THE FAULT LIES NOT IN THE HEAVENS, BUT IN US

There is a relatively inexpensive Italian café Rebecca and I frequent. It’s within walking distance from the apartment and Paul, its headwaiter, is both friendly and a countryman, being from Petaling Jaya. 

We decided to have dinner there before Singapore shut down Thursday on “heightened alert” fears. Dine-ins would no longer be permitted then. 

Paul seemed his usual cheerful self until we wondered, as is our wont when we meet Malaysians, when we might all go back next.

Then he bemoaned the “challenging” times and let slip that his mother, sister and brother-in law were all down with Covid-19.

When I asked him how old his mother was, he broke down, weeping, and fled the scene. We were transfixed and I felt mortified for having asked the question. 

It turned out, as we found out later, that his mother, 70, was critical, having suffered a stroke last year. To compound matters, both his sister and brother-in-law had lost their jobs which made his job in Singapore absolutely crucial to sustain the family. 

But what made him break down was his sudden realisation that he was unlikely to see his mother again. The cost of the quarantines – both in Malaysia and Singapore – and the resulting no-pay during the period ruled out its possibility with a finality that crushed him.

Malaysia can probably claim an over-achiever’s share of ‘Pauls’, all unheralded, and mostly unlamented. The latter observation seems especially apt in the wake of some of the statements coming from our leaders. 

Consider the Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who exhibits the taste and sensitivity of a gnat. In a put down of the “white flag” campaign, the premier remarked that “if we were to go to the ground, we would probably find the kitchens of homes to be full (of supplies).” The Prime Minister was implying that the government was doing enough about aid. Hence, to his mind, the white flag campaign was pointless.

Here’s a news flash for anyone who hasn’t got it:  the premier may be delusional. In which case, we might want to worry because delusional people tend to believe in themselves. 

What’s he smoking? Does he honestly think that anyone would want to raise the white flag, to admit that they cannot provide for their family and turn to charity? No one likes to be pitied. The premier should know this more than anyone else: there were many in Malaysia who sympathised when he was sacked from the Cabinet in 2016 by then premier Najib Razak. 

It was one of the many reasons behind the government’s ouster in the general election two years later. The Moo would do well to remember this.

“There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the world and it has a longer shelf life.” The statement was by no less than Frank Zappa, a rock musician whose onstage act included biting off the heads of snakes while wearing enough make up to delight Alan Pereira. 

What would Frank have made of Malaysian politicians? 

A Minister who can’t differentiate Spanish Fly from Flu and another who’s singularly blasé about the fact that the food aid from his ministry comes with his photograph!

And what about Hadi Awang, a minister whose exact function is vague but, as an avowed Islamic scholar, took pains to explain the public’s growing distrust of politicians. 

It was the fault of the liberals, the great thinker observed with the aplomb of a Zakir Naik, those “demons in human masks.” 

There are a great many ‘Pauls’ in Singapore and they will remember all this. 

And, make no mistake, they will return to cast their judgments. 

ENDS

OF GOOD NEWS AND BAD

We have good news and bad news.

OK, it’s mostly bad news but there is a solitary ray of very good news that might ultimately prove our salvation.

It is this: Malaysia now can boast one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, second only to Canada on a similar-size basis and double that of Australia.

If so, we might just jab our way out of our current predicament given enough luck, nerve and a continued lockdown.

The initial signs are there. Out of Thursday’s tally of over 13,000 cases, fully 96% were asymptomatic or mild. That seems to indicate that the vaccinations are blunting the severity of the disease.

Even so, it does not get us off the hook. So long as the numbers keep climbing sharply, even a 5% rate of severity will continue to choke our health services.

That’s where luck and the lockdown come in.

We all know what the bad news is, but outside the reeling economy and the rising unemployment, other concerns are surfacing including a resurging Dr Mahathir.

OK, let me rephrase that with a question: What are the odds that Pejuang will throw its supports behind the Prime Minister, currently embattled by Umno’s withdrawal of support?

The only reason I ask is that the Home Ministry has suddenly been gracious enough to allow Pejuang’s registration as a “legitimate” political party while resolutely continuing to ignore Muda, a party of young, political aspirants, that has similarly sought registration.

