Saturday, May 08, 2004

My Stupidity

My Stupidity

I always cringe whenever someone calls someone else "stupid". Declaring someone as stupid is to indirectly say that we ourselves are smart.

Not that there's anything wrong in blowing our own horn; If we are eager to praise ourselves, we can do so without disparaging other people. Furthermore, smartness and stupidity are relative things--there are always other people who are smarter than us. In other words, all of us are "stupid" relative to someone else.

If I find someone acting in a way that is seemingly unwise, I would rather say that his or her action is "strange". "Stupid" sounds so final and certain, whereas "strange" implies that we haven't fully understood why a person acted or behaved in the way he did and there's an opportunity for us to learn something from it.

Sometimes simply calling someone else as stupid betrays our own ignorance. We probably did not bother to understand the situation or circumstances that prompted the person to act in such a "stupid" manner.

I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt and I have never met anyone whom I can confidently label as "stupid". Perhaps that's a reflection of my own stupidity?

The Mystery and Adventures of Panglima Awang

The Mystery and Adventures of Panglima Awang

There are many local historians who claim that a Malay, known as Panglima Awang, was the first man to circumnavigate the globe. How much truth is there to this claim, and how did this Panglima Awang story come about?

We all know from our history books that a Portuguese sailor named Ferdinand Magellan is credited for leading the first expedition that successfully circumnavigated the Earth. Magellan himself did not complete the journey for he was killed in a battle with the natives in Cebu, but one of his ships, the Victoria, finally made it back to Spain in 1522.

Malaysians would also have learned from their primary school history lessons that a Portuguese, Lopez de Sequeira was among the first white men--the so-called "Bengali Putih"--to land in Malacca in 1509. And in 1511, Alfonso de Albuquerque led a Portuguese fleet to capture the prized port of Malacca, then the spice emporium of the East. Spice at that time was worth its weight in gold.

Not many however know that Ferdinand Magellan was also a member of both of these expeditions. And when Malacca fell to the Portuguese, it was here that Magellan acquired a local Malay slave whom he gave the name of Enrique. Enrique was to become Magellan's trusted interpreter and accompanied him back to Portugal.

Enrique was part of Magellan's crew on his subsequent ambitious expedition to find a route to the spice islands of Maluku by sailing west from Spain. (Magellan, a Portuguese nobleman, offered his services to Spain after he was snubbed by his own fellow countrymen). Columbus had intended to do the same earlier but was distracted by the discovery of the American continent. And like Columbus, Magellan also underestimated the distance that needed to be travelled to reach the East by sailing west.

But after much suffering and hardship Magellan succeeded in navigating his fleet of ships west across the Atlantic, round the Cape of Horn, crossing the then unknown Pacific Ocean to land on the island of Mactan in Cebu in the Philippines. It was Enrique, who first discovered that some of the natives there could understand his language--Malay--and realised that he must be within the vicinity of his homeland, the Malay archipelago.

Unfortunately trouble broke out between Magellan and the local king, and in a subsequent battle Magellan was killed. Official records show that Enrique himself was also killed in one of the battles between the natives and Magellan's remaining crew. There were also indications that Enrique himself took revenge on his fellow sailors when they did not honour Magellan's promise to release him as a free man after his death.

Others believed that Enrique survived and made his way back to Malacca. If he had indeed done so, then he definitely is the first person to have sailed around the world. Unfortunately there are no records to confirm this. It is also interesting to note that the Filipinos also claimed Enrique to be a native of theirs for he could speak the language of the people in the islands Cebu. But in Pigafetta's (who was part of Magellan's crew) first-hand account of the voyage, Enrique is mentioned as a Malaccan slave who originated from Sumatra. So theoretically, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines all have grounds to claim this maritime hero as being a native of theirs.

The name "Panglima Awang" only came later after the story of Enrique's adventure was romanticized in a novel by the Malay writer Harun Aminurashid. The Filipinos too have their own fictionalized account of Enrique's journey. What Enrique's real name was and where he originally came from will probably never be known.

