Category: Social Issues


As a travel writer, I prefer to invest in travel products that go a long way. Also, I’m not a shopper. So when I do buy something, it’s usually because I need it. Or it’s a book. But if I’m prepared to spend a little more, it’s almost always because the product stands for something I believe in.

Like Ethnotek bags.

I found out about these travel bags through my best friend Ning (aka ‘Magic Babe’ Ning). We were planning a trip to Thailand at the time, and she thought it might be cool to check out this socially-responsible line of bags, recently brought in to Singapore by The Bag Creature.

Ning checking out Ethnotek's Raja packs

Ning checking out Ethnotek’s Raja packs

I accompanied her down, of course, and what I found out about Ethnotek really impressed me. The business itself originates from the U.S. but the founders – two young men who are also travellers – have committed to supporting the work of local artisans in remote villages around the world, so that their traditional weaving practices can be kept alive.

The communities whose weaving culture Ethnotek is currently supporting

The communities around the world whose weaving culture Ethnotek is currently supporting (Source: Ethnotekbags.com)

These intricate weaving techniques are amazingly tedious and time-consuming. And at the speed fabrics are being mass-manufactured in urban factories these days, traditional artisans are not only losing their jobs, but also their cultural heritage. There is no longer an impetus to pass on the craft to the next generation.

Check out this insightful video to get an idea of just how intricate the process is…

 

What the Ethnotek founders did was to travel to these remote villages in Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Guatemala etc. and seek out these artisans, and negotiate a fair price for their handiwork. Not only are these weavers paid fairly through direct transactions, their unique culture and traditional practices – as well as their livelihoods – are kept alive by a global stream of demand.

 

“The one thing that all of our weaves and artisans have in common is the fact that their craft is dying out. Every year, they experience less and less local demand for their fabrics due to low yield and long lead time. Traditional techniques are quickly being replaced by machines and factory labour in major cities, drastically reducing the amount of jobs and industry in the regions where it is needed most. By creating new demand for these traditional handcraft practices, we are in a sense forging an effort to keep them alive and well, and in the same villages from which they came.” 

– Founders of Ethnotek bags – 

I respect this. I believe in this. It’s responsible business.

And the way Ethnotek does this is by creating quality base bags that allow you to swap ethnic threads like you would swap smartphone covers or straps for Swatch watches. It works like this:

(Source: ethnotekbags.com)

(Source: Ethnotekbags.com)

The base bags come in various sizes and shapes. The bigger backpacks are called Raja Packs, and Ning was keen to get one of those for the trip, together with a Messenger bag for regular work on-the-go. Ethnotek also carries a line of pretty tote bags!

Ning's Ethnotek Raja Pack Vietnam 6 and Acaat Messenger Vietnam 5.

Ning’s Acaat Messenger Vietnam 5 + Raja Vietnam 6

Optional Threads for the Raja Packs.

Options for Raja Pack threads

The price for a Raja Pack ranges from S$225 to S$289, and you can also get replacement Threads at S$59 each. Different ethnic designs and weaves from around the world are showcased in these unique Threads; and truly, they are precious pieces of dying art!

For my own needs as a travel writer, I prefer a smaller day pack. When I check-in my luggage at the airport, I just want a compact knapsack that I can carry around, but one that’s also big enough to slip in my 13″ MacBook Air, in case I need to work while on transit. Furthermore, it has to double-up as a day pack when I’m out exploring new cities or hiking.

I picked the smaller Wayu Pack because it has a separate section for my laptop and is just nice, size-wise, for my “on assignment” needs. My Ethnotek Vietnam 6 Wayu Pack costs S$189 from The Bag Creature – online orders available.

My travel writer's default combo - with my Ethnotek Vietnam 6 Wayu Pack.

My travel writer’s default combo – with my Ethnotek Vietnam 6 Wayu Pack.

I also got an additional Vietnam 5 Thread (S$79) so that I can swap designs when I feel like it, and blue is my favourite colour. This Thread incorporates a hand-embroidered textile from the Tai Lü tribes of Vietnam. Each and every piece is unique and different from the next, and best of all, there are only four in existence!

Ethnotek Wayu Backpacks & Threads, supporting artisans in Vietnam

Ethnotek Wayu Backpacks & Threads, supporting traditional artisans and weavers in Vietnamese villages

Check out the intricate artwork of these artisans!

Check out the intricate handiwork!

These gorgeous bags aren’t cheap – I admit – but they are good quality, they promote fair trade, and help sustain the livelihood of villagers in indigenous communities.

I don’t normally promote travel products, but I’ve been so pleased with this travel bag and what it stands for that I’ve started following Ethnotek on Facebook and Instagram (@ethnotekbags). I guess it’s the satisfaction of being part of a community of world travellers that believes in fair trade and keeping cultures alive. Or as the founders call us – #etktribe 🙂

But above all, just as my 42-litre backpack reminded me of how much (or little) I really needed while on the road for 9 months, may your travel bag remind you too – in an unconventional sort of way – of what’s more important in life.

“Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 

 

 

 

 

*WARNING* GRAPHIC DETAILS

Some call it female circumcision, others call it female genital cutting. In its most severe form, the clitoris, inner and outer labia of a girl’s vagina are cut (with a knife or razor) and then crudely sewed up, leaving just a small hole – the size of a matchstick head – for the urine and menstrual blood to pass through.

Photo: WorldPulse.com

Using a razor to cut (Photo: WorldPulse.com)

Although these forms of “cutting” may vary in severity depending on the cultural rituals of different communities, the term I would choose to use when I talk about this – and which is widely used – would be Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

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Author Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Author Ngugi wa Thiong’o

My first brush with this vague concept of FGM happened when I was 15. In school, we read a Literature classic, written by African writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, entitled The River Between.

Kenya is a world away from Singapore. And back in the 1980s, before the invention of the Internet, I knew close to nothing about its history, culture or rituals. This work of literature threw open my mind to realities beyond my own.

One of the themes in Ngugi’s book was circumcision. The word he used specifically was “female circumcision”. But juxtaposed with Waiyaki’s circumcision – which he looked forward to because it marked his final initiation into manhood – Muthoni’s circumcision was dreaded and eventually led to her death.

For her, it wasn’t just a nick in the flesh, as it was for the boys. For her (and other girls like her in Kenya, and Somalia, and Ethopia, and other African nations), the removal of the clitoris and labia led to bleeding, infection, chronic pain, cysts and often to death.

It’s hard not to question if the term “female circumcision” is misleading.

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Last night, I attended a film screening and panel discussion on a film called Desert Flower. Organised by the Singapore Committee for UN Women and SMU’s Shirin Fozdar Programme, this powerful film traces the extraordinary journey of Waris Dirie, a Somali desert nomad-turned-supermodel who is now a UN spokesperson campaigning against female genital mutilation.

At the age of 5, her mother brought her out into the desert to be cut by a traditional circumciser. It was a poignant scene in the film for me because the procedure was performed (on what – to me – looked liked a sacrificial rock altar) by a woman on a little girl. There were no men around. It was a ritual performed by women on women.

Why? Because only a “cut woman” is believed to be clean. In fact, it is supported by both women and men in countries that practise it – particularly by the women – who see it as a source of honour and authority, and an essential part of raising a daughter well.

