Thursday, July 31, 2014

Jar of Hearts

There are many times when I feel somewhat lost and confused.

A number of years ago, I was in my office. It was late night, possibly around 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning. The security guards at Monash were, by then, well adjusted to my habits. They walked past my door on their rounds, checking in on me with a polite knock.

I was slaving away, researching on Walter Benjamin’s idea of the aura of art, and how applicable it is to the medium of film. I had done so for an article that eventually never got published, but that’s fine. It brings me a lot further down the road.

I dropped a message to my sister, just to say hello, and got a shocking reply. The chain of events may differ from what I recall, but the point is this: “Farah’s mother passed away.”

Farah is one of my sister’s friends. My sister had cultivated a strong bond with a group of friends from school, through which their families also became somewhat familiar with us. While this is a secondary impact from a key event in someone else’s life, my sister was equally affected all the same.

I pondered whether I should head over there. Though the relatively empty roads would mean a speedier travel, I didn’t know whether I had it in me to drive to the other side of the other city to Farah’s house. Pretty quickly, I realised that such considerations were irrelevant in the bigger picture, and left soon enough after that.

In truth, there’s very little that can be done. When a person dies, you feel like there’s nothing you wouldn’t do in the world to mitigate the situation for their loved ones. This is especially true of those who are close to you, but it doesn’t change the fact that such situations strips away much of our agency and faculties; I can’t do much beyond offering a few words of consolation that means little to the bereaved. As such, I went to Farah’s home without really knowing much of what I would do once I did arrive.

I walked into their home, shaking hands with people I didn’t know much, if at all. They have a lovely house, complete with a small fountain in the middle of the house, and a rustic décor that is very homely. This, then, truly is a home, one that houses a family forever changed by tonight’s events.

I spotted my sister, sitting close to Farah somewhere on the other side of the spacious living room. It was, however, filled with people, a score of gatherers and well-wishers who had come from near and far in the middle of the night, paying their last respects. Farah’s father, seated next to the body in the middle of the room covered in white, was reciting some prayers.

I sat down near the main door. There was very little room elsewhere. Someone passed me a copy of the Yasin, a chapter of the Qur’an. They tend to be published in smaller sizes, making it easy to pass around for occasions such as this. I opened the book, and started saying things I don’t truly understand.

The teaching of the Qur’an in Malaysia has largely focused on the reader saying the Arabic words properly. Much emphasis is placed on pronouncing and enunciating the right words in the right way. I suppose that is considered the original language of the Qur’an, and as such it represents a good way of getting closer to the word of God.

However, getting closer and actually understanding it can be two very different things. This approach basically deifies the ability of a person to read Arabic, above and beyond actually understanding it. In short, many Malaysians tend to read it without knowing what was being read.

This lack of emphasis has resulted in me finishing the Qur’an twice in my lifetime thus far without understanding a single word of what was said and its context. For that, people are encouraged to refer to their Ustaz or, as I did, read translations of the Qur’an.

I’ve often thought of this to be a bit silly. Should we still wish to prioritise the reading of the Qur’an in Arabic, I figure it’s a lot better to adopt an approach where we are actually taught Arabic, allowing us to actually understand the Qur’an in its original form the first time around.

As it is, too much power is given to too little people, having to rely on more people with agendas to have an inkling of what the Qur’an means. Lest we forget, the Qur’an is the word of God written by man; where man is involved, I am inclined to believe that a perfect accuracy is not to be expected.

All the same, being a product of this part of the system, it does mean, at least, that I can read the Yasin. As I did so, with everyone else reading the prayers at their own pace, I realise that the sense of uncertainty, of not knowing what to do, started to ebb away. It was not an obvious feeling at first, but it did wash over me in the end.

In that moment, I better understood the value of religion to me. My understanding of it allows for the creation of a structure that can be filled with your heart’s desires. It is like a jar, if you wish. Some pour in hatred, others keep their love there. I keep my faith there, even some believe a life lived as a perpetual introduction to something you hope will be better in the future is a life of disappointment.

Better understanding faith, religion and their idiosyncrasies, however nonsensical it may be at times, is the building of a bigger jar, of a certain pillar upon which you can rely on when the going gets tough.

I am not advocating people stop thinking critically and logically about their respective faiths (or even lack of it). Far from it. This is merely a reassessment on something which I had previously placed little value in, believing a lack of a coherent logic being enough to render something less credible. There is value here, and though that value can be further enhanced by constructive discourse, it is not to say that these structures are valueless. At least for that night, it worked for me.

For things were certainly tough that night. I felt lost, but I fell back on what I knew, even if I was yet to fully understand it.

I met my sister after having finished reading the Yasin. I offered my commiserations to Farah and her father. We hung around until near the end of the session, during which time we felt hungry. There was a mamak near the area, and we decided to walk for it.

There, in the middle of the road, before the breaking of dawn, my sister started crying. I hugged her, providing a shoulder for her to cry on. She lamented how it’s unfair. Farah’s mother had been there for her when our own family fell apart, the proverbial other mother who would offer her love and support when it was needed. I’ve only met her a few times myself, but I am left in no doubt that the feeling I felt earlier was not unique to me, that many others that night also felt just as lost. Perhaps even more so in many respects, for theirs is a loss that can never be replaced.

Turn back to your jars of heart, to love, religion, faith and kindness, when the road is dark. Light will always be found, for the night is darkest just before the dawn.

And I promise you…the dawn is coming.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Difference Makers

There is a difference between all the different concepts we hold dear and uphold as a universal truth. That difference is an important distinction to make, for without it, there is no meaning.

