Hawker Food: Penang’s Legacy


August 22, 2014

Hawker Food: Penang’s Legacy

by Dato’ (Dr.) Anwar Fazal (08-21-14)@www.nst.com.my

Anwar FazalTHE controversy over migrant workers being allowed to cook Penang hawker food is, like the banning of soup kitchens in Kuala Lumpur saga, a sad story bereft of fundamentals of reality, history, humanity and foresight.

FIRST, Penang’s hawker food has largely been the beautifully enjoyable creative outcome and legacy of generations of waves of migrant workers, creating a grass roots cuisine: for example, nasi kandar, mee jawa, Hainan chicken rice, roti bengali and roti canai.

The informal business of street food vendors or hawkers, as they are more popularly called, was often denigrated and despised by the authorities during our colonial history but later became legitimised and subsequently celebrated as the wondrous smells, colours and flavours of the “Pearl of the Orient”.

Hawker Food Penang

Now, the street food business is among Penang’s leading tangible and intangible assets. Penang has often been described as the “street food capital of the world”. I have often challenged anyone to show me a place with better four-point “Street Food Index” measures — taste, diversity, cleanliness and economy.

If they show me any place better on these four counts, I will treat them to Penang laksa or pasembur for the rest of their life. No one has yet been able to come forward with anything better!

SECOND, we urgently need a new paradigm in the way we manage and treat migrant workers. We can no longer deal with them as the new “coolies” subject to all the inhumanities of servitude of the slavery kind. We need to reach out to them as brothers and sisters and as human beings deserving our care and compassion.

I have a dear friend, a former distinguished lawyer, whose family treated their maid as one of them. They taught her to drive a car, and sent her for part-time courses in language and computer classes. The maid’s time in Penang became her liberation for a new great life back home. She was ever grateful and will never forget the family, the place and their kindness and help.

There is now a United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families.

Penang should take leadership and work with groups like Jaringan Utara Migrasi dan Pelarian (JUMP), the northern network for migration and refugees in Malaysia, and put that convention into practice, at least in spirit, until the Federal Government itself decides to accede to the convention. That move forward will then be like the innovative Speakers Corner at the Esplanade and become another one of Penang’s special public places and practices.

THIRD, if the “crime” is that a migrant worker assisting or cooking at a stall is not skilled enough, we should recognise humbly that so are some locals. The most unconscionable solution is to ban them from engaging in cooking. Instead, they should be taught the skills, the art and the science of these culinary delights.

Schools of popular local cuisine like the amazing Nazlina Space Station in Campbell Street, George Town, the centre of the Slow Food Movement in Penang, stands out as a shining example of creative positive responses. The Station organises daily tours, which involve marketing at the local wet market, getting to know herbs and spices, preparing food and then enjoy eating their “handiwork”.

Hundreds of foreigners have gone through the culinary delights of Penang’s food and experience in this way. We need more of such places and regular classes. A project to set up in Penang — a unique culinary campus in cooperation with the Slow Food Movement’s University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy — is very possible and should be explored to champion “good, clean and fair” foods.

FOURTH, foreigners will create and enlarge the demand for our unforgettable culinary delights. Penang laksa and other great dishes will start appearing in cities and villages all over the Asia-Pacific region as they have already done in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and other places where Malaysian “outbounders” have settled.

I recently had the opportunity to officiate the opening of an International Exhibition on Street Foods in Penang, Malacca and Bandung, Indonesia, by one of the leading architecture schools in the region based at the National University of Singapore.

The street food culture is an amazing story, locally and globally, and needs research and development. What we must champion is an International Street Foods Institute and what better place to locate it than in Penang. This would be an innovation and an investment for global leadership in the culinary area from bottoms up and put Penang on the world map as a leader in research and development of both a tangible and intangible culture.

FIFTH, punishing poor struggling migrant workers and depriving them of development opportunities is the way of inhumanity and pettiness. Penang is a place recognised globally by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation as a world heritage site for its universal values, its multiculturalisation and as a great learning centre.The wonderful culinary experience must also be the essence of this great joy, diversity and beauty.

The negative measure of banning immigrants from learning, assisting and cooking local hawker food will only demean Penang’s reputation as a happy, caring, people-centred place. The idea of prohibiting migrant workers from learning and working as cooks at hawker places should, therefore, be abandoned for positive and creative solutions.

penang-street-food1

If not, this place of great migrant history will join the ranks of certain hypocritical governments of countries that colonised vast areas outside Europe, appropriated history and now, sadly and vindictively, have growing movements that demonise the so-called new immigrants. And tragically, many of these “new” immigrants come from conflict zones too often created or linked to the geopolitic interests of these very nations.

