Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Interview on the Malaysian Situation in Today's DNA

I was interviewed yesterday for DNA India about my personal thoughts on the ethnic situation in Malaysia, in light of recent events. The online link to it appears here, and the journalist very kindly sent me pdf files of how it appeared in print, but I can't seem to upload them onto Blogger now. Will try again later.

Most of the interview was conducted via email (with a phone call to clarify things after). As a journo myself, I understand the pressure of deadlines and word limits, which usually results in a different take than originally expected.

But fortunately, since I have the transcript of the email interview, I thought I'd share that too:

Hindraf and other ethnic indian groups claim that they are being treated as second-class citizens in Malaysia. Could you give some anecdotal evidence (either from your life – when you were in KL - or from those of Indians you know) that validate this claim. (please be as elaborate as you can be. Talk about access to education, jobs etc.)

Second-class would be an upgrade, in fact: the absence of economic clout, which the Chinese for instance arguably possess, puts ethnic Indians in an even more disadvantaged state. To make one thing clear, Article 153 of the Malaysian Constitution explicitly privileges Malay Muslims above all other ethnicities. Indians happen to have gotten the shortest end of the stick due to a number of different historical forces, including how large groups of them came to British Malaya in the first place – as coolies, in servitude. Malaysia became independent on August 31 1957, just over 50 years ago. Under the new Malay leadership, the divisions that existed in the colonial era only continued to thrive. To this day, the UMNO party calls on the concept of "Ketuanan Melayu" (Malay Supremacy) as a means of upholding racial harmony. That so absurd a concept as racial supremacy, and the expectation of kowtowing to a certain race so as to maintain general peace and order, can exist in the modern world is perplexing.

Like all widespread discrimination, it is difficult to pick a single anecdote that defines it. It is not enough to say, for instance, that the derogatory word keling is still widely used to describe Indians. It is not enough to say, for example, how the Tamil language and Indian accents are mocked so commonly that it's a part of pop culture. It is not enough to talk about the stereotypes of violence and alcoholism associated with the community. It is not enough to talk about the recent body snatching cases, in which the corpses of Hindu men have been taken away from their families by authorities and given Muslim last rites based on hearsay. It is not enough to tell you how I have been harassed and interrogated at immigration checkpoints while always traveling legally. It is not enough to tell you about how my grandfather had a passport thrown at his face and was shouted at by a Malay officer at a Malaysian consulate in Chennai. It is not even enough to begin to speak about the superiority complex many Malaysian Indians I have met have over Indians from India, a superiority complex borne out of insecurity, envy and self-loathing. But it's hard to accept that one's own country is a dystopia, it's hard to accept that one is essentially an outsider in one's own home. So I do see where a mentality like that comes from.

How does the Bhumiputra policy/ other policies of the government work to perpetuate ethnic divisions? Since when did these come about?

I am no expert on Malaysian history, and my observations are much more empirical in nature. But from what I understand, the Bumiputera policy was invoked when independence was declared. It seems to be a misconception that it was a residue of the colonial era – the Reid Commission was set up to oversee the liberation of Malaya, and there was some debate on how to reconcile the desire of the future Malay leaders to protect Malay interests with the rights of the minorities. In the end, the first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, decided that Malay privilege was the way to go.

The policy allows Malays a large, purely race-based quota to enter universities, discounts when buying land or property, and other quotas including civil service jobs and contracts. Officially, I believe the bumiputera policy is supposed to protect indigenous minorities also. But being non-Muslim is a setback in terms of actualizing this privilege.

I find that blaming the British for the state of Malaysia today is regressive. The point of decolonization is to move on, to shake off the sense of being subjects. Fact is that the Malaysian governments of the past five decades and the people who continue to keep them in power are responsible for the current situation.

I've always found it richly ironic, and in fact have a poem to that effect which I never dared to perform in Malaysia, that the words bumi (earth) and putera (prince) are Sanskrit terms. As Indian as I am. As Indian as my passport, the one which after seventeen years of living in Malaysia bore not a single shred of claim to the nation where I spent the largest chunk of my life but a feeble tourist visa, renewable after extensive questioning once a month.

