Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Feminism and the Women's Movement in Malaysia : A Review

by Carmen Nge

Barisan Nasional MP Datuk Bung Mokhtar Radin must be simmering. The old adage, “loose lips sink ships” has never before proven so metaphorically true. His slip of tongue has resulted in an unstoppable torrent of public criticism from women and men alike. The DPM’s pathetic attempt at salvaging Bung’s rear end by claiming the remark was innocuous only smacked of complicity. I suppose this is what members of the old boys’ club do: they back each other up, they forgive and forget, and return to the task of running the country. What’s a little crass ribbing among MPs? Women should be more thick-skinned.

What the op ed pieces and newspaper reports don’t tell us is that Bung’s callous remark is a hardly an anomaly. Witness Datuk Seri Samy Vellu’s comment a few days after the infamous “bocor” incident: “A woman 50 years ago, she looks beautiful, but today she won’t look so beautiful.” He said this when referring to the RM90 million renovation work done on the Parliament House. Clearly, the old boys cannot stem the tide of their patriarchal lingo and prevent another sexist screw-up.

To surmise that all our MPs are sexist or male chauvinists would be an overgeneralization, but there is no denying that retorts against women are nothing new. Comments during Parliamentary debates about menstruation, sexy clothes, unmarried divorcees and outspoken women, in some ways reflect the limited influence that the women’s movement in this country has had on men in power. The fact that the female MPs from BN failed to publicly take Bung to task during Parliamentary debates also showed that partisan politics will always trump gender issues.

Perhaps the problem lies in how women are perceived by the ruling apparatus—not as equal and legitimate partners in the political process but merely as a voting bloc to be swayed for electoral purposes. This supposition is amplified and well-supported by historical research in a ground-breaking book entitled, Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Malaysia, published by heavyweight academic UK publisher, Routledge, and authored by three Malaysians: Cecilia Ng, Maznah Mohamad and tan beng hui.

Ng, Maznah and tan make a formidable trio; all of them are active in various women organizations and have research expertise in the area of women’s studies. Maznah and Ng are both academics, having taught at University Sains Malaysia and University Putra Malaysia, respectively. The former is currently Associate Professor and has a string of publications to her name. Tan is a member of the Women’s Development Collective (WDC) and the All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), which Ng helped found. Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Malaysia is a result of their collective effort to document the existence of a movement that does not consider documentation high on their priority list.

The strength of their book lies in a careful parsing of various strands of the women’s movement from socio-political and historical standpoints. Rather than focus on urban NGOs who are most vocal about issues such as violence against women and often take up concerns of the secular middle-class, the authors also scrutinize governmental bodies, namely the Ministry of Women and Family Development; mainstream Malay-Muslim women organizations such as Wanita and Puteri UMNO; and the women’s wing of Islamic NGOs such as Helwa ABIM and Wanita JIM. A chapter of the book on women and political Islam also covers the internal politics and complexities of women’s role in PAS, which is often stereotyped as a party unfriendly to the women’s movement. PAS Dewan Muslimat (Women’s Assembly) was established as early as 1953 and well-educated women do hold leadership positions, although these are numerically few and with marginal influence.

The depth and diversity of the book chapters in Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Malaysia are proof of the variegated nature of the women’s movement in Malaysia. The writers are, however, careful to point out the omission of East Malaysia in their project, citing the different relationship that women’s groups have with the states of Sabah and Sarawak due to different contexts and the federal-state government structure. Nevertheless, despite such limitations, the book manages to contextualize and critically analyze the scope and nature of women’s activism in the country.

In a fascinating chapter titled, “An unholy alliance?”, the co-optation of women’s NGOs’ concerns by the Ministry of Women and Family Development is carefully delineated. In a self-interested move, the Ministry used the Violence against Women (VAW) campaign—renamed WAVE (Women Against Violence) or OMBAK in Malay—to publicize itself and to dilute the issue rather than to sharpen its focus. Women’s NGOs boycotted the launch of OMBAK in July 2001 and the controversy was amplified in the press. In order to soften this public relations blow, Minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil sponsored a proposal to amend the Federal Constitution, Article 8(2) in a politically expedient move.

