New York Times Book Review

January 13, 2019

New York Times Book Review: “The Truths We Hold”


What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

I was raised to do things, not to talk about myself or my feelings — or frankly, even to look back. It was an effort to talk about my feelings as things were happening. It was difficult. I talk about a lot that’s really personal, and that I had not talked about in public. That was a component of it that made me feel very vulnerable. But I felt it was important to talk about for a couple of reasons. One, I’m really clear in my mind that there are a lot of experiences I’ve had, emotional experiences and responses, that are in common with a lot of people. But more important, I wanted to give context to the work I’ve done. Almost everything I’ve done professionally has been motivated by some experience I’ve been exposed to.


The process of writing the book required me to really explore what I was feeling at those moments. For example, the whole chapter that we named “Underwater” — I had never talked about the fact that our mother bought our first house when I was a teenager. I’ll never forget, when my mother came back and said, “This is going to be our home.” The pictures and the excitement she had, and the excitement we then had. I connected that emotion to what it meant for all those homeowners who either had that hope when they engaged in what ended up being a fraudulent mortgage scheme or when they lost their homes. Knowing what that meant, when I’m sitting across the table from executives at the biggest banks in the country and feeling a sense of responsibility, that this wasn’t simply a financial transaction. When your mother comes home with the picture of the first home you’re ever going to have, it’s not like someone waving around a piece of paper with a stock portfolio. It’s a whole other thing.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

Hopefully the book takes the reader on a journey down memory lane about the last 12 months and how much happened. Everything is happening so rapidly right now that a lot of people tend to forget what just happened six months ago, when the thing that happened six months ago was earth-shattering. There’s a lot in the book that was happening in real time; so literally as I’m writing it, it’s happening. The book was due and then the Brett Kavanaugh hearings happened, and so how do I handle that? It was important to me to at least try to talk about that, knowing that people will be reading about it months after it happened.

“I hope you’ll walk away renewing your faith in the nobility and importance of public service, and convinced that we are a country that was founded on noble ideals. Imperfect though we may be, what makes us strong, and special, is that we’ve always aspired to reach those ideals.”–Kamala Harris.

Kamala Harris, center, at an event in California calling for the end of family separations at the border, in June 2018.
Creditvia Kamala Harris

Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

Certainly my mother. She was incredibly creative, as a scientist. But when I think about performers: Bob Marley. I first started listening to him when I was a child. My father had an incredible jazz collection but also a lot of Marley. I saw him in concert at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. I was hooked.

Jamaica’s history is actually not that well known in the context of the issues we deal with in the United States. But Jamaica grappled with vicious slavery for generations, and then colonists, with a very strong sense of identity in terms of what it meant to be particularly a black Jamaican. A lot of his music was about what it means to fight for the people. He was a very spiritual person also. I’m very spiritual. I don’t talk a lot about it, but the idea that there is a higher being and that we should be motivated by love of one another — that also requires us to fight.

Persuade someone to read “The Truths We Hold” in 50 words or less.

I hope you’ll walk away renewing your faith in the nobility and importance of public service, and convinced that we are a country that was founded on noble ideals. Imperfect though we may be, what makes us strong, and special, is that we’ve always aspired to reach those ideals.

Follow John Williams on Twitter: @johnwilliamsnyt.

The Truths We Hold
An American Journey
By Kamala Harris
Illustrated. 318 pages. Penguin Press. $30.


A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Eager to Fight for the People.









Book Review: The Sustainable State: The Future of Government, Economy and Society


January 12, 2018



By: Cyril Pereira

Can planet Earth survive Asia’s economic drive?


The Sustainable State is Hong Kong-based environmentalist and author Chandran Nair’s second book, following Consumptionomics, published in 2011. Both call for urgent recognition of the looming ecological disaster for humanity. The book launch in Hong Kong’s trendy Lan Kwai Fong district on Nov. 13 was billed as a conversation between Nair, and Zoher Abdool Karim, the recently retired TIME Asia editor. Nair’s manifesto dominated. A bemused Zoher was the smiling prop. The audience could have gained more from meaningful interlocution.

