Monday, June 30, 2014

5 Pillars. 9 Dragons. 272 Steps. "1Malaysia."

One part chocolate, one part strawberry, and one part vanilla, Neapolitan ice cream provides a world of consumption options for the dessert-lover. You can take a sniggle of each flavor separately, snag a dollop of two flavors, or take a cross-sectional scoop collecting a bit of the pink, white, and brown for one fusion of flavor.

If Malaysia were an ice cream, it would be a lopsided version of Neapolitan, with a slightly larger proportion of ethnic Malays, a sizeable chunk of Chinese and a spattering of Indians. For the most part, the three ethnicities coexist in relative harmony despite their desires to maintain their separate identities. Each group has unique foods, styles of dress, educations systems, benefits from the government (or lack thereof), languages, traditions, and religions, of which they are proud. From this cacophony of varied ethnic traditions and perspectives comes the diverse Malaysian society.

The first Sunday of our study abroad, we packed into a van and got to “taste” a little of each of these ethnicities by visiting three religious worship areas: a Muslim Mosque, a Buddhist Temple, and a Hindu Shrine. Check it out:

5 Pillars of Islam (Putrajaya Mosque - Ladies, time to cover up!)

9 Dragons (On the Buddhist Temple... not the brides maids!) 

272 Steps to the Batu Caves (Hindu Shrine)

Time for some cultural math... 5 pillars + 9 dragons + 272 steps = “1Malaysia”

Here is a shout out to PM Najib for helping me figure out this equation of Malaysian society! (The government launched a campaign in 2010 called 1Malaysia to promote ethnic tolerance and national unity. But seeing as Najib’s ruling party is largely responsible for sustaining the political structure that racially divides Malaysia, this “unifying” campaign is arguably farce. He gets kudos for trying though.)

Jokes and propaganda aside, the trip to these three centers of worship was memorable, particularly as the excursion coincided with the first day of Ramadan and several members of the group were fasting. It is to be celebrated that despite the racial difficulties that exist in Malaysia, different ethnicities are allowed to practice their religious beliefs and celebrate their heritage through faith. The rituals may be different, but the purity of heart is the same.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

"Do you think there is any common ground between these three ethnicities?" - "FOOD!"

The Silence before the Storm:


A Well-Fed Happy End.


Aside from a colorful variety of University related events, it soon became clear that this outstanding group of American University students came to Southeast Asia to fullfill one mission (out of the many) with particular care: to eat as much outstanding regional cuisine as possible. Even though the verb to "eat" might qualify to describe the very process of putting nutritious substances into mouthes as such (proceeded by wild acts of chewing and swallowing) the term itself fails to acknowledge the outstanding act of actual food enjoyment in Malaysia. The delight of tasting street sensations and restaurant delicacies has not just become the number one topic but a unifying element bringing this group of hungry minds (in many respects) a little closer together.

By now, the one or the other lotus bun has been shared, along with multiple fruits ranging from interestingly spiced mango over rambutan and jackfruit. Forever undecided whether the entire group will develop a longstanding, durable relationship with durian, the group suceeded to agree on its first week's lunch-time favorite: a juicy chicken rice curry - to be sold out long before official lunch time end. Aside from nibbling the little bites and watching the fresh coconut milk running down thirsty Ramadan throats (to later on continue with ever more outstanding coconut ice-cream), substantial lunch and dinner meals have caused and will for sure continue causing positive amazement.

Within the last week, food not just has proven to be an important communal element within this travelling AU community, but might also be able to act as one of the least common, reconciling denominators in a country of ethnic divide.

Canopy Walk

The group's morning field trip to the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM). 

It took us about thirty minutes to get to the canopies but once we arrived it was definitely worth it.  It wasn't so much the views or the hike that made the trip worth it (though both were really great) but it was the canopy walk itself that really did it.  The construction of this thing was quite interesting.  It was held up by ladders and boards that were connected by zip ties.  Although it wobbled and creaked with every step it was quite an experience, one that I won't forget.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Meeting Dyana: A Personal and Academic 'Full Circle'

On the first day of my internship at the Malaysian human rights NGO SUARAM, my supervisor asked me to search the domestic news portals for any updates in Malaysian legislation that would affect organizations' ability to fight for greater human rights.

A half-hour later, a co-worker came over to collect some paperwork and glanced at my computer screen to see how I was doing on my assignment.

"Ah, this issue of Dyana is taking up a lot of space in the newspapers, huh?" She shook her head.

As I had quickly found out, anything vaguely relevant to NGO rights was buried by an avalanche of articles about Dyana Sofya, a 26-year-old running against a stalwart member of the ruling Barisan Nasional alliance in a by-election to become the MP of Teluk Intan in the state of Perak.

From in-depth analyses of Dyana's latest media appearances to optimistic arguments that Dyana would change the face of Malaysian politics for good if she won, the media was abuzz with both speculation and skepticism. There was even an uproar over photos of Dyana allegedly wearing a bikini (quite the scandal in a Muslim-majority country) that were later revealed to be of a Filipina actress.

In other words, what ought to have been a simple campaign for a seat in Parliament had turned into a nationwide obsession. 

The sins committed by Dyana that had led to such an explosion of interest in her were two-fold: a) she was a young Malay woman; and b) she had been chosen as the candidate of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a traditionally ethnic Chinese political party.

