Ramadan, Einstein, and a Memory

New York

June 23, 2016

Ramadan, Einstein, and a Memory

by Dr. Azly Rahman

Father Time-The Great Leveler and Equalizer, always fair to we The Living

Yes indeed the Muslim kids in Malaysia today have it easy during the fasting month; their conversations with Time is as speedy as the speed of the ‘Internet of Things’ (the IoT). Time is compressed in this global village characterised by the rapidisation of things. Relativity is the key word here as we speak of how the mind, body, spirit, and soul respond to the demands of the worldview of Ramadan.

Technology to ease the suffering of hunger and thirst has today progressed in Einsteinian proportions, as how the advancements have been made since Einstein scribbled his grand theory of everything, of Relativity and Black Holes, Worm Holes, and quasars and pulsars and said, in his broken German-English accent to the world:

“Here it is, my proof of the existence of black holes. One day (yes, about a hundred year later in 2015) and after the release of James Cameron’s movie Interstellar, you’ll have the proper instruments and a couple of great scientists mainly from Columbia University in the NYC to build that machine to see black holes. One day you’ll see my calculations come alive.”

How fast technology has changed and our conversations with modernity and hyper-modernity in this post-post-post Age of Techno-humanism have advanced, too. For Ramadan, today’s Muslim kids can sit in an air-conditioned room the whole day and play video games and check their Internet phones every six minutes and go take a two-hour nap, and next go back to the AC room and next, it’s break fast – or Bukak Posa Time!

Time is compressed. Technology has a life of its own, ‘a technologically-deterministic being’ it has become, as Marx predicted and alluded to in his magnum opus with Friedrich Engels, ‘Das Kapital’.

I remember my childhood days of Ramadan when technology in my house in my gangsta Malay village in Johor Baru was still in its Neanderthal stage. One step backward and it was the Age of No Tech, Low Tech, and one more step behind was the Age of the Perak Man… the age of the early man who got lost trying to decide which way to go: Bota Kanan or Bota Kiri. He went bald thinking hard.

Perak Man

The Original Perak Man in pieces–Harmless

The Perak Man 2 and The Pekan Man still around to entertain and irritate us

He died waiting at the junction, at the crossroad of human evolution. He gave up. Although he was said to be a determined man who lived for hundreds of years (we need to check his birth certificate though), he gave up right there near Changkat Jering, now a dangerous highway. He was a brave man – he walked from Africa alone and didn’t know where he was going and ended up in Perak. Hence the name Perak Man.

But that is another story of why he walked out of Africa. I saw him once in the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur, a few years back. He was lying in an enclosed glass bed, tired from the long walk to freedom. He was all bones. He was bald.

Twelve hours felt like twelve months

I remember my childhood Ramadan of the sixties. It was pure torture. It was a Buddhist experience of samsara. Of a life of suffering. Of denouncing water, food, and other childhood Earthly pleasures. Although the suffering was about twelve hours, it felt like twelve months of dying, of the experience of the Perak man’s marathon solo-walking. Herein lies Einstein’s Relativity.

I had no iPhone nor iPad to play with, no PlayStation Seventeen to play games that have me shoot people. no blasting high-fi air-conditioning machine to ease the cells in my body and to freeze them pleasurably so that they would not wilt like raisins in the sun, as how Langston Hughes said about the self in his poem ‘Dreams’.

And I didn’t have 700 channels of junk on TV to help me escape the reality of suffering and to bring me to this Hollywood or Bollywood nirvana.

 None of these I had. Nor was I as a kid fasting the full swing of 30-day delight as strong as our man, the Perak man. Every day of the journey, I felt my body slowly getting weak and turning into that Malay pancake called ‘lempeng’; a sorry state of beingness with the feel that by the Time the bilal hit the ‘kentong’ (sounding ‘tong… tong… tong…) or that bamboo ‘break fast announcement instrument from the kampong masjid yonder’ and next, by the time I heard the imam clearing his throat at the microphone like Matt Monroe or Louis Armstrong, ready to azan or ‘bang’ (not banging people’s head, mind you… but ‘bang’ means calling for the maghrib prayer – signifying the end of suffering,) and lastly… by the time she announced, “Lekas, boleh berbuka kita… orang dah bang tu...” (Let us now break our fast as the imam has called for prayer – by the Time all these happened, I thought I had already died, ready to be reincarnated the next day for another round of the hunger game.

