Review: Ola Bola

Posted on February 18, 2016 
Filed Under Life, Movies, World Cup | Leave a Comment

Ola Bola: A tour de force of nostalgia

Ola Bola: A tour de force of nostalgia

Ola Bola review (no spoilers in your comments please): Just watched Ola Bola, laughed and bawled my eyes out from the rubber-tapping scene onwards. Contrived, clichéd, predictable in parts — but what a tour de force of nostalgia.

It reminded me of football — playing it and watching it with the family on the black and white TV and cheering for Selangor and Malaysia, and Leeds United on Sundays. I remember the Tango ball of 1978 and how we diehard World Cup fans of Form 2 in St John’s, saved our allowances and all pitched-in to buy it. We then stayed back after school to rumble on the field, soiling our shirts and muddying our pristine white Bata shoes. I remember on one occasion breaking my collarbone, for which I received an angry reprimand from mum, after a visit to GH. I remember Christopher Lim Lean Chai was our own ‘taukeh’ playmaker/defender. He didn’t join the school team, despite his talent, because his parents refused to let him.

I remember Soh Chin Aun, Santokh Singh, M Arumugam, M Chandran, Shukor Salleh, Isa Bakar, Khalid Ali, James Wong and Mokhtar Dahari as clearly as the 1975 Hockey Team, or the All England or Thomas Cup badminton players of the 70s and 80s. They were our childhood idols and we as a nation gravitated to them as we did to Ali or Elvis or Bruce Lee. They were all our heroes once.

The movie captures the fact that commonfolk among us could rise above their dire circumstances and become extraordinary — for just one day.

Today we look to Nicol, Chong Wei, Pandelela and Azizulhasni to remind us that there are still those bearing the torch for us on the international stage, who make us proud, even as our political leaders shame us everyday with their false patriotism, corrupted commitment and warped sense of integrity.

I cried for all the humanity we lost as a nation in that era. And for our chidren who now live in times of unlimited access, who look to violent, wise-cracking superheroes as their mentors and idols and who believe the game of life can be played over and over again with no repercussions to those you hurt with your attitude, rage, extremism and intentional meanness.

Ola Bola, for all its flaws in the acting department, racial stereotyping and manipulative storytelling, still holds a mirror up to what we left behind. It holds a flickering candle up while others try to darken our history and negate our place in this country. Drenched in patriotic fervour with fellow Malaysians in that cold theatre, it warmed my heart. And I’m sure, if you were a child of the 70s, it will warm yours too.

Memories of Kuala Lumpur

Posted on February 2, 2016 
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Morris 1000

Things I remember of Kuala Lumpur when I was a kid:

1. I remember being driven around in my father’s Morris Minor 1000 (similar to the pic above). He used to take us to Petaling Street to have the “best beef ball mee in the world”, just further up from Rex theatre, and for haircuts at the Indian barber, near Peel Road. The barber had to put a plank across the the chair for me to sit and the floors were always strewn with clumps of cut hair and the waft of coconut oil, Brylcreem and incense come to mind. The slick “curry-puff” look was my choice of hairstyle of the day.

That look. Why did we all want it back then?

2. I remember the stench of the Pudu and Chow Kit wet markets and how I had to help carry my mum’s haggled purchases while sloshing around in inches of icky water that always filled the markets.

3. I remember in 1969, when a curfew was declared and we raced to the sundry shop down the road from Freeman Road to stock up. The sundry shop was so inundated, the owner forego the usual jottings in the 555 books, and let everyone cart away whatever they wanted and trusted them to declare what they took later.

555 book
Everyone had a 555 book to their name and you could pay at the end of the month.

4. I remember the floods of 1971, and not having to go to school for a whole week.

5. I remember in 1975, armed members of the Japanese Red Army stormed the AIA building, near my school, St John’s Institution, seizing over 50 hostages, and again, we got off school for a few days.

AIA 1975
Bell-bottomed, platform-shoed, hostage-taker. Even the criminals were fashionable back then – NST filepic

6. I remember going to the A & W, in the AIA building, which had those huge, porcelain-white, curved staircases, and having Root Beer floats and one ringgit Coney Dogs every Tuesday.

A&W Coneydogs
Tuesday was Coney Dog day

7. I remember sneaking into Cathay cinema in Bukit Bintang in the dark, after my friend paid the guard 50 sen to sit on the stairs in the aisles to watch a movie.

8. I remember going to some shady shop, near Central Market, to play video games like Pac Man, Space Invaders and my favourite, Asteroids, and hitting the hyperspace button to disappear, if only momentarily, to another dimension.

You could hit the Hyperspace button when the boulders came to close and escape to a fresh screen. We all need a hyperspace button in our lives.

9. I remember saving up to go to McDonald’s – the first ever one to open in Malaysia in Bukit Bintang – and having a quarter pounder with a huge slab of meat and having their milkshake which was so thick we giggled hysterically because we couldn’t suck it through the straw.

10. I remember taking the chair-lift and cable-car up Bukit Nanas — half-priced for students — for a ride up the hill and into the forest. Once, we got off at the midway point and tried to go exploring on our own and were chased by a screaming man with a parang for trespassing.

11. I remember my mum taking us to Globe Silk Store, in Batu Road, later, Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, every Christmas season to buy new clothes and how I had to live with her choices and going there every year for Don-branded school uniforms and the nearby Bata shop for shoes that were one size bigger so they would last longer.

