Tag Archives: singapore

Ruminations on Food 5: When Fish Looks Like Fish

Ahead of Donald Trump’s much trumpeted trip to Asia last year, his aides told CNN that he was going to avoid “whole fish with heads still on”.

He did not know what he was missing. The best fish is served whole.

What Trump Missed

Years ago when I was an investment banker, my American bank sent me to New York for a month of training. Those were party days and one evening I ventured into New York’s Chinatown with two Italian co-trainees. They had little idea what dishes to order and thought they were in for a treat.

They were – though it was perhaps not the treat they had in mind. The restaurant into which we stumbled would best be described as ‘authentic’. My nose had led us there, you see, and my nose told me to enter. It wasn’t a hole-in-the-wall, but this was long before New York’s Chinatown became gentrified. Although my colleagues looked doubtful, they bravely followed. It had been their idea after all: they’d given me carte blanche to make decisions. Once inside they seemed comforted by the sight of so many Asians eating together. When I decreed that we sit, they told me to order.

The highlight came in the form of a fish that had been steamed whole, complete with head, fins and tail. It looked pretty much like the specimen below. Our waiter must have had a sixth sense – he positioned the dish so that the fish’s mouth peered directly up at my Italian friends. They went pale; neither said a word. Needless to say, I ended up eating rather a lot of fish that night.

Ahoy!

When you grow up with something, you don’t really think about it. In Southeast Asia, we like our fish to look like fish. Because I’d been staring into the gaping mouths of fish since I was a child, it had not occurred to me that anyone could object.

Our penchant for authenticity is not limited to fish. We like our prawns whole, too, still in their shells with tails and juicy heads perfect for sucking.

Prawns As Real As They Come

Quite often, you actually pull your seafood out of the water. Many Chinese restaurants have tanks showcasing the fish, prawns and crabs you can have for your meal. Here’s our waiter pulling large crustaceans out. See the white cards on the side of the tank? The cards reveal the names of customers and what they’ve ordered. At first glance the impression is surreal: the sign with ‘Mr. Chin’ – my uncle’s surname – on the vitrine made it look as if Mr. Chin himself were swimming in the water!

Waiter Fishing

Below is a dish of roast duck. Notice the pains the chef has taken to remind diners that this is duck. So real you can almost hear quacking on the plate. The photo was taken at the  swanky Chinese restaurant known as Yuk Sou Hin inside the WEIL Hotel, which many say serves the best roast duck in Ipoh. In Malaysia and Singapore, even Chinese haute cuisine isn’t for the squeamish. As an aside, I will vouch for this roast duck!

Authentic Duck

The above dishes should qualify as ‘real food’. According to a blog I found, ‘real food’ – a growing movement in the West – is food that is

  • Old and traditional
  • Whole, complete and intact
  • Diverse (as opposed to processed)

You couldn’t get more ‘whole, complete and intact’ unless you strung your poultry up whole. Which of course, many Chinese restaurants worldwide do, too. They hang the already roasted or steamed poultry up and hack them into pieces as customers’ orders come through. It turns out that we’ve been eating real food in Malaysia for a long time – we just didn’t know it.

As if whole fowl dangling pendulously from metal hooks were insufficient, Malaysian coffee shops sometimes have gigantic images on their walls. This must be their attempts at creating the ‘before’ and ‘after’: at the front whole chickens, already cooked, unceremoniously strung up; on one wall, covering pretty much the entire surface area, what those lovely chickens once looked like when they still had feathers.

In Case You Forgot What You Came to Eat

On a serious note, if you belong to the ‘real food movement’ I’d love to know whether the movement embraces an ethos of no wastage, the way we do. What I mean is that we eat every part of the animal. It wouldn’t do to discard the eyes of a fish when you could eat them, would it? This is why there are folks who are fans of fishes’ eyes – I promise it’s true, there are a few in my family – while many others adore fish head curry. The latter is such a popular Malaysian speciality that it even has its own Wikipedia entry.

As for panel signs, we like ours to look as real as our food. The one below was taken inside a Malaysian food court.  It’s not enough to tell customers not to spit. The warning must come in at least two languages with an explicit picture.

