Saturday, February 28, 2015

#Slacktivist

Slacktivism is possibly one of the most irritating things that social media has ever engendered.

"Wooooo lemme take a selfie of myself holding up a symbol or sign, or making some sort of hand gesture. Tag other people. Add hashtag(s). Don't necessarily have to actually read up and gain a nuanced understanding of what I'm campaigning for. Awyeah I've changed the world. #hashtagging4change"

So yeah. Most of the time, our slacktivist posts don't do much beyond: 
i) conveniently letting the world know that we are do-gooders. #inspiring #youths #changetheworld 
ii) enabling us to be humble brags. (e.g. "more people really need to know about this Massive Problem In The World!!!" - subtly implies that poster is a knowledgeable, well-read global citizen) 
iii) giving us an excuse to post selfies. 

That said, though, I would concede that there definitely are exceptions to my snark; some social media movements have legitimately sparked some great, actual responses to significant issues. And those are awesome. It's just the co-opting of "activist" causes for mindless, feel-good, self-promoting purposes that really get to me.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Homelessness: Safe Hugs

I hugged a homeless man by the subway station yesterday (this was Kevin, if anyone cares to remember the granola bar post I put on Facebook a while back). And it was, by far, the best moment of the day for me - Kevin just has a way of making anyone's day that little bit sunnier, if only one would bother to stop by and exchange a word or two with him. 

But then once I got home, a stray thought entered my mind: whoa, people would totally flip if I told them that I go around New York hugging homeless people. And even as I write this quasi stream-of-consciousness piece, my mind subconsciously, warily, carefully filters words such as "homeless", "man", "hug" and such - for fear that some person who cares about me a little too much might tell me to get my act together, and to stay off the streets entirely, and to keep safe. Or he or she might tell me that Kevin is dangerous... that Kevin is not a friend.

But why? No one flips when I hug a college friend. Or even just an acquaintance I barely know. Or even a "safe", middle-class, well-brought-up stranger I've just met. But they'd flip if I hugged a homeless person whom I pass by (and talk to) virtually every week. Is that to say that homeless people are inherently dangerous? That it's not actually plausible for someone in my social class to be friends with a homeless person? 

Far too often, we treat the homeless as little more than receptacles in which we throw our coins. We trade our coins in for the assuagement of guilt and obligation, for the socially cheaper and more convenient avoidance of eye contact. We throw our coins in to convince ourselves that we have checked off our civic checkbox of "helping the needy" - when, in actual fact, we have failed at the most basic level to acknowledge the humanity of the individuals whom our eyes uncomfortably glaze over (even as we drop coins into their cups). This is the woman standing by the doors of Chipotle, this is the scruffy man sleeping by the steps of the church, this is Kevin, who stands at the 110th St subway entrance every evening.

At this point, a question that would probably (and quite understandably) have emerged in any reasonably caring and concerned person's mind is this: but what of safety? Let me address this on two levels. On the first level, the lack of a home does not, by any means, instantaneously make one a criminal. In all the time I've spent talking to homeless people, I've only ever met a few who - for lack of a better term - seemed "sketchy". (One was too inebriated to say anything sensible, and the other was evidently mentally unstable. But I struggle to find any other examples of hostile homeless individuals I've encountered other than these two.) For the most part, many of the homeless people I've befriended in the past have been strikingly nice. We've had conversations about their travels, about their children, about the circumstances which got them out on the streets. And I've told them about my classes, my life in college, my thoughts on life in general. And for the record, nothing terrible, nothing headline-grabbing, has ever happened to me in their company.

On another level, perhaps, even if homeless people were unsafe to be around, would that alone justify our distancing ourselves from them? I write this part from a Christian perspective - and my personal view on this is: no. We're not justified in throwing a few quarters into a cup and then averting our gaze from the individual to which the cup belongs. If Christ is Emmanuel, and if Emmanuel means "God with us", then his name itself declares that he is not a distant God. He has drawn closest to the broken and friendless and hurting in the world. And furthermore, by no means did he come to Earth to lead a "safe" life - rather, he came with the purpose of dying (and if you take some time to think about it, we're pretty unsafe people ourselves; I mean, we killed him). So, to cut to the chase: I don't actually believe that we've been called to live "safe" lives, away from the sidewalks, away from the corners of the subway, away from the homeless. Sure, we may (and should!) take sensible and wise precautions wherever we can, yet at the same time, we were never called to a quarantined, sterile, utopian existence of ignorance and indifference.

