Monday, February 10, 2014

Ungloved

It is cold.

It is 3am, and once more I find myself, alone in a sea of sleeping lives, on Old Campus. It seems like my melancholy can only express itself in solitude, with no one watching, no one listening, no one judging. I walk, mind intensely aware of the sounds I make as my shoes trudge across the snow-laden ground.

Snow. Such a peculiar thing. It's hard for my mind to grasp that it is simply frozen rain. Hardened water. My tracks stop and I look up. The flakes even as they fall and caress my face, threaten to hurt my eyes. The snow even as it covers Yale with a blanket, threatens to smother it and choke it beyond recognition. 

Perhaps it is no coincidence that such beauty comes with such coldness.

I attempt to catch a tiny bit of that beauty but the little flakes disappear in the warmth of my hands. No matter. I reach into a pile of snow but feel nothing. The senses of the world seem not to have been made for protected hands. 

Without gloves, I clutch at the snow. The cold hurts. And quickly whatever beauty the cold held is melting away in my grasp. Trying to save it, tightening my grip only hurts myself and makes the moment even more evanescent. 

Protected, I cannot feel. And uncovered, I cannot bear the pain. True tragedy is perhaps not when a fate is inevitable, when there is no free will, but when there is a choice but all the choices can only lead to unfulfilled desires. The words of Hamlet spring to mind. "To be or not to be."

My hands are sore and numb.They can no longer feel, like they have been gloved over. Maybe this is my body's way of protecting myself, of telling me that to feel any more would be too unbearable. And so it shuts off. It withdraws. It feels no more. 

Abraham Pierson's statue is pelted with snowflakes. Some of them are dropping on his face, trickling down and melting as they touch him. I wonder what he weeps for. 

In the end, the snow is probably best observed from a distance. In the security and warmth of a heated room, wrapped up in a dozen layers, mind and body insulated from the elements. 

Yet it begs the question: Why then am I out here in the alabaster blindness of it all? Why reach out knowing full well the outcome? Why expose myself? 

Indoors, I feel the blood creeping back into my limbs. The frigidness is fading. My hands are there. My hands exist. My hands are alive. Not feeling them has allowed me to feel them anew. The warmth of the suite is inviting, welcoming, safe. 

And yet despite all the heat in the world, I cannot help but stare outside, beyond the window. 

And despite the dozen layers, despite the radiator before me, despite the hot coffee that runs through me...

It is cold. 

Photograph by Alexey Kljatov.  See more of his work on:
http://chaoticmind75.blogspot.com/







Saturday, February 1, 2014

Nostos

"Do you miss home?"
"Yeah well, of course I do, I mean... yeah... of course I do."

My voice quivers ever so slightly, lips recoiling almost defensively as I speak the words. I cannot help but feel a pang of guilt. It's a question I am asked often, and short of giving a lengthy explanation, I opt for the much simpler, cookie cutter reply of "Who wouldn't?" and launch into a even lengthier panegyric on the beauty of Malaysian cuisine.

Occasionally though, I cannot bear to hide beneath a flurry of superfluous words.

"Do you miss home?"
"Not really."

Every single time I say this I feel like I am being judged, like I am admitting that I am a horrible person wracked with familial problems, or worse yet, an ungrateful brat who can't be bothered to remember my parents.

What is home anyway?

Sure, I miss my family. I miss driving with my father in one of his old cars, just the road and some Lynyrd Skynyrd playing on the stereo. I miss my mother's cooking, which is the strangest thing, because when I was at home I wanted nothing more than to escape from it. I miss my brother bothering me in the midst of a movie or reading a book to show me his latest cool magic trick or the latest Youtube fad he has discovered.

I miss my bed, my dog, my house. I miss the lonely walks beneath the stars to the abandoned playground, just sitting on the swing and contemplating life in solitude. I miss the colorful and vibrant food, the sweet-as-sin milk tea in the morning and the fragrance of fried rice at 3am at night.

But it's far more complicated than that. With "home", there is also chaos. There are the frantic 2am rushes to get a press statement prepared on time. There are the heart-stopping moments as you look into a riot police officer's visor and see your own reflection staring back at you. There are the speeches that come rolling, one after another, until they all blend and mix and form this amorphous, all-encompassing ball of lies that devours everything in its path. There is that fear, that anger, that disappointment that permeates the air, the front page of the newspapers, the websites, the cyberspace, the conversations at coffeehouses.

