Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Reading, Publication and Development

A Shelve full of Books

I wonder if the reading habit has caught on at all in Malaysia after all the persuasion made by government for people to read more books. While the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka ( the National Language Agency) and the National Library had prompted people to become more friendly with the books, i don't see people walking around with a book in their hands and reading it while waiting for their name or number to be called out at public counters, while wating to be served at a restaurant or while waiting for a public transport. Reading while travelling in a bus, a car, a train or even in a plane is still a rare sight .
Why are we not as book-friendly as people in the more developed nations? Many possible reasons can be listed. Books are very expensive. Tun Dr.. Mahathir's latest book for example costs RM100. Some imported books of general knowlege cost more than RM 200 while technical or professional books can cost a few hundred rinngit. English novels cost more than RM30 each while Malay novel by local writers more than RM20.

More often the Shelve is full of Ornaments

Why are books so costly? Especially those written by local authors? One reason that i know is that they are printed on expensive print papers
And there are NO copies printed on cheaper newsprint, like books (especiaaly novels ) published overseas. I used to buy cheap textbooks for advanced studies from the Philipines or India printed on very cheap newsprints. And they were as good as the expensive ones. Another reason that I know personally is that the marketing cost imposed by distributors is vey high - between 40-50% of the cost of the book. I wanted to sell a novel that I wrote and published myself for only RM18 and a distributor asked for RM9 for every copy sold. Getting just RM9 for a copy would not cover even the cost of production, let alone earn somtihing from the writing. "If you want more, then raise the sale price of the book to RM30," said the sales agent ( in which case he'd want RM15 or a little less for each copy sold!). I was informed that the 'commission rate' was set on what Dewan Bahasa pays the distributors.
I also wonder what Dewan Bahasa and other publishers pay as honorarium for every book published and how much royalty is paid for each copy sold. I wonder if that has to do with why the National Laurette,A. Samad Said, launched a 'mogok seni' (refusal to write) some years ago. The question is: Are local writers getting an adequate reward for their effort? When sportsmen and sportswomen are being paid so handsomely for bringing a good name to the nations, is the contribution of the writers being given the same recognition or is their conrtibution to the nation considered less significant?
The Director of the National Library, if I'm not mistaken, has announced some time ago that the government has allocated some RM300,000 for writers who would undertake some work for publication. This was supposed to be an incentive to produce more books for the nation. How would the payment be made, how much and when, had not been explained. While the intention is honorable I wonder if the amount set aside is enough to cause new and established writers to pick up their pen and begin to write "for money"?
That brings us to the last point which i want to mention viz. is the quality of the writing good enough to stimulate people to read, especially books on general knowledge and of a literary nature which people only buy and read if they are really interesting and well written.
i wonder how many English educated Malaysias really go out and buy Malay novels for their own reading pleasure and not for their children because the novels have been turned into a text book in school. Many of the novels that sell today belong to the category of romance for the young people. The more mature novels are often too dull to read as compared to the World's or New York's bestsellers. As of today only books on the teachings of Islam seem to be selling well in Malaysi and are coming out in abundance. Of course such books are not brought along whereever one goes for reading pleasure. Hence you don't see the Malays reading books at resting places, in the bus, train etc, or while sitting by the seaside enjoying the breeze. The English educated Malaians might of course be reading some English books, novels or magazines.
Well, i think the government and government agencies resposible for the development of Malaysian minds through reading and producing the reading materials, have to do a lot more than what they have so far done to improve the reading habits of Malaysians. Especially now when the internet offers a lot more interesting things to read than some of the locally produced reading materials. We need to reduce the cost of books and improve the quality of writing. When we have spent so much on improving many other aspects of development in the country including sports and recreational facilities, aren't we going to do just as much to stimulate the production of local reading materials to develop the Malaysian minds?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Rare Taste of the old Village-style Hospitality.

A fully commercialized village in Langkawi (a resort) - Bolton Village

After living in and around the city of KL for more than three decades, village life migght become a strange and an intolerable stretch of boredom to some. My kids used to ask me what did I do for fun and games in the village when I was young. There was no telephone, no computer, no video games and no color TV. The few times that i took them back to the village, they stayed in the house and couldn't wait for the next day to go back to the city.

Mowing the grass in my village of birth.

Well they are on their own now and I'm free to go wherever I want with the wife. We've bought a small double-storey semi-detached house some years back in Seremban (our home State) and had never really got to stay in it. The few times that we visited it, the neighbors were pretty much like those in KL- friendly but keeping pretty much to themselves. Every time I visited the house there was a lot of heavy work waiting for me - cutting away the wild weeds, elephant grass and crazy creepers that like to wrap up the fence and turn it into a green wolly mass. The neighbors smiled when they saw me. asked me when I'd be moving in, and gave a blank look when I said that I had no plan to do so yet. Only Hj. Aiman, my neighbor accross the road had visited us and we their house for a cup of coffee.

