Project Exodus: Living in ExileFor as long as men have walked the surface of the earth, people have been traveling far and wide in search for a better place, a better future. This mass relocation of people is mainly driven by natural disasters, social, religious, economical and political reasons. They uprooted and replanted themselves over the course of their lifetime, seeking for that one indescribable and elusive feeling of peace.

Peace is a product of comfort and security. Comfort in settling into one’s groove and the daily grinds of life; be they in a merits-based job, a conducive environment in raising a family or a system with which one can coexist and draw valuable support from. Security in knowing that the very mouth you feed through tax paying is a trusted guardian who undoubtedly takes care of your every needs. Both comfort and security can broadly be perceived as the very pillars upon which one decides to make their country, their home.

Once this peace is threatened, there are a few options to consider. In a functioning society with clearly defined laws and constitution devoid of abusive misinterpretations and racial agenda, the system’s very own “defense mechanism” kicks in to correct itself. This is best described as a system with a clean judiciary component and fair elections, free of money politics, at its most basic. More often than not, such a system is driven by straight-thinking no-nonsense people who recognize that a screw driver is not meant to be used as a hammer. Simply put, the right people for the right job, at the helm of the government.

In this ideal governmental setting, people stand up, speak out and put their feet down in unison, clearly stating the obvious logical fact that black is indeed black, not a shade or two lighter. The government gets the message, an informed and planned change is implemented, and everyone goes home happy. Demonstration is thus seen as a channel of communication by the people to the powers-that-be, and not as a suspicious subversive movement to topple the government. After all, if you’re using a hammer to drive a nail in, why should you be worry about rallying calls that accuse you of using it as a measuring tape?

In a not so ideal governmental setting, demonstrations are quickly put down and deemed as opposing force that checks a stealing hand, to put it crudely but aptly. The country develops a rare “auto immune” disease where it attacks its very own “check and balance” components aim at setting things right. In a nutshell, this is what we face today.

Most would just succumb to their bleak fate in a rapidly regressing country. There are others who have learnt to accept mediocrity and chose to make peace with stupidity. There are those who settle into their complacent livelihoods by turning a blind eye. Of course, not to be missed are the occasional sighs of frustration of being helplessly disabled at effecting change.

For those who refuse to accept this genocide of the human will, they continue to stand their ground and fight for justice. While the ballot box is one of many means in effecting change, as ineffective as it may be at times, there are those who have voted with their feet.

Kelvin LeeThere are presently more than 700,000 Malaysians who have made their way out the exit lane on a one-way ticket. This mass exodus of mostly precious talents is putting a dent on the country’s ability to command superiority in various fields from arts and education to technology. This outflow of human capital, while contributing to humanity as a whole, has become “despised guests” in their very own host country. There are a great many number of Malaysians excelling at the international arena. I’m proud of them. Imagine the positive impact they’d have had on Malaysia if they’ve been here.

More importantly, this phenomenon is the tip of the iceberg; a symptom signifying a debilitating disease that have long ravaged the country. Leaving is a natural reflex for self preservation in an attempt to maintain one’s sanity amidst bizarre events and puzzling decisions made that have set us ahead of Laos and Timor-Leste. That’s a compliment. We don’t have roving war lords and vultures hovering over an emaciated boy huddle over a fly-infested bowl of rice. That’s an achievement.

While some may perceive their leaving as “taking the easy way out”, I personally do not think they’re being any less of a fighter for leaving their home country. In fact, by so doing, their very actions is perceived as a form of demonstration towards a disease-stricken country. Their departure for whatever reasons is a testament to a growing pressure and a cocktail of turn-offs that proved just too unbearable.

Regina LimProject Exodus is an idea mooted back in Sep 2010 and started picking up speed sometime in Dec 2010. It’s aimed at photo documenting both Malaysians and ex-Malaysians living and working abroad permanently. The objective is simple. Celebrating their new-found freedom in a land devoid of preposterous idiocy. Yes indeed, the grass may always be greener on the other side, but at least it’s a side where freedom of expression rules. Of course there’s no place like home. Racism and “second-class citizen” treatments do prevail subtly somehow in a foreign land, but at least, it’s a merits-based land where basic infrastructure is built to serve the people, not to wield one’s political agenda.

I have no idea of where this project is heading. Neither do I have any expectations. I’ve spoken to a number of people and have met mixed reactions. From the blank stare on their faces and distorted brows, etched with the “What are you doing this for?” to a cold countenance radiating with “ Why do you want to topple the government? Just let them be and go about your daily routine as a ‘good’ citizen. Don’t complain!”. The latter comment likened the project as an attempt to bad mouth your unreasonable boss, and not do your part to be “seen” as a productive employee striving to make it up the corporate ladder.

I’ve emailed to more than 40 opposition MPs and have not received any replies. Requests for assistance with some human rights NGOs have gone unanswered. A few replied lethargically with lukewarm responses, eager to return to their 9-5 routine, dismissing me as just another zealot. I was even told by one executive that her boss told her to not entertain my absurd request for support. Comments left at blogs and facebook have not been met with the due enthusiasm and fervor that is only fitting for such a simple but effective idea. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not preaching this as a brilliant idea, but most have failed to see the point in this.

