Saturday, March 27, 2004

The Voice of Wisdom

The Voice of Wisdom

A monk once told me that wisdom only arises in moments of silence. When I heard that almost two decades ago, I didn't really understand what he meant. Perhaps only now am I beginning to grasp it.

The mind is constantly bombarded by stimuli and reacts continuously to them. Hence it never gets a chance to reflect its "true self". I know a lot of people who can't remain quiet. Any moment of silence is equated to boredom and loneliness. The moment such an occassion arises, they will immediately call a friend to indulge in some idle chit-chat, or switch on the TV to fill the silence.

Why is quietness and solitude so abhorrent to us? Is it because we fear losing connection with the rest of the world and end up feeling helplessly abandoned and forgotten? The abyss of loneliness terrifies us so much that our minds have acquired the habit of gleefully latching on to any kind of distraction. Some people's life is just a continuous series of distractions.

Mahatma Gandhi was known to have a practice of keeping a day of complete silence every week. He communicated only through written notes on that day. Benedictine monks keep vows of silence. Mystics meditate. They all know the value of silence.

The mind has to be occasionally silenced because it has an incessant momentum forward. Driven by the constant bombardment of stimuli, sometimes the mind veers off course. We forget our principles, our conscience and our divine origin. Only by quietening down the mind, can it regain its balance.

When the mind is quiet, the inner voice speaks. And that, is the voice of wisdom.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Back in Suburbia

Back in Suburbia

I used to jog quite frequently when I was working in Singapore at the Bishan Park. In Jakarta, I workout at the hotel gym ocassionally, though not often enough. But since coming back to KL, I have not found the time nor the inclination to exercise.

I am also walking a lot less nowadays. In Jakarta, I would normally ask the taxi driver to drop me at Jalan Thamrin and from there I'd take a short cut through my favourite Sarinah Mall and take a leisurely stroll along busy Jalan Wahid Hasyim (ocassionally stopping to say hi to my favourite beggars) on my way back to my hotel. It always felt nice to soak in the atmosphere of the evening--the bustle of buses and bajajs, the smoky aroma of hawkers selling gorengan and satay and the ever-present pengamins, persistently pestering the street diners.

Sometimes I think I do more mingling with the Jakarta street crowd than a lot of my more well-to-do Indonesian friends. They can't go anywhere without their cars (and drivers). When I first arrived in Jakarta, a lot of them advised me to get a car. But having lived without one in Singapore for four years, I was determined not to pick up this "bad habit". After a while, I discovered that I could easily survive in Jakarta by just taking taxis, bajajs and ojeks (motorcycle taxis). It was a lot more fun interesting. I didn't go all the way to Jakarta to become another middleclass yuppie with a flashy car.

Now that I'm back in KL, I am back to my old habit of driving my car everywhere. I suppose you cannot avoid it here. In Jakarta, I lived in the middle of the city; here I live in one of those monotonously dull Malaysian middleclass suburbs populated by Proton Wiras and potted plants. The only "life" that I see here is the clumsy garbage truck that rumbles by every other morning making a noisy commotion, spilling litter and slime everywhere.

I suppose that's life in the suburbs. I'll probably look forward to doing some grocery shopping at the local hypermart this weekend, and join the trolley-jam at the checkout counter. From the flyers that they stuff in my mailbox everyday, it looks like their toilet rolls are pretty cheap. Better grab a few dozen.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The Diversity that is Indonesia

The Diversity that is Indonesia

Ibu Titi is a good friend of mine in Jakarta. She is happily married and blessed with a pair of lovely twin boys. She is Javanese but happens to be a Christian, which is not an uncommon thing in Indonesia. The interesting thing is that her husband is a Muslim and they both still keep their own religions.

Usually in marriages such as this, one of the parties would convert to the other's religion, though it is not exactly a legal requirement. In Ibu Titi's case, apparently their families were understanding enough to let them keep their respective faiths. She told me that they managed to make both sides happy by registering their marriage twice--once as a Christian couple and the second as a Muslim one!

