Category Archives: Identity

Malaysia’s Rubicon Moment

On Saturday a leading political cartoonist, Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, was detained under Malaysia’s draconian Sedition Act. He had been participating at the George Town Literary Festival, arguably the country’s best-known lit-fest. Zunar was arrested for criticising Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak. This is presumably to set an example: look what happens when you dare call a spade a spade! Zunar’s arrest has made international news, but what is less well-known is that he was also punched up beforehand by stooges of Malaysia’s dominant political party, UMNO, the United Malay National Organisation.

Zunar’s arrest is part of a string of troubling developments in Malaysia. The previous week, the chairwoman of a civil rights group, Bersih, was also arrested. Bersih (which means ‘Clean’ in Malay) has been campaigning for basic democratic rights for several years. Rights such as:

Free and fair elections. Clean government. The right to dissent.

Daring to demand an end to corruption is too much for the Malaysian government. After all, its raison d’être now is to cling on to power (and the nation’s coffers) by whatever means it can. Bersih’s chairwoman, Maria Chin Abdullah, was thus held in solitary detention – without charge, I might add – and not allowed to see her lawyer or family for a week. She has now been released, but not before the Malaysian police promised to crack down on people participating in vigils to have her freed.

Before Maria Chin Abdullah was detained, she had actually been threatened with ISIS-style decapitation. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism is a troubling trend in Malaysia – a trend on which the supposedly moderate government has remarkably little to say. Indeed, there was yet another attempt last week to table a bill in Parliament that could pave the way to hand-chopping in Malaysia. In principle, the bill was not the government’s and is supposed to apply only to one particular state in the country, but these are beside the point. The rubicon of hand-chopping, if crossed, will have consequences for the entire country and each and every Malaysian.

I left Malaysia many years ago. In the Malaysia I knew, a law proposing the chopping off of limbs as punishment would have been unthinkable. This is the country I want to remind Malaysians of in the books which will form The Malayan Series. I’m no fan of British colonialism – anyone who has read The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds will realise that – but there was undoubtedly a degree of tolerance in previous days which has been deliberately leached away.

Malaysia has turned into a country I barely recognise. It is now a place in which, as soon as you criticise the government, you’re either beaten up or threatened with death. It is a country where protest demanding good governance is viewed as a threat to government and if you have the courage to voice any discontent, you’re told, “If you don’t like it, leave.”

Is this the Malaysia we want?

It’s not the country I want, which is why I will do what I can to remind people about the Malaysia we’ve lost. It’s also why I will support those who are fighting for a secular, pluralistic, more inclusive Malaysia.

There are people who say that it’s already too late. I don’t believe this: it is never too late to change. There are other Malaysians like me, as this sane letter shows. The longer we leave it, though, the more entrenched attitudes will become and the harder change will be. It is up to us Malaysians: no one else can do the hard work for us. The Malaysia of tomorrow will reflect what we today are doing, or not, as the case may be.

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Filed under Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Writing

Welcome to my New Blog!

Welcome to my new-look blog! Now that my debut novel has been published, there is no longer a raison d’être for calling this site ‘Journey of My First Novel’ but this blog will continue to chart my journey as a writer. I hope to use this space to explore the key themes in my writing: identity, cultural history and Malaysia. Readers will also be given a peek behind the scenes, with updates on events and news related to my books.

In addition, blog readers will be the first to learn about upcoming books. To make doubly sure, you can also follow me on Amazon: click the Follow button on this page and you’ll receive separate updates on The Malayan Series.

Artistic freedom is one of the joys of a blog. When I was writing ‘Journey of My First Novel’, there were times when I felt constrained, compelled to limit posts to my writing journey. I would look enviously at friends who were able to write about absolutely anything they wanted on their blogs. Now that this blog is called Window into Other Worlds, I feel liberated! Be warned though, that I may occasionally stray into other worlds and onto subjects that have nothing to do with my writing!

I’ll start with a piece of brilliant news. Last week The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds was listed as one of the six best books of November 2016 in the monthly newsletter from Goodreads.
goodreads-books-of-the-month-nov-2016
You’ve probably heard of Goodreads; if not, it is the go-to place on the Internet for book lovers. The site currently boasts fifty five million subscribers, all of whom are avid readers. They visit Goodreads to learn about new books, to rate them as well as share reviews. The site is entirely reader-led; it was thus an indescribable honour to find my name alongside such illustrious authors as Zadie Smith and Robert Harris on this month’s Goodreads newsletter. Thank you to Goodreads’ readers and to the Goodreads team!