Temple demolitions have emerged as a critical point in the mobilisation of ethnic Indians. Is Malaysia, which has for long (at least to outsiders) seemed to represent vibrant cultural diversity, at risk of communal polarisation? In your estimation, is the government/ political forces encouraging the process?

"Temple demolitions have emerged as a critical point in the mobilisation of ethnic Indians." This is a very astute observation. Something about the loss of these temples has been a catalyst for very old aches and resentments. There's something (quite literally) concrete about them, you know? Concrete and symbolic. And to have them demolished is an affront not just on a personal level, as might be a racial slur or a rejection from a university, but taps into some deep collective psyche.

As for the image of Malaysia in the outside world – it's about time for things to be set straight, I think. What is happening in Malaysia is nothing less than formal apartheid. The fact that its Tourism Board promotes a postcard-perfect, multi-culti impression of it is rather audacious in perspective. You have to understand that I say all this as a person who loves Malaysia, but who was forced to leave.

How do ethnic Indian Muslims respond to a campaign that appears to centre around the temple demolition protests? Do they also empathise with Hindus because they too feel economically disempowered? Or does their Islamic identity override their Indian identity?

I don't know enough to answer this question, but I can provide just a little background. There are many Indian Muslims in Malaysia who campaign to be legally recognized as Malays, because becoming Bumiputeras frees them from economic disenfranchisement. On how they feel about a campaign that takes as its catalyst the temple demolitions, I simply am not qualified to comment. But I can say this much – it may be judicious to look at the racial issues of Malaysia on a bigger platform than via the Indian Hindu voice alone, and perhaps this is something that dissident groups in future may consider.

In your estimation, has the Malaysian Indian Congress failed in representing the interests of the Indian community? How do its leaders continue to get elected?

The MIC has certainly failed, as evidenced by the plight of Indians in Malaysia today. This is pretty unambiguous. Truth is that while living in Malaysia, I never thought about the MIC's actions or politics. Probably because they are simply not relevant, I think, not as relevant as they should be. For an ineffective party to still be around and still officially be the leaders of a community is probably in the best interests of the ruling majority, and this may be one of the reasons why they have continued to survive in present form.

Could you kindly trace the evolution of Hindraf? How do you account for its rise - and huge popularity? Where does it gets its support from? Does it have any solidarity in other countries – India (Tamil Nadu), Sri Lanka or elsewhere?

I do not know enough about Hindraf to comment on this, and in fact only came to know about them through my research into and desire to spread awareness about the temple demolitions. On this note, you asked me to comment about my own involvement via my blog on this issue. When I first began blogging in April 2006, I chanced upon a report about a temple demolition, and began to keep an eye out for more. And more came. What I did for some time was to basically round up such articles and post them online, for others like me who were curious, particularly because there was a media blackout within Malaysia itself. Things came to a head when I decided to write to the Indian PM, my PM, about the issue – calling him out on the Indian government's silence on an issue of clear religious and ethnic discrimination, particularly since it had responded to the Danish cartoons, for example. At this time I was still a student in Kuala Lumpur. For the most part of this year, because I had needed to live in Malaysia on a tourist visa by then, I lay low on the issue. My return to India at the beginning of October gives me that freedom of expression again.

How do you, as an erstwhile ethnic Indian in Malaysia, respond to criticism from some quarters that Hindraf is guilty of communal polarisation?

I am being cautious about aligning myself in any direction. Agendas abound in all quarters, and it is difficult to make statements without them being interpreted one way or another. Someone told me that the memorandum which the protestors attempted to hand over was blatantly racist. I don't think reverse racism is justifiable in official terms, in the terms of a memorandum. But it's tricky – how can one write about one's suffering in a way that isn't reactionary?

I support Hindraf when it comes to the reason for their protests, but not necessarily in their method of execution.

You've frequently said that temple demolitions aren't just about religion. Could you kindly elaborate what other things they stand for...

To begin with, that symbolic meaning I was alluding to earlier – a temple, a place that allows both communal congregation and ties with one's roots, is likely to be one of the first things that a community of settlers establishes in a new land. And some of the temples that were demolished are proof of this – the oldest Hindu temple in Malaysia, a number of ones over a hundred years old – and this becomes about history. Demolitions like those become about one's claim to their nation, about the claim their ancestors had. Demolitions like that are forms of erasure.

