Saturday, December 22, 2012

ROJAK Awards 2012

REFSA Rojak is our weekly take on the goings-on in Malaysia. We trawl the newsflow, cut to the core and focus on the really pertinent. Full of flavour, lots of crunch, this is the concise snapshot to help Malaysians keep abreast of the issues of the day.
Special Feature: The ROJAK Awards for 2012
As the year draws to a close, and Christmas looms ever nearer, gifts, company dinners, bonuses (and, no doubt, bribes!) are being dished out left, right and centre. In honour of that grand tradition, and to recognise those who have left significant marks on society, be they imprimatur-spots or unpleasant stains, REFSA presents its own ROJAK* awards to Malaysia’s top newsmakers of 2012.
9. Starting off, the Sour Mangoes Merit Prize goes to the sourpusses and turncoats we’ve seen these past few years. From dear Hassan Ali, to the Terrific Turncoat Trio who handed over the reins of Perak to the opposing side via defections, there’s been no end to the puckering and posturing from these ‘frogs’. What a bunch of sour grapes mangoes!
8. Sweet notes are heightened following sour sensations; and theCool Cucumbers Award goes to the new political leaders that we see emerging today. From Saifuddin Abdullah to Nurul Izzah Anwar  to Tony Pua, these individuals not only keep cool, fact-based minds in fiery debates, but also exhibit a willingness to engage in all platforms, be they public forums or social media. Politics is the new cool.
7. The Crunchy Jambu Trophy belongs to the alternative media, who give airtime to our Cool Cucumbers, whistle-blowers such as Rafizi Ramli of cows-and-condos fame and extensive coverage of events such as BERSIH which are peripheral in the world of the mainstream media. For bringing to the forefront the news that matters, this award goes to alternative media outlets like Malaysiakini.
6. When it comes to the Limp Kangkung Gift, there is none more deserving than the mainstream media. In fact, the mainstream media wins hands down (or should we say butts up?). Censoring the British Broadcasting Corporation (another worldwide first for Malaysia, we believe), deviously and deliberately mixing up the words Islam and Scientology in Australian Senator Xenophon’s speech, calling crime a perception problem, … there seems to be no limit to their ability to bend to their masters’ wills.
5. In stark contrast, the Crispy Crackers Cup is awarded to the various bodies who have made us laugh in spite of, and sometimes because of, all the daft comments, scandals, disappointments, and atrocities. From the brave political cartoonists of the likes of Zunar and Johnny Ong, to the netizen-run memes of pages like Curi-curi Wang Malaysia, thank you for cracking us up, and subtly ‘cracking’ irresponsible politicians’ heads with wit and humour derived from their (all too many) foibles.
4. Coming up, by unanimous vote (alright, maybe just 5 people), is the Styrofoam Box Bonanzawhich goes to LYNAS for all its environmental nastiness and suspicious secretiveness. I mean, it’s not the Cold War; it’s not like they are building some radioactive facility for some oppressive, authoritarian government….
3. On the other side of the Styrofoam fence, is the Satay Stick Honour, and this is bestowed upon the Anti-Lynas movement, for, literally and figuratively, walking the talk. These ordinary but gutsy people banded together and walked 300km in 2 weeks on their Green March for a healthy and safe environment. India had its Salt March, Mao Ze Dong had the Long March, now Malaysia has its own Green March. The walk to freedom is long indeed.
2. The Rojak Sauce Salutation goes to the BERSIH movement, for bringing all the disparate flavours of Malaysia together. From old to young, from Malay to Chinese to Kadazan, BERSIH united Malaysians all over the country, in fact, the world, for a just cause. Honourable mention goes to organisations like Tenaganita, the Bar Council and Tindak Malaysia, who advocate, fight for, and defend our rights as citizens of Malaysia and turn the spotlight on incidents of repression and abuse. Working tirelessly, while being paragons of humility, they ensure the weak and oppressed do not stand alone.
1. Last but not least, we have the Order of the Rubber Band. You can have the best rojak sauce in the world, you can have all the freshest fruits of the rainforest, you can have the sticks ready and the box closed, but without a rubber band, that box of rojak may be all for naught. So this award goes to you, the Malaysian voter. We know you are flexible, we know you are adaptable, and we know you recognize that everything has a limit.  So make your choice judiciously, cast your election vote wisely, and take responsibility in protecting and preserving our wonderful, mixed-up, diverse country.
And that’s a wrap.
*ROJAK Awards has neither international accreditation nor the endorsement of local authorities; it is a purely home-grown, cottage industry to give due recognition to all deserving awardees, worthy, or unworthy, of mention. We await an ‘entrepreneurship’ award for our efforts.
As published by REFSA.

5 Things Worth Celebrating for Merdeka

 REFSA Rojak is our weekly take on the goings-on in Malaysia. We trawl the newsflow, cut to the core and focus on the really pertinent. Full of flavour, lots of crunch, this is the concise snapshot to help Malaysians keep abreast of the issues of the day.

