Sunday, October 30, 2011

S'pore's Success: An Observer's Take

Penned by David Mason, a former partner of Price Waterhouse and is now running his own consultancy in business communications in the United Kingdom.

His article first appeared in the Business Times on 25 Oct, Tuesday and also in the Straits Time on 27 Oct, Thursday.

I've been coming to Singapore for the last 48 years, which makes me feel ancient. Mind you, the first visit in 1963 was merely a one-day stopover on a ship back to the United Kingdom.

We berthed at what is now the container terminal and I bought my first transistor radio at what is now Raffles Place, from a small shop which was near Change Alley. We could not afford Robinsons on other side of the park.

Immediately, I can hear young Singaporeans saying: "Huh?"

Singapore has changed dramatically. I came to live here in 1979 and stayed until 1997. Since then, I have worked here on and off every year and have had the opportunity to see the place change and grow.

Modern Singapore is a success story. From a swampy island, beset with mosquitoes, whose only claim to success was its geographical location and its huge harbour, it has become one of the world's leading cities.

You all know the statistics, because you are brought upon on them. Shipping, oil refining, transport hub, banking centre, high-tech R&D, regional centre in every way. Singapore is a success.

Yet this is fragile.

The world is truly global economically and Singapore exists only because of economics. The current outlook for the global economy is scary, to say the least, so Singapore must take stock.

You have had the same governing party since Independence and, if I have learnt one thing from them, it is that the nation requires stability. Without it, you are lost. I'll avoid the arguments about democracy because I'd like you to let me in next time I come to Changi.

But the message is very clear- do not throw away what your forefathers fought so hard to establish.

The modern Singapore shocks - in the nicest sense. Our first home was in Upper Thomson, with kampungs on three sides. The night soil tanker visited every morning and woke me up, to get to work in a non-aircon bus.

Being an ang moh (Caucasian) and not used to the weather, I used to leave wet marks under my shoes by the time we got to Ocean Building. Now you have the most modern of buildings, an advanced transport system (okay, it gets crowded, but the aircon works) and fairly full employment.

You are also known as a place of enjoyment for the well-heeled, and some of the now live here. You have casinos, Formula One racing, the best zoo in the world, arguably the world's best food and an amazing number of foreigners.

Which is where this starts to get serious.

Singapore started and sustained itself through the incredible efforts of its people. The Government was tough and restrictive, but for a good reason - to establish and prosper as a nation.

Discipline was key to this and I know - I had my hair cut in 1979, but I didn't really mind. I had the privilege of working with several of the "Old Guard" and admired their ethic. Singapore prospered and built so much of its current infrastructure because of it.

The Housing Board estates are the best public housing in the world. Don't believe it? Try another country.

Jurong has just one unbelievable for its size. The CBD has to be close to the best in the world for businesses.

But there is a problem. Years ago, if a taxi driver even mentioned political dissent, we would both look around to see who was listening.

Today, I hear dissent from many Singaporeans. The last General Election is testatment to a growing sense of unease among the population. The haves and the have-nots are getting further apart and the discipline is fading.

There is much dissent about the apparent unchecked immigration from Asian sources, despite the agreed need for it on macro-economic grounds.

What worries me as a sympathetic observer is not the development and the immigration - I can only applaud it. It is the lack of knowledge and sensitivity of the younger generation of Singaporeans.

Singapore was fought for and won as a globally important nation by the mid 1980s. Its younger management have been born since then and display two general problems. the first is that "it has always been like this, so it will continue" - an awful sense of birthright and complacency. The second is a lack of understanding of how the country was born in the first place.

Asians have a tradition of respect for their elders. Singaporeans are in danger of losing it. If you do so, you put your nation at risk.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Four Nations, Four Lessons

This is taken from Malaysia politician, YB Lim Kit Siang's blog post, by this gentleman, Gregory Mankiw.

