Merdeka Reflections

On Saturday morning, I went to church – there was a special mass to commemorate our national day of independence and for once I was moved to attend. 

It saddened me that the mass was being held in the small chapel rather than the main church because not many people were expected to attend. When I arrived, the church was closed up and I thought I’d somehow been mistaken, until I drove around to the other entrance and saw a few people outside the chapel. Later I heard from others that many people had arrived, seen the main church closed and left, disappointed. 

I was disappointed too.

I was disappointed that a mass organised with the intent to pray for our nation did not invite a significant population of the church congregation to attend. The chapel was full but it only had 1/8 the capacity of the church.

I was disappointed that there was no notice provided to inform members of the congregation that the mass was to be held in the chapel, and those who wanted to be there were robbed of that chance.

I was disappointed that there hadn’t been a more strident call for as many people to attend as possible, as there had been for previous occasions such as feast days and seminars, fund-raisers and talks.

But I’m glad I was there. I told my two girls to pray for all those things in the country that seemed wrong in their eyes. And I prayed too. I can’t even recall what exactly I prayed for but at that moment, kneeling in the chapel, I know I prayed with all my heart for things to change for the better.

Someone once shared with me that the harder we try to strive for good, the more temptations we are faced with, and the harder the other side tries to bring us down. It reminds me of this line from one of my favourite novels:

“We struggle because we must. Evil has the advantage for it is served by chaos and confusion. It can destroy and ravage while we must preserve and build. Ours is the more difficult task.” [Raymond E Feist]

This rings even more true as I read the news this morning of a 101-year old Hindu temple being destroyed the day after Merdeka. Why? Because the site on which it was erected – 100 years ago! – was on reserved land. 

From what can gather, the temple’s location had been a matter of conflict with the city council for some time, and it’s claimed that the entire temple is not being demolished, only part of it to make way for a new pavement/pavement repairs. It’s hard to tell what’s the truth as mainstream news reported that statues of deities were not smashed while independent news reports said they were. Some reports also state that a court order was not presented, making any works – demolition or otherwise – illegal.   

Official statements by the police claim it was all a misunderstanding – that the people at the temple who tried to prevent the officials from carrying out their work misunderstood their intent. But what were they supposed to think when no notice was given by the city council to the temple leaders? When officials rudely intruded on a place of workshop? What more on a Sunday after celebrating our national independence day?  

Admittedly, anything to do with race and religion in this country is highly inflammatory. The insensitivities of one group only feeds the fear and reactivity of other groups resulting in a perfect storm of negativity.

It’s so hard not to get caught up in it. It’s so hard not to react with condemnation and a desire to lash back at those who trample on the rights and sensitivities of others, at those who feel superior and above the law. 

At the same time, while I was at mass, something prompted me to think about the ones who have fought for our country – men like Tunku Abdul Rahman who fought for our independence; soldiers like my father who spent the best of their years in defence of our nation, and those who lost their lives for love of their country; and everyday heroes who fought and continue to fight to make Malaysia a better place to live.

When we only focus on hate and anger, we disregard the sacrifices and the ongoing efforts that help to undo all the negativity. 

As an individual, I’m fearful of putting myself at the forefront – fearful of being targeted or blacklisted in some way; fearful of attracting the attention of those who could make my life miserable, arrest me or put me away for being a nuisance.

But ‘there are other ways to serve’ as a priest once told me. So, borrowing from yet another novel, I like to remind myself that while we can’t stop others from being hateful, bigoted, racist, inflammatory or corrupt, “we can do our best in the opposite direction” [Susan Cooper]

This country is my home. I may dream endlessly of travel or sigh in envy at how wonderful things seem to be in another country, but I could never call any other place home. 

When I left work on Friday and wished my colleague ‘Happy Merdeka’, the response was decidedly lukewarm. I understood perfectly. But the fact is, we can still celebrate this country which is our home and remember that there are still Malaysians who have respect for others, who are charitable and caring, who are bold and outspoken in defence of what’s right. 

So no matter what we see in the papers which saddens or angers us, let’s “do our best in the opposite direction” and celebrate everything that makes us proud Malaysians everyday. 

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Where does the money go?

I love summer action flicks – it’s a crazy-sometimes-silly ride that you don’t have to strain your head over or get emotionally involved with. 

However, the recent news that Ben Affleck would don the Caped Crusader’s mantle got me riled up. 

I’m not a huge comics fan – I can’t even keep it straight in my head which superhero belongs to the Marvel or DC universe – but I’m enough of a fan to have certain characters close to my heart. 

