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2 May, 2009

If this is your first time here and if you like what I write, I’m sorry to say that I won’t update often. It’s just the nature of thought, sometimes you have an epiphany, other times you’re just slogging through life.

The best way to keep abreast of updates is through RSS, which you can access at the following URL:



and I’ll make sure that they’re always be something to learn and think about when I update.
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The Balancing act of Malaysian Politics and writing for public consumption

12 June, 2009
For the non-Malaysians, The five keris and the four stripes represent the nine Malay states with sultans.

For the non-Malaysians, The five keris and the four stripes represent the nine Malay states with sultans.

Dignity or Efficiency: Malaysian Royalism at the Fringes (Project Malaysia). Click to be redirected.

This is another supplementary blog post on another article I wrote for a platform that is not Kent Ridge Common. Project Malaysia is aptly subtitled, “an experiment in nation building”, and headed by prominent human rights lawyer, Malik Imtiaz Sarwar. They explain that, “Project Malaysia was created to respond to a need for solution-driven, informed opinions on issues affecting Malaysian society as a whole… Through these essays and commentaries, we aim to inform and persuade readers as well as writers, to engage with the Malaysian audience at large – in seeking viable solutions for this non-profit, nation building exercise.” I’ve also made some commentary about their articles in some of my previous posts.

I’ve always wanted to do some research and write something on Malaysian royalty, especially from the political science perspective. I initially wanted to do something like this for Ferrara’s class on Political Institutions, but he was not keen on Malaysia. This is my way of making up for it. I spent the last few hours of my NUS library membership using the material there writing this article. I only hope that it is up to snuff in the real world.

Saying that is weird, because the “snuff” of the real world is SO different from academic writing. Academic writing caters to the academic mind. These are people who have spent years of their life refining their thought and studying the thought of others and one can safely assume that your reader is familiar with some popularly-unheard-of theory. If the average person has something to say about subject x, a decent professor would know how to argue it from several perspectives. If not, a professor would at least have an armload of arguments justifying his dogmatism. If you’re writing an essay, you’re coming up against that and you need to do your research against that.

The worse you could get academically is a near-fail grade (granted that I wrote the essay coherently). The worse I could get in the real world, depending on where and when I was born: imprisonment, torture, death. It’s a balancing act. In Malaysia, the worse is an ISA arrest for the individual and then a civil unrest afterwards. That’s what I have in mind when writing the piece above on the Malaysian sultans.

I wouldn’t say that The Malay royalist-nationalists love their culture, that would open up a lot of philosophical questions about the nature of love. However, I would say that they would go to great lengths to defend it from perceived threats, and their emotions perhaps run too deeply on the subject. On the other hand, non-Malays are also short-sighted in criticizing monarchy in the sense that it’s not what the royalist-nationalists are going to accept on face value.

So therefore, this piece. The real goal is to foster an objective understanding of a political institution that is considered archaic and unnecessary in the modern world but remains with many South East Asian countries today. Most people could ignore it if the institution was symbolic. However, the sultan, the conference of rulers and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong have real constitutional responsibilities in politics today — as the constitutional crisis in Perak has highlighted. It would be intellectually irresponsible for us to consider monarchy without knowing where they have failed. This is a valid model of inquiry — For instance, on democracy, South American studies have focused on why some democracies there have failed and reverted back to authoritarianism.

But talking to my dad, he also said something quite relevant: it’s topical. It will never be something mainstream. There are my S Factor articles, and there are the articles that nobody will read. Moving on.


Some Simple Thoughts On Meritocracy

10 June, 2009
Paul Barter, Ups and Downs in Plaza Singapura. Edited. http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulbarter/2878161851/in/photostream/

Paul Barter, Ups and Downs in Plaza Singapura. Edited. http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulbarter/2878161851/in/photostream/

Meritocracy: Look at the method, not the substance
(Kent Ridge Common).

Another piece at Kent Ridge Common. This was a relatively fast piece done on Tuesday. It stated out pretty slow as I tried to get a good introduction. I’m still not entirely happy with it because I’m not sure if its catchy enough for the first paragraph. I’m also quite afraid that the debate has been there before, and I’m just independently arriving at the same conclusions as everyone else.

It was also written in response to Kelvin Teo’s article, “Multiple Intelligences and A Redefinition of Meritocracy”, also at the Kent Ridge Common. I’ve had more recent thoughts on meritocracy, and I wanted to bring that to the table. With my humble photoshop skills, I did some photo manipulation of a creative commons piece to show some people going faster and slower on a walkalator. Not terribly happy with that either but its not worth spending that kind of time for perfection.

