Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Taking Stock of Brand Malaysia

At the end of four months in the United States as a Yale World Fellow, our columnist reflects on how Malaysia is perceived by policymakers around the world. [First published in The Sunday Star on 13 January 2008]

EVERY year, the Yale World Fellows Program brings together 18 mid-career men and women from around the globe for a semester of enrichment, leadership training, and intensive discussions of global policy issues moderated by the university’s leading professors. As one of the Fellows, I was privy to intriguing conversations and encounters with dozens of distinguished figures in public service and civil society.

These included the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, Pascal Lamy; George Soros’ former partner, the billionaire Jim Rogers; the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, the Malaysian K.S. Jomo; the President of the Rockefeller Foundation; senior US State Department officials; columnists from the New York Times and Washington Post; and the World Bank’s senior economist.

We also met US army officers teaching at West Point; members of the Council on Foreign Relations; a delegation of prominent Indian parliamentarians; technocrats of the old Clinton Administration; foreign policy advisers to Republican candidates for President; numerous diplomats, both active and retired; and – most chillingly for this particular liberal – a Marine Corps colonel whose current assignment is to assess the viability of a preemptive strike on Iran.

One of my goals in these meetings was to advocate greater engagement with the governments, societies and cultures of South-East Asia in general and Malaysia in particular. I was also interested in finding out how our country is perceived in the wider world. What does Brand Malaysia mean to people working at the highest levels of policy making and implementation?

While many of our conversations were off the record, I am able to report some general findings, many of which frankly surprised me.

Malaysia’s trade negotiators are respected. A senior South American negotiator told me that Malaysia’s International Trade and Industry Minister is seen as highly effective. “She’s tough – she comes in and tells you exactly what she wants, and then she proceeds to get it. She’s got such a force of personality, it’s really quite refreshing to negotiate with her. There’s no nonsense. She just sits there and waves away your objections with her jewelled fingers.”

The senior civil servants in her delegation also score high marks: “They’re very smart, very prepared, but also very nice people. Malaysia gets what it wants in international negotiations because people really like Malaysians – they’re very warm and open.” I heard this last point from several people working in quite dissimilar fields.

Malaysian multinational corporations have a reputation for being bad corporate citizens. This may or may not be fair, but there does exist a perception that Malaysian corporations, particularly those with operations in other developing countries, have little regard for the environment and little respect for the rights of workers.

In discussions of globalisation and its discontents, Western conglomerates come in for a lot of criticism for their rapacious behaviour. But Asian companies come under fire too – and Malaysian firms, rightly or wrongly, attract their share of flak.

Malaysia is perceived as a model multi-racial society. In all honesty, I found this very surprising. On several occasions, however, I was asked the secret of Malaysia’s success in creating a harmonious multi-racial society. It was difficult to know what to reply, at first, given that I am convinced our society is deeply dysfunctional, but I eventually realised that most of the people posing the question came from the Balkans, the former Soviet Union, and sub-Saharan Africa, and their definition of “harmonious” meant only “not actively engaged in genocide”. It’s all a question of one’s terms of reference.

Malaysia under Dr Mahathir was respected as a champion of developing nations. Our former Prime Minister appears to have been particularly appreciated for his sharp criticism of the developed West, and for his bravery in introducing currency controls during the Asian Financial Crisis in the face of scorn from Western economists.

Again, as a liberal who found much that was objectionable in his domestic policies, this was not necessarily what I wanted to hear, but I have to give credit where it’s due. As one senior Arab diplomat said to me, “I don’t understand why your people didn’t like him. In the rest of the world he was revered.”

Our current Prime Minister, however, does not seem to have made an impression yet, one way or the other, on the people I spoke to. This may not be a bad thing.

To the United States, South-East Asia is a low priority, and that includes Malaysia. This came up again and again in the course of my meetings, and this is the hard fact that we have to face: even for Americans who work in the field of foreign policy, Asean nations are barely on the radar. Brand Malaysia has little brand equity in the States, it appears.

This isn’t our fault. Historically, when the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War came to an inglorious end, it prompted a sort of psychic retreat from the whole region. Even in academia the vacuum is felt: South-East Asian Studies departments in American universities are thin on the ground, and their offerings are slim.

We are also a victim of our own relative prosperity and relative stability. Compared to Africa, our economies are robust and our populations healthy; compared to the Middle East, we are not a breeding ground for groups that target American interests and allies.

It was explained to me that American Presidents all assume office thinking they will be able to engage with the world in rational, strategic ways. The reality is that from their first day, their job is essentially reactive, and that what commentators call their foreign policy is merely the sum total of their responses to the daily crises that land on their desks. We don’t feature in America’s foreign policy simply because we can neither help them nor hurt them.

Again, this may not be a bad thing. We don’t receive development aid that comes with strings attached. Nobody is invading us so as to bring us “freedom and democracy.” In short, the world leaves Malaysia alone to sort out its own problems.

But we need to face up to those problems, create a more just society, and truly earn our good reputation.

We need to make sure that Brand Malaysia is built on real substance and isn’t a brand like Enron: superficially attractive, but ultimately hollow, a disaster waiting to happen.

The Dialect Debate

By any measure, Singapore’s ‘Speak Mandarin Campaign’ has succeeded. But, at what cost to the nation’s heritage? [First published in The Sunday Star on 5 October 2008]

MY mother-in-law is a great natural communicator. With her gregariousness and curiosity, she is capable of striking up a conversation with anyone, anywhere, and would be baffled to learn that there are specialist books that teach you how to do that.

“How do you talk to people? You just talk to them! What’s so difficult?”

