Friday, March 14, 2008

Huff, huff, puff puff

This past week, apart from being caught up with the excitement over the elections, I had hit the gym with a renewed vengeance. Part of the reason was the realization my cholesterol level was climbing, as I had begun to enjoy the wonderful street food a little too much. The other reason was my friend T’s running blog.

Specifically, this heart-thumping account of a 50 km race up the beautiful hills of Woodside, in the San Francisco Bay Area. As I read it, I felt swept along with T as he glided his way through a course that ran from narrow single-track trails to “a mixed forest up to a fire road cut through redwood trees and douglas fir. The trees loom tall, their tops lost in the canopy. The road does its best to reach the tops of the trees as it climbs steeply in this section.” When I read this, I closed my eyes and dreamt of spring in the Bay Area, of kayaking in Point Reyes, of being wowed by the giants of Muir Woods, of strolling along Half Moon Bay and buying freshly caught Dungeness crabs and of magical kites floating over the Berkeley marina.

Now, I’m not a runner by any means – my regular 5 km on the treadmill might get me to the first drinks station on a 50K race (or maybe not!). And the parts of Woodside I know revolve around and inside Buck’s, a wonderfully individualistic diner/restaurant in which Silicon Valley moneybags meet to seal mega-techie deals over flapjacks. Not surprisingly, it was T who brought us there.

Picture from restaurant website.

So, how am I ever to lose weight if even ironman runners keep feeding me all the good stuff?

Tokyo (and Kyoto), here I come!!!

All my bags are packed, I'm ready to go... For eight whole days, I won't have to think about musty ol' papers and the aftermath of the general elections. Hope to eat well (popping into places when the whim takes us), see some sights, take a few pictures, and maybe write a bit. But hey, I haven't even finished writing about Penang.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

You be the judge

We’re beginning to witness the first fruits of the political tsunami that hit Malaysia on the March 8 – the ruling Barisan Nasional, reeling from a major setback dealt by voters during the general elections, no longer has the monopoly on truth, particularly the non-blog variant.

Yeah, sure, the ruling party still controls the mainstream media, the English and Malay-language press being more subservient than others. But it will be hard to ignore the opposition now that they control five out of the eleven states in the peninsula. And not just any five either – the biggest and most important of the lot. I mean, you just cannot black out completely what five Chief Ministers are saying, can you? We are already seeing evidence of a less restrictive flow of information.

Take for example today’s headline news, in which Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi warned the freshly minted Penang Chief Minister, Lim Guan Eng, not to make statements that could stoke racial tensions. So I thought to myself, what incendiary and irresponsible rhetoric has this Guan Eng chap been up to, that has so moved our Prime Minister to give him a firm ticking off? Has Guan Eng been waving a dagger in the air and declaring his fervent intent to protect his ‘people’? Well, judge for yourself. Here are a selection of quotes made by the secretary-general of the DAP since March 8.
[March 9] Guan Eng to be Penang CM
“We are humbled by our win and pledge not to disappoint the people of Penang.

“We also want to stress that the new government will be for Malaysians of all races. We will be fair, just and not discriminate against anyone – offering assistance to all in need. Talented Penangites can expect equal opportunity from a coalition that is united by a common love for democracy that respects basic human rights, political equality and socio-economic justice.”

[March 10] Thanking out-going Chief Minister Koh Tsu Koon for showing him around the office (what a stand-up guy, this Dr, Koh), Lim thanked his predecessor for “welcoming” the party into his office. “I appreciate and thank him for his willingness to accept the people’s decision and we welcome his views. The new administration is one for all Penangites, not just one particular party.”

[March 11] Guan Eng pledges to pursue investor-friendly policies
“The people demand transparency and accountability in the issuance of government contracts, and this new state government shall insist on an open public tender system.”

[March 12] Guan Eng sworn in as CM
After the swearing in, Guan Eng was driven to his new office, and when he sat on the chief minister’s chair for the first time, he quipped: “I already feel the heavy responsibility.”
Rabble-rousing stuff, isn’t it? And all these from reports carried by the government-controlled press. Reading this, do you feel an uncontrollable urge to rush out and incite some racial hatred? I think not.

What Pak Lah was really taking aim at was Guan Eng’s declaration that the state government was going to do away with the New Economic Policy, an ethnic-based affirmative action programme. If before, we would only hear one side of the story, now you can compare the quotes side-by-side and decide for yourself.
Pak Lah
The PM said that the NEP had in fact benefited everyone. “I would like to ask the DAP which community has been made poorer because of the NEP.”

Guan Eng
"The NEP is good but its benefits are only enjoyed by some as many Malays in the country, including those in Penang, are still poor. The implementation of NEP has only made the rich richer and the poor poorer due to malpractices.”

Pak Lah
“Do not marginalise the Malays. I want to ask Lim Guan Eng what his plans are for the Malays in Penang What are his plans for the Indians in Penang? What are his plans for other minority groups in Penang?”

Guan Eng
“When I said that I would run the government administration free of the New Economic Policy (NEP), I emphasised on asking the tender process to be made publicly. I do not think Malay contractors object to the open tender system as it is more transparent compared to the present process which is subject to corruption, cronyism and nepotism.”
See? It’s all hanging out there. We, everyone, especially the bulk of Malaysians who have no access to the Internet, can judge for ourselves. It is no longer possible to silence the other view. By swinging massively to the opposition, the voters not only ushered in a slew of fresh faces and new state governments, they may have ignited a new information era.

