Saturday, October 13, 2012

Somebody to vote for - not just against! (reprise)

Batu Pahat in the early 1960s

As a kid growing up in a small southern town called Batu Pahat, in the seemingly halcyon 1950s, I recall seeing the entire town festooned with navy blue buntings bearing a white sailboat motif.

That was the symbol of the Alliance Party and, although I was too young to poke my nose into politics, I understood that it represented the newly-hatched Malayan government led by Tunku Abdul Rahman.

My father was a health inspector and, as a civil servant, he was expected to support the ruling party - but I suspect he rarely bothered to vote. In those days there weren't too many political alternatives.

The Labor Party of Malaya, registered in 1952, came up with a logo that featured a hoe crossed with a pen against a large gear on a blood red background. Far better than the hammer and sickle, I suppose - since the pen suggested literacy and a degree of intellectuality. Still, for most middle-class families, the hoe (or cangkul in Malay) was hardly in keeping with their aspirations towards ever greater gentility.

So I remained blissfully unaware of shifting undercurrents in local politics and - even after the eruption of violence that began on 13 May 1969 - I found myself far more interesting than the political milieu. To a certain extent that still holds true, I have to admit.

The introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1971, under the premiership of Tun Abdul Razak (right), followed swiftly by the National Cultural Policy, effectively turned me into a "second-class citizen" in the country my grandparents had opted to make their permanent home. I remember hearing a lot of bitter comments from my father - but he never translated any of his grievances into political action. As far as my dad was concerned, Lee Kuan Yew was the sort of leader he could respect - yet he was far too comfortable to consider moving to Singapore.

I was thus utterly indifferent when the Alliance Party reinvented itself as the National Front or Barisan Nasional, opting for the archaic weighing scale as its new party symbol. (Ironically, there's a neo-Nazi racist party in Britain which calls itself the National Front. I wonder if the Barisan Nasional is aware of this prophetic coincidence.)

Having grown up in an urban environment, I noticed that the NEP created an interesting phenomenon whereby there were suddenly a lot more Malays driving expensive cars than 10 years ago. I thought that was a positive development. It was a necessary phase, perhaps, to accelerate the proliferation of a Malay middle-class which would effectively bridge the cultural divide between urban and rural folks. One of the significant spin-offs of the NEP was that many Malays were able to send their children abroad for further studies - and many returned effectively bilingual, with Caucasian spouses in tow and a distinctly cosmopolitan worldview. What once was the exclusive prerogative of the Malay aristocracy now became available to a wider spectrum of Malay society.

Monolingual Malays - particularly the ones embedded in the deep rural constituencies - remained somewhat insular and prone to xenophobia. Umno was quick to realize that these grassroots members served the party best as an ignorant, emotional voter base that could easily be swayed by official propaganda piped through the mass media. There was really no point in ensuring that they had access to different languages and cultural templates.

Accordingly, the education system was designed to be strictly utilitarian - preparing the young for jobs in an industrial society, but not encouraging them to be curious about the larger world or to acquire a taste for knowledge. A well-informed, discerning voter base is an extremely volatile one.

I recall seeing Dr Mahathir's face for the first time in the newspaper. Even though he was only a deputy minister then and I knew next to nothing about the man, something in his demeanor made me shudder. It was a visceral reaction that has never entirely left me - and perhaps never will until I get word of his departure from this planet.

To avoid the feeling of mild nausea each time I caught sight of Dr M's sneer in the papers or on TV, I focused my attention and energies on the performing arts - specifically theatre and music. That was entirely therapeutic for me. Not only did such activities keep me (relatively) sane, they also won me a wide circle of friends and invites to endless parties.

It was becoming more than obvious by 1986 that Dr M had given a sinister twist to the word "entrepreneurship" with his misguided attempt to create a Frankenstein's monster called the Bumiputra Billionaire, aided and abetted by the ultimate Mafia don, Daim Zainuddin (right).

When people become exceedingly rich by inventing something universally popular and useful - or through the display of extraordinary talent, whether in the cultural or athletic field - one can only applaud wholeheartedly. However, fast bucks obtained through political skullduggery and financial shenanigans are hugely damaging to the moral equilibrium of a nation. What happens is that the horizon of decency quickly becomes obscured, to the extent that honest truth-speakers become a threat to the corrupt status quo.

In October 1987 Mahathir, acting in his capacity as home minister, invoked the obnoxious Internal Security Act and ordered the arrest and detention without trial of some 106 people - many of whom were my personal friends and none of whom could seriously be considered a threat to anybody except Mahathir himself. A couple of newspapers were shut down and a climate of fear quickly descended upon the nation. People became apprehensive about discussing politics in public places. Each time somebody uttered the dreaded name "Mahathir" people would immediately look around to see if anyone was watching.