Malaysia turns 55 this year, and a generation is retiring – a generation for whom a mouse was definitely not something you wanted in the house, a generation for whom Emergency was when communists came knocking on your door and not when you lost your smartphone, a generation where “tweets” were only for twits.
As that generation passes the mantle to the next, it is time for reflection upon our yesteryear. Though our beloved nation has seen its fair share of controversy and angst over the years, there are certainly things for which we can be happy about. And so today, REFSA Rojak puts aside its usual cynical self, and celebrates those things that give us hope, things that unite us as a nation and as one people. Five things stand out as we turn 55…
5. Exorcising the ghosts of May 13, 1969
May 1969 no longer conjures the same feeling of dread it used to. It has become like the bogeyman in fairytales of yore – used only by people who think they know what is best for us, to scare ‘ghoul-able’ souls! This spectre of fear tried to rear its ugly head after the 2008 political tsunami. However, the attempts to stoke ethnic tension – cow heads in Shah Alam, church arson, pig heads in mosques, JAIS raids on church dinners, bible-stamping – fizzled out when ordinary Malaysians rose above the fray. With Bersih being the most ‘muhibbah’ event of recent years, and inflammatory film trailer Tanda Putera receiving a red light sabre of dislikes on youtube, it looks like this May 13 ghost has truly been busted.
4. A new breed of young political leaders
With the dead having been taken care of, let’s focus on those who are breathing new life into the nation. From the ever purr-fect and CAT-chy Lim Guan Eng and latest clean-and-lean analytical machine Dr Ong Kian Ming, to the Rambo-brave Rafizi Ramli, the blossoming Nurul Izzah and the far-sighted Saifuddin Abdullah, to name a few, a new breed of political leaders have emerged, leaders who stand up for what they believe in and kneeling only in service of the rakyat!
3. The blooming of grassroots movements
While young politicians at the top are spreading the spirit of nationhood down, grassroots movements from the rakyat are also spreading their roots all the way up! Civil society movements have burst forth these past few years. Many, such as UndiMsia, Loyarburok, Bersih, Stop Lynas and Tindak Malaysia have received overwhelming support from ordinary Malaysians. They are truly organisations by the people for the people!
2. ‘Jalan-jalan cari makan’
At the end of the day there is one thing in Malaysia that can stop FRU units mid-charge, blow away placards and banners, and unite the entire country against ‘Singaporean culinary culture thieves’- FOOD. From the divine balance of spice and fragrance in that Mak Cik’s nasi lemak, to the joys of chomping on a dhal-flooded roti canai from that machaar down the road – Malaysia is truly the land of Makanmania. All things point to the possibility of eating our way to inter-cultural harmony, and this may well be the foundation to restore inter-ethnic interaction and understanding.
1. The freedom fighters
No, we’re referring to not just the soldiers who fought in the Emergency, not just the leaders who claimed independence from the British, not just the entrepreneurs who made it big on the world stage, but people like you and me. We celebrate the parents who lay for us the foundations of freedom that shape our character and sense of right and wrong, the teachers who give us the beginnings of the freedom of thought, and the friends who teach us the meaning of freedom to be who we are. Today, as we remember our day of Merdeka, that fight for freedom continues.
Fifty-five years on, let’s recognise that there is much to celebrate. The things that really matter are really right before us.
“A great nation is not one which, like Russia, has an enormous territory; or, like China, has an enormous population. It is the nation which gives mankind new modes of thought, new ideals of life, new hopes, new aspirations; which lifts the world out of the rut, and sets it going on a cleaner and brighter road.”
                                                            L.E. Blaze, Lecture at the D. B. U. Hall, November 26, 1926
As published on REFSA.

Monday, December 3, 2012


She treads lightly with hands open,
Soft skin brushing soft grass.
Her touch banishing frosty dew;
Her warmth, a spell is cast.

Like a blossom past a winter,
Red rose on bed of snow;
Clad in scarlet and white colors,
She walks with the river flow.

The old azalea sun did rise,
A gentle light setting life free.
Yet one more sun that day was seen,
Amaterasu, blinding to see.
Its warmth too warm, its light too bright;
Outshone, the bloodied sun did flee. 

Surrounded in unnatural fire,
She closes her blinded eyes, hands unfurled.
Color fading from her cloth,
Lips and cheeks graying like a moth
“I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”

Grass in blazes, black from green,
Rivers dry, dew turned to steam,
Kimono burned off soft skin,
A wrath like never before seen.

Now, body charred, color gone, there she lies.
Once a beauty, now less than food for flies.


Kami= Japanese for deity
Amaterasu= Japanese goddess of the sun

Author's note: 
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has always disturbed me. I took some liberties with the season:: August 1945 was in fact in the midst of summer. I made such a choice to portray the power of life, its touch and beauty manifested in the magical walk of a kimono-clad woman. 

The poem may be a mix of fact and fiction, but I hope that the poem successfully conveys a sense of loss and grief. More than a rail against just nuclear weapons, I wrote it with the intent of reexamining the justifications humans often give at acts of aggression: be it in the name of ending a war, avenging a war, or defending a country. 

Such immense powers of destruction at the hands of reckless man may one day be the deaths of us all.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Identity Crisis

"Tell us about who you are."

