“Women drivers”, “men drivers”, and that stupid thing Bung Mokhtar said

[This was first posted in Kakak Killjoy, a Malaysian feminist webzine, on April 20, 2011.]

#buangBung may have been the best hashtag Malaysian Twitterers may have coined so far in 2011 , but the feeble logic of Bung Mokhtar’s original comments will live on in infamy. It will also live on in endorsement, as it turns out. The April 3 Sunday edition of both The Star and The New Straits Times addressed the Malaysian MP’s pearls of wisdom with slightly differing angles, but both attempt to further cleave the so-called “differences” between the two sexes with articles like ‘Are women safer drivers?’ and ‘What drives the sexes?’

You don’t need me to tell you how local print media perpetuates simplistic stereotypes and is implicated in all kinds of shallow discourse about race or sex and various socio-cultural issues in order to interest readers and sell more copies. The framing of both these articles – pitting one sex against the other – already undermines the very discussion it purports to foster. If Bung Moktar claims that women are sucky drivers, then well, The Star is going to tell you that women might be safer drivers. Both articles relied on the statistics of the Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research (MIROS). I don’t know if it’s my background in humanities or my inability to talk to numbers or have numbers “speak” to me – but statistics are always liable to be skewered in favour of research objectives, goals, and the bias of researchers.

As far as I can see from the statistics cited in these articles, most women drivers are good drivers – until they aren’t. Conversely, most men drivers are also good drivers – until they aren’t. But the MIROS experts interviewed seem to unproblematically premise their expert opinions on what they seem to think are inherent differences among the sexes that are “scientifically-proven” by – well, more statistics:

“Generally, women are good at multi-tasking. As driving will also require action and reaction, a multi-tasker may, however, tend to slip up and this may result in being errant in driving,” says Dr Ahmad Farhan.

“Perhaps, this may be the reason, why we witness some women drivers making slip-ups while driving.”

Men are known to have better psychomotor skills, making them highly-confident and, at times, too confident, he points out.

“As a result, a man has the general tendency to drive at high speed, to take chances and to be a greater risk (factor) on the road.”

Women are also known to have poorer spatial ability compared to men, making a woman driver more hesitant with manoeuvres that require space and distance estimation, like entering and passing a junction, overtaking and parking, he adds.

“Hesitation will either make you slowly dangerous, or inadequately and dangerously daring. Both make you a risk to road users,” he notes.

But as Cordelia Fine, author of Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference argues, the apparent differences between men and women’s brains doesn’t neatly tally with the attendant conclusions that a lot of research tries to pass off as “natural differences”. As she says in this interview in Salon:

We look around in our society, and we want to explain whatever state of sex inequality we have. It’s more comfortable to attribute it to some internal difference between men and women than the idea that there must be something very unjust about our society. As long as there has been brain science there have been misguided explanations and justification for sex and inequality — that women’s skulls are the wrong shape, that their brain is too small, that their head is too unspecialized. It was once very cutting-edge to put a brain on a scale, and now we have cutting-edge research that is genuinely sophisticated and exciting, but we’re still very much at the beginning of our journey of understanding of how our brain creates the mind.

“Neurosexism” is just another way of passing off traditional, conservative, status quo-maintaining beliefs about innate differences between the sexes under the guise of scientific credibility. And how do intersex, transgender and transsexual people fit into this debate of binaries? In this Guardian interview, Fine says:

“There are sex differences in the brain. There are also large sex differences in who does what and who achieves what,” she says. “It would make sense if these facts were connected in some way, and perhaps they are. But when we follow the trail of contemporary science we discover a surprising number of gaps, assumptions, inconsistencies, poor methodologies and leaps of faith.”

And, as Fine further points out, the fact that popular media gloms on to these so-called revelatory studies and statistics – to me, it always seems like most of the scientific research concerning sexual and gender difference are more of the same old, same old, dressed up in new language – to further perpetuate some mythical male vs. female chasm is, in effect, harmful:

Gender equality is increasing in pretty much all domains, and the psychological effects of that can only be beneficial. The real issue is when people in the popular media say things like, “Male brains are just better at this kind of stuff, and women’s brains are better at that kind of stuff.” When we say to women, “Look, men are better at math, but it’s because they work harder,” you don’t see the same harmful effects. But if you say, “Men are better at math genetically,” then you do. These stem from the implicit assumption that the gender stereotypes are based on hard-wired truths.

