Monday, 24 December 2007

Burying your Past

Those who have reluctantly thrown away or sold them as recycled paper would have felt as though a part of their beings have been discarded. That was precisely how I felt when I went through all the books that I had bought and read in my life. I had been loathed to part with them but I did just that recently. There were books that carried memories of my youth. There were books that shaped my beliefs, my attitudes, my worldview. There were books that taught me the virtues of truth, honesty and sincerity. And there were books that moved me to admire those who stood up for their rights and their beliefs against overwhelming odds. It was so difficult to let go of these books. However, I had to for these books, most of which are thirty years old or more have been left collecting dust and cobwebs. I had sold them to the recycling centre for 24 Malaysian cents a kilo.

They charted the stages of my life, as I graduated from one phase to another. There were the books that hark back to the innocence of youthful escapades. There were books that explore the romanticism of the Wild West, stories that depict espionage in the era of the cold war, books that explore the psyche of the criminally insane and books that contain nuggets of Sufi wisdom, the mysticism of the east. Then there were books that explore ancient Rome and its decadence, on Alexander the Great's conquests, on the Egyptian pharaohs, on Genghis Khan, the Mongol, and his sacking of Persia, on the Middle Kingdom and the age of footbinding, on the samurai warlords and their practice of seppuku in medieval Japan.

Books, they are the food for the soul.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Chimps as good as College Students

A US study revealed that chimpanzees are as good at mental math as college students! Read the report from the Straits Times Singapore:

Dec 18, 2007

Chimps and college students as good at mental math

CHICAGO - CHIMPS performed about as well as college students at mental addition, United States researchers said on Monday in a finding that suggests non-verbal math skills are not unique to humans.

The research from Duke University follows the finding by Japanese researchers earlier this month that young chimpanzees performed better than human adults at a memory game.

Prior studies have found non-human primates can match numbers of objects, compare numbers and choose the larger number of two sets of objects.

'This is the first study that looked at whether or not they could make explicit decisions that were based on mathematical types of calculations,' said Dr Jessica Cantlon, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at Duke, whose work appeared in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Biology (

'It shows when you take language away from a human, they end up looking just like monkeys in terms of their performance,' she said in a telephone interview.

Her study pitted the ape math team of Boxer and Feinstein - two female chimps named for US senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California - with 14 Duke University students.

'We had them do math on the fly,' Dr Cantlon said.

The task was to mentally add two sets of dots that were briefly flashed on a computer screen. The teams were asked to pick the correct answer from two choices on a different screen.

The humans were not allowed to count or verbalise as they worked, and they were told to answer as quickly as possible.

Both chimps and humans typically answered within 1 second.

And both groups fared about the same.

Dr Cantlon said the study was not designed to show up Duke University students. 'I think of this more as using non-human primates as a tool for discovering where the sophisticated human mind comes from,' she said.

The researchers said the findings shed light on the shared mathematical abilities in humans and non-human primates and shows the importance of language - which allows for counting and more advanced calculations - in the evolution of math in humans.

'I don't think language is the only thing that differentiates humans from non-human primates, but in terms of math tasks, it is probably the big one,' she said.

As for the teams, both were paid. Boxer and Feinstein got their favourite reward: a sip of Kool-Aid soft drink. As for the students, they got US$10 (S$15) each - enough for a beer or two. -- REUTERS

Monday, 17 December 2007

The Ma Tzu Controversy

Statue of Jesus Christ, Indonesia

Ironically, while Indonesia, with the most populous Muslim majority in the world has unveiled the tallest statue of Jesus Christ in Asia, Malaysia, which portrays itself as a model of cultural and religious freedom, is in the grip of religious intolerance.

The demolition of Hindu temples, big and small sited on private or government-owned land, the call for the removal of Christian religious symbols and statues in missionary schools, the setting up of moral police to spy on couples in public places and private homes, the instances of civil court judgments that allow Shariah court decisions to supersede them in favour of Muslims in cases that involve both Muslims and non-Muslims are ominous events that reveal a Malaysia sharply divided by a religious chasm.

Yet another case that will put Malaysia under the spotlight is the Ma Tzu (Goddess of the Sea) controversy in Sabah in 2006, that led to the resignation of the Deputy Minister of Sabah, Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat, who is also the Chairman of the Thean Hon Charitable Foundation that initiated the Ma Tzu project on its own land and with its own money.

What transpired in the Ma Tzu controversy was the cancellation of the approval for the project by the Chief Minister of Sabah through the Kudat Town Board,even though the town board had earlier given its approval to the Foundation to build the Ma Tzu statue. The contractor of the project was ordered to stop work although work on the location for the statue had been 90% completed and the Ma Tzu statue had been brought into Sabah in pieces in containers. Now the pieces, still packed remain at the Kota Kinabalu port.

The letter from the state secretary of Sabah ordering a halt to construction work for the location of the statue

Construction of the location for the Ma Tzu statue

Pieces of the statue remain packed in containers at the port

The face of Ma Tzu

The bone of contention is said to be the statue’s ‘close’ proximity to the Asy-Syakirin Mosque which had led to the state’s Islamic Department to issue a ‘fatwa’ or decree to forbid the erection of the statue or any other statues, animal or human in the state of Sabah.

