It was our first time in Detroit, Michigan, a place located in what the Americans like to describe as the “wide, open spaces” of the Mid-West. 

It was the first time for most of the others as well, including a great many Americans. It gives you some idea of the size of the United States. 

To put it into context, I’ve been to every Malaysian state except Perlis – any countryman can figure that out. Meanwhile, it takes only 42 minutes to drive from east to west in Singapore.  

America, on the other hand, has 49 other states to choose from and it takes between 40 and 50 hours to drive the length of Michigan, depending on the number of burger-joints you stop at along the way. 

In fact, that was how the great state was originally mapped. 

The city’s Mayor hosted the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) delegates as an introduction to the city and we marvelled at the imposing residence set amidst its Gatsby-like grounds. Its manicured turf was only separated from the green of Canada by the Detroit River and frigid was the operative word as a chill wind blew off its waters. It made the daily 17-degree forecast improbable. 

It was only my opinion, of course. “We used to call this bikini weather when I was in high school,” a cheerful mayoral aide revealed rather unnecessarily. 

At dinner, we met US Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg, an informed person of such charisma that it seemed ridiculous that he could have lost to Joe Biden as the Democratic candidate. But the fact that he had a Secret Service detail – complete with sunglasses and ear patches – and a watchful Coast Guard cutter on the river attested to his Cabinet status.

Detroit’s the second biggest city in the state after Drummond but it didn’t feel like it. There were no jams and, indeed, little traffic on the streets. Some of the shops were boarded up with “For Sale/ lease” signs.

Even so, it was clean and there was a general sense of optimism with many people crediting the Mayor with much of the city’s rejuvenation. It had gone bust in 2017 and was now bouncing back: the 10-day APEC meet was presumably part of it. 

The city’s fortunes had been inextricably tied up with auto manufacturing. In the 1960s, for example, most households boasted a boat, but the industry’s decline since 1979 mirrored Detroit’s slump. It’s still home to the Big Three automakers but decades of disinvestment have also given rise to a peculiarly American phenomenon: a depopulation by race. Only 10% of Detroit’s 640,000-odd people are white. 

Our Detroit experience was pleasant enough. Food was great, we encountered mostly helpful and genuinely nice people. OK, there seemed to be an overachiever’s share of people who muttered to themselves, especially in the early mornings but who knows? 

You might mutter too if you woke up to 8 degrees “and windy”. 

We were given a tour of the Motown Museum where Barry Gordy and his family lived when he recorded the first Smokey Robinson hit in 1959. One wall of the legendary Studio A – complete with original 4 track console and Steinway piano – was lined with stars, photos ranging from Smokey and The Supremes to Michael Jackson and a grinning Stevie Wonder: too many bands to name, an impossibly youthful, and nostalgic, salute to Detroit’s past. 

Later there was even Motown-karaoke for the intrepid. The Americans and New Zealanders kicked it off with Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine followed by the Chileans with the Supremes’ You Can’t Hurry Love. Even the normally staid Chinese took to the mikes.

Only then do you realise why it would be prudent for them to keep their day jobs.  

It’s why Diana Ross is on the wall of Studio A in the first place. 



The Irish writer and playwright Oscar Wilde was famous for his  epigrams. Consider this observation: “Some people cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” 

He may have been  prescient. More than a  century after his death, his trenchant  quip suffices as a succinct sketch of the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) in all its vainglory.  

Any sane  person should be terrified of the party because – and I kid you not – there but for the grace of God, goes God. It thinks, nay knows, that it’s the only one that understands  what’s best for all Malaysians. 

It knows this because it’s puritanical and governed by a solitary anxiety: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, is having fun. 

The Ayatollah Khomeini had a similar affliction and we all know how that’s going. 

The latest bee in PAS’ bonnet is an English band that threatens a November performance in Kuala Lumpur. 

Coldplay is only one of the most successful bands in rock having sold more than a 100 million records over its 27-years. Its KL performance will undoubtedly  attract regional fans and help  boost the  economy.  

Early this week, PAS strongman Nasrudin Hassan called for a ban of the show, claiming it would encourage “hedonism and deviant culture.” 