Where possible, observe the car, ladies. Or drape thyself on it. But try not to drive it!

There is a very important Something Else that is obfuscated in favour of sensationalist reporting and myth-peddling, and in this scenario it’s the laws and policies that make road safety an itinerant nightmare in Malaysia. Lax implementation of road safety laws and penalties means that the law operates like a Jusco sale: you’ll be able to get a “discount” on your traffic summonses if you settle it by a certain date. If so many people are being slapped with a summons, you’ll either have to re-evaluate your laws (is it practical?) or your drivers (why are Malaysian drivers acquiring speeding tickets, fines, and summonses at such a high rate?). Which in itself is interesting, because I don’t drive and I’ve been told more than once what I freak I am for living in the Klang Valley without owning a car or being able to drive. I did sit for my driver’s licence examinations right after SPM, and the irony of this is that I’m the only one among most of the people I know to have passed the driving examination without having bribed the exam official. And people need to bribe officials to pass their driving exams in order to drive and then proceed to take out loans they can’t afford on Milo-tin can cars (oh wait, we’re not allowed to make those jokes about Kancils anymore?) that are crushed into smithereens during road accidents killing everyone inside because there isn’t decent, integrated public transport not just in KL, but in other cities.

In the New Straits Times article, it was only the respondents interviewed who mentioned the infrastructure problems, like badly-maintained roads, that contribute to road accidents regardless of who is behind the wheel. The articles itself never framed these issues as something worth commenting on in a “debate” on driver behaviour in Malaysia. But as long as we keep thinking in these terms (men vs. women) and allow this particular type of discourse to go unquestioned, we’re going to find it harder to see past our own internalised bigotries with regards to gender issues.

In response to the April 3 coverage on the issue, the April 10 edition of the New Straits Times carried letters from readers. This one by one Andrew Lo starts off with a similar premise as my own (gasp), and it’s even titled ‘Statistics that miss the point’, before falling into reductive hysterical generalisations about women drivers. “How many times have we seen a woman driver not entering a roundabout until all three lanes are free?” he laments.

How about this:

Who takes longer to move their cars out of car parks even if they know there is a long line of cars waiting for them? Instead of starting the car, they will rummage through their oversized handbags for I don’t know what, and adjust the rearview mirror to look at their face.

WHO, WHO, WHO DOES THIS, Andrew Lo cries out in pain.

And whose cars are more likely to be covered with teddy bears, pillows and sun visors, thus creating blind spots?

And who cannot align their cars at drive-ins without going backwards and forwards a few times?

I have four sisters and a wife. All have been involved in accidents, almost always hit from behind by male drivers.

As for myself, I always knock into the back of cars driven by women. At this rate I will be knocking into my sisters or worse, my wife soon!

“I have four sisters and a wife. All have been involved in accidents, almost always hit from behind by male drivers. As for myself, I always knock into the back of cars driven by women.” I mean, read that again. And again. This, people of the world, is an example of male privilege. You think it doesn’t exist – it’s almost a myth, like a unicorn. Well, read that sentence again. “I always knock into the back of cars driven by women.” Lovely.

This is Andrew Lo’s world in a nutshell:  “All the women drivers of the world – that is, five of the women I know personally – have been hit from the back by men drivers while they were driving; ergo, ALL WOMEN DRIVERS SUCK.”

As for these “male drivers” who keep HITTING OTHER PEOPLE’S CARS? Well, carry on. Don’t ever stop to think about what you do wrong, or how you contribute to accidents. THE WOMENZ ARE PUTTING ON THEIR MAKEUP AND THEY HAVE, LIKE, TEDDY BEARS AND SHIT. Male drivers, however? You are defenseless amidst the onslaught of the womenz drivers. Because the cars were made for you. Hell, the roads were made for you, too. You know, even the world? It was made for you.

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Interlocking issues

Some musings of mine on the issue of Interlok ran in The Nut Graph today. I have reproduced it here in full:

 

The debate about the novel Interlok by Malaysian national laureate Abdullah Hussein continues to rage, but among a select few. The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) wants the book to be withdrawn from the Form Five syllabus for Malay literature on the grounds that the novel contains “offensive” words and depictions of Indian Malaysians. The MIC claims that the book will offend the entire Indian Hindu community, who, according to them, no longer practise the caste system.

