Thursday, 30 April 2009

The Ailing Mousedeer

I don't know why I'm furious over this (hat tip to the Bangsar Boy). But I am. And not just because of the guy in the picture.

There's a few things I've heard about Malaccan Chief Minister Ali Rustam - namely his political ambitions - but none I can substantiate. And that's not the issue here. But that article just ticked me off.

Because I feel there's so much that's wrong about it.

First, why would a mere facsimile of an Arab neighbourhood be of any micron of satisfaction to anyone willing to put in the money and effort for the real thing? They have a tourism industry over there, don't they? Isn't it a self-defeating move to bring the Middle East over here, when they can spruce up what they already got at home, brush up the security and roll out the welcome mat for tourists - for less? As for the high exchange rate and costs of living, well, not much can be done about that. Where travel is concerned, we pay to play.

Another thing is, I'd think that any Arab who wants a slice of home - hookah and all - while he's travelling abroad is just plain rude, especially when he's in another Muslim country. How hard is it to walk the straight and narrow in Malaysia? I think back to the OIC delegate who reportedly had reservations coming here because there's no camel milk - what I wouldn't give to hurl a store-full of shoes at that person now!

At the same time, it is equally rude for Malaysians to expect Penang char koay teow - halal or otherwise - in Riyadh, or kuih talam in Fez. Isn't the whole point of travel to get away from the familiar, and experience the new?

(Even at home the kuih talam of my youth is elusive. Our heritage is under siege.)

If the Arabs who are coming here are from Dubai, let me just say that I'm not enthusiastic about their "culture". Especially the glitzy, towering, superlatively opulent monuments to excess that is now coming up in Dubai. The Burj al-Arab, the Palm, World Islands and the Dubai Festival City... that's not culture. They're abominations - big, grotesque and soulless. We can do that already. As investments they're flawed, as demonstrated by the recent financial crisis. If things don't get better soon... I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Not many have heard about the island nation of Nauru, but it has much in common with the Middle East. Years ago, Nauru was rich. After being shat on by birds for aeons, the island is literally covered in phosphate, a key ingredient in fertiliser. But the islanders weren't smart with their money. Corruption, profligate spending and unwise investments (such as the Nauru House in Melbourne), combined with the near-exhaustion of its phosphate resources eventually took their toll. The island now lies scarred by years of rampant mining, and is virtually broke. I see the Middle East going the same way if they don't get smart.

But you say, hey, it's a billion ringgit. And sure, I wouldn't mind having an Arab enclave around if I get curious about their cuisine (I've yet to experience the Arab Walk at Bukit Bintang). And - well, cultural transplants are an ongoing process, you'd say. If not, you and your bak kut teh, char koay teow and tau hu hua wouldn't even be here!

But Malacca is not the place for them, not in the historic heart of the state. And certainly not in the hands of those who have devastated the historic heart of the state.

After many years I returned to Malacca, only to have my heart broken by what I've seen. Canto- and Mando-pop in Jonker Street, which looks more like Petaling Street South. Christ Church and Stadhuys infested by kitsch-peddlers and rickshaws with garish, eye-gouging decorations even more tasteless than what's in any Burj al-Arab suite; at night, they're traffic hazards with their blinking lights and all. A cannon next to the clock tower had garbage inside; has anything been done about that since I left? Parts of the surrounding area reminds me of my hometown Penang, and not in a good way.

Free from the confines of a tour bus, I walked the Jonker Street neighbourhood. It's grubby and worn down in places, no air-conditioning and whatnot. But it was beautiful. I felt like a kid again, even though as a kid I never traipsed the old Penang neighbourhoods on foot. I used to see more sky whenever I cycle from home to the city; now I can't. I actually wept.

Can the current administrators of Malacca be trusted not to screw up with these new projects the way they screwed up with the historic heart of the state?

This year I was driven around Penang island by an aunt; what I saw made me mad. Most of the beaches are now covered with rocks, concrete or mud. Underutilised and abandoned hotels. I remember walking on sand and picking seashells on what is now the rock and mud hellhole that's Gurney Drive today. The aunt thinks that development (by E&O, I think) made the waters there stagnant and kept the tide away.

And some lecturer said the ecosystem there is clean because of the presence of thousands of freaking mudskippers! Go there and take a breath, for goodness’ sake. It’s freaking Funky Drive now! Who cares if they’re mudflats and they’re clean? We had a beach, which we did not respect even back then! And it’s gone!