She can do it in a great many languages, too. Born in Kuala Lumpur, her first language is Cantonese but she speaks Malay, Hokkien, and Hakka with considerable fluency.

She’s also fairly proficient in Teochew, Foochow, Hainanese, Mandarin and English, and speaks enough Tamil to order in a banana leaf restaurant and scold the waiters in their mother tongue if, say, the fish cutlet isn’t very fresh.

Indeed, it was her ability to communicate that found her love: it was while acting as a police interpreter for interrogations of surrendered Communist Terrorists during the Emergency that she met my father-in-law, a Singapore-born Malayan Special Branch officer of Foochow ethnicity but determinedly Anglophone upbringing.

My father-in-law eventually did learn some Cantonese and, after more than 50 years of marriage, their life together is a fascinating tapestry, weaving different cultures and languages and world views into a lasting, loving, and only occasionally grumpy union.

This might serve as a perfect metaphor for multi-ethnic, multi-lingual Singapore, except for the fact that stories like my mother-in-law’s would never be allowed on the republic’s television screens.

To be historically accurate, the characters in her saga would have to speak six different Chinese dialects, and this remains forbidden by Singapore’s broadcasting authorities as a consequence of the well-intentioned Speak Mandarin Campaign.

Singapore’s national language at the time of independence was Malay, and four official languages were enshrined: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil.

But with many ethnic Chinese speaking their dialects and not Mandarin, it was eventually decided that Mandarin needed to be promoted intensively to provide for social cohesion.

For Malaysians hooked on Cantonese TV serials, the most striking feature of Singapore’s Speak Mandarin Campaign is the ban on the use of dialect in television programming.

It’s a curious anomaly because Singapore is otherwise extremely good at reflecting the diversity of its cultural heritage.

In the course of my work I regularly deal with people in Singapore’s National Arts Council, National Heritage Board, and National Library Board, and I have found them to be dedicated to giving a nuanced, complex and inclusive picture of their nation’s past.

As a Malaysian, it saddens me to note time and time again that Singapore does a much better job of giving voice to its ethnic minorities than we do.

All the more reason, then, that it’s strange to see that the ancestral voices of Singapore’s ethnic Chinese immigrant communities are absent from the electronic mass media. You can hear Malay and Tamil voices but not Hokkien or Cantonese. It’s all Mandarin.

I have met Singaporeans who say quietly that it’s not good enough that you can hear dialect used in theatres and in cinemas and in ge tai performances: those forms have no mindshare, as the advertising people put it.

TV is where it’s at. Free-to-air television -- and radio -- are the real repositories and transmitters of mass culture, they argue: reliably omnipresent, seven days a week, only slightly less than 24 hours a day.

As both a mirror of society and a hammer with which to shape it, television is without peer. (I write for the stage and for film, so it saddens me to have to agree that the really important stuff is on TV.)

Singapore filmmakers, not bound by the same strictures as their broadcast brethren, are including a lot of dialect in their work. The cultural reality of their milieu seems to demand it.

I remember that a couple of years ago the National Museum of Singapore screened a dozen Singapore short films, and I was struck by the degree to which dialect featured. Sometimes, one film would use three different dialects. (Cantonese was used in two of the films, Teochew in two, and Hokkien in six.)

Judging by the comments of the filmmakers at one post-screening question and answer session I attended, Singapore auteurs want to reflect the linguistic diversity of society, and audiences approve.

One young audience member said how moved she was by Lau Chee Nien’s short Old Woman.

Identifying herself as Teochew, she voiced out how much it meant for her to hear her family’s dialect in a film. For a moment, I thought she might burst into tears.

I’ve never seen clearer proof of the power of language to connect a person with her heritage on a visceral level.

It will be interesting to see if Singapore will ever relax this policy; I suspect that a strong economic argument would have to be made, showing how the linguistic diversity of Chinese dialects would bring benefits to compensate for the possible loss of social cohesion among the ethnic Chinese population.

The immense box office success of Singapore films and stage shows that tap into Hokkien humour might be one such argument.

And one could also argue that the Speak Mandarin Campaign has already done its job. According to figures from the Department of Statistics website, between 1990 and 2005 the percentage of Chinese people speaking Mandarin at home jumped from 30.1% to 47.2%, while the use of Chinese dialects declined sharply from 50.3% to 23.9%. Essentially, Mandarin has won. Social change has already taken place, and there’d be little danger in relaxing the ban on dialect.

Perhaps, Singaporeans might one day be able to turn on the TV and watch stories about their grandmothers -- and mothers-in-law -- without yearning for the dialect freedom enjoyed across the Causeway.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Marx Brother

[First published in The Sunday Star on 17 December 2006.]

IF you want to extract the innermost secrets of an Australian, first ask them what they think of John Howard.

The resulting outpouring of vitriol (or, alternatively, provincial gurgles of praise) will last between 15 and 25 cathartic minutes, and will leave them in a passive, unresistingly limp state. You can then ask them anything you like, and they will tell you.

It was by lazy application of this technique that I learned the true identity of my taxi driver from Sydney airport. I was there in April for my sister-in-law’s wedding, and I was looking forward to eating the large prawns you sometimes get at these sorts of things; I was not, however, expecting the Comrade.

His head was shaved. His aviator sunglasses were mirrored. His moustache was the moustache of a man of substance.

His monologue began with an expression of doubt as to whether Mr Howard’s parents had been married at the time of his conception, and rapidly became not just unprintable but quite untypable. Like clockwork, however, after 15 minutes I discovered I was being motored in to Darlinghurst by none other than the head of the Lebanese Communist Party, New South Wales branch.

