Category Archives: Letters from Ulu Kinta

Perak’s Shameful Statistic

By Mariam Mokhtar

Every day in Perak, around 10 women or children, fall victim to domestic violence. On November 1, it was reported that 97% of the 3,600 cases of violence against women, children and babies in the previous year, were perpetrated by men. Wanita Umno chief, Rosnah Kassim said, “Something must be done to curb the increasing trend of cases in the state.”

Repeated Cycle
Earlier in the year, on May 5, Dr. Sharifah Halimah Jaafar said that ‘there were still people who see domestic violence as trivial…. to be settled privately between husband and wife’. She said, “Cases of women being beaten up by their husbands are not a one-off matter. It is a cycle that has happened many times.” Despite various public awareness campaigns, men continue to treat their wives as personal chattels, to treat as they please and to discard at their leisure.

Grim Statistics
In a report compiled by the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), with data sourced from the police, the figures make grim reading.

Every year the police receive in excess of 3,000 reports of domestic violence. Apart from a dip in 2002 and 2003 which could be attributed to increased awareness or possibly under-reporting, the trend of attacks against women is on the rise. The same occurs for rape, incest and child abuse. Nevertheless, few people realise that the figures compiled refer to reported cases only. The true figure is higher.

Mammoth Task
If Wanita Umno reported that Perak has the most cases of violence, then the task that is faced by women’s organisations such as the Perak Women for Women (PWW) is a mammoth one. On October 31, the PWW held the ‘Men against violence campaign’ at the Polo Ground in Ipoh. There were various activities and free ice-cream for participants.

The aim was to increase awareness among the public, and include men and families, in the day’s event. The irony of this campaign was that it was the women who organised, managed and ran the event, for which the men’s contribution was to either officiate or join in the activities.

Domestic Violence Act
Many women have not heard of the Domestic Violence Act (DVA) 1994 which says that domestic violence is a crime punishable by law. Besides their ignorance, women are reluctant to lodge police-reports. They fear being humiliated, ridiculed or even blamed for the violence. They fear for their future if the only breadwinner in the family – the man, is jailed. Others fear for their children’s safety. Although 3,600 cases were reported in Perak last year, the chances are that more women are affected.

Violence against women includes domestic violence, rape, sexual violence, sexual harassment, trafficking and sexual exploitation. Most of the time, this violence is committed by men who are in a close relationship with the women, or who are known to them. These women suffer bruising, broken limbs, miscarriages, mental and physical scars, risk of pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases or HIV/AIDS. Some women die from the attacks.

Great Losses Incurred
The damage in human and economic terms is also great. Loss of income, hospitalisation, medical treatment, family care, incapacitation, disability, deprivation and absence from work or school, are some of the ways the violence manifests itself.

Unfortunately, our culture can stand in the way of helping these abused women. Ours is a male-dominated society where women are afraid or are reluctant to report such crimes, thus bringing further shame onto the family. Many children may also witness the abuse of their mothers or sisters, but are afraid of reporting when threatened by the perpetrators.

The way forward is for the community to realise that women who are abused are protected by the law. Promotional campaigns, information leaflets in hospitals, clinics, community halls, places of worship and education in schools, all help. People must be prepared to come forward and report any suspected cases of abuse either in their own family or community.

We must break the social taboos and speak out against the violence towards women because to keep silent means that their suffering will continue unabated. Ours should be a vision of a society where our womenfolk can lead a normal life free from violence or even the threat of violence.

Did the Orang Asli Help Invent the Diesel Engine?

By Mariam Mokhtar

Who would have thought that the principle behind the fire-piston or api-lantak, once widely used by the Orang Asli to make fire, was adopted by Rudolf Diesel to invent the Diesel engine?

Most Orang Asli make fire by two methods – friction, rubbing two sticks together or percussion, striking stone on stone. The Jakun and Semalai are more sophisticated and use an ingenious device called the fire-piston or as it is commonly known in Malay, api-lantak.

Since prehistoric times, the fire-piston has been used as a means of kindling fire and is found in communities where the blowpipe is used as a weapon. The fire-piston may have developed out of blowpipe construction.

