Saturday, 10 November 2018

Whale Of A Scam

To say Malaysians were hyped about Billion Dollar Whale is an understatement. Thank goodness for 9 May, otherwise we'd never get our hands on books like it. But the unexpected GE14 results delayed the release.

"When we first wrote it, (former prime minister Datuk Seri) Najib Tun Razak was still in power," co-author Tom Wright told The Star, "we had to change the ending. We never thought the book would ever be released in Malaysia. We thought perhaps, we would be selling copies from Changi Airport."

Nor did the publisher expect the book to zip off the shelves. The first several weeks stocks kept running out. Lines of people stretched outside the local Kinokuniya waiting for autographs by Wright when he dropped by. A pirated digital file of the book circulated on WhatsApp was later revealed to be an earlier edition, sans the GE14 aftermath.

(Someone even reviewed the pirated e-book on Goodreads and got called out by Wright. That a stolen copy of a book about stolen billions is being read and circulated might be a reason this scam was possible.)

To be expected, I guess. A senior figure in local publishing thinks it's because Malaysians love reading about themselves, especially when written by Mat Sallehs. As is the case with this book about the 1MDB heist by Wright and co-author Bradley Hope, both journalists from the Wall Street Journal.

Instead of boring money flows or dry blow-by-blow reporting, what we have is a gripping, cinematic financial thriller that sucks you in within a few pages, regardless of where you open it - not the ending, please. That's how I ended up reading it twice, cover to cover.

The focus is more on how the plot unfolded, even as the main characters are fleshed out. The protagonist is the titular whale, Low Taek Jho, now better known as Jho Low, thanks to, among other things, reports of his wild profligate parties and a track called "Check My Steezo".

The prologue, describing Low's decadent Las Vegas birthday party in November 2012 that stunned even the now-late host of the TV series Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, sets readers up for the displays of debauchery and ostentation to come.

On campus, [Low] drove around in a maroon-red SC-430 Lexus convertible, which he had leased but passed off as his own. He deliberately didn’t correct rumors that he was a “prince of Malaysia”, a claim that made the other Malaysian students laugh when they heard it.

Wright and Hope trace the rise and fall of 1MDB and its players, with Low in the centre. Just about everyone is here: his immediate family, his collaborators, and those who helped to unravel the scheme.

In the book, Low is portrayed as a bullshit artist who could sniff out rich, powerful yet gullible patrons for his schemes, dazzling them and his collaborators with his charm, other people's money and his connections with celebrities, artistes and assorted power brokers.

He started young, from online masquerades to passing off a family friend's yacht as his. Parental influence is cited as another factor; his dad Larry Low may have cultivated Jho Low's social-climbing tendencies by sending him to Harrow, and then Wharton, to cosy up with scions of the elite. One of those Wharton connections led him to the Middle East and planted the seed of what would end up being the biggest kleptocracy case in history.

I had few nits to pick with this book. It is the hot read we've been promised, and it's such a rollicking ride from start to finish you barely notice the typos, no doubt due to the rush to release it for the Malaysian and Singaporean markets. Even those well acquainted with the scandal will be whisked away, breathless as they try to keep up with the heart-thumping kin cheong pace.

No surprise many readers are outraged, disgusted and dismayed. The whale and his fellows used the global financial system and the help of greedy bank executives to put up Malaysia's natural wealth as collateral for cash that went to extravagant, eye-watering spending sprees at nighclubs, designer boutiques, jewellers, casinos, hotels, art auctions and real estate markets; producing a movie about financial fraud, believe it or not; and possible attempts to rig an election.

And we could be footing the bill for years. a cascade of bad luck, taking all of ten minutes, [Jho Low] lost $2 million. The stunned entourage couldn’t compute the way he parted with money—seemingly without breaking a sweat—and some began to whisper about this guy, and how he acted like the cash wasn’t his own.

Speculation about Low's motives are rife, but I think bukan duit punya pasal je. The authors' profile of him suggests a guy who wants more than what money can buy. And what's better than being the sun of his own galaxy, the fairy godfather of the top one per cent, the genie to these upper-upper-crust Aladdins?

The billions he allegedly stole let him play that role, but how he went about it, like he did with the 1MDB caper, was crude. If he couldn't throw money at a problem, he would try to talk his way out of it, or rely on the clout of his influential friends.

Reading about the excesses is like witnessing a Lovecraftian beast feeding itself with humongous fistfuls of humans: maddening, horrific, gory, yet so fascinating that one is compelled to watch with clenched jaws as it shambles along, leaving destruction and despair in its wake.

But the beast was careless, and for that it would be taken down. Almost all the perpetrators soared stratosphere-high before exploding spectacularly and crashing to earth like spent bottle rockets.

As in most crime thrillers, you know who the good guys and the bad guys are. This is the Jho Low, Najib and Rosmah many of us have come to hate. The at-times cartoonish villainy of culprits here earn them no sympathy and all the derision we can muster, to the point we forget that for all their faults, they are still people.

Other allegations such as the murder of Kevin Morais and UMNO-BN campaigning in GE13 with 1MDB money spice things up, raising the book's popularity among those who already assume the worst of them. Is there more to the tale? How much did the authors omit to keep the book at a mere 379 pages?