Coming from the MIC, this smacks a little too much of hypocrisy, because I know of Indian Malaysians who still have to battle with issues of caste within their communities and families. The issue of caste has also come under scrutiny for its implications on the internal politics of the MIC. And it’s hypocritical because the MIC itself is part of a power structure that continues to practise and propagate race-based discrimination.

Interlok may or may not be right in its depiction of the Indian Malaysian community, which is taken for granted to be monolithic when it is not. But the MIC’s claim that the book highlights issues that are no longer relevant for the Indian Malaysian community is a blatant lie. It’s also a blatant form of politicking in order to win back the Indian Malaysian vote. By fighting for the rights of Indian Malaysians through this issue, the MIC is no doubt hoping that the community will forget its complicity in promoting race politics.

Selective arguments

There’s also hypocrisy from those who want the book to remain in the syllabus. These are people I follow on Twitter, traditional media columnists, as well as other writers and scholars quoted in media coverage of the issue. They claim that to censor or remove words from a published work of literature is to insult the author’s integrity. On one hand, I agree with this, because as a writer myself, I believe that the craft of writing must be respected.

More importantly, however, books, including works of creative expression, should be judged on their merits. Speculations as to the author’s intentions should not tilt the scale either way. Further to this point is the argument for free speech: something should not be censored, banned, or restricted simply because it offends some people’s sensitivities.

What would these same people who argue for the author’s integrity say about the tendency of the ruling coalition to ban any book that challenges its authority? 1FunnyMalaysia, perhaps?

Education system the problem

My greater concern is how a national education system that is fundamentally structured to be racist can attempt to teach a text as problematic as Interlok.

This book, because of its content, is the kind of book that should help further, deepen, and intensify national discourse on race relations. It is a book that should be handled with maturity and critical yet intelligent interrogation. Precisely because it offends some people, it should be deconstructed and taught with sensitivity.

But how are we going to do this through a nationally constructed pedagogy that promotes half-truths and prejudiced views, which alters history, neglects critical thinking, and undervalues the role of the teacher and student? How can we fill our schools with racist, defeated teachers, hand them a racially problematic text, and expect these very same people to teach it with any degree of responsibility, compassion, or intelligence?

Scholastic hypocrisy

Some scholars argue that Interlok depicts the “social reality” of the time in which it was set, and thus should be studied as a realistic portrayal of Malaysian society during that period of time. The Malaysian Institute of Historical and Patriotism Studies says that Interlok is a “suitable novel for use of as a textbook for the literature component of the Bahasa Malaysia subject in Form Five because it is based on historical facts”. The National Writers Association (Pena) has come out strongly against the removal of the book. A memorandum has also been signed by several groups, including the Malay Consultation Council and Ikatan Persuratan Melayu.

Will these scholars say the same about Anthony Burgess’s The Malayan Trilogy, which is arguably one of the best novels about colonial-era Malaya? Burgess is equally scathing of all races, including the British. Will any Malay Malaysian politician champion for Trilogy to be taught in schools the way some of them are for Interlok?

In fact, as Sharon Bakar has pointed out, The Malayan Trilogy is not only not taught in our schools, it has also at one time or another been banned or restricted, presumably because it takes the mickey out of not just the Indians or the Chinese, but the Malays as well. I would like to hear scholars, politicians and writers come out in defence of this book for English Literature classes in Malaysia. I think all we would hear are crickets.

We uphold free speech only when it’s convenient, and argue for the integrity of artists and the free circulation of art only when it suits us. But let us not be gullible enough to assume that if Interlok is allowed to be taught in schools nationwide, we’ve won a small part of the battle. It might only be dispiriting confirmation that the national discourse favours the sensitivities and sensibilities of one particular group or race over another.