So – it seems like – in Ramadan death cometh daily. The madman Mansur Al-Hallaj said that, too, running around the street yelling, “Ana al Haq… Ana al Haq… I am the Truth… I am the Truth”.And then I would be alive again. Time. Time. Time. Relative is Time.

As the Quranic verses go: “Time. Verily, Man is in a state of Loss and Utter Despair. Except those who do Good and Keeps the faith and remind others to do Good.” In other words: To promote peace and to keep peace and to build peace, after making peace with the self.

So – with no AC, how did I ease the suffering? Here is what I did daily. The tempayan was my friend, I’d go to the bathroom and climb into the huge earthen-ware pot, turn on the tap, water would flow through the mouldy green hose, the tempayan/pot would fill up to the brim, and I’d be sitting in there as cool as the Perak Man in the Pahang River. Cooling myself with water coming to the level of my neck.

Liiikkk kau buat apa lama lama dalam bilik air tu, nak… Dah dekat sejam.

My mother would call out after an hour of wondering if I had drowned in the gigantic pot and died and perhaps transported to Africa and walked with the Perak man and get confused like him at the junction of Bota Kanan or Bota Kiri.

Lik mandi mak… sekejap lagi habis. Nak sabun badan ni. (I am bathing, mother. Now is the soap-ing part…)”

Ultimate goal is the finishing line

I was happy for that Einsteinian hour in that day on the month of extreme test of spiritual endurance. For about twelve hours daily, I was both the Perak man and Siddharta Gautama or the ‘Buddha Matrieya’, wandering like Moses in an exodus for 40 years in the desert of my hyper-consciousness, in this Hunger Game called fasting – a game whose ultimate goal is the finishing line… to still be alive to hear the ‘tong… tong… tong…” sound of the masjid’s kentong. Mind-body-spirit game.

I suppose Einstein would agree. Life is not about finding happiness. It is about evading pain. Not about suffering. But to find victory in the battle within. The jihad within – and only within. And that jihad is Love and nothing else. In memory of the greatest Love – my mother.

Today, sixteen hours of my journey of the Perak man, in the blazing saddle heat of the New York Indian Summer Ramadan… I have felt nothing. I only eat one simple meal a day. A dead simple minimalist meal.

Thank you to the memory of the Perak man. And of course the tempayan, the huge pot in the bathroom. And the sound of the tong tong tong… I could still hear – from more than a thousand miles away!

Malaysia:Witch Doctors in Modern Society

April 25, 2016

Malaysia:Witch Doctors in Modern Society

by Azly Rahman


Malaysia’s Bomohs: Witch Doctors in Modern Society

Last week, students at several schools in the town of Pengkalan Chepa in the eastern Malaysian state of Kelantan suddenly began screaming and gyrating, seeing a particular Malay ghost called Pontianak,  also known as Kuntilanak in Indonesia — evil, half-dead, foul-smelling, dripping blood with a nail stuck in her neck, a shrieking female poltergeist.

The case of girls in school dorms or dorm-like habitats in multinational microchip assembly plants such as those in Penang is not new. In the 1970s and 1980s they were regular occurrences, with factories filled with screaming women, and western multinationals kept close contact with bomohs, or Malay shamans, to dispel the spirits.

Nor are they are unique to Malaysia although Malaysia seems a particular center for the phenomenon. They have been observed since the Middle Ages, where nuns in a French convent simultaneously began mewing like cats, according Robert E. Bartholomew and Erich Good, writing in the Skeptical Inquirer in May of 2000. Episodes, the two wrote, typically occur in small, tightly knit groups such as schools, factories, convents and orphanages.