Senawang, the area where our house is located has grown so much as one of the industrial and commercial satellite towns of Seremban. My neighbors are mostly people who work in Kuala Lumpur or elsewhere and come to stay in Senawang over the weekend. More seemed to have moved in recently and many houses have been renovated, But a few had been rented away. Just two blocks away on the same side of the road, a house had been rented by a group of foreign factory workers who made it a habit to have a karaoke session from lunch time to late at night on full blast. To make things worse, the singing was always offkey and in a foreign language. Hj Aiman had complained but to no avail.

The neighbors in Taman Alamanda, Senawang, are like those in Kl also, very urban though friendly, easy with their smiles and greetings ( except for those with huge cars and golden gates), but keeping pretty much to themselves. But just two weekends ago, my wife and me visited our house to do some clearing work and stayed there from morning till evening. We suddenly realised that our next door neighbor included a middleaged lady with a little boy, obviously her grandson. They boy came and talked to me in the usual prattle that you interpret more from the expression on his face rather than from the unintelligible sound he produces. He was very friendly and I gave him some chocolates. Soon the lady came out and joined us in a very village style conversation which quenched our thirst for such a neighborly interaction.

WE stopped work at about 12.30 am to go out and buy some lunch. But what do you know. The lady came out again with a bowl of rice and another with prawns cooked in our favorite "masak lemak chili api" style, The kindness really floored us for we have long forgotten such an act of neighborliness which we enjoyed only when we were kids in the village. We thoroughly enjoyed the food which really was a lot and then sat down to think of how to reciprocate in the proper way. My wife being more urban than me, thought of giving her some cash when we return the bowls. To me the act was more than what money can buy. So I switched on the old thinking cap, imagining what my grandma would do many years ago to reciprocate such a neighborly act.

Reliving old memories in the village.

The right way was to return the bowls later full of our own cooking or goodies.. Since we don't cook anything in the house though we have all the facilities, I asked my wife to go out and buy something to fill up the two bowls. She did and the neighbors were very happy with what my wife gave them.

That was indeed a reminder of the neighborly act in years gone by. I never thought that it could be revived. Not always, but when it was as done by our next door neighbor, i felt so nostalgic of the good old life in the village. The sad part is that it doesn't happen anymore even when we go back to the village, for urban values have caught on. Only one Makcik that I know used to bring us a very sweet tasting "tapai" (fermented glutinous rice) when we returned home to the village but she seemed more pleased when we reciprocated her kindness with cold cash, a further testimony to the fact that urban values have dominated all aspects of life in the village.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Towards a Healthier Society

The standard of health among Malaysians, I'm sure, is as good as the standard attained by many of the developed countries in the world. Life expectancy at birth has surpassed the 75 years mark going up to 80 years for the ladies. Children's mortality rate is less than 5%. Cardiovascular problems, diabetes, hypertension and,,...road accidents beside the usual crimes are the main killers as in many other developed countries.

But physical health is only one part of life in society. Social and mental health form the other parts. It's said that more than 70% of people in the US suffer from some form of psychological or mental problems. Some time back i read that the same applies to Malaysia. No that doesn't mean that more than 70% of the population is "loony" or "mereng" (a local term)). It's just that they suffer from some form of obsession,stress or mental pressure. And we all face that problem once in a while although are stable most of the time.

The seriousness of the problem is reflected in the "crazy" criminal cases that appear in the Press everyday. Bizarre murders of old folks by their own children and cases of mistreating them, young girls being raped and killed, children being tortured and abused, unwanted babies being abandoned and left to die, young and old people committing suicide due to the pressure of life, housemaids being brutalised, reckless driving that causes so many deaths and injuries on the road, mothers torturing their children, teachers mishandling students and students attacking their teachers, all forms of criminal activities that become more and more daring each day, corruptions and abuse of power etc etc. All thQese are the symptoms of a deteriorating state of mental and social health.

Yet the most dangerous and brutal form of the mental health problem today seems to involve racial prejudice and hatred. This is the oldest form of mental obsession as presented by inter-racial or inter-ethnic wars and fightings in the past. The obsession still persists today although it has sort of quietened out or remained dormant for some time. There had been periodical outbreaks of the prejudice and hatred in the US and felsewhere in the world, not to forget the unending war and fighting in the middle-east. The interracial, interethnic and sometimes taking the form of an inter-religious prejudice, hatred and animosity had been the most tenacious and harmful mental problem that had plagued human society in the past and it's still so in the present.

