Saturday, January 24, 2004



Indonesians often lament the fact that their country has now become an exporter of cheap labour to neighbouring countries like Malaysia. Once upon a time--during those halcyon years after Merdeka--Indonesian teachers were much sought after in Malaysia and Malaysian students used to study in their universities.

Now all they read about are the brutality of the Malaysian police against their TKI (pronounced, "tay-kah-ee", short for "Tenaga Kerja Indonesia"--Indonesian manpower or labour). Because life is hard for a lot of people in Indonesia, there's a general tolerance and sympathy for people who are just trying to earn a living, even if sometimes their means of livelihood--though not against the law--are a public nuisance. Pengamens, beggars, asongans and jokis come to mind. But some, like the ojek payung--people, often kids, who offer umbrellas whenever it rains--do offer a much appreciated service to the public.

Blue-collar workers, who do have a steady job, often have some means of earning side income too. The satpam (security guard) at the museum or some tourist spot, would offer to act as your guide, for a tip. The clerk at the National Library will ask if you would prefer "cheaper" photocopy services from him. One does not blame them for their "entrepreneurship" for these people work for a pittance. While we the educated middleclass, with our huge disposable income, would limit our number of children to two, these labouring massess--ask any one of them--they will tell you that they have a wife and four kids at home to support.

In Malaysia, the middleclass often blame Indonesian workers for crime in their neighbourhood. I have also heard a lot of horror stories about problems with Indonesian maids from my friends. To many Malaysians, Indonesian workers have become a "necessary evil". It is a pity that we often forget that for many of us, our forefathers who came to Malaysia were also cheap migrant labourers eager to eke out a living in a promised land rich with tin and rubber.

When our PM visited Jakarta recently, there were protests by certain groups against our brutality and inhumanity against Indonesian workers. They claimed that Malaysia owes their success to the sweat and tears of Indonesian workers. There would not have been the Petronas Twin Towers or the Sepang Formula One Circuit without TKI.

Malaysians often despise Singaporeans for behaving like a rich kid in a poor neighbourhood. If we do not address the poor PR that's filtering to the Indonesian media, then it is only a matter of time before we too are being perceived as the arrogant rich.

Migrant workers are an inevitability in any developed country today. Many of these migrants will eventually settle down here and become an integral part of our society. We Malaysians, have to learn to deal with Indonesian workers fairly and firmly. The reality is, we need them as much as they need us.

Friday, January 23, 2004

The Search for Meaning

The Search for Meaning

Except for a day or two when relatives drop by to visit, Chinese New Year is usually a relatively quiet affair for me. Sometimes the break is a good chance for me to catch up on my reading. I remember six years ago, I read a book by Viktor E. Frankl called Man's Search for Meaning over the Chinese New Year holidays. It proved to be one of the most important books I've ever read.

Viktor E. Frankl (1905-1997) was an eminent psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust at Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The book is partly a memoir of his experiences at the concentration camps and partly an introduction to his groundbreaking school of psychology called logotherapy.

The story of his experiences in the brutal Nazi concentration camps is a heart-wrenching one: separated from his family members with no knowledge of their fate (his father, mother, brother and wife all died at the gas chambers), forced to endure daily hard labour on a starvation diet and threatened with the ever-present possibility of death anytime, it was a miracle indeed that he managed to survive those three years of incessant mental and physical torture.

Prisoners were literally stripped of everything that they had; they were herded everywhere like cattle and shoved into multi-tiered plank shelves that served as bed; they were brutalized, insulted and reduced to shrivelled husks of meaningless existence. Viktor Frankl saw how many of his fellow inmates just dropped dead not because they were too weak or too sick to carry on but because they reached a point where they simply "gave up" on life.

Those who survived were those who managed to find a some kind of meaning to their suffering. In Nietzsche's words: "He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how".

To bear with the intolerable conditions of living in the camp, prisoners learned to "look forward" to the most trivial comforts as a great joy and blessing: like the discovery of a tiny piece of pea at the bottom of one's daily ration of watery soup or the rare opportunity to de-louse before going to bed.

Dr Frankl's experiences in the concentration camp helped him to formulate his psychological theory of logotherapy which rests on the belief the meaning that a person attaches to his life experiences is important for his emotional, pscyhological and physical well-being. One must find some kind meaning, even in suffering. It is this meaning that keeps one going.

The meaning that one attaches to one's life is a personal thing and could be different for everyone. For some, the meaning could be religious in nature; for others, it could be the realisation of an in-born talent in a particular field. It is an existential quest that we owe ourselves to pursue. Sometimes "meaning" is a journey and not a destination: it is the act pursuing meaning that gives life its meaning.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

The "Orang-Utan" of the Malay Archipelago

The "Orang-Utan" of the Malay Archipelago

Alfred Russel Wallace, spent years wandering among the many Indonesian islands collecting zoological speciments to be sold to collectors back home in England. He travelled alone in some of the remotest regions of the world with only a couple of local helpers whome he hired. His expeditions were financed entirely from proceeds of his sale of specimens.

