Monthly Archives: September 2010

A Tale of Two Women

KimGooi Photojournalist

A Tale of Two Women
First published in Malaysiankini Apr 12, 2000; Star Newspaper July 20, 2000

Grandmas Cheah Siew Chee, 80, and Ameena Amnal, 70, have a lot in common although they originally come from different parts of the world. one is from Hui Ann, China’s Fujian province and the other from Satang kolong, Madras, India,

They have not been back to their native villages which they left more than half a century ago. Both came to Penang to join their husbands when they were young. Now at the autumn of their life, they are largely forgotten – living in squalor in the inner city of George Town. Despite their age and poverty, both grandmas are healthy and cheerful – a reminder to many modern-day city folks the many virtue of hard labour and a frugal life. Beneath their humble appearance lies the strength of human spirits and courage.

Cheah Siew Chee, 80

“I worked in construction sites all my life since I arrived, until my legs were no longer able to bear the heavy load,” said Cheah cheerfully. She was forced to retire five years ago at the age of 74, when she fell and broke a leg while clearing debris at a construction site in Macalister Road. The women of Hui Ann, Fujian Province, used to be a familiar sight in the country. Known for their colourful dress, tenacity and hard work, they were ubiquitous in the construction sites decked out in their distinguished red headdress and coarse blue cotton Samfoo.

In the days when machinery were few and giant cranes unheard off, building materials and earth were moved by hands. Hui Ann women mostly did this heavy work – shuffling earth and heavy loads on their shoulders they toiled ceaselessly. It would be unimaginable for the building industries to be without them. Today few remember them.

We hear success stories of immigrants stepping ashore from crowded hold of junks and steamers with nothing and becoming rich overnight. The late tycoon, Datuk Loh Boon Siew came from Hui Ann and started life in his adopted country as a lowly coolie. How he rose to be one of the richest men in Malaysia is well documented.

Grandma Cheah embodies the long-suffering woman from a period when prejudice was still strong, and women’s rights unheard of. Half a century ago, she boarded a junk and sailed to Malaya to join her husband in Penang. Cheah said she was 32 when she arrived. She was married at the age of 16 into the Koay clan. Three months after wedding her husband came to Malaya and she was left behind in China to take care of her blind father-in-law.

“I was abandoned and left with my in-laws. I didn’t see my husband again until 16 years later when I came to join him in Penang.”

For today’s modern women, it must be unthinkable, how she endured the lonely years living with her in-laws in feudal China. In Penang reunited after the long lapse, the couple stayed in a former horse stable in Noordin Street paying a monthly rental of RM13.50. Since the repeal of the rent control in 2000, the rental has increased to RM62. The leaking roof is patched with wooden boards. The mews have 12 tiny cubicles on the ground floor and 12 on the top floor. There is no bathroom and the two broken down toilets are shared by 24 households.

The common passageway is where they cook and take their bath (wearing sarongs) from taps fixed by the residents. There is no water supply, the residents had to construct the water pipes themselves, she said. She worked at construction sites for RM5 a day until 74, an age when many of us would have gone to meet our maker.

Her husband died a year ago, aged 82. Her only son who is a daily-paid labourer has moved out to a low-cost flat with his wife, leaving their two sons aged 9 and 7 in her care. Last month on International Women’s Day, Cheah was honoured by the Malaysian Local Democracy Initiative (Melodi), a human rights NGO, as the unsung hero of the country. She was given the Penang Builder Award, which reads “In recognition of women’s contributions to the country who were neglected by society.”

Perhaps her biggest triumph is her abundant human spirit and cheerful bearing which has seen her through thick and thin. “It is an inspiration to all who have seen her,” says a young neighbour.

She says the Koay clan’s ancestors (of her late husband) were Muslims. “That’s why when we die, we cannot take pork any more,” (meaning they cannot use pork to pray to their ancestors). Another surprise, like Muslim village doors in rural China, the door of her cubicle is painted green, the only one in Noordin Street.

Ameena Amnal, 70

If not for the fact that the house [she is staying in with her extended family] could collapse and in all likelihood bury some of them, no one could have known that Ameenal Amnal, 70, exists at all. Muda Lane is a short, narrow street of pre-war residential shop houses in a mixed neighborhood of Chinese, Tamil and Muslim families.

There is a toddy shop, Chinese kongsi (clan) house, and Muslim shops. Ameenal’s dwelling is conspicuous for the facade of the upper floor is broken and patched by decaying boards. It is quite a shock to step into the house. The top floor has collapsed completely, corrugated sheets have replaced the roof and large cracks appeared on the walls.

Ameenal says the house has been in this condition for more than 10 years. First the roof collapsed and the family could not afford the RM2,000 to replace it with asbestos sheets. Then the floorboards of the first floor and staircase came crashing down. The family live in three cubicles of plywood and plastic sheets on the ground floor. One cubicle is occupied by her married daughter and her husband, one by her 12-year-old granddaughter, (according to Muslim custom) while she sleeps in the third with the two unmarried sons and the 11-month-old grandson. Another son sleeps on a plank board outside her cubicle.

Blue plastic sheets on the top floor and the cubicle keep the rain and falling debris away. Initially she paid RM70.40 rental monthly, but over the past 20 years the rent was raised and stood at RM112 last year. Beginning this year (2000), the rent was raised to RM900 despite the fact that the place is not fit for human habitation. She says the landloard has given her until April to pay up or face eviction. The family cannot afford it as all the working sons and daughter are earning less than RM500 each.

