Floating on a Malayan Breeze–Malaysia Book Launch, Nov 10th in KL

Dear friends, I will be launching my book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, in KL on November 10th. We’ve already had two events each in Hong Kong and Singapore, but this one could be the most interesting and exciting, as it’s my first Malaysia event. Over the past few years, whenever I’ve been up to Malaysia to speak about the region, some in the audience enjoy the external perspective, but there are always a few who don’t take too kindly to a Singaporean’s point of view! 🙂

Anyway, I hope to see you there–please do let your friends and family know. The book will also be sold at a 10% discount, details below.

Venue: Borders Mid Valley, Lot T-216B, 3rd Floor
Date: 10 November 2012, Saturday
Time: 11am-1pm

Book Price: 10% discount off usual retail price of RM48

 

 

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Diamonds, Gold and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa

I’ve just finished this excellent book by Martin Meredith, and thought I might record some choice quotes and passages. For future reference.

“It often strikes a man to inquire what is the chief good in life; to one the thought comes that it is a happy marriage, to another great wealth, and as each seizes on his idea, for that he more or less works for the rest of his existence. To myself thinking over the same question the wish came to render myself useful to my country. I then asked myself how could I and after reviewing the various methods I have felt that at the present day we are actually limiting our children and perhaps bringing into the world half the human beings we might owing to the lack of country for them to inhabit that if we had retained America there would at this moment be millions more of English living.

I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence, look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives. I contend that every acre added to our territory means in the future birth to some more of the English race who otherwise would not be brought into existence. Added to this the absorption of the greater portion of the world under our rule simply means the end of all war.”

– Cecil Rhodes, June 1877 (p. 127)

“The ‘native question’, he said, was the ‘big test question for South Africa’. He had arrived in the Colony, he said, as ‘the most rabid Jingo’, but he now considered that the Cape had allowed too many Africans the vote. ‘As long as the natives remain in a state of barbarism we must treat them as a subject race and be lords over them’.”

p. 200

“Once more, the Swazis were given no hearing. On 10 December 1894, Britain agreed a third Convention consigning Swaziland into the hands of the Transvaal as a ‘Protectorate’. According to Loch, this was ‘the price which must be paid to avert war between the two white peoples of South Africa’.

The Swazis remembered this passage of their history as a time when ‘the documents killed us’.”

p. 243

“As we travelled along, Rhodes kept on asking, ‘What building is this?’ ‘What building is that?’ He made no comment, but I could see he felt depressed on his first arrival. It was only when I pointed out to him the foundations of the Jewish Synagogue that he became cheerful once more and quite excited.

‘My country’s all right,’ he kept on exclaiming. ‘If the Jews come, my country’s all right.’ ”

p. 275

“A young chief who might best be described as insolent to the elders of his tribe and particularly so to the white men put in a pertinent question. ‘Where are we to live when it is over?’ he said. ‘The white man claims all the land.’ Rhodes replied at once, ‘We will give you settlements. We will set apart locations for you; we will give you land.’ The young chief shouted angrily, ‘You will give us land in our own country! That’s good of you!’ ”

p. 360

” ‘The Lord will protect us,’ Kruger told the Volksraad. ‘The Lord orders the flights of bullets. The Lord gave us the triumph of the War of Independence and the capture of Jameson. The Lord will also protect you now, even if thousands of bullets fly about you.’ ”

p. 422

Appeals went out for funds to support soldiers’ dependants and for gift of clothing, tobacco, cigarettes and ‘delicacies’ for the men. The most potent appeal of all was made by Rudyard Kipling:

When you’ve shouted ‘Rule Britannia’, when you’ve

sung ‘God Save the Queen’,

When you’re finished killing Kruger with your mouth,

Will you kindly drop a shilling in my little tambourine

For a gentleman in Khaki ordered South?

He’s an absent-minded beggar, and his weaknesses are

great —

But we and Paul must take him as we find him —

He’s out on active service, wiping something off a slate —

And he’s left a lot of little things behind him!…”

p. 429

“Other officers thought the results were justified. Captain R.F. Talbot of the Royal Horse Artillery wrote in his diary:

I went out this morning with some of my men ostensibly to get vegetables, but joined the provost marshal and the sappers in a farm burning party, and we burnt and blew up two farms with gun-cotton, turning out the inhabitants first. It is a bit sickening at first turning out the women and children, but they are such brutes and the former all spies; we don’t mind it now. Only those are done which belong to men who are sniping or otherwise behaving badly.”

