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Checking out Gunung Ledang

We're planning with some friends to do a short camping trip up Gunung Ledang in a couple of months, and today we went on a short scouting trip to check out the area.

One of our party had been there before, and wanted to check out a resort that was not the standard one where all the tour buses go and everything. It's call Taman Hutan Lagenda, and you have to drive 10-15 minutes through a bumpy plantatation dirt road to get there.

On the way we spotted this kingfisher


The resort itself is nice, basically a start-off point for hikes - with accomodation ranging from a Deluxe Chalet at RM220 a night, to dormitory beds at RM10 each.

We followed a short trail that loops around from the resort


Nothing very fascinating, but pleasant. There was this unusual root that you could walk under


Anyway, we spoke to some guides and got a price list and all - and hopefully we'll be able to go up in May :-)

Merry Christmas - The unseasonal Malaysian season

Just to continue in my reflections on life in Malaysia, I was struck yesterday by how few people were in the supermarket – in Europe the shops on Christmas Eve afternoon are a nightmare, with hordes of feverish shoppers desperately buying the last necessaries for food and presents. In Giant yesterday there were in fact less people than usual, and less aisles open too; at the pasar malam, there were less people too, as well as less stalls.

I’m feeling distinctly un-Christmassy this year; we didn’t even put up decorations – been busy with other things and so on. Christmas always takes me a bit by surprise a bit here; in Europe there is always a long build up – the lights start appearing in the streets, peoples’ decorations peek out from their windows and adorn their doors


at the office decorations drape the filing cabinets and you start wishing people ‘Merry Christmas’ when you calculate that it’s the last time you’re seeing them before the date, an office party is organised, and a few lucky people tell you of their skiing plans or trips to the sun. In the bars, you can get special warming Christmas Ale, a good excuse for a tipple. At school, you may already have had Santa visit, and accumulated a few presents already.


The season prepares you for it too – the days have been getting darker and the home cosier; you know it’s winter and winter means Christmas, you start to wonder whether there will be snow…


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Malaysian phone etiquette

Part of the task of the anthropologist is to ‘unpick’ the culture they are studying in order to lay bare the cultural and social mechanisms that underlie the daily functioning of the people within that culture. This is kind of like taking apart a clock and showing how all the different parts come together in a unique way to make the clock tick. Of course, a culture is nothing like a clock really – you can’t easily say where it begins and ends, and with a clock taking out one piece is enough to make it stop functioning completely, whereas cultures are endlessly malleable and dynamic. Take out one piece (a monarch, for example), and there will be adaptations, derivations and replacements that immediately come to play.

In the classical anthropologist situation, the anthropologist arrives as a stranger in a new place, and starts to observe how things happen. Although she has the disadvantage of not knowing what to do, how to speak the language, and so on – this is also an advantage, because everything that people around her take for granted stands out to her and she may be able to spot patterns and connections that those who are embedded in the system cannot.

As my supervisor has pointed out, I have both the advantage and disadvantage of having been here in Malaysia for a while now, and being involved with blogging for a while too. The advantage is that I know more, the disadvantage is that I may take things for granted now that would stand out to a newcomer; I'm going to try to remedy this by doing a series of posts on my blog that reflect upon how Malaysia felt to me when I first got here, and how blogging first seemed to me.

So, I’m going to start a series of posts in which I try to recall how both Malaysia and blogs seemed to me at first – they will be in new subcategories of the ‘Anthropology’ category: I’ll call the Malaysia ones ‘Malaysianisms’, and the blog one I’ll call… hmm… ‘Blogisms’ I guess.

So, here goes for my first trip down memory lane – Malaysian telephone etiquette.

When I was brought up, I was taught that you always have to introduce yourself on the phone. This is obviously not the case for many in Malaysia – when I first arrived I was staying with my in-laws (to be) and because I was not working, often was by myself in the house. This was when I was introduced to Malaysian telephone etiquette – or what seemed to be the lack of, to me.


