December 16, 2008

Question The Brand

Finally, I found something else to wear for my performances besides my signature white shirt!

My friend Jo created his own brand of t-shirts - 'Question the brand'; it fits well, and I felt really comfortable wearing it on stage!

It's also a great alternative christmas gift ;)
(only 80 in circulation)

Check it out at


December 3, 2008

Tourism Malaysia 2008 commercial

I recently did the vocals for this commercial made as part of the Tourism Malaysia 2008 Campaign for South/West Asia. It's quite different from the previous Malaysia Truly Asia ads; this one has a touching story to it.

October 17, 2008

Upcoming Shows

25 Oct 2008, 20:30 08:30 PM - Jaya One
31 Oct 2008, 20:30 08:30 PM
- Jaya One

Doppelganger - tbc

Suaram's Human Rights Concert - tbc

October 7, 2008


1. Good intentions

Feels Like Falling

I fall asleep at night
Thinking you’d be there tomorrow
And I’ll Kiss you
Like I kissed you for the first time
When I awake I’ll find you
Waiting by my driveway
Smiling, and singing
Songs that make me cry now

So tell, tell me
Do u mean what u say
Cuz I’m tired, I’m tired
of the games we play
Baby baby
Do u know If this means

Here we go again
And it feels like falling
And I’m wondering where I stand
Before you go again
I’m gonna say it loud
I don’t need you now

With your life as such
Sometimes u don’t even know
How the snow
Can make me smile so much
Then you turn around and say
That it would be okay
But your empty words
Mean nothing to me, nothing to me now

Sunny Days

Hands are frozen
Still we’re standing here
Look for the stars
They’re just not there tonight

When nothing’s right
And you cannot hide
You’re weak to fight
All the ghost inside
Your head now

It’s so cold now
Why can’t we leave this place
And run away
To someplace better

When all I can do to make things right
is sing you this song
cuz It won’t be long now

Till one day
Our roads may cross
Maybe we’ll be standing still
You will see
Sunny days will come your way

When nothing’s right
And you cannot hide
You’re weak to fight
All the ghost inside
You cannot fight
All the fears inside
Your head now

Sunny days will come your way


And I’ll work tomorrow
And drown my sorrows
I’ll pay my bills and fake a smile
We’ll talk about it
And laugh about it
How we slept our life away

So time can change your mind
And he can break you down
Do you wake up sleeping?

Make a decision now
Maybe it’ll be alright
If we put our heads together
Or would you disappear
On a desert island
To find your own peace of mind

So we’ll talk about it
And laugh about it
How we slept our life away

So we’ll talk about it
And laugh about it
How we slept our life away

Good intentions

Lights are low
No one’s here
It’s tomorrow
Do you fear
All that’s certain
And all that’s plain to see
If all that’s real isn’t even me

You read my mind
Like a mirror
Do you wonder
How we feel?
Do you shiver in the night
When you just don’t know what is right
Are you safe from your uninformed thoughts and good intentions?
If nobody knows anything at all

You think you know
You think you feel
Well aren’t you one in a million just like everybody else
I say take it if you can
And read the writing on the wall
See the truth in every lie

Before the day you die
If nobody knows anything at all
If nobody knows anything at all

My Time

Oh no, oh my
It’s another day in time
Please wait for me
Do I have to fight alone
When my world came tumbling down

I’ll wait for my time
But I won’t let this pass me by
Hold me, I’ll survive
But I won’t let this pass me by
I’ll never let this pass me by

Once more maybe twice
We can even reach the stars
How much is enough
When will all this ever ends
When the walls came tumbling down
When your world comes tumbling down

So I’ll wait for my time
But I won’t let this pass me by
Hold me, I’ll survive
But I won’t let this pass me by
I’ll never let this pass me by
never let this pass me by

Do you see me like you

All I want
Is some room to be heard,
Speak, live, and breath
Have you seen
Some kind of truth
What, this they called it?
Do you see me, do you see me like you

Big things, bright lights
What do you choose to fight
Poor things, not right
Do you give a damn
If you don’t see me like you

Oh it’s a shame
To say it’s ok
You wash your hands
It’s not your life
It’s easier
If you don’t see me like you

What does it take,
To push and break this down
What fools we make
The circle goes around
Around and on


Beautiful Minds

My oh my, beautiful days
Twist and turns, we make our own way
Take me away, from me

My oh my, beautiful minds
Tease and turn, you weave and you burn
You weave and you burn for?

