Malaysia, like many scions of the Commonwealth, likes its football. Unlike other well-behaved former colonies, however, Malaysia’s affection for and aspiration to this most British of institutions manifests itself with the haphazard zeal of a dog with a full bladder.
Territory could best be marked with a player in the Premier League, but Titus James Palani seems to have disappeared. Instead, we shall have to make do with other forms of financial incontinence: AirAsia patches on referees’ uniforms, SP Setia popping up on electronic hoardings around the UK, and Tan Sri Tony Fernandes issuing cheques with the same wanton abandon as his tweets.
Tan Sri Vincent Tan – the common prefix doing a fine job of hammering home the post-gentrification appeal of football clubs as billionaires’ playthings – is well aware that Malaysians are watching. But the Berjaya head honcho’s footballing ambitions are more simmering interest than fiery passion, and his pace is deliberate.
Buying into an established Premier League club is expensive and difficult, so his solution was to shop a division lower, in the Championship. English clubs, like players, aren’t terribly cheap either – as Fernandes has proved with London-based Queens Park Rangers – so a Welsh outfit made sense. And thus Cardiff City Football Club was purchased in 2010.
But Tan’s investment was conditional. Cardiff, nicknamed the Bluebirds, had played in a kit of the corresponding colour for more than a century. Tan put his foot down – rumours of a stamp remain unconfirmed – and demanded a change in the team’s colours, failing which he would take his toys back and play elsewhere. Last week, he had to issue a denial after raising the possibility of a name change to the Cardiff Dragons.
Cardiff now sports a red kit, and received a spiffy new training ground and other shiny baubles in return. Their crest has been redesigned; it still features a bluebird, but one that now looks forlornly up at a great honking big dragon. The dragon is a Welsh institution, but the best theory doing the rounds is that the change was based on the Hokkien translation of “Bluebirds”. This is a family newspaper, however, so there shall be no further elaboration.
The best part of the new badge isn’t even the completely arbitrary motto of “Fire and Passion”. It’s the bit that says “EST 1899”, the first three letters managing to make the club seem like a shop on Old Klang Road trying desperately to convince potential customers of its pedigree – for pedigree is a fluid notion.
Cardiff is an old club. It has history, even if much of that history has been spent in the lower leagues. A revival of sorts in the past decade plateaued in the second tier of English football, where the club has remained since 2003. They were on the brink of insolvency before Tan stepped in, and continue to bleed cash – last season the club recorded a £13.6 million loss, and are in debt to the tune of more than £83 million.
Tan knows this. “Have they achieved any success under this Bluebirds brand?” he asked the BBC recently. “So why do we hold on to something that hasn’t achieved much success?”
It’s a good question, and it has much to do with the masochism inherent in following football. There are 72 clubs in the English league, and only a handful of those have a realistic shot at silverware. For fans of the others, support is a Sisyphean ritual; pleasure comes from repetition, with hope as the occasional seasoning. The only way to break the cycle, to compete with the elite, are cash injections.
This financial doping is hardly new to football – nor are changes in strip, ground or location, with vitriol to match – but something different is happening in Wales. This is an effort to make Cardiff more commercially viable, the distillation of a club into a brand that can be tweaked before the global marketing offensive begins.
It must be pointed out that Cardiff, losers at the playoff stage in each of the past three seasons, is now on course for automatic promotion to the Premier League. To some fans, top-flight football is worth any change. To many, however, it is too much to ask, tradition and identity too steep a cost for a shot at success.
Spring Festival in Beijing is loud and quiet all at once. The fireworks start at 6 in the morning and don’t stop until – actually, I’m not sure if they stop at all, so that’s one more thing they have in common with the interminable Katy Perry confection.
It can be quite disconcerting at night, when you hear explosions of uncertain origin. The sounds reverberate off clusters of buildings tall and taller, echo down the dark alleys and endless apartment blocks, and suddenly it seems a bit less like Chinese New Year and more like a full-scale invasion.
But then you look up to see the marvellous pyrotechnical flora unfurling above your head, and all is as right as it is bright. For the past week midnight in the capital has been as vividly lit as midday. More so, perhaps, because gunpowder and phosphorus lift the veil of night far more effectively than the sun can overcome the seemingly permanent blanket of smog shrouding the city.
Maybe this is part of the reason why people are so scarce. For a city so clogged with people that getting on and off the subway involves moves more commonly seen in a UFC cage, Beijing’s streets are eerily empty. Debris from the fireworks is everywhere, but those who lit their fuses are not. Shops are barricaded, restaurants are shut, and occasionally a camera-crew of laowais will excitedly remark upon a sighting of that rarest of species in its natural habitat – the lesser-spotted Beijing taxi.
Venture to any of the major public transport hubs, however, and you will see more than a few signs of life. This phrase “world’s largest annual migration” gets bandied about like alcohol in the bar district, but one of those things is not fake. The queues snake around blocks and out of buildings, on those occasions when there is a queue and not a mass of people doing their best impression of piranhas making their acquaintance with livestock.