12. I remember taking the Len Seng bus and later pink mini-buses at Foch Avenue, grocery shopping at Weld Supermarket and Fitzpatrick’s, taking buses at the smog-choked Klang Bus Station and Puduraya, getting platform tickets to await or send off someone at KTM, eating briyani at Bilal and roti canai in Simla, roving around Chow Kit, wandering around Jalan Masjid India, Central Market, Semua House, Kota Raya (great second-hand books store!), bowling at Ampang Bowl, riding the Matterhorn at Yaohan Mall, watching many, many movies at Odeon, Rex, Pavilion and Cathay theatres.

These memories come to me as reminders of how things were. I hope they’ve triggered some fond ones of your own life in Kuala Lumpur…

Reminiscing at 52

Posted on January 22, 2016 
Filed Under Life | Leave a Comment

The water heater tank in my bathroom began leaking a week ago.

Hidden in the crawlspace in the ceiling boards, is a 68-litre Elton tank made by South Engineers Sdn Bhd.

I wrote to the manufacturers through their 1990s’ standard enquiry form on their website.

To my surprise, a guy named Steven from the company showed up at my front door a few days later.

He said it was the ‘element’. He could change it for RM300.

He said the warranty was only for three months but assured me it would last longer, maybe, if we are lucky, two to four years.

“Tak tentu punya ni”. Rough translation: “Life is uncertain and has no guarantees.”

The alternative – to terminate the tank and remove it through the ceiling – which was equally cost-prohibitive.

Steven said the tank was still good and I should maintain it. I gave him the go-ahead to change the rusted, faulty part.

The hot shower is back to status quo and the leak has stopped, for now.

I tell you this story because I turned 52 today.

Some parts inside of me, my memory, my joints, my elements, show signs of age.

Through all appearances, this “tank” is still good and just needs “maintenance.”

But inside, I feel my life drip, drip, dripping away. Where did the time go?

It is 1970, I am six and half years old. I am in Capital Kindergarten in Gurney Road. I was good at math, and was singled out by the teacher and given a higher math book to do my own sums.

My best friend is Azizi. During recess, we were served those tiny biscuits with multi-coloured sugary tops, chocolate wafers and hot Milo in pink plastic cups. We played catching and Police and Thieves among the trees in the park in front. There was the class bully, a tall matsalleh celup kid and the class cry-baby, a chubby Chinese girl who was immortalized in the official class photo – framed in tears.

I lived in a government-built, colonial-styled house off Jalan U Thant (Freeman Road), Off Jalan Tun Razak (previously Pekeliling or Circular Road).

The drains around our neighborhoods were so pristine they could sustain tadpoles and guppies! Our regular cycling range would take us to Hock Choon Mini Market on Jalan Ampang, the Selangor Golf Club, where would sneak in and lie on the smooth greens, before being chased away by the caddies, and, one day, without my parents knowing, the Ampang Reservoir, where we would skip stones on the water and catch fish.

On school holidays, all my cousins would come over and stay and we made up our own ‘Olympics’. My mum would make her fruitcake, tarts and chocolate cake for Christmas and my dad’s relatives friends and their families would come over for endless piles of food and lots of imbibing.

Life had so many possibilities.

It is 1977, I am 13.

My father has retired from the Survey Department and we had to move from the bungalow in Jalan U Thant, to a tiny double-storey terrace in Taman Desa Minang, off Jalan Batu Caves, via Gombak. Electricity was intermittent and I remember having to study by candle-light and pumping water upstairs from the pipe outside. The public Len Seng bus No 169 from Greenwood Park took a minimum an hour to get to school. All the comforts of living near school, in a house with a wide, expansive garden, full of wondrous creatures to discover, spiders among the leaves, squirrels in the branches and trees to climb and lots of space to go cycling, were gone.

I am in Form 1 in St John’s Institution. Brother Joseph Yeoh was our principal, a strict, cane-bearing fearsome man. But being the son of a teacher of the school, he had the school’s best interests at heart and it showed. Everyone’s favourite period was P.E. We played football after school, and often messed up our pristine white shirts. I was getting into Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov, Louis L’Amour and The Hardy Boys. The TV shows of that era were Happy Days (Fonzie!), CHiPs (Ponch!), the Professionals (Bodie and Doyle!), Starsky and Hutch (Huggie Bear!) and many, many more.

I watched a lot of TV, read a lot of books and dreamed of a life of great adventures.

It is 1990 and at 26, I am a working writer. I picked up photography when my boss thrust a Canon EOS in my hands. We used WordStar, a word-processing programme, to type in our stories at work. My work as a feature writer with a travel magazine earned me a writing award that year.

I was living with my then girlfriend in Sec 17, Petaling Jaya and sharing the house with four other ladies. Friends would often show up without warning for some spontaneous reverie. We had lots of house parties, and ate, drank, watched TV and movies, and laughed — a lot — together. On weekends, we played “rounders” at the padang nearby with a cricket bat and tennis balls. We had a dog named Patches. The restaurant nearby, Eastin, was our regular hangout. The pubs we frequented were Climaxx and On Line at Damansara Kim. We lived for weekends and parties, and it seemed nothing could faze us.

Life was good.

Fast forward 2016. I am 52.

