There is a phrase that’s still relevant in thought. 

Tabula Rasa literally means “clean slate” and it refers to the absence of preconceived ideas in humans when they are, say, young. 

But it’s not just the young that are easily influenced. On one level, there’s Goebbels and his ideas about propaganda: “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” 

Hitler, Stalin et al have used it successfully. 

But, incredibly, it’s still in use.  

The Deceiver-in-Chief in residence in Washington routinely employs the Goebbels Gospel to downplay the ravages of Covid-19 on the United States. 

Even more incredibly, and despite over 200,000 deaths, it’s believed by enough people literate enough to know better. And this in the US in the second decade of the 21st Century! 

It’s enough to make you believe in Santayana, “History always repeats itself; first as tragedy, then as farce.” 

But this “clean slate” business cuts across levels. Take me, for instance.  Growing up, I lived in a family where my father stressed English, so most of my siblings spoke English. With the exception of the eldest, we only have a rudimentary grasp of Malayalam. 

My father subscribed to two publications at the time: The Straits Times and the Reader’s Digest. Later on, TIME got added to the mix. 

In those days, my father used to insist that we read the editorials in The Straits Times – this was in the 1970s before the two papers separated, news-wise. We did, out of prudence: he occasionally tested us with dinnertime questions.

Add to this a reading diet of Enid Blyton, the Biggles heroics and TV fare like Get Smart and it changes a boy’s worldview. 

At first, the boy believed that only white people had all the adventures; that it was England which was the arbiter of life.  

Only to find out twenty years later, that Ms Blyton wasn’t the kindly, twinkling woman I’d imagined, but an unabashed racist who called a spade just that.    

And that the Battle for Britain wasn’t just won by English pilots like Biggles but pilots from other Commonwealth countries, including India.

The periodicals made me staunchly pro-Alliance and then pro-BN. I remember being annoyed with the University Malaya demonstrators in 1974 for “disrupting” life and business in Kuala Lumpur, as the ST described it then.  

I believed everything I read then in the ST! 

The Reader’s Digest improved my English, made me understand humour as a writing tool, and left me admiring of a conservative, anti-communist US worldview. TIME merely reinforced those perceptions. 

Indeed, I bought McNamara’s Domino Theory and thought the Vietnam War helped protect countries like Malaysia from falling under the communist yoke. 

Reading and experience – I’ve been a journalist for 30 years – have changed my views considerably. 

Still, some things never change.

Before, the last general election, a Malay friend Z was confessing that he had difficulty wrapping his head around supporting the Democratic Action Party.  

This was a successful man with two Western degrees. But I understood: it was the tabula rasa effect all over again

“With your mother’s milk, you have imbibed the notion that the DAP is anti-Malay,” I said and Z, understanding immediately, agreed. 


You might say Fearless Leader was back. 

Or maybe he never left. For a former leader with a 12-year prison sentence hanging like the kris of Hang Lekiu over his greying head, Fearless seemed remarkably cheerful as he tramped the hills and dales of Sabah campaigning for the Barisan Nasional (BN). 

Indefatigable was the word to describe Fearless and, watching from his safe haven not in China, Felonious aka Jho the Low, an erstwhile aide-de-camp and not-so-trusty sidekick, whistled admiringly. 

While not safely ensconced in China, Felonious was also rich beyond the dreams of avarice. The fact that Fearless wasn’t safe at all was what elicited the whistle of admiration in the first place but Felonious was nothing if not philosophical. One out of two was still good, shrugged the ample artist. 

“You can’t have everything,” concluded the round robber before turning his attention to more weightier matters of state like how much he had to pay the authorities for another year of not staying in China. It brought a proud smile to Papa Low’s face: that’s my boy, he thought affectionately, always a stickler for detail. 

And it was true too. Detail had been one of the comely girls Felonious had dated in Hollywood but that, grumbled Fearless, was neither “here nor there”. 

