Monday, April 25, 2011

The unsung heroes of Malaysia

Originally posted on The Malaysian Insider under the title “Reconnecting with one’s identity” on 24 April 2011.


The year was 1996.

I was 15 years younger and also 15kg lighter (if only they are both inversely related).

My only worries were to pass my examinations and for the boy whom I had a huge crush on to give me his time of the day. In my mind, we would have beautiful babies together.

The thought of returning home never occurred to me but it didn’t stop me from being an active member of the Malaysian Student Society. United Kingdom seemed far better off then.

Although it has been 15 years, I still think about the days when we, the Malaysian students, put up a swashbuckling performance at the annual Malaysian Evening gala. We did Malaysia proud by being hospitable, warm and friendly ambassadors. Our enthusiasm and solidarity were infectious and we built friendships that transcend ethnicity and religious affiliations through those years.

I miss the days when the Malay-Boys-Who-Can-Sing-And-Play-Music living downtown would invite my friend and I for home-cooked fish head curries. Apparently the fishmonger next door were selling the discarded heads for peanuts and like monkeys, we devoured every single morsel with much gusto and appreciation.

We also had a Malay friend who could measure the saltiness of his girlfriend’s satay sauce just by sniffing at it. Hers was the best satay sauce I have ever tasted. To reciprocate, my friend and I would make popiah and to our great surprise, they were well-received.

I mustn’t forget our one and only Indian Malaysian student. He was known as the quiet and shy guy who was joined at the hips by two other Chinese Malaysian students. They were really nice because they never forget to celebrate my birthday when I was alone during Easter holiday.

That was the only time when I remember being Malaysian.

15 years later, I am older and the questions running through my mind are of a different nature.

Would my marriage survive? Will I become a mother? Have I done enough for my ageing parents? Would I be able to afford a vacation in the North Pole so that I can see the polar bears? Would I die for my country? Would Malaysia ever change?

At 35, I have become cynical and resentful of so many things in life. What is certain is that the years gone by have served as a cruel reminder of how brutal time and poor eating habit can be.

Having worked and lived in four war-torn countries has somehow contributed a lot to my increasing lack of faith and respect for humankind. Although Malaysia is not at war, apathetic Malaysians combined with a morally corrupted government do very little to change my perception of human beings.

At the end of the day, I deduce we’re all just the same.

That changed on 2 April 2011 at Fort Cornwallis, Penang.

Perhaps it’s true that everything does happen for a reason. What happened for me was to leave my cushy life as an expatriate’s wife and to accept the challenging task of helping Malaysians understand the Federal Constitution. And the reason? I desperately needed to restore my faith as a Malaysian again.

The “Rock for Rights” concert organised by Bar Council’s MyConstitution Campaign, Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia and Frinjan on 2 April, reminded me of the semangat Malaysia I felt 15 years ago, but only better as I didn’t have to be in a foreign land to feel that I belong.

While working on this project, I got to know many Malaysians from very different walks of life and was privileged to learn from them. Many of them are either students or hold regular jobs such as teaching, marketing, public relations, writing, computer programming, event planning, environmentalist and lawyer.

Being an amateur who struggled to put together a concert, the bands and those involved were understanding, patient and forgiving. Many of them were just grateful that they had this rare opportunity to share their artistic talent as musicians and message as Malaysians. They are clearly no ordinary bands as they were not driven by monetary gain but only by their passion as musicians and Malaysians.

I asked Darren Teh from An Honest Mistake why they had decided to participate in this project.

He replied “We want to bring our music to the next level which is to cause change in someone’s life. Being part of this project helps us achieve that. When people listen to our song and knowing the reason behind the lyrics, it helps them connect with us ‘emotionally’. Besides that, knowing that we are adding value to the community, raising awareness of our rights and educating them through music – we are going beyond the boundaries of music, beyond just simple listening pleasure. We are proud to have been part of this entire project.”

I asked Petak Daud, an 18 year-old musician who stunned the crowd with his soft acoustic renditions of songs that speak loudly against the abuse of power by the police and government, what gave him the courage to sing such songs. He said, “The situation surrounding us is becoming worse. We’re like decomposing fleshes which in a matter of time will disappear altogether. This is my mission. I want to wake Malaysians up so that they can see the abuse taking place in this country.”

If a seemingly shy 18 year-old boy who unwittingly scratches his hair while he speaks on stage has the courage to sing such songs, why are most of us still keeping silent?