I am married, live in my own apartment in SS2 with my wife, son who is 19 and my daughter, 17. I have been running my own business for a decade and a half. I no longer read fiction, only non-fiction but still enjoy an occasional good movie. I don’t cycle, or play any game or sport regularly. The hair has greyed, permanent wrinkles have set in and the paunch is noticeable.

I still maintain friendships from school, college, journalism and work days. We meet up occasionally and reminisce. The conversations usually dwell on our health issues, a death among our peers, the sinking currency, moribund state of the economy, our failed-state politics, the rising costs of everything, the trials of fatherhood, the cranky characters we knew, or just turns into a yak about the funny incidents in “the good old days.”

How time flies. Every doubling of the years has multiplied my experiences, added the memories, subtracted some of the pain. But the total sum of the equation never provided perfect answers. I couldn’t check for the solutions at the back of the book to see whether they were correct. I had to make up the answers when the problems came along. I know I made a lot of mistakes. I learnt from some of them. I continue to make others.

I was not good at life’s math and have few lessons to impart at 52. Except to say, “Tak tentu punya ni”. Life is uncertain and has no guarantees.

I turn to Robert Fulghum’s “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” for answers.
Here’s a quote from the book that sums it up for me:

“These are the things I learned (in Kindergarten):
1. Share everything.
2. Play fair.
3. Don’t hit people.
4. Put things back where you found them.
6. Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
7. Say you’re SORRY when you HURT somebody.
8. Wash your hands before you eat.
9. Flush.
10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
11. Live a balanced life – learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
12. Take a nap every afternoon.
13. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
14. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Stryrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
15. Goldfish and hamster and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
16. And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.”

I can only think to add one more.

17. Smile for the class photo.

May you all have a great birthday this year. And remember to smile for the photos.

Ten cringeworthy social media terms I loathe using (guilty as charged)

Posted on December 11, 2014 
Filed Under Brainfood, Social Media | Leave a Comment

1. Gone viral: Everyone drops this term very loosely these days. Any video/post/tweet that receives even the tiniest more attention than usual has “gone viral”. Viral comes from the word virus that denotes an infection. Infections make you ill and connotes negativity. You don’t give someone Ebola or H1N1 intentionally or consciously. But a “viral video” is shared consciously — noted, sometimes without careful examination or thought — and it may or may not be negative. Relating it to an infection just makes it cringeworthy. I prefer “shareable”, but I know that’s never going to stick. Perhaps, the word “popular” will do.

2. Monetize eyeballs: When a print editor drops this bomb I know he’s gone over to the dark side. He thinks it’s hip, but it’s so 1990s. We used to be called readers. Now we’re just eye sockets with dollar signs in editors’ irises. You’re a “pageview” or a “unique” for which a commercial value must be extracted. Which brings us to…

3. Traffic: “Viewership” and “readership” seem to have a nice, stately, cruiseshippy connotation. Traffic just connotes jams, smog, anxiety and roadrage. It suggests we humans are just being herded into some corral like farm animals. “We need to bring in more traffic and monetize those eyeballs”, says Mr Marketeer. Urghh.

4.Engagement: Nice word. It’s a step up from sleeping together but just shy of taking the plunge. But in Mr Marketeer’s parlance, a unique visitor (he visits, he doesn’t read, view, or listen) is considered “engaged” when he @tags, shares, comments or likes your last post on a friend’s funeral. “To calculate the ER (engagement rate), take the total PTAT (people talking about this) and divide by the total number of likes.” Sounds like a mathematical formula to derive whether the couple will eventually get hitched or not.

5. New Media: It isn’t new anymore. The net has been with us since 1969. The web since 1990. It is hard to call something new anymore when it’s old.

6. Social media: Put the word “social” in front of anything and it will sell. I should know. I train people on social media marketing, social media journalism, social media crisis. In fact they’ve even dropped the word media: it’s social marketing, social selling, social business. Social business, you say? I say, oxymoron.

7. Hyperconnected: Seriously, this was the theme for a major political party’s forum “A Hyperconnected World: Challenges in Nation Building” in 2014. So someone thought the word hyper is still sexy. It isn’t. In this article, they even mention that we live in an “era where dissemination is at warp-speed”. “Aye, aye captain. Shall we add some hype to that too and sprinkle it with hyperlinks.” Anything prefixed with hyper eg: hypermarket, is just hyperbole, and sounds so dated. The word hyper needs to vanish from our vocabulary just like the triangular ship in the arcade game Asteroids when we hit the Hyperspace button.

8. Smartphone: The phone’s smart. And we aren’t? Some friends still feel obliged to send me XXX videos via WhatsApp making the phone a smutphone. We went from handphone to featurephone to smartphone. What’s next hyperphone? Noooo.

9. Bleeding-edge: Beyond the leading-edge? Really? Come on. That seemed cool to say like in 1999. Now it just sounds creepy and macabre.

10. Listicle: defined as “an article on the Internet presented in the form of a numbered or bullet-pointed list”. Sounds like a list to me. Why “listicle” when “list” will do? Was it merged with “popsicle” = sweet lists you can lick or like? Or perhaps it derives from testicle = lists with some gonads? Or maybe it’s a combo of list and tickle. Which makes this, if you came this far, one of them.

A wedding speech from 2011

Posted on April 11, 2014 
Filed Under Life | Comments Off on A wedding speech from 2011

Here’s a wedding speech to my niece and her hubby, which I thought was safe to release after three years:


I am here on behalf of the bride’s family, my niece Priscilla Sheila Tangaraja. I’ve been to many weddings but I have never seen a more beautiful and radiant bride then tonight. Isn’t she lovely people?

