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.

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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

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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)

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Power, Remorse & Redemption: in Three Acts

This Friday, August 31, will mark the 61st anniversary of Malaysia’s freedom from colonisation. For the first time in years, there is a revival of hope in my homeland.

It was inevitable that I spent part of this summer reflecting on what happened on May 9, when Malaysia went to the polls. We now know that Malaysians made history that day (see What Malaysia Means). UMNO, which stands for United Malays National Organisation, the political party that had ruled the country for 61 years, was finally booted out of office. The opposition coalition, led by former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, won against all odds. His age – 93 years – is what Western journalists have focused on, but this is the least of it. What happened was astonishing, a rare victory for democracy and justice in today’s world.

As with many things Malaysian, the full story is dramatic and complicated. It began long before 2018. The tale is worth telling, though, for it bears the hallmarks of great fiction: power, intrigue, grit and remorse, forgiveness and possibly, just possibly, redemption.

But how to tell it to non-Malaysians in such a way that they will understand and enjoy? This article is my attempt.  Between now and August 31, I will lay out Power, Remorse & Redemption in Three Acts here on my blog.

To understand the stunning firsts and reversals that took place on May 9, we must go back to another May, to a day that’s etched in the psyche of every Malaysian. May 13, 1969. On that day, the Malaysia of my childhood fell apart. Thus begins Act I.

May 13: Spontaneous Combustion or Arson?

I was only four when my father rushed home one afternoon. I remember his ashen face and gruff voice. He told my mother to switch on the radio, muttering a word I’d not heard till then: curfew. The broadcaster confirmed that a curfew had been declared. There were riots and fighting on Kuala Lumpur’s streets. My father’s descriptions were more graphic. He said that Malay men with sword-like knives had set fire to Chinese shop-houses.

Over the next few days fear permeated our house. It was the first time that I learnt to be suspicious of other races. Until then I’d thought of our Malay and Indian neighbours as people like us except that they wore interesting clothes and ate spicy food. May 13 destroyed this innocence. The crying shame is that many Malaysians have mixed lineage. Multiculturalism should have been a pillar of our country’s richness; instead, for the next 49 years, it became a political weapon.

To understand why Malaysia is naturally multiracial, you only have to look at a map. To the west of Peninsula Malaysia lies a narrow and sheltered stretch of water: the Straits of Malacca. In the days when pirates roamed the seas, seasonal winds brought adventurers from East and North, West and South. Ships invariably ended up docking in Malaysia.

File:My-map.png

They came from everywhere. From neighbouring countries like Indonesia and Thailand and from farther afield too: China, India, even Arabia and Armenia. Some of these traders settled. Malaysia is a paradise: peaceful, sunny and well-fed by rain, its very air exuding the promise of an easy life. Surrounding waters teem with fish; a seed only has to drop for it to grow.

European powers eventually arrived, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British. It was the latter who recognised Malaysia’s potential. After gaining control of the country in the 19th century, Britain began developing the tin mines and rubber estates which would make the mother country rich. In a letter published in the London Review of Books on March 6 2014, Robert Lemkin, an Oxford-based filmmaker, wrote this about Malaysia:

‘In 1946 the colony’s rubber and tin industries brought the UK Treasury $118 million; the rest of the empire altogether yielded only a further $37 million. Without Malaya, the post-war British welfare state would have been unthinkable.’

Malaysia, then called Malaya, was the British Empire’s crown jewel. To develop their new industries, the colonials needed labour. They set about importing vast numbers of Chinese and Indian indentured labourers. Chinese and Indian populations had already settled naturally, but British policies changed Malaysia’s demographics overnight. The result is a rainbow country today with three main races: Malay (67%), Chinese (25%) and Indian (7%).

Many people confuse ‘Malaysian’ with ‘Malay’. Malaysian is the nationality, Malay the race. You can be Malaysian without being Malay, just as you can be British without being English.

For Malaysians of mixed heritage like me, of whom there are many, the crude classification above cannot properly reflect our roots. I fall under ‘Chinese’, but my great-grandmother had Malay lineage. And the many Malays I know with Chinese mothers or grandmothers are categorised merely as ‘Malay’. In reality Malaysians are a potpourri of Malay, Chinese, Indian and lots more. There were also indigenous tribes already in situ – the Orang Asli or ‘original people’ – the true natives of Malaysia, who are aggregated as ‘Malay’ in the above statistics.

Race is a lightning rod in Malaysia. It has been easy to use race to keep Malaysians apart because our political parties have traditionally been run along communal lines. What’s astonishing is that many still are – in 2018. You must be Malay to join UMNO, which is why it’s called the United Malays National Organisation. I would not be allowed into UMNO, though I’m eligible to join the Malaysian Chinese Association, MCA. Indians can join the Malaysian Indian Congress, MIC. This system of apartheid is crazy, but when you grow up with it you don’t see this. It’s such an accepted fact in Malaysia that even some of the newest political parties are race-based.

As a consequence of May 13, race ignited in the Malaysian consciousness – for all the wrong reasons. When race is used as a weapon, it’s a sign that someone’s power is being threatened. This was precisely the case in Malaysia.

On May 10 1969, a general election had been held – Malaysia’s third. The political line-up included three non-racial parties that were all part of the opposition. Anyone could join those parties, but their members were mainly ethnic Chinese and Indians, their supporters people like my parents, who were delighted by the results. The ruling alliance led by UMNO retained power but garnered only 44% of the vote, and lost its majority in three of Malaysia’s wealthiest states (as well as one on the east coast). Crucially, UMNO lost the two-thirds parliamentary majority that had allowed it to change Malaysia’s constitution at will.

