Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tawfique Chowdhury and Millionaire Muslims

A friend showed me this video of Tawfique Chowdhury, a Bangladesh-born speaker in Australia. He is the founder of Mercy Mission Australia, an organisation that aims to 'help people help others' by providing Islamic education and supporting Muslim businesses.

Now all that doesn't sound so bad. It sounds pretty good, actually. But if a person were to just watch this video without knowing where he's coming from, that person could start to feel a little uneasy.

He starts the video by asking "How many Muslim millionaires are there?" and goes on to argue that Muslims need to be rich, to 'have the world in their hands' but at the same time, to use this wealth justly, to help others because he has 'God in his heart'. A rich Muslim is of more benefit to his community than a poor one.

He says that many Muslims today are lazy. With hard work, if Muslims all become lawyers, doctors, businessmen, then they can in turn help their fellow poorer Muslims, and ultimately, everyone will respect Muslims because of their intelligence, status, etc. But I find many of his points problematic.

Blaming the poor for their problems - is this really such a new way of thinking? He gives the example of Muslims in Australia who depend on welfare and have more children as a strategy to get more money. In other words, their poverty is a result of bad choices. He does not mention any structural factors such as marginalisation from the state, the lack of access to education, etc. Not to mention that wealth usually comes from wealth - a rags-to-riches story is more an exception than the norm.

Wealth requires accumulation, or savings. Accumulation requires a relatively comfortable standard of living already, with a surplus to save. At the same time is there favourable infrastructure and access to opportunity? In Bangladesh would he have been able to spend as much time studying and accumulating as much wealth as in Australia?

Working hard to earn money usually means a gender division of labour, and I can confidently say that here it should preferably be men working hard at being successful, while their wives take care of the home. Rich and successful men become so at the expense of experiencing the raising of their own children - it was actually written in a biography of him at his site that Tawfique 'has 5 children and loves to steal a few moments here and there to play with them'. A few moments here and there? To play? So who does the feeding, dressing, bathing, etc.? The wife and domestic worker?

This video makes people who are already in the rat race feel good because they can say that their wealth is for helping the ummah (larger Muslim community). Indeed, I personally know someone who has the noble vision of helping Muslims in his country, but he feels that he can only help them when he is in a high enough position or status (so that presumably, they will listen to him). But then there is also the actual labour of helping. If you give money for food for the poor, who delivers that food to the elderly woman living alone in her 1-room flat?

This is the vision of Mercy Mission:
When our work is done and our ultimate vision is achieved, the world will be a completely different place. Islam will never be snubbed, nor will Muslims be harmed except by due right. Muslims will be of the highest level of piety and completely confident of their religion. They will not be dependent on anyone save their Lord and they will give selflessly to the needy. Muslims will be the most admired for their faith, knowledge, achievement, excellence and character. They will be part of an illustrious and exemplary community of believers that serve humanity’s needs. Mankind will come into Islam in large numbers for the excellence of the example of Muslims. At that time, no Muslim should live on this earth except that he is able to access a product, service or someone from Mercy Mission. Mercy Mission will be a movement, a conglomerate of institutions and corporations that influence others and the ethos of knowledge and action is desired by all.
The whole idea of being 'exemplary' and 'admired' implies an external audience for a Muslim's hard work, which contradicts the sincere intentions behind it. I agree that it's great to aim to be a Muslim who is rich both materially and in piety, because you need it both for the world here and hereafter. But then, at the end of this vision, 'conglomerate' and 'corporations' stand out. His vision justifies his own business, a little tautology - as if there are no power relations and exploitation in businesses too. It would be great to know if Mercy Mission promotes fair wages and decent work in the enterprises that they support.

From an Islamic point of view, don't we receive what we do only because God wills it? For all our hard work, saving, and scrimping, God ultimately determines if we will be rich, successful or smart.

I don't totally agree nor disagree with his speech. There are valid points but there are also problematic ones, and I feel one should always be careful, especially when Islam is used as a banner of support for someone's business or organisation.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Breast Cancer Foundation ads: Catchy or problematic?

Warning: These pictures may offend your sensibilities. So they are at the end of this post.