The phone would ring and I pick it up –
‘Hello? Julian speaking.’
‘Mrs Wong ah?’
‘No, this is Julian. Mrs Wong is not in for the moment.’
‘Where is she ah?’
‘I don’t know, she had to go out.’
‘What’s her handphone?’
[I’m already a bit flustered at the lack of introduction, and the rapid fire questions. The request for the number is the last straw to me – why should I give someone’s number to a complete stranger?]
‘If you would like to leave your name and number and a message, I’ll ask her to call you.’
‘Say Ah Chong called.’
‘Mr Ah Chong… and does she have your number?’
‘Ya ya, got got. OK’ -He hangs up-
…‘OK’

What things were very different for me here?
• Not introducing oneself at the beginning of the call.
• Asking for personal information – what was ‘Mrs Wong’ doing, what’s her handphone number.
• The lack of polite niceties, such as ‘Hello’, ‘please’ and – in particular – putting down the phone without saying goodbye! That one took a lot of getting used to :-O I eventually learnt that conversations usually end with the end of the matter in hand, and a word such as ‘OK’, or ‘Thanks’.

Initially, I would find myself being distinctly disgruntled at such calls, in particular the perceived rudeness of (for me) cutting off a conversation without proper disengagement. I learnt to deal with it, and now often don’t say goodbye, depending on who I’m talking to – I’m more likely to take this approach when speaking to my in-laws, friends or trades people such as my mechanic or plumber, but less likely when I’m speaking to colleagues or people I need to deal with for work. I also learnt to use the call ID function more – so when ‘Joe’ calls, I’ll answer the phone with ‘Hello Joe, wassup?’ or something, in a way doing the introduction part myself rather than waiting for the caller to do it.

I've found that very often my 'western style' is too formal and there are too many words - sometimes people will have trouble understanding me because - I suppose - I use a lot of words that serve no apparent purpose :-)

OK, that’s it for the first of the Malaysianisms posts – any comments?

Blogging and Democratization in Malaysia – Forum and book launch

Last Friday there was the launch of the first properly researched book on blogging in Malaysia – the first from a social science point of view, and – as far as I know – the first dealing properly with blogging per se in Malaysia. “Blogging and Democratization in Malaysia: A New Civil Society in the Making” is written by Jun-E Tan and Prof. Zawawi Ibrahim of University Malaya; those of you who have been around the blogosphere long enough will probably remember Jun-E’s blog and research survey in 2006 – in a way I’m following in her footsteps, although my focus is different and I’m spending more time on it. I’m going to try to do a proper review of it at another time, but suffice to say that if you want to know more about blogging in Malaysia, and also about blogging and political activity in general, you cannot miss this book [Update 28/06/09: M/C Reviews have published my review of this book]. It also has a postscript written mostly by Zawawi (I think, based on what he said in the forum) about the 12th General Election and what role blogs played in those momentous events.

The forum last week was held in the KL and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall


I got there a bit late, and it had already started. There were about thirty people there, and the organisers seemed a bit disappointed that more had not turned up; myself, I was a bit surprised that there were not more of the usual suspects at SoPo blogging events.

I missed the first couple of talks. Jun-E talked about the book, summarising it well and underlining the basic points of the book: most bloggers are not SoPo, but they capture a disproportionate amount of the readership and attention, and their key role in democratisation and civil society is in providing a channel to raise issues that would otherwise probably be ignored by the MSM. There’s more than that in the book of course, which includes a wealth of statistical data on bloggers and readers and detailed information on the formation of All-Blogs and other events surrounding that key episode of the Malaysian blogosphere. One thing that it made me realise is that I have to include readers of blogs in my survey too (i.e. those who do not have a blog, but read them regularly). Prof. Zawawi made some similar points, and also pointed out how he had asked Jun-E (he was her supervisor for the MA thesis) to gather information on the ‘narrative’ of the bloggers and the blogosphere, something which has been attended to in the body of the book, as well as in the interviews with key bloggers reproduced at the end of it.


