, but they turned around in the end, and they in turn, got the support from relatives too. All were involved in organising the event including a traditional Chinese tea ceremony, as the other bride was Chinese. They didn't change the world, but they changed the world they inhabit for the better.

I truly recommend attending not just any wedding, but one that had to overcome many obstacles to make it happen; to experience the beauty of rituals, the significance of it, and most importantly, to bear witness to love, courage, and its capacity for real change in our society.

Published in The Sun Mon, 05 Mar 2007

February 26, 2007

It wasn't me

When Shaggy sang that number one hit song It Wasn't Me in 2000, many people sniggered and sang along with it too. I suppose there is something funny about being naughty and getting away with it. While one can get away light-heartedly with farting in the lift, getting away with a given responsibility or simply not taking it seriously sometimes comes at a heavy cost to others, even with their lives.

Blame has to be given to someone, or something else, when one refuses to take responsibility. Nature, it seems, is an easy target of late.

Flash floods that occurred in flood-prone areas of Singapore and Johor following heavy rain is one such example. While floods receded in a matter of hours in Singapore, Johor stayed flooded for three weeks resulting in economic losses of RM2.4 billion including clean-up and reconstruction. More than 104,000 people had to be evacuated and at least 17 people died. Now, we know all that from the barrage of news on the flood, but we should also know what should or could have been done to prevent this disaster.

Heavy rainfall alone cannot be solely blamed for the recent tragedy. One wonders why river systems, with years of sediments and siltation, has not been dredged or widened? Rivers that are narrower and shallower over time results in a slower discharge of water during heavy rainfall, making flooding even more severe.

Uncontrolled development and the destruction of water catchment areas have all contributed to this disaster. While we cannot stop the rain from falling, we can and should plan ahead to mitigate the flooding. Even our prime minister has commented in the news regarding observations on the weaknesses in the drainage system of Johor. A study will be done on why the flooding occurred as it has, but it should be known to all as well, if anyone or parties are to be held accountable for the poorly planned development in Johor, and elsewhere.

Thirteen years ago, heavy rainfall was also initially blamed for the landslide and collapse of the Highland Towers that claimed 48 lives. However, we now know that poor planning and human error were factors leading up to the tragedy. While a few parties were held liable in a federal court ruling last year, the local councils cannot be held liable for losses should a building collapse. Local authorities such as the MPAJ were given full immunity under Section 95 (2) of the Street,
Drainage & Building Act 1974 (Act 133). One is left wondering how safe we are in our own homes, when there is no accountability in this approval process.

Finally, for potential victims of this screwed-up process, I hope we do something about it before the next tragedy occurs. Perhaps start with finding out how we can make the relevant authorities more accountable for their actions or inactions. To deny one's responsibility as a citizen when one is in a position to act, may just be no different than that of irresponsible authorities. After all, no one lives in a vacuum and it will be our collective effort and public opinion that will ultimately shape the direction of our own country.

Published in The Sun, Mon, 22 Jan 2007

Who will air your dirty laundry?

There is a very cili padi article being circulated on the net, written by one Aussie ( In it, he describes what is happening in our "boleh-land", on how we are wasting our country's resources such as the "RM95 million of our taxpayers' money that will be spent on space travel with little obvious technical benefits"; money that could otherwise be used for our ailing education system. Some Malaysians are very angry at him. A friend who read it says he has Tall Poppy syndrome. Mind your own business, says another.

Some of us don't know whether to be angry or to give him the thumbs up. Perhaps it's time someone said so publicly and so "tepat (accurately) at that." But why, oh why, must a Mat Salleh write it?

In the past, Alice Walker and Audre Lorde were black women who spoke out against the violence and silencing that black women faced in their community. For that they have been branded as traitors to the black cause, as if the cause is just for men. Minority women were saddled with double discrimination. First, by being a minority, and secondly, by being women.

Muslim women are in the same quandary. When they speak out against the constraints on Muslim women, they are branded as Western agents and traitors to Islam. In the Chinese community, covering up shameful deeds is called "saving face". Injustices happen in every community, and when such injustices happen, more often than not, the oppressed - or victims - will not have the luxury to choose who will help their cause. When there are few or none within their community who will hear them or give them a voice, who are we to blame if a foreigner does that instead?

