ABU’s Anything But Understandable

I wrote the following article on 8 April in response to a video released on 3 April by the Anything But Umno (ABU) movement in which its leader, lawyer and activist Haris Ibrahim, warned certain ‘foreigners’ to stay away from the upcoming general election. The warning was not aimed at me — I don’t have the right to vote in Malaysia — but it offended me. It came across as very xenophobic, counterproductive, and hypocritical. Besides writing this article I also aired my concerns on Twitter and in emails to the Migration Working Groups mailing list. I received some disturbing responses in both forums, but also got a lot of support for my views and had interesting discussions on the issue. On 9 April, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) finally spoke out against Haris Ibrahim’s remarks. It remains to be seen whether there will be any trouble on polling day (which today was announced for 5 May) but since ABU and its hardcore supporters appear ready to do anything to oust Umno/BN from power, anything is possible.


With Parliament just dissolved and the 13th General Election mere weeks away, it is a given that political parties and their supporters will dig in and intensify attacks on their opponents.

One early salvo in this war has been launched by a group that does not support any party but seeks to keep one particular party out of Putrajaya.

Anything But Umno (ABU), which aims to prevent Umno and its Barisan Nasional coalition partners from winning this election, released an explosive video on April 3 in which its leader, lawyer Haris Ibrahim, delivered a warning to ‘foreigners’ who intend to vote. Haris said:

“To foreigners who have been given MyKads, please hear this. ABU has issued warnings to all of you to stay away from our polling stations on PRU13 day. Please take this warning seriously. On polling day, ABU squads will be patrolling all polling stations and they will deal with all foreigners who are intent on defying this warning. Please, I emphasise again, take this warning seriously.”

The remarks touched a nerve with people who work with stateless children, migrant workers, refugees and other foreigners who have had issues related to their status in Malaysia.

Torben Venning, director of the Borneo Child Aid Society, said in an email that the video would be frightening not only to so-called illegals but to all foreign-born people who have obtained Malaysian citizenship.

“The definition of who is a naturalised Malaysian with immigrant background, working and staying in Sabah for 30-40 years, or the Malaysia born children of these, and who is a ‘foreigner’ given a MyKad for unlawful political purpose, is for many locals and immigrants here in Sabah quite fluid,” Venning wrote.

Another correspondent, who works in the human rights field, wrote that Haris Ibrahim and ABU “don’t understand the concept of naturalisation”.

That, indeed, is the main problem with Haris Ibrahim’s warning to ‘foreigners’. While there are legitimate concerns to be raised regarding the granting of citizenship to so many, the fact is that they are now citizens of Malaysia; technically they are not foreigners, but Malaysians.

ABU’s warning appears to be founded on the assumption that it will be easy to differentiate between foreign-born people who obtained citizenship legitimately and those who were simply handed MyKads and told to vote for BN.

However, as Venning pointed out, the distinction is not always so clear. There is no foolproof way to tell ‘real’ citizens from ‘fake’ ones. This includes the presence of the number 71 on MyKads, which merely indicates the MyKad holders are foreign-born, not whether they obtained their citizenship through legitimate means.

Malaysians are certainly well within their rights to scrutinise the reasons for giving citizenship to foreigners, and the process by which they obtained citizenship, and to demand that government officials responsible for improprieties be held to account.

Yet ABU intends to take things a step further and prevent people who are citizens of this country from exercising their right to vote — a step that may not only cross an ethical boundary, but a legal one as well.

Haris Ibrahim was quoted by Malaysiakini as saying “ABU does not intend to act violently towards anyone. Ours is a peaceful initiative.”

However, he did not make it clear exactly how ABU’s “peaceful initiative” will accomplish its goals without violating the rights of Malaysian citizens.

What is clear is that even if ABU – which accuses the BN government of depriving people of their right to vote – does ultimately prevent some ‘fake’ citizens from voting, it will almost certainly prevent Malaysian citizens from voting as well, through intimidation if not overt violence.

“Squads who ‘peacefully’ intimidate people at voting stations have been seen before in other countries around the world,” Torben Venning wrote, “and giving way to this would be greatly disturbing.”

rakyat / Jordan

When I started this blog back in 2004, I wasn’t really sure if I would stay here for the rest of my life. It just didn’t feel like home. Sure, I’d been here for less than two years, but I was still adjusting. Being blessed with an understanding wife and a loving family here did help. But I didn’t really have many friends of my own. I didn’t feel like I belonged here.