Given that we are talking about Malaysia where there is always a political quid against someone else’s quo, there is ample reason to believe something is afoot.

Add to that Dr Mahathir‘s airy, and apropos of nothing, comment that he would quit Pejuang if offered the headship of the National Recovery Council, and we are left to ponder, once again, the Machiavellian machinations of Malaysia’s Mahathir.

In short, the man wants back.

You’d think he’s old enough to know better, having just turned 96. I mean, this is a guy who baby-sat Maharaja Lela, for God’s sake, and he still thinks he’s indispensable.

He once accused the Malays of being “easily forgetful.” In truth, most Malaysians aren’t. We remember all too well his odious assault on the judiciary and his dumbing down of the civil service. Then there were his deeply flawed ideas that cost the nation dear: the national car, the push for heavy industrialisation. None of these “Think Big” projects were successful but you wouldn’t know that, listening to him.

According to the late Barry Wain, who authored a critical book on the man, he once told Dr Mahathir that he’d estimated that the former physician had engineered over RM50 billion in wealth destruction during his tenure. Barry said that Dr Mahathir simply retorted that he’d “created more wealth than he destroyed.”

That might very well be true but it also speaks volumes about the country’s inherent wealth generating capacity, its industrious population and its resource-rich nature.

Immediately after the 2018 general election, a group of us were celebrating PH’s improbable victory when we were joined by another, an elderly arbitrator, a man who not only remembered British colonial rule but started his career during the period. Surveying our good cheer, he asked one question, clearly directed at the incoming Prime Minister: “Can a leopard change his spots?”

Apparently not.

ENDS

WE ARE IN GOOD HANDS, AREN’T WE?

I remember an interview we had with Dr Mahathir Mohamad. It was during the height of the Asian financial crisis in early 1998 and he was premier at the time.

That he was distracted was obvious. Every so often, an aide would come up and show him a slip of paper. He would glance at it and then turn back to us. After 40 minutes of this, I couldn’t contain my curiosity and asked him what it was all about.

He explained that the aide was bringing him the latest greenback-ringgit quotes. The exchange rate had been frenziedly volatile, and the premier wanted to keep his eye on the ball.

The Lord knows I’ve frequently been critical of Dr M but during the Asian financial crisis, he kept his eye firmly on the ball.

These are the times that try men’s souls, wrote Thomas Paine over two centuries ago. We have entered such a time now and what a horror it is! The crisis we face now makes the 1998 one appear frivolous, almost Winnie the Pooh-like in both its scale and its scope. Like it or not, we are looking down the barrel of a gun.

And can we confidently say our leaders have their eye on the ball?

If that ball is power, then yes. That’s all that seems to interest Umno or Bersatu these days and people are sick of their shenanigans.

Consider the following.

The Prime Minister is admitted to hospital over a week ago. The poor man seems very sick right up to Wednesday night, when Umno threatens to pull support from his fragile coalition.

Lo and behold, he makes a miraculous recovery and dashes to his residence where the first “crisis” meeting of the pandemic is held: TV footage shows limousines coming and going amid an air of urgency. Reporters assert that Weighty Matters of State are Unfolding.

The Attorney General is summoned and pronounces, with all the grave impartiality of a Lord Denning, that because there “are no clear” facts showing that the PM has lost the support of a majority of MPs, he can continue governing. Carry on, McMoo, he advises and the PM duly declares victory.

Hallelujah!

Over at the Putra World Trade Centre, Umno President Zahid Hamidi also declares victory, satisfied that Umno had fired a shot across the Prime Ministerial bow.

Two cheers for democracy!

Meanwhile, Ismail Sabri is promoted to deputy premier. It isn’t clear why, but it might have to do with his sadly lugubrious delivery of bad news.

Similarly, foreign minister Hishamuddin Hussain is promoted to senior minister for equally vague reasons. Insiders in the know, however, insist that it’s due to his masterful handling of foreign policy, noting that he kept Malaysia out of war for 16 months.

But hark, what of Master Azmin, a Master of the Universe and the Schemer behind the Sheraton Strategy?