The greatness of any civilised people is in its care of “the other”. Penang has been special for that, including its iconic “Street of Harmony”, which the former President of India, Dr Abdul Kalam, described as a magnificent school for the whole world for learning humanity and living together.

Let us continue to be a beacon of compassion, caring and creativity and not degenerate into anti-migrant stances that are sadly no better than bigotry and racism.

Dato (Dr.) Anwar Fazal also initiated the compendium ’Understanding International Migration — a Sourcebook’ while serving as the head of the United Nations programme for good urban governance in Asia and the Pacific.

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Your Weekend Entertainment –Jazz From Malaysia


June 14, 2014

Your Weekend Entertainment –Jazz From Malaysia

din and kamsiah2Dr. Kamsiah and Din Merican

For listening pleasure, Dr. Kamsiah and I present Jazz from Malaysia featuring the RTM Combo led by Ahmad Shariff, Radio Malaysia Orchestra under the direction of Alfonso Soliano and Gus Steyn, and the crooners of the 60s era.

My dearly departed cousin, Dato’ Ahmad Daud and  Zain Azman, my friend at the malaysia-endless-possibilitiesRubber Research Institute (known in the 1960s as the Nat King Cole of Malaysia) are  also featured here. Malaysia is a country full of talent and rich in culture and music (including Jazz).In fact, it is a land of Possibilities, if only we know how to utilise our  diverse cultural heritage, and talent pool.

That said, let us relax since this week, as reflected in the postings on this blog, was an equally emotionally draining one. Keep well and enjoy your Sunday.–Dr. Kamsiah and Din Merican

RTM Combo–Ahmad Shariff

Aku Dia & Lagu

Di Taman Seputeh

Musalmah

Mimpi

Alfonso Soliano

Ayam den Lapeh

Mimpi Ku Semalam

Ku Kan Kembali

Gus Steyn

Ahmad Daud

Zain Azman

How about a little Poem for this Occasion–May 23, 2014


May 23, 2014

How about a little Poem for the Occasion–May 23, 2014

tennysonporI could have posted Milton’s Paradise Lost, an epic poem which I read at Sixth Form at the Penang Free School (1958). It was heavy stuff, way back then and too  long for my purpose here. Yet Milton’s is a must read for those who want to learn English seriously. Also try Chaucer’s Canterburry Tales and Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.

But  for this occasion, let me revisit Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses, which I posted on my blog some years  ago. I think it is an appropriate piece of poetry for my special day. I dedicate it to the memory of my late mother, Hajjah Fatimah Merican, Christie Netto and the forgotten men and women of their generation.–Din Merican

Ulysses

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea:

I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honor’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life.  Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains:  But every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bounds of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachos,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle-
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.

Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone.  He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port, the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas.  My mariners,
Souls that have tol’d and wrought, and thought with me-
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads – you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all:  but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes:  the slow moon climbs:  the deep
Moans round with many voices.  Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be that we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved heaven and earth; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

     Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Fellow Malaysians, May The Force be with You Always

Birthday Greetings from my friend Terence Netto


May 22, 2014

Din and KamsiahI am deeply  moved by an e-mail message I received a few moments ago from a soulmate in literature, Terence Netto and thank him  warmly for his very kind wishes to mark my 75th Birthday, which falls tomorrow, May 23.

It is indeed a great honour to share the same date as his late father, Christie Netto, whose centenary it will be tomorrow. Two Germinians, a quarter of century apart, Christie and I share a common passion which is the love of reading and literature.

Terence had an excellent role model in his father, and I had an equally wonderful one in my late mother, Hajjah Fatimah Merican. Both he and I were indeed fortunate to have  such unselfish mentors.

Our parents –my mother and his father– did not leave behind great wealth.  But in their separate ways, they exposed us to great literature and taught us the value of reading.

Yes, I love to read history and literary works of antiquity through which I began to appreciate the nobility of a Hamlet and the idealism of a Brutus and despise  the toxic qualities of Iago, the greed of a Shylock and the machinations and temptations of a Lady Macbeth.

