Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Tribalism. Hard-wired into the human psyche. With the interconnectivity of modern day people; Tribal classifications and belonging become more complex, less obvious, but nonetheless still subtly defining constituents and creating barriers.

I am open. Twists and events in life have given me the opportunity to "belong" amongst different classes; Also because of this I can sometimes be awkward. I am happy to interact freely with diverse cultures and backgrounds. But I cannot deny that some crowds make me feel out of place. And I am finding that attempts to belong in any one tribe, in turn separates me from others.

Penang is a relatively small state. Yet so diverse. We live, interact, develope in pockets. I once believed in everyone getting along, everyone understanding each other. But now I wonder if it is ever possible. If by nature, that is impossible.

"Tribes" are inevitable. Defined by personalities, common history, similarity of beliefs, similarity of purpose. Differences create the invaluable richness of society. Without tribes, we would be robots / clones.

Who, what, where are the tribes of Penang? What bonds you to your brother?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

My parents are accountants, My friends are engineers. What will my children be?

Both my parents grew up in families that would be accurately termed "Hardcore Poor". They each got a job immediately after school. They became accountants out of necessity. They had younger siblings to support. Accountancy paid relatively well for a fresh school-leaver, and they could study as they work to become qualified accountants. Their friends became accountants, doctors, lawyers, teachers, administrators. I don't think they have that many friends who became engineers.

Many of my friends work, or have worked, in the Electrical & Electronics industry or its supply chain in Penang. After school, IT was the thing to study in local colleges or universities. Upon graduation, Intel, Dell, Motorola & Agilent(formerly HP) were amongst common employers -- They, and other MNCs (multi-national corporations) prop up the Penang economy. Our current Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng has been working very hard to bring in new investors, new companies. Amongst newbies on the scene are St Judes, National Instruments and Borsch.

I like the scout motto "Be Prepared".
Did my parents expect the IT/electronics revolution?
Did my friends want to be engineers when we were 15 years old in Form 3?
What will the future bring? What work will future Penangites occupy themselves with?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"Do you miss Australia?"

"Do you miss Australia?", I was asked at lunch yesterday.

For a second, I couldn't answer. My lips moved, I wanted to say "Yes", but I firmly answered - "No".

I wanted to say 'Yes' because some of my dearest and closest friends are Australians or other nationalities living in Australia. With these friends, I've worked late nights, stumbled home drunk, laughed and danced our hearts out, shared dinner after a long day's work; They've covered me at work when I'm home sick, they've checked on me when I appeared stressed out, they've opened their homes to me, they show their care and support in countless ways that I cannot possibly do justice to in this blog. How can I not miss them??

In Australia, I've always had a park(s) within 5 minutes walk from where I live. I always had multiple options with public transport, which came frequently and was relatively punctual. The wet markets were easier to shop in; Fruits & veg were relatively cheap, fresh, much nicer looking, tasted better and there was more assurance you weren't poisoning yourself with unknown chemicals! Even when I don't cook, I could easily find nutritious food at a reasonable price. I had 5 library cards and at least 3 libraries that I frequented regularly and conveniently. I made friends with owners and people serving me in my local cafe / market / pub. When I got sick, I could go to the doctor and not have to pay (Well, it comes from taxpayers via Medicare). When I got very sick, they could schedule me for a biopsy within a week, all-expense-paid by the government (which is funded via our taxes), and this was in a hospital that was cheerful, competent and comfortable compared to Malaysian public hospitals!

There are migrants or students who move overseas and struggle to fit in or feel at home. But I made friends and conversed easily. I quickly learnt the norms of other cultures, and when I didn't, we would happily laugh or make fun of our differences in good humour. There are a few who were more obnoxious than others, but for most parts, I treated everyone of different nationalities as equals and felt myself as an equal to them. We respected each other and were at ease with each other despite whatever differences we may have from growing up in different cultures and environments.

I was in Australia for 10 years, and no doubt I'll always think of them as amongst the best times of my life.

But do I miss Australia? Firmly, No.

I thought I would still be missing Australia. I thought the correct answer would be 'Yes', that's why I automatically wanted to answer 'Yes'. But when I searched for the answer, it came out "No".

I surprised myself. As I drove away from lunch shortly after, I couldn't help wondering - "No?? Why did you say you don't miss Australia? Don't you?". I explored my feelings, and realised that indeed I was happy to be at home. I didn't miss Australia. I found this curious..

I don't think I'll ever be certain, but I think it comes down to this:

1. I feel more at home with the way I dress here. I think you get used to the way people look & act in your developing years as a child, and eventhough you may not be actively conscious of it, there is a sense of comfort being amongst people who have shared and now express that same "development" in the way they act & carry themselves.

2. I've also noticed subtle (or obvious once you start noticing) differences in the tone & style of communication. The way I talk to my friends at a pub/restaurant in Malaysia is very much different from in Australia. The way we make comments or state disagreements differ. I never noticed it when I was in Australia. My Australian friends probably thought it was just my personality, and I probably thought so too, but now I think its part personality, part being/growing-up Malaysian.