Desert Flower has an R-rating. Here’s the trailer:

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

Key facts

  • Female genital mutilation includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
  • The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women.
  • Procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.
  • More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and Middle East where FGM is concentrated.
  • FGM is mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15.
  • FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

(Source: World Health Organisation, Updated Feb 2014) 

About 125 million women and girls in Africa and the Middle-East have undergone FGM. Among them, about 8 million have experienced the most severe form of mutilation (Type III), which is common in countries like Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan.

But what I learnt from the panel discussion that followed the film screening last night was that FGM happens not just in Africa and the Middle-East but in First World countries as well. Asia is not spared. Even more shocking, FGM happens here in Singapore.

Panel Discussion after the screening of Desert Flower

Panel Discussion with anthropologist Dr Dhooleka Raj and Minnie from UN Women

Maybe because FGM is so foreign and far-removed from my daily circumstance, it’s hard for me to connect with it on a very personal level. But one thing that Minnie from UN Women said struck a personal chord: In the case of Waris Dirie, who was cut and sewn up till what was left was a hole the size of a matchstick head, this hole caused her monthly periods to last 3 weeks.

Minnie from UN Women reveals that FGM happens here in Singapore too.

Minnie from UN Women reveals that FGM happens here in Singapore too.

Honestly, I dread the monthly discomfort and inconvenience of my own period. I remember getting my first period at 13 and thinking to myself, “OMG, is this going to happen to me every month till the day I die?” It was a horrible feeling of helplessness.

But for Waris, it was not just a period that lasted 3 weeks instead of 3 days, but also the chronic pain involved as a result of the botch job done by the circumciser with a razor and needle.

What has been done? 

In December 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the elimination of female genital mutilation.

In 2010, WHO published a “Global Strategy to Stop Healthcare Providers from Performing Female Genital Mutilation” in collaboration with other key UN agencies and international organizations.

Panorama_of_the_United_Nations_General_Assembly,_Oct_2012

But the truth is, laws are poorly enforced in many cases, and these measures are not without opposition. From the perspective of colonial and post-colonial history (in particular, the introduction of Christianity by Western missionaries), some anthropologists raise questions about the ethical implications of meddling with deeply-entrenched cultural rituals.

In fact, that was the premise of the book The River Between, written in 1965. When I read it in 1985, I too questioned the ethics of imposing Western religious beliefs on indigenous populations.

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But last night, in my first brush with the Desert Flower (‘Waris’ means ‘Desert Flower’), I heard a Somali woman speak up for herself and for other African girls who have undergone female genital mutilation. She is one of the first to ever speak up against FGM at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City.

Now that was powerful.

It was powerful for me because Waris did not always believe it was a violation. It was her reality. And it was through a painful personal journey that led to her to the point of speaking up against it.

And for me, every time an African speaks up for Africans, or a Cambodian speaks up for Cambodians, I think we need to sit up and pay attention. Because hearing a cry for help from within makes all the difference.

The real Waris Dirie, a Somali supermodel and UN ambassador

The real Waris Dirie, a Somali supermodel and UN ambassador

I always believe change starts with awareness. And while I don’t know what a small group of people in Singapore can do, I do believe in the power of the Ripple Effect, and that one person’s awareness can start a chain reaction.

If you feel moved to find out more about Waris Dirie’s humanitarian work, do visit her website at desertflowerfoundation.org or the film’s website at desertflower-movie.com.

 

 

 

“Aunty Pamela!” She often greets me with a grin, calling out to me even from a distance. My neighbour’s daughter has mild autism and is enrolled in a mainstream school. I often think she is more sociable than my twin boys.

One of my son’s classmates has autism too. R comes over to play with my twin boys because he only has a sister at home and they don’t play well together. I suspect R appreciates getting a 2-for-1 deal when he comes over!

And then, there is a little boy who lives in my block whom I suspect has autism. Before he enters the lift, his parents put on headphones for him to calm him down. He rides the lift, grunting, groaning and shouting, which scares the neighbours “trapped” in the lift with him. But the sad part is that his parents often look apologetic.

sn-autism

Autism is characterised – in varying degrees – by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and repetitive behaviours. Because it falls on a continuum, it’s known scientifically as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Studies have shown that autism is about four times more common among boys than girls.

While I have interacted with children with autism, I have not – for some bizarre reason – entertained the thought that these children will someday grow up to be adults.

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Hosting The Living Room on 938LIVE (2008-2011)

Around 2009, when I did a radio interview with a father who was coping with a grown-up son with severe autism, my eyes were opened to a reality that broke my heart.

The father told me that they had only one child because his son’s condition was so severe that they had to take care of him 24/7 – there was no room for another dependent. In fact, his wife left her full-time job and had been taking care of him for almost two decades. The couple had not gone on a single vacation.

“People always tell us God only gives you what you can handle,” he said, his voice breaking. “That is so easy to say.”

He tells me that the curious thing about autistic children is that they often look normal. In fact, many of them are very good-looking. As such, people around them often do not know that they have a disorder. But as they grow up into teenagers and adults, their behaviours often frighten people because what they see is not what they expect.

Teenager with Autism (Photo: www.jsonline.com)

Teenager with Autism (Photo: http://www.jsonline.com)

I could feel the father’s pain when he recounted how his teenage son was scorned because he could not control his sexual urges in public. Nobody could understand that this good-looking teenager had a disorder. They thought he was poorly disciplined and they blamed the parents.

“It was easier when he was a child,” the father told me. “People were more forgiving.”

What he said next hit me like a brick wall.

“What will happen to my son when we die?” he asked. “Who will take care of him?”

I did not have an answer.

This very intense interview never left me all these years. So when I was invited for an event recently that celebrated a partnership between a business and the Autism Resource Centre (ARC) in Singapore, I knew it was something to celebrate!

When Starbucks first came to Singapore 17 years ago, it was cool to hang out there because the concept was novel and the espresso-based coffees and Frappuccinos were hip alternatives to our kopitiam coffee and 3-in-1s. The ambience was also trendy with the hiss of espresso machines, the shouting of baristas over the counter and piped-in jazz.

Coffee Masters at Starbucks Fullerton Waterboat House

Coffee Masters at Starbucks Fullerton Waterboat House

But over the years, with the arrival of Melbourne-styled artisan cafés in Singapore, Starbucks became the MacDonald’s of coffee. It was mass, commercial, and the coffee couldn’t match up to some. And hanging out at Starbucks started to become a little less cool.

As a coffee lover, I do agree they don’t serve the best coffee. Personally, I like La Ristrettos and Papa Palheta better. But I admit I have a soft spot for Starbucks because their heart is in the right place.

CoffeeHeart

This soft spot started in 2003 when I read the book Pour Your Heart Into It by Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks. I read it as a case study on leadership and read it again some years later because that book inspired me so much.

When you know the heart of a leader – what he stands for – you know where his company comes from when they do what they do. And through the years, I’ve seen Starbucks keep to these principles even though they have been criticized for many things.

Pour your heart into it

So when I was invited to the opening of Starbucks Singapore’s 100th store on 14 February 2014, I was thrilled; especially hearing that this will be Asia’s first Give Back Store.

To me, every Starbucks store is a Give Back Store – I know they have an annual event around Christmas where proceeds go to the Salvation Army, they promote fair-trade, recycle coffee grounds as fertilisers, and support local musicians by selling their CDs in stores and giving them a platform to perform.

So how is this 100th store different?

Sbux 100 logo

In a cosy round-table discussion with Jeff Hansberry (President, Starbucks China & Southeast Asia) and Denise Phua (President, Autism Resource Centre), I learnt that Starbucks Singapore has been partnering the Autism Resource Centre (ARC) for the past 10 years. They helped set up a café training facility at Pathlight School and have been training the students there for a decade. They’ve also accepted students from Pathlight for part-time work attachments.