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One Dimensional Woman

My review of Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman appeared in last weekend’s The Sunday Star. It’s an important, intelligently-argued book, and I highly recommend that the world reads it. Yes, the world. I’ve reproduced it in full here:

For all of us who happily imagine contemporary feminism to be a uniform and linear yellow brick road that delivers us right into the heart of the Emerald City of equality, there’s no one better than Nina Power to take a sledgehammer to that useless utopian dream. With One-Dimensional Woman, Power, a British philosophy professor at Roehampton University, has set out to untangle and reveal the underlying irrationality and contradictions of much of modern-day feminism – wedded as it is to the ugly and false emancipatory “ideals” of capitalism. The title of Power’s book comes from Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, a treatise published in 1964 that offered a critique of the false needs created by modern industrialist society – the idea that people were “free” in their choices when they were actually deeply bound to an insidiously rigid system of production and consumption.

One-Dimensional Woman is a slim book that packs a wallop; it is both angry and hopeful in that it charts out a problem – “What looks like emancipation is nothing but a tightening of the shackles” – and sets out to imagine ways in which work, culture, and gender issues can be radically transformed. Power beams a laser-sharp clarity on topics as diverse and intricately-linked as burqa-banning and Sarah Palin to current labour and economic conditions and pornography to show readers how the commodification of both subjective autonomy and freedom of choice have lead us round and round in a self-defeating loop where feminism is concerned. It attempts to show how people who could care less about the increase in crime rates against women or domestic abuse will suddenly come out of the woodwork to defend a woman’s right to enter a beauty pageant or become a porn star, or lament on how Wonder Woman’s costume transformation from underwear to leggings is an affront to ideal womanhood.

Power describes the subtle yet potent dangers of feminism being co-opted for political, economic, or social purposes that serve to only defend the status quo and further entrench policies of inequality and imperialism. As she puts it, feminism is now used for everything besides the actual fight for equality. In the example of the burqa-banning hysteria that has besieged large parts of Europe, Power adopts a different spin from typical secular proselytizing to explain how conservative zealots and pro-imperialist “feminists” have stepped up to the plate to defend a Muslim woman’s right to wear less clothes, but not to wear what she pleases.

In the market-logic of capitalism, it’s required of women to bare more, reveal more, share everything. Quoting French philosopher Alain Badiou, she writes: “It is used to be taken for granted that an intangible female right is only to have to get undressed in front of the person of her choosing. But no. It is vital to hint at undressing at every instant. Whoever covers up what she puts on the market is not a loyal merchant. Let’s argue the following, then, a pretty strange point: the law on the hijab is pure capitalist law. It orders femininity to be exposed.”

So while contemporary urban feminists hoot and holler about being able to wear less clothes and trot about in heels because it’s their “choice” to do so, Power brings up the uncomfortable notion of how much of a choice is really a choice if it’s the only option available? The moment a woman opts out of the “game” – and chooses to cover-up and not wear make-up, for instance, certain doors start closing in her face – doors that would have opened to jobs, financial success, relationships. Power basically asks: Is this what true emancipation feels like?

To be sure, Power notes that capitalism’s stringent demands are not limited to only women. In her chapters on the “feminisation of labour”, however, she clearly and intelligently maps out how the market has allowed people to think that women have “made it” when all it has done is only alter the landscape and terrain of jobs and careers. She calls it the feminisation of labour because the labour market is now represented by what is traditionally conceived as feminine traits – the ability to acquiesce and be accommodating – rendering each person a walking advertisement for his or herself. You have to be always “on”; become always ready to sell yourself, lay yourself bare, be willing to give just a little bit more, in order to keep your job or get one in the first place. The reality of the current job market – with its precariousness and instability – has always been the case for jobs held by women in the workplace. Now, it’s across the board. Is it any coincidence that more women are touted as “doing well” in the current job market than ever before at the precise moment when the job market, and the economy at large, is in shambles?

Power is merciless on her attacks on consumer-feminism, which is how it should be. But there’s no need to be alarmed; reading One-Dimensional Woman won’t transform you in a radical Leftist or property-relinquishing, ration-card-carrying communist – unless you want to. But not being able to critique the forward-moving momentum of capitalism is akin to standing by and watching as it subsumes everything meaningful into its machine, spitting out only the detritus. As Marcuse wrote more than 30 years ago, “The power over man which this society has acquired is daily absolved by its efficacy and productiveness. If it assimilates everything it touches, if it absorbs the opposition, if it plays with the contradiction, it demonstrates its cultural superiority.”