...Low would offer [Jordan] Belfort $500,000 to attend an event in Las Vegas with [Leonardo] DiCaprio. Red Granite had paid him handsomely for the rights to his memoir. But Belfort was starting to distrust this group. Eager to stay out of trouble, Belfort turned them down...

Damn kwa cheong hijinks with billions of brazenly stolen dollars leave us gasping, time and again, "No way all of this is true." The authors say it is, backed up by dozens of interviews and piles of documents, records and correspondence the DOJ is using to make their case, with editorial and legal oversight from the WSJ.

And it seems Wright had said the book was written for the sake of the story, not to rescue Malaysia or for a movie deal, and he was uncomfortable with the notion that he and Hope "saved" the country with it.

But wouldn't the publication of this book prejudice the ongoing 1MDB case? So far only several people have been formally charged by the United States' DOJ. Or is it fine because the guilt of the thieves have long been established?

At least, the guilty plea by former Goldman Sachs executive Tim Leissner suggests there is some truth to the allegations, and it looks like he's started spilling tea.

I am also a little annoyed by the author's descriptions of "palm-fringed" Penang and "jungle-covered" Sarawak, as if this part of the world is still Noel Barber's exotic, inscrutable patch of green. Environmental NGOs might argue to the contrary.

The authors' real-life thriller approach has paid off, but I won't blame those who feel the book is a hit job. At some point I wonder if the authors are as guilty of exaggerations as Low. For one, Malaysian officials smuggling files locked with the password "SaveMalaysia"? Why not just go with "HelpMe06biWanKenOBIYouAreMyON1yHopE"? #UseStrongPasswords.

If it gets Malaysians to read...

[1MDB] was supposed to have created jobs for Malaysians, but instead would be a burden on state finances for years to come. Most of the borrowings weren’t due for repayment for a few years, but 1MDB’s debt was a ticking time bomb, waiting to go off in the future.

Months after publication, whale fever hasn't abated - how else to explain why Kinokuniya is always "out of stock" every time I go there? (I know my luck isn't great but come on!) Also, the leviathan is still at large. The scheduled release of a Malay-language edition this month, the upcoming movie adaptation, and latest developments in the investigation are keeping temperatures high too.

Perhaps miffed that her victory lap was overshadowed by the hype over Billion Dollar Whale, Clare Rewcastle-Brown of Sarawak Report has accused Wright, Hope and their paper of not being honest about the source of their 1MDB reporting, plus other stuff. And who knew she had plans to shoot her own "how I broke the case" blockbuster?

(They did credit Sarawak Report for breaking "the first stories on Jho Low" and stated that it "was an important resource for us", but that probably wasn't enough.)

Whistleblower Xavier Justo meanwhile has disputed some of the details in the book regarding himself and announced that he's going to pen his account of what happened. However I look at it, it was about the money (not a cent less or more than what he believed his old bosses owed him) until - from what I could gather from this interview - he became a dad and, later, was convinced to do the right thing by Sarawak Report and The Edge.

And no one is blind to the whale-sized void in the narrative of how a supposed tukang kelentong from Penang managed to get Wall Street, Hollywood, and the world to dance to his tune, past raised flags, gatekeepers and blaring alarms.

How far did the con go? Who else was involved but not named? Why did Low do it? Why, as Wright asked, did he not stop when the financial hole got too big? Why didn't he put that money to work instead of living large? Given his pull, he could've gotten qualified professionals to manage and invest those billions.

It’s easy to sneer at Malaysia as a cesspool of graft, but that misses the point. None of this could have happened without the connivance of scores of senior executives ... Low straddled both these worlds—Malaysia and the West—and he knew exactly how to game the system.

What little that's published of him so far does not indicate any inclination towards candour. Nor should we expect any writing flair from his lawyers or PR advisers, who I expect will ditch him once what remains of his money runs out, or if the evidence piles up.

If that happens, wouldn't it be ironic if he ultimately had to approach the guys who helped expose him to write his side of the story?

Billion Dollar Whale
The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World

Tom Wright and Bradley Hope
Hachette Books
379 pages
ISBN: 978-0-316-45347-9

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Peckish For Pizza At Patty And Pie

"There's this pizza place that's better than your favourite pizza place," I was told.

Challenge accepted, which meant going to Aman Suria, which I tend to avoid because of the traffic, where Patty and Pie was. I can't believe it's been there for four years. Although, I think that's almost how long I stayed away from the area.

My informants claimed that the pizzas are good here - perhaps even better than - my "favourite pizza place" - because of the centrepiece of its sedate cement and wood interior: a wood-fire oven. However, as its name suggests, Patty and Pie also offers a interesting array of burgers.

Unfortunately, I have only one increasingly picky stomach, and my informants were occupied elsewhere, so I settled for pie rather than patty.

I was also nursing a bit of homesickness for my "favourite pizza place" that had packed up for greener pastures but seems to have neglected informing others of where it had moved. The Other Pizza Place, of course, uses an electric or gas oven. Certainly no wood was involved.

The charm of a wood-fire oven isn't just that it's old-school, burns wood, is made of bricks (which adds to the aesthetics of a hipster-luring décor) and adds smokiness to whatever it bakes. It can achieve higher temperatures that can bake a pizza quicker, giving the crust a better crispy-chewy ratio and keeps the toppings from drying out too much from long cooking times.

