Monday, December 2, 2013

“How to stop corruption like that?”

It was an atypical night away from Bangsar, thanks to my friend Ragu who’s quite the politician, in a good way.

“Can you tell which of these massage parlours are legit?” Ragu asked me. It was just ten minutes ago when he told me he wanted to show me something and I was to wait and see.

I scanned the rows of two-storey shoplots in Subang Jaya and was surprised by the number of “massage parlours” operating within what must have been a radius of not more than 1km. They were interspersed by three or more utility shops that had closed for the day, making them even more conspicuous that night. It wasn’t the Subang Jaya I knew twenty years ago when I was a student at a private college there.

On the exterior, the shops have either pusat kecantikan or foot reflexology on signboards made from inferior artwork, not different from those you see at Petaling Street. Nothing fancy, just the usual uninspiring type-font accompanied by a standard picture of a Caucasian woman’s face covered in bright green clay mask or a cut-out silhouette of a foot with colourful body organs within it.

The interior of the shops were dark and many had some sort of a red neon light at the front corner of the shop. Despite their dimness, the lights gave away the men stationed at the counters by the shop entrances.

They were mostly young or middle-aged Chinese-Malaysian men who could barely string together a decent sentence in English. I know because I asked a few of them how much a massage would cost and whether they would allow female customers. Their answers were incoherent and they eyed me suspiciously.

What really gave these “massage parlours” away were the young women dressed in skimpy clothing standing outside the shop. Although they were chatting to each other, their eyes were constantly on the look-out for potential customers. There were hardly any but then again, it was only eight that Saturday night.

Looking at the concentration of what Indonesians would refer to as massage plus-plus, I wondered whether it was a happier neighbourhood.

“I doubt it. The older folks and women are complaining there’s just too much hanky-panky going on at night. People are unhappy about the reputation it brings,” my friend who is also a proud resident of Subang Jaya proffered.

We were looking for a place to eat and my friend Ragu thought a detour around the belligerent side of Subang Jaya would sufficiently pique my interest. It did because we ended up having a debate on whether such establishments are immoral and whether it should be sanctioned by the local authority.

“You do know that there will always be demands for sexual services right? You can’t stop it and it just opens up the doors for corruption, trafficking, forced prostitution and slavery. Which is worse?” I asked.

“So you think it should be sanctioned then?”

“Yes, provided the workers are not being forced, enslaved or paid unfairly. It’s not hurting the public, is it? If wives are unhappy with their husbands getting a hand job elsewhere, it should be a domestic matter. Bring it up with the husband, get a divorce. The State shouldn’t be allowed to police morality,” I insisted but my friend wasn’t convinced. He looked at me incredulously and gave me a patronising you-are-so-naïve look.

“You’re talking like an orang putih, a middle-class-western-educated person. Get real. This is not Europe. It’s Malaysia. Your liberal views have no clout here. You’re merely representing the views of the minority and unfortunately, the majority rules,” Ragu argued.

I know I could always count on Ragu to bring me down to earth. He always opined how superfluous it is for human rights activists to demand for social reform and change when in reality, the majority of Malaysians are not willing to accept these changes yet.

To him, the real challenge lies in creating awareness and educating the mass so that this so called liberal thinking can one day become the view of the majority. Until then, we should all just shut up and rethink our strategies.

“You want democracy? That’s democracy for you. I’m telling you, majority of Malaysians want these places shut down.”

As we continued to patrol the area, there were easily eight to ten such illegal massage parlours within the same block of shoplots. Since 2008, the Selangor State has vowed to stop issuing new licenses for massage parlour, entertainment centre and cyber café to curb vice or immoral activities. And yet, these so-called massage parlours disguised as beauty spa or foot reflexology continue to multiply. Whatever attempts made to put a stop to happy endings have been sadly superficial.

My friend conceded that corruption is the main cause of failure to eradicate these special massage places. He thinks law enforcement officers are being bought off by business owners because every time the local authority raids and closes one illegal massage parlour, two more would open up within the same area.

“So shouldn’t the State concentrate on eradicating corruption first before they intrude on other people’s private lives? Admit that corruption is a bigger enemy than this.”

I felt like I had won the debate. I was wrong.

“Do you know that majority of Malaysians are okay with corruption? Go ask anyone and they’ll tell you they have no problem bribing the police or local municipality if it would serve their interest. They go around condemning top officials for corruption, demanding a cleaner government but what about them? How to stop corruption like that?”

My conversation with Ragu that night left a bitter taste in my mouth and I decided to talk to a few people I know just to find out whether he is right.

Kelly, an NGO worker, admitted shamefully that she had participated in corruption once but she was not sure whether it was her parents who were the real culprits. The bribe wasn’t her idea but she didn’t stop it.

“They paid about RM350 to the Transport Department as bribe so that I could pass my driving license,” she said remorsefully. “I was 17 then. I guess I didn’t know what it meant or understood what the consequences were. I thought it was normal because all my cousins did the same thing.”

Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t the only one. As soon as Kelly revealed what she considered a dark secret, she opened up the door for her other friends to share their own experiences. They were initially reluctant to talk about whether they had participated in corruption.
Lisa said her parents did the same thing for her.

“It’s to guarantee that you pass on the first test. Otherwise they’ll make you fail on purpose several times before you actually pass. Most of my friends did the same too.”

Both Kelly and Lisa are in their late thirties. They had taken their driving test at 17 which means it would have been a common practice 20 years ago for the authority to accept bribes in return for passing driving tests.

However, Leong revealed that his parents paid the same bribe to the authority when he did his driving test not more than five years ago.

Melur, who studied law, admitted to holding a “kopi-o license” too. She added that she had also given a RM30 bribe to a police officer who had randomly stopped her on the road while she was driving. She said that the police was obviously fishing for a bribe because she had not committed any traffic offence.

“He passed me his summon book and instructed me to put the money in between the sheets and pass the book back to him quietly. We were alone. It was funny because I don’t understand why we needed to be so covert,” Melur said and laughed.

Lisa said when she passed her driving test, her father’s first advice to her was not to drive safe but to always have small notes with her just in case she got stopped by the police.

“If you only have RM50 in your purse, you’re forced to give the police officer that much. A summon is probably around RM50 or RM100 top. It’s more worth it if you have only RM5 or 10 to offer,” he advised.

Notoriously known for forgetting to carry his driving license when driving, Lisa’s father had lots of wisdom to impart. “Easy, all you need to say to the officer is ‘boleh settlekah?’ He’ll know what you mean. Be cool, there’s no need to be embarrassed.”

Kelly wasn’t amused. She recalled an incident recently when she was stopped by the police at a road block near Mutiara Damansara. She admitted she was talking on her mobile and deserved to be stopped and fined. The only problem was, the police who stopped her didn’t want her punished.

“As soon as he asked me how much my monthly salary is, I knew what he was after. I pretended not to understand because I wanted him to say it,” Kelly said and then continued, “he beat around the bush for awhile, asking me where I work, blah blah blah and when I played along, he got tired and asked me whether I could help him. It became clear what he wanted.”

Kelly said she gave the officer her garang look and asked for his name and identity number. As soon as she said that, the officer became defensive. He had apparently told Kelly that he wasn’t afraid because he had done nothing wrong. He insisted on knowing what he had said that was so offensive.

“He went on and on about how he has served the police force for 15 years, he is a good Christian, a good father and he supports NGO work. He also told me not to call him encik because he is a sergeant. It was pathetic really,” Kelly said in disgust.