Under that article, I argued for two different kinds of meritocracy, egalitarian-survival meritocracy and elite fast-track democracy. Each type of meritocracy, while upholding the primacy of talent and skill, have different ideas about how to train people to that level of skill required. Meritocracy looks an ends, when we haven’t talked about the means. I’ll leave the explaining of the two types of meritocracy there on Kent Ridge Common.

One sort of “means-to-a-meritorious-end” I have mentioned before about egalitarian meritocracy is that there isn’t a way to be pro-meritocratic. By that, I mean that under egalitarian-survival meritocracy, you cannot actively promote meritocracy. You can only passively support a meritocratic system, what I clumsily term being “anti-unmeritocratic”. Under that sort of logic, actively helping a set of people is not meritocratic because its done under artificial circumstances.

Such groomed under elite fast-track meritocracy people might seem to have merit, but we can’t tell if they have any true demonstrable innate talent or merit because of the extra privileges granted to them. If you’re a supporter of social darwinism, it’s also a bad position to take because we might be allowing bad vestigial habits to form under privileged circumstance rather than exposing it to open competition.

Still, what is the relationship between meritocracy and pragmatism? Is there philosophical harmony and sufficient justification of support by both concepts by each other? If the relationship is qualified by some reason (i.e. pragmatism implies meritocracy under x conditions), what are the conditions where meritocracy is NOT qualified?


Making a game on South East Asia

3 June, 2009

Max Payne and its sequel, Max Payne 2 are two games that I truly look up to. It was one of the first games ever to use the slow-motion bullet-time mechanic — the ability to slow down everything else in the game so that you can aim better and watch the bullets in slow motion.

However, even though the developers are Finnish — as in from Finland — they’ve decided to set it in New York. I’m sure they’re as proud of their own Finnish culture and they probably know more quirky little things about Finalnd they could show off in a game. So why New York? Is it to pander to their target audience? Are games only as successful as their source cultures are successful in being a politico-economic success?

On the other hand, Max Payne, while set in New York, has never struck me as set in New York. As a non-American, I didn’t see the popular landmarks of New York — the Empire State building, the World Trade Centre (the game was released mid 2001), or the statue of Liberty. So there was no in-game significance of it being in New York. It was just something familiar for the American masses to latch on to mentally to situate the characters in.

So how do you make a game based on South East Asia (SEA)? It’s certainly much easier to make a film on SEA or any particular narrative that is set in SEA. It’s because its difficult to create a game — in the purest sense of strategic interaction of players — informed by local cultures that is meaningfully reproduced in a game. After that, its internationalizing the content so that as many people can relate to it as possible without diluting the unique influence of SEA.

For example, let’s take spinning gasing. The problem with spinning gasing is something like playing a sport game on a keyboard. Imagine the last time you played golf or pool on a keyboard — something’s missing. The control is simplified to smooth the learning curve. It’s not as exciting or awesome as actually watching a pro play golf.

Something more ideal would be like Crusader Kings, or Europa 1400 which are games specifically informed by the politics of feudal Europe that sets it apart. Sid Meier’s Colonization, draws from the Colonial experience of the American settlers. (it is also an excellent game.) The last game I want to cite is Oregon Trail, which is not only educational in immersing the player of how early Americans travel from the eastern colonies to their new home in Oregon, but also very fun to watch your travel party die from dysentry. It was popular in the 80s amongst schoolchildren.

(On a sidenote, did I mention how many Romance of The Three Kingdoms titles Koei has published already? Apparently, eleven and an MMO.)

All these games prove that it is possible to be informed by culture — more specifically, a historical experience — and make a game. The question is, what historical experience and culture do we wanna choose?

Of course, we can just cop out, and make a 3D shooter in exotic locales in South East Asia like Bali, Bangkok, the Petronas Twin Towers and Orchard Road, and at the end of the stage, our hero be able to bang all them hot exotic Asian chicks. Talk about orientalism, it would sell like hot cakes but be forgotten in two months. That would be TOO easy.


The ultimate game is programming

1 June, 2009

This was the game I made after a week. It’s pretty crappy, actually.

Two weeks ago, a week after my last exam at university, I disappeared from my social life. No lunches together, no meet-ups, no IM, no facebook. Just hermiting it on my little netbook. I would wake up close to noon, turn on the computer, bang away for 24 hours straight into the night and morning and then sleep until the next cycle. Repeat several days in a row. It’s a horrible experience that I don’t want to experience again, and it was all to do some programming.

I will never try that again, and I will probably never be as motivated to do that again ever. But when I was in the cycle, it was so… addicting. Almost as addicting as a playing a really, really good game.

