Author Archives: wcw

The royalty and Dr Mahathir

THE Council of the Royal Court in Selangor is more than a feudalistic, ceremonial body. Headed by His Royal Highness the Sultan of Selangor, it is, in fact, a relevant and powerful panel which advises him on virtually all issues.

The role and function of the 19-member body is to aid and advise Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah in exercising his role. The panel comprises his son (Selangor Raja Muda Tengku Amir Shah Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah), the royal members, the elders and the Mentri Besar.

One of its members is Jen Tan Sri Hashim Mohamed Ali – brother-in-law of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

The decision of the former premier to return two awards conferred by the Sultan has put Hashim in an embarrassing spot. More humiliatingly, his sister, Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali, also handed her awards back.

Dr Mahathir was the recipient of two medals of honour – one in 1978 from then Selangor Sultan and the other from the current Ruler in 2003. On Thursday, Hashim, along with the rest of the panel, joined Tuanku to participate in an Air Doa Selamat ceremony at Istana Bukit Kayangan in Shah Alam.

The ceremony, ahead of Tuanku’s birthday, had just ended at 4pm when a representative showed up at the palace to return the awards on behalf of Dr Mahathir.

In the words of an eyewitness, it was “neatly packed” with an accompanying letter from a long-time private secretary who had served him since his days as Prime Minister.

The surprising spectacle, to put it bluntly, went down badly with most members of the Royal Court. Hashim, in the eyes of some members, though blameless, was still apologetic.

Dr Mahathir’s decision to return the awards came shortly after the Ruler publicly expressed his unhappiness with Dr Mahathir over the latter’s comments about the Bugis being “pirates”.

In an interview with The Star, the Sultan had also remarked that Dr Mahathir suffered from “inferiority complex” and that the former PM would only “burn down the whole country” with his deep hatred.

They were strong words indeed. However, Dr Mahathir was expected to merely accept the remarks and criticism in good faith as advice from a highly respected Ruler, and not end up sulking like he did.

The Sultan of Selangor is among the most senior Rulers and he was clearly expressing the sentiments of his fellow Sultans.

That itself is a vital point – that all nine Rulers shared a stand against Dr Mahathir’s actions and this wasn’t the sentiment of merely one.

“This is the concern of all Malay Rulers. The nine of us,” said the Sultan of Selangor, referencing the misuse of race and religion ahead of the general election.

Dr Mahathir is not the first person to return honours awarded by Selangor, as erroneously reported by certain factions of the media.

In 2011, former Selangor Mentri Besar, Dr Mohamed Khir Toyo, “temporarily” returned the state award, which carries the title “Datuk Seri”, following his corruption charge. And when he was convicted in 2015, the title was altogether withdrawn by the Sultan.

Dr Mahathir’s returning of the awards has won him the admiration of his supporters, including those who have backed him from day one, along with those who once detested him but now lauding his switch to the Opposition bandwagon.

Then, there are those who feel that Dr Mahathir has, once again, crossed the line. The first time was when he sat next to DAP strongman Lim Kit Siang to begin the Opposition pact.

To the Malay voters in the rural heartland, it is something they find difficult to comprehend, especially after he spent his entire political career labelling the DAP racists and extremists.

The coming general election will be a test to see how much the majority of Malay voters are prepared to accept these dramatic and radical changes in the Opposition’s bid to bring down the Najib administration.

But his fellow Opposition leaders are certainly unsure. Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, who is now in DAP, sent out a tweet urging the Sultan “to be careful with his words. No one is immune when the country burns”.

Truth be told, it sounded like a warning to Tuanku. And certainly, to rebut a Sultan in such an uncouth manner is not ingrained in Malay values, culture or psyche.

Zaid found it surprising that no one, at least publicly, was ready to join or defend him, attested to by his tweet later that he felt alone in his crusade.

In fact, Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Azmin Ali called for an explanation and demanded Zaid to take responsibility for his statement, while DAP’s top brass distanced themselves from his indiscretion.

No one being prepared to rebuke royalty speaks volumes of how sensitive it is perceived for a politician to take on or feud with them.

Dr Mahathir’s brashness is well-known, but the difference this time around is that he is no longer in Umno. He is now in the Opposition.

He needs all the support he can get, and antagonising the Rulers may not be the best way to help the Opposition’s cause. The Sultan of Johor has no love lost for Dr Mahathir, and His Majesty has openly made his stand known. Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar also said he was hurt by the remarks of Dr Mahathir on the Bugis community.

And don’t forget that His Majesty carries plenty of respect and influence in Johor, a state eyed by the Opposition, especially Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, of which Dr Mahathir is chairman.

But that’s not the end of his problems either. The 92-year-old politician has offered himself to be an “interim Prime Minister” but no one has responded because PKR, DAP and Amanah probably have Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in mind, should Pakatan Harapan win.

There is no doubt that Dr Mahathir’s name continues to resonate with many sections of the Malay community, especially among the older ones. After all, for the longest time, he was the only PM they knew, with him at the helm for 22 years.

No one can erase what he has done to build Malaysia into a modern nation. He made Malaysians proud. But at the same time, his iron-fisted and authoritative rule continues to leave an unpleasant taste, a legacy of his time in charge.

It is also a fact that Dr Mahathir left an indelible impression on Malaysia history, so much so foreigners are often heard uttering his name in awe when we say we are Malaysians. No one can dispute his great work.

But the challenge for him now, in his twilight years, is to see if Malaysians are prepared to let him lead the country again.

Even for those who would vote for the opposition, they find the thought illogical. Dr Mahathir’s problem has always been his inability to let go.

He wanted Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to implement things his way, and he expected the same of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

Dr Mahathir has given the impression that only he has exacting standards, therefore, he has to be left to run the show, again.

None of his deputies when he was PM, like Tun Musa Hitam and Anwar, could work well with him.

Only the late Tun Ghafar Baba did but that’s probably because he did not see the mild-mannered Ghafar as a threat.

For practical reasons, the Opposition, which is unable to galvanise the battle in the absence of Anwar, see Dr Mahathir as a useful ally. But should Pakatan Harapan win, a fresh round of feuds will surely surface.

If there is an important lesson here for politicians, whether those in office, aspiring to be elected, or returning from retirement, it is this – leaders come and go, but Rulers remain. Dr Mahathir has learnt the consequence of putting them down previously.

The present Rulers were merely Raja Muda and Tengku Mahkota when Dr Mahathir, who was prime minister then, removed the legal immunity of the royalty in an amendment to the Federal Constitution in 1993. But now, they appear to be striking back.

Istana Bukit Kayangan, to where Dr Mahathir returned the medals, was once stripped of police sentries, guards and outriders, to humiliate Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah.

In a picture of failing fortunes with cut budgets, the roof of the palace, at one time, leaked, too, the carpet getting soiled in the process.

And like most things in life, things have come full circle, and in the past 20 years, the roles seem to have changed.

A living legend from Guangdong

From the land of Sun Yat Sen and Ip Man, a new giant has emerged; one who has changed the face of real estate in China and other countries. 

THERE are a few legendary figures in Guangdong, the coastal province of southeast China, which borders Hong Kong and Macau.

Older people will remember this province as Canton or Kwangtung, the ancestral home of Cantonese-speaking Malaysians of Chinese origin.

