Against All Odds
As we Asians/Southeast Asians/Malaysians bask vicariously in Michelle Yeoh’s glittering success and ultimate recognition by Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, take a moment to discover the journey of her fellow Asian co-star and Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor, Vietnamese American Ke Huy Quan. While Michelle’s journey to the Oscar red carpet may have been paved in gold, Ke’s was that of a wandering vagrant; a nameless, faceless, invisible immigrant eking out a living toiling the backstreets of Hollywood.
Ke’s family were originally Vietnamese boat people, fleeing refugees by boat off the war torn coast of then South Vietnam in the early 70s. His father and four year old him, sailed northeast towards Hong Kong, while his mother and siblings sailed southwest towards Malaysia; it was typical for families to deliberately divide to maximise their chances of eventually reaching and reuniting in America, which they did against all odds. Ke has defied all odds again more than four decades later.
My wife, a Southeast Asian (ASEAN) Games gold medalist in her youth (in silat olahraga, the Malay form of martial arts), once told me: on the great big stage when they hold up your hands in victory against your opponent, embrace humility even as you fix your teary eyes on the 🇲🇾 flag, because only you know how ridiculously impossible the journey actually was. Everyone else thinks it was destiny.
Passion, bravery and grit are what separates the dreamer from the day dreamer. In this Michelle and Ke are exactly the same.
A Malaysian Oscar
As Malaysians we instinctively lay claim to our nation’s daughters and sons who gain global success despite them having long left our shores. Malaysia was simply too small for their craft and talents. We celebrate and embrace with neither a hint of resentment nor embarrassment; eschewing “sowhatism”, “ifonlyism”
Privilege (family, exposure, education) gives you a valuable head start no matter what your nationality, creed or colour. But no amount of privilege can win you an Oscar. So heartiest congratulations and thank you Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh for being the first ever Asian in 95 years of the Oscars to be nominated and win Best Actress.
And yes my daughters are that little bit more inspired today to be all they can ever be.
Of childhood friends..
There’s a special joy in meeting a childhood friend.
Returning to Malaysia from Poland where my father was serving as a diplomat in 1984, I remember walking into Cikgu Abdullah Hj Mohd Salleh’s Bahasa Malaysia class a few days after the school year had already begun. 30 pairs of curious eyes stared back at me as I made my way to the back of class. There was an empty seat next to this boy, he gestured for me to sit. At the time I spoke no Malay, he knew a few words in English. I might as well have been an 👽 from another planet.
And so began my lifelong friendship with Abdul Razak Yacob (Ajak) for nearly 4 decades since that very first day at Sekolah Menengah Sains Muar, Johore. Over the 5 years at this science boarding school, I came to know his siblings, his parents. I spent short breaks at his humble home in Sagil at the foothills of Gunung Ledang. His father was a teacher, his mother a home maker. They treated me as one of their own. Afternoons we spent out in the verandah because the zinc roof made the noon day heat unbearable. Evenings we ate together on the linoleum covered floor and slept in the living room.
It was with Ajak that I discovered the joys of kampung life. We hiked and swam the nearby waterfalls. We rode kapcai through oil
palm estates and coffee plantations. We climbed coconut trees. He taught me how to open a coconut with a parang (and how to eat the flesh without a spoon). During Ramadhan we would visit suraus near and far. On one occasion after coming back from terawikh prayers his motorcycle ran over what felt like a speed bump – we turned around and the lights shone brightly on a huge python slithering across the pitch dark estate road! Kampung style weddings were the best, we got to help with communal duties gotong royong style for days on end. Girls would be in their Sunday best 😉. Hari Raya was another food filled delight, we would visit every neighbour in the village and selawat marhaban for nights on end. We took every opportunity to camp up on Gunung Ledang and one time, I cut myself pretty badly while trying to chop wood for fire with a parang – the deep scar on my left hand is a fond reminder of the many adventures we had together.
Our friendship greatly influenced our attitudes towards studies too. Ajak taught me Malay and I taught him English, the quid pro quo was too obvious. He was always curious about my life in far away lands. For SRP, Ajak was the school’s top student scoring straight As and remarkably, I was among the top 10 with my rudimentary Malay three years before. Two years later for our SPM, I emerged top student and Ajak among the top 5. Funnily, after years of his tutelage, I scored A1 for BM and he A2; he scored C3
for English (Ajak, you were the better tutor 😂). We both won full scholarships to do A Levels in the UK under the Government’s British Top Universities (BTU) programme. I truly believe if it wasn’t for our friendship, neither Ajak nor I would have made it to England to further our studies. Allah intended for our paths to cross.
Thirty five years on, Ajak’s destiny is that he and his family have made England their home for over two decades now. A boy who lived his whole childhood in and around Sagil and Muar. Having lived overseas my whole life until the age of 13, followed by university and later, work in London, I’m now happily settled in KL. Like a lazy Susan, the tables are now turned.
So when Ajak and I met again recently on one of his rare visits home, we simply picked up where we left off, swapping stories about kids, work and life. I pray that you will continue to be blessed with peace and happiness old friend.