This was quite exciting. Growing up in the post-Emergency climate, I’d always thought of Communists as either (a) hiding in the jungle, plotting their little plots; (b) growing kailan in southern Thailand on their little plots; or (c) reigning as ping-pong champions of Kamunting Detention Centre. I’d never expected to encounter them driving well within the speed limit, and signalling courteously before changing lanes.

“Is it difficult being a Communist,” I ventured, “now that the Soviet Union has collapsed?”

He sighed. Clearly the Comrade was used to this question.

“We have updated our ideology. The problem with the Russians” – he uttered the word as though they were all somehow related to John Howard – “is that they did not recognise the realities of life. Our party manifesto recognises the realities of Lebanese life.”

“In what way?”

“We allow people to practice their own religions. We allow private ownership of property. We allow them to operate businesses, and to make a profit.”

I was confused. “You allow them to make a profit? Isn’t that just like capitalism?”

“No!” he shouted. “A little bit of profit is all right, but if they make a lot they will share it with others.”

“They will?”

“Of course! All Lebanese are brothers!”

Now, if there is one thing I know about Lebanon, it is that calling all Lebanese brothers depends, tragically, on restricting the definition of brotherhood to the sort of crimson-hued fratricidal jollity enjoyed by Cain and Abel.

(My roommate in university was a Lebanese Christian from East Beirut, a student of civil engineering and a gentle, scholarly violin player. One day I was bemoaning the state of Malaysian race relations, with the simmering tensions between our three main ethnicities. He smiled and said patiently, “In Lebanon we have 23 different groups. And they all have guns.”)

But I wasn’t about to dispute the Comrade’s economics. I asked him when he’d come to Australia. It turned out he’d been there since the mid-1980s.

“Did you fight against the Israelis during the 1982 invasion?” I asked.

“Of course!” he bellowed. “I am proud to say I was part of the resistance against that brutal, dirty occupation.”

“What did you do?” I asked, wide-eyed innocent that I am.

“Special actions,” he said with a wink and broad grin. “For example, there is an Israeli checkpoint; we drive up in the taxi. Three soldiers come to check papers. Okay? Okay. But when we drive away, we’ve got the Israeli officer tied up in the boot! They don’t know what happened! They don’t know where he went!” He was thumping his steering wheel in mirth.

I glanced nervously over my shoulder, half-expecting a kidnapped Zionist to clamber out from the back, blinking angrily in the Australian sunshine.

He continued, gleeful: “Or there is an Israeli officer eating his lunch in public. People all around, right? But suddenly he falls forward. One bullet in the neck! Nobody saw anything!”

By now I was terrified. This was no longer cool. This was war, and killing, and death: nothing that a childhood in Petaling Jaya had equipped me to confront.

“You did all this? You planned these things?” I stammered.

He looked at me carefully, as though weighing the chances that I might be a Mossad operative on some 20-year mission of retribution.

“Not just me, my friend. We all did. And we will do it again.”

I was silent after that, and the Comrade gracefully changed the subject to what he held to be the manifestly inadequate masculinity of the Australian opposition parties.

That was in April. I thought of the Comrade again during the deadly July-August Israeli offensive in Lebanon, and again this past week as I read the reports of sectarian political upheaval in Beirut.

I thought of the trauma and tragedy my life would have known if I’d spent the last 33 years in Lebanon, and not in this part of the world.

Not for the first time in my life, and probably not for the last, I thought of how lucky Malaysia is, and I wondered, perhaps harshly, if we have deserved that luck, or made the most of it.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Why Do Our Ministers Never Resign?

By global standards of ministerial responsibility, Malaysia’s performance leaves much to be desired. [First published in The Sunday Star on 13 July 2008.]

THE Westminster Parliamentary system, for better or for worse, is our former colonial masters’ gift to us, and to many Commonwealth countries. According to its conventions, Cabinet ministers are bound by both collective and individual responsibility.

Collective ministerial responsibility means that the Cabinet must speak with one voice. Whatever disagreements may take place behind closed doors, there must be a united front on policy matters in public.

A rare example of a Malaysian breach of the convention of collective responsibility occurred in 2005 when Deputy Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Dr Sothinathan questioned the Government’s decision not to recognise Ukrainian medical degrees, and as a consequence was suspended for three months.

The Westminster principle of individual ministerial responsibility, however, is probably of greater concern to Malaysians. It is explained by Rodney Brazier in his 1997 book, Ministers of the Crown:

“Broadly, each Minister is responsible for

(1) his private conduct,

(2) the general conduct of his department, and

(3) acts done (or left undone) by officials in his department.”

Let’s look at the first responsibility: private conduct. When confronted with evidence of personal impropriety, Malaysian ministers – with the recent exception of Chua Soi Lek – usually do not resign. In other democracies, resignation, though reluctant, is still the norm.

Looking at House of Commons research papers, for example, we find that of the 125 British ministerial resignations in the 20th century, no fewer than a dozen were for reasons of “private scandal” and two were for “private financial arrangements”.

In many democracies, even unproven allegations are sufficient to provoke resignation. In November 1997 the Portuguese Minister for Defence, Antonio Vitorino, resigned following accusations that he had not paid the full property tax on his country house.

“If there are doubts or suspicions over my behaviour, the situation must be fully clarified and therefore I must take responsibility as a citizen,” Vitorino said. “In view of the way I have always conducted myself in political life, I think it is impossible to hold public office at my level under any type of suspicion.”

Among legislators more sensitive to questions of honour and shame, the desire to minimise the stain on one’s reputation can lead to tragedy. Last year, Toshikatsu Matsuoka, the Japanese Agriculture Minister, went a step further then mere resignation when, embroiled in allegations that he filed false expense claims, he hanged himself in his Tokyo flat.