In the end, Sergeant Ong just gave Kelly a warning. According to the latter, this was the second time she had gotten away with just a warning after confronting a corrupted police officer.

Finally, Kamal, the youngest and possibly most idealistic of the group said, “It depends on the situation. I wouldn’t give a bribe to a police officer on the road but if I were, say, stopped at the border in Thailand and refused entry by the border police because they’re fishing for a bribe, I think I would. It depends on the level of inconvenience it would save me if I pay a bribe.”

From the conversations I gathered, I concluded that Ragu may have been right but I think I’m right too. Malaysians are okay with corruption because the system allows it but the system continues to support it because Malaysians are willing participants.

From Lisa’s father to Kelly and Kamal, it would appear that the level of corruption has not changed for more than 20 years.

Here’s another bit of news. Despite the government pouring money on anti-corruption advertisements in magazines catered for expatriates, Paul, a French citizen currently living in Malaysia, said he is prepared to pay bribes to the local authority if he wants to open up a business in Kuala Lumpur. He said he understands the reality of the country and will “play the game”.

“Everyone seems to be doing it. If the authority is intent on giving me hell because it expects a bribe before they would do their job, I’ll give it to them. Otherwise, I’m on the losing end and I don’t have the time to fight this battle when Malaysians themselves are okay with it.”

I thought what Paul said was pretty strong and I’ll leave you with this great initiative by an expat living in Jakarta.

This article was first published here.

 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Accidental lessons

This article was first posted on The Malaysian Insider on 21 November 2012 and LoyarBurok on 11 December 2012.

It was 1991. My classmates and I were punished for being noisy in class. We were told to stand up and remain silent for the rest of the lesson. The silence was deafening until Cikgu stormed towards the back of the classroom and barked, “Why are you smiling?! Is this supposed to be funny?”

Alarmed, we all turned around to find out who had the misfortune of inciting Cikgu’s sudden outburst. It was Lee, the boy who hardly spoke during lessons. If anything could be said about Lee, he stayed away from trouble and wore a pleasant demeanour on his face.

Cikgu repeated her question. This time with greater force. Puzzled, Lee had no choice but to answer, “Err… no. But, but, but is it a crime to smile?”

I was stunned because I didn’t know Lee had it in him to speak up against a figure of authority.

“Ohhhhh… you think you’re so smart, is it? Stand on your chair now!” Cikgu decided to play the power card. They always did when they had no answers to smart questions.

Lee did as he was told and the smile disappeared from his face.

Many of us still remember this incident and Lee will always be remembered as the guy who got punished simply because he smiled.

Recently, when my husband got into a minor fender-bender with a taxi driver, I was reminded of this story. As the article unfolds, I hope it will serve as a cautionary tale for all.

It’ll serve you well to know that if your car has been hit by a vehicle used for carriage of passengers for hire or reward (or what is commonly known as a taxi, rental car, public bus, school bus and factory bus) to be referred to as “public vehicle” hereafter, you are not entitled to make a No-Fault Own Damage (ODN) or Knock-For-Knock (K-F-K) claims, even if you have a police investigation report proving that the other party is at fault.

The only claims you can make are of your own insurance, which will then affect your No Claim Bonus (NCB) or to claim directly from the perpetrator’s insurance, which can be an insurmountable task if the latter is not co-operative.

Now, this is alarming news to me because I did not know, as I suspect many of you don’t either, about this. It got my husband and I very concerned. How and where can we find out more information? Could this be an explanation why taxi and bus drivers drive as recklessly as they do here?

Dissatisfied with my motor insurance company’s response, I’ve since then made multiple enquiries to different insurance companies, the Road Transport Department, the General Insurance Association of Malaysia (PIAM), Bank Negara and even three motor workshops.

The calls and Internet searches I made generated a lot of frustration and failed to answer satisfactorily why public vehicles are exempted from ODN and K-F-K claims. Only one person came up with a direct response (although not necessarily plausible or reliable) in an online public forum.

According to this person, the measure was taken to discourage people from driving private cars. See it as some form of vice tax, if you like. I’m not entirely sure whether this is indeed the rationale behind this ridiculous policy but at least someone offered an opinion other than just re-iterating what has suddenly become an obvious policy.

The Road Transport Department said that they are not responsible for insurance regulation and referred me to the Ministry of Finance. I did not pursue with the latter.

I had to make four telephone calls to obtain a written policy stating the exemption from AXA Affin Malaysia. The first call was answered by someone whose standard response seemed to be “cannot.” Period. My husband and I have taken to calling these people Ms/Mr Cannot and they seem to dominate the service industry in Malaysia. Before you can even explain what you’re asking for, they’ll tell you with great certainty and conviction that you cannot.

Kurnia Insurans Malaysia and Etiqa Insurance have the same policy on their websites. AIA Malaysia’s telephone operator said that this should not be true but was unable to confirm. She also said that all motor insurance policy should apply across the board because they are being regulated by Bank Negara. When I called Bank Negara, there was no one who could answer my query. They promised to call me back but they haven’t.

Zurich Insurance Malaysia Berhad informed me that they, too, practise the same policy. According to their officer, the policy is a result of an agreement made by all the insurance companies. Although I was disappointed by the answer, I was pleased that they were helpful enough to explain what I could do instead.

“You can claim third party insurance directly from the taxi. If you don’t want to go through the hassle of doing this, some workshops will help you. You just need to obtain the police investigation reports,” she said.

“How do you make a claim directly from the taxi? I don’t have his insurance details?”

The taxi driver had conveniently claimed ignorance when I asked for his insurance details. He said he had to call his company to find out and until today, I haven’t managed to get an answer from him. I was told by several people that this is to be expected.

“I hope you have his registration number. As long as you have it, you can find out from JPJ.”

“Does the workshop charge a fee for this service and if yes, how much?” I asked.

“Yes, I think they charge a fee but I really don’t know how much. What I can do is to give you a contact. You can call them and enquire.”

I called the number and to my great surprise, the lady who answered the phone said they don’t charge anything if I can furnish them with all the relevant documents. If I am unable to do so, they will charge a runner fee of RM150.

I’ve also talked to another workshop recommended by someone else and according to the workshop, as long as I send my car to my insurance panel workshop, I can make a KFK claim.

My insurance panel workshop offered us two solutions: 1) submit a ODN claim but our NCB will be forfeited and our insurance will cover the cost of repair, or 2) submit a third party claim but we’ll have to pay for the NCB adjuster fee and cost of repair first. We may be able to get it reimbursed by the taxi’s insurance later but it is entirely up to the latter’s discretion.

My husband and I haven’t quite decided yet what to do with our car. Although no injuries were inflicted (albeit a huge bruise to our morale), the simple principle of justice remains that we shouldn’t be paying for other people’s mistake. It isn’t just about the cost of repair but the time spent on dealing with it.

In my attempt to find answers, I’ve remained utterly confused and defeated. My French husband has cheekily asked me, “Why didn’t I marry a Swede? Why do you have to be Malaysian? It’s the first time I’ve heard of such stupid policies.”

Just like my friend, Lee, who shouldn’t have smiled, we shouldn’t have rejoiced so quickly with the knowledge that it was someone else’s fault when the accident happened. Just like Lee who asked the question “Is it a crime to smile?” and was then punished without any clear reason whatsoever, we are being punished in a similar fashion.