Who am I? 

The truth is, I don't really know. 

The past two years has been an incredible journey of self-discovery and change for me. My involvement with the amazing people at various NGOs, research institutes, schools, and conferences have shaped, bent, demolished and rebuilt my conception of self again and again, so much so that I am truly not the person I was two years, or even one year ago.

In a short two years, I've gone through various crises of faith: I started out as a Buddhist, briefly became an atheist, and now I'm agnostic. My political beliefs have been a roller-coaster:  from right wing free marketeer to left wing social liberal and now a centrist and moderate. Even my opinion of food, one thing I always thought would be constant, has been challenged: I find myself meeting people who have turned vegetarian for one reason or another and I question whether I can continue eating away with a guilty conscience. 

People who know me from my Wesley days call me an idealistic, melodramatic chatterbox. Those who know me from my early ISKL days might call me a reserved, skeptical realist. Those who know me now probably say I'm a mixture of both. I used to think I was pretty knowledgeable about the world, and I frequently made assumptions about people. But now it seems the more I learn, the more I realise that I know so little. 

Man, I must sound like a really funky cocktail gone wrong. But in truth, I don't think that's a bad thing. I try to reconcile the differences, to recognise the conflicts that are happening within me, so that I can know myself a little bit better.

And so to answer the question: Who am I?

I still don't know. And I may never really know.

But I plan to find out. =)

P.S. How have you changed these past years? Who are you? I'd like to hear, and thank you so much for reading!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Politics in Monochrome

Why should politics be in black and white?
The world is not black and white. Even for the colour blind, there are shades of grey (indeed, as many as ahem, Fifty Shades of Grey!). One of the first things we learn as we grow up is that things are often not simple – nuances permeate our world.

Somehow, however, this awareness that the world is not binary is suspended in our perception of Malaysian politics. Depending on whether you follow the mainstream or alternative media, every forthright political participant is pigeon-holed as either an anti-government/pro-opposition troublemaker, or a government-paid lapdog cyber trooper.

Following on from this artificial labelling is the “all-or-nothing” expectation of the personalities involved. Nothing good must be said of the other side, and 100% adherence to your side is demanded.

A recent example is the comment by PAS member of parliament for Hulu Langat Che Mat Che Rosli that radiation levels from the much-loathed Lynas plant were low. He was swiftly bombarded with criticisms including charges that he was paid by the government to lie and he had turned traitor. Che Mat, a nuclear scientist by training, was blasted for stating a fact as he saw it.

Or consider the issue of low wages in Malaysia: those who opposed minimum wage were swiftly branded as selfish rich capitalists while those who supported it were labeled socialists.

This binary view turned Twitterjaya into a class warfare background. Lost in the hostilities was a deeper consideration of the issue at stake, and the reasoning behind the different positions.

Refsa considers this narrow view of politics a serious impediment to the development of a mature democracy in Malaysia. It reduces politics to a two-size fits all dichotomy: you are either all Pakatan or all BN: “[My side] is always good. [My side] is always right. [The other side] is always wrong.”

This all-or-nothing approach is presumptuous and undesirable. It is presumptuous as the stifling of dissent suggests that only the views of the party leaders are correct and important. It is undesirable as it fails to recognise different opinions on particular issues and prevents constructive discourse.

The fact is there can be many potential approaches to address the social problems of our day. Rational, intelligent thinking people would be expected to evaluate proposed policies on a case-by-case basis, and cannot be expected to always support everything a particular party is doing.

Constructive criticism must be welcomed. Dissenters must not be labelled as traitors.

Expanding our horizons
All mature democracies accept constructive criticism as necessary for improvement. Consider this: back in 2008, then Democratic US presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton had differing opinions on how to run the economy and conduct foreign policy. They intensely criticised each other’s proposals, and the debates allowed a consensus on the ‘best’ policies to evolve.

So much so that Mrs Clinton subsequently agreed to serve as President Obama’s Secretary of State!

No one was called a traitor or chucked into some stereotypical category, because the American public recognised the goal of the discourse. Recognising the colourful views that people have can be bitter, but is ultimately beneficial.

For our democracy to mature, we Malaysians must expand our horizons and realise that people have a right to express different stands on different issues. We may have our political leanings but it does not mean we have to support our particular party blindly all the time, for we are not mindless automatons.

In fact, like any parent who has scolded their child will know, it is those who give fair criticism that truly have their beloved’s best interests at heart.

Sadly, our mainstream media is not facilitating this maturation process. Part of the internet vitriol directed at Che Mat following his comments on the Lynas plant were probably because he was misrepresented in the mainstream media. He said that radiation levels were low but the most critical issue of waste disposal had yet to be addressed; the mainstream media quoted him as saying Lynas was safe!

His clarifications were not carried. In this environment, Pakatan leaders and supporters cannot be blamed for being hesitant to express contrary views for fear that they will be taken out of context.

As citizens of Malaysia, we have to be discerning in our views and keep our minds open. The mainstream media, sadly, is unlikely to help as it has plummeted to the depths of lying about Australian senators and censoring BBC news feeds.