Chandran Nair has been the town crier on environmental disaster for 20 years. He faults industrialization, capitalism, free enterprise and liberal economics, for destroying the ecosystems of rivers, forests, air and water on so vast a scale, that life itself is the price paid by the poorest across the developing world. Malnutrition, starvation, and lack of access to potable water, plagues many societies at subsistence level.

Resource curse

The developed world prospered from early industrialization to capture vast resources via conquest and colonization of Asia, Africa and Latin America, he writes. The poorest societies hold the richest deposits of minerals, fossil fuels and land for plantations of rubber, palm oil, tea and coffee. Pesticides and insecticides from Monsanto and others destroy their soils and ruin their water systems. They have also been too frequently run by kleptocrats.

What he calls the “externalities” of capitalist trade – environmental degradation, pollution, social dislocation, disease and malnutrition, impact the poorest disproportionately. Therein lies the supreme irony. Nair wants these externalities of economic activity priced and charged directly to corporations. He also wants individual accountability for wasteful consumption computed for carbon footprints and taxed to discourage waste.

Responsible development and consumer habits need to be enforced, if we are to survive our collective un-wisdom. How the corporations and individuals would agree to these principles, and the respective methods to calculate the amounts to pay, are undefined. Nair does not expect the culprits to volunteer. By the legal trick of defining corporations as ‘persons,’ companies can argue rights protecting individual citizens, under national Constitutions.

Migration to cities in Europe progressed over an extended period, without too much social disruption. Rural migration to cities in the developing economies is too rapid, within a compressed time-frame. Slum populations struggle without sanitation, proper housing, access to fresh water, electricity, or schooling for children, in too many cities across the developing world. This hollowing-out of rural populations is wasteful.

Rethink development

A whole new raft of public policies needs to evolve for ecological balance. Development plans to retain rural manpower and incentivize agricultural food security, are absent. Urban dwellers have to pay higher prices for natural produce, instead of buying packaged food in supermarkets. Efficient public transport systems have to be built to prevent city traffic gridlock. Electric vehicles have to replace fossil fuel engines.

Nair’s nightmare is the adoption by developing countries of the Western model for economic growth. India and China will constitute 30 percent of the global 10 billion by 2050. Add Africa, Latin America, and the rest of developing Asia to that, and the consequences of feckless industrialization, along with wasteful urban consumption, are too obvious. Nair advocates a radical overhaul of the development mindset.

Prescriptions from the developed world peddled by the World Bank and the IMF, in Nair’s mind, exceed Planet Earth’s healing capacity. Natural resource depletion and poisoning of the earth, water and air, must be stopped now. Hurricanes and typhoons destroying habitats and flooding societies, are increasing in frequency and ferocity. The consequences are all too real for climate change deniers.

Related image

Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea

The weight of floating plastic in the oceans will soon exceed that of the global fish stock. This poison has entered our food chain, killing us slowly while choking sea life. Human overpopulation, food cultivation and de-forestation, wipes out wildlife at the rate of 30,000 species per year, according to Harvard biologist E. O Wilson. Now our collective irresponsibility will kill the oceans too.

Prioritize social equity

If replicating the Western growth model is madness, what are the alternatives? Nair moves into contentious territory on this. He calls for strong government and a revised development agenda. Rather than Hollywood-movie lifestyles, he suggests inclusive policies for all citizens to ensure clean water, electricity, sanitation, universal education and gainful employment as minimal benchmarks. Modest prosperity benefits all.

Social equity, well-being and protection of nature cannot be achieved without political legitimacy and effective rulership. Governance has been hijacked by Big Biz and sponsor politicians. Lobby groups target lawmakers. PR companies spin fakery for corporations and politicians. The mass media is co-opted through advertising and ownership. All at the expense of gullible citizens, led to believe they have some say every five years.

Strong state works

Nair contrasts the dysfunctions of India with the success of China. He skates on thin ice where individual rights and freedoms can be ignored, for the collective good. He says only a “strong” state has the mass mobilization capacity to marshal people, resources and investment, for sustainable development. To Nair, Hong Kong is a weak state unable to address basic public housing. He jests that a boss imposed by Beijing can fix that.