I am a third generation Malaysian Chinese whose grandfather came from a lychee and longan producing county known as Gaozhou or Kochow, in its Cantonese name.

It is just a four-hour drive from Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, and still remains a laid-back place of mainly farmers.

Humbling experience: The writer with Yang at his Country Garden Group headquarters in Guangdong.  

Guangdong is the home of the nationalist Sun Yat Sen, the father of China’s republican revolution, and if he had his way, Cantonese, rather than Mandarin, would have been the republic’s official language.

This is also where kung fu grandmasters, Wong Fei Hung and Ip Man, came from or more precisely, the town of Foshan.

Tales of their heroic acts have been made into movies, especially that of the latter, who was the teacher of the late martial arts actor Bruce Lee.

But over the past few days, I had the privilege of meeting a new Guangdong legend – billionaire Yang Guoqiang, or Yeung Kwok Keung, his Cantonese name.

He is the chairman and founder of the Country Garden Group, one of the largest real estate developers in China. According to one report, his family assets are worth 45.5 billion yuan (RM28bil). He is regarded as super-rich.

His 36-year-old daughter Yang Huiyan created world news when she became the mainland’s richest person at the age of 25 when her father transferred 70% of his holdings to her in 2007 just before taking his firm public in Hong Kong.

She is now the largest shareholder of Country Garden Holdings. She is on the list of the richest in China with a net worth totalling US$5.1bil (RM21bil), according to a survey by Singapore-based consultancy Wealth-X.

Country Garden is China’s No. 6 property developer in terms of sales and has a market capitalisation of US$61.87bil (RM252bil).

Like many rags to riches Chinese tycoons, Yang Guoqiang does not flaunt his wealth. He is simple with a down-to-earth personality.

A black Mercedes-Benz – an old model – which was parked at the entrance of the headquarters where 10,000 employees work, looks unpolished.

He showed up for this interview in a simple-cut blue suit. It looked oversized and for sure, it was not Zegna-designed. He was also not wearing any shoes, quite happy with his room slippers.

The 63-year-old businessman, who speaks Cantonese in thick Shunde or Soon Tuck accent, eagerly shared his plans to expand outside of China.

His company also entered the Hong Kong market for the first time in June, acquiring a redevelopment project in Kowloon City for HK$610mil. The company also has residential projects in Australia.

He spoke of the many sales galleries that have been set up in numerous cities such as Dubai, Jakarta and Taipei.

Well aware of the capital outflows that have affected potential Chinese buyers, it is clear that the company is also eyeing other buyers.

But at this point, his favourite destination is Johor Baru, where Forest City is taking shape.

“If Dubai can become a sprawling city from a desert, I do not see why Johor Baru cannot do the same, if not, better. JB has such a great economic potential,” he said at his office. To him, Johor Baru is in a strategic location.

With an experienced eye for a good location, Yang said he felt “really good” when he first saw the area surrounding the Forest City project.

At its sales gallery near the company headquarters, Country Garden shouts loudly about Forest City’s location being “just 2km away from Singapore”.

Forest City is a benchmark project for Country Garden, with a building area of 1,370ha, investment of RM170bil, and estimated to provide more than 220,000 job opportunities in Johor by 2035.

It will be the company’s largest international project. As it is adjacent to Singapore, it is easily accessible via the Second Link. First phase units include apartments ranging from 75 to 175sq m and bungalows from 250 to 550sq m. The development, just off the coast of Tanjung Kupang, is expected to house hundreds of thousands of residents upon completion.

A keen golfer, Yang said he was looking forward to the 18-hole golf course, designed by golf legend Jack Nicklaus and his son, Jack Nicklaus II, and scheduled to be completed next year. There will also be two other golf courses.

Obviously a fan of Nicklaus, he waved for his assistant to show me an autographed picture of the retired American golf professional.

He is also very proud of an award that he received from the Sultan of Johor; again, asking his assistant to show me the medal and decorations that he keeps in his office.

“We are both Datuk,” he said. But I corrected him, pointing out a big difference as his award is from Johor, and that His Majesty Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar rarely confers such titles.

While many Malaysians are both amazed and sceptical at the size of the Forest City project, mainland Chinese have long known the track record of this man. Every project in China is built on a gigantic proportion, so it is quite difficult for the average Malaysian to grasp the size of the Chinese integrated townships built by Country Garden unless they come to Guangzhou to see it for themselves.

Its Phoenix City development project, which started in 2002, took about 20 years to achieve its current state. Originally occupying a 667ha land area, the project gradually expanded to about 30,000 homes and 150,000 residents with nine schools and four commercial areas.

The company, which was set up in 1992 and listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in 2007, has a track record of over 300 projects with about 70,000 employees on its payroll.

The Country Garden headquarters is located in a huge township of apartments and three-storey villas complete with schools and hospitals.

There is a hotel, run by the company, which displays framed words of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates on the lift landing of every floor.

One of the quotes reads:

“Life is not fair – get used to it. The world doesn’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something before you feel good about yourself.”

It’s an advice that Yang obviously relates to. He is one of the richest and most powerful men of China but he started with nothing.

He runs one of the top 10 Chinese property development companies but he began merely as a brick layer. His fortune changed when he began buying up land and developing them. He has always made it compulsory to build schools in his townships – both as a selling point and also because he holds dearly to the importance of education.

“I remember when I was 16, I couldn’t even pay that seven yuan (about RM4) school fees of that year. I had to go back to farming. Thankfully my teacher went to my house to tell my father (a farmer) that I was not bad in my studies,” he said in one news report. Eventually, he received a scholarship to cover the fees with some allowances.

Today, he runs a high school that provides free education for children from poor families all across China. Since its inception in 2002, more than 2,000 have graduated from the school, with almost all entering universities. He also runs two vocational training institutes that provide classes for free.

The students are picked by a team from Country Garden which criss-crosses the country each year to select the smart ones from impoverished villages. They are not just given free education; boarding, allowances, fares to travel home each year and even money for parking are provided.

Despite his generous charitable contributions, he has a policy – no schools should be named after him. One middle school is, however, named after his late brother Guohua. That school costs him 4.1mil yuan (RM2.5mil) a year to run.

Perhaps his one indulgence is food. According to his assistants, he has hired one of the best Cantonese-cuisine chefs in Shunde district to cook for him.

Corporate social responsibility runs big in the company. His current interest is to revitalise poor villages, with the hope of making the people become self-sustaining through agro-tourism.

A team of staff, many holding huge graphs, was standing next to him as I entered his office. The projects had occupied his morning.

There are no signs of Yang slowing down. In fact, he literally ran to another meeting, along with his staff, after seeing this writer off at the lift.

Every trip to China has been an eye-opener and also a reminder that Malaysians have plenty to catch up with when it comes to China. It is a country that is focused, determined and ambitious. It will not allow unproductive issues to distract what it plans to do.

As one China thinker said, the United States isn’t worried that China has a communist system but it is worried that it has embraced capitalism and beaten them at their own game.

Fearing the death of a dialect

Like most Penangites who are proud of their heritage, the writer is troubled that Hokkien isn’t spoken as much as it used to be. 

IF there’s one clear feature that separates Penangites from the rest of the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, it is the distinct northern-accented Hokkien.

It doesn’t matter whether we are in Kuala Lumpur, Johor Baru, London or Timbuktu but we can pick up a Penangite whenever we hear this northern style dialect with its rich sprinkling of Malay words that denotes its nyonya-baba linguistic roots.