Refsa hopes our alternative media can step up. Do not pigeon-hole Pakatan personalities. Do not label them as ‘traitors’ merely for expressing contrary opinions. And when we read mainstream media headlines of “quarrels and disunity’ within Pakatan, do not immediately condemn Pakatan or the personalities but ask yourself “What are the relative merits of the different views/arguments? Will this help the nation?”

With questions like this in our minds, Malaysia will truly be on its way to a colourful and bright democratic future, and not a drab black and white world.

As published on Free Malaysia Today, REFSA & the Malaysian Insider.

Friday, July 13, 2012

City of Cutlery

The canteen is a place of moderated chaos – students walking, moving, laughing, munching, chomping, grabbing, laughing, shouting.

The bell rings. The buzz dies down gradually, crowds, heading like sharks to blood to the end of the hall.

Students push, pull, squeeze, walk, shuffle. A bottleneck towards their destination. There is a presence, tension rising as it awaits in anticipation.

Plates are thrown, unfinished food is dumped, forks and spoons clang against yolk yellow plastic trays. There is a blur spot in the background.

Spaghetti sauce splatters, drops of curry ooze into bins, bones with bits of meat slide down from plate to tray,  an oily surface acting like a slime ski. The entity is now actively reaching in, turning the messy into the orderly.

Cities begin to form – metal foundations of clanging cutlery, towers of plates, built on the soil of meat and rice, interspersed with rivers of tom yam. The architect, the builder, and demolisher are at work.

A rogue plate is thrown instead of placed. The character shouts an undignified ‘Oi!’. The perpetrator walks away, hands stained with the curry of his crime, continues laughing, chatting, talking, sparing one thought for the presence: Bitch.

The city has crumbled. And the pieces have to be picked up.

I walk toward the ruins. And I pick up the plates. I look up, and hand them to her. She smiles for the first time that day.

‘Terima kasih, adik.’

Walking away, I half whisper, ‘No, thank you mak cik.’

Santa's Chapati

Santa's in town!

Type of food: Indian

Signature dish: Chapati, sambal sardine
Location: 15, Jalan Sarikei, 53000 Kuala Lumpur
Opening hours: All days except Sunday, Mon-Fri 6.30am-6.30pm; Sat 6.30am-3pm
Contact:  0169958819 ( Kulwant Singh)
Other: Halal

No, this is not Mr. Ho Ho Ho Merry Christmas Santa! However, I can guarantee you that Santa Singh certainly does not lack for delectable gifts and culinary delights! Santa is a very famous chapati stall- he's been featured in many a paper and I've been an avid fan of his chapati for years now. All the chapatis I've tried have thus far paled in comparison to his. Read on and find out why!

Fuyoh, motion blur man!
The chapathi at Santa's is always piping hot from the pan, with the skillful hands of his workers always flipping the delicate dough back and forth. The sight of the chapati being done right there and then, the subtle but mmmm so good smell of the dough, and finally the slight burn you get on your fingers as you juggle the hot chapati onto your plate- all make for a full sensory adventure.

Don't underestimate the power of a fluffy chapati.
The chapati itself is fluffy, with a good bite- sufficiently chewy and doughy without being rubbery; it's got a fresh feel where you can actually taste the dough itself; and is just the right thickness. Overall, a GREAT chapati. But of course, one usually does not eat chapati plain ( though I could eat this one plain!), one usually has some condiments with the chapati to complement the flavours.

Sambal sardine..mmmm
This is where the chapati becomes surprisingly addictive. Santa's all time favourite condiment is his sambal sardine- an extremely tasty, slightly spicy blend of sardine fish bits, onion pieces that provide a good bite and fragrance, and a sauce that just brings everything together. The sambal sardine is a mighty fine concoction- Santa has his own special blend, it tastes nothing like sambal sardine from a can or from any other restaurant I've been to. The sauce goes fantastically well with the chapati, and I can easily chomp down three chapatis in one sitting with the sambal sardine. The other condiments are really quite good as well.

Mutton keema
The mutton keema has a good bite to it, very nice flavours that blend well with the chapati. If you like mutton, I suggest you take bucket loads of this! 

A bit like bitter gourd chips!
The deep fried bitter gourd is a must try for vege lovers- it's crunchy, rich with spice and with a good hint of bitter!

The dhal is very decent as well, but when fresh ( around 8-9 am), it is GREAT. You've never really tasted dhal till you've tasted it fresh.

Makes you feel like going MOOOOOO.
Of course, what is a Malaysian breakfast without the ol' cuppa Teh Tarik? This is another aspect where Santa shines, with a Teh Susu Lembu* that is oh so frothy, with a nice natural rich milky taste! I don't know about you, but I'm a Teh Tarik junkie, and this is one of the best in town!

Restoran Santa
Taste: 8.5/10- Best chapati in town.
Value: 8.5/10- It's mamak prices, a meal for one with condiments should cost no more than RM8
Health: 8.5/10- Chapati is a really healthy bread!
Overall: 4.5 durians!

