Friday, June 8, 2007

The good die young

One of the simple pleasures I often look forward to is the chance to meet up with my old school buddies. For an assortment of a hundred and thirty or so boys who don’t have much in common in the beginning I could say we developed a formidable bond throughout the 5 formative years we spent growing up in a government penitentiary that is, to the rest of the non-incarcerated population, a boarding school. However, the gathering we had two days ago we could have gladly given a miss. For just the day before, one of us, even before reaching his 40th birthday, departed this life.

Most of us received the news that Farid passed away on Wednesday morning when we were well into our working day. My phone was constantly ringing with people asking “What happened?” The facts were hazy at that time but it turned out later that Farid died of “nontraumatic subarachnoid haemorrhage”. Some call it an aneurysm and some just simply refer to it as a blood vessel bursting in the brain. It was one of those causes of death where no amount of medical checks could provide advance warning.

By late morning quite a few of us were applying for emergency leave and canceling appointments to perform the ziarah at his family home in Kelang. He died in JB while on a work assignment and the jenazah was due to arrive only at about 4 p.m. It looked certain that there was going to be a reunion of sorts for us.

My first thought was how would we conduct ourselves this time? Our get-togethers have always been lively and revelrous affairs. These were the opportunities to relive those outrageous schoolboy episodes (and some adult ones) over again.

By lunchtime, about 10 of us were already gathered at a restaurant nearby while waiting for the jenazah which was still a long way away. It didn’t turn out to be a morose gathering after all. Apart from the expected theorizing about how our friend died, everybody took turns to relate some amusing anecdote about Farid and we were in stitches. The thing was, he was quite a low profile fellow, not usually in the limelight but in a boarding school no idiosyncrasy would go unnoticed.

It turned out that Farid, for all his quiet temperament, turned to orgies of destruction as a method of stress-management. At least once he trashed the Yellow House recreation room furniture for no ascertainable reason (and had to go into hiding for about 2 hours after it drew the attention of the House Warden). There was another time that he, with the help of some equal-minded friends, flattened a loaf of bread into a very big thin slice by rolling a ground leveler (imagine a manual steamroller) over it repeatedly. Again nobody could remember for what reason. Personally I feel that if a small animal was at the receiving end, the results would have been more spectacular and memorable.

I think I speak for everybody in the group in thinking that this was the type of wake we would like to have when we go. I would rather be the source of amusement than sorrow. Wouldn’t you?

We also did the very Malay thing of identifying any peculiar behaviour or incidence that occurred just before Farid’s death. And here I did not disappoint. It was only 5 days before that I met him. I happened to be in the area where he worked and I thought it would be nice to drop by for a chat. It lasted 2 hours. Nothing strange about that but for the fact that I had never spoken to him alone for more than 10 minutes as we weren’t particularly close. We talked about all kinds of things - friends, family, work, politics. He even related to me the story of how he chatted up the manager of a Bata outlet when he went to buy shoes for his first job interview and he ended up marrying her. I felt we finally broke the ice after all these years.

Then I heard somebody say, “Are you going to blog about this?” which caught me by surprise. But it was directed to Mr Akula who said, “I’m composing it as we speak,” while shooting a knowing glance at me. I said, “Yeah, how can you let this pass?”

By Asar, we were all gathered at his grandfather’s house to read the Yassin and recite the necessary prayers. His jenazah arrived at 5.30 p.m. It was heartbreaking to see his wife and 11 year old daughter following in a daze behind the van. By Maghrib it was all over and our dear friend was laid to rest. I can see why it makes sense for Muslim funerals not to be long drawn events. The loved ones just need to grieve and move on with their life.

Over the next few days I shall have to ponder on my own mortality and on how everything can be gone in an instance. And to my friends – don’t worry, I won’t make any surprise visits very soon. Promise.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

The obligatory Lina Joy post

Since yesterday morning, people who know I blog (and even one commentor) have been asking me about what I think about the Lina Joy decision. I’m not sure whether they are looking for a political, religious or socio-economic perspective. Maybe they want to know how I feel (happy, sad, relieved etc.) about it. Perhaps they expect an irreverent or humorous comment from me to make light of what is a very troubling issue.

To tell you the truth, I feel nothing. Only because the decision is expected.