Precision Engineering

These Orang Asli understood the behaviour of gases and used precision engineering to produce the fire-pistons.  The fire-piston consists of two pieces – the plunger (piston) and the base (cylinder). The base is a hollow cylinder about 3 to 6 inches long, with a bore of 0.25 inches diameter. It is sealed at one end and open at the other. The plunger (piston) fits nicely in the base. The plunger has a handle so that a firm grip can be applied to it. A recess to place the tinder is bored out from the front of the plunger. An ‘O’ ring made from natural fibres, moistened with water, or fat, ensures an air-tight seal.

When the piston is quickly rammed into the cylinder, the compression of the air raises the interior temperature to 300 deg C, to ignite the tinder. The piston is then quickly withdrawn and the smouldering tinder transferred to a nest of combustible material of wood shavings, dried fibres or leaves and fanned slightly, to create a flame. A proper fire can then be started with bigger kindling material.

Fire-pistons have been made from wood, animal horns, elephant ivory or bamboo. A commonly used wood is the tempinis (Streblus elongatus). Material for the tinder is fuzz from the young leaves of the tukas or Fish Tail palm (Caryota mitis). The seal or the ‘O’ ring is from the terap fibre (Artocarpus elasticus).

From Demo to Patent

In 1871, Professor Carl von Linde, a physicist and head of the Thermodynamics Laboratory of the Technical University of Munich, toured the Far-East and stopped in Penang to deliver a talk. A fire-piston was presented to him as a souvenir, and told that it came from the indigenous peoples in the peninsula.

When the professor returned to Germany, he had a “show-and-tell” demonstration and used the fire-piston to light a cigarette. One student, a young man called Rudolf Diesel sat enthralled. Europeans then, were competing to develop the internal combustion engine and the automobile. The rest, as they say, is history for Diesel successfully applied for the patent in Britain and Germany and invented the world’s first self-ignition internal combustion engine.

OA Inspiration

Thus, it was the Orang Asli’s api-lantak technology which inspired Diesel. The fire-piston can be used one-handed, requires minimum physical effort and is not weather dependent – it can be used to make fires wherever and whenever. The principle is simple – compression of air. One thrust of the piston is all that it takes to instanta-neously ignite tinder.

Research tells us that the api-lantak disappeared as matches, and later lighters, were introduced into the Orang Asli communities. There was a brief resurgence when the Orang Asli were driven deeper into the jungles during the Japanese occupation because the men lacked matches to light their much needed cigarettes.

Tragedy of Modern Culture

Sadly, few, young Orang Asli are interested in the older methods. Even museums in Perak, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore have no fire-pistons on exhibit. Three are on display in a Jakarta museum.

The shame is that there is neither appreciation nor recognition of this simple yet scientific but sophisticated tool in our culture. It is left to western enthusiasts and hobbyists, wood-crafters, pyrologists and bush-crafters to be enthusiastic about this ancient heritage and tradition of the Jakun and Semalai.

That is the greater tragedy. We live in an age where access to information and technology is greater than before but in our desire to adopt modern technology, we allow memories of the past to slide past us.

Those interested in how an api-lantak is constructed may go to the following websites:

The Sarawak Connection


Sarawak, or “Land of the Hornbills”, is a place which evokes romance and adventure. The White Rajahs, Borneo headhunters, nipah lowlands, Niah and Mulu caves, are pleasant reminders of a vast green country. On the downside are the displaced peoples, the destruction of the rainforest and oil palm plantations stretching into the horizon. Sarawak is where several indigenous people come from, but few realise that Ipoh is also home to around 500 Sarawakians.

The Ibans
The Ibans are very hospitable and fearless. They are simple, yet adventurous, and the males pursue the tradition of bejalai – a walkabout or ‘travelling long distances in search of work and adventure’. Back in the longhouses, Ibans lead a democratic life based on communal sharing and a noble tradition of kinship. They have deep respect for the jungle, the land and supernatural forces.

In Ipoh, the Ibans belong to the Ranger battalion at Camp Syed Putra, the ancillary units of the army brigade and the General Operation Force Northern Brigade in Ulu Kinta.

Ujang was born in Ipoh, twenty three years ago.

His father was an Iban commando with Vat 69 (Very Able Troopers 69) of the Northern Brigade.

VAT69 is modelled after the British Special Air Service Regiment and formed in 1969 to counter the communist terrorist threats prevalent then.

