The first thing David Mun does, as you sit down next to him, is to thank God. He thanks God for the lashings of afternoon sun, as he sweats on a wooden bench in the open-air courtyard of D7 Sentul East. He thanks God for the handful of people who have formed a circle around him, who are here to hear him at this session of The Human Library.
Mun is 67-years-old, but looks much younger. His greying hair is gelled and parted to the right, and he smiles like a monk welcoming you into his monastery. Even if the heat is unforgiving, he extends grace easily, thankful for the chance to breathe in the gift of fresh air. “It’s because of His mercy on me that I am here today,” he begins. Today, the title of the book bearing David Mun’s name is: Former Death Row Prisoner.
The Human Library a global movement that brings together a range of human books, each eager to share their unique life story. Mun starts by telling us that in the 1980s, he was known in illegal circles by the moniker ‘Tikus’. Aside from his short stature, Mun earned his nickname by scurrying around the nation as a drug trafficker for eight years. On his first trip ferrying drugs between states, he earned RM30,000. Thus, a career was born. Mun would later relocate to Thailand, earning millions of baht through regular trips made into Malaysia.
Today, the title of the book bearing David Mun’s name is: Former Death Row Prisoner.
On one such trip on August 8, 1988, Mun was driving through Sungai Petani in Kedah, on his way to a drop-off in Penang, when he was stopped by the police. Inside a secret compartment in his car, policemen discovered that he was carrying around 120 kilos of morphine. Instantly, Mun knew his fate. “I thought to myself, ‘I was finished.’”
Mun was charged under Section 39B of the Dangerous Drug Act 1952—the infamous provision that sentences anyone found guilty of drug trafficking to death—and was sent to Taiping Prison, the country’s first and oldest modern prison complex. “At that time, I was in my early forties. I was transferred to ‘death row’—a room by myself. I just thought, ‘My life. There goes my life.’ Just like that.”
For 15 years, Mun’s high-walled world stood on its own economy and epicurean pursuits. He watched his fellow inmates pray to their own gods for salvation, then saw them “close their holy books, and started selling drugs inside the prison.” Prisoners channelled their frustrations through plenty of sexual activity.
Mun spent most of his days alone in the prison library. One day, he read a newspaper piece on non-profit organisation Malaysian Care and their rehabilitation work with ex-prisoners. He cut out the story and kept the clipping as a symbol of hope. If I ever walk out of this prison free, I will go there.
His chances weren’t good. Of 441 people hanged in a fifty-year period since 1960, 228 were involved in drug trafficking. On the night before his court appointment for the appeal of his conviction, Mun prayed. Give me a second chance. I promise, I can become a good man if I am given a second chance.
The next day, Mun was escorted to the courthouse in four handcuffs. After a short discussion between his lawyer, the deputy public prosecutor and three judges, the verdict was delivered: there was reasonable doubt.
Prior to this, Mun’s lawyer had successfully argued, with the help of a doctor, that morphine had benefits as a medicinal painkiller, and had not yet been processed into heroin. The charge was amended to the less punitive Section 39A, and Mun was released. Upon hearing the judge, tears rolled down his cheek.
Mun has since kept the promise he made in prison—he volunteers for Malaysian Care in their Prison, Substance Abuse and Addictions Ministry, spending time counselling and visiting drug addicts on the streets and in hospitals. He also works as a construction worker. Although his parents have passed away and he has lost contact with his siblings, he is at peace. “Life has to go on,” he says.
When Mun finishes his story, there is silence. The circle of strangers stare at him, in a daze. Then, they start to ask questions. How do you feel? What was prison like? All around, there is a buzz of constant chatter as other small groups are gathered in a library that welcomes noise and wild banter.
The process of the Human Library is simple: you go to a counter, apply for a library card, and check out a human ‘book’ for ten minutes when it becomes available. Readers peruse through a file of titles as diverse as ‘The Person Living With HIV’, ‘The African Student’ and ‘Life is One Big Stage’, hearing the other side of many stories.
In one commune, a tall man in a chequered shirt and jeans hunches in his seat. He listens intently to a community worker talk about the challenges that transsexuals face in Malaysia. He nods at intervals. He knows the brunt of discrimination. In 1993, Christoffer Erichsen and four other friends took on growing gang violence in Copenhagen, Denmark, after a mutual friend was stabbed six times and almost died.
As an idealistic 18-year-old, Erichsen would help start a movement in his own country that would address these deep-seated issues of prejudice. It was the same hope for a different kind of future that prompted him to launch The Human Library in Malaysia.
Christoffer Erichsen was a hip-hop DJ. We are seated in a cafe, and we chuckle as he mentions this. Erichsen is a social entrepreneur, the co-founder of a development and social-impact consulting firm called Scope Group, which he set up here in 2007. He’s definitely a shirt-and-jeans guy, bearing a moustache and goatee, and he is as genially distant from the rapper stereotype as one can possibly be. He would seem more Biz Stone, less Grandmaster Flash.