Goodreads also allows members to ask authors questions. I have now started taking questions on the Goodreads site. If you are a Goodreads member and would like to ask me a question, write to me. I’ll try my best to give an answer!

My partner, bless her, is convinced that everyone will enjoy The Woman who Breathed Two Worlds and has been badgering me to carry a hard copy of my book everywhere. She has thus far been vindicated. When we went to a film club event the other night, people were intrigued as soon as they saw my book and its title. One person took a snapshot of the beautiful cover, another turned pages and began reading while a third wanted to propose my novel for her book club. Family, food, friendship and identity – the subjects of my debut novel – are topics that still stir emotions today, no matter which culture we belong to.

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Filed under Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Publishing, Writing

This Merdeka is Yellow…

Tomorrow, August 31, is Malaysia’s Independence (Merdeka) Day. Shortly after Merdeka Day thirty six years ago, I left Malaysia. I’ve lived away for so long now that I have spent more time in England than in my country of origin.

Yet, nothing grips me as much as major pieces of Malaysian news. Last July for example, when MH-17 was shot down over Ukraine,  I was riveted: engaged in both heart and mind, emotions veering between horror and utter disbelief, and finally anger. Hours later, when it was already clear that the plane had not crashed accidentally but had been shot down by a missile, major media networks (in three languages) changed their headlines to reflect this appalling new element.  All except for the BBC, which retained its misleading “Malaysian Plane Crashes in Ukraine” as if it had been Malaysian Airlines’ fault, as if the plane’s flight path had not been pre-cleared. I was so incensed that I wiped the BBC app off my iPhone.

This weekend, I have once again been glued to Malaysian news. A 34-hour protest has been taking place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital. People were out in force – two hundred thousand according to the organisers, a mere twenty thousand by the government’s count. Most of the protesters wore yellow T shirts (hastily banned beforehand by authorities), blew into their vuvuzelas and air-horns, prayed when it was time to pray, listened to speeches and made music – all quite peacefully. Many even stayed overnight as had been planned, literally sleeping on the streets and squares of the capital. To see what it was like during the final hour of this marathon rally, see the attached link.

The protest was organised by Bersih (Clean), an organisation which is campaigning for clean, fair elections in Malaysia. This was the fourth rally organised by Bersih. At the previous demonstration before this one, an estimated quarter of a million turned up and police used teargas on the crowds.

Not surprisingly, the Malaysian government – which has a rather low tolerance of dissent – was up to its usual tricks last week. They first declared the rally to be “illegal”. When that didn’t work, the Home Minister banned yellow clothing and T shirts with the words “Bersih 4”. The authorities, knowing that a sleep-in was planned, promptly prohibited the erection of tents.

Despite these absurd obstacles, yellow T shirts abounded on KL’s streets. Demonstrators proceeded with their “sleep-over” – truly a sight to behold. Of course there have been plenty of naysayers, as there always are. People who belittle Bersih for “not going far enough”, and the protest as little more than the huff of a few well-heeled urbanites.

As the former chairperson of Bersih – the redoubtable Ambiga Sreenevasan – has pointed out, Bersih’s rallies take place despite the organisation having little money and no power and in spite of the entire machinery of government being arrayed against them. These rallies rely entirely on “the goodwill of the people”. Which is why they are remarkable: Bersih‘s rallies are tangible signs of a nascent civil society.

Street protest flies in the face of Malaysian tradition. As a nation, we prefer to avoid even the smell of conflict. We stick to safe topics, such as shopping, and of course, food! We can say a lot about food without touching on anything remotely controversial, anything that (we fear) may offend someone. If you spend your life in this “head-down, risk-free” zone, the thought of going on a march where you may be asked to hold a banner or shout and generally take a stand, is rather alien. Mahathir Mohamed, the former Prime Minister who turned up at the rally on both days, gave an interview in which he admitted that it was the first time he had joined a street protest – and he is ninety.