The New York Times
October 22, 2011

AS the economy languishes, politicians and pundits are debating what to do next. When we look around the world, it’s hard to find positive role models. But as we search for answers, it is useful to keep in mind those fates that we would like to avoid.

The recent economic histories of four nations are noteworthy: France, Greece, Japan and Zimbabwe. Each illustrates a kind of policy mistake that could, if we are not careful, presage the future of the United States economy. Think of them as the four horsemen of the economic apocalypse.

Let’s start with Zimbabwe. If there were an award for the world’s worst economic policy, it might well have won it several times over the past decade. In particular, in 2008 and 2009, it experienced truly spectacular hyperinflation. Prices rose so fast that the central bank eventually printed 100 trillion-dollar notes for people to carry. The nation has since abandoned using its own currency, but you can still buy one of those notes as a novelty item for about $5 (American, that is).

Some may find it hard to imagine that the United States would ever go down this route. But reckless money creation is apparently a concern of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who is seeking the Republican nomination for president. He suggested in August that it would be “almost treasonous” if Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, were to print too much money before the election. Mr. Perry is not alone in his concerns. Many on the right fear that the Fed’s recent policies aimed at fighting high unemployment will mainly serve to ignite excessive inflation.

Mr. Bernanke, however, is less worried about the United States turning into Zimbabwe than he is about it turning into Japan.

Those old enough to remember the 1980s will recall that Japan used to be an up-and-coming economic superpower. Many people then worried (too much, in my view) that Japan’s rapid growth was a threat to prosperity in the United States, in much the same way that many people worry today (too much, in my view) about rapid growth in China.

The concerns about Japanese hegemony came to a quick end after bubbles in the real estate and stock markets burst in the early 1990s. Since then, Japan has struggled to regain its footing. Critics of the Bank of Japan say it has been too focused on quelling phantom inflationary threats and insufficiently concerned about restoring robust economic growth.

One of those critics was Mr. Bernanke, before he became Fed chairman. Watching Japanese timidity and failures has surely made him more willing to experiment with unconventional forms of monetary policy in the aftermath of our own financial crisis.

The economists in the Obama administration are also well aware of the Japanese experience. That is one reason they are pushing for more stimulus spending to prop up the aggregate demand for goods and services.

Yet this fiscal policy comes with its own risks. The more we rely on deficit spending to keep the economy afloat, the more we risk the kind of sovereign debt crisis we have witnessed in Greece over the past year. The Standard & Poor’s downgrade of United States debt over the summer is a portent of what could lie ahead. In the long run, we have to pay our debts — or face dire consequences.

To be sure, the bond market doesn’t seem particularly worried about the solvency of the federal government. It is still willing to lend to the United States at low rates of interest. But the same thing was true of Greece four years ago. Once the bond market starts changing its mind, the verdict can be swift, and can lead to a vicious circle of rising interest rates, increasing debt service and budget deficits, and falling confidence.

Bond markets are now giving the United States the benefit of the doubt, partly because other nations look even riskier, and partly in the belief that we will, in time, get our fiscal house in order. The big political question is how.

The nation faces a fundamental decision about priorities. To maintain current levels of taxation, we will need to substantially reduce spending on the social safety net, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the new health care program sometimes called Obamacare. Alternatively, we can preserve the current social safety net and raise taxes substantially to pay for it. Or we may choose a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. This brings us to the last of our cautionary tales: France.

Here are two facts about the French economy. First, gross domestic product per capita in France is 29 percent less than it is in the United States, in large part because the French work many fewer hours over their lifetimes than Americans do. Second, the French are taxed more than Americans. In 2009, taxes were 24 percent of G.D.P. in the United States but 42 percent in France.

Economists debate whether higher taxation in France and other European nations is the cause of the reduced work effort and incomes there. Perhaps it is something else entirely — a certain joie de vivre that escapes the nose-to-the-grindstone American culture.

We may soon be running a natural experiment to find out. If American policy makers don’t rein in entitlement spending over the next several decades, they will have little choice but to raise taxes close to European levels. We can then see whether the next generation of Americans spends less time at work earning a living and more time sipping espresso in outdoor cafes.

