Sunday, July 19, 2015

When Brown Voices Collide: a Malay-Javanese woman's perspective on West Papua

This article was first 'published' as a personal "Note" on the my personal Facebook account last month. I tried to get feedback from New Zealand based activists and Leftwing/radical bloggers on appropriate platforms for which it can be shared but it seemed to gain little response aside from the empathetic "likes" of my post. I realise also since then, that this article exposed myself as a vulnerable victim-survivor of various social issues and wondered if it would overwhelm readers. So before you do read further please note that my aim at disclosing some of these emotional insights shared are meant to demonstrate the linkages I drew from my subjectivity as a brown, indigenous, often-"othered-as-Asian-migrant" person in Aotearoa New Zealand amidst the various hurdles anyone whose experienced burnout in activism as well as multiple levels of marginalisation by way of gender, race, sexuality, faith, spirituality identity/embodiment, deal with severe mental health issues. I hope my personal accounts will not go to waste, as in doing so, I was primarily aiming to bring fore one brown woman's reality of psychological effects of inter-generational colonisation, to highlight the strands of denial, inabilities/capacities to heal and problematic discourses of having to choose with the "oppressed or oppressor" when attempting to understand other brown people's struggles in the course of decolonisation today. It also hopes to demonstrate how decolonisation is not just a political process but a deeply spiritual exercise as well. -batik, 20th July 2015.

A couple of years ago, I blogged here of how I was in the middle of the UNICEF Headquarters building in New York having a lively discussion with a friend who works there about indigenous self-determination for the people of Singapura, and how it may revive a sense of political consciousness amongst Nusantara (Malay archipelago) natives from Indonesia to Thailand. The spanner in the works was West Papua.

I had not much knowledge nor exposure to what happened then. My life was 24/7 feminist as an NGO worker doing advocacy and lobbying with New Zealand and Australian politicians, pushing for attention on the issues and social service needs of immigrant women victims of trafficking and domestic violence.

Since then, life has slowed down a little. In 2014, I had a mysterious virus flirting within my system and was hospitalised for a week in Melbourne. I got better and was cleared normal. Then a few months later I attempted suicide. When I was clinically diagnosed with depression, I quit my job and decided to take care of myself better. I got some counselling, made time for family, drank tea more than coffee and stayed away from activism for six months.

Staying away from activism was perhaps one of the most difficult things I had to do. In some ways, I feel like I was addicted to it, like I was unhealthily married to it. Once at a conference, I was a panel speaker and when asked what keeps me inspired and motivated to keep going amidst all of the wrongs in the world, I said, injustice. Injustice keeps me going. What a bold thing to say, I thought after that. What a death sentence too, another voice laughed at me inside my head.

So I made a deal with myself. That while I promise to steer away from protests, rallies, political events and trolling on threads online, I will however keep myself aware and write my thoughts out just for myself, not publish it for the world, AND only if and when I feel deeply bothered about the issue so much so that I could not get to sleep.

I slept a little and lot in those six months. But somehow in between the realm of awake and asleep, I was still very much agitated. I saw visions of my grandma from time to time, and then strange dreams of being chased or poled on a spitfire. I guess Muslims call those hellish dreams. My family believed I was going insane, but also had faith that I was battling those long-seeded demons stirring in my head.

My story is not unique. One day I perchanced myself accompanying a guest speaker at a hui addressing a queer and gender diverse youth audience in Auckland. One of the panellists there spoke about their poetry and how they felt a lived reality in their dreams, finding truth and spiritual consciousness through their dream encounters. Much of it, they explained, was to do with their insisting on that world being as tangible and valid as the social scientific rationale, and how much that aided their healing process as an indigenous person today. Of course people thought they were mad. For the first time in a long time I felt deeply touched. I cried quietly in the audience amongst fidgety young people who may or may not truly appreciate the wisdom that existed in the room.

