Wednesday, May 16, 2018

My 9 May Experience

So it's been an interesting few weeks, with Pakatan Harapan winning, Najib resigning, the 1MDB papers being released, and Anwar Ibrahim being released from prison. Overall, there is this sense of optimism in the New Malaysian air. Everyone seems to be swept away by this feeling of euphoria, from achieving something most thought was impossible. It's a good time to be Malaysian, that's for sure.

All of this would not have happened if people didn't go out to vote the way they did on the 9th of May 2018. I had the privilege of helping people vote by being a Petugas Pilihan Raya (Election Officer), in the capacity of Pemandu Arah Pusat Mengundi (PAPM), or Voting Centre Guide (?). What the PAPM are tasked with is to facilitate people in their manoeuvring of the place where they were to vote. My Voting Centre was a school (the school where I was last a teacher), and in that school were four Streams or Saluran. Which Saluran you were supposed to be a part of depended on when you were born, with the oldest voters being in Saluran 1, and the youngest in Saluran 4. The PAPM are the people who helped voters get to their designated Saluran, and help those less able to walk on their own to provide wheelchairs if needed and be the facilitators of their movements throughout the voting process.

In this post, I'll write about my experience being a part of this historic moment as a PAPM.

Honestly, I didn't choose to be an Election Officer. My school picked me, for whatever reason they did, and I went along with it. I went to the first briefing in November of 2017, I think it was. It was held at the city hall, and almost all the Election Officers of the area were in attendance. We listened to the Powerpoint presentation the Suruhanjaya Pilihan Raya people had to give us, and we were informed of what our responsibilities were. We were also given a file with the slides as well as a book with all the relevant material pertaining to being an Election Officer.

They were helpful things to have, and if I'd bothered to read through the material, I'm sure I would be a lot more knowledgeable about the electoral process than I am. Alas, I was me, and at the time I wasn't too stoked about the process. I was pessimistic, and thought it wasn't going to change much. Thank goodness I was wrong.

We didn't get any updates about the elections until they were announced sometime in April. By this time, I had already resigned as a teacher, so I went to school to get clarification as to my status as an Election Officer. Was I still one? If I were, what was I supposed to do?

The nice people at the school told me that I was still an Election Officer, and that any citizen could be one, regardless of job status. I was to report to the Ketua Pusat Mengundi, the Head of the Voting Centre, who was a teacher. I also had to hand in a passport sized photo to the school clerk to make this thing:

The above thing is called a Pas Pusat Mengundi (Voting Centre Pass), and only people with these passes were allowed to be in the Voting Centres, besides the voters themselves, of course. Anyone who wasn't voting there or did not have a pass were not allowed to be in the Voting Centre. This made sense because if people who had no business being there were there, it might cast doubt on the voting process, as those who had no business being there might be up to something, something that might tamper with the election results.

A day before the elections, we were summoned to the Voting Centre to set up the place. We went to the district's vote-counting centre and retrieved the things we needed to set up our individual Voting Centres. 

As you can see, there were a lot of people there. My Voting Centre brought 15 people to check and carry the stuff back to our Voting Centres, and there were quite a few Voting Centres around the area. What we had to do was to make sure everything that was supposed to be there was there, and if they weren't, to claim it from the SPR Officers who were there to facilitate. Once everything was accounted for, then the Ketua Saluran would have to report to the SPR Officers and get the blank voting ballots and indelible ink.

Since I was a PAPM and was only there to carry a wheelchair, some umbrellas, some posters, some banners and other things, I didn't have much to do there. I was mostly just waiting around, watching people do their thing, and try to help when I could.

Each Election Officer got a t-shirt to wear on the day (ours were all sized XL and bigger), and some even got caps to wear. These were not obligatory apparel for the Officers, but it did help us look the part. I'd like to imagine that people who saw me there wearing the shirt on election day had no doubt about what I was doing standing there at the Voting Centre, telling people where to go.

After that whole process, we carried the stuff back to our Voting Centre and set up the stations. I helped with setting up the registration table as well as putting up the banners that informed people of what the stations were. Others set up the actual voting rooms and made sure that directions were available for people to follow to their designated Saluran.