Ameenal says she has been staying in the house since she came from India 45 years ago and the house has deteriorated year by year. She was married at 20 and soon after her husband left for Penang to work as a stevedore (dock labourer). Five years later, the husband came back to India and brought her to Penang. Her husband died 20 years ago and she has not been back to India at all.

Since her arrival from India she has been working as a domestic help in an Indian restaurant. She cleans the house, serves food and does all menial work without a break until five years ago when age has caught up with her. She earns RM250 a month, she says.

Dressed in her colourful sari and shawls, she cuddles and carries her 11-month-old grandson everywhere she goes despite her advanced years. Still robust and healthy and surrounded by her extended family, the smiling Ameenal is unperturbed about her housing problem, come April when she faces eviction. “I hope the government will give us a low-cost flat in River Road where we only pay RM100 per month,” she says cheerfully.

Author’s note: two years later, the roof of Ameenal’s house collapsed killing her grandson.Ong Boon Keong, head of SOS (Save Our Selves) called a press conference to highlight the plight of the poor and the author’s story. This was reported in the Kwong Hwa Chinese Daily: February 21, 2002

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In Opium Country

KimGooi Photojournalist

In Opium Country                                                                                                                                                                                    

The Golden Triangle – the rugged tri border region covering Laos, Burma and Thailand – has been blamed as the scourge for the world heroin and drug addiction. It is reputed to be the world’s biggest producer of opium, contributing two thirds of the world supply.

To the impoverished tribesmen who inhabit the mountains controlled by semi autonomous warlords, opium has literally become the elixir of life. It not only cures them of their illness but in times of drought and famine, the opium they stock is traded in the lowland towns for food and necessities. It has become the number one cash crop with demands and profits far surpassing any crop or activity they have known.

Natali, the Lahu woman going about her chores with deft hands

The evil and misery wrought by drug addiction blamed on opium is well publicized but lesser known or forgotten is the fact that it was the British government that became the biggest drug pusher in the world and commercially brought tons of opium to these shores and reaped untold profits from it.

The opium plant is not indigenous to this region. The recent rise of large-scale heroin production in S.E. Asia is the culmination of 400 years of western intervention in Asia. When Britain had nothing to offer for China’s tea and silk it dumped tons of opium from India into China. In the peace treaty of 1858, after the 2nd opium war. The defeated Chinese government (which had passed a law forbidding opium smoking as early as 1729) was at length compelled by British military pressure to make the importation of opium into China legal.

The poppy flowers

When the French were controlling Indochina, and the CIA were fighting the secret war in Laos and supporting the Kuomintang to undermine Communist China in the early 1950s, poppy cultivation in the Golden Triangle was deliberately encouraged by French and American intelligence agencies, wrote Alfred McCoy in his book “The Politics of Heroin in S.E. Asia.”

Despite its notoriety as a hallucinogenic drug, opium’s medical use as a pain-killer is indispensable. When it is bonded with acid (acetic anhydride) it becomes heroin, the highly addictive and body-wasting drug, many times more dangerous than opium. To ordinary folks as well as the medical profession it is the wonder “cure-all’ medicine. To the poor farmers it has become their only tool of economic survival after years of oppression, exploitation and neglect by the various contending powers in the region.

The eradication of opium cultivation in Thailand (after more than 20 years of US pressure) has back-fired. Today many hilltribes like the Akhas and Lahus are desperate, thousands are flocking to Bangkok to survive as cheap labourers and more are coming to Malaysia to survive and feed their families. Worse still Thailand is now flooded not only with heroin but amphetamine pouring down from Golden Triangle. What used to be opium addiction confined to old folks has become a national worry involving school children hooked on amphetamine. It is on the verge of declaring a national disaster.

Covering the opium issues has been most complex and challenging. While corrupt generals, officials, drug pushers have got rich, the tribal folks who toil and sweat to sow the poppy seeds get pittance and the blame. My sympathy goes to them.

It is spring, which means, in the Shan highlands, the end of the hot weather, not the cold. The seeds are scattered on the mist covered mountain slopes by tribal folks. It is the beginning of another year of planting.

With warm sunshine, fertile soil and nourishment from torrential spring showers, the seeds germinate quickly, sprouting shades of green. It is time to get rid of unwanted weeds and spread some fertilizer so that the plants will grow big and strong.

The hills are alive with the bloom of poppies

Weeding time is laborious and taxing but working in the early morning in warm sunshine on misty slopes, has its compensation. The mountain people are strong and hardy folks, adept at working with their hands and at home on the mountains.

In the cold winter months, which come after the rainy season, the hills are alive with the bloom of poppies. On mountain slopes the flowers spread in hues of red, white, violet and crimson. Sometimes the slope on both sides of the mountain is covered with such magnificent colours, as far as the eye can see.

Soon the flowers will wither and the petals will fall, exposing the green succulent poppy pod. It is time for another round of work.

Natali, a Lahu woman who has lived on the mountain for 30 odd years, gathers her few implements into her wicker basket and sets forth for the poppy field. With sturdy legs she goes up the mountain slope and reaches the poppy plants in good time.

I struggle along trying to keep up with her. Minutes later I came along side. panting for breath. Natali chuckles. exposing a wide set of teeth stained dark with betel nut Juice.

