Thursday, July 30, 2009

History Lesson

My primary responsibility at my internship has been support of their new Ethnicity and Religion committee. At my first meeting with this committee, we discussed their previous workshop and goals for the upcoming workshop. During the conversation, it was decided that a deeper understanding of British colonialism’s legacy was needed. We would focus on this time period up to the riots of May 13, 1969. When I asked about the possibility of readings or journaling before the next workshop by members committed to this focus, I was discouraged. Apparently, in general, Malaysians do not enjoy reading.

Today video is such a powerful educational tool. I wondered if some images and sounds could make this history more appealing and attainable. So, I offered to compile this history and make my first video. Well, needless to say, I did not go as far as I wanted to (to teach myself Flash), but I did pull together a pretty nice PowerPoint presentation.

For the past 3-4 weeks I have been reading many resources to better understand Britain’s draw to the Malay peninsula. I learned how it began by taking control of major ports. Then it manipulated the sultans and gradually took power from them, leaving them to govern only religion and customs. Driven by market demand for Malaysia’s resources, Britain used it’s colonial ties to bring in laborers from India. Many Chinese were already in urban centers in M’sia, many in the mining industry. During WWII, Japanese occupied Malaya but Britain reoccupied with Japan's surrender. The 'emergency' began shortly after as people in Malaya wanted independence AND as a way to rid the country of communists. As Britain prepared to hand over leadership to the locals, Malays were concerned about all these laborers who now considered Malaya home. UMNO formed and worked with the British to form the new constitution. Eventually the Reid Commission declared the date for independence as 31 Aug, 1957. Between this date and May 13, poverty continued disproportionally along Britain's 'divide and rule' lines.

Throughout this history, I kept three things in mind: ethnicity, class and gender. How were women affected by these changing structures? How did British structures divide and perpetuate classes and ethnic groups?

I found this exercise very challenging. Some resources were very biased. Who writes history? What history is taught to Malaysians today? I also had to edit for time, not wanting to bore people. This forced me to be selective, in essence altering the telling of the history through my lenses.

In the end, I scanned several photos from pictorial history books and also searched online. Judith also helped me find appropriate music. The final presentation ran about 20 minutes.
Our third Ethnicity and Religion workshop was held this past Saturday. About 22 people attended. Though I was concerned about the program and timing, I had to smile at the irony of my stress. The day before, I worried about the arrival of the guest speaker, as his time is so valuable. But on the actual day, people arrived in time for us to begin 15 minutes late while I was switching from one laptop to another (and struggling with other minor technical difficulties). The entire program ran behind with our ice breaker lasting well over 10 minutes, but oh, they were having fun!

After my presentation, we filled spare time (guest speaker had not arrived yet) by asking for feedback. When Dr. Syed had arrived, he led us through this same history up through present day. He has written recently on ethnic relations in Malaysia. Still running over time, the audience eagerly asked questions. I found these particularly intriguing, partially because his history telling was all review for me (only a few points were new). Our schedule change caused us to miss our tea break, so I was so thankful when we wrapped up by 5:30pm so I could eat (I had not eaten since 10:30 am). The food was fabulous, as was the chance to speak with the participants informally.

This new focus by my feminist NGO is bold and unique. Many people don’t fully understand why they have chosen this direction. But there is much tension in Malaysia today. Unfortunately, much of its roots lie in the ethnic ‘divide and rule’ policy the British established way back when. And as of late, religion has become increasing politicized. Our NGO recognizes the need to engage its members and society in dialogue about these issues in hopes of preventing violence and perhaps bringing about change (though it will not be easy with the given hegemony, NEP, ISA, sedition acts, etc.).

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Experience truly asia

Here are a few snapshots of our absolutely wonderful trip in Malaysia, a truly multicultural and vibrant mix of ethnic cultures.

Batu Caves in Selangor(north of Kuala Lumpur) is a site of a Hindu temple and shrine and attracts thousands of worshippers and tourists, especially during the annual Hindu festival, Thaipusam. It features a large statue of the Hindu God at the entrance and if you're up for a physical challenge, climb up 272 steps to enjoy a panoramic of the city.

Walking in the historic town of Melaka, a Portuguese colony from 1511 to 1641. Walk through the charming streets and one could witness the different architectural styles and also a mix of local artisans products. It was also the place where we savoured the BEST food of the trip - The nonya cuisine.

A Chinese temple in Melaka.

The largely intact architectural influence and rich cultural value also made Melaka a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We also flew to Sarawak in Borneo, a region well known for its rich biodiversity.

This amazing waterfall (after a 2 hours hike) is located in Bako National Park, Sarawak's oldest national park. The park contains an incredible variety of plant species and vegetation types and is home to 275 rare proboscis monkeys (whom can be really mischievous).

Orang Utan (Malay) - "Person of the forest"

The Wildlife center in Kuching where we came within close proximity with the endangered Orang Utan.

The wildlife center runs a training programme that teaches Orang Utans, who have been orphaned or rescued from captivity, how to survive in the wild.

Well known for their intelligence and differentiated by their long reddish brown hair, the Orang Utan share a 97% genetic similarity with humans.

Monday, July 27, 2009

I am a Food Tourist...and I love it!