With Denise Phua (ARC) and Jeff Hansberry (Starbucks)

With Denise Phua (ARC) and Jeff Hansberry (Starbucks)

But this 100th store takes the partnership a step further.

As a Give Back Store, Starbucks Fullerton Waterboat House hires youths with autism as full-time staff. This means they don’t just have a job, they have a career path with Starbucks. And at least 25 per cent of the full-time staff at this store will be from ARC.

Youths with Autism as full-time Starbucks staff

Youths with Autism as full-time Starbucks staff

What’s more, the artistic talent of kids with autism is celebrated here. On a feature wall in this pretty nautical-themed store, drawings by students from Pathlight School are proudly showcased. Such amazing attention to detail! I could not have drawn these in a thousand years!

Artwork by students of Pathlight School

Artwork by students of Pathlight School

One of the students, 17-year-old Glenn Phua, even had his artwork featured on a Starbucks tumbler. This special tumbler is sold exclusively at Starbucks Fullerton Waterboat House, and $5 from the sale of each tumbler goes back to funding the work of ARC. I’m told this collaboration is expected to strengthen in the coming years.

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Any business that gives back to the community and promotes inclusiveness is a business I’m inclined to support. In a world where there is so much bad news, good news should be celebrated and shared, not gunned down. We do that far too often and way too quickly!

So what if they don’t serve the best coffee? There is more to life than good coffee!

And coming from a die-hard coffee lover, you better believe it.

Marcus, who has autistism, makes me a Frap!

Marcus, who has autistism, makes me a Java Chip Frap!

My hope is that all businesses that have a heart for people with special needs not forget the teenagers and adults too. Give them opportunities. Be the support network their parents need. Include them. Because for most severe cases, it’s often when these children grow up – and their parents grow older – that coping becomes harder. We do live in a society that is unforgiving and slow to understand.

And as a parent, I can identity with the fears of these parents. If I had a child with special needs, how would I feel if I knew I wouldn’t be around for much longer and would soon leave him behind, alone? What sort of world would I want to create so that I can leave knowing he is taken care of?

Let that be the space from where our daily choices spring.

be-the-change-you-want-to-see-in-the-world

When she was found, she was perched on a wooden crate in a makeshift tent constructed from wooden sticks and canvas sheets. It was hard to tell from her seated position that she was disabled. There was no wheelchair or crutches in sight.
(Photo Credit: John Vink)

Oudong Province, Cambodia (Photo: John Vink)

These makeshift homes flanked the foot of Phnom Oudong (Oudong Mountain), located about an hour’s drive from Phnom Penh. Between 1618 and 1866, this was the site of the old capital of Cambodia, before it was moved to Phnom Penh under French colonisation. Today, tourists climb this mountain daily to visit the magnificent temples and stupas on its summit, and to soak in the panoramic views.

Phnom Oudong with its temples & stupas

Phnom Oudong in the distance, Cambodia

But this 11-year-old girl was not there for any of these reasons. In fact, she was there not even by choice, but circumstance. Her family – together with 300 other families – had been forcefully evicted from the Borei Keila district in Phnom Penh and dumped here.

Borei Keila forced eviction on 4 Jan 2012 (Source: KI-Media)

Borei Keila forced eviction on 4 Jan 2012
(Photo: KI-Media)

“In early 2003, a ‘land-sharing’ arrangement was proposed for Borei Keila, which allowed the well-connected construction company, Phanimex, to develop part of the area for commercial purposes while providing housing to the residents on the remaining land. Phanimex was obligated to build 10 apartment buildings on two hectares of land for the villagers in return for obtaining ownership of an additional 2.6 hectares for commercial development.

In April 2010, Phanimex unilaterally reneged on the agreement, however – with the approval of the government – and only constructed eight buildings. That left 300 Borei Keila families excluded from the original agreement – and still living in housing on the site. These were the homes that Phanimex representatives destroyed today.”

(Source: THE DIPLOMAT, 15 Jan 2012)

Borei Keila homes bulldozed to the ground (Photo Credit: Faine Greenwood)

Borei Keila homes bulldozed to the ground
(Photo: Faine Greenwood)

These forcefully evicted families were dispersed and relocated to three campsites outside Phnom Penh – Oudong being one of them.

While they waited for their little plots of promised land, they lived in flimsy self-constructed tents, cut off from their sources of income, and left to fend for themselves. And for a young girl with a disability, moving around the campsite alone was hard as the ground was uneven and unpaved.

This was how Eunice Olsen – a former Singaporean politician, actor, TV host and avid volunteer – found Srey Nuon back in 2012.

Travelling to Phnom Penh to do research for 3.50, a film she was making about human trafficking in Cambodia, Eunice was put in touch with a doctor at Sihanouk Hospital. It was through this doctor that she was directed to NGOs working with trafficked girls, as well as a home care team that did outreach to persons living with HIV.

Eunice Olsen in a scene from 3.50 the movie

Eunice Olsen in a scene from 3.50 the movie

Outside of research work for her film, Eunice tagged along with this home care team as they made their rounds. Over the span of a few days, she was brought to Borei Keila, and then to Oudong, where she first met Srey Nuon.

Srey Nuon’s family was one of those evicted.

“You know, poverty isn’t the problem,” Eunice said to me in one of our casual conversations. “People can still survive, and even be happy, when they’re poor. The problem is injustice.”

At Oudong, the social worker Eunice was trailing approached Srey Nuon to engage her in conversation because she was a “new case”. They had not seen her before and they wanted to find out more about her situation. The little girl could not speak a word of English.

Through the social worker, who translated their exchange from Khmer to English, Eunice learnt that the girl’s father would transport her everyday to the foot of Oudong Mountain on his scooter, and there, she would climb over a hundred steps – on her hands – to beg.

In the community’s eyes, Srey Nuon’s fate was to be a beggar.

When Eunice heard this, she asked almost instinctively, “Did she go to school before?”

The social worker translated her question to the girl, and came back with this reply, “Yes.”

“Did she like to go to school?” Eunice pursued.

The translated answer came back once again, “Yes.”

It was the girl’s non-hesitant answer to that pointed question that compelled Eunice Olsen to make a decision on the spot: She would put Srey Nuon back in school, and support her till she was 21.

On Lala's tuk tuk in Phnom Penh traffic

On Lala’s tuk tuk in Phnom Penh traffic

When I was in Phnom Penh last week with Eunice, we visited Srey Nuon at her school. It was a school for the disabled, run by a Catholic mission, and one of the first stops we made on our 4-day trip to Cambodia.

Together with Chhavelith from Sihanouk Hospital’s home care team, we rode out in Lala’s tuk tuk, veering off the main road after about an hour onto a dusty, bumpy path. The school was located at the outskirts of the city, tucked away in a corner of nowhere.

I know this bothered Eunice a little because she has always stood up for integration, even as a Parliamentarian. But I learnt that Srey Nuon did start out trying to integrate into a mainstream school, but because the school’s infrastructure and teachers were not equipped to provide adequately for someone like her, she wasn’t coping physically and intellectually.

And to be fair, this little school for the disabled was out of sight, but not out of mind.

As we spluttered through the open gate and climbed out of Lala’s tuk tuk, I breathed in the fresh air and soaked in the vibes of the place – as I often do in a new place. It felt light and safe, and there was no heaviness hanging over the place, like I sometimes feel when I step into Singapore schools.