For most people, "home" is this place of refuge. This place of shelter, where everything becomes OK and life stands still. Whatever storm, quake, disaster stops at that invisible wall people call "home" and whatever exciting, crazy ups and downs go away for a monotony that most people decry but I crave.

For me, "home" is the storm. Home is the embodiment of chaos, of messiness, of burden. Yale, for all its "stress" and "commitments" and "assignments" is a safe haven for me. At least here I know I can close my eyes, I can fall asleep, I can let go of myself and life goes on. I am not constantly bombarded by an insidious hopelessness, assaulted by the egotism or stupidity of politicians, weighed upon to take upon the mantle of a fighter.

Not all people share my sentiments of course. Many can ignore, forget, forgive what happens on a daily basis in Malaysia. As much as I would like to, I cannot. I feel a sense of responsibility, of duty that does not permit me to pretend like all is fine and good with the system when it is clearly not.

Malaysia is like family to me I suppose. No matter how bad things get, I cannot let go of it.

"Do you miss home?"
"No. I don't."

Perhaps there is a better question to be asked then.

"Do you love home?"
"Yes."

"Lost Home". Taken in New Haven, December 2013. OKJ All rights reserved.
Click for larger image.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Cold Hands

"And who's that guy over there? Another college president?"
"Nah, he's Nathan Hale, this guy who got caught spying on the British. His last words are pretty famous."
"What are they?"
"My only regret is that I have but one life to give to this country."

It's late at night. Old campus is silent but for a few drunken stragglers, and the sound of my footsteps crunching on heavy snow. There is no one to greet me, no one to ask me for money, no one to stare at me sideways as I mutter nothings to myself in the solitude of it all.

My only companions are Woolsey, Pierson and Nathan Hale. There's the usual chuckle as I walk by Woolsey's golden foot and as always I simply ignore poor Abraham Pierson and his Latin inscriptions. Under normal circumstances I wouldn't even spare a second glance at Nathan Hale but tonight I stop right in front of the man.

The odd one out. The youngest. The spy. I look up to him and his eyes remain as distant as ever.

There are four things that are incredibly important to me. I've often thought about them and I neatly organized them into an acronym of sorts, something I called wisdom for the AGES.

A- Acceptance. The ability to accept that there are things beyond my control, that I am far from a perfect being, and that there are times when I will hate myself but those times are alright.
G- Generosity. To give without thought. To do little things for people that brighten up their day. To let your heart and world to expand to include the people around you and beyond.
E- Empathy. To understand others, including their circumstances, their mistakes, their quirks and faults. To put myself in their shoes and to move beyond the me and to consider the feelings of others as my own.
S- Sacrifice.

I don't always live up to these standards. In fact, I rarely do. But I try my best. And tonight as I'm staring into the face of Nathan Hale, it's Sacrifice I ponder upon.

Perhaps the reason why Nathan Hale sits among the presidents, intellectuals, millionaires of Yale is because he gave the most. Others give their time, their money, their mind... But Nathan Hale gave himself. I close my eyes and I imagine the last moments of the young man. Did he know his words would be immortalized? Did he say them only to infuriate his captors, to deny them the final satisfaction? Was it only youthful bravado, a middle finger to his torturers?

Did he truly mean them?

Nathan Hale's statue turns towards me, draws a gun and shoots me in the heart.

I open my eyes and the statue remains, as still as ever. The stillness stirs the workings of my mind.

Can I make that sacrifice? Can I impale myself for another, knowing full well such a sacrifice may never, no, should never be found out? When you take away the fame, the bravado and the admiration surrounding Nathan Hale, what are you left with?

I edge forward and slowly reach out for Nathan Hale's hand.

It is as cold as mine.

"Sacrifice" Taken November 2011, New Zealand. OKJ All rights reserved.
Click for larger image. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Reject the Stadium Solution

Every single time an NGO wants to stage a protest, the immediate reaction is to first deny permission and then to suggest that the protest be held in a stadium.  This stadium knee jerk reaction has become the hue and cry of many a commentator, and surprisingly, even some who are for the cause of such protests also support the stadium solution. 

