Thank You, Britain

I’m aware that I’ve been away from this blog for a while. Rest assured, I’ve been busy. Some folks, I know, are expecting news about my next book. I hope to be able to tell you more in the coming year. For the moment I’d like to come out on this blog, this time as a Brexit supporter. A friend warned me, ‘Be careful. You don’t want to alienate anyone.’

Extreme polarization is one of the challenges of our time. As a country, we used to be able to disagree with one another and remain civil, but in recent years discourse has turned toxic. Attitudes have hardened. ‘You’re wrong! I’m right.’ That’s very much the prevailing tone. I sincerely hope that readers of this blog will allow more subtlety than that.

I don’t intend to explain why I voted the way I did. It was a gut-wrenching decision, one which I took very seriously, not least because we were told it would be a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ vote.

I discussed the issues with friends from whom I thought I might get insights not otherwise available, including a senior peer in the House of Lords. I made sure I listened to both sides of the argument. This wasn’t easy, since most of the people I know wanted the UK to Remain within the EU.

Days before the Referendum on 23 June, 2016, I grabbed two sheets of paper. One sheet was for Remain, the second for Leave. I drew a line down the middle of each sheet and listed arguments in favour of Leaving and the arguments in favour of Remaining. Pros and cons, in other words, pros on the left and cons on the right.

It appears that Boris Johnson did the same in even greater detail, going so far as to write an entire pro-Remain article. The existence of such an article is supposedly evidence of his being a two-faced so-and-so. You can criticise the guy for many things; on this point, however, he was doing no more than what writers often do: playing around with points of view. I did it because I could not see how else I would reach a decision. I took one side of the argument, slept with it for a night or two and then took the other side of the argument and slept with that, too.

My doubts persisted to the very end. Nonetheless, I think that listing those bullet points was a worthwhile exercise. There’s always more than one side to any story, and if we are to heal as a nation, we’ve got to be able to see the other side, too.

Since the Referendum result, it has been scary coming out as a Leave supporter. In fact, I would go so far as to say that coming out as a Brexiter has been scarier than coming out as gay. I was naïve the first time. I was at a cocktail party in a staunchly Remain household and could literally feel the hackles rising. I thought I’d get beaten up. After that, I kept my mouth shut.

Leave voters have been stereotyped as stupid, ignorant, racist, xenophobic, little Englanders. I’m none of those things. This absurdly simplistic depiction gained traction across the pond, too. A snippet in the New Yorker magazine from September celebrated a Lebanese street artist who came to Clerkenwell, London, to create graffiti. She sprayed ‘No to Brexit!’ and ‘No to borders!’ on a wall, as if wishing to Leave the EU is tantamount to withdrawing from the world (and as if the benefits of wholly porous borders are self-evident).

Implicit in the popular narrative is the unspoken juxtaposition of good, black or brown immigrants on one side, against bigoted, racist white natives on the other. Ergo, I the underdog immigrant, am necessarily in the right, whereas you, if you’re a native white Brit are presumed to be bigoted, especially if you have the audacity to question immigration policy (as Labour supporter Gillian Duffy did with Gordon Brown in 2010).

Reality is more nuanced. I have lived far longer in England than I ever did in my native Malaysia, and I reject the above caricatures. 17.4 million people – 52% of Referendum voters  – chose to leave the EU. The majority of this country is not racist. On the contrary, I have found England to be an incredibly tolerant, open place.

Have I faced racism? Of course. But those incidents pale in comparison with the overwhelming kindness and generosity I’ve also encountered. Moreover, racism is a two-way street. Immigrants are racist, too (and that’s before we even get to their sexism and homophobia).

Some may say that I’m blaming immigrants. I’m not, though how we behave matters. If we don’t bother integrating, acceptance becomes harder. Let’s take language. Most immigrants speak English, yes, but many do so rather poorly; some, after years, continue making basic errors. I find this wholly unacceptable. We have obligations as immigrants, the most basic being to learn the language of our host nation properly.

I went to the opposite extreme. Coming from a former British colony, I already spoke English well, but I did not initially have the British accent I have now. I acquired it through conscious effort. No one needs to do that – you don’t have to sound like the Queen to be accepted. For me, though, it was an important marker of belonging.

Many people – especially my white socialist British friends – like to castigate this country as cold and selfish. Jo Swinson, who led the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third political party, until she lost her seat last week, said after being booted out: ‘I still believe that we as a country can be warm and generous, inclusive and open’, which implies that it isn’t. I disagree. I believe Britain is already that warm and generous, inclusive and open place.

This is why so many immigrants come. If Britain is so terrible, why do you think we come, and we stay, too?

I’d like to do something that’s not often done: to take this opportunity to thank my adopted country for the wonderful chances it has given me, chances I would never have had in Malaysia.

Thanks to Britain, I was able to gain a university place fairly and squarely, with ethnicity not being a primary consideration (as it is in Malaysia) and only the strength of my brain mattering. I went into examination halls secure in the knowledge that I would not be marked down because of my race or others marked up because of theirs and that if I worked, I could achieve anything.

Thanks to Britain, I’ve been able to express political ideas and opinions without fear of official recrimination. Only those who have lived under oppression can truly understand how amazing this is.

Thanks to Britain, I know what it feels like to have my vote count. This is a priceless freedom, one which too many Westerners take for granted.

Thanks to Britain, I don’t have to lie about who I am. I can live openly with a woman, even marry her, and have this right protected by law.

Thanks to Britain, I know that profound social change for the better is possible – because I’ve participated in it, seen it and experienced it for myself.