The compound was small and quiet, a tad old but clean and well maintained. I could tell that the Catholic missionaries took pride in this place.

(Photo: Arte e Salute)

(Photo: Arte e Salute)

The supervisor, a gentle soft-spoken man, came out to meet us. He led us down a row of classrooms towards the canteen, and on the way, pointed out a computer lab for the students, complete with second-hand laptops donated by well-meaning donors and volunteers from the West.

It was “dessert time” and the children had spilled out from the classrooms into the airy canteen. Some were already huddled over bowls of soupy dessert – one bowl on each table to be shared.

The children were understandably curious about us. We were visibly different. But unreservedly, they greeted us “good afternoon!” in English and followed us around.

They were adorable! While similar in that they all had disabilities, they were also uniquely different: Some were running around with shrivelled arms, others were on wheelchairs and crutches, while others had no arms or legs. Even the cheerful young teacher who recognised Eunice and came out to greet us, had a stump for a right arm.

Eunice scanned the canteen for Srey Nuon but she was nowhere in sight. I felt my breath quicken because I had heard so much about her and I was finally going to meet her face-to-face. The supervisor informed us that she would be along in a bit because she had just finished swimming lessons, and was changing back into her uniform.

Just beside the canteen where we were was a small swimming pool, shallow and rectangle-shaped, and protectively fenced to prevent the children from falling in. I was lost in thought for a moment as I watched the clear blue water shimmer happily in the afternoon sun.

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I was heartened to learn that the students here did not just have swimming lessons, but also music and art lessons.

“Srey Nuon is also learning English,” the supervisor informed us.

Chhavelith beamed like a proud father. After all, he had been instrumental in making arrangements for Srey Nuon here in Phnom Penh while Eunice was back in Singapore.

P1090021Since that chance meeting at Oudong, Srey Nuon had moved back to the capital and was living with an aunt and her family. But more recently, she was boarding five days a week at the school, returning home only on weekends because her aunt had just given birth.

“I think this is a better arrangement,” Chhavelith had updated Eunice when we were discussing Srey Nuon’s progress back at the office. “She’ll have more care here.”

I knew Eunice trusted Chhavelith’s judgement, and the moment I set eyes on Srey Nuon a distance away, I understood why. My first thought was that she looked happy!

Her face lit up when she saw Eunice, who had bounded over to hug her. Even though she was on a wheelchair, she appeared strong and healthy and her eyes twinkled merrily.

She is now 13.

“Hello, good afternoon!” she said in English, much to our delight.

The rest of the conversation between her and Eunice was carried out with the help of Chhavelith’s translation. Eunice handed her some gifts from Singapore, and she updated Eunice on how she was doing in school. She said she enjoyed swimming and music very much.

“You must learn to play the piano, OK?” teased Eunice, herself a proficient pianist.

Keyboard Keys Close Up

A group of children had gathered around Srey Nuon, children of different shapes and sizes, all hanging on to their every word with interest and curiosity. Srey Nuon introduced Eunice to her best friend, who was standing quietly behind her wheelchair.

DSC_0334“That’s her best friend!” Eunice shot me a glance from her kneeled position on the floor, and I could see from her expression that her heart was melting. As was mine. That was the sweetest moment, to see two little girls connected in a special friendship this way.

For some reason, I remembered then that Srey Nuon had lost her mum. Some time back, Eunice had taken her to the hospital to visit her ailing mother. “I cried the whole day after that, when I thought about her sitting by her mother’s bedside,” Eunice had revealed.

A week after that hospital visit, Srey Nuon’s mum passed away.

How happy her mother would be, I thought, knowing that her daughter was safe and in good hands. And that she had the possibility of a future brighter than her own. She must be smiling from heaven.

(Photo: John Vink)

(Photo: John Vink)

I wonder. When Eunice first met that little beggar girl sitting on a wooden crate two years ago, would she have seen this in her mind’s eye? Her in a school uniform, beaming happily beside another little girl she called her best friend? Would Eunice have envisioned her speaking English and learning music and enjoying swimming?

“Did she like to go to school?” That question that Eunice asked so instinctively was perhaps the one most important question to have asked at that moment.

I don’t know what prompted her to ask it, but I do know as a journalist that it was a question that arose not from the intellect but from the heart. And oh, what a difference it has made!

This, to me, is what it means to find a need and fill it.

Eunice Olsen. Oudong, Cambodia (14 Jan 2014)

Eunice Olsen. Oudong, Cambodia (14 Jan 2014)

I don’t think Eunice realises the difference she has made to this child. A decision to support Srey Nuon till she is 21 is a huge commitment. And as a freelance writer, I understand how unpredictable work is for people like us who don’t hold 9-to-5 jobs.

But Eunice’s simple gesture – which she does not share publicly or boast about – taught me that despite not knowing how or from where your resources will come, you sometimes need to respond without counting the cost, because there is simply a need to be filled. Period.

It brings to mind – and to life – a verse that I have cherished since I was 16.

“I expect to pass through this world but once. 

Any good therefore that I can do,

or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature,

let me do it now.

Let me not defer or neglect it,

for I shall not pass this way again.”

~ William Penn ~

Srey Nuon put a face to Cambodia’s forced evictions for me. I felt indignant by the injustice of it. But at the same time, I felt deeply touched because I had witnessed compassion and generosity given freely from one stranger to another.

I left Cambodia believing that there is goodness in this world. And somehow, that changes you.

* * *

THE STARFISH STORY

A young man is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore. Further along he sees an old man, walking slowly and stooping often, picking up one starfish after another and tossing each one gently into the ocean.

“Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” he asks.

“Because the sun is up and the tide is going out and if I don’t throw them further in they will die.”

“But, old man, don’t you realise there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it! You can’t possibly save them all, you can’t even save one-tenth of them. In fact, even if you work all day, your efforts won’t make any difference at all.”

The old man listened calmly and then bent down to pick up another starfish and threw it into the sea.

“It made a difference to that one.”

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** No photos of Srey Nuon have been included in this article in order to protect her identity and safety – upon request by Eunice Olsen.

Sidetracked by Beauty

In Feb 2012, I was blown away when I saw the Colosseum covered in a blanket of snow. It was beautiful. I’d never seen Rome like this before – it was like seeing the city with new eyes.

(Photo: Elizabeth Minchilli)

(Photo Credit: Elizabeth Minchilli)

(Photo credit: globalwarming-arclein.blogspot.com)

The Roman Forum covered in snow. (Photo Credit: globalwarming-arclein.blogspot.com)

Last night, I saw photos coming out of Cairo and Jerusalem of snow-covered Middle-Eastern cities.

That’s what I love about Instagram, it’s like seeing the world and cities and neighbourhoods and people’s lives through their smartphones – like a Born into Brothels kinda thing.

(Photo Credit: Saleh Mousa)

(Photo Credit: Saleh Mousa)

The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock are covered in snow in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock are covered in snow in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)

But then, the weather scares me. It’s the first time it’s snowed in Egypt in 100 years. And even when I was traveling around the world in 2011, everyone I spoke to – on every continent – echoed the same thing: the climate is changing.

And we’re seeing the signs in more and more dramatic and spectacular ways. Paulo Coelho writes in The Alchemist about reading omens. Can we not read them?

While I am awed by the beauty of a snow-covered Cairo and Rome, I’m also reminded that I cannot overlook the graver message these images carry; and to ponder really the role we each have to play in this. If we do nothing, we are in fact doing something.