The book does have its weak point: Power’s thoughts on Shulamith Firestone’s radical reimagining of the family in The Dialectic of Sex, published in 1970, would have been better served with some acknowledgement of Firestone’s problematic conception of race. But Power’s clear-headed critique of feminism and gender relations in relation to economics and politics is bracing and much-needed. It’s a book that attempts to widen the discourse on feminism beyond “I am so happy to be living in a time when I am free to wear to work and drive a car and wear high heels.” And we’ll all do so much better if we can heed its heartfelt call for more, not less, serious thought and critique on contemporary capitalism, economics, politics, and gender relations.

(This is cross-posted at The Blog of Disquiet.)

 

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riding the crimson wave is harder than it looks

In this blog and in life, there must be room for genuine comedy. Today, it just so happens that comedy gold fell into our laps by way of the morning paper. In its coverage of the 2011 UMNO General Assembly, The Star ran a news item titled, ‘Puteri has some fiery speakers who can rival its leaders’, referring, of course, to Puteri UMNO, our little princess wing of the big bad-boy UMNO party.

So, you would, think, okay. They have “fiery” speakers who would have addressed any number of issues that concern society at large, including and especially women and young girls: education, access to healthcare, reproductive rights, marriage laws, rape, crime, maternity leave, equal pay, minimum wage, housing, you know… I could go on. What caught everyone’s eye, however, and exploded on Twitter and Facebook, was this particular bit:

Johor Baru Puteri Umno chief Azura Mohd Afandi wants the Information Ministry to curb television shows and commercials that could lead people astray from the right religious paths.

“Horror films and commercials deemed too sexy for young viewers might lead to deviant teachings.

“For example, commercials on sanitary pads are openly shown on TV and this could influence the young to get involved in social ills,” said Azura, urging the ministry to increase shows that teach good values and religious practices.

There is nothing to do but DIE LAUGHING. Except most of us still want to live and, you know, do stuff with our lives. So I began to wonder why commercials on sanitary pads, “openly shown on TV”, could influence the young to get involved in social ills. Surely someone who is Puteri UMNO chief of the JB division couldn’t be talking out of her… you know. So I wondered… and I wondered.

A bloody woman can be a social ill

I did some heavy-duty research… through the annals of my personal memory.

If I recall correctly, sanitary napkin commercials usually featured women who break free from the cottony shackles of thick-padded menstruation by switching to lighter, thinner pads. Sometimes with wings! Usually, after switching to these new sanitary pads, these women will be shown prancing about in short shorts or skirts, preferably in the colour white, SMILING! Doing cartwheels on the beach maybe, or just hanging with the gals in short skirts. They are happy, because these new sanitary pads help them forget they’re on their period, and also – guess what? No staining, no leakage!

  • SO. It is entirely possible that FORGETTING TO REMEMBER YOU HAVE YOUR PERIOD IS A SOCIAL ILL.

You no longer have to wear all red during "those days" of the month

  • Or maybe HAVING FUN is a social ill. Maybe having fun and forgetting you have your period means that you might smile at boys, who might smile back in return, and then you might have The Sex even before The Marriage, and this is of course a SOCIAL ILL.
  • Perhaps wearing short shorts and skirts is a social ill. Even worse, GIRLS MUST NOT DO CARTWHEELS or spread their legs in any fashion. If they do cartwheels or spread their legs while wearing short shorts or skirts, it can lead to much thieving and coveting of the prime real estate* that lies between a woman’s legs.
  • Or maybe, just maybe, the opposite is true. Maybe Azura Mohd Afendi is very worried that these commercials will remind women of the sad fact of their biological womanhood. The FACT of menstruation will stare them in the face, brazenly, from within TV screens. If women are constantly reminded of their menstruation and how it makes its appearance every month – UNINVITED – maybe women might want to think of ways to never be on their period ever again. They might want to become PREGNANT ALL THE TIME, maybe! And to become pregnant, they might want to have Sex all the time, leading to the unbreakable sex-pregnant-sex-pregnant-sex-pregnant-sex-pregnant-sex-pregnant-sex-pregnant chain of being. This can certainly be a social ill, and a physical one at that – women are constantly pregnant might, after all, die from it or something.  Maybe this is what Azura thinks women might do.

