Author Archives: wcw

For the love of the nation

IT’S time for Malaysia to change its narrative. For a start, our leaders must end the hyperbole of how the previous Barisan Nasional government stripped and looted the country’s wealth.

We generally know enough about the financial crime of the century, the hunt and arrests of those implicated in the cases.

Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and his wife, Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, are facing a barrage of corruption and money laundering charges, and they are expected to spend the next five years in court.

The main character, the infamous Jho Low, and his family, are on the run, and it’s a given fact that the long arm of the law will eventually reach them.

A corrupt government has collapsed, and it’s now coming to a year since the new federal leaders took charge.

Malaysia can’t continue telling the world how we’re a troubled country with a deep financial hole, and neither should we keep contradicting our stand.

We can’t be saying we’re near bankrupt one day, and the next, concede that our economy is in good shape.

The Pakatan Harapan government marks its first year at office in May. So, its ministers can’t still be whining about inherited problems of a 60-year-old government forever.

Many of the current leaders, including the Prime Minister, were part of the system, and in the case of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, he was at the helm for 22 years, lest we forget.

Admittedly, an eye-watering amount of money has been pilfered, so, the government needs to retrieve what’s stolen.

Ironically, PH was elected to fix these problems.

Malaysia can’t seem like an attractive business proposition with our troubled nation in full parade, especially when investors have many countries to choose from.

The country’s economy for the next two years will be turbulent, but forming the Economic Action Council is a good start to indicate that we intend to tackle the issues together, with public and private participation.

The Prime Minister has made the right move, but the EAC must run fast to come up with confidence-building measures.

Against the backdrop of a challenging environment for global equity markets and a US-China trade war, Malaysia has continued to tread on a steady economic path. It’s slower than we want to, but at least a recession isn’t looming.

Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng must continue his positive tones, as he has finally been doing, to renew confidence both locally and internationally.

The idea of revenue through taxation should be canned, but grumblings among the small base of individual taxpayers is ringing out loud.

It’s unfair to keep scrapping for crumbs from these taxpayers. A more progressive tax regime should be in place. Give it a name if necessary, but importantly, a firmer consumption tax is required because it will be fairer. It’s simple, if you don’t spend, you don’t pay.

In a way, it needs to be balanced out since individuals can’t be paying both income tax and consumption tax.

Lim has taken the right direction to keep selling the messages of how Malaysia has introduced policies and measures to invigorate the capital market.

“Our stock market has remained resilient in comparison with our peers in Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and China.

“Amidst large capital outflows among emerging markets and Asean countries this year, the FBM KLCI benchmark index registered a year-to-date decline of 5.8% as at end-November, compared with other Asian markets that have experienced declines ranging from 9.1% to 22.7%.

“And, we are the second-best performing stock market in the Asia Pacific region,” he said recently.

There is other good news which we’ve yet to shout out loud enough for, like Malaysia currently ranking 15 from 190 economies in its facilitation of commerce, according to the latest World Bank annual ratings.

Malaysia’s ranking improved to 15 in 2018 from 24 in 2017. Ease of Doing Business in Malaysia averaged 18.18 from 2008 until 2018, reaching an all-time high of 24 in 2017 and a record low of 6 in 2013, it was reported.

Although we may have lost crucial time, we still have a year to make Malaysia look good because two major events take place next year.

Highlights for 2020 include Malaysia celebrating Visit Malaysia Year, and hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) leaders’ summit, some 22 years after doing so for the first time.

Let’s do it right and make Malaysia proud. It’s not just an occasion befitting Dr Mahathir, but all Malaysians as stakeholders.

The government’s proverbial tale of empty pockets isn’t an excuse anymore. It just doesn’t work that way. If we need to spend, we need to find the money, because we expect a return on investments.

We need to tell a good story internationally, it’s that simple.

However, the lack of momentum to galvanise the nation hasn’t been motivational.

The world doesn’t want to keep hearing our negative stories and neither do Malaysians.

Tell the world we have fixed it and now we’re on the road again.

Come May, and it’ll be crunch time for underachieving ministers.

Everyone invariably tries their best, but those who are unfit just shouldn’t get the nod. After all, the last thing PH needs is painting a picture of a failed administration, but the coalition should be wary of many Malaysians believing the Barisan government fared better.

It’s unfair how some ministers are passing the buck to the PM because they lack the confidence to decide or are just indecisive because the responsibilities of their portfolios exceed their ability.

Visitors to Dr Mahathir’s office have noticed the growing mountain of uncleared documents, which is surely too much a task for anyone, what more a 93-year-old man.

We need to take advantage of the new Malaysia to construct a fresh national narrative which emphasises Malaysia and Malaysians.

There is a need to build national pride over the coming years, one which makes trust and integrity its main framework.

A shared vision beyond 2020 is crucial. Also, to bring Malaysians together and not let race and religion hijack the national discourse.

The question now is, do our leaders have the gumption for this, or will they just let New Malaysia be another piped dream?

By the time world leaders take the stage in KL, Malaysia should be ready to display a new sense of direction, purpose and plan.

Time of the season

A political year will soon be up, so the honeymoon’s truly over. How has New Malaysia’s government fared? With the indiscretions rolling out, that’s coffee shop talk right now.

DATUK A. Kadir Jasin (pic) is no ordinary journalist. He’s not just a highly respected veteran newsman with many accolades, but special advisor to the Prime Minister, too. He is also a supreme council member of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.

So he is close to the powers that be, but unlike the politicians in his party, the 71-year-old is still very much a newsman, so ink probably still runs through his veins.

And some would say, Kadir has always been frank, but last week, he went a notch further. He was brutal, to be more specific.

He must have been inundated with phone calls and messages for having likely stepped on many toes, especially those of Cabinet members. Writing in his personal blog last week, he said the Prime Minister’s move to create the Economic Action Council could be due to his machinery’s inability to take care of Malaysians’ needs.

He said there were “implicit and explicit” reasons behind Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad forming the EAC.

“The explicit reason is Dr Mahathir needs a special body to scrutinise and decide on matters related to pertinent and urgent issues about the economy, finance and welfare of the people. The implicit reason is that the PM is directly admitting that the current machinery, especially the Cabinet, is not enough to handle the issues mentioned.

“We don’t need to pretend merely to protect the feelings of anyone or any party. The reality is that after eight months governing the country, the Pakatan Harapan administration has not produced any tangible result for the public to feel it,” he wrote.

Kadir said the country’s financial and economic situation was already challenged due to the damaged legacy of the Barisan Nasional government.

He said there was no need “to beat around the bush” as many Malaysians were becoming disappointed with the government’s performance, and that of its Cabinet ministers and civil servants.

“I know many people know that the PM himself is not too happy or satisfied with the performance of the Cabinet ministers. It can be said that every time he meets the people and reporters, he is constantly asked about the competency of the ministers, ministers who rarely go to the ground, those who often take selfies with their officers, ministers who are hard to meet or those who aren’t truthful about their personal matters,” he added.

I disagree with his assessment that the EAC was set up because the Cabinet hasn’t been able to cope with those issues. Like the previous National Economic Action Council, this body has included respected economists and key influencers of the private sector.

It may lack members from the private sector, especially entrepreneurs, and the younger set, but this EAC is a good one that’s perhaps long overdue, especially with the coming two years looking turbulent. No one, not even the PM, has given a clear direction to the country how we intend to sail through these rough seas, and these uncertainties have also generated much concern in business circles.

Our politicians, including key Cabinet members, seem to infer that they are too busy politicking to draw up clear policies.

But Kadir is right. There is a strong sentiment that some ministers are not performing, or plainly put, are unable to manage their jobs.