According to psychologists, the demons eating us up, causing us to sleep restless are forms of anxiety, often fuelled by guilt. I would like to agree and have found myself agreeing for the last 20 odd years since I accessed support services for my mental and emotional health concerns. But part of me also believe that there are actual embodiments of unsettled social issues in my consciousness as an indigenous person of colour, that does not get addressed in counselling practices. Yes, I cannot control what happens in the world. Yes, a lot of what happened to me was beyond my control. Yes, I can only change what is within my means. I have to let go of the things that are bad and keep the memories that are good. I can keep living, one day at a time. Everything else, I surrender to Allah.

But I have been feeling uneasy in my body for far too long. This light brown skinned body that was birthed from the womb of a Javanese mother, had Malay blood genealogies scattered and displaced all across Nusantara from Singapura to Madura. My blood drew stories of alim ulamas – religious leaders, as well as tradespeople, poets and storytellers as well as thieves, witches and crooks. The colonized memories linger in my veins of course, through the words of grandparents then later corrected by parents – to the extent that I do not know what is fact and fiction anymore. Oral history can be empowering but also confusing. I guess at some point, I decided to believe whatever I want to, and call it my self-determined knowledge.

In the midst of this romantic excursion of my past, there were also many unsettling stories that revealed some nasty things about these people I call my own. My maternal Javanese grandfather for instance distinguish himself as a Javanese and not a Malay. “Those Malays are always making bad choices,” he would say. My elder uncle would say, “I see so many broken marriages in the Malay community, young Malays just don’t know the sacredness of family life.” There is a sense of self-righteousness that seem to go well with their fairer skin tones, when they speak of the Malay people as a whole. I often find myself conflicted and when I puncture in, “you mean us Malays?”, I can see them dismissing it in their eyes like I’ve missed the point of their monologue. And don’t get me started on my cousins – many are of mixed parentage (Chinese and Malay) and the ones that aren’t are so assimilated in Singaporean Chinese/Japanese/Korean pop culture, that they bear little interest in political affairs, let alone of the indigenous communities in Nusantara countries.

If I can’t talk about the issues that stem from our bodies and genealogies, how do we start to talk about healing as individuals? I know it is often the other way round in western cultures. But for me, having learnt through decolonisation in my political consciousness interrupted/interrupting my personal health and well-being, I realise that my body, my mind and soul can never be fully healed unless I focus my energy into rebuilding relationships amongst the people closest to me. Once I start doing that, I hope to gain support and confidence so that we amongst us that are affected and strengthened in spirit, start extending the same energies with others in our networks. Grassroots they call it? Yeah. This time I’d like to see that happen intimately, quietly and meaningfully in community development, not necessarily in media sensationalised protest stunts.

This is why when someone brings up West Papua, I get stuck. Not because I’m sitting comfortable in my Indonesian ancestral privilege. Not because I’m not aware of the atrocities that are occurring everyday, perpetrated by the Indonesian military. And definitely not because of my complicities as a Muslim, absolving the Indonesian Muslim majority Government’s mission to force convert Melanesian natives into Islam in West Papua. The tragedy of West Papua is trapped in the endless saga of a brutal history of colonialism in the Asia-Pacific. And as much as it would be easier for us to name and shame Indonesia as a colonizer the same way indigenous peoples in Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and Canada have done upon the white majority, I cannot and will not equate the situation of Indonesians in West Papua.

Yes, what they are doing is wrong. Yes, there is no excuse for imperialist violence, and sectarian killings. And indeed there is nothing Islamic about violating non-believers in a situation of non-attack in non self-defence. But if indigenous rights based and Pasifika activists are seeking to challenge the oppressions faced by West Papuans, there needs to be a wider decolonisation strategy in addressing multi-temporal historical colonisations in the Asia-Pacific.

It is recognising that this is not JUST about capitalist agendas and resource exploitation. It is recognising that there is deeply-rooted anti-Islamic, pro-Church propaganda running in the underbelly of certain Asia-Pacific solidarities (the same problematic way might I add in the anti-Semitic approach taken by some Muslims supporting pro-Palestine solidarities). And that all this killing and exploitation is fuelled by unresolved effects of colonisation, beginning from absence of reparations by former colonial empires, and effective grassroots organising work in Nusantara that firmly mobilises indigenous peoples to get to its own political consciousness without the white-washing of the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and parliament sovereign legislation in their individual (and thus divided) nation-states.

