Thursday, May 17, 2012

Internal Disagreements Are Like Ginseng

The Malaysian media encourages the misguided view that differences of opinion among members of political parties are unhealthy. Differing views are often portrayed as ‘squabbling’ or ‘spats’ or ‘rifts’ between members of the fraternity and indicative of weakness and disunity.

The contrary is true. Firstly, the ability to accept differing opinions is a sign of maturity in political parties or coalitions. Every person is unique, and that uniqueness includes our worldviews and of course, our opinions on matters. Even people in the most intimate of relationships do not agree on everything. Lovers fight. Married couples argue.

Some of us are more opinionated (or if you prefer, stubborn) than others, and when it comes to political parties... well you can expect a much higher concentration of strong-willed, passionate people who have their own take on things. The important thing is that the disagreements are in pursuit of a higher cause. The point of debate goes beyond demolishing the other person’s arguments and proving yours are better. Constructive debate and discourse which involves different viewpoints often results in a compromise that is agreeable to most. And isn’t that the point of a democracy - to reflect the views of the majority?

But even when the middle path is not taken, and when different factions with irreconcilable differences emerge, it can be for the better. Take for example the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States. The business-friendly  Republicans  believe people should be as free as possible to pursue their own best interests and government should play a minimal role in the economy. The Democrats have a broader social agenda and believe government is crucial in creating a fairer society.

Many would be surprised to learn that these polar-opposites today share the same roots in the Democratic-Republican Party founded by Thomas Jefferson. Differences of opinion within led to a schism in the 19th century. In the short term, this split certainly was destructive - the Democratic-Republican party ceased to exist.  But in the long term, it created two powerful parties that now dominate politics in the richest country in the world.

Disagreements still rumble internally within the parties. Just consider the race to be the Republican candidate for president of the United States. Rick Santorum, the previous front-runner who recently pulled out, is a very conservative Christian focused on social issues. Mitt Romney, the present front-runner, was a successful venture capitalist and presents a more moderate face. All the candidates have hotly debated, and indeed, attacked each other. But the internal competition creates a dynamic in which the strongest, most ‘winnable’ candidate survives, behind which the entire party then closes ranks.

Notice the difference between these mature parties and the immature, insecure ones in our country? The losing candidate is not demonised as a traitor to the party, ostracised or expelled. Neither does he storm off if a huff or retreat to sulk in a corner. He and his followers are absorbed back into the fold and continue the fight for the greater good as the party sees it. The different opinions expressed during the campaign are not viewed as detrimental or bad for the party. Rather, they are recognised for what they are: just different viewpoints. And the winning candidate may well absorb some of these viewpoints.

Rick Santorum.
This brings us to the very important point that successful political parties recognise constructive dissent as not only natural, but also necessary for rejuvenation. The Democratic and  Republican parties in the United States have now been in existence for nearly two hundred years. The fact that they are still relevant is testimony to their ability to absorb and accept new ideas and evolve to meet the changing needs and demands of the people they seek to govern. New ideas, and change, by definition, require freedom to dissent and debate. 

The real problem is not dissent. It is suppressing dissent. UMNO for example, has not seen a contest for its presidency for a quarter of a century - ever since the titanic battle in 1987 between Tunku Razaleigh and Dr Mahathir which lead to Tengku Razaleigh leaving UMNO to form Semangat 46 and a sycophantic culture developing in the new UMNO. Dr Mahathir recently admitted that UMNO faces a scarcity of competent leaders at the top[1].  The shortage is so severe that the UMNO now cannot find a woman capable enough to helm the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development.

Take this test yourself. Name the vibrant young leaders in UMNO, MCA and the MIC, the bulwarks of conformity and ‘unity’. Next, name the vibrant young leaders in DAP and PAS[2], the parties often portrayed by the mainstream media as riven by disagreements.

