Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Malaysian General Election - A Reflection From A Malaysian in Australia

Everyone likes to feel that we have a calling for something bigger than ourselves. During the election season, this manifests as engagement in all things election such as spending ridiculous amount of money to fly home to vote, commenting on social media about the state of affairs and joining political campaign trails. It energises us, gives us a sense of solidarity and a sense of meaning. It gives us hope, however tenuous it may be. 

Even though we think we are doing these for altruistic "patriotism", deep down we are all doing it for selfish reasons. We want to live in a country where the leaders do not rob money from their people and where people are entitled to voice dissent. We want our kids to grow up on a level playing field, where they will be judged by the content of their character but not the colour of their skin. We want a better life for ourselves and our loved ones. 

I have now lived the vast majority of my adult life in Australia. I first came here because of an opportunity, and I have since stayed put. I have now started a young family with a daughter who's turning two soon. My daughter will hold both Malaysian and Australian passport until she turns 18, but she will not speak a word of Malay language, nor will she ever learn the delights of dropping marbles into the wooden vessel in a good game of congkak. Instead she will grow up speaking ABC-accented English while playing a game of Aussie-ruled footy. 

My brother-in-law who has migrated to US once gave a nice analogy about people like us. He said that our great grandfather left China for Malaysia in search for a better life, but a few generations later we have now embarked on a new journey as we migrate to Singapore, Australia, USA and many other countries. Like our great grandfather, we left our family behind and try to claim the new country as our home. 

But where is home? To this day, I still can't answer this very simple question with conviction. 

Whenever I spend a couple of weeks back in Malaysia, I would tell my Australian friends and colleagues that "I am going home". However for all intents and purposes, Australia is now home. This is where my little girl attends daycare and plays with her little friends. This is where I stream my Netflix and Youtube after work. This is where I live my professional life where I find some sense of purpose in providing quality care to my patients. 

In the last five years I spent a mere 114 days in Malaysia - I had to count that when I applied to be a postal voter for the Malaysian General Election. That 114 days qualified me for postal vote (only 30 days minimum required), however it also made me more a tourist than a citizen. I used to be a keen follower of political news in high school and university, but today I get my Malaysian news through Facebook walls and BBC's "also in the news" section - whenever a Malaysian politician makes a name for themselves via embarrassing gaffes. It is only this year that I realised Tun Mahathir is now the opposition leader. 

In some ways though, Australia is also not home. 

I am just a permanent resident, which means that I do not have the voting right in state and national election. Partly because of that I am fairly distanced from Australian politics, and until recently I didn't even know which party was the ruling party in my state. I am lucky that I feel mostly comfortable in my own skin everyday - Australian hospitals are extremely multi-racial so we fit in nicely. Outside work we hang out with some social groups occasionally and it make us feel like part of the community. I love the outdoor barbies (that's barbeque in Australian English) and am starting to occasionally fit Bunnings into our weekend schedule. I love some outdoor hiking and join the ranting about various first world problems. Unfortunately there are still some odd occasions like when a random mad man barged into a Vietnamese restaurant and commanded us to return to where we came from. Such incidence only happens rarely but it dampens our spirit somewhat. 

Some of my Malaysian friends in Australia have either already obtained an Australian citizenship, or in the process of obtaining it. Given our permanent residency status, this is actually a relatively easy process. Because of the Malaysian law, however, this requires relinquishing the Malaysian citizenship.  Over the years, I have held on to the Malaysian passport and will probably do so in the foreseeable future. There's one huge reason behind this - I still want to vote in the Malaysian election. It's the one thing that still connects me and the country where I spent the first 19 years of my life. Over the last two elections, I have painstakingly ensured that I join the voting process through postal vote. It may not amount to much, and there's always the risk of my ballot being sabotaged, but at least I am doing the best I could. 

This election Malaysians will vote for the lesser of two evils. 