Apart from 5 years, when his father was transferred back to Sarawak, Ujang has been in Ipoh all his life. He received his primary schooling at Sekolah Chung Hwa and speaks the Iban language, Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese and English.

Ujang’s fondest memories are of life in Ulu Kinta: “My friends and I would explore the countryside, setting traps for birds or small animals. Sometimes, we’d fish. Hunting reminded us of the jungles back in Sarawak.”

He compares his outdoor thrills with the children of today, who prefer computer games and are missing out on the best years of their life.

The Future
As a young adult, he worries about his future: “Life is difficult in Sarawak. Ibans are not business minded. After toiling in the fields, I cannot understand why we exchange our home-grown padi for the one the Chinese trader sells in his shop. Isn’t our own produce superior? Why not exchange our crops for essential goods instead?”

Other young Ibans, he claims, share his views, “There’re few jobs in Sarawak. The wages are low. A day’s work at the sawmill will bring between RM8 and RM12. There are few opportunities available and so we migrate to Semenanjung.”

Ipoh is Home
“I was born in Ipoh. My friends are here. Ipoh is my home. The older people may miss Sarawak, but the younger Ibans love it here.”

Ujang remembers the Sunday services at St. John’s Church in Jalan St. John and the Iban community spirit of his childhood: “We looked forward to Sundays. The Iban would berkumpul for a big makan, after church. The family unit is very important.”

“Nowadays, we hardly mix. People keep to themselves. The young ones refuse to speak Iban at home. We are losing our kebudayaan.”

Lack of an Iban voice
Ujang has another reason to be sad: “There is no Iban voice in Ipoh. Even if the Iban population is transient, our children must not forget our traditions.”

He brightens up, remembering how Sarawakians from the army and police camps used to (but no longer do) interact during Gawai celebrations. “There was plentiful tuak and bamboo chicken pansuh to feast on. The highlights were the ngajat (ceremonial warrior dance) and the kumang gawai (beauty contest).”

He looks into the distance and says, “Like most Ibans, I am musically inclined and play the guitar and drums but not the traditional instruments. My warrior spirit is still with me but I have modern skills in taekwondo and muay thai.”

Calling All Ibans
This young man, who also excels in rugby and football, asks, “Do you think an enterprising Iban might form an association so young Ibans can be in touch with their roots? If we don’t do something soon, I fear our social values and culture will become extinct.”

Mariam Mokhtar

WAIT….Until you Are Ready


Or the Importance of Sex Education

The rate of teenage pregnancies and abandoned babies nationwide is alarming. Ipoh is not immune to this and while our community leaders, experts, police and NGOs debate about how to resolve this issue, babies continue to be dumped.

Many see sex education as a means of empowering young teenagers or inexperienced couples. Information is power and giving these people informed choices is one solution.

Sex education is not about free sex but it educates the young person about his or her body, importance of responsible relationships, the consequences of having unplanned and unprotected sex, what contraceptives do, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDs and how to say “No”.

Parental interaction, the family unit, upbringing, poverty, discipline, education and peer pressure contribute to the problem. So it is incorrect to say that the abandoned baby problem is because of exposure to pornography or the celebrations at New Year and Valentine’s Day.

Babies have been abandoned long before the existence of blue movies or easy access to pornographic literature and the problem is certainly not seasonal.

Detailed Study Needed
We do require a detailed study into the reasons why girls and women fall pregnant without planning for it. Statistics will also show whether the problem is happening within a certain age group, race, religion, educational attainment and job type. Statistics will also uncover how widespread the problem is, for example, is it 1 in 5 girls or is it 1 in 20 girls.

In the past, problems like these were swept under the carpet. Today, increased and better reporting may have added to the alarm.

Punishment Not the Answer
What we should not do is call for capital punishment for the mothers of abandoned babies. Babies could have been still-born or the mother who is already traumatised by giving birth, and rejected by her lover, could have panicked knowing how her family and society views unmarried mothers.

It takes two to tango. The man is also responsible for the act. He is also culpable; and castration is not the answer, as has been suggested by a politician.

In the long run, sex education must be given to our children.

Where to Go For Help
Meanwhile, there are various organisations which can help, such as the Perak Family Health Association (PFHA), an NGO which gives confidential advice to teenagers or couples (both married and unmarried) seeking information on sex and family planning. (An interview with the Manager of the PFHA will be published in the next issue.)