But there is no joy in the Ministry of International Trade. Mr Azmin himself is spotted in contemplative prayer in a mosque in the Middle East, from where he will, doubtless, return, bearing much foreign investment and good cheer.

But before that, he will take a well-deserved holiday in Austria to unwind from the stresses and strains of holding high office.

Meanwhile, the rocket scientists in government continue to rock. On a day that Covid infections hit a new peak of 8,868 – a number that sent punter hearts aflutter – the Minister of Religion said that all mosques and suraus would be opened forthwith.

The future so bright, we’ll have to wear shades.

ENDS

IT’S A CRY FOR HELP, STUPID

Occasionally, this country comes up with something that sparkles, that provokes an involuntary smile, that cheers you up no end.

I refer to the geniuses who came up with the white flag campaign.

Now here’s an idea whose time has come. To avoid the humiliation of “begging” or pleading for government aid, distressed families have been asked to raise a white flag outside their homes and aid would, like the mail, arrive.

The idea was born out of the minds of creative Netizens on social media, and it’s taken off big time. Businesses have also pitched in with pledges to help.

What’s tactfully unsaid in all the commentary is the fact that the government has been found wanting. Because it failed to step up to the plate, Malaysians took matters into their own hands. There would have been no need for this campaign if the government had done what it’s supposed to.

The prolonged lockdown has seriously damaged the economy and pushed thousands into poverty.

These are very troubled times and nowhere is it more starkly demonstrated than the statistics for suicide which listed 336 deaths over the first three months of the year.

More than anything else, it was those appalling figures that prompted the “white flag” movement, that tugged at enough heartstrings to compel action.

Our politicians love to dwell on our differences, the better to create perceived or imagined threats that promise to forever keep some segments of society insecure, so that these politicians can continue to justify their existence, their grip on power.

The white flag initiative promises to transcend these petty notions. And the people behind this campaign instinctively grasp what the government seems incapable of: you cannot do kindness too soon because you never know how soon will be too late.

Meanwhile, if you’re not part of the solution, then don’t be part of the problem. Or at the very least get out of the way. Better still, shut up.

Take the MP from Bachok, Nik Abduh Nik Aziz. As a child, he fancied a career in counter-intelligence. Looks like he made it, too.

The MP chided people for hoisting the white flag as those who admit defeat to challenges “from God.” He then brightly added that they would be better served “by praying.”

Unsurprisingly, this rocket scientist hails from Pas, an obscure party of obscure people with obscurantist views that have, apparently, never heard of the phrase “God helps those who help themselves.”

The same God also gave people a brain so that they might use reason and act with kindness aforethought.

But Mr Nik could be the exception that proves the rule, being proof himself that God does, indeed, have a sense of humour.

And then there is the Chief Minister of Kedah who seems to have a worldview shaped by the Cro-Magnon period. He’s threatened to deny state aid to anyone who hoists the white flag. Reason: it’s “propaganda” against the government.

Well, if the shoe fits…

As a former journalist who’s covered enough Pas ceramah to know, it might be instructive to share this.

When any Pas event is unfolding, the organisers literally pass a bag around. That’s how the party raises its money. You might say it’s its white flag.

This bag-passing should cease and desist. That would be conceding defeat, wouldn’t it?

No, these God-fearing people would be better served by prayer.

ENDS

IF THEY WOULD ONLY LISTEN…

I wonder if our ministers or our politicians read what people say about them on social media?

I wish they would. Perhaps then, they might be less inclined to say things that just mystifies the hell out of the average person.

On Thursday, the Minister of Federal Territories Annuar Musa, for example, said what can only be described as bizarre. He said that the public’s seeming indifference, their lack of fear in their flouting of restrictions, indicated that the government had been successful in its handling of the pandemic.

It usually takes a woman to make fools of men, but Mr Annuar seems like a do-it-yourself type.

But perhaps mindful of the fact that it took an election in Sabah to destroy the good the first movement control order (MCO) did for Covid numbers, he may just have been thinking of Homer Simpson: “Stupidity got us into this mess, and stupidity will get us out.”

It was the writer Henry David Thoreau who said, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In an ideal world, it is a phrase that’s frequently used to justify following one’s passion and achieving a life that avoids the mediocrity of playing it small but safe.

