Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Soka Gakkai Malaysia & Month of Peace

As retirees we attend lectures and special events to meet people and connect with the community. As expats we also seek to learn more about the country, its people, and culture. So we didn't hesitate when a friend invited us to Soka Gakkai Malaysia (SMG) celebration of September as "The Month of Peace." (SMG is a grassroots Buddhist organization focused on peace, culture, and education.) The month included a lecture on "Women and Peace" and an exhibition of Malaysian women artists.

Azizan Baharuddin is the Director of the Centre for Civilisation Dialogue (University of Malaya). Her lecture could have been titled "Peace - The need to learn, unlearn, and relearn."  An implied theme was "I am a Muslim woman who writes about Islam addressing a Buddhist group." In Malaysia religion is never far from the surface, and everyone (including us) has an opinion as to how it affects personal relations and politics. For example, to avoid charges of proselytizing church or temple program announcements may state "For non-Muslims only." Dr. Aziran criticized the widespread fear of interacting with others; she gave the example of chiding colleagues who were reluctant to speak with "saffron-robed" monks.

Throughout the evening Dr. Aziran  presented herself as a woman of faith, who respects and interacts with people from other faiths and non-believers. She noted her own freedom to come and go and meet with whomever she pleases. Her message about peace?  To bring about and sustain peace people across religions and cultures should share beliefs. Included in this sharing is acknowledging the contributions and insights of science. As for the learning, unlearning and relearning? The audience members may have left with a  more nuanced understanding of how Muslim women may view their faith and their interactions with non-Muslims.

Years ago after hearing Bell Hooks speak a comment said that she was a woman that you would like to sit down and have coffee with. The same could be said about Dr. Azizan - a warm woman who makes her considerable thinking and insights accessible.

 Before going to the lecture we stopped to see the exhibit of Malaysian women artists. Here are some of our favorites.

Lee Moh See: Harbor

Ho Mi Mi: Blooming Scene I

Tan Pek Cheng: Peace & Harmony

Jasmine Kok Lee Fong: Lily Pond

Friday, September 16, 2011

Another Day….Another Festival/Holiday

Last Saturday (September 10) we went to a celebration of the Mid-Autumn festival with a lantern parade. The celebration we went to was sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism

and was held outside of Pasar Seni (the old central market in Chinatown). We knew the festival was close at hand when every marketplace (Starbucks included) was selling Moon Cakes. A Chinese baked good traditionally filled with lotus bean paste and single or double salted egg yokes (don’t try to bring the versions containing the eggs back to the US/Australia as they will be confiscated at the border). They taste good and disappear immediately following the festival. (Aside, what is great is they are made with no preservatives.)

Hundreds of chairs were set out with gift bags for the invited guests.
Guest included the Minister of Tourism and the Prime Minister and his wife. Entertainment was provided to warm up the audience. It included a Michael Jacksonesque singer (who would not make the cut for a lounge act in Las Vegas).

In the parking lot were carnival booths.

They were aimed at small children with parents attempting to retrieve stuffed dolls, ducks, tigers, etc. No money was exchanged as newspaper coupons were used. The line got long as the night wore on. In another section of the parking lot trucks were disgorging 8 Chinese lions for the lion dancers who led the parade later in the evening. Large drums were unloaded and people began to practice their drumming rhythms.

Since the start of the event was several hours away, we decided to do some shopping as the Pasar Seni was close at hand. I purchased two shirts (light weight cotton material). Around 7 PM eating became imperative. We went to the Hong Key claypot street restaurant off Jalan Petaling.

We were relatively early and were placed near a fan. We ordered our meal, claypot chicken rice, eggplant, limau eis, and a beer. Meanwhile we began to talk to two people at an adjacent table. They were both originally from Penang. Our food arrived, and then to our surprise the woman at the adjacent table gave us a small portion of their fish dish (Portugese style sting ray) and it was both spicy and delicious. The claypot chicken arrived in hot claypots. We needed to constantly stir the contents to keep it from scorching on the bottom. Because this version had plenty of Chinese pork sausage, it was wonderful. The spicing came from the sausage. Total cost was less than RM 40 including beverages.

It was dark (here in Kuala Lumpur the balance between daylight and night time is relatively equal year round). Back at the Pasar Seni parking lot, dignitaries were arriving. The Tourism Minister spoke briefly, and the Prime Minister came up to the stage, but gave no speech. The group of dignitaries gathered on the stage and sang the 1Malaysia theme song. 1Malaysia is a government initiative focused on “racial harmony” and a united Malaysia. Arial fireworks went off, with the LRT trains passing by in the background.

