Category Archives: Identity

Ruminations on Heritage 3: It’s Just Not Asian!

When I first came out as gay, my parents blamed England. If only they had not sent me to boarding school, ‘this’ would not have happened. It’s just not Asian!

I never asked which part wasn’t Asian. Did they mean:   

  • Being attracted to someone of the same sex?
  • Telling a fundamental truth that made others uncomfortable?
  • Daring to think outside the box?    

This took place in the mid-1980s. It would be tempting to believe that the whole world has changed since.

The map below shows the countries (in red) in which homosexuality remains illegal. There’s a very large mass of grey – not the case before – so, indeed, there has been progress. But we are nowhere near an egalitarian utopia. The Russian Federation, for instance, is hardly an oasis. Neither is China.

Source: Human Dignity Trust

Earlier this year, mainland censors erased a lesbian plot-line from the sitcom ‘Friends’. No lesbians for the mainland! Just what is the Communist Party so afraid of? Obviously, merely hearing about lesbians on TV could give Chinese women ideas. Hardly a vote of confidence in their men.

One of the other countries in red is Malaysia. It has a Muslim majority and homosexuality is illegal. I still have relatives there, one of whom is gay. He isn’t a Muslim. He has lived in Malaysia all his life. He has also been in the closet his entire life.

An early memory I have is of waking one morning to be told that this particular relation had been in a terrible road accident. When I saw the photographs, I was shocked. To describe his car as a wreck would be an understatement – it was crushed. If you looked at photos alone, you would have assumed its occupant well dead.

Apparently, the accident was his fault. My relative had come out of a junction and was hit by a bus (if my recollection serves me right). Everyone was amazed he survived the catastrophe. At the same time, they could not fathom what he was doing in that part of town. I remember the adults around me shaking their heads, asking repeatedly: what was he doing there at that hour?

Years later, he told me. He had been meeting a man.

The revelation brought lightning clarity. Disjointed memories fell into place. Finally, I understood. I felt like Archimedes with his Eureka moment. When my relative swung his car out of that junction, his mind was occupied.

Obviously, such an accident could have happened anywhere. But if this relation of mine had been able to meet a man the same way he was encouraged to date women, he is unlikely to have been skulking off to a clandestine encounter in the early hours of dawn.

I have a gay cousin who did the same: he went around surreptitiously – until his parents accused him of being a drug addict! It took a dramatic argument for him to come clean with them. That story, at least, has a good ending. My cousin lives happily with his partner and has done so for years.

Not the case of my car-crash relative, whose sexual orientation is an open secret. Granted, he is loved by the family. This makes him fortunate. Nonetheless, can you imagine the amount of sniggering he has had to endure, what it must be like living within a culture where you’re asked ‘Are you married?’ within minutes of meeting someone?

As we celebrate Pride month, I thought it time to shine a light into the closet. It looks to me like a dank, dark place. I can’t imagine living in it, or how great the mental toll must be.

I’ve often heard that ‘we in Asia have our own way of doing things’ – we don’t need to talk about them. Some people believe there are things better left unsaid. No doubt they also think I should not be writing this blog-post. But ‘ways of doing things’ evolve. Chinese women used to bind their feet: should we return to that practice? Of course not – no culture is beyond universal human values. If we find it hard to say the word ‘gay’, it’s because we still associate shame with gayness. The dictum ‘we have our own way of doing things’ is no more than a convenient cover. It allows uncomfortable topics to be avoided.

Fortunately, some changes have come; in Asia, Taiwan has led the way. The island nation legalised same-sex marriage on 17 May, 2019. Contrast that with China’s censorship of the Friends’ sit-com lesbian plot-line. Taiwan’s marriage equality is one of many reasons why it is not China – and whether Taiwan belongs with the mainland is, in my view, debatable.

All those years ago when my parents blamed England, they had a point. England did not make me gay, obviously, but it has given me a confidence, freedom and happiness I would not have enjoyed otherwise. Here I can live openly without having to hide; here I stand without fear, knowing that I am protected by law.