It’s now clear how some of them don’t fit their portfolios, not because they aren’t clever or are incapable, but perhaps it isn’t aligned with their abilities, interests, social skills or even personalities. It’s a mismatch, and as the first anniversary of the Pakatan Harapan government in May approaches, the perception is that the first PH Cabinet was hastily cobbled together with insufficient thought, the effects of which can now be seen.

A couple of ministers are still in opposition mode and out to settle old scores, remaining shackled to the past. Names have also been bandied in Putrajaya of ministers who brushed aside the senior government officers in their ministries, and in some instances, allegedly doing so through racial prejudice and bias.

Kadir, as an adviser, has obviously informed Dr Mahathir of the ground-level grumbling and its steady increase in volume. There are two layers of resentment – the powerful political and business elites, a lot who think that not enough has been done.

Yes, reforms to the various institutions, crackdowns on corruption and wider involvement of Malaysians in key government roles, have brought fresh changes, but that won’t pay the bills because the economy is in dire straits.

At the lower end of the workforce, salaried workers, Felda settlers, farmers and low-ranking civil servants are struggling to make ends meet. They aren’t interested in inherited problems and additional corruption charges against Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak because they are more worried about putting food on the table for their families.

The PH government surely should know by now why Najib has gained the support of lower income Malaysians, and what should worry PH is that most of them are Malays from both urban and rural areas.

In the 2018 general election, only 25-30% of Malays voted for PH, according to the Merdeka Center while 35-40% voted for Barisan Nasional and 30-33% supported PAS. So that explains the impact of Umno and PAS working together.

On the other hand, about 95% of Chinese voters chose PH, or more specifically, the DAP, and 70-75% of Indians voted for PH. Malay leaders in PH have privately admitted that the 25-30% from the Malay votes have declined since then. If this 20-35% is enough to cause the Barisan fall, think about the consequences if the decline continues.

Recently, DAP leader Lim Kit Siang disputed a survey claiming that nearly 60% of Malays were not happy with the performance of the PH government. He said the survey didn’t reflect the true situation.

“Ilham Centre/Penang Institute survey cannot be a correct reflection of the situation in the country as not even 1% of non-Muslims in any survey will believe that non-Muslims are now in control of the government and that DAP is calling the shots in Putrajaya,” the DAP adviser said in a statement on Feb 2.

Lim was responding to a report on a joint survey conducted by independent research firm Ilham Centre, said to be linked to some Parti Amanah Negara leaders, and Penang Institute, a think tank funded by the Penang government. They found that 60% of the respondents believed that non-Muslims were now in control of the government and that the DAP was running the show. The survey interviewed 2,614 Malay respondents between Oct 24 and Dec 24 last year.

Lim said if a similar survey were to be conducted among non-Muslims, then a substantial number of non-Muslims would be very supportive of the government since they are now supposedly in control of the government. But this is far from being the real situation.

Unfortunately, though, politics isn’t about human rationality, as Yuval Noah Harari wrote in his best seller, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.

“If democracy were a matter of rational decision making, there would be absolutely no reason to give all people equal voting rights – or perhaps any voting rights. There is ample evidence that some people are far more knowledgeable and rational than others, certainly when it comes to specific economic and political questions.

“In the wake of the Brexit vote, eminent biologist Richard Dawkins protested that the vast majority of the British public – including himself – should never have been asked to vote in the referendum, because they lacked the necessary background in economics and political science,” he wrote.

And in Malaysia, the sad reality is that the race and religion cards work, and politicians, even those in PH, have regularly used them to win votes. It may be news to some non-Malays but there are many Malays who are not happy that the Chief Justice and Attorney-General are not Muslims, fearful that the rights of Muslims would be affected. The euphoria of a supposedly New Malaysia is now turning out to be a mirage after all, and in the battle to win or retain Malay votes, we can expect realpolitik – politics based on practical objectives rather than on ideals – to rear its head.

On the Falcon’s Crest in Doha, Qatar

It was my first visit to Doha, the capital of Qatar and like any first timer, I was left mesmerised by its dazzling skyline.

But I wasn’t there to be impressed by skyscrapers or the glitzy shopping malls stocked with marquee brand names found in every major city. I was looking for adventures – of the legacy and cultural variety.

I headed for the Falcon Souq (market) in search of Qatar’s Bedouin rich heritage, and against the long shadows of Doha’s modern horizon, I spent hours walking along the narrow alleys of the market.

Escaping from the sweltering heat outside, I allowed myself to be lost and to enjoy the coolness of the bazaar inside. I let my imagination run wild as I tried to absorb the sights and scents of what could possibly be a Bedouin past.

The Bedouin are a group of nomadic Arab people who inhabit the desert regions of North Africa and the Arab peninsula.

The English word Bedouin comes from the Arabic word Badawi – like the name of our former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi – which means desert dweller.

The Bedouin are divided into various tribes, but share the common culture of camping in the desert, riding camels, and certainly, rearing falcons as pets.

Falcons kept as pets would usually have their heads covered in leather hoods to keep them calm. They are only taken off when the birds are hunting.

Wanting to maximise my time there, I promptly headed for the falcon market where these prized birds are traded.

An Arab bazaar is usually noisy, as traders and customers haggle over the price of goods, but here, it was near silent. It’s ironic and intriguing at the same time. The Arabs are loud people, but not at the falcon market.

Perhaps it’s a serious business, and not just another hobby. To add to this unusual scene, the falcons, with their heads covered in hoods, are also sitting in eerie silence.

“The falcon’s eyes are always covered by a leather hood when it is not hunting, to calm the bird. The hood withdraws visual stimuli and suppresses the falcon’s hunting instincts when it is not chasing a prey. The leather hoods are so designed that they do not harm the precious birds,” wrote Ketki Sharangpani.

Falconry is serious business in Qatar – there is even a hospital at the market that specialises in taking care of falcons.

The shopkeepers were friendly, and they allowed tourists to venture inside to take photographs of the rows and rows of birds.For a small fee, you can pose for photographs with these falcons perched on your arm.

Most of the shopkeepers speak English and are happy to answer questions about these falcons that are worth thousands of dollars.

“The falcons in my shop sell for between US$3,000 (RM12,000) and US$5,000 (RM20,000), but I have also heard of some that are worth over US$20,000 (RM81,000).

“I have to do a lot of paper work as I need to help my customers get permits, equipment and medical checks, and follow up care,” said Ahmed.

The writer did not pass up on the chance on a camel ride during his trip.

There’s the Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital next to his shop, reflecting the Qataris’ dedication in caring for these desert birds. But their passion is understandable. It’s far more than just a hobby or status symbol – it’s a reminder of their proud and precious past.

“Falconry is an ancient tradition – we used to hunt with hawks or falcons. Falconry has been instrumental to Bedouin desert survival since ancient times and is a distinct part of the Arab culture.

“But falconry goes beyond the Arab world. It was historically important in Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, along with the Middle East. As such, it finds a place on the Unesco List of Intangible Heritages, as a combined heritage of 18 different countries.

“It dates back thousands of years, has been handed down from generation to generation and is an essential part of the identity of indigenous people in these 18 countries. Falconry’s acceptance as an intangible cultural heritage protects it for future generations.

“Desert survival for the Bedouins was tough: food was often sparse and the smaller birds and animals, like hares, were difficult to catch. It was in these circumstances that falconry, as a hunting technique, came into existence and was adopted by the Arab Bedouins to supplement their desert sustenance.

“The birds of prey were used to hunt because of their keen eyesight and swift action. Though the nomadic way of life is now almost over, falconry is still widely practiced both as a sport and passion by Bedouin men of all ages,” Sharangpani added.

Falconry is an ancient tradition.

In 2017, images of 80 falcons owned by a Saudi prince travelling on a plane went viral after it was posted on Reddit by a user who said it was sent to him by a pilot friend.

