Thursday, December 29, 2011

Guest Post: A Year of Changes



Guest blogger Jehan Mohd ponders the old year as the new one approaches.


We’ve come to that time of the year where we take stock of our lives and make up lists of resolutions which will inevitably go out the window within the first month or so. Next year being 2012 brings an interesting twist, though. Looking up the significance of the year yields hundreds of thousands of results but one thing that seems to come up in various interpretations is that 2012 is supposed to be a time of great change.

Despite its significance, I’m approaching 2012 as any other year as my ‘year of change’ had crept in slowly this year, the year I turned 32 — and I had never anticipated anything big happening in my 33rd year of existence.

How does my age come into play? I blame it on my affinity for numbers.

I have always believed in the power of numbers — not in the way that makes me good with them or even like the subject of Mathematics (I failed Maths in primary school, spurring my parents to cart me off to tuition with my more numerically-literate teenaged sisters, making me the youngest kid my tuition teacher accepted).

No, perhaps the best way to describe my attraction to numbers is through popular culture — the concepts of sweet 16, being legal at 18, gaining independence at 21, etc. were implanted in my mind from early on thanks to Hollywood movies and the popular teenage fiction of my growing up years. As such I always looked to certain birthdays as markers of great change in my life — even if they didn’t always turn out the way I thought they would.

At age 16, I still went to the same secondary school I had been going to my whole teenage life and had no birthday party out of the ordinary family celebration.

My first home away from home - Methodist Ladies' College (MLC) in Claremont, Perth, Western Australia. It debunked my idea of boarding schools as written in Enid Blyton's Malory Towers series.
My 17th year, though, brought about the first major upheaval in my life. It was the first time I left my home in Singapore for studies in Australia — I did pre-university studies as a boarder of a well-established boarding school in Perth, Western Australia. It was the age I realised that the world was much bigger than my island homeland (there was nary news on Singapore in the Australian papers and more than one Aussie had asked me if Singapore was part of China). I also discovered homosexuality, through media (think movies 'Jeffrey', 'The Birdcage' and 'The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert' and Australian writer, actor, and activist Timothy Conigrave's memoir, 'Holding the Man' - all of which remain among my favourites films and literature to this day).
Though I was homesick a huge chunk of the time I was at boarding school, MLC did provide some laughs. No, these weren't boarders - they were some of Year 11 and 12 day girls horsing around in the locker room on campus.
At 18, I was able to watch ‘R’ rated movies (in Australia, not in Singapore, which had set the age for ‘R’ rated movies at 21) and could legally drink and smoke (would have been great if I actually did drink and smoke). But aside from having a boyfriend for the first time (in a mostly long-distance relationship), this year was again a normal one.

The old gang from Kolej Damansara Utama (before it became 'KDU University College'). (Clockwise from top left) Julie, Suzanne, Gary (our wonderful lecturer), Keith, Shaiful, Jacqui, Kelvin, Chris and Thomas.
It was at the age of 19 that I left my homeland for the last time to settle in my new home called Malaysia when I joined a college here. And it was at this age that I became good friends with lecturers who treated me as an adult, became better acquainted with homosexuality (among some good friends) and went clubbing for the first time (to a gay club, no less!). The innocuous 19th year proved to be a major year of breaking out.

My international family at Flat 14, Murdoch Student Village (circa Jul-Dec 2000). (Clockwise from top) Shane from the US, Chrissie from Singapore, Ran from Israel, Sarah from the UK and Chiharu from Japan.
At 21, I was doing my final year of university in Australia, learning painful lessons of family, friendships and betrayal while I plotted ways to work and live there after graduation — it didn’t happen.

It was at the seemingly normal age of 22 that I met the man who would become my best friend and husband.

I thought that 30 would be the year that my life would be “complete” — I would have been married for a few years, would have had my first child and would have all the knowledge that adults seem to possess (I have no idea how I came to this conclusion for the number 30 but ‘Sex and the City’ keeps popping up in my head when I think of this number).

I turned 30 two years ago — no “great revelation” came to me the morning I woke up on my birthday that year. I had the husband, but no kid and no all-encompassing adult knowledge of the world — and it was just like any other normal year. Heck, no bolt of lightning hit me on my birthday the following couple of years either.

But something suddenly clicked in me sometime this year, on some mundane, normal day (i.e. not my birthday, anniversary or any other significant date) and I’ve started doing things that would normally be tasks people undertake diligently at the start of the year as part of their New Year’s resolutions.
I started taking stock of my life and making concrete plans for things I actually want to do with my time.

I started hitting the gym — semi-regularly — and paying for personal training sessions (something I had never wanted to commit to in the past).