What is a peaceful demonstration? Simply put; it’s a physical congregation of people voicing out their dissatisfaction over a certain matter, while proposing an idea of change for the better. Congregation of 4 or more people is considered illegal? Why not numerous pockets of 3 people separated over moderate distances? That’s not illegal! But I digress. Allow me to enlighten further.

Project Exodus can be seen as a photography exhibition documenting the brain drain syndrome plaguing Malaysia. Anthropological in nature I might add. Although Malaysians could comfort themselves that they’re not alone in losing skilled talent to other countries, Malaysia is unique in that the inflow of skilled foreign immigrants does not balance out the mass outflow of local talents (and the rapidly declining expatriates).

Every single one of this more than one million Malaysians abroad is potentially a ‘demonstrator” in their own right. A portrait of themselves immortalized in a single frame of picture is a dissenting voice against a regime, all united under an exhibition, or exhibitions. It’s an exhibition that can potentially invoke public ire and interest internationally, very much akin to imploring Australia to deploy observers in Malaysia during elections. It’s an artistic expression documenting the migration of human beings from point A to point B due to reason C. Simply passive display of works of art and intellectually provocative installations at public places that speak for themselves 24/7.

Visitors to this exhibition can pay tribute to these subjects, an act itself seen as a support for this educational documentary. Visitors to this exhibition can even consider themselves as demonstrators. All without the fuss of hot candle wax, shouting and carrying placards. Present as civilized citizens quietly admiring works of arts in a serene setting of a calming gallery’s ambient. Will they get arrested? I shall leave that to your mental faculties.

How difficult it is to unite a million people and effect change without taking it to the streets, but through mere pictures? You’ll be surprised, as I currently only have 9 portraits, out of potential millions of candidates. Some have chosen not to participate for personal reasons. One valid concern is that their name and face will be marked and thus, banned from entering Malaysia ever again. Fair enough. Nevertheless, I respected their decision and appreciate their support.

I’m truly perplexed at the fact that people continue to complain but stop short of ever doing anything useful in effecting change. All I need is 10 min of setup, 10 min settling into the mood, and 10 min of shoot. 30 min of registering a dissent into a frame for one person; one frame out of millions. I guess at the very least, these people who have left can see this as an opportunity to make their voices heard through a visual expression, immortalized in pictures that speak a thousand words.

As I’m writing this, most of my facebook status postings have appeared strangely out of place, quickly lost and buried beneath other more pressing and “cool” revelations, like “Check out my new sexy pose with tussled hair and luscious pouting lips” and “Getting drunk and seen in Zouk”. Emails and call for support continue to go unanswered. I guess young Malaysian people are more obsessed with their comfort zone, and efforts in keeping it as such, to ensure their lifestyle of posh consumerism is continuously fueled by peer acceptance, and the need to be acknowledged. Sad indeed.

Tony YapThe subjects of Project Exodus are truly heroes in their own right. Individuals who view themselves as living works of arts, a documentation of the tenacity of the human spirit resisting draconian rule. Individuals who selflessly proclaim, “I’m down and out, but not defeated”. Individuals whose very captured essence rivals that of long lost black and white pictures of displaced victims of a strange modern war.

As time passes on, there continue to be those who find themselves tempted to step into the one-way journey exit lane.

What extent of absurdity can one put up with before one decides to put his or her feet down…and out?

Melvin Tong is a freelance photographer at He strives to complete 55 portraits (from commoners on the street to successful corporate figures who have carved a name for themselves) to be exhibited nationwide before the 55th Independence Day in 2012. He welcomes ideas and suggestions for improvement to this project. Help spread the word at the Project Exodus Facebook Page. Pamphlets can be printed and distributed at your location.

Melvin Tong draws his energy, creativity and entertainment from the many outrageous skits unfolding themselves in a land where absurdity rules. He's both an idealist and minimalist who hopes to see matters...

One reply on “M’sians In Exile: A Visual Demonstration Through Project Exodus”

  1. Very commendable project. A innovative form of visual art and passive non-violence expression of concern for the welfare of one's homeland. I left Malaysia in 1983, disillusioned, that the nation had been hijacked by self-serving politicians. I saw little hope of peaceful change. Since then, it has become worse as all institutions of state have become tools of the governing parties hell bent on holding to power at all costs because they have much to lose. My time has come and gone and it is up to the new generation. Believe me, life changing adjustments in one's adopted homeland is hard but at least, you know that there is equal opportunity and fairness. That's what we found in Australia.

    I am impressed by your conviction and vision. Your effort towards this project is an important contribution. It might well awaken those that are still blind to the pillage of the nation. Malaysia is so obsessed with competition among the races – they should realize that it is Malaysia versus the rest of the world in a globalized economy. The more "brains" we have, the more creative and competitive is the nation. For every "brain" that Malaysia currently loses, it takes in ten "unskilled" migrants based on race and religion. What hope is there if the foundation is based largely on these two criteria? All Malaysians should be valued for what they can contribute to the nation. Cry My Beloved Nation!

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