“Though the original post says the birds are hawks, bought plane tickets by a Saudi prince, it’s more likely they are falcons, the official bird of the United Arab Emirates.

“While a plane full of birds might be an unusual sight to western eyes, it’s actually not that unusual in places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, where falconry is common place. According to the Qatar Airways website, economy passengers can expect to share their cabin with as many as six falcons,” Britain’s Metro reported.

CNN Travels reported that “in the United Arab Emirates, the birds are required to have their own passports, issued by the Ministry of Environment and Water, to combat smuggling of the birds. The document is valid for three years and costs US$130 (RM529). Between 2002 and 2013, the government issued more than 28,000 falcon passports.

CNN Travels added that “according to its website, Qatar Airways will allow a passenger to travel with one falcon as an economy class passenger and a maximum of six falcons are permitted within the entire cabin — but you’ll have to pay for it, with rates ranging from US$115 (RM468) to US$1,650 (RM6,719) per bird.

Etihad has similar regulations for flying with falcons, but Emirates requires all animals traveling in the cabin to be caged.

I was also fascinated by the many shops at the souq, which offer a huge variety of falconry accessories, from handmade leather hoods to health supplements.

You can find many shops at the souq that offer a big variety of falconry accessories.

As everything began to wind down, I found myself sitting at a tea shop and trying my best to catch the final moments of my east African adventure.

The Arabic setting couldn’t be more perfect for me to immerse myself as I closed my eyes to the call of the azan, reminding the faithful of prayer time, taking me back home in that instance.

Yes, falconry was and still is a recreation of rich Arabs, especially the Bedouins, but they’re also birds that keep nomads alive in the desert, helping them to search for food.

The birds surely deserve all the attention and care. They have earned their right.

The Qataris have kept their roots alive and proven that development is more than just a meaningless skyline, which is the same everywhere. Anyone can build a skyscraper, but not anyone can embody tradition and heritage.

To conclude my curious holiday, I took a short trip to the Al Wakrah sand dunes, where my Jordanian driver expertly showed off his driving skills on the undulating desert slopes.

If the Bedouins rode their camels on these sandy hills previously, the Toyota Cruisers have taken over now with their superb abilities to navigate this tricky terrain.

Central to this adventure was the animals, and of course, man’s appreciation for these glorious winged raptors. One can argue that this is denying the birds their natural habitat, but in a world of senseless poaching, pampering an animal in partial captivity seems like a much lesser evil.

To each his own but seeing those huge majestic birds up close and appreciating their beauty would never have been possible in the wild.

To find the Falcon Souq, visit the Al Souq St in Doha. Anyone there can point you in the right direction. The falcon souq is open from 9am to 1pm and 4pm to 8pm on weekdays and only in the evening on Fridays.

Qatar Airways flies direct to Doha from Kuala Lumpur.

Malu apa, bro!

WE seem to be heading towards a dangerous edge. There is now an emerging culture of shamelessness.

Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak may have been slapped with countless charges of corruption and money laundering, but his campaign, Malu apa, bossku (“Why the shame, boss?” in Bahasa Malaysia), has surprisingly attracted millions of likes on social media.

The scandal-smeared former prime minister has traded in his tailored suits, impeccable English and political elite-aristocratic crowd for the Mat Rempit and Malay working class.

As part of his makeover, he is now decked in black parka, black jeans and black sneakers.

He is even hanging out with the young Mat Rempit and posting wefies with them. He is also happily showing off a black-and-red Yamaha Y15ZR 150cc moped that is all the rage with the youths of today.

And the registration plate on his bike is 8055KU, which insinuates “BOSSKU”, and to these newfound supporters, Najib is called Boss kita! (Our Boss.)

The key phrase here is Malu apa bossku, and while many learned Malaysians are cringing over this new culture, it barely seems wrong for our embattled former PM, who is basking in it and promoting the malaise.

But a similar show is also surfacing on the other side of the political divide.

One Pakatan Harapan leader after another is having his or her dubious education credentials exposed after Deputy Foreign Minister Marzuki Yahya was questioned over his.

Johor Mentri Besar Osman Sapian’s education history has come under the spotlight with the allegation that he didn’t obtain a degree from Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), as claimed.

Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin’s social science degree from the National University of Singapore (NUS), as reported when she became a minister, has also come into question. Now, she’s washed her hands of ever having had one.

DAP Assemblyman from Tronoh Paul Yong Choo Kiong claimed to have a masters in business administration from Akamai University – an alleged degree mill in Hawaii – among his academic qualifications.

None of these politicians have apologised for not correcting these errors when they were revealed, but now, they have conveniently shrugged off the news reports, claiming no knowledge of such revelations.

Worse, Marzuki passed the buck to Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, saying it is now up to his boss to decide. The Johor MB chose to remain silent, hoping that the storm would blow over.

The central issue here isn’t whether an elected representative should have a tertiary education – the point here is, should we put our trust in anyone who lies to themselves?

If some of these individuals buy dubious online diplomas, they are only cheating themselves. Worse, the electorate has also fallen for this charade hook, line and sinker.

Instead of working hard, like most university students, these individuals apparently chose the easy way out. Are we expected to believe them when they talk about accountability and integrity from now on?

What’s worse is, most Pakatan leaders have chosen to look the other way or have lamely justified these dishonest transgressions.

If they were in the private sector, the sack would be a foregone conclusion, but then they are “Yang Berhormat”, despite these dishonourable acts.

Apa nak malu, YB! Aku ada SPM aje, bro!

And of course, that’s not the end. PAS leaders have found themselves in unfamiliar waters.

With their turbans and goatees, they like to appear pious and holier than thou. However, they are now seeing their names flying on social media, associated with a taste for sports cars and bikes, and not just under their names, but those of their children and spouses.

A report filed with the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) over allegations of PAS leaders getting RM90mil from Umno under the previous administration involved “a list of expensive cars”, properties, high-powered motorcycles and “the purchase of number plates at exorbitant prices”, it has been widely reported.

According to the report, several PAS leaders were accused of using these funds to acquire the cars and properties.

The cars include BMW, Mini Cooper, Toyota Vellfire, Range Rover, Porsche Cayman, Audi Q7, Audi A6, Toyota Camry, Toyota Fortuner, Volkswagen Passat, Mercedes Benz, and a BMW motorcycle, according to a report.

“As for the properties, this includes a bungalow in Bangi worth RM3mil,” says a report. The only item missing is camel ownership.

PAS Mursyidul Am (spiritual leader) Datuk Hashim Jasin has admitted to owning a Porsche Cayman, but said his son was the real owner, who was entitled to an Approved Permit (AP) when he served as the Arau MP between 1998 and 1999.

Every one of them has branded these accusations as part of some grand political conspiracy, pleading innocence and insisting they are virginal and pure instead.

But we are sure they will be okay, and they will continue to preach accountability and transparency, and possibly continue to look – invoking race, religion and God – to their faithful followers, who will readily give away their savings and, brave the rain and scorching sun to support them.

Malu Apa Bossku? Tatap Sokong Boss (as the Sabahans will say).

Monkey off its back

It is possible to get very close to the primates in Rwanda, but only when your ranger gives the all clear.

It is possible to get very close to the primates in Rwanda, but only when your ranger gives the all clear.

To avoid slipping on the proverbial banana skin by losing out on ecotourism revenue, Tourism Malaysia must first put its best foot forward.

I HAD never heard of Buhoma, a one-street village along the border of Uganda and Congo, until I visited the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in the north-eastern part of the sprawling forest to trek for gorillas.

The gorilla families living just behind this obscure village apart, nothing else there piqued my interest.