If we, for example, do not understand what the colour black is like, it is equally difficult to formalise what the colour white is. If we understand something to be right and worth fighting for, by definition we also have a strong idea of what is the opposite of that, something that is considered to be wrong.

All these things are subjective, of course, as a manner of speaking, and it largely depends on the discourses conditioning our perspectives and mindsets in understanding the world. It does not, however, render it untrue.

Israelis are not necessarily Jews. There happen to be a lot of people who are Jewish and Israeli by nature, but not by as many as you think. Around three quarters of Israel’s population of 8 million are Jewish. Muslims, interestingly enough, are the biggest religious minority in Israel.

The current offensive in Gaza may be getting many people’s panties twisted, but suggestions that Israelis are Jews going to hell are so far off the mark they conveniently ignore over 1 million non-Jewish souls who call Israel their home. It may not count as much within an Indonesian or even Malaysian context, where population figures numbers in the tens (and hundreds) of millions. Nevertheless, whatever spin you put on it, a life is a life, each soul an invaluable addition in its own way, and anything that claims otherwise obscures the truth that deserves its day in the sun.

Malays are not Muslim. This is an equally important distinction to make, one that ignores completely the complex interactions this region has with races and religions, both ‘native’ and ‘foreign’ in nature. Indonesians, perhaps more secure in their sheer numbers game, understand this better, allow for a more fluid identification between race and religion.

In Malaysia, the (re)claimation of such factors is the basis for a kind of turf war between the different factions, a spiritual rat race of sorts. Malays are constitutionally born as Muslim, with both identities subsumed as being one and the same. However, the fact that one is a race and the other is a religion already precludes a different foundation for each.

Race, as is understood by mankind, is largely to do with DNA and skin colour (with the latter is becoming ever harder to truly identify), among other things. Religion, on the other hand, has far more to do with spiritual discipline, concerning itself as it were with the directions, frequency and style of prayers as much as anything else; you can’t just be religious, but you must also be seen as being religious.

As such, the more regional mindset is boxed in by conditions set by the state, authorities who manipulate such understandings of intricate complexity for their own political purposes. Initially organised by the foreign colonial powers for better efficiency, subsequent administrations have chosen to carry on this myopic perspective as a truth to be spread to the people.

It may, for all intents and purposes, make it easier to fill in your forms, but the ticks in boxes are little more than signifiers that do not come close to the actual signifieds.

For Malays are not really Malays. There is the constitutional race that is Malay as is understood by many Malaysians. However, it’s probably better to identify this definition as a group of races, rather than as a race in its own right.

In truth, many Malays in Malaysia are a combination of different things. From a more traditional perspective, those who are Javanese in origin, for example, as considered just as Malay as someone who is a Bugis. I myself am Siamese and Javanese in parts, but there aren’t any boxes for Javanese in Malaysian forms.

Here’s another interesting twist: in addition to being a group, there is also the race that is Malay. This is an important distinction to make, because they can be found in places farther and wider beyond South East Asia, from the Easter Islands to parts of Africa. Many of such conclusions can and have been disputed, but the fact that the question was raised to begin with suggests a more critical outlook on our understanding of race should be considered.

Once, while working an international conference on education in Korea as a cameraman, I came across a Sri Lankan couple. One of them is a headmistress, while the other is her husband accompanying her for the trip. They asked where I am from (since I appear to be a part of the Korean organising team but not of the same ‘race’ as them). I told them that I am Malaysian, and they very enthusiastically asked whether I am Malay.

Upon confirming that, they told me that they, too, are Malays, keenly identified with the culture even if the language has been conditioned out of them. It was a pleasant surprise for me, and further research opened up my mind as to how ignorant I had been all this while. Rightly or wrongly, Malay can be seen as a group of races and a race.

Maybe even as Arabs. There is an interesting wave of Arabisation that is making its rounds in and around Malaysia. Simply put, Islam and the Arab culture has long been associated as one and the same, so it’s not impossible to think that this is a movement that is not limited to national borders alone.

Given the geopolitical backgrounds of one and the other, that is understandable to a certain extent, but the deliberate attempt by many to confuse a lot of Muslims is quite disappointing, to say the least. By that, I mean the subsuming of Arabic and Islamic culture as one and the same is pathetic. This relates itself not only to the practice of religion, but also to issues such as language, conduct, clothing, culture and other such paraphenalia of day to day life.

There is a difference between what is Arabic and what is Islamic. It is important to recognise that the using of the word iftar instead of breaking fast does not make you any more Muslim than the next Muhammad you meet. Speaking of which, the name Muhammad itself does not necessarily guarantee a positive journey in life, however much you believe in names being a form of prayer and hope for the person in question.

Nevertheless, the conflation of all these different factors into one has to come to an end at some point, one way or another. I do know of the temptation of getting everything under one roof, and calling that one thing with only one name. It is an incredibly complex world, and this is a way for many whose psychological understanding of the world may already be fragile enough to survive it. Going beyond grain in doing so, casting an alternative thought, runs the risk of getting you drowned out in the cache of boos and hisses.

That convenience does not, however, justify the crass and inaccurate simplification of a complicated world. Rather, a more constructive approach might to be start taking the world as it is: as ugly, dirty and cruel a place as it is beautiful, vast and wonderful.

Hypocritical, contradictory, a paradox of the highest order? Absolutely. The differences, though, are differences worth being understood as such. Variety is the spice of life, and understanding the variety that also lies within makes for a more meaningful world.

