Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Veggie Zen

JAPANESE horticulturists are raising perfectly delectable vegetables in a completely controlled environment. SITI NURBAIYAH NADZMI finds out how they do it.

IT is hard to believe that the crisp and flavoursome lettuce, arugula and herbs drizzled with vinaigrette dressing and served at a family restaurant in west Tokyo were grown without sun or soil but in a plant factory in Matsudo City, Chiba Prefecture.
  These leafy vegetables, grown in a completely controlled and "stress-free" environment, have created a steady demand among restaurateurs and consumers for the past five years. And the trend is likely to flourish, said horticulturist Shigeharu Shimamura, president and founder of Mirai Company Limited.
  These plants are essentially grown hydroponically. Instead of soil, water is used as the medium to provide nutrients to the plant.
  But unlike most hydroponic farms, Mirai has replaced the open air and sunlight with fluorescent-lit shelves in air-conditioned rooms.
  There are three types of hydroponic cultivation  -  using the sunlight and open air, a combination of sunlight and artificial lighting in the open air, and in a completely controlled environment with artificial lighting.
  "Our company uses the third method which eliminates all stress factors for the plants such as unpredictable weather, inconsistent amount of light, lack of nutrients, wind, fungus and pest infestation," he said.
  In a nutshell, the plant factory has industrialised agriculture.
  Mirai is also responsible for setting up a plant factory at Japan's Showa base in Antarctica.
  "The plant factory allows indoor cultivation in artificial weather by controlling the light, temperature, humidity and nutrients, making extreme climate areas arable enough to produce leafy vegetables and herbs."
  Shimamura said the stress factors are the culprits which hamper the growth rate of plants. In a stress-free environment, the plants have the potential to grow faster and with little variation in shapes and sizes.
  "Instead of three months, lettuce grown in plant factories can be harvested after only 30 days," he said.
  The trick is shortening "night time". Strange as it may sound, Shimamura said, plants recognise the natural day and night cycle.
  "It is important to switch off the lights for several hours after a `daylight' condition of about eight to 10 hours, just enough to create the illusion of night time for the plants."
  Come "night time", the lights are switched off so that the plants can rest and "wake up" the next day.
  The unique selling point for these factory vegetables is that they are so clean and untouched that they are ready to be served immediately after
  "In such a controlled environment, we do not have to use pesticides. The vegetables are safe to eat without the need to rinse off any chemical residue, bugs or dirt," he said.
  Although priced slightly higher than conventionally-cultivated produce, the vegetables are perceived to be high value-added products which are pesticide and fungus free, clean and cost-efficient since they cut down the time and cost of processing. The flawless leaves and standard sizes ensure a tantalising visual presentation on the plate.
  "The iceberg round lettuce, for example, wastes about 30-40 per cent of its weight because the outer leaves and the core will be discarded by food operators," Shimamura pointed out. "But the ones that we grow have longer leaves (like the romaine) and the preparation is reduced to twisting the root off and keeping the waste to only three per cent."
  More than that, Shimamura said, the look and flavour of these vegetables can be engineered to the clients' specifications by adjusting the amount of nutrients and cultivation techniques.
  Shimamura, however, declined to elaborate, saying: "It is a trade secret."
  Plant factories allow the impossible such as cultivating seasonal vegetables and herbs throughout the year, tailor-made taste, stable production and land optimisation.
  Ozu Industry Corporation, a manufacturer of traditional washi paper since 1653, has turned its unused warehouse into a plant factory last year at Fuchu City, Tokyo, making it the only full-fledged plant factory in the prefecture.
  The plant has seven-tier shelves lit by fluorescent bulbs and grows eight types of leafy vegetables and herbs, lettuce, potherb mustard, Italian parsley, watercress, "Mizuna", sweet basil, rocket lettuce and garland chrysanthemum.
  After a year of production, the subsidiary company Ozu Corporation's Nihonbashi Yasai head of business development Yuichi Kaneko is confident that it will make a profit in the following year.
  "People are more discerning when it comes to food safety and this pushes the demand for pesticide-free vegetables, not just from the consumers, but supermarkets and restaurateurs," he said.

Going back to nature
  AT the other end of the spectrum, a young farmer, Yukio Ogawa, 35, is doing away with agrochemicals and getting help from bugs to cultivate healthy vegetables fit for his family.
  After graduating in agriculture management, Ogawa worked for two years with a company distributing agricultural machines.
  It struck him then that Japanese farmers had become too dependent on agrochemicals, from fertilisers to pesticides, and this practice had increased cost and reduced profitability. Going back to basics, Ogawa is determined to cultivate tasty vegetables as nature intended, leveraging on the concept of "good bugs eat bad bugs". And he created organic fertiliser by using slugs to break down compost for his plants.
  He has almost halved his costs while maintaining production at optimum level. The only downside to this farming concept is "imperfect" produce.
  Ogawa feels too many chemicals are used in producing perfect-looking carrots, eggplants and cabbages, raising the question of the safe level of chemicals in these vegetables.
  "It is true that these agro-chemicals are approved by the Ministry but how much of it is safe for our children? How do we know whether it will have adverse effects later in our lives? I want to be sure that my children are having tasty vegetables grown without the use of chemicals which may be harmful in the long run," he said.
  Getting the right bugs to control pest and fungus is downright tedious and takes a lot of patience. Part of Ogawa's daily routine is to run a medical check on the health of his crops by carefully inspecting the leaves, barks and trunk, looking for telltale signs of pest attack or fungus.
  Once spotted, he will place predator insects on the affected crops.
  The whole concept hinges on the delicate balance of the insect eco-system, where one insect cannot do without another  -  predator or prey alike.
  "At my farm I try to create a harmonious eco-system for the bugs and the plants, so it is essential to keep a variety of bugs and enough food for them, otherwise the bugs will die and the plants will suffer," said the farmer.
  Ogawa is confident of the shift in consumption trends as people are becoming more aware of food safety: "My customers don't mind the odd shapes and sizes of the vegetables because they know they are completely free from agro-chemicals."
  He sells direct to consumers and retailers from his farms. Local supermarkets carry his Ogawa farm brand, which ensures agro-chemical free cultivation.

New Straits Times, November 11, 2009

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Pelbagai dugaan bawa pulang jenazah Mariam

PADA jam 11.30 malam, saya menelefon Anifah sekali lagi dan memberitahunya mengenai surat di pejabat kedutaan itu. Beliau berkata pegawainya, termasuk pejabat di Seoul sudah dimaklumkan mengenai urusan penghantaran jenazah Mariam dan meminta saya menunggu panggilan daripada pegawainya.
  Tepat jam 12 malam saya menelefon Anifah sekali lagi kerana pegawainya masih belum menghubungi saya.
  "Telefon saya esok pagi." Sekali lagi beliau memberi jaminan pegawainya sedang berusaha.
  Bagaimanapun, keesokan harinya, tiga jam sebelum upacara pembakaran mayat, Park menelefon saya, kali ini beliau tidak lagi berselindung mengenai tujuannya.
  "Siti, saya dalam perjalanan ke hospital untuk menguruskan pembakaran mayat Mariam."
  Katanya, tiada sesiapa dari pejabat Kedutaan Malaysia di Seoul menghubungi beliau untuk memberi jaminan Mariam akan dibawa pulang.
Kedutaan cuma menelefon Ji dan bertanya beberapa soalan saja mengenai upacara pembakaran pada hari itu.
  Giliran saya pula berasakan sudah berada di hujung usaha. Apa lagi yang boleh saya lakukan pada saat ini?
  Telefon saya berdering dan suara ustaz daripada Jakim itu kedengaran di hujung talian, kali ini saya turut mengetepikan profesion saya. Terus terang saya melahirkan kebimbangan, kerunsingan dan kebuntuan saya padanya. Tanpa segan silu, saya pula memintanya berusaha bersungguh-sungguh untuk melakukan yang terbaik. "Tolonglah Mariam."
  "Insya-Allah," katanya tenang.
  Saya menelefon satu-satunya orang yang saya fikir boleh melakukan sesuatu, Anifah.
  "Datuk, jenazah Mariam sedang dibawa ke krematorium (tempat pembakaran mayat)."
  Anifah terkejut.
  "Nurbaiyah, saya ada surat yang difakskan semalam menyatakan Mariam
sudah dibakar semalam."
  "Tidak, dia akan dibakar hari ini, jam 2 petang waktu Malaysia."
  "Boleh awak periksa sekali lagi?"
  "Saya baru saja selesai menelefon orang hubungan saya di Korea."
  "Saya akan telefon awak nanti."
  Sepuluh minit kemudian Anifah menelefon saya semula.
  "Awak betul Nurbaiyah. Jenazah Mariam akan dibakar hari ini jam 3 petang. Saya sudah arahkan pegawai saya halang pembakaran itu."
  "Adakah kita akan membawa jenazahnya pulang?"
  "Ya... kami sedang bekerjasama dengan Kedutaan Korea untuk menyediakan semua keperluan dokumen untuk membawanya pulang."
  Tetapi debaran saya masih belum berakhir. Park masih di hospital, apa saja mungkin boleh berlaku.
  Jam 1.05 tengah hari, saya menerima panggilan dari Park dan beliau menyatakan sudah dihubungi supaya menghantar semula jenazah Mariam ke hospital untuk persediaan menghantar pulang ke Malaysia.
  "Inilah keajaiban, Siti," katanya. Tentunya segala keajaiban yang berlaku di ambang solat Jumaat (11 September) itu rahmat Allah dan tanda kebesaran dan keagungannya. Tatkala itu terlerailah segala rasa. Nazura mengusap belakang saya sambil menghulurkan kotak tisu kepada saya yang kehilangan kata-kata.
  Pada Isnin (14 September), Park memberitahu maklumat penerbangan, tetapi anehnya menurut Ibrahim, teman sekerjanya mendapat maklumat yang sama sekali berbeza daripada pejabat kedutaan di Seoul.
  Rudy Fazrunisyam Samarudin, wartawan Harian Metro di Johor Bahru diberitahu sehingga jam 2 petang waktu tempatan, belum mendapat syarikat penerbangan untuk menghantar jenazah itu, sedangkan Park memaklumkan kepada saya dengan terperinci pada jam 11 pagi lagi.
  Kata Park, urusan pembayaran kos juga sudah dibuat oleh agensi kerajaan di Malaysia.
  Rupa-rupanya, MAIJ yang membiayai kos penerbangan.
  Jenazah Mariam diterbangkan dari Seoul pada Selasa dan tiba pada hari berikutnya di Lapangan Terbang Antarabangsa Kuala Lumpur (KLIA), semua agensi kerajaan memberikan kerjasama yang cukup baik sehinggakan urusan berjalan lancar sekali tidak sampai sejam jenazah Mariam sudah berada di lebuh raya dalam perjalanan ke Kota Tinggi.
  Saya sempat melihat jenazah selepas selesai dimandikan oleh petugas di rumah mayat Hospital Kota Tinggi, anak sulung Mariam, Ramlah Sonni 74, dan isteri jelani, Suriah Anwar, 54. Wajah Mariam jernih, dahinya dingin ketika dikucup, matanya terpejam rapat.
  Jenazah beliau diiringi polis, anggota Rela dan bomba, persis pengebumian orang kenamaan.
  Kata Kadi Daerah Kota Tinggi, Taufik Shamsuddin, Mariam dimandi, dikafan, disembahyang dan disemadikan oleh orang yang berpuasa.
  "Bukan calang-calang orang yang diberi rezeki seperti ini." Subhanallah.

