Monday, November 29, 2010

Why we should vote

This was first published on The Malaysian Insider on 28 November 2010.

IMG_0185Democracy is a powerful notion.

It allows; an octogenarian black woman, a single-mother working on double shifts, a 40 year-old unemployed college drop-out, a life-saving surgeon, a homeless war veteran with one arm, a 19 year-old exchange student in Europe, a young beautiful stripper, Joe the gay plumber and Mary the unhappy housewife; to choose who they want to run their country.

It is perhaps the only rare time when every single person, who has not relinquished his or her civil and political rights, will ever be treated equally. Think about it: is there any other time when everyone’s voices are valued and measured in the same manner regardless of their socio-economic background? And because of this power and the sanctity of it, the State will try its best to provide each and everyone the means to exercise this inalienable right to vote.

Photo above: Robin Carnahan, a Democrat candidate for the Missouri State House of Representatives lost in the recent Mid-Term election.

Democracy can be a dangerous notion.

In order to wipe out competition; political opponents, women candidates and pro-democratic mullahs are intimidated or killed. Women who decide to shed their proverbial and literal burqas in order to have their photographs laminated on their voter registration cards are being threatened to death or killed.

For the lucky ones who manage to emerge unscathed, they will walk miles and miles to the polling stations in the harsh winter climate wearing only inferior Croc-style shoes on their freezing feet and determination on their faces already showing signs of pre-mature aging.

I was fortunate enough to witness how democracy was carried out in the United States of America (USA) and Afghanistan. Although their spirits are as different as night and day, the essence of the notion remains the same. Hence, for the precise reason that democracy is such a powerful notion that many Afghans are being persecuted for embracing it. To me, this is the first reason why we should vote.

I love elections. There is nothing more exciting and inspiring than watching regular citizens from any given layer of society share one common belief that each of them has the opportunity to be a part of that intricate fabric that will one day adorn their government.

When I am at a polling station, I am amazed and comforted by the thought that no matter how insignificant one is in the scheme of things, his or her vote will be counted. No matter what the election outcome is, that person’s existence that day has mattered greatly. Sadly, it is too rare to witness such a sense of importance and purpose in regular people throughout our daily lives, but when such opportunity presents itself, it is truly an honour.

When my alarm clock went off at 4:30am on 2 November 2010, I jumped off my bed and was ready in advance of my 5:30am pick-up. John Chasnoff, the Programme Manager for the American Civil Liberties Union for Eastern-Missouri (ACLU, E-M) (insert hyperlink: http://www.aclu-em.org/), pulled up at the entrance of my hotel on South-Jefferson Avenue, St. Louis City, a few minutes after 5:30am.

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Photo above: Volunteers at the legal command centre of St. Louis. It was still dark outside. Polling stations open at 6am in the United States on Election Day.

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Photo above: Finally things got a bit more exciting as the day progressed. Volunteers gathered together to discuss a complaint.

It was still dark and the roads were completely deserted when we arrived at a Reformed Judaism temple serving as the legal command centre for St. Louis’s Voter Protection Programme (insert hyperlink: http://www.advancementproject.org/our-work/voter-protection) that day. The programme was run by Advancement Project with the help of a coalition of non-governmental organisations such as ACLU, National Disability Rights Network, etc.

We were greeted by Denise Lieberman, a civil rights lawyer, who had just arrived at the center with her arms full. I quickly established that she was the team leader as she wasted no time in turning on the lights and coffee machine, setting up the centre, getting someone to pick up assortments of bagels and cream cheeses and organising the volunteers who were beginning to trickle in to the centre.

Most volunteers were lawyers on standby to address complaints of electoral irregularities. The day started off slowly and I was beginning to feel convinced that voters in America do not need protection after all and the existence of such programme was merely a frivolity and not necessity.

Throughout my trip in the USA, I asked some Americans whether electoral fraud is a concern in the country. Most of them smiled politely as if it was the most ridiculous question they had ever heard. According to many, it would be extremely difficult but not impossible, to find someone trying to vote twice since the real challenge is actually to get more Americans to vote. Apparently, the USA is notoriously known for low voter turnout, except for the last Presidential election when throngs of young voters turned up to vote.

What intrigued me the most was the absence of photo ID as a requirement to vote. When I pressed on about how such a system could potentially become a target for abuse and fraud, most of them just shrugged and said, “You just need to trust.” It was my turn to smile politely.

While refilling my third cup of coffee that morning, I stroke up a conversation with another volunteer. According to him, many Americans do not have any form of photo identification since not all Americans possess a passport or driver’s license; the two most common documents with photos attached. As such, it makes it virtually impossible for the electoral law to include photo ID as a requirement to vote. He believes that one of the main reasons why some Americans make this into such a big issue is to prevent certain voters from voting for the opposition.