Without further ado, she sets about her job with great dexterity. Holding the poppy pod with her left hand she deftly slices it with a small knife held by her right.

She makes three close incisions in quick successions, turns it around and makes the same on the other side of the green pod. White sticky latex oozes from the cuts and collects around the pod. After making three set of incisions on one pod, she moves on to the next. I scramble along and follow, snapping picture and watching her. She miles and chuckles and says something in Lahu which I couldn’t comprehend. I smile back and there is complete accord between photographer and subject.

When all the pods of poppy have been tapped, Natali takes a break. Later in the day she comes back and scrapes the sticky latex latex that has coagulated on the poppy pod. Soon she has collected a sticky lump, the size of a fist. Happily she trods home.

Inside the dim and smoke-filled hut, two elderly Lahu men are having their fill of opium pipes. They lie down on the bamboo floor, their heads propped up by some blankets, talking incessantly in low amiable tones. Ai Sam, a Shan lies in a comer, scraping the black contents (residue) from a pipe and talking all the time in a low murmuring tone. He mixes the opium scraping with white “Thamchai” powder (aspirin) and heats the concoction over a small oil lamp, pressing and stirring the mixture with a metal rod that looks like a handle of a spoon. He rolls the concoction into a long pencil size stick. In no time Ai Sam breaks off bits of the opium stick and fills his pipe and puffs away pipeful after pipeful.

The night is still and cold on the mountain, save for the occasional snorting and squeaking of the pigs underneath the stilt hut. The bubbling sound of the opium pipes and low voices of men drag on far into the night. Ai Sam is backing the Shan State, telling us of his great youth that has gone by… of lost treasures and gold … the great army of the Shan princes and the battle he fought with the Burmese. How they cut up the liver of the enemy and roasted them to eat.

A tribesman having a puff of the opium pipe

“You know something,” says Ai Sam. “If not for the opium I would have died long ago. When you are severely sick and no medicine can cure you, this is the last resort. Take garlic and opium and toast them over a fire. After toasting, eat them and you will be OK.”

The sweet aroma effuse
entices the senses
Amidst the fragrant fumes
an oil lamp flicker
Dark shadows wobble and dance
all round is darkness
In the mountain man can forget
the sorrows of ten thousand ages

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Dateline Boston: Two-Gun Billy

KimGooi Photojournalist

Dateline Boston: Two-Gun Billy
First published in the Asia Magazine early 1981; Bangkok Post July 19, 1981

Author’s note: My favorite all time and most widely published story. Also printed by the National Echo, Weekender and Penang Club magazine.

I spent six months in the US  and contrary to the prevailing ‘image’ I was highly impressed by the Black people I met.  My Cambodian refugee friend and family were given three sleeping bags and a TV by his young Black neighbor the first day. He said it’s cold and you need a TV or you’ll be bored to death. One time I was boarding a bus in front of Harvard University and didn’t have no change, I took a dollar note and asked the approaching Black student to exchange for some coins. Instead he took out a handful  and said ‘no worry just keep it’. Black girls at ‘fast food’ restaurant teasingly strike a pose when I stole a picture. There were many others – meeting the guys and girls at the Black bars, the Rhythm n Blues club – fond memories!  Years later I found out the Blacks were the greatest contributor to America’s popular culture like music and sports which is the most endearing American contribution to the world, especially in the music field.  

Dateline Boston, USA: It was snowing heavily. The house was close to panic when we returned on a cold winter’s night after a few drinks in the neighbourhood Black bar.

“He has a gun! He has been sleeping here for two hours already,” the Cambodian excitedly said, “He just came into the house and we don’t know what he wants. He was talking but we didn’t understand a word. He took the telephone and started dialing, then fell asleep.”

With much trepidation, Kim Gooi photographed a sleeping Two-Gun Billy, with his partially concealed revolver tucked into his coat.

Slumped on the chair, with the telephone at his feet, was an Black man. He had a weather-beaten face which gave him a look of around 50. Sticking out of his heavy unbuttoned coat was the shiny white, ivory butt of a revolver. There were immense sighs of relief on the faces of the Ly’s family at our arrival. This was December 1980. The Cambodian family had arrived from a refugee camp in Thailand just three weeks earlier and was housed in the three-room apartment in Dorchester, a predominantly Black residential area in Boston. Apart from Ly, who was a former journalist in Phnom Penh where he worked as a stringer phtographer and translator primarily for the Associated Press, none of the family spoke a word of English.

“It’s good that you come back,” said a worried 71-year grandfather Chor. “He could be a bad man, we don’t understand a word of what he says and we don’t know what he wants. I’m worried and concerned about the children and women.

“I think he knows we are poor refugees… there is nothing we have for him to take (rob). What shall we do?’

After a few minutes silence, Ly said: “Let him sleep… while he is sleeping he is OK. Besides a gunman who falls asleep is not dangerous. I don’t think he had any intention to rob or harm us. He must be so drunk that he came to the wrong house.”

Ly’s reassuring words brought a general calm to the family. “It is lucky that you came back… I was so afraid,” said Mrs. Ly cuddling her three-month old baby in her arms. Pointing to her three-year old daughter, she continued: “Even little Outtara is frightened; little girl knows when there is danger.”

