Gaming the system

Today’s WITI had confirmed my long-time suspicion on the relations of numbers, expectations, and behaviour, to be true. It talks about Goodhart’s Law, named after a British economist, which posits that, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” In other words, according to WITI, as soon as you set some metrics into its sole goal, its usefulness will soon decrease. One way in which this can occur is individuals trying to anticipate the effect of a policy, and then taking actions that alter its outcome.

It reminded me of the time when I was venting out my frustrations to my friend A about sending multiple bespoke, customised cover letters and CVs almost every day in the midst of my job hunting, only to no avail. She mentioned she once read an article about companies using AI, instead of employing real human beings, to go through CVs so they could filter the most eligible candidates by recognising a series of keywords placed in the CVs. As someone who had been keeping myself informed in the areas of technology, this did not shock me, but for some reasons I refused to pander to the idea and idealistically, or somewhat naively, believed that every single cover letter and CV I sent would be vetted through by an actual human being who would find that my skills and qualifications would befit their organisations.

It was until I engaged a professional CV consultant for guidance (yes I have gone to that extent) that I was again reminded how prevalent this practice is — which is called ATS (stands for applicant tracking system). It works exactly like A mentioned — the system scans CVs for specific keywords to determine if the job application should be passed along to the recruiter. In doing so, it weeds out the unqualified candidates (ones who don’t have all the right keywords in the system) instead of identifying ones who are the best fit for the job. Interestingly, she did not have much comments for my existing CV — no comments about structure, grammatical errors, etc. — but more towards changing the keywords e.g. I wrote ‘orchestrated’ for one of my project management points, but she made me change it to… ‘managed’ because this was apparently the word that would get picked up by the ATS. In our session, she mentioned that sometimes, to defeat and pass through this system, applications would insert these keywords into the empty spaces (e.g the footnotes) of their CVs, put the text colour in white so they were invisible to the naked eyes but still would get picked up by the system. This was the Goodhart’s Law, and I think this is the same when it comes to our exam-oriented education system as well. When the goal is attached to a preconditioned measurement, you can bet some people will bend the rules and even cheat to game the system.

I thought about this a lot too when I was working on some social media strategy work for some brands before. What I found was they were so initially preoccupied with the numbers and SEO optimisation — which is good — but to the point that by placing SEO-friendly keywords randomly across their content, they lost and forgot to own their own tone and voice and organically grow their presence through the values that had supposedly defined them from day one. In the end, their initiatives drowned in the midst of thousands of other brands who, relying on the same SEO-friendly keywords out there, sounded and had the same brand demeanour as they are. Only then they were advised to grow organically by hiring professional content writers with more, for the lack of a better word, soul — and in many cases, it was a slower and more thoughtful process — did they begin to reclaim their brand voice and tone again.

Reading in my tabs:

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All good things must begin

When I started this blog, it was intended for me to dispel the metaphorical wall that had materialised in the midst of my thesis writing journey. It felt kind of counterintuitive to attempt to overcome writer’s block by creating another writing project, but I wanted a space for me to write freely without the constraint that was put on my work or academic writing. More so than that, I wanted to write for myself for once. Little did I realise that over the years, this space had become a space for me to learn beyond myself, where I was presented with the opportunity for me to unlearn and explore uncomfortable issues that I had little to no awareness of or indifferent to when I was younger. If I kept asking myself, “what good can I do with this knowledge that I earned?” after finishing my thesis journey, I guess I could also apply this to the broader moment right now too, as I acknowledge the many ways I have been delayed to the space of awareness, solidarity, and picking up the weight, and now I must do the work of catching up from someone not from the point of expertise — others are more equipped for that — but from the place of learning and sharing a journey.

“All good things must begin.” — Octavia Butler, journal entry.

I still could not stop thinking of Octavia Butler’s practice of speaking into existence. It turns out she had been writing these motivational notes to herself — words of affirmations soon turned into a prophecy — all throughout her career. Growing up black and poor in Pasadena, California in the time of de facto segregation, the encouragement was essential to her, “she wrote because she had two choices: write, or die. “If I hadn’t written, I probably would have done something stupid that would have led to my death,” she said cheerfully. We’re fortunate that she chose to write.”

