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Merry Christmas - The unseasonal Malaysian season

Just to continue in my reflections on life in Malaysia, I was struck yesterday by how few people were in the supermarket – in Europe the shops on Christmas Eve afternoon are a nightmare, with hordes of feverish shoppers desperately buying the last necessaries for food and presents. In Giant yesterday there were in fact less people than usual, and less aisles open too; at the pasar malam, there were less people too, as well as less stalls.

I’m feeling distinctly un-Christmassy this year; we didn’t even put up decorations – been busy with other things and so on. Christmas always takes me a bit by surprise a bit here; in Europe there is always a long build up – the lights start appearing in the streets, peoples’ decorations peek out from their windows and adorn their doors

at the office decorations drape the filing cabinets and you start wishing people ‘Merry Christmas’ when you calculate that it’s the last time you’re seeing them before the date, an office party is organised, and a few lucky people tell you of their skiing plans or trips to the sun. In the bars, you can get special warming Christmas Ale, a good excuse for a tipple. At school, you may already have had Santa visit, and accumulated a few presents already.

The season prepares you for it too – the days have been getting darker and the home cosier; you know it’s winter and winter means Christmas, you start to wonder whether there will be snow…

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Malaysian phone etiquette

Part of the task of the anthropologist is to ‘unpick’ the culture they are studying in order to lay bare the cultural and social mechanisms that underlie the daily functioning of the people within that culture. This is kind of like taking apart a clock and showing how all the different parts come together in a unique way to make the clock tick. Of course, a culture is nothing like a clock really – you can’t easily say where it begins and ends, and with a clock taking out one piece is enough to make it stop functioning completely, whereas cultures are endlessly malleable and dynamic. Take out one piece (a monarch, for example), and there will be adaptations, derivations and replacements that immediately come to play.

In the classical anthropologist situation, the anthropologist arrives as a stranger in a new place, and starts to observe how things happen. Although she has the disadvantage of not knowing what to do, how to speak the language, and so on – this is also an advantage, because everything that people around her take for granted stands out to her and she may be able to spot patterns and connections that those who are embedded in the system cannot.

As my supervisor has pointed out, I have both the advantage and disadvantage of having been here in Malaysia for a while now, and being involved with blogging for a while too. The advantage is that I know more, the disadvantage is that I may take things for granted now that would stand out to a newcomer; I'm going to try to remedy this by doing a series of posts on my blog that reflect upon how Malaysia felt to me when I first got here, and how blogging first seemed to me.

So, I’m going to start a series of posts in which I try to recall how both Malaysia and blogs seemed to me at first – they will be in new subcategories of the ‘Anthropology’ category: I’ll call the Malaysia ones ‘Malaysianisms’, and the blog one I’ll call… hmm… ‘Blogisms’ I guess.

So, here goes for my first trip down memory lane – Malaysian telephone etiquette.

When I was brought up, I was taught that you always have to introduce yourself on the phone. This is obviously not the case for many in Malaysia – when I first arrived I was staying with my in-laws (to be) and because I was not working, often was by myself in the house. This was when I was introduced to Malaysian telephone etiquette – or what seemed to be the lack of, to me.

The phone would ring and I pick it up –
‘Hello? Julian speaking.’
‘Mrs Wong ah?’
‘No, this is Julian. Mrs Wong is not in for the moment.’
‘Where is she ah?’
‘I don’t know, she had to go out.’
‘What’s her handphone?’
[I’m already a bit flustered at the lack of introduction, and the rapid fire questions. The request for the number is the last straw to me – why should I give someone’s number to a complete stranger?]
‘If you would like to leave your name and number and a message, I’ll ask her to call you.’
‘Say Ah Chong called.’
‘Mr Ah Chong… and does she have your number?’
‘Ya ya, got got. OK’ -He hangs up-

What things were very different for me here?
• Not introducing oneself at the beginning of the call.
• Asking for personal information – what was ‘Mrs Wong’ doing, what’s her handphone number.
• The lack of polite niceties, such as ‘Hello’, ‘please’ and – in particular – putting down the phone without saying goodbye! That one took a lot of getting used to :-O I eventually learnt that conversations usually end with the end of the matter in hand, and a word such as ‘OK’, or ‘Thanks’.