Berita Minggu, Oktober 4, 2009

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The finest days of an artist

WHAT'S our 10th National Laureate like? SITI NURBAIYAH NADZMI finds him humble, open-minded and forward-looking.

  DATUK Dr Mohd Anuar Rethwan is not easily ruffled.
  A few days after he was announced the 10th National Laureate, some quarters heavily criticised the award committee, chaired by deputy prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin. They claimed there were many other prolific writers more deserving of the coveted award.
  Calm and collected, Anuar, whose pen name is Anwar Ridhwan, was reported as saying, "I may not write as much as some, but perhaps the committee weighed the quality of my writings."
  The award, announced earlier this month, was a pleasant birthday surprise for Anwar who was born on Aug 5, 1949 in Sungai Besar, Selangor.
  For the past 40 years Anwar has slaved over his favourite genres - the short story and poetry. Hailed as one of the nation's master short story writers, he delves into the theme of modernity and has always been critical of changing lifestyles and values.
  His first writings, largely poetry and essays, were published in 1970 when he was a Malay Studies undergraduate at University Malaya.
Immediately after graduation he was hired as temporary staff at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) for three months, after which he was employed as a literature research officer.
  Anwar remained with the institution until he retired in 2005 as publishing director. He completed his doctorate in 1998 with University Malaya while at the same time serving as a resident professor of Foreign Languages at Tokyo University (1997 to 2000).
  Tokyo endowed him with time, space and a whole new perspective - all of which greatly influenced his style of writing.
  Malaysia's political and economic upheaval in 1998 drove him to handwrite Naratif Ogonshoto, a magical tale of a fictitious kingdom torn by economic and political greed.
  Each of the 10 chapters is intricately crafted as a separate short story but they are tied together, with a prologue and epilogue, as a novel. One of the chapters, Hering, was first published in Dewan Sastera August 2000 and the novel hit the shelves a year later.
  National Writers Association (Pena) secretary general Syed Mohd Zakir Syed Omar was reportedly not surprised by the award as Anwar had been on the committee's list of nominations for several years.
  Syed Mohd Zakir described Naratif Ogonshoto as a philosophical political critique in a highly refined style:
  "It is a significant departure compared to other national laureates such as Professor Shahnon Ahmad's direct critique or Datuk A. Samad Said's symbolism."
  Anwar's first novel, Hari Hari Terakhir Seorang Seniman (The Last Days of An Artist), depicted a storyteller's nomadic life of telling ancient tales, from one village to another, just before World War 2. His art was threatened by the war, the changing lifestyle and the introduction of radio.
  The novel won the Sabah Foundation - Gapena Award in 1979 and was translated into English, Japanese and French. It was adapted into a play by Datuk Johan Jaaffar and staged 14 times in Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu and Singapore.
  Anwar's second novel, Arus (Current) focussed on a massive bank scandal and the issue of Malay Muslims calling each other infidels because they had different political ideals. That was the era of the RM2.5 billion BMF scandal and the Memali incident in Kedah.
  The novel jointly won the Malaysia Literary award 1984/85 with National Laureate Datuk A. Samad Said's Daerah Zeni.
  Anwar won the same award again in 1992/93 for his play Yang Menjelma dan Yang Menghilang.
  His magnum opus, Naratif Ogonshoto, won the Hadiah Sastera Perdana Malaysia 2002, the Brunei Mastera Literary Award and the South East Asian Write Award, a prestigious literary honour presented annually to poets and writers in this region.
  Anwar, however, does not feel that the National Laureate title or the shower of attention will change his life much.
  "There's still much to be done," said the dean of the Writing Faculty at the National Arts Culture and Heritage Academy (Aswara). For instance, preparing young writers for the future.
  Malay is the fourth largest language group in the world, but Anwar worries about whether Malay literature is prepared for that. Ideally, it should offer a bigger market share for Malay works, with more genres, and drive the publishing industry.
  "If we do not grab this opportunity now, to improve and expand the usage and literary work, we will kill the language," declared the National Laureate.
  Soft-spoken and deliberate, Anwar is critical on the issue of Mathematics and Science taught in English: "The reversal of the policy is a second chance for the language to survive and become an important academic medium. We should not fail this."
  The survival of the language rests on all of us, he says, and everyone should play their role: writers, editors, publishers, industry, policy makers and speakers of the Malay language.
  "It is a healthy trend to publish popular fiction," said Anwar when asked about the flood of romantic Malay novels in the bookstores.
  "Because down the road the writers will want to write something more
challenging, and the readers will develop their individual preferences."
  Popular fiction will move the market and generate reading habits. "Eventually the market will offer what the reader wants and more genres
will be available in the bookstores."
  Anwar lauded the marketing drive of new publishing houses compared to more established publishers, noting that they were more aggressive in their marketing and promotional strategies after research to understand the market.
  "They have come up with a wide range of topics, from cookbooks to motivational, and targeted age groups, like young children, teenagers and young adult and adults. Even the cover designs are tailored to appeal to the specified markets."
  As long as the reading habit is nurtured, there will always be a demand for books - cutting across ethnicity and geo-political borders.
  To be accepted at the international level, non-native speakers should also write in Bahasa Malaysia, Anwar stressed. He hopes writers from other nations will read and write about the language: "Their opinions and viewpoints are important to the growth and survival of the language. Malay literature does not belong to the Malays alone."
  Anwar may be stating the obvious but strangely the general perception, especially among book retailers, is that Malay books are only read and written by Malays.
  "It is a distorted perception," argued Anwar, noting that in the Eighties and Nineties, DBP had a dedicated committee to nurture and develop the writing talents of non-Malay writers.
  Today, with or without the help of that committee, the nation has many prolific non-Malay writers such as Lim Swee Tin and Jong Chian Lai who are SEA Write Award winners, Uthaya Sankar, Saroja Theavy Balakrishnan and Soo Cham, he pointed out:
  "I believe in 10 years' time, one of them will be named Sasterawan Negara."
* The National Laureate ceremony, with the award presented by the Agong, will be held on Oct 20.

New Straits Times,  September 30, 2009

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Kedutaan kita di Seoul main tarik tali