My utterly brief account of Magellan and Enrique's voyage around the world does not do justice to the enormous suffering that sailors then had to endure in their dangerous expeditions into unknown seas. Scurvy, hunger, thirst, storms, mutinies and fights with natives were part and parcel of a sailor's life. Some were driven to such risky and even foolhardy adventures by the promise of fame and riches, others by the greater glory of God.

Stories of their voyages never fail to enthrall me. Among my favourite reads are Charles Corn's The Scents of Eden: A History of the Spice Trade and Pacific Passions: The European Struggle for Power in the Great Ocean in the Age of Exploration by Frank Sherry.

The most recent account of Magellan's voyage is Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen. I bought a hardcover copy during my recent trip to Jakarta and am now on board Magellan and Enrique's ship, the Trinidad, facing stormy seas on the way to round the Cape of Horn...

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Thinking Right

Thinking Right

Writing is thoughts physicalized. The strength of a thought determines its effect in the physical world. Once thoughts have an external existence in the physical world, things start to happen--there's action and reaction; there are consequences. The world is never the same again.

So many things happen in our heads when we are "thinking": one thought leads to another and we often go around in circles, ending up no wiser from where we began. Thinking is difficult because it happens in non-physical space. A thought arises, disappears, to be replaced by another thought. And then we strain to hold together these transient strands of thoughts that flit in and out of our minds like restless butterflies.

Which is why writing can be such an aid to thinking--for it is an act of materializing thoughts. You are able to see the succession of thoughts that spring from your head objectively on a piece of paper or on the computer screen; there's action of the wrist and fingers and there's visual and tactile feedback. Once words and sentences form on the page, you can then easily build, dissect, backtrack or expand on them, because they now belong to the physical world which allows them to be manipulated much easier.

I've mentioned in a previous entry that I see the act of writing as something sacred, akin to meditation. When the pen touches a piece of paper, I see Michelangelo's God giving life to Adam. Once expressed in writing, thoughts have a life of their own. They spawn off reactionary thoughts in both the writer's and the reader's mind (hello!). A meme is born.

I actually find it difficult to think without writing. To me it is a process that comes together: you don't think and then write, instead you "writhink". When you "writhink", you think right.

Haunting Memories of Blade Runner

Haunting Memories of Blade Runner

Tyrell: We began to recognize in them a strange obsession. After all, they are emotionally inexperienced, with only a few years in which to store up the experiences which you and I take for granted. If we gift them with a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions, and consequently, we can control them better.
Deckard (Harrison Ford): Memories! You're talking about memories!

I first watched Blade Runner back in hometown, at the Lido cinema, when I was a teenager. The Lido cinema--like many of those nostalgic movie houses of old with names like Cathay, Pavillion or Rex--is no more; but the memory of this futuristic movie lingers still in my mind.

Directed by Ridley Scott, it is perhaps the first sci-fi movie of the cyberpunk sub-genre. It was first released in 1982--more than twenty years ago. Based on a short-story by Philip K. Dick, the movie is about a futuristic cop ("blade runner") in LA played by Harrison Ford, whose job is to terminate renegade cyborgs or "replicants"--genetically engineered humans, built commercially by a Tyrell Corporation to work as slaves in hazardous colonies in space.

Tyrell: "More human than human" is our motto.

When I first watched Blade Runner on the big screen, I found it a bit too dark and moody; but its vision thoroughly mesmerised me. It was also through this movie, that I first got acquainted with Vangelis--the Greek musician responsible for its hauntingly memorable soundtrack. Ridley Scott's visual style--heavy with chiaroscuro, smoke and neon-lights--was very innovative for its day but since then it has been much copied and has become quite commonplace. Vangelis' synthesizer-based soundtrack is also familiar to our ears because it has been ripped by many TV commercials and especially by Hong Kong Cantonese video serials (usually the Love Theme).

Holden (cop, conducting the Voigt-Kampf test): You look down and see a tortoise, Leon. It's crawling toward you...
Leon (replicant): Tortoise? What's that?
Holden: You know what a turtle is?
Leon: Of course!
Holden: Same thing.

