Wednesday, May 28, 2008

9:23pm (GMT), May 26th 1999

It was officially the happiest moment of my life, some nine years ago.

I was sitting in my parents bedroom, where the television was. My brother lies on his side, cross-legged as ever. My father, in the corner, was at the table, working on his master's thesis for the night, I believe. Perhaps he had been doing something else, but knowing father as I know him then and now, he would be writing something, somewhere, somehow.

The rest of my family were still out somewhere, doing their business. I didn't quite care much at that moment, for I was bawling my eyes out.

It was the Champions League final, and Man Utd were trailing the Germans, Bayern Munich. Time was running out, and Bayern had already hit the post and the bar twice, through the genius that is Mario Basler. Carsten Jancker probably hit the bar himself as well.

Last I heard, he was playing in China.

And then, Teddy Sheringham scored, and equalised. I ran up and kissed my dad and brother, screaming with joy.

And then, this happened.

I literally shifted from crying tears of sadness to tears of joy within minutes. My mom and grandma came home at that moment, and I ran to them, hugging them and kissing them as well. They had no clue what just happened, but smiled through all of it nonetheless :)

I remember that moment well, and sometimes just thinking about it puts me in a happy place. It wasn't just the football, mind you: it was a good period for me and my family.

What a contrast, then, to a few weeks back. Alone, in my room, watching the match with Korean commentary slightly delayed (a few seconds delay, due to satellite transmission) coming through my headphones, because I didn't want to disturb the rest of the dormitory.

The times may change. Situations, contexts, environments may change. But Manchester United still gives me the happiness that I rarely get from a lot of other things.

Even if that changes, then at least I'll still have the memories.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

True Blue

In English, the word 'blue', in the context of emotions, has depressing or negative connotations. “I'm feeling blue,” is what someone would say when they are not in a really good mood. It is ironic, because the colour blue is my favourite colour, and for the most different of reasons. It inspires me into similar, but different states of emotions. The first of these is that of freedom; the colour blue can relax me by making me think of freedom. A big part of this reason is that my car, back home in Malaysia, is also blue (metallic blue). It is not a fancy car, despite its name (which means 'knight' in English). It is not a new one either, being an 8-years-old car based on even older technology. There are times when some of the technical problems caused me headaches as well.

I feel happy being in the car, and I feel glad having that car around, for it gives me the freedom to move. It gives me freedom from my troubles, freedom from stress, and freedom from depression. It makes feel that I can go anywhere I want. There are times when, with my family having problems, being able to go out of the house is a blessing. More often than not, I would do that, and visit my friends instead.

Furthermore, having the car also means that I do not have to rely on public transport, which can be a nightmare in Malaysia. I might be stuck in traffic jams as a result, but rather than become depressed by it, I am glad for it. It allowed me further time to 'be alone' and take stock of events of the day. Thus, my car afforded me the freedom to also be by myself and recharge. The colour blue, and the car, then, becomes one and the same. I have a good feeling beforehand about the colour blue anyway, but I feel that the car helps to enhance the relaxation that I feel when I see the colour.

The colour also reminds me of the freedom of the sky. On a clear day, I love the feeling of great expanse and freedom. At times, when I am on an aeroplane, I am tempted to become like a bird, to be able to fly and soar as I like above everyone else. Even on the ground, looking up at the clear day above gives me an epic feeling. Sometimes, the white clouds, when contrasted against light blue background, makes me feel very small, but in a good way. I feel awed by the size, and am reminded that there are greater beings than us in the universe. At times, it can be a timely reminder.

Sometimes, however, such reminders aren't enough. The stress of living in the city, of being in the rat race, can be taxing on even the strongest of minds and bodies. Driving around and looking at the sky isn't enough. I've spent my whole life living in big cities that when I do get out of it, there is a sense of completion that I feel. The reminder of wide, open seas by the colour blue reminds me of this sense of completion. I think that it is essential for us to get back to nature once in a while, and the colour blue, as well as green, is very prominent with nature and the environment.

that is the case, I leave the city and take off to the sea. Here, the colour blue can also remind me of the sea. The feeling of being near bodies of water like waterfalls, rivers, lakes and seas also relaxes me. The colour, in reality, is not always clear blue; nevertheless, my mental association is quite strong. When I see a big presentation of blue (like on an advertising board), I am reminded of the big sea, and that thought makes me feel calm and complete.

