Saturday, December 31, 2011


It was the best of years, it was the worst of years.

I think that's how I'll remember 2011. It was a great year, no doubt about that. In fact, on a good day, I might even call it the best yet, of my 18 years. Even so, it wasn't exactly a bed of roses, and shit did happen. Anyway, on to the nitty-gritty. 

Kolej Yayasan UEM, Lembah Beringin. This place, more than
any other, defined 2011 for me.
Going to college, which in my case, was Kolej Yayasan UEM, was doubtless the biggest experience of the year. I was introduced into an entirely different academic system, which, among other things, told me that much of what I'd learned earlier were half-truths, at best. A-Levels proved to be a formidable academic challenge; I've enjoyed the mental workout a lot. Especially Biology. Awesome stuff. (Thanks, Ms. Yati and Mr. Vroege)

I met loads of awesome people at KY, too. Some were upfront and extroverted. Others took some time and effort to get to know. You know what? I don't regret that at all. Thanks to KY's population, I had lots of fun (crazy CoD and Battle for Middle Earth sessions) and interesting, insightful conversations (Carolyn, Alia, Raehan, Rachel, Sharavana Vel). KY's people also introduced me to awesome new experiences. Special thanks to the Debate Club for the education in British Parliamentary Debate. Hats off to Carolyn (again) and Amir Rozlan for the introduction to Model United Nations. 

Mos Def and Talib Kweli, the rappers who make up Black Star.
This group inspired me; they're my soundtrack to 2011
Other things KY did for me was giving me an excellent library (I could live there if I had food, a bed and shower), cool places for walks (Saad Square, and the walkway roof), and the chance to represent it in the KDU Interschool Debate (quarter finals, and 5th best speaker; thanks all our debaters and esp. Raehan, Carolyn and Ms Rena). I'm also very glad for all the eye opening rap music I listened to; I learned a lot and got to relax too.

I wasn't an angel this year, far from it. I could have been a lot more perceptive to others, not blindly blundering on with what I wanted. I could have trusted more carefully. I could have controlled my tongue. I could have worked harder, and delayed less. To all the people I hurt and offended, in various ways, Mea Culpa. I'm sorry. To the personal demons I've faced down- this year was a draw. You will never win. (Some people will know what I'm talking about here).

My grandfather's death impressed on me just how important it is to know the people you love. I really wish I got to know him better, but in the end, he taught me a lot, both from his old encyclopedias and his slow, musings on life and his past. Thanks, Tata. We miss you.

This is the Ipoh Railway Station, where my grandfather used to run a bookstore.
I still have some of his old papers, marked with the shop's letterhead.
Above all, thanks to all the people who were just there, as ears and shoulders. Por Yin, James, Syahira, Jered, Thaanesh, Aina, Vivian, Raehan, Vivek, Syed Johan, Sharavana Vel, Mayuri, Shermaine, and of course, Carolyn. This year wouldn't have rocked without you guys. Thank you.

A good year, this.

(P.S- If there's anyone I left out, I'm so sorry. I love you all, and you have a special place in my heart)

Friday, December 23, 2011


It is a given fact that every country has one curious feature, which, to foreign observers at first seems jarring, then becomes so normal that it fades into the background, like bold wallpaper at an acquaintance's house. In Yemen, this feature is qat (also spelled khat or gat), a mildly stimulative leaf chewed by nearly everyone.

Like many curious features though, qat is slowly, but surely, killing Yemen.

Terraced qat fields near Wadi Dhahr
Economically speaking, it's never a good idea to plant a crop that's banned in most developed countries, and hence, is only purchased by locals, who are, in any case, poor (Yemen has a GDP per capita of just 2600 USD). In 2005, the total area under cultivation was 123, 933 hectares, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Given the MoA's estimate that this area grows by 12% a year, by the end of 2011, this area could be 244, 622 hectares! Such an extensive area would be of better economic use if dedicated to cash crops like coffee, of which Yemen used to be a major producer. It would be even better if the land was directed to construction of factories and other economic infrastructure.

Using this area of qat cultivation and Ethiopian production estimates, 244 622 hectares of land could produce over 100 000 tonnes of coffee a year. Assuming Arabica coffee beans are used to replace qat, this amount is currently valued at 218.7 million USD, translating to substantial profits for rural farmers.

Worse, qat uses up about 30 percent of Yemen's already scarce water supplies. Yemeni agriculture relies primarily on groundwater, as rainfall is scarce. If qat cultivation continues, the lack of good profits it brings will mean that the government and general public will not have sufficient finances to cope with rising water prices, never mind the social and industrial consequences such a rise would entail.

Moreover, qat is chewed in afternoon sessions that begin after the Yemeni workday ends at 2-3 p.m. These sessions last about 3-4 hours and are social events in themselves. Logically speaking, time wasted in this way could be put to better use, mainly for longer (and more productive) workdays. It is difficult to directly connect the national qat addiction to Yemen's lack of development, but a quick comparision of the country with many of it's Arab neighbors is telling indeed.

Men chew qat in a hut overlooking the crop in Yemen.
Qat chewing sessions can last up to five hours a day.
In fact, qat is even regarded in playing a negative role in the Yemeni protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Protesters quietly dispersed every afternoon to chew qat, meaning that the anti-government momentum that toppled Tunisia's and Egypt's rulers was just not there. This despite the fact that economic conditions in Yemen are much worse than those of the other two nations. Yemeni's might endlessly disparage their political leaders at qat sessions, but until tribal militias clashed with government security forces, stunted by qat, that's all many of them do- talk.

