Sunday, December 18, 2011

Talking ‘bout evolution

This article was first published on The Malaysian Insider on 12 December 2011.

As a child, it was mandatory to obtain Mom and Dad’s permission before I could leave the house. It was also mandatory to inform them of my whereabouts at all time. Thankfully, I was mature enough to understand that the rules were imposed in my best interest. Hence, I followed them without much resistance.

Dad was however, particularly unreasonably strict. He would go to the extent of forbidding me from participating in optional school trips and innocent outings with my cousins. There were times when I would spend days prior to the actual trip obsessing about how I would ask Dad’s permission, only to know that the answer would be a strict no. I would resort to political tactics by using Mom as an ally. Sometimes it worked, but most of the time it ended up in failed negotiations and days of cold war that followed.

You see, Dad is a reclusive and introvert person. He believes in traditional values based on hard work and sacrifices. He believes that one must sacrifice frivolous pursuits and individualistic wants in order to maintain harmony and achieve academic and professional success. He also believes that if you release a horse’s rein, the horse will go wild and never return once it has tasted freedom.

So I grew up feeling in awe and at the same time resentful of Dad. I respect and admire him for his integrity and honourable pursuits and yet I can never agree with this particular principle of his that restriction is necessary to keep a person from straying. Perhaps, that is one of the reasons why I’ve become fiercely independent and suffocate under authoritative environment.

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity of accompanying a group of young American fellows on a private tour of Malacca. The tour guide was an elderly man who takes great pride in his origin as a bona fide Malaccan. He was the perfect person for the job as he was knowledgeable, passionate and eloquent in his narrations.

I was particularly amused by his footnotes, some of which were not entirely relevant to the purpose of that tour. You see, he avidly shared his strong condemnation of the government’s destructions of historical monuments and treatment of indigenous people. He was a sympathiser when it came to the topic of corruption and he even claimed that he works closely with indigenous tribes to protect their lands. You could see that he abhors some of the government’s policies and was not ashamed to express it, even before a group of foreigners.

After the tour, a few of us, including the elderly gentleman, stopped at on old-fashioned coffee shop on Jonker Street to have coffee. I brought up the subject of the Bersih 2.0 rally in the most innocent of manner and asked what he thought about it.

Indeed, he got pretty heated up but to my surprise, he was extremely critical of the demonstrators. He said that he did not condone the rally at all. He agreed that dissent is necessary but definitely not Bersih 2.0’s method of choice. He argued fervently that assembly of any kind in protest of the government is not the Malaysian way. National harmony must not be compromised at all cost.

When asked what else could be done if all diplomatic negotiations have failed, he was unable to produce a convincing answer. When asked how a peaceful assembly can be harmful, he struggled to articulate his thoughts. His point of argument was solely from a cultural perspective. It’s simply not the Malaysian way of doing things.

I found the juxtaposition of his contrasting views intriguing and could only conclude that he belongs to an older generation of Malaysians who still hold on to certain traditional values that are simply too strong to let go.

There are lessons to be learned from these two stories. I grew up in a generation that places greater value and appreciation for human rights and liberty as result of economic progress and globalisation. We are no longer isolated from the rest of the world and hence, are able to evaluate, compare and conclude for ourselves that respect for human rights and true democracy is fundamental towards progress and human evolution. Some would say that this is solely a Western concept but seriously so what? Isn’t it naïve to say that we want to be as progressive as Sweden but only insofar as its economy is concerned but not its form of democracy? Isn’t the very piece of garment worn by most Malaysians on a daily basis influenced by Western fashion? Besides, honestly what is the Malaysian way? Is the Malaysian culture based on corruption and abuse of power?

Democracy and respect for human rights is synonymous to progress. Brutal killing as a form of entertainment in a gladiator arena is a thing in the past. Child abuse and gender discrimination are now prohibited by our laws and they were not plucked out of thin air. It would be extremely foolish of the government to believe that all Malaysians of my generation would be content with just economic progress and half assed implementation of selected rights according to their whims and fancies.

Nature would dictate that human beings will continuously fight for their own survival. Once they’ve succeeded in that, they will move on to fight for freedom and progress. It’s called evolution and has been historically proven by the fall of great dictatorial empires.

Some would argue that there are those who genuinely reject progress and it’s only a selected few who impose on them the notion of progress. As true as it may be, the key word here is choice.

Dad’s method of discipline was wrong. If I had in any way betrayed his trust, he would have the right to punish me, but not to restrict me from the very start. The same applies to those who want to go on a peaceful street protest. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but that choice must be presented to those who have the desire to do so. Punish those who abuse that right but not those who want to exercise that right responsibly.

Evolution is part of nature and it will happen whether we want it or not. There comes a time when every child will want to grow up to become a free adult. The question is when and how. This is something the government must think about.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Souvenirs from France

This article was first posted on The Malaysian Insider on 12 November 2011. The original version is reproduced here.

They live a lifestyle where clichés appears original.

Even with an armload, a baguette is conspicuously seen tucked under an armpit. It is almost as if that part of the body, often scorned as an object of odour despair, is made to cater for that precise purpose. I find this curious observation simply marvellous for who would’ve thought that the dreaded armpit can serve as a tool to hold food?

Here, dogs are men’s best friends, even for the destitute and homeless. The odds of encountering a homeless man begging for a stick of cigarette are higher than a stray dog begging for food. A man can be homeless but a dog is usually never without a master. I suppose it makes perfect sense to have someone who loves you unconditionally as your best friend. Dogs certainly make great candidates.

Old and young couples take lingering strolls with their palms locked together, almost always interrupted by long pauses of embrace and kisses. Evidently, their air is not only filled with the scent of expensive perfume but also of love and desire. It is a home where love is often made, not babies.


They live a lifestyle of intricate contradictions that can easily inspire a voluminous collection of great ideas for dinner party conversations.

For example, some women (of any age) may feel completely at ease lying naked on a public beach, but would never be caught dead strutting along the promenade in a g-string bikini, as you would have seen on American television. They make nudity seems natural and unintentional. Nobody blinks or gapes and it’s just another summer of sun and fun.

Foie gras isn’t just a piece of politically incorrect food but one that provokes the question of how well the rest of world are treating their own animals before turning them into American quarter pounders and fried chickens. The cows I’d seen on the Pyrenees are probably one of the healthiest and happiest in the world and needless to say, pets are not meant to be chained and confined to the porch. Neither are they to be subjected to the ridicule of dressing up like human beings.

Prostitution is tolerated more than pretty women who prey on wealthy men (and vice versa). Should sexual morality be held more sacred than deceit, dishonesty and greed?

Among the three virtues upheld by their national motto, liberty is perhaps the one that is most treasured and practised by them. It is often linked to a philosophical way of life, rather than just a literal translation of the word.

Restrictions and obstacles are to be limited and overcome as much as possible so that one can experience joie de vivre to the fullest. Being obedient to the notion that “I-shouldn’t-be-doing-this-because-society-says-so” does not make you decorous, but a body that’s absent mind, spirit and soul.

They talk about politics, religion and sex more openly than Malaysians talk about food. There are no sensitivities surrounding these issues because one of their greatest thinkers once said that he might disagree with what another person said, but he would defend to his death the right of that person’s speech. Plus, it would be completely delusional to believe that if you don’t talk about sex, it means you don’t think about it at all. The same applies to the rest of the other issues. Besides, isn’t it true that dissenting views are the ones that make far more interesting and intelligent conversations? A winning view is one that withstands the test of challenge, not one that is won by default.

I went for a walk on the promenade overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Biarritz on an early Sunday morning. It was quiet and calm as the whole sea resort was still recuperating from the night’s partying. I stopped at one point to breathe in the cold morning air and when I looked down, there was a small group of men and women getting undressed together.

