The digital reincarnation of a national bestseller by KIT LEEE (now known as ANTARES)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Born-Again Entrepreneur

Every time you run into this fellow he has an exciting new product to push. Once it was children's encyclopaedias and life insurance. Then he got mixed up in Holiday Magic, before signing on with Amway and Electrolux. He was doing okay till he got sold on Herbalife and was completely wiped out. He used to rave about Dale Carnegie, Positive Mental Attitudes, General Dynamics, Silva Mind Control. You name it, he's tried it. He says he was into TM for a while. Now he's into Mineral Pots. ('It has miraculously improved my health. I can show you my urine. Mineral water makes me so lively and happy!')

Has he done Money and You? Well, 'sofanochet'... but he figures he already knows The Secret.

Wonder why he doesn't get himself a steady job. 'Don' wan' to get tied down,' he explains. 'Wan' to be my own boss - like you lah!' On Sundays he wears T-shirts adorned with inspirational seagulls and the bold legend: BORN FREE! (Free as in Free Enterprise, no doubt.)

He shuns negative thoughts. But he doesn't believe in the Free Lunch. Even when you've just paid for his laksa and iced coffee. He's a good listener, he goes the extra mile, his mind is full of homespun homilies. His bookshelf is filled with 'How To' books - but he still buys the occasional lottery ticket just in case.

You tell him about some desperado in Australia who actually received a fortune in the mail, simply by placing this message in the classifieds: 'LAST CHANCE! SEND $2 TO P.O. BOX ......' The story inspires him. You can almost hear the gears whirring in his brain. He was determined to make a million before he turned 30. That was quite a few years ago. Now he's shifted his target to 45 - he's a realist, as well as a visionary.

Probably he gets high on W. Clement Stone and he finds Norman Vincent Peale enormously appealing; he's tried his level best but he hasn't made a mountain out of Napoleon Hill. Now he's carrying around the Gospel According To Thomas Peters. Is the book any good? 'Excellent!' he shouts, continuing his quest for success without tears.

One day he might discover Hare Krishna or join the Moonies... but before long he'd turn up again peddling secondhand elephants or pushing instant ginseng. But look, he's taking a big black leather-bound book from his imitation Samsonite briefcase: God, has he become a Mormon trying to save your soul by proxy? No, he's only wanting to make you buy a $250 diary, 'to help you manage your time' - but in the end you decide to lend him $10, to tide him over the weekend. He'll be touting Celestial Orientation Programmes at the gates of Heaven.

The real problem with this fellow is that he suffers from Premature E-Calculations. What does the 'E' stand for? 'Egg' of course - he's forever counting his chickens before they hatch. I believe his troubles began when he first encountered the word 'entrepreneur' and fell in love with it. He didn't know what it meant - and neither did anyone else. What a nonsensical word! I'm curious to know which nincompoop substituted such a disreputable and disingenuous, such a labial and laborious Francophilism for a straightforward English word like hustling. (Try reading the previous sentence with a mock French accent.)

Oh-oh, here comes the Natural-Born Hustler again (a few months later)... what's he peddling this time? Ah, yes - privatized TV dramas.

The Club Med Casanova

Yup. It's tough being an eligible young person these days.

Eligible for what, marriage? Sounds like such a dreadful fate - getting stuck with some so-and-so the rest of your life! And these days you meet so many smashingly attractive, suave-sophisticated-&-successful young people. Why knock being a Yuppie? Only problem is, everyone you meet is wearing the same chic and classy designer clothes (the ones with the extra large labels on the outside) - how to tell what the person is REALLY like underneath?

Maybe.. if we could arrange to meet at the beach. Some quiet, genteel resort where only decent, respectable, good-looking young swingers go - some place like Club Med, of course - where I wouldn't feel out of my element in my daring new swim gear... the sort of resort where you just might run into the passionate love partner of your wildest Dunlopillo dreams.

Hallo, I'm Sebastian. How ees eet going?

Sun tan lotion is so-o-o-o-o sensuous... love those beautiful bronzed bodies. And that tangy salt air, that bright blue breeze teasing my hair. Long lazy weekends. It's enough to make anyone fall in love... oh, what a good time for the good taste of a Kent! It's good to know you've finally arrived, just like in the ads; life is every delicious bit the way the glossy magazines describe it.