I only learnt about protest as a student at Southampton University in Britain. The experience was incredibly liberating. I discovered what democracy should actually be about. I found that in a truly democratic country, people were free to express legitimate political views, so long as they did not advocate violence on anyone else or infringe on the rights of others. In contrast to Malaysia, I could say what I felt without being shut down, called names or told to leave the country. I went on marches, I held placards, I became an activist. I disagreed vehemently with some people, and still managed to remain friends with them.

The whole process was thoroughly validating. Among my causes: gay rights. There were absolutely no positive gay role models then, and your boss could have fired you if s/he discovered your sexual orientation, no matter how well you did your job. It was such a far cry from today that it is hard to even remember what Britain was like in the mid-eighties. If anyone had told me then that in less than thirty we would be able to marry one another, I would have laughed out loud.

This example goes to show that protest can bring about change. You only have to think of the suffragettes to be reminded that without them, women would never have obtained the vote. Without protest, we would also not be attending universities today.

Could the same natural evolution happen in Malaysia?

On this, the signs are not good. The Malaysian government is one which loves the legitimacy that its veneer of democracy confers, at the same time as it hates the reality. Citizens wanting to hold Ministers accountable: what a nuisance. As for the possibility that the government might actually be voted out of office, perish the thought!

After fifty eight years in power, any government would be tired; this one is especially tired – of criticism from those pesky citizens. In recent days and weeks, Malaysian Ministers have acted with their usual brilliance. In late July, a leading business publication exposed the fact that US$700 million had entered the Prime Minister’s personal bank account. The official response? Suspend said publication for three months. How dare journalists do their jobs! This week, when it became clear that threats and intimidation were not going to prevent the weekend’s rally, the government blocked access to Bersih’s website (within Malaysia).

No wonder America’s former ambassador to Malaysia has voiced his worries. In a recent opinion piece, Mr. John Malott described how there are two faces to Malaysia’s current Prime Minister Najib Razak: the international man who knows what Westerners want to hear, and the domestic man who happily lines his and his wife’s pockets while curbing individual liberties and meddling with institutions.

As if to confirm his increasingly authoritarian streak, the Prime Minister told the nation yesterday: “All forms of street demonstration have to be rejected as they adversely affect peace and order and cause problems to the public.” Apparently, only “immature” people express their views by protesting on the streets. Such words (and his actions) do not bode well.

Where will Malaysia go from here?

Will the Prime Minister step down tomorrow? Unfortunately, this is unlikely.

Will we see greater restrictions on freedom in Malaysia? Possibly.

Could the country veer towards dictatorship?

As an optimist, I believe that positive change will come, but this will take longer than we either think or would like. What is important is for concerned Malaysians not to give up. We need to remain engaged, to stay strong and show that we will demand good governance, no matter how much our own government threatens us. For the sake of Malaysia’s future, we will not go away. Not until we have clean, fair elections and an end to rampant corruption and cronyism.

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Ambiga, Allah and this Visit Malaysia Year

Did you know that 2014 has been designated Visit Malaysia Year? Following a successful campaign in 2007, this is my country’s ambitious attempt to draw even more visitors to its beautiful shores.

When it comes to tourism, the Malaysian government has learnt what to say. To lure the world, Malaysia’s racial, cultural and religious diversity are endlessly exploited. On a page entitled People, Culture and Language, my favourite part comes at the end of the first paragraph:

“Malaysians…respect one another, regardless of one’s race, religion and background. It is this ‘true’ Malaysian value that binds them together” (my emphasis).

Indeed. Malaysia is multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural. It has been this way for so long that we cannot remember a time when the country was monolithic, if indeed it ever was. And Malaysians do continue to live in relative peace and harmony with one another.

But intolerance has been on the rise. I have felt this myself. I am recognisably Chinese, and during my last three visits, I was stared at by cold eyes which said: SQUATTER! I know I was not imagining this, because there were plenty of others (thank goodness) who welcomed me warmly as a fellow-Malaysian.

Into this fray comes the word ‘Allah’. Allah is Arabic for God, though I would liken Allah more to Almighty God, a concept pertinent to the monotheistic religions of the world. Allah has been widely used – without any issue – by Muslims, Christians and Jews in the Middle East and elsewhere. Moreover, there are claims that the word Allah pre-dates Islam. (For anyone interested, here are a few links: In the Name of Allah, The Economist Oct 15, 2013; an informative blog from the Arabic Bible Outreach Ministry; also Christian Answers which states that Jews and Christians in the Middle East called God Allah for five hundred years before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad).

