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On April 28, thousands of Malaysians all around the world will come together to promote and celebrate our united belief in democracy, and a clean and fair elections. They will do this, coming from the full range of our diverse and plural society, because our present government continues to fail at upholding transparency throughout the election process. Despite going out of its way to issue boastful statements of reform after the Bersih 2.0 rally last year, last Friday, our Parliament, led by a majority representing our current administration, rushed no less than 8 bills before what is believed to be its final sitting before the 13th General Election. These included bills that hide broad-reaching, opaque and ultimately inhibitive policies against our basic civil rights, even though these same bills were originally touted to open up our democratic participation as citizens, to widen freedom of speech for the press and to re-enfranchise groups that had long been marginalised from our political system.

Apart from the apparent show of socially-progressive bills before a potentially difficult election period, at least some of the reasoning behind this incredibly rushed approval process was to minimise debates and amendments wherever possible. The enactment of any one law is a serious matter. Pushing through 8 bills in one day is downright irresponsible, and demonstrates a true lack of initiative on our current administration's part to take our laws seriously.

As I write this, many of the unsavoury events running up to Bersih 2.0 has already likewise shadowed Bersih 3.0. Different public departments have passed the responsibility of approving, disproving, enabling and ultimately blacklisting the assembly of Bersih between them, from the Home Ministry to KL City Hall to our police force. Merdeka Square, where the Union Jack was first lowered, and our nation's flag first raised on August 31, 1957, lies barricaded in razor wire. Our mainstream media has carefully avoided the issue and independent sources are being stymied. Major roads into the heart of KL are being barricaded overnight, even as people gather in the streets in anticipation. Even overseas, with special mention of us Malaysians here in the United States, threatening emails have been reportedly sent to students studying abroad on public grants saying in no small terms their scholarships are like to be revoked if they are caught participating in these 'anti-government' activities.

I would like to preface the rest of this post by saying that I support Bersih's goals for cleaner and fairer elections. My heart goes out to each and every one of my fellow Malaysians who are rallying, from Auckland to San Francisco, and definitely the people who are marching in the streets of my home city, Kuala Lumpur. I have been and will be following every scrap of news I can get from home. Every time they cheer, I will be happy. Every time they fall -- because preliminary reports confirm that the tear gas and water cannons have begun, it feels like a part of myself is being ripped away. I love my city, and I love my country. I am proud that Malaysians from the full breadth of our rainbow are coming together and doing this for a better democratic process. These people are my people. Their culture is a huge part of who I am. It hurts to see photos of streets and landmarks I recognise, seeing the parts of KL being smothered in thick clouds of tear gas, being able to fill in the surroundings with memories from my childhood.

When I attended Bersih 2.0 in San Francisco last year, people were nice to us. We were some of the few mixed race couples there. As with any gathering of Malaysians, I am often anxious that my husband and I would not be accepted. My parents are a mixed-race couple, and while I was lucky to grow up in their circle of families and people like us, I have seen firsthand what happens outside of it. This is almost always less true of Malaysians abroad, who share a perspective that is uniquely Malaysian and uniquely other.

A lot has happened since last year. Since then, Malaysians have been emboldened to act on their beliefs by rallying for all sorts of reasons, some positive, some not. It's like a fervour of acting on our feet has gripped the nation, culminating in the massive Himpunan Hijau (Green Gathering) rally, against the opening of a proposed rare earth processing plant by Lynas Corp. in Kuantan. It is this last rally that has particularly soured me to the notion of assembling for a cause. The basic premise of the anti-Lynas rally was a real failure on the part of the government to inform and educate citizens of a rare earth processing plant being constructed within 30km of residential areas. Malaysia's last experience with rare earth processing was an environmental tragedy, shushed up, paid up and locked away out of court. Lynas's plant only came to light after it was reported in the New York Times, when it was nearly complete. Adding fuel to the fire were two factors. The first was that at the time of the NY Times report, Lynas had yet to come up with a viable long-term storage plan for its radioactive thorium waste, even though the report itself gave vague hints of a potentially green method of recycling the waste. The second was that the whistleblowing, as it were, came in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. The mood was filled with fear of a potential radioactive fallout. People were understandably angry at the lack of consensus or information about Lynas's construction. They organised. They rallied, en masse, calling for the closure of the plant in their community. But the real tragedy about the Lynas plant wasn't that people stood up for themselves. The real tragedy of Lynas was that although its basic premise was one of lack of disclosure, and more broadly, any number of crucial environmental questions, from the tightening of our environmental standards to our own love affair with rampant consumerism -- creating the market that makes Lynas viable, these were virtually not at all the issues that mattered.

Instead, the Lynas plant in Kuantan became the focal point of decades of bitterness and mistrust against the government, and by proxy, the same political parties that have ruled it, for the past 55 years. Supporting Himpunan Hijau became a catch-phrase for supporting a change of government, while having any other opinion, even a cautionary voice against the growing and sometimes blatant misinformation on both sides, meant you were in some ways a government goon. It was painful to read responses to the few well-articulated articles that did emerge, asking what if? What if the real potential for kickstarting an industry presently vital to green technologies and doing it better on our shores could happen? What if expertise trickling from this new industry helped create the expertise (and interest) in researching ways to improve green technologies, so that rare earths are no longer needed to manufacture them? What if the plant had been built outside of Malaysia? Would we still have cared how the ingredients for our iPhones and solar panels affected the communities they came from?

The vast majority of the responses to these questions were inevitably, "Then you live next to the factory," or, "You support X government party".

To add some perspective on why the responses to any discussion about consumerism and the environment particularly hurt, I have a story to tell about Bersih 2.0. I was talking to my parents over the phone in Malaysia as Bersih 2.0 was happening on the streets of KL. My father, a diehard techie, was more excited about the large crowd lining up outside the Apple Center downtown for the latest i-gadget. Consider for a second that when Bersih 2.0 happened, the police had erected blockades into the city overnight, that as these people were waiting in a mall, tens of thousands of Malaysians were marching in the streets, facing riot police, being teargassed and water canonned.

The political opposition pulled no punches in egging on the public against the Lynas plant, feeding the hatred of the government as it feeds their potential voters in the coming elections. As with the last two Bersih rallies, the political opposition is pulling no stops in trying to co-opt the upcoming gathering of 84 civil societies as its own too. Last year, the de facto leader of the People's Alliance (PKR) went so far as to claim he could personally call off the Bersih rally altogether if a go-ahead was given for clean and fair elections. That was rather promptly refuted by Bersih coalition leadership (as seen in the short video clip linked here).

I joined the Bersih 2.0 gathering in San Francisco last year out of patriotism, and because I wanted to show that you can stand for civil rights in Malaysia without also representing a political affiliation. I believe, firstly, that assembly is a last resort, when all other avenues of being heard fail. In the past 9 months since Bersih 2.0, people have stood up for Lynas, as well as against the LGBT community and the alleged conversion of Muslims into Christians. The spectrum of freedom of speech, as we who live overseas quickly learn, is broad. But here, unlike in America or Europe, neither the LGBT community nor the people championing greater religious choice are able to retaliate with opposing gatherings -- certainly not without fear for their safety or the safety of their loved ones. Maybe a diverse coalition of people from all walks of life marching for greater democracy will change that perspective. I hope so, yet I wonder.

