Wednesday, September 26, 2007

KL / Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka

I don't like KL. It's filthy, chaotic, and littered with shady characters acting as if they own the place. After sundown, it gets worse. The high-pitched sounds of traffic are replaced by dark desires that rumble in low decibels. The emancipated man at the bus-stop becomes a drug addict in need of fast cash; the shifty-eyed man sweeping floors becomes a sex-starved maniac whose wife is a continent and a half away. You don't need much imagination to commit a crime.

Yet, here is the heart—and soul—of the nation. More pertinently to me at least, here is its arts scene, buzzing and beating harder since The Annexe opened its doors to the public. Twice this month, I've ended up here alone, at night, praying on the LRT that I don't get mugged or raped or assaulted or battered or harassed or decapitated (maybe you do need some imagination after all) while walking the 200 metres or so from Pasar Seni station to The Annexe and back. It's not the wisest thing to do, but somehow the friends I ask to come along always can't make it. Grrr.

Fortunately then, for both my solitary nighttime adventures, my mind came back piqued by a new idea, a new concept, a new insight. In other words, the hassle was worth it.

( |o }===:::

And so I decided to risk my life tonight because a historical documentary called Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka by virginal filmmaker Fahmi Reza was being screened. For free. I tend to avoid historical stuff because it has such a powerful effect on me, leaving me snoring and unconsciously sniffing at the next person's shirt, which I can't decide in my sleep is a durian or not, but tonight's doco won The Most Outstanding Human Rights Film award at this year's Freedom Film Fest organised by Komas, while excerpts from reviews, plonked into the promo postcard, all praised it. I am a sucker for ratings and good reviews, so I was sold.

Basically (which means I don't remember the details), the documentary covers the period from 1945-1948 in Malaya, and brings to life a historical nugget missing from our Sejarah textbooks—of how left-wing political parties formed a multi-racial coalition that demanded independence from the British, and came up with a referendum dubbed the People's Constitution. This version of history is gleaned from archived text, historical commentaries and interviews with former leaders and members of these parties. The snappy editing and music choice helped heaps in sustaining interest, and a particularly humorous section comparing this alternative referendum against UMNO/Britain's referendum hit the nail on the head. Oh, and I love the fonts.

But the highlight of this doco is an event that has been blanked out by the authors of our history books. In 1947, after the British refused to cater to the wishlist of the multiracial coalition of Putera-AMCJA, a Brit-educated Baba called Tan Cheng Lock suggested a hartal as a way of getting their attention. Having spent time in India, his inspiration came from Gandhi and Nehru, who were also fighting for independence from the Brits and had used this strategy successfully many times. The idea was tested out in several states, and, having been found successful, thousands of flyers announcing a nationwide hartal for 20th October 1947 were printed by the printing presses belonging to the Chinese merchants (an ally) and distributed. Finally, the day dawned. During this hartal, the rakyat showed their support for independence by closing all shops and staying in. Business came to a standstill, costing the fuming Brits 4 million pounds—a huge sum in that day. It was the biggest single public demonstration our nation has seen, yet most Malaysians don't know anything about it. (Unfortunately, as history has proven, the British Government still did not acknowledge the voice of the rakyat demanding freedom, and only granted us independence 10 years later.)

Even if you're not a history buff, rest assured that this documentary is as accessible as any mamak in Malaysia. And we were lucky to have Fahmi in attendance for a discussion session after the screening. It helped in understanding more about how the Government (the hand that weaves those historical words) either claims a piece of history as theirs, or plays other events down, championing instead their political agendas. Meanwhile, the left-wing leaders who also struggled for independence either ended up in jail or in silence, their sacrifices all but wiped out.

