Blind; but doesn’t lose sight on the importance of education

Blind; but doesn’t lose sight on the importance of education

He lost his vision at the age of four, but his father’s foresight on the importance of education eventually saw Mah Hassan Omar graduating and practising as Malaysia’s first visually impaired lawyer.

Born in Besut, Terengganu in 1961, at the age of seven, Mah Hassan was sent to pursue his primary education at Johor Bahru’s Princess Elizabeth special school for the blind – a train journey which even today would take up to 17 hours from Wakaf Baru in Kelantan, the nearest station to his hometown.

By the time he entered secondary school, Mah Hassan has integrated into the mainstream system where one or two visually impaired pupils will be placed in an ordinary classroom with other sighted students.

During an interview held at his law firm in Sentul, which is also the office for KL Braille Resources, Mah revealed how his father had fought societal norms and approached the Welfare Department for assistance to provide him with an education that would help him to lead an independent life.

The law graduate from Universiti Malaya went on to earn his master’s degree at Southampton University, United Kingdom, before returning home for a 13-year stint with the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange. In 2005, he left to set up his own law firm.

The early realisation that education is the key to assisting people with disabilities has shaped Mah Hassan to be an advocate for their rights to equal access to information – including pioneering a project to produce a braille version of the Quran.

At the age of 56, Mah Hassan is a father of six – three girls and three boys – the eldest three of whom are pursuing their higher education.

He has set many personal records and aims to inspire others like him.

Here is Mah Hassan’s story in his own words:

AS A YOUNG BOY, I WAS SO ENTHUSIASTIC TO GO TO SCHOOL. But for my parents, as I understood it, it was very challenging.

They had to face the reality of how to part with their blind boy. Also, the people and neighbours accused them of them being irresponsible.

My father told me every time I leave the house to go to school, he could not follow me. He always thought about what the people were saying.

My mother will send me because my mother is stronger in that sense.

FOR ALL PARENTS OUT THERE, I wish to urge all of you who have children with disabilities, give your children an education.

With education, you are giving him or her the important equipment to live independently.

You can give them as much money as you can afford but the money will go. If you give them education, it will stay with them forever.

IN ADDITION TO ACADEMIC SKILLS, I always see that primary education provided me with an important background, basic skills that prepared me to lead an independent life. In other words, being a blind person, we were taught how to groom and take care of ourselves. How to live independently.

For every blind child, I see survival skills as a very important factor. Because even with academic success, without the necessary guidance, from my observations it would be very difficult to survive in life.

COMPETITION WAS STIFFER DURING SECONDARY SCHOOL. I managed to continue until Form 6, before pursuing my degree in law at Universiti Malaya. As a matter of fact, I was the first blind person in the country to take up law.

When I was called to the bar in January 1989, again I created a Malaysian record as the first blind person in the country to get legal certification as an advocate and solicitor.

Why do I stress on the records? Because the greatest challenge for blind students is a lack of books.

I PRACTICALLY DID NOT HAVE ANY BOOKS AVAILABLE IN BRAILLE. So I had to double my efforts.

I spent the greatest part of my time in university to transcribe books into braille. During my school time, the blind at the time did not even have any copy of the Quran in braille.

The Quran is the basis for Islamic books so I think it is a denial of our right to have equal access to the Quran.

BESIDES STUDIES AND PROMOTING MY LEGAL PRACTICE, I was also active in NGOs that provide services for the blind.

I was president of the Society of the Blind in Malaysia from 2000 to 2010. I am also co-founder of the Malaysian Blind Muslims Association and served as president from 1989 to 2002, before I resigned for the benefit of younger leaders.

Now I am still active in the associations but perhaps to a lesser degree.

IN 2002 WE COMPLETED THE DRAFT FOR THE PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES ACT. I headed the technical working committee and the Act came into force in 2008.

It was a five-year process. It took quite a while because in 2006 the UN came out with the first international convention on rights of people with disabilities, so we have to fine-tune our proposed bill.

I was given the privilege to represent the country at the UN in 2006 when we negotiated for the convention.

MY EMPHASIS IS MORE TO PROMOTE THE RIGHT TO LITERACY AMONG THE BLIND. The rights for blind people to have equal access to reading materials in braille.