I notice many bloggers highlighting the fact that the 3 judge quorum of the Federal Court were made up of 2 Muslims and 1 non-Muslim so it was no surprise that it was the Muslim judges who decided against Lina Joy with the non-Muslim judge dissenting. The conclusion must be that the proceedings was biased against Lina from the start.

What we saw yesterday was a classic example of legal realism at work. If the term is new to you, let me offer a definition. It is the theory that common-law adjudication is an inherently subjective system that produces inconsistent and sometimes incoherent results that are largely based on the political, social, and moral predilections of judges. In short, it has little to do with the attainment of justice which was expected by both camps of the apostasy argument.

We cannot really say why Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim and Justice Alauddin Mohd Sheriff dismissed her appeal. To me, analyzing the basis of the judgment is unhelpful. Anybody armed with a law degree can cook up proper justification for any legal decision. What more judges who have the benefit of legal submissions from counsels and research by their registrars (although the registrars could probably do better than that “whim and fancy” argument). Who knows why the Muslim judges decided in that manner? It could be out of their own religious convictions. Maybe they sought to avoid civil unrest (somebody pointed out that it is less likely for Christians to riot than Muslims in Malaysia). Maybe they wanted to serve their political masters, if any. For all you know, they may have eaten something bad for breakfast.

I don’t want to comment on whether this is the right or wrong way to go about it, but that’s the way it is. It would be na├»ve to think that the courts in our Malaysia would decide on something as politically charged as the Lina Joy case based on the simple notion of justice.

What is really heartbreaking is how we are torn apart by this. Despite the endorsement of the highest court in the land, Lina Joy won’t be the last Muslim apostate in Malaysia, I'm sure. The ignorance, paranoia and bigotry revealed through the postings and comments that have been up since yesterday are frankly quite disturbing. Yesterday, the Global Peace Index was announced and we are put at No. 37 on the ranking of the world’s peaceful countries. Today, I’m not so sure.

Tell me again. Who won?

Monday, May 28, 2007

Sexists 'r us

With all these sexists around it must be hard for a woman to maintain her dignity in Malaysia. We all know about the ‘bocor’ issue in Parliament which has already generated many a blog posting ad nauseam so I won’t repeat it here. I don’t have to be a woman to observe that sexism in our country is heavily institutionalized.

My most vivid recollection of this phenomenon was when I was undergoing an orientation course conducted by the Biro Tata Negara for scholarship holders before I departed for the UK many years ago. As is usual in this type of brainwashing sessions there would be activities involving the singing of patriotic songs. In one particular session, the all-male trainers made segregated groups of boys and girls compete against each other in terms of loudness. The logic of the BTN trainers must have been the louder you sing, the more you must love your country. To encourage the girls to sing louder, a highly gender-sensitive trainer told the girls, “Mulut ada dua pun tak boleh nyanyi kuat.” (You can’t sing loudly even with two mouths). I can’t remember whether it got the desired results but it certainly got the boys excited.

Of course, now as a mature adult (I’d like to think so anyway), I cringe to imagine how demeaning it was for the girls. But this demonstrates how sexist attitudes become entrenched.

Just 48 hours after the pipes burst in the Jalan Duta Court Complex, more facts came to light about its shoddy construction work. It was found that the sewerage manhole overflowed, damaging many court files. (Source: The Sun May 25 2007). Nothing new here. But consider the response of the PWD deputy director-general Selvanayagam P. Nagalingam. He explained that the manhole overflow was due to the indiscriminate disposal of sanitary napkins which could have been going on for some time. There you go. Blame menstruating women whenever there are problems with leaks.

It’s just too bad that “Dr. Shit” did not appear in the scene early enough to prevent menstruating women from causing the blockage. I’m taking about the report in the same edition of the Sun where our Government has decided to turn to South African geologist-turned-sanitation guru Trevor Mulaudzi, who goes by the nickname of “Dr Shit”, to help Malaysians keep public toilets clean. While they are at it, they might as well try to find a “Doctor Cock” to keep the MCPs in line.