There’s no question that England has made me the person I am today. I will always owe her a huge debt. Too often, we immigrants are quick to complain and slow to thank. In my own small way, I’d like to rectify that here. Thank you, Britain.

4 Comments

Filed under England, Identity, Modern Life, Politics, United Kingdom

Why We Still Need Gay Pride

Way back in the summer of 1985 I received a death threat. It was a Sunday evening, I was about to enter my final year at university and I happened to be alone in the house I was sharing with three other women.

There were two phone calls. The first time round, the caller was too chicken to speak. Minutes later, the phone rang again. This time we exchanged sentences. The voice on the other end was genderless: I really could not tell if it was a man or a woman.

But I do know the person was on a payphone. In those days British payphones were coin-operated and when you ran out of money, they would beep. I definitely remember the beeps. Our conversation went like this.

Me: ‘Hello.’

Caller: ‘Is this 39?’ (Referring to our house number)

Me: ‘Who’s this?’

Caller: ‘We know your type.’

Me (heart thumping): ‘Who is this? What do you want?’

Caller: ‘We don’t like your type. We’re going to bomb you out.’ Click.

That was the grand finale.

Was I terrified? You bet. There being no cell phones at the time, I dialled the number of every house I could think of in an attempt to locate my housemates. Half an hour later, we held a house meeting. We rallied others. Friends came round and stayed. Many more women of ‘our type’ passed through the doors of that house in solidarity.

The caller(s) never carried out the threat. It didn’t matter, though. Threats like these play on your mind.

While pretty much any of the women in our house could have been described as a ‘deplorable’ (to borrow Hillary Clinton’s infamous phrase), I have little doubt that the caller was targeting me. I was out of the closet even then; in fact, the previous academic year, I had served as Southampton University‘s Lesbian & Gay Officer. The threat was made because we were a household of women, one of whom – me – had dared to declare my sexual orientation in an age when most people turned pink at the mention of lesbians.

For weeks afterwards, I was wary whenever I went running. Not many people were road running in Britain then, either, which made me a well-known sight. I was living in leafy Southampton and whenever I pounded the pavements, I imagined someone jumping out from behind a tree along The Avenue and throwing a grenade in my face. I thought about all this, but I never allowed fear to stop me. If you let terrorists stop you, they win. And I was not prepared to let them win.

Last year someone said to me that sexual orientation should not be a matter of ‘pride’: it should simply be. In an ideal world that’s true. Alas, we don’t live in an ideal world. We didn’t live in one in the mid-1980s and we still don’t live in one today.

What’s been happening in Britain lately?

Two lesbians in London were brutally beaten on a bus after they refused to kiss for a gang of men. A homophobic attack, obviously, but there’s another side to this assault. For bizarre reasons, many heterosexual men get off on the idea of two women together. If you’re a man, next time you watch porn involving two women, please think about the ramifications of your consumption.

The other awful sight has been of Muslims harassing children and teachers outside a school in Birmingham. On the one hand the protesters declare that they’re not homophobic, on the other hand they don’t want their kids learning that there are – surprise surprise – children in this world who grow up with two mummies and two daddies.

There are several troubling aspects here. First, the matter should not even be up for discussion. To paraphrase Labour MP Jess Phillips, ‘You can’t cherry-pick your equality.’ Secondly, a deliberately intimidating atmosphere has been created outside a school in the guise of ‘protest’. Thirdly, the protesters don’t even have children at the school. Fourthly, the protesters freely admit they haven’t read the textbook they’re objecting to. Add a final troubling factor – how they’re being supported by some woolly-headed liberals – and you’ll understand why I chose to attend London’s Gay Pride this year.

Two Muslim Guys I Bumped Into

I’m so glad I did. The march was the biggest we’ve ever seen. There was, as always, a fantastic atmosphere. It lifted my spirits. And it helped me appreciate why Gay Pride is still needed.

For as long as our sexual orientation is an issue for someone else, Gay Pride is needed.

For as long as there are people too afraid to come out or too embarrassed to say the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’, Gay Pride is needed.

For as long as we’re beaten up and called names, Gay Pride is needed.

And it is especially needed for the sake of the children whose parents would rather we kept silent.

On Gay Pride Day we are obviously visible, we’re loud and we celebrate. People can see that we’re ordinary folk from all walks of life. (If you doubt me, click on this link for an array of dazzling Instagram pictures.) It’s sad that we still need to reinforce the message in 2019, but we do.

I went to Pride on 6 July, 2019, to stand up and be counted. For the first time in years I felt it was important to proclaim loudly and clearly: I’m gay. I’m here. I am. Amen.

2 Comments

Filed under Identity, Politics

Why I Would Not Buy a Huawei Phone

I have wanted to write this blog-post for a long time. What stopped me was the work on my next novel. Plus, I had trouble unbundling  a host of conflicting views on China.

As a huaqiao (华侨), an overseas Chinese in Malaysia, I grew up with some aspects of Chinese culture, but have no ties to the mainland.

Despite my father’s best efforts, I never felt especially Chinese. I’m proud to have inherited Chinese culture, of course, with its richness and four-thousand-year history. When I watched the opening of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, my heart was full.

At the same time, China has always been a foreign country. I’ve only been there once (in 2011). It was enjoyable as a holiday, but the visit brought up a sense of disconnection. Beyond a few genes and an obsessive work ethic, I did not have much in common with the mainland Chinese.

And now, when I’m surrounded by tourists from China, I have the urge to get away. Unlike the Japanese, mainland visitors aren’t exactly known for unfailing politeness.

