Friday, December 13, 2013


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?
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.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Somehow, the parade and the block party of the President's Inaugural evoked in me a deep-seated, irrational fear.

At first there was the excitement, the thrill that came with trailing the jolly band, the colorful procession of trumpets, whistles and drums. President Salovey was in high spirits, waving to his bevy of followers, the faculty clad in full dress and regalia were prancing away, the whole scene was one of and joy and jubilation. I scrambled after the marching company, snapping away on my smartphone, tailing them like the paparazzi.

Then this overwhelming sense of deja vu crept in, like a raw egg cracked over a bare heart, the liquid coating it in an eerie coldness of life lost. It was not the first time I was doing this. I had been in this situation before, the intrepid, excited reporter seeking a snapshot of the band. The chasing after a marching company, the noises and beats of drum and fanfare, the beautiful chaos of the moment: these were familiar to me.

I had experienced all of it during my time in the protest movement. The excitement, the joy of seeing so many turn out to support the cause of free and fair elections, to see people power in the making! I had been there, documenting everything in my mind and my camera, running frantically after the tails of this or that prominent politician or activist. I still think about it and my heart swells with joy.

But such joy was always temporary. Something would always turn ugly. The police would crackdown, someone would be trampled by the crowds, a horrific car acccident would occur. I often thought of that momentary joy in the odd lens of tall building suicide. Jumping off a building, there is perhaps a moment when you feel the gust of wind against your cheeks, your arms spread like an eagle ready to soar, and maybe, just maybe you think ironically by descending you ascend the heights of ecstasy. But such a moment is always fleeting, and then you hit the ground and your body splatters against a hard concrete ground or somebody's Lamborghini and it's all over, you're literally brought back to a blood soaked earth.

As I followed the president's procession, a mounting sense of urgency overtook my joy. As I looked to President Salovey and the smile on his face, I had this sudden feeling that all was not well, and that at any moment shouts of joy would turn into screams of terror. My "Spider-Sense" went on high alert.

I tried to reassure myself nothing could possibly go wrong, walking backwards to capture the scene. Then I turned to walk forwards and was confronted with the sight of a police car. The officer smiled and lightly tapped my shoulder to direct me to the sides. I recoiled slightly from his touch.

It felt incredibly odd to see a smiling police officer. When I had been working in the protest movement as secretary to an NGO coalition, the police were people you avoided. They represented the authorities who were looking for any crack in your defenses, any excuse to clamp down and end it all.

I had witnessed with my own eyes police dragging people out on the streets, beating them to a pulp and narrowly escaped such a fate myself. I had evaded trailing police vans in the dead of night, trying to rendezvous with my colleagues just released from detainment for voicing their dissent, at one time even switching meeting points 3 times to slip out under the watchful eyes of the police. I had choked on tear gas, been bruised by a stray canister, run frantically away from them in a cat and mouse game in the narrow street alleys of Kuala Lumpur.

And now they were the good guys.

Trying to ignore the storm of emotions I turned to my usual refuge, food. Food trucks galore presented themselves and for the first time that day, in the midst of Snowcones, kettle corn and fried dough everything seemed better. Free food always makes me happy.

Despite it all, the specter of ruinous protests still lingered in the back of my mind. It was so ridiculously irrational yet it was something of an instinct I had developed. You needed to be constantly on high alert to survive. Surveying the scene, I couldn't help but notice how calm everything was. It was organized chaos. Images of destruction and mayhem flashed in my head in stark contrast.

The giant inflatable bulldog stood tall as a monument to the nature of the block party: full of a festive air, way over the top and comical.

I thought about the other "monuments" that I had encountered in protest. There were the barbed wire fences, hastily set up to prevent citizens from gathering, ironically enough, in Freedom Square. There were the ominous black vans, complete with cages in the back that transported away many a friend. And then there was the smashed up, overturned police car pounded to bits by angry protestors, and left as it was for hours into the aftermath, like some grotesque monument attesting to the ugliness of the mob, the chaos of what became a riot, the blurred lines between right and wrong.

I didn't have much time to ruminate as I was pulled along into a line of fawning students wanting a part in the event I called the SSS: Selfie Sunday with Salovey.

It was good fun and when I got back I thought about making it my profile picture, just for bragging rights and all. I'm not a fan of selfies so I don't take many photos of myself, I prefer to be the guy taking the photo or if I am already wielding the camera I prefer to take monochrome shots of inanimate objects like buildings or leaves or some abstract act piece.

So I looked through my previous profile pictures and stumbled upon one from a long time ago. There I was, getting my shot taken in front of a line of riot police. The two photos with two very different figures of authority.

I reflected long and hard on the day, and it's taken me weeks to be able to pen down some of the feelings I felt, and even then I don't feel like I'm doing them justice.

It took me a long while to realize I had nothing to fear. The police were not going to pull out a gun and start shooting into the crowd, the only smoke that appeared was from a fog machine not a tear gas canister, and President Salovey certainly wasn't going to go berserk and choke me with that  flashy looking necklace thing (though I can imagine such a scene in a future YSO Halloween show). As I calmed down and the ridiculousness of it all dawned upon me, I felt something else.

At first, I was confused at what I was feeling. It was a sensation alien to me especially at such events, when always I had to look over my shoulder, evaluate every street to assess its viability for a swift escape, or keep a wary distance between a police officer and myself. Then I realized what it was I was feeling.

For the first time in the longest time, I felt safe. I felt welcomed.

I felt free.

"Horizon Beyond Chains" Taken November 2011. Milford Sound, NZ.
Click to view higher quality photo.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Pantun Keseorangan

Angin dingin bertiup mencipta rima,
Dedaun pokok bergoyang mengikut lagu.
Dalam kesepian malam bertepuk dada,
Tanya minda apa isi hatiku.

Tupai bersantap di atas dahan,
Menikmati cuaca menjamu selera.
Bukanlah suatu kelaparan malah lebih mendalam,
Keinginan yang makin hari makin bergelora.

Kekasih berbaring di atas laman,
Berbisik-bisik berkongsi isi.
Berjalan sunyi tanpa teman,
Kekosongan memenuhi sanubari.

Monyet cuba memanjat tali,
Dihalang oleh suatu perangkap.
Imbas kembali sengsaranya hati,
Cuba lupamu tetapi kurasa tidak lengkap.

Kemarau melanda bagaikan gurun,
Bila datangnya hujan siapa tahu.
Tanpamu sesaat menjadi tahun,
Kedahagaan jiwa— inginku bersamamu.

"Solace" Taken at Queenstown, NZ, December 2011. Copyright of OKJ.
Click for larger image. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Young & Beautiful?

Blogger's note: The following article is by Ahmed, a very good friend of mine who was 15 years old when he entered senior year in high school. His is the counterpart to my tale, that of being younger than everyone else in school. Enjoy.