Are you Sebastian the Club Med Casanova? Hi, I'm Marina. Hey, you're cute, did you know that? Let's go snorkelling!

I wasn't even invited to the wedding. Not that I would've gone. Let them flock to Cherating. I'm going to Phuket. The sea's so much bluer there. Or is it green?

The Aficionado of the Arts

No, I'm not about to poke fun at the Aficionado of the Arts. Instead, I'd like this chapter included as a special tribute to the smallest - though by no means the least significant - minority group in Malaysia.

Members of this extremely rare subspecies constantly risk being ridiculed by the vulgar each time they take the trouble to attend a book launch or a live performance. They have to suffer the raucous jeers of the hoi polloi who call them rude names like 'culture vulture' and 'arty-farty.' They must undergo the ignominy of being dismissed as 'a boring bunch of elitist snobs' by obscurantist slobs who spend their evenings slouched in front of the TV gawping at Romanian wrestlers.

And that isn't the only price Aficionados of the Arts must pay. They must learn to enjoy, or at least endure, the inevitable small talk around the refreshment table at art exhibitions or during intermissions in theatre lobbies. No easy task, since it is not uncommon - in such an esoteric and incestuous circle - for the same old faces to show up at five different events in the course of a week.

Harder still, they have to applaud with sincere generosity when amateur thespians insist on a third curtain call. As official funding of the arts is all but non-existent (except for the well-connected), the true Aficionado is duty-bound to express a wholesome optimism, to rejoice at every single shred of artistic promise. Who else will accept responsibility for the fostering of authentic culture within these shores? Who else will shoulder the financial burden of aesthetic development?

Certainly not the Ministry of Culture & Tourism* whose officers are perpetually abroad trying to figure out what tourists want. Go fly a Kelantan kite, I say! No self-respecting artist should become a performing monkey for a busload of American Express cardholders.

At least the Aficionado of the Arts is not a tourist - and at this point I'm tempted to append a name list of all certified Aficionados of the Arts in the Klang Valley (it takes only two pages) - but let's not embarrass ourselves more than necessary.

*In 2004 the Ministry of Culture & Tourism was reconfigured as the Ministry of Culture, Arts & Heritage. Tourism had become significant enough a source of revenue to warrant its own ministry.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Angry Young Artist

But why is he so angry? How come he's still so young? And, anyway, what is Art? I think these are questions that deserve to be answered. However, who is going to answer them? Perhaps we should interview the Angry Young Artist himself...

Excuse me, why are you so angry?

What? Why am I so angry? I'll tell you why. Because I'm starving to death, that's why. No, I'm not asking you to buy me lunch! I'm hungry for some recognition, that's all. But I'll settle for some hard cash. Bloody Neo-Philistines! They want me to stick to landscapes. Anything mental disturbs them. At one time I wanted to be a musician. They stopped me and told me to play something they might enjoy... like La Bamba! Wouldn't you be angry?

Well, er... how come you're so young?

I'm NOT young! I'm 45 years old! I just happen to look like I'm in arrested adolescence because I'm irresponsible. I have no mortgages, no heavy-handed boss breathing down my neck, and my wife booted me out 15 years ago. If I live long enough to be considered old I shall have painted so many coconut tree landscapes and sung La Bamba so many times I wouldn't have the energy to be angry. Besides, don't you know that being an artist means staying as childlike as possible, keeping the mind playful and flexible? Types like me will always be young!

Can you tell me... what is Art?

Art? Are you serious? Well, Art stimulates the mind, it liberates our perceptions. Advertising - now, that isn't Art, that's mass hypnosis, propaganda, a potent narcotic that numbs us to true values. But Art is always one step ahead of Reality... Art deprograms us, frees us from the routine patterns that robotise our lives. Art, you see, is anti-dogma. Art confronts us with the Essential... reconnects us with our senses, our intimations of divinity. Art is...

Thank you! Thank you very much! I have to go now. Miami Vice is on.