Differing opinions are simply a natural democratic process, are in the bigger picture constructive, and a mark of a mature, strong parties. So the next time the mainstream media highlights another intra-party ‘spat’ within Pakatan Rakyat, think of it as Ginseng- it is bitter-sweet but is natural and rejuvenating!

[1] Dr M: Field talented outsiders. The Star, 29 Mar 2012.
[2] We deliberately avoid mentioning PKR as it is a relatively young party.

Originally published on REFSA, an independent think tank's website.

Friday, May 11, 2012

BERSIH- Of Police Brutality & Maggi Mee

Gives a whole new meaning to Duduk Bantah, eh? Source in image.
This is one of the definitions given by Urban Dictionary (yes I know, what a load of nonsense, but bear with me):
Police [ puh-less], noun The guys you run away from.

Usually Urban Dictionary doesn’t quite give the most accurate of definitions, but this one seemed pretty damn accurate on Saturday. Well, most of you would have had your own experiences, but I needed to vent my frustration ( since I don’t have anybody to beat up), so here I am writing an article which probably only three people will read (one of them a cyber police officer, perhaps).
I’d just like to clarify some things before I move on. Firstly, I am in no way against the police themselves as a force, but rather am opposed to their conduct. In fact, I owe a lot to them, and have friends who have policemen as dads. Secondly, this article is based on my experiences, so please don’t tell me I’m spewing nonsense (I’m talking to YOU, cyber police officer lurking in a dark room).
Okay, moving on.

Police in solemn silence, after prayers.
Police organisation
It was about 1.30 p.m. at Masjid Negara. The solat had begun, and people were starting to pour into the mosque. There was a huge crowd of police (most of whom looked very young) on my side of the road – about five hundred of them – and you could that some wanted to follow the crowd into the mosque (for prayer or for the shade, I don’t know). They had been standing there for about half an hour by now, and some began to sit down. A Bersih supporter joked they were staging their own Duduk Bantah, haha!
The day was maddeningly hot. I thought I was dying from the heat, when suddenly I noticed this huge movement on the right flank of the police formation. They were mobilising! The crackdown had begun! I stood up on the steel railing at the side of the road trying to get a glimpse, oh poor vertically-challenged me. And there they were, about twenty to thirty policemen, surrounding this elderly pak cik. All of them were reaching into their pockets, grabbing his hand…
To give him money for drinks.
Bet I caught you there, eh? Okay anyway, a friend of mine decided to belanja the policemen. “The police are our friends, remember that!”, he said. So we bought like ten cups of sirap and orange juice, and the police officers shared them out. They were a bit reluctant to accept it at first, but judging by the way they devoured the drinks I suppose they were pretty parched. We then begun a conversation with them.
I asked one if he knew how many policemen were present. I hazarded a figure of 3000. He just shook his head, saying there were many more than that. A little bit more snooping revealed that they were all from different contingents – some from Johor, Selangor, Perak, and even from Penang. No wonder the other protests were so peaceful, all the police were in KL!
I even found out that a few of them, by their own confession, were “dari negara asing” ( from a foreign country). I was pretty puzzled, but they seemed tight-lipped about this and so I didn’t press further. Overall they were quite friendly;  joking around and jabbing each other, they reminded me of schoolkids teasing each other about “girlfriends”. Several protesters even shared cigarettes with them.

