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.


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.


Many years ago, I was at a World Economic Forum session in Kuala Lumpur listening to the Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia detail his country’s plans for the region.

During the question-and-answer session that followed, he was asked why the Chinese felt compelled to view much of the South China Sea as “theirs.”

The reply was so fast it seemed rehearsed: “There is a reason for the sea to be called such.”

This was swiftly followed by a comment from the back, in an American accent: “The Indian Ocean stretches down to Australia and parts of West Africa but you don’t see India claiming those waters.”

When nations begin using history to legitimise their claims – to territory or anything else – the results are generally fraught with peril because the rationale is spurious to begin with. Henry Ford is the one credited with saying: “History is bunk” and while he said a great many egregious things, I think he got that one right.

One is reminded of the cartoon, in which the first box features Donald Trump fretting about the “dangers of unchecked immigration into the US.”

And, in the next, a seriously unhappy Geronimo is agreeing, “Amen to that.”

Whether it’s the Chinese or the US, these claims are unending. When the British first proposed the creation of the state of Malaysia through the union of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak, both the Philippines and Indonesia objected on the grounds, yet again, of “history.” Manila claimed “ownership” of Sabah while Jakarta insisted that Sarawak had always been part of the republic.

But the British and the Malayan leadership pit the matter directly to the people of the regions themselves and, in a referendum supervised by the United Nations, the notion of Malaysia was overwhelmingly accepted.

Despite the popular snub, Jakarta took it badly and declared a campaign of “ganyang Malaysia” (Hang Malaysia).

It took another two years of foolishness – and a coup that unseated Indonesia’s then President Sukarno – to restore amity to Southeast Asia. Even so, every eight years or so, Manila threatens to dust off its ancient claim to Sabah which leads to another fruitless round of sabre rattling from both sides.

If one takes history too seriously, you might end up with some utterly strange conclusions.

For example, did you know that present-day England was once ruled by the Romans in an unbroken stretch that lasted for 366 years (43AD to 409AD).

To put it in a modern context, that’s roughly 55 years longer than the current duration of the modern superpower known as the United States of America.

Taking that a step further, how would the people of England feel if Rome were to declare that, because of its ancient claim to England by virtue of historical antiquity, that, henceforth, all Romans and their descendants had a right to become automatic citizens of England. Sorry and all that, and I know it’s hard cheese for you chaps, but it’s history, what?

It would just about sum up the feelings of the Palestinians currently.

And don’t forget the clincher, all ye who treasure history: that the Jewish claim was rooted in no less than divinity, that the land in question was promised to them by God!


Between a bout of feeling out of sorts and the impending paranoia of a soon-to-be imposed lockdown, my blog will be halted until it resumes. I mean, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.



Things may be crashing around our heads soon – sometime between May 8-10, although the chances of that happening, while “statistically significant” are still “significantly unclear.”

These are the bromides the scientific community dishes out to reassure the great washed masses like you and me.

The plot is deathly simple. Parts of a Chinese rocket used to propel the country’s first permanent space station into orbit are now falling back, uncontrollably it seems, to earth.

The good news is the Chinese believe it will “easily” burn up upon re-entry into the atmosphere. The bad news is that no Western agency agrees. They think the debris will be the largest-ever to plummet back to Earth and could weigh several tonnes.

It’s happened before, according to Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell. The last time China launched a similar rocket, they ended up with big long rods of metal flying through the sky and damaging several buildings in the Ivory Coast. It was seen as a victory for humankind except in the Ivory Coast, where people kept glancing anxiously upwards for years. The current anxiety, reported by Ivory Coast’s news agency, anxiously, is likely to stoke anxieties to a fever pitch.

Meanwhile, the Europeans estimate that the debris will land on a strip of Earth running from southern Spain, Portugal and Italy down to Australia. You can trust the Europeans for their exactitude.

While spit-balling on an estimate, they finally agreed that “between 20% and 40% of the dry mass could survive.” That’s the equivalent of several tonnes of seriously heavy metal.

It was Einstein who came up with the definitive equation about space and it was about time too, but all this space travel is having an impact on Planet Earth.