But each time I return to Penang, I can feel the linguistic changes that are taking place. Whether we realise it or not, Penang Hokkien is slowly disappearing.

Mandarin is quickly taking over this unique Penang Hokkien dialect and for sure, English is also being affected in daily conversations.

Penangites are fiercely proud of their Hokkien as it is entirely different from the one spoken in Singapore, Taiwan or Xiamen in China.

As older Penangites, perhaps we can be a little snooty, as we sometimes dismiss the Hokkien spoken elsewhere as somewhat crass and unrefined.

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

Whether rightly or wrongly, or plainly out of ignorance, Penangites feel the sing-song delivery sounds better.

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 has to be from Kedah, Perlis or Taiping.

Even Penangites of other racial groups can easily speak, or at least understand Hokkien. My fellow moderation advocate, Anas Zubedy, speaks excellent Hokkien. So do my colleagues executive editor Dorairaj Nadason and sports editor R. Manogaran.

But the daily use of the dialect is rapidly being replaced by Mandarin. Go to most coffeeshops today and the hawkers or helpers are likely to tell you the price of food in Mandarin.

I am feeling a little uncomfortable because I am a very parochial and sentimental Penangite. It doesn’t help that I do not speak Mandarin.

Although I am a Cantonese, Hokkien is the spoken language in my family home and the changes that are taking place do have an effect.

Even most of the Penang state government leaders are not from Penang. Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng was born in Johor and grew up in Melaka.

Senior state exco member Chow Kon Yeow is from Kuala Lumpur but he studied in Universiti Sains Malaysia. Deputy Chief Minister II Dr P. Ramasamy is Sitiawan-born but he spent most of his time in Selangor.

Exceptions are the children of the late Karpal Singh – state exco member Jagdeep Singh Deo and Bukit Gelugor MP Ramkarpal Singh Deo – and other state assemblymen.

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

In an interview with Penang Monthly, the Penang Hokkien Language Association secretary Ooi Kee How was quoted as saying that “people think there’s no benefit in learning or speaking Hokkien, which is not true. Yes, you can survive if you do not speak Hokkien; you can get by with speaking only one language your entire life.”

“But the thing is, something will diminish. Our creativity, our cultural identity, will decline. A lot of innovations will disappear, because different languages shape the way we think differently.”

And what has brought about the decline of the Penang Hokkien? It’s a combination of factors. For one, a whole generation of Penangites have been educated in Chinese schools, at least at the primary level.

This is unlike the older generation of Penangites like me, who are now in the 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 find it more comfortable conversing in Mandarin – and for sure, not English.

Then there is this huge impact of Chinese TV shows, especially over Astro. They are entirely in Mandarin, with shows from mainland China and Taiwan, and in Hokkien, which is spoken in a manner more similar to those used in Melaka and Johor.

It is no surprise that the sales staff at malls also expect the Chinese community to speak in 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 taken over the dominant spot as a language with economic value, and certainly prestige. That is the reality but it may well be at the expense of a rich heritage.

Catherine Churchman, a lecturer in Asian Studies, in the School of Languages and Cultures in Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, who studied the Taiwanese and Penang Hokkien dialects, reportedly said: “Penangites have become increasingly used to hearing Taiwanese Hokkien, but the Taiwanese are not used to hearing Penang Hokkien.

“Simply replacing Malay loan words with the Taiwanese equivalents does not turn Penang Hokkien into Taiwanese Hokkien either. The grammatical structure of Penang Hokkien is different.”

Fearful of the danger of Penang Hokkien dying, Penang Monthly further quoted Churchman as saying “languages often die the same way, and one of the reasons is simply the existence of a generation gap.”

That melodious Penang Hokkien may not be heard, decades from now, if this frightening trend continues.

The multi-plot in politics

Good rapport: Najib and Hadi at a rally for the Rohingya in Kuala Lumpur last year.

As the clock ticks towards GE, it’s getting harder to read between the lines in Malaysian politics.

BY now, anyone following the country’s politics would have to admit that it is getting much harder to read. 

It is said that there are no permanent enemies in politics and that politics is the art of the possible. But in Malaysia, the politicians are doing what is seemingly the most impossible.

And it is not just the politicians but the voters as well but we will come to that later. We will start off with the politicians.

The most talked about event last week must be the visit of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak to jailed opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who is in hospital following a shoulder operation.

The visit was followed up by his deputy, Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi – who was at one time an ally of Anwar.

Both the Umno leaders took along their wives, sending out signals that this was beyond just a hospital visit. For sure, the presence of their spouses made it comfortable for Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail.

Maybe we are reading too much into these visits. Is there a deal in the making? After all, Najib and Anwar have one common nemesis – Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. It was Dr Mahathir who got Anwar sacked from the Cabinet and subsequently jailed six years until 2004 on charges of sodomy and corruption.

It is well known that while Anwar and Dr Mahathir are said to be now on the same side – at least, on the surface – the reality is that both are using each other to topple Najib.

It’s a case of let’s first get rid of the Barisan Nasional government in the coming general election; then we figure out how to get rid of each other after that.

But beyond conspiracy theories and imagination running wild, let’s not forget that the PM had also visited PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang when he was hospitalised.

And I am pretty sure that Najib will visit Dr Mahathir if he is unwell. It won’t look good for Najib if he doesn’t.

The current relationship between Umno and PAS is surely stranger than fiction. Both parties have had deep rooted rivalry for decades.

Their grassroots members can’t tolerate each other and for years, they won’t even pray in the same mosque. Families have broken up over this political rivalry, especially in the east coast states, and name calling is almost a norm. PAS labelled Umno members kafir or infidels.

But now, Najib and Hadi appears to have reached some form of understanding, with what the latter has termed the “politics of maturity” or merely expediency for many.

Perhaps, both Umno and PAS now have a common enemy. Your enemy is also my enemy, we can assume. The common hatred is Parti Amanah, comprising former PAS leaders, who are now in Pakatan Harapan, with PKR and DAP.

Still, it won’t be wrong to expect Umno, through Barisan Nasional, squaring off with PAS in the elections, especially in Kelantan and Terengganu. Don’t expect Umno to give PAS a walkover.

Joining in the fray would be for sure, Amanah. So a three-way fight for the Malay votes is almost certain in many Malay majority seats in the rural seats.

Over at the urban areas, there are more sentiments that are difficult to comprehend. Ask the average pro-opposition voter in Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Perak, a sizeable number will want to see Barisan’s defeat.

Their anger towards Barisan is overwhelming. We can expect many urban seats to go to DAP or PKR where these two parties are strong.

Like in the 2013 general election, they hope to see Barisan walloped. In that polls, PAS was the darling of the opposition front.

Many Chinese voters embraced PAS, finding excuses to suggest that hudud was acceptable. At DAP ceramah, many spoke of how non-Muslims would be spared and only corrupt Barisan leaders would have their arms amputated.

It’s a different story now. PAS is the loathed Talibans. Many seemed to have forgotten that they were heaping praises on Islamic rule just five yeas ago. Go to YouTube and watch such talk at these ceramah.

Many would cringe seeing themselves singing the late Teresa Teng’s hit song, The Moon Represents My Heart, at political gatherings in their declaration of love for PAS. (The symbol of PAS is a full moon.) DAP leaders would probably now say it’s not them, even if they are seen on old videos saying a vote for PAS is a vote for DAP.