It should come as no surprise that my room back in my old home in Malaysia is painted blue. As I've outlined, the colour blue inspires many feelings within me. It represents freedom, the ability to move anywhere I want. It presents vastness and size, which puts me in a thoughtful state. Finally, it evokes the feeling of completion that I feel when I am by seas, rivers, and lakes. All these, when combined, illustrates why the colour blue is an important one.

The next time, if someone is asking me whether I'm feeling blue, I certainly hope so.

*An assignment for my 'Image Training' subject.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Can Anwar Change the NEP?

So deep-rooted is the consciousness of the Malay identity that it has been nearly impossible to critically examine its role in shaping the socio-political landscape of Malaysia. So entrenched is the expectation that being Malay will automatically qualify one for preferential economic policies in the form of the NEP – the New Economic Policy, an affirmative action plan largely favouring the majority Malay community – that imagining an alternative has been for many years just that: plain imagination. Recent events, however, have reversed the trend.

This has taken place in the shape of Anwar Ibrahim, ex-Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia. Hailing from Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the political party formed to promote justice against his arrest in 1998, Anwar has actively campaigned despite not qualifying to contest in the elections. The de-facto party leader has been extremely vocal in calling for an end to the NEP (in the form of the National Vision Policy today); replacing it with a "Malaysian Economic Agenda". Despite this, it is argued that Malays were still willing to vote for PKR against Barisan Nasional. Was the Malay swing significant enough to show support for NEP abolishment? This is difficult to determine since there were a multitude of other factors working against the BN, so that isolating the NEP itself as a deciding factor is erroneous.

More importantly, even if this were true, can Anwar really replace the NEP given the present Malaysian socio-cultural context?

First and central to the discourse is that many Malays cling onto a highly romanticised ideal of their special position in society. "Ketuanan Melayu", or Malay supremacy, is a social construct brought up time and again in public discussion on inter-ethnic relationships. That identity, in turn, finds its origins in what is now commonly referred to as the "social contract" between Malays and non-Malays, in reality a politicised term introduced in Parliament in the 1980s. Believed to be the "exchange of citizenship for special rights", this agreement is considered to be enshrined in the law.

True enough, Article 153 of the 1957 Federal Constitution does provide for the special position of Malays, natives of Sabah and Sarawak, and other marginalised groups. However, what this special position means is open for debate. Some believe it merely meant socio-economic position, one that changes dynamically and hence can be renegotiated. Further, pre-independence documents – the Cobbold Commission Report, Federation of Malaya Constitutional Proposals and the Reid Commission Report – reveal that this position was meant to be temporary. The special "right" of Malays was therefore understood not as a God-given mark, but recognition of socioeconomic status until such a time this could be elevated.

In reality, the worldview of the Malay as inherently privileged is deeply embedded. Changing this will take great convincing skill. It will be extremely difficult for Anwar to propagate an immediate and uncompromising economic agenda, thereby flattening out all racial rights.

Lim Guan Eng, newly instated Chief Minister of Penang, for example, was severely attacked for his comments that he would practice open tenders, quoted as "ending the NEP". As a result, 1000-odd UMNO members protested with banners saying "Don't Abolish Malay Results", and "Don't Abolish the NEP". Such sentiments still rage strong amongst the Malay community. The Malay Chambers of Commerce, Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia, and numerous other Malay organisations represent thousands of Malays who harbour very real fears at the prospect of levelling the playing field.

Malays who have "made it big" in the business world are often touted as national heroes. Even Khalid Ibrahim, new Menteri Besar of Selangor from PKR, publicly owed his corporate success story to the NEP. He only accused the system of corruption, but admitted he was a direct beneficiary of it.

Second, it is arguable that it is corruption within the NEP, rather than the NEP policy per se, that has swung Malays in the direction of the Opposition. For example, although PKR's 2008 pre-election manifesto says unequivocally that "the NEP must be replaced with an economic agenda that seeks to assist and affirm all poor Malaysians regardless of their race", it also states upfront that "the key to recovery is sound economic policies that are completely free from the tinge of corruption and graft".