Growing up, I recall elite boarding schools such as those Mara Junior Science Colleges experiencing mass hysteria and group-dynamics demon possession as well In a Kuantan town in the mid-1970s. One ghost was said to look like an angry belly-rubbing monk from Thailand, a “bomoh-Siam-looking ghost” that sat on the rooftop of the girls’ dorms. One girl said she saw him and the dormitory exploded into humming and screaming and ghost-dancing and praying, and the bomoh was called in. He brought a live chicken as a tool for healing.

The school, based on the concept of the Bronx School for the Gifted in Science, was in chaos for a good two weeks. More than a dozen girls were said to be possessed by evil spirits. The school’s authorities, through the daily efforts of the ustazs and ustazahs, Islamic teachers, orchestrated daily readings of verses from the Quran. Few improved immediately.

There was more than just en-masse demon possession. It was a case of young girls in a coeducational residential school under a tremendous amount of stress or adolescent pain.  In the town of Seremban during that time, it was the “green ghost” the students saw – a half-dead woman perhaps from the Seremban Lake Garden and all green, dripping with red blood.

In the town of Pengkalan Chepa in Kelantan over these past few days, all of them saw the same ghost – the daughter of the Demon Ponti, the Pontianak. But why? Why did they, in all the three cases above see the same evil half-human half-spirit being? I think because when these girls were wide awake and congregating, huddling or perhaps cuddling in those dorms while outside it was ‘a dark and stormy night, they love to tell tales of ghosts.

They would love scaring themselves to sleep, and add more vital statistics of these bad spirits not only to their own consciousness but also to the sociology of knowledge of it. Hence everybody agreed to the ghost’s the shape and characterization.

When stress sets in or when adolescent sexual tensions engulf the self and when one girl starts screaming, it triggers a chain reaction. And when one screams bloody murder of that blood-dripping pontianak or the Seremban green ghost or that Siamese ghost, everybody gets possessed and sees the same ghost. That is the logic.

This is a psychological explanation of demon possession. Every soul possessed would tell the same story. Despite living in a rapidly industrializing society, Malays love to turn to the bomoh or the shaman or the pawang or the dukun or the tok batin, the Malay-Muslim ghostbuster when it comes to such cases. This merry band of bomohs make a comfortable living speaking the language of demon banishment.

Malaysia saw these bomohs in the news two years ago, attempting to locate the missing Malaysian airplane MH370. We saw a federation of them pledging allegiance to the current regime, and we saw three decades ago a Mercedes Benz-driving telegenic female bomoh from the northern state of Perlis named Mona Fandey, brutally murdering a Malay politician by cutting him into 18 pieces.

The poor politician was seeking help in winning elections and advancing his career and all 18 pieces ended buried under a concrete slab behind the bomoh’s house. It was a sad and gory story.

My advice

But here is my advice to the Kelantanese, concerning the pontianak possession of the school girls. It is about repression and the way education is approached as well as the way human relations are perceived and most importantly how the human mind is nurtured. This not new. The ghost and spirits are always unfairly blamed, Not their fault.  Whether or not they exist, the bomohs will benefit from the crisis.

Those who developed the anti-hysteria kit being recommended will benefit and make huge profits. It is a psychological, socio-cultural, and pedagogical issue. Don’t blame everything on the polong and the pontianak. They are already retired – on a pension scheme, And with the invention of the electricity, the ghosts have all escaped through the electric cables and are probably dancing on the poles before they die of old age.

But seriously, these girls in the dorms and the factories are repressed. There is probably too much control and telling them what to do, dumbing down teaching or simply a common case of en masse adolescent sexual tension.

Look at these and humanize the system and make the school a happy place. Make learning more active – the mind has a life of its own. It is more philosophical and cultural than religious. Understand this premise of the foundation of teaching and learning. Maybe that is the cure for mass hysteria in a mass-babysitting enterprise called schooling.

