Category Archives: Cultural Identity

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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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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Ruminations on Food 6: The Food Hawker & Her Overseas Son

At the start of this series when I wrote about the Malaysian obsession with food, I mentioned that some street food vendors have been able to send their children overseas to study. This happens in my debut novel, The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds. In reviews of the book, at least one American reader has expressed scepticism over such an outcome.

But in Malaysia it is perfectly possible for street vendors to become wealthy. To understand why, you have to appreciate the role of food for us. It serves as balm and salve, feeding not only our bodies but also our minds, and possibly even our souls.

The above is not an understatement. Food is everywhere in Malaysia, permeating culture and consciousness in ways I’ve not seen in any of the other 60 countries I’ve been to. Part of this probably has to do with Malaysia being tropical. Colours and tastes seem somehow more vivid in the open-air than in a cold climate and you end up smelling food pretty much all the time. Walk down any street, something is sure to be frying. Avoiding food is impossible, and we all know what heavenly aromas do to our stomachs.

Oyster Omelette – Can’t You Smell It?

Another part of the phenomenon has to do with the melting pot that is Malaysia. There are three main races – Malay, Chinese and Indian – each with its own distinctive cuisine. Food hawkers have therefore long had lots of competition; they’ve had to compete not just with each other but also with vendors of the other types of cuisine. Only the very best survive. The bar was raised from the outset; even foreign chains have to work harder. When I was a child, Kentucky Fried Chicken tasted very different in Malaysia than in the UK, for the simple reason that to entice customers, the Colonel’s chefs had to mix in local spices. The result was jazzed-up chicken that arrived crisp in baskets (instead of boxes).

This led to great food overall and to a plethora of choice. The sheer scale of choice can be mind-boggling, as I mentioned in Ruminations on Food 2: A Malaysian Food Court.

But Malaysia is also dotted with the other extreme: whole coffee shops dedicated to a single dish. Many of the most successful food hawkers specialise in this way.

There’s a good example opposite my old school in Ipoh. The coffee shop is called Yee Fatt, it’s been going since 1955 and it’s famous for curry noodles. Yes, you read right.  The place is known for curry noodles – not exactly a fancy dish. But the dish is so popular in Malaysia that it even has its own Wikipedia entry (as curry mee, which is what it’s also called).

All That They Sell – and Going Since 1955

The boss at Yee Fatt is the middle-aged Chinese man in the picture below. What he’s doing behind the counter is blanching noodles and bean sprouts in hot water, lifting them on to plates, sprinkling barbecued pork over the top and then dousing it all in a thick curry sauce. He does this hour after hour, day in and day out, which may not sound like much of a life to some.

The Big Boss

But here’s the thing: the guy is his own boss. He opens early for breakfast, serves lunch and then closes his shop around three in the afternoon. That’s him done for the day! Afterwards he goes on a strenuous walk up Kledang Hill, one of many beautiful hills around Ipoh. We know because by the time we arrive at five, he’s well into his descent.

Note Yee Fatt’s longevity. How many small eating places do you know that have been going since 1955? Non-Malaysians may also find it amazing that Yee Fatt sells only two dishes: curry noodles and glutinous rice with pork (the mound on the bottom-right in the second photograph above). The curry noodles come in two versions: either dry – with noodles on a plate and spoonfuls of curry sauce heaped over – or wet, where the noodles are dunked in a bowl with curry soup. If you like, you can order extra bean sprouts and pieces of deep-fried bean curd as accompaniments.

My Favourite Dry Curry Mee

I love Yee Fatt’s noodles – soft but not over-cooked – which I guess would be called al dente in the West. Also, their bean sprouts are perfectly crunchy. Of course, it helps that they use Ipoh’s bean sprouts, which I think are the best in the world. I’ve told this to the Guardian newspaper, National Geographic Traveller UK and anyone who cares to listen! I can just imagine a celebrity chef like Anthony Bourdain declaiming the contrasts in this dish: the crunchiness of Ipoh‘s bean sprouts against the softness of just-right noodles. Smeared on top of it all is Yee Fatt’s irresistible curry sauce. I’m salivating as I write this and groaning a little too, since I won’t be having a bite anytime soon.

I’m not alone in being a fan, as this feature article in the Malay Mail (a Malaysian English language daily) a few years ago shows. And while polishing up this blog-post I found 7 other blogs praising Yee Fatt! (Here’s one link and another: I told you we were food-obsessed!)

Where, you may ask, does wealth come into the picture? Let’s just say that the boss, who looks as unassuming as his coffee shop, is said to be doing very well. I know you wouldn’t think this by looking at the photos. From a Malaysian perspective, however, the shop’s modest décor is actually comforting. It tells us that the food must be good – you certainly aren’t going for anything else. By keeping overheads low, the boss is making sure that he’ll be serving the town lots more curry noodles.

Unassuming and Brilliant

The man at the Yee Fatt coffee shop is not the only food hawker who has done well; there are others like him. Their success, though, may be peculiar to Malaysia, where people care more about taste than décor and will drive miles through pouring rain for a hawker’s food.