This sounds horrible, but it isn’t. People save for the whole year to a buy a ticket back to their hometown, or to make a trip into the big cities. It can be wearying, but there is sweetness to it, the rigours of travel softened with liberal doses of excitement and anticipation.
This is certainly the case for those who flock to Beijing’s tourist sites. Most are from out of town, and their happiness and pride are infectious. Wandering around palaces and temples that existed thousands of years before you and will continue to do so thousands of years after you are gone is humbling and wonderful, particularly in the company of those who have come a long, long way to be there.
It is still cold, and as the day decays the crowds disperse. The smog and neon flirt prettily in the gathering dusk, and for a time all is quiet. Then it is dark enough for the fireworks to start again.
Our high school did this thing where kids were clumped into different groups for BM, English and mathematics based on their aptitude. I’m sure this was meant to be so the bright lights could shine on without suffering those whose aptitude merely flickered, but it sat about as well as a rhinoceros on a bicycle. Nevertheless, Introduction to Segregation had one unexpected benefit.
Shuffling seats around meant that for one class a day, five times a week, I sat behind a girl who shall remain nameless. She had a lovely smile that she would bestow upon me when I cracked wise, neat handwriting that made it a pleasure to copy her homework, and curly hair that she wore short and could never quite tame.
We’d talk a bit, and have the occasional meal at recess together, and we spent time together outside of school exactly once. It was one of those mass outings in which everyone looks strange bereft of uniforms, away from the hermetically sealed environment of the classroom. I don’t even think we spoke on that day, but when we finished high school we started writing letters to each other.
Irritation is the warmest of blankets, and no one should be denied the right to wrap themselves in it. Those who are unamused by Quentin Tarantino’s new joint, Django Unchained, are no exception. So you can understand the stance of director Spike Lee, who is refusing to watch the film on principle – here is a white man, one with a mouth as smart as it is loud, turning his camera on one of the most shameful periods in the US’ history.
Implicit is the criticism that this is not Tarantino’s film to make. But slavery is a difficult sell; it’s hard to argue with Samuel L. Jackson when he says there may have been ideas and attempts at scripts from black filmmakers, but nobody financed them until Tarantino came along.
Django Unchained is an exploitation film about the exploitation of human beings; the message is the medium, if you will. It is violent to the point of caricature, but that is an extension of its director’s wicked wit. The cartoonish gunplay sits at the same bar as much of the outlandish treatment of slaves, until the slow, horrifying realisation that one of these things is exaggerated and the other is very real. It is uncomfortable. That is the point.
So it’s New Year’s Eve in Beijing, which has been enjoying the frosty kisses of snowfall on numerous occasions this past month. I have been very seriously assured by a very serious editor that it is the coldest winter the capital has endured in at least a decade, and it feels like it: Any breath outside that isn’t taken through the veil of a scarf feels like a hit of liquid nitrogen delivered straight to the tonsils. This has the effect of making every Beijinger affect a curiously guttural tone, which is particularly noteworthy when you buy dumplings from a nice lady who speaks to you in a voice exactly like Christian Bale doing that thing he thinks sounds like Batman.
Growling all the way, we don armour against the cold. Goodbyes always take forever this time of year – you wave, and then you spend three to four weeks putting on hats and scarves and coats and gloves and, occasionally, those surgical masks with drawn-on whiskers that you can buy on certain street corners.
My newest and most favourite investment is a trapper hat. I am not sure if the lining is real, but it feels like having hair. Those of you who still have hair do not understand what it is like to not have it and then suddenly feel something miraculously floating about your scalp, even if it is wrapped up in a red-and-green, bear-and-moose encrusted hat that looks like the neglected offspring of a string of Christmas lights and an overly amorous timberwolf. I do not care if I now convey the appearance of one who hunts elk in his spare time. I am warm.
The island state of Tasmania sits at the southernmost tip of Australia. It is home to vistas of retina-searing beauty, ongoing environmental brouhahas that gave rise to the world’s first Greens party, and a number of ancient penal colonies.
One of these, Port Arthur, is among Tasmania’s biggest tourist draws. It is sleepy and peaceful, the bones of old buildings in stately repose among vivid green hillocks. In amongst these, hidden by a curve in the shrubbery, is a more modern structure. This was once the Broken Arrow Café. Now it is clean, quiet, abandoned.
On 28 April, 1996, a man from the Tasmanian capital of Hobart finished a large meal at the café, then pulled a semiautomatic rifle out of his bag and opened fire. He killed 12 people and injured 10 in just 15 seconds. By the time he was captured the next morning, he had killed 35 people and injured 23 more.
Hipsters, hippies, hippopotami. Trying to squeeze a period’s subculture into an all-encompassing label is like trying to squeeze toothpaste back into a tube – it’s incredibly messy, and invariably unsuccessful.