So maybe I'll end with a quote. It's one of my favorites, not just because I adore C.S. Lewis - but also because it reminds me that love is often most powerful, most authentic, when it involves some element of self-sacrifice, discomfort, and vulnerability:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Lawan

With all that's going on in Malaysia now, I'm glad I'll be of voting age not too long from now.

Yet at the same time... with all that's going on in Malaysia now, I'm not sure how much of a difference my vote would even make.

But still. Lawan tetap lawan. I say this not necessarily in full support of one political party or coalition (because we know that either side is probably terribly flawed in some way or other) - but still. Lawan tetap lawan... against injustice, against corruption, against disunity. Lawan tetap lawan... for justice, for mercy, for humility.

I may be thousands of miles away from my tanah air - the land for which I weep watery tears - but my heart for it remains steadfast.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Arteriosclerosis

Best convo with Carol last night -

"The heart is such a stupid organ."
"Yeah that's why I go to JJ's Place. To kill it."

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Be Still My Soul - Kari Jobe


Be still, my soul, thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as He has the past
Thy hope, thy confidence, let nothing shake
All now mysterious shall be bright at last
Be still, my soul, the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mustahil

when everything - the world, circumstances, people
- push you towards something,
and perhaps, even a little part of yourself
pushes too -
yet when you know
no, you remember
that you should pull away:
this is the place where
you stand;
uncertain,
dragged in one direction
and then the other
yet you move nowhere.
you stand
thirsty for the future
wary of the past
and you continue
presently
standing
stock still.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Work

Just going to quickly throw together a bunch of unstructured thoughts...

I think it's incredibly astute how some people say that half the battle is won once you identify your pain points. You don't necessarily have to even come close to alleviating them - it's just that finally knowing what exactly is screwing you over, putting a name to it, not having that nagging feeling at the back of your mind... can be surprisingly helpful.

I know it's a bit too early in the semester to be making judgments about my classes - yet this week's classes have helped me to recognize certain things about myself that I wasn't necessarily aware of before. And it's certainly made me feel better, get a better grip on why last semester wasn't entirely fulfilling (not grade-wise, but learning-wise), and how the coming semester can be an improvement of that. For one, the fall semester saw me attributing my stress levels to the sheer volume of readings and written work that I had to do. Yet what I've realized this week is that it isn't the volume of work that typically causes me the most stress; it's disinterest in my work that does. 

I came to this understanding after impulsively (and audaciously) registering for a 4000-level politics class requiring an inhuman number of readings and a 25-page research paper. Yet - unlike the case of my largely painful (and uncompleted) history readings last semester - I've found myself actually immersed in the course material. Two days straight, and I'm still nowhere close to finishing them... but I don't mind. I'm learning. I'm engaged. I'm interested. And this encourages me, because it tells me that hey, I still have a huge capacity to love learning - something that didn't really happen for me last semester.

That said, it's not as if the world is all rainbows and unicorns and I'm going to enjoy every single hour of my academic life (I mean, I do have UWriting this semester haha) - but at the very least, I'm hoping that this semester will be in some ways intellectually rewarding. But I guess that remains to be seen. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Lihatlah

apa yang engkau lihat?

aku melihat pokok berharga
engkau melihat balak yang mahal.
aku melihat tanah kaya dengan rahsia alam
engkau melihat konsesi lumayan.
aku melihat sungai, saluran darah Bumi
engkau melihat empangan, saluran kewangan kocekmu.

sampai bila akan engkau terus 
melihat tanpa menganggap,
mendengar tanpa mengerti?
sampai bila akan engkau terus
puas dengan kebutaan?
sampai bila akan engkau terus
enggan melihat?

kita terdesak. namun
kita terus melihat
meneliti
memandang
engkau.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Money Logging - Review and Reflections

I've spent the past week of my winter break buried in a book (and an excellent piece of investigative journalism) entitled 'Money Logging' by Lukas Straumann. When I first received delivery of this book, I eyed with skepticism what I thought was a rather sensationalist blurb on the front cover - "Read this book and weep. But then get angry." But now, having thoroughly gone through the entire book, I can truthfully tell you this: for me, at least, that blurb was far from sensationalist. I did read it, and I did get incredibly angry, and as much as I hate to admit it (my friends will attest to the fact that I ordinarily have tear glands of stone) - I did weep.