For those who may be too late for this advice, there is a baby hatch at the Ipoh Specialist Centre in Ipoh, which was set up after the plight of an abandoned baby was highlighted in a national newspaper (“Family: Baby Masya, the miracle baby” 24/07/2010 in NST).

NOTE: A quick telephone call to the four main private hospitals to enquire whether they have a baby hatch, or will be starting ‘baby hatch’ facilities, produced disappointing results. One hospital even thought I wanted a baby ‘hat,’ presumably to keep the baby’s head warm.
1. Ipoh Specialist Hospital’s receptionist did not answer the ‘phone immediately and only answered after I had to wait several minutes on the only successful try. The telephone operator’s response was that she did not know what a ‘baby hatch’ was. (Incredibly this was the one hospital that was reported to have a baby hatch in its A&E facilities. The baby hatch is a cot placed in an area, which is not covered by CCTV. A sensor triggers staff nearby, once a baby is put into it.)
2. The Fatimah Hospital switchboard also did not know what a baby hatch was and redirected me to ‘Accident and Emergency’. They told me that they had no plans as yet for a baby hatch.
3. The Kinta Medical Centre telephonist redirected me to the maternity ward and they asked me to call the following day to speak to the sister.
4. The Pantai Hospital Ipoh also did not know what I was talking about and redirected me to the maternity ward, where I was kept on hold for some minutes until someone ‘senior’ could talk to me. Again, I was told to ‘phone the next day to speak to a sister’.

All in all, these four hospitals would have given a very discouraging experience for a young, traumatised mother. The inadequate and unhelpful first line of enquiry (the telephone operator), would have put these young girls off. It may help explain why we have babies dumped in bins. Any help given must be easily available, and straightforward. The people at the first line of enquiry must be well-informed.


Courtesy, Courage and Discipline


An uncle of mine used to jog the two kilometres to his favourite nasi lemak stall, wash two ‘bungkus’ of nasi lemak down with teh tarik, then telephone his son to fetch him home, in the car. That was his ‘morning exercise’.

My friends promptly pay their monthly gym fees, but have yet to attend their fitness class. This is after new purchases of track suit, trainers, headband and other accessories to look good.

The above are classic examples of ‘keep-fit’ Malaysian style.
I am just as bad. At my first ‘free trial’ in the gym, all went well, until the instructor showing me how the gym equipment worked, asked me to do abdominal crunches on the exercise mat. The thought of wallowing in someone else’s salty and sticky sweat, on the glistening, smelly and damp mat, prompted a hurried exit. I never returned.

Soon after, I joined my children in their martial-arts class. It seemed pointless dropping them off and picking them up after an hour. So, I killed two birds with one stone, killed time and killed the urge to snack whilst waiting. I was happy; they were not. However, the possibility of sparring with me and kicking my butt seemed attractive. They reluctantly acquiesced.

I wasn’t alone. Another mother joined because her children were in the class. An older lady, a grandmother, in her late sixties, also enrolled.

Anyone would think the instructor had difficulty controlling the younger children. No. He had trouble with the older women. We had an opinion about everything….from recipes, the children, work related issues, husbands, boy-friends, mutual friends….anything! It was fun – like being back at school.

“Sir”, our young instructor, probably felt uncomfortable admonishing us. He warned the class, that we would do 10 push-ups and 10 laps around the training area, each time anyone chatted.

It worked. Everyone suffered and we became unpopular. But being older, we were the first to tire from the punishment. We quickly emerged as model, quiet, students.

Training with a wide age range, is stimulating, encouraging and a good way to keep fit whilst learning something new – the art of self-defence.

It is also good discipline and as I progressed, the mental and spiritual focus helped me free my mind of outside influences, helped me achieve my goals, relieve stress and manage anxiety. Most important was that I found a renewed confidence.

We trained in Sir’s garden. The grass suffered but it was nice in the open air, with the surrounding trees and the backdrop of Ipoh’s blue-green hills.

Best of all, we persevered and completed our successive gradings. Several months later, we received our certificates and belts.

We made “Sir” proud. His words of advice still ring in our ears, “The greatest warrior is the one who need never unsheathe his blade.”

He told us that our hands and feet were our weapons and that we were never to use them to ‘show off’ or to get into a fight.