Mainstream media said businesses affected. Affected in a good way I suppose?
About twenty minutes later, prayers ended. Some policemen had stood in solemn silence the whole way. I talked to them a bit more, and one of them asked me why I had turned up. I told him about election fraud. We had a bit of a discussion, and he concluded: “You ada pandangan you, saya ada pandangan sendiri lah.” ( You have your opinions, and I have my own views)
There were lots of helicopters overhead, and even these funny men on parachutes with giant fans strapped to their back (para-gliders). Most were probably FRU air surveillance. Very nice. I joked that, for the next Bersih, we should hijack those parachute things and land in Dataran Merdeka, bypassing all the barbed wire. Heh.
In any case, I found the police mobilisation in shutting down roads to bevery impressive. It definitely revealed the extent to which the government had made preparations for Bersih.
Police “professionalism”
Many festivities followed. This mood continued at my side of Masjid Jamek (I had moved, as Masjid Negara got boring), until about 3pm or so. Then all hell started breaking loose.
Tear gas was everywhere. Without warning, police started shooting at us. It was like having cili padirubbed into your eyes, and a whole chunk of wasabi shoved down your throat and up your nose. For those of you who didn’t go gatal to experience tear gas, I would not recommend you attempt to reenact my description. I had a towel wet by water from a pak cik, a mask from an uncle, and salt from a little adik - the clothes of the true Malaysia.
Police fired tear gas indiscriminately. Their tactics were obviously to box us in, not to fan us out. I was getting tired from all the running and gas, and thought of just resting. Then a grandma who must have been in her 70s tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Let’s go!”  I sure didn’t feel tired after that.
We ran back and forth, back and forth. Some protestors started hurling insults at the police, who responded likewise. The police shouted, “ Come la! Come la! If you’re so brave, come and hit us la!”
Though certainly the police were provoked, this was certainly unacceptable as they are to be moral guardians and upholders of peace and law. Instead of managing the situation, they fostered aggession. At one point, I was wandering off and got manhandled by a policeman who shouted at me “Pergi! Pergi! You jangan kacau di sini!” and pushed me back into the fray.
If this were some first world country – and yes, I am saying Malaysia is a third world country – the police officer would probably have just barred my way and politely but firmly said “Sir, this is a restricted area, please leave for your own safety”.
What ever happened to our Malaysian police motto of “TEGAS, ADIL DAN BERHEMAH”?

I know, pretty wet, and mind you this was BEFORE the action started!
Excessive force
Things gradually died down from there, as being true Malaysians, my friends and I just had to go for a makan session. So we went to Restoran Ali, although it was less packed than the nasi briyani stall next to it. The food there was not that great, to say the least. The maggi goreng was rather bland, and they had run out of most other foods (in hindsight, I think he got it mixed up with Restoran Ali Maju).
Anyway, in case you’re wondering what on earth this has to do with the police, we were eating away when a group of people in yellow shirts came running over shouting “Baju! Baju! Baju!”. I didn’t quite understand what they were shouting about until this young Chinese guy came over to our table and explained that the police were arresting everybody in yellow. We quickly put on our jackets, a quick ‘I told you it’d come in handy!’ whipped out to my friends in the process. One guy who had heard the brief exchange took off his shirt, while some others either didn’t bother or didn’t hear.
Ten seconds later, a dozen police officers came running over, holding batons and shouting their heads off. They pulled the noticeable yellow shirt wearers out of the mamaks, and the guy who took off his shirt wasn’t spared either ( I mean who on earth walks around, eating dinner half-naked in public?). The police started beating them up, kicking them around. I was tempted to stand up and cry foul, but a tiny voice in my head whispered to me about the importance of continuing the Ong family line and the futility of it all. So I just kept eating.
The police shouted while hitting them, saying “You berani lawan polis, you tau tak dua orang polis sudah mati!” (You dare fight the police, do you know that two police officers have died!) The newspapers make no mention of this, so I assume these were baseless rumours.
Such a rumour could only have come from police themselves, or from the top. If it was from the former, they should have verified the claim through their clearly well-organised communication network. If it was from the top, then it is obviously to stir up emotion and make things worse. Either way, it revealed the excessive force and gangster-ish spirit of our police officers: you hurt one of us, we have the right to hurt you; taking the law into their own hands when they of all people should know that a criminal must be tried by a court.
These vigilantes were obviously not of the Spiderman type, but rather indiscriminately vented their anger on innocent protestors who did not resist arrest.
After they left, I heaved a sigh of relief. Afraid that they might come again and this time check under my jacket, I dumped my Bersih T-shirt into the nearest dumpster. What an ironic end.
I was trying to get back home then, but to no avail. Most of the roads and trains were closed. So I was walking along St. Johns when a group of people came running and shouting how the police were now arresting practically everyone still on the streets. My friends and I dived into St. Johns Cathedral (well, it was as good a time as any to start feeling religious!) and hid there for an hour or so.
I’d like to end my account of Bersih and the police with an analogy: If we are shot by a gun (or, if you prefer, a tear gas canister), do we blame the gun or the person wielding the gun? If we are angry about the police, do we blame the police or those who direct the police?
I leave that judgment up to you. But what I do know is that after the day’s events, I have changed. I remember the first moment the tear gas hit – I shed tears, but they were not just tears from the tear gas, but tears from my heart. Something inside me had died. But recalling the Yellow River that day (we could have given the real river some competition!), something new also grew, and is still growing inside me.
I call it hope. And I hope it grows inside you, too.