From afar, one wouldn’t take a second look to conclude that they were just a bunch of crazy kids attempting to conquer the cold sea water but for their silvery white hair. Stripped down to their bathing suits, only then were their age revealed. They could easily be at least seventy years old judging from the loose and heavily wrinkled skin all over their tanned body.

They ran towards the sea and dived into the freezing water with the courage and capriciousness of teenage adrenaline. Their total abandonment sent a strange shiver down my spine and it wasn’t until later when I understood that feeling as freedom and happiness.

According to French revolutionists, "Liberty consists of being able to do anything that does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every man or woman has no bounds other than those that guarantee other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights.”

I learned from them that freedom applies to all; whether you’re a grandfather, a mother of three, blind or a homosexual, as long as you’ve not done anything to have caused that right to be taken away from you. You’re free to live the life you choose and not what society expects of you. Passing judgments should be left in a court of law; not at school, workplace, supermarket, park or even the street.

Perhaps that is why women sunbathe naked but not strut around in mini bikinis. It’s not about parading their bodies for the whole world to see. It’s about feeling free in your own skin.

Maybe that’s what liberty really means.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The truth shall set you free

This post was originally posted by The Malaysian Insider on 4 July 2011.


Whenever I flush the toilet at home, my cat, often seen lazing on the floor would spring to her feet and run for her life. It’s obvious that the sudden sound of rushing water petrifies her tremendously. 

Sometimes, out of strange habit, I find myself warning her that I will be flushing the toilet in false hope that she would not get agitated. I used to think that once she gets accustomed to the noise, she would get over her unreasonable fear.

I’ve had her for more than two years and each time I flush the toilet, it still has the same effect on her, with or without my warning. 

It then dawns on me that my cat will continue to have this fear simply because she is unable to comprehend what is happening. There’s nothing I can do about it for how does one explain to a cat what a flushing mechanism is?

Life is full of fears. We fear for our safety, we fear for our future, we fear humiliation and we fear death but what we probably fear the most is what we don’t know, just like my cat. 

In the past weeks, the government has been carrying out a campaign to instill fear in the rakyat. We have been warned that if we participate in the Bersih campaign, we will be committing a crime and as result of that, our freedom will be taken away.

It is quite understandable that every reasonable person will be frightened by this knowledge. If the most fearsome thing in this world is indeed ignorance, why are we then still afraid despite knowing the consequences of our actions? 

Many people have asked me whether I am afraid. The simple truth is, yes I am but not so much of what will happen in the next couple of days, but of what will become of our beloved country if we continue to allow the government to intimidate us.

Knowing what might happen to my security and freedom is only half as scary as not knowing the fate of our country and the future of young Malaysians. 

Great religions and nations teach us to stand up for the truth. Our government teaches us otherwise. When a government becomes the main agent provocateur of fear and at the same time warns its people that they will be guilty for provoking fear and instability, something is fundamentally wrong. 

So far, the real culprit for instilling fear and provocation seems to be coming from the government, not those who choose to wear yellow T-shirts, blow bubbles into the air, carry yellow balloons and walk peacefully on their streets on July 9. The colour yellow does not provoke, but public threats of arrest and detention do. 

A few days ago, I confessed to a friend that what’s happening in Malaysia stresses me more than what I had experienced in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Cambodia. He was surprised and wanted to know why. My answer to him, “Because this is not supposed to happen here. You expect it to happen in those countries but not here.” 

What most people don’t seem to understand is how fundamentally tragic and wrong it is to be ruled by a government that imposes arbitrary laws that go against the core principles of human rights and to add salt to the wound, resist the call by its people for free and fair election. I’ve seen it in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Cambodia and sadly, Malaysia seems to have hopped on the bandwagon. 

Some friends have argued with me that Malaysia is far better off than these countries. I was asked to evaluate our economy and told that I should come to the conclusion that we are better off. I’m reminded that we’re blessed for having a government that promotes economic growth and I should just be grateful. 

It would be a persuasive argument but for the nagging question that if a man provides for his family, does it entitle him to do whatever he wants with them? Are they saying that if their father has looked after their welfare, then surely they should be able to forgive him for raping their sister? 

These days when I walk on the street, I look over my shoulders, not for snatch thieves but for the police. When an innocent citizen feels threatened by the very people they depend on for protection, something is wrong.

When an anxious child who is afraid of the dark is being told that monsters will come after them when the light is turned off, something is wrong. If you still don’t know how to differentiate who the real coward and culprit is in this situation we’re facing today, then shame on you for refusing to believe and see the truth. You’re not a cat and you should know better.

For close to half a century, we have been living in fear. I’ve seen that fear in my parents and friends. I’ve experienced how we have conditioned ourselves to lower our voices when we talk about “sensitive” issues.

I’ve seen how people disguise themselves as someone they’re not simply because they believe it is safer to live a lie than to face the truth. The only credit the government can ever claim is that they’ve run a pretty successful campaign, thanks to us.

We’ve come to a crossroad where we either rise above our fear or allow it to perpetuate for generations to come.

Plato once said, “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” 

We have been living this real tragedy for far too long. 

Technorati Tags: ,
, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Yellow

Friday, June 10, 2011

Time is of the essence

This article was originally posted on The Malaysian Insider on 6 June 2011 with the same title. 


No one valued time as much as Benjamin Franklin.

As a student, we learned that Franklin was a scientist. In our history book, he was known as the man responsible for the invention of the lightning rod.

What most of us didn’t know was that he was also a publisher, printer, writer and philosopher who then became one of America’s greatest statesmen. One of his many profound accomplishments included the drafting of the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

It is then fair to conclude that Franklin was a man completely and utterly obsessed with how he optimised time. How else would you explain his level of productivity (yes, I’m mindful of the fact there were no royal wedding broadcast, Facebook, Twitter or Angry Bird at that time)? My father is such a man.

My father considers watching television as a sinful act of boondoggling, except for the prime-time news headlines. He doesn’t read anything fictional nor “trashy”.

His reading materials are limited to two newspapers, the Reader’s Digest and biographical works of successful businessmen and politicians. He loves quoting them and I grew up listening to wise proverbs and quotes from people I never knew existed.

As teenager my father would tell me this, “Never leave til’ tomorrow what you can do today.” Little did I know that this was a quote from Franklin.

Franklin was also known to have said the following: “Time is money”, “You may delay but time will not”, “Lost time is never found again” and “Don’t you love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.”

Although my father understands the value of time, he has never in his entire life worn a watch. It is as if his profound appreciation of time has influenced his internal body system to stay in synch with the constant ticking of the clock.

Everything he does is calculated with the precision of a Swiss watch. Fifteen minutes for breakfast, one hour to read the papers, 10 minutes for shower, 30 minutes gardening, etc. But I don’t remember my father ever telling my brother and I that he has no time for us.

What I find curious is this: what our ancestors considered precious, we, the younger generation, seem to treat as if it’s limitless and therefore worthless. Is it because we now have longer life span? Or is it because we have better technology to help us accomplish much more in a shorter period of time and hence leaving us with more time to indulge in things of a frivolous nature?

The irony is this: the gifts of longevity and technology have in fact rendered us more worthless to human civilisation while time, on the other hand, remains unequivocally precious.

One of the things which I find frustrating living in the city is the amount of time wasted on the road and waiting for someone. It is as if we spend most of our lives just waiting for things to happen. I would like to share some examples.

Meetings in true Malaysian fashion never seem to start on time because we’re perpetually late. I have experienced many occasions when I am late for a meeting simply because my previous meeting started late.

Sometimes, I rush to my next appointment as best as I can only to find the person I am supposed to meet arriving late. This upsets me because I end up wasting my time just waiting when I could have utilised it for something more meaningful.

Those who devalue time encourage others to do the same. I often find myself thinking that if others do not respect my time, why should I respect theirs?

If they have no remorse about making others wait, why do I kill myself to be punctual? In the end, it becomes a perpetual vicious cycle where tardiness turns into a shameful culture.