How safe can you be on the road if the rules do not punish those who inflict damage and injury to others? I can be a responsible and safe driver but it doesn’t protect me against those who aren’t. Something’s clearly wrong and how do we get to the bottom of this?

If you ever encounter an accident with a public vehicle (which I sincerely hope you won’t), it’ll be wise to obtain the vehicle’s insurance information immediately.

Meanwhile, do stay safe on the road.




































The sickness of our private healthcare services

“If I keep this oath faithfully, may I enjoy my life and practise my art, respected by all humanity and in all times; but if I swerve from it or violate it, may the reverse be my life.”
– The Hippocratic Oath

Mary was entering her mid-thirties when it finally dawned on her that she is reproductively challenged. The thought of her own infertility did play in her mind when she was much younger but her suspicion was only confirmed recently when she was diagnosed for polycystic ovarian syndrome (POS). The strange thing was, the diagnosis did not come from her fertility doctor, who had then been too eager to start her and her husband on the notoriously expensive and invasive in vitro treatment, without first examining their health.

The diagnosis for POS had come up through her own initiative. Once she and her husband decided that they would try to conceive through artificial insemination, Mary thought it would be prudent to go through a full medical check-up, “just to make sure my body is ready for the baby, you know. We’ve read that in vitro is very stressful and we want to make sure that we’ve tried everything possible to make sure that the conditions are conducive,” she said. 

When her blood work came back, her thyroid function tests were elevated. Later, it was her endocrinologist who told her that in addition to hypothyroidism, she might be suffering from POS too. He told her that the sudden and continuous weight gain, increased cholesterol level, development of fatty liver, irregular menstruation, and acne are some of the symptoms of POS.

Mary had initially thought that these symptoms were attributed to her bad eating habits and sedentary lifestyle but it now explains why these unflattering conditions remain unchanged even after her vigorous attempts to eat and exercise better.

“The funny thing is, no one told me about it. The GP (General Practitioner) at the hospital where I did the full medical check-up did not alert me to anything after he examined my test results. All he did was to make me feel bad about my weight and asked me to take another test in three months’ time to see whether there are any changes to my thyroid functions. All this while, I had been wondering why I’ve been battling bad skin and weight gain. If only I had known earlier, I would have been less depressed and feeling hopeless all the time,” Mary said.

“You have most of the POS symptoms. Go home and do a search online. Read up and learn as much as possible about POS and then go see a gynaecologist to seek treatment. You need to solve all this hormonal issue first before you even try to get pregnant. There are other options before you start considering in vitro. Let’s get you fixed up first, ok?”

That was the most honest and reassuring conversation Mary have had with a doctor so far.

After reading up on hypothyroidism and POS on the Internet, Mary discovered that the chances of having a problematic pregnancy would have been high if she had become pregnant either through natural or artificial means. She confessed that much to her disappointment and great horror, she felt that the renowned fertility specialist she saw at a highly recommended infertility clinic in Kuala Lumpur should have informed her of this vital piece of information.

Mary and her husband initially reasoned that the specialist would have alerted them to her condition if only he had bothered to look at their medical records, which they had brought along with them during their first consultation, having thought pre-emptively that the doctor would have asked for it.

“It was going to cost us about seventeen thousand ringgit for the whole procedure and that doesn’t even cover the cost of a second treatment if the first one doesn’t work. With hypothyroidism and POS, the chances of having a miscarriage would have been great.

"Can you imagine how devastating it would have been if we hadn’t known?” Mary asked and added dejectedly, “The thing is, the doctor didn’t even bother looking at our medical records, you know. They just wanted to make money out of us.”

Mary said that on hindsight now, she is not even sure whether the doctor would have warned them of the potential complications if he had known of her conditions. Mary insisted that her endocrinologist is the minority.

“There are definitely good doctors out there, but they are extremely rare,” she said.  She revealed that she no longer trusts the medical service and would turn to her trusted online sites for all her medical diagnosis and query.

“You wonder why we should pay these useless doctors so much when we can find reliable answers online!” She laughed scornfully.

Mary is not alone when it comes to being at the receiving end of bad medical services and not trusting our medical practitioners. It would appear that more and more private hospitals are abandoning the Hippocratic Oath for personal gain.

A medical practitioner revealed that the price of medicine at a private hospital costs a lot more than an external pharmacy. He often advises his patients to buy their medicine from external pharmacies because it makes no sense for them to pay “cut-throat” prices for the same medicine. However, when Kelly tried to do precisely that, the doctor treating her apparently did not take it too well.

“Instead of giving me a prescription for six months as he had recommended, the bastard only prescribed me a month’s worth of medication. In other words, he was ‘forcing’ me to go back to him for a follow-up prescription and that would have meant paying him ninety ringgit for just a bloody piece of paper. Can you imagine that?!”

The Department of Pharmaceutical Services at the Ministry of Health informed that there is currently no law to control the prices of medication at private hospitals. However, it is encouraging when the Head of the Medicine Pricing Unit wrote, “As a patient, you have the right to obtain a prescription from your doctor to buy your medicine from any pharmacy even though it displeases the doctor. I believe that empowered patients can change the current bad habits practised by medical professions so that we can all guarantee affordable medication for the people.”

Vikram, another unhappy patient, shared the experience he had with his doctor when he was undergoing treatment for Hepatitis C. He said that he was mortified when the nurse asked about his treatment in front of other patients while he was waiting for his doctor in a clinic. He understood that the nurse probably asked out of customary politeness but he did not appreciate the fact that in the course of her doing so, other people had learned about his medical condition.

He said that patient information management is lacking in many healthcare facilities and was shocked that this clinic is part of a hospital that has received an accreditation from the Malaysian Society for Quality in Health (MSQH), the national accrediting body for healthcare facilities and services. 

“On top of that, my doctor failed to inform me of all the side effects of the antiviral medication I was taking. There was no counselling or support for me and my spouse. The repercussions of the medication was so great that I felt as if the treatment had ruined an important part of our lives. 

"For each visit, I paid ninety ringgit for a five-minute consultation where the doctor did practically nothing. Thankfully I had a good insurance coverage because the medication cost an arm and a leg. To be honest, I wish I had not undergone this treatment if only I had known of the repercussions. I wasn’t informed properly,” Vikram said regretfully.

As of June this year, 75 percent of public hospitals have received the MSQH accreditation while only 25 percent of private hospitals have. At the international level, only eight hospitals have received the Joint Commission International (JCI)’s accreditation.

The JCI is created by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organisations, a US government agency, aimed to improve the safety and quality of care in the international community through the provision of education and advisory services, and international accreditation and certification. 

The assessment criteria used by the MSQH is quite similar to the one used by the JCI, except the latter provides additional components such as patient and family education, staff qualifications and education, medication management and use, and the assessment and care of patients; elements which seem to be sorely lacking in our own private healthcare services.

Previously, the government has made several attempts to make it mandatory for all public and private hospitals to obtain MSQH accreditation but these attempts have been put on hold thus far. Although having some sort of national or international accreditation by a recognised and credible agency does boost public confidence, alongside minimising and mitigating clinical and safety related risks, these accreditations do not take into account public rating. The application submission for accreditation is done by the hospital in question and the assessment is then carried out by a panel of surveyors appointed by the accreditation agency. 

There is no consideration for public opinion on how the hospital has fared.