Azmyl Yunor has a theory – shopping malls and capitalism. According to him, Malaysia’s rapid economic growth over the last three decades has metamorphosised us from being Malaysians to creatures who are continuously motivated by economic gain above everything else. Before we could truly understand who we are as a nation, we occupy our time by shopping.

I told Azmyl that I was shocked by how passive the crowd was at Fort Cornwallis. While some of us cheered and danced to the music, many kept their seats warm by just watching without any expression on their faces. He smiled at my observation and shared his other theory of self-censorship.

Decades of living in a country where preventive laws and religious teachings are imposed have taught us that freedom of expression is vulgar and wrong. He said music is a form of escape. He wouldn’t be caught dead screaming on top of his lungs and rolling on the floor under normal circumstances.

The night was high when Barcode got everyone up to sing the Negaraku. I was exhilarated and I sang our anthem like how most kids would sing to Justin Bieber these days. And like the cool night breeze that provided us with much comfort, the affirmation that I love Malaysia came.

Ammar Khairi from Maharajah Commission shared similar sentiments. He said, “I sincerely hope that there will be many more patriotic souls in Malaysia as opposed to nationalists or even worse, haters. The difference is, a patriotic person would give out his heart and soul for the country and yet continually criticise constructively for a better Malaysia, whereas nationalistic pride is nothing more than waving the flag and declare your allegiance blindly and accepting everything that is told to you by the powers-that-be as the supreme truth.”

Later that night, the party continued. We, the Malaysians, shared and celebrated our identity by laughing and dancing the night away. Fellow columnist, June Rubis who flew in all the way from Sarawak to be our emcee (and to be starved as she emceed for 12 hours straight), screamed on top of her lungs, “I love you, you and you!” She whispered to me and said she would do it all over again.

I stayed high for the next couple of days. 15 years is a long wait after all.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

From Loyar Burok: Two Women, Two Tribes and a Journey of a Lifetime [Part III]

Two Women, Two Tribes, and a Journey of a Lifetime is a 9-part series penned by Lim Ka Ea about her one year stint in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where she accompanied her husband on his 9th humanitarian mission. No stranger to travel and humanitarian missions herself, she learned that Ethiopia is not really Africa and Africa is not really all about national parks or long distance-runners. She also learned that being a "tai-tai" is so overrated unless there is another "tai-tai" to get into mischief with. This 9-parter tells the story of how two "tai-tais" explored Ethiopia and discovered their life as both an individual and a woman. This weekly series started with Part I: My first encounter with Africa and Part II: The faces, sounds and smell of Addis Ababa.

Part III - The gift of a kindred spirit

As I was about to turn my back against Ethiopia, I was given an unexpected gift. A few months later, I met a young woman, whom I had a previous brief encounter with when I made a short trip to Kenya. She has just arrived in Ethiopia from Azerbaijan with her husband who is working in the same organisation as mine.

I soon learned that she has taken up photography while she was living in Nairobi, accompanying her husband in his previous job. Like me, she had gone through longer period of lifestyle adjustment, depression and isolation as a result of moving from places to places, in support of her husband’s work.

Elephants of Amboseli, Kenya

Irada started developing her interest in photography after realising that in order for her to bounce back into life, she needed something which would serve a greater purpose in her life. I find Irada to be a remarkable and inspiring woman. Not only is she a devoted wife and a mother of two adorable children, she finds time to nurture her own personal interest. She intends to pursue a career in photography with the hope that one day, she will be able to discover and share her own vision of the world through her own lens.

Her story of courage, strength, determination and optimism provided me with renewed hope and enthusiasm about my own role in Ethiopia. I realised that I had been too busy drowning myself in personal discontentment which had in turn blinded my ability to discover a higher sense of purpose in my life there.

Instead of doing something, I had reduced myself to just being "the unemployed wife."

The opportunity for me to do something arrived when Irada suggested a trip to the South-Omo Valley, homes to the many traditional isolated tribes of Ethiopia. In the beginning, I was seduced by my sense of adventure but subsequently, my inner self reminded me that I would never forgive myself for not achieving anything while being in Ethiopia. So the idea of writing this story was conceived, thanks to this destined encounter, as Irada would have me believe.