Of course, that doesn’t stop people from trying, as evinced by this New York Times op-ed from earlier this month. In it, Christy Wampole asserts that the prevailing disease of our times is irony, and its most potent vector is the group of people known as hipsters. She defines this group as trying to complete the eternal quest for individuality not by concepts, but by material things; she says that irony contributes to a generational and societal aversion for directness, and this ethos infects everything from politics to television.
The success of a countercultural movement, as ever, is directly proportionate to the amount of attention (or vitriol) it receives. But listing the attributes of a movement is problematic because of how fashionably frayed its edges can get, and how easy it then becomes to discover those traits in other places.
In 1998, when I was busy pretending to study for the SPM examinations, my father came home one day and announced he had tickets to the World Cup. This caused mass delirium in the Raj household, the solitary exception being my brother, who decided that he was going to be too occupied with PMR to go to France.
Inspired by his sensible outlook, and demonstrating the foresight and sound judgment that has led to more than one of these columns being hurriedly completed on the back of a napkin three minutes before deadline, I declared my candidacy for the spare ticket with some measure of aplomb. And that is how, in the middle of the year, we found ourselves on our way to Paris.
There was a period in the late ’80s to the mid-’90s when the South-east Asian obsession with all things Japanese crystallised into something close to perfection: local reprints of manga. I cannot recall what I was studying in the lead-up to UPSR, but I cannot forget running down to the newsagent’s to buy the latest edition of Doraemon or Slam Dunk.
These were reprints of Japanese comics that would run for years and hundreds of issues in their native country, serialised chapter by chapter in anthologies. New volumes would beckon tantalisingly from the display table at Syarikat Desa, where the auntie would fix you with a stare that would curdle milk at a hundred paces if you looked but didn’t buy. Some had their pages reversed so you could read them from left to right, some didn’t, but all of them had one wonderful thing in common – they were in Bahasa Malaysia.
There is a charming pomposity to Bahasa Malaysia, a grandeur sharpened into something lovely and regal by the knowledge of its steady decay. Nowhere has this been put to better use than in the pages of these manga; BM lent gravitas to exasperation and steeped sketches in mostly undeserving wisdom.
One panel featuring a boy chasing a ghost while Doraemon, hand to forehead, sighed “Tengok pun sudah tahu mereka pakat” has grown to mythic status among those who used to haunt the fields and mamaks of my youth. Think of the alternative: “They’re in cahoots!” No. Just no. And then there are the various bons mot of Sakuragi Hanamichi, the flame-haired protagonist of Slam Dunk, magnificent in their sweet idiocy.
This is an opportune moment to stop and make one of those well-researched, balanced statements that are the foundation of modern journalism. Here it is – Slam Dunk is one of the very best fictional representations of sport in any medium. It’s well worth tracking down, even if all you can find is an English translation; this being a respectable publication, I am unable to mention that it is available online, so I shall refrain.
It was very hot on Monday. Half a decade in Melbourne has taught me to enquire politely as to the weather, in the manner of one asking after the health of a mostly unloved aunt. “Does she still like chocolates? Great, I’ll bring an umbrella.”
Beijing, however, is charmingly stubborn in its resistance to this sort of scrutiny. Sure, you can go online and attempt to interpret anthropomorphic representations of suns or clouds, but you’ve got no chance until you step outside and immerse yourself in the city’s mood.
Sometimes it is as clear as inspiration. Sometimes it is so soupy you can taste it in your sinuses. In between are a thousand variations of humidity. What this all means is that on Monday I didn’t carry my bag to work, because the strap would have left an elegant diagonal sash of sweat across my chest. This wasn’t a problem until I received a strange and mysterious phone call at about 2pm.
This is a review of Looper: it’s fantastic. Go watch it.
This is an excuse to use spam as a verb, and to spam you with links. First is Rian Johnson’s Tumblr for the film. Next is Zachary Johnson’s lovely animated trailer and accompanying stills. Third is Film Crit Hulk’s delightful, sprawling, spoiler-free 27,000-word essay about the Looper gang at Comic-Con and the film industry in general. Yes, it is twenty-seven thousand words long, but it is joyous and a joy to read.
This is a discussion of Looper, and you can read this safely if you have not yet seen the film.
Rian Johnson plays with genre the way most of us play with building blocks – if you’re good enough, at some point the medium of delivery ceases to matter and you’re left with art.