So my immediate reaction was not a good one but, prompted by an article in defence of Ben Affleck as a decent, socially responsible guy, I decided to look up which celebrities are active in philanthropy and came up with surprising results.

Obviously it’s not so clear cut as how much cash they give, or how much time but also how much passion and dedication. At the same time, it seems there are even calculations as to how much their perceived fame contributes to a cause (this one makes my head ache). On top of that, there’s the cynic in me who wonders how sincere their contributions are, so I’m glad to have read this article which answers some of my questions and addresses at least some small part of the dilemma when celebrities dabble in charity.

After that, I came upon this post on Keanu Reeves. If you ignore the OTT headline, it’s actually a nice look at (what seems to me) a really rare kind of celebrity. Over the years I’ve read posts about how he lives in a small apartment and travels by train – no entourage, no fancy sports cars etc, and wondered if they were true. The thought that a guy who makes millions can live a normal life makes me feel good, but this article goes on to show a lot more about the kind of person he is, and it’s funny how good that makes me feel. 

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What Words are Worth

The caption on the lower right corner of my business card reads ‘Words Count’. A professional acquaintance thought I was trying to emphasise the importance of a word count so that I can bill clients accordingly.

Couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

As a  writer, words are my currency. I’m not the best writer there is, far from it. But I’m good in my chosen field, and I work hard to do a good job. After two years of freelancing, I’m gratified that (a)  people I’ve worked with in the past still recommend me to others, and (b) people choose to continue working me with me.

Years ago, when I first started working, my father told me once that my being able to write well is a gift, and that I should be proud of it. Even though it’s taken years for that to sink in, I realise now that I am.

A large part of this realisation is wrapped up in those two words. I believe words matter, whether they’re spoken or written. You only have to pause and think for a moment to know this for a fact – think of a speech, a eulogy, a poem or a line in a novel that resonates in your mind because it expresses something so simple or profound or moving that you’ve never forgotten it.

On the flip side, we probably have less positive words imprinted on our hearts and minds that come to mind just as easily – harsh statements, unkind remarks, rude and disrespectful comments that have been directed at us or left our own lips/fingertips.

Words can carry hope, inspiration and comfort; they can also instil fear, pain and resentment. Whether it’s a Facebook post or tweet, a politically-charged statement or call-to-action,  it all depends on how we use them, to make them count for something.

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What next?

It’s been months since I last posted a blog. Why? I wonder myself.

I could make all the usual excuses – that work was taking up too much time, that I was too busy, that I couldn’t gather my thoughts enough to write something worth reading.

This last excuse is the one which hits closest to home, I think. Despite writing in my journal far more regularly – even going so far as to mark entries which I think would make good topics for a blog post – and jotting down multiple ideas for revamping my blog, nothing has materialised.

When I first started my blog, I spent hours reading blogs, looking for a certain style that made sense to me, agonizing over how best to word my thoughts and wondering if anyone would even read my blog.

I’ve since had some wonderful feedback but now I need to ask a favour – how do I get over this hurdle of having things to say and ideas bouncing around in my head, and actually get it out there?

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How My World Works

I’m not the most organized person in the world. People I have worked with say that I am, but in truth, while I love making lists and sorting things into neat compartments, I’m not a systematic person at all.

IQ tests confound me. Most of the time, I can’t even comprehend the question. Likewise, instructions and manuals aren’t remotely helpful as my mind just freezes when I look at them. The same goes for recipes.

But I do find that there seems to be some law at work, some force which appears to dictate how things are going at a certain point, either allowing things to fall into place quite seamlessly, or making me feel like I’m swimming upstream in a river of sludge.

Why am I writing about this? Because this law helps me achieve balance in what I do. Or perhaps my actions have come to support and end up enforcing how that law works.

In college, my attempts at achieving balance included this strategy – if I was staying up late to study or work on assignments, I would not skimp on food. In fact, I would take extra efforts to ensure that I ate well. In contrast, if things were good and classes were manageable, I reasoned that a skipped meal or two wouldn’t hurt. My logic was that, I could get by with less sleep if I had the necessary energy from eating well, and if I was sleeping well, then my body could handle a little less food.

Somehow, it still makes sense in my head even if my attempts to explain it sounds weird even to me.

Anyway, I soon noticed that my college life seemed to sway back and forth between periods of high energy, when I felt on top of the world even with little sleep, and periods when 10 hours of sleep still felt insufficient. Each phase would last a couple of months.

I’m not sure which came first – my deliberate attempts to manage energy levels or the actual, alternating phases. Or perhaps they each fed into the other?

