Thursday, April 17, 2014

Karpal Singh: Champion of the invisibles (1940-2014)

(First a declaration. I am not a politician, and never have been one. I have no political affiliation, my friends come in all political stripes, and I am not a member or ever have been a member of any political party. I never knew Karpal, and never met him.)

I was on my usual early morning walk, when another regular stopped, hesitated and said, "Lawyer Karpal died in an accident ... last night ... this morning ... 1.30 ...". He was too emotional to continue, and shrugged and raised his palm to the heavens. "What? When ... where did you hear this ... did you read this?" I stammered avoiding the most important question, "Which Karpal?" I knew the answer to that, but I did not dare say it, hoping desperately to be wrong. (Just like when I heard John Lennon was shot three decades ago.)

Only a week ago, I was having a discussion with my friend-politician-former MP-lawyer, Yusmadi. We meandered from Vaclav Havel to Gandhi, took several twists and turns and arrived at Jokowi. "Impossible in Malaysia ..." he seemed to say. "How about Nik Aziz? Karpal?" I asked. We debated for a while and finally agree. These two were indeed giants who rose above the normal wrestling-in-the-filth politicians.

It feels as though Karpal has been in my political consciousness for ever, and he looms even larger in death. He was not everybody's idea of a cuddly teddy-bear type politician; he could bite, scratch and spit, and often. He was often infuriatingly bloody-minded; almost unforgiving in politics. But he was equally bloody-minded about justice and fair-play. He spoke up for the small people; the invisibles, the underdogs, and the underclass; those who are ignored when policies are discussed, when laws are passed, when the country is looted, when contracts are dished out, and right there when rights are trampled. He was relentless, and he went on in that vein for four decades. Like a Dobermann, he would never let go.

Karpal never wavered; he never looked for the easy solution, for expediency. It had to be done right, and it had to be the right thing. In a way, he was not a politician at all, and this is my highest compliment. He was too honourable; too much of an intellectual, too much of a lawyer. To misquote Albert Einstein: "Generations to come ... will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon Malaysia." He gave us voice. He dared us to speak, and we spoke. He dared us to stand up and be counted. And we did. We became not so invisible any more. We may have disagreed intellectually sometimes, but never with his spirit.

Yang Berhormat Karpal Singh s/o Ram Singh, lawyer, politician and Member of Parliament, do rest in peace. You have done far more than your share. Thank you for showing us how it is done; we will take it from here.

(The op-ed piece below was written the day before Karpal's fatal accident. It would be dishonest of me to suggest that I wrote it for him, but he did loom large in my discussions with Yusmadi, and that sparked this article. And it just feels right to dedicate this piece to the 'champion of the invisibles'.)

Raman Krishnan
Silverfish Books


OP-ED: The invisibles


I don't know of anyone in the book industry who is not aware of the Penguin-Random House merger. A new conglomerate called Penguin Random House (or Penguin House) has been formed and the process of registering the company is (from all current knowledge) going on smoothly in all countries in the world, except Malaysia. When Penguin Books Malaysia tried to register the new company in Kuala Lumpur (they moved from PJ to KL last year) they were told that they could not use the name because they were not selling houses! They were apparently told that it was a rule that the company name must reflect their business. So instead of arguing with that ... that ... whatever ... behind the desk, they have retained the name Penguin Books Malaysia. Also, apparently, it would not have been a problem in Selangor. So, there you are.

Hilarious and ridiculous as it sound, I am not surprised. I can almost hear the dialogue: (Say this in a high-pitched nasal voice that irritates like hell), "No-oo, cannoo-oot. You canno'ot use the name. After, peoples thinks you jual rumah, kan?" Can you imagine Amazon Malaysia trying to registered a company here. Are you selling water?

We have all had these experiences at 'gomen' offices. The moment you step in, you'll feel like you have swallowed a dozen sleeping pills; time will slow to a crawl and gravity will fail. And when you manage to finally speak to someone who is not knitting, or at a Tupperware party, or having a cigarette in the lift lobby, or pegi minum (out for a drink), or on kursus (on a course), who is an actual intelligent life form, you will be so delirious with joy that your spouse will become suspicious that you've been smoking something. (Happened to me.) Kafka had nothing on these people, man!