And just one or two years ago, and perhaps, even now, many Chinese voters still cannot accept the ultra-Malay stand of Perkasa. Mention Perkasa, the political pressure goes up in the Chinese community but in another case that is stranger than fiction, many Chinese voters are cheering for Perkasa leaders who are now in the leadership of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.

Pribumi’s Penang chief Marzuki Yahya was the former Perkasa chairman for Penang. The Selangor Parti Pribumi chief Abu Bakar Yahaya was the former Perkasa chief in the state.

Mejar Annuar Abdul Hamid, who is the Kedah deputy chief, was also a former Perkasa leader. The biggest name from Perkasa to join Parti Pribumi was Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman who is now a party vice-president.

And of course, Dr Mahathir was the patron of Perkasa. Pakatan’s condemnation of Perkasa’s right-wing Malay politics is now a thing of the past and many Chinese voters are hoping that Dr Mahathir will deliver the Malay votes in the rural areas.

Not many care about the reality that Pribumi is struggling to put an organisation in place; its branches and divisions are still not formed. It has yet to convene an annual general meeting as the clock towards the GE ticks away.

Amanah has been a let down. There is talk that it can only get about 10,000 members and that it is struggling to find its place in Pakatan Harapan.

In short, in the Malay heartland where the predominant Malay voters call the shots, it is a choice between Barisan – read Umno – and PAS. There are 54 parliamentary and 96 state seats with predominantly Felda settlers; these are all rural, Malay majority seats.

If the Malays vote for the opposition – it may well be PAS. Not Pribumi or Amanah. PAS is the last thing that the urban Chinese voters would want after their flirtation with the Islamist party ended up as a nightmare.

The reality is that even if every Chinese cast their vote for the opposition, it won’t make much impact.

It will be the over 70% of Malay votes that will determine the outcome of the general election.

At stake is 222 parliamentary seats, with only about 22 Chinese majority seats. There is no Indian majority seat.

With the exception of Penang and the racially-mixed Selangor where PKR holds sway, there is a saying that we should be careful what we wish for.

Go ahead, make that choice

The right choice: Most Malaysians are fully aware of the lines of decency and law when it comes to appropriate attire.

Every individual has the right to choose how he or she wants to dress. And we don’t need the authorities, whether secular or religious in nature, to interfere in this very personal aspect of our life. 

We have to be consistent – if we think no one should be forced to wear a piece of clothing or head gear, then, by the same principle, we should not discriminate against anyone choosing to wear the hijab.

What people feel like wearing (or not) is really no one else’s business, providing it stays within the lines of decency and law, which we are fully accustomed to.

Malaysian women don’t need a security guard to decide if their skirt is of an “appropriate” length, before being allowed to enter a government building simply because he sees himself a moral guardian. But in most cases, these security personnel are only acting on the instructions of their employers.

More often than not, and judging from the pictures posted on social media by these subjected women, it’s obvious how heavy-handed these guards can be.

My long-time secretary, Imma, decided to wear the hijab a few years back. She wasn’t sure how I would react to it since she is familiar with my liberal outlook in life and political stand.

She is aware I dislike conventional and rigid rules, be it corporate or political. She also knows how hypocritical politicians masquerading as religious experts, or vice-versa, are not my favourite people.

And although she has been my secretary for two decades, she was still reluctant to seek my opinion on the matter, and instead, chose to seek my wife’s thoughts.

My wife, who knows me completely, assured her that I would definitely support her decision.

Basically, what my colleagues choose to wear – whether it is an unconventional dress or hijab – really isn’t my concern as the capability of an employee is measured by his or her productivity and efficiency.

If she chooses to wear the hijab, I take it as her personal right and decision. If a person says his apparel reflects his religious obligation, then we respect it, regardless of our faith or race.

My favourite aunt, a Muslim convert, and her women family members all wear the hijab. And so do many of my friends.

None of them have become terrorists, if that is the concern of international managements.

By the same token, many of my Muslim women friends and colleagues also choose not to wear it.

That does not mean they are less religious. On the contrary, they showcase the important values of God-loving people in their daily lives. In essence, no one should be forced or coerced into doing something they don’t want to do.

If someone decides to colour their hair orange or go blonde, so what? It’s common knowledge that many people keep their hair black when they are greying.

Is black a politically and “religiously correct” colour compared to others? Do we pass judgment according to the colour of one’s hair?

Recently, newsfeeds picked up on how some major hotels are forbidding their Muslim staff, who take care of the front-line customer service, from wearing headscarves.

It was reported that the Malaysian Labour Centre of the Union Network International (Uni-MLC) recently claimed that hotel employees complained about Muslim staff in the hospitality and tourism industries being told to remove their headscarves.

The centre revealed this was also happening to hospitality and tourism students applying for internships.

The Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) had reportedly defended its members’ policy of prohibiting their frontline staff from wearing the tudung, claiming it an international practice which should not be considered discriminatory.

In many conservative Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, men are receptionists and perhaps, this is how the hotel managements circumvent the rules.

In Kuwait, for example, many of the hotel women receptionists are foreigners, mainly Filipinos, and they do not wear the hijab. It is the same in Bahrain and Qatar, where the hijab is not a requirement.

But in Iran, many women work as receptionists and other front-line positions, and they are required to wear the hijab. Admittedly, the managements are local and there are no franchised hotel chains such as the Hilton or Le Meridien.

Still, what one decides to wear is a personal choice. If we allow these hotels to impose their rules here, then this fight for freedom of choice and expression will fall a step back.

As the Centre For A Better Tomorrow (Cenbet) president, Gan Ping Sieu rightly said, “therefore, these multinational companies imposing dress codes that are insensitive to local settings are no different to civil servants who try to impose their personal values on the public’s dress code.”

“Embracing diversity can go a long way in building the much-needed bridges in a society riven by radicalised elements.”

He added that Cenbet supports the call to rebuke the ban on headscarves because the hospitality industry should reflect the country’s diversity.

A compromise can be made, though: international hotel chains can customise their uniforms to work culturally and exhibit its corporate colours and lines, not unlike the uniforms of the cabin crew of some Arab airlines.

Ultimately, every individual has the right to dress as they please. Any kind of state-enforced rule, such as the ban on the hijab in France, is intolerable.

We don’t need the authorities, be it secular or religious, to interfere in every aspect of our lives.

In the words of the famous imam of the New York Police Department, Khalid Latif: “How we see people is not indicative of who they are, but how you see people will tell you a lot about yourself, and if you perceive somebody solely through the way that they dress, the colour of their skin, whether they have a certain accent or not – then we should ask ourselves why do we judge people this way.”

Wanted: Leaders who listen

Turning a blind eye: The grumblings over exposed hills are growing louder but little is being done to rectify the situation.

MY family home in Kampung Melayu, Air Itam in Penang, is more than 56 years old. That’s about my age, and it has never been hit by floods. Not once!

But last week, my parents – dad is 92 years old and mum, 86, – had their sleep rudely interrupted sometime after 1am by water gushing into their home.

They have been sleeping on the ground floor for years now because they are too old to climb the stairs to their bedroom.

The water that flowed into their room almost touched the top of their bed but fortunately, one of my nephews and his wife from Kuala Lumpur were staying over that night.