Hey, hear me today
Can I be so lost
Here in your world
I don’t understand
Am I so blind
Can it be so wrong
To be in your world, or mine

My oh my, terrible times
Tears and fights, what do you fear?
What do you fear, today?

Hear me, hear me
Can I be so lost
Here in your world
I don’t understand
Am I so blind
Can it be so wrong
To be in your world, or mine

I found my home

I NEVER thought much about our national anthem. It’s not bad, every country has one – it’s our national anthem. But something unexpected happened recently, where for the first time in my life, tears welled in my eyes as I sang Negaraku.

To be honest, I initially felt embarrassed. Since when did singing the national anthem mean so much to me? Some like to talk about musical structure, arrangement, delivery, and whatnot when it comes to evoking emotions with the listener. But the undeniable mix to this concoction to move a listener is from the listener’s experience and the context of the moment in question. The song’s the same, so what changed?

I grew up singing our national anthem every Monday morning in school. But there is only so much formalised patriotic actions and calls of unity can do to foster the kind of unity that goes beyond that which only aims to rid the symptoms of disunity.

There is also not much that preaching about unity can do, if racial politics or injustices between communities are exploited or allowed to happen. Malaysians who understand what unity is about, can see through the empty words of those whose actions either run contrary to what they preach, or when such increasingly popular lingo is applied vacuously in the wrong context. In such cases, empty slogans of unity or its equivalent claims will fail miserably.

I used to say Malaysia is my home because well, I grew up here and there isn’t anywhere else to call home. Calling Malaysia home by default isn’t very inspiring but at least the food, people, and places never fail to top the list as things in common that defines us somewhat.

However, there was still something missing somehow, which brings to mind this line I heard recently watching a documentary ( about Singapore’s untold history, in which it says, "It was only when we feel that our voices are heard, and that we matter, do we feel that we belong to Singapore". I felt an immediate empathy for our neighbour, and wondered if many Singaporeans feel that they do not really belong in their own country.

So it was on the eve of Sept 16 celebrating Malaysia day and in support of abolishing the ISA among thousands of Malaysians, I felt that we were singing the Negaraku with full conviction. We were willingly participating as civil society, making a stand against injustice, to make our country better for all. I was moved when I heard Malaysians speak out against unjust actions from those of their own communities, for that was a sign that people are making a stand for what’s right across racial lines.

Home is not just somewhere where we eat and sleep; a hotel will do for that. If we truly want Malaysia to be our home, we need to take part as civil society to have a say in how we want our country to be. Perhaps then we can feel that we truly belong.

The writer likes teh-si to go with a roti for tea.

Published The Sun, 23 Sep 2008

October 1, 2008


You're looking at the cover of my CD. That's right. It's the one with lots of white spaces on the front. I have been wondering for the longest time, 'why should I make an album?' when recording individual songs will do, in doing what it is I really liked about 'music'.

I liked music because part of it was therapeutic, and partly a way to encapsulate and express certain things. I came to a tentative conclusion that what inspires me most, is to capture and express the gist of something that I have been thinking about.

In a way, putting the songs on record is also a sort of closure, to put on record certain defining and shared moments with others, as experienced, that looking back in memory, helped shaped that time in life, not necessarily mine.

I guess it is also for the times when people asked for my CD, for something tangible, and a way to get my songs out there recorded in the best way possible in which its essence aren't compromised.

It's nice that different people can appreciate the same song differently- perhaps an unintentional result of the way the songs were written or titled.

Most of the songs were written in the quiet stillness of the night. While a title like Sunny Days suggests a pleasing song, I'm afraid it is anything but sunshine. 'Good intentions' is about bigotry, chauvinism, with some inspiration from science, and 'Sleeping' is about crossroads and life's choices. 'Beautiful minds' was inspired by a writing class, about different realities, and 'My time' and 'Do you see me like you' were written for documentaries; 'my time' about a man who lost his family and his resolution in fighting an unjust law that led to that tragedy, and 'Do you see me like you' is about prejudice.