What further boggles the mind is that our MPs have to relate everything to gender differences. One senator at the Dewan Negara, highlighted the issue of the Malaysian men’s football team playing like “sissies”, unlike the women’s football team who are playing well (source: The Sun May 25 2007 – again!). The response of Youth and Sports Ministry parliament secretary, S. Vigneswaran was simply, “Maybe it’s because the minister concerned is a woman.” This may not be offensive in itself but what value does a comment like that have? You would think that in the very rambunctious climate of the Malaysian Parliament, one would avoid making comments like that lest they degenerate into a discussion concerning the Minister’s penis or lack thereof.

While we can only lament about the maturity and gender sensitivity of our MPs and possibly the electorate, the British can already boast about their indifference to gender when it comes to politics.

Last week on Thursday, Britain’s first transsexual mayor, Jenny Bailey, 45, was sworn in as the mayor of Cambridge (source: The Sun May 25 2007 – yet again!). I have to point out here that councilors in Britain are elected and not appointed as in Malaysia. I find it amazing that the Cambridge councilors in choosing Jenny as Mayor could comfortably disregard the fact that Jenny and her partner (also a fellow councilor), both men previously and have two children each from previous marriages, had sex change operations only to become lesbians (either that or the councilors were too confused with the over-complex permutations).

At least if water ever seeps through the roof of the Cambridge Guildhall, Jenny (or her partner) could make a fuss, without anybody being able to tell her to shut up just because she “leaks” every month.

Related links:

Sewer hazard
Summary of sexist remarks in Parliament
Govt ropes in `Dr Sh*t’ for hygiene help
Meet the sex-change lady mayor and mayoress

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Bocor lagi

I had just stepped into the cafeteria at the new Jalan Duta Court Complex this morning when I saw a flurry of camera flashes. There must be a high profile criminal accused or litigant around, I thought. My photoblogging instinct prompted me to get my camera phone poised and ready for some action.

I was a bit disappointed to see that all the fuss was about what I thought was a major floor cleaning exercise.

But then I heard some mutterings of "bocor lagi" from the cafeteria patrons. Things were beginning to look up. Finally I could contribute to the bocor discussion with a posting of my own. The press photographers, who were probably stationed at the courts to cover another newsworthy story, had a field day recording the incident from all angles.


Other people, maybe bloggers too, had the same idea and started snapping away on their camera phones. I made a note to myself not to let anybody else get the scoop on this and post this fast. Remember folks, you read about it first on Almost Anonymous.

My own efforts at investigative journalism uncovered the source of the minor flood. A pipe situated in a small "service room" burst. Apparently nobody realised it until some lawyers complained that their thousand-Ringgit Loake shoes were feeling a tad damp.

At least that kept the press occupied until they did some proper legal reporting. Moments later, they swarmed around Mr. M. Manoharan, a prominent lawyer, for some comments on perhaps the latest scandal on a Hindu person buried in a Muslim cemetery, corrupt municipal councilors or chicken smuggling. I couldn't actually hear him but from his fiery discourse I thought this must be something big.

I collared Mr. Mano himself in the lift and I asked, "What public interest case are you doing today, sir?" He said, "No lah. They just wanted to ask my opinion on this bocor thing." Hmmph. Any publicity is good publicity I suppose.

Whatever it is I'm sure members of the legal fraternity and court staff will enjoy the next few days eating in very very very hygienic conditions.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Nation of daredevils

Would you find it strange if I placed a stool 3 feet into a busy road and invited you to sit on it?

Apart from the weirdness of the whole thing, I know you would decline the invitation fearing for your safety. We know that most Malaysian drivers need to get from point A to B in the shortest time possible. If cyclists and crossing pedestrians do not normally serve as impediments one should avoid hitting in one’s endeavour to reach one’s destination quickly, why should a person sitting almost in the middle of the road be treated any differently?

But somehow it might not seem so strange if it wasn’t a solitary stool that was placed on the road but a collection of table and chairs with other people seated on them already.

I am not sure what the appeal is of patronizing this sub-species of open-air eating establishments. So for the purpose of research, I braved myself and sat myself on one of those wobbly plastic chairs to enjoy a teh tarik (the things I do for you, honestly).

After 5 minutes I felt like every driver was trying to murder me but changed his mind at the very last second. I concluded that the attraction must not be dissimilar to bungee jumping. There are people who would pay (although the cost of my teh tarik adventure is significantly less) to experience the thrill of feeling like you are about to die. But with the roadside teh tarik, the possibility of dying unexpectedly in the process from a combination of a road accident and dysentery is not quite eliminated.