I've always identified myself as a third culture kid, a TCK, a citizen of the world. Essentially, that means that I don’t belong to the culture of the country I was born in, nor do I belong to the culture of the country that I am living in now, but another, international third culture.

Yet it’s not the question “where are you from?” that I struggle with. It’s “how old are you?”

Instantly, the wheels click in my head when I hear those four dreaded words, the bane of my existence. I wonder how to answer the question. Most of the time, I just deflect, change the subject, and try to talk about something else. Occasionally, I tell the truth, that I am 17 (and in my second year of university). It’s a question that really tears me apart, because once you answer it and other people find out, it instantly becomes your only defining characteristic. You stop being that nice guy or that funny guy or that lively guy (I really flatter myself too much), but instantly turn into the guy that’s younger than everyone else. And with that comes its own set stereotypes.

The word “genius” is tossed around a lot. People expect you to possess unparalleled intelligence, they instantly think “oh, I read about this 14-year old kid in the news that’s doing a PhD in neuroscience, who must be like you, right?” No. Not even close.

People expect you to be immature. Those are people that I could never hang out with, people that every time you’d meet the first and only thing they would bring up was your age, and you’d have to sit there and watch them struggle to do math backwards to find out what year I was born.

Then, there were the people that always had it in the back of their minds. The people who, when you try to have a conversation with them, are giving you this blank stare, because you know they’re not even listening to you but thinking about how they could have possibly ended up in this situation where they’re having a serious conversation with someone who, to them, is a child.

To a lot of people, it was as if my age was the only explanation for all of my actions and accomplishments, not because I was smarter or had out-competed my classmates, but because of a number that I had grown to resent and distance myself from overtime. To be honest, I always dismissed these explanations as some underlying resentment or envy from my classmates, not willing to accept that I performed better in school because of factors that were within their control. They would use my age to reassure themselves that was the explanation, and so there was nothing they could do about it.

There are a few that managed to stay above the fray, to be able to accept me for being me and not a product of my age, and those are the people I would count among my closest and dearest friends. Those are the people who were never bothered by my age. They’d be shocked when I told them the first time, then you’d completely forget about it.

Kar Jin writes in his blog post, “At the same time, I also took on with ever greater fervor the perks of being young. Chatting away the wee hours of the morning on the merits of Games of Thrones, dancing and looking like a complete fool in the process, and just YOLO-ing the simple things in daily life.” Life will afford me those guilty pleasures. But then, once I do something that’s more traditionally “my age,” people will respond: ‘Ah, that’s so predictable. It’s because he’s younger than all of us.’ This really makes it difficult to revert back to the way I normally am, because people will just say ‘wait, go back to the silly person you were yesterday, that representation of you makes me more comfortable, because it’s how society has taught me to think you should be like, plus it makes me more comfortable about my own insecurities.’ I’m paraphrasing, of course.

Another thing I faced were girl issues. Girls would NEVER see me as date-able (at least in my grade), but rather as a little brother. This is especially compounded by the fact that girls mature faster than guys. And so, you might be wondering, “well Ahmed, why don’t you date someone your age who isn't in your grade?”

To that, I say that I can never hang out with people that are my own age anymore. That’s because I've spent my whole life surrounded by older people. I am an only child, so I had my parents in the early stages. Then when I went to school, my classmates were older than me, and it has been that way ever since. I've matured at the same speed and level of people that are two, three, heck sometimes four years older than me, and so now I find people my age unbearably childish, ironically just as people older than me sometimes find me incredibly childish. I’m sure this’ll be straightened out in my 20s when we’re all around the same maturity level, more or less, hopefully.

I've decided to tell no one at my university. No one knows my real age (although maybe if they manage to unearth this, my secret will be out). I feel like that’s made people take me more seriously, but I've lost what’s made me unique – I was the child prodigy in ISKL, both a blessing and a curse.

Now, I’ll have to find other avenues to be special. And hopefully, I will be able to find a way to be simply me.

"I've spent my whole life surrounded by older people..."
"Childhood", Taken December 2012 at Napier, NZ. Copyright of OKJ.
Click for larger image.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Old And New

"Wait a minute… how old are you again?"

That's usually the standard reaction I get from most people when they realize that I'm a 20 year old freshman. That expression of incredulity is most swiftly followed by watching them struggle to do math backwards to find out what year I was born, along with some sort of slow revelation on their part, usually something along the lines of: "Woah... So you can get us booze next year?" Yeah that's right, looks like I might get a lot more popular come February next year.

Sometimes I do wonder though: What do people think of me when they find out how old I am? Does their opinion of me change? Am I some sort of walking fossil, a freak anomaly that somehow ended up in the wrong class?

To be honest, it's been something I have struggled with in the past few years. Spending time working for NGOs and activism in Malaysia, taking the unconventional route of doing the International Baccalaureate program under a scholarship, added to the already late nature of the idiosyncratic Malaysian education system made me a year or two older than many of my classmates.

When I was doing the IB in ISKL (International School of Kuala Lumpur), I felt almost defined by my age. At times, I found it difficult to let go, to let loose and just have some crazy, unfettered fun. At the back of my head, always there was a nagging feeling that there were larger things at stake, be it the economy, politics or some lofty ideal. There were times, especially when seeing friends of the same age go into higher education while I was still in high school, that I wondered deeply if I was making the right decision.

It came to a point when I almost felt embarrassed whenever someone asked me how old I was. I would skirt around the question, answer indirectly, allude, hint, imply, and just do anything short of actually stating flat out that I was 19 years old. And of course, the dreaded "Ah that explains it." Much of what I had done or achieved felt diminished because of it, that somehow it wasn't that I was out-competing people or studying harder than people but more because I was just older than people. It was as if my age had become the primary explanation for all my actions and accomplishments, my entire existence as a student stood upon a number I had grown to distance myself from. Most frustrating of all, was to see how some of my classmates would use age as a reason to reassure themselves they could not do anything about their own situation. I wanted to tell them that age should not matter, and that so many of them could do way better than I did if only they realized it.

Outside of school life, where I volunteered for NGO groups, wrote research papers and organized protests, I received the same reaction but to a different slant. In these activist groups, I would most often be the baby, the spring chicken of the group and people would be genuinely surprised that I was still in school and not a working adult. A lot of people responded positively to this, praising me effusively for "maturity beyond my years". Though well-intended, such comments often held somewhat disparaging assumptions about "people my age" and predicated a lot of merit based on my age.

Really though, I was just a conflicted teenager like everybody else. The two worlds collided frequently, and made me feel too young and too old at the same time. I felt like some kind of circus freak, walking on a tightrope, straddling a thin thread that divided two worlds, one a blistering inferno and the other a freezing arctic wasteland. In short, Katy Perry's “Hot & Cold”.