To all that have read this and consider me a genuine ally, I would like to extend my solidarity for the plight of West Papua as a disenfranchised indigenous Malay from Singapura of Indonesian heritage. But if I were to jump in on your bandwagon I know that I am only sabotaging the important efforts of self-determination in West Papua and taking no responsibility for the real cause of this systematic violence called colonisation. As you can see we are all victim-survivors of a bigger political problem. And for me that problem needs to be addressed according to multiple strategies. It has to begin with the work that I have to do with my people first in Singapura, and across communities that self-identify as Nusantara. And while it will be quiet, I can promise you it will not be in silence. I hope you know that we have you in our spirit and prayers as we learn to find ways to survive and heal as formerly colonized peoples. One day at a time.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

My decolonized revolution will be spiritually connective and nothing else.

I started getting involved in activism at the age of 16 but my consciousness of injustice, oppression and unfairness started early. At the age of 3, I learnt to shoplift, stealing my first candybar facilitated by my grandmother. At the age of 5 I understood what domestic violence looked like behind closed doors, witnessing the fights between my grandparents and my parents, between my father and my mother and then eventually amongst my parents and me. It should not surprise anyone that I tried to run away from home at the age of 7. I filled up two big rubbish bags with my clothes and toys and books and was ready to make it in the streets of Singapura.

I am now 31 and alive and kicking in New Zealand. Memories like these do not make me an activist but when someone asks me what got you into activism in the first place, it is these memories that flood my mind.  And it is not just me am sure.

Monday, January 19, 2015

My relationship with poetry.

When I was younger living in Singapura, I had to lie to my parents about a lot of things. Like "going to the library" could mean, going on a date with a boy. Or going to watch a N16 movie with some friends. Or going to an all-ages punk gig on a Saturday that starts around 3pm and ends around 7pm. Sometimes I really was at the library. Reading books that I should not be reading. Writing things I should not be thinking.

I am the eldest in my family and while it is established today that I am the black sheep of the family (due to my choice of living in activism and not getting a real job), I also happen to be the most multi-talented over-achiever one amongst my siblings. Throughout my primary school life, I often won some sort of annual Best Prize for English, or Malay, or storytelling, or essay-writing, talent quests, and even sports day events. My parents would stock all my trophies, medals and plaques in the glass china cabinet for people to see when they visit. My younger sister got very jealous and insecure growing up. She probably felt like she was always in my shadow, or worse, that those medals and trophies meant that I was somehow smart(er) or worthi(er) in the family.

But when I was in secondary school, suddenly things changed.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Mellow Yellow 6

Excerpts from Mellow Yellow 6  


"In moving between these situations and societies, I've navigated different types of adaptation and assimilation: assimilation out of respect for local culture and practices, adaptation in order to be understood (eg. learning the language and colloquialisms, also trying to pick up the local non-verbal cues and social norms) and to communicate and observe effectively. This is in order to process my environment in a more involved, responsible, accountable and less disassociated way. These are choices I made autonomously, with agency."  -  Anna Vo

Interview with Omar Musa. By batik.

"This is the point when I quickly grabbed my pen and paper. “You know in Australia.... multiculturalism is seen as this dirty word, like some sorta of fallacy. But I think even before the influx of immigration, there were hundreds of Aboriginal tribes which in itself is multicultural. The problem is when people aim to have this homogenous culture of what is basically determined by white Australians.”

