Saturday 26 January 2008

Gilding the Lily - "Everywhere"

My dear friends Suet Fun and SC Shekar collaborated on a book commissioned by the Ministry Of Women, Family and Community Development, called "Gilding the Lily".

This is "....a collection of 65 stories and photographs in this book chronicles the lives of Malaysian women in their daily passage as they seek to define their existence through choices they have made and the choices that have been thrust upon them...". Jeannie's is one of the stories.

The two had visited us in October last year to gather material for Jeannie's story. Suet Fun had suggested a story on Jeannie from the perspective of what she left behind rather than of who she was. I felt it was an interesting angle and one that would be more acute from a third party viewpoint so I gave my consent. Seeing the book now, I realize it is a privilege to have Jeannie's story told in the book and asking for my earlier consent was an act of unequivocal humility on the part of Suet Fun. Yesterday, we received our autographed copy of this coffee table book that will soon be on sale at MPH bookstores.

Suet Fun and Shekar gave me permission to blog their story entitled, "Everywhere" including the accompanying photograph taken by Shekar. Here it is:


She's everywhere. The cream frilled curtains that fringe the doorway to the kitchen, the way the dining table finds its cosy nook in the curve of the wall, the way the tealights burn, night after night when they are lit to release the aromas from her favourite oils and the way her scent lingers in the large wardrobe so that each time when the doors are open, Jeannie's voice filters through, as though she is still there.

Her husband, Cheah Keat Swee, treads the fine line between feeling that she is and isn't here anymore. I know she is gone, but she's still here, he says, raising his hand and encircling the space in which she once lived and breathed. Her face stares at you from above, in numerous photographs taken with the family. She is impeccably dressed. She hated having her pictures taken in the end, he says, because she had become so thin.

Jeannie had not been well for a long time. In more than twenty years of marriage, she had undergone eleven major surgeries for various ailments and caesarian sections, misdiagnosed with colon cancer and suffered from endometriosis. Still, Cheah and Jeannie had two children, a girl and a boy named Krystyn, now twenty and JJ, seventeen.

She fought everything for a long time, he says quietly. Her family background was also wrought with challenges, and she had to leave home and fend for herself at a very young age. WHEN CHEAH MET AND MARRIED JEANNIE, HE HAD "A BLUEPRINT TO IMPROVE HER". HOW COULD I HAVE KNOWN THAT I WOULD BE THE ONE WHO WOULD BE CHANGED, HE SAYS WONDERINGLY.

Cheah who was never brought up to be demonstrative learnt to speak of his feelings. She demanded that I express myself, he says, and I think I loved her so much, I wanted to do what was right. We always huddled together in the bathroom, she on the floor with her cigarette and I on the toilet seat, with my cigarette and we just talked, and talked.

For many years, her constant illnesses led Jeannie to have an impending sense of her own death. She never mollycoddled her children and raised them to be independent of her. Even from a young age, they were taught to get their own breakfasts. She also had many conversations with Krystyn and JJ, speaking of traditional values and behavior that was appropriate and expected of them. In many ways, Krystyn says, she was preparing us to go on without her.

And now that the time has come, the road ahead seems too hard. Despite all the careful prepping, the immense, inevitable sense of loss envelopes their home like a thick, grey fog. Hope, he declares, has died.

Now he sits, man alone, nursing a gin and tonic, taking a last draw from the last stick of Virginia Slims, Jeannie's favourite cigarette, while Jeannie looks down from above. And she is everywhere, but nowhere.

In Memory of Jeannie Cheah (1959 to 2007)

Saturday 12 January 2008

Never Take Things For Granted

I just realized that exactly six months has gone by since July 12th. Six months and a day ago we were still a family of 5 (including Prince Cheah) and things were so different then.

The anticipated milestones for the rest of 2007 had been JJ's SPM exams, Krystyn's 21st birthday and moving to a new home. We had great hopes for 2008 and though Jeannie was not as well as we wanted her to be, I thought her body was getting stronger. There was a sense of hope and balance in our lives (at least in my mind's eye) but little did I realize how instantaneously this hope could dissipate and how fragile this balance was. Now I am left to ponder how our own lives can change so drastically in just an instant with the last breath; the last conscious thought; the final heartbeat, of a loved one!