PADA Selasa, jam 3.30 petang, Park menelefon saya, katanya upacara pembakaran mayat yang sepatutnya dijalankan jam 11 pagi tadi tergendala apabila pegawai pejabat Kedutaan Malaysia di Seoul memaklumkan jenazah Mariam akan dibawa pulang ke Malaysia.
  "Tetapi mereka tidak tetapkan masa dan kami tak tahu sama ada ia berjaya atau tidak dan mayat Mariam masih di gereja," kata Park mengenai kekaburan situasi keluarga yang tidak tahu kedudukan sebenar jenazah Mariam.
  Park mendraf surat yang menyatakan bahawa Ji membenarkan jenazah Mariam dibawa pulang ke Malaysia untuk dituntut Jelani. Surat itu ditandatangani Ji dan diserahkan dengan tangan ke pejabat kedutaan pada jam 1.30 tengah hari waktu tempatan.
  Park meminta saya bersimpati dengan kedua-dua keluarga Mariam di Seoul dan Kota Tinggi untuk mengesahkan apa yang telah berlaku.
  Saya mendapat tahu Kohilan (Timbalan Menteri Luar, Senator A Kohilan Pillay) memaklumkan bahawa Wisma Putra tiada kuasa untuk membawa pulang Mariam kerana arwah sudah melucutkan kewarganegaraannya pada akhir 2007 dan permohonannya diluluskan pada awal tahun lalu.
  Bingung saya dibuatnya. Bagaimana mungkin Mariam melepaskan pasportnya pada tahun sama beliau mendapatnya dan selepas menunggu selama 64 tahun? Siapakah yang meracuni fikiran nenek itu untuk melepaskan hak kerakyatannya? Jika benar, mengapakah beliau masih ingin pulang ke tanah ini tiga bulan lalu?
  Park menelefon saya lagi pada pagi Rabu, kali ini suaranya lebih ceria. Sister Seraphina, seorang biarawati yang bertanggungjawab memperkenalkan Park pada Mariam dan menjaga Mariam sebelum dia dipindahkan ke rumah warga tua, menghubungi seorang profesor di Suwon University yang pakar dalam menguruskan jenazah ke luar negara.
  Park meminta saya menghubungi Jelani sekiranya mereka bersedia menuntut jenazah Mariam.
  "Kami sedia membatalkan perkhidmatan pengebumian (bakar mayat) pada Jumaat, jam 3 petang," katanya berharap supaya upacara pembakaran mayat kali kedua itu tidak menjadi kenyataan.
  Petang itu harapan untuk Mariam kembali ke tanah air menjadi semakin cerah, tetapi sekali lagi Wisma Putra bermain tarik tali dengan keluarga Mariam.
  Pagi Khamis, 36 jam sebelum upacara pembakaran, saya menelefon Park untuk bertanyakan perkembangan dan terkejut apabila diberitahu pejabat kedutaan menolak mentah-mentah permintaan untuk menghantar Mariam pulang, walaupun kali ini Mariam akan pulang sebagai rakyat Korea, dibiayai oleh dermawan Korea dan diuruskan oleh Kerajaan Korea. Apa lagi yang tak kena? Fikir saya.
  Jelani yang semakin buntu tidak berdaya untuk berniaga hari itu kerana amat runsing.
  "Saya tak taulah Baiyah. Tak tau nak fikir apa lagi. Balik ke tidak mak saya ni?" katanya dengan suara perlahan dan tersekat-sekat. Saya tidak sampai hati untuk memberitahunya betapa genting keadaan ketika itu.
  Pada hari sama seorang teman sekerja menelefon saya dan menasihati supaya tidak berputus harap. Beliau berbisik "Telefon Maij."
  Belum sempat saya berbuat demikian, saya dihubungi seorang ustaz daripada Majlis Agama Islam Johor (Maij), yang bertanya dengan panjang lebar mengenai upacara pembakaran mayat Mariam. Akhir sekali beliau bertanya kepada saya status agama Mariam.
  "Bagi saya beliau seorang Islam," kata saya, lalu menerangkan saya pernah mendengar Mariam membaca Al-Fatihah dan mengucap, walaupun pelat, tetapi penuh yakin ketika menemuinya di Seoul dua tahun lalu.
  Memang benar Mariam bernikah dengan Cho See Won, lelaki yang membawanya ke Hampyoeung selepas Perang Dunia Kedua dan dibaptiskan dalam gereja Roman Katolik, tetapi itulah hakikat masyarakat Korea pada zaman 40-an.
Mariam tidak punya pilihan, dalam pada itu beliau menegaskan kepada saya tidak pernah makan daging anjing atau babi seperti diamalkan keluarga Cho dan masyarakat di situ.
  Sepanjang pertemuan saya dengan Mariam dua tahun lalu, beliau tidak pernah memakai salib atau mengaku menganut agama itu. Panjang lebar penjelasan saya dan ustaz berkenaan mendengar dengan teliti.
  "Kalau kita nak ikutkan amalan, berapa sangat yang layak dikebumikan cara Islam."
  Tidak lama kemudian saya dihubungi seorang pegawai Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia (Jakim) yang turut mahu mendengar penjelasan saya mengenai Mariam (beliau meminta saya tidak menyebut namanya). Selepas itu Kadi Kota Tinggi, Taufik Shamsuddin pula menelefon untuk mendapat penjelasan sama.
  Ketiga-tiga sumber saya ini tidak saya kenali sebelum ini dan daripada perbualan telefon dengan mereka petang Khamis itu, jelaslah Jakim dan Maij tidak meragui status agama Mariam dan secara senyap-senyap berusaha membawa pulang Mariam.
  Selepas berbuka puasa, saya menerima e-mel menyayat hati daripada Park. Katanya, dia sudah berada di hujung segala usaha kerana pejabat Kedutaan Malaysia enggan bekerjasama dan profesor itu tidak akan mengawet jenazah Mariam kerana bimbangkan implikasi negatif hubungan antara dua negara.
  Park berharap sepenuhnya pada saya untuk memujuk Kerajaan Malaysia untuk membawa Mariam pulang: "Tolonglah, tunjukkan saya keajaiban (boleh membawa mayat Mariam pulang. "
  Apakah Park sudah hilang akal? Saya bukan nabi yang dikurniakan mukjizat untuk mencipta keajaiban. Yang mampu saya lakukan ketika itu hanyalah menyebut nama Allah untuk memberi saya jalan dan ilham tindakan selanjutnya.
  Saya mendapatkan wartawan Berita Harian, Nazura Ngah untuk bertanya perkembangan pada hari itu. Katanya, Kohilan berkata, tiada masalah untuk Mariam pulang. Mengapa bercanggah sekali kenyataan ini? Tidak dapat tidak, saya nekad menelefon Menteri Luar, Datuk Anifah Aman pada jam sudah 10.30 malam, hanya tinggal 17 jam lagi sebelum mayat dibakar.
  Selama setengah jam Anifah menjelaskan kepada saya prosedur penghantaran yang rumit dengan urusan surat-menyurat dan dokumen. Saya mendengar dan sesekali bertanya balas, misi saya cuma satu untuk meminta Anifah berlembut hati supaya memudahkan urusan Mariam.
  "Bukan saya tidak berhati perut, saya juga orang Islam, tetapi surat-surat ini penting. Kita tidak boleh emosi. Tanpa surat pelepasan daripada keluarga di Seoul kita boleh dituduh menculik jenazah Mariam. Dah tentu ini akan memberi impak kepada hubungan Malaysia dan Korea Selatan."
  Tiba-tiba dia bertanya: "Apa kaitan awak dengan keluarga Mariam?"
  "Saya wartawan, ini tugasan saya."
  Anifah memberi jaminan untuk membantu membawa pulang Mariam dengan syarat saya perlu mendapatkan surat tuntutan daripada waris di Kota Tinggi dan surat pelepasan daripada waris Mariam di Seoul dan die-melkan kepada Timbalan Ketua Setiausaha, Datuk Mohd Radzi Abdul Rahman pada malam itu juga.
  Sambungan minggu lalu.

Berita Minggu, September 27, 2009

Sunday, September 20, 2009

`Kepulangan' Mariam ke tanah air penuh rintangan

PADA petang 6 September 2009 yang gerimis, jam 5 petang, saya menerima panggilan telefon daripada Jamil Onn, Pasir Gudang Johor Baru yang tenang menyampaikan berita, neneknya Mariam Johari sudah menghembuskan nafas terakhirnya di Seoul.
  Saya lantas menghubungi Ibrahim Isa, wartawan Harian Metro yang turut sama menjejak Mariam dan keluarganya dua tahun lalu di Kota Tinggi dan Plentong. Beliau sudah maklum perkara itu dan kami berbincang tindakan selanjutnya.
  Saya juga menelefon wartawan kanan Berita Harian, Khirul Bahri Basaruddin, yang terbabit secara langsung ketika Ibrahim, saya dan Azida Shaharuddin (wartawan Berita Harian) membuat liputan Mariam hingga ke Seoul dua tahun lalu, dan seterusnya saya memaklumkan meja berita New Straits Times di Kuala Lumpur untuk tujuan liputan.
  Panggilan terakhir petang itu ialah kepada Sheridan Mahavera, bekas ketua biro Johor Bahru ketika saya membuat liputan Mariam dua tahun lalu sebelum kami bertukar ke ibu pejabat di Kuala Lumpur pada tahun lalu.
  Beliau mengetahui perbualan saya dengan Jelani Sonni, anak lelaki Mariam tiga bulan lalu mengenai niat ibunya yang ingin pulang ke Malaysia untuk selama-lamanya.
  Tiada sesiapapun yang dapat meneka apakah yang berlingkar di benak Mariam ketika kakinya melangkah keluar dari bendul tangga selepas mengucup anak bongsunya Jamnah Sonni sambil berulang kali menjanjikannya biskut enak dari Korea untuk anaknya itu. Janjinya pada anak montel itu pemergiannya hanya tiga bulan dan dia akan pulang semula ke Malaysia.
  Dia hanya pulang 64 tahun selepas itu bagi memenuhi janjinya pada Jamnah membawa biskut enak dari Korea ke Kampung Seluyut.
  Kepulangan Mariam, 86, menjenguk anaknya ke Kota Tinggi pada September 2007, hanya untuk 10 hari dan beliau kembali ke Seoul sehari sebelum Ramadan. Pemandu bas, Ji Yong Un walaupun anak tiri, tetapi itulah anak yang dibelanya sejak kecil, dan kini anak itu jugalah menanggung segala makan minumnya.
  Hujung Mei lalu, Mariam jatuh sakit lalu menelefon Jelani di Kota Tinggi dan mereka berbual melalui seorang jurubahasa. Mariam menyatakan permintaannya untuk pulang ke tanah kelahirannya untuk selama-lamanya.
Beliau ingin dikuburkan di kampung anaknya.
  Jelani terpempan, soalnya bagaimana? Beliau hanya penjaja kuih, tetapi ibunya mesti dibawa pulang. Biar apapun tohmahan bakal dilontar padanya beliau akan mencari jalan, maka beliau berjanji pada ibu untuk membawanya pulang.
  Pada jam 10.30 malam, 6 September, saya menerima panggilan daripada Seo Kyu Won, pegawai kedutaan Korea di Kuala Lumpur, orang pertama berhubungan dengan saya mengenai Mariam dua tahun lalu. Katanya, Mariam mati dalam keadaan tenang di hospital ditemani orang yang dikasihinya anak tirinya Ji Yong Un dan penerbit dokumentari Korean Broadcasting System, Park Keon Young selain Mariam meninggalkan wasiat mahu ditanam sebagai seorang Kristian.
  Saya hanya mendengar, menerima tidak, menolak pun tidak. Beliau meminta saya menelefon Park jika ingin mengetahui lebih mendalam perkara itu.
Saya menggagahkan diri untuk menelefon Park dan beliau menjawab panggilan saya walaupun pada ketika itu sudah jam 11 malam dan tengah malam waktu Seoul.
  Dalam pelat Korea dan bahasa pasar Inggerisnya, Park memberitahu mayat Mariam akan dibakar pada pagi Selasa (8 September), walaupun sebenarnya Mariam meminta untuk dikebumikan sama ada di Seoul atau di Malaysia.
  Perbualan kami ringkas dan melalui Park saya mendapati percanggahan maklumat iaitu pertama, Mariam mati bersendirian di sebuah rumah orang tua, kedua, Mariam yang buta huruf itu tidak meninggalkan apa-apa wasiat bertulis yang sah di sisi undang-undang.
  Menyirap darah saya membaca kepala tajuk muka depan Berita Harian keesokan harinya yang menyebut wasiat Mariam yang mahu ditanam sebagai Kristian dan disokong melalui kenyataan Timbalan Menteri Luar, Senator A Kohilan Pillay kewujudan wasiat itu.
  Bukan saya seorang saja yang berasa demikian, malah Ibrahim dan Azida yang menulis berita itu sendiri tidak puas hati. Walaupun kami bertiga berada di lokasi yang berbeza masing-masing berasakan ada sesuatu yang tidak kena dengan isu wasiat ini.
  Azida yang bertugas di biro Johor Bahru berasa ada masalah lain yang lebih utama untuk diselesaikan menemui Jelani di bazar Ramadan Taman Kota Jaya untuk bertanya apakah yang beliau inginkan pada saat itu.
  Jelani dengan suara yang tersekat-sekat memberitahu Azida meminta jenazah ibunya tidak dibakar dan dihantar pulang dengan segera dan di bazar Ramadan itu jugalah Azida menelefon Wisma Putra bertanya prosedur membawa pulang jenazah Mariam.
  Dua perkara diminta Wisma Putra ialah kos penghantaran yang harus dibiayai keluarga sebanyak RM11,000 dan surat rasmi berdaftar tuntutan waris. Umpama meminta bulan dan bintang, mustahil surat dan wang dapat dicari dalam masa sejam dua, sedangkan jenazah Mariam akan dibakar esok paginya.
  Azida merayu Wisma Putra untuk menerima surat yang difakskan. Dalam kesibukan di bazar, anak perempuan Jelani bergegas membeli kertas A4 dan Azida membantu Jelani menderaf surat rasmi, lalu ditandatangani Jelani dalam tulisan jawi. Azida bergegas menumpang sebuah pejabat berdekatan untuk menghantar surat itu melalui mesin faks.
  Pada masa sama, beliau menghubungi seorang selebriti yang berjanji untuk membantu keluarga Mariam dalam urusan membawa pulang jenazah, (atas permintaan selebriti yang tidak mahu dikenali, saya menggunakan nama samaran Kat).
  Ketika itu sudah jam 4 petang, Kat bergegas mengeluarkan wang dari ATM dan bergegas dari Shah Alam ke pejabat Wisma Putra di Putra Jaya.
Sesampainya di sana pegawai itu kurang pasti apa yang harus dilakukan dengan wang tunai RM11,000 itu. Penolong Setiausaha Bahagian Konsular, Nor Azwa Azreen Abdul Aziz kemudian menyuruh Kat supaya pulang saja dan datang lagi bila diminta.
  Kata Kat kepada saya, beliau terpinga-pinga dengan sikap selamba pegawai Wisma Putra.
  Pada Selasa, jam 3.30 petang Park menelefon saya, katanya upacara pembakaran mayat yang sepatutnya dijalankan jam 11 pagi tadi tergendala apabila pegawai pejabat Kedutaan Malaysia di Seoul memaklumkan jenazah Mariam akan dibawa pulang ke Malaysia.
  Bersambung minggu depan.