I sometimes imagine my songs as individual cartoon characters, and how they feel having been to places unimagined at time of writing. 'Feels like falling' is an honest song, primarily written for private therapeutic reasons, but ironically went on to win an award for being the most downloaded song on a Malaysian music chart. But my hero would be 'do you see me like you', who despite being used for an AIDS campaign, and one against child abuse, somehow found it's way, as part of an anti-racism educational video series, into an infamous racially tinged party's general assembly, where the Vcd was waved around and wrongfully accused to incite racism, when it's purpose was exactly the opposite.

I couldn't quite decide on a title for my CD that would not impose upon what they are about. So there you go; it's a 7-track CD of the above songs that has gotten heard at the 'mother-of-all' women's music festival in 2008. But I think they're just glad that after being kept in the sidelines for a bit, and having been messed around with one imposing and conniving music producer, they finally found a home that appreciates them for what they are.

September 12, 2008

Where do you stand in the face of injustice, intimidation, and provocateurs?

Peaceful vigil tonight.
Mansuhkan ISA (GMI) together with other friends and NGO will hold a solidarity vigil for Raja Petra Kamarudin, MP Teresa Kok and sin Chew Daily Journalist Miss Tan Hoon Cheng who has been arrested under the draconian ISA.

Date: 13 September 2008Place: Bukit Aman Police HQ EntranceTime: 8.30 pm
"the selectiveness of the ISA arrests is an insidious and misleading attempt to create resentment among particular communities.
Perhaps it is hoped that impassioned and racially tinged sentiments will be expressed in the coming days, escalating to even more impassioned racial reactions. This in turn may lay the ground for emergency rule, and for all the suspension of civil liberties and human rights that follow.
"When talk is no longer sufficient we will act. We will act only peacefully, without burning tires or harming even a fly."
“The Malaysian government apparently thinks it can only maintain power by jailing journalists and opposition politicians,” said Elaine Pearson, the group’s deputy Asia director. “Such tactics have no place in a modern democracy.” (AFP)

September 9, 2008


I have great admiration for the Freedom Film Fest and the folks/ volunteers who have been running it for 5 years now. The first of its kind in Malaysia, it creates a platform for filmmakers and social activists to use their talent and passion to express social concerns and human rights issues.

Personally, through FFF, I found meaningful friendships, learnt a lot, and gained many fond memories working on the documentary about the Broga incinerator, 'Alice Lives Here', three years ago.

What I admire most about FFF, is that- like many great things- it started humbly small but it started right; guided by the right principles. It was created out of a need, and not at a time when social or environmental causes were popular in Malaysia, like how green issues are becoming the buzzwords these days, making it easier to attract funding or sponsorship from entities keen to be positively associated.

It was precisely with the lack of this space, that FFF sought to create. With a very trim budget, resource, and team, KOMAS and FFF have been providing an ideal platform for filmmakers and human rights issues for its 5th year. In return, filmakers, volunteers, and participants return to FFF the following years; creating a culture that supports the festival and continue to bring us films and spaces of value to our society.

FFF will be screened in KL, JB, Penang, and for the first time, Kuching. I will be playing a song or two at the FFF KL awards night.

Be a part of Freedom Film Festival at the following locations:

Kuala Lumpur – Central Market Annexe: 5th to the 7th September
Johor Bahru – Tropical Inn: 12th to the 14th September
Kuching – Old Court House: 19th to the 21st September
Penang – Wawasan Open University: 26th to the 28th September.

To make a reservation, email and type the city you wish to attend into the subject line e.g. 'reservation JB' for Johor Baru.


email me at:


Also on


Welcome to my site. You can listen to my songs and read my writings here. I'll write more about 'about' later, while I post my song lyrics..

September 1, 2008

We're all swimming to the other side

It's that time of the year again soon – 'where Malaysians from all walks of life gather to celebrate their independence'. Or not.

Last year's official celebration was a disappointment of epic proportions, at least for me and I know of many others; huge displays of self-glorifying images and speeches by the ruling elite of 'the independence struggle', ironically, fought by others (award winning documentary on Malaysia's struggle for independence – non-school-textbook-version

Ceremonies that reflect the belief or propagate a view that Malaysia is made by or equated to one political party and its subsidiaries only, was an arrogant display of power; leaving many ordinary Malaysians left standing by the sidelines, waiting in vain to be included, or for some sign that they were remembered or acknowledged as Malaysians, not one neatly represented by an approved proxy, or always in turn according to race, religion, or not at all.