“What about me?” grumbled Fearless Leader and it was a good, if loaded, question. 

It was good because its right answer was invariably bad where Fearless was concerned and it was loaded because it looked like he might soon be shot into that place where, without collecting $200, one goes directly to.

How had it come to this? 

The kindly kleptocrat had followed all the right measures, listened to the right people, even read Lloyd George: “To be a successful politician, you have to learn to bury your conscience.” 

Felonious didn’t know about the former but he knew quite a bit about consciences. A pleasantly piquant 1976 Dom Ruinart Blanc would bury it pretty deep, agreed the beefy bandit cheerfully. 

And yet, Fearless remained cool under pressure. This was unlike Mrs Fearless who no longer had anything to say and was saying it so loudly that her silence was deafening. 

It was seriously out of character and it put to the lie the so-called wisdom that she had been the real power behind the throne. 

Nope, it had been Fearless all along. He remained calm, however, by dint of blame: he blamed everyone from Felonious and the bankers to Goldman Sachs and the lawyers. 

In between, he blamed the takers as well, arguing that “if they did not take, he would not have had to give.” It was a compelling argument   which, unfortunately, had no takers. 

Fearless even contemplated blaming it on the bossa-nova and had to be talked out of it by his lawyer, the eminent Scruffy A who took time off his tax-dodging troubles to remonstrate with his client. 

Blame was all right but what Fearless really needed was a good, old-fashioned miracle. He was optimistic and was nothing, if not religious, which was unlike his not-so-trusty sidekick, Felonious, whose faith was such that the church he did not attend was Christian on its off-days. 

You could not say the same about Fearless. Historians will attest that he whispered a mumbled prayer immediately after being sworn in in 2009. 

It was soft but it was clear. “Let us prey,” was the humble entreaty. And the rest, as they say, is history.  


It appears that no one in power in Malaysia has ever heard of being accountable for their actions. 

It does not seem that way across the Causeway. 

On Thursday, the chairman of Changi Airport Group, Liew Mun Leong, resigned days after Singapore’s High Court not only acquitted his former maid of stealing from him but criticised the allegations brought against her.

Liew, 74, had been the group’s founding chairman since 2009. 

In a separate statement, Liew said he had also resigned as an advisor to Temasek International and several other board positions he had been holding. He had decided to retire. 

The maid, Indonesia’s Parti Liyani was acquitted of stealing more than S$34,000 worth of items from Liew and his family. She’d worked for the family for a decade. 

In his judgment, Justice Chan Seng Onn said there was an “improper motive” for mounting the allegations against Parti. This drew the notice of the Attorney-General whose chambers then said the judge’s comments “do raise questions which warrant further investigations.”

It could be that Liew was told, even ordered, to quit but the fact remains that he did. And that might still not be sufficient to get him off the hook. 

Compare and contrast this to Malaysia where the truth varies but which is still a land of promise, especially before a general election. Here, the politicians like to make all the decisions without any of the responsibility. 

But the best proof that light travels faster than sound is the Malaysian minister or deputy minister: they all appear to be intelligent until they open their mouths. 

And no one, not a solitary soul, ever contemplates resignation as a consequence of stupidity or wrongdoing.  

The examples, to say the least, are legion. 

A full minister, with his family in tow, goes to Turkey and comes back without the mandatory two-week quarantine. When the news was leaked, he was fined RN1,000 after the fact. And this after a woman was jailed and fined RM8,000 for a similar offence. 

Neither has the minister ever apologised. 

A university student in rural Sabah climbs a tree for better Internet connectivity to take an online examination. When she posts this on her Facebook page, two deputy ministers castigate her decrying her post as fake. 

When they get lambasted online, they retreat in a hurry and another minister flies to Sabah to apologise to the family. One of the two deputies has since apologised while the other quietly deleted his offending post without apologising,  

Then there was the MP from the Islamic Party of Malaysia. During the debate on new drink driving laws, the not-very-informed lawmaker suggested that the Bible had been perverted presumably because it did not condemn the consumption of wine. 