It would be a pity to see that wiped out simply because some people can’t handle the truth.

Monday, July 28, 2014


“Hi Ali, I’d like to have the large pepperoni pizza, please. Oh, and a can of Pepsi.” The second the call to the café downstairs was answered, I made my order, knowing full well Ali has got it all sorted.

“OK sir, thank you,” said the voice before hanging up. It felt a bit weird, primarily because it lacked the sort of rapport Ali and I usually share; it was more abrupt than usual, and truth be told, the voice didn’t sound like Ali’s, either.

The food came up soon enough, but Ali was nowhere to be seen. “Where is Ali?” I asked the delivery man as I paid for my food. “Oh, sorry sir,” he said somewhat apologetically, “but Ali is not here anymore.” “Did he go back to Nepal?” “Yes, sir.” He pocketed his money, and, sensing a lack of desire to enlighten, I said my thanks, allowing him to go back down.

Ali is the person who worked the café downstairs. The café started in the apartment just as I moved in. I spent a lot of time there, and Ali became a kind of friend. We talked about many things, primarily films.

Once, he asked me whether I have any books on filmmaking that I can pass on to him. “What kind of books are you talking about?” I enquired. “Anything, sir.” “How about eBooks? They’re PDF files of print books, so it’s the same thing, but you can read it on your computer.” He was greatly enthused by the idea, and I must have transferred around half a gigabyte’s worth of books to his thumbdrive.

Once, I had ambled in near midnight. The café closes around 1am, so I was safe for an hour or so, but he saw that I was clearly worse for wear. It had been a long day (I was doing my trick of teaching at two different places again), and under my arms were scores of papers to be marked. I sat down and he whistled at the mountain of paper I had laid on the table. “A lot of work, sir.” “Yes, Ali,” I said, and opened the first page of the exam script on top of the pile. “And look at that handwriting too!" I exclaimed. "Horrendous.” He laughed, and came back with a café mocha soon after.

This is the other side of migrant labour that I rarely come across. The human side, the human beings involved in this process, is rarely highlighted. Each and everyone is a precious life, someone else’s son, father and brother (sometimes all at once). The very transient nature of the business meant that they are interchangeable cogs in the machinery of society, but it doesn’t make them any less unique and valuable as a person.

According to the Fair Labor Association, there are over 2 million documented migrant workers in Malaysia in 2008. The latest figures, including illegal workers, is a lot closer to 4 million people. 4 million souls who left their homelands for a brighter future here.

Instead, I suspect they are not likely to find all that much solace and happiness here. A fairly recently report by the Guardian explained the incredible lack of power they all have, with measures such as having their passports retained by the employer or their agent a popular method of further emasculating them.

To be sure, this is probably not entirely representative of every migrant experience here. There have been many with happier endings, of course, but all the same, the majority of such stories serves a compelling relationship of contrasts we have with foreigners. Those of fairer skin tend to have it better in many ways, hoovering up a fair amount of professional and personal opportunities available in the country.

Yet we tend to push the blame on those whose skin are darker, for the convenience of knowing that they can't really rise up against us as much; I often wonder whether families who employ a live in maid do so not so much because they truly need professional help at home, but rather because they need someone to be positioned directly lower than them, as an attempt to address the power (im)balance in their personal and professional lives.

I don’t why know Ali left. Perhaps there was a sudden change in his personal life. He is from Nepal, a place I have never been but have fond memories of. My two former roommates were from Nepal, and I loved them to bits. They were great guys who had stuck with me through thick and thin, though I’ve not contacted them in quite a while. I probably should. It is important not to forget.

Perhaps he was fired, for a professional misdemeanour I am not aware of. The café wasn’t doing all that well, but I had put that down to the very limited menu they have. I don’t know how much longer it would last, but from the start, when it did not offer much of the food it had listed in the menu, I suppose the broken promises won't have helped to engender the kind of trust many expect from professionally-run outfits.

Whatever the reason may be, the end result meant that one of the few human links I had in this concrete jungle I called home for a year is gone. People looked at this area and the people in it as incredibly mobile in nature, never truly hanging around long enough to remember laying eyes on your neighbour, let alone recall their names.

Is this the post-modern human condition, a disconnection that means I know more of what’s going on in the next country rather than who even lives next door? Is this a comfortable prediction as to how we as human beings will develop? Is a human life only valuable if it’s taken away by Jews, or can we be upset at human rights violations in our own country as well? Or am I just freaking out over something that is already very normal to begin with?

In this context, I don’t what is normal, but I do know that our dim view on the human beings we treat as cogs in the machines is a very sad indictment on society as a whole. This is a country almost literally built on the backs of foreign labour, and I do believe that we forget that sometimes.

It is important to not forget. Selamat Hari Raya and happy holidays to all.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Ayes Have It

So the ayes have it: Joko Widodo is the president-elect of Indonesia, the seventh person to hold the title since their independence.

It was a fairly closely fought election in the end. Given Jokowi’s strong popularity, especially amongst the younger voters, I’d have thought he would have walked this election. Furthermore, his challenger, Prabowo Subianto, is a man who has not truly managed to shake off allegations of human rights abuses from the late 90s, whatever he has said about it. Allied with the fairly troubled campaign he has run, my personal opinion would see Jokowi and his running mate, Jusuf Kalla, finish much further ahead. Alas, that wasn’t quite the case, but the first past the post policy means that a victory is a victory, however small the margin may be.