Rocky then gave his talk, covering a few issues such as the relationship between the media and the blogs, and the interesting reaction of the Singapore government to the elections (he was invited with other blogs to speak to the Singaporean government about blogs and the elections). What interested me most, however, was how he said that there were “cracks appearing in the blogosphere”; ever since the elections there have been more blogs but some are “biased… blindly working for political masters” – i.e. like the MSM. Some “bloggers are openly promoting individuals… which is perfectly OK … [they are] allowed to be partisan”; but when do not want to listen to others, don’t agree to disagree, then blogs may lose credibility.

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An integrated Malaysian educational system

I don’t normally do Malaysian politics, but education is something I feel strongly about.

In Malaysiakini, Mukhriz is reported as saying:
"The government can foster greater unity by streamlining all the schools under one education system where the medium of teaching, besides Science and Mathematics, are taught in Bahasa Malaysia.

"We can make it compulsory that the Chinese and Indians study their own language in their mother tongue while these two languages can be optional for Malay students to learn or we can make it compulsory for students to learn at least three languages," he suggested. (Malaysiakini)

I have to say that I find myself agreeing with him, in principle. This is based on my experience in a European School in Luxembourg (this one), from age 4-16.

The European School system
The European Schools are for the children of European Civil Servants from all the countries of the EU; we were in different sections according to our mother tongue, but from six years old onwards, we had to learn a second language – I think it was one class every day. I did French, and in my French class there were Italians, Germans, Danish, etc; the teacher spoke only in French and we all had to speak in French in the class. When we got to 3rd grade primary (age 8), we started an afternoon arts and crafts lesson on Wednesday in French – meaning the class was conducted entirely in French and – once again – I shared the class with Dutch, Germans, etc. During all this time, I also mixed with other kids in the playground, in the school bus, etc, and we had a common language most of the time.

Later, in Secondary (age 11), I started doing gym classes in French (same principle, sharing with others doing the same second language); and we also started History and Geography in French from year 3 (age 13). Later again, we did Economics in French. I also did a third language from year 2 or 3 (I did Italian), and also started a fourth language at about year 4.

What this meant was I became fluent in French from a relatively early age, and could use it in contexts outside of a language class; it also meant that I regularly mixed with children of the other nationalities, and we shared common experiences (such as annoying the teachers ;-)). However, none of us was denied an education in our own language too, and most of us became proficient in two or three languages (some even more). Having an extra language always helped me later when looking for a job. For me, growing up in such a school, mixing with other cultures and respecting their differences was never an issue – it just came naturally.

An Integrated Malaysian educational system
So – how could this be transmitted to Malaysia? Well, many people here speak two or three languages as a matter of course, but not always very proficiently (i.e. being able to write well, speak formally, etc.). The right of the Chinese and Indian minorities to have their own vernacular education was an essential part of the post-independence agreements, and I think language is an essential part of any culture, and Malaysia would be the poorer for not having the cultural diversity it does. But, there is inefficiency in the system – for example some Chinese students do primary in Chinese and have to do more work (dual curriculum or something, not sure of the details), then switch to BM and may have to do some catching up there - WW had to do an extra year because of this, but I think that rule has stopped now.

I think there should be a system that goes something like this. All kids do the same curriculum in the same schools: however, there are three main languages used – BM, Mandarin, and Tamil; a core of subjects will be done in BM (I’m not sure what Primary kids have as classes, but I guess Maths, Social Studies, stuff like that). Each child gets an hour a day in their mother tongue (reading, writing), and an hour a day in their chosen second language (e.g. a Malay does Mandarin or Tamil, an Indian does BM or Mandarin, etc.). Language classes also include aspects of culture –a bit of history, songs, fairy tales, etc. In practice, the non-Malay students may have to do BM as a second language in order to be able to do the other core courses. Children whose mother tongue is English will have to choose one of the other ones, I suppose.