By the way, I hope the trend in a few opposition-controlled states to have two Deputy Chief Ministers representing the other ethnic groups catches on at the Federal level. Who’s for a Chinese Malaysian and Indian Malaysian Deputy Prime Ministers?

Monday, March 10, 2008

The end of the politics of race?

If Malaysia’s 12th general elections marked the end of the politics of fear, what about the politics of race?

Malaysiakini ran a very optimistic piece today, headlined ‘Polls shatter race-based politics’ (subscription only). That would be a great dream come true if it were completely true.

The ruling coalition’s formula – mono-ethnic parties coming together to champion mono-ethnic policies at the (somewhat uneven) bargaining table – is still alive (if not well), as the Barisan Nasional still won the election, garnering 51% of the popular vote, and is forming the federal government. Yet, as this article in the New Straits Times points out, that 51% takes into account Sabah and Sarawak (in which the BN did very well); in the Peninsula, BN secured only 48.1% of the popular vote.

I would suggest that the polarizing politics of race as practiced by Peninsula BN is not the main feature of our north Borneo cousins. That Sabah and Sarawak BN won handily is in no way an affirmation of the entrenched peninsula-driven ethnic politics that BN says is the right formula to bring peace and prosperity to the country, but which did not bring in more than half the votes cast on March 8.

The swing to the opposition, though, was not entirely a swing towards multi-ethnic or non-ethnic politics. Of the three components of the loose opposition coalition, PAS continues to draw mainly from the religious/Islamic/Malay Malaysian vote. The DAP still draws a good portion of its support from the Chinese Malaysian community and has seen its small but important Indian representation and support grow. Its best move, however, was the roping in, especially for urban areas like Petaling Jaya, of NGO activists, community leaders and professionals, who do not reflexively see the world through the lens of race.

And finally, there is the rise of the PKR, which initially was almost solely a vehicle for the promotion of Anwar Ibrahim after his fall from grace. Encouragingly, the party has broadened its scope (and personalities), and is evolving into a credible multi-ethnic party, the likes of which have never been seen on the Malaysian political landscape. It won 31 parliamentary seats, up from one the last time, and is set to be part of five state governments (in coalition), leading one (Selangor).

Whether its multi-racialism has legs remains to be seen; it is still very much a work in progress. Critical to PKR’s survival, and probably the survival of this iteration of multi-racialism in Malaysia, is whether its ideology is resilient, or whether the party lapses into its original intention.

So, no, March 8, 2008 did not mark the end of the politics of race. But we’re getting there, hopefully.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Sek kali farn*, or the end of the politics of fear

[*Cantonese for ‘to eat rice with curry’]

This general elections, Malaysia’s 12th, saw a political tsunami, a phrase used first by veteran opposition leader Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party in his blog last night as the first unofficial results rolled in, indicating that a wave of change was sweeping across the country.

The opposition alliance of DAP, PKR and PAS not only made huge strides in the parliamentary elections, denying the ruling party its well-abused two-thirds majority, but also swept into power in five of the more populous and important states in the peninsula.

This is significant for many reasons, but to me, the most telling was that it signalled a defeat of the politics of fear.

In one of the rallies I attended, one speaker (whose name I did not get, so apologies Mr. Speaker) talked about how, when he stood on the opposition ticket in the 1980s, he had come up against the ruling party’s fear mongering. Vote for the opposition, they would tell Malaysian Chinese, and your vote could be traced, and soon you will spend many years eating rice with curry, a Cantonese colloquialism for being thrown into jail.

“But people are different now,” he continued. They are more sophisticated and these tactics no longer work. Many have voted for the opposition, indeed, many have joined the parties and stood up for what they believed in, and have not been a guest of His Majesty’s Prison Service.

He is only partially right though. Folks continued to be gripped by a more mundane, yet real and insistent fear; that if the opposition swept into power, the world will turn upside-down, and there may perhaps even be violence and death. One well-educated ex-classmate of mine said of the three opposition parties: “I can't imagine them forming a coalition government assuming they won more than 50% of the seats between them. There'll be absolute chaos with each side going their own way.”

At the same time, folks holding that view believe that stability could only be guaranteed by the current ruling party, which has a monopoly on institutions of armed power.

I have to confess that even we were not immune to the politics of fear. As it became clear what was happening last night, my brother and I rushed out to withdraw some money from the ATM, just in case.

The best thing then that happened this morning was, well, nothing. No victory rallies, no chaos, no race baiting – the latter in large part because significant portions of ALL ethnic groups in the peninsula turned against the ruling party. The opposition party leaders were not gloating; the outgoing Chief Minister of Penang conceded gracefully while the Prime Minister acknowledged, without hints of retribution, that the tide has turned against them.

This morning, Mum and Second Sis went to Tesco in Puchong. There weren’t any instant noodles left on the shelves – there must have been a run on Malaysia’s favourite fast food last night (this particular supermarket closes at midnight). But the situation was calm this morning as they went about their shopping – no panic buying; very few worried faces.

No more fear.


The Star seems to have taken a shine to the phrase 'Political Tsunami' as well. Tsk, tsk. People will start talking, you know, if the MCA-controlled paper starts using the rhetoric of its sworn political enemy! ;)

An auspicious day

The writing was on the wall for the ruling Barisan Nasional party in Malaysia's 12th General Elections; well, at least, it was hung on our wall. The Chinese calendar for polling day...

... March 8, 2008, had a detail that foretold what would become of the hopes for change in this country:

I should pay more heed to my wall calendar. It tells me when it is good day to pave the road, marry, bury the dead, and blog. Well, three out of four ain't bad.