Some creativity perhaps in the usual national day parade line-ups instead of in accordance to which 'ethnic group' populates Malaysia the most? Even an orang-utan leading the march would be a good change. They, after all, contribute a lot to Malaysia's tourism and take nothing in return.

When our national shuttler won the Olympic silver medal, he kissed the Malaysian flag, not that of a political party. Likewise, for a start, the appropriate symbol to project for all to see during our national day is that of the Malaysian flag, not a political party's symbol, be it the keris, rocket, moon, or any alphabetical letters.

A celebration for all Malaysians in the spirit of inclusiveness and unity, or will 31st Aug a day or tool to be used again in an empty display of self-glorifying audio-visuals?

Perhaps, it will be different this year. Maybe Malaysians don't even bother anymore, what with more sensational stories grabbing the headlines and web spaces these days; over-politicking, murder mysteries, and crucial by-elections. All these while Malaysians struggle to cope with rising inflation, ill-planned transportation systems, ill-planned everything, and the fear of rising crime.

Regardless, I will reflect on how I would like our national day to be, or how we want our Malaysia to be. Because we can, and we should create spaces where we can all belong in mutual respect. Despite all the circus that goes on- and in the same spirit as activist musician Pat Humphries' song below- we're all swimming to the other side. And we still love this country, warts and all;

"We're swimming in this stream together, some in power and some in pain,
We can worship this ground we walk on, cherishing the beings that we live beside,
Loving spirits will live forever, we're all swimming to the other side."

The writer is a singer-songwriter. She thanks Pat Humphries (Emma's Revolution) for the inspiration and use of her song title for this article.

First draft for Freespace, The Sun. Published 27th August 2008

August 30, 2008

Michigan Womyn's Music Festival

Singer Songwriter Spotlight

'Oh no, I can't find my guitar,' I thought silently while my eyes frantically scanned the assortment of guitars and musical instruments, all tagged and labelled on shelves in the performer tent. It turns out that my guitar was already brought out on standby to be delivered to the acoustic stage for my scheduled sound-check. It was just about noon on the second day of the festival. We took a nice walk to the acoustic stage where the 'Singer Songwriter Spotlight’ was being held, and met our sound engineer and stage crews. The site for the acoustic stage was set on a unique slope, creating a somewhat natural amphitheatre in an intimate forest setting.

Although I was tensed and nervous about my set, I took comfort that the entire sound-check process went on very smoothly and professionally; everything you needed for a good acoustic set was available and there was ample time for sound-check. Jill, the sound engineer, just knew what to do to get the best sound out of my vocals and guitars.

I left sound-check feeling good and headed back to our tents to change and prepare for my set. I did a last minute decision to ditch my pre-arranged attire for a short-sleeved top more befitting a hot summer's day.

I was to be the first performer for the singer-songwriter spotlight. Back-stage, I peeped through the stage door to see the crowd settling down on the grass; many under the trees for shade and some right in the middle basking in the sun. I gave my interpreter for the deaf, Amanda, a nervous smile, as we waited right behind the doors. Lisa Vogel, the founder and producer of the festival, appeared backstage and we chatted briefly.

"…and now please give a warm welcome…Mei Chern!"

The doors open and the crowd cheers as Amanda and I took our seats on the stage. I sang 'Beautiful Minds' as my first song while the crowd listened attentively; a wonderful audience, excellent sound, and slight summer breeze – 'perfect'.

r so I thought. Halfway through my second song, a fly landed on my nose and walked slowly to the left. Definitely something I did not anticipate or prepare for! But I am glad to say that, as distracting as that fly was, I managed to sing through it. I sang all the songs on my CD. I guess it all went pretty well; the crowd was very responsive and appreciative. I met some of them the following day during the artists signing session at the booth where our CDs were sold.

Below are some photos from the Artists Signing Session:

Singer Songwriter Spotlight Artists

Posters and CDs

(Elizabeth and Amy Ziff, and Alyson Palmer)

Emma's Revolution (Pat Humphries and Sandy O)

Previous post: Michigan Womyn's Music Festival

July 25, 2008

Posters, CDs, and the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival

“My jeans, is it purple?”