Be it for education or any other pursuit. Our focus is mainly on transcribing Islamic religious books as well as academic books.

We believe these two genres have been sidelined.

WITHIN ONE WEEK OF MY ARRIVAL IN THE UK IN 1991, I WAS GIVEN A COPY OF THE BIBLE IN BRAILLE FOR FREE. It gave me a challenge.

If Christian voluntary groups can work to give free Bibles, why can’t we Muslims provide free Quran? So that’s what I tried to do.

When I came back to Malaysia, we worked on a research project to produce the Quran in braille and now we have the capacity here at KL Braille Resources.

In order to finance the project, I launched what we called the Wakaf Al-Quran. We invite the public to sponsor any number of Quran as they wish and each set is priced at RM250.

With this sum, we finance the production of the Quran and distribute them to the needy.

I HAVE LOVED CHESS FROM A YOUNG AGE. I see chess not only as a competitive activity but for any disabled or blind person, it can also provide you with an opportunity to integrate with normal people.

EVEN THOUGH I AM BLIND, MY UNIVERSITY’S TEAM ACCEPTED ME JUST LIKE ANYBODY ELSE. I had taken part in an open tournament for selection for the university’s team.

I was the only blind person there. But I competed against sighted people and got third place.

They needed four people to fill the team. I also played in the UK’s chess league.

FOR THE 2009 AND 2010 PARALYMPICS, I WON GOLD FOR CHESS. Another achievement was in 2003 when I took part in the ASEAN Chess Championship for the Blind in Mumbai, India, and won second place.

Now I am still president of the National Chess Association for the Disabled and our members are busy preparing for the forthcoming paralympic games in Kuala Lumpur in September.

The current chess set produced by KL Braille is also being used exclusively for the paralympic games.

WHEN BLIND PEOPLE PLAY WITH SIGHTED PEOPLE, both players have to announce their move. The board is modified to allow for usage by blind people.

But we don’t compromise on the rules. There is no difference to the rules.

The black and white pieces, how a blind player can tell is based on touch.

BE IT VISION 2020 OR TN50, I wish to see that disability issues are not sidelined. The way I see it, disabled people should be given equal rights with other citizens.

They are not to be discriminated against or left out. They should be given all opportunities.

The movement to promote equal rights has been talked about since 1981.

IN THAT SENSE WE HAVE SEEN MUCH PROGRESS, but in some other areas, the progress is too slow. For example, we have difficulties with financial institutions.

Just to open bank accounts, have I always received grievances from my blind counterparts. They wanted to open bank accounts but are not allowed to by certain banks.

DISABILITY ISSUES ARE OFTEN NOT GIVEN ENOUGH COVERAGE. The media are prone to focus on issues that can trigger sympathy.

When you talk about disabled people, I think it is more worthwhile to talk about rights rather than individual challenges.

When doing a story, just ask yourself, who will benefit?

If it is just one or two people, how many stories do you want to do?

THE MEDIA RARELY HIGHLIGHT STORIES FROM THE OKU’S PERSPECTIVE. They will take a third person’s view.

If you want to talk about the problem of beggars, those selling tissues on the streets, just go and talk to them.

If authorities want to catch them for selling tissues, the first thing we must ask is, have we given them opportunities to make a living?

OPERATIONS TEND TO INCREASE WHEN THERE ARE BIG PROGRAMMES PLANNED. For example, if the prime minister is coming, they will be detained and put into trucks, sent off somewhere and asked to find their own way home.

If the breadwinner is arrested, how will those left at home survive?

Maybe the spouse will take the children to go out and beg.

WHEN THERE ARE NO JOB OPPORTUNITIES, what other choice do they have, at a time when even healthy able-bodied people are finding it difficult to find jobs?

What do you expect?

MALAYSIANS ARE VERY CARING. I don’t dispute that. But when it comes to giving disabled people their rights to lead independent lives, that’s when the problem starts.

For example, when you want to ride the LRT, the public is very caring. I don’t think we have any big problem anymore. The awareness is there.

But do you know that for people using wheelchairs, to have access, is it still very difficult? That is their right.

BEING BLIND IS NOTHING TO BE SHY ABOUT. As a matter of fact, we want to be treated just like any other ordinary people.

People often call us “golongan istimewa” or “kelainan upaya” (differently abled).