Initially, I found it rather difficult. Straddling both worlds as old and young; the two extremes pulling me apart created an underlying resentment. There was always this cloud hanging over me, pressuring me to "act my age". I tried to hide it. Suppress it. Pretend it was never there.

Things went by like that for a while, until I recognized there were others with the same struggle. In particular, there was this guy in debate, an Egyptian called Ahmed Elkady. Ahmed is a brilliant guy, funny, smart, and mature. The only thing was he was a senior, and he was 15 years old. Like myself, much of his high school experience had been defined by his age. We were in the same boat but at different ends. There were others like Ahmed, who by the way, I consider today one of my closest friends.

Gradually, I came to terms with my age. More than that, I embraced it. I took pride in my role as the default big brother (though not in the Orwellian sense). I played and teased on my "long years of worldly experience" (I can barely type this without laughing). I took it as a cue to be patient and humble, when so many people younger than myself were doing so many great things I would never have been able to do. I rejoiced in being chauffeur, driving people around and being able to introduce my friends the hidden secrets of Kuala Lumpur restaurant and bar life.

At the same time, I also took on with ever greater fervour the perks of being young. Chatting away the wee hours of the morning on the merits of Games of Thrones, dancing and looking like a complete fool in the process, and just YOLO-ing the simple things in daily life.

My age stopped becoming a rubber band that was being stretched by opposite forces. In the midst of the late night debates, the chauffeuring and the eating, the fire and ice had melded together to form a lukewarm pond, its waters tranquil but for the occasional foray of an animal or two.

I stopped conforming to what my age group was supposed to be. Oddly enough, the whole age crisis had spurred a change in me. It wasn't that I was more mature, or more happy-go-lucky or anything else. I'm not sure how to describe it, but I felt that for the first time in my life, I wasn't acting or behaving my age.

All my life, I had fought against categorization, from the issue of my race to gender to religion. I had faced all of them head on, confronted them, and exposed them in writing or in action. But my age, this was the elephant in the room I had not deigned to look at. Once I did though, I realized that age was another one of those social constructs imposed upon people to make them “behave”, to teach people to think what an ideal person of age so and so should be like. It was another lazy category to explain away things. “Ooh, Malala Yousafzai is so young!” Her deeds are incredible for any age of any circumstance, and though it truly is remarkable that one so young should be so strong, it’s not the sum total of who she is. It should never define or diminish her accomplishments.

By the end of it all, I was no longer 18 or 19 or 20. I was no longer old or young, a fossil or a baby. I was just, simply, me.

Somewhere, somehow, in the process of coming to terms with my age, I had broken free.

Straddling a thin thread that divided two worlds...
"Dichotomy", taken at Wellington, NZ, 19 January 2012. Copyright of OKJ.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Congratulations & Condolences


It's not that I'm not grateful but somehow there is a pang of bitterness that comes with winning the Freshman Prize Debate. Don't get me wrong, I could not be happier and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have such a great support group of friends that helped me win the prize. And I most definitely am not trying to diss anybody who participated, we all did our best and I don't have any right to lord it over anyone.

Yet every time somebody congratulates me I don't quite know how to respond except rejoice and feel that I'm supposed to be a lot more ecstatic about my speech. 

I spoke against the motion which was that responsibility ends at our borders. I used the example of the Westgate Mall Kenya massacre to demonstrate how our world is so interconnected that it was impossible and immoral to shirk from our responsibilities to every citizen of this Earth. 

But there's the problem, see? I used the Kenyan massacre. I distilled the tears and blood, the troubles and tragedies that affected real people into some simplistic didactic takeaway about the world. I felt almost soiled as I was speaking the words, like an actor wearing a blood-stained shirt and winning a prize for his performance, except that the blood was real and belonged to someone who had to die for him to win. 

The night before the debate, I had just attended a candlelight vigil for the victims of the massacre. A few Yale students had been personally affected. The ceremony was simple and solemn, but heartbreaking. It kept me awake, eyes staring at the ceiling for hours on end. It was all too real. 

I had grappled with my feelings when I spoke the words to my speech. I tried to attempt to express my sorrow and my empathy, I tried to do justice to the victims of the massacre and honor their memory, I tried to bring this great message of caring for one another, but everything seemed to fall short. My words felt hollow and meaningless. I felt like that politician who only appears at televised funerals during campaign season and who pretends to eulogize people he does not even know for publicity's sake. 

I consider myself an introspective person. I try to reflect on what I am doing, how I am doing it and why am I doing it every once in a while. And all the while, as I looked back upon that Freshman Debate, the prime motivation in place was simply to win.

How often do we, in the face of glory, forget the real impact of the issues we debate? How often do we reduce lives and livelihoods to plot devices and rhetorical questions? Is this what politicians do?

What does it say about me as a person?

I'm afraid I don't have any answers. All I know is that somewhere, while I'm eating away the hundred dollars someone is suffering from the very incidents I mentioned to win a prize with.

"My condolences."

Sunday, September 22, 2013


"Why are you so nice?"

"What do you mean?"

I turn around, carefully peeling off the price tag to a gift I had just bought. Two friends had just turned 18 and earlier during the day I had stopped by the bookstore to get them each a small gift.

"Well, it's not like you have to do this."

I pause, finger nails still futilely scratching at the Great Gatsby soundtrack CD case. I'm not exactly the best with compliments or positive comments of the sort. I grew up in a culture where the default response would have been to vehemently deny such a statement in a perhaps superficial sense of humility.

"Well.. They say generosity is a form of power." I deflect the statement.


I wave goodbye as I twist the doorknob and leave the suite. I thought I had been terribly clever to quote Frank Underwood from the HBO series House of Cards. But as I delivered the presents, wished the recipients a happy birthday and returned to an empty suite, I pondered. I felt oddly happy despite having spent quite a bit of money.

The next day one of my suite mates had an intramural ping-pong match. I had missed the previous match and I had promised myself that I would make time to go and see him play. So despite the fact that I had a paper due in a few days (or maybe because of the fact, since I'm such a procrastinator, haha!) I went ahead and watched the match. It was a close fought, intense battle of stamina, strategy and plain old sweat. In the end my suite mate didn't win, and was pretty upset about it. He had initially been 7 points in the lead for the final set, so he was understandably rather disappointed in himself.

In the wee hours in the morning when he was sound asleep, I wrote some encouraging words on a few Post-It notes and included some Latin quotes since he was very much into ancient civilizations and languages. I distinctly remember going to sleep with a huge smile on my face.

Why bother? Why expend the effort?