p. 452

“He (Alfred Milner) envisaged two principal methods of achieving this foal. The first was large-scale immigration of people of British descent. ‘I attached the greatest importance of all to the increase in the British population,’ he told the Colonial Office. ‘If, ten years hence, there are three men of British race to two of Dutch, the country will be safe and prosperous. If there are three of Dutch to two of British, we shall have perpetual difficulty….We not only want a majority of British, we want a fair margin because of the large proportion of cranks that we British generated and who take particular pleasure in going against their own people.’ ”

p. 482

“In parliament, the Liberal opposition criticised the use of low-paid Chinese labour in the gold mines, claiming it was tantamount to ‘Chinese slavery’. What made matters worse was the discovery that Milner had authorised the flogging of Chinese labourers–without reference to magistrates–in cases of violence and unruliness. ‘At the time,’ Milner told his successor, Lord Selborne, ‘it seemed to me so harmless that I really gave very little thought to the matter.’

p. 493

“Lord Milner gave short shrift to African protests. ‘A political equality of white and black is impossible,’ he said. ‘The white man must rle because he is elevated by many, many steps above the black man; steps which it will take the latter centuries to climb, and which it is quite possible that the vast bulk of the black population may never be able to climb at all.’ ”

p. 495

” ‘We rather congratulate ourselves,’ a government minister, Frederick Moor, told the South African Native Affairs Commission, ‘that our Natives are the best-mannered, and the best behaved, and the most law-abiding people that we have got in South Africa.’ ”

p. 499

” In searching for the underlying causes of the rebellion, Natal’s white community placed much of the blame on mission-educated Africans stirring up trouble for their own purposes rather than on the harsh impact of white taxes, fines and land-grabbing. Most whites tended to distrust Christian African–kholwa, as they were known–far more so than ‘traditional’ Africans whom they believed to be more respectful of white rule. A Natal police commissioner attributed African discontent and the 1906 rebellion to education and missionary influence which, he claimed, ‘tends to inculcate an equality between black and white, which is a dangerous doctrine in Natal, and must result in discontent in the subject race.’ ”

p. 502

“With the help of Afrikaner academics, it fashioned a new, hardened version of Afrikaner ideology. Christian-Nationalism, as it was called, was essentially a blend of the Old Testament ad modern politics, influenced in part by the rise of European fascism. At its core was the notion once expounded by Paul Kruger that Afrikaners were members of an exclusive volk created by the hand of God to fulfil a special mission in South Africa.”

p. 524

Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka (Ten years before independence)

A wonderful short documentary looking at post-war independence movements in Malaya. The good old days of a nascent democracy. Chinese/Indians/Malays coming together to kick out the British colonialists. The part around 19:50 is particularly relevant in terms of contemporary race relations. Very exciting to see more and more perspectives on our countries’ histories.
Click here to watch it.

Here’s the official description:

October 20th, 1947 was a historical day in the rakyat’s constitutional struggle for independence from British colonialism. This short documentary film chronicles the events that culminated in the Malaya-wide ‘Hartal’ day of protest against the undemocratic Federation of Malaya Constitutional Proposals devised by the British Colonial Government and the UMNO, and the rise of the people’s democratic movement in Malaya, ten years before independence.

Interview with RTHK about Floating on a Malayan Breeze

Dear friends, when I was in HK, a radio show interviewed me on my book. Specifically, looking at and comparing the different socio-economic systems that Malaysia and Singapore have pursued: equality of outcomes in the former; equality of opportunities in the latter. You can listen to the interview here. (scroll down slightly on the page)

Extract from Floating on a Malayan Breeze: The Straits Times, Oct 13th 2012

Dear friends, for those who missed the extract in The Straits Times this past weekend, click on the image below.

Or, if you’d rather just read the extract right here, here it is. From pages 173-76 of the book:

Your first instinct, when approaching the back of a truck while riding downhill, is to slam on the brakes, ratchet down the speed, and play it safe. But then, you realise the incredible slowness of these trucks and temptation gets the better of you. And you just do it. Your hand eases off the brakes, your feet spin for a while but then stop, confused, because they are no longer needed, and you let gravity race you down past the truck.

Once you’ve passed one, the confidence grows, and those fingers just clamp on the handlebar, as if squeezing tighter will make you go faster. On we went, speeding past each truck with less fear, building up a frightening momentum. Imagine a downhill race on Super Mario Kart, or Speed Racer, slaloming around giant tortoises, but worried about potholes and bumps. One error could send us flying, flailing, at more than 50 km per hour. Sheer adrenaline.