This is akin to the afterburner-like stoves in Chinese restaurants that bestow woks their searing temperatures - the wok hei - that flash-cooks ingredients while stir-frying, preserving their goodness.

As it is with old-school equipment, wood-fire ovens are more mercurial and messy and require more skill and work to use compared with modern gas or electric ovens, but it means bakers who know the former inside and out have added hipster cred and bragging rights.

Of all the pizza flavours, two stood out almost immediately: Anchovies, and Quattro Formaggi, which blends four types of cheese. I also noticed the Half-and-Half option, which allows you to try two flavours, albeit in one 14-inch pie.

As the waiter left with my order, Sade's voice drifted in from the sound system. Funny, it doesn't sound like the original edition.

Face to face, each classic case
We shadow box and double cross, yet need the chase...

I'm hungry now, I mused. By the time it's baked I'll be famished enough - probably.

I had the chance to see Patty and Pie's wood-fire oven close up (not too close, though) and in action. The action inside is pretty sedate, sonically, but I could feel the heat. Anything will cook fast inside that flaming cavern at maximum temperature.

The guy at the counter claimed that only a handful of restaurants - presumably in the Klang Valley - have wood-fire ovens. One SOULed OUT branch has one, and I know of Coconut House and Enorme at Petaling Jaya. It's not just the hassle of building and maintaining one. The guy who helps build these ovens is an Italian, apparently, and he has his own restaurant.

Makes sense. You wouldn't want too much competition, and how much wood is out there to comfortably burn for cooking?

My Half-and-Half: one part Carne (meat) and the other Anchovies, eventually arrived. A warped disc, rough and charred at its uneven edges. One one side, strips of beef brisket, minced meat and sausage slices with the odd jalapeño ring, and on the other, pitted black olives, capers, brown bits of canned anchovies and silver-grey countershaded chunks of brined anchovies - all on a bed of melted cheese.

As I admired the shine on the pie, Sade's mellifluous voice was replaced by a guttural chorus of deep voices chanting in an alien language, followed by another voice and some familiar words.

I can't stop this feeling deep inside of me
Girl, you just don't realise what you do to me...

Oh, yes. Feed me now.

Out of respect for the wood-fire oven and the hands that baked it, I dispensed with the cutlery and dug in with my hands. Ooh, the tactile feel of the crust and the aroma of superheated cheese, animal flesh and spices.

Was it hunger, the ambience, or the mix of cheese, grease and meat juice that hit the spot that made the slice of pie so good? Or the fact that my longing for pizza was fulfilled?

Whatever. Being able to eat pizza again felt great. I can't say I took my time, though. I was famished, after all.

After two more slices, I was curious about the other side. A kopitiam-based pizza stall turned me on to the pungent, saline tang of anchovies, and I've cooked with it once, substituting salt with canned anchovies.

The taste reminded me of what I had read about garum, an ancient Roman condiment made of fermented fish guts (anchovy was supposedly one of the species used). I hesitate to compare it with belacan, mostly because I have no idea what garum tastes like.

Also, John Lennon's crooning made it hard to visualise myself lying on a divan, eating bread dipped in a salty, umami-laden ancient fish sauce while looking over the shoreline in a Mediterranean setting.

Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try
No hell below us, above us only sky...

The whole pitted olives were a bit of a handful, so I pulled them apart and distributed the bits as evenly as I could across the anchovy half of the partially eaten pie. Then I picked up a slice, folded it and went CHOMP.

BAM went the first sharp tang of salt. This was from the canned anchovies, the small brown slivers of fish I was familiar with. What was less familiar were the anchovy chunks that resembled the fish they used to be - fresher-looking, and tasting and smelling of fish oil, with a somewhat flaky texture reminiscent of salt-cured ikan kembung.

This would've been good, if not for the salt level. One time I wished they used less toppings on a pizza. Did I mention there were capers in there, too? Dear g*d, this should have come with health warnings for people on low- or no-sodium diets.

By the time I decided to switch back to the more bearable meat pizza slices, Lennon was joined by the rest of his gang for a rendition of one of their greatest hits.

It's been a hard day's night and I been working like a dog
It's been a hard day's night, I should be sleeping like a log...

Not that it helped. My cardiovascular system was sending (imaginary) alarm bells over the level of sodium I introduced into it - how was I to know? And two slices remained, challenging me to take them home for later instead.

I was also starting to feel full. Now I began to slow down.

I alternated between slices of DAMN SALTY and not salty pizza until the plate was empty. I was going to need something to counter all that salt from the anchovies and capers. Meanwhile, Lennon and gang moved on to another tune.

I'll give you all I got to give if you say you'll love me too
I may not have a lot to give but what I got I'll give to you
I don't care too much for money, money can't buy me love...

Perhaps, but money can buy me pizza, and on some days that's just as good. But the days I could wallop a 14-inch pizza by myself without a sweat are behind me. I won't be doing this for a long while.

Leaving to explore the neighbourhood, I found a fruit shop - one or two doors away from Patty and Pie - that had what I needed: a healthy after-dinner snack of papaya and dragon fruit.

Oh, nuts, I should have asked for a banana to balance out the sodium.