By silencing those who seek justice, or simply being pathethically aphathethic ourselves, we would be allowing more opportunity for others to highlight the problem, and in the process, to unfairly emphasise negative aspects in our society. Why give reasons for others to appropriate our causes, others who may not really care for us, but are using our causes for their own agenda?

When there are any negative stereotypes of your religion or race being perpetuated, perhaps what is more effective in countering such prejudices, apart from just reasoning alone, is to speak out and actually do something to set things right. It is disappointing that there is a large proportion of "educated" adults who have not or do not at least speak out against injustices perpetuated by those within their own community. How many men out there are brave enough to speak out against sexism? I can think of one. How sad.

How many non-Muslims have spoken out against Islamophobia? And how many Malays spoke out against the polarising effects of speakers at the recent Umno meeting bent on using demagogy to fuel their short-term popularity?

Not many, unfortunately. Our "fight" is not against any perceived group of people; it is against injustice, as simple and as naive as that may sound. When we begin to create an atmosphere where we seek to understand and address concerns and realities of all communities, instead of just our own, perhaps then it would be easier to build bridges.

Do we want foreigners to air our dirty laundry for us? Not if we want to allow others to inflate their sense of ego, and certainly not if enough of our leaders show that they are listening to the rakyat. Until then, as they say, padan muka.

Published in The Sun, Mon, 27 Nov 2006 (

February 23, 2007

In Chinatown, everyone is Bruce Lee

What do a "Muslim woman writer" and a "Chinese male actor" have in common? No, it is not just that they both eat food. It has something to do with media stereotypes and the struggle for representation and identity beyond what is imposed by the mainstream media.

Watch any commercial blockbuster movie and chances are that you will not find any other representation of a Chinese man, besides the "triad gang member" and "kung fu fighter". A Chinese male actor would be hard-pressed to find a job in a mainstream movie if he does not do either roles.

The placing of the Chinese male within the mainstream (read "western") media in its creative consciousness has always been a little problematic. I happened to be in the States when Ang Lee won the Academy Award (Best Director) for Brokeback Mountain and diligently caught the news on TV that evening to see him receiving his award.

Alas, there was no such thing, not even a clear shot of Ang Lee but a passing one of him getting up from his seat. So I had a look at a newspaper the next morning to get a clearer look of him, and there he was on the front page; a side profile of him kissing Clint Eastwood's hand.
If I was totally clueless, I would have thought that Clint Eastwood was the one receiving the award instead. I found myself thinking, "did I miss something here? Is this the usual exposure you get from winning the best director award?"

Probably not, but maybe, if your origins are from the Far East. After all, Chinese people are known to be good with numbers but it would be difficult to place them in the English speaking world's creative sphere. Asians or "orientals" as the British call us, are sometimes those interesting, cute, and exotic species you see in the background of an MTV music video, but not so much as persons with character, depth, and all things human.

While the Chinese male actor needs more than luck to break into mainstream movies without pandering to the "western" stereotype of him, the Muslim woman writer has it even worse.
An article written by Mohja Kahf (On Being a Muslim Woman Writer in the West) articulates very succinctly the problems of trying to break away from a stereotype. (

Pick up any book by a Muslim women writer published by major publishers these days, and chances are that the story will be about a hapless victim of conservatism, or one who has escaped from the evil clutches of her society, sometimes helped by a brave and progressive white man.

Never mind the struggle of her own people within her community who fought hard for equality. Apparently what sells is just those stories of them as a victim or escapee. How many would stop to think that issues and stories on honour killings are really exoticising what is essentially domestic violence?

In addition to having to deal with these negative stereotypes, the Muslim woman writer also has to answer to her own community should she compromise by fitting into this stereotype. As by doing so, she would be perpetuating a negative stereotype of her community that has already been demonised.

