Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Racism Within

John Malott,
former US Ambassador
to Malaysia
Recently, John Malott's article in the Wall Street Journal concerning racism in Malaysia sparked a furore of protests, praises and controversy. Many bloggers have spoken out for and against Malott's views, with a sort of cyber war going on.

This blogger is not going to join that war. In fact, this blogger is not going to deny or support any of the issues discussed in the aforementioned article. I will simply tell you of something that is often ignored.

While the non-Malays are complaining of pro-Malay racism; and Malays are accusing non-Malays of sacrilege and religious desecration, we forget that we are all guilty of racism. We forget that while we have one index finger pointing at one another, we have the other fingers pointing at ourselves. 

Now before I am labelled as unpatriotic by the zealots, blasphemous by religious figures, and a fool by others, I implore you to reflect upon the validity of my statement. Let's imagine you are in the car. You are driving peacefully when you see a driver not of your race nearly cause an accident by overtaking you without signalling, at breakneck speed. What do you think of then? Cina babi? Stupid Malay? Bloody Indian? Perhaps you might say that those thoughts were out of impulse. Very well then. Consider another situation. You are sitting on the train. You see this man, and he walks into the train. When you look at him, is not his race one of the first things that pop up in your mind? There is bound to be some form of racism, where we judge and evaluate a person first and foremost by race.

Where does this racism start? From our upbringing. From a very young age, our parents tell us what Malaysia is. They tell us their views of the world, and being young and malleable, we follow and listen and take it all in. We are told that the Chinese are mata duit, greedy, cheating liars; that the Malays are lazy and use the government as a tongkat; that the Indians are keling, pariah, and dirty- and being so believing of our parents, we accept these views unquestioningly. And when we have children of our own, we unwittingly create this culture of racism, a vicious cycle going on and on and on.

As a child, I had a fear of the dark. I feared the darkness because I could not see what monsters were lurking in the shadows, because I did not know what horrors awaited me. I feared, and thus hated, because I did not understand. And this is what is happening today.  We are kept in the dark about each other. As our society moves to segregate, categorize, label, and divide people according to race, we are interacting with each other less, talking with each other less, eating together less. We are understanding each other less, and therefore since we cannot comprehend each other, we fear and hate each other. We are falling under the ease of stereotyping and generalizing.

And that is the sin we are all guilty of. Just as a ping pong ball must be returned to the hitter for the game to continue, the game of racism can only continue if both sides return volleys and hits. Some may argue that we have no choice because racism is used against us, therefore we must respond in kind. Nation A fires on  Nation B, therefore Nation B must fire on Nation A. The result? More fire, more lives lost. Being racist to the those who practice racism is not going to make them less racist. In fact, it will only give them more reason to be racist, and we will be stooping down to their level. Racism only leads to more racism. As Mohandas K. Gandhi once said, 'An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.'

Instead of outright complaining against each other, we should all reflect upon ourselves and ask if we are guilty of racist thoughts as well. Parents should stop this culture of race generalisation, and all races should interact with each other sincerely and thoughtfully, so that we can understand one another. Separating young students according to race in schools, as one educator wanted to after racial fights sprung up in schools, is just going to fuel misunderstanding of one another. We should not be separated- laundry is the only thing that should be separated by color. So the next time you look at someone, try not to think of their race first. And when we can reach that stage of looking at each other, and we recognize each other as members of the nation, and then, and only then, as members of our race, it is then that our nation can truly be 1Malaysia.

Let me begin this process of inflection by admitting that I have been guilty of racism.

Years ago, I embarked on my first bus journey home.  It was an alien environment for me; I had always had the privilege of having my parents fetch me home, and the run-down, dusty bus made me feel like Alice in Wonderland, lost and lonely. The other students spoke in rough tones, their speech littered with Cantonese expletives from time to time. They were of all ages, and all of them were Chinese, with the exception of one boy. This Indian boy was the subject of constant ridicule, bullying, and mockery, but he just took it all in, always a blank stare boring into the greasy metal floor. Words like ‘keling’ flew around, carelessly and callously. Being from a family that always taught me all humans were equal, and having friends of other races myself, I was shocked and shamed by their conduct. But I did nothing, being afraid and alone. And by doing nothing, I had effectively condoned and allowed such a blatant act of racism continue, I had become an accomplice. By my silence, I had contributed to the chaos that ensued. 