I quip in about the situation in Aotearoa New Zealand, where a lot of tension in discussions around multiculturalism is driven by a fear of multiculturalism as a threat to New Zealand as a bicultural nation that prides in supposedly honouring Pakeha relations with Maori as indigenous peoples. Omar responds “like, sometimes I see in online debates or whatever like people say they're okay with multi-racial but multiculturalism is divisive because Australia needs to be united, there needs to be one united culture...” and that's where his sense of hope and reclaiming multiculturalism as this positive concept stems from. “It's a natural way of society anywhere in the world now.” "

“Are you a Kiwi?”: Asian hitching stories

"Some drivers would randomly start talking about Asian people they’ve met or known. A Welsh guy even praised my people: “you Chinese are excellent bridge-builders!” I can’t remember the context, maybe it was about the ineffectiveness of walls? Especially the great wall? Which came from a conversation about the fall of the Berlin wall? But bridges! We build great bridges at least. I’ve never built one myself, but hit me up if you need a bridge built cos it’s in my blood!"  
When non-Pakeha migrants accept or claim the identity of being ‘Kiwi’, I think it risks reinforcing the ethnocentric divisions made between those that have assimilated to an acceptable degree to those that are marked as foreign and problematic. At the same time, buying into the idea of a homogenous national identity founded and promoted by a colonial settler society means siding with the colonisers by default. When they can make you believe that your identity, a core of the self is connected to this colonial settler nation- state and the dominant culture, it makes it easier to pit ethnic minorities against tangata whenua and divide those with citizenship/permanent residency and those without. I think assimilation into the dominant culture has the tendency to breed complicity in colonial dynamics and border imperialism." -  Bamboo

Adapting assimilation

"I've gone through a whole bunch of feelings about not being able to speak Cantonese. Embarrassment, shame, grief, loss, frustration, anger, grace, understanding, forgiveness. At the
moment I'm feeling pretty generous towards my folks." - Dumpling

Margins and centres of the 'body beautiful'

"Before transitioning hormonally, I'd never seen myself existing in a public story. There are few, if any, representations, Hollywood stars, main characters in books, actors on TV, who are short butch chinese pansexual women." - Dumpling

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sticks and stones are much quicker than words

Trigger/Content warning: physical violence, family violence, ponderings on survivor identity.

When I was at High School, I thought that us Asians got hit with bamboo canes, the Maori and Polynesian kids got hit with electric jug cords and broken chair legs, and the white kids got grounded and Time Out. I thought this was just a cultural thing. Different ethnic groups choice of child disciplinary tool, based on how tough each group was. The Maori and PI's were bigger and the toughest, so they got the harshest hidings. Then us Asians next. Because although we were smaller than the whites, we were much tougher. And then because the whites are the weakest and the softest, they just got grounded, banned from TV or something.

None of this was seen as child abuse until later. At least in my world. Sure it was was when someone's Dad went too far. But too far was hospitalised. Back then it just seemed natural, normal. You knew the deal, knew the consequences. You tried not to get caught, and if you did, you knew what was coming. And if your folks were in the kind of bad mood where they'd belt you one, you tried to keep out of their way. Physical violence was definitely not Real violence (bar a hospital trip), it was sexual violence that was the serious bad thing. We knew about that. Emotional or psychological violence didn't even feature. Spiritual violence wasn't a thing. That was merely your parents being parents.

Monday, September 22, 2014

#UptheAnti: social movements and strategies for smashing oppression

I wrote this earlier this year after some intergenerational political conversations with folks who were involved in feminist movements in the 70s and 80s, but it seems urgent now more than ever with the election results:

At a time when ecologies are on the brink of collapse and more attacks are planned on the soil and the sea, poisoning and polluting the planet; when structural violence means poverty for the many and filthy affluence for a few; when the white supremacist capitalist settler colonial heteropatriarchy sustains structures of power, control and sanctioned abuse including incarceration and murder; when non-human animals are exploited, murdered and tortured on an industrial scale; when everything and everyone that matters are under constant attack - we need to be doing everything we can to strategise to end this shit and build something better.

I know a lot of people on the left put their hopes and faith in the parliamentary process via elections and encouraging people to vote, doing campaign trails etc. And this failed to change the government. I don't need to tell anyone that the next three years is gonna hit people hard, the violence against most people who are not rich white men will continue.

This failure should not lead to a sense of defeat. Like classic neoliberal speak, this is also an "opportunity" to rethink our strategies of struggle. I think there really needs to be a shift away from parliamentary politics and towards more grassroots organising, to build alternatives to really challenge the system at the root and lessen dependency on the colonial settler state on a material level. We need new strategies and to be bold and imaginative as to what we can achieve and do.

