Thursday, August 5, 2010

Tun Musa bin Hitam

History books are not just filled the stories of wars, economic development, or successful and failed policies. History books are also filled with names, and history is just as a much a study of people and their choices as anything else. Humanity has separated itself from the rest of the animal kingdom because we are the one species that can use rationality to shape societies and change the world. During the Malaysia 2010 study abroad we read a lot about the political and economic history of Malaysia. And like most books about history, ours were filled with names. Sometimes, however, those names come alive and you are given an opportunity to meet with and come to know the people behind the names. We were given that opportunity when we meet Tun Musa bin Hitam, one of the most influential people in Malaysia, the current chairman of the large conglomerate Sime Darby and a former Deputy Prime Minister. At one point Tun Musa was next in line to be the Prime Minister of Malaysia, before his differences of opinion with Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamid, pushed him to leave the government. Mahathir is viewed by some as the man who pushed Malaysia into middle income status, while others will argue that he used Malaysia's natural wealth (oil, palm oil, etc.) to enrich both himself and his cronies at the expense of economic development. Either way his years as Prime Minister were marked with controversy, and Tun Musa was one of few people within the government to really challenge him. We were given the chance to meet Tun Musa when we meet with him, at his house, for a cup of tea to discuss politics in Malaysia. Given his long and industrious career there are likely few who could have offered us a better inside look into the inner workings of Malaysian politics.

Driving through the neighborhood, I could tell we were entering a different world. Gone where the sky rises and cramp row-houses as the city melded into a lush oasis of jungle punctuated by large villas. Twisting beneath the overarching trees and high white walls marking off each yard we came to a stop at a guard house, and peering through the driveway gate I could only wonder how a public official in Malaysia could afford such a house. We were shown in through the first guard gate before being meet halfway up the driveway by a large man in a black suit. He had the distinct air of a secret service agent, as if straight out a movie. He introduced himself quickly, scouting us with his eyes before ushering us into the house.

We waited on the plush couches as I examined a lush tropical pool, longing for a swim in its crystal clear waters. After a few minutes Tun Musa entered, perhaps a bit rushed but cheerful and with surprising energy for someone who was already the second most powerful man in Malaysia before I was even born. After shaking each of our hands and introducing himself, he sat down and went around the room inquiring into the details of our lives. Having grown used to the often cold and hurried attitude of the many government workers who scurry about D.C. I sometimes feel that those who have received any dose of power have forgotten their humanity, but right away Tun Musa showed interest in us. When he could, he related our personal experiences and interests to his, informing us that like us he was interested in the world, and had studied International Relations. As many politicians current and former claim, Tun Musa said that he did set out to go into politics, instead the hands of fate eventually guided him there. During the 1960's Tun Musa had risen high the ranks of Malaysia's sole ruling party, UMNO, achieving the position of Secretary-General before being expelled for subordination. A few years later he would be readmitted into UMNO and would again rise quickly, becoming the deputy whip of the coalition headed by UMNO. He was quickly elected to UMNO leadership, joining the Supreme Council, and by 1978 he had become the UMNO Vice President. When Mahathir bin Mohamad become in 1981, Tun Musa was nominated by the UMNO party to be the Deputy Prime Minister. Over the next several years however, Tun Musa grew disenchanted with government corruption and Mahathir's refusal to listen to anyone but himself. In 1987 Tun Musa resigned from the Mahathir's government and after a brief inner-party battle, he resigned from government service. Over the next couple of decades he would work in the private sector, eventually working his way up to the post of Chairman of Sime Darby, one of the largest and most influential companies in South East Asia. Unlike many UMNO officials he earned his money on the books, not through back room dealings and bribes. Perhaps what I respect Tun Musa the most for is the fact that he is man of principle, having fought and clashed with two different Prime Ministers with little concern for what it might cost him politically, or worse.