What’s wrong with hedonism? The ancient Greek theory of ethics posited that pleasure was the highest good and the only proper aim of a man’s life. 

So there!

Who knows? Maybe Mae West was an ancient Greek: “Too much of a good thing … can be wonderful.” 

In any case, no one should be surprised by this latest PAS offering.  Apart from an obsessive  preoccupation with women’s attire and divine punishment for criminals, PAS has yet to articulate a single, coherent economic or administrative idea.

Its president, the fiery Hadi Bawang, seems more interested in trying to prove that all corruption in the country is by, for and through the non-Muslims. 

Good luck with that! 

It does not seem to matter to PAS that Coldplay composes  insightful songs with intelligent lyrics. Nor the fact that the band is an ardent champion – both musically and financially – of the environment. 

The indefatigable Nasrudin had other fish to fry. As if to prove  Coldplay’s wickedness, he held up  pictures of the band’s frontman, Chris Martin, holding up the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) flag. 

So what? The LGBTQ community didn’t choose its path, it was thrust upon them as it were. It could happen to anyone and only the benighted would leap to judgment.

If Nasruddin would only read, he would find out that homosexuality isn’t unnatural. According to the science,  it occurs in at least 10 per cent of herbivores like sheep. 

And why harp on the trivial?  The community is an easy target and the  intolerance  merely demonstrates Nasrudin’s bigotry. 

The American cartoonist Frank Hubbard was also considered a humanist. It’s easy to see why: “Some people get credit for being conservative when they are only being stupid.” 

Meanwhile, the Minister for Local Government Nga Kor Ming had some excellent advice for Nasrudin. “If PAS does not like Coldplay, it’s simple. Don’t buy their concert tickets and don’t come.” 

That’s as good as it gets. 



There is a reason for everything. 

Take Australia, for  instance. With all the war, disease, natural disasters and all-round horror about us daily, it’s easy to conclude that the end of the world is nigh until you realise it’s already tomorrow in Australia and nothing’s happened. 

Najib Razak thought that  was a load of bull-excrement as well because there was no conceivable reason for his incarceration and he, and at least one of 13 Judges, knew it. That was why he wished he had an identical twin: they were known to complete each other’s sentences. 

As Premier, he’d introduced the goods and services tax, removed  fuel subsidies and won the admiration of  the international rating agencies. In short, he’d been the best thing since sliced bread and, no thanks to some trifling matter of petty cash,  he was now toast and staring at a 12-year punishment. 

And worse could follow in a grim future punctuated by further trials involving even more damning charges. If all the world was a stage, reflected the Chief Criminal moodily, he was desperately unrehearsed for this part. 

Where his immediate environment was concerned, however, he agreed with the author Raymond Chandler’s assessment: “It is not a fragrant world.” 

But there was still an upside. Jibby had a core group of support in the United Malays National Organisation, or Umno, once the country’s Grand Old Party and now a shadow of its former self. It’s been largely due to its propensity for fooling too many of the people too much of the time. The trait only surfaced in the 1980s but has become pretty much entrenched largely due to its rich tradition of Looting before Pillage. Indeed, most people had no idea how rich a tradition it was. 

So you’d think Umno would have learnt its lesson and begun to champion popular causes. That would be the logical route, no?  


You couldn’t blame the party: it was in its DNA. It thought Oscar Wilde was right when he said  “Anyone who lives within his means suffers from a lack of imagination.” 

OK, the party conceded that Fearless Leader had been wildly imaginative. But to be imprisoned for that? It was almost oxymoronic, not unlike an “honest politician.” You can almost hear it shrugging.

Which is why its Supreme Council, the party’s highest policy making body, unanimously decided last month to seek a pardon for Jibby from the King. And this despite knowing that, 

  • The former premier’s served nine months or just 6% of his sentence. Neither has he paid his fine of over RM200 million. 
  • The former premier has committed the world’s largest theft  to-date. 
  • Since his imprisonment, others have been jailed in the US and the Middle East for related crimes. 
  • It’s cost Malaysia, the country he was entrusted to govern, almost RM50 billion. 
  • Corruption has become a way of life. 
  • It near destroyed Umno.

Having almost been wiped out in the last election, Umno seems to think obtaining a pardon for the First Felon is The Way Forward. It might want to think about it a bit. 