But this is not an ideal world. Far from it. It’s a pandemic and things are falling apart because, going by the minister, the centre isn’t making sense. What Mr Annuar does not grasp is that the mass of Malaysians are truly leading lives of forlorn desperation and that is why some flout the rules.

They are desperate for jobs, desperate to meet friends and family, desperate for company, desperate for hope. The last thing they need is a glibly asinine statement by a minister who ought to know better.

Then there is lockdown fatigue. A Malaysian recently estimated on Twitter that from Match 18 last year to June 28 this year Malaysians would have spent 464 days at home under various government control orders. That would depress anyone into flouting some rules.

One gets the impression that many people are sick and tired of their leaders. When Tajudin Abdul Rahman’s woeful attempt at humour in describing a train wreck earned him a well-deserved sack from a lucrative chairmanship, it’s instructive to note that a petition calling for his sack garnered 150,000 signatures.

Clearly, it wasn’t the petition that swayed the Prime Minister. If it did, then Azmin Ali, the Minister of International Trade, should worry: a petition calling for his ouster garnered over 300,000 signatures and, like a rash, continues to grow.

And to think the Prime Minister promised, when he took over, that his would be a government of “competence.”

It’s more like a government of controversy, recently attracting unnecessary criticism by contemplating the sale – sans competitive bidding – of Subang Airport to a billionaire, for a period of almost 70 years. And this despite protests from every government agency linked to the site including Khazanah Nasional, the federal government’s sovereign wealth fund.

The Klang Valley does not need new malls, skyscrapers or condominiums. What it does need are more green lungs, more parks and more open spaces. If they had their way, these billionaires might actually fulfill Joni Mitchel’s prediction: they’d pave Paradise and put up a parking lot.

ENDS

IF THEY WOULD ONLY LISTEN…

I wonder if our ministers or our politicians read what people say about them on social media?

I wish they would. Perhaps then, they might be less inclined to say things that just mystifies the hell out of the average person.

On Thursday, the Minister of Federal Territories Annuar Musa, for example, said what can only be described as bizarre. He said that the public’s seeming indifference, their lack of fear in their flouting of restrictions, indicated that the government had been successful in its handling of the pandemic.

It usually takes a woman to make fools of men, but Mr Annuar seems like a do-it-yourself type.

But perhaps mindful of the fact that it took an election in Sabah to destroy the good the first movement control order (MCO) did for Covid numbers, he may just have been thinking of Homer Simpson: “Stupidity got us into this mess, and stupidity will get us out.”

It was the writer Henry David Thoreau who said, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In an ideal world, it is a phrase that’s frequently used to justify following one’s passion and achieving a life that avoids the mediocrity of playing it small but safe.

But this is not an ideal world. Far from it. It’s a pandemic and things are falling apart because, going by the minister, the centre isn’t making sense. What Mr Annuar does not grasp is that the mass of Malaysians are truly leading lives of forlorn desperation and that is why some flout the rules.

They are desperate for jobs, desperate to meet friends and family, desperate for company, desperate for hope. The last thing they need is a glibly asinine statement by a minister who ought to know better.

Then there is lockdown fatigue. A Malaysian recently estimated on Twitter that from Match 18 last year to June 28 this year Malaysians would have spent 464 days at home under various government control orders. That would depress anyone into flouting some rules.

One gets the impression that many people are sick and tired of their leaders. When Tajudin Abdul Rahman’s woeful attempt at humour in describing a train wreck earned him a well-deserved sack from a lucrative chairmanship, it’s instructive to note that a petition calling for his sack garnered 150,000 signatures.

Clearly, it wasn’t the petition that swayed the Prime Minister. If it did, then Azmin Ali, the Minister of International Trade, should worry: a petition calling for his ouster garnered over 300,000 signatures and, like a rash, continues to grow.

And to think the Prime Minister promised, when he took over, that his would be a government of “competence.”

It’s more like a government of controversy, recently attracting unnecessary criticism by contemplating the sale – sans competitive bidding – of Subang Airport to a billionaire, for a period of almost 70 years. And this despite protests from every government agency linked to the site including Khazanah Nasional, the federal government’s sovereign wealth fund.