It’s so easy to be sidetracked by Beauty.

When I was traveling for 3 weeks in South Africa in 2011, Cape Town was having rugby fever. It was rugby season and the Springboks were playing the All Blacks. Everyone in Cape Town was wearing a Springbok jersey, and their verve was infectious!

My South African friend Nadem got me a jersey and I’ve kept it all these years. It’s still in pristine condition – see the price tag?

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Today, I dug it out again. Perhaps it’s because of all the rugby World Cup news of late, or perhaps, it’s because I heard on the radio this morning that Nelson Mandela’s body was making its way through the streets of Pretoria in South Africa, so that the ordinary man-in-the-street can say his final goodbyes.

Whatever it was, it made me remember the stories I’d heard in my travels in Cape Town.

In 1995, the newly democratic South Africa (after the fall of apartheid) made its Rugby World Cup debut after many years of anti-apartheid boycott. It hosted the games that year.

The rift then between the blacks and the coloured people of South Africa and the ruling class white elite was wide. There was still much anger and resentment in the country.

It was because of anti-apartheid sentiments that the Springboks missed the last two World Cup series (1987, 1991). But to everyone’s surprise, the underdogs made it to the finals and were set to play against the favourites – New Zealand’s All Blacks. 

In that final game, Nelson Mandela appeared before the mostly white crowd of 62,000 wearing a Springbok jersey to shake the players’ hands before kick-off.

That powerful image of a Black Afrikaan man sporting a garment that was so indelibly associated with the apartheid regime spoke a quiet but powerful message of reconciliation.

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The Springboks ended up defeating the All Blacks 15-12 in the World Cup Finals in 1995.

I feel compelled to remember this great story as we pay our last respects to this great man. My Springbok jersey will always remind me of the lessons I learnt in my short time in South Africa. Important ones, nonetheless. 

Rest in Peace, Mr Mandela.

Shape Run 2013 finishers medal

“I’ve always run for personal achievement, partly because I grew up hating running. That’s why I did my 100-Day Challenge last year (where I ran for 100 days straight) because I wanted to prove something to myself. But it feels different when you’re running for something bigger than yourself. Yesterday’s Shape Run was like that for me. This finishers medal doesn’t make me feel proud of myself for having crossed the finish line. It represents to me friendship, commitment to a personal cause and a reminder that sometimes in life, it’s not always about fulfilling my own goals.”

Some weeks back, my friend Eunice Olsen asked if I’d like to do a 5km run with her. I said ‘Yes’ without giving it a second thought.

The truth is, I had not run competitively since I passed out from heatstroke at last year’s 10km Shape Run – somewhere at the 8km mark, I’m told. That experience traumatised me somewhat, suffice to say I never did carry out the rest of my plans for 2012, i.e. to compete in at least three 10km races.

My initial ‘Yes’ was based purely on friendship. I’ve known Eunice for 8 years or so, and we’ve kept in touch on and off, always meaning to meet up but never actually making it happen – due to the insane nature of our work. So it was wonderful to actually pin down a date and time for a catch-up lunch after all these years. Because we promised we’d keep in touch properly this time, I wanted to honour that.

Catch-up lunch at Chop Suey

Catch-up lunch at Chop Suey

During that catch-up lunch, Eunice updated me on a project she’d been working on called WomenTalktv.asia. She told me it was an online platform that featured ordinary women who did extraordinary things; that it was all about women empowerment. She revealed that after completing two terms as a Nominated Member of Parliament, she felt a little lost for a while until she founded this – it felt like a renewed sense of purpose.

I listened to her and I listened to her, because when she is excited or passionate about something, she embarks on a soliloquy! And her passion is infectious – I was captured by her vision and her mission.

A couple of weeks later, Eunice called me to ask if I’d host WomenTalk’s media launch. I said of course. In preparation for that, I watched the video links she sent me, read up more about the online portal, and got to understand better the motivations behind it.

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I got it that it was a labour of love (she was funding this project from her own pocket). And I could sense that this was a calling for her. It was something bigger than herself, like a powerful current that picks you up and pushes you forward, almost beyond your control.

I could understand that. As Deputy Editor of Vanilla magazine (MediaCorp Publishing), I constantly felt I was part of something bigger than myself. I still think Vanilla was a magazine ahead of its time: We celebrated real women, ordinary women, who did extraordinary things, and we put them on our magazine covers, devoting 6 to 12 pages to telling their stories.

And it was my role to find these “cover girls” every month and to write about them, to give voice to their stories.

With some of my Vanilla cover girls... it was like a growing sorority!

With my Vanilla cover girls… it was like a growing sorority!

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Few people know that it was Vanilla magazine that conceptualised, pushed for and initiated the Singapore Woman Award – honouring ordinary women who did extraordinary things. It’s now a huge annual event in MediaCorp. It was our early vision to acknowledge such women, not just those successful in business or politics.

I had always told my Senior Editor Theresa Tan that I would write for Vanilla even if I were not paid a cent. So when Vanilla was forced to shut down due to lack of advertising, I felt a part of me had died.

Since 2008, after DARE and Vanilla failed to make it on the market, I’ve felt like Singapore did not have a dedicated media platform that celebrated inspiring ordinary women.

Most of the awards dished out by women’s magazines were becoming a joke to me, and I felt I could only turn to NGOs like the UN Women and Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) for a channel to volunteer and contribute.

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In many ways, WomenTalk is the first media platform in years that I feel is authentic, credible and worth supporting. For me, it has much to do with the fact that I get where Eunice Olsen is coming from – she is authentic.

And from the videos she shared with me, and the featured women whom I met in person – like Haslinah, Lena and Pin Xiu – I knew this online portal was the media platform for women empowerment that Singapore has been waiting for. Except it extends beyond Singapore shores to include ordinary woman all across Asia!

Eunice with Haslinah, Lena and PinXiu, three inspiring women featured on WomenTalk

Eunice with Haslinah, Lena and Pin Xiu, three inspiring women featured on WomenTalk

So this was the second (and more important) reason I said ‘Yes’ to running the 5km Shape Run yesterday. Eunice had checked with me if I’d feel comfortable running in a WomenTalk t-shirt. “Only if the t-shirt is dri-fit!” I had joked.

But of course I’d be honoured to don the WomenTalk pink tee! Just as I’d been proud to don Women Make A Difference’s pink tee many years ago…

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This is my personal mission statement. It has been for years. And it anchors my CV.

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So, yesterday’s Shape Run was not only the first time I’ve put on my running shoes again after a year-and-a-half, but also the first time in a long time I’ve donned a pink tee again. It’s a reminder for me that I’m part of something bigger than myself.

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Source: Straits Times, 28 Oct 2013

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At this juncture, I want to sincerely wish my dear friend Eunice Olsen all the best with WomenTalk.

To Eunice – It’s good work you’re doing so don’t give up. I hope you know that there are people out there (like me!) who support you and believe in your vision. I hope God leads you to them on your journey, so that more can run this race with you.

Find out more about WomenTalk by clicking on this link, and share it: www.womentalktv.asia.

It’s hard to believe that the woman in traditional hijab sitting before me was younger than me. Apart from the fact that we’re both women born in the 70s, single mothers with two children and published authors, our lives were as different as night and day.

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When Fawzia Koofi was born, she was left in the sun to die.

