Thursday 30 June 2011

The Art of Saying Sorry

Last week, my 14 year-old great-niece Nadia, mailed me her little story titled  "I'm sorry, Mum."  She realized she had not been a "responsible daughter and sister"  and this was her way of coming to terms with her shortcomings.

In the English language several words are available to show contrition:  words like sorry, apologize and excuse me.  It is generally agreed that saying sorry is an expression of regret while  an apology includes an admission of responsibility.

However,  the English language also has the facility to mix words of remorse with aggression.  For example : 'I'm sorry, but you cannot come in.'  But nowadays we hear  a lot of 'Excuse me?' to tell the other person 'You must be some kind of idiot!'

I can only think of two words in Malay for expressing regret - maaf  and  ampun.  The latter is usually used to indicate a strong feeling of compunction or something asked by an 'inferior' from a 'superior' when admitting culpability.

But we also have a 'conscience valve' in our culture where we can wipe off all the hurts we caused in the past year when, on Hari Raya, we ask for maaf zahir dan batin.  The reason for this practice is very laudable although at times it becomes a convenient cop-out clause for those who want to evade accountability for their transgressions and misdemeanours.

This brings me to the sorry state of putting right the wrongs.

Mr Tony Blair, then PM of Great Britain, expressed in November 2004 his 'deep sorrow' for Britain's role in the Slave Trade.  The Atlantic Slave Trade which lasted from 1440 - 1879 was one of the most shameful practices of Western civilization in their desire for profit in the New World.

Well known writers like Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift and Sir Isaac Newton were shareholders in the South Sea Company, Britain's foremost slave trading company.

The Church of England was an accomplice in this trade.  The Church owned sugar plantations, such as the Codrington estates, worked by slaves.  There were bishops in the House of Lords who voted against the abolition of slavery in 1807.  Adam Hochschild, the author of "Bury the Chains" wrote that the "Church's missionary organization, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, branded its slaves on the chest with the word SOCIETY to show who they belonged to."

When you visit Liverpool (the city of the Beatles) or Bristol or Amsterdam, and admire their architectural splendour do remember that their wealth and growth were based almost entirely on trading black men from Africa to work as slaves on sugar and cotton plantations in the Caribbean and what is now the United States of America.  And when Slavery was ended in 1883, Parliament voted compensation to former slave owners rather than the slaves.  The Church received Sterling 8,823 which is about half a million pounds in today's money and the Bishop of Exeter and his associates received Sterling 13,000!!

And, the Anglican PM (now turned Catholic) Tony Blair could not bring himself to issue the full apology which admits responsibility on behalf of his culture, his country and their wealth.

Across the Atlantic pond, President Clinton, in May 1997 apologized formally to the victims of the Tuskegee experiment.

For forty years between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) conducted an experiment on 399 black men in the late stages of syphilis.  These men, for the most part illiterate sharecroppers from one of the poorest counties in Alabama, were never told what disease they were suffering from or of its seriousness.  Informed that they were being treated for "bad blood", their doctors had no intention of curing them from syphilis at all.  The data for the experiment was to be collected from  autopsies of the men, and they were thus deliberately left to degenerate under the ravages of tertiary syphilis - which can include tumours, heart disease, paralysis, insanity, and death.  "As I see it," one of the doctors involved explained, "we have no further interest in these patients until they die."

A whistleblower from the PHS revealed this story and it came to light on July 25 1972 in the Washington Star in an article by Jean Heller.  It took 25 years before an apology was made by the President of the United States.  Perhaps it was no coincidence that Clinton was seeking a second term in office in 1997 and depended very much on black votes!!

Then on 1 October 2010 the USA "apologized for 'outrageous and abhorrent'
 experiments in Guatemala by American doctors who infected hundreds of prisoners, soldiers and mental patients with syphilis in the 1940s."


This time an American Government led by a  partly white(?) or partly black(?)  American President made the gesture 13 years after Clinton's  remorse.

