ALTHOUGH there is a strong perception that Malaysian students are quiet in classes and think twice about raising their hands to speak, they are finding a new place to have their say loudly, clearly and with much gusto – the weblog.
Blogs, as they are affectionately called among people who use them, are a sort of new generation journal which is written, designed and published online for public viewing. Creative uses of graphics, photographs and animations often accompany snippets chronicling a blogger's love, life or thoughts about the world at large.
Blogs are not specific to students, but used the world over by people of different professions and ages to say different things. A fictional diary of Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist of the 17th century (www.pepysdiary.com), an outrageously funny insight into the work and life of a call centre (callcentrediary.blogspot.com) and a photoblog featuring poignantly artistic black and white photographs of London (www.nyclondon.com/blog/) are just a few of the millions of blogs out there narrating personal stories and inventing new means of expression. Even corporations are starting to incorporate blog formats into their websites.
Within Malaysia, blogs are taking off in every direction – used as a way to speak to the rest of the world, or just to herald a new, youthful voice of the Malaysian community.
From the mundane to the deeply philosophical, Malaysian students are actively using blogs as a platform to vent their frustrations, voice their hopes and aspirations, and of course, deal openly with the many trials and tribulations of growing up.
Rebel with a cause
The adage that the pen is mightier than the sword holds true for almost all the bloggers we spoke to. It is a place where bloggers can feel empowered to write whatever they want to under a veil of anonymity.
Says 23-year-old student and blogger David Wang of Itchy Hands (www.itchyhands.com): “In my opinion, the real potential in blogging lies in the ability of any layperson to speak to many people (personal publishing). It allows everyone an equal voice on the Internet.
“There may be alternative means, like writing letters to your newspaper, posting messages in chatrooms and newsgroups, but blogging allows one to publish their opinions as they are because there are no editors or censors,” he says.
Raja Rishyakaran, with a self-titled blog (blog.rajanr.com), also points out that blogs are entirely people based. “Newspapers and magazines are dictated by market pressure, government pressure and business pressure, while with blogging, you read and write what you want.” Indeed, the lack of censorship plays largely into the increasing popularity of blogs among students. Rebellion can be in as trivial a form as slating a teacher to complaining about a fellow classmate.
Speaking overtly about the restrictions of the education system, Tan Yi Kai of Equilibrium (myyikai.blogspot.com) points out: “Malaysian students talk too little in classes. The case within the Malaysian education system is that a lecturer or teacher will teach students, and students are 'adapted' to absorb all the information given by the 'supplier'.
“The question, however, is whether the students digest the lessons. Blogging is good for students to start thinking about things in different ways, to train creativity and imagination.”
Anonymity also allows bloggers to give their two cents worth on social, political, cultural issues close to them. Both Raja and Sikapitan of Social Commentary from an Undergrounduate (undergrounduate.blogspot.com) use their blogs as a means of commenting on current affairs.
While both blogs deal with issues as serious as the abuse of Iraqi soldiers and Rumsfeld, the European Union and football hooliganism, there is also tongue-in-cheek humour as they poke mild fun at topics such as the increase in petrol prices and the Malaysian skill for loafing.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi recently reminded Malaysians of the importance of mastering a good command of English for better competitiveness on the international stage. Now, more than ever, improving English language skills is high on the agenda.
While English lessons might a be slog during school time, creative writing in the form of a blog can prove to be a promising and interesting way for students to hone their reading and writing skills.
Some bloggers do not actually feel that blogs contribute at all to the development of English skills. Going back to basics, the blogger of Chong Hwa Lifestyle (chonghwa.blogspot.com) points out that there is no teacher to correct grammar and spelling mistakes.
Others point out that because Malaysian student bloggers switch between Malay and English or use “Manglish” (Malaysian English), there is no conscious effort to improve their English skills. In Chong Hwa Lifestyle, for example, Chinese colloquialisms are incorporated in the writing: “I admit I am very wuliao (bored/vapid/nonsensical)”, he tells us. The local vernacular of dialects, Manglish and an overdose of profanities can be completely let loose in a blog.