*Susu lembu- cow's milk- when fresh, has a really strong, milky smell and taste, perfect for a cuppa!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Amnesia, Paranoia, Inertia (API)

I love history. I really do. I love how history has a tendency to manifest itself in different forms from time to time, how a single event has the power to change fates of nations across generations, how rich and colourful the characters of the past are. History speaks volumes to me.
Which is precisely why I disliked the history syllabus back in school. It was stuffy, repetitive, and had a one track interpretation of things. In short, it was like a really ancient man- who suffered from amnesia, paranoia, and inertia (API). And today, like a slightly spoilt grandchild, I’m going to delve into the fiery (get it? OK lame) issue of our history syllabus and complain about this old man.

Tiananmen Square
Twenty-three years and eight days ago, hundreds of students, who had been standing up for their voice to be heard, were killed during the Tiananmen massacre in China. The Forbidden City witnessed a bloodbath. The foreign media condemned it. The world cried out bloody murder.
You’d think that such an event would have changed a society to its roots. You’d think that people hold that date dearly to their chest, and remember it as a day of shame, never to be repeated again. Yet today, Beijing University students do not remember it at all. When shown a picture of the tank man – the famous photo of the man who tried to stop an army tank – they could not recognise it.
Some of you reading this may be gasping in horror, especially if you watched the video embedded in the link. How could such an important event be completely forgotten by the students from the very university that led the movement? It would be like Singaporeans having no knowledge of the 1965 separation, or of Indians not knowing about the Amritsar Massacre.
The funny thing is that my generation has its own amnesia too: May 13, 1969 – the day when violent ethnic clashes rocked our country.
Most of my friends have no idea about the significance of this date. Even when I explained it to them, their reaction would be incredulous, saying “There were race riots in Malaysia?”
But then again, they’re not to blame: it wasn’t in the history syllabus. Apparently, the ministry decided to put in only ‘positive elements and not negative elements’. By that same logic, I suppose the Germans should not read about the Nazis either.
May 13, 1969 is not the only case of selective forgetfulness. The contributions of the leftist political parties in the fight for independence, the story of Yap Ah Loy, and even the origins of the Malays have all been omitted or barely mentioned.
So many parts of our own nation’s history were blotted out because they were not positive enough?

Napoleon Bonaparte
Here, let me test you. Napoleon Bonaparte, Mehmed the Conqueror, Dwight Eisenhower, Deng Xiaoping, Genghis Khan, George Washington, Josef Stalin, Muhammad Jinnah – what do they all have in common?
They are great leaders? Perhaps. All men? Well yeah, but not what I was looking for. The answer? They are all absent from the history syllabus.
Suffice to say that the lack of world history in syllabus is a great source of shame when meeting foreigners, especially when the history-savvy amongst them know about Malaysian history. (An American acquaintance of mine was shocked to find out that our Sejarah textbook had condensed World War I and World War II into four pages).
My friend, who is going to Cambridge University, is now getting informal coaching sessions from an acquaintance to brush up on his world knowledge lest he look like an idiot in ‘jolly good’ England.
And mind you, I’m not even one of those who complain the syllabus is too Islam-oriented. In fact, I rather enjoyed those parts – they are important parts of our world history that are often ignored in the West. What I really didn’t like however was the sheer repetitiveness (and this is why I say our history syllabus is like an old man) – Melaka in primary school, Melaka in lower secondary, and wow whaddaya know Melaka again for upper secondary! Yay.

The old man of our history syllabus is not only forgetful, but paranoid. For instance, communists apparently are evil, indiscriminate killers who want to take over the world. These history professors are living in the past – the Cold War is over.
Today, we are doing business with the Communists in China, while many communist parties have rebranded themselves and have won democratic elections. Yet our history syllabus carries on, not even bothering to explain the ideology of communism before condemning it as rubbish.
Of course, the reason why controversial issues such as these are ignored or represented by one viewpoint is because our young minds will no doubt be influenced and we’ll end up being terrorists.
Thank you for saving my soul, Mr History Professor. I know I am not as mature as all those other kids in Europe and other developed nations who can study “hot” topics and somehow not go wacko.
On a more serious note, the paranoia evident in the way the history syllabus is set defeats the very purpose of studying history.
One of the quotes that are in almost every chapter of the Sejarah textbook is by George Santayana: “Those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Those who wrote the textbooks are the same ones who included this quote; they are also the ones who seek to only include positive elements in our syllabus. I can only hope that my generation, despite not studying incidents like May 13 do not repeat them.

Inertia is a physics term used to describe the tendency of an object to remain at rest. Our history syllabus suffers from inertia of the mind – it is not helping students improve their thinking in any way.
Back in secondary school, studying history was a bit like this: the textbook is your bible, memorise it, bring it everywhere you go and voila, just vomit out the facts and you’re fantastic. Even when it came to essay questions in SPM like “Why did the Japanese not invade Thailand during World War II”, it came down to memorising listed reasons in the textbook.