I am Assunta Hospital, where I came squalling into the world, where years later my mother would be held up at knifepoint while I staggered out after an asthma attack. I am Manila, where I grew up down the road from a dairy factory and developed a corresponding appetite that would take decades to accommodate spice. I am the holes on the beach in Queensland that my brother and I would dig to lie in and watch my mother in the ocean. I am Taman Desa, where we graduated from kicking a ball around unused tennis courts to playing with the big boys and the gangsters in the balding field, which was composed of so much sand that I could come home and blow my nose and it would turn a tissue orange. I am Jay’s, where I would get my hair cut by a tattooed man who drove a powder-blue Harley, loved his wife very much and introduced me to the wonders of betting on football. I am Bukit Bintang Boys’ School, with or without the apostrophe, where I would read quietly during assembly and investigate the hundreds and thousands of red saga seeds that would fall like hard rain from impossibly tall trees. I am the caning I received for larking in class, the compendium of Transformers that was confiscated and returned three years later on the very last day of school, the art project that was stolen and claimed as someone else’s. I am the discoverer of this injustice, who stood, three feet of defiance, as another boy cried. I am the prefect who only wore shorts. I am the farm in Warwick where I was read poetry and discovered snakes, swam in an inconsistent creek and posed for far too many photographs wearing t-shirts tucked into denim shorts. I am Methodist College, where I met my family. I am geography projects and cybercafés and tuition and conversations when the lights are out and bonds so strong that they draw me back to Kuala Lumpur years after I left. I am the summer of 1999. I am Petaling Street, where the gangsters speak more languages than I ever will, the faded neon left behind when a city pushes out in other directions. I am the university where I would sit at the back of class and wait for my friends to return from colder climes. I am the newspaper that hired the boy who remembered to remove his earrings but forgot he was wearing shorts. I am the editor who took a gamble on her sister’s friend, the finance reporter who thought a bear market was strong and powerful, the calculator of unhatched poultry. I am Chinese New Year, when the sun is high and the cards are good and all is right with the world. I am Melbourne, sight unseen, frustrating and rewarding in its insularity. I am the long drives north, when the concrete turns to wood under a sky so much bigger than I have ever seen. I am Beijing, never at rest, attempting osmosis on the hugest of scales. I am durian, strong and sweet and creamy. I am the mountains I keep climbing. I am the knees that protest long into the night. I am the coconut shell on a beach with a Hans Zimmer score. I am my father, polished shoes and mellifluence. I am my mother, who wandered, and wondered, and learned. I am my grandmother’s curiosity and the caress of the rubber hose. I am my brother, secure in his insecurities. I am the child of all worlds and none.
Cycling’s most frenetic chase is over, but there is no winner. Lance Armstrong’s decision to stop contesting the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s charges against him is somewhere between a loss for the athlete and a victory for the agency – there is an abundance of defiant posturing, an utter deficit of grace, another frayed thread in the sport’s tattered reputation.
Armstrong has the same effect on opinion that Moses had on liquid. His was a valiant struggle against first his own body, then a voracious media pack and increasingly rabid cycling authorities. Or he is dishonest and selfish, merrily jaunting up the garden path with the world in tow.
These narratives are inextricably intertwined. The first volume of his autobiography documents a brash young man humbled not by competitors or competition, but by disease. The raw Armstrong would bash away at his bicycle, head down, bullish and belligerent. Cancer took much, but gave him opportunity; its treatment stripped away his muscles and his bulk, allowing him to reconstruct his wasted torso into the most efficient of machines.
The internet can be ugly, as anyone who has ever fallen foul of an anonymous comments board can attest. But no one really takes those ranting, venomous posts seriously, right? Wrong.
The cloak of invisibility easily available online is the root of a recent bit of fiddling with the Evidence Act, an amendment that seemed to prompt the airing of well-preserved arguments about privacy and free speech. But Section 114A is a very different, very juvenile piece of legislation. It’s the electronic equivalent of pointing a finger at someone and howling the way the pod people do in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Or the way five-year-olds do at the supermarket when they spot a particularly shiny new toy.
I haven’t been that age for a couple of years now, so I don’t know if the Children of Today can rip their fingers away from touchscreens long enough to point at anything. But those responsible for Section 114A are certainly crusty enough to have had toys, because it is a particularly public way of throwing them out of a pram. The amendment basically ensures that someone, anyone, will be held responsible for online content that is arbitrarily found objectionable – as long as they’re administrating a website, signed up to a network or owning a computer.
Malaysia has long been in the habit of permanently borrowing some of the cultural oddities of seafaring nations that traipsed down the Strait of Malacca in pursuit of spice and adventure. The delicate tactics of the Spanish Inquisition probably shouldn’t be one of them, nor should the concept of justice endemic to 17th-century Salem. Under Section 114A, if you want a witch, you’ll find a witch, no matter which.
I’m moving again, for the fourth time in five years since arriving in Melbourne. This time it’s to the capital-E East, with the promise of adventure and a white Christmas. I shall miss this city, and the Yarra, the river that lazily divides it into cunningly named preserves of North and South. The former likes to pretend there is some sort of pioneer spirit attached to gentrification; the latter is comfortable in a kingdom of wide, leafy streets. Countless, equally reductive stories have been written exploring this dichotomy, and every time I see one I think it’s a good thing that newspapers are dying.
Still, having moved from up to down, I find I miss the former. The hub near which I lived was brimming with activity, so full that it occasionally slopped over into violence; older residents would refer to Coburg as Jo’burg, because generalisations are quick and easy, and because the appetite for irony is not the preserve of youth. And to turn to the old Australian shorthand of food as the most palatable form of multiculturalism, Coburg was marvellous – restaurants everywhere, Chinese and Lebanese and Egyptian and Indian. It is difficult to protest immigration policy on a full belly.