Initially, I would find myself being distinctly disgruntled at such calls, in particular the perceived rudeness of (for me) cutting off a conversation without proper disengagement. I learnt to deal with it, and now often don’t say goodbye, depending on who I’m talking to – I’m more likely to take this approach when speaking to my in-laws, friends or trades people such as my mechanic or plumber, but less likely when I’m speaking to colleagues or people I need to deal with for work. I also learnt to use the call ID function more – so when ‘Joe’ calls, I’ll answer the phone with ‘Hello Joe, wassup?’ or something, in a way doing the introduction part myself rather than waiting for the caller to do it.

I've found that very often my 'western style' is too formal and there are too many words - sometimes people will have trouble understanding me because - I suppose - I use a lot of words that serve no apparent purpose :-)

OK, that’s it for the first of the Malaysianisms posts – any comments?

Blog name change

As you may have noticed, I’ve changed the name of my blog from the boring old ‘’.

‘anthroblogia’ is meant to combine ‘anthropo’ (as in man/humans), blogs, and -logia (as in ‘the study of’); this is what my goal is, basically, to study how people and blogs interact.

Obviously, it also is meant to evoke ‘anthropology’, and also perhaps to evoke a sense of a place, as in ‘Elbonia’ (or wherever).

I also had a logo planned for my blog when I first started it, it looks like this

Any idea what it’s meant to be? … OK, I’ll tell you - it’s ‘anthropology’ spelt in binary, i.e. ‘digital anthropology’ :-) This was my first idea of a blog title, but I found that digital anthropology as a term is already ‘taken’ – it seems to be more about using digital resources for anthropology rather than looking at the anthropology of digital technology.

I’ve put the logo in as my ‘favicon’, thanks to useful instructions from maro^gal.

The impetus for changing the blog name came from two sources, really. First of all there was a blog post (which I lost the link to, sorry – it’s a Malaysian blog) which was talking about how to do a good blog, and the blogger said that people who had their own name as the title of their blog were unimaginative losers (or something like that). Well, the unimaginative part certainly struck a chord with me, and I started to wonder what I could change the name to. Initially, I had decided upon the name with the idea that blogs are extensions of a person’s offline self online, so calling it by my name made sense – a way of saying ‘This is me online’.

The other thing was that this blog was included in a list of the Top 100 Anthropology Blogs; well, I was chuffed, though there are legitimate doubts about the list (e.g. “Top 100 Anthropology Blogs”? No, I don’t think so.) – but also what struck me was the title my blog was given, “Julian Hopkins”. Perfectly fair way to call it but, once again, pretty boring and – more importantly – it really gives no idea at all what the blog is about.

One possible consequence is that I may lose my first place in Google searches for ‘Julian Hopkins’: I’m not too bothered about that, except that it’s a useful way to tell people how to find my blog and, although I didn’t do any fancy SEO to make it happen, it can make me look very internet-knowledgeable which can help my credibility on occasion. Overall, I’d prefer to be first place for searches for ‘blog anthropology’, for example, but that would take more work…

So, here you are, welcome to the reinvented, rebranded, improved and laboratory tested


Bar Council Human Rights Debate competition

I went to my first debating competition this week – the Bar Council Human Rights Debate 2008. It was fun, I liked the challenge of having to think up an argument and a strategy in fifteen minutes (because that’s all the time you’re given between the announcement of the motion to the time the debate starts), and having to react quickly to the other debaters’ arguments once the debate starts. I had adjudicated for debates before when I was teaching at HELP University College, and since then I wanted to try debating.

The debates I saw before had two teams of three debaters – with the opening speech, second and summing up speaker; the one this week was the British Parliamentary Style debate rules, which demand a more technical debate in some ways. There are four teams of two debaters each: Opening and Closing Government, and Opening and Closing Opposition; each one is separate, so although – for example – you are the closing government, and you have to follow the basic argument of the opening government, you won’t know before they start what their definitions, context, and points will be. So you have to be ready to adapt to them, but still try to do better than them as the winning teams don’t have to be on the same side of the house.

For Monash we had two inexperienced teams, and neither of us got past the qualifying rounds (five debates) to make the cut into the quarters; but that wasn’t so surprising. I’m pleased that at least, my partner and I won one debate (i.e. came first out of the four teams) :-) It was on whether or not to have BM as the sole medium of instruction in schools; we had to argue against, which wasn’t too difficult, as I have thought about it before.

In the finals last night, two teams were from NUS, one from IIU, and another was the ‘WUPID’ team (dunno why, WUPID is the name of an international debate competition next week in KL).
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Debates and a puppy

Well today at the debate competition was fun and somewhat adrenalin-inducing; for a first time debater (me at least) I guess we did alright – 3rd in one, 4th (i.e. last) in the second, and 2nd in the third. Though overall that got us only three points out of a possible nine, so we’re going to have to do significantly better in the last two rounds tomorrow if we want to make it through to the quarter-finals!