Does it not, for example, smack of condoning corruption? That, yes, crime does pay?

Let us hope sanity will prevail. After all, the right to be heard does not  automatically confer the right to be taken seriously. 



Real friends stab you in the front. – Writer Oscar Wilde 

You’ll know it when you hear it. The capacity for quick and inventive thought, the clever quip, is almost always appreciated.

It’s broadly classified as wit. 

I have, for instance, a friend called Cletus. Ok, it’s a strange name and he got hell for it in his freshman year in University Malaya. But that’s the Catholic for you: their first names are generally from saints and there was a St Cletus somewhere in the midst of antiquity.

Anyway, the guy is a seriously good singer, and we made decent money gigging in pubs in Ipoh where we were both underpaid government servants in the early 1980s.  

We were practising one afternoon at home when he hit a false note on an unusually difficult song we were attempting. He extricated himself with some aplomb though: “All that Cletus isn’t gold.”

Among local politicians, the only one I remember with some wit was, surprisingly, Dr Mahathir. I remember interviewing him in 1995 at a time when he seemed particularly incensed with the foreign media.

Indeed, I think he began complaining the minute we entered. He was especially irked by the notion that some elements of the foreign media thought him a dictator. 

It provoked this line. “I must be the only dictator in history to have to be elected before I can begin dictating.” 

The American actress Mae West wasn’t just a sex symbol, she was an incredibly funny lady. She might be best known for that racy quip: “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”   

But she almost got into hot water when she just couldn’t resist it. This famous exchange took place in a US courtroom where West was testifying:

Judge (raising his voice): Are you showing contempt for this court, Miss West?

West: “No, Your Honour, I’m doing my best to conceal it.”

Then there was the poet and essayist Dorothy Parker. Challenged once to make a sentence with “horticulture” in it, she replied with dazzling speed: “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.” 

You might have to think about that. 

This one was a little easier but no less funny. When one of her college classmates had her first baby, Parker sent her this telegram.

“Congratulations Mary, we all knew you had it in you.”

In his first visit to the US, the English writer and playwright Oscar Wilde was asked by Customs’ officers if he had anything to declare, “Only my genius,” he replied tartly and he was waved through.

Once when offered a delicious-looking mousse, he replied: “I can resist anything but temptation,” and dug in. 

I used to love the sitcom Cheers because the jokes flew so thick and fast. And there were those characters like Norm Peterson who’d say the funniest things with the most hangdog expression.

Norm: “Evening everybody.”

Woody, the bartender. “A beer, Mr Peterson?”

Norm: “A little early in the day isn’t it, Woody?”

Woody: “Little early for a beer?”

Norm: “No, for stupid questions.”

Woody; “What will you have, Mr Peterson?”

Norm: “I just need something to hold me over until my second beer.”

Woody: “How about a first beer?”

Norm: “That’ll work.”



A man with a briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns. – Writer Mario Puzo

When a man tells you he got rich through hard work, ask him: “Whose?” – US journalist, Don Marquis

There were these reports, the snippets, always hinting of danger, of looming events forebodingly close. 

I mean, having to perpetually skulk about in the shadows can’t bring peace to the fat fraud once known as Felonious or Jho Low. 

Like Charlie Brown, he was beginning to dread the future “one day at a time.” 

And it was all the fault of Bradley Hope, a pestilential American reporter who insisted on keeping the theft alive, who helped to write Billion Dollar Whale, an expose of 1MDB and the staggering theft of almost US$5 billion from Malaysia’s coffers. 

One of the heist’s perpetrators is already behind bars and only Felonious remains, stashed surreptitiously somewhere in China. 

Not for long, according to Mr Hope. It was a grim and stern warning and it required more than a couple of ice-cold goblets of Dom Perignon to soothe the ragged, and twitching, nerves of the palpably, petrified pilferer. 

Indeed, Mr Hope’s report citing, even more alarmingly, “multiple sources” was enough to scare the daylights out of any fugitive worth his salt.  

And Felonious, who’d salted away more billions than Bernie Madoff, who’d out-wolfed every Wolf on Wall Street, knew he was worth at least that

Mr Hope claimed Putrajaya and Beijing were close to hammering out a deal to repatriate Felonious, assets and all, back to Malaysia. The deal, apparently, was hatched after Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s first official visit to China, recently. 