Not even the slight Pygmies – who average 155cm, or about five feet in height – or the more appropriately called Batwa people, living around the Buhoma village.

Well, perhaps one little interest – to learn how locals made gin from bananas. The brew is called Waragi, a name derived from “War Gin”, a tag earned by Ugandan soldiers who returned from World War II. They even have beer made from bananas.

Certainly, the banana is their staple. They eat bananas in all forms all through the day, with over 50 varieties to choose from.

When I asked my guide-driver, who endured an exhaustive day at the wheel, what he would be having for dinner, he broke into a big smile and said: “Boss, I am having bananas for dinner.”

The next day, I asked him what he had for breakfast, and again, it was the same facial expression and joy, and again, he repeated: “Boss, I had bananas for breakfast.”

At this point, he asked me, if Malaysia had bananas. I told him, of course we have bananas. I was also very tempted to tell him that Malaysia was in danger of becoming a banana republic if its politicians don’t stop monkeying around with its people’s money.

But I thought that would be too complicated to explain, and I also didn’t want to ruin my stay by relating the looting escapades of an infamous Malaysian fat boy.

What happened next surprised me.

“I know Malaysia! I love Cardiff!” – and I was stunned. We were standing in the middle of this God-forsaken village, with dust flung in the air every time a four-wheel vehicle drove past us on this untarred orange-coloured dirt road. And right there, he asks me about Malaysia because he has seen the word emblazoned on the jerseys of the Cardiff football team.

At this point, I whipped out my phone and sent him into a frenzy when I showed him a picture of me and Cardiff boss Tan Sri Vincent Tan, decked in the club’s jersey.

And he even knew Tan Sri Tony Fernandes, Queens Park Rangers and the Malaysia link. And all because of football.

Thanks to technology, he gets to watch most of the English Premier League matches, providing him in-depth knowledge of the people behind these clubs.

So, Malaysia is known around the world because of football, and Cardiff FC is not even in the top tier of the table. Malaysia may be hosting Visit Malaysia Year in 2020, but there’s not a single sen from Tourism Malaysia for the free publicity.

By now, EPL followers must have seen the “Visit Rwanda” tourist board logo all over the stadiums and for sure, on the sleeves of Arsenal players.

These are multi-million-ringgit deals, because for Rwanda, tourism is the biggest foreign exchange earner in the East African nation.

No doubt, president Paul Kagame’s £30m (RM158mil) sponsorship has come under fire from critics unfamiliar with Rwanda, those stuck in time with its impoverished history and images of the 1994 genocide.

But Rwanda has moved on, especially since its tourism industry offers lakeside resorts and walks with mountain gorillas. An expert estimates that a £30m investment could generate £300m (RM1.58bil) in new revenue.

The capital, Kigali, is regarded the safest and cleanest city in the entire African continent.

If airlines touching down at KLIA warn passengers about drug trafficking being a serious offence which carries the death sentence, in Rwanda, we were warned that the possession of plastic bags is an offence.

Plastic bags have been banned in Rwanda since 2008, and here in Malaysia, we are still shamefully struggling with doing away with it. Yet, many of us continue to think we are much better than Rwanda, at least environmentally.

Upon arrival, visitors see large signs which read: “Use of non-biodegradable polythene bags is prohibited”. And, of course, our luggage was dutifully searched.

Besides the government’s commitment, Rwanda is acutely aware that tourists visiting the country are likely to be environmentally conscious.

They are there to see the gorillas, and not skyscrapers or glitzy shopping malls.

Rwanda’s tourism is reportedly on an upward trajectory, earning US$438mil (RM2.3bil) in revenue in 2017, up from the US$404m (RM2.1bil) recorded in 2016.

The truth of the matter is, the EPL is the most-watched sports league in the world, broadcast in 212 territories to 643 million homes with a potential TV audience of 4.7billion people. That’s a staggering figure.

Another report has it that “an average game is watched by over 12 million people. With these astonishing numbers, the EPL has every right to call itself the most popular league in the world.

“In comparison, its closest rival, Spain’s La Liga, draws an average of just over 2 million fans per game.

“That league’s top two teams, Real Madrid and Barcelona, negotiate their own TV contracts since they are able to get more money from the global TV audiences than selling La Liga as a whole.

“Other top European national leagues also languish in comparison to the English league. Italy’s Serie A draws 4.5 million viewers for an average game and Germany’s Bundesliga is roughly 2 million viewers.”

In 2017, Tourism Malaysia was lambasted – and rightly so too – by Malaysians for selecting Barcelona striker Luis Suarez as its tourism ambassador.

It was a horribly bad decision, and until now, we still have no idea how much we paid this bad boy of football.

Adding insult to injury, the videos that accompanied Suarez were embarrassingly bad, too.

Then Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz defended the move, saying the star player’s social media status was undeniable.

“He has 25.3 million followers on Instagram, 18.9 million on Facebook and 12.4 million people following him on Twitter.”

“The statistics say that he is a popular player. We sometimes don’t understand how fans think. What is important is the statistics,” he explained.

Well, if statistics are important, why were Malaysians not privy to the ROI – return of investment – from the Suarez saga, and why the secret over how much taxpayers had to fork out for this footballer?

It’s very simple, if we are serious about getting tourists to come to Malaysia in 2020, we have to spend – wisely – and not pour into the pockets of crooks.

Even Rwanda understands that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys, and that big bananas are needed to get the world to see the gorillas. For us though, goreng pisang will get us nowhere.

Eight is (just about) enough

EIGHT CNY dilemmas of modern Malaysian families (but not widely talked about to preserve family harmony):

CNY reunion dinner outside

It’s not just a trend but has become a near necessity for CNY reunion dinners to be held at restaurants. Yes, traditionally, the CNY is a time to gather with loved ones, to catch up with one another and spend limited but quality time feasting on good home-cooked meals.

But more and more of such home dinners are no longer practical and instead, only good for CNY videos. The reality is that most family members feel it’s unfair to burden their ageing mothers to cook up a feast.

Most of the adult children, along with their spouses, are already too exhausted to help in the kitchen after the long journey home. The wives are also career spouses and for many, culinary skills are not high up in their resumes.

Then comes the uncomfortable part – watching to see which family members pitch in with doing the dishes. This is the contentious, if not resented moment, when long faces can easily prevail.

The more affluent will delegate the tasks to their maids, but those without such domestic help will end up at the sink, as part of the shared workload for those on the wrong side of the economy.

This is when the ears of their husbands burn red, complaints from their wives turning vicious while their poor siblings soak in the ire. Invariably, the obligatory threats of boycotting next year’s CNY reunion dinner will be rolled out.

So, to avoid a domestic squabble on the scale of a US-China trade feud and to preserve family harmony, and more significantly, to let the poor old matriarch enjoy her well-deserved rest, reunion dinners largely end up at hotels or their respective restaurants.

But like a bad or good CNY movie (depending on perspective), the show never ends without the entire clan expecting the newly well-heeled son to pay for these lavish dinners. Well, he has done well mah, he should pay for the CNY dinner lah. He paid so much income tax already, pay for dinners can die meh?

Putting up at the family home – no negotiation!

You may be a billionaire Tan Sri, but come CNY, your parents expect you to stay at the family home with all your siblings and their children. Don’t even think of staying at a hotel – more so if you originate from a sleepy hollow New Village in some obscure district. A simple budget hotel nearby may not even exist!

Putting up in a three-bedroom home with six or more siblings and their kids will be a Team Building exercise you never signed up for.

Don’t even whisper, and I mean whisper, about the bedrooms not being air conditioned, even if the seasonal stifling heat can be excruciating. The zinc-roofed new village dwelling isn’t exactly the best home stay, but wah, now complain so much.