This post, however, is not meant as a comprehensive analysis of the political present and future of both men, as well as Indonesia. What I intend to do is to give a picture as to what it was like being here.

Why? Because…it was a very surreal experience for me.

The first warning signs occurred in class last week. I currently teach journalism at Monash College, and my students asked whether we would be having any session the following week on the 22nd of July. “Of course,” I replied somewhat incredulously. “Why wouldn’t we have any classes?” As it stands, we are already behind schedule by about a week, and I have no intentions of cancelling classes without a proper reason; I already have to make up six hours due to the timing of the actual voting day itself.

“That’s when they’ll be announcing the results of the elections,” she said. “So?” “The election commission is just around the corner,” she continued, “and people say that there might be trouble. All the same, this whole area will certainly be packed.”

I thought about it a bit further. Traffic is somewhat troublesome even at the best of times, but it shouldn’t be an issue, I thought out loud. “If anything, it is a good opportunity for you guys.” After all, the students are supposed to find news events to cover for their assignment. This is a perfect opportunity to do something truly out of the box.

My suggestion that they hang around on the day and bring their camera with them, though, was met with such incredulity that I wondered whether I had offended someone. I was left truly perplexed by this, but as it turns out, that they weren’t the only ones who were seriously concerned.

Simply put, history has suggested that many Indonesians can become batshit mental when things go against them. Being a fairly open society in many respects, the idea of protesting and expressing dissatisfaction is not an alien concept here. Of course, while such things may start out peacefully, the power of mob mentality should not be underestimated.

For example, many have pointed to the riots of the late 1990s as a point of potential reference of what may happen this time around. There were indeed a lot of issues to be considered here, but I figured them to be far-fetched, given the extraordinary circumstances of the time.

Having discussed it further with others, I think the riots of last year, when the subsidy for gas and petrol were reduced, to be of more direct relevance. Then, the government approved for such cuts to be made, meaning that price for petrol went up by a third. Though special subsidies were planned for the less privileged, there’s a lot of them here, and cold hard cash is already hard to come by.

According to the World Bank, more than 30 million people live below the poverty line, considered to be slightly over USD1 day. Double that standard to USD2, and you’re more than tripling the number to over 100 million people feeling more than a slight pinch in their wallets. Predictably, many were not happy, and the burning of a few cars here and there is considered to be a way to placate themselves.

Another, more racial element is also at play here. With especial regards to the 1998 riots, a lot of pent up anger was released, and a lot of them were aimed at the Chinese. Long considered to be largely economically superior, there is a sense of dissatisfaction that their financial strength has come at the expense of more native locals. It’s a funny old story, in a way, as the undercurrent of dissatisfaction against the Chinese is not entirely different from that in Malaysia, though I must stress that it was and is expressed in different ways.

Nevertheless, with the authorities of the day failing to assert themselves, many people went crazy, murdering and raping them with reckless abandon. Buildings owned by Chinese people and organisations were also burned down. This is important to consider in the Monash context, too; not unlike my experiences in Monash University Malaysia, the Jakartan branch also has a strong influx of those from the more upper class, and many of them are of more Oriental origins.

So, having better understood the context, I begin to realise that it’s probably not such a bad idea to at least postpone my classes to another day. In the end, Monash made that decision for me, shutting itself down for the entire day. I was not so sure about that. There’s a strong part of me that wanted to see for myself what the whole day would have been like, right at the very heart of the event itself. There are moments when you feel like history is taking place right in front of your eyes, and this was one of them. The 22nd of this July promised to be one to remember, one way or another.

It came and went without much untoward incident. The most dramatic moments were political in nature. Prabowo Subianto, unable to truly accept the results by the election commission even as the final votes and results were being retallied, declared the entire process null and void, and abruptly withdrew from the race itself. Much debate is taking place as to whether that is even legally possible, and there is talk from his camp in taking the case to the land’s highest courts. However, more of the saner heads in the country have already accepted the results as they were, and the feeling is that sooner or later his political bravado will be reveal itself to be the bluff it is.

More to the point, though, the whole day went by fairly peacefully. I kept as up to date as possible with events throughout the country, and what I detected was not fear or apprehension. There was much of that beforehand, but on the day itself (and allied, it must be said, by strong encouragement from both candidates for everyone to remain clam), there was little of the evidence that people would go crazy and burn down the whole place again. I don't know whether it was true for the whole of the country, but for me, it was surreal, primarily because as I was primed for the worst, the sun shone brightly through the clouds, admonishing much of the negative elements to the sidelines.

At least for now.

This, then, is a strong lesson in how history takes place under very specific circumstances and situations, surrounded by certain contexts that drive them. They are useful lessons to take on board and to consider, but to simply assume that it would repeat itself is to demean mankind and its ability to learn.

This may be sickly sweet, but my primary response is to believe in the good of people. Indonesia is a country that is on the verge of breaking out. Socially, economically and now politically, a lot of the elements are in place for it to push on to the next level. I believe that more faith in the better side of the country and its people is to be considered.

Once again, this may come across as naive, but it is a hopeful position I am quite happy to take up.

Congratulations, Indonesia.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Significant Other

Jahabar Sadiq of The Malaysian Insider wrote an important piece, questioning why Malaysians aren’t as angry about the downing of flight MH17 compared to their reactions on the Gaza issue. This is possibly in light of the number of protests held in Malaysia, condemning the Israeli offensive. “Aren't the 298 souls aboard MH17, 44 of them Malaysians, worth protesting about?”

