Illegal clothes

June 29, 2011 § 10 Comments

In the midst of a seemingly incoherent yet systematic crackdown by the Malaysian police force on politicians, activists, and citizens found to be associated with Bersih’s upcoming July 9 rally for “free and fair elections”, I couldn’t help but focus on the more mundane or trivial aspects of it – the policing of clothing. In Malaysia’s cultural climate, the policing of clothing is a collective national interest – as any woman will be able to tell you. But today’s announcement by Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein really drove home the point of the policing of clothing:

Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said today T-shirts with messages in support of Bersih have been outlawed because they were related to an illegal assembly.

“The Bersih T-shirt is related to an illegal assembly, then whatever they are wearing is illegal,” he told reporters.

Malaysia has a constitution that apparently grants us freedom of speech and expression [Article 10] that should, technically, grant each citizen the right to wear what she or he pleases.  Yet, this freedom can be revoked at any point because, as Art Harun reminds us,

Article 150, Clause 6 of the Federal Constitution allows the Parliament to pass any law and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to promulgate any ordinance during state of emergencies and those laws and ordinances will be valid even if they are repugnant or inconsistent with any of the provisions of the Federal Constitution.

At any point, then, something could be deemed illegal – and a piece of clothing associated with the something-illegal will become illegal clothing. This isn’t new; I suspect that clothing has been banned, outlawed, and deemed illegal in various ways for as long as clothes have been in existence. Gang-affiliated clothing. Clothing affiliated with political parties or movements. The burqa. Yes, women’s clothing, in particular, has always been suspect and subject to policing.  Clothes are the easiest points of reference in the policing and surveillance of the field of ‘visuality’, which as Nicholas Mirzoeff explains in his superb essay ‘The Right to Look’,  is the authority that lays “exclusive claim to be able to look.”*

The fabric of a flawed democracy in knots

What confounds me about this context is once again the arbitrariness of the authority of visuality that deems something illegal. That the Home Minister could come down hard on an article of clothing, as opposed to his past wishy-washy response to the display of cow heads, for example, is something that has kept Malaysian twitterers going for some days now. The spectacle of dead animal heads was seen by the Home Minister as a legitimate form of expression, as one of rightful dissent. An article of clothing, however, its outlawed. Ultimately, the law is used and will be used. But how the law is justified and implemented depends on an entirely arbitrary set of circumstances. This is how it has always been done in Malaysia. I am tired of this nation’s circular logic that presents confusion as a gift to its citizens. A state of the perpetually-mystified. It is not the blind leading the blind so much as it is the over-seeing authority leading the rarely-seeing. Visuality in the eyes of the few.

I am trying to wrap my head around thoughts but these thoughts are fleeting and elusive because I’ve been relegated to the not-think section of my mind for a week now, finishing a copywriting assignment that demands the brain be stopped while the body churns out words. The things you do for money, as they say. But this thought about clothes and the outlawing of clothes makes me think about the ‘The fabric of democracy’ essay on South/South and ‘Ignorance and the Moral Fabric of the American State’ on zunguzungu. What does it make me think? I am not sure.* I just know that I can’t quite make sense of what this means yet for the fabric of the “flawed democracy” of Malaysia.

[* Thanks to @southsouth for the link to the Mirzoeff essay. I read it yesterday and it's so dense and rich with ideas that I'll have to return to it and reread it in order to do it justice.]

[** What is the point of a blog post of uncertainties? I am not sure. But I wanted to try something on this blog - to write regularly and think out loud without fear or shame of my writing / thoughts "not being ready". Not-ready has been the bane of my life. But I've somehow fallen away from the initial goal of blogging and have allowed this blog to sort of flounder. Not that it should matter to anyone but myself. But since it does matter to me it should somehow be rectified.]

[Image from Dancing Canvas on deviant ART.]

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february 11, 2011

February 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Picture above stolen shamelessly from A Very Public Sociologist.

No words. Just pictures.

After that – the revolution continues.

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Blink and you still won’t miss it

February 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Our Prime Minister warns us not to stage an Egypt-style revolution in this blessed country. We should, presumably, concentrate more on making more cars, driving more cars, polluting our cities, increasing income disparity, and mindlessly zombie-shopping in malls. In the meantime we take the occassional break to ruminate on The State of the Country Today and blame all of our social ills – from petty theft to baby snatching and baby dumping and incest and rape and sexual harassment and murder – on those damned foreigners. Not all foreigners, though, the clean-looking ones with shiny blonde hair are definitely okay.

In the meantime, he also tells us that the act of “saving” Malaysian students in Egypt was not a political move:

“The Government decided that whatever the circumstances, we would launch a mission to rescue all Malaysians there.

“There was no political interest, as long as they were our people, our mission was to save them.”

Sez our esteemed PM. LOLZ.

This Ops Piramid, then, was a spectacular orgy of self-congratulation designed to boost the Malaysian spirit at the expense of the very real concerns of the Egyptian people – concerns which were hardly given any thought by our government. If there was any commentary, it came from regular folks, journalists, and columnists.

