Archives for category: Imperfect Malaysia

I read this post at my old friend’s blog and could not believe the comments.

FYI, Shireen and I go back a long way (we were in kindergarten together and her mother was one of my primary school teachers).

Obviously, we have grown up to be very different people.

I have had two maids in the past (in Malaysia – not something I like mentioning for what will become obvious reasons) and their mistreatment has caused me to come to blows with some of my family members. Suffice to say, I no longer have maids (and not only because I am here in the US – Lokes and I made the decision to stop at our second maid and I’d stay home with the kids long before we decided to come here).

Now I am not calling myself a humanitarian-wannabe because I’m not.

Question: Do foreign labour agents literally have it in their TOP THREE TIPS TO CONTROL YOUR MAID these little nuggets of advice?

  1. They are NOT your friends. 
  2. They are NOT here to have a life, only to make a living.
  3. Be a-holes or they will not take you seriously.

Honestly, because this seems to be exactly how most employers of foreign maids treat the help.

How can one not have a problem with people who don’t bother hiding their disdain for maids, the only crime of the latter being that they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time with a government that has forced half the nation into voluntary indentured servitude, be it out of fear or ignorance, or both?

In my friend’s post, one of the commenters said that it was not her job to teach the maid English, but it is, for some  bizarre reason, the maid’s job (aside from having to clean house and watch the kids) to teach her children Malay.

I know it may be seem too benevolent all of a sudden to bestow upon a mere servant the delicate instruction of the language arts and make like Professor Higgins but surely there is the invaluable benefit of teaching your children the values of kindness and respect even for those who wash our toilets and for some, our backsides? People with far fewer opportunities than to get married and pregnant at 15 and be shipped off to a faraway place to slave for people who treat them worse than their pets? Surely they too deserve some measure of respect, for having summoned the courage and spirit to go to a place where they can hardly speak the language or stomach the food without having to endure day after day of verbal and sometimes even physical abuse by people who know nothing about them and won’t even bother to find out, just to feed their families?

Surely that is far more essential than protecting your kids from the dangers of broken English?

It disturbs me to realise that there may be thousands, or tens of thousands of women – mothers, no less – in Malaysia who may be subjecting their children to a household of harsh words to the help (fear the alliteration!), believing that they owe these strangers no more kindness than the stray dog that guards their house because it is fed scraps and has a gate outside of which to sleep.

Where is all the religion and education and upbringing we’ve used to set ourselves apart from these people, some of whom are little more than children?

Six years ago, when my agent brought my first maid to our house, a slight slip of a woman in her mid 30s (very old for a maid – I’d specifically asked for someone much older) named Turi, she came and sat beside me at the dinner table.

The agent, Susan, entered the house a little later and all of a sudden, barked something. Walking briskly to the table, Susan firmly put an arm on Turi and led her to the floor beside us. 

“Don’t ever let her sit with you at the dinner table,” she said to us chidingly, before muttering to Turi something about being taught better. Turi, who was grinning apologetically, kneeled on the floor next to my chair, like an obedient pet.

I reacted.

“No, no she can sit with us please, this is not necessary,” I’d protested, more alarmed than anything else.

“No, you mustn’t. This is to teach them their proper place,” she’d answered simply, before opening her files.

“No, I insist please. This is making me uncomfortable,” I’d added, taking Turi’s hand and helping her up to sit next to me at the table, where she perched for the next half an hour nervously at the edge of a chair, as though about to take off at the slightest sign of trouble.

Susan eyed me and said to me in Cantonese, “You need to be more strict if you want to keep her in control, Mrs Tan.”

With that, she gave Turi a curt glance, before putting on a bright smile and handed me Turi’s contract. 

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He’s like one of those squawking moms who’s tossing a sodding fit to guilt-trip her son into divorcing the wife – a woman she’d once lauded as a girl after her own heart, only to discover a few years later that the perfect daughter-in-law has a mind of her own and as such, is not good enough for her bratty son.

Unfortunately for you, Dr M, it’s too little too late. You made the choice, now you – and all Malaysians – live with the consequences. You can’t just throw a fit and think that that will undo everything, aunty. This is not your house, even if you’ve managed to do as you like for 22 years.

Not anymore.

News break: You can have your son back. Nobody cares.

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Maybe Somalia or Zimbabwe may be too much of a stretch.

Try this.

Thanks, Daddy, for the heads up.

While the world continued to follow the epic US Democratic race of Obama vs Clinton, Malaysians around the world focused their attentions on our own General Elections back home on March 8th 2008, ultimately (and unfortunately) bringing down popular news sites such as Malaysiakini, the only trusted independent source of Malaysian news and politics (which was made FOC for the elections, which was also probably why the crash occurred). But thank God for mirrors.

When the results rang in, I was seated at my computer, gobbling down every update, reading and re-reading my Malaysian friends’ reactions posted on their Facebook Statuses and Twitters and blogs. I’d also received SMSes and IMs from elated friends. It’s not everyday two of my old secondary school (aka high school) friends were running for office after all (both are Opposition). And they won. Go MGS!