This anti-gender discrimination amendment had already been put forward by the Women’s Agenda for Change (WAC) as early as 1998 but due to lack of political leverage and connections, was not passed, gazetted or enforced. The tireless and thankless work of women’s NGOs over the past 20 years went largely unnoticed as the Ministry of Women and Family Development stole the media limelight. This event also highlighted the fact that women’s issues could win votes; as such, political parties are liable to play the gender card simply to garner votes rather than to genuinely fight for gender equality and women’s rights.

According to 1999 statistics, women voters make up 55.6% of the population and since the mid-1990s, women voters have tended to outnumber men. With the rising number of women university students, it is likely that this percentage will increase in the upcoming elections. Mainstream women’s organizations such as Puteri UMNO has successfully penetrated rural enclaves, utilizing young women of the party to register potential UMNO voters and to raise the public profile of UMNO in general. But such attempts to curry voters are not commensurate with a similar rise in the number of women MPs in the country.

According to United Nations 2005 statistics, the percentage of women MPs in Malaysia is only 9.6%, still below the Asian average of 10% and well below that of Vietnam, which stands at 26% and is ranked 11th in the world for women MP representation. Even our immediate neighbour, Singapore, has 16% female representation in Parliament. It is no wonder MPs Bung and Mohd Said are unapologetic; after all, women are such a minority in Parliament, it seems pointless to care what they think.

Nonetheless, for us to chastise Bung for his remark and to get upset with those members of Parliament who took it lightly is only the tip of the iceberg for what needs to be done. The fact remains that MPs such as Bung exemplify the absence of intelligent thought in Parliament. To equate the leak in the Parliament House roof with the menstrual cycle is to commit a commonplace logical fallacy—false analogy—that any student of critical thinking can point out. A woman’s menstruation is as natural and God-given as a leaky ceiling is man-made. To menstruate is part and parcel of being a woman (and even then, with a few medical exceptions) but for a million ringgit construction and upgrading effort to spring a leak? What else can it be but an effect of corruption?

Rather than throw red herrings into the august halls of Parliament, perhaps some of our MPs should pick up a book to sharpen their critical thinking skills, to cultivate rational logic, and to expand their sorely limited knowledge of the struggle and gains made by women in the past 50 years. It would certainly behoove our MPs—male and female alike—to give Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Malaysia a read. Merdeka is around the corner—it’s the least they can do.


This review was first published in Off The Edge magazine, Dec 2007 issue.

I Don't Want To Sleep Alone by Tsai Ming Liang : A Review

by Carmen Nge

At the tail end of 1998, during the most infamous trial in Malaysian courtroom history, a non-descript mattress was elevated to the status of scandalous visual spectacle. Purportedly containing DNA evidence that would incriminate a certain former DPM, this mattress was carted to the courtroom as proof of illicit sexual escapades. Although the victim of this political scandal was exonerated many years later, the mattress served as a powerful visual memory for many Malaysians, including Sarawak native and now Taiwan resident, filmmaker Tsai Ming Liang.

A queen-sized, well-worn and discoloured mattress inhabits countless frames in Tsai’s latest film, I Don't Want To Sleep Alone, which is set entirely in Kuala Lumpur. Migrant workers spy it in an alley and transport it back to their sleeping quarters, eager to experience its attendant comforts. Along the way, they stumble upon a beaten, bruised and black-eyed man—eeriely reminiscent of a certain former DPM in police custody—whom they rescue, bundling him up in their newly found mattress.

What follows next is a filmic narrative of exceptional neo-realism, exploring a subject exceedingly rare in Malaysian cinema: the lives of migrant workers in our nation’s capital. Shot almost entirely without dialogue, each frame is meticulously composed and Tsai, who is well-known for his minimalist style and excruciatingly long takes, allows us ample room to observe, soak in, reflect and ruminate on the lives of a group of people we take for granted.

The Malaysian Censorship Board originally banned the film, claiming that it depicted Malaysia negatively by focusing on immigrants and beggars, as well as the haze of 1998. There is no denying that Tsai eschews the typical icons of Malaysia Boleh; the Petronas Towers, Putrajaya and all other towering edifices of development were dismissed in favour of a semi-built, disused and abandoned multi-storey building near Pudu. Preferring to zoom in on the stark realities of the Malaysian urban landscape—dirty and dank city streets and alleyways; abandoned construction projects; decades-old kopitiams and cramped shoplots—Tsai’s film holds up a mirror to our so-called progress.