The best moments came when there were two trucks, one in each direction, and we cut between them, through a gap which was wide enough to tempt us, yet narrow enough to kill us, should we put one foot wrong.

But what a gap it is. The moment you enter the space between two trucks, it feels like you are hitt ing a vacuum, sound just dries up and gets sucked out. All you hear is a burst, similar to that when you first jump into a swimming pool. Or like when you pour Coke into a glassful of ice. A loud fizz that gradually diminishes.

No onomatopoeic device can capture this sound. Each time we treated ourselves to a Coke during the rest of the trip, we would close our eyes and listen, transported back to those few precious seconds in the truck vacuum.

The approach to Pulau Banding is dramatic. The island sits in a reservoir that is wrapped around by tall mountains, like a little droplet in a huge bowl.

As soon as we crossed the bridge into Banding, there was a jetty on our right. The boats were mostly painted the same worn and cracked light blue colour. It was late afternoon, and the placid rocking of the boats was the only activity in sight. We rested for a while there, before showering at the only petrol station, a few minutes cycle away, in the middle of the island.

Led by our stomachs, and not wanting to worry about where to sleep, we ate at a warung nearby. The sun had set, and darkness was rapidly reaching pitch black. These were not ideal tent-pitching conditions. Worse, there was nowhere to sleep at the warung where we had just eaten; we were told to leave.

It seems implausible now that one would be looking for a place to sleep around the physical premises of a restaurant, scouting the place while having dinner, but at that moment, in that frame of mind, it was the most natural thing to do. Seeing that there was no respite for the night, we went back to where we were at dusk, a jetty by the edge of the Tasik.

We walked towards the first boathouse, when suddenly two figures emerged from the darkness, coming towards us. One of them was a Malay, dressed in tight jeans, with a red cap that kept his long hair tucked behind his neck. The other was an Indian, and we could barely make out his features because of the low light. Two bulbous eyes stared at us.

“Eh, what are you fellows doing here?” asked the Indian youth, rather forcefully.

“Er … erm … we are two Singaporeans cycling around Malaysia …”

“Two Singaporeans?” He came closer and shone his torchlight at our faces. “Are you Indian?”

“Yes!” we both chorused, triumphantly, excitedly, assuming that this would be a good answer.

He flicked his torchlight across our faces once again, like an immigration officer peeking into a car. Nervous, and with a light in our faces, we just kept quiet. Finally we saw the whites of his eyes bobbing up and down, as he nodded with satisfaction. His torso relaxed, and his voice softened.

“OK, good, you guys want a place to stay? Not a problem, you can stay on the boat. Just go and tell my friend. No problem letting some machas [brothers] stay with us. Lock your bicycles somewhere also. I will be back in a while. You guys want some food?” he asked briskly, obviously in a rush.

“No, it’s OK, we just ate.”

“Are you sure? OK, I see you in a while, I have to go and make a telephone call,” Das said as he walked away, hopped onto his Malay friend’s motorcycle, and sped off into the darkness.

At that moment, a flood of relief washed over us. It felt nice to be accepted. We were also swollen with Indian pride, and immediately felt a bond with Das and every one of his friends who we had never met. We were swept up in a roaring wave of Indian communalism. It felt great.

Moreover, we felt like insiders because he had called us macha. Machan, often pronounced “macha”, means brother-in-law in Tamil, but is used colloquially to refer to friends. It connotes a bond stronger than just “friend”. We used it in secondary school, both among Tamils and some non-Tamils, but rarely since then. Like so many of Singapore’s other vernacular treasures, “macha” seems destined for extinction. It is being replaced, quite worryingly, by “dude”.

Filled with gratitude, we quickly locked up our bicycles next to the boathouse, unhinged our bags and brought them onboard. A fat, bearded Indian youth dressed in a white t-shirt and black football shorts was seated in front of a wooden island in the middle of the boathouse, just behind the rudder. He appeared uninterested in us, and the three of us barely talked; the TV proved a welcome distraction, as we focused on a Copa America game in which a young Gabriel Heinze was about to partake in the last act of the drama that is a penalty shoot-out.

In the following days, months and years, as we pondered that racial examination we had been thrust into, it has always filled us with a mix of emotions. What if we were Chinese? Would he have kicked us out? Why did we feel such strong Indian pride? Or was it just relief? Do those communal sentiments linger somewhere deep inside all of us, waiting for the right situation and circumstances?