South Omo Valley - home to the forgotten tribes of Ethiopia

Although South Omo Valley is home to many traditional tribes such as the Tsemay, Banna, Konso, Ari, Dassanitch, Arbore, Karo, Bumi and Surma, the Mursi were the ones attracting us the most due to their unique practices of lip plates, face painting, elaborate hairstyles and other ceremonious traditions.

Our exciting journey began in Addis Ababa on an otherwise typical bright sunny day. In the early morning hours of 30 May 2008, we loaded our rented and chauffeured Toyota Cobra with basic camping necessities such as mosquito domes, sleeping bags, three days of food supply consisted of canned and dried food, rolls of toilet paper, a torch light, bottles of mineral water, hand sanitiser, mosquito repellent, wet wipes and a first aid kit.

As any seasoned travellers would do, three jerry cans of fuel were strapped securely on top of our car to prevent the possibility of being stuck in the middle of nowhere. We were informed that we would need to camp in Mago National Park as they are no hotel facilities.

Cows 2

Finally, the rare opportunity to camp in the tribal wilderness of Africa greeted us both with great trepidation as well as excitement.

Of course being women, our travel bags included miscellaneous female hygiene and personal care products, not forgetting luxury items such as mobile phones, mp3 player, 5litres of South African white wine, a bag of mini Toblerone and a large Nestle chocolate bar.

Half of the car’s backseat was occupied by Irada’s photographic equipment while I settled with only a notebook and a copy of my dog-eared Lonely Planet guidebook on Ethiopia and Eritrea. We were rather amazed by Jalalem, our driver’s lonely and evidently self-contained duffel bag. Though we were only three, Irada and I decided to squeeze ourselves in the backseat so that we could talk easily.

We brought bags of candies to be distributed along the way with hopes of earning some smiles from the local children. This turned out to be handy since we were often greeted by emaciated-looking boys and girls demanding for "caramella" or candies in Italian. It didn’t take long for us to dispense all the candies much to the children’s delight and appreciation.

As we bid farewell to Addis Ababa, we could not help but feel like a saner version of Thelma and Louise, leaving behind our mundane domestic lives in search of hopefully, a melodramatic adventure.

The journey through the Great Rift Valley

The Great Rift Valley, measuring more than 8,700km in length, constitutes nearly one-third of the earth’s circumference. It extends from the Jordan Valley in the north, through the Red Sea, down south to the South Omo Valley of Ethiopia, through Lake Turkana in Kenya, across Tanzania, Mozambique and finally ends near the Zambezi delta. Situated south-west of Ethiopia, the South Omo Valley itself boasts six lakes, Ziway, Abiata-Shala, Langano, Awassa, Chamo and one of the largest of the Rift Valley; Lake Abaya measuring at 1160sqm.

In order to reach the Mursi, we had to make overnight stops at Arba Minch, Jinka and Mago National Park, across more than 1,000km of wide asphalt roads often proceeded with very narrow, winding and bumpy gravelled paths, as we moved towards more and more remote and isolated areas.

As we began to drift slowly away from Addis Ababa, we started to see the real beauty and charm of the Ethiopian countryside in all its organic splendour. Our first overnight stop, Arba Minch is approximately 550km from Addis Ababa, of which the last 110km consists of unpaved roads through mountainous terrain.

We were impressed by Jalalem’s driving skills as he confidently swerved and manoeuvred the car to avoid big potholes, cattle and pedestrians along the roads. In the beginning, it felt like a fun roller-coaster ride but after awhile, our buttocks and legs felt sore from the constant bumpy stretch of roads. It almost felt like we were sitting on massage chairs for hours, except that soothing vibrations were replaced by violent poundings.

The journey took us about eleven hours with occasional brief stopovers in the towns of Shashemene, Wolayta and Weyto to ease our full bladders, stretch our legs and refuel our vehicle and stomachs.

Cows 1

Notoriously known for sleeping in long car rides, I did not even doze off for a second throughout the whole journey. Neither did Irada. We were both constantly fascinated by almost everything, right down to the herds of cattle which seemed to rule the roads in almost every village we passed.

The local cows are shaped rather oddly, with backs protruding like humps and skins sweeping loosely beneath their necks. There was a lot of "Look! Look!" exclamations, as each of us pointed out what seemed to have amused or tickled us from both sides of the car. Jalalem was completely unperturbed, except for his strange fascination for banana plantations as he often pointed out to us.

Despite a lot of frustrations without a local guide, we relied on Jalalem with his limited command of English to explain things. We soon picked up some basic Amharic during the course of our journey.