I remember so vividly that moment when the finality of Jeannie's passing first dawned upon me (the second the doctor at the Gleneagles A & E told me); our lives together just flashed across my mind like a highspeed intant replay. It was as if it was I who had died. The flashback came to an instant halt and I could see nothing! I could not imagine my life going forward from that point; it was as if I had lost my only reason to live. Then, reality dawned.

I remember huddling with Krystyn and JJ, telling them Mummy had passed away. I remember the tears; I remember their first words through the tears, that were spoken in tandem by them, "Papa, you still have us!". I remember thinking, how is it possible the two can say the same thing at the same time at such a time! I now know it was Mummy.

Jeannie always knew my own life would be wrecked by her passing. She prepared the kids as she could never prepare me for something I would never accept in my mind; the fact that she could go before me! Jeannie knew I needed the strength to continue providing the kids support they needed to grow into their own. Jeannie knew I would only be able to find that strength from the kids. She lives on so unmistakably in them that her lessons have become instinctive as the love is permanent.

I gained my composure after hearing those words from Krystyn and JJ. While the tears stopped, the pain persisted. Six months on, I now know the pain will always be there but I do not ever want it to go away. I have learnt to separate the sense of loss from the feeling of being lost and while the sense of loss must always remain, I am determined to get out of the wilderness.

Now, 2008 is upon us. JJ has sat for his SPM and awaiting the results, Krystyn turned 21 and we will be moving to a condo after Chinese New Year. For a while, we were a chair missing a leg, still able to stand but unstable; now we are a three legged stool, more stable but nevertheless, only a stool. For a while, we were a play missing its main star but now we are trying to write our own scripts within the same storyline. Even Prince who has for the last 6 months been terribly hot-tempered with his groomers, has calmed down and stopped biting them.

I wonder how many six months there are left in my life, but that is not important. The phrase "Never take things for granted" never held more meaning to me and I will try to live the rest of my days as such. My oft repeated statement these days is, "I have the best of both worlds; I have my kids here and when I go, Jeannie will be waiting for me there!"

Friday 11 January 2008

Relatively Relative

I have always been facinated by the concept of duality and relativity. RPK has factored in the effects of different epochal considerations, place and values in this take of his:

The law of relativity

Posted by Raja Petra
Thursday, 10 January 2008

Mankind is quick to judge and pass judgement according to their own values and beliefs. They believe that if they believe it is right then it has to be right and if they believe it is wrong then it has to be wrong.

As I write this piece I am sitting in Starbucks at the Pantai Medical Centre awaiting the arrival of my fourth grandchild. He is due any time now and probably by the time you read this I will already be the proud grandfather of my third grandson. This is my 35-year old daughter's third child. She had a daughter and a son about a year apart some five to six years ago. My third grandchild was born in Manchester barely a few months ago so this latest one is going to be almost the same age.

A few hours ago I was at another hospital, the Sunway Specialist Centre. My friend, Adlan Benan Omar, the same age as my daughter, is dying and by the time you read this he would probably be dead. Yes, it has been one heck of a day for me rushing from one hospital to see a dying comrade to another to see my daughter of that same age bringing a fragile little being into this world. Such is life. One goes away and another one comes along. It makes you wonder whether everything is worth the effort when at the end of the day all you get is a hole in the ground and you revert to dust and ashes.

Anyway, that is not what I want to discuss today. It's just that I just had to mention them because these two events are going to have a great impact on my life. What I really want to talk about is the issue of right and wrong and our perception of what is right and what is wrong and how right can be wrong and wrong can be right, depending on the time and place and how you were brought up.

The Minister of Health had to resign because he committed a crime. The Minister of Health had to resign because public opinion says he committed a crime and a Minister is subject to public opinion. The Minister of Health had to resign because he was fixed up so that they could pressure him into resigning. The Minister of Health had to resign to save himself the embarrassment of getting sacked, which would have happened had he not resigned. The Minister of Health had to resign because he was ashamed of what he did. The Minister of Health had to resign because he knows it is impossible for him to continue commanding the respect of those under him and this would make him ineffective as a Minister. The Minister of Health had to resign because he was caught committing a crime and anyone unfortunate enough to get caught has to resign. The Minister of Health had to resign so that he could launch a challenge against the MCA leadership and the only way he could do this would be from the 'outside' because if he remained on the 'inside' he would have to 'toe the line' and 'behave himself'.