“As a patient, I would like us to have some sort of a scorecard for all the hospital in Malaysia. Something simple for a start and it can be done by civil society, someone independent and done from the patient’s perspectives. 

"What we need is someone who will disguise as a patient to test out the hospitals. So you have this person who goes to several hospitals and says he’s got liver problem, for instance, and then he assesses how the hospitals handle him based on selected key criteria. The problem has to be the same though, so you can compare apple for apple,” Vikram suggested thoughtfully.

Kelly said the hospital’s ability to deal with complaints is something left to be desired.

“No point. I’ve written to a hospital before to express my dissatisfaction over their service. I haven’t received any response from them. This was last year. It’s like as if the hospital doesn’t really care if you’re unhappy with them. They have patients lined up anyway. So why should they care?”

Sumitra, who is married to a doctor, revealed that medical practitioners often tend to close an eye when their colleagues commit a medical error. This culture is deeply rooted on the notion of solidarity akin to the “I have your back now so that when I need you, you’ll have mine” philosophy.  

This makes it virtually impossible to have a doctor testifies against the other, even when a grave error occurs at the expense of a patient’s life.

Perhaps what Malaysia needs is a patients association such as the one in the United Kingdom. The UK’s Patients Association provides a platform for the people to rate their National Health Service (NHS). The association also runs educational campaigns such as the Speaking Up Complaints Project which encourages patients to speak up against poor medical services and the NHS to improve the way it deals with patients’ complaints. The NHS is ranked as one of the top 20 best healthcare services in the world by the World Health Organisation.

Not all is lost. Malaysia seems to be doing remarkably well in the area of medical tourism. A private hospital in Kuala Lumpur is recently recognised by the Medical Travel Quality Alliance as one of the world’s top ten best hospitals for medical tourists. By taking advantage of the weaker Malaysian currency, foreigners from the Middle East, Europe and Japan are flocking to Malaysia to enjoy better medical treatment.

It would have cost the local patients an arm and a leg to receive treatment in these hospitals but Mary said, “If the service is compatible with the amount I pay for, why not? The problem with the private hospitals here is that I’m not even getting the value for my money.”

While our private hospitals continue to nurse tourists with top notch care, in order to stay competitive alongside South Korea, Thailand and Turkey, have they forgotten our own illnesses along the way?

This article was first published at The Malaysian Insider on 9 October 2013.

 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

“Don’t let your friend come. Don’t want her to go through all this.”

My first memory of her was how small she was. Her pale and blemish-free skin looked as if they had not seen a day of light. Her colour-treated hair was always held back neatly in a high ponytail.
She was well-groomed as how aestheticians should be - her eyebrows were shaped perfectly and her eyes enhanced with kohl and eye shadow. I was pretty sure I had the right visual when her name was brought up by Megan, my aesthetician.
"Poor Kathy. She looked the type who never had to do a day of hard labour. This must be really hard for her," I said to Megan. I was lying flat on my back with my eyes closed while Megan performed my monthly facial treatment in her home in Petaling Jaya.
I normally loath the idea of participating in perfunctory conversations with my hairdresser and manicurist but for some reason, I like talking to Megan. Perhaps she comes across as someone who is sincere and not exploitative like many other professionals relying on commission. That day's conversation was particularly interesting and I couldn't take my mind off it.
"She told me that short of being whipped and chained at the ankles, it was exactly like those slaves you watch on the movies. I mean, can you imagine this happening now?" I could sense repulsion in Megan's voice as she moved on to give me a shoulder massage while the mask on my face slowly hardened.
Kathy and Megan used to work together at a beauty spa in an affluent neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur. I got to know Megan when I used to patron the spa and she was my aesthetician. Slightly more than a year ago, Megan made a leap of faith by leaving the spa to set up her own beauty parlour at home. She said she had enough of slogging away six days a week for someone else. Her former boss used to go around asking all the commissioned aesthetician what they thought of the five-digit Rolex watch she had just bought on a shopping trip to Hong Kong.
I left the spa and followed her.
The conversation about Kathy came about when I asked Megan whether she had heard of those farming programmes in Australia where people go pick strawberries and apples. "They seem to be really popular," I said.
She gave my face a quick inspection after she completed her usual cleansing routine. "You're not getting enough sleep and you need to drink more water," she said before she proceeded to answer my question. "Uh-huh. Why? Are you interested?"
"Oh no. I have a friend who's thinking of taking a year off from work to do this. Someone else I know wants to do the same thing too. It's just funny that two people said the same thing to me in less than a month." I grimaced as she extracted the acnes on my forehead.
"Do you remember Kathy? She was one of the aestheticians at the spa. The really small girl, fair skin? She's working in a strawberry farm in Australia now."
I was expecting Megan to tell me how Kathy was enjoying the farm fresh air and stuffing herself with strawberries as big as cikus while plucking them. I was wrong because for the next hour or so, Megan revealed the harrowing story of how her friend had left Malaysia to work like a slave in a foreign country.
According to Megan, Kathy left with a group of friends. She wasn't alone. Like Megan, Kathy was probably fed-up with her work at the beauty spa and wanted something more lucrative. An agent told them they could each easily earn RM10,000 a month by just picking fruits from a farm in Australia. Such opportunity seemed too good to pass and they weren't really convinced until they were shown photos of the farm and accommodation. Everything looked lovely and sounded easy.
Working in Australia meant they had to obtain a working visa and this was where the agent came in. Apparently, each of them paid about RM7,000 to the agent to sort out their paperwork.
It seems that a few days before they were to depart to Australia, they were told that their working visas were not ready and they would have to leave on a tourist visa while their agent would continue to work on getting them the correct paperwork.
Perhaps they did not want to waste their plane tickets or perhaps they did not want to postpone an opportunity for a good income, as many of them had by then presumably quit their jobs and were left with no income. I could only presume such an investment might have cost some of them their life savings. Whatever reason it was, they left for Australia more than four months ago. Before leaving, they were told to delete the agent's phone numbers from their phones.
"Kathy told me she has muscular legs and her skin is tanned now. She said she's ugly now. She has to squat on her feet to pluck strawberries for about ten hours a day without much break and under the hot sun. She sent me photos of the farm and you can't see the end of the strawberry beds. It's that far. She said it's very tough for her. She cried every night for a month when she first started," Megan told me. "Kathy said she never thought something like this would ever happen to her."
I know. Normally you only hear of such abuses happening to Cambodians, Indonesians and Burmese. Not Malaysians.
Kathy told Megan that when they arrived at the farm after hours of driving from the city, they were brought to their accommodation. They were shocked by the condition of the place. It was filthy, smelly and filled with all sorts of junk. It was obvious that decent living condition wasn't part of the deal. They spent days cleaning and clearing up the space to make it habitable. By then, the thought of being victims of a scam had slowly crept in since the reality of the place did not match the photos that were shown to them back at home.
For the first month or so, they could not pick the strawberries because it wasn't time for harvesting yet and because they would only be paid for each basket of fruits picked, they were not able to earn any income right away. On top of that, they had to pay for their own lodging and food. Apparently, mattresses were rented out at A$3 per night by the farm owner. Kathy said that this information was never disclosed to them by their agent. With no income, their expenses accumulated quickly and soon enough, they found themselves in debt. On a tourist visa.
"Why don't they report this?!" I sounded angry and to be honest, a tad judgmental.
"Kathy said she doesn't want trouble. In the beginning, when they complained to the owner, he told them that they are free to go as long as they pay off their debts. Kathy said she has no choice but to wait and pick as much fruits as she can so that she can earn some money, clears her debt and leaves the farm. Also many of her friends want to earn back the money they had spent to pay the agent," Megan said.
"Kathy told me that most of the workers there are Malaysian, Chinese and Thai. Apparently, the owner doesn't want to take anyone from Hong Kong because they are known to be vocal and they will stand up and fight. You knowlah, we Malaysians are quite submissive. Always too scared to cause trouble."
I couldn't help but think that the combination of not wanting to worry her family and the fear of humiliation and being judged by them could partly be some of the reasons why Kathy had kept this from the authorities. I wondered whether I would have done the same if I was stuck in a situation like this.
Before we ended my facial session, I asked Megan to get information from Kathy on the agent and the farm. "I want to warn my friends about them," I said. Megan nodded in understanding.
On the same night while at home on the internet, I found out that the Australian High Commission is aware of such scam. They had posted a warning against fruit picking/harvesting scam on their website. According to them, you can detect a scam if you are promised a quick working visa, if you receive an email (especially one that does not address you specifically) offering you either a guaranteed income or job, if a job advertisement requires you to send a fee to receive your start-up materials, if an advertisement only gives you a post office box address, and if the fruits do not coincide with the harvesting season.
Later that night, I received a message from Megan. Kathy had given her some vague information on the agent and the address of the farm, which appears to be situated in Western Australia. No useful information turned up when I did a search of the agent's company and the farm address on the internet.
Before I called it a night, I received another message from Megan. It read "Kathy said don't let your friend come. Don't want your friend to go through all this."
If you suspect you might have been a victim of such scam, please report to the local police or at www.scamwatch.gov.au.
*All names have been altered to protect the identity of the individuals mentioned on this article.
This article was first posted on The Malaysian Insider on 13 August 2013.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