When faced with a confrontational situation, he told us to simply walk away. It is as Sun Tzu said in the ‘Art of War’: “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the greatest skill.” It is about courtesy, courage and self-control.

Soon after, we all parted company.

Recently, I was told that “Sir” had opened two martial-arts outlets: A taekwondo academy in Bandar Baru Medan and a muay thai academy in Tambun. We have yet to locate him and offer our congratulations.

Who is “Sir”?

He is none other than Bernard Radin, a Sarawakian of German-Iban parentage who has made Ipoh his home. He was once a problem child picking fights with his peers. The commando instructors in Ulu Kinta became his mentors and confidantes. They moulded him into a martial arts success. He is a Malaysian champion, with medals and trophies from his triumphs, worldwide.

“Sir” may be grateful to the commandos for giving him his self-respect. The community is grateful to “Sir” for helping ‘troubled’ children gain dignity and discipline through martial-arts. We are grateful to “Sir” for his sense of humour, his patience and placing his trust in us.


One of Perak’s Greatest


Few will have heard of him but his name is V. Murugeson and he died on 11 July 2010 after a short illness.

Murugeson had been the earliest distributor of The Star in Lumut when the newspaper was first published in 1971. His son said, “When he started out as a vendor in the early 50s, a newspaper only cost 5 sen and was shared by several families”.

In the intervening years, other publications have entered the market. The papers have sections and are several pages long. The cost of each is many times what it was in 1971. Online newspapers have also taken off, leading to a decline in printed newspaper sales.

Murugeson was special because he had scored two ‘firsts’: He was one of our country’s pioneer newspaper vendors; he was also 100 years old. But it is his message that we should treasure most. Murugeson used to stress the importance of reading to his nine children.

People like Murugeson are a dwindling breed. At one time, they were a familiar sight on our roads, with papers piled high behind them, almost dwarfing them.

I didn’t know Murugeson, but I do know our newspaper vendor very well. His name is Morgan and he took over from his father who is too old to ride the motorbike and so mans their family-run shop.

Morgan rises before dawn, collects newspapers from distributors and delivers them to subscribers, every morning, come rain or shine. Vendors, like him, promptly bring the news to us, at the breakfast table.

Although Morgan would never reveal the actual figure for the newspapers he sells, he would hint that it was in the thousands, “Oh, ribu-ribu ada”. The ‘territory’ he covers probably means he chalks up around 15-20 km per day.

Morgan doesn’t just deliver newspapers. His other unofficial role is to relay ‘neighbourhood information’. He would know if Miss “X” was staying over at her boy-friend’s or if Mrs “Y’s” son was still having marital problems, or if the wife of Mr “X” was away – the telltale sign was the ‘visitor’s’ car which blocked Morgan’s access to the letter box.

Morgan always finds time for a quick gossip but he is equally informed about developments taking place in the country and is able to make an acute analysis of current events.

Unfortunately, most of us are unaware and unappreciative of the contributions that our newspaper vendors make. These men may not have any tertiary qualifications but they are good, honest and hardworking.

They are up around 4 a.m., in all sorts of weather, to collect their newspapers from the appointed distribution centres. After pre-sorting them, they are off on their rounds.

By 9 a.m. they will take a short break for breakfast but resume work to deliver the afternoon papers, the distribution of magazines and other publications, like the Ipoh Echo, for a small number of clients. Their work is only over in the afternoon, after which time they may go home to spend time with the family, or in Morgan’s case, help out in the shop.

At the end of the month, they issue the invoice to each household and collect payment. Some households promptly settle the bill; others require a few additional visits.

Morgan tells me that the stresses in his job are high as some of his colleagues elsewhere have been victims of street gangs who target them in the early morning. He says that business is also slow as more people are sourcing their news on-line.

He rarely goes on vacation and says that he has only four days of holiday each year. When asked if he would choose another vocation if he had the choice, he says, “I wouldn’t change anything”.

The older generation like my parents, are not internet-savvy and consider Morgan’s service invaluable. The newspaper he delivers is their lifeline to the outside world.

Our family considers Morgan special. Our continued friendship, which started off with his father and now him, extends to festival days. Morgan’s wife, Maliga, who makes excellent putu mayam (string hoppers), supplies our household with this delicacy for Hari Raya or birthday parties.

Who says newspaper vendors are only good for news?

