Field notes

Malaysians tackling social issues their way

Children (top) playing in Kaktao46, a community library in a fishing village in Kuala Sepetang, Perak. A student (above) doing repair work in August at the library, which was designed and built by different batches of students from 2013 to 2015. Gree
A Fixi Books store (above) in KL. It was started by Amir Muhammad as he saw a dearth of Malay books that were not about religion, love or cooking. PHOTO: CAROLYN HONG
Children (top) playing in Kaktao46, a community library in a fishing village in Kuala Sepetang, Perak. A student (above) doing repair work in August at the library, which was designed and built by different batches of students from 2013 to 2015. Gree
Green activist Carolyn Joan Lau running a workshop for students on upcycling trash in May. She says having the space for locally led projects is key. PHOTO: CAROLYN LAU
Children (top) playing in Kaktao46, a community library in a fishing village in Kuala Sepetang, Perak. A student (above) doing repair work in August at the library, which was designed and built by different batches of students from 2013 to 2015. Gree
A Fixi Books store in KL. It was started by Amir Muhammad (above) as he saw a dearth of Malay books that were not about religion, love or cooking. PHOTO: AMIR MUHAMMAD
Children (top) playing in Kaktao46, a community library in a fishing village in Kuala Sepetang, Perak. A student (above) doing repair work in August at the library, which was designed and built by different batches of students from 2013 to 2015. Gree
Children playing in Kaktao46, a community library in a fishing village in Kuala Sepetang, Perak.PHOTO: TEOH CHEE KEONG
Children (top) playing in Kaktao46, a community library in a fishing village in Kuala Sepetang, Perak. A student (above) doing repair work in August at the library, which was designed and built by different batches of students from 2013 to 2015. Gree
A student doing repair work in August at the library, which was designed and built by different batches of students from 2013 to 2015.PHOTO: TEOH CHEE KEONG

Community-driven projects are thriving amid gaps and shortcomings in governance

With almost every book on its shelves being a contemporary urban Malaysian novel in the Malay language, Fixi Books stands out as unique, even in Malaysia.

The bookstore was launched by Malaysian writer and film-maker Amir Muhammad in 2011 because he saw a dearth of Malay books that were not about religion, love or cooking.

He recalls a book award ceremony that he attended that year. "Nine of the 10 winning titles had cinta or kasih or rindu in it," says Mr Amir, 44. Cinta and kasih both mean love in Malay, while rindu is to miss someone.

On the other hand, Fixi Books' first two titles were on crime and drama, both of which found a ready readership. Since then, it has published more than 160 titles, and adds two new ones every month.

Its two bookshops in popular city malls, soon to be joined by another two, have more than enough Malay titles to stock its shelves, thanks to the many book publishers which set up shop following Fixi's success to create a vibrant Malay book scene.

It is a remarkable story of social change driven by one enterprising Malaysian who dared to break the mould. And Mr Amir is not the only one driving social change through individual initiative in Malaysia.

In recent years, ordinary Malaysians striving to find solutions to social issues through imaginative means have become highly visible. Some of the change-makers are young. But youth is not a defining characteristic; older Malaysians, younger ones and those in between are all part of the scene.

CITIZENS FOR SOCIAL CHANGE

And the trend is by no means limited to Kuala Lumpur. Sabah and Sarawak, in particular, are bursting with creative projects.

SPACE FOR ACTIVISM

There is a lot of politicking in Malaysia but many aspects of the people's daily lives are really left to their own devices. Malaysia is also rapidly urbanising, and this is important because it is often in the urban settings that there is the space for such things. And with social media, there has never been a time when people are so intensely connected.

DR OOI KEE BENG, who heads the Penang Institute think-tank on social, political and economic issues, on the surge in activism in Malaysia.

  • Grassroots initiatives

  • Ordinary Malaysians, either individually or in groups, have started many projects and initiatives to help the underprivileged, improve their community, or preserve under-threat ways of life. Here are just a few examples of the projects:

    LOW-INCOME GROUPS OR REFUGEES

    • Picha Project: Manages a catering service by refugee chefs

    • Epic Homes: Builds houses for the poor

    • Athena Pads: Makes reusable pads and work with vulnerable girls

    • Umie Aktif: A sewing programme for the urban poor. Participants are taught by volunteers to sew attractive toys, tote bags and other items for sale


    COMMUNITY AND CULTURE

    • Art for Grabs: Marketplace for products with social causes, as well a stage for social and political debates.

