Pondering Malaysia’s Complex Society

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Julian Lee.

Anthropologist Julian Lee’s new book looks beyond the obvious, seeing through the glass of Malaysian half-truths and stereotypes.

Upon meeting Julian Lee for the first time, one may take his silent, observant nature as a sign of shyness. But shy Lee is not; an accomplished academic and writer, Lee has taught at Monash University Malaysia and now works as senior lecturer in global studies at RMIT University, Melbourne. He conducted research among civil society activists in KL and his essays have been published by the best academic publishers worldwide.

A mixed-race Malaysian-Australian, Lee spent a number of years in Melbourne and still calls Batu Pahat, Johor, his hometown – that’s where he spent the first years of his life. While studying anthropology at university, Lee became interested in human rights. “I decided to combine my interest with a desire to delve more deeply into Malaysian society and to know the country and its history and dynamics,” he explains.

His most recent publication is Second Thoughts: On Malaysia, Globalisation, Society and Self (SIRD 2016), a collection of short essays on the intersections between Malaysian society and an increasingly globalised world. From Alfa Romeo cars to Hainanese Chicken Rice, and touching on the 2008 General Elections, Lee analyses apparently disjointed realities using a similar analytical lens. “I tried to apply the same principle to almost all the articles, which was to move beyond taken-for-granted ways of thinking about what I was writing about,” says Lee about his book’s creative process. “An example is my piece on backscratchers – basically a stick with which you can scratch your own back. I asked myself, why does it exist and what does it say about society?

“To answer that, I discussed the role of grooming among apes and monkeys and dwelt on the evolution of language, which has made it unnecessary for us to groom each other as a way of maintaining relationships. By doing this with various aspects of our lives, I hoped to enable readers to conduct their own enquiries about the world and to see and experience even mundane things in a richer way.”

Previously, Lee had focused on activism in Malaysia. His first book, Islamization and Activism in Malaysia (SIRD 2010), delves on the impact that Islamisation is having on Malaysian social activism, and was developed from his PhD dissertation. “The ways that politics and religion and society have been intersecting make for a very complex terrain in which to advocate for some basic human rights,” reflects Lee. “I choose the word ‘complex’ because I don’t assume or conclude that the contributions of religion are negative – not at all. Religion can play a great role in criticising and providing an impetus for positive change, but it can also be deployed in ways that, in my view at least, are not helpful.”

Bersih 4 crowd at the Pasar Seni rallying point.

In the case of Malaysia, religion most often has interfered with civil society, making everyday life more difficult for those who do not conform. This struggle, in a way, is the theme of Lee’s second book, Policing Sexuality: Sex, Society, and the State (ZED Books 2011). “This book was motivated by a single question: ‘Why would the State bother to interfere with people’s sexual behaviour?’, which I had thought an answer should be straightforward to find,” says Lee. “Although governments everywhere have laws to regulate sexual behaviour, quite why they should when it occurs between consenting adults did not have an obvious answer to me. I read mountains of literature to find it, but there seemed little that explored the question in a way that I found satisfactory. What was supposed to be a 2,000-word literature review for a co-authored piece about women’s human rights turned into a 70,000-word book in which I try to answer my question in a way satisfactory to myself.”

Speaking of shackled and policed societies, the focus must obviously return on fastdeveloping Malaysia. Despite a rising number of grassroots forms of activism that span all fields of the arts, from cinema to music, it is peaceful street protests that have been repressed the hardest. Besides his interest in LGBT issues and seksualiti merdeka, Lee is among those rare academics who took to the streets during the early Bersih editions of rallying for clean and free elections. It is legitimate to ask him, then, if he thinks there will be a more democratic future for Malaysia. “In my chapter in Kim Namkook’s 2014 book, Multicultural Challenges and Sustainable Democracy in Europe and East Asia, I say that Bersih is probably the most important social movement in Malaysia. While that’s hardly news, what was interesting is that at the conference that preceded the book, a number of people remarked that my paper, in which I described the carefully multiethnic composition of Bersih and signs that indicate great cross-cultural ease among Malaysians, was refreshingly hopeful.

“The other authors from elsewhere in the world painted gloomy pictures of the impact of multiculturalism in their countries – in particular the ways in which migrant communities were being received. I am in many ways hopeful about Malaysian society and people power, and Bersih is a big part of that story. And, you know, electoral reform is an issue that has the genius of not having overt ethnic or religious overtones. Who could have imagined that something so seemingly uninteresting could muster the largest demonstrations in Malaysia’s history?”

I ask Lee what he thinks of Malaysia’s role in this increasingly global world, especially from the perspective of Australia – one of migrating Malaysians’ favourite destinations. “Malaysia is very much in the consciousness of Australians, not least of all because the of the MH370 tragedy, which involved Australia to a significant extent in the search for it. It is not in the same way that Indonesia is – it isn’t the subject of fear over its size and nearness, nor does it spring to mind as a holiday destination as rapidly as Bali does. But I guess Malaysia is in general Khairil Yusof well-regarded, although recent issues relating to the large donation to the Prime Minister and the pair of air tragedies seem to confirm Malaysia as being a lesser cousin to Singapore, with its clean streets and effective public transport system.

“I believe that Malaysians are at ease with global culture and can make it their own. But we mustn’t neglect that Malaysia has had impacts far afield. Melbourne, for example, is teeming with Malaysian restaurants, which have influenced the culinary landscape of the city and the whole of Australia.”

Knowing Malaysia’s impact on the world will only affect global taste buds is another question that prompts us to reflect how important and double-edged the Malaysian every day can be. This contrast emerges plentiful in Lee’s Second Thoughts, suggesting that we do a bit more pondering in understanding the complex society we live in.


Marco Ferrarese is a musician, author and travel writer. He has written about overland travel and extreme music in Asia for a variety of international publications, and blogs at www.monkeyrockworld.com. His Asian metal punk memoir, Banana Punk Rawk Trails, is available in bookstores. Follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.



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