What worries me even more is China’s twentieth century history: the Long March from corrupt and failing feudal state to corrupt and ruthless authoritarian state.

You could say that the past is the past and what has already happened doesn’t matter. Alas, this isn’t the case. Through the historical research I did for my books, I learned first-hand how present-day Malaysia continues to be directly affected by its past.

And as long as China is intent on expanding beyond its borders, China’s past will shape our present – yours and mine – whether or not we like it.

Unfortunately, China displays many of the characteristics fictionalised in classic dystopian novels. Take ‘1984’, the famous novel by George Orwell. In ‘1984’ Britain has fallen under the rule of an authoritarian power. The ‘Party’ exerts total control over the British population through a Ministry of Truth, which writes propaganda and erases inconvenient facts. A force known as the ‘Thought Police’ persecutes anyone brave enough to challenge the Party’s views. There’s also a dreaded place called Room 101. In Room 101, your worst nightmares come true: you undergo ‘re-education’.

Unbelievable?

China has subtler versions of all the above. China’s methods are possibly even more insidious because its citizens appear to have freedom. We mustn’t be deluded, however. China has long been adept at policing ideas. And in the Internet age its censorship capabilities are second to none. The Great Firewall blocks all web sites that the Communist Party deems pesky or potentially troublesome.

Re-education camps have been given a new lease of life in Xinjiang province. The Chinese government first denied the existence of the Xinjiang camps and then, in a change of heart, gave the camps a creative euphemism. Apparently, they exist to provide ‘vocational skills and training’.

There’s also the question of missing citizens. People disappear in China, as they do in ‘1984’. The former head of Interpol – a Chinese national – is a recent victim, alongside the others on this list. And these are only the celebrities.

On June 28, 2018 the National Intelligence Law took effect in the People’s Republic.  This gives the authorities wonderfully sweeping powers. Here’s an example of what they can do: ‘monitor and investigate foreign and domestic individuals and institutions’. Talk about broad.

We finally come to Huawei (华为), the mainland Chinese telecommunications company whose phones I’m not going to be buying anytime soon. Remember the start of this post, where I said that I was a huaqiao, an overseas Chinese? Hua refers to China, and Huawei’s name means ‘acting on behalf of China’.

Huawei makes mobile phones as well as the ‘kit’ sitting in cellular networks. By ‘kit’, I’m referring to the technical gear – things like switches, routers and location registers – needed to provide the seamless experience that smartphone users today expect.

According to Wikipedia, Huawei’s revenues last year exceeded US$105 billion. Not bad for a company only founded in 1987. Huawei’s founder is an engineer. His name is Ren Zhengfei. A very clever man, obviously. And with excellent connections, too: his former employer is the People’s Liberation Army.

Huawei likes to say that it is employee-owned and independent of both the Chinese government and military. It’s certainly true that the firm is owned by its employees.

As for its vaunted independence, let’s imagine the following scenario. You are the boss of Huawei. Your company is a big player in a one-party state; in fact, Huawei is a national champion. Britain is about to upgrade its cellular networks. Huawei bids and wins a contract. Your President is delighted. He wants your team to plant special equipment into the British cellular network that your team will be working on. This is important, he tells you. For security reasons, the Chinese government needs backdoor access to Britain’s communications flows.

What do you do? Say ‘No’?

I don’t think so.

The above is a hypothetical situation I made up. I’m not saying it has happened. But can I imagine it happening? Absolutely. And by the way, the new National Intelligence Law would make it easier. This is why Australia has banned both Huawei and ZTE, another mainland company, from bidding on the next generation of cellular networks. I only wish European countries would stop pussy-footing around and do the same.

To be clear, technology provides surveillance tools for all governments. We have challenges in democratic countries, too. The big differences here are the checks and balances and open debate you’ll find in democracies. Sometimes, there’s possibly too much debate: look at Britain today. To our critics I’ll say this: yes, democracy is messy. If you want neat, go to Saudi Arabia.

The author of yet another illuminating article actually visited the Huawei campus in China. He describes being shown a map on a wall measuring 4 yards by 6 yards (roughly 3.5 by 5.5 metres). The map is of Guangdong,  a city in southern China where some of my ancestors came from. The Huawei map is dotted by thousands of lights. It must have looked like an abstract painting except, of course, the lights are not art. Each light belongs to a Huawei smartphone that is tracked 24-7 and is correlated with the phone user’s online purchases, social media posts and goodness knows what else.

The information goes to China’s Ministry of State Security. The Ministry knows where a smartphone user is at all times. It knows when the person is eating out, who the person is eating with, sleeping with and probably when they shit, too. If you criticised the Communist Party or the Chinese government online, the Ministry would certainly know.

Such information flows are being further commingled. China has installed high-resolution video cameras, at 100 metre intervals, in major cities. These Chinese video cameras have facial recognition software powered with chips from – guess who?

You got it. Huawei. Acting for China, remember?

I, for one, would not go anywhere near a Huawei phone. I don’t want Huawei or ZTE kit in our networks, either, even if it means that our next generation of mobile services will be more expensive. The risk of having any of our data unwittingly handed over to a totalitarian government with no moral compass is just not worth taking. Our freedoms and our rights, our very democracy, have been hard-won. These things are priceless. We must defend and protect them.

If all else fails, I’ll go back to a dumbphone. From Nokia.

