Daily Archives: February 3, 2014

The Political Ecology of Health: Concerns over urban ‘swiftlet farming’ and communicable diseases in Georgetown, Malaysia

Creighton  Connolly, an Entitle Fellow, and second year geog PhD student in Geography, School of Environment, Education and Development, University, reflects on his on-going fieldwork …

On December 10th, news agencies in Malaysia reported the first death in the country from Influenza A (bird flu).1 Previously, Malaysia has claimed to be ‘immune’ from the bird flu epidemic which has hit neighboring countries, particularly Indonesia over the past decade. Even when the SARS outbreak hit in 2002, Malaysia did not have any recorded records of the disease (despite a higher than average number of deaths from flu-like cases). However, some suspicion was raised when the media later announced that the death was actually caused by a thyroid complication, rather than Influenza A, or bird flu. More alarming, was the fact that reports came out that three of the victim’s colleagues had been quarantined in the hospital as they had tested positive for H1N1 – of which bird’s flu is a strain.2 The question can then be asked, that if the victim who died had thyroid complications, then why did her colleagues test positive for H1N1?

This recent announcement thus caused considerable alarm amongst Malaysia’s NGOs and civil society groups, such as the Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) and Friends of the Earth Malaysia (SAM), who have been concerned for a number of years with the high population of swiftlets in the city of Georgetown, Penang (as well as many other Malaysian cities), which are reared in an intensive manner for their valuable edible-nests.3 The NGOs’ concerns have been justified due to a recent outbreak of H5N1 bird flu in Vietnam in May 2013, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of swiftlets and one child in the Phan Rang area of south-central Vietnam.4 This case provided the first indication that swiftlets are susceptible to the bird-flu virus, as many swiftlet farmers and biologists alike indicated that swiftlets were unlikely carriers of such vectors due to their unique characteristics.

A cluster of swiftlet farms in Sitiawan, Perak, located adjacent to a school playing field. Sitiawan is a town some 200 hundred kilometers from Georgetown, where the industry started in Malaysia. The town’s central area has been almost entirely converted to swiftlet farming over the past 15 years.

A cluster of swiftlet farms in Sitiawan, Perak, located adjacent to a school playing field. Sitiawan is a town some 200 hundred kilometers from Georgetown, where the industry started in Malaysia. The town’s central area has been almost entirely converted to swiftlet farming over the past 15 years.

Baby swiftlets occupying their nests. During the day, the adult swifts will go out and scavenge for food to bring back for their young. Wooden planks are attached to the cement walls of swiftlet farms for the birds to perch on while constructing their nests.

Baby swiftlets occupying their nests. During the day, the adult swifts will go out and scavenge for food to bring back for their young. Wooden planks are attached to the cement walls of swiftlet farms for the birds to perch on while constructing their nests.

The PHT has been lobbying for a ban on swiftlet farming in the Georgetown urban area, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, since 2007 when the first government guidelines on swiftlet farming (known as 1GP) first appeared. These guidelines explicitly stated that swiftlet farming should not take place in residential areas. December 31st of 2013 marked the end of the Penang state’s three-year grace-period for the removal of all Swiftlet farms in the city of Georgetown. In a recent interview that I had with YB Chow Kwon Yeow of the Penang state government, he prepared a large document outlining for me the history of the government’s involvement in regulating the issues related to swiftlet farms in the central city area. The policies date back to 2008, when the town received UNESCO world heritage designation, and coincidently, when the current state government came into power. Since then, Chow’s government has been under a lot of pressure to clear the city of swiftlet farms, as the buildings themselves and the birds they attract have been been widely identified as a social nuisance in the town, as well as the possible source of health hazards from diseases like dengue fever and bird flu. However, Mr. Chow candidly told me that, despite having some problems early on, the number of swiftlet farming premises in Georgetown has been greatly reduced and should be down to less than a dozen in 2014.

