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.”



I do benefits for all religions – I’d hate to blow the hereafter on a technicality. – Comedian Bob Hope 

I have concluded that following Malaysian politics is foolhardy, an invitation to heartache, heartburn, and hypertension. 

Just consider Pas. To the fire and brimstone faithful of the Islamic Party of Malaysia, immorality is the morality of all those who occasionally enjoy a glass of beer or seven. 

Or, for that matter, the behavior of all those who aren’t immediately among its midst or isn’t an ally. 

It thinks it will rule by 2050 and I’ve no objection but only because I won’t be around. Ok, selfish, but there you are. 

But recent trends indicate a grimmer prospect. Which brings up a question: why aren’t more people heading for the hills?

Let me explain.

Pas has indicated, quite categorically, that Malaysia can only “progress” through a theocracy ergo it will implement the same when it takes over. And unless you are an oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Brunei, or an Iran, most Islamic theocracies in the world are pretty much failed.    

All “progress” should be taken with a good dollop of salt anyway. If a cannibal begins using a knife and fork, for example, is that progress? 

Malaysian politics has become too all-or-nothing for me which is why I’ve retreated to humour and fantasy. 

Example: I remember reading, and enjoying, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass when I was quite young. I can still recite the first stanza from Jabberwocky because I was so taken by the nonsense rhyme that I committed it to memory.  

Out of curiosity, I reread both to see if I still liked it. 

It was a blast!  The imagination of Lewis Carroll, a mathematics professor no less, leaves you breathless. 

In Through the Looking Glass, for example, Alice climbs through a mirror where, predictably, everything gets reversed. Example: running helps one stay stationary while walking away from something brings one towards it. 

Carroll was a forerunner to many after him: Tolkien and J K Rowling spring to mind. And its characters have burst onto the language – “as mad as a hatter” is just one example.  

As an aside, the cinematic character was played by Johnny Depp who came across as a saturnine yet servile hatter (to the Red Queen). I thought he got it just right. 

And it crept into the music. In songs like I am the Walrus, Glass Onion and Come Together,John Lennon borrowed heavily from Carroll, both in imagery and in lyrical content. 

The writer John Irving – the World According to Garp – singled out Charles Dickens as one of his greatest influences. I’d read A Tale of Two Cities when I was young and was moved to tears, but it was an abridged version. 

As an adult, I thought I’d do the real book and added Great Expectations for good measure. Both would have done well as doorstops. 

Which is why you should leave some things well alone. I found both unaccountably depressing.

The pedants of literature will, doubtless, be horrified but I think life’s too short for depressing stuff. Let us have laughter or, better yet, wonder. 

Indeed, we can all take comfort in the last words of Steve Jobs. Apparently, he said three: 

“Wow, wow, oh wow.”



I think I’ve discovered the secret of life – you sort of hang around until you get used to it. –   Lucy Brown in Peanuts

It must have been the weekend because my father was home. My mother was preparing a chicken curry for lunch and my father, sniffing the air appreciatively, said cheerfully: “Looks like we’re having fowl curry for lunch.” 

As he said this, he looked at me and winked. And, just like that, I got it.   

And that was what first got me hooked on comic strips. By the time I was in Standard Two, I remember loving L’il Abner by Al Capp because it was chockful of puns. And what puns, so shameless it reduced me to idiocy.

Do you remember Kickapoo Joy Juice? 

No, not the citrus drink but the original, the one in Mr Capp’s head: a brew that perpetually bubbled in a cave off Dogpatch; an alcoholic concoction of such stupefying potency that its fumes could melt the rivets off battleships. 

And its makers – two “hillbillies” rendered as club-wielding Cro-Magnons – were perpetually tossing in new ingredients to maintain its potency. To give it more “body,” it could be any body (a moose?). For added “bite,” they tossed in a grizzly, all teeth and claws. 

Occasionally, kerosene or horseshoes might be added. 

Its characters were as varied as they were dazzling. There was Joe Bftsplk, a well-meaning character who trails bad luck in his wake. To make the point, a dark rain-cloud, occasionally forking lightning, perpetually hovers over his head.  

During World War Two, however, Joe signed up to do his patriotic duty. But he signed up for Hirohito and the rest is history. 

Al Capp’s imagination knew no bounds. Fearless Fosdick, for example, was a “strip within a strip,” where Fosdick, a black-hatted, square-jawed parody of Dick Tracy, existed within the L’il Abner strip.

