Saturday, May 11, 2013

Remembering the Decency in a Race - Thanks to Bollywood's Lagan


I’m in a foul mood. You could say that I am at my bigoted worst. It all started with a boo-boo by the restaurant. We served a customer his main course while he was still on his starters. He wasn’t happy and his remark to me was, “You got to be joking – this isn’t the hawker centre!”

Unfortunately for both of us, this customer happened to be a Caucasian (French, I believe.) So, when he said what he did – something inside me snapped (I have the reverse Pinkerton Syndrome). However, he was the customer and since Thuy is back in my life – I bit my lip and resolved the issue. My poor colleagues got an earful of what I thought of the said customer’s ethnicity in the few Chinese dialects that I can curse in.

I was pretty offended but pulled through. Then two of my colleagues on the service team had a run in with the French kitchen help. Apparently this kitchen helper forgot his place in the scheme of things and thought it was OK to have a minor temper tantrum in the hope of intimidating them. It took self-control not to make an issue of it and the restaurant manager told me that the said Kitchen Helper is protected by the restaurant owner. Didn’t help my mood.

Anyway, I’ve placed my heart on my Facebook status and decided to listen to music on Youtube and then I decided to watch the last few moments of one of my favourite Hindi Movies – “Lagan,” which stars Amir Khan.

The story line of the movie is simple. The dastardly British in British India have decided to screw the poor Indian villagers, who are struggling to make ends meet because the monsoons have not arrived. The Brits make a bet with the villagers – if they can beat them in a game of cricket, they will have their taxes erased. However, if the villagers lose (which was the most likely outcome), their taxes would be tripled. The climax of the movie is of course – the cricket game, which against all odds, the villagers win.

This movie or at least the last twenty minutes were exactly what I needed. Let’s face it, I am by instinct, an anti-colonial. When I was young, I used to cheer for the Japanese side whenever they showed documentaries on the “Fall of Singapore.” There was always something very appealing about watching the White Boys get marched into POW camps (hey – you never hear little Yellow people talk about it being good for you when they do it – it’s a different story when the White man does it). When it came to the Vietnam War, I would always feel very excited whenever the little Yellow People in black pajamas took the US army.

Mum and I think most of my family have NEVER understood this hidden aspect about me. Every time my poor mother suggest that it might be time for me to join a multi-national PR agency, I shudder – there’s something repulsive in the idea that I only become a respectable person if my livelihood is dependent on someone taking orders from New York or London. I know I’ve suffered for it financially but the work I’m proudest of is whenever I’ve been in opposition as a one-man show to a big multinational agency run by some Pink Blotchy in London or New York.

Having said that, I have Caucasian family and friends whom I love dearly. One of my best friends asked if I missed London and my reply was and remains, “I don’t miss London – I miss you.” Having said everything that I’ve just said, my short f&b career, which runs alongside my media relations one, has been by most accounts fairly successful because I’ve managed to develop a good relationship with Caucasian customers (helps that I speak English and German)

I like to think that the few success I’ve enjoyed in life have come from an ability to see people as people rather than as a particular ethnicity or religion.

However, tonight wasn’t really one of those nights where I was in the frame of mind to see people for what they are. I was seeing things through ethnic lenses and I guess I felt angry.

Anyway, Lagan on a superficial basis, is a wonderful movie if you’re in the mood to watch Pink Blotchies get their just deserts. The Dastardly British tried to screw poor people and received justice.

However, if you look at it at a deeper level, the movie provides you with a wonderful platform to remember a decency of a people.

The two characters in this unfolding drama who remind you about the decency of the British people are the sister of the villain (who falls for the hero, played by Amir Khan) and the umpires of the final cricket game.
What both show very clearly is that very British characteristic of believing in fairness. 

You could argue that the sister is doing what she does because she wants to be with the hero. However, she’s also motivated by a sense of fairness. She goes out of her way to teach the villagers the basics of cricket – so making sure that they know what they’re doing at the end. She’s a decent woman who tries to do what is right. Her heart guides to see people beyond ethnicity or social status.

This is seen most clearly at the end of the movie when the British Garrison is dissolved and the troops are leaving. She steps out of her carriage and offers to touch the feet of the hero’s mother (unheard of in 1893 when the movie is set), embraces the girl (her rival in love) and speaks a smattering of Hindi (which is more than what most modern Brits can do). Her love is unconditional and it brings her to take risk to ensure that there is fairness in the equation.