On the voting day itself, we gathered at the Voting Centre at 6.30am, had breakfast and set up the places even more. We put fans where it was most helpful, set up the laptops for registration purposes, put up tapes to make sure the passage from the registration table to the voting rooms were clear, made sure everything was as ready as it could be to receive voters.

At 8.00am we opened the gate for voters. voters showed up as early as 7.15am. They really wanted to get in early and have it done to enjoy the rest of the day. It was a good move on their part, in my opinion, since people started coming in big numbers as the day went by. The peak time people were lining up was at about 9.30am-10.00am. The lines were really long and people had to wait in line for up to three hours just to vote. 

As a PAPM, I did my best to manage to traffic. I pointed people in the right direction, and listened to people when they expressed that the lines were too long.  Saluran 2 was particularly long. It was a Saluran for ageing people. Not particularly old like 80, but definitely on their way. I felt sorry for them having to stand around for such long amounts of time, so I made sure that they would only line up in the shaded parts of the school. I also carried benches from the school canteen and arranged them along the line so that the voters could sit down while waiting in line if they wanted to. I did the same for Saluran 1 as well. Their line wasn't as long as Saluran 2, but they definitely had to wait a lot longer than I would want an 80-year-old to wait. People in wheelchairs started coming in as well, so I was tasked to help them move through the voting rooms.

I didn't sit down for hours doing all this. The traffic slowed down a little bit as mid-day came. I went to have lunch and got to sit down for a little while while others took my place in giving people directions, pointing out which Saluran was where and helping people move around.

I resumed my duties until the end of the day, and by 4.00pm my feet were screaming into my brain to retire. Fortunately for me, the final hour of the voting day did not see so many voters coming in anymore. I could sit for longer periods of time. 

When 5.00pm finally came, we packed up, carried all the benches back to the canteen, cut off all the tape, took down the banners and posters, and called it a day. I went back home and napped.

While I was working as a PAPM, I could feel the energy in the air, an energy of change. People were out to prove a point, the point being that the people had had enough and wanted to take what little power they had into their own hands to turn this country around. A couple of times I was holding back my tears just thinking about if the Federal Government actually did change, and the changes that would come with it. 

No more culture of fear, no more getting away with theft of public funds, no more sucking up to those in power only to benefit yourself, more accountability, more transparency, more freedom of expression. These were/are my ideals, and even though I wasn't very sure that it would be a reality, I liked the thought of it so much that it moved me.

I stayed up until 4.00am that night. They still wouldn't announce it, but the Astro Awani screen did say PH=113, and that was enough for me. With that I went to bed. I woke up to a New Malaysia, and it has been an amazing ride so far. Here's to a better Malaysia for all of us.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Thoughts On Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

So yesterday, the Arctic Monkeys released their latest album called Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. People who have been reading this blog since the very beginning would know that I am a huge Arctic Monkeys fan. So much so that I even named the blog after their first album. In this post, I shall share my thoughts about their latest studio release after listening to it on loop for the past 30 hours.

We first received word about the album when the Monkeys released promotional material concerning the album about a month and a half before the album dropped. When I found out that it was going to be named Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, I got excited. I liked the fact that it was a name of a place, which hinted that the album might well be a concept album (and I like me some concept albums). I thought that it would be a collection of songs telling stories about the goings on in this mysterious hotel, and they pretty much delivered on that count, just not in the way that I had expected them to, as I’ll discuss later in this post.

But before that, I’d also like to recount that a few recordings from a closed live-show pre-album-launch got on Youtube and I checked them out to see what I might be able to expect from the album. I only listened to them once, and the vibe I got was that it was a movement towards slower tunes, closer to the ones presented on Turner’s side-project The Last Shadow Puppets’ latest studio release. I was also reminded of Cornerstone, for some reason, and that excited me since Cornerstone was one of my very favourite Monkeys songs. 