With Israel air and ground offensive, a lot of humanitarian and religious sentiments have been expressed in support of the Palestinians. Somewhat depressingly, a fair number have also expressed anti-Jew sentiments. All the same, the fervour in the forms of their expression has been difficult to miss.

It’s not been the same with flight MH17, though. After the initial shock, there were moments of cause identifying that lasted for a few days. Finger pointing remains the name of the game, with just as many apportioning blame to Malaysia Airlines and/or the government as Ukraine, their separatists and Russia. However, any kind of discussion of it, even for the briefest of moments, seemed to be swiftly followed by the following: “But don’t forget about the Palestinians.”

Given the amount of coverage given to the issue over the past number of years, it’s highly unlikely that that would happen. MH17, though, fulfills a lot of the important criteria for newsworthiness, which merits the spotlight shed on it. Going beyond that, it remains a huge political football as well. The international dimensions of this event has rendered it somewhat surreal; it's a Malaysian plane that was shot at, but other nations like the Netherlands, Australia and the United States have voiced stronger objections than we did.

Here are the facts, though. MH17 was shot at and fell to earth. Nearly 300 people died. Though most are non-Malaysians, nearly a sixth of that figure are people who were born and bred in our country. It may not be as big as the Netherlands’ loss, but it could literally be seen as an act of war. People have gone to battle for a lot less in the past.

Furthermore, Malaysia and Malaysians as a whole have little to actually connect us to Palestine. Whatever you may think, Israel and Palestine are not politically, geographically, socially and economically relevant to our direct well-being in an overt fashion, yet more people appear to be far more upset about that.

An answer as to why this situation has come about may be found in how we construct our identities. For the most part, what I have seen from my perspective is a strong emphasis on exclusive factors. Ours is an identity that is collectively constructed based on differences, even when they are meant well. A brief look at any Malaysia Truly Asia poster will confirm this, with caricatures highlighting difference rather than similarity as an attraction and foundation for unity.

In short, we are who we are in part because we are who we are not. For example, we are Malaysians because we are also not Indonesians. We are Malays because we are also not Chinese. We are Muslims because we are also not Christians. It ignores the complex interplay between all these factors and more, but in short, the sense of the self is solidified by the sense of the other; the bigger the difference between us and the other, the stronger that sense of certainty in ourselves.

With that in mind, there are very few others as vilified as the Jews.

Also in this context, the term Jew is used almost interchangeably with Israeli and Zionist. It’s not exactly the same thing, of course, but the way the discourse has been constructed in Malaysia has not allow for much wiggle room by way of actual constructive discussion based on facts and reality. What we end up with, then, is the Jew as the ultimate bogeyman.

Some have expressed this in the strangest of ways, too. Just very recently, a Malaysian member of parliament, Bung Mokhtar Radin, strangely lauded the German national team’s performance in Brazil by tweeting “Long live Hitler.” Whatever side of the political fence you lean on, the fact remains that Adolf Hitler is a mass murderer of the highest order, and responsible for the escalation of one of the most atrocious of wars in recorded human history.

More importantly, though, Adolf Hitler’s significant other in this case is also the Jew. The definition of his own identity was so inextricably linked to them that ironically, he would not be who he was without the Jews themselves.

I fear that such a form of identity formation is also becoming a little too prevalent, allowing it to be overpowered by an other, however real it may be. It was only after much pressure from the public (including a very strongly-worded letter from the German ambassador) that Bung issued a grudging apology.

Ukraine and Russia, on the other hand? Well, Ukraine was one of the co-hosts of the previous European Championships. Russia will host the next World Cup. That region is stereotypically recognised as having lots of beautiful and sexy women. Their language is probably not all that different from one another. It's really cold over there. And hey, didn’t that Ukrainian politician used to be a boxer?

Beyond that…I’m willing to bet that the majority of Malaysians are not as aware or concerned with the issues of the region. Russian actions in Crimea were quite shocking in their boldness, and the aftermath of that lingered long enough to affect us, yet a significant number remain blissfully unaware, even, of the event. Rightly or wrongly, there remains little obvious link between all of us, and unfortunately for many, this appears to remain true even when Malaysians have been murdered. Yes, we do not yet know who actually pulled the trigger, but we know for sure that someone somewhere over there actually did. Analysts have also suggested that this tragedy is one too many for the airline itself, putting Malaysia Airlines right on the brink of extinction, raising the stakes even higher.

Of course, that doesn't matter, because the stakes are even higher for Gaza in the minds of many. This may not necessarily apply to everyone, for I believe that there are many genuinely outraged at the atrocities going on there. Though Hamas, in their role as the authority of Palestine, is not entirely blameless, yet another fact is that this is one of the most one-sided armed conflicts in recent history. The blood of many innocent civilians have been shed, and I pray that this will see a peaceful end soon, even if I am not entirely hopeful of one.

More to the point, though, keeping our focus fixed on the issue is also a chance for many Malaysians to further fix their own sense of identity. Supporting the Palestinians, and frothing at the side of the mouth in anger at the Jews/Zionists/Israelis/“who cares, they’re all the same”, as we quote the Qur’an and curse them all to hell, is a way for you to show how Muslim you are. The pahala earned is relative to how angry you are, a dick swinging contest that conveniently ignores similar issues going on in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Why? Well, when Muslims kill other Muslims, it doesn’t really count as much as when the Jews do it, does it?

Here's the final fact for now: a human life is a human life, precious in its own regard. How unfortunate for us to have allowed that to be politicised by others as well as the other, however real or imagined they may be.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hearts and Minds

As I watch the news, there is a sense that the world has gone to hell.