Over the course of my last year in university, I got my foundation in Java and mySQL (and thus a bit of PHP as well), and now I’m looking at Game Maker Langauge, the language for a 2D game-making suite called Game Maker 7. I set my sight on writing a 2D turn-based combat engine similar to Final Fantasy-style battles. Not that it was any original, althought I had thought of a few new mechanics, but it was good to practice using the engine I had designed other games for.

I would wake up fresh from dreamless sleep. With new eyes, I would try to think of a solution to a problem I was having the day before. I reminded myself that I still have had a feature to implement, like different character classes or a tool-tip style mouse-over. Worse of all, I would take a look at bugs and glitches. I would think over the data structure and how variables would pass between objects and how game maker would accept one syntax over another.

So I’d make the necessary modifications to the code. I’d type for about half an hour. Once I was satisfied with my code, I’d try to compile and run the game to see if my new feature would work. It never does the first time, so I’d go hunt down what I’m doing wrong. I would look again at the manual. I would look again at the code.

Eventually something like a working feature would emerge. I would go like, that was cool, but what if it also did something else which was cooler. So I’d get back to modifying the code, and trying out again. Repeat several times, with each cycle taking 2-3 hours until I was too frustrated or too tired to code any more, where I would grab something to eat and go back to sleep.

What was really getting to me was how it is like playing a really good game. In a good game, there would be multiple ways to defeat the current level. In a sandbox-styled game, you would set your own objectives and try to achieve them. Programming a game by myself is very similar: I would set the objective of implementing an objective, and find a solution within an uncertain environment.

When it would actually work, it was such a relief; I’d feel like I had achieved something. Not just a gaming achievement, but something I was proud to learn to do in real life. So I’d try to pick up on something else that could potentially work. And I was stuck in this risk-reward structure for DAYS.

After about a week and a half of embarking on the project, I finally decided this was a terrible way to live. I was completely obsessed, and I was not eating, exercising or talking to people. Suddenly, I began to sympathize with computer science majors and its perceived that they lack social skills. I’m not saying that every single one of them do, but I now I can certainly see why the nature of what they do tends to make them lose social skills.

It’s just so rewarding to program and have immediate results, and that cycle doesn’t need human interaction. As a political science major and an participant of organization, human interaction’s not always as great as we think it is. All activists and organizers know that to get what they want, they have to beg, wheedle, and politick their way to where they want to be. Why do that, when the computer can offer you meaning without giving you lip?

I have a small little program now. My non-programmer gamer friends look down at it, and they don’t appreciate how many tears and hairs I’ve torn out from my head just to get it where it is. On the other hand, they’re completely right: a lousy game is not worth playing.

What have I learnt from this? I have a newfound respect for programmers and hackers now. They have an intuitive sense of the logic that a cold, unyeilding machine poses and tames it, shapes it and builds it into something beautiful. I’ve quit working on that program for the moment, going back to my political science roots to research and write an article I’ve been meaning to write for some time. I’ll probably not work on the turn-based battle for some time. But I have been dreaming about another game…


Remembering May 13

13 May, 2009

R.S. Milne and Diane K. Mauzy, “Politics and Government in Malaysia” Singapore : Times Books International, 1980.
page 78-79:

Numerous accounts, which do not always agree with one another, have been given of the events of May 1969… The alliance won the elections, although not as conclusively as in 1964. However, strangely, the non-Malay parties who “lost”, particularly the DAP, were elated, while the “winners”, the Alliance, were depressed… In the mood of exuberance, the DAP and the Gerakan held several ‘victory processions’ in Kuala Lumpur, some of which did not have police permission. … Malays, reacting, also planned to hold a procession, which was to have been led by Dato Harun, the Selangor Mentri Besar. But instead of a procession racial violence broke out, which culminated on the night of 13-14 May. As fighting spread, the police were unable to deal with the situation on their own adn the military was called in. Actual violence, as opposed to tension, terror and fear of violence, was limited in space and time. THe riots were confined to almost entirely to Kuala Lumpur and the surrounding areas in Selangor. Even in Kuala Lumpur a few days after 14 May, there were only scattered incidents, althoguht fierce fighting broke out again, briefly on 28 June. … The official statistics wihch may be an underestimate, give a figure of 196 deaths…

Page 81:

On a longer-term perspective, […] government leaders formulated their ideas on the underlying causes of the riots which necessarily gave indications about the course of future policy. Two main trends emerged, both of which were mentioned in a 1971 government booklet. One attacked the calling in question of the provisions of the constitution or the “bargain” which represented agreement among the views of the different races. […] Often it was the non-Malays who were balmed for questioning these key elements of the Constitution. According to Tun Ismail, the Government in the past had been lax in seeing to it that Malay special privileges were not questioned. But according to the Tunku, there were also some young Malay students who didn not question the bargain on specific points, but simply repudiated it. “These people only want Malay rule. I asked them: ‘can you really do without the other races?’ And they replied: ‘We don’t care’. Tun Tan Siew Sin concluded that the elections had shown that the easiest way to get votes was to play up racial issues in their most extreme form. Therefore, before there was a return to parliamentary rules there had to be a change in the rules of the game to ensure that fundamental policies and principles could not be questioned under any circulstances.

