March 29, 2008

Aliens have landed! What now?

I heard this running joke some time ago that Malaysians would only ever unite across race and religion if aliens or some "other" group of people came to invade us. This quip is of course born out of the perception that Malaysians are so communal and will most certainly vote along racial lines, and hence, things will never change.

However, unless you’ve been on Mars lately, you would know that the outcome of the last general election completely disproved this apathetic and unconstructive view. Suddenly there was a deluge of opinions as to what led to the outcome and no lack of individuals who claim that they "saw it coming". Perhaps all these outpourings of analysis and discussions is a cathartic process that we need to go through to process what led to the outcome. But like trying to understand how human consciousness emerged, where every scientist has his or her own unprovable theory, it is equally if not more interesting to know what this means and what we can do at the present.

I would like to believe that a fundamentally important outcome of this elections is that there is now a greater move by Malaysians to be engaged in nation building: to seek to understand how positive change can happen and to be responsible citizens looking to play their part and speaking out against what is unjust across racial or religious lines that has been keeping us apart and dragging us down as a nation for too long.

We are becoming increasingly good at speaking up for our own rights, but I would like to see the day when it becomes a norm for us to acknowledge and fight for the rights of all Malaysians regardless of race, religion, or whatever perceived labels there are.

We may not be there yet, but the outcome of the elections was a crucial event which empowered Malaysians to accept the idea that real and positive change is possible; that it is possible for Malaysians to unite across racial and religious lines for a common good. Maybe aliens have really landed after all, and I would like to believe that the aliens are corruption, racism, sexism, bigotry, arrogance, and hypocrisy.

When more Malaysians reject the use of race-based ways to garner support, the old and tired use of pitting one race against another will be rendered useless.

It is time we move beyond that and begin our process of nation building. I may be speaking for myself, but I believe there are many Malaysians who want the same thing; to seek an identity as a Malaysian away from the divisive one that has been handed down for generations.

Who knows what that Malaysian identity will be? I dare say that I’m excited by this possibility; that this identity will emerge as we grow together and find that voice and language in which to express this; one in the spirit of being inclusive and just.

As much as aliens were seen as the push factor for us to act together, Malaysians were also looking for an alternative political culture when they voted on March 8.

Let us remind each other about this possibility of a shared vision to keep us on track while we still have to contend with laws and systems that stifle a healthy democracy. It is no longer what "they" can do for us, but what we can do as citizens; to exercise that skill not to react to the media’s choice of language, our right to information and to speak up for what’s just.

First published in The Sun, 24th March, 2008

March 4, 2008


I caught an impressive ad on TV just a few moments ago. The tagline read something like 'we're on the right track'. Malaysia is moving on some kind of track alright, but whether it is right or not is a matter of debate. But then again, there isn't much public space to have real debates about these things. The ad turned out to be one from a political party in conjunction with the elections.

That is but one example of what a lot of money can do for a political campaign. According to a news article, no laws exist in Malaysia that requires candidates to disclose where their campaign funds come from or how they are spent. Also, the Election Offences Act 1958 governs only candidates' expenses but not the expenses of the parties as a whole. Are the funds coming from people who really support the candidate's ideals, or do they have something to gain later by funding a particular candidate or party? In this scenario, the one with the most money (or in a position to provide something in return), is likely to have the upper hand.

But there is only so much money, publicity, and 'branding' exercises can do, IF the people take it upon themselves to dig a little deeper on who and why they are voting for. The problem with glitzy and eye-catching ads is that while it attracts your attention, it distracts you from other things that are just as or even more fundamentally important. So, the more the media is controlled by a particular source, and the more the publicity stunts there are, the more work we have to do to sieve through the image and rhetoric to look at what his or her candidate really stand for, and if he/she is likely to put that into action.

A candidate in my area may have titles attached to his or her name, but has this person ever done anything to show that they will fight for a future that is more just and inclusive? For the sake of where the country is heading, I can forgo an MP who will ensure that the roads in my neighbourhood be tarred regularly, but did nothing to stop the irresponsible things that go on in parliament. Also, what is the point really, in voting for a candidate who does not want to vote for a bill he/she deems unjust, but voted for it anyway in parliament as he/she has too much at stake not to toe-the-party line?

Anyone can pretty much pay someone to write and do a massive branding exercise, but it takes someone with the right principles and will to put in place systems of accountability that will also make itself accountable to the public. We need MPs who can represent our voice in parliament, and not one who will vote to change our constitution at a whim for their own benefit. MPs who can fight for ordinary Malaysians the right to information needed to know if decisions made on their behalf are in their interest or not. Without these and similar mechanisms that promote a healthy democracy in place, any claims made about Malaysia's progress at this point will be just that – claims.

We already have very nice and tall buildings to show tourists. It's time we seriously look at the bigger picture of what is lacking in our country that will affect our children's future, and how they will relate to each other. Let us hope Malaysians will step up and vote for the right candidates into parliament who can help steer us towards a nation that's inclusive and just; not just speaking the right words, and giving reactionary half measures, but through sincere actions and fundamental changes towards it in our system.

Times are a-changing…

"Chinese New Year is here again! How scary." I don't remember hearing remarks like that when I was a kid. The coming of New Year did not signify the frightening passing of time, but rather about fun times with the cousins in my grandfather's coffee shop. I don't mean the garden-variety uncle-this-and-madam-that air-conditioned Kopitiams; they didn't exist back then. Yik-Cheong café was our authentic pre-war kopitiam hangout place every Chinese New Year.