The term “orang kurang upaya” (disabled) shows that we have a disability but we are not pampered.

TREAT ME JUST LIKE ANY OTHER OF YOUR FRIENDS. If you can joke with and tease them, do the same to us.

What is the difference? We are the same. Just that it has been fated that we lost one of our senses.

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Breaking Orang Asli stereotypes

Breaking Orang Asli stereotypes

Meet the Mah Meri women breaking Orang Asli stereotypes

Harith Najmuddin & Zikri Kamarulzaman, 7 April 2017

At first glance, Diana looks just like any other regular Malay woman. She has straight black hair, a light tan which Malays would describe as ‘kuning langsat’ (olive skin), and speaks without any accent.

She also has a degree in administration from Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) Malacca, and works as a clerk at Serdang Hospital.

However, despite appearances and educational background, she is not a Malay, though many of her acquaintances initially think otherwise.

The 29-year-old whose full name is Diana Uju, is a member of the Mah Meri Orang Asli community from Pulau Carey, Selangor.

“My colleagues at work tell me ‘I never imagined you to be an Orang Asli, I’m proud to be friends with one’. I ask them why, and they tell me ‘you don’t look like an Orang Asli’,” Diana said with a laugh.

The mother of two is one of several Mah Meri women Malaysiakini met during a trip to Pulau Carey recently.

Though shy at first – as many people are when they first encounter a journalist – Diana quickly warmed up to share her views and life experiences.

She said many Malaysians look down on members of the community and have stereotypical views of them.

“People think the Orang Asli have curly hair, are dark-skinned, live in the forest, and don’t know anything, that’s why they think we can’t succeed.

“They have never met an educated Orang Asli, although there are many of us,” she said.

Diana’s success however, is uncommon in the community.

Among her seven siblings, she is the only one to pursue higher education and has a regular job, while the rest of her brothers and sisters work off the land.

The Orang Asli who don’t finish school face difficulties getting work she said, and those who do are often cheated out of their salaries by their employers.

According to the government’s Statistics Department, as of 2010, 76.9 percent of Orang Asli live below the poverty line, and 35.2 percent are living in hardcore poverty.

%

Below poverty line

%

Hardcore poverty

Malaysian Statistics Department (2010)

The situation, however, is changing. Diana believes, who said that she has met many Orang Asli graduates in UiTM reunions.

She also said that many Orang Asli are working with the government now, while others like her husband work in the private sector.

Meanwhile, other Orang Asli are seeking to empower the community through other means.

Among them is Rosiah Kengkeng, a fellow Mah Meri, who is determined to give Orang Asli women a voice.

A trainer and motivational speaker, Rosiah travels across the country to hold workshops in Orang Asli villages on how women, too, can play an important role in the community.

She said many Orang Asli women believed their only role is to take care of their children and their family.

“But that is not the case. We have husbands but they are less knowledgeable and are always busy finding work.”

“We women can also take action. Like managing our children’s schooling and when we get the opportunity, we can also contribute to the household income,” she said.

The mother of seven also pushes Mah Meri women to be more vocal about their concerns and problems.

She also encourages women to seek help if they suffer from domestic abuse, as she believes many of them keep it to themselves.

“We women have a right to speak out, don’t think that women only belong in the kitchen,” Rosiah said.

While Diana and Rosiah seek to break glass ceilings, one aspect they both seek to maintain is the culture and heritage of their people.

Rosiah said these are important to the identity of the Mah Meri, and should be passed down from one generation to the next.

Diana, however, said that many Orang Asli youths are seeking a more modern and simpler lifestyle.

“They don’t bother, they don’t realise the importance of preserving traditions,” she said.

She is not sure how one can balance traditions with modernity, but believes it is possible.

She added that the best way to preserve the Orang Asli’s traditions, is through education.

“Children should learn about our culture in school. Like my niece is in secondary school, but she is still learning (traditional) dancing,” Diana said.

She herself was a traditional dancer and had even held a traditional Mah Meri wedding when she tied the knot in 2014.

She is worried that if traditions are no longer practiced, it may just disappear.

“When people realise these customs are gone, they will be lost just like that,” Diana said.

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Ballerina loses sight, but gains new vision through her foundation

Ballerina loses sight, but gains new vision through her foundation

For Yvonne Foong, setting up an international foundation and writing her second book seems like the most natural thing to do.