“People are beaming. Smiling at total strangers,” my friend See Ming told me on IM the day after. It was truly a new day because despite all the fear-mongering about racial politics and disunity, the rakyat (people) came through. They became more united than the United Front. And that made their votes count. And despite being thousands of miles away, I was beaming with pride myself. And I wondered how my aunt felt. Was she shocked? Happy? Probably both.

Congratulations Malaysians. You’ve taken your first step. Now finish what you started!

A while ago, I wrote a post called Entitlement, about ‘survival apathy’.

As a child born just four years after the 1969 Sino-Malay riots, I was raised, as many other Chinese children were in the predominantly Chinese town of Ipoh, with more or less the same survival plan: Study hard, save money, turn a blind eye to all the injustices that were happening, mind our ‘own business’ (whatever that was) and bide our time. For what?

For the first chance to pack our bags and leave.

I’m sad to say that it took me over 30 years to realise the full impact of such an upbringing. Because when you come into this world with the mindset that you’re going to leave anyway, chances are you won’t really give a damn about what happens in between. I won’t go into the religious undertone of what I’ve just said but I will make this assertion: someone who believes in reincarnation is more likely to treat the planet and people more respectfully because s/he doesn’t want to come back to a wasted land full of assholes.

As I look at my own kids, Malaysians who are growing up more American by the day, I am filled with a kind of guilt that is hard to shake off. On one hand, I know that they will grow up in a ‘fairer’ society with relatively more equal opportunities. On another, they will never have the chance to decide for themselves if they want to stay and fight, or fly.

Should we as parents be blamed for planning ahead, for believing that nothing can change in our lifetimes or theirs?

Should we have stayed and in turn, teach our children that some things, no matter how risky, are worth fighting for?

Am I to be blamed for leaving when I was raised, virtually packed and ready to go at the first sign of trouble?

After all, my grandparents left China for the then-Malaya for a better life.

Are most of us born with the flight gene in the end?

If I were single, child-less, would I still leave? Or would I have been out there, in my yellow Bersih t-shirt, shouting my voice hoarse for free and fair elections, throwing my mom into a fit over how irresponsible I am being to my unborn children?

“Perhaps we will care when we’re citizens of a country worth fighting for,” says Lokes, as we drive leisurely through an upmarket residential area in Redmond, with houses crossing easily the RM2mil mark, sipping our eggnog lattes.

“We are,” I answer quietly.

Tell me, Malaysian parents still in Malaysia – how are you raising your children?

Are you breeding fighters or flighters? What happens when we run out of places to which we can run?

In five days, my home country, Malaysia, celebrates 50 years of independence from British rule.

What have we achieved?

Not much, apparently, especially when compared to South Korea.

Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it, so goes the famous saying.

It seems that our past is still our present.

Macam mana?

Nathaniel Tan, the blogger who was incarcerated for four days under the OSA, has written an entry regarding his ordeal.

Read it and weep. I did.


Entirely by a stroke of luck, a lawyer at the magistrate’s court was able to assist me in contacting my lawyer, R Sivarasa. Had said lawyer not been present, I may have not been given the opportunity to be represented by counsel during my hearing, and my remand order may have been for fourteen days instead of for four.

Even after my lawyer arrived, the police made every possible effort to block me from consulting with my lawyers, denying me extremely basic human rights connected to judicial due process. This even included repeatedly trying to spy and eavesdrop on the conversations I was attempting to have with my lawyers.

Reading this, I can already hear many Malaysians going, “Aiya, he should already know that if he say things like this on his blog he will kena OSA. Why he still do? He deserved it!”

Firstly, he was OSAed for allegedly possessing official secrets of which there is no proof.

If a man can be charged such flimsy claims, and was going to be tried without counsel, what makes you think you’re safe?

Nathaniel fought not only for his rights as a citizen to voice his concerns, but OURS.

You know what’s sad? That these very actions by the government help to condition widespread fear and apathy in Malaysians. With these tactics, they are sending us a message:

Look the other way.

Say nothing.

And tell your friends and family to do the same.


This here is the back of a motorbike laden with goodies. A fast disappearing sight in urban Malaysia today, the ‘roti man’ (literally the ‘bread man’) evokes the same childhood joy as would the good old ice cream truck here in the US.


As you can see from the physics-defying load he has on his vehicle, our dear roti men care not for life or limb, and can be seen as early as 5.30am delivering bread and other assorted delicacies (read: junk food) to Malaysian families all over the city.

I remember stopping one of these on a daily basis back home in Ipoh in the 80s, where my sis and I would smuggle Cheezels or oniony UFOs (remember UFOs?!) or the ‘healthier’ corn wheels (only if he’s out of UFOs) into our room by sneaking around the house and throwing our stash into our room via the window. We’d then enter the house, passing our Koo Ma’s contraband inspection, walk calmly into our room, lock it behind us, turn on the music and gorge on bags upon shiny bags of the MSG-laden snacks.

Ah, such simple pleasures. Don’t you wish you were as easily satisfied today? Reminds me of that episode of Everybody Loves Raymond where Raymond talks about the simple joys a child gets from candy, whereas as a grown-up, all we can think about are calories and cavities.

ps. I took this picture in 2002, ten days after Rae was born.