23 November 2013

Here, you are surrounded by optimistic and enthusiastic young people with the zeal to do well not only in China, but in the globalised world.
I JUST took a short trip to Beijing to attend a conference on women. It has been seven years since my last trip and 28 years since my first. In 1985, China was gingerly opening up to the world. People still wore blue Mao jackets and rode around mostly on bicycles. There were few hotels of the standard we were used to in Malaysia.
Today, so little of that Beijing remains. Tall glittery skyscrapers abound. Shopping malls carry every type of international luxury brand and people dressed as if they had just walked out of the pages of Vogue China that just celebrated its 100th edition by commissioning the photographer Mario Testino to shoot the entire issue.
Sitting at the French bakery chain Comptoirs du France, I saw a fashionable young couple walk by with their miniature dog. The dog wore a Chanel sweater....
When I arrived at the vast modern Beijing Capital airport, a young volunteer from the conference received me. She was a graduate student at Beijing University, spoke perfect English and was extremely efficient in getting me to my hotel and comfortably settled.
In fact, throughout the conference, a whole bevy of eager young volunteers shepherded us through the programme with remarkable efficiency, politeness and charm. Whenever a special request was made, they followed through until it was fulfilled.
I also met some impressive young female entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. There is now a generation of young Chinese who had been educated abroad and who are returning to start their own businesses or head companies.
The head of McKinsey in China is a Beijing-born woman as is the head of SK China, South Korea’s third largest company. Additionally, young women are using their cosmopolitan education to start businesses. The organiser of the conference was a 27-year-old former chess champion born in Chengdu.
Another 27-year-old has combined the experience of her education at both a Swiss finishing school and Harvard Business School to start a business giving etiquette lessons to Chinese wanting to venture out into the world beyond their own country. They have an acute sense that to succeed in this globalised world, they need to discard provincial habits and tastes.
The most impressive person I met, however, was Zhang, a taxi driver. I hopped into his taxi at my hotel and asked him to take me to Panjiayuan, the flea market. Taxis in Beijing are very clean and neat except that they tend to smell of cigarettes. But they are safe and as long as you get someone to explain to the taxi driver where you want to go in Mandarin, you will get there in one piece.
So I was not expecting Zhang to turn round and wish me a good afternoon. It turned out Zhang spoke pretty decent English. When I asked him why, he said he decided to learn it because he wanted to communicate with his international passengers and he loved to practise with them.
Indeed, Zhang proved to be a gem, not only did he take me to the flea market and wait until I was done but he also took me to find some other items I was looking for, drove me around Tiananmen Square so I could take photos and then took me back to my hotel, all the while chatting merrily in English.
(Some were however a bit cynical about Zhang, that he should by coincidence have picked me up that day. Apparently, there are no such coincidences in China.)
China does still have many problems, Beijing’s terrible pollution being just one. And no doubt there are huge gaps between the cities and the countryside. But there are enough eager young educated and entrepreneurial Chinese today ready to take the lead in almost everything, both domestically and perhaps even internationally. The socialist slogans are now found only on posters you can buy at the flea market.
For a few days, I had a break from home news because there is no Facebook or Twitter in China. It was nice to be with optimistic and enthusiastic young people wanting to do so much, instead of the angst-filled navel-gazing we indulge in back home and the thousands of ways we find to bring people down.
We seem to think that our country is special when we should be worrying about how this giant country only a few hours away is poised to leave us in the dust, despite our headstart.
I did meet one young Malaysian currently working in Shanghai who wants to come home to start a new IT enterprise. It was so refreshing to meet someone who is still eager to invest in his own country. I just hope that our daily nonsense does not crush his eagerness.
The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

09 November 2013

Sarawakians are used to living with such religious diversity and have no time for the sort of angst that we over in the peninsula have.

WHEN I was a little girl in Alor Setar, I thought that Malaya did not extend any further than my home state. I did eventually learn that in fact it was much bigger when we visited my grandparents in Kuala Lumpur. But for a long time, my child geographical imagination was severely limited.
As an adult, of course I have been all over the country. And despite being a pretty small one, there are distinct differences in environment, atmosphere and attitudes in dif­ferent parts of the country, not to mention different dialects and food.
There is enough variety already within peninsular Malaysia without us even experiencing what is on offer over the water, in Sabah and Sarawak.
It is this diversity that makes our country wonderful.
Recently, I was invited to Kuching to speak to some young people about social media and whether it contri­butes to social cohesion.
I always jump at the chance to cross the water and it was a bit of a shock to realise that I hadn’t been to Kuching for some five years.
Besides the many culinary joys to be found there, it is always interesting to check out what Sarawakians are up to.
My hosts were two NGOs – Angkatan Zaman Mansang (Azam) and the Islamic Information Centre (IIC) – both coincidentally run by women.
Azam was set up 30 years ago to do development work among Sarawakians.
Today, they focus a lot on youths and support young people to do many things, including volunteering to bridge the gap between urban and rural youths.
The IIC is only five years old but it was set up with some particular missions in mind. The first is to educate Muslims about Islam, the second is to educate non-Muslims about Islam and the third, and most interesting of all, is to educate Muslims about other faiths.
Muslims make up only 30% of Sarawak’s population, so it would be difficult to avoid other faiths in daily life.
So IIC set out to build relationships between the different faiths so that they may understand each other better.
The centre itself strives architecturally to be inclusive, borrowing elements from the housing styles of different ethnic groups in Sarawak, including the Iban, Bidayuh, Orang Ulu, Malay and Chinese.
Their surau holds Friday prayers in English and provides translations in various local languages so that no one feels alienated in those surroundings.
Their resource centre contains many books on religion, particularly Islam, but their CEO was very proud to inform me that it contains a Bible as well.
Besides talks and panels for Muslims on Islam, they also often hold talks for non-Muslims on various aspects of the faith. And to educate Muslims about other faiths, they take groups of Muslims to visit other houses of faith to learn about them.
Last year, they organised a forum with Azam on fasting, and how it is found in every religion.
This year’s forum on social media was organised by both NGOs in the Christian Ecumenical Worship Centre and was attended by young people of every faith, including a visiting group of Muslim students from a public university in the peninsula.
Everyone was very relaxed, ate lunch together and the programme was designed so that those who had to go off to Friday prayers had ample time to get to the mosque.
While such a forum may have raised eyebrows in the peninsula, or may even not have been organised out of fears of vocal criticism from certain parties, these types of events are not at all unusual for Sarawak.
Sarawakians are used to living with such religious diversity and have no time for the sort of angst that we over here have.
Some families have members of different faiths, so excluding some people from family events and festivities is simply not an option.
I listened with astonishment the big-heartedness of the local religious authorities.
For instance, every year at the Maal Hijrah (Muslim New Year) cele­brations, alongside the usual Muslim recipients of the Tokoh Maal Hijrah awards, there is always a non-Muslim, one recognised for his or her efforts to foster better relations between the different faith communities.
What’s more, the Maal Hijrah parade also includes a contingent of non-Muslims.
For someone from KL, used to the ever greater segregation on the basis of religion, this information was jaw-droppingly awesome.
But it is also sad to think of such harmony as being unusual.
Once upon a time it was not uncommon either in our part of the country.
We respected and lived with each other and did not claim names and beliefs to be exclusive to us.
But with changing attitudes, I feel as if I need to go to Kuching just to breathe.
> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.