This is despite her losing her sight a year ago, and her hearing when she was 19 years old.

Foong, 31, has Neurofibromatosis Type 2 (NF2), an incurable illness where benign tumours develop in the nervous system which caused her to lose her hearing in her teens and later on, her vision.

Undeterred by the disease and its complications, she continues to pursue her goals of helping others through her foundation aimed at NF2 patients worldwide.

On a sunny day in Petaling Jaya, Foong spoke to Malaysiakini about her childhood experiences that have set her on a trajectory for her mission in life.

Before the interview began, her mother reassured me that I would be able to communicate with Foong by writing on her palm.

The petite Foong sat down next to me, greeting me with a smile and a spirited wave.

She extended her left arm and opened her palm, miming writing on it.

I moved my index finger to form a “how” on her palm, and she nodded and vocalised each word as I wrote.

“How do you feel today?” I completed writing the rest of my question on her palm.

“I am a little tired today,” she replied.

She had been busy yesterday, she explained, working with her personal assistant Hui Li on a PowerPoint presentation for the talk she will be giving on Sunday at the Federal Academy of Ballet (FAB), where she used to dance.

She said she used to edit her PowerPoint presentations herself but has needed Hui Li’s help ever since she lost her eyesight last year.

Even so, her voice is jovial and spirited, filling the living room of her house, furnished with a few pieces of rattan furniture and a vase of fake flowers near the window.

I moved my finger on her palm to ask her if this is her childhood home.

She did not grow up in this house but in Subang Jaya, she said.

One of Foong’s earliest childhood memories was making frequent trips to the hospital when her father suffered a brain haemorrhage.

“My father’s brain was damaged in a way he was unable to control his emotions or express himself congruently,” she told me.

Unaware of symptoms

Her aunt Ivy, her father’s younger sister, was close to her father and she stepped in to care for Foong as her mother became burdened with caring for her father.

“See this deformity in my left eye?

“My aunt realised how my left eye affected my self-esteem and also that my parents were unable to care for me optimally, so she sent me to learn ballet at FAB,” she said, recounting her youth.

In addition to ballet lessons, Ivy sent her niece to figure skating classes and squash lessons in the hope that Foong would “grow up like a normal child”.

Under her aunt’s tutelage, Foong’s daily life as a child soon became inundated with activities, which she loved.

Through these activities, she said she developed dignity, honour and a keen sense of self-awareness.

In her early teens, the symptoms of her disease started manifesting, though she and her family were unaware of it.

She said she continued to lead an active life even as her body began giving in.

At 14 years old, she took her Grade 5 ballet examinations even as her spine was collapsing.

“I fell down very dramatically while doing a pirouette,” Foong recalled, adding that she received a high commendation despite that.

She also continued participating in figure skating competitions, squash tournaments and choir performances, even as she lost both her hearing and her balance.

“I wanted to live the best I could,” she replied, especially after her aunt died of terminal cancer in 2001.

It was in 2009 when Foong, at 16, was finally diagnosed with NF2.

It was then she learned her deformed left eye was not deformed after all, it had simply been pushed upwards by a tumour in her face.

What she did after her diagnosis was widely reported. She started a campaign called ‘Heart4Hope’ where she sold T-shirts to fund her own surgeries in the US.

That same year she wrote an autobiography entitled ‘I’m Not Sick, Just a Bit Unwell’, with all proceeds from the book going towards raising funds for her surgeries.

She started speaking at universities and events about her experiences living with NF2, and began keeping a blog where she discusses her life up to this day.

‘Forgiveness is not easy’

In January 2016, Foong underwent two brain surgeries as well as a surgery to install a feeding tube into her body at the US National Institute of Health (NIH) in Maryland.

One week after her surgeries, her eyes dried up and she lost her eyesight, she said.

“The doctors in the ward neglected to give me eye care. During the surgery, the facial nerve was irritated and this impaired tear production,” she explained.

Foong’s face showed no trace of contempt or anger while relating the story.

She shifted her bony shoulders, tilted her head down and brought her right hand to her chin.

“I was upset, but I have been working on forgiveness. Forgiveness is not easy.

“When I am relaxed I can forgive but when I have difficulty doing things, the frustration surfaces, then I will need to work on forgiveness again.”

