Wednesday, 30 December 2009

So this is Christmas... Part 2

Continuing my series of people and places I celebrate during this season.

2. Mum & Rose

My mother used to scare the hell out of people.
A fire-breathing school teacher, she was acknowledged as strict but fair and made an impression on many a student over her 30+ years of teaching. And when I say ‘impression’ do note I mean that in more ways than one, caning being a prerogative of all teachers until late in her career!

She came to Malaya from Hong Kong when she was just 3, brought over by her mother - an educated daughter of a court interpreter - who had been taken in by the charms of my maternal grandfather, Augustine Wong, a merchant seaman of indeterminate origin. If you look at Mum’s family, you will see a mix of the very fair, including Mum, and the very dark. Thick, curly hair was another dominant feature and I do sport some rather inconvenient curls as well. Mei often laughs at how my ends curl up like springs while I hate sitting in the path of a fan’s turbulence as my hair ultimately begins to uncoil itself, medusa-like, from the hold of my hairband.

Besides the coiffure-challenges, I have also often wondered at my own love of Indian food. I’d always thought Augustine had Portugese blood in him but the latest I heard from an uncle was that he probably had Indian blood. Ah… that explains some things!

Back to Mum… She was always a very strong character and after Augustine left his wife and children in KL to move to Melaka, she had to be even stronger to help support her mother and siblings. She worked in a Japanese bank during the war - this was when Augustine was still in KL - and one incident illustrates her feistiness succinctly.

The civilian manager of the bank had decreed that all staff had to stay back to learn how to sing patriotic songs. Mum refused and as a result, the manager wrote a letter to Augustine, saying his daughter was stubborn and requesting he do something about it. The manager sealed it and gave the letter to Mum, telling her to deliver it to her father. What did she do? She took the letter back to her desk, opened and read it - and that is why we know what the contents were - and threw it away in disgust.

When he’d not heard from Augustine in some time, the manager asked Mum about it: ‘Did you deliver the letter to your father?’

To which my mother replied ‘No. Why should I? It was all nonsense.’ which immediately implicated her not just in failure to comply, but also of prying into private correspondence.

Infuriated, the manager raised a hand to slap her and my mother instinctively reached out and grabbed his hand, stopping it in mid-flight. She glared at him and told him ‘You are nothing if not for the Japanese Army. And after the war you will be nothing again. And if ever I see you again after the war, watch out: I will spit in your face then!’

She never had to attend singing classes, and fortunately for us, he didn’t slap her, nor do anything worse. Well, we’re here today, right?

After the war, he settled in Singapore and so, Mr Sasaki (there was only one in Singapore ten years ago when we last checked), I would like to tell you you can probably relax now as it’s very unlikely she’ll make a trip down to carry out her threat!

Mum was a girl who endured the difficulties of childhood in the 1930s and 40s and who went through life, like almost all of her generation, more than a little scarred by her experiences. She played hopscotch with her youngest sister strapped in a cloth sling on her back one afternoon only to discover later that the little girl, who had been ill, had succumbed to her illness as my mother hopped from one square to another.

She saw the bank’s nightwatchman, in hungry desperation, trap rats to eat while she and her family just got by on the meagre rations they had.

And she saw a stranger who should have known better to keep his head down, cut to bits by shrapnel from exploding bombs dropped from high-flying American B-29s as they fought to liberate the Far East from the Japanese.

Her own mother, ashamed of her lot and for having fallen for someone who turned out not to be who she thought he was, cut all ties with her family so my mother never knew her cousins or aunts and uncles. This left an indelible impression on her and as we grew up and went overseas for our studies, she never stopped reminding us of the value of family and that we ‘must write!’ We always did.

In the 60s and 70s, she became a teacher and her fighting spirit remained. She once sat in the hot afternoon sun with some of her colleagues on the divider in the middle of Jalan Gasing outside the La Salle primary school where she taught, holding up placards seeking equal pay and benefits for women teachers. She endured the shouts from parents ‘Go back to your job!’, the burning heat and ultimately the loss of her job and many years of service. But they eventually got their equal pay.

Mum in the then-new La Salle school. 1961

In 1981 my father won an Award of Botanical Merit for one of his orchids which he subsequently dedicated to my mother: Phalaenopsis Violacea 'Pohchan'.

Mum in more recent times having a manicure courtesy of her granddaughter, Joanna

Some battles she didn’t win: she manned a desk seeking signatures for a petition to stop hillside developments in Gasing Hill. The development went ahead and stands till today. In the last decade or two, though, we’ve had a couple of hillside development disasters with loss of life and now the Selangor State government is reviewing hillside developments.