Despite Mr. Chow’s optimistic outlook on the number of swiftlet farms in the Georgetown World Heritage Site, there are still several concerns, as addressed in a recent open letter issued by the PHT to the State Government in Penang on December 30th, 2013. The letter wanted clarification on the state’s definition of ‘shutting down a swiftlet house’, because the PHT has not been convinced that the premises have actually been ‘shut down’ in a permanent manner. For instance, it is one thing to remove the tweeters and sound systems used by swiftlet farmers to lure in potential birds (as documented in several high profile press releases), 5 but another to completely seal up the windows and entry ways until the birds no longer return. Another concern raised is the ‘true’ status of bird flu in the state of Penang, in view of the recent bird flu/H1N1 scares  discussed above; as well as rising incidence of dengue fever in Penang state.6 Finally, there are the general concerns by the PHT and members of the public alike regarding issues of transparency and responsiveness on behalf of the government – particularly in regards to public health threats and public nuissances, such as bird flu.

Hopefully now that we have emerged into 2014, the state of Penang will fulfill its promises of clearing Georgetown of most of the existing swiftlet premises. Municipalities in Malaysian Borneo, such as Kuching, which I also visited briefly during my ongoing field research on this topic, have been largely successful in minimizing the numbers of swiftlet farms within the urban area, while others like Kota Kinabalu are now following suit.7 Granted the legislative context in Borneo is different from that in Peninsular Malaysia, but hopefully cities like Georgetown can learn from these successes in the near future.

On a final note, it should be clear that the point of this piece is not to demonize the lucrative swiftlet farming industry, nor to call for an outright ban on this business in Malaysia – far from it. Rather, it is to bring the struggles over urban swiftlet farming in Malaysia, which are at once cultural, economic, ecological, and political, to a wider international audience. It is also to help push forward the calls within Malaysia for the swiftlet farming industry to be reconfigured in a manner that is more socially (and ecologically) just, and does not put Malaysia’s urban residents at risk from disease, or other socio-economic impacts.    

References 

1.    Damodaran S., 2013. ‘Police civilian personnel dies of influenza A’. NTV7. [accessed 2013 Dec 15]. Available from: http://www.ntv7.com.my/7edition/local-en/Police_civilian_personnel_dies_of_influenza_A.html

2.         Due to a host of intersecting factors, the price of edible bird’s nest, which is made almost entirely out of the swift’s saliva, skyrocketed in the 1990s, which led urban residents across Malaysia to begin converting low-rise shop houses into ‘swiftlet farms’: cave-like bunkers used to attract swiftlets (see photos 1 and 2, above), and harvest their nests in a more efficient manner than was possible previously. Swiftlets traditionally make their nests in caves throughout Southeast Asia, where harvesters would carry out the high-risk work of collecting their nests from the cave walls.

3.    Malaysiakini, 2013. ‘Woman died of thyroid complications, not H1N1’. Malaysiakini, 11 December [accessed 2013 Dec 21]. Available from: http://www.malaysiakini.com/news/249096

4.    The Nation, 2013. ‘H5N1 virus hits birds-nest farm in Vietnam’. The Nation. April 12, 2013 [accessed 2014 Jan 6]. Available from: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/breakingnews/H5N1-virus-hits-birds-nest-farm-in-Vietnam-30203958.html

5.   Kaur, M and Yeoh, W., 2011. ‘Swift action on swiftlet breeding: Next enforcement on 94 operators to begin next month, says chow’. Star Metro, M4. 25 February 2011.

6.    Straits Times, 2013. ‘Malaysia sounds warning on rising deaths from dengue’. Straits Times, Dec 21. [accessed 2013 Dec 21]. Available from: http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/se-asia/story/malaysia-sounds-warning-rising-deaths-dengue-20131221

7.    Salma, K, 2010. ‘Penang may follow Sabah in disallowing farming in urban areas’. blog [accessed 2013 Oct 15]. Available from: https://sites.google.com/site/khoosalma/the-star-news-archive/disallowing-swiftlet-farming

Cosmopolitanism: Is It Good for the Jews?