And now, more recently, and closer to home (though they are nowhere near as abominable as the above cases) we have two more examples of the art of "(not) saying sorry." 

In June this year, Lim Kit Siang (LKS) made a faux pas by ticking off his host the Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) for being unrealistic in not joining the opposition coalition front in the next general election.  LKS quickly sought to assuage the feelings of his SAPP comrades with this apology.

"If people think I was very harsh, that was not my intention.  I apologise."  In other words it's not his fault that they misinterpreted his intentions.  Just as the Tuskegee experiment's state health officer claimed that people were trying to 'make a mountain out of a molehill.'

Minister Mentor, now Emeritus Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) made a statement on 7 March 2011 regarding  a remark in his book "Hard Truths" about the failure of Singapore Malay-Muslims to integrate.

He said   "Hard Truths was a book based on 32 hours of interviews over a period of 2 years.  I made this one comment on the Muslims integrating with other communities probably 2 or 3 years ago.  Ministers and MPs, both Malay and non-Malay, have since told me that Singapore Malays have indeed made special efforts to integrate with the other communities, especially since 9/11, and that my call is out of date.  I stand corrected.  I hope that this trend will continue in the future."
(The Straits Times March 8 2011)

LKY does not do sorry or accept sorry except in a libel case.  The imperious "I stand corrected" only implied that his statement about the Malays was not really wrong.   It was just 'out of date'.  In other words, before 9/11 the Malays made no 'special efforts' to integrate.   Excuse me?   I thought they have been doing just that since 1819!!

Now that LKY has been brought 'up to date' by the men at the top, he looks forward to this trend continuing.    Aaaahh, a pat on the head for all Singaporean Malay-Muslims: carry on with the special effort - and continue being a good and and obedient community.

Here endeth the lesson on "How not to say sorry".

Honesty is a good
thing but
it is not profitable to
its possessor
unless it is
kept under control.
(Don Marquis  1878-1937)

Tuesday 21 June 2011



Tuberculosis in Singapore in the 1950s was a serious health problem, like Aids today.   "The Report on the Pilot Survey conducted under the Colombo Plan in 1959 ....... set the incidence at 3 percent of the population".  ( State of Singapore Annual Report 1959 ).  Earlier Annual Reports from 1954-1956 emphasized the same problem.  Here's an extract from the 1955 Colonial Reports, page 130.

The blight caused by this disease was all too familiar for us when we were living at Kampung Abu Kassim, Pasir Panjang.  Several of our neighbours had been diagnosed and were being treated as in-patients or out-patients for that dreaded batuk kering.  They were mostly adult men,  the bread-winners of the family.  I remembered one of them, our nearest neighbour.  This was his house next to ours.
He was ostracized by many of the villagers.  They would not invite him to their houses or visit him at his.  They feared his proximity and his cough - all very understandable.  Abah, who taught about infectious diseases at the British Army School of Health, gave him some support by chatting with him now and then.  And when he dropped in for a drink, Abah made sure his glass was properly sterilized after use and it was set aside only for when he came.

Such TB patients were given some degree of welfare aid.  This is from the Colony of Singapore Annual Report, 1956.  You can see how the number of families receiving aid increased from  120 in 1949 to 1,969 in 1956.

But, this of course, hardly sufficed.


This teapot was what remained of a tea-set which was a wedding present from Hoe Huat, our kedai runcit, when my KL cousin Rosli married my Singapore cousin Salha in 1957, at our house.  It travelled from Pasir Panjang and Jalan Mas Kuning in Singapore to Jalan Giam, Johor Bharu and then to my sister's house at Batu Pahat.  She gave me this teapot, two cups and saucers and a side plate which I then packed to keep in Leicester.

To us Hoe Huat was simply called Kedai Ah Chwee .

Hoe Huat was located either at the shop called el barrio or the one to the right. This photo was taken last year.  Almost all the shops on this stretch of 5 m.s. Pasir Panjang have been tarted up into bars.

Here is a map to indicate the location of our house at Kampung Abu Kassim (Lorong Abu Kassim) and Kedai Ah Chwee.