Malaysians in Tsai’s film are peripheral to the storyline, which revolves around three migrant workers, enmeshed in a quasi-love triangle. But the love that the two men and one woman feel for one another transcends the romantic; what the three migrants feel, if it can be called love at all, is indistinguishable from companionship, caring, and a craving to belong. These are alienated souls, eking a living in a city populated by other displaced and disenchanted persons, and who somehow stumble upon each other. The concept of home exists only within the paradigm of relationships, not a physical space. The mattress they carry with them is symbolic of their transience but it is also symptomatic of their desire to have some semblance of a home, regardless of where they end up staying.

I Don't Want To Sleep Alone is a powerful meditation on the what it means to be human, even in the face of decrepit conditions and cruel treatment. The slow pace of the film simultaneously accentuates the meaninglessness of existence and the ways in which unexpected encounters gradually blossom into relationships that fill the void of living. But more than anything else, Tsai’s film tells us a beautiful story of three people who manage to find solace in each other, despite residing in a city—KL—that has become increasingly cold, soulless and sullen. The fact that these three people are not Malaysians but instead, migrant workers who barely speak the same language, speaks volumes.

This review was first published in Off The Edge, July 2007 issue.

John Perkins : Interview 2007

by Carmen Nge

In 2005, a silver-haired, retired American businessman resisted bribes, braved threats to his life, and hid away from the public eye, in order to write a book. The book was an instant bestseller and for months remained on Top Ten non-fiction books lists around the world, selling half a million copies since November 2004.

The term EHM or “economic hit man” entered common parlance and some readers of the book exclaimed that its contents were too unbelievable not to be true. EHMs were economics consultants and business professionals hired by American corporations to infiltrate countries that posed significant strategic interests for the United States. Over the last three to four decades, the American ruling elite, made up of corporate bigwigs and politicians, used EHMs to execute a masterplan of economic world domination.

The title of the book is Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and its author, John Perkins, became almost instantly infamous for his expose. Now, more than two years later, Perkins has written a second book, The Secret History of the American Empire. Hot off the presses, his latest effort incorporates more confessions from other EHMs like himself and reveals more secret deals of the American government in cahoots with multinational corporations. True to form, The Secret History is already a bestseller.

When Perkins’ first book came out, Off the Edge had the pleasure of a lengthy telephone interview with the author. This time around, due to his hectic book tour in North America and travels in Latin America, we were only able to dialogue with Perkins via email. Below is the full, unexpurgated interview.

OTE: Can you tell us why you decided to write a follow-up to your first book?

John: I wrote it primarily for 3 reasons:1. to include stories from other EHM and jackals who contacted me after "Confessions" was published2. to bring things up to date -- what is going on around the world up through the beginning of 20073. to provide a detailed plan for what we all can do to make it a better world.

OTE: One of the areas covered in Secret History of the American Empire is Asia and the economic collapse in the late 90s. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you have discovered about this area of the world?

John: The book goes into depth about the Asian Economic Crisis -- also known as the IMF Crisis. Indeed the collapse was perpetuated by US-IMF policies.

OTE: Malaysia is now in the process of negotiating its free trade agreement (FTA) with the US. What is your view of FTAs? Do you think they are another way for the US to gain control over the economies of developing nations such as Malaysia?

John: No question that FTAs are vehicles for expanding the American Empire -- a bad thing for just about everyone in the world, except the corporatocracy.

OTE: You have been critical of the US's imperial ambitions, the IMF and the World Bank. Yet so many developing nations rely on the World Bank for economic support. What options are there if we were to reject the policies of the World Bank and reject the monetary support of the IMF?

John: As I discuss in detail in Secret History of the American Empire, the Latin Americans are showing us a new way, [they are] planning to develop their own regional bank -- as well as media networks. Countries around the world that are under the US yoke must band together, form alliances, refuse to pay their debts, and create their own financial institutions.

OTE: What is your view of Hugo Chavez and the nationalization of petroleum in Venezuela? Do you think he will likely be assassinated like Salvador Allende, Omar Turrijos and Jaimé Roldós?

John: The US is very afraid that we will lose Middle Eastern oil as a result of the Iraq debacle; so Washington is very dependent on Venezuelan and other Latin American oil. Coups and assassinations are always a possibility but I think the US knows it must tread softly in Latin America right now.

OTE: As an American, how do you feel about the anti-American sentiment spreading across Latin America and the rest of the world, particularly in Muslim countries like Iran and Indonesia? Can this sentiment be a force of change or do you think it will only fuel American military aggression further?