Malaysia ta'boleh

It was not always like this, though. I joined the service in the early seventies, when it was still a privilege to work in the civil service, although snide remarks about chamblem (salary) and kimblem were already circulating. (Both Tamil words.) Promotions were based on seniority, and every thing seemed fair. Sometimes there were seeded players and favourites who went ahead. We tolerated that mostly, because there still was respect. Even if you worked under someone junior to you, there was mutual respect. To be fair, some deserved their out-of-turn promotions.

As we neared the eighties, talk of kulitfication (qualifications based on skin colour) became rampant. We resigned to being second class, and that we had to run three times faster simply to keep our place. Then it became worse. From second class, we became the invisibles. Nobody noticed us. It was as though we didn't exist. Running didn't help, no matter how fast.  By the start of the nineties,  it became so strange that we would talk about who was getting promoted and transferred where as if we ourselves didn't exist! Scary, huh? In Ralph Elison's novel, the Invisible Man, was the underclass, hiding from the world, living underground, and stealing electricity. But we were top professionals at our peak.

Inevitably, many with lower threshold for pain left; some sooner, others later. (Could this be deemed constructive dismissal?) Many went overseas. Those who remained in the service chose to grit their teeth, live in ignominy and humiliation, swallow any pride they had left for the tiny crumbs that fell off the table, and did just enough work to maintain a weak pulse before they retired. They chose a life of JM Coetzee's Disgrace. They were sometimes respected by their bosses, often decades their junior in seniority and experience. Often not. Sometimes, they were shouted at like schoolboys. (Have you seen a senior officer cry? I have.) After 20 years, it was time to leave. On rare occasions, there were the token promotions.

Half the population in now invisible (except when they want our money or votes). There was a report two years ago that one million Malaysians lived overseas, and that most were professionals. For the invisibles who are professionals, a job in the country is no longer an option, let alone one in the civil service. 50,000 students leave the country for tertiary education every year. Most don't come back. In the sixties, the best students attended the one local university. The rest went overseas. Today, the invisibles who can barely afford it would not  consider a place in a local university, even if awarded on a silver platter.

In the story Tash Aw wrote for The New York Times recently, he worried about world perceptions of Malaysia. That was washed down the drain years ago. At Silverfish Books, we often receive visitors from the US. Before they arrive they would read up about the country, including the glowing reports about 'the good Muslim nation' in the New York Times and the Washington Post. But it didn't take long after landing here for reality to sink in, and leave them shell-shocked.

The bomoh's act sort of summed up the MH370 debacle (of handling it, that is). Decades of lateral transfers, bypassed promotions, ignored seniority, solid bullet-proof glass ceilings and a million professionals overseas, has a price. The civil service is bloated with mediocrity and incompetence; a place for lifetime employment, a pension and no work. It's almost like rent-seeking. Despite everything, there are some good people still there (doing the work of ten others). But how much can they handle? The rest survive with a bodoh sombong (dumb arrogant) attitude, bullying and playing blame games. (When a school teacher can slap a deputy minister in public and get away with it, it says it all ...  you owe me a living!)

The emperor has lost all his clothes, and he stands stark naked. But will he learn anything? Unfortunately, that's not likely. After Merdeka, some ministers asked Malaysian professionals if they were ready to take over the administration. There was a resounding 'yes'. And they did a good job, too. What if we were asked that question again? Can you do the job?

Malaysia memang ta'boleh.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The invisibles (Malaysia ta'boleh)


I don't know of anyone in the book industry who is not aware of the Penguin-Random House merger. A new conglomerate called Penguin Random House (or Penguin House) has been formed and the process registering the company is (from all current knowledge) going on smoothly in all countries in the world, except Malaysia. When Penguin Books Malaysia tried to register the new company in Kuala Lumpur (they moved from PJ to KL last year) they were told that they could not use the name because they were not selling houses! They were apparently told that it was a rule that the company name must reflect their business. So instead of arguing with that ... that ... whatever ... behind the desk, they have retained the name Penguin Books Malaysia. Also, apparently, it would not have been a problem in Selangor. So, there you are.