I often think back to that moment and wish I had done something. But I cannot change the past, and so I am now trying to change the present, for a better future. Racism may be institutionalized in Malaysia, but racism is also internalized in all of us. Fight racism inside yourself, then carry that fight to the world.

"Be the change you want to see in the world."
- Mahatma Gandhi

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Durian Dilemma

Now I have received some complaints that my blog doesn't live up to its name. Although I say Malaysia, is like a durian , I only show the thorny side of Malaysia, and I never show the succulent goodness that hides within. Well, alright, to satisfy your cravings, here is an account of the goodness I witnessed while I was on the commute in the good ol' LRT.

So here I was, standing at the Pasar Seni station, looking down. Over the horizon there is Masjid Jamek, and the whir of cars zooming past on the road. The buses and their attendants shouting out. A beggar down at the elevator ( he is always there), who is an old man with a polystyrene cup, hands outstretched to plead with the next person who passes the elevator. Does this sound a bit depressing? There was a graffiti drawing of the RTM logo and a somewhat distorted Mahathir at the power station below. Ok, definitely depressing.

ANYWAY... So there I was at the Pasar Seni station, when the train came. Everybody stood up, and rushed towards the entrance. People who drive all the time complain about the yellow box, at least they will never have to feel the terror of being pushed past  the yellow line by rushing commuters just as the train is hurtling towards you. Today, I staying far behind the flood of passengers to avoid Bernoulli's Principle in action ( ya know, fast velocity train, creates low pressure. you get sucked in= Final Destination?). AND I found something that shocked me. THEY WERE LINING UP. $#@~*!!!! At long last, after years of complaining, there they were, commuters at rush hour, lining up in an orderly, civilized manner. Then I heard one of the group speak.He spoke Chinese, but in an accent that made it sound more like what you would get if mom and dad were having a pots and pans fight. Mainland Chinese.

As I filed in, and took my usual place to stand ( the head/ tail of the train where you can have a front view). I was pretty upset, my hopes being dashed by a bunch of PRCs. I noticed there was a man, this elderly Malay chap with songkok and his tongkat, holding on for dear life to the metal pole as the train accelerated. He seemed rather frail. There were lots of young people who were sitting around him. I saw one young student ( he was in school uniform) glance at the old man, then at his tongkat, and when the man caught him looking, the student stood up..... then adjusted his shirt and sat back down. Terrible.

When I turned back, the old man was sitting across the student. Someone had given up their seat! Joy! A kind samaritan at last! I looked at him, and he was speaking to these two young men. His eyes said it all: Thank you. Curious to see what they looked like, I tilted my body left ( very nearly lost balance as the train turned) and saw their faces. They had rather dark skin, though did not look to be Indian or Malay. And once again, they opened their mouths and destroyed me. They were BURMESE!

At this point, I was wishing that somehow at the precise moment these Chinese tourists and Burmese workers chose to open their mouths I would suddenly be struck with some form of rare epilepsy triggered by the onset of contact with foreigners, so that I could keep telling myself Malaysians are such kind, orderly, civilized people. Yes, I know there are kind Malaysians, I know quite a few of them myself. But why does the majority behave like this? The pushing, the refusal to give the man a seat even after ten minutes of seeing him stand and suffer? And in the end, it is the foreigners who behave better in our own country, and treat the poor fellow better. It is them, the Burmese who come from such impoverished backgrounds, who have the heart to give.

So there you have it, the succulent goodness in Malaysia. Except that it's in Malaysia, but not from Malaysia. Ah well. Imported Burmese durian anyone?