Since it was already close to the month of June, we began to see the sign of rainy season albeit the seasonal rain being late at this time of the year. The weather was slightly grey and melancholy followed by occasional soft drizzle. There was already flooding in certain lower areas.

Donkeys huddled together under the flat canopy of acacia trees, waiting stubbornly for the rain to stop. I began to notice how endearing these white-snouted four-legged creatures are as I often saw them in pairs, facing each other, as if having a private conversation with only God privy to it. Sometimes, they even nuzzled affectionately against each other’s necks. The sluggish pace of countryside often creates time for love even for animals, as compared to city life where people seem to hurry on with their inconsequential affairs.

While it was unfortunate for the people who were beginning to be affected by the flood, it provided us with some cool respite from the summer heat of Addis Ababa.

Next: Part IV - Getting in sync with nature

Ka Ea used to be a globe trotter. She has lived in Timor Leste and Afghanistan while working as a civic education and human rights officers for the United Nations. She then tried to be a full time housewife in Ethiopia and Cambodia but failed miserably. Now, she works with lawyers and human rights activists by day and watches Discovery Travel & Living by night. She writes for The Malaysian Insider during her dwindling free time. She longs for the day when someone would pay her to travel, eat and write.

Irada Humbatova was born in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku on 12 July 1974. She trained and worked as a midwife from 1994 to 1997, later assisting the International Federation of the Red Cross/Red Crescent with maternal health work by training and supporting traditional birth attendants in rural areas. Since then she has followed her husband on Red Cross missions around the world, developing her love for photography into a passion and profession. Inspired by Africa’s immense beauty and its people’s suffering she moved from art photography to photojournalism. She has since grown to become Reuters’ stringer for Ethiopia and work on assignments for other news outlets and magazines. Irada is currently back in Baku continuing her work with Reuters. She contributes most of the photographs in this series.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

When the non-marginalised becomes marginalised

This was first posted at The Malaysian Insider on 20 February 2011 under the title “Marginalising the non-marginalised”.

I once had an interesting conversation with my former boss who was then the country representative of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) I was volunteering for in Phnom Penh. She lamented that too many NGOs, international aid agencies and government institutions are giving too much attention to HIV/AIDS programmes. 

So much so that those who are afflicted by less notorious diseases such as diabetes are being neglected despite the latter killing more people each year. According to UNAIDS, 1.8 million people died of AIDS in 2009 while 3.4 million people were reported to have died of diabetes in 2004 according to WHO’s statistics and this number may very well have doubled by now. 

Then I started to think about what she said and realised that on many levels, there is a lot of truth in it and it doesn’t just stop at HIV/AIDS. 

Part of my volunteering work involved working with staff from Tom Dy Centre, a shelter and rehabilitation centre for women rescued from human trafficking and sexual exploitation in Cambodia. I had visited this centre several times and was amazed by the level of comfort provided by this well-equipped and relatively modern centre but as soon as I stepped out of it, the surrounding area looked more like the rest of Cambodia; bare, under-developed, poor and dirty. 

The roads in the area were appalling and could easily succumb to flooding if there was a heavy downpour and needless to say, the wooden houses around the neighbourhood were old, small, flimsy and completely weather-beaten. It was safe to assume that they would not have been able to protect the three little piglets from the big bad wolf. This scene is just a few kilometres away from Phnom Penh city centre. 

When I asked my colleague about the community’s perception of the women at the shelter, she told me that while some are inclined to look down on them, many actually harbour some form of jealousy towards them. I was not surprised since most people living in the community are struggling to make ends meet while the women at the shelter are given free regular healthcare, vocational training and reintegration packages to help them start their own small businesses. 

It’s difficult to imagine that any of these women would want to return to their previous life as a village girl waiting on her family hand and foot. I also can’t help but wonder whether such new “improved” living conditions would help them readjust easily to their former lifestyle. 

I don’t know whether it’s Angelina Jolie who made adoption “sexy” because it is extremely popular in Cambodia. It is common to see adopted Cambodian children dressed up in OshKosh B’gosh and Gap Kids while being enrolled in international schools that seem to have mushroomed in the capital city to meet the demands of a growing expatriate community. 

Although these local children are being given a chance to have better education and standard of living, the majority of Cambodian children drop out from schools before the age of 12 in order to help their parents support their large families. Not unlike Thailand, the burden of taking care of the family falls on the daughters’ shoulders more than the boys. 