It’s not as if such a scenario has not been played out before. At around 2.00 a.m. on May 25, 2003 a young lady by the name of Charlene Joseph Jindi drove along Jalan 14/14 in Section 14, Petaling Jaya. For reasons which are not totally clear she crashed into several tables placed outside a mamak restaurant on the road. One person was killed and 6 others were injured. She was subsequently charged with reckless driving and causing death and injury.

What was interesting was that her lawyer during the trial argued that "the accident took place on the road where the restaurant patrons were not supposed to be sitting." The court has not decided on the case yet and it remains to be seen how the magistrate, who probably had a roadside teh tarik himself the day before, will view this argument. Perhaps the lawyer might do better arguing that she was using the rearview mirror to apply her make-up at the time.

But don't think that sitting quietly in the safety of your own home could insulate you from this type of danger.

At 11 a.m. on May 11 2007, 70-year old Madam P. Saravathy had just stepped into her kitchen to make curry when a tipper lorry laden with stones and soil crashed into her double-storey corner lot home in Bangsar and landed in her living room. The lorry driver claimed that he was driving downhill and tried to steer the vehicle to safety but failed. It is likely that he will be charged under Section 43(1) of Road Transport Act 1987 for careless and inconsiderate driving.

I would say he was indeed very inconsiderate as the least he could do was to time the event to coincide with a suitable episode of AXN’s World’s Most Amazing Crashes. That would probably have enhanced the sound effects and added to the excitement of Madam Saravathy and her neighbours in a more positive manner.

It is no surprise that some road-users and pedestrians alike have this lack of concern when it comes to the safety of themselves and others on the road. This apathetic attitude is probably instilled from small. How often have you seen circus acts as below on the road?

And poking your head through the sunroof while your car is cruising to pretend that you are the queen of a homecoming parade may be fun but it’s one way of increasing the chances of your head arriving at your destination much earlier than the rest of your body.

I could go on about Mat Rempit, motorcyclists who don’t switch on their lights at night and pedestrians who think that overhead bridges are merely decorative structures but I feel quite tired and thirsty after all this writing. I feel like having a teh ais my local mamak. And I’m going to sit inside. Far inside.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Talking dirty

Today, together with emails of people asking me to enlarge my penis and give money to dodgy Nigerians, I received one of those interesting but useless viral emails that people forward to their friends thinking it would brighten up their day (although I suspect it has already been making its rounds for quite a while). I would usually delete emails of this kind but this particular one inspired me to propose a solution to the waning interest in Visit Malaysia Year 2007.

The email was innocently titled “A Small Town In Austria” and it featured a newspaper article about the problems of residents in a sleepy 32-house Austrian village near Salzburg on the German border. The residents were growing tired of tourists, mainly from Britain, stealing signs from their not-so-quaintly named village. It’s hardly a wonder since the village is called “Fucking”*.

A local tourist guide who was interviewed complaints that Salzburg and its surroundings offered many interesting sights “but for the British it was all about Fucking.”

But could the tourists really be blamed? I did further research on this (not on fucking, but on places with unusual names) and discovered that it doesn’t take a lot to get people excited when it comes to oddly named places. Nobody starts out wanting to give embarrassing names to their town or village but unfortunately although they may be innocuous in their own languages the names may cause speakers of other languages to regard them as funny. Our capital may sound normal to our ears but not to some Americans who think that any capital city sounding like (or spelt as?) “gouala loubour” has comedic value (see here: answerer 7) . Another American blogger is “shocked” at the name of "Shah Alam, Selangor" but she does admit that she’s geographically impaired.

Of course, this phenomenon cannot be confined to less-informed Americans and such because it would be normal for us too to be amused by foreign place names which has comical meanings in our own language. When I was a child, my family took a road trip on the west coast of the USA and we passed through a town called “Gila Bend” in Arizona ("gila" means "crazy" in Malay). My dad insisted that we stop the car and have my sister and I pose for a photo in front of the sign. At that time I thought it was a meaningless though slightly hilarious exercise. But then I didn’t know that many years later I would be blogging about funky toponyms.