In search of the right one

Overheard at a wedding reception at the Ritz-Carlton, Kuala Lumpur.

Mrs. Ravi: Singham! Are you still seeing that Monica? I saw you flirting-flirting with Mary at the bar. Talking and laughing only. What’s going on?

Singham: We’re just talkinglah, Ma. Are you flirting with Aunty Tina? Both of you seem to be talking and laughing all the time. What’s going on, huh? Huh?

Mrs. Ravi: You don’t be cheeky and don’t think I haven’t noticed you poking and sending those x-o-x-o nonsense to Angela, Pamela, Sandra and Rita on Facebook. So naughty only.

Singham: Huh? What the…. I don’t know what you’re talking about, Ma. Honestly!

Mrs. Ravi: You added me to your Facebook three years ago. Remember?

Singham: But, but… I thought I’ve blocked you?!

Mrs. Ravi: Who do you really think Erica is?

A long and uncomfortable silence ensues as Singham vaguely recalls receiving a friend request from someone called Erica a couple of months ago.

Mrs. Ravi: Boy, now tell me honestly, when will I get to hold my first grandchild?!

Singham gulps and wipes the sweat already forming on his forehead. Before he figures out a way to appease his mother, he makes a mental note not to poke any random girls on his Facebook account ever again.

Singham: Aiyah, Maaaa. Monica is nice but she hates children. She seems to think that they’re rental toys to be dressed up and then sent back with a refundable deposit. Pamela’s fun but she’s so self-centred, as if the whole world revolves around her. Angela, umm….She thinks she’s so damn pretty and desirable, she can get away with anything.

Mrs. Ravi: What about Rita and Jessica? I saw photos of you on vacation with them. Separately-separately some more.

Singham: Aiyah, Ma. Relaxlah. Marriage is a big thing. I want to find the right girl. Can’t just simply pick one, right?!

Mrs. Ravi: Tell me, what type of girl are you looking for? Don’t be so picky only.

Singham: I don’t know, Ma.

(Sighs)

OK, OK, if you must know, I guess she must be pretty. Fun, but got her head screwed on right. A good cook. Independent. Not the needy and manipulative kind. Ah yes, funny of course. And doesn’t take herself too seriously. Hmmm…what else? Someone who likes her food? But not fatlah. Kind, caring and intelligent. Neat but not obsessively anal? Modest but yet confident. Respects the environment and loves animals. Honest.

Mrs. Ravi: You know Erica is taken, right? (Winks)

The thought of him poking “Erica” just a couple of weeks ago sends Singham into a state of nausea.
Yes, if only a bachelor’s life is as easy as Mambo Number Five.

Picking the right gal is probably harder than picking the right shade of tie to go with your pink Ted Baker shirt and brown Steve Madden brogues. Yet, we tend to take our time trying out as many styles, colours, designs and silhouettes before we eventually settle for the one we will be proud to display and put a signature on (we’re not even talking about fashion anymore).

We’ve been investing much of our time flipping through the pages of magazines, pondering over the choice of watches, shoes, restaurants, cars, bags, gadgets, vacations and gifts. We weigh the options, look at their merits, compare their values and finally make the decision we believe will serve our interest best.

Once a year, some of us read the profile of unknown men (and women) who get handpicked by different magazines to become Men (or Women) of the Year (secretly, some of us think that we’re better than the picks, especially those LoyarBurok flers) and we instinctively put on our judgment cap as opposed to a fedora. We agree that to be picked as Men (or Women) of the Year, you’ve gotta have that something, the je ne sais quoi – not just the looks and goods but also some sort of criteria that gives each individual that extra edge; creativity, entrepreneurship, sportsmanship, leadership and, of course good looks never seem to hurt (damn those bitches (or bastards!)).

Two years ago, UndiMsia! carried out a project called the Laporan Rakyat. No, it’s not an opinion poll on whether Julie Woon is hotter than Yvonne Sim. It’s a scorecard that invites respondents to rate their State Assemblyperson and Member of Parliament. (OK, we’ve seen that same disappointed look (and yawn) many times. Sorry, we’re immune to it.)

We ask the respondents a series of questions ranging from:
- Are you a registered voter?
- Who are your Ahli Dewan Undangan Negeri (ADUN) and Member of Parliament (MP)?
- Describe your ADUN and MP in 50 words.
- What is the most important thing your ADUN and MP have done which has positively affected you and your community?
- Is it easy to meet your ADUN and MP?
- Do they know about the issues in your community? Do they solve the issues?
- Do they discuss these issues with your community and make a decision together for your community?
- Have they fulfilled their promises and pledges during the previous elections?
- Are you happy with their performances?

We also ask the respondents whether they’ve heard their ADUN and MP speak about crime, corruption, education, employment, environment, freedom of expression, democracy, gender equality, healthcare, public infrastructure, racial unity and prices of food, goods and housing.

To be honest, our findings were most troubling but not entirely surprising. It did seem that most of the candidates do have that je ne sais quoi, except in the literal sense of the word. While many of the respondents are most likely able to articulate the qualities they look for in a life partner (like our dear Singham), majority do not seem to be able to identify who their ADUN and MP are, much less what they stand for and how they have been performing. Hence, a literally I-don’t-know-what kind of response.

Now, what’s troubling is that the majority of Malaysians seem to be contented with leaving important decisions such as how the country is being run, how laws are being made and how the country’s money is being spent, in the hands of total strangers. Sure, you’re not going to bed and live with your ADUN and MP for the rest of your life (unless you’re the Mohamed Salleh Ismail type and look where he had ended up), but they are the ones making laws that will affect every aspect of your life and your family’s - the affordability of your first family home together, the quality of your child’s education and her freedom to profess the religion of her choice, amongst many other things.

