Monday, September 29, 2008

Who says it is OK to have sex with children?

Child sexual offender 001

Warnings such as this one are being advertised on guidebooks and maps for tourists in Cambodia

Sex with children is a crime

When I read the local newspaper everyday, there is at least one reported case of child sexual abuse. This is when I realise the gravity of this crime in Cambodia and intend to do something about it.

Everyday, local children as young as 8 years old are being sexually exploited by foreign tourists and some, are assisted by their own families who sell them for economic gain. Such crimes are particularly rampant in touristic areas such Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville.

While the government has taken a more vigilant approach to deal with the issue; eg. prosecuting offenders and their abettors, and carrying out nation wide campaigns with the assistance of international and local NGOs (such as the one seen on the picture on top. Some tuk-tuk drivers wear shirts carrying anti-child sexual abuse slogans on their back to show their solidarity for the cause. They also act as watchdogs by reporting suspicious customers.), it now faces a new challenge in regards to the newly amended law on sexual offences.

It is however a misconception that all child sexual crimes are being committed by foreigners alone. For the benefit of this article in view of the significant number of cases involving tourists, I shall focus only on child exploitation by foreigners.

Child sexual abuse does not discriminate. It can happen to boys as well as girls.

Below are real account of cases documented by international NGO Action Pour Les Enfants working in combating child sexual abuse in Cambodia. Names of the persons have been changed to protect their identities.

Case 1

"Vichet and Douen, both fifteen years old, were abused by the same foreigner, James, when they were twelve years old. James had approached each of them near New Market in Phnom Penh and offered to buy them food. This started a relationship during which James bought them food and clothing, allowed them to sleep in his hotel room, and took them on holidays all over the country. Neither Vichet nor Douen were aware that James was grooming them in order to have a sexual relationship with them. They simply thought he was a good 'godfather'. Vichet was first abused by James approximately six months after meeting him. Douen was abused approximately twelve months after first meeting James. Both times, James used the same technique to ensure the children complied with his advances. After taking them on a holiday outside of Phnom Penh to a remote province, James told the boys that if they did not have sex with him, he would leave them in the province without money to return to Phnom Penh and they would remain stranded there. Both boys were frightened and complied with his wishes. They were each paid $10USD per sexual encounter. When James was subsequently arrested and charged with ‘debauchery’ under Cambodian law, three other boys testified alongside Vichet and Douen to similar use of grooming methods by James."

Case 2

"Meng aged ten, moved to Sihanoukville from Battambang with his mother and eight siblings when he was eight years old. His father had been killed in a landmine accident. Meng has been working as a beggar on the streets to earn money for his mother since moving to Sihanoukville and started sniffing glue with his street friends shortly after arriving in the town. Some nights Meng sleeps on the streets as his mother does not allow him to come home unless he has earned enough money for her. Meng was first sexually abused by John at the age of nine, when the John approached him at a local petrol station late at night. Meng was later abused by another foreigner, Daniel, a friend of John, who approached Meng late at night in the same place and showed him a $20USD note and requested that Meng go with him to his house. Meng agreed to go with him so he would have money to give to his mother. Daniel was subsequently arrested for abusing Meng and several other children, and is at this time awaiting trial."

Why is this happening?

There are four predominant reasons why child sexual abuse is so prevalent in Cambodia.

Firstly, a significant percentage of the population live below the poverty line. As such, many children are forced to work in order to contribute to the family's income. This makes them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Secondly, due to the above, it makes the children accessible to sexual predators since they spend substantial amount of time on the street; begging, working in tourist-orientated places, shoe shining, collecting garbage and performing other labour activities.

Thirdly, the culture of impunity pervades the law enforcement and judicial institutions in Cambodia. This is significantly enhanced by the recent amendments and passing of sexual offence laws in Cambodia whereby sentences imposed on sexual abuses have been reduced substantially.

Fourth but perhaps not lastly, since Thailand and Philippines have stepped up on their efforts in combating child sexual crimes, Cambodia has become the new target.

But before everything is said and done, it is equally important to study and understand the behaviour of offenders.

Not all child sexual offenders are paedophiles

There is a common public misconception that all child sexual offenders are paedophiles. According to the NGO EXPAT (End Child Prostitution, Abuses and Trafficking), it is more accurate to refer those who have been convicted for child sexual crime as child sex offenders instead of paedophiles. Someone who is capable of committing such crime may not be a paedophile and someone who is a paedophile may not be capable of committing such act.

For instance, offenders may be categorised into two types; situational and preferential. For the former, children may be targeted as sexual substitutes for adult partnership due to the fact that children are more vulnerable and easier to manipulate and exploit. According to the FBI Behavioural Science Unit of the United States of America, situational child sex offenders are over-represented by lower socio-economic groups and have low self-esteem.

As for preferential child sex offenders, their actions are manifestation of a personality disorder known as hebephilia which refers to an adult's sexual preference for pubescent youths. Paedophilia on another level, refers to an adult's sexual preference for prepubescent children.

Research conducted in the United Kingdom and United States of America indicated that one of the most common characteristics exhibited by child sex offenders was their distortion of belief and attitude towards specific cultures relating to sexuality. For example, some offenders will qualify their actions by firmly believing that girls are sexually mature at an earlier age in certain cultures. They portray children as being responsible for their own abuse, their actions as harmless and that the children consent to the abuse. Such distortions allow the offenders to delude themselves that the child gains benefit from such actions; i.e. we are only helping the child out by giving money.

According to EXPAT, treatment programmes that challenge these cognitive distortions and encourage development of empathy with the children have met with some success.

Not all child sex offenders are men

Although the percentage of reported child sexual crimes committed by men are significantly higher than women, it doesn't mean that it is a crime committed exclusively by men.

According to EXPAT, the idea that women may exploit children became apparent in the 1970s when single women from North America picked up "beach boys" as their companions in the Caribbean. More recently, Western European women have been known to visit South East Asia for such encounters.

In many cultures, sexual relations with older women are often considered to be a 'rite of passage' for young boys. However, when the boy is prepubescent, injections of hormones or similar chemicals into the testicles may be necessary and leave painful side effects.

When this happens, it is sexual abuse and not a rite of passage.

What does the law say about this?

Previously, all forms of sexual offences were bundled up together under one law, termed as the crime of debauchery in Cambodia, which carried a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment, if committed against a minor (under 16).

Now, with the recent amendments and passing of the new law, sexual offences are specifically defined and sentences are being imposed in proportion to the offences convicted. While this makes legal sense, it has also contributed to the reduction of sentences in many child sexual cases where sexual penetration is not proven.

The law now states that, in cases of rape where sexual penetration occurs, the sentence imposed is 10 years imprisonment and for other indecent act, 1- 3 years. Any appeals of old cases will now apply the new law.

This law has understandably created much outrage in local and international NGOs working on combating child sexual abuses. First of all, the law provides the impression that it is a lesser crime to sexually molest a child. It is as if to say that if a person forces a child to perform oral sex, it is not so serious. Or, if a person touches the private parts of a child, it cannot be as bad as having sexual intercourse.

Secondly, 17 child sexual offenders who were convicted last year will now have their sentences reduced. The recent example is Russian man, Alexander Trofimov, who was convicted of having sex with a 14-year old, one of the 19 girls he allegedly abused, and sentenced to 13 years imprisonment earlier this year is now being released. An American who was previously convicted and sentenced to 12 years are now facing 2 1/2 years while a Swiss who was sentenced to 11 years are now facing a new jail term of 2 1/2 years after appeals.

In 2006, a Belgian who was convicted and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment for sexually assaulting a 13 year old boy will now serve a 3 year sentence.

For this, many believe and agree that such amendments to the law will serve as a backlash to all the efforts which have been made previously to arrest and prosecute offenders.

Who is responsible for this?