Perhaps the most stringent standard for private conduct was set by Mick Young, the Australian Immigration Minister who resigned in the 1980s. His crime? He failed to declare a stuffed toy in his suitcase to customs officers when he returned to the country.

The “Paddington Bear Affair” led to his resignation but established in the minds of many the international standard of conduct for ministers – a standard of probity to which I think even Barisan Nasional supporters would agree our Cabinet does not hold itself.

So much for private conduct. What of a minister’s responsibility for “the general conduct of his department, and for acts done (or left undone) by his department”?

As Noore Alam Siddiquee of South Australia’s Flinders University wrote in 2006 in the International Public Management Review, “the principle of ministerial responsibility as seen in mature democracies is either weak or missing in Malaysia. The principle means that the minister accepts responsibility for any lapses or irregularities within his ministry and resigns from the office.

“Despite reports of numerous irregularities in various agencies at different levels, misappropriation of funds by individuals and groups and increasing volume of complaints received from the public on the quality of services and responsiveness, rarely has a minister chosen to accept responsibility for such irregularities.”

Siddiquee points out that despite the 2004 public outcry over shoddy construction projects, the then Works Minister “not only rebuffed calls for him to step down, he practically took no responsibility for the defective projects and other anomalies, and has had no problem retaining his ministerial office.”

But Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu was able to rebuff those calls for resignation – which came not just from civil society groups and Opposition lawmakers, but also from BN backbenchers – in large part due to the unwillingness of his Cabinet colleagues to apply the doctrine of individual ministerial responsibility to him, perhaps lest they themselves be judged by the same standards.

In Cabinet Governing in Malaysia (2006), Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim reveals how they protected Samy Vellu: “Finally, after what was a prolonged episode that almost cost him his job, the Cabinet found that he took it upon himself more than he should have shouldered. ?. The Cabinet session of 20th October 2004, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Sri Mohd Najib Tun Abdul Razak, discussed at length the background of this public outcry. Datuk Seri Samy Vellu’s extensive reports to the session were noted by the Cabinet with the view that the Minister ought not to take it upon himself all the blame hurled by the public as there were various parties that were responsible like consultants, contractors, engineers, architects, etc.”

Following this logic, it would appear that a Minister only need resign if he were a one-man ministry, doing everything himself. In reality other parties, whether external or in the civil service, are always there to take the blame.

In Cabinet Governing Dr Rais repeatedly talks about the difficulties that ministers have with the civil service, shifting the responsibility onto them:

“It takes years to rid a public servant who misbehaves or who does not perform and by the sheer procedural rigmarole it involves, bosses are quite reluctant to effect the actual brunt of the General Orders.

It is instructive to know, lacking in acumen and productivity are not listed as grounds for dismissal. Neither is the inability to achieve results put in as a factor to dismiss or suspend.”

While this might perhaps be true, it is distinctly at odds with the principle of ministerial responsibility in the Westminster system, and it leads to a complete abdication of a minister’s duty of ultimate supervision.

Contrast this Malaysian blame-shifting with the 1954 resignation statement of Sir Thomas Dugdale, the British Minister for Agriculture:

“I, as Minister, must accept full responsibility to Parliament for any mistakes and inefficiency of officials in my Department, just as, when my officials bring off any successes on my behalf, I take full credit for them.

“Any departure from this long-established rule is bound to bring the Civil Service right into the political arena, and that we should all, on both sides of the House, deprecate most vigorously.”

Similarly, when in 1982 the junior British Foreign Office Minister, Richard Luce, resigned along with his two ministerial colleagues, accepting responsibility for the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, he said, “It is an insult to Ministers of all Governments, of whatever colour or complexion, to suggest that officials carry responsibility for policy decisions. Ministers do so, and that strikes at the very heart of our parliamentary system.”

In November 2002 South Korea’s Justice Minister and the prosecutor general both resigned to take responsibility for the death in policy custody of a murder suspect.

In the same year, Britain’s Education Secretary resigned because the nation failed to meet targets for child literacy and numeracy.

Last month, the South Korean Prime Minister and his entire Cabinet offered to resign in response to public unhappiness about the beef import deal South Korea has made with the United States.

Would our ministers do any of that?

[Postscript: Even the resignation of Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, the de facto Law Minister, was merely an example of a refusal on point of principle to adhere to the doctrine of collective Cabinet responsibility -- in Zaid's case, over the arrests under the International Security Act. He was distancing himself from the decision. It was not a case of him accepting individual responsibility for the failings of the area of government in his charge. No Malaysian minister seems to want to do that. ]

Copyright © Huzir Sulaiman 2008. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A View of the Interior

Does the décor of our homes say anything about us? Our columnist explores how we construct our identities – and those of others. [First published in the Sunday Star on 10 February 2008]

A FEW years ago, the artist Simryn Gill, who grew up in Port Dickson, went up and down Peninsular Malaysia for eight weeks knocking on strangers’ doors and asking if she could photograph their living rooms.

This surprisingly successful tactic resulted in 258 images: square photographs 27.5cm by 27.5cm, showing furnished rooms without the people that belonged there, empty and poetic.

Displayed together on a curved white wall, they formed a hauntingly beautiful exhibition entitled Dalam, commissioned by and displayed at Galeri Petronas in Kuala Lumpur in 2001. (It has since travelled all over the world, including into the collections of the Tate Modern in London, which decided to buy a set of the photographs in 2006.)

Each of the 258 images, displayed without identifying information, made you wonder out loud, in our nosy Malaysian way: “Who lives here, ah?”