I am also reminded of the power of words in this article, “Recently, I heard Angela Davis talk about the radical imagination,” Ms. [Saidiya] Hartman said. “And a fundamental requirement is believing that the world you want to come into existence can happen. I think that that is how black folks have engaged with and invested in and articulated freedom, as an ideal and as an everyday practice.”

Suleika Jaouad in one of her writing prompts in The Isolation Journals also poses this very interesting question on writing and words: “What if we viewed writing as an act of translation — not from Spanish to English, but from the abstract realm of our imaginations to the concrete realm of the page?” I propose something much further than that — from the realm of imaginations to the concrete realm of the page, to the physical manifestation of the life we had been imagining?

All good things must begin.

Reading in my tabs:

  • Meet the latest campaign tool — TikTok.
  • “They had political commitment early on at the highest level,” says John MacArthur, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s country representative in neighbouring Thailand. “And that political commitment went from central level all the way down to the hamlet level.” How Vietnam, with a population of 95 million, recorded 0 deaths from Covid-19 and is currently on 61-day streak without a single community transmission.
  • How to read a coronavirus study.
  • “I think everything is about race. Black communities, gay communities, immigrant communities feel a lot of media representations to be inadequate, biased. There’s a lot of reporting around police violence and black men, and I realised a lot of the arguments that we were having were about depictions. I started to wonder how different would it be if I swapped images or changed some of the text.” Artist and media critic Alexandra Bell reimagines a new journalism focused on the victims rather than the (white) perpetrators.
  • Designer Amber Hughson designed a series of flyers outlining some alternatives to policing, in four languages. Also, this chart comparing policing reforms vs abolition.
  • TIL baby-duck syndrome: a term used in Computer Science/Human-Computer interaction that corresponds to the tendency of computer users to always think the software they originally started/learned using is better. (via nicolasnova)
  • I LOVE THIS. “I’m the unnamed girl from Avril Lavigne’s 2002 hit, “Sk8er Boi” and I’m here to set the record straight after 18 years of silence.”
  • How many things have I missed, letting my wet bangs touch my eyelashes, singing into a stream?”

STATUS BOARD

Collective action is a life-changing experience

A portrait of a male Black protester wearing a mask that says 'Racism is a virus'.

Image Credit: Joao Fereira

This is another excellent piece from Zeynep Tufekci, answering the question as old as time itself: Do protests work?

Protests sometimes look like failures in the short term, but much of the power of protests is in their long-term effects, on both the protesters themselves and the rest of society.

[…] Protests are signals: “We are unhappy, and we won’t put up with things the way they are.” But for that to work, the “We won’t put up with it” part has to be credible. Nowadays, large protests sometimes lack such credibility, especially because digital technologies have made them so much easier to organise.

[…] In the long term, protests work because they can undermine the most important pillar of power: legitimacy. […] Legitimacy, not repression, is the bedrock of resilient power. A society without legitimate governance will not function well; people can be coerced to comply, but it’s harder to coerce enthusiasm, competence, and creativity out of a discouraged, beaten-down people. Losing legitimacy is the most important threat to authorities, especially in democracies, because authorities can do only so much for so long to hold on to power under such conditions.

[…] Protests are a grab for attention: They are an attempt to force a conversation about the topic they’re highlighting. By themselves, streets don’t magically hold any particular power beyond their ability to start that conversation and frame questions for broader society. Successful protests are the ones that win that conversation and in the framing of the issue, and by all accounts and measures, Black Lives Matter protesters are succeeding.

[…] Protests also work because they change the protesters themselves, turning some from casual participants into lifelong activists, which in turn changes society. […] This gets to the final reason that protests work: Collective action is a life-changing experience. To be in a sea of people demanding positive social change is empowering and exhilarating. Protests work because they sustain movements over the long term as participants bond during collective action.

[…] Do protests work? Yes, but not simply because some people march in the streets. Protests work because they direct attention toward an injustice and can change people’s minds, a slow but profoundly powerful process. Protests work because protesters can demonstrate the importance of a belief to society at large and let authorities understand that their actions will be opposed, especially if those protesters are willing to take serious risks for their cause. Protests work because they are often the gateway drug between casual participation and lifelong activism. And, sometimes, protests work because, for that moment, the question in the minds of the protesters is not whether they work short term or long term, but whether one can sit by idly for one more day while a grave injustice unfolds. And perhaps that’s the most powerful means by which protest works: when the cause is so powerful that the protesters don’t calculate whether it works or not, but feel morally compelled to show up and be counted.