On the one hand, Israel had just begun the ground offensive of the Gaza Strip. This is arguably the more crucial part of the operation, one that officially started when they were bombarded by rockets. In truth, it was a mission for which they have prepared for in the earnest for the longest time. Rightly or wrongly, this would be an incursion that would cost significant losses, perhaps more so for the Palestinians, in terms of human life.

On the other, news that the Malaysian Airline flight MH17 was shot down in Ukrainian territory was news that shook me more than just a bit. In the last embers of consciousness I caught wind of such an occurrence, somewhere around midnight, but my physical and mental state of the time did not process that further until earlier the next morning. Switching on the television at 3 in the morning, the severity of the situation soon became crystal clear in the worst possible manner.

In an interesting happenstance, even the news channels were caught out. Predictably, not all of the stations, even the biggest international networks, had reporters on hand at the MH17 crash site. Placed firmly near the Russian border, more importantly it is also a firm stronghold of separatists keen on annexation from Ukraine itself.

The networks, then, did the best they could. The BBC led with events in Gaza, as did a lot of the other networks. CNN, however, focused their attention on MH17, as they tried in vain to provide the best possible picture. In the past, and even in this instance, they have come under fire providing inaccurate information that misled many. In that instance, though, I was greatly informed by the work of their lead presenters in that slot, Christiane Amanpour and Anderson Cooper. Based on what I have seen, I believe more of the erroneous information came from the special panel members invited for insight and soundbites, and such it is difficult to claim that they’re deliberately misinforming the public. I think poor journalism in instances rather than an actual, malicious agenda is to be considered here.

I even switched on Fox News, who did focus a lot more on the ground offensive in Gaza. Israel and Russia have been a major part of the Fox News network, playing a large role in identifying themselves as the conservative outlet battling against the liberal mainstream media. Whether this is actually true or false is irrelevant, for the newsmen makes it true. Fox News have always been in favour of right wing politicians, providing room for the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and even Sarah Palin to expand on their perspectives. In this regard, it is not surprising if a right wing government that sought to defend itself no matter what is to be presentedly as favourably as possible. I do not know how much of this partisan spirit has coloured their coverage, but their reporter did a good job of providing the feel on the ground.

I hung on every word, shifting and surfing from channel to channel. My priority at the moment was certainly the downed flight, primarily because…I just could not believe it. It felt surreal, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding it as well as its proximity means that I was absolutely shattered and intrigued both at the same time. My mind raced with the possibilities; in the past, this could have easily be seen as an act of war.

War is now not necessarily and always fought on the battlefields. That remains true as it ever was, but the hearts and minds of peoples are decided largely by the information they receive. That, as much as anything else, helps to set the tone for conflicts. It determines the good guys and the bad, right from the off, almost without exception. Russia may be well complicit in MH17 being knocked out of the sky, but even if they’re not, the media, both at home and abroad, has ensured that in this narrative at least, Vladimir Putin stands alone as the villain that will just not go away.

We are all stakeholders in these conflicts, whether we realise it or not. Even before the Malaysia Airlines flight got shot, the fact remains that human lives were being put at risk for political purposes in a part of the world we do not necesssarily care about. Even for me, I kept up to date almost by default, partly out of interest and partly out of scouring for footage to be used for class. Just as reading broadens the minds, exposing ourselves to different views and perspectives may do wonders for our understanding of the world and its politics. It's about being confronted by different worlds and ideas, and understanding that even if we are apart, we are united as human beings, one way or another.

My heart breaks for those involved in the flight, and I send them nothing but the best wishes and prayers I can for now. In a world that seems to teeter on the edge every once in a while, we do the best we can.

I think for now, this is the best that can be done.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Satu Suara

“Satu, sah.”

The voice came from the nearby mosque, reverberating around the neighbourhood. I was busy doing some marking at home, thinking about the appropriate penalties to apply for those who did not follow the proper guidelines. As far as I am concerned, my classes are quite simple: follow the basic script guidelines, and it's difficult to lose marks. I'm a 'no such thing as one single right' kind of lecturer, so you really have to try to fail in my class. Previously, I had a more laissez faire approach in this regard, but this time I wasn't in the mood for leniency.

“Dua, sah.”

To my ears, they became louder. To everyone else's, they were certainly becoming more frequent. Only the numbers one and two were mentioned, one after the other without any particular pattern. Repeated after a certain pause, the word 'sah' made me wonder what (else) is going on that day.

It was the 9th of July, 2014. On this day, Indonesians all over the country (and in large parts of the world) went to the polls to vote for their new president. In my area, that was done and dusted around noon. The voice, as it turns out, was the very public counting of each and every single vote.

I stopped marking and went out, walking the short distance to the mosque. I had thought that it came from the mosque itself, but it turns out the polling station was situated on the tennis court adjacent to it.

A small crowd had gathered. There can't have been more than forty people there, give or take a few incoming and outgoing stragglers every once in a while. I am one of them, intrigued by this process. It was a lovely day, unusually cooler by Jakarta standards. Small children loitered around, playing tag on the court. At one end, a small blue tent had been set up, where the raison d'etre of today is being executed.

“Dua, sah.”

The man who said that is merely repeating what he sees in front of him. From a box, an official from the elections commission picked out each voting slip, and held it in the announcer's face. Behind him, another official counted the votes, marking each on accordingly on the notice board. The form on the board is known as the C1 form. Apparently it is a new addition for this year's elections. The numbers announced were in reference to the candidate in question.