In this book, Straumann - a historian and the executive director of the Bruno Manser Fund - provides an account of deforestation in Borneo's forests as orchestrated by Taib Mahmud (former chief minister of Sarawak), as well as its resulting threat to the indigenous Penan tribe. Here, I must add that up to this point, I'd only known that Taib was an inordinately powerful politician who'd somehow managed to sink his fingers into many different pies in the country (most notably, in the timber industry). But this book helped me shed further light on three main things: that is, i) the extent of his power; ii) the way in which he has and continues to consolidate power; and ii) the impact of his abuses of power.

i) Extent of power

What surprised me most about the extent of Taib's power was how far-reaching it really is. In the first chapter of this book, Straumann exposes the numerous multimillion-dollar companies controlled by Taib and his family members all over the globe: Sakti International Group (San Francisco), Wallysons Inc. (Seattle), Sakto Group (Ottawa), City Gate International Corporation (Ottawa), Ridgeford Properties (London), Sitehost PTY (Adelaide), and of course, the Taib family holdings in Malaysia. And in yet another chapter, he details the key buyers that create unsustainable demand for Sarawak's tropical hardwood: Japan, Taiwan, South Korea. According to Straumann, these three export markets alone "absorbed nearly 90% of the timber exports from Sarawak" (p. 109), presumably with lucrative kickbacks to the Taib family. (And while we're at it, here's a bonus article about how Japanese demand for timber - this time from the 2020 Olympics - drives the destructive industry back home.)

Then, in remarkable detail, Straumann goes on to give account after account of the rampant cronyism and bribery that binds this web of illicit wealth together. To summarize the entire book in a paragraph would be quite a feat - so to put it more succinctly: "The conditions for timber exporters were clear; without kickbacks to [a Taib family company], there would be no export permit" (p. 108). Or, to paint an even more scandalous picture of the corruption and nepotism that routinely takes place in the Malaysian timber industry, allow me to digress a little and revive what was once a viral video: Inside Malaysia's Shadow State, by Global Witness. Chances are, you've already watched it (especially if you're a Malaysian) - but even if you have, I'd urge you to watch it again. The public furore may have quieted down, the video might have left circulation on our newsfeeds, our attention may have been diverted to other issues - yet whether we're conscious of it or not, these transactions still continue from day to day, and it's good to be reminded that they still exist.

ii) Consolidation of power

Moving on, this book gets even more interesting when Straumann begins to dissect the models that the Taib dynasty has perfected for staying in power and generating more wealth. And through my readings of Straumann's work, I've identified what I think are two of the most key ones. The first has to do with Taib's and his cronies' consolidation of power in the domestic arena:
"The principle is as simple as it is criminal. Politicians in government hand out logging concessions to their favorites and, in return, pocket bribes, which they use to finance their electoral campaigns - as well as for private purposes. Given that there are virtually no other sources of funding for the political parties - and that electoral campaigns are extremely costly in the remote rural regions of Borneo - those in office have a decisive advantage over challengers. In Sarawak, whoever managed to gain control of the logging concessions was in a position to harvest enormous sums of money and win every electoral campaign by a wide margin, making it virtually impossible to force them from office." (p. 98)
And then Straumann presents yet another model, this time of how Taib's companies consolidate power internationally:
"Twenty years after their international expansion, the timber corporations from Sarawak are still playing an important role in the worldwide tropical timber business, which is far from becoming sustainable. ... One thing they all have in common is that they have thrived thanks to a political climate rife with corruption and to an extremely lax application of the forestry laws, making it possible to flout rules more or less at will. As a result of the high profit margins in tropical timber, they subsequently moved into new fields of business, such as hotels, real estate, media, shipping, and palm oil production." (p. 224)
As a whole, both models work on different levels, but have one common feature that results in near-guaranteed success every time: they each form a positive feedback loop - a vicious cycle - that continuously amplifies and has some sort of a multiplier effect upon the original misdeeds of these companies. And this has resulted in the Taib dynasty growing increasingly wealthy, and also increasingly difficult to uproot, as the years go by.

iii) Impact of abuses of power

Straumann paints a frightening picture of the consequences of the Taib family's actions upon the natural environment and indigenous people in Sarawak. Digressing a little, it's possible to view and analyze these impacts through the Bruno Manser Fund's Sarawak Geoportal. This portal has a collection of customizable maps and satellite images that allow users to view and compare various aspects of Sarawak's development (ranging from indigenous culture, to land encroachment, to politics, etc). Needless to say, these maps are of inestimable importance both in tracking environmental degradation, and in supporting land rights claims by indigenous groups. 