(Pause for applause)

Sheila, that dress, looks amazing on you. Of course, I am biased, and you know why.

(My wife, Anita, wore the same dress 18 years ago at our wedding.)

What a great year to get married. Just remember you married in 2011, the same year there was a grand royal wedding, the No 1 terrorist in the world is dead and Manchester United are league champions!

Velan you’re a really lucky guy. You married Sheila, who is beautiful, smart, warm, loving and caring. She deserves a good husband, so thank god you married her before she found one.

For those of you who don’t know, I am Sheila’s uncle, the youngest brother of bride’s mother. My name is Julian.

By the way, I will be addressing the bride as Sheila – I know some of you know her as Priscilla – I’ve always known her by her middle name Sheila.

On behalf of the bride and groom’s parents, I would like to thank you all for your presence on this auspicious occasion. Some of you here have been to the previous Hindu wedding ceremony and reception. Thank you for your attendance to this 2nd wedding reception and, I understand, there is a 3rd reception tomorrow, also at this venue. I was given a choice to attend all three receptions, but because I am part Ceylonese and part Chinese, I was in a dilemma. One half wanted to go for all three receptions but the other half could only afford one angpow.

Sheila and Velan, I am glad and feel so honoured to have been the witness along with my wife Anita for your church wedding today. My wife and I have been witnesses for a number of weddings over the years. In fact, we are thinking of making it a 2nd career. Sheila and Velan you will be glad to know, all those marriages for which we were witnesses are still intact. Not a single one of those couple are divorced or separated so that bodes well for your marriage.

As in any wedding speech I feel it is incumbent upon me to impart some marital advice to the couple. I know there are many people here who are far more qualified than me in this room because we’ve married only 18 years, barely enough time to get to know each other.

I have a few lessons to impart to the groom and I hope those you who are married can support me with some loud applause.

Firstly, Velan very early in your marriage it is important to set the ground rules and establish who is boss ~ then do everything Sheila says!

Remember when you are unhappy, she’s unhappy, and when she’s unhappy — you’re probably the cause.

When I got married someone told me the best maxim for all good marriages was “Never go to bed angry.” My wife and I never go to bed angry. Instead we stay up all night and argue, until someone gives in.

But jokes aside, that’s the crux of it. Someone “giving in.” Velan, in 18 years of marriage, and I’m sure every husband in this room will agree with me on this – you can never, ever win an argument against a woman. Better to give in and give in early.

There will be days when the wife gets upset about the most trivial of things — like putting the lid down after using the toilet, or squeezing the toothpaste from the bottom up, or leaving laundry on the floor or not taking the garbage out. On days like these, you may go the whole day without talking to each other, and when you retire to that king size bed — sleeping as far away from each other as you possibly can — there will a palpable tension in the bedroom.

It is at this time, you must remember Lesson No 1: Make love, not war.

Velan, I’ll let you in on the secret to successful marriage. But, shhh, don’t tell anyone. You must know the three words that melts every woman’s heart, and has been used my husbands the world over for time immemorial.

You need to turn to Sheila, in that darkness, and say these magical three words: “You’re right dear”.

Then follow-up with another set of three words “I am wrong”, “I am sorry”, “I love you”, and the most important set of three words of all to any woman’s ear. “Let’s go shopping.” Nothing cures a woman’s pain more than the promise of some retail therapy.

Of course try saying those set of three words with more sincerity. Otherwise you’ll sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger. As you know, Arnie used his three words too often: “I’ll be back, I’ll be back, I’ll be back.” Until his wife found out whose room he was coming back from.

By the way, Velan stay away from domestic help of any kind. Especially at 5-star hotels in New York. (One day you may be the IMF chief and a French presidential candidate, next day you are sitting in jail wondering what the hell you were thinking.)

Lesson 2: Dates are very, very important to your wife. Today, for instance, is a very important date. May 21. Write it down. You cannot miss birthdays and anniversaries.

The most effective way to remember your wife’s birthday is to forget it once. Thank god for Facebook that will never happen to me. A sidenote on Facebook, Velan, you need to update your relationship status on Facebook from “it’s complicated” to happily married. Preferably by tonight!

Lesson 3: Be useful around the house. Women love husbands who can fix things. If, like me, you are useless at fixing leaky taps and changing light bulbs, then act like you know what you are doing, and when she leaves the house call a good handyman, electrician or plumber. I hear Raj, Sheila’s dad is really good at fixing things. Velan, once you’re married the level of domesticity must improve. You must find where the kitchen is and what all those mysterious objects in it do. FYI, that wet place where all the dishes end up is called the sink. The more you use it, the more Sheila will love you.

(Cut: The more things you fix around the house, the more likely you’ll get your fix that night.)

Those three lessons should be enough to sustain you for now Velan. For your information, I myself cannot remember a single piece of advice given to me at my wedding.

Okay, now Sheila’s turn. Sheila I believe you know there is someone very dear to all of us who should have been here tonight. Unfortunately, god chose to take him early. I am sure wherever he is now, he is looking down on us all tonight and wishing you the very best. Your grandfather, my father, Melvin Matthews Kanagasabai, passed on last November. You know that he had a very special place in his heart for you Sheila. I know he would be so happy for you today as much as your grandmother, your mum, your dad and all your family are too tonight.