While the responsibility of prosecuting offenders falls mainly on Cambodia, the international community shares equal responsibility in combating such crimes due to the fact that child sexual crimes are internationally recognised. In a midst of major international crackdown on child pornography by many countries, some countries like United States of America and Germany are taking additional efforts in issuing warnings to nationals travelling to Cambodia. USA has also begun to prosecute nationals who are accused of such crimes on foreign soils.

In California, Michael Joseph Pepe, a retired US Marine Captain, is recently facing a potential sentence of 210 years, if convicted of having sex with 7 Cambodian girls aged 9 to 12 while he was working as a teacher in Cambodia. He had allegedly hired a prostitute to help him procure the children from their families in 2005 and 2006. The victims were flown from Phnom Penh to the federal courtroom in Los Angeles to provide statements. According to some of the statements given by the victims, they were drugged, bound, beaten and raped.

Such international cooperation in adopting a zero tolerance policy against child sexual crimes is a significant step in ensuring that tourists who visit Cambodia with the intention of committing such heinous act on children will not go unpunished, especially in view of the culture of impunity here.

However, not all countries share similar sentiments. Russia and Japan, for instance, had gone the opposite way by paying off the fines imposed on their citizens so that the offenders could escape punishment and return to their native lands scot free.

A silent cry for help

The tale of terror and courage told by Somaly Mann, a former victim of child sexual crime, is both heart wrenching as well as inspiring. Somaly was sold to a brothel in Cambodia as a teenager and she now runs a shelter which provides rescued girls education, job skills and work.

In her recently published memoir, The Road of Lost Innocence, she gave a vivid account of her traumatizing life as an orphan who was adopted by a man who then sold her to a brothel. When she tried to escape, she was gang raped by the police, held at gun point and then beaten by her "owner". She endured being tied down naked and poured live maggots all over her skin and inside her mouth. Despite such terror, she remained strong and finally escaped the yoke of sexual slavery.

She is determined to change the life of other girls who share similar fate with her.

Women like Somaly are rare. Many do not stand a chance at all to seek justice and return to a life of some what normal due to shame or fear of grave physical abuse and potential death incurred by the offenders.

We can help to change this if we listen to their silent cry for help and do something about it.

We are all guardians of children

Children are our future and hope. We protect them, not just because of their age, but because they are all essentially innocent and vulnerable. Without the ability to make informed decisions as well as limited capacity to defend themselves, we as adults, have the responsibilities to protect their rights.

We live in a world where we cannot begin to define and make sense of the various atrocities committed on human beings every single day.However, with children, there is a hope for a change by helping them to maintain their innocence and the potential to become adults free from the ugly scars left by monsters marking the end of humankind.

You can help to be a part of this change.

If you know someone who is either guilty or suffering from child sexual abuse, report this to relevant authorities or organisations dealing with such issues so that they can carry out investigations and take necessary actions.

Share this information with others so that they too can play a part.  

Phnom Penh_rainy 016 Pchum Ben Day 2809008 092

Pchum Ben Day 2809008 184 Pchum Ben Day 2809008 203

Phnom Penh 397 Architecture and people of Phnom Penh 178

Pchum Ben Day 2809008 155Pchum Ben Day 2809008 275

Look at the faces above. These children are each potentially capable of being targets and victims of sexual abuse.

Do they deserve this?


Written on 29 September 2008

Friday, September 26, 2008

10 Things I Hate About Malaysia*

I hate the way you treat us like children and the way you punish without reason.

I hate the way you turn your back on discrimination. I hate when you show preferential treatment.

I hate your draconian policy on the ISA and the way you lock up RPK.

I hate you so much, it makes me sick; it even makes me rhyme.

I hate it, I hate the way you always think you’re always right.

I hate your pride.

I hate it when you make me laugh at all the incredulous things you have done, even worse when you make me cry at all the injustice and corruption that you try to keep it mum.

I hate it when you are not around to defend our rights and the fact you didn’t even try.

But mostly, I hate the way I don’t hate being a Malaysian, not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.

*Not the country but the governing power.

p/s: Some of the words are adopted from the movie “10 Things I Hate About You”, if you haven’t figured it out yet.

Written on 26 September 2008

A gastronomic affair to remember

It has been close to 3 weeks now since I have moved to Cambodia to accompany my husband in his new job posting here. So far, I've come to realise that this is perhaps the most developed under developed country that I have ever been to on a long term basis. The city has that lovely balance of modern facilities, old colonial charms and majestic traditional pagodas.

Past practices and lifestyles are still maintained. While the roads are now filled with big four wheel drives, it is still dominated by tuk-tuks and cyclos, serving as public transportation. You can still catch a glimpse of men, propped up on old barber chairs, being shaved with a razor knife at the corner of a street, partially shaded from the sun by small sheets of tarpaulin hoisted on flimsy metal poles.

Compared to previous countries where I have worked or lived in (Timor Leste, Afghanistan and Ethiopia), Cambodia is pretty close to home (not just in terms of geographical proximity). In fact, our current residence situated in the area of Boeung Keng Kang I (BKK I) is more comfortable than our apartment in Kuala Lumpur.

We are particularly thankful for its power shower rather than golden shower. Previously in other countries, trying to get a decent shower in the morning was a nightmare due to low water pressure which caused the water to trickle like, know. Perhaps an expat life is finally kicking in after years of struggling with poor water, sanitation and electricity supply!

There are dozens of wet market here which provide abundant supply and variety of fresh seafood, meat, vegetables and fruits. A visit to the market will leave one thanking the wonders of creation as well as the fishermen and farmers who have painstakingly catch and cultivate these produce in the midst of harsh climate conditions.

Yes, apparently the main ingredient for Cambodian cooking is fresh food (which somehow explains why we can't find any decent can openers here). Cambodians live on a staple diet of rice, noodle, bread, fresh salad, soup and fish. For snacks, which apparently they do all day long, they munch on pickled fruits, which are sold by street vendors all over the city.

Although many people have considered Khmer cuisine as a pale version of Thai and Vietnamese food, I beg to differ. Khmer cuisine should and must be taken in its own right. Take for example, their signature dish, the fish amok, cooked in coconut milk, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, krachai (fingerroot), slok ngo leaf and palm sugar. As you can imagine, the dish is bursting with flavours and spices without the overpowering taste of hot peppers, as we are so used to in Thai cuisine. It is gentle on the palate but yet gives a lively aromatic kick to the tongue and nose.

And the best thing is, the fish is ALWAYS fresh. I have never ever once tasted any fish dish which is otherwise and hence, staying true to their words.

Seafood is simply divine and when I first stepped into Psar Tmei (also known as Central Market), I salivated just by feasting my eyes on fresh prawns in different variety and some were even the size of my palm. Baskets of live crabs and lobsters were on display, cruelly taunting me. It's no wonder that the fishes in Tonle Sap Lake and Mekong River are in danger of depletion due to over-fishing. They are in essence the livelihood of the majority of Cambodians.

Recently, my husband and I went across the Tonle Sap River (through the Chruoy Changvar Bridge, also known as the Japanese Bridge) to experiment real Khmer cuisine after I have learned that the best local cuisine is away from all the touristic areas and across the river.

After driving past rows of restaurants, we settled for Rasmey Boeng Kak for no apparent reason. We just got tired of driving. The restaurant looked completely unimpressive from the entrance. Everything seemed dilapidated, abandoned and nobody seemed to be around. There was no sign of waiters, customers or even a kitchen.

As we were about to change our minds, someone came and ushered us inside. We were led to the back where we finally realised that it was not just a regular restaurant, it was a restaurant on stilts. Each dining area was housed in individual thatched wooden huts, balanced over a lake filled with lotus leaves and flowers. Albeit a picturesque vista, the lake was polluted with all sorts of garbage much to our dismay.

