Monday, 30 June 2014

Letter to the Editor: Stop Stereotyping the Homeless as Freeloaders

The sweeping generalisations made by Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim about the homeless being lazy and pampered (The Star, 23 June 2014) demonstrate the ministry’s abject lack of compassion and understanding for some of the most marginalised members of our society. 

It is a grim sign of the state of our society when the government ministries responsible for the welfare of its citizens are content to blame volunteers and non-governmental organisations for the burgeoning number of impoverished and homeless individuals. I have been a volunteer with homeless outreach organisations for many years, and I uphold that these organisations and their volunteers are neither na├»ve nor foolish, as the government implies. Homeless outreach organisations offer more than just food. Almost all offer basic counselling services, employment counselling and referrals, assistance to families and vulnerable individuals, legal advice and assistance, First Aid services and medical assistance, and opportunities for the homeless to find better jobs and re-enter mainstream society. For many of the most socially-excluded individuals, the practical help we extend is our way of telling them: “You have friends. We are here to support you, and help you when you are ready. We can talk, when your stomach is no longer hungry. Here is some food, and you don’t have to resort to unlawful or degrading means to obtain it.” 

Most of the homeless individuals in Malaysia are not unemployed, but are working at low-paying jobs. Some have mental illness or are of subaverage intelligence and therefore unemployable. Some lost their jobs due to the deteriorating economy, personal problems, clinical depression or other medical issues. Some are victims of crime, sexual abuse or domestic violence. Some were cheated of their wages by employers, or had entered into business partnerships which failed. Some are senior citizens abandoned by their families and are unable to find a welfare home that is able to accept them. But many are just ordinary citizens struggling to make ends meet and send money home to their families in other towns and villages. 

The reason for the rising number of homeless people in the streets of Kuala Lumpur is the same as everywhere else in the world – urban migration for better economic opportunities, wage stagnation and rising costs of living. Rising rent, utility costs and fuel costs mean that low-income individuals who were previously able to rent rooms in the city are now no longer able to afford the same. 

While affordable housing is available outside of city limits, the cost of private vehicle ownership and the lack of a reliable public transport system mean that these individuals have no means of travelling to and from work. As a result, many opt to sleep in public areas not far from their workplaces. I reiterate that none of them are pampered, lazy or entitled. All the homeless individuals we have encountered were proud to let us know when they have found rooms to rent, are leaving for better jobs or have saved up enough to return to their villages. They are invariably ready and willing to help one another and the organisations that assist them. NGOs and the food we give out are not the reason people sleep on the streets. Many politely decline food when they have eaten, and ask us to give the food to others in need. Many others care for stray animals, who the volunteers then assist in neutering, vaccinating and feeding. Yet others save on rent so they could send money home to support their aged parents or school-going siblings. 

Homelessness isn't a choice. No child dreams of becoming the person sleeping on the streets when they grow up. Somewhere along the way, something went wrong. Our job is to find out what went wrong and find solutions. We cannot punish people just for their poverty and suffering. 

The measures proposed by the government may face practical setbacks in their implementation. The government has provided drop-in centres and temporary shelters where the homeless and urban poor can obtain food and have a place to shower and rest. However, these shelters are often not operational or open to the homeless. Therefore, NGOs and volunteers are right to feel concerned that the proposed government-run shelters and soup kitchens may not operate consistently or be accessible to all homeless individuals. There is also the concern that the most vulnerable individuals – the abused, the mentally ill, the differently-abled and the victims of street violence – will not be able to come to the soup kitchens and shelters for the assistance they need. 

If the government is sincere in its efforts to eliminate poverty and homelessness, it must first eradicate corruption and the stifling bureaucracy that makes access to shelters and welfare homes an immense challenge. There must be legislation and real measures to implement a realistic livable minimum wage, protect the rights of workers, amend bankruptcy and foreclosure laws, allocate a percentage of land and housing for the poor and disadvantaged and ensure that the latter are reserved for low-income citizens. Long-term solutions can also be found in providing state-funded high quality education and skills training, microcredit loans for the deserving, mental health treatment and assistance for the mentally-ill and substance-addicted, hostels and job training for ex-convicts and former drug users, and legal assistance and safe houses for women who are victims of domestic violence, trafficking or entrapment into the sex trade. Investigations must be conducted into cases of unfair land acquisition, water and soil pollution and other forms of destruction of rural areas which threaten the economic survival of rural communities, causing rural folk to move to cities and end up as squatter citizens. 