Which do you think is the real reason for the Minister of Health resigning? Different people would of course have different views as to why he resigned. And your view would all depend on the values you uphold and your perception of what is right and what is wrong. But right and wrong are subject to time and place. At different times and places, right could be wrong and wrong could be right. This is what I would call the law of relativity. Your judgement about what is right and wrong would be in relation to certain criteria and yardsticks.

For example, I am a poor man. I am poor in relation to the wealth that Bill Gates has. And Malaysia Today is making me poorer by the day. But in relation to a Bangladeshi labourer who washes dishes in a Mamak restaurant for a living, I am a rich man. After all, how many Bangladeshi labourers live in a semi-detached house overlooking a golf club? So perception is therefore everything. And this perception can be influenced or clouded by time and place.

There is another thing that influences how you see things. And this would be your own values and beliefs. If you believe that such a thing is right then it would become right, and vice versa. And this belief, again, would be influenced by time and place.

In the pre-Islamic days, women in the Arabian Peninsular were allowed more than one husband. And daughters would be buried alive because women are 'worthless' compared to men. Women are merely 'property' that can be passed down just like sheep and camels. Nevertheless, in spite of women being regarded as property, they could have more than one husband. In Europe, at around that same time, women would be made to wear chastity belts to ensure that they did not indulge in sex with another man. And halfway across the world the women there, 'second-class' people according to Arab standards, could legally enjoy sex with many men.

The same time but in two different places and what was right for one society was very wrong for another. So who are we to judge what is right and what is wrong? Right and wrong all depends on when that particular thing happened and where it happened.

Right and wrong are very much in the mind. It very much depends on how you have been brought up and educated and what your mind has been conditioned to become. And religion of course plays a very big part in all this.

Let us look at another example. Muslims would be very offended if you invite them for dinner and the food is non-halal or there is pork on the table. Even if there is no pork on the table but the kitchen cooks pork they would still feel offended. You have to ensure that the restaurant is totally pork-free and that the food is halal. It is not enough that pork is not on the table.

But Muslims do not feel offended if they invite vegetarians, Hindus or Buddhists for dinner and there is beef on the table. While Muslims may become very violent if you serve them pork, they are cool about serving vegetarians, Hindus and Buddhists, beef. If you point out to them that according to your religious belief beef is not halal, they would just suggest you lay off the beef. They would not apologise and instruct the waiter to remove the beef. They would then continue consuming beef in front of you. Try eating pork in front of them and see how they would react.

To Muslims, it is wrong to serve pork or even have it on the table or cooked in the kitchen. But it is right to serve beef and have it cooked in the kitchen and even eat it in front of you while you look on totally repulsed by the sight. The Muslim view of right and wrong would be what is right and wrong in Islam. What about what is right and wrong in the other religions? Muslims regard only Islam as the true religion and all other religions as false so they will only take what Islam says is right and wrong as the criteria. The right and wrong for the other religions need to be ignored or else you would be regarded as 'practicing' the values of another religion.

Unfortunately, this value system and the yardstick adopted to gauge right from wrong make Muslims very selfish. They only worry about what is right and wrong from the Islamic perspective while totally ignoring what may be allowed or taboo for the other religions. They would not bother to find out the religious persuasions of their dinner guests or ensure that the right menu is prepared in compliance to that particular religious belief. But they expect you to know that they are Muslims and that Islam forbids pork. And it is your duty to ensure that the restaurant is totally halal and that not only there is no pork cooked or served anywhere in the restaurant but that the beef and other livestock have been properly slaughtered the correct
Islamic way.

Mankind is quick to judge and pass judgement according to their own values and beliefs. They believe that if they believe it is right then it has to be right and if they believe it is wrong then it has to be wrong. And they will use the present time and place and according to how they have been brought up and educated into believing as the criteria.

In the days before the French Revolution, cat burning was a popular form of entertainment. Cats would be rounded up and placed in a cage and then lowered slowly into an open fire. The cats would scream with pain, and as they burned the spectators would clap and squeal with delight. Yes, this was a very popular form of entertainment in France in the days before cable TV, the internet, computer games and the like.

There is of course nothing wrong with that form of entertainment. This is not considered cruelty to animals. Yes, there is nothing wrong and it is not cruel against the backdrop of France 500 years ago. Try doing that in Paris today and see what happens. Therefore, what was right 500 years ago in France is wrong today. And 500 years ago even the 'primitive' and 'backward' Malays in this country would not burn alive hundreds of cats for entertainment. It was wrong for Malays to subject cats to what today would be regarded as cruelty even 500 years ago when it was fashionable in France and a very popular form of entertainment. Right and wrong therefore depends on who you are, where you are, and at what point of time or when you are considering all this.