Whenever I am tempted to be late, I am reminded by these words, “Making someone wait is disrespectful. It’s even worse than stealing because the truth is, no amount of sorry and repentance will ever give that person’s time back.”

The other common example is the amount of time we spend on whining, self-pity and of course the most popular of all, getting over a heartbreak. We all have gone through heartbreaks at some stage of our lives and we all know it is not a unique situation.

Most of us tackle this situation with an even less unique method. We tend to spend our time dwelling or obsessing about it. I realise how much time I have spent thinking and rethinking why a relationship failed. We think that the whole world has stopped, or perhaps time has stopped but the scary thing is, it hasn’t.

Before we know it, six months, one year, two years and, for some, a lifetime has passed us by and yet we’re still hanging on to something which isn’t there anymore.

Friends who have confided their failed relationships to me often receive this piece of advice: “Keep those memories with you but move on with your life. Don’t waste it by dwelling on it because you’re just letting precious time slip away from your hands. You’ll look back one day and realise that you can’t replace the time you have lost by mourning over someone who no longer means anything to your life.” If I ever go through a heartbreak again, I hope these are the words my friends will tell me.

Of course, you have some people who constantly tell you that they don’t have time. H. Jackson Brown said: “Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein.”

Indeed, most of us will never be as productive as the names mentioned above because let’s face it, a better standard of living also means we get to spend time doing things for ourselves and not just for others. The big question is, how do we want to spend it?

I don’t advocate for anyone, including myself, to follow the way my father lives his life. Not because it’s pathetic as some of you may have judged too quickly but simply because not everyone can or wants to utilise time the same way my father does or Franklin did.

The point is, do I want to lie on my deathbed begging for God to reverse time so that I can spend it better or being contented with the memories of what I have achieved in my lifetime?

Time is always punctual and it waits for no one. So make yours count before it’s too late.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

From LoyarBurok: Two Women, Two Tribes and A Journey of a Lifetime [Part IV]

Two Women, Two Tribes, and a Journey of a Lifetime is a 9-part series penned by Lim Ka Ea about her one year stint in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where she accompanied her husband on his 9th humanitarian mission. No stranger to travel and humanitarian missions herself, she learned that Ethiopia is not really Africa and Africa is not really all about national parks or long distance-runners. She also learned that being a "tai-tai" is so overrated unless there is another "tai-tai" to get into mischief with. This 9-parter tells the story of how two "tai-tais" explored Ethiopia and discovered their life as both an individual and a woman. This weekly series started with Part I: My first encounter with Africa, Part II: The faces, sounds and smell of Addis Ababa and Part III: The gift of a kindred spirit.

Part IV - Getting in synch with nature

A short distance away from the industrial areas of Addis Ababa, we passed acres of green houses in Debre Zeyit, erected to accommodate the blooming flower industry of Ethiopia, soon overtaking Kenya as the biggest flower producer in Africa. Vertically stacked chopped-up eucalyptus trees lined both sides of the roads neatly. They are valued commodities, serving locals with many purposes; construction of houses, fencing, scaffolding and firewood.

We could start to breathe more easily due to lower altitudes and less air pollution although trucks ahead of us often blurred our frontal visions by leaving behind thick trails of dust which seemed to linger for more than 100 metres at a stretch, especially on unpaved roads.

The landscape varied intermittently from flat arid fields to luscious green and fertile highlands often with layers of man-made terraces to accommodate small agricultural crops. Acacia trees shaped like giant bonsai with their trunks and branches twisted on their own will, aloes and euphorbias were seen spreading sparsely in arid fields. Many acacia trees are used by birds to support their nests and men to hang their traditional cylindrical bee hives made of barks and dung to collect mar or honey.

What is Africa without its bastion of wild animals? We were constantly fascinated by the vast species of birds and animals flying and roaming freely in their undisturbed milieu. I wonder how long would it take before the white pelicans, helmeted guineafowls, vultures, falcons, marabou storks, camels, baboons and dik-diks begin to disappear in order to give way to homo sapiens’ insatiable appetite for development and eventually destruction.

Against a constant background of volcanic hills and the Arsi, Fike and Guge Mountains which seem to stretch for an eternity, clear blue sky invaded by fluffy white clouds, it was definitely a quiet and soothing retreat from the madding crowd of Addis Ababa.

Otherwise a landlocked and mountainous country, which often provides a sense of claustrophobia, the ubiquitous images of the Rift Valley lakes serve as a temporary soothing alternative.

With elevations varying from 450m to 1,700m, the temperature was inevitably erratic. It could rise as high as 40 degrees Celsius, as experienced in Mago National Park and Omorate, to as low as 20 degrees Celsius in higher grounds such as Wolayta and Jinka.

Between Arsi Negele and Shashemene, the landscape changed from the small deciduous leaves of acacia trees on barren soil to thicker foliages thriving on green carpets. We were delighted at the sights of luscious fuchsia-coloured bougainvillaea and crimson red poinsettia trees. Hedges comprised of small yellow-coloured daisies, locally known as Meskal Flower, lined both sides of the road.

"Blue donkeys" were replaced by herds of cows, goats and sheep under the watchful eyes of les petites shepherds. Occasionally, we saw young boys balancing their lean bodies effortlessly on flimsy-looking rubber-wheeled carts pulled by horses along the sides of narrow roads. It did provide an impression of an African version of Roman chariot racers.

In bigger towns like Shashemene and Wolayta, red or blue tuk-tuks, similar to those seen in India and Thailand, and horse drawn carriages serve as public transportations.


Big concrete buildings are being substituted by tukuls, traditional round huts made from clay with conical grass thatched roofs (see picture above). The tukuls are often small and low, which made me wondered how many people it could actually accommodate. While I was concerned with the issue of space, Irada was occupied with a rather different thought, perhaps less grave but definitely more humourous in nature.

She turned to me and said solemnly, "It’s amazing that the cows are not eating the roof."

Shashemene, about 179km from Addis Ababa, is a busy and crowded town, a place where Rastafarians pay homage to. Although deeply disappointed by the absence of men with dreadlocks and marijuana plants, we were still charmed by the sound of bells dangling around the horses’ necks as they galloped along with their attached carriages filled with passengers. It sounded exactly like the sleighing bells of reindeers as often portrayed during the Yuletide season.

A few kilometres after Shashemene, we passed the village of Aje. The tukuls are now much bigger with some beautifully painted with drawings of the Lion of Judah, a revered imperial symbol representing the Emperors’ direct lineage of the Israelite tribes, both according to local legend and Rastafarian belief. There are others wearing some sort of locally made ornaments on top of their roofs.

Local men were seen wearing tall straw hats with orange, red and green horizontal stripes. We were told by Jalalem that these were Oromo men in their traditional hats.

After travelling for almost six hours, the asphalt roads finally ended as soon as we reached the town of Alaba Kulito.

No pain, no gain

While I struggled to take notes during the remaining bumpy journey, my writings were reduced to illegible child-like scribbles. Irada, on the other hand, was faced with a much harder and frustrating task at hand. Due to the influx of tourists over the years, local tribes have begun to take advantage of the benefits of tourism by charging 2Birrs (10Birr is equivalent to roughly 1USD) for each photo taken of them. Prior to our travel, we had been advised to agree on the terms of payment before taking any picture of the local people.

As a bona fide photographer, Irada aspires to capture her subjects in their natural state of being and environment, none of these artificial poses, thank you very much! However, as human beings begin to understand the power and ability of the camera to immortalise images, we also learn to limit the potential of appearing vulnerable and ugly by posing. As such, the locals often looked into the camera with sterile smiles imprinted on their faces.

In order to minimise such monotonous images, Irada often tried to take spontaneous snapshots surreptitiously in order not to alert the people. Unfortunately, unless you are a magician, it was impossible to hide a 24-70mm zooming lens. As soon as the locals saw her with her camera, they rushed towards her demanding for payment or worse, insisting her to take pictures of them so that they could earn some money. It didn’t really matter how far her subjects were because they would often run after her, shouting "2Birr! 2Birr!"