Dad, I know you are looking down and wondering why the hell I haven’t told them your “marriage is a three-ring circus” joke. Everyone here knows it, Dad, so we’ll give it a skip this time shall we?

So here are my three lessons for the bride.

Lesson 1: Have a nice meal together, at least once a week. This may sound very easy to do now, but as time goes by, as work and family and friends and maybe even children take up your time, you will find it increasingly difficult to just find the time to sit down, by yourselves, and have a meal together. It doesn’t matter whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner or supper – just find a quiet place – and just enjoy each other’s company away from all your friends, family and workmates. It is only at these times when you can talk, really talk, and be intimate with each other.

Lesson 2: Go for at least one adventurous holiday every year or so. I suggest tonight, after Velan has fallen asleep, and you have counted all your angpow, use his credit card, get on and buy some tickets girl.

By the way, don’t go on those crappy, organized tours. Create your own holiday. Go to Nepal and climb Everest, or go Africa on your own safari or take six weeks off like Anita and I did to circumnavigate North and South Island of New Zealand.

There is nothing like being in a foreign country only to get lost and find each other. I repeat, there is nothing like being in a foreign country only to get lost and find each other.

Lesson 3: Create special moments that only you and Velan can call your own. I know about those moments. I live for those moments. I remember when my son Jordan was about to be born, the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck, and it was touch and go for a few moments, and when the doctor finally got him out and uncurled that cord, it was mixture and relief and pure joy when we saw him change from a purplish blue hue to a healthy pink. That was a moment.

But you don’t need to have children yet to have those moments. I’ll give you another moment.

Anita and I, in the early part of our marriage took up scuba diving. For those of you who have never scuba-dived, there is something magical and comforting and incredibly peaceful being underwater among colorful coral and fish and scary moray eels. Down there, the only sounds you hear are that of your own breathing. (breathing sounds close to mike)

Once, Anita and I went for a holiday off Railay Beach in Krabi, Thailand. We wanted to dive so badly, but all the dive trips were fully booked except for a night dive. We had never done this before and it sounded scary, but we thought we’ll give it a try.

When you dive at night, they give you two torches tied around each of your wrists. So it’s quite clumsy, esp. if you have never used it before but in the darkness you are twice as focused as you can see things only by the beam of your torch.

It was a moonlit night, and we reached our divespot by longtail boat and then we dived into the inky darkness. It was really scary at first for Anita and me but we slowly adjusted.

Our divemaster took us down about 20-25 feet and after diving a bit, he turns to us and does this – (hand gesture slicing neck)

That was the sign to cut our torches. We didn’t know what to think, but he was the divemaster, we just followed as instructed.

It was pitch black at first, but then our eyes adjusted and we noticed the silhouette of our divemaster doing something strange. He was swinging his arms and legs furiously. The agitation caused bio-luminiscent plankton to light up around us. It was as if we were surrounded by stars. He then grabbed our arms and partnered us off to do underwater waltzes. It was magical, an unforgettable and very special moment for Anita and me.

Sheila and Velan, find those moments. Or at least throw yourself into situations where such moments are likely to happen. Your marriage will have ups and downs but it’s the ups you will live for, treasure and sustain you. There will be a time, when you have to switch off your torches, leave it to faith and find that you are surrounded by stars.

Lastly, I hope you will forgive for all the teasing and ribbing tonight. I wish Sheila and Velan a long and very fruitful marriage.

So please raise your glasses and say with me “To love, to laughter and to happy ever after.”

The bully in us all

Posted on February 19, 2014 
Filed Under Crisis communications, Reputation management, Social Media | Leave a Comment

On June 5, 2005, a young woman’s dog pooped onboard the Metropolitan Subway, Line 2, near Ahyun Station, Seoul, South Korea.

She was embarrassed and was offered a tissue by a fellow passenger. She cleaned her dog with it but was chastised by passengers later for refusing to do the same for the mess on the floor  — before hastily disembarking.

By then, a passenger named Miss Kim had taken her photo with a mobilephone and soon the posting went viral online.

The meme “dog poop girl”, “dog s**t girl” or 개똥녀 (gae-ttong-nyue) took a life of its own. An online all-points bulletin alert and the firestorm of criticism resulted in identification of her, her relatives, her place of work and apparently her eventually quitting.

dog poo girl
As documented by Jonathan Zittrain in ‘The Future of the Internet’:The summed outrage of many unrelated people viewing a disembodied video may be disproportionate to whatever social norm or law is violated within that video. Lives can be ruined after momentary wrongs, even if merely misdemeanors.”

The case brings to mind several other related incidents well-documented by popular sites such as Know Your Meme and Wikipedia including: Bus Uncle (Hong Kong), Christopher Lao (Philippines), Anton Casey (Singapore) and Sharifah Zohra Jabeen (Listen, listen, listen) (Malaysia).

Each case differs in the degree of the wrong-doing but the backlash of harassment, hate vitriol, ridiculing parodies, even death threats online were common to all.

In a hyper-cammed, super-amped Internet world, an online mob can quickly become judge, jury and executioner. What you say or do in a public space, online or otherwise, can and will be used against you.

Bus Uncle’s infamy may have even resulted in him being beaten up by masked men, Christopher Lao suffered a mental breakdown, Anton Casey lost his job and fled the country, and Sharifah Zohra says she feared for the safety of her family and children.