I do not like our current administration. But I don't like our alternative either. I think in many ways, both the government and the opposition are products of, and continuos contributors to, the poisoned political, social and cultural climate that has taken over my country. Whichever poison you pick: Islamism, a legacy of British Colonial-era racial profiling, the Malay political elite, a grandstanding rather than constructive stance to policy; this is true from both a historical perspective as well as in the present. I don't think our only alternative should be the one choice either. There are different perspectives we can still take -- voting based on individual candidates' capabilities rather than along party lines. Even if the party line is your choice, there are still options. There are independent candidates to think of, and less well-known political parties (slim as they are) who may contest under the government or opposition banners. For example, the Socialist Party of Malaysia (linked to wiki as their official website is currently down) fights for progressive, worker-oriented issues. Or, if our country's politics makes you blanch, which it does to me, put your support into the civil rights movements of Malaysia, who are the real instigators of change. Yes, like Bersih, its component NGOs and people you may not ever have heard about. To cite another example, Loyar Burok runs great political awareness and civil rights workshops for our youth, not just in Malaysia, but in the Malaysian diaspora abroad, so that they don't feel disconnected from their heritage.

Unfortunately, this close to a general election, with predictions ranging from weeks to months, I do believe Bersih 3.0 runs the incredibly high risk of being primarily a walking advertisement for the political opposition. Part of the reason that Bersih 3.0 was even called, when not even a year had passed since the last rally, was that there is this strong feeling in the air, the government will call an election soon to ride on the back of its baby steps in democratic reform. I don't want to think of the good work the NGOs behind Bersih put into Malaysia, for and beyond the rally, being piggybacked by people I think are honestly detrimental to diversity in my country, in as much as they are part of the rainbow.

Nothing has changed about how I feel regarding the people participating in Bersih. I respect them, I admire them, and I believe in what they're doing. I just don't know if joining them this time, via the San Francisco Bersih rally tomorrow morning, is what I want to do for Malaysia. Maybe I just don't have the love or democracy in me to stand beside the metaphorical PETA people and the Islamists who would throw me and people like me into a detention centre for apostates and GLBTs. Or maybe I'm reading the news, seeing the rhetoric and honestly wishing I could see hope.
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Preamble: This essay was written over the course of a week, and is largely a manner by which I am organising my own thoughts on the subject of proselytisation. I apologise if it self-references and makes statements not immediately clear to every reader. Links throughout the writing go back to a selected bibliography that informed how I worked through the points.

The news back home has been rife with accusations of members from different faiths proselytising to each other this past year. First, it was evangelical Christians getting to know Muslims at buka puasa (breaking fast) dinners during Ramadan. Today, it's Hindus accusing Muslims of forcibly converting a student into Islam. For a long time, I believed proselytisation between any faith in my country was against the law. Specifically, I knew that other religions were not allowed to preach to Muslims. I assumed the same went for these other religions preaching between each other as well. In fact, I was rather proud that my country was forward-thinking enough to bar proselytisation in general.

But the discourses in the media of late has taught me this presumption was wrong. Yes, preaching another faith to a Muslim is against the law in Malaysia. There are no laws against other religions preaching their truths to each other, or, as I understand it, no laws against Muslims preaching their truths to anyone else. What I had thought was a blanket law covering all religions was, while growing up, the fear non-Muslim faiths in general had about preaching openly. Although they weren't stopped from accepting non-Muslims into their fold, there was too much of a risk associated with publically proselytising. It was too easy to accidentally talk to the wrong person, who might in turn report to the authorities. This wall of legally-enforced silence does not apply to Muslims, who usually have the propriety to keep their religion to themselves as much as anyone else, but has vastly diminished in the last two decades as Islamicisation took root in my country.

A personal experience with proselytisation. )

In Malaysia, the argument for/against proselytisation appears to hinge on a basic point, that Muslims are able to proselytise freely to non-Muslims, even though the reverse is illegal to do. Malaysia has deeply protective policies regarding Islam, rooted in the idea of Malay (and therefore Islamic) supremacy, written and sealed within our Constitution and abundantly allowed to flourish, especially with the advent of Islamicisation in the '80s, within the local culture. There are many rulings that stratify Islam in the country, ostensibly to protect Muslims from un-Islamic influences that may shake their faith. These can cover relatively small details, like how it is illegal for a Muslim to eat during Ramadhan in public, as it disrespects the holy fasting month, to life-changing decisions like compelling the non-Muslim spouse in a mixed faith marriage to convert to Islam to ensure not only that the Muslim spouse's faith is unsullied, but also to ensure any children from the union are automatically Muslim. Over time, this stratification has resulted in a kind of religious paranoia, as every new idea that enters the country has to be zealously inspected to ensure its conformity (or non-competition) with Islam. Among the Muslims themselves, the view seems to range from those who genuinely believe in the official line and think all these restrictions help keep their faith safe, those who roll their eyes at the patronising nature of the system but leave it be, to those who reject the idea that any one government should have so much power over people's private lives, and who chafe at the idea that their faith is the subject of so much official doubt over its sincerity. Regardless of their personal views, the official protective stance is what defines our current regulations and public discourse. It is considered a political and cultural minefield to raise the topic of proselytisation among Muslims, as this is immediately taken to mean the speaker is questioning Malay supremacy and our entire mode of government, as well as being deeply disrespectful to Muslims. This makes it difficult for public debate to occur regarding the issue, and raise public awareness on means to reform this culture of distrust.

At least officially, remarkably less fuss would be made if a Muslim proselytised among non-Muslims. Even if the non-Muslim community in question found it disrespectful, even if they thought it brought into question their freedom to practice their faith and how they ran their community, most people would likely turn a blind eye. The federal government's reactions to inter-religious conflicts has of late required the non-Muslim party in each situation to backtrack and compromise more than the Muslims. It comes to no surprise then that the non-Muslim side of the debate seems to be growing more frustrated, more willing to face the federal government in court, more willing to engage the media over restrictions on its rights. It is only natural to assume that this debate will eventually include a demand for the rights of non-Muslim faiths to proselytise freely, to all. Whether this banner will be taken up by the majority is hard to tell. No one really likes their neighbours planting seeds in their turf, honestly, and there's a certain fear of "Do unto your neighbours" that has worked to keep the different faiths apart.

My discourse on the necessity of anti-proselytisation laws. )
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When I looked out of the cafe this morning, the Mission was covered in a light, pervasive rain. It appeared for all the world like a diaphanous fog, which every local I know would say is impossible for the Mission. On the morning of July 9th, it was a clear day for San Francisco. By this, one means that it was sunny but cold, more so along the waters under the Golden Gate Bridge. The Malaysians I met that morning were a loose gathering of like-minded individuals. Most drove in from the southern tech hubs, up to 2 hours away. Apart from myself, there was probably only one other person who actually lived in the city there.

It wasn't hard to walk up to my countrymen and introduce myself. Conversation inevitably drifted to recognising your compatriots by their regional specialties. Among the first people I met were a couple from Melaka who had only been in the US this year. They were surprised I'd never tried the Hainanese chicken rice ball -- never even heard of it until I moved to SF, in fact. Whenever I was down in Melaka (which has amazing food), I went out for Nyonya dinners. I am clearly due to try these chicken-fat flavoured delicacies.