Fosdick himself was a courageous detective who left a trail of bullet-riddled destruction in his wake while chasing criminals. In the process, he is repeatedly shot in the head himself but never complains – “It’s only a flesh wound.” 

He lives in squalor in a dilapidated boarding house but never takes a bribe. And much to her chagrin, he doesn’t marry his longtime girlfriend, the long-suffering, if homely, Prudence Pimpleton. 

In short, he’s the idol of “every red-blooded American boy.”

I discovered Peanuts a little later although I never understood its title. Neither did its creator Charles Schultz: he was, apparently, furious with the editor who named it thus. Worse, the editor never even read the strip before he named it, 

Who could resist its brand of wit and wisdom? It’s about a little boy who’s a lot like us. He fails at flying kites, playing baseball and kicking footballs. But Charlie Brown and his friends win our hearts every time. 

To Lucy, the secret of life was to “hang around until you get used to it.” To Snoopy, it was “to look up.” And to poor Charlie Brown it was “to replace one worry with another.” 

That’s the beauty of the comic strip. It’s a good way of growing up without growing old. 



When a doctor makes a mistake, it’s best to bury the subject. – Comedian Woody Allen 

Imagine if you were Lou Gehrig and you’d been experiencing muscle weakness and went to see a doctor to find out why?

How would said doctor have handled it?

Now a grim and sternly humourless fellow would have given him the bad news straight up, and risked a possible heart attack.

The imaginative fellow, however, would have begun: “I have good news and bad news” and then proceed to let slip the news: Mr Gehrig would be forever immortalised by having a hitherto unknown disease named after him. 

Actually, Gehrig was already famous as a baseball player then; which just underlines the point of the affliction’s name – it could happen to anyone, even very healthy athletes. 

This was way back in the 1930s and Gehrig has long passed on to that baseball diamond in the sky, but it makes you think about the great miracle that is humankind, our continued existence despite the countless diseases, syndromes, conditions and appalling threats just waiting to get us.  

Example: I have always found Alzheimer to be a particularly sinister name, the sort that does not roll trippingly off the tongue like George, Faiz or Sumitomo. 

But I’m guilty of equating the horror of the disease with the person who discovered it – a kindly physician who noticed discernible changes in the brain of an elderly woman diagnosed with extreme forgetfulness. 

This was early in 1904 and the doctor’s name was Alois Alzheimer. By all accounts, he was neither sinister nor forbidding. 

A long time ago, I met a Malaysian who, together with his foreign wife, managed beachfront chalets for rent off the East Coast. 

In a conversation with them, however, I was astonished when he suddenly broke out into a fitful stream of obscenities for no apparent reason. It didn’t seem directed at anyone in particular and the other patrons either didn’t bat an eyelid, stared, or just laughed.

The wife explained that her husband suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome, a neurological disorder that usually manifests in “tics” like rapid blinking, shaking of the head or, in rare circumstances, vocal outbursts of the sort affecting said proprietor. 

He was otherwise the soul of decency. There was no cure for it and there was nothing he could take to mitigate its symptoms. Their preemptive approach was to warn customers of its possibility so they might be prepared.

Unfortunately, I got the info after the fact. He bore his condition with a certain resignation and conceded that he’d had problems going through school, but sympathetic teachers got him through it. 

I remember he had a good sense of humour. He said he should have joined politics as “I would have fitted right in.” 

Then, there’s Werewolf’s Syndrome, where the patient grows hair so thickly, and so fast, that he could be mistaken for a werewolf, or a paid-up member of the Taliban.

With all the nasty possibilities skulking about out there, it was no wonder that a prominent banker checked himself into a hospital years ago. 

He must have concluded that it was safer to be surrounded by a team of specialists, all waiting alertly to spring into action at the first sign of a twitch, cough, sniffle,  sneeze, or spasm that indicated he could be suffering from something more serious than the flu. 

More than anyone else, he knew that the most beautiful words in English were no longer “I love you” but “No worries, it’s benign.”



I’m an atheist, thank God – Comedian Dave Allen 

A friend sent me a 2022 poster advertising a medical conference in Kuala Lumpur. As an “international” conference, however, it wasn’t impressive, attracting speakers from only Malaysia, Indonesia, and Myanmar. 

I could see why I received it: it was about circumcision.

The procedure is the oldest surgical procedure in human history dating back almost three centuries. Which begs a question: apart from anaesthetic or antibiotic, what new or cutting-edge technology was being gained from the conference to advance the cause of human civilisation? 