Dr. Azly Rahman grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a doctorate in International Education Development from Columbia University and multiple Masters Degrees in the fields of Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies and Communication. He has written seven books and more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia and global issues.  He currently resides in the United States where he teaches courses in Education, Philosophy, Cultural Studies, Political Science, and American Studies. He blogs at http://azlyrahman-post.blogspot.com/


Self-Affirmation and Stereotype Threat

April 25, 2016

Self-Affirmation and Stereotype Threat

by Dr. M. Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California

Dr. M. Bakri Musa

Our mind’s narrative of the world includes the perception we have of ourselves, and what we believe others have of us. The first is self-affirmation; the second, stereotype. Each of us is a member of some groups or other (race, profession, culture); thus we cannot escape from being stereotyped.

As for self-perception, like all other of our mental patterns this one too grew out of our experiences. Should we encounter something that does not conform to that mental picture we have of ourselves, we react like the patient with Cabgras delusion; we alter or ‘edit’ that information to make it conform to our pre-set pattern.

Our “self” narrative includes the stereotype others have of us, as with the colonialists’ “lazy native.” Not surprisingly, we often perform to those expectations, further reinforcing the stereotype. This vicious cycle continues, each cycle reinforcing earlier ones.

You have to work doubly hard and perform beyond well just to dispel the stereotype. Then even if you do succeed, there is no guarantee of escaping the stereotyping. It is a heavy burden to bear.

Consider girls and mathematics; there are many associated negative stereotypes. Should a girl were to stumble at her first test in college, not an uncommon experience especially at an elite college where all your classmates are top students while in high school, she would risk being a victim of negative stereotype when there could be other and more valid reasons, as with poor study habits or wrong choice of course. This stereotype burden would be worse if she were also to be a member of a visible disadvantaged minority.

Something similar happened to my daughter. She excelled in mathematics in school but she aspired to be a lawyer. Her undergraduate college required all students to take a math (as well as a science) course, the choice of which to be based upon the college’s own placement test. She was assigned one and found the going rough. She had to devote more than her usual effort just to stay abreast. She confided to us her problem, and as concerned parents we suggested that she met with her counselor.

To the horror of her counselor, my daughter was assigned to a class for honors mathematics and engineering majors! Presumably she aced her placement test and was thus assigned the “appropriate” course. It may be appropriate based on her test scores but not for her career aspirations. Fortunately it was early in the academic year for her to switch course. Also luckily for her she had sufficient self-confidence and was not burdened by any possible negative stereotype. Imagine a Malay girl having a similar problem at the University of Singapore or even the University of Malaya.

This stereotype threat is the rationale for having single-sex schools and colleges. This phenomenon is also seen in non-academic settings like sports, as with, “White men can’t jump!”

Stanford’s Claude Steele

Claude Steele, the Stanford psychologist (above) who had studied stereotypes and self-affirmation threats extensively, shared his insights in his book, Whistling Vivaldi. And Other Clues on How Stereotypes Affect Us.

The title itself is intriguing; he had the idea from his fellow African-American student at the University of Chicago. Like at other elite campuses, African-Americans were noticeable for their rarity at such places, then and now. This friend sensed that his fellow students felt uncomfortable by his presence and would purposely avoid him. He overcame this prejudice by whistling Vivaldi (a classical composer, thus indicating a “high brow” taste in the finer things of life) to smooth the way. I can just imagine the horror on the staid white campus had he tried rap music!

There are many negative stereotypes burdening Malays, like our supposed lack of aptitude for mathematics specifically and academics generally. Unfortunately the statistics reinforce this. Consider that when the results of the SPM and other public examinations are announced, the consistent feature would be Malay under-representation among the top scorers.

The tempting conclusion, and not just by non-Malays, would be to believe these ugly stereotypes about Malays. However, consider this. The Sixth Form science class at Malay College I joined in 1961 had been threatened with closure because there were too few students from the college who had passed the entrance examination. And the college supposedly took in only the brightest Malays! That only fed the prevailing ugly stereotype.