Dr Cathy Gelbin, Senior Lecturer in German Studies at the University of Manchester and currently on AHRC Fellowship, writes about cosmopolitanism and the Jews in a piece that will be published on Friday 7 February in The Jewish Chronicle 

When I was growing up behind the Wall in East Germany, cosmopolitanism was not a good word for the Jews. Hitler had persecuted us as ‘rootless parasites’. And hushed up as they were, rumours of Stalin’s purges of Jews as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ had not escaped me either. My American-Jewish family, fleeing McCarthyism, had paradoxically averted this violent fate by settling in East Germany just as the Stalinist persecutions heightened in Moscow, Prague and Budapest. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, their shadows lingered as my step-grandfather Stefan Heym, the writer and later the German parliament’s president by seniority, became East Germany’s most prominent dissident.

Fast-forward to the new millennium and cosmopolitanism has become a buzzword across academic fields. Now a literary and film scholar at Manchester University, I have followed this new trend with puzzlement. How could a concept so severely discredited by a history of persecutions suddenly accompany the celebrated vision of ethnic, cultural and national harmony in the New Europe? And moreover, where were the Jews in this new discourse, which barely mentioned, and often completely ignored, the past troubled history of the cosmopolitanist label?

Academia has seen a few such conceptual somersaults since the 1980s. First, we had the ‘hybrid’ turning from a biological concept used in the Nazi definition of ‘mixed-race’ persons of Jewish descent into a productive term for the post-colonial mix of ethnicities and cultures. Then, ‘queer’ was lifted from its homophobic origins to connote the new academic study of human sexual diversity. Much as I have pursued these lines of interest in my own work, the niggling doubt remains: can we do this? Can we simply imbue a concept with new meanings and forget about its past histories of violence?

Granted, the history of cosmopolitanist discourse – and the place of Jews within it – has always been a chequered one. Together with my co-author Sander L. Gilman, the eminent cultural and literary historian at Emory University, I set out to unearth the ambivalent story of modern cosmopolitanism and the Jews. Our forthcoming study, which includes German archival material from the late nineteenth century to the early 1930s, reveals a remarkable culture of Jewish cosmopolitanism, which, despite the onslaught of Nazism, has survived into modern times. Indeed, German-speaking Jews have contributed disproportionately to the modern cosmopolitan idea and its vision of universal human rights in particular.

In the late eighteenth century, German Enlightenment writers revived the notion of the cosmopolitan from the ancient Greek, where ‘kosmopolitês’ meant one’s sense of simultaneous allegiance to a city-state and a wider, universal context. The non-Jewish philosopher Immanuel Kant became a key figure in this new debate when he demanded a Weltbürgerrecht, a universal law of citizenship, to which all humans were entitled. Of course, these Christian thinkers had little time for the Jews, who in their eyes were backwardly obsessed with their own culture.

Nonetheless, German-Jewish intellectuals who sought to gain full recognition in German-speaking society enthusiastically embraced Kant’s ideas and Goethe’s cultural equivalent of a world literature. Soon, German-speaking Jews became seen as either too particularist on the one hand or too international on the other. This antisemitism, in all but name, had a profound effect on German-speaking Jews, rejecting the accepted definition of their own German and Austrian identities. Zionists called for a separate homeland, whereas others insisted their identity was not merely Jewish or German or Austrian, but one beyond ethnicity and national borders.

And yet, this little-remembered Jewish engagement with cosmopolitanism in Germany and Austria between the 1870s and 1930s was a hotbed of ideas that drove the formation of the European Union. German-speaking Jewish intellectuals were among the first to see their identity as European. Just as Paris’s intellectuals gathered in the cafés of the Left Bank at the fin-de-siècle, German-speaking secular Jews would spend their time at coffee houses in Berlin, Vienna and Prague. Among them was Franz Kafka, as well as the already world-famous writers Stefan Zweig and Lion Feuchtwanger. World War One, with its senseless bloodshed among the European nations, galvanized their quest for a Europe beyond borders, as would the Nazis’ rise to power.

The works of certain writers also reveal the close connections between early Zionism and the cosmopolitan idea of Europe. These were by no means separate camps. Theodor Herzl imagined a Jewish state founded on the cultural and scientific achievements of a modern Europe cleansed of nationalist conflicts. And conversely, Kafka, Zweig and Feuchtwanger, in asserting the powerful idea of Jewish particularity in the diaspora, transplanted the ideas of cultural Zionism back onto their native European soil.