Some of my other friends in Indonesia were not so fortunate. Wiwik (whose rumah kos I visited before), a Betawi Muslim, had to break up a relationship with her longtime boyfriend because her family couldn't accept her marrying a Javanese Christian, unless he converted to their religion. When I first met her two years ago, they were still clinging to their six-year old relationship. They seemed like an inseparable couple but the relationship was heading towards a stalemate. Middle of last year, with no solution in sight, they had to break up.

Relationships between couples of the same religion but of different ethnic groups could also prove challenging. Another friend of mine, Marlyn is also a Javanese Muslim. She was going out with a Batak guy, also a Muslim. The Bataks are a very interesting group people; most of them are Christians and their traditional homeland is the Lake Toba area of North Sumatra. Bataks are known to very clannish--only they and the Manado people are among the few groups who have a tradition of keeping family names (they call it marga). The former MTV DJ, Nadya Hutagalung is one of the most famous half-Bataks. Hutagalung is a common Batak clan name.

Some of the Batak clans are Muslims: examples are the Siregars and the Nasutions. Bataks are known to be very aggresive people, whereas the Javanese are reserved, soft-spoken and very indirect in their ways. Marlyn, the Javanese girl told me that she had problems with her Batak boyfriend because they were very different culturally, even though they shared the same religion. They too eventually broke off.

The Sundanese, though technically West Javanese, are also culturally different from the "real" Javanese from Central and East Java. The older generation of Javanese are very proud of their culture and normally do not favour marriages to the Sundanese, whom they consider to be of "lower class". (Even East Javanese are also considered less refined than Central Javanese). This makes Ibu Titi's marriage even more interesting--for her husband is a Sundanese from Bandung and she hails from the capital of Javanese culture, Yogjakarta itself.

It may sound like some tourist industry cliche, but the fact is, the cultural diversity of Indonesia is what I find so fascinating about the country. In my two years there, I've made good friends from many different ethnic groups and tried to learn as much as I could about their language, food and culture. In the end, I realised, even a lifetime is not enough for me to savour all the wonderful delights of their diversity.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Perfect Ideas

Perfect Ideas

The human mind likes symmetry and perfection. The heliocentric model of the solar system, proposed by Copernicus, putting the Sun as the center of the known universe, displacing Earth, was revolutionary for its time. It was difficult for people to belief then that the Earth was just one (and an even unremarkable one) of many objects revolving around the Sun. But the heliocentric universe was the only model that conformed to scientific observations. It had to be accepted, even though it didn't appeal to our sense of perfection.

For some time after the Sun was accepted as the center of the solar system, we still thought that the planets revolved around the Sun in perfect circles. How could they not be circles? It is only logical to assume that God created the universe with a certain geometrical perfection in mind and circles seemed like perfect shapes.

Johannes Kepler was also driven by a sense of perfection. He figured that if planets revolved in perfect circles around the Sun, there must also be a certain relationship between their orbits; there must be a certain harmony associated with their movements around the Sun. During his time, only six planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) were known to be in existence. But why only six? Again there must be some underlying reason behind it.

Ancient Greek geometers have long known that there are only five perfect solids--the so-called Pythagorean Solids. Each Pythagorean solid comprises of sides made from perfect shapes: for example, a cube is a perfect solid because it is built from six perfect squares. Similarly a tetrahedron is made up of four perfect triangles. Twelve pieces of pentagons would fit nicely together to make a perfect dodecahedron.

One can experiment with all types of perfect shapes--triangles, squares, pentagons, hexagons--and try to build solids with them; but somehow only five are possible. There is a beautiful mathematical prove to show why this is so. To the ancient geometers, these five uniquely perfect solids must be sacred--God somehow favours them over others.

Kepler tried to associate these Pythagorean solids with the orbits of the six planets. He believed that there were only six planets because the six orbits (perfect circles) would perfectly nest the five Pythagorean solids between them; these five solids must be God's invisible structure that hold the orbits of the planets in the heavens. It was a beautiful idea, seemingly perfect.