This freedom is indescribably precious. In a poignant moment a few years ago, my ex-wife and I welcomed a visitor from Dagestan. When he realised that he was the guest of two women who were married to each other, he was in awe. Without any hesitation whatsoever he proclaimed:

‘Today I have met people who truly are free.’

Part 4 to follow

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Ruminations On Heritage 2: What A Truly Multicultural Democracy Looks Like

My country of origin, Malaysia, loves selling itself as the multicultural haven that it really isn’t. My adopted land, on the other hand, just gets on with it. England is showing the world what a truly multiracial, multicultural democracy looks like.

At the start of the pandemic, we were treated to daily press briefings. The first session was hosted by the Prime Minister and his medical advisors. Thereafter, other Cabinet members presented briefings.

The parade of Secretaries and Ministers is evidence of just how far Britain has come. By now you will likely have heard of Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Priti Patel, the Home Secretary. Both are descendants of first-generation Indian immigrants from East Africa. The former Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi, who was tasked with rolling out the UK’s very successful vaccines programme, is himself a first-generation immigrant. Here he is giving one of those briefings. Zahawi is now the Education Secretary.

In England, politicians from ethnic minority groups aren’t just relegated to the side-lines, the way they are in Malaysia. Below are a few of England’s current Cabinet members.

Health Secretary: Sajid Javid;

Business Secretary: Kwasi Kwarteng;

COP26 President: Alok Sharma

In ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’, there is virtually no ethnic diversity within a government that continues to be dominated by race-based political parties. By ‘race-based political party’, I mean a political party run along sectarian lines which admits full members from only one particular racial group.

Yes, you read that right. This may be 2022, but you still have to be Malay (or bumiputera) to be a full member of the ruling United Malays’ National Organisation (UMNO). In principle I am allowed to join, but only as part of an associated group following orders (as per Clauses 4.1.2 and 4.3 of UMNO’s Constitution). Unwanted, unwelcome, second-class: the same way I’d be treated if I lived in Malaysia.

Excerpt from UMNO’s Constitution

There is also that damp squib known as the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), which supposedly represents Chinese interests. Not to be outdone, Indians have the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC).

The idea that you need to be a certain race to gain full membership of anything should be illegal. It has no place in today’s world. But race (and religion) are expedient tools for power. And the politics they nurture thrives on a self-fulfilling loop of tribalism. Nastiness is repeated ad infinitum, the audience become inured and tribalism ends up infecting a nation.

I discovered this when Sajid Javid was named Home Secretary in 2018. My phone pinged with messages. Some Malaysian family members were worried. ‘You now have a Muslim Home Secretary! London’s mayor is also a Muslim!’

Yes, and???

It transpired that a tonne of What’sApp videos were doing the rounds. One listed the British cities with Muslim mayors (hundreds, apparently). Another video purported to show a road somewhere in England being taken over by Muslim men bowed in Friday prayer. Yet another displayed Buckingham Palace. The Palace, it seemed, was going to be turned into a mosque. I wonder if someone has told Her Majesty. She is celebrating an unprecedented seventieth year as monarch and may have other plans for her home.

A few salient points are in order. First of all, a politician like Sajid Javid reached his position on merit – he was not favoured by positive discrimination. Secondly, he is a member of the Conservative Party which, whether or not you like it, is fully open to all races and faiths. Thirdly, he serves all Britons, not just British Muslims.

When a group of Asian male paedophiles was convicted of grooming white girls in Huddersfield for sex, Javid was brave enough to call a spade a spade. He described the men as ‘sick Asian paedophiles’ and commissioned research to investigate cultural connections. Here’s an excerpt of his comments:

…the sad truth is that if you look at recent high-profile convictions of gang-based child sexual exploitation, there is a majority of people that come from Pakistani heritage backgrounds – that’s plain for everyone to see. What I’ve said is that we, in trying to deal with this, trying to turn this round, we must look at all factors and we must not be too sensitive and shy away or be oversensitive.”