True story – the only time I have been in Malaysia to vote, I registered, rocked up to the relevant primary school on voting day and handed in an empty ballot. Then I walked home, chest inflated with the pride at my small act of protest. I slept well that night.
I know. I want to slap me too.
In my defence, it was 2004, and I had a lot more hair and apparently a lot more faith in the electoral process. Perhaps it was some lingering vestige of this misguided belief, some barely postpubescent naivety, that allowed me to believe what I had done was sensible. That someone wouldn’t notice the invitingly blank ballot, quickly check a box and abuse my trust.
You want to know what I wish I had done? I wish I’d made sure that my vote was well and truly spoiled.
It is little wonder that so many still casually divide the globe into creaky hegemonies of West and East; the USA is still riven by them, never mind the philosophical fault line of North and South, and what the USA does we tend to follow. I have never been to New York; the river of mongrel blood that flows in these veins has tributaries in Seattle and the state of Washington, overlooking the Pacific, that do not extend across the Plains. I have never been to New York, but it feels like home.
Better yet, it feels like it could become home, in the same way that Melbourne opened its arms to a perfect stranger five years ago. So many have come this way before. So many writers. There is a temptation to borrow those words, for spice or for a crutch, or to add a scrawl of crayon to those who have worked in ink and paint. I am not immune.
The USA’s greatest export has been its culture, decades of television and films and food and merchandise congealing into familiarity. How else to explain this feeling of easy fluency? It is like love, when you gaze into evening windows lit up like starry eyes and the feel the warmth of belonging. I laugh at a friend who wants to go to the Museum of Natural History because that’s where Ross worked, he of the dinosaur cheques; barely half an hour later I get unreasonably excited about traipsing around the same part of Brooklyn as the cast of Girls.
My life is buses. I wait for them in fierce heat and monsoon rain, ears pricking at the sound of their arrival. I run after them, yelling and waving. I sit in the long seat at their rear, where I can stretch my achy legs and stare out the grimy window, or into the yellowing pages of whichever novel I have deemed hardy enough for the rigours of travel. The buses are pink and red and yellow and invariably wreathed in smoke. Sometimes I can tell that I’ve missed one by the fading sounds of an engine and a trail of swiftly vanishing white clouds.
Even now I feel a strange sense of belonging when I’m on a bus. The trains are oh so fast, the trams convenient enough, but put me on a bus and I am safe.
Last week, US President Barack Obama whispered those 10 little words that made the hearts of a great many people leap like salmon in fresh water: “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” You may agree. You may disagree. You may not care that my crush on Obama has now developed the ability to ambulate and reason independently, but I am now accepting donations for its university fund.
If you have stuck around, you probably know that veep Joe Biden had a part to play; Slate has a good piece (and a magnificent intro) articulating the rapid evolution of the Presidential opinion. But while Biden may have lit the match, Obama did not reach for a fire extinguisher – there may have been some behind-the-scenes castigation, but this is like Zeus giving Prometheus* a public pat on the back and inviting all of mankind to bring their own marshmallows.
So a couple of weeks ago, the latest in a series of events that had been percolating for about six years took place. An aggregation of people, ordinary and extraordinary, stood up to oppressors and purveyors of injustice in a public place despite being told they could not do it. And the world watched, rapt.
I am speaking, of course, about The Avengers.
It’s hard to remember the last time I enjoyed myself this much in a cinema. I cheered when (spoiler, for the 2 per cent of the planet who hasn’t seen it yet) Thanos broke out his trademark evil grin, and then spun off a long and impossibly complicated description of his motives – seriously, this is a guy who wants to destroy half the life in the universe because he is in love with the anthropomorphic representation of Death. My colleague, sitting next to me, provided a more concise alternative to the others assembled in the cinema, along with a sense of perspective.
“Hari explained it to me,” said my friend. “Apparently he’s a bad man.”
I had originally been asked to write a piece approaching The Avengers from the eyes of someone who had not spent their life steeped in this particular batch of cultural ephemera – and, quite frankly, I don’t know how to do it. These characters are old friends, and they are old, but in their youth they were progressive in the mighty Marvel way*.
Seldom has there been a better combination of plucky patriotism and pure propaganda than Captain America; the cover of his very first issue, published a year before the USA joined World War II, features Cap socking Hitler on the jaw. The Black Widow was a Russian spy on an American team in the middle of the Cold War. Hawkeye was a villain recruited when most of the regular Avengers were out of commission; he took his shot, shall we say, at redemption. Iron Man and Thor are studies in change; the first adds altruism to a long and fun list of addictions, the latter learns that hammers can be used to build as well as destroy. And oh, the Hulk.
I am not a Muslim woman. I worry about writing pieces like this, as an atheist with dangly bits; I do the same as a new resident of one of Melbourne’s most statistically whitewashed suburbs, commenting on goings-on in the country of my birth.
