It was a day in May some five years ago that I hopped on an airplane alone from Detroit to San Francisco. I rarely go anyway alone. That is partly due to the distress I experience each time I find myself in a new neighborhood. I like the comfort of familiar surroundings. Whenever I am away from wherever I call home, I find comfort in familiar faces instead. I had to make an exception for the trip to the Golden State this time around. The agenda was one that not many of my friends in Ann Arbor shared.
A group of Malaysians consisting of students and professionals in the Bay Area had met consistently for some time then discussing all things Malaysian over lunch, dinner or supper full of Malaysian delight.
They called themselves the Malaysia Forum.
In that May, they organized a meet up to do exactly the same thing at Stanford, only with more people in a slightly more formal approach. I was curious about them. I no longer remember where I first read about the group but what I remember is how their commitment to free speech impressed me.
It is easy to believe and practice free speech too openly nowadays. The same was not true five years ago in Malaysia. There was a culture of fear then. The Mahathir administration spread the presence of the State to almost everywhere. Even under a new administration that promised to be different, the shadow of the State was intimidating. To talk about certain issues so openly was most unwise.
With that as the background, for them to discuss issues that some considered as sensitive an off limit is a courageous thing to do. There is something almost romantic about the whole enterprise. Whereas freedom saw curtailment at home, here across the Pacific in a foreign land, in defiance, they practiced freedom.
I hold fast to the idea of liberty, even then. I told myself, if they have the courage to do so, I want to study them up close. I boarded the plane.
I learned that Malaysia Forum believes that the first step towards anything is a frank conversation between individuals. Through conservations and sharing of perspectives, it is possible for a person to understand of issues relevant to Malaysia better.
Malaysia Forum functions beyond an exchange of perspectives. It is also about realizing that you are not alone. Nothing is more reassuring than the fact that you are not alone in this world. Confidence from that knowledge encourages individuals to speak freely. Without that confidence, the State could bully individuals all the way through. To me, that is the value of Malaysia Forum.
Malaysia Forum has since expanded. Initially, it was more or less a discussion group limited to the Bay Area in California.
Five years on, it is a name that is not so foreign among Malaysian community — student especially — in the United States any more. This is apparent from inquiries the group received about itself as it prepares to organize a conference in the coming week at Columbia in New York.
The expansion does go beyond the shores of the New World. Groups like these are always driven by idealism, and the most idealistic of the lot are often students, although the group itself is not student-centric. As they graduate, some return to Malaysia and spread the same “Malaysia Forum way”. That directly helps in deepening the culture of liberty in Malaysian society.
Others find themselves in other parts of the world. London is one of few other places where the discussion group has made its presence felt by holding small discussions every now and then.
The stress on sharing is not mere rhetoric. The group broadcasts many of its activities online so that others with respectable internet connection can at least observe the discussions. The upcoming conference for instance, which will include economist Jomo K.S and politician Khairy Jamaluddin among others, will be streamed live. To outsiders unfamiliar with Malaysia Forum, the tendency to stream everything live over the internet is probably the hallmark of the group.
It is this act of sharing that enriches frank and informed conversations within Malaysia Forum.
As group expands further, perhaps to Singapore and Sydney, something exciting and wonderful will definitely occur for those who enjoy good conversations about Malaysia.
First published in The Malaysian Insider on April 1 2010.