Saturday, August 30, 2003

Orphans of the Empire

It feels strange being back in KL. One needs to get adjusted to the harshness of the city. Having been accustomed to Javanese politeness and courtesy, KLites seem indifferent, unfriendly and aggressive.

All that driving through the roads of KL and PJ makes me feel very exhausted: the tedium of passing through tollgate after tollgate; the endless search for parking spaces and the frustration of being stuck in traffic jams that appear seemingly out of nowhere.

At the same time, I love the ubiquitous mamak stalls, the look of well-fed prosperity among the population and the multi-ethnicity of the society. I always feel that there's no dearth of talents among Malaysians. Our diverse mix of people and culture is our greatest strength.

In one of the short stories by Paul Theroux in The Consul's File (which is about the adventures of an American consul based in the town of Ayer Itam in Johor), he describes the Malaysian people as the "Orphans of the Empire". We are the abandoned children of our colonial masters. They left behind a curious mix of people who somehow have found a formula to coexist together, albeit a precarious one.

In many ways, the term "orphan" is an apt description. I've always felt that if I don't call myself a Malaysian, I have no identity. I am Malay-educated and was schooled in Malaysia, 100 percent. I am comfortable speaking English but it is not my mother tongue. I don't speak Mandarin and my Cantonese volcabulary is very limited. I struggle to converse in the dialect everytime I speak with my colleagues in HK.

I enjoy speaking Malay (if fact I used to speak Malay more often than English during my schooldays) but I hardly read anything in the language. That alone makes me Malay-illiterate, in a sense. Unfortunately it is also never used in the business world. Though my taste in books, art and music is solely Western, I don't consider myself Westernized either.

I am very comfortable living among Indonesians but my accent still betrays me. And there are a lot of differences between Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia. Sometimes I feel that knowing Melayu is actually a stumbling block to speaking good authentic Indonesian because you cling to your habit of using words like "bila" and "tak" instead of "kapan" and "enggak".

I have worked for four years in Singapore and could have settled down there permanently if I wanted to, like what many of my friends did; but I've never felt any affinity to the island state or its people. At best it is only a very comfortable place to live in--like a good hotel.

Who am I then? Theroux is right. I am an orphan of the Empire: I feel at home in Malaysia because it is my orphanage. And I am eternally grateful.

Friday, August 29, 2003

Life is a Journey

I want to blog today before taking the 6.30pm flight back to KL. I'll be spending the next 4 days at home. I find it tougher to blog whenever I'm back in KL. Somehow life is a lot more hectic there.

The last time I was home--it was more of a business trip--I virtually spent my entire week camped at the KL office, helping the team with a proposal. But this time, I am taking leave. I want to take the opportunity to spend more time at home and to meet up with old friends.

I haven't been travelling much for the past two years. Going on a flight to me is a good opportunity to catch up on reading. I even enjoy reading inflight magazines such as Garuda, KrisWorld and Going Places.

I don't really mind long flights. We often get edgy and restless when our minds are over-eager to arrive at the destination. If we accept the fact that there is no way that our eagerness will make us arrive sooner, the experience won't be so bad. Are we not always reminded by hackneyed sayings such as "life is a journey, not a destination"?. I'd rather luxuriate--as best as one could--in my economy seat and immerse myself in a good book.

On those long flights from US to KL, I can finish a whole book. Biographies are the best. It is satisfying to be able to digest an entire man's life within a single flight. I remember in 1994, I read Isaac Asimov's autobiography: I, Asimov on my way back from San Francisco. It was so engrossing that I hardly slept throughout the entire journey.

My flight from Jakarta to KL will only take me two hours. Normally that's just enough time to read through the newspapers and to finish the inflight meal (usually nasi rendang). Look forward to hearing that pleasant (or irritating) 8-note chime over the PA system at KLIA again...

Thursday, August 28, 2003

On Writers and Writing

On Writers and Writing

What shall I write about today? I actually keep a list of over a hundred possible blog subjects in my PDA. But I normally end up writing something that's not in the list.

I have read many books about the process of writing itself. It is often very interesting to listen to authors talking about how they struggle to write. I don't read that many Stephen King novels--even though I used to be quite a horror fan when I was a teenager--but I enjoyed his book about writing, called On Writing.

Stephen King has a great sense of humour; with his nerdy specs and awkward frame, he looks funny too. He himself actually starred in a segment of Creepshow (the movie) which I watched as a kid at the Cathay cinema back in my hometown. He was hilarious, having all these weeds from outer space growing all over his body!