In terms of the former, Sarawak - one of the world's most biodiverse regions - has been stripped down to a mere 5% of its original virgin forests. I've pulled a couple of screenshots from the geoportal to give you a better idea of what this massive deforestation looks like -


Land cover in the 1960s


Land cover in 2010

And here's the deal: while the loss of our ancient tropical rainforests and rich biodiversity is a tragedy in itself, it lends itself to an even further tragedy - that of the destruction of orang asli lives and livelihoods. Straumann narrates accounts of Penans who can no longer hunt and forage with ease in the forest, who are forced out of their ancestral homes by oil palm plantations, who are uprooted and displaced in favor of hydroelectric megadam projects. He tells the story of Along Sega, who died without seeing the earnest dreams of his adopted lakei Penan, Bruno Manser, ever coming to pass. He recounts the courage of the Penan people, who - though by nature gentle and non-confrontational - put up blockades of wood against timber magnates. He narrates both the triumphs and the struggles (though far more of the latter, unfortunately) of a beautiful people in a beautiful land that has been scarred by corruption and cronyism.

---

As a whole, I believe that Straumann has done an admirable (and not to mention, very brave) job of unearthing and exposing some of the most corrupt acts that Malaysia - and perhaps even the world - has seen. Even if just half of the things written in this book were true, it would be cause enough for the environment and Sarawak's indigenous tribes to suffer remarkable devastation - and by virtue of this, should also be cause enough for us to sit up and take notice and actually do something. (And an additional note here that I actually do view Straumann and the Bruno Manser Fund as highly reliable sources!)

But what can be done? Most of us aren't in the position to take on the timber barons of Sarawak; neither are we in the position to write yet another Straumann-esque exposé. So here are a few small but entirely practical things that we can do that might make a little difference:

- Read the book. Thank the heavens that it's not banned in Malaysia. It's an incredibly important text, whether you're interested in the environment, indigenous rights, Malaysia, history, politics, economics, finance and investment, sustainable development, corruption, or even psychological warfare. And it's really absorbing too; you're not likely to get bored.
- As far as possible, avoid patronizing banks that do business with companies associated with illegal and unsustainable deforestation. Among the financial institutions singled out by Straumann are: HSBC, Deutsche Bank, UBC, Goldman Sachs. There are probably more.
- Watch an awesome documentary called Sunset Over Selungo. In just a bit less than 30 minutes, you'll get a pretty comprehensive (and beautiful!) overview of the culture of the Penan Selungo, as well as the complex issues that they currently face. 
- Support the Penan Peace Park! It's a plan drawn up by Penan people themselves, aimed at "uniting forest protection with socio-economic development". The park covers 163,000 hectares of land, of which 60% is still intact primary rainforest. There's a tab for donations on the website if you're up for it.


Penan Peace Park region is within the (rather faint) green lines

And of course, given the opportunity, make friends with orang asli folks. They're some of the best people around. This one's to all my Penan friends at Long Lamai and beyond!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Food Wars

Today I posted a status update on Facebook about some laksa-related incident that I happened to witness at a Malaysian restaurant, and that post alone received a flood of responses.

"In the southern states they call curry mee, laksa. Weird but true"
"Laksa is definitely worth fighting for!"
"I WANT LAKSA PLZ."
"I wish I had access to laksa."
"Later they start debating about whether it should be called curry laksa or curry mee"

Malaysians take their food seriously. On the international front, we take it as an affront that our southern neighbors, our duri dalam daging, claim to have good street food (because face it, ours is the real deal). But interestingly, on the domestic front, in-fighting tends to flare up as well: the northern and southern states are often at odds over their respective hawker fare.

For one - as I already brought up earlier - laksa often finds itself at the center of food conflicts in Malaysia. The northern states (which I am partial to, despite the fact that I'm technically a southerner) generally insist that 'laksa' refers to assam laksa, a spicy and sour fish-based noodle soup. In contrast, the south claims that laksa is what the north recognizes as curry mee (basically noodles in a curry-based broth).

But who is right?

Answers are difficult to come by.

The conflict then takes a different turn with a different dish, and goes on to broach more philosophical ground. What is hokkien mee? What does it truly comprise of? Who can rightfully stake a claim to its name? Can multiple variants of it exist simultaneously? (The answer to the last question, by the way, is a resounding no. There is no room for relativism in these profound gastronomical questions of life.)

The north, of course, testifies to the greatness of a spicy prawn-based noodle soup graced by slivers of pork, thin slices of hard boiled eggs with perfect golden yolks, and Jibby's affordable kangkung. The south, on the other hand, throws pearls to pigs by bequeathing the divine title of 'hokkien mee' upon a thick black mass of worms.


But I'm biased. And regardless of my opinions, the great Malaysian food debate will continue till kingdom come. So perhaps, the only way we can resolve it with any finality is to bring it to court.

Yes, to court. The food court. Let's eat.