Mr Hope, a former Wall Street Journal writer, claimed the deal would include absolving China of its alleged complicity in the 1MDB cover-up and its previous support for disgraced former Premier Najib Razak, now serving time. 

Prison has  circumscribed Jibby’s bragging rights considerably: “Do you know who I used to be?” 

But I digress: we were talking about Felonious weren’t we? 

You could say the dumpy dacoit had a lot on his mind. His problem was compounded by the fact that he continued to remain in the public eye and for all the wrong reasons. This embarrassed the Chinese even more because of Beijing’s much ballyhooed “aversion” to corruption.

I mean, you can’t successfully project a “beacon of rectitude” kind of image if you continue to shelter the world’s most wanted thief, can you?  

Felonious has steadfastly denied complicity in the heist. But the fact that many assets in his name – from a corporate jet and a superyacht to prime real estate in New York and Los Angeles – have been  seized without any resistance from him seems like tacit acknowledgement in no small degree. You don’t have to be Colombo to know that. 

And it goes on. Last month, Kuwait sentenced him to 10 years’ imprisonment after convicting him in absentia with two others of embezzling 1MDB funds.

And now we learn that the chubby charlatan was lavish with Malaysian taxpayer monies to win  friends and subvert governments.

A Washington court was told yesterday that Pras Michel, a rap artiste and influencer, was paid US$100 million by Felonious to:  

  • Stop US Department of Justice probes into him 
  • Facilitate the extradition of a Chinese dissident in the US back to Beijing, and
  • Allow Felonious a photo opportunity with Barack Obama. 

The hits just kept on coming and it was getting tedious. Felonious sighed and poured himself more champagne. You know what they say, he thought: a fool and his money…

…are soon partying. 



Irony is a funny thing.     

Consider Najib Razak and his current concept of time. When he was Premier, he was so busy, there just wasn’t enough time in a day. Now that he’s serving it, it’s a whole new game and no fun at all unless you’re Kermit the Frog: “Time’s fun when you’re having flies.” 

Actually, everyone appears to have had an ironic makeover of sorts, even the ever-scheming Dr M. He’s evolved from acclaimed Malay champion to deposit-losing reject only to resurface as self-proclaimed ethnic champion through tie-ups with rabid fringe groups. 

Meanwhile, his worst nightmare has materialised:  Anwar Ibrahim, his former nemesis and much maligned deputy, is now calling the shots as Prime Minister in his own, ironic bow to the vagaries of fate.  

It appears that while anyone is free to rage against the dying of the light, Karma can, and will, continue to be a bitch!

Irony reigns supreme. It was the work of one of the world’s great pacifists, Albert Einstein, which spawned the world’s deadliest weapon. And it was with that in mind when he predicted: “I don’t know what weapons will be used during World War Three but World War Four will be fought with sticks and stones.”

The Bible is the world’s best-selling book and has consistently been so for the longest time. Ironically, it’s also the most shoplifted book in the United States – which says much about the moral underpinnings of petty crime in America.

The actor Charlie Chaplin’s walk was much imitated during the era of silent films. But when the man himself entered a “Charlie Chaplin walk” contest, he was placed 20th.

How do you shut down your foes? Simple, when you have rich members like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, you just buy their silence. Once a leading anti-cult network, the Cult Awareness Network was silenced permanently after it was bought over by the Church of Scientology. 

In the 1990s in Kuala Lumpur, Yomeishu, a famous Japanese herbal brandy, sued a rival Malaysian make that claimed similar properties, one of which, famously, had to do with male potency.  

The Judge hearing the case seemed especially interested in that alleged virtue. The following exchange took place between said Judge and the chairman of Yomeishu Japan, then on the witness stand: 

Judge: So your drink helps male potency, does it?

Witness:  It does 

Judge: How does it work? Do you drink it or apply it?

Witness goes into a giggling fit. It isn’t clear if the judge was being ironic but, for those interested, the correct answer is to drink it. 

For the record, I covered the case for the Far Eastern Economic Review then. It must have been a dry week. 