I had the opportunity to meet the executive director of a local NGO called Health Centre for Children. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that their reintegration approach for trafficked and sexually exploited children is very different from other NGOs in Cambodia. Their approach is very much about integrating the victims’ needs with the needs of their community and at the same time, cultivating a collective sense of ownership and responsibility amongst themselves. Families and communities of reintegrated children are rewarded for developing and improving their economic condition and thus preventing their children from being trafficked and sold into the sex trade. 

In a nutshell, all of them get a piece of the pie. 

The NGO will provide a loan or other forms of incentives to help develop the community as a whole. In addition, community-based activities such as campaigns and group sessions to talk about issues concerning human trafficking and sexual exploitation are held regularly. All these activities will help inculcate a common sense of responsibilities towards protecting the children. 

To me, this is obviously a more effective and sustainable approach towards preventing further exploitation of children. For a start, it tackles the root cause of the problem. The majority of women and children are being trafficked or sold as slaves because of poverty. Hence, a more effective method of preventing this form of modern-day slavery is to develop the community first and at the same time, provide the children with education. 

In a country like Cambodia where more than 90 per cent of the population live beneath the poverty line, it is not hard to think that nearly all of them are marginalized in one way or another by our standard. 

For the average Cambodian who barely makes more than US$40 a month, it doesn’t help them to think that one must be a victim of some sort of tragedy, chronic disease or crime in order to receive assistance. For the majority of them, better infrastructure, employment, education, basic health care, food and water will help improve their lives tremendously. 

By no means am I saying that those whose lives are being tragically compromised by HIV/AIDS, trafficking, forced prostitution, disability and other hardships do not deserve the amount of attention the world seems to be giving, but I think it is time for humanitarian institutions to adopt more community-based programmes so that the non-marginalised will not end up being the marginalised.

It’s time to walk

This post was first published at The Malaysian Insider on 4 February 2011 under the title “Time to walk….for change in the judiciary.”

It was a highly-anticipated gathering of 30 or more. Some would call it an illegal gathering; I called it a group discussion. No, it wasn’t a keris-waving meeting-under-a-tree nor was it an abolish-the-ISA kind of gathering.

It was a gathering which saw highly-specialised professionals (criminal law practitioners to be precise) sharing their grievances and wishing for things to change.

What do you call a group of criminal defence lawyers who are losing their cases just because the Chief Justice is on a personal crusade against backlog cases? Very frustrated lawyers who are contemplating to trade in criminal for civil litigation and very angry ones who are prepared to stage a demonstration in protest of the judiciary’s fast-track system.

Like most gatherings in Malaysia, it didn’t start on time. Instead, it started off with the few who did arrive on time exchanging polite greetings that were quickly followed by perfunctory chats about the legal practice, by-election results and predictions of the next general election date. June 2011 and beginning of 2012 were overheard.

The clock was ticking and those who had taken their seats were beginning to look anxious. Some had even begun to discuss the issues which were on the agenda. Right about 20 minutes past the time when the gathering was supposed to commence, the discussion took off in full force; without any warning, welcome remarks or introduction from the chairperson.

It was clear that most who were present needed to get their frustrations off their chests and as quickly as possible. If I had never placed a bet on anything before due to my pathetic sense of prediction, I am willing to bet now that these lawyers were all on the edge of breaking down and needed intervention desperately.

One very senior and reputable lawyer from out of state said: “We’re not here as sore losers, we’re here because we’re fed up with what our judiciary system has become. We’ve all lost cases before and learned to live with it but what’s happening now is unbearable and completely unacceptable!”

What he was referring to is none other than the already greatly talked about Key Performance Indicator (KPI) imposed on judges by the judiciary more than two years ago, as an attempt to clear up backlog cases. There’s no need for me to go into details about the KPI as this has been written extensively by lawyers like Mureli Navaratnam and Art Harun on The Malaysian Insider.

However, it is worth noting that the KPI was best described by the same senior lawyer as: “Don’t worry. Just decide.” According to him, that seems to be the motto of our judiciary system these days and it is frightening that most judges seem to have adopted the motto with such ease that they can send someone to the gallows without any worry of whether that person has been given a fair trial or not and, in this case, the time of day.

According to another lawyer who is younger, a person is being sentenced to death every week.

