Friday, January 23, 2009

What does it mean by being Malaysian?

Recently someone I knew through Facebook posted a note concerning a Race Relations Act proposed by the Malaysian government. According to this writer, there shouldn’t be a need for such an act as matters concerning racial harmony should be natural. For this I am in complete agreement.

The writer then went on to suggest that the best start is for Malaysian ethnic minorities (non-Bumiputeras), mainly the Chinese and Indians to start referring themselves as Malaysians. His thoughts were that these minorities fear that by regarding themselves as Malaysians, they are betraying their racial and cultural identities. He went on further by writing that learning and speaking the national language should not be a threat to their mother tongues. If they can get past this first barrier without any resentment, then it’s a huge step worthy of congratulations.

As a second generation Malaysian of Chinese descendant, I was a bit upset reading this. I felt that it has been unfair to put this “initiation” responsibility on the non-Bumiputeras only. In order to illustrate my point, I posted a comment on his post based on my own personal experience.

When I was fifteen years old, I did rather well for my PMR (lower secondary examination) and was second best student in my school. At that time, the local newspaper (The New Straits Times) decided to provide two awards for each school in the entire Klang Valley. The best student was another Chinese student. So, technically, we were both supposed to receive the awards but my school decided to give one to her and the other to a Malay student who came third.

I remember how my spirit was crushed and at that time, I didn’t really understand what was going on because I haven’t really grasp the whole concept of Bumiputera privilege. This goes to show how I had regarded myself as Malaysian and the fact that my parents had sent me to a public national school proved that they had wanted me to learn Bahasa Melayu together with all the other races. When I was growing up, I had never once heard my parents badmouthing the Malays or Indians, etc. So, I was not brainwashed into believing which race is superior and which not.

Then, I went on to explain how I had supported the Malaysian national badminton team during the Thomas Cup, being an avid badminton fan at that time. I would argue and fight with my father who were supporting the Chinese team (it didn’t mean that my father was influencing me in any way. It was his choice and that was it).

Mainly, my point was that we are not the only who should regard ourselves as Malaysians, but the Bumiputeras should as well.

Then, someone else responded to my comment by saying that I should be happy being second and the award was not important. I responded back by saying that the award wasn’t the main point. It is about fairness and equality. The person responded back by saying that there wasn’t any point for us (the Malays and the rest) to harp on this issue and we should just get along. I commented that I agree with his view but I was merely pointing out what I thought was a flaw in the writer’s post.

The funny thing is, nobody else added on to our comments. It was just between me (the Chinese girl) and him (a Malay guy).

So, these are just some opinions and sentiments expressed between a very small group of Malaysians. However, in reality, this is precisely what is happening here in Malaysia at a national level.

You have someone who made, what I consider as a one sided opinion, a Chinese who expressed an opposing opinion, another Malay who tried to “hush” or shove the main issue under the carpet by saying that we should all get along and finally the rest who just remain silent possibly for fear of incitement of racial hatred. This is the current state of Malaysia,

What I want to say is, I don’t support the Race Relations Act but at the same time, neither do I support the Sedition Act where Malaysians are being hushed up in order not to create any incitement to racial disharmony. The sad thing is, usually when a Malay proclaims the supremacy of its race, he/she gets away with it but if the Chinese or Indians fight to maintain their mother tongues in National Type Schools (where Chinese and Tamil languages are used in the medium of teaching), they are being seditious.

So in the end, who is more Malaysian? Someone who wants to see his/her nation progresses by living up to its duties to all Malaysians, or someone who tries to stick his/her head under the sand?

As long as all races are not being considered and treated as equal, do not expect all of them to feel as one.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Of childhood idealism

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(Picture above: Students at the Mittapheap Primary School)

Those of you who have watched the Pixar animation Ratatouille will remember the scene where food critic, Anton Ego, floated down memory lane as soon as he had his first bite of Remy’s special ratatouille. My trip to Kampong Chnang yesterday was precisely so, except it didn’t really remind me of anything I did when I was a child. It did much more than that. It allowed me to live part of my imagination when I was a child.

Most Malaysians my generation will remember popular local children’s tales based on characters such as Pak Pandir and Sang Kancil in primary school. These simple tales not only impart moral values and wisdom, it made the Malay kampong (village) life sounded charming and yet so foreign for many of us who live in bigger towns or cities.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I was asked in school to draw a house, for some reason, a wooden house on stilts was always a natural choice. Then, there would be visions of chickens running freely underneath the house, an orchard filled with bananas, rambutans and jackfruits by the side and not forgetting the glorious picture of a sun (it didn’t matter whether it was rising or setting but it just had to be in the picture) on the horizon. I don’t know why, but the Malay kampong life was so fascinating and exotic to me.

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Being in Kampong Chnang, I was awakened by all the forgotten senses I had as a child; mainly innocence and the simplicity of life. It was a little bit like that eccentric character of Beatrix Potter and her sketching of Peter Rabbit coming to life. The only difference was that the actual wooden houses I saw along my journey were a hundred times more magnificent than what I had imagined as a child. You could see that the local villagers live a modest life but at the same time, you can’t help but notice the careful and loving attention they gave to their houses. Their architecture may be traditionally Khmer but you can still see the French influence on the louver windows painted in navy blue.

The roofs are particularly beautiful. Unlike the common tin or thatched roofs you would normally associate with traditional Malay wooden houses, many are made from beautiful tiles giving them a striking resemblance to the roofs seen on Chinese Buddhist temples.

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There were very few cars and most people travelled by bicycles or bullock carts along the mostly narrow unpaved laterite soil. Many of them, sporting the ubiquitous kromar (see above), a versatile Cambodian scarf used for almost anything from being a turban to strapping babies on one’s body, were seen going about unassumingly with their daily lives. On our way, we saw several mosques, apparently funded by the Malaysian government, indicating the presence of ethnic Cham community. I was told that they speak Melayu and the similarity does not end there. They looked and dressed like the Malays. I never thought I would see someone wearing a baju kurung here.

We stopped by a warung (stall) to have what they called Cham kuey teow, which initially led me to believe that it was similar to our very own version of char kuey teow (fried thick and flat rice noodles) but I was wrong. It bore no resemblance whatsoever, even the noodles didn’t come close. Cham kuey teow is thin rice noodles served in steaming bowl of beef soup. The locals eat them with a squeeze of lime juice, a few dollops of chilli sauce and a shocking generous tablespoon of sugar heaped onto the middle of the noodles to allow it to seep slowly into the soup. For those who have never tried this, it may all sound a bit strange but for soup-lovers, you definitely want to taste it.

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I even came across a local fruit, referred to as Milk Fruit (see above), freshly plucked from the tree by a friendly and hospitable restaurateur. It looks like an orange-sized round aubergine when ripe but tastes and smells very much like young coconut; sweet and creamy. The texture is rather similar to a mangosteen. Overall, a delightful find.