The Pub Pundit

Whenever I enter a particular pub in Petaling Jaya I'm reminded of poor Prometheus. Prommie who? He's one of the younger, more idealistic Titan gods in Greek mythology. He got into big trouble with The Management (namely Zeus, chief of the Olympian gods) because he figured he'd help speed up Evolution by offering Mankind the secret of Fire (withheld by Zeus for security reasons). Well, Prometheus gets caught and is branded a dangerous subversive (and traitor to the Ruling Class). As punishment he is chained to a rock where each day a carnivorous bird would come down and devour his liver. But during the night his liver would regenerate, and the horrific ordeal would be repeated ad infinitum.

From Mankind's point of view, of course, Prometheus was a great hero - a Bringer of Light, freedom fighter, and icon of noble resistance.

Now, our Pub Pundit is by no means a great hero - except when he's had a few pints in the convivial company of his fellow journalists who have assembled there to quench their thirst and vent their frustrations. If you happen to be a good listener you're guaranteed a generous supply of beer on the pundit's account. He'll curse his bosses and tell dirty jokes about the finance minister and generally rant and rave about the sorry state of the judiciary or the economy - which makes you wonder how he copes with a $600 monthly bill at the pub. His intentions, to be sure, are noble: he would like decency, truth and justice to prevail; he would like the facts made public. Like Prometheus, he only wants to bring a little light to the benighted masses. And, like Prometheus, he is punished horribly for his efforts. The only difference being that it's not a bird that devours his liver each day - it's the beer every night.

No doubt you'll find a few pundits outside of the pubs - but these fellows are much too sober to shoot their mouths off (and how else does one get to be known as a pundit?) Others prefer to get drunk on power, so they end up in politics, playing the traditional game of Poltroons & Panjandrums (such lovely words, look them up in the dictionary) - call it the X-rated version of Snakes & Ladders.

If you wish to avoid getting drawn into controversial debate, there are plenty of pubs without pundits to patronise - where the clientele just lounges around misty-eyed, listening to cowboy songs. And others where you can happily tap your feet and nod your head in jazzy nonchalance, yapping about your unbeatable prowess in Trivial Pursuit and your wild weekend in Phuket.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Undaunted Environmentalist

He takes his mission very seriously. As a matter of principle he refuses to own a car, but he accepts the occasional lift. Relying on public transport is extremely hard work; and, if nothing else, our Undaunted Environmentalist is a hard worker. He even cycles around town in the afternoon heat wearing a gas mask just to dramatise his campaign against air pollution. People think he's crazy. Why doesn't he mind his own business like the rest of us and concentrate on getting rich?

When he isn't preparing densely-footnoted articles for ecological journals or crawling in and out of smelly ditches collecting water samples - he's attending seminars, conventions, and committee meetings. In fact, over the last decade or so, he's spent so much time speaking out for conservation in various air-conditioned conference rooms that he probably no longer notices his environment at all. Which is not to imply that his work isn't absolutely worthwhile.

Thanks to the tireless crusading of the Undaunted Environmentalist, Malaysians are gradually beginning to realise the difference between 'standard of living' and 'quality of life.' Indeed there has been a growing awareness of our natural heritage and other ecologically sensitive issues. A few have even begun to see a correlation between worsening floods and and ruthless deforestation - but nobody dares to point any fingers. (How to cari makan if our fingers get chopped off, they mutter.)

Well, the Big Guns (meaning developers, industrialists, and well-placed politicians) are fond of telling us you can't make omelettes without breaking eggs - a pretty smug analogy, if you give the matter some serious thought. A million eggs can be broken on any day and there will be another million eggs the next - so long as chickens exist. However, once we ruin an environment it stays ruined for ages, if not for keeps. And, besides, not everybody likes omelettes - especially not the kind of 'omelette' offered to a poorly-informed public by some wheeler or dealer masquerading as an executive chef. Someone, in any case, who appears more congenitally inclined towards destruction than construction. So far most of these developmental 'omelettes' have translated into reality as overpriced concrete scabs on the face of the earth - or as festering, foul-smelling sores oozing poison pus.