It took the initiative of its chemistry teacher, Mr. Peter Norton, a non-Malaysian, to identify the problem and then push to solve it. Malay College boys did poorly in science not because they were Malays rather they were insufficiently prepared. So in 1961 the college vastly expanded it science laboratories and instituted for the first time a pure science stream at the fourth form. For perspective, my old school in Kuala Pilah had been doing this for years. No surprise then that my old school outperformed Malay College in science.

That first batch of “pure science” students at Malay College excelled, as did others following. They are now among the nation’s eminent doctors, scientists and professors, as represented by Ariffin Aton, a University of Leeds PhD in Chemical Engineering, now head of MyIPO, the body concerned with intellectual properties.

Then there was my calculus class experience at Malay College. At Lower Six we had a Canadian “Peace Corp” volunteer as our teacher. Being new to the country he did not harbor any negative stereotypes of or preconceived ideas on Malays, except perhaps that we lived in trees. On finding out that we did not, he proceeded to treat us like his Canadian students.

Mr. Allen Brown began his class with us without any fuss; no dire preamble about how “tough” calculus would be and that we had to “buckle up.” He treated it like any other subject; he assumed we could handle it.

I remember well his first day in class. He began by drawing a series of arcs of from the same center point, each with a longer radius. Then he asked us to comment on the shape. It was obvious; as the radius got longer, the curve became flatter. No mystery there. Then he asked us to imagine an arc with a radius of infinity. That would be very flat, we responded. Then he beamed and exclaimed, “Yes! A straight line is nothing but a curve with a radius of infinity!”

“Now imagine the opposite,” he continued. “Consider two points on a curve that are infinitely close to each other.” Then he began taking a small arc and magnified it serially, and with each magnification the curve became flatter. “As you can see, if I were to magnify a wee tiny part of this curve a zillion times,” as he pretended doing it on the board, “the two points on it would essentially be on a straight line.”

Then he swung around and exclaimed, “There you have it! A curve is nothing but a series of infinitely short straight lines with variable slopes!” He went on to explain that what we had learned about the properties of a straight line would be equally applicable to a curve, or at least an infinitely small part of it.

Thus was the mystery of variable change and calculus revealed, at least to me. I had taken calculus the year before in fifth form and had aced it. Yet I did not fully grasp its concepts. All I did was memorize the formula and then plug in the numbers. The surprise was that I did well just with that.

We had an even greater surprise the following February when the national examination results were announced. The entire class but two had aced it. The two who did not nonetheless scored high “credit” (B plus). It was a record not just for the school but also the country. As we were whooping it up back at the dorm, Mr. Brown came upon us and wondered what it was we were celebrating. To him, it was not a surprise at all; after all he had seen our performances on the many regular tests he had given us during the year. The surprise for him was that we were surprised.

Decades later, I saw the movie “Stand and Deliver” about a teacher, Jamie Escalante, in a predominantly Hispanic Los Angeles inner-city school. He did such an incredible job with his AP (Advanced Placement, college-level) class that the College Board (the examining body) thought his students were cheating and forced them to re-sit the test! They still aced it!

Escalante quickly became a celebrity. Not revealed in that movie were the many monumental as well as petty obstacles placed in Escalante’s path by his principal and others. For example, his principal was against Escalante using the gym to accommodate the large size of his class, and the teachers’ union was against his exceeding the class-size limit. Tellingly, the program collapsed when Escalante left in frustration.

Talk to any dedicated teacher in Malaysia and she would readily identify with Escalante.I too can testify to that culture. Many years ago I visited an elite residential school in Malaysia. I wanted to donate a video microscope for its biology lab. As I also wanted to know of its other needs, I made an appointment to see the headmaster. On three occasions he canceled our meeting at the last-minute as he had “other commitments.” Needless to say, that video microscope was my only gift to that school.

As for the headmaster’s “other commitments,” one was the meeting of the local Koran reading contest committee, the other, planning the reception for a ministerial visit.

Judging from the many social media postings by parents today, things have only gotten worse in our national schools, further reinforcing the burden of self-affirmation and stereotype threats among their students who today happened to be mostly if not exclusively Malays.

Excerpted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released recently in January 2016.