Rushing to clear a civil law suit is one thing but rushing the hearing of someone charged with a capital crime is another. What more, when according to those present, most judges enter their courts with the intention to convict, regardless of whether the defence counsel could have successfully proven his or her client’s innocence or not.

Chief Justice Tun Zaki Azmi, the man behind the KPI system, was known to have said this: “Those who complain that we are moving too fast are those who are not ready to proceed with their cases.” According to him, it is necessary for lawyers to be prepared when they come to court and therefore, it is unnecessary to grant more time for defence lawyers to prepare their cases.

Perhaps, lawyers should bring their potties, lunch boxes and doctors along with them to court in the spirit of preparedness. Several lawyers who were present reported that some judges went to the extent of prohibiting them from going to the restroom or lunch break in between long trials.

Case adjournment was also denied most of the time even when it was completely called for such as in the case of a critically-ill counsel or defendant. A judge purportedly said this: “As long as you’re not dead, we’ll go on with the hearing.”

When the Chief Justice decides to impose discipline and expects efficiency from lawyers, one should also expect him to do the same for his judges. Two years in the going and surely this means our judges should be on their way to becoming a top-notch Bench but instead, they seem to have slipped further and further below their benches, quite literally so, as one of the lawyers described.

“Now that the sessions are being recorded, judges are told not to take notes. You can see some of their heads getting lower and lower and lower as time goes by. By afternoon, some of them have fallen asleep during the hearing!”

Everyone burst into laughter as they watched the lawyer mimicked the judges’ heads descending into oblivion.

“You all think this is funny? I’ve got one judge who interrupted me half-way and told me that she couldn’t remember what was said during cross-examination because she was not taking notes.”

The laughter came to a complete halt as it dawned on everyone that it wasn’t funny after all. This signalled those who had not previously spoken to come forth with their own examples of judges contributing to the slow and painful death of our criminal justice system, all in the name of fast-track.

As the cacophony of unhappy lawyers continued to penetrate all four walls of the room, one respectable lawyer from another state finally spoke up and commanded the immediate attention of everyone else.

The grave expression he wore on his face summed up the discussion for that day.

“It is clear. Our judges are no longer interested in the law. Neither are they interested in justice. Their interest lies in disposing of cases.”

As I watched his face and listened to his voice, I knew that this was spoken by someone who is tired, dejected but above all, disappointed and angry. Disappointed with how our justice system has become and angry for the wrongful convictions of innocent people.

The chairperson finally took the floor and asked a pertinent question. “What do we do?”

The lawyer sitting next to me raised his hand and shouted: “I say we march!”

His suggestion was greeted by approval and nods of encouragement by some, but not all. Most who were present looked around uncertainly; unsure whether to support such a drastic measure or to contemplate other options.

They could easily be swayed into supporting the former. I could tell.

“Hang on. Hang on a second. I know you’re all very upset at the moment but I think we should try to engage the CJ first. Let’s come up with a memo with all the grievances you have mentioned earlier on and let me and a few other senior lawyers speak to the CJ first. Let’s wait first before we do anything drastic.” A second option was quickly provided by the chairperson.

“It’s not like we’ve not met with the CJ and told him all the problems lawyers are facing. He knows! But what was his answer? He said all judges are given discretion to run their trials and he can’t interfere,” someone retorted.

“Yes, yes. I know but surely you can’t expect things to change overnight, right?” The chairperson said in an attempt to calm those who were beginning to display their passion more eagerly.

“Yes, we can because people are being executed as we speak. We can’t wait any longer. Change must happen now.”

Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, former president of the Malaysian Bar, once said during a historical march: “When lawyers walk, something is wrong.”

I think it’s time to walk again.

Rocking for rights

This was first posted at The Malaysian Insider under the title “The message is in the song” on 13 March 2011.


Bob Marley once sang these famous words:

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery

None but ourselves can free our minds

Have no fear for atomic energy

Cause none of them can stop the time

I wonder whether he was high on weed when he was writing those words. Whether he was or wasn’t, this song went on to become one of the most iconic songs for those who value freedom, particularly of the mind.

This article is about political expression in music. But before anyone jumps into conclusion that this is going to be an anti-government propaganda, here’s an interesting fact. Politics and music are not just about anti-establishment, anti-war or peaceful expression of protest against any form of government or political ideology. It can also be pro-establishment such as seen in the national anthem or patriotic songs.