I applied to join a fantastic study programme that would have taken me away from the bosom of my family for two months — and got rejected (I’ve never been one to even try things like this before — my inherited pessimism and the fear of rejection ensured I never left my comfort zone).

After a bout of self-pity and dejection, I realised that the rejection was not the end of the world. And this was something cemented at a recent assignment I had where I interviewed Shawn Kelly and Carlos Baena, two brilliant animators from Industrial Light & Magic (think George Lucas and Star Wars) and Pixar (no introduction needed).

They said that one of the key things an animator needs is to not be afraid to fail. As Shawn Kelly says: “Every time you fail, you learn a little bit and make your next work a little bit better… You have to be willing to go through that process.”

I reckon this goes for everything in life — trying, failing, getting up and trying again.
2012, the year I turn 33, will, no doubt, hold lots of opportunities for me to try, fail and succeed… And it’ll bring about some changes, though whether big or small is anyone’s guess.

I’m starting to realise that these great changes tend to come at times we least expect it and that ideas to take action can happen at any age.

It will be interesting to see what next year has in store for us but I won’t hold my breath expecting great things to happen (as I would have in the past). I’m going to go about trying to make those things happen.

~~~~~~~

Top Milestones in the last 10 years

2001 (Age 22) — Graduated from university and got my first job as a lecturer at my old college in Malaysia; this was also where I met the man who would become my best friend and husband. The attack on the World Trade Center in New York and subsequent backlash against Muslims in Western countries affirmed my mom’s belief that I was better of returning to Malaysia to work rather than staying in Australia as I had initially wanted.
2003 (Age 24) — Left teaching to try public relations (although it was a short-lived three months), was unemployed for four months after leaving.
2004 (Age 25) — Joined the New Straits Times as a reporter (this marked the beginning of my longest-lasting job so far).
2005 (Age 26) — Got married.
2011 (Age 32) — Applied for a study programme (where I got rejected), started paying for personal training sessions and hitting the gym semi-regularly, started planning for life rather than letting life come at me.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Much to protest about




Click here for Top 10 Protest Songs. Enjoy!

More talking, less texting

Quote of the week

"I wish I could confiscate my patients' phones. I usually encourage them to talk, instead of texting as their fingers need to rest."

Dr Yong Chee Khuen, consultant orthopaedic surgeon

Click here to read.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Gurmit Singh: Malaysia's first bicycle advocate



Environmentalist Gurmit Singh (pictured above) says the cycling culture has almost disappeared in Malaysia. He cites a lack of dedicated lanes as one of the reasons. Gurmit Singh was Malaysia's first bicycle advocate; he supported its use to combat traffic problems in the city. "If (people) use bicycles for transport, they will know the environmental problems cyclists face" (New Straits Times: June 7, 1988).

For more on cycling in Malaysia, click here.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

When peace descends on me

Sadness is everywhere. Death, divorce, destruction and tragedy. These are among the things that make us sad. Some are able to bear their misfortunes bravely. Others, however, are too wrapped in misery to move on.

We crave for a perfect spouse, a beautiful home, plenty of money, supportive friends and relatives, lots of good luck and all those things that make us happy.

But what happens when sadnesses are more than joys. Take the man who can't seem to manage without his wife who died recently. Or the farmer who lost his vegetables as a result of flood damage. Consider the case of a battered wife whose husband treats her like trash.

Can we ever get over our troubles? This question dates back to ancient times. Early humans had to endure the elements, hunger, animals and other humans, among others before things got better.

Experience has taught me that life may seem unfair but it has also shown me that hard times will come to an end. Patience is the name of the game. An incident which wrenched at my heart six months ago doesn't feel so bad now. A misunderstanding with a beloved sibling is slowly being resolved. I have lost interest in the expensive dress that I wanted weeks ago. They say time is a great healer and I couldn't agree more.

That is why Brad Pitt's quote on happiness resonates with life's complex themes and emotions: "I think happiness is overrated. Sometimes you're happy, sometimes you're not. There's too much pressure to be happy. Being at peace is more of a goal for myself."


Indeed, people expect you to be happy all the time. They can't handle it when you're not your usual cheerful self. But you can't feel bright and cheerful and full of energy everyday. That's a fact.


Seeking peace is a more manageable aim. The golden rule of handling a crisis is to stay calm. When disaster strikes I tell myself that this will pass. I will do everything possible to mitigate its consequences but I have to persevere with difficult stituations. It is possible to create a haven of peace and tranquillity but you have to work at it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A drop in the ocean

The monsoon rains come in November, December, January and February. They continue for most of the day.