Perhaps Mona Eltahawy has similar concerns. The Egyptian-born writer has spent much time abroad; her piece in Foreign Policy magazine, Why Do They Hate Us?, has spent much of the past week going viral. The article discusses the oppression of women in the Middle East, its catalogue of horrors including the violence and sexual assault suffered by Eltahawy herself.
What Eltahawy has written is a polemic. It’s not journalism, it’s an essay, and it is brave because the internet’s cloak of invisibility is a handy vector for vitriol. While there are people for whom it has rung heartbreakingly true, there are others who bristle – stop by her Twitter account, @monaeltahawy, for a sample. But why the outrage?
Some of the answer lies in her byline: “Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-American columnist.” To many, that hyphen is a division of geography and philosophy – it is to punctuation what the Berlin Wall was to masonry.
So the third edition of the Bersih rallies for free and fair elections has been scheduled for April 28 – we know the when, but not the where. Apparently Dataran Merdeka has not been gazetted as an area for peaceful gatherings; whoever wrote that into Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Hussein’s speech has clearly never been there on a Friday night. Or a Saturday night. Or any Merdeka Day celebrations ever.
But it isn’t surprising that the government has changed their stance on Bersih. The manhandling and mishandling of Bersih supporters in the lead-up to the rally on July 9 last year gave many angry Malaysians the impetus needed to defy the order to stay out of Kuala Lumpur. And it continued – the footage and images from that day were shocking, the government’s heavy hand immortalised by cameras and relived by those who couldn’t or wouldn’t make it into the city.
This time, the Malaysian government knows the world is watching, and has adopted an unusual leniency. The January acquittal of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim shares some of this approach’s DNA, as do the recent baby steps towards repealing the Internal Security Act. The lesson has been learned, and has metastasised into policy: a lack of controversy handily translates into a lack of coverage.
This softly softly approach may lead many Malaysians to feel like part of the battle has been won. The problem with that statement, however, is that it succumbs to the temptation to use the language of war. There are no winners or losers here – surely every Malaysian citizen stands to benefit from a cleaner democratic process? More than that, at the age of 55, can Barisan Nasional really learn new tricks? Does the government have to be replaced before reform can be effected?
“Young adult” is one of my favourite oxymorons, right up there with “cautiously optimistic” and “authentic replica”. I’ve been addicted to young adult novels long before my body grew up, long before I knew it was a genre.
When I was 10 I smuggled one of Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers books out of the school library under my shirt – not that I was stealing it, just that I was quite mortified when the librarian sweetly enquired if I had a sister. I did, but at the time she was more concerned with impersonating Whitney Houston; still, at least one of us was being honest about the things we liked.
I get a flat rate for this column, otherwise I would happily fill up a paragraph with recommendations of titles I no longer have to conceal beneath clothing*. But – given that I’m still devouring them three months after turning 30**, and readers have been indulging similar appetites for decades – what explains the rapturous response to properties like The Hunger Games?
This past Friday, the debate between candidates for the position of Hong Kong’s chief executive got quite deliciously snippy. One candidate, Henry Tang, set the stage for what was to come by bowing primly to the audience before the debate – his way of apologising for providing Hong Kong’s satirists with much ammunition, including an affair and the illegal construction of a 2,400 square metre basement.
Facing off against him were current opinion-poll leader Chun-ying Leung – against whom allegations of triad involvement have recently been levelled – and Albert Ho, who provided the best quote of the evening.
Asked which of the two he would vote for, Ho paused, with the air of a man aware that he is about to unleash a perfectly sculpted bon mot. “Both are unacceptable,” he said. “If I really have to make a choice, that’s like putting a gun to my head. And I’d say ‘Shoot’.”
Now I know different political systems mean different campaign processes, but what fun public debates are. Just imagine Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and commentator Raja Petra Kamaruddin in a room, armed with nothing more than a lectern, a microphone and their wits.
I can’t decide which would make for better viewing – the three esteemed gentlemen going seven bells at each other, cherry-picking the best of the many accusations and missteps that have accumulated over the years; or a ballet of repressed hostility, civility demanding the juggling of attacks instead of the attacking of jugulars.
It has been a productive period for bans, one that started off with matters reproductive. Peter Mayle’s Where Did I Come From? was removed from shelves last month, and an international artiste wasn’t allowed to perform either. You may have read something about the latter, but I have been asked not to write about it so I’ll be good.
What I will say is that it certainly doesn’t help when the international media seize upon certain restrictions, such as those famously imposed on Linkin Park, to come up with a very Googleable headline. Everyone from Gwen Stefani to Beyoncé performs under the same conditions – and I quite like that they aren’t specific to a gender.
The thing is, most international acts don’t want to alienate the countries in which they play; they’re earning a living too. If there are restrictions, and they are spelled out a reasonable amount of time before the gig – like Malaysia’s are – there are mostly few difficulties in adhering to them.
So if there is offence caused, wouldn’t it make more sense to have the band or the artist sit down, discuss what happened, seek understanding, and move on? Wouldn’t that be more educational, more tolerant, than simply seeking a ban?