I've been thinking about it a lot these past few days. And I think perhaps I know why. All of us here are leaving our homes, our families, coming to a new, exciting and unfamiliar place. I am 9387 miles away from my home, my family, my countrymen. I have never been to America before this, and now voila, here I am, this clueless guy from Malaysia whose conception of America is a hodgepodge construction of headline news and Hollywood movies.

Perhaps then, in the process of trying to find familiarity and comfort in this country, I have also come to grips with certain ideas. The other day as I was talking to someone, I told them I was going to back home to get a rest. The reply was "Oh you're flying back?"

It was then that it dawned upon me, so obvious yet so easy to miss. L-Dub suite C31 is my home. Ben, Miguel, David are my brothers. The people in Berkeley are my extended family, and heck all Yalies are some weird distant cousins or something. It sounds cheesy, but as I come to the realization that this is where I will spend the next 4 years of my life, it cannot be truer.

I'm sure in the course of the year, I will find people I don't like. I'll probably have an argument or two with my suite mates. We will all have our pet peeves with each other and at times we will not want to talk to each other. But that's what being family is about. That's why I will make time for my suite mates. That's why whatever the case is, if someone needs a shoulder to lean on, someone to lend an ear, I will try my utter best to be there.

I've made mistakes with my real family. Being apathetic, throwing tantrums, being inconsiderate and self-centered. I'd like to think being thrust into this whole new environment is a chance for me to make it up, to become a better family member and better human being.

Generosity has power. But perhaps not the kind of power imagined by Frank Underwood. It has the power to make bonds of friendship, to brighten a person's life, to lift somebody up when they are down.

Generosity has the power to create family.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Yale's Got Talent (Or Not)

I can't say I never expected it. I mean, heck I'm in one of the world's top institutions ( some might say THE top) jam packed with some of the most talented, intelligent and dynamic individuals from all over the globe.

Just in my dorm there are insanely brilliant people. There's my suite-mate Miguel, who can dance salsa, play the saxophone, whistle as if he is playing a musical instrument (he can do vibrato and I tell you he brings whistling to an art form), act in comedy sketches and to top it all off is incredibly nice and funny. Oh and did I mention that he has won like a hundred science prizes and is working as a research assistant to Professor Nenad Sestan and Professor Pasko Rakic who was one of the people who founded developmental neuroscience by publishing the first description of neurogenesis in the subventricular zone. Yeah I have no idea what that means.

There are absolutely stunning singers, brilliant debaters, humorous improvisational comedians and just plain simple geniuses. 

And then there's me. Plain old KJ. 

So I can't dance to save my life. Miguel tried teaching me some salsa the other day and in the end I decided I'm better off eating salsa than dancing salsa. I'm not exactly musically inclined either. I used to think I was when I was like 12, randomly serenading people with Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On until one day somebody in the next room wondered out loud whether somebody's radio was broken. 

Sports? A few days ago I was walking down some steps (4 to be precise) down from my dorm at L-Dub and somehow tripped over thin air and ended up on all fours in front of my Freshman Counselor's room. Thank goodness nobody saw that, at that time I was wondering whether to just pretend to be drunk ( because that would so much less embarrassing) if anybody were to chance upon me. 

At an incredibly imposing 166cm ( yes I am still holding on to the metric system!) and with a muscular 6 in 1 pack, and a mild allergy to tequila, I am definitely not going to be a frat star anytime too. 

I did however think that I could speak and act. But turns out everything is relative and I'm much better at acting up than acting. Oh well. I guess that's it for me then. 

I feel like I'm in America's Got Talent and I'm the odd guy that everybody ends up laughing at instead of laughing with. 

But what the heck, if I'm going to be odd guy, I'm going to be the best odd guy ever. Barbecue sauce milkshakes, disturbing Herman Cain doing his business in the toilet, mauling Single Ladies, bring it on Yale!

The cast of Yale's Got Talent. Yeah that's me creating the business cycle represented  by male's height. I'm in the recession part of the graph.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


And now they are telling women to cover up because they are at fault when raped by men. Yet in Saudi Arabia the rape scale is sky high. 

I remember reading an article where Saudi Arabian men proposed that women in addition to wearing the full burqa, they should also cover their eyes with a see-through cloth because some women's eyes were "too alluring and seductive".
For heaven's sake it's not about how much a woman wears. If there is a Ferrari parked next to me, I don't say it's the owner's fault for choosing such a flashy car, and then proceed to steal it. If I am taking an exam and I'm sitting near the teacher where a textbook containing the answers is next to me, I don't blame the teacher if I choose to cheat.

Corruption? Who ask you to make bribing so easy?
Burglary? Who ask you to not install alarm and get an armed guard?
Snatch theft? Who ask you to wear that necklace?

It is nothing more than shifting of blame. People always find excuses to give in to their temptations; it is our prerogative to rise above that. Buddha, Jesus Christ, Nabi Muhammad S.A.W. all have faced temptation in the form of riches, power, women and more.

Did they blame somebody else? No, because they understood that ultimately their actions were of their own.

Stop blaming the victims. And start looking within for who is really at fault.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Man In The Mirror

I can still remember it so clearly.

We were in the car, the entire family, on the way to Melaka or some other outstation location. We had been discussing politics, about how our nation was in dire straits, about how corruption had a stranglehold on the country like vines creeping over a wall, about the injustices and apathy of the people.

Then as we emerged under a flyover, we came upon a police roadblock. The police were checking for ICs, pulling over those who had committed traffic offenses, or who had been speeding in the long, straight stretch of highway before this.

An officer waved us over. My father pulled the car over to the side and dutifully wound down his window. Some words were exchanged. I can't exactly remember what but it was clear that the car had been over the speed limit and a fine would be issued. Unless the issue was solved ... amicably of course.

I was sitting at the back of the car, cheek resting against the seatbelt, eyes half closed in a half-hearted attempt to feign sleep. A deal was made, no fine was issued and we continued driving along.

Eyes now fully closed, I felt my chest tighten as I realised what had just happened. I pretended my eyes were tearing from sleepiness and fatigue,rather than from the hurt I was feeling. You have to understand, I know bribery was commonplace, and was for most people, the most convenient thing to do. But to see it done before my eyes, to witness someone who had shaped me, who could be said to have formed my values and had always emphasized me to be morally upright above all...

Something inside me died that day. The expectation that ordinary people could rise above their station, sacrifice their own conveniences and take the harder but morally just route faded away. The idealism that drove me to believe that humanity was naturally good, and that given the choice and facts people would do the right thing was shaken to the core. Not everyone can be a Gandhi, Mother Teresa or Mandela.

I had always believed that corruption was an issue of ethics, morality and goodness. Educate people enough, tell them how their actions adversely affected society, and they would perhaps change their behaviour. The incident forced me to reevaluate such an idealistic view, and consider such issues in the context of economic benefit, incentives and disincentives, gains and benefits to the private consumer. Simply put, people will almost always take the most convenient route.