Mr Amir Muhammad, please, please, please put the joker’s quote in Volume 3 for posterity. We owe her at least that much.

By some fluke of fate, my work put me on the path of two codgers whose work included documenting some of Malacca's history from an architectural perspective, with graphics. The sketched structures were clean, neat. Almost surreal. And although free from garbage, kitsch and tasteless works of art, are still beautiful. That's the Malacca I want to see, and preserve.

Look up the Malacca Sketchbook at your nearest bookstore, by the late Chen Voon Fee and Chin Kon Yit, because soon it will probably the only existing record of what Malacca used to be like.

Monday, 6 April 2009


From what this guy says, we're a nation of readers starved of good and affordable books. He's also telling us that we're probably importing too many foreign books, and the brain-drain phenomenon is an illusion, with our 350,000 teachers and more than forty thousand lecturers or professors who can crank out heaps of good local books. It seems we need to publish 27,000 local book titles for general reading a year to catch up with developed countries, more than the current rate of a measly ten thousand.

My beef, not to mention my mutton, venison and poultry with this, is the archetypical Malaysian approach in solving problems.

Do we read - like, really read?
For one, I don't feel we're a nation of serious readers. We seem to approach books as consumers. Not knowing better, we depend mostly on reviews, or recommendations from the more informed. Otherwise, it's all down to eye-grabbing titles that incorporate keywords such as "sex", "love" (in all recognisable languages), not to mention phrases such as "be rich", "earn money", "earn millions" or "be an eBay maven"; or if there's a hot woman on the cover.

No bookworms here
My last visit to a "book fair" is a fair indication that there's a class hierarchy of sorts in when it comes to reading preferences. The more "intelligent" books: dictionaries, encyclopaedias, heavy fiction - mostly in English - were displayed one floor above the textbooks and revision materials, cookie-cutter "romance novels" and religious stuff.

I don't think there is a significant percentage of those reportedly 400,000-odd brainiacs that could write a damn for the general Joe. The teachers we have don't seem like the type to hit the keys after a long day of marking papers, drawing up timetables and reading prepared notes to bored students who chat, text, or sleep during classes.

Right now, I'm not betting on finding a lot of good authors in our institutions of higher learning - considering what has been said about them. I think academia in general desperately needs to learn to write in a newer, livelier way.

Book Of Records mentality
Third, as I said, is the volume thing. We're an industrialised nation 'cos we build lots of cheap cars (Proton!). We're a wired nation 'cos we have free wi-fi. So a smarter nation publishes more books? Crank up production and it'll fly off the shelves? That approach might work better with McDonald's meal vouchers.

Flooding shelves with locally-published books won't necessarily cultivate good readership or reading habits, because it'll mostly be written by people with the similar mentality (lagi-lagi cinta, beb). Even if mass production does lowers prices, there's no guarantee of record sales; nor does it say that all those bought books will be read. What's going to happen to all the unsold copies, left to gather dust or mould in the storerooms?

Then there was the mention of an allocation RM300 million. Has the mass media become a platform for soliciting funds, which may not accomplish what they are meant for? And do they really need that much money?

We have enough books. We just don't have the brains, the drive, the whole reading mindset, which drives all the developments necessary to create a nation of intelligent, mature, responsible and active readers. Not yet.

What to do?
Most of us should cultivate a reading habit because we can't improve what is not there. This is something I owe my folks big time for. It started out with encyclopaedias and those "amazing facts" books and copies of Reader's Digest. Start them out young and they'll take to it like trout to water as they grow. Just look at me!

How to cut down on unnecessary imports or publications? More good libraries. Some people don't want a lot of books in the house. Problem is, the library culture here generally sucks. And I'd rather have big, well-staffed and well-stocked libraries rather than those monuments to excess called shopping malls. Leave the cafés alone and replace the racks in Mid Valley's Prada or DKNY with bookshelves and I'll be happy. It'll also help with shopaholicism, a really inconvenient affliction in these troubled times.

E-books are also a logical step forward for a society that's - supposedly - as wired as ours. Libraries can even offer e-books online for a fee, and link up with other libraries in other states and abroad for more reading material. Wouldn't that be cool?