So my friend, Terence, allow me to post a poem by William Wordsworth in honour of the long departed Christie Netto. He did his duty for our country. And so did my beloved mother.You and I will now go on, never to quit because we still have plenty to do before we sleep.

My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold (Rainbow)

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Let also us celebrate this auspicious day with this tune by Sammy Davies Jr.–Din Merican

Birthday Greetings from my friend, Terence Netto

Dear Din,

My fond greetings to you on attaining the milestone of three score and 15 years.Ever since I came to know you seven years ago and got to know that your birthday falls on May 23, I have felt a special kinship for you. It is because the date is also the birthday of my father whose centenary is today which makes this day extra special to me.

It is apposite that I should greet you on this day when I feel a deep sense of gratitude to my dad. For without his urging me to read from a young age I doubt I could have forged a friendship with you that I am certain would last for the duration of our remaining years, you being a ripe 75 and I, a mere 14 years to the rear.

You and I have had many occasions when we shared our delight in the stuff we had read in our days of youth and maturity. That reading may not have covered the compendium of what Matthew Arnold meant by the “best that has been said and thought” in this world, but any range that has within its compass a dollop of Shakespeare, a draught of Tolstoy and a distillate of Gibbon would suffice for  the delights that we have shared whenever we met.

 From my father, Christie Netto, I acquired the sheer joy of felicitous statement which led me to devour literary and political stuff, especially when these have been singingly rendered. Combined with the fortune of having a good English teacher in the late Bernard Khoo Teng Swee (whom your website commemorated last week) and the fortuitous friendship of (also departed) fellow journalist, Shaik Osman Majid (who like you had Penang Free School as his alma mater), I learned to read, remember and store my mind with the stuff that will always be a joy forever.

 So on this day when you mark your 75th birthday, I take a special delight in greeting you and in remembering my father to whom I owe such a lot. If in the “brief candle” of our life the knowledge of how this world works and of how human beings are constituted could be available to us, it is almost certain such powers would only be acquired through comprehension of the great works of literary and philosophic merit.

It has been no small pleasure that through the mentoring of Christie, a humble accounts clerk who knew Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Marx, Netto junior acquired some of the wherewithal that must have made him, I figure, a companion of some value to Din Merican to whom the Latin greeting – Ad multos annos – is most appropriate on this auspicious day.

 

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: Floating on a Malayan Breeze


January 14, 2014

BOOK REVIEW:Floating on a Malayan Breeze

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh,Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore

Hong Kong and Singapore: Hong Kong University Press and NUS Press, 2012.  Pp. viii, 282; map, photographs, notes, index.

Reviewed by Elvin Ong

Ever since Singapore’s split from Malaysia in 1965, the government of each country has been bent on directing its trajectory away from that of the other.  This tendency perhaps peaked during the governments of the two countries’ most renowned authoritarian leaders, Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad. Singapore was always going to be what Malaysia was not. Malaysia was always going to go its own way, irrespective of what Singapore did. So dominant are the two opposing caricatures that have emerged – one clean, one dirty; one efficient, one corrupt; one carefree, one perpetually stressed – that we very often forget that Singapore and Malaysia have a shared past in British Malaya and that they have always been dependent on each other, at least in the economic realm.

Floating Breeze

In an attempt to correct this view, Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, the Singaporean-born son of a Malaysian-born father, declares early in that the book is his attempt to provide what has been a missing “bottom-up perspective in national discourse” by writing about the two countries “as seen from the ground” (p. vi). On the one hand, he relates encounters with random personalities from Singapore, with people met during his month-long biking expedition around Peninsular Malaysia in 2004, and with various interesting individuals whom he interviewed on the ground during the campaign for the watershed 2008 Malaysian elections. On the other, he shares pieces of personal insight about the socio-political development of the two countries in the past decade. The resulting book is part travelogue and part socio-political commentary, a somewhat frustrating combination that is enjoyable, but that also raises more questions than it answers.

Sudhir’s vivid descriptions of his interviews and of the challenges encountered during his travels in Malaysia often set the stage for his larger points. Throughout the book, we are drawn into his conversations with various “big” and “small” personalities across the political spectrum in Malaysia. Some “big” personalities include Steven Gan, co-founder of the Web-site Malaysiakini and Nurul Izzah, the incumbent member of parliament for Lembah Pantai – better known, perhaps, as the daughter of Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the political opposition to Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional government.

The interviews with such “big” individuals are useful to the extent that they provide a sliver of insight into these individuals’ backgrounds and their motivations for driving socio-political change in Malaysia today. But as Sudhir demonstrates, “small” characters often have important, sometimes much more important, stories to tell.

