Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Stories from KT

I spent two crazy weeks in Kuala Terengganu from January 9th through the 23rd. I made many memories and had an amazing time. Initially, I was trying to decide whether or not to make this several blog posts, or just one really long post. I’ve decided on the later and will differentiate between the various stories with separate subheadings. What follows are some of the different experiences I had while in KT.

Kuala Terengganu
KT itself was a dramatic change of pace from KL. KL is a cosmopolitan city with lots of eateries and places to visit. KT was a small city with very few sites to see and delicacies to sample. Although KT offered less in the way of attractions, the experiences that I had here more than made up for whatever it lacked.

Seri Malaysia
For our two week stay in KT, the ETAs got to chill and relax in the Seri Malaysia hotel. The hotel was located on a dirty river next to Chinatown in a semi-busy part of town. The food that they served was generally subpar—except for the copious amounts of watermelon that everyone seemed to be thoroughly enjoying—and the rooms were quite basic. There was two simple double beds, a crappy TV that didn’t really to work that often, and a piss-poor excuse for a bathroom (though, on the plus side, there was heated water for the shower). It was a huge step down from the Dorset Regency that we had stayed in while we were back in KL, but as time went by, I became more accustomed to the basic accommodations. Once we got settled into the hotel, it became a second home and a daily part of our lives. Many memories were made here, friendships were forged, and we received what was dubbed an “orientation” for our program.

Locked Up (1-13-09)
One of the oddest experiences that I had was getting locked in my hotel room.

One morning I decided I wanted to show up to class on time for a change. I had already made it a habit of showing up to class late and I figured that I shouldn’t always be the last one to get to class. I woke up at 745am, headed down for breakfast and then headed back up to my room. Unfortunately my room key was still in the room so I had to call maintenance to open the door. Once they opened the door, I went in grabbed my bookbag, arranged some things in the room, and then I tried to leave.

At this point it was only 830am and I wasn’t too late for my morning session. Technically, our orientation classes were supposed to begin around 8am. Realistically, since everything ran on Malaysian standard time, classes would actually begin between 815 and 830. So I figured I was good on time and I yanked hard on the door to open it. I pulled with all my strength but the doorknob would not budge. The door just didn’t want to open. I chuckled at my predicament for a bit and then I thought that maybe I wasn’t turning the door properly. Try as I did, the door would simply not open.

So I decided to call the front desk and ask them to send someone up to open the door. The puzzled operator said someone would come up shortly. In the meantime, I called up Neil, my roommate, and asked if he would try to come upstairs and open up the door. He came up, I slid my keys to him and he tried opening the door. That attempt didn’t work either. I laughed and told Neil that he should explain to the teacher (if she cared) that I was locked in my room and hence I would be late to class.

Now that lame sounding excuse in the bag, I decided to chill around the room until things fixed. After a couple of minutes, the maintenance guy came up and told me he would have to call the locksmith. At this point, I figure I’m going to be in the room for a good while so I turn on my computer and started surfing the net.

Finally around 9am, the locksmith came and said he would have to take the entire knob off. The only problem was that he would have to come to my side to unscrew the doorknob. That was a bit of a problem. I was staying on the third floor and there was only one alternate to enter the room and that was through the very small (for show only) balcony outside of my window. The poor Malay locksmith had to get in so he had no choice but to go through the room next door, out their balcony, and then jump to my balcony. He then had to crawl through the small windows that looked out towards the street and only then could he get into my room. Had this been a different situation, I might have tried my hand at some parkour, but I figured this wasn’t the appropriate time or place.

Once he was in my room, he proceeded to unscrew my doorknob and then let me out of my room. It was rather difficult to try to explain to people how I managed to lock myself into my hotel room and hence why I wasn’t able to get to class on time. It wasn’t a big deal as I didn’t really miss much. Showing up late (or not showing up at all) became a norm for me from here on out…

Mosque Park
The biggest attraction in KT was the Mosque Park. This place had scaled down replicas of something like 20 major Islamic buildings from around the world. There was an amazing replica of the Dome of the Rock which you could actually walk inside of. It was a Muslim version of a theme park and was an interesting concept. I enjoyed seeing architecture from all across the Muslim world and it really represented the transnational heritage of Islam across the word.