Berita Minggu, September 20, 2009

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Redefining Merdeka

MERDEKA Awards short plays at the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka Stor Teater went outside the box, concludes SITI NURBAIYAH NADZMI - who watched all 16 of them.

THE Kamus Dewan Bahasa defines "Merdeka" as being free of foreign occupation, independent to be self-ruled or managed, free from being caged or imprisoned, and being able to do as one likes.
  That meaning has been challenged by the dictionary's very own publisher, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP), an organisation revered as the authority and steward of Bahasa Malaysia - through its recent project, the Merdeka Award Short Plays 2009.
  Sixteen short plays were staged to explore the meaning of Merdeka and the result was nothing short of explosive.
  DBP and joint organiser Merdeka Award Secretariat had selected a delectable array of surrealism, realism and magical realism plays for the audience. With a venue like Stor Teater DBP, a "black box" with a capacity of only 100, an intimate and immediate stage-audience rapport was created, producing an exhilarating vibe.
  The 15-minute short plays, penned, directed and headlined by an impressive list of stalwarts and newcomers, undoubtedly redefined the conventional register of Merdeka.
  Over three nights, from Aug 17, the hall was packed with theatre buffs drawn together by word of mouth.
  Ladin Nuawi, as the exiled Sultan Mahmud Shah in his Selendang Tun Fatimah Sundang Melaka, shed tears of regret after the Portuguese took over his Malacca kingdom.
  While sharpening his keris in a vain effort to win Malacca back, the Sultan openly admitted that he had first "colonised" the rakyat through his corrupt court.
  His statement certainly reversed the concept of being colonised by foreign powers. A corrupt system is equally oppressive.
  In Reyok, Nafas Bangsaku, Rahimah Muda from Kesuma-i of Johor Baru, ingrained modernity within the ancient dance form of kuda kepang and barongan, exploring the concept of being free consciously or reined unconsciously by outside powers, just like a kuda kepang dancer going into a trance but held fast by the invisible rein of the bomoh's whip.
  In Maafkan Aku, by Iryanda Mulya of Stefani, five youths marched to Nordin Selat's song, Anak Kecil Main Api.
  It was disturbing to listen to the lyrics "bumi dipijak milik orang" (the land that I step on is owned by others), sung apologetically by youths who felt indifferent about Merdeka.
  The same sentiment was echoed in Sehelai Surat Berkisah: a youth received a letter but did not understand its content and therefore, refused to accept it.
  The play significantly contrasted the different viewpoints of two generations, those who had fought for Merdeka and those who lived it - the Merdeka generation.
  It questioned if the younger generation was receptive to the burden of Merdeka struggles.
  In Satu, Mazlan Tahir, Mardiana Ismail and Engku Nur Zalifah took a critical look at the Satu Malaysia concept. Between them, they dissected the fundamentals of 1Malaysia, including integrity, ethnicity and productivity. The segments were seamlessly put together as the characters wove in and out of various roles.
  The same technique was applied in Merdekakah Kita?, written and directed by Azrul Azizi Amirul of Abad, played by newcomers Mohd Rosland Radzi, Mohd Harfiqi Arshad and Khairol Azhar Abdul Jalil.
  The play explored the popular meaning of celebrating Merdeka, from attending rock concerts to taking part in illegal races, dangdut karaoke and clubbing with alcohol or Ecstasy pills, intermittently spoofing the by-election campaigns, the misplaced adulation of communism, and the Japanese capital punishment of "potong kapara" (decapitation) - all at blinding speed. Laugh too long and you'll miss the next punchline!
  Mat Arshad Mati Dibunuh was an interesting jab at intrigues. Although
set around the time of the killing of James W.W. Birch in 1875, it was not about the death of Perak's first British resident. Instead, it dwelled on the obscure character of Mat Arshad.
  Mat Arshad was a kain pelikat-clad man posting tax notices in the middle of the night. He was an odd-jobs man (maybe even foreign, judging from the heavy Indonesian accent) paid by the political parties to put up posters during the by-elections.
  He died too, but the audience doesn't know who the real Mat Arshad was.
Was he a spin doctor? Apparently, he lived through history, Merdeka and all.
  Award-winning film director Mamat Khalid, known for the zaniest features such as Zombi Kampung Pisang, Kala Bulan Mengambang and Rock, made an impressive debut in Merdeka Apa? (Free of What?)
  As the title bluntly asked, is the nation actually free, and if it is, free of what? It opened with Vanida Imran and Khir Abdul Rahman, a Malaccan warrior who is about to go to war for his kingdom and his wife who questions his purpose. Is he doing it for glory or patriotism? An actor seated in the audience, to everyone's surprise, rudely interrupted their dialogue.
  The man in the audience, played by first-time stage actor Pekin, criticised the warrior for being too melodramatic and overzealous in his quest for glory when there would be none.
  The contemporary man squashed the warrior's soaring spirit by pointing out that his primitive javelin is no match against De Sequeira's cannons and guns.
  "How do you know all this?" asked the warrior. The contemporary man's sullen reply was, "From the history textbook."
  The warrior frantically asked if his name or that of any other warrior who fought for Malacca was mentioned in the history books.
  The contemporary man shook his head. Obviously, Mamat took a stab at the poor representation of the nation's history in our school's syllabus.
  Ironies were abundant, but one lingered long after the curtain call for Lampu Suluh Jam Dinding, penned, directed and played by both Wan Azli Wan Jusoh and Hushairi Husain.
  It was too simple at first, but the subliminal irony bugged one's consciousness. It was about two brothers locked up as thieves who, while in jail on the eve of Aug 31, tried to peddle the two items they inherited from their father, a torchlight and a wall clock.
  One tells of existence; another marks the passing hours. "Would you buy existence and time, dear free citizens?" the two convicts asked. The audience had difficulty laughing at the act. Was it supposed to have been comical?
  The Merdeka Award Secretariat plans to develop the three most outstanding plays into longer plays. It would be interesting to see which will get the grant, considering that the plays were written for a specific stage such as the Stor Teater and a more elaborate play would be more suited for a different hall.
  The festival has significantly raised the standard of the short play as a mainstream genre in the performing arts. Perhaps next year, the organiser will consider introducing street theatre to the mix.

New Straits Time, August 26, 2009

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

When art mirrors reality's harsh truth

TO have two plays by the national laureate staged within a month, in these days of high-profile theatrical extravaganzas, is a rare treat.
  Intan Yang Tercanai, staged at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka recently, received the experimental-theatre approach, with minimal props in a multipurpose hall, while Mana Setangginya, with a budget of nearly a million ringgit, was staged at the proscenium theatre of Istana Budaya.
  It is almost impossible to translate these titles by national laureate Datuk Noordin Hassan, now 80. "Intan" means an uncut diamond, while "yang tercanai" means cut and polished. Yet, "diamond" in Malay is "berlian".
  "Setanggi", meanwhile, can refer to an aromatic wood or resin, but does the word "mana" preceding it translate the phrase to "where's the resin"? Not quite, I think.
  A more liberal translation might opt for "frankincense", but that would be "kemenyan" in Malay, which shares neither the connotation nor the sweet scent of setanggi.
  In both plays, Noordin departs from bangsawan elements and abandons subtlety when delivering his subtexts. He has instead reached for the brute rotan for his swashbuckling ideas on piety and deliverance. Would anyone else dare compare the haj pilgrimage with carrying a kavadi, or blatantly to ask of those performing the haj whether they're doing it for the promise of paradise in the afterlife?
  That was Intan, Noordin's latest play: only eight written pages, filled with poignant soliloquies about a girl gone missing in a haj stampede tragedy.
  The provocation is verisimilitude in the more folklorish Setanggi, a play commissioned to open Istana Budaya 10 years ago but retracted after Noordin refused to make changes to it in accordance with the political volatility of the time.
  Never before in Malay theatre has a prime minister been depicted marrying a catamite in leather pants, a "Minister of Reproduction" marrying three underage girls, and a chief priest marrying a belly dancer.  
  And Noordin goes even further by breaking more taboos, such as having a
roasted pig and drunken palace guards paraded on stage.
  Exhumed on the very stage where it had first been buried, Setanggi seeks to capture the political and economic climate in 1998-1999. 
  While both plays received rave reviews, some critics accused Noordin of deviating from his theory of "teater fitrah", a six-point list of fundamentals, which among others calls for all forms of theatre to revert to the origins of the Creator, i.e., fitrah.
  The two plays are uncannily sequential. Even though Intan was written 10 years after Setanggi and at least two other staged plays, they are linked by the Sodom-and-Gomorrah theme.
  Both plays draw deeply from the ancient tales of the two kingdoms mentioned in Torah: their greed, politics, prosperity and humanity.
  Of course, in the end, the protagonists of Intan (a man looking for his lost love) and Setanggi (a girl whose nation is devoured by a giant eel) return to their Creator.
  The plays may be in Bahasa Malaysia, but their themes are universal. Setanggi, for instance, is neither about the Malay community nor Islam as perceived by tradition.
  In Intan, Islam does not belong to the Malays - this may sound obvious but is sometimes not so in practice.
  Intan's director, A. Wahab Hamzah, said he had many visits from "religious officers" on various scenes of the play, especially the kavadi procession in which a non-Muslim character utters "astaghfirullah" and "subhanallah".
  "I can't and won't change the script," Wahab insists. "Intan Yang Tercanai was published a year ago. Why didn't anyone protest then?"
  While it is easy to be dazzled by the floating fairies sprinkling stardust in Setanggi, or get goosebumps as the red satin covers the bodies of pilgrims after the stampede in Intan, it is far more challenging to accept the harsher truth of societal decadence, here or anywhere else.
  How do we pray? To what rewards?
  How do we govern? To what appraisal?
  How do we forgive? Against whom have we sinned?
  Do we believe in God?
  According to Rukun Negara, yes, we must.