I’m not saying it’s a rip-off, but ostensibly learned professionals holding forth on the country’s “experience” with circumcision seems akin to the hot air needed to keep the Hindenburg aloft. 

I mean, we’re talking a simple procedure that a hospital assistant wouldn’t find challenging. It’s not like we’re a cut above the rest. 

Even Raja Bomoh felt sufficiently moved towards a deeply disapproving “Tut-Tut.” 

The poster even cheerfully threatened the “latest” updates on female circumcision, but I think you get the point.  

What is it about Malaysian “scientific” research that smacks of reinventing the wheel, of futile pointlessness?

And the Oscar goes to – drum roll – University Malaysia Pahang.

In May 2015, no less than its vice-chancellor called a press conference to announce that, after “three years” of painstaking research, it had come up with an “anti-hysteria” kit that would repel “evil spirits”.     

I’d concede that it would undoubtedly have been useful in 16th Century Europe where it might have saved a lot of pain and fuel. Lacking said kit, however, many people afflicted by “evil spirits” were burnt at the stake as “witches” by order of the Church. 

In short, the Malaysian researchers were so behind their times, they were out of sight. You could say the New England Journal of Medicine wasn’t bewitched.  Not even a tad.  

The VC, one Dr Daing Nasir, said the kit consisted of such everyday items as chopsticks, salt, lime, vinegar, pepper spray and formic acid. It retailed for an affordable RM8,750 and was guaranteed to be sharia compliant. 

According to the VC, it was stated (in religious texts) that evil spirits could not abide the items in said kit. Apart from the chopsticks, that is. 

It isn’t clear if the research had been peer-reviewed, although there had been at least one “Islamic medicine expert” in attendance.  Even so, tests had been conducted in 11 schools where, presumably there had been cases of mass hysteria. 

For the purposes of scientific accuracy, however, it isn’t clear if the hysteria broke out before or after the tests were administered. 

A point to ponder: if pepper spray was good enough against rapists, muggers, and assorted criminals, wouldn’t it be good enough against evil spirits? At least, it would strike a mighty blow against inflation: kit prices could come down.  

Seven years on, the anti-hysteria kit has vanished into the rubbish heap of futile research conducted in the name of science in  Malaysian universities. No one knows its point or its costs. 

At least, it’s entertaining. Example: the good Dr Daing may have attended Hogwarts.  

Reason: the 2015 Malay Mail news-report noted that his university even boasted a Committee of Advanced Studies in Witchcraft Law – the capitals aren’t mine. Said committee even successfully formulated a Standard Operating Procedure – capitals aren’t mine, either – to combat the use of witchcraft in the country. 

Hallelujah! We are safe from the followers of the Dark Lord. 

Even Raja Bomoh was impressed.



When we were seniors in high school in the 1970s, we all aspired to enter the one, real university in the country.

A degree from University Malaya mattered greatly back then because it almost always ensured a reasonably good job. 

The quality of the degree mattered even more.

The politician R Sivarasa, for example, was my batchmate until our penultimate year. Then, he dropped biochemistry for genetics.

To no one’s surprise, he got a First and went on to read law at Oxford by way of the Rhodes’ Scholarship.

In short, obtaining a first-class honours degree in any field back then was an achievement. It conferred its recipient great prestige and the pick of jobs. Needless to say, it was rarer than gold dust. 

Not anymore, it seems.  

I was shocked to read today that 80,000 students had been awarded Firsts from Malaysian universities last year.  

You’d think the faculty would know better: churning out such degrees in such numbers is simply to debase their worth. In economic terms, it’s higher education beset by soaring inflation. 

It was in the 1970s when I first heard of graduate unemployment. At the time, it was in the Philippines where, apparently, there were too many graduates chasing too few jobs. 

I never dreamt that the same thing might happen here. Not in Malaysia, I thought, with its superb education system, where a person with just high school education might go on to become fine writers in English.  

Indeed, my teachers in those days largely had diplomas but they were seriouslygood and cultivated in us a love of reading that’s helped enormously. 

Here’s a question: Why, ceteris paribus (all things being equal), are graduates from Sunway University more employable, than graduates from public universities? 

It’s a fact that makes government officials uncomfortable. But it’s a question the Education Ministry would be well advised to ponder. 

How did we come to this?

There is an adage that goes like this: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Our education system was never broken, yet our government, starting in the mid-1970s and, prodded by Malay nationalists who should have known better, thought it needed fixing.

