A Candlelight Vigil in Malaysia
A guest essay from Shesshsan Balakrishnan on a birthday vigil for a 37-year-old man on death row in Malaysia; a visit to Brilliant Time, a Southeast Asian bookstore & library; and a jazz podcast.
Happiest holidays, dear friends. We’re so grateful for this intimate community of ours.
It’s been a tough year. We’ve avoided talking about family health issues, largely because they’re not ours to discuss, but we hope to eventually share those struggles, which have been the hardest of our lives—in particular looking back and wondering what we could have done differently. (Sorry for being cryptic.) Still, in the words of our friend Cyrus, who’s studying to be a Jesuit priest, “That desire to blame yourself is the evil spirit, which seeks to turn us away from God and inward.” So our holiday wish is to turn outward a bit more. More presence, more love, more friendship, more faith.
We’re going on holiday break once we send this newsletter out; we’ll see you again in the new year. If you’re a reader in Taiwan, we hope to meet you! For readers everywhere else, do come visit us in this beautiful country, or just write us to say hello. Photos of pets, gardens, pets in gardens, wild animals, skies, clouds, and moons are especially welcome.
This week we’re thrilled to share a guest essay from Shesshsan Balakrishnan, who soon begins a six-month internship with Amnesty International Malaysia. We first met Shesshsan at the American University of Paris, where we were struck by his kind and humble presence. Long engaged in community service initiatives—and also professionally trained in the classical Indian art forms of Bharatanatyam and Tabla!—Shesshsan focused his studies on themes related to punishment, race, and law, and we were grateful to collaborate with him on social justice projects in France. Recently, after graduating from AUP with a major in the History, Law & Society program, he returned to Malaysia, where he aspires to be a human rights defender.
How did he come to this work? A formative experience, he says, came in Kuala Lumpur, where he volunteered at a shelter that served free meals to anybody who came: someone who could only pay fifty cents at one point might come back a few months later to pay more. “We welcomed homeless people, migrant workers, undocumented people,” he told us. “It didn’t matter who you were or whether you had money. The policy was you deserve to be fed, you deserve to eat. You deserve dignity.” In Sanskrit, this belief is atithi devo bhava: that the guest is god. This belief continues to drive his work today.
On December 11, 2021, I attended a candlelight vigil commemorating the thirty-seventh birthday of Hoo Yew Wah, a Malaysian man who has been on death row at Bentong prison for over a decade.
A week before the gathering, I looked up the details of Yew Wah’s case. I wanted to know why my government felt there was a need to take his life.
Yew Wah was arrested when he was just twenty for being found in possession of 188.35 grams of methamphetamine. When he was brought into custody, the police not only intimidated him but physically tortured him as well. As a Malaysian citizen not much older than him at the time he was arrested, I tried to visualize the fear and anguish he must have felt when they broke his finger and threatened to beat his girlfriend.
Yew Wah was forced to make a statement without his lawyer present. Although he made it in his mother tongue, Mandarin, the police wrote it down in Bahasa Malaysia. He was charged with drug trafficking under section 39B of the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1952. In court, he contested the inaccuracies in his statement and described the threats he was subjected to when making it, but his words fell on deaf ears. The judge dismissed his claims without ordering an investigation. In 2011, Yew Wah was sentenced to the mandatory death penalty.
Not only have Yew Wah’s appeals been turned down twice; his request for clemency from the Sultan of Johor has also been ignored since 2014. Currently, more than a hundred thousand people worldwide support his clemency application. So, last Saturday, a small group consisting of the members and supporters of Amnesty International Malaysia, along with Yew Wah’s family, gathered in Bentong outside the prison where he is being held.
The prison is an hour’s drive away from where I live in Kuala Lumpur. To get there, I take the Karak highway, a dark and windy route notorious for its high number of accidents. I grew up listening to horror stories about this highway. In the past, every time I drove on it, chills would run down my spine as I remembered supernatural stories involving ghost sightings followed by ghastly accidents. But this time I felt no fear. I was too disturbed by Yew Wah’s story to think about anything else.
