Sunday, December 20, 2009

Adults do get bullied. It’s called politics!

Bullies are mean.

Bullies think they have the natural right to make others feel bad about themselves.

Bullies are cowards.

Yes, so we’ve heard.

As a child, I don’t remember being bullied much. Perhaps it was because I was bigger than most other children but mostly, I think it was because I never allow myself to be bullied.

When I was six, I got into a bloody fight with a boy who teased me in kindergarten. He ended up having a black eye while I lost my front tooth. This explains why I grew up with a set of crooked teeth.

I don’t remember crying. Instead, I spent my teenage years begging my parents to let me wear braces.

When I was thirteen, one of our teachers tried to humiliate us by defacing our faces with a piece of white chalk whenever we made a mistake in class. I would sit at the back of the class, fuming and just when I managed to sum up enough courage, I stood up and blurted out, “You shouldn’t be doing this. What you’re doing is wrong!”

“Oooohhh, you think you’re so smart? Step out now!” The teacher yelled at me and threatened me with his long metal ruler from the table.

Oblivious to the threat, I walked right to the front of the class and extended my hand voluntarily. Smack! I received a hard blow to my outstretched palm.

I don’t remember crying but the teacher probably did after he was fired from the school once a report was lodged by my friend’s parents. According to my friend, her Mom said that she didn’t spend all those money on teenage-acne-skin treatment cream just for the teacher to draw on with a dirty chalk.

So now you think that being an adult, I probably don’t get bullied around. Bullying only happens when you’re a child. Adults are too dignified to subscribe to such method of intimidation and abuse.

On the contrary, I get bullied more as an adult than when I was a child.

As a child, we often get bullied by other children or adults because we’re either smaller in size, weaker in strength, ugly, fat, effeminate, eccentric or if we possess any other undesirable human traits.

As an adult, I’ve learned that societies are taught to believe that one’s worth is measured by gender, age, social status and income. If you don’t measure up, you’re more likely to be subjected to bullying by those who think that they are above everyone.

At the age of 25, I left Malaysia to serve as the youngest female UN volunteer in Timor Leste. I was young, idealistic and needless to say proud.

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 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.

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

There was one particular senior staff who tried to make me feel that being a woman, young and a volunteer, I was not worthy of his respect. Being in charge of administrative, procurement and logistics coordination, he felt that he had great power and influence over anyone. Simply put, any staff who needed something as trivial as a chair, had to seek his authorisation.

Upon realising such power, many staff tried to gain his favour by giving him favours. He, of course, thrived on all the special treatment.

Being young and naïve, I did not quite understand the need for anyone to kowtow to him. I thought that it was simply his job to attend to the administrative and logistic needs of his fellow colleagues. 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 integrity.

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 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, truck, chairs, equipment and additional staff I needed in order to organise an important event.

His excuse was, I did not provide him with sufficient notice and it was a 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 locals 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 the biggest battle won, was one of personal triumph. The senior staff 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 bullying and for adults, they are politics in disguise. They may not always appear in the form of someone who is bigger, prettier or simply mightier, but often in the form of a senior person in a position of power. We are taught or made to feel that we are not good enough due to the fact that we are younger, uneducated, poor or simply being a woman.

However, if we learn to have respect and belief in ourselves, nobody can take that away from us no matter how hard they try. Bullies may break our physical being but hopefully they will never break our spirit. We can either submit to their 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 recognise 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 because that’s the best weapon you can ever use to throw bullies off balance.

Bullies have no respect for themselves.

This article was first published on The Malaysian Insider on 18 December 2009 under the same title.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

International Migrants Day - Migrants in Malaysia

Someone once told me, “The world is filled with assholes. Well, at least ninety percent of it.”

It’s a strong statement, but believe it or not I think it’s close to the truth. Boy, what a scary thought it is.

It’s International Migrants Day today. Personally, I don’t know what that means except that the many Indonesian migrant workers I met yesterday do not know or even care that a day has been dedicated to them. There is no reason for any celebration whatsoever.

What do you think are the odds of a migrant domestic worker being employed by an asshole?

Megawati

This is the story of Megawati, a 22 year old Indonesian girl who came to Malaysia with hundreds of thousands of others in search of a better life.

How long have you worked here?” I asked her.

Four months,” she replied shyly.

So, is it a bad majikan [employer] or agent which caused you to end up here?”

I was curious what brought her to the shelter at the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. More than 100 Indonesian women and children are being sheltered at the embassy while waiting to be deported home due to the absence of work permit. In fact, they wouldn’t have overstayed in Malaysia if they had their passports.

The many women I talked to share the same stories. They are there because their employers or agents had held them and their passports hostage after their contracts expire. They are there because they managed to escape. Many of them have friends or know someone still being detained illegally by their employers or agents.

These are not just the horror stories.

Megawati continued to tell me that her employer is a bachelor who hired two maids. She was one of them. God only knows why a bachelor needed two domestic workers.

After only working for 3 days, her employer started to abuse her.

How did he abuse you?” I asked her solemnly.

He kicked me in the stomach,” she said reluctantly in the beginning. “Sometimes, he hit me on the head with a vase. He also splashed me with boiling water.”

I gritted my teeth as I listened to her. She must have told this story a million times because she said it with such an even tone. For those who are not there to see the scars on her arms, would have thought she had rehearsed her story just to gain sympathy.

I held her right arm and inspected the clean but unnatural discoloration. “This looks old,” I said.

But when she arrived [here], it was filled with pus,” a woman sitting beside her intervened immediately. She must have thought I didn’t believe Megawati.

Show her. Show her.” The woman encouraged Megawati.

Megawati’s hands went up to the top buttons of her vermillion red shirt with batik printed collar. As she was unbuttoning her top, she told me that she has burn marks all over her chest.

It’s OK. I believe you,” I said while I held her hands to stop her from having to undress in front of me just to prove the abuse she had suffered.

Why do you think your employer did this to you?” I asked.

Because I made mistakes. Whenever I made a mistake, he would get angry.”

Did he sexually abuse you?” I had to ask.

No,” Megawati answered. I was not convinced.

A few seconds later, Megawati told me that her employer made the other maid cut herself up with a knife.

It seems that once the agent found out the unmentionable acts committed by the employer, she was immediately sent to the shelter. The police was notified and her case is still under investigation.

When I asked Megawati whether her parents know what has happened to her here, she told me no. When I asked her whether she would ever tell them, that was when tears started to well up in her eyes.

In a croaky voice, she said, “I would never tell them. They’re old. I don’t want them to suffer.”

Dayanti

Not everyone has a good agent like Megawati. Often than not, they are probably one of the worst perpetrators when it comes to migrant rights.

Dayanti told me that her passport is being detained by her agent. On top of that, she has given RM1,200 to the agent in return for the promise of going home safely at the end of her contract. Until today, she’s still stuck in Malaysia. She has not received her salary for five months and mean time, her agent has also borrowed RM1,760 from her. In total, she has paid a huge price for working in Malaysia for 2 years.

Before arriving at the shelter, Dayanti was detained by the agent with 3 other Indonesian women. They were forced to work at the agent’s house without being paid. In legal terms, this is considered as forced slavery. Like some of the tough ones, she escaped and ended up at the shelter. The other two are too afraid to escape and are still being held hostage until today.

What does the embassy do?

According to Dayanti, the embassy is trying to work things out with the agent. When I asked the Labour Attache what does working out with the agent entail? He said they try to solve the problem diplomatically. If the agent doesn’t cooperate, they will issue a single passage pass to the women so that they can return home.

What about cases of abuse?

The Labour Attache said that they will report this to the police. Many cases are being solved through mediation. This means, if the employers cooperate and agree to offer compensation (usually two months pay), they won’t press any criminal charges. It seems that most cases are being solved this way.

One woman wept as soon as she talked about her 4-year old daughter in East Java, whom she hasn’t seen for a long time. “I want to go home because I miss my daughter so much,” she said with tears streaming down her cheeks.

Others told of the stories of being fed a meagre meal a day and some, were raped.

Not all stories were sad. Dayanti, for instance, laughed as she told me how she tricked her agent into believing her when she said she was going to feed the cat, when in effect, was a decoy for her great escape. Perhaps her agent’s ironic ability to love an animal has helped save her life. Perhaps, that’s why she laughed.

International Migrants Day will mean something when these assholes are being brought to justice. After all, they’re a waste of space in this world.

*All names have been changed to protect the identities of the women

This article was first posted on Loyar Burok on 18 December 2009 under the title Migrants in Malaysia.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Americano or Cappuccino?

Latte, closup

Eight years ago, I interned with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in New York. Being in New York City for the first time, I tried to squeeze in every possible thing I could do within the short span of 3 months.

Honestly, I loved the city. I even dreamed of living there until 9/11 happened and living the American dream isn’t quite the same again.

There is still one thing about the country that bugs me, with or without 9/11. It’s the tipping system. If you haven’t been to America, be warned that there’s a fifteen percent tipping policy for services at all food and drink outlets. With this wisdom in mind, hopefully, it’ll spare you the humiliation I went through eight years ago.

I went to a bar in Manhattan (coincidentally situated in one of the World Trade Centre towers) and everything was as how you would have imagined it; chic, classy and the epitome of a Sex-in-the-City lifestyle. The women were all dressed in fashionable outfit, sipping their pink-coloured concoction while they flirted around men who resembled Big in many ways.

I refrained from being another Carrie Bradshaw and ordered a glass of red wine at the bar instead. I can’t remember how much I paid for it but suffice to say, more than enough.

Feeling rather generous, I told the extremely good-looking bartender casually, “Please keep the change.”

He took one look at my money and flashed me a menacing look. With his first and middle fingers still clinging firmly to the neck of the wine glass, he said coldly, “I’m sorry, if you want your drink, you gotta give me more.”

I thought he was joking but he didn’t look amused. Suddenly, he didn’t look that handsome after all.

Feeling flustered and humiliated, I fumbled for my purse, rummaged through it and handed him a five dollar note since it was the smallest denomination I had. It was the first and only tip which I had parted most grudgingly in my life.

I could never really understand the American system when it comes to tipping. I’ve heard many times that such policy is necessary to compensate for the underpaid waiters and waitresses. I can truly sympathise with this since I had worked as a part time waitress and bartender during my university years. I know how unjustifiably disproportionate the pays are compared to the labour put in.

But, my understanding of tipping is somewhat like art.

The price of a piece of art work is often valued by how much it pleases the buyer. Sometimes, you look at a painting and you think to yourself, “Gee, did a clown just pee all over it? And they call this art?!”

The next thing you know, someone has offered to pay one hundred thousand dollars for it. That someone is willing to pay that much money for something you consider trash, because he or she appreciates it and hence, is happy to splurge that kind of money to own it.

So, if I’m really impressed or pleased with a waiter’s hospitality, I am more than willing to tip him generously. If not, I won’t bother because he is already being paid to do a job. Tipping should not be obligatory and it’s not part of my responsibility to pay the waiter, especially when I’m expected to pay for my meal.

Frankly, I would prefer if a restaurant charges more for the food in order to cover its employees’ salary. Some might say, “Oh, but how sure are you that the money will go to the employees?” I would say that it’s really not my problem. I dine at a restaurant for two reasons, to eat and socialise, not to do charity work.

So that’s America. You’re expected to pay for something that is implied but not written. In Italy, they do it the opposite way.

Few years back, I went on a vacation to Siena with my best friend, S. We had a great meal at a restaurant and when the bill came, we habitually scrutinized the items on the bill. (We’ve acquired this habit from our parents who are rather careful when it comes to financial matters. Mind you, thanks to this habit, I’ve once managed to rescue RM1,500 from a miscalculated bill at a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, which otherwise would have been happily paid by our party host, still in his drunken stupor.)