The monsoon season in Malaysia didn't mean much to me until I came face-to-face with it recently in Kuala Terengganu, the state and royal capital of Terengganu. I was there on an assignment and soon realised that travelling is much more difficult during this period of heavy rain in the east coast states of Malaysia: Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan.

This year's monsoon rains have flooded many villages in the three states but that is another story.

The monsoon blew relentlessly into my face as I dashed to the lobby of Felda Residence, my home for three days, from the vehicle that took me to the hotel from the airport. I dumped my stuff in my room on the sixth floor after checking in and came down to a waiting vehicle which will take my colleague and I to the famous Pasar Payang (Payang Market), the city's main shopping area.

Even though it is not far from the hotel (a mere 20-minute walk), it would have been impossible to saunter to the market because of the rain. My shopping experience was an exciting one and the torrential downpour left my colleague and I stranded at the market. But I didn't mind. I have always liked the rain, which stopped long enough for us to get on a trishaw whose rider bravely cycled back to the hotel.  

As soon as we reached the hotel, it rained again. It was a day of intermittent showers and they continued for most of the three days we were there. Other colleagues from Kuala Lumpur who were with me in Kuala Terengganu constantly wondered about the social life of residents in the city during the wet months (November to February) and felt pity for what they were enduring. "What do they do at night?" asked Anis.

It is business as usual, says a Terengganu-born teacher, who seems immune to this often asked question. My friend Nelson Fernandez, a journalist, who covered the east coast states for 10 years loves the rain, howling gale and rough sea. Others, like a photojournalist, find it a problem to cart her camera and other gear.

For Fernandez, the mournful cry of the wind was at once sad and comforting. It worsened his loneliness (his family stayed back in Kuala Lumpur) but in some strange way it also consoled him. After a day of hard work, he turned to the roar of gale-force winds for solace. "It's hard to explain," says Nelson, who is now back in Kuala Lumpur. And when large and dangerous waves rise majestically from the ocean, he reminds himself that he is only a drop in the mass of salt water that covers most of the earth's surface.

I see where Fernandez is coming from. I felt the healing power and cleansing quality of the elements too and without realising it I was in introspective mode. Overnight rain had freshened up the view from my room window. Then a light rain began to fall and it set in steadily by the time I went for breakfast.

When I returned to my room, I looked out of the window and saw people walking in the rain, some with umbrellas, others without. I contemplated braving the bad weather and going for a walk. I stood by the window, hesitating over whether or not to do so. The fact that I didn't have proper rain gear stopped me from leaving my room.

As the saying goes: "He who hesitates is lost." Did I lose a good opportunity in not going for a walk?


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Seek peace rather than happiness

Quotable quote


"I think happiness is overrated. Sometimes you're happy, sometimes you're not. There's too much pressure to be happy. Being at peace is more of a goal for myself."



Brad Pitt

Source: New Straits Times, November 15, 2011




Monday, October 31, 2011

Young and carefree





The water in this stream, called Sungai Meru near Taman Meru, Ipoh, Perak, looks cool and inviting. These teenagers, who live nearby, often spend the afternoon after school swimming or just splashing around. It is nice to know that in the age of the computer youngsters still enjoy the outdoors.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sweet Diwali

 
 
 

 In Malaysia, as in India, Diwali  -- which means "rows of lighted lamps" -- is a time for Hindus to rejoice.

To prepare for Diwali, which is known as the "festival of lights", Hindus spring-clean their homes, prepare special meals and adorn dwellings and other buildings with lights.

On the day itself (Oct 26, 2011) they wear new clothes, say prayers, exchange gifts  usually sweets (pictures) and dried fruits and visit family and friends.


Life's Too Short wishes its Hindu readers a Happy Diwali.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Guest Post: Four seasons

By Patrick Follez




Patrick Follez, who lives in Antwerpen, Belgium, shot the images (above) of this ornamental apple tree (malus) over 12 months covering the four seasons.I will share his musings on autumn with readers of Life's Too Short. Enjoy!

Autumn is here and the tree on the street before the house is showing its yellow and autumn colours. The tree is a malus or ornamental apple tree and it is used to line the streets.

Autumn is a reflective period as nature slowly retreats to its dormant state out of human view. The malus tree does it with a burst of colours and red berries inviting the blackbirds for a last feast before the meagre times of winter.

I have been watching this tree for nine years from the day I found that I could turn my webcam outside (modified with a 200mm old zoom lens) and brought the tree live as animated wallpaper on my computer. Over the years 12,000 images were stored in a backup copy that came to light when I was cleaning up the hard drive.

It is a treasure trove of images  of the slowly changing tree (and its inhabitants) from winter to spring, summer and autumn. The strange erratic shifting patterns of longer or shorter winters and snow in spring are revealed. That every generation of blackbirds are greedy berry eaters has become a fact!

There are two yearly events that stand out. Firstly, the spring opening of the buds and the first light pastel green leaves unfolding. And secondly, the autumn ripening of the berries and invasion of the birds.