In my experience studying social movement leadership and digital technologies — yes protests do work, but only if they were sustained strategically throughout the years (which means it might take longer than expected, for example, the Montgomery Bus Boycott took 381 days to achieve its goal) by garnering collective power and a strong set of narratives, and be sure not to fall into leadership overindulgence. Related reading on the intersectionality of struggles & the power of well-organised mass movements against individualism that I would recommend again and again, of course: Angela Davis’ Freedom is A Constant Struggle.

Reading in my tabs:

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Sasha Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice and Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice.
  • Listening: I’m very intrigued about the darkside of the Internet but never had the time to delve further into the topic, so I think this podcast called Darknet Diaries should be good to start.
  • Viewing: I haven’t watched anything of note this week! Boo!
  • Food & Drink: Chicken lasagna and a latte.

Speaking into existence

It’s a long day today, but which fortunately (?) also meant a day filled with work-related stuff. I haven’t got the time to sit and write my thoughts down properly today, but in the event of Octavia Butler’s belated birthday I am reminded of this page in her notebook — her very own practice of speaking into existence. Alexander Chee had a similar practice, where his mentor Annie Dillard told him to go to a bookstore and place a finger on the spot where his books will go. These are all the practices I had adopted recently as well, and while some of what I wrote might have not come true yet, one day they will.

Reading in my tabs:

  • Ever heard of Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Umoja Noble? Well, Zoomers engaged in an algorithm of resistance by claiming tickets to the Trump rally, but never attended, leaving hundreds of empty seats at the venue.
  • Media scholar Zeynep Tufekci however, warned about the short-term celebration of this incident, and urged us to start asking, “how will be this weaponised by someone else?”
  • “It’s easy to overlook how important language is for health if you’re on the English-speaking internet, where “is this headache actually something to worry about?” is only a quick Wikipedia article or WebMD search away. For over half of the world’s population, people can’t expect to Google their symptoms, nor even necessarily get a pamphlet from their doctor explaining their diagnosis, because it’s not available in a language they can understand.” The translation challenge of the coronavirus.
  • The world has six months to avert climate catastrophe, says an energy expert. Crap.
  • “Professionals today would never self-identify as bureaucrats. Product managers at Google might have sleeve tattoos or purple hair. They might describe themselves as ‘creators’ or ‘creatives.’ They might characterise their hobbies as entrepreneurial ‘side hustles.’ But their actual day-in, day-out work involves the coordination of various teams and resources across a large organization based on established administrative procedures. That’s a bureaucrat. The entire professional culture is almost an attempt to invert the connotations and expecta­tions of the word — which is what underlies this class’s tension with storytelling. Conformity is draped in the dead symbols of a prior generation’s counterculture.”
  • “Sometimes it’s a sudden drop in temperature, like the unnerving patches of cold air that linger next to the winged, human-headed bull of Nimrud at the entrance to the Assyrian galleries. Sometimes it’s the sound of footsteps, or music, or crying, where no obvious source can be found.” Are there ghosts in the British Museum? (I mean, yes obviously, considering the artifacts you colonisers have stolen from all of these livid, oppressed ancestors of the world…)
  • Have you ever seen a word and was just amazed that it felt or looked exactly as how it was spelled? That’s an autological word.
  • “Dear Fuck Up, my close friend is being radicalised on the Internet and I don’t know what to do.”
  • “Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other. We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot, and to say thank you to the person handing it.”