Originally published on Loyarburok.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Nyonya Roots

Pie Tee- Top hats

Type of food: Nyonya ( Peranakan Chinese)
Signature dish: Various dishes
Location: 3K Sports Complex Subang Jaya, Jalan SS13/1, Persiaran Kewajipan 47500 Subang Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia.
Opening hours: All days except Monday, 11:30am-3.00pm & 6.00pm-10.00pm 
Contact: 012-2857668
Other: No pork. Medium spicy.

Being an Ampang boy, travelling to Subang Jaya for me was quite the journey. A 40 Minute long drive, got a bit lost on the way, into this road and that highway- very hungry by the time I got there. And like an oasis appearing before the desert, the big sign shouting Nyonya Roots appeared before me in that godforsaken place Ampang people call Subang Jaya. It was well worth the journey.

Before I delve into the food though ( today it'll be more brief in descriptions, lots of dishes to cover), allow me to talk about Nyonya food in general. For those who don't know, Nyonya cuisine originates from a Malaysian culture called the Baba Nyonya. These Baba Nyonya are also called Peranakan Chinese, as they are the descendants of the first Chinese settlers that came to Malaysia ( then called Malaya) a long long time ago. These Chinese settlers had intermarriages with local Malays, and adopted many of their customs, and as you will soon see this resulted in one truly delectable mixing pot of a cuisine.

And Nyonya Roots is a fine example of this great heritage. With a nice comfy environment, reasonably priced and tasty dishes ( more on that in a while), and great company- you can pretty much set up home base in here and lay down your roots. ( pardon the simply awful pun!)
Nonya Roots

Anyway lest we stray too far from the roots of the issue ( and again!)... The first dish we had was pie tee- Nyonya Top Hats.( see title image) Top Hats are named as such as they look like those hats the "cultured" meme guys and "high class" people used to wear. It's certainly a dish worthy of that. The pie tee at Nyonya Roots is a bit more on the heavy flavoured side, with a nice crispy cup, and a smattering of juicy vegetables inside. The shallots and chilli sauce add up to make this an instant classic.

Next came the Lorbak, which is essentially minced wrapped in a taufu skin, deep fried and served with a light garlic chilli sauce. Lorbak is traditonally pork, but here at Nyonya Roots they serve chicken lor bak.

Assam Laksa
Then came a plethora of dishes. Assam Laksa, a fish soup noodle, a specialty of Penang was fantastic. The Assam Laksa here at Nyonya Roots is an excellent example of Penang Cuisine. The laksa here strikes a delicate balance between soupiness. There are some assam laksas that feel too fishy, and some too diluted- but this one is a perfect equilibrium- like a tightrope walker on the line of Penang Perfection. A mighty fine specimen!

Australian Lettuce
Australian Lettuce was done well in the usual stir fried style, but otherwise quite normal.