Another battle she isn’t winning is one she is fighting today. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s some years ago, she now deals with the effects of dementia. She has her good days and her not-so-good ones. I’ve seen her recount a story of something that happened years ago then, moments later, look at me and ask ‘who are you?’.

One Sunday evening many years ago in Randwick, a predominantly student suburb of Sydney where I was then living, I was walking down a wide sidewalk and headed towards me was an Asian male in his mid-20s who, despite the available width, seemed on a collision course with me. He came to a halt a few feet in front of me, stopped me, looked me in the eyes and asked ‘Are you Mrs Cheong’s son?’ I said yes, and he explained that he’d recognised me from when I used to sit in my mother’s class years ago. I remembered then that when I was 7, I attended the afternoon session of our school and I would often go a little early and sit in my mother’s morning-session class of older students. When that was dismissed, she’d make sure I had lunch and so on before I went for my classes. This stranger remembered me from that little routine 15 years before.

I like to think he remembered me because of my mother.

It’s appropriate that my sister’s name, Rosemary, contains my mother’s: Mary.
Rosemary embodies all the feistiness and selfless sacrifice my mother had stood for.

Born exactly a year after Merdeka Day, she studied locally and worked as a secretary for some years until she started a family. Shortly after her wedding in 1987, we found out my father had lung cancer. He died barely four months later.

Rosemary and her husband, Yap, had rented a place just minutes down the road but they soon moved back in with my mother and have been there ever since. Initially it was so my mother, who’d been married to my father for 38 years, would not have to deal with the loss on her own. Now, with Mum’s challenges, Rose is an indefatigable help, driver, nurse, companion.

And not just Mum - over the years Rose has been there and indeed continues to be there for a host of relatives and friends with challenges of their own. The list is a long one, and a testament to her generosity of spirit.

I’ve written about my cousin Pauline who passed away a couple of years ago. Rose was there, helping with her grocery shopping, taking her to and from her dialysis treatments, sending her to the hospital and was indeed there when Pauline breathed her last.

My eldest uncle, left alone after his wife passed away, relied on Rose for many things and she dutifully obliged even when she found out a few years ago that she had breast cancer. It took my other sister, Margaret, to tell all who’d come to rely on Rose that they would have to fend for themselves until Rose had dealt with her own battle. Which she thankfully did.

It is a wise person who measures not how a person dies but how he had lived. Rose has seen much of both death and life. Of the former, you would find Rose helping out at the Church she is so active in, making funeral arrangements, sorting out Mass books, flowers, food, and so on. In 2008 we had a torrid time with an uncle, two aunts, a cousin and a few others passing away. Rose was there for each one.
Of life, Rose may not have travelled extensively nor had the opportunity and experience of an overseas education or career, but it would be a fool who would say she has not lived. She has experienced ups and downs, seen the good in people and endured the less savoury. She continues to be a source of strength and indeed, inspiration to many who see in her steadfastness lessons that they themselves could benefit from.

Rosemary celebrating her 50th birthday recently - many came to put together a party for the person who is all things to all people.

At the end of 2009, I celebrate these two ladies. And the lessons I have personally learnt from them.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

So this is Christmas... Part 1

Another year ends. It’s been an eventful year for me with so many things occupying my thoughts that I have been less than diligent in writing. What better way to end the year then, than to rectify that?
So, as we look forward to a better 2010, I would like to cast a glance back at the people and things that I am grateful for that made a difference to me in 2009. This list is not presented in any particular order though without doubt, my wife, Mei, has been the most important person in my life in recent times and I have placed her first on this list.

So here it is: my celebration of 2009.

1. Mei
Mei and I just celebrated our third wedding anniversary. How time flies! We’ve had a wonderful 3 years with more ups than downs and I marvel at how she’s put up with some of the challenges that have come my way. She’s faced them all with equanimity, patience and unreserved support. In the last couple of years, I’ve made some pretty drastic course changes and consequently ridden some pretty hefty storms. Through it all, Mei’s stayed the course and that’s helped me navigate the waters better than if I hadn’t had her by my side.

At our wedding I talked about how there had been so many changes in my recent life and how all of it was good but the best of it was Mei. That opinion has not changed despite even more changes, and has in fact been more firmly planted.

In the last two weeks, courtesy of the La Sallian annual dinner and family Christmas gatherings, I’ve been thinking very much of old friendships. Being a bit of a packrat, I’ve kept some stuff from long ago and on a whim dug up an autograph book which contained the following Roy Croft poem. The words may not be mine, but the feelings most definitely are. So here they are, reproduced in tribute to the most wonderful person in my life - and top of my list of things and people I celebrate.