New Straits Times, July 21, 2009

Monday, June 8, 2009

Peace-seeking OIC can play bigger world role

RECENTLY in Kuala Lumpur to receive an award from the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu talks to SITI NURBAIYAH NADZMI on the organisation's agenda for positive change.

  PEACE sits high on the priority list of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and Kuala Lumpur is expected to play a pivotal role in pushing that agenda.
  Last month, at the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in Damascus, council members proposed that the OIC should be given more power to resolve conflicts in Muslim countries.
  OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu notes that such a proposal is being outlined for the first time in the history of the OIC, which commemorates its 40th anniversary this year, and it is a significant move to heighten the role of the OIC in conflict resolution and peacekeeping.
  Ihsanoglu says the proposals and suggestions from all 57 OIC member countries will be compiled and tabled in May next year. "We want Malaysia to give us more political, financial and professional support," he said after being conferred the Panglima Setia Mahkota, which carries the title "Tan Sri", on Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin's birthday last Saturday.
  Ihsanoglu is the first foreign secretary-general to receive such an award from Malaysian royalty.
  Being the second-largest organisation after the United Nations, the OIC has tabled peace as its main objective, and has been engaged for the last few years in seeking solutions conducive to the establishment of peace in Muslim countries.
  The ceasefire in Lebanon in 2006 was one example of Malaysia's important role in the OIC, says Ihsanoglu.
  The OIC had held an emergency meeting, chaired by former prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, to condemn the Israeli offensive in southern Lebanon and urge a ceasefire, which was followed by the deployment of UN-led peacekeeping troops there.
  "Malaysia was one of the first countries to sign and ratify the new charter of the OIC at the Putrajaya 2003 OIC summit, and they were very determined to see the reform take place," Ihsanoglu recalls.
  Peacekeeping and conflict resolution may have taken another step forward with United States President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo last week, which raised prospects of issue resolution in Iraq, Iran and Palestine.
  Ihsanoglu says the two critical issues needing immediate attention are Palestine and Afghanistan. "We hope also the US will be actively involved in political matters, particularly in the acute Palestinian dilemma and the plight of the Palestinian people."
  Resolving the Palestine issue, he believes, will require the return of the rights of Palestinian refugees and a reversion to the territories' 1967 borders.
  The increasingly critical situation in Afghanistan, meanwhile, requires a new policy to deal with problems, "in particular the killing of civilians, a disturbing element we really don't want to see".
  Ihsanoglu, who was present at Cairo University for Obama's address to the Muslim world, said the "well-written and well-delivered" speech was an initiative in bridging the gap between Muslim nations and the US.
  The speech, he says, touches on some of the points he had raised in an
open letter to Obama, published in the New York Times and International Herald Tribune on Jan 20.
  "I had said we wanted to have a new partnership with the US, built on two principles. First, mutual respect; second, mutual interest. If we build the partnership on these two bases, I think the relationship will be balanced and serve the interests of both sides.
  "And it will, of course, improve the image that was damaged in the last decade. The new element (Obama) is looking for is partnership, and we are ready to cooperate on this basis."
  Ihsanoglu says Obama's speech was a round-up of what he had pledged in his presidential campaign, on inauguration day and in his speeches in Ankara and Istanbul.
  "These ideas were already known but he has put them all in an excellent framework, to a good impression. It was well received by the audience at Cairo University.
  "But what matters is that we want these ideas to be materialised. He referred to the cooperation of the US administration and the OIC, and he has announced a programme of fighting polio. That shows the intention of solving problems in health, science and technology and other related issues."
  On human rights, Ihsanoglu says, the OIC has established an Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission to promote human rights in member countries.
  Its first meeting was held last month at OIC headquarters in Jeddah, outlining among others the objectives, recommendations and responsibilities entrusted to the commission.
  "Often we are criticised that we do not respect the universal understanding of human rights and have lagged behind the countries that observe and respect it. We don't want people to suffer from the lack of human rights."
  The commission should pave the way to intellectual and political reforms across the OIC member countries, deepening values of tolerance, fundamental freedoms, the rule of law, accountability and openness, while shunning bigotry and extremism as contrary to Islamic values.
  The OIC has also included scientific and technological advancement as a priority of its agenda. One of the immediate efforts is to rank the best 20 universities in the OIC member countries and promote them to the rest of the world.

New Straits Times, June 8, 2009

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Harumanis to tantalise Japan

THE Harumanis mango may not be easy on the eyes but it has won the taste buds of the Japanese and the fruit is expected to be exported in large quantities to the country, writes SITI NURBAIYAH NADZMI.

  The Harumanis mango does not have the tantalising looks of its peers. Thailand's prized export Nam Dok Mai or waterlily has translucent golden skin and the elegant shape of a lotus petal; India's Alphonso has a plump top and curved nose with a blush of pink over yellow; Mexico's Tommy Atkin ripens to nectar red.
  At the fruit stalls, other local mango varieties, such as the common Sala with its deep green skin and long tapered shape, overshadow the pale green kidney-shaped Harumanis, often blemished with latex burns and dark spots due to poor handling during harvesting and fruit-wrapping.
  But the Harumanis' unrivalled flavour and aroma are wooing Japanese fresh fruit importers.
  Last week, representatives of the importers sampled Harumanis at Ladang Bukit Bintang at Sungai Batu Pahat in Perlis, and the mango connoisseurs gave the thumbs-up for aroma, flavour, texture and sweetness, which recorded a higher reading than other mango cultivars.
  Their verdict is significant: Harumanis will open the gates to the marketing of Malaysian fresh fruits in Japan next year.
  Japan's ambassador to Malaysia, Masahiko Horie, was besotted after his first taste of Harumanis and proposed a gourmet sushi of Perlis' creamy glutinous rice wrapped with thinly sliced Harumanis to be sold in Tokyo.
  Horie says the Harumanis has many plus points for the tropical fruit market in Japan, largely due to its superior aroma and flavour, succulent and non-fibrous flesh and sweetness. But consumers will have to be educated on the mature green fruit. "The general perception over there is that a ripe mango has to have yellow skin. Green means unripe and therefore not sweet."
  Horie stresses that the market is particular on the physical presentation of the fruit. "The skin must not be flawed by spots or latex burn. While it may be natural, the general perception is that the fruit has gone bad."
  Tropical fruit is a growing market in Japan. Total mango imports to Japan last year were 11,000 tonnes, with the largest exporter being Mexico, followed by Philippines, Thailand and Taiwan.
  Before Malaysia can join these players, Harumanis must first pass the stringent import protocols set by Japan; among other things eliminating fruit fly larvae by standard vapour heat treatment (VHT).
  "We are going for the premium quality," says Abdul Razak Shafiai, director of the
Perlis Agriculture Department. Otherwise it will not be cost-efficient. The entire production process has to be improved."
  Compared with other mango varieties, Harumanis is a temperamental fruit. It can only be cultivated in Perlis and Kubang Pasu, a northern district in Kedah, because it needs a four-month-long dry season of at least 40 degrees Celsius to flower and fruit. Rain, even drizzles, during this crucial period will spoil the yield.
  After the fruit is set, it needs to be wrapped in waterproof paper.
"The skin can't withstand rain, but if we use perforated plastic bags, the fruit will sweat and rot," says Razak.
  Precisely eight weeks after wrapping, the fruits must be manually harvested, washed to rinse off residues, treated in hot water for five minutes to eliminate fruit fly and seed weevil larvae, and then individually wrapped again before being placed in a ripening chamber for three days.
  It is a labour-intensive process and there are no shortcuts.
  With Japan showing strong interest in Harumanis, Perlis is hoping to increase its annual yield, which currently stands at 350 tonnes for local consumption.
  The bigger challenge, however, lies in persuading local farmers to apply good agricultural practices. "It is not easy to change the traditional ways," Razak says.
  Harumanis was introduced in 1985, with about 1,300ha cultivated under a special scheme. But after some years, many farmers switched to other commercial crops such as oil palm, rubber and padi.
  The Harumanis acreage dwindled to just 65ha tended by 69 farmers, while the State Agriculture Department has 45ha.
  One of the pioneers, Shahimi Shaari, 40, says his 22-year investment in Harumanis has been profitable even during the worst seasons. His 0.4ha orchard in Kampung Gial has 80 trees and should yield about 13 tonnes of mangoes this year.
  Shahimi admits that Harumanis is more demanding than other crops, but the returns are rewarding. "It does not need replanting and the yield improves with the trees' age," he says.
  "Because of its terminal fruiting nature (where the fruit forms at the ends of branches), we only have to prune the branches."
  During good seasons, one tree can bear up to 300 fruits. With the high demand for Harumanis, Shahimi says, there is never an oversupply.
  The prospect of producing premium quality mangoes for the export market is enticing, and Shahimi is ready to do the necessary for higher volume and value, with guidance from the State Agriculture Department.
  "I am proud that it is a fruit from Perlis that will be the first from this country to break into Japan," he says, "so I will do what it takes to produce export quality Harumanis."