STATUS BOARD

No more stifling rage

Leonard Suryajaya, Two Bodies (2017)

In the past few days Malaysian Twitter, or Twitterjaya as we call it, were inundated with reports of rapes and assaults done by seemingly ‘respected’ men in the industry, organisations, and some among the very immediate circle of the people they have assaulted. It was heartbreaking to read the accounts of the victims as they filled up our timelines one by one, and I could not imagine how terrified the victims were at the same time having to gather the courage and relive the trauma of being sexually assaulted by the people of whom they thought they could trust. Less than a few hours after the posts surfaced, it felt like a tyranny of notes app, as they were also posted one by one by the perpetrators — claiming to be innocent — and their friends in their immediate circles, of mixed messages of “I have never thought he is this kind of person”, “we never saw this coming”, “we must hear the allegations from both sides”, “I refuse to be associated with this person anymore”, “I offer myself to be the mediator between the victims and perpetrator(s)” etc. In all of my, and the collective outrage of women who came across these accounts, in between other observers in the peripherals who felt the need to offer their opinions of ‘preventative measures’ and the religious overtures of “the girls should never have followed him home!!” were the observation of the similar pattern: we saw largely women apologising on behalf of their perpetrator friends, apologising for not seeing the signs much earlier, and mediating and doing the hard work of mitigating harm and centering the voices and experiences of the victims. And so we are back here again: doing the unpaid labour for men albeit indirectly, putting ourselves on the front line to make sure our sisters are protected while at the same time the men are further ensconced into their patriarchal comfort, with lack of regards for their very own accountability. My body shook even harder coming across a very spirited thread of an old friend of which — in the name of religion and ‘preventative measures’ as to how she put it — reeks of victim-blaming and rape culture enabling. She did not take well to other people’s comments calling her out on her ignorance, so I decided my battle — I blocked her.

This is what we women do — our bodies, our whole existence have been used as weapons, for ours or for others, all throughout our lives. All throughout our lives, we are told to make ourselves small, not too loud, not too visible, not too smart, not too ambitious, not to be too hopeful, not to exist too much. For those of us women who wanted to break free, we realised we have accumulated years of rage compounded inside us. And in these very years of grievances we must learn to channel this rage — I know how cliche this sounds — to smash the harmful wall of patriarchy.

For these men who refused to take responsibility and accountability, they knew the wall must never be dismantled because it requires us women, nonbinary folks, and allies (including men, and especially men) to come into senses and realise that this ideology and system — that encompasses all the spectrum that allow them to hurt women and get away with us — harm us. And for this very reason, we need also men to come to their senses, to acknowledge their privilege, to educate themselves on problematic behaviours whether it’s from themselves or their friends, to call out their friends whenever they do any of these problematic behaviours, and many others. We need them to also take up the load for once, goddammit.

I think this is why I find the idea of abolition so appealing. The idea of dismantling a very problematic system that even reforms won’t cut it anymore, the idea of stripping everything away and starting something new altogether based on the idea of community and togetherness. I love how its an idea rooted in imagination and hope, and with them we can chart our next course of action. The idea of collapsing the entire patriarchal structures seems insurmountable, but a lot of ideas beforehand — slavery abolitionism, universal suffrage etc. — all seemed insurmountable and started with hope and imagination too. It’s definitely a lot of work, but if they have been done before, we can do this too.

Reading in my tabs:

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Sasha Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice and Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice.
  • Listening: This interview with therapist and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem: “Einstein said energy cannot be created nor destroyed. But it can be thwarted. It can be manipulated. It can be moved around. When we’re talking about trauma, when we’re talking about historical trauma, intergenerational trauma, persistent institutional trauma, and personal traumas — whether that be childhood, adolescence, or adulthood — those things, when they are left constricted, you begin to be shaped around the constriction. And it is wordless. Time decontextualises trauma.”
  • Viewing: A virtual tour of the International Space Station.
  • Food & Drink: Made some grilled fish to go with white rice today.

What, from the quarantine, do you want to retain?

As the cities have started to reopen, I have been thinking about the activities, the habits, and the values I want to retain from the quarantine. Strangely I am not at all overjoyed at the prospect of being able to go to visit friends again or reading at the cafe or going to work within this New Normal, particularly thinking that I am living under the same roof with an elderly parent with some underlying medical conditions. If you have read through some of my previous posts, I have been quite persistent about the fear of forgetting of our awareness of the inequality gaps that surfaced during the pandemic, mostly a reminder to myself. I am very aware that I come from a place of privilege that made me able to live with abundance within the limitations that I have. At the same time, I am also very critical, and somehow also irked at myself to think that due to my privilege, there is something that I can learn from the sheltering in, while some others are struggling to survive. 