Within Malaysia itself, the word Allah has apparently long been used by Malay-speaking Christians, who knows for how long. Since 1615, claims the Asia Sentinel. Who can tell? All I will do here is to note that Portuguese traders actually arrived in Malacca (a well-known port in Malaysia) in 1511, and among their missionaries was St. Francis Xavier.

Does any of this matter? It wouldn’t, if the Malaysian government had not decided to ban the use of ‘Allah’ by anyone other than Muslims when referring to God.

This issue, which has simmered since 2007, is not just a matter of semantics: when the use of a word is deemed to be the sole preserve of a particular group, it encourages feelings of religious exclusivism, superiority even, which in turn, breed intolerance. The loop here is subtle, self-perpetuating and insidious.

I have already described the rise of intolerance in Malaysia in an earlier post (see Where is Home?). Since the Allah row broke out, a sinister new twist has been added: places of worship – a host of churches, a Sikh temple (because Malay-speaking Sikhs also use the word Allah), and in retaliation, Muslim places of prayer – have been attacked. I deplore all of these, acts which would have been unthinkable in the Malaysia I once knew. A country riven by division is not the country I want to see.

Unfortunately, we can hardly count on the current government to halt the trend, since it helped create it in the first place. Tensions rose again when Malay-language Bibles (with the word Allah) were seized by the religious department. In a gesture of peace and reconciliation, Marina Mahathir, daughter of Malaysia’s famous former Prime Minister, appeared with flowers at a church. This is the Malaysia I remember, yet she was far from universally applauded. Following this, the King declared that in Malaysia, the word Allah was only for Muslims. Right on cue, another church was firebombed with Molotov cocktails.

Diversity itself is not the issue. There will always be divisions in any society: brown/white; Muslim/non-Muslim; Sunni/Shia; rich/poor; Chelsea fans/Arsenal fans. This last is only half a joke, my point being that any division could be turned into a fault-line if it is ruthlessly exploited. Differences do not need to become fault-lines; they only become fault-lines when a corrupt government, hell-bent on staying in power, deliberately cultivates religious and racial tensions to divide and conquer.

The bigger question is this: what sort of Malaysia do we want? A country where all religions are truly respected, as the Visit Malaysia Year website tries to imply? Or a country where Islam is implicitly assumed to be superior and every non-Muslim deemed an infidel, tolerated only because s/he cannot be got rid of?

I keep being told that the majority of Malaysians are like me, that they want a pluralistic, progressive, tolerant society of the twenty first century. This may be true, but we face a problem: the majority stays silent. The silence of the majority has allowed the vociferousness of a minority to shape a political agenda which has slowly but invidiously changed the country. As this thoughtful opinion in the Jakarta Post notes: “there is only a thin line between tolerance and intolerance”. THERE IS ONLY A THIN LINE BETWEEN TOLERANCE AND INTOLERANCE. We should not be complacent.

In a clarion call last week, a courageous lady told Malaysians that we must resist our silence and fear. Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan, former President of the Malaysian Bar, a woman honoured by Hillary Clinton with an International  Women of Courage Award in 2009 for her unstinting pursuit of judicial reform and good governance, made a speech reminiscent of Martin Luther King’s.

Here is part of it:  “When they speak the language of racism and bigotry, we must respond with the language of unity and togetherness. When they speak the language of ignorance, we must speak the language of knowledge. When they attack our brothers and sisters, we must defend them. We must respond from a position of knowledge if we see such ignorance. When they create fear, we must respond with courage, when they divide, we must unite.” (As reported by The Malaysian Insider, Feb 11 2014)

No one could have put it better. Fellow-Malaysians, our despair is the enemy’s biggest weapon. It is not too late to rise, to challenge bigotry when we see it, and reclaim the Malaysia we’ve lost. Because Malaysia Boleh (Malaysia Can).

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On Grandmothers and Pioneers

March 8 is International Women’s Day. On this day, men in Eastern Europe send flowers to the women in their lives, while the women finally get a much-needed break from housework.

In the rest of the world though, March 8 does not hold much significance. The odd gathering takes place, but many of my friends have no idea when International Women’s Day actually is. Which makes the style in which I celebrated it last month – at the Fox Club in Mayfair, central London – especially memorable. Within the lovely setting of this private members’ club, a dozen women from across the globe communed, to exchange stories about our lives and those of our grandmothers. What could have been more apt?