Ridley Scott and Vangelis teamed up again in 1492: Conquest of Paradise, about Christopher Columbus' discovery of the New World. Although the movie was widely panned, I enjoyed the dazzling visuals and the evocative soundtrack from this unbeatable team. (I watch movies for the cinematography and music--plot, storyline and acting are secondary to me).

Tyrell: The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long - and you have burned so very, very brightly...

Blade Runner certainly ranks among the best films ever made. Even after twenty years, there are still so many websites dedicated to this movie. Over the decades I have watched and re-watched this movie countless times--graduating from mouldy VHS versions to the Director's Cut on DVD.

Leon (replicant): Nothing is worse than having an itch you can never scratch!

Today it is difficult to find the original theatre release--all the DVD and VCD copies of Blade Runner out there carry the Director's Cut. In fact it was Ridley Scott who first started this now common practice of releasing "Director's Cut". The original release had a noir-ish voice-over narration by Harrison Ford--which is actually my preferred version. There are some very memorable lines which are unfortunately missing from the Director's Cut:

Deckard (voiceover): Sushi. That's what my ex-wife called me. Cold fish.

It is interesting to note that neither the Scott nor Ford liked the voice-over narration, which was forced upon them by the studio--afraid that the audience would find the movie a bit too dull and confusing. But many die-hard fans are fond of it because it gives them an insight into the lead character's mind and like those 40s noir detective movies, draws the audience into the his world of urban angst and masculine loneliness.

Deckard (voiceover): The report read "Routine retirement of a replicant." That didn't make me feel any better about shooting a woman in the back.

Though it wasn't such a big box-office success, Blade Runner has become a landmark movie. Even without the benefit of today's CGI technology, its special effects still do not look dated. Its vision of a futuristic LA--a labyrinthine techno-slum perpetually drenched in acid rain--is unsurpassed.

Batty (replicant): I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain...

Even after all these years, whenever I find myself alone at night in some strange city--could be some neon-lit side-alley in Jakarta or outside some deliriously noisy go-go bar in Bangkok--scenes from Blade Runner would flash through my mind and the Vangelis soundtrack would immediately fill the air.

Chew: I just do eyes...just genetic design...just eyes...I designed your eyes...
Batty: If only you could see what I have seen with your eyes

I've been haunted by this movie for more than two decades now. Some movies are so powerful that they simply lodge in your mind, refusing to go; their images forever woven into everything you see. Blade Runner is one of them. And like those replicants in the movie, it looks like there's no escaping for me.

Gaff: It's too bad she won't live! But then again, who does?

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Fellow Monkeys

Fellow Monkeys

Not realising that today is also a public holiday, I had planned to run some errands and was disappointed to find the banks and offices closed. It often takes me a few days to get adjusted back to life in KL again. I am more comfortable leading a nomadic existence: my productivity shoots up, my thoughts become sharper and my senses keener whenever I'm on the road. Staying put in one place for some reason makes me feel lazy. I think I'll need to travel out of the country at least once a month to keep myself constantly on my toes.

There's a strange thrill in being alone and anonymous in a foreign country. It is quite fun watching and observing people and their behaviour. You see strangers going about their daily activities and you wonder what kind of lives do they lead? Who are their loved ones? What are their thoughts and passions? I imagine myself a zoologist on a field trip, carefully making examinations on the local fauna.

One of the most hilarious popular science books I've read is The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris, first published in the sixties. Desmond Morris is a zoologist by training and in his famous book, he attempts to look at the human species like how a dispassionate zoologist would in encountering an unknown species. He writes:
There are 193 living species of monkeys and apes. One hundred and ninety-two of them are covered with hair. The exception is a naked ape self-named Homo sapiens...He is proud that he has the biggest brain of all the primates, but attempts to conceal the fact that he also has the biggest penis, preferring to accord this honour falsely to the mighty gorilla.
Our behaviour as "civilised" human beings are still in many ways governed by our ancient genes. Many of the social behaviour we exhibit are also found among primates. Even the term "Alpha Male", which was originally used to denote a dominant male in an animal social hierarchy has come into popular everyday use.

It is commonly observed that primates indulge in pseudo-sexual mounting of males by males to express dominance of one over the other. Fortunately we are more refined: we achieve the same desired effect using the 'F' word, or sometimes with the middle finger.