The European Union is a strong authority able to mandate socially responsible policy across its constituent members. Britain and the US are weak states floundering for effective governance, polarized by divisive populist politics. Nair is less interested in ideologies of the Left or Right, than in the State as effective authority for the common good. He wants the institutions of good governance strengthened at every level.

Oddly, Nair dismisses world governance as the solution. The United Nations, overly compromised by funding dependency and too timid to upset powerful voting blocs, is not his answer. Where then will the needed global course-correction come from? The issues Nair raises are urgent. Are we doomed to self-destruct by default anyway? If he has an answer, Nair has not articulated it in his books, or his public campaigns. Perhaps there might be a third book for that.

Walls, Partisanship and the Shutdown

January 9, 2019



By Concepción de León


Eighteen days into the partial government shutdown, President Trump is preparing to deliver a national address on immigration to make his case for a border wall again. These three books offer perspective on the current shutdown: the inner workings of the government offices affected, the political precedent for the present bipartisanship and the debate over a border wall.


By Michael Lewis
221 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. (2018)

Lewis has a reputation for livening otherwise dry material, and according to our reviewer, “you’ll be turning the pages” of this story about government bureaucracy. The fifth risk in his title (after an attack by North Korea or war with Iran, for instance) is project management, or rather the mismanagement he details within the Trump administration. Key government positions remain unfilled, and others are occupied by nonexperts in their respective offices. “The Fifth Risk” provides insight into how government offices function, particularly under the current administration.



The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism
By Steve Kornacki
497 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. (2018)


In this book, Kornacki argues that the political battles between President Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, including a 21-day long government shutdown over budget disagreements, set the stage for the political divisions of today. “The early Clinton era is presented as a parade of confrontations — over welfare, balanced budgets, health care — that, for a time, emboldened Gingrich’s showdown wing of Republicanism,” wrote our reviewer. The government shutdown of 1995-96 is the longest on record, and this book explains the political tensions that caused it.


A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick
David Frye
320 pp. Scribner. (2018)

The idea of building walls to protect and separate societies is not new, and in this accessible history, Frye chronicles walls from ancient Greece to Berlin to China. He explains that early walls were built as protection from neighboring tribes, and how the walls in China assured traders safe passage. In addition to exploring walls’ role in the development of civilization, Frye also reckons with the psychological impact they can have on the migrants and refugees they keep out.

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An Appraisal : Amos Oz, a Writer Who Loved the Dream of Israel and Charted Its Imperfect Reality

December 28, 2018

By Gal Beckerman


Israel, born out of a dream, a yearning, and then forced to face, for better or worse, what reality brings, found in Amos Oz a writer who combined both the country’s essential idealism and the ability to see the cracked nature of what had been wrought.

Mr. Oz, who died on Friday at the age of 79, was Israel’s most significant cultural ambassador for nearly 50 years, perennially mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But what he most proudly championed was modern Hebrew itself, the form of the language that Zionism revived. Mr. Oz never stopped professing an enduring love for its mongrel qualities. He thrilled at the chance to work in a tongue that had deep biblical references embedded in the root of nearly every word, but that also borrowed heavily from Yiddish, Russian, English and Arabic.

This new-old language was the perfect vehicle for the role Mr. Oz came to embody, a sort of sociologist and psychologist of the Israeli soul. “I bring up the evil spirits and record the traumas, the fantasies, the lunacies of Israeli Jews, natives and those from Central Europe,” Mr. Oz said in a 1978 interview with The Times. “I deal with their ambitions and the powderbox of self-denial and self-hatred.”

His biography suited him well for this job — he was in many ways the quintessential new Jew that Zionism had hoped to create. As a teenager, he left Jerusalem on his own, changed his last name from Klausner to Oz, which means courage in Hebrew, and moved to a kibbutz, one of the socialist farming communities where Israelis lived out their truest fantasies of cultivating themselves and the land to become robust and hearty.

Inspired by “Winesburg, Ohio,” Sherwood Anderson’s collection of realist stories about small-town life, Mr. Oz began writing in his twenties about the characters he saw around him in his kibbutz. Those stories eventually made up his first collection, “Where the Jackals Howl,” published in 1965. Anderson, he would later say, “showed me that the real world is everywhere, even in a small kibbutz. I discovered that all the secrets are the same — love, hatred, fear, loneliness — all the great and simple things of life and literature.”