Even the Beatles got roped into the irony act. In 2002, a tree was planted in a Los Angeles Park to honour the band’s guitarist George Harrison who’d passed away in the city a year earlier. 

Unfortunately, the tree died after a year owing to an infestation of beetles.  

Finally, the lyrics of Alanise Morisette’s 1996 hit Ironic does not evoke the quality in the slightest, an admission the songwriter herself made later.

There’s irony for you.  



There aren’t enough stones for the number of adulterers we have. – Tunku Abdul Rahman, on Islamic law and its prescription of stoning for adulterers.

The older you get, the better  you realise you were. 

I wish I’d come up with that but it was a George Carlin original. Carlin himself was one of the most original comedic brains of the 20th Century, frequently coming up  with superb bon mots not only witty but undeniably true.

It reminds me of the first time I met the late, great Tan Siew Sin, Malaysia’s longest serving finance minister (1959-74). He was then chairman of Sime Darby and must have been 70 but looked older and appeared frail.  

He was a Tun – the nation’s highest civilian honour – at the time so I avoided the tongue twister (Tun Tan) by sticking to Tun. I was in awe of him and attempted to defuse the tension by bringing up the story of  Tunku Abdul Rahman and Siew Sin’s leave. 

Apparently, when Siew Sin was Finance Minister, he asked the Tunku – than Prime Minister  and his boss – for leave to go on holiday. It was duly granted. Just as he was about to leave, he was struck by a sudden thought and asked the Tunku who would be his substitute. When the Premier cheerfully replied he  would do it,  Siew Sin immediately  retracted his application.

The Tun confirmed the story without a smile and remarked the Tunku was too “generous” by way of explanation.   He was quite serious about it too. 

He was equally  straight-faced when he  mentioned that when he was finance minister “inflation was zero.”

Which just underscores the point of the Carlin truism. 

It says much about the Tunku’s character that he used the story in his weekly newspaper column to illustrate the humour of the situation. Do you think Dr M, for example,  would have found it equally funny? 

I was in Form Four when the Tunku retired from public service so you might say he loomed large in my life. Indeed, I remember devouring a Readers’ Digest feature on the man entitled The Wit and Wisdom of Tunku Abdul Rahman, under a picture of a beaming,songkok-hatted Tunku.

I still remember some of its  vignettes. 

Western journalists liked the Tunku because he could be relied upon to come up with the breezy, unexpected quip. 

During Indonesia’s “confrontation” with  Malaysia (1963-66) which stemmed from Indonesia’s opposition to the creation of Malaysia, Indonesian jets repeatedly, and deliberately, strayed into Malaysian airspace. It was an obvious show of strength.  

When journalists asked the Tunku what he intended to do about it, he shrugged and said: “Nothing. By the time we’ve scrambled those boys will be back in Jakarta. Let them waste fuel, we’ve better things to do.”

He was candid and disarmingly truthful. During a state visit to the United Kingdom, he was interviewed by a young  David Frost on the BBC. At the time, Southeast Asia was in ferment, against a backdrop of the Vietnam War and McNamara’s warnings of the “Domino theory” which predicted that the region’s countries  would fall “like dominoes” to communism once South Vietnam fell.

Frost (without preamble): “Tunku, what would you do if China were to invade Malaysia?”

Tunku (incredulous): “I must have heard you wrong, David.”

Frost (implacable): “You didn’t hear me wrong, Sir. My question is, what if China invades Malaysia?”

Tunku: “Why then, we shall simply surrender.” 

At a time when Malaysia’s lunatic fringe is baying for “Malay Proclamations” amid increasingly divisive rhetoric, it might be timely to reflect on the Tunku’s notion of unity.

“We are all Malaysians. This is the bond that unites us. Let us always remember that unity is our fundamental strength, as a people and as a nation.” 



Those people who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do. – Science fiction author, Isaac Asimov

Every time I read about the petty tyrannies of minor functionaries it affects me. 

It’s common in Malaysia but it probably happens everywhere. Our fourth Premier Abdullah Badawi even labelled these autocrats. He called them “Little Napoleons” which makes the point but, alas, disses the great man.

I mention it only because it could happen to you. It certainly happened to me. 