But being 'authentic' and drinking coffee wasn't particularly alluring to a child. What got me up early in the morning was the short trip down the road for 'apong'(light-fluffy-pancakes), bathing outdoors on the rooftop with pet chickens, and squeezing into a trishaw with my sister and cousins whom we shared some kind of internally evolved language; Kek Lok Si temple was called 'Galaxy' temple, and for reasons nobody knew, the trishaw was called 'lam-yuk-chea' (soft-meat-chair).

All that changed over the years. Like many others in Little India, Penang who couldn't afford the high rent when the Rent Control Act was repealed on New Year's Day 2000, my grandparents closed shop and moved to other parts. Little India became a haven for heritage enthusiasts with a maps provided on the street to 'guide' tourists on how to follow the 'heritage trail'.

Last year, I inadvertently found myself looking at the very same shop-house. While having a lunch meeting, I almost did not realize that the shop selling medicine across the road used to be Yik Cheong café. I never imagined as a child that I would come back to the same street not for any purpose related to family or New Year celebrations. While it was with a tinge of nostalgia and an unreasonable wish to have known it's significance when I was 7, I was happy to know that I had but the most precious way to experience a way of life, just as it was.

Then the biggest change in tradition happened this year, when my grandparents moved down to Kuala Lumpur for practical reasons and thus ending some 40 years of their descendents annual 'balik kampung' trip back to Penang.

Whilst reflecting on how differently I will be celebrating this Chinese New Year, it was a good reminder of how culture and traditions evolve over time. It was remarked that public protests was not a Malaysian culture, but who knows, maybe it will be if the reasons why people protest remains, and if more and more Malaysians become aware of their rights.

Change is inevitable over time; will Malaysians develop a culture that supports a healthy democracy? Will we no longer tolerate where there is blatant mis-use of our tax money? Heck, as far as making history and the changing of traditions go, 2008 seems to be an important year in regards to our nation's direction and how we will be governed.

Malaysia will continue to change for the better or worse, and like Little India, Penang, we may not realize the significance of where we are at the present. But in this case, being blissfully unaware may not be the best thing; unlike the frightening speed in which years go by for happy celebrations, it will seem too long if we vote for leaders who only serve themselves, the party, and not the people.

Happy holidays to everyone and here's hoping year 2008 will be the start towards a time when Malaysians won't be dictated as to what their culture is, but is free to explore and develop their own that are consistent with just and universal values.

On being Ornamental, Passive, or a Pacifist

Popular representations and stereotypes are aplenty when it comes to just about anything, spiritual practices notwithstanding. There are religions wrongly stereotyped to be violent, for example, but one religion that seems to be the least connected to violence, is Buddhism. However, it has even been unfortunately associated with passivism, which could be one of the biggest myth about Buddhism.

Think of Buddhism and visuals of peaceful monks in maroon robes spouting incomprehensible philosophical teachings may come to minds of most. This 'peaceful and esoteric' image of Buddhism by mainstream society can perhaps be epitomized by the deluge of Buddha's head statues being used as decorative items. There are hundreds of them for sale in Bali (incidentally not a predominantly Buddhist society) a shopping haven for popular 'ethnic' handicrafts, woodcarvings, paintings, and exotic decorative items galore; the Buddha's smiling head has become so symbolic of Asian inner peace and tranquillity that it's found its way into restaurants, bars, clubs, and your neighbourhood spa – to add that bit of peacefulness and exoticism. There's even a bar named after him and CD compilations such as the Buddha Bar and Buddha Lounge series described as 'chilled out music' or 'ethnic electronica'. Can one laugh and cringe at the same time? Perhaps Mr Buddha would if he were alive today. Who knows - but I bet most people would believe he would just smile in an aura of peace and tranquillity instead.

Apart from symbolizing tranquillity and inner peace in the face of violence or electronica music, Buddhism is also better known these days for its mystical explorations and collaborations with western scientists' obsessions with the brain. Lesser known, unfortunately, is what its role can be when it comes to structural oppression or social injustices; what some would call 'engaged Buddhism'. It is unfortunate because somewhere along the way, from when Buddha was a social reformer who spoke against injustices in his time more than twenty thousand years ago, the popular perception of Buddhism is now largely only about meditation, achieving personal enlightenment, and disengaging from the world outside.

How one's approach to social change is another matter, but to say that Buddhism teaches one to embrace suffering or develop inner peace amidst and despite suffering within one's society alone, could very well be one the biggest myth that many, including those who speak of it in its name, still hold in their respective consciousness. In this environment, it is easy for one to mistake its teachings that promote pacifism (non-violent means to effect change) to be passivism. Such passivity in the face of injustice, is perhaps not much better than misusing religion to justify acts of violence or bigotry, as both involve the misunderstanding and mis-use of religion that perpetuates injustice.

Growing up as a Buddhist in Malaysia, engagement with social concerns and 'the pursuit for enlightenment' seemed like different worlds apart. I had not heard about Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk and peace activist who coined the term 'Engaged Buddhism', nor about Tenzin Palmo, who is challenging the institutionalised belief that only the male form can reach 'liberation'. I came to realize that the Burmese monks who marched in thousands recently for democracy, is not an exception, and that we can apply universal insights to situations of social injustices -to be more engaged with our society- irregardless of one's spiritual leanings. Religions have often been misunderstood or misused to justify violence, or to be apathetic to injustices. Perhaps there will be less of that if we can look beyond the institutionalised aspects of religions, how they came to be, and to see the essence and universality of their teachings.