My discovery of Isobel Campbell came in late 2004, when I first listened to Scottish indie band Belle and Sebastian‘s acclaimed 1998 album “The Boy with the Arab Strap”. The record immediately left an impact – Campbell’s keyboard riffs on the track “It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career” especially caught my attention.

However, it was not until I got hold of her solo records that I noticed her songwriting talents that, coupled with the strange appeal of her distinctly feminine voice – soft, fragile, whispery though never sensual – immediately got me hooked.

And so when word came in 2006 that she was due to collaborate with Mark Lanegan (of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age) I was quite enthused by the prospect of listening to what the two could come up with. They after all, could not be more different on the surface. Lanegan is a Seattle icon who has outlived his more illustrious peers (Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley come to mind) though never shedding the mystic so synonymous with the grunge scene of the early 90s – glowering and tortured are two adjectives commonly used to describe the Lanegan’s baritone voice. Campbell on the other hand, has been depicted by one journalist as having an “unnaturally sunny disposition: girlish and giggly”. As the Independent put it, Isobel Campbell is as bright as Lanegan is dark.

But their 2006 album “Ballad of the Broken Seas (BOTBS)” put to rest any concerns that they were just too far apart in personality and musical backgrounds to produce anything more than an awkward, stitched up record. As it turned out, Campbell and Lanegan exploited the contrasts between them to great effect – taking the listener on a journey he does not know of until the end of the final track.

The opening track Deus Ibi Est (a line from a hymn) appeared to stick to the script. Lanegan leads with trademark assertiveness “Bound unto a future shaped by ancestors before me/Day on day I march the beat to someone else’s drum” and Campbell, with limited lines “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est” (Where there are love and charity, there God is) seems to play the role of willing second fiddle – exuding in her voice the calming and supportive influence of a loyal woman over a fuming man. There is an unmistakable play on the conventional male/female – dominance/submission dichotomy; whether or not it was intended is uncertain, but the track grips precisely because of those power undertones.

Promising as the start is, the critic at this point would be concerned that the entire record could turn out to be too much of a Lanegan-dominated effort. Right on cue though, the second track “Black Mountain” consists of only Campbell, with her singing markedly dark lyrics never before heard from her (“I met a man whom I’ll never doubt/Flew into the sun, our bodies on fire/Betrothed to a mate, pray it is not so/Invoke father time, then he let her go”). Accompanied by a haunting melody, it was as if Black Mountain was the triumphant female reply to the seemingly all-conquering macho-element of Lanegan so apparent in Deus Ibi Est.

The asymmetry in the first two tracks is progressively replaced with more conventional duets- by the time their remake of Hank Williams’s classic “Ramblin’ Man” comes around, the ‘mesmeric tension’ is long gone – even Lanegan’s growl is down a few notches. As the album rolls along, the folksy feel to BOTBS increasingly comes to the fore with minimalist music almost fit for a singalong – quite a rarity for anything with Mark Lanegan in it! Far from being unappealing, these tracks seem to reflect a secure reconciliation of two opposites.

And ultimately, that is exactly what Ballad of the Broken Seas achieves. Opening with dark tension, it finally settles with a cosy closure – culminating in a circumspective Lanegan singing on the final track “The Circus is Leaving Town” which Campbell exclusively penned.

BOTBS remains one of my favourite album experiences. Four stars. Thank God they released a second record just earlier this year, which I may review it some other time.

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The Women’s Parliamentary Caucus today called for a 30 per cent female representation in both political and administrative decision-making bodies, in an act sure to re-instigate debates about the need for State-regulated quotas – the debate about the NEP; arguably the most recognisable manifestation of Ketuanan Melayu in the public’s eyes (largely due to the State’s failure to perfect the art of Gramscian hegemony by putting a convincingly national face to the NEP), has been ever-present in Malaysian socio-political discourse over the past decades.

One can be certain that the NEP will loom in the background of any discussions about this recent call from the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus. Yet the matter of quotas along the lines of gender is qualitatively distinct from the NEP; for one, there does not appear to be a risk of the proposed policy being fused with any ideology of supremacy or rightful reclamation.

For socio-political observers, it will be very interesting to see the response of those at the forefront of the liberal project – I use the term loosely of course, to describe the movement of young urban professionals who largely voted Opposition last March – who have long despised the NEP. In all likelihood, many in this section will be unsure how to engage the issue since gender has never truly been on the forefront of the liberal project. On the other hand, the traditional defenders of the NEP – UMNO and other Malays on the Right of our political spectrum – will likely be the first to reject the call. Grounded in patriarchy, I would not be surprised if this sentiment finds expression in chauvinistic remarks chastising the proposal as unwarranted and unnecessary since ‘perempuan memang terlalu beremosi untuk buat keputusan penting dalam isu politik atau pentadbiran.’

I believe that at least amongst the former group, there is an intuitive awareness that gender equality in Malaysia is an issue that needs addressing. For example, in the context of political decision-making bodies, the infamous “bocor” (leak) comment when a male Parliamentarian poked fun at a female counterpart’s menstrual cycle indicate a serious lack of respect for women amongst elected representatives. It is no wonder then, that in the UNDP’s 2007/2008 Human Development Report for Malaysia, the gender empowerment measure (GEM) – which reveals whether women take an active part in economic and political life by tracking the share of seats in parliament held by women; of female legislators, senior officials and managers; and of female professional and technical workers- and the gender disparity in earned income, reflecting economic independence – saw Malaysia ranked a lowly 65th out of 93 countries.