Election Madness (1-15-09, 1-17-09)
One of the most memorable experiences I had was observing the by-election for a seat in the national parliament. Apparently some Baricion Nacional (BN) politician had a heart attack and died while playing badminton, so his vacated seat was being contested by the BN and the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR). The election held national significance in the sense that it was being framed as a referendum on UMNO’s actions since the last election in 2008. Both sides were bringing the political heavy hitters into town and there were major political figures from both sides actively campaigning for votes. In fact, I was even able to meet with the leader of the opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, for a brief moment. I saw him before a rally and when I spoke to him he spoke softly and with a gentleman’s character. At the rally, however, it seemed as though he had done a complete transformation into a dynamic, charismatic leader that was easily able to captivate a packed audience with both wit and eloquence. I didn’t understand what he was saying the majority of time since he was primarily speaking Bahasa, but I could still feel the electricity in the room. After hearing him speak at the rally for PAS (the Islamist party that was part of the opposition PK), I was fairly convinced that they would win the elections. Sure enough, when Election Day rolled around on the 17th, PAS won.

Election Day was insanity brought to life. Daytime was relatively calm but as soon as the sun went down an eerie aura of anticipation could be felt in the streets. Everyone seemed to be following the news, waiting to hear who had won. I finally heard the news from Salem while I was at KT Bowling and I immediately joined him out on the streets. Though I knew little (and still know very little) about PAS or UMNO, I thought it would be appropriate to join in on the festivities (I figured, “When in Rome, right?”). PAS had won the elections and there was utter mayhem on the streets. The green and white moon PAS flag fluttered out of every passing car and motorcycle. People erupted in the most spontaneous display of political euphoria that I had ever seen. Everyone was taking pictures and a Mercedes S 500 even slowed down to take a picture of Salem, Afua, and me. Naturally I jumped in with the crowds and started walking down the street yelling, “Takbeer!” In response—almost instantaneously it seemed—I would hear a loud chorus of “Allahu Akbars!” I got caught up in the fervor and excitement and night was alive with the sound of car horns and “Allahu Akbar.”

All of sudden an armored tank passed me by on the street and reality began to set in. I looked at Salem in utter disbelief and began to question whether it was wise for us to continue to be on the streets with the large presence of police stating to take positions across the city. There were something like 11,000 additional police brought into the city to maintain order (KT’s population is less than 250,000) and I saw the 5-0 out in full effect. Police in full riot gear—batons and barriers outstretched—seemed to pop up on every street corner. All sorts of wild thoughts began to cross my mind: What would I do if the police confronted me? What if I saw some police brutality? What if the police resorted to using (the many) water cannons that they had? I started vaguely forming an alibi and if I had been confronted, I figured I would keep saying I was an American and just observing what was going on.

We decided to continue walking down any streets that were not blockaded. Consequently, we were forced to take the rather scenic route back to hotel. By scenic route I mean walking by rows and rows of policemen on our way from the main beach in KT to the Seri Malaysia hotel. The walk back to the hotel was a complete 180 degree change from the mood earlier in the night. Irrational exuberance had been replaced by the somber reality of the rule of law and order. Still, the night was an amazing experience and I was impressed by the amount of visceral joy that was brought to the masses merely through the simple democratic process of elections. The democratic socialist in me was very happy that night.

Eating in KT
Apparently Malaysia’s favorite past-time is eating. There is breakfast in the morning (around 7 something), tea time (around 10 something), lunch (noon time), lupper (4ish), and then dinner (8-9ish). Everything that is cooked has to be deep fried, have a ridiculous amount of salt and sugar in it, and basically be terrible for your health. Native Malay cuisine isn’t really that good (in fact, most of the dishes are pretty crappy), but the selection of eateries in KT was limited. We were stuck with eating at KFC, Pizza Hut, or the occasional random roadside restaurant. There was one decent Japanese restaurant but other than that, there was a dearth of ethnic foods. However, all of our meals were already provided for at the hotel. Still anytime we got sick of the hotel food, we would try and hit up some random eatery.

One of the nicest food stalls was the waffle lady. Near our hotel, there was this woman who would serve hot waffles on the side of the road next to a convenient store. The first time I went, I watched curiously as a portly Malay woman buttered up a waffle iron and then proceeded to pour the waffle mix onto it. Once the waffle was toasted to a semi-crisp—but still moist—state, she would lather the waffle with a mixture of peanut butter and chocolate. I would get my steaming waffle and usually wolf it down on my walk back to the hotel.