Almost 50 years later, the results are clear, most demonstrably in the difference between the education systems of Singapore and Malaysia.   

Both began with similar British-designed structures. One changed while the other did not. 

The outcomes are palpable. Singapore has world class education. We don’t. 

Even worse is our access. Once open to all races at relatively cheap entry levels, a good education in Malaysia is almost exclusively a preserve for the well-heeled. 

Unless you count education in Chinese schools which, for one thing, is ironic. For another, it’s limited: it’s difficult to get approval for new independent Chinese schools. 

With his impregnable majority, Dr Mahathir should have tackled this a long time ago. It’s different now: with the fragile coalitions we have, it will take a miracle to unravel the mess that is our education. 

Like it or not, we will continue to have graduates working as Grab riders, and waiters, or rubbish collectors in Singapore.   

Imagine their dashed expectations. Imagine their despair and hopelessness.

Now imagine their rage. 



Dying is no big deal: it’s living that’s the trick. – Red Smith, US sportswriter.

If anything can go wrong, it will. It’s Murphy’s Law, and Edward Murphy, an Air Force captain, should have been shot for it but he was promoted instead and his eponymous saying stuck around long enough to become an adage for the ages.   

There are others as well. There was Jonathan Wright who seemed to think that the world was horribly wrong because Wright’s Law is sinister enough: “Everything is just out of reach.” And the italics aren’t mine so you can just imagine the gravity of its  portent. And if you think that is bad, Wright’s Constant will cause you to abandon hope altogether. It simply states: “Nothing is easy”.

In short, Wright should have been shot ahead of Murphy.

We may conclude that there was nothing right about Wright and we’d be right but a constant is an inexorable, unchanging thing like pi, the mathematical constant.

Imagine you have just been born. There you are, naked, wet and hungry and you are then told that it (life) will get worse. 

I should have realised this a long time ago. Right back to the time when I was 6 and taken by my father, for the first time to school. You can imagine my astonishment  then, when I was woken early the next morning for the same thing. “What, again?” I cried, bewildered, and he laughed and said it would continue for the foreseeable future. 

I began to grasp it when I was 16 and grappling with the arcane mysteries of calculus. In frustration, I asked Mr Chan Lok Chin, our Add Math teacher: “Why should we learn this? It’s pretty hard.” 

Mr Chan regarded me with a grim, if bespectacled, eye. “Because I said so,” was his implacable reply. And that was that. 

Nothing was easy because everything was hard and that was how life’s cookie crumbled. 

Mark Twain observed that “All you need in life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.” Hadi Awang would probably agree with him. Jho Low would certainly agree. 

In fact, he’s the sort of guy who’d make lemonade if life handed him lemons but then would find the guy handed vodka so they could have a party. Except for the nightmares about the police, you could say life rolled easy for him.  

But the average Mat Q Public would probably agree with writer Lewis Grizzard Jr who said that life was like a dogsled team. “If you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes,”

The secret to life may lie in not sweating the small stuff and not taking everything so seriously or as cartoonist Charles Schultz noted: “Don’t worry about the world coming to an end today; it’s already tomorrow in Australia.” 

So we might as well take it easier; stop and smell the coffee as it were. We are all on the Hindenburg anyway and there’s no point fighting over the window seat. 



Sam: How’s life treating you, Norm?

Norm: Like it caught me sleeping with its wife

 – TV sitcom, Cheers

Malaysia’s former premier Najib “Fearless Leader” Razak was a conservative, which is English for a person who believes he deserves everything he’s stolen.

In that sense, he was an uncommon politician: he got caught. Which is why he now languishes in Kajang Prison where he’s only free to contemplate his navel and think up new and inventive ways to lose friends and irritate judges.

That was Malaysia for you. Justice was open to everyone in the same way as the Shangri-La. Fearless knew the feeling: he’d just received his lawyer’s bill. 

It was ironic in many ways. He used to be so busy that he hardly had time for himself. Now he was reduced to this: except for occasional visits to court, he was about as busy as a pick-pocket in a nudist colony.

To say it was depressing is to understate it to the 10th power. I’ve been to Kajang Prison. In the late 1990s, my former colleague, Murray Hiebert, was given a three month sentence – he served two – for “media contempt” and I used to visit him regularly. I found it a difficult place to be cheerful in: you had to talk to the prisoner through glass and mesh, and the place smelt of sweat and despair. 

Now Fearless was taking his case to the United Nations where there were only 10 million petitions before him. His lawyers had told him that the odds were stacked against him. What they didn’t tell him were his actual chances. They were threefold: zero, zip and zilch. 