Based on a show of hands at the introductory speech given by the organisers, about three-fourths of those present were from Kuala Lumpur, with the rest largely from neighbouring cities and states. There was a Sarawakian among us, whom everyone cheered on. It was a good mix of professionals my age and younger college-goers. Some of us were recent arrivals, but it there were clearly people who had been here for far longer. The atmosphere was generally friendly. Almost everyone showed up in a yellow shirt. One lady, a real Nyonya, showed up in a gorgeously embroidered kebaya. I wore an orange tank top (the closest thing I had to yellow in my wardrobe) under a black sweater and white shawl, as it was cold, more so with the prevalent breezes from the bay.

We were read a summary of the news overnight. Those of us from KL were notably grim over mentions of places we knew. In the last few days, more things have come to light, as stories were corroborated and proven. I was, and continue to be, upset by the tear gas and water cannons aimed at the Tung Shin Hospital compound. During a particularly bad episode when I was a teenager, I was admitted to Tung Shin for a couple of days. My high school was across the street. I passed by this place every day. And while I do believe the police have some right to prevent a street protest from causing a disturbance at a hospital, aiming gas cannisters at people taking refuge from said chemicals in a medical facility is more likely to have the opposite effect. Stories emerge of protesters who clearly also believed tear gas on hospital grounds was a horrible idea, using their own protective towels to throw the cannisters into monsoon drains away from the grounds.

Puduraya, the bus hub across the street from Tung Shin and one of the major rally points, was a place I walked through every day for 3 years. I bought snacks from the vendors sometimes, or mailed letters from the post office there. If my hamsters were running low on supplies, I walked up towards Petaling Street -- along the rally route -- to what used to be a row of pet stores (now, I believe, either burned or closed down or both). When I was in college, I would go with friends to Petaling Street for tofu fah (still some of the finest in the city). Petaling Street, essentially KL's Chinatown, is one of the liveliest places in KL, not only being a large outdoor leather goods/clothing market/tourist trap, but really also a place to sample some of the city's best cuisine. That it would become a natural meeting point for rallyers is not at all surprising.

Other names resonated down that list. Masjid Jamek and the Indian quarters of the city were close to my college. Again, these were places I visited often. We'd walk out to lunch at one of the nearby hawker centers, bombarded by head-pounding Bollywood pop music and immersed in the clashing colours of fabric shops. I heard that a lot of shops in the area closed for the rally, but I do wonder if some of the char kway teow, briyani and porridge sellers were open, at least for lunch. Apparently, those places that were open saw roaring business from starving rallyers.

These places are not spots on a map. They're culturally-significant parts of Kuala Lumpur where real people work, eat and play. It makes me happy to think that the largely urbanite protesters came out to walk in the places that are important to us, as much as it saddens me they were treated badly for their efforts.

When I spoke to the expatriate Malaysians in SF, it became clear all of us had gathered and were attracted to the non-partisan nature of this walk for cleaner elections. Although we didn't all necessarily share the same political views, I did meet people who were just as disgusted by the opposition's voracious co-opting of Bersih. News from home tells us that the rally was not only a success, in spite of very real police lockdowns all over the city, but the minimally 20,000 people who showed up were more multi-racial than the first Bersih, from all walks of life. In my last blog post, I talked about how some of the earliest rallyers to arrive and the latest to leave were also some of the eldest. To my knowledge, regardless of who they were, none of the rallyers condoned disrespect for these golden citizens, and that's really kind of cool.

Here in SF, we gathered, we chatted, and we walked uphill towards the halfway point before Golden Gate Bridge. I felt vaguely awkward for walking around in a large white billowing shawl, and think I should have frankly brought a jacket for ease of hiking. The shawl was meant to be an emergency warming ration, as I really had thought my heavy sweater would cover most of my warming needs. There were at least two large Malaysian flags, which made all of us proud. A young policeman hung back from our meeting spot, taking photos of us from every angle. It was a little creepy, but it probably was for administrative purposes. We had a permit to be there, with notifications to the police and the State Parks department. The Avon Breast Cancer Walk was happening that day too, so lots of ladies in bright pink were walking along with us. As I mentioned earlier, it was a cheery, chatty walk, less of a rally, more of a loose gathering of like-minded people.

A very kind older couple actually brought Malaysian food for a potluck brunch, but [livejournal.com profile] scanner_darkly, who'd driven me to the Presidio for this event, and myself needed to head home for another meeting with friends later that afternoon. I did learn a few things about the local community though, and the name-dropping of the most semi-authentic Malaysian restaurants in the Bay Area. It also tickled me to no end that the Malaysian Professional and Business Association (of California) also doubles up as the Gourmet Club. Malaysians will be Malaysians, eh?
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In a rare move 3 days ago, the King of Malaysia issued an edict calling on both the Bersih coalition and the federal government to negotiate their differences amicably. Forward to this edict, the Bersih coalition requested, and were granted, an audience with the King to find a compromise that would be deemed gracious for all sides. The audience involved only representatives of the Bersih coalition and the royal party, without the presence of the Prime Minister, members of the ruling administration or the political opposition, to leave as little doubt as possible about the non-partisan nature of this intervention.

The solution they arrived at was that the Bersih rally would proceed on July 9th, but in a stadium. Before I go into the implications of this, there are a couple of points I feel that are worth explaining.

It appears to be implied, based on the King's official text, that the choice of having the rally in a stadium is so any negative social effects of a mass demonstration could be contained. Malaysia is still an essentially conservative country. Demonstrations are not new to us, as our founders protested for a variety of different democratic reasons under the British, and these protests helped solidify the call for independence. But demonstrations also carry connotations of social disorder and chaos to the Malaysian psyche, buoyed by our strong connection to cultures (whether Malay, Chinese, Indian or any of the native ethnicities) in which the greater good of the community does often come first. Part of the fear of demonstrations was reinforced by the May 13 race riots of 1969. The riots occurred in Kuala Lumpur, where I lived for most of my life, and is particularly significant to residents there, although its effects have been deeply felt nationwide ever since. I wasn't born yet when the riots happened, but my father, who lived with his family as a young man in KL at the time, has always indicated it was a scary period in our history. People were afraid of leaving their houses. There were all sorts of nasty rumous about violence against people for being Malay, Chinese or Indian.

The social environment of the time also carries some similarities with the situation in Malaysia today. Most normal Malaysians were then, as they are now, on fairly neighbourly terms with each other. However, there were palpable underlying differences in the economic statuses between different ethnicities. Strong affirmative action programs have created a larger Malay middle class in the past four decades, but Malay participation in all sectors of the economy, especially at the upper echelons, is still deemed unsatisfactory. If Malays believed they could not achieve the wealth or educational level of their peers from other ethnicities in 1969, then the affirmative action policies put into place afterwards has created the same effect for non-Malays today. By the time I was in primary school in the mid-80s, we knew non-Malay family and friends who felt compelled to migrate, because they believed they could no longer get ahead in their careers or education with the quotas imposed specifically for Bumiputeras (Malays and native ethnicities) at all institutions. When I was a teenager, in the late 90s, I knew non-Malay classmates who actually saw no future for themselves in the country. Many of them believed their only chance at a higher education was to enter a pricey private college, because public colleges were subject to Bumiputera quotas, and a good entry-level job was ideally abroad.