“I love you,
Not only for what you are,
But for what I am
When I am with you.

I love you,
Not only for what
You have made of yourself,
But for what
You are making of me.
I love you
For the part of me
That you bring out;
I love you
For putting your hand
Into my heaped-up heart
And passing over
All the foolish, weak things
That you can’t help
Dimly seeing there,
And for drawing out
Into the light
All the beautiful belongings
That no one else had looked
Quite far enough to find.

I love you because you
Are helping me to make
Of the lumber of my life
Not a tavern
But a temple;
Out of the works
Of my every day
Not a reproach
But a song.

I love you
Because you have done
More than any creed
Could have done
To make me good
And more than any fate
Could have done
To make me happy.
You have done it
Without a touch,
Without a word,
Without a sign.
You have done it
By being yourself.
Perhaps that is what
Being a friend means,
After all.”

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Happy Malaysia Day!

This was written by a dear friend, Singam, and very eloquently expresses a transformational idea that is long-overdue but not too late to make a crucial difference. The only thing I would change is to move into a position of ownership and intent: from 'We have to regain our independence' to 'We WILL regain our independence'. Let us all work towards that. Happy Malaysia Day!

"Happy Malaysia Day everyone.

In Melaka, it has just begun to rain. Throughout my life, whenever I was about to begin an important event, it has rained. I see the rain as a blessing. Ritual washing or cleansing is practiced in many cultures.

Today is an important turning point. Today, some part of the nation remembers again that day on which this nation was born. The date is not important in itself. But it is a powerful symbol of all that went into the forging of this nation. It is a reminder of the principles that were established, the promises that were made, the hopes that were ignited. It is a reminder of the future that we looked towards 46 years ago.

Ku Li will remember, perhaps with bitterness, the number 46. He will remember how the old was torn apart and replaced by a pretender. He will remember how promises were scattered willy-nilly and how untruth formed the basis of everything that followed.

Let this new 46 rewrite the meaning of that number. Let this be when the process of returning to those old promises begins. Let this become the symbol of hope.

The plight of Sabah and Sarawak is the clearest evidence of what ails this nation. We managed to get rid of the colonisers from Europe, but only to replace them with neo-colonisers from within. While we have all the trappings of a democracy, democratic principles continue to be sacrificed at the altar of expediency. We are led by a person appointed by one man and ruled by a clique that no longer enjoys majority support but remains in place due to control of the instruments of government.

We have to regain our independence. We have to restore the independence of the institutions of state. We have to revert to rule of law. We have to establish a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Today, we launch the Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia initiative. Today, we formalise our efforts to tear down the walls that were put up to divide us and thereby conquer us. Today, we begin the process of healing the nation and making it whole again. Today, we join hands and say to the powers that be, "Enough! We will take no more of this. We want our nation back!"

Today, we fast, as we pray for peace. We pray for deliverance from this evil. We pray for the strength to uphold righteousness. We pray to become worthy of grace.

Let this fair nation of ours be blessed.

Happy Malaysia Day."

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

David Munusamy visits Singapore

David Munusamy was in town for two nights recently. He had written to say he was on his around-Malaysia fund-raising tour and would drop by Singapore. Near the appointed date, I rang him only to find he was still in Teluk Intan. A week later found him in KL. Then Kajang.

I figured it would take him another week to get down and was reminded of David's sense of time and distance...

Then out of the blue a day later I got a call from him saying he was coming in… A bit of a mad scramble and I fixed up a place for him to stay at Johann’s as well as a simple programme for two days.

I arranged to meet him in Little India, parked the car in an open car park and settled down for a beer at the Broadway Hotel cafe. No sooner had I plonked my bag on the seat when my mobile rang and it was David - he’d missed the turning to Serangoon Rd and was sitting at a bus stop a short drive away. With thoughts of the Kingfisher Beer I could now not have, I got back in the car and eventually found him as he said, sitting at a bus stop outside the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes along Ophir Road.

It’s been almost two years since we met but he looked much the same - that same broad ageless smile, the same jocund manner. We put his bike in the car and set off to settle him in at Johann’s.

Later that evening we met for dinner and Mei finally got to meet this mad cyclist I have often mentioned. He was settling in nicely at Johann’s - and so he should as if ever there was a mad cyclist, it would be Johann.

We met again the next day for lunch when we also popped by my favourite bike shop, Song Seng Chan, then went with Johann for a night ride into Singapore’s Central Business District. Well, the outskirts of that to be more accurate - around the stadium then the Esplanade and the Merlion/Collyer Quay.