N. Gregory Mankiw is a professor of economics at Harvard. He is advising Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, in the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

OCBC Cycle Malaysia 2011, 16 Oct 2011

This was my second cycling event this year, experienced my first with OCBC in Singapore earlier this year and following suit, its Malaysia edition. I enjoyed the Singapore edition and was certainly keen to partake in the Malaysia one which was a first by OCBC. I managed to convince my running mate, Chua to join me though Chua is not as avid as me when it comes to cycling.

The event was scheduled on 16 Oct, Sunday. We planned to be in KL one day prior; to check out the venue and to collect our kits, among others. I had booked DoubleTree by Hilton, the official hotel of the event but to our dismay, it was 'official in name' as not much of publicity could be found at the hotel premises, save for a lone pull-out banner displayed at one corner of the lift lobby. It is a nice and comfy hotel, no doubt.

I picked up Chua at his place in Bukit Panjang before 7am on Saturday as we had to cross the Woodlands causeway before 8am if we wanted to avoid the heavy jam later. We managed to place our two roadies with two front wheels taken out inside the car. After crossing the Woodlands causeway, we headed to Taman Sentosa to patronise the famous Ah Koon 'Bak Kut Tei' stall but we were too early, it was still not opened yet. We settled for a quickie one at a coffeeshop nearby.

Chua is familiar with the place, directed me to the shortest route leading to the highway and soon we were on the way to KL. Enroute and at Chua's recommendation, we stopped over at Tangkak to have mee hoon beef soup at a popular stall. No wrong, the beef soup is simply fantastic. Knowing the rouge traffic cops on the highway especially on the weekends, I kept to the 110km/hr speed limit throughout unless overtaking. We reached KL around 12 noon but took us a while looking for our hotel which is along Tun Razak and Ampang Road. Traffic in KL was smooth sailing being a Saturday, phew!

After we did our check-in, we were off to Avenue K to pick up our kits. We planned to take a short LRT ride from our hotel to Avenue K, just one stop away according to the map shown. A nice Caucasian man advised us to walk pointing to the right direction as it is definitely faster than taking LRT. Thanks to him, he was right, indeed. I even joked to Chua who is a Malaysian but have to rely on an 'ang moh' to show us the right way.

Admittedly,I was expecting throngs of people from participants to visitors at the mall but I was somewhat disappointed to see not so much of a fanfare there. There were few booths selling related cycling wares & apparels, it took a glance to see all. Prior to that, I had received an email from the event organisers that some 1,000 French-made cycling shorts and jerseys will be sold but almost everything was not available. I cannot pick up a ladies cycling pants for Dora as there was no L size left, of any brands. However, I only managed to pick up an OCBC Malaysia edition cycling pants for RM90 for myself.

After picking up our kits, Chua and I went separate way. He was meeting his brother & sister and later his old friends for dinner while I headed to Chooi Nee's work place to pass her some of her things.

It always happens to me before and again, I suffered insomnia. I fought very hard to go to sleep despite retiring to bed early. I was kept awake, sleeping intermittently. We woke up by 4.45am and by 5am, we were already down at the concierge to pick up our bikes. We met a couple from Singapore and they later joined us cycling to the start venue at Dataran Merdeka which is about 5km away.

Soon, we met more cyclists along Ampang Road and we then formed a convoy. I was in front and a car just sped past. It made a abrupt stop some 100 metres in front and then, turned a full 180 degree circle. I can smell the burnt of tyres. It then turned back and sped off, damn...bunch of drunken fellas and if they had escaped this time, they won't be lucky next time and may God bless them.

We arrived at Dataran Merdeka before 5.30am, some one hour to the flag-off at 6.30am. It was still pitched dark and Chua and I just hang around. A short while later, we could hear the MC trying to make his announcement but most of time, I couldn't hear what he said. The sound system was too soft and also the MC was just too boring. Bikes of different made and brands, mostly roadies, some foldies and some mountain bikes were streaming in.