And then there is the claim of ethnic Indians to the nation, today. I have ethnic Indian friends who are fifth or six-generation Malaysian. They are not Indian; Malaysia is their country, and ought to be their home. One occasionally hears bigoted statements along the lines of "the Indians can/should go back to India". Such statements are exactly the same as telling African-Americans to return to Africa. This is not a new diaspora, and indeed it is a diaspora of similar history and struggle. Not all Malaysian Indians are Hindus, of course – but it is impossible to attack churches without rousing ire from quarters more prepared to fight back, and attacking mosques seems a bit self-defeatist for those who carry these attacks out. I'll note here that to my knowledge, one indigenous church and one Taoist temple were also demolished unethically. But otherwise, it has been Hindu temples throughout.

It isn't just about the fact that these temples are going down in dozens – it is also about how it happens. Temples are stormed into in the middle of prayer sessions, devotees are attacked, statues of deities are smashed to smithereens. Is such violence necessary? If authorities are only seeing the law across, taking back squatter land as is claimed, why bring physical wounding, humiliation and emotional trauma into the picture? All of these things say: the ways of your people are not welcome in this land.

Like all things about a Hindu temple – its structure, its statues, its times and types of prayers and its very mythology – the destruction of one is symbolic, too. To demolish these temples is a message of unequivocal intolerance to the Indian, whether or not s/he is a practising Hindu. A message that says, no matter how long you have been here, no matter how much you or your ancestors contributed, you can and will always remain subjugated.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Video of the Hindraf Rally & Thoughts On Bringing Britain In (Updated)

Al-Jareeza's report of the rally this morning is here. A video of a protest in August, a preamble to this one, is here.

"Under the shadow of the Petronas Towers, the symbol of modern Malaysia," as the newsreader says, history was made. And is going to keep being made in the coming days and weeks. But how the video ends bothers me: "Sunday's demonstration shows how peace sometimes has to be imposed." What does that mean? A peaceful gathering by the People is stopped through violent means by a cruel and inegalitarian government -- is that violence honestly justifiable so as to continue the illusion of a superficial "peace"?

Didn't bother to read most of the comments on the videos, as I know how forums like these usually go, but one did catch my eye -- telling Malaysian Indians to go back to India is exactly like telling African-Americans to go back to Africa. They are by no means a new diaspora. And historically, many Indians did move to Malaysia in servitude, a condition which exists on economic terms to this day. The slow simmer of post-Independence (1957) decades and pre-independence centuries came to a head today in no small way. Between this and the BERSIH rally, Malaysia has clearly entered a period of people asserting their power, government be damned. Things are happening in Malaysia at a fast and furious pace. I fear for my loved ones. But this is something that was going to happen, sooner or later.

Flickr photosets on the Hindraf rally and the BERSIH rally.


Personally, while I see the see sense from an international awareness angle, i.e. that holding Britain accountable essentially creates interest in the international press, I do have my doubts about the on-the-ground results and effectiveness in changing the situation for Malaysian racial minorities (it is important to remember that Malaysian Malays are privileged over all other races, not just the Indians, legally. It so happens that Indians are at the bottom of the food chain because of various historical forces).

A feature of colonization is the divide-and-conquer rule. That's what all sorts of colonizers have always done. Like a devious matriarch pitting her children against one another so a united front against her own misdeeds never forms, it is a tactical move that is as part and parcel of imperialism as, say, the English language.

Fifty years after independence, blaming the former British empire for its actions is nothing but nostalgic propagandizing. They did what they did, we fought our way out of it, and then we do what we can despite our scars. I say "we" because India was obviously also under the empire, and the fact that our states are segregated linguistically and the existence of Pakistan and Bangladesh as separate nations attest to the long-term effects of the divide-and-conquer rule. It is not something unique to Malaysia alone, and in fact, has been practised elsewhere to even more obvious consequences.

But in Malaysia today, fifty years after freedom from colonial rule (some say forty-four, but that is only an aside here), apartheid exists out of the choice of those in power today. And out of the choice of people who continue to vote for the people in power today. Queen Elizabeth isn't sending missives to Putrajaya ordering discrimination, unfair laws, mistreatment.