Anyway, we ordered four dishes (fish amok, barbeque shrimps, buttered prawns and shrimp noodles) after flipping through pages of food list on the menu. When the food arrived, we were pleasantly surprised with the portion served as well as the presentation and garnishing. Like Thai food, fruit and vegetable carvings are essential here in Cambodia. Food is not only to fill the stomach, but also to be feasted on with our eyes.

Although we ordered everything in small sizes, we ended up having our table filled up. We were given several types of sauces and condiments; soy sauce, big pieces of raw garlic, slices of lime, homemade chili sauce and chopped fresh chili pepper. The fish amok was truly the best so far as the chef added small chunks of peanuts in the sauce, giving it additional texture and flavour.

The barbeque shrimps were particularly interesting and enticing although a sure path to coronary heart disease, since it came with a hotplate glazed by a huge chunk of pork lard, dollops of margarine and generous portion of shelled shrimps. Why must everything that tastes heavenly be so hellish to the body?

In the end, we were proud to say we did well, leaving behind only a few strands of rice noodles and two pieces of shrimps. As we laid back with our guts about to burst and enjoyed the cool breeze, we decided on the verdict that the seafood is ALWAYS fresh. Like icing to the cake, the bill came with only USD20 for a hearty meal which could easily feed four....well less gluttonous people.

While it is probably luxurious for most Cambodians to dine in restaurants, it is no less enjoyable for them to eat on the street. I've noticed that Cambodians are very practical and simple people. For instance, when it rains, the whole city is filled with images of people in their yellow, purple, orange, blue and pink plastic ponchos, going about with their daily lives.

One of my favourite things to watch for when I walk around the city is the countless number of street food peddlers, carrying their self-sufficient portable kitchen hanging on a wooden stick supported on their shoulders. They, usually women, go around the city and stop in front of shops to cater to workers during lunch break.

The people come, order their num pachok samlor Khmer (green coconut fish curry served on generous portion of rice noodles), either retreat back to the shop or settle down on low plastic stools to eat. Without frills, they slurp their steamy bowls of noodle soup and enjoy banters with other customers. I am always amazed by how the soup remains steamy hot as the woman ladles them out from what appeared to be a pot made of clay.

When the customers are finished, she simply collects the bowls and chopsticks, piles them up on her small wicker basket, stands up and leaves. No fuss, no trash and no rush.

What would normally be considered as taboo food for most of us, Cambodians also snack on crispy fried tarantulas and other creepy crawlies. In some parts of the country, rats fed on grain from the rice field are good alternative source of protein when other conventional meat is scarce.

One of these days, I will summon up enough courage to hmmmm....maybe not to try anything more than four legs just yet but to squat on one of those stools, praying hard that I won't spill anything and just enjoy my bowl of noodle soup.

After all, when in Rome, do what the Romans do.

Written on 26 September 2008

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Chicken and Duck Talk

Before the United Kingdom’s transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China on 1 July 1997, many Hong Kong People were concerned and many even considered immigration. The topic of immigration or “yee mun” in Cantonese, to developed countries like the United States of America, Canada, Britain, etc. was much talked about.

The reason was partly due to the fear of being governed by a less developed and liberalised country such as China. I suppose the Chinese in Hong Kong felt that they have a higher standard of living, more sophisticated, fashionable and perhaps more modern. The Chinese in mainland China were regarded as country bumpkins, people who consider spittoons in public places as a matter of practicality, rather than a hygiene disaster.

Many Hong Kong movies at that time not only made fun of immigration issues but also the backwardness of mainland Chinese. Now, it is a matter of the past and as China becomes more developed and soon to be one of the biggest economic powers in the world, guess who is having the last laugh now?

While people from the same ethnic race and culture can feel the disparity of social gap due to the inbalance of economic power, it is understandably even more so for people of different genetic makeup living in countries with huge developmental gap. Consider someone from Western Europe and another from Sub-Saharan Africa. Culture will not be the only difference. Education, lifestyle, standard of living and social norms will all contribute to further separate them.

As a Malaysian, I sometimes find it difficult to define whether Malaysia is considered as a developing country or not, although technically it is. When I inform some foreigners that I am from Malaysia, they immediately think about the Petronas Twin Towers and they would tell me how developed Malaysia is, much to my own amusement. While we are not as developed as Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, we are definitely better off than many other countries I have been.

While culturally speaking, I find that as the world becomes smaller as a result of globalisation, advancement of information technology and tourism, people from different parts of the world, whether developed or developing, can begin to understand each other better. With programmes such as National Geographic and Discovery Channel, we are able to learn and understand cultural taboos and social norms. We no longer fear about the unknown and will become less fascinated with what is known. In many ways, it has helped to reduce the level of xenophobia to a great extent.

Nevertheless, I realise that there are still certain notions of lifestyles and soci0-cultural practices which will remain as a boggle. For instance, in some countries, the practice of corruption is considered as normal while unacceptable in others. Individual privacy is highly respected in more developed country while it is common for other to see it as a right to know everything about one’s private life. Taking a pet dog to training school and grooming salon will baffle anyone who treats dog as just another dietary supplement.

I had such an experience while I was in Ethiopia a few months ago. While traveling in Bahir Dar, I met two young Ethiopian students at a local cultural bar. One of them was graduating from University of Bahir Dar and they were out celebrating the occassion. As a gesture of goodwill, they invited my friend and I to attend the graduation ceremony the next day at the university. We were delighted and accepted the invitation gratefully.

Since then, we became friends as one of them studied journalism and writes theatrical plays regularly. They showed us places to go to in Bahir Dar. One night, while we were out and about in town, I excused myself to get something from the grocery kiosk and one of the boys escorted me.

While we were walking on a dim but busy street, I decided to send a SMS to my husband. While messaging, a person appeared very abruptly from my side and snatched my phone away. It all happened so quickly and I was in a state of shock. The next thing I knew, my friend had chased after the thief. Boy, these Ethiopians really can run.

I regained my composure quickly and I shouted after my friend to stop chasing. My concern was for my friend’s safety rather than my old beat up mobile phone, which was not worth killing oneself over. He returned completely crestfallen and very apologetic since he felt embarassed that this should happen to me in his country. He was even more upset than I was.

I told him that I needed to report this to the police since the SIM card belonged to my husband’s organisation and it was procedural to report a theft. We didn’t have to walk far to the police station when we bumped into two uniformed officers on the same street. My friend started explaining to the officers in Amharic. I tried to talk to them but nobody listened to me. I suppose it was cultural that in the presence of a man, a woman should just keep quiet. Anyhow, since I don’t speak Amharic, I let my friend take charge of the conversation.

After a few minutes, I sensed there was a problem since the police officers didn’t seem to take my case seriously. From their expression, they behaved as if we were the culprit, rather than the victim. Initially, I assumed that they probably couldn’t care less about a trivial matter such as a stolen mobile phone. So, I told my friend to explain to them that I didn’t want to make any fuss but I just needed a report.

My friend ignored me much to my chagrin and as I was just about to argue with them, which I am very capable of, he turned to me and explained that the officers wouldn’t believe him and instead accused him of conspiring with the thief.

I was stunned and I told him to tell the officers that we are friends. He then told me that since I am a foreigner and he is Ethiopian, they just assumed that he was trying to take advantage of me.

I didn’t know how to react except that it was one of the most incredulous things I have ever heard in my life. I have worked as a human rights officer in a country like Afghanistan where human rights abuses are ten times more severe than most places in the world, but this baffles me until today.

I insisted on talking to the officers myself but when my friend told me that he would be targetted as a scapegoat and hence, punished severely, I decided to let it go. In a way, perhaps but a very small perhaps, my friend might have played a role in the incident but I trust my instinct enough to know that he wasn’t involved and even if he was, how could the police deal with the matter just like that? What about me, the actual victim? If my friend had conspired against me, should they not help me to lodge a report still? Besides, how could they be so bloody certain that he had anything to do with it?