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(Picture above showing our car being transported across a river to get to Kbal Koh Primary School)

Anyway, the purpose of my trip to Kampong Chnang was to assist the NGO which I am volunteering with, to do some monitoring activities for its school construction project. The NGO has constructed about 5 schools in Kampong Chnang last year. The schools are usually funded by individual donors and cost from USD17, 000 to USD50, 000 each depending on the number of classrooms and latrines.

It will take me another full article to describe my school visits but to cut a long story short, it was a humbling experience at the end of my journey. The juxtaposition of school conditions and the children’s appearances provided a huge contrast. While the schools look grand in comparison to its surrounding, many of the students still struggle to buy uniforms and stationeries. Most of the classrooms were bare, furnished with only a blackboard and handmade tables and chairs. Despite its lack of furnishing, the rooms were brightly decorated with works of students hanging on the wall and ceiling.

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Many of the students do not even have shoes (see above) and looked as if they have not had a shower for a long time. The children’s concern definitely didn’t involve who has the nicest shoes, bags or pencil cases when each pencil and notebook are cherished until the next rare supply comes along.

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There are not enough teachers in Cambodia to keep up with the increasing number of schools built by NGOs. I was told that most teachers are forced to teach two shifts a day and sometimes several classes simultaneously. On one hand, it is a delight to see a classroom brimming with students but on the other, the teachers are killing themselves trying to accommodate the increasing number of student enrolment each year due to more schools being made available in isolated communities. If the Cambodian government wants to reach its own Education For All goal by 2015, it should start to address this issue soon.

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(Pictures above: Students receiving new stationeries from the NGO)

I was then thinking about my own school days. We had a lot to be thankful for, the teachers included. When I thought about how we worried about not having the latest trendy school bags or shoes for the new school term, these children worry about how they would get to school safely during the flooding season. Students have been known to drown or strike by lightning while trying to cross rivers to get to their schools.

Teachers who lack motivation should be sent to these villages to experience how it feels like to teach under such trying circumstances. One teacher recounted the time when he had to row his boat for 5km just to get to school when the whole village was flooded. Another one remembers how she had to take care of four classes at a time when the only other teacher was on sick leave, with her baby strapped to her chest.

Yesterday was indeed a day unlike any other. I was filled with a lot of mixed emotions. When I saw the elation on the students’ faces and appreciation on the teachers’ eyes, I suddenly felt the kind of happiness which I had never felt before in my life while working, although I have not contributed to any of the school projects. Very often, with the kind of jobs I was doing, it is extremely rare to see tangible or direct results of someone else’s work. More than anything else, a lot of it had to do with people killing and torturing each other. Most of the time, my spirit was crushed by the atrocities of human beings. Yesterday it was something different and for a lack of a better word, nice.

Under the sweltering heat of the January sun, I was pulled by something which draws me to an unexpected and long forgotten sensation, to be a child and idealistic again. These are the things which I am continuously grateful for with the kind of life I lead and the work I do. Like the sun in my childhood drawings, I hope that such experiences will always be present in my life.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

“W”anity speaks “W”olumme

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I will be starting an 8-week training workshop on effective writing for all the staffs at this NGO I am volunteering for. The whole idea came about when the country representative feels that the staff’s writing and reporting skills need to be improved. Since I have done training before and have a law degree, she thought that I would be able to manage this task. I was happy to do it, although not without some apprehension of my own since the last time I carried out a training was probably four years ago.

I had my first introduction last Friday and for those who have been following my blog, you would know that my main concern was figuring out a way to control my urge to laugh impulsively when something tickles me. You will be happy to learn that I managed to stifle the giggles although there were potential moments which called for such threats. Perhaps, I was nervous, meeting most of the staffs for the first time and being given the centre stage. That helped a lot in suppressing my generous appetite for laughing.

Many people who know me would never assume that I am the shy type but I am. I think it’s mainly because I’m afraid of embarrassing myself and pay too much attention on what others think about me. So, I understand very well when I was told that I shouldn’t expect all the staffs to participate willingly during the workshop, for very similar reasons. As Asians, we have a strong dislike towards losing face. Sure, everyone doesn’t like to lose face but Asians do take it a notch higher.

Anyway, I tried to figure out a way to encourage the staffs to speak and tried to make them understand that there are worse repercussions than just losing face. I have learned this myself over the years and therefore, I am able to stand up today in front of a bunch of strangers and talk. I wanted to share that anecdote with them.

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When I was in secondary school, I forced myself to be a member of the debating team. Note the word “force” because every time it was my turn to speak, I would shit in my pants, figuratively of course. This wasn’t the worse part because the night before, I would literally sweat while tossing and turning in bed, picturing the scene which were to take place the next day. That was the extent of my glossophobia (fear of public speaking).

In college, I made the effort to join the Toastmaster International, again in an attempt to “cure” my phobia. It didn’t really help.

Then, came university. I used to have a problem pronouncing the letter “V”, as in I would pronounce it as “W” instead. So, I would say something like, “I am wying for a Wolwo or Wolskwagen”. I never really realise this problem until my two closest friends at that time pointed it out to me by laughing hysterically, in my face. It was embarrassing and annoying but instead of awoiding (oops! I mean, avoiding) using words that begin with “V”, I started practising hard and I am cured now (although it comes back and bites me occasionally but what the heck, at least I can pronounce my private part correctly whenever I want to).

Well, this taught me a lesson. I am thankful for these two friends who made fun of me mercilessly. If not for them, I would never know my own weakness as most people will be too polite to say anything.

So, now I tried to share this with my colleagues. We can try to use our distaste for losing face either to our advantage or disadvantage. You can either stay quiet and die of ignorance or you can learn to improve yourself so that you won’t be laughed at again.

As to how I have come to change myself, I have perhaps two persons to be grateful for; my trainer in Timor Leste who had taught me that training can be fun and filled with laughter and hence was also the person who helped develop my interest in using unconventional methods for adult learning.

The other person is myself. It may sound arrogant but in the end, it is really up to you to make that change because what people say about you being your own worst enemy, it is all true.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The 21st century slavery (Part VI)

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Dreams, aspirations and reality

I had an interesting discussion with some people recently about employment opportunities for the rehabilitated women. The issue was about whether an expat living in Cambodia would be willing to hire these women as nannies. This idea came about when I discovered that there is a high demand for nannies here among the expat community. In Phnom Penh, there is a high concentration of international NGOs and UN agencies and since it is a family accompanied mission area, many staffs bring their families along. When both parents work, it is common for them to hire a nanny to look after their children.

Unfortunately, there is very little supply for this since many expats require nannies to speak basic English. So, I thought there may be an opportunity there if these women are trained in this field. On top of that, I also thought that perhaps it might provide a good family environment for the women. One of the main concerns we have when assessing the types of marketable jobs for the women is to ensure that their work environment will not expose them to the risk of being trafficked or forced into prostitution. Jobs which require them to spend  huge amount of time in the street or male-dominated outlets are likely to present them with such threat, although not entirely so.