When you put everything together..... I think there is something about being Malaysian that is difficult to describe or define, but it affects everything about you, whether you like it or not. The environment, food, culture, society, everything that surrounded you as a child/teenager makes you you.

And so, eventhough I thrived in Australia and certainly thought I felt at home; eventhough I prided myself in being able to easily find my way in new environments and ease in with people of different cultures; eventhough I've been described as a "true global citizen" on a number of occasions because of my adaptability and liberal mind; I now realise that only Malaysia is home.

Malaysia is home because growing up in Malaysia makes me Malaysian, and being in Malaysia amongst Malaysians makes me feel at home, at ease, OK.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

George Town Heritage Trails

I got to know about the Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) when I wrote about Penang heritage for a school project several years ago. I've since felt enriched by greater awareness of the richness of Penang's heritage, knowledge of the existence of PHT and the experience of visiting several sites on PHT-coordinated tours.

I've spoken about PHT and its tours to several friends (and strangers on bus, have picked off the road etc) over the years, and usually, it would be the first time they've heard of PHT! It is such a shame that most Penangites lose out on seeing the treasures we have in the State.

I was recently excited to read about new trails being run by PHT and other organisations in conjunction with the upcoming George Town Festival. But soon discovered that the telephone number for the Living Museum Tour on the Star newspaper article is wrong - Right number is 014 342 3511. And the details are wrong / incomplete too!

So do go to the George Town Festival website for the complete list of programmes for Penang in July. Below is a calendar of events. I'll probably see how much I can squeeze in on 7th July. What amongst the program do you find most interesting?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"Invisible" People - Refugees in Malaysia

(Information below compiled from UNHCR Fact Sheet, June 2011)

In Malaysia, there are about 93600 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR:
~85800 from Myanmar, 4100 from Sri Lanka, 1100 from Somalia, 730 from Iraq and 490 from Afghanistan.
~18900 refugees are children below the age of 18.

Refugees in Malaysia are scattered throughout the country, living mostly in the Klang Valley. They share living spaces in groups of up to 40 people or more, living in low-cost flats or housing areas side by side with local Malaysian homes in cities and small towns. There are refugee communities both on Penang island and mainland.

The "refugee" status is not recognized within the Malaysian legal system. Hence:
- They have no access to legal employment;
- They tend to work in jobs that the local population do not wish to take;
- Some employers exploit their dire situation by paying extremely low or no wages at all;
- Despite poor (un)employment, they do not have access to public/subsidized healthcare;
- Their children do not have access to formal education.

Since refugee children are not able to join Malaysian children in formal schools, they rely on education projects run by UNHCR in partnership with NGOs or learning in community-based centres. But only ~1000 children have access to UNHCR education projects, while ~4600 children attend classes in community learning centres. With some 12000 refugee children of school-going age in Malaysia, that means less than 46% of refugee children (ages 4 - 17) have access to any kind of education! Creating a second generation of illiterate/unskilled community...

Community learning centres are classes started by initiative of the refugee communities themselves with the help of non-refugee groups such as faith-based groups. The scope and reach of these classes are largely restricted by a lack of resources, including qualified teachers. Classes are usually held in rented flats or shop houses, where rooms are converted into classrooms, and are largely overcrowded and lacking in basic teaching facilities.

Each individual learning centre has varying level of needs for assistance, but generally include:
- Funding (eg. teachers' compensation, children's meal & transport, rent & utilities);
- Stationery and teaching-related equipment;
- Skills-building for teachers;
- Volunteers to help with teaching and administration.

Anyone wondering how they may make the lives of refugees (adult & children!) just that little bit better are encouraged to contact either organisations below. Sometimes, its the simple things that matter! ;-)

JUMP (Jaringan Utara Migran dan Pelarian / Norther Network for Migrants & Refugees) or +604 227 3405


SUARAM or +604 658 2285

Musing Penang

Growing up in Malaysia, I've got used to using Bahasa Malaysia everytime I speak to a non-Chinese on the street. On quite a few occasions recently, the person I'm speaking to turns out not to understand Bahasa Malaysia. There are certainly increasing numbers of migrants and refugees in the community, but how many of us have actually made friends with them or spoken to them more than "Menu please" or "No thanks, I've already got one at home" (latter spoken in response to a guy trying to sell me a table lamp at Goodall Food Court last night).

Somehow everytime I speak to someone in Bahasa Malaysia and he/she replies in English obviously not understanding Bahasa, I'm always taken by surprise and recover just enough to explain myself in English, but never composing myself quickly enough to ask what country he/she is from. From today onwards, I resolve to at least ask what country he/she is from and offer at minimum friendly acknowledgment or a smile.

How many refugees or even foreign migrants have you been friendly with?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

defining the People

Ever wonder what it means to be a Penangite? Let us try define who / what it means to be a Penangite.

1. What do you think makes you a Penangite?
2. As a Penangite, what makes Penang special to you?
3. Are you Malaysian first, or Penangite first? Why?