I think part of the strategy is for those of us who care about justice and equality to come together - learn from each other - from all our mistakes and successes - and work together. I think there are two types of gaps/divisions that need to be bridged to organise effectively from the grassroots: between movements and between generations. We can't build a mass movement for meaningful social change in our small scattered groups. What we need to build on firstly is our relationships and connections between social movements and have intergenerational dialogues. Sharing of knowledge, strategies, tactics and resources can only strengthen all our 'causes' which essentially have similar roots causes in the naturalisation of social hierarchy and the maximisation of profit.

I know a lot of other people have similar feels. I just want to encourage people to think beyond parliamentary politics and imagine possibilities outside of the settler colonial state, outside of capitalism and outside of oppressive social relations. 

Neo-liberalism and single-issue politics has created a proliferation of different interest groups that work on their own issues - NGOs and grassroots groups here and there that work on specific issues and campaigns, often siloed with few connections to groups working on seemingly separate problems.

There are people/groups that focus on anti-poverty, prisoners' rights, environmental issues, animal rights, university/student-based issues, housing/gentrification, union organising, decolonisation, tino rangatiratanga, queer liberation, gender-based violence, sex worker rights and other feminist issues. There are already some overlaps between these movements, but mostly through the people involved rather than different groups directly working together. Imagine if we got everyone in one space, everyone who is in some form of other involved in grassroots movements of radical resistance, and we focused our energy on taking direct action, empowering our communities to not only fight back and react to National's cuts and attacks but to create models of human existence without all the oppressive bullshit. 

Let's make it happen. Talk don't cook rice.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

I am an indigenous person but I will never call myself Palestinian.

Today was indeed a politically hectic day in Aoteaora New Zealand, especially if you are an activist that cares about both human and non-human animal rights. Protest actions were organised to demand an end to factory farming from about noon, and then the second surge of rallies to highlight the continued injustice and massacre of Palestinians in Gaza right after. It was emotionally, physically and as a Muslim, spiritually draining. I felt like my heart was going to burst but like blocked pipes, I hold, hold, and carry the rage that fuels us to march in mind, body and spirit.

There were three moments that really affected me mostly today. Firstly, I spotted a visibly Muslim woman at the animal rights protest. Yes, okay, she was wearing a hijab and holding a placard saying Stop Factory Farming. It may not matter much to others in the crowd (read: predominantly white, dog-loving activist scene) but for a Muslim vegan whose sense of solidarity is drawn only to an extent by say, 3 - 5 people of colour in the crowd, this was HUGE. I nervously, excitedly and clumsily approached her and asked her name. She saw the farmwatch documentary and that's why she is there. I said okay, that's cool, yeah it's just I am Muslim, and I hardly see or know anyone else who cares about animal issues since I started coming to these things... can we keep in touch, because it does get lonely being the only Muslim sometimes? She said, okay, and are you going to the Palestine one as well, and I was like YES, and she gave me her email and said she only knew about it because her husband told her. I said, oh you look quite young, and she said umm, no, I'm almost 30 my dear. I bit my lower lip and held my tongue.

"It's okay", a friend said to me, "at least she cares."

Then, when the Palestinian rally started, I listened to the politician drones around me interpersonally chit chattering away about the Israeli occupation being about land and natural resources, and not really about religion or racism albeit racism being a by-product of it all. In Arabic-mixed with English, I could make of a few people asking where their sister went. I also saw a person holding a boycott Israel placard while sipping a Starbucks coffee. Yet amidst the cacophony of ironies and hyprocrises, the organisers look determined and serious with the microphones. One of the organisers Nadia was a brilliant speaker, and the line of speakers to me spoke poignantly and powerfully. You could feel the passion. You could also feel the tension.