However, while keeping in mind that their interest and well-being are a priority, it doesn’t mean that the potential danger it might bring to others should not be considered. So, the debate was whether nanny is a suitable job for the women. Some of the comments I received were valid as well as an indication that the stigma attached to the women, regardless of whether they were forced into prostitution or not is very much present.

Most of the people I discussed with said that they would not be willing to hire these women as a nanny. The reasons were not solely based on the fact that they were sex workers but  also the psychological vulnerability of the women. Some expressed that the women may not be psychologically well enough to be entrusted with the responsibility of handling children. This is particularly a concern if they are HIV positive too. This is a valid point especially when it involves the well-being of a child. If a nanny agency were to be established for this purpose, then there must be sufficient policies and standards to ensure accountability.

There are a few who said that they would be willing to consider if the women were indeed being forced into prostitution and a strict screening process should be carried out to determine this. Then, there were some who raised the question of whether it is a legal or ethical requirement for the women to reveal their past. My thought on this was that if their past identity would become a basis for discrimination, then perhaps they are not legally bound by it.

Finally, there was one person who asked whether it is wise to limit the women to domestic jobs only because by virtue of that, we are narrowing down their options based on their education level. Perhaps we might want to encourage them to become more than just nannies, domestic helper, waitress, etc. After all we don’t really know what are the aspirations and dreams of these women. We might not expect them to be rocket scientist or doctors, but secretarial or managerial positions may be some of the options.

The truth is, judging from the cultural aspect and reality of the situation, it is not an easy task if we were to cater to each and every woman at the centre. There are presently more than 50 women being rehabilitated at the centre and we certainly would like to see the women achieve something which they can be proud of but at the same time, the more pressing issue to tackle, bearing in mind the limited resources available, is how to ensure that the women can earn some money while maintaining their dignity.

There are very few women who have seized the opportunity to hold professional jobs, mainly with AFESIP. Then, there are the majority who said that they would be happy with any jobs, as long as they get one. So, in the end, it is up to the women. If they desire to be something more and show the potential to achieve that, then the doors remain open to them.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The 21st century slavery (Part V)

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Starting all over again

Cambodian women are known to be one of the preferred choices of being a life partner for many foreigners. Their caring, selfless, gentle and hard working nature, make them desirable in this modern age when women are becoming more individualistic almost everywhere in this world. I’ve been told many times that Cambodian women takes the responsibility of feeding their family very seriously and this is perhaps one of the reasons why many of them are being sold as prostitutes.

As they often say, you can’t teach old dogs new tricks and this proverb applies to cultural upbringing too. Fortunately enough, as human beings, we are a lot more intelligent than dogs and are able to change our views of things and learn to differentiate what is right and wrong.

For now, this culture remains in Cambodia. With this in mind, AFESIP provides two training options for the women at the Tom Dy Centre; sewing and hairdressing. On top of that, they are given basic education in English, Khmer and Mathematics since most of them do not even have primary school education. Other essential knowledge such as hygiene, domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, labour law, human rights are also being taught.

All these courses are seen as important life skills which will facilitate the women to start their lives all over again. Somaly Mam applies very pragmatic methods to ensure that these women are not being sheltered permanently at the centre. After all, this is not the purpose she sets out to do.

She pushes the women to do something for themselves and believes that at the end, most of them have a choice. They can either stay in the centre to be rehabilitated and trained, or they can choose to be returned home. But for those who choose to stay, they must go through the programmes catered for them. Her view is that if the women are left there with nothing constructive to do, they will not leave but rather treat the centre as a permanent vacation home. One can easily understand why since the centre is much more comfortable than majority of the homes here.

AFESIP’s training programme is rather progressive in the sense that it doesn’t want to limit the women to only two options. At the moment, with the NGO that I am volunteering with, we are trying to carry out a market analysis to provide the women with more skills and training options that will give them more employment opportunities. This remains as a huge challenge.

Monday, January 12, 2009

When laughter becomes a liability

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I have a disease and I don’t know how to deal with it. I wouldn’t normally see this as a disease but when it comes to a point where it interferes with my work and being socially inappropriate, it is a disease.

You see, I have a tendency to laugh uncontrollably, sometimes even when there seems to be no reason for me to laugh. It is not intentional. I just have no control over it.

I hope you won’t think that I am crazy because I assure you that I am not. For those who have managed to witness this disease of mine must be told that I laugh not without reason. It’s just that you don’t know the reason. Very often when I remember a hilarious incident  or a joke or something that tickles me hard,  I would burst out laughing hysterically, much to everyone’s discomfort and confusion. For that I apologise but again, it is never my intention to be rude or behave crazy.

I am supposed to conduct a training workshop next week and I am consumed with fear that I might burst out laughing as soon as someone mispronounces something. For instance, I swear, if someone starts to say, “We conduct anal (as oppose to annual) assessment regularly” I would not only have the urge to laugh, I would just crack my butt laughing and nobody would understand. Even if someone does, how appropriate is it for a trainer to laugh herself silly when her trainees are talking?

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I am not joking because this has happened to me before. Once, I was training a group of people and someone mispronounced something (it happens a lot because English is not their first language) and I swear I was going to explode but I tried my hardest to control it. I was somehow successful as no sound came out because I forced my mouth shut. Unfortunately, instead of laughing, I ended up looking like someone with Parkinson’s disease. My whole face turned red and my body shook uncontrollably, not to mention a tad too violently as well. It took me at least 5 minutes to recover myself.

I also realise that this disease has a larger implication on others. I don’t really mind if I am the only one inflicted with such tragic disorder  but when it affects other people’s self-esteem, it’s just not funny.

Once, my cousin’s daughters came to visit me at my apartment in Kuala Lumpur. They were extremely excited and they had other reason to be because they would be meeting my husband for the first time. So when one of her little ones came into the house, she did a curtsy for my husband. What was supposedly a cute and sweet gesture where the only appropriate reaction would be to gush, I burst out laughing. Yes, I did and much to her horror and embarrassment.  I reproached myself for this because that poor girl probably rehearsed everything the night before, thinking that it would charm the first French man she met. Alas, my only thought was, “Did she think that French people greet each other like that?”

So, you see, I have a disease and I don’t know how to deal with it.

P/s: I can’t even find the right category to put this article in. I think instead of starting a new category under “Disease”, I opted for Humour instead. Maybe this will help others to see the humourous side of things, rather than a liability.

The 21st century slavery (Part IV)

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Challenges faced by AFESIP

There are many causes why human trafficking and forced prostitution occur; lack of education and employment opportunities, poverty, corruption in government,social discrimination, political instability, armed conflict, relocation of communities because of mega projects without proper resettlement and rehabilitation packages, profitability, presence of organized criminal gangs, insufficient punishments against traffickers, lack of law enforcement on global sex tourism industry, growing demand for child sex workers and increased deprivation and marginalization of the poor.

For Cambodian women, the threat is enhanced by the cultural practice where daughters hold the responsibility of looking after the family. Many, out of desperation to help clear family debts are forced into prostitution.

