Monday, December 13, 2010

Notes on Farish Noor's lecture on megaprojects

I couldn't get online during the lecture, so I wasn't able to live-tweet it. So I'm sharing my notes to get this info out of my head. The notes are incomplete and I hope to hammer them into better shape with a bit of help from my friends (yes, you!).

Lecture is less a history of megaprojects in Malaysia, more a history of urban planning in Southeast Asia.

Premise: we do not make history we are history.
That is, we are a product of historical moments which are in turn products of earlier historical moments.

Premise: Malaysia's current historical moment belongs to the larger historical moment of the region. The history of malaysia cannot be understood in isolation.
If so, it is true that many things in the past continue to exert their influence on us.

We've replaced traditional construction with the megaproject.

Chandra Muzaffar's book
Current paradigm on development makes no sense from a rationalist perspective, but it makes sense from a neo-feudal one.

Ancient notions of power came from the blurring of political power and sacred power

Burma to java, there was never a popular history of country because people did not matter
Histories consisted of a record of the royal lineage (e.g. Glass Palace Chronicles of the Kings of Burma).

Power is sacred and the embodiment of this were god-kings.

Kingdoms were always on the verge of bankruptcy because they had to constantly wage war to fund megaprojects.

Sacred architecture emphasises social distance.
Highly structured universe embodied in concrete form to suggest permanence.
Need for huge areas of space to emphasise distance.

Sacred architecture is architecture of power (that is, threat of violence).

Current sentiment dates back to the when local religions were adapting Christian styles from missionaries.

Sacred symbols normalize power.

Power comes from the earth, that's why palaces are low-standing structures and the king's quarters are on the ground floor.

17C onwards, SEA encounter with modernity changes everything (again).

It should be said, waves of colonialism did not all have the same effect.

2nd wave no longer missionaries, but company men concerned with purely commercial enterprises. Urban landscape based on ordered universe driven by capitalism. It undermined sacred power by building new monuments. Ushered in modern contract-based society.

Colonial race relations: keep people apart and productive.

Late colonial arch was anglo-moorish, style inspired by India and late Orientalist styles. At its time, as novel as karaoke. grafting of the pre-colonial power to colonial structures.

In post-colonial environment, new urban spaces a mix of traditional and modern elements. 

Don't forget, malaysia and singapore independent at the peak of cold war. The historical moment was very different from Burma's and Indonesia's independence.

Was the rejection of the malayan union a reassertion of feudal power over colonial power and a return to the sacred/profane formula?
The role of race in power
Look up capitalism as civil religion

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The personal life of information

There's a lot of bad information out there. The recipe for napalm. Grooming techniques. Vomit porn. All things I would rather not know about. Bad might be a characteristic of the information; the info lets you do bad things. Sometimes, bad information is incomplete information. To make an informed decision to buy a house or to send a child to a school or to vote, we need information on the options. If we don't have enough information, we might choose not to choose until a better option comes along.

If bad information is incomplete information, then complete information is good information. Take child sexual abuse, to act on a case of child sexual abuse, you need a sense of the big picture. With enough information, an adult can handle a disclosure from a child. That means, an adult is prepared for a child to speak to him about surviving an incident of sexual abuse. Perhaps we can say that good information is also actionable information, information where it becomes possible to take action.

I keep returning to Najib's speech at the Malaysian Press Awards 2009, where he said, "We need world-class, fact-based reporting in Malaysia. The media must be fair and responsible in your reporting. It is crucial if we are to foster a constructive debate about our nation's future." The kind of reporting Najib's talking about let's us take action and it's odd that, in taking the media to task, he doesn't use the word "freedom."

The role of freedom is in groping towards good information. We move towards a complete understanding of the stuff we care about, but we may never arrive at a complete understanding. Where do you get information? Some info is harder to get than other info. If you go deep enough into any issue, the problem of access arises. People ask questions like, why do you need this information? and what do you do again? You may not be in a position to get the whole story. Access affects the completeness of information. Regulation affects access, case in point, Sonia Randhawa wrote: 

"I've lived in two countries (Australia and the UK) where porn wasn't banned but regulated, and one country (Malaysia) where it's banned. It's in Malaysia that I've had the most porn, literally, thrust in my face. Primarily by VCD sellers. But before that, by video sellers and distributors. And I'm sure that there were others before my time. In the other countries, I could avoid it, I knew where it was. Or, of course, I could seek it out if I wanted to. In Malaysia, because it's unregulated, I don't really have that choice. And then there's the problems with the definitions of porn. Because the Little Napoleon's that our former PM complained about, take it upon themselves to include books on breast-feeding as porn. And books on mutual sexual satisfaction are often considered pornographic."

What comes across is that taboos that are banned end up getting regulated anyway, and poorly. Or rather, as the economist Nils Gilman observes, in addressing the demand of illicit goods, not the supply, informal regulation springs up. Gilman talks about the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who observed that "societies are to a large extent... made up of and defined by their taboos." "That is, by what they prohibit either morally or in the case of modern societies, legally." That's true, right? The limits of behavior corresponds to what is not permissible. It is OK to buy a car, it is not OK to buy sex. It is OK to talk about Rosmah, it is not OK to talk about Altantuya. 

