Monday, January 31, 2011

When being independent isn’t enough

This was first published in The Malaysian Insider on 31 January 2011.

When I was a child, my Father would play his favourite game with me. It was a game that I would call Lets-test-whether-my-daughter-loves-me-enough-to-forgive-me game.

He would ask me this: “Say that I’ve committed a crime. You’re the presiding Judge. Would you hand me a guilty verdict?”

Yes.” That would be my answer, all said without a pause in between.

I didn’t even think about asking him what sort of hypothetical crime he could have committed and what would have motivated him to break the law. My logic was simple and straightforward then. (Note: grey was certainly not in my colour dictionary at that time.) I thought if a person commits a crime, he/she must be judged guilty and be sent to jail immediately.

In my juvenile mind, I didn’t consider whether there could be possible mitigating factors which could influence my judgment and subsequently lead to exonerating my Father’s crime.

My monosyllabic answer did not thrill my Father one bit. He would often argued in exasperation.

But I’m your Father! You won’t even use your position to help me out?” “Sure? No question about it?” “But I gave you life and I feed you! How could you?”

He tried to use the my-blood-runs-through-your-veins’ card but sadly to no avail. I was that stubborn.

Despite my predictable and solid answer, he continued to play this game with me throughout most of my childhood years until one fine day he decided to stop. I never knew why but I am making a mental note to ask him when I see him next.

Sometimes I wish I had studied psychology so that I could analyse my relationship with my Father but most importantly how much of my character and personality as a child has reflected on my moral integrity and principles as an adult.

As an adult, I often find myself confronted by issues that pose as ethical and moral conundrums; should I tell my friend that her husband is cheating on her? Should I accept a gift even if I don’t deserve it? Should I euthanise my critically ill pet? Should I buy this pirated DVD even though I know it’s illegal? Should I hire a less competent person just because he/she would need the income more than the one who is really competent?

Thankfully, I’ve cultivated an appetite to ask questions and find the answers to help me judge. Granted, I don’t always make the right judgment but it forces me to first ask myself whether I would be more ready to accept stealing if I were starving and penniless before passing a guilty verdict.

There is one question which often sparks a great deal of debate amongst the NGO circle. Would you consider it ethical to accept funding from political parties or big corporations that may be violating free and fair trade agreement, environmental, health or human rights policies?

A few years back when I was living in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian Red Cross (CRC) launched a huge fund-raising event in conjunction with World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day. It managed to collect a staggering US$4 million from various local and foreign private companies and various other undisclosed sources. It was no surprise seeing that the CRC President is an influential person and hence was able to use her status to garner strong support from the business community.

It’s not a secret either that the CRC President is the wife of Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia.

During the World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day; amidst thousands of people, including members of the press and other high profile representatives from international aid organisations, the Prime Minister handed over a mock cheque of US$4 million to the President of the CRC.

This gesture, which was regarded as a formality by many Cambodians was highly criticised by certain international community. The matrimonial connection between the President of CRC and the Prime Minister has always been a point of contention for those who understand the concept of independence within the Movement. Nevertheless, Hun Sen and his wife appeared prudent enough to keep a distance from each other in public for most of the time.

All recognised national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies must subscribe to the seven fundamental principles (humanity, universality, unity, independence, neutrality, impartiality and voluntary service) of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. While playing an auxiliary role to the State, they are expected to maintain independence at all time.

In many countries, including developed ones, many governments are known to provide funds to their national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies and this is not against the Movement’s constitution. However, it’s imperative that they maintain independence by staying away from government influence when making decisions and executing their duties and responsibilities.

I think the CRC’s independence is challenged for two strong reasons; the intimate relationship between the two main personalities and the lack of faith in a corrupted government led by Hun Sen. Cambodia’s poor human rights record, weak rule of law and continuous violation of a free and fair election process have drawn multiple question marks on the Prime Minister’s credibility.

The fact that the CRC’s President “shares the same bed” with the Prime Minister has caused great discomfort to foreign stakeholders and guardians of the Movement. To be fair, the CRC’s President tries hard to exclude the participation of the Prime Minister in many CRC events just to avoid such criticism. But is that enough?

My Father’s little game would not have happened in real life. My close relation with him would have automatically disqualified me from presiding over his case. Not only must justice be done but must also seen to be done. I could be as impartial as possible but my personal relationship with my Father would always cast a doubt in the public’s eyes.

So, what’s my stand on this issue?

First of all, CRC is not a judiciary but a humanitarian institution. Its main duty is to provide humanitarian aid for those in need. When facing a dilemma such as this (particularly when it’s difficult to change or challenge a sovereign institution so entrenched in its tradition and culture), it’s always helpful to go back to the main foundation and objectives of the institution.