The Klang Valley does not need new malls, skyscrapers or condominiums. What it does need are more green lungs, more parks and more open spaces. If they had their way, these billionaires might actually fulfill Joni Mitchel’s prediction: they’d pave Paradise and put up a parking lot.

ENDS

IN NORTH KOREA, STUPIDITY ISN’T A HANDICAP

The South Koreans knew what Donald Trump’s supporters stood for. They were a money grabbing, Bible-thumping, greenhouse gassing, missile firing, seal clubbing, oil drilling club whose idea of a good time was to practise firing on gay parades.

On the other hand, North Koreans even approved of some of these practices especially missile firing. As a result, they made up for having no money to grab and no gay parades to fire upon by religiously threatening their neighbours, except China and Russia, with imminent extermination.

You could say it was consistent. North Korea consistently threatened, bullied and hectored its neighbours, most of whom simply ignored the republic and went on making their nations better places for their citizens

North Korea today is the most repressive, the most authoritarian and one of the most consistently famine-stricken nations in the world. South Korea, the nation the North invaded in 1950 because it thought it would win, is currently 54 times richer than its northern neighbour and is ranked among the world’s affluent.

The North’s current leader is the grandson of the rocket scientist who thought nothing of invading his southern neighbour all those years ago. Clearly, the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.

That’s because said grandson, Kim Jong-Un, who dubbed himself Supreme Leader, thought nothing of sending hit men to Malaysia, a friendly country, to assassinate his enemies.

When a Malaysian court extradited said hit man to the US, an enraged SL broke off diplomatic relations with Malaysia, an act that enraged all North Korean diplomats in Kuala Lumpur because they knew, with foreboding, that while it was certainly a farewell to nasi lemak, it was likely to be even worse.

Supreme Leader loved US basketball, bourbon and burgers which was why he was overweight and suffered perpetual bad hair days. But he was also a plump predator who thought he deserved everything he stole and knew that Larry Hagman was right: the only rules to live by was never to be caught in bed with a live man or a dead woman.

He also thought he should Lead by Ruthlessness and once reduced a defence chief to a smear by ordering him executed by anti-aircraft fire. The reason, according to South Korean TV, was a lamentable error by the chief: he dozed off during a particularly tedious SL speech.

Something new this way comes and it’s called K-pop, a cultural phenomenon out of South Korea that’s become hugely influential globally and threatens to change the way North Koreans think.

Standout example: Korean boy band BTS is the most popular group in the world and the first since the Beatles to have three number 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100.

Fat Boy was horrified and has labelled K-pop a “vicious cancer” that’s corrupting his country’s youth. Meanwhile, his people were consuming South Korean movies, K-dramas and K-pop videos with an abandon that terrified the tubby terminator.

Kim knew that his people had to be weaned off the stuff as it portrayed the South as an attractive alternative. Worse, K-pop content encourages thinking, self-expression and individuality, all themes that were inimical to SL’s obey-or-else tendencies.

The stout slaughterer’s response has been typical: he imposed harsh punishments like 15 years in a labour camp for listening to K-pop and death for those smuggling the videos in from the south.

It isn’t clear if he will prevail. History has always bet on the former when the popular will comes up against the dictatorial won’t.

ENDS

GIVE IT A REST, DOC

The website Lexico defines “power crazed” as a person having an “extremely strong desire for power, or irrational on account of having had power.”

Sound familiar?

When it comes to opinions on how Malaysia might presently be governed, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, 95, has more opinions than a Rudy Giuliani on steroids.

Malaysians found out yesterday that the physician tried his luck yet again, suggesting to the King that the best way forward for the country was a 1969-style National Operations Council (NOC) to run the show.

The NOC was a small council led by Abdul Razak Hussein, then a deputy premier, that led the country in autocratic fashion in the wake of racial riots after a general election in 1969. Essentially, it worked as a dictatorship, albeit in “benevolent” fashion.

And why does the good doctor feel compelled to float such a drastic proposal in the first place? Well, apparently, his team in Pejuang – a breakaway party with 5 MPs – have “some ideas” about the economy and controlling the current pandemic but cannot get them implemented as they aren’t in government.