Sharif Masahor
I remember one of my exams had an essay question that asked why people like Dol Said, Sharif Masahor and Dato Bahaman deserved to be national heroes. I answered that they did not deserve to be national heroes as they were mainly fighting for their own taxes and influence, and they were not concerned with nationalism; it was all about state allegiances back then.
It turned out that it was not a yes or no question. I soon learned to fall in and get my A.
When I began my pre-university course in history, I realised that history was no more than interpretations of events – it is His Story after all. Such a revelation sounds pretty lame. After all, imagine me gasping in awe: “There are VIEWPOINTS!?”
Truly though, it was such a break from the past of memorising Sejarah blindly. When I told my Canadian lecturer what the Malaysian history syllabus was like, he was appalled and said he would probably resign if he had to teach it in that way.
Today I’m relearning (and from a Mat Salleh at that) that the Baling talks had two sides to it. I’m evaluating Dr Mahathir’s time in office, reading and citing from sources ranging from the Malay Dilemma, to Lim Kit Siang’s speeches in Parliament.
I am allowed to say that Mao ZeDong was a visionary. At the same time, if it suits me, I can also say that he was an absolute murderer. I can even say he was both, as long as I analyse historical incidents properly and can come up with plausible explanations to my thesis.
Barely any of the arguments were in the text. We did not even have a textbook. We had instead excerpts from multiple authors to look at all views. It doesn’t make me any less patriotic; in fact, I’d say learning about the world has made me more patriotic.
Above all, I am learning that there are no absolute answers in complex historical events. Only fools claim they do.
It saddens me deeply to know that the greatest tragedy of our history syllabus is not its myopic and tiny scope, not its paranoia and forgetfulness, but its feeble attempt to feed us half-truths and viewpoints as gospel.
George Orwell once said: “He who controls the present, controls the past. And he who controls the past, controls the future.”
Josef Stalin, the authoritarian dictator of the Soviet Union, launched campaigns to find, imprison and kill historians. Such sentiments reveal the importance of history.
I find our syllabus suspiciously close to attempts at indoctrination – the ultimate inertia of the mind.
As a young Malaysian, it pains my heart to see others my age turn away from such a beautiful, relevant subject because all they have encountered is a twisted, biased and repetitive version of it. People like to complain many youths are unpatriotic.
As with relationships, we have to know a person, warts and all, to love him or her; how can we love Malaysia if we don’t know its faults and dark moments?
I hope the old man of our history syllabus can still be cured.
I pray that my children can know the world and Malaysia. If indeed my child comes up to me and says, “Dad, I think maybe the communists were not evil. I believe May 13 was a spontaneous uprising. I believe Dol Said deserved to be called a national hero”, I will ask her “Did you read all viewpoints? Did you form this opinion yourself?”, and if she says yes, I will say “Good for you!”
And the rest, is as they say, history.

As published on Loyarburok, Voice of Children and Malaysia Today.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Internal Disagreements Are Like Ginseng

The Malaysian media encourages the misguided view that differences of opinion among members of political parties are unhealthy. Differing views are often portrayed as ‘squabbling’ or ‘spats’ or ‘rifts’ between members of the fraternity and indicative of weakness and disunity.

The contrary is true. Firstly, the ability to accept differing opinions is a sign of maturity in political parties or coalitions. Every person is unique, and that uniqueness includes our worldviews and of course, our opinions on matters. Even people in the most intimate of relationships do not agree on everything. Lovers fight. Married couples argue.

Some of us are more opinionated (or if you prefer, stubborn) than others, and when it comes to political parties... well you can expect a much higher concentration of strong-willed, passionate people who have their own take on things. The important thing is that the disagreements are in pursuit of a higher cause. The point of debate goes beyond demolishing the other person’s arguments and proving yours are better. Constructive debate and discourse which involves different viewpoints often results in a compromise that is agreeable to most. And isn’t that the point of a democracy - to reflect the views of the majority?

But even when the middle path is not taken, and when different factions with irreconcilable differences emerge, it can be for the better. Take for example the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States. The business-friendly  Republicans  believe people should be as free as possible to pursue their own best interests and government should play a minimal role in the economy. The Democrats have a broader social agenda and believe government is crucial in creating a fairer society.

Many would be surprised to learn that these polar-opposites today share the same roots in the Democratic-Republican Party founded by Thomas Jefferson. Differences of opinion within led to a schism in the 19th century. In the short term, this split certainly was destructive - the Democratic-Republican party ceased to exist.  But in the long term, it created two powerful parties that now dominate politics in the richest country in the world.

Disagreements still rumble internally within the parties. Just consider the race to be the Republican candidate for president of the United States. Rick Santorum, the previous front-runner who recently pulled out, is a very conservative Christian focused on social issues. Mitt Romney, the present front-runner, was a successful venture capitalist and presents a more moderate face. All the candidates have hotly debated, and indeed, attacked each other. But the internal competition creates a dynamic in which the strongest, most ‘winnable’ candidate survives, behind which the entire party then closes ranks.

Notice the difference between these mature parties and the immature, insecure ones in our country? The losing candidate is not demonised as a traitor to the party, ostracised or expelled. Neither does he storm off if a huff or retreat to sulk in a corner. He and his followers are absorbed back into the fold and continue the fight for the greater good as the party sees it. The different opinions expressed during the campaign are not viewed as detrimental or bad for the party. Rather, they are recognised for what they are: just different viewpoints. And the winning candidate may well absorb some of these viewpoints.