Thirty minutes passed and the gunman was still fast asleep. We decided to wake him. Crouching forward, Ly shook the right thigh of the gunman. “Hey mister! Are you alright?” he asked. There was no response. Ly shook harder. The gunman stirred a little, groaned and murmured incoherently. He rubbed and opened his eyes slowly. Members of the family stepped back a few spaces.

“Are you OK? Can I get you a drink… Do you want something to eat?” Ly asked.

The gunman straightened and started talking in a slow, drunken voice, ignoring Ly’s offer. “Man I have a Chinese friend down in… he is a good guy… He sleeps over there and I sleep over here…

“What’s your name?” He extended his hand and we shook it without hesitation. Ah! Lee (Ly)… you are alright. I like you. My name is Billy.” He dragged himself to his feet, dug his hand into his coat found the revolver and pulled it out. The members of Ly’s family disappeared into the back room, Billy flipped open the chamber of the revolver, poured the six bullets into his palm and put them into his pocket.

Playfully, Billy jabbed the revolver at Ly’s ribs and laughed aloud. “Ha ha! Don’t worry, you are a good guy. I have a Chinese friend. Here take this.” He dug into his coat, got out a packet of pills, popped one into his mouth, fumbled into his coat pocket again and threw down a brown packet. Take it, roll them up. I got plenty of them.”

We opened the packet. It was filled with marijuana. “Hey man, get some papers… roll a couple of joints…” Billy kept repeating. There were no cigarette papers around. The problem was easily solved by making do with airmail paper.

“Wow man, this is a bomber!” Billy exclaimed while admiring the king-sized conical shape joints, rolled Asian style. “Come on, light it up!” he added.

As the smoke drifted and the aromatic scent filled the room, Billy smiled and murmured drunkenly, stoned out of his head. There was a sense of lessened tension and a happy mood seemed to prevail. Billy picked up the telephone. “Man, I’ve to call someone.” It was obvious Billy was very drunk, stoned out of his head with a combination of pills, marijuana and God knows what else.

For some minutes, he dragged on, murmuring incoherently into the telephone. With Ly’s help we discovered that Billy’s friend was at number 22 on the same street. Indeed just a couple of houses away.

“Hey man, come with me to my place,” he said. Soon the three of us were trooping out into the dark frozen night, Billy’s arms around our shoulders. Three doors away, we rang the bell. The curtain above the door parted and the faces of a white woman and a young boy stared out in bewilderment at a drunken Black man and two Orientals. We made a hasty retreat.

At the next house we pressed the door bell and waited. A pretty young Black girl of about 19 opened the door. We walked in after Billy. The young Black girl stared silently. The room was dark. A tiny baby was sleeping in a crib in the hall.

Billy pulled out his revolver from the inside of his coat and handed it to the girl. To our surprise, he dug into his hip pocket, got out another revolver and gave ity to the girl. A pervasive silence seemed to prevail except for the incoherent murmuring of Billy who had by now slumped on a chair.

“Is he your father?” Ly asked. “No, No,” the girl shook her head in consternation. We said good bye to Billy and the girl. “Come and see me sometime,” Billy groaned.

As we stepped out of the house, a long sleek car pulled up and out jumped three Black youths. We almost banged into each other. “This is the house,” one of the youths said aloud. And in an instant the three young men dashed into it.

“Wow! This is like a movie,” exclaimed Ly.

There was a great sigh of relief when we returned to Ly’s apartment. The family members gathered around, anxious to know what went on at Billy’s house. “It’s lucky nothing ugly happened, you handled the situation well,” said Mrs Ly to her husband. “There are man bad people in this place.”

We never saw Billy again, and we never found out who he was, but the Ly family would never forget their introduction to America.

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"Growing Pains"

KimGooi Photojournalist

Growing Pains
Published on April 10, 2000. News Analysis: Penang 2000: Year Of Living Dangerously
First published in Malaysiankini Apr 20, 2001

Old time visitors to George Town, the capital of Penang, have always come away impressed. Established by the British in 1786 as its stronghold and trading post in the region, it is everything a thriving city should be: a historic environment of residences, shops, religious buildings and civic spaces; varied ethnic groups occupying distinctive neighbourhoods; and overlapping streetscapes with vibrant street life.

While such sentiments might be true some years back, the city today is fast losing its charm as its residents are being moved out and whole neighbourhood of old houses in danger of the developers’ hammer. Accelerating this process is the repeal of the rent control early this year.

“It is a rotten apple still shining outside but if you look inside, the old buildings are abused and awaiting destruction. At night it is a dead city as even the poor are being evicted,” said Alex Koenig, German town-planner, who had spent 20 years in Penang. It is now visible that George Town is turned into a hotchpotch of high-rise, old and new office buildings, haphazardly thrown together, he said.

According to Koenig, any attempt to shift existing urban population into new housing estates away from the urban centre, with the intention to demolish wholesale existing urban fabric for commercial redevelopment has regularly resulted in disastrous urban plight and popular unrest all over the world.

Penang’s famed Campbell Street was once the cultural and commercial hub of the city, said Kee Phaik Cheen, State Tourism, Culture, Arts and Women Development Committee chairman. Despite a major facelift, the street once crowded with late night shoppers is now deserted by 7pm. In a recent festival to revive the street, the state minister pleaded to the shops to open late and close late so that it could be a street of culture and late night shoppers again.

“This is futile, how could it be ever revived when the inner core city is empty, with its residents being driven out?” remarked Ong Seng Huat, deputy director of the Malaysian Chinese History and Relic Survey.