The backdrop of a London overwrought with leaden skies and puddles also proved poignant, at least for me. It was cold and drizzly. This is the London I know like the back of my hand. I may moan about it and grumble, but its familiarity makes me feel at home.

Conversation hummed as we sat down to a lunch hosted by the Hong Kong Society Women’s Group. I had been invited to read extracts from my novel alongside Kerry Young, whose debut work Pao was published in 2011 to much acclaim by Bloomsbury. Neither of our novels has any Hong Kong connection, but Karen Luard (who had arranged the lunch) wanted Kerry and I to share our experiences of being part of the far-flung Chinese diaspora.

When discussion was eventually opened up to the floor, there were fascinating contributions from our audience. Because my novel tells the story of a woman who starts a business to save her family, it made many of those present think about the women in their own families, especially their grandmothers. Whether they hailed from South Africa or Malaysia, the stories they recounted had a common thread: they featured stoical old women, all unsung, who were not well-educated but who sustained their families. These grandmothers used whatever means they could: some sewed; others, like the heroine in my novel, cooked. Without so much as a moment’s thought, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were unwitting pioneers.

And pioneers are not always appreciated, certainly not during their lifetimes. How much consternation, ridicule even, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers could have faced. We think we have an easier time today – and that is true in many ways – but there have been many occasions when I have felt extremely uncomfortable listening to the way male friends or colleagues talk about women, especially about those women who dare to stand above the parapet. Their tone is sneering, coloured by a disdain which allows misogyny in all its subtle forms, to be disguised.

Take Hillary Clinton. I have heard her reviled in ways reserved only for female politicians. Yes there are plenty of male politicians who are hated, loathed even, but I have never heard them discussed in the same scornful tone – one which veers well beyond contempt.

And there are still people today who would not vote for a woman.

April 8 saw the passing of Margaret Thatcher, a towering figure no matter what you thought of her. I arrived in Britain months after she became Prime Minister, and became an adult during her tenure. She was nothing if not polarising: most strong personalities are. Amidst the hubbub, it is easy to forget that she was a pioneer – it could hardly have been a doddle being the country’s first female Prime Minister. As Barack Obama tweeted, “She stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.”

I could not have put it better. Thankfully, glass ceilings everywhere continue to fall. But more International Women’s Days will have to pass before we can all truly say that we are as happy celebrating the birth of a daughter as much as that of a son.

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Celebrating the Year of the Water Snake

It began, as all Chinese New Year celebrations must, with food. Paper plates loaded with steaming hot rice and stir-fried vegetables were spread onto tables. “Eat! Eat!” the women running around both floors of the Islington Chinese Association (ICA) exhorted, in a way which brooked no dissent. Disobedience would not have been an option.

A crowd numbering hundreds had gathered on a discreet street in north London where the ICA is located, to ring in the Year of the Water Snake. In addition to fan dances, calligraphy, demonstrations from a kung fu master and of course, the Lion Dance, there was to be literature: poetry from a British-born Chinese writer, and a reading by me of extracts from my novel. We’ve never done this before, Dr. Stephen Ng, ICA’s Coordinator, and Lady Katy Blair, its co-Founder and CEO, had confided; you will be an experiment.

Amidst whispering and much howling (from the younger guests), it seemed to me a brave experiment, especially since part of the audience spoke only halting English. As I watched people run hither and thither, I wondered how the afternoon would go.

Those worries didn’t last long. We were soon distracted by an insistent beat and the clanging of cymbals. On a pavement outside, a round Chinese drum, its black lacquer gilded with golden characters, had been set up. Lion is approaching. boom-boom-boom The drum was extraordinarily loud, inducing a shiver in the pit of my stomach – a frisson I always feel when I know that the epic Lion Dance will follow. Neighbours peeked out of their windows as the Lion approached, bearing its multi-coloured head. This was a friendly beast, so friendly that at least one little boy was tempted to peer solemnly into its ravenous mouth. The Lion wagged cheeky pink tongue and tail in every corner, which I hope was enough to chase away any evil spirits lurking.