Watch That Tongue!

Now spit if you dare. And you probably would dare. Because the sign says nothing about a penalty, does it? In neighbouring Singapore, it would be made clear that you’d be fined for spitting. And you would – because you’d be caught.

But this is Malaysia, a land with laws aplenty and equally plentiful discretionary enforcement. Apa-apa pun boleh, you see. Anything goes.

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Blame the Chinese!

I enjoy hearing from readers. Even when they express views I find disturbing.

Just before the last Malaysian general election, I wrote a blog-post about the corrupting influence of unfettered power (see Malaysia’s Election Eve). The article focused on corruption in Malaysia, not race. But as with most things Malaysian, race is never far behind.

In recent days, a reader picked up on this blog-post and delivered a simple message: you Chinese in Malaysia are the cause of our corruption. We Malays were innocents until the British ‘let’ you in to the country (my emphasis). Stop complaining, since it is your corrupting influence that is coming back to bite you. (To see the comment for yourself, scroll down along the comments section  below Malaysia’s Election Eve.)

Leaving aside the historical point that there were Chinese in Malaysia long before the British arrived, forgive me for stating the blindingly obvious: corruption in any country affects all its citizens. Corruption in Malaysia (which the reader appears to accept) affects Malay, Chinese, Indian and Orang Asli (the indigenous peoples of Malaysia) equally.

Blaming minority races in Malaysia is not new. The day after the recent general elections, when the ruling party lost the popular vote but nonetheless kept the majority of seats, the incumbent Prime Minister explained his performance in terms of a ‘Chinese tsunami’. Utusan Malaysia, a leading Malay-language newspaper, regularly publishes incendiary material which deliberately stokes racial feeling and attributes all kinds of evil to the Chinese. An infamous article with the heading Orang Cina Malaysia – apa lagi yang anda mahu? (Chinese of Malaysia – what more do you want?) listed Malaysia’s 10 wealthiest people, 8 of whom were Chinese. The message? You’re already rich, what more could you possibly want? Equality? This provocative title was repeated after the recent general election results, in yet another twisted article.

But let us put all this aside. Let us assume for a minute that what the reader contends is true – that palm-greasing is a peculiarly Chinese phenomenon. How does this explain Singapore, a country within spitting distance of Malaysia?

Singapore has a Chinese majority in power, yet it is consistently ranked amongst the least corrupt countries in the world. On the Tranparency International Index, where a lower number is better, Singapore is ranked 5th while Malaysia shares 54th place with the Czech Republic, Latvia and Turkey. Why the difference? What does Singapore have which Malaysia lacks?

The answer seems pretty clear to me: good governance.

I suggest that it is the absence of good governance – the absence of sufficient checks and balances to the wielding of power – which has put China, Mexico, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Russia in the top 5 in terms of illicit outflows between 2001 and 2010. Power corrupts, and in Malaysia, fifty six years of power corrupt absolutely. There is no evidence to suggest that the Chinese, Mexicans, Malays, Arabs and Russians are intrinsically more corrupt than anyone else on the planet, despite the staggering numbers in this report.

It is easier of course, to find a scapegoat than to face up to the real issues at hand. Why bother, when all you need do is point your finger at the successful minority groups in your midst? Malaysia today is nowhere near where it should be in this world, given the extent of its natural resources. Its tiny neighbour to the south, an island so small you need a magnifying glass to see it on the map, has left Malaysia far behind. How could a former mosquito-infested swamp which has to import everything, even drinking water, have raced ahead of a land as bountiful as Malaysia?

That is the question Malaysia’s ruling party and its acolytes should be asking. With the rise of China and India, Malaysia could benefit handsomely from home-grown ties, but instead of embracing its Chinese and Indian minorities, Malaysia treats its minorities as second-class citizens, forever fearing that the Malays will not be able to make it in this world unless they receive special help.

In blaming minority races for a host of travails, the ruling party and its acolytes are following a well-trodden path. When propaganda triumphs over reason, the consequences are stark, and the examples in other countries do not bear thinking about.