When this prompted an uproar, the unrepentant MP advised Christians that they “had no right” to be offended as his statement had been “a fact.” 

The wannabe Bible scholar has been remarkably blasé about his thesis since. 

But why should we be surprised? 

A former premier has been found guilty of corruption, tax-dodging and gross abuse of power involving billions of dollars. Yet, as his judge noted, he has shown “no remorse” and has swaggered about since, appearing to all the world as the soul of probity. 


It must have been on an evening sometime in 2005 when I received a call from a businessman. 

I was surprised. The man was a very rich, very reclusive entrepreneur with interests ranging from telecommunications to oil and gas, and our last conversation had not been particularly cordial.

I’d written an article for the Far Eastern Economic Review mentioning him and he wasn’t happy. Actually, he’d been far more inventive in his language, but I think you get the point. 

Much had changed since. The Asian financial crisis had come and gone, the Review had disappeared, and I was now working for a Singapore-based daily as its KL bureau chief. 

And said businessman was still very rich and very reclusive to the extent that some reporters didn’t even know what he looked like. 

So, you can imagine my surprise. He said he knew about my shift and suggested I drop by on Monday afternoon for a “chat.” 

“I think it would be nice,” quoth he. 

It must be some new purchase, a deal, maybe even a market-moving scoop and I was excited. I called my paper and the editors were thrilled and promised to hold the front page for my story for all its Woodwardian promise. 

The meeting was to be in his new building in the KLCC. I entered its lobby and a guard pointed ne to a reception area where visitors were queuing to get a digital pass to the floor they wanted to go to. 

I reached the front desk and produced my press card. Two men appeared instantly and indicated I was to follow. Of course, a lift was waiting.

It was somewhere near the top, a whole floor actually; very cool and pin-drop silent. There was artwork everywhere with paintings stashed along the walls of the thickly carpeted floor. 

I was led along to a waiting room where a television was playing and there were magazines about. 


Yes, indeed. 

They brought it and very good stuff it was too. None of your Nescafe’s or what-have-yous!

I didn’t see a soul but could hear telephones going so there was life on the planet. I looked at the framed pictures on the wall which seemed to be all of his children.

He came in quietly and I didn’t know it until he spoke. He was dressed very casually in an open necked shirt and jeans and his smile was broad and seemed genuine. 

After some desultory conversation, he declared he was famished and hadn’t lunched – it was 3.30 pm – and declared we would have tea. 

A lady brought in the tea things and a large cake. I accepted the tea and declined the cake. He cut himself a generous slice and pronounced it satisfactory. 

Then he held forth on healthy living and revealed that the cake had been made without butter or anything which bore malicious intent towards his cardiovascular system. 

At the time, he must have been in his sixties but looked younger and, what with a fat-free diet amid rigorous exercise, seemed bent on outliving Kirk Douglas. 

His summons still remains a mystery. We talked about a great deal –  his art, his family, mine, education – but there were no revelations and no market-moving scoop. 

It was, indeed, a “nice chat.”

Just before I left, he declared he had a gift for me and, with a flourish, handed me one of those cakes in a gift-wrapped box. 

He said I should live healthier. 

Like most of the evening, it was a “nice” moment.  

I obtained more information from the bodyguards accompanying me down. They seemed friendly now that I’d met the “boss” and informed me that he was a workaholic who was frequently the last to leave the building. 

I noticed Hassan, my then driver, eyeing the cake covetously and offered it to him. As was his wont, he agreed. He was never a man to look a gift horse in the mouth. 

I remembered the cake the next day and asked Hassan how it had been received. 

“Terrible,” he said. “Even the children refused to eat it”.

So, he tried it on his chickens.

Ditto, it seems. 

(It’s a damn sight funnier in Malay).