Barisan Nasional and Najib has been called out for numerous corruption and mismanagement, and Najib somehow managed to survive despite a scandal which would have easily toppled the national leader in any other country. On the other hand though the opposition is now led by the ex-PM Tun Mahathir, a 92-year-old man who is made the figurehead for the respect he still draws even amongst many opposition supporters. In my mind though Tun M is not much of a better option. People somehow forget that over 22 years, he singlehandedly built this political hegemony by ruthless oppressing his political foes, delegitimising the separation of power, institutionalising cronyism and normalising kleptocracy. The ruling party he now opposes furiously today is essentially his own legacy. He's now chummed up with Anwar and his wife Wan Azizah, and has promised to release Anwar from jail to become PM if he wins, but we all know that he most likely just wants to pave the way for his own son's political future in his last years on earth. 

Given that they are both rotten apples, there's a movement called "undi rosak" which a few of my contacts are part of. Essentially they argue that if we remove the current government only to install someone else that is equally bad, it's no different than if an ex dumps you only to immediately hook up with someone who's no better. 

My personal opinion is that even assuming that they are “equally bad”, the optimum move is still to change the status quo, i.e. to vote for Mahathir's Pakatan Harapan (PH). The biggest incentive for any politician is the fear of losing power, not the fear of losing votes. If these two sound the same to you, I beg you to give some thought about it. By causing a shift in power, it will send the strongest fear to all politicians that losing grip of power in Malaysia is possible, even for a party that has ruled for more than 60 years. That is a strong message, and can only be good for the structural strength of the country’s political tapestry. By undi rosak and allowing BN to hang on to status quo, we are not changing anything or sending any message. Do you think the PH will care that 15% electorate put in an undi rosak this election because of Mahathir? No they won’t. 

To be honest, I am growing slightly more disillusioned as time goes by, and I am not as enthusiastic and optimistic this election. I read through some of my old Facebook posts from the last election, and felt really nostalgic seeing the younger, more enthusiastic version of myself and my friends. A few friends flew home from overseas, gathered and sang Setia ("demi negara yang tercinta...") together the night before election. I also read through the black, depressed posts and profile photos posted days after the election. However we have all gone back to living our lives, despite the despair and anger. Five years is a long time, and we all look very different now. We are at a very different stage of our lives, many of us now have a young child, and we live a very different life. In another five years these children will be attending primary school, another five they will be in high school. We just don't have that many five years in our lives. 

I have taken the very selfish decision of living in Australia and continuing to believe that I am a Malaysian. I selfishly chose what I believe would provide the best quality of life for myself and my children. I will continue to vote in Malaysian election, in hope that it amounts to a small trickle of change that the country requires. In five years I may be writing a very different reflection, but for now that's the part I am doing. 


Sunday, June 26, 2016


On the winter solstice of Tasmanian winter, Xuan Ni and I welcomed the arrival of our beloved daughter Tara.

The days will be longer, and life as we knew it is changed forever.

In Irish Gaelic language, Tara is taken to mean "Queen". In Sanskrit, Tara means star.

Your Chinese name is 靖玟 (jìng mín).

靖 - 平安、恭敬。
(Calm and peaceful)

玟 - 古同“珉”,意为像玉的石头, 或玉的纹理。
(Stone resembling jade, or streaks in jade)

The word 玟 is also in honour of your mother's name 璇, which means 美玉 (beautiful jade).

May you be at peace and beautiful, my little Tara. May you grow up to be a strong and beautiful woman like your mother. May you be showered with love in every day of your life, as you deserve nothing less.


Sunday, October 18, 2015

I Am A Runner

Not a good one, but I am a runner.

Back in 2007 and 2008, as a lazy bum I joined my friends in Melbourne's yearly fund-raising "Run for the Kids".

In 2007 I clocked 1:50:07 for 15.2km  (7:14 pace or 8.28km/h).

In 2008 I clocked 1:41:54 for 14.14km (7:12 pace or 8.33km/h).