New Straits Times, May 19, 2009

Ruler: Not everything is rosy about Harumanis

LAST week, the Raja of Perlis was upset with three things pertaining to Harumanis: the theft of the fruits, the lack of studies and the low output.
  Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin Putra Syed Jamalullail expressed this in his speech at the closing ceremony of the Harumanis Festival in Kangar and suggested urgent remedies needed to be taken.
  The superior quality of the fruit has attracted Japanese importers to market and promote Harumanis in Japan, provided that it passes stringent import protocols.
  Once the market barriers are lifted, other fruits such as mangosteen, rambutan and papaya may just follow.
  However, other pertinent issues lie within Perlis itself. Theft for one, is rampant, and Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin has described it as an act of treachery to the farmers and the market.
  Unlike other mangoes, Harumanis has to be processed and ripened before it is ready for the market. Without this crucial process, the stolen mangoes would suffer a condition called "insidious fruit rot" or "soft nose", where the fruit looks fine on the outside but is rotten on the
  Buyers, mostly tourists, would be shortchanged; a few rotten fruit will surely sour the market.
  Since 1985, the Perlis government has tried in vain to push farmers into planting Harumanis, but many felt that Harumanis was not commercially viable.
  A source says that even some agencies were not too keen on Harumanis, resulting in poor technology and marketing support of the product.
  Persistent problems with seed weevils and fruit flies, and the possibility of producing out-of-season fruits, were never addressed or explored.
  The state Agriculture Department had to improve cultivation by trial-and-error, while at the same time selling the fruit over their cafe counter at Ladang Bukit Bintang in Sungai Batu Pahat.
  It took two decades for word to spread about Harumanis.
  During the recent festival, however, the department sold seven tonnes of Harumanis within three hours and the counter had to be closed early.
  In other parts of the country, Harumanis is being sold as a brand and not as a variety, when in reality the fruit has never really left the state.
  Mustaqim Abdullah, 26, who helps run his father's business of processing fruits from private orchards, says there are not enough fruits to be sold in Perlis.
  "Harumanis has never been sold wholesale to retailers outside Perlis," he says.
  "Most people buy and post it to their friends or relatives in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, or as far as Europe and the Middle East."
  Land titles are another issue. Many farmers are cultivating on untitled lands, says Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Md Isa Sabu, hampering efforts in cluster farming.
  Cluster farming, where several farmers plan, manage and process the fruits like a community project, is a proven success in Thailand.
  Three years ago through this method, mango production leapt 300 per cent and doubled in value.
  The ruler's address was a clear indication that Harumanis should be treated as an important commodity, with a strategic plan for its cultivation.

New Straits Times, May 19, 2009

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Centring teaching on the student

ALL is not well in the upper secondary history class. The good students are cramming to score As; the weaker ones count the minutes away. They have to at least sit for the compulsory subject, if not pass it, to get a Sijil Pelajaran Menengah certificate.
  Experienced educationists are at a loss on how to get students interested in history.
  Moreover, teachers say, it's simply too idealistic to use history to inculcate patriotism among students, as upheld in the objectives of the National Education Policy and the new integrated curriculum for secondary school (KBSM).
  Lee Sin Lian, 52, of Kuala Terengganu, who has taught history since 1989 at Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Teluk Kerang Pontian, thinks the school history syllabus is just too wide, with too many topics to cover.
Teachers and students skim through the subject, rather than take time to examine, discuss and understand history.
  They have just 120 minutes a week to cover the vast span from prehistoric civilisation to modern Malaysia within the two years of Forms Four and Five, before their SPM.
  "The subject should be taught in a student-centred way, where teachers facilitate discussions on the topics," says Lee. "But due to the constraints, we rely heavily on giving lectures and notes."
  More than most subjects, history demands proficiency in Bahasa Malaysia, with the ability to analyse, associate and conclude an argument.
  However, since history became compulsory with the inception of KBSM in 1993, all third formers, regardless of how they did in lower secondary, advance to Form Four. As a result, many lack the aptitude, or even the ability, for the subject.
  "The hard truth is that history has to be taught to students who are uninterested, illiterate, and some can't even string a sentence in Bahasa," Lee says.
  "Teachers are forced to break away from the required teaching method, including using vernacular language to explain history to the students."
  With smarter students, says retired headmistress Mary George, the problem is that their motivation is to simply score straight As.
  George, who taught history for 32 years, says SPM history questions are restrictive and do not allow students to explore the subject.
  The SPM history paper is divided into two parts. The first has 40 multiple choice questions, while the second has four structured questions and three short essay questions.
  "The students struggle to memorise the nitty-gritty facts but do not understand the topic," George says. "In the end although they score A for history, they are unable to grasp the whole idea of learning history."
  The marking scheme reinforces this, she says. "For the structured questions in Paper 2, the students must give specific terms and answer. If they do not memorise these facts they won't be able to answer the question."
  The previous curriculum had only five essay questions, which allowed the students to elaborate on the topic in their own words, on historical fact. "Marks were given on how they use facts to put forward an idea or argument."
  When the Education Ministry revamped the old curriculum, George, a former principal of Convent Johor Baru, was one of the teachers involved with drafting the suggestions.
  "The old curriculum was much more manageable for the teachers to teach and for the students to understand, but when the new curriculum was implemented, I was shocked to see that it was more difficult than the previous curriculum."
  As stated in the history syllabus in 2000, the objective of teaching history is to cultivate and reinforce patriotism among Malaysians, fostering unity through understanding and appreciation of the country's past.
  "But this only looks good on paper," says Lee, a UKM graduate in Malay Literature. "Realistically, these objectives are near impossible to achieve."

New Straits Times, April 18, 2009

Put history back in expert hands

FOLLOWING our package last week on what's being taught as history in the nation's schools, SHERIDAN MAHAVERA and SITI NURBAIYAH NADZMI listen to what historians and teachers have to say.

HERE'S a view of history that is sure to cause some anguish among certain quarters: this country's independence did not come when power and control of Malaysia was handed from the British administration to the people of Malaysia, but when power was handed from the rulers of the Malay states to the people of then Malaya.
  This view of that totemic pass in national history is advanced by the doyen of Malaysian historians, Tan Sri Professor Dr Khoo Kay Kim - but it's not in the school textbooks.
  It's just another example of how the textbooks are not written by experts like Khoo, while those hired to do so are deficient in their understanding of history (see interview on next page).
  Those who decide the content of textbooks do not understand legal concepts such as de facto and de jure, Khoo says, and they have no grounding in the basics of the Constitution.
  "The British often used the law and sometimes broke it when they wanted to interfere with the affairs of the nine Malay states, so one must know how the law works to teach about what went on.
  "The agreements signed between the nine Malay rulers and the British never specified that sovereignty or kedaulatan would be handed over to them.
  "So the sultans were always the de jure (in law) rulers of all their holdings," Khoo said in an interview with the New Straits Times.
  Though the British advisers to the rulers had de facto (actual but not legal) power, the exercise of that power had to be done with the consent of the ruler.
  The sultans, Khoo notes, were absolute rulers who owned practically every inch of real estate in their spheres of influence, and theirs was the prerogative of granting permission to live on, extract riches from and develop these lands.
  Understanding how "rule in law" worked when it came to the relationship among the Europeans, the royal courts, and the waves of immigrants who made up the royal subjects is crucial when teaching school children about the various races that came to settle in Malaysia.
  The narrative in textbooks of natives being dispossessed by foreigners brought in by a "colonial administration" does not hold water when one remembers that the rulers always had de jure power.
  "For instance," Khoo points out, "the assumption is that the Chinese were brought in by the British whose authority superseded that of the ruler. In fact, the Chinese were brought in by Chinese towkays with the permission of the ruler."
  Khoo does not have a problem with how history is revised in school texts to create a "Malaysianised" point of view, instead of the Eurocentric one that prevailed in the 1950s. "What is wrong is when you write and ignore historic facts," he says.
  "The problem now is that if something in the Eurocentric view was black, it automatically becomes white in the so-called Malaysianised view. You must have proof to back something up."
  Another example is how the textbooks say the British practised a "divide and rule policy", which ensured the communities were segregated, to breed suspicion and hostility among the races.
  "There was no such policy by the British, and I challenge those who disagree to show me the proof.
  "In fact, they tried to get the Malays, Chinese and Indians to integrate. It was the races who refused to do so."
  Khoo laments that many textbook writers and history teachers these days have not even seen primary documents, such as the treaties signed between the British and Malay rulers.
  As last week's NST report on history illustrated ("Whose story is our history?" - April 11), there is an underlying presumption throughout much of the textbooks that non-Malays are not as patriotic as Malays.
  Professor Dr Mansor Mohd Noor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia has been researching inter-ethnic relations for years. His findings suggest that this erroneous presumption is widespread in Malaysian society.
  "The Chinese are usually blamed for not being patriotic, but in reality the feelings of patriotism among them are just as high as the Malays," he says.
  "Patriotism is not based on ethnicity."
  The teaching of history, Mansor says, must be inclusive and move beyond ethnic calculations and toxic assumptions, such as whether one community is more "patriotic" than another.
  Most importantly, says Khoo, it must be put back in the hands of experts.

New Straits Times, April 18, 2009

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Whose story is our history?

AT last month's Umno general assembly, incoming party vice-president Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein floated the prospect of revisiting how history is taught in the nation's schools. The suggestion immediately raised eyebrows among Umno's partners-in-governance, with the MCA pledging to convene a conference on the matter. CHOK SUAT LING, SHERIDAN MAHAVERA, SITI NURBAIYAH NADZMI and YONG HUEY JIUN explore what may have fallen through the cracks of this country's historical mosaic as it is presented in the school curriculum.  

What can and what can't be found in school history textbooks has been a source of concern for many years.  

Besides omissions and insufficient emphasis on certain communities, experts and parents alike contend that some of the text and illustrations in history textbooks are placed there to subtly brainwash young minds.  

Some of these elements contain politically-aligned and narrow views that can skew students' impressions of historical events and their impact on the country and its communities.  

While school history textbooks now make a clear push for a national culture and society, are more comprehensive, and encourage students to be more analytical than in the past, when they were required to merely regurgitate facts and dates for examinations, certain elements in the texts must be reviewed.  

In the Form Three textbook, for example, the contentious term "ketuanan Melayu", or "Malay supremacy", appears with a definition deemed inappropriate. Some quarters argue that the phrase should not have been included in the textbook in the first place.  

In the same textbook, one illustration gives the impression that vernacular schools cannot promote national unity, and a paragraph on the same page states that vernacular schools will progressively be phased out.  

Also in the Form Three text, specifically in the chapter on cooperation among the races towards independence, the quote used to illustrate the theme states that the country belongs to the Malays and should, therefore, be returned to them.  

These are just some of the elements that have found their way into history textbooks under the secondary school integrated curriculum (Kurikulum Bersepadu Sekolah Menengah).  

Former Kelana Jaya member of parliament Loh Seng Kok thinks too much focus is given to Tamadun Islam, or Islamic Civilisation. "There was only one chapter in the old Form Four history textbook, but now five out of 10 are on this subject matter," said Loh, who carried out a study on history textbooks two years ago.  

Loh, along with his MCA colleagues, submitted a memorandum to the Education Ministry pursuant to that study.  

What has also been noted is the downplaying of the roles played by Chinese and Indian communities in the socio-economic development of the country.  

Some quarters also take exception to the Chinese clans, the Ghee Hin and Hai San, which played so pivotal a role in the advent of colonial administration in the Malay states, being described as kongsi gelap or secret societies, abiding by the old British proscriptions on these organisations.  