Her mother was the second of seven wives, and she was the 19th daughter of her father. An unwanted daughter. In a culture that favoured males, her life was one episode of discrimination after another. In our hour-long conversation, she openly used that word – “discrimination” – although in her book, I don’t recall it written.

Yes, I read Fawzia’s book from cover to cover.

So just how different were our lives? In her childhood, she witnessed the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, then the Mujahideen who chased the Russians out but started a civil war that saw her father and brother brutally killed. She was 17 when the Taliban rolled into Kabul on pickup trucks…

There were many instances where she could have been killed, and Fawzia writes in her book The Favoured Daughter that she believes she was saved for a purpose.

It takes a special kind of woman to overcome the odds stacked up against her. Under the Taliban, she was not allowed to go to school, she had to wear a burqa, and be accompanied wherever she went by a male companion of blood relation.

The distinctive blue burqas of Afghan women under the Taliban

The blue burqas of Afghan women under the Taliban

But this feisty girl risked her life – amidst disapproval from her family, especially her brothers – to go to school and study English. She would never finish medical school and become a doctor (as she had hoped), but her proficiency in English and her work with children landed her a job with UNICEF.

She was then the first and only Afghan woman working full-time with the United Nations in Kabul. And her work with the U.N. brought her into the poorest communities of Afghanistan and opened her eyes to the plight of its people – especially women and children.

This led to a political awakening.

In 2005, she stood for an “internal election” within her family to be the sole representative of the Koofi family (which has a political legacy, as her father and grandfather were politicians) in the provincial elections. Despite the odds against her, Fawzia was chosen over her brother, and went on to win the elections and a place in Afghanistan’s Parliament. Soon after, she was elected Deputy Speaker of Parliament, a prominent position for an Afghan woman in politics.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of meeting Fawzia Koofi because I was invited by the Singapore Committee for UN Women to moderate a 2-hour session with her at The Arts House. The session was intended to be held at The Blue Room, but had to be shifted last minute to the Chamber at Old Parliament House because of the swelling crowds.

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Where Singapore’s Members of Parliament used to meet to debate on issues of national importance

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When she arrived at The Arts House, the audience was in the midst of an exodus; so she held my elbow and said, “Let’s have a chat.”

We found ourselves a cosy corner and talked about nothing in particular. I thought she might have wanted to define the boundaries of our conversation, but when I asked her if there were things she preferred not to talk about, she said no. Nothing was off limits.

I found myself telling Fawzia that we do have several things in common. And when I got to the part where I said I was also a single mother of two, she looked at me gently and asked, “What happened?”

For a woman who had been rushed from TV to radio interviews all morning (and looked visibly tired), she showed me kindness and concern in her personal question. Of course, I had an unfair advantage: From her book, I knew her husband had died of Tuberculosis. He’d been arrested by the Taliban countless times and beaten, and the conditions in the prisons were so bad it weakened his health. He never did recover, even with medication.

“Would you remarry?” I asked Fawzia.

She smiled and shook her head. “No, it’s a little difficult now with my life in politics.”

Just two days earlier, Fawzia had launched her Presidential campaign. She heads a political coalition called the Movement for Change in Afghanistan and will be standing for elections in 2014. She is the first woman in Afghanistan to head a political party.

But Firsts aren’t new to Fawzia Koofi.

She was the first girl in her family to go to school… the first woman in the family to enter politics… the first woman to work in the United Nations in Afghanistan… the first woman to head a political party… and if she wins in 2014, the first female President of Afghanistan.

As with all trail blazers, her life is the target of countless death threats. It’s said that there are 30 known Taliban militants who are trying to kill her. It’s no wonder. She stands up and speaks out against child marriage and violence against women in a society that’s steeped in culture and tradition and religious conservatism.

Photo credit: Arthur Kade

Photo credit: Arthur Kade

How does she deal with the reality that she could be killed at any time?

Interestingly, her book starts with a letter to her two daughters. The first words: “Today I am going on political business to Faizabad and Darwaz. I hope I will come back soon and see you again, but I have to say that perhaps I will not...”

I asked her about these letters to her daughters, scattered throughout her autography (co-written with Nadene Ghouri, an award-winning journalist and broadcaster with BBC and Al Jazeera). She confirms they are farewell letters. The truth is that she never knows when she will be assassinated, and she has to prepare her daughters for that everyday.

I can’t even begin to imagine how tough that is.

I was reminded of Aung San Suu Kyi and the internal struggle she felt too when the military junta in Myanmar made her choose between staying in Yangon to fight for democracy or to join her husband and two sons (whom she had been separated from) in England.

Aung San Suu Kyi with her family, in the early years

Aung San Suu Kyi with her family, in the early years

Aung San Suu Kyi knew then that if she left Myanmar, the junta would never let her return. And so she stayed on under house arrest. She missed out on most of her sons’ growing-up years, and she wasn’t there when her husband died of prostrate cancer.

But from my conversation with Fawzia, I understood that she was doing this for her daughters’ future. Her eyes would light up whenever she talked about them. “Shuhra wants to be the President of Afghanistan one day and Shaharzad wants to be a space engineer,” she reveals with a chuckle. “Shuhra tells me I have to be President, so that when she runs for President, she can say she was the daughter of the President!”

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But then, her fight for Afghanistan’s future is not just for her girls, but for millions of other girls in the country. Fawzia shares with pride that since the Taliban were removed from power, more girls are going to school. They still do risk their lives for an education (some walk for 2 hours to get to school), but of the 7 million children enrolled in Afghan schools today, 3 million are girls. That’s an impressive 40 percent.

IMG_6020“So I am guessing then that one of the reasons you wrote the book was to change perceptions – of Afghanistan and Afghan women,” I say to her. Even before I could finish my sentence, she was nodding vigorously.

“Afghanistan is in transition,” she asserts. “And I represent the progressives in society. Many of my young voters are on social media, and 85 percent of the country say they do not want the Taliban to come back to power. People in Afghanistan want change, but they need a strong leader who will lead them in this movement for change.”

She reiterated this point at UN Women’s S.N.O.W. gala event the night before, when she said that what Afghanistan needs now is investment in its potential – in business and its natural resources – and not for well-intentioned people to just keep throwing charity money at them.

When I asked her how we could support her in her mission, she said to spread the word – be it on social media or otherwise – about progress in Afghanistan and her commitment to further that progress through education, human rights and gender equality.

But how does she plan to do this? I found it hard to imagine how a woman without an army to support her could drive such progressive changes in a country where force and violence have traditionally been the language of change.

“Times change. In my mother’s time, women did not go to school. I had to fight to go to school. Now my daughters fight to get into the best schools!” She reasoned.

Photo credit: UN Photo/Shehzad Noorani

Photo credit: UN Photo/Shehzad Noorani

Although I wasn’t fully convinced, I could not deny the fact that I was sitting opposite this young woman in a red hijab, interviewing her in this grand Parliamentary chamber in Singapore because she was a prominent Afghan politician, human rights activist, and Presidential candidate. Would that have been possible a few years back under the Taliban?

(Photo: Leslie Lim)

Photo credit: Leslie Lim

“You initially wanted to a be a doctor. But the idea of being President of Afghanistan was mentioned several times in your book in relation to your mother,” I said towards the end of our conversation. “How much did your mother play a part in your decision to be President?”

Fawzia smiled in acknowledgement. In her eyes, I could see that she was grateful I had drawn her mother into our conversation at that point. “My mother always said I was special, that I was destined for something special. And being President of Afghanistan was her way of expressing that. That’s why it’s so important for us as parents to make our children feel special, to believe they can do and be anything.”