Which is why, one of the most important aspects of AFESIP (Agir pour les Femmes en Situation PrĂ©caire/ Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances)’s programme is the rehabilitation, vocational skill training and reintegration components. For them, it is not enough to just rescue the women, usually through raids conducted by its protection officers in collaboration with local enforcement authorities, but also to provide them with regular medical and psychological treatments, vocational and life skill trainings, basic education and other recreational activities with the hope of effective reintegration back into their communities.

Due to this wide range of services provided, AFESIP is faced with many challenges. Effective reintegration remains the biggest challenge because at the end of the day, the most important impact and outcome is to ensure that the women are  welcomed back into their family and community with minimal stigmatization, gain some financial independence through employment and thus preventing them from falling into the same cycle of forced dependency.

First step towards rehabilitation

AFESIP has its own clinical team of doctors, psychologists and therapists who carry out regular medical and psychological assessments, including consistent follow-up. While successful reintegration would indicate that AFESIP’s overall objectives have been achieved, it would not be possible if the women are not healed physically and emotionally. All of these women have been subjected to many forms of physical torture and emotional trauma, some to the extent of being permanently disfigured, such as Long Pross.

In addition to this, many are infected with HIV/AIDS since many customers refuse to wear condoms and those who are courageous enough to request for it are often beaten up. Some of the rescued women have died of HIV/AIDS.

There is an endless list of damages which have been inflicted on these women and we cannot begin to conceive how long the healing process will take. For most of them, never.

 

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The 21st century slavery (Part III)

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I visited the Tom Dy Centre where about 50 women who were rescued by Somaly Mam’s team are being sheltered. The first impression one gets is how serene and normal the place looks. There is no tell-tale sign of how this place had been crashed and attacked by a mob of people awhile back. Then when I met the women, they all look so young, too young to have gone through such unimaginable ordeal.

I have also learned that sexual slavery does not discriminate in terms of appearances. Very often, I imagine that women who were being kidnapped and forced into the sex industry must possess at least one criteria; beauty. However, I have noticed that the women come in different shapes, sizes and appearances. I suppose there are only two criteria; youth and being female. (This does not mean that boys are free from being victims as well but this series is meant to focus on women.)

Everything at the centre seemed so sanitized and organized. A couple of friendly dogs were running around, keeping the women company. From a distance, I could hear monotonous chanting and discovered that  lessons were being conducted in a small classroom with about 6 women. The rest of the women were either attending lessons in another classroom, learning how to sew in a bigger room or at the hairdressing salon situated just outside the centre. They were not having their hair done. Some who have opted for hairdressing training, stay in the salon to learn and provide hairdressing services to the community around the area.

In the beautifully landscaped garden, two women sat quietly on a swing, reading. They were ill and therefore excused from attending lessons. That’s the thing. As I am writing this, I have only realised how quiet it was at the centre. Nobody was shouting, talking loudly or laughing. The sort of things you would have expected in boarding schools or classrooms. I wouldn’t say that the women looked miserable or depressed. Very often, they just looked curiously at me and many even smile, but the overall feeling was sombre.

The New York Times have been featuring a  column about some of the women rescued by Somaly Mam. The writer managed to interview two women and here are their stories. The following account is taken from Nicholas D. Kristof’s articles. I feel that there is no need for me to re-write what he has eloquently wrote. For the full article and other related topics,  please click on this  link: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/s/sexual_slavery/index.html?8qa&scp=1-spot&sq=&st=nyt

These are what they do to them

(From “The Evil Behind the Smiles”)

Sina is Vietnamese but was kidnapped at the age of 13 and taken to Cambodia, where she was drugged. She said she woke up naked and bloody on a bed with a white man — she doesn’t know his nationality — who had purchased her virginity.

After that, she was locked on the upper floors of a nice hotel and offered to Western men and wealthy Cambodians. She said she was beaten ferociously to force her to smile and act seductive.

My first phrase in Khmer,” the Cambodian language, “was, ‘I want to sleep with you,’ ” she said. “My first phrase in English was” — well, it’s unprintable.

Sina mostly followed instructions and smiled alluringly at men because she would have been beaten if men didn’t choose her. But sometimes she was in such pain that she resisted, and then she said she would be dragged down to a torture chamber in the basement.

Many of the brothels have these torture chambers,” she said. “They are underground because then the girls’ screams are muffled.”

As in many brothels, the torture of choice was electric shocks. Sina would be tied down, doused in water and then prodded with wires running from the 220-volt wall outlet. The jolt causes intense pain, sometimes evacuation of the bladder and bowel — and even unconsciousness.

Shocks fit well into the brothel business model because they cause agonizing pain and terrify the girls without damaging their looks or undermining their market value.

After the beatings and shocks, Sina said she would be locked naked in a wooden coffin full of biting ants. The coffin was dark, suffocating and so tight that she could not move her hands up to her face to brush off the ants. Her tears washed the ants out of her eyes.

She was locked in the coffin for a day or two at a time, and she said this happened many, many times.

Finally, Sina was freed in a police raid, and found herself blinded by the first daylight she had seen in years. The raid was organized by Somaly Mam, a Cambodian woman who herself had been sold into the brothels but managed to escape, educate herself and now heads a foundation fighting forced prostitution.

After being freed, Sina began studying and eventually became one of Somaly’s trusted lieutenants. They now work together, in defiance of death threats from brothel owners, to free other girls. To get at Somaly, the brothel owners kidnapped and brutalized her 14-year-old daughter. And six months ago, the daughter of another anti-trafficking activist (my interpreter when I interviewed Sina) went missing.

(From “If this isn’t slavery, what is?”)

Anyone who thinks it is hyperbole to describe sex trafficking as slavery should look at the maimed face of a teenage girl, Long Pross.

Glance at Pross from her left, and she looks like a normal, fun-loving girl, with a pretty face and a joyous smile. Then move around, and you see where her brothel owner gouged out her right eye.

Yes, I know it’s hard to read this. But it’s infinitely more painful for Pross to recount the humiliations she suffered, yet she summoned the strength to do so — and to appear in a video posted online with this column — because she wants people to understand how brutal sex trafficking can be.

Pross was 13 and hadn’t even had her first period when a young woman kidnapped her and sold her to a brothel in Phnom Penh. The brothel owner, a woman as is typical, beat Pross and tortured her with electric current until finally the girl acquiesced.

She was kept locked deep inside the brothel, her hands tied behind her back at all times except when with customers.

Brothel owners can charge large sums for sex with a virgin, and like many girls, Pross was painfully stitched up so she could be resold as a virgin. In all, the brothel owner sold her virginity four times.

Pross paid savagely each time she let a potential customer slip away after looking her over.

I was beaten every day, sometimes two or three times a day,” she said, adding that she was sometimes also subjected to electric shocks twice in the same day.

The business model of forced prostitution is remarkably similar from Pakistan to Vietnam — and, sometimes, in the United States as well. Pimps use violence, humiliation and narcotics to shatter girls’ self-esteem and terrorize them into unquestioning, instantaneous obedience.