Specific historical figures such as Gurchan Singh, the "Lion of Malaya", and Sybil Karthigesu have all but vanished from the record. Both resisted the Japanese during the occupation of Malaya in World War 2 and paid the price for it. They used to get some mention, but have since disappeared from the pages of our history.  

The key historical roles played by prominent figures from Sabah and Sarawak also merit little or no mention beyond "a line or two".  

All Malaysian communities have their role in the story of how this nation came to be what it is today, and history texts need to reflect this shared ownership. Questions of ethnic relations in history must be discussed in scrupulously neutral language, without judgments of right or wrong.  

A review would, indeed, be timely, but it must be collective, consultative and knowledge-based, not driven by emotion or political imperatives.  

CLAD in a dark shirt and white trousers, Rosli Dhobi held his head high in defiance as he was led to the gallows.  

The member of Rukun Tiga Belas, a secret underground movement agitating against the British administration in Sarawak, had been sentenced to hang for stabbing the governor to death.  

Deemed a common criminal, Rosli was too insignificant to be mentioned in any history - until the secondary school integrated curriculum (Kurikulum Bersepadu Sekolah Menengah) immortalised him as a nationalist in the Form Three and Form Five textbooks.  

Are the facts presented in KBSM history textbooks historical truths or impressions?  

"Historical facts are one thing but interpretation of facts is another," says historian Prof Datuk Dr Ramlah Adam. "Politicians prefer the latter."  
Ramlah says that the history syllabus was drafted on the records of explorers and philosophers such as Tome Pires, Ibn Battuta, I-Ching and Admiral Cheng Ho, and writings such as Sejarah Melayu, the Malay annals.  

"Could we erase any part of our history and pretend they did not happen? Or choose what we like and leave out the rest?"   Politicians may have their own interpretations of events, Ramlah says, but they are usually shaped by their own interests.

"Let the schoolchildren be educated by the professionals."   Ramlah, an author of history textbooks, says the previous curriculum reflected some of the old imperial didacticism towards historical facts: rebels were rebels, for instance, not freedom fighters.

Under KBSM, "history is given a Malaysian perspective and the syllabus is designed to fulfil the National Education Policy".  

The policy, drafted in 1990, outlines the effort to develop a citizenry that is "knowledgeable, reliable and responsible", contributing to the harmony and prosperity of society and nation.  

The history curriculum is divided into two parts. The lower secondary component covers prehistory till the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965, while the upper secondary introduces the history of the world and Southeast Asia, from the birth of nationalism till modern Malaysia.  

While the lower-secondary component is chronological and factual, upper secondary students receive an analytical and critical survey of history.   History is a compulsory subject for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia, but Ramlah says not enough weight is given to it: a pass is not necessary.  

"History should require a pass, just like Bahasa Malaysia, English and Mathematics. With such weight, students would strive to understand the country's history better."  

Poet Datuk Baharuddin Zainal, a.k.a. Baha Zain, agrees. "If the government is serious about creating a nation-state and sowing the seeds of patriotism among the young," he says, "it is essential to make it compulsory for the students to pass history in SPM."  

Baharuddin suggests that the Education Ministry review the history syllabus in line with the National Education Policy.

"There is no point in revising the syllabus just to meet political pressures. It must be done after a comprehensive study.   "Too many times the professionals and educationists have trusted political leaders to make judgment calls. Sadly, some of them have been unwise."  

IN the 1930s, the British administration faced fierce opposition from the working class, largely made up of Chinese at the time, says Dr Kua Kia Soong, director of Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram), a human rights organisation.   In one of the first shots at inter-ethnic political alliance, Pusat Tenaga Rakyat (Putera), a left-wing coalition of militant and moderate Malays, partnered with the Chinese-dominated All Malaya Council of Joint Action. In October 1947, the coalition organised a general strike - a "hartal" - that brought the country to an economic standstill to put pressure on the British government.  

The Japanese Occupation in 1941 was met with fierce resistance from local nationalists. The British had supplied arms to the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) - in effect, the CPM - making it the most potent anti-Japanese guerilla movement and well-organised military group in the country, writes Wong Tze Ken, associate professor in the Department of History, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Malaya, in the first volume of the book, Malaysian Chinese and Nation Building.  

The move gave MPAJA an edge, and the means, to wage war against the British after the Japanese surrender in 1945.  

"The CPM ideology and struggle had no place in the nation-building agenda as it eventually became irrelevant as the country moved ahead after independence," says Wong.  

Prof Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim agrees, as the vision of communism was one of classlessness and statelessness.  

Under the gaze of a different generation, the joining of forces between the Malayan Chinese Association and the United Malays National Organisation - the Alliance Party - for the 1952 Kuala Lumpur municipal elections spearheaded the country's seminal independence movement. The Alliance scored a landslide victory, winning nine of the 12 seats contested.   That solidarity was a turning point, says Khoo. For the first time, the Alliance convinced the British that independence might actually work.  

Dr Voon Phin Keong, director of the Centre for Malaysian Chinese Studies, thinks the subject of history is best left to the historians or specialists in the area. "It should not be left to just anyone. School history textbooks should be written by a panel of historians and subjected to review by a different panel."  

Kua thinks textbooks are not needed in the age of the Internet. Instead, students should learn to access all available resources with the teacher acting as the facilitator in the classroom. "History in education is about uncovering the truth," says Kua.  

And truth, as we all know, is subject to interpretation.  

YEARS ago, when lawyer G.A. David Dass taught at Universiti Institut Teknologi Mara, he would be approached by students who would evince surprise that he was genuinely interested in teaching them and had no motives other than ensuring they understood the material.  

He ventures that this was because they had been "conditioned into believing that non-Malays were not to be trusted and that our presence in Malaysia meant that they were taking something away from the Malays".  

Dass believes that most non-Malay lecturers at UiTM have had similar experiences, in an example of how Malaysian history and how it is taught in schools - and how it can be manipulated by politicians - can graft lasting impressions on young minds that determine how they relate to others of a different community.  

For years, Dass says, the non-Malay history in Malaysia had been framed by an ethnocentric elite as a story of how the Malays had "lost out", "been dispossessed" and "subjugated" by "bangsa asing" or "foreign races".  

This narrative presumes that Malaya was "conquered" (dijajah) by Europeans eager to exploit its natural riches.   Control over who came into the land was out of Malay hands, and the penjajah allowed bangsa asing to enter and build their tin mines and rubber estates, while the Malays watched by the wayside in their villages.  

Such a telling of history is warped, erroneous and, when it comes to the Indian experience in pre-independence Malaya, disingenuous.  

It overlooks the contribution of Indians to local customs, culture, arts and governance. It ignores the fact that for 80 per cent of the Indians who came to Malaya in the 19th and early 20th centuries, their lives were shackled in deprivation and hard labour.  

"How did thousands of mostly Tamil indentured labourers, who were paid pitiful wages and who toiled under the most back-breaking circumstances to open up plantations and build roads, dispossess the Malays?" asks Dass, who co-authored the book Malaysian Indians: Looking Forward.  

Though the history of Indian contact with the peoples of Peninsular Malaysia between the 1st and 11th centuries is mentioned in school textbooks, its influence on Malay culture has been played down.  

It is almost as if it is an embarrassment, says U.K. Menon, deputy vice-chancellor of Wawasan Open University, to acknowledge the extensive traces Indians left on local pre-Islamic culture which can still be seen.  

In The Malaysian Indians: History, Problems and Future, the late Muzafar Desmond Tate wrote of how Brahmin priests and Buddhist missionaries gave Malay chieftains the organisational system that would transform them into the kings of today.  

But, Muzafar stressed, the early Indians' influence was not manifested in force of arms or large-scale migration.  

When it comes to the later migration of Tamils, Telugus, Malayalees, Sikhs and Bengalis, there is a begrudging acceptance of their presence, notes Dass.  

"They were not a colonising force to subjugate or rob the Malays. Many lives were lost in opening up these plantations and towns, and these Indians were indentured to the Europeans who brought them in. The point is to recognise each community's sacrifices that went into this great nation.  

"Our founding fathers knew this was integral to nation-building."   His co-author, Jayanath Appudurai, says that the problem with how history is taught today is that it is seen through the lens of only one community.  

"But the record shows that the peninsula was in a strategic position that attracted everyone from different regions of the world to converge and set up their own settlements here."  

To acknowledge the various influences that went into creating what is now Malaysia is not to prop up one race or culture over another, Jayanath says.

"It is not about the Indians being superior to the Malays or the Chinese being better than everyone else. It is about recognising the multi-ethnicity that has always been and continues to be present in the peninsula.  

"It is about seeing Malaysia as a nation, not of a single ethnicity, but one of shared membership among many."

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A `horror' story that had `em laughing