Then, as now, different segments of society stoked the flames of racism and religion as a daily, visible, even mainstreamed part of our country's political life. These different segments would accuse each other of selling one race or the other out in the popular media. Then, as now, Malay supremacy as a concept was contested, publically separating our multi-racial community between those who are pureblooded Malaysians, and those who are merely born on Malaysian soil, and thus muddied. Then, as now, Malaysians argued for a "Malaysian Malaysia", a nation that embraces and acknowledges plural Malaysian society, that does not put any one race and/or religion above the other.

Potentially above and beyond all this stands the King, who represents the very heart of Malaysia's historical and traditional administration, that is, the Malay Sultanates that have historically ruled nine of our thirteen states. The position of the King of Malaysia is a democratic institution, a point that at least as I remember it, kids in school are often quite proud of. The Sultan of each state may have been born into the role, but ours is one of the few countries where the King is elected. Each King is elected into office by the Conference of Rulers, a council comprised of the nine rulers of the historical Malay states and four governors of the remaining states. The chosen King rules for a single five-year term and may not be elected for a consecutive term. As with other constitutional monarchies, the King's role is largely ceremonial, with his most important discretionary powers pertaining to the appointment of the Prime Minister and dissolving Parliament.

Whatever their personal views of the monarchy, I believe most Malaysians would defer to the King, and would not, under normal circumstances, undermine or openly criticise his rule. To do so would be to ostracise a large swathe of popular support, as well as appear dangerously dismissive of Malaysia's historical roots. The ultimate goal of the first Bersih rally, and the upcoming Bersih 2.0 rally, was to present the people's demands for clean and fair elections to the King. Bersih achieved this in 2007. In 2011, the pre-emptive audience with the King is a positive development, as it enabled Bersih to present the people's demands early.

Having achieved their goal, however, it remains to be seen if Bersih can continue its momentum for change. The decision, with deference to His Majesty, to hold the rally in a stadium, puts the coalition in line with the federal government's goal of restricting both Bersih's influence and physical support. A stadium, unlike the streets of Kuala Lumpur, keeps the rally as much away from the public eye as possible. It also puts a hard restriction on the number of people allowed to join the rally.

Bersih has selected Stadium Merdeka, in Kuala Lumpur, as its venue for July 9th. The choice of Stadium Merdeka has great historic significance, as this was the spot where Malaysia's independence was first declared in 1957. As of yesterday, the Cabinet has rejected this request, as have the stadium's operators. The Information, Culture and Communications Minister has even gone so far as to state Bersih could hold the rally at any other stadium outside of the Federal Territory, such as in Selangor or Kelantan, both states currently run by the Pakatan Rakyat (the political opposition).

The implications of the Information Minister's statement cannot be understated, as it underlines the federal government's continued efforts to paint Bersih as a facade of the political opposition, ie. the political parties that will run against the ruling coalition in elections potentially held next year. This makes any negative fallout occurring during the rally, for whatever reason, squarely the fault of the political opposition, and in the larger view, that of the citizens deemed foolish enough to follow their lead. Not only does this help inflame citizens for Bersih who may support an opposition party, it denigrates all the other members of Malaysian civil society from every political, social and cultural affiliation who are in it to demand freer and fairer elections. Bersih 2.0 is a rally to request specific crucial reforms that ensures every Malaysian citizen has a fair go at their right to vote. Nowhere in that intention is a call to topple the current government or demand any change of face in the ruling administration.

Although the Prime Minister has said that he would help expedite obtaining permissions to use a stadium for the rally, which Bersih has aptly stated includes Stadium Merdeka, responsibility for giving that permission has now been passed onto the police. And while the police have indicated the rally permit process would also be expedited for Bersih, it remains to be seen if a permit will be given by July 9th.

Even more importantly, arrests and charges against Bersih participants have not ceased. The police have stated that citizens found with pro-Bersih paraphernalia will be arrested on the grounds of participating in an illegal organisation. The Bersih coalition, even in spite of receiving the King's permission to rally at a stadium, are still considered an outlawed group. Roadblocks have been set up throughout Kuala Lumpur in anticipation of the rally, restricting traffic into the city. And while all these things have been done with the publicised purpose of the people's safety, the difficult but understandable stance Bersih has had to take, deference to the King, and by proxy, the elected federal government, puts Malaysia's checks and balances in a precarious situation. The Malaysian people should have the largest say over their future. The privacy, dignity and right for each individual Malaysian to determine their elected government's direction is the right of the greater good.

Bersih 2.0

Jul. 2nd, 2011 11:25 pm
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I've been reading up about the upcoming Bersih rally on July 9, where at least tens of thousands of Malaysians may take to the streets of Kuala Lumpur, peacefully demonstrating for freer and fairer elections in my country. Bersih 2.0 is the sequel to the Bersih 2007 rally, also held in Kuala Lumpur, where any number between 10,000 and 40,000 people also gathered for freer and fairer elections. The Bersih coalition itself, which planned the event, is comprised of 62 NGOs representing the full breadth of Malaysia's political and social spectrum. Among the notable events that happened during the first Bersih rally, representatives of the Malaysian Bar Council, led by then chairlady Dato' Ambiga Sreenevasan -- who still heads the Bersih coalition today, themselves took to the streets of Putrajaya, Malaysia's capital, in solidarity with the protesters.

It's taken me about two months to figure out what to make of Bersih and the rallyers in general. There's a huge morass of information out there about what Bersih claims to be, and what it probably isn't. Even by cross-referencing different non-mainstream media sources in Malaysia, many of the views presented are filled with acrid opinionating and catty cynicism, with incessant co-opting by several political forces. Finding a clear answer was difficult.

Most important to me, and what took me this long to figure out, is that for all intents and purposes, Bersih is going to be a non-partisan event, representing the full breadth of civil society in Malaysia.

Key to that idea is that in spite of a concerted campaign against the Bersih rally by the federal government that has included illegalising the Bersih organisation, arrests of volunteers, accusations of sedition and the full power of the pro-government media, Bersih continues to offer room for dialogue with the country's administration, even if it will not halt the rally, and has at no point closed the door open for government representatives and supporters to join the rally themselves. The point is to call for freer and fairer elections in Malaysia, after all, so all Malaysians have a role in ensuring this happens.

Secondary to that is that unlike the first Bersih rally, where representatives of the Pakatan Rakyat, the coalition of the three largest opposition political parties in Malaysia, were part of the planning committee, all political parties have pulled out of administrative roles from 2011's Bersih to keep the event non-partisan. This doesn't stop different NGOs within the coalition from having their alliances, but that's not the point. Civil society represents the whole of Malaysian society, even the people we are wont to disagree with, and the list of Endorsees on Bersih's official website accurately mirrors this. Again, all Malaysian citizens are responsible for ensuring elections held in the country, for their government, are free and fair. This goes from university students to the men and women on the street, from the political fringe to the Dewan Negara, from the Cabinet to the Prime Minister -- and indeed, the King.