I found these advertisements, revealed to the public in August 2010, to raise awareness for breast cancer commissioned by the Breast Cancer Foundation in Singapore. Led by the creative director Thomas Yang, the illustrator Andy Yang used body paint on a model's body to show things that women are 'normally' obsessed about - representations of a derriere, bad hair, and a pimple. 

Surprisingly, I found a blog stating that these ads are 'excellent' and the 'best print adverts... for some time'. The BCF general manager Christine Ang was also 'satisfied' with these ads.

The catchphrase on all three ads are "Are you obsessed about the right things?", implying that Singaporean women are usually more concerned with the size of their behinds or their weight, bad hair days, and their complexion. While there are definitely women like that, it is a big leap to say that women obsess about this to the point of neglecting their health.

It's not one or the other - being superficial does not necessarily mean being unhealthy. Although it may overlap, these ads exclude women who exercise and eat well for their health, and not primarily their looks. These ads also essentialise women as being shallow creatures only worrying about how they look, with no worries about their careers, families or causes.

These ads put the blame on women who are suffering from breast cancer - they were worrying about the wrong things and so they forgot to check on their bodies - instead of acknowledging the unpredictable nature of cancer. 

Lastly, since when was it okay to display women's breasts in public in our nudity-shy Singapore? Does it make the message more catchy because the form of the body has been incorporated into the art? Would an ad for testicular cancer incorporate the naked male body too?

I think not.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Singapore Girl: You're a great Orientalist stereotype.

I've taken Singapore Airlines (SIA) maybe twice in my life, and besides the strangely bad food and thickly made up stewardesses, I never thought much of it.

Until I read the article "No Longer in a Future Heaven" by Anne McClintock (1991), in a module last term, where Nira Yuval-Davis and Flora Anthias (1989) mention the "Singapore Girl" as an example of using women as the 'symbols and signifiers of national difference'.

I did a Google search for SIA ads and there's the Singapore Girl in every pictures - even those of engines and food. How to construct an exotic, subservient, in-need-of-love-and-domination Asian woman through these ads?

Use a young, fair-skinned, Chinese (haven't seen a Malay or Indian Singapore girl yet!) girl, with a shy, demure smile and display her long locks and neck.

Use fans, umbrellas and the setting sun when talking about the Far East.

Or just be obvious. Use the word "exotic" and drawings of the 'tropics'.

In his 1978 work titled Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, Edward said argued that Oriental women are “usually the creatures of the a male power fantasy.  They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing” (207). The Oriental woman is both eager to be dominated and strikingly exotic.

No surprise, the advertising agency (Batey Ads) that created this campaign many decades ago was led by Australian Ian Batey and a French designer, Pierre Balmain, came up with the kebaya uniform.

The exotic Oriental women willingly serves you, the white passenger.

She doesn't just serve white men.

(Interestingly, I found two versions of this image - the version above had an Asian-looking woman cropped out to fit the Orientalist stereotype.)


Not only is she domestic (serving food, making beds), she loves you and you can fall in love with her too.

As for the real SIA women, they have to follow strict rules: long hair must be worn up, only prescribed shades of bright red lipstick, bright red finger and toenail polish and blue or brown eyeshadow. Yikes!


Friday, June 17, 2011

Singapore the Sunny Smile Isle: Old and new tourism ads.

I came upon these two Singapore tourism ads dating from the 1970s, at this nifty blog. This ad here dates to 1974:

"Wave down a passing trishaw and take a ride down the tree lined waterfront. Take in the sunshine, the blue skies and the warm waters. Enjoy it all. And enjoy it any month of the year. Old friends describe Singapore as a 'tropical island world in a clean, green, garden setting.'

The sights and sounds of Singapore are a first-rate introduction to the rest of Asia. A carnival of color and costume at an open-air Chinese opera, the fantasy of a Malay puppet shadow play or the pulsating dance and drama of India. Wherever you go, the color and movement of Asia is just round the corner.

Singapore is a blend of many races, cultures and languages. For all this, English is the language spoken by practically everyone! Plus, there is a language which speaks for itself - a sunny, welcome smile."

In other words...