What’s not surprising is that many Malaysians are likely more interested in Facebook status updates, uploading photographs of what they ate the night before and debating which smart phones they would die for, than what law has just been passed in Parliament to restrict Malaysians’ right to Internet freedom, for example. An irony, don’t you think?

Frankly speaking, finding the right partner is not even close to half of the relationship’s struggle (sorry to put a damper on you). Once Singham has found her and he’s lucky enough to survive that seven-year bitch, errr... itch, both of them will inevitably be confronted with making decisions about housing and eventually the cost of living, education and healthcare. How is it possible that we can be picky about the criteria we look for in so many things in our lives – fashion, gadgets, cars, properties, partner but not the very person who will represent our well-being and interest as citizens of this country?

The 13th General Election is finally over. The people have chosen. What’s left now is for all the elected representatives to get to work and to prove how worthy they are of the people’s votes. It’s also up to us to hold them accountable to their duties. After all, if all things fail and result in irreconcilable differences, a separation or divorce can be an option like any other relationships.

All we’re saying is, when it comes to choosing your elected representatives, always get to know them first so you can weigh your options, look at their merits, compare their values and finally make the decision you believe will serve your interest best. You would do this for the many other things in your life so why would you expect less from our politicians?

This article is inspired by UndiMsia!’s Laporan Rakyat project. UndiMsia! is a fiercely non-partisan movement focusing on citizen empowerment. For more information, please visit www.undimsia.com.
First published on FZ.com on 5 September 2013 under the title How to Choose Your Spouse or ADUN/MP?

Saturday, June 1, 2013

A 1Malaysia: 2Standard story

As I go through a rare spring cleaning exercise on my personal laptop, I discovered this unfinished script which I would like to share here. As mentioned, it’s unfinished and hopefully I’ll find the courage and discipline to expand the story before the year ends.

As the file indicated, I first attempted to write this in April 2012 (more than a year ago!) and it was meant to be a screenplay. Hence, the odd-looking format and font.

Oh and if you feel like helping me finish this story, please feel free to share the direction you think this story should go to.

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

INT. BASEMENT PARKING IN A MEDIUM-COST HIGH-RISE CONDOMINIUM – EVENING

Ah Lian arrives home after a long and hard day at work. As she pulls into her parking bay, she hears a thunderous roar coming from her neighbour’s silver Proton Waja with dark tinted windows.

Ahmad, the neighbour, is testing his car’s engine by pressing the accelerator repeatedly. Since the car’s engine has been modified to resemble a turbo racing monster machine, the noise becomes unbearable for the human ears.

INT. AH LIAN’S APARTMENT – SHORTLY AFTER ARRIVING FROM WORK ON THE SAME EVENING

Ah Lian walks into her apartment with a look that could easily make Darth Maul purrs in coy submission. She is greeted by her housemate, Meenachi.

MEENACHI

Eh, Ah Lian. Are you ok? Why you look so garang?

AH LIAN

(sighs)

You know that fucker who has that silver Waja

parked near our parking bay?

(without waiting for Meenachi to respond)

I swear to God, I’m going to kill him one day.

I mean who the fuck does he think he is?

Making all those damn noise!

MEENACHI

Whoa! Sabarlah, Ah Lian. What can you do?

These people have no idea how ridiculous and stupid they are. Biarkanlah aje.

No point getting all upset over something you can’t change. Let it go.

Jom! Let’s go and makan?

In the next few weeks, Ah Lian is greeted by the same annoyingly loud noise coming from the silver Waja. Sometimes, she tries to convey her annoyance to Ahmad by sending him daggered looks across the parking bays. All Ahmad does is to double up the volume of his engine and smiles at her slyly, as if he needs to prove to Ah Lian how much he’s enjoying every second of her misery.

One day, she decides to take matters into her own hands.

INT. THE SAME BASEMENT PARKING – ONE MONTH LATER

Ah Lian and Meenachi are seen lurking behind Meenachi’s grey Perodua MyVi. They look around the basement several times to make sure that nobody else is around.

MEENACHI

(whispers)

Pssst! Ah Lian, I’m scared. Are you sure you want to do this?

AH LIAN

(irritated)

Aiyoh! Don’t be such a scardy cat, can ah? No time to chicken out now, ok?

I’m going in. Watch my back.

A few hours later that same day.

INT. THE SAME BASEMENT PARKING WHERE THIS STORY FIRST STARTED

AHMAD

What the fuck?!!

(He proceeds to tears off a picture of a pig with the word “BABI!!” written diagonally across the picture in capital letters from his Waja’s tinted window shield)

Ah Lian and Meenachi walk into the parking basement and are confronted by a seething Ahmad.

AHMAD

(points at Ah Lian)

You! It’s you, bukan? You did this!

AH LIAN

Hello?!!! Excuse me? What are you talking about?

Kenapa marah-marah ni?

Gambar apa tu? Eh, so cute this babi.

AHMAD

Eh, you ni bodoh ke apa? Saya Muslim, tau?

Apa yang you buat ni berdosa tau? Dahlah kafir,

makan babi,tak cuci buntut, tapi nak kurang ajar!

Tak tau ke apa ertinya respect?

National reconciliation or retaliation?

There was no cry of jubilation. Neither were there tears of joy.

If you had been in a coma during the past few weeks and were suddenly awakened to the image of the Barisan Nasional’s victory speech on television, you would have thought that someone important had died and the whole nation had gone into mourning mode. Why wouldn’t you when Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his sidekicks looked as if the apocalypse was upon them?

Before you could even make out the hazy details that had preceded such collective sombreness, you found yourself being hit by a train of confusion. “Chinese tsunami” quickly followed by “national reconciliation” — two terms coined together only mere minutes after the announcement of the election results were enough to make me want to crawl back into that coma. Ignorance is after all bliss during moments like this.

As I begin to hear comments pouring in from different public figures and the public, of what they thought of the proposed national reconciliation, I felt sheepishly stupid. Am I the only one who doesn’t understand what it means or what it’s for?

The coma must have impaired my intellectual capacity. Full stop.

A few days ago, someone asked me what I understood about Najib’s notion of national reconciliation. Instead of giving that person a straightforward answer, I went on a crooked tangent. If you were as confused as I was, you would probably understand why.

This was my answer: “You know what? It took me two years to learn how to reconcile my accounts. Why did it take me so long? Well, honestly, I had no clue how to do it! Accounting is like a useless foreign language to me. Neither do I understand it, nor do I have the desire to learn it. So it took me two years to finally nail it down. Anyway, to answer your question, I think national reconciliation is a bit like me trying to reconcile my accounts. The federal government has no clue what it’s about and most likely has no desire to learn what it really is about.”

Horrified at my analogy, the person finally said: “If what you said is true, let’s hope they’ll at least nail it down in the end.”

Of course, hope is a good thing and one can always hope.

Anyway, Najib had come out in public and said that national reconciliation is needed to heal racial and political divide. Never mind what he said because since then, I’ve had more opportunities to hear what other people thought about this notion in person and, unsurprisingly, different people seem to hold very different opinions of it. Although some agreed wholeheartedly that it’s all about reconciling racial divide, others said it’s more about the urban-rural divide. A few said that there’s really no racial divide and it was the politicians who have spun it to instil hate and fear because the real issue here is economic divide. A few vehemently claimed that it’s all about political party divide, much to the chagrin of those who quickly rebutted that political party division is a good thing and the pillar of a robust democracy. Listening to these opinions reminded me of the story of the elephant and the three blind men. (Scary or what? But anyway, Malaysia boleh!)