There are 8 demands Bersih is making by organizing this rally. I've listed a summary below, where text in brackets were my own explanations for what certain points pertained to. The fully elaborated list is available at Bersih's website here:

  1. Clean the electoral roll

  2. Reform postal ballot

  3. Use of indelible ink (to prevent voter fraud)

  4. Minimum 21-day campaign period (prior to elections)

  5. Free and fair access to the media (for all political parties)

  6. Strengthen public institutions

  7. Stop corruption

  8. Stop dirty politics


Although all the demands are clearly important, the second point, reform of the postal ballot to include all Malaysians living abroad and Malaysian voters within the country who cannot physically be in their constituency on polling day, particularly resonates with me. It should be noted that during Bersih 2007, the similar demand was to abolish postal votes entirely. Currently, regulations exist to restrict postal votes to members of the Armed Forces, public servants serving abroad, full-time students overseas and their spouses. This is in spite of guarantees within the Malaysian Constitution stating that all citizens have a right to vote as absent voters if they are not currently residents of the constituency they are registered to vote in. As a Malaysian living abroad, I would like to vote in my country's elections, but there are currently no avenues for me to do so, short of flying home on short notice, which I simply do not have the resources to do.

With barely six days left to Bersih 2.0, the government has pulled out nearly all the stops to ensure the rally does not proceed, and that the Bersih coalition itself is totally discredited. The Home Ministry announced that Bersih was an outlaw organisaion this morning, that, "Its activities had brought about negative impact on the country's image and threatened public order, security, economic prosperity and the country's sovereignty, and undermined harmony among the people." Arrests have been stepped up for volunteers and social activists promoting Bersih, whether or not they were affiliated to a political party. According to one report, up to about 100 people have been detained. Any paraphernalia deemed related to Bersih is now considered illegal to own. This includes the movement's yellow shirts and pamphlets -- supporters have taken to wearing the yellow shirts covertly, or using some other kind of token, like yellow armbands. Remember, Bersih is meant to be a peaceful movement for freer and fairer elections in Malaysia. It is not about toppling the government, but working with existing structures to improve transparency in the electoral process.

While we're on this, the Malaysian Constitution states, in Article 10(1)b, that: "all citizens have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms". This makes illegalizing a peaceful rally by citizens to negotiate peaceful improvements to our voting system unconstitutional. Citizens have the right to walk, in spite of what the government suggests.

I would finally like to bring to people's attention that there are Bersih rallies being held worldwide, apart from the epicentre in Kuala Lumpur (my home city). The full list of places with participating rallies is on the Global Bersih 2.0 Facebook page. There is going to be a rally in San Francisco. I will be there. It's the very first time I'm walking for anything, and to put it lightly, I am nervous. As you may already have guessed, in my country, that's often deemed outside of the law.

Some resources follow:

1. Bersih's official homepage: http://bersih.org/
2. The Bersih 2.0 wiki page (with lots of references for further reading): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bersih_2.0
3. Uncommon Sense with Wong Chin Huat: Bersih 2.0 - Why walk?; The Nut Graph: http://www.thenutgraph.com/uncommon-sense-with-wong-chin-huat-bersih-2-0-–-why-walk/
4. Global Bersih 2.0 walks: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Global-Bersih-20/182539641800071?sk=wall#!/pages/Global-Bersih-20/182539641800071?sk=info
vampyrichamster: (Default)
I take back what I said about sissies probably just being a translation of "pondan" (Malay slur for a gay man), and deliberately chosen to be as scathing as possible to the official Terengganu Ministry of Education stance on rehabilitating effeminate boys, in the New Straits Times article titled, "Besut boot camp for 66 sissies". It seems that with its follow-up article, where the NST attempts to present an expert's view on why transsexualism occurs, not any less subtly titled, "The parenting factor behind sissies", the paper is very much about pushing a hate-based agenda.

Perhaps, most problematic of all is the single expert opinion they sought itself, a psychology lecturer from Universiti Teknologi Mara, which gave only the nurture argument as the cause for transsexualism, with no backing or countering expert opinion. In fact, the only countering opinion at all in the article was not medical, but the view of the federal Minister for Women, Family and Community Development, who stated quite strongly that the Besut camp went against Malaysian child protection laws and should be closed down. The psychology expert's argument itself was deeply rooted in gender bias. Specifically, it claimed that boys develop effeminate tendencies if they lacked strong father figures in their lives, if for example, their fathers were distant and their mothers were left with the task of raising all her children. Perhaps, the mother wished for a daughter and got a son, so she dresses the son in feminine clothes, making him more comfortable with his feminine side. Or she is a working mother, and asks her son to help with the household chores. The expert goes on to say that there is nothing wrong with asking a son to help with chores, but puts the blame on mothers for failing to explain to their sons that household chores are traditionally done by women, and men can do them "in order to become more independent."

The question I would ask here is, why must sons (or daughters) be taught to help in household chores so that they can be more independent. Why not so they can be more equal partners with their spouses later in life? And if boys are taught to do household chores to be more independent, then why are girls taught to do household chores? Is it because, as the expert points out, this is the traditional role of women?

She also believed that effeminate boys reinforced each other's normalcy if they gathered together in groups for support, such as in school, and that this just made the situation worse, because they would get "bolder".

Firstly, no one parent should bear the brunt of raising a child alone, if possible, whether that is the mother or the father. No one spouse should expect to bear the brunt of housework alone if both spouses work, nor should they set an example for their children that suggests making one working parent do all the household chores is normal. Would it not be better if the parents shared an equitable relationship, one based on understanding, discussion and sharing of life's burdens? Is that not a better example for children to learn about relationships?

Why is the mother expected to be the main caretaker for her child, even if she does have a job outside the home? Why is the blame for transsexualism and effeminate behaviour blamed solely on the mother? Is that just because she's female? If so, is it because all mothers and all women are assumed to be "feminine"? What is the criteria of "feminine" behaviour here? Housework? Child rearing?

Where are the experts on the nature side of this argument? Why were they not consulted for a more holistic take on children's development?

Finally, finding your friends while growing up, especially if you are perceived as different from the norm -- not a difficult thing for a growing child to do -- is a precious thing. Not all children ever succeed in doing this, and many people only find their support in later life, as adults. Banding together for strength is one of the most basic human instincts imaginable, with good reason. If a child is bullied at school for being "girly", in an environment that is relentlessly unsympathetic, at home, at school and in public social situations, then a friend may be the only thing keeping this child safe from harm, whether that is from a stranger, or from the child himself. Remember the It Gets Better campaign, that wonderful global effort to help suicidal GLBT teens not give up on life because of bullying, ostracisation and abuse over their sexual orientation? In Malaysia, perhaps we most famously know the campaign for Azwan Ismail, a Malay man who participated in the local version of this campaign with the multiracial NGO Seksualiti Merdeka. Barely a day after posting his video online, because he was Malay and Muslim, he received death threats from fellow Malaysians and threats of legal charges from a wide range of Muslim authorities including government representatives. Incidentally, videos by other non-Malay Malaysians in that campaign did not receive such equivalent ire.

I don't think any person could reasonably want any child to potentially be at risk of abuse or even death, however inadvertently, over his or her sexuality. In the end, what the authorities are trying to do with these rehabilitiation camps is a misguided attempt at protecting children, rather like protecting a child at risk of parental abuse by leaving him with his abusive parents and throwing away the key. Backtracking and calling this an attempt at a Patriotism Integration Programme is a poor excuse to put a child in harm's way.
vampyrichamster: (Default)
I read an appalling article this morning about an inaugural camp to re-educate effeminate boys being set up in Terengganu. The boys were selected by their schools, who identified them for displaying feminine qualities. State Education Minister, Mr. Razali Daud, puts forth this reason for the camp: "The students must understand that there are choices in life and we want them to know all the options available to them."