"Hail a taxi powered by manual energy, usually an old man, so he can cycle a hundred over kilos of you and your fellow tourist to our river side which has been carefully landscaped. This is the tropics as described to you in your textbooks: warm air and warm waters. The skies are not always blue, but mentioning the monsoon season would put a damper on your touristic enthusiasm.

You don't have to know the people living in Singapore, just look and listen to them - because everything is so colourful and noisy. This is a good strategy for travelling in Asia too. A Chinese opera has complex meanings, but it's colourful and noisy, therefore fun to watch. So is wayang kulit, nevermind that it's Hindu in origin and comes from Java and Bali, it's also colourful and noisy, so enjoy! Indians are a heterogenous group of ethnicities and cultures, but you can homogenise their colourful and noisy dances and theatre forms.

Even though these exotic Singapore natives have different languages and cultures, they all learn English thanks to the colonisation of the British and also because the government knew it would be good for going global in education and work. So don't worry, you don't have to worry about trying to understand them - unlike the rest of Asia. And if you don't speak English, you can always smile to the pretty girls."

Here's another poster from 1975, with the same text basically rearranged:

"As night falls, dine Singapore style at a sidewalk food stall. Taste delicious Malay mini barbecues and fresh seafood. As a background, there are the sights and sounds of Singapore. An open-air Chinese opera, a Malay puppet shadow play or the dances of India.

But let's return to the food. Singapore is the only Asian center which offers the cuisine of half the world and more. Western cuisine or all-Eastern dishes can be tasted in the comfort of inter-national restaurants. Or try mouth-watering Malay, Chinese, Indian and Indonesian food prepared and served on the spot at tables along the sidewalk. Wave down a passing trishaw and take a ride down the tree lined waterfront. Take in the sunshine, the blue skies and the warm waters.

Enjoy Singapore any month of the year. A tropical island world in a clean, green, garden setting. Singapore is a blend of many races. But you'll always have something in common, a commonly understood language. English."

Food. Colour. Noise. Food. Trishaw. Hot weather. English. Same old topics.

These posters target American tourists, as indicated by the address in the bottom right-hand corner:
Director - North America
Singapore Tourist Promotion Board
251 Post Street, San Francisco
California 94108

I've always found it strange that tourism ads in Singapore and Malaysia usually and most often use white people as the tourists, although I think we get a good part of our visitors from Malaysia or the region. It's as if we 'natives' are just there to serve white people - a total colonial hangover.

We smile, yeah, because we're getting your money. Who wouldn't be happy when you're bringing your American dollars? This focus on the smile is totally not surprising, given that colonial subjects have often been constructed as docile, especially the women. And it works, putting 'native women' on the poster - women as the bearers of culture and tradition, or one in 'Western' clothing (i.e. bikini) in case the traditional ones are too inaccessible to the white male tourist.

This focus on food, tropical greenery and girls hasn't changed though. Here is a Singapore Airlines postcard found on a Flickr account:

Girls, food, tropical greenery. Is that all we are?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Kelab Taat Suami/Obedient Wives' Club

Last week I was talking to a friend and somewhere in the conversation she said "Well it looks like she's joined the kelab taat suami (club of subservient wives)" and I thought she was using a very witty metaphor until lo and behold, she sent me a link to this article:

The KIT/OWC was started by members of the Global Ikhwan Group in Malaysia, which started a Polygamy Club last year. GIG in turn has links with Al-Arqam, a sect banned in Malaysia for having allegedly deviated from Islamic teachings.

I found several Malaysian blogs with comments on this and it felt like everyone had given their two cents' worth. Even AWARE and PPIS from Singapore have denounced it and right now everyone's watching these few families who are setting up a Singapore chapter of this club.

So what is this club all about? Certainly it has an exclusive membership - Muslim women only, possibly in polygamous marriages. A specific kind of Muslim women - conservative, perhaps financially insecure.