One girl working with Pross was beaten to death after she tried to escape. The brothels figure that occasional losses to torture are more than made up by the increased productivity of the remaining inventory.

After my last column (“The Evil Behind the Smiles”), I heard from skeptical readers doubting that conditions are truly so abusive. It’s true that prostitutes work voluntarily in many brothels in Cambodia and elsewhere. But there are also many brothels where teenage girls are slave laborers.

Young girls and foreigners without legal papers are particularly vulnerable. In Thailand’s brothels, for example, Thai girls usually work voluntarily, while Burmese and Cambodian girls are regularly imprisoned. The career trajectory is often for a girl in her early teens to be trafficked into prostitution by force, but eventually to resign herself and stay in the brothel even when she is given the freedom to leave. In my blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground, I respond to the skeptics and offer some ideas for readers who want to help.

Pross herself was never paid, and she had no right to insist on condoms (she has not yet been tested for HIV, because the results might be too much for her fragile emotional state). Twice she became pregnant and was subjected to crude abortions.

The second abortion left Pross in great pain, and she pleaded with her owner for time to recuperate. “I was begging, hanging on to her feet, and asking for rest,” Pross remembered. “She got mad.”

That’s when the woman gouged out Pross’s right eye with a piece of metal. At that point in telling her story, Pross broke down and we had to suspend the interview.

Pross’s eye grew infected and monstrous, spraying blood and pus on customers, she later recounted. The owner discarded her, and she is now recuperating with the help of Sina Vann, the young woman I wrote about in my last column.

So Somaly saved Sina, and now Sina is saving Pross. Someday, perhaps Pross will help another survivor, if the rest of us can help sustain them.

 

Friday, January 9, 2009

The 21st century slavery (Part II)

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Victims for victims, women for women, human for human

The woman responsible for resonating the voice of trafficked victims in Cambodia is Somaly Mam. Some of you might have heard of her, some of you might not. She is the driving force and “the face” of the Somaly Mam Foundation and AFESIP.

I have never met her in person but I have seen pictures of her and there is no doubt that she is a beautiful woman. In 2006, Glamour Magazine named her “Woman of the Year”. She was an Olympic flag bearer in the Torino Game 2006 and on top of the different international awards she received for her effort in combating human trafficking, she has been photographed with many famous international celebrities and influential people.  It’s almost as if everyone just can’t get enough of her and she seems to be the perfect person for the job.

They say that beauty is power and Somaly certainly uses it to her advantage. She spends most of her time promoting her cause and does it successfully in terms of generating funds and support for the foundation she runs. (Check out the foundation’s website at http://www.somaly.org.)

The thing is, her beauty is definitely not her only recipe for success. What separates her from other personalities such as Nicole Kidman, Darryl Hannah, Petra Nemcova and Susan Sarandon (all famous celebrities who speak out on violence against women) is that she too was a victim of sexual slavery. Being sold by her adopted father at a young age, she had endured all sorts of unspeakable acts including being gang raped, held at gunpoint, stripped naked and tortured. So, when she speaks on behalf of these women, she brings a different but yet powerful dimension to those who are willing to listen. 

Which is why, I find it a tremendous honour to have the opportunity to work with her organization, not just because she is famous or because I am a woman. It’s simply because I’ve come to realise that Somaly Mam has used her past experience as a victim to benefit all the other women she vows to rescue.

She understands and knows what these women need from a realistic point of view, including finding ways to prevent them from falling into the same trap again. Therefore, AFESIP seeks to provide a rather holistic approach towards protecting, rehabilitating, training and reintegrating the women back into their communities with the opportunity for employment. It is often rare to find an organization that goes through the whole nine yards to make sure that victims are able to regain hope, dignity, self-confidence and independence.

The following articles will focus on the struggle and challenges faced by those who have suffered and those who are trying to help.

 

The 21st century slavery (Part I)

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When we talk about slavery, the first image that pops out is hard labour camps where human beings are being forced to work long hours with very little food or clothing, often followed by harsh whipping. Then, we thought that these days are over as we become a more civilized nation. Unknowingly, slavery still exist today. Unfortunately in many different forms.

In the next coming days, I will attempt to write a series of articles touching on a specific form of slavery which happens to be something which I am working on at the moment. It will not be an intellectual or legalistic piece of article because I believe that I do not have the authority nor the expertise to tackle this topic from those perspectives. What I can offer is the limited knowledge I have learned from working and reading about this topic in the last few weeks. In addition to that, I’ll share my thoughts and feelings on this matter, which has been occupying my mind a lot during these days.

Human Trafficking and Forced Prostitution

When you read the title above, it sounds like a mouthful. Well, it is definitely hard to swallow when you think about the many implications it brings. In fact, if you think further, it is not such a new human rights violation. Centuries ago, women have been trafficked to serve as sexual slaves to Kings and Emperors. At that time, it was normal and expected because there was no laws to prohibit such practice and anyone beneath the King was merely an object with no rights, freedom or independence. The person’s life was at the mercy of the King, an institution to be revered and worshipped at any cost.

Women are often forced into sexual slavery during wartimes. Who will ever forget the images and stories of women who were forced to serve more than 100 soldiers at a time during the second world war? They were not only raped, they were also forced into treating such violation of their bodies and dignities as a duty. Unfortunately, when the whole world is at a brink of a global war, anything that threatens the core of humanity is expected to be senselessly ravaged by those who hold power, no matter how unjustified it is.

So,  it was nothing out of the ordinary but what’s extraordinary is that this abominable act  is still happening today despite legal enforcement of the notion that everyone is entitled to preserve his or her physical integrity and dignity. Now, there are national and international laws which specifically prohibit the trafficking of human beings and forced prostitution.

What entitles it to be called the 21st century form of slavery is that many of the victims will die of HIV/AIDS by their 20s. Besides this, nobody has really paid much attention to forced prostitution until a few years ago. The plight of trafficked women and children  were silenced by the sensitivity surrounding its nature. Those trafficked and forced into prostitution were unable to express their forced volition and violations due to shame and a sense of helplessness. Those who had initially started off as voluntary smugglers and then tricked into prostitution were afraid that they would face criminal charges if caught by local authorities. 

Hence, many people were deceived into believing that these sex workers were voluntary prostitutes who deserve to be ignored and condemned. Since it relates to sex, it should be buried under the sand. And since it was “invisible” to the human eyes, who cares? What you don’t know won’t hurt you. A fate that was sealed by the silence and ignorance of society.

This is no longer true because those who were lucky and  courageous enough to live to tell the tale has managed to gain our attention and hence lend voice to many others who are still subjected to such cruel and inhumane treatment.

The “D” words

I am currently volunteering for an organization that supports the work of a local NGO (named AFESIP) dealing with this issue. As a woman, I naturally feel a lot for this cause but I believe that as human beings, whether you are a man or woman, we have the ability to feel the plight of others. But feeling is not enough because nothing will change unless we learn to do something about it.