Sure enough, one of the complaints which subsequently came in that morning was of a polling officer who insisted that a voter must present a photo ID in order to vote. Later on, John and I were sent to a polling station to investigate a complaint against a Republican challenger who was allegedly telling polling officers that the voting machines were faulty and in order for a republican vote to be registered in the system, voters must press the button for the Republican candidate repetitively. Another complaint received was from a blind voter who was concerned that the polling officer might not have read out the whole list of candidates and propositions on the ballot paper.

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Once we determined that the day was not going to get more exciting, John was ready to cast his vote at the polling station where he registered. As long as I am not John’s employer or labour union representative, I was allowed to accompany and assist him at the voting booth, in which I did. Since USA is pretty much a country that seems to rely heavily on trust, nobody bothered to question whether John genuinely needed my assistance in the first place. I also noticed that there was no police presence in most of the polling stations we went. The only time when we actually saw them was when they came to collect the ballot boxes.

 

Photo above: John Chasnoff distributing electoral materials at one of the polling stations. We had to make sure that we were at least 25 feet away from the entrance of the polling station. A voter arrived at the polling station with his granddaughter.

When I talked to John about my experience in Afghanistan as a Civic Education Officer and Political Rights Verification Officer, I was reminded of how different the atmosphere was on election day in Afghanistan. At the end of the day, we would have witnessed or received countless of reports on the number of fraud, intimidation and violence committed all over the country.

I think there are many reasons why some people do not vote. It could be because they have lost faith in the whole democratic process. It could also be because they do not know who to vote for or care enough for what the candidates stand for. It could be because they are not physically or mentally fit to vote. But there are also many who do not vote simply because they think their votes do not matter and election period is just another day for politicians to hurl malicious accusations at each other in public. For these people, here’s news for you.

Democracy is not free but often comes with a huge price. It is not handed down to us on a silver platter but one that is often filled with blood and difficult compromises. For many of us who live in relatively peaceful and politically stable countries, we have become myopic of how our fore parents had fought hard for it many years ago. It would appear that the more democratic a country is, the less interested her people are in her political affairs. For isn’t this the ugly side of human nature that it is when something is taken away from you that you will only come to value it the most?

So vote while you still have the right to do so.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Redefining leadership

This is my contribution for the American Council for Young Political Leaders (ACYPL)’s blog.

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Above: The delegates from the South-East Asia programme at the Legislative Fellows Congress at the US State Department, Washington DC on 8 & 9 November 2010.

When I was thirteen, I stood up in my classroom and told my teacher that I disagreed with his method of punishment, which consisted of drawing on the faces of misbehaving fellow students with a white chalk.

That day, I took several strokes of the cane on my open palm for being disobedient but I left the classroom with my face untouched and a new resolve to end my teacher’s abusive and degrading treatment.  Since then, nobody had their faces drawn on again and my teacher was suspended indefinitely.

That was the only time when I felt like a true leader.

Many years have passed and I often look back and wonder where that thirteen year-old girl has gone.

It is probably no surprise that as an adult, I have continuously chose to work for human rights and humanitarian organisations because of my lack of tolerance of those who disrespect the dignity and integrity of other human beings. However, none of my accomplishments as an adult has come close to what I did when I was thirteen.

Sure, I would often try my best to execute my duties and responsibilities to the best of my abilities and judgments, but I have always allowed others to lead while I stay happily behind the scenes. I would often shy away from social engagements, hide from the spotlight and prefer to live a life that is free from what I assume as cumbersome commitments.

My philosophy has always been this: do the right thing but leave the big things to those with big ambitions.

When I got into this programme, I figure that I’ll be able to learn more about leadership.  Thankfully, I’ve met many people with impressive portfolio; young politicians and corporate executives who have founded or co-founded organisations or other miscellaneous community projects. I learn that these individuals do not sit and wait for others to solve issues faced by their communities. They get out from their comfort zone and do something about it. Not only do these individuals want to see a change in their communities, they want to be a part of that change.

At the same time, I also discover that in order to be defined as a leader here, one often needs to be seen as a leader; the one who asserts him/herself forward, the one who gets him/herself noticed and the one who is competitive enough to want to be recognised as a leader. These are aspects of leadership which I have never felt comfortable with.

Throughout my stay in St. Louis, I’m forced to ask myself these questions:

“If I don’t want to appear on the television, does that mean I’m not a leader?”

“If I don’t care enough about meeting very important or influential people, does that mean I’m not a leader?”

“If I don’t care about being photographed with important people, does that mean I’m not a leader?”

“If I don’t want to give a speech in public, does that mean I’m not a leader?”

After much pondering, my answers to all the above questions are an affirmative no. I realise that in order to be a good leader, I need to stay true to myself. There comes a time when I need to be honest and courageous enough to make a stand on what are the things I will support or need to do and what not. Leadership is not just about “being out there” but also about making the right decisions, no matter how tough they are, and taking necessary actions to implement those decisions.