Without a doubt, it was an afternoon of insights. While Fawzia spoke in lofty ideals, I did not doubt that this women of Firsts could break down barriers once more and surprise the international community. After all, hasn’t it been the story of her life?

To see democracy, human rights and gender equality flourish in Afghanistan is what Fawzia Koofi lives for, and would willingly die for.

As I joined the rest in a standing ovation, all I could think of was how brave this young woman beside me was. Yes, we were similar only in surface details. Her destiny was one reserved only for someone special, someone saved for a purpose.

Photo credit: Leslie Lim

Photo credit: Leslie Lim

Fawzia Koofi was born into the world an unwanted daughter. But her journey these past 38 years has led her to a space where she has indeed embraced her fate as the favoured daughter.

And it will be a big day in Afghanistan when she does eventually lead that movement for change.

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With Afghan presidential candidate Fawzia Koofi after our UN Women session

One of my favourite subjects in school was Geography. I studied  it for 6 years, and taught it as a teacher for 3 years.

My love for the subject grew when I topped the standard at 15 and 16. It was a ‘living’ subject that ignited my imagination. I saw in my mind an amazing world outside my classroom. And it’s one of the reasons I suffer from Wanderlust today.

In those formative years, I learnt about “slash and burn” agriculture. Our case studies were all from Indonesia.

 

WHAT I KNEW

With the advent of the worst haze in Singapore’s history (PSI hit 401 on 21 June), I found myself revisiting what I learnt in those early years.

This is what I remember:

“Slash and burn agriculture is the process of cutting down the vegetation in a particular plot of land, setting fire to the remaining foliage, and using the ashes to provide nutrients to the soil for use of planting food crops. 

The cleared area following slash and burn, also known as swidden, is used for a relatively short period of time, and then left alone for a longer period of time so that vegetation can grow again. For this reason, this type of agriculture is also known as shifting cultivation.” (Source: About.com)

thumbnail-1.phpWe studied “slash and burn” as a method used by shifting cultivators. It was a form of subsistence farming. Small scale and sustainable. Practised in many parts of Southeast Asia, and widespread in Indonesia.

Back in the 1980s, these concepts were theoretical to me. I do not remember ever having to deal with the haze or having to wear a mask to school. My learning was not experiential.

Apparently, the haze problem started 40 years ago, back in 1972. My friend Michelle pointed me to a blog post that outlined specific years where the haze was particularly bad. Personally, I don’t remember much of it.

But 10-15 years ago, things changed. I started to feel the effects of this annual fires in Indonesia. But this year has been the worst in Singapore’s history, with the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hitting 401 on June 21. (>300 – hazardous)

I look back and I ask this question: What exactly has changed?

 

WHAT I KNOW 

An article in The Star has surfaced, suggesting that land ownership laws (or the lack of) in Indonesia is to blame.

Based on this article entitled ‘Why Indonesia Cannot Stop Fires and Haze‘ by Francis Ng, it’s hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers who “claim land” by burning who are to blame. He writes that until the government institutes proper land laws, this will not stop. It’s a cultural, traditional mindset.

thumbnail.php“The custom in Kalimantan is that any land cleared and occupied belongs to whoever clears and occupies it. Any land that reverts back to jungle is open to others to clear and claim. As a result, each settler clears as much land as possible although he is able to farm only a small part of it. The rest would revert back to jungle but is prevented from doing so by fires set by the settlers themselves whenever the weather is dry. So the same land is burnt year after year after year.

These are fires on low vegetation, deliberately set by hundreds of thousands of independent poor farmers who barely survive from hand to mouth, living in absolutely primitive conditions. When will it end? When somebody buys the land and converts it to permanent organised agriculture, as for growing oil palm. The land that the settlers clear and claim represent their only hope of escape from poverty.” ~ Francis Ng, The Star

He ends off his article by making this claim:

“I cannot help but suspect that the real reasons for the fires and haze were known long ago by people on the ground, but it served the purpose of the international environmental NGOs and the international news agencies to put the blame on their favourite baddies the logging and oil palm industries. So long as the problem is not examined honestly, no implementable solution is likely to be found.” ~ Francis Ng, The Star

I’ve been told by a journalist in the field that this phenomenon of “owning by burning” has been mentioned in conversations with villagers in Riau. It does happen. How widespread? We can’t be sure. Is this is the source of the haze problem? We also can’t be sure.

But the question remains for me: Has the number of peasant farmers suddenly exploded to such an uncontrollable number in the last 10-15 years that their “slash and burn” method is causing this regional problem?

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While Singapore is enjoying a temporary respite from the haze, Johor is experiencing the brunt of it right now. In Muar yesterday, the Air Pollution Index (API) hit a ridiculous 750!

(The air quality in Malaysia is reported as the API, which is based closely on the PSI. Unlike the PSI, the index number can exceed 500. Above 500, a state of emergency is declared in the reporting area. Usually, this means that non-essential government services are suspended, and all ports in the affected area closed).

“Slash and burn is a method of agriculture primarily used by tribal communities for subsistence farming (farming to survive). Humans have practiced this method for about 12,000 years, ever since the transition known as the Neolithic Revolution, the time when humans stopped hunting and gathering and started to stay put and grow crops. Today, between 200 and 500 million people, or up to 7% of the world’s population, uses slash and burn agriculture.

When used properly, slash and burn agriculture provides communities with a source of food and income. Slash and burn allows for people to farm in places where it usually is not possible because of dense vegetation, soil infertility, low soil nutrient content, uncontrollable pests, or other reasons.” (Source: About.com

12,000 years is a long, LONG time. To give this some context, I was at the Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb exhibition at the ArtScience Museum yesterday, and the mummies there were 3,000 years old. That’s Ancient Egypt. Multiply that by four.

It has been somewhat manageable – even tolerable – till today. So what has changed? What is causing hot spots in Indonesia to number several hundreds, and some larger than the size of Singapore?

There are 437 hotspots in Indonesia today, nearly double yesterday's. (Source: Channel NewsAsia)

There are 437 hotspots in Indonesia today, nearly double yesterday’s. (Source: Channel NewsAsia)

 

SIZE MATTERS 

The finger is now pointing to large companies in Indonesia with vast oil palm plantations – some larger than the size of Singapore – that are clearing their land by burning.

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Yes, it is cheaper. You set fire in the centre of the plantation and let it burn its way outwards. And with June being the hottest month in the year, this hot dry season is perfect for keeping the fires going.

ken TehI saw images of oil palms burning on Channel NewsAsia. Flames of fire licking the charred leaves and dancing from branch to branch. It’s a little curious to me that the whole tree is burning. Traditionally, farmers slash the plants first before they burn the low vegetation to clear the land.

My ex-colleague reporting from the field tells me that for some plantations, the nearby villagers say that the hot dry weather started the fires and some of the plantation owners aren’t even aware of the fires! They are desperately trying to reach them.

Maybe the situation is not as simple and straightforward as it seems. Maybe we are all trying to find one reason, one scapegoat, but maybe it’s a combination of a few.

But from aerial photos, one thing is clear: The role of the large companies cannot be overlooked or downplayed.

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Singapore has pressed Indonesia to name these companies responsible for using “slash and burn” as a method of clearing. The approach is to name-and-shame, and Malaysia is joining in to pressure Indonesia.

Cheap, primitive methods used by small subsistence farmers are being employed by these large companies on plantations the size of a small country. Now that is a scary thought.