Instead of waging war against the homeless, laws and society should wage war against poverty. The government cannot make it illegal for people to be homeless unless there are systems in place to make it virtually impossible to be homeless. 


Friday, 27 June 2014

Coming Home To Bali

This is my third trip to Bali, and I didn’t want to do the whole sea-temples-and-terraced-rice-fields circuit again, so what else would a single female traveller do but check out animal charities, dog shelters, community libraries, secondhand bookstores, town markets, good surfing beaches and unfussy pubs to watch football in?

After meeting Dr. Jane Goodall and having dinner, Wai Pak and my new friends very kindly got their driver to drop me off in the lane in front of the chalet Aravind had booked for me in Ubud, and I was quite delighted to find that I would be occupying the comfy little chalet on the left, with a patio facing the garden and a fish pond. There’s also a fish pond in the open-air bathroom but it wasn’t really picture-worthy. Wai Pak had to return to Kuala Lumpur the following day, so that means I would be on my own for the rest of my well-deserved break in Bali.

I spent many relaxing and happy hours in this patio, reading before and after breakfast and before bed. Some mornings a pair of spotted doves could be seen building their nest in the garden. Munias and Javan sparrows hopped around the little garden hunting for food.

Fish and frogs swam in this little fishpond in front of my little chalet. I am simply charmed. A fan-cooled unfussy little chalet, an open-air bathroom, a reading nook on the patio, and animals all around me. What more could I ask for?

Lord Ganesha watched over my stay here.

The chalet next door has a Bookcrossing corner where visitors dropped off books they no longer wanted to carry with them, and I would borrow books to read while sipping my tea on my own patio.

Little bamboo and cloth altar with ‘canang’ (offerings). A common sight in Bali.

Canang’, little banana leaf trays filled with offerings and lit incense, littered the footpaths and curbs.

A fountain with carvings of deities and mythological characters in front of the Ubud Tourist Information Centre.

Exploring Ubud on foot, feeling right at home, the sun raining down mercilessly on my head, penjor lining the streets, art galleries, museums and temples at every street corner. Locals tried to sell me everything from tickets to Kecak and Barong performances to carved wooded phalluses (what the hell is it with those wooden dicks being sold everywhere, anyway?) and laughed when I responded in Bahasa Indonesia. They told me they had assumed I was Korean or Japanese, but my accent gave me away and they realised I am Malaysian.

I wandered into a temple with a large courtyard for Kecak and Barong performances. The entrance to the temple was flanked, as usual, by statues of Hindu mythological characters dressed in black-and-white checkered sarong.

Tourists thronging the Ubud Palace, possibly one of the smallest and least posh (for want of a better expression) palaces in the world.

Spent most of Monday surfing in Canggu Beach, which left me exhausted beyond belief. There are no photos of me surfing because it was just me and my surf guide Rahmat, and we were both in the water. Still, no photos can replicate the experience of surfing in open sea, with the spray of sun-dappled seawater creating rainbows behind you, the deep, azure waters bisected by your surfboard, the tiny people on the beach growing closer and more visible as the waves propel you towards them, and you get back on your belly and paddle back oceanwards before you wipe out.

I finally found the strength to go out for dinner after 10 p.m, and opted for Lotus Lane, a little restaurant across the street from my chalet, since it opens until late night.

I had a massive gado-gado and a papaya juice for a very affordable price. I left a tip, as usual. Asian tourists, please learn to tip. Don’t be resentful that westerners receive better service – they tip! Service staff in restaurants and bars don’t earn much. Every dollar you give them as a tip means another dollar for their families back home in the village.

I watched the Germany-Portugal game at CP Lounge, not far from my chalet. A few minutes after settling down with my beer, I found, to my dismay, my view of the big screen blocked by this here Teutonic army. Dear Tall White People, you really don’t need to sit on Tall Wooden Stools. The Teutonic army took the game very seriously and stood up for the national anthem and sang with a gravity that would put Angela Merkel to shame.