If this works well, by the time the children are 10-11, they are proficient in BM, and in another language; they have had exposure to the other ethnic groups’ language and culture, and had to sit together, play together, eat together, with children of other ethnicities. Importantly, although there is a bias in favour of BM, everyone has had to learn a second language, and so no-one feels particularly disadvantaged.

At this point, they all have to start learning English so as to be able to so the science and maths in English (which is a good idea, I think). They also continue their second language, and have the option of a fourth language (Mandarin or Tamil) if they want to. By the time they finish, in theory, each student has BM and English, as well as either Mandarin or Tamil; in practice, Mandarin would probably be more popular than Tamil; so, after ten years or so, there would be a whole generation of Malaysian children proficient in BM, English and Mandarin or Tamil – imagine how this would benefit Malaysia in terms of international competitiveness!

It would also prevent those ‘dark corners’ of language, where – for example – in an office Indians use Tamil to speak amongst each other and others feel excluded. It would also mean that people cannot use that excuse of language to not employ people who don’t speak Chinese – for example. In addition, most people can understand newspapers/TV/websites in different languages, so politicians can’t get away with giving different messages in different media.

I would also start school earlier at six, and have government-run pre-schools (ages 4-6) that also start teaching some multi-lingual skills already.

Not perfect
Of course it’s not perfect. Dialects would not be included. Orang Asli and Asal languages should ideally be included somehow. Non-Tamil speaking Indians are ignored. English mother-tongue schoolchildren would be somewhat disadvantaged at first (but later on would have an advantage). It may be difficult to get suitable teachers, especially in predominantly Malay, rural areas.

But really, it’s said that the first two years are the most important for a child’s character; and I’d say that the first eleven years are crucial for the formation of a child’s social habits. If a child is in a mono-ethnic environment for those years, I think it can only diminish the chance of an integrated society.

Well, that’s my five sen anyway, feel free to criticise or approve :-)

Blogging and Defamation - Part II

I've been meaning to do this for more than a week now, but have been pretty busy (some previous thoughts here).

The KL Bar Council's Information Technology Committee has planned a series of forums on IT related issues, and this was the first one on "Blogging and Defamation". It started on time (unusually) and the panellists were three long-standing bloggers - Nizam Bashir, Foong Cheng Loong and Jeff Ooi.

The Chair of the Committee stareted by explaining that defamation was
'a statement calculated to injure another person or reduce willingness of others to associate with said person'
There is also civil and criminal defamation - which may be based on the same definition, but the criminal one can land you in jail for two years. He pointed out that there is NO special protection for bloggers, and even criticising someone's char kuey teow in Jalan Alor can be considered defamatory. By the way - 'slander' is oral, and 'defamation' is written - I think they have the same potential liabilities though.

Nizam Bashir (sorry no photo) gave a detailed presentation on the legal history and other facts about defamation and blogging. He pointed out the constitutional 'right to freedom of speech and expression', but there are provisos that limit this right in relation to security, contempt of court, 'morality' [not sure what this was exactly], defamation, incitement of an offence; and also relating to (Bumiputra, I suppose) privileges, religion, and the rulers.

Defences that can be used are:
• Truth: (if it's the truth it's not defamation, I suppose)
• 'Legal, social or moral duty' to say something to a particular person (e.g. a teacher telling a parent their child is no good at school). As relates to blogs, you could have a password protected post for particular person
• Expressing an opinion: the facts must be reasonably accurate and in the public interest - based on the concept of "fair comment"

He said that the key issue was where to place the boundaries to free speech. He said that Malaysians should be able to speak about some of the topics placed 'off-limits' - "we are made of sterner stuff". He also said that one of the consequences of the recent legal actions initiated against bloggers was a chilling effect on the freedom of speech; more people may want to stay anonymous - which affects the credibility of blogs; and overall more problems than solutions is the general result.

bar council malaysia blogs law Foong Cheng Leong
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