In this case, it’s clear that at the end of the day, the Movement’s duty lies in the interest of the people. The international community needs to weigh this delicate matter carefully before making a judgment in condemning the institution’s independence which can potentially harm its diplomatic relationship and hence jeopardise its core mandate.

I read a commentary made by Jean Pictet, former Director-General of the ICRC, on the Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross. He wrote:

“It is clear indeed that the Red Cross Society in a country under an authoritarian regime cannot serve as a centre for opposition to the regime or to any party or faith. It can thus display an attitude of benevolent neutrality towards temporal or spiritual authorities, maintain good relations with them and co-operate with them in humanitarian activities, since the National Societies are called upon to serve as auxiliaries to governmental institutions.”

Neutrality also is the attitude observed by the ICRC in its relations with governmental entities, treating them on the basis of equality, not expressing itself on their legitimacy, not considering whether they are recognised, not judging their politics. If it acts in this way, it does so not in order to waste its energies in idle diplomatic procedures but so as to gain access to victims in need of help, and these victims are in the power of the States. It is therefore necessary to obtain the required authorisation from States and to maintain the relations of confidence essential for continuing co-operation.”

While it is a duty for the Red Cross Movement to push for an institution’s independence, it is as much a duty for them to ask themselves whether they have been neutral in exercising its judgment.

In humanitarian field, neutrality is perhaps the most important of all principles because at the end of the day, those who seek to benefit from humanitarian aid should not be judged by their religion, race, political affiliation, etc. This also means that they should not be deprived from aid simply because their government or national Red Cross/Red Crescent society has failed to satisfy the Movement’s criteria of independence. Why should they be further inflicted by the wrongs of others?

The fundamental real threat would be if funds are not being channelled to those in need but to further profit those who already have their pockets filled. This, however, is another issue altogether.

So, if Philip Morris wants to donate US$1 million to a free clinic I’m running, I’ll take it. My action won’t have any impact on them because they would continue to produce cigarettes anyway, but be sure that it’ll have a huge impact on a 40 year-old mother who needs dialysis but can’t afford it and, it will have an impact on her whole family.

Monday, January 24, 2011

In Search of Besa

This article was first published in The Malaysian Insider on 23 January 2011.

Norman Gershman talking about his Besa project

It is quite a fallacy to think that Malaysia is internationally famed for being a moderate Muslim country that takes pride in its multi-racial and multi-cultural DNA.

When words got around that a Malaysian was volunteering for the Ethiopian Red Cross, I received a surprising but rather interesting visit from a very eager high ranking local staff at my office. He was Muslim. Normally this piece of information wouldn’t have mattered but in this story, it does.

When he introduced himself enthusiastically, I could sense that he was waiting to ask me something that was related to my nationality since he couldn’t stop gushing over how excited and honoured he was to meet someone from Malaysia.

The question finally came out and it was most unpleasant, not to mention unexpected.

“Is it true that when you arrive at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, there is a big sign which says ‘Jews are not welcomed. Please go home’?”

The initial smile that was plastered on my face disappeared instantaneously as I looked at his face holding the biggest and most gleeful grin I had ever seen in my life. He looked extremely pleased with himself; almost like a scientist who was about to discover a rare formula of epic significance before screaming out “Eureka!”

My heart sank. I was disgusted and he felt it. There was no celebration but only disappointment. From both sides.

“Ummm….you’re not a Muslim, are you?” he asked uncertainly but with eyes filled with hopes. Needless to say, my answer ended our conversation abruptly. From then onwards, he avoided me like the plague.

What an utterly charming man, he was.

When I am on home ground, I continue to hear disturbing stories of religious intolerance in Malaysia. Whether these stories have any truth in it or not, it is another matter altogether because in a democratically fragile country such as ours, an open and independent investigation into religious dispute would often result in a suicide mission accompanied by a big opened can of ugly worms.

The recent spat over the azan in Pantai Dalam area is one such example. Instead of trying to solve the issue in a mature, rational and civil manner, calls for the imposition of the Internal Security Act against the complainant was made en masse. It would make more sense to investigate and conduct a study to establish whether there is indeed a need to implement laws that regulate the loudness of calls to prayers, especially in residential areas.

I must confess that I do wonder myself whether the complainant had taken the opportunity to talk to the Imam of the mosque about the problem before taking the last measure of writing a letter of complaint to the Prime Minister. I suppose when it comes to religious matter, rationality and understanding seem to be the enemies, rather than ignorance and hostility.