Completely eradicating something which has got its claws so deeply sunk into a country is probably impossible. However, once the dust has settled in Yemen, a new government could begin by allocating land to other purposes and extending the workday. Post-revolution, Yemen will face many obstacles to progress. Here's hoping qat won't be a hurdle far into the future.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Can true equality within a society ever be achieved? People have, for ages, been expressing the hope that we will live in a world where we are all equal, where divisions within society, especially wealth and class based divisions, will cease to exist. Entire governments have staked claims to power on the belief that they can create a truly egalitarian society.

But can true equality be achieved? No.

The reason for this is simple. All men are not created alike. Within a system, there will always be people who work harder, know how to bend the rules or are plain lucky. These people will end up richer and more successful. Inevitably, there will be people left at the bottom of the pile. 

Now, if governments start giving preferential treatment to those left out, that would in itself be a source of inequality, because not everyone is going to get such treatment. In that sense, there is another kind of inequality, in the way the government treats its people, as some people get special protection from it, and others don't.

Even with such handouts, there will be people who know how to put them to the best use, and people who take them for granted badly enough to end up just scraping by. Or even worse than before. Inequality cannot be eradicated, but it can be reduced.

Yet, governments still promise equality when it's impossible to achieve. In Malaysia, politics is essentially a battle of the Equalizers- which party (or coalition, rather) can truly achieve equality in our sorely divided country? Tragically, most of the solutions that would make a strong dent in inequality (improving rural education, eliminating quotas, and workfare instead of welfare) are often not the most catchy of political initiatives. For starters, they take time, and usually involve the disadvantaged community in effort of its own.

So what to do? The closest governments and societies can ever come to true equality is by providing equal opportunities for all. That means improving the standards of the educational facilities offered to the entire population, instead of using government funds to pay for excellent educational facilities for certain groups (i.e. MARA). It means a welfare system that focuses not on handouts, but on handups. It will also require all ethnic groups to do some heavy lifting, like rejecting the primacy of any particular group and eliminating vernacular education (more on that in another post, maybe). 

This is not a diatribe against welfare, mind. Just because inequality can't be eliminated doesn't mean we shouldn't try. Rather, it is a reminder that we can never be a truly equal society, and so the endless pursuit of quotas and other blunt force tools to eliminate inequality should be scrapped, because the harm they bring does not justify pursuing an impossible ideal. And it is an appeal to recognize that equality of opportunity is the best we can provide, and also that most (or all) forms of welfare should aim to put the disadvantaged peoples back into earning their own keep. Tying benefits to eventual employment or food aid to continued schooling are examples.

Inequality cannot be eliminated. But if governments give every person an equal (or as close to equal) chance for personal advancement while steering clear of quotas  and other blunt force preferential tools, we can go a good way to reducing it. 

Monday, December 12, 2011


I must say, I was surprised (pleasantly) when I heard of a global climate deal coming out of Durban, South Africa. With the global economic climate being what it is, I hadn't even remembered the talks were on this year! If I had, I wouldn't have expected any sort of deal, because of aforementioned economic crisis.

Anyway, what do we have here? The negotiators at Durban agreed on a format for a fund to help poor nations tackle global warming. Details are sketchy at the moment (at least for non-journalists like me), but with luck, the fund will focus more on fine-tuning existing technologies as well as paying for their implementation in developing countries. It should also allow for some form of overseeing body to ensure funds are not wasted, especially by trying to force technologies into areas where it can't work, or where the adoption of one 'green' technology causes some other form of environmental destruction. (Hydropower and non-cellulosic ethanol come to mind). Most importantly, the fund must provide means for poor people to adapt to the effects of climate change.

The COP17 pleasantly surprised most fence-sitters with what came out of it
But that's the small fries of the talks. The talks far more significant achievement is this: that the Kyoto Protocol be extended until 2017 (previously set to expire in 2012), that a new legally binding deal be negotiated next year, and that developing countries accept legally binding emissions targets in future.

On the face of it, this is simply standard UN kick the can down the road behavior. But look closely. For starters, developed countries have accepted, more concretely, that they do need to help poor countries in tackling the problem. Since rich nations have historically caused much of the warming that we're now experiencing, that is fair. But since developing nation emissions have now surpassed that of developed countries, they should be legally bound to cut emissions too. And this new agreement finally gets them to do that, after years of insisting they should have the right to develop as they wish.

China and India agreed, with no small measure of reluctance, to commit themselves to cuts in future. 
Still, it's not all roses. This agreement is most definitely not the urgent action the Earth needs, as nations threatened by rising sea levels note. Scientists point out that delaying a deal for yet another year (with the prospect of more delays) means that it will be harder to keep the global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, as stipulated in the Copenhagen accords. Then there is the downright ugly news. Japan, Russia and Canada will pull out of the extended period for the Kyoto Protocol, and that Australia and New Zealand might not join in.

Uglier still was the delegates focus on the exact language and phrasing of the various parts of the agreement. To quote, they were not free of the obsession with detail by which mediocre men think they are influencing events.

The delegates at Durban will have to do a lot better next year if the successor to Kyoto is going to have real meat to it.

All in all, to me, this is a moderate deal. The successes of having a climate deal after 2012, and of having developing nations commit to legally binding carbon cuts are important. Still, this deal will not go down as revolutionary (or even as particularly significant) because it is just too little. Too little decisive action, too little conviction, and too little financing..Hopefully, it will not be too late.