Obama’s Inauguration (1-21-09)
On January 21st at around 12:30 am KT time, a group of ETAs decided to watch the historic inauguration of America’s first black President. The messiah-in-chief would be sworn in to a country that was collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradictions.

Chalmers Johnson eloquently parallels in his Blowback trilogy the current state of America with that of the former Soviet Union. He argued that the latter’s collapse was broadly caused by internal economic contradictions, inability to reform, and imperial overstretch. He then built up an argument that said America faced these same issues and was bound to go the way of the USSR without dramatic change.

Now I don’t remember all of his specifics, I want to make a few comments along these themes. Without going into a long and detailed rant to support this general thesis, one can clearly see why the American Empire is collapsing.

In terms of internal economic contradictions, there are so many to list that I don’t know where to start. To briefly list a few:
1) The US has tried overwhelming fiscal and monetary intervention in the economy and they haven’t been able to do anything to fix the economy.
2) The Federal Reserve—which has far too little oversight—has decided to cut interest rates to nothing, lent money out of thin air, has increased the inflationary tendencies of the dollar, and wholly has no control over real regulation.
3) The Banking system in America is in shambles and all major banks need to be nationalized to prevent a complete collapse of the economic current economic system.
4) Money is misallocated to things that don’t need money—e.g. imperial wars—and doesn’t go towards improving domestic needs.

In terms of the inability to reform, our sclerotic political system is clearly incapable of change. America will always be controlled by either the Democrats or the Republicans. Effective and popular majoritarian positions (e.g. the desire for universal healthcare) will be constantly ignored either because of apathy or ignorance. Individuals who oppose the two-party hegemony are marginalized and ignored and the people with the best ideas—e.g. Ralph Nader—are ignored in favor of false hopes (i.e. Obama). The Electoral College will continue to prevent any real change from occurring at the executive level and the legislative level will remain neutered except for a handful of legislators who try to constructively change the system (e.g. Feingold, Paul, Ellison, Kucinich, etc.).

In terms of imperial overstretch the most obvious examples are Afghanistan and Iraq. But that’s not all. America has bases or military personal in over 130 countries worldwide. We spend over $1 trillion dollars each year on the military, that is more than the rest of the world combined. Our penchant for hard power has only bred more hatred against America and we can no longer sustain our imperial delusions.

With all of these thoughts in the back of my mind, I sat down to watch Obama speak. We started watching the speech in my room; however, because of the slow internet connection, we headed downstairs to watch the speech on tv in another ETAs room. The speech itself was not substantive but more an attempt to change the tone in Washington. While Obama still held out his cautious optimism, he clearly recognized the challenges that were facing America. His eloquence and charisma make you want to believe him; however his actions temper that enthusiasm. For example, the first attack Obama launched after was elected was an air strike on Pakistani territory. On January 23, 2009, Obama authorized a Predator drone bombing of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal areas in which twenty-three people were killed. Out of this group, allegedly 8 to 10 were Al-Qaeda or Taliban members. The rest were all civilians, including women and children. Violating any countries sovereignty is illegal according to international law and Obama’s actions have made him a war criminal. Three days into his Presidency, the airy rhetoric fell away in favor of the harsh reality of what an Obama Presidency actually means. Twenty-three people—theoretically it could have been any of the twenty-three ETAs here in Malaysia if we had been born in a different place—are no longer on this planet because of Obama’s actions.

As Obama’s true colors show, I am slightly reassured by my own actions in the sense that I did not vote for him. I voted for Ralph Nader. I voted my conscious and am glad that I did not vote for the alleged lesser of two evils.

Still I don’t want Obama to fail. I would like to see him change America for the better. However I know enough about him, his policies, and his advisers to know that he will not realistically bring about a substantive change that people have hoped for.

KT Bowling
One of the coolest places to go in KT was KT Bowling (yes that does say a lot about how “vibrant” the city actually is). At different points in time, I would go bowling with some of the other ETAs and enjoy a typical American past-time. One tradition that we made was to have anyone who gets a strike do a little dance. Strikes were rare, as our skill level in general was quite low, but after one strike I (attempted) to break-dance. I did a little slipping and sliding across the waxed floor and managed to break it down a little bit. I’m sure I’ll visit KT Bowling again at some point.