Were these mute photographs a challenge? Were you supposed to piece together the identity of the owners, merely by peering at the objects they had in their homes, by the physical evidence of their lives?

I remember reading an interview with the artist in which she said that Malaysian viewers of the exhibition always seemed to want to know, first and foremost, whether the people whose homes were pictured were Malay, Chinese, Indian, or lain-lain.

I was no exception.

At the time, it seemed just one part of the great guessing game, a way of doing detective work from a sociological angle. You could certainly try to deduce their ethnic group, whether based on the tangible presence of items with religious significance (altars, deities, crucifixes or Quranic inscriptions) or on some intangible aesthetic evaluation, half anthropology and half prejudice: “Only Malays buy furniture with gold upholstery. Only Indians have brown and orange curtains.”

And so I did this, like everyone else, and somehow found Chinese-ness in a 3-piece vinyl sofa suite, and other oh-so-clever conclusions.

Now, in retrospect, it strikes me as sad. Are we all so conditioned by the relentless racialist rhetoric of our country that not only are we incapable of seeing living Malaysians as anything other than their ethnic group, we can’t even see empty rooms without wanting to assign them a race?

You might argue that ethnicity and cultural heritage are often an important part of a person’s sense of identity, and that establishing ethnicity would therefore be a necessary step in trying to figure out who these mystery inhabitants were. But let’s be honest: isn’t the question that we always ask in Malaysia not “Who are you?” but “What are you?”

It’s heartbreaking how the human brain, in wanting to process data and classify it in order to understand the world, winds up understanding it even less through that very process of classification.

“Who are you?” is a valid question, a joyful question, a question with an answer as long as a person’s life.

What are you?” is meant to be answered with a single, inconsequential word. It reduces and dismisses. It’s a communication-stopper. It’s a slap in the face disguised as a question.

Because even if I “knew” your race – let’s say that without asking you, my brilliant human brain had scrutinised your appearance, listened to your accent, and yes, assessed the décor of your living room, and made a classification – what would I know about you, really?

Nothing. Precisely nothing.

I wouldn’t know who made you smile, or laugh, or sing; I wouldn’t know what sacrifices you’d made to bring up your children; I wouldn’t know whether you had loved and lost, or never loved at all.

What are you proudest of? Are you generous, or mean, or neither? What is the greatest kindness you have ever received? What terrifies you in this world? Have you known hunger or thirst? When you close your eyes at night, what runs through your dreams?

These questions would remain unanswered.

But if we want to pull our society out of the dysfunctional muck into which it has slid, it is these very questions that we should be asking one another, so as to truly understand our fellow citizens, to build relationships based on genuine human regard, to accept and cherish – rather than just tolerate and make use of – our fellow Malaysians.

It might be argued that this is all just namby-pamby, touchy-feely, all-people-are-brothers stuff; after all, Malaysian classifications of race are made in order to guarantee political and economic rights – important, real world things that transcend these amorphous ideals of empathy and a personal connection.

But then shouldn’t it be all the more important that these real world distinctions stem from differences that have a basis in reality? Because as scientists tell us, and as we all know in the back of our minds, there is no such thing as race. It is a fiction. I’ll go further: it is a lie.

Kenneth Kidd, the renowned Professor of Genetics, Psychiatry and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at Yale University, puts it bluntly: “It is impossible to define the boundaries of a race. Human races do not exist. No subset of humans differs genetically from the rest in a substantial, qualitative way? [Genetic] variation tends to be distributed in a continuous manner among populations so it is not possible to divide populations into distinct subgroups. Thus, race is a social construct, not a scientific, biologic classification of humans.”

We need to keep reminding ourselves that the idea of race is something we have made up, and is therefore something that we can discard and transcend.

Nothing is fixed, biologically – and everything is fluid, culturally. We can learn each other’s languages; we can adopt each other’s customs; and if we are so inclined, we can, with a short sentence, embrace a new religion or renounce an old one. We can, in short, change race – because there is no such thing as race.

Why then are we still, as a nation, metaphorically peering at photographs of the interiors of empty rooms, and asking who lives there, and finding ways to classify one another as different? Shouldn’t we be peering into the interiors of our own souls, and asking who lives there, and finding ways to realise, at long last, that we are all one and the same?

Copyright © Huzir Sulaiman 2008. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Singapore-Malaysia Ties: When Words Get In The Way

First published in Singapore's Straits Times on 4 November 2005

MALAYSIANS who find Singapore largely congenial and who have settled here - I'm talking about myself, yes, but also half a dozen others whose names I'd happily reveal if subpoenaed - find the whole subject of Singapore-Malaysia relations enormously tiresome when it comes up, say, at dinner parties.

My usual response is subtle.

In the manner of Roger Moore, I have become adept at communicating turbulent, complex emotions with my eyebrows: a mixture of melancholy, cunning, boredom, and that sensation of wanting to abandon one's espresso and flee.

Sometimes, this is sufficiently eloquent to get the subject changed to something less controversial, such as the Question of Palestine, or the nature of God, but sometimes, as my wife is fond of reminding me, eyebrows just aren't enough.

Actual speech must begin at this point, and therein, I submit, lies the whole problem.

My pet theory on Cross-Straits Tensions, which I will now divulge without my usual recompense of a bourgeois dinner, is that while the actual issues are no doubt inherently complex, things are made additionally irksome because the leaders of Singapore and Malaysia use language in very different ways, and each party finds the other's style alien and offensive.

(Before I continue, possibly invoking the wrath of various important people who have proper jobs, I should admit that I'm merely a playwright, and therefore have as much credibility in an Asian society as, say, a scoop of washing powder, or a sleeping dog. I do, however, spend a lot of time making mental notes on how people speak so that I can reproduce it in a play and earn a living thereby, so I'm not wholly unqualified to talk about this.)