Blogging made a difference. Through blogging, I became part of a community. This was back in the days of Project Petaling Street, when I was writing posts and publishing them and pinging PPS, and people were reading my posts and leaving comments, and I was doing the same at other blogs. I got to know a few like-minded people who I began to consider friends, even though I would only meet some of them in person once or twice (in fact, there are some I’ve only met in the last year or two, after knowing them online for so many years). Whenever I went to the Immigration Department to get another pass, the government made it quite clear to me that I was just a visitor. But that loose community of bloggers acknowledged me as one of their own — at least some did — which I appreciated even if the gestures were small. Little things can make a big difference. I was even included in a project called 50 Posts to Independence, which saw bloggers offering up various perspectives on Malaysia as it approached 50 years of independence in 2007 (my contribution was number 40 and shows I was still in the early stages of wrestling with what it means to be an immigrant in Malaysia). Being allowed to contribute, to be part of that online community of communities, made a difference to me. It helped me feel a little more at home.

Through the people I met online, I was able to get into writing professionally. I began to move in other circles. It wasn’t just about blogging anymore. Then Facebook and Twitter came along and became popular, and became the settings for many conversations that had once been found mostly in the blogosphere. I was (and still am) active on both platforms and kept making friends and taking part in those conversations. With each passing day I felt more at home in this country. I don’t recall waking up one morning and thinking Hey, Malaysia feels like home now, but that’s how I was beginning to feel, slowly but surely. Not just part of an online community, or a few online communities, but part of the community, period. It wasn’t just because of online interactions — I think I was just more comfortable with Malaysia generally, with the language, the culture, the food, maybe even the weather, maybe even (gasp) the way people drive here — but those online interactions really helped.

At the end of last year, someone nominated me to be ‘curator’ of Malaysia’s Twitter account for a week, and I was asked by the admins to give it a go. Well, it’s not an official account or anything (unlike Sweden‘s Twitter account, this one wasn’t set up by the government, just by some people who felt Malaysia should have a Twitter account). But it’s become Malaysia’s voice on Twitter nonetheless, with Malaysians of various backgrounds taking turns at the microphone. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take that on — how would people react to a foreigner representing the rakyat? — but I finally decided to go for it. Besides, Sharon Bakar was the curator the week before me, and she survived. So on New Year’s Eve I took over the account and spent a week chatting about Malaysia with Malaysians, and with people elsewhere. On my Twitter profile my name shows up as Jordan MacVay, but for that week I was rakyat / Jordan (my dictionary defines rakyat as “people; citizen; subject”).

It turned out to be a great experience. I’m sure there were some people who weren’t thrilled that I was the face of Malaysia for a week, and I had less-than-thrilling moments as well thanks to endless questions and wisecracks about How I Met Your Mother, South Park, and Justin Bieber. But it was a good week. I managed to cover a lot of topics, including the immigrant experience (mostly from the perspective of a ‘white’ immigrant anyway, but also generally), travel, language, culture, and even testicular cancer awareness. I also managed to tweet quite a bit in Bahasa Malaysia, the national language, which I also do sometimes at my own account. I think I managed to keep things interesting throughout the week, and was pretty well received by the account’s followers. Some people, including friends of mine, attributed that to cultural immaturity and an obsession with ‘white’ people. But while my skin colour or ethnicity or whatever likely played a part in the positive reception I got, I like to think I did well both because of and in spite of those things. Maybe people were pleasantly surprised to know there are orang putih who don’t live in little expat bubbles, who can speak the language, who know the culture. And there certainly are, though not as many as one might think. And more than anything I like to think I did well because I was me. Some of the friends I’ve made through blogging, and writing, and Twitter, these aren’t people who are immature or overly fascinated by ‘white’ people. They let me into their lives because I’m me, because they like certain qualities I have, whatever those qualities are. I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s about more than just something as crude as race. It’s about who I am.

Actually, who am I? That week really got me thinking about identity. I’m Canadian by nationality, but there’s more to one’s identity than just nationality. When I was growing up on Cape Breton Island, if someone asked me to put a label on myself besides Canadian, I probably would have said Scottish, as most of my ancestors were Scottish and Cape Breton’s culture has retained strong Scottish influences. But here’s the thing: I wouldn’t qualify to curate Scotland‘s Twitter account, because I’m neither from there nor do I live there. Yet there I was, representing Malaysia, something a much-younger me would probably find pretty wild. The notion of being a Cape Bretoner, or a Maritimer, or a Scot, or a Gael, or a Celt, or other labels I might use to identify myself in certain contexts, is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, especially since my time as curator. I’ll definitely be exploring the issue of identity in greater depth in the near future.

