Prose, poetry and prattle: some published, and some ... well, not yet.

Monday, 10 December 2007


The review in THE STAR of 9th December 2007

More than meets the eye

In this play set 13 years ago in Sabah, double-edged one-liners helped to lift it into the contemporary realm.


Dec 5-9
The Annexe Gallery,
Central Market, KL


THEY said The Tarap Man is a journalistic thriller. They lied. The Tarap Man is more than that. It is an unflinching look at a system that failed and continues to fail the individual.

It is about socio-political reality failing common humanity; about the fourth estate (Senior journalist to young award-winning one: “Once upon a time, there was a Fourth Estate.” “Where?”) failing to maintain journalistic integrity, preferring to play ball instead. It is about metaphors of life, surviving the system and rising above it. The play may have been set 13 years ago but given recent events, the threads are wholly contemporary.

The Tarap Man is set in Sabah. It is about a boy incarcerated for the murder of his mother in 1952 and presumably still in prison with the system having forgotten about him. More than 50 years later, a journalist struggles to unravel the truth about him. Against the backdrop loom the state elections of 1994, a critical testing time for the system, individual and the public at large.

When Aashi (Anne James) finally meets the tarap man (Vernon Adrian Emuang), she is swept into his secret, cryptic world.

The play could have descended into ponderous pathos; instead, it is largely accessible and absorbing, thanks to gifted acting, direction and production. Double-edged one-liners helped to lift the play into the contemporary realm. Goes one line: “What makes you think that those who fight for democracy are democratic themselves?” And when Cornelia (Mia Palencia) is chuffed about her award-winning piece on endangered corals, she meets with “So you think that if they know, they will care?” Perhaps the most thought provoking line belongs to Leong Kin (Thor Kah Hoong) when he tells his editor: “Do not mistake my silence for my compliance.”

Rising above being merely entertained, the audience is constantly forced to assess meaning within meaning and so an interactive process is created. For this, if not anything else, go watch this wholly original local play by Ann Lee. The play is in English but incorporates naturally into its flow, other languages such as Hakka, Telugu, Kadazan and Malay.

Aashi (Anne James) is a Semenanjung journalist in Sabah, in cold storage, for writing one too many critical pieces against the establishment. She is advised by friend and colleague, Leong Kin, to lie low. Aashi is incredulous. “Lie low? I am in Sabah. How low do you want me to go?”
When Leong Kin corrects her usage of a preposition, she barks about his ability to “debate the details to death and miss the main point entirely”. Frustrated, cynical, increasingly depressed and dependant on her pills, Aashi finds in the search for the tarap man, a lifeline to rescue herself from her own darkness and rigor mortis.
As she delves deeper, she comes up against a hardened, routinely obstructive public system as well as the authoritarian stance of her editor, Regina (Christina Orow), indifferent to “the epic miscarriage of justice”.
As character interacts with character, the players find that the quest for the tarap man has irrevocably changed their own perspectives. Leong Kin learns to stand up for truth, forsaking security and even Aashi, in her quest for truth, learns about honesty from fresh-faced, idealistic Cornelia.
When she finally meets him, Aashi connects immediately with the tarap man (Vernon Adrian Emuang).

A different kind of mentoring. Leong Kin (Thor Kar Hoong) wants more from Cornelia (Mia Palencia) than what she is willing to give.

Their critical scene together, pivotal to the play, is perhaps the weakest scene, marred by a script that suddenly becomes a mishmash of the obscure, the incomprehensible and the simply too confusing. A tighter reined script here, that allows the leaps and incoherence without sacrificing understanding, would have been good.

We get the gist though: the tarap man is no mad creature. He is governed by his own unconventional views and methods. Perhaps saner than many, he is cryptic, mysterious, complex and he cunningly keeps his secrets.

Single-minded in pushing his agenda, Aashi refuses to acknowledge or cover the larger-than-life political crisis in Sabah then and so is sacked again.

There are many threads in the play and not all of them quite work. We don’t know what is really in the letters. Did the tarap man actually kill his mother? Is he mad pretending to be sane pretending to be mad? There are no neat tie-ups but it doesn’t quite matter.

Director Zahim Albakri is brilliant – though I can’t understand the necessity for the table tennis scene. Vernon Adrian Emuang, Anne James and Thor Kah Hoong are outstanding and the rest of the cast, very impressive.

At intermission, the audience finds itself ushered out by a cold-faced prison guard: “Pigi! Pigi! Pigi! Cepat!” Her words are chilling. I would use the words with more warmth and say, “Pigi! Pigi! Pigi cepat and watch the play.”

Sunday, 12 August 2007

The Deafening Silence

It sings a mocking dirge
A melody untuned
Which rocks upon the earth
Unsettling every dune
And while the tides unfurl
A froth of hope and gloom
A precious little girl
Stands silent in my room.