I returned feeling extremely upset and sorry for my friend who has to live in a country filled with unreasonable stereotypes and injustice. When I conveyed the incident to my other friend, I was so infuriated that tears came to my eyes. As for him, he took it as if it was normal.

When we returned to Addis Ababa, we stayed in touch and one day, he offered to show me around a shopping area in Piazza, notoriously known for pick pockets and snatch thieves. It is always handy to go shopping with a local to avoid being overcharged. Compared to expatriate areas such as Bole, where I lived, Piazza is catered for locals but also popular among tourists for souvenir and gold shopping.

When I finished shopping, he took me to the bus station to get a ride back to Bole. Feeling slightly embarassed, I told him that I was not allowed to take mini-buses and could only take taxis. Out of curiosity, he asked me why.

I explained to him very straightforwardly that as an expatriate and also a wife of an international organisation delegate, we had been advised not to take mini-buses since the bombing incident in front of the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa. You see, a bomb was planted in a minibus which killed 3 and injured 9 back in May 2008.

He told me not to worry as mini-buses are usually safe and it is afterall the cheapest mode of public transportation in Addis Ababa. (A taxi usually costs about 50 birr from Piazza to Bole while a minibus costs only about 1.90 birr). In order not to appear paranoid and overly protective, I explained that if I insisted on taking a mini-bus and something did happen, whether a bomb or just an accident, I would not be covered by my insurance scheme, provided by my husband’s organisation.

He looked at me as if I was from outer space. He didn’t have to explain to me because I do understand the bizarreness of what would appear as petty rules in a country where millions are suffering from famine every single year. Most of the people don’t even own insurance policies, much less trying to understand the exclusion clauses that come with it.

Two such examples tell me that these are the things which we cannot hope to change overnight. We cannot begin to understand each other unless we are or have been in the other’s position. Like a chicken and a duck trying to converse with each other, we could go on and go babbling or defending our choices or position, it would be meaningless. The level of human development (as UNDP refers as) does make a difference towards our perception and understanding of lifestyles and social habits.

The good thing is, as human beings, we are from the same species despite the differences in our genes. Since we are also highly developed compared to other species, we can look to many other means of helping us to communicate. With the aid of media, education and sometimes, translator, we can learn to speak the same language, to think, analyse, explain and eventually to understand.

* The Human Development Index (HDI) is a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living for countries worldwide. It is a standard means of measuring well-being, especially child welfare. It is used to distinguish whether the country is a developed, a developing or an under-developed country, and also to measure the impact of economic policies on quality of life. According to UNDP HDI 2006, Malaysia is ranked at 63 and Ethiopia at 169 out of 177 countries.

Written on 25 September 2008

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Are you game?

Remember how American TV game shows used to be so simple? Shows like Win, Lose or Draw, Spin the Wheel, Charade and Jeopardy were played on our TV screens daily. Families enjoy some quality time together while learning a thing or two. Its entire objective was to test the participant’s general knowledge and the stakes were low. It was fun, innocent, stressless, unsuspenseful and above all, non-commital.

Now, these shows have mutated to a completely different level. The primal psychological behaviours of human beings are being tested more than their general knowledge as these shows begin to incorporate the element of realitism. Now, we get to watch human beings being stripped naked by baring their most ugly and disgusting side before our TV screens.

Yes, you know what I am talking about. Reality TV game shows are now taking the world by storm with the manifestation of programmes such as The Amazing Race, Fear Factor, The Bachelor/ette, The Apprentice, America’s Next Top Ten Model, etc. Some countries have even adopted their own version to accomodate the huge demand of local population.

We don’t actually need soap operas anymore because we can catch a glimpse of couples fighting, girls bitching and backstabbing each other, groups of people ganging up against one and other miscellaneous emotional drama. All these in their quest for money, fame and success in a short period of a season. It is no longer fun or innocent but in fact, hostile and adversarial.

I remember Survivor, one of the first few ones which kept me in suspense every week. I liked it because I enjoyed watching the psychological factors which revolved around the participants. It was all about politics at its most primal level, developing strategies, making calculative moves, building alliances, anticipating counter-moves, and diplomacy. All that with the added value of soap opera entertainment of course.

Well, to be honest, the person who invented this concept is pretty smart because at the end of the day, he or she understands the core natures of human beings. What are these natures? The seven mortal sins (lust, sloth, gluttony, envy, pride, wrath and greed) sum it up quite succintly, with the exception of one. You’ll find out which one I mean as you read on.

While some of the shows have its merits because it probably starts off by providing regular people an opportunity to strike it rich, have their talents discovered or to have that five-minute fame. Sometimes, even if you don’t win and make a complete fool of yourself, you still stand a chance to become a global phenomenon. Remember that Asian guy who sang Ricky Martin’s She Bangs or Booms (I actually can’t remember but who cares? Nobody really remembers what Ricky actually sang after the song became “Siew Peng”) in his audition for American Idol?

So, no wonder they are so popular because nobody loses. The producers are happy with the popularity of their shows, the participants get their fame and the viewers can’t seem to get enough of them.

Bottomline is, what really makes these shows so successful is simply because it feeds on our human nature. As we become more capitalistic and competitive in this world, we want to become rich, successful or famous as quick as possible and the only way to do that is to eliminate other people’s chances of getting to it before you do. And we all enjoy watching this because we, as regular people form our own alliances with the participants and then cheer them on.

How often do you overhear conversations where people are asking each other who they support in these shows? I bet you that reality TV game show finalists are more popular than McCain and Obama combined together. The majority of people in this world don’t really care about the future of international policies because they care more about who will win that one hundred thousand dollars in The Amazing Race. At the end of the day, that relates to them more than the war in bloody Iraq.

The participants will do almost anything just to win the competition. In Fear Factor, I’ve watched participants drank Madargascan coakroaches smoothie...hmmmm...delightful! But nothing takes the ultimate toll than my current favourite, The Moment of Truth.

The Moment of Truth is in fact a very simple game. There is no opponent as such but your only enemy is actually yourself and the stakes are higher than the half a million jackpot. The participant is required to answer a series of twenty one increasingly personal and embarassing questions while being strapped to a polygraph. So, at the end of the day, it boils down to how truthful you are or how well you can lie to the polygraph.

What shocks me most while watching the show is not as much as the questions asked, neither is it the answers given. The truth is, I don’t really care whether Jim has slept with his wife’s sister or Kate had sex for money. Even if Andy had slept with Bob, his pet dog, I wouldn’t fall off my chair in shock.

What these regular people had done will not affect anything in my life but wouldn’t it be a nice thought if they can do the same with our politicians? (Just imagine asking Najib, “Did you order the murder of Altantuya Shaaribuu?” I hope some kids will spook this on YouTube soon.)

Anyway, what baffles me is how often the participant’s beloved ones break down emotionally as soon as they hear the truth. What? Do they expect the host to ask, “Have you ever digged your nose in public before?” For the prize of half a million dollars, they better be asking some damn tough questions. These people enter the game knowing full well what to expect and all these feelings of betrayal and hurt are just plain pathetic. As if by displaying their dirty laundry in public, with the motivation of cashing in huge sum of money is not shameful enough.

Where is their pride? Yes, they have all the mortal sins but pride. (Ok, where does gluttony fit in but if they can swallow sheep’s testicles, they can qualify as gluttons!)

This is how some societies have become in this day and age. Self-dignity, human relationships and interaction are being compromised in the name of individualistic gain. The worrying thing is, as much as media has given us a lot of joy and entertainment, it also changes our world and the way we think. If we do not watch it with discretion or take it purely as a form of entertainment, such capitalistic and degrading behaviours will be glorified as ways of fulfilling one’s ambition and dreams.