Eventually the tea was ready and we would continue our discussion about Malayia's past present and future in a nearby sitting room, enjoying a spectacular view of Kuala Lumpur's skyline, lit up beneath darkening rain clouds. Sitting at the tea table room we talked while a small entourage of maids moved up, tidying up a few last things. They walked smoothly, with their shoulders raised and flashing the occasional smile. A small detail, but confidence often missing from the working class in Malaysia who often have suffer long hours and harsh treatment at the hands of their employers. Domestic workers suffer worse then probably any, save undocumented workers. Many of the rights and privileges granted to other workers are denied to domestic household workers. Long hours without overtime pay, confiscated passports, poor living standards, and few (if any) days off are the norm. Still, the maids in Tun Musa's house did not seem mistreated or repressed. At one point a maid more or less commanded a fellow student to try a dessert, and against his will but to his later delight he followed her command. Her confidence made me smile, I had yet to see a server be so blunt. All small details to be sure, but I couldn't help but believe Tun Musa treated his household help with a comparatively high level of respect.

Throughout the whole discussion Tun Musa presented a view that seemed far more objective then any of the other political party members, or even U.S. Embassy staff. He admitted that Malaysia was not perfect, that certain things could be better, but at the same time he was proud of what is country had done so far. While many countries suffer from the “resource curse,” Malaysia has been able to direct a considerable amount of its natural resources towards development, even with the accompanying corrupt party politics. It is easy for Westerners to overlook exactly how difficult it is for a country to develop. Having been granted a high developed status for decades, we often take what we have for granted. The United States, for example, paid a high price for development, including the blood, sweat, and tears of many repressed peoples, such as Native Americans, Africans, and Chinese railroad workers. Country developing now often pay high prices, and while no prize can justify slavery or genocide, we need to be more understanding of other nations' needs.

The night at Tun Musa's ended with a few of us students waiting for a car ride back into the side. A gentle rain landing on a roof overhead, accompanied by a spectacular hilltop view from hilltop peering out over one of the most beautiful mosques I have ever seen and the Petronas Towers brighting lit in the distance.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Wonders of Paradigm Pliancy

Dear Blog:

Oh what a time it has been here in Malaysia! I feel like the last seven weeks have flown by in a blur. Our seminar is now over and I am back at my internship at the Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute, and I believe that I have finally collected my thoughts well enough to blog.

I think a few of my classmates have used this space to describe the best and most exciting parts of our time together, so I am going to talk a little bit about a concept that Datuk Nick Zefferys, President of the American-Malaysian Chamber of Commerce, touched on when we went to visit the AMCHAM offices. Mr. Zefferys thoroughly covered the economic and political development of Southeast Asia and Malaysia, but he made one truly enlightening point about the wonders of spending time abroad. Mr. Zefferys took a little time to explain to us his belief in the concept of "paradigm pliancy."

For Mr. Zefferys, paradigm pliancy is the ability to constantly shift one's outlook on the world in a way that promotes a better understanding and acceptance of different cultures and ways of life. Spending time abroad, in a part of the world far from home and outside of your own comfort zone, is the best way to become paradigm pliant because it forces you to refocus your worldview. I learned a great deal during the academic seminar and my internship has provided me invaluable experience, but the most important lesson in studying abroad is always how it teaches you to look at the world through different lenses. This is my third study abroad trip during my undergraduate and graduate studies. I can say that each time I travel someplace new, I am amazed at how much I open myself up to different ways of life and unique experiences. I believe that my time in Malaysia has only broadened the number of lenses through which I will view the world, and I will leave here better suited to take on the challenges of both school and work.

Of course, paradigm pliancy is more than just trying new foods and living life differently than you would at home. Paradigm pliancy is understanding that there are ways of life different from your own. Dropping yourself into a faraway place without any concept of how life will be is a terrific way to better appreciate that that world is full of marvelously different people. Building an understanding of new cultures and altering your own paradigms to accommodate the local customs may be a sometimes daunting and challenging task, but the experience is invaluable, as it teaches you to better appreciate the wonderful differences between people. Subsequently, I believe that the most tragic mistake someone can make is to travel abroad and only engage the people and culture in a way that hardens that person's preconceived paradigms. The marvels of study abroad are found in the everyday experiences and interactions with the local people because it is through those interactions that someone truly becomes paradigm pliant.

At the same time, study abroad programs like this one in Malaysia also expose you to the different perspectives of your fellow travelers. Our group was geographically representative of the United States. We came together from all over the country: Seattle, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Northern Virginia, Miami, Detroit, and Denver. During the trip, the sharing of our life experiences in different parts of the United States helped broaden the paradigm pliancy of each of us. I am very grateful to have spent my time in Malaysia with such a diverse group of people that taught me so much about my home country while being so far from home. For those of you who were here with me in Malaysia: thank you for being a fantastic group!