Kepler spent years trying to fit the existing astronomical data to his model. But somehow empirical data betrayed his idea of what perfection ought to be. He later found out that the orbits were not even circles--they were elongated in shape--ellipses. Why did God favour an ellipse over a "perfect" circle?

Newton later showed that movement of the planets, and in fact any object with mass, is governed by the universal force of gravity which can be described using a simple mathematical equation, based on the inverse square law. God apparently has a grander idea of perfection: planets and other celestial objects actually "attempt" to move in straight lines--it is only because they attract one another that they assume that trajectories that we see now. Their elliptical orbits are but a natural consequence of them moving under the influence of gravitational attraction.

Decades later, it was Einstein who showed us that even this explanation did not capture God's idea of perfection. Gravity, according to Einstein's General Theory of Relativity is nothing but a geometrical property of the four-dimensional space-time continuum. Any object with mass will "warp" the space-time around it. Planets move the way they do because their paths are "curved" by the mass of the Sun. God loves geometry after all.

Human beings have a natural fondness for the intellectually-pleasing idea. We have a tendency to latch on to a pet idea that appeals to our sense of perfection and stop exploring further, believing that we have found the Ultimate Truth. Far from it. Science has time and again shown how infantile is our understanding the universe. Thus far, we have only been granted glimpses of God's mind. And sometimes our seemingly "perfect" ideas are our greatest obstacles towards understanding.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Our Evolution

Our Evolution

"Kuala Lumpur was a city on fire; I could see the conflagrations from my residence at the top fo the hill and it was a sight that I never thought I would see in my lifetime. In fact all my work to make Malaysia a happy and peaceful country through these year, and also my dream of being the happiest Prime Minister in the world, were also going up in flames."

Those words were written by our first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman in his book, "May 13 Before and After", published in 1969 after those fateful events in May.

Today KL is a modern, cosmopolitan and vibrant city; and it is difficult to imagine it being the scene of such tragedies. So much water has passed under the bridge. Are we a better nation now? Have we finally found a formula to coexist peacefully?

There are people who are disllusioned with this country; there are also many who feel themselves so fortunate to be living in Malaysia. We can choose to see Malaysia as full of faults or we can choose to count our many blessings.

If we compare ourselves with some of our neighbours, we as a country have done pretty well indeed. But still we are very demanding on our governments because we choose to measure ourselves against higher standards.

I've spent a lot of time in Indonesia studying their history and the thoughts of their founding father, Sukarno. Sukarno used to talk about the romance of revolution. Romance is characterized by passion and drama. Indonesian has indeed seen much drama in its history: so much blood was spilled in the fight for independence, the communist purge in sixties and the recent riots of 1998.

In comparison, Malaysia's history is a lot less dramatic. There has never been a revolution in Malaysia, only cautious evolutionary change. But that's alright. We want to temper youthful idealism with the caution that comes with age. Evolutions are slow and not as exciting as revolutions. But should we be complaining?

Sunday, March 21, 2004

A Malaysian Education

A Malaysian Education

It only took me only 15 minutes at the polling station today to cast my vote; but it looks like many voters in Selangor were not so fortunate. In Gombak, there was complete chaos.

Even though the outcome of our elections is a foregone conclusion, there will still be some surprises here and there. I'll probably spend a greater part of the night monitoring the results. Looks like there are some pleasant surprises in store for the ruling party.

Once upon a time, I remember people used to stock up their food supplies when election comes; the memory of a particular day in May more than three decades ago still haunt them. Today I believe many are more concerned with whether they can go to vote and still be able to catch the F1 race in the afternoon.

Now that I'm back in Malaysia for good, I want embark on a rediscovery of my own country. Even though I was born here and am a hundred percent a product of the Malaysian education system, there's still much about Malaysia that I do not know. We tend to take things that are familiar to us for granted. I want to tackle Malaysia from a fresh perspective and look at it with a beginner's mind--like how I experienced Indonesia.

In many ways, my education has only just begun.