In 2018, Malaysia declared a moratorium on all executions, placing Yew Wah and other individuals on death row in an anxiety-ridden limbo. But ending the death penalty would be just the beginning of a long battle against a punitive state, and the often merciless culture of punishment, in my nation. As of 2019, more than a thousand people were reported to be on death row here, awaiting their hangings in cramped prison cells with horrific hygienic and sanitary conditions. As I drove to Bentong, the only thing I actually feared was that my government would one day decide to lift the moratorium and resume carrying out the barbarity of capital punishment. I fear this because, just a few months after the moratorium was imposed on all executions, giving some hope that capital punishment in Malaysia was on its way out, the state reversed course, ruling instead that only the mandatory death penalty was to be repealed. The death penalty itself, my government felt, should remain.
On Saturday, we assembled in front of a mosque near the prison. From there we packed into as few cars as we could, not wanting to draw too much attention to ourselves due to COVID-19 regulations, and drove to the prison’s entrance. We couldn’t afford to be accused of violating standard operating procedures. I was joined in my car by a Malaysian lawyer and a member of the Amnesty Malaysia team.
As we approached the prison gates, we decided to park facing the direction we would leave from, just in case. This wasn’t paranoia: in August, thirty-one individuals were arrested by the police for holding a candlelight vigil at Dataran Merdeka, our Independence Square, for those Malaysians who had died of COVID-19. The attendees asked the police repeatedly if they were being arrested, and if so to be read their rights, but the police refused to declare it an arrest. Instead, the seventeen men and fourteen women were told that they were being taken in for documentation, then shoved into police trucks and driven to the police station, from which they were later released with a hefty fine of RM2,000 for “violating regulations preventing demonstrations during the pandemic.” So we knew the risk we were taking, but we refused to be intimidated by the crackdown on free speech.
As we distributed posters and candles, we were repeatedly interrupted by prison guards driving in and out in their cars and on their motorbikes. Each would stop to ask us, “Buat apa di sini?”—what are you doing here?—and tell us to leave. We carried on with the vigil. We stood close to each other, naturally forming a circle as we took turns saying a few words. There were speeches in Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin, and English; a poem was recited in honor of Hoo Yew Wah. The sun went down and the candlelight took over the responsibility of illuminating our gathering. I felt an instant connection to this group I had only just met. “We are not going to give up,” one family member said, no fear at all in their voice. Together we envisioned a society where one doesn’t need to take away someone’s life in order to feel safe, and I knew there was no place I would rather be than here—among people who wanted to show their support for Yew Wah and stand in solidarity with his family.
The prison guards gradually increased in number, surrounding us on all sides. They had already photographed us from a distance and blocked my car with a motorcycle. Every five minutes or so they would ask to speak to our leader and tell us to leave.
We managed to buy a few more minutes—just enough time to cut Yew Wah’s birthday cake. It shattered my heart to see his mother and sister cutting it in front of the prison where he is being held. I imagined all the birthdays they have celebrated since they were separated, all the years that have gone by. They hold, and continue to hold, the faith that one day they will be reunited. I try to picture Hoo Yew Wah’s reunion with his family and their happiness at being able to embrace each other once again. I hope that day comes soon.
If you haven’t done so already, you can sign the letter to the Sultan of Johor demanding clemency for Hoo Yew Wah here.
In the new year, we’re excited to continue publishing on anti–death penalty movements. Look out for a guest essay from Lihan Luo (羅禮涵), outreach coordinator at Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty and executive member of the Anti-Death Penalty Asian Network.
If you enjoyed this missive from Malaysia, also check out Emily Ding’s newsletter, which is partly based in Malaysia.
Brilliant Time Bookstore and a Southeast Asian lending library
Michelle here. I recently met a delightful couple here in Taiwan, 張正 Chang Cheng and 廖雲章 Yun-Chan Liao, who have worked together for two decades to create vibrant language communities with and for Southeast Asian immigrants. There are so many ways they’re unusual, but here’s one: whereas the majority of Taiwanese people want to learn Japanese or English, Chang and Yun-Chan traveled to Vietnam to learn Vietnamese. Here’s another: after some early efforts to teach Chinese to Southeast Asian immigrants, they began to question how useful this was for the migrants, who, due to harsh laws, aren’t guaranteed the chance to stay in Taiwan. “Why teach Chinese?” they wondered. “Why not instead let them develop their own gifts, passions, and language communities?”