Julio Vincent Gambuto wrote in an article:

From one citizen to another, I beg of you: take a deep breath, ignore the deafening noise, and think deeply about what you want to put back into your life. This is our chance to define a new version of normal, a rare and truly sacred (yes, sacred) opportunity to get rid of the bullshit and to only bring back what works for us, what makes our lives richer, what makes our kids happier, what makes us truly proud.

Thus, I don’t want to forget both the grief and the beauty that came out of this. I especially don’t want to consume unnecessarily like before, living through a frenetic pace and forgetting that the cosmic world is more than just work and the flawed, capitalistic idea of productivity, keeping a healthier diet and work routine, and of course, doing more to fight for social justice.

What, from the quarantine, do you want to retain?

Reading in my tabs:

STATUS BOARD

Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings

I guess like many Malay Muslims, I was brought up with the idea that in order to achieve happiness, one has to be able to be grateful and content (the more accurate Malay term would be ‘syukur’, derived from Arabic شكر = gratitude) in whatever situation one finds their life in. For this very reason, a lot of us, internalised or the other, grew up with the idea of faux contentment and gratitude that in some ways, render us with less awareness and agency of the systemic inequalities that happen all around us. When you see someone else poorer than you? ‘Syukur’ that at least we have more than they do — sometimes in a more fucked up way, ‘syukur’ that their life, lacking basic needs and thereof, serves as a lesson for us to be grateful for what we already have. When I was in my early 20s, living in the big city with the first job that paid me only barely enough for rent, meals, and commute, I was fed with the idea that “at least I have a job”, “at least I could manage to pay for my rent”, at least this, at least that. I was internalised with the idea to be grateful with the barest minimum, which extended into the other areas of my life — work, relationship, friendship, etc. I was bad with boundaries, letting people trample all over me and shoehorn themselves into every free minute I have, finding myself agreeing with their every critique and gaslighting over me because I did not learn how to argue or defend myself, and failing to negotiate (or even ask) for any raise that I deserved. At one point of time I grew increasingly angry, but also I was raised that to express anger was not appropriate, so anger coursed inside me boiling red and searing while I seemed almost serene, but inside I am the Hulk scene in The Avengers walking into battle while announcing, “That’s the secret, I am always angry.” 

It wasn’t too late to come across this tweet, reframing anger as something which is not bad, something that should not be dealt with, but instead — “Your anger is the part of you that knows your mistreatment and abuse are unacceptable. Your anger knows you deserve to be treated well, and with kindness. Your anger is a part of you that LOVES you.” Your anger, according to the poster, as “This person deserves better!!!!!” alarm” and “Anger is your loud, unapologetic friend who doesn’t want you to put up with any bullshit”. I wish I came across this tweet much sooner.

And anger is just what everyone needs to feel right now. For the Ahmauds, for the Breannas, for the George Floyds, for the Trayvons, for the Eric Garners, for the countless numbers of black men and women murdered by the flawed but omnipotent power of racial capitalism, for Palestine, for Yemen, for the anger to be directed towards the power-hungry in Malaysia right now, for the refugees being pushed away from whichever lands they try to seek shelter from — an option which seemed safer from the raining bombs and harms and trauma from the lands they were supposed to belong to, for the wrongly convicted and unfairly incarcerated, for those longing for the fresh air outside the homes they no longer felt safe from, for the everyday workers deemed as ‘heroes’ and ‘essential’ paid with little to no minimum wage in a pandemic that is slowly ravaging their bodies ‘for the economy’, etc. — I could go on and on. But anger is not something we can push away now. Anger leads to imagination, imagination leads to hope, hope leads to action. And with action, we can change lives.

Reading in my tabs:

  • Yes, we mean literally abolish the police. Because reform won’t happen.
  • Zurairi’s column on the copaganda in Malaysian pop culture, which something that needs pondering amid #DefundThePolice discourse worldwide.
  • Toni Morrison said it best, in a 1975 speech: “The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” Racism derails our efforts to save the planet.
  • I just did this to hold myself accountable! “Set an alarm on your phone for 3, 6, 9, 12 months from now and when it goes off, look at your life and count how many Black businesses, orgs & artists you’re still supporting. How many antiracism resources are you using? How many of your own biases have you addressed?”
  • “For instance in a lot of Western society, I think we see depression and anxiety as a chemical imbalance. And that leads us to seek help through our doctor and getting medication,” she says. “But in East Asia it’s seen as more of a social or spiritual or a family concern – so people might seek spiritual help or, you know, find ways to resolve family conflict.” What we can learn from ‘unstranslatable’ illness.
  • I have been thinking about this the longest time — productivity culture has an empathy problem! Also read Anne Helen Petersen’s thoughts on the significant human cost on our privilege to delegate our tasks, summarised in this easily digestible question: “Do you actually care about other people?”
  • The work is where we are.