    • Gerai OA: Sells handicraft for indigenous communities

    • Langit Collective: Markets farm produce for remote communities

    • Pangrok Sulap: Makes woodcut prints that highlight Bornean issues

    • Tanoti and Rumah Gareh: Seek to revive Sarawak textiles through training and other assistance

    • Freemarkets: Where everything is given away for free by anyone who wishes to contribute. These can be household necessities for low-income neighbourhoods, school items for low-income pupils and books for book lovers.

    Carolyn Hong

A good place to survey this scene at a glance would be at the many pop-up bazaars around Malaysia, in particular the very popular Art for Grabs fairs, which support community activism.

Run by art consultant and activist Pang Khee Teik, Art for Grabs takes place several times a year as a marketplace for products for social causes, as well as a stage for social and political debates. The bazaars are always crowded, vibrant and brimming with new ideas.

Dr Ooi Kee Beng, who heads the Penang Institute think-tank on social, political and economic issues, says this surge in activism could partly be the result of frustration with the shortcomings and gaps in governance in Malaysia, coupled with a rapidly urbanising country whose citizens are also highly connected via social media.

"There is a lot of politicking in Malaysia but many aspects of the people's daily lives are really left to their own devices," he says.

"Malaysia is also rapidly urbanising, and this is important because it is often in the urban settings that there is the space for such things. And with social media, there has never been a time when people are so intensely connected."

People, in particular the young, feel a lot more empowered now, he says.

Mr Teoh Chee Keong, a lecturer in architecture at the USCI University in Kuala Lumpur, believes there is still a lot of space in Malaysia for community-led projects, including those which he incorporates into his teaching.

His best-known project is a community library in a fishing village in Perak, designed and built by his students. The community library, called Kaktao 46, was built in Kuala Sepetang from 2013 to 2015, with different batches of students doing the work, from the drawings to actual construction.

They redesigned a derelict kopitiam to turn it into a stunning spot with a play area and books for the locals. Despite limited funds, the project ran smoothly because the students were enthusiastic and supported by their parents. Bureaucracy did not pose any obstacles because the area of the fishing village did not have any official legal status.

"In a way, Malaysia is quite flexible. There are many more alternative ways to do things here to achieve our goals," says Mr Teoh, 42. He also notes that the Malaysian authorities often do cooperate with local community groups on locally initiated projects such as urban farms and parks built on unused public land.

Ms Carolyn Joan Lau, a green activist with an anti-trash cause, says having the space for such initiatives is very important, and credits the community-driven Art for Grabs bazaars, in particular, for their role in encouraging it.

"As a platform for ideas for the community, Art for Grabs is amazing. I would say it has been very influential," she says.

For instance, she notes that the exposure gained from Art for Grabs has raised tremendously the profile of Umie Aktif, a sewing programme for the urban poor that is run by volunteers. The participants are taught how to sew items, including toys and bags, which are then sold.

Ms Lau, 53, too found a new direction for her long-running anti-trash campaign, after she launched it as the Sampah Menyampah (in Malay, sampah means rubbish, while menyampah expresses a feeling of disgust) campaign at an Art for Grabs bazaar in March.

The campaign urges people to reduce plastic litter, especially disposable straws. Having carried out so many individual anti-trash projects for over a decade, she says everything is now coming together in a more coherent movement.

Not all activism is readily accepted by the general public. Causes with less widespread public acceptance find it a lot harder to gain similar visibility. Take religious freedom, or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender or LGBT rights, for instance. The activism is powerful and imaginative but struggles to find the same traction as the social enterprises currently riding the high-profile wave.

PROFIT-DRIVEN ALTRUISM?

Mr Amir of Fixi Books also believes that the relatively new element of commerce has been a significant reason for the surge in visibility of activism-driven enterprises.

"You look at the history of activism, it has always been there," he says, referring to the decades-old movements in championing environmental awareness, migrant and workers' rights and religious and other freedoms. "Maybe now, because a lot of it is wedded to commerce, it may seem sexier and a lot more visible," he says. "But I do hope that there will also be more of the altruistic kind of thing, a giving back. We need more of that."

Ms Lau, however, says that while commerce may play a role in today's activism, it does not tell the entire story. Genuine social enterprises, she says, can be differentiated from businesses merely riding on a cause by looking at the level of their involvement with the community. "Yes, we live in a very capitalist environment but it's not all about consumerism."

This upbeat do-good scene may seem incongruent in a country which more often makes news for its Islamic fringe, political infighting or lacklustre economic plans.

But, as Dr Ooi of Penang Institute notes, sometimes these worst facets of Malaysia can also be its best features as they spur people to find solutions on their own, adding that this vibrant scene reflects a changing Malaysian society with new dynamics at play. "People are moving away from the state and what it prescribes," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2017, with the headline 'Malaysians tackling social issues their way'. Print Edition | Subscribe