Anyway, something more important in the bigger scale of things happened this morning though: Gambit (one of our dogs) was making a terrible racket through the night and when I looked out I noticed there was a dog hanging around the house. In the morning, however, I heard a high-pitched howling coming from the drain – sure enough, when I checked there was a small puppy stuck in the drain, my guess is that her mother was hanging around at night wondering what to do, and eventually left.

She (the puppy with no name) was looking miserable, but was plucky enough to snarl at me and take off in the other direction when I tried to pick her up; so I went and got WW, we did a pincer movement and I grabbed her by the neck and pitched her out. Once she realised we did not want to hurt her, she let us stroke her and we dried her a bit (she was trembling all over), left her wrapped in an old towel with a couple of biscuits at the foot of a tree. I was hoping her mother would come back.

However, twenty minutes later I heard her piercing yelping again and our two dogs were up against the fence whining and yapping. I feared the worse and, sure enough, she had got up and got knocked over by a car! :-(

When we got there a guy on a motorbike had stopped to move her off the road - the poor thing had blood coming out of her nose, and couldn’t stand up. What to do… well, WW was in tears and decided to take her to the vet

and there she was this evening; a broken leg and concussion, malnourished but otherwise the vet was optimistic

The thing is – she needs a home! We can’t keep her, and can only keep her at the vet’s for a couple of days. If we can’t find a home for her, we’ll probably have to put her down…

Do you want to give her a home? Or know anyone who does? She’s 6-8 weeks old and seemed to a pretty smart little thing

Can you resist this cuteness?

Obligatory small print:
Remember a pet is a commitment for (their) life. Puppylike cuteness is not guaranteed to last, but unconditional love, affection, and devoted companionship is.

Blogging and Democratization in Malaysia – Forum and book launch

Last Friday there was the launch of the first properly researched book on blogging in Malaysia – the first from a social science point of view, and – as far as I know – the first dealing properly with blogging per se in Malaysia. “Blogging and Democratization in Malaysia: A New Civil Society in the Making” is written by Jun-E Tan and Prof. Zawawi Ibrahim of University Malaya; those of you who have been around the blogosphere long enough will probably remember Jun-E’s blog and research survey in 2006 – in a way I’m following in her footsteps, although my focus is different and I’m spending more time on it. I’m going to try to do a proper review of it at another time, but suffice to say that if you want to know more about blogging in Malaysia, and also about blogging and political activity in general, you cannot miss this book [Update 28/06/09: M/C Reviews have published my review of this book]. It also has a postscript written mostly by Zawawi (I think, based on what he said in the forum) about the 12th General Election and what role blogs played in those momentous events.

The forum last week was held in the KL and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall

I got there a bit late, and it had already started. There were about thirty people there, and the organisers seemed a bit disappointed that more had not turned up; myself, I was a bit surprised that there were not more of the usual suspects at SoPo blogging events.

I missed the first couple of talks. Jun-E talked about the book, summarising it well and underlining the basic points of the book: most bloggers are not SoPo, but they capture a disproportionate amount of the readership and attention, and their key role in democratisation and civil society is in providing a channel to raise issues that would otherwise probably be ignored by the MSM. There’s more than that in the book of course, which includes a wealth of statistical data on bloggers and readers and detailed information on the formation of All-Blogs and other events surrounding that key episode of the Malaysian blogosphere. One thing that it made me realise is that I have to include readers of blogs in my survey too (i.e. those who do not have a blog, but read them regularly). Prof. Zawawi made some similar points, and also pointed out how he had asked Jun-E (he was her supervisor for the MA thesis) to gather information on the ‘narrative’ of the bloggers and the blogosphere, something which has been attended to in the body of the book, as well as in the interviews with key bloggers reproduced at the end of it.

Rocky then gave his talk, covering a few issues such as the relationship between the media and the blogs, and the interesting reaction of the Singapore government to the elections (he was invited with other blogs to speak to the Singaporean government about blogs and the elections). What interested me most, however, was how he said that there were “cracks appearing in the blogosphere”; ever since the elections there have been more blogs but some are “biased… blindly working for political masters” – i.e. like the MSM. Some “bloggers are openly promoting individuals… which is perfectly OK … [they are] allowed to be partisan”; but when do not want to listen to others, don’t agree to disagree, then blogs may lose credibility.

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