Ong added that Penang was also the cultural and commercial center for North Sumatra and South Thailand for over a hundred years. In recent years the government has destroyed it.

“It is an irony that the authorities are attempting to revive that, calling it the Northern Growth Triangle. When you empty the inner city of its inhabitants, you destroy not only the culture but all the net-working as well,” Ooi Kean Huat, 46, from Noordin Street laments the passing community life of old George Town:

“I grew up here and remember the street is full of passing hawkers, from the ‘mamak mee goreng’ push carts, ‘hokkien mee’, ‘tok tok mee’ (Indian, Fujian and Cantonese noodles) to fish ball soup. From morning till night, we hear the shouts of the hawkers from the bamboo claking of the tok tok mee to the cliking porcelain chimps of the fish-ball sellers.

Ooi says though Noordin Street has a bad reputation as a tough neighborhood, it is so safe that residents do not have to lock their door at night. It is common for four to five families to live harmoniously in one house. Today the street like many in old George Town is not only dead, everything is under lock and key, as nothing is safe.

There was a gradual movement of people leaving the old town as the middle class grows and moves to the suburb leaving a hard core of poor residents taking advantage of the cheap accommodation under rent control since the pre-war days.

On Dec 29 last year Ooi and the street residents got a rude shock when 10 families from four pre-war houses were evicted. Their belongings thrown into the streets and the houses demolished, two days before the repeal of rent control came into force.

“We lost RM200,000 worth of property as 300 officers came and threw everything out into the streets – documents, furniture, everything from TV sets, cooking utensils to the children’s school books,” said Choo Kok Leong.

The episode has thrown the issue of rent control and urban conservation of heritage/historical buildings into sharp relief: An old historical urban centre faces severe development pressure, new unsympathetic intrusions, conversions of residences into offices, overwhelming traffic, developers eager to demolish vernacular treasures.

Choo said his late mother rented the house 70 years ago, paying RM46.50 per month. He shared the house with two brothers and a sister who like him is self employed. The house is work place, office and residence for the extended family. One brother is a tailor, the other a curtain maker, and the sister runs a school transport service while Choo runs a house renovation business.

Trouble began when developers bought up the whole row of pre-war houses in 1983 at RM15,000 per house. In 1995 they were served notices to quit. The case went to court and the case drags on without a settlement. The developer offered RM15,000 as compensation. Choo said it is inadequate.

All office equipment and records were thrown into the street and looted, he said sadly. “We not only lost our roof but our business and livelihood were destroyed.”

Choo who is single now squats with friends who took pity on him. For his brothers and sister who have children, it was nightmarish – to find accommodation with friends and new schools for the children, he said sadly.

“We will do a Noordin-Street on you” has become the war cry of the developers to threaten recalcitrant tenants, said Choo.

Undaunted, the residents have mobilised and formed an association called “Save Ourselves” (SOS) to fight for their rights and seek justice. Their main complaint is while there is a glut in middle and luxury condos, alternative cheap housing could not be found for the poor evicted. Penang’s NGOs and urban conservation and heritage groups have rallied to the support of SOS.

Rents have gone up from an average of RM60 to RM1,200 per month. Other commercial premises have gone up as high as RM4,000 while pay up or eviction notices are served. So far peaceful protests were staged, asking Chief Minister Koh Tsu Koon to intervene. Fearing resumption of the “Noordin Street eviction” after expiry of the three-month quit notices, a homeless night vigil was staged on March 31.

The all-night vigil turned into a political rally when all opposition parties descended on Noordin Street to lambaste the government for ignoring the poor and homeless. The crowd broke out in loud applause when KeADILan conveyed a message of support from jailed former deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim. “Be resolute, your fight for justice will prevail,” it says.

Koh finally relented and agreed to meet SOS on April 1 to find a solution. In a subsequent meeting last week, he agreed to look into the wider issues of the poor tenants, their livelihood and aspects connected to the inner city.

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An Encounter With the Tok Guru

KimGooi Photojournalist

An Encounter With the Tok Guru
Story and Photo Published in: Harakah Weekly 1999

In 1995 I covered the Malaysian General Elections for Nihon Denpa News (NDN), a Japanese TV news agency. The highlight of our coverage was an interview with Nik Abdul Aziz at his mosque on the outskirts of Kota Bharu, Kelantan. His political secretary had told us the best chance to catch him was after his Maghrib prayers.

Nik Abdul Aziz

The sky was turning dark, casting long shadows of the palm trees and minaret. Village children were learning the Quran, seated on the shiny floor of the spacious mosque.

At the far end, seated on the floor and chatting with some village elders was the Tok Guru – attired in his familiar sarong and headdress. He smiled and beckoned us to sit beside him. We didn’t have any prior appointment. With his secretary’s directions we took the chance to drive to his wooden kampung house and the mosque he had built in the front yard. the air of simplicity and the kampung atmosphere he exuded quickly put us at ease. We were glad we had come, as the proverbial expression says, to hear it from the horse’s mouth.

The night before we had attend the rally at the Kota Bharu Stadium where every inch of ground from the terrace to the stadium field was covered with people. The place was a sea of Islamic green, sarbans and headscarves. Shouts of “Allahu Akbar” (God Is Great) punctuated the air intermittently.