Everything looked in order except for one item listed as il corpeto. We were convinced that the restaurant was trying to take advantage of two innocent Asian girls and we were not going to let them get away with it. So, we summoned the waitress to explain the bill for us.

We pointed the item out to the waitress and told her that we did not order it. She looked confused, understandably so since she could hardly speak a word of English.

After a few minutes of creative gestures and a lot of si, she nodded reassuringly and pointed her index finger at our empty plates and glasses. She even took away the napkin from my lap, flipped it wildly and all the time repeating the word il corpeto in that strong Italian accent. “Il corpeto, si? Il corpeto?”

After what seemed like hours of gesticulating back and forth, my very intelligent friend finally understood. She whispered to me, “I think il corpeto means charges for the dining utensils.”

“Are you sure they’re not just charging us for the dish washing?” I offered a second opinion. S looked at me quizzically, trying to figure out whether I was trying to be funny.

We finally relented and paid the bill, much to the waitress’ relief.

So, in Italy, many restaurants will actually itemise your bill so meticulously that you know exactly how much and what you’re paying for. Frankly, as long as I understand what the charges are, I’m happy to pay up. At least, in Italy, they don’t harass you into tipping them.

Feel free to share any similar dining experience in whatever country you have travelled to. We’ll thank you for sparing us from looking like fools.

This article was published at The Malaysian Insider on 28 November under the same title.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A different kind of spirit and intoxication

myConst-final-face3 These days, the right words used to describe me would be, zombie-fied and kelam-kabut.

In the last month, I have been completely engrossed in a project which has inevitably driven me to physical and mental exhaustion. Being sleep deprived, I have unwillingly arrived at work late in a dishevelled state. I’m almost always late for meetings held in-house and above all, I’ve committed one of the biggest and most embarrassing professional crime - giving the wrong name to a very important government minister while drafting a press statement!

I should be fired, but deep down I hope I won’t for two reasons. I’m psyched about what I’m doing and I’m driven by the pool of people working around this project.

A good marriage is really hard to come by these days but this article is not about marriage. It’s about team work and it’s as equally rare. Mom used to tell me this, “If you marry the right man, half of your life’s happiness is secured.”

In the context of a job, I would say that if you get to work with the right team, at least half of your day’s happiness is guaranteed. When combined together, I guess I’m a really happy woman despite the sleep deprivation and long hours of slogging.

Not too long ago, a fellow writer informed me that she doesn’t believe in Committee. She told me that it’s easier to get things done by herself. I do agree with her because there have been many occasions where I end up doing a job on my own simply because it takes too long to wait for others to act, especially if they are unreliable. Also, when there’s more than one person, it usually involves having more than one opinion and this means more time needed to take a collective decision.

In a marriage, it takes two to tango. In a team, it takes a whole troop to perform that awe-inspiring Shaolin acrobatic formation. All members need to lean on each other for support, be willing to take a fall and last but not least to sweat it out together so that their goals can be achieved.

However, these are not just the essential ingredients. It takes much more to become an exceptionally good team.myConst-final-face7

The spirit of team work was first introduced to me when I worked in Afghanistan. My wise Italian friend taught me the first lesson of being in a team: loyalty. Loyalty in his case does not mean to submit to one’s leader blindly and unequivocally. A team needs to be challenged. Otherwise, how would you know that it’s truly a good one when everything works like a bed of roses?

Loyalty here means to sort out disputes fairly and transparently, without backstabbing one another. If things get really difficult, you don’t just jump ship. You stay and work things out together.

I remember when I had just become the newest member of an electoral team in Bamyan, I did not appreciate our Coordinator. We had different working cultures which made it difficult for me to adapt.

Whenever I expressed my dissatisfaction towards the Coordinator, my Italian friend would remain impartial, refusing to partake in any of my personal observations. Instead, he would provide objective views and advised me to communicate my frustration to the Coordinator.

I find this to be a constructive and effective method of solving professional disagreement. If anything, it improves and builds working relationship because of better understanding through open communication.

myConst-final-face6 Secondly, to be a truly good team, it goes beyond showing professional commitment. Since, we’re essentially human beings, we all come with emotional baggage. We all have needs to feel included, appreciated and respected. We don’t just value ourselves as a worker, but also a human being, deserving of respectful and dignified treatment.

Bamyan is one of the coldest districts in Afghanistan. During winter, the temperature often drops to minus 30 degrees celcius. Again, being new, I was unable to adapt to such harsh condition and subsequently fell ill with mild pneumonia. My colleagues quickly took to the task of nursing me back to health.

During this time, my health condition had been brought to the attention of those working in the headquarters. In order not to further jeopardise my health, decisions were quickly made to offer me a transfer to a warmer district in the East of Afghanistan. Resisting the tempting offer, I decided to stay on in Bamyan and it was the right decision I made.

myConst-final-face1 myConst-final-face5 myConst-final-face2

I would eventually brave winter together with a group of colleagues whom by then had become friends. We would huddle together, all wrapped up in thick fleece jackets, scarves and mittens, sharing a simple meal while being fuelled by a solitary burner situated in the middle of a poorly equipped kitchen. Everything else was frozen in the kitchen but our spirits were kept sizzling hot by the solidarity we had for each other.

Last but not least, when the going gets really tough, good team members support each other despite the adversities and risks they have to take, even if it means compromising themselves.

After about six months in Bamyan, we had a shocking but pleasant surprise. A Japanese colleague of ours brought her baby boy from Japan to Bamyan. The whole adventure of how she managed to bring her baby there was a different story altogether. Suffice to say that her act was in breach of the United Nations’ employment contract. As an unaccompanied duty station, all staff were not allowed to bring their partners or children to Afghanistan, unless they were being employed by the UN or other organisations, in the case of their partners.

Being a single mother and combined with other undisclosed reasons, she had to bring her child there. We knew that it was not the best decision made, bringing a child to a war-zone country. However, we understood that whatever reason that had prompted her to do so must had been difficult and perhaps necessary.

In the end, what we did was to support her. We welcomed her baby into our humble home and treated him as if he was a part of the family. We were fully aware that if the baby was discovered by the UN authorities, we would all risk disciplinary action and our Japanese colleague, her job.

It hit upon us that it was difficult trying to conceal a baby in a small district like Bamyan. Eventually, our colleague had to pack her bag and leave the country but the memory of that moment we shared together will continue to stay with all of us for the rest of our lives.myConst-final-face4

Perhaps I would never get to experience such surreal circumstances again but I am fortunate enough to relive the joy of working in a team where all of us grow together and feed on each other’s enthusiasm, strength and encouragement to cross that finishing line.

The writer would like to dedicate this article to those working on the MyConstitution Campaign, as well as those who have been supportive and understanding of her during her moments of zombification and kelam-kabutness.

This article was first posted on The Malaysian Insider on 15 November 2009 under the same title.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Differentiating Indifferences

Zohra was 18 when she started to work as an administrative officer with the United Nations. She was bright, innocent, hopeful and idealistic. Her country, unfortunately wasn’t.

She could maintain her feeling of hope and sense of idealism because she spent nine waking hours of her life with foreigners who told her that human rights is for everyone, even if she’s a woman.

One day, she received a fully-funded scholarship to study in the United States. I remember her smiling shyly as she approached me humbly to look at her scholarship application a few months ago. I thought to myself, how proud and confident she must be, now that she had been accepted to study abroad.

On the contrary, she was forced to turn down the scholarship because her family refused to allow her to travel alone, unaccompanied by a close relative. Losing her would also mean losing a huge income for her family since she was earning more than any other average Afghan men.

No reward for chivalry

Afewark and I became friends when I took a trip to Bahir Dar in Ethiopia two years ago. We met in a rambunctious local bar playing live traditional music. He was there celebrating with his best friend who had just graduated from the local university.

Perhaps it was his age, or perhaps it was mine. Either way, he came across as a young, vibrant and idealistic man. He was well-mannered, polite and engaging, all the essential criteria which gained my trust to meet up with him again the next day.

While we were walking along a busy but dimly lit alley in between two strips of restaurants, bars and clubs, a dark figure grabbed my mobile phone from the back and disappeared into the darkness. While I remained immobile and speechless, like the rest of the unperturbed spectators watching from a close distance, Afewark made a quick dash after the culprit (no wonder Ethiopians are famed for their physical endurance in long distance running).

After about five minutes, Afewark appeared crest-fallen and ashamed for not being able to rescue my phone and most importantly for me to experience such an unfortunate incident in his country.

When we reported this to two policemen who were patrolling within the vicinity, they accused Afewark of masterminding the whole crime. He argued with them but they insisted that he plotted with the snatch thief since it was uncommon to see a local man with a foreign woman. By then, not only was he ashamed, he was also defeated.

No pride and a lot of prejudices

Walking into Tom Dy Centre in Phnom Penh, I was confronted by a lush garden and an extremely clean and neat environment. So clean that it was difficult to imagine I was in Phnom Penh. Inside, there are about 60 girls from the age of 16 to 25, faces and names I no longer remember because there are so many of them and each one looks the same as the other — long jet-black hair, dark skinned and petite.

While the environment surrounding them looked and felt clean, the girls don’t. In fact, most of them carried a vacant expression on their faces, which also explains why I find it difficult to distinguish or remember them. In conclusion, they looked as if their spirit had abandoned them.

These girls are rescued victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Most of them have been sold by their own families as sexual slaves. With their innocence, trust and dignity robbed away at such a young age, what’s left are their bodies. Some have even died from AIDS. I often wonder, how many of them still have hope in them as they hang on to each day of blatant uncertainty and a life-long of undeserved stigmatisation.

Pause, rewind and play

I’ve started work again in Kuala Lumpur recently. Being used to working in the fields of Timor Leste, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Cambodia, I must confess that this is a huge shift for me. My current work pace is nonetheless hectic and demanding, more so than in all my previous jobs. I am confronted by a different kind of challenge, more bureaucratic and professionally driven in nature — one which I would have to subsequently learn to deal with.

I spent my first week relearning how to operate technologically advanced office machines, something many of us have taken for granted. When I informed the chief executive officer that my work performance is somehow hampered by my ineptness to operate such sophisticated equipment, he quipped, “You know, we have had this machine since three years ago. It’s not sophisticated. I think it’s you since you’ve worked in countries like….” Point taken.

Then, I’ve had disgruntled office members who are not pleased with my “slow” performance while I try to deal with 10 other priorities. I try to handle all of them as calmly as I can, sometimes more calmly than others would like me to be.

I’ve sat in meetings and observed discussions and debates about issues, what makes people upset and what causes such urgency. Sometimes, I do get riled up, but often I don’t.

When my friends look away uncomfortably at a beggar standing by our dining table, I look at them in the eyes and smile politely before turning them away.

If I don’t get upset when someone screams at me unjustly or when I don’t seem to be moved by the ugliness of my surrounding, does that mean I’m heartless? Does it mean I don’t care when I don’t get frustrated with what others feel as an urgency?

It may seem that way but it’s not, because at the end of the day, I’m able to sit back and think about the countries where I’ve been, where there are real people with real problems. The pressure we’re succumbing to in our daily professional environment is driven mainly by the notion of cost and benefit.

Do I use this as an excuse not to take action for every single request I’ve received? I hope not because I do go to bed soundly every night, feeling satisfied that I have done what I can and to the best of my ability. Trying to behave like a martyr when I’m not is not my style.

Today, my best friend who works in Afghanistan text-messaged me. It says: “Just to let you know I’m OK. I’m still in Sri Lanka on holidays.”

Six UN staff have been reported dead after a Taliban shoot-out and bombing in Kabul. It could have been her. It could have been me five years ago.