It was so fortunate that they were there to calm my anxious parents down and assure them all would be fine. They managed to comfort my stunned folks, who had never experienced such an unpleasant situation before. My father had to be carried to the room upstairs as the house remained flooded throughout the early morning.

Our home was filled with layers of mud the next day and the cars parked outside were all damaged. They sadly look like write-offs.

My father’s pride and joy, his first-generation Proton Saga car – which he bought in 1985 – is now unusable.

A week on, my brothers and nieces are still cleaning up the mess from the massive flood. They haven’t had the time or mood to even assess the financial losses.

And bound by a common sentiment as Penangites, they are tired of the blame game, a trade the state’s politicians have plied to near-perfection.

How many times can the finger be pointed at the previous government, with the incumbent almost 10 years in power? And how many more times can we blame it on torrential rain, which came from Vietnam – or wherever? Worst of all is, when discussions are mooted on flood issues, the voices of the people are swiftly silenced.

It appears that even to talk about hillslope development, one would have to contest in the elections, or be perceived to be challenging the state government, or more extremely, be some kind of lackey in cahoots with the Federal Government.

Blaming everyone else except oneself is simply a way of covering up one’s weaknesses. But the discerning public, in a maturing democracy with heightened transparency and a huge middle class like Penang, will not tolerate such short-term manoeuvring for long.

Suddenly, civil society – a buzzword among politicians – has vanished, with NGOs now regarded as irritants and an affront to the state establishment. Politics is apparently the monopoly of politicians now.

As the National Human Rights Society aptly puts it, “With the benefit of hindsight, we are sure that the Penang government now realises that they should not so readily malign civil society, howsoever obliquely – for the legitimate and well-founded articulation of matters of great concern to civil society.

“This is because it undermines the fundamental values of a functioning democracy and the fundamental human rights of the populace at large.”

Perhaps, the state political elites, many of whom aren’t pure blood Penangites, don’t realise the state is the home of a vibrant civil society, with many active NGOs and activists who are respected influencers of society.

Having walked through the corridors of power and appreciated power’s pleasures, perks and the adulation it brings, maybe it is becoming much harder for people to take criticism. This is, in fact, a reflection of the arrogance of power.

Many have developed thin skin now, with little tolerance for the slightest form of criticism. If anyone even dares raise their voice, an army of cybertroopers, hiding behind anonymity, are unleashed to attack them.

Freedom of speech, it seems, is only the domain of the opposition, with some media (regarded as unfriendly) unceremoniously ridiculed and questioned for their attendance at press conferences.

There are politicians from the Federal Government, too, who are shamelessly cashing in on the flood situation in Penang.

Their relief work must be splashed across news pages, and they have to be seen wading through the flood waters for dramatic purpose. Phua Chu Kang’s iconic yellow boots could likely be the hottest item in the state, as politicians bask in the media’s glare.

Ridiculous remarks have also been passed, one even blaming the state government, saying it has earned the wrath of God.

The rain and floods will go away, eventually. Penangites are stakeholders in the state, and they don’t only make up politicians. The state doesn’t belong to the state government or the opposition.

Caught up in the thick of the action, we seem to have forgotten that the hills are crumbling even without rain. As a stern reminder, just last month, a landslide buried some people in Tanjung Bungah. Investigations on that tragedy are still ongoing.

Basically, the trees – which act as sponge on the hills – are gone. We don’t need to be soil experts to know that.

The grumblings are growing louder because the hills have been progressively going bald in recent years. But the voice of discontent has fallen on deaf ears.

Penangites are alarmed at what they are seeing, and they don’t like it one bit, as much as they understand that land is scarce on the island and property developers need to source some to build homes on.

While it’s easy to hang the Penang state government out to dry for its follies, it’s difficult to ignore how the floods in the east coast states have become annual affairs, too. So, what effective flood mitigation plans have been put in place there?

Kelantan has suffered senselessly, and after more than a year of having been subjected to Mother Nature’s havoc, many victims have yet to recover from their losses. Flooding is obviously nothing exclusive and doesn’t discriminate. Every state has, unfortunately, experienced it in some shape or form.

So, irrespective of location, when life returns to normal, you can expect the politicians to resume their old denying ways.

If there’s a thread that binds our politicians – regardless of which side of the political divide they come from – it is their inability to apologise for their mistakes, despite waxing lyrical about accountability.

Don’t expect them to say sorry, because an apology would be admission of guilt, or worse, a sign of weakness in their realm of inflated egos.

And to put things into perspective, perhaps we could learn a lesson from a quote by prominent American pastor Andy Stanley – “Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say.”

A legacy that is fast disappearing

Convent Light Street in Penang.

THREE convent schools in Penang are in the news with talk that they may have to close down, supposedly because of dwindling enrolment.

Naturally, this has become unsettling because Penangites are very sentimental, even emotional, about these historic institutions.

I spent over a decade at St Xavier’s Institution, and I regard Convent Light Street as a sister school, as both schools sit side by side.

Many friendships were forged with CLS students, and those who qualified for Sixth Form studies, enrolled in SXI after completing their Form Five examinations.

CLS is also the oldest girls’ school in South-East Asia, standing proudly on its present site within the Unesco Heritage Zone since 1859.

The school was founded in 1852 by three French Catholic nuns from the Holy Infant Jesus Mission, who were part of a group of six who left France for Singapore in 1851 to set up a Catholic institution on the island.

According to an article by Louise Goss-Custard, the 30-year-old Mother Superior who led the group, died during the five-month journey, and the only remaining English-speaking sister decided to leave the order upon reaching Singapore.

“Another sister became seriously ill with ‘brain fever’ during the journey and remained ill for the rest of her life. Now too small a group to be effective in Singapore, the Sisters were sent to Penang, where the La Salle Brothers were already active and could support them until reinforcements arrived,” she wrote.

Penang founder Captain Francis Light had set up his administration where the CLS is now located, and for a while, Sir Stamford Raffles worked there before he moved on to Singapore.

Apparently, Raffles spent more time in Penang than in Singapore. He arrived in Penang – which was then known as the Prince of Wales island – in 1805 to work under Philip Dundas, the then-governor of Penang.

Fast-forward to today, the landowner – the Sisters of the Infant Jesus (a Catholic order) – has written to the Education Ministry asking for the return of the land where SK Convent Light Street, SMK Convent Light Street and SMK Convent Pulau Tikus are located.

Sister Celina Wong, the spokesperson, has assured that they have no intention of selling the land or buildings for redevelopment.

Beyond that, the sisters are not saying anything, though the reality remains that enrolment has dropped.

This is not the first time as the 124-year-old SK Pykett Methodist faced the same problem before. The school will be closed once its final term ends in 2019, and it won’t be around to show that there are now more teachers than students.

The Methodist Church in Malaysia revealed its education council had been in talks with the Education Ministry to phase out the school since 2010.

The authorities finally decided that SK Pykett Methodist Penang would be wound down gradually in five years (2015-2020).

View of main building of Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Convent Pulau Tikus.

Pykett Methodist School is a spin-off from the Methodist Boys School, which was formerly known as the Anglo-Chinese School, and was named after Methodist missionary G.F. Pykett, who was instrumental in the growth of education in Penang.

The school’s enrolment has been dwindling over the years, a scenario which the Methodist Church had described as “a phenomenon that seems to affect schools located within the city – not only in Penang but in other urban centres of the country too.”