“No, no, it’s blue”

My printer was really efficient. I decided that I should have posters of my new CD to bring along with me to the festival 2 days before I leave. There would be a CD booth and signing sessions for artists; I imagine everyone else had already sent their CDs and promotional materials over.

I’ll be bringing them along because my CDs have just been printed, and photos for the CD/poster taken days before that. For some reason the blues looked purple in the first print sample. I dropped some of the posters off at the stores where my CDs will be; friends at Dragonfly with outlets around Klang valley have graciously agreed to stock some of my CDs from the 28th Aug. I will work at getting them available at record stores when I get back from the states.

I was already working on my CD when I got news that I made it to the festival line-up this year. Despite the u-turns and problems in producing it, I made sure they were ready in time for the festival; it’s a seven track CD of my songs including my previously released single ‘Feels like falling’ in it’s naked-no arrangements-form, and tracks written for the award winning Freedom Film Fest documentary films ‘Alice lives here’ and ‘Twelve 11’.

I sent the demo versions of these songs last year as part of the audition materials to play at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (MWMF), and I was really excited that they liked the songs enough for me to play at their singer songwriter spotlight this year.

I’ve always wanted to go to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival; to experience how it’s really like to be at this legendary festival where Tracy Chapman, Ani Difranco, and Sarah Mclachlan have played. One of the longest running (over 30 yrs) women’s music festival in the world where 4-7000 women and children gather annually for a week of music, workshops, films etc. in an environment of equality and inclusiveness.

Above all, I’m looking forward to experience that which is so rare and precious. I came across a writer who summed it up well:

“At the end of the night, I was walking to the shuttle that would take me to the front gate. I realized suddenly that it was pitch dark outside (this is Michigan, in the middle of nowhere at 11:00pm), I was alone in the woods, with nothing on hand to protect me, and I was seized by a moment of fear that every woman has at a time like this. I took a deep breath, looked up, saw an indescribably beautiful night sky full of stars, and realized this was the safest I had ever been in my entire life.

This was a life-changing moment, for two reasons. One, I may never experience such a moment again, and that saddened me. Two, how lucky I was to experience it, even briefly. Many women never will. For this alone, every woman should attend the festival at least once.

It’ll be my first time playing at a music festival, and I’m grateful that it is for MWMF. Fingers crossed, I will be in Michigan this August with my guitar and songs.

Note: I will write about the festival when I return, and updates about my songs, and CD. If you’d like to be on my mailing list, please send an email to info.meichern @ Thank you.

July 24, 2008


You can find my CD at:

Silverfish Books @ Bangsar
58-1 Jalan Telawi Bangsar Baru, KL
Online store [sold out]

*Songs are now available for download online on iTunes etc.

For delivery elsewhere and updates, please email

July 12, 2008


Hello. Welcome to my first blog post!

Well, ok, this blog has been in existence for a while, but it has been used thus far just to house my articles. I have been using myspace as my music site ( though you can also listen to my songs here.

I’ve just uploaded a new song called ‘sleeping’ which will also be on my CD that’s just about done.

I’ll be posting updates here about my CD, songs, upcoming gig in Michigan, etc…

June 3, 2008

At what cost, justice?

In exercising one's right to seek redress, to what extent should one go to right a wrong?

As a consumer, complaints can be made to The National Consumer Complaints Centre (NCCC). However, disputes involving certain industries, as many would have encountered, may be less straightforward to solve with no professional body or Act that regulates them.

Take a case in the music industry where a music producer was engaged to produce an album. Having already collected 50% upfront, he asks his client for further payment at an early stage breaching their agreement. When his client refused to concede to his unwarranted demands, he threatened to stop the project; actions that tantamount to threat and blackmail with the music producer holding all his client's raw tracks and a five figure sum already paid. His client was subsequently charged full fees for incomplete and defective works out of the upfront money already paid. In such instances, how could his client seek redress?

Unfair deals and dispute like these unfortunately does happen, and as a fellow Malaysian singer-songwriter said when this incident was related, 'gawd, as if we don't have enough to deal with trying to do this'. A society of emerging artists/musicians charting their own way with little support can certainly do less with such self-serving and dishonest individuals. So it is unjust and idiots like these do exist. How can these individuals be made accountable for their actions?