Hilarious and ridiculous as it sound, I am not surprised. I can almost here the dialogue: (Say this in a high-pitched nasal voice that irritates like hell), "No-oo, cannoo-oot. You canno'ot use the name. After, peoples thinks you jual rumah, kan?" Can you imagine Amazon Malaysia trying to registered a company here. Are you selling water?

We have all had these experiences at 'gomen' offices. The moment you step in, you'll feel like you have swallowed a dozen sleeping pills; time will slow to a crawl and gravity will fail. And when you manage to finally speak to someone who is not knitting, or at a Tupperware party, or having a cigarette in the lift lobby, or pegi minum (out for a drink), or on kursus (on a course), who is an actual intelligent life form, you will be so delirious with joy that your spouse will become suspicious that you've been smoking something. (Happened to me.) Kafka had nothing on these people, man!

Malaysia ta'boleh

It was not always like this, though. I joined the service in the early seventies, when it was still a privilege to work in the civil service, although snide remarks about chamblem (salary) and kimblem were already circulating. (Both Tamil words.) Promotions were based on seniority, and everything seemed fair. Sometimes there were seeded players and favourites who went ahead. We tolerated that mostly. Even if you worked under someone junior to you, there was mutual respect. To be fair some deserved their out-of-turn promotions.

As we got nearer the eighties, talk of kulitfication (qualifications based on skin colour) became rampant. We resigned to being second class, and that we had to run three times faster simply to keep our place. Then it became worse. From second class, we became the invisibles. Nobody noticed us anymore. It was as though we didn't exist. Running didn't help, no matter how fast.  By the start of the nineties,  it became so strange that we would talk about who was getting promoted where as if we ourselves didn't exist! Scary, huh? In Ralph Elison's novel, the Invisible Man, was the underclass, hiding from the world, living underground, and stealing electricity. But we were top professionals at our peak.

Inevitably, many with a lower threshold for pain left; some sooner, others later. (Could this be deemed constructive dismissal?) Many went overseas. Those who remained in the service chose to grit their teeth, live in ignominy and humiliation, swallow any pride they had left for the tiny crumbs that fell off the table, and did just enough work to maintain a weak pulse before they retired. They chose a life of JM Coetzee's Disgrace. They were sometimes respected by their bosses, often decades their junior in seniority and experience. Often not. Sometimes, they were shouted at like schoolboys. (Have you seen a senior officer cry? I have.) After 20 years, it was time to leave. (On rare occasions, there were the token promotions.)

Half the population in now invisible (except when they want our money or votes). There was a report two years ago that one million Malaysians lived overseas, and that most were professionals. For the invisibles who are professionals, a job in the country is no longer an option, let alone one in the civil service. 50,000 students leave the country for tertiary education every year. Most don't come back. In the sixties, the best students attended the one local university. The rest went overseas. Today, the invisibles would not  consider a place in a local university, if awarded on a silver platter.

In the story Tash Aw wrote for The New York Times recently, he worried about world perceptions of Malaysia. That was washed down the drain years ago. At Silverfish Books, we often receive visitors from the US. Before they arrive they would read up about the country, including the glowing reports about the 'good Muslim nation' in the New York Times and the Washington Post. But it didn't take long after landing here for reality to sink in, and leave them shell-shocked.

The bomoh's act sort of summed up the MH370 debacle (of handling it, that is). Decades of lateral transfers, bypassed promotions, ignored seniority, solid bullet-proof glass ceilings and a million professionals overseas, has a price. The civil service is bloated with mediocrity and incompetence; a place for lifetime employment, a pension and no work. It's almost like rent seeking. Despite everything, there are some good people still there (doing the work of ten others). But how much can they handle? The rest survive with a bodoh sombong (dumb arrogant) attitude, bullying and playing blame games. (When a school teacher can slap a deputy minister in public and get away with it, it says it all ...  you owe me a living!)

The emperor has lost his all his clothes, and he stands stark naked. But will he learn anything? Unfortunately, that's not likely. After Merdeka, some ministers asked Malaysian professionals if they were ready to take over the administration. There was a resounding 'yes'. And they did a good job, too. What if they were asked that question again? Can you do the job?