When my best friend asked me over Skype what I’ve learned from the programme, I told her that most of the people I’ve met here inspire me to get out from my own comfort zone and start thinking about what I want and can do for my community. I told her that I’ve always wanted to run a non-profit organisation which provides youths with a platform to have their voices heard and to become more socially responsible within their own communities and I would like to see this vision coming to fruition.

So, by being in this programme, I think I’m able to see the reincarnation of that thirteen year old girl again. Hopefully, I’ll be able to have the courage she had by standing up in the midst of a crowd to advocate for what is right without fea

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sex, drugs and HIV/AIDS

This article was first published in The Malaysian Insider on 9 November 2010. Below is the original version.

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It was another quintessential night in Chow Kit; hot, humid, red and reeking with the thick smell of danger for those who would shun the district. Celeste, Joanna, Samantha and Lola lined the street of Lorong Haji Taib. In between small chats with each other, they call out indiscriminately to men walking by; teasing them unabashedly in their deep hoarse voices. For those who bother to play along, they are rewarded with flying kisses.

The night was slow but not devoid of excitement. Just as the night, they came slowly and quietly for them. They are ambushed by a group of uniformed policemen. Lola and Samantha manage to escape. Celeste and Joanna are quickly handcuffed and brought to the police station.

Less than 24 hours later, Celeste is released. Joanna? Dead. But not before being forced to perform sexual favours on the commanding officer while being restrained by his two subordinates. They eventually “finish” her off by applying multiple blows to her skull when she refuses to let them take her from behind.

Joanna never had a chance.

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Celeste returns with a mission. She saw what they did to Joanna and vowed never to end up as another unclaimed corpse. She pleads with her friends to stand united and fight for their honour and lives. Together, they vow never to be silent again.

Celeste’s blood-chilling and piercing cry, “Joanna dah mati!” would echo in their minds forever.

It may not be as real as Poh Si Teng’s acclaimed documentary “Pecah Lobang”, a Freedom Film Fest winner in 2008, but that was the script used by the Bar Council MyConstitution Campaign team to send out a strong message to sex workers and Mak Nyahs at the Jom ke Chow Kit Carnival at Lorong Haji Taib on 31 July 2010.

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Above: The MyConstitution Campaign team

It took the team a few days to put together the skit but not without first spending hours after hours debating and deciding on a suitable yet effective message. Most of the team members were lawyers but none of them knew what sort of message would make an impact on one of the oldest professions in the world.

Lawyers are useful when it comes to giving advice on what to do when one is being arrested but what can they tell a highly stigmatised community who not only are prime targets of the police and religious authorities, but also vulnerable to abuse and violence?

Joanna

That was when the team decided to tell the story of Joanna, a transsexual sex worker who died in police custody.

The message was simple. It is louder when four persons scream at the same time than just one. The chances of being heard are higher if you continue to scream. Sooner or later, someone will hear you.

The crowd responded. They laughed and cheered when they saw Celeste, Joanna, Samantha and Lola blowing kisses in the air. The atmosphere turned sombre and quiet when Joanna was being tortured by the officers. Some wore grave expressions on their faces as they watched Celeste bringing news of Joanna’s death and crying out in anguish. They clapped thunderously when the girls came together and agreed to do something about it.

The image of helpless Joanna being forced to face her opponents alone is more real than imagined. Most of us are aware of the discrimination and injustice faced by the community of sex workers, yet we choose to keep silent and stay ignorant of it. While we will readily acknowledge the right to live, life without dignity and justice is not a life worth living.

The organiser, the PT Foundation (PTF), is to be commended for providing an opportunity and platform for people living with HIV/AIDS, sex workers, drug abusers, men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM), gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people to learn more about their rights and HIV/AIDS. Combating HIV/AIDS is after all one of the UN Millennium Development Goals.

According to the Ministry of Health’s statistics in 2009, there are 86,000 reported cases of HIV/AIDS in Malaysia. Everyday, 15 Malaysians are diagnosed HIV positive and the majority of them are men. 34% are in their twenties. The high-risk groups are surprisingly not sex workers, drug users or homosexuals. They are fishermen, factory workers, long distance drivers, housewives and heterosexuals.

Jeremy

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Speaking to Jeremy provided a sense of comfort and assurance. He came across as someone who is wise and easy to talk to; and he is a gay man who occasionally also drags or crossdresses as a woman in special functions such as at the Jom ke Chow Kit Carnival.

Jeremy works towards educating and sensitising people on the importance of safe sex, sexuality and self-acceptance - all the right qualities to help fulfil PTF’s objectives.