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Tragedy Of Valentine- History Repeats Itself

More than two millennia after the persecution of Christians under the Roman pagans, and the execution of St. Valentine, a new form of oppression has returned to haunt us. The perpetrators this time are not Roman centurions, but rather the National Fatwa Council, elements of PAS, as well as the Deputy Prime Minister himself.

I suppose we are not the only country in the global headlines for banning Valentines Day. At least we have Iran ( yes, nuclear bomb building, extremist, US and UN defying Iran). Not exactly the best of countries to be compared with. Iran too, has spoken against Valentine's Day, the official reason being that it was getting too popular, therefore it had to be stopped. No wonder no political opponents can surface in Iran, they must have been stopped for the exact same reason. Hmph. I, for one, can wholehearted say, that I am firmly against the ban.

Now, before a flurry of assaults will condemn me as a Hallmark holiday activist, Christian evangelist, anti-PAS or anti-BN, or whatever label they wish to throw at me, allow me to explain. Firstly, I am not a particular fan of them, all the mushy gooey stuff, and flowers going round at ridiculously inflated prices. Secondly, I am not Christian. Thirdly, I have great respect for those PAS members whom are well educated, firm in their principles, and stand up for them. I cannot say the same for the latter. So you may wonder, why on earth am I kicking up a fuss about Valentine's Day since it does not really concern me?

Because I believe in rights. I believe that all of us, have the right to freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of action as enshrined in the Constitution. Every one should have the right to celebrate a day of significance. A day which, though it is affiliated with a Christian priest, has evolved throughout the ages to become something else. To prove my point, let me divulge into the origins of Valentines Day. It is said that Valentine was a priest in the Roman ages. At the time, Emperor Claudius disallowed men from marrying as he needed them ready to be drafted as soldiers. The soldiers who defied this order, and wanted to marry, went to Valentine, who as a priest, presided over their marriages. When the Emperor found out, Valentine was executed. The date: February 14. This is the generally accepted story regarding the origins of Valentines Day. Therefore, by looking at the date, it is in fact a day of mourning for a noble man, who stood up for people's rights. A man, who recognized that everyone should have the right to marry, to choose their companion for life, and died a martyr's death for that cause. So in actual fact, Valentines Day does not celebrate Christianity. It celebrates human rights! 

Now look at it from another angle. Some may argue that it has somewhat Christian origins, because it was inspired by a priest, therefore it is 'haram'. However, one only needs to look into its history to see that it was never celebrated as a religious festival. Also, if Valentines Day should be banned, so one might as well ban Father's Day and Mother's Day, with the former first conceived by a Christian lady, and the latter originating as a Greek pagan festival. My point is this: the only constant in this world is change. Sunday used to be a holy day for pagans honoring the Sun God, now it is a day of worship for Christian; the Kaabaa was once used by the Quraisy to worship pagan deities, now it is a holy place for followers of Islam. Valentines Day may have once upon a time had connections to religion, but no more. It is now simply a day where people appreciate each other, and find time to express their affection for each other. Is not showing love, and loving others encouraged amongst all races, all religions?

Another argument that has surfaced amongst supporters of this move to ban Valentines Day ( and crack down on couples) is that Valentines Day encourages immoral activities and I quote from Wan Mohamad Sheikh Abdul Aziz, "In reality, as well as historically, the celebration of Valentine's Day is synonymous with vice activities". Rrrrrrright. So by vice activities I must assume he means consuming alcohol, gambling, not wearing panties, and khalwat. Firstly, I would like to challenge him to present his evidence to his statement. As far as I know, in reality, as well as historically, Valentines Day has always been a day to celebrate love, by exchanging gifts and what not. Hmm. Secondly, I must point out to him that Valentines Day, in no way, encourages vice. Think about it, if a person is morally right and a religious man, would he succumb to the "dark influence" of Valentines Day and fall into vice? And if a person is the type that would be inclined to commit vice on Valentines Day, wouldn't he do it every other day? Do you think a person who commits khalwat on Valentines Day does so because of Valentines Day? Think about it logically and rationally. By issuing such a statement, he is projecting an image that Muslims are so very easily influenced, and so very easily tempted and swayed, which cannot be further from the truth. If one is strong willed, he will never sway; if one is weak willed, he will always grab the first opportunity that comes along and blame it on something else.