Before I came to Kuala Lumpur, I tried to picture what it would be like. I had seen some ads on TV proclaiming Malaysia to be Truly Asia. I have to say, for a country that's slightly larger than New Mexico, and with a population of only 25 million, it is an amazingly diverse place. Malays, Chinese, and Indians form a potpourri of cultures that is not only a visual feast, but a delicious amalgamation of tasty food.

I had never thought of myself as a 'foodie', but here I am in Malaysia, sampling all of the regional delicacies with relish (as well as a bulging stomach). We've been to Penang, the renown food center of Malaysia. Hawker stalls, or street food, is a cheap and sumptous way to fall in love with this city. Char kway teow, or fried flat noodles, are a local specialty, and definitely worth a try.

Melaka, the ex-Portuguese, ex-Dutch, and ex-British settlement (due to its strategic importance in the Straits of Malacca, but that's digressing...), is a wonderful place to sample Baba-Nyonya cuisine, which is a mix of Chinese and Malay food cultures. Professor Heng took us to the famous Nancy's Kitchen, where homestyle nyonya food is served, and is highly recommended. Cendol, a shaved ice treat, is a must-try in Melaka.

Our trip to Borneo was highlighted by the Rainforest Music Festival. What Crystal left out, however, was the many eclectic food options in Kuching, Sarawak. This eastern part of Malaysia is characterized by a wonderful mix of Malay, Chinese, and indigenous peoples, all in a relaxed social atmosphere. Religion and ethnic differences are not the dominant force in daily interactions as on the mainland, especially KL. I was pleased to find pork satay here, a Chinese (and certainly non-Halal) form of the skewered meat enjoyed throughout the region.

All this talk of food has definitely worked up a hunger. Until next time- ciao et bon appetit!

Jay Wang

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Rainforest World Music Festival

We have just returned from our ‘field trip’ between seminars. For our trip, we traveled to eastern Malaysia to experience the different culture first hand. In addition to enjoying the beaches and unique fauna and flora, we had the opportunity to learn about some of the indigenous peoples of the island of Borneo. One day we visited a Dayak village. They led us through their longhouse-style village, shared their rice wine and taught us to blow darts.

But last night we had the opportunity to attend an annual Rainforest World Music Festival held at the Cultural Village outside of Kuching. For twelve years, this concert series has brought together unique musicians from around the world to celebrate indigenous music. Friday’s lineup included seven bands from Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea, Poland, China/Canada, and France.

We arrived early enough to attend an afternoon music workshop. Along with Erica, Desmond and Prof. Heng, we headed to the theatre to enjoy the gypsy jam workshop. First, four musicians from the French group Poum Tchack introduced us to some of the music that inspired them. Next, a duo who are members of the Polish St Nicholas Orchestra sang and played a Romanian song. The third group, three men from Muzsidas of Hungary, played a dancing song. Each shared a second piece, then they all played together, listening and adapting as they went. We were so impressed, we bought a few CDs of these bands. Later, we walked by the French musicians and stopped to get our CDs autographed ☺

The actual concert was scheduled to begin on stage 1 at 7:30pm, but as we found a spot to watch, it began to rain. We sat under our umbrellas until we realized it wasn’t going to be a quick, light shower. Most people headed to a pavilion to find shelter, yet still have a view of the stage. Throughout the evening, we went back and forth from here to the grassy area near the stages. Though the rain did let up, all the dancing feet made for a muddy evening! Needless to say, some people opted to go without shoes or lost them in the mud.

Each group was very unique. I particularly enjoyed the choreography of the Korean group Noreummachi. They danced as they played their drums, adding another layer of complexity. It reminded me of my days in the Cornhusker marching band, wishing my friends from the drumline could be present.

My favorite group of the night, however, was Poum Tchack. Though they preformed last, they delivered an exciting show. The mixture of fiddle, guitar, bass and even accordian was awesome! And these guys were definitely entertainers! Though my left flip flop repeatedly stuck in place and I was often splashed with mud, I danced as able and enjoyed the evening.

For music lovers and musicians, I would definitely suggest adding the Rainforest World Music Festival to your travel wish list! I want to come back some year and attend the full event. Each day there are workshops to learn about the unique music from the diverse cultures, as well as opportunities to meet some of these musicians. The event also attracts a diverse crowd, with people from all around the world.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Malaysia's Multi-Ethnic Culture

Our first seminar has come to an end and it is hard to believe we have only been here for two weeks. Days have been packed with lecture in the mornings and meetings with political leaders, civil society groups, and even local media in the afternoons. The Malaysian hospitality has been great – we are so warmly greeted at every meeting we attend and always served tea and refreshments. Food is an integral part of their culture and it can always be found no matter what time of day. Malaysia’s multi-plural society divided between the Malays, Chinese, and Indian populations creates a very dynamic culture. It is easy to identify people based on their ethnicity because the different groups are segregated and have retained their unique cultures. For the most part, the various ethnic groups have been able to co-exist peacefully respecting each others customs and cultures. Next week we will be traveling to Eastern Malaysia which as one of our guest speakers has said “is like a completely different country”. I’m excited to see the cultural differences that we will find there!

Friday, July 3, 2009


The very existence of a relatively robust civil society in Malaysia is nothing short of remarkable. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are forced to contend with restrictive laws (the Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act and the Printing Press and Publication Act to name a few). These NGOs are forced to manage with limited budgets and human resources. The do not always enjoy public support. Yet despite these difficulties, these organizations somehow manage to stay open and to make a difference. Its impressive, to say the very least.