The Lion Dancers began their performance. They are truly amazing. Two people manage to make the costumes come alive. Each animal has a personality.

With 8 of them it was a great sight. Meanwhile people went through the crowd distributing gift bags containing paper lanterns, candles, matches, snacks, water, electric lighter wand, and a Malaysian Flag. (A trivia question: what two flags contain 13 red and white stripes.) We lit our lanterns and walked over to an area where children were lighting candles on the ground.

The parade was led by the Lion Dancers, the drummers, and a troupe of people following with their lanterns.

At this point we departed.

Next holiday: Malaysia Day.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Project in Progress - SHout Campaign

SHout's (Sexual Harassment Out) objectives are to: create awareness of sexual harassment and have specific laws against sexual harassment. Since I have researched collaborations among Malaysian NGOs, the plan was for me to document the campaign. My role has evolved; retired people can fill in the gaps while others work (for pay).

A press conference was set for September 9 at 11. By the 6th I probably said - "too much to do and too little time." Wiser heads pointed out the need to go ahead to assure ownership of the issue and get parliament's attention. The press release went out on the 7th and follow up calls on the 8th. On the 9th at 11:00 the meeting room was filled almost entirely with NGO members; by 11:15 a healthy contingent of the press had arrived. On the afternoon The Star had published an article. Lessons learned (1) the leadership's experience and political wisdom (wisely) trumped snap decisions, (2) just-in time may be SOP in Malaysia.

SHout is a joint action of 11 groups
: All Women's Action Society, Assoc. of Women Lawyers, Bar Council Human Rights Committee, Empower, Malaysian Women Tourist Guides Assoc., Persatuan Sahabat Wanita, PT Foundation, Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall Women's Section, Sisters in Islam, Women's Aid Organization, Women's Centre for Change.

The press conference
had: a power point presentation on the history of advocacy for sexual harassment legislation in Malaysia, short comments by the participating organizations, and an announcement of a logo contest. Among the highlights: the proposed legislation is gender-neutral; a need to recognize the harassment experience by sex workers, the transgendered community, and women who work under "close supervision" and "in isolated situations;" need expand beyond the work place to include to harassment in public spaces. The press conference ended with a photo op - the members shouting out "Shout Out sexual harassment!"

My role continues to evolve. I plan to learn more about Egypt's anti-sexual harassment campaign and the details of Harassmap (

Monday, September 5, 2011

Retirement Life - A project completed

Soon after arriving in Kuala Lumpur I approached NGOs that I had interviewed in 2008 and asked about volunteering. My first project was to gather information on gender-based policies in South Africa, Kenya, Indonesia and India. Today I finished an essay pulling the information together.

Despite the limitations of my expertise, relying on Google, and on-line availability of information, I learned a lot. I was introduced to CEDAW (UN Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) and its impact - countries have paid attention.

So not to bore you with all I learned here are a few observations and resources.

1. All the constitutions prohibited discrimination based on gender. Kenya & South Africa also include pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, color, age, disability, conscience, belief, culture, language. South Africa was the first constitution in the world to include sexual orientation.

2. Indian critics of a proposed amendment requiring gender quotas asked: Who would benefit? Would it diminish Muslim or Dalit representation? Would the women candidates be related to powerful men? How does reserving seats for women address inequities associated with caste, religion, and ethnicity? On the other hand India  requires gender and tribal quotas for rural governing bodies: a NGO had a 5 year program to train elected women.

3. On employment - the lack of protections for domestic workers is unnerving. South Africa has enacted a Domestic Worker's Act, not perfect but far better than the lack of similar policies elsewhere.

4. On family law: a hugely complex area. Each country has policies that accommodate the laws of religious communities and ethnic groups. A valuable resource is Sex Equality in Family Law: Historical Legacies, Feminist Activism and Religious Power in 70 Countries.”

5. On gender identity: Policies are evolving; currently outside of South Africa gay, lesbian, and transgendered persons do not have guaranteed rights or protections. A valuable resource is an article linking the Yogyakarta Principles to human rights law.

6. On refugees: For me reading the number of refugees in Kenya (over 400,000) has a greater impact than pictures. I came across an article that suggests refugee policies have a gender bias - still have to read it.

This was a good retirement project for me - it certainly charged my brain cells and the group I have been working with have made us feel like Malaysia is our second home.