However, for those with the interest and inclination to sharpen writing skills, blogs are an ideal way to both have your say, the way you want to say it and get feedback. As the writer of A Malaysian Dreamer (mariateo.blogspot.com) explains, “It doesn’t matter if your grammar is not good, as long as you can generate and express your ideas. As time goes by, you learn to improve your grammar, your writing skills.”
Daisy Boo (not her real name) of Daisy Boo: Bleatings of a City-Seeking Black Sheep (baabaablackcitysheep.blogspot.com) adds that blogs are a conducive way to improve writing as bloggers choose what they want to write about, instead of being restricted by school assignments. “The learning curve (in writing) via the blog is more gentle and amorphous than it is with any other type of writing practice because its development is entirely up to us and no one else.”
In fact, C'est la vie blogger Rizal (gonzalos.blogspot.com) goes so far as to say that he was never into writing before he started blogging. “The interest in writing grew ever since I started blogging, and it does help me improve my writing skills.
The process is done naturally - when you like writing so much you just don't care what it takes as long as you get to say the things that you want to say – and it all becomes effortless over time.
“Blogging does provoke creativity in writing both in terms of how you write down your ideas and how you get the message across.”
Apart from the linguistic skills that are picked up from writing regularly, narrative techniques are also developed. Explains Emily Ding (a.holeinmyhead.net), “It also helps you develop storytelling skills because you have to put down what you see and observe in everyday life in an interesting form so that people will want to read it.”
In between entries about the goings-on of her life, Daisy Boo writes the odd piece in italics, giving the blog another dimension that could be fictional. It is a creative endeavour to merge both real life experiences with a separate, more ambiguous space of creative writing – it is, as she explains in one of the comment spaces of her entries, “The italics means several things? in fact, everything you want it to mean. Reality is as you see fit to make it.”
Thus, the anonymity of the blog also allows the writer to take as many creative liberties as they want. For bloggers like Daisy Boo, for example, reality and fiction are malleable and can be stretched in whatever direction their writing takes them.
On a serious note
As well as that, blogs can be used as a forum for fine-tuning other work-related skills. David Teoh, 20, an architecture student, for example, explains, “Occasionally I choose to blog about topics which require a fair bit of research, so taking the initiative to do so helps me improve my analytical skills.”
His blog, entitled The Katana (blog.davidteoh.com), features impressive insights both into the technicalities of architecture, as well as the artistic, creative expression behind structures, beautiful pictures of which accompany his commentaries.
In a particularly lucid comment on Pierre Konig and Le Corbusier, David writes, “I learnt today in my Archi History class that not very long ago, Le Corbusier insisted on unfinished concrete for his Unité in Marsailles, but as dreadful as that may sound when one considers our local buildings, his idea was executed with the highest detailing.
“It is heartening to think that unrefined materials such as concrete may become beautiful when treated and finished delightfully.”
William Fong, also an architecture student, changed the focus of his blog, Dreams of Reality (williamfong.theuseless.com) from documenting personal aspects of his life to one with an academic focus.
This, however, is academia with a twist, with new youthful perspectives on what might be considered quite a heavy going subject. Although the emphasis of the blog is now on architecture and design, William attests that “architecture does not only encompass the design of buildings, it is also a general study of life, cultures, people, technology and travels.”
As such, his blog accounts for architecture as it plays into and affects daily life. By incorporating photos of scenery, prominent structures around the world and snippets of creative writing, the blog takes an alternative, philosophical perspective of life and the world around us.
For those who aren't particularly keen on the writing aspect, blogs also provide a space for them to exert creative technical skills.
Students are learning how to design their own blogs using computer language such as HTML, CSS or PHP. For the less tech-savvy, blogging websites provide them with basic templates which they can eventually go on to enhance and develop once they have the skills.