“Last time, can stay in new village home, but now rich already in KL, want air condition. Action already, mah” – that’s the kind of remarks that will be unleashed if you aren’t careful with your behaviour. Sensitive. Sensitive. Sensitive.

Or worse!

“Oh, now got money already. Cannot stay in the house anymore. Must stay in hotel. Only show face during dinner and after that cabut. Home not good enough for him already.”

Whoa! That’s even more piercing than a callous remark.

But it’s a good CNY practice – never ever forget your humble roots, and your parents who put you where you are now.

How much should an ang pow be?

“Ah Pa, how much angpow money you gave *******? How come your brother gave me only RM10? RM10 can do what? Some more, I am the only child mah.”

Gulp. How to reply? Quick, think fast. Preserve the peace.

“Ah Boy, don’t compare lah. It isn’t how much. It doesn’t matter. It’s tradition. Just smile and say thank you. Never compare, ok? Good. You listen to Ah Pa, good boy! “

Ah Boy is, however, still upset and can’t comprehend his father’s logic or noble efforts at maintaining family harmony.

But that’s when the spanner gets thrown in the works with the wife wading into the debate.

“Dear ah, why is your brother like that one? We give his son RM50 and he gave our boy only RM10. What is this? Every year also like this. Last year, he blamed GST. Now, he blames SST.”

To keep the crockery on the shelves and not airborne, there are times it’s best that no words are uttered, especially when facing a losing battle. Well, that’s what Sun Tzu says in the Art of War, and he specifically insisted that in a war with wives, the husbands can never ever win.

Recycled CNY hampers

Abalone from CNY hampers are to be kept while the “fake abalones” – limpets and clams – which are just aquatic snails, will have to be redirected elsewhere. And what is this “clams in brine”? Australians, Kiwis and South Africans must take us for idiots because brine in simple English means high concentration of salt. And not some expensive, high quality XO sauce made from dried scallops.

Abalone mushroom. That’s not abalone lah. Give away.

Please give away all the sugar stuff “wah, no more carbonated water, no more cans of longan and lychee in syrup water for CNY this year. All very health conscious. No sugar please, ok?”

But never mind, keep the good wines. I know, wine also has high sugar content but keep, keep, keep. Expensive stuff. Yes, yes, I promise I won’t drink. Ya ya ya, don’t nag lah, I know high sugar level, but wines are expensive. Don’t give it away.

And make sure, don’t give away the whiskey. Whiskey doesn’t have sugar. I Google already. Confirmed no sugar lah.

Pointless reunion with ex-classmates

CNY is always a good time to reconnect with former school mates. It’s an occasion to reminisce on our formative years. The cheeky, naughty times in school, disappearing acts, school yard fights, girl friends from the school next door, the Boy Scout days of dating Girl Guides, losing battles against zits, raging hormones, the copying (er… cheating) during exams, and many other school day misadventures.

The only problem with such meetings, though, is that some of us haven’t grown up, incredibly, behaving and talking like the childish Fifth Formers we once were. And of course, there are also plenty of episodes we will now choose to forget, deny or blame on the misrepresentation of facts.

For those of us who believe we are still young, we can’t help but notice how we’re kidding ourselves.

The receding hairlines of our friends (some now grandfathers), a few after their second divorce and facing the pain of paying alimony, or the couple or so in jail or waiting to be jailed despite their brilliance (which unfortunately led them down a dark path) are sobering reminders of life’s many pains. Quite a few of them have, sadly, even “checked into” Batu Gantong in Penang or Semenyih in Selangor.

“Aiyo passed way already?”

It’s just too much to hear and see, all within the three-hour dinner.

Or worse, to hear this:

“Wah, your girlfriend in school, remember or not? So damn hot leh. But I checked her FB, now very fat already. Very aunty. I show you.”

That came from a former school mate who is himself fat and very “uncle”.

And despite the myth that single people, especially women, are queried at family CNY gatherings and school reunions, the true question is usually – “Wah, you marry again!” and not “why are you still not married?”

The “Professor Dr Feng Shui Master” at every CNY

Call me cynical, but I can’t understand why so many Feng Shui masters call themselves professors and doctors. No one knows, and they themselves probably don’t know they are identified as professors, or what doctoral thesis they undertook to earn themselves these titles. It seems that tags like master or sifu aren’t good enough.

There’s no escaping – they seem to be relentlessly interviewed by the media.

It’s always the Prof Dr Uncle, and sometimes these days, Aunty, talking about the year’s prospects for each zodiac sign. I’d like to hear one of them say that we will all make plenty of money this year, the profits will be insanely high, the stock markets will go 100% bullish, and that we should invest in property because Bank Negara will relax housing loan rules. I’d also like to hear about how Donald Trump is crazy about Chinese food and not burgers, and that I will not have to continue to labour like an ox, which is coincidentally (and conveniently) my zodiac sign.

The bragging family member

This is the worst of the family lineage. This is the person who talks loudly (completely unsolicited) about his overseas trips on cruises in the seven, or even eight seas.

He’s the one who waxes lyrical about his business acumen, foray into fintech, cryptocurrency and block chain technology, which the rest of us are too idiotic to understand, thus revealing that we earn less than him, or so it’s made to seem.

He wonders why so many of us kill ourselves in universities while he manages with a Form Three education – and is now hiring MBA scholars to think and work for him to make his pile while we forever remain cautious and doomed as the urban, poor middle-class Malaysians.

Are the CNY holidays over yet? Two days only, right? Must go back to KL soon, mother!

Fatt! Fatt! Huat ah! Huat ah!

Everything must be good during the CNY. Every fruit, every wish, every colour, every dish, every drink must be associated with prosperity and luck. That’s what the CNY celebrations are all about, and at every Yee Sang tossing, we make the same wishes.

That’s all every Chinese does, a phenomenon not just restricted to these parts, but synonymous with any part of the Chinese world across the globe.

The number 8 is infinitely important because it has a similar pronunciation, whether in Mandarin or Cantonese, with wealth or fortune. This number is very welcome for the Chinese, and certainly a good way to conclude this week’s article.

These are the CNY celebrations, and it is surely auspicious to end with point No 8 for prosperity reasons, and also, I’m scratching the bottom of the barrel for witty ideas here.

The characters and situations above are fictitious and merely meant to tickle the funny bone. Any resemblance to any persons (living or dead that’s what it says at the end of movies, right?) or situations is purely coincidental. It’s also designed to reflect the wit and humour of CNY. Apologies in advance if these reflections cause indigestion, mental trauma or physical discomfort – they were not by design, but by accident.

Here’s wishing everyone Keong Hee Huat Chye, in true Penang tradition, so that northern Hokkien is kept alive and kicking!

Rumble in the jungle of Sabah

Danum Valley has the world’s largest concentration of orangutans. — Photos: WONG CHUN WAI.

It’s a terrible shame, really. Almost every Malaysian from the peninsula that I speak to has never heard of Danum Valley in Sabah, and many of the Sabahans that I know have sheepishly confessed that they’ve never stepped into this 130 million-year-old jungle (by contrast, the Amazon jungle is only 60 million years old).

And yet, Danum Valley is a world-famous forest site which has been dubbed Malaysia’s wildest and most untouched jungle paradise.

It is an undisputed piece of treasure – not just to Malaysia, but the world. The trees there are incredibly tall and old, some as tall as a seven-storey building, earning them the reputation of “skyscrapers of the forest”.

The sprawling dipterocarp forest sits in a very secluded part of the country, safe from harm’s way (hopefully).

Dipterocarp forests are lowlands which are densely covered with many plant species – at least 240 different tree species can grow within a one-hectare space.

My fascination with Danum Valley – roughly the size of Singapore – began when I first set foot in Lahad Datu in 2013, where the forest can be found.