What it all boils down to, in the end, is the economics of greed versus need; and our Undaunted Environmentalist naturally believes that a line can be drawn between the two. And so he gets drawn into the line of fire when the Big Guns battle over the booty (forget the beauty!) of Mother Nature, giving the word exploit a sinister and hideous new connotation.

Now this makes our Undaunted Environmentalist one of the most endangered of species in the political undergrowth of Newly Industrialising Malaysia. Who needs him around interfering with Progress and Development; putting wicked ideas into the minds of poor savages in faraway Sarawak? Anyway, we already have a Department of the Environment that does a great job putting up No Spitting signs in coffee shops (or is that the work of City Hall? Then what does the DOE do?)

Okay, I'll admit this isn't the most amusing chapter in the book. But since when has brutal rape been a laughing matter?

The Selangor Club Loudmouth

The nicest thing that can be said about the Royal Selangor Club is that unlike most of the other 'exclusive' clubs - it's not nouveau riche. The annals of the Club date back beyond a century and constitute a rich historical resource. And its present membership has acquired an urbanity that's not overly pompous, good show! This wasn't the case in the bad old Colonial days when the Selangor Club was strictly reserved for the White Tuans and their precious Mems - with the notable exception of a few select Asians and Eurasians.

Among the early non-White members of 'The Spotted Dog' was an exuberant personality named Thambusamy Pillai who rose from ordinary clerk to acting Selangor State Treasurer, and eventually ended up as a high-powered chettiar and Pillar of the Tamil community. (Some have snidely remarked that Mr Pillai was probably one of the reasons behind the Club's nickname - while others blame it on Mrs Syers, the Police Superintendent's wife, who habitually tied her pet dalmatians at the Club entrance. Yet others maintain that the Club was jokingly referred to as the Spotted Dog on account of its original emblem - a badly drawn tiger - but I find this rather implausible.)

Super towkays like Chow Ah Yeok and Loke Yew, of course, would have been welcome on the Club premises provided they refrained from indiscreet spitting. However, these towkays generally preferred to hang out at their very own place - the Gymkhana Club (which later became the Turf Club) - where the action was a lot swifter. But even at its worst the Spotted Dog was never the bastion of apartheid that the Lake Club reputedly was in the pre-Merdeka days. Why, the Sultan of Selangor visited the Lake Club at the invitation of the British Resident and this unprecedented intrusion ('Royal status be damned, he's still a Native!') raised a storm of indignation amongst the committee. The insult was deemed mutual and UMNO threatened to send a mob of angry youths over to the Lake Club and burn it down.

But all that is history - and so, I'm afraid, may be the Selangor Club Loudmouth. The more curious among you might ask: who were these Loudmouths? Well, there was a time when you'd find a whole gaggle of them gathered on the airy veranda overlooking the cricket green (or Padang), downing cold beers and gin slings. Invariably there'd be a few lawyers and journalists and off-duty members of the Judiciary - voicing aloud the grievances and contemptuous thoughts that weren't permitted in Court. Or anywhere else for that matter.

Then retribution descended on the Spotted Dog: the shrill voices of genteel dissent were muffled by the plywood hoarding of summary and irrevocable development - and drowned by the clatter of heavy machinery and construction crews hard at work converting the famous Selangor Club Padang into the infamous Merdeka Square or Dataran Merdeka (underground carpark, shopping arcade, theatre complex, world's tallest flagpole and all)*. For once the Selangor Club Loudmouth was silent. Not a peep of protest was heard from him or his wife.

Not officially anyway. Oh well... it's not cricket but we're better off just being Pillars of Society. And pillars don't talk.

chettiar - private moneylender.
towkay - Chinese for 'big boss' as in Italian capo.
Merdeka - Malayan Independence (31 August 1957).
UMNO - United Malay Nationalist Organisation, founded in May 1946. Declared illegal and defunct in January 1988 but artificially resuscitated not long afterwards. At present known as UMNO Baru (at least till public memory of the fiasco fades away).