So much was shared between
The wires of a song
But everything seems nothing
Since you won't play along.

Perhaps I should have not
had that facetious thought.

"But he that dares not grasp the thorn, should never crave the rose." - Ann Bronte

Thursday, 2 August 2007

A Personal Belief About Beliefs

Belief is an amazing thing. While belief is neither a fact nor an empirical, it can hold great sway among many of us.

Perhaps this is because belief brings order to a chaotic mind, a chaotic world.

Belief decrees, and so demarcates, and while it arranges, it is divisive. The more there is of one kind of it - the more likely that those who stand apart from that kind of belief may be excluded by it. Often, those who make the choice to question a belief, or challenge it, put themselves at great risk of exclusion or derision by those greater in number who stand by it.

Belief is perception. It is not reality. Often we forget. But then, what is reality but a prevailing agreement of the most common perceptions. So, widespread belief can immolate reality with its fervour.

Thankfully, belief is known to evolve. Change. It must. Because the human mind is a fickle thing.

And that which finds home within, like a belief, may also change. Evolve.

Yet, belief would rather forget that the only constant is change. Mostly, belief hates this . Because belief believes it exists to bring order to a chaotic mind. Belief thrives in diplomacy, which advocates order. But belief does not need diplomacy. For when a belief is strong enough, diplomacy is a hindrance. Like a stampeding horde, a popular belief that has never been challenged will trample underfoot those who linger in inquiry or doubt. Or even in diplomacy.

Belief unchallenged is a ball of snow allowed to roll down a slope. Belief unchallenged may grow bigger, but that does not mean it will grow better. A snowball, no matter the size, is always just a snowball. It cannot pretend to have turned into an igloo. That needs work. Needs craft. Needs inquiry and discussion to shape and mould it into something more useful.

That’s my belief. What’s yours?

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Swept Away

My unbridled
optimism gets in the
way of
my longing to be
a fabulous realist.

It is true.

I think too much.

Your one gesture spoke

And a castle rose up
upon the fecund beach
where many ruins now stand.

There another ruin
now stands.

And I feel wonderful.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Eaten Away

Cutting my losses
Just moving on
Accepting defeat
Extracting a thorn

How was I fooled?
Blind as a bat
Humility absent
You're not where I'm at.

Yeah, go on, snigger
Playing your game
Who's your next quarry?
So friggin'lame

Should I just hope you
Choke on your bile
Even your death
Isn't worthwhile.

All this is silly
The anger I feel
Frustration uncloaks me
Rage makes me its meal.

Why this theatrics?
It baffles me so.
Because it was not
where I wanted to go.

And when I relented
You knew you had snared
This stupid damn fool
That could never be spared.

You gawked and you prodded
And when you were bored
Made the decision
To ignite the discord.

This throwaway thing
Is how I do feel.
Frustration uncloaks me
Rage makes me its meal.

Monday, 25 June 2007

The Anticipation of Arrival

This is a campaign I created for Ismail & Associates in the advertising account pitch for Mutiara Crowne Plaza Hotels sometime in 2005. Yes, that long ago. Sigh.

The hospitality chain was formerly known as Merlin Hotels & Resorts, and they had various kinds of hotels in cities and resorts.

As per the usual with some of my best work (well, I do like this series of ads), another agency got the account and these thumbnails remain for me to gloat about as great ideas that were never realised.

My strategy was to create anticipation via suggestive and evocative headlines. Stir the kind of excitement in a reader's imagination as if they were about to embark on a trip, or arrive at a destination.

It was about creating a feeling for a place that is almost palpable even though you hadn't been there yet.

Isn't that the excitement and anticipation of travel?

Do you think it works here?

Monday, 4 June 2007

Wake Up The Village!

MM asked:

How do we change mindsets towards women so that they are no longer the victims of violence and abuse?

The word "abuse" isn't exclusive to physical harm. Many women around the world, across races, religions, income, class & cultures, are equally subjected to psychological, social or mental abuse, which are sometimes even more damaging than physical violence.

How can sexist, derogatory & abusive attitudes be overcome?

What role do the rest of us play in this process of change?

So I answered:

Mindsets and attitudes can only change with education and illumination, over time ... and each of us have the responsibility to do what we can when we see injustice of any kind.

We must speak out because evil triumphs when good people do nothing.

We must be proactive - teach young people to be empathetic and compassionate. Give them the awareness to recognize injustice, and how it can damage and hurt.

Bring home the truth of what hurts and destroys, what is evil and what aids the negative actions of others.

Young children should be nurtured on parables and fables, all those great stories that can fuel the imagination and strike a chord in the heart.

Those neurons must be sensitized from a young age. And this also happens when children themselves are subjected to care and compassion by adults. Are we spending enough time with them on these story-lessons?