Amazingly I’d never done this and since that night have quite an interest in exploring at night. It’s so much cooler and traffics that much lighter. Although I would reckon good lights are a must have - Singapore drivers are not the most observant or tolerant in the world.

Here are some pictures of David’s too-short time in Singapore.

Me, David, Mei, Joe and friend at dinner at Sin Hoi Sai along East Coast Road

David and I on the Esplanade Bridge

David playing photographer for a couple of tourists

Johann and David with the Singapore Flyer in the background. There was some small National Day practice thing going on hence the bright lights.

David with the CBD in the background.

That's the new Integrated Resort (read: Casino) being built in the background.

Outside the Raffles Hotel - sorry didn't get it in the shot.

Friday, 27 March 2009


I’m a troublemaker. A bit of a shit-stirrer. The thing is I can’t stand the status quo if it’s obviously status no-go. If something’s broke, I feel compelled, driven, to fix it. Even if I can’t. If I see a cyclist going against traffic, I need to tell him. If a client is going to do something silly and waste money, even if the money is going straight into my pocket, I feel compelled to help them find a better way - even if no money comes into my pocket.

I just can’t stand things that don’t work the way they should.

This has gotten me into trouble before and doubtless will continue to do so. There are times, after all, when I butt my head against a system that is just too big, too arrogant or proud to accept criticism.
I’ve locked horns with one such system recently. No less than Singapore’s Immigration and Checkpoints Authority.

As my Mum continues her battle with Dementia and Parkinson’s, I swapped Chinese New Year holidays with my ex-wife (we alternate Christmasses and Chinese New Years so the kids have a chance to be with both families) and Mei and I brought the kids up to PJ for the recent festivities. After all the bereavements and grieving of the last year, my family decided to host the annual Cheong gathering, and to even include my mother’s side, the Wongs, too. It was promising to be fun and everyone was going to turn up.

Well, it didn’t get off to a good start - we were stuck in an almighty jam on the Singapore side at Tuas. It took us 2 hours to get through and in comparison, the Johor side was a breeze - mere minutes. The thing is, the system on the Singapore side is poorly designed, with bottlenecks and time-consuming processes making things unnecessarily slow and cumbersome.

One check they do perplexed me - after the immigration booths, you have to go through a security check where the driver has to get out and open the car boot. The security officers hardly glance in before waving you on. What are they looking for? And what a waste of time. It doesn’t help that the officers move with the languid slowness of sloths more resembling a disinterested zoo animal inclining a nostril at a proffered tidbit than the sharp and vigilant officers the ads make them out to be.

As if the long jam on the way up was not bad enough, when we returned after a fabulous few days, we ended up waiting 3 hours on the Singapore side. At one point, we were stationary on the bridge for 45 excruciating, annoying, frustrating, vexing minutes. The arrogant and sullen manner of officers at the checkpoint didn’t help at all.

We weren’t alone of course and I wasn’t surprised to read a letter in the Singapore Straits Times a few days later.

Well, I added to it in my own faecal-agitatory manner. I wrote in to the Forum page, detailing a list of ills and recommending some fixes. I got a little bashing in the online forums by blinkered Singaporeans presumptuously baying for protectionist policies - ‘who ask you to go to Malaysia to fill petrol?’ and so on. But I also got a lot of support from people who agreed with my list of ills too. Most gratifying.
The Immigration authority replied in their usual high-handed manner and rightly got slammed in the online forums.

I wouldn’t let the matter rest of course and replied, expressing disappointment that they had completely ignored my suggestions, repeated those suggestions and for good measure, added a couple more.

Despite waiting weeks, we heard not a peep from them.

Imagine then my surprise when I headed up to PJ a couple of weeks back, rolled up at the Immigration booth and was greeted by a smiling Immigration Officer ‘Good Morning!’ I was shocked into momentary silence. Now don’t get me wrong - I’m usually extremely polite, even jovial, with service people. The ICA, however, had always dampened my enthusiasm, so after years of getting surliness in response to sunniness, I’d simply given up. This officer’s greeting stumped me and it was all I could to to mumble a reply.

As I drive towards the security check area, ready to get out, open my boot, and so on, what do I see? No queue of cars. In fact, I didn’t even have to get out - an officer reached out for that slip of paper which tells them how many passports were handled by the officer in the booth, and again, smiled and called out ‘Good Morning’ then ‘Thank you sir’.

The aliens can’t possibly have landed and taken over the bodies of these - until then - Sultans of Surl, so what was going on?