John: As a US citizen I take it as a strong message. Part of my commitment is to write and speak out in the U.S. about these things and to encourage my people to take them very seriously. If we want our children to inherit a safe, sustainable and peaceful world, we must listen and we must change. Now is the time for us to act responsibly!

OTE: Apart from Saudi Arabia, it seems as if Middle Eastern nations are more resistant to American economic pressure and political influence. What is your view? Do you think US has succeeded in making significant political/economic inroads into the Middle East?

John: I think we are on the verge of losing influence in the Middle East. When we leave Iraq, the rest of the region may well desert us. Israel is in a very tenuous position. We must develop a new approach, one that strives to address and solve the real problems of all the people in that region. Are we capable of doing this? I will work very hard toward that end.

OTE: What hopes do you have for the upcoming American elections? Do you think a Democratic win can reverse the global problems caused by the Bush administration?

John: A Democratic win can set the stage to reverse the problems but we must go way beyond partisan politics. "Secret History" is devoted to presenting a plan for changing things, for truly creating a better world. It is not about Democrats versus republicans. It is about changing the very system created by EHM since WWII. As you will see in the book, I am extremely optimistic that we can -- and will -- do so.

This interview was first published in Off The Edge magazine, July 2007 issue.

Listening to the Singer by Shirley Lim : A Review

by Carmen Nge

I eat a green mango. Solid,
sour, it cuts the back of the throat, torn
taste, like love grown difficult or separate.
More chillies, more salt, more sugar,
more black soy—a memory of tart
unripeness sweetened by necessities.
(excerpt from “Mango”)

Shirley Lim is a poet of rich metaphors and a long memory. Despite having lived in the United States for a few decades, Lim continues to write of a past still hauntingly vivid, with metaphors grounded in a reality painfully Malaysian. Her most recent book of poetry, Listening to the Singer, is powerful volume steeped in a nostalgia emptied of romanticized nuances. Like green mangoes, her poems stimulate our awareness of the sharp, sour zing to come.

Lim’s most heart-wrenching poems are about her mother—a woman who left a gaping hole in her psyche that is present still. A luminescent absent figure, Lim’s mother inspires anger but the poet controls this emotion rather productively; hers is an anger distilled, lacking a venomous edge and ripened to aesthetic maturity.

Like most women, Lim’s mother desires the finer things in life: Western fashions, fancy cars and material comforts. The poet tells us that she “confused life with wanting” but the poems harbour a more complex subtext, one that paints the picture of a society that opens few pathways for women at the time. As a child, Lim would not have been equipped with a feminist lens but as an adult poet, she understands that being a woman is far from easy. The arguments and beatings her mother endures at the hands of her father compels us to empathize with both poet and mother.

Nevertheless, Lim refrains from demonizing her father. Poems about her father are loving portraits, although shot through with a bitter sweetness. Lim’s impressions of her father are concrete and vivid, full of the minute details of everyday life: what he ate when sick, the car he drove and the drinks he consumed for his many ailments. Here is a man the poet knows best, broken under the weight of family responsibility and wracked with health problems. Lim’s poems about her father are longer, less terse than those about her mother.

Lim’s poems about people are her strong suit. They are full-bodied and fleshed out, rich with thick descriptions that serve as metaphors for longing and loss. Her poems about places—Malacca, Santa Barbara, airports, beaches, to name a few—are objectively detailed and her adjectives clinically precise. Lim paints a picture of a Malaysia teeming with life—tropical insects (gnats, black spiders, moths, lizards) share the humidity of a monsoon clime with an ocean breathing waves and foam.

But the fecund physical and emotional landscape is tightly controlled; Lim often adopts traditional poetic forms—rhyme schemes that structure her memories into well-defined stanzas. Despite their perceived restrictiveness, these rhyming structures in fact amplify the musicality of Lim’s poetic voice. Some of her poems are like pantuns in English, adopting familiar forms like the pantun berkait.

Although she tackles an extended time frame that reaches into the present, Shirley Lim’s poems are strongest when they move into the bittersweet crevices of the past, scraping against abrasive memories and scooping out their soft, pulpy substance. Unafraid of their consequence, she excavates her personal history in a manner that reminds us how important it is never to forget and yet, how malleable and recondite our remembrances.

This review was first published in Off The Edge magazine, Merdeka (September) 2007 issue.