It is easy to get bad information. It is not easy to get good information; not everyone can see a classified report. Good information is subjective. The information you need to act is different from the information I need. The avocado has to be firm to the touch, not too soft, for instance. I don't have a car, so if I meet up with friends I make sure it's convenient for me. Good information has to be prepared. I don't understand a balance of payments sheet, but my colleague Suresh does. If Suresh understands balance of payments, I could ask him a series of questions. After that, I too will be able to read a balance of payments. I can even explain it to someone else.

We need to improve access to good information. I propose we change the operative meaning of democracy to David Mamet's: "That the individual is free to embrace or reject, praise or abominate any political position---that in this he is accountable to no one and need never, in fact, articulate his reasons or defend his choice." 

The story of teacher Shamsukal Abu Bakar, who gave a seditious thesis to his students, is informative. The thesis was, "Justice is eroding and lacking in the judiciary system of Malaysia." What if every student in the Form 2 class had disagreed? Would the question have still been seditious? By making a certain reading explicit, it makes other readings implicit. In the Sedition Act itself, it is seditious "to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility" among "different races or classes," but what about within a race or class?

The challenge becomes turning the bad information into the good. None of us can do this alone. We have to do this as a society, using every trick in the book. In our history, there was no such thing as a sit-in. It says something that the most successful grassroots organization in Malaysia is UMNO. It's a victory that many peoples' lives are not touched at all by human rights. And yet I cannot be grateful enough of walking into my kitchen and eating a piece of toast. I have to constantly check my apathy. One day, a child says, "Why are Malays special?" The next day, society has broken down, frogs tumble from the sky, mother holds the prone child covered in blood. "See? You should have listened to me!" she wails. Wong Chin Huat observes, politics has been successfully amputated from everyday life. We need to re-attach it.

With enough information, we can take action. What about on the level of society? As individuals, we're powerful, because we make decisions as individuals. Because we must always always exercise the power to refuse our consent. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored.” Direct Action is ultimately about access to information. It's about fostering discussion. Good info is process and we need to sharpen our wits to keep it good.

What is true is not always good and beautiful. I would like to think that if we shared enough, our suffering would be less. My greatest fear is everything I touch will turn to shit. Hot, stinking shit with bits of corn. I leave you with another bit of Mametian wisdom: 
And the Devil finally says to Bobby Gould, "You're a very bad man." And Bobby Gould says, "Nothing's black and white." And the Devil says, "Nothing's black and white, nothing's black and white--what about a panda? What about a panda, you dumb fuck! What about a fucking panda!"

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Testing out titles and designs for a book

Instead, Ferriss decided to look for some data. He took 6 prospective titles that everyone could live with:  including ‘Broadband and White Sand’, ‘Millionaire Chameleon’ and ‘The 4-Hour Workweek’ and developed an Google Adwords campaign for each.  He bid on keywords related to the book’s content including ‘401k’ and ‘language learning’: when those keywords formed part of someone’s search on Google the prospective title popped up as a headline and the advertisement text would be the subtitle.  Ferriss was interested to see which of the sponsored links would be clicked on most, knowing that he needed his title to compete with over 200,000 books published in the US each year.  At the end of the week, for less than $200 he knew that “The 4-Hour Workweek” had the best click-through rate by far and he went with that title.

His experimentation didn’t stop there, he decided to test various covers by printing them on high quality paper and placing them on existing similar sized books in the new non-fiction rack at Borders, Palo Alto.  He sat with a coffee and observed, learning which cover really was most appealing.

A short study on how the best-selling author Tim Feriss tested out different titles and designs for his book The 4-Hour Workweek. (via

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ops Bilang draft intro

My greatest fear is that everything I've accomplished will turn out to be shit.

I imagine I am like King Midas, except everything turns not to gold, but to shit. 

King Midas was the Greek king who boasted that he was richer than the gods. The gods cursed Midas to turn to gold everything he touched. At first it wasn't so bad, but then he sits down to eat and the leg of chicken turned to solid gold. He drinks his beer, but it's frozen into gold at the bottom of his tankard. He goes to hug his daughter and she turns to gold too. He begs the gods to lift the curse, he's learned his lesson, which they do.

The story of Midas is instructive. It was gold to demonstrate that material wealth cannot replace simple pleasures. It is the many textures of life, not a scale of comparison, that give it richness.

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Friday, September 03, 2010

Here's how I broke my arrest cherry

The Anti-ISA candlelight vigil on Sunday, August 1, 2010, was supposed to take place on the padang at Dataran Petaling Jaya. The police blocked access to the field and told the crowd to disperse. The organizers tried to negotiate with the police, but, after several warnings to disperse, the riot police moved in, arresting several people, and they pushed us into Amcorp Mall. officials

In the process, the police tried to arrest the mother of two children. Syed Ibrahim, the head of Genmansuhkan ISA, and other protesters put up some resistance to this arrest; she needed to take care of her kids. Syed was arrested in the process.