There is a silver lining in this, she said.

“Before my vision was damaged, it was very difficult for me to live slow (as) I am used to living fast.

“Now it is an opportunity for me to slow down,” she mused.

We had been talking for over an hour by this point in the interview and Foong sounded like she was running out of breath.

We paused the interview to take photographs of her and her childhood pictures.

Foong needed help adjusting her face to look at the camera and joked about needing Photoshop because she was not wearing any make-up.

Foundation her life mission

She returned to Malaysia in February 2016 after recuperating from her surgeries in the US.

With Hui Li’s help, she got started on her second autobiography about her life as a young adult.

She also began building Works of Gratitude, a charitable foundation that aims to assist NF2 patients worldwide in getting treatment in the US so they have a better chance of survival.

“The foundation is a big goal, it is now my life mission.

“Even after I came back from surgery with damaged vision, I still had to continue,” Foong almost ran out of breath as she raced through her words.

I tapped her shoulder to assure her we could slow down the conversation but she was determined to continue.

The active lifestyle she had as an adolescent had made her accustomed to keeping herself busy.

“It has already been programmed in me,” she said.

She first tried starting the foundation in Malaysia but struggled to land sponsors, especially when the economy slowed down in the middle of last year. She then realised she could start it in the US.

“All the doctors who can help us survive are there (the US), so I decided to work with doctors in the US instead.

“Once I changed (the direction of) my goal, things started to grow and doors started opening,” Foong said, beaming.

One doctor she is partnering with is Dr Rick A Friedman, whom she has known for 12 years.

Friedman is the division director of skull-based surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California.

Works of gratitude

Through the foundation, patients will have access to a fixed price package of US$80,000 (RM340,000) per brain surgery rather than be billed for each procedure they undergo, and the foundation will subsidise all hospital charges, an estimated 65 percent of the total bill, Foong explained.

She believes sponsors will come forward once she reveals her foundation’s plans and strategies. She also believes her foundation will benefit patients from all over the world.

“In many parts of the world NF2 patients became paralysed and perish after just two or three surgeries.

“This foundation aims to change many people’s fates… In many countries, people would not even speak about the mortal truth of NF2,” Foong wrote on her blog.

She does not want other NF2 patients to rely on her or on her foundation but rather she hopes to empower them to make decisions to extend their own lives.

“I want to guide others to help themselves,” she said, adding that she hopes to launch Works of Gratitude this June.

So what is daily life like for you, I wrote on her palm.

“Now that I can’t see, I can’t do much except eat, sleep and take care of myself. I can’t write or use a computer or use a phone. I need to speak slowly,” she said.

Foong sipped on some water.

“But since I already have this condition, I might as well do something good with it. I might as well help people.”

Feeling inspired? Share Yvonne’s story

Thaipusam spray paint threat spawns ‘painted goddesses’

Thaipusam spray paint threat spawns ‘painted goddesses’

Thaipusam spray paint threat spawns 'painted goddesses'

Geraldine Tong | 6 March 2017
中文版Bahasa Malaysia

Anger was the first thing artist Ruby Subramaniam felt when she read a vigilante group’s threat to use aerosol spray paint on “inappropriately dressed” women at Thaipusam events.

Instead of stewing in her anger, the self-taught artist decided to do something about it.

She reached out to friends whom she knew, had also been vocal against the vigilante group and proposed an art project titled “This Body Is Mine”, where she painted women to symbolise Hindu goddesses instead.

“It started out in the beginning as something to poke fun (at the vigilante group).

“If you’re going to spray paint us, might as well I paint on women’s bodies because at least it will be prettier,” Ruby said to Malaysiakini in an interview at Talent Lounge in Damansara yesterday.

Of course she was angry when she first heard the news, the 28-year-old said.

As someone who has attended Thaipusam since young, she said she has seen and experienced many issues during the events.

Not only are there men who are drunk and playing really loud non-religious music, Ruby revealed that she was molested at Batu Caves during a Thaipusam event when she was in her teens.

“Women have been keeping quiet all these years, tolerating these things they have been doing to us, but suddenly now our skin disturbs you?” she asked.

But Ruby knew if she wanted to get her message across in a way that encouraged discourse instead of merely inviting brickbats, she had to do it in a subtle and artistic way.