The fate of the three Convent schools would probably be similar to that of Pykett. There is no question that the Sisters of the Infant Jesus have the best interest of the schools at heart and it must be tormenting them, having to deliberate the future of the schools and the challenges facing this institution.

They should seek the help of its illustrious alumnus, many of whom have strong business experience in the corporate sector, including in education.

The education field, like all sectors, is no different, and stakeholders obviously have to fine-tune their strategy to make new plans to continue with their mission.

It is good that Sister Wong has assured that the sisters have stood by their “objective of providing a wholesome education in our mission schools”.

The sisters may need to consider converting the schools into affordable private international institutions, since there is huge demand for quality education.

Chinese vernacular schools have gained traction, even among the non-Chinese, because they have earned a reputation for quality teaching, the reality being that Malaysians understand the economic value of Mandarin, with China now a superpower.

The mission schools set up in early Malaya, and later Malaysia, were popular, the importance of English and England’s economic position apparent to many. It is still the global lingua franca.

But there are reasons why well-intentioned Penangites are concerned over the fate of the three Convents.

Convent Seremban is an example. It was founded in 1904, but in 1994, the primary and secondary schools were demolished and relocated.

According to a news report, billboards were erected at the site for an underground car park and multi-storey shopping complex.

However, it has been more than 20 years since the school was demolished and nothing has substituted it. There is still a huge pond there, which has become an eyesore.

Meanwhile, the relocated Convent Seremban has been renamed SK Puteri and SMK Puteri, a legacy effectively wiped out.

But there are also instances where relocation was the best option. When the College General was moved by its owners, Penangites were outraged.

The 350-year-old College General, located on Gurney Drive then, was an institution to train Catholic priests and has since produced more than 1,000 men of cloth. Most of them returned to serve in their native countries in many parts of Asia.

Many products of the College General were Vietnamese who were later killed for their faith and eventually canonised and beatified by Rome.

The College General has a record of having two professors and five seminarians canonised, or declared saints, by the Vatican, and 50 others beatified, or declared by the Pope as one of the faithful who lived a holy life and/or died a martyr’s death.

But in the early 1980s, the La Salle Brothers vacated the Gurney Drive premises, with the site taken over by the International School of Penang (Uplands). Finally, in 2004, a property developer bought this piece of land for RM97.86mil from the La Salle Brothers to build a high-rise retail outlet and residential project.

Unfortunately, the site was too big, so, student enrolment shrunk, and today, the seminary is located at the nearby Mount Miriam.

The founders of these mission schools and institutions have played an integral role in our education system, producing millions of students, and key Malaysian personalities today.

It is open to debate, but some opine that many of our schools today can’t match the quality of education at these mission schools.

Ops Lalang, our dark days

Police crackdown: The reasons the police gave for the mass arrests under Ops Lalang was that racial riots were imminent.

Thirty years after the operation, some of the same issues – race, religion, language – still plague some of our politicians. 

MOST Malaysians are familiar with the popular rationale in politics, that there are no permanent enemies, or permanent friends, but only permanent interests.

The saying was made famous in the 1960s by African American politician William Clay who was heavily involved with civil liberty groups and unions, but never pretended to be above the practicalities of political battleground.

But the congressman would himself be surprised by what’s happening in Malaysia. Just 30 years ago, then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad ordered a crackdown on more than 100 politicians, non-government organisation activists, academicians, students and more.

Ops Lalang, literally translated to mean Weeding Operation, saw what was probably the biggest arrests of dissidents under the Internal Security Act, although some opined that the arrests during the May 13 racial riots were bigger.

The reasons given now is that the police had to reduce racial tension, which had reached a “dangerous proportion” and that “racial riots were imminent.” Dr Mahathir has pointed the fingers entirely at the police.

But some of the victims, till now, have insisted that it was “designed to control his opponents” through the ISA.

In a nutshell, the mass arrests took place against the backdrop of a divided Umno, with Team A led by Dr Mahathir, and Team B led by Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Tun Musa Hitam.

Razaleigh is the Gua Musang MP and Musa was the deputy prime minister. Dr Mahathir narrowly won but faced a legal challenge which led to Umno being deregistered later on.

Then, there was the emergence of the NGOs, which irritated Dr Mahathir, including consumers, environment and civil societies, calling them “tools of foreign powers.”

The MCA and Chinese education groups, meanwhile, protested the switch to Bahasa Malaysia as a medium of instruction for optional courses in the departments of Chinese and Tamil studies at Universiti Malaya, and the Education Ministry’s move to appoint some 100 senior assistants and supervisors – all non-Chinese speaking – to Chinese-medium primary schools.

A demonstration was held in Kuala Lumpur, attended by prominent politicians, including those from MCA, DAP and Gerakan. The meeting called for a three-day boycott in Chinese schools if these issues were not resolved, but it was never seen through.

However, 50 schools went ahead, probably because they didn’t know about the call off or disagreed with the postponement.

Meanwhile, Umno Youth retaliated by holding a gathering in Kampung Baru, up in arms against the pressure applied by the Chinese educationists. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak was then the Umno Youth chief.

There is a myth that Najib waved a keris and asked for the weapon “to be soaked with Chinese blood.” But none of my colleagues, other reporters or photographers who were there saw such a thing. Believe me, there would have been photographs to prove the point. However, there was a placard with those seditious words and that is documented in the Government’s White Paper on Ops Lalang, which was tabled in Parliament on March 28, 1988.

Without doubt, there was tension at the rally but fortunately, rain fell that day and took away the rising temperature after the thousands of angry people ran away to take shelter.

But the air in KL was still toxic with fear gripping the city as shops began shutting down.

And just to help tip the scale, the rampage of a mentally-challenged Malay soldier, killing a person (a Malay) and two others, with an M16 rifle in the Chow Kit area, set sparks to more rumours.

Fast forward to 2017 – Dr Mahathir is now an Opposition leader who heads Pakatan Harapan. He plans to meet many of the former Ops Lalang detainees today in Penang.

The irony is that many of the politicians he threw in jail are now on his side. They include DAP leaders who were then arrested under the ISA.

And of course, the DAP has publicly declared that they want Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as Prime Minister if the Opposition front wins the next general election.

It was also Dr Mahathir who locked Anwar up under sodomy charges, saying the latter was not fit to be a prime minister. But they are now allies, even if, for a while.

There is also another irony. The fact remains that when Anwar was Education Minister, he directed all state education departments to allocate land reserved for schools, solely to national schools. He was also the one who sent non-Chinese speaking headmasters to Chinese schools.

Anwar will also be remembered as the Education Minister who publicly announced that he was giving only RM10 to Chinese schools, which was widely reported in the media. In Catholic schools, the crosses had to come down.

The DAP leaders who were detained during Ops Lalang paid a price for standing up against Anwar, but today, they are calling for him to be PM.

Clay would have choked to see how his popular adage is being played out in Malaysia.

Our younger generation obviously have no idea what took place in the months leading up to Oct 27, 1987.

Some journalists, who are now in their 30s (who were only born after 1987, or were in primary school then), have no clue of the detailed political games that went on.

Dr Mahathir shut down The Star, Sin Chew Jit Poh and Watan for five months. And most of us, including this writer, lost our livelihood. In the case of The Star, we had taken a strong stand on the Chinese school issue.