When that blatantly unjust incident occurred, the said client begun the process of seeking redress and like many in such situations, discovered just how difficult that is. The Recording Industry Association of Malaysia, RIM, is a member-based association that exists largely to protect the interest of its own members. With no professional bodies regulating music producers, legal redress was the only option available.

One cannot deny the cost of time, effort, energy, and mental duress in seeking redress through the courts. Time spent having to do one's research with industry and legal professionals in examining the facts of the case, and the mental anguish involved in having to face possible aggression and retaliation by the perpetrator.

Many on the receiving end of blatantly unjust treatment often find themselves questioning if they should even bother going through such ordeal to seek redress? An unfortunate advantage used by perpetrators to get away with their acts and will likely continue to do so unless stopped.
Is it worth it to put oneself through such ordeal to make irresponsible parties accountable? Is the answer as some would judge upon, based on the claim amount in question? Can such decision be quantified? Not if the principle of justice is the bigger ideal and goal, and in taking action prevents others from falling prey to such cases.

Mechanisms of redress we have in protecting our rights were not given to us on a silver platter. Often it is individuals, NGOs, responsible decision makers, and interested parties that lobby for such changes over time; it often takes people to be aware, to make that stand, and to start asserting their rights.

And indeed, the process of making one accountable may work in different forms, but it all takes actions on our parts to make it work; corrupt politicians can be voted out, consumers to report unethical charges, and business that cheats and treats people badly can be sued and may eventually go out of business without the support of an enlightened community that does not
condone unprofessional and unethical businesses.

The writer is a singer-songwriter. She does not believe in compromise when it comes to justice.

(first draft for The SUN, published 3 June 2008)

March 29, 2008

Aliens have landed! What now?

I heard this running joke some time ago that Malaysians would only ever unite across race and religion if aliens or some "other" group of people came to invade us. This quip is of course born out of the perception that Malaysians are so communal and will most certainly vote along racial lines, and hence, things will never change.

However, unless you’ve been on Mars lately, you would know that the outcome of the last general election completely disproved this apathetic and unconstructive view. Suddenly there was a deluge of opinions as to what led to the outcome and no lack of individuals who claim that they "saw it coming". Perhaps all these outpourings of analysis and discussions is a cathartic process that we need to go through to process what led to the outcome. But like trying to understand how human consciousness emerged, where every scientist has his or her own unprovable theory, it is equally if not more interesting to know what this means and what we can do at the present.

I would like to believe that a fundamentally important outcome of this elections is that there is now a greater move by Malaysians to be engaged in nation building: to seek to understand how positive change can happen and to be responsible citizens looking to play their part and speaking out against what is unjust across racial or religious lines that has been keeping us apart and dragging us down as a nation for too long.

We are becoming increasingly good at speaking up for our own rights, but I would like to see the day when it becomes a norm for us to acknowledge and fight for the rights of all Malaysians regardless of race, religion, or whatever perceived labels there are.

We may not be there yet, but the outcome of the elections was a crucial event which empowered Malaysians to accept the idea that real and positive change is possible; that it is possible for Malaysians to unite across racial and religious lines for a common good. Maybe aliens have really landed after all, and I would like to believe that the aliens are corruption, racism, sexism, bigotry, arrogance, and hypocrisy.

When more Malaysians reject the use of race-based ways to garner support, the old and tired use of pitting one race against another will be rendered useless.

It is time we move beyond that and begin our process of nation building. I may be speaking for myself, but I believe there are many Malaysians who want the same thing; to seek an identity as a Malaysian away from the divisive one that has been handed down for generations.

Who knows what that Malaysian identity will be? I dare say that I’m excited by this possibility; that this identity will emerge as we grow together and find that voice and language in which to express this; one in the spirit of being inclusive and just.

As much as aliens were seen as the push factor for us to act together, Malaysians were also looking for an alternative political culture when they voted on March 8.

Let us remind each other about this possibility of a shared vision to keep us on track while we still have to contend with laws and systems that stifle a healthy democracy. It is no longer what "they" can do for us, but what we can do as citizens; to exercise that skill not to react to the media’s choice of language, our right to information and to speak up for what’s just.