So what I hope for is that Hindraf knows this, and that targeting Britain is in fact part of a tactical strategy of its own, and expecting returns from that focuses priorities in an idealistic, unpragmatic way. Pinning the blame on Britain, if followed through completely, detracts from the reality that it is the Malay-run government and its supporters who divide the country today.

Free of colonial rule, it is our own responsibilities as former subjects to decolonize ourselves. Expecting the colonizer to do this is to allow them to once again rule.

Update 2: Ultrabrown has a detailed post with many links, exploring both current events and historical ones. It also links to an article in which I was one of the people interviewed, which I never posted on my blog because I was not too happy about some factual inaccuracies.

Update 3 (Nov 26): When I first began following the unethical temple demolitions issue, which was arguably what the breaking point that led to the rally was, I remember saying in discussions that the issue was not just race but class. It was temples in disenfranchised areas that fell victim. "The day it happens to Batu Caves is when we'll know things have taken the most grim turn ever, because then we'll know that even money and influence can't stop what's coming," I used to say. Jeff Ooi's blog shows that day was yesterday.

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Temple Demolitions: The Rally, The Arrests, The Petition

Developments are coming so fast it's difficult to think about what they really mean. The arrest of three top Hindraf leaders under the Sedition Act can be nothing but a negative, undemocratic move. That mainstream Malaysian newspapers have been forced to start reporting on the events, if not the issue itself, is a good thing -- people have been getting all their information from the Internet over the last two years anyway, and there's no use pretending that people don't know, or don't care, by and large. But the Hindraf petition itself seems more ambiguous -- on the one hand, international outcry and awareness about the Malaysian situation is a good thing. That a country so blatantly racist, a country that has racism deeply embedded in its Constitution itself, can continue to promote the image that it is a haven of any sort is ridiculous, and this image needs amendment first before internal amendments will happen. On the other, logistically, it is a lawsuit that is almost doomed to not have the monetary compensation demanded come through. I am waiting and watching. And praying for all those who rallied today. Updates are still coming in.

Links: 1, 2, 3.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

I Tell You, Those Ammammas...

This is the kind of thing that requires immediate blogging.

Sister: I wish Amma would stop calling me "kunju" in front of my friends. It's embarrassing.
Me: Why?
Sister: You do know what it means right?
Me: It's a term of endearment.
Sister (with lots of teenage attitude): Like, in Sri Lanka. Do you know what it means here?
Me: What?
Sister: Penis.
Me: !!!

Excuse me while my entire childhood flashes, corrupted, before my eyes. I'm finding this, erm, a little hard to swallow. The Malayalis do it our way too, right? Right?

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King of Prussia!

Who says blogging has no uses? Via my site referrals, I found out that there exists a place known as King Of Prussia, in Pennsylvania, USA! The township's official website is here and its Wiki page here.

And yes, I have heard of Fucking, Austria, thanks.


Friday, November 09, 2007

The Real Frida, on Celluloid

Like any true mariachi red Frida cultist (my credentials are here), I subscribe to Google alerts on Her. I get dozens every day -- testament that I am only one of many of course -- that I skip, skim through and mark as unread most, always thinking I will go back to them on a particularly uninspired or inspired day. Tonight, however, I happened to open one and followed the link.

I am so grateful I did.

I won't say any more. Just watch. I promise you, you'll watch it again.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Light Upon Light

It's four in the morning and in a couple of hours or less, this city will turn into, in the auricular sense, a war zone. Everywhere fireworks will explode, clog the air with sulphur, disturb prayers, sleep, prayers for sleep. I don't like Diwali in the same way that I don't like Madras. I adore mythology, idealism, symbolism, spirituality, potential. I adore chaos, kitsch, old world nostalgia on every street corner, memory, humour, secret lives. But the mundane realities of both disappoint and frustrate me -- hypocrisies, somnolence, nonsensical requirements.

Diwali is supposed to be the festival of light. What it is in the terms of the prosaic, leave be. I greet it today with a Muslim prayer, the prophet's prayer of light.

This is one of the most beautiful prayers I have ever come across. I don't know what it sounds like, but the translation below is sheer poetry. Thank you, Baraka.