Asked if he had suggested to the King a possible candidate that might lead the NOC, Dr Mahathir said that there was no specific person named but he did “offer his services”.

It was not unlike the old saying about cattle horns: “A point here, a point there and a lot of bull in between.”

Here’s my translation of the physician’s message: he has some ideas, no one’s listening so it’s a good time for him to return as Paramount Leader who will Brook No Dissent.

For that is what an NOC essentially implies.

This is the same politician who was against any extension of the Emergency. Now he proposes a new, and stronger, Emergency with fizz, bang and wallop.

This was the same politician who wanted Parliament to reconvene and allow the citizenry its voice. Not any more, not if he can come back as a new-look Tun Razak!

And, finally, this is the same fellow who resignedly told Bernama only two months ago that he “was too old to become Prime Minister again.”

“If I were younger, I could become Prime Minister again, but I am 95 now and I can still function and hope to advise people on what they should do … I feel I shouldn’t be the prime minister for the third time,” he said.

Our hearts bleed but you won’t hear us disagree.

Dr Mahathir talks about “giving advice” but even that harmlessly-benign-Mr. Rogers-stuff has its sinister downside: Abdullah Badawi was hounded out of office because he “did not take” the doctor’s advice and chose his own way instead.

That is the problem with Dr Mahathir right there. He thinks he has all the answers but we, Malaysians, over 24 years and a bit, know that he does not.

Good leaders leave the stage when the applause is loudest. For Dr Mahathir that moment came a long time ago, in 2003.

It’s all but gone now: you can’t reheat a souffle.

ENDS

GOD IS GOOD BUT DON’T DANCE IN A SMALL BOAT

A fanatic is a man that does what he thinks the Lord would do if He knew the facts of the case.” Finlay Donne, 19th century American writer

Finally, a leader from the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) who makes sense.

No, it isn’t an oxymoron. You heard right. Nur Jazlan Mohamad, the party’s deputy head in Johor, has called for Umno to reconsider its ties with Islamist party Pas, in a pact first proposed in 2019. The pact was proposed after the then ruling BN coalition lost the 2018 general election to the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition. An Umno-Pas coalition was then proposed as a sure-fire winning formula.

Now the cracks are showing. “Umno has always been suspicious of PAS leaders as they now seem to be more interested in power and position and, in some cases, money, too. And in the current episode involving the Malaysian Rubber Board (MRB), there are some serious allegations,” said Mr Nur.

The latest episode involves the planned sale of prime property belonging to cash-rich MRB, currently under the jurisdiction of PAS minister Khairuddin Aman Razali. The board’s former chairman Umno MP Ahmad Nazlan Idris alleged recently that Mr Khairuddin was attempting to influence the sale’s outcome.

Pointing at the episode., Mr Nur said PAS was likely to be a liability in the next general election if the parties cooperated.

Be that as it may, the matter is now under investigation. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission has reportedly called up Mr Nazlan for a statement in connection with the MRB allegations.

That is as it should be.

But back to Pas. All those who think they’re squarely to the right of Attila, raise your hands. Just ask yourself: what have they done for this country in terms of direction: in terms of sound policy, in terms of adding to the gross national good?

The party has ruled Kelantan for over three decades and what have they got to show for it? It’s a state with a lower life expectancy than other states, except Terengganu (ruled by Pas, unsurprisingly). It also reports the highest number of AIDS cases in the country and has the dubious distinction of being the most dirty.

Moreover, they assert claims that are downright stupid. Last year, Mr Khairuddin – the same MRB chap – led a three day mission to Turkey to drum up foreign investment. In his words it was very “successful.”

How successful? In the words of another bona fide rocket scientist, Abdul Azzez, the MP from Baling, it was so successful, it brought in RM82 billion in FDI!

What’s wrong with these people? They can’t even lie convincingly. Turkey isn’t doing very well at all. Its lira is half the value of the ringgit and the total amount of FDI Turkey got for the whole of 2019 was a paltry RM32 odd billion. Meanwhile, Mr Azeez is awaiting trial on corruption charges himself. #Justsaying.

From my observations of Pas over 30 years of journalism, a few consistent themes have emerged.