A shy and unassuming man with no formal academic qualification, he was a relative outsider to the scientific community when he wrote an article expounding his views on how the diversity of species in natural world came about. The article was written in a ramshackle hut somewhere in the spice islands of Maluku while he was struggling with his regular bouts of malaria fever in 1858.

He mailed a copy of this article to an eminent scientist who, unknown to Wallace, had been working on similar ideas about the origin of species for the past 20 years but had yet to publish them. On reading Wallace's article, Charles Darwin was stunned that this strange equatorial wanderer has come up with ideas almost identical as his.

When Darwin finally published his famous The Origin of Species, he acknowledged Wallace's independent discovery of the theory of natural selection for the evolution of species. Even though Darwin is the better known figure among the two as the founder of this controversial theory, Wallace's contribution to our understanding of the flora and fauna of the Indonesian archipelago has been an enduring one. Naturalists name the invisible boundary separating two distinct groups of flora and fauna--one that traces its origins from mainland Asia, the other from Australasia as the Wallace Line.

Despite being the legitimate co-founder of the theory of natural selection, he was happy to let Darwin grab all the limelight, even stating that the controversial theory needed someone eminent like Darwin to promote it. The two men became good friends, and the often self-deprecating Wallace held Darwin in the highest esteem.

When Wallace finally wrote his famous tome, The Malay Archipelago, describing his travels in the region, he dedicated the book to Darwin. Unlike Darwin's Origin of Species, reprints of the Malay Archipelago can be found in any bookstore in Malaysia and Indonesia today. And what a great read it is: it is a combination of travelogue and the meticulous observations of a scientist who explored a region which has some of richest diversity of flora and fauna in the world.

The Malay Archipelago has been a favourite book of mine over the years that I've been travelling to and later, living in Indonesia. Alfred Russel Wallace comes across as a gentle and likeable person from his writings. With his nerdy glasses, bushy beard and gangly frame he must have appeared a strange figure indeed to the locals then--many whom have not seen a white man before. They must have thought that this bird and insect catcher is the real orang-utan (jungle man).

I am ashamed to have only visited a fraction of all the places that Wallace had been to during his eight years of travels in the region. Reading his description of Manado as being the "prettiest town in the East" had made me want to go there ever since. Too bad I did not manage to find the opportunity to make such a trip during my two-year stay in Indonesia. But I will someday. At the meantime, I'll just content myself with reading the writings of this great Victorian jungle man.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

The Season for Renewal

The Season for Renewal

In that dreamy state between sleep and wakefulness early this morning, for a moment I wasn't sure where I was. A surge of panic seized me: was I late for my morning lecture? Couldn't be--I'm already done with all my lectures for the week. Was I in some remote Javanese city? What time is my train departing for Jakarta? Was I late?

I woke up and realised that I was in someplace unfamiliar: home. I didn't know what I should be doing, for I don't have a regular routine yet. There's an uneasy feeling that I was somehow wasting time: Shouldn't I be at the Internet cafe, typing a report on my laptop, or just heading somewhere?

In actual fact there are a lot of things that I have to start doing. First I have to clean up my room and clear some space for all the junk that I have accumulated during my years away from home--those debris of past experience that I constantly mine for meaning.

It is tempting to take thing easy at home. One can easily sink into a stupor of sloth and languor if one is not careful. I need to maintain that austere discipline that I had kept all those years that I was away. I have to start building good habits.

It's Chinese New Year. Instead of treating it like a distraction like what I've always done in the past, perhaps I should make use of this auspicious occasion to embark on a new beginning. Spring is the season for renewal and regeneration. I must remind myself that I am Chinese and the Chinese are a very pragmatic and positive-thinking people. Sometimes I feel the Chinese already have all the virtues expouded by motivational gurus like Anthony Robbins embedded in their very culture.

The Chinese New Year celebration itself is nothing but a massive parade of positive thinking affirmations and symbolisms. Everyone participates in an exchange of well-wishes--for wealth, success, good fortune and prosperity. The din of lion dances, the gaudy display of reds everywhere coupled with the cacophony of of firecrackers help to break old patterns of thoughts and rouses the mind for greater achievements ahead.

So join in the revelry, savour its vigour, feel its vibrance, embrace its positive spirit--'tis the season for renewal. Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

The Burden of Books

The Burden of Books

At 7.30am this morning I delivered my final lecture to my class and by 3.10pm, I was on board MH720 flying back to KL. I'm finally home for Imlek (Indonesian for the Chinese Lunar New Year) but will have to be back in Jakarta next week for a few more days for I still have unfinished business there.

I arrive home to find myself preceded by four boxes of books that had I sent through TNT last week from Jakarta. These are books I had kept in the office for two years--books I had acquired during my four years in Singapore and had travelled together with me to Jakarta. They have never been home before, but they finally are now. This is but just a portion of my mobile library--I still have a few big bags containing books stored temporarily at a friend's place in Pondok Indah.