*Let's fast-forward 14 years from the time this chapter was written: transforming the historic Padang into Dataran Merdeka turned out to be an extremely myopic idea. In June 2002 the nearby Gombak River burst its banks and muddy floodwaters swept into the basement, drowning hundreds of vehicles and completely destroying the theatre complex along with several restaurants, boutiques, and a cinema. Today Dataran Merdeka is a pathetic shadow of its former self, since nobody in their right mind would want to rent space there ever again.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The World-Record Breaker

Malaysians are generally a modest lot. Except when it comes to trying to get a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records.* Suddenly they'll be up and doing the silliest and most extravagant things without the slightest sign of self-consciousness. Like producing the world's longest lemang (a traditional 'pudding' made from glutinous rice and coconut milk and baked in bamboo on a wood fire).

In fact, the desperate desire to break world records has become, in recent years, something of a National Compulsion. Not content with boasting the world's oldest rainforests, the most delicious and interesting variety of food, the friendliest people and the most promising future, we've gone on to baking the longest cake in history (and eating it).

The Guinness Book editors must receive the greatest number of letters from Malaysians. There's an Ipoh chap who claims he has manufactured the world's largest pair of joss-sticks. Among department stores, seasonal displays and decorations have been turned into a highly competitive record-breaking front: already we've seen the world's most spectacular and expensive Lunar Year Dragon in The Mall; and the longest ever continuous stretch of batik strung up in a giant coil on the ceiling of an entire floor at Parkson Grand. We've even had a yogi at Batu Caves making a bid to break the world record for being buried alive the longest. (For all I know he might be in there still.)

The biggest, heaviest, fattest, longest, shortest, most exorbitant! Now the government has got into the act in earnest. Having struck out with the Penang Bridge (which was rated only the third longest in the world) and the Petronas Twin Towers - which enjoyed the status of World's Tallest Building for all of six months before it was superseded by the Shanghai World Financial Centre and, subsequently, Taipei 101 - they managed to save face by getting involved in the single hugest loans scandal in world financial history. An even more resounding achievement followed with the Heavy Industries Corporation of Malaysia - a hapless hiccup that should more than qualify for the Guinness Book as the most monumental entrepreneurial catastrophe ever recorded. (I wonder if the Malaysian defence ministry has submitted for consideration as 'The World's Biggest Kickback' the 114-million euro commission it recently paid out to a private consultant for brokering a deal on used submarines.)

Still, Malaysians can proudly claim to have the best network of roads in Southeast Asia - along with one of the world's highest highway fatality rates. Of course, we can always fall back on the world-record-breaking labour-intensiveness of our civil service. With the daredevil politicking that's been going on, we also stand a good chance of scoring another entry in the Guinness Book: why, our politicos could easily be acclaimed The World's Most Astounding Escape Artists (since Houdini is long dead and that other disaster-dodging hero, Indiana Jones, is purely fictitious).

And now Malaysia is hoping to get listed as the country with The World's Freest Press. Failing which we'll settle for The Barest-Faced Lie Ever Told.

Honestly, though... why can't we relax ('Jangan tension lah,' as any progressive kutu would say) and opt for simply being The World's Nicest Place To Live?

*Indeed, a year after the publication of Adoi!, Malaysian tycoon Datuk Danny Ooi conceived the idea of a Malaysian Book of Records in support of the then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad's apathy-banishing slogan, "Malaysia Boleh!" (which translates as "Malaysia Can Do!") - why wait for jealous foreigners to praise our accomplishments when we can now afford to blow our own trumpets?

The Hysterical Hostellite

It's one of those things you occasionally come across in the papers. A group of teenaged girls fresh from some kampong are put in a hostel. Often they're students in a religious school; sometimes they're assembly line workers in an electronics factory. But the reports are predictably similar: for no apparent reason the girls break out in hysteria, screaming and yelling and kicking out at anyone who tries to calm them. The attacks usually last an hour or so; then comes a bout of uncontrollable weeping, followed by sheer exhaustion. In most cases a bomoh has to be called in.

Ask the kampong folk or the bomohs what causes these outbreaks of spontaneous hysteria and they'll tell you solemnly that the girls were temporarily possessed by a local datuk - which, in this instance, refers to a regional spirit inhabiting an ancient tree*. The standard prescription for cases of spontaneous hysteria is a ritual cleansing of the place and, perhaps, appeasement of the restless datuk. Usually, this seems to do the trick. The victims return to normal and life goes merrily on. At least until the next attack.