2 Comments

Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Politics

So You Think You Know Your Mother Tongue

Near my house in north London there’s a Belarusian church made of wood. The Belarusian St. Cyril of Turau Church is the only wooden church that has been constructed in London since the great fire of 1666. Next to the church is a double-storey house – Marian House – where the priest lives. Marian House also serves as a community centre. By now you must be scratching your head, wondering why I’m telling you any of this.

The Beautiful Church Interior

It’s because I was at the Belarusian community centre last week, at a literary event to honour mother tongues. The concept of mother tongue is incredibly important to Belarusians, whose language was widely spoken in the region until they were Polonised and then Russified by conquering Polish and Russian empires. First things first; where is Belarus? For the answer, see the map below.

Where is Belarus?

The above comes from the BBC’s country profile. Belarus is a landlocked country in northern Europe, stuck between Poland to the west and Russia to the east. In the south is Ukraine, while Latvia and Lithuania lie north. The region has a fascinating history. I’m no expert (for a summary here’s a Wikipedia link), but the point is this: Belarusians in Belarus have been discriminated against for speaking Belarusian, their mother tongue.

Language shapes perception, and when those perceptions don’t accord with what an authoritarian regime wants them to be, the solution in that part of the world has been to crack down on language. This happened under Soviet rule.

Although Belarusians are now allowed to speak Belarusian, their language suffered years of decline. Even their Nobel Prize-winning author, Svetlana Alexievich, writes in Russian. It’s thus fitting that the Belarusian centre in London should host an annual event marking UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day.

And so we gathered, on the sunny afternoon of 23 February, to read poems in our mother languages. I, for one, had to think hard about which language to read in.

The first language I ever heard was Cantonese – which isn’t really a language, it’s a Chinese dialect. My parents also speak English, Malaysian-style English (known affectionately as Manglish), and up to the age of 10, I could not make head or tail of Western accents. When I started school, a third language – Malay – was thrown into the mix. Malay was the medium of instruction for us. By the time I left for England in my teens, I spoke and wrote Malay and English fluently while also using Cantonese in daily conversation.

What, then, is my mother tongue?

When someone asked the question after my talk at the 2018 London Book Fair, I fudged. I didn’t know. I’ve never consciously thought of Cantonese as my mother tongue, in the same way that China is not my homeland. I’ve visited China only once, and I left feeling eternally grateful that my ancestors went to Malaysia. English is now my first language and I write in it, but mother tongue? My mind just couldn’t get there. I also speak and read French, which I had to learn at my British boarding school; in fact, I speak English and French now better than either Malay or Cantonese.

In the end I reverted to the comfort of Malay. I read a couple of poems. Not my own, I hasten to add. My repertoire doesn’t yet extend to poetry.

First, though, I had to introduce Malaysia. People know the country for downed jetliners (MH17 ) and corruption (1MDB), but Malaysia is so much more than that.

The Excitement of Malaysia

You can see how animated I get when I talk about Malaysia. I made no bones about the profusion of languages in my life. These comments challenged some of what the two invited Belarusian poets of distinction, Uladzimir Arlou and Valiantsina Aksak, had said. They kicked the event off with beautiful poetry in Belarusian (their own). One of them then expressed the view that a person cannot exist without a mother tongue. Given Belarusian history, I understand this perspective, even if I disagree with it. Here they are below, listening graciously.

In multicultural Malaysia, some of us exist happily with no mother tongue or with more than one. Or with a present-day mother tongue that is different to our childhood mother tongue. Or a mother tongue our ancestors never spoke.

Distinguished Poets Uladzimir Arlou and Valiancina Aksak

The poems I read come from the Malay tradition of pantun. Pantun are verses in groups of four which have both rhythm and rhyme. I used to love pantun at school. The verses are witty, amusing and evocative: real, living poetry that people use in conversation. Here’s one:

Pisang emas dibawa belayar,

Masak sebiji di atas peti,

Hutang emas boleh dibayar,

Hutang budi dibawa mati.”

(Source: Soscili)

Below is my attempt at a rough translation:

Golden bananas are carried on voyages,

One ripens on top of a chest,

Debts of gold can be repaid,

Debts of kindness are carried to the grave.

For me, the lines above distil the essence of old Malay culture, where human kindness was valued above riches. A far cry, in other words, from what Malaysia became in recent years.

Elsewhere, I have mentioned how poetic Malay is as a language; pantun conveys this so well. At the same time, a lot of the poetry reveals the gentleness inherent in Malay culture. For instance, verses can be used to give someone a telling-off (without really telling them off). The audience giggled at the idea of poetry as admonishment.

They were surprised by the absence of titles. Pantun don’t need titles because this isn’t a high-faluting verse form; on the contrary, pantun is down-to-earth poetry anyone can make up. Yet, even in the eight lines I shared, people were moved by the beauty in its cadence.

The audience must have liked my presentation – they voted to give me first prize!

The prize was none other than a bottle of what will surely be a memorable Belarusian speciality. See that number at the bottom: 40? That’s the alcohol content. I kid you not. Apparently this is medicinal alcohol, a balm, I’m told. We shall see. (In fairness, the label does declare 20 herbs.)

The Highly Alcoholic Prize!

I know that my hosts are waiting anxiously for feedback on Balzam Belaruskii. For the moment I’m afraid I must disappoint them. Each time I look at the 40%, I shake my head. I’ll have to be very sick before I dare open this bottle.

In the meantime, I would like to thank the Anglo-Belarusian Society for a great event. Special thanks to Karalina Matskevich for her energetic organisation, Father Serge Stasievich for generous hosting, Aliaksandra Bielavokaja for her photography and to everyone else who was there, too, the young as well as the not-so-young. We departed into a glorious evening and I’d like to leave readers with an uplifting view. Here’s London’s Belarusian church at night, all lit up.