Now let us look at religion. Every religion, not only Islam, says it is right and that all the other religions are wrong. But which one is the really right religion? Do you know? Of course you do know. And your answer would be: the right religion is the religion you were born into and which you were brought up in and taught to believe in. All the others are wrong.

But how can you be sure of this? Is it because you have been brainwashed and indoctrinated so? Okay, what if you were born into a Muslim family instead of a Christian family? Would you still say that Jesus was the last Prophet and that Muhammad was a fake? You were taught your entire life that Islam is the true religion and all other religions are false. Your entire family is Muslim and you have been taught to believe that if you do not believe in Islam you will be sent to hell where you will remain forever. How would you not believe this is so?

Right and wrong all depend on how you were born. If you were born in Sweden to a Christian family then your beliefs would be moulded along that society's value system. And if you were born in Saudi Arabia to a Wahabbi family then your beliefs would be moulded along that society's value system. In both situations you would believe you are right. And in both situations you could actually be wrong.

How could both be right? One has to be right and the other wrong. But the right and wrong would all depend on which family you were born into. So right could be wrong and wrong could be right according to who you are in terms of time, race and religious beliefs. Therefore, since right and wrong are not static but would change according to which family you were born into and at which point of time, then there cannot be any right and wrong. Right and wrong do not exist. Right and wrong are merely how you perceive things and perceptions -- since they are influenced by time, place, upbringing, etc. -- are not real.

But mankind will not accept this. No one would declare that the religion they believe in is wrong while the religion they do not believe in is right. Right is always what you believe in and wrong would be all which is opposed to what you believe in. That is the value system you will uphold.

But how do you even know in the first place that there is such a thing called religion and that it came from God? You don't. You only have faith. And you will allow your faith to decide your beliefs. This is what you have been taught and what those who have taught you have been taught before that. So it is a hand-me-down 'knowledge' that cannot be proven but must be believed only because those before you have believed the same.

If I tell you that God listens to my prayers every night you would believe this because you believe the same thing. In fact, billions of people believe this same thing so as long as this belief is shared by the majority then it must be right. But if I tell you that God talks to me through my notebook computer and He leaves me messages on my word processor you would not believe me mainly because no one else believes the same thing. Your beliefs and your perception of right and wrong therefore is based on majority view. As long as the majority thinks the same then this is correct. It is wrong only when it goes against the majority view. Cat burning, if made into an international event, would be right only if many think so, as was so in France 500 years ago. Would you think that boxing is an acceptable sport if 99% of the world condemned it? If boxing is acceptable why not duels with pistols?

You may think this statement is ridiculous. Well, it would not be considered ridiculous during the time of the Romans when gladiators battled to the death in the Coliseum. It may be wrong today but it was very right then. And as recent as 150 years ago witches were burned alive at the stake in 'modern' Europe and America. An estimated 20,000-50,000 witches were burned alive over 300 years or so and it was very much right then and sanctioned, in fact encouraged, by the church. It is only wrong to burn witches today.

So right is wrong and wrong is right depending on who you are, where you were born, and when you were born. Your values are your values and it does not mean that they are right values. It just means that they are your perception of what are right values. So keep your values to yourself. Do not impose your values on me. And 200 years ago the Minister of Health would be allowed hundreds of mistresses in keeping with his status as a Minister of the Ruler. And he would not have to resign. But for plotting the downfall of his boss he would not just be fixed up and forced to resign but his head would be spiked on a stake outside the city gates.

Tuesday 1 January 2008

Happy New Day!

I would rank 2007 as the worst year of my life and 99.99% of it is because I lost Jeannie in July. When my father passed away in 1985, it was mitigated by my meeting Jeannie that same year. Successes on the work front pale in relation to the loss of my beloved Jeannie as much wind had been knocked out of my sail.

Now, as I contemplate the new year, I feel a need to seek new impetus. A certain mindset perhaps, to carry me through. This was the 1st January message I put out to friends for 2008:

"Today being the first day of the rest of our lives, I am determined to make 2008 be about living 365 days and not one day 365 times! How about you? Happy New Day!"

The words may not be very original but for me, they do strike a chord.