In 2014 I decided that my BMI was a bit too high for comfort and started running regularly. At first it was 2k. Then I started running 5k. Then I started training for a 10k race.

In 2015 I clocked 52:27 for 10.0km (5:14 pace or 11.4km/h).

I think I will keep running.


Friday, December 19, 2014

Of Terrorism, Delusion and Faith

This week, the killing of two innocent Australians by a Muslim gunman in the Sydney hostage crisis has shoved reluctant Australians right into the spotlight of global terrorism. Prior to this, Australians have always felt like a safe spectator due to the country's seclusion from the rest of the world. Terrorism is something you associate with USA, Afghanistan and the Middle East; not with the laid-back, easy-going country where an excellent welfare system keeps most people at peace. Despite the relatively low mortality count in the context of the macabre history of terrorism, this Sydney chapter is turning into a watershed incident. It heralds the era of Australia finally facing Islamic terrorism in its own soil.

Now, religion extremism is nothing new; in fact, wars waged in the name of religion are as old as religion itself. There is a popular sentiment that our generation is living through the brunt of religion extremism in recent years, however I argue that this merely reflects the globalised and decentralised nature of the modern warfare, and perhaps the freshness of our memory.

Australia has done as well as any country could have done in the face of the crisis. While there are the unavoidable Islamophobes who lambast the entire religion, most people have aligned themselves with the #illridewithyou sentiment, a grass-root movement which started with a woman offering to walk with a Muslim woman who removed her religious headdress to avoid becoming a target of Islamophobic sentiment in the wake of the hostage situation. Islamic leaders in Australia unanimously voiced their renouncement of the terrorist act, while a few mosques around the country organised interfaith vigils attended by people of all faiths.

All these are truly positive development towards the resolution of religious conflicts. Even though we might not see it directly, someone somewhere who might grow up to become a terrorist, is being touched by the gesture of human kindness, and would now be a moderate human being with appreciation of unfettered empathy.

This, however, does not address the core question: Why does religion make people kill, and what can we do to stop it? Many answers have been offered, ranging from the defensive "religion does not kill, people kill using religion as the pretext", to the outright accusation of Islam being based on violent tenets, while blissfully ignoring the similarly violent verses in other major religious scriptures. Some militant atheists go as far as claiming that religion is inherently bad for our civilisation.

Throughout the years, I have had my fair share of dabbling with religion-talks, mostly through online forums. I grew through different phases. From the uninitiated pseudo-Buddhist, I morphed variously into the undecided, the almost-militant atheist, and finally becoming the comfortable agnostic. Through the exchanges I had with people of various faiths and non-faiths, I became fascinated by the concept of "faith".

Faith is at the core of almost every religion. It means complete trust. It means a strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof. In some cases, it even means a persistent belief despite evidence to the contrary. The latter also happens to be the definition of the word "delusion".

Within the context of religions, faith is seen as a virtue. In many settings, the unshakable belief is indeed the most valuable thing about religion. In the face of uncertainty, knowing that the heavenly Father is up there hearing your prayer and guiding you into the light would give anyone unbelievable power and hope. In a similar scenario, a militant materialist atheist could only count on the emotionless statistics and probability, in a universe governed only by the ruthless laws of physics. We are just a bag of molecules with some neural synapses forming this thing we call "consciousness", evolving through generations just to propagate our genes, apparently. How boring and how meaningless.

All of us would have heard some versions of sermons where we are encouraged to hold strong to our faith even when it is shaken, to believe when the belief is challenged. Time and again, we are drilled into our minds that only the faithful is a good believer. Apart from some rare exceptions such as Buddhism, few religions in this world encourage its believers to question the veracity of its teaching.

Unfortunately, faith can sometimes transform into delusion, and delusion is the father of much human depravity. One could argue that even if one's faith turns out to be ultimately untrue, there's no harm in believing in something good. And this is right most of the time. Even if Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or any other religion turn out to be a huge fairy tale and there's no God or afterlife, many good things would have come out from the good followers of major religions during their times on Earth, as they live their lives based on faith.