Is P&P better than my favourite pizza place, which has relocated to g*d-knows-where in SEA Park? (Somebody let me know if you find it; I was told they were going to share space with another retailer.) It's good, I grudgingly admit, but the favourite has my preferred flavours and sizes, with more tolerable levels of sodium.

And I'm still hoping that I'll find That Other Pizza Place again. (Then again, maybe not. Oh well, life goes on.)

Well, at least now I have another venue for entertaining guests. Preferably during weekends, when the traffic isn't so heavy.

Patty & Pie

40, Jalan PJU 1/45
Aman Suria
47301 Petaling Jaya

Probably pork-free

Tuesdays to Sundays: Noon–3pm, 6–10pm
Closed on Mondays

+ 603-7886 5352

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Friday, 10 August 2018


When the radio broadcasted highlights of the day's parliamentary session, I should have turned it off. Wednesday's Twitter feed left me angry. After the broadcast ended, I was thoroughly INCANDESCENT WITH RAGE.

Of course they mentioned the removal of two portraits of alleged LGBTIQ icons from a photo exhibition celebrating Malaysians and the upcoming Independence Day. And they JUST HAD TO play audio of the Minister of Religious Affairs defending the decision. "Takde ikon lain ke?" he added.

(Cis. Terus naik minyak.)

Now the incident has blown up and everybody knows who the "gay icons" are. Either this was a serious case of shooting oneself in the foot or a sneaky way of spotlighting the issue to generate pressure on the relevant authorities. Either way, tahniah, pak menteri.

I did spare a thought for the minister who was, after all, sockpuppeting for the current government, perhaps against his own personal views and principles. In spite of that, it felt as if we travelled back in time about eight years.

Religious people have tried to convert me, and once I was told that, according to the rules, if I didn't join I was going to hell. No salvation. I don't hold it against them, though. Religion might have been the best thing that ever happened to them, but their messaging could have used a little tact.

However, none of the LGBTIQ community have propositioned me: "Y'know, it's great to be gay. Why don't you join us?" NONE. Yet they are being spoken of in some circles like the Falun Gong, the Aum Shinrikyo, or Herbalife.

And, as many have pointed out, one's sexuality isn't something you can pick up and let go of, like smoking, drinking, pergi Big Bad Wolf book sale, or two flat whites a day.

Nor have the LGBTIQ shoved their "lifestyles" in our faces by, say, making out in public - that's the only thing their critics ever think about, isn't it? Such a point of view defines the LGBTIQ as objects of perverse sex rather than human beings, which they struggle to be recognised as.

I believe that LGBTIQ is all nature. Of course, some don't want to accept that, or that such people exist in their families, communities and institutions. And when they learn that they do, and in the tradition of those who are incapable of introspection, what better scapegoat than the Gaylluminati?

So, our LGBTIQ bros and sisters are shunned, persecuted, tortured and even killed. Why? Because their behaviour is sinful and immoral? Against the order of nature? Does the state or one's religion allow one to publicly humiliate and harm them? Isn't there a line in the scriptures that says the numerous races and types were created so that they may all know each other?

And it's said that how you treat other living beings is a mirror to your soul. So if the LGBTIQ were created as a secret test of our humanity, from what I see so far, we should've been wiped out many times over. Maybe our impending doom is being pushed forward just so we can gather more bad karma.

Ostracising certain people means denying them their rights as human beings: to love, friendship, health care, security, education, and the chance to realise their potential. It opens the doors to hell on earth, and only allows hate, fear and anger to grow.

I know a bit about anger. I've been angry for years, mostly for nothing. Then I stopped and realised how much emptier it made me feel. Even if I can't help minorities like the LGBTIQ, at least I try not to make life hell for them. Many other worthier causes are out there waiting to be championed.

As human beings we are all born with needs and wants. When some of those aren't met we are left with voids. These can be filled with better things, so why choose something that will poison you and hollow you out further, making the void in you almost impossible to fill?

More than how minorities are treated here, I'm more incensed by the the government's stance. Instead of taking the lead in promoting kindness and justice towards minority groups, they're pandering to the reactionary segments of society.

We punish those crying out for mercy, justice and a fair shot at life and protect those who hate, rage, lie and worse. How is this even remotely logical, humane or even spiritual?

Excuses such as "this is what we inherited from the previous government; we should tread with caution" should not apply here. This is not one of those underground peat fires; the flames are now above ground and they need to be extinguished.

Even as a temporary measure to keep the reactionaries away from sabotaging efforts at reform, letting the mob have their way is a terrible strategy. Anger and hate need fuel, and once a bugbear is gone that hate will find other targets. All it needs is someone to point the way.

Sadly, the government will never engage with or hear from the LGBTIQ community and their allies. For political expediency, it's easier and safer to operate on their own assumptions of the LGBTIQs rather than risk anything that would soften the stance against this group or heighten tensions further.

The gulf between our minorities and the rest of us is a gaping, festering wound, and for it to heal it has to hurt first and some appear unwilling to start the process.

If this persists, the renewed hope we have as a nation with a better future remains under threat by the negative elements that strive to keep this wound open - not by the LGBTIQ and their allies, friends and loved ones.

Someone told me the above was a much more measured response than they could muster, so I thought I did well.

Then I read more bad takes about the issue and I stayed boiling for much of the day, during which I penned the following. I never thought I'd feel this close to the subject until I delved further into my experiences and realised this affects me too.