Alas, poor Fearless. Over in China, his once-friend and helpmate in crime, Low Teck “Felonious” Jho watched sadly. Fearless found him simpatico the first time they’d met. He especially liked the way his mind worked and his interest got piqued after he discovered that Felonious’ thesis in Wharton had been on Bernie Madoff and the near-perfect crime.

Felonious thought that a person who wielded absolute power could do well-nigh anything he wanted. 

To prove his point, he demonstrated that, on any given day, Fearless could have been convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements, or what the Prime Minister’s Department called a “press conference.”   

It was the Eureka moment for Fearless, a multi-billion epiphany that would lead to the almost-perfect crime had it not been for one tiny miscalculation: losing the general election. 

But Felonious hadn’t miscalculated. He made sure he wasn’t in Malaysia when the time rolled around for a general election – both in 2013 and 2018.

It can’t have given Fearless much comfort. 

Or confidence. 

It explained  the grim relish with which  Fearless read the paper on Monday. It reported that Felonious’ days as a protected  “intelligence asset” in China could be coming to an end. 

The source of the story was Bradley Hope, the journalist behind Billion Dollar Whale, the story of the looting of Malaysia by Messrs Fearless and Felonious. The leviathan referred to in the book’s title was the corpulent crook in China.

Hope revealed that Fatso’s chief protector in China had been convicted of, what else, corruption and so Felonious’ luck might be running out. 

The tubby thief was philosophical about it. Que sera sera, he thought cheerfully.

He’d packed more living in the last 14 years than many do in a lifetime.



The way my luck is running, if I were a politician, I would be honest – US comedian Rodney Dangerfield

I only realised what day it was after I’d scanned the paper. 

It was Friday the 13th. 

It takes all sorts of things to scare people. A child of six would undoubtedly be more terrified of a flu shot than, say, Dracula, while, at his age, Dr Mahathir is beginning to develop a fear of flowers. 

For many others, it’s airline travel: the hours of boredom, interrupted by those moments of stark terror. For Pas, the Islamic Party of Malaysia, it is, and always has been, the haunting fear that someone, somewhere in Malaysia, might be having fun.

For the writer Kurt Vonnegut, true terror was “to wake up one morning and to discover that your high school class is running the country.” Meanwhile, George Foreman feared no man “but the dentist.” 

Then there are the questions, like this excellent one from Steven Wright: “What happens if you get scared half to death twice?”

But I digress. We were talking about Friday the 13th, weren’t we? 

Historians are generally agreed that the apparent ill-luck attributed to the day grew out of the number of people that attended the Last Supper – the thirteenth one to arrive was Judas, the betrayer. The next day – Friday – witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus which makes it something of an eternal irony that it’s revered by Christians as Good Friday. 

Over the intervening millennia, the distaste has seeped so thoroughly into Western culture that a word – triskaidekaphobia – had to be invented to describe the human fear of the number. Lest anyone dismiss this as fanciful, one should note that Stephen King, the celebrated writer of horror fiction, suffers the syndrome. 

Their numbers aren’t tiny – over 15 million in the US – which is why businesses have had to adapt to cater to this segment of society. 

It explains why lifts generally don’t have a 13th floor button, despite having the floor physically. Most hotels don’t have such a floor either while airlines almost never have an aisle marked 13. Similarly, no ship has a 13th deck.

Other reasons, like the naming of future space missions after the 1970 Apollo 13, fall into the “I-told-you-so” category. 

Nasa scientists had decided to give the mission after Apollo 12 its rightful number rather than bow to superstition and an otherwise unscientific outlook on space travel. In the event, Apollo 13’s planned moon landing had to be aborted after an oxygen tank blew up.    

The mission is still considered a “successful failure” as its crew splashed home, unscathed. But the chastened scientists never used 13 for    subsequent launches. 

It’s also why we should never underestimate the power of ill-fated accidents occurring in unison. Like these inexplicable events that occurred on a fateful January morning in 2004.

He had to walk under the ladder on which a workman was perched installing his wife’s latest artwork when a black cat languidly crossed his path. Abdullah Badawi flinched before recovering to complete the remaining 13 steps to his door where an aide handed him an open umbrella for the rain outdoors. 

At that moment, the mirror in one of the bathrooms upstairs cracked. 

It was going to be a momentous day, reflected the premier. 

He was due to announce his choice of deputy premier that afternoon.