Recently I also read Norman Mailer's views on writing in his book The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing. Mailer is such a literary giant. He, Tom Wolfe and Don Delillo are probably some of America's most celebrated writers of this generation. These are writers who are always attempting the mythical Great American Novel. But I must admit that I haven't found the time to read enough of their writings.

There's also a cable program by C-SPAN called Booknotes which conducts interviews with authors. They give good insights about their books and how they approach their writing. Some of these interviews are transcribed and published in Booknotes: America's Finest Authors on Reading, Writing, and the Power of Ideas edited by Brian Lamb. I remember spending many happy days reading that when I was in Singapore.

I mentioned in a previous posting that I keep a longhand journal which I try to update every night. I also jot down a lot of notes on spiral notebooks and on my trusty Jornada PDA. I write to unburden my mind and to clarify my thoughts. Sometimes I write to motivate myself.

Scanning through my notebooks the other day, I read something that I jotted down randomly many years ago: Writing is thinking in motion.

That probably sums up my philosophy on writing: I will continue to write as long as my mind continues thinking. Writing and thinking to me are inseparable.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

The Lightness of Being

One thing good that came out of my four years in Singapore is that I learnt how to live without a car. I have kept the habit even here in Jakarta.

I consider myself lucky that I do not envy people who drive nice cars. I think cars are a huge burden to maintain. One has to pay too high a premium for that incremental pleasure of zooming down the roads in style and comfort. Obviously I am someone who has no sense of style.

I used to drive a lot when I was working in KL and PJ. Thinking back, I much prefer the life I lead now, relying solely on public transport. I actually save a lot of time by not driving--I don't have to hunt for parking and I don't have to queue up to pay for parking tickets. The taxi picks me up from where I am and drops me exactly where I want to be. Hassle free.

It costs less for me to go around by taxi than to own a car. There are some drawbacks of course--sometimes it is difficult to hail a cab-- but the benefits far outweigh these minor inconveniences. There are always other means of transport here in Jakarta like mikrolets, bajajs and ojeks.

Obviously for those with families, a car is essential. And it is difficult to imagine taking a girl out without a pair of wheels. A car is a symbol of one's importance and also reflects the responsibilities that one carries in life. Also to a guy, perhaps, a car is the ultimate toy/gadget--imagine the speed, the power, the prestige, the freedom and all that phallic symbolism. It can be exhilarating.

Ironically I feel so much freer without one. Some feel aimless and lost without the weight of material possessions, position and responsibility. I only feel a pleasurable lightness---that Lightness of Being that Milan Kundera talked about. (I enjoyed both the book and the movie, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliet Binoche and Lena Olin).

It could just be sheer irresponsibility or even immaturity on my side. But that's what I am: a Light Being. And the feeling is certainly not unbearable. Because, to quote Kundera again, Life is Elsewhere.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

The Rich and the Poor

Many of my colleagues have chauffeurs to drive them to work. This is one of the luxuries in Indonesia that even the middleclass could afford. The average middleclass household has two maids--one to care for the baby and another to do the cooking and cleaning.

Even for us office workers, we enjoy certain luxuries that our counterparts in other countries would envy. There's always a retinue of office-boys (referred to as OB, pronounced "Oh Bay"), to help us do menial tasks such as photocopying, buying lunch and running other personal errands around town.

Having such luxuries also comes with its headaches. Drivers normally don't work for long. Once they earn enough money, they would want to go back to their kampung to rest until they run out of money again. Some maids are kleptomaniacs--always pilfering things from their employers.

One will also be surprised to know that the average middleclass housing areas in the suburbs do not have piped water supply from the government. For washing and cleaning, residents have to draw water from the ground using pumps. And for drinking, they actually get regular supplies of mineral water from Aqua. These are delivered to homes--just like cooking gas--in large 19 litre bottles.

Many of the working class and young executives live in boarding houses or rumah kos. Typically five rooms would share a toilet. If you are willing to pay more, there are also "executive-class" rumah kos where you have air-conditioning, attached bathroom and a fridge.

For transportation to work, they take a combination of ojeks(professional motorcyclists who take pillion riders), bajajs (motorized three-wheelers), mikrolets (Kijang minibuses) and buses.

The really poor live in shanty dwellings that sprout beside dirty canals and in every nook and corner between gleaming highrise buildings. They cover the city like an ugly skin infection.

The rich easily squanders away 1 million rupiah in one afternoon of golf. The driver (supir), who sleeps in the car waiting for his master, hardly earns half the amount in one month.

After a round of golf, it is customary to go for a relaxing massage in one of the many massage parlours in Mayestik or Wijaya Center. A typical masseur is paid five rupiah per customer. She gets around 3 customers a day. Of course they work for tips which could range from 20,000 rupiah 200,000 rupiah per customer, depending on the "quality" of service provided.