The Muslim woman writer is caught between wanting to avoid pandering to this stereotype while trying to get her book published for the mainstream buyers who, ultimately, pay her bills. While some compromise in full knowledge, others even have their work slanted towards these stereotypes by virtue of what is printed on their book cover itself, which some may not have control of. If all we see are books or media that perpetuate and pander to these stereotypes, it is no wonder there is a phobia of her religion and community.

The victim or escapee stereotype is nothing new and has also been a theme with Chinese women writers. Think of the Chinese woman victim who escapes to the west from the evil clutches of communism. Besides being the "victim", "escapee", or "dragon lady", the Chinese woman also has the unfortunate (or fortunate, to the confused or opportunistic) role to play as the exotic sex kitten.

Stereotypes are sometimes so ingrained that we ourselves do not even question them. We forget that when we speak of a group of people, that they are essentially people with the same concerns as us who wish for peace and happiness, as cliche as that may sound, and who are as diverse as ourselves. Asians are not one homogenous group of people who think and act the same; there are so many different characteristics within and between Asian countries. The same should apply to people in Europe or the Middle East.

Do you know any Chinese men who are kung fu fighters or triad members? Hell, I personally don't know any who are, let alone any sizable majority. Yet, that is the representation we have from the western mainstream media. How strange is that.

Published in The Sun Tue, 31 Oct 2006

Hope we're not a lost cause too

I think I was about six when I first saw a live penyu. Actually, that was about the only time I ever saw a leatherback turtle, and probably my last. Little did I know then that our adorable penyu would eventually be described as the "living dead".

There was little cause for celebration when our leatherback friends made the news recently. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) declared the leatherback of Terengganu was "effectively extinct", its population having dwindled to the point where it is incapable of regeneration. And so it is essentially living out its final years, hence the morbid term.

Our penyu's sad ending is a fine example of how too little was done before it was too late. Its population has been dwindling since the 80s. Despite warnings from turtle scientists and conservationists, there was little effort made to save it. Or at best, there were ill-thought-out action plans against poachers and the mortality it suffered at sea because of illegal fishing operations using trawl and gill nets.

However, it is reported that our national agency that is responsible for saving the turtles (Tumec) is not giving up. It is pinning its hopes on the discovery of five nests with 336 eggs. Another report gives the figure at 375 eggs. Whichever is correct, it is inconsequential and dismal given that scientists predict that for every 1,000 hatchlings produced, only one will reach adulthood to sustain the population. In view of this, it will be a waste of public funds now to launch grand plans to revive what is known to be a lost cause. Prior to this, their efforts to incubate turtle eggs in centres which are 100% exposed to sunlight resulted in eggs hatching as females, as temperature is a key factor in determining the gender of hatchlings.

At first glance, injecting optimism makes for a good story, but I'm not sure the hope and bravado of Tumec at this stage was appropriate or does any good. Perhaps the headlines should read instead: "Great effort, wrong timing." Maybe then we will be more inclined to learn from past mistakes.

Apathy, carelessness, and denial are often essential ingredients in a deadly mix when it comes to concocting a recipe for disaster. The Highland Towers tragedy is a case in point. Thirteen years after the tragedy, the Ampang Jaya Municipal Council was found not liable for the collapse of the buildings which killed 48 people. One wonders why the local authority is given the mandate to approve building projects when it is not held accountable.

Published in The Sun Tue, 22 Aug 2006

Build, not burn bridges

A column I read on an online newspaper recently set me thinking. Something about religion, terrorism, and the disruption of flight schedules. The writer laments how innocent people are being killed by terrorists, and rants on about how some Malaysians were ambivalent about terrorists or even support them. She has extremely valid concerns. What concerned me as well, however, were her bigoted expressions in referring to Palestinians as people "with a penchant for violence", and the use of statistics to associate a particular religion (Islam) with terrorism.

To justify her point that one religion preaches more or less violent ways over another, she asked readers to do an internet search on "Islamic terrorists" and "Buddhist terrorists" where the phrases register 711,000 and 1,910 hits respectively. Out of curiosity, I Googled up the phrases "female terrorists" (14,300 Google hits) and "male terrorists" ( 2,260 Google hits). It doesn't take long for one to see the absurdity of using these sorts of numbers to assert a point of view. As far as searching the latter phrases on the internet are concerned, the results at most reflect the number of people talking about Muslim terrorists, and not even terrorist websites themselves. After all, those she would term as terrorists would not call themselves terrorists on their own websites.