Or, as he continues to say, "We understand that some people end up as mak nyah (transvestite) or a homosexual, but we will do our best to limit the number."

Terengganu is one of Peninsular Malaysia's most conservative Muslim states, in an area analogous to the US's Bible Belt. Incidentally, for readers wondering about the New Straits Times' choice of headline, "Besut boot camp for 66 sissies", I would think the choice of wording was deliberately chosen to be as scathing as possible to the official stance being taken. From a linguistic standpoint, "sissy" is also one of the most likely translations for a common Malay word for a gay man, "pondan".

There are a number of truly disturbing claims being made Mr. Daud throughout this article. The first is treating homosexuality like a mental illness, albeit without coming outright and saying it, with symptoms of varying severity, and that the link between "effeminate behaviour" and transsexuality bears intervention with physical education, enforced guidance and religious classes. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) delisted homosexuality in 1973 and the UN's International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD) delisted it in 1990. Youth with sexual orientation and gender identity issues may require medical help, but this won't be because they're going against social norms. They may, if transsexual, require counselling and medical advice on achieving their true gender identity. Being born liking your fellow gender or behaving like an opposite gender is not an illness. It does not prevent a citizen from fulfilling all of his or her duties as a citizen, it does not prevent them from contributing to society as meaningful workers and leaders, and it certainly doesn't stop them from paying their taxes or voting, two of the most important prerequisites for a fair share of national participation. Based on this, they deserve the full respect that all other Malaysian citizens receive from their peers and from their elected government.

More than that, it is clear that while the age of these schoolboys goes unmentioned, even putting them in secondary school, as this article does, strongly suggests they are still legally children. Forcibly coercing them into reeducation camps is in direct conflict with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Malaysia has ratified. It effectively undermines the school as a safe place for children to grow and thrive as citizens and individuals, since the schools were responsible for selecting these boys. It is a direct infringement of these boys' rights as individual citizens, and their right to develop and achieve their full potential as individuals. In other words, every aspect of this camp endangers Malaysian children.

Additionally, there does not appear to be any oversight for this programme mentioned in the article. Who are the moderators of this camp, if mental or physical harm should come to these children? And if such harm occurs, whether because the children were forced into attending it or because of attending it, will the state government take responsibility for the potentially irreparable damage they have caused? Will the federal government reimburse these children and their families for any damages in the long term? In fact, what are the potential risks involved in rehabilititation? Were feasibility studies done to determine the medical justification for such a programme beforehand?

The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality issued a compelling press statement in response to the article, available on Malaysiakini. It goes into greater detail about the CRC violations and the possible repercussions of the state MoE's criteria in selecting children and setting up standards of normal behaviour without a medical basis. Once and for all, homosexuality and transsexualism are not mental illnesses, and thus, their rehabilitation has no medical basis.

Good riddance to bad rubbish? )
vampyrichamster: (Default)
I've watched and listened to the banter about proposed slashes to funding for Planned Parenthood and sexual health services here in the US with some interest these last few months. The geography was different, as was the outer skin of the cultures involved, but the rhetoric, and the way citizens' sexual health, male and female, were politicised and dragged onto the public sphere for any number of moral, religious reasons, were familiar. The larger, louder discourse was about abortion; whether federal funding is used and could be used to fund them, and if that funding should be cut. The debate happening in the background, for which abortion was only a small fragment, was if federal funding for family planning services should be cut. That would have deprived millions of underprivileged people from essential reproductive health services, including family planning consultations that prevent unwanted pregnancies, and the need for abortions in the first place. Federal funding was not eventually cut for those services, but the few weeks of raucous public debate, where people's private choices were dragged into the open, all that unecessary trauma, did its damage.

Just a few months before, the US House of Representatives was bantering about redefining rape, in large part to restrict federal funding for abortions for pregnancies resulting from rape and incest, and situations where a pregnancy endangered the life of a woman. This idea, that rape has to be redefined in a spectrum of differently forcible crimes, was eventually scrapped. Again, the weeks of public debate, of the sheer insanity of even arguing that rape has degrees of devastation that can be quantified on tax forms, dragged people's private lives into the public sphere unfairly.

Underlying all this was the strong idea that the real fight wasn't against the right for an unborn child to live (or even whether it was alive or "ensouled"), but whether people had rights over their reproductive health in general. Does society have the moral obligation to step into people's private lives and scrutinise when, how and why sexual relations occurred, for everyone's safety? If one could say that what a person does with his or her sex life is private, then why is what one person does with his her or reproductive health a matter of public interest? I say public interest here in the broadest social sense, from adminstrators to voters to the people on the street with opinions to sling who won't care who gets hurt.

In Malaysia, abortions are banned except in cases where the mother's life may be in danger. Discreetly, abortions happen behind the scenes, from sympathetic doctors who can't turn their backs on mothers who for one reason or another, simply are unprepared to raise a child. Women have discovered the morning-after pill, and those with the means to do so consume it, legally, via maternity clinics, on the pretext of missed periods. Morning-after pills are far more dangerous to a woman's health in the long term than say, oral contraceptives, as the dose of hormones involved is much higher. But that's a choice some women feel compelled to make, because the social stigma attached to a child born out of wedlock, or even the idea of sex out of wedlock, leads to such high levels of social ostracisation for them and their families that it's a necessity.

I do hear the point that having sex out of wedlock is a choice, and by extension, a child resultant from that union is also the fault of the parties involved. I hear it, and I think once sex happens, it's a chicken and egg argument, one that completely bypasses the welfare of these people involved.

It doesn't matter if you believe in more progressive sexual education for youth, or abstinence, or abject religious piety as a reign on lust, once the sexual relations have happened, it's not about whose fault it is. It's whether the people involved are safe, can be kept safe and will remain safe.

And the big deal here is that sex does happen. Unwed Malaysians are having sex. The growing number of teen mothers and abandoned babies that have alarmed the religious authorities so proves it's happening with our youth. The numbers unseen, of much older, more savvy Malaysians, are not. If we get caught up in the rhetoric of why sex happens, based on whatever moral failure seems pertinent, we'll fail to address any of the causes at all.

Malaysia once had a strong public family planning programme in the 1960s, helped in large part by the Pill. That programme was 90 percent on its way to meeting national family planning targets before funding was decreased and the programme largely ignored in subsequent National Economic Policies throughout the 70s. Around the same time, Islamic fundamentalist ideology entered the public pysche in the country, growing to influence everything from the way women dress to how our children are taught national history. Family planning was an uncertain, borderline topic that may be un-Islamic to certain Muslims, even if Muslims were the main beneficiaries of family planning policies prior to that era. By the time I was born, the country was driving itself full tilt at industrialisation, which needed a workforce and consumers. The only way to get both was unmitigated childbearing. There's a certain irony here, as the Jakarta Globe article points out -- Tun Dr. Siti Hasmah, spouse of ex-Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, was one of the pioneers of the original family planning programme. Three decades later, her husband would work towards its undoing in the name of national efficiency.