Malaysia is still far from such extremes, and I truly hope it remains that way. But I fear more and more for my country. It is already no longer as tolerant as the home I once knew, and I worry Malaysia will lose its way even more. Instead of the different races coming together, we may be pulled further apart. If we are to build the country we all want, we must…

I don’t have the answers, but one of them must surely be: stop blaming the Chinese.

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Malaysia’s Election Eve

Power corrupts. Fifty six years of power corrupt absolutely. That is how long the ruling elite has held the reins of power in Malaysia.

What new ideas could it possibly offer which it had not thought of during its half century of uninterrupted rule?

In a country thousands of miles away, I remember the Thatcher years. I became an adult in Britain then, and watched an initially energetic government run out of steam by 1992, a mere thirteen years later. The Conservatives limped on for another five years, but change was inevitable.

Imagine if the Conservative Party had carried on for three times longer than their run of eighteen years. The governmental coalition in Malaysia, known as Barisan Nasional (National Front in Malay), has done exactly that. Is it plausible that any regime which has held authority for so long could remain uncorrupted? (This is something neighbouring Singapore has achieved, but Singapore is an exceptional country; see for example Transparency International’s 2012 League Table.)

Tomorrow, Malaysians will go to the polls. Some of us overseas have already handed in our postal votes (a right which incidentally, we were denied until a few months ago. Before then, the only Malaysians living overseas who were given postal votes were students, public servants and members of the military).

I, like many of my fellow-Malaysians, will be following the election results closely. I have no illusion over whether this 13th General Election will be free and fair. It has so far been a dirty election, and is likely to be up to the last minute. Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the Opposition Coalition, has complained of dubious voters being flown in from neighbouring countries. The Malaysian ‘Electoral Commission’, a purportedly impartial organisation, has admitted that voters have been flown in from abroad by ‘friends of the ruling regime’, but the Commission has actually defended this practice! (Such is the state of Malaysia today).

These are the desperate actions of a morally bankrupt regime. Despite all this, I am filled with anticipation, a little excitement, and plenty of apprehension too, for I know I could yet be disappointed.

The possibility of change is frightening. I have no idea what form any change in Malaysia would actually take, should it happen.

Do I trust Anwar Ibrahim? No. But he’s the best hope we have.

His Opposition Coalition includes an Islamist party, the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, commonly known as PAS. Does PAS worry me? Yes, but the incumbents, who have abused religion and race through the years as tools with which to divide Malaysians – solely to keep themselves in power – worry me even more.

Malaysians do not take easily to the streets. We are often afraid of expressing our true opinions. But the political scandals have become too numerous to list, or ignore. Let me quote just one statistic: under the current government, Malaysia became the third most corrupt country in the world as measured by illicit outflows between 2001 and 2010 (third after China and Mexico, both far larger and more populous countries).

For Malaysia, change must come, if not tomorrow, then on another day. I know that no maggot-filled regime has ever survived indefinitely in history. At some point the maggots will run out of flesh and will have to feed on themselves, or be overthrown. Unfortunately this could take decades, even centuries.

Tomorrow, whatever happens, I will take heart from the words of American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’

Malaysia, Ubah!

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What Great-Grandmother Taught Me about Economics

Hang a banker a week until the others improve.” These extraordinary words were uttered by Ken Livingstone, formerly London’s mayor, in a speech in February this year.

His words clearly incite hate, but in the West of today, hating bankers and business, especially big business, seems perfectly acceptable. Livingstone is far from alone. “Outrage over £13 billion lavished on bonuses for bankers while the rest of us struggle to make ends meet,” screamed the MailOnline on 20 September.

With such righteous indignation, it was hardly surprising that two poets, Alice Oswald and John Kinsella, withdrew from the TS Eliot prize on the grounds of its ‘tainted’ sponsorship. The money for the prize was to come from investment firm Aurum, which manages funds of hedge funds. “The business of Aurum does not sit well with my personal politics and ethics”, said Mr. Kinsella, who described hedge funds as being “at the very pointy end of capitalism.” Fair enough. It is laudable to stand up for what you believe in. I only hope Mr. Kinsella never plans to retire, because his pension fund, if he has one, is likely to have exposure to hedge funds (or to mutual funds which employ hedge fund techniques).