Rick Santorum.
This brings us to the very important point that successful political parties recognise constructive dissent as not only natural, but also necessary for rejuvenation. The Democratic and  Republican parties in the United States have now been in existence for nearly two hundred years. The fact that they are still relevant is testimony to their ability to absorb and accept new ideas and evolve to meet the changing needs and demands of the people they seek to govern. New ideas, and change, by definition, require freedom to dissent and debate. 

The real problem is not dissent. It is suppressing dissent. UMNO for example, has not seen a contest for its presidency for a quarter of a century - ever since the titanic battle in 1987 between Tunku Razaleigh and Dr Mahathir which lead to Tengku Razaleigh leaving UMNO to form Semangat 46 and a sycophantic culture developing in the new UMNO. Dr Mahathir recently admitted that UMNO faces a scarcity of competent leaders at the top[1].  The shortage is so severe that the UMNO now cannot find a woman capable enough to helm the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development.

Take this test yourself. Name the vibrant young leaders in UMNO, MCA and the MIC, the bulwarks of conformity and ‘unity’. Next, name the vibrant young leaders in DAP and PAS[2], the parties often portrayed by the mainstream media as riven by disagreements.

Differing opinions are simply a natural democratic process, are in the bigger picture constructive, and a mark of a mature, strong parties. So the next time the mainstream media highlights another intra-party ‘spat’ within Pakatan Rakyat, think of it as Ginseng- it is bitter-sweet but is natural and rejuvenating!

[1] Dr M: Field talented outsiders. The Star, 29 Mar 2012.
[2] We deliberately avoid mentioning PKR as it is a relatively young party.

Originally published on REFSA, an independent think tank's website.

Friday, May 11, 2012

BERSIH- Of Police Brutality & Maggi Mee

Gives a whole new meaning to Duduk Bantah, eh? Source in image.
This is one of the definitions given by Urban Dictionary (yes I know, what a load of nonsense, but bear with me):
Police [ puh-less], noun The guys you run away from.

Usually Urban Dictionary doesn’t quite give the most accurate of definitions, but this one seemed pretty damn accurate on Saturday. Well, most of you would have had your own experiences, but I needed to vent my frustration ( since I don’t have anybody to beat up), so here I am writing an article which probably only three people will read (one of them a cyber police officer, perhaps).
I’d just like to clarify some things before I move on. Firstly, I am in no way against the police themselves as a force, but rather am opposed to their conduct. In fact, I owe a lot to them, and have friends who have policemen as dads. Secondly, this article is based on my experiences, so please don’t tell me I’m spewing nonsense (I’m talking to YOU, cyber police officer lurking in a dark room).
Okay, moving on.

Police in solemn silence, after prayers.
Police organisation
It was about 1.30 p.m. at Masjid Negara. The solat had begun, and people were starting to pour into the mosque. There was a huge crowd of police (most of whom looked very young) on my side of the road – about five hundred of them – and you could that some wanted to follow the crowd into the mosque (for prayer or for the shade, I don’t know). They had been standing there for about half an hour by now, and some began to sit down. A Bersih supporter joked they were staging their own Duduk Bantah, haha!
The day was maddeningly hot. I thought I was dying from the heat, when suddenly I noticed this huge movement on the right flank of the police formation. They were mobilising! The crackdown had begun! I stood up on the steel railing at the side of the road trying to get a glimpse, oh poor vertically-challenged me. And there they were, about twenty to thirty policemen, surrounding this elderly pak cik. All of them were reaching into their pockets, grabbing his hand…
To give him money for drinks.
Bet I caught you there, eh? Okay anyway, a friend of mine decided to belanja the policemen. “The police are our friends, remember that!”, he said. So we bought like ten cups of sirap and orange juice, and the police officers shared them out. They were a bit reluctant to accept it at first, but judging by the way they devoured the drinks I suppose they were pretty parched. We then begun a conversation with them.
I asked one if he knew how many policemen were present. I hazarded a figure of 3000. He just shook his head, saying there were many more than that. A little bit more snooping revealed that they were all from different contingents – some from Johor, Selangor, Perak, and even from Penang. No wonder the other protests were so peaceful, all the police were in KL!
I even found out that a few of them, by their own confession, were “dari negara asing” ( from a foreign country). I was pretty puzzled, but they seemed tight-lipped about this and so I didn’t press further. Overall they were quite friendly;  joking around and jabbing each other, they reminded me of schoolkids teasing each other about “girlfriends”. Several protesters even shared cigarettes with them.