Our closest primate cousin is the chimpanzee. Outwardly, there seems to be a vast difference between us and chimpanzees but tests have shown that our genes are almost identical--98.76% to be exact. Being called a monkey is not such a big insult after all. As Desmond Morris so eloquently demonstrated in his book, we can actually learn a lot more about ourselves by observing the behaviour of our cousin monkeys.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Youth & Age

Youth & Age

O talk not to me of a name great in story;
The days of our youth are the days of our glory;
And the myrtle and ivy of sweet two-and-twenty
Are worth all your laurels, though ever so plenty.

Those were among my favourite lines by the Romantic poet, Lord Byron when I was a sixth form student, barely eighteen or nineteen years old--not even "sweet two-and-twenty"--at a time when I couldn't seem to wait to grow up faster. How much have I changed since then? I'd like to think that I haven't.

I don't read as much poetry as I used to, that's for sure. My passion for science and mathematics is probably not as deep as it was during my teenage years. But at the same time I have developed other areas of interest such as history, culture, philosophy and religion.

Books were rare then, and every volume I could lay my hands on were devoured with great eagerness and hunger. There were a lot less distractions too--life was a lot simpler, but I wouldn't say happier. For happiness is an acquired habit that comes with age.

Certainly nothing soars loftier or shines brighter than the hope we had when we were young; but so very often the young are wrecked by the immaturity of their conduct. It often takes age to fully appreciate youth.

Sometimes it seems that Life deals us a cruel hand: the wisdom we need so badly to realise the potential of our youth is denied us when we need it most. Somehow wisdom can only be traded with youth. And when wisdom is in our possession, the vigour and passion of youth is ours no more.

"What are garlands and crowns to the brow that is wrinkled? 'Tis but a dead flower with May-dew besprinkled", writes Byron.

Even though we are likely to be a lot wiser now compared to when we were younger, I'd also like to think that there's still a lot more for us to learn. We can never stop learning for the universe is so vast and so rich in wonders, even a grain of sand can be an endless source of fascination. So, for as long as there's wisdom out there to be acquired, there will always be enough intellectual nourishment for us to continue growing and we shall never have occasion to feel like a "dead flower with May-dew besprinkled".

Growing old is a luxury we cannot afford. There's simply no time for that.

Sunday, May 02, 2004



My friend Setiawan was kind enough to let me use his garage at his home in Pondok Indah as my storeroom for the past three months; but today I finally managed to haul all my stuff back to KL. Had to pay 18 USD to SIA for excess baggage though.

Because I used to fly Singapore Airlines, I still have have some Krisflyer frequent flier miles which I can redeem for a couple more flights to Jakarta. The only hassle is having to transit at Changi airport everytime--which I don't exactly mind because I enjoy browsing at the bookstores there. Morover they are lots of free Internet-surfing stations there for you to keep yourself occupied productively. Makes KLIA such a dull place in comparison.

Security at Changi is also the tightest among the three airports (KLIA, Changi, Soekarno-Hatta) that I passed through on this trip. Even the metal buttons on my khakis would trigger their handheld detectors. I can't help but admire the Singaporeans' professional fussiness and their unrelentless attention to details.

Of course, we Malaysians enjoy making fun of our neighbour's kiasu-ism but one cannot deny that it is this very quality of kiasu-ism that makes Singapore the successful nation that she is today. I enjoyed working in Singapore but somehow I could never call it my home. Like Karim Raslan, I also lament the fact that the younger generation of Singaporeans hardly speak a word of Malay anymore. I won't be surprised if many of them do not understand the lyrics of their national anthem, Majulah Singapura.

The old guards of Singapore--Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and even Lee Hsien Long are among the dying breed of Singaporeans who could still speak Malay. In the Singapore Story, Lee Kuan Yew recalls how he used to sing Burung Kakaktua, an Indonesian folksong, in his shower--to the approval of the Tunku, who had harboured suspicions of him being a Chinese extremist.

But we--Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore--are very different countries now. Well, I guess I am just nostalgic for the old Nusantara--one where such artificial borders do not exist.