Bernice Chauly writes beautifully. One example:
"I have long memories of rain. Soft tropical showers, majestic, thunderous storms, and itinerant drizzles, which would come and go for hours, days. The Malaysian monsoon is a vehement creature, powerful and glorious, yet tender enough to soothe one into the most delicious of sleeps. This is how I remember the rains. My childhood came with the rains."
On the back cover, a reviewer remarked that "Once We Were There is as Malaysian as Teh Tarik - sweet, dark and a jolt to the senses." My problem with the book was that it portrayed a Malaysia that I could not relate to. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - after all, if people only read fiction based on worlds that they knew and loved, life would get very boring very fast. And, to be fair, I did enjoy reading the story and appreciated the points it made. I just found the characters a tad too pretentious.
Short summary: The book tells a complicated tale of love, human trafficking, substance abuse, family, and transgender rights. It's about the life of a journalist named Delonix Regia in Kuala Lumpur circa 1998. This is the only work of fiction that I've read based around the Reformasi movement so it was an interesting peek into the lives of political activists at the time. The best theme throughout the book: unlike the quintessentially Malaysian way of categorizing everybody, nobody in Del's world really fit neatly into a box. And that made everything so much more fun.
I've decided to give each book I review a jasmine-flower-AKA-bunga-melati-emoji rating. This one gets a:
It's been awhile since my last blog post and about 2.5 months since I've returned home. I am enjoying the heat and warmth and being wrapped in a blanket of humidity - I've never really been a fan of cold weather. The rainy season also brings back childhood memories from long ago, which I welcome.
I have since presented my research project on assessing the impact of language interventions on the refugee population in Malaysia to various organizations and potential donors. I am very hopeful and thankful for all the support and feedback that I have received so far. Onwards and upwards!
I don't have that much time every day outside of my job and family obligations, but I have been trying very hard to read more, which goes along with trying to write more as well. I spent quite a lot of time in college intending to be a Creative Writing major - at one point, my goal was to get an MFA in fiction after graduation. Well, it turns out that all roads lead to PhDs in Economics! Haha. I am sometimes (not always!) wistful of the time when I could just sit down at the college library and write pages and pages of stories. Like any other skill, if you don't keep up with your writing, you lose your ability to do it well. So here's my 10809th attempt to keep on writing.
I have decided to keep track of the books that I've read, write down a very short summary for each one, and choose one passage from the book that resonated the most with me. I hope this serves as an incentive for me to keep on reading, and perhaps somebody out there will find the passages mildly interesting.
"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" is a story about Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman who died in the 1950s from cervical cancer while seeking treatment at Johns Hopkins. Her "immortal cells" were the first to be cultivated for the use of medical research but the doctors who took her cells never obtained her or her family's consent to do so. Her cells have since been extensively used in medical research and have aided in the development of many medical breakthroughs, one of the most notable being the development of the polio vaccine. Henrietta's own family was not aware of the importance of her cells and their commercialization until almost 20 years later and never received a single cent of payment from anybody, despite the fact that her cells (HeLa cells) were mass produced and sold to researchers. The book interweaves stories from Henrietta's personal life and those of her descendants with the medical/scientific breakthroughs surrounding the HeLa cells in the past 60+ years.
In the following passage, Lawrence and Sonny are Henrietta's sons and Bobette is Lawrence's wife:
Sitting in Lawrence's living room, Sonny and Bobette yelled back and forth for nearly an hour about Hopkins snatching black people. Eventually, Sonny leaned back in his chair and said, "John Hopkin didn't give us no information about anything. That was the bad part. Not the sad part, but the bad part, cause I don't know if they didn't give us information because they was making money out of it, or if they was just wanting to keep us in the dark about it. I think they made money out of it, cause they were selling their cells all over the world and shipping them for dollars."
"Hopkins say they gave them cells away," Lawrence yelled, "but they made millions! It's not fair! She's the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother is so important to science, why can't we get health insurance?"
Retroactive flower rating: (01/03/2018)
Warning: The beginning of this post contains vivid descriptions of violence towards women and children as told by Rohingya refugees in a UNHCR interview. You may want to skip over the first paragraph and the first three bullet points if you want to avoid this content.
In February 2017, the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner released a report containing interviews with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who fled Myanmar. It is heart-wrenching even to the coldest of hearts and portrays cruelty beyond anything most of us could even imagine:
The Rohingya people constitute almost 90% of all refugees in Malaysia. These are some of the unthinkable horrors that they are running from. As most Malaysians know, our country has, in recent years, stepped up to accept many refugees from Myanmar. Some argue that these gestures have been politically motivated, but regardless of the reasons, many refugees have found new homes in various Malaysian cities. Something that may not be as well-understood by the public, however, and something that I hope to shed some light on in this essay, is the limited legal status of refugees in this country.