The letter from the state mufti forbidding the building of statues

The location of the statue and its proximity to the Asy-Syakirin Mosque

Stories have it that Tan Sri Chong met with the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister to resolve the issue and the Deputy Minister had tried in vain to persuade the Prime Minister to settle the matter as Article 11 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia guarantees the freedom to build places of worship for the various religions.

On 12 December 2007 at 11 am, a case was filed by Tan Sri Chong in the Kota Kinabalu High Court against the Mufti of Sabah for issuing a decree that forbids the building of Buddhist statues, and the Sabah State Government for ordering stoppage to all work on the location and on erecting the Ma Tzu statue, the Goddess of the Sea.

Photo credits: Malaysia Today

Thursday, 13 December 2007

What's In A Word?

We have Manglish, or Malaysian English, Singlish, or Singapore English, Indian English, Hong kong English, and others as they are spoken by non-native speakers of other Commonwealth countries. The varieties of English are simply astounding. They have enriched the language and make it truly a world language which Esperanto could never hope to emulate.

It is the pronunciation and intonation of the non-native speakers that differentiate markedly one variety of English from another. And they are often 'exploited' for comic effect in movies and television. The clip below is an example of Indian English. Taken from You Tube, it is a remake of the original version which is not as funny as this.


Please do not listen to the audio clip if you are squirmish about the "f" word.

Swastika - Its Origin

It was during my visit to a temple that I spotted two swastikas on its gate and they set me wondering why the swastika has taken on a meaning that denotes evil.

The swastika on the temple's gate

In ancient times, the swastika was a symbol that represented life, sun, power, strength, and good luck.

Ancient Greece

Ancient Rome

Ancient India

The Viking era

A pottery bowl from ancient China

American Indian art: the Navajo rug

A Navajo bracelet

19th century Chinese textile

A Hindu temple, India

In modern times, before Nazi Germany usurped the emblem, it was a symbol for good luck.

A good luck coin from the US

A good luck coin from the US

A 1916 photo of a Canadian women's ice-hockey team called the Swastikas

A greeting card

The good luck charm

The symbol that proclaimed the purity and the superiority of the German race in Nazi Germany in the Second World War.

The holocaust committed in the name of the now infamous Swastika.

Coincidentally, I spotted this photo in The swastika emblem and the name of the shop inappropriately named "OM" , the Hindu mantra.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Hindraf, what next?

The Hindraf rally has made its point. It has shown what it can do to mobilize huge numbers to its cause. But perhaps it is time for Hindraf to evaluate the impact of its actions and set its future course.

Briefly, by words and actions, it has

  • dramatically brought the problems of the Indian community to the attention of Malaysians and the world
  • condemned MIC for not doing more for the community
  • revealed how insensitive and arrogant the authorities have been in the way they demolished temples built illegally
  • shown that when a people have been pushed to the precipice, there is only one way to go: jump and to hell with the consequences
  • demonstrated that communitarian politics espoused and upheld by the government is a double-edged sword
  • given voice to the groundswell of discontent over the NEP, or the national economic policy that promises to be colour-blind in the eradication of poverty but is in effect an affirmative discrimination policy that favours the major ethnic population
  • warned that Malaysia may become another Sri Lanka.
Would Hindraf continue further on a collision course that it has already set? It has embarrassed the government immeasurably by bringing its fight to the world’s stage and canvassing for global support. The government is not going to forget the perceived harm done to the country. It has worked hard to project Malaysia as a model multi-racial country, “Malaysia truly Asia”, and what Hindraf has done is to dispel this myth.

Already there are calls to revoke the citizenships of those involved and ominous warnings that the majority ethnic population could do what Hindraf has done, and even better given its numerical superiority.

The government on the other hand has

  • arrested and charged some of the demonstrators for attempted murder of police personnel
  • arrested and charged some for illegal assembly and for causing public disorder
  • alleged that Hindraf is manipulated by the opposition
  • alleged that Hindraf has links to terrorists
  • refused to meet with Hindraf
  • accused Hindraf of creating a climate of racial intolerance and instability
  • threatened to impose the ISA, or the Internal Security Act where an accused could be detained indefinitely for disrupting the peace and security of the country
  • directed the police to come down harder on illegal assemblies as no one is above of law.

Above all, it has strengthened UMNO’s hand as the protector of the Malays, providing it with yet another chip to raise its stake in the political game.

Both are caught in the same bind. Hindraf has no political clout to negotiate with the government; neither does the government want to deal with an organization that has accused it of practising ‘ethnic cleansing’. Further, it cannot be seen to be talking or even negotiating with a maverick organization as that would be perceived as giving in to the demands of Hindraf. On the other hand, Hindraf would not want to associate itself with MIC, the Indian partner in the government. Checkmate.

Hindraf would have to consider carefully what its next course of action should be, keeping in mind the prevailing racial sentiments that resulted from its actions. If it is hell-bent on pursuing a confrontational course that leads to chaos and anarchy, Malaysians, and even the Indian community, would never allow it. Hindraf has to find a way to reach out to the government now that it has conveyed to the government the misery of the Indian poor and dispossessed while the government cannot wish away its presence by continuing to ignore it or remove it by demanding its pound of flesh.

The impasse has to be broken without either side losing face.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Rich Man Poor Man

I was in the vicinity of Jalan Aman, a secluded street lined with expensive houses when I spotted the incongruence of the scene. Batu Pahat has a lot of rich and not so rich people. But the wooden house is sitting on a gold mine.