It was in Vietnam where I discovered Google Translate wasn’t just necessary but desirable.  

I was in Ha Long, a picturesque, Unesco-recognised hamlet jutting into the Gulf of Tonkin and located 165 kilometres northeast of Hanoi. 

It was where we’d driven from. Rebecca was there to attend a four-day APEC Business Advisory Council meet, one of which was in Hanoi and the rest, further north. I had no business being there but, then again, I’d never been to North Vietnam. 

Indeed, there I was in the Royal Ha Long Resort – never knew they’d had 

a monarch – where I was basically at a loose end. The TV had all the news channels, an interesting cooking channel: Gok Wan on perfect Chinese fried rice is always riveting. But I drew the line at Eastwood and Freeman conversing tersely in Vietnamese in an otherwise gripping Unforgiven. 

A perusal of the hotel’s brochure revealed there was a gymnasium on the 3rd floor. It seemed a good idea. 

You stepped out on the 3rd floor and turned right to face a glass door that opened into an outdoor gym. 

But Ha Long in July is an anything-up-to-38-degrees kind of dry heat that one associates with heat stroke. It was 11.45 in the morning and the gym was doing its best to imitate a sauna. 

I was approached by a youth who addressed me in questioning Vietnamese. Meeting incomprehension, he thrust a mobile phone at me and telegraphed “type”.

Idiot that I was, it took me a full 30 seconds to cotton on. Then I typed “Aircon?”

He read the translation, nodded and rushed out.

In a few minutes, I heard a hum but felt no change, the gym remained implacably full-throttle Sahara. 

“Give it time,” he counselled, via his phone and he was right. It was fine in 15 minutes. 

Google Translate is the glue that holds tourism together in Ha Long. You used it for well-nigh everything because very few locals spoke the language. 

But they were eager, no, desperate to learn. Vietnam, we learned, is a country with very big ambitions and goals, one of which is becoming the next China.  Learning English, apparently, is one of its many prescribed routes. 

It’s led to considerable injustice, a comment delivered to us with some heat by the resort’s manager, a likable Swiss who used to run KL’s Mandarin Oriental and now efficiently manages the resort with “a little Vietnamese and plenty of sign language.”  

He told us how Western backpackers from Europe pass themselves off as “English teachers just because they are white.” English teachers get as much as $US1,000 a month which is a “King’s ransom” in the country. 

“I’ve met some and they’re rubbish,” he snorts, “but with that kind of money, it’s paradise here.” 

Even so, Vietnam seems to know what it’s doing. The country’s economy is already the third largest in the region and it’s expanding fast, growing 7% during 2022’s first half. This from a country that’s recovered from three major wars and only really started growing in the 1990s.

They are already huge in agriculture and, thanks to Trump’s sanctions on China, have been one of the biggest beneficiaries of US investment out of China. More importantly, it knows where it’s going. 

At a farewell dinner hosted by the resort’s owner, the head of the region’s Communist chapter told us that “we will be a high income nation by 2045.” It didn’t sound like an idle boast. 

We should be so lucky. 



I was never ruined but twice: once when I lost a lawsuit and once when I won one. – Voltaire, French author, playwright and humanist 

Malaysia is belatedly realising that the law’s outcomes can be hugely expensive. 

Early this year, an arbitration court in Paris awarded the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu a staggering US$14.92 billion (over RM69 billion) against the Malaysian government.

How did this come to pass? 

Its antecedents date back to 1878 and an agreement between the then Sultan of Sulu, one Baron de Overbeck (then Maharaja of Sabah) and the British North Borneo Trading Company’s Alfred Dent. 

The Sultan agreed to cede large tracts of land in Sabah to the company for an annual fee. The agreement also stipulated that the payment would be continued by future heirs. Indeed, the British continued the payments until 1963. 

The year saw the creation of the Federation of Malaysia with Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore joining Malaya to form a new country. The point here is that, in 1963, Malaysia’s new federal government continued the annual RM5,300 payment to the Sulu Sultan’s heirs. Indeed, it was maintained in unbroken fashion until 2013. 

During the year, over 200 Filipino militants “invaded” Sabah by way of Lahad Datu to claim the land in the name of the Sultan of Sulu. In the event, the gang surrendered but not before 16 Malaysians lost their lives. 

In seeming retaliation, the Malaysian government, then headed by Najib Razak stopped the annual payments to the Sultan’s heirs. But Kuala Lumpur had maintained those payments for 49 years, an unbroken stretch that seemed to presume a legal obligation on its part.   

It isn’t clear if Najib sought legal advice at the time. The Attorney General then was Gani Patail, a Lahad Datu native himself and a person who’d already been AG for eleven years. 

Nothing happened for four years until, sometime in 2017, the Sulu heirs suddenly took the matter to arbitration in Europe.

Why wait for four years? It had to be money. It was US lawyer Jonathan Sturges who famously quipped that “justice is open to everyone in the same way as the Ritz Hotel.” 

The quip was made in the early 1800s and it rings even more true now. According to Britain’s The Financial Times, “the heirs, backed by a London law firm, have been bankrolled by a UK investment fund, Therium, in a litigation process that has now cost in excess of US$10 million.”

Clearly, the sharks had sensed the blood in the water. Unfortunately, Putrajaya hadn’t. 

Indeed, the Najib administration ignored the matter altogether. The heirs, their lawyers and Therium, smelling money in the air, didn’t.   