Ruby and her collaborators shared the same objective, that is they wanted to see the culture be more accepting of the different roles that men and women play instead of focusing too much on the way women dress.

“If we are going to pray, let us focus on the praying, instead of focusing on the clothes,” she said.

Along with her friends, and several photographers, they began to plan what they were going to do.

They decided to base it around the three Hindu goddesses who Ruby described as the “foundation of all of it”.

“The creator (Saraswathy), the preserver (Lakshmi) and the destroyer (Kali), so I based ‘This Body Is Mine’ on that concept and then chose the values based on the hopes I have for younger women out there to embrace their bodies,” she said.

Positive response from women

First, they had to decide which goddesses Ruby was to draw and how she would convey the symbolism of the goddesses on her models.

She then released control to the models, all classical Indian dancers, who decided how they would portray the goddesses they were meant to embody.

Finally, the photographer captures the moments in the most aesthetically pleasing way.

The whole process, spanning the planning, three separate photoshoots and editing, lasted about 10 days, she said.

She began posting the photos on Feb 1, and has since received overwhelmingly positive response.

“A lot of women have come up to me, saying that this is something that they needed and they interpreted it on a personal level, not related to Thaipusam.

“It was like ‘If I see this model do this and be comfortable in her body, that makes me comfortable with mine too’.

“That was something really nice to hear, that a collaborative effort like this, a small idea, ended up comforting a lot of other women about their own body,” she said.

Ruby said this is not the first time her artwork had challenged social convention.

Describing herself as a feminist even from a young age, she said a lot of her work tries to get people to question themselves or the society.

“I draw women who are half nude and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

“I like that quote, ‘art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” she said.

Though she recalled that anger fueled her initial desire to start the “This Body Is Mine” project, she said her collaborators and her had a lot of fun during the process.

The first photoshoot was with Harshini Devi Retna, who was painted with an owl as a symbol of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, the preserver and Vinoth Raj Pillai as the photographer.

The photoshoot took place at Masjid Jamek, and Ruby commended Harshini’s bravery in bearing the gazes of the public at the crowded area during the photoshoot.

“At that point, you could see everyone staring. We kind of had a giggle about it, and it was interesting to see how the public was reacting to it,” Ruby said.

She said when they began putting up the pictures later, someone said to Harshini that “it was nice that you have taken something ugly and turned it into quite an empowering message”.

With Nalina Nair, who was painted with a tiger on her back to depict Kali the destroyer, she said the photoshoot was at Sungai Gabai, Hulu Langat, about a 40-minute drive from Kuala Lumpur city centre.

Unlike Masjid Jamek, Sungai Gabai was very quiet and the women, along with photographer Vicknes Waran, had ample space to utilise.

“Nalina, she was really into her role. She took her time to get into that role and really embodied that personality, which is why when you see the pictures, they are really strong and powerful,” Ruby said.

The two women bonded over their shared belief that women are often told off for speaking their minds, she said.

Nalina, she said, is active in politics and often gets told that she is speaking with too much emotion in her speeches, and should tone down.

“A male politician probably doesn’t get that,” she mused.

Empowering experience

The final photoshoot was held in Brickfields with G Rathimalar painted with a swan along her arm to symbolise Saraswathy, with Kenny Loh as the photographer.

As this was the third photoshoot, there was already some awareness about this project and some supporters turned up to watch the shoot.

Rathimalar also constantly updated news of the ongoing shoot on her social media, Ruby said, which sparked more conversation about the project.

“I had goosebumps throughout that entire photoshoot.

“She (Rathimalar) is just so graceful and so beautiful. Throughout the whole time in Brickfields, she was just dancing through the side of the streets despite all these people gawking at her.

“That is the exact true value that we wanted to create out of this thing, and that is, despite people looking at you and judging you, you are still graceful in your form and in your art,” she said.

When asked if the project would end with the conclusion of Thaipusam, she said she is interested in continuing it in the future.

“Thaipusam was one thing that triggered this project, but a lot of women are coming up to me saying this is really empowering. So I want it to grow into something else,” she said.

Share Ruby’s story!

A Story of Faith, Sexuality, Art and Activism

A Story of Faith, Sexuality, Art and Activism

Extracted from MALAYSIANS KINI, a series on Malaysians you should know.