About 150 tonnes of man-made space hardware fall back to Earth each year which is ridiculous. It’s fortunate that almost 60% of Earth is covered by ocean which, as you can imagine, must cover a mountain of excess.

In addition, space itself is increasingly congested by Earthly junk, courtesy of seven decades of exploration. If Jim Croce is to be believed, that there isn’t anything “meaner than a junkyard dog,” then only Heaven knows what manner of junkyard alien we’ve created.

As if that weren’t enough, civilians hoping to join astronauts on the July 20 inaugural flight of the New Shepard rocket system have two weeks to bid for a single seat in the spacecraft starting now, US aerospace company Blue Origin said yesterday. It’s owned by gazillionaire Jeff Bezos who, for reasons of prudence and sanity, would not “be accompanying the lucky winner” on this historic trip.

The accompanying promo gushed: “if you feel fat or overweight, this will be ideal for you” but the very fine print noted that only the “seriously rich” should apply.

It isn’t clear how science will gain from this particular trip. The rocket booster jettisons a crew capsule designed for up to six people. It reaches a height of more than 60 miles and lingers in zero-gravity space for several minutes before returning to Earth for a parachute-enabled landing.

Apart from inflating Mr Bezos’ ego, it isn’t clear how this helps climate change or benefits humankind in any way. Maybe you just had to be there.

That’s what the promo said.



Why is it that some people associate vegetarianism with virtue? It’s like, you know Jim, why, he’s a good, salad citizen.

It isn’t true at all. Indeed, the word itself comes from the Sioux vege tar which literally means “bad hunter”. This was regarded by Sitting Bull as a capital offence and generally considered bad form.

But it might have a lot to do with ethics or its lack thereof. Are vegetarians what they are because they love animals? Or are they so because they nurse a deep and malevolent hatred towards plants? Or, as vice-presidential aspirant Sarah Palin once observed: “If God had not intended for us to eat animals, how come He made them out of meat?”

These are the good and searching questions that, once upon a time, kept Aristotle up at night.

Be that as it may, vegetarians have taken it a step further by inventing veganism which means the kitchen sink plus no milk or dairy products, whatsoever.

In short, No Joy At All.

The odd thing about vegetarians is that they attempt to make their meals as close to the real thing as possible, which is weird if they really wanted to forget the whole meat thing. Like they claim the Impossible burger is “impossible” to distinguish from meat. Sitting Bull would have harrumphed.

Camembert is the latest food getting the vegan treatment, landing as a cheese-free cheese made with cauliflower and hemp seeds by its American makers. But how will this faux fromage go down in France?

“Mon Dieu,” exclaimed the French bleakly. They took their dairy products seriously and were still cheesed off with Lionel Ritchie for taking a revered French product less than seriously in his hit song Hello – “Is it brie you’re looking for?”

The French were genuinely distressed by the fake Camembert and thought it was no way to make America grate again.

After fish-free sushi and meatless meat, what was next? Was nothing sacred? It seemed that nothing was, and everything suddenly appeared 50 shades of gruyere.

History will record that it a Benedictine monk named Bert Camoens who invented the cheese by accidentally sneezing on a dish of milk one sun-dappled morning in the late 18th Century.

The pollen count in Normandy was especially high on that morning, and Brother Camoens was busy so he soon forgot both the sneeze and the milk.

Three weeks later, he noticed a somewhat ripe smell in the air. Further investigation revealed the forgotten milk dish, now containing a moist, soft and creamy cheese-like substance.

A lesser man would have shuddered and dumped the whole thing in the trash. A superstitious one would have crossed himself before dumping it in the trash.

But Bro Camoens was both pious and bold. After crossing himself, he ventured a cautious taste and thought that the ambrosia would go well with strawberry jam and sourdough bread.

Napoleon the 3rd agreed and decreed that Camoens be nominated as a national treasure and the cheese to forever bear his name.

Such was the ancient and humble beginnings of the Norman cheese and it explained the intensity of the region’s rage against its vegan pretender.

It was clear that it was up to no gouda.