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 (http://www.michaelbackman.com/LatestAgeColumn2.html). 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 (http://www.sun2surf.com/article.cfm?id=16223)

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. (http://www.islamicamagazine.com/issue-17/on-being-a-muslim-woman-writer-in-the-west.html).

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 (http://www.sun2surf.com/article.cfm?id=15642)

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 (http://www.sun2surf.com/article.cfm?id=14144)

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 dictionary.com 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 (