I am a resident of Pantai Dalam and was most disappointed to know that the dispute was declared solved just because the complainant has allegedly decided to move out from the area for fear of reprisal. For me, this issue is far from being solved and it worries me tremendously to know that in order to co-exist together in this country, someone, usually the minority has to surrender in defeat. Whatever happens to striving for a win-win situation?

Someone told me recently that while she was living on campus in one of the local universities, a group of Muslim student leaders would often visit her dorm to make sure that Muslim students like her, would remain religiously pious. They were strictly forbidden from interacting with non-Muslims. They were constantly fed with ridiculous lies and religious propaganda so that they would avoid non-Muslims at all cost. For example, they were told that Christians walked around with holy water and with one single drop of the said water on a person, he or she would automatically become a Christian.

I feel sad and worried when I hear such stories. What will become of our nation when we continuously allow ourselves to hate and fear each other? Surely, something needs to be done.

Not too long ago, I attended a photo exhibition called Besa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II by photographer Norman H. Gershman at a Reformed Jewish temple while I was in the United States on a fellowship programme. It was the first time I’ve heard the stories of Muslims in Albania who risked their lives to save more than 2000 Jews during Hitler’s reign in Europe.

Gershman had travelled to Albania over the course of 7 years to search, speak and record the stories of those Muslims and their children. From there, he learned the meaning of Besa, a code of honour rooted deeply in Albanian culture and incorporated in the faith of Albanian Muslims. Besa demands that one take responsibility for the lives of others in their time of need.

I read the story of Ismet Shpuza from Gershman’s coffee table book with photos of his exhibition.

“My parents lived in the town of Durres. In 1944, my father befriended the Jewish family of Raphael (Rudi) Abravanel. They were originally from Yugoslavia. He provided the family with false passports for Rudi, his wife, and two children, and escorted them to the border. They escaped first back to Yugoslavia, then to Italy. Then our family lost all trace of the Abravanels. It was through the help of another Righteous Albanian, Refik Veseli, that in 1990 we again made contact with Rudi and his family, now living in Israel. We received letters and exchanged telephone calls. It seems strange to be asked why my father did what he did for this Jewish family. Besa is a tradition of the entire nation of Albania.”

I don’t think we hear enough of these stories and I don’t think we’re doing enough to promote religious harmony and understanding; not just the kind that demand us to accept and bury any unresolved issue under the carpet but the kind that teaches all of us to honour a code which compel us a duty to admonish hatred and fear amongst each other.

Being away from home for some time, I’ve also discovered that Malaysian Muslims are respected worldwide by their fellow brothers and sisters. It made me happy and proud when an Algerian, Kosovar or Senegalese Muslim told me that they like Malaysian Muslims a lot because during haj, the latter are amongst the most polite, courteous and friendly nationalities in the world.

It is pleasant and nice to hear such compliments but strangely enough, I don’t seem to hear the same kind of flattery when I am at home.

Where is our own besa?

If you know of any compelling story or testimony of Muslim and non-Muslim Malaysians living together and honouring each other as fellow human beings and neighbours, please write to Any photographer who would like to take up the challenge of documenting this should contact the same email.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

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

I’ve recently submitted a series of essays on my trip to South Omo Valley a couple of years ago to Loyar Burok. I’m reposting them here.

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. It begins with Part I: My first encounter with Africa.

Hamer woman

Part I: My first encounter with Africa.

More than three years ago, I was asked to pack my bags and relocate to Addis Ababa. I was to accompany my husband who had then received a job posting with an international humanitarian organisation in Ethiopia. I remember feeling elated but above all, I was filled with such great expectations. It was the first time I was to set foot in East Africa, a land which has inspired great explorers, writers, photographers, artists, movie makers and environmentalists. It is also a land which inspired me since I was a little girl.

For the first time after three years since Afghanistan, my soul was stirred yet again as I prepared to travel to another unknown world, one which I could previously see only on television screens or read from paperbacks. My mind took me to places where the legendary Dian Fossey once made the first ever recorded peaceful human contact with the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and the mystical peace and tranquility of Mount Kilimanjaro as described so vividly by Hemingway.

I remember sighing with sheer pleasure and awe as I watched the breathtaking cinematography of Sydney Pollack in Out of Africa where Karen Blixen made her unforgettable journey on air over the Ngong Hills to Mombasa. She had apparently said, "Yes, I see. This is the way it was intended." And now, it was my turn to see how it was intended to be.