We were at the start line, somewhere in the mid section and by 6.30am, we were not flagged off yet. It was only around 6.45am when the first horn sounded. We moved out batch by batch and by the time we were flagged off, it was around 7am by my reckoning (I didn't really check the time and I didn't have my watch with me either). Chua was just behind me, he was quiet throughout and when we sped off, we simply could not stick together. I later learnt he was very nervous on seeing so many cyclists. We had to watch out for other cyclists and be safe. Anyway, we had chosen a waiting spot after we have finished the race.

After the first turn, we headed to Kenny Heights and this is the toughest route I soon learnt. It is quite a steep slope which we had to ascend for quite a distance. I know I am not good when it comes to steep slope. Speed was reduced to lesser than 20km, dropping to 12km (at last 2 laps) but on the downhill, I can hit beyond 50km. Already on the first lap, I saw a casualty who was sitting by the side of the road and head bloodied.

We had to do five laps (each lap was about 10.5km) for a total of 52km in all. We cycled into the heart of KL. The first two laps were generally alright where traffic was kept at bay. I was doing about 30km on average, had to slow down at each turn and from time to time, watch out for charging cyclists from behind. Chua was nowhere in sight, he was either in front or behind. On the third lap, some cars and motorcylists were allowed in. It was a tight space and we really had to cycle with great care, knowing too well the notorious traffic in KL.

On my fourth lap, I had to stop for traffic to pass. Some impatient cyclists shouted at the traffic policemen to allow us through but to no avail, we had to wait for a good few minutes. Again, on my fifth and last lap which I had accelerated faster than the last four laps, we were stopped at the traffic junction. This time, longer than expected. In the last two stops, I reckon more than 5 minutes were wasted.

While I was heading to the finishing line, about 30 metres away and just in front of me, I saw one cyclist who just fell without anyone crashing on him and it was face down on him. Boy, it must be a bad fall for him. I cannot stop as more cyclists were zooming home on the final stretch, just shouted so that the medics could hear me.

After dismounting from the bike, I headed to the exit as directed by the organising personnel. A finishing medal was placed on me (actually, I cheekyly asked the lady to hang on me instead of passing to me). Another surprise awaits...more medals were left on two tables were left unattended and some were seen helping themselves to more medals. If there were not medals to be given out, this is likely the cause.

A short while later, Chua emerged. He was just some 20 or 30 seconds behind me, great effort by him. We later chanced upon the same couple and together, we cycled back to our hotel. The whole organisation was not perfectly executed, probably it was the first time for OCBC organisers. I can understand and accept some lapses but the biggest letdown is to allow cars and motorcyclists in and this is where cyclist safety is compromised. If the venue in the heart of KL is not ideal for such event, it is better to change to another place where traffic is manageable or not have it at all - this is my take.

On the same day, we checked out and drove back. Again, while enroute, we detoured to Tangkak for our beef mee hoon soup and I think this is the highlight of our trip, not the cycling. For the experience, yes but to cycle next year, a likely no.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Stemming the Malaysian exodus

Taken from the blog of Malaysian veteran politician, YB Lim Kit Siang, an article written by a Douglas Tan from The Malaysian Insider.

Many Singaporeans, especially the Gen Y are grumbling about living in Singapore, the high cost, lack of freedom, among others but alot more Malaysians are eager to seek lives outside, read on.

— Douglas Tan
The Malaysian Insider
Oct 12, 2011

OCT 12 — Recently, YB Teresa Kok asked me, “Why are Malaysians so keen to leave this country? Life overseas is not necessarily easier!” I agree that life overseas is not necessarily so. In fact, my cousins living in Hong Kong, Singapore and London tell me regularly that they miss the food and that everything is much cheaper at home (except cars). They complain about the weather, high cost of living and their long working hours. Despite this, when the possibility of coming back home is raised, they give me a smile and a shake of their head.