Simply put, the problem is that Malaysian political speech is hardly ever straightforward and often playful, while Singaporean political speech is always direct and hardly ever ironic.

Even when they're all speaking English, they're effectively speaking different languages.

In Kuala Lumpur, someone reading or hearing an utterance of any sort by a Malaysian politician automatically and subconsciously adjusts it for context to arrive at its real significance. Nothing is assumed to mean exactly what it says.

To wit: If something were said while addressing an annual party conference, it would sound more ethnically chauvinist than the speaker might really be; if it were said in response to a question by a foreign journalist, it would sound more belligerent than the speaker actually feels; if it were said to a local journalist, it would sound more confident than circumstances might warrant.

If something is flatly denied, it's probably at least partially true, and everyone understands both that it's true and that it's necessary to deny it.

If an accusation isn't addressed at all, it's probably false, but is occasionally true. If an accusation is met with the threat of legal action, it's probably true, but is occasionally false.

A comment about religion is almost always understood to be about secular power struggles.

A seemingly irresponsible and outrageous remark is generally accepted as the product of a sardonic sense of humour that doesn't come across in print.

Delivery and tone of voice are so important: a gentle lilt leading up to the sting; a slow, damning drawl; a razor-sharp quip.

On certain occasions, of course, an irresponsible and outrageous remark can indicate a lack of preparedness, or, if it was said between 4 and 5pm, a low blood-sugar level on the part of the speaker. These things are understood.

Language in Malaysian political culture is a joyful, vibrant, colourful thing. The most inflammatory assertions and the most flamboyant metaphors are reserved for opponents and issues of consequence; if something is dealt with simply and directly, it can't be of any importance.

In short, a Malaysian listening to a Malaysian political figure - whether from the government or the opposition - knows instinctively to compensate for the hyperbole, to pay attention to understatement, to grasp the indirect reference, to discount the obviously rhetorical, and to revel in the ironies.

Malaysians simply do not take each other literally, and do not expect to be taken literally. Indeed, taking things too literally is a social gaffe: If inadvertent, it reveals a lack of sophistication; if deliberate, a lack of manners.

In Singapore, however, ambiguity and rhetorical flights of fancy have no place. The culture of official communication values precision, directness and economical delivery. So ministerial statements are always measured, unflashy, thought through; can you think of one that hasn't been?

Bombast is absent, as are whimsy and repartee. Everyone's been briefed; off-the-cuff remarks emerge in complete paragraphs.

Even the jokes of Singapore ministers are always carefully signalled as such in press reports, lest there be misunderstanding. Clarity is key; oratorical flourishes are suspect.

Singaporeans expect to be taken at face value, and in return, they take others at face value; they cannot conceive of having to not take someone at face value in order to communicate effectively.

Looking back at the past decade or so, it seems to me that when the important people of the two countries have talked about important things, a tragic disconnect has sometimes occurred.

In the most extreme, unfortunate cases, substantive disagreements have been needlessly worsened because Singaporeans have taken Malaysian statements as evidence of aggression, irrationality, and mendacity, while Malaysians have unfairly interpreted Singaporean speech as inflexibility, belligerence, and gracelessness.

All that's past, we're told. Relations, they say, have hit a new high, and everyone's talking again. But unless we learn to celebrate our different ways of speaking, by listening carefully and trying to interpret things the way another person from the speaker's country would, talking might turn out to be less of a solution than a problem.

And for those of us who have a deep affection for both nations, we would have to remain in strained silence, refusing to comment, distress written all over our eyebrows, plain for all to see.

Copyright © Huzir Sulaiman 2008. All rights reserved.

Advice From One Retiree to Another

Recently left high office and don’t know what to do? Our columnist relays some wise counsel from an anonymous source.

[First published in The Sunday Star on 1 July 2007 under the title "A bit of advice, Mr. Blair..."]

Dear Mr Blair,

On behalf of the people of Malaysia – or at least all the people of Malaysia who live in my villa – I would like to offer my warmest and most sincere best wishes on the occasion of your stepping down as the dynamic Prime Minister of your multi-cultural developing nation, and my heartiest and most convincing congratulations on your having peacefully handed over the reins of power to your handpicked successor, that quiet, serious fellow whose name escapes me.

Yours was an astonishing tenure which saw Britain transformed from a sleepy provincial backwater where hungry, uneducated rural folk galloped for hours across the barren countryside, hunting foxes for their evening meal, into a thriving 21st century economy open to the world, or at least those portions of the world who own Bentleys and whose names end with “-ovsky” or “-ovich”.

The reforms you introduced were laudable.

All lovers of democracy who live in my villa applauded when you took steps in 1999 to curtail the powers of the House of Lords; no longer should that motley collection of so-called noblemen – those jumped-up village chieftains – abuse their privileges, questioning the decisions that you made, obstructing your legislation!

You were democratically elected, so people shouldn’t be allowed to question your decisions: that would be interfering with democracy. All intelligent people understand this.

But you triumphed over these detractors. If I may say so, you truly deserve the title “Father of Modern Britain”, and the fact that no one has actually used it should not prevent your staff from quietly letting people know that this is how you would like to be known.

Now that you are no longer the premier of your harmonious, IT-savvy country, you may be wondering how best to occupy your time. Permit an old-timer to offer you some advice.

To begin with, it was frankly rather silly of you to accept this Middle East envoy job. Don’t you realise that it will require you to work, and to produce results?