Spent much of Tuesday covering all of Ubud on foot. The Ubud Market is less than a kilometre from my chalet, and I enjoyed looking at the colourful merchandise for sale.

The tiny pushcart warongs fascinated me more than the touristy stalls offering touristy things for sale. Yes, I eat from snack carts and I am fine, not breeding intestinal worms or anything.

Strolling through Ubud Market, delighting in the intricate penjor (bamboo poles decorated with cut leaves and crepe paper) and street altars with offerings, loving the vibe of Bali as I always have. I was wearing my Ramones t-shirt and every few minutes someone would sing out: “Hi, ho, let’s go!” to me.

Dropped by the BAWA (Bali Animal Welfare Association) Shop/Office in Jalan Monkey Forest. Made two new human friends and one new canine friend.

Made a donation to BAWA and purchased some merchandise, and chatted with the volunteers/staff manning the shop on animal welfare issues in the region.

I had come to Bali with jars of dog and cat treats in my backpack, and this made it easier for me to make friends with the local cats and dogs. This little canine girl outside the BAWA shop is a sweetheart. She wasn’t keen on the dog treats, though. She was already full since Andini (the volunteer operating the shop) had purchased whole bags of chicken carcasses from the restaurants to feed the dogs with and already fed her.

Meanwhile, at the traffic roundabout, the great archer Arjuna observes Indonesian road users with a look of consternation.

As soon as I saw the name of this bookshop, I knew I had to go in. Because GANESHA, you guys!

I’m glad I did because it actually has an initiative to give back to the community by encouraging visitors to purchase books for local orphanages, community libraries and impoverished schools.

Lord Ganesha smiles benevolently in front of the trompe l’oeil windows of the Ganesha Bookshop.

Books, musical instruments, art cards and all manner of exciting things for sale in the Ganesha Bookshop. Many of the souvenirs sold here are to raise funds for local charities.

A whole bookcase was dedicated to books awaiting sponsors so they could be donated to selected community libraries, orphanages and schools under the Books for Bali Project. I went through the books and found most of them to impart good moral values as well as knowledge. I’m sold! Sponsored 4 bilingual books to be donated to a selected charity.

Here are the four bilingual books I sponsored for the Books for Bali Project, on the advice of the bookstore staff who informed me that the need for books of the most basic reading level was the greatest at the moment.

Found BAWA (Bali Animal Welfare Association)’s other shop/office in Hanooman Street and stopped by to say hello. The dog beds are for the street dogs that they have neutered and vaccinated and are currently living in the street right outside the shops.

The BAWA volunteers and staff are currently fostering a tiny kitten named Emma. Emma had been having trouble keeping food down and have only started eating normally on the day of my visit. I wish I had brought some Benebac with me. Benebac has saved so many of my tiny rescued kittens. I informed the volunteers of Benebac, though, and I hope they will be able to purchase some from the vets in Bali. I was afforded the privilege of holding Emma. Please grow big and strong, Little One. I am rooting for you.

The neutered and vaccinated street dogs appointed themselves BAWA’s official store greeters.

I continued my search for the Bali Animal Rescue Centre (BARC)’s animal shelter. I found their charity shop, located down the street from Cocos Supermarket, and stopped by to say hello and ask for directions. The BARC Charity Shop accepts pre-loved clothes, books and other white elephant stuff for resale in their shop to raise funds keep their dog refuge and adoption centre running. If you are a tourist and are passing by this way, do stop by to unload any clothes, shoes or books you no longer want.

I finally found BARC’s Good Karma Animal Rehabilitation Centre just minutes before they closed for the day. I had sent an email weeks ago applying to volunteer at the shelter, but was informed that I had to have up-to-date rabies vaccination and would need to commit to volunteering every day for at least 2 weeks and undergo the volunteer induction programme. Well I may not be able to volunteer this time but this does not mean I am not able to help. I made a donation to BARC and handed out dog treats to all the dogs and puppies in the hospital.

Puppies undergoing treatment in the BARC hospital. BARC is doing an amazing job, considering the challenges they face trying to run an animal rescue centre in an impoverished country. There are just so many dogs and puppies with mange. BARC is currently treating them with ivermectin.

Poor wee pup on an IV drip because he isn’t eating and isn’t doing well. Hang in there, Wee Pup. We love you. We want you to get well and grow strong.