Malaysia is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention Treaty and its 1967 Protocol. The 1951 Refugee Convention was a treaty between 145 countries that defined the term refugee ("someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion"), outlined the rights of refugees who seek asylum in other countries, and demarcated the responsibilities of the countries accepting said refugees. Malaysia also does not have any plans to sign the UN convention. The acceptance and ratification of the 1951 UN Convention in politically unpopular because many Malaysians believe that legally recognizing refugees will lead to a drop in the number of jobs available to locals and to the suppression in wages in the labor market. This being, Malaysia accepts refugees only to the extent of acting as an "intermediate country" with the understanding that the individuals will eventually be resettled to another country. While in Malaysia, refugees do not enjoy legal protection or access to public resources such as education for their children or healthcare. Refugees also cannot legally work. In a documentary about Rohingya Muslims in Malaysia, Shabbir Ahmad, a refugee, declared, "We have no job or future here. We have nothing. There's no money for my medical treatment. We have no legal status or UNHCR legal status. Without a UNHCR card, no one can hire me for work."
The setup outlined above is problematic for many reasons, the top two being:
Currently, there are over 150,000 refugees in Malaysia formally registered with UNHCR. The actual number of refugees present in the country could be significantly higher, although there is no telling by how much. This past March, the Malaysian government started a pilot program to grant a limited number of 5-year work visas to Rohingya refugees to work on plantations or in manufacturing. This program was deemed unsuccessful because only 120 refugees signed up to participate at the time of launch. This is not surprising for many reasons, the first being that refugees who accept jobs through this program would probably have to relocate their family away from the existing refugee community. Since the Rohingya are not well-integrated with the Malaysian community, I suspect this is a very unappealing choice for most refugees due to the fact that they would lose their support system. The second reason speaks to the booming underground economy in Malaysia -- refugees are probably earning a sufficient level of income supporting themselves and their families by doing odd-jobs or working illegally for locals and local companies, enough so that having to relocate for the purposes of accepting a legal job is seen as unattractive.
The problems facing refugee children are particularly dire. There are currently more than 30,000 refugee children registered with UNHCR. Most of these children are of school-going age but less than a third of them have access to any sort of education. Since refugee children cannot attend public schools, they can only receive education through schools set up by partnerships between local NGOs and UNHCR or community-based schools run by the refugee community itself. These community-based schools suffer from a lack of resources, the most important one being that they do not have enough teachers. In a recent news publication by UNHCR, an 18-year old Rohingya refugee named Shamshida, who only started going to school at age 14, provided an insight into the outcomes for refugee children: "My friends don’t go to school, some friends work in the market, some friends are married, and others have to take care of their siblings...I feel sorry for them."
As an economist, I've been thinking a lot about interventions that could help improve the lives and economic standing of refugees in this country. There are already many wonderful local NGOs actively working to help the refugee population in Malaysia. In the same documentary quoted above, Shabbir said the following about his current life situation: "We were extremely persecuted in Myanmar. We have little space to breathe and feel happier here. At least we sleep peacefully. We at least have food to eat here. We were starving to death back in my country." While safety and access to food is a clear improvement over their previous plight, refugees deserve to live lives that extend beyond subsistence wages and poor living conditions. How can we do better?
If it is true that most refugees obtain income from informal channels, and that these channels are controlled by Malaysians, then it must be the case that strengthening refugee ties to Malaysians will have a positive effect on their economic outcomes. It seems that one of the easiest ways to integrate the refugees into the local community is by providing language classes in order to lessen the communication barrier between the refugees and local Malaysians. We think that the most useful language for them to learn would be Malay. This is for two reasons - the first being that most Malaysians speak conversational Malay. The second is that the Rohingya and Malays are by in large Muslim, which is a commonality that the Rohingya do not have with other groups in the country. It may be the case that the wider the network of Malaysians a particular refugee has access to, the better her economic outcome. In return, the Malaysians in the program might learn more about the Rohingyas and their culture, which may lessen the amount of negative bias towards refugees and to a greater extent towards immigrants from low-income countries that is commonly seen in Malaysian society.
To study the effectiveness of social networks on economic outcomes of refugees, we plan on conducting a pilot program implementing randomized Malay language interventions amongst the Rohingya population. To hear more, stay tuned!
I have spent 16 out of 29 years of my life and all of my adult life in America. The US is as "home" to me as Malaysia is, but as I grow older I'm starting to realize that "home" can be anywhere you want it to be. I am incredibly excited to return to Malaysia, where my parents and family live. I think there is a sense amongst many people who study and live abroad that time back home stops for you -- you leave, and then expect to return back to the same people, same stores, same places, same everything. This is of course not true. In the time I've been away from Malaysia, I have missed births, weddings, and funerals; beyond that, I have missed all the little things that, as a whole, make life what it is. I'm very happy for our family to be together and to put some roots down, at least for awhile. We have relocated thrice in the past two years and we're ready to stop the packing-unpacking routine that has become a "normal" thing in our household.
Since I will be in Asia, I have decided to regularly maintain a blog on economic and policy issues in Malaysia and the surrounding region. My plan is to build a new research agenda that is more policy and Asia-focused, and I think that writing about topics and issues that are new to me is a great way to learn. I am also planning on summarizing published academic research related to my work for a general audience, which will hopefully be useful to some readers but if nothing else, this will be a way for to practice my writing. I am a theoretical microeconomist by training and do not get many chances to casually write anymore so this is all quite exciting to me. Happy reading!