By all accounts, none of the actions of the five individuals that became online media targets are defensible.

Dog poop girl’s refusal to clean up, Bus Uncle’s profanity-laced tirade, Christopher Lao’s “whiny, obnoxious” interview, Anton Casey’s condescending tweets and Sharifah Zohra’s disparaging inanities all made us uncomfortable when measured against mature, civil society norms.

Anton Caseys offensive tweets

Above: Anton Casey's offensive tweets

We were angry, mad even. But, sadly, their bad behaviours incensed some of us enough to get on moral high-horses and bombard them with derision and death threats – reflecting our own bad behaviours online. Yes they were all wrong and deserved a reprimand but who died and made some of us infallible gods online?   (I shudder to think of the early part of my 50 years of living if a particular moment had been filmed, documented and posted online. How would I have reacted if an intensely-scrutinized single mistake became the defining moment of my entire character, career or life? How would you? )

As a young journalist, I was always worried of writing a story that would result in sources or the subjects of the story losing their rice bowls — or even their lives. Was the story more important than the resulting fallout? Would the uncertified engineers I pointed out lose their jobs? Would the undocumented immigrants I reported on be forced to return to the destitution of their home country? Would the passerby “hero” who came to the rescue of the family in a murder case be later victimized by the assailants? I was never able to reconcile that part of my job by the cliched refrain “I’m just doing my job.”

As media professionals and a community, our actions or inaction can result in a profound impact on society at large. The cliché is worth repeating: freedom of expression does come with great responsibility. If we are to mature as a society, then we have an obligation to speak up and point out what’s right, and what’s wrong — online as well as offline.  We already live in both worlds, whether we like it or not.

In my old age, as a media trainer, I try to provoke my participants into embracing all things Internet. But also, I encourage them to think of the long term implications of everything they do online that is archived in that cloud of posterity. Every post, every comment, every tweet, every photo and every video defines who you are to some future Internet archivist.

The Internet is a messy space and we have a responsibility, nay, an obligation, to bring some level of maturity of discourse in it. Just like the rest of the world. Allowing only the trolls and anonymously nasty to fill this precious resource with hate would be sad.

Everyone of us relishes our privacy to some extent,  but that shouldn’t be the one thing that holds you back from sharing all the value you can add to the conversation. In fact, you should be in it because you care enough to effect the changes you want to see online.

If this knowledge freezes you, makes you stick your head in the sand and stay offline from any social network, then you have chosen to disengage with the very society you are a part of. And that’s a true loss for everyone.

(The caveat: I know for some it can be hard. A woman who was the victim of an abusive marriage told me she could never go online for fear her ex would trace her every move.  “Be yourself” is easy to say — but being yourself in a hyper-documented, super-shareable world calls for real gonads for some. )

So, did the five “victims” survive their 15 minutes of online infamy? Bus Uncle apparently asked to be paid for media interviews and tried to organize a “Bus Uncle Rave” which never happened. No word on Dog Poop Girl, Anton Casey or the Listen, Listen, Listen lady, who are quietly fading away, perhaps to their own relief, into the obscurity they came from.

Christopher Lao, in a 2012 report, finally returned to university to complete his Bar exam, become a lawyer and an advocate against cyberbullying.

In the interview he says:

“The level of bullying that I experienced can affect anyone’s confidence. I was always crying every day and I feared that I could not move on and could not fulfill my duties as a parent, even.”

Lao says his perspective changed, however, when he started to “detach” himself from material comforts and stopped giving excessive value to his reputation. “Reputation is very limiting because it boxes us. We are scared of failure because (of this). I was no longer afraid of failure…I was done with reputation, I was done with that,” said Lao, who went under medication due to the cyber-bullying he endured.

“I asked myself, ‘Why am I not gonna take this Bar? Only because people might again derive joy from my potential failure?’ I’m done with that. They’ve said whatever they want. I just said, ‘It’s time to do things that will make my loved ones proud, myself proud, the Lord proud. I figured that I was able to wake up every day because I felt that I was worth something.”


  1. Internet trolls really are horrible people
  2. A tale of defeat, resolve and all-out war against bullying

How to play the spin-the-haze game

Posted on June 25, 2013 
Filed Under Haze | Leave a Comment

How corrupt Southeast Asian governments, their cronies and the media play the Spin-The-Haze Game annually:

  1. Roll dice, then blame Indonesian player for cheating.
  2. Indonesian player blames Malaysian and Singaporean players instead and asks them to be “Sent To Jail.”
  3. Malaysian and Singaporean players roll dice, move two steps forward, deny Indonesian claim, instead point fingers at errant nearby farmers and smallholders encroaching on their Rented Property.
  4. Players land on Chance, take card, which reads: “Banker calls to form ASEAN task force to formulate joint-action plans that never work.” (May include trip to Russia for ‘lawatan sambil belajar’ ie. junket)
  5. Players land on Community Chest, take card, which reads: “Close airports, tourism spots and schools; ban open burning.”
  6. After one round, all players then decry loss of tourism dollars; students losing valuable schooling time; and empathise with poor slash-and-burn farmers.
  7. Players land on Community Chest again, take card, which reads: “Distribute masks to motorists, students, street workers, tourists etc in big show just for media coverage.”
  8. Media players join game and covers how haze is affecting children, the elderly, asthmatics, zoo animals, pets, birds, construction workers, window cleaners, etc.
  9. Citizens join game and debate why use of N95 masks is more effective than surgical masks ad infinitum; debate accuracy of API/PSI pollutant readings ad nauseum.
  10. Media players list ten ways to fight haze — always conclude with ‘drink more water’ advice; point to dangers of cancer risk 15 years from now, even though 15 years have passed.
  11. Opposition players join game and calls for haze to be urgently debated in parliament and fines imposed on offending players. Incumbents downplay issues and ignore opposition players.
  12. Two months later, haze lifts, all is forgotten, incumbent players pass Go, collect $200, get more loans from Banker and the next year, they roll the dice again.