Yes, I'm angry. Not just because of two photographs but the mentality, the myths and outright lies that led to their removal. The mentality that compels educated professionals to be openly hateful towards the LGBTIQ group and young politicians to tell an already oppressed minority to "stay in the closet".

That mentality also boxes the LGBTIQ community in a metaphorical prison where all they are apparently good for is feed or satisfy perverse sexual fantasies and suffer and slowly perish from whatever ailments that result - because, haters claim, that's all they do anyway.

As a result, some of our best, creative minds and talents, locked up or driven away because of who they choose to love, regardless of their achievements and what they might contribute to the nation's development one day.

That mentality also targets those in society who care about this community, and obstructs their efforts to help them. It potentially tars others who are more sympathetic to their plight, including parents who love their LGBTIQ children, tutors of LGBTIQ students, clergymen with LGBTIQ congregations, and bosses with LGBTIQ employees. Are they to be shunned and pilloried too?

Masih ada hati nak capai wawasan TN2050. Kalau macam ni TN5050 pun tak boleh capai.

Angry, fearful and hateful some of these bigoted voices may be, what they lack is knowledge, experience and interactions with minorities, which might explain their ignorance and lack of empathy.

I don't feel the same way not because I'm woke or anything, but because I had a relatively good upbringing and the privilege to know and interact with LGBTIQ people. THIS is what the other side needs.

But it seems certain forces want them to remain ill-informed and indignant for selfish and possibly nefarious reasons. Forces even the progressives within the new government are afraid to move against.

Which is why anti-LGBTIQ statements from politicians are irresponsible, to say the least. Telling the group to sila duduk dalam almari is a polite way of telling them to sila meninggal. Even if they're gone, the hate will remain and find another target. And another. Until there's nothing left.

That is why I am angry.

Our society, our nation, and our very souls are dying a death from a thousand cuts - and counting - and we seem powerless to stop it.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Salt, Spice And Vinegar

Men Are Dicks* is an acerbic, white-hot riposte against men behaving badly

I got a copy of this bright fuchsia-covered book yonks ago at Publika during an event. The only thing I still remember was the organisers playing Dato Vida's "Ayam Mi" (THAT's how I am spelling it) song, which I wish I never heard, over the sound system. Dengar suara tu bulu-bulu roma pun nak lancarkan diri ke angkasa.

What really sold the book was the blurbs, especially Brian Gomez's. Given Gomez's background, one is compelled to believe him. He also wrote a great novel, Devil's Place, which you should read.

But I only opened this fuchsia-covered acquisition late on Sunday night and, risking sleep deprivation, devoured it in one go like a big bag of hot-and-spicy Chipster™ chips.

And it's Men Are Dicks* or MAD*, with the asterisk, because the author says men who read it aren't dicks. How can they be if they willingly paid to endure the ensuing humiliation, despite the warning on the cover?

Now, I've seen what passes for books these days, those that are lifted from blogs, WhatsApp chats, Facebook, Twitter feeds, or a combination of the aforementioned. And the contempt for many of them is justified. Ye lah, deep konon luahan kalian kat timeline korang...

Unlike many of these #AcahAcah-type compilations, some thought and wordcraft went into MAD* - a bawdy, candid, no-holds-barred, uproariously funny and at times jiwang and quotable offline Twitter feed about men (and, occasionally, women) behaving badly, mostly in relationships, sex and marriage.

Yang terasa pasti kena #BakarHidupHidup; it should come with a tube of burn cream, just in case. No surprise it stayed on the bestsellers' list for a long while.

And what’s this bull with blaming women for your uncontrollable urges? Wak lu! Your nafsu is not my responsibility. Bak kata my friend Leen Ashburn, “Men bila dah stim kodok, pokok buluh pun nampak macam Kate Moss.”

And it IS like a Malaysian-authored Twitter feed: a mishmash of anecdotes, poems, random thoughts and hashtags by the nom de plume Lily G that proves the point made in the title of the book in lurid, eye-watering detail. Wahlau eh, ngape ramai sangat ahli kaum Adam yang perangainya macam ni~

Though the author claims the anecdotes are fiction, they sound real enough, reminiscent of stories one sees on social media - too many instances of bukan nama sebenar suggests kebanyakan kes ni berdasarkan cerita benar. Not all of it are barbs, however.

She also suggests ways how men can not be dicks, some of which can't be repeated here. The wit is vinegar-sharp throughout and the burns keep coming, except where she pours her heart out in tribute to her grandmother, mother and sister.

The unitalicised Malay words and typos do add to the authenticity, but I might want to have words with the editor. Thank goodness there are no emojis; naik minyak bila tengok benda offline mirip benda online. Saya pun sehari suntuk ngadap skrin je - pasal kerja, OK?

What is it with men and threesomes anyway? Nak satisfy one girl pun ketar-ketar sampai lupa mother’s maiden name, ada hati nak threesome!

The Malay-English rojak in MAD* is damn spicy, and a glossary is handy for deciphering the more obscure bits of lingo, much of which was invented by the author, who also blogs about football - which explains the presence of icons of the sport in her lexicon.