“Dua, sah.” Each one in favour for Joko Widodo is another blow for Prabowo Subianto. Joko Widodo is the governor of Jakarta, making a run for the throne due as much to his insane popularity as it is to his own ambitions. The same can't be said for Prabowo, whose military background and less-than-perfect human rights records have not endeared him to everyone. Nevertheless, that race has been predicted to be closer than it probably should, so every little counts.

The man at the board marked for Jokowi. Each five marks would be crossed out, making it easier to count. There are several lines available for both candidates, and each full line indicates exactly seventy five votes.

“Dua…” the announcer started, then caught himself. The crowd murmured their excitement. There is a small hole near the corner of one of the voting slip. “Nggak sah!” someone exclaimed, though his tone and the crowd’s reception to his comment suggested they get the joke. The election officers, though, were less jovial, and took a closer look. Eventually, they accepted it, for the discrepancy is not big enough to render it void.

Someone once said that justice must not only be done, it must also be seen to be done. Here, the transparency helps to build a certain sense of trust, one that is important in ensuring the acceptance of whatever comes.

I wondered about the possibility of such a system in Malaysia. Of course, the vastly different contexts and systems in place renders a direct comparison difficult, but this is certainly an idea worth considering. It's human to err, but in all the elections I've been aware enough to follow, there's always a sense that the room for improvement is vast, yet not insurmountable. Not unlike justice itself, national institutions need an aura of perfection to properly function.

A stronger shout rang through the air, cutting short my train of thought. This time, another voting slip is contested, and with good reason: it had a huge hole in it. From my position, I can only see the back of official form itself, rather than what the voter had indicated, but the huge hole in the middle did make me wonder what on earth happened in the voting booth. You could have placed a fist through it, and the officer had no choice but to put that vote aside, its voice discounted.

The choosing of their president takes place once every five years. Around two years beforehand, the election commission will sit down and decide on the improvements to be made to the system, as well as the date for the voting to take place itself. It is a system that is continuously under review. Again, a perfect comparison this is not, but surely something more fixed is preferable to the prime minister playing poker with our futures.

There are, however, caveats to be considered. This is a fairly small constituency, with around five hundred people on the list. By the end of the count, only four hundred had bothered to turn up; the failure of a fifth of the residents to vote is fairly sizeable, in my opinion. The point is, it is easier to read out five hundred votes than five thousand.

Furthermore, this is considered to be a leafy suburb, filled with people from the middle to upper class with a more measured approach in life. I know that sounds weird, but the fact is other areas may bear witness to more overt and aggressive displays of political bravado. In the past, they have led to violence, so I am not sure whether this approach was adopted elsewhere. Of course, I have not even begun to consider the other ways in which this election could be rigged or hijacked.

At the end of the day, Jokowi won my constituency by a fairly large margin. Everyone shook hands with all the officials and security officers. I did the same, and as I made my way home, I am left encouraged by the process.

At least the lights didn't go out just now.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Galaxy: Prisoners

The sweat trickled into his eye, awakening him from his sleepless sleep. He squinted, resisting the urge to rub it for the umpteenth time. It continued downwards, infusing itself into the open wound formed near the bridge of his nose under his right eye. It is a wound yet to heal given it was born a mere number of hours ago.

Or was it more than that? You lose count after the first few.

Kye opened his eyes, but it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Everything is pitch black, denying him even the chance to hazard guesses. How big is this space? How many of them are there? How much longer will he be here? Much like yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that as well.

And the day before that.

Actually, I lie: it’s not completely pitch black. Kye Toran, a renowned fighter of the Confederation, and recipient of two galactic war hero medals, is under a hot light, shining down on him mercilessly, allowing him to be seen without being seen. He is chained from above, his arms outstretched and raised high enough, leaving him a sitting duck in a standing position.

It is the heat emanating from above his head that precipitated the sweating. In retrospect, and in the years to come, he would be grateful for this, for it is one of the few indicators that tells him he is alive. Of course, he would not truly appreciate that fact at that moment; when you mind is unable to even tell the vagaries of time, logic doesn’t really come into it all that much.

This, though, was what he had sought after. Tracking down near invisible traces of a mysterious warrior tribe, his research turned up the horrific transfiguration underwent by those who did find what they were looking for.

For decades, this tribe remained as little more than rumours, a relic retained from the lost annals of history. Words of the wind, however, blows far and hard across the galaxy, the grapevine a stronger source of credibility than any prime time holographic news programme.

He had come here of his own volition, aware of the risks in such an endeavour. Yet he persevered, believing that this is the only chance for him to truly gain an advantage in the war. It had not been turning for the better, at least not for his side. They need an advantage, someone to think outside of the box.

He is that someone.

In the process, he is staking not only his mind and body, but also his soul, an altogether more transient and spiritual sense of being.

He is a prisoner, but one of his own choosing. He is powerless, but in choosing to be so, he has become more powerful than those enslaved to it.

“Why are you here?”

The voice boomed from the darkness. It didn’t sound like it came from very far, but again, his ability to tell right now is lacking.

It repeated itself every once so often. Sometimes they came at him relentlessly for hours and hours on end until he could no longer count. At other times, they peter our quickly, leaving him alone in the eternity of his chains.

And always, it was the same question.

It is a pertinent one, though. It’s a tricky question to answer, but not so difficult to understand. Kye had his motives, his reasons and drive, but the one thing an enquirer had sought is to be denied.