It didn’t matter either whether she had taken a picture of them or not because by having a camera automatically entitled them to assume that she had. Very often, our frustration and patience were taken to a new height when many locals insisted on being paid in fresh new notes.

There was an incident which created much discomfort in me although it didn’t affect Irada’s photographic instinct. As we were passing through a village, a Tsemay boy, dressed in his traditional best, attracted our attention from a distance. He was strolling along the road with a machete in his hand. Many of the local men and boys tend to carry spear-like weapons and AK-47s, as a form of protection against wild animals.

As our car moved slowly towards him, Irada started to take pictures of him. The boy started waving his machete in a fury as soon as he realised that a farenji woman was taking his pictures. Irada, completely unperturbed asked the driver to stop by the boy so that she could take a close up portrait of him. Meantime, the boy continued to wave his machete in front of Irada, obviously very upset judging from his verbal conduct and frantic gestures. Although I was sitting at the other side of the car, I was stricken with fear that the boy might just slash Irada with his machete.

Thankfully, nothing happened as soon as we drove away and left behind a rather angry and upset boy.

Next: Part V - Hardships and Friendship

Ka Ea used to be a globe trotter. She has lived in Timor Leste and Afghanistan while working as a civic education and human rights officers for the United Nations. She then tried to be a full time housewife in Ethiopia and Cambodia but failed miserably. Now, she works with lawyers and human rights activists by day and watches Discovery Travel & Living by night. She writes for The Malaysian Insider during her dwindling free time. She longs for the day when someone would pay her to travel, eat and write.

Irada Humbatova was born in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku on 12 July 1974. She trained and worked as a midwife from 1994 to 1997, later assisting the International Federation of the Red Cross/Red Crescent with maternal health work by training and supporting traditional birth attendants in rural areas. Since then she has followed her husband on Red Cross missions around the world, developing her love for photography into a passion and profession. Inspired by Africa’s immense beauty and its people’s suffering she moved from art photography to photojournalism. She has since grown to become Reuters’ stringer for Ethiopia and work on assignments for other news outlets and magazines. Irada is currently back in Baku continuing her work with Reuters. She contributes most of the photographs in this series.


Monday, April 25, 2011

The unsung heroes of Malaysia

Originally posted on The Malaysian Insider under the title “Reconnecting with one’s identity” on 24 April 2011.


The year was 1996.

I was 15 years younger and also 15kg lighter (if only they are both inversely related).

My only worries were to pass my examinations and for the boy whom I had a huge crush on to give me his time of the day. In my mind, we would have beautiful babies together.

The thought of returning home never occurred to me but it didn’t stop me from being an active member of the Malaysian Student Society. United Kingdom seemed far better off then.

Although it has been 15 years, I still think about the days when we, the Malaysian students, put up a swashbuckling performance at the annual Malaysian Evening gala. We did Malaysia proud by being hospitable, warm and friendly ambassadors. Our enthusiasm and solidarity were infectious and we built friendships that transcend ethnicity and religious affiliations through those years.

I miss the days when the Malay-Boys-Who-Can-Sing-And-Play-Music living downtown would invite my friend and I for home-cooked fish head curries. Apparently the fishmonger next door were selling the discarded heads for peanuts and like monkeys, we devoured every single morsel with much gusto and appreciation.

We also had a Malay friend who could measure the saltiness of his girlfriend’s satay sauce just by sniffing at it. Hers was the best satay sauce I have ever tasted. To reciprocate, my friend and I would make popiah and to our great surprise, they were well-received.

I mustn’t forget our one and only Indian Malaysian student. He was known as the quiet and shy guy who was joined at the hips by two other Chinese Malaysian students. They were really nice because they never forget to celebrate my birthday when I was alone during Easter holiday.

That was the only time when I remember being Malaysian.

15 years later, I am older and the questions running through my mind are of a different nature.

Would my marriage survive? Will I become a mother? Have I done enough for my ageing parents? Would I be able to afford a vacation in the North Pole so that I can see the polar bears? Would I die for my country? Would Malaysia ever change?

At 35, I have become cynical and resentful of so many things in life. What is certain is that the years gone by have served as a cruel reminder of how brutal time and poor eating habit can be.

Having worked and lived in four war-torn countries has somehow contributed a lot to my increasing lack of faith and respect for humankind. Although Malaysia is not at war, apathetic Malaysians combined with a morally corrupted government do very little to change my perception of human beings.

At the end of the day, I deduce we’re all just the same.

That changed on 2 April 2011 at Fort Cornwallis, Penang.

Perhaps it’s true that everything does happen for a reason. What happened for me was to leave my cushy life as an expatriate’s wife and to accept the challenging task of helping Malaysians understand the Federal Constitution. And the reason? I desperately needed to restore my faith as a Malaysian again.

The “Rock for Rights” concert organised by Bar Council’s MyConstitution Campaign, Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia and Frinjan on 2 April, reminded me of the semangat Malaysia I felt 15 years ago, but only better as I didn’t have to be in a foreign land to feel that I belong.

While working on this project, I got to know many Malaysians from very different walks of life and was privileged to learn from them. Many of them are either students or hold regular jobs such as teaching, marketing, public relations, writing, computer programming, event planning, environmentalist and lawyer.

Being an amateur who struggled to put together a concert, the bands and those involved were understanding, patient and forgiving. Many of them were just grateful that they had this rare opportunity to share their artistic talent as musicians and message as Malaysians. They are clearly no ordinary bands as they were not driven by monetary gain but only by their passion as musicians and Malaysians.

I asked Darren Teh from An Honest Mistake why they had decided to participate in this project.

He replied “We want to bring our music to the next level which is to cause change in someone’s life. Being part of this project helps us achieve that. When people listen to our song and knowing the reason behind the lyrics, it helps them connect with us ‘emotionally’. Besides that, knowing that we are adding value to the community, raising awareness of our rights and educating them through music – we are going beyond the boundaries of music, beyond just simple listening pleasure. We are proud to have been part of this entire project.”

I asked Petak Daud, an 18 year-old musician who stunned the crowd with his soft acoustic renditions of songs that speak loudly against the abuse of power by the police and government, what gave him the courage to sing such songs. He said, “The situation surrounding us is becoming worse. We’re like decomposing fleshes which in a matter of time will disappear altogether. This is my mission. I want to wake Malaysians up so that they can see the abuse taking place in this country.”

If a seemingly shy 18 year-old boy who unwittingly scratches his hair while he speaks on stage has the courage to sing such songs, why are most of us still keeping silent?

Azmyl Yunor has a theory – shopping malls and capitalism. According to him, Malaysia’s rapid economic growth over the last three decades has metamorphosised us from being Malaysians to creatures who are continuously motivated by economic gain above everything else. Before we could truly understand who we are as a nation, we occupy our time by shopping.

I told Azmyl that I was shocked by how passive the crowd was at Fort Cornwallis. While some of us cheered and danced to the music, many kept their seats warm by just watching without any expression on their faces. He smiled at my observation and shared his other theory of self-censorship.

Decades of living in a country where preventive laws and religious teachings are imposed have taught us that freedom of expression is vulgar and wrong. He said music is a form of escape. He wouldn’t be caught dead screaming on top of his lungs and rolling on the floor under normal circumstances.

The night was high when Barcode got everyone up to sing the Negaraku. I was exhilarated and I sang our anthem like how most kids would sing to Justin Bieber these days. And like the cool night breeze that provided us with much comfort, the affirmation that I love Malaysia came.

Ammar Khairi from Maharajah Commission shared similar sentiments. He said, “I sincerely hope that there will be many more patriotic souls in Malaysia as opposed to nationalists or even worse, haters. The difference is, a patriotic person would give out his heart and soul for the country and yet continually criticise constructively for a better Malaysia, whereas nationalistic pride is nothing more than waving the flag and declare your allegiance blindly and accepting everything that is told to you by the powers-that-be as the supreme truth.”