Psychologists, of course, have tried to explain the phenomenon in Freudian terms with libido theory and whatnot. Since the syndrome apparently affects only post-pubescent girls living or working in somewhat regimented conditions, there may be a basis for this 'repressed sexuality' argument. There are famous case studies of young ladies in French convents who experienced similar attacks, requiring the urgent services of priest-exorcists. Demonic possession may sound a bit mediaeval to most of us - but not very long ago we had reports of mass hysteria among teenage girls in the U.S. Only the media dubbed it Beatlemania. It's pretty obvious, though, that hysteria has something to do with ovulation (in Greek hustera means 'womb').

Does hysteria occur among men? Yes, but it manifests differently with different social groups. At the bottom rung of male 'hysteria' is the amok tendency. The English once believed only Malays knew how to run amok. Not anymore. British soccer fans have put an end to that myth; and so have well-known cases of American males going berserk with high-powered rifles. And then there are the quiet, methodical berserkers who chop their wives into little pieces and make curries out of them. Others display symptoms of disciplined 'hysteria' by losing astronomical amounts at the races or in the stockmarket; or by ruining entire countries with bad government. With males the trouble seems to stem not from eggs but from ego.

What corollary can we draw from the Hysterical Hostellite's affliction? When dealing with difficult datuks you have to exorcise if you can't appease.


kampong - village
bomoh - traditional healer, witch-doctor
datuk - also written as dato': literally, 'grandfather'; the tutelary spirit of a particular keramat or sacred spot. Not to be confused with the more common, secular species of datuk whose influence on human affairs is more fiscal than metaphysical. 'Datukship' in this latter context is merely an honorific title bestowed on a select number of enterprising individuals.

*At the foot of most old trees you're likely to find a shrine. This marks the spot as 'keramat' - a power point - and usually denotes the private residence of a datuk. Be courteous and watch your thoughts when taking shelter under such a tree. Interestingly, the idea of old trees as repositories of spirits is encountered in all cultures, despite the efforts of orthodox ideologists to dismiss it as pagan superstition.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Sign Language

Lrgend has it that along the main street of a particular small town in Peninsular Malaysia, the observant visitor can quietly chuckle at a bold signboard displayed by a gas retailer: WEE KAN FATT. Directly across the road, above a sundry shop, is the proud proclamation: SOH KAN WEE. In another small town, possibly mythical, is a street full of tailor shops. One of them is called MAK MEE KUM; right next to it is another outfit known as MEE TOO. I presume these provocative shop signs are imaginary - I have yet to see them with my own eyes, and when I do I shall most certainly photograph them for posterity. Meanwhile here are a few that undoubtedly exist. Some may not quite warrant a guffaw - but they're worth at least a smile.


It's a lot like mushroom hunting. You don't see them at all until you begin looking - then when you find one, hundreds seem to pop up from nowhere. Not long after I'd been around taking pictures of signs that amused me, I ran into Hari (an old friend and first-rate photographer) who told me about the large number of DR QUEKs he'd encountered. 'There'salso an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist named Chin,' he added.

But what made me reload my camera and go sign-hunting again was the old coffee shop in K.L. that Hari mentioned. 'It's located in a totally dilapidated building and it's called SOON GOH FATT.'

I was too late. The place had gone phut.

However, I'm sure you'll be glad to hear that the GOON INSTITUTE continues to flourish - despite the fact that Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe are not on the board of trustees.

The Black Marker Brigade

Sad but true, the Black Marker Brigade exists. It's a quiet, diligent, anonymous league of Backroom Types whose mission on Earth - or, at least, in Malaysia - is to protect us from accidental or intentional exposure to titillation of the salacious variety. Their thankless task, in effect, is to ensure that you never have to be confronted with (and, presumably, affronted by) an image of the Female Nipple. Whenever and wherever it may appear: in imported literature, cinema posters, and comics, for instance. And so what if you've just forked out $18.75 for a reputable photography journal or glossy art magazine? How can it claim to be reputable if it's got naked pink titties in it?