Soraya Kee: A Breath of Fresh Air for Music

February 24, 2016

Soraya Kee: A Breath of Fresh Air for Music

by S. Indra Sathiabalan


A FEW years ago, Soraya Sunitra Kee worked in the Sun as an intern, cutting her teeth on the print media world.

Now, at age 27, she is making waves as the youngest presenter on the radio station LiteFM. She comes on between 4pm and 8pm on the Smooth Drive show. During an interview session held at Astro recently, Kee reveals that she officially joined LiteFM in October 2015.

“Before that, I was on a rotation programme in Astro as a management associate.”

During that time, Kee experienced stints in various departments in Astro to get a feel of how the station operates before deciding that radio was something that appealed to her.

Off hand, one would think that LiteFM is a little ‘too old’ for her as it targets listeners aged 35 to 49.

“I hear that a lot. Many of my friends would ask me whether I even listen to Lite,” she says.

“I listened to the station when I was younger and then I stopped. Having come back to it, I have rediscovered the station and a catalogue of music that I’ve forgotten.”

Considering that the rest of the presenters on LiteFM are a teeny bit older [than her], she admits: “You can call me the baby of the team.”

On February 10, LiteFM unveiled a new tagline – Relaxing Favourites – which essentially means featuring relaxing hits from the 1980s to today.

Songs range from artistes such as Wham! to The Corrs, right up to more contemporary stars like Sam Smith and Adele.Before she joined LiteFM, Kee and a friend actually pitched a show to Aaron Pinto, the network content manager for Astro Radio.

Kee says: “We wanted to bring this fresh new perspective that would give new life to the station – not saying that it was old or stodgy or old fashioned! We just wanted to bring a new youthful element to it and maybe attract a younger group of listeners.”

The concept she and her friend worked on was meant to be a weekend show but it is put on hold for now as Kee is too busy with her show. The Smooth Drive is actually one of the station’s most popular segments, as many people listen to it while driving home.

“Since I have started working with Lite, I have asked a lot of people if they listen to [the show] and many who are in their 20s say yes, and that they actually love it!I try to find content that makes you sit up and go – whoa! I also have a few features on the show. One of them is Travel Tales which I source from my friends and people”.

“I have been bowled over by just how many hilarious, memorable and unique travel experiences that people have had, to share on the air.Every day, I also have one feature called Power Women [where] I feature unique and inspiring women.

“Be it a young girl who won a prize for inventing smart cutlery that detects bacteria in your food or a group of nuns cycling from Nepal to India … I’m really fond of that segment.”

Kee does not conduct interviews all that often, but she has interviewed 90s R&B band All-4-One. “It took me all the way back when I was six years old listening to I Swear,” she says.

Mostly, Kee is on air by herself. “I am still working on that. Aaron [Pinto] gave me some very good advice about envisioning that I am talking to a person. You can sometimes forget that there is this audience out there because it is just you and this microphone in the studio.”

Kee says that she always has had a fondness for radio. “When I was a kid, I have a fake radio show that I record on cassettes.

“I’d enjoyed radio throughout my schooldays but I never thought of a career on radio until I went to the US and interned in a radio station there.Suddenly, my eyes were opened to the possibilities of working in a radio station and I’d developed a great love and appreciation for it.”


Gong Xi Fa Cai reminds us about being Malaysian

February 8, 2016

Gong Xi Fa Cai reminds us about being Malaysian



I like going to morning wet markets. There is a lot to see and observe about the people there – the way they carry themselves, their purchase choices and how they interact with one another. I find it fascinating, especially in a multiracial, multicultural nation like ours.

The morning wet market I frequently visit is at Sea Park, Petaling Jaya. Now there’s nothing extraordinary about this market compared to others in the country – it is crowded, noisy and smelly. However, when I visited it yesterday, it resembled a fun fair – the sea of people flooding the area was unbelievable, made the merrier with tanglungs hanging overhead and the heart-thumping beat of ‘doom-doom-cha doom-doom-cha’ playing in the background.