London’s Belarusian St. Cyril of Turau Church at Night

Leave a comment

Filed under Cultural Identity, Modern Life, Writing

A Month Away from Social Media

After reading an article about social media addiction, I decided to retreat into a virtual cave in September – just to see what it would feel like. And in light of the role played by social media in recent atrocities, being an online hermit doesn’t seem altogether crazy. But first, let me tell you about my September experiment.

It started with this article in Psychology Today. The article contains 6 questions. I answered ‘No’ to all of them, which put me firmly in the ‘Not Addicted to Social Media’ category. Nonetheless I thought abstention could be instructive.

It was.

The first thing that surprised me was how hard it was staying away. So, a word of warning for those who believe they’re not addicted to posting updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Tumblr: you may be more hooked than you think.

I’d initially planned for my social media avoidance to commence on September 1 for one month. Then, the American senator John McCain passed away. This happened during the last week of August, and as I watched his daughter Meghan McCain deliver her eulogy at the memorial service held to celebrate his life, my first impulse was to post a tweet. I reached forward, before realising that it was Saturday, September 1. I was not supposed to be posting anything. I found myself debating what to do, can you imagine? I actually spent time contemplating whether to hold strong or to succumb. In the end I gave in, reasoning that I could postpone social media abstention until the next day.

This is how we get sucked in. Social media platforms have been very adept at training us in supposed ‘spontaneity’. No sooner does something happen than we reach for the nearest device in order to ‘share’. For the first few days I had to fight the urge.

And then Twitter noticed. This was by far the most interesting part of the experiment. Those of us who’re on social media – and that’s most people I know – are already accustomed to the emails routinely sent by various platforms to tell us what we’ve missed during our absence.

Twitter stood out for the intensity of its deluge. Once Twitter realised that I had not logged on for a while, it started sending me three reminders every single day. It only stopped when I resumed tweeting in October.

Think about this. Imagine how you’d feel if your mobile/cell operator were to send you 3 messages each day to remind you to use your phone. That’s the equivalent of what Twitter was doing.

Here’s the difference: your mobile/cell operator doesn’t need to remind you to use your phone. Sure, it may encourage you to use your phone more by advertising cheap minutes and ubiquitous data. At the end of the day, though, we use our phones because they’re pretty much indispensable to modern life. Social media isn’t at that stage (and on current evidence, may never get there). It’s amazing how we forget this.

What I learned during my month of not posting and sharing and reacting to every event as soon as it happened was that after a few days, I stopped missing social media. This is the greatest fear of social media platforms. That’s why they work so hard to keep us on.

Because once we start experimenting with social media detoxification, where will it all end? Heck, we may even find other ways of expressing ourselves and leave these platforms altogether. That’s the nightmare of social media owners and operators. If enough moderate people leave their platforms, then much of the venting which passes as conversation would end up in the hands of the implacably aggrieved.

Even though I’ve never been as big a fan of social media as some of my friends, I’m convinced that a month of voluntary detoxification has had an effect. My mind is less cluttered as a result. Honest.

If you’re reading this and wondering whether I’m being over the top, I’d recommend getting off social media for a week. Just try it. You may be surprised by how therapeutic the experience is.

On a slightly different note, let’s contrast Twitter’s robust response when I ceased activity with how the platform responded to a death threat reported to it. Twitter told political analyst Rochelle Ritchie that the threat she received from the now arrested pipe bomber broke none of its rules!

Twitter Ignored Death Threat

Such a response should be enough to focus anyone’s mind. If a death threat doesn’t break Twitter’s rules, what would?

And yes, I do intend to share this blog-post via social media. It’s a twist of post-modern irony.

Leave a comment

Filed under Modern Life

Power, Remorse & Redemption Act III: Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s Own Fifty Shades

Najib Razak became Prime Minister six years after Mahathir retired. You may have heard of Najib: he’s being investigated in at least ten countries in the scandal known as 1MDB. With his rise and recent fall, Malaysian history turned a full circle. Najib’s father was none other than Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister on May 13 1969.

Najib’s father had a reputation for caring deeply about Malaysia, but this sense of duty seems to have eluded the son. After being thrown out of office on May 9, Malaysian police found 72 suitcases stashed with over £21 million in cash in Najib’s residences. It’s a staggering amount, but a drop in the ocean compared to the £200 million loot that was subsequently discovered and the total sum he is alleged to have siphoned off.

Admittedly, we don’t yet know the whole truth. But from information already in the public domain, there are obvious irregularities. Najib wakes up with several hundred million dollars in his personal bank account. He claims that the money is a donation from a Saudi national. The head of Malaysia’s anticorruption commission who investigates has his life threatened. This official is forced into early retirement; members of his staff are arrested; the head of the police force is hastily replaced. (Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned Hollywood, the Wolf of Wall Street and Leonardo DiCaprio. Yes, he’s caught in the net too.)

With all this happening in real life, who needs drama? You can understand why I spent a lot of time this past May glued to Malaysian news channels. The actions above, if proven, amount to official tampering in an investigation. The precedents, of course, were set before Najib ascended the throne. Official interference did not start with him. Najib merely took Mahathir’s playbook and enhanced it.