Pregnancy may or may not cause/deter social ills; this is tricky, no one has the statistics

  • There is also the chance that men who watch these commercials might wonder why THEY DON’T MENSTRUATE AS WELL. They may take to the streets in protest, or waste valuable hours of productive labour debating this amongst themselves, tweeting, and writing blog posts about it. The economy will slow down, because as you all know, men work 35% more than women and basically keep this world running. So this can lead to social ills, as well, because when men aren’t working are instead thinking… well!
  • Or “the young”, as Azura says, might see the pad commercials and make slippers out of sanitary pads. This could be a social ill, if people actually start wearing pad slippers.

Sanitary pad slippers cannot guarantee protection from anything except damp floors

In short, after an application of rigorous thinking, I would have to conclude that there are logical reasons for why Azura said that commercials on sanitary napkins may influence people to commit social ills.

*Props to Laura Kipnis in The Female Thing: Dirt, Envy, Sex, Vulnerability for that ever-so-usable phrase.

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On the kicap-ness of being

Let us all take a moment to acknowledge our Prime Minister Najib Razak’s treatise on not calling his MIC friends “kicap”.

I found his comments interesting for many reasons, not least for the revelation that Najib is not as smart as I had assumed. For all his flaws, I thought the man had some semblance of intelligence, even if it mostly manifests itself as cunning and shrewdness. However, he seems to have fallen prey to that unfortunate malady that befalls all Malaysian Prime Ministers – foot-in-mouth horror. But as with every blundering politician’s remarks, there is always more to the utterances than what has been overtly stated.

Malaysians typically like to say, even as we acknowledge the realities of the inequalities played out in our daily lives brought about by race and ethnicity, that our jokes about race and ethnicity and skin colour are always just that – jokes. We tend to take refuge in the fact that we have a good sense of humour and have been capable – in the past, but lesser so now as people like to complain – of taking jabs directed at our skin colour/race/ethnicity or whatever without raising a hue and cry and ranting on about “appropriateness”. We pride ourselves on being aware but not foolishly invested in being rabidly politically-correct, like those childish Americans.

Malaysian social and private discourse has thus always been “coloured” (do forgive me) with inappropriate jokes about skin colour, race, and ethnicity. It’s something of a false truism in Malaysia to say that friends can utter these jokes around one another without anyone becoming offended because these jokes were uttered in good faith, in good intentions, and only with a desire to amuse. In fact, it can be said that any sort of negative reactions to these jokes are always-already pre-empted by the declarative statement that these jokes are not meant to offend. If it’s already understood (implicitly or obviously) that these jokes are not meant to offend, then how can anyone take offense? They can’t, not unless they want to be called killjoys or spoilsports or be termed as being “over-sensitive”. It’s a false truism because everyone is taking pains to assure the other that they’re not being offensive while at the same time acknowledging that someone might be taking offense.

As someone who grew up in 1980s Malaysia, I can comfortably say that we existed within a very contradictory framework where sensitivity both reigned supreme and was easily mocked. While the government and powers-that-be consistently reminded us not to bring up “sensitive topics” premised on race, ethnicity, and religion, private and non-official discourse was rife with these jokes. Even in college, Chinese guys would put their arms next to mine and comment on how much darker I was than them. I was meant to laugh – and did. Thanks to my robust Tamilan genes, I was also hairier than them, which they also pointed out with glee. I laughed, too. Weakly. At the time.

 

One of these is not like the other

Most of us Malaysians, I think, have similar stories. What’s interesting is that those who laugh loudest at these jokes, even when it’s being made at their expense, are the ones who remember it differently when recounting the jokes. There seems to be a slight disconnect between the need to laugh at the joke at the time when it is made and the desire to give meaning to it in retrospect. Certainly, in my own experience and from what I’ve learned in discussion with others, this laughter is never truly “pure”. There is always a sense of disturbance underlying it, a sense of rupture, if you will, that compels one to laugh even louder to mask that split. The person who always wants to remember the joke as being “non-offensive and in good fun” is the person who made the joke at another’s expense, or the person at whose expense the joke was made and who doesn’t want to acknowledge that it might have been slightly embarrassing, shameful, or painful at the time.