I just happened to become a Christian

while I was in Singapore at the age of 14, but I eventually found that it conflicted with my parallel discovery and awakening of my sexuality.

My last year in Singapore, I found a Christian ministry who, in their words, wanted to heal their sexual brokenness, so I joined them.

But when I came out to my father as a Christian, he didn’t like the fact that I’m a Christian, so he brought me back (to Malaysia) so he could monitor me closely.

I was so miserable NOT going to church

that it reached a point where I couldn’t take it anymore, so I had to come out to my father. So I told him, I’m gay and the reason I’m going to church is because I want to be straight. So you choose, gay or Christian.

I didn’t envy my father’s position at that time.

I found a church which had been trained by the ministry in Singapore,

so I joined them and became very active. It was a kind of catharsis, for the anxiety I felt struggling against my sexuality.

I poured myself into the theatre of the church, but it turned out that even after I’ve done a lot of research on the scripts, poured myself into it, in the end, they would change my scripts quite drastically.

After three years of that, I got quite bored of it, I was being quite diva, you know. I started to think that maybe the church, in a sense, doesn’t really want my individuality. In fact, it probably wants conformity.

I kept in touch with some of the people

who were in the ministry in Singapore, and one guy called Clarence went on to start a positive and affirming fellowship group for gay Christians, after he left the ministry.

One day, I went down to Singapore and talked to him. I was starting to doubt my faith so I told him about a thought experiment I did.
I told him that I had this thought: what if I’m truly alone in the universe, what if we’re all truly, truly alone. I had a sensation of freefalling through the universe, through the dark, through a black hole.

He said, maybe God is not an entity that you imagine him to be. Maybe, as you’re falling through the universe, the universe is God for you.

That really freed me up to reimagine my relationship with everything around me. It also freed me from thinking of God as an entity that I used to imagine him as.

I'm not terribly upset that I became a Christain.

I needed that (at that time). It kept me sane.

Many years later, I decided it (struggling against my sexuality) wasn’t working. If it’s true that by becoming gay, I was going to be miserable and hate myself, it’s also equally true if I continue battling my sexuality.

I had these two equally miserable prognoses for my life. I didn’t take the Harry Potter advice, I took the easier path.

I said to myself, I have not tried living as a gay man. And now, I’m not miserable anymore.

Eventually, I had to come out to my parents

(as gay and not trying to be straight). My father said, this does not make him happy. Then I said, you know what, I can, of course, continue pretending to be straight, pretend to like a woman, get married to her, but for the rest of my life, I will have to shut up this part of my heart and lock it in chains, and I will not be happy.

Then I said, you know what, I can, of course, continue pretending to be straight, pretend to like a woman, get married to her, but for the rest of my life, I will have to shut up this part of my heart and lock it in chains, and I will not be happy.I will not be able to truly love her, and she will not be happy because I cannot give her what she wants. If we have children, they will also be unhappy.

I will not be able to truly love her, and she will not be happy because I cannot give her what she wants. If we have children, they will also be unhappy.

How much unhappiness will it take for you to be happy, I asked my father.

My mother said, if you get married and you have children, there will be someone to take care of you and you won’t be so lonely.

“So I looked at her and said, you’re married, you have children. Do you dare tell me you’re not lonely?”

We’re all lonely, but we can still be here for each other. I have learned to be independent and through my independence, I have learned that the best way to deal with my loneliness is to learn to be alone.

Because loneliness is actually not isolation from others, it’s isolation from yourself. It’s when you’re alone and you’re confronted with who you truly are, and you hate who you are and you cannot stand yourself, that’s when you feel loneliness.

When Seksualiti Merdeka was banned in 2011

and my picture was splashed all over (the media), the next day my cousin helpfully called my parents and said, ‘Aunty, you know your son is wanted by the police’.

That was when I was outed as an activist.

Their (My parents) reason for being very upset that I’m an activist were very different. What my father said (after that) revealed to me that he doesn’t understand yet. He said, ‘What am I going to tell my friends?’

It meant he didn’t respect me at all. I didn’t feel very sorry for his predicament at that time. But it turns out a few of my father’s friends were quite supportive. I suspect a few of them talked to my father about it.

My mother said, if you’re taken in by the police, I don’t know what they’re going to do to you, and I don’t know how to protect you.