In the past couple of weeks, that old adage about bad publicity has taken a bit of a battering. And – if I don’t say it, someone else will – so did a customer of Kentucky Fried Chicken, now so consumed by branding that it trades under its acronym.
While we’re on the subject of consumption, I don’t know what is most depressing about this fast-food fracas. KFC is quite the cash cow (or chicken, certainly) and there’s a neat symmetry to the way the squabbling that characterised KFC at the board level for so many years has finally infected the level that actually generates the money.
Then there’s the fact that commentary across the social media networks has taken on racial overtones, a reference to KFC Holdings (Malaysia) Bhd’s predominantly Malay ownership as well as the difference in ethnicities between customer and server. So now food has gone from being a low-effort, low-impact way to appreciate diversity to just another racial faultline. Tell you what – it brings a whole new dimension to American-style fried chicken.
It was the story that made a nation refresh their browsers in disbelief – the acquittal of Anwar Ibrahim.
The list of events, epithets and connotations attached to the opposition leader’s name over the years is so long that you could print it out and give it to him to wear in an approximation of a turban. Even so, “innocent” was a new addition to that unwieldy headgear, particularly when the ruling was delivered by a Malaysian court of law.
The decision was comprehensively covered by the Australian press, with Melbourne broadsheet The Age giving it the front-page treatment. This keen scrutiny is due to the presence of some still-raw wounds, fallout from the collapse of the Malaysian Solution on legal grounds last year.
In theory, the so-called solution was a way for Australia to redirect asylum seekers, processing them before they ever reached its shores. In reality, questions over both countries’ human rights records meant that it proved to be as neat and final a conclusion as that of pi.
There was a truly momentous event over the holiday season, something this column couldn’t cover because we didn’t have a Boxing Day edition – a battle royale between William Shatner and Carrie Fisher. Okay, more a duel of YouTube videos, but when Captain Kirk and Princess Leia put up their prerecorded dukes, the internet pays attention.
Wars between Star Trek and Star Wars fans are fought with the zeal of the jihadi. At least, they were in the 1970s – skirmishes now are either generously coated in irony, or a mildly amusing last-ditch bid for continued cultural relevancy. The Shatner-Fisher Affair was both. It started off predictably juvenile and rather entertaining, and then George Takei – Hikaru Sulu himself – stepped in with a video of his own. He brokered peace, soothed the fans, and pointed out the far more serious threat on the horizon: Twilight.
I have a lot of sympathy for Twilight fans. The books and films they love have generated often funny, remarkably abundant criticism that neatly summarises much of the series’ ridiculousness, but there is also a perverse righteousness to it. And this is rather worrying, even if it’s hardly original.
Sócrates died last week. Not the Greek philosopher, but the Brazilian footballer who shared his name and some of his rapacious intellect, combining a cool thoughtfulness on the pitch with a radical fire off it.
The many eulogies to have cropped up since his passing made mention of Sócrates’ drinking, the thirst which claimed his life – but not too much mention. This is hardly the first time great excess has been pardoned by great talent, but how much should personal politics and appetites, for self-destruction or otherwise, factor into the retrospective appreciation of a life?
It is difficult to ascertain the point at which base idolatry becomes bone idle. It certainly seems to be the case with reportage, when the passage of years and the passage of life tend to put a glossy sheen on all manner of misdeeds. If time heals all wounds, and geography cauterises them, then death is a plastic surgeon and the media its keenest scalpel.
Here are three things guaranteed to make football fans of a certain vintage feel the weight of years. First, in April last year, Portsmouth’s Lenny Sowah became the first player born after the 1992 formation of the English Premier League to start a match in the competition.
Second: in July 1994, after scoring a goal against the Netherlands in the semi-final of that year’s World Cup, the Brazilian forward Bebeto ran to the touchline and began rocking an imaginary baby in his arms. Last month, that child signed a professional contract with his dad’s old club, Flamengo.
And finally, two weeks ago, Manchester United’s Phil Jones won his second cap for England. At a press conference, he was asked about his national team’s past performances in the European Championship.
“Euro ’96?” said Jones. “I don’t remember that. I would only have been four.”
The passage of time throws the inherent ridiculousness of organised sport into sharp focus. There is corporatisation, growing in size and influence with the haphazard zeal of a mosquito at a nudist colony. There are the oligarchs, seeking tax havens while devouring (super)stars and distorting reality in a decent approximation of a black hole.
There’s the constant mistreatment of women that seems to take place every time alcohol and professional sportsmen mix, and sometimes when it doesn’t. And, unique to football, there is Sepp Blatter, a man so single-mindedly dedicated to alienating minorities that he has managed to unite the majority in a latticework of shared irritation.
There’s something missing, and I think it’s my heroes.
The trouble with worrying about the environment is an inability to grasp chronological scale. To illustrate, I’d like to bring in a guest speaker, Mr. Arthur C. Clarke:
“Few governments had ever looked more than an election ahead, few individuals beyond the lifetimes of their grandchildren. And, anyway, the astronomers might be wrong … Even if humanity was under sentence of death, the date of execution was still indefinite. The Sun would not blow up for a thousand years; and who could weep for the fortieth generation?”