The argument on whether religion and violence are compatible or not ultimately lies in one's interpretation of it. Furthermore, a study done by political scientist Robert Pape, who analysed every known case of suicide terrorism from 1980 to 2003 concludes: "religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organisations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective."

To assert that the cause of terrorism is something inherent whether in religion or race, is not only unfounded, but also irresponsible, as this closes the doors for dialogue between communities and within our society. Let alone it being a pointless exercise in which to demonise an already marginalised group by the international media. We ought to examine what supports terrorism and what it thrives on. This is not an excuse for violent actions, which we must condemn, but in looking for explanations and ways to stem factors that support these actions.Ê

My concern is that as there is already such deep polarisation between the "west" and the "Islamic" world, shouldn't we look to build bridges instead of burning them? Continuing to possess and to expound this kind of prejudiced worldview without the slightest awareness of its implications only serves to further divide people.

We should be engaging with one another across communities, if not actively, at least to keep check on whether one's own worldview, is fair, or otherwise, to support the latter efforts. To see, and help fight injustices suffered by your neighbours is one way to build bridges. Failing to do so would be a lost opportunity and a detriment to our own fight against the deepening divides in our society.

Unfortunately, until we learn to engage with each other without reacting negatively in the first instance to stereotyped views, it will be extremely difficult to reach out across communities.

The writer is a psychologist by day and a singer-songriter on other days. She likes to pay her bills on time.

Published in The Sun Fri, 29 Sep 2006 (

Love petai, love Malaysia?

(Draft title - For the love of petai)

I have never quite understood why anyone could love petai. When I asked a petai lover why she loved this smelly bean, her response was, "Because it is smelly".

Refusing to accept that, I tried to prod for more answers in exchange for petai and got a lengthier response, "Because it is smelly, bitter, pungent, and it has got `sting'!" Needless to say, I still couldn't quite make sense of her love for petai and laid this stinky bean to rest.

However, it found its way into my lunch conversation recently as having a rather important role in forging national identity. As soon as petai was served, my friend remarked delightedly, "Oh, I love petai!" To which her guest, Dr Ali (not his real name or gender) smiled approvingly and said to her, "ah ... Malaysianised".

I was not too sure what he meant by that. Or rather, I was trying to make sense of his remark beyond equating Malaysians with Malays, as if everyone else is not really Malaysian. Wasn't my friend Malaysian in the first place?

Born and bred in Malaysia, just like Dr Ali and I. Except that she is an ethnic Chinese. And I don't even like petai. I suppose that makes me less Malaysian, at least in the eyes of Dr Ali, who for some reason also looked at me every time he mentioned western culture in the course of our conversation. I felt I was pigeonholed into a twilight zone between being an immigrant in Malaysia and a wannabe westerner; neither option was appealing.

Perhaps that was just a freaky encounter. But then I caught the now infamous RTM1 Fenomena Seni discussion on whether Yasmin Ahmad's movies, Sepet and Gubra, corrupt Malay Muslim culture. In it, one of the guest speakers, Raja Azmi Raja Sulaiman, said openly that "Malaysia belongs to the Malays".

She's so Malaysian she must be eating petai by the truckloads. I was left to wonder really; how many Malaysians have this view and why nothing was done to reprimand her and the station with all the talk about there being laws against instigating racial unrest.

The British Nationalist Party (BNP) in the UK which "stands for the preservation of the national and ethnic character of the British people" is widely condemned by their mainstream media as a racist party and enjoys minimal support in the UK.

The BNP does not regard non-white people as being British, even if they have been born in the UK and are British citizens. It is quite interesting when a political party uses similar rhetoric about racial superiority (with keris brandishing members at that) on our own shores, and no one seems to be batting an eye-lid in our mainstream media. What does it mean to be Malaysian? I can't say that I know, nor do I want to define it for everyone. We're all heading somewhere whether we do anything about it or not, but what we do or don't do will play a part in shaping this direction.