Hah! In the name of Art too many atrocities haved been committed. Too Much Flesh Exposed. It's time people stopped taking off their pants just so that some artist-pervert can paint them. One practiced stroke of the felt-tipped pen and... voila! Goya's Naked Maja is naked no more! A deft rub here and a quick daub there and... Hullo! Michelangelo's David is ready to meet the Malaysian public! Anytime now the Black Marker Brigade may be commissioned to bring decency and modesty back to the medical textbooks. You can bet the floors of all our book warehouses will be slippery with drool.

Do members of the Black Marker Brigade go to work in sinister Ku Klux Klan-style hoods? What do they do to nude black women - do they switch to Tipp-Ex? What are the long-term consequences of membership in the Brigade? Does one go through life seeing dark spots and splotches on women's chests that can't be removed with even the most devout rubbing? What do they write in their passports under Occupation?

Well, it's a dirty job - but somebody has to do it. The Stout-of-Heart and Incorruptible who attain the rank of Veteran in the Black Marker Brigade have the awful onus of ritually purifying 8 X 10 glossies and wall-sized posters of the most notorious and lascivious-looking of foreign film-stars. (God, we had a horrible experience with that disgusting Member of the Italian Parliament... what was her name? Ah yes... Cicciolina... none of us got any sleep for a week. we had no choice - it was a Standing Order from the Minister of Home Affairs.)

One shudders to think of the things some people have to do to earn a living. Still, there are obviously a few rare souls who seem to have been born with black marker pens in their untiring little hands. You can easily identify them in a crowd, they're a breed apart: look for the dark ink stains on their lips and fingertips. Our hands are filthy but our minds are clean! This is the solemn credo of the Black Marker Brigade.

The Phantom Voter

How do the politicians do it? It seems they can even raise the dead - turn former citizens into Zombies, Hungry Ghosts, Phantom Voters! As the term suggests, the Phantom Voter doesn't exist... except on some electoral roll. The Phantom Voter, you see, was created by expediency. Everyone knows winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. So what if we have to cheat and lie and fudge the records?

All you need to conjure up a Phantom Voter is an identity card number. It could belong to someone unborn or long dead. The Elections Commission won't delve too deeply into the details. After all, they're in the civil service.

The Phantom Voter, like any other spirit, must inhabit some Party Branch- preferably an unregistered (and officially non-existent) village outpost. When it comes down to votes quantity is what counts - who cares about quality? Don't tell me the Phantom Voter's political influence is insubstantial.

Anyway, how about YOU? For heaven's sake, you didn't even register to vote in the last elections - so how dare you cast aspersions on the Phantom Voter? Boo!

The Human Rights Activist

Hello... er, where did she go? Oh well, what can I say? Turn the page...

The Quiet Emigrant

Only last week he sold you a bunch of palm oil futures. 'Things are definitely looking up,' he said. 'Look at the rubber prices - they've bounced right back, thanks to AIDS, ha ha!'

This is a wonderful country to be born in. The food's good, people are talented, it's a lively blend of East and West, plenty of land, natural resources, blah blah blah.

So how come this week his villa in Damansara Heights is up for sale? Ah... he's joined the rest of his family in Toronto. Oh well, lucky bastard, managed to find himself a job in Canada. Probably did it for the sake of his children (they were terribly traumatised when the Minister of Education visited their school to promote the use of rubber hoses as a disciplinary device).

But will the kids grow up as Canadians? Will they someday qualify as Mounties? Or will they be mistaken for Eskimos? And does it matter? In the end we're all just human, aren't we?

Next year he might send you an invitation for the summer - and there'sll be a P.S. asking if you could smuggle in a couple of durians (for his wife). They're all going to really miss their curry laksa. But I doubt if they'll seriously regret being Quiet Emigrants.

The jingoist crudely declares: 'Let them go. Those who stay are going to cause less trouble.' Isn't that the crux of the problem? We are seen as a nation of potential troublemakers. Paranoia is rampant.