I am always somewhat suspicious of people who say they don’t mind being insulted because they often insult themselves and their “people”, too. What they don’t seem to acknowledge is the difference in power structures underlying social relations that, yes, colours each insult differently depending on who and where it’s coming from. If we lived in a Care Bears land where everyone was equal (the only form of difference being truly superficial – different pastel colours!), then yes, the “I don’t mind” refrains would seem authentic. As it is, it just seems to be an easy way out for most from thinking about issues that are potentially painful, problematic, and deeply unsettling. In the Lacanian sense, the Malaysian symbolic order rests on this belief that we’re all sensitive-but-not-easily-offended; as Zizek has said, “One should never underestimate the power of appearances. Sometimes, when we inadvertently disturb the appearance, the thing itself behind appearance also falls apart.”

The fiction, as it were, of Malaysians being a generally jovial and egalitarian society falls apart the moment someone refuses to laugh along with a racially-tinged joke, or points out the contradictions and problems behind it. Following Zizek’s conclusion till its end – the Emperor is now naked and we’ve all actually admitted to it.

This brings me back to Najib and his curious statement, which revealed its contradictions even as it tried to mask it. In Kedah, Najib says, it’s not uncommon for dark-skinned Malays to be teased with the term “tohyu”, which means “kicap” (dark soy sauce, in English). Within that cultural context, Najib explains, the term carries no derogatory connotations – presumably because Malay skin, even at its most tan, never approximates the colour of kicap. However, as Najib clarifies, he would never say the same thing to his Indian friends in MIC – presumably because Indian skin can approximate the colour of kicap. Therefore, that joke would be too literal, and no longer symbolic. If someone does actually look like the thing, then the point of the teasing insult is lost – it’s no longer teasing, it’s just an outright insult.

But isn’t that simply an admission that the term “kicap” has its roots in derogatory comparison? As in, between Najib and his friend there is this tacit understanding: I can insult you for having kicap-coloured skin which we both know is untrue – it simply means you’re darker-skinned than the average Malay, which, thank god, is not as dark as Indian skin. But, in the presence of Indian people who are entirely able to look like kicap (or have kicap-coloured skin, at least), then we can’t say it, because it would truly offend, thereby revealing this non-derogatory, non-offensive insult for what it really is – offensive and insulting.

If we take an official stand to condemn racism yet excuse racist terms in private discourse by justifying it within specific “cultural contexts”, how do we know when racism IS racism or simply yet another joke?

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Return of the Picketing Pack

This blog entry is a little late and a little off the usual topics that we write about. Nevertheless I feel that this is an issue that must be highlighted and made aware to the public.

On the 28th of September, the Malay Mail carried the story of Johnny, a two year old dog that was mercilessly shot by the Seremban Municipal Councillors because he was barking incessantly during the Hari Raya season. The barking was brought on by the fire crackers that were lit to celebrate the Raya holiday’s. This dog, which was IN his owners compound and was wearing a license, was shot because he was perceived as a nuisance. Regardless of the fact that his owner, S. Singaravelu, had found him as a pup and brought him up, this dog was treated as a malicious being that needed to be silenced. (To read the whole article click here)

And therein lies the issue, how long can we sit by and watch this form of silencing take place? Are we to blame the dog for performing what is most natural to its being?

We always claim that as human beings, we are superior than animals due to our ability to rationalize and make judgments. Yet, between this showdown involving Municipal Councillors and the dog I wonder, who behaved like an animal?

Its time we started taking a stronger stance on animal rights.

Romanticizing Domestic Abuse

Holy Blue Cheese on a Tuna Cracker, where do I even BEGIN  with Eminem ft Rihanna’s new single “Love the Way you Lie”???

The lyrics, the music video, the fact that Rihanna forgot to wear pants in the video clip, so much to dismantle and growl over!

Okay first let me begin with the song, if you have not heard it, here is the main jist. Man loves woman, woman loves man. However relationship is complex and highly dysfunctional. He cuddles with her whilst another woman’s number is written on his hand. She hates him, no, loves him….no wait I think she hates him…its complicated. They go about their shoddy house throwing each other against walls, shouting and screaming followed by open mouth kisses and lower body thrusting…against the wall. Charming.