The common refrain comes in three forms. First, critics point to the convenient nature of stadiums that can hold large capacities of people without causing obstructions on the road, or having the risk of car accidents. Second, critics look no further than the successful Kelana Jaya Stadium and Stadium Negara protests and say: “There you go, everybody is happy that way.” Last but certainly not least, there are supporters of the cause who prefer not to break the law or whatever arbitrary regulation the authorities have thrown at people, and thus say: “Aiya…Just follow law la. They let us protest there, so let’s just protest there la.”

Protest organizers have been more or less quite adamant in not giving in to such demands, with exception of the immediate post-GE 13 stadium rallies. And every time organizers reject the “Stadium Solution” (I call it the SS), there’s a huge backlash from ordinary citizens who view their constant rejections of government “compromises” as unreasonable. Yet, for all this hue and cry, there has never been an articulation, a strategic evaluation of why it is so important for protests to be held on the streets and not in a stadium. As someone who has been an organizer of protests, this is very frustrating. So this piece sets out to articulate such a position and hopefully the rakyat will be more supportive and understanding of organizer’s woes when the next street demonstration comes along. 

The post-election Kelana Jaya Stadium Rally. From Harakah Daily.

1. Stadiums are limiting factors
By their very nature, stadiums limit the number of participants. If a stadium’s capacity is 120,000 people, then you are surely not going to get more than that number of participants. Any excess crowd will gather on the outside of the stadium, and not being able to enter the stadium to hear the speeches, or participate in any collective action, will eventually just subside away. This runs counter to the number one objective of any protest: which is to get as much mass support as possible. Simply put, it’s like going to a buffet, and being told you can only have one plate of food, that’s all. Add that to the fact that you never know for sure how many people are going to turn up, and that’s a big problem. 

Numbers are the lifeblood of protests. The more people that turn up, the more powerful the impact of a protest. Many people point to Kelana Jaya and tout it as a success. I beg to differ. Kelana Jaya reached perhaps 120,000 people, but there were thousands more stuck in traffic jams or milling about outside the stadium. Had it been held on the streets, with multiple meeting points converging on a large urban space, it potentially could have had the impact of a BERSIH. 

Not only are the number of protestors limited, the other most important factor in a successful demonstration, media coverage is also limited. Going back to the Kelana Jaya stadium protest, the Al-Jazeera reporter was stuck outside the stadium, doing live coverage of basically a few people milling about outside. Imagine the media impact lost because of that. Media impact is particularly important for protests to garner awareness, not just internationally, but also to inspire and to spur on fellow citizens who may be sitting at home wondering whether it was worth going. 

Stadiums are also a geographically limiting factor, because, let’s face it, there are not that many that can comfortably hold more than a hundred thousand people. Many stadiums also fall under the purview of federal government agencies or private corporations, for which letting an “anti-government” organization hold a demonstration is a big no-no. So the stadiums that are viable, are often those in opposition held states, where public transport is less well developed, and are often magnets for traffic jams even on the best of days. They also tend to spill out into residential areas. So if you did not want to join a protest in the heart of the city, you simply stayed back home and relaxed. Now, because the only viable stadium is in Petaling Jaya, it now restricts access for residents themselves. 

The 2012 Bersih 3.0 Rally. From Global Bersih.

2. Street protests may be inconvenient, but that is part of the point
This is in response to those who would rather follow police directions and stick to stadiums if need be. A protest, especially in an authoritarian political setting, is by its very nature an act of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is a purposeful act of breaking a particular law, in order to expose its arbitrary and unfair nature. This is what Mahatma Gandhi did in leading the Great Salt March from Sabarmati to Dandi, and making salt in defiance of the British Raj Salt Laws that outlawed any such endeavor. By doing so, he sought to show the injustice of the salt laws and demonstrate that salt belonged to all Indians. By protesting on the streets, Malaysians demonstrate the injustice of SOSMA and the Peaceful Assembly Act.

Of course, each one of Gandhi’s protests presented huge inconveniences to both the authorities and ordinary citizens. His call for a national day of prayer and fasting to protest the Rowlatt Act, put into context, was more than a massive inconvenience. Imagine, one man essentially declared a public holiday, and put the entire nation on standstill. Trains stopped working, shops closed, packages and deliveries delayed. 