With great power comes great responsibility, or so say that type of people who would be better off, in my humble opinion, in preventive detention. But as I see it, that means that with no power, comes no responsibility. So rather than doing anything constructive, it would be far better to sit on the sidelines and issue caustic statements from time to time, preferably after attending an unrelated wedding or a conference where you can condemn something else, so that you can get in two condemnations in one afternoon.

If you get really bored, you could set up a sort of personal Commission or a Tribunal to indict someone, just for the fun of it. You can have plenary sessions and hearings, and then go for a nice lunch.

(I myself don’t eat very much, but the intellectuals like it. They can have their nice lunch and then go back to their kennels.)

But really, Mr Blair, what you should be concentrating on is the man who has succeeded you, whatever his name is, Mr Grey or Mr Beige or whatever.

He may look kind and perhaps even a little boring – he certainly has not the charisma and the oratorical splendour that moves your female ministers to tears when you announce your departure – but you would do well to keep an eye on him, because he has a mind of his own, and in a cohesive, interwoven society such as yours, with its elaborate links of patronage and favouritism, that can be a dangerous thing.

What if, for example, he starts to back-pedal on your country’s commitment to the most mega of your projects – the Iraq war? What if he begins to withdraw British troops, reversing your policies, and undermining your vision?

You’d better start rehearsing your response. Key phrases should include “selling our sovereignty”, “a country without guts”, “traitor”, and “son-in-law”.

Of course, this Mr Beige – or Mr Mocha or whatever his wretched name is – might not even have a son-in-law, but that shouldn’t stop you. In my country we believe that if you say something with enough venom, it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s true.

If direct attacks fail because your quiet, serious little successor maintains a dignified silence, you can always try anonymous poison-pen letters. Or so they tell me – I don’t really know. But you must take care to camouflage them so that no one can guess who you are. Remember to choose a snappy but impenetrable pseudonym to sign off with.

Good luck, Mr Blair, and enjoy your retirement!

Kind regards,

A Recent Retiree

Copyright © Huzir Sulaiman 2008. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Nobody Knows Anything: The Umnologists

During the Cold War, Western analysts of Soviet politics found it extraordinarily difficult to track the career trajectories of Communist Party leaders. Who was on his way up? Who was on his way out? With no free press in the USSR, and an immense state security apparatus capable of sophisticated disinformation campaigns, there was no straightforward way to read the shifts in power within the Politburo.

Instead, the Kremlinologists – as the Soviet-watchers were called – had to rely on analysing group photographs of the Politburo in the reviewing stands at the annual May Day military parades.

In the way that you can assess your importance as a guest at a Chinese wedding banquet by seeing how close you’re seated to the main table, Kremlinologists came to all sorts of conclusions about the Soviet government based on where the leaders were standing in relation to the General Secretary of the Communist Party.

Was Andropov closer to Brezhnev this year or farther away? Where were Shevardnadze and Gromyko? Were they on the rise or in disgrace?

The Soviets, of course, were hardly ignorant of the fact that this type of feverish analysis was going on, and they began to play games, releasing doctored photographs of the event, and in all likelihood deliberately assigning important people to stand in unimportant corners to confuse observers.

The net result was that, among Kremlinologists, the old Hollywood maxim applied: Nobody knows anything.

In Malaysia today, trying to understand the goings-on within Umno, if you are not an Umno member of some stature, is fraught with similar difficulties. From the outside, nothing is as it seems.

Would-be Umnologists have to contend with a hugely compromised flow of information: “leaks” designed only to distract; both rumour campaigns of great subtlety and ham-fisted slanders; staunch denials meant to be believed and staunch denials meant to be seen through; poison-pen letters by the hundreds and conspiracy theories by the dozens.

About five years ago I gave up trying to be an Umnologist, after a conversation with a distant relative who was at the time some kind of up-and-comer in the party.

(In the end, I don’t think he upped-and-came. He either downed-and-went or is still sort of hovering. I don’t know him very well, so I don’t inquire too closely. He’s the half-brother of my second cousin. No, I’m not making this up.)

At some family gathering in 2003 he said to me, with a total lack of irony, “You know, nobody likes Pak Lah at all, except for the Umno members and the Malaysian public.”

I stared at him in confusion. “Isn’t that… er, everybody?”

“No, no, no. You don’t understand. They’re nobody. They don’t count. In Umno, what counts are the division leaders, not the… grassroots.” He said this last word with the same delicate disgust with which ordinary Malaysians say politician. “If it were up to the division leaders, Najib would be taking over from Dr. M.”

(I should state for the record that the anonymous opinions of the half-brother of the second cousin of a paunchy liberal may not necessarily reflect the true situation within the United Malays National Organisation. On the other hand, you never know. Which is my point. Umnologists have so little to go on.)

Having established my total ignorance of how things really worked in the party, he then brought up an influential politician who has since developed the unfortunate habit of taking his keris out in mixed company and wiggling it about.

“Do you know the problem with Hishammuddin?” said my second cousin’s half-brother, his voice dripping with disdain. “He didn’t have to spend any money to get where he is! Can you believe it? Dr. M wanted him in, so everybody just had to accept it. He didn’t spend a single cent. Just parachuted in. That’s really wrong.”

I thought: Oh. Like that ah? I found it hard to make conversation for the rest of the evening.

Then and there, I gave up trying to understand Umno. To do so, I realised, would require entering into the twisted logic of their universe and trying to fathom a worldview that I confess I find utterly repugnant.

Why spend so much time peering into the darkness of Umno’s soul, when we could be reshaping Malaysia in a new, positive, joyous way? Why waste energy looking into the ideological cesspool, when we could be inventing a new paradigm?