First published in The Sun, 24th March, 2008

March 4, 2008


I caught an impressive ad on TV just a few moments ago. The tagline read something like 'we're on the right track'. Malaysia is moving on some kind of track alright, but whether it is right or not is a matter of debate. But then again, there isn't much public space to have real debates about these things. The ad turned out to be one from a political party in conjunction with the elections.

That is but one example of what a lot of money can do for a political campaign. According to a news article, no laws exist in Malaysia that requires candidates to disclose where their campaign funds come from or how they are spent. Also, the Election Offences Act 1958 governs only candidates' expenses but not the expenses of the parties as a whole. Are the funds coming from people who really support the candidate's ideals, or do they have something to gain later by funding a particular candidate or party? In this scenario, the one with the most money (or in a position to provide something in return), is likely to have the upper hand.

But there is only so much money, publicity, and 'branding' exercises can do, IF the people take it upon themselves to dig a little deeper on who and why they are voting for. The problem with glitzy and eye-catching ads is that while it attracts your attention, it distracts you from other things that are just as or even more fundamentally important. So, the more the media is controlled by a particular source, and the more the publicity stunts there are, the more work we have to do to sieve through the image and rhetoric to look at what his or her candidate really stand for, and if he/she is likely to put that into action.

A candidate in my area may have titles attached to his or her name, but has this person ever done anything to show that they will fight for a future that is more just and inclusive? For the sake of where the country is heading, I can forgo an MP who will ensure that the roads in my neighbourhood be tarred regularly, but did nothing to stop the irresponsible things that go on in parliament. Also, what is the point really, in voting for a candidate who does not want to vote for a bill he/she deems unjust, but voted for it anyway in parliament as he/she has too much at stake not to toe-the-party line?

Anyone can pretty much pay someone to write and do a massive branding exercise, but it takes someone with the right principles and will to put in place systems of accountability that will also make itself accountable to the public. We need MPs who can represent our voice in parliament, and not one who will vote to change our constitution at a whim for their own benefit. MPs who can fight for ordinary Malaysians the right to information needed to know if decisions made on their behalf are in their interest or not. Without these and similar mechanisms that promote a healthy democracy in place, any claims made about Malaysia's progress at this point will be just that – claims.

We already have very nice and tall buildings to show tourists. It's time we seriously look at the bigger picture of what is lacking in our country that will affect our children's future, and how they will relate to each other. Let us hope Malaysians will step up and vote for the right candidates into parliament who can help steer us towards a nation that's inclusive and just; not just speaking the right words, and giving reactionary half measures, but through sincere actions and fundamental changes towards it in our system.

Times are a-changing…

"Chinese New Year is here again! How scary." I don't remember hearing remarks like that when I was a kid. The coming of New Year did not signify the frightening passing of time, but rather about fun times with the cousins in my grandfather's coffee shop. I don't mean the garden-variety uncle-this-and-madam-that air-conditioned Kopitiams; they didn't exist back then. Yik-Cheong café was our authentic pre-war kopitiam hangout place every Chinese New Year.

But being 'authentic' and drinking coffee wasn't particularly alluring to a child. What got me up early in the morning was the short trip down the road for 'apong'(light-fluffy-pancakes), bathing outdoors on the rooftop with pet chickens, and squeezing into a trishaw with my sister and cousins whom we shared some kind of internally evolved language; Kek Lok Si temple was called 'Galaxy' temple, and for reasons nobody knew, the trishaw was called 'lam-yuk-chea' (soft-meat-chair).

All that changed over the years. Like many others in Little India, Penang who couldn't afford the high rent when the Rent Control Act was repealed on New Year's Day 2000, my grandparents closed shop and moved to other parts. Little India became a haven for heritage enthusiasts with a maps provided on the street to 'guide' tourists on how to follow the 'heritage trail'.

Last year, I inadvertently found myself looking at the very same shop-house. While having a lunch meeting, I almost did not realize that the shop selling medicine across the road used to be Yik Cheong café. I never imagined as a child that I would come back to the same street not for any purpose related to family or New Year celebrations. While it was with a tinge of nostalgia and an unreasonable wish to have known it's significance when I was 7, I was happy to know that I had but the most precious way to experience a way of life, just as it was.