On the morning of The Star’s suspension, a Special Branch officer, who was a friend, called me up to say we should have breakfast.

We went to a nearby coffeeshop, and as he discreetly inquired about my work, I was unaware how the day would pan out. Working in Penang, I had no idea the Home Ministry would deliver the suspension order to my editors in KL.

My SB friend had come to see me too early – he just wanted to know what the reporters would be doing next, as he had to file a report. I told him later that we had been asked to go on leave indefinitely.

But as the day proceeded, we were glued to our computers as news kept pouring in, almost incessantly, of people being arrested.

While we were familiar with the Opposition politicians, some names just drew blank looks. It was very much later, that the police revealed that some were arrested for communist activities, and some church leaders taken in accused of converting Muslims. And since they were ISA detainees, it was decreed there was no need for details to be provided.

One person I kept updated of the arrests was academician Dr Chandra Muzaffar, who called me. But since I was on my lunch break, I told him I would call him back. And, to my word, I called him back, though it was his wife who answered the phone and told me, “they took my Chandra away.”

There was another rude shock. Someone I met for tea at Gurney Drive, where the Consumer Association of Penang office was located, was subsequently arrested. She was CAP’s legal official, Meenakshi Raman.

Frightened and shaken, the National Union of Journalists held discussions with the Home Ministry and police, and was assured that no reporters would be arrested, but not many believed what they were told.

Just months earlier, Dr Mahathir had already lost his patience with the NUJ for getting its members to wear black armbands to Parliament and to stage protests outside their newspaper offices nationwide against amendments to the Official Secrets Act.

A few of my editors fled, fearing their names were on the list, and in the days before the mobile telephone, it was impossible to reach them. Well, they would not be using any device today either, for fear of being detected.

Few of us slept peacefully at night, worried that the cops would come knocking. We learned that the cops preferred to make arrests in the wee hours of the morning since the targets’ defences would be down.

But it was the five months’ suspension that hit us the hardest. Christmas and Chinese New Year passed, without any news of us returning to our jobs, and funds were running low.

There were many sympathetic employers, but they, too, expressed belief that we would return to our newsmen jobs, and they were not wrong. We love our jobs too much.

Paradoxically, the loss of a job did not deter me from winning the heart of my future wife, Florence. Even though I was jobless, penniless and possibly, without a future, they were not issues with her. For me, I didn’t have to think twice, this was the woman I wanted as my wife. And she is the best thing that has ever happened to me.

More than 30 years into the job, like many seasoned journalists, some of us have grown cynical and lost our sense of idealism. We do not see the world through rose-tinted glasses, and prefer to lump politicians in the same category.

The so-called heroes we once looked up to, may not be the same people we idolised, and for politicians, for all the good things that they may have done, harsh judgment is par for the course.

Many of us have forgotten that it was Najib who abolished the ISA. He also took away the need to renew the printing permit for newspapers, but of course, the obsolete law still requires the application of a printing permit – which is ridiculously odd in the digital age.

Najib’s biggest decision as Education Minister was to give up his power – as then provided for under Section 21(2) of the Education Act – to close down Chinese schools and convert them to national schools.

That single act of giving up his authority surely removed the uncertainties that hung over the heads of the Chinese community.

And on the eve of the 30th anniversary of Ops Lalang, Najib approved the setting up of 10 new Chinese primary schools in Johor and Selangor, and the relocation of six other Chinese schools.

Shifting political interests have seen politicians, who thumped their chests in the name of political principles, actually discarding their values.

DAP who fought PAS for years suddenly asked voters to back the Islamist party in 2013 and now, they are squabbling again.

Now in 2017, after decades of fighting, Dr Mahathir and DAP have become bosom buddies. Meanwhile, Umno and PAS, both long standing rivals, are playing footsie and heaping praises on each other.

Some of us remember how their rivalry was so bitter at one time that supporters of both parties refused to even pray together in the same mosque.

As American writer Mark Twain, once wrote “truth is stranger than fiction but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

And 30 years later, race, religion and language still consume Malaysian politicians, adding to the melodrama. There are many same old actors on stage who never seem to fade away. They are still acting, you may say.

A moderate Malaysia, the way to go

The recent actions of the Rulers and the strong statement issued by the Conference of Rulers are a beacon of hope, just when things seemed a bit pessimistic. 

IT can get pretty daunting being a Malaysian frequent traveller, what with the silly questions we have to deal with from foreigners about our country.

I can’t be the only one getting annoyed or becoming overly sensitive to these inane queries.

And Americans top the list of clueless foreigners, who are generally poor in geography. A large number of them struggle to locate our country on the atlas or globe.

Many can’t seem to wrap their heads around it when I tell them Malaysia is sandwiched between Thailand and Singapore, and I get nothing more than blank looks. It’s the same story in some parts of Europe, too, except for England, Ireland and Scotland.

As loyal Malaysians who love our country dearly, we get hurt when foreigners, especially those who have never set foot on our patch, form bad impressions of our land.

Unfortunately, Malaysia has found itself in bad light lately, with many instances being self-inflicted.

We have even become the butt of jokes in some American talk shows, which have massive following the world over.

Malaysia has become a punch line, and that’s certainly not the handiwork of wit. We can’t just shrug off this source of embarrassment or dismiss it because these nasty remarks will invariably impact us sooner or later.

Malaysia is part of the international community, with boundless resources spent on wooing foreigners and tourists to spend their money here.

Statements by national leaders and government officials that are ill-conceived undo all the hard work and energy contributed by the Government and private sector to project a good image of our glorious nation.

On a recent trip to Britain and France, I engaged in conversation with several top bankers and businessmen.

They wanted to pick my brain about the “investment climate” in Malaysia, so I duly anticipated questions about the impending general election, political scenario, whether the present Government would remain, and even the 1MDB issue which are essential deliberations for anyone hoping to invest in Malaysia.

Instead, I was queried about the controversial ban of a beer festival, gay tourists and the launderette issue. I was flabbergasted.

I was caught unprepared because I had assumed these were domestic concerns, and given that we’re in the run up to the general election, dubbed the silly season by the journalistic fraternity, politicians and public figures are known to stoke the fires of controversy. Perhaps I was naïve.

But information travels swiftly, and unfiltered, and even unexplained, in the age of digital media. No one cares about the follow-up explanations and rectifications. They only remember the initial report, which is often the most damaging.

For a taste of the extent of such negative news, just Google, and count the number of countries that have reported these controversies – and this is just those we can track in the English language media.

The Muslim-only launderette issue made it all the way to France, Hong Kong and Britain, among others.

As the Sultan of Johor, His Majesty Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar rightly put it, Malaysia is not a Taliban country.

But we are in danger of the world thinking we are headed that way if our leaders aren’t prepared to stand up for our moderate image.

It looks like moderate Malaysians have to rely on the royal institution to uphold the principle of moderation.

Perhaps our Rulers do not need to canvass for votes, unlike our politicians, but surely, we must stand up and speak up for what we think is right.

Some misguided groups and individuals are already using bullying and intimidation tactics on those attempting to defend our moderate way of life.

Liberal Muslims are being threatened and dismissed in a derogatory manner, and they are put together with non-Muslims, tagged with the term kafir or infidels. Never mind that the Federal Government has been promoting moderation.