Parents need to spend precious, quality time with their children. Adults need to set strong and clear examples. Abberant adults should be taken to task by those who witness their intolerable actions, especially when children are about.

It is true that it takes a whole village to bring up a child, and our villages need to come together fast!

Then I decided to take advantage of Yahoo! Answers:


I am unable to stay focussed on goals that I want to achieve. What can I do?

Question Details:

Too many ideas, not enough cerebral RAM or physical energy. I seem to be chasing my own tail on many things. I know that once I set my mind to it, I can make things happen. The universe has been good to me that way - providing many opportunities, and connecting me with wonderful helpful and generous friends and family. But I still feel unfulfilled. What's really missing?

I can't wait to see what answers come back.

Wake up the Village Idiot!

A Curious Blend

Burmah Road is one of the oldest parts of Georgetown in Penang, and is a main street for Kampung Serani. This was where a Eurasian community re-settled from Thailand, brought over by the British to act as go-betweens between the colonists and the local people, in the late 1700s.

I wrote these few verses to start me off, and hope to extend it further at a later stage.


Remember when the roads were lined
With shady trees as old as time
A village where proud houses stood
On pedestals or stilts of wood.

The families who lived here then
Comprising of a curious blend,
Were not as obvious just by face
To fit just one specific race.

For here was quite a melting pot
Of foreign ties and polyglots,
Where great-grandpa now buried here
Did come by ship from not so near.

(To be continued... )

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Wilting Without Grace

I am wilting. It is getting unbearably hot here. Not the kind that tingles the pores of your skin like a well-earned sauna. It is quite different. It is an oppressive kind of heat and I feel driven to jump from this kuali into Sungei Wang. Blame the humidity, the high percentage of moisture in the air that clots each laboured breath, makes the skin clammy, and makes even a harmless cotton-blend from British India feel like a Lycra straight-jacket fashioned for a rave at your local downtown asylum. It is the kind of humidity only fat Cuban cigars with equally fat price tags could appreciate. Not me. I cannot roll that way.

I am wilting. Even though my great-grandparents were born here (all eight should be enough), and probably their parents, too, the mitochondrial legacy within me struggles to acclimatize. Should I wonder why it would take this long? Will my children's children feel as alien? When is the time when my progeny will fully feel at ease, fully integrate and disappear into the kerawang? Until then, do we deserve to be treated like … well, termites?

I am wilting. I feel the energy draining from me. The oppresive temperature bears down on any semblance of hope I ever did harbour. Yes, it once sprang from my breast with enthusiasm born of youth. Perhaps, more than a port-of-call, what my post-adolescent hope really needed was an aircraft carrier. Not long ago, in the last millennium, as a returnee, that idealistic foreign graduate – stupid me – I should have launched my unapologetic assault upon these beloved shores. But now more than I had ever imagined, I feel embattled – like many around me; bullied by crafty, titled figures of authority, brow beaten by badge-wielding officers behind glass counters, held frozen by those swirling blue lights on screaming white Protons. The servants are not civil in this land of Planta. They look at me with contempt because they have been told that their gourd is more bitter than mine, or because language fails me. Annie Lennox knew this well. (I love her voice and know she sings for me.)

And you? Are you not wilting, too? Surely, sister, you must be choking in those swarthes of fabric meant to keep sandblasting winds at bay as they would (as you are so often told) those dreadful primal distractions. And, Tuan, can't you see how the sweltering demarcations are closing in around you, until where you may sip an iced cincau even will be governed by men with oily moustaches?

I am wilting. My knees tremble because the spot where I stand has shifting sands. I am told I should be thankful that it is not quicksand. This could be one of those places you see on CNN, they say. The kind that in time will become the setting of an award-winning epic movie or television blockbuster. Where the hundreds of extras the producers hire won't need to move too much. Listen … maybe they all started this way, too? Something strange would hang in the air which not nearly enough among them ever thought required speaking up about. So, the strangeness unchallenged crept over them like another harmless twilight. Lines drawn in the sand, differences no longer merely observed but legislated, and soon the yellow stars come out to play. Syurga forbid we ever come to that? Choy! Is it not strange that inclusion must be fought for?

Oh, I am wilting. Aku melayu. Can I say that? Well, I did. Because I so want to – truly.


This piece (a lightly abridged version) appeared in the Ramblings column of TELL (July 2007) magazine. Do pick up a copy - it's one of the more daring magazines around.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

No Answers

The turning point
was a fog
heavy and harsh
choking all hope
all sight
ending dreams
with a quick, decisive stab.

Screams of disbelief
like wind-chimes in a cyclone
a mind trying to find meaning,
looking back for signs,
wondering why the earth disappeared from beneath my feet.

Both planted so firm, at least I thought, on a feeling.

But these pass. Like he did, this sniper, and I am still unable to curse his mother.

Fondness became despair,
like the second foot thrust into
the same pyjama leg.