Lahad Datu is in the Tawau division. It’s an hour’s flight from Kota Kinabalu, some 400km away.

I arrived there to join my Sabahan colleagues to cover the intrusion of heavily armed militants from the Philippines who took over the village of Kg Tanduo.

Suddenly, I was put through the paces of a quick geography lesson about a part of Malaysia that was alien to me.

While I was familiar with major ethnic groups in Sabah, such as the Kadazan, I had to read up about the lesser-known ethnic groups that exist in Malaysia, like Bisaya, Murut, Dumpas, Illanun, Kwijau, Maragang, Orang Cocos, Orang Sungai, Rungus and of course, Tausug, or the Suluks.

But along the way, I also found that close by was the 43,800ha Danum Valley Conservation Area, where one could stumble on pygmy elephants, Sumatran rhinoceros, orangutan, sun bears, clouded leopards, gibbons, wild boars, mouse deer, flying squirrels, proboscis monkeys, the Borneo tarantula, and over 270 species of birds, including hornbills and even argus pheasants.

At Danum Valley, visitors can spot a fair share of gibbons.

A year earlier, in 2012, Britain’s Prince William and his wife Catherine Middleton (fondly known as Kate) made Danum Valley world famous when they visited the place, where he also met 25 researchers and Oxford University undergraduates at the Field Centre Laboratory.

I told myself then that I would one day trek into the jungles of Danum Valley and see these fascinating animals for myself.

Finally, in September 2017, I began my adventure in the best of Borneo’s rainforest, as well as the site of a world-class ecological research facility.

I flew from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu and then boarded a connecting flight to Lahad Datu. From Lahad Datu, it took another two to three hours of driving along 81km of logging roads, which become uneven and muddy when it rains.

Arrangements were made for my accommodation at Danum Valley, where visitors are limited, and vehicles require a permit from the Lahad Datu office to enter the jungle. Despite the bureaucracy involved, I wasn’t complaining. In fact, I was delighted because it meant the jungles would be better preserved with such restrictions, meaning, travellers who came to Danum Valley were genuine eco-travellers.

Although it was difficult to reach Danum Valley, the trip marked the beginning of a new life for me. I had always considered myself the ultimate city man, but the journey changed me completely. For the first time, I fell in love with the jungle. Never mind that it was leech-infested.

The early morning mist that hangs above the valley as the sun rises above the canopy of trees is an experience not to be missed.

It was a baptism of fire somewhat, but one I willingly embraced. I saw orangutan almost every day during my four-day stay there. After all, Danum Valley has the world’s largest concentration of these primates.

The guides had a name for every single one of them, including a few with Japanese names, since they were discovered by Japanese scientists.

For the first time, I learnt that there was such a thing as Borneo tarantulas. I have watched countless movies on these famous and huge creepy crawlies, but never knew our east Malaysian jungles were home to some of them.

They are regarded “moderately dangerous” and according to a report, the Borneo black tarantula is an arachnid native to the jungles of Borneo.

“Borneo black tarantulas are one of the largest arboreal tarantulas in the world; arboreal means that they live in trees instead of on the ground,” the report said.

Regarded elusive, I was very lucky to spot this giant spider and capture it on film, despite the darkness of the jungles.

And I never ever imagined being fascinated by a colourful insect known as the lantern fly, to the point that I would return to KL and spend hours online researching this beauty.

The colourful lantern fly is simply fascinating.

I also stumbled upon a bearded wild boar near my lodge, which was rummaging on leftovers near the staff quarters. It gave me such an unfriendly look that I knew I had to retreat.

When darkness fell and my eyes began to adjust to the blackness of night, I saw thousands upon thousands of fireflies dancing away. Tilting my head further up to gaze at the clear skies, I saw countless twinkling stars.

For most of us who have stayed in KL for too long, we barely get to see the sky clearly, what with the atmospheric and light pollution that plagues the place we call home.

However, what I saw in the evenings there was pure heaven, and a reminder of God’s significance and his creations. It was at Danum Valley that I was reminded of His greatness and the inconsequentiality and smallness of us all.

From the veranda of my lodge, overlooking a flowing river, I saw a herd of deer walking gracefully past us one evening.

And each morning, it was glorious to be greeted by the early morning mist which hangs above the valley as the enormous sun rises above the canopy of trees.

As I gazed at this heavenly sight, I heard the loud chatter of gibbons signalling their presence, amid the symphony of thousands of insects.

I also took a trek to look for an ancient burial site at a steep cliff, where I saw a 200-year-old ancient coffin said to belong to a tribal chief.

On a trek, the writer saw a 200-year-old ancient coffin that is said to belong to a tribal chief. — FLORENCE TEH

On higher ground, I saw a small coffin of a child, and lying beside the coffin was a skeleton and a pile of old human bones.

What an incredible journey it was. When I finally drove out of the mystical jungle into Lahad Datu town, on my last day of the journey, I was greeted by two orangutans, as if to wrap up my excursion.

For the first time, I felt emotional having to say goodbye to these wonderful animals in Lahad Datu, all of whom were intrumental in making my stay an unforgettable one.

It was even sadder that my wife and I were the only other Malaysian couple at Danum Valley – the rest of the visitors were from the United States and Europe.

But I promised myself, and the orangutan, that I will return to Danum Valley soon enough to get another dose of soul nourishment.

Feeling lost in Penang

Children admiring a Hokkien glove puppet theatre performing ‘Journey to the West’ on a portable wooden stage at the Little Penang Street Market.

Its decline has been progressive, but Penang’s Hokkien heritage is at its closest to death’s door as 2019 takes off.

LAST week, I returned to my hometown, Penang, to celebrate Chinese New Year. The family reunion meal with my father (who turns 94 this year) and (87-year-old) mother is an annual event I always look forward to.

It’s not possible to have my brothers (now in their mid-60s to 70 years old), their wives, children and grandchildren with us at the family event every time, but we get as many of them as we can. I have made it a point to host these pre-CNY meals because for the last few years, I have avoided being in Penang during the first two days of the actual celebrations.

That’s when Penang island’s roads get choked up and traffic comes to a complete standstill, the city desperately dealing with the homecoming of Penangites and tourists, especially during the second day of CNY.

The temperature on the island during the CNY season always seems to spike and at times, the scorching heat is almost unbearable. And that’s another reason why I withdraw from the otherwise lovely island during this festive period. As much as I yearn for my Penang hawker fare, I don’t want to jostle for a plate of char koay teow with tourists. But on this recent trip home, it hit me that I have become a stranger in my proud Hokkien-speaking island. The loss of the distinct northern-accented Hokkien has been apparent in the last few years but now it looks like its death may come sooner than feared.

It’s worse for a “banana” like me – a term to denote a person of Chinese origin who can’t speak or write Chinese, and instead, identifies more with Western culture. The term is derived from the fruit, which is “yellow on the outside, white on the inside”.

Those like me are regarded a disgrace to the Chinese-speaking community because I can’t read or write Chinese or speak Mandarin.

Their horror turns to disgust when I confess that I can’t even write my name in Chinese.

My decade of education was at St Xavier’s Institution, a Catholic establishment, and despite the religious background of the premier school, it had a liberal and open- minded culture that moulded most of its students, and this, us former students are enormously grateful for and proud of.

The multi-ethnic mix of the school’s population also means we had real friends from all races, developed and tested over a decade. So we always felt sorry for those who studied in Chinese, Tamil or Islamic-based schools then, because we felt their set up was mono-ethnic. And no matter how much the products of these schools claim they had friends from other races, we know they didn’t have the deep ties or bonds that those of us in English-medium schools developed.