Is living in Malaysia really so bad? What is it that other countries have that we don’t? YB Lim Kit Siang posted on his blog in December 2009 that more than 630 Malaysians migrate overseas everyday, and that number is increasing year on year.

This is a worrying statistic and the brain drain issue is one that the current government acknowledges is a problem. However, the best they can come up with to make Malaysians come back are tax breaks, and tax-free vehicles. From day one, it has become apparent these ‘perks’ would simply not work.

This government has a habit of tackling problems by providing quick fixes. The 2012 Budget should really be called the ‘quick-fix’ budget as RM232 billion is mindlessly spent, with unrealistic economic growth forecasts to back it up.

Yes, 60 per cent of households would receive a RM500 relief and we thank the government for it. What then? RM500 does not combat rising costs, or inflation. How far can RM500 bring us nowadays? Not very far. In no time at all, that RM500 has become a distant memory and we are back to square one.

The Kedai 1 Malaysia initiative was put in place by the government to sell cheap products subsidised by the government, and more are to be opened across the nation. Shop owners are now screaming in displeasure as they cannot possibly compete. If the government is intent on handing out subsidies, subsidise the shops which are already operating! Another poorly planned quick fix that provides no long-term solution.

Where is the long-term economic plan? Where is the investment in our children’s future? Fixing school buildings is an excellent initiative, but the real problem lies in the fabric of the education system.

Our children are taught to be robots, to regurgitate material and not to question their teachers. Many scoff at the lowering of standards in the ongoing PMR exams, and an Additional Mathematics SPM paper was allegedly leaked to tuition centres. Is all this in the name of grades, just to make the Education Ministry look good? How can this system prepare our children to be competent, effective members of society? The biggest losers in all of this are our nation’s children.

A friend over dinner told me earnestly that he was preparing to leave the country for the sake of his children. As disheartening as it was to hear, he proceeded to tell me why.

His vision for his children was for them to grow up in a society in which they would not be discriminated against. Although racism is also prevalent in other countries, in Malaysia, racism is institutionalised and sanctioned by the Barisan Nasional government.

Furthermore, corruption is rampant throughout all levels of government. The payment of corruption money in cases of obtaining building or business licenses is so prevalent, that many businesses have included such a payment in their expense budgets. How can this continue be the case?

These issues are all correlated, and opportunities continue to be stifled. Talented people leave because Malaysia appears to have no appreciation for their abilities. Nepotism and favouritism are practised on the basis of the “Lu tolong gua, Gua tolong lu” principle rather than getting the best person for the job.

Our English standards have been lowered in order to record more exam passes, but quality is sacrificed as a result. If even masters degree holders from local universities are unable to speak proper English, how can we then become a globally competitive nation?

After this Budget, more and more people are convinced that this BN government cares only about staying in power and not for the long-term development of the nation. The exodus of talented individuals will continue unless necessary reforms are put in place.

On a recent trip to the United States, on our stopover in Hong Kong, a fellow passenger remarked that they could finally talk about issues of Malaysia as they dared not voice out their displeasures at home. Recalling so many holding up their fingers to their lips to shush their friends from bringing up national issues, it is obvious that many feel we are living under oppression.

Finally, one of my old schoolmates residing in Australia told me that he wanted to come home to take care of his parents. “But the biggest thing stopping me from coming home now is the government”. A change in government may not automatically bring Malaysians home, but what it would do is provide hope for the future of our nation, and hope for our future generations.

Change is needed, and change has to happen now.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Trip To Pelepah Falls, Kota Tinggih

It was my first outing organised by YMCA but for sure, won't be my last with them after this enjoyable trip. We've found good new company, especially the senior citizens among us.