Perhaps, we are unable to move mountains on our own, but if we combine our forces together, nothing is impossible. You can make a huge Difference by taking these small actions; Disseminate this information to everyone you know, Discuss this issue vigorously to create genuine awareness and above all Discourage the act of human trafficking and forced prostitution.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Talking about “chat”

Chat 

Photo: A boy holding out a small bunch of “chat” at the market in Dire Dawa.

My first experience of chewing “chat” (a kind of leaf chewed by many people in East Africa and Middle East) when I was in Ethiopia was awful. I resisted trying it for a long time albeit hearing locals bragging about the many “feel good” effects it brings to one’s state of mind.

I finally gave in when I visited Harar, known for its top quality “chat”. Selling at about USD5 for a huge bunch of fresh young leaves, it’s a huge bargain for those who have to pay USD28-50 outside of Ethiopia.

Anyway, I read on the paper recently about a proposal to impose a more severe law against the importation of “chat” into the United States of America. 28 states  have passed a bill on the possession of “chat”, punishable by up to 1 year of jail sentence and USD1,000 fine. This has given rise to a lot protest from Eastern African immigrants. Many of them have argued that “chat” is like coffee to the Americans. “Chat” by the way, is legal in countries like Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and Kenya.

This is what the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of USA claimed. “It is not coffee. It is the same drug used by young kids who go out and shoot people in Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq. It is something that gives you a heightened sense of invincibility, and when you look at those effects, you could take out the word ‘khat’ (in certain countries, it is called khat) and put in heroin or cocaine.”

When I read this, I couldn’t help but laughed out loud. I mean, you have got to be kidding me, right??!! As far as I am concerned, while living in Ethiopia for close to one year, I have not even once witnessed any young or old kids going out and shoot somebody.

I am sorry but I think the DEA was probably on heroin or cocaine when he said this. He should first investigate whether those school kids in America who went ballistic and started shooting up their peers and then killed themselves were on “chat”, heroin or cocaine.

I am not promoting any intoxicant (“chat” contains alkaloid cathinone, a chemical structure to amphetamine but about half as potent) but I doubt that it is as harmful as what the DEA claimed.

“Chat” is not just a substance used to create that “high” people often talk about. It is a cultural practice that bonds the community and create fellowship. I wonder if the name “chat” itself is synonymous to chat because it makes you chatty. I’ve been told that it enhances one’s concentration level and at some stage, you may even gain some sort of spiritual alertness. That’s part of the reason why people often gather in a group and chew for hours because it allows them to engage in intense conversation, which often range from politics, religion and life. Many students chew “chat” to help them concentrate during exams.

My own experience of “chat” was nothing out of the extraordinary. A few friends and I gathered in a room rented out for “chat” chewers. Two of them were Ethiopians and hence they were able to guide us on how to achieve “nirvana”. The room was dark (apparently when you chew, you become sensitive to light) and cozy with carpets and rugs thrown on the floor. Teas and drinks were served regularly.

So there I was, pretty excited about my first flirt with “chat” and I thought the ambience was right to strike my first deep conversation but sadly, it never came. After chewing for hours and hours, it made me nauseous more than anything. The leaves left a bitter taste on my tongue and I kept gargling my mouth with water right after I spat out the dark green remnants of the leaves. You’re supposed to chew on the leaves until all the juices are completely drained, swallow and then spit the pulp out.

If anything, I was getting sleepy and my jaws hurt from all the chewing. Yet, nothing intelligible came to my mind. I was even more quiet than normal. Well, I was taught not to talk with my mouth full! I looked at my friend and asked whether it was working for her and she nodded vigorously. She said that she could feel a cold chill running up from her spine to her head. Apparently, that is another side effect of “chat”.

I looked around me and everyone else seemed to be happy and relaxed. One of the Ethiopians who was normally quiet had started to loosen up and none of them looked like they were going to shoot anyone.

I checked my spine and head, nothing…… I didn’t become more chatty on the “chat” and I didn’t feel any sensation that I was supposed to feel. So, there and then, I decided to break up with “chat”.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

What’s happening in Cambodia on 7 January?

So I have been in Cambodia for three months and realised that I don’t really write much about this country. I guess the only reason is because I haven’t really travelled much within the country itself. Nay, that isn’t really the main reason.

The main reason is that for the three months that I have been here, probably half of it has been some sort of a holiday; whether public or self-declared. When I am on holiday, I don’t usually do anything but laze around all day. So one can’t expect anything to happen by just lazing around.

Cambodia is a country that allows me to laze around A LOT. The last time I checked the 2009 Calendar of Public Holidays, there are about 22 national holidays in a year here. Apparently, it is one of the top 5  countries in the world with the most public holidays. Unlike Malaysia, where there are three major ethnic groups and hence most related festivals are being celebrated every year, Cambodia is rather homogenous.

More than 90% of Cambodians are Khmer. Minorities include Vietnamese, Chinese, Muslim Cham and other indigenous people. Christmas, Eid and Chinese New Year are not celebrated here. The only religious celebrations are those related to Buddhism. The rest are the King’s birthday, King’s coronation, post-Khmer Rouge related events (Paris Peace Accord, Independence Day, Constitution Day), International Women’s Day, International Children’s Day, International Human Rights Day, so on and so forth.

You can say that Cambodians love celebration. Well, who wouldn’t except if you are an employer who is concern about your staffs’ productivity level. Anyway, there is one particular national holiday which has sparked some controversies here and is to take place tomorrow.

7 January is the anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. I am still confused as to whether this is a national holiday or not because some organizations declare it as a holiday while mine don’t. (Damn!) Well, you see, opposition parties have voiced that 7 January is also the anniversary of the start of the Vietnamese occupation in Cambodia. They are accusing the ruling government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his CPP (Cambodian People’s Party) party of using this day to assert and advance its political agenda.

A mass gathering has been organized for tomorrow’s celebration at the Olympic Stadium, Phnom Penh. Rumours have been going around that CPP has paid students to carry flags, banners and posters bearing its logo at the gathering. When asked whether this is indeed a manipulation by the ruling party, its spokesperson firmly said, “This is not a CPP celebration. It is a celebration for all Cambodians.” However, when questioned why are there going to be only CPP’s posters and banners all over the city, the same spokesperson quickly replied, “Don’t worry. We’re not using even 1 riel from the state fund for this event. It’s 100% from our party’s coffer.” Errrr….I think the opposition party might have a point there.

Last Friday, three bombs were found in the city; one outside the Ministry of Defence, the other two were somewhere around the Independence Monument on Norodom Boulevard. Luckily, they were detonated on time and I did hear the blast from the detonation but was oblivious to it. This apparently occurred around the same time last year and most likely planted by the same people who would like to destabilize the government.

What made me wonder though was how three bombs were discovered so easily and taken care of so quickly. Hmmm….could it be the work of the ruling party itself?

Well, I can just foresee what I will be doing tomorrow. Going to the rally will not be one of them. What’s that? Oh yeah, I have to go to work. Damn! But above all, what I have learned from living in politically unstable countries is, don’t be a hero or “kei poh chi” (busy body). Curiousity can kill the cat.