The event left me with several questions and impressions. Would a hartal of sorts work in today's Malaysia, in the event that the ruling Government acted way out of line? Who would organise it? Or even if some left-wing group tried to organise say, a total boycott of government-linked companies like Petronas, would the man on the street be afraid of being openly accused as a Government detractor? What would the effect be of screening this film ahead of the elections to the younger generation, especially Malays, who seek a different Malay role model other than the keris-waving drama queen? The documentary showed progressive-minded Malay leaders of yesteryear, who did not talk all day about racial issues so as to divide and remind us of our differences, but instead focused on gaining independence through unity.

Fahmi also brought up the point of how our textbooks keep emphasising racial divisions, but fail to mention segregation by class, which has had more impact on our nation's state and laws than you and I would probably like to know. It's certainly stuff to think about, and an interesting alternative to those who find it hard to entrust an entire nation's future to UMNO's present leaders, or their ability to write truthful textbooks.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Buku Muka

I'll tell you a secret. I'm addicted to Facebook. Since my boss (older than me by at least a decade) mentioned in a meeting that he's on Facebook, I figured I should succumb to the hype and jump on the bandwagon, y'know. Can't be seen as a non-nerd—not while I work in a tech/web company!

On a slightly more noble note, I am actually interested in web culture and social trends. So Facebook fits in nicely with my learning goals and interests. And for some reason, perhaps because I never was on the other social networking Goliath i.e. Friendster, it's made me rather hyper about finding friends and checking notifications. These days, I'd consider myself an evangelist for Facebook. I've been asking heaps of people if they're on, and explaining that there are so many fun, time-wasting things to do on it.

"Like what?" they ask.

I usually say that you can poke people, have an aquarium or zoo, draw graffiti, fight with others, buy people drinks, send baked items, and play Scrabulous, but even as the words come out, I feel like a nine-year-old kid jumping up and down with his new toy. Listen, all ye working folks. Facebook is dangerous! If you're as easily distracted as me, you can get addicted to it!

On a side note, my main gripe with Facebook is that it doesn't give you the flexibility of choosing how you'd like your name to appear. For those who type in their Chinese names with surname first, Facebook will automatically assume that those are their first names and thus address you as such. I hate being called by my surname, and attempts to change that have been ignored by Facebook. In fact, they've officially rejected my appeal and banned me for two weeks from attempting to change my name again. Idiots, I say.

Sickensore / Lab Rats

Two paper cuts and one sore throat mark the end of a week cooped up in a very small, very white and very cold research facility in downtown KL. For company, I had a sick research partner, loads of A3 paper, marker pens, a videocam, ciplak Post-it Notes (not from 3M), a one-way mirror and 25 strangers who came and went out a little richer. My colleague poisoned the air with her germs and took it upon herself to help them breed and inherit the earth. This morning, another colleague and I fell sick: wet stuff was coming out of his nose while he questioned the day's first participant; I remained sullen, taking notes while my throat burned.

Research work is both boring and fun. I'm not an extrovert or people-person to begin with, so listening actively to people talk (and trying to be interested) did stretch my personality quite a bit. I had to learn to ask questions clearly—I tend to stop mid-thought in conversations, especially if I start concentrating on the sound of my own voice ("Oh gosh, what am I saying? Do I sound that bad? La la la la la la...") or alternately, if I have one of those 'moments' that exist only in my head—and responding with appropriate follow-up statements/questions. I also tried varying the tone/drone of my voice so that participants wouldn't fall asleep, framing questions in as neutral a way as possible, and adjusting my language and word choice to match the other person's lingo.

The first few sessions I was forced to moderate required a lot of energy. I needed time to hype myself up and mentally prepare. But as I got the hang of it, it grew easier. I pretended I was acting out a stage role; here, (duh) the role of a researcher. In some cases, I tried giving 'fake' responses by acting casual or ignorant about a subject, but what I was really trying to fish for was their honest opinion of things. This role-playing was fun.