Although the NEP was originally instated in 1971 with noble intentions of eradicating poverty irrespective of race and eliminating the association of race with job function, the policy has in-built structural definitions allowing for greater wealth creation of the Bumiputera community. Far from helping the community, this has instead led to massive wastage through corruption and misuse of public funds. Hence, Malays are likely to be more critical of NEP's implementation than its theory, the latter of which Anwar opposes. Attempting to champion equal rights directly questions the NEP's philosophy.

Third, replacing the NEP with the Malaysian Economic Agenda is infinitely more complex than it sounds. It means a complete revamping of every institutional structure: the public administration, procurement processes, amending Securities' Commission requirements for publicly listed companies, banking and housing loans; not to mention the tedious process of redrafting policies to that end. Even baby steps in that direction means completely deconstructing most, if not all, of the country's developmental framework.

Finally, the most difficult cog in the wheel will be getting rid of the patronage system, in reality the main players using the NEP to justify cronyism. Imagine the gargantuan task of identifying the complex web of personal relationships, thereafter conducting a cleansing exercise. The structure is so well-oiled and watertight – to know the game, one must play the game, which just defeats the whole purpose of integrity.

Anwar's manifesto paints a glorious picture of the new agenda's objectives. But the devil lies in the detail. The best option is to phase out race-based affirmative action within a set number of years, with specific aims at each stage. He will also need political buy-in from a critical mass of Malays, more so than gave him support in the recent elections. This he should do by assuring their welfare will be taken care of adequately, and most importantly affirm their Malay identity will not ever be robbed of them. One's identity, after all, should not draw its significance from a mere economic policy but rather confidently exist in its own right.

A reality check, accompanied by strategic policy solutions, is most urgent for Anwar and his party if they are shooting for power. He cannot retract his move to abolish NEP anymore, but negative Malay response will be a political setback. Caught in a Catch-22, PKR may need more than one election to reform the Malay psyche. An impossible task, but then, who ever thought denying BN two thirds majority was possible?

*Written by Tricia Yeoh, a director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies. Originally published in 'The Edge' on the 3rd of April, and is also one of the selected contributions for 'Tipping Points: Viewpoints on the reason for and impact of the March 8 Election Earthquake' by The Edge (available in Malaysian bookstores).

Thursday, May 15, 2008

What I've Been Up To

The days spent not blogging seems to stretch further and further into the distance. In truth, I have much to say, but little endeavour at times to do it. Time, of course, is also a factor, but unlike many, I believe that time can be further manipulated to our own ends.

That is to say, if you really, really want to do it...then you'll somehow make the time for it.

There are periods of time, however, that are more important and significant that others. Usually, two weeks can go past without much notice being given. This period is slightly different.

For example, since I last blogged, Manchester United have won the Premiership. To my mind, I still call it the Premiership, rather than the popular (certainly Asian) choice EPL. Cheapens it, somehow.

I also shot a short film, called 'Bound'. It is the film for my semester, and it may well be the best work of my career. I can't say that without quantifying it and mentioning my cinematographer, Tony Wang, and my art director, Shirley Wong, whose contributions to my film truly opened my eyes to the collaborative nature of filmmaking. Not that it wasn't open before, but one things that is certain is this.

To the best of my powers, I will never put the label 'A Fikri Jermadi Film' on any of my films ever again. It is as much the film of my time as it is the product of my imagination.

Environmental disasters throughout the world. Fuck. And double fuck. My friends here from the affected countries have been looking out for updates from the TV news. It makes me wonder what goes through their minds.

Iron Man finally came out. And what a ride it was :) If I was in Malaysia, I'd be lapping up seconds by now. Instead, the relatively high Korean ticket prices (essentially almost RM30 each) makes me hold back for Speed Racer and Indiana Jones instead.

My father has a blog. Not quite something that people will write every day, but like I said, these days are not exactly the most common of days. It is, however, more of an intellectual exercise rather than a daily diary expose of his day-to-day life. It would be equally interesting if he did do that ("Today, my son emailed me from Korea, but calls. What an asshole he is.") :)

Alas, deals more in films, than in life itself. Which is what I do on my own film blog.


Off now to an exhibition of a friend across the other side of Seoul. He's leaving soon too, going back to Nepal. That'll be another change that won't be pleasing.