Most importantly, government shouldn’t treat its citizens like children. We don’t stay kids forever. Censorship, for one, does not necessarily safeguard morals, reduce crime or build better thinkers. All it has done is breed a bunch of people hungry for escapism (cari cinta, misalnya).

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Golden Age, Subdued Glitter

After weeks of waiting, another review. They made this sound more like an advert rather than a

Thoughtful read

first published in The Star, 05 April 2009

In December, a coalition led by Sheikh Hasina Wazed's Awami League scored a landslide victory in Bangladesh's elections.

The win was, if one reads the country's history, highly symbolic. Her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was the first president of an independent Bangladesh, in 1971. After years of conflict and political instability, Bangladeshis are hoping his daughter's victory will bring an end to the troubles.

The days before Bangladesh's birth in 1971, when what was then East Pakistan seceded from West Pakistan (what is now Pakistan), are told in Tahmima Anam's A Golden Age.

Rehana Haque is a single mother of two from East Pakistan, one of the two wings of a nation formed after the 1947 split with India. Her husband suddenly drops dead one day on the way home and her children are taken away by their uncle to Lahore in West Pakistan.

So Rehana sells some possessions and builds a rooming house with the money, a place she names "Shona", or gold in Bengali. With this source of income and a court order, she brings her children back, and every year, she celebrates this triumphant return with her tenants and neighbours.

Meanwhile, there are war-like sounds being made: To quell what it saw as East Pakistan's moves towards independence, West Pakistan launches a military crackdown in March 1971. East Pakistan's new cabinet is established in exile near the Indian border while its leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, is thrown in jail.

But it isn't political strains that occupy Rehana's mind; rather, it is the strains within her own family that weigh on her: Her son Sohail, a student activist and supporter of Sheikh Mujibur, is heartbroken by the approaching marriage between sister Silvi and army officer Sabeer, who is very much an establishment man; her other daughter, Maya, has communist leanings and is rebelling.

Sohail and Maya soon join East Pakistan's freedom fighters. The son goes one step further and brings home his buddies and commanding officer, a man Rehana calls the Major, and turns Shona into a base of operations.

Spicing things up is the budding romance between Rehana and her unwanted tenant. With the memories of her late husband still strong in her mind, she grapples with her growing feelings for the mysterious Major.

The only major complaint I have about this novel is the way Rehana (mostly) tolerates her kids' flights of fancy. And how it makes me hungry: There's food in every other chapter or so, all described deliciously, biryani, jhaal moori, chapatis, laddoo. One British reviewer hungered for Indian cuisine after finishing the book. Luckily for me, my trusty neighbourhood Indian restaurant is within walking distance of my home....

But Rehana's not just a war-time supermum. She's also cultured and educated, as demonstrated by her love of Urdu poetry and fondness for Western films. Although a Muslim, she doesn't mind a sip of Mrs Chowdury's whisky-laced tea, or a few rounds of gin rummy. The world today needs more women like Mrs Rehana – or have they all been driven into hiding by loud, angry ideologues?

What Anam is trying to say is that war does horrible things to friends and families, especially a civil war that strikes so close to home. The part where the Major moves into Shona is reportedly based on true stories told to Anam by her parents about the same war, when freedom fighters stayed in their home and buried weapons in the front yard.

This is a story about the culture shared between a country now split in two, the conflict that led to that cleavage, and the sorrow and hope that came from it. A Golden Age is a beautiful story, and as soon as I closed the book I found myself pondering the worth of all the fighting that's going on right now, beamed live from the world's hottest flash points into living rooms worldwide.

A Golden Age, through Rehana's words on and feelings about Bangladesh's birth, encourages thought long after the book has been put down.

A Golden Age
Tahmima Anam
John Murray
276 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7195-6010-1

Thursday, 2 April 2009

She's Not Sick, Just A Bit Unwell

When approached to do this, I honestly didn't know how much difference it would make. This piece was hard to write at first, but looking back, I could say I'm rather pleased with it.

This piece accompanied an ad for the second print of the book by MPH Publishing. The books, T-shirts and whatever she's selling for her medical fund is perhaps the only thing keeping her going. I, and many others, hope that she'll be able to graduate and support herself as a psychologist or something similar before charity fatigue sets in among the supportive public.