Gender-based affirmative action would thus appear to be justified, and whilst quotas do come with baggage, any critique of the proposal must be based on its effectiveness and not its spirit.

If put into practice, this measure would represent a significant step in changing the way in which women are viewed in Malaysia, and also the dominant public consciousness that currently still ‘legitimises’ and ‘defends’ the outlook that views women as primarily sexual beings – statistics in 2007 show that 6.6 women are raped every day in Malaysia.

To be sure, as with many other traditional social inequalities backed by stereotypes, entrenched patriarchy elicits responses from women that, paradoxically, often appear to reinforce those same stereotypes. The glass-ceiling is ever present and women in decision-making positions may on occasion feel the need to go the extra mile to exert authority, at times appearing emotional or overly stubborn. Even romantic relationships or processes of courting – at first glance seemingly trivial to this debate – increasingly project the same phenomenon, where girls assert power through inflated sensitivity to respectful sexual advances by males.

Equally significant is the expression of “girl power” amongst adolescent females who increasingly find it ‘cool’ to be single – I have on many an occasion found myself amused upon hearing female friends or acquaintances, when in numbers, utter remarks like “who needs a boyfriend?” (which doesn’t help me of course!). But the Fatwa Council need not be alarmed – far from being an indication of lesbianism on the rise, this, I believe, is one of the many expressions of the female voice; and like any other voices of marginalised groups, it is not always immediately comprehensible to the ‘outsider’ or the ‘dominant’.

And it is precisely because such voices are not always comprehensible, that it is incumbent upon liberal Malaysia, if its members are indeed progressive and educated, to delve deeper into study of the female experience in Malaysia, hear clearer the female voice, and finally take up gender equality as a primary agenda of struggle.

Trailing third and last in the nomination stage of the race for UMNO Youth Head, Khairy Jamaluddin can scarcely be blamed if he feels hard done by. At the turn of the year, Khairy seemed destined to assume the top post of the wing. Charismatic, influential and able, it appeared as though UMNO – for all its conservative underpinnings – was actually ready to accept an articulate ‘bangsawan’ so long as he fought tooth and nail for the Malay cause.

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KJ

And fight for the cause he certainly did. Even from the early days of his involvement in UMNO Youth dating back to 1998, Khairy indicated that he was not out of touch with the concerns of the Malay base when he was amongst Pemuda’s representatives who negotiated with Suqiu over the latter’s demands that appeared to encroach upon the Malay special position. Over the past ten years, Khairy has led Pemuda BN to five by-election victories, protested the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and most significantly, been in frontlines of both defence ant attack for the Government in the face of persistent undermining from the Opposition.

But even his most ardent supporters would accept that Khairy’s demeanour over this period has been far from conducive to his image-building. In UMNO especially, perception trumps everything else and Khairy would have done well to be pro-active in appearing less elite. Khairy probably felt too uncomfortable trying to be what he was not, but hypocrisy is the worst of traits in all other areas of life, bar politics. To be sure, he has displayed, on occasion, a willingness to meet the UMNO game halfway in instances such as when he controversially remarked – misconstrued or otherwise – that the Chinese would take advantage of a weak UMNO, and when he unflinchingly defended Dato’ Seri Hishammuddin Hussein’s Keris-wielding act at the 2007 General Assembly.

In the face of his perception-handicap, Khairy’s enemies have expectedly not been kind. With constant barrage of allegations –ranging from corruption to sex scandals – propagated from within and without the party, Khairy who for the longest of times maintained a position of ‘elegant silence’, now finds himself paying for past missteps and inaction.

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MM

And perhaps it needed a body blow like one he is receiving now for Khairy, now 32, to come down from the heights of being ‘the most powerful 27 year-old in the country’. Seeing friends turn against him can only have the effect of making him more humble, retrospective and wiser. However, in today’s context of an increasingly vocal civil society demanding for widening democratic space, it is imperative that Khairy wins the influential post now rather than later (the nature of UMNO politics prescribes that once one falls out of favour, it is almost impossible to stage a return for a long time). This is precisely because his contenders Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir and Dato’ Seri Dr. Khir Toyo are far from democrats at heart. Mukhriz for example, has gone on record to say that judicial reforms were unnecessary as it did not benefit the Malays – exactly the posturing that has gotten UMNO into the troubled position it is in now.

In fact, studying the nomination figures for the top positions in UMNO, one cannot help but see the looming return of Razak, Hussein and Mahathir in the shape of their respective sons. Dato’ Seri Najib has been swept into power uncontested, Hishammuddin is sitting pretty in the race for Vice-Presidency and Mukhriz is leading the nominations for UMNO Youth. It did not take long for the media to pick up on the trends and speculate on mystifying stories of successions – Syed Nadzri of the NST wrote today that we could well have “Najib-Hishammuddin-Mukhriz as UMNO’s seventh, eighth and ninth president following exactly the perfect order of their fathers Razak-Hussein-Mahathir as third, fourth and fifth presidents”.

Premature as that forecast may be, it sheds light on the monumental challenges that Khairy now faces. Already cast by some as a political pariah in the making, he must find a way to turn his fortunes around by March. Malaysia awaits the outcome, and it would be in the interest of those wishing to see substantial reforms within UMNO and the BN government, as opposed to a return to the authoritarian days of Mahathir, that Khairy rides on his platform of “Setiakawan” to victory.