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!

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