A ruling coalition only stands up and takes notice when it is hit where it hurts. The inconvenience of it all is a purposeful material and symbolic signal to the government to take heed of the rakyat and “Listen, listen, listen”. If street protests were so easy and free of consequences, then activists could protest 365 days a year without any effect, and the government could afford to ignore such pleas. 

By making stadium protests a contained event, the ruling government also contains the impact of any such action. 

People arrested at a parliament protest I was present at. Luckily it was not an enclosed space.
 From Keow Wee Loong Photography.

3. Stadium protests are not only limiting, but downright dangerous
By far the most important reason to avoid a stadium, or any enclosed area at all costs, is the potential danger such spaces entail. Look no further than the annual deaths during the Haj in Mecca on the risks huge crowds in small spaces bring. Not to forget the various stampedes in football stadiums from the 2009 Houphouët-Boigny Arena stampede where 19 people died, to the 2013 Stade Félix Houphouët-Boigny New Year stampede where 60 people died. 

The above are religious and sports festivals, but imagine how much more tense the situation is at protests, where the threat of police action is always over the heads of protestors. Emotions run high, and the slightest spark can trigger panic. Imagine if police fired tear gas into Kelana Jaya stadium that night. Thousands of people, rushing to get away from the debilitating gas might have trampled all over each other. Or what if there is a threat of a bomb, some unbased rumor as is common in such incidents? This is exactly what happened when 147 people were killed during the Chamunda Devi stampede at the Chamunda Devi temple in India, caused by a rumor that a bomb was planted in the temple complex.

Unlike street protests where participants have dozens of avenues of escape should there be any incidents, stadium often only have a few narrow exits. The slopes and benches do not help either. Unlike street protests where the only obstacle might be a road block (and this can be circumvented too), all that needs to be done to hem protestors in is to simply lock the doors. 

This risk to human lives is by far the most concerning facet about the Stadium Solution. It is an unacceptable risk that should be avoided at all costs.

Reject the Stadium Solution
No doubt, the ruling government is probably perfectly aware of how stadium protests are limited, less impactful and more dangerous than street protests. Like a noose that seeks to strangle, the stadium is a tool of encirclement that seeks to corral the efforts of protestors.

I hope, especially for those who have always wondered “What’s wrong with a stadium?”that this articles lays it out clearly and concisely why the stadium is an ineffective and risky venue for any sort of mass demonstration. Reject the Stadium Solution. The streets are paid for by the blood, sweat and tears of all Malaysians, it is high time we claimed them to assert our independence from unjust laws. In the words of St. Augustine: “An unjust law is no law at all.” 

Also published on Loyarburok, MalaysiaKini, Malaysia Today, The Malay Mail, Malaysian Insider, MSN News Malaysia, and Yahoo! News Malaysia.





Friday, December 13, 2013

Sore

Like a moth to a light
I glide to my irresistible doom
Blinking off in electricity and singed wings.
An Icarus of another age.

Why do I fly?
When the destination is only down
and the solace of the sun lies only in its consuming fire?
Yet
In burning there is the briefest flash
Of warmth before the pain.

I soar.

Shades of Solace. Taken in November 2013, Yale University, New Haven. OKJ All rights reserved.
Click for larger image.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Nikmat Padat

Segala yang dihasrat
Tapi tak dapat
Adalah nikmat
yang paling padat.
- A. Samad Said.
Benarkah ini? Adakah sesuatu yang diidami tetapi tidak mungkin diperolehi dapat memberi kebahagiaan kepada seseorang?

Pada permukaannya fikiran ini langsung tidak masuk akal. Kan sepatutnya kita berasa resah? Kan keinginan yang tidak tercapai akan meresap dalam sanubari kita dan meracuni emosi kita? Kan kita semua diajar sejak kecil lagi bahawa tiada benda yang tidak dapat didapati, bahawa di mana ada kemahuan di situ ada jalan, bahawa kegagalan untuk mengambil apa yang kita inginkan merupakan salah sendiri?

Namun makin lama aku merenungi puisi ini, maka makin ku rasa ku dapat menghayati isinya. Aku memerhati sekelilingku. Ku lihat segala yang dihasrat olehku.