AT 8am on March 4 in Khartoum, televisions blared with an international news channel screaming "Horror In Darfur".
  It updated on the conflict there with a montage of a dazed toddler with flies in her eyes and a crowd scrambling for food dropped off a plane on a field.
  A Ugandan journalist watching the telecast slapped his knee and guffawed: "Oiyy! That was south Sudan!" His peers from other African countries broke into cynical smiles or shook their heads in disbelief.
  A stream of curses in Swahili, English and Arabic flowed into the hotel lobby, discrediting the popular news channel watched by millions world over.
  At 4pm on the same day, at the Afra shopping mall in Khartoum, sales assistant Aina stormed off after watching TV coverage of the International Criminal Court issuing a warrant of arrest on Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir. Ethiopian co-worker Julius called out to her in Arabic: "Ma musykil (it was nothing). They can't do anything to him."
  Aina retorted: "What do you care, huh? This is my country!"
  Gobsmacked Julius knew, as a migrant, that his family back home depended on the salary he earned in Khartoum. A politically stable Sudan ensured comfort and food for him and thousands of others like him.
  Bashir was not without motive when his government flew in 70 journalists from Arab League countries, the African Union, Japan, China and Malaysia to witness the inauguration of Merowe Dam just a day before the ICC announcement.
  The foreign journalists were unwittingly thrown into a whirlpool of unfolding events and street protests, from Bashir's nationwide rally from the President's Palace to North Darfur, to a live 90-minute unedited nationwide broadcast of a press conference at which vice-president Ali Othman Muhammad Taha said the country had had enough of the Western media's "distortions" of the Darfur situation.
  The ICC was condemned as "a tool of the West" intent on removing the elected president and installing a puppet leader so as to have unlimited access to mineral-rich Sudan.
  Ali said Sudan would "stop at nothing to fend off the neo-colonialist exploit", with the support of its allies.
  In Khartoum's Friendship Hall, some 300 journalists, mostly from African and Middle Eastern countries, hurled torrents of questions while six interpreters translated the proceedings into English, French and Arabic.
  The air smelled of fear. All the questions could be summed up in one intense note: What is to become of us?
  Three days later, tens of thousands thronged the streets of Al-Fasher on foot, donkeys, horses and camels, and in vans, buses and trucks, to catch the president at the town's square.
  One the way back to the airport, the president made a stop at the camps of displaced people. The residents lined the streets to shake hands with him. Genocide? War Crimes? Would the victims offer politeness in exchange for atrocities committed by their own leader?
  Millenniums ago, Darfur was an important link between Africa and the Middle East. The arrival of Khalid Al-Walid's armies during the Ar-Rashidin Caliphate marked the dawn of Islam here.
  As the Darfur sultanate embraced the religion, Arabic became the official language and the Quran the essential academic and holy text. The Darfur sultans offered silk and gold kiswah (cloth) to cover the Ka'aba during Haj seasons, and trade flourished in the region.
  Darfur, an area about the size of France occupying a fifth of Sudan, had observed zakat and haj centuries before Parameswara repeated the shahadah in Malacca. To describe Darfur as lawless and tribal, therefore, was quite ignorant.
  Contrary to the common perception that the Darfur people were helpless, if not doomed, without the help of charity organisations, the region is actually self-sustaining. Three months of rain a year is enough to irrigate the fertile land to supply Sudan with grain, vegetables, fruit and livestock.
  The 250,000 displaced people living in Nyala and Al-Fasher camps are not immobile mannequins but human beings with the will and means to live. They get fresh unchlorinated water from the wells, as they had in their home villages, and the children had white teeth, taut skin and healthy nails.
  Darfur in conflict is "a big pot of money" to many, as a Tunisian journalist said: "People do charity to make themselves feel good."
  How much exactly poured into the funds of the 117 international charity organisations in Darfur since 2003?
  Multiple millions, perhaps, but why was the International Rescue Committee health centre so basic that it did not even have proper mud brick walls, let alone clean sheets?
  One of these organisations had admitted to Sudan's government that they had made a pact with the ICC to provide information and witnesses to prosecute the president. For this, they had apologised.
  Others had sold distorted images of Darfur people to raise more funds for their organisations.
  As we invited journalists watched the newscaster wrap up the "Horror In Darfur" broadcast, a Kenyan journalist remarked: "A minute more on Darfur, a minute less on Gaza."

New Straits Times, March 22, 2009

The dust never settles in Darfur

SUDAN is making attempts to get its economy moving to make a difference in the lives of its citizens and the thousands displaced by the Darfur conflict. SITI NURBAIYAH NADZMI was in Sudan for the opening of the RM6.6 billion Merowe High Dam across the Nile at the same time the International Criminal Court was seeking to arrest the country's head of state.

  The dust never really settled in Darfur. It was part of the climate, but when it did, the sunflowers in the tiny garden of a mud house in Abu Shouk camp swayed regally under a cloudless azure sky.
  Khadijah Ibrahim, 54, tended to her prized sunflowers in the little compound of her house, while Al-Fateh Hassan, the youngest son of her husband's second wife, played among the towering flowers.
  Tucked within the maze of narrow passages where 50,000 displaced people now live, Khadijah had long accepted that this was her life now, and she would not waste her time thinking otherwise.
  When war broke out in Darfur six years ago, the camp housed about 83,000 people from the villages surrounding Al-Fasher, the capital of north Darfur, including Tawila, Kakabiya, Kuttum and Jebel Marak, bordering west Darfur.
  Many have returned to their villages in the past year, but others have chosen to rebuild their lives here. The mechanics run workshops, the teachers teach, the professionals go where the projects take them.
  But it's the farmers who miss their land the most. Adjusting has not been easy for Khadijah's husband, Hassan Abdal Bakhur, 70. "I have nothing to do here," he said.
  Hassan was from Tawila, some 130km from Al-Fasher. He used to have 17 goats and five donkeys and cultivated grain, vegetables and tobacco on his land, but all was lost to the "mountain robbers".
  ("Robbers, not rebels," he stressed.)
  Since time immemorial, Hassan said, the "mountain robbers", or Jenjawid, have pillaged and robbed the people of Darfur, but they had always lacked weapons. Tawila became a killing field when the robbers acquired guns and waged war on both villagers and government forces.
  Hassan now lives in Abu Shouk camp with his wives Khadijah and Hawa Ishak Mukmin, 38, and their 19 children and 23 grandchildren. His children all survived the fighting, Hassan reasoned, because they had evacuated the village early.
  "The village is a lot safer now," Hassan said. "Hopefully, the
government will chase away the robbers for good."
  Two of his sons had returned to Tawila to work on the family's land.
"Better to work and get money than wait for help," Hassan said, referring to the special food allowance given by the government and aid agencies.
  Since the Sudan government's recent expulsion of international aid agencies, allegedly for spying, the primary healthcare centre at the camp had lost its volunteer doctors.
  Insaf Ibrahim, 25, who used to work with the International Rescue Committee as house visitor at the camp, said the gap should be filled immediately by the Health Ministry. "It is vital to maintain the people's health in the camp," she said.
  In such a concentrated population, any outbreak of disease could easily reach epidemic proportions and be difficult to control - but Insaf is most concerned with basic hygiene. Her job requires her to visit camp residents to talk to them about health and basic cleanliness.
  Insaf's own kitchen was basic but immaculately clean: a cotton dustcloth spread over plates and glasses; pots and pans and cooking utensils lining the wall; the wood stove without ash.
  Insaf's wages from the IRC weren't much, but when the organisation left, she lost crucial income for her household.
  Her husband, Muhamad Musa Abu Bakar, 30, teaches English at a secondary school in Al-Fasher. He is critical of the charity workers who he believes came to camps with hidden agendas. "Some of them tried to exchange our Quran with the Bible by offering us money," he said.
  "It was insulting. If they were sincere in their efforts to help us, they would not have asked us to convert to another religion."
  His anger was shared by Ibrahim Al Khaled Sheikh Adid, the director of the camp's Interning Displaced People programme, who said residents had complained of missionary activities by certain aid organisations.
  "We have evidence that some of them distributed Bibles as part of their charity work," Ibrahim said. "Darfur is 100 per cent Muslim and their act was clearly insensitive and insolent to the people in the camp."
  Al-Fasher Hospital director Dr Nor Aldeen Mobarak El Noor said Sudan's health ministry had recently dispatched doctors to the camps. There are three hospitals, four clinics and a specialist centre in Al-Fasher, providing health services to the three camps, Abu Shouk, Assalam and Zam Zam.
  "Within a year," Nor Aldeen said, "the government plans to completely take over the health centre from all international charity organisations in the camps."
  More than 4,300 babies were delivered in Abu Shouk last year, with only 300 cases referred to the hospital, and 15 stillborn.
  Mohamed Al Said Khayyam, a medical assistant at Abu Shouk Primary Healthcare Centre, said there had been significant improvements in the general health due to increased awareness of hygiene, but the growing amount of rubbish in the area, especially around the marketplace, was creating another health hazard.
  Outside their homes, children untouched by fear of disease or strangers played freely. Some chased the donkeys carting fresh water from the hand-pumped wells in the camp.
  Troops were still on alert outside the camps, but on the streets, life was abuzz: peddlers trading handwoven baskets, kettles on the boil at the tea stalls, cobblers stitching snakeskin into loafers, electronic shops stocking digital cameras and other gadgets.
  It has been months since Al-Fasher or Nyala in south Darfur were attacked by armed bandits. As the sunflowers swayed in the desert under the baking sun, Khadijah remained hopeful that one day, she would return to her village.
  For now, she was content to watch her tiny garden grow.

New Straits Times, March 22, 2009

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Sudanese: Leave us alone

THE street demonstrators here are rather press-savvy when it comes to getting their message across. Perhaps they have been conditioned by the foreign press to pose for the cameras.
  At the Al-Jamia Street, where nearly a million Sudanese had gathered to listen to President Omar al-Bashir's speech on Thursday noon, all one needed to do was point the lens at the crowd.
  They would pose however you wanted them to - chanting slogans, throwing fists in the air, ripping flags, waving placards in foreign languages and even unsheathing daggers in stabbing motion just to get the shutters clicking and the cameras rolling.
  Otherwise, the protesters would walk on with a smile, carrying banners or pictures of their president.
  In between quips that he was not Michael Jackson, Michael Osa of South Sudan disagreed with the International Criminal Court for issuing the warrant of arrest to the president.
  "Leave us alone. We will have peace."
  Hisham Amin spat out at ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo: "You talk about justice? Where's justice in Gaza and Iraq? Bring those people who killed the babies there to justice, then only will we believe in yourcause."
  Zahrah Sambur of Sudanese Women's Association said: "Take this message to the world: We Muslims and Christians are of one nation and one president. Sudan is a free nation. We are not afraid of you."
  She was referring to the court and Western countries, which most Sudanese believe had fuelled the conflicts in the country.
  The move by the ICC not only stoked anger among Sudanese but the trepidation and fear are also felt in neighbouring countries, especially Kenya and Uganda.
  Sudan's economic and political stability would directly impact Uganda in terms of exports, job opportunities and education, said Issa Chyrarira, an executive director with non-governmental organisation Media for Peace and Religious Tolerance.
  "The more Sudan has, the more we will benefit. But if South Sudan is in chaos, chances are our people will be involved in the factions. Historically, Sudanese and Ugandan rebels are known to be supportive of one another. It is vital to keep the peace in Sudan."
  Issa believed that no leader in his right mind would kill his own people, so the allegations against Bashir were politically motivated.
  "Would they arrest (former US president George W.) Bush for Iraq, even when the United States is not a signatory to the court?"
  Richard Karema, a foreign editor with Nairobi Standard, a Kenyan national daily, feared the ICC move would set a precedent.
  He said if ICC, a legal institution of which Sudan is not a signatory, could issue a warrant of arrest against a sitting president, then other African nations were also vulnerable to this legal process. "They could simply bulldoze any country they want."
  Karema said the ICC, in a way, had asked signatory countries to hand over the president if he was in their country.
  "The court wanted us to turn in our own neighbour. What next? More upheaval in Africa?
  "It was a fight over control of resources. They wanted the oil and
minerals in Sudan using all the means they can, including the ICC and manipulation of the media."
  With the global economic meltdown and the changing weather affecting agricultural output, the last thing any country in Africa would want is war.
  "It could tear the continent to shreds," added Karema.

New Straits Times, March 7, 2009