Three brothers ran that shop like a tight ship.  Ah Chwee was the eldest, the typical portly Chinese 'towkay' who worked and sweated in the shop despite his status as the boss.  Ah Seng was the second eldest, who looked (to me at least) like a 'samseng'.  He was the general factotum, responsible for the heavy work and  delivery of the customers' orders.  He was tough and as strong as a horse.  But he always had a broad smile for me whenever I bumped into him as he delivered my great-uncle's and great-aunt's five katis of rice and five katis of sugar at their house at Jalan Pasir Ria.  Sometimes, when I saw Ah Seng at the shop, he would pass me an orange or a few sticks of sweet 'kundor' as I left for home.  I started my trips to Kedai Ah Chwee from the age of 10 (I think)  and this slowly  wound down when I started  my A Levels.

The one my sister remembered  (because he was so, so handsome) was the one we called Kerani.  He was the youngest, sitting at the counter, and always immaculately dressed in a nice shirt.  He handled all the accounts for the shop and was always soft-spoken with a nice smile whenever he talked to you.

After his usual stopover to see Gemok his Chinese friend who ran the timber yard, Abah would nip in at Kedai Ah Chwee and the three brothers would always call out,  "Apa Khabar, Inche?".  Abah would chat with Kerani about various things:  once Kerani told my dad,  "Itu Lee Kuan Yew hati busuk.  Dia Hakka".

I was responsible for doing the family's shopping at Kedai Ah Chwee.  Sometimes I would walk through the 'kampungs' to get to the shop and occasionally I would ride my reliable Rudge bicycle.  I preferred to walk because I could make secret detours to the jambu air tree or the buah susu bush.  My favourite forbidden fruit was the rambutan which grew behind the fence of this Chinese house with a resident guard-dog.  Most times I was too fleet-footed for this mangy hound but there was one time when I had to flee helter-skelter for my life.

After finishing my mother's shopping list, Kerani  would tote up the amount in this notebook.

This of course is the 'modern' 555.  The 1950s version was not written in Malay.

At the end of each month, I would hand over the monthly payment  and  Kerani duly wrote it down  in that little 555 notebook.

Every Hari Raya my mother would prepare a tray of Hari Raya goodies for our kedai friends.  I was pleased to be the bearer of such yummy comestibles.  Ah Chwee would make sure I got home with a bagful of fresh oranges, tinned grapes, tinned pears, tinned pineapples, tinned butter and sometimes tinned Milkmaid cheese!!  Wow!.  He knew these were the kinds of food we could not afford to buy.


Exactly when and why my father decided to open a little sundry shop I cannot recall.  It was located near the junction of Chwee Chian Road and Pasir Panjang Road.  I will never forget the name  "Malay  Trading" written on a big wooden board at the front of the shop.

Abah got his friend and  an ex-TB patient called Pakcik Majid to run the shop.  At that time, jobs for such afflicted men were scarce and beyond reach.  I remember him as a lean, tall man, often in his Baju Melayu and songkok, looking a little like the actor Haji Mahadi.

Then, one evening, we were all called in for a family conference.   My dad was in tears.  Mak was too, but I can only remember Abah's tears.  He had been embezzled of $5,000 by the man he had trusted to run the shop.  I cannot begin to think what the equivalent of that money is, today.  My mother wanted to sell all her jewellery but my father sadly told her that even that was not enough.  My sister Maznah remembered all these details.  For me, I can only remember the tears.

So who did my father turn to?  Kedai Ah Chwee lent him the $5,000 and Abah paid it back with a monthly payment of $500.

And this was the reason why, when my sister and I and my brother Mus came home from school all we had for lunch was rice, kicap  and ikan bilis on a tray.  No second helpings.  Sometimes this would be our lunch for two or three times a week.  But being the considerate wife that she was, mak made sure our meals with our father were more substantial.  She realised the burden he had to shoulder and he should be spared more grief.

It was also why I used to accompany my mother in and out of Pawn shops at Telok Blangah and Tanjong Pagar.