Split right in the middle of the field, the women in their dark headscarves were on one side and the men were on the other. It was an intimidating sight. Looking around I realised that cameraman and producer Akiyama and I must be the only newsmen around. Incensed by the bias and one-sided coverage, the local press was barred. As for the foreign press, there were none around except us.

Malaysian rock star Amy (Search) with spiritual mentor Tok Guru Nik Aziz

Amy (Search) with spiritual mentor Tok Guru Nik Aziz

The issues then as now were the fear of Islamic fundamentalism and the Hudud laws associated with PAS. And so we fired our first salvo. Like the kampung Tok Guru he always was, the benign religious teacher gave us his time and patience.

the Tok Guru

“In order to implement Islamic Laws and cut off a thief’s hand, there must be no injustice or exploitation, no hunger so that there is no reason to steal. Even then, three witnesses must be produced.

“I’ve banned all karaoke bars, video parlours and billiard halls because I believe they are bad for our youth and breeding ground for delinquencies. I have built youth clubs, sports facilities, libraries for the young people instead. Please ask the parents, are they happy with me?

“Kelantan has the lowest crime rate in the country.

“Please ask the Chinese businessmen, are they happy doing business here because there is no corruption?”

When PAS came into power in 1990, it reduced the license fees of hawkers and trishaw riders from RM20 a month to RM2 a year.

“We are pro business and we help the small traders and poor first. We cannot stand corruption. You never get to read this in the local press,” said the Chief Minister.

Fast forward to 1999, not only the opposition was completely shut off from the muffled pro government press, what was reported about them was twisted out of proportion. Earlier this year, the Tok Guru was misquoted in the local press as saying he did not want women to work and implying PAS was anti-women.

Those who heard the full speech would realise that the reports were twisted out of context and untrue. In fact his speech was very sympathetic to women who had to bear the extra burden of taking care of the children, the husband and having to work at the same time.

Threats and fear were deliberately sown that the Chinese risk losing their culture. A Hokkien puppet show troupe in Penang told me. “Every year during the 9th lunar month, we would be in Kota Bharu performing during the 9th Emperor God festival.”

As Tok Guru Nik Aziz said, we never get to read this in the local press!

[Photos of Tok Guru and Amy (Search) courtesy of  Harakah ]

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Kak Wan Visits Penang’s Poor

KimGooi Photojournalist

Kak Wan Visits Penang’s Poor
First published in Malaysiakini April 28, 2000

People came out in their Sunday best – octogenarian grandmothers, curious children, the lower working class and poor tenants facing evictions.

“Is the Agung’s (King) wife coming to see us?” grandma Cheah Siew Chee, 80, asked curiously.

“It is Mahathir’s wife who is coming,” quipped her eight-year-old grandson.

“Not quite,” said an older lad, “It’s the wife of the former number two man of the country.”

The office of SOS, an association of tenants fighting against unjust eviction, in Noordin Street took on an air of festivity on a recent Sunday. Its abandoned crumbling pre-war house-cum-reception hall was spruced up with a long a long table with white table cloth. Nyonya cakes and bottles of spring water lined the table.

Banners were strung across the entrance. The young and old held placards of welcome and thanks. “Selamat datang YB Ahli Parlimen Permatang Pauh Datin Wan Azizah ke pusat SOS untok memahami kesusahan Rakyat…” [Welcome the Honourable Member of Parliament for Permatang Pauh Lady Wan Azizah to SOS Centre and understand the hardship of the People” a banner proclaimed].

“It must be the biggest event Noordin Street has seen in recent years”, said a mother on her way to work. It was nine o’clock in the morning. “I can’t stay to meet her as I have to work but my mother is here to see her,” she said.

The sea used to come right up to one end of Noordin Street, heartland of old George Town’s Fujian community. It was home to seafarers and women construction workers in distinctive red head-dress, unloading cargo and shouldering loads at building sites.

Right up to the 1970s the old sea dogs plied their bat-sail junks carrying charcoal from Thailand and Sumatra. Now, most of the old sea dogs are gone, and those alive are in their 80s. The women tend to out live the men. They are out in their best clothes to welcome an important guest this morning.

Wan Azizah tours Noordin Street in Penang

Like its old residents, Noordin Street today is half way to its grave. If developers get their way, the neighborhood will face demolition and the community dispersed. Many are unsure if they will get low-cost housing or be made homeless overnight.

Eighty year old Tan Choot and a dozen of her neighbours of her age were ready since nine to welcome ‘A Very Big Shot’, she said. Like many of the old women present, grandma Tan was a labourer all her life since she migrated from China, over half a century ago.

Wan Azizah calms an overwhelmed woman

She thought the VIP visitor was the King’s wife, somebody with the power to get her a low-cost flat. She was overwhelmed with emotion when Keadilan President Wan Azizah Wan Ismail stepped into her tiny cubicles converted from a horse stable. Without bathroom and proper toilets, the mews is home to 24 households.

“Oh God! Have mercy. Find me a new house… I’ll be homeless,” she wailed and shook with despair. Wan Azizah kindly sat her down and fanned her. She calmed down.

“I remember when I was young, visiting Penang… how beautiful it was,” the MP told the crowd of residents.

“This is the soul of George Town. How can we call ourselves caring when people are evicted and made homeless? How can we called ourselves a caring society when the poor and old are forgotten?”

“We are the people, we have the power and political will. We have come here to support you,” she added to the cheers of the crowd.

Grandma Tan Choot lifted her hands skywards and thanked Heaven profusely.