*Sigh* Life can be so difficult here.

Monday, January 5, 2009

“Your Mommy and Daddy are dead because you’re adopted”

Last Sunday, I went to a nearby restaurant cafe called Le Jardin for brunch. This  place is known for its child-friendly environment (and ice cream) in Phnom Penh and I can understand why. It has a lovely garden with huge jackfruit and frangipani trees giving ample shades in the tropical heat of Cambodia, a small replica of a traditional wooden house serving as a toy house and slide, lots of  low tables, chairs  and a sand pit.

I had resisted going to this restaurant despite the fact that it is less than a stone’s throw from my apartment, mostly thinking that it would be filled with children running all over the place while being screamed and chased by their parents.

Well, Sunday’s experience changed my mind about Le Jardin. It is not just a fun place for children, but also a pleasant restaurant for adults. They have set up those metal comfy sofas with wide mattresses filled with cushions in various shapes and sizes all over the garden. Food and drinks are served on low wicker or rattan coffee tables. The breakfast menu offers a range between continental, English, Canadian and those who are health conscious. Since I have a weakness for good coffee, I am pleased to know that they do serve a good strong cup of black coffee.

Anyway, while I was enjoying my English breakfast, I couldn’t help but overheard a conversation between a group of children playing at the sand pit. There were about four or five of them and judging from their built, they are probably between 5 to 10 years old. All of them were Caucasians except one girl who looks Asian.

They all seemed normal enough except that two girls started arguing with each other. It was between the Caucasian and Asian girls. Let’s call them Samantha and Raksmey. Sam was telling Raksmey that her Mummy and Daddy are dead. In response, Raksmey shouted back at her, “MY MOM IS ALIVE! MY DAD IS ALIVE!” in perfect crisp British accent.

I was appalled and waited for some parental intervention but the mommies were obviously too busy chatting to hear all the ruckus. What was even more worrying was the fact that the rest of the Caucasian kids were ganging up on Raksmey, judging from their body language; 4 Caucasians standing on one side and Raksmey facing them alone on the opposite side.

As a third party who didn’t really know what was happening, I could only observe and observe I did. So whatever I am going to write now is purely based on my observation and analysis of the situation.

Samantha looks like a bitch in training from her whole body language. She tried again and again to provoke Raksmey, including telling the latter that she too was dead. Anyway, in the end, Raksmey just left the group and went into the toy house. She didn’t come out until the bunch of bullies left the restaurant. I looked around to see where her parents were and it turned out that a Caucasian lady sitting a distance away, busy tapping into her laptop, is responsible for her.

Then, I realised that Raksmey was crying alone in the toy house. I wasn’t sure whether she knew I was watching but she retreated from the house, wiped her tears off and went back to presumably her adopted Mother.

This is my analysis of things. She must be an adopted child. Judging from her British accent, she must had been adopted since she was really young. Those kids were ganging up on her because she looks different from them and her parents. Raksmey probably doesn’t know she is adopted and most likely doesn’t think she is different until these kids constantly make fun of her.

Adoption is a common thing in Cambodia. White couples with Asian-looking children are common sights here. My husband and I are even thinking of adopting a Cambodia child at some stage.

From this experience, I just realise how difficult it must be for adopted children with parents of different ethnicities. They may be loved and treated “indifferently” at home, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will  when they are at school. Kids are mean and it is hurtful to take in remarks such as those uttered by little Sam. Imagine being told your parents are dead when they just had breakfast with you and dropped you at school.

I think, adoption takes more than just taking a child from an orphanage and treats him or her as your own. It takes a lot of preparation; psychologically and emotionally for both parents and child. Couples who are planning to adopt should learn as much as possible about the psychological, social and cultural aspects of adoption.

Many adoptive parents try to conceal the real identity of the child, thinking that it will spare the child from getting hurt. However, I do believe that it is against the interest of the child, especially if he or she looks different. Sooner or later, the child will find out in a less than desirable circumstances; such as the one being told above. It is better to provide the child with full information in order for him or her to be well-informed and prepared.

As for the parents of those ignorant children, it is important to sensitize them on adoption (especially if it is a common social practice in the environment they live in). Above all, children at that age should be taught that all human beings, regardless of skin colour, religion, culture, sexual orientation, disabilities, economic background, etc. are all equal.

It is no wonder that this world is becoming more and more hostile. I think we can make a change if we make the effort to educate our children from the moment they are able to verbalise thoughts. It is as much our responsibility as theirs in creating a peace-loving world.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Innocent civilians are not the enemy of Israel nor Palestine

As I am writing this, Palestinian civilians are being terrorised by air raids and bombings by Israel as the latter started its military offensives in Gaza. How many more civilians, especially children will die today?

Tension between the two have started before the new year in which medical officers estimated a death toll of 385 and more than 800 wounded in Gaza at that time. The casualties have probably escalated way more by now. In Gaza, basic food supplies are depleting much faster than aid coming in, power cuts are affecting the territory and hospitals are struggling to cope with the high number of casualties.

Many have condemned the aggression committed by Israel but Hamas, the democratically elected government of Palestine since 2006, should not go unblemished. The tension has started as soon as the 6-month cease-fire agreement expired between the two nations last month and Hamas intensified rocket attacks from the Gaza strip. Both governments have been pointing fingers at each other while no serious efforts have been made by the international community to extend the cease-fire agreement.

While there can be no justification for what’s happening right now,  the international community has much to be blamed for this mess. For a start, there has been no effort made by the Bush government to revive the peace process. Ehud Olmert’s government failed to halt settlements and give Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas from the Fatah (Hamas’ sworn enemy) the support he needed. Bush refused to press Olmert to enforce a politically viable solution. Same goes to the other Arab leaders which never did enough to boost Abbas or persuade Hamas to cut its ties with Iran.

Some political analysts have attributed Israeli’s full on retaliation against Palestine to the transitional government of the United States of America. With preparation for the outgoing and incoming of Bush and Obama respectively, the US is unable to enforce any strong measures towards the conflict. Hence, Israel is taking advantage of the silence and inaction of America to have a final blow on Palestine before Obama takes office.

Even then, many have speculated that the Israel-Palestine conflict will not be on top of Obama’s  priority  list as the latter starts his office in an already troubled country. Barack Obama has been accused for keeping silence  in his attempt to gain position with Jewish lobby in America by some scholars and political analysts.

In the end, whatever it is and whoever is to be blamed, innocent civilians are being killed, wounded and left homeless every single minute, just as I am writing now.

Israel and Hamas need to know that these civilians are not the enemy of either.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

When Mars and Venus are being threatened

I had a long discussion with a friend awhile ago. She’s from one of those post-Soviet Union countries. Perhaps a little bit similar to Malaysia, we are from a generation where we still hang on to certain traditional values but unlike our parents, our lifestyles and mentalities have somewhat changed through influence from the West.

Before I proceed to share the discussion, I need to explain a little bit about my friends’ character in order to better illustrate the point of our discussion.