Spot on.

What Javid said and the way he said it is one of the fruits of freedom. Real democracy is sometimes messy. But after the storm comes sunshine. You are able to look at your own culture with clearer eyes. You can speak hard truths without feeling defensive.

Part 3 to follow.

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

Ruminations on Heritage 1: The Price of Freedom

Who we are, what we believe in and the values we stand for have never been more important. What would you do if a regime you strongly opposed appeared on your doorstep?

I have long asked myself that question. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this is no longer a moot point.

I visited Ukraine three times in 2014 in the months after Crimea was annexed. My now ex-wife is of both Russian and Ukrainian origin and has friends in Kyiv, which we visited. We also went to Lviv. Both are charming cities. To me, Kyiv seemed more Soviet and therefore exotic, whereas Lviv, which is close to the Polish border, (see map below from nationsonline.org) reminded me of Vienna: beautiful yet familiar.

Everyone we spoke to in Ukraine shared the same aspirations. They were fed up of corruption and proud of how they had overthrown a leader who had done Moscow’s bidding.  Our Kyiv friends showed us the square where thousands had congregated for weeks in freezing conditions, protected against bullets by the stacks of tyres they put up. They saw Ukraine’s future firmly in Europe. They did not wish to be part of some reformulated Russian empire – the shackles of which they had worked so hard to throw off.

Tyres Left in Maidan, Square in Kyiv

Till then, I had known little about Russian colonisation. (NB Technically, it was Soviet colonisation.) I heard many stories on those trips, and one was so harrowing that I could not get it out of my head. I had to write about it. What emerged was flash fiction – a very short piece. Masha’s Burning Memory was included in the UK’s National Flash Fiction Day’s 2014 anthology, ‘Eating My Words‘. Our friend Olga, who had related the story, cried when she read it.

The real event on which her tale was based took place in 1933, during what is known as Holodomor or the Great Hunger. Lest we forget the past, there is a museum in Kyiv dedicated to its memory. Remarkably, Kyiv’s Holodomor Museum continued putting up defiant updates in the midst of continuous bombardment. For a full and exhaustive account of Holodomor, I recommend the book Red Famine by Anne Applebaum. It doesn’t make for easy reading, though; I haven’t been able to finish it in two years.

Church I Visited in 2014

Who knows what will be left of the church above? When I compare Russia’s subjugation of Ukraine with Britain’s colonisation of Malaya, I realise we got off very lightly. Indeed, Russia makes our British colonial masters seem positively benevolent. No wonder Ukrainians are fighting so hard.

But there is more to Ukrainian resistance than mere political self-determination. What they want is simple: freedom.

A cliché, I know, and like many clichés, buried within is a kernel of truth. I get this.

I have experienced a type of freedom in the West which I have not found elsewhere. The freedom of opportunity, freedom to fully express myself and explore, the freedom to choose.

I come from a country where little of the above exists and I cherish my freedoms. (Now that it has become common to count your freedoms, I have also begun using the plural). Alas, too many of my Western friends take their freedoms for granted. They have not known ‘un-freedom’.

Part 2 to follow.

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Good Things Come Out of Bad

Crisis forges character. Facing adversity changes us. Sometimes we rise to the occasion and get stronger, other times life overwhelms us; either way, we do not stay the same.

On March 20 2020 when Boris Johnson announced the closure of pubs, restaurants and gyms, life took a surreal turn, just as it did when I was diagnosed with a brain tumour many years prior. Circumstances were different, yet in some ways also the same. There were things beyond my control, but I had a choice in how I reacted.

My tumour was a haemangioblastoma: non-malignant, innocuous even. It was no more than a kidney-shaped bean inside my cerebellum, the lower half of the brain where motor functions reside. The tumour did not and would not have spread, but it caused a cyst – a bubble of liquid – to form around it. The cyst grew. By the time I saw a neurosurgeon, the bubble filled a third of my cerebellum. That’s how I knew it was there: the cyst had begun impinging on my brainstem.