On the other hand, living our lives based on absolute faith could also make us do horrible things. It is no secret that both the Bible and the holy Quran contain verses which condone and encourage the alienation and killing of non-believers. In response to these violent verses, the peaceful believers often quote other verses which encourage acceptance and co-existence; but this does not prevent some other "faithful" believers to interpret the violent verses literally and act accordingly. Suicidal terrorists' willingness to kill themselves in the act is unthinkable for many of us, but to them it is all natural as they KNOW that they will be rewarded with martyrdom and bountiful awards in the eternal life. Through a lifetime of indoctrination, these people have lost the innate ability to think "what if I am wrong".

I argue that absolute faith is bad and should be discouraged. Even though we do not outright promote it or admit it, rational believers already renounce absolute faith. When you do not attack your neighbour of different faith, you are no longer blindly faithful - you allow the secular ethics of "thou shalt not harm others" to trump the many verses which ask you to kill the non-believers. Even the moderate religious leaders openly admit that they sometimes question the existence of God. Questioning is not a bad thing, it is what make us human, and it is what makes us good.

In the face of religious extremism, we are so used to religious moderates from both sides claiming that "these terrorists do not represent my religion". I think that saying so is not truly honest - yes, the terrorists do not represent the moderate brand of your religion, but it still is an expression and interpretation of the religion. We only call them "extremists" because we the moderates have decided to gloss over the violent aspects of our religions with our peaceful intentions.

At the end of the day, I am not arrogant enough to tell people how and what to believe. However, I do hope that we start teaching our children to question, and to always accept the possibility that "I could be wrong". Bertrand Russells hit the nail on the head when he said, "Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality." If he is alive today, I imagine he could have also said that "Not to be absolutely certain is the key to curbing religious fanaticism, and to reduce blood shed in the name of Gods".


Monday, August 04, 2014

Is This Photoshopped?

Ever since photoshop was invented, it has become commonplace for people to ask "Is this photoshopped" whenever they see a photo which is "too good to be true". It is sometimes annoying for photography enthusiasts to come across this question. While it may not be the actual intention, such question could be taken as an insinuation that the photographer is not as skillful as initially thought.

Just imagine a chef who's asked "Did you put MSG in?" for every nice dish he has prepared.

The fact is, I photoshop [see note] the vast majority of my photos that I publish online these days, and it is not something I need to hide.

Recently I posted a photo on social media which I was quite happy with. It was taken in Tasmanian winter from Hobart Waterfront, which is conveniently just a few minutes' walk from my residence here in this seaside town. This is my result: (yes, the "photoshopped" version)

A good friend of mine immediately asked "Is this photoshopped?". While I did not take much offence from this usual line of questioning, I was glad to use opportunity to explore the fact that photoshopping a photo is not always the same as "cheating".

This is the original, straight-out-of-camera version of the photo above:


It is already a pretty decent shot, and one that I would have been happy enough to publish in my social media. To produce this shot I had the following combination
  • Weather: It's Tasmanian winter where the Mount Wellington is snow-capped (it could have been more densely capped but I might just have to try another time). The cloud has also been kind enough to not obscure the summit. 
  • Time: Sunset (or sunrise) is the best time to bring out the best colours of a landscape. 
  • Equipment: Any semi-decent camera on a tripod would have been able to produce this photo, although having a good body and a good lens probably helped produce the best quality possible for a given scene. I use Canon 5D mark II paired with Canon 24-70mm f/2.8, mounted on a sturdy tripod. It is also shot in RAW to enable the most editing flexibility. 
  • Composition / Location: Rule of third (with more emphasis on the sky). This is taken from a strategic spot at the Waterfront where a clear layering of the boats, town and then the mountain is formed. 
  • Exposure Setting: I used manual exposure (with the help of live view to get an accurate exposure). To get a smooth water I used a long-ish exposure of 0.8s (hence the absolute need for a tripod). A longer exposure would have made it even smoother; but the boat would become blurry because of the constant movements. Low ISO (for best colour and minimum noise) and medium aperture (for maximum sharpness and depth of field) are standard as per most landscape photos. 
  • White Balance: An important setting I went for is "shade" white balance which helps bring out the glorious warmth of a sunset. The default setting on the camera (the "auto white balance") would have gone for the cold, blue tone which is why most sunset photos taken on auto mode look drab and cold. 
So where does photoshop comes into play for the final photo? Putting them next to each other...