The Case of Anwar Ibrahim: Fifty Shades of Grey

Recall, from Act II, Mahathir’s allergic reactions to criticism. We saw what he did to protesting judges, so it’s no surprise that when a potential political rival emerged, such a man would be given short shrift. The 1997 Asian financial crisis provided the backdrop for their showdown.

Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister at the time was Anwar Ibrahim, an Islamic scholar who had been courted and brought into UMNO by Mahathir. You’re likely to have heard of Anwar: he’s the guy who has been jailed for sodomy. Here’s the story as I see it, and you can judge for yourself.

By the time the Asian crisis struck, Mahathir was already unhappy with Anwar’s reformist credentials. As Malaysian companies collapsed, the two men disagreed on policy. Anwar favoured a free-market approach, mixing austerity with trade and investment. Mahathir, on the other hand, was loath to cancel his pet megaprojects. Instead of doing the soul-searching work of asking where Malaysia had gone wrong, he preferred blaming currency traders like George Soros, who’s Jewish, and for Mahathir’s views on Jews, read on.

Reformist zeal aside, Mahathir could not have taken kindly to Anwar’s outspoken comments about nepotism and cronyism within UMNO. Anwar made no secret of his ambitions to reform Malaysia. His standing in Western political and financial circles soared.

When it emerged that Newsweek magazine was set to name Anwar Ibrahim its ‘Asian of the Year’, rumours began to circulate. In Malaysia – as in 36 other Commonwealth countries – homosexuality between consenting males remains illegal. A ‘book’ quickly appeared stating 50 reasons why Anwar was unfit to be Prime Minister – Malaysia’s own Fifty Shades. Among them were claims of sodomy, sedition and the obstruction of justice. The relationship between Anwar and Mahathir became untenable. Anwar was summarily sacked and ousted from UMNO. Three weeks later he was arrested and charged with corruption and sodomy.

None of the above dimmed Anwar’s reformist ambitions. While awaiting trial he initiated the movement for democratic reform in Malaysia. From this Reformasi movement a new multi-racial political party sprang up which would become the People’s Justice Party. Anwar Ibrahim is its de facto head, the first Malay to lead a multi-racial political party in Malaysia.

This is an important point. Anwar Ibrahim was born a bumiputera, a person with special rights in Malaysia. He did not need to form an inclusive, multi-racial political party: he chose to do so. Fundamental reform in Malaysia will require the buy-in of all its races.

To stop Anwar’s political ambitions and silence his calls for reform, he was convicted of sodomy and jailed, not once but twice – in 1999 and then again in 2015, the second time under Najib’s watch. Having already been detained during his student years, Anwar is rather familiar with Malaysia’s prisons. Throughout, he has not wavered in his hopes of securing lasting democratic reform in Malaysia. In early May, he replied to one of my tweets of support with the single word, ‘Reformasi’. The man has grit.

It was during his most recent prison stint that the mother of all scandals broke. This time the figures were too large to be covered up, even by a government adept at malfeasance. Around US$700 million had been found in Najib Razak’s personal bank account. Najib denied wrongdoing, but with allegations swirling the US Department of Justice ordered its largest ever seizure of assets. Switzerland, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates joined the global investigation. Malaysia was in the news again.

In this simmering stew, UMNO members overwhelmingly chose silence. To his credit Mahathir quit in disgust, forming a new political party (though bumiputera-only).

Change was coming. A few months later Mahathir reached out to Anwar, the man he had once jailed, and they met for the first time in 18 years. Their rapprochement was not something Malaysians would ever have imagined. Nor was it easy for Anwar Ibrahim and his family to put the past behind: they’ve spoken publicly about how hard it was for them to forgive Mahathir. I like to think that Mahathir, too, as he watched from the sidelines, felt some remorse at the harm his own actions had caused. Malaysia could not go on as it had. All of us knew this. Our country’s soul was at stake.

History was about to be made. Since its founding, Anwar’s Justice Party had often contested elections in alliance with the DAP; after his rapprochement with Mahathir, it made sense for all three parties to team up. With Anwar still in jail, Mahathir was chosen to lead the new opposition coalition. (NB to Malaysians: Though there are other parties in the coalition, they’re not relevant for this narrative.)

I was initially among the sceptics. I could not imagine voting for a man who had once declared Malaysia a fundamentalist ‘Islamic state’ – news to many of us. He had also, in The Malay Dilemma, written: ‘…the Jews for example are not merely hook-nosed, but understand money instinctively’.

Hmm. How much change could we expect from such a man?

In the run-up to May 9, when I watched Mahathir on youtube telling Malay voters not to fear the DAP, I was stunned. Here was the politician who had once branded the DAP chauvinistic – a point he mentioned – and while some of his remarks show how far Malaysia is from being a meritocracy, their context is still a leap forward. In return, DAP stalwarts took to the airwaves to exhort Malaysians to support Mahathir. I knew then that I had to fly home. A new Malaysia was taking shape.

Like many Malaysians, I stayed up all night on May 9. Our phones pinged every few minutes. If you haven’t visited Malaysia, you might be surprised by how modern it is, and efficient when it wants to be. Malaysia issued biometric passports years before the UK. Our verification system employs both facial recognition and digitised thumb prints. We had been expecting election results shortly after midnight; when, by 5 a.m., opposition wins remained stuck at just below the required threshold, wild rumours began circulating. The entire sleep-deprived country speculated on what UMNO was up to. On What’sApp, friends shared images of tanks in Malaysia’s administrative capital. I was exhausted, yet absolutely ready for battle.