Mainstream media said businesses affected. Affected in a good way I suppose?
About twenty minutes later, prayers ended. Some policemen had stood in solemn silence the whole way. I talked to them a bit more, and one of them asked me why I had turned up. I told him about election fraud. We had a bit of a discussion, and he concluded: “You ada pandangan you, saya ada pandangan sendiri lah.” ( You have your opinions, and I have my own views)
There were lots of helicopters overhead, and even these funny men on parachutes with giant fans strapped to their back (para-gliders). Most were probably FRU air surveillance. Very nice. I joked that, for the next Bersih, we should hijack those parachute things and land in Dataran Merdeka, bypassing all the barbed wire. Heh.
In any case, I found the police mobilisation in shutting down roads to bevery impressive. It definitely revealed the extent to which the government had made preparations for Bersih.
Police “professionalism”
Many festivities followed. This mood continued at my side of Masjid Jamek (I had moved, as Masjid Negara got boring), until about 3pm or so. Then all hell started breaking loose.
Tear gas was everywhere. Without warning, police started shooting at us. It was like having cili padirubbed into your eyes, and a whole chunk of wasabi shoved down your throat and up your nose. For those of you who didn’t go gatal to experience tear gas, I would not recommend you attempt to reenact my description. I had a towel wet by water from a pak cik, a mask from an uncle, and salt from a little adik - the clothes of the true Malaysia.
Police fired tear gas indiscriminately. Their tactics were obviously to box us in, not to fan us out. I was getting tired from all the running and gas, and thought of just resting. Then a grandma who must have been in her 70s tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Let’s go!”  I sure didn’t feel tired after that.
We ran back and forth, back and forth. Some protestors started hurling insults at the police, who responded likewise. The police shouted, “ Come la! Come la! If you’re so brave, come and hit us la!”
Though certainly the police were provoked, this was certainly unacceptable as they are to be moral guardians and upholders of peace and law. Instead of managing the situation, they fostered aggession. At one point, I was wandering off and got manhandled by a policeman who shouted at me “Pergi! Pergi! You jangan kacau di sini!” and pushed me back into the fray.
If this were some first world country – and yes, I am saying Malaysia is a third world country – the police officer would probably have just barred my way and politely but firmly said “Sir, this is a restricted area, please leave for your own safety”.
What ever happened to our Malaysian police motto of “TEGAS, ADIL DAN BERHEMAH”?

I know, pretty wet, and mind you this was BEFORE the action started!
Excessive force
Things gradually died down from there, as being true Malaysians, my friends and I just had to go for a makan session. So we went to Restoran Ali, although it was less packed than the nasi briyani stall next to it. The food there was not that great, to say the least. The maggi goreng was rather bland, and they had run out of most other foods (in hindsight, I think he got it mixed up with Restoran Ali Maju).
Anyway, in case you’re wondering what on earth this has to do with the police, we were eating away when a group of people in yellow shirts came running over shouting “Baju! Baju! Baju!”. I didn’t quite understand what they were shouting about until this young Chinese guy came over to our table and explained that the police were arresting everybody in yellow. We quickly put on our jackets, a quick ‘I told you it’d come in handy!’ whipped out to my friends in the process. One guy who had heard the brief exchange took off his shirt, while some others either didn’t bother or didn’t hear.
Ten seconds later, a dozen police officers came running over, holding batons and shouting their heads off. They pulled the noticeable yellow shirt wearers out of the mamaks, and the guy who took off his shirt wasn’t spared either ( I mean who on earth walks around, eating dinner half-naked in public?). The police started beating them up, kicking them around. I was tempted to stand up and cry foul, but a tiny voice in my head whispered to me about the importance of continuing the Ong family line and the futility of it all. So I just kept eating.
The police shouted while hitting them, saying “You berani lawan polis, you tau tak dua orang polis sudah mati!” (You dare fight the police, do you know that two police officers have died!) The newspapers make no mention of this, so I assume these were baseless rumours.
Such a rumour could only have come from police themselves, or from the top. If it was from the former, they should have verified the claim through their clearly well-organised communication network. If it was from the top, then it is obviously to stir up emotion and make things worse. Either way, it revealed the excessive force and gangster-ish spirit of our police officers: you hurt one of us, we have the right to hurt you; taking the law into their own hands when they of all people should know that a criminal must be tried by a court.
These vigilantes were obviously not of the Spiderman type, but rather indiscriminately vented their anger on innocent protestors who did not resist arrest.
After they left, I heaved a sigh of relief. Afraid that they might come again and this time check under my jacket, I dumped my Bersih T-shirt into the nearest dumpster. What an ironic end.
I was trying to get back home then, but to no avail. Most of the roads and trains were closed. So I was walking along St. Johns when a group of people came running and shouting how the police were now arresting practically everyone still on the streets. My friends and I dived into St. Johns Cathedral (well, it was as good a time as any to start feeling religious!) and hid there for an hour or so.
I’d like to end my account of Bersih and the police with an analogy: If we are shot by a gun (or, if you prefer, a tear gas canister), do we blame the gun or the person wielding the gun? If we are angry about the police, do we blame the police or those who direct the police?
I leave that judgment up to you. But what I do know is that after the day’s events, I have changed. I remember the first moment the tear gas hit – I shed tears, but they were not just tears from the tear gas, but tears from my heart. Something inside me had died. But recalling the Yellow River that day (we could have given the real river some competition!), something new also grew, and is still growing inside me.
I call it hope. And I hope it grows inside you, too.

Originally published on Loyarburok.