Ipoh: My Kind of Town


The following are my reasons to tempt my friends and family to visit Ipoh. Why not check yours out!

Why Ipoh?

Ipoh is a great, compact city – it has everything you need, but packs it all into a very manageable size. It’s a gourmand and nature-lover’s paradise.  Escaping to the many attractions like the beach, the hill resorts, mangrove reserve and the caves in the limestone outcrops, are all within an hour’s reach. Overseas friends enjoy the agritourism that is easily accessible.

What Do You Miss Most when you’re Away?

Reading the newspapers over a kopi tarik while waiting for my breakfast of roti canai or tosai, followed by char kway teow, in a coffee-shop.

What’s The First Thing You Do When You Return?

I go out to find some excellent local food. First stop, Funny Mountain Soya Bean in Jalan Theatre for tau fu fah. If I am up early, fresh toddy from a nursery in Gunung Rapat – it’s for medicinal purposes.

Where’s The Best Place To Stay?

Ipoh has a range of hotels from budget to boutique hotels.

Where Would You Meet Friends For A Drink?

At dusk, the Iskandar Polo Club for the stunning views of the multi-coloured hues of the setting sun against a backdrop of the limestone hills. It is “Members Only” so hang around the paddocks or clubhouse for an invitation.

Or Berlin’s Bier Houz in Greentown’s Business Centre for a selection of imported German beers.

Where Are Your Favourite Places For Lunch?

I hate places with slow service or loud music. The following are favourite haunts: Moven Peak in the centre of Ipoh, Hollywood Restoran in Canning Garden, Simpang Tiga for Indonesian cuisine, banana-leaf and duck curry in Samy’s Restoran in Chemor. Or for curry mee, try Keng Nam coffee-shop. Or just join any queue in front of a noodle shop at lunchtime. I’ve never been disappointed.

And For Dinner?

The food courts at about 6 p.m. No vendors have a greater understanding of food than those in Ipoh. They are dotted around town. No trip to Ipoh is complete without a sample of Ipoh Chicken taugeh, for supper. Almost all of Ipoh’s food places are excellent value – from RM3.00 a dish.

Where Would You Send A First-Time Visitor?

Emerald Lake, just past Jalan Kuala Kangsar Ipoh. For a walk, try the Heritage Trail for an interesting trip into memory lane, past architectural structures with fascinating origins. To the Gunung Rapat market on a Saturday morning for the sights, sounds and smells of a typical bustling market whilst being serenaded by the music played by musicians from a nearby home for the Blind. Wander the traditional medicine lanes in old town where dried seafood, ginseng and bird’s nests tickle the senses from open-fronted shops. There are several interesting shops around the main market in the centre of the city  that specialise in various products such as those that make the lion’s heads, in lion dancing.

Or have a day out to visit the Sam Poh Tong caves, Gua Tempurung, and Matang Mangrove Reserve.

What Would You Tell Them To Avoid?

Public toilets.

Public Transport or Taxi?

Public transport is very bad in Ipoh, but without a car, there is little choice but to use the taxis. They are not cheap anymore and the minimum charge may be RM10. Taxis never use the meter so a price has to be negotiated at the start of the journey. Be prepared to pick up additional passengers on the way to your destination.

Handbag or Moneybelt?

Definitely moneybelt. There are several reports of bag-snatching by people on motorbikes: be vigilant everywhere, keep your bags in sight always, and be careful when walking along the kerb. Be streetwise.

What Should I Take Home?

Pomeloes from the pomelo stalls opposite the Sam Poh Tong cave temple, groundnuts from Menglembu, kicap cair Cap Budak Terbang and kicap pekat Cap Orkid, available from most grocery shops, wooden clogs from the main market and bespoke suits from Sin Tit tailor along Jalan Brewster.

And If I’ve Only Time for One Shop?

If in the centre of Ipoh, head to Parkson Grand, where you’ll find all the top brands under one roof. Or else, try Jusco, in the outskirts.


The Beauty of Bukit Larut


Isabella Bird, the Victorian lady, described in ‘The Golden Chersonese’ the beautiful Perak countryside when she visited Malaya in 1879. She was on an expedition and stayed with the Assistant Resident of Perak, William Edward Maxwell in Taiping. Maxwell Hill, or Bukit Larut as it is now called, was named after him.