Whenever I feel the urge to dramatise my life unnecessarily, I pause for a moment and think about what I can achieve today, instead of worrying about what I can’t. Then, I’m being reminded by people like Zohra, Afewark and the Tom Dy girls how easy and blessed my life has been compared to theirs.

All names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals mentioned in this article.

This article was first published in The Malaysian Insider on 31 October 2009 under the same title.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Constitutional amnesia?

“You’ve been selected to work as a Civic Education Officer,” a woman with Filipino accent told me on the phone.

“Oh, great! Thank you.” I replied happily.

It wasn’t until I received my job description later that I realised civic education had nothing to do with teaching children on how to become courteous, kind and responsible citizens.

I was the first batch of students who experimented with the new education curriculum when Pendidikan Sivik was changed to Pendidikan Moral. In Moral classes, amongst other things, we learned that if we saw a banana peel lying haphazardly on the floor, we were supposed to pick it up in order to prevent someone else from potentially slipping and injuring themselves.

I finally understood what it really meant when my job description stated that my main duties were to plan, coordinate and implement activities that create and promote awareness amongst the Timorese on their new Constitution, along with their rights as eligible voters and citizens of Timor Leste.

As my work progressed, it began to dawn on me that as young Malaysians, many of us do not really know what our Constitution was all about and, most importantly, the significance of it.

There were moments when I literally felt a sense of sadness because as a “prosperous” country, as opposed to Timor Leste, we are civically bankrupt. It is almost as if we have progressed so quickly that we have forgotten the fundamental basis of what makes our country independent and sovereign.

The saddest thing of all is, it has only been 52 years and we are already taking our constitutional inheritance, something earned through blood and years of struggles and sufferings endured by our fore parents, for granted.

The Timorese may not have much in terms of economic security, but they had one thing that was rightfully theirs: a newly independent country. Like a clean slate, they had a new Constitution, a newly elected president and above all, a citizenship for the first time in their lives.

Thousands of adults, accompanied by their children, would stand in queues every  morning, from Monday to Friday, waiting patiently to be registered as voters before the first presidential election. Once their personal details were entered into laptops, photographs and finger prints taken, they waited with unconcealed glee before receiving their brand new voter registration card. They giggled and laughed shyly as soon as they saw their photos on the cards. When some of them accidentally lost their cards, you could see their distressed faces as they lined up impatiently to get a new one.

When they were told that they would be receiving civic education, they rejoiced in the thought of getting to know their new country and their rights as Timorese, not second-class Indonesians.

In most villages, the four Timorese educators and I were treated like dignitaries. We scheduled our meetings in advance so that the women could plan and organise their domestic chores, and the men, their farming work in advance.

Even before our team arrived at the village centres, hundreds of villagers could be seen from afar, gathered quietly in front of their community halls or churches. Children were less inhibited as they ran towards our approaching car, followed by cacophonies of undecipherable chatter and laughter.

They welcomed us warmly as we shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with the suco (village) or aldeia (sub-village) chiefs. When the meeting finally commenced, they would sit silently on the floor as we took them through customised flip-charts, illustrating the Constitution.

Occasionally, there would be one or two who raised their hands to ask questions or state their comments during the session. Unlike Afghanistan, the women participated freely, although with less vigour.

“Can I also be the president of Tim-Tim (the pet name used by Timorese in reference to Timor Timor) one day?” A Pak would ask sheepishly and his question was greeted by roars of laughter from the others.

“During the Indonesian occupation, where do we have HAM (short for Hak Asasi Manusia or human rights)?” another Pak lamented. “How do we know our votes will be secret?” an Ibu asked shyly.

Most of the time, these meetings lasted for more than three hours. Our Timorese educators’ voices would be hoarse from giving long lectures and answering questions while I usually observed in silence, but not without curiosity. The language used was Tetum and while nearly all understood Bahasa Indonesia and had no problem conversing in it with me, most preferred to use the official language amongst themselves.

At the end of the meeting, some villages presented us with “tais”, a typical Timorese hand-woven scarf, as tokens of their appreciation. We stood humbly before the chiefs as they wrapped the scarves around our necks one by one while the congregations applauded our effort. By the end of my mission, I must have had collected more than a dozen of them.

This was one of the things I loved most working at grassroots level in Timor Leste.  We went with nothing to offer except information and yet the communities welcomed us with open arms.

It was in Timor Leste that I had heard of people talking about the Constitution and human rights so passionately. It may be a nation with a high illiteracy rate, yet there was a strong sense of activism amongst the people. Nearly all the adults I met had either directly or indirectly fought for the independence of their country. As a result, they treasure and understand the value of their Constitution, a powerful symbol that signifies their existence as a free and independent nation.

After fifty two years of independence, we as Malaysians are now experiencing collective amnesia. Never have I once heard or spoke of the Federal Constitution with my family or friends. How could we when our education system does not teach us its values and meaning. We were too occupied trying to pass our Moral examinations and what does that get us today, when young urban Malaysians are becoming more obnoxious and rude?

Come election time, we think about which party will serve the interest of our individual races the best. Many do not even bother to register as voters, what more exercising their rights to vote.

Come Merdeka Day, it’s all about waving the Jalur Gemilang and displaying our patriotism and love for our country. But what is our country and who are we showing our affection for? Is our country represented by the government, or by 26 millions Malaysians?

I think it’s time for all of us to go back to where it had first begun, when we had collectively decided that we, the rakyat (not the government), shall be free and it is us who decide what our Constitution is.

Let our forgetfulness be a temporary amnesia, not a permanent one.

Do share with me your understanding of our Federal Constitution and how we can create better awareness amongst Malaysians on what it means.

This article appeared on The Malaysian Insider on 16 October 2009 under the same title.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The World March for Peace and Non-Violence, Kuala Lumpur – 10 October 2009

Candle lighting

The quiet and posh residential area in Jalan Bangkung, Bangsar, was hit by a tidal wave of loud music, vibrant live performances, piercing whistle blows and screams by throngs of people from all walks of life and (not forgetting) smoky scent of grilled meat, last night.

Sounds rowdy enough? Yes, but all for a good cause and it was done peacefully as well.

I usually go to Jalan Bangkung for two reasons; the restaurants and Bali Ayu spa. Last night was special because a group of NGOs; Voice of the Children, Women’s Aid Organization, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, NurSalam, World Without War and restaurant group Maxim Image (owners of Cava, Leonardo and Opus) came together to organize an event where Malaysians could gather in one place to express their solidarity and commitment to peace and non-violence. The night was marked by a candle-lighting ceremony and a not-so-solemn walk with lanterns around the strip of restaurants.

Clown and child Cava Menu

What I find interesting was how men, women and children from all ages and races were able to shed their cultural and political differences by holding hands and partying the night away. I smiled watching a man of about 60 years old with seemingly mild demeanour, clapping and dancing to the rhythm of hip drum beats. There were two men in the same age group; an Indian and a Sikh, waving the Jalur Gemilang at the front of the stage, while being observed by a foreigner who grinned with amusement.

Pet dogs of all shapes and sizes were not left out from the event as well. Many owners brought their furry friends to participate in the lantern march, much to the envy of neighbouring dogs, barking ruefully from the inside of gated residences. It was amusing observing some of them chastising their over-zealous pooches trying to sniff around the lower regions of those walking at the front.

It was also an expressive night where ordinary people displayed slogans on banners and T-shirts from “Stop violence against women”, “Are you a registered voter?” to “Love us, not eat us”. My favourite was, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind” by Mahatma Gandhi and one which says, “I am woman, hear me roar”.

Percussionist Party

The live performances were refreshing, energetic and pretty darn entertaining but nothing still touch the people quite as much as Michael Jackson’s Heal the World when it came on the loud speaker.

What I saw last night taught me one lesson. We can achieve unity and peace as a multi-cultural nation, if we want to. It was rare for me to see Malaysians of all races gathered together in a place where pork, beef and alcohol were served with the present of dogs, and non-Chinese children  took to the street with Chinese lanterns of all shapes and sizes. Nobody came out and accused anyone of being disrespectful of any particular religion but instead focussed on respecting each other’s diversity without compromising their own.

I wish everyday could be like this and not just during an annual event. We should remind ourselves each day that we need to heal the world and make it a better place.

Peace to everyone!

Jalur Gemilang2 IMG_9327 Stop violence against women

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Losing my virginities

If I can describe Timor Leste in one word, it would be, “Virginal.”

This small island saw very little development despite being a former Portuguese colony during the 16th century and became part of an occupied territory of Indonesia until 2002.

It was almost as if its coloniser and occupier had deliberately wanted it to remain as a child with learning disabilities. This was not congenital by nature but one that had been created and shaped as such through a long process of involuntary subjugation by the Indonesian government.

However, like many children who are unexposed to external elements, Timor Leste maintained a kind of purity and innocence which baffled the minds of those who live in this day and age. After all, it should by now surpass the age of a minor and embark life as a young adult like the rest of its neighbouring peers.

Timor Leste has the most beautiful and untouched beaches I’ve seen in my entire life. If paradise does indeed exist on earth, they will be a coveted choice. There was hardly any concrete buildings in the capital city of Dili (except those that have been implanted by the international community during the period of transitional power at the start of the 21st century).

As you depart further from Dili, such simple and ordinary concrete structures we’re accustomed to are being swallowed by nature, pregnant with the sort of silence which can only be achieved through the absence of motorized vehicles. Majority of rural Timorese live in small thatched huts constructed from mud, wood and dried leaves. Those who are slightly better off live in houses made of naked cement walls and tin roofs.

Such was the level of simplicity that during the night, it felt almost as if everyone had gone to bed with the sun. With no electricity, there was total darkness and calm, except when you looked up at the sky, the millions of sparkling stars could not look any bigger and closer.

Timor Leste was my first United Nations mission and it’s true when they say that your first mission is often the most memorable and in my own personal view, the most exciting as well. I was entering unexplored territory. Very much like sex a la Malaysian style, I had heard very little of it but was left to my own imagination to figure out what it was really like. So, I fantasised about it and when I finally lost it, I was craving for more.

As with sex, there were minor glitches and momentary periods of emotional and physical adjustment. The biggest challenge and discomfort I had while in Timor Leste was having to confront my fear of the fearless cockroaches that were plenty and had the knack of flying amok in small spaces.

It was hell for me when it was time to go to bed. While I could seek refuge under the protective mosquito net, I was left completely vulnerable when the call of nature announced itself in the middle of the night.

Guided by only the smallest maglite torch you could find, I felt like a blind person waiting to be devoured by the vicious cockroaches. As if that wasn’t enough, more were waiting to taunt me in the loo.

I had to fashion an effective way to relieve my bladder without having a series of panic attack every night. The method of choice was admittedly primitive but no, I did not resolve to wearing diapers (hell, it was painful enough having to pack sufficient supply of sanitary products and diapers would have taken up precious space for indispensable items such as wet wipes, books and Knorr tom yum cubes).

Suffice to say that a 1.5 litre plastic bottle sliced into half did the trick.

Growing up in a privileged environment, I had to engage in laborious work in Timor Leste for the first time. One common task was to carry and transport heavy boxes of project supplies and this was usually performed alone. Don’t ask me where the men were but thanks to them, I developed strong arms and I was in my best form.

However, when I went home for my break after a few months, the first thing Mom said to me was, “Hmmm…your hands. They’re not as smooth as before. They’re so rough now, like the hands of a coolie. What exactly were you doing there?!”

The other challenge was to pass my driving test and the vehicle of choice was the crude but extremely sturdy Tata Sumo 4x4. I was obviously out of practice when it came to driving a stick shift but thankfully, the Political Counsellor for the Chinese Embassy, one of the first few international delegates I encountered by chance, gave me a crash course a day before.

Even though I passed the test, I still struggled to manoeuvre the vehicle which nearly cost my life once when it rolled dangerously backward on a strip of narrow and curvy road by the edge of a steep cliff. Once I mastered it, a normal six-hour drive became five and my best record was four and a half as soon as I learned to identify unique landmarks which helped me to navigate my way easily through 215km of barren landscapes.

Of course, these were minor challenges compared to the many new and exciting experiences I had in my first mission. I would subsequently find myself losing my “virginities” over and over again.

I had my first experience of staying in a floating hotel in Dili. Amos was a massive boat which offered camp-style accommodation before any other hotels were built on lands. Lodgers had to share tiny compartments cramped with bunk beds, small suspended televisions offering HBO and BBC channels and a flooded shower room every time one took a shower. But it was also on the Amos that I had witnessed the most glorious sunset in my life.

It was in Timor Leste that I first flew on a four-seater helicopter, small enough to have intimate access to breathtaking views from all angles through the transparent windows on all side.

Hopping on one of these was as easy as riding on chartered buses, scheduled to transport us to villages on isolated mountains deep in the jungle, twice a week.

It was one of the few things I lived for in Timor Leste and the novelty never really wore off.

Ultimately, it was having my own private beach in “The Blue Lagoon” fashion that made my experience in Timor Leste truly memorable. Eight years ago, nobody would have heard of Los Palos, Tetuala and Jaco Island, what I considered as the “holy trinity” of Lautem district.

I spent hours basking in the sun on white sand as soft as talcum powder and snorkel alongside fishes, sea turtles and coral reef that would make any certified divers and crystal glass turn green with envy. It was also the first time I slept on the beach and woke up with the sight of a whale at a distant horizon. I was instantly humbled by its grace and enormity.

All these happened eight years ago and sometimes I wonder whether it’s still as virginal as I first saw it.

This was previously posted at The Malaysian Insider on 6 October 2009 under the title Paradise found…and lost?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Iris Chang: The Rape of Nanking

We’ve heard, read, watched and talked passionately about the holocaust during the Second World War. Then, we did the same for the genocide that happened in Cambodia, Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. What most people don’t talk about is the massacre of more than one hundred thousands of Chinese civilians in Nanking by the Japanese army in the 1940s.

A few years back, I was told that I should read this book called The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. I was naturally intrigued since I had never read any literature touching on this topic. I knew that the Japanese, a German ally during WWII, had committed countless accounts of atrocities in China, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, etc. But nobody I knew talked about it as much as they had talked about what happened in Europe. So, when Iris Chang named her book, The Rape of Nanking: A forgotten Holocaust, it really meant something.

As a child, Mom would tell me this story. She recalled that during the Japanese occupation in Malaya (now, Malaysia), my uncles, aunties and her had to kowtow whenever a Japanese soldier walked past. If they didn’t, a strong blow to the face was expected and it did happen to Auntie Number One who was about 12 years old then. I was horrified as I listened to this story. But when I started reading this book, a blow to a child’s face was nothing compared to what the soldiers had done in Nanking. I felt nauseous and sick just reading the graphic account of how men, women and children were tortured, mutilated and murdered without any mercy.

The book was a result of extensive research carried out by Chang, a Chinese American, whose parents had fled from China to America during the war. So, the stories weren’t fictional but supported by first hand testimonies of survivors corroborated by personal entries in the diaries of foreigners who were living in Nanking and countless of other official documents, photos and video footages.

Since the publication of this book in 1997, the Japanese government is yet to acknowledge and take responsibility of the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by them during the Second World War. This part of the history has been simply wiped out from school curriculum. Government officials insist that these horror stories have been fabricated by the Chinese government as a propaganda against Japan.

On the other hand, there are many Japanese civilians who do acknowledge this event but they are the minority and those who have been really critical are threatened with death.

In 2007, this book was made into a movie and I had the opportunity to watch it a few days ago. I expected it to be a full feature documentary but it was infused with dramatic re-enactments of Iris Chang’s journey while writing the book. To be honest, I was disappointed with the movie as I felt that it was made as a tribute to her, rather than the victims and survivors of the massacre. Chang died in 2004 by committing suicide. Apparently, she suffered extreme emotional trauma from the stories and images she heard and saw during her research.

I do applaud Chang for having the courage and conviction to pursue a cause she felt so strongly about. The world is indebted to her for the publication of this book. She said repeatedly in the movie that she felt compelled to speak for the victims whose voices have been silenced for more than half a century and she did accomplish this through her book, talks and interviews she gave in public. Without her work, what happened in Nanking might have disappeared completely from our history.

However, I could never fathom why she felt the need to take her own life. As I saw the real images of men being used as target practice; women raped and their genitals mutilated; and children who witnessed their whole family being killed, I felt angry that she had taken her own life when others had begged for theirs.

The movie briefly tells the story of Minnie Vautrin, a courageous American missionary who provided refuge to thousands of Chinese during the massacre. Vautrin wrote in her diary of the torture, suffering and pain she personally witnessed in Nanking.  Shortly after, she took her own life as well. What was different between Chang and Vautrin was that the latter was physically present during the war and she saw with her own eyes the atrocities committed. Anyone in her position would have gone absolutely mad.

Then, there were dozens of real life interviews showing real survivors telling their stories. One particularly touched me. By now, the man is in his 70s and yet tears still welled up in his eyes as he recalled how his brother, sister and mother were killed right before his eyes. Before his mother died, she called out to her infant son who had been stabbed by a bayonet. The bloodied child crawled to his mother’s bosom as the latter opened her shirt to feed him for the last time. While nursing, both mother and child died. This man has probably lived his whole life remembering this image over and over again and yet he refuses to submit himself to death, something his mother had died in order to protect him and his siblings from. 

I think I am mostly angry because Chang made a profound impact with her life and she took away that life many people have fought so hard for. I was criticised for feeling this way. I was told that I lack compassion, something which she had a lot of. Perhaps this is true because I couldn’t have done what she did; pursuing a humane cause so zealously that I ended up torturing myself.

In the end, it’s a great irony that someone who felt so strongly about the wanton taking of lives should voluntarily surrender her own life. The mind-boggling part is that she wasn’t even there. The survivors were.

Finally, the movie would have been much better without the dramatization. The role of Olivia Cheng who played Iris Chang was completely unnecessary and the production of a drama cum documentary movie has diluted the essence and spirit of the issue. The story of Iris Chang’s journey should have been told in another separate movie.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Alexis Bistro Live Performances @ Great Eastern Mall, KL

When I first knew that Alexis Bistro is going to run a series of live jazz performances (July – September 2009) at one of their branches in Great Eastern Mall, Jalan Ampang, I was thrilled. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that Rachel Guerzo was going to perform a tribute to Cole Porter. (For those in the know, Cole Porter was a jazz legend in the 1930s-40s. He was famously known for his hit song Night and Day and countless other soundtracks for Hollywood cinema at that time.)

I must admit that I was first surprised to learn that there is actually a niche in Malaysia that appreciates refined Western entertainment to warrant such a performance but later on felt guilty for thinking so. However, after attending the performance, my initial thought was completely justified and my guilt immediately flew out the window.

The restaurant was fully packed that night. The ambience was nice and the space was small enough to allow a more intimate setting for the show. Thankfully, I managed to reserve a table in advance and had a lovely dinner with a friend prior to the performance which was scheduled to start at 10:30pm.

After being seated, I noticed that there was a small printed card that served to remind diners to switch off their mobile phones and remain silent throughout the performance on each table. I was glad that the organizer was smart enough to do that. They even announced the reminder right before the show in case some people had missed the notice on the table.

As soon as I thought my Friday night could not get any better than that; great meal with wonderful company proceeded by live jazz music, I was oh-so-wrong. Throughout the show, people continued to talk and laugh on top of their lungs. While Guerzo’s voice was powerful and warm enough, all I could hear was a cacophony of chatters coming from every direction. It was obvious that majority of people were there for the food and company, not the performance.

What I find disconcerting was that the organizer at that stage did not do anything to calm the diners down and I blamed them completely for this disgrace. I hate to say this but it isn’t that surprising anymore that Malaysians will continue to be Malaysians; rude, disrespectful and above all ignorant. But I expect the restaurant to take up the responsibility of crowd control. After all, they had organized the show and there were some people like me who wouldn’t have gone there, if not for the show.

As I sat there trying to drown the annoying noises around me, I felt angry and shameful at the same time. I was angry and embarrassed that people were not respectful enough to give their attention to the performers. They should have left their tables if they wanted to dine and chat only. At the end of each piece, Guerzo tried to interact with the audience by providing them with a trivia on Cole Porter and introducing the band members, but I could not hear anything because the chatters were louder than her voice on the microphone.

Needless to say, my friend and I left the show during half time. There wasn’t any point in staying if the organizer and diners  were going to behave like jerks and I was not interested to participate in such an initiative. I won’t attempt to dine or attend anything organized by Alexis Bistro again.

So, if anyone from Alexis is reading this (I hope through some miracle, you do), I would like to give you this advice. DO NOT organize such shows anymore if you can’t deliver. If you’re willing to sell your integrity as an organizer (who ideally should have protected the audience’s right to enjoy the performance without disruption as well as provided the performers the respect that they deserve) in order to keep your dining customers happy, then remain as a restaurant. Otherwise, have the courage to enforce rules by turning customers away if they’re not there for the show.

This whole thing about the “Malaysia Boleh” (Malaysia Can) mentality is not about how many things you can do, but by the things that you can do well.

Live an extraordinary life

As a child, I was a bit of a dreamer. Unlike most girls, I didn’t dream of meeting my knight in shiny armour. Nor did I dream about my wedding day. What I dreamed of was to become an extraordinary person. You know, not just the Ah Moi from Klang or, with a bit of embellishment, the girl who becomes a millionaire by the age of 30.

No siree! I wanted to be as extraordinary as a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate or a space traveller. (Well, being a millionaire at the age of 30 is something extraordinary except earning an indecent amount of money is almost everybody’s dream!)

As an adult, it’s obvious that those dreams were wishful thinking. Instead of becoming a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, I became a humanitarian worker and although I didn’t get to travel in space, I did become a globe trotter. Perhaps as I mature and become wiser, I realise that I don’t have to be an extraordinary person to live an extraordinary life.

Five years ago, I met a guy in Kabul. He was the kind of guy many women would not have considered as potential husband material (that if you know what kind of life he led before). Basically, his background and upbringing were so disturbing that most potential in-laws would have disapproved of the union immediately.

This guy had lived such a harsh and traumatic life that under normal circumstances, one would assume that it would have rendered him a sociopath. Coming from a dysfunctional family, he finished his education early and became a drug addict. There were long periods of time when he wandered aimlessly, slept on cardboards on footpaths and sold drugs to buy drugs. This went on for a while until one day he decided that he didn’t want to live such a life anymore.

He got himself cleaned up, performed menial jobs and established meaningful relationships with others. Yet something was still missing. The jobs he was doing didn’t quite earn him the kind of life he craved for. He longed to do something much more meaningful and adventurous.

Perhaps it was fate that he managed to get a volunteering position with a humanitarian organisation. Impressed with his determination and commitment to serve, the same organisation recruited him as a full-time staff. His life began to change dramatically as his jobs took him to Croatia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Turkey, Chad, Pakistan and finally Afghanistan where I met him. Later on, we would travel together to Ethiopia and Cambodia as he continues his work with an international humanitarian organisation.

There are probably many other such examples where ordinary people decide to leave their comfort zone in search of something extraordinary but there are many more who are content with a 9-to-5 office job and a weekend of fine dining and home movies.

By now, you’re probably thinking that I’m being condescending since not many people get to do the kind of jobs that provide the opportunity for adventurous living. Well, here’s the thing. You don’t have to manoeuvre a beat-up four-wheel-drive across 215km of unpaved rocky road from Dili to Los Palos to get food and office supply, or to be stuck at the Shatu pass on top of the cold mountains of Central Highlands in Afghanistan, to live an extraordinary life. (But if you have to, it’s up to you to make it happen. These jobs didn’t just land on our feet. We searched for it.)

I’ve encountered a few people who have done pretty extraordinary things with their lives. I have a friend who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years ago but went on to become a wonderful mother. She’s now going back to work with the Justice Department in her country. She wrote to me recently that she might even travel to The Hague for her new position with the war crime division. In her email, she wrote: “It’s all very exciting but scary at the same time!” I could not be more thrilled for her as I read her email.

I know one woman who decided to break away from an abusive marriage and subsequently become a successful photographer. She’s now taking great portraits of famous personalities for Reuters. Another friend of mine decided to give up her job to become a full-time mother and now plans to impart her breastfeeding skills as a lactating counsellor. According to her, she has heard countless of discouraging testimonies by new mothers who find breastfeeding a huge challenge. Since she feels strongly about the benefit of breast milk, she wants to help nursing mothers ease into the routine of providing their babies with the best nutrition.

I have a friend who is training to become a cardiac surgeon but challenges herself physically and mentally by doing outdoor mountain climbing. Her photos taken at the peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro, Chamonix and Huayna Potosi are just astounding and no less a mighty feat. Back in secondary school, she was known as the girl with brains and we were always the last few who arrived at the finish line during our annual cross-country challenge.

Then, there are many other inspiring stories where lawyers try to do more than just conveyancing by engaging in human rights advocacy work. Writers who are doing volunteer work for children’s rights organisations or simply teaching at orphanages. Another person I am in complete awe with is a working single mother who attends book reading, writes plays and shows great interest and in-depth knowledge of socio-political issues.

Whether you’re doing something extraordinary for your personal satisfaction or to help others, it’s all about engaging something else that is out of your otherwise mundane and routine life. It’s about embracing meaningful challenges by leaving your own comfort zone.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were dining with a couple of friends here. Very often, our work in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Cambodia becomes a topic of conversation. The only problem is, these conversations don’t last for too long.

We’re often asked what motivates us to do humanitarian work in countries that offer nothing much except bombs, children with distended bellies and depressing stories of Pol Pot’s regime. Our usual answers are, “We like the adventure”, and this is often greeted by uncomfortable silence.

Many people expect us to tell them that we want to make a difference or to save the world. The truth is, if we’re really that altruistic, we don’t have to travel that far to help people. Suffering is everywhere and it’s just outside our doorstep if we care enough to open our eyes. So, basically, we wanted to see the world and at the same time do something meaningful.

While I no longer want to be an extraordinary person, I hope to live an extraordinary life. A wise person once said, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination and my experiences have confirmed that he is wise indeed.

For the next subsequent posts, I will try to share some of the extraordinary experiences I’ve encountered during my travels. But for now, I would like you to share yours.

This article was posted here at The Malaysian insider on 19 September 2009.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Our past

Lately, through some miraculous intervention, I’ve ran into a couple of old friends whom I haven’t seen or got in touch with for a long time. When it happens once, you think it’s a coincidence. Twice, it’s purely luck. Thrice, surely someone (or if you’re religious, God) is trying to send you a message.

Since I grew up in Klang, most of my old school mates are from there. It’s not a big town and I often go back to visit my parents who still live there. As for Kuala Lumpur, it’s much bigger in terms of size and population but still, majority of the people seem to hang out at the same spot; shopping malls and popular cafes. Yet, I hardly bump into anyone for the past few years.

Never mind the fact that I travel a lot because emails and social network services have allowed long lost friends to reconnect easily across the globe. Yet, I hardly receive any email or friend request from my childhood friends.

Since I returned to Malaysia slightly more than a month ago, I’ve somehow reconnected with some old friends whom I never thought I would see again. The weirdest thing was, it wasn’t planned at all, except for one who reappeared suddenly after seven years through Facebook.

In one occasion, it had been rather spontaneous and turned out to be enjoyable. Another was just plain awkward and slightly uncomfortable because I couldn’t remember her name. The most recent one, which happened today, was a real shocker which serves as a wake-up call or rather a huge slap in the face.

Today’s gathering was something extraordinary. An old friend brought some of us together after more than fifteen years. He was known as a funny, warm, charming, cheerful and handsome guy. The thing is, when age has finally caught up with you, there are many things which you tend to forget, especially in my case since I have a very bad memory.

But I do remember that he was funny and easy going. I also remember that he had a unique long name which was somehow related to one of the X-Files main characters (and I was right!). Finally, I also remember that the last time I heard about him, he was flying all over the world as an air steward. Come to think about it, he was the perfect guy for the job; cheerful disposition, charming and pleasant. OK, OK, he was cute too.

So anyway, I was glad that because of him, I was reminded of my past, something which I have forgotten and was too busy to remember. The sad thing is, I am not able to thank him for this.

Today’s gathering was to pay him our last respect as he passed away unexpectedly. May he rest in peace.

Although we haven’t been in touch for over fifteen years, I felt an uncomfortable sensation upon learning this sad news. I felt guilty for not knowing him better even though his name was brought up occasionally when some of us do meet up. I felt shameful that it takes the loss of a precious life in order for many of us to see each other again.

When I was going out with my husband before we got married, I was often consumed with jealousy whenever I knew that he was still in touch with his ex’es. He told me this: “Even though we’re (his ex’es and him) not together anymore, she was part of my life, part of who I am. The memory we had together will always remain in my mind.”

I’ve learned from him that no matter what happened, we should be thankful for the people who have touched our lives and whether we like it or not, nothing can erase that away. It’s part of your past and who you are.

I guess I’m writing this because I’m being reminded that it’s not often when good people enter your life. When they do, treasure it before it’s too late. These group of friends today were part of a crucial phase of my life. It was a phase of untainted innocence and idealism which unfortunately diminish with time. It was a phase of growing up and slowly learning the harsh reality of life and yet, privileged to be able to look back and laugh ourselves silly at what happened during that period of our youth together.

These are the friends whom I am honoured to have shared an exclusive experience together.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

You can take your heart away from home but you can’t take home away from your heart

I’ve recently started a column with The Malaysian Insider which appears every fortnightly on Sunday. This is the second article which is accessible here under a different title (Find heart in your home, you’ll have home in your heart) or just read below.

There is a beautiful song by Ilir Shaqiri, a Kosovar Albanian singer, that captures the immense joy and comfort of finding home in a foreign land better than any other songs I’ve known. (You can listen to it here)

I first heard of this song in Timor Leste when I was working with the United Nations back in 2002. One of my Kosovar friends had played it and despite not understanding a word of Albanian, I fell in love with the moving ballad, Shaqiri’s warm voice and the exotic sound of the Latin-Slavic language.

Naturally, I was curious to know the meaning. With my friend’s help, I discovered that the lyrics were even lovelier than the song itself.

It tells a moving tale of a Kosovar Albanian who travels to Istanbul on a business trip. During the trip, he enters a poçari shop (poçari means a clay vase seller in Albanian) and asks to see the best vase available. While inspecting the vase, it accidentally slips away from his hands and breaks into twenty-five pieces, much to his mortification.

The poçari goes berserk and starts to swear in Turkish. Offended by the poçari’s unnecessary insults, he swears back in Albanian. Expecting the poçari to put up a fight, he sees tears welling up in his eyes instead.

“Is this Turk, this Muslim going crazy? I swore at him and he’s hugging me,” he wonders.

The poçari reaches for another vase and hands it over to him and says pleadingly, “Swear on me again, please. I am also Albanian. Brother, swear on me in Albanian again. Albanian words cannot be bought here in the bazaar.”

Alarmed by this, the other customers run out from the shop. When the poçari and him are finally alone, the vases come crushing down and shake the Sea of Marmara.

According to my friend, there are many ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, Albania and Bosnia who were forced to escape to Turkey during the first and second world wars as well as the series of wars that erupted in former Yugoslavia during most of 1990s.

The Serbian government was determined to exterminate the “Turks”, a term given to ethnic Albanians who are predominantly Muslims, in reference to the spread of Islam by the Ottoman empire in the Balkans. An estimated 250,000 to 300,000 ethnic Albanians were driven out from their homes to Turkey between the first and second world wars and 250,000 more after the second world war. An estimated 2,000 (I was told 20,000) ethnic Albanians were killed in Kosovo under Slobodan Milosevic’s leadership.

It’s no wonder that the poçari is moved to tears when he hears his mother tongue uttered for the first time after a presumably long and painful period of exile, despite its ill-intention.

Five years ago, I was in Dubai during a transit from Kabul to Kuala Lumpur. I only had time to check into a hotel and leave the next day on an early morning flight. Feeling bored, I decided to check out the hotel’s boutique shops.

An interesting shop selling Middle-Eastern paraphernalia sparked my interest. I wanted to buy one of those make-your-own bracelets with intricate carvings on silver alphabet cubes as a gift for someone. The problem was, each cube would set me back quite a lot and the person doesn’t exactly have a short name.

“Do you give discounts for these if I buy more than five pieces?” I asked in true Malaysian fashion despite the shop owner’s sombre expression. He didn’t look like he was going to entertain my attempt to haggle.

“Where are these from?” I persisted in an attempt to break the silence and hopefully, during the process, he might soften.

“Iran,” he answered rather grudgingly. By then, he probably assumed that I was not worth his time since I appeared to be a cheap-skate.

“Are you from Iran?” I persevered. He nodded his head.

I smiled and said, “Chetor Hasti? (How are you?)” perhaps a tad too enthusiastically. I was feeling smug that I could converse in basic Farsi, a similar language to Dari, one of Afghanistan’s official languages.

Unexpectedly, the Iranian man broke into a huge smile. I could literally see the muscle on his cheeks relaxed and his initial hostility disappeared altogether.

He replied cheerfully, “Khoob Hastam, khoob Hastam (I’m fine, I’m fine).”

He was curious with my rudimentary knowledge of the language and I obtained his further approval once I explained that I worked in Afghanistan.

“You take this. Gratis. It’s gift from me,” he urged. It was impossible to refuse him as he pried open my hand and pushed the bracelet firmly onto my palm. I decided to accept his well-meaning gift graciously for I understood that by refusing him, it would insult his generosity and kindness.

“Tashakor (thank you),” I said to him with a polite head bow and my right arm folded across my chest. He laughed good-naturedly and replied, “In Farsi, we say ‘merci’.”

I am constantly amazed by our desperate need to identify ourselves with something familiar and it reminded me of the time that I had spent in Wales as a law student. We had a large Malaysian student community and I have never felt more Malaysian since then.

The issue of racial differences never came into question despite the Chinese and Indians being highly outnumbered. If anything, we all embraced and magnified the differences by flaunting them in cultural events.

Since we didn’t have sufficient Chinese and Indian Malaysians, the Malay students had to participate in Chinese and Indian dances. They never complained but were eager to partake in the cultural exchanges. We even had friends from Britain, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, India and Pakistan who volunteered to get involved.

Our spirit of solidarity and unity attracted them and that made us true ambassadors. We were in a foreign territory and hence, there was no issue of whose soil it belongs to. Life as a Malaysian was simple and unambiguous.

Malaysia is not just a country for many of us, it’s home and the experiences I had from living abroad teaches me the horror of ethnic intolerance and how precious it is to be free in your homeland.

I received unverified information that in a seminar conducted by Tun Mahathir, he had said that the only way for Malaysians to be united is if everyone were to become Muslims. I snorted and thought about the sectarian fights between Muslim brothers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Here’s what I think. Unity can be achieved in three ways. First, for those people who call the minorities as pendatang to be sent off to a foreign land where they are subjected to discrimination and restrained from practising their faith. Hopefully, they’ll understand how it feels like to be unwelcomed.

Second, for all of us to become minorities in a foreign land because then, we will not be Malays, Chinese or Indians, but simply Malaysians. Third, nobody has to leave home but, we have to start treating each other as Malaysians.

The poçari and Iranian man taught us an important lesson. Home has nothing to do with religion or ethnicity. It’s a place where your heart belongs to.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Malaysians drive me crazy!

I had an epiphany today. I am more convinced each day that one of the best ways to judge a population’s mentality is through the way they drive. Mind you, I’m not a good driver myself as some people would testify but I believe I respect traffic rules, I don’t pay bribes and I try to be courteous on the road.

Malaysian drivers, particularly those around Selangor and Kuala Lumpur (I can’t say much for the rest since I don’t live outside of these two regions) are known for these:

1) Double-parking;

2) Driving out of the designated lane;

3) Driving on emergency lanes;

4) Ignoring red lights;

5) Reluctant to give way to pedestrians or other cars and worst of all, ambulances;

6) Driving on the wrong lane;

7) Impatient - they will terrorize you into giving up a parking space just because they don’t have the patience to wait for you to park;

8) Jumping queue at the traffic light;

9) No common sense or rather the sensitivity to move their car just a few inches forward so that the car behind can past through to make a turning;

10) Hogging a parking space which could easily fit one more car;

12) Stopping on a yellow box;

13) Dumping their cars on no-parking zones;

14) Blaming others for their own mistakes.

All in all, their driving habits indicate their self-centred, stubborn and ignorant attitude. Basically, the I-am-the-only-one-driving-on-the-road-and-there’s-no-one-else-so-I-don’t-give-a-fuck mentality.

Lately, I’ve noticed another trait and it’s even more disturbing. It’s the flocking-like-a-herd-of-sheep mentality. Most drivers don’t use their brains to form sound judgment. Instead, they tend to follow the drivers in front blindly and hence, causing a massive traffic jam unnecessarily.

I was waiting at a traffic light junction, the huge crossroads that split into the directions of Kuala Lumpur-Bangsar South-Klang-Bangsar. I noticed how all the cars were sticking to the two lanes on the right that lead to Bangsar South and Klang when it’s actually a 4-lane road. Nobody thought about moving to the left lanes.This has happened at other traffic junctions too simply because most drivers think that it’s best to stay on the right when you’re going to turn right (although it’s a 2-lane road which allows both to turn to the right).

In the end, who is to blame? We continue to think and behave like idiots because our law enforcement officers allow us to. All they care about is taking bribes because their superiors are too busy looking out for their own interest than paying them a decent salary.

If you want to understand how Malaysians are, just drive around the city.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A story for Merdeka Day

Malaysian flag 

I wrote this short fiction awhile ago. It was my vision of Malaysia and thought it might be appropriate for today as we celebrate the 52nd anniversary of our Independence Day. Although many incidents had happened in the past few weeks that had hurt some members of our communities, I am still hopeful that things will change for the better.

This is for all Malaysian who wants to see a OneMalaysians rather than OneMalaysia.

*************************************************************************************************************************

`Malaysia BOLEH Cari Makan’ hosted by PPP a.k.a Puthu Piring Pandan

As a child, Muthusamy son of Doraisamy had many dreams. He dreamed that one day he would no longer be ridiculed for his name, the colour of his skin, the innate tilting motion of his head from side to side and accent when he speaks, his likes and dislikes. When he became an adult, he would only have one dream and that would be for the day when his parents would finally stop nagging him about how he would never become a successful man (and by successful, they meant a doctor, lawyer or engineer, which according to them were the holy trinity of all professions).

And so, Muthu developed the only friendship he ever had with a boy named Salim bin Abu Bakar, who one might say, is the only person who truly understands him.

The last time Salim saw Muthu was five years ago. Muthu was unashamedly dressed in an ill-fitting white V-neck t-shirt, which bore three identical fluorescent orange letters that seemed to scream out PPP! Both sleeves had been cut out at the shoulders exposing faded-looking indigenous patterned tattoos on his meaty biceps. The fake tattoos were courtesy of a recent trip he made to Sarawak. The XL sized t-shirt did nothing to conceal his protruding belly, a proud gift from two years of fine dining, according to Muthu’s own standard.

The sight of Muthu’s thick, coarse and curly hair, peeking obscenely at his chest level would have been an eyesore to any self-respecting men and prudish-upbringing women. But instead of repulsive looks being thrown at him, he received gazes of immense respect and awe by those within the parameter of his imposing figure.

That was the Muthu whom Salim knew for more than twenty years before he packed his bags abruptly and relocated his whole family to London. What was initially a two-year work stint turned into five when Salim’s wife became pregnant with their second child. This had all contributed to his extended sojourn in a foreign land.

Salim remembered his parting words to Muthu over their usual late night roti canai and teh tarik at Lingam’s Corner in Taman Tun Dr. Ismail. “I hope PPP finds what he’s looking for,” to which Muthu responded with a shrug and a goofy smile.

To Salim, Muthu was a decent enough kind of guy. The kind who would not go through arm’s length to help someone but neither would he harbour malicious thoughts against another. It wasn’t so much as he had no malice in his soul, he just couldn’t be bothered. Muthu was the kind of guy who wouldn’t necessarily devote himself to charitable work but would help a blind person cross a street, only because he thought it was the right thing to do and no one would find out about this as he was also the sort who would never advertise what others would consider as benevolence.

There was nothing really special about Muthu in terms of being a student. He didn’t excel in anything in school, he was the average kind of student who sat quietly in class, did his homework satisfactorily and would never bother to disturb the girls. In fact, come to think about it, Salim had never seen Muthu expressing any interest in girls when the rest of the boys would put on either their best or worst behaviour just to get their attention. Muthu did not have much opinion about anything even to the point of avoiding any potential need to express an opinion. So, Muthu was a complete misfit in that sense, much to the annoyance of those who were unable to figure him out.

Once, Salim with a group of boys gathered in an otherwise empty classroom during recess time to chat about whom they thought was the prettiest girl in class.

Oohhh…no way, man. No-lah, I tell you, I think nobody can beat Carol. She looks shy only but I’m sure she would like to be kissed,” Ti Chong said with a bit too much gusto as he puckered up his lips and like a freak gold fish that squeals like a rat, released a shrill and obscene kissing sound, those often made by sociopathic boys on the street to gain the attention of virginal-looking maidens in flower patterned head veils.

Oi, Chong! We’re talking about who’s the prettiest-lah. Not who’s the sluttiest. Aiyoh….this guy damn hamsap, man!” Salleh pretended to chastise them as soon as he caught the disgusted but curious glances of two Chinese girls with identical haircuts, brown hairclips and brand new turquoise pinafores, presumably Form Three girls whose parents decided that they should start to learn Bahasa Malaysia properly if they were to qualify for Form Six.

Ti Chong turned to look at Muthu and asked, “Eh Muthu Keling! What you think, huh? Carol pretty or not?” If Muthu’s skin was several shades fairer, he wouldn’t have been able to disguise his embarassment and discomfort, being confronted with a question like that. Instead, he barely answered Ti Chong, stood up and left the room looking neither perturbed nor interested in the outcome of the ensuing discussion. His departure was followed by a cacophony of Muthu Keling is a pondan, Muthu Keling likes boy, Muthu Keling is this and Muthu Keling is that. Salim never thought that for someone who was as unremarkable as Muthu could be so many nasty things at one time but still, he kept his mouth shut. Like Muthu, he preferred not to voice an opinion in such situation.

Salim never ceased to be amazed by how Muthu tolerated all those childish indiscretion committed by their fellow classmates. Being labelled with a double derogatory names like keling and pondan must be no doubt damaging to one’s self-esteem but surprisingly, Muthu never allowed any of it to disparage him and in fact, he just couldn’t be bothered like the many other things in his life. That might have been the reason why Salim became close to Muthu, not for the latter’s indifference but self-preservation instead.

To say that Muthu was completely devoid of any interest in life was untrue for he did have a passion for one thing. While the other boys longed for extended sessions of Physical Exercise so that they could kick-ball instead of pretending to know-all, Muthu secretly wished that he could join the Home Economics class and for the rest of his teenage years, he would also secretly continue to curse the education system’s discrimination against his gender.

Whatever the other boys knew about football, computer games and comic books, Muthu replaced them with his then rudimentary knowledge of food, cooking TV programmes and recipe books. Maradona was who all the other boys aspired to be, but for Muthu, Chef Wan was his idol. When the boys discussed about how the amazing Spider-Man rescued Mary Jane from the evil clutches of the Hobgoblin, Muthu mentally visualized Chef Wan pouring coconut cream on sago pudding.

During recess time, when all the students jumped up from their seats to thank their teachers in unison and rushed off to the canteen to beat the queue, Muthu would bring out his often two but sometimes three-tiered stainless steel tiffin filled with all sorts of tantalizing scent of cardamom, cloves, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric and the occasional pungent and fishy smell of fried ikan bilis. The symphony of smell was enough to make anyone within two feet salivated and cursed Muthu for having a mother who chose to prepare intricate lunch boxes over gossiping with their next door neighbours while collecting the early morning newspaper.

Although most kids tried to disguise their jealousy by making a mockery out of this, “So what time Mummy had to wake up this morning to pack your stylo-mylo lunch box, huh? Muthu Keling? Or did you cook them yourself? You pondan, mah?” Muthu ignored them and Salim had to admit that Muthu’s nonchalance was a shrewd tactic because at the end of the day, who were the losers? The rest of them who had to settle for the unpalatable and often inedible stale karipap and cucur udang at the school canteen or Muthu who savoured the mouth-watering and wholesome sustenance of Mrs. Doraisamy’s expression of love for her only child?

Salim believes that this quest of Muthu’s is perhaps the main thing which has connected them for all the time that he was away. It is that “constant” in their friendship. They may have grown apart in many ways, but there have been many times when Salim wonders about Muthu’s unfulfilled dream. You see, Muthu had a certain innocuous obsession which many found peculiar, but that was just being Muthu and nobody could understand that but Salim.

For all the time that Salim has known Muthu, he had never once seen him eating anything else but Malaysian food. Forget about treating him to a succulent piece of chargrilled rib-eye steak in an expensive restaurant because he would insist that he was “just-not-so” into Western cuisine. (His “just-not-so” was a complete understatement because Muthu would never contemplate shoving anything that wasn’t laksa, char kuey teow, nasi lemak, roti canai, rojak or anything un-Malaysian, as he would always call it with an added hint of scorn, down his throat.)

Muthu also firmly believed that whatever is expensive does not necessarily translate to being good and therefore, Malaysian cuisine makes perfectly great food in terms of value for money. Muthu did however, make the exception for what he would call “MM” short for Malaysian Mongrel food in reference to the gastronomic fusion of local flavours and those from other countries in Asia, savoured by all Malaysians.

Muthu eventually began to receive less and less invitation to dine. His refusal to flirt with un-Malaysian food was met with much consternation by others. Their friends decided that they could no longer tolerate or accommodate his irrational prejudice. According to them, Muthu was even worse than a Malay. His self-imposed dietary prohibition wasn’t targeted at pork alone but also anything else short of the standard Malaysian appetite for chillies, belacan, Indian spices, coconut cream and pandan-flavoured sweets. At least in Malaysia, Malays like Salim still enjoy halal McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut.

As for Salim, Muthu remained as a faithful dining companion because he would always make an effort to choose Western-Asian restaurants that are widely available in Kuala Lumpur to accommodate Muthu and his own occasional cravings for lamb shanks and T-bone steaks. They had spent a significant amount of time travelling around the country filling their stomachs with local fares and one must admit that the choices of Malaysian food is truly abundant, if not endless.

Salim’s friends often wondered how he, as a Muslim, was able to cope with Muthu’s demand for authentic local food. Even as a child, Salim remembers how his own family had subjected him to a lot of grief when it came to eating food which was prepared using “unclean” utensils. When he was invited for lunch at Muthu’s house, his father would go on a long lecture on how his son’s iman would be tainted should the latter partake in any food prepared by those who did not share the same faith. No matter how hard he argued, his father insisted that Glo dish washing liquid would not cleanse what was already spiritually impure to begin with.

In order to appease both father and son, Puan Rokiah would pack her son’s lunch in plastic Tupperware with a pair of metal spoon and fork for safe measure. While it seemed like a fair compromise, Salim could not imagine the humiliation he would cause the Doraisamy household if he were to refuse their food and adding salt to injury, brought out his own lunch boxes. It would be like telling Muthu right to his face that although he accepted his kind invitation, he wouldn’t want to risk having diarrhoea from Mrs. Doraisamy’s cooking.

So, Salim never told his parents how he emptied the content of his lunch box after he had his fill of chapati, dhal curry, aloo gobi and resam, at the back alley of Muthu’s house much to the local stray cats’ delight. In a triumphant note, he would later announce to his father that he didn’t even allow Mrs. Doraisamy to clean the Tupperware but Puan Rokiah would always wonder why the cutleries had remained spotless.

Muthu once asked Salim whether he had ever wondered how pork taste like over a conversation on a recent scandal about some restaurants being shut down on suspicions of operating under the falsification of halal licensing in Ulu Bernam.

“Well, does it taste like beef bacon and turkey ham?” Muthu burst out laughing and while wiping the tears that had begun to trickle down from the corners of his eyes, he said, “Let me ask you something, Salim. Do you think that those char siew made from tofu tastes anything like the real thing?”

Salim stared at Muthu incredulously, expecting him to realise that he wouldn’t know since he has never tasted barbecued pork before.

“I-say-man, how would you know?” Muthu said with a chuckle upon the realization of his own folly and then paused to ponder for awhile. He creased his nose several times the same way he always did in school when cornered into answering questions in class, which probably explained those permanent horizontal lines imprinted on the bridge of his nose. For anyone who didn’t know him better, they would have thought that Muthu spent all his childhood making offensive piggy faces at other children and as punishment, will always wear this facial flaw on him.

“Hmm…ok, ok. Like this,” Muthu said. “Do you think that vegetarian rendang taste anything like your mother’s rendang?” Salim looked at him, thought for awhile and realised that he has never tasted vegetarian rendang either, but he got Muthu’s point and so he shook his head.

“Same thing, brother. All this beef bacon nonsense, you cannot compare with real bacon! They are even worse than MM, I tell you. They are what I would call CDPC, Cows-Dressed in-Pigs’-Clothing!” Muthu declared scornfully and then laughed at his own joke. Salim would have laughed too if he wasn’t alarmed by his friend’s ridicule and low impression of halal pork.

“No need to look so worried-lah, Salim. I know you’re a Muslim and I respect your religion and the way you stick to it,” Muthu said. “I think nobody can understand this better than me. What difference does it make that you don’t eat pork and me with all this rubbish Mat Salleh food? You respect my taste, I respect yours. Simple as that!”

Comforted by his statement, Salim seized the opportunity to ask Muthu what he had against non-Malaysian food. “Salim, I’m a keling, as some people like to call me but I don’t know anything about India and being an Indian. And I’ll tell you straight, brother. I-don’t-care. I am Malaysian. But you see-huh, you and I are different.”

Salim retorted, “What do you mean by we are different?” slightly worried that Muthu would embark in a debate about how racist he thought the Malays were.

“Relak-lah, brother. What I’m saying is, you have an established identity already and me? I’m still finding mine. I find that food seems to unite us all Malaysians. It’s enough that we have the chinese, malays, indians, mamaks, chindians, nyonya and babas and all this not including what we have in Sabah and Sarawak. Right or not?” Salim nodded his head in agreement.

“I tell you, who needs these blardy Italians, French, Japanese and all the other rubbish to compensate for our already rich flavour,” Muthu continued. “You go to a mamak stall at 2 o’clock in the morning and what you see, huh? Tell me what you see, Salim.”

Without waiting for Salim’s reply, Muthu went on with his merdeka speech. “You see all these flers. Kopi susu-lah, horlicks-lah, kopi-o, whatever-lah! enjoying roti canai and teh tarik. To me, that is what Malaysia stands for. I don’t care about the politics, racial sentiments and all the other nonsense. But food, ahhhh….that is different altogether!” Muthu paused for a split second to catch his breath before he continued, “And that, Salim, is the identity I am proud of and will defend to my death. Right or not?”

Salim swore that if their founding father, Tunku Abdul Rahman was still alive, he would have adopted Muthu straight away and if they were both twenty years younger, they would have been selected by Petronas for this conversation to appear in one of those touching once-a-year Yasmin Ahmad National Day advertisements on Astro channels. Ti Chong however, would have to be included for best measure.

Salim had to confess that the conversation reinforced their understanding for each other. If anything, before they were like new lovebirds about to enter into one of those steady relationship conundrums where both are unsure if it’s still too early to ask how many babies they like to have once they are married. If you ask too soon, it might give the other the impression that you’re already planning in advance for a lifetime together and the next thing you know, the phone calls stop and you curse yourself for taking that leap pre-maturely and not to mention unilaterally. Often than not, you are simply too afraid to hear anything which might disappoint you. However, if you don’t ask, you might end up wasting your life committing to someone who doesn’t share the same ideals.

While being completely aware of their differences in cultural and religious upbringing, neither Salim nor Muthu had the courage before to speak about their fears and what could have unwillingly jeopardized the friendship they have.

Soon enough, their food expeditions became a regular affair and what would have been previously off-limit, Muthu now took Salim to hawker stalls and night markets where both take-outs of non-halal and halal food were available within close proximity. Sometimes, Salim would queue with Muthu while the latter waited for his turn to take his order and in the beginning, Salim was uncomfortable with the curious stares of the Ah Kows and Thambys standing next in line. Their looks however, were not as hostile as the Ahmads and Tambichiks standing across the next stall waiting for their murtabaks.

There were many times when Salim was tempted to dispel their silent pre-conceived judgment of him by asking cheekily, “See only, mah. Cannot, meh?” but as time passed by, he managed to reason with himself that he hasn’t done anything against his religion. If anything, didn’t the Quran said that God has created them from the same male and female and given them distinct people and tribes so that they may recognize one another? What he did was simply recognizing Muthu’s “tribes”.

One of the things that Salim liked about eating with Muthu was the anticipation while waiting for their food to arrive. Ironically enough, Salim thought that Muthu, who had never given his time of the day to girls, would have been a great lover if he applied the same method of foreplay he used to describe food. Muthu had the ability to tantalize the thalamus and occipital lobe with his slow and yet attentive commentaries, often paying careful and yet enthusiastic attention to special details like the smell, taste and texture right down to the sound of the first bite. All this did nothing but contribute to slowly building up Salim’s appetite which gradually turned into an explosive crescendo of flavour when he finally sampled the food, which, to Muthu’s credit often turned out as good as his choice of words. To Salim, Muthu was the reincarnation of Martha Stewart meets Steve Irvine.

Once, they stood in a long queue at a char kuey teow stall in Lorong Selamat, Penang. Muthu, as excited as a kitten captivated by a moving object, chattered all the way through the queue about the benefits of frying the long thick strands of white translucent rice noodles with hot burning charcoal instead of a gas ignited flame. If he had a tail, it would have wagged at the speed of a hummingbird.

As if he, himself were the fisherman responsible for the prawns, he could not stop bragging about how big and succulent the prawns were compared to other stalls that often parsimoniously pinched on essential ingredients like prawns and deep fried pieces of pork lards. He also insisted that the cockles used in this particular stall were among the freshest judging from the bloody dark reddish brown liquid that seemed to hold them together in a huge plastic bucket, when accidentally shaken would cause the contents to tremble like cellulites on flabby arms. Salim imagined that the freshness could only be matched by its strong taste and smell of ferrum. According to Muthu, any vampire who took the pledge against cannibalism would be happy to find an alternative here.

One weekend, they managed to purchase one of those ridiculously cheap Air Asia flights to Sarawak. Salim was looking forward to visit the Santubong Fishing Village and the turtle sanctuary of Satang Island. Muthu of course had other plans for them. He insisted on going to the Annah Rais Longhouse Village to see what the Bidayuhs eat (in other words, he would like to actively partake in the eating process rather than just being a passive witness on the side). Salim might as well count his blessing just in case Muthu decided that turtle eggs were better used as food ingredient than to preserve the specie.

On their last day, Salim and Muthu spent the entire afternoon searching for the best Sarawak laksa in Satok. If Muthu had a choice, he would have brought a couple of them back with him to Kuala Lumpur. Unfortunately, he could not fashion a way to pack them securely without any risk of spilling the spicy and fragrant soup, something which would have been a disaster of an apocalyptic proportion to him.

One day about seven years ago, while Muthu was googling for more local places to eat, he came across a random comment made by someone in a food forum which unfortunately insulted him to an unimaginable proportion. If a computer can be programmed to carry out human bodily functions, it might as well spit on his face. As he sat there staring at those seven words, “Malaysia doesn’t really have a national food,” he was filled with tremendous despair, much more than the time when Mr. Doraisamy had declared to the whole world that he was a gundu-good-for-nothing son, the kind who had failed to live up to their parents’ dreams. Not only had he failed to secure any of the three sacred jobs considered worthy by his parents, he did not qualify for Form Six and hence, ended up as a salesman for a second-hand car dealership company.

Yes, yes…nowadays we cannot force our children to do anything. Unlike your son Rajen who is now a big shot doctor, our Muthu is a gundu-good-for-nothing-son,” Mr. Doraisamy sighed for a brief moment before he continued hastily,”We have given him everything but see what happened? During our time, it was different. Right or not? Where got their appapa give us everything? But we continue to work hard so that we can give them everything. Right or not?” Muthu overheard what his father said to some relatives who were visiting from England one night while he was untying his shoe laces outside the door.

“Aaahhh…but we always tell our Muthu. No space for Indians in Form Six never mind! Appa got enough money to send you to India to study but what did he say to us?!” Mr. Doraisamy lamented, followed by another sigh. That night, Muthu laid on his bed and like a remote control, he turned off the power switch to his brain and started dreaming.

But now, the sheer thought of how he had preserved his eating lifestyle and food culture at the expense of friendships and possibly a normal relationship with any women, often even more fanatical than a Taliban, was more than Muthu could swallow. He never once considered the fact that none of these local dishes actually represent all the ethnic races in Malaysia, and hence cannot really seek to claim the coveted title of national food.

In his moment of anguish, he realised that he had found his calling. He must try to invalidate that wretched random-whoever-it-was-who-until-now-did-not-exist-to-ruin-his-life’s opinion, at all cost.

Over the next few months, nobody knew what Muthu had up his sleeves but Salim knew something was amiss. Muthu’s sudden disappearance from his life created such a vacuum that he began to fill his mind with all sorts of sinister thoughts, especially when Muthu refused his invitation to a new Indian restaurant in Bangsar South. The fear of Muthu abandoning him in one of his eating sprees did come across Salim’s mind. Or worse, perhaps Muthu had found a new dining companion who wasn’t Malay but another thamby who could share thoughts over a glass of beer and bona fide bacon, not CDPC, an acronym he invented once as a disparagement.

After about three weeks, Muthu’s phone call never came. Instead, he had simply turned up at Salim’s front door looking like the cat that has swallowed a canary.