Changing tides, faded stars

Posted on June 2, 2012 
Filed Under Journalism, Life | Leave a Comment

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man ~Heraclitus

Sometimes you wake up, lie in bed and wonder ‘Where did the time go?’ The journey is long and the destination still isn’t clear.

Two nights ago, I met my first editor again and was happy to buy him a drink. He looked younger and was still chugging away at being true to his profession.

He met me as a fresh-faced, somewhat naive 20-year-old struggling to make a minor impact as a reporter. Twenty-eight years had passed by. He was surprised to hear I was now training journalists. It was as if time stood still.

In his eyes I hadn’t changed at all. Like peering thru a telescope and seeing stars the way they looked, unformed and malleable, eons ago. But so much had changed. The river had taken us in divergent streams and we were no longer the same people.

Or were we? That we could still connect and trade old stories suggests some parts of us were frozen in that time-space continuum. Me, the young unripened chiku, he the tall, weathered tree still reaching for an uncorrupted sky.

That we met at pub called The Reef was, perhaps, coincidental. The shores of our lives had been buffeted by the unceasing waves and eroded our memories somewhat but we were still men, older and wiser, perhaps, but still foolishly hoping for change to come and that yellow sunrise to turn the tides against us.

The reef was our last stand. They have to bury us here and return us to the earth that we call home. Or scatter us on the waters awash with a million hopes of a brighter tomorrow.

We lift our glasses and the music and smoke takes us away to another place and for awhile, just a few precious moments, we are on the editorial floor again and the clacking of fingers on the trusty Atex terminals as we churn out the day’s news of grief and gore and blood and sadness.

We were the weeders of growing malfeasance in an overrun garden of temptations. Woe to those who labelled us as lallang. We never were! We were the guardians of better days to come.

A toast, then, to the dreamers still in us. The fellow journeymen who know the course has been arduous and there is always another bend in the river. Let’s make a go of it. Or die trying.

Cheers, Julian.

Awaken journalists, you have nothing to lose but your bylines

Posted on March 28, 2012 
Filed Under Internet, Journalism, Life | 1 Comment

(This was a rant post that sort of morphed into a speech that was never given…yet)

People tend to blame technology for all their problems.

Social networks are causing the rise of _____________ (fill blank space) eg. divorces, rapes, home invasions, suicides, crime, bullying, etc.

Of course, there may be validity to some of these cases. No one wants to belittle an incident that happens to a child, a spouse, a mother, a friend or a partner. When it’s personal, it’s tough not to find the nearest technological scapegoat. What’s worrying is how the “experts” extrapolate cause-and-effect from a small sample, raising fears and feeding the ignorance of technology to the masses.

“Productivity is down, there is lack of focus and no one seems to have an original thought – everything is copy and pasted from the net.” Or so they say.

In truth, there is nothing to suggest that human nature has changed pre- and post-Internet.

The perennial truth about humanity is this: In life there will always be those among us who are deliriously happy and depressingly suicidal and every emotion in between. We already live in both the “real” and “virtual” worlds equally intensely. The virtual can be as real as you want it to be and the real can be as imaginary as you want it to be.

But if you talk to anyone my age, 48, with two school-going children, they have a tendency to get nostalgic about their childhood.

It usually starts with the phrase: “When I was young, we never had these computers lah, Internet lah, sitting in front of the game console all day long lah. We used to go outside, enjoy the sunshine, climb trees, catch fish in the longkang, etc.

Now if you go back into the past, say the 1960s-70s, you can hear people of that time reminiscing about their childhoods. And they say this: “Ayahhh I wish by kids wouldn’t sit in front of the TV all day long. You know when I was young, we used to go outside, enjoy the sunshine, climb trees, catch fish in the rivers…”

Now go further back to this person’s parent’s time in the 1930s-40s-50s, when there was an explosion of recorded music and you hear the same thing. “I wish my kids wouldn’t listen to that music all day long. I wish they would go outside in the sunshine and climb trees and go swimming and catch fish……”

And then you step back into the 1920s and when radio came about…you know the drill.

There is no doubt we are going through one of the biggest explosions in the use of media. People can create, share, spread and distribute information like never before. The ubiquity of media everywhere is driven by falling prices in all things digital.

Nicholas Negroponte equates the net to a library but with a difference. If you go to a regular library you take a book off the shelf and if there is no other copy of that book, no one in the community, that reservoir of people being serviced by that library, can read it. But if you take a digital book of the Internet, anyone can go in there and take another and another and another.

Of course, if millions are accessing a particular site — web servers have limitations too — it can crash. But every time you go to a webpage you are actually downloading a copy onto your machine. Very few sites are live streamed, in the strict sense of the word, although that is changing rapidly even as we speak. So the Internet is actually a giant copying machine.