I hear France is a lovely country. Baby Doc seems quite well adjusted there. How about Honolulu? No need to speak Frog there. Too many bloody Japs, though. Maybe Mongolia. Outer... as far Outer as possible.

Personally I'm just about ready for a private dome on the moon. I need some time off-planet to recover from what they call Compassion Fatigue.


Alamak! Things change so quickly in this country. Just like with teenagers: turn around for a moment and they sprout tiny hairs all over, their voices crack, and they start talking back. And take the deadline for this book, for instance. It was originally scheduled for release before Christmas 1987. 'No way!' I protested. 'Let's shoot for Christmas 1988.'

We missed - or, rather, I did.

So we're trying for Easter 1989. Failing which we'll get it on the shelves before next Christmas. You hold in your hands an infinitely postponable publishing event.

How come it took so long? I may not be a certified dynamo of human productivity - but I'm really not that lazy. Truth is, I suffered a temporary loss of my sense of humour. Don't ask me why. Read the newspapers. I was almost ready to quit.

Now you know why the book ends with "The Quiet Emigrant" instead of something more positive - like the image of a completely contented Malaysian squatting on the curb behind a heap of durian shells, happy as an idiot just thinking about the anticipated influx of tourists in Visit-Malaysia-Year 1990. I wouldn't want, however, to underestimate my fellow Malaysians' potential for nobler aspirations.

And what could be nobler than gritting your teeth and muttering: 'Right, we're in for the long haul!' Don't tell me you believe in ready-made Paradises? Well, I believe it's our task to try and establish a Fair Deal (so what if people say there's no Justice in the world?) Things tend to balance out. Somone who's already migrated reports that curry laksa is easily obtainable where he lives in Vancouver, no problem. Others who are on the verge of emigration now confess to harbouring second, third, and fourth thoughts. This place is exasperating - but it's so enjoyable!

I wouldn't mind a change of scene myself. I just don't like the idea of running away. A fortune teller (prognosticators bloom in times of gloom) informs me in good faith that I would make a lot of money 'overseas.' That's hardly news: everybody seems to make a lot more money over there, even those on the dole. No way you can 'earn a living' in Malaysia writing books or acting or singing or dancing or playing music, or so I've been told. Okay, help me prove them all wrong: DON'T FLIP THROUGH THIS BOOK AND PUT IT BACK ON THE RACK - TAKE IT TO THE CASHIER IMMEDIATELY AND DO YOUR BIT FOR THE NATION'S CULTURAL DEVELOPMENT. AND DO IT WITH A BIG SMILE.

But I was talking about the swift changes sweeping the country, especially K.L. The ugly ditch right in front of the Royal Selangor Club won't be there forever, though the padang's gone for good. Did I say 'for good'? Oh, why not - some good comes out of every situation. The nation has never had a better education than in the last few years, I'm sure.

A few specimens I'm not supposed to describe (if I want to be published) are still pretty much at large - indescribably so, I'm afraid. That's another Malaysian hang-up: we seem to be sensitive in all the wrong spots. To me being sensitive means when someone touches you there you wriggle your toes and sigh. Or else you fly into a rage, throw a monster tantrum, have it out then and there and be done with it. Putting critics in jail and roughing them up and making publishers squirm is not very nice.

Anyway, as I was saying, changes occur in the blink of an eye. I've just been told there are no longer any Illegal Immigrants in our midst - some sort of amnesty was declared. Oh well, we'll keep the chapter in for posterity. Sorways nice to look back arfturds and have a bladigood laugh, izzenit? Adoi! so pain one ah! And with that I bid you Adieu.

January 1989,

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Author/Illustrator

Kit Leee (who has sported his third 'e' for so long he cannot remember how or why he acquired it) was born in Batu Pahat. Since moving to K.L. in 1970 he has enjoyed a remarkable - or ridiculous (depending on your worldview) - career as an adwriter, actor, photographer, traveller, commentator on the arts scene, cartoonist, scriptwriter, and gatecrasher. In his passport under 'occupation' he has written: Ontologist. However, he has no objection to being called a Freelance Human. 'Even though,' he hastens to add, 'I'm not really free. In fact I charge as much as I can but I'm worth it.'

Back Cover

Click to enlarge