I can still remember when the street was renovated some 25 years ago and they planted a small twig with a few leaves kept upright with a two metre high stick dwarfing the seedling. Now the tree is very big and a small world in itself going through the seasons and making my day when I look at it in the morning. This is one of the advantages of getting old: the privilege of looking back and marvelling at the changes.



Monday, October 17, 2011

It's only a creepy ghost story!



Kathy posted the following on her Facebook: "Nice cool morning ... but there was something (or someone) at the far right corner of the cemetery".

Several friends responded to the post and wanted to know more. Kathy, who lives in an apartment which overlooks a Muslim burial ground, offered details: "Caught a glimpse of movement when I opened the balcony door just now. Didn't wait to see more. It was just after 5am, I couldn't for the life of me imagine anyone being at the cemetery at such a time."

More comments followed. They mainly expressed fear, curiosity and caution. These reactions are consistent with the findings of those who study the phenomenon of fear. Admit it! Evil and horror are fascinating! The continued popularity of the horror genre -- both in literature and the movie industry -- bears testimony to this view.

But that will not make former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad happy. He expressed his dismay recently at the proliferation of horror movies on local television. Malaysia is trying to create a scientific culture and such movies, says Mahathir, only promote belief in mythical beings and would be counterproductive. "We, especially Muslims, should know that only Allah has the power over everything."

One would expect a man of science to offer that argument. But for many of us the fascination with fear is connected with a primal urge to understand the unknown. At night, danger lurks everywhere and there are mysterious lights in the sky and things that go bump in the night. Scary! Just so you know, I sleep with the light on.

Few can resist the lure of horror which dates back to ancient times. Events, forces or powers that cannot be explained by the laws of science have touched millions of lives in every culture. Stories about ghostly churchyards and cemeteries, haunted homes and restless spirits that have come back to haunt the living are the very stuff of myths (and literature) in all societies, both traditional and modern.

Frank Wilhelm, professor of psychology at the University of Basel, attempts an explanation: "Tension and excitement are often seen by people as positive, and in this context we talk of the 'suspense effect'. Besides this tension people experience when they come into contact with horror stories, however, there is another factor at work: the fear that is kindled in us by coming face to face with the supernatural. Notwithstanding that, human beings show an affinity with the "spirit world."  The first encounters people have with ‘spirits’ occur in their dreams, for instance when they dream of someone who has died. As human beings, we process knowledge and experiences on a metaphorical basis in our dreams. This is a culturally independent process. Furthermore, it’s known that if people believe a curse has been placed upon them this can result in major physical consequences ranging all the way through to heart failure and death." 

I'll bet you that Kathy has more spooky tales to tell. You can't stop people saying what they think.

The pictures above were taken in Shah Alam, Selangor during the 'hungry ghost' festival in August this year. Buddhists and Taoists celebrate it on the 15th night of the seventh lunar month. Devotees burn bundles of joss stick and paper hell money as well as food to appease and stop dead spirits from entering their homes and wreaking vengeance on those who had betrayed them. Photos courtesy of NST Photo Library.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

All roads lead to Ipoh


Illustration by JEHAN MOHD.


I have been spending a lot of time in Ipoh, the capital city of Perak state, Malaysia lately. My birthplace is Batu Gajah, some 40 minutes' drive away, but I grew up in Ipoh. When I am asked to name my hometown, the enthusiastic answer is Ipoh. Batu Gajah is an afterthought.

Ipoh is two and half hours by car from Kuala Lumpur, so it qualifies as a short journey. Each time I cross Hulu Bernam, the border town of Selangor and Perak, the excitement of getting close to "home" becomes stronger and I have to will myself to be patient.

Ipoh has that effect on me. It gives me a sense of place, a sense that I belong to a tiny haven of peace and tranquillity. I don't get that feeling when I return to Kuala Lumpur from Ipoh even though I have stayed in the city for a good part of my adult life beginning from the day I entered university. I learned about life's harsh realities in Kuala Lumpur but it is, essentially, my workplace, not my home.

When I am in Ipoh, I always make a quick trip around the city and inevitably to our old family home which now seems out of place. The surrounding area has developed to include high-rise buildings and their attendant problems. I have vivid memories of that house and at the time it was my whole world. I saw the current owner in the garden recently and wondered if she and her family were enjoying their stay there.

Ipoh -- which is known for its natural attractions (think limestone caves), food and affordable property prices, among other incentives -- is promoted as a retirement hot spot, a label I deeply resent. Why do many assume that only retirees would want to live there? My conversations with young Ipoh-born Malaysians who now work in Kuala Lumpur suggest otherwise. If they had their way, they would love to come home and build their careers in comfortable and familiar surroundings.