Rakes, cads, playboys and their ilk are slapped with the label "Sundalese"; a "Magnum Almond" is a physically attractive man who's probably "good for one thing", while a "Sprouted Bread" is not as yummy as a Magnum Almond but a keeper; alpha males are dubbed "Steven Gerrard" or "Xavi Alonso"; a "Fernando Torres" probably means pretty boy; and the author refers to her "ample posterior" as Banana Republic. Rolls off the tongue, aye?

Some might be offended by the vulgar and sometimes racist language, chaplang prose and misandrist tone of this book. But when one skims newsfeeds these days, one is hard-pressed to disagree with it. History has been a long-running "men are dicks" monologue, with the occasional bad woman episode as an intermission.

Some of the stories in this book feel a tad confessional and all-too familiar - uncomfortably so. Near the end, Lily pauses to steel herself before she tells us about her granny and mom. Funny as they are, these jottings come from a place of pain, heartbreak and confusion.

People are always saying women who are angry all the time “sure tak dapat”. Well, I beg to differ. Tak dapat is nowhere near as aggravating as “tak puas”. Of course, I blame men for this. You would have thought with the Age of Information, they would have learnt something useful eh? Negative!

Yet we laugh at her asam pedas giler babs rants, at the characters' loathsome conduct, at how things haven't changed much over the years, at how powerless we feel when shit hits the fan for some of the characters.

We also laugh because it's easier than changing things so that some of the scenarios don't happen again. We Malaysians love shortcuts - probably as much as the feel of warm sand around our heads.

Most of all, we laugh because it feels so, so true.

Men Are Dicks*
Lily G
Neon Terbit
240 pages
Fiction (probably)
ISBN: 978-967-12365-7-4

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

In Praise Of Procrastination

Andrew Santella builds a good case for killing time

first published in The Star, 24 July 2018

The inclination to delay or distract oneself from an immediate task is almost primaeval. When something needs to be done, whether you're a couch potato or an overthinking perfectionist, you will find some way to put it off, even if doing so will backfire on you.

Hence, procrastination is seen as a form of delusion or self-sabotage, a barrier to progress – criminal, indefensible. Scholars and the clergy have waged war on it, casting aspersions upon procrastinators.

So much so that, as writer Andrew Santella puts it in his book, Soon, "Even committed procrastinators can be deeply uncomfortable with the idea of not doing something, which is probably why our foot-dragging is sometimes called killing time."

When the to-do list starts feeling weighty, fire up the cat videos

However, one of Santella's aims with this book is to justify procrastination, his in particular. "I hoped that if I looked through enough history and enough scholarship I would be able to find some pretext or rationale for my habitual delay."

As a pro-time-wasting treatise, this book does the job beautifully. Among other things, Santella argues that procrastinators aren't necessarily unproductive, and these diversions may even be necessary. By the end, readers will feel a bit better about slacking off. Occasionally, of course.

In his efforts to unpack and rationalise the practice of killing time and to trace its history, the author delves into the time-wasting tendencies of English naturalist Charles Darwin, Florentine polymath Leonardo da Vinci, and German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, among others – including himself. In that sense, Soon is also the story of its own genesis.

The other reason I have never made a bucket list is that it requires acknowledging my mortality and I am resolutely not in favor of acknowledging my own mortality. To complete a task is to make it disappear, and in some way, to make ourselves disappear, too. ... I want the lists to go on forever–and me, too, if possible.

Santella's narrative starts with Darwin, who put off his work on evolution and spent two decades studying barnacles before finally publishing On The Origin Of Species in 1859. Then there's Da Vinci, who dabbled in many fields but didn't see a lot of his ideas through to the end, leaving behind nuggets of ideas, some of which would become reality long after his death.

This theme recurs throughout the book; the career paths of the featured luminaries seem to have been diverted by other pursuits that, in the end, enriched their work and their lives while also making them more relatable to us mortals.

"Darwin is remembered because he was brilliant and diligent and tireless," the author states. "But it is his delay that makes him so accessible to us, so human. ... We all have our list of things we should do, things we must do. And yet we find some reason to not do them. In this way, we can claim some kinship with Darwin. We all have our barnacles."

So one empathises with Santella's struggle to complete this book, especially if one is a fellow procrastinator. "...the more enthusiastic I got about the book, the more impossible the writing became," he admits. "I'm the kind of procrastinator who puts off longest that which most urgently needs to be done."

Considering his previous gigs for GQ, Slate and The New York Times Book Review, one would think he might have learnt how to roll with it.

Writers may be the world’s most persistent procrastinators, which is strange because they work in a trade in which the deadline is supposed to be sacrosanct. ... When [Douglas Adams] died in 2001, he was twelve years past the deadline for his last book.

In his journey of (not) writing his book, detours include meeting with Prof Joe Ferrari, who he considers the "most prolific writer and researcher on procrastination"; visiting a church in New Orleans while exploring the history of St Expedite (or Expeditus); going to Pennsylvania to see Fallingwater, the house designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright; and pursuing Lichtenberg's story in Göttingen, Germany.

Those detours seem to have paid off, resulting in a brilliant, candid and quotable meditation on the dangers and delights of procrastination. The at-times meandering narrative embodies the quality being espoused but you won't feel it much. At just under 200 pages, the book is easy to finish and just right for those looking for a diversion.

One comes away convinced that, besides being a human trait we shouldn't be ashamed of, procrastination could help us to cope with today's frenetic pace and give us space to relax, reflect and maybe consider other possibilities.