And then it slowly dawned on me - the ICA had had a bit of a shakeup! Yes, that proud, arrogant, ‘We can do no wrong’ blue-garbed band of uhm… officers (hey, the alliteration would have been nice, but a bit harsh) had changed their disposition. And their system!

And I had caused it!

I. Me. Small, insignificant gnat in a grey authoritarian system. Saya. Had made change happen in that monolithic, humourless, authority that is the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority of Singapore.
Wow… Damn, it feels good!

Hmmm… what next now? The Land Transport Authority looks like it needs a bit of a shakeup too… heh heh

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Yes we can.

Let me borrow the words form that Harry Chapin song and say - ‘all my life’s a circle, sunrise and sundown. The Moon rolls through the nightime and the daybreak comes around.’ It seems that the days are just rolling by these days and I just realised it’s been months since a post.

The fact is, after a year or so of committed writing, I lost many words. Well, they were there alright - in my head coming out my mouth… but every time I sat in front of my Mac and tried to tap them out, they dissolved… like sugar in tea, they left a sweetness of ideas, but no tangible mark, no substance of their own.

So, these few months of silence on this blog have not been for a lack of thoughts and ideas, but for that disconnect. Or was it an overflow? A torrent of thoughts, opinions, commentary, criticism that’s clogged the outlet pipe? Certainly there has been enough fodder for this Taurean…

After the euphoria of March the 8th and then August the 26th, we’ve stumbled form one crisis to another. And despite the best efforts of those desperately seeking power, to stay in power or to regain power, the gratifying thing that has emerged is the remarkable repudiation of all that has been vile and reprehensible. I speak of course of the corruption, the abuse of power, the marginalisation of various groups and more.

Malaysians of all races and creed have remained steadfast in their belief and commitment to a Malaysia for all Malaysians. And they’ve openly condemned the policies of the past and have repeatedly called out for change.

As I type this, there is a clip on TV of Barack Obama waving to a crowd and I am reminded of how he has transcended the racial barrier to get to the most powerful position on earth. Besides being a beacon of hope for Americans, he shines a light for Malaysians too. If he could ford racial storm waters, yes, we can, too.

One of the ideas that swam around in my head early in January - caught as I was in the whole American elections process - was Martin Luther King’s iconic ‘I have a Dream’ speech. I thought ‘I too, have some dreams. For Malaysia and for Malaysians.’

Almost a quarter of the way into the year, let me finally tap them out on my keyboard. In light of the recent happenings in Perak, perhaps it is the right time to look at what could be.

Dream 1: A Malaysia of Malaysians.
The time for race-based politics has passed. The time to recognise that the only way forward is for all of us to come together as one, is upon us. We can start by removing ‘race’ from all official documents. Then from all policies. Let our kids grow up simply as fellow Malaysians.

Dream 2: A Government for the people, not for itself
For too long we have lived with mismanagement, greed and self-serving leaders. It’s about time government was about the people, not leaders. It’s about time our government worked to improve our lot, not line their pockets. It’s about time our goverment became accountable for their actions. Or inaction. I like some of the stuff I’m hearing about Penang and Selangor. More of that please…

Dream 3: Opportunity aplenty
As a country we’ve grown enough that there should no longer be any among us who lack opportunity. To gain an education, to get a job, to contribute to the country. In a global economy, we can no longer afford to scramble and struggle amongst ourselves. We need, all of us and without exception, for the best among us to have the best opportunities to bring this country forward. And we need for the weakest among us, all and without exception, to be given every opportunity to raise themselves up.

Dream 4: Substance please, not facades
I’m tired of things made up to look good but are really rotten to the core. Let’s put money into things that truly work for the common good. And please let’s have professionally run companies, organisations, authorities, councils…

Dream 5: Safety, Security… Semua taruh.
Let me have this on my banana leaf ‘semua taruh’ - safety, security, peace of mind, the works. Let us all have the ability to get home safely from the night shift, or allow our children to go out and play with their neighbours, or to drive home and get back into our homes without fear, and more. I just watched a video on You Tube which showed a gang of ‘Mat Rempit’ attack a couple returning home. Let’s put an end to this!

Dream 6: Quality Education. Quality educators.
I come from a family of educators and indeed, Mei’s family is likewise. I even teach part-time in a local design college. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that education is important. It does, however, take education to create a rocket scientist though. Our future lies in the attitudes, decisions and actions of today’s young. And all that will be shaped by a top-quality education system. We don’t have one today.

Anyone got any other dreams?

Forever Falls - a day trip to Selama in Perak

Fishing in Oil Palm Estates It seems this part of Perak is all about waterfalls. We’d seen signboards for so many in our recent travel...