Are you game for that?

Written on 21 September 2008

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Born Identity

I often hear the French refer the Algerian and Moroccan born and raised in France as immigrants although the latter hold French citizenships. I find it rather disconcerting because as a Chinese Malaysian, I would be offended if I’m called an immigrant despite the fact that I was born and raised in Malaysia. My grandparents were indeed Chinese immigrants but by virtue of being a second generation Chinese Malaysian, I don’t think I deserve to maintain that status quo particularly when I don’t know much about the Chinese history, the language and much less feel any allegiance towards my ancestors’ homeland. I have never been to China and my parents have never mentioned about any relatives we might have there.

When I was younger, I remember feeling angry and betrayed when my father supported the Chinese badminton team over the Sidek brothers in the semi-finals of the Thomas Cup.

I remember in college, I had a conversation with my best friend about what we thought comes first; nationality, religion or race. I remember placing them in this order from most important to least important; religion, nationality and race. Now, none of them holds any significance to me.

The thing is, I believe I have lost a lot of my Chinese identity, being brought up in Malaysia. I don’t claim to be proud of it but I feel it is time for people to try to understand how confusing and difficult it can be being a descendant of immigrants.

The American Chinese author, Amy Tan managed to express her thoughts and feelings about being a first generation American Chinese coherently in her best-selling novel, The Joy Luck Club and in her first non-fiction novel, The Opposite of Fate, which perhaps inspired me to write this.

When I was young, I had never felt or noticed any difference in the way I look; my slanty eyes and lighter skin colour. I spoke Bahasa Melayu with my friends in school and it was a language that unites all of us together. I even spoke Bahasa with my Chinese Malaysian friends. I excelled in Bahasa Melayu and simply adored the language. I spoke the language as if it was my mother tongue and I believe was the only thing which clearly defined me as a Malaysian, not Chinese or Chinese Malaysian.

One day, I was asked by my teacher whether my father would like to donate some money to rehabilitate the school surau (prayer hall). I remember feeling jubilant and excited with the thought of being able to help my Muslim friends. It didn’t take long to convince my father to offer some money towards this good cause. However, as it turned out, something happened which changed my perception and faith of whom I was.

That year, the New Straits Time offered awards to two PMR top scorers in every school in the Klang Valley. I was second after one of my Chinese Malaysian friends. I was not awarded. Instead the prize was given to a Malay friend.
I began to learn the horrible truth from a beast disguised as what we call the special privilege policy practiced by my school. I had learned this on my own because my parents had never explained or talked to me about this special privilege policy while I was growing up.

From that day onwards, I began to question my identity as a Chinese Malaysian and I hold that grudge until today. I made my Muslim friends paid for what the school had done to me by asking my father to withdraw his donation. Like it or not, I felt discriminated and I felt the injustice of being a Chinese Malaysian.

Many of you would have thought of me as petty and childish. Well, I was fifteen and being rejected was a big deal particularly when I felt that my hard work was not acknowledged but also insulted. What do you expect a child to feel or react if he or she is being discriminated against and is told that race merits more than hard work? Go figure it out.

Needless to say, from being a happy and hard working student, I became indifferent and discouraged. I couldn’t bring myself to like the Bahasa Melayu language anymore and I didn’t do well in my SPM. I didn’t want to study in a local university and prayed for the day when I could fly to another country in search of what I deserve and my identity.

Since then, I have traveled to many places and I have never once found a place where I could truly call home. When I went to the china towns in New York, England and France, I felt like an outcast simply because I couldn’t converse proficiently in Mandarin or Cantonese. I could only speak broken Hokkien.

All I see is my failure of being a true Chinese. My Chinese race means nothing to me except for the fact that I celebrate Chinese New Year, watch Chinese movies and eat Chinese food. But so what? Millions of non-Chinese people do that too.

Now, I speak Bahasa Melayu poorly and feel insecure when I have to converse with government officials. The sense of rejection I felt during those days in school is brought to life again whenever I have to check on the boxes which asked for my race in all the application and registration forms for administration purposes. Would I be regarded less if I am a Chinese?

So whenever the French questioned why the “immigrants” don’t go back to their homes if they are unhappy in France, I retorted, “Go where?” Don’t you think that they would have already gone if there is a place that will welcome them with open arms? It’s not our fault that our ancestors have crossed oceans to find a better place to live.

I often scoff when some of my friends claim that they are citizens of the world. To me, there is no such privilege, particularly if you come from a family of immigrants. Geographical boundaries, politics, religion, race and language have all but divided people.

I still think that the best way of introducing oneself is such as practiced in certain culture.

“I am Lim Ka Ea, daughter of Lim Chin Sim and Loo Yik Lew.”

After all, that is the most accurate description of my identity. I am my father and mother’s daughter, linked by blood and history.

Written on 18 December 2006

What I have learned from my father

When I was approached by my university alumni to write about my work experiences with the United Nations in East Timor and then Afghanistan, I did not know how to sum them up in a succinct manner. I was told that I have about a page only to illustrate my three years experience there.

There are too many stories to tell as the extensive personal experiences I had, in possibly two of the world's most untapped countries, were more significant and profound than just the confinement of my work. Hence, I would like to send a simple message which will hopefully provide an impact on our perception of what we call freedom and independence.

While growing up, my father has always tried to execute his paternal duties by imparting a great deal of his wisdom to my brother and I. But one, which would eventually become the most valued mantra is when he told me that the most important and perhaps under-rated solution to the world's suffering is for each individual to learn to be independent and self-sufficient.

His advice reverberates, “If each and every one of us is able to look after ourselves and not being a burden to our family and country, then there will be lesser problems in the world.” After serving three years in post-conflict countries like East Timor and Afghanistan, I finally learn and understand what he told me so many years ago.

The United Nations has invested massive political and development efforts in East Timor and Afghanistan by assisting both nations to rebuild through democratic means, at the request of their own people. During these times, the people's will towards independence and democracy were clear, with the exception of certain anti-democratic groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and pro-Indonesian sympathizers in East Timor.

They made it clear that they want to be free nations which will abide by democratic and human rights values. After all, the years of violence and destruction of family members and property have brought nothing but pure human sorrow and suffering. Hence, the international community, not just the United Nations, but also the European Union, various inter-governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations and donor countries welcomed these historical moves through political and economic interventions. The whole international movement was needless to say, inspired and hopeful.

A few years have passed since I was in East Timor, involving directly in the elections process. After all these years of efforts poured into the country, we all witnessed the recent riot and chaos in East Timor after what seemed to be the result of the armies' dissatisfaction towards the government.

This led to deaths of innocent people and the sacking of the former Prime Minister. What we have not left behind in that small country was the lesson that violence and bloodsheds do not solve any problems. But again, these people who have witnessed and experienced years of unrest and killings would have learned it better than most of us who are fortunate enough not to experience war.

In Afghanistan, apart from the obstacles and challenges casued by the Taliban, tribal and factional fighting are ongoing. Women and girls are still treated as sub-humans by their own family and community. All these in the name of greed, power and the misinterpretations of strict cultural and religious practices.

My opinion is that, unless the people themselves change, nothing else will. Until a post-war nation truly understands the impact of disunity and disrespect towards human rights and pledges not to ever see history repeats itself, our efforts are just in vain.

I personally do not agree that peace and unity can be imposed or forced upon. It has to come from within each individual although early education and exposure to human rights values can make a change. Direct force without the consent or will of the individual will only result in a situation of a landmine waiting to blow up at any time.

The recent warning given by our Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage for corporate buildings and so called well-heeled houses to raise the Jalur Gemilang on Merdeka Day appears to be petty and unreasonable in my opinion. Patriotism itself cannot be imposed upon without the same will by the people. It would be meaningless and may I say, merely a façade.