Packing is a tedious task. Over the years I have tried my best to minimize my personal belongings, bringing unnecessary things back to KL whenever I can. But somehow things accumulate very easily: in my case, it is books--which makes it worst because they are among the heaviest objects that one could own. Until e-books become more practical and user-friendly, I suppose we'll still have to suffer the inconvenience of lugging pieces of dead tree with us. Knowledge is a huge burden.

Despite my strenuous attempts to control my book-buying sprees, it looks like I have not been that successful in curbing this chronic bibliophilia of mine. Well, I guess there's a price for everything: Now I have to suffer the tedious process of packing and shipping these books back to KL (not to mention the stiff cost involved); and when they arrive safely home, I have to figure out where to store them. I have long run out of bookshelves. Instead of lining up my books nicely so that they can be randomly accessed, I have to resort to archiving them in boxes and shoving them under my bed.

I vow not to buy any books for the next couple of months for I have enough reading materials with me to last me for a while. The good thing about being home for me is that my brain's "secondary storage" is no longer remote--I can now easily refer to particular passages that I sometimes want to quote in my blog but vaguely remember or reread subjects that happen to strike my fancy.

Since I arrived home, I was able to pull out Tim Severin's The Spice Islands Voyage to reread passages about Alfred Russel Wallace: I had on many occassions mentioned that I would blog about this eminent naturalist who co-discovered the theory of evolution and natural selection together with Darwin. Wallace did most of his research in the spice islands of Indonesia and his book The Malay Archipelago has been my regular travel companion over the years. But unfortunately my copy of The Malay Archipelago is still lying somewhere in my friend's garage in Pondok Indah right now.

Soon, all my books will be reunited in one location. And perhaps then, with my scattered memories restored in its proper place, I will finally feel like a complete person!

Monday, January 19, 2004

The Thief in the Night

The Thief in the Night

As we grow older most of us would find it more difficult to learn a new skill or to acquire knowledge in a different field. We prefer to stick to the familiar and claim that old dogs can't learn new tricks. It is common to see such people in any organization: they have found a niche spot in the organization and they luxuriate in the comforts of their own domain.

Often the difficulty in learning comes about not because our minds have somehow degenerated over time but more from our general lack of interest and willpower. Things that used to fill us with so much enthusiasm when we were fresh employees now turn us off. We claim that we have been there and done that. In actual fact we fear going through the learning curve that is filled with much uncertainty, hardship and potential embarassment. We do not want to suffer the ignonimy of becoming novices again.

Sometimes it is just plain laziness that deters us. We cannot find the reason and motivation to go the extra mile to tackle something that is not familiar to us. Our comfort zones are too cozy for us to budge from. The rewards are not strong enough for us to endure the hardship required. We choose not to enjoy those rewards.

These are all impediments to learning and growing. Most of the time, we do not improve because we choose not to. But we ask: isn't it alright to be contented with what we have? Doesn't the man with limited wants lead a more peaceful life?

The problem with remaining static is that decay sets in. The barriers that we seek not to overcome, enclose us even tighter. Everytime we choose to postpone facing a fear, it advances a step closer to us. Everywhere we turn, we see fear staring back at us. Soon our lives shrink into shrivelled cells of despair and desperation. Wasn't it Thoreau who said, the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation?

Where did that desperation come from? It comes from our decision to cling to our existing comforts, our reluctance to explore and embrace, our resistance to change.

The existential choice facing us is cruel sometimes: if we choose not to swim, we sink. Even when the coast seems clear and there's nothing threatening evident on the horizon, be wary: Change, like a thief in the night, creeps in very quietly and stealthily.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Fuss over Busway

Fuss over Busway

I'm not sure if I'll get a chance to try the new public transportation system called the Transjakarta Busway, launched last Thursday when I left for my Semarang trip. The service is free for this coming two weeks but queues at the stations are long.

I wish the service had been launched earlier--it would have been convenient for me going to and from work between Thamrin and Sudirman. I could also easily catch the Busway to go to my favourite cineplex at Block M or go north to Kota for some Chinese food.

Most people I talk to doubt the new transportation system--which is basically an LRT on wheels-- will help alleviate the traffic congestion in Jakarta. But then these are people who usually drive--the Busway system has definitely inconvenienced them because the already congested Jalan Sudirman and Kota now have two lanes less for cars. It is yet unclear whether the system will be a success.

The project seemed rather hastily embarked upon. Lanes designated "Busway" have been painted since early last year but no activity had taken place until the last couple of months when there was a sheer frenzy of construction to meet the January 15 2004 dateline. Though initial reactions from the commuting public seemed enthusiastic (perhaps because it is still free), the project has been plagued with a myriad of problems including the lack of feeder bus services and rumours of the drivers themselves going on strike.

Well, I won't be around in Jakarta long enough to enjoy the service. I will be back in KL taking the Kommuter, Star, Putra and KL Monorail. Every city needs a good public transportation system. During colonial days, Jakarta had a good electric tram system criss-crossing the city (Singapore had one too but not KL). Though at times a nuisance, bajajs, becaks and ojeks have served the masses well as cheap forms of public transport. Time will tell whether the Busway will go a long way towards providing Jakartans with a more viable and comfortable alternative.