Inchi Kabin
Inchi Kabin- Nyonya style marinated fried chicken with a herb sauce
Crispy, crunchy, juicy, sauce blend of Lea and Perrins and some herbs and spices. Could have been more robust and tender in my opinion though.

Gulai Tumis

Gulai Tumis- A Nyonya favourite, it is their own version of "assam fish" or "curry".
Nice chunky bits of tenggiri. The fish is fresh, and a beautiful blend of herbs and spices give it a fantastic fragrance and wonderful depth of flavour.

Ju Hu Char
 Ju Hu Char
Yet another Penang specialty. Its basically some vegetables cooked in a broth like substance;giving a really juicy, nutrient filled bite. We had this with lettuce- using the lettuce as a wrap and stuffing in the Ju Hu Char with some chilli sauce... YUM. There is no better way to eat it!

Otak-Otak- steamed fish paste.
Very good. A good balance between fishiness, and spice. A nice soft pasty texture, wet with the spice-infused juice of the otak, slides into one's mouth.

Cincalok omelette
Cincalok Omelette- omelette fried with preserved small prawns
Appropriately salty, eat with rice, good filler, otherwise nothing to shout about, lacks the wok hei* of a true Master level omelette.

Beef rendang

Beef Rendang
This one was a great find. Fiery, robust and packed with a punch of spices- the burst of flavour in this dish is quite a memorable experience.

Paku- this is a local fern, quite unusual to find it here.
Very intriguing taste. First a crunchy standard veggie feel, then as the "gel" inside this fern gets to you, you get a sort of flaky aftertaste in the mouth.

So far so good... but quite standard fare for the veteran Nyonya foodie. But there is more... after that brief breakdown of dishes... Ladies and gentlemen.. I present to you the piece de resistance of the meal... in the form of...


Gandum a.k.a. wheat
Yes, you heard me right. Oh don't give me that face. This wheat is no ordinary wheat. Boiled over a grueling number of days, allowed to somewhat ferment to give it a potency, infused with the flavours of natural wheat and other ingredients- the result is a bowl of simple, sinful, dessert heaven. A big surprise for myself, but an immensely gratifying ( and fattening!) one.

Pulut hitam
And as if that wasn't enough, Nyonya Roots delivers a double whammy. The pulut hitam ( black glutinous rice) is so... GOOD. The sweetness and gooeyness of the pulut, blended with a spoon of fresh santan- the black and white dancing in swirls of heavenly dessertness ( is that even a word?)... forget about Soya Cincau, this is the real Black and White of food!

Speaking of cincau.... The cendol is definitely one of the better ones I've had. Simply a burst of santan and light refreshing flavours that make you want to have another.. and another... and another... and OK you get my point. My Egyptian friend was absolutely enamored with it, calling it the Nectar Of the Gods. What a drama king.

All in all, Nyonya Roots is true to its ... Nyonya roots? Haha... terrible puns aside... the food here is authentic, has good flavour profiles, and is reasonably priced. Sorry I can't quote direct prices, lost the receipt, but the meal mentioned above for 9 people cost about RM 180. A really reasonable deal if you ask me, compared to all the pricey posh Nyonya wannabes you get nowadays.

Nyonya Roots is also open for lunch, and from what I can see from their menu, they have set lunches. Also, they serve perut ikan, which is a rarity nowadays and my friend swears by it, if you're feeling adventurous. In any case... Nyonya Roots- definitely one to go for!

Nyonya Roots
Taste: 8.5/10- While the dishes range from decent enough to delicious, the dessert and other standouts really make this restaurant shine.
Value: 7/10- For this kind of food, this kind of environment, it's very reasonable.
Health: 8/10- Well, depends on the dishes, but overall, I would say its a healthy meal. 
Ambience: 7/10- Comfy seats, air conditioned area with nice large pictures of more yummy food.
Overall: 3.75 durians!

and a lil piece more!

* Wok hei- It is the "essence" of the fire being imparted to the food.