I couldn’t help but dwell in mental images of ubiquitous savannah where herds of African elephants with their magnificent ears, marching gracefully in a single file and zebras, each with their uniquely patented stripes, grazing under the watchful gaze of mighty predators. I even fantasised about hopping up and down with the Masai Mara, as seen in "your local bank" advertisement.

Such was my impression of Africa.

Mursi boy

Unfortunately, I was quick to learn that Ethiopia is unlike many of its African neighbours. For many people who bear very little knowledge of this country, nestled in the Horn of Africa, it is probably best known for three things; the great famine during the 1980s, middle distance and marathon runners and the discovery of Lucy, the oldest bipedal human species to walk the world 3.2 million years ago. That was the little knowledge I had brought with me to Ethiopia.

I soon understand that Ethiopia, formerly known as Abyssinia, is rather unique in terms of its socio-cultural practices, which sets her apart from her other African sisters. I began to comprehend what the locals meant when they adamantly insisted that Ethiopia is not Africa, in which I had often responded with a sinister look.

Now, I am willing to accept that what would make Ethiopia "African" is purely geographical in nature, just like Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.

The Millennia in Abyssinia

Ethiopians are the only people in the world who speak Amharic, a Semitic language influenced by Arabic, Hebrew and Assyrian. It is also one of the two countries in the world which adopts the Coptic Calendar, inherited from ancient Egyptians. This means, instead of twelve months in a year, it has thirteen, which aptly explains why its tourism board has adopted the slogan "Thirteen Months of Sunshine."

Needless to say, it also means that Ethiopian calendar is seven and a half years behind our commonly used Gregorian calendar. The millennium was celebrated with much pomp and circumstance in 2007 as Ethiopians ushered in the twenty-first century, albeit the huge global Y2K hullabaloo seven years ago.

Learning to tell the local time is also a practise in need of getting used to. For example, according to Ethiopian time, it is six hours behind our ordinary comprehension of time, which often generates confusion to the unfamiliar when making appointments with the locals. This is due to the fact that while we start our morning at 6a.m. they start theirs at 12p.m. So if the plumber agrees to repair your clogged toilet first thing in the morning at two o’clock, do not get into a fury because it only means eight in the morning!

The pride of Ethiopia

Ethiopians are essentially proud people, mainly rooted in the fact that it is the only African country that has defied foreign colonialism. It is also a country that is steeped in its own history, civilisation, legend, tradition and culture. Whether some of the mystical legends bear any truth to it, they still serve as a unique source of national pride, both filled with charm and intrigue.

History has revealed that in 400BC, there was an ancient great civilisation called the Aksumite Kingdom situated in the north of Ethiopia. Once a powerful empire, having stronghold on the commercial crossroad of the Red Sea, it rose to great prosperity and fame from international trade with Egypt, Syria, Italy and India.

Local legend has it that Aksum was once Queen of Sheba’s capital in the 1000BC. It also believes that Emperor Menelik, whose dynasty would eventually reign in Ethiopia for the next 3,000 years, was the son of King Solomon, conceived with Queen of Sheba on her visit to Israel.

Menelik, then returned to Jerusalem to visit his father, had stolen the Ark of the Covenant to be returned to Ethiopia. It is believed that the Ark of the Covenant now sits in Aksum’s St. Mary of Zion church. Although visitors are forbidden to sneak a peek at the covenant, many faithful Ethiopians continue to believe its existence today.

Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

While we could never truly unravel the legitimacy of this legend for now, we do however know that coffee originated from Ethiopia which holds very good reason why coffee ceremonies are held in such high esteem here. I, for one, have stopped drinking instant coffee ever since I had my first cup of Ethiopian coffee. It is really the best!

In terms of nature and wildlife, Kenya and Tanzania may be the preferred destinations for safari and national parks; Ethiopia is an ornithologist’s dream as it is the habitat of eight out of ten endemic birds of Africa. It is also the home to the endemic Gelada Baboon, Ethiopian wolf, and the Mountain Nyala.

The other aspect of Ethiopia’s uniqueness is the Ethiopians themselves. Ethiopian beauty is no stranger to many people especially those who are fashion savvy. Gracing the covers of many top fashion magazines and Paris and New York haute couture catwalks is Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede and she is not the only Ethiopian woman blessed with such good looks, bone structure and physique. Ethiopians do have a different genetic makeup from the rest of Africa, with the exception of some Eastern African countries like Somalia and Sudan. They have lighter skin tones, higher cheek bones, finer facial features and often lanky.

This does not mean that Ethiopian women take their looks for granted. In Addis Ababa itself, it is easy to spot hair and beauty parlours even in the most remote of alleys where local women sit religiously for hours maintaining or changing their often intricate hairstyles on a weekly basis.