Malaysia memang ta'boleh.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Green coconuts

We have a housekeeper (who in theory comes on designated days and times in a week, but in practice comes any time she likes) who has a 14-year-old boy and two younger children. The older boy declared to her recently, "Amma, I don't think I need to go to school any more, or study." (He is already making RM1200.00 a month tutoring younger children.) So what are you going to do, his father asked. "Give me two green coconuts and I'm good," he replied.

Hey, that's creative, I thought. And funny. March has been a horrible month with everything in it: arrogant, posturing politicians; self-promoting civil servants; gross incompetence; exhibitionism; Israeli plots; Chinese scientists' plots; Afghanistan; the wrath of God for alcohol served on board; the wrath of God for an unfair Appeal's Court verdict; birthday cakes; one-ringgit chicken, and comic relief with jugglers and clowns ... wow, like a Hollywood blockbuster, only real and better.

Malaysians are a creative lot and thank God for our sense of humour! Have you seen the spoofs and the conspiracy theories? Hilarious, aren't they? Oh by the way, reportedly, you can buy magic carpets, bamboo binoculars and fish traps for knock-down prices online, but the green coconuts are pricey. Is this a wonderful country, or what? Two coconuts, and not only do we find the missing aeroplane with its passengers (held by orang bunian, elven folk, by the way), we have also revived our sense of humour and creativity.

I can see how this could be particularly useful in writing. Of course, my magic, sugar-coated, two-a-day writing-pill business might be affected. But then again, maybe not. My prescription for a normal writing skill enhancement programme, is twenty tablets for ten days straight. (I wonder how many Shirley prescribes?) That's only for  a basic course, okay; if you want to write like Hemingway, you'll have to take eight a day and dance around like a deranged baboon under the moon for ten nights straight. (Sometimes, things can go wrong and you could end up becoming a rabid politician.)

Then again, come to think of it, two coconuts a day, for ten days, might be daunting for some people, especially if you have to swallow them whole without water. There is no scientific evidence that dancing around with two large green fruits and singing, is effective, either; although it could build muscles. From reports, I hear that these magic green coconuts are going for 1000 Ringgit each! That's quite a sum for the normal wannabe writer, but on the other hand if you want to write like Calvino ... hmm ... Certainly,     Android versions will soon come from China, flood the the market and bring down prices, although they may not be so effective and may have viruses.

Speaking of politicians, do you think it would be necessary to hoard coconuts before every general elections? Let's face it, old coconuts are formed when the green ones mature, and if the demand for the green ones go through the roof ...?! Again, thank God for China. I'm sure they will produce enough for the market, even if they have to make fake ones. Remember the synthetic eggs several years ago?

But we have to be careful about religious tensions, though. Temperatures of rhetoric could rise, particularly if party elections were to coincide with, say, Thaipusam. Who would have the first coconut option? Or, will politicians work out a new bumiputra quota, ala NEP? Then Chinese contractors will offer them to their na tuk kung, and attract long queues of horse-racing, four-digit, and one-armed bandit punters, and gamblers of all colours every Sunday. Tourists will come from all over the world to witness the offerings and ceremonies, and  pose in front of the alters for pictures. Visualise steel bunga mangga and kelapa muda poles along Jalan Palimen complete with blue festival lights. (Scary, huh?)

Two green coconuts when you're sick, when the television goes on the blink, when your computer crashes, when the plumbing leaks, when a bulb blows, when you're late for work, when you're caught in a traffic jam, when you're low on money, when you have to rob a bank, burgle a house, sleep with your neighbour's spouse ... okay, okay, I'm getting carried away.

I read a story in Wired recently about Google’s Grand Plan to Make Your Brain Irrelevant. Hey, we have already done that in Malaysia ! Can we have our Nobel Prize now, please, please, please. Our ego it at an all time low, and we need a boost.

(BTW, watch this video to see Jon Stewart rip apart CNN's coverage of MH370.)

.




Saturday, February 15, 2014

USA, here I come!


My visa interview was for 10.00am. I had picked that time slot to avoid the rush hour, which I did, but took  a wrong turn and went into KLCC instead. But my GPS guided me back. So it was  9.45 by the time I got to the guardhouse to the 'forbidden city', which is what most people I have asked consider the US Embassy on Jalan Tun Razak to be.