Later that night, the party continued. We, the Malaysians, shared and celebrated our identity by laughing and dancing the night away. Fellow columnist, June Rubis who flew in all the way from Sarawak to be our emcee (and to be starved as she emceed for 12 hours straight), screamed on top of her lungs, “I love you, you and you!” She whispered to me and said she would do it all over again.

I stayed high for the next couple of days. 15 years is a long wait after all.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

From Loyar Burok: Two Women, Two Tribes and a Journey of a Lifetime [Part III]

Two Women, Two Tribes, and a Journey of a Lifetime is a 9-part series penned by Lim Ka Ea about her one year stint in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where she accompanied her husband on his 9th humanitarian mission. No stranger to travel and humanitarian missions herself, she learned that Ethiopia is not really Africa and Africa is not really all about national parks or long distance-runners. She also learned that being a "tai-tai" is so overrated unless there is another "tai-tai" to get into mischief with. This 9-parter tells the story of how two "tai-tais" explored Ethiopia and discovered their life as both an individual and a woman. This weekly series started with Part I: My first encounter with Africa and Part II: The faces, sounds and smell of Addis Ababa.

Part III - The gift of a kindred spirit

As I was about to turn my back against Ethiopia, I was given an unexpected gift. A few months later, I met a young woman, whom I had a previous brief encounter with when I made a short trip to Kenya. She has just arrived in Ethiopia from Azerbaijan with her husband who is working in the same organisation as mine.

I soon learned that she has taken up photography while she was living in Nairobi, accompanying her husband in his previous job. Like me, she had gone through longer period of lifestyle adjustment, depression and isolation as a result of moving from places to places, in support of her husband’s work.

Elephants of Amboseli, Kenya

Irada started developing her interest in photography after realising that in order for her to bounce back into life, she needed something which would serve a greater purpose in her life. I find Irada to be a remarkable and inspiring woman. Not only is she a devoted wife and a mother of two adorable children, she finds time to nurture her own personal interest. She intends to pursue a career in photography with the hope that one day, she will be able to discover and share her own vision of the world through her own lens.

Her story of courage, strength, determination and optimism provided me with renewed hope and enthusiasm about my own role in Ethiopia. I realised that I had been too busy drowning myself in personal discontentment which had in turn blinded my ability to discover a higher sense of purpose in my life there.

Instead of doing something, I had reduced myself to just being "the unemployed wife."

The opportunity for me to do something arrived when Irada suggested a trip to the South-Omo Valley, homes to the many traditional isolated tribes of Ethiopia. In the beginning, I was seduced by my sense of adventure but subsequently, my inner self reminded me that I would never forgive myself for not achieving anything while being in Ethiopia. So the idea of writing this story was conceived, thanks to this destined encounter, as Irada would have me believe.

South Omo Valley - home to the forgotten tribes of Ethiopia

Although South Omo Valley is home to many traditional tribes such as the Tsemay, Banna, Konso, Ari, Dassanitch, Arbore, Karo, Bumi and Surma, the Mursi were the ones attracting us the most due to their unique practices of lip plates, face painting, elaborate hairstyles and other ceremonious traditions.

Our exciting journey began in Addis Ababa on an otherwise typical bright sunny day. In the early morning hours of 30 May 2008, we loaded our rented and chauffeured Toyota Cobra with basic camping necessities such as mosquito domes, sleeping bags, three days of food supply consisted of canned and dried food, rolls of toilet paper, a torch light, bottles of mineral water, hand sanitiser, mosquito repellent, wet wipes and a first aid kit.

As any seasoned travellers would do, three jerry cans of fuel were strapped securely on top of our car to prevent the possibility of being stuck in the middle of nowhere. We were informed that we would need to camp in Mago National Park as they are no hotel facilities.

Cows 2

Finally, the rare opportunity to camp in the tribal wilderness of Africa greeted us both with great trepidation as well as excitement.

Of course being women, our travel bags included miscellaneous female hygiene and personal care products, not forgetting luxury items such as mobile phones, mp3 player, 5litres of South African white wine, a bag of mini Toblerone and a large Nestle chocolate bar.

Half of the car’s backseat was occupied by Irada’s photographic equipment while I settled with only a notebook and a copy of my dog-eared Lonely Planet guidebook on Ethiopia and Eritrea. We were rather amazed by Jalalem, our driver’s lonely and evidently self-contained duffel bag. Though we were only three, Irada and I decided to squeeze ourselves in the backseat so that we could talk easily.

We brought bags of candies to be distributed along the way with hopes of earning some smiles from the local children. This turned out to be handy since we were often greeted by emaciated-looking boys and girls demanding for "caramella" or candies in Italian. It didn’t take long for us to dispense all the candies much to the children’s delight and appreciation.

As we bid farewell to Addis Ababa, we could not help but feel like a saner version of Thelma and Louise, leaving behind our mundane domestic lives in search of hopefully, a melodramatic adventure.

The journey through the Great Rift Valley

The Great Rift Valley, measuring more than 8,700km in length, constitutes nearly one-third of the earth’s circumference. It extends from the Jordan Valley in the north, through the Red Sea, down south to the South Omo Valley of Ethiopia, through Lake Turkana in Kenya, across Tanzania, Mozambique and finally ends near the Zambezi delta. Situated south-west of Ethiopia, the South Omo Valley itself boasts six lakes, Ziway, Abiata-Shala, Langano, Awassa, Chamo and one of the largest of the Rift Valley; Lake Abaya measuring at 1160sqm.

In order to reach the Mursi, we had to make overnight stops at Arba Minch, Jinka and Mago National Park, across more than 1,000km of wide asphalt roads often proceeded with very narrow, winding and bumpy gravelled paths, as we moved towards more and more remote and isolated areas.

As we began to drift slowly away from Addis Ababa, we started to see the real beauty and charm of the Ethiopian countryside in all its organic splendour. Our first overnight stop, Arba Minch is approximately 550km from Addis Ababa, of which the last 110km consists of unpaved roads through mountainous terrain.

We were impressed by Jalalem’s driving skills as he confidently swerved and manoeuvred the car to avoid big potholes, cattle and pedestrians along the roads. In the beginning, it felt like a fun roller-coaster ride but after awhile, our buttocks and legs felt sore from the constant bumpy stretch of roads. It almost felt like we were sitting on massage chairs for hours, except that soothing vibrations were replaced by violent poundings.

The journey took us about eleven hours with occasional brief stopovers in the towns of Shashemene, Wolayta and Weyto to ease our full bladders, stretch our legs and refuel our vehicle and stomachs.

Cows 1

Notoriously known for sleeping in long car rides, I did not even doze off for a second throughout the whole journey. Neither did Irada. We were both constantly fascinated by almost everything, right down to the herds of cattle which seemed to rule the roads in almost every village we passed.

The local cows are shaped rather oddly, with backs protruding like humps and skins sweeping loosely beneath their necks. There was a lot of "Look! Look!" exclamations, as each of us pointed out what seemed to have amused or tickled us from both sides of the car. Jalalem was completely unperturbed, except for his strange fascination for banana plantations as he often pointed out to us.

Despite a lot of frustrations without a local guide, we relied on Jalalem with his limited command of English to explain things. We soon picked up some basic Amharic during the course of our journey.

Since it was already close to the month of June, we began to see the sign of rainy season albeit the seasonal rain being late at this time of the year. The weather was slightly grey and melancholy followed by occasional soft drizzle. There was already flooding in certain lower areas.

Donkeys huddled together under the flat canopy of acacia trees, waiting stubbornly for the rain to stop. I began to notice how endearing these white-snouted four-legged creatures are as I often saw them in pairs, facing each other, as if having a private conversation with only God privy to it. Sometimes, they even nuzzled affectionately against each other’s necks. The sluggish pace of countryside often creates time for love even for animals, as compared to city life where people seem to hurry on with their inconsequential affairs.