A short story on love, kinship and political succession.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, a handsome 26 year old man married a 17 year old girl. 4 years later, the man’s friend (younger by just a month and now 30), marries the girl’s younger sister (who’s now 19).
Both men enter their soon to be independent nation’s politics and rise steadily through the ranks.
In 1957, the younger man ascends to the second highest public office in the land, five months shy of his 35th birthday. The other having quit politics some five years earlier, is a successful practising lawyer. Both have growing families closely intertwined by the matriarch sisters.
Fast forward a decade or so later, the younger man becomes Prime Minister. The year is 1970 and he’s 48. A year or two prior he asks his brother-in-law to quit the law and rejoin full time politics. The elder man acquiesces and the younger man appoints the former into his very first Cabinet as Education Minister. Together the two begin to shape the new face of the country post a traumatic and bloody breakdown in race relations.
Three years later, the elder man is elevated again alongside the younger man, this time as Deputy Prime Minister (when the incumbent dies suddenly in office), and now assumes the Trade & Industry portfolio. A year on he then assumes the key Finance portfolio from a man who previously held it for 15 years. There is a certain urgency in the air.
As fate has it, 21 months later on 14 January 1976, the country’s 2nd Prime Minister, the younger of the two men, dies of a terminal illness and his brother-in-law, the Deputy Prime Minister, succeeds him as the 3rd Prime Minister. The younger man’s eldest son stands in his late father’s Parliamentary constituency and wins uncontested given the grief of the nation. His uncle the new Prime Minister, goes on to appoint his 24 year old nephew a Deputy Minister two years later, and leads the country for 5 years before stepping down in 1981. (The nephew becomes Prime Minister himself 31 years later, but that’s a story for another time).
The younger man is Tun Abdul Razak. The elder man Tun Hussein Onn. The country is Malaysia.
By historical accounts the decade between 1970-81 where both men, brothers-in-law, held the highest public office in turn, has been characterised as a time of peaceful recovery in race relations, brimming with furious nation building endeavours, the thrusting of young upcoming talent of all races to the fore, a respect for the rule of law and zero tolerance for corruption and conniving behaviour. Malaysia was a hopeful place.
And yet by any textbook definition, nepotism was clearly present at the very top of the country. Practised by Prime Ministers who were Presidents of UMNO, the grand old party of the nation.
There are many who today argue that nepotism in whatever shape, form or circumstance, has no place at all in society and public office. That it is by definition a corrupt, self serving act that inevitably corrodes trust and good will in society. I am not one of them and if it is not already obvious, more sanguine in my view.
But I would very much like to hear how those who subscribe to such an unequivocal belief, would characterise the moral and ethical positions of Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Hussein Onn during their time in public office.
I am also certain there are those who honestly and sincerely believe nepotism has no place in society and I would like to understand your perspective as it applies present day to the 10th Prime Minister, his party as well as to the DAP, PAS and other Sarawak & Sabah based parties, where such practices are alive and well.
Is nepotism by sheer virtue of its presence, a death knell for public trust and good governance?
Or can it also be a benign force in a period of great personal mistrust, misunderstanding and Machiavellian machinations among the great, the good, the bad and downright ugly who lead in our name?
As in most things in life, the answer may well be less than black or white.
Much ado about Nurul
There is nothing legally or morally wrong with the Prime Minister’s appointment of his eldest daughter Nurul Izzah as his Senior Adviser. Legally, the law allows it. Morally, she has the basic qualifications (forget the title: she could just as easily be called Assistant Special Assistant to the PM). The poor optics and noisy chatter are but temporary distractions of a disgruntled few (or many).
Newly minted Ministers without prior administrative experience is a risky, hit or miss proposition. And more so with bigger, weightier portfolios. First time front benchers in the past, particularly during the Tun Razak, Tun Hussein and Tun Dr Mahathir eras, were made Deputy Ministers or Parliamentary Secretaries initially, but this apprenticeship rite of passage no longer applies in today’s Tik Tok, ChatGPT politics. But if we truly want high performing, competent Ministers in the future, they will need to be carefully groomed. We do this all the time in the private sector: Leaders are identified early, given stretched challenges and increasingly bigger roles. Some succeed while others fall by the wayside. But not everyone who is capable or has potential gets a chance. That’s life and life isn’t fair.
Nurul Izzah’s government appointment is not without precedent either. Before full time politics, Khairy Jamaluddin began his working life as an adviser to his father-in-law the then DPM (and later the 5th PM). Khairy’s grasp of government and his efficacy as a Minister can be traced back to these early foundations as a civil servant. A competent Minister isn’t necessarily the best qualified but is often the best exposed and most rounded. As a nation we need a good crop of them to be harvested time and again.
One swallow doesn’t make a summer, but what the 10th Prime Minister is doing might just be the small first steps towards competent government this nation so badly needs.
Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Time will tell.
Ps. Notwithstanding the above, I strongly urge that Nurul Izzah be properly hired as a contract officer to regularise her appointment and presence in the Prime Minister’s office and the Finance Ministry. She can donate her salary to charity but an employment contract ensures she is governed by a code of conduct and subject to a set of rules and laws applicable to all civil servants carrying out their public duties in the name of King and country. There cannot be any grey areas or half hearted measures at the very heart of government.
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