Betty owns a nondescript souvenir shop just across the border from Malaysia in Betong, Thailand. She was a former guerrilla soldier with the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), which fought against the British, Japanese and newly-independent Malayan and Malaysian governments for a Communist Malaya. She is uniquely positioned to help Sudhir excavate a broader point about the CPM’s forgotten role in Malaya’s independence movement. Mr Liew is a Chinese businessman and eager supporter of the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) in Kota Bharu, Kelantan. He punctures the stereotype that PAS is an extremist Malay political party that does not know how to “do” development. In a sense, these colourful “small” characters like Betty and Mr Liew are the gatekeepers for forgotten or interesting stories. They give life to staid political-science theories and dull academic writing.

Yet, for all the fascinating interviews and insights that Sudhir’s encounters with such people provide, it is difficult to make sense of them in a coherent manner, except in the context of Sudhir’s personal interpretation and commentary. Although he tries his best to make many good points about many salient topics, this is also where the book hits some serious snags.

First, and even if we set aside the dire lack of a common thread running through his book (a lack due to its being written, in part, on the basis of random encounters during a bicycle expedition), Sudhir dithers between perpetuating stereotypes about Singapore and Malaysia and countering those stereotypes.

As the book’s title suggests, Sudhir constantly “floats” between repeating official dominant ideologies and noting the various instances in which they require qualification, so much so that one cannot quite conclude what to make of the issue. For example, in the process of stressing the divergence between race-conscious Malaysia and race-neutral, meritocratic Singapore, Sudhir brings up so many qualifications to the idea of meritocracy in Singapore that one wonders if they negate the entire hegemony of meritocracy at all! He notes that senior management from India working in Singapore often hire their own kind, that he himself suffered from racial stereotyping when growing up, that the Singaporean Malay-Chinese taxi driver Ishak vows to retire in Thailand because he can no longer tolerate the racial stereotyping in Singapore, and that Malay Singaporeans still cannot serve in sensitive sectors in the Singapore Armed Forces. It appears that Singapore – both the government and the people – is as race-conscious as Malaysia after all

Second, Sudhir often ruminates on a wide variety of important social issues in the two countries – media control and censorship, the nascent development of civil society, the influx of immigrants, the growing income gap, bumiputera affirmative-action policies, religiosity, family planning and urban stress – without actually coming to any definitive conclusion about what indeed should be the way forward. This deficiency is most clearly exposed in two chapters discussing the gradual decline of the United Malays National Organisation in Malaysia and the People’s Action Party in Singapore. After much discussion of race-based politics in the former party and the iron cage of group-think in the latter, Sudhir concludes with a meek “It will be interesting to see how long they last” (p. 92).  While some students or casual readers may find this conclusion satisfying, serious academics will find such a concluding line entirely frustrating. Where is the comparative theory on authoritarian regimes?

Third and finally, while as a fellow Singaporean I strongly concur and empathize with Sudhir’s description of recent trends in Singapore society, I cannot help having the nagging feeling that both of us are trapped with the same stereotypical worldview and narrative of what Singapore is, with both of us having good university educations and mixing in similar circles. (Full, though late, disclosure: I met very briefly with Sudhir at the videotaping of a debate about Lee Hsien Loong and was an intern in the Civil Service College under Donald Low, one of his few Singaporean interviewees.)

What would be the worldview of the young Singaporean McDonald’s deliveryman? Or the elderly cashier at NTUC FairPrice supermarket? Or the uncle sipping his potent brew of Guiness or Heineken and ice cubes at the local coffee shop? Or the multitude of people who queue up in the wee hours of the morning for a chance to buy a “Hello Kitty” toy from, again, McDonald’s?

There is a reason that Jack Neo, arguably Singapore’s most successful movie director as measured in box office receipts, consistently makes movies that break record after record at the cinemas, even though many educated intellectuals find his movies generally crass and distasteful. Perhaps Jack Neo understands the Singaporean psyche better than we do? Are we already victims of the growing inequality that we constantly deride?