The trip was scheduled on 8 Oct, Saturday and the 6 of us, Dora, CK, Kiat Sing, Kany, Yan Ping and me had arranged to meet at Woodlands station by 0645 hrs to take a Johor bound TIBS bus over to Singapore Woodlands check-point where we were supposed to link up with the rest. Unfortunately, we later learnt from Kiat Sing that Kany and Yan Ping had taken ill thus had to give this trip a miss. We arrived at Singapore check-point before 0700 hrs, early for us as the meet up was scheduled at 0730 hrs. While waiting, we witnessed an accident. A Malaysia registered combi was making a reverse which rammed into another Malaysia registered combi. Not a major accident, the rear of one dented the front of the other. Quickly, Dora took down the number plates of the two combis (cannot remember the number now) and asked whether anyone of us wanted to buy 4-D. All 4 of us placed S$10 each to try our luck (but later in the evening on our way back home, there was no news from Dora's father who bought on our behalf did not call and we knew our bet had gone up into smoke...haiz!).

The organiser, Sze Haw finally turned up with the rest and we took SBS bus 160 to cross over to the Johor side where our coach was waiting for us. I was pleasantly surprised they had arranged a luxurious super vip 26-seater coach for us - I was actually expecting a combi. We waited a little longer for another person, a Czek who missed his bus and was trying to find his way to the immigration. When he turned up, he sat across the aisle from me and then made a brief introduction of himself. Peter is a professor from NUS, been to Singapore just 5 days ago. One final count there were 22 of us including the organisers from YMCA.

We had our breakfast in Ulu Tiram and after that, we made one more final stop to shop for the much sought after 'kampong adidas' shoes since it was going to be a wet wet trail throughout. With our arrival, the shop was kept busy by us. After trying some, I bought a pair at RM6.50, really worth the money. More than 10 pairs were bought from our group.

We finally arrived at Kota Tinggih Waterfall and it was just before 1100 hrs. The guide, Azhahari and his 3 younger assistants were already waiting for us. After a brief introduction, we were ready to make our way to the fall. We slowly made our way, the 4 of us, Dora, CK and Kiat Sing stick close to each other. We had to trek on water and the 'kampong adidas' was a god-send to me. The weather looked fine, we couldn't have asked for more. It was easy walking as the initial part was mostly flat. Gracie, another organiser from YMCA told us there are altogether 7 waterfalls along the way and it should take 2 hours to reach, barring any unforseeable.

When we reached our first rest point and then someone pointed to a leech that landed on the foot of our veteran guide, Azahari who does not look panicky at all. Dora could have freaked out at the mere sight of a leech but she was surprising quiet, perhaps she was trying to conceal her fear for leeches from the others. A nice elderly gentleman in our group, Muthu came over and volunteered to solve this 'leechy' saga (without being asked in the first place). He asked our guide whether he had any leech repellant of sorts to take the leech out to which our guide said he had none. He (Muthu) then said saliva should the problem as there is alkaline in the saliva which will 'loosen' the grip of the leech or something to that effect. As he was about to 'gamely' spit his saliva on the guide's foot, he politely asked, "May I...?". With an amused look on his face, the guide stopped him in time and then, using his fingers, just yanked out the leech in our presence. He even gave put the leech in his mouth claiming leeches can be a delicacy in the wilderness. We had a good laugh (I still can't stop laughing the good gesture of Muthu and his leech wisdom in the midst of typing this, my apology Muthu my friend).

That joke aside, Muthu is really a gentleman throughout the trek. He was always looking out for people whenever there was a break in between, signalling us to the right direction. There were these two ladies, Irene and Agnes and Muthu was always there to help them out. Irene by the way is 60 year-old and ever so sporty and best of all she does not look 60 at all. And Muthu, he is 66 years old and he is a retired teacher. Little wonder why he is always so helpful. These are senior citizens and they are still enjoying the outdoor events as much as we do. How can I say I am old at 49 when both Muthu and Irene are still going strong, going into their 60.