(L: Original; R: Photoshopped)

What I did in photoshop were:
  • Cropped the photo to make it tighter
  • Brought out the details of the darker area (the buildings are brightened, for example)
  • Brought out the details of the brighter area (the bright area of the sky now have more texture rather than just awash with bright patch)
  • Minor tweaking of the colour
  • Tiny amount of vignetting (darkening of the fringe of the photo to bring attention to the middle, a common technique)
  • Contrast adjustment.
So in the end it is a photoshopped photo, but there is a lot more to photoshopping in its production. As illustrated above, more than half of the work came from getting the shot right in the camera. Photoshopping helps bring out the best in a photo, and just because something is photoshopped does not mean the original is a lot worse. Also worth knowing is that for as long as photography has been around, photographers have been post-processing the photos in the dark room - all we do in photoshop are exactly the same things that photographers have been doing with their negatives for the last century. It is arguable that post processing photos is part of photography itself. 

*Note: I actually use Photoshop Lightroom as my main post-processing tool. It is produced by Adobe, the same company which makes Photoshop, but it has different designs and is made specifically for photo-editing, unlike the Photoshop proper which is an all-purpose behemoth with far more capability and uses. 


Saturday, July 19, 2014

On MH17 and Air Travel

Melbourne at Night

Air travel is close to our heart. It is a means to our dreams, and a means to reach our loved ones. It brings us to a vantage point we would otherwise never reach, and a soaring height only few before our generation could imagine.

This is Melbourne at night. It is the scenery I enjoy every fortnight as I travel between work and family. It is also the scenery that many on #MH17 would have enjoyed have they made the connection flight to Melbourne, and where the 100 AIDS researchers and activists would have convened to further their noble effort in curbing the AIDS epidemic.

Even though I fly quite often, every time the jet engines revs up on the runway, I still get the jitters. This is the juncture where the devout offers a prayer to the Gods. This is also the juncture where I take comfort in the air safety statistics, the rigour of aeronautical engineering, the excellent training of the air pilots, and the relentless work of the ground staff checking on the aircraft's structure every time it lands.

Much has been written about the fragility of life in light of recent events. Every time I fly my mother would say "be careful" - and I know by that she actually means "please don't be unlucky". It is pointless pointing out that air travel is the safest mode of travel, because we as passengers have zero control over its safety, and when things go wrong, they go horribly wrong. "You only live once", as the partygoers say.

Let us grieve with our fellow friends and families. Let us offer our condolences. Let this be a seed for us to seek peace, for us to engage in world events and do our parts. Let this be a trigger for us to be a better person to strangers around us. Our individual lives are ephemeral, but our love and our values outlive us, and on the larger scale, this is what really matters.


Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Pretty Lucky Sports Spectator

I seem to have a knack for picking the right matches to stay up for.

Sporting history I stayed up to witness past midnight in recent years:

  • Zidane's headbutt in World Cup Final 2006
  • Federer vs Nadal "best match ever" Wimbledon Final 2008
  • Federer vs Djokovic "most epic final since 2008" Wimbledon Final 2014
  • Kyrgios vs Nadal "giant slaying" Wimbledon Quarter Final 2014
  • Brazil vs Germany "the worst slaughter in World Cup history" 2014
I think I am pretty lucky.