This is life in Jakarta. The poor and the rich have a symbiotic relationship. It is tempting to think that the poor are virtuous and the rich greedy and arrogant. Sometimes this could be true. But I see both as pitiable creatures: many of the rich cannot transcend beyond the mediocrity of their upperclass pretensions and the poor are forever condemned by their instinctive nature to be easily satisfied with what they have.

Sometimes in Jakarta, it is difficult for me to distinguish the rich from the poor. In many ways, we are all poor.

Monday, August 25, 2003

Thinking a Thought

It is easy for us to get swarmed by the trivialities of everyday life. We come to the office on Monday and immediately get ourselves entangled in a web of activities that forces us to constantly act and react to external events imposed upon us.

Motivational gurus such as Stephen Covey and Anthony Robbins tell us that we have to control the space between stimulus and response. We have a choice to choose how we want to react to the world. Yet we seldom do. Why? Because we are weak.

We are creatures of habits; and most of our habits are bad. We seek the easy way out. When faced with a daunting task, we create excuses to avoid facing them or we choose to procrastinate. Why? Because procrastination is a lesser pain (= pleasure) which we choose over the greater pain of doing something difficult (which might bring us pleasure in the longer term).

Forced to choose between pleasure and pain, we instinctively veer towards the immediate pleasure. Again the motivational gurus have devised many different ways to help us train or "reprogram" ourselves so that we asssociate pleasure with a difficult task which would brings us long term benefits, and avoid the immediate "pleasure" of avoidance or procrastination that ultimately brings doom. They call it Neuro-Linguistic Programming or NLP.

A lot of people go for such motivational courses. They come back feeling like they can conquer the world. But this high only lasts for a while. Then they fall back into their old patterns of sloth and torpor. There is no quick and easy solution. In the end, it falls back on ourselves.

Unless one has a very strong will power to continuously seek to improve oneself, one will always become creatures of habit. We do not have the luxury of having a motivational coach by our side to keep reminding us that we should avoid the immediate pleasure of lighting up a cigarette or to refuse a second helping of that mouth-watering cheesecake.

I am also a creature of habit. Many of them are bad. But one thing that I do well is that I am conscious of not picking up new bad habits. The existing ones are already difficult enough for me to handle. We need to have that presence of mind, and that strong will power to tell ourselves that something is not good for us in the long run.

But all is not lost, for we can make the enemy work for us: We can build good habits. How? Through constant repetition and reinforcement. Have you noticed how rubbish or things accumulate in your house? It did not happen in a single day but grew one item at a time, and suddenly we realise our closet is filled with clothes that we don't wear anymore.

Why can't wealth accumulate that way too? We just need to consistently do something and without us realising it, we would have achieved a considerable amount. We don't need to look too far ahead. Just concentrate on the immediate task at hand. Do one thing at a time and do it well. Soon we will have a mountain of achievements.

Easier said than done of course. We all know what is right for ourselves. Just that we are too weak to take the next step. It is an effort of the will that requires strength of mind and not brawn. Let us halt the train of thoughts. Stop. Checkpoint. And then ask ourselves: What should our next step be? All action begins from a single thought. Consciously control that next thought. And the thought after that...

Think a fresh new thought. Try giving it a thought.

Sunday, August 24, 2003

What do you Read?

It is a question that I find very difficult to answer. I would blink for while trying to mentally categorize my reading preference and would come out blank. The best I could say is that I generally read more non-fiction than fiction.

When it comes to non-fiction, anything goes. I find almost any subject interesting. Looking at the last three books that I have read: Why are We at War? by Norman Mailer, The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner and Smart Mobs by Horward Rheingold, they all fall under different categories.

At the same time I also buy books that I do not intend to read from cover to cover. I will dip into certain chapters or pages from these books in between my major reads. A lifetime is brief; I realise long ago that I cannot read all the books that I am interested in within a single lifetime--even if I do nothing but read for the rest of my life.

So I need to be very selective. And it is also better to sample a couple of chapters from a book than to not read it at all. Reading work-related papers or--God forbid--books also takes up my precious time, though I try to keep them to a minimum these days. The idiot box is another time trap, which I avoid whenever I could.

At the same time, there are current events that I have to keep track of: Time and Newsweek are my regular companions. And I have not mentioned the daily websites that I visit for news and other information.

One might ask: Is all this reading useful? How does it help in making us better persons? This is a very deep question and it demands a separate blog entry for me to answer. As this is a Sunday, I am not going to go into a philosophical exposition on the benefits of reading. I just want to spend a relaxing weekend doing--what else?--reading.