By the 90s, when I was a teenager, people didn't talk about sex. Most parents, based on conversations I remember having with my peers, largely assumed we'd figure out the basics naturally. Talking about sex made you have sex. The only real dialogue people had about sex in schools from teachers involved either sanitary pads clogging up the toilets and how shameful this was to hire male plumbers for; and the exam subject Biology chapter Third and Fifth Form on the human reproductive system.

People didn't talk about contraception. This latter point is very important indeed, since Malaysia has not and never has actually ever banned contraceptives, or citizens' access to it. In fact, public family planning programmes or services never went away either -- they still exist, and as far as I know, wouldn't turn away anyone who seeks them out. The Pill and current generation contraceptives are available from health professionals, public and private. In the official Malaysian Muslim discourse, although the relevant religious authorities will largely only condone sex between married husbands and wives, family planning is actually encouraged, along with the use of IUDs and even morning-after pills for rape victims.

According to an article published in The Star on International Women's Day 2010, "the Ministry of Health recently released a national policy document allowing single and underaged girls provisional access to the Pill." This is spurred by reports in recent years that babies born out of wedlock are on the rise, with the widely understood notion that the mothers for these babies are underage teenagers. The other, unspoken reference behind having to release a new policy statement at all, since contraceptives were never legally barred from any citizen since their introduction, was to counter the notion that there were in fact restrictions on who had access to family planning services, and particularly, the Pill. The same article notes the rumours that certain health practitioners only prescribed oral contraceptives to married patients, for example, that gives the impression unmarried people did not have legal recourse to contraception, even though such practitioners were always obliged before the law to assist their patients.

In 30 years, we went from a progressive culture of reproductive health access to one of regressive silence, ignorance and the firm belief that somehow, everything will be alright if we will it to be.

Fighting that culture of silence, on the rights to reproductive health for all citizens, married or unmarried, to pursue the full breadth of options available to maintain their sexual health, to build and space their growing families as they see fit and to gain access to any information or services necessary to do these things, is a pursuit that will ultimately create a healthier society overall, as sexual health is also a part of a human being's holistic wellbeing. It is a society that will, because citizens feel empowered over their reproductive health, see a natural decline in unwanted pregnancies, which will put less strain on all citizens to pay for the effects of these unwanted pregnances materially and otherwise -- because let's face it, if anyone really wanted the children born out of wedlock, if the same people who openly denied reproductive health services to the social segments most at risk were willing to take in these unwanted children and their unwanted mothers, we wouldn't have an unwanted problem.

Family planning and the right to contraception, from both the public and private sectors, is a gift worth taking. We have it. Some countries, far bigger and far more powerful than ours, have to fight tooth and nail for it. Let's not make these rights disappear because we've forgotten.
vampyrichamster: (Default)
Not, I assure you, for the reason most obvious to many readers' thinking. There's been quite a few things percolating through my thoughts lately, among them a brief mention I came across while reading Half the Sky (Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn) last year to female circumsion in Malaysia.

That took me aback largely because I had no idea we even had female circumsion in Malaysia. At first, I thought it was some isolated practice, possibly derivative of much older minority non-Muslim customs. A cursory attempt to educate myself on the subject online brought up scholarly research into the practice done in 1999, which sampled 262 women in Kelantan. Though I was unable to access more than the first page, what the research clearly stated out front was that this was related to female circumcision as it is known and practised in Muslim society, and that the Malaysian version of female circumcision involved a piercing of the clitoris or pupice with a sharp object to draw a small amount of blood, as opposed to the excision of the clitoris and/or labia we generally associate with this ritual. The World Health Organization lists this as Type IV Female Genital Mutilation/Female Genital Cutting: "...pricking, piercing or incising, stretching, burning of the clitoris, scraping of tissue surrounding the vaginal orifice, cutting of the vagina, introduction of corrosive substances or herbs into the vagina to cause bleeding or to tighten the opening."

What struck me most about learning this was that I had literally, prior to reading about the subject in a foreign publication, never even heared about female circumcision in Malaysia, not even in feminist histories of the country written by local authors. I was appalled and angry, but at the time, vaguely suspicious this was a practice largely isolated to northern peninsular Malaysia, a stretch culturally equivalent in its representation of fundamentalist religion to say, the US's Bible belt. Then, I discovered an article published in Malaysiakini from November 2009 (mirrored in full here at a blog) that stated the Health Ministry was in the midst of drawing up guidelines "based on Islamic guidelines and current practices." This is in line with the Shafi'i school of Islamic law, which calls for mandatory circumcision of both males and females. The Shafi'i school is the dominant school of Islamic law in Malaysia.

The general logic behind female circumcision is that it helps to curb female sexual desire, while enhancing male sexual desire. Islamic belief has it that women are by nature more sexually needy than men, and that is partially responsible for the idea that women are at fault for crimes of desire in Muslim society. This emphasis on emotional, sexual womanhood is not necessarily consistent. The Quran is fairly clear that men and women are equally responsible for their morality and spirituality, even though it puts women under the charge of men on account of their added emotionality, and physical shortcomings (menstruation and pregnancy are both considered just cause for women's propensity towards emotionality). So on the one hand, women are infantile creatures that need a firm hand to guide them through life, while on the other hand, women are adult enough to be held accountable for every deviation they make from spiritual righteousness. Incidentally, the Quran does not prescribe circumcision for either gender. Male circumcision is a borrowed cultural practice from the Jews, adopted to show allegiance to an Abrahamic religion, as Islam considers itself the last word of YHWH after He spoke to Jesus.

Female circumcision, like male circumcision, was already widely practised long before the arrival of Islam. It was practised on both genders across many ancient peoples, Abrahamic or otherwise. The oldest documentation on circumcision comes from Egypt at about 2,000 years B.C. Wherever it was practised, from ancient Africa to Renaissance Europe, medical reasons for circumcision (ie. "cleanliness") were only tacked on much later after the fact. It is generally seen as a rite of passage into adulthood, even though, as the Malaysiakini article notes, these days, female circumcision (and many male circumcisions) are actually done within the first year after birth in Malaysia. More commonly, as with Jews and Muslims, it is a means of connecting different members of the same community with each other.

None of this entirely explains the skip in logic that occurs in the premise for female circumcision as modern proponents explain it (supported via hadiths): that it helps to curb female sexual desire, while enhancing male sexual desire. Certainly, with the more severe forms of Female Genital Mutilation, the actual physical pain of removed body parts and tying up what remains to block entry by any sexual partner apart from designated husbands more than likely will prevent women from wanting sex -- for simple, and once again, painful, physical reasons. In Malaysia though, the circumcision prescribed for girls is, as I mentioned earlier, Type IV -- pricking the clitoris until it bleeds. What on earth could poking an infant girl's privates with a sharpie possibly do to make her want less sex? There's a tempting analogy to make here about thinking of the clitoris as a peculiarly male part (a tiny pseudo-penis which becomes erect during sexual stimulation) on what logically, to many people, is a female form. If we do consider the clitoris as a tiny penis, then the "comfort" a husband could derive from not rubbing against it with his affirmatively male sexual organ during intercourse is, from a very certain perspective, understandable. Not necessarily logical, since most healthy women are born with a clitoris (circumcision being the most obvious way to remove the offending part), but there are people who find rubbing penises entirely an affront to all cultural and biological norms.