I was keeping away from the fray, walking in and out of the protesters and police. The parking lot was a no man's land behind the police line, consisting of lawyers, journalists, photographers, the SUHAKAM officials and innocent bystanders. Lawyers would call out to the detainees as they were being lead to the police vans. My friend Yuhan was getting lead away by police officers. His shirt was torn, but he was OK.

Someone had lowered the shutters to the Amcorp Mall entrance. At the demarcation, I suppose, between public and private property, the riot police had fortified their position. 

The protesters made a push to break the police line, but the coordinators were quickly arrested. They had been leading the protest, walked straight into the police line. The police let them walk through—they made way. When a few coordinators realized that the police wouldn't let them go, they started screaming. The crowd backed away from the police line. In the confusion, my friends Mien and Thilaga got arrested, for apparently no reason. As Thilaga was taken away, I asked her what she had done to get arrested. As I was doing so, the police grabbed me.

They took me to a van where they were holding the male protesters. I knew one of the coordinators, so I felt relatively calm. I was never really alone with myself throughout the whole process and at one point, later in the night, I took out my book and read a review of several Proust biographies. I shared this quote, by a Proust scholar, with a few other detainees: 

"The only true voyage, the only Fountain of Youth, would be found not in traveling to strange lands but in having different eyes, in seeing the universe with the eyes of another person, of a hundred others, and seeing the hundred universes each of them sees, which each of them is."

The van brought us to the police station where we joined the other male detainees, including Syed Ibrahim. There were sixteen of us in the police van, where we spent about half an hour. An inspector, an Indian lady, asked for our ID, but a coordinator insisted that we be read our charge before we give them any identification.

The police detained a few more people outside the police station, for reasons unknown. They handcuffed a few of us for a short while, to make room for the new detainees, and made us stand outside the van. The van was hot, and the holding area outside the van had ceiling fans and fluorescent lights—more comfortable, in relative terms. They had the other male and female detainees join us in this holding area. We collectively became a hell of a lot more cheerful, in the company of our fellow detainees, sneaking thumbs up and smiles from across the crowd (or maybe this was just me). Half an hour after arriving at the station, the lawyers started arriving. One of them was a cute girl in a MyConsti T-shirt, but I didn't get her name or number. I got Nalini and Puspa to autograph their Blue Chili Awards pages. Puspa wrote, "Anti-ISA forever," at my request. The SB was videotaping us the whole time. 

The toilets were filthy. I am not a toilet connoisseur but they had not been cleaned in years.

The night was a waiting game for the police to get round to it.  The coordinator had already briefed us about giving our statements, so we knew what to expect. It was an opportunity to get to know the other detainees better. One of them gave me some background on the organizational structure of the police. I was able to supplement his information with a browse around the offices when we were made to wait. For instance, this particular branch has only four officers on the team that investigates break-ins.

When the police finally got around to taking our statements. I was taken to a sad-looking office with water damage in the ceiling, an old printer chucked onto a pile of folders, and black and white poster of a Norman Rockwell print (I think) on the wall. The room was partitioned by a shelf that looked as if there was a toilet or a basin behind it.

My lawyer, Meor, took me through the procedure a few times. My response to all the questions were, "I will give my statement in court." But I tried to keep the mood light by giving different emphases. 

I. Will. Give. My statement. In. Court.

I Will. Give. My. Statement. In court.

I will give. My statement. In court.

I. Will give my. Statement. In. court.

They took our mug shots and we weren't fingerprinted. After some more waiting, the police were ready to release us. The police were allowing only one bailer per detainee. 

After we were released, I hung around till everyone was released, talking with the crowd outside the station. It was over 30 people, many people who I didn't know. The Sun was delivered as we were waiting and I was able to read a piece on the very protest.

I got a ride home from a friend who had been arrested outside the police station. He had just been smoking a cigarette when an officer came up to him and said, "I saw you at the protest, and I wanted to arrest you!" Sadly, the officer's wish came true. 

The night is exemplified for me by one incident. As I was waiting for an officer to photocopy my IC and bail slip, the officer couldn't figure out the photocopier. A second officer entered and the two officers tried to figure out the photocopier. At one point, four officers were trying to solve the photocopier. Photocopiers are no joke, as we all know. But the fact that none of them had ever been asked to make a photocopy until 5AM on August 2nd was absurd and I suddenly felt very sad. 

Throughout the incident, I tried to see the police with different eyes, but the incident made it obvious to me that the police are not tasked to "serve and protect," not to make people feel safe, but to follow orders. When following orders becomes a matter of survival, I too know I'll fail to see I have a choice.

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Thursday, August 05, 2010

"The Prick of Political Imagination"

Law is about sovereignty, not justice.

Again and again, I keep returning to L. Timmel Duchamp's essay on fictionalizing her own detainment.

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Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Robert Glück on New Narrative

How to be a theory-based writer?—one question. How to represent my experience as a gay man?—another question just as pressing. These questions lead to readers and communities almost completely ignorant of each other. Too fragmented for a gay audience? Too much sex and "voice" for a literary audience? I embodied these incommensurates so I had to ask this question: How can I convey urgent social meanings while opening or subverting the possibilities of meaning itself?

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