Ultimately, paradigm pliancy is about having an open mind. While spending long periods of time abroad is perhaps the best way to become paradigm pliant, I believe that we should all strive to work on our paradigm pliancy when we are both at home and abroad. My time here with both the Malaysians and my peers has taught me how to appreciate the differences between people and how to find the common threads that we all share. In turn, the wonders of becoming paradigm pliant are in the shaping of one's ability to connect with people after identifying the commonalities and appreciating the beauty of the differences. I am thankful that my time in Malaysia on this trip has only made me more paradigm pliant and I hope that those reading this post may take Mr. Zeffery's idea of paradigm pliancy with them as a guide to keeping an open mind to new experiences both at home and abroad.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Pictures from KL

I feel like our blog could use some more pictures, so this update is pretty much entirely going to be pictures I’ve taken while walking around Kuala Lumpur. When I took these pictures, I started off at the Pasar Seni (Central Market) neighborhood, in the heart of Chinatown and a short walk from Little India. As I was walking around, an Indian man approached me and told me there was a great Indian market a few blocks away that he had just come from. He said that he had studied English for 7 years and that he makes it a habit to approach English speakers and introduce himself. So we walked for about fifteen minutes up to the outdoor market and he said he had to be on his way, but before he left we stopped in an outdoor cafĂ© and had iced coffee (his treat) and he told me what I should see and where I should eat in the area. After he left I wandered around Little India for a while and got some food.

I headed back to Chinatown to check out a massive and surprisingly quiet mosque in the center, masjid jamek.

I crossed the highway (always a lengthy ordeal) right underneath what I think is the skyline’s most interesting building. I have yet to determine what it actually houses.

After that, it was a short walk back to the national mosque, the visiting hours for which I had missed the previous day. However, this time I also arrived an hour and a half before it was open to non-Muslim tourists, so I walked two minutes up the road to the Islamic Arts Museum. Unfortunately they didn’t allow pictures, but I took some of the building, which is a beautiful example of Islamic architecture in itself.

Then I walked back to the national mosque for visiting hours.

As the sun began to go down, I made my way to Menara KL, the huge tower that dominates the skyline less than only the Petronas Towers. I took the pricey and touristy (but also obligatory) ride to the top for the best view of the city. Unfortunately, taking pictures of the Petronas Towers and the rest of the city all lit up at night proved to be an exercise in futility. However, I did manage to take some pictures from the base that didn’t turn out too blurry to make out.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Trip to Singapore

Our trip to Singapore was an interesting one. Perhaps the highlight was the Asian Civilization museum, which featured great displays from a wide variety of Asian societies and time periods. The country itself has a fascinating history and should be treated as the case study for how to develop an economy, how to combat corruption, and how to keep the streets clean. With its successes, however, comes the loss of some of the cultural richness and character that one finds in Malaysia and throughout the rest of Southeast Asia. Everything is planned, clean, and efficient. We even went to a park where it appeared that the government had hired professional artists to cover all of the benches and walls in the area. But if you don't like seeing litter on the streets, or people spitting in public, or waiting for delayed subway trains, than Singapore is a must see. It is truly amazing to learn how primarily one extremely intelligent and determined man, Lee Kuan Yew, could take the reigns of a struggling, and some thought nonviable, country and transform it into a city that is more modern, clean, and efficient than just about anything one could find in the western world. As impressive as Singapore is in many respects, however, most of us were delighted to return to KL, where we continue to enjoy amazing (and amazingly cheap) food and the cultural richness and diversity that is so apparent in this city.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Interning at All Women's Action Society

Before the start of our seminar, I arrived in KL a month early to begin an internship with an NGO called All Women's Action Society, or AWAM. AWAM is an independent feminist organization committed to improving the lives of women in Malaysia. Established in 1985, AWAM covers a wide variety of issues affecting Malaysian women to include issues involving ethnicity and religion and violence against women. AWAM also works very closely with other women's organizations throughout Malaysia.