Allaahummaj’al fee qalbee nooran, wa fee lisaaanee nooran, wa fee sam’ee nooran, wa fee basaree nooran, wa min fawqee nooran, wa min tahtee nooran, wa ‘an yameenee nooran, wa ‘an shimaalee nooran, wa min ‘amaamee nooran, wa min khalfee nooran, waj’alfee nafsee nooran, wa ‘a’dhim lee nooran, wa ‘adhdhim lee nooran, wafal lee nooran, waj’alnee nooran, Allaahumma ‘a’tinee nooran, waj’al fee ‘asabee nooran, wafee lahmee nooran, wafee damee nooran, wa fee sha’ree nooran, wa fee basharee nooran. Allaahummaj’al lee nooran fee qabree wa nooran fee ‘idhaamee. Wa zidnee nooran, wa zidnee nooran, wa zidnee nooran. Wa hab lee nooran ‘alaa noor.

O God, place light in my heart, and on my tongue light, and in my ears light and in my sight light, and above me light, and below me light, and to my right light, and to my left light, and before me light and behind me light.

Place in my soul light.

Magnify for me light, and amplify for me light.

Make for me light and make me a light.

O God grant me light, and place light in my nerves, and in my body light and in my blood light and in my hair light and in my skin light.

O God, make for me a light in my grave and a light in my bones.

Increase me in light, increase me in light, increase me in light.

Grant me light upon light.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Temple Demolitions: Demonstrations in Tamil Nadu

Two reports on demonstrations right here in Chennai, at the Malaysian Consulate, about the temple demolitions in Malaysia are here and here. Hindu activists involved -- am worried about this development, as explained in the post below this one. Will write more soon, I hope.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

Temple Demolitions: Bajrang Dal Protests (Updated)

I have to admit that the news in the link below is worrying. On the one hand, it is good to see more international reactions to the temple demolitions issue, particularly from within India, and perhaps this will create awareness among moderate, liberal and/or secular quarters as well.

On the other, the group involved in this protest is of a fundamentalist variety, and I fear that the real crux of this issue, which is more about race than religion, may get muddled. Pitting one brand of fundamentalists against another (the Wikipedia article on the Bajrang Dal movement is here) polarizes the issue in a way that allows its hijacking for various agendas.

I have always maintained that it is not the temples per se that are at the heart of the matter, it is what these temples stand for. I don't see this as a religious issue, I see it as one revolving around ethics, basic civic freedoms, and race, race, race. In that sense, it is both startlingly simple and complex enough. Turning it into a religious issue is the last thing we need.

The link is here.

Update (Nov 6): Speaking of fundamentalist groups, the chairman of PAS, the Islamic party of Malaysia, has a surprising letter about the demolitions here. On a surprising choice of forums, too.

What's going on here? I sense agendas everywhere...

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PATCH - A Charity Dance Concert

Please support Teresa Chian, a self-professed "dance advocate", i.e. a performer and teacher with a difference!

PATCH is a dance concert which combines the 1st anniversary celebration of Living Arts, her studio, with a fund-raising effort for to special children. More details in flyer below (click to enlarge).

This event is in KL/PJ.


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Saturday, November 03, 2007

Singapore Writers' Festival 2007 -- Update 1

Good God. I just found out, via Kadek, the ubiquitous sprite of South East Asian festivals, that the Singapore Writers' Festival has given me my own slot in their programme. See here. Now I have to worry about whether people will come!

Update: Okay, I admit it, I posted the above up without checking out the rest of the festival website. Am dizzy now!!! Literary luminaries also gracing the festival include Kunal Basu, Padma Shri Vairamuthu, David Davidar, Anita Nair, Madhur Jaffrey and Jung Chang! (Read: WTF am I doing in such company?!?!?!)

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Temple Demolitions -- Pix, Updates, Details From The Web (Updated)

Via emails from Kavhn Surendran, here are pictures about and updates regarding the most recent unlawful and unethical demolition of a minority place of worship -- in most cases, as in this one, a Hindu temple, although a number of Taoist temples and churches have suffered likewise -- in Malaysia, from the Malaysian blogosphere.

Malaysian Hindu Sangam Press Statement

Poobalan's Blog 1 & 2

Pictures from Raajarox

Tony Pua's blog

Lulu's blog 1 & 2

Update: Samy Vellu finally gets in on the action.

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