Into this charged atmosphere, it would be interesting to see the response to my début novel in which private entrepreneurship is celebrated. My protagonist Chye Hoon fully embraces capitalism, because it offers her and her family opportunities. In colonial Malaya, there is no other lifeline, no entitlement: life is what you make of it. Chye Hoon cannot even read or write but this doesn’t deter her, because she can count. She starts a business in Malaya in 1910, making and selling the delicacies with which she has grown up – the Nyonya kueh of her childhood. On the first morning, Chye Hoon stands in her kitchen inhaling the smells of steaming coconut milk and pandanus leaves, and she knows she will make money.

This she proceeds to do – very successfully. Bahh, you may say. Your book is fiction. Maybe, but my protagonist is based on my great grandmother, who personified the traits of many overseas Chinese. We are the descendants of those who dared leave China. There are plenty of rags-to-riches stories from among us, and all are true. (When I say rags, I mean literally rags. Here is one of many photographs of newly-arrived immigrants at the Chinatown Heritage Centre in Singapore, an excellent museum.) 

Great-Grandmother shared the absolute determination of her Chinese ancestors to succeed. She might even have taught Gordon Brown a thing or two. Ipoh, where she lived, was a mining town, its fortunes tied to tin. And the price of tin, Great-Grandmother knew, went up and down. She understood intuitively that there would be good years as well as bad. If she had heard anyone say, as the former Chancellor did in his pre-budget report of 1999, “Under this Government, Britain will not return to the boom and bust of the past”, she would have exclaimed, Malaysian style, “What? He crazy ah?”

In the good years, Great-Grandmother worked and saved, to prepare for the bad years that were always just round the corner. In the bad years she worked just as hard, but saved less. There was no point complaining, and no one to complain to. Great-Grandmother lived in a world in which no safety net existed: there was no unemployment benefit, no healthcare, or pension. She provided for herself and her children, all nine of them.

At some point Great-Grandmother made enough money, and was approached by others for loans. That was when she became a money-lender in Ipoh. My own protagonist Chye Hoon also becomes a money-lender in my novel. Chye Hoon discovers an under-served niche (women), and her activities play a vital role in the growth of micro-enterprise in her town. In writing about how Chye Hoon builds her business, I drew from twenty years of experience as a banker and entrepreneur. 

Business is about survival, and growth. Always, you have to make sure you survive, no matter how large your business. This is the stuff of life. It’s what I write about in my novel. In the anti-capitalist discourse of today, we sometimes forget that businesses serve needs. As does banking.

Make no mistake: Great-Grandmother’s enterprise may have been small, but she was as keen on profit as any large corporation. Without profit, she could not have survived; our family wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t be completing a novel.

As I read some of the headlines in the West today, I can’t help thinking about her. Her golden rules were simple: work your butt off, save like crazy, and take advantage of every opportunity. Oh, and don’t borrow. This last was ironic, given her money-lending activities.

But perhaps a dose of such conservatism has its uses. At the last count, Britain’s households held £1.4 trillion of personal debt. This means that the average amount owed by each person in the UK represents 117% of average earnings.

Some people say this level of debt doesn’t matter (BBC News: The Truth about the UK’s Debt). Perhaps, but surely having less debt could do no harm.

In any case, are bankers solely responsible for the debt mountain? The facts speak for themselves: personal debt climbed during the go-go years between 1997 and 2007.  Loans were given too freely then, but no banker forced anyone to take a loan under duress. Somewhere in the narrative of entitlement, personal responsibility has got lost.

My novel goes against that grain. It is about identity and loss of culture yes, but it is also a story of personal responsibility, and the power we have as individuals. In this time of crisis, it offers a message of hope. Against all odds, a woman faces the Great Depression of the 1930s on her own, with no help whatsoever. She succeeds on her own terms. We can too.

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