Well, in view of this proclivity our Ministry of Tourism should pay special attention to our own towns in that special category. We already have towns with names of sufficient lasciviousness that should be celebrated . Residents of “Getting Horny” (Menggatal, Sabah), “Dangling Dick” (Batang Berjuntai, Selangor) and “Fishtrap Vagina Village” (Kampong Pantat Bubu, Terengganu) should wake up to the brand potential of their settlements.

That way, they could reclaim their dignity and announce their places of origin with pride. There is no need for folks from Batang Berjuntai to sheepishly abbreviate their town to “BB” when asked where they are from or be the butt of jokes when disclosing their hometown in full. I am talking here about the old joke where you ask somebody from BB where they come from and upon hearing the town’s name in full, comment “Me too. But which town?”

Of course, the ribald nature of these town names may not be too apparent to English speakers. Well, we should look at the Welsh and take a leaf out of their books then. In Wales, town names are displayed on signs in Welsh and English. There is no reason why we could not have both Malay and English on town signage.

To protect the brand value of these towns, there should also be laws passed against changing their names just to suit current (boring) sensitivities. I recently had a holiday in Langkawi and I looked up some excursions to Pulau Kentut Besar (Big Fart Island) and Pulau Kentut Kecil (Small Fart Island). In my schooldays, these were two islands that were circled in bright red ink in everybody’s Longman’s Student Atlas. Alas, the wet blankets have changed their names to Pulau Intan Besar (Big Diamond Island) and Pulau Intan Kecil (Small Diamond Island). Why would anyone want to visit them now? I hear the spoilsports also propose to rename Batang Berjuntai as "Berjuntai Bestari". Where is their sense of tradition?

It would also add to the town’s charm if tourists’ attention could be brought to folklores relating to the names of the places. There is an interesting story as to how Pulau Kentut Besar and Pulau Kentut Kecil got their names. According to legend, there was once a Malay prince who ate half-cooked rice during a wedding feast. His majesty suffered indigestion and farted the two islands, the size of each island corresponding to the size of his fart. If that doesn’t make you want go there for a camping holiday with a week’s supply of baked beans, I don’t know what will.

Similarly, Batang Berjuntai has an interesting folklore. In ancient times, a princess and her entourage stopped by near a river to rest during her long journey from Perak to Johor. She saw a man bathing on the opposite bank and asked her lady-in-waiting, “What is that strange object attached to his person?” Her lady-in-waiting replied, “Ba …” Okay, you know I’m making this up but it will make a hell of a story to tell credulous note-taking German tourists.

Well, I think I’ll have to do further research on this subject before I submit my full report to the Ministry of Tourism. In the meantime I’ll book a holiday to the mountain of Wank in Bavaria to get some ideas. It’s probably the only place in the world where you can ask a local, “Excuse me, you wanker. Where is the nearest post office?” without getting beaten up. Oh, I’m going to have so much fun.

* It means “Fock’s people” in the local language. The sign underneath means: Please, not so fast!


Related links:

Fucking, Austria
A town called Fucking
Much ado about names
Be careful of what u name
Graham Norton calls Austrian tourist office to ask about Fucking (video)

Thursday, May 3, 2007

It's truly porkelicious!*


I used to have this colleague called Chong who I always tried to avoid near lunch time. Around 12.30 p.m. he would say something annoying like, “I’d ask you to join me for lunch at my favourite restaurant but it’s not halal.” I would also always reply graciously, “Thanks for the thought.” He would then grin and add, “It’s such a shame because the pork dumplings are the best in town.”

He would also try to “tempt” me to join him for a bak kut teh breakfast and whenever we would have to arrive at a consensus for an eating place he would go into a mock sulk, making it clear that he was “disappointed” we couldn’t accommodate his nourishment of preference.

Actually, I was not offended. Chong was a great colleague otherwise and I guess he only cracked these non-halal jibes because he felt comfortable with me. In fact, I’m very tolerant when it comes to people eating pork around me, having spent many years abroad. But Chong’s ribbings were more of an annoyance than anything else due to his misunderstanding.