While it was unfortunate for the people who were beginning to be affected by the flood, it provided us with some cool respite from the summer heat of Addis Ababa.

Next: Part IV - Getting in sync with nature

Ka Ea used to be a globe trotter. She has lived in Timor Leste and Afghanistan while working as a civic education and human rights officers for the United Nations. She then tried to be a full time housewife in Ethiopia and Cambodia but failed miserably. Now, she works with lawyers and human rights activists by day and watches Discovery Travel & Living by night. She writes for The Malaysian Insider during her dwindling free time. She longs for the day when someone would pay her to travel, eat and write.

Irada Humbatova was born in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku on 12 July 1974. She trained and worked as a midwife from 1994 to 1997, later assisting the International Federation of the Red Cross/Red Crescent with maternal health work by training and supporting traditional birth attendants in rural areas. Since then she has followed her husband on Red Cross missions around the world, developing her love for photography into a passion and profession. Inspired by Africa’s immense beauty and its people’s suffering she moved from art photography to photojournalism. She has since grown to become Reuters’ stringer for Ethiopia and work on assignments for other news outlets and magazines. Irada is currently back in Baku continuing her work with Reuters. She contributes most of the photographs in this series.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

When the non-marginalised becomes marginalised

This was first posted at The Malaysian Insider on 20 February 2011 under the title “Marginalising the non-marginalised”.

I once had an interesting conversation with my former boss who was then the country representative of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) I was volunteering for in Phnom Penh. She lamented that too many NGOs, international aid agencies and government institutions are giving too much attention to HIV/AIDS programmes. 

So much so that those who are afflicted by less notorious diseases such as diabetes are being neglected despite the latter killing more people each year. According to UNAIDS, 1.8 million people died of AIDS in 2009 while 3.4 million people were reported to have died of diabetes in 2004 according to WHO’s statistics and this number may very well have doubled by now. 

Then I started to think about what she said and realised that on many levels, there is a lot of truth in it and it doesn’t just stop at HIV/AIDS. 

Part of my volunteering work involved working with staff from Tom Dy Centre, a shelter and rehabilitation centre for women rescued from human trafficking and sexual exploitation in Cambodia. I had visited this centre several times and was amazed by the level of comfort provided by this well-equipped and relatively modern centre but as soon as I stepped out of it, the surrounding area looked more like the rest of Cambodia; bare, under-developed, poor and dirty. 

The roads in the area were appalling and could easily succumb to flooding if there was a heavy downpour and needless to say, the wooden houses around the neighbourhood were old, small, flimsy and completely weather-beaten. It was safe to assume that they would not have been able to protect the three little piglets from the big bad wolf. This scene is just a few kilometres away from Phnom Penh city centre. 

When I asked my colleague about the community’s perception of the women at the shelter, she told me that while some are inclined to look down on them, many actually harbour some form of jealousy towards them. I was not surprised since most people living in the community are struggling to make ends meet while the women at the shelter are given free regular healthcare, vocational training and reintegration packages to help them start their own small businesses. 

It’s difficult to imagine that any of these women would want to return to their previous life as a village girl waiting on her family hand and foot. I also can’t help but wonder whether such new “improved” living conditions would help them readjust easily to their former lifestyle. 

I don’t know whether it’s Angelina Jolie who made adoption “sexy” because it is extremely popular in Cambodia. It is common to see adopted Cambodian children dressed up in OshKosh B’gosh and Gap Kids while being enrolled in international schools that seem to have mushroomed in the capital city to meet the demands of a growing expatriate community. 

Although these local children are being given a chance to have better education and standard of living, the majority of Cambodian children drop out from schools before the age of 12 in order to help their parents support their large families. Not unlike Thailand, the burden of taking care of the family falls on the daughters’ shoulders more than the boys. 

I had the opportunity to meet the executive director of a local NGO called Health Centre for Children. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that their reintegration approach for trafficked and sexually exploited children is very different from other NGOs in Cambodia. Their approach is very much about integrating the victims’ needs with the needs of their community and at the same time, cultivating a collective sense of ownership and responsibility amongst themselves. Families and communities of reintegrated children are rewarded for developing and improving their economic condition and thus preventing their children from being trafficked and sold into the sex trade. 

In a nutshell, all of them get a piece of the pie. 

The NGO will provide a loan or other forms of incentives to help develop the community as a whole. In addition, community-based activities such as campaigns and group sessions to talk about issues concerning human trafficking and sexual exploitation are held regularly. All these activities will help inculcate a common sense of responsibilities towards protecting the children. 

To me, this is obviously a more effective and sustainable approach towards preventing further exploitation of children. For a start, it tackles the root cause of the problem. The majority of women and children are being trafficked or sold as slaves because of poverty. Hence, a more effective method of preventing this form of modern-day slavery is to develop the community first and at the same time, provide the children with education. 

In a country like Cambodia where more than 90 per cent of the population live beneath the poverty line, it is not hard to think that nearly all of them are marginalized in one way or another by our standard. 

For the average Cambodian who barely makes more than US$40 a month, it doesn’t help them to think that one must be a victim of some sort of tragedy, chronic disease or crime in order to receive assistance. For the majority of them, better infrastructure, employment, education, basic health care, food and water will help improve their lives tremendously. 

By no means am I saying that those whose lives are being tragically compromised by HIV/AIDS, trafficking, forced prostitution, disability and other hardships do not deserve the amount of attention the world seems to be giving, but I think it is time for humanitarian institutions to adopt more community-based programmes so that the non-marginalised will not end up being the marginalised.

It’s time to walk

This post was first published at The Malaysian Insider on 4 February 2011 under the title “Time to walk….for change in the judiciary.”

It was a highly-anticipated gathering of 30 or more. Some would call it an illegal gathering; I called it a group discussion. No, it wasn’t a keris-waving meeting-under-a-tree nor was it an abolish-the-ISA kind of gathering.

It was a gathering which saw highly-specialised professionals (criminal law practitioners to be precise) sharing their grievances and wishing for things to change.

What do you call a group of criminal defence lawyers who are losing their cases just because the Chief Justice is on a personal crusade against backlog cases? Very frustrated lawyers who are contemplating to trade in criminal for civil litigation and very angry ones who are prepared to stage a demonstration in protest of the judiciary’s fast-track system.

Like most gatherings in Malaysia, it didn’t start on time. Instead, it started off with the few who did arrive on time exchanging polite greetings that were quickly followed by perfunctory chats about the legal practice, by-election results and predictions of the next general election date. June 2011 and beginning of 2012 were overheard.

The clock was ticking and those who had taken their seats were beginning to look anxious. Some had even begun to discuss the issues which were on the agenda. Right about 20 minutes past the time when the gathering was supposed to commence, the discussion took off in full force; without any warning, welcome remarks or introduction from the chairperson.

It was clear that most who were present needed to get their frustrations off their chests and as quickly as possible. If I had never placed a bet on anything before due to my pathetic sense of prediction, I am willing to bet now that these lawyers were all on the edge of breaking down and needed intervention desperately.

One very senior and reputable lawyer from out of state said: “We’re not here as sore losers, we’re here because we’re fed up with what our judiciary system has become. We’ve all lost cases before and learned to live with it but what’s happening now is unbearable and completely unacceptable!”

What he was referring to is none other than the already greatly talked about Key Performance Indicator (KPI) imposed on judges by the judiciary more than two years ago, as an attempt to clear up backlog cases. There’s no need for me to go into details about the KPI as this has been written extensively by lawyers like Mureli Navaratnam and Art Harun on The Malaysian Insider.

However, it is worth noting that the KPI was best described by the same senior lawyer as: “Don’t worry. Just decide.” According to him, that seems to be the motto of our judiciary system these days and it is frightening that most judges seem to have adopted the motto with such ease that they can send someone to the gallows without any worry of whether that person has been given a fair trial or not and, in this case, the time of day.