Floating on a Malayan Breeze at the HK Literary Festival

Dear friends, I will be talking about my book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, at two events this week in Hong Kong. Quite exciting, really, the first time I’m going abroad to talk about the book. If you happen to be in Hong Kong, or if you know any “Malayans” living there who might be keen to attend, do share this page with them. Details below. Thank you.

1) The slow road from authoritarianism to democracy: Where are Malaysia and Singapore?

830-10am, Friday Oct 12th

Venue: Club Lusitano, 16 Ice House Street, Central, Hong Kong

This is a breakfast event moderated by Andrew Wood. Quite exciting, though I’m not sure why they’ve priced it so high. HK$400, incl breakfast. I’m a bit skeptical about who’s willing to pay that much for breakfast! I hope it doesn’t turn into Club “Loser-tano” for me….

Do join us if you’re free–I’ll be showing pictures from the bicycle trip, talking about my motivations behind the writing of the book, and sharing insights and thoughts about the actual book-writing experience.

You can buy tickets for this event here.

2) The Writer’s Craft: Writing in English

3-430pm, Saturday Oct 13th

Venue: City University of Hong Kong – Room M3090, Run Run Shaw Creative Media Centre

This is slightly different, as I’m one of a number of writers on stage. Very glad to be sharing the stage with Daren Shiau, Jennifer Wong and Nicholas Wong. Event will be moderated by Eddie Tay, a poet at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

I won’t get to talk as much about the book, but hope to have some interesting discussions about writing and language in general. I will share thoughts about Malaysian and Singapore English, the nuances in what we say, and of course, my use of Singlish in the book.

You can buy tickets for this event here.

Book reading: 5pm, Oct 6th, Fost Gallery, Gillman Barracks

Dear friends, for those who missed the launch of my book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, I would like to invite you to a book reading on Saturday, Oct 6th.

The venue is wonderful: Fost Gallery, in the revamped Gillman Barracks area, displays pieces from local artists–very “Malayan”.

Moreover, there will be fabulous free drinks!: Su Lynn, a mixologist from Big Easy Lifestyle, will be mixing up some cocktails and mocktails.

A Big Thank You to Fost Gallery for hosting and to Big Easy Lifestyle for providing the drinks. We’ll have some bites on hand too.

This one is much more casual lah, no guests of honour, no panellists, just me talking a bit and reading a couple of passages from the book. We will be selling copies of the book there.

So: Great art, free drinks and snacks, literature, and a chance to check out the refurbished Gillman Barracks. Do RSVP to Riya at orders.nuspress@nus.edu.sg, so we know how many to expect.

Please click on the flyer below for more information. And do tell your friends. See you then!

My first ever book launch: The Ups and Downs

Dear friends, thanks for all the support and encouragement. It’s still a bit surreal holding my very first book in my hands. In some ways, it seems like just yesterday that Sumana Rajarethnam, my best friend, and I were telling people that we wanted to cycle around Malaysia on RM10/day, and most responded that we’re nuts.

But the anguish and self-doubt we went through then also seems very far away when I look at the book. Now, it seems almost self-evident that we would end up with something. “It always seems impossible until it’s done,” as Mr Mandela says. Not that writing one book is that big of a deal…but it was a mountain for us.

I thought I’d just share a few thoughts about the actual launch itself because the day was both exhilarating and harrowing. I will try my best to tell this story without it becoming a bit of a Sandiwara. Not easy, given the details you’ll read, but I’ll try.

I returned home on Tuesday morning from a 10-day trip abroad–a holiday my mum had planned in January, well before I knew about the dates for the book launch. I was in pretty good shape, went to work, and then returned home in the evening, looking forward to preparing my notes and slide deck for the launch on Wed evening.

When I returned home, I found out that my dad had been admitted to hospital. Nothing too serious, he had been down with flu on the last day of our holiday. But still cause for a little bit of concern. Given that he wasn’t too ill–“just observation”–the main disappointment here was that he would not be able to attend the launch the next day.

Soon after, I found out that my uncle in KL had just passed away. I wouldn’t say I was super close to my dad’s cousin, but neither were we far–I always had a good laugh with him whenever we met, and often sung songs together.

Regardless, these double shocks meant that despite being quite tired from the trip and the whole day at work, I just wasn’t able to sleep. I slept for 3 hours, and then woke up at 2am, and couldn’t get back to sleep. From 2-7, I was just lying in bed, a million thoughts racing through my head. “Should I postpone the event? Should I go to KL for the wake? Should I visit my dad in the morning?” etc. etc.