Next week: Part II - The faces, sound and smell of Addis Ababa and how a second tai-tai with her photo camera and assortment of lens come into the picture.

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.


The chronicle of 2011’s Resolution [Part 3]– The attack of the Jelly Belly beans

This is a new series chronicling my journey towards looking fab by the end of 2011 (well, preferably before the year ends but who am I kidding, right?). Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.


Jelly Bellies are not just candies. They’re a lifestyle. An expensive lifestyle if you’re in Malaysia.

According to its website here, there are 50 different types of flavours, each bearing a fun name that any nail polish maker would love to covet. According to a colleague, the Sizzling Cinnamon tastes like tiger balm, so maybe that’s an inspiration for tiger balm companies if they’re thinking of revamping their image and expanding their demographic target groups.

I can’t remember when I tasted my first Jelly Belly. It must had been a long time ago (possibly when I was in university and a Canadian friend might had introduced them to me) but the memory of how they taste like, the rubbery and gummy texture and fruity smell have stuck in my mind since then. So, when I went back to the US last October, I got into a gas station and remembered to buy some during a road trip to Chicago.

When the American Council for Young Political Leaders (ACYPL) delegation from the US came to visit not too long ago, they brought along one of their most famed and beloved candies. Yes, it’s none other than the Jelly Belly.

Jelly Belly 30 flavour

They were giving out these 7 oz clear can 30- flavour edition (see picture on the left) at meetings. Of course, some didn’t appreciate them and gave it away, much to the other’s delight. I guess, Jelly Belly is a willy-nilly after all (I’m not even sure whether I’m using the sentence correctly).

One of the pleasures of having a mix-pack such as these, is the burst of unidentifiable flavours all mixed together in your mouth. It’s not uncommon to expect a series of mixed reaction as the candies slowly melt and release their flavours onto your palate. Some of my favourites  are the buttered pop corn, toasted marshmallow and A&W root beer. What I hate are the licorice, Dr. Pepper or anything cherry. So, you’ll be hearing a series of, “yummmm….” and quickly followed by a “ewwww….what the hell?!”

And ladies and gentlemen, that’s why I love Jelly Belly beans.

Anyway, what does this have to do with my 2011 resolution, right?

So, E and I were running a really quick errand at a grocery market last night. At the check-out counter, I stumbled across rows of Jelly Belly on a shelf nearby. Although they were all accompanied by cut-throat price tags, I couldn’t help the temptation of picking up a mix-pack. E, stopped me and literally pushed me away from the shelf and reminded me that those yummy beans were going to cost me RM50.

I, of course, lost my self-control and the ability to think rationally. All I could think about was the beautiful places these beans had brought me to once, not too long ago. E wouldn’t hear of it and she went all Jelly Belly nazi on me and needless to say, she won.

I wasn’t happy but on hindsight, I’m glad she stopped me because I would be upset to pay so much for something which would inevitably cost me much more. So, thank you E for being such a good friend (unlike V who bought us cream puffs. That’s evil!)

I end this with a poem as an ode to the Jelly Belly.

It started off with "KE and jelly babies"
all because of the 3 ladies and their bellies
who don't want to be mistaken for the tele-tubbies
So they all agree to help each other get rid of the flabbies
and now it ended with “E and the Nazis”

p/s: This resolution sounds very promising so far and off to a good start. I haven’t lost any weight despite having less than 2 weeks to go and we’ve all declared a moratorium for Chinese New Year! God, I need someone to sponsor a personal trainer for me!!!

The chronicle of 2011’s resolution [Part 2] - I am hungry and grumpy. Give me a cookie now!!


This is a new series chronicling my journey towards looking fab by the end of 2011 (well, preferably before the year ends but who am I kidding, right?). Read Part 1 here.

I am beginning to understand why Oscar the Grouch is grouchy all the time and why Cookie Monster wolfs down his cookies in that famous noisy and crumbly fashion. They have been put in a strict diet since Monday! Oh, wait….ME TOO!!

I may appear composed but do not be deceived by this composure as I’m screaming bloody murder deep inside.

Day one of this dieting is putting me in grumpy mode. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t exactly starve myself because I ate all three meals today. I started this morning with an orange and a cup of mocha, followed by lunch of rice, fish cake and vegetables, an apple right before tea time, nuts and raisins before dinner and roast chicken and potatoes a few hours ago. I was tempted to tell myself to go screw myself and to hell with it all (yes, I am grumpy!) but Lorelai Gilmore saved me.

E & V, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re as miserable as I am.

(Whose freaking idea was this anyway? Grrrrrrrrr…….)