What's in there

By the time I returned inside, the upper floor of the ICA had been transformed. In its place was a concert hall decked with rows of chairs. From the stage at the front came the dulcet tones of a Chinese flute, so lulling that even the children stopped squirming. When Anna Chen, poet and activist, took to the stage, she invigorated the crowd by half-reading and most astonishingly, half-singing, her poignant poems. The lyrical Anna May Wong must die was especially powerful – ‘a personal journey through the life and crimes of Hollywood’s first Chinese screen legend’, it says on Anna’s website. (I hope everyone reading this will have the opportunity to watch Anna perform). I could see that people listened, but you had to be able to hold their attention.Anna Chen reads her poetry

All too soon, it was my turn. I had been told I would go onstage after the fan dance. I waited in the wings, tense because I knew it would be the first novel reading at the ICA, afraid also that my story might not be regarded as ‘Chinese enough’ for a community event of this sort.

Indeed, the family in my novel is mixed, the woman who leads it being a Nyonya – part of the Chinese diaspora in South East Asia which dates back centuries. Many people today have never heard of the Nyonyas and Babas, even in Malaysia. This is a great shame, because the Nyonyas and Babas successfully created a unique fusion of Chinese and Malay culture long before globalisation existed. In their way of life, they have something to teach us, especially in present-day Malaysia where race drives your rights, or the lack of them (see blog-post The Malaysia We’ve Lost).

The first passage I read told the ancestral story of the Nyonyas and Babas. Selina introduces the Nyonya themeTo make my reading come alive, I had watched videos of actors and politicians speaking. I also enlisted the help of two Malaysian students, Wahidah and Aufa Dahlia, who gallantly came on stage modelling Nyonya costumes. Wahidah, her hair tied up in the famous Nyonya chignon, looked resplendent in a tailored vintage sarong kebaya.Demonstrating sarong kebaya Her blouse and sarong came from Aufa’s private collection, while her feet were adorned by a pair of hand-made Nyonya beaded slippers which had been purchased from a shop, Colour Beads, in Malacca. This beautiful town is arguably Malaysia’s most historic, and a large Nyonya-Baba community once lived there.

Wahidah was subsequently joined on stage by Aufa Dahlia, who showed off her modern Nyonya attire with great aplomb. The audience sat enraptured, so graceful were the kebaya ladies. Later, many went up to Aufa’s table, where she had placed a sample of the kebaya blouses she sells on her website as a hobby. If the kebaya ladies and I were to form an act, we would surely be hits on a reading circuit!

Modern NyonyaOther artistes followed, including the kung fu master whose rhythmic movements mesmerised everyone. Look at the picture below and you will see why he was a tough act to follow, especially by a writer reading her second passage late in the day. Kung-Fu masterFortunately, I was aided by the dramatic second scene I had chosen to read and by the prop I brought along: the Nyonya kueh (cakes) which feature in my novel. I had only two varieties with me – both from the Malaysia Hall Canteen in Bayswater – but they disappeared in seconds after being shared out!

Afterwards, people came up to say how much they had enjoyed my reading. One woman thanked me for opening her eyes to the diversity of the Chinese diaspora, a few even asked where they could buy my book. Alas, I had to say it was not yet published but I gave them my card nonetheless, as it has the address of this blog on the back.

The grand finale of the afternoon was a Ching (Qing) Dynasty costume parade which starred a Mandarin, a Court Official, a Eunuch, the Empress and of course, the Emperor, all in borrowed robes which had never before been worn in the UK. Truly a fitting way with which to end such an uplifting day.

The EmperorAs we headed off, I thought of those who had come before us. It was not just Emperors and Empresses who made history but the coolies leaving in desperate circumstances, and before them, during the Ming Dynasty, the adventurer traders who left to settle elsewhere. These ancestors, all of them, have left their mark in the sands of history. And we their descendants are immensely fortunate, in having such a rich heritage to celebrate.

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Filed under Cultural Identity, Identity, Malaysia, Novel, Nyonya

What Great-Grandmother Taught Me about Economics

Hang a banker a week until the others improve.” These extraordinary words were uttered by Ken Livingstone, formerly London’s mayor, in a speech in February this year.

His words clearly incite hate, but in the West of today, hating bankers and business, especially big business, seems perfectly acceptable. Livingstone is far from alone. “Outrage over £13 billion lavished on bonuses for bankers while the rest of us struggle to make ends meet,” screamed the MailOnline on 20 September.