I spent a weekend wishing I were in a dream, that the person who was me was actually someone else. And then I sprang into action. The moment I took charge – to the extent I could – marked the start of my recovery.

This experience was a test run for the future, except I did not know it. I made limited changes to my life.

Ten years later, almost to the day of my brain tumour diagnosis, I faced death again. This time I had cancer, breast cancer, which is relatively common. Still, there is no way to sugar-coat the moment I heard the news. Cancer was something that happened to others; I honestly did not think it would happen to me.

Good things eventually come out of bad. While stuck in a post-chemo depression, I started writing. It was an act of desperation: I never imagined I would emerge profoundly changed and happier, living life with passion.

Good things will also come out of COVID-19, even if we can’t see them all yet. Some positives are already obvious. There’s less pollution, for one thing. And Britain is enjoying a renewed sense of unity. Brexit broke this country; it has taken a virus to remind us that we have more in common than we have differences. That alone is amazing.

On a personal note, this pandemic has helped me resolve key issues around my identity. During the first week of Britain’s lockdown, when Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, put out a call for 250,000 volunteers to help the National Health Service (NHS) I registered at once. I did not even need to think.

My place is here. Finally I know where home is.

I no longer feel torn. Between Britain, where I’ve lived most of my life, Malaysia, which remains in my dreams, and America, where I have family, friends and a literary agent. Thanks to a virus that emerged – ironically – from the land some of my ancestors came from, I understand what it means to be home. Isn’t that extraordinary?

I am exactly where I should be. To know that is a blessing.

The past two Thursdays, cheers rang out along the United Kingdom’s many streets for the key workers of this country: those in the NHS, in social care, in pharmacies, supermarkets and schools (now online). We saluted them right across the country. The moments were so poignant that I cried. I clapped, too, and for good measure, banged on a pot. The entire street was out. A neighbour blew a short tune on the saxophone.

This scourge afflicting us will be defeated. We will come out the other side. When we emerge, what will we see of ourselves?

I want to be able to look back and know that I acted as courageously, thoughtfully and compassionately as I could have. I want to know that I reached out where I could, gave comfort when I could, did all that I could to help.

Some of these same sentiments were summarised by New York State’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, whose daily briefings have become must-watch events in an America clamouring for intelligent leadership. Here are a few of his words:

‘Ten years from now you’ll be talking about today to your children or your grandchildren, and you’ll shed a tear because you will remember the lives lost, and you’ll remember the faces and you’ll remember their names and you’ll remember how hard we worked and that we still lost loved ones. And you’ll shed a tear and you should because it will be sad, but you will also be proud. You’ll be proud of what you did. You’ll be proud that you showed up.’

It’s not for me to prescribe what anyone else should do. For myself, I know how tenuous life is; to squander this opportunity would be unforgivable. That is why I’m showing up.

But I’m also keeping well and trying to stay sane. Please do the same. Keep well, stay safe. We will get through this.

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Thank You, Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why We Still Need Gay Pride

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

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

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

Me: ‘Hello.’

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

Me: ‘Who’s this?’

Caller: ‘We know your type.’

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

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

That was the grand finale.

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

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

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

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

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

What’s been happening in Britain lately?

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

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

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

Two Muslim Guys I Bumped Into

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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Ruminations on Food 2: A Malaysian Food Court

Below is a photo of a dedicated food court in Ipoh, my hometown. By ‘dedicated’ I mean that it’s not attached to a shopping mall – the GP Food Court is a destination in itself. The building sports ultra-high ceilings that permit an extra floor above. This space houses a gym, though I can’t imagine how anyone would exercise in the midst of such tempting smells. Which may explain why I’ve yet to see the machines upstairs being used.