"Just like the urge to travel springs from the desire to see what is beyond the bend in the road, procrastination starts with the recognition that there might be something, anything, better to do than what we're supposed to do," Santella writes.

"It is comforting to think that there might be something else to do, something better to do, even when we have no idea what it might be. Especially when we have no idea what it might be."

My time with the Great Procrastinators had taught me that the ability to think of reasons not to do what we are supposed to do is one of the greatest gifts the mind has to offer. Our evasions, our small delusions and self-deceptions, these are what give life its flavor. They are what help us feel a little less at the mercy of our obligations and the systems of control that impose them.

If only the book's message didn't intrude during inopportune moments. Instead of meeting writing deadlines, for instance, one finds comfort in chores, the post-election news cycle, or the antics of a blind dwarf cat called Potato.

Then again, why spend much of your waking hours on work? Life is meant to be enjoyed as well; who knows how much time you have left? As Buddhist monk and author Ajahn Brahm would say: "Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow, because you might die tonight."

Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu.

An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me

Andrew Santella
Dey St.
197 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-285110-9

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

The Haunting Tale Of A Concubine And Her Child

first published in Malay Mail, 10 July 2018

Much has been said of novels about Malaya written by foreigners, not all of which are good. So I warily picked up this one and ended up finishing it in one go.

Though Australian author Carol Jones has written many books, including many children's books and several young adult novels, she tapped into stories from her Malaysian Chinese in-laws and further research for her first adult novel. The Concubine's Child is about a young girl who is sold to a wealthy family as a concubine — and the child she eventually bears — across two eras: 1930s Kuala Lumpur and the 21st century.

Lim Yu Lan, the daughter of an apothecary, draws the attention of Madam Chan, the wife of tin-mining tycoon Chan Boon Siew. The older woman sees Yu Lan as the solution to her husband's lack of heirs.

Unable to bear children of her own, she essentially buys Yu Lan from her father, an inveterate gambler, and sets the hapless girl up as her husband's secondary wife and baby-making machine.

Bullied by Madam Chan and subjected to Towkay Chan's advances, Yu Lan's life in the Chan household becomes a nightmare. The reluctant concubine's only ally is the amah, Ho Jie, who befriends Yu Lan and teaches her ways to make her new life more bearable.

At first it seems as if the amah, who is not fond of her mistress, is doing it to spice up the drama between the two wives. Over time, though, she warms up to the girl.

Men brought only trouble. And if trouble was coming, better if it came bearing gold.

But before we know it we find ourselves in England in 2015, watching a couple try to fix a flat tyre in the rain. Turns out the couple are Sarah and her husband, Nick, who happens to be Yu Lan's descendant. Later, Nick announces that he's going to Kuala Lumpur for work. The news unsettles his mum, perhaps for good reason.

In Malaysia, Nick starts delving into his family's history. As his quest continues, the story of Yu Lan and her child unfolds further, bringing the two arcs — past and present — into a complete circle. And Nick won't be prepared for what he will find.

As the story progresses, what strikes me is how Chinese it feels despite the presence of elements of other cultures, regardless of the timeline — though it seems odd that the Chans would employ a Malay midwife for Yu Lan. The dialogue is peppered primarily with Cantonese, but the author also uses a smattering of local Hokkien and Mandarin.

Tiny hiccups aside, it doesn't feel as if Jones has thrown all her research plus the kitchen sink into this novel. She weaves in just enough of the culture to make it believable, conjuring images of old and present-day KL and walks us through the characters' day-to-day.

We choke on the smoke from incense in prayer halls, try to identify the herbs in an apothecary by smell, and chuckle at Nick's frustration with Petaling Jaya's GPS-defeating road network.

She smoothed her hair back from his forehead. “Sometimes, when I walk into a room, it feels like someone has just left. Except there’s no one there. It’s not a sound or a scent, just...”

Kudos as well to the writing. We jump back and forth between two periods yet don't feel jet-lagged. And it's nicely plotted, too. The prologue describes an ill, ageing woman who's about to tell her son the truth — but is she who we think she is? At least I did, but I was proven wrong. Such twists happen several times more, and at some point, I gave up trying to solve the mystery and just go with the flow.

At some point, supernatural elements creep into both arcs. Characters start conversing with people who aren't there and begin seeing ghosts, but are they real or not? Is there a curse on Towkay Chan's household and bloodline? Is Nick's growing obsession with his ancestry being fed by more than the need to find himself? The reader is left guessing right until the end.

Overall, Yu Lan's is not a sunny story. One is reminded of the black-and-white Cantonese dramas of yore, complete with shrewish first wives, their "salty wet" husbands, and the endless tears and wails of "woe is me." Concubine-taking isn't common or as acceptable these days, but it seems as if little has changed for women over the decades — something made more disheartening in the #MeToo era.

Despite their flaws, we are reminded of and urged to acknowledge the humanity of the characters — particularly the Chans, Ho Jie and Yu Lan, even if we disagree with some of their beliefs and motives.

Some of them eventually redeem themselves (somewhat) — Madam Chan especially, who was cajoling and cursing whoever she was worshipping at an altar when she is first introduced — but only a few linger on long after the book closes.