And yet my father's monthly contribution of rice and sugar to his wife's uncle and aunt never stopped.

A poignant tale maybe - but a hopeful one too  -  about Trust and Honour between a Malay man and his Chinese Shopkeeper.


Tuesday 14 June 2011

Glass Houses and Heaven

Many of those who learned of  the agenda of the Malaysian Obedient Wives Club were outraged, and rightly so.  Others rubbed their hands with glee - ah more stones to chuck at the Muslims!  But such snide and self-righteous barbs at Islam in general and Muslim women (in Malaysia) in particular can often smell of wilful ignorance and academic skullduggery.

Let's survey the wider issue of the plight of women worldwide - especially those in the West.  Many bits and pieces are not easily available in the international news media.  Some you discover tucked in the nooks and crannies of the national papers, the local provincial rags or magazines and journals.

Here is some of the material I've collected in my magpie's nest.

 On Jewish women and get.

So, they are also subjected to 'gantung tidak bertali' - like the 'oppressed' women of Islam!

On Rape in Universities
  The NST (11 June 2011) reported on a National Union of Students poll of 1,500 women students where 17% of the respondents (one in six) had been victims of rape, 12% of attempted rape by, in most cases friends and acquaintances.  Did this occur in some backward, despotic banana republic?

It happens to have occurred in Australia, one of the "beacons" of  female emancipation.  So Malaysian parents, take heed about sending your daughters to Australian Universities.  If the situation had been reversed, I'd give Australian parents the same caution.

Women's Body Parts
Mrs Obama is a highly regarded and successful lawyer in her own right. But national British papers like the Sunday Telegraph (9 May 2009) are mainly interested in her 'exceptionally toned upper arms"
 Anne Elliot, the heroine of Jane Austen's "Persuasion" puts it to Captain Harville, 'All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one, you need not covet it) is that of loving longest, when existence or hope is gone.'

So what do women want today?  Long-lasting and Selfless Love, a la Anne Elliot?  Nyaah!  Most want  'Angelina Jolie's pillow lips, and J-Lo's derriere'  and Lady Gaga's lifestyle.

It seems that in Brazil, the plastic surgery industry provides not only nose and breast jobs.  They will remove ribs to tuck in the waist, insert implants for a fullsome backside.  As for liposuction - it's a common every day service.  But they do provide a welfare service.  Once a year a famous plastic surgeon offers free operations to the poor.  Now, that's what you call equality.

The Protection of Women and Children in Britain

  • I  copied the words in the above  notice when the spouse was going for his scan at Leicester's General Hospital.    Note the low age limit of pregnancy.      But don't be surprised.    A workmate of mine was very proud of being a great grandmother when her granddaughter had a baby at the age of 12.

  • The system attributes women's 'self-destructive' habits to Depression.  To me this is more of a 'chicken and egg' situation.  Which comes first?

  And as for Malaysia....

I have no training in Hermeneutics.  As far as I'm aware, of all the world's major religions, Islam especially has granted women the right to be treated as equal human beings with men, as a partner in this life.  They have been created with a soul - just as men have.  Men and women have mutual rights and responsibilities.

Last Sunday I was watching a woman's programme on RTM 1 about the impact of the OWC on the place of Muslim women in a marriage.  I must admit I could not bear to watch much of it.

When the Datuk/Dato Ustad was asked about how women should deal with a husband who plonks a second wife into the marriage, the answer given, in gist, was ' be patient' with the situation. If you cannot find happiness in the marriage, you can look forward to a place in Heaven for being forbearing.

Heaven help such women.

There's a Malay saying :  Dibuat kerana Allah, menjadi kerana olah.   (Done for God, but it becomes a dodge.)

Help!  I feel like looking for a 'tempurung' (coconut shell) to hide under.

Monday 13 June 2011

" The Days Are Just Packed "

For the past week I've been caught up in a debate on the internet about guess what ? Is it the Nato bombing of Libya or the Flotilla's plight in trying to deliver aid to Gaza?  No!