So, if anyone starts criticising that music with political theme is evil, let’s be reminded that the Negaraku, which contains the lyrics Raja kita selamat bertakhta, is a song that all primary and secondary school students are compelled to sing first thing in the morning in schools.

I’ve always thought that political expression in music is a fairly recent phenomenon. When I think about music and politics, I usually picture half a million demonstrators gathered at Washington D.C and sang Give Peace a Chance by John Lennon in peaceful protest of the Vietnam War in 1969.

I was, of course proven wrong when I google searched and discovered that classical composers such as Beethoven, Verdi, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, just to name a few, have been known to compose music that had either abhorred foreign domination or venerated a particular regime. We, who live in this modern era, tend to identify more with singers and bands such as Bob Dylan, John Lennon, The Clash, U2, Rage Against the Machine, Bob Marley, Sex Pistols and many others when it comes to expressing political messages through music.

When it comes to spreading and sharing messages, nothing has been quite as effective as music, which explains why Christians still sing praises to God and the Taliban banned it in Afghanistan.

Music can either reinforce a message, or destroy it; depending on which side you’re looking from. After all, music is a manifestation of freedom and for some, this is something to be feared of.

In 1990, a non-profit and non-partisan organisation called Rock the Vote emerged in the United States of America to attract the seriously declining youth population to register as voters and to vote in the election. Its modus operandi is none other than music, popular culture and new technologies. The campaign was so successful that the percentage of registered young voters increased by 20% within 2 years since its inception. In 2004, more than 1.2 million youths registered as voters on its website. I believe wide participation by celebrity spokesperson such as Christina Aguilera, Robert Downey Jr., Leonardo DiCaprio and Justine Timberlake plays a part in making this campaign a major hit.

In 2004, rapper Sean “P Diddy” Combs, led a not-for-profit organisation called Citizen Change responsibled for the campaign called Vote or Die. In the 2004 US elections, the campaign attracted 20.9 million young voters from the age of 18 to 29; a staggering change from the 16.2 million young voters in 2000. This inevitably helped to raise the overall percentage of voters in America in 2004.

Today, I want to write about a somewhat similar campaign in Malaysia but without the violence. Nobody is going to die but hopefully many will start to vote.

I learn that there are 27 million Malaysians, 11 million voters, 4 million more eligible Malaysians who haven’t registered to vote. I also learn that we have a Federal Constitution that guarantees all of us rights, freedoms and a democratic system of government that answers to us. But the question is: how many Malaysians know this?

The information above can be found on the CD inlay of Radio Demokratika, a music album produced by the Bar Council’s MyConstitution Campaign in conjunction with its Elections and Democracy theme. Some of you may have seen the eye-catching pocket-sized booklets that contain a wealth of information pertaining to the Federal Constitution produced by the Campaign, but this music album has only been making its debut just recently.

Last Saturday, amidst a decent crowd of more than 200 people, the album was launched at Pekan Frinjan 18, a regular event organised by Frinjan at Dataran Shah Alam. Close to 100 copies of the album was sold within that couple of hours, especially after an electrifying live performances by some of the bands.

Radio Demokratika features 12 original songs written and performed by 12 local independent bands. I was told that names such as Azmyl Yunor, Carburetor Dung, amongst others, are infamous in the underground music scene and no strangers to many urban youths since more than two decades ago.

There are many strong qualities about this album. Apart from the obvious fact that the songs are mainly about the Federal Constitution and socio-political issues that concern Malaysian youths such as inter-racial relationships, freedom of expression and political responsibilities, it has huge potential to unite youths from all racial divide and in so doing, encourage them to play a role in making Malaysia a better place to live.

As I listen to the lyrics of one of the songs that goes like this:

We’ll be the change that our nation needs to see

We’ll turn the dream into reality to be

A land that’s peaceful and strong

Which fights for right against wrong

And all of its people united and free!

I’ve begun to realise that this is precisely what this Campaign has hoped for.

There is no doubt that this Campaign can never achieve the same kind of magnitude that Rock the Vote or Vote or Die have achieved but make no mistake that it has great potential, with your support.

There is nothing more refreshing than this campaign as you flip through the morning headlines that write about nothing but what Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat have or have not done. The Campaign does not speak about political parties but only political issues.

Mahatma Gandhi once said: "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."

I’ll say that the greatness of a truly democratic nation can be judged by how well we have emancipated ourselves from mental slavery.