STATUS BOARD

  • Reading: Alex S. Vitale’s The End of Policing, Sasha Costanza-Chock’s Design Justice, and Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice.
  • Listening: This Radiolab episode about octopus mom.
  • Viewing: Ursula K. Le Guin, accepting a lifetime achievement award: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.”
  • Food & Drink: Someone tweeted about adding kimchi inside Maggi Asam Laksa the other day, and to be honest that got me drooling. So I drove to get some kimchi jiggae, and extra kimchi for some midnight comfort food.

Custodian of tone

(It is a jumble of personal news today, nothing smart, nothing poignant. You can skip this post if you want.)

I submitted my thesis corrections today. Was glad to get that out of the way for now. In the meantime, even if I do receive the Senate letter this year, we were informed that the graduation ceremony had been postponed until further notice.

A friend asked me a question the other day: what do you hope to carry forward from the quarantine? My answer would be this awareness of the systemic fissures that — sadly it had to take a pandemic to do this — materialised itself in front of our very eyes. The less rushing of things, less living by the frenetic drumbeats of capitalism and neoliberalism, our lives shrunk to a pinhole of more focus and radical imagination of new ways of living. But then, many countries, Malaysia included, decided to ‘reopen the economy’ — calling it the ‘recovery’ phase — while the number of infections is still soaring. And just like that, we return to work content to text our coworkers about work all the time so we get our work done (but who cares about their other aspects of life?), we ban ‘foreigners’ from mosques and houses of faith because we said they were more at risk at the virus than we do (who are we to decide — both at the decision on the risk and letting someone into houses of God, which is, for everyone?), we demean people who look different than us because we refused to learn about and understand them, we continue to stomp all over people who work for us because they don’t simply understand the intricacies of labour rights (and we might not too, but they’re too young and too desperate for jobs), and many others. I am saying ‘we’ because you and I let this happen, and might as well say we are complicit in this too.

I learned from Russell Davies, of whose blog on ideas and advertising I had been following since 2006 (back when entering advertising was my dream) that apparently “… Richard Ayoade had described the job of a film director as being ‘the custodian of tone’”. I think of the previous work I did doing UX writing — setting up a tone and voice document was one of my favourite tasks to do. Custodian of tone, I like that.

I’m loving this edition of MIT Technology Review’s The Algorithm newsletter acknowledges that their work is built on the foundational work of black researchers and scholars: MIT researcher Joy Buolamwini and AI Now fellow Deborah Raji’s work revealing discrimination in face recognition, which has changed how companies build their systems and how the US government audits them. AI Now policy research director Rashida Richardson’s work uncovering the systemic practice of corrupted, even falsified, data being used to train policing algorithms. Harvard fellow Mutale Nkonde’s work supporting the writing of critical legislation for regulating algorithmic systems and deepfakes. There are so many others: Ruha Benjamin, Timnit Gebru, Rediet Abebe, Abeba Birhane, William Isaac, Yeshimabeit Milner. I love this list and I have made a vow to cite only Black and POC people in my future research. I understand this might sound self-congratulatory, and perhaps it was, but as I check this space frequently, speaking this out there would hold myself accountable for what I have vowed. Hold me accountable too.

Reading in my tabs:

STATUS BOARD

We cut our poems out of air

Today’s post is a prompt from Suleika Jaouad’s The Isolation JournalReflect on the first time you became aware of race — either yours or someone else’s. What meaning did you make of it then? How has that meaning evolved?