Gutsy gal
A young lady’s quest for normalcy leaves KW Wong awed - and humbled

original text; edited version published in MPH Quill, Apr-Jun 2009

You wake up one morning, put both feet on the ground, and suddenly, the ground starts to tip over. You try to stand upright. You can walk, but your feet grow ever more unsteady as your stride quickens. Don’t even think about running or even jogging. Nothing changes after a couple of days. After three doctors and two sinsehs, a specialist informs you that you have a rare, incurable condition that adversely affects your body, including your sense of balance. You panic, because you’re one of your school’s star athletes. And there’s a ballet recital next week.

Yvonne Foong and her book in page 19 of
MPH Quill for Apr-Jun 2009
Yvonne Foong Ming Niang might not be her school’s medal-winning track star, but she did ballet and figure skating. Then her life changed when she was 13. She started going deaf in one ear, and got sick doing spins while dancing or skating. She didn’t know why until she was diagnosed with Neurofibromatosis (NF) Type 2, a genetic condition with no known cure that causes tumours to grow on her spine and brain. The latest tumour now endangers her eyesight; she already has trouble reading small-sized fonts. She has started learning Braille just in case, but - putting it mildly - going blind may be the least of her worries.

Currently, the only solution is surgery, especially for removing tumours that grow near the critical nerves. Unfortunately, few surgeons in the country can do that without complicating her condition. She knows, because she’s had two surgeries at KL’s General Hospital and another three were at the US House Clinic in Los Angeles. While seeking treatments in the US she goes to doctors in Malaysia for periodic check-ups, such as MRIs and eye tests. So yes, she did take notes. Until Malaysian medical facilities get better, she’ll have to go elsewhere for surgery.

However, Yvonne does not want to depend solely on donations - nor does she want to burden her family. Besides selling her “Heart4Hope” T-shirts and writing for publications such as the (discontinued) YellowPost and The Malay Mail, she has published a book that calls to mind a Matchbox 20 song. I’m Not Sick, Just A Bit Unwell was written to raise two things: cash for her medical fund, and awareness for neurofibromatosis among the Malaysian public. A reprint of the book will be released by MPH to raise funds to save her sight.

Yvonne’s is an uphill battle. Her constant need for medical attention means she will be working to pay her doctors’ bills for the rest of her life. The Malaysian public has so far, risen to the occasion in her time of need. But how long can that go on? She once admitted that without the public’s generosity, sales of her book would have been very sick indeed.

Some may doubt that Yvonne needs help because she doesn’t “look needy” in her public appearances. Despite her condition, she won’t play the part. She’s determined to lead a normal life, which includes graduating from college, nice clothes and great dinners for special occasions, parties, and the occasional Starbucks latte with friends - something many of us take for granted.

At first glance it is hard to tell that Yvonne has problems. I think our first meeting was at KLCC’s Burger King on July 31, 2006. I remember her hair’s red highlights and the midriff-baring bright green top. It was at a bloggers’ meet, and the crowd made me feel ancient. But it wasn’t until the launch of I’m Not Sick on December 2006 that I finally got a copy - autographed, of course.

The first edition of I’m Not Sick is a slim little book that briefly tells the story of her life and how she dealt with her condition. Chapters that describe NF, and patient testimonials come later, as well as the story of how she got published, and the day she was voted the “Most Outstanding Youth of the Year” at the inaugural Asian Youth Ambassadors (AYA) Dream Malaysia Awards 2005.

According to Yvonne, the first draft was a bit more “raw and emotional”, until the editor John Ling got to work with it. It explains why some passages felt so... detached, clinical. Nevertheless the emotions conveyed were still discernable, and it was hard for me not to sympathise with her and fellow NF patients when I reached the last page.

May I add that she’s deaf, has one blind eye, a poor sense of balance and several other physical impairments? If I were in her shoes I’d take about two hours to get out of bed every morning - wallowing in misery - instead planning my next book or fundraiser.

A lot has changed with Yvonne since the book came out. More surgeries, of course, and with an auditory brainstem implant installed she’s now a bionic woman. But it will be years before the device can help her discern certain sounds. And by the time you see this, she would have undergone the operation to save her sight. After that, who knows?

I was told that writing this piece was better than buying a hundred T-shirts. I did it anyway despite a busy new job, because I want to help. I want Yvonne around for as long as possible, like all her friends do. Most importantly I want to hear what she has to say next, because I feel there’s a certain wisdom in her words. I hope she’ll come up with another book. Maybe this time, there’ll be a chapter on a cure for her condition - my idea of a happy ending.