One is an obsessive preoccupation with the attire of Mas stewardesses. Indeed, it appears behavioural, frequently manifesting in distasteful parliamentary questions that demean women and insult the intelligence of male listeners.

Others include frowning upon anything that might, in moderation, improve the quality of the human spirit, to wit, wine, beer or tuak.

Finally, there is Pas’ long- standing desire to impose sharia law over the country, the better that we rapidly harken back to a medieval future.

But, why, oh why, don’t they denounce corruption? Better still, issue a fatwa against it.

ENDS

THE CORAL ISLAND

Towards the end of my first year in university, in 1975, an interesting announcement appeared on the notice board of University Malaya’s Science Faculty.

It asked for volunteers for a project in Terengganu. But it had a caveat: you had to be able to swim.

I could. There was no reason for this except dumb luck. When I entered Form 1 in King George V in Seremban, the school was in the midst of building a functional pool, egged on by an energetic Headmaster and public donations.

By the time I was in Form Three, swimming was an integral part of Physical Education and by the time we finished Form 6, most of us could swim reasonably decently.

It was Akbar who said we should go. He was my roommate and, like me, aimed to major in Biochemistry. He argued that there would be only few swimmers among the Science undergrads. As such, we would almost certainly be chosen if we volunteered.

He was right. The project headed by Professor Jonathan Green, an American expert on marine biology, called for the first ever marine survey of the reefs off an island situated off Kuala Terengganu.

It was called Pulau Redang. Neither Akbar nor I had heard of it.

I was a callow 20 at the time and thought I knew the sea because, like all kids from Seremban, I’d swum off Port Dickson.

But the South China Sea is an ocean, full of enormous, foam-flecked waves that crash and heave. All the braggadocio drained out of us when we saw the waves and we listened soberly to Dr Green’s advice, and warning, about handling ourselves in the water.

We were ferried over to Redang by trawler on a sunny April day and were ordered to jump in when we were still 200 yards offshore. I guess it was Dr Green’s way of ensuring that we could, indeed, all hack it.

The government wanted to know what exactly was down there and Dr Green, and the other lecturers, made us do an actual survey using precise areas. We all were assigned an area and, using snorkels, we tried to identify the fauna on the seabed. It was a coral reef so it was shallow and you rarely had to dive over 10 feet. With flippers, it was pretty easy.

That was a very long time ago. But I still remember the absolute beauty of the reef, its blue-green waters, the colours of its creatures: sea horses, the thousands of sea cucumbers, tossed about carelessly; the brilliant anemones.

And I learnt to be careful. Once it was rough, and I was over-confident until a wave just picked me up and tossed me on to the coral. It was sharp and it hurt like hell but I learnt my lesson.

We befriended Mohd, then 8, who was from the only fishing village on the island. He’d been drawn by the smells of our dinner and Akbar and I fed him chicken rice which must have been a treat for him as he came most nights.

Mohd and his brother Hassan – 15, I’d guess – were endlessly fascinated by our snorkels and flippers. We let them try it out but, truth be told, they didn’t need them. They could free-dive 20 feet with ease and once showed us where we might find giant clams. That earned us serious brownie points with Dr Green.

They invited us back to their kampung and so, one night, we went. Hassan must have said something because the whole kampung turned out in our honour.

Once you got past the thick Terengganu dialect, they were lovely people, humble and down to earth.

They invited us to participate in what seemed to be the village youth’s favourite pastime – stick fighting. We were hopelessly inept and they were mercifully kind.

But I sensed a certain seriousness to the whole thing and, over thick, black coffee, I asked Mohd’s mother, the village matriarch, why they seemed so intent on the “game” (the word I used).

She looked nonplussed by my question but answered so matter-of-factly that it was chilling.

“Sooner or later, we have to fight them so we might as well be prepared,” she replied. She was referring to the Chinese, the irony of half our university group being Chinese, notwithstanding. The spectre of May 13 still hung in the air, it seemed.

As I said, it was a long time ago.

ENDS

Note: Dr Green’s work on the island through the 70’s ultimately led to the creation of Pulau Redang Marine Park, a gazetted area protected by law.