Instead, Malaysians reading the local papers were treated to a stern warning from our Papa PM – “Don’t think that what is happening there must also happen in Malaysia. We will not allow it to happen here,” he tells us – a metaphorical slap on the wrist, as it were, and then soothed with some sugary treats, as below:



Oh, and don’t forget!

The Saudi Arabian government has granted unlimited flight access to Malaysia to airlift its citizens from Egypt to Jeddah – a rare move made possible due to the close personal relationship between Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and his wife Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor with the Saudi Royal House.

Ordinary Malaysians can feel heartened that our country has ties to a repressive, bling-bling regime. They grant us flight access! Unlimited! To save ourselves from those marauding Egyptians!

Many thanks to profit-starved MAS and profit-bloated Air Asia as they weasel their way in to participate in the spectacle; bless ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.

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February 2, 2011 § 3 Comments

Like everyone else, I’ve been glued to my Twitter stream and Al Jazeera over the course of a tumultuous week in Egypt. It seems almost an insult to carry on doing normal-life things like blogging about reading or tweeting about music heard and things watched. But at the same time I’m aware of how easy it is to slide into comfortable, privileged guilt.

The only thing to do is to pay attention and to be present. I do think that Aaron Bady says it best. Although he’s speaking particularly from the point of view of an American citizen, I agree with the overarching message: “It’s selfish. It is for me, because it’s what I need to do as a person whose spiritual body has gotten very hungry. I want to be a part of something hopeful because I find that too much hopelessness has crept too deeply into the person I have no choice but to be.”

Similarly, the only way to honour what’s beyond our immediate petty and serious concerns is to force ourselves to shut up and learn. There’s so much I don’t know. I just shut up and allow myself to be taught. Being open to learning and being present for the duration of it – these seem to be the ways to ameliorate the guilt arising of the uselessness of not being a participant in what we see, only mere observers. But there’s observing, and there’s bearing witness, as Aaron reminds us.

Islamophobes of the world, shut up and listen to the sound of people power. Your artificial Middle East dichotomy – it’s either “our” dictators or jihadism – was never more than a cheap trick. Political repression, mass unemployment and rising food prices are more lethal than an army of suicide bombers. This is the actual way history is written; a country of 80 million – two-thirds of which born after their dictator came to power in 1981, and no less than the heart of the Arab world – finally shatters the Wall of Fear and crosses to the side of self-respect.


We are all Egyptians now. The Latin American virus – bye-bye dictatorships plus arrogant, myopic neo-liberalism – has contaminated the Middle East. First Tunisia. Now Egypt. Next Yemen and possibly Jordan. Soon the House of Saud (no wonder they blamed the Egyptian people for the “riots”). But the Northern African political earthquake of Tunisia 2011 also got its spark from the 2010 mass strikes in Europe – Greece, Italy, France, the United Kingdom. Rage, rage, against political repression, dictatorship, police brutality, out of control food prices, inflation, miserable wages, mass unemployment.

The quotes above from Pepe Escobar’s article in Asia Times.

Juan Cole on Egypt’s class conflict.

“I would also like to emphasize that Egyptian antiquities, as The Onion sharply satirizes, have already been looted.” Sophie Azeb’s ‘The Museum Will Be Open’.

Amardeep Singh on the poetry in the protests, and he leads us to Elliott Cola’s amazing piece on the poetry of revolt.

An interview with Egyptian blogger and journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy.

Dave Zirin on Egypt’s soccer clubs: the “one consistent nexus for anger, organization, and practical experience in the ancient art of street fighting.”

Israel, in short, has been of no use whatsoever to President Obama as he has tried to figure out how to respond to this fast-moving uprising that is far and away the most significant development in the geopolitics of the Middle East since Bush’s invasion of Iraq. But Israel’s situation is now revealed as worse than that. It is not just that it is of no use to Washington. Its actions over the past 40 years, and those of its many cheerleaders inside the U.S. body politic, are now clearly revealed as having undercut our country’s ability to pursue a reasonable, peaceable and rights-based policy throughout the region.

Helena Cobban minces no words on that elephant in the room influencing American foreign policy in the Arab world.

A succinct fact sheet on the numbers behind US aid to Egypt.

Mohammed Hanif on watching other people’s revolutions from Ramallah.

“Remember when I would stand on the steps of the press syndicate to protest? I would stand alone. Now look at everyone. They are all here,” says the uncle of Sharif Abdel Kouddous.

On South/South, ‘Class, Cairo and Catalonia’.

Pictures: 3arabawy’s photostream and in Matthew Cassel’s galleries.

“On this question, there is less than a dime’s worth of difference between “progressive” Democrats and Republican xenophobes, between pinstriped State Department Arabists and flannel-clad Christian fundamentalists, between oil-first “realists” and Israel-first neo-conservatives. There is none.” Dead-Enders on the Potomac.

And an older piece that’s still relevant reading – Asef Bayat’s ‘The “Street” and the Politics of Dissent in the Arab World’.

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