Fast forward to 2019! Just like The Last Of The Mohicans – the James Fenimore Cooper historical novel realised in the 1992 movie about the last members of the dying Native American tribe, the Mohicans – it dawned on me last week that I could well be among the Last Of The Bananas in Malaysia.

At the Air Itam wet market, I asked for the price of the thee kuih, or kuih bakul, in Hokkein and the stall keeper, in turn, replied: “Oh, nee yau (you want) nian gao.”

A few steps away, another trader was loudly hawking ang pow packets, which, in previous times, would be referred to as “ang pow long” (red packets), but this time, I was hearing “hong bao feng”.

By the time I sat down at a coffee shop, the waiter was already taking down my order, again, in Mandarin, and quoting prices in that language, too. It was no longer “kopi” but “ka fei” now.

If there’s one clear feature that separates Penangites from the rest of the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, it has always been the melodious Hokkien, with its rich sprinkling of Malay words that reveals its nonya-baba linguistic roots.

Penangites – at least from the older generation – are fiercely proud of their Hokkien, as it completely differs from the one spoken in Singapore, Taiwan or Xiamen in China, and even that in Melaka or Johor. Call us smug, snooty or parochial but we sometimes dismiss the Hokkien spoken elsewhere as somewhat crass and unrefined.

Only the Hokkien spoken by the Chinese in Medan closely mirrors Penang Hokkien, presumably because of the proximity between the island and the Indonesian city.

Whether rightly or wrongly, or plainly out of ignorance, Penangites feel the sing-song delivery is easier on the ears.

Words such as balai (police station), balu (just now), bangku (stool), batu (stone), cilaka/celaka (damn it), campur (to mix), jamban (toilet), gatai/gatal (itchy) gili/geli (creepy), sabun (soap) and kesian (pity), are an integral part of the Penang Hokkien dialect.

If the person is not from Penang, then he or she is likely from Kedah, Perlis or Taiping in Perak, to be able to converse in the northern-accented Hokkien. Which brings me to my point: As the daily use of the dialect is rapidly being replaced by Mandarin, I am feeling the impact the most. It is worse for the “bananas” who are feeling lost and out of place – in their home town.

It doesn’t help that many of the present Penang state and federal leaders aren’t from Penang, having been born and raised in either Melaka, Johor or Selangor.

The Penang Monthly bulletin, in its May 2017 issue, dramatically headlined the situation: “Penang Hokkien on life support”.

In an interview with the publication, Penang Hokkien Language Association secretary Ooi Kee How lamented that “our creativity, our cultural identity, will decline. A lot of innovations will disappear, because different languages shape the way we think differently.”

But the wide use of Mandarin and the decline of the dialects is not just endemic to Penang. Cantonese is spoken less in the Klang Valley, too, and is suffering the same sad fate as northern Hokkien. The random stranger who calls up, irritatingly “inviting” us to take up a loan having been “specially selected”, speaks to me in Mandarin because it’s assumed I can speak the language since I have a Chinese name. Likewise, the sales staff who stops us at the shopping mall also speaks to me in Mandarin, likely led by the same deduction.

So, as a “banana” who thinks and dreams in English, I am starting to suffer from anxiety. I am embarrassed by my inability to communicate in an important language – with huge economic value – and worse, the national language of my ancestral country.

At the rate, the Chinese language is being used, even by non-Chinese, I fear that I will be regarded illiterate in future. “Bananas” in the past ridiculed and mocked the Chinese-educated for not being able to speak English sufficiently, or roll their tongues well enough to produce the “r” sound, but now, it looks like the tables have turned on the “bananas”, instead.

A whole generation of Malaysian Chinese has been educated in Chinese schools, at least at primary level. It has been widely reported, from various surveys, that up to 90% of Chinese parents send their children to Chinese primary schools, and the balance to national medium schools.

As I have written here before, this is unlike the experience of the older generation of Penangites like me, now in their 50s, who attended schools using English as a medium of instruction. In the absence of Mandarin, we spoke mainly Hokkien and English, but people in their 30s and 40s are more comfortable conversing in Mandarin, and certainly not English.

Then there is the huge impact of Chinese TV shows, especially on Astro. They are entirely in Mandarin – with shows from mainland China and Taiwan – and Hokkien, which is spoken in a manner closer to that used in Melaka, Johor and Singapore.

It’s no surprise that the sales staff at malls also expect the Chinese community to speak Mandarin, and understandably, they will begin the conversation in Mandarin – because you are expected to know the language.

There is also the impact of China as the new economic powerhouse of Asia, if not the world. Mandarin has become the dominant language with economic value, and certainly prestige. That’s how it is now, but this may well come at the expense of a rich heritage.

The harsh reality is that the unique “sing-song” style of Penang Hokkien might no longer be heard decades from now if this frightening trend continues. Even worse, what’s certain is that the “bananas” will be history very soon.

Well, what can I say, except to wish you “xin nian kwai le” (happy new year) and “gong xi fa cai” (may you attain greater wealth) this festive season!

Kicking up a fuss over a dance

I am finding it hard to comprehend the brouhaha over the episode where Attorney General Tommy Thomas, Chief Justice Tan Sri Richard Malanjum and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Liew Vui Keong, who is in charge of law, danced at a recent law fraternity dinner.

What’s the fuss here? So there were several officers from the legal fraternity and their fellow lawyers doing the fun and infectious twist at their own private party.

As one lawyer posted cheekily over social media – if there is any complaint, it should be their bad dance moves.

If I may add, there doesn’t seem to be any political or legal twists to their dancing. They looked like they were having a good time. Period.

The controversy erupted simply because of the political divide and conflicting values.

We have the pro-Umno and Islamist lawyers waving the conservative religious flags, admonishing such display of emotion – in this case, dancing – which in their narrow minds is something that must be forbidden. But let’s not forget where we are. This is not Afghanistan or Iran.

Last week, a video clip of the three dancing at the gala dinner, hosted by the Sabah Law Society in conjunction with the Opening of Legal Year 2019 in Kota Kinabalu went viral.

The clip also showed activist lawyers Siti Kasim and Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan dancing to the classic Chubby Checker 1960s hit Let’s Twist Again.

Umno vice-president Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri said it was not wrong to dance but having all of them dance on the same stage could bring about a negative perception.

He noted that the Judiciary was supposed to be “exclusive” and its members should not be seen associating or having an external relationship with others.

Umno Youth chief Datuk Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki described the incident as “an embarrassment to the judicial and legal institutions of this country”.

He said those who are part of the country’s judicial and legal institutions, particularly judges, should be sensitive in their social interactions.

Another prominent lawyer, my non-Malay friend, expressed his displeasure to me, saying the British Bar would certainly not have approved of such dancing, saying they would probably endorsed only “ballroom dancing”.

With all due respect, I wonder how many of the Bar members could take part in ballroom dancing.

And seriously, why should our poor lawyers put up with pretentious, elitist, colonial inherited stiff-upper-lip aloofness or neo-Taliban influences at Malaysian Bar dinners, where any form of music and dancing are banned?

Critics who cried foul over the dance episode claimed that all the fraternising has tarnished the image of the Judiciary, with some politicians describing it as unethical, calling for the resignation of the judges to maintain the good name of the Judiciary.

Of course, many of these holier-than-thou, hypocritical lawyers and politicians did not ask their party leaders about ethics when they were looting off millions of ringgit from the people.

One or two argued that “this could be seen as having an influence on the judgments they make in court”.

If there is one thing I agree with Ismail is his remark that “judges are not angels, they are humans who can sometimes be influenced by friendships and other relationships”.

And that comes to the point: Some of the actions of top court officials in the past have raised suspicion especially in their political biasness and at times, even religious beliefs, which have raised questions over their decisions.

They were so powerful at one time that the public is expected to just accept their decisions, and many of us are afraid to openly criticise the judgments for fear of committing contempt of court.