As a writer, Mr. Oz kept returning to the rural, communal life of the kibbutz in a spare, modernist style that focused on the complexities of interpersonal relations, from his 1973 novel, “Elsewhere, Perhaps,” to his 2013 story collection, “Between Friends.”

But his breakthrough, both in Israel and internationally, was a far more psychological work, “My Michael,” a 1972 novel, his first book to be translated into English. It is told from the perspective of Hannah Gonen, a young woman misunderstood by, and alienated from, her husband. Mr. Oz follows her sexual obsessions, which seem to emerge from a need to be seen — creating a sort of “Madame Bovary” set against the backdrop of white Jerusalem stone. Hannah describes one moment early in her relationship with Michael, her then-boyfriend, when he unbuttoned his coat and drew her inside it to the warmth of his body: “He felt very real. So did I. I was not a figment of his thoughts, he was not a fear inside me.”

Mr. Oz’s masterpiece is his 2004 memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” It was unlike anything he had ever written, telling the story of his own coming of age in Jerusalem with precision and brutal honesty. He captured the mystical air of the city, how it was transformed with the birth of the state, his own bookish youth and his mother’s depression, which led to her suicide when Mr. Oz was 12. In the memoir, he remembers his mother telling him: “I think you will grow up to be a sort of prattling puppy dog like your father, and you’ll also be a man who is quiet and full and closed like a well in a village that has been abandoned by all its inhabitants. Like me.”

It’s an extraordinary book that will endure as one of the greatest works in modern Hebrew. In many ways, through this memoir, Mr. Oz perfected what he had tried to do again and again in his fiction — to capture the coming together of the personal and the political, with neither of the two elements suffering from the collision.

Mr. Oz’s politics defined him to the international audience he often dazzled with his metaphors to explain the conflict (“the only solution is turning the house into two smaller apartments”; “I would say that the patient, Israeli and Palestinian, is unhappily ready for surgery, while the doctors are cowards”). He became a critic of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza following the Six-Day War, and was a mainstay of the left who insistently argued, in essays and opinion pieces and speeches, that the only solution to the conflict with the Palestinians was to create two states for two peoples.

Given how he envisioned the future of his country, his voice became an increasingly marginalized one in Israel in recent years, even as his stature continued to grow around the world. The native-born, kibbutz-influenced, adamantly secular, left-leaning Israelis of European descent who dominated Israel throughout much of Mr. Oz’s life have had to make way for Sephardic and Russian Jews, and the Orthodox, putting Mr. Oz increasingly in the position of an aging lefty, a prophet with fewer people willing to listen to him in his own country.

In his last novel, “Judas,” shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, he explored, by revisiting the story of the New Testament traitor, what exactly it means to be out of step with your own society. “Anyone willing to change will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change and are scared to death of change and don’t understand it and loathe change,” he told me when I interviewed him in 2016. He felt himself a man possessed of moral clarity but denigrated for it in a country that could not make the difficult decisions he thought were necessary.

For all his frustrations with Israeli society and its direction, he was always an optimist, a man who had gone all in on the Zionist experiment and saw no reason to believe that perfection was ever on offer.

In his final essay collection, “Dear Zealots,” published at the end of last year, he wrote that he was, “afraid of the fanaticism and the violence, which are becoming increasingly prevalent in Israel, and I am also ashamed of them.” But this didn’t get in the way of his love of Israel. “I like being Israeli. I like being a citizen of a country where there are eight and a half million prime ministers, eight and a half million prophets, eight and a half million messiahs. Each of us has our own personal formula for redemption, or at least for a solution. Everyone shouts, and few listen. It’s never boring here.”

A version of this article appears in print on of the New York edition with the headline: Writer Who Grasped Depths of the Israeli Soul. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


The Makings of a Civil Service Mandarin

December 24, 2018

The Makings of a Civil Service Mandarin

by Terence Netto@ www.