The degree of the rakyat's patriotism cannot be measured by the numbers of Jalur Gemilang flying on 31 August, particularly if it has been imposed upon. It is difficult for me as a rakyat Malaysia to feel patriotic when the government uses its power and intimidation like this.

I think it is time for countries that have been spared by the horrors of war to reevaluate what is really important and not to take what we already have for granted.

However, I have never regretted leaving the comfort and familiarity of my home to work in countries like this. By witnessing the ways of life in such countries firsthand has made me appreciate simple things like being able to buy goreng pisang at the warung on the roadside without fearing the possibility of an explosion caused by suicide bombers or being able to turn on the lights in the middle of the night just because there is electricity around the clock.

Above all, my own experiences have taught me to value my own freedom and independence, but what is more important for me to tell my future children is that in order to achieve that, we have to start by taking responsibility of our own lives.

If everyone can practice this mantra, then there will truly be lesser problems in the world today.

Written on 30 July 2006

Bloody prove them wrong!

Some societies are taught to believe that one’s worth is measured by gender, age and income. Once upon a time, in a far away land called Timor Leste, I proved them wrong.

While I was working as a United Nations volunteer, I learned the harsh reality of societal prejudice. At the age of 25, I left my country to serve as the youngest female UN volunteer in Timor Leste. I was young, idealistic and needless to say proud.

I was sent to work as a Civic Education Officer in a remote eastern district called Lautem. My task was to put it briefly, to prepare the Timorese people for their first presidential election. Preparation comprised of activities or programmes aimed at sensitizing and promoting democratic values through voter education, public information activities, events and informal meetings.

Working together with a mixture of people from various countries and diverse culture really opened up my eyes to the universality of human behavior. I left my country feeling proud but this was soon replaced by insecurity. Being the lowest paid UN staff, it was easy for others to make me feel small and insignificant. It is not uncommon for many UN volunteers to feel embarassed about their status quo.

Soon enough though, my job taught me to understand the importance and significance of my small role in the greater scheme of things.

There are so many people out there today who would not hesitate to try to convince you that you are worth lesser than them. There was one particular international staff who tried to make me feel that being a woman, young and the lowest paid, I was not worthy of his respect.

This person who worked as the Field Administrative Officer (FAO), felt that since he was in charge of administrative, procurement and logistics coordination, he had great power and influence over anyone. To put it simply, any staff who needed something as trivial as a chair, had to seek his approval and authorization.

Upon realizing such power, many staffs tried to get on his good side, by rubbing shoulders with him and giving him favours in order to get things done without all the fuss. He, of course, thrived on the attention and favours.

Being young and naïve, I did not quite understand the need for anyone to kowtow to him, as I thought that it was simply his job to see to the administrative and logistic needs of his fellow colleagues. Why else would he be paid for? Hence, I never bothered paying him more attention than needed and maintained our relationship strictly professional. I could not bear to be in his company since I questioned his intention and sincerity.

Needless to say, my indifference towards his power and position eventually hurt his ego. I began to notice that it took me more effort than anyone else to request anything from him. He would snub me in public and to put it bluntly found ways to make my work difficult.

The extent of his dislike for me reached a climax when he denied me access to a driver, trucks, chairs, equipment and additional staffs I needed in order to organize an important event. His excuse was the fact that I did not provide him with sufficient notice and it was the weekend where the word “work” meant nothing to him. It was of course an excuse used to make sure that I would be held responsible for a failed event since the word “weekend” did not exist in such a humanitarian work context.

I was given an ultimatum, to submit to defeat or to rise up to the occasion. I chose the latter. Instead of breaking down and pleading to him, I gathered all the strength and courage I had, to put together all the resources I needed on my own.

That weekend, I spoke with some local people who agreed to lend me all the furniture and equipment I needed from the local community hall, drove my own assigned vehicle to painstakingly transport all the materials and hired additional workers from my own pocket. It was a lot of hard work. I could have made my own life easier but I chose not to compromise my dignity and pride.

The event was a huge success and I guess the biggest battle won was in essence one of personal triumph. The FAO soon learned that I would not be broken down and what I lacked in age and position, I made up in strength and determination.

There are many forms of dictatorship. It may not always appear in the form of an Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong or Saddam Hussein. It often appears in the form of a senior person in a position of power. We are often taught or made to feel that we are not good enough due to the fact that we are young, uneducated, poor or being a female.

However, if we learn to have respect and belief in ourselves, nobody can take that away from us, no matter how hard they try. They may break our physical being but hopefully they will never break our spirit. We can either submit to these prejudices or we can always prove them wrong.

Perhaps what we should think about is why there will be some people who love to put us down? I personally think that it is often the only way they know how to deal with their own insecurities. The good thing is, there will always be a few people who will recognize and acknowledge our hard work and potential and those are the people who really matter.

My experience as a UN volunteer has taught me that every person, no matter how low they are in the scale of things, they each have an important role to play and they should never let other people try to convince them otherwise.

Always serve with pride and dignity so that you too, can bloody prove them wrong.

Written on 4 September 2006

Thou shall not mention the word "death"

What is a taboo to you? In my family, death is a taboo, an untouchable subject especially to my mother’s sister. The casual mention of any word that associates to death, whether by virtue of its meaning, expression or sound; coffin, cemetery, die, kill, the number four, is often brushed off with reproach. The colour black signifying death is very often frowned upon during auspicious occasions.

We recently celebrated my brother’s birthday. Unbeknownst to my husband, he asked my brother for his age. When my brother responded thirty three, my husband joked, “Oh, that’s the age of Jesus when He died?” As limited as my mother’s comprehension of the English language, she quickly understood the conversation. I was utterly stunned even before my mother gave me that reproachful look on her face.

If you have watched the movie, The Joy Luck Club, you would remember the scene where Waverly’s mat salleh boyfriend smugly told his mother-in-law to be that soy sauce would do just the trick to improve her trademark fish dish, after she criticized her culinary skill as a disguised act of self-modesty.

I knew that my mother was not going to say anything as a result of sheer embarrassment and possibly her inability to approach a subject related to death on her beloved son’s birthday. As an act to redeem the situation, I quickly told my husband, as gently as possible, that it is culturally incorrect to say inauspicious stuff such as death on a birthday.

During another occasion when I first introduced my husband to my parents, the subject of death was brought up. Of course, my parents were completely unprepared for this, not especially on such a special occasion. I mean, meeting their daughter’s boyfriend for the first time was one of the most important moments of their lives!

So anyway, the usual get-to-know their future son-in-law session commenced with a check on my husband’s family background. As soon as my husband revealed that his parents have passed away, what would have normally appeared to be a somber moment was instead greeted by uncomfortable laughter! I was simply mortified.

Later, my husband asked me in private about my parents’ inappropriate reaction. I had to explain that their reaction was their way of coping with an awkward situation. I had to reassure him that they were not relishing on the thought that they won’t have to deal with in-laws but more of a self-defense mechanism they adopt to cover up their inability to tackle the topic.

The thing is, where does one get such taboo or superstition? Who started off this taboo and why?
While some taboos such as death will remain in a culture for a long time, will others survive with the changing of times?

For instance, sex is a taboo in our society but now it has become necessary for sex education to be implemented at an early age. As new problems such as child sexual abuse, unwanted pregnancy and the big A-I-D-S emerged, it is no longer possible for us to keep silent and shy away from the topic of sex.

It is important for parents to be able to talk about sex with their children openly in order for them to be conscious about their own body and the consequences that come from engaging in free and unprotected sex. Child sexual abuse can be prevented if children are made to understand that such act is wrong and they are able to talk about it with their parents.