Readers love asking me how much of my stories are fact and how much fiction. One answer is that the historical events are real, but the characters are made up. Chye Hoon in The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds was inspired by my own great-grandmother, who I never met. I know, though, that she earned a successful living as a food hawker, enough to send one of her sons to Britain for further education. So I can assure doubting readers that it’s possible for a food vendor in Malaysia to do this: it happened in my own family.

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Ruminations on Food 5: When Fish Looks Like Fish

Ahead of Donald Trump’s much trumpeted trip to Asia last year, his aides told CNN that he was going to avoid “whole fish with heads still on”.

He did not know what he was missing. The best fish is served whole.

What Trump Missed

Years ago when I was an investment banker, my American bank sent me to New York for a month of training. Those were party days and one evening I ventured into New York’s Chinatown with two Italian co-trainees. They had little idea what dishes to order and thought they were in for a treat.

They were – though it was perhaps not the treat they had in mind. The restaurant into which we stumbled would best be described as ‘authentic’. My nose had led us there, you see, and my nose told me to enter. It wasn’t a hole-in-the-wall, but this was long before New York’s Chinatown became gentrified. Although my colleagues looked doubtful, they bravely followed. It had been their idea after all: they’d given me carte blanche to make decisions. Once inside they seemed comforted by the sight of so many Asians eating together. When I decreed that we sit, they told me to order.

The highlight came in the form of a fish that had been steamed whole, complete with head, fins and tail. It looked pretty much like the specimen below. Our waiter must have had a sixth sense – he positioned the dish so that the fish’s mouth peered directly up at my Italian friends. They went pale; neither said a word. Needless to say, I ended up eating rather a lot of fish that night.

Ahoy!

When you grow up with something, you don’t really think about it. In Southeast Asia, we like our fish to look like fish. Because I’d been staring into the gaping mouths of fish since I was a child, it had not occurred to me that anyone could object.

Our penchant for authenticity is not limited to fish. We like our prawns whole, too, still in their shells with tails and juicy heads perfect for sucking.

Prawns As Real As They Come

Quite often, you actually pull your seafood out of the water. Many Chinese restaurants have tanks showcasing the fish, prawns and crabs you can have for your meal. Here’s our waiter pulling large crustaceans out. See the white cards on the side of the tank? The cards reveal the names of customers and what they’ve ordered. At first glance the impression is surreal: the sign with ‘Mr. Chin’ – my uncle’s surname – on the vitrine made it look as if Mr. Chin himself were swimming in the water!

Waiter Fishing

Below is a dish of roast duck. Notice the pains the chef has taken to remind diners that this is duck. So real you can almost hear quacking on the plate. The photo was taken at the  swanky Chinese restaurant known as Yuk Sou Hin inside the WEIL Hotel, which many say serves the best roast duck in Ipoh. In Malaysia and Singapore, even Chinese haute cuisine isn’t for the squeamish. As an aside, I will vouch for this roast duck!

Authentic Duck

The above dishes should qualify as ‘real food’. According to a blog I found, ‘real food’ – a growing movement in the West – is food that is

  • Old and traditional
  • Whole, complete and intact
  • Diverse (as opposed to processed)

You couldn’t get more ‘whole, complete and intact’ unless you strung your poultry up whole. Which of course, many Chinese restaurants worldwide do, too. They hang the already roasted or steamed poultry up and hack them into pieces as customers’ orders come through. It turns out that we’ve been eating real food in Malaysia for a long time – we just didn’t know it.

As if whole fowl dangling pendulously from metal hooks were insufficient, Malaysian coffee shops sometimes have gigantic images on their walls. This must be their attempts at creating the ‘before’ and ‘after’: at the front whole chickens, already cooked, unceremoniously strung up; on one wall, covering pretty much the entire surface area, what those lovely chickens once looked like when they still had feathers.

In Case You Forgot What You Came to Eat

On a serious note, if you belong to the ‘real food movement’ I’d love to know whether the movement embraces an ethos of no wastage, the way we do. What I mean is that we eat every part of the animal. It wouldn’t do to discard the eyes of a fish when you could eat them, would it? This is why there are folks who are fans of fishes’ eyes – I promise it’s true, there are a few in my family – while many others adore fish head curry. The latter is such a popular Malaysian speciality that it even has its own Wikipedia entry.

As for panel signs, we like ours to look as real as our food. The one below was taken inside a Malaysian food court.  It’s not enough to tell customers not to spit. The warning must come in at least two languages with an explicit picture.

Watch That Tongue!

Now spit if you dare. And you probably would dare. Because the sign says nothing about a penalty, does it? In neighbouring Singapore, it would be made clear that you’d be fined for spitting. And you would – because you’d be caught.

But this is Malaysia, a land with laws aplenty and equally plentiful discretionary enforcement. Apa-apa pun boleh, you see. Anything goes.

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