According to another lawyer who is younger, a person is being sentenced to death every week.

Rushing to clear a civil law suit is one thing but rushing the hearing of someone charged with a capital crime is another. What more, when according to those present, most judges enter their courts with the intention to convict, regardless of whether the defence counsel could have successfully proven his or her client’s innocence or not.

Chief Justice Tun Zaki Azmi, the man behind the KPI system, was known to have said this: “Those who complain that we are moving too fast are those who are not ready to proceed with their cases.” According to him, it is necessary for lawyers to be prepared when they come to court and therefore, it is unnecessary to grant more time for defence lawyers to prepare their cases.

Perhaps, lawyers should bring their potties, lunch boxes and doctors along with them to court in the spirit of preparedness. Several lawyers who were present reported that some judges went to the extent of prohibiting them from going to the restroom or lunch break in between long trials.

Case adjournment was also denied most of the time even when it was completely called for such as in the case of a critically-ill counsel or defendant. A judge purportedly said this: “As long as you’re not dead, we’ll go on with the hearing.”

When the Chief Justice decides to impose discipline and expects efficiency from lawyers, one should also expect him to do the same for his judges. Two years in the going and surely this means our judges should be on their way to becoming a top-notch Bench but instead, they seem to have slipped further and further below their benches, quite literally so, as one of the lawyers described.

“Now that the sessions are being recorded, judges are told not to take notes. You can see some of their heads getting lower and lower and lower as time goes by. By afternoon, some of them have fallen asleep during the hearing!”

Everyone burst into laughter as they watched the lawyer mimicked the judges’ heads descending into oblivion.

“You all think this is funny? I’ve got one judge who interrupted me half-way and told me that she couldn’t remember what was said during cross-examination because she was not taking notes.”

The laughter came to a complete halt as it dawned on everyone that it wasn’t funny after all. This signalled those who had not previously spoken to come forth with their own examples of judges contributing to the slow and painful death of our criminal justice system, all in the name of fast-track.

As the cacophony of unhappy lawyers continued to penetrate all four walls of the room, one respectable lawyer from another state finally spoke up and commanded the immediate attention of everyone else.

The grave expression he wore on his face summed up the discussion for that day.

“It is clear. Our judges are no longer interested in the law. Neither are they interested in justice. Their interest lies in disposing of cases.”

As I watched his face and listened to his voice, I knew that this was spoken by someone who is tired, dejected but above all, disappointed and angry. Disappointed with how our justice system has become and angry for the wrongful convictions of innocent people.

The chairperson finally took the floor and asked a pertinent question. “What do we do?”

The lawyer sitting next to me raised his hand and shouted: “I say we march!”

His suggestion was greeted by approval and nods of encouragement by some, but not all. Most who were present looked around uncertainly; unsure whether to support such a drastic measure or to contemplate other options.

They could easily be swayed into supporting the former. I could tell.

“Hang on. Hang on a second. I know you’re all very upset at the moment but I think we should try to engage the CJ first. Let’s come up with a memo with all the grievances you have mentioned earlier on and let me and a few other senior lawyers speak to the CJ first. Let’s wait first before we do anything drastic.” A second option was quickly provided by the chairperson.

“It’s not like we’ve not met with the CJ and told him all the problems lawyers are facing. He knows! But what was his answer? He said all judges are given discretion to run their trials and he can’t interfere,” someone retorted.

“Yes, yes. I know but surely you can’t expect things to change overnight, right?” The chairperson said in an attempt to calm those who were beginning to display their passion more eagerly.

“Yes, we can because people are being executed as we speak. We can’t wait any longer. Change must happen now.”

Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, former president of the Malaysian Bar, once said during a historical march: “When lawyers walk, something is wrong.”

I think it’s time to walk again.

Rocking for rights

This was first posted at The Malaysian Insider under the title “The message is in the song” on 13 March 2011.


Bob Marley once sang these famous words:

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery

None but ourselves can free our minds

Have no fear for atomic energy

Cause none of them can stop the time

I wonder whether he was high on weed when he was writing those words. Whether he was or wasn’t, this song went on to become one of the most iconic songs for those who value freedom, particularly of the mind.

This article is about political expression in music. But before anyone jumps into conclusion that this is going to be an anti-government propaganda, here’s an interesting fact. Politics and music are not just about anti-establishment, anti-war or peaceful expression of protest against any form of government or political ideology. It can also be pro-establishment such as seen in the national anthem or patriotic songs.

So, if anyone starts criticising that music with political theme is evil, let’s be reminded that the Negaraku, which contains the lyrics Raja kita selamat bertakhta, is a song that all primary and secondary school students are compelled to sing first thing in the morning in schools.

I’ve always thought that political expression in music is a fairly recent phenomenon. When I think about music and politics, I usually picture half a million demonstrators gathered at Washington D.C and sang Give Peace a Chance by John Lennon in peaceful protest of the Vietnam War in 1969.

I was, of course proven wrong when I google searched and discovered that classical composers such as Beethoven, Verdi, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, just to name a few, have been known to compose music that had either abhorred foreign domination or venerated a particular regime. We, who live in this modern era, tend to identify more with singers and bands such as Bob Dylan, John Lennon, The Clash, U2, Rage Against the Machine, Bob Marley, Sex Pistols and many others when it comes to expressing political messages through music.

When it comes to spreading and sharing messages, nothing has been quite as effective as music, which explains why Christians still sing praises to God and the Taliban banned it in Afghanistan.

Music can either reinforce a message, or destroy it; depending on which side you’re looking from. After all, music is a manifestation of freedom and for some, this is something to be feared of.

In 1990, a non-profit and non-partisan organisation called Rock the Vote emerged in the United States of America to attract the seriously declining youth population to register as voters and to vote in the election. Its modus operandi is none other than music, popular culture and new technologies. The campaign was so successful that the percentage of registered young voters increased by 20% within 2 years since its inception. In 2004, more than 1.2 million youths registered as voters on its website. I believe wide participation by celebrity spokesperson such as Christina Aguilera, Robert Downey Jr., Leonardo DiCaprio and Justine Timberlake plays a part in making this campaign a major hit.

In 2004, rapper Sean “P Diddy” Combs, led a not-for-profit organisation called Citizen Change responsibled for the campaign called Vote or Die. In the 2004 US elections, the campaign attracted 20.9 million young voters from the age of 18 to 29; a staggering change from the 16.2 million young voters in 2000. This inevitably helped to raise the overall percentage of voters in America in 2004.

Today, I want to write about a somewhat similar campaign in Malaysia but without the violence. Nobody is going to die but hopefully many will start to vote.

I learn that there are 27 million Malaysians, 11 million voters, 4 million more eligible Malaysians who haven’t registered to vote. I also learn that we have a Federal Constitution that guarantees all of us rights, freedoms and a democratic system of government that answers to us. But the question is: how many Malaysians know this?

The information above can be found on the CD inlay of Radio Demokratika, a music album produced by the Bar Council’s MyConstitution Campaign in conjunction with its Elections and Democracy theme. Some of you may have seen the eye-catching pocket-sized booklets that contain a wealth of information pertaining to the Federal Constitution produced by the Campaign, but this music album has only been making its debut just recently.

Last Saturday, amidst a decent crowd of more than 200 people, the album was launched at Pekan Frinjan 18, a regular event organised by Frinjan at Dataran Shah Alam. Close to 100 copies of the album was sold within that couple of hours, especially after an electrifying live performances by some of the bands.

Radio Demokratika features 12 original songs written and performed by 12 local independent bands. I was told that names such as Azmyl Yunor, Carburetor Dung, amongst others, are infamous in the underground music scene and no strangers to many urban youths since more than two decades ago.