...she didn’t want to endure. What joy was there in a life that must be endured? She once had a dream ... That dream had fooled her into thinking that if she worked hard she could make a life of her own choosing. But she had been wrong.

All this, plus the girl's plight and hints of the unearthly combine to engulf one in a pale sepulchral nimbus, like that which shrouds supposedly haunted houses (and gloomy novels), bringing down temperatures and chilling spines.

I regretted reading this at night with the air conditioning on. Even so, I pressed on — like Nick — compelled to find out what became of Yu Lan, her child, and the household that became their prison.

In the end, it was all worthwhile. I feel Jones has done a good job with this novel; her in-laws would be proud. Though the modern arc feels mundane when compared with the Malaya one, probably because of one's familiarity with the former, the way the two are entwined and resolved are satisfying and worth the risk of a sleepless night haunted by long-haired, white-robed apparitions.


Carol Jones held a meet-and-greet session on 16 June 2018 at Lit Books, Tropicana Avenue, highlights of which can be found here. She was also interviewed on Malaysian business radio station BFM89.9.

The Concubine’s Child
Carol Jones
Head of Zeus
373 pages
ISBN: 9781786699824

Friday, 8 June 2018

A Presidential Race Against Time

James Patterson teams up with Bill Clinton in what might be this year's summer
blockbuster read

first published in The Star, 08 June 2018

I checked the cover, wondering if I was seeing things. Bill Clinton and James Patterson, teaming up on something titled The President Is Missing?

With recent headlines in mind, I thought, no sh*t, Sherlock.

But no, it's not non-fiction. Patterson's latest thriller (and my first Patterson novel), which he teams up with a former US president to write, explores a horrific 21st-century possibility: a crippling cyber attack that will plunge the United States back into the dark ages.

The US president in this novel, set against our current geopolitical climate, is Jonathan Lincoln Duncan, a veteran of the First Gulf War (1990-1991) who lost his wife to cancer and is plagued by a potentially life-threatening disease. Faithful to his wife, patriotic, reticent when it counts, brave (recklessly so at times), he seems a far cry from the real-life incumbent.

When we first meet him, President Duncan is staring down the House Select Committee in a hearing. On his orders, the CIA and US Special Forces thwarted an attempt by pro-Ukraine, anti-Russia separatists to kill a "most dangerous and prolific" cyber terrorist, whom he later contacted for as-yet unspecified reasons. He tells the committee nothing they want to hear, and risks impeachment by doing so. It doesn't help that a CIA operative was killed.

Later, an informant manages to meet Duncan, promising to reveal how to stop the threat, for a price. Against better judgement and the advice of his staff and doctor, he sneaks off to the rendezvous point where he and his contact – the informant's partner, a young Ukrainian maths prodigy – are ambushed, and the informant is killed.

A race against time ensues as Duncan and the Ukrainian kid go on the run, while Duncan's inner circle scrambles to keep things under control in his absence. The president's medical condition lurks in the background, threatening to succeed where the assailants failed.

In the middle of all this, a scheme is being hatched in the White House by the vice-president and the Speaker of the House. We also follow a female assassin codenamed Bach as she and her own team pursue the fleeing duo. Her distinguishing traits include giving her favourite weapon a name, apparent vegetarianism, and a habit of listening to classical music by one particular composer.

As one might expect of Patterson's oeuvre, the plot is straightforward, the pages turn quickly, chapters are short and numerous, and we get to know more about the characters and the world they inhabit than we need to. Not much suspension of disbelief is required, either. Except for descriptions of senate hearings, the presidential speech, and the workings in Washington DC and the White House, Clinton's presence here seems barely visible.

My biggest problem with this novel is too much exposition. Though things start off slow and begin to rev up around page 100, the pacing is bogged down in places by chunks of characterisation and figurative language. It feels as if a film is being storyboarded for a production crew. And is that flashback of how he met his wife even necessary?

Ultimately, these disposable details add little to the enjoyment of the story. One feels almost no urgency to retain whatever clues that might be hidden inside recollections of the past, Duncan's glowing assessments of his confidants, and the odd social commentary enabled by convenient scenes such as one of him interacting with a homeless war veteran and another of a black man being restrained by cops.

As a result, one's impatient gaze trails along the pages as it races towards the denouement, disregarding the challenge to piece together those clues and beat the authors to the big reveal. That is, if one can or bothers to. It turned out fine because I didn't see the ending coming, which made the reading experience a little better.

And is it odd that among the overly fleshed-out characters, I found the assassin to be the most compelling? She seems like the authors' favourite. Compared with the others, Bach has a more convincing backstory that unfolds more naturally, each revelation leading one to wish to learn more. She is bound to haunt the reader, albeit briefly, after the book ends; the others barely register.

I dove into this book with zero expectations and despite my misgivings (Bill Clinton, really?), I wasn't too disappointed. The premise is realistic enough and I like how it's plotted. Though the writing isn't hot (after escaping death, Duncan declares "But until we're dead, we're alive" – ugh), it serves its purpose.

Fans of Patterson and this genre will feel right at home with this novel, not just to pass the time but also as a timely balm for those yearning for a better president, government and nation.

The President Is Missing
Bill Clinton and James Patterson
Grand Central Publishing (2018)
513 pages
ISBN: 978-1-5387-1385-3