It was encouraging to see members of the public calling in during the Fenomena Seni discussion in support of the movies as also the many articles in the media condemning the discussion. After all, apathy can be the worst thing to have in the face of injustice.

It would be a shame when efforts to instil patriotism among Malaysians go to waste because of the ideas of some who think of others as lesser than they are. Not to mention it doing nothing to foster unity among ourselves. If we don't talk about our nation's progress in terms of ALL Malaysians, any talk of patriotism will hold no meaning; like making just about anyone understand the love for petai.

The writer is a psychologist by day and a singer-songwriter on other days. She likes to pay her bills on time.

Published in The Sun Thu, 18 May 2006 (

On being an exotic squatter

"Now don't say we never bring you anything exotic from the Far East!" beamed the hostess for the night.

Thunderous applause. The audience was packed into the cramped cellar below a popular cafe in Cambridge. I started to sing and apparently, mesmerised the crowd with my unorthodox finger-picking style on the guitar - "It's very interesting - the way you pick the strings!" Someone said. It was quite the unexpected compliment. Nothing to do with my songs or anything, but the way my fingers moved.

What was even more unexpected was the hostess' introduction. Was I some kind of animal or paraphernalia? My highly perceptive friend thought it was all quite amusing; the "exotic" artist from Malaysia sang in English, while the next group of musicians from England was using what looked like a variety of instruments made from different parts of tropical plants. I had the feeling that the audience did not quite know how to place me.

"Of course you are exotic to us!" quipped a French friendwhen told ofmy experience, the same guy who said that nobody likes immigrants in France, as though these were simply facts to be digested and accepted. Bob (not his real name) was a really nice friend. But after that conversation, it was hard to maintain the same friendship. I could not help thinking that he befriended me just because I was exotic, apart from me having the urge every now and then to break out into a Chinese fan dance when we meet. I also wondered why it would not seem appropriate to call him exotic if he were to go to the "Far East". After all, the first definition to the word exotic on was, "from another part of the world; foreign".

It is interesting how our identities shift in accordance to our environments, and what you do within that context. Growing up in Malaysia, I always knew that my ethnicity was Chinese, but I never FELT more Chinese being in a predominantly white town like Cambridge. Suddenly, I became yellow and my Indian friend brown. Endless discussions about identities and stereotyping ensued. I cannot remember exactly when I started noticing these things, but I suspect it may be something like the beginnings of consciousness in a mother's womb; nobody knows exactly when but it happens, and it should happen for a good reason.

Going through this awareness makes me more perceptive when I am back in my own country. It allows me to recognise and deal with silly things like negative stereotyping and how these impact our lives. An important part of this process is being able to talk about it in a comfortable andconstructive manner;a process whichhas been succesfully driven underground by threatswhether real or imagined. What we do hear of this topic seems to involve name-calling and accusatory remarks by the people who represent us in Parliament, in particular one named Badruddin who also once referred to minorities in this country as merely 'menumpang' (squatting). Ironically, isn't this the very sort of negative discourse our leaders were afraid therakyat would indulge in?

At the end of the day, I don't think anyone really wants to be "exotic", nor do they want to be labelled as someone who is just squatting in their own country. Perhaps imagination isjustwhat is lacking. Watching Yasmin Ahmad's film Gubra was a refreshing reminder of the possibility of existing as human beingsamidst allthe differences in society.

Sometimes, it just seems easier to think that how the way things have been will never change, but then again you do come across people that unknowingly inject you with optimism; during my early teenage days when internet chatting started flourishing in a big way, I was asked in a Malaysian chat room whether I was Chinese. I was so fed up of getting this query every time and went straight into a long lecture online on how it should not matter what race we are but that we are all Malaysians. The reply I got was simply this, "I just want to know whether I should wish you a Happy Chinese New Year or not mah."

The writer is a psychologist by day and a singer-songwriter on other days. She likes to pay her bills on time.

Published in The SUN - Thu, 20 Apr 2006 (