They followed through. They started a Vietnamese-language newspaper, which at one point sold fifty thousand copies a year. They started a letter-writing program with detained immigrants. They created a literature award for migrants to encourage them to write and publish in their native languages. They built a lending library and bookstore, Brilliant Time, which doubles as a vibrant cultural and political space. And of course they’re kind and self-reflective. “This might sound weird,” I said after I met them, “but will you adopt me?” Yun-Chun replied, diplomatically, that there might be some ethical issues with their doing so.
Upstairs at Brilliant Time is a cozy, no-shoes space where people gather to share poems, writings, and ideas for social change. “By the end of a gathering every person has touched the microphone,” Cheng told me. One of the goals, Yun-Chan said, was to be galvanized by the people who come through and the unique gifts they have.
You can hear the story of one such person, an Indonesian domestic care worker in Taiwan whose writing inspired the couple to create a literature award for migrants. After working in Taiwan, Erin Sumarsini returned to Indonesia to build a library—a direct inspiration from Brilliant Time. Here’s a lovely interview with Sumarsini, where she talks about how reading and writing give her a sense of self-worth:
Migrant Worker Protest in Taipei in January 9th
Under Taiwanese law, a migrant worker who leaves their job can be arrested within three days and deported. “Freedom” to migrate is tied to employment: if you don’t like your job, you have to leave. If you’re interested in ending this practice, come meet us at a march in Taipei on January 9th. If you attend the Taiwan Human Rights Fair on Christmas Day, be sure to look out for the Karapatan booth, the fair’s first Filipino representation.
We were sidemen on the Jazz Sideman Podcast!
We had the great fortune to chat with Hsinwei Chiang and Jeff Chang of the Jazz Sideman Podcast. Both of them are Taiwanese jazz musicians living and teaching in the United States. In our chat before the show, we learned that Jeff spent six years teaching jazz at the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington State, while Hsinwei taught in public schools in the Bronx. We’d love to talk to them more about those experiences in the future. (They found us through our conversations with two other Taiwanese-American jazz musicians and educators, Victor Lin and Peter Lin from a while back.) They’ve been doing a deep dive into Maxine Gordon’s Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon, reading it chapter by chapter and inviting guests to talk about it. Our conversation ranged across the history of drug wars, mass incarceration, and parole, among other things. Here’s a link to the episode, although apologies for our inability to do the whole thing in Chinese! Jeff also made a recording of Michelle’s favorite jazz tune, Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud.”
Book Club: The Brothers Karamazov, Friday, January 28th, 7 p.m. EST
Well, Dostoevsky certainly seems to stir up strong feelings—people love him or really, really hate him, but nobody’s neutral. So much the better! We’ve decided to make a push to read the first half of The Brothers Karamazov by January 29 and the second half by the end February, so that the pooh-poohers can return to the book club in March.
Poll: Should we attempt Don Quixote next?
Cats and Manga Coffee Shop
Our local coffee shop is called “Meow.” It has two cats and loads of manga on shelves. Please write captions for these photos, and we will share them in future installments!
Happiest holidays, friends. Here’s to a new year of love, transformation, and friendship. We end on a Natalia Ginzburg quote from The Little Virtues:
As far as the education of children is concerned I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one’s neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.
Thank you for another transporting and enlightening newsletter. I want to make this request into a poem: "Photos of pets, gardens, pets in gardens, wild animals, skies, clouds, and moons are especially welcome." Some day.
Good to hear from Shesshsan Balakrishnan on Hoo Yew Wah's case, thank you! In case it's instructive for further context, I had written a story on another Malaysian case sometime ago: https://newnaratif.com/life-death-and-the-in-between/, which also contains comparative insights from the Taiwan Innocence Project. In Singapore, Kirsten Han does invaluable work advocating for abolishing the death penalty: https://www.wethecitizens.net