Without turning this article into something unnecessarily lengthy, I shall cut to the chase. Let’s just suppose that the prime minister is honest about his intention, how should he and his Cabinet go about developing the framework of this national reconciliation?

Here’s my take as a layperson. (I realise I’m running the risk of oversimplifying the issue but I think simplification is exactly what we need now.) I believe in order for a national reconciliation to be successful, it must first fulfil three criteria — it must 1) command the public’s confidence, 2) be a meaningful exercise, and 3) result in action. At the same time, it must be guided by these core principles — 1) truth, 2) repentance, and 3) justice.

In order to achieve the first criterion, the government owes it to the public to provide a clear and truthful explanation of what this national reconciliation is all about. As it is, the public’s confidence of the new government is already at an all-time low, it is now up to the latter to convince the public of the true purpose of this process. Without the public’s confidence and faith in this, it is likely going to suffer the same fate as the 1 Malaysia slogan, one that reeks of a political rather than human agenda. To curb this, the government must secure the public’s participation in developing its framework; not just their supporters but also dissenters. As such, it is imperative for the government to listen to both sides and this necessitates freeing up media space to allow opinions from both sides to be heard.

Secondly, for this exercise to be truly meaningful, the government must understand the true meaning of reconciliation. In order for reconciliation to work, all party must be willing to admit their wrongdoing, repent and agree to move forward together. The closing of one chapter so that a fresh one can begin, so to speak. As the initiator of this agenda, the government must first admit that it has played a role in allowing racism to manifest and, as such, resulted in this divide. By initiating this process, the government must be willing to admit that the 1 Malaysia campaign, the National Service Training and the National Economic Programme have in a way failed or contributed towards perpetuating racial-based politics because otherwise, why on earth do we need national reconciliation? By doing this, the government shows repentance and sincerity and this will help to restore the public’s confidence in the process.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, all this must in the end result in the government taking real action towards reconciliation. There has been far too many projects and agenda that ended up being nothing but mere politically rhetoric with no real benefit or meaning for the people. I’ve listened to various people giving recommendations of what should be done to achieve this goal — from establishing a parliamentary select committee to unifying our education curriculum. All noble solutions which will take a long time to implement and before you know it, the public loses interest and nobody remembers why the process was proposed in the first place. For a quick start just to get things rolling, in order for the government to prove its sincerity and will, why not get rid of those boxes that seek to verify our races in all government-related forms once and for all? Punish ministers who incite racial hatred and make an example out of them. Justice must be blind and not just for the powerful.

In conclusion, after all that is said and done, the secret ingredient that will eventually create a Malaysian culture that abhors racism is really quite simple. All it takes really is for the government to first set an exemplary role in eradicating racial sentiments and once that is accomplished, I am quite confident that the rest will follow. Not unlike reconciling your accounts, the two sides must be in tandem with each other. Otherwise, let’s not fool ourselves by calling it reconciliation but retaliation instead. If I were an avid conspiracy theorist, I would have concluded that “Chinese tsunami” and “national reconciliation” were part of a national retaliation strategy to divert the people’s attention from what’s really to come.

So Mr Prime Minister, which one is it going to be?

This article was first published on The Malaysian Insider on 27 May 2013.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

“To sign or not to sign?”

That was a decision I was forced to make one early morning at a private hospital in Kuala Lumpur.

“I’m not signing. The hospital can go fuck itself!” My husband’s mind was made up even before I could blink my sleepy eyes twice.

For a brief second, I almost dismissed my husband’s reaction as a tad too melodramatic and was very close to signing what had already begun to threaten the tranquility of our rare morning together. But I didn’t.

I let out a big sigh and told the young woman at the front desk, “Sorry, I can’t sign this. We won’t consent to this.”

Once I had said it out loud, the look on her face told me that things were not going to be smooth for my husband and I that day. The wide eyes behind her glasses looked shocked, confused and uncomfortable. I might be biased but I thought she also reeked of judgment.

“I’m sorry but this is a hospital policy. You have to sign this if you want to get tested,” she said a bit too timidly. I don’t know how, but she seemed to sense that this would not go down well on us.

I looked at my husband, not as an attempt to persuade but for an affirmation of our decisions.

“Nope. I’m not going to sign.” He walked away to signal his unwillingness to waste any more time on this matter.

I let out another big sigh as I found myself losing patience too.

“Look, we have no problem signing a consent form for HIV testing but we do have a problem with this clause here. See? It says, if tested positive, you guys will be notifying the Government Authorities,” I explained.

“But this is the law,” she tried to convince me.

So if the law requires you to jump off the Penang Bridge, you would?

I rolled my eyes and sighed again.

“I know but we don’t agree with this law. So we’re not going to consent as a sign of our protest,” I said instead.

We were then told to wait at the lounge while she consulted her manager.

After ten minutes, an older woman came and asked to speak to me privately. She ushered me to the corner of the room and said to me in a low voice, “M’am, your medical package includes HIV screening. We’re not sure whether it is possible for us to exclude this testing.”

I stared her. It was my turn to look shocked, confused, uncomfortable and judgmental. By then my patience had hit a record low and I couldn’t help myself but to retaliate in full force.

I can’t remember what I had told her precisely but I surprised myself that day for being eloquent as I made my case. The conviction and anger inside me helped me to articulate my argument to her and in summary, I told her that nobody could force my husband and I to test for HIV/AIDS.

“Of course, of course. You’re right. Let me go and check with the company who offered you the package to confirm that it’s OK for you to go through the check-up today without the test.”

My husband looked defeated. He was convinced that we were not going to have our routine medical check-up that day. In a determined voice, I said to him, “If she comes back and tells us no, I swear I’m going to give them hell.”

After waiting for another 15 minutes, hell remained mine.

For close to ten years, my husband and I had gone through routine HIV tests annually. In fact, before we had our first sexual intercourse, we had ourselves tested. This is how strongly we feel about protecting each other from HIV/AIDS. The episode above was the first time that we had actually skipped a HIV test.

Many of you may wonder why we had made such a ruckus over this.

I had recently learned from a friend that testicular cancer is apparently rather common amongst Canadian adolescents. According to her, because most adolescents are embarrassed to talk about their private parts, many choose to remain silent when they feel an abnormal growth on their testicles. By the time they decide to seek treatment, the cancer has already advanced considerably.

I suppose the same principle applies here, except multiplied by ten because of the stigma HIV/AIDS carries. Because of our strong fear of stigmatisation, we would rather not get ourselves tested. Because of the lack of information, we are not sure what the Government Authorities would do with our medical record. In the meantime, the hospital did nothing to help us understand the procedure of HIV disclosure. If anything, the hospital did everything wrong that day to gain our trust. This problem could have been potentially solved by sound public relations and communications practices but instead, the hospital staff made us felt like we were the enemy.

When I first saw that young woman’s reaction when we declined to sign the consent form, and her subsequent looks after that, I knew that I had made the right choice not to sign the paper. She carried a look that spelled, “They have AIDS. That’s why they’re not signing the paper.” She was very awkward with us. She would tense up whenever we appeared before her. When we went to collect our test results a week later, we felt unwelcomed. The doctor who went through our report dismissed me when I told him that I thought I felt a lump on my neck. He did not even feel my neck. He behaved as if he couldn’t wait to get rid of us.