In 1984, I’d been a biochemist in Ipoh for 4 years and, worse, begun hearing that I would soon be transferred to Teluk Intan. To explain, that’s a “district” hospital and, officially therefore, the boondocks. 

Moreover, I’d tried to transfer to the Institute for Medical Research in KL but struck out. Ditto for my wife, a civil servant in KL, who tried to transfer to Ipoh.  

Like everyone else, we corresponded by post, and it must have been then when Rebecca mentioned my “OK” writing, and maybe I should consider applying for journalism. 

And I did – twice! – only to be rebuffed by the then managing editor of the NST Press. It was polite and all, but it was the equivalent of The Finger.

I felt like Rodney Dangerfield: “The way my luck is running, if I was a politician, I would be honest.”  

In early ’84, however, I noticed an ad that was for a writing job. It didn’t ask for an English or Arts degree, only “solid English” and I sensed my A-Ha moment. 

Having been rejected twice, however, I resolved to take no chances. Two of my wife’s housemates worked as journos, and, in short order, established that the ad was for a magazine called Malaysian Business – I’d never heard if it – and it was run by one Shaik Osman Majid who was, apparently, difficult but fair. 

They advised me to write a letter that was “different.” To ensure success, they would go about it “the Malaysian way” and use a friend of Shaik. Leave it to us, they said, and I was happy to oblige.   

I composed a letter – Shaik would have used “missive” – that I felt was humorous and gave it to R who passed it to T, Shaik’s friend.

Alas, the best laid plans of mice and men… 

The friend, T, couldn’t find Shaik so he left it on his desk. Having no clue what it was about, Shaik promptly threw it into the dustbin. The interview letters went out and I would have been adrift if my wife didn’t follow up. 

R called Shaik’s friend, T, who asked Shaik who cheerfully confessed to throwing it away. 

The upshot: the day before the exam/interview, my wife called and asked me to take the night train to KL: Shaik had called her.

I duly presented myself at NST at 8.45 the next morning, only to be rebuffed by the guards: I had no “letter”. 

I told them about Shaik, Ipoh, even the late train. All they needed was to check. They were adamant:  everyone had to have a letter. It was the rules

I doggedly hung around – in tie, and increasingly matted shirt – until I spotted Charles Peters arriving for work. I’d known Charley from my uni-days. Better yet, he was now an NST senior executive.

In no time, he’d smoothed things over, and I was allowed entry. 

I was an hour late for the “exam,” but I became a journalist. Shaik, bless his heart, even allowed me to resign immediately by getting NST to pay off the government.  

I still had to return to clear up stuff, but it was with a song on my lips and joy in my heart. 

It takes very little to change the course of a life. 



Time, time, time, See what’s become of me, While I look around,  For my possibility – Paul Simon’s A Hazy Shade of Winter 

 For sincere advice and the correct time, call any number at random after 3 a.m. – Comedian Steve Martin 

In the metaphysics of Hindu philosophy, we are all eternal beings residing in a temporal shell, a body, if you like. And we go on forever because we are eternal.

It’s even grounded in science: the first law of thermodynamics posits that energy cannot be created or destroyed. I can hear the sceptics: who says it’s energy? 

The counter is obvious: who says it’s not?  

If true, then time as we know it, only exists here. It is a man-made construct and only has relevance here on Earth. Shorn of dogma and other doctrinal trappings, I suspect most religions point to the same thing. No offence intended all round as this isn’t meant to be a spiritual discourse. Consider it a preamble to a rueful ramble through the temporal bramble.  

My point: if time is a man-made construct and completely irrelevant to our immortal spirit, couldn’t the powers-that-be have made that clear when we were growing up? 

Do you remember being woken up at the crack of dawn to go to school? That’s when good men of reason realise that the amount of sleep needed by an average person is always five minutes more. 

Everything was relative when we were young: the school hours felt interminable, while the holidays whizzed by. 

Over time, the arguments changed occasionally.  

I remember whining that if I’d only had an hour more during my Biochemistry lab finals – already going on eight hours! – I’d have aced it. It was unadulterated poppycock, of course, but All Was Vanity then.  

During high school, life seemed perpetually stuck in the slow lane: disconcerting during a time of rampaging hormones and dreams of greatness.  