As such, I urge the BN and PAS government to reconsider their move. Politically, rationally, socially, and in some ways even religiously, it is a mistake, and only serves to heighten racial tensions and throw Malaysia into the very very very sour 'lime' light once again. And to those who can see the bigger picture, Happy Valentines Day to you.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Egypt- Of Mummies and Mubarak

On the 2nd of February 2011, the great men and women of Egypt made history. Almost two million gathered in the heart of the city of Cairo, in Tahrir Square. It was a call for democracy, a call for equality, a call for liberty. A call for the very fundamental human rights to be restored to the people of Egypt.

As I sat, enraptured by the chain of events, I could not help but feel fantastic. I felt empowered. I felt moved. The sheer solidarity of the people, and the unimaginable scale of protests, sent shock waves throughout the region and throughout the hearts and minds of people. And I stayed glued to Al-Jazeera for the days that followed, more and more convinced that change was soon to come.

And on the eve of elections in Malaysia, I hope that change will come to our shores as well. Our prime minister said there were lessons to be learned from Egypt. Well, he is perfectly right. There are deep and invaluable lessons to be learned, traditions to be thrown away, and mindsets to be abolished.

Number One.
We can exact change.
Look at Egypt today. A month ago, they cowered under the might of the state apparatus, resigned in their fate. They were angry, indignant, but tired. No longer. They have risen up, the great people of Egypt, Muslims and Christians and Jews, for progress. They have begun a process that can never be undone. They have risen, not bolstered by American troops or UN sanctions, but empowered and emboldened by their wills. There's a saying that great men shape the annals of history. And in Egypt, a great people can shape the course of their country. And so can we. Throw away that apathy, that 'Tak Apa', that resigned defeat. Believe in ourselves. And do something about it. Choose the better and empower our future, because as P. Ramakrishnan, president of Aliran put it, 'by our silence, we contribute to the chaos that ensues'.

Number Two.
Society will not collapse because of a collapse in a particular government. We have long heard claims saying that "the 'other side' has no experience." "We are the best because we are the most experienced." "If we are not elected there will be chaos." "Do not let the ghosts of May 13 return."
Utter propaganda, uttered by a desperate government, in a foolish attempt to blind the uninitiated. The people will provide, and ordinary men and women rise up to the occasion in spite of the chaos. In Egypt, in the face of no internet and mobile networks, people have come up with ingenious ways of communication, such as the relay system. Ordinary citizens have taken it upon themselves to direct traffic, provide food, drink and shelter, despite no galvanizing leadership. And when looters threatened the artifacts of Cairo Museum, the people banded together and formed a human wall to protect their heritage. Such incidents have only strengthened my belief that there are good souls who can become great individuals, normal and quaint people that become stronger and braver when the need is great. And as Malaysians, should believe in the worth of the individual, and of giving those who have been deemed as "too inexperienced", "too young" a chance. We should believe, and have faith in Malaysia, that we can weather anything the cronies, the corrupt and the crooks throw at us, and emerge a greater nation.

Number Three.
There is no such thing as an unchangeable situation.
Mubarak has been in power for more than 30 years now. People believed it would never change. That his party would always be almighty, that the police would continue brutalizing them, that true democracy was but a fragile and far off dream. But now, all that is going to change. Now, Mubarak might as well be a mummy, with Egyptians more than eager to bury his evils, and move forward. We can change too. All it takes is for us to do something, anything. Because there is always hope.

And so tonight, as I close my eyes, I pray. To the noble citizens of Egypt, I pray. And to Malaysia, a country where the ISA still reigns supreme, a country where police brutality is still rampant and cronies and corruption are still the order of the day- I pray.

And God willing, I'm hoping my prayers will be answered.