In my first job, a good friend and colleague noted that I had a pattern. I would show up for work on time and dive right in while everyone else was still having coffee across the street. By noon, I’d be asking around to see who wanted to have lunch. After that, the afternoon slump would inevitably set in, but by late afternoon I’d be furiously making up for lost time.

I only worked there for 9 months, but it was already painfully obvious to him how I functioned on a daily basis.

Skipping forward a few years, my colleagues would loudly comment on my habit of having a late afternoon tea at my cubicle while enjoying a few pages from whatever novel I was currently engaged with.

“Aren’t you afraid the bosses will see you??”

Obviously not. Not because I was difficult or defiant, but because I worked best that way. I’d noticed that a short break between projects made me more productive, more able to focus, and I kept up this habit for years without any superiors having an issue with it, because it worked!

When I took the chance to work on a flexi-time basis, everything changed. My first three months was an unproductive nightmare of Popcap games and YouTube, mid-day naps and procrastination. Fortunately, system (of sorts) developed out of the chaos and I could crank out a decent amount of work on a daily basis, but now things have come full circle and I’m back in the office more days than not.

On the rare days now when I do get to work from home, it’s hard to find that groove and even harder to imagine – looking back – that I used to get that much work done.

So where does that leave me now? Watching and waiting for a new system to appear that’s more in sync with my life as it is now. It did cross my mind that it’s really strange how I progress from one phase to the next, in a random progression I just don’t understand. But maybe that’s just how it works.


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A Pat on the Back

There’s a wonderful thrill when I’m notified that someone is following my blog – thank you Sid Dunnebacke and The Blissful Adventurer. I am attention-shy and prefer to be in the background most of the time, and yet I find myself craving affirmation for who I am and what I do. Perhaps it’s my upbringing, both cultural and religious, which instilled humility – it’s only in recent years that I could start accepting compliments graciously rather than deflecting them, and it’s taken me a long time to admit to myself that I’m fairly good at what I do, which is why people choose to continue working with me. 

For whatever reason, I believe the journey to self-realization is filled with milestones like these, moments where you feel “y’know, I think I finally get what people mean when they say that.” Sometimes the realization isn’t a pleasant one but once it’s right there in front of me, I can recognize moments of weakness and tell myself ‘don’t go there’ or ‘stop being such a wimp and pull yourself together’ or ‘millions of people go through this, and worse, all over the world so stop making such a big deal of it!’

Reading about experiences others have had – whether they’re friends or strangers, from forwarded emails  or blogs – have made a big difference for me too. It’s comforting to know there are kindred spirits out there who share the same views or have the same thoughts (at least some of the time!). In fact it’s partly why I started to blog after years of ‘considering’ it, and I’ve not been disappointed by the experience of writing it, nor by the comments and replies posted by people who have read them.

So thank you to everyone who’s read and/or followed my blog, posted comments or replied to them. In the words of author Matthew Reilly, “never underestimate the power of your encouragement.”

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Book Buddies

I love books, and by extension anything to do with books. I love journals and pretty notebooks, embossed sheets and beautiful origami paper, coloured pens to write with and all the trappings of a stationary store.

When I was younger, all bookmarks were made of paper but (then and now) I use anything handy – receipts, business cards, scraps of paper, gift cards, even those subscription requests that fall out of magazines when I’m reading them.

However today’s bookmarks are just so pretty and I’ve taken to making oodles of them. At first they were gifts, then I wanted to set up a stall to sell them, but the reality is that I just like making them. Enjoy.

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Procrastination is Hard Work

Anyone who ever accused a procrastinator of being lazy is sadly mistaken. The reason why we procrastinate is because we are actively trying to avoid doing something we’d rather not do. The fact that it’s inevitable and must eventually be done is beside the point. The point is that we are trying, with every ounce of effort, NOT to do something. And that is actually harder than knuckling down and getting on with it.

Endless games of Zuma or Bejewelled or Angry Birds, resulting in cramped fingers from gripping the mouse for too long. Pointless scribbles and doodles. Feverish updating of finances, avid searches for emails or FB comments that require a response. To-do lists (which include said project or assignment that we are trying very hard to ignore). Checking for new mails, posts or updates every 3 minutes. Sudden urges to clear away accumulated receipts and brochures that have built up over the past year or five. Listening to ‘just one more’ song. Getting a drink or snack even though you’ve just had lunch. Wondering what’s for dinner.

Procrastination is hard work. Really.

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Stop the Waste

We were having breakfast this morning and noticed a mother and two children at the nearby table. She had ordered the same meal for her two children of pre-school age, plus a coffee (!) and a large glass of water for the boy.