Why? Information is power. Knowledge is power. The sharing of this information is the giving up of power. Allowing yourself to be named by others is to give your tormentors power over you.

Letting them know why he was there? Giving away the house for a song.

In reality, he suspected that they knew. Those who came are from a certain ilk; this is not a quest for the faint hearted. Those who had received them are likely to lack hears to begin with. Neither are they stupid, and intelligent guesses are as good as any.

To not know for sure, though? That is a small measure of some power he had at that moment, perhaps the only thing he is in possession of, a transient concept many is a slave to, but few are able to put their finger on.

He was a prisoner, but it is of his own free will. They are free, but, driven by their own desires, are still enslaved to them; Kye is helpless, but he is not without power.

He felt another drop of sweat trickling from the top of his head.

And the beat goes on.

*ReaGalaxy: An Evening to Remember.
*Read Galaxy: The Fighter.
*Read Galaxy: Red Mist.
*Read Galaxy: Room With A View.
*Read Galaxy: Revelations.
*Read Galaxy: Masks.
*Read Galaxy: Goodbye Darling.
*Read Galaxy: Love Letter.
*Read Galaxy: The Last Stand.

*Read Galaxy: The Sixth Sense.
*Read Galaxy: Homecoming.
*Read Galaxy: Vs.
*Read Galaxy: The Journey.
*Read Galaxy: Tears of the Son.
*Read Galaxy: Across The Stars.
*Read Galaxy: The Prodigal's Return.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Other Side

The car rolled to a stop at the traffic lights.

I am seated inside, in the backseat of the X Trail. I leaned my head against the window, its cool veneer a small respite for my tired head.

Traffic conditions in Jakarta is rarely described as favourable at the best of times. With more motorised vehicles in Indonesia’s capital and its surrounding cities than there are people in Malaysia, this is not entirely unexpected, though it remains an unwelcome experience for many, and even less so at the end of a long day.

My driver picked up his smartphone, using the present inertia to send a message to his wife. He married recently, and a stabler personal life has led to a slight change in attitude, for better or for worse.

Near the traffic lights, an old woman, cradling a young child in her arms, ambled from car to car. The woman could have been old enough to be a grandmother, though her sickly body frame betrayed the lack of a sustained and proper nourishment, so it's difficult to tell.

The child, at the other end of the spectrum of life, appears to be similarly undernourished. For now, he followed the flow, limbs limping lifelessly so as to evoke enough sympathy. Ideally, this process will end with the parting of Indonesian rupiah through the lowered window of an import car.

She came over to my car, and looked through the window. When my driver ignored her, she moved on to me, and for the first time, our eyes locked on each other. A smidgen of hope crystalised in her eyes; gaining attention of those willing to not ignore them is the first step of a proper meal in the day. The child, I realised, could not be more than a few years old. Yet even the most basic of proper clothing is lacking. His shirt must have been a few days old, and I do not wish to speculate on the diapers, a commodity already pricey enough as it is.

I looked at her and the child. In truth, this could not have lasted more than a few seconds. Those seconds, however, stretched on for a lot longer. Time didn’t really stop, and neither did it transitioned into slow motion. It did, however, made me feel hot under my collar. The coolness of the window lost out to the heat from my body. I swallowed, feeling somewhat uncomfortable with the situation, then raised my hands together, the palms enjoined in a gesture to indicate that, for now at least, there is no dice to be rolled here.

This is Jakarta, a city where the divide between the rich and the poor is almost non-existent at times. Drive around often enough, and you’ll notice the need for money has people doing many things. Some can be more creative than others, as the selling of newspapers, playing of guitars and controlling of traffic flow can testify. Others, like that old lady and the young child, are less so, with their outstretched arms the only tool for garnering food.

Charity, then, is the key here. It is an unwritten rule, an obligation many have answered. Tipping, for example, is incredibly prevalent here. However, coarse situations like these are incredibly uncomfortable existences for me to witness; as I survey the world outside into the life of the less privileged, I lament ever more the cruel lottery of birth. For so many people, theirs is a life for whom the numbers never came up.

Abject poverty, at its most hardcore, is something to be swept under the carpet or thrown out of the city, without many giving much thought to how lucky we are to be on this side of the window.

I can understand the desire of the Federal Territories Minister, Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor, who recently threatened to shut down the soup kitchens serving the less privileged in Malaysia's capital. His wish is to rid Kuala Lumpur of its homeless from its most marketable areas. To a segment of society, their presence is a hindrance for personal comfort and professional growth, and going after those who take care of them is a way of nipping it in the bud, so to speak.

Nevertheless, that approach of trying improve the city’s image betrays the heartlessness that is indicative of one thing: forgetting where we come from. Our lives have been segmented from its very start, and it has been a combination of (ir)regular happenstance as well as planned executions of long-held ambitions, particularly by our parents.

All the same, the point remains that we cannot forget where we come from, and perhaps more pertinently, where we could have come from. This lack of empathy is from a leader of some renown and position is worrying, but I am not overly concerned. Malaysia and Malaysians are hardened souls who will survive and prevail, and if anything, Tengku Adnan’s comments have rallied many to give this issue more than just a passing thought.

As for Jakarta, in some ways it is an even tougher city, an environment that is not afraid to look at itself in the mirror. It cherishes and admires its scars, wearing them loud and proud. Look at me, it says. I am here, says the boy strumming his guitar for a few more rupiah. Remember me, says the woman in the street cradling her child as she moves from one car to the next. Be uncomfortable, for I exist.

The light turned green, and eventually we all moved on.