The umpires in the final cricket game would, under normal circumstances, be uninteresting and unimportant. They are nothing more than cricket umpires. However, the fact that they remain cricket umpires despite the political undertones of the game, makes them exceedingly important.

They are fair to a fault. They make the most crucial decision towards the end of the game, namely to rule that there was a “no ball” – hence the hero and his batting companion remain in the game for the final ball. When the British protest, the umpires reply is, “It’s a no ball and I’m not discussing this any further, SIR.” The Umpire remains emotionless and signals that the hero has a hit a six (thus winning the game for the villagers) without a hint of emotion.

Although it’s an Indian movie depicting the Brits at their worst, Lagan managed to remind me of the decency of a people who, on the whole were kind to me. After watching the scene several times, I remembered that I was better than my own prejudices.

Say what you like about Bollywood but there are moments when the often simplistic storylines have a way of making you remember the good things in life. Towards the end, I felt less angry with the world and grateful for the friends and family that have touched my life. 

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Two General Elections

Malaysia has just finished its General Election. Like the election in Singapore two-years ago, there was plenty of euphoria and hope that things would change. Like its Singapore counterpart, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition held onto power but with its “worst-ever” election result. Like his Singapore counterpart, Malaysia’s Prime Minister had to acknowledge that despite his victory, he had received a proverbial slapping.

Things as they say, are getting interesting in the politics of Southeast Asian countries. There was a time when politics in Southeast Asia was boringly predictable. Western commentators went as far as describing ASEAN, the regional body, as a cozy dictators club. To a certain extent it was. The rulers of the various Southeast Asian Nations ruled for so long that they became synonymous with their countries. Mahathir was Malaysia as much as Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore and Suharto was Indonesia.

ASEAN’s strongmen attributed their longevity to things like culture and values (Asian culture instils a desire for strong leadership) and most importantly spectacular economic success. Singapore’s success story is so well known that it gave Lee Kuan Yew a nearly two-decade career as a “must-have” speaker to countries wanting to go from the Dark Ages into the Space Age in less than a decade. While Singapore’s development story takes the front pages, the rest of the region also saw economic growth that raised millions out of poverty. So, given the economic growth and the spectacular raise in wealth of the people, why have people in Southeast Asia become so angry with the systems that have brought them so much?

Well, the most logical place to start, would be with the 1997 economic crisis. People across the region found that the hot air lifting the balloon of economies was just that – hot air. The biggest casualty of the regional crisis was Suharto, the strongest man in the biggest country in the region. Mr Suharto, a former army general who had ruled as a Javanese emperor for 30 over years was ousted by student protest (children of the middle class he had helped create).

As many have pointed out – people were tolerant of abuses and corruption from the top as long as they were getting richer. When the economy collapsed, the poor and the newly created poor (formerly known as the Middle Class) would not tolerate wide-scale corruption amongst the elite.

Neither Singapore nor Malaysia have seen the type of collapse that happened to Indonesia. The conditions in Malaysia and Singapore are far milder than what hit Indonesia in 1997, yet the populations in both nations are reacting and not waiting for things to happen. Why?

I suppose you could say that there are two-key factors, namely communications technology and the size of the middle class.

Communications technology has grown by leaps and bounds. Today, it’s not just about the mobile phone and the internet but about the internet being received on the mobile phone. People can pick up all sorts of information delivered into their palms in an instant. Officials can no longer censor information the way they use to and the official version of the truth is not the ONLY truth. Thanks to “Smart Phones” – everyone is a news reporter. At the time of writing, one of the most prominent stories coming out of Malaysia is the deluge of videos “allegedly” showing trucks bringing in “fake” ballot papers to various polling stations and “phantom” voters from Bangladesh.

Such videos will make it imperative for Mr Najib to distance his government from the ‘corruption’ that his party has been accused of. The public will pounce on every perceived injustice that the government tries to ‘cover up.’

Economic success also created a large middle class. In Singapore one can argue that the majority of the population can be considered middle class. Unlike the poor, the middle class will not wait for an economic collapse before taking to the streets. The moment this group feels its basic aspirations (sending kids to college and good jobs) it starts to act.

So what can the political elite do? The most obvious is to recognize that times have changed. Both the BN and PAP have remained in power through the votes of older voters who remember the good things they did. Both have used the powers of incumbruancy and the power of patronage to shamelessly.

However, these things will not work on their own forever. It’s perhaps time that the ruling elite in Singapore and Malaysia recognize that business is no longer going to be as usual.