BOOK REVIEW | Sometimes the arrival of a book dovetails nicely with an issue that’s sparking in the public arena. Such is Hong Kong Confidential: Life as a Subversive by David TK Wong, a Hong Kong-born author living out his sunset years in Kuala Lumpur.

Wong served 21 years in the administrative service in Hong Kong, from 1961 to 1981. Hong Kong Confidential is a chronicle of the 89-year-old’s experiences in the civil service of the last British colonial outpost in the East which reverted to mainland China’s suzerainty in 1997.

The book holds valuable lessons and insights into what makes a good civil servant and how, perhaps, to foster and sustain a top performing service.

Since the 14th general election in May this year, when Malaysian voters ejected the long-ruling BN government and replaced it with the new broomism of Pakatan Harapan, the public has been inundated with what seems like a Pandora’s box of financial horrors left behind by the previous regime.

The steady drip of disclosure of the extent of the financial turpitude left top civil servants exposed as having been supinely complicit in their political masters’ plunder of the public till.

This tale of woe has turned Harapan’s nonagenarian head honcho, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, into a Malaysian version of Hercules before the Augean stables.

Staggered by the extent of the moral failings of civil servants, Mahathir has kept an eye out for civil service reform. A dip into Hong Kong Confidential might usefully aid the process.

The book is replete with cautionary wisdom against the temptation of bureaucrats which the first editor of The Economist Walter Bagehot described with his customary panache as civil servants’ imagination that “the elaborate machinery of which they form a part, and from which they derive their dignity, (is) a grand and achieved result, not a working and changeable instrument.”

Wong’s wry humour and knowledge of the world and Chinese history insulated him against the temptation of bureaucratic hubris.

Before dwelling on the book’s relevance to the issue of how a civil servant ought to comport himself or herself when tugged by the imperatives of duty to the state and service to the government of the day, some details on the author ought to provide perspective.

A solitary life

Wong has been living in Kuala Lumpur since 2009. After two failed marriages and raising three children, he lives the solitary life of a writer in an eyrie in the plusher precincts of the Malaysian capital.

Presently, he is at work on the fourth volume of memoirs.

Wong is fairly sure the fourth instalment would not wrap up all he has to tell about his life which is a composite of experience as a journalist, civil servant, corporate manager and author, spent in such places as Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, California (where at Stanford University he gained a BA with distinction and an MA to boot), Holland (where he did his postgraduate study) and England (where corporate and authorial affairs took him).

The problem with completing an editorial inventory of a multifarious life is that illness-free time may not be sufficient for the author to finish the compilation.

Wong suffers from macular degeneration, a condition that makes it difficult for him to read over long stretches. He husbands his vision by writing in brief bursts – and reading in still shorter spells.

However, a supple prose style and a prodigious ability to recollect the past is reason for optimism that Wong will complete the chronicle before his lease is up. Clearly, staying in touch with the muse does redound to a prolonged stay against mortality.

‘I write therefore I live’

In literary history, there have been cases of writers willing themselves to complete an unfinished oeuvre in the face of encroaching illness, a retooling of René Descartes’ formulation as “I write therefore I live.”

Wong had already written two novels and five volumes of internationally acclaimed short stories before starting on his multi-volume memoirs.

Having read his short stories, one could surmise the writer in him has emerged from an oyster-bed of a beset early life as a journalist and, before that, an angst-ridden boyhood in which the divorce of his parents left him lonely in the claustrophobic confines of his grandfather’s extended family in Singapore.

Suitably, he has kept memoir-writing for the sunset of his life, the better to sum things up with the sapience of age.

Hong Kong Confidential is the third volume of his memoirs, the earlier two being Adrift: My Childhood in Singapore and Hong Kong Fiascos: A Struggle for Survival.

Adrift, as the title indicates, is an account of his boyhood and teenage years in Canton, Singapore and Perth, the last-named place was where he lived out the years of World War II as a penniless refugee.

Hong Kong Fiascos is a chronicle of the early part of his years as a civil servant, while Hong Kong Confidential is a narrative of the later period when he occupied posts in the upper echelons, roles that not infrequently placed him on the horns of daunting dilemmas.

The fact that Wong came from a politically conscious family accentuated the pain of those quandaries.