There are many strong qualities about this album. Apart from the obvious fact that the songs are mainly about the Federal Constitution and socio-political issues that concern Malaysian youths such as inter-racial relationships, freedom of expression and political responsibilities, it has huge potential to unite youths from all racial divide and in so doing, encourage them to play a role in making Malaysia a better place to live.

As I listen to the lyrics of one of the songs that goes like this:

We’ll be the change that our nation needs to see

We’ll turn the dream into reality to be

A land that’s peaceful and strong

Which fights for right against wrong

And all of its people united and free!

I’ve begun to realise that this is precisely what this Campaign has hoped for.

There is no doubt that this Campaign can never achieve the same kind of magnitude that Rock the Vote or Vote or Die have achieved but make no mistake that it has great potential, with your support.

There is nothing more refreshing than this campaign as you flip through the morning headlines that write about nothing but what Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat have or have not done. The Campaign does not speak about political parties but only political issues.

Mahatma Gandhi once said: "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."

I’ll say that the greatness of a truly democratic nation can be judged by how well we have emancipated ourselves from mental slavery.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

From Loyar Burok: Two Women, Two Tribes and One Journey of a Lifetime [Part II]

Two Women, Two Tribes, and a Journey of a Lifetime is a 9-part series penned by Lim Ka Ea about her one year stint in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where she accompanied her husband on his 9th humanitarian mission. No stranger to travel and humanitarian missions herself, she learned that Ethiopia is not really Africa and Africa is not really all about national parks or long distance-runners. She also learned that being a "tai-tai" is so overrated unless there is another "tai-tai" to get into mischief with. This 9-parter tells the story of how two "tai-tais" explored Ethiopia and discovered their life as both an individual and a woman. This weekly series started with Part I: My first encounter with Africa

Part II - The faces, sound and smell of Addis Ababa

After two weeks upon arriving in Ethiopia, I soon discovered that I only liked three things about Addis Ababa; its peaceful demeanour, coffee and the mild highland climate, as opposed to the hot blazing sun I had initially anticipated. The city itself lacks the African charm I was expecting although the local residents are amiable enough with their winning smiles, often displaying extremely good oral hygiene.

Many new construction sites are mushrooming all over the city centre despite poor public infrastructure. Many roads are still unpaved and filled with pot holes, large enough to cause pedestrians much discomfort during the rainy season.

Rubber boots

My first purchase in Addis Ababa was a pair of rubber boots although it is easy enough to find pre-pubescent children everywhere, keen to earn a couple of Birrs by cleaning and polishing your shoes to a perfect shine.

It is a city which never seem to leave me alone with constant throngs of children screaming "farenji" (foreigner in Amharic), or "China, China!" at me and the constant battle with the notoriously chaotic road traffic, dominated mainly by what most foreigners refer to as "blue donkeys"; blue and white minibuses and shabby-looking Ladas serving as public transportation. The nickname itself is attributed to the fact that most of these minibuses would often stop anywhere in the middle of the road and stubbornly refuse to budge despite the unprecedented amount of lamentation and honking received from other road users.

Poignant faces of beggars consisting of grubby-looking children, women exposing their wrinkled bosoms unashamedly while nursing their babies, elderly and the disabled, with their arms perpetually extended in hope of charity are a constant sight. For those who have just arrived in Addis Ababa, it is so easy for their hearts to surrender to these psychological assaults but after long period of such regular dosage, even the biggest Samaritan have the propensity to become immune to their plight.

The whole city is used as public latrines as local men are visibly seen releasing themselves shamelessly at every turn of the street, sometimes even right in the middle of a crowd. So, one can only imagine the rancid ammoniac scent of urine emanating the air in many parts of the city. Public littering is another vice to be reckoned with as many private property compounds are used as dumping grounds, with the exception of certain affluent diplomatic residences.

The sound of Addis Ababa stirs as early as four in the morning as devout Orthodox Christians congregate faithfully in churches all over the city. Faint but not inaudible chanting of prayers can be heard from miles away. For those living in Muslim quarters, the soothing voice of the local muezzin singing the azan, calling all believers to fadjr prayer, slowly breaks the silence of dawn.

For those who are still in bed by seven, shouts from street peddlers selling basic household items such as broom sticks, brushes and other basic household knick-knacks are sure to induce a couple of disgruntled curses, often spoiling the start of one’s morning before that hot aromatic cup of Harari coffee.

Ethiopians do like their fair share of loud music with radios belting local pop songs by Ephrem Tamiru and Teddy Afro, African-American hip-hop, reggae and rhythm and blues from grocery kiosks, coffee bars, cars and taxis. If it is not the loud music, a full blown orchestra played by hundreds of Sesame Street Honkers poltergeists along Bole Road, often referred to as the Champs Elysees Avenue of Ethiopia, receives standing ovations every single day.

Despite its fairly religious society, young urbanites are relatively open about their sexuality. The city hosts several nightclubs known for its seedy sex industry frequented by many foreigners. As a woman, I never cease to be amused by the indiscretion of local men giving persistent glances and flirtatious signals everywhere I go. Local women apparently extend the same courtesy to members of the opposite sex although in a slightly more subtle way.

In the beginning, I took it as a form of flattery which eventually turned into a liability as it became more difficult for me to enjoy my cup of coffee without feeling that I was being mentally stripped. However, with the right amount of distance and ignorance, most men often left me alone as soon as they ascertained my level of indifference.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, I found many women in Addis Ababa showing complete apathy and sometimes even hostility towards me for reasons which remain a mystery at large.

Desperate housewife

After several failed attempts to find a job in Ethiopia, I found myself falling slowly into a rut as I struggled to adjust to a new lifestyle. I began to spend a lot of time on my own as I could not find anything in common with other women whom I have met along the way. After working in challenging contexts in Timor Leste and Afghanistan, I was soon consumed with boredom, demotivation and above all, gradual deterioration of my own self esteem as I attended to daily chores of a more domestic nature.

In order to combat my boredom, I volunteered for the Ethiopian Red Cross although it lasted for five months only. As a volunteer, I was not satisfied with just the sense of altruism it created. I wanted to have a bigger role, to be part of the decision-making process, something which I was often used to while working for the United Nations in Timor Leste and Afghanistan.

The recent regular power cut imposed by the local authority in its feeble attempt to save energy three times a week in the city has further aggravated my irritation.

I tried to occupy my time by learning French, writing and improving my cooking skill, much to my husband’s dismay due to the often unpalatable results. I would sometimes go to nearby cafes to enjoy brunch with my beloved cup of strong black coffee while reading a book but most visits tend to end up with harrowing experiences of finding strands of coarse and curly human hair staring rudely at me from my food. All these perfunctory activities made me felt empty and completely dispirited.

In conclusion, I developed a progressive dislike towards Ethiopia, fed mostly by my own injured spirit. I thought that for the first time in my life, I would leave a country filled with a lot of bitterness and worst of all, with nothing to gain at a personal level.

Next: Part III - The gift of a kindred spirit

Ka Ea used to be a globe trotter. She has lived in Timor Leste and Afghanistan while working as a civic education and human rights officers for the United Nations. She then tried to be a full time housewife in Ethiopia and Cambodia but failed miserably. Now, she works with lawyers and human rights activists by day and watches Discovery Travel & Living by night. She writes for The Malaysian Insider during her dwindling free time. She longs for the day when someone would pay her to travel, eat and write.

Irada Humbatova was born in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku on 12 July 1974. She trained and worked as a midwife from 1994 to 1997, later assisting the International Federation of the Red Cross/Red Crescent with maternal health work by training and supporting traditional birth attendants in rural areas. Since then she has followed her husband on Red Cross missions around the world, developing her love for photography into a passion and profession. Inspired by Africa’s immense beauty and its people’s suffering she moved from art photography to photojournalism. She has since grown to become Reuters’ stringer for Ethiopia and work on assignments for other news outlets and magazines. Irada is currently back in Baku continuing her work with Reuters. She contributes most of the photographs in this series.