So when the two Palestinian children stepped to the front and started reading their speeches off their tiny flashcards, addressing a crowd of what looks like at least 500 people at Aotea Square, I broke. I wasn't the only one. I saw two guys in the front with tears streaming down their cheeks. The first one goes, the killing needs to stop. She goes, I am going to save my pocket money and donate it to the children in Gaza to save them. She goes, we thank you for your feelings but what we need now is action. My God, the truth.

As we march and shouted, chanted to fight back, exclaiming things like, Shame to US and Israel, and Charging them with Genocide, and Occupation will die, and long live Palestine, I had a moment when I spotted a placard which wrote, "This is Not About Religion. It's about Humanity" and recalled the conversations, feelings and actions I have yet to have with my people in Singapura. I felt like maybe it is time to throw in the towel. Maybe this is where I belong as a person of colour deemed and self-identifiably a Young Asian Feminist in Aotearoa, marching along, doing my bit to support and act in solidarity with tangata whenua and the struggles of indigenous peoples globally like in Palestine, whose experiences of colonisation is present today and ongoing and killing literally its people, including women and children, one by one, by ten, by hundred, by thousands. I mean, why should I bother with the Malays in Singapura. Even they themselves do not care. They told me, many times - it's too late for us.  They seem to be willing to accept and submit to their own silent death as an indigenous people, being ethnically cleansed through sinocentric-capitalism and duped by narratives of being saved through Islam. When I remarked how amazing Malays in Singapura  have suddenly become political about Gaza, someone replied back, "It is not about religion, it is about humanity." My mind wanders back to here in Auckland. Let it be hashtagged. Let this protest continue.

But then Roger Fowler started singing. The emcee goes, "with the song, We are all Palestinians now." I thought I heard it wrong. I looked quizzingly at the other YAFA members. No that's the song, they said and cringed with me. I don't understand, I said. I started looking around and many were mainly looking to go home probably to start resting and preparing for iftar. I peered through the segregating crowd. The song was chirpy, merry, country. I saw Roger singing smiling, red in the face. I don't understand.

I am an indigenous person whose land has been occupied whose people have been penalised for existing, but I will never call myself Palestinian, I wanted to say. I am Muslim, but I will never know the level of injustice, discrimination and violence faced by Arab Muslims fighting for their survival for centuries until today. I will never know how it feels like to knowingly witness and watch with an entire world the purposive manslaughter of my own people every single day. I will never know based on my history and genealogy, the effects of having an entire people destroyed city by city until the only city left to make a home for our children feels like one where we are forced to pay rent, and feel constantly hounded by landlords whom were never lords of our land to begin with. I will never know how it feels to have to flee from generations of occupation and imperialist wars my ancestors and predecessors died through because of centuries of zionism that were institutionally built with propaganda machines and weaponry in the West to maintain and sustain the oppression of my people. I will never know. I will never understand. I will never call myself Palestinian.

So how is it that this one person can?

It is very hard to organise, let alone mobilise, people to care about any particular issue that is beyond their day to day cause or cycle. You need allies. And importantly when you are the minority or oppressed group concerned, you need to be how should I best put it, "not so choosy or fussy" in how you select your allies. Because you do know that your allies are predominantly people with some level of power. Maybe they are not the bourgeoisie, but they would then be socialists with white male privilege. And of course 99% of the time if you are in a white settler nation, they will turn out to be, well, white. And you need them to assist you in your discovery and mission. That I understand unfortunately, very well.

But like Frantz Fanon once wrote, “When people like me, they like me "in spite of my color." When they dislike me; they point out that it isn't because of my color. Either way, I am locked in to the infernal circle.” Complicities are tricky. One minute we are hollering out at our government on New Zealand's complicity in not imposing pressure on the Israeli nation-state and its allies within the international community on the situation in Gaza. Next minute we are standing beside an old, white man singing about our oppression. Yes, this is not about religion. It is about humanity. But humanity is diverse and interlinked and complicit in each other's survival and struggle, not just in the hands of Governments, and Big Brotherhoods. We are amongst it. Let us not pretend that we are all Palestinians now.

YAFA (Young Asian Feminists Aotearoa) bloc at solidarity with Gaza protest 26 July 2014. I'm the one with the Fuck Zionism sign.