I still think about that incident and wonder if I had just dreamed it all up. Sometimes I wish it was indeed just a dream.

Nowadays when I blame anyone for something I try to look in the mirror. While we complain about corruption, how many of us feed it? How is it we condemn corruption while actively sustaining it with our bribes to get off speeding fines, pass driving exams, simplify bureaucratic processes?  How is it we can face ourselves in the mirror knowing full well we are part of the system that oppresses people and squanders our nation's resources?

I don't know. All I know is whenever I look in the mirror I am constantly reminded of our tendency for hypocrisy and making exceptions for ourselves. I see a reflection of myself, staring back at me with eyes wide open, asking: "Are you part of the system?"

Are you a part of the system?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Be The Change

When I was younger I wanted to be a politician. I read about the backstabbing, the betrayals, the 180 degree turns and the populism. I saw the dirtiness of tactics, the flexible morality of principles, and the overwhelming sense of vote preservation that drove many a politician. 

It requires immense moral strength to be a Gandhi.
Yet somehow I had a lofty idea that I could be that one in a million, some sort of fully dressed Gandhi, a Malaysian George Washington, a Mandela that would bring true national reconciliation to our oft divided world. I believed that I was good enough to rise above the muck, to be selfless and to be a kind of saint. In other words, I thought I would be like a lotus flower, growing out of mud yet pure and radiant.

I've had a few years to mull over things, to reflect and meditate on matters, and to embark on a journey of self-discovery. 

And increasingly, I have to come to a gradual realisation that I should not be in politics. I simply have too many flaws, flaws that will probably only be exacerbated by a career in politics.

Might I be the next Ibrahim Ali?
For one, I love the spotlight. I crave the applause of a crowd, the cheers of a racuous audience, the pindrop silence that comes when touching upon shaky ground. My hearts beats a little faster as I see teary eyes or hearty laughs from those watching me. It's perhaps this that has led me to be quite active in public speaking, drama and debate. In other words, I am an attention whore. I won't mince my words, I love attention. And I can only imagine what kind of politics such tendencies will breed: The conspiracy theory spouting of Tian Chua? The senseless but fiery rhetoric of Ibrahim Ali? The publicity stunts of Waythamoorthy?

And then there's the fact that I often think of myself as smart. Sometimes, I may fall into the trap of believing I have the best answers to it all. That somehow I am in control of things and that I may outsmart people here and there. This tendency, coupled with my strong idealism, may result in me thinking that I alone have the best ideas, the best way to achieve a greater goal. Needless to say, it is a common trait amongst dictators: From Mao to Stalin, Hitler to Pol Pot, all believed passionately that they were achieving a greater good, that they had the best answer to everything, and therefore saw fit to wipe out all who opposed their twisted visions. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The worst dictators are always the ones who believe they are doing the world a favour. 

Beautiful car... Bigger tempation?
I also love the luxuries of life. Good food, fancy restaurants, exotic cocktails. Seeing and driving classic Mercedes Benz in mint condition really just does wonders to my mood. Keeping to a diet of eating healthily is difficult enough for me... I shudder to think what the temptation of easy millions may do to my conscience. 

Many people I know would brush these concerns of mine off, saying that I am by far, a good person and that they have confidence in me. But I also know I have deep, deep flaws. I can be insensitive, selfish and self-absorbed. I am often a master procrastinator and a lazy bum, and I sometimes don't take criticism kindly. And the list goes on. Those who have spent a longer period of time with me can testify to these flaws. 

So why am I listing out all these flaws, baring myself to the world? I'm not looking for sympathy or reassurances. In fact, I'm looking for the exact opposite, I want to hear about how I may have offended you, or made a mistake, or just screwed up things without knowing. I want to put this on record, so that one day should I fool myself into thinking I can rise above it all, someone can shove this in my face and remind me of my flaws.

But more than that, it is because I hope I can change myself for the better. I would like to believe that I already have, by reflecting, by avoiding situations that exacerbate my flaws, and by acknowledging my problems in the first place. I've often thought about running away from the world, holing myself up some place remote, maybe high up in the Himalayas with a simple life, with the hours spent on just being. 

But it's not a luxury I can afford for now, so my journey goes on. In the words of Mohandas K. Gandhi: "Be the change you want to see in the world." 

Perhaps one day I will have changed enough to be ready to enter a career in truly serving the people. But until then... I will continue to reflect, to act, and hopefully, to change.

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Real Reason for the Crackdown

Adam Adli. Tian Chua. Haris Ibrahim. Tamrin Ghafar. Safwan Anang. And now Hishammuddin Rais. One by one, these politicians and activists have been hauled up by the authorities in a crackdown reminiscent of 1988’s Operation Lalang. 

The real question of course, is why. 

Now this may seem like an obvious answer to you, after all they all probably have played a part in calling on people to go to street rallies, or have had a hand or two in organizing them. The simple logic now is that the authorities are simply clamping down to ensure no more rallies will take place. 

I must disagree. Let us take the rally reason at face value. Tamrin Ghafar, Hishammuddin Rais and Tian Chua have had very little to do with organising rallies. In terms of calling on people to rise and take to the streets to protest, they are only part of a growing chorus of NGO activists, politicians and ordinary citizens. 

In any case, rallies have gone on for a very long time now, from BERSIH 2007 all the way to the recent Suara Rakyat 505 Amcorp Mall rally. Barisan Nasional has managed to largely ignore them with the administration going on as normal, and have learnt valuable lessons that any crackdowns can only result in a terrible political backlash. 

And if indeed there was to be a crackdown to prevent rallies, why the selective persecution? Why not hit out at the big players? Blogger Chegubard has made his stance and involvement in the Amcorp Mall rally very clear by his presence on the stage, yet has not been arrested.

Yet a crackdown still happened. And is still happening. Why? Has the government simply not learned? Have they grown a sudden fear to rallies? 

I believe the situation needs a closer examination. Not all arrested so far called upon the rakyat to rise and take the fight to the streets. Not all were involved in organizing rallies. Yet the Home Ministry went right ahead knowing full well there would be a huge political backlash in arresting the above names. Again, the crucial question is why?

All those arrested thus far do however, have something in common: they all spoke out against racism at a May 13 forum at the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall. Adam Adli called the May 13 riots a result of sedition by UMNO members and said they were used as an excuse to hold on to power in the aftermath of the devastating 1969 election results. Tian Chua boldly stated that unity has never been a real problem in Malaysia, but disunity is actively caused by UMNO itself. Again, he labeled May 13 as a means to hold onto power, calling it a “toyol” to scare people. Most revealing is Tamrin Ghafar’s speech, where he revealed in his capacity as an ex-UMNO insider that the May 13 riots were part of a coup d’├ętat to overthrow Tunku Abdul Rahman. He even implicated Mahathir Mohammad as one of the key players. Similar exhortations to relook at history were made by Haris Ibrahim and Safwan Anang.