Buildings have mushroomed to meet the aspirations of growth. I don't recognise many new structures although the old ones look as if time has stood still, for example, the city bus station which seriously needs a facelift.

If you have come looking for food, Ipoh is THE place. As my niece guides me through the numerous eateries there, I thank God for the city's "small and cheap town" reputation. You can have a feast everyday. Take that Kuala Lumpur!

When I was in Ipoh last week, I met two returnees who had lived abroad for a long time. K was in the United States for 10 years before coming home; he now runs a cane furniture business.

SH had spent a good part of his life overseas and  felt the urge to return to Ipoh while drinking coffee in a cafe in Sri Lanka. As he sipped his favourite beverage and took in the ambience of the cafe and its environs, he realised that everything he ever wanted could be found in Ipoh. He packed his bags the next day and booked a flight to Malaysia. He is currently enjoying his landscape gardening enterprise.

These men had felt the sense of place that their hometown gave them. It remained real even though they were miles away from home. This is a sentiment that I totally agree with.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Steve Jobs: Words of wisdom

The Huffington Post remembers Steve Jobs through his 11 best quotes. Here are five.


"That's been one of my mantras -- focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains."
-- BusinessWeek interview, May 1998



"Picasso had a saying: 'Good artists copy, great artists steal.' We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas...I think part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians, poets, artists, zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world."
-- 1994



"[Y]ou can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."
-- Stanford University commencement address, June 2005.



"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. ... Stay hungry. Stay foolish."
-- Stanford University commencement address, June 2005.



"My model for business is The Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other's kind of negative tendencies in check. They balanced each other and the total was greater than the sum of the parts. That's how I see business: great things in business are never done by one person, they're done by a team of people."
-- Interview with 60 Minutes, 2003




Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Balik kampung: Yes or No?



The upcoming Eid-ul-Fitr celebration is a major event which takes many Muslims back to the family home. It is arguably the most important social reunion because it  allows returnees to reconnect either with family members or long-time friends in the old hometown.

Such events are called balik kampung in Malaysia and mudik lebaran in Indonesia. The other opportunities for such gatherings are funerals, religious festivals and ceremonies.

It is usually an emotional reunion between the returnees and their loved ones. After being apart for some time  -- years in the case of some -- they are coming together to honour the first day of Syawal. As they greet each other, their eyes fill with tears. You feel the affection and tenderness.

But life is never neat and tidy. Many of us have had to deal with meddling relatives and/or unresolved family conflicts. Unsurprisingly, the prospect of a family reunion fills some with dread. The interaction may unleash pent-up frustration and the scary scenario is partly to blame for the fear. The solution to the dilemma is to skip gatherings or occasions that bring the family together. Better safe than sorry seems to be the prevailing philosophy.

Research confirms the above. Four out of five people have attended a "miserable" family reunion, according to a study conducted by VitalSmarts and the authors of the New York Times bestseller, Crucial Conversations.

And the findings show that "it's almost inevitable that bad behaviour will surface at your next family gathering".

The three most common complaints are "bad attitudes and grumpy relatives", "cold wars between relatives who dislike and avoid one another" and "conflict between relatives who don't get along".

If you are feeling a little afraid at the thought of joining your relatives in the old hometown for the Eid-ul-Fitr celebration, click here for tips.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Big spenders from the Middle East

A waiting cab takes these Middle Eastern visitors back to their hotel.
 Gulf Arab women in flowing black robes dashing through fancy malls in the Bukit Bintang shopping belt clutching bags of cosmetics, accessories, shoes and toys with children in tow seem to have become a permanent fixture in the tourism landscape in Malaysia.

They usually go for branded stuff and locals can barely keep up with the high-spending customers from the Middle East. They are Malaysia's favourite shoppers because they have both money and taste.

Malaysia projects an air of warmth and hospitality. It has taken steps to make visitors from West Asia feel very welcome here. Besides English and Malay, arrival and departure announcements at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport or KLIA are also made in Arabic. Many hotels in Kuala Lumpur employ Arabic-speaking staff and there is also an "Arab street" in Kuala Lumpur's "Golden Triangle" which offers all things Arab.

Only 16 shopping days left until Eid-ul-Fitr.

Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen recently announced that Ramadan will be promoted as a religious  tourism product to attract Middle Eastern consumers. She said this at the launch of the national Ramadan Bazaar 2011 at Masjid Jamek early this month.