Incredibly, liberals are being lumped into the category of atheists and hedonists, instead of being viewed merely as progressive, as clearly espoused in the Rukunegara, which calls on Malaysians to uphold the liberal approach.

Christians and non-Muslims are being treated by some misguided individuals as if they pose a threat to the country. These self-serving people are also giving a twisted interpretation of Christian evangelism.

Even the royal institution has been criticised, given what has been splashed in social media. At least a couple of individuals, using deeply offensive words, have crossed the line and stepped into the realms of sedition.

It is important that our figureheads are aware of the long-term implications of the democratic institution if theologians, who are not elected, become more authoritative and louder than our national elected leaders.

Malaysia has a solid track record for its parliamentary democratic system, despite its flaws, because it has managed to pull the country together.

The predominantly Malay leadership has also exercised readiness and willingness to uphold the power sharing concept, which we must recognise and appreciate, though sometimes, it gets lost in the heat of the political climate.

The Malaysian royal institution has been a unique one and the respective Rulers, despite being the heads of Islam in their states, have demonstrated exemplary leadership qualities and fairness to Malaysians of all faiths.

We can’t allow the royal institutions to be challenged by anyone in any way. And we won’t allow those who harbour such outrageous agendas to proliferate.

The recent actions of the Rulers, and the strong statement made by the Conference of Rulers, are a beacon of hope, just when things seemed pessimistic.

My message to my foreign listeners remains the same – I believe in Malaysia, and the majority of us remain committed to moderation, regardless of our race or religion.

There’s a lot more to Malaysia

IT’S fair comment to say that most Malaysians have probably never heard of Datuk Nasrun Mansur (pic). After all, he is seldom in the news.

But this Sabahan is the Deputy Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister serving at federal level. He is also MP for Silam, which has the highest number of Umno branches in the country.

With close to 500 in his constituency, he has the respect of Umno leaders. However, many self-proclaimed political experts barely know the existence of this place, which is bigger than some states in the peninsula even.

Commuting between Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu and Silam, this soft-spoken law graduate of Universiti Malaya has no idle time when he is at his parliamentary constituency.

On a given day, he can be seen meeting at least 15 supporters and workers at a coffeeshop, right opposite the Lahad Datu airport at about 8am.

Nasrun looks set to retain his seat, but Silam is a complicated constituency.

That’s how Sabah’s east coast politics have always been, though. Much is based on a sense of family and ethnicity.

Forget colossal political rallies parading issues like 1MDB, the bane of Semenanjung folks’ existence, it seems.

The key to retaining the seat is ensuring he has the ear of the various ethnic groups like the Bajau, Suluk, Idaan, Cocos, Kadazandusun, Sungai, Iranun, Banjar, Bugis, Chinese, Indians and more.

On paper, Silam looks homogenous, with 80% of the voters Muslim, but there are plenty of differences, and even a hint of tension. To add to the complication, there are also later migrants, like the Filipinos.

The area’s proximity to the Philippines led to the intrusion of 200 Sulu militants into Lahad Datu in 2013, and that tragic blood bath is probably the singular thing that Semenanjung folks, who have never stepped into Sabah, know of this district.

It takes plenty of political skill to deal with the ethnic complexities of Silam. Although it has a little more than 50,000 voters, they are spread over and found in small communities, and some reside in isolated areas, too.

No leader can succeed by banking on the support of one ethnic group, and Umno has somehow managed to stitch together the multi-ethnic dynamic like an indestructible fabric. Perhaps, it helps that Nasrun is three quarters Suluk and one quarter Idaan.

Silam is part of the 10 east coast parliamentary seats, which have traditionally been the bastion of Barisan Nasional.

The so-called fixed deposit seats are Kalabakan (MP Datuk Abdul Ghapur Salleh), Kinabatangan (Datuk Bung Mokhtar Radin), Libaran (Datuk Juslie Ajirol) and Beluran (Datuk Seri Dr Ronald Kiandee). Even the Tawau and Batu Sapi seats, held respectively by PBS’ Datuk Mary Yap and Datuk Linda Tsen, are safe bets.

But Silam, located next to Parti Warisan Sabah president Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal’s Semporna parliamentary constituency, is under Putrajaya’s glare.

For starters, Shafie’s brother, Datuk Mohd Yusof Apdal, is the state assemblyman of Lahad Datu, under the Silam parliamentary seat. Interestingly, Yusof is the Silam Umno division head who defeated Nasrun in the last party polls. The other two state seats are Kunak and Tungku.

Some see Silam as an extension of the Semporna families, while supporters of Nasrun said that Shafie had to bring in “busloads of Semporna voters to Silam to make up the crowd (there)”.

Nasrun won by a scale-tipping 13,387 majority in the 2013 general election, where he competed against three opponents. This time, with the inclusion of Shafie’s Warisan, the opposition will likely be further fragmented, which should play nicely into Barisan’s hands.

Shafie is Sabah-centric and has refused to work with the other peninsula-based opposition parties. However, he has milled quietly on the ground. He has, in fact, disappeared from the national news, and that’s because he understands the workings of rural Sabah campaigning.

If Silam is regarded a political jungle, then Lahad Datu is also the home of the world famous Danum Valley.

It is probably one of the most beautiful places on Earth with its 130-million-year-old jungle, established as older than the Amazon in South America.

Following conversations with politicians, community leaders and voters in Silam, I took a three-hour bumpy road ride into the jungles, where TV, Wi-Fi and the Internet are non-existent.

The Danum Valley Conservation Area is a 438sq km tract of relatively undisturbed lowland forest with an extensive diversity of tropical flora and fauna.

In many ways, this is the work of Sabah’s Chief Minister Tan Sri Musa Aman, who has built a good track record protecting huge forest areas, using the resources of Yayasan Sabah.

I trekked through the jungles of Danum Valley for three days and saw at least five orang utan, gibbons, red leaf monkeys, mousedeer, snakes and colourful insects, such as the Chinese lantern bugs, which I have never seen up-close.

I also had the pleasure of seeing the flying lemur, stick insect, Borneo tarantula, bearded wild boar and giant forest ants, all in their natural habitat.

As night fell, in the complete darkness, I saw sprinkles of fireflies, dancing elegantly in their glow, and as I glanced at the clear skies, I saw stars like I never saw them before, shining brightly.

I cannot remember the last time I saw the sky filled with that many, shining like diamonds. Not in Kuala Lumpur, for sure. These were magical nights for me at Danum Valley.

I woke up at 4am in the morning, took a 45-minute ride in a jeep, to catch sunrise and see the sprawling blanket of mist and low-lying clouds hovering over the rainforest of the valley, aptly described the “skyscraper of trees”. I’ve never felt so peaceful and calm before. It was like experiencing heaven on Earth, I would think.

At the pristine rivers, I slipped my tired feet into the crystal-clear waters as little fishes came nibbling at my feet.

The leeches, mosquitoes, and other minor discomforts might seem discouraging, but I left Danum Valley with a heavy heart. I simply long to go back.

At the airport, while waiting to board the plane for the flight home to KL, I bumped into Nasrun again. Ever the legal man, and armed with a John Grisham book, he told me he was “working hard”.

Silam and Danum Valley have something in common – they are both jungles, and are beautiful and dangerous at the same time.

If you think you know Malaysia, this could be time to reassess that opinion.