But the biases in us are exactly what Erichsen hopes to address with The Human Library. “People have their patterns. There’s been a way of seeing each other that has built up over the years. You talk disrespectfully about other groups. You see others as either better of lower than yourself. We’re all sinners in this game.”
As a young teenager, Erichsen was entrenched in the local hip-hop scene, organising illegal underground gigs and playing his turntables at parties. But underneath the music, there was rising dissonance. Denmark is widely seen by many as a progressive nation, and with plenty of proof; by the numbers, it consistently ranks as among the most democratic countries in the world, with the best quality of life scores, in prestigious lists like the Legatum Prosperity Index and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)’s Where To Be Born index.
As the economy prospered in the 1960s and 70s, however, a growing influx of foreigners gradually resulted in what an influential local report in 1983 termed the ‘indvandrerproblematikken’—‘the immigrant problem’. Vociferous anti-immigration political parties were born, and ethnic tensions have since become a discernible cause behind the recent increase in gang-related crimes in the Danish capital of Copenhagen.
Erichsen saw this first-hand. “We started seeing angry kids with ethnic backgrounds. They would gang up and hang out in the weekends. If they couldn’t get into nightclubs because of their colour, they would walk around and beat up the kids who came out of the nightclubs. All this stuff started happening.”
With four other friends, Erichsen launched the organisation Stop the Violence in 1993, mobilising Danish youngsters towards a more positive youth culture. In a few years, the movement had around 30,000 members, set up an office in the city centre, and attracted the attention of the government. Their ideas ranged from sending self-created lectures about crime prevention and racism to schools, to inviting rappers like Ice Cube and The Fugees to perform in special concerts. “We even had booked Tupac [Shakur, the rapper] to come and perform. Then he got shot.” He pauses. “The first time he got shot.”
“One of the things we discovered was a need for different conversations between groups that normally wouldn’t talk.”
In 2000, Stop the Violence was invited to set up a booth at the Roskilde Festival, the Danish music festival that is one of the largest in Europe. The team wanted to try something different. “One of the things we discovered was a need for different conversations between groups that normally wouldn’t talk. We saw that racism and prejudice was a huge issue, causing a lot of the violence and social issues.” They invited 75 people to become books, a group that included anyone from police officers to body builders, feminists to politicians. The response from young festival-goers was impressive. “We even had people who were festival participants who became books, because they said, “I can be a book too.” We started to grow our library,” Erichsen says.
The idea—simple to organise and comparatively cost-effective—has, in Erichsen’s words, “spread like wildfire”. The Council of Europe adopted the idea into its human rights education programmes throughout the continent, and around 40 countries are now running Human Library events. In Australia, the small town of Lismore holds an award-winning Human Library session every month, and has received government funding for a three-year project to create a national network of Library organisers.
Then there’s Malaysia, a land sown with seeds of racial disunity. A country rooted in the past and germinating in the present. “It’s here, like everywhere else,” Erichsen reminds. “Show me a country where there are no issues around prejudice, whether it’s race, money, politics, values, religion. How do we coexist?”
In May last year, at the Women Deliver Conference 2013 inside the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, with 4,500 attendees from almost 150 nations, The Human Library Malaysia debuted. Twelve books volunteered—with titles like ‘The Sex Worker’ and ‘The Lady With The Veil’—and the response was a familiar sight. “Again, it’s the same thing we see with other Libraries across the world,” Erichsen says. “It created an emotional connection with people who will normally never connect. People walk away feeling inspired, excited. Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it amazing we can be so different?”
Two other Human Library sessions have since been held, and those who have taken part as books have also been surprised by the power of simply sharing their story with others. “Having gone into it without knowing much about it, you gain so much from interacting with people, even if you’re not prepared for it,” says Yasmin Lane, a researcher with BetterCities who was a human book with the title ‘People and Institutions’ at the most recent Library event. “The fact that you’re just there to talk without judging, just to explore and just trying to understand someone, you gain so much from it. People don’t do it anymore. They don’t sit and talk to random people.”
The future for The Human Library in Malaysia is promising. Erichsen and his team are in talks with government officials to run it on a larger scale, and they are seeking out corporations and educational institutions who could sponsor the movement, and help run it more regularly. Sessions have been sporadic so far, however.
It is the vision for a more colour-blind, accepting society that drives Erichsen to find more partners in the cause, giving those on the fringe a chance to be heard. “People love sharing their own story. Maybe they’re not used to being invited to share, because they might be from a minority. Normally, that’s not seen as a plus, but in The Human Library, that’s why we want you. The same thing that pushed you to the outside that normally may not make you interesting. Actually, that’s what makes you very interesting.”
Another circle has formed. This time, strangers have congregated around a bespectacled woman with red pants and hand-drawn animals on her black blouse, sitting cross-legged on the concrete floor. She shakes everyone’s hands, and asks them to introduce themselves.
She is Anne Sivanathan. The title of her life story is: ‘Special Needs Educator’.
“What I do…” she stops. She speaks slowly, like every word is gold. “I could use all your talents in the job that I do. I deal with special needs children.”
She shares. We listen. A new chapter begins.