If you remember (thank you loyal reader), in one previous post I mentioned how my aunt took her dogs out to a place just outside the central area. Seems innocuous enough, but a KL-ite or Malaysian would pick up on the loaded meanings underlying that simple statement.
The short story is that dogs, well-loved as Man’s best friend all over the world, aren’t the most welcomed in KL’s public spaces. Most public parks in the city ban them, and finding a space where dog-owners can walk their dogs actually requires some effort and research on their part. This translates to decisions surrounding where to live – it’s a trade-off between proximity to the urban hub and living in a dog-friendly neighbourhood. Sounds exaggerated, but you can get a sense of what I mean by looking at the discussions on these (property) sites:
Dog-lovers be like, …But why???
I feel you. But it’s more than an issue of preference or taste about animal cuteness, but a long and complicated public culture war. Acceptance of dogs in public spaces has been resisted as part of conservative Muslims’ push-back against what they perceive as over-riding Western influences threatening adherence to ‘proper’ Islamic lores. This New York Times’s article delves properly into this.
KL throwing academic theories out of the window
It was suggested by Philo and Wilbert (2000) that people should be more conscious of distinctive ‘beastly nature[s]’, and let this steer a proper understanding and therefore (inevitable) acceptance of them. But it is precisely a hyper-sensitivity to dogs’ ‘dirty’, ‘beastly nature’ that compels their rejection in KL’s messy religio-cultural context. In conceptualising a Transspecies Urban Theory, Wolch (1995) argued that an awareness of animal co-existence and needs among the planning profession can better promote more inclusive urban design. But again, it is this hyper-awareness that drives a planned and explicit exclusion of dogs (and by extension, their owners) from public spaces.
‘I want to touch a dog!’ ‘No you may not.’
This isn’t just plain musing on my part. In 2014, a youth Muslim social activist sought to address this issue. Believing that Muslims’ aversion to dogs stems from ignorance and consequently fears of the animal, he organised a public event (right in the heart of central KL) for people to, in his words, ‘know them, touch them, be near them’. The organiser, Syed Azmi apparently shares Philo and Wilbert’s view, and also attempted to promote this view in this video:
The backlash that followed got so out-of-hand that threats were made on Syed Azmi’s life. A ‘Do Not Go Near Dogs’ event was proposed as a counteracting response. Conservative groups took offense at what they saw was an attempt to further dilute religious values. One member of a political party even derided the event as a lead-up to more liberal and public ‘sinning’:
The academic campaign for animal rights and recognition in cities is observably complicated by the place-specific politics and cultures in KL. To be more optimistic, I think the existing provision of dog parks could still be an indicator of tolerance and co-existence. KL’s cognizance and acceptance of companion dogs as urban co-inhabitants may still be in its relative infancy, but at least my aunt’s dogs have some space in the city to run around for now.
Read more from my sources:
- Fuller, T. (2014) ‘Want touch a dog? In Malaysia, it’s a delicate subject’. Retrieved 16th November 2017 from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/27/world/asia/dog-petting-event-underlines-malaysias-culture-wars.html?_r=0.
- Lim, I. (2014) ‘Syed Azmi, the ‘Touch a Dog’ organiser who turned hero to villain in one week’. Retrieved 16th November 2017 from http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/syed-azmi-the-touch-a-dog-organiser-who-turned-hero-and-villain-in-a-week#wLwrbkM5HA6uUo26.97.
- Philo, C. & C. Wilbert (2000) Animal Spaces, Beastly Places: New Geographies of Human-Animal Relations. London: Routledge.
- Ram, S. (2014) ‘After ‘I want to touch a dog’ event, PAS youth leader asks ‘What next, a sex fest?”. Retrieved 16th November 2017 from http://says.com/my/news/after-i-want-to-touch-a-dog-event-pas-youth-leader-asks-what-next-a-sex-fest.
- Wolch, J., West, K., & T. E. Gaines (1995) ‘Transspecies Urban Theory’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 13, 6.