Is the difference then.. SCALE?

Sometimes, what is meant for “subsistence” (farming to survive) should stay at the “subsistence” level. Imagine. What if businesses used dynamite fishing for profit? What would happen to our coral reefs and marine life?

Sharks fin was meant for the Emperor in Imperial China. Look what happened when businesses decided to turn this exclusive delicacy meant for royalty to food for the masses.

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Many people do not understand this, I realise. It’s not common sense.

Always. Always. It’s cents over sense.

foreign-currencyI acknowledge that there is great value in studying Economics and Mathematics – it makes one think logically in facts and figures. But without a sprinkle of common sense, such approaches can be dangerous.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that the U.S. is setting up a 54-member task force in Congress to look into boosting the Humanities and Social Sciences.

The committee includes distinguished jurists, business leaders, artists, scholars, university presidents and politicians, many of whom offer stirring testimonials on the value of their own liberal arts training. A 61-page report, entitled “The Heart of the Matter”, has also been presented in the U.S. Congress. (Source: NY Times)

I believe that without some form of Humanities education, the humanitarian balance in decision-making will be missing. And our world would be a scary place to live in.

I know I’ve raised more questions than I have answers. But I also think that while it’s important to not complicate simple matters, it’s also dangerous to simplify complex issues.

If nothing else, this is a timely wake-up call for Indonesia. And I only pray that they will respond swiftly and with compassion for their neighbours and for their own.

Every place has a colour. A predominant colour. It hits you the moment you step out of the airport.

For LA, it’s grey. For Singapore, it’s green. For Kerala, brownish-red. For Santorini, white and blue.

Cebu is a place with a myriad of colours. But instinctively, I’d say it’s blue. And “blue places” often find a highway to my heart, together with Autumn reds and oranges, and graded shades of green.

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But beyond the shades of blue, I discovered a rainbow kaleidoscope of colours that exploded in broad smiles, big hearts and techni-colour flip flops!

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I flew up to Mactan Island in Cebu with my boys last week for Project Happy Feet‘s first-ever “Resort Edition” of the PHF Slipper Race. And I wasn’t quite prepared for the rowdy enthusiasm and passion of the Cebuano people on race day!

We gathered at the ballroom of the Crimson Resort & Spa Mactan (the race organiser) at 3pm for a briefing and I was blown away by the colours. The teams of five had designed and customised their own race t-shirts, and I could tell they put in a lot of effort into doing this!

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Because Cebu had never had a PHF Slipper Race before, and because they have the distinction of being the first to organise a “Resort Edition”, they worked with no rules or restrictions regarding creativity! I think even my friends from Project Happy Feet, Terence Quek and Lin Kuek (who have planned several Slipper Races in Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City) were pleasantly surprised and moved. We all were!

Terence from PHF being interviewed by ABS-CBN, the Philippines largest news network.

Terence being interviewed by ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ largest news network.

How cute are these

While the “traditional” PHF Slipper Race is about walking 3km to 5km in flip flops, the folks at Crimson Resort & Spa Mactan added some local spice by introducing game stations along the 5km route. These pit-stops featured traditional Filipino games like Sipa, Shatong, Bato Lata etc.

Sipa - like "chatek" but using slippers to keep the feathers in the air!

Sipa – like “chatek” but using slippers to keep the feathers in the air! Usually it’s with hands.

Walking on coconut husks. Harder than heels!

Walking on coconut husks. Harder than heels!

Shatong! Using a long stick to hit a small stick from Pt A to B.

Shatong! Using a long stick to hit a small stick from Pt A to B.

Bato Lata - using your slippers (usually stones) to knock down the can!

Bato Lata – using your slippers (usually stones) to knock down a can!

Shooting baskets from 3 angles. Challenging for small people!

Basketball – Shooting from 3 angles. Challenging for little people!

But beyond all the fun and laughter, this Slipper Race is for a good cause. 100% of the funds raised through registration fees go to the beneficiary, Bantay Bata 163. I blogged about them in my previous entry – you can find out more about them here.

The highlight for me was meeting with the Programme Director of Bantay Bata 163, Ms Tina Monzon-Palma. Apart from heading this non-profit organisation, she is a prominent news anchor with ABS-CBN (the Philippines’ largest news network), anchoring the nightly news show, The World Tonight, and hosting Talkback with Tina Monzon-Palma, a weekly current affairs programme.

Ms Tina Monzon-Palma, Program Director of Bantay Bala 163.

Ms Tina Monzon-Palma, Programme Director of Bantay Bata 163.

Tina had flown in specially from Manila that morning for our lunch meeting and the PHF Slipper Race. What impressed me most about her was how much knowledge and understanding she had of the plight of underprivileged children, not just in the Philippines but also in other parts of Southeast Asia. I suppose that’s to be expected of a veteran journalist and anchorwoman.

The Singapore PHF team with Ms Tina Monzon-Palma  at Crimson Resort & Spa Mactan.

The Singapore PHF team with Ms Tina Monzon-Palma at Crimson Resort & Spa Mactan.

In fact, she has attended many international meetings with global humanitarian organisations, on behalf of Bantay Bata 163, and has opened her doors to NGOs from other countries to learn from them. In particular, she shared about fundraising efforts, alleviation of poverty in the rural villages, empowering families with micro-finanching schemes, and providing opportunities for underprivileged children and youths through education and scholarship programmes.

In particular, we asked her lots of questions about the Bantay Edukasyon Scholarship Program which we are supporting through this PHF Slipper Race. From the funds raised, we aim to support 11 children in the surrounding islands of Cebu, and put them through school.

Two of the beneficiaries of the scholarship program we are supporting

Two of the beneficiaries of the scholarship programme we are supporting.

We met two of the young people we’re sponsoring under the scholarship programme. They sat rather quietly throughout the briefing, I think a little overwhelmed by the flurry of activity and high energy in the room! *LOL* But they were respectful and polite college-aged kids on the brink of entering vocational training, in the hope that they can use their sponsored education to be independent and to support their families.

I could finally put faces to the tireless work of BB 163 and PHF, and that was heartwarming.

As race organiser, Crimson Resort & Spa Mactan did a fabulous job getting sponsors for everything – one of the stipulations of PHF races. Check out the scale of their endeavour!

Each race pack has a pair of flip flops, all sponsored.

Each race pack has a pair of flip flops, all sponsored.

Post-race party at the Crimson Resort beach.

Post-race party at the Crimson Resort beach.

Sponsored prizes... Havaianas slippers!

Sponsored prizes – Havaianas!

A whiff of BBQ meats filled the air!

A whiff of BBQ meats!

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As the day drew to a close and the sun dipped below the horizon, the team at Crimson Resort & Spa Mactan and Project Happy Feet presented a cheque to Bantay Bata 163. What a privilege to have been a part of this – especially with my boys!

James (GM, Crimson) and Terence presenting the cheque to Tina Monzon-Palma.

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And so, Cebu turned out to be more than just the colour blue for me. It was a prism of pretty colours!

That night, against a navy blue sky, I saw a full moon rise from the horizon to take its place in the sky – the first time I’d ever seen such a phenomenon. It made me realise that it’s not just the sun that rises. The moon can too.

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I’ve always believed that from poverty and hardship, goodness and kindness always arises from somewhere. Sometimes from the most unexpected places.

And that day in Cebu, I saw it.

*The next PHF Slipper Race happens on 31 Aug 2013 in Singapore. Look out for details, here