The most immediate problem, of course, is that I had a Channel News Asia interview scheduled at 8.20am. Up till about 7.15am, I thought I might cancel it. But I was also worried about the repercussions, especially after the planning the CNA production team had done–reading the book, writing up questions for the anchors, etc. If I cancelled, would CNA ever call me back? How bad would it look for the book if I wasn’t there? How many people would  I be letting down?

So, I got up showered, chugged two big mugs of green tea, and headed over to Caldecott. It seems like only a few people who knew me well could tell I was tired, so overall, not too bad. You can watch the interview here.

The next problem is that I had to go to work, but I could hardly sit up after the Live TV energy-boost had worn off. So, at around 9.30am, I spoke with my boss and applied for urgent leave. Always understanding, she told me to take it. I worked for about an hour, some urgent emails and calls, and then collapsed in bed.

I woke at around 2pm feeling fantastic. From that point on, the day was a breeze, actually. Sumana, my wife and I headed down to the Esplanade at around 5.45pm. The folks there were setting up, so we just hung around waiting.

The next few hours passed by so quickly. Before I knew it, some guests had arrived and were asking for the books and my signature. From then on, I was moving around, saying hello, signing books, getting dragged back into the studio and asked to “relax and prepare”. I didn’t really need to, because I am quite comfortable speaking in public. In fact, people around often have the opposite problem–getting me to shut up.

Many people asked me how I was feeling. I said great, but that I had had a real moment of crisis and panic in the morning. Before I could explain why, I was whisked off somewhere. It was all a lot of fun, but also quite chaotic.

The diversity of the crowd was wonderful. On the one hand, there were people who have known me since I was in diapers, and friends who had been there right from the start–they had bade farewell to Sumana and me in 2004, as we cycled off. I felt so happy that they were there to witness the end of the long journey. On the other hand, there were quite a few new friends–people I had just met, some others who I was meeting for the first time, people who have followed my blog writings and had come down to support me. I was humbled.

One of my big disappointments of the night was the organisation. There were long queues of people waiting to get into the Studio, waiting to buy the book, waiting to get my signature. I don’t think this is necessarily anybody’s fault, but just a confluence of factors.

The Esplanade is extremely stringent about all sorts of things. All guests must have a ticket before they enter. We are allowed to issue only 245 tickets (the capacity of the Studio). Guests are allowed in only after 730pm. etc etc.

On top of that, my publisher, NUS Press, was also a bit under-resourced for an event like this. I know they were all trying their best, but many guests entered the Studio feeling tired and frustrated after what must have seemed like an unnecessarily laborious entry process. As the author, I felt quite bad.

Note to other artists/authors: The Esplanade, while a lovely venue with a great location, has soooo many regulations and rules. It would take me an hour to list them all, but here is one: no outside mineral water bottles allowed because of product placement rules.

What did this mean for us? Well, Christine from NUS Press had brought 3 bottles of Evian water and placed it next to the panellists chairs. Before the event started, an employee from The Esplanade went around removing the labels from around the bottles. No big deal, but just another activity in the rush to set up. If you’re interested, The Esplanade has its own water–of course–that you are welcome to buy and use there.

Nevertheless, strict rules and guidelines can be the bedrock of efficiency. Another good thing about The Esplanade is that everybody there is very professional and competent, and their systems seem to be working perfectly.

So, once the guests had finally sat down and the proceedings were underway, everything went off flawlessly.

The rest of the evening went by in a blur. First Mr Nathan made a speech that had been largely written by Sumana. Then I spoke for about 20mins. Then Donald Low, Manu Bhaskaran and myself had a panel discussion, with lots of audience participation. (For those who are wondering why and how I asked Mr Nathan, Donald and Manu to join me, please read this other piece, The politics of personalities.) Then everything was over and I was outside signing books. And then, finally, I was downstairs at Sauce, having drinks with friends and family.

By that point, the stress of the early morning seemed so, so far away. It was quite thrilling, really, to be celebrating with friends, new and old. A good friend bought me a Flaming Lamborghini, something I hadn’t had for a long time. As the bartender lit the drink up, he said, “This will help you float on a Malayan breeze.” It did.

In a way, all this is a bit anti-climatic, because I had actually finished with the manuscript in April, and for the past month have actually been thinking a lot about my next project. That said, it still feels quite good to know that an 8-year project has finally come to an end. This is the longest piece of work I’ve been involved in. At many points I felt like giving up.

When I started it, I was single, still in college, and wondering what I was going to do with my life. Now, by the time I’ve finished, I’m married to my darling wife, working in a job I like, and….still sort of wondering what I am going to do with my life.

Now that it’s all over, I actually feel a bit of a void.