Teenage pregnancies can be prevented if parents are able to discuss such consequences with their sons and daughters instead of keeping it mums. By treating it as a taboo, it will not stop your teenagers from engaging in the act. Instead, it will only make it harder for your pregnant teenage daughter to turn to you for support and advice without feeling being judged or condemned.

Fortunately for me and my future children, some taboos will die with my parents although I’m not sure my parents would appreciate the number of words related to death that has been written on this article.

Written on 29 November 2006

Compulsory HIV-testing for couples before marriage

There are presently eight states (Kelantan, Johor, Selangor, Terengganu, Perak, Kedah, Pahang and Perlis) in Malaysia which have made HIV-testing compulsory for Muslim couples before marriage. Negeri Sembilan is aiming to follow suit in the coming year. Although many argue that compulsory HIV test is a violation of human rights, it is deemed to be a necessary evil in order to reduce HIV infections. The staggering rise of HIV infections every year in Malaysia is alarming and it is no longer wise or safe to treat the subject as a taboo.

While many countries in Africa have carried out similar move in making HIV-testing compulsory for couples prior to marriage, many western countries are treating it as a voluntary measure. While couples are encouraged and given an option to carry out HIV testing before engaging in sexual intercourse, it is up to each individual to do it.

It is unnecessary for me to dive on the subject as to why it is important for us to contain the epidemic. There are already many existing reading materials on this deadly disease. Today, I’m interested in two issues concerning compulsory HIV-testing for couples in Malaysia.

Firstly, the human rights versus public interest argument. As a supporter of human rights, I can appreciate the implications brought by this, mainly invasion of privacy as well as discrimination and stereotype faced by people living with HIV. However, I strongly believe that the two can be reconciled.

While HIV-testing can be deemed as a strong or perhaps necessary preventive measure, it is also important to ensure that appropriate and ethical steps are taken to ensure that such human rights violations are not compromised. For instance, the medical profession must uphold the principle of confidentiality if they want to gain the confidence and trust of patients. Once this trust is broken, rest assured that many people will understandably shy away from taking the test.

Secondly, while the test may be compulsory, it should not be necessary for the couple who have undergone the test to reveal the results to the authorities. It is sufficient for the couple to share the information between themselves only. At the end of the day, the test is aimed at providing the couple the possibility of an informed decision prior to the marriage. While we are on the discussion of rights, let us not forget the right of a partner to know whether the other is HIV-positive or not. Ergo, if strong steps are taken to protect the rights of the couple, compulsory testing can serve as a benefit rather than a burden.

Thirdly, I am rather disturbed by the fact that only Muslims are applicable to this measure. Does it mean that there are no HIV-infected non-Muslims? If the government truly intends to reduce the rate of HIV-infection, it doesn’t make sense to exclude the rest of the population, as small as it may be. I’m sure there are non-Muslims who engage in sexual intercourse with Muslims. In fact, it makes me uncomfortable to use the term “Muslims” and “non-Muslims” because it provides a sense of segregation, especially during such a fragile and sensitive time.

In matters such as public health, it should concern everyone unless the disease is gene-specific which deems it unnecessary for everyone to do it. Unfortunately, AIDS does not discriminate and hence, any preventive measures taken, should not as well.

Written on 2 December 2006

*Posted on on 11 December under the title “Compulsory HIV Testing Can Be A Benefit Not Burden”.

Like bulls falling off a cliff

I was driving in my car one day and heard a radio programme whereby listeners called in to request for a song which best described their teachers. While most listeners took that opportunity to pay tributes to their teachers by singing praises, one requested for the song, "Killing Me Softly" by Lauren Hill. The listener explained that while he was in secondary school, he faced a lot of prejudices from this particular teacher whom inspired the song title.

While I listened to this, I find myself wanting to know what sort of prejudices he meant and whether there has been an impact on his adult life as a consequence of those prejudices. I was disappointed when the DJs did not share my curiosity but instead were quick to brush him off.

They said to him something along the line of, “Oh but you know, you were fifteen then and it was an awkward and difficult stage you were going through. I’m sure your teacher had come across that way because she was trying to get the best out of you.”

Well, needless to say, the listener was politely hushed up.

Meantime, I kept driving with this haunting thought in my mind, “What is wrong with our society?!” How on earth did the DJs know whether that guy’s teacher was acting in his best interests? What did they even know about the guy’s teacher? Did they make an attempt to ask him and find out before making the guy felt like as if he was to be blamed from feeling that way? I seriously doubt that the guy had taken great pain to make up a story just to have a song played on the radio.

Then, I start to realize that there is something fundamentally wrong with our society. We have this tendency to stick our necks in the sand when something unpleasant happens. Instead of tackling the matter, we tend to shove it under the carpet. It’s not only women who only listen to what they want to hear. Politicians, teachers, parents, the datuk-datuks, datin-datins et al do too.

I remember as a child, my parents did the same to me. Whenever I complained about my school teacher for being unreasonable and tyrannical, my mother would hush me up, “Don’t speak ill of your teacher!” Rather than taking the time to understand why I had felt that way, it was simply easier to put the onus of responsibility on me. We are taught neither to challenge nor question, even if life seems unfair.

This do-not-question-the-authorities mentality is very much alive here. For instance, Lim Kit Siang, Chairman of DAP, has been labeled anti-royalist by an NGO after he questioned the proposed RM400 millions construction of the new Istana Negara complex. Instead of answering to his question, he was criticized and made to feel guilty.

With all due respect, I acknowledge and accept our constitutional monarchy as part and parcel of what makes Malaysia. Our former and present Kings or Sultans have not ruled with an iron thumb or treated us as subservient slaves. Hence, they have my affection and reverence.

However, the matter at hand should not be misinterpreted as an insult or attack on our monarch. It is simply an issue of democracy, accountability and necessity. Kit Siang, I believe, was simply practicing his right to question the accountability of spending RM400 million on what seems to be a low priority. I am sorry if I have offended or appear to be insulting our royalty. I have absolutely no intention of doing that. Ampun Tuanku, Berjuta-juta ampun.

I’m not defending Kit Siang either because I don’t know him personally at all. I am defending democratic values whereby members of the parliament should be allowed to debate and talk about issues pertaining to our country. If I may add, in essence, our revered Agung is also a subject of our country, as much as we are all subjects of his.

There are several issues here which have nothing to do with our loyalty and affection towards our monarch. I repeat again, it is about democracy, necessity and accountability.

Firstly, the number of taboos that have been imposed on us is wide; bumiputera special privileges, freedom of religion, racial discrimination, sex and anything which will incite dissatisfaction towards the government or racial disharmony. It is tiring just to think about the number of things which we are not allowed to talk about.

However, where does one draw the boundary of being obedient on one hand, and to follow blindly like a pack of buffaloes falling off a cliff to their deaths while being hunted by native Indians, on the other? It seems that we, human beings prefer the easy way out. It is much easier to tell someone to shut up when being challenged than to engage in reasoning.

Look what happened to the Jews during the holocaust under the Nazi regime? Edmund Burke once said, “in order for evil to triumph, it is necessary for good men to do nothing.” I am not saying that upgrading a palace is an evil deed. I’m simply saying that the “gag” culture we have can be dangerous.

Secondly, I can think of many things where the money is needed more and one of them is to increase the salary of our police forces. I’m sure our Agung would appreciate the fact that it is more urgent to deal with police corruption due to low salaries. Hence, the question which we need to ask is, is this complex necessary?

Thirdly, whenever Malaysia is being criticized by human rights groups or the international community for breaching the principle of non-refoulement under refugee law, the government is quick to defend that we are a developing country, meaning, we are not able to defend the political and civil rights of others when our economic and social rights are not up to the international standard. I can appreciate this since charity does start at home.

Well then, how do we justify spending billions of ringgits building the tallest building, international sports complex, etc. while the majority of the Malaysian population are still suffering from poverty and its implications? Are we not accountable towards our own people?