 Ng is banking on "our unique culture, rich variety of food and the festive Ramadan atmosphere" to attract big spenders from Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Iran, among others.

The tourism industry hopes to cash in on a serendipitous occurrence; from this year until 2015, Ramadan falls during summer, which is a holiday season in the Middle East.

Malaysia recorded 320,373 tourist arrivals from West Asia last year, a rise of 12.5 per cent from 284,890 in 2009.

I have no problems with Arabs flocking to Malaysia but I do not like it when bazaar operators charge exorbitant prices for items that do not normally cost so much during the non-Ramadan months. This affects both locals and foreigners. They will now hike the prices even higher -- thanks to Ng's promotional plan.


These eateries serve Middle Eastern cuisine.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Eat your meal before the fast


A simple sahur meal of cereal, dates and water. Picture by Jehan Mohd.

Non-Muslims often bombard me with this question: how can you eat so early in the morning? They are referring to sahur, the pre-dawn meal practising Muslims take before the fast during Ramadan. 

That is an easy one. Actually, I have no problem consuming food at that time. The tough part is getting up at 5am or earlier for the sahur meal. That's why in previous years I have always eaten this meal at around 1am and turn in half an hour later. 


I have changed the routine this year and sahur is now at 5am. I struggled on the first day; getting up at 6am is bad enough. It takes a lot of willpower and discipline to drag myself out of bed at 5am, head straight to the kitchen and fix the very early breakfast.


But as Zafar Nomani aptly puts it: "To follow the spirit of Ramadan and other fasting traditions, discipline, control and behavioural change are critical." The reason for making the switch is simple: I wanted to see if I could do it. So far, so good.


Some of my Muslim friends, who skip sahur altogether, say they can't eat a thing at that time of day. For that reason they prefer to eat after midnight and then go to bed an hour or so later. Even though my stomach welcomes food during the hours before dawn, I have to be selective about the type of meal I prepare; rich, fried and spicy stuff is out. It has to be light and warm.  

A plate of rice with some protein and vegetables doesn't work for me. I feel sluggish and heavy afterwards. Sandwiches (tuna or egg) are fine but this year, I thought I should stick to warm oatmeal with raisins and a banana, my Monday-Friday breakfast fare on non-fasting days.


According to Ramadan Health Guide, "a wholesome, moderate meal that is filling and provides enough energy for many hours" is the best option. "It is particularly important to include slowly-digesting foods" in the pre-dawn meal. I am on the right track then. Since dehydration is a common complaint it is necessary to "adequately rehydrate before a fast". I have to make a conscious effort to drink enough water during the non-fasting hours.


That sahur is vital during Ramadan is noted by Muslim religious reachers and nutritionists. Indeed, it is sunnah (the Prophetic traditions) and Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) reportedly favoured a light sahur. Experience tells me that a fast with sahur allows me to function well during the hours before iftar, which is the meal that breaks the day's fast.

I will feel drowsy in the afternoon but will perk up after a 5 to 10 minute walk away from my desk (if I am at the office). The air conditioning in the office makes me shiver a little but I try to forget about it. Other colleagues (who are fasting) wrap themselves up in colourful pashminas to keep warm.


The times when I missed sahur proved to be difficult. I felt weak and irritable. I recall the advice of a religious teacher: "Try not to miss sahur. Drink at least a glass of water, if you can't bear the thought of food at that hour."

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ramadan must-haves


Ramadan, which begins tomorrow in Malaysia, won't be the same without dates (see picture above).  The fruit is part of the ritual of breaking the fast, as was the tradition of Prophet Muhammad (S.A.A.W).  He was reported to have said: "If anyone of you is fasting, let him break his fast with dates. In case he does not have them, then with water. Verily water is a purifier." 

Until the late 80s good quality dates were a rarity in Malaysia. People had to make do with inferior quality ones and only the well heeled could afford the best. Today it is difficult to choose from the vast array of varieties on offer.  This was my dilemma yesterday when I had to pick between dates from Tunisia and those from Saudi Arabia at a supermarket near my apartment. 

Indeed, the types available in Malaysia range from cheap to expensive. In between is the fresh and gourmet selection. Customers usually receive gifts of dates from companies they do business with during Ramadan. The quality of the sweet sticky brown fruit that grows on a tree called a date palm, common in North Africa and West Asia depends on the worth of the customers to these concerns.



Azizah Dahlan's chutney (see picture above) is another must-have on my dinner table during Ramadan. It is especially good with piping hot rice and grilled fish as well as various types of noodle meals. Add to this fresh garden salad and you get a complete meal. Simple, refreshing and delicious!


There's yogurt (see picture above) left if you are still hungry. This is home-made yogurt from Sungai Petani, Kedah and it's the best that I have ever tasted. But Sungai Petani is five hours' drive away from Kuala Lumpur where I live so I have to look for the kind produced locally.

For related posts, click here. Life's Too Short wishes its Muslim readers Selamat Berpuasa.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