In the end UMNO capitulated. Sort of. If you need proof of how utterly shameless Najib Razak is, all you need do is listen to his so-called ‘concession speech’ in Malay. In my view Najib did not concede; not even once did he use the word ‘defeat’. Instead, he tried to worm his way out and then proceeded to justify his own dubious track record. True statesmen are gracious when they’ve lost; on this front, as on many others, he failed miserably.

The important point, though, was that the people had spoken. If we were denied our result, there would have been blood on the streets. Truly.

We now know that this was not needed.

At last, we Malaysians had done it. We did it by uniting, and it was Anwar Ibrahim and Mahathir Mohamad who’d led the way – they set the nation an example. If Mahathir could reach out to his old nemesis and if Anwar could reconcile with the man who had first jailed him, then the rest of us could come together too.

I had to stifle a tear as I watched Mahathir being sworn in as Prime Minister. A day later he named a woman as his Deputy – the first woman to hold this office. She is Dr. Wan Azizah, Anwar’s wife, who held the political mantle during his years in jail. Mahathir named a Chinese man, Lim Guan Eng, as his new Finance Minister, the first time in 44 years that a non-Malay was named to this post. It was something I never imagined seeing again. The fact that the appointment was made by Mahathir, a man who had once called us names and who had put Lim in jail, made the moment especially poignant.

The challenges facing Malaysia are immense, not least in the repairs that must be made to our institutions. It’s up to Malaysians to hold this new government to account, ensure that requisite checks and balances are put in place. This must be done quickly, for the powers of state are tempting.

There will be Malaysians reading the paragraphs above who will say, ‘But Dr. Wan Azizah, she…’ – for there’s already plenty of criticism of the new government, much of it justified. There’s little doubt that political development will take time: there’s so much to be done. But there’s also no question of the change that has taken place. It’s a change both of government and in mindset, crucial if we are to move forward as a nation. For the first time in years I felt welcome in my own country. I was perceived as Malaysian, not a Chinese interloper or ‘newcomer’. This gives me hope, something I did not have before.

On this Merdeka (Independence) Day, we Malaysians should hold our heads high. Let’s reach out to one another and remember that nothing is impossible. We can and will build the country we want.

Anwar Ibrahim is now a free man, and it was Mahathir who secured him a royal pardon. But it was we, the people, who put them both where they are today. In acknowledging his debt to the millions of Malaysians who voted for the opposition, Anwar gave voice to the thoughts and feelings of an entire nation.

I will never forget until the end of my days.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia, Politics

Power, Remorse & Redemption Act II: The Malay Dilemma, 1970

I first heard of Dr. Mahathir in 1973 from Malaysian newspapers. He had published a controversial non-fiction book, The Malay Dilemma, which contained racial stereotyping so inflammatory that it was immediately banned. Even when he was a rising political star, the book remained banned in Malaysia. Newspapers, however, were free to quote snippets. Through these I learnt that I, a Malaysian citizen, was merely a ‘guest’ (the word the paper deployed) in Malaysia. I had thought of Malaysia as home; now I found out I was able to live there only because the Malays ‘consent to this’.

I was upset, of course, and confused at the same time. I began reading newspapers avidly, which only cemented my burgeoning sense of exclusion. The newspapers told me that Malaysians were not created equal. There is a breed of Malaysian who deserves ‘special’ rights, not by dint of merit or economic need but because their ancestors supposedly arrived before mine.

The logic is so spurious that a new term had to be invented: bumiputera, a Malay compound word made up of bumi, earth, and putera or prince(s). Taken together, they become ‘prince(s) of the earth’ (or ‘sons of the soil’). The special rights accorded to this superior Malaysian, the bumiputera, span an eye-watering gamut. They include:

  • Reserved universities – and I don’t mean university places, but entire universities;
  • Discounted prices and reserved allocations in new housing developments;
  • Entitlement to 30% of the equity of any publicly listed company in Malaysia.

When you grow up within a system, you become inured to its inequities; it takes leaving Malaysia before many Malaysians realise that a form of apartheid is practised there. The seeds for its rationale were planted by none other than Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in his book, The Malay Dilemma. Full of half-baked social theories and sweeping racial generalisations, the work would have been amusing, had rafts of laws not arisen from its crucible.

Malays, apparently, are ‘tolerant and easy-going’ while non-Malays, especially the Chinese, are ‘materialistic, aggressive and have an appetite for work’. We also have ‘unlimited acquisitiveness’. These differences, according to Mahathir, explained the glaring economic and educational disparities which existed in 1970 between Malaysia’s Malays and ethnic Chinese.

The only solution was a full-throttled boost for Malays. These special Malaysians, with their bumiputera status, would fly first-class, the rest of us second-class. May 13 provided the perfect excuse. We were told that new race-based laws were needed to achieve national harmony. At the same time we were cautioned against speaking about ‘race’ openly.

The new laws had a grand name: the New Economic Policy. Mahathir was still in the political wilderness at the time; the man who actually put the laws in place was Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, Abdul Razak Hussein.

A grand name needs grandiose ideology. The New Economic Policy was dressed up as positive discrimination. But then, why should its beneficiaries depend on race?

The simple answer is that the New Economic Policy was a smokescreen for racial discrimination in favour of Malays. UMNO knew that it could not say so explicitly, therefore, it pretended that the Policy was needed to ‘prevent another May 13’. Those of us who didn’t like the Policy should leave, since Malays were the ‘rightful owners’ of the land.