After my first listen in my car on the way back to Selangor from Johor, I thought to myself, “This will be the most difficult Arctic Monkeys album to listen to yet.” I didn’t get it. I thought Turner had traded in his ability to write catchy melodies with more drab and matter-of-fact tones. No particular lines jumped up at me either. Nothing quite as memorable as “He’s struggling the notion that it’s life, not film,” or “I’m sure that you’re still breaking hearts with the efficiency that only youth can harness.” The sounds weren’t urgent, drums were as minimal as can be, guitars as sparse as it has ever been on any Arctic Monkeys record, with only the bass doing some interesting things every now and again. I sighed and pressed the bridge of my nose by the end of the album.

They had certainly delivered in one trademark Arctic Monkeys department, which was making sure that no two albums sounded the same. This was certainly one of the main appeals to the band, in my opinion, and part of why I like the band so much. I always liked that they always wanted to grow and do different things with every full-length release. But after the first listen to Tranquility Base, I was now asking, “Had they changed to something I now disliked?”

As with most albums I listen to, I cannot trust my first listens of albums all that much. There have been plenty of albums in the past that I grew to love over time (Kendrick Lamar’s GKMC took me three-months to properly “get” and now it’s one of my very favourite albums of all time). So I persisted. I knew there was something I didn’t “get” yet about the album. And I sought to find out what that was.

I was surprised to learn that I started enjoying some of the songs in Tranquility as soon as I played it the second time. I found myself nodding my head to Star Treatment and swinging my hips to Four Out Of Five during my bathroom break at the Machap RnR. This was encouraging. I still didn’t quite get anything about the album at all, but I was more and more acclimatising to the sounds presented on the album and found them to be enjoyable, if on the slower side of my preferences.

When I got back home, I listened to an interview Alex did with BBC Radio 1 about the album and what they were trying to do on it. The interviewer, Annie Mac asked interesting questions and I gained a better insight into what the album was about. For example, I found out that the Hotel was on the moon (whaaa??) and how social media tied into the album.

On my next listen, I did what I only do with albums from artists I care about: I listened to the whole album while having the lyrics in front of me. It proved to be a great move for me in improving my enjoyment of the album by many folds. I now see that the whole album is set on the moon, with markers such as “So when you gaze at planet Earth from outer space, does it wipe that stupid look off of your face?” in American Sports, and “Cute new places keep popping up around Clavius,” in Four Out Of Five, with Clavius being one of the largest craters on the moon. Indeed, the title of the album itself should have alerted me to this fact, since Tranquility Base is the site on the moon where Armstrong landed back in 1969. I was just ignorant to this fact before looking at the Genius page.

Besides being on the moon, another aspect that I admire about the album now is its critique of our infatuation with technology and social media and how Alex talks about how it affects people’s lives on the moon. “Still got pictures of friends on the wall, I suppose we aren’t really friends anymore. Maybe I shouldn’t ever have called that thing friendly at all,” Alex muses on The Ultracheese. He even seems angry in She Looks Like Fun where he says “There ain’t no limit to the length of the dickheads we can be.” 

In the interview I talked about earlier, Alex said that he somehow felt that writing Tranquility Base felt like writing the first album, only he couldn’t quite put his finger on how they were similar. If I had to hazard a guess, I would submit that in both albums he was singing through the eyes of a persona who is in a singular, specific place. In Whatever You Say I Am, the persona is talking about his thoughts and the goings-on around Sheffield, whereas in Tranquility Base, the persona is speaking about this imaginary world on the moon with a taqueria on the roof. This is different from the other albums, where there wasn’t quite the specificity of location consistent throughout the individual albums. 

I’ll end by concluding that Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is Arctic Monkeys’ most ambitious album to date. It is a concept album in the sense that the whole album is set in a specific place and tells stories relevant to the place. It’s not quite as cinematic as Kendrick’s GKMC, nor does it (in my opinion) pull off the no-guitars rule as well as Mountain Goats’ Goths. It’s not the easiest of listens, and it doesn’t have a standout “hit single” in the discography, so I think this will be their least popular album so far.

But I’m still proud of the boys for being brave in their musical choices. They’ve never failed to reinvent themselves with each album, and they’ve continued to do that with this one. Even though I had every reason to expect them to change up their sound, I never thought it would be as drastic and radical. I like that they can still surprise long time listeners such as myself. I am going to continue listening to this album for a while, and while it may not be in my top 4 Arctic Monkeys’ favourite albums, I still cherish it and continue to be a fan.