Act 342, Section 10 (2) is the clause that compels every medical practitioner to notify the government authorities if he/she is aware of the existence of any infectious disease. Under the same section, it also compels anyone, other than a medical practitioner, to do the same. This means, if I know my work colleague has HIV/AIDS, I must report this to the authorities.

In the United Kingdom, the General Medical Council states that a disclosure of HIV positive patient to anyone other than a healthcare professional is unlawful. Their Data Protection Act provides legal redress to people living with HIV/AIDS if their confidentiality rights have been breached. In Malaysia, there is no such law yet unless the personal data is used for commercial purposes.

In the United States of America, hospitals do report to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, but only after they have removed all personal information from the patient’s record. This is mainly because the federal and state funding for HIV/AIDS is often targeted at areas where the epidemic is strongest.

An American survey revealed that one-third of 20,000 respondents knew at least one person who is afraid to take HIV test for fear of prosecution if they are tested positive. More than 60% of Americans do not know whether their state has a HIV specific disclosure law. Accordingly, many people at risk may prefer not to get tested for HIV rather than risk being accused of or criminally charged for non-disclosure if they are tested positive. In a similar survey, when asked what motivated people to disclose their condition, majority of them cited moral or ethical reasons; honesty, love, desire to protect their loved ones. Less than 1% said that the law is the primary motivation.

All these studies point to the understanding that having a disclosure law such as the Act 342, Section 10, does not help to reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS. On the contrary, it has significant repercussions because it stops people like my husband and I from getting tested and seeking appropriate treatment once diagnosed.

Driven by curiosity, I called two organisations* relevant to this subject matter for more information. I could not get through one but the other told me that I could get an anonymous HIV test for free.

“Total anonymity? How come the law doesn’t apply to you guys?”

“That’s because we’re an NGO. There are a couple of NGOs around that do anonymous testing. Do drop by and get yourself tested. It’s important.”

Free anonymous testing with an NGO versus a private hospital that doesn’t seem to give a toss, it’s a no brainer really who will have a more successful campaign against the spread of HIV/AIDS.

* The identities of the organisations have been deliberately kept confidential to avoid getting them into trouble with the authorities.

This article was first published on The Malaysian Insider on 5 March 2013.

It generated quite a bit of discussion on a friend’s Facebook. According to this friend, the local NGOs are not exempted from reporting to the Government Authorities if you’re tested positive for HIV. He also left a comment on my Facebook and here’s what he said:

“Also, at the NGO, you are testing live with a person, who then gives you the result. You are no longer anonymous to him. Some people don't go to such NGOs because they may know people from the community who are volunteers at the NGO. So actually, this creates a different problem. People who would go for such testing in spite of the social barriers (being recognised, reporting, etc) are already monitoring their sexual health -- even if some do test positive eventually. The problem is getting people for whom the lack of anonymity prove a deterrent. Some people also have to overcome the guilt of being judged for being irresponsible at such an NGO as these NGOs have been aggressive in promoting Safe Sex messages with moralistic overtones (you are irresponsible if you don't use condom, you are a slut if you have multiple sexual partners, etc). It is a lot to overcome for most people. In Taiwan, their anonymous testing works like this: you get your blood taken for testing and you are given a code and a phone number to call; you call the number and tell them your code and you get your result without needing to reveal your name at all.”

Another person left a comment on this article:

“As a matter of fact[ly], both Malaysian and Singaporean law requires medical practitioners to report patients tested positive for HIV. Both deport and ban entry to foreigners if tested positive while in the country.”

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Breakup

I was promiscuous, lackadaisical and non-committal. She was needy, pushy and manipulative.

I secretly think all she really cares about is money.

It wasn’t until a couple of months later from the day we first met that it became clear we had very different expectations. Our relationship was making me unhappy but I stayed on by holding her to her promise that she knew how to make a woman feels and looks good.

Needless to say, I subsequently took a distance from her. The phone calls kept coming and I began to lie. The excuses were always the same. I was busy and I would see her another time.

I suppose it was bound to happen although I didn’t think she saw it coming. She probably thought I didn’t have the galls but I finally pulled the plug and it’s over.

I am relieved.

The relationship started more than six years ago. I had received a birthday card with a gift voucher insert from my bank. It said in Calibri font-sized 11, as a valued customer, I was entitled to a spa treatment worth RM250.

It was irresistible and before I knew it, one thing had led to another.

Spa

Like most first dates, I was treated like a queen worthy of the best treatment. I was pampered and I left feeling good but not before being seduced into signing a contract for another six treatments at a discounted rate. I was told that the special rate would no longer be valid the day after, that I simply must seize this purportedly rare opportunity. Being a sucker for big discounts, I caved without knowing that it would become her regular pick-up line, usually right before my contract ended.

At this point, I should confess that the climax of our dates were good, just not the foreplay. All treatments were accompanied by the customary marketing pitch and they usually began as soon as I shut my eyes in a silent hope of a much needed 2-hour relaxation and quiet. The beauticians had a militant way about them. No matter what the condition of my skin was, there was always something to improve and they never fail to offer solutions. If only they could apply their resourcefulness on achieving world peace.

While she spoke of how treatment A would add benefit to treatment B and how treatment C would benefit more from treatment D, I would often let out an incoherent and non-committal grunt and willed her to stop.

I mentally listed the number of things I would tell her:

  1. I did not pay money to be harassed;
  2. You have no right to push your products on me without an invitation, not especially when I’m in that sacred horizontal position;
  3. You should stop playing elevator music because it shows a lack of taste and class;
  4. You should learn to tip-toe and whisper because silence is what I expect;
  5. If you value my patronage, just shut up and only do what I’ve paid you to do.

These thoughts were never shared as I feared that if I had unleashed them, we would end up in a war zone since I’m not the most diplomatic person in the world after all. She saw that weakness and used it to her advantage. I ended up signing for more treatments I didn’t care for. It was a huge price to pay just to avoid ugly confrontation and very bad services.

That was when the unhappiness began. I was often doused in shame and guilt for being a complete push-over. It came to a point when our meetings became something I dreaded.

Soon enough, I began to see other people. The temptation was way too much. With great discounts from a wide range of spas from Groupon, what is a girl to do?!

Unsurprisingly, they were usually the same. Thankfully, I had learned my lesson and was able to make it clear from the beginning that I am not the committing kind, especially if they’re the pushy and manipulative type.

After more than six years, I finally met the one. She is kind, not intrusive and respectful. She understands my needs and gives me what I want. We have real conversations. She talked about how she couldn’t wait to leave the establishment and she wants to make it on her own. She’ll be offering her services from her humble home she shares with her elderly parents. I like a girl with ambitions and I like the thought that she’ll be keeping the money I pay all to herself. She deserves it after all and she wouldn’t need to push so hard like the other girls.

So last week, I finally told her that I will be leaving the country in September. I won’t be seeing her anymore. The distance would make it impossible for me to commit. It was a lie but most breakups are never honest anyway.

From the look on her face, I could see she was unhappy. She tried her best to persuade me to make the most of my remaining stay by seeing her more often. I said no with a smug smile, secretly hoping that she knew I was lying.

Breakups are never easy but sometimes, a girl needs to learn how to say no. Politeness and civility are not an option, not especially when the lying starts.