Before I could join a visible short queue, the guard on duty, Clement, asked, "What time is your interview, sir?"

"Ten."

"You can go to the counter with your documents, then," he smiled.

"Don't I have to queue?"

"For you special, sir," he grinned. I learned that the queue I saw from a distance was for entering the premises, which was after showing the guard my appointment letter.

It was a short wait before I was allowed in for security clearance: remove shoes, belt, wallet, empty pockets, etc, etc. But, again, the guards were all scrupulously polite. Then, I put them all back on and stepped into the empty courtyard of the Temple of Doom where there were chairs for me to sit on to tie my shoe laces.

I'm almost there! One more large door, and I saw another burly guard on the left, outside another door.

"Ambil nombor disini ke?" I asked redundantly to break the silence, seeing the queuematic machine.

"Ya, ya. Tekan butang merah," the guard smiled, before pointing me to the opposite side. "Ada tempat duduk disana. Sini sudah penuh." I opened the door to see a room full of people. I had seen more smiley faces at wakes and funerals!

What is it about the US Embassy that terrorises people so?! It was as if the people in the room, mostly Malaysians with a smattering of foreigners, were all uniformly afraid to even breathe in case they made too much noise and their visas were denied for that reason, or make eye contact with anyone. A man who was chatty while we were queuing outside the main gate, suddenly seemed to have turned to ice inside that room. It was the same look on all the faces, one of dread. Like in 1984, the Apple commercial. "Oh no, they're going to reject my application. They're going to reject my application." Come on people, you're going to America. Smile! Look happy!

I thought the application process was quite painless, with good instructions and a relatively easy to use website. Everyone seemed to be going out of the way to be polite and helpful, starting with Clement at the main gate. Well, almost everyone. When my number was called promptly at ten to present my documents at the main hall, the woman at the counter looked like she had had too many sour lemons for breakfast. But she was not rude, only unfriendly. Oh, people have their 'off' days, I thought to myself as I walked back to my first waiting lounge.

Not much of a lounge, actually. A large American flag behind a glass, a soundless television playing a western that nobody was watching, dull posters on the wall and a stack of magazines -- Newsweek, The Economist, The Circular, The Statesman, etc -- that were probably too old for a dentist's waiting room. I used the men's room, came back and found an empty seat. Why don't I write a story about this, I thought, and started to scribble. Then I looked up, suddenly. Do they have CCTV cameras in here? What if they ask me what I'm writing? Mild panic. Oh, what the hell.

My number was called again at a quarter to eleven for finger printing. The gentleman attending to me was sufficiently polite and professional, even if he didn't quite have the customary Malaysian friendliness we are used too. I found a seat and decide to wait in this second lounge with the, almost apologetic, framed photos of Obama, Biden and Kerry in a corner near the door, for my actual interview. Here again was the same nervousness. Everyone looked around very careful, turning slowly, making no sudden movements, not smiling, speaking in whispers -- I wanted to laugh. Oh no, what if they reject my visa?! I heard someone shush an over exuberant child behind me. "If we don't get our visa today, it will be your fault," I imagine the man scolding the boy.

My interview was at 11.15. Again it was painless, with even a small joke at the end. My visa was approved in less than two minutes, with a promise of delivery within two days to the address specified. I was smiling when I left. I saw Clement outside in the hall and we exchanged smiles. "You're here now," I said, again redundantly. "Yes, sir, no more queue outside."

Ordinarily, people like Clement would make all the difference to your experience at an new place. I have been to many embassies and high commissions, where some of the staff have been outright rude, but nowhere have I felt intimidated. The smiley security guard or the receptionist usually makes everything all right, anyway. Meet Americans outside on the streets, and they are perfectly friendly, sometimes annoyingly so, as if they feel they need to make up some perceived 'bad behaviour' by their  government. (Hey, we have heck of a lot more to apologise for our in own government, okay! We are a boob-a-day country.)

So why is the US Embassy so forbidding? I thought my visa application was sufficiently well handled. The people I met in person were professionally pleasant, a far cry from ten years ago. So why this anxiety? Is it us, or is it them? Do they know this is how the rest of us feel?