There has even been complaints of corruption, or gratification, involving court officials such as judges, judicial officers and deputy public prosecutors, made to the MACC. In 2009, there were 39 complaints but the numbers dwindled subsequently.

There have been ministers of law and AGs, who were accused of taking political orders (rightly or wrongly) at the expense of the country’s interests – and none of us remember any episode with them dancing!

Perhaps they danced away to the tune of their political bosses, in private, which has resulted in greater political twists.

Looking at the Judges’ Code of Ethics 2009, Section 8 (1), a judge shall ensure that his extra-judicial activities do not cast reasonable doubt on his capacity to act impartially as a judge; or interfere with the proper performance of his judicial duties.

(2) A judge shall avoid close association with individual members of the legal profession, particularly those who practise in the judge’s court, where such association might give rise to a reasonable suspicion or appearance of favouritism.

(3) A judge shall refrain from any conduct as a member of any group, association or any organisation or participate in any public discussion, which, in the mind of a reasonable person, may undermine confidence in the judge’s impartiality with respect to any issue pending before the court.

Without doubt, our judges, especially the Chief Justice, need to conduct themselves with proper decorum, but none of the above protocols fit into what transpired at last week’s Bar dinner in Sabah.

We should be more worried if our judges regularly spend time with lawyers or top businessmen at golf courses or in the privacy of cigar smoke-filled rooms.

In 2010, the Detroit Legal News reported that judges took part in a sold-out “Dancing With The Judges” fundraiser, organised by the Macomb County Bar Foundation, the charitable affiliate of the Macomb County Bar Association, and there are many of such dancing events.

Legendary US Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg has even invited TV host Stephen Colbert for a workout at the gym for a show.

Let’s not get too excited with our judicial officials dancing to the tune of Chubby Checker’s evergreen hit song. We should only be worried if they get tempted to dance to the tunes and caprices of ruling politicians.

Let the cash registers ring

IT’S less than three weeks to the Chinese New Year, but the consensus feels there is less festive excitement in the air, and that, for most of our country folk, simply means money is tight.

Ordinary Malaysians feel they don’t have enough to spend, yet most are pleased that they still have jobs. Their bosses are unlikely to be generous with increments, and in many cases, there are no bonuses even. Employers are struggling to achieve their targets as they grapple with last year’s poor financial results, and the seemingly bleak start to the first month of 2019.

The ringgit remains weak, causing operating costs to shoot up for many companies which need to settle their debts for materials purchased in US dollars. Previously, in a limp economy, the country could depend on crude oil and palm oil’s yield, but both are now down, and this has put Malaysia in a tight spot. Against this backdrop, we have a new government struggling to keep its operations intact as it tries to reconcile with the insanely huge amount of money stolen.

Four months from now, the Pakatan Harapan government will turn a year old. The perception, rightly or wrongly, is that the Prime Minister is single-handedly managing the country, and that the learning curve has been rather steep for many ministers, resulting in slow progress.

A few ministers, in the eyes of the people, aren’t performing as expected or seem slotted in the “wrong” ministerial portfolios. A couple, or perhaps more, are still fearful of meeting the media, the assumption made that they lack confidence in responding to questions, especially with portfolios technical in nature. It doesn’t help that some aloof ministers refuse to seek the support of their long-serving secretary-generals, foolishly thinking they know better.

And of course, certain ministers are still in opposition mode, evidenced by their body language and sarcastic remarks – which smack of arrogance – at press conferences and meetings. They prefer to discredit their political opponents, and even members of the media, forgetting that the general election is long over. These are the unfortunate ones who haven’t moved on and have failed to rally the civil servants and media to move forward. Everything must be seen through a political prism, and they live in the make-belief world of political agendas and shadows.

Patience is running thin, especially with the economy not chugging along well enough. After all, no good news on the economy seems to be in sight, and it doesn’t help that some of us are defensive about it. Ministers can talk about inherited problems for a while, but come May, few of us will still pay attention to the repeated rhetoric.

The World Bank recently forecasted Malaysia’s RM1.41 trillion economy to grow at 4.7% this year, and to slow down to 4.6% next year. In its January 2019 Global Economic Prospects report titled “Darkening Skies”, the World Bank reported that Malaysia’s lower public investment is weighing on growth, reflecting the completion of several infrastructure projects and a more prudent approach with new ones.

In contrast to the regional trend, import growth in Malaysia has been weak, mirroring flagging demand for capital goods imports combined with lower imports of intermediate goods, the bank said.

The report also highlighted Malaysia’s pockets of vulnerabilities, including high levels of public and private debt, external debt, and foreign participation in local-currency sovereign bond markets. Adding insult to injury, the cost of rising import tariffs may be magnified by Malaysia’s involvement in complex global value chains.

Externally, the World Bank report noted global economic growth is projected to soften from a downwardly revised 3% in 2018 to 2.9% in 2019, amid rising downside risks to the outlook. Growth among advanced economies is expected to drop to 2% this year.

Slowing external demand, rising borrowing costs, and persistent policy uncertainties are likely to weigh in on the outlook for emerging market and developing economies, said the report. And many of us are praying that 76-year-old Jim Rogers, the influential fund manager and commentator, is completely wrong with his prophecy of a crash that will be “the biggest in my lifetime.”

Unfortunately, in Malaysia, there is a lack of focus. We still spend hours upon hours of unproductive time, especially on social media, speculating on divisive political gossip and their relevant personalities. Our country’s greatest challenge this year is having unwavering focus on the economy, because we need to deal with economic reforms and propel our financial growth.

There is an urgent need to realign our energy and set a clear direction and commit to economic openness. Right now, not many of us can tell which economic sectors should be key revenue streams, or how the government and private sectors can work together to identify these essential areas. We need a shake-up pronto.

The Council of Eminent Persons has carried out preliminary work, and the time has come for Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to set up a council involving all the stakeholders, accelerate the economy, brave the incoming storms and take us on a leap to the next step. It doesn’t matter if it’s not called the National Economic Advisory Council: what we need is an institution that can put national interest above the narrow-vested interests of politicians, and, help make recommendations to our leaders.

The government must be seen putting things in order, and it needs all the help it can get from Malaysians. It can’t only draw from the experiences of Dr Mahathir and Tun Daim Zainuddin, while novice ministers await divine intervention.

Certain ministries, for example, are revenue earners, so they need to engage more with the private sector and media to galvanise their plans. A case in point, Visit Malaysia Year is next year, but is the world aware of our great welcome, if there even is one? Forget the foreigners, do we even know about this big event, especially with it likely involving all Malaysians as ambassadors?

From the Home Ministry instructing immigration officers to stop frowning and start smiling, to the local authorities keeping the cities sparkling clean, all of us must be a part of it. These are low hanging fruits, and, even the Health Ministry can be involved in attracting medical tourists. But are we still pegged back by archaic laws that forbid advertisement by doctors, while a neighbour like Thailand has long progressed beyond us?

There is a real problem – unclear leadership, fear and indecision – but Malaysians must band together to ride through these choppy waters. The reality is that the economy has always been the fulcrum of politics and its focus is a key criterion on how the government runs the country. We need to present optimism and positivity in our narratives, because we have plenty of good stories to tell the world about why they must come to Malaysia. Please visit us and see for yourselves what a fabulous country we are.

Of course, this doesn’t mean ignoring 1MDB’s problems because they are colossal and can’t be settled in mere months. Fugitive financier Jho Low is still at large, but our government is trying to regain some of the losses he incurred. In the end, it’s the pockets of the voters that matter. American political strategist James Carville, during the 1992 presidential campaign for Bill Clinton, aptly coined the now infamous phrase – “It’s the economy, stupid.”