Muthu told Salim that by a stroke of good fortune and his persistent display of strong conviction, he managed to convince someone who knows someone at the Asian Food Channel to produce a food programme called Malaysia BOLEH Cari Makan, loosely translated as ‘Malaysia CAN look for food’ and it would be hosted by none other, but him. And so, Muthu Keling Pondan became Puthu Piring Pandan, a name picked deliberately as an overt extended-middle-finger to those who remembered him as the effeminate-dark-skinned-Indian.

The show helped transformed Muthu completely. From an unopinionated person, he suddenly became the most opinionated person on TV. Malaysia BOLEH Cari Makan was a catharsis for Muthu. Like an unwanted morsel of bread crust tossed away on the floor without as much of an afterthought and attracting thousands of ants in a matter of minutes, Muthu became an overnight icon, loved by many Malaysians, partly due to the “romantic” idea that finally an ethnic minority Indian had publicly expressed his love for his country by his own volition, even if it was through his stomach that had grown in proportion with his new found fame.

Malaysia BOLEH Cari Makan became known as a cook show with an ooommpphhh, generating a wide demographic range of local audiences. It owed much of its success to Muthu’s innovative approach based on the concept of audience participation. The producers might have been the ones to ensure the funding and execution of the show, Muthu was certainly the creative mind behind it.

In each episode, Muthu selected two local dishes to compete with each other. He would then visit different restaurants, food courts, hawker stalls and sometimes even catering companies all across Malaysia famed for the selected dishes. At the end, there would be two short low-budgeted but nevertheless witty music videos featuring the competing dishes and Malaysia would vote which of these dishes deserved to be crowned as the ultimate national food. The winning dish of each episode would then compete with each other to become Malaysia’s National Food in the final season.

Muthu tried his best to target different demographics by reserving the more conservative story lines to older generations and then something more edgy for the younger ones.

Once, he tried to propose a video clip in conjunction with Valentine’s Day which would have set off a precedent with its underlying sexually provocative tone. What would have been called the Venus de Mil’O-Chian video, featuring a woman climaxing to a song describing the aphrodisiac properties of the fried oyster omelette (incidentally, was also the competing dish) to the music of Barry White’s You’re the First, the Last, My Everything, didn’t make it to the TV screen. The show’s very own censorship adviser decided that the idea was too close to pornography for the ultra-conservative members of the public, which unfortunately, were also the majority of the population. It might as well didn’t make the cut because it would have been easy for the casting crew to find a large Indian man resembling Barry White to be featured alongside the woman, but nobody knew whether the man could have carried out the vocals as convincingly.

The personal downside of the show for Muthu was that during the course of his food tour, he learned a lot about the origins of his subject matter. And truth be told, he finally understood what that random-person-who-ruined-his-life-once-upon-a-time-ago meant.

Through the process of pork elimination, anything not halal can never be regarded as Malaysian. The Nyonya food which every Malaysian knows comes from a specific community called the peranakan is a mixed between the Chinese and Malays at the straits settlement or modern day Singapore, Malacca and Penang during the British colonial period . All those lovely roti tissue, roti pisang, Maggi mee goreng from the ubiquitous mamak stalls which have become an essential after-dark melting pot of local culture, can never be truly Malaysian for isn’t mamak essentially means Indian Muslims?

On the very night when Malaysia voted by a huge margin to declare nasi lemak as the national food over char kuey teow, he celebrated the end of the TV season by googling nasi lemak in the privacy of his home. The first search answer popped out as “a famous breakfast dish of Malay origin”.

That was the last news Salim has on Muthu’s career as PPP. And so, in the wink of an eye, half a decade has flown by and Salim is sitting at what is now one of PPP’s chains of restaurants expecting Muthu to walk in through the folded wooden-panelled door at any time. Sitting at the exact same spot five years later, Salim wonders whether Muthu will look and behave exactly the same, with his prosperous paunch and signature apathetic attitude towards most things in his life.

As Salim looks around him, he discovers that the crowd is much bigger than when it was Lingam’s Corner. He can’t help but stare at the waiters’ white t-shirts that have the same fluorescent orange letters, those three identical letters, no more and no less and yet it carries with it all the dreams and aspirations which can only be fully understood by its owner and himself.

When Salim sees an Indian waiter speaking to his Chinese colleague who is then interrupted by another Malay waiter, he soon realises that it isn’t just the name of the restaurant that has changed. Muthu has cleverly and not to mention successfully created a whole new concept of local food culture. This is a restaurant which has incorporated the elements and spirit of mamak stalls, Chinese kopitiam and Malay warung under one roof, serving all the main local food, loved best by Malaysians. Muthu had personally handpicked the ten winning dishes which made it to the final season of his show, with the addition of the puthu piring, preserved as its specialty in honour of the restaurant’s namesake.

Salim has read about PPP’s success on the Lonely Planet guidebook about Malaysia. Imprinted on the page, it says, “Although local restaurants can be found anywhere in Malaysia, to have an unforgettable gastronomic experience on all the three major culture in one sitting, one must absolutely make a stop at PPP in Kuala Lumpur. And if you’re lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of Malaysia’s most fascinating and beloved icon, Puthu Piring Pandan, the proud owner of this chain of restaurants which have created a storm across South East Asia, up to Hong Kong and even India.”

Salim feels a sudden rush of pride overcoming him. He would never have imagined the proportion of Muthu’s success within five years, especially knowing how Muthu was an unremarkable boy who was taunted mercilessly by his peers and being looked down by his own family.

As soon as he thinks he sees Mrs. Doraisamy beaming at the cash counter, he hears a round of loud cheer coming from the front of the restaurant. Salim tries to scan through the crowd of diners who have begun to stand up, blocking his view and chanting PPP, Hooray! PPP, Boleh!

Salim tries to get a good look at the smiling man who is responsible for all the ruckus, who by now is moving slowly through the crowd and as if expecting someone, he looks around the restaurant. Once the man sets his eyes on Salim, he rushes towards him.

It takes Salim about a split second to realise that the man is Muthu but what he hasn’t expected is that half of the Muthu he knew has somehow disappeared. Standing before him is a younger, thinner, happier and better looking man. If not for the goofy grin and those permanent lines on the bridge of his nose (even more visible now since Muthu’s complexion has cleared up considerably), Salim will never have guessed. Of course, the biggest give-away is still the thunderous applause generated by presumably loyal customers and tourists who come in every night hoping to catch a glimpse of him.

Salim leaps from his seat and as if he was a long lost twin, Muthu gives him a lingering bear hug. Muthu’s warm welcome and public display of affection by now has made him an object of public curiosity.

As soon as Muthu releases him, he pulls a step backward and with both arms on Salim’s shoulders, looks at him from head to toe, as if to check whether he is indeed the right twin. After a few seconds, satisfies with what he sees, he finally says, “It’s good to have you back, brother.”

Salim stands speechless while he tries to recover from the shock and amazement of how much Muthu has physically changed. He secretly wonders whether plastic surgery has anything to do with this sudden transformation and hopes that fame has not driven his friend to narcissism and anorexia.

Muthu ushers Salim back to his seat and then positions himself on the opposite side. Before he has a chance to say something, a pretty and yet familiar looking young Indian woman approaches him from the back and brushes herself against him. The familiarity in which she interacts with Muthu can only make anyone guess the relation between them.

“Ahhh….Carol. You remember Salim, right?” The woman, whose face has suddenly became apparent to Salim at the sound of her name, smiles bashfully and greets him while his gaping mouth does nothing to disguise his surprise. As if he’s being nudged by an invisible person sitting next to him, he quickly snaps out of his confusion and utters, “Of course, Carol! It’s been a long time. How long has it been? Ten years? Eleven? Or maybe twelve even……”

Salim doesn’t know what has possessed him but his sudden loquacious manner must have sent off various signals at all conceivable directions, mainly awkwardness which by then has triggered off some sort of a comedic effect because Muthu and Carol burst out laughing and exchange looks of exclusive accomplicity which has succeeded in making him annoyed and embarrassed both at the same time. They whisper to each other and then Carol says something which he can barely hear, proceeds to excuse herself and then walks to the cash counter.

It takes about one hour for Salim to catch up with Muthu before he finally returns to his old self, the one before the improved version of Muthu walks in followed by his no-need-to-improve version of girlfriend, whom incidentally was also the object of every thirteen and above boys’ desire.

Muthu tells Salim that he had to go on a strict Atkins diet for nearly nine months before he finally lost twenty kilos worth of nasi lemak, curry mee, roti canai and laksa, which Salim personally finds it insulting and honestly wishes that Muthu would rather admit to the fact that liposuction was really the secret. What Muthu does admit though is that once he looks the way he does, many women seem to throw themselves on him, not that they haven’t before. Previously, they would do it for his money and fame but now, at least they find him sexy and physically worthy.

Salim shakes his head and replies dejectedly, “But Muthu, I can’t believe that you’re happy with the fact that women want you for these qualities only? What happened to you, man? Where is that thamby I used to know, huh? The one who wouldn’t even take a second look at Carol and all the other women?”

Salim can’t help but feel slightly disappointed by how much Muthu has changed about his perception of life. The Muthu before wouldn’t care less about what others think of him but now, he has given up his one and only passion just to get the women. Suddenly, he has an uneasy feeling or rather fear that the fame and glory of PPP has finally resurrected the buried ego of Muthusamy son of Doraisamy’s past.

Muthu, unable to give him an answer, simply sighs and says, “Salim, I’ll tell you this. I am the happiest man on earth. There is nothing more I could ask for.”

“So, I suppose you have found “THE” answer, then?” Salim replies sarcastically.

Muthu perks up as soon as he hears Salim’s question. Ignoring the hint of sarcasm in his voice, he looks pleased with the fact that Salim still remembers.

He smiles and says, “Believe it or not, I have!” and then proceeds to catch the attention of a waiter serving at the next table. He asks the waiter for two cups of teh tarik, with special emphasis on the kurang manis or less sugar.

“So?” Salim asks with a bit too much vigour because it only prompts Muthu to toy with his impatience. Muthu signals him to wait until the orders arrive and then after taking a long sip of the hot but not boiling milky tea, Muthu clears his throat and unfolds the story which changed his life forever.

He tells Salim that one day, while he was shooting on location in Klang for an episode on bah-kut-teh, he came across a young Chinese boy, about nine or ten years old. The boy was obviously excited and intrigued with the whole camera crew shebang. What caught his attention about this particular boy was the fact that the little rascal would make cheeky faces at him whenever he started recording, whether in an attempt to make him laugh or angry, he would never know because it subsequently became insignificant.

During a five-minute break, he seized the boy and ushered him to a quiet corner. Initially, he had wanted to scare the boy into putting an end to all the shenanigans but for unknown reasons, he asked the boy in his limited Mandarin, picked up from watching years of dubbed South Korean soap operas, “Siao ti-ti, for you, what is Malaysian food?”

The boy was more alarmed by the question than Muthu’s funny accent. He started to scratch his head as he pondered over the question. Then, he looked at Muthu and with a huge smile, said, “Of course it’s my mom’s cooking!

And so, just like that Muthu finds his own identity as an Indian boy living in Malaysia. He is no longer haunted by the mocking and indiscretion he suffered as a child. He no longer needs to find a reason to seek the approval of others or accept himself as an ethnic minority group in Malaysia. He is borne and raised in Malaysia and hence, that makes him a Malaysian. Mr. and Mrs. Doraisamy are borne and raised in Malaysia and so, that makes them Malaysian as well. For him, it doesn’t really matter anymore whether there is an actual national food as long as it is being loved, cherished and shared by all the races in Malaysia.

There and then, Muthu stops searching but starts living. He tells himself, if Muthu Keling Pondan can become Puthu Piring Pandan, it can’t be all that bad.

THE END

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