Mungkin nikmat itu merupakan suatu perasaan yang lebih mendalam. Mungkin wujudnya suatu kegembiraan dalam memahami bahawa ada benda dalam dunia ini yang kita tidak berupaya untuk mengawal. Mungkin wujudnya sejenis kepuasan dalam menatapi seseorang atau sesuatu dan tidak menyentuh atau mengalaminya, bagaikan merenung ke langit dan menikmati bintang-bintang dari beribu-ribu batu.

Apa yang dingini dan dilihat dari jauh dapat mengekalkan kejelitaannya, keindahannya, kesempurnaannya. Selama ia kekal sebagai teori, dalam minda ia menjadi segala yang murni.

Keupayaan untuk berpura-pura bahawa sesuatu itu adalah sempurna, untuk percaya dunia ini mempunyai sesuatu yang suci dan tidak dicemari, untuk merendam diri dalam satu pelarian dari realiti, mungkin inilah merupakan nikmat yang paling padat.

"The Window Above". Taken in NYC, November 2013. OKJ All rights reserved.
Click for larger image.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Broken Reflections

When I was about 9 years old, my grandmother passed away. At the time of her passing I was at my godparents house, having fun with computer games and just fooling around. My godfather tried to convey the news to me lightly, by telling me that grandma had gone to a better place. A better place without suffering, where everyone was happy all the time and lead blissful lives.

I knew what he was talking about. It was not heaven or some sort of paradise that sprang to my mind but death. I had seen my fish dead, floating right side up in a murky bowl of water clouded by fish pellets and droppings. I had witnessed hens slaughtered at the wet market, their necks choked by clenched fists while a clean cleaver slit their throats, their blood spilling onto the concrete floor mixing with the rainwater and scattered bits of vegetable. I had observed ants, by the hundreds carrying dead cockroaches murdered by pesticide, back in a cannibalistic funeral procession. 

Somehow, I had been acutely aware, from a very young age, that death was natural, universal, and inevitable. Yet I seemed to have no fear of it. It occurred to me as futile to fear something that was so ... part of the way the world functioned. I often imagined myself dying in various ways, from cancer, from a car accident, from drowning. 

In fact, I still remember an incident where I very nearly drowned myself. And by Jove it was such an incredibly stupid way to drown too. My younger brother and I both took swimming classes together, and after class we would fool around in the pool just having fun. One day, I had the bright idea of giving my brother a piggyback just like my dad usually did. It was pretty fun up until the point when I waded into the deeper end of the pool. Can't really remember why but it was something about trying to allay my brother's fears of the water by immersion and crap like that. And boy did I get immersed.

The moment his head went near the water line, my brother panicked and in attempting to get higher, pushed on the only surface he could find: my head. This of course, caused me, his support to simply go deeper into the pool, and he panicked more and more. I remember desperately shouting "LET GO! LET GO! YOU WON'T DROWN!", the words in between lost in gulps of water. I laugh when I think of it now, drowning in 6 feet of water. I tried to push off my brother so that I could save the both of us, but this only caused him to panic more and wrap his legs around my neck ever tighter.

Halfway through the ordeal, which seemed like the longest time ever, I stopped struggling. It wasn't that I had run out of breath. I just realized the futility of the whole situation and felt this impending sense of doom. Somehow everything seemed sharper in that moment, like one of those super High-Definition videos where it all seems so incredibly detailed as to be unreal. And I just let go. I closed my eyes, and let myself drift-drown like a metal pin dropped into water, rolling gently as it falls, almost without resistance. 

The swimming instructor eventually fished us both out of the water. I just lay down on the floor like a limp fish. Maybe I was in shock. But thinking back to it now the experience seemed almost serene, almost meditative in nature. I knew I could have died. It hung over me like that phantom indent on your head after wearing a head band for a long time then taking it off. It sometimes still hangs over me. But I never associated the whole incident with fear.

"Death Over The Hill" Taken in Auckland, NZ 2011. OKJ All rights reserved.
Click for larger image.
There are few things that truly scare me. Sure, there is the occasional ghost jumping out at the screen in horror movies and the moment when a roller coaster dips from a gravity defying loop, but true terror? The kind of fear that seeps into your very being, that paralyzes you even as it panics you, that shadows your moves and thoughts and dreams and sinks its teeth into you while never letting go?