Looking at them we already anticipated that the children wouldn’t be able to finish the food on their plates. Sure enough, 15 minutes later the plates were pushed aside, almost untouched, and the mother ordered something else for the boy.

When they left to pay for their food, there were almost two full servings left behind and the coffee.

My husband said people waste because they’ve never known hardship. I disagree. I’ve never known hardship. I was blessed with a childhood where I had just about everything I wanted – we weren’t rich, but we were never lacking.

I was taught not to waste, and the green movement was just picking up pace when I was a teenager. I diligently used both sides of paper, ripped out unused pages for scrap paper, tried my hardest not switch on the air-conditioning unit every day, recycled what I could, argued with people who left the water running, supported any retailer that had a ‘Not Tested on Animals’ or ‘Biodegradable’ label on it, or any product that was made from recycled materials.

The whole idea of being eco-friendly has become so much more complicated since then, and encompasses so much more than what my idealistic mind could grasp back then. But at the core of it is a very simple message – stop wasting.

Stop wasting food – it’s sickening to see parents order full portions for toddlers who will only manage a few mouthfuls; disgusting to see plates being cleared from a table where five women have each ordered individual meals and left more than half of each uneaten; incredibly frustrating to see people out for dinner order a starter, entree and dessert without any single item being finished.

Come on people. It’s not just about the cooked food that’s gone to waste – it’s the amount of resources and the effort of people who had worked so hard to grow the food and rear the animals for their meat, and the processes and transportation necessary to get the food to your table…all this just so you can throw most of it away?

There’s nothing wrong with sharing a portion. If your favourite restaurant can’t respect that, then they don’t respect the food which is their livelihood and they don’t deserve to be in the food business.

Please stop and think for a moment the next time you sit down for a meal.

I had lunch with a former colleague once, who said to me, “Well it makes no difference to starving people whether I finish my food or not. It’s not like I can go and give them my food.”

Well no, of course it’s not so simplistic as that. But there is a chain reaction that occurs when consumers make a stand. It happens everywhere, and in today’s world where just about every consumer behavior is noted and analysed, businesses do take note of what customers want.

When I was a teenager, there were only a handful of brands I could get my hands on that were known to be eco-friendly in some way. Today, my FB page is filled with news about innovative products, people, structures, furniture, clothing etc that are re-purposed, resource-efficient, or designed to undo a little bit of the damage we’ve inflicted on this planet. There are entire businesses, catalogues and conferences showcasing products and services that continue to bring awareness to new heights.

So don’t try to make excuses, or pretend that your actions can’t make a difference. I’m not a saint, but I try. It’s impossible to untangle the chain of supply to ensure that everything we buy and consume is good for the planet, and many eco labels remain too expensive for the average person, but there are so many other things we can do if we can just make that small, conscious effort to Stop the Waste.

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I love making lists. There’s something extremely fulfilling about knowing exactly what I need to do for the day, or what I need to buy, books I need to get…Just completing the list feels like an accomplishment, makes me feel organized and in control.

But sometimes what looks so neat and orderly on paper is anything but, and the hours and days that go by with a list uncompleted is like a load of bricks on my mind. Sometimes it’s because the task is reliant on some external factor for completion or perhaps it’s more complicated or tedious than it first appeared to be. Or sometimes it’s simply because I spend hours and days trying to avoid it.

At times like these, it feels like lists take on a life of their own. I have so many – to-do lists, ‘work completed’ lists, birthday/Christmas lists, wish lists, shopping lists, things I like, things to look forward to….

I like lists because they help me feel like I’m in control, always prepared. But lists sometimes give me the false impression that I can control everything, that I can always be prepared. In theory I suppose it makes sense, but my mind seriously doesn’t work like that. In fact, I don’t work like that, because I love making lists but I am usually really bad about using them.

I have issues with following all my lists and schedules, the same way I have issues following recipes and instruction manuals. Something inside me freezes up and my mind goes blank. Don’t ask me why. I can read a recipe and think ‘hey, I can make that!’ yet freeze up when the ingredients are in front of me. It’s like some sort of disconnect, a computer hanging, a ‘does not compute’ sign popping up over my head.

Granted, I do occasionally get to cross out items on my to-do list but I’ve come to realize that some lists aren’t meant to be completed. I have journals from my college days that list out ‘things to look forward to’, people to see, gifts to make. Although they’re no longer relevant, I can’t bear to throw them away. Just like my journals, they’re a part of me and throwing them away would mean throwing away part of my history.

So I’ll continue making my lists. It’s gotten me this far, and I know my life will be filled with many more.

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