I believe it is not rallies UMNO fears but a growing trend of historical revisionism. Should the spectre of May 13 be torn apart as an UMNO-orchestrated plot, Barisan Nasional would lose its status as a bringer of “stability” and a preserver of “delicate race relations”.  Previously such thoughts were restricted to the minds of academics such as Kua Kia Soong, but recently such reflections upon history have gained traction in popular imagination.

As George Orwell once said: “He who controls the present, controls the past. And he who controls the past, controls the future.”

The real fear of UMNO is not rallies. They have dealt with them aplenty before from 1988’s protests, 1998’s Reformasi to 2007’s BERSIH. The real fear of UMNO is the revision of the “gospel truth” they have taught people as the history of the nation. Once the May 13 spectre loses ground, what would happen to the older voters who previously may have feared a change in government based on concerns over racial clashes? What would it say about BN’s smear campaign on Lim Kit Siang, who was not even in the Peninsular at the time of the riots? 

And what other hidden histories will be revealed? Perhaps the next issue to catch people’s attention will be the struggle of the left wing parties under PUTERA-AMCJA against the British (See Fahmi Redza’s documentary “Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka”), which would then portray UMNO not as independence fighters but as British sycophants and collaborators. With such a huge blow to BN’s prestige as the Fathers of Independence, what sort of impact might that have on Malaysians?

No doubt such thoughts are haunting the minds of the authorities. As another quote from George Orwell goes: “In times of universal deceit, the telling of the truth is a revolutionary act.”

To put it simply, UMNO fears the truth.

Adam Adli's speech:
Tamrin Ghafar's speech:
Tian Chua's speech:
Haris Ibrahim's speech:
Hishammuddin Rais's speech:
Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka by Fahmi Redza:

To My Future Self

Author's note: I wrote this letter a while ago to remind myself what is important. With all the frustration spilling over from the recent crackdowns and GE13 results, many people have either given up or become disillusioned. This letter has been a source of strength for me all this while. I hope it helps someone out there too.

NOTE: I've included a voice recording of the letter too directly below just in case you're a more auditory type of person. I know I'm probably a tad bit dramatic, but hey, a guy has got to express! Besides it's am in the morning and I'm running on coke now. (The soft drink not the drug la!) Many thanks!

Dear Future Self,

If you are reading this letter then you must be upset, dejected or disillusioned with the cause. Perhaps there has been an incident where you have realised your ideals are well, less than ideal. Or perhaps reality has just given you a giant slap on the face and somehow you do not know what is right or wrong anymore. Or maybe it's one of those moments where you look back, reflect, and think, how can there be any hope? What can man do against such reckless hate?

You will no doubt, go through a period of deep thought, reflection and meditation as you ponder upon the meaning of it all. You will tear yourself apart thinking of a barrage of questions that will assault your conscience. You will cease to know what is right and what is wrong, what is black and what is white, what is dark and what is bright.

You may even contemplate retreating into your shell to recover. You may even think of just resigning and let others do the fighting. You may feel tired, burnt out, and wonder out loud if all your efforts were for nothing. People don't seem to listen, situations don't change fast enough, or your dreams are shattered.

If all this strikes true in your heart, then it is now my duty to remind you why you began caring in the first place. It is my duty to make you remember.

Remember who it is you are fighting for. Remember who it is you started this journey for. You began it with the jeering insults of your schoolbus mates, racism thrown at an innocent child. You began with witnessing the injustice of a disabled girl being made fun of for being different. You began with the heartwrenching sight of that old woman, rummaging through 7-11 garbage bins to fend for a living, abandoned by her children.

"Splash in the Sea" Taken Jan 2012. (C) OKJ. Click for larger image.
You started your awakening with the bedroom conversations of your parents as you pretended you were asleep, where they spoke of the state of our nation, migration and resignation. How you pained to transform the sighs and cries into glimmers of hope.

You began your journey in the streets and trains, where you silently watched Malaysians from all walks of life passing through with busy lives. On the rubbish-strewn reclaimed beaches, gazing upon long forgotten mansions, wondering what it was like in a golden age long past. In the canteen where you used to sit with that policeman's son, and where you always lied and pretended he would ever pay you back for treating him to breakfast, because he could not afford it.

Remember the tears from BERSIH where it was not the tear gas but the realization of a lost freedom that drove you to despair. Remember the sorrow in that Orang Asli man's quivering voice as he confessed to you that sometimes, in between being ignored and being taken for being stupid, he felt life was not worth living. Remember.

The politicans will continue to bicker. The ideologues will continue to spout. Life will go on. But you cannot just "move on". You must move forward.

Can you make a difference? Yes. And no. I don't know. Can you tell what is right and wrong? Again I have no answers.

You are asking all the wrong questions. Instead of asking all this, why do you not also wonder: Am I going to do nothing? Are you going to give up, seriously?

The Gandhis, Mandelas, Martin Luther King Jrs of the world have suffered far more than you. No meaningful change was ever brought about without rejection, dejection, frustration. The night is always darkest before dawn. Remember, remember, never surrender.

Now get off your ass and get to work.

Always with you,
Your naive, idealistic and eternally stubborn younger self.

"Horizons for Hope" Taken Jan 2012. (C) OKJ. Click for larger image.

Monday, May 27, 2013


"Solitary Confinement", taken at Vienna Zoo, 31 July 2011. Copyright of OKJ. Click to see higher quality image.
Somehow, despite being surrounded by people all the time, I cannot help but feel alone.

It's not that I don't have great friends, I do, good friends who I know will be there for me should I need them. It's not that I'm a loner, far from it, I enjoy the company of people, eating, laughing, singing together.

Perhaps alone is not quite the word for it. 

I've always been a rather odd one out I know. Friends say I'm a 40 year old living in a 20 year old body. Given my old fashioned taste in music, I can't say I blame them, haha! But it is more than that. I can go crazy,  enthusiastic and childlike at times ( ask my younger brother). I can be carefree, funny, and happy-go-lucky when I want to be. 

But I don't think that's quite it either.

Rather, I believe it's because of what I believe my life is about. Friends sometimes call me crazy, obsessed or say that I care too much. My mom freaks out everytime I go to some rally or write some article criticising the government. One of my best friends used to say: "Why do you get so upset? It's not even really affecting you." Another unfortunate love interest felt rather neglected when I seemed to love my country and perhaps not pay as much attention to her. 