Only two things have managed to invoke this sort of foreboding doom in my heart, and they are in some ways diametrically opposed. The first was a fear of being forgotten. History had always fascinated me and the deeds and legacies of great men like Alexander, Saladin, Washington and Gandhi struck me as something to aspire to. To be remembered, to be spoken after one's passing, to become, in a way, immortal. I had read somewhere that the poet Keats epitaph had been "Here lies he whose name was writ in water", and I was determined to have my name carved in stone. I wanted to leave a mark in the world, to do something great and be remembered for it. 

Yet there was something extremely disquieting about such a fear. I didn't only admire the Mandelas and St. Francis' of the world; increasingly I found myself drawn to figures like Hitler, Qin Shi Huang, Caesar and Stalin.  These were the giant who were great, but also terrible ( #Voldemort). I was slowly coming to a realization there was very little I would not do to be remembered, be it great evil or great good. Or as Milton puts it in Paradise Lost: "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven". Perhaps the acceptance of the inevitability of death made me infatuated of living after death by leaving a legacy. Maybe this was my way of dealing with the specter of the end of life, the sense of mortality that I grew up with. 

This was the fear of my high school years. But as I grew older, a new fear emerged. I feared myself. 

I came to the realization that fundamentally, I was not a good person. I could be very selfish, I could very incredibly self-centered, and had a supreme sense of self-preservation. I craved attention, thought myself very smart indeed, and reveled the freedom that came with positions of authority. I could be abrasive, temperamental and capable of much dishonesty. Increasingly, I viewed my fascination with fame and legacy and the martial as something repugnant, something corrupting and dangerous. I have done bad things, things that at the time I thought were justified, or dismiss-able in the name of some higher cause. But as they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. 

This process of realization took a long time. It felt like an egg being cracked over my head while still sleeping. First you don't notice it, simply thinking it cold. Then it somehow incorporates itself into your dream, weaving in and out, droplets of egg white and yolk stringing over your hair. Finally comes the awakening, the touching, and then the horror of realizing that a life that could have been was shattered on you, the liquids of the womb dripping over your face, your neck, your T-shirt emblazoned with self-righteous quotes. 

The horror of realizing that even as you woke, you had the power, and perhaps even a desire, to crush yet more lives and eggs. The fear that pervades you as you look into the mirror, and recognize but refuse to acknowledge that the person staring back is you. 

It was a moment of truth for me because I had always believed myself essentially a good person. Yet my desires, my ambitions, my actions often contradicted with the self-image I had forged in the fires of egotism. And as fear of myself surpassed my fear of anonymity, I entered a phase of extreme self-examination. 

That process continues today, every waking hour, every passing moment. I subject my actions to scrutiny, I criticize myself, I question my own motives for doing the things I do. It's why so many of my blog posts including this one are self-deprecatory, reflective, and sobering. They serve to provide a counterbalance to my natural tendencies to think myself all-knowing and all-powerful, and anchor me with an open confession of my vulnerabilities, bared for all the world to see, so I never fall into the trap of thinking myself above others. A friend once described my writing as agonizingly self-aware while at the same time indulgent. I think of it as almost like trying to get drunk while in a cold shower. 

This blog post is perhaps the coldest of such "showers" yet. It has taken me a long time to confront these fears of mine, and to surmount perhaps another fear, the fear of being judged by others when this post is published. But I believe that it is necessary, at this crossroads of my life, to be brutally honest with myself, and to not only recognize but acknowledge, nay, shout out in a megaphone who I see in the mirror. I don't think I'm alone in recognizing there are parts of my own character that I am deeply uncomfortable with, and maybe sharing this odyssey will help others step up and face their own inner demons. 

I yearn for a day when I will be able to say confidently I believe I am a good person. (Yet, how will I know if it's not self-conceit?) I hope that I will have not only the strength to change, but also the strength to acknowledge my weakness. And I pray that one day, I will no longer be haunted by the fears of anonymity and myself.

Until then, I will continue to look into a cracked mirror stained by the splatter of shattered eggs, while drowning in the blood of slaughtered chickens and choking from the iron grip of tightening legs. 

"Staring Upon The Mind" Taken in New York, December 2013. OKJ All rights reserved.
Click for larger image.