Monday, January 7, 2008

There are protests everywhere

JAN. 2, SINGAPORE, JERVOIS ROAD—When I met him, Seelan Palay was reading a Tamil newspaper. He had not eaten in two and half days, had not had solid food in ten, and had not consumed more than one meal for seventeen. A third-generation Singaporean Tamil, Palay had whittled down his caloric intake gradually in preparation for a hunger strike. In time-honored South Asian tradition, the scruffy 23-year-old art school graduate was fasting in front of the Malaysian High Commission to protest government actions: in this case, neighboring Malaysia’s violent response to a peaceful rally of thousands of ethnic Indians at the end of November.

The November event, conducted under the umbrella of Malaysia’s Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF), has mobilized Palay even in Singapore, where restrictions on freedom of expression are par for the course. The grandson of a South Indian gardener and a gravedigger from northern Sri Lanka, Palay is an old hand at causing a stir. Palay, a painter and video artist, attended the rally in Kuala Lumpur, and says that what he saw there—as Indians peacefully protested the Malaysian government’s treatment of their minority—moved him to action. (Some reports, including one from major Malaysian news source Malaysiakini, put the numbers of that rally as high as 30,000. Other sources say 10,000 attended. Palay was there in part to document the action.) Malaysian police met those rallying with tear gas and water cannons. Palay says he was among those tear-gassed. The government has detained five of the group’s leaders under the Internal Security Act, which gives officials broad powers and has little transparency. Palay says each day of his hunger fast is for one of the detainees. He’s petitioning for them to be released, charged and tried in an open and transparent way. At this point, the Malaysian government has offered no answer.
“Everyone deserves a fair trial,” he says. “It’s very unfair. These people are not even asking for a change of government. They’re asking for a change of policy…. That kind of response was just uncalled for.”

Palay says the Singaporean police have warned him to leave—they also asked him for an entertainment or exhibition license, but he told them his business was neither. He’s already well enough known to them from his other activism that they didn’t even ask for his national ID. When Malaysian High Commission officials started snapping pictures of his visitors, he says, he walked up to their guard booth to give them a better view. He aims to finish the fast and keep agitating for change of all kinds—preferably in protest-averse Singapore. (He’s also involved in animal rights issues and vegetarian groups.)

If I hadn’t known he was on a hunger strike, I would never have guessed it. Spare-framed but with a sturdy, steady look, Palay sounded articulate and energetic. Speaking over the buzz of an Indian laborer trimming the lawn of the spacious bungalow behind him that afternoon, Palay said he had received little support from Singaporean Indians.

What makes him willing to do this when so many other people are not?
“Because I understand that the culture of resistance, the freedom of expression is a universal concept,” he said.

“Sometimes a kind of indoctrination can make a whole generation and the generation to come suppress that kind of expression, but when I read history and when I read current affairs… There are protests everywhere, even in Malaysia. The lawyers march in the streets. That is all proof to me that just because I’m Singaporean and there’s no culture of this here—fine. I won’t wait for the change, I’ll make the change. I will set an example…. The people who are affected come here to show their appreciation. I get calls from Malaysia, and that is all I need to know. I am with them on this issue.”

Palay drinks only water and has four bottles leaning against the trunk of his chosen tree; he’s had diarrhea for the past few days, fights headaches, and says his muscles feel the strain. Sporting a goatee and a short ponytail, he looks—and often sounds—like his American university-age counterparts.
Palay’s protest made the newspapers in Singapore, as did the upheaval in Malaysia. In Singapore, South Asians are treated as well as anyone else—the government does not systematically favor Malays and Muslims, as it does in Malaysia.

There, government jobs and university seats are allotted with preferential treatment for Malays, and have been for decades. More recently, Hindus have complained of suspicious conversions to Islam: one widow was denied her husband’s body and was told after his death that he had converted to Islam. The man was buried; the widow is suing. But such cases are sometimes tossed between sharia (Muslim) courts and civil courts, leaving plaintiffs nowhere. Malaysians are grateful for Palay’s protest, he says—most days, those visiting him are Malaysian. Another friend, local human rights lawyer and anti-death penalty crusader M. Ravi, garlands him nightly. (Ravi’s not his lawyer yet. Seelan says that lawyers in Malaysia have said that if the Malaysian government denies him a visa to travel there, they will take up his cause.)

Palay’s other visitors that night also included an opposition party politician, Chee Siok Chin, who called Palay “rare.” Indeed, other young Singaporeans I spoke to during my visit told me its repressive attitudes towards open debate are part of what prompts them to go elsewhere.
His father, a taxi driver in Singapore, thinks that if Seelan is not afraid, he should do what he wants to do. But what about factory worker Amma?
“She cries a lot,” he conceded. But, “I had a personal experience. This is my personal response.”
He’s got a plan for that first meal Saturday morning already: mango juice, tea—and two vadai. When we left him, he was at T-minus two days.
Aside: The government tried to link HINDRAF to the LTTE, but this seems to me ridiculous.