But that's just it. I feel "alone" at times because I feel that so very few people understand what it is to have one's life revolve around the prospect of serving a greater cause. To many, politics, socioeconomic issues and the fates of others are very separate from their own conception of self. But to me, it is everything. 

For as long as I can remember, I have always been interested in people. Not gossip or the celebrity stuff, but the happiness, the welfare and the livelihood of people. I started blogging because of the gross injustice I felt that was inherent in the Malaysian education system. I study history and economics because I want to learn as much as I can, so that I can broaden my perspective and look upon today's issues with an eye as  to not repeat the terrible past.  Heck, I remember how I used to make my birthday wishes and prayers: "May all people be happy. May the cruel be kind and please help them realize there is a better way for all of us." 

Looking back at my application essays to the US, my whole application rested on sociopolitical concerns. Even my speech competition was based on a speech I made about racism. 

Perhaps that is why I sometimes feel.... not understood. Not misunderstood, no, but just... not understood. I must sound like I'm spewing nonsense now, but it's just that I feel there is this core to me, this core that does not belong to myself but to something bigger than little puny me. 

Maybe one day, when I am going to risk my life or getting arrested, I will find someone who will not say: "Are you mad?" But rather understand that, yes, I am mad, I am mad about the injustice, I am mad about the hypocrisy, I am mad about the hunger, the racism, the corruption, the poverty. 

Maybe one day I will find someone who instead of holding me back, will simply hold my hand and walk with me. 

Until that day, perhaps I will stick to long lonely drives home, listening to my heart beating in the dark. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Another May 13 in the Offing?

May 13 has arrived and passed with no major incidents. For many Malaysians who sit uneasily with the date, there is a culpable sense of relief. However, is the threat of a nationwide disturbance over? Is it possible still in this day and age for something on the scale of the May 13 riots to reoccur?

Before moving on let me just clarify that this analysis is not meant to monger fear or accuse the government of anything. It is a hypothesis based on my historical analysis of post-election trends in Malaysia, and as with all hypotheses, is unproven and certainly not set in stone.

This article seeks to analyse and answer two main questions:
  • How possible is it to have some sort of disturbance that will spark unrest?
  • What form might it take?

Through a careful examination of past incidences of civil unrest in Malaysia, 3 incidents in particular stand out for their scale, their impact on the political narrative of Malaysia, and their nature. The 3 incidents I speak of are the May 13, 1969 riots, the 1987-1988 Operation Lalang and judicial crisis, and the 1998 sacking of Anwar Ibrahim and the subsequent Reformasi movement. In considering the events leading up to, during and following the events, 3 key traits stand out.

1. Internal UMNO struggle
Firstly and perhaps most importantly, all 3 incidences have taken place in the foreground of internal UMNO struggles. In Dr. Kua Kia Soong’s thesis of May 13, he posits that the riots were in fact a coup d’├ętat initiated by the ascendant Malay capitalist class under Razak to replace the Malay aristocratic class lead by Tunku Abdul Rahman [1]. The validity of Dr. Kua’s statement is subject to debate, but the swift and stunning reversal of fortunes that Tunku Abdul Rahman suffered cannot be discounted as coincidence. Even if the riots were not facilitated by the top leadership of the right wing of UMNO, Razak certainly made full use of the opportunity to grab the reins of government. Recently, Gerakan veteran Dr. Goh Cheng Teik and ex-UMNO strongman Mohd Tamrin Abdul Ghafar came out to clarify that May 13 was indeed an internal coup orchestrated by irate UMNO members against Rahman [2][3].

The 1987-1988 Operation Lalang also had similar internal rumblings. In fact, the judicial crisis roots lay in the dismissal of UMNO as an illegal organization due to complaints from Tengku Razaleigh’s UMNO Team B [4]. The same goes for the mass arrests that followed the Reformasi movement. Again, it was an inside UMNO fight between then Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and Mahathir Mohamad [5].

Time and time again, UMNO leaders especially those from the right wing have shown that they are more than willing to externalize internal struggles to distract people from the real issues and to eliminate opposition. Come this October, UMNO internal elections will be held, and it will be a titanic clash between the reformers under Najib Razak and the Mahathirists under Muhyiddin’s tutelage. The first shots have already been fired by Mahathir, calling Najib’s performance a “disappointment” and openly stating before elections that given a slim victory Najib should give way to deputy Muhyiddin [6].

2. Need for consolidation of power
The second trait is a need for constitutional/ law changing. As we all know, the last time UMNO was in government with a minority of the popular vote was in 1969 [7]. Post-1969, constitutional amendments made the EC beholden to Barisan Nasional and various laws such as the Sedition Act were strengthened (See Andrew Yong’s article in Loyarburok for easy understanding) [8]. Similarly, in 1988 the threat from the Semangat 46’ coalition formed posed enough of a threat to the UMNO hegemony of power that the Mahathir felt it necessary to cripple the judiciary and rob it of its independence[9].These changes in law to consolidate UMNO dominance have however, often been met with significant opposition. It is because of the backlash that comes with these changes in the institutions and dilution of the rule of law that such exercises have needed to be preceded by mass arrests/ unrest preventing any coordinated response. The Reformasi movement of 1998 was rife with similar arrests, but with a firm 76.56% of seats BN could comfortably continue its gerrymandering, mal-apportionment exercises [10] One must also bear in mind that due to 1998 being led by Anwaristas, it took on a different nature.

At the end of this year, there will be a re-delineation exercise that threatens to entrench BN firmly in power, no matter what the popular vote turns out to be in GE 14 [11]. Civil society, opposition politicians and proactive citizens have already begun raising awareness of the exercise. The rakyat, especially urban folk are acutely aware of their rights and attendance at rallies such as the 8th May Kelana Jaya rally have shown that from here on escalation of civil action can be only grow [12].

It would require a major distraction on an unprecedented scale to divert attention away from the re-delineation exercise.

3. Incitement of racial sentiments
The third trait that has preceded such incidents is the exacerbation ( or in some cases manufacturing) of racial sentiments. This has largely been the domain of the government-controlled mainstream media. In 1969, the mainstream media reported Labour Party processions as shouting “Malai-si!” and provoking the Malays [13]. However, such accounts are doubted and are contradictory to the foreign press accounts that reported the procession as a show of “discipline” and “genuine restraint” [14].

In 1988, Utusan Malaysia blew the issue of Chinese educationists out of proportion. What followed were the mass arrests of not just prominent members of Dong Zong but also of activists and opposition politicians [15] In 1999, BN blew up fears of Islamization, loss of non-Malay rights etc to secure a win despite losing the popular vote of Malays to the Barisan Alternatif [16].