What will Shunya Susuki think of next?


I learned recently that my friend Shunya Susuki had bought a “cheap” violin on Net auction. He plans to teach himself to play the musical instrument “although they say it will be difficult to do so”.

The purchase is a fulfilment of a dream that dates back to his days at Kyushu University when he wanted to be a violinist, among other aspirations.

But a cello player, his senior at the university, had told him that a violin was “too expensive to buy” and Susuki gave up his musical ambition until recently.

Some may think that Susuki, at 57, is being very ambitious but they don’t know the multi-talented Japanese architect, urban planner, inventor and educator. He sees life as a voyage of discovery: creating a robot, designing green cars and sculpting are among his many artistic pursuits.

So learning to play the violin is one more path to personal gratification and development. According to wikiHow, “the road to learning the violin is a long one” and it takes lots of discipline to “practice difficult technique every day”. Yet I believe that the father of two would be able to make beautiful music with his violin and bow as a result of hours of study and practice. It takes time and patience to do one thing well, a concept Susuki understands perfectly.

 
I met Susuki in 2007 at the Asian Cities Journalists' Conference in Fukuoka City, Japan but I only became aware of his diverse and wide-ranging interests the following year when he told me about his website.
 
Here was a man worth writing about, I thought. The journalist in me could not resist a good story and the collaboration produced several articles.
 

I count Susuki among those who inspire me. Individuals like him encourage me to think that anything is possible. 


His dedication to his projects is extraordinary. I believe when he is in the zone, creating is the most satisfying thing in the world. Obstacles are only temporary setbacks; the challenge is in overcoming them and that gives him great pleasure. Susuki is a man of few words but he is ever willing to talk about his passion for innovation and invention. What will he think of next?

Susuki with his creation: the Jang Geum Robot. Picture by Maki Inoue. 


For more on Shunya Susuki and his creations especially the Jang Geum Robot, click here: The Creative Impulse (Cover, H2 and H3).

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

J-Lo and Marc Anthony: 'a reminder that all things must pass'

Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony. Their impending divorce is the subject of much speculation. The sad truth is that we will never know the true version of events. That is why I like this commentary by Josh Max. It provides plenty of food for thought!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Soothing words from a good friend


Dr Koh Soo Ling has a gift for putting feelings into words. See below for her latest offering.



Thursday, July 14, 2011

Don't make promises you can't keep


A gift for every guest.
American celebrity Samuel Ward McAllister reputedly said the following:
“A dinner invitation, once accepted, is a sacred obligation. If you die before the dinner takes place, your executor must attend.”

The Arabic term InsyaAllah which means “God willing” or “If is God’s will” essentially conveys the same message.

Muslims are taught to add InsyaAllah to the end of a declaration of intent. For example, a friend invites you to his son’s wedding party and you graciously accept the invitation: “Thank you very much for inviting me to your son's wedding. I will be there, InsyaAllah (God willing)”.

The phrase InsyaAllah reminds Muslims that they are not privy to God’s plan and they cannot say with any certainty where they will be at a particular point in time. Sickness, death -- whether that of a family member or their own -- and other compelling situations could prevent them from fulfilling all their obligations, social or otherwise.

The above argument allows Muslims to break their commitments when circumstances beyond their control force them to go back on their promises to friends and relatives.

Yet many have chosen to interpret InsyaAllah as a means of avoiding duty and have used the term without paying serious attention to its significance. To them, it is a euphemistic way of saying “I don’t really want to attend your son’s wedding but I don’t want to make you feel bad either.” So they say InsyaAllah and don’t turn up. Somehow, that makes them feel better about their ambivalence towards the invitation, not realising that they have degraded the value of InsyaAllah.

What’s behind this talk about obligation? I am searching for the right words to explain my recent predicament. I had said “yes” to a wedding invitation last weekend but changed my mind later and began hatching a plan to evade it.
Love this elegant kebaya wedding cake. 
Blame it on fatigue. The last few months have been hectic social-wise. I had received invitations to several social gatherings back to back. I had no energy for one more evening of flashing tired smiles and making small talk to friends and strangers.

How do I decline it? Since I could not offer a plausible excuse I reluctantly made my way to the wedding reception last Saturday.

Much to my surprise the evening was better than I had imagined. My friend was very happy to see me -- the genuine look of happiness on her face touched my heart. It was well worth the effort.

McAllister’s publicly quoted utterance and the Arabic expression are useful reminders of keeping one's word.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Muslims gear up for Ramadan

It's best to stick to simple meals during Ramadan.
 Ramadan, the annual month of fasting, will begin on August 1, this year and preparations to welcome the holiest month on the Muslim calendar are already in full swing.