Likewise, political theorist Eduard Bernstein exerted an important influence on European identity. Though partially critical of Marxism, Bernstein followed in the footsteps of the German Jew Karl Marx who, while writing here at Manchester’s Cheetham’s Library, dreamed of the international working class struggle against social injustice. But of course, Jews who represented the cosmopolitan were not always on the left: one of them was the German industrialist Walther Rathenau, who served as foreign minister in the Weimar Republic. He was assassinated in an antisemitic plot on June 24, 1922. Our research shows that these German-speaking Jews had a powerful impact on the thinking that spawned post-1945 European unity, especially the EU.

Although Nazism and Stalinism had largely destroyed cosmopolitan thinking and its bearers, its traces lived on among German Jews who were critical of these totalitarian legacies. It was the political theorist Hannah Arendt who, in 1951, coined the term totalitarianism itself. A decade later, in her famous report on the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust, Arendt would envision a future international court that would adjudicate on disputes among the nations. The creation of an international legal body had already been debated after World War One, but the Holocaust undoubtedly catalysed this process. With the establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002 and the recent International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, Arendt’s modern vision of Kant’s global norms of justice has now become a political reality.

On both sides of the Iron Curtain, the cosmopolitan idea also served Jewish intellectuals to oppose the Cold War division of Europe. To name but two, Arendt’s former husband, the philosopher Günter Anders, wrote in the West against the impending nuclear war, while in the East Stefan Heym mocked the hard-line politics manifested in the Berlin Wall. So has cosmopolitan thought become obsolete now that many of its ideas are enshrined in the political reality of the EU and United Nations sanctions?

A quick look at the post-1990s world shows us that this is not the case so long as antisemitism and racism, those close relations of modernity, are still alive and kicking. In France, Hungary and the countries of the former Soviet Union, antisemitism has reached a worrying new high. In Germany, racist police bias enabled the systematic killings, execution style, of at least ten Turkish Germans by a Nazi underground group that is only now on trial. Many European countries, including Britain, remain dogged by a racist debate on immigration, which blames their own economic shortcomings on migrants, who, by providing cheap labour, create much of the wealth we enjoy. Elsewhere, the idea of universal human rights is fuelling the causes of disenfranchised ethnic and sexual groups, such as Israel’s Palestinian and migrant populations on the one hand, and its soaring gay activism on the other.

What is remarkable is that there are still Jewish thinkers living in German-speaking Europe, who are standard bearers for intellectual life. For example, during my last visit to Vienna’s Café Central – a historic gathering place for Austrian Jews – I spotted Elfriede Jelinek, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature, who often speaks of her own paternal Jewish roots. And aside from blatant social injustices, what about the image of Jews in the multicultural fabric of our societies?

Take London’s East End, whose Jewish roots reflect its cosmopolitan history, though on a smaller scale. And yet, as in contemporary Germany, today’s East Enders are largely unaware of the area’s rich Jewish cultural past. During our recent event at the East End’s RichMix cultural centre, which was recorded as a podcast, members of the community had the opportunity to take part in a ‘town meeting’ to explore the complex stories of migration to London’s East End from the 1800s to the present day. Bringing together local people with practitioners in migration politics, education and the arts, our event looked at the rich stories of groups such as the Huguenots, Jews, and the more recent Asian, Caribbean and Eastern European communities.

Or take Manchester itself with its vibrant community of some 30,000 Jews, who rarely figure in debates on the city’s multiculturalism. One cannot convincingly argue that Jews are structurally disadvantaged nowadays, but many do feel left out of discussions about cultural diversity. Is this because Manchester has its very own North-South divide? In casual conversation, one sometimes hears slurs against the Haredi Jews ‘up North’, the supposedly authentic Jews of stereotype. By implication, the good – but also assumed to be less real – Jews are the unobtrusive lot south of Piccadilly. But is this good enough? The answer must be no, for we want so much more: to be acknowledged and celebrated in our loud Jewishness and fierce commitment to civil society; to be cherished in our rainbow diversity as Jews, and as part of the won