From my very first day at AWAM I instantly began to absorb and learn so much about the challenges women face in their day to day lives. Although AWAM is a relatively small organization, they are made up of an extremely diverse group of women who are extremely passionate when it comes to tackling these issues head on. Not only did my internship teach me a lot about the women's movement, I was also able to learn about the diverse cultures that make up Malaysia just through my day to day interactions. The best part about AWAM is how it feels like a family. Everyone helps each other out and is truly interested in each other's opinions and ideas, regardless of how different they may be from their own. Being the only American at AWAM, lunch time is always a fun experience as everyone is always asking me what I have and have not eaten during my time in Malaysia so far. Everyone usually gets me to try their own meals if it is something unique or they bring in a variety of Malaysian fruits and deserts to sample so, I can't complain!

My main project at AWAM is on rape in Malaysia and specifically, why it is under-reported. A few years back, AWAM published an official rape report, detailing rape statistics specific to Malaysia. Although the larger goal is to eventually completely update the entire report, I am contributing a smaller project that specifically looks at why women do not report rape. I have consulted a variety of Malaysian news sources for articles on rape cases, general literature on the subject, and I am now looking through AWAM's case files from their counseling center. As part of the project, I also developed an anonymous survey that will be published on AWAM's website for women to contribute to in order to gain a better understanding of the current nature of rape in Malaysia.

After the conclusion of our seminar, I will return to interning at AWAM, where I will finish up my project. In all, interning at AWAM has been an amazing experience!

Orang Asli-- The true Bumi Putra!

Taman Negara National Park marked a lot of firsts for me. It was my first time jungle trekking, my first time canopy-walking, and definitely my first time swimming in a mini-waterfall in the middle of the jungle. Meeting with the Orang Asli was another unforgettable first. The Orang Asli are the aboriginal people of Malaysia and have inabited this land for hundreds of years. They live semi-nomadic lifestyles based on subsistence slash-and-burn agriculture. They urrently face significant land pressures as well as pressures by the Malaysian government to Islamize and assimilate into the Malay population. Most of these groups prefer to hold on to their culture. Our group arrived in boats at the Batek settlement. About twelve families in total lived in the settlement. Their homes were simple, made out of dried leaves and canvas. By most people's standards, they live in poverty. They earn some money from tourists like us who come by, intrigued by their lifestyle. But in my opinion, they seem happy. First they demonstrated to us how they start fire using the friction from vine and wood. They then gave us a demonstration on how they made darts that they use to kill animals for food. They also let us take a shot at using the blow darts. I personally was most intrigued by the children that ran around the settlement. Some were dressed in old clothes, others were half-dressed, one was not at all dressed, running around unabashed, stark naked in front of all the tourists. It was almost like a scene from a national geographic magazine. I kept trying to take pictures of the children. One of them, who was playing with his friends, realized this and turn around and stuck his tongue out at me just as I was taking the picture. I could not stop laughing. We then began to play a game. Every time I tried to take a picture of the kids, they ran and hid behind a tree. This game went on for quite a while, and I was not getting bored of it. One of the boys wore bright blue pants and had a smile from ear to ear that would make anyone's heart melt. He pretended to be shy, but secretly, I think he liked getting his picture taken. I finally went up to the children and I showed them their pictures. I am not sure if they had ever seen a picture of themselves, but they giggled and agreed to have their picture taken with me. Finally, I snapped a great one of them. I will never forget this experience.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Street markets!

One of the best things about Kuala Lumpur is the shopping! Everywhere you look there are huge malls. The best part about the shopping here, though, are the street markets. Certain nights of the week different ones transform into huge, crowded markets, which they called pasar malam. You can find anything from exotic fruit and fish to designer knock-offs and unique jewelry. Each one is different too, so it is a different experience each time.

So far, I have gone to Jalan Petaling in Chinatown, which is very big. Aside from shopping, you can buy pieces of fruit for only 1 RM, which is about 30 cents, or different fruit iced teas.

The main night for the market in Bangsar is Sunday night. They have mostly fruit and fish you can buy.

Another market is Central Market, which is right near Jalan Petaling. It is actually inside so it is more like a mall. Each store has very unique things ranging from jewelry and clothes to furniture and small souveniers. They have a small food court with many food choices to pick from! They have Thai, Indonesian, Indian, and Malaysian. They even had special cuisine from Kelantan, a northern state in Malaysia, which I tried and very much enjoyed!

Aside from the ones I mentioned, there are many more street markets throughout Kuala Lumpur, so hopefully I can get to all of them before I leave!