By having a hand in the layout of the blog itself, students are therefore also able to expand the range of items on their blog by adding other elements of interest. Photographs and animation, links to other blogs and websites, comment options for readers to post their own opinions, and chat facilities are only a few of the many features that can be made possible on blogs.
Expression, of course, does not just have to been in the form of decrying the injustices of the world, or making your professional writing debut. A majority of student blogs are written with the simple objective of narrating daily events that they find interesting – from what they had for lunch to the cute girl sitting across the lecture theatre.
If nothing else, many blogs serve the very same purpose that Dear Diaries did in the old days, except that now, the interactive nature of this forum allows students to play around more creatively with their writing and with the technicalities of actually setting up a blogsite.
In Daisy Boo, for example, daily events are narrated with funny, anecdotal slants using carefully chosen, energetic language to convey both the scene and the emotions. Thrown into her accounts of daily life are quotations taken or heard from friends and facial expressions to make it sound like she really is conversing with the reader.
While daily accounts may seem tiresome to a reading “passerby' however, bloggers maintain that reading friends' blogs are a good way for them to keep in touch with their friends and updated on each other's lives.
“I use my blog to communicate with friends overseas – those who know about it just have to log on to see how I'm doing.” says Daisy Boo, who is currently studying in New Zealand, while Yi Kai feels that even if friends can't talk face to face, they can still stay in contact with each other by reading friends' blogs.
For Malaysian students studying abroad, such as Colin Poh (colinpoh.com) and Emily, blogs are a good way for them to keep their family and friends back at home updated on their news and life away from home.
Communication is being taken to a different level, where direct journaling of events and emotions, and any creative writing thrown in, makes up as much a student's daily life as the day's events itself.
For Edrei Zahari who writes Footsteps in the Mirror (www.kamigoroshi.net), for example, sharing is not just about communicating between friends, but also connecting with other students and youths who are going through similar experiences.
“Usually reading other people's blogs helps me to know what they go through in a day. Sometimes they have issues or opinions they want to bring to others, so it's nice to help each other find answers,” he says.
Adds blogger Colin, “Blogging makes the world seem smaller. Students would be able to tell the world their frustrations and soon they'll realise they're not alone. Think of it as therapy. Rather than just talking to one psychiatrist, you're speaking to 50 million people.”
The writing is after all, as Colin points out, “expressive and close to the heart. Many students can relate to what others have written.”
Students can also use blog spaces for less serious discussions about entertainment, elements of student life and general things of interest to them such as film, fiction and music.
Like a worldwide magazine for young people, student blogs provide a forum for students to share thoughts on things they have in common. “The whole thing is about sharing and getting feedback. If you weren't writing for others, you'd just keep a notebook in your drawer,” says Emily who is also currently working on an online magazine.
On a larger scale, student blogs often also carry a uniquely Malaysian flavour whether consciously or not.
Most bloggers say that they don't set out with the intention of portraying Malaysian views or ideals, but details about the way of life and the odd Manglish phrase peppers blogs to give them local slants.
From comments on Malaysian news to views on international politics, and from dinner at Sri Hartamas to travelling down the NKVE, the blogs give honest and personal insights into what it means to be Malaysian and to live here. It would give foreign readers the true scenes of a happening Malaysia that would not ordinarily be shown in a tourist brochure.
Whether students are waxing eloquent on how to save the world's problems, or trying to deal with a scale of real life dilemmas – no money, college assignments, incompetent lecturers, deadlines and the lack of sleep – blogs are bringing voices together in a way that mutually benefits both writer and reader.
At its best, blogs show off an increasingly cosmopolitan way of living among Malaysian students, their willingness to speak their mind and their creative talents; it provides wonderful entertainment for anyone with a penchant for daily trivia and provides a new avenue for making friends, both virtual and real.
The tradition of personal journals and Adrian Mole are being taken way beyond the confines of lock-and-key diaries – it is speaking on behalf of a strongly vocal new youth, eager to champion new ground with what they have to tell the whole world.
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