As Malaysians, or my closest circle, are trying to unlearn and doing better on disposing of our entrenched racism, colourism, and antiblackness in our society, our government had gone and imposed a ‘no foreigners allowed‘ rule for congregational and Friday prayers. In another word, the government went ahead and made themselves the authority of the house of God, whoever you worship. Furthermore, we all know what ‘no foreigners’ meant. It always meant no black and brown lowly paid foreigners — white foreigners, however, by the privilege of their skin colour, are always allowed wherever they want to tread. There are not enough words and mental space to describe how shitty this whole thing is, and how fuming those of us who had been trying to dismantle racism in our very own community and the system as a whole.

I don’t quite remember how I first became aware of race, but in doing so I remember my first best friend, Uma. I wouldn’t be lying that when I first became friends with Uma 23 years ago, race hadn’t come into mind. I am a Malay — which automatically made me a Muslim as preconditioned in the constitution in Malaysia — one of the most privileged majorities in the country, and Uma is of Indian Tamil descent, forming the third largest group in the country after the Chinese. She had a voice so modulated sometimes I wondered if she had trained herself to speak without hurting people but still getting her point across. And I guess that was how Uma was, she often spoke to you so softly and so pointed but when you went home, it’d hit you that you had accidentally done something wrong. We would split the money to buy the magazine Smash Hits! although she didn’t quite approve of my obsession at the time with Westlife’s Shane Filan. She was more of a Keanu Reeves person, and would never fail to make me watch Little Buddha every time I dropped by her house. Her mum would always use a different set of utensils — which I learned that they bought new ones specifically for us out of respect for our halal diet — every time my family and I dropped by for lunch or dinner. I never liked lentil anything, but her mum made the best lentil soup so creamy that matched her honeyed voice. Her dad, a TNB officer, had a small library of hardbound books kept in a cupboard with glass doors — the kind of books that old libraries often had — and he let me borrow his few copies on Greek mythology. Whenever my dad came to pay her dad a visit (with me in tow), I loved to snoop in their conversations about the differences of how the two corporations (my father was in Telekom Malaysia) had sustained their lives, or any random chats about raising daughters (it was always very tough!).

I wouldn’t be lying that being friends with Uma, race hadn’t come into mind. But to me and her it wasn’t a big deal, although we often heard from the grapevine of how people would often make fun of our ‘colour’ differences. Even teachers did so. I regretted not doing much about it, although I remember one time I was fuming and threw a tantrum in a class, but the whole class made fun of me because all of a sudden I was this angry girl against the world — the world that had normalised making fun of skin colour differences and reducing our friendship to just so. I was also made fun of because I spoke mostly in English with her, an idea so radical in a suburban secondary school in the northern part of peninsula Malaysia at the time, although to be honest I only spoke with her because I wanted to practice my English. She lent me her Enid Blyton books, wrote me notes and letters, printed me poems from the Internet, and some articles about The X-Files (another obsession of mine at the time). We were too young and uninformed to talk about the idea of affirmative action — an idea I was neither into nor disapprove at the time, particularly for my privilege as a Malay and an only child — especially on our moving forward plan after school, but I did remember she was fretting about which universities would accept her. I unknowingly said everyone would accept her because she was amazing, but she went quiet.

When I was transferred to another class towards the end of the secondary school year, Uma and I grew apart. We did, however, kept in touch through texts all throughout the years. She got into a car accident in 2008 on her journey home from Kelantan where she was a teacher, and did not survive.

Looking back, if Uma was still around, I would think that we both would have the kind of real conversations I keep having with my other friends these days — on allyship, on activism, questions on gender and equality, even some hard to explore conversations such as reframing our anger or dejection, because that was exactly the kind of conversations we had so many years ago. When she grew quiet after the conversation about the university, I was reminded that was why she was always striving to be ahead of everybody else. She knew that hard work alone could not easily let her into universities or any institutions like us Malays — she must also be calm and composed, tolerated the bullshit everyone threw at her (including from the teachers), and endured casual and intended remarks about the colour of her skin and her race. Maybe this was also why when she loved, her love was so whole and generous and unconstrained, she never hesitated to have them immortalised in printed poems and handwritten notes and letters, because her energy and her light had to be channelled somewhere. She channelled it to me.

I am thankful for the lessons your presence had brought into my life, the fears and hopes you shared with me, and the light you shone upon me. Rest in peace, Uma.

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