And so I look upon the rumours now swirling about Pak Lah and Najib, and the Umno succession plan, with a studied lack of interest. It’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Nobody knows anything; what’s more, what there is to know is – let us be honest – abhorrent.

Let’s not waste time on Umnology. We’ve got a country to remake.

Copyright © Huzir Sulaiman 2008. All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Malaysian Political Oscars!

WIDE ANGLE – Huzir Sulaiman

The Malaysian Political Oscars!
Our political situation is like something out of a movie – so here are the awards. The envelope, please…

The Wide Angle Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, headquartered for no particular reason in Skudai, presents this year’s Malaysian Political Oscars.

The most widely watched television event in Malaysia, the Political Oscar telecast reaches over 1 billion viewers, some of whom are dead, some of whom are 130 years old, and most of whom are registered at the same address.

How does it work? Members of the academy (all Malaysian taxi drivers who despite being allegedly the worst in the world at driving taxis are remarkably good at political analysis) vote on these awards, and the results are tabulated by the auditors of some large accounting firm who would rather do this sort of thing than real accounting work, which might explain the state of the economy.

Here are the nominees and winners.

Best Supporting Actor
It is a crowded field this year, with many stellar performances from both veterans and newcomers.

The nominees include private investigator P. Balasubramaniam in Missing; Pusrawi’s Dr. Mohd Osman in Rear Window; Zaid Ibrahim in Gone in Sixty Seconds; and Raja Petra Kamaruddin in An Inconvenient Truth.

But the Best Supporting Actor Oscar goes to Penang Umno leader Ahmad Ismail for his controversial performance in Pride and Prejudice.

Despite his recent success, which led to him being cast in Under Siege and Raging Bull, Ahmad has flatly refused roles in the films Anger Management and Atonement.

Best Supporting Actress
For her critically-acclaimed performance in Minority Report, this year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar goes to Sinchew Daily reporter Tan Hoon Cheng.

Interestingly, immediately after that film completed principal photography, Tan was the unwitting star of Catch and Release, a film that may or may not have been directed by Syed Hamid Albar, depending on which version of the studio press kit you read.

Tan spent just 18 hours on location, before quitting, citing creative differences.

Best Cinematography
For his impactful camera work in the V.K. Lingam vehicle The Conversation, the Oscar for Cinematography goes to Gwo Loh Burne.

(Although The Conversation was shot some time ago, due to his refusal to be credited for many months, Gwo Loh Burne could not be given the award earlier. When he finally came forward, this legal thriller was re-released in some markets as The Burne Identity.)

The Conversation beat out Entrapment, starring Chua Soi Lek, which also features an anonymous cinematographer.

Best Foreign-Language Film
Agricultural Study Tour, a Taiwanese sleeper hit, was shot entirely by coincidence, supposedly with no director and no funding.

Nonetheless, a sequel, Exile on My Taiwanese Farm: Peeling my Taugeh might be filmed next year with some of the original cast.

Best Original Screenplay
Jumper, written by Anwar Ibrahim, wins this year’s award. Although the film suffers from a cast of unknowns, whose number seems to fluctuate from scene to scene (though always at least 31), the script is undeniably original and exciting. It also has the potential for numerous sequels, which will prove profitable for the actors.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Written by a team of in-house screenwriters from the Attorney-General’s Studios, The Accused, starring Anwar Ibrahim, is allegedly adapted from instructions given by political superiors. A remake of the 1998 flop, but with many of the same actors and production team.

Best Actress
Seputeh Member of Parliament Teresa Kok was competing against herself this year with sterling performances in a slew of releases: Election; Woman on Top; Supergirl; and, in cinemas until last Friday, the black comedy Enemy of the State.

She wins the Best Actress Oscar, however, for her most famous role, Miss Congeniality, which has earned her praise from audiences and critics alike.

Best Actor
The big stars of yesteryear dominated the Best Actor category this year.

Nominees include S. Samy Vellu in Gone With The Wind; Dr. Mahathir Mohamed in V for Vendetta; and both Najib Tun Razak and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in the comedy Trading Places.

The winner, however, of the Malaysian Political Oscar for Best Actor is Abdullah Ahmad Badawi for his flawless, nuanced, masterful performance in Eyes Wide Shut.

Best Picture
The nominees for Best Picture in the Malaysian Political Oscars are all gripping epics.

They include the moving story of the many members of Parti Sosialis Malaysia, The Magnificent Seven; the Khairy Jamaluddin biopic Million Dollar Baby; the Hindraf saga, Out for Justice; and the tale of Gerakan in the Barisan Nasional, The End of the Affair.

The winner for Best Picture, however, is the story of the MCA’s struggle against the Internal Security Act, Look Who’s Talking Now.

Lifetime Achievement Award
For his astonishing film career spanning many decades, and including both commercial hits and small but critically-acclaimed art-house movies, Anwar Ibrahim wins the Lifetime Achievement Award.

His roles, in chronological order, include: Wild at Heart; The Young Guns; The Great Debaters; Sleeping With The Enemy; The Insider; The Sweet Smell of Success; Reversal of Fortune; Cast Away; The Accused; The Cell; Cry Freedom!; Into the Wild; Back to the Future; Mission: Impossible; The Perfect Storm; and, most recently, Eastern Promises.

Depending on the outcome of contract negotiations, Anwar’s next movies may include The King and I; Top Gun; and Great Expectations.

Alternatively, he may take roles in Crash; The Departed; and The Forgotten. That’s the thing about show business – you never know what the big stars will do next!

That’s all for this year’s edition of the Malaysian Political Oscars. See you on the red carpet next year!

Copyright © Huzir Sulaiman 2008. All rights reserved.