So it's been an interesting week out of the office, to say the least. I've been very pooped, but it was cool learning new things about myself and trying on a different work scope. It's all gooooooooddddd.... :)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Of Language and Sex

I've been conducting some Top Secret Research in KL for the past two days. This week's schedule ends tomorrow, but the whole of next week is all about shaking hands and disinfecting them with unadulterated brainpower alone, while doing my best to listen attentively.

Since Central Market was en route home, I decided to drop in on some KataGender arts installation thingy and a forum on 'Youth Movement Since Merdeka' (part of the 50:44 event). For the arts exhibit, a bunch of old t-shirts were hung up on several clothes lines, each with a one-line story of gender-related injustice painted on it along with the year on the other side. Honestly, it didn't leave much of an impact on me. I think that if an elaboration of those stories and suggestions on how the viewer-participant could respond (write to MCA, join a club, demonstrate/fornicate outside Parliament, etc) were included somewhere, it would have helped the message. Also, some torn clothes/clothes dumped on the floor might have added a nice touch to symbolise the struggle (and consequences) in issues dealing with gender identity.

Up a flight of stairs, and I found an inconspicuous spot at the Youth forum. Sat down and listened to the first panelist, Hishamuddin Rais, a former student activist who is infamous for his outspoken mind (which has gotten him into a Top Secret Cell). Well, two things he said made sense. Although he said it with activism in mind, these pointers can be applied to whatever message it is you wanna get out.
  1. Stop preaching to the converted—get your message out to the unconverted, who need to hear it more, and collectively, are able to make a greater difference. (In tonight's context, the 'lost' youths of Malaysia.)
  2. Say it in the language of the masses, i.e. use Bahasa Malaysia. It is not about using BM simply because it is the national language or anything to do with iffy patriotic connotations; rather, we should come to view BM as a strategic language that is essential in communicating whatever our gospel to the masses, bridging the racial divide and changing mindsets.
Thinking about it, I am of the opinion that if we did speak mainly one common language, racial tensions might be less (though a blot in history that proves otherwise is the racial riots in Indonesia between the locals and the Indo-Chinese, and all those incidences of ethnic cleansing).

Anyway, that was pretty good stuff to mull over as I left early enough not to be abducted by KL's 'scruds' (dodgy people, usually men, who like dark corners and bright ideas that pop up when they covertly observe other people, usually women, anxiously clutching their bags, eyes darting, and walking alone).

Tomorrow there's a mass prayer and a forum on the long overdue need for an inter-faith commission (their words, not mine). If you're interested, go to The Annexe @ Central Market, 8pm onwards.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Post No. 100 (+1)

Wow! I just realised the previous post was post no. 100. I am a certified blogger now! (By my own standards.) Wheee!

Saharadja at Mont Kiara Jazz Fest

I had been looking forward to the Merdeka gig at No Black Tie, which was meant to be a night of poetry and music featuring the likes of Amir Muhammad, Azmyl Yunor, Pang, Mia Palencia and Isaac Entry. However, when we got there, I realised (i) I was underdressed; (ii) we needed a reservation.

Dang dang dang.

So, by virtue of being booted out of NBT, a friend and I found ourselves on the road to Sunrise, Mont Kiara for its annual jazz fest. We arrived just in time to get coffee and settle down for the second set, which featured a band from Bali called Saharadja.

If this had been the World Rainforest Music Festival, they would have so totally rocked. But their brand of world music, heavy on the percussions and with an interesting mix of violin, djembe, trumpet, flute, didgeridoo, guitar, drums, bass and tribal calls, seemed wasted amidst the concrete walls that surrounded the soundstage. The crowd's response was rather mediocre, as is expected when you have a free sit-down-type event that is F&B and kid-friendly. (It is also likely that the hot Aussie violinist in the centre diverted substantial attention away from the music.)

After a while, I picked up the camera and went in front to shoot some pics. Immediately, I was zapped by the energy that bounced off the stage, and my impression of them improved 100%. They rock, and so do free gigs.

Saharadja's guitarist: a really animated dude