The social situation in Malaysia is different, and economically too, but I'm racking my brain trying to think why Singaporean women would want to open such a club. I can only come up with the following:
  1. These women sincerely believe it's a God-given command to be obedient to their husbands. If their husbands take care of them materially and emotionally (the husband's duty), they have no reason to not be obedient (the wife's duty). If the husband is less than perfect, then sabr (patience) is the answer to all troubles in this world.
  2. Talking about marital sex with a good purpose (building a good marriage and preventing social ills) is a way to circumvent our society's taboo on talking about premarital or marital sex.
  3. It's a simple, universal answer (good sex) to complex problems (divorce, gambling, adultery, domestic violence, prostitution), and everyone loves a simple answer.

But what are the implications of thinking like this?
  1. Women carry the entire burden of abovementioned complex problems. Already people say Muslim women are the source of fitna (chaos) in this world. Need I say more? 
  2. Men are essentially shallow, sexual creatures, with no desire for emotional intimacy or intellectual stimulation with their wives. Muslim men already can divorce much more easily than Muslim women, and "bad sex" is added to the list of reasons for divorce that don't require proof.
And anyway, this is not special to Malaysia/Singapore or Islam. There are 'Submissive Wife Projects' in the "West" too! 

One is the Issacharian Daughters/Wives newsletter, which promotes girls to live with their family (not going to university) and helping their father's work until they are married, whereupon they start helping their husbands.

This is the blog of Dana, married to a "wonderful, Godly, patriarch", with her own thoughts about being a 'submissive wife'.

My take on this is that if a woman wants to be an obedient wife, go ahead. If she wants to be an equal partner to her husband, that's fine too. But let's not put unfair burdens or stereotypes on each other.
P/S: Polygamy is not actually a contradiction to this club's mission. Some said that if a woman could satisfy her husband enough he would not go looking for other women. But polygamy (or specifically, polygyny) is allowed for Muslim men, and does not fall under adultery.

Seeing difference differently.

Recently I met a Chinese friend (let's call her Ann) who was in Europe and she remarked that she was getting a lot of racist remarks on her appearance (speculating that it was possibly due to her recent very 'Chinese' haircut) here in Holland. I looked at her and thought to myself, that's nothing new for me.

My ethnic appearance (call me brown, yellow, olive, or sawo matang) has been commented on for maybe a third of my life. It's nice to be taken for a local in some regions like Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia), but surprisingly it also happened to me in France and surprise, here in Holland - no thanks to their colonial histories. The French occupied Indochina during WW1 and the Dutch were infamously in the New East Indies for 400 years.

When I was studying in Grenoble, I could speak French so many people thought I was simply first generation French. And here, there was a large flow of Indonesians after WW2, and more recently migrants from Suriname (another Dutch colony, independent since 1975) of Javanese ancestry, who migrated to Suriname during the late 19th and early 20th century.

So for Ann, she had not been made conscious of how her ethnic appearance, because in Singapore the Chinese form the majority. At best, there could be Burmese foreign workers hitting on her. (The Bangladeshis tend to hit on the Malays and Indians, haha.)

Relatedly, she also voiced her unhappiness with the anti-PRC-migration sentiments in Singapore, leading up to the elections. When I asked her if she liked having bus drivers that couldn't speak English, she said, I don't hate immigrants - my grandmother was an immigrant.

The difference though, is that if our grandmothers migrated to Singapore now, hers could stay and would get PR or citizenship served on a silver platter, while mine would be mistaken for a domestic worker and treated like third-class citizens.

Sociologist Ruth Frankenberg wrote in her article "When we are capable of stopping we begin to see” in the book Names We Call Home, that "privilege is the (non) experience of not being slapped in the face." 

It is not only people from the dominant race and class in a country that have advantages over working class people and minorities, but those of us with privilege often don't or can't see how these differences matter. When those with more privileges do not see these different circumstances, they help to in fact, reproduce race and class disparities.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

More strong words.

The strong word for today is jodoh. For more 'strong words', do read the previous post, if you haven't yet. To be honest, I think I'll be stepping on a lot of people's toes with this post, but I warn you now, so you can read the rest of the post with your eyes closed, heh.

Jodoh literally means 'mate' or 'partner' in Malay, but it carries connotations of 'the one' - the partner destined for you. Used as a normal verb it can simply mean to pair a man and women up, to matchmake, or to find the partner to something. Habis jodoh (end of partnership) is used when talking about divorce. But I'm just going to talk about using jodoh in the sense of a life partner in destiny decided by God.

