Monthly Archives: May 2013

Oh Interfering Life!

William Golding, the renowned British novelist, poet, Booker Prize winner and Nobel laureate, once wrote:

“Novelists do not write as birds sing, by the push of nature. It is part of the job that there should be much routine and some daily stuff on the level of carpentry.”

I’m learning this the hard way, having come through a period when routine all but vanished in my life. Instead of sitting at a desk as soon as I woke, I found myself fielding calls, traipsing to shops, and generally dealing with crises.

The reason? My partner bought a house in France a few months ago and I set about managing its renovation remotely, little appreciating what a mammoth task this would be in the land of foie gras and insane bureaucracy. (The wonderful picture below is taken from another blog, that of an American who has lived in France for many years, Anne Stark Ditmeyer.) pretavoyager-francebureaucracy

Let us take as an example the hiring of skips. Only in France could the humble skip, that unadorned metal crate into which junk is placed, tell a story. In practical countries like the UK, you don’t need permission to have a skip unless you wish to place it on a public road, or in a spot which obstructs someone else’s path.

Which makes sense, right? Not in France.

This straight-forward Anglo-Saxon approach would be too simple for a people who revel in creating complexity where none should exist. To have a skip parked on your private driveway – where it inconveniences no one but you – you need the local mayor’s permission. Not only that, but you have to notify him or her in writing via a letter which you must sign. In that same missive, you are expected to give precise details of why you need a skip, which company will provide it, as well as the dates and hours it will remain on your driveway. Such detail obviously satisfies the Gallic obsession with minutiae. Moreover, before permission for a skip can be granted, the local policeman must question you – ostensibly so that he can verbally clarify what you have already told him in your long letter of explanation. I can only assume that the policeman is undertaking due diligence at the same time, assessing whether or not you are a person who could be trusted with a skip. After the policeman talks to you, he issues an arrêté, a decree which announces to the world exactly when you will be blocking your own garage! This worthy paper is autographed by no less a personage than the local mayor.

Thus, what should be a simple commercial transaction between two parties, namely you and the skip operator, turns into a convoluted chain involving five and more people: skip operator, local policeman, every worker in the mayor’s office, the mayor himself and you, the poor person looking for a skip. Yet, such administrative zeal brings no benefit to anyone. Decrees flutter in the French wind, desperately trying to attract the attention of the passers-by who willfully ignore them.

Now imagine the same complications extending to every aspect of a house renovation and you will understand why my routine was decimated, despite having an excellent project manager on-site. The unexpected invariably happened, which led to new problems, which resulted in yet more decisions…and so the loop went. During the days, I was interrupted whenever I tried to work, and during the nights, I couldn’t dream – except about tiles and wood and the bloody-minded French. The result was that I no longer rose with fully-formed sentences of fiction, but began waking up having conversations in my head with the many people I wanted to shout at.

Not that I wrote nothing. In the brief moments I could snatch, I completed a short story that had been on the back burner, wrote the first draft of a second, and finished two entirely new pieces of flash fiction. One of these was actually long-listed in The National Flash Fiction Day 2013 Micro Fiction competition, the first flash fiction competition I ever entered. But I couldn’t write anything very long.

Thankfully, my period of turbulence is about to end. I will soon have a regulated life back, a life in which I know when I will rise, when I will eat, when I will trade and when I will write. At that point I shall finally breathe. I can then collate the many tales I’ve picked up, a whole new genre I had never planned. The stories are sure to feature decreed skips and broken bathtubs and men called Jean-Marie. I can hardly wait.


Filed under Writing

Malaysia’s Election Eve

Power corrupts. Fifty six years of power corrupt absolutely. That is how long the ruling elite has held the reins of power in Malaysia.

What new ideas could it possibly offer which it had not thought of during its half century of uninterrupted rule?

In a country thousands of miles away, I remember the Thatcher years. I became an adult in Britain then, and watched an initially energetic government run out of steam by 1992, a mere thirteen years later. The Conservatives limped on for another five years, but change was inevitable.

Imagine if the Conservative Party had carried on for three times longer than their run of eighteen years. The governmental coalition in Malaysia, known as Barisan Nasional (National Front in Malay), has done exactly that. Is it plausible that any regime which has held authority for so long could remain uncorrupted? (This is something neighbouring Singapore has achieved, but Singapore is an exceptional country; see for example Transparency International’s 2012 League Table.)

Tomorrow, Malaysians will go to the polls. Some of us overseas have already handed in our postal votes (a right which incidentally, we were denied until a few months ago. Before then, the only Malaysians living overseas who were given postal votes were students, public servants and members of the military).

I, like many of my fellow-Malaysians, will be following the election results closely. I have no illusion over whether this 13th General Election will be free and fair. It has so far been a dirty election, and is likely to be up to the last minute. Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the Opposition Coalition, has complained of dubious voters being flown in from neighbouring countries. The Malaysian ‘Electoral Commission’, a purportedly impartial organisation, has admitted that voters have been flown in from abroad by ‘friends of the ruling regime’, but the Commission has actually defended this practice! (Such is the state of Malaysia today).

These are the desperate actions of a morally bankrupt regime. Despite all this, I am filled with anticipation, a little excitement, and plenty of apprehension too, for I know I could yet be disappointed.

The possibility of change is frightening. I have no idea what form any change in Malaysia would actually take, should it happen.

Do I trust Anwar Ibrahim? No. But he’s the best hope we have.

His Opposition Coalition includes an Islamist party, the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, commonly known as PAS. Does PAS worry me? Yes, but the incumbents, who have abused religion and race through the years as tools with which to divide Malaysians – solely to keep themselves in power – worry me even more.

Malaysians do not take easily to the streets. We are often afraid of expressing our true opinions. But the political scandals have become too numerous to list, or ignore. Let me quote just one statistic: under the current government, Malaysia became the third most corrupt country in the world as measured by illicit outflows between 2001 and 2010 (third after China and Mexico, both far larger and more populous countries).

For Malaysia, change must come, if not tomorrow, then on another day. I know that no maggot-filled regime has ever survived indefinitely in history. At some point the maggots will run out of flesh and will have to feed on themselves, or be overthrown. Unfortunately this could take decades, even centuries.

Tomorrow, whatever happens, I will take heart from the words of American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’

Malaysia, Ubah!


Filed under Malaysia