I could see that his attempt at humour was based on a misconceived line of reasoning. I suspect he had a few hard-drinking Muslim buddies who also didn’t have qualms about eating non-halal beef and chicken abroad. I could see him further contemplating on the haram ruling on certain vices. It was not hard for him to come to the flawed conclusion that the purpose of sharia principles was to take the fun out of life (“What’s wrong with having sex with your girlfriend?” he inquired one time) and if not for the prohibitions, Muslims would knock themselves out silly with all that is prohibited, including pork. Hence, to him, dangling porkelicious temptations in front of me must have been a right laugh.

I can’t blame him actually. Muslims who show poor restraint when it comes to staying away from forbidden food and drink only add to the confusion. But Muslims, or Malays at least, would draw a line when it comes to pork. From small we are brought up to think of pigs as absolutely filthy animals. I’m afraid I can’t quote from the Quran but I can safely quote Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield character in Pulp Fiction: “Hey, sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I’d never know ’cause I wouldn’t eat the filthy mother . . . . Pigs sleep and root in shit. That’s a filthy animal. I ain’t eating nothin’ that ain’t got enough sense enough to disregard its own feces.” That’s how our parents inculcate our inbuilt aversion to eating pork in not so many words.

In fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), even touching swine carries a burden. One is required to wash himself seven times with water (including once with water mixed with soil) if he comes into contact with a pig (or its product). We don’t even have to do that when coming into contact with excrement. So you can understand why we can’t bring ourselves to eat something that is considered dirtier than shit.

However, I also observe that it is a Malay thing, distinguishing the sin of eating pork from other garden-variety transgressions. Whilst living in the UK I notice that less observant Muslims from other countries, including the Arab states, would happily dine on roast suckling piglet washed down with a glass of cold crisp Sauvignon Blanc without having to discriminate between the two. Perhaps children in other Muslim countries are spared the Samuel L. Jackson lecture as in their countries, there was little danger in accidentally ingesting pork, being mono-cultural societies.

So there you go, a Malay sinner may down 5 shots of tequila in one go but will pass up the chance of gobbling down a sumptuous piece of pork chop or its equivalent. But not when it comes to pork scratchings, it appears.

In the UK of the late 80s, it was still relatively difficult to dine out if one observed halal requirements. So one of the more popular dining establishments amongst Malay students was Pizza Hut. One could choose between the vegetarian or seafood supreme pizza and have a nice bowl of salad for starters. The salad was not too bad because the veggies were fresh and to add crunchiness and flavour, one could add croutons and some mysterious crispy orangey bits next to them.

This udang kering-like ginger-coloured substance was all the rage then because it added oomph! to what would be typical rabbit food. That was until one Ramadhan evening in 1989. A group of 4 Malay students chose to break their fast at the Marble Arch outlet and they were pleased to be served by a Jordanian waiter whose faith was revealed when he excused himself for his iftar. Upon the designated time the boys rushed headlong for the salad bar and scoffed some spoonfuls of the “udang kering” stuff while no one looked. That was when their new-found Jordanian friend cried out in horror, “What are you doing? That is fried pig skin!”

The reaction of each person was interestingly different. Two of them ran straight to the gents to wash the offensive matter out of their mouths while the other two just looked at each other and one expressed disappointedly, “Damn, that could have gone on a little bit longer.”

Some other resourceful students made more inquiries and found out that the crispy stuff was the popular pub snack, pork scratchings. Wikipedia describes it as:
“…. typically heavy, hard and have a crispy layer of fat under the skin, some still retain the hair of the pig, and are flavored only with salt. The pig hair is usually removed by quickly burning the skin of the pig before it is cut into pieces and cooked in hot fat. Hair removal is not 100% effective which is why some retain a few hairs. The hairs are what usually makes people question the desirability of these pub snacks, but to some, these can also be highly desirable.”
What an appropriate and effective addendum that would be to the Samuel L. Jackson sermon in case one was still tempted.

Back to the question of Chong, I did toy with the idea of getting my own back on him. I thought of bringing some really evil smelling tempoyak and waving it under his nose to put him off his lunch. But I had second thoughts in case he said, “Can I have a bit? That goes nicely with sweet and sour char siew you know.” It’s just not fair.

* tagline of El Cerdo restaurant
43 & 45 Changkat Bukit Bintang,
50200 Kuala Lumpur