Looking back, there is some similarity between 1969 and 2008, except look now, no racial violence. But the themes remained the same. The opposition is elated to win a better portion of government, while the government does some soul-searching to answer why it did not manage to secure a safe majority in Parliament. I think that kind of sentiment points towards a certain pathology of democracy, although what yet, I am not too sure of.

But looking back, the dream of true multiculturalism, of the type Francis Lok calls “new politics” of Malaysia, has been around for a long, long time. But — with Marx’s understanding of history in mind: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” — I hope that our collective meanderings lead us to some blessed place between egalitarianism and special rights.


Writing on Perak’s constitutional crisis

9 May, 2009

High Drama In The Perak Constitutional Crisis


This is my third article on the Kent Ridge Common. It took me two afternoons, or otherwise a full working day to read information and collate articles from around the web, talk to a few people on what they thought about it and finally write it up. Sadly, I’m not too proud of it because there’s nothing much that people haven’t already said. However, I hope that it fills that informational gap between knowing enough details so that our understanding of the consequences is justified, and enough for beginners to sufficiently grasp the gravity of the situation. The wikipedia article is really, really verbose and I hope I did a good enough job to make a difference.

I’ll use this space to explore a few issues that I didn’t want to touch in the article.

Rajan’s “The End of Malaysian Constitutionalism” is an even better and shorter summary than my article. Mine breaks 2000 word but his article caters to those people who are already “in the know”.

I was pondering on the “end” of constitutionalism. Much like the “end of
history”, it doesn’t seem like a strict picture. Does one instance of abrogation point means that it will always be abrogated? Has it never been abrogated before? If constitutionalism died, what killed it? Nevertheless, there’s little reason to argue the point, the crisis is indicative of the state of the state of Malaysia and how much the state is captured by the political parties involved.

As a dispassionate and neutral student of the political science, it’s just the politics of the developing state. Many other states face the same problems of political capture of institutions and lack of institutionalization and cooperation between interests and powerholders in society. I wish I knew more about how such a resolution can be resolved, but it could take years.

But as a Malaysian political science student sympathetic to the opposition for the obvious race-based politics engendered by the Barisan coalition, we risk losing sight of strategy in place for tactics. I would argue that we’re not winning the “war of position”. Antonio Gramsci, in his theory of revolution, argues that the war of position fought as though trench warfare. He was writing in prison against a Unlike the trenches of open warfare, the trenches in society are the schools, the political parties, government and non-government organizations, and churches. The incumbent government has the advantageous defence position, and the opposition has to infiltrate the trenches one by one.

What the opposition needs to do is court the nationalist vote. While it derives its support primarily from liberal elements in the DAP and the PKR, they will never win the critical votes of the nationalists. Without the nationalist vote, UMNO loses its legitimacy, and the constituent parties of BN will find less and less reason to support UMNO. The courting of the nationalist vote represents democracy at its finest: moderation of all parties preferences to a solution that is amenable to all, if not most, of society.

However, in order to achieve that vote, the opposition needs to infiltrate those organizations, and begin dialogue and convincing people of a solution. Every society and every organization no matter how small needs to have its plural voices to encourage the voice of centricity. There’s no point in calling out who’s right and who’s wrong if it alienates the other side and further polarizes society.

Another issue raised by my friend was that, why didn’t Pakatan raise the bar? If they were seriously wanted to stay in power, why didn’t they do more? Bring food! Bring a giant lock and chain to keep people out! Chain Sivakumar to the chair! Prolong the session for days until Barisan capitulates! I said that maybe we could model it as a strategic game theory interaction. Barisan decides to escalate, but if Pakatan escalated further they would face an outcome which was far worse. However, it’s just a conjecture. Maybe she is right. I just don’t have enough information on that either.

Back to the article. Anyway, the front picture on the article is crap. I wish I had a stronger, harder-hitting picture capturing the “drama” as stated by the title, but I can’t find one in respect of copyright. So I just picked the most official portraits of the dramatis personae and cobbled together a montage. It was very frustrating to use GIMP because I am used to Photoshop and I didn’t have a copy on hand.

My (mostly Chinese) friends are very blah and disillusioned about it. “Not paying attention”, “disillusioned”, “didn’t realise”, are some of the reactions. Oh well, another day living in Malaysia (or Singapore).