Author’s note:
Wan Azizah is the wife of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. Throughout the ordeal when her husband was arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for 6 years she managed to hold the family fort and even won parliamentary elections. In the general elections in 2008 her eldest daughter, Nurul Izzah  just out of college, toppled the stalwart of UMNO’s women’s wing and entered Parliament. It was a ‘David and Goliath’ feat, the biggest upset of the elections!

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Filed under Malaysiakini (MY), Wan Azizah Wan Ismail

Mahathir Is Walking On Thin Ice

KimGooi Photojournalist

Mahathir Is Walking On Thin Ice
First published: Bangkok Post Bangkok Post Feb 3, 1999; Keadilan Magazine April 18, 1999

Wan Azizah and children leaving KL court after the judge refused bail on a minor bailable offence and big daddy could not be home for Hari Raya

Author’s note: The brutality unleashed on Anwar and the judicial absurdity were shocking and beyond understanding. He was brutally beatened by the police chief and denied bail on a flimsy sexual immorality, and  minor corruption charges.

On a January morning 1999 I arrived at the packed court house to see my path to the press gallery blocked. The police officer said no more reporter allowed as the quota was fulfilled. Panic-strickened I pleaded and flashed my Time magazine card, ‘Please  give me five minutes to go in and have a peep; I came all the way from Bangkok, at least I can write how the judge is like, the audience and how Anwar look.. or else I sure ‘kena buang kerja'(get sacked). He laughed, ‘OK no more than five minutes!’

I rushed in and squeezed into the press bench beside a lady reporter and explained my predicament. She smiled and kindheartedly made space for me to cramped beside her. Thank the police they did not bother me further.

Hari Raya with Wan Azizah and children Jan 1999

                                    

More people  may have visited the home of Mahathir on Malaysia’s recent religious open-house holiday, but it was at Anwar Ibrahim’s home where the more sympathetic gathered.

The scene at Kuala Lumpur’s Court of Appeal on Jan 16 was unusually relaxed – the court session was over and the accused, former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, was allowed to remain in the court room chatting with his defence lawyers and family members for several hours, while scores of police guards looked on benignly. “This is most unusual. Normally the accused is whisked away immediately after the court session and send back to jail,” said an observer from Amnesty International who has been monitoring the trial since its inception last September. Even the Bangkok Post was able to talk to Mr Anwar. “There seems to be a change. The police seem more lenient towards Anwar,” said the observer.

However, like most things in contemporary Kuala Lumpur, it is deceptive. The genial scene at the courtroom belies the brutality and conspiracy unleashed by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to destroy his rival and former protege.

Minutes earlier the judge had turned down Mr Anwar’s appeal against a high court decision not to grant bail. Among the reasons given was the presence of Mr Anwar’s supporters shouting slogans to greet him each time he passes in and out of court. “What legal argument is that? It is shocking to hear. If you are a famous singer or public figure, you can’t get bail and justice because there are crowds wherever you go,” said Mr Anwar. “I was prepared for this… What can I say? The defence had done a good job in refuting all the accusations (of sexual misconduct). “By deciding that the Court of Appeal has no jurisdiction over an appeal for bail, I have no recourse against an erroneous decision by the High Court. And by suggesting that the presence of my supporters outside the court is additional grounds for refusing bail, the Court of Appeal has virtually killed all my chances of seeking a fresh application for bail before the High Court judge.”

Hopes of Mr Anwar spending Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Islam’s holiest holiday on Jan 18, back home with his family were squashed. It’s a time of family reunion and traditionally for leaders to open their homes to the public.

Lines of well-wishers came since morning, forming long lines to shake the hand of Mr Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah, at the family home in Damansara, Kuala Lumpur’s posh suburb. By evening when the last guest had left after partaking of the food laid out on the lawn, the still beaming and smiling Mrs Wan Azizah told the Bangkok Post: “There were 17,600 visitors. When we had the open house at the World Trade Centre last year the figure was only 14,000. I am really touched by their support.”

Minutes earlier as the well-wishers were slowly drifting home, a burly Chinese man came forward to wish her well and press a card into her hand. She looked at it and smiled: “Oh, it’s a free entry card to an amusement park, but my children should not be going to enjoy themselves. There is so much to do while their father is detained. He means well.”

A Chinese couple walk up, shake her hand and present her with what looks like a food parcel. “Please give this to Anwar when you visit Sungei Buloh (prison) tomorrow,” said the man. Mrs Wan Azizah turned around and smiled. “My husband is not around but the warmth is still there,” she said softly. “Though I feel slightly depressed not having Anwar by my side, the warmth and support is overwhelming and this has strengthened my courage to face the challenge of the future. Even though Anwar is not beside me during Hari Raya, I have the comfort of having my children beside me. “For this festival I did not buy any clothes for my children but friends bought for them. It’s very sad for the children but I try to explain to them.”

After being married for 19 years, this is the first Hari Raya without her husband. In previous years she would go back to Penang with her husband and children and visit her relatives and friends, particularly her mother-in-law, she said. “In previous years when Anwar was the deputy prime minister, we would visit PM Mahathir in the morning on Hari Raya day. Then proceed to the World Trade Centre for the open house. In the evening Mahathir and his wife together with his children would come over to our house for dinner. The children would eat separately. This was the routine all the years since he was first deputy PM.”