Isabella Bird wrote about the ‘bracing air’ and ‘the cool nights’. She was fascinated by the trees and plants in the jungle. She was excited that in a day’s journey she counted one hundred and twenty-six different trees and shrubs, fifty-three trailers, seventeen epiphytes and twenty-eight ferns. She described the butterflies, colourful birds, orchids and flowers. She was enthralled by the colour schemes of the flora and fauna as well as the swirling mists and multi-coloured hues of the sky above the jungle.

Her journey through the hills of Taiping and the surrounding countryside was undertaken over 130 years ago. We are proud that Malaysia is blessed with an abundance of natural attractions. We have locations that are so wild and barren, or extensive in their spread, or simply awesome in their isolation. For those who have visited these places, all are affected in one way or another. Very few are unmoved by their beauty. The vast majority leave with greater respect for God’s power and the frailty of man.

News of a cable car project up Bukit Larut is the latest announcement for Perak. Should we treat this disclosure as a masterpiece, or a misguided act?

A constant stream of day-trippers will have dire consequences on the fragile ecosystem. We may not feel directly involved in the destruction of the natural beauty, but have we not heard or even experienced ourselves, how other hill stations have lost their charm? They have become too commercialised, polluted, congested, too big and too warm. Litter is another problem. We want progress, but ignore its downside. And we are only too aware of the state’s ‘tight restrictions’ and ‘strict requirements’, or rather their lack of regulating these.

Once Bukit Larut has been ‘modernised’, with food outlets and other amenities for our instant entertainment and gratification, the destruction will be hastened. Sadly, our children and grandchildren will never fully enjoy nor appreciate what was once a heaven on earth.

Why can’t the existing facilities be smartened up? Begonias, thunbergias, daisies and ferns all of which Isabella mentions, or other native flowers could be grown in abundance. Why not make the hill a focal point for gardeners with terraced or landscaped gardens and the sale of seeds or cultivated bulbs as a crowd puller? Preserve the beauty but provide jobs, too.

Another attraction is to serve English teas, as it should be, with scones and strawberry jam, a delightful array of cakes and delicate sandwiches, served with favourite English teas such as Earl Grey or Assam. Not mee goreng or cucur bawang or pisang goreng! Maxwell Hill was a retreat for the expatriate community and still is a haven for nature lovers. Don’t destroy the reasons which made it famous but instead work on improving these positive points.

Taiping is the wettest place in Peninsular Malaysia. The hills above it are constantly shrouded in mist and cloud. Similarly, the reasons for championing this cable car project up Bukit Larut are also unclear.

Isabella Bird marvelled at our magical countryside. Between then and now, who knows how many species of flora and fauna have been destroyed? Sadly, at the rate we are going, it is possible that much of that richness and beauty may not be around for our grandchildren to enjoy.


Celebrities Are Not Enough


Ipoh’s Michelle Yeoh was appointed Malaysia’s reading ambassador to promote the Information, Communication and Culture Ministry’s “Come and Read 1Malaysia” campaign. She is another high profile personality, after Malaysia’s first astronaut, to give talks on reading, in schools.

Do we really need celebrities to be our reading ambassadors? Are we only motivated when famous people are involved?  How accessible will Michelle be because only a few select schools will be graced by her presence? Shouldn’t the biggest encouragement come from us, the parents within the home?

Young readers are stimulated only when their parents read books, value reading and have ample reading material at home. It is pointless hiding a book away or placing it on the highest shelf. Books need to be visible and within children’s reach. Young readers also need easy access to interesting books at affordable prices.

Bookstores and newsagents are not the only source of books. True, new books are expensive. But dotted around Ipoh are good, second-hand bookstores. And one can always find good bargains on Ebay or good internet booksites.

We have libraries in our major towns. We do need more of them, preferably with a wider selection of books. Sometimes the attitude of the staff can be off-putting as they tend to place extra emphasis on dress code, rather than interest in books.

Some clubs like the Ipoh Swimming Club and Royal Ipoh Club have good libraries. Schools, or at least our Main Convent Ipoh, once had a well-stocked library with interesting books ranging from cooking to collecting as a hobby. We could borrow books during our activity period but sadly, many parents claim that few schools have this library facility, if at all.