It's all about women and sex.  Guess which country and which religion?  But of course it had to be Malaysia and Islam - about the promises of great sex and obedience  in the Obedient Wives Club (OWC).   The news got to my attention via a round-robin e-mail  from  Australia.  Oh no, not again - Islam and Muslim women are once again turned into the laughing stock of the world's media.

Enough has been written in Malaysia and abroad about this issue. I can only add a despairing note.  After over 50 years of Independence and open opportunities for education, employment  and economic progress some Muslim women are happy to roll over and submit themselves to the  duties of obediently satisfying the sexual  wishes of their husbands so that they won't go a-wandering!

I think my illiterate grandmother and others of her generation had more sense and dignity in keeping a marriage partnership afloat whether on calm or stormy waters.  I find it hard to understand how the brains of such modern women that created the OWC could succumb to pressure from the men AND the other women too.

But my debate has more to do with a cocky, self-righteous comment by ( I can only guess from the e-mail address and the name) a Muslim lady from Singapore  which said  "Tell our men to move to Malaysia Boleh" ...... which is claimed to be funny ha ha!

According to Calvin and Hobbes, my two favourite philosophers, in

"...........ignorance is bliss.......... if you're wilfully stupid, you don't know any better, so you can do whatever you like.  The secret to happiness is short-term, stupid self-interest" said  Calvin.

(Watterson, Bill.  "The Days Are Just Packed"  Warner Books, Great Britain, 1993, page 79)

[The key word here is 'wilful' - which means "intentional, deliberate, due to perversity or self-will, for which compulsion or ignorance or accident cannot be pleaded as an excuse".  OED]

In my next posting I shall write about how to avoid stupid self-interest and remain contented  or the ASSIARC  Club.

For starters, here's another Ladies Club - set up in July 2010 in Singapore Eh-Sai.

Friday 3 June 2011

Fire of Love - The Penultimate Episode

Margaret Wicks or Peggy.......
Peggy, just after the Second World War
..........was his favourite Aunt.  She was for me, the best aunt-in-law in the world and when I started life as a married woman in England, Peggy and Dorothy were my best girlfriends.  She's gone now.  But she led an amazing life, a brave and very generous woman although she had very little in the way of  fortune.  She deserves a posting of her own, my tribute to a wonderful lady.

We met up with Peggy in Bishop Auckland where she lived and decided to take a little holiday up north in Northumberland.  Peggy knew this area like the back of her hand but 'sir'  ( what she used to call him when he got stubborn) the geographer insisted on using his map.

So we got lost looking for the Cheviots!!!  Maizie was cross and Peggy had to cross her legs because we could not get to the Youth Hostel at the arranged time.

Peggy wanted us to visit the tidal island called Holy Island or Lindisfarne.  It was connected to the mainland by a natural causeway that was only passable at low tide.  He did try to to leave us stranded on the island but he would not be able to find his way home without Peggy!  Drat, double drat he said!
 We usually cooked our own meals at the Youth Hostel - it was cheaper and more homely.  Peggy and I did the cooking and 'sir' did the washing-up. For this, I ticked a pass in his Report Book - to add to his credentials.  He still keeps to this duty today. 

One night, in a fit of generous madness he gave us two women a treat of fish and chips at Wooler.  That was great fun and I shall never forget the exotic experience of eating fried potatoes and fried fish in batter all wrapped up in newspaper.  I cannot remember eating better fish and chips!

In the years to come we had many little sorties with Peggy - we would visit her about 4-5 times in a year.  She was lively, cheerful, intelligent and great fun to be with.  On one of those trips she presented me with this wooden-peg doll.  She made it herself and the hair for the doll was her own hair!  That doll has pride of place in my home here and in my life.
I love the little handbag and dog and the umbrella and the other intricate details. This doll is only 5 inches high!

For the final episode - there will be a change of scene.  Our hero, who has a pathological fear of flying decided to return to another island which he left about 13 years ago - to return to Singapore.