It’s a passage from The Songs of Distant Earth, a novel in which the population of Earth has spread among the stars to survive. An exploding Sun isn’t particularly relatable, but there’s something scarily understandable about the thought of moving on to a greener world, leaving behind a used-up husk of a planet. It would be a very human thing to do.
But now we move from science fiction to something far more terrifying – science fact. The spectre of nuclear power has long haunted cinemas and media outlets, as is evident in everything from the back catalogue of Troma Entertainment to the frontlines of Fukushima City. More than power, there is the issue of all that waste – how do we dispose of it? How do we store it?
Finland thinks it has an answer. In the wilderness, almost 200 miles north-west of the capital of Helsinki, a massive network of tunnels and chambers is being hewn from the rock. It is a permanent repository for nuclear waste, it is the first of its kind in the world, and it is called Onkalo.
I’d like to tell the lady at the Chinese embassy, the one who finally gave me a visa on my fifth trip and then sweetly told me that there would be “consequences” were I to work while I was in the country, that not one word of this column was written abroad. So there.
This week’s title is an immortal line from the footballer Ian Rush, interviewed after leaving Liverpool for Juventus of Turin. But there is value in its inelegant heft – I did much travelling around China, but sampling a handful of cities and claiming that they are representative of an entire nation is as misleading as extrapolating someone’s personality from a few particularly evident personality traits.
Still, so much of China is jaw-dropping. There is the sheer of scale of even the second- and third-tier cities like Xi’an and Chengdu, a parade of buildings and infrastructure and people that seems to march eternally onward and outward. There is the stunning beauty of parks like Huang Long and Jiuzhaigou, the former cradled by snow-covered peaks and the latter nestled in a valley, bursting with colours so vibrant they seem artificial. But Beijing has long had a piece of my heart.
I love landing on islands. This is the language of privilege, in these days of smooth flights and economic turbulence, but I do – especially at night, when the ocean is black and vast. I peer out of windows to see the first faint pinpricks of light, ships and boats of various sizes. Then fire seems to erupt from water, a city or an airport or an aggregation of buildings blazing into sight. In Hong Kong, the neon is so bright it erases the stars.
From the airport to Hong Kong Island, the first hint of density I get is the sight of eight great towers, rising up into the night like the bejeweled ribcage of some enormous, ancient beast. They are beautiful from this distance, far enough away to hide the non-stop activity of their inhabitants.
I have not seen my host for years. She once told me that you could gauge the manic pace of Hong Kong from its speedy escalators, words I recall ruefully the first time I lose my balance. But I can understand the appeal – there is a dynamism about Hong Kong, a heady sense of opportunity.
Last week, Andrew Bolt lost a court case, and Australia is still reeling. Bolt is a columnist for the Herald Sun, a right-leaning tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited. He writes a blog with a large readership; there are justifiable claims for him to be Australia’s most-read columnist.
In 2009, Bolt wrote two posts that questioned the “Aboriginality” of several prominent fair-skinned Aboriginals. His argument was that their careers and finances had benefited from this harnessing of their indigenous identity.
There was outrage, there were legal proceedings, and there was a court ruling that the tone and mistakes in Bolt’s comments contained “errors of fact, distortions of the truth and inflammatory and provocative language”.
As a comment on Bolt’s work, it’s one that many agree with. But the ruling has stirred up a heated debate, and reaction has been split between celebrations of victory and funerals for the death of free speech.
Rupert Murdoch casts a long shadow. So long, in fact, that when he started wobbling atop his pedestal, many observers must have felt they were experiencing a rather fickle eclipse.
A similar majority probably weren’t surprised by the phone-hacking revelations. For decades, it was understood – outside the flak jacket surrounding News Corp – that Murdoch didn’t just carve media and politics into whatever shape he wanted, he was sort of big and bad too, like some unholy amalgamation of Geppetto and Godzilla. But no one would come out and say it: editorials flirted with the consummation of criticism, circling but never committing.
Which is why, when the criminality of phone hacking was revealed to extend to the mailbox of Milly Dowler, giving the family of the poor, murdered 16-year-old hope that she was still alive, righteous umbrage rose like vengeful yeast.
Hacking the mailboxes of royals and celebrities of dubious wattage was one thing – even when the tables were turned, Hugh Grant secretly recording an admission of guilt from News of the World journalist Paul McMullan was the stuff of bad pantomime. But what had happened to the Dowlers was something more. It wasn’t just illegal and unethical, it was immoral. It was, in the purest sense of the term, outrageous.
The blaze in London has died down, but not in the minds of its citizens. Not before the flames licked other cities. And now we sift through the ashes, trying to divine reason from ruin.
It is easy and instinctive to denounce the rioting. More difficult, however, are the efforts to understand it, to gain an insight into the minds of the people laying seemingly wanton waste to their neighbourhoods.