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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-
…‘OK’

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?

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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Life without comments

I had shut down the comments about ten days ago when I was moving server (a big thanks to my brother for making it painless and possible!) - I didn't want people to leave comments and then they would get lost because the database was already elsewhere.

Anyway, I forgot to turn the comments back on! So, for the last three posts, I've been wondering why there are no comments at all - I realised why today, and so if you want to leave a comment to this post you may :-)

The thing is, it was bothering me... I'm used to normally getting one or two comments, and when they were not appearing, I started to worry a bit - were my posts completely uninteresting? Were the advertisements (especially the one in the centre of the screen - removed now) putting people off? An indication of how it was troubling me was that this morning, while peeling and slicing fruit for breakfast and to store in the fridge, it was trickling through my mind again and finally it clicked that I had turned the comments off.

It reminded me of one of the central arguments I have in relation to the blog as medium - that perhaps the most important difference that it has in relation to other media is the comments feature, and I would go so far to say that a blog without comments enabled is 'not really' a blog.

For my research, I need to identify the key blogging practices, and see how they come together to form the blog-as-phenomenon. So, taking comments as an example, what other practices derive from or cluster with them?

• Authorship: with comments, the author-blogger is not the sole voice in the blog; this means that s/he has to negotiate with the commenters regarding the meaning and import of the content. This 'negotiation' can be one-sided - as the blogger can just delete comments, but this can reduce the interest of the blog to readers.
• Dialogics: a newspaper may benefit from Letters to the Editor, but they are not published alongside and at the same time as the post. The post and the comments make up the blog post - this is the dialogical aspect of blogging - i.e. it is the result of a 'conversation' (as Jeff Ooi often says). One result of this can be that the blogger seeks to draw in comments by - for example - asking questions to the reader (as this post will end :-))
• Time sensitivity: there are only so many comments a person can make, for regular readers who like to make comments the blogger needs to provide regular fodder. This is not to say that the importance of regular posting only relates to giving opportunities for comments, but it is one factor that feeds into it.
• Personalising the audience: the blogger gets to know some or most of the regular commenters, who frequently have their own blogs - this is the genesis of a 'community of interest' or perhaps a 'community of practice'.
• Meeting space: in some blogs (such as Kenny Sia's), where there are a large number of comments, there seems to be people who regularly comment there and get to know each other. So, in effect, they use the space as their own meeting space online; the actual content of the blog may become less relevant to them as opposed to the opportunity to socialise with the other 'regulars'.
• Motivation: the blogger - many of whom have a creative or socially-concerned impulse - is not talking into a void. Comments mean that someone has been moved in some way or other to respond, meaning the work has not been in vain.

OK. That's all I can think of now. What do you think? How important are comments for a blog? How do they affect the way a person blogs?