In as far as Malaysia is concerned, the multiracial society has lived in peace for most of the years after Independence. The prejudice, hatred and animosity reared their ugly heads in May 1969but the racal clash was quickly quellec by a very effective government headed by the late Tun Abdul Razak. National unity was made a very important aspect of development and in the interest to preserve national unity all Malaysians worked and lived together in peace and harmony.

But recently this mental health problem has returned. The Malays, Chinese and Indians began to voice their own interest in the media and through their political organizations, The coalition government which was once strong and cohesive began to be pulled apart by partisan interests and the opposition became stronger. A new coalition began to be formed by parties opposed to the Barisan Nasional. While the new coaltion seemed to be more loose and tenaacious than Barisan, the Chinese component of the new coalition, seemed to be drawing and pulling all the Chinese in the urban areas of Malaysia. This happened since the Chinese component of the old coalition seemed to be ineffective in voicing the interest of the younger Chinese population.
One can read the current dilemma of Barisan in terms of interest articulation and the Chinese demand for equal right as Malaysian citizens. If that is so the political leadership in the country will I am sure be able to find an amicable solution to the problem. But I fear that it's the mental health of the various racial groups in the country that is taking a turn for the worse, since the problem had never been examined by our psychological and sociologgical experts. A political solution to the problem might never be acceptable by all since appeasing the demand of one raacial group will excite and irritate the others. Each will put up its own claim for priority consideration and the demands can be conflicting with each other's interest such that the fulfilment of a demad by one racial group will hurt or insult another.

Why not look at the issue from the psychological and sociological angle. tied up with the problem of mental and social health. Malaysian or all races will have to drop some of the old psychological hang-ups and obsessions in order to strike a new balance to keep the nation on even keel. The old spirit of mutual respect and understanding, tolerence and fleibility, and the overriding concern for national unity above everything else must be revived. If the various races in this country start drifting apart, each demanding its own rights and privileges, the obsession and phobia of May 1969 might return. God helps us all if that happens.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sarawak: a Most Important Test of Public Confidence..

Just a day away and we will face a most cricial test of public confidence on many issues facing the nation. While the political scenario in Sarawak may not truly reflect the situation in Peninsula Malaysia, the feelings and aspirations of the people are pretty much the same after so many years of development under the same leadershit style and political philosophy. Many aspects of the political culture and sentiments which prevail in Sarawak are also prevalent in Semenanjung.

At least Sabah has gone throuhj some kind of a change before. If a change of leadership is bad when a country is working hard on its development, we know now that a change does not necessarily spell a doom. It brings about the best in people to save the country from going under. It can even force known enemies to work together, putting their personal interests away to make sure that the ship of state keeps on even keel and stay afloat. More importantly if a crisis does develop out of the change, the true savior(s) of the nation will come forward to take the lead. Only then do we get to know who are the real leaders and who are the opportunity seekers but cloaked in the mantle of vociferous leaders, saying a lot of things but doing nothing of note as a national leader.

What are the major sentiments we face today? To point them out will be to agitate and provoke, causing a lot of denials and refutation.
They best remain unsaid for we all know what they are but cannot say them out, lest you'll be called an extremist, a racialist, a regionalist, a pro this and that. Amazing. More than 50 years of independence and we cannot even face our haunting fears ( the emotional hantus) bravely and honestly to deal with them like intelligent and resposible citizens. We still have to hide between unsaid fears and unmentionable taboos. Must we remain so forever? How can we ever deal with a deep seated emotional problem if we are not prepared to bring it out and deal with it openly. Ask a psychotherapist if he can do that.

Be that as it may, there are many unarticulated issues that bother us all today. The state election in Sarawak will I'm sure indicate some of the sentiments that have remained unsaid and unexplored. Once reflected by the outcome of the election the federal government can use them as a guide for facing GE13.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Dividing Line between Right and Wrong.

It seems to me that the dividing line between RIGHT and WRONG today depends entirely on where you stand and what you can do to hold your stand. People don't do things or abstain from doing them because it feels RIGHT or WRONG to do so but because there's much to be gained by doing them or the penalty is too high for doing them if found guilty when charged in a court of law.
As such the line between RIGHT and WRONG can be pushed to wherever you want it to be.

It means that there is no longer any moral, ethical or civil standard underlying all actions. There will only be a punitive or a monetary penalty to pay if you are caught, charged and found guilty for doing the wrong thing, even if you knew it was wrong from the beginning but decided to let your lawyers handle the matter once done. If the penalty is small and manageable (transmutable into cash payment), who cares. Pay and be damned.