I became angry that this country has frightened my mother into feeling so helpless.

Ultimately, that’s what all mothers want; to be able to protect their children, but this country has taken that away from our mothers.

I told my mother, is it reasonable to be living in fear in your own home, in your own country? It’s not right, and that’s what I’m doing about it.

A lot of people do come to me

when they need someone to talk about LGBT issues, and I’m happy to talk when there’s no one else who can do it. I do also try to tell people, can I connect you with someone else who would have a different perspective?
It’s a bad, bad situation but I also understand why some people cannot really come out. The cost of social alienation is very high and I think society teaches conformity through the threat of alienation.

I'm happy to also say

I know a lot of young LGBTs today who are actively doing what they can, where they can, (and) providing space for each other.

This is where I think it’s really radical: when a person who is considered an imperfect citizen, extends his hand and creates a space for someone else, automatically then the two of them, what they’ve done is that they’ve carved a citizenship of themselves in that space. (They are) offering (each other) a space to be themselves.

It doesn't have to just be a space for LGBT.

Your activism can be about LGBT but it doesn’t have to be limited to that. You can do something for refugees, women, etc. Just be involved at every level, because what they want you to do is to run and hide in your private space so you leave the public sphere. But the public sphere is where you are able to decide what you can do in your private space.

This is why I’m excited that even as a gay man, I have skills to create space for other people, and also why Art for Grabs is very important to me.

I'm aware of my privileged status today

as someone who is living relatively middle-class. I have different circumstances from Muslim gays, the LGBT poor, women and trans people. They all have different issues, because of different circumstances. Wealth and connection (also) have something to do with it.

I also get annoyed with wealthier LGBT people who say you just need to work hard and prove yourself and then no one can touch you. It’s this illusion that the capitalist market allows us to buy into, and it leaves those without the connection out there to fend for themselves.

We tell them, you just need to work harder, but some of these people have three jobs. You cannot tell them to work any harder.

Trans people are very well-connected around the country.

Unfortunately, with the other issues, it’s harder. Urban LGBT are so much luckier than those in the rural areas. I constantly get stories of rural places, where they’ll lock their lesbian daughter in the house and things like that.

Seksualiti Merdeka came about

because at that point, we ran an art gallery and we had space. That time we were planning Art for Grabs on Aug 31, 2008, which is how it got its name Seksualiti Merdeka.

Well, I mean at least the government is using the word LGBT now (after Seksualiti Merdeka). I admit this acronym does not completely capture the diversity of sexuality and gender expressions and identity, but it’s better than songsang, pondan or bapok.

I'm very happy for (people) when they want to get married,

but I also feel that marriage is not the ultimate goal for LGBT rights.

The problem of the US promotion of same-sex marriage is that very much of it is banked on the idea that marriage allows us to marry into equality, instead of the fact that you can get married because you are already equal.

The issue is this: people think of marriage as an expression of love, but is it? Can’t you express love without marriage?

The discourse of marriage ends up marginalising unmarried gays. No other kinds of narratives are allowed. The inequality here is between unmarried and married people.

I'm not naive enough to think that we need to get rid of marriage.

I just think that with marriage, a lot of gradiation of possible relationships we can have with one another becomes impossible.

Love is anarchic.

Love breaks rules and it makes us break rules, but we’re so afraid because society keeps telling us that only these form of relationship is acceptable, then they create a whole system to reward this type of relationship.

The discussion around marriage is partly because of the stupid policy of hospitals only allowing next of kin (visitation and legal rights), but why can’t this document be ascertained between two best friends?

(For example), at the end of the life of a person who doesn’t want to have anything to do with his family, the hospital will still invite their family to decide on his life. How cruel is that?

I said in my post ("A ‘party’ at Sentul police station") that being in Malaysia sometimes felt like being in the wrong place and wrong time.

But I thought about it, and that’s what they want you to feel.

We just have to keep doing what we can, until this country becomes the right place and the right time for us, whenever that may be.

We are filled with idealism at this point. Right now, we think we can make a difference so we try.

Maybe one day, I'll give up,

and I hope people don’t judge me too harshly when that happens.

Pang Khee Teik

Pang Khee Teik

Pang, who is gay, is prominent for being outspoken and vocal about LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) issues in Malaysia.