Though it was not a long trek but some parts can be quite treacherous. As we were trekking along the waterfall, walking alone can be one challenging chore too. The rocks are slippery and any wrong step may land hard on the bum. Kiat Sing had a hard knock on the head as she missed seeing a big rock above her. I even heard the sound from the back - that was really a hard knock, ouch! I also had a hard knock on the left side of my lower back while hastily making my way down. I thought with the rope I was gripping on should hold steady for me but I was wrong. We had to be careful while inching our walk through. There are few steep slopes along the way and we have to muscle our way up using ropes. Kiat Sing was determined to make it all the way up but knowing her already, she is afraid of height. I then volunteered to carry her backpack so that she can conserve more energy for the climb. For that, she bought me ice cream later

What's the reward for us? The water gushing down from the fall is simply magnificent, a sight behold. I swam to the waterfall and sat under the gushing water from above to have a good massage on my head and my back. Kiat Sing joined in later but CK and Dora decided to keep dry. Soon, more joined us. I have always love waterfall, going under the gushing water and get beaten up or simply soak in the cool water. When the weather darkened and rain starting to drop, we knew we had to leave the place fast. Getting down the same way we did on the way up was more challenging. Everyone waited for each other before moving on, the guide and his assistants were simply superb. I had a good conversation with Muthu on the way down, a real jovial guy to be with. I know I am bad - I made fun of his hair (he is bald just like me) saying the water gushing on his head may well have pulled out whatever little he has now but he was a good sport indeed. For posterity, we took picture with our botak heads joined like Siamese twins during our firefly ride.

We found good company especially with Rose, Agnes & Irene (the 3 friends who came together) and Muthu during dinner. We chatted as if there is no tomorrow and joked like good old friends. During the firefly boat tour, we, the senior citizen group were the noisest and we had to be reminded again and again to remain quiet so as not to 'scare off the flyflies'. The Gen Y group seated at another table was mostly reserved. It was certainly one of the better outings I had and new friends are made. Thanks all for the wonderful time and I look forward to more with YMCA.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

An Internship Experience: Sara Lau

With permission from Malaysia opposition MP, YB Tony Pua, this article by Sara Lau was taken from his blog.

Sara Lau is a lawyer who has recently graduated from Reading and will be completing her bar in London. She interned with me in August and below are her thoughts.

“You are young, talented, hardworking and determined – where do you want to go after you graduate?”

I have always thought myself optimistic about my country. When people asked me whether I wanted to stay or leave after my studies, I always answered that I wanted to be a lawyer in Malaysia – to work for my community and my country. When my peers told me that their parents told them to run, I was judgmental of them. To me, they were quitters. Maybe Malaysia was not in a good economic place at the moment, but I was so sure in my heart that this will come to pass. On closer inspection, I realised it was not just because of the returns and low wages in Malaysia that was making them run...

I called myself an optimist, but maybe I was just ignorant. Like so many of us, maybe I wanted to close my eyes to the bigotry and pretend that everything was as it should be. But there came a point when I could not answer my friends’ retort on why there was a withholding and vandalism of bibles; why the Government was so pressed against a campaign calling for free and fair elections; why Valentine’s Day cannot be a joyous ocassion back home! I was cornered when they asked – Why should we put up with this partiality? They were hurt. They were discontented and they were just tired of fighting back. I called myself an optimist, but maybe I was just in denial.

I was jaded by the time I came back because suddenly I didn't know the answer. I knew of all these political instabilities, racial insecurities, economic urgencies.... Yet the government remained idle at the height of needing to prove itself. I never called myself a Party supporter because what was logic in my mind was that it did not matter what the government did, and why it did. What mattered was that the people were well taken care of, not taken advantage of, had its civil liberties and were happy. But second chances prove futile when the Government kept letting me down. I remember asking my friend Jian Wei, why didn't they take a stand and do something? He jolted me when he said... "Don't you see? They have already taken their stand."

And then, I needed to find the alternative. Were there people as perplexed as I was? Most want to save themselves before they can't, but this land is mine to inherit! I needed to find people who were geared up as I, who could remind me why I wanted to fight when I am giving up. I needed to find out if I was alone, wanting to return and work because I was needed, because I know I still counted as a number at the very least. I still wanted to be that number for Malaysia.