In the 15th century we had another giant copying machine of that time – it was called the Gutenberg Printing Press. Before that machine came to be, scribes used to sit down and copy everything word for word and so the church and the institutions of that day controlled the information.

When the printing press came about we hear only about the Gutenberg Bible as an early publication was reproduced in large quantities, but in truth there was an explosion of works — many of these secular, naughty, perverse and “mindless”. So much so, that intellectuals of the day were worried that the printing press was making people obsessed with trivia, gossip and the mundane.

But that media explosion eventually did society wonders. It gave us newspapers, it gave us specialized magazines, it gave us fiction and non-fiction, it gave us peer-reviewed scientific journals, it gave us academic books like never before. The entire spectrum of what we knew as “information” and “media” widened and deepened beyond belief.

Fast forward to 2012 and here we are — right at the heart of something wondrous. This is the dopamine injection of truly beautiful awakenings. It’s the eye of the digital storm. It’s raining down on us in bit buckets.

People keep referring to it as information overload. But that debate, as Clay Shirky rightly points out, is over. We cannot afford to take shelter and hide and put umbrellas up and wait for this storm to pass. We must learn how to filter the data, embrace it and become a filter ourselves so that others can make sense of the joys of this liquid, ubiquitous manna.

Journalists are at the heart of this. We have to embrace this. We have to learn these tools and gadgets and “Internet stuff”. We have to become aggregators and filters ourselves. We have to become like curators in a museum. But not in the old, grey-walled definition of a museum but a living, moving and constantly evolving museum and we have to choose what we want to exhibit today, and how the stuff we put out is shared and spread.

Journalism stands at the crossroads. This is the most transitive period in our lives as the “new media” re-define who we are.

Marketing, a dirty word for journalists, and more so personal brandingis a huge chunk of this. Google. Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn are all a part of this movement.

We have to play where everyone is playing. We have to get our hands dirty and learn this, so that others who will come after will benefit from our knowledge and not supercede us, just because “they are young lah, so they know all this technical stuff”.

As a former tech journalist, I am a believer in that McLuhan quote: “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” We reported on these devices and now these devices are changing how we capture, edit, produce and tell our stories.

But we mustn’t forget what our roles are.

We are here to ask the questions on behalf of those who have no voice and cannot ask them because their tongues are tied.

We are here to tell the stories of those who cannot tell the stories on their own because they have been silenced.

We are here to uncover the truth and confront the corrupt with that truth so that they can be more accountable and transparent.

We are here to make those responsible measure up to a higher ethical and moral standard.

But we are also here to educate; to entertain; and to engage our communities in things that matter to them.

That’s journalism to me. That’s the journalism I was taught. That’s the journalism we need to continue to practise.

The old way was to produce the stuff and send it out to them as an act of faith.

The new way is to produce the stuff in collaboration with the people, not the faceless readers as we call them or the audience in a darkened theatre but real people who are just like us, yet different in so many ways.

We must set up “conversation platforms” by which they can come and interact with us or among themselves.

But we don’t need to re-invent the wheel. The 800-pound gorillas are already in the room. FLYTBG: Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, Blogs, Google. We must go where our readers are and engage with them. We must fish where the fish are.

Journalists are great whiners. We really need to stop whining and get on with understanding, using and leveraging on the tools and apps out there and in here. There really isn’t anymore time to bitch about “those bloody bloggers.” The time now is to dive in and get to know our readers like never before. There really isn’t anymore time to moan the loss of a simpler world.

Just a few years ago, a number of longtime journalists found themselves out of a job. There were tears, real tears shed. People cried because it was the only life they ever knew. Their lives could be summed up in this way: “Hey, I was so arrogant and hard-headed that I thought that I needn’t learn new things. My skills were enough. Now, I am jobless, with bills to pay! Get me a blog, please, and please pay me to keep it updated.”

Wake up fellow journalists. Learn all you can about social media and pick up social media skills. You can learn from your colleagues, peers, children, nephew and nieces. You need to know that these are new journalism skill sets — it is very different and you need to OWN these skills if you are to survive, not only here in your current organisation, but anywhere out there.

I can tell you this, because I have been there and done that. If you do not have a brand behind you, then you better bloody well create that brand around your byline. Who you are and what you do matters. Don’t be insecure about that. It’s much easier to do it now, than there ever has been. Ever.

No trainer is going to turn you into a multimedia journalist overnight. You have take time to learn these skills yourselves. Our role is to provide you the big picture, the guidance, yes. We may handhold you for two or three days through some of rough spots if you need it, and give you a few technical pointers, then set you off in the right direction.

But the commitment to become very good at any of these tools must come from inside. If your current role doesn’t give time and opportunity to learn these skills on the job then you must find time — one hour or two hours a day or one day every weekend to learn it yourself.

There are people who are coming from behind you who will speed past you before you know it. They may not have the journalism mind, the news sense, the writing and grammar skills but that doesn’t matter — this is the new vocabulary and they can shine in ways that will get them ahead. Your competition isn’t even local. Awhile ago, a new Malaysian network player hired 10 content people from — get this –the US. All former journalists!

Think about that. Is their content going to be better than anything you can produce here? No. It’s just they haven’t discovered you yet. You are the gem everyone is looking for. Gleam like the jewel that you are. It is your time to shine.

The Indians and their amazing ideas

Posted on March 22, 2012 
Filed Under India, Invention, Storytelling | Leave a Comment

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