Book exchange is a pretty inexpensive way of owning many titles without the cost of paying for new books. Another source of inexpensive books is the budget hotels which are frequented by westerners. These tourists travel with a handful of books which they donate to the hotel, on departure. These inexpensive books can be purchased from the hotel owner, usually for 50 sens.

As always, it is the simple ideas that work best especially when trying to promote anything, even reading. If we were to read ourselves then we set a good example to our children. It shows the child that the parent has chosen an activity which is enjoyable. Children are then more likely to develop the same habit.

Books make great gifts for birthdays, celebrations, or for taking on vacation. We should encourage our children to choose books as gifts to important people in their lives, and also to value the books they receive as gifts.

We could make reading fun for our children and act out stories, by using different voices. To deliver a story in a boring voice will kill any enthusiasm for reading, however exciting the story.

If we read a lot, we encourage independent readers to read as well. When we ask them about what they are reading, we engage them in conversation and stimulate interest in their subject.

It is best to turn off the television to provide ‘quiet time’. Television harms the developing young child and turning the television off, forces the child to seek alternative things to do, like reading.

Other ideas are making weekly or fortnightly trips to the library so that children look forward to borrowing new books. Also, books on CD or tape can be played when on long trips.

Encouraging reading in children is easy. The pleasures from being absorbed in a good story are plentiful and can only benefit both children and their parents. Thus, celebrities need not apply.


Wishing You Weren’t Here?


Ask anyone about Ipoh and 99% of them will say it is a boring place. How can the scene of political struggles, of nature at one’s doorstep, of a place where the people can still find time for you, be termed boring? Maybe the young and dynamic crave better shopping malls, or a meaningful outlet for their creative energy. Maybe these people need the cities, for jobs or opportunities which are unavailable here. Ipoh boring? No. Laid back? Yes.

‘Boring Ipoh’ is the least of our problems. But, to be bored is a state of mind, just like happiness. You make the best of what you have and Ipoh can sometimes appear as a cultural desert, a place lacking taste, with too much kitsch and no style.

A Landfill Site?

Certainly, a travel brochure for Ipoh could describe it as the holiday equivalent of visiting a landfill site.

One need not visit Ipoh to notice the dirty sights, horrendous smells and nerve wracking sounds. One only has to read the Ipoh Echo for the readers’ views about how this once beautiful city has become a big rubbish dump.

We may moan about the choked roads during peak hours, or the state of the football team or the lack of a good transport system, but how will Ipoh compare in a ranking of Malaysian towns or cities in which to live?

Ipohites are proud folk and would react angrily if we were ranked somewhere at the bottom of this fictitious list. Haven’t we the best and cheapest food in the country? Our roads are not incessantly clogged like the urban areas elsewhere, and isn’t our atmosphere relatively unpolluted?

Our Icons

We may grumble about migrant labour, unemployment and the lack of culture (plays, theatre groups, etc.), Or get annoyed with suggestions that the big white ‘IPOH’ sign at two exits on the north-south highway is the closest we’ll ever get to Hollywood. But hang on; we have our very own Bond Girl, Michelle Yeoh and another budding actress, Christy Yow. And we’ve been fortunate to welcome foreign stars like Jodie Foster and Catherine Deneuve.

We probably have more colonial buildings in use and our shopping malls may not be as fantastic as Kuala Lumpur’s. A sprinkling of small shops, such as the rotan shops, or shops that make the heads for the lions in the lion dance, still fascinate many a visitor. A sizeable number of typical groceries (kedai runcit) exhibit an air of authenticity (just like in our granny’s day), though they are fast disappearing. The gentleman barber shops manage to snip men’s hair just like in our grandfather’s time. And our wet markets continue to have the same smells, sounds and sights.

Just like any other city, Ipoh is lovely in many parts but it has its downsides. Litter is a massive problem, as the Ipoh Echo never tires to reveal. Wouldn’t we love to blame our council entirely but half the problem is our own apathy. This paper too has revealed that the inhabitants of certain parts of town have no pride in their surrounding areas and are responsible for rubbish piles that mushroom overnight.

Shape Up or Ship Out

But why? This city has a lot going for it and it has some of the friendliest people in the country. We’d all love to say to those people who want to sully our good name – get a life!

Ipoh has got everything anyone would need from a city and we love it here. So if you want to be part of this great place, you’ll just have to shape up.