At the end of the day, responsibility and accountability come from both ways. It is not enough for the people to revere and love our Kings, our Kings should also love and care for his subjects. Would a loving King rejoice in the thought of having millions of ringgit spent in his name while many others are left to fend for themselves?

I can’t help but wonder what would be the DJs’ reaction if I called up and requested for The Police’s "Every Breath You Take".

Written on 29 November 2006

Malaysia Boleh Tidak Apa

Recently I had my regular health checkup at a private clinic in Kuala Lumpur. The doctor was professional and attentive, not to mention computer savvy. She helped me through a rough patch while I undergone health problems in Afghanistan. She made my life easier by communicating with me through emails and sending me scanned copies of my health reports and medical leave certificate.

Needless to say, my husband was well impressed with the service provided by this doctor and her nurses during my recent check-up. Although the consultation and treatment costs are much higher than public clinics, the services and attention received are worth every extra ringgit spent. My French hubby told me, “When you look at the professionalism of the doctor and the services provided, you don’t feel that this is a developing country.”

Sadly, it isn’t often the case for many other services here. It took my husband less than six months to decide that he does not want to participate in the My Second Home programme and I don’t blame him. While he was trying to settle here, he encountered countless difficulties and unfriendly faces; the immigration department, telecommunication company, construction workers, home renovation companies, etc. He concluded that the quality of the services is unsatisfactory and many people appear to be indifferent and rude.

Hence, I’m really not sure whether the satiric first class facility, third class mentality often attached to Malaysia is quite true. We have perhaps embellished the standard of our facilities and services. Let me give you an example.

Recently, I went to a TM Point branch to apply for temporary suspension of some of the services I subscribed to. I was going away for a few months and decided to take up the government’s call for us to become smarter consumers. I also thought I should start to become a thriftier wife after listening to a radio message claiming that wives spend too much. So, this was the big opportunity to prove myself by saving the cost of paying something which I would not be using for the next few months.

A staff told me that I could not suspend my Streamyx service. When I asked why not, he said it has been decided by the management, without giving me any further explanation. He then told me, I have only two choices; I either keep the service by paying RM99 every month or I terminate the service completely, which would then cost me RM163 for the reactivation and reinstallation fee.

I gave him a spontaneous incredulous laugh. In many other developed countries, suspension service is part of the facilities provided to customers because at the end of the day, it is a win-win situation. The customer stays happy and the service provider gains the loyalty and satisfaction of the customers.

In my moments of frustration and anger, I decided to terminate the service. I was then told that I could not appoint a date of termination and the service will be terminated with immediate effect. I asked him why since I was only leaving in two weeks’ time and would need the service until then.

The answer he gave was something I wasn’t prepared for, “What if I lose your application form?” My jaw dropped and I asked him why would he lose my form? He answered, “We don’t keep a filing system here.” From that, it strikes me that I have wasted my time with a public service company which makes no effort whatsoever to provide service.

The indifference of the staff is unbelievable and how is it possible for me to trust a service provider that smugly admits to the act of negligence? Is this first class facility?

I often wonder how much of censorship is being practiced in the media. We often read happy stories about how pleased the foreigners are with our hospitality although The Reader’s Digest poll would have told you otherwise.

At the end of the day, the tidak apa attitude is going to send many people home despite the enticing Malaysia Truly Asia advertisement running on the TV channels ten times a day.

Wrtitten on 29 November 2006

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me."
- Pastor Martin Niemöller

I applaud and I even salute the newly appointed IGP’s call for war against corruption at all level, particularly on the police force. While he has expressed his commitment and goodwill on this matter, I remain skeptical of its impact in reality. Past experiences have unfortunately revealed that those who are courageous enough to question the integrity of certain sectors or individuals in the government have been asked to keep their mouths shut.
Despite its constant promise to the people that corruption is deemed as evil and should be eradicated, it would almost appear as if there is an unwritten gag order by the government on any probe against corruption and the integrity of our government representatives.

In the course of just four months, we have witnessed two significant events, which is, and should be a huge cause for great concern. In May, the MP for Jasin, Datuk Mohd. Said Yusof, had allegedly asked a custom officer to “close one eye” over a timber consignment that failed custom regulations. Datuk Shahrir Samad, the Backbenchers Club chairman and also the person responsible for this allegation had later resigned from his position. The allegation has also subsequently opened up another can of worms, mainly in relation to the handling of confiscated luxury cars by the custom department.

Even then, the Prime Minister insisted that such “private” disputes should not be discussed in a public domain. We, the people, will be the ones to cast votes at the ballot box and if the integrity of a member of parliament is not a matter of public interest, what else is?

In the recent weeks, the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Ong Tee Keat was chastised by the cabinet for making a public statement, alleging the misuse of allocated fund to rehabilitate several Chinese schools in Johor by officers at the Ministry of Education. He was reprimanded that it is against the government policy to comment on another fellow minister and subsequently was shamed into submitting a public apology through the Minister of Higher Education. He was also accused of wanting to be “a hero for the Chinese.” Are we now allowed to express racial sentiment, as a defense?

I quote the Deputy Prime Minister’s statement on the issue, “I don’t want to talk about facts, that’s another issue. But as a matter of principle, deputy ministers and ministers, except the prime minister and deputy prime minister, must look (at issues) under their own jurisdiction and not to touch on other ministries.”

Such statement should not be taken lightly as the relevance of facts has shockingly been regarded as irrelevant and only the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have the power to publicly probe on issues pertaining to the integrity of all ministries. Every member of the Parliament is elected by the people for the people and as such, each and every one of them, owes a responsibility towards the people, not the government.

Whether any actions, right or wrong, have been taken or not, for better or for worse, the issues were made public as a result of those probes. If these individuals have not stood up and challenged what they deemed as suspicious or questionable, we, the people would have been kept in the dark.

By shaming and gagging individuals who are courageous enough to question the integrity of certain government representatives who are supposed to protect the people’s interest, will subsequently deter or prevent others from voicing out their concerns. Perhaps that is precisely what the government aims to achieve, to nurture a nation that will “close one eye”.

When the Prime Minister was accused of nepotism, he did not ask anyone to shut their mouths. Instead he challenged the accuser to present evidence. Should that not be the right way to search for the truth and facts? Or are facts irrelevant? Thanks to Datuk Ong’s probe, official visit and investigation are being carried out to evaluate the progress of the school construction. Is this not what we call accountability?

As a citizen, I am extremely disappointed with how the government is handling issues pertaining to public interest. We have been ordered repeatedly to shut our mouths on what are perceived as sensitive issues such as religion and special privileges awarded to the Bumiputeras. We are told that it is seditious and unconstitutional to question these rights and privileges. It is in the law!

Subsequently like subservient and dutiful slaves, we learn to suppress ourselves from talking and questioning fundamental issues such as right to freedom of religion and non-discrimination. These issues have become facts that we must learn to accept but now we are suddenly confronted by a new form of suppression, which hopefully will not become a law.

At one stage, when all the whole nation could talk about was the shocking rise of heinous crimes; robbery cum murder, rape, etc. the government responded by declaring the need to combat these crimes in order to attract and maintain the flow of tourists. What has happened to our interest, the Malaysian’s interest? Have we somehow fallen out from the government’s agenda?
Hence, my ultimate questions are as below. What have happened to accountability, transparency and integrity of the government towards its people, which in essence sum up the definition of good governance?

The new IGP can continue his pledge to combat corruption until the cows come home, the Housing and Local Government Ministry can call for a crusade against graft, but will they succeed, if the top guys are not setting a role model?

What defines democracy? Is it a government that is elected to serve the people’s interest or the other way round?

Oh, and my final question, would it be a crime for me to ask these questions?

Written on 20 September 2006
* This article was posted on under Letter and Opinion