I see my friend as a modern woman who has her own career, in which she is very good in, sociable and forward thinking. She’s a mother of two young children but don’t expect her to be one of those moms who stay at home and forget about their social life.

I enjoy having conversations with this friend because she speaks her mind and basically, also a fun person to be with. However, there is something about her relationship with her husband which I don’t quite understand. When they are together, it is very clear that they play very different but complementary roles. It’s more or less like he is the chef and she, the sous-chef. Without each other, they will not be able to run a restaurant smoothly.

I guess you must be wondering which part of their relationship don’t I understand as it seems perfect. Anyway, I am not finished yet.

So, an incident happened one night when we were together. We were hanging out at a bar with our husbands and a man who was standing beside her started checking her out. She said something to the man which generated an unexpected reaction from him. He started turning aggressive and we were caught by surprise since we were busy chatting and did not really witness what was happening. To cut a long story short, her husband came to her rescue and finally, the man was ushered out by the security guards. Our night was nevertheless spoiled.

When I later asked my friend what had happened, she explained that she was upset with the fact that the man had the audacity to “give her the eyes” in the presence of her husband. I also observed that during the whole commotion when her husband was about to punch the man in the face, she remained in her seat. I told her that if I were her, I would have punched the man myself.

Then she quickly explained that she could never take such an action in her husband’s presence. It is her husband’s job to protect her and by taking matters into her own hands, she would be undermining her husband’s masculinity.

This is the part I don’t understand. I guess what really confuses me is the paradox between her individual and marital self. I persisted to ask her whether a woman should not be allowed to defend her own honour. Her response eventually generated into another long discussion about the change in man’s role in modern society.

According to her, part of the reasons why women have became the way they are; meaning more bold, bitchy, and out of line, is because of the way men are treating them; meaning more respectful, sensitive and understanding. She was referring to European men. She added that European men do not know how to behave like men anymore and hence, they are being stepped all over by women.

We have very differing views of course and I argued with her that I don’t agree with the way “non-European” men are treating  women. Putting women in subversive positions, treating them as objects, prohibiting them from having individual identities, etc. Are all these what define the masculinity of a man?

I proceeded to tell her that a man who treats women with respect, being attentive to their needs and understands what women want do not make them weak. Masculinity is not measured by how much power or authority a man has over women. It is measured by how he defends a woman’s honour and dignity. There is nothing honourable in treating women like possessions.

In the case of women behaving out of line, I wouldn’t blame it on men. I think it’s mostly due to the nature and personality of the woman in question. These women are just ignorant and lack manners. It doesn’t mean that if you are being treated nicely, you can be rude or mean.

I think that we have to start to understand that we no longer live in an era where women’s options in life were limited due to the lack of education and financial independence. Women are able to obtain the highest level of education and contribute to their nations. They are able to be independent and hence think for themselves. These qualities should not be a threat to men.

The only threat is when both men and women forget the fundamental principles of how to treat each other, as human beings and partners in life.

Friday, January 2, 2009

I don’t wish to be a millionaire. All I want is to see the polar bear.

Some of you might have wondered what do I mean when I put the title of this post on my profile (if you happen to have read my profile). For the start of this new year, I thought perhaps I should share with you the meaning behind this.

About two years ago, I went to the La Palmyre Zoo in France. I came across two polar bears and fell in love with them. I’ve always liked them but it was mostly because they look so cute and cuddly as soft toys.

Now, I love them because they are so huge and yet they look so harmless (although they are not when threatened and desperate). I love them because they are so graceful in the water with their huge paws paddling gently and long white coat floating around them softly. It is just one of the most breathtaking living things to watch.

But most of all, I love them because they are such strong animals with great endurance and the mother bears often sacrifice a lot for their cubs. I even heard that they have their own quarks. Apparently all polar bears are left handed.

When I was at the zoo, I couldn’t take my eyes off them, contented with just watching them swimming and basking in the sun. I was obviously captivated by them as very often, I would walk around to see other animals but disappeared along the way only to find myself back with the polar bears again.

Then, something happened which upset me. One of the bears started displaying some sort of disturbing behaviour. It had swam very close to the glass enclosure and started bouncing up and down; each time higher and higher. Somehow, I sensed that the bear was in distress and was probably trying to bounce out of the enclosure. He went on for a long time and didn’t stop even after I left because I couldn’t bear to watch that anymore. It would never have succeeded because the glass was much too high.

What angered me more was when a couple started rushing towards the glass to have their photos taken with the bear bouncing helplessly behind them. I know that they probably didn’t feel anything was wrong but for some strange reasons, I felt an inexplicable ache in my heart that tears came to my eyes and I don’t cry easily.

Fourteen years ago, I cried when I watched the opening part of The Lion King and it wasn’t even sad. One of my friends still tease me about this. Perhaps, I am in the wrong profession.

Later on, I started questioning whether it is ethical to have zoos where wild animals are taken away from their natural habitats for the viewing pleasure of people like me, and that couple. It was obvious that the polar bear did not belong to the zoo; far away from its home at the arctic where it lives, hunts and mates. I resolutely told my husband that we are not allowed to take our children to the zoo in future and he argued that it’s a good way to sensitize children about wild animals. I think the National Geographic and Animal Planet channels will do.

Right now, polar bears are one of the most endangered species. With global warming, ice caps are melting faster and faster every year which makes it very difficult for them to hunt on land. They are often forced to swim for ages to look for preys and many ended up drowning to death due to fatigue.

As they can no longer rely on traditional method of hunting seals swimming beneath the ice caps, they turn to walrus out of desperation.  The walrus, much bigger in number and very often larger than them prove to be difficult preys due to their huge and sharp fangs. So, many of them perish from starvation. This is the fate of the polar bears as the climate of our earth starts to change dramatically.

After learning and understanding their condition more, I start to do my part in preserving our environment. Although it’s not much, I am slowly trying to remember to take bags with me when I shop, turn off the electricity when I don’t need it and stop using the air conditioning at home.

My dream is to be able to go to the arctic one day to see the polar bears in their natural habitat. I don’t know when I will be able to do so or whether it will ever happen, but I hope it is not too late if I come around to it.

So, “I don’t wish to be a millionaire. All I want is to see the polar bears” is sort of a personal philosophy of mine. It’s not just about seeing the bears. It means I don’t think having lots of money is the most important thing in life but at the same time, I need to have enough money, good health and the right opportunity to be able to pursue my dreams. At the end of the day, having the opportunity to do something rare and profound in my life is what matters.

I hope you will start to do your part in preserving our environment so that these innocent creatures can continue to live. We have been sharing this planet together and why should they suffer because of us?

Do try to develop at least one environmentally friendly practice. Perhaps for a start, try to limit the number of plastic bags at the supermarket. I’ve noticed how cashiers at the supermarkets at home are very eager to use as many plastic bags as possible; often putting only 2 items in one bag when there are still rooms for a couple more.

This may ultimately be the best new year’s resolution you ever have.

I took this video at the zoo, thinking that one day I’ll be able to share this as part of a public sensitization measure.