The GP Food Court, Ipoh

You can smell the food court before you actually enter, thanks to massive doorways in every direction. As if the aroma of so much food cooking wasn’t bound to waft upwards and outwards anyway, at the GP Food Court there are giant fans to aid this drift. The fans here really are enormous. You can glimpse an example above, on the top edge of the photograph. They swing at speed, too, though you can’t see this: you’ll have to take my word for it!

Food courts everywhere excel in choice, but there’s choice and then there’s choice. Take a peek at the photograph below.

Enough to Give You a Headache

This is the selection at just one stall. Notwithstanding the neon sign advertising ‘Rice’, this stall also serves noodles, in case you don’t fancy rice. It’s a well-known fact that you can’t serve rice and noodles on their own – you need things to eat them with  – and this stallholder is thoughtfully offering a panoply of dishes: braised, fried, boiled, double-boiled (all right, I made that up, though I imagine that they would if they could). There are raw dishes too, in the form of salads.

The sheer amount of choice can induce a headache. This is what happens to my partner; on each and every trip to Malaysia there’s always a first time in a food court and it’s as if she has never seen anything like it before. She’s overwhelmed, her eyes don’t know where to focus and her brain stops making decisions. She opts instead for the one or two dishes she knows – and never tries anything else.

Chicken Chop Rice with Guinness Sauce, Anyone?

Malaysians, on the other hand, are so blasé about food choice that stallholders have to be inventive. Ever tried Chicken Chop Rice with Guinness Sauce? Me neither. There’s also Portuguese Style Chicken Chop Rice on the top left hand side – a nod to our colonial history.

Most people know Malaysia as a British colony, but the Portuguese were actually here before them, followed by the Dutch. The latter two powers only conquered Malacca, a beautiful and very historical port town south of Kuala Lumpur. Our colonial past would explain why Cheese Baked Chicken Chop Rice is on this menu – cheese is definitely not Malaysian.

You may also notice that the signboards have Chinese ideograms and English words. This is because the GP Food Court is not halal, you see, which means that its patrons are largely Chinese and Indian. The Malay populace – who by law have to be Muslim in Malaysia – would be frowned on if they entered a non-halal food court – not frowned on by us, but by Malaysia’s religious officials and the religious police among its citizenry. Who said food couldn’t be a political tool?

Nonetheless, there are (for the moment) still Malay vendors selling food inside Malaysia’s non-halal eating places, including at the GP Food Court. They usually specialise in satay – a traditional Malay dish of meat that’s diced and marinated, set on skewers and then grilled over a charcoal flame fanned by palm leaves. Satay is eaten with a rich and deliciously spicy peanut sauce. The woman satay seller in the GP Food Court owns satay stalls in two other food courts – and we eat at all three (I love her satay).

To cleanse the palate, there’s also fruit at the GP Food Court. Not just any fruit, but imported fruit. In England or France, a trader would proudly proclaim his fruit as being British or French, but we in Malaysia still have the whiff of a complex. The subtext from this stallholder’s sign is that the fruit must be good, since it’s imported.

There are thousands of food courts like this all over Malaysia. There are also halal food courts, of course. For instance, the food courts inside Malaysia’s shopping malls are all halal – because only hawkers offering halal food can gain operating licences there. Whether halal or non-halal, whether located in Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, Penang or Malacca, on each of my visits in the previous ten years, every food court I went to was packed. But what people eat and how much they eat has changed – because times are now tough in Malaysia.

So tough, in fact, that even leading entertainers are speaking up. This is unprecedented. Only last week jazz singer, Sheila Majid, tweeted about Malaysia’s cost of living while a popular actress, Nur Fathia Latiff, criticised the government. Not surprisingly, both have been told to shut up.

None of this should affect visitors, however: the country remains stunning, the people welcoming, the food fabulous. Even on my most recent trip the meals I had ranged from good to superb: it’s hard to have a terrible meal in Malaysia. If you ever make it there, I would definitely recommend a visit to a dedicated food court. Be dazzled; be spoilt for choice. Do what Malaysians do: let your nose and eyes guide you. If the food smells good and there’s a queue, chances are, you won’t regret it.

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