For now, though, I feel more than ever that at least one label I’m beginning to feel comfortable using to identify myself, besides Canadian and ‘citizen of the world’, is…Malaysian. Yeah, that is pretty wild. I didn’t need that week as curator of Malaysia’s Twitter account to make me feel like I am indeed part of the rakyat, but it certainly added to this feeling I’ve been having that this place I live now really is home, that it’s becoming a part of me. I’m Canadian by nationality, and a few other things by ancestry and ethnicity or whatever. And I’m a little more Malaysian with each passing day.

A Cousin for Christmas

Back in 2009 I got an email from a lady – we’ll call her J –  who was searching for her biological mother. Her story was that she’d been left at an orphanage in Saint John, New Brunswick and adopted when she was eight days old. All she knew about her parents was that her mother had been a Protestant, her father an Irish Catholic. Eventually she discovered one more piece of the puzzle when she spotted her birth name on a document prepared by the lawyer who had taken care of the adoption. She contacted me because her surname according to that document was MacVay; after reading some of what I’d written about my family history, she hoped I might be able to help.

Over the next couple of years, she relied on two main sources of information: the government of New Brunswick and me. There were stretches of months at a time when neither source of information was of much help to her. Still, every time the government gave her a tiny bit of information – which wasn’t very often, nor was there very much of it – I tried to match it with what I knew about the New Brunswick branch of my family. In the meantime, we called each other ‘cousin’ anyway. It was quite possible she belonged to a different family, but it was also possible the MacVay spelling on that document was correct — and if it was, she would definitely be related to me, since my family is the only one in Canada that spells the name that way.

The search wasn’t easy, for two reasons. The main reason was that, as I mentioned, the government wasn’t giving her much information. I wrote about this last year in a post that blasted New Brunswick’s policy on adoption records. The provincial government goes to great lengths to protect the privacy of people who have given their children up for adoption, but seems to have terrible disregard for people’s right to know very basic things like who they came from. As I said then, I firmly believe that a child’s right to know who their parents are/were trumps their parents’ right to privacy. No adoptee should be prevented from knowing such basic information.

The other reason it wasn’t easy to fit all the pieces together was that there were too many gaps in my knowledge of that side of the family. I had learned a lot about them, and had some hunches, but there were gaping holes where some names and dates should have been. The few contacts I had among my New Brunswick relatives didn’t know much. It’s a very large extended family, after all. The relative I was closest to, Uncle Bill — the only one out of hundreds of descendants of my great-great-grandparents to bear the family name outside of my immediate family — knew little about the relatives I wanted to focus on, thanks to a feud between his father and his uncle over the family business during the Great Depression.

We kept plodding on, though. J kept hounding the government, and I kept trying to assemble a family tree and somehow place her in it. Eventually, things started coming together. The government was only giving J ‘non-identifying information’, but each snippet they released allowed me to fill in a blank. Based on names and dates I had and the precious little information J was able to obtain about her parents and grandparents, I was able to zero in on one person in my family tree. I knew nothing about her except her name, when she was born, and who her parents and siblings were. But I felt very confident that out of all the possibilities, she was J’s mother. Months later, J was informed by the province that a first cousin might be interested in making contact. They didn’t tell her who that was, but I was able to figure it out. Several more months went by, until finally they informed J that her cousin did indeed want to have contact with her. They gave J the woman’s name and contact information — it was exactly who I’d told her it would be.

They haven’t had that first meeting or phone conversation yet, but it feels like we’ve won already because now we know for sure that we’re cousins. Actually I know her better than anyone else on that side of my family, especially since Uncle Bill passed away in September at the age of 92. I’ve been in touch with other relatives but we’re not as close as I’d like. In fact, a couple of them stopped replying to my emails altogether around the time I started telling them about J’s plight. But it’s all good, it turns out I’m close to someone on that side of the family after all.

J mentioned to me the other day that it’s a great Christmas gift. I suppose it is. I’m grateful to the New Brunswick provincial government for giving us this gift. It should have been done a long time ago, and many significant improvements need to be made in how they treat adoptees. But yes, I’m grateful. I can’t speak for J but I’m pretty sure she is too.