The Special Branch of the Royal Malaysian Police (modeled after the British Special Branch) began playing a major role at the start of the so-called Emergency in 1948. Its prime target was to infiltrate Communist cells operating within the country and gather intelligence deemed necessary to safeguard the nation's security.

However, the definition of "Communist threat" soon expanded to include leftwing political parties with socialist ideologies and outspoken critics of the government. According to Umno and the Malay ruling elite, anybody concerned about social justice, human rights and a level playing field was potentially dangerous to the status quo and therefore had to be closely watched, harassed at every turn, and thwarted from ever attaining political power - even through legitimate and peaceful means.

At that point I was compelled to remove my head from the proverbial sand and start paying close attention to all the hanky-panky that was going on in the political Punch'n'Judy show.

For a start I decided to register myself to vote. And I'm proud to say I have voted against the Barisan Nasional at every opportunity.

Although it felt a little strange to occasionally have to vote for a candidate from the Islamic party, it was still far better than voting for any of the arrogant, greedy, hypocritical rogues in the ruling party. I wasn't entirely comfortable with the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (I used to be a closet Sinophobe, despite my Chinese ancestry) - but their leaders were truly inspiring in their sheer tenacity and focus, especially veteran generals like Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh. All of them seemed ready to go to jail for their beliefs.

In 1999 when Wan Azizah inaugurated Parti Keadilan (Justice Party) to keep the spirit of reform alive while her husband languished in prison, I was prompted to join. Indeed, it was the first time in my life I actually felt drawn to committing myself to a political organization.

No opposition party on its own had the wherewithal to combat the firmly entrenched power of BN - but towards the end of 2007 Anwar Ibrahim finally succeeded in pulling together the tripartite political coalition now known as Pakatan Rakyat.

DAP's emphasis on sound financial management, PKR's focus on social justice, freedom and human rights, and PAS's spiritual foundation combine to forge a conscious, functional union of Head, Heart and Soul.

Finally we have somebody worth voting for - not just against!

[First published in April 2010]

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Something truly worth celebrating ~ Puan Badariah, Jo Kukathas's willing puppet!

Artistic Director, Instant Café Theatre and CHAI: Jo Kukathas is one of the grand dames of the local performing arts scene. She has played the roles of writer, actor and director, sometimes all at the same time, in countless award-winning theater productions. She is currently the Artistic Director at the Instant Café Theatre and CHAI.

Thanks for making my day, Jo... I mean, Minah :-)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Better late than never, they say. In this case, better never than late, I think.

Launched yesterday at The Actors Studio, Lot 10
(Information on where the book is available will be posted here
as soon as I get the details)

Feroz Faisal Dawson (17 February 1966~12 August 2012) photo courtesy of Chris Spisak


Feroz Dawson has been writing short stories and screenplays since the early 1990s. Few know of Feroz's unique gift as a writer, although a couple of his early works have been published in anthologies of Malaysian stories. It would have been really sweet if Feroz had lived to see this collection in print. Personally, I would rather he continue to procrastinate on this pet project for another few years than to see him posthumously published.

Wherever you are, dear Feroz, I'm sure you're pleased that Ladder in the Water is finally out. It's a beautiful cover design - and when I get ahold of my copy, I shall most certainly cherish it.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Taking Five on a laidback Sunday evening... with the incredible Mr Al Jarreau!

What a gift! To witness such incredible artistry and talent in a fellow human being reinforces my faith in the ultimate value and redeemability of this curious genetic hodgepodge scientifically labeled Homo sapiens sapiens. Anyone who can scat like Al Jarreau is worth nominating as Galactic Ambassador to the Starry Councils!

[Thanks to SuperSnake Cobra who tipped me off on this outstanding video. I just hope the anal retentive, money-obsessed record labels don't pressure YouTube to take all the goodies down.]

The Russell Tribunal on Palestine ~ will it help end the nightmare in Gaza?

I was pleased to learn that Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame is a juror with the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, which completes its proceedings today in New York City. The imposition of an artificial state called Israel on the Palestinian people 64 years ago has destroyed the dreams of at least 3 generations of Palestinians whose only crime was to have been born there.

The crux of the problem is that this planet remains under the control of warlords descended from a virulent species of aggressive colonizers and empire builders whose DNA is now inextricably interwoven into the entire human population.

Only by overriding these violent tendencies within our own neurology can we hope to extricate ourselves from endless cycles of armed conflict that benefit nobody except a small handful of defense contractors and land grabbers.

[Brought to my attention by SuperSnake Cobra]