We hear of our counterparts and peers, tired, wearied, disheartened saying that hope is lost. That while they were young and had alternatives, had to find a place to build themselves, their homes, their families away from injustice, unfairness and discrimination. This was logical - why return to a lover who doesn't love you back? But Malaysia wasn't just a lover, this wasn't just a two person relationship - it was a cause bigger than myself and while I have one life to give, I wanted to make it count. So, likewise disheartened, but contrariwise eager, I wanted to see if the Opposition proved any better than the Government.

My stint with DAP was only a month long. The reason I came into it was because I thought it was not enough to know alternative policies. I wanted to see if their actions corresponded with the news. I wanted to be a judge in my own right and to find out if the Opposition was a risk worth taking. I have always been one to play safe, but these were desperate times to me.

One mistake I had made coming into it was my expectation: unwittingly I had thought my internship would be likened to a classroom where information I wanted came almost automatically. I was wrong. Tony was not the kind to spoon feed - when I wanted information on something, he only provided it if I had done my homework. He wasn't the kind who sat you down, event after event, asking you "Did you understand?", "Do you know what's happening?", "What conclusions can we draw from this?" like a teacher would; instead he allowed you in on the face of conflict there and then, expected you to draw your own inferences and naturally allowed you to draw personal stands and opinions. Looking back, I realise that when I was frustrated about not satisfying my deep hunger for knowledge, I had gotten it all wrong. This stint was about instigating mature observations, not manipulating naivete. And in that sense, he gave me what I asked for in the beginning - a platform to ponder.

Only a 4 week internship, my tasks were varied. Needless to say the high points of the internship revolved around press conferences because it was exciting and in the face of current political happenings, but also because it satisfied a curiosity. Coming from these events to reading mainstream media and then comparing it to online media revealed me to disparities, and unwittingly, the truth (or lies) of Government action. Perhaps the most memorable press conference was at Jalan Sultan where the Opposition pledged support to protecting the area from the MRT land grab fiasco. As a layperson exposed to interactions between politician and politician, public and politician, I saw how the once untouchable arena of politics became unbelievably humanised before my eyes.

Another event that had been incredibly eye-opening was the various voter registration campaigns held almost every week and weekend. Together with Ee May, who is Tony's new assistant, I went to as many drives as I could to volunteer my service. Again, being revealed to the process of voter registration and some conflicts that are embedded in it (such as people being registered as other voters, citizens being denied voting rights because of a lack of religion, disparities in the system regarding voters' information) showed me that there were fundamental flaws within the system that needed to be addressed. More frustrating was also the fact that many young people did not bother to get registered as voters at all, even with our team cajoling and persuading them to! However, seeing Ee May who was relentless in her quest to recruit new voters, I realised that I was not alone: that there were many Malaysians, young and old, fighting for a better Malaysia while they could and before they tired.

This was again proven to me in the focal point of my internship - organising the DAP Selangor English Speaking Fundraising Dinner. The dinner saw an 1000 strong audience, but behind the scenes, I knew that there had been a long waiting list of Malaysians who were very keen to support the dinner and to donate as much funds as they could afford. As I personally managed the bookings, I had multiple conversations with multiple people of all backgrounds, echoing the same sentiments: that they all wanted a better Malaysia. That they had not given up. That they were willing to run the race. That they all loved their home and want to be counted in the numbers. But most importantly – they all spoke with a sense of belonging for Malaysia. As a young Malaysian, jaded by unimpressive returns in her home country, this was enough to remind me, my country was worth my investment, my time, my effort.

I do not know what I had expected to gain from this DAP internship, but what I got was incredibly personal. It was not about politicking or support. It was about self-discovery about my Malaysian identity, about what I can do for my country and about how this will always, always be where my heart belongs. Everyone is looking for a better Malaysia in their lifetime, but now I know it is equally important to run the relay race and pass the baton until that better Malaysia comes to pass.