I couldn’t wait to get out and know women, to grasp life by the scruff of its neck, to understand what it meant when they said the world’s your oyster. 

All too suddenly, life’s needle dropped into its fast forward groove and I was like beamed-up, transforming from callow, if pimply, boy to hairy man: a voter, a tax-payer, a husband, a father.  

Life had grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, and I’d been found wanting. I don’t know how I went from adik (younger brother) to abang (older brother), and all-too-suddenly, Uncle.  I guess Grandpop must be waiting around the corner. 

Time marches on but they should have warned us it would be across our faces. In relative terms, things are more like they are now than they have ever been before. Now we can finally understand what Lucy observed in Peanuts: “The secret of life is to hang around long enough to get used to it.” 

If you think about it, life is ironic. The philosopher Kierkegaard must have thought so as well because he observed that “while life was best understood backwards, it had to be lived forwards.” I suppose that’s what people mean when they talk about “age bringing a certain perspective.” 

Well, I still haven’t got it and I wish it would hurry up and tell me. I mean, they say time is a great teacher and all, but it has a certain downside. 

It kills off all its pupils. 



Early this year, Murray sent me an e-mail saying he’d be in Kuala Lumpur for a couple of days, and could we meet?

It turned out to be a reunion. Simon Elegant, Raphael Pura and Murray Hiebert turned up and we had a lovely, if riotous, meal laced with enough booze to float a small sampan. We’d all been colleagues in the 1990s. 

Indeed, Murray had been my first bureau chief in the Far Eastern Economic Review back in 1994. But we were close for another reason: in September 1996, he’d been sentenced by the High Court to three months in jail for contempt of court. 

It was a shock to say the least. Our lawyer, Shafiee Abdullah, thought Murray would be fined if found guilty but said we should bring along RM30,000 in bail money, “just in case”.  

But Justice Low Hop Bing seemed determined to make an example of Murray – he said as much in his judgment – and fixed bail at RM250,000.

It was 12 noon on a Friday in the Shah Alam High Court. It seemed hopeless and I was sure Murray would spend the weekend in the lock-up.  But being frantic helps and a close friend stepped up: Murray was released just before 4.30 that evening. For the record, the magazine paid my friend first thing Monday.

The months to the appeal dragged on and Murray grew restless and frustrated: his passport had been confiscated. Finally, three years later, in September 1999, the Court of Appeal upheld the verdict but cut his sentence to six weeks. To our collective non-surprise, Murray elected to begin his sentence immediately.

And he was whisked off to Sungei Buloh, Black Maria, wailing siren, and all. 

The man made an unlikely convict. He neither smoked nor drank and, after reading Gandhi at 16, became a vegetarian: oyster sauce could give him the creeps. 

Moreover, he was a Mennonite, an austere Anabaptist denomination that holds to a doctrine of peace and non-violence.  I have never heard him swear although a couple of times, he got sufficiently moved to exclaim an annoyed “Judas Priest” or two.  

After a few days in Sg Buloh, Murray was transferred to the prison In Seremban: We never found out why, but I always suspected it was because Anwar Ibrahim was in Sg Buloh at the time, and who knew what kind of “scoop” might result? 

Seremban is my hometown, and I only found out about its prison during Murray’s remaining three weeks there. 

You could visit an inmate on weekends and buy him stuff from the store. At first, my bill was modest (not more than RM15, I think) but by the time his release grew close, my bills had topped RM150. Then I got it: Murray was buying things for prisoners no one came to visit. 

He was quite the man there. He’d started growing a beard. I guess he must have come across as an ascetic priest-type figure because people flocked to him for advice, even “confession.” 

Indeed, on his last night in captivity, he was given a send-off party complete with a vegetarian tom-yum soup prepared by one of the inmates: a dish which Murray described as “pretty darn good.” 

Why am I recalling all this? 

I just read that Roger Ng of 1MDB infamy had testified that he could not abide jail again as he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder owing to the “absolute hell” that was six months in a “squalid” Malaysian prison. 

In an essay written a few months after his release, Murray reflected that if he had to go through it all over again, he would “prefer the US system of justice but (if found guilty) a Malaysian penal institution.”