Putrajaya is now awake to the danger: the Malaysian  government may have assets in at least 165 countries and many of them are at risk of  seizure. It is  moving to set aside the award. 

It will be long and expensive, alas. And a lesson in the perils of retaliation. 



You only lie to two people in your life, your girlfriend and the police – Jack Nicholson in Chinatown 

The Economist doesn’t mince its words. 

In an op-ed piece headlined “The toxicity of Boris Johnson,” it talked of a deadly toxin menacing “ministers and their party” and “chairing their meetings.” Apparently, Bojo was not only a toxin but a “serial liar,”  

No one should be surprised. As a rule, aren’t all politicians less than sparing with the truth? Donald Trump played so fast and loose with the truth that he even attempted the Big Lie: in the face of massive evidence to the contrary, he claimed that he’d won the 2020 Presidential elections. He still does.

And there are some segments of American society that believe him!

“You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free,” goes a famous Biblical saying. Not in Malaysia though. Instead, the truth made Fatboy flee, and Fearless Leader want to. This was, of course, after the results of Malaysia’s 2018 general election made it plain that their jig was up.  

Now Fearless is behaving as if Grand National Theft has been legalised, while the cheerfully flabby Felonious is apparently, attempting to “settle” with the Malaysian government, if recent news on an online news portal is to be believed.  

“The only statistics you can trust are those you falsified yourself,” observed Winston Churchill. Dr Mahathir was clearly a student of Churchill. Consider how he lauded the “success” of his heavy industrial projects of steel (Perwaja) and autos (Proton). 

The amount of money both projects cost the taxpayer is unclear, but they must surely run into the tens of billions. 

Dr M professed distaste for Anwar Ibrahim’s “moral misconduct” and it was the stated reason for sacking him as deputy premier in 1998. 

But the same distaste wasn’t evident a couple of years ago when Azmin Ali, Dr M’s blue-eyed boy then, was caught in a similar circumstance. 

Different strokes for different folks, it seems, is an acceptable hypocrisy in politics.

Fearless himself lied through his teeth between 2014 and 2018 every time he was questioned over 1MDB in Parliament. 

Everything was hunky dory with the agency, he assured Parliament. And no, Felonious had nothing whatsoever to do with the agency, he had no role in the company and that was the absolute truth, so help him God.  

His story changed after he was charged in court in 2018. Then, everything was the fault of Felonious. Or the directors. Or Goldman Sachs. Or the Arabs.

But not him. Never him. How could it be him? He’d been too busy being PM. 

He continues the fiction now. Unashamedly, would be the word to describe how he carries it off. Shameless, unblushing, unembarrassed, and brazen are others. 

Actually, Fearless comes across as the quintessential Umno politician.  Having deprived the Malaysian Treasury of more than the monies awarded to the heirs of Sultan of Sulu (RM69 billion), he continues to swagger about the Malaysian political stage as if he were a potential premier.

He’s got a snowflake’s chance in hell. 




Some fellows get credit for being conservative when they are only stupid – Journalist Frank Hubbard

Mr Hubbard might have been thinking about Malaysia when he voiced the thought. But as Napoleon observed: “In politics stupidity isn’t a handicap.”

Take Hadi Awang’s latest outburst. The Pas’ leader, whose exact function in government remains unclear, recently likened advocates of the English language to people “trapped in a colonial mindset.”

No one could ever accuse the fire-and-brimstone politician of being on nodding terms with the language. He probably takes pride in his avowed “nationalism,” a proven inability to get around Enid Blyton.

Two of the biggest advocates for English in Malaysia are Dr Mahathir and Rafidah Aziz, people even Hadi would hesitate to label as pro-colonial or less than patriotic. 

Indeed, the recent government push for Bahasa Malaysia at the expense of English is folly of the highest order.

Let us be blunt. Why do the Malays constitute the bulk of unemployed graduates in the country? It’s because they are only fluent in Bahasa Malaysia, which makes then only capable of getting a government job. The Chinese don’t have a problem as they are generally proficient in Mandarin which is a marketable skill.

The policy will only hurt the poorer Malay population because well-off Malays generally ensure their children are proficient in English.  

Indeed, the children of ministers and well-off Malays are almost always educated abroad because they are loath to allow their children to be sent to government schools or universities. They know only too well its suspect quality.

It is a tragedy of the highest order that our nation has descended to this. People of my generation, of all races, had a superb education because government schools had capable faculty. My English teacher in high school didn’t even have a degree but he was Kirby-trained and equipped all of us more than adequately.

Indeed, the two Chinese schools in Seremban were in danger of dying out altogether in the 1960s and 70s as more and more Chinese parents began to send their kids to the “English” schools of King George V and St Paul’s Institution because of their supposedly better faculty.

The Chinese schools only bounced back after the government instituted the shift to Bahasa Malaysia. It is a fact that even Dr Mahathir has admitted with some chagrin.  

The irony of it all is that Malaysia deliberately shot itself in the foot. Singapore, on the other hand, never changed its education policies and so remains a centre of educational excellence.

The average English teacher of today is woefully inept in comparison to his Kirby-trained counterpart of the 1960s. This situation will only get worse over time as less and less skilled university faculty replace the present lot. 

Globally, English is the most widely spoken language in the world with over 1.4 billion users. Native English speakers only number 345 million. Standout indicator: the easiest job to get in China is as an English teacher.

English is the language of diplomacy and despite our PM’s insistence, the language of Asean. 

The light of the language is slowly but surely flickering out in Malaysia. Do not let it be extinguished through benighted policy.