It was a family that felt keenly the humiliations inflicted on China by imperial powers in the 19th century and first half of the 20th, when a bedraggled people and its fractious leaders were forced to acquiesce to unequal treaties and extortionate concessions.

Not infrequently, in Hong Kong Confidential and Hong Kong Fiascos, Wong alludes to one or the other of the humiliations, as if the act of peeling back the scab and exposing the psychic wound below heightened his determination to avoid doing anything that would let down the hoi polloi in Hong Kong.

Certifiably a scion of the Chinese intelligentsia, Wong’s paternal grandfather went to medical school in Hong Kong, worked under the British there before being transferred for work in Singapore in 1900. His maternal grandfather was the first Anglican Bishop of Canton.

The elder medic was a strong supporter of Chinese revolutionary leader, Dr Sun Yat Sen, in the latter’s struggle to overthrow a tottering Ching dynasty.

Deep knowledge of Chinese history

Wong’s pedigree accounted for his sensitivity to the impact on the man-in-the-street of measures proposed for the alleviation of problems in the city-state.

These problems arose in fields ranging from aviation to power generation, housing to hawking, and in public transport. On occasion, Wong had to grapple with organising relief when natural disasters struck.

Not the least of the skills he acquired were the delicacy and diplomacy necessary to assuage the irredentist impulses of Hong Kong youth brought up in a Eurocentric education system that could not smother their feelings for the motherland, especially when these were stirred by territorial disputes between China and one or the other of former imperial powers.

From time to time, seeking to resolve thorny issues, Wong felt the tug of conflicting imperatives while enmeshed, as the blurb on his book felicitously has it, “on a three-horned dilemma: how to serve the people of Hong Kong who paid his salary; the wider Chinese nation to which he was culturally and emotionally inseparable; and the demands of the British crown, to which he had publicly sworn his allegiance.”

Wong brought to his role deep knowledge of Chinese history, particularly of civil servants famed for the way they steered a course between imperial behest and societal good, between a weak emperor and his venal court on the one hand and a populace in need of protection from peremptory edicts and punitive taxes.

Wong reminds readers that China’s meritocratic 2,500-year old system of selecting public servants on the basis of grades obtained in the periodic Imperial Examination was adopted by Europeans in the 19th century.

While Hong Kong Confidential is clearly part of the genre of postcolonial writing where the standpoint is that of the subject talking about experiences under the heel of empire, it does not exclude or scant perspectives from the British standpoint, which Wong’s elevated position in the service afforded him the opportunity to evaluate.

He gained much from observing the attitude of John Cowperthwaite, Hong Kong’s financial secretary from 1961 to 1971, who was sedulous in looking out for the interests of the people of Hong Kong.

Cowperthwaite’s pragmatic bent imbued him with a suspicion of the foggier aspects of economic nostrums espoused by experts from the grooves of academy.

For Wong, this heterodoxy was reinforced by an encounter with Alec Douglas-Home, the former British prime minister and later foreign secretary whom he had to accompany on the dignitary’s visit to Hong Kong in 1973.

Douglas-Home’s candour and honesty had a bracing effect on Wong. He had volunteered the opinion that as prime minister, he had to face two sets of problems. One set was political which, he observed, were insoluble and the other was economic which he held to be incomprehensible.

As a civil servant, Wong’s grasp of the multiple facets to an issue or situation steered him towards navigating the shoals in ways that sought the most sensible and practical resolution.

Service as a civil servant, in Wong’s telling, is a public trust. Clearly, from his performance in the Hong Kong colonial civil service, his deportment placed him in a direct line of descent from the Imperial Examination mandarinate.

Hong Kong Confidential makes the case for comparable rigour in the testing and admission of candidates to a country’s civil service, and for the inculcation of an ethical code that the sage Confucius made famous and de rigueur for the corps that stand between the executive political class and ordinary citizens.

His book is a compelling text for a Malaysian civil service whose derelictions have brought a once competent service to rack and ruin.

TERENCE NETTO has been a journalist for more than four decades. A sobering discovery has been that those who protest the loudest tend to replicate the faults they revile in others.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.