The use of this word helps to plug any gossip around a marriage that does not fit society's strict idea of an ideal marriage: young man, young woman, never married before, similar age, similar cultural and economic backgrounds, and marrying for life.

For example, when a young lady marries a man much older than her, people may talk behind her back and constantly speculate about it. Why such an old man? Isn't he married before? This goes the same if one of the partners is divorced. Or if a man enters into a polygamous marriage. Lots of talk. Eventually someone comes along and says "Well, what can you do, it's already jodoh."

It does have a sense of fatalism, but also pragmatism. After all, what's done is already done. All you can do is make yourself feel better about it.

On the other hand, it's also used in exasperation when a woman finds herself single beyond a certain age, with many failed relationships. Others may say to her "Tuhan yang ketemukan jodoh" (It is God that sends you a life partner). If people want to postpone an early marriage, they may say "Kalau sudah jodoh, tak akan ke mana" (If it's already destined, your partner will not disappear).

The sense of destiny that jodoh carries with it is useful in many ways: stopping gossip, making one feel better about being single, and preventing rash actions like marrying soon after meeting someone.

There's probably more, but as far as I can remember, this is how jodoh has been used, with all its wonderfully multiple meanings.

Friday, June 10, 2011

My father's daughter.

My long name has been a topic for small talk, discussion and introduction into Singaporean Malay Muslim culture in the countries I've lived in and the people I meet. In the Singaporean Malay Muslim culture, you often find girls with the term "binti" in their name. This is derived from bint, the Arabic word for girl. Boys often have "bin", coming from the Arabic ibn. This is also equivalent to the "s/o" (son of) or "d/o" (daughter of) found in some Singaporean Indian names.

Add in the fact that most Muslim men in Singapore have 'Muhammad' as one of their first names, our names can get to be quite a mouthful. Haven't found an administrative form that can fit all the 33 characters of my full, official name (spaces included). But I digress...

The reasons that I've heard for this practice is to ensure that the father of a child is known to the child and everyone around him. Consequently, in terms of inheritance according to Islamic law, it would be proof of a child's right to his father's inheritance. Never you mind that putting a "binti" or "bin" isn't a standard practice around the Muslim world, but that's a different story.

So, why is it so special to us, what does it signify, and what does this practice possibly reproduce?

Putting a marker to indicate a man's relation to you is not new. Automatically giving the father's family name to a child is a practice found in most parts of the world. In this practice specifically though, calling someone the child of a man only gives the information that the child belongs to a certain man, as if he has more importance in the conception process. We hear this also for example when a girl aborts a child and the father of the child goes "How could you abort my child?!"

Polygamy also plays a role. A Muslim man is allowed up to four wives, but all the children's names will indicate that they are his. It's also a way to keep tabs on the 'morality' of a woman. If a mother has children whose names indicate different fathers, then one can know immediately the non-monogamous sexual history of this women.

At the same time, I'm not romanticising the use of family names, or the choice to indicate mothers in our names. I do like being identified as the child of either of my parents. In trying to remind my late grandmother who I was, I alternated between "Ni anak Jah" (this is Jah's child) or "Ni anak Taha".

Thursday, June 9, 2011


I spent last week in Norway, going far up north and searching for the place where the sun don't set. This is a shot taken at 11pm. The sun dips just at the horizon at midnight, and then it starts rising again. Subhanallah, truly an amazing moment.

You might be wondering how to pray in such a situation. We combined the possibility of shortening prayers (jama' and qasar) and our daily rhythm. So we prayed when getting up, eating lunch, and before going to sleep.

Flew to Oslo and took an 18-hour train up to Bodø, with a stop at Trondheim. It was just our luck that the night we were in Bodø there was to be a partial (60%) solar eclipse and I was super excited because I've never seen one before! Our host drove us to the coast and we had to wear special dark glasses to see it.

If you look carefully at the top right-hand part of the sun there's a tiny shadow - that's the moon. Sadly it got too cloudy afterwards so we couldn't see the full partiality of the eclipse.