My issue: The romanticizing of domestic abuse. Now if you watch the video both man and woman are smacked hard across the face, so its not just a female beating but both parties who are on the receiving end of physical violence. Perhaps the director thought that throwing in a man getting whalloped would even out the obvious bruising on Megan Fox’s face. Oh wait, did I not mention? Yes indeed, Megan Fox is the girl featured in the video, Dominic Monaghan is the tormented beau who appears unwashed in the clip. Remember when I said romanticizing? lets add sexualizing to the list as well. Because, lets be honest, the image that is put forth of Megan Fox by Hollywood media is heavily saturated in sexuality and sensuality.

But back to the violence, both characters are beaten beautifully, yes I mean that. There are closeups of Megan Fox’s marred cheek with her hair tumbling over her face and big blue teary eyes staring alluringly at the camera lens, whilst pantless Rihanna croons in the background that “its alright because I love the way it hurts”…Well of course, pain = love , right? Bloody lip = I adore you, sweetheart. On the other hand, Dominic Monaghan shirtless,well toned and tormented, looks at himself in the mirror before driving his fist into it, whilst Eminem raps that next time he will show restraint and drive his fist into the drywall. Brilliant, THIS is the message that we are sending out to the kids nowadays, the rationalizing and sensationalizing of violence? Because domestic abuse expierenced by both parties is not aestheticly pleasing, it more often than not involves hurt, betrayal, pain and anguish.

There are shots of Dominic slamming his fist into the wall right beside Megan’s head, followed with the next shot of them heavily making out. The idea that violence is a show of affection is a terribly wrong concept that is propagated by such video clips. The scuffles between the couple are caught in such an alluring manner, from the position of their bodies, to the dim, soft lighting within the room. The viewer also gets a sense that these violent scuffles happen on an everyday basis, from the moment that Dom says “here we go again”. But hey, its alright because they really,really love each other(noticed when Megan mouths I Love You whilst tongue wrestling with Merry, eh I mean Dominic).

What terrifies me the most is that  I wonder who listens to these songs? Public radio plays it, and I know that my little cousins who are between 12-16 listen to these popular songs, mouthing lyrics and watching MTV. Is this what we teach the children then? That domestic abuse is part and parcel of a relationship and violence is a concept that is natural between two individuals that love each other? The whole video clip romanticizes the horrors of domestic abuse, and I don’t only mean cases involving women, but men as well. No individual, man or woman has the right to inflict violence upon another, and to watch that allowance on screen, in slow motion, was chilling.

The popularity of both the singers, Rihanna and Eminem also mean that this song is going to reach a large demographic of listeners, and of a specific age. Listeners who might distinguish what the rapper is saying as the truth and apply it in their own reality. The glamourous way that violence is endorsed also means that the surface effect takes place for viewers. When I say surface effect this is what I mean; Eminem’s rapping, because of his social/class background and his struggles, oft times comes from a dark and angry space. He raps about the difficulties that he encounters and the effect proves to be cathartic for him ( based on my interpretations of his songs & interviews). Thus, his music belies a deeper context, its an attempt to purge himself of personal demons ( for example the track Lose Yourself). However, this becomes problematic when listeners or fans only ingest parts that are glamourized by the rappers’ image and songs, such as the brooding, misunderstood artist. They take the surface effect of the song, copying clothing styles, speech, behaviour etc without understanding the deeper issues that gurgle beneath the surface. So back to the music video, whilst Eminem might be rapping about his dysfunctional relationship, the younger viewers might be taken in by the surface effect of the physical violence in the video, as I mentioned earlier, the sensationalizing of it through sexuality, aesthetically- pleasing camera work and hot actors (to name a few). The video had a hit of 71 million viewers, and with comments ranging from

“Wow, best video and song i have seen/heard in a long time. No one can deliver like Eminem and Rihanna and having Dominic and Megan in the video brings it all together. Rihanna makes me wanna catch myself on fire… Eminem is at his best when he sings with passion and this song is so symbolic of love/hate relationships”

to

“leave it to megan fox to make domestic abuse so sexy”

and my personal favourite

“this was My Ex and I’s Relationship to a T!!! I miss u Meli!!!!!”

I think the impact of the music video is highly-superficial and massively disturbing.

The music video ends with the entire house and the two individuals bursting into flames, and that is probably the only section of the song that worked for me, because the whole underlying message within the video should be burned into the ground. Violence begets violence, there is no solution when investing in it, there is no rationalizing of it,  there is no security in it and it is most certainly not a declaration of love within a relationship.

For your viewing pleasure:

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