With such righteous indignation, it was hardly surprising that two poets, Alice Oswald and John Kinsella, withdrew from the TS Eliot prize on the grounds of its ‘tainted’ sponsorship. The money for the prize was to come from investment firm Aurum, which manages funds of hedge funds. “The business of Aurum does not sit well with my personal politics and ethics”, said Mr. Kinsella, who described hedge funds as being “at the very pointy end of capitalism.” Fair enough. It is laudable to stand up for what you believe in. I only hope Mr. Kinsella never plans to retire, because his pension fund, if he has one, is likely to have exposure to hedge funds (or to mutual funds which employ hedge fund techniques).

Into this charged atmosphere, it would be interesting to see the response to my début novel in which private entrepreneurship is celebrated. My protagonist Chye Hoon fully embraces capitalism, because it offers her and her family opportunities. In colonial Malaya, there is no other lifeline, no entitlement: life is what you make of it. Chye Hoon cannot even read or write but this doesn’t deter her, because she can count. She starts a business in Malaya in 1910, making and selling the delicacies with which she has grown up – the Nyonya kueh of her childhood. On the first morning, Chye Hoon stands in her kitchen inhaling the smells of steaming coconut milk and pandanus leaves, and she knows she will make money.

This she proceeds to do – very successfully. Bahh, you may say. Your book is fiction. Maybe, but my protagonist is based on my great grandmother, who personified the traits of many overseas Chinese. We are the descendants of those who dared leave China. There are plenty of rags-to-riches stories from among us, and all are true. (When I say rags, I mean literally rags. Here is one of many photographs of newly-arrived immigrants at the Chinatown Heritage Centre in Singapore, an excellent museum.) 

Great-Grandmother shared the absolute determination of her Chinese ancestors to succeed. She might even have taught Gordon Brown a thing or two. Ipoh, where she lived, was a mining town, its fortunes tied to tin. And the price of tin, Great-Grandmother knew, went up and down. She understood intuitively that there would be good years as well as bad. If she had heard anyone say, as the former Chancellor did in his pre-budget report of 1999, “Under this Government, Britain will not return to the boom and bust of the past”, she would have exclaimed, Malaysian style, “What? He crazy ah?”

In the good years, Great-Grandmother worked and saved, to prepare for the bad years that were always just round the corner. In the bad years she worked just as hard, but saved less. There was no point complaining, and no one to complain to. Great-Grandmother lived in a world in which no safety net existed: there was no unemployment benefit, no healthcare, or pension. She provided for herself and her children, all nine of them.

At some point Great-Grandmother made enough money, and was approached by others for loans. That was when she became a money-lender in Ipoh. My own protagonist Chye Hoon also becomes a money-lender in my novel. Chye Hoon discovers an under-served niche (women), and her activities play a vital role in the growth of micro-enterprise in her town. In writing about how Chye Hoon builds her business, I drew from twenty years of experience as a banker and entrepreneur. 

Business is about survival, and growth. Always, you have to make sure you survive, no matter how large your business. This is the stuff of life. It’s what I write about in my novel. In the anti-capitalist discourse of today, we sometimes forget that businesses serve needs. As does banking.

Make no mistake: Great-Grandmother’s enterprise may have been small, but she was as keen on profit as any large corporation. Without profit, she could not have survived; our family wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t be completing a novel.

As I read some of the headlines in the West today, I can’t help thinking about her. Her golden rules were simple: work your butt off, save like crazy, and take advantage of every opportunity. Oh, and don’t borrow. This last was ironic, given her money-lending activities.

But perhaps a dose of such conservatism has its uses. At the last count, Britain’s households held £1.4 trillion of personal debt. This means that the average amount owed by each person in the UK represents 117% of average earnings.

Some people say this level of debt doesn’t matter (BBC News: The Truth about the UK’s Debt). Perhaps, but surely having less debt could do no harm.

In any case, are bankers solely responsible for the debt mountain? The facts speak for themselves: personal debt climbed during the go-go years between 1997 and 2007.  Loans were given too freely then, but no banker forced anyone to take a loan under duress. Somewhere in the narrative of entitlement, personal responsibility has got lost.

My novel goes against that grain. It is about identity and loss of culture yes, but it is also a story of personal responsibility, and the power we have as individuals. In this time of crisis, it offers a message of hope. Against all odds, a woman faces the Great Depression of the 1930s on her own, with no help whatsoever. She succeeds on her own terms. We can too.

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