But even more than the above, it was the lessons on race that terrified UMNO. In 1969, two of the multi-racial parties in the opposition fielded Malay candidates who were elected into office. This was a first; until then politics in Malaysia had been solidly communal. The results showed that a substantial minority of Malaysians were already prepared – in 1969 – to herald in a less racist country. It was equally clear that Malaysians wanted a real opposition, not toothless puppets. There was the promise of stronger democracy. Foreign correspondents praised Malaysia’s democratic process, predicting more efficient governance in future.

What happened next would change the above premise. It was a watershed moment.

The official explanation for the May 13 riots is that they were a ‘spontaneous’ outburst, the result of simmering tensions in a multiracial society. But a cursory glance at Malaysia’s 1969 election results will tell you that UMNO’s hegemony was being challenged.

Unsurprisingly, May 13 has not been properly discussed within Malaysia. No one has been called to account. There has been neither truth nor reconciliation, only avoidance. Official documents remained classified for 30 years. When I was growing up May 13 was the spectre we were not allowed to mention publicly, lest racial riots ‘flare up again’. It took this article for me to understand the significance of Malaysia’s 1969 elections.

A Malaysian social scientist, Kua Kia Soong, after a painstaking analysis of declassified documents, concluded that May 13 was no spontaneous outburst. ‘There was a plan to unleash this racial violence’. He adds:

Nor does it necessarily follow that there will be conflict when different ethnic communities coexist, as is implied in pluralist analyses. The role of the state has to be analysed in the particular historical conjuncture.

(May 13, published by Suaram Komunikasi in 2007)

His analysis makes sense in light of what happened next. The UMNO-led government initiated policies that would seal UMNO’s position in the Malaysian political landscape. UMNO would rein in Malaysian democracy. Malaysia lost; UMNO gained.

It’s worth remembering that UMNO was formed first and foremost as a freedom movement. Its initial raison d’être was to rid the country of British rule. In this it was ferociously effective. But freedom movements don’t necessarily make good governments, as we have seen across the Commonwealth.

UMNO’s internal politics paved the way for the rise of the man known as Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who would muzzle the press and dismantle institutional checks and balances. In so doing, he systematically destroyed Malaysia’s fabric, whether or not he intended to.

The fact that millions of Malaysians young and old came together 49 years later, also in the month of May, to support the same Dr. Mahathir and his new allies, is remarkable. I was among the many doing so, something I never imagined would happen.

(to be continued)

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What Malaysia Means

I woke up on Tuesday morning in London on edge, thinking about Malaysia. A general election was due to be held the next day, Wednesday May 9, and I had not slept well. The campaigning had been outright dirty, even by Malaysia’s already chequered standards. We all knew this would be a crucial election – our country could not go on as it had. With Malaysia’s soul being fought for, it felt wrong to be so far away.

The crazy idea entered my head that I ought to go back. I began searching the Internet for flights and tickets and found that if I took a flight on Tuesday evening, I would arrive in time for the election results. It would be a thirteen-hour flight on a trip I had not even planned, but so what? I had done mad things before.

At the last general election five years prior, I had sat glued to screens in London, flipping between sites on the blogosphere. I was cautiously optimistic at the outset (see blog-post Malaysia’s Election Eve) and bitter by the end. I felt profound disappointment, not because what I had hoped for did not materialise, but because I believed that a small win had been stolen from the opposition.

There were reports of a dodgy electoral roll, washable indelible ink, mysterious ballot boxes and non-Malaysian voters. As I sat and watched the numbers trickling in it was clear, even from London, that the results were being massaged. Incumbent wins were reported quickly while opposition wins were delayed. At some point I remember a convenient power breakdown at Radio Television Malaysia. Perhaps my memory is playing tricks, but that is what I recall. Would it be different this time?

I did not know; I knew only what I felt – that I could not stay away. No matter what the outcome, I had to be there for these critical hours.

I packed hurriedly. I was surprised by how full the flight was, crowded with returning Malaysians like me. We landed just after polls closed. Kuala Lumpur, though calm, had an element of tense excitement.

It felt right to be back. Up in the air at thirty seven thousand feet, I finally understood how much Malaysia means to me. The bond I have with this land is unbreakeable. I carry Malaysia inside – it doesn’t matter that I’ve lived longer elsewhere.

If I had stayed away at this seminal moment in Malaysia’s history, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.

The past forty eight hours have been exhilarating and sleepless, if a little worrying, but I would not have exchanged them for anything else. Yet, when I made the decision to come, we did not know how things would turn out. Some friends thought I was flying into trouble.

We know now that the opposition coalition of hope, Pakatan Harapan, led by Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohamad, secured an unequivocal win . The transition to a new government is not over and there is plenty of speculation about attempted chicanery by members of the previous government. But they are now dust; I don’t want to talk about them. What I’d rather focus on is that even if you aren’t Malaysian and haven’t visited Malaysia, my country can still be a beacon for you.

Because we Malaysians have achieved what once seemed utterly impossible.

We have managed to vote out a government that was tyrannical, rotten and so corrupt by the end that I’m told its cronies were seen openly bribing voters on the streets. Despite this and despite using every trick in the book – the gerrymandering of boundaries, an Election Commission unfit for office, an electoral roll on which as many as 15% of voters did not have addresses – they lost. Malaysians voted them out. The odds were stacked against us, but we did it.

We did this together, we Malaysians of all races and faiths. We came together as Malay, Chinese, Indian and everything in between; we came together as Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, atheist and whatever else; we came together for the common cause of saving our beloved country. We did this without bloodshed, riots or unrest.

This is something we can truly be proud of.

As I write this, the euphoria has not settled. We are still celebrating. The road forward will be hard – we know that. But it does not detract from what a great thing we Malaysians have done. And if we can do it, others can too. God bless Malaysia.

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