Floating on a Malayan Breeze serves as a good introductory text for readers unfamiliar with Singapore and Malaysia, or for students and the general public who have for far too long been fed state-endorsed narratives of the history and social development of their respective countries. The book’s vivid and somewhat witty writing brings many of its interviews to life, and, before long, the reader will find an unconscious smile creeping across his or her own face as he or she ponders what is unfolding between Sudhir and the interviewee. But this book is no serious academic research. Random sampling does not necessarily result in a representative sample. Anecdotal evidence is not robust evidence. Scholars who already know both countries well may be able to glean some nuggets of interesting insights, but they are unlikely to advance their knowledge of the two countries in any serious way.

Elvin Ong is an incoming doctoral student in political science at Emory University with an interest in the varied performances of politics in Southeast Asia.–http://newmandala.net/

Western Education is not bereft of Ethical and Moral Values


December 11, 2013

Western Education is NOT bereft of Ethical and Moral Values

By Terence Netto@http://www.malaysiakini.com

COMMENT: In a much-awaited speech on the reform of higher education 220px-Anwar_Ibrahim-editedin Muslim societies, Anwar Ibrahim disagreed with the popular notion among Muslims that Western education is devoid of an ethical and moral dimension.

Anwar said this notion, widely disseminated in Islamic intellectual circles, has been a hindrance to the development of Muslims, particularly in the scientific and technical spheres.

“… [T]here is a general perception among the discourse of many Muslim scholars that Western education and philosophy is secular and bereft of an ethical and moral dimension. To my mind, this is unfounded,” declared Anwar in a keynote address to a symposium organised by the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Washington DC on Monday.

Malaysia’s parliamentary opposition leader, highly regarded abroad than at home for his intellection, observed that the misperception of Western education as ethically vacant was also shared by intellectuals in the West.

He said seminal Western thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith were concerned to base their philosophies on a moral core, but that Smith, in particular, “the icon of ‘capitalism’, has been seriously misread”. Anwar argued that the “moral sentiments” that were an integral part of Smith’s economic propositions were “not at loggerheads with Islamic percepts”.

He likened Smith’s concern for morality in economics with Islamic thinker Ismail Faruqi’s conception of a good economy as the expression of Islam’s spirituality.

FaruqiTo Faruqi, “the economy of the ummah and its good health are the essence of Islam, just as Islam’s spirituality is inexistent without just economic action.”

Anwar held that the Islamic percept ‘inna al din al mu’amalah’ (religion is indeed Man’s treatment of his fellows) made it imperative for Man to “order human life so as to make it actualise the pattern intended for it by its Creator”.

He said Muslim societies would not be productive if it they do not “emerge from the exercise of finding fault” with Western systems. Quoting from a host of Islamic philosophers ranging from the 11th century’s Al Ghazali to the 20th century’s Naguib Al-Attas, Anwar made the point that education in Muslim societies must “proceed on the basis of rationality”.

He defined rationalism the way Faruqi conceived it as not “the priority of reason over revelation but the rejection of any ultimate contradiction between them”.

Anwar acknowledged that the rationalist strain in the interpretive process (ijtihad) left its exponents vulnerable to the charge of espousing secular thinking.

The pursuit of Knowledge

From the time of Muhammad Abduh, the 19th century Egyptian thinkerMuhammad Abduh famed for pushing for the modernisation of Islamic education, Anwar said that Islamic modernists had to combat the suspicion of attempting to “introduce secularism through the back door of ijtihad” but that this allegation was misconceived.

“On the contrary, what Abduh did was to subject the moral and epistemological premises of secular modernity to scrutiny and he came to the conclusion that Islam’s modernity was both non-Western and non-secular,” said Anwar.

In his oration, Anwar did not explain how Islam’s modernity could be both non-Western and non-secular. Neither did he expatiate on “Islamisation of knowledge” which he said would immunise Muslims from the excesses of the liberalist mindset that would lead to the placing of reason above revelation.

He seemed surer, though, of his thesis that current approaches to the Islamisation of knowledge in Muslim societies tended to place a preponderance of focus on the social sciences, whereas he said it was in the technological and scientific disciplines that Muslims were lagging behind non-Muslim communities and where the quest for knowledge, therefore, needed greater emphasis.

Anwar reminded that the ‘Bayt-a-Hikmahof’ (Golden Age of Islam) gave birth to not only philosophers but also to eminent scientists. He attributed this to the holistic pursuit of knowledge that he credited to the Quranic injunction on the use of the intellectual faculty.

He said the “Quran enjoins the use of reason as provided by the senses, and the truth grounded on revelation”. He concurred with Faruqi that Islam was ‘the religion of world-affirmation par excellence’.”