This situation is most obvious in traffic offences. Millions of summons for traffic violations are issued and millions are collected as penalty, But the offence keeps increasing. The rich ( and even not so rich) can just pay and walk away with a smile, his self-pride not in the least affected. But what if there's no monitory penalty? Intead you'll be publicly scolded for your traffic offence and required to attend a day's lecture to be held at a selcted detention center, failing which a jail sentence will be imposed depending on the seriousness of the offence you committed. This might even be a better deterrent than a sentence to do some community work which a celebrity will accept with pleasure. He or she might even get more publicity.

What about the crimninal act of corruption which is bedevelling many governments. Has the fear of being caught, jailed and fined become a sufficient deterrent? No, especially since the chance of being caught when working with strong cables is most unlikely. Corruption charges take years to be brought up in court and more years for the legal battle to be fought. Yes, in Malaysia itself we have begun to see some big and powerful names being dragged to the court but the outcome is dubious for each case seems to drag in more and more big names that are not covered by the investigations. Only when small fries are involved will the charges easily stick . A new development in the battle against corruption in Malaysia is that people interrogated or called on to help investigation by the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission begin to disappear or meet unfortunate deaths. . On another front, in as far as political campaigning is cocerned, what offers are made to the electorate during an election campaign is not considered as corruption. No wonder offering money to get elected to a political post (also known as money politics) is not considered a serious crime and can just be subjected to disciplinary action by the political party concerned.

Again, a jail sentence, monetary penalty and a ban from politics, footbal, or other professional activities for a period of time following a conviction on a charge of corruption, is not going to stem out the crime. It must begin with us appreciating what is right and what is wrong at a conscious moral or ethical level. That appreciation is nurtured from family to school and later through our professional training.
When the members of society has no more sense of right and wrong, no more ethical and moral concern about doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong, corruptuion will continue to haunt the current human civilization. Maybe we have to reinvent society again, reinstating the mechanism for distinguishing between what is right and what is wrong which modern soceity has lost over the years.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Need for a Fire Breathing Dragon

The Prime Minister is on an official visit to South Korea. He left the country while Parliament was debating on whether a scandalous sex videotape involving an opposition leader should be shown to the parliamentarians or not and tne police was investigating the death of a seven year student who was being punished by his teacher. The two issues were the hottest of the day. The sex scandal issue is made to be hotter than the forthcoming Statee-wide election in Sarawak. It certainly would be most embarassing if on arrival in South Korea the PM were asked by someone: "How's the sex scandal (or sodomy) issue in your country, Sir."

News travel fast and even if the question is not asked many Koreans would be bursting with enthusiasm to ask. We Malaysians have made a man- takes-a-prostitute case to a national level of importance, following a sodomy trial that drags on for years. Even the case of a seven year old student who died while being punished by a teacher for stealing RM7, did not receive so much attention as the pornographic tape produced by two strong party supporters who were not even prosecuted for arranging a special screening of the tape to reporters and being in possession of such a tape.

Has politics in Malaysia sunk to such a low level of character assassination? It appears that the ruling party ( only Umno at that) is trying to knock out the opposition leader allengedly involved in the scandal once and for all. Have Malaysians thought what politics in this country would be like without a character like Anwar Ibrahim. Have we forgotten how many national issues he had brought up for the attention of the people. Even if no immediate action followed after some of his charges proved highly relevant to national interest, they opened up many sores under the governmental robe. Many of the issues such as the Lingam's case, the commission on the purchase if sunmarines, the PKFZ case etc. are still not satisfactorily concluded.

Do Malaysians want a government without any fire breathing dragons in the opposition again, Even though we still have four States under the opposition rule, the state leaders seem to have their hands full to indulge in fault-finding vi-a-vis the Federal government. They have their own worst critics - the Federal governtment. Under such a situation killing the fire breathing dragon ( there are lesser ones, of course) in Parliament would make it a very peaceful place for pushing through whatever laws the government wants and justifies whatever it does. Any trouble maker in the ruling party would soon find his way out of Parliament. Only the fire breathing dragon (or dragons) can raise the issues that had made Malayians wiser and better informed.

So, must we kill the fire breathing dragon though various charges of doggie-foolery (sodomy) and now philandering might have destroyed his image as a possible national leader. Let justice prevail on the charges leveled at him but but why knock out an assiduous and silver-tongued critic of the government in power when the nation needs more of such people to stem out the cases of corruption and the abuse of power that seem to be on the rise.