Now the racist rhetoric has reached an all-time high. From Utusan Malaysia’s “Apa Lagi Cina Mahu” (What More Do The Chinese Want?) , an ex-judge’s warning of backlash against the Chinese, to PM Najib’s “Chinese Tsunami”, all UMNO media seems to be blasting out racism at every avenue. [17] [18] [19]

A Negative Cycle
The need to change laws, racial sentiments and UMNO internal struggles are all interlinked and form part of a negative cycle that has occurred since May 1969. The government starts to lose popularity and its grasp on power starts to loosen, thus facilitating the growth of opposition movements. The government then needs to consolidate its position, and the bending the law to suit such needs is its ultimate tool. To bend the law however is to invite dissent. At the same time, the loss of popularity also sparks internal divisions within UMNO itself. Faced with signification obstacles, such power struggles are then externalized in the form of a national crisis to distract from the real issues and to decapitate any unified response. To provide a raison d’etre for such a national crisis, the mainstream media exacerbates and incites racial rhetoric. And when the so-called “spontaneous chaos” ensues, fear takes hold of many and allows the ruling coalition to remain in power. This standard operating procedure is not endemic to Malaysia but is something common in the politics and history of many other Southeast Asian countries with similar problems with diversity and nation building such as Indonesia and the Philippines (See People Power revolution and the fall of Suharto’s regime) [20].

It is my view that given the volatility of the current political position and the fulfillment of all three key traits, a national incident is bound to happen. However, despite the incitement of racial sentiments, it is my opinion that any unrest will not be of a racial nature. Unlike in 1969 and 1988, the issues raised by the opposition and civil society have been part of national consciousness and not ethnic-specific [21]. The opposition platform is also multiracial, unlike in 1969 where it was largely non-Malay, and has enjoyed multiracial support [22]. The racial baiting by UMNO-controlled media has also been met with incredible shows of unity from Malaysians from all walks of life [23].

Therefore any incident will take on the form of mass arrests in the name of stability and national security. Already 28 Pakatan Rakyat leaders who spoke at the Kelana Jaya rally have been/ are going to be called up on charges of sedition [24].  Yesterday, a group of NGOs lead by Haris Ibrahim’s ABU has called for a 1 million Malaysians to rally against electoral fraud in Kuala Lumpur (Note: Contrary to what was reported, in his official statement Haris Ibrahim never called for toppling of a government, see his blog for details)[25]. This is the Catch 22 situation faced by every pseudo-democratic government, where in order to remain in power they dilute the institutions of democracy, but in so doing radicalize the populace and further erode their mandate to power. Faced with an escalation of civil disobedience on this scale, it would be an easy thing for the government to crackdown on activists, politicians and intellectuals in one fell swoop.

Many a politician used to justify any repression including use of the Internal Security Act by stating that the majority of people in Malaysia seemed not to mind as most people voted BN in elections. In the days of Operation Lalang, this was the case. But this time any action by the BN government will be without the support of the popular vote.

There is a word used to describe the act of a minority cracking down on freedoms without consent of the majority: tyranny. Whether or not such tyranny will continue to work in this day and age, will depend on the strength of will of the rakyat. Not the work of NGOs, not the ceramahs of politicians, but the voice of the ordinary citizen in speaking out against injustice.

Again, this is pure speculation on my part but is nevertheless based on a close analysis of long term historical trends in Malaysia and throughout the SEA region. In fact, for the sake of this country, I hope that this entire analysis is rubbish, and that I will be proven absolutely wrong and a pessimistic idiot. One can only hope.

[1] Kua, Kia Soong. May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969. SUARAM, 2007.
[2] “May 13 was not an ethnic phenomenon. It was a political occurrence, only those who were members of Umno or associated with it were involved.” – Dr Goh Cheng Teik
“Ex-Gerakan stalwart backs Hadi's May 13 stand” Malaysiakini. May 1, 2013. Available at
[3] “…the incident was a mini coup planned by Umno men.” – Mohd Tamrin Abdul Ghafar.
Kuak, Ser Kuang Keng. “Ex-UMNO man defends DAP against May 13 charge” Malaysiakini. April 30, 2013. Available at
[4] [9] Means, Gordon P. Malaysian Politics: The Second Generation. Oxford University Press, 1991.
[5] Hartcher, Peter. "Outdated political thuggery embarrasses Malaysia". The Sydney Morning Herald. February 23, 2010. Available at
[6] Zurairi, Ar. “Dr M questions BN strategists, says Umno to decide Najib’s fate”. The Malaysian Insider. May 7, 2013. Available at
[7] Drummond, Stuart & Hawkins, David. The Malaysian Elections of 1969: An Analysis of the Campaign and the Results. University of California Press, 1970.
[8] Rachagan, S. Sothi. Law and the Electoral Process in Malaysia. University of Malaya Press, 1993.
[10] Swee-Hock Saw, K. Kesavapany. Malaysia recent trends and challenges. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2006.
[11] “Constituency redelineation to be done at year end, says EC”. Malaysiakini. May 10, 2013. Available at
[12]Su-Lyn, Boo & Ding, Emily. “Thousands pack Kelana Jaya stadium for Pakatan rally”. Malaysian Insider. May 8, 2013. Available at
[13] Abdul Rahman, Mohd Daud. Ke-Arah Keharmonian Negara. (Towards National Harmony) Jabatan Kerajaan, 1971. (State Department)
[14] “Malaysia: Requiem for a Democracy?” Far Eastern Economic Review May 24th, 1969.
[15] Kua, Kia Soong. 445 Days Under the ISA- 1987-1989. Suaram Komunikasi, 2010.
[16] Lin, Juo-Yu. A Structural Analysis of the 1999 Malaysian General Election. Tamkang University, 2002.
[17] Zulkiflee, Bakar. “Apa lagi orang Cina mahu?” Utusan Malaysia. May 6, 2013. Available at
[18] Aw, Nigel. “Ex-judge warns Chinese of backlash for 'betrayal'”. Malaysiakini. May 12, 2013. Available at
[19] “Malaysia GE13: PM Najib blames polls results on 'Chinese tsunami'”. Straits Times. May 6, 2013. Available at
[20] Slater, Dan. The Architecture of Authoritarianism: Southeast Asia and the Regeneration of Democratization Theory. Stanford University Press, 2006.
[21] Among the issues brought up were corruption, high cost of living etc.
Manisfesto Pakatan Rakyat.  Pakatan Rakyat website. April 19, 2013. Available at
[22] Ong, Kian Ming. “Here’s proof: It's a Malaysian tsunami, not Chinese only”. Malaysia Chronicle. May 10, 2013. Available at
[23] “Youths point the way towards unity” The Star. May 12, 2013. Available at
[24] Ramendran, Charles. “Cops to haul up rally organisers and speakers”. The Sun Daily. May 9, 2013. Available at
[25] Anand, Ram. “1 million street rally planned for KL”. Malaysiakini. May 14, 2013. Available at