As such, Dyana was seen by some to be implicitly snubbing the more traditional political party for Malays, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and passively agreeing to be the DAP's pawn in their attempt to gain more Malay votes. Government official and party member speeches mentioned the word "traitor" nearly as often as they did Dyana's name. 

There were many valid criticisms of Dyana's campaign that were as reasonable as they were racially irrelevant. As a young lawyer, Dyana had no notable political experience, and was not a native of Teluk Intan who knew their constituency and their needs intimately. In spite of this, the majority of the conversation remained focused on gender and race with such dogged precision that those seemed to be the only two factors that mattered in Malaysia.

Even though she went on to lose Teluk Intan's MP seat, Dyana was my most important crash course to the convoluted world of Malaysian politics, where race is loyalty and appearances far more crucial than actions or intentions. The fact that she was so overt in breaking Malaysian conventions made me pay attention to her campaign more closely than I would have otherwise. In spite of all the racist and sexist mudslinging she faced, Dyana managed to silence her critics with humor and optimism.

Whatever her ultimate role in the DAP's large-scale political machinations, I felt oddly inspired by the fact that a peer of mine was willing to undertake such a difficult challenge and had also emerged relatively unscathed from the experience.

Imagine my shock and surprise, then when I saw Dyana among the crowd at the very exclusive US Embassy's Fourth of July reception on June 24, eating hors d'oeuvres, taking photos, and looking through her phone at boring moments like any other guest there. I grabbed Ruth, fellow classmate and intern at Sisters in Islam (SIS), to plot how we could meet her, but she was soon surrounded by a gaggle of adoring supporters and we could not bring ourselves to try to break through.

As the reception began to wind down, we finally got our chance.

Photo Courtesy of Ruth Duersch

After shaking Dyana's hand, I managed to convey my feelings to her as concisely as possible: "We only study politics, but you are brave enough to actually become a politician. I really admire you for what you did during the elections."

What struck me was how surprised Dyana was to hear that there were American students who were not only familiar with her campaign, but were interested in Malaysia to begin with. Even as she went through the normal politician motions of asking for our names and obliging to the request for a photo, she couldn't quite conceal her astonishment, called her own photographer over to take a second photo of us for her Facebook page, and earnestly asked for our thoughts on Malaysian politics and why we had chosen Malaysia to visit.

"It's because most people look at Americans and think, 'There's no way they'd care about what goes on here,'" Ruth explained to me afterward.

If being in Malaysia for the last five weeks has taught me anything, however, it's that you can always stand to learn something from others, regardless of your nationality or anything else. Even as she taught me the ropes of Malaysian politics, Dyana encouraged me to be more confident in myself and my convictions in a way that no one else has been able to do. Terima kasih banyak, Dyana!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

It's not the 4th, and it's not even July

Unlike my fellow AU travelers, I only arrived in Kuala Lumpur on the 23rd of June, after a 31 hour trip that left me ragged. Before the jet lag even had a chance to wear off, we were getting dressed in our fancy clothes, and speeding off to the annual Independence Day celebration put on by the U.S. Embassy in KL. Originally, the event was meant to be held on July 4th, but in an effort not to conflict with Ramadan this year, the embassy decided to move the event up. This turned out to be a great start to the trip for me! 24 hours earlier I was lost in a taxi smelling like a dead fish - now I was dressed in my best DC uniform heading to one of the most exclusive events in KL.

We all packed into a van driven by Uber Uncle, the affectionately named taxi driver who always seemed to be nearby when you needed him, and proceeded to pump ourselves up to meet the who's who of Malaysia at an event that I'm not even sure we should have gotten tickets for. Professor Heng really knows how to hook you up.

We arrived at the JW Marriott like we were rolling up to the oscars, red carpet and all. Once we got down to the reception we were greeted by embassy staff who insisted we rush to go take a picture with Obama! Alas, our dreams were crushed by the heartbreaking cardboard reality. We all live within 30 minutes of the President's house, so I don't know why we are so selfish to think he would follow us to Malaysia.

We really celebrated our 238th birthday in style. There was cake, ice sculptures, and tons of food from around the country! From quesadillas to New England clam chowder, hot dogs to cheesesteaks, and lots of yummy desserts as well. The best part was probably seeing people dressed in suits and colorful batiks devour plates and plates of food while they enjoyed the only beer allowed at the event - Budweiser. That's a fairly accurate portrayal of American 4th of July, minus the batiks perhaps.

We enjoyed speeches from Ambassador Joseph Yun and a member of the Malaysian parliament, as well as an honor guard performance and a great rendition of both the U.S. and Malaysian national anthems (sung by the same brother and sister duo). It was really one of those events that make you want to go home and take the foreign service exam.

Throughout the night and between cramming our faces full of American finger food, we shmoozed and mingled with embassy staff, the ambassador (Thanks to Prof. Heng), Malaysian journalists, representatives from Malaysian think tanks and NGOs, and even a few senior Malaysian and U.S. military officials who were probably enjoying themselves as much as we were. And that's just the people I know of.

And now that you already have the group photo, I will simply share one of me, courtesy of Cathryn. Everyone should post their best pictures from that night so we can share in the red, white, and blue jubilee that our forefathers intended for us to have.