Then the biggest change in tradition happened this year, when my grandparents moved down to Kuala Lumpur for practical reasons and thus ending some 40 years of their descendents annual 'balik kampung' trip back to Penang.

Whilst reflecting on how differently I will be celebrating this Chinese New Year, it was a good reminder of how culture and traditions evolve over time. It was remarked that public protests was not a Malaysian culture, but who knows, maybe it will be if the reasons why people protest remains, and if more and more Malaysians become aware of their rights.

Change is inevitable over time; will Malaysians develop a culture that supports a healthy democracy? Will we no longer tolerate where there is blatant mis-use of our tax money? Heck, as far as making history and the changing of traditions go, 2008 seems to be an important year in regards to our nation's direction and how we will be governed.

Malaysia will continue to change for the better or worse, and like Little India, Penang, we may not realize the significance of where we are at the present. But in this case, being blissfully unaware may not be the best thing; unlike the frightening speed in which years go by for happy celebrations, it will seem too long if we vote for leaders who only serve themselves, the party, and not the people.

Happy holidays to everyone and here's hoping year 2008 will be the start towards a time when Malaysians won't be dictated as to what their culture is, but is free to explore and develop their own that are consistent with just and universal values.

On being Ornamental, Passive, or a Pacifist

Popular representations and stereotypes are aplenty when it comes to just about anything, spiritual practices notwithstanding. There are religions wrongly stereotyped to be violent, for example, but one religion that seems to be the least connected to violence, is Buddhism. However, it has even been unfortunately associated with passivism, which could be one of the biggest myth about Buddhism.

Think of Buddhism and visuals of peaceful monks in maroon robes spouting incomprehensible philosophical teachings may come to minds of most. This 'peaceful and esoteric' image of Buddhism by mainstream society can perhaps be epitomized by the deluge of Buddha's head statues being used as decorative items. There are hundreds of them for sale in Bali (incidentally not a predominantly Buddhist society) a shopping haven for popular 'ethnic' handicrafts, woodcarvings, paintings, and exotic decorative items galore; the Buddha's smiling head has become so symbolic of Asian inner peace and tranquillity that it's found its way into restaurants, bars, clubs, and your neighbourhood spa – to add that bit of peacefulness and exoticism. There's even a bar named after him and CD compilations such as the Buddha Bar and Buddha Lounge series described as 'chilled out music' or 'ethnic electronica'. Can one laugh and cringe at the same time? Perhaps Mr Buddha would if he were alive today. Who knows - but I bet most people would believe he would just smile in an aura of peace and tranquillity instead.

Apart from symbolizing tranquillity and inner peace in the face of violence or electronica music, Buddhism is also better known these days for its mystical explorations and collaborations with western scientists' obsessions with the brain. Lesser known, unfortunately, is what its role can be when it comes to structural oppression or social injustices; what some would call 'engaged Buddhism'. It is unfortunate because somewhere along the way, from when Buddha was a social reformer who spoke against injustices in his time more than twenty thousand years ago, the popular perception of Buddhism is now largely only about meditation, achieving personal enlightenment, and disengaging from the world outside.

How one's approach to social change is another matter, but to say that Buddhism teaches one to embrace suffering or develop inner peace amidst and despite suffering within one's society alone, could very well be one the biggest myth that many, including those who speak of it in its name, still hold in their respective consciousness. In this environment, it is easy for one to mistake its teachings that promote pacifism (non-violent means to effect change) to be passivism. Such passivity in the face of injustice, is perhaps not much better than misusing religion to justify acts of violence or bigotry, as both involve the misunderstanding and mis-use of religion that perpetuates injustice.

Growing up as a Buddhist in Malaysia, engagement with social concerns and 'the pursuit for enlightenment' seemed like different worlds apart. I had not heard about Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk and peace activist who coined the term 'Engaged Buddhism', nor about Tenzin Palmo, who is challenging the institutionalised belief that only the male form can reach 'liberation'. I came to realize that the Burmese monks who marched in thousands recently for democracy, is not an exception, and that we can apply universal insights to situations of social injustices -to be more engaged with our society- irregardless of one's spiritual leanings. Religions have often been misunderstood or misused to justify violence, or to be apathetic to injustices. Perhaps there will be less of that if we can look beyond the institutionalised aspects of religions, how they came to be, and to see the essence and universality of their teachings.