Among the well-wishers was Shamsidar Taharin, the wife of Mr Anwar’s private secretary with whom Mr Anwar is accused of having sex. She came with her husband and children, and they were warmly greeted and mobbed by the crowd. She is a good friend of Mr Anwar’s wife. They are like sisters, said a family member.

What is most noticeable about the well-wishers thronging into Mr Anwar’s house is the number of Chinese supporters, many coming with their children. “This is a good sign. Twenty percent of the visitors are Chinese,” said Philip Tan, a bookseller. “In the beginning the Chinese were frightened by the demonstrations. Now after 45 days of the trial, the picture has become clear. Anwar has been framed and Mahathir is the brutal and evil one.” “Earlier, the Chinese didn’t come out because they don’t want to create trouble. They were scared by the Indonesian riots. Now they know the government must change. They know that only when Mahathir is removed can the economy improve.

“Not only ordinary people but a lot of businessmen say that if Mahathir steps down, things will go up. If the election is fair, the Barisan National led by Umno (Dr Mahathir’s United Malays National Organisation) will lose. So they are using the May 13 racial riots as a threat to the Chinese voters. They will lose Sabah to the opposition for sure. So there is a likelihood the general election will be held at the same time as the Sabah election.”

Mr Tan said that like other businesses, his sales figures are down 20 to 30 percent. Henry Ong, a tour operator, said: “I do not believe the economy is recovering. If it is, the tourism industry should be enjoying a boom like in Thailand because of the cheap ringgit. Instead we are facing a disaster. The hoteliers have predicted that for the next six months, hotel occupancy will hover at around 20 to 30 percent.” “It is bleak, it is more gloom than boom for us. I come to support Anwar because of the great injustice. I believe Mahathir must go in order for the economy to recover. An accountant who asked not to be named added: “Justice, that is why I came. Even the layman knows that there is great injustice being shown to Anwar. As an educated professional, I feel even more outraged. That’s why I came here.”

One of six Chinese university students said: “We came to Anwar’s house because we have not been here before, and this is a chance for us to come and have a look. We cannot comment and tell you why we came because of the university act. We will be expelled. Just say we are neutral.”

Sonia Randhawa, whose father was detained and tortured under the Internal Security Act for 40 hours because he is a close friend of Mr Anwar, said: “I am not an Anwar supporter. I come here because I am disgusted by the way they treat him. I am disgusted by the lack of justice.”

The open house at Dr Mahathir’s sprawling chateau-like residence, Sri Perdana, was in total contrast. Chinese and Indians made up the majority of the huge crowd estimated at 40,000. If numbers in the open house contest were a factor, Dr Mahathir won hands down. “This is the first time in my seven years here that the gate has been thrown wide open to allow a free flow of visitors,” said a security guard with the Special Action Force. “In previous years, we allowed only batches of 300 to come in at a time.”

While the crowd at Mr Anwar’s house was made up of committed supporters and educated professionals, Dr Mahathir’s crowd were mostly from the working class who came more out of curiosity than for political reasons. “This is the first and last time I will come here. He will soon be gone,” laughed Pari Davi after queuing for an hour before she managed to shake Dr Mahathir’s hand. “He looks gaunt and tired,” she said. “I have nothing to do and this is my last chance to see him and look around the place,” said Rosli bin
Abdul Rahman. Madam Wong came with his son and daughter and saw the crowd was too big. After looking around the sprawling compound, he went home disappointed. “We came because my 12-year-old daughter wanted to come and see him,” he said. “And this is Hari Raya. My daughter has seen his pictures every day and wanted to see him in person.

This is an expression of support for the government,” proclaimed Dr Mahathir. “The number of visitors is extraordinary. I expected a smaller crowd as some people might get the impression that there will be riots.” Like all Dr Mahathir’s claims and strategies, what appears on the surface is deceiving.

An Umno division leader who is a famous lawyer and well connected in the party said: “Anwar is getting more and more sympathy every day and the people are getting more and more angry with Mahathir as the court case proceeds and various charges and evidence are proven to be false.

Mahathir is like a drowning man clinging to the last straw to stay afloat,” he said. “Anwar’s trial will not damage him even if he is jailed. He has a future. Politically he is still there.” “You can’t get rid of him because some ministers say so. The ordinary people do not see the charges as a serious matter because the charges (which were amended last week) are abuse of power to cover up something that is false. The tragedy is Unmo as a pragmatic and liberal party for the Malays will be discredited. More and more Malays will join PAS (Islamic Party) because they have no choice.

And PAS is an ideology- (religious-) based party which is not suitable to rule over the country. Look at the BJP in India or what would happen if a religious party took over Israel.”

Sebagai rakyat yang patriotik, adalah menjadi tanggungjawab kita untuk membawa negara kita keluar dari kemelut sekarang. Maruah negara perlu dikembalikan. Arang yang terconteng di muka bangsa Malaysia perlu dibersihkan. Nama Malaysia perlu diharumkan kembali, iaitu negara yang mempunyai rakyat yang berani berjuang menegakkan kebenaran dan keadilan.” Datuk Seri Anwar

“Political parties and non-government organisations must work together and set aside their differences in order to free Malaysia from continuing stranglehold of crisis and oppression….Our party is prepared to sacrifice its own interests in order to achieve the larger goal of forging a credible alternative to the Barisan Nasional (National Front),”  Dr. Wan Azizah.

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Filed under Bangkok Post (TH), Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad