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  • Opening Worlds through Translation

    “Translation becomes a way for us to access something that is very far away from us,” says Bilal Tanwer. It was, for the most part, translations that brought me to become a keen social and cultural observer, and a full-time fanatic of modern classic English literature as well as Malay literary history and development. I remember reading the renowned Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Keluarga Gerilya (Guerrilla Family) – which he had written in 1950 while imprisoned by the Dutch – during my starting years of undergraduate study. An Indonesian friend told me, “We were jealous of Malaysians who were very fortunate to get the chance to read the novel before Indonesians were able to get their hands on it. The Dutch went crazy with the novel.” Two decades after Pram wrote the last page, the novel slipped its way to Malaysian shores, and in 1983 Benedict Anderson translated Keluarga Gerilya into English, which made Pram’s ideas assessable for a wider range of readers. “Translation becomes a way for us to access something that is very far away from us,” says Bilal Tanwer, a Pakistani novelist and translator of literary works from Urdu. I listened to his talk at the Commonwealth Writers Conversations, held in Penang in March this year, and indeed, in a fragmented world, literary translation connects and brings people together. In the nineteenth century, the British colonies in the Far East were in dire straits, caught negotiating between preserving local cultural traditions that were associated with backwardness and Western influence that was deemed progressive. As a result, cultural exchanges and interaction through mostly literary activities within polities in the region began to move at a slower pace. For Muhammad Hj. Salleh, English was his starting point. “I came to Malay literature through the window and the roof, not the main door,” says the national laureate and translator. In 1977 he was a doctoral candidate writing about literature at the University of Michigan. Now he crosses cities in the European continent, either as a resident scholar or a lone wanderer. “I was a stranger to the Malay literary world because I studied English and later comparative literature. I did not write here (in Malaysia). I started writing when I was in England, and mostly because of the weather and personal detachment from the life at home and my little life among the English,” he says. Ironically, life in foreign countries showed him the way home and reminded him to appreciate and understand more of his motherland. In the Indian subcontinent, English is still dominant and has, in some ways, become the language of the elite, the bureaucracy and of serious literature. For India, learning English as the first language paves the way to the nation’s prosperity and is a vehicle for economic growth. The country has produced many great writers, such as Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Anita Desai and Amitav Ghosh; but they, however, came through the door of the West. Nevertheless, the outcome that every developing nation has to reconcile itself with would be the uncertainty with regards to the future of vernacular languages. The underutilisation of India’s languages such as Tamil, Kannada, Bangla and Urdu – particularly in intellectual discourse – would ultimately push them to the verge of irrelevancy, especially in modern usage. Emphasising this, Mamtar Sagar, Indian poet, writer, playwright, translator and an activist in the Kannada language, says, “To me, preserving and celebrating Kannada language also means retaining diversity within the language culture.” More pressingly, Janet Steel, programme manager for Commonwealth Writers, worries about social and cultural marginalisation. “Translation is vital for amplifying the less-heard narratives of civil society across the Commonwealth. Supporting it means supporting those voices.” Confronting Obstacles Translating and transmitting cultural values through works of literature in modern-day South and South-east Asia are no walk in the park, particularly when English, for a long time, has been rightly described as the third lingua franca and the language responsible for pidgins used in different places. One way to see the rising influence of English is in the way its vocabulary has infiltrated many other languages, to the extent of erasing many vernacular words and terminologies. “One of the traps that writers writing in English very often fall into is that they start describing local realities using references that are not local. The universal notion of Islam, for instance, becomes an explanatory way for most writers to write about a reality which might have something to do with Islam but does not necessarily explain the entire story,” says Bilal. Growing up in a non-English milieu, specifically in Karachi, Bilal believes that the act of writing itself, in large, is an act of translation. Every writer and translator finds the suitable language to picture their surroundings to their audiences. However, this is still an easy trap for many writers – particularly those who publish abroad – to fall into, especially when the audience does not share the same mother tongue. For Bilal, the best he can do is to be bold, localising the English. “When I’m writing, I’m trying to bring as much foreignness or newness into the English language,” he says. The fact that both writers and translators have to come to terms with is that different cultures have different concepts and worldviews that go along with their languages. Indeed, translation involves more work – translating emotions and values, not just words per se. Yet it is the common problem translators have to endure. Muhammad says, “When I read a literary text, I listen to the language. The Malay language must be smooth, gentle and musical. That’s the most difficult part of translating Malay texts – you need to listen to the rhyme and rhythm.” In another exchange, Muhammad told me that being a writer and translator, one has to dig for words that have vanished and are long forgotten. He himself would go to villages and speak to the people – one of the occasions was to collect Malay pantun (rhymes). “I translated the 500 page-long Epic of Hang Tuah; I took almost 15 years to finish it. I had to learn about Malay feudalism, including court language as well as the different titles of the courtiers. When I began translating, I was tall, dark and handsome. Lucky that I still am,” he says with a laugh. Connecting the Disconnect Through the works of such so-called cultural transmitters, readers from different parts of the world are now able to communicate and understand different cultures and traditions. “Translation helps bring the geniuses of the world into our languages and cultures, into our libraries and homes. With their works we are able to share the best that humankind has to offer,” says Muhammad. Unesco has named KL the World Book Capital for the year 2020, allowing the city to play a more active role in the literary translation industry. But needless to say, it requires not only the government to make this happen, but also individuals as well as literary agencies. The Commonwealth Writers Translation Symposium, which gathered more than 30 writers, translators, publishers and booksellers, was the cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation, and hosted by Hikayat bookstore. It was part of the effort to investigate imbalances caused by the relative lack of literary translations in South and South-east Asia. As Bilal says, “This conversation between practitioners, editors and publishers of translation is an urgent and necessary intervention. It offers us an opportunity to begin a serious discussion about how we can build an infrastructure for translation to push against the myopias that box us in and make our worlds smaller.” Jayapriya Vasudevan, owner of India’s first literary agency and former festival director of Times Litfest in Bangalore, says, “This event is an important step for bringing this conversation forward in South and South-east Asia, and I hope it will mark the beginning of the much-needed support for translation and writers in the region.” As an amateur translator myself, this is a future that I look forward to. *This article was first published in Penang Monthly, May 2019.

  • The Hopeful Future of the Malay Novel

    “Orang Melayu kempunan kasih sayang” (Malay people lack love), that both high culture and popular Malay romance novels are so popular in local bookstores. Time and again, I lose myself in the maze of shelves at the bookstore. At one of the remaining major bookstores in Penang, I cruise – as usual – from South-East Asian to English literature, bypassing the home and cooking section and doing a fly-by at the comics before ending up at Malaysiana. The books are well arranged, and the colourful spines and front covers catch my eye. I hardly ever pay any attention to this particular section, but I grab a title off the shelf anyway – Terlanjur Mencintaimu (Unintended Love). It is a glossy, pale blue book with randomly arranged pictures of sunflowers. Standing next to it is Saat Hadirnya Cinta Dia, sharing similar characteristics with the former, but fancier. Somehow they remind me of home. These are the kinds of books that my mother used to – rather surreptitiously – immerse herself in back then, while making sure that I grew up according to Malay ideals. The Malay romance novel – whose contents are full of sexual lust, myriad conflicts and love-fuelled struggle for domination – was off-limits to underage kids. Comparable to the mushrooming “indie” pulp fiction, Malay romance novels remarkably occupy a large space on the shelf, outnumbering English classics and non-fiction titles. The Development of Malay Literature My curiosity of what makes Malay novels – particularly romance fiction – popular for so many decades brings me to the doorsteps of pundits as well as novelists. But first, a quick history: the first Malay novel, according to general belief, was Hikayat Faridah Hanum, an adaptation of an Egyptian novel published by Syed Sheikh Al-Hadi in 1925. It is the subject of an ongoing contestation – Hikayat Panglima Nikosa is said to be the earliest text, published in north-western Borneo in 1876. The Malay novel is, however, relatively new: “The old, artistic and aesthetic oral tradition in Malay society was the main influence on Malay novel writing. Subtly, this tradition survives in Malay society – especially in literary writing,” says Muhammad Haji Salleh, the national literary laureate whom I met up with over a cup of coffee in Ipoh. This characteristic is reflected in the works of Anwar Ridhwan and the late Shahnon Ahmad – both also national laureates. Shahnon, who began writing in the 1950s, had always maintained his voice as a narrator, while Anwar, writing one generation after Shahnon, narrates the story of a narrator. His first novel, Hari-hari Terakhir Seorang Seniman (The Last Days of an Artist), depicts the life of a penglipurlara (traditional storyteller) just before World War II, who wanders from one village to another – a period when the form of “people’s media” was threatened by war, changing lifestyles and the introduction of the radio. As with other works of literature, Malay novels, too, speak for their times. During both pre-colonial and colonial periods, the struggle for political domination, which often led to lethal conflicts, was inevitable in a region filled with myriad ethnic groups and religions. The anxiety of “disappearing from this world”, made explicit time and again in writings and speeches, strengthened the sense of identity among the Malays. Authors and narrators, who had been, for some time, political and religious leaders themselves, called for self-determination and liberation from colonial hands. In his two most well-known works, Putera Gunung Tahan (The Prince of Mount Tahan) and Anak Mat Lela Gila (The Son of Crazy Mat Lela) – published in 1938 and 1966 respectively – Ishak Haji Muhammad, better known as Pak Sako, glorified Malay culture by comparing it to English culture, which to him lacked quality. Both satirical novels were critiques of the British. There were also writers who were influenced by British propaganda, and who had written about the Japanese in an unfriendly way. “Malay novels touch on so many issues,” says associate professor Dr Rahimah Abdul Hamid, a literary expert at Universiti Sains Malaysia. “The themes keep on changing, depending on the concerns of the society the authors live in. Malay novels spoke of nationalism when there was an urge for the Malays to free themselves from colonial powers. Al-Hadi and Ahmad Rasyid Talu in his novel Iakah Salmah (Is that Salmah?) called for women’s emancipation. The same goes for other themes such as national unity and even romance. “Even now, politics remains the dominant theme. When a novel speaks about society, it can’t discard politics. Malaysians talk about politics most of the time – like A. Samad Said, who comments on political issues in this country with his sharp and spectacular writings,” says Rahimah. Through love stories, authors of Malay novels voiced the calamities caused by war, demanded complete social change or spoke of inequality, discrimination and poverty on behalf of Malay peasants. In the 1930s Hamka described the discrimination against mixed-race persons in Minang society at the time, as well as the subservient role of women through the failed love story of the main characters of Tenggelamnya Kapal van der Wijck (The Sinking of the van der Wijck), Zainuddin and Hayati. Perhaps it is partly due to what Muhammad jokingly puts as, “Orang Melayu kempunan kasih sayang” (Malay people lack love), that both high culture and popular Malay romance novels are so popular in local bookstores. “After the war, especially in the 1950s, with the influence of Writer’s Movement ’50 (Angkatan Sasterawan 50, Asas ‘50), the main concern of writers of the time was to develop a Malay society away from poverty. “The writers found a sense of individuality in their literary works, both in prose and poetry. It was a period when people were looking for the meaning in being an individual. The sense of a free and independent self, in some ways, gave birth to Malay romance novels,” says Muhammad. In the course of their development, romantic elements, more often than not, flow through Malay novels. As universal as it is, love has become an important theme not only in Malay literary repertoires, where one would find Uda & Dara, but also in Arabic and English cultural contexts, where “Laila and Majnun”, as well as Romeo and Juliet, have always been presented as symbols of true and ideal love. But in all consciousness, Malay romance novels should be separated into high-culture romance and the popular, money-driven ones, labelled by mainstream writers as “novel picisan” (dime novel) – poor quality writings which lack literary value. “The most general categories for Malay novels are, firstly, high culture; the other one would be popular culture. Works written by the national laureates fall under the first category whereas Malay romance novels are dubbed as popular novels,” says Rahimah. Compared to popular Malay novels, which are business-centric and possess fleeting mass appeal, high culture literature pays attention to aesthetics and fine language, yet engages readers in important themes happening within society. The widely translated Malay novel, Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan (No Harvest But A Thorn) by Shahnon, for instance, has been a main reference for discussions about poverty in the Malay peasant community. “Authors speak on behalf of their societies. Look at A. Samad Said’s Hujan Pagi (Morning Rain), which points to a period when the media exhibited the boldness of speaking to the authorities. Today, the tables have turned: the media now speaks for the authorities,” says Rahimah. The Suffocation of Sentience Everything that is suppressed has the tendency of turning into a ticking time bomb. Being a poet and proponent of literary education and Malay language, Muhammad senses that the science-focused education system in all levels is the reason why society is gradually looking to literature, bringing forth many new readers and writers who, surprisingly, have no literary background. Until now, the arts and literature are still negotiating spaces not only in schools and universities, but also in the wider public domain. “There is a huge gap in our souls. We are deprived of aesthetic, spiritual and ethical values, which science cannot provide us with. Physics and geography, for instance, cannot teach us about love and humility,” he says. However, the intensifying sense of individualism, moral policing and book banning in the Malay cultural milieu have now become extensive. Between 1971 and 2017 the Home Ministry banned at least 1,695 books, including Malay language novels such as Legenda Mona Gersang (The Legend of the Sultry Mona) by Mahmud Mahyudin and Korban Cinta Palsu (The Prey of Fake Love) by Iza Sharizad in 1984. Rahimah recalls how Dr Mahathir Mohamad, during his first premiership in 1998, responded to the publication of SHIT, the bestselling notorious novel of Shahnon. The political satire, written in openly taboo language, was an expression of his disgust of the political scenario in Malaysia at that time. Surprisingly, when people urged him to ban the novel, Mahathir refused, learning from Tunku Abdul Rahman who had once banned his The Malay Dilemma. For Rahimah, as she puts it, “the ugly is the beautiful”. In the present day, local Malay language authors such as Faisal Tehrani are facing the same issue. In a cafe in George Town, I sit with Regina Ibrahim, a Penang-based “indie” fiction writer who has authored a number of novels and shorts, including the bestselling Perjalanan (Journey). Listening to her story about the development of Malay novel writing, particularly among young independent Malay authors, was fascinating: for her, the change is not particularly obvious in terms of style, despite the growing quantity of Malay language novels published each year. “Young Malay authors generally practice self-censorship and are afraid to expose their thoughts, trapped as they are within old frameworks,” says Regina. The linguistic originality and moral questions of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange partly inspired her to claim that “literature is a space for you to be ‘true.’” As she writes real life events – particularly on sexuality and to inform parents and children of other issues that are unheard of – the freedom of expression is non-negotiable. Having said that, the number of new authors in the country is on the rise, thanks to vibrant literary festivals and publishing houses – both of which promote literature and connect established and emerging writers. The number of Malay novels written by women is increasing too. In Malaysia and Indonesia, young writers are building networks and influences, getting more creative with wordplay and everyday issues – indicating that there is still hope for Malay literature, particularly novel writing, to survive in the future. And maybe one day, we will be able to read a Malay novel that puts a benchmark on what good literature is. *This article was first published in Penang Monthly, November 2018.

  • Borneoans in Penang

    Migrants from Borneo – home to over 60 proud ethnic groups – make an exciting mark on Penang. By Izzuddin Ramli, Nurul Fadilah Ismawi Leaving home is painful but unavoidable for many: the unbearable longing for familiar comforts both tangible and intangible, the rhythmic music of the sape’, the sounds of the forest, the songs of the people and the hypnotic dances of celebration. But leaving home can also mean forging a path towards new opportunities. Many come to Penang to build a home away from home, and unwittingly provide local people with a sampling of their rich and vibrant cultures. Far from the Eyes, but Close to the Heart Penang is not entirely physically dissimilar to Borneo. Both are islands, Penang’s beaches are reminiscent of Manukan’s and Sipadan’s, and its pre-war buildings bring back memories of strolling down Main Bazaar in Kuching. But the homesickness remains. To alleviate this, Borneoans in Penang, most of whom are students and civil servants (such as nurses, teachers and military members), meet often to celebrate their cultures. Linalin Kaca is an Iban student from Sibu, Sarawak who is currently studying at Universiti Sains Malaysia. Every weekend, she gathers with her fellow Sarawakian friends: “We have a club called Perkumpulan Anak-Anak Sarawak (Perkasa) and I am one of its exco members. The club organises Sarawak cultural activities such as ‘Malam Bumi Kenyalang’ just so we can bring our home to Penang and strengthen the bonds between fellow Sarawakians,” she says. “Malam Citra Bayu”, organised by Pertubuhan Siswa-Siswi Sabah (Persis) is the equivalent of Perkasa’s “Malam Bumi Kenyalang”. Apart from rituals, song and dance are inseparable in Borneoan culture: shows are written, sung, played and staged everywhere; connecting musicians and listeners, participants and observers. Their music distinguishes them from the rest of the world and keeps memories of home alive. The annual Gawai and Keamatan Festival held at Fort Cornwallis in May brings together Penangites, Sabahans and Sarawakians who have made the state their second home. The festival serves as a platform for Borneoans who come from various social and economic backgrounds to mingle. Dancers enchant the audience with their talents and traditional attire during the festival’s Cultural Night. Linalin was one of them: “I dance at home. Here in Penang, I teach traditional dances to those who are interested in learning them,” she says. The sumazau dance is one of the best-known traditional dances in Sabah. It belongs to the Kadazan-Dusun ethnic group, and is usually performed during traditional ceremonies to honour the spirits as well as to cure illnesses. As for the Bajau and Suluk of Sabah, the daling-daling, pengatay or mengalai dances are vital in their lives, staged and showcased everywhere, as glamorous and ritualistic as the mangunatip or Bamboo dance of the Murut people. In Sarawak, the ngajat is the most popular, having its roots in Iban culture. Sarawakian Malays, on the other hand, are famous for their lyrical bermukun or bergendang performances. Most of the music from Sarawak and Sabah’s tribal groups includes vocals for epic stories and narratives; songs are mostly based on life cycle events and rituals associated with religion, healing, rice-growing, hunting and war. Sounds of Borneo Sada Borneo, a Penang-based band playing traditional Borneo music with a modern twist, made their name in the music industry when they became semi-finalists at the show Asia’s Got Talent 2015 – the only Malaysian group to do so. “We were only students back then. We drove a van from Penang to KL to try our luck at the audition just for the fun of it,” says Allister from Sarawak, the sape’ player, bassist, percussionist and guitarist of the band. What started as a hobby took a more serious turn as they unintentionally made their way to fame. Sada Borneo has since gone on to participate in various local and regional contests, and perform globally. Established in 2011 in Penang, Sada in the Iban language means “sound”, but Bob Harris from Sabah, who is also the band’s percussionist, jokingly says that the word also means “fish” in Dusun. The band consists of Sarawakians, Sabahans and a Kedahan, and they play traditional music instruments such as the sape’, kompang and bungkau, alongside modern instruments. Nick Fadriel from Limbang, Sarawak, the guitarist and one of the sape’ players of the band, says that it is now also one of the band’s duties to bridge Borneoan culture with West Malaysia. “We used to play music because it was fun. It’s different now – we feel responsible for preserving the traditional music that we showcase to our listeners, and I like to think that it is also one of our duties, apart from entertaining, to introduce Borneo’s music to the world.” The band is planning to make Penang their second home permanently, as all the members feel that Penang is a better place for musicians and every one of them is comfortable being there. “Most of us graduated from university years ago,” says Alvin, a Sabahan who is the keyboardist of the band. “Penang or KL is a better place to keep our traditional music alive.” A Taste of Home Linalin and the members of Sada Borneo both gave the same answer when they were asked what they missed most about home, apart from their family: the food. Pansuh, hinava and midin goreng belacan are some of the names that trigger gastronomical cravings. While there are a few restaurants serving Sarawak and Sabah dishes in Penang, the taste is just not the same: “We cook our food here, but there are some ingredients that we cannot find in Penang. Every time we get the chance to go back home, we will stock up on ingredients and bring them back,” says Allister. Penang has as a rule been welcoming of people from all around the world, including Sabah and Sarawak. In fact, the Penang state government has promised to organise and support activities that benefit both Penangites and Borneoans. Whether they stay or leave in the end, they are forever Borneoans at heart and are simply continuing the legacy of their ancestors to bejalai – to leave their longhouses in search of knowledge, adventure, fortune and glory – in foreign lands. *This article was first published in Penang Monthly, August 2017.

  • A New Lease of Life for Rumah Kampung

    What’s more authentic in the Malaysian landscape than a traditional Malay house? Balik Pulau always holds unique experiences for me. The sight of the paddy fields, coconut trees, picturesque beaches and its gracious residents have never failed to transport me to another dimension. It is a natural museum where one can recall the memories of childhood – wading into a canal and catching birds and dragonflies. It is a place where the past enriches the present. Within the freshness and the authenticity of Balik Pulau’s ecosystem sits a treasure trove of traditional houses withstanding the test of time, their stories waiting to be heard. Eagerly, I walked into the small Malay villages scattered there. “This is a family house that was passed down through the generations; I am the third,” says Abdul Rahman, a house owner on Jalan Bharu. “The original house was a bit different. I had to do some renovation because the wood of the walls and pillars were decaying. But the Northern style is still preserved.” Living in a modern concrete house sometimes makes me wonder how much of traditional architecture has been lost. The design-with-nature approach found in traditional Malay houses is best reflected in how the house fits the climate. As I sat cross-legged on the porch or anjung in Abdul Rahman's house, I was stunned by the ingenuity of a design that can’t be rivalled by modern architecture: fresh natural air flows through the main entrance to the core of the house and then blows out through the kitchen windows, cooling the place. It is the deep understanding of and respect for nature that underlies traditional Malay architecture. One has to have a comprehensive knowledge of nature and ecological balance to build such a place. “In the old days, people relied on nature for their food, medicine, and building and household materials. They were all obtained freely from the jungle or their backyards. We were very close to nature,” explains Abdul Rahman. Traditional and hybrid Malay houses can be identified by their roof shapes. The basics are the bumbung panjang, bumbung lima, bumbung perak and bumbung limas. In Penang, traditional houses are known by at least two other specific names based on their unique forms – Rumah Gajah Menyusu and Rumah Bujang Selasar. Now in Balik Pulau, traditional houses have become major tourist attractions. Abdul Rahman says that many film production companies choose his house as a filming site, especially during the fasting month, to catch scenes of children from different ethnic backgrounds celebrating the eve of Aidilfitri. Indeed, his house reminds me of my days as a child playing in the yard during Hari Raya. As clichéd as the scene may be, it is something that many of us now long for. While some parts of the house may have been renovated, that authentic feel is hard to miss and was exactly Abdul Rahman's motivation for preserving the house. In a kampung, it is difficult to distinguish what is public from what is private. I was quite surprised to find that I did not need to park my car outside the house compound when I arrived at Abdul Rahman's as the compound was open and unfenced. This is clearly a reflection of the community’s appreciation of belonging over personal privacy. Another resident I met, Siti Rohani, says that “neighbours are usually related, cousins or distant relatives; but sometimes they are just friends. Even so, the relationship is like we are relatives. We help each other, exchanging food especially when we break fast.” Back home in my kampung, neighbours drop by through the back door with no one questioning their conduct. But there are things that need to be worried about. Modernity, economic demands and the desire for a better life influence people, especially the younger generations, to move to big cities for better jobs. This has left traditional houses to be maintained by the old. Abdul Rahman says even though his son is married and based in Penang, he prefers not to stay in the village and lives in a more developed area instead. As a result, many house owners in Balik Pulau have begun organising homestays for tourists instead of letting their homes rot from disuse. As the Malaysian timber industry is highly export-oriented, timber such as cengal, meranti, damar laut and petaling – the main materials for traditional wooden houses – are hard to come by in the local market. This poses another challenge for those wishing to preserve traditional houses. The local market is deprived of high-quality hardwood. “The high cost of timber makes it hard for me to renovate the house, even to change a single floorboard. The best I can do is replace it with a different type of wood that is cheaper,” says Abdul Rahman. As the community works to maintain its way of life it also makes Balik Pulau’s good qualities – its ecological stability and the gentleness of its people – endure. It is a gem, thinly veiled by modernity. *This article was first published in Penang Monthly, June 2016.

  • Mekong Review: Southeast Asia’s New Narratives in Old Media

    “As an editor, I love print because it's a medium that I understand and can relate to. Creating a print magazine comes naturally to me. It's like cooking your favourite dish; you don't have to think about it" I was invited for a visit to the official venue of the George Town Literary Festival 2017 by Gareth Richards, an editor, bookseller and the co-curator for the festival. The festival’s director, Bernice Chauly and the co-curator, Pauline Fan were also present. I arrived a bit later and was greeted by Gareth himself. There was a newspaper-sized paper folded under his armpit. I could not exactly guess what it really was. All I could see was part of an illustration that looked like Angkor Wat with a half revealed title, and that was enough to arouse my interest. We toured the rooms in the old colonial building that is located at Gat Lebuh China for a few minutes just to get a clearer picture of the festival that took place later in November. We finished the tour and went outside for a puff. That was the moment when Gareth unfolded the paper he was holding and proudly showed to us, “Mekong Review”, as written on the front page. “A quarterly literary magazine from the mighty river of Mekong” he introduced. “It is available in my bookshop for RM20”. I looked passionately at the magazine while he was describing and slowly flipping each page, scanning all the essays, book reviews, poetry and interviews. “This is a magazine that covers political and cultural issues in the Southeast Asia region, particularly Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, look at it!”. My curiosity towards the magazine grew bigger not because of its contents that I had not had a chance to look at, but because of the physical presentation of it; the size, artworks, type of font, etc, all of the aspects that had contributed to the elegance of the print. I went home to dig for more information from its website. The next day I dropped by at Gerakbudaya bookshop and happily got myself a copy of each available issue. “Penang literary scene would be more exciting with the existence of this magazine”, I thought as I walked out from the bookshop. “At least we have more stuff to read and more importantly, we can get to know our neighbours rather closely. The neighbours that we hardly ever talk to”. *** A few months passed, I met a guy in his early fifties during a photo exhibition in Penang. He was sitting alone at a corner, unenthusiastically finishing his black coffee, though soon I found out that he had not yet found his real drink. He was dressed in a blue t-shirt with a red-patterned Cambodian scarf wrapped around his neck during the scorching hot afternoon, the kind of style that would be donned by mad writers. As I approached and greeted him, he stood up and introduced himself in Australian accent as Minh Bui Jones. A former journalist, co-founder of The Diplomat and a beer aficionado, Bui Jones now edits the rising Phnom Penh-based magazine. He lives in Sydney, Australia but frequently finds himself sitting in Penang’s Antarabangsa-liked ‘bars’ and cafés everywhere in Southeast Asia and Europe. He drags his luggage full of Mekong Review, crossing streets and alleys, finding bookstores to place the magazine. Now the magazine has reached its international audience in prominent cities like Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi, Saigon, Singapore, Sydney, London, Stockholm and Los Angeles. I pulled a stool and sat beside him. A small crowd of attendees were coming in and out, chitchatting while observing the photos that narrated the Malaysian underground punk music scene displayed on the wall. A ska-punk song was playing softly from another corner, cheering up the attendees. The rest of my visit at the exhibition was spent with him, talking about the magazine that I had just fell in love with, writing and our favourite drinks. “Readers are becoming more technology savvy. E-books and digital publications are getting popular. Why did you choose to print while it is economically impractical?”, I asked Bui Jones after a few words of self-introduction. “I love print.”, he answered. “As a reader I love its physicality, the fact that I can hold it, take it with me wherever I go and pass it on to a friend. I love it also because it's uncomplicated, like it doesn't require electricity and I don't need to turn it on - it's just there.” I took another sip of my coffee which started to taste bland. I nodded and let him share his thoughts. Conversations around us turned into white noise as I found myself listening to him. “For myself, I absorb better what I read when it's on paper. It's partly habit and partly the medium - there are no ads and distractions. When I read things off the screen I tend to skim read and I tend to rush through it, so sometimes there is pleasure in it at all”. Bui Jones paused for a moment. His eyes were fixed on one of the pictures, I assumed his mind was elsewhere. “As an editor, I love print because it's a medium that I understand and can relate to. Creating a print magazine comes naturally to me. It's like cooking your favourite dish; you don't have to think about it”, he said passionately. “What I also love about the magazine is the history behind it. How many magazines were cultural products of their times, organs for political and social causes, often progressive ones. A magazine ought to embody a cause, a belief or at least a sentiment. As a journalist, I see a magazine as supplementary to a newspaper. The latter tells us what happened, the former why it happened.” “But every time I cook without thinking, my dish would turn into a disaster!”, I interrupted jokingly. Today, when mostly everything, from newspapers to books are digitalized, Mekong Review boosts our excitement of reading printed words on papers. This is even more obvious when Leonid Bershidsky in his article titled “How print beat digital in the book world” published in The Sydney Morning Herald summarizes that in 2016, the unit sales of printed books in the US increased by 3.3 percent while e-books appeared destined for an even bigger decline than the 14 percent drop registered in 2015. The rise of print book sales and decline in e-books in the past few years is a good news for kindle-naïve readers like me. In Malaysia, despite the irony of censorship law that has been practiced since before the independence and the government attempt to adapt to a modern knowledge-based economy, the number of publication of materials in print form shows an increasing trend every year and accounting for more than 99 percent of total annual sales worldwide, as reported by Malaysian Book Publishers Association. Started as a magazine with a relatively small editorial team, with the help of family and friends, and money was always brought up as the main constraint to run the magazine like other mega loaded fashion magazines, Bui Jones had to find his own ways. While subscription for digital version helps to pay the contributors, he still relies on friends to “smuggle” the printed magazine, crossing borders by land and sky to its destination, pro bono. Sometimes he delivers himself and words of mouth is the main method of advertisement. “But you are now living in Australia. Why choose Southeast Asia as the focus of the magazine?” I wondered curiously. “It is simply because of who I am and where I was living at the time when the magazine was created. I'm Vietnamese by birth and Australian by nationality. And although I have spent four-fifths of my life in Australia, the Vietnamese heritage has always been there and seems to grow stronger by the day”, Bui Jones dug deeper into his past. “And I have lived and worked in Thailand and Cambodia, and travelled to Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia frequently. Each of these countries mean something to me. For instance, Malaysia was the country that my family and I landed in when we left Vietnam as refugees, as boat people. The Mekong Review was conceived and created when I was living in Cambodia, in 2015.” “Is it a medium to connect countries, particularly writers in the region?” I asked. I wonder whether he has a bigger reason than just holding a physical copy, or if he aims to connect Southeast Asian countries and hunt local writers out of their hidings, the young and the established. “That I can't say, because I don't know. I think Mekong Review, like other publications and cultural endeavours, by simply existing we are doing something, though what that something is it's hard to know. I get asked this question quite often and I really don't have an answer for it. Maybe if we're still around after 10 years I might have a better idea.” For Bui Jones, creating the magazine that is getting well-known is not a walk in the park. He looks for potential contributors himself and let their creativity churn as the writers themselves decide what to write instead of assigning them with topics. This requires him to read and research on topics that he is unfamiliar with. The process excites him more than the final result. “All I can hope is that people find us useful and interesting.” he added. “Yes, you are!”, I praised. *** After 3 years of its founder travelling around the region, shaking hands with people who have turned into the very building blocks of the magazine, now Mekong Review is found in every corner of Southeast Asia. Its horizon has expanded beyond mainland Southeast Asia to include Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, and its readers are scattered, waiting eagerly for the next issue, all across the globe. And after a month of idle, I bumped into him again, crossing Kapitan Keling street walking towards Gerakbudaya bookshop. This time, he dragged a bigger luggage of Mekong Review, readied to be restocked at the shop.

  • A History of the Malay Left: Part Two

    The Japanese Occupation of Malaya and Singapore allowed the Malay left to thrive, if only for a brief moment. The road to Independence was long and hard, and the left’s communist connection did not improve their lot. By Koay Su Lyn, Izzuddin Ramli The fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942 saw the release of Ibrahim Yaacob and the resumption of Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM)’s activities.1 For the sake of political expediency, KMM quickly ingratiated itself with the Japanese authorities. This marriage of convenience was also said to stem out of Ibrahim’s intention to play triple agent. While the experience boosted the confidence, knowledge and influence of the Malay left, it was not until after the war that they achieved their pinnacle of political success before being demonised on the Malayan political scene. The Malay Left during the Japanese Occupation The Japanese policy of giving KMM a free hand during the early days of the Occupation bolstered their social influence among the Malays. For once, the aristocracy and bureaucratic elites fell out of favour; on the other hand, KMM members were bestowed with official roles such as “community leaders”, and were supplied with cars and amenities as community organisers and interpreters. Their influence thrived following mass rallies, with large numbers of Malay youths topping the party’s list. The substitution of existing Malay newspapers with Japanese-propagated ones, established under the influence of Ishak Haji Muhammad, further boosted their stand. However, fraternising with the enemy was not without any disenchantment. The regime’s brutality and refusal to back Malay independence, contradicting their earlier promise to liberate Malaya, disappointed many – including Mustapha Hussain, KMM’s vice-president, who felt that “Japanese victory was in reality, not their victory”. The collaboration persisted for the sake of their fellow Malays and often, personal gain and safety. The marriage was shortlived following the banning of KMM in June 1942, and support evaporated overnight, revealing its widening rifts. Nevertheless, KMM’s success in instilling semangat perjuangan (“fighting spirit”) among Malay youths during their brief stint enabled the movement to sustain itself under the umbrella of the Giyu Gun or Pembela Tanah Air (Peta), a Malay volunteer army formed in December 1943 and led by Ibrahim himself. The arrival of the Kesatuan Rakyat Indonesia Semenanjung (KRIS) in June 1945 gave KMM a fighting chance. The former sought to promote Malay-Indonesian patriotism and frame a constitution for an independent Malaya and Indonesia, to be revealed in conjunction with the Indonesian Declaration of Independence in August. Unfortunately, all was crushed by Japan’s surrender and the proclamation of a republic of Indonesia without Malaya and Borneo. The British return crippled the left, and leaders of KRIS and Peta were arrested. Doubtful of his future, Ibrahim left for Indonesia, leaving the baton to a new crop of leftists who restructured their strategy towards a new Malaya. From KMM to PKMM The Malayan Spring witnessed a new dawn for the Malay left where ideas and activities were reflected unconventionally with prewar restrictions on expression, assembly and association lifted and the Indonesian Revolution in full swing. Decolonisation was the trend and the left saw another golden opportunity to revive their struggle towards a Republik Indonesia Raya under the Partai Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya (PKMM), led by Mokhtaruddin Lasso, former Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) recruit and Malayan Communist Party (MCP) leader; and renowned scholar and political activist, Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy. PKMM was not communist and far more inclusive than its predecessor, embracing Malays from all social backgrounds and classes, binding them under the spirit of nationalism. This new culture took root and while many PKMM members perceived the communists as harbouring un-Islamic elements, they also recognised MCP members such as Abdullah CD, Musa Ahmad and Dahari Ali as influential mass organisers. The liberal atmosphere also permitted the revival of new periodicals such as Suara Rakyat, crucial in stirring the sentiments of the Malays. Soon, other pro-PKMM publications such as Kenchana, Plopor and Utusan Melayu under Yusof Ishak became purveyors of radical ideas. Not only were ideas of freedom and unity towards independence articulated, but concepts forbidden during the war such as the role of youths and mass support for Malay rights could be restored. Support was immense from the working classes and peasantry, with Malay youths flooding the party’s youth wing, the Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (API) led by Ahmad Boestamam, and the women’s wing, Angkatan Wanita Sedar (AWAS) by Aishah Ghani and later, Samsiah Fakeh. It also increased its influence by capitalising on trade unions via representation in the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU) and the Barisan Tani Se-Melaya (Batas). Soon, an ideological confrontation was inevitable with Umno, campaigning for a Federation of Malaya in lieu of the Malayan Union. The left saw the Union as a vehicle towards the Melayu-Raya dream. Declaring the monarchy’s irrelevance, PKMM was convinced of a nationwide revolution once all the Malay states were unified under a single entity of an independent Malaya, thus rendering a merger with Indonesia possible. The showdown came in June 1946 when PKMM decided against joining Umno. However, Umno won the day with the British, and the Union was withdrawn. The Beginning of the End While PKMM still commanded mass support, discord entailed between Burhanuddin and Boestamam, ending in the latter’s resignation in December 1946. This minor setback did not hinder subsequent unity. Dissatisfied with its exclusion from the Working Committee and Consultative Committee in drafting the Federation’s constitution, PKMM formed a coalition of Malay left-wing parties known as Pusat Tenaga Rakyat (Putera) in February 1947. Joining forces with the non-Malay All-Malaya Council of Joint Action (AMCJA), mass rallies were held, stirring public opposition against the Working Committee’s constitutional proposals. Their temporal success was highlighted by the drafting of the radical People’s Constitutional Proposals. Its failure to garner concessions from the authorities led to mass agitation with a one-day nationwide strike, the Hartal, in October 1947, with businesses coming to a standstill and all places of amusement being closed. Nevertheless, the coalition’s increasing demands for democratic reforms and immediate independence provoked the authorities to stigmatise it as a “communist invention”. While most of the Malay left were never communists, but were instead nationalists with radical socialist views, the increasing Cold War paranoia blurred this crucial distinction in favour of the Umno elites. While the left’s public image suffered under British propaganda, the rise in labour strikes, mass demonstrations and proliferation of communist propaganda and anti-government activities attributed to the revival of the Trade Union Ordinance which crippled most labour unions. Later, the Malayan Emergency of 1948 dashed the hopes of the leftist movement altogether. With one-third of core PKMM, API, AWAS and leftist members incarcerated, many avoided political activities. Given the bleak future and disappointments within, some crossed over to Umno instead, such as Mustapha Hussain who contested against Tunku Abdul Rahman in 1951, and Aishah Ghani, who became a supreme council member and led their women’s wing. Minorities such as Rashid Maidin and Abdullah CD continued the anti- British struggle in the jungle with the MCP. Demonised as the communist bogeyman, the fragmented left gradually lost their influence as Umno gained traction among the Malays. Decline The Partai Rakyat Malaya (PRM) marked the left’s final comeback. Led by Ishak and the released Boestaman, the party advocated a strand of Indonesian socialism which promoted the welfare and interests of the poor. Burhanuddin, in fact, played an instrumental role in its establishment, although given his pro-Islamic views, he later joined the Pan Malayan Islamic Party (PMIP). Given the lack of proper outreach to the non-Malays, PRM gained little attention and made few inroads until its coalition with the Labour Party of Malaya. Unfortunately, all was not to last. A revolt by A.M Azahari, a PRM activist in Brunei, soon implicated the party in militant activities. A massive crackdown followed and Burhanuddin, Boestamam and other party associates endured another round of incarceration that lasted throughout the Indonesian Confrontation. Weakened by the crackdown, the Confrontation terminated their Melayu-Raya dream.32 Continued government suppression and demonization of their “militant communism” soon nailed the coffin shut. As leftist sentiments continue to provoke subversive communist-inspired impressions, the Malay left still faces various political stigmatisation, although their struggle today is no longer anticolonial but one for social justice. While such a calling is still very much manifested in the Malaysian political scene, whether the Malay left has a chance of making a comeback remains to be seen. *This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, September 2017.

  • A History of the Malay Left: Part One

    Many Malays opposed to colonialism in the pre-War period were considered communists by the British. Despite the failure of their various agendas, their early contributions were broad and lasting. By Koay Su Lyn, Izzuddin Ramli Being anti-colonial, the Malay Left was classed either as communists or at least as fellow travellers of the reds. The basis for this claim? Undeniably, being leftist or against the status quo was not enough to make one a communist. So who or what was the Malay Left, really? The Rise of the Malay Left For starters, the Malay Left ought to be understood against the backdrop of the heterogeneity of Malay society before the Second World War. By 1941, three separate strands had appeared to challenge those in power. The first was the Kaum Muda, a group of Middle East-educated scholars with Pan-Islamic sentiments who sought solutions to the social and economic backwardness of Malay-Muslims via Islam. The second was the radical intelligentsia inspired by the Indonesian nationalist movement. Lastly, there were the English-educated professionals and civil servants of the Malay Administrative Service. While political consciousness in Malay society developed at a relatively slower pace, the seeds of Malay radicalism were sown mainly through vernacular education – through the establishment of madrasahs, where ideas of Islamic reformism, nationalism and anti-colonialism were imputed and internalised. The Role of Madrasahs Unlike the “pondok” systems that confined their lessons to religious matters, madrasahs also taught secular subjects such as history, geography, speech-making and literature. It inculcated interest in worldly affairs, with religious reformist instructions that stimulated students’ interests in political matters coupled with an implicit religious motive – and a readymade leadership. This provided fertile ground for the seeds of radicalism to sprout; notable Malay Radicals such as Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy and Shamsiah Fakeh received their early education in these schools. As one would expect, the teaching staff at these schools were also exposed to reformist ideas and promoted the nationalist political culture that was taking shape. For instance, those employed in Madrasah al-Ihya Sharif in northern Perak had spent time in the Arab world and embraced the ideas of the Kaum Muda. Students were similarly encouraged to promote political awareness in the community through mainstream associations such as the Persaudaraan Sahabat Pena Malaya, which emerged as the “first Malay mass movement in the Peninsula”, providing a platform to address the socio-economic and political challenges confronting the Malays. Literature and Mass Media Ironically, the formation of Sultan Idris Training College (SITC) in 1922 by high-ranking education officer Richard Winstedt also worked in favour of the Left. Unlike Malay College Kuala Kangsar, SITC admitted students from all levels of Malay society with the policy of retaining them in traditional roles as peasants, fishermen, land tillers and manual labourers. Nevertheless, under O.T Dussek, the principal from its inception to 1936, “every activity that is genuinely cultural and genuinely Malay has flourished in an astonishing manner”. Dussek’s tenure witnessed the transfer of the Malay Translation Bureau from KL to SITC, with renowned linguist and thinker, Za’aba, as its head. A large amount of revolutionary and reformist literature from the Middle East was then translated and consumed by students and teachers like Abdul Hadi Hassan and Buyong Adil, broadening their horizons with fresh ideational frameworks that formed the rhetoric of the Left. In light of increasing education opportunities, the growth of printed mass media further illustrated these radical sentiments. Among the most important of these publications was the al-Imam (the Leader), a magazine and the main mouthpiece of pioneering Islamic reforms in Malay society. Upon returning to Malaya, Kaum Muda proponents saw that Malay-Muslim society was lacking in consciousness, particularly regarding social and economic matters. Malay leaders, their failure as role models enhanced by their sense of inferiority as well as their fascination with colonialist culture, became another core reason for resistance. Kaum Muda was predominantly led by Sheikh Mohd Tahir Jalaluddin, Syed Sheikh bin al-Hadi, Haji Abbas bin Mohd Taha and Sheikh Salim al-Kalali, while the al-Imam urged readers to re-evaluate their religious beliefs and practices that might have led them into social and economic backwardness. Featuring calls for Muslims to acquire knowledge, and warnings against ignorance and negligence in obtaining knowledge, the magazine became a medium where criticism was aimed at the docility of traditional and conservative Muslim religious scholars, the ulama (Kaum Tua). There was also the al-Ikhwan, where al-Hadi promoted the concept of women’s emancipation. Disenchantment with British colonialism and the traditional political and religious establishments, and anger over demands being made by immigrant races stirred the Malay Left further into action. Their distrust of the British and dissatisfaction with British-groomed bureaucratic and aristocratic elites mounted; the elites were perceived as colonial puppets and traitors to their own kind, alienated from the masses. Here, a stark contrast can be drawn with Indonesia, where Western-educated intellectuals empathised politically and culturally with the masses and even spearheaded anti-colonialist movements, whereas in Malaya, the “large number of Western-educated Malay, most of whom were from feudal well-positioned families, indicated cultural and political indifference”, leaving the struggle for independence to be borne by teachers and “small-time” leaders who identified with the rakyat. There was fear and resentment against the immigrant races agitating for more rights and privileges in the state councils in the early 1930s, and this sparked concerns and vehement reactions in the Malay press, especially Majlis, Saudara and Majalah Guru. These and the Great Depression, during which many mining and rubber-tapping jobs were lost, provided fertile ground for the rise of the Left. The Early Radicals The formation of the Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM) signalled the beginning of organised efforts to propagate radical sentiments among the Malays. Established in 1938, KMM was geared towards the early termination of British rule and the realisation of Melayu-Raya (the greater Malay state) encompassing British Malaya and Indonesia.17 The emergence of Partai Nasional Indonesia led by Sukarno in 1927 equipped KMM with brewing inspiration for their radical stance. Giving strong support for the anti-British struggle without pledging any loyalty to the sultans, the background of the KMM’s founding members is particularly noteworthy: the majority of them were journalists and college graduates with peasant backgrounds who had been exposed to the reformist ideas of nationalist movements in Turkey, the Middle East and Indonesia. A crucial factor behind their pro-Indonesian stance was the fact that many of them were educated in SITC and exposed to the concept of “Nusantara”. Its founder Ibrahim Yaakob himself was a graduate of SITC before he embarked on his journalistic career. Co-founders like Hasan Manan, Karim Rashid and Isa Mohammad were first-generation migrants from Indonesia. Disillusionment with the British administration was another push factor. Ishak Haji Muhammad (Pak Sako) for instance, left his job in the Malayan Civil Service and joined Ibrahim’s cause after finding the deception and social discrimination too bitter to swallow. Undeniably, KMM’s leadership consisted of self-made men, and the party’s inception witnessed an ideological spread among “low-class subjects” and like-minded members of the intelligentsia such as teachers and journalists. KMM was in no way communist. Their leftist stance however led them to associate themselves with other anti-British elements – even the Japanese. In fact, Ibrahim established secret ties with Japanese agents in Singapore even prior to the Occupation, which enabled him to buy Warta Malaya to intensify anti-British campaigns. The party was also secretly affiliated to the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), and these collaborations soon alarmed the authorities. Having established branches throughout the peninsula and after holding two Malay Congresses between 1939 and 1940, KMM’s leaders were arrested and imprisoned under the Defence Regulations of 1940, which crippled their activities until the Japanese invasion in 1941. Nonetheless, it was only after the war that the Malay Left managed to gain a significant foothold in Malayan politics. *This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, August 2017.

  • Empowerment Through the Graphic Arts

    Artist Fahmi Reza attracted international attention when he was prosecuted for his work portraying the former Malaysian prime minister as a clown. After the 9 May election, but Fahmi's motivations remain the same: "to use graphic arts as a weapon to fight against injustice". The fall of the Barisan Nasional government in Malaysia’s recent general election was heralded by many—especially those who had long been in opposition politics—as a historic victory, the culmination of years of hard work. But for graphic designer, street artist and political activist Fahmi Reza, the struggle goes beyond a change in government. Regardless of who is in power, his political activism, done through his art, continues to hold everyone to account. “We celebrate the victory of the people after decades of struggle. But my loyalty is not to any particular regime, political party or leader. I will continue to criticise the new Pakatan Harapan government and its leaders if they act like dictators,” says Fahmi. He’s been concerned with social and political issues from his earliest work, created in 2004: “My stance does not change—to use graphic arts as a weapon to fight against injustice, oppression, human rights abuse, racism and any acts denying the people’s freedom of expression.” Fahmi’s provocative political art has often landed him in trouble. In 2004, for example, he created a series of designs as a protest against police brutality—one such poster depicted a police officer pointing a gun in a pose that resembling American artist J. M. Flagg’s iconic 1917 army recruitment poster featuring an illustration of Uncle Sam. For that, he was arrested and beaten by the authorities. 12 years later, he was again summoned by the police over his most celebrated and influential work, Kita Semua Penghasut (We Are All Agitators). It ridiculed then-prime minister Najib Razak by portraying him as a clown. The image was produced as a poster and went viral online; a single act of defiance was turned into a social media icon, reproduced again and again as it passed from one to another. The authorities took a dim view: Fahmi was fined MYR30,000 (USD7,520) and sentenced to one month in prison. But such work—fearlessly irreverent and satirical—has contributed towards the social and political mindset shift that ultimately led to Malaysians voting out their long-time rulers. Humour and politics The use of satirical graphics and cartoons as a form of political expression is not new. Long before Malaya gained independence from the British, cartoonists used both the Malay- and English-language press—notably Utusan Melayu and Lembaga Melayu—to trigger public debate through satirical graphic commentaries on the economic, politics and social issues of the day. Humour was sometimes a useful way of escaping colonial censorship. From the 1970s onwards, a new wave of “humour magazines” emerged, most famously Gila-Gila. Their artists drew on folktales, fables and film parodies as the basis for sharp social commentary. Zunar, Malaysia’s most well-known political cartoonist, had a regular column with Gila-Gila early in his career. Thanks to a combination of rising print costs and the reach of the Internet and social media, graphic artists like Fahmi emerged online after the decline in popularity of the humour magazines. They quickly found a new audience: young, politically engaged and socially diverse. It was an opportune moment: the Reformasi movement of the late 1990s had begun to challenge a static, repressive political landscape. Street protests and political conversations added bite to the politics of change. Cartoonists and graphic artists from various social and political backgrounds seized the moment. Participation in the art-making process Studying in the United States in the late 1990s, where he was exposed to the political punk music scene, influenced Fahmi’s political activism. He began designing for punk gigs and bands. One of his first pieces was a striking album cover for the band From Ashes Rise: a monstrous insect sucking the blood out of a Planet Earth portrayed as a skull. The cover signalled some of Fahmi’s enduring motifs: the punk feel; the stark black-and-white drawing; the themes of life and death; the direct critique of exploitation. He was paid in vinyl records. Back in Malaysia after four years in the States, Fahmi’s graphic work took off from modest beginnings. His work might start off as a single image, but he’s a master of multiplying its reach: posters, placards, banners, T-shirts, badges, and, inevitably, online digital images. He harnessed local and global political understandings of resistance, and plunged himself into political activism. “The use of crowdsourcing in the art-making process aims to cultivate a ‘participatory culture’ as the main element in creating an egalitarian and horizontal participatory democracy,” Fahmi says. “It is important for the people to be more active participants or producers, instead of being passive consumers, as well as to use their power, knowledge and wisdom in decision-making processes.” Fahmi suggests that “most of my graphics and posters function as a medium for the people to speak. So their participation in the art-making process is vital in order to make the end products relevant and representative.” He engages his audiences through social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. This allows them to be part of the process, from collectively selecting the subject matter, such as during the creation of ABC Politikus Malaysia—an “A to Z” colouring book of Malaysian politicians—to the final stages of printing and dissemination. This participatory method creates in his audience a sense of ownership over Fahmi’s artwork. In Kita Semua Penghasut, for example, Fahmi encouraged people to download and print the image as stickers, or print them on to T-shirts. He waived his copyright, so people could use the image for free. Many small printing companies also supported his cause, donating profits from T-shirt sales to community activism projects or charity organisations. The pen is mightier… The decade between the 2008 general election—the first time the Barisan Nasional failed to win a two-thirds majority in Parliament—and today has seen a remarkable rejuvenation of politics in Malaysia. Some of this took place on the elite political level; opposition political parties forged new alliances and became more proactive in pushing a reform agenda, gaining more hands-on experience through running state governments. But change also happened at the more informal, grassroots level; in fact, one can argue that this ground-up growth led to a more sustained social and political transformation in Malaysia. Many fresh and innovative forms of political involvement emerged, especially in the urban centres: alternative music scenes; punchy fiction and poetry published by independent imprints; thought-provoking performance art; and, of course, graphic art, propelled by its simplicity and immediacy. Malaysians, often treated as passive receivers, need to be turned into informed and active participants, with a critical disposition towards all forms of political power Fahmi, for one, believes in a people-centred democracy, where empowerment is key. Malaysians, often treated as passive receivers, need to be turned into informed and active participants, with a critical disposition towards all forms of political power. “Audiences participate at many different levels, from sharing ideas and information, consultations, to the level in which they themselves take control of the discussions and come out with decisions. And I only materialise them into graphics,” he says. Some of his projects are clearly driven by everyday forms of resistance from below—mobilising what James Scott once called “the weapons of the weak”. For example, drawing on the inspiration of political developments elsewhere, Occupy Dataran, a grassroots movement where people gathered at Dataran Merdeka (Merdeka Square) in Kuala Lumpur to experiment with models of participatory democracy, was an initiative “to explore the true meaning of democracy beyond the representative system, to redefine democratic participation beyond elections, and to increase and deepen public participation in political decision-making. To give power back to the people.” In a different vein, Chow Kit Kita was a community-based project with children that used photography, video, graphics, mapping and performance to change perceptions of Chow Kit, a neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur often linked to crime and drugs. Meanwhile, Missing Mushroom was partly a protest against rampant over-development (and its attendant system of kickbacks) and a challenge to create more green spaces in the city. Other work often deals with the dysfunctional character of Malaysian politics and its leading personalities. The ABC Politikus Malaysia, for instance, uses one of the sharpest weapons in the political lexicon—satire—to lampoon leaders without fear or favour: the letter K stands for koruptor (corruptor), unsurprisingly former Prime Minister Najib Razak, while D stands for diktator (dictator), illustrated by former and current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The people’s opinions were gathered to decide who would be represented by which letter in the book. Malay as the language of communication Fluency in both English and Malay has given Fahmi an advantage in spreading his political messages. He intentionally uses Malay to engage with and appeal to a more diverse audience. In Malaysia, language is a major barrier dividing urban and rural communities, who all too often appear to inhabit completely different worlds—while the more affluent urbanites are fluent in English, rural Malaysians lacking opportunities of global exposure and education are unable to acquire those linguistic skills. “Even though the majority of youths are well-versed in English, the Malay language remains the common language for Malaysians, even for those who speak English as their main language,” says Fahmi. “The use of English may exclude almost half of my audience. Graphics or any form of visual arts is a universal language. Although one may not understand the language that I use, the graphics can still deliver the messages.” His conscious decision to use Malay doesn’t mean that his work is narrowly parochial. On the contrary, it has resonated far and wide. The Kita Semua Penghasut project gained support and praise from international journalists and human rights groups after his arrest. Some commentators in the international media have compared his work to that of the famous street art provocateur Banksy. The struggle continues For Fahmi, despite the stunning people’s victory in peacefully ousting the Barisan Nasional, the struggle for real social change continues. It’s hardly “mission accomplished”—Fahmi sees the future as a long and winding road—but a culture of protest and resistance has been instilled among the citizens, introduced over years of activism and broad-based movements like Bersih. Protests and community organising across the country signal that people are no longer afraid to express their dissatisfaction towards the government, and are empowered to use their voice. “With the emergence of new social movements that are more powerful, more effective and last for the long haul in our struggle, I hope to see the future of Malaysian politics head towards a more grassroots citizens-based democracy instead of the current elitist democracy,” says Fahmi. “In a country that is ruled by the corrupt, the most patriotic that the people can be is to disobey the government” A sustainable democracy exists when people are empowered to have input in decision-making processes, rather than being forced to leave it all to a political elite. Fahmi believes that there’s a need for all Malaysians to answer the call for political emancipation, rising social consciousness and the creation of genuine alternatives to broken institutions. “I believe we need to nurture more activists and develop more ‘rebel designers’ to fight for change in this country,” he says. “I hope to see more artists and designers getting involved in the struggle, with the courage to stand up against injustice, to use their art as weapons for change.” Fahmi also believes that democracy only works when there are active and critical citizens, regardless of the current government’s party colours. As a normal citizen, he says, “the people need to know that loyalty towards leaders and the government is not an act of patriotism. In a country that is ruled by the corrupt, the most patriotic that the people can be is to disobey the government, just like they proved in the election.” *This article was first published in New Naratif, June 2018.

  • Millennials Moving into Politics – in Malaysia and in Indonesia

    Both these countries appear today to be moving towards maturing their democracy, and post-GE14 Malaysia has been branded by commentators as a victory for Asian democracy. In six months’ time, Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, will be holding its presidential election, known as pilpres, simultaneously with the People’s Consultative Assembly election for the first time in history. With 20 political parties contesting in the upcoming general election and presidential race, and with familiar faces involved such as Joko Widodo (Jokowi), who is seeking his second five-year term as president; Prabowo Subianto, leader of the Gerindra Party; and Anies Baswedan, governor of Jakarta; the contests will be tough ones. The triumph of Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan coalition in the recent general election, which saw the defeat of the long-standing Umno-led BN, sent ripples across the region, and marked the beginning of what is dubbed by many as “Malaysia Baharu”, or New Malaysia. This episode also symbolises the turn away from racial and religious-fuelled politics, towards higher respect for human rights and more active participation by the people in the decision-making process. At 93, Tun Mahathir Mohamad is the oldest prime minister in the world. At the same time, at least 26 candidates under 30 contested during the election; there were more candidates under 40.1 Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman is 25; Ketari assemblywoman Young Syefura is 28; Subang Jaya assemblywoman Michelle Ng is 28; and at 22, Batu member of parliament P. Prabakaran made history as Malaysia’s youngest parliamentarian. These are but a few of the names. With as many as 40.9% of Malaysian voters aged between 21 and 39,2 the appeal of younger candidates is obvious. Youths have a big role to play, especially when it comes to political rejuvenation. Everywhere, youths are now claiming their part in politics, translating public issues into various forms of political activism. Across the straits, the presence of the Indonesian Solidarity Party (Partai Solidaritas Indonesia, or PSI), a new youth-based political party led by a former TV journalist, Grace Natalie, is the answer to the urgent call for wider public representation in Indonesian politics and administration. Their youngest member is 17. The election law of Indonesia requires political parties to establish their offices and committees in all 34 provinces, or a minimum of 75% out of 514 districts and a minimum of 50% out of 700 sub-districts, in order to qualify to contest in the elections. For a relatively young player in a huge political arena, PSI has much ground to cover. Despite receiving numerous criticisms for their endorsement of President Jokowi for the 2019 general election, the party, dubbed the “millennials’ party”, stood firm against primordial political practices, promoting more open and progressive politics instead. The prominent Indonesian sociologist Ariel Heryanto, commenting on PSI, said, “If there is still hope for a brighter future for Indonesia, it is in its youths. It is the youth who can bring about change.” Power to the People Both these countries appear today to be moving towards maturing their democracy, and post-GE14 Malaysia has been branded by commentators as a victory for Asian democracy. In Indonesia, changes came two decades ago. The overthrowing of disgraced military leader, Soeharto in 1998 by the massive and violent Reformasi movement led to the rapid political democratisation of the country. Malaysia’s own Reformasi movement saw its leader, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, being jailed. After 2008, however, Malaysia was infused with political optimism, thanks to the rise of the internet which encouraged wider, more vibrant and active political discourses. “Political empowerment” became an essential jargon, lauded mainly by promoters of a freer and more liberal society. The passive, feudalistic, personality-praising politics are now in certain ways dismissed in the new atmosphere, giving way to active grassroots participation and rational administrative practices. Globalisation has in one way or another generated greater demand for localisation –that is to say, more democratic participation is encouraged at the grassroots level. Traditional politics battle against new politics; the sense of global citizens is gaining traction; and universal values and norms such as human rights, gender equality and democracy are increasingly embraced. “We practice Participatory politics by encouraging people to contribute not only in terms of money, but also by lending their houses and turning them into PSI offices,” says Natalie. “Right now, we are in the process of recruiting volunteers mainly through social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. We want to tell people that they can contribute anything – not only money, but also T-shirts, banners, flyers and stickers,” adds Natalie. According to We Are Social, a global marketing and communications agency, out of a population close to 260 million, approximately 88.1 million Indonesians had access to the internet in 2016; and 90% were active social media users, particularly among those aged between 20 and 29. PSI apparently has the strongest social media engagement in Indonesia, having discovered that it is the cheapest way to reach people – especially those who have limited resources – compared to traditional media such as TV and newspapers. “We have a lot of content which we publish on a daily basis. We have to bear in mind that Indonesia is a huge country that contains people from various social, cultural and political backgrounds – Sundanese and Javanese are culturally different even though they live on the same island; the same goes for the Madurese and people from east, central and west Java. We have to diversify our content – basically get more local content in different local languages,” says Natalie. PSI is currently developing a digital mechanism in the form of a phone application that requires members of parliament to report their activities to their constituents on a daily basis. Constituents can then rate their parliamentarians based on their performance. On one hand, the check and balance process through the rating system encourages parliamentarians to keep improving their performance; on the other, it returns the power to the people. Encouraging Women to Participate One of the challenges faced by South-East Asian countries is the lack of female representation in leadership roles, particularly in politics, resulting in an absence of gender perspectives in the policy-making process. In Malaysia, women and youth-related civil society groups have long been calling for more representation in decision-making posts for marginalised groups. For women in Indonesia, running for a political position is no walk in the park, given the country’s male-dominated political sphere where sexism and the objectification of women are still part of the norm. Women in Indonesia are only expected to play domestic duties and stay behind the scenes. “I am contesting in my hometown in north Sumatra, where it is religiously more conservative and the majority of the people are men,” says Dara Adinda Kesuma Nasution, 23, spokesperson for PSI. “When I first returned to my hometown to set up my groundwork, I faced objections from my family. As a woman, they were worried about me being outside late at night – something that is not normally done by a young woman. It would not have been an issue if I was a man.” Demand for affirmative action to ensure fair representation of women in politics has always been part of PSI’s political goals. Since 2007, PSI has been pushing for the constitutional court of Indonesia to review the 30% quota for women in politics to cover all political and administrative levels – such as committee, provincial and sub-district – and not only at the central level, as is currently being practiced. Political parties are required to fulfil the 30% quota system in order to contest in elections. This does not, however, necessarily reflect its key purpose, which is to bridge the gender gap and to translate it into policy decisions that are more gender sensitive. This has resulted in the forced recruitment of less competent female candidates to fill vacant seats. “Finding 30% female representation is not easy. What happens is that you end up recruiting your family members – your wife, your daughters, even to the extent of recruiting your housemaid,” says Raja Juli Antoni, general secretary of PSI. For PSI, the challenge is two-fold – women in general are still shy and hesitant to be in the public eye and to challenge the status quo. This is in some ways influenced by the lack of women and family-friendly environments, such as in the workplace or politics, and by the crystallised gender stereotyping in society that sees women as the sole caretakers of children. “Young political activists like us in PSI aim to empower women, to make them more outspoken in fighting for their rights. But to get them to wake up is a hard task – you need to find the right formula to get things started. “I recently met Yeo Bee Yin (the 35-year-old minister of energy, technology, science, climate change and environment), who shared a very interesting point. She said, ‘Touch them (the women) where their hearts lie – that is, their children,’” says Natalie. *This article was first published in Penang Monthly, October 2018.

  • Young Malaysians Hold Keys to Election Success

    Old guard's grip on power faces an emerging challenge For followers of Southeast Asian politics, Malaysia's upcoming general election on May 9 looms as the country's biggest test since its independence from Britain in 1957. For the first time, young people are emerging as an important political constituency, breaking the links that tied them into separate ethnic groups and broadly dividing them between a Malay majority and a Chinese minority. To most young Malaysians, being able to live in a united and successful country is more important than their racial differences. Malaysian politics has been split along racial lines since the formation of the independent Federation of Malaya in 1957, with a Malay-based party monopolizing power. That was perhaps inevitable given the dominance of the Malay majority over minority ethnicity, such as the Chinese and Indians, and of Muslims over religious minorities of Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and other groups. But racial politics has been tense under Prime Minister Najib Razak, leader of a Malay-based party, the United Malays National Organisation and of the governing Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition. In 2017 there were many race-related incidents that the sultans of the states of Johore, Selangor and Perak -- hereditary figureheads widely regarded as unifying figures -- issued statements urging Malaysians to back away from racial confrontation. At the same time, there have been signs over the past few years that racial issues are no longer a defining element in politics. A watershed moment came in the last general election in 2013, when the governing coalition lost the popular vote for the first time since independence. The National Front remained in office because of an unequal allocation of parliamentary seats, but moral victory went to the opposition. The youth vote was a crucial factor. According to Politweet, a Malaysian-based pollster, support for the National Front among young people aged between 18 and 35 dropped from 57% in the 2008 general election to 54% in 2013. It has almost certainly fallen further in the last five years, and is likely to be lower still among ethnic Chinese and Indian youths. As the 29-year-old political activist Adam Adli put it, young people are playing a more important role in electoral politics because they have become more aware than other voter groups of the political environment. Adli, who was acquitted in February on charges of sedition relating to a 2013 speech, sees growing determination among younger voters to win "more space in determining the future of their country." Adli is right. But the National Front has not recognized this growing reality because it has been locked for 60 years in a semi-feudal form of politics dominated by aged politicians who have swamped the top tier of the political hierarchy. Instead of welcoming and accommodating the rise of youth political consciousness, Najib, 64, has imposed tough curbs on young political activists such as the graphic designer Fahmi Reza, whose work often satirizes the government. The coalition's failure to understand young people has clearly weakened its ability to embrace what is now the country's biggest demographic group. People aged between 15 and 30 accounted for 29% of the population in 2017, against 26% in 1970, according to government data. The opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), is also led by a figure from an older generation -- 92-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. But the Alliance has adopted a very different approach, making young voters a strategic priority by choosing more young candidates and running programs to increase their influence. These include educational initiatives such as its Sekolah Politik (School of Politics) and Sekolah Demokrasi (School of Democracy). Some young people are so angry with the system that they are seeking to hit back by withdrawing from politics altogether -- a position reflected in the popularity of the #UndiRosak (spoilt vote) movement. Many more, however, have come to see the National Front's race-based politics as a distraction from their real concerns, which revolve around globalization and the need for a level playing field in Malaysia. For these young people, many of whom are migrating from rural areas to big cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Johor Bharu, daily issues such as job opportunities and the cost of living are political priorities, not the government's obsession with the entrenched rights of Malays, who enjoy preferential treatment in fields such as education and business. In its latest report on youth unemployment, Bank Negara Malaysia, the central bank, said in 2016 that youth unemployment was three times higher than the national average, with 10 unemployed youths in every 100, compared with three in 100 for workers over 30. Not all disaffected young people are siding with the opposition. Some are as jaded by the Alliance as by the National Front, perhaps because the main opposition parties have been in power for years in states such as Selangor and Penang, giving young people enough time to evaluate -- and become disillusioned -- with the lackluster performance of the opposition pact. The Alliance has also suffered from a decision by Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), a conservative Islamic party, to fight the election independently of other opposition parties because of their refusal to back the introduction of Islamic criminal law in PAS-run Kelantan State. PAS was a key part of opposition attempts to woo the young, mainly because of its role as a major organizer of Islamic student movements. The Islamic Students Association, the biggest and most organized of all other movements, has followed its lead, significantly weakening Alliance support at campus level. However, pockets of more politically and religiously liberal youths are leaning toward a more progressive interpretation of Islam, especially in large cities like Kuala Lumpur. The Alliance can benefit from this rise in the popularity of a more temperate political Islam if it can show voters it has fully integrated this more liberal approach into its program. But the principal battle for both coalitions is to communicate a vision for the country's future that can energize and satisfy the country's young people. To an extent, the National Front has set the agenda with the introduction of its youth-oriented National Transformation 2050 initiative, announced by Najib with the 2017 budget, which aims to change Malaysia's "mindset" over the next three decades. The government is collecting views from youth groups about this transformation, but no decisions have been taken, and a detailed program is unlikely to emerge until late this year or early 2019. That provides an opportunity for the Alliance to recast the agenda in its own image with strong youth-oriented policies dealing with the bread-and-butter issues and institutional reforms that really matter to young people, including the thorny issue of the preferential rights of ethnic Malays, job security, better educational opportunities, and lower costs of living and housing. After four decades in power, the National Front retains huge advantages, including control of the civil service, a largely compliant media, and an electoral system that is skewed toward rural voters, who tend to support the government. Alliance leader Mahathir has accepted that the opposition can win a parliamentary majority only if there is a high turnout and a repetition of the swing away from the government in 2013. In a sense, though, the young people of Malaysia have already won the election. For the first time, both coalitions are fighting for their votes and claiming to be their champion. Whatever the result, Malaysian politics has already been transformed. *This article was first published in Nikkei Asia, May 2018.

  • Rebuilding A Nation Long Divided: Interview with Wan Azizah

    Politics is very much in her blood now. It was not always this way. It all began in 1998 when Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail led the Reformasi movement after her husband, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, was sacked as deputy prime minister by then prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. In 1999 Wan Azizah led the Social Justice Movement (Adil) and later established Parti Keadilan Nasional. Later in 2003 she brought the party to merge with the older Malaysian People’s Party, to establish the People’s Justice Party (Parti KeADILan Rakyat, PKR). Wan Azizah became its first president. But being a leader in the male-dominated political arena is not an easy task. It is even tougher when there are many different roles to play at the same time – mother, wife, grandmother and an ordinary citizen. What keeps her going? Her answer is: “Hope for a better Malaysia”. Izzuddin Ramli: People see your role as a wife, a mother, a grandmother and also the leader of a political party. How would you define yourself? Wan Azizah: First and foremost, I see myself as a servant of Allah. Allah gave us all responsibilities, and the responsibility given to me is as the leader of a reform-based political party that calls for change and the betterment of this country and its people. I also try to fulfil my responsibilities as a wife, a mother and a grandmother, although I feel I have much more to do. While people would consider me a leader, I also see myself as a citizen. I feel that as a Malaysian, and of course in my personal capacity as a wife, a mother and now a grandmother, I want to contribute the best I can – not only for myself, but also for the future of the country and the next generation. How do you manage the different interests and goals at the individual, family and national level? With some difficulty – sometimes I feel guilty because attention given to my family is sacrificed when I feel the interests of the nation need to take precedence. Now as I age, I try to be more spiritual, but looking at what is happening around me, I feel that I can’t just sit back; I need to partake in the future of my country, and also to fight against the injustice that has happened to my husband. How do you see Nurul Izzah – more as your own daughter or as your fellow politician? I see her as others also do – as the voice of young Malaysians yearning for change and reform for this country, one of the many prominent young parliamentarians and young leaders from Pakatan Harapan (PH). She is also the future of Malaysia. As a mother I am proud of her achievements and presence in Malaysian politics. I also feel that sometimes, she is exposed to the risks and hardships of a life in politics and I pray for her constantly. As a mother, I want the best for [my children]. I get a bit emotional when I talk about this. I have seen them grow and I want their future to be better. But I don’t know what kind of future is awaiting them; they have to go through their own trials in life. But as a mother, I wish Nurul Izzah the best. I pray for the good of this life and hereafter. Of course I am proud. I have seen her do well in her education – she has a master’s degree. Seeing her father in prison and realising that she is the child of a prisoner could have been bad not only for Nurul, but also for the rest of my kids. They have coped very well and I continue to pray for her and all my children and family. You have been in politics for almost 20 years now since the dismissal and arrest of your husband. You formed Adil and contested in elections. How would you consider your political life now without the direct presence of your husband? It is more challenging now compared to 1998. Although there are similarities, the circumstances and challenges differ. We contested the 1999 and 2004 general elections without the direct presence of Anwar. I would like to think I am more experienced and wiser, Insya Allah (God willing). We would agree that the person responsible for the dismissal of Anwar was Tun Mahathir Mohamad. He was the one who sacked Anwar over political differences and subsequently dragged him to serve six years in prison. Interestingly, the political development that we are seeing in this country today, I would say, has turned upside down – the long-time sworn enemies are now standing together as friends and partners. But how would you consider the situation now? Do you consider taking revenge for what he did to your husband? The Reformasi movement was about institutional reforms and change for the betterment of the country and its people. It was never about revenge or any personal vendetta. Currently our country is in dire straits. Under the leadership of Datuk Seri Najib Razak, Malaysia is better known as a nation headed by kleptocrats. Mahathir, the man who groomed and handpicked Najib to be the prime minister, has himself lost confidence in Najib’s leadership and has joined us, the opposition, to demand change and reform. The Reformasi movement is open to everyone who shares this passion. Do you still see Anwar as the foremost candidate to become prime minister? In our constitution the MP who enjoys the support of the majority is given the prime minister’s post. If that happens and if I am given that support, I feel I am duty bound to take that position – maybe on an interim basis. However, in all honesty, I think that Anwar would be better at the job. If we consider that Anwar’s political career is over and he has served his time, would you still continue your struggle in politics? The struggle for the betterment of our country and our future continues. It will never stop; it is a continuous process. Time will determine the future, Insya Allah. Many think that you have a soft personality – you don’t seem tough, you are a reluctant politician whose actions are scripted. What is your take on this? Leadership-wise, I prefer the consultative and more democratic approach. I do understand that this particular approach is seen as “weak”, especially since we are dealing with a patriarchal mindset in a Third World setting. It is not about “an individual”; we cannot allow the prime minister to dictate everything. In PH, we operate on consensus and team effort. We have many and mostly young, charismatic, energetic and – most importantly – “clean” leaders to formulate and implement better policies and manage our beloved country along the right path. Are we ready to have a female prime minister? This blessed land we call home has seen and experienced the leadership of women for some time. Currently we can see women as captains of industries as well as holding top positions in the government. More importantly, I do believe that Malaysia is ready to have a principled prime minister – one who is willing to fight for the rights of Malaysians and to stand up for justice. It should not matter if the leader is a woman. In Gender and Electoral Reform, an alternative solution advocated by the Penang state government together with the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC) and Penang Institute to curb gender inequality especially in politics, there is a proposal to introduce “Women-Only Additional Seats”, where non-constituency seats are allocated 100% for women in order to mitigate gender imbalance. What do you think of this proposal? It is a good proposal and I support it. We have come to the point where Malaysia is ranked 55th among 176 corrupt countries by Transparency International. This is a disquieting development. How do you imagine Malaysia to be in the future, especially under the newly branded coalition of PH? Actually we have the system of checks and balances; it is just a matter of implementation – once we put things on the right track, Insya Allah, I think we can steer our nation to a better future. We have to have the dignity of being honest and this needs to be taught to everyone. What are your hopes for the party? Of course, to win the elections. PKR is a party for reform and justice. However, the vital thing is that the struggle must continue whether we win or not and whether we form a new government or not. We also have to be attractive to youths. We have a lot of young people in the party such as Nurul Izzah, Rafizi Ramli, Saifuddin Nasution, Azmin Ali, Fahmi Fadzil and all the others. These young people attract other young people to the party. We also hope and pray that the authorities will allow the nation to have free and fair elections and not use any excuse they can to implement draconian laws – which still exist – to negate the results should it turn out that BN is defeated. Thank you for your time and for sharing. *This interview was first published in Penang Monthly, September 2017.

  • The People Tsunami

    It was an arduous, uphill battle for the people, especially for those who had dreamt of a brighter future for the country. Many were pessimistic, frustrated and beginning to lose hope. The hurdles seemed insurmountable, and the only weapons we had were a pen and a vote. We knew that it was going to be very tough. For decades, they silenced political dissidents, monopolised and controlled the media, and shut down oppositions using oppressive and draconian laws. Cash was king then. They bought votes and support from the people with money and giveaways, and many were lured. The Election Commission was clearly with them. On the nomination day, many were denied the ability to contest for absurd reasons. During the campaign period, all TV stations and mainstream newspapers covered only stories from the ruling party; just a day before polling opened, PM Najib Razak tweeted his final insult to the people, believing that money could buy everything: “To all young people aged 26 years and below, we will give an income tax exemption from the year of assessment 2017 and subsequent years with immediate effect.” The polling ended and the counting started. I was calmly sitting in front of my computer checking the live results aired by Malaysiakini, an independent local news portal. At 9.30 p.m., things were getting intense. Barisan Nasional (BN) so far had secured 54 parliamentary seats, while the opposition pact, Pakatan Harapan, was chasing with 52 seats. The number of seats won by Pakatan Harapan quickly increased, and by 11.00 p.m., the coalition had reached a simple majority. I took a moment to scroll down my Facebook timeline, and, as I had expected, it was bombarded with news, speculation and live reports from friends and official media. “We are winning the election!”, “Unofficial: Kedah falls to Pakatan Harapan”, and “Negeri Sembilan has fallen”. “Ridiculous!,” I thought to myself. How could one be certain? We all saw the deliberate delays at many polling stations, which led to many voters, who had been queuing for hours, being turned away and excluded. And a few days before, in different places overseas, Malaysians were having trouble with the postal vote. Many had to volunteer to transport their votes back to the country, and only some made it on time. I took my bike around town, tried to figure out what was really the situation. In Georgetown, Penang, excitement filled the air. The town was packed with cars and motorbikes with Pakatan Harapan flags, honking each other joyously, celebrating the early victory. At 12.13 a.m., the Minister of Youth and Sports and UMNO youth chief, Khairy Jamaluddin, finally said that the people of Malaysia had spoken and their voice was final, the signal that he would have noticed long before but turned a blind eye on. He tweeted “All the best Malaysia and thank you to all voters for exercising your responsibility”. The next morning felt surreal. I was breathing the fresh air of a new Malaysia – the moment that none of us could imagine would happen. After six decades in power, BN fell to the “people tsunami”. It was the day that Malaysians knew the power of their votes. People from all walks of life thanking and congratulating each other. On the streets, in coffee shops and markets, with joy, people were celebrating the fall of the long reigning party. Utusan Malaysia, the official organ of the party, for the first time sold out within just a few hours on the newsstand. People read the historic declaration by the newspaper, announcing the victory of Pakatan Harapan and, more importantly, the people. But the happiness was more than just witnessing the party’s fall and its leader, Najib Razak, stepping down and resigning from the top party post. It was indeed the mark of the end of the country’s old politics, the politics in which the people were made to believe that only BN could govern and develop the country. May 9 was the day that people reclaimed their power. The soul of the nation is restored, and the path of our beloved country is redrawn. We were overwhelmed by the dreams that were sealed shut before, and the imaginations of the new country that we thought of shaping. The work cannot be delayed. People cry to end the filthy racial politics, we yearn for more freedom in expressing our voices, we demand better education, and we want to bring those who had failed the country to justice. The day marked the triumph of reason over ignorance, of people over the corrupt government. People altogether walked pass the gate of the prison that had been locking them in intellectual darkness for decades. Malaysians are now ready to take another step forward, painting new stories on a new clean white canvas. *This article was first published in Teahouse, May 2018.

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