There were other fun things to do in Bodø though. We visited the Norsk Folk Museum, which showed the life of 'ancient' and 'indigenous' people in Norway. This mainly showed the life of the Sami - the indigenous people of Scandinavia who still live in parts of Sweden, Finland and Russia today.

Sadly, during the Christianisation of the Sami in the 60s, a lot of their artefacts were destroyed. But they still made an effort right? Compare this to the ad for a similar museum in Oslo:

Juxtaposing the text "People of Norway" with two white girls is saying that the people of Norway are white, period. Forget Samis, forget immigrants. And Oslo is the town where 80% of migrants live. While walking around in Oslo I saw a lot of Somalis (refugees), Indians and Turks.

Although to be fair there is an Intercultural Museum in Oslo as well. I only had a day in Oslo and found out about that museum too late. It's the first time I've heard of a museum that focuses on migration flows and I'm sure it would have been interesting to visit!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The 'need' for domestic workers.

A promotion of DAY OFF, a public education campaign for employers to voluntarily give their domestic workers a day off, resulted in a flurry of heated comments on my Facebook wall.

The most interesting comments were about 1) the need for a FDW and if possible they would not employ one, and 2) the fear of having the FDW get into relationships with Bangladeshi male migrant workers, get pregnant, or run away.

1) FDWs are needed.

There is an interesting study on the "necessity" of FDWs by Audrey Verma, a sociologist from NUS. In her paper 'Unpacking Economic Necessity', she looks at why Singaporeans continue to employ domestic workers despite tensions between both parties. And surprise surprise, the most common reason given is that they need domestic workers.

Why are they necessary? When both husband and wife work, a FDW logically takes over the low-valued work in the domestic sphere. This is the economic rationality in Singapore; this is how our economy works.

How does Singapore construct the ideal Singaporean family? (That the Singaporean interpretation of Islam also parallels.) Men as the head of the household and the main breadwinner, women as the managers of the family and the domestic sphere.  Even though many women now work, they are still responsible for household matters.

A FDW, who is usually from a poorer neighbouring country, does not upset this patriarchy because she is seen as an extension of local women - but better, because she is invisible and unthreatening to the family unit.

Even better, there isn't a clear job scope for a domestic worker. The employer can tell her to take care of children, take care of the aged, do housework, wash the car... the list goes on. One never has to think about fairly sharing the work with other members of the family - indeed, many of us in the middle class (myself included) grow up never learning how to contribute to household chores.

Having a domestic worker is not really economically necessary, but it sure is convenient. They can do all kinds of work and at any time, because they live with us and they can always be on-call. They're cheaper than hiring a specialist for each job we need e.g. babysitter, nursing home. Also, domestic workers have become so common that these specialised jobs are in short supply.

2) FDWs will find boyfriends, get pregnant or run away.

The employer doesn't want this to happen. Is this surprising? It's demanded by law - take a look at the first and seventh conditions of the Act.

"... the employer shall be responsible for the control and supervision of the worker."

Having a domestic worker gives power to the mistress of the household - the worker is subordinate to the employer. A worker does more than sustain their current lifestyle, it also makes possible a middle-class lifestyle. A big house that is always clean, while they can go about our daily lives pursuing our work and interests. 

Often we ask our workers to do things we would not do ourselves if we didn't have a worker. The domestic worker allows us to have a lifestyle that we aspire to.

"The employer shall not involve or allow the worker to be engaged in any illegal, immoral or undesirable conduct or activity."

Some say that it should be enough to treat the domestic worker as part of the family. But it is exactly this aspect that allows employers to enforce control and high expectations. Some are afraid that their workers will get into (sometimes extra-marital) relationships, have casual sex, or run away. 

But from a liberal-humanist point of view, is it really the employer's business? The employer won't lose the SGD5000 bond money if the worker gets a boyfriend, and not even if she gets pregnant. 

However, from a non-liberal point of view, the common culture and religion that many employers share with their workers prevents this freedom. I suppose many employers see it as their responsibility to ensure the morality of their workers too. It is understandable, especially if they feel like the worker is part of their family.

Let's flip it around though. Would you like to work for a boss that is interested in your love life? Or a boss that would prefer you to spend your free time with him/her? Or a boss that supervises your morality?


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