Muslims who observe Ramadan are counting down to the special month by preparing themselves --mentally, spiritually and physically -- for the fast.

They constantly remind themselves that Ramadan is not just about refraining from eating and drinking during the day but also a time to be very close to God by offering more prayers than usual and to practice patience, humility and spirituality.

Some Muslims began fasting in June for a few days a week to ease their bodies into the month-long fast in August. My late father would do the mini fast three months before the start of Ramadan and when it finally came he grew accustomed to the idea of waking up at 4am for the pre-dawn meal (sahur), going without lunch and having a glass of water by his bed at night to hydrate.

My father also worried about food wastage during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. His trips to the Ramadan bazaars, (which will sprout like mushrooms after a rainy day during this period), were carefully planned to factor in the amount that we as a family (father, mother and nine active growing children) could consume.

We could choose our favourite kuih (Malay cakes) but only one type please. We were not allowed to ask for more than we could eat. That lesson has stayed with me and I find myself being very frugal during my jaunts to the bazaars which I enjoy very much.

Ice kacang is a perennial favourite in Malaysia.
Malaysia will be a gourmand's paradise during Ramadan. Dishes from all over Malaysia will be on display at the various dedicated bazaars, major food chains and hotels. It is a ploy to entice the starving Muslim to eat till he or she drops."That is not a good idea," my late father would intone.

Consider this advertisement in the New Straits Times (July 6, 2011): " Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre; Flavours of Ramadhan in the heart of KL; Over 500 dishes from the four corners of the world."

It continues: "Dine in comfort and enjoy the convenience of a dedicated surau, imam and an on-site ablution facility for Maghrib, Isya' and Tarawih prayers."

The cost? RM98++ per person but bookings before July 15 will receive a five per cent discount. No thanks! RM98++ is a lot of money and too much to pay for a meal! Consumers keep complaining that meals are priced too high at all eateries and bazaars during Ramadan but no one is listening.

Halal food outlets (suitable for Muslims) will be packed just before the sun rises and after the sun sets and trying to get a seat at these places is almost impossible. But for many working Muslims who cannot be at home in time for the evening meal the scramble for seats will be a constant struggle.

Most people would rather break the fast at home with family members and close friends and at a fraction of the cost of a meal at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre or other places which serve Ramadan buffets. I refuse to be intimidated by the bloodsucking food operators!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A tribute to all good fathers!

Happy Father's Day to all good fathers around the world. Thank you very much for your contribution to good parenting and making your families appreciate their lives. To my Dad who has passed on: I love you, Dad!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Angkor ruins excursion

These Cambodian boys keep the Bayon temple clean.

"If you only see two temples, Angkor Wat and Bayon should be the ones." That is the advice from this website and my friends and I did just that on the final day of our recent stay in Siem Reap, Cambodia. In addition, we visited the Ta Prohm temple.

Half a day is hardly enough to cover the numerous religious structures in the Angkor Archaeological Park, which is close to Siem Reap city.

Khmer domination over the Angkor Kingdom lasted about 600 years beginning from the 9th Century and during this period several hundred temples were built. Our guide told us that some 300 have been listed and restored.

I enjoyed the visit to the "palaces of gods" so much that I plan to visit Siem Reap again; this time to explore the ruins thoroughly.

Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques (Ancient Angkor, 2003) write: "To gain a proper understanding of what a Khmer temple was, it should first be recalled that it was not a meeting place of the faithful but the palace of a god, who was enshrined there to allow him to bestow his beneficence, in particular on the founder and his familiars.

"There was thus the need to build the finest possible residence for him, to be sure, although as he was there in the form of a statue there was little need for a large space.

"One of the largest is the central shrine of Angkor Wat and its cella has internal dimensions of 4.6 metres by 4.7; the pedestal of the statue being approximately the width of the door, would have been 1.6 metres square. So a great temple would not be a vast palace for a single god but a grouping of multiple shrines with a main divinity at the centre." 

Below are some pictures of my brief tour of the religious monuments at the Angkor Archaeological Park, which is a World Heritage Site.


Love this corridor of one of the structures of Angkor Wat. It was exciting to walk the corridors of this famous symbol of Cambodian nation. Some two million visitors are likely to visit this legendary ruins by the end of this year.




You will encounter bas-reliefs such as the type seen in the second picture on the exterior walls of the lower level of the Bayon while the stone faces -- the third picture serves as an example -- sit on the upper level.



Visitors will appreciate this quaint relic of the past, also found at the Bayon. The two photos below were taken at the Ta Prohm, where "massive fig and silk-cotton trees grow from the towers and corridors".