The problem with this logic is that Malays are not natives of Malaysia. Even the Malay language recognises this; in Malay the indigenous peoples are called Orang Asli, or original people. In primary school, I was taught that Malays originated from Yunnan in southern China. The American economist, Thomas Sowell, has written:

Some groups in some countries imagine themselves entitled to preferences and quotas just because they are indigenous ‘sons of the soil’, even when they are in fact not indigenous, as the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka and the Malays in Malaysia are not.

(Affirmative Action Around the World, Yale University Press 2004)

The term bumiputera has been useful for UMNO. Bumiputera has a whiff of romanticism and at the same time is meaningless, a malleable concept that can absorb many things. UMNO thus also labelled Malaysia’s real indigenous peoples as bumiputera. Problem solved. There weren’t many indigenous peoples, and unlike the Chinese, they were not a threat. In this way, entitlement could be conferred on the real beneficiaries – Malays – under the guise of affirmative action. No one could legitimately object.

Bumiputera has the extra beauty of containing the word ‘soil’, which has been used time and again to remind Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese and Indians that the land we were in was not ours. In The Malay Dilemma, Mahathir even calls ethnic Chinese who arrived in Malaysia in the 15th century ‘newcomers’! Never mind that some of his own ancestors hailed from India.

By the time he ascended to Malaysia’s highest office in 1981, I had already left Malaysia for Britain, where I went to boarding school. My parents packed me off with huge regret. They were patriots. Despite speaking little Malay themselves – they were educated in the colonial era – they wanted their children to learn the Malay language. After May 13, when many of their Chinese friends departed for Singapore, they stayed, insisting that the incident was the result of a few rotten apples.

As the 1970s progressed it became clear that the New Economic Policy would systematically exclude non-Malays. They no longer saw a future in Malaysia. Reluctantly, they made sacrifices to send me away, counselling me to remain abroad.

In 1981 Mahathir gave an interview to the New York Times in which he described The Malay Dilemma as a harmless book. He was being disingenuous.

Mahathir: Friend or Foe?

Democracy is like good cheese: it needs time to mature. Holding elections is not enough. We have seen this in a swathe of Commonwealth countries. Real democracy only happens if citizens are able to speak freely without fear of being arrested or killed, if elections are free and fair and the police cannot be bribed. The above is not achievable without a robust system of checks and balances. Democracy needs an independent judiciary and a free press. It needs constant surveillance. It must have official bodies whose leaders are not beholden to any individuals, political party or coalition and whose processes are transparent. Power corrupts, but safeguards go a long way to ensuring that government is accountable.

Malaysia once had many of the above; otherwise UMNO’s power would not have been curtailed in the 1969 General Elections. Alas, those results taught UMNO an unwelcome lesson. In a real democracy politicians sometimes lose. And UMNO did not like losing.

Over the next five decades Malaysia went from a country with relatively strong democratic institutions to one in which institutions were weakened by political interference. Corruption crept in, inevitably. Malaysia should be a case study for other countries, especially those that are intent on race-based politics.

Mahathir remained in office for twenty-two years. Over that period Malaysia’s wealth increased many-fold, especially the wealth of that special breed of Malaysian, the bumiputera. He must be given credit for these achievements.

At the same time there’s little question that he displayed ruthless and authoritarian tendencies. A few years into office Mahathir found himself embroiled in an internal power struggle within UMNO. In the midst of battle his opponents initiated litigation. To ensure that judgments would not go against him, Mahathir tampered with Malaysia’s judiciary, first diluting the powers of Malaysia’s High Courts and then sacking the head of the Supreme Court who dared to protest. For good measure, Mahathir also booted out the judges who sided with their Supreme Court head.

In so doing, he set a precedent. A precedent, once set, is hard to undo. This is how rot starts. Along with judicial interference came the muffling of dissent. Mahathir stifled dissent in two ways: first, by wielding an iron fist over the media (which at the time did not include the Internet), and secondly by clamping down on opponents. In 1987 he presided over the biggest crackdown Malaysia had ever seen, when 119 opposition activists and Members of Parliament were arrested and detained. Those held included Lim Kit Siang, who was then leader of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and his son Lim Guan Eng, at the time a Member of Parliament.

Mahathir and UMNO held a special aversion towards the DAP, which had long been a thorn in their side. Unlike UMNO, the DAP has always been multi-racial and was one of the parties to field winning Malay candidates in Malaysia’s 1969 General Elections. As noted in my previous blog-post (Act I), those election results showed that another Malaysia was possible. In that other Malaysia, people would not vote according to race but on political merit. In such a Malaysia there would be no call for UMNO.

It was easier for Mahathir and UMNO to invent an imaginary enemy than to change. Over the years, they told Malay voters that unless Malays voted for UMNO, Malaysia would fall into the hands of the Chinese (who, remember, have ‘unlimited acquisitiveness’). Mahathir and UMNO took to branding the DAP a ‘chauvinist’ Chinese party. If Malaysia fell into DAP hands, so they said, the special privileges which Malays enjoyed would be at risk.

This illustrates how democracy can be co-opted. Malays form the majority in Malaysia, which means that special rights are dished out to the majority of the Malaysian electorate. Their political acquiescence is thereby purchased. Why bite the hand that feeds you? The result is a fundamental distortion of the democratic process, as I argued in an article which the UK’s Independent invited me to write.

For many years, not enough Malaysians cared about the rot that was corroding our political system. So long as putrefaction was hidden, most Malaysians preferred not to know. Perhaps they were in a stupor, either from the gains of corruption or the drug of special rights, often both. It would take a brazen man to wake them up. This man was Najib Razak.

(to be continued)

Leave a comment

Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia, Politics