I first spotted Jeremy when he was standing in front of the stage with a microphone in his hand. He was giving out a series of HIV/AIDS related trivia. It was difficult not to notice him as he was dressed in a black body-hugging t-shirt, hot pants, black stockings and Mary Jane shoes. In addition to his thick make-up, he was a picture of confidence and determination as he asked the crowd, “Can you get HIV/AIDS by holding someone’s hands?” while loud pumping techno beats were playing on the background.

Later in a private interview, Jeremy disclosed that he had come a long way before his family and friends accepted his sexuality. He was reluctant to call this episode in his life a problem but preferred to see it as a challenge instead. He added that at the end of the day, what’s really important is for a gay person to come to terms with his own sexuality, first. But it is important to take the time to figure out who he really is before arriving at that critical juncture.

When asked whether he faced any discrimination while growing up as a homosexual, he answered no. He explained that Malaysia is that sort of country where you would not get into trouble if you do not tell. An example is how PTF is not allowed to publicly inform people that they provide counselling to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender (GLBT) people. They may only call it “sexuality counselling”.

He also said that while law enforcement authorities do not harass PTF directly, they face many obstacles when trying to implement their HIV/AIDS education and prevention programme for sex workers in massage parlours, karaoke lounges, motels and nightclubs. These places are raided by anti-vice enforcement officers and too often in the presence of PTF, which consequently prevents the businesses from wanting to engage with PTF.

When asked who his hero is, Jeremy declares that he is his own inspiration. His father once told him in an acceptance speech, “Whatever you do, you’re an adult now. You’re responsible for your own life.” He said that it is important for everyone to be themselves because in the end, it is up to each individual to find out who they are and to grow comfortably into their own shoes.

Eddie

Such positive self-image was unfortunately not seen in Eddie, a 39 year-old former drug user. He was seen sitting alone at the back of a tent, quietly colouring his face with bright blue paint.

When I asked him what he was doing at the Carnival, he insisted that I would not be able to stomach his answer. “If I tell you, you won’t be able to take it. So, I rather not say anything,” he said to me again and again and all the while avoiding eye contact.

After some coaxing, he revealed that he is HIV positive. He said most people who learned about his condition would run away. We ended up having a long chat about his life story.

According to Eddie, he started using drugs when he was 15-years old. His family moved to Kuala Lumpur from a small village in Negeri Sembilan. He experienced culture shock and was not able to adapt to city life. Due to existing family problems, he experimented with drugs and it subsequently became a means of escape for him.

He spent most of his adult life in and out of prison and rehabilitation in Sungai Buloh and Kajang. He still remembers starving in prison where inmates were under-fed and often resorted to eating left over fish bones and banana peels. When asked whether he was ever physically abused by prison guards, he replied, “Only if you disobey them. That’s all I’m willing to say.”

He said many inmates died in rehabilitation due to their weak and frail physical conditions, mostly pronounced by poor nutrition. Like him, most of them had no families or friends who would miss their absence. The moment they all discovered how low they had sunk, they would drop out of their lives.

Eddie added, “It hurts. It hurts greatly to see how they looked at me with disgust. Once when I came out of rehab, I had the will to turn over a new leaf. I really wanted to change my life. When I got home, my mother and sisters were busy cooking the whole day. Do you know why? They had planned to feed me well and then send me away for good. I never saw them again.”

When asked whether he is afraid of death, he paused briefly before admitting that he is more afraid of dying a painful death and being alone.

I asked him whether he ever regretted his actions that have led him to this situation, he answered bitterly, “Of course! Who would want to live like this? Because of my health condition and medical treatment, I’m feeling sick all the time. I can’t find work and I have no money or friends.”

Access to assistance

That night, 40 people were arrested by the police on their way to the Carnival which incidentally, was endorsed by the Ministry of Health. They were apparently tested for drugs. As fellow columnist, June Low wrote in her blog, thanks to the police, these 40 individuals missed out on a chance to learn more about the risk of HIV/AIDS.

There is something fundamentally wrong when people are being stopped from having access to help. It is morally sinful when people are being deprived of such an opportunity.

Is it because they are different? Is it because they are considered as moral pariahs?

It is time to ask ourselves these questions.

What makes these people different from us? What makes them so contemptible that we allow them to fight their battles alone? Does that not make us even more contemptible for not coming to their defence?

Finally, how many of us actually give ourselves to others without expecting anything in return; whether it is for love, sex, financial security, companionship, procreation or power?

Answer this truthfully and you’ll know that we are all the same in the end.

I asked Eddie what keeps him alive.

He replied, “What keeps me going is that every year I vow to change my life for the better. I vow to take my methadone and anti-retroviral treatments more diligently. I vow to secure a job to keep me financially independent. I’ll be 40 soon and I think there’s hope. After all, isn’t it true what the Western people say about life beginning at 40?”

The question is: will he live to see that change?