What I'm saying here is, if you don't have the stomach to think it's natural for some men, with their male sexual bits, to physically like each other, then the idea of it being natural for a woman, with her tiny pseudo-penis, to physically like you is probably about as scary as the fictional female sex beast who preys on men because she isn't properly tied down with five kids underfoot and one more underway.

Or you could look at some of the historical insecurity about this idea, which reveals that connecting the clitoris with overtly male behaviour and aggression isn't new. Umar ibn Al-Khattab, the second caliph, had this to say in response to Hind bint Utbah, a Quraysh woman who famously wore necklaces made from the ears and noses of Muslim fighters felled in battle and once openly mocked the Muslim army in satirical poetic verse after the Battle of Uhud, where she had lost many male relatives including her father:

"The vile woman was insolent, and she was habitually base,
since she combined insolence with disbelief.
May God curse Hind, distinguished among Hinds, she with the
large clitoris,
and may he curse her husband with her."

(Quote taken from Women and Gender in Islam by Leila Ahmed, itself referring to an account from Tarikh al-Tabari.)

Now, we have this unseen, barely discussed, hush-hush issue that's apparently been in Malaysia for a long time, whose logic is doubtable at best, propagated by medical practitioners who should be giving more balanced advice. Note that the Malaysiakini article mentions that young urban mothers with the means to do so, who consulted gynaecologists or paediatricians on the feasibility and truth of female circumcision, were also told it "could help their daughters curb sexual desire." Considering how widespread the article made it sound, this topic never came up when I was in school, neither from the mouths of my female religious teachers, who preached all kinds of things women are wont to do, nor among female Muslim friends my own age. It's not talked about, it's never brought up, and we have no real way of knowing if it's on the rise or already practised on most of the female Muslim population.

In the tradition of turning to your elders for good advice, I went ahead and asked my parents about female circumcision. Did they know this happened in our country? I wasn't worried my parents circumcised me. Both my parents are liberal and logical in their spiritual views, and this seemed quite beyond their scope of participation. My father was utterly disgusted at the notion of mandatory female circumcision, if it was imposed in Malaysia, as the Shafi'i school of law, once again, implies. My mother outright dismissed female circumcision happening in my generation as utterly baseless, though she later conceded that it happened back in the old days, out in the villages.

My parents, as much as I love and respect them, aren't infallible sources of wisdom. But it was worth a shot.

There's a lot of questions I want to ask here that I'm just unable to find accessible research about. Scholarly study in my country seems stuck on the 1999 paper by Ab. Rahman Isa, Rashidah Shuib and M Shukri Othman, which I am still curious to read. The Malaysiakini article came out 10 years later, and although it does mention that JAKIM (the Malaysian Islamic Development Department) and the Health Ministry were working on guidelines to help legitimise and medicalise the procedure, I've not been able to find any guidelines as such online -- or even a notice that guidelines had been put in place. Is female circumcision a recent trend, introduced along with growing Islamicisation? Does it have older historical roots in Malaysia, arriving much earlier with 13th century Arab traders who brought Islam? What's the regional dispersal of this practice? For example, is it more widespread in rural Malaysia, and going obsolete in urban areas?

These walls, for any other subject, would be intriguing puzzles, but for this one, the silence is frightening to consider. One thing we do know is that Islamicisation, herein homologous to the spread of Wahhabism, is on the rise in Malaysia. That has included calls for more separation of the genders in the public sphere, whether these are physical boundaries, such as excessive peer pressure to conform to a mode of dress, or denying Muslim women their legal rights under the constitution. There's a domino effect of what rights women have over their reproductive health that they stand to lose in this climate, and while women's organisations in Malaysia have addressed many of these potential losses, it's kind of strange to me that female circumcision isn't more widely condemned. If women are being driven further into a legal and intellectual underground, then even an apparently harmless pinprick to the clitoris can become a more dangerous form of physical excision as voices of criticism are stifled.
vampyrichamster: (Default)
Late last year, I caught wind of a new Malaysian organisation -- I hesitate to call it a political party as such -- forming in the UK, based on broadly progressive grounds. This organisation, the Malaysian Civil Liberties Movement, piqued my curiosity and continues to do so as it takes shape. From what I can surmise, the MCLM aims to pursue and secure the civil rights of Malaysians according to our constitution, the law and global human rights standards. It offers itself as a third option in our increasingly entrenched bipartite political system, a kind of progressive voice to keep the real interests of Malaysians on the agenda. It does this by fielding progressive independent candidates (hence my hesitation at calling it a political party), each of whom espouses values I am very much in line with, such as our constitutional right to freedom of religion; our right to be seen first as Malaysians over a particular race, especially with regards to personal identification/legal documents; greater freedom and protection for our journalists and an Equality Act that would guarantee the equal rights of men, women and even transgendered persons.

The Good News )

Among the interesting approaches and campaigns that the MCLM is undertaking is reaching out to Malaysians abroad, that is, the Malaysians who effectively want change to happen in our country, but who see no other option other than leaving Malaysia because ours is not a land of taking chances, either with changing our intellectual landscape or our lives. They're doing this partly by appealing to Malaysian students abroad to register to vote, as they form one of the few groups of overseas Malaysians allowed to submit absentee ballots. Malaysia allows only members of the Armed Forces, public servants, students and their spouses to register and vote as 'absentee voters'. For this reason, the MCLM is also behind a campaign called My Overseas Vote, which champions the rights of all Malaysian citizens to vote, even if they live abroad and are unable to physically return to Malaysia for elections. It's worth noting that I too am one of those Malaysians unable to vote by living abroad. I urge you to visit the campaign's website and at least find out a little more about this important and pertinent initiative.

Having said that, there are ambiguities on where the MCLM actually stands as an independent third option. The biggest thorn in its side, an almost glaring crack in its idealist outlook, is that from the outset, the MCLM has openly stated it is pro-Pakatan Rakyat. Specifically, MCLM has offered to vet candidates for Pakatan Rakyat to field in the coming elections, although its policy does include the right for individual candidates it helps sponsor to defer any association with a political party -- a good thing, in my humble opinion, to ensure the independence of the candidates.

The Pakatan Rakyat is a coalition of three parties with vastly different views on Malaysian society: Keadilan, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). I'll go into each of these parties below, with a quick conclusion on why I feel non-association with Pakatan Rakyat is a decisive factor on whether the MCLM can win the liberal, progressive Malaysian public it seeks in the long run, even though political realities now require even a loose coalition of opposition parties working together for Putrajaya at once.

A longer explanation follows. )

The MCLM, standing on a platform of a racially inclusive nation, based on our secular constitution and a willingness to engage in finding affirmative solutions beneficial to all Malaysians on the crippling Malay supremacy issue, is a great initiative. But its practice, and who it chooses to ally itself with, even for the most practical and logistical reasons of winning an election, remains to be seen. I would love to see the independent candidates it has fielded participate in the political process as true independents, akin to say, the Green Parties of various nations. If the point of the matter is to bring up issues for debate with the participation of the Malaysian public, and foster real voices of change, then the last thing that should happen is another unreliable body of reform that toes someone else's party line.

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