It is Chinese New Year tomorrow! A-ha, patutlah the suasana meriah sekali! Capitalising on the festivities were many new traders who popped-up from nowhere, some even without the prerequisite stalls but employing other amusing means to display their goods.

I saw this one uncle selling inner garments from a van. He had bras and panties of every colour and size on display inside. The women milling around were understandably ecstatic with the choices before them and were eagerly examining the merchandise, haggling with the trader for the best price.

While watching them, I couldn’t resist imagining the dialogue that would ensue later that night in their homes: “Lao Po, you look sexy in that lingerie. Is that from Victoria Secret?”

“No-lah Lao Gong, it’s from a van.” And then there was an uncle who was busy emptying boxes of shoes from his old Proton Saga. Take a guess where he displayed his items – yup, on the car itself! It was a sight to behold! The entire vehicle from bonnet to boot was covered in stilettos, pumps, platforms and flip-flops. He had something for everyone. This reminded me of my childhood when mom used to wash all our school shoes and sport shoes and arrange these atop dad’s car so they dried quick. Simply classic!

Next I saw an apam balik seller operating from a minivan. His stall was the only one without any customers. Since I was in the mood for a sweet treat, I approached the abang and made my order.

“Abang, apam balik satu, extra kacang dan extra, extra jagung,” I said. As he was busy making my order, I asked curiously, “Business macamana hari ni?”

He smiled, “I baru kat sini. Kawan cakap business bagus. Tapi tak banyak customer-lah. Ini kan kawasan Cina, jadi I rasa customer Cina lebih suka beli daripada orang dia sendiri.”

As I paid for my snack, a few Chinese customers began queuing-up next to me awaiting their turn to place their orders. I looked at the abang and smiled. He returned my smile, presumably embarrassed of his racially tinged remark earlier. Perhaps if he knew the area well enough, he wouldn’t have said it.

I mean, among the many places I have lived before (including Penang), this neighbourhood is the perfect model of what I personally aspire for Malaysia. I have witnessed for myself, a kopiah-wearing old pakcik selling orchids opposite stalls selling pork. I have seen a tudung-clad makcik selling karipap and nasi lemak next to a Chinese aunty selling non-halal noodles. It’s the same with Muslim customers too, who do not hesitate strolling past stalls selling bakwa, frogs and pork. Everyone is genuinely accepting of each other and extremely friendly despite our differences.

I’ve had some pretty memorable times at this market too. Take yesterday for instance. At one point, I found myself gridlocked in a sea of sweaty bodies when two groups of market goers from opposite sides of the market merged in the centre. With elbows poking into each other’s ribs, and shopping bags bulging at our sides, one petite aunty who was among us said something exceptionally delightful.

“Don’t worry, just squeeze. You squeeze, I squeeze, everybody also squeeze. Being Malaysian is all about squeezing.” What an amazing analogy – “Being Malaysian is all about squeezing each other”. And it is so true, for Malaysians “squeeze” not only in the market, but also at the mall, on the streets, at pasar malams, in the lifts, trains, buses, LRT stations, – my gosh, most of our time is spent squeezing each other since the practice of queuing has never really caught on here.

However squeezing has its benefits too. Very often, when caught in situations like these, we find ourselves making eye contact with those nearest us, offering a smile, extending a greeting or apologising for stepping on their foot.

In such close proximity, we notice little things about others too – their hairdos, their complexions, the perfume they’re wearing, their mannerism. We wonder about their ages, their lifestyles, and we peek at their shopping trollies, surveying their purchases and thinking about the meals they will cook for their families later at home.

These bits and pieces of information give us some insight, no matter how vague of the people we share our space with in this community, and somehow make us more tolerant and respectful of them.

Personally, I have found inspiration for some of my most meaningful stories in the most common places ever – hospitals, lifts, schools, streets and yesterday, in a market.

I guess this is where the spirit of Malaysia lives – among ordinary folk.To all ordinary Malaysians, I wish you a wonderful celebration. May this year of the monkey bless you with good health and prosperity.

Gong Xi! Gong Xi!