This little sweetheart liked the dog treats I brought and decided to follow me around as I was handing out treats in the hopes of getting seconds. Yes, he did get seconds, and thirds too.

The healthy puppies are usually let out to play but they have been put back into their cages for the night (it was closing time when I finally located the shelter). BARC is doing noble work rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming vulnerable companion animals. I just wish I had more money to donate.

I had a very late lunch at this charming and unpretentious little vegan restaurant in Hanooman Street with the whimsical name of “Veggie Table”. The food was affordable and oh-so-delicious. They played some kind of instrumental New Age music in the background which sounded suspiciously like the kind of music you hear when an alien spaceship is coming to abduct you.

The vegan nasi campur was so good that I forgot all about the alien abduction background music.

On the way back to my chalet, I stopped by Down To Earth, an organic market and restaurant offering everything from yoga mat bags and refillable water bottles to raw cashew crackers and chakra-balancing essential oils.

So many delicious raw, natural vegan desserts to sample at Down To Earth!

I ordered The Garcia (wheat-free organic carob brownie with vegan coconut ice cream and goji berry sauce) and a mango-blueberry-raisin smoothie. If the drinking straw looks like a part of a vaguely familiar plant, it’s because it’s really the stem of a papaya leaf. What a brilliant idea, is it not?

Pondok Pekak Library and Learning Centre is Bali's only community library. I discovered it on the night I arrived. It was set up by an American expat lady who married a Balinese man, and named her little library after Pekak Mangku, her husband's grandfather, in honour of his love of reading and learning. (I know 'pekak' means deaf in Malay but this library has nothing to do with hearing impairment).

The unpretentious little fan-cooled library brought back memories of my childhood spent in our town library. I spent many happy hours reading here and bought a secondhand copy of Colin McPhee's "A House In Bali" as well.

The little library is basically an extension of their family home.

I went back to the BAWA office/shop in Hanooman Street to check on Emma, the kitten, before my flight home. I could not stop thinking about her. Unfortunately, Emma isn't doing too well, even though she is already on antibiotics and kaolin-pectin. I gave the volunteer some cash in the hopes that she could find Benebac or some other supplement that could help Emma. Instead of a photo of Emma, who is not well enough to have her photo taken L, I have here a photo of Dom, one of the TNR dogs who live in the BAWA office in Hanooman Street. I hope Emma survives, thrives and grows up to be a strong, active and loved family cat. I wish there was more I could do to help. 

Travelling solo is an empowering experience that reinforces what I know about my own strength, courage, resourcefulness, independence and sense of responsibility to myself and others around me. I am glad I got to do it in my beautiful Bali. Selamat Tinggal, Bali, until we meet again! Next time I will do the Mount Batur and Mount Agung sunrise hike!

Monday, 23 June 2014

Meeting my hero, Dr. Jane Goodall

Few conservationists inspire as much admiration and respect as primatologist, humanitarian and activist Dr. Jane Goodall

I love Dr. Jane for her courage, strength, intelligence and incredible commitment to helping people, animals and the environment, and at the same time, for her gentleness, compassion, humility, sincerity and nobility of spirit. I've read all her books, watched her documentaries and inhaled all the news I could of her. 

Meeting her in person was almost an obsession with me. I wanted to thank her for changing my life with her writings and activism. I grew up in an environment that was generally discouraging of any sort of pro bono work and activism, but Dr. Jane's voice was always with me in spirit, instilling confidence in myself and my ability to do more for the cause of environmental protection and animal rights, teaching me that you can always reconcile gentleness and strength, and care of the environment with compassion for people. 

When I learned in March that Dr. Jane would be delivering a public lecture in Green School, Bali, I went almost frantic with excitement, trying to find out more and making plans to fly to Bali, Indonesia, just one week after my return from Turkiye. Poor communication of dates and the delayed disclosure of the agenda to members of the public meant that I only managed to purchase a flight ticket to Bali to arrive hours before Dr. Jane's public lecture, and would have to miss her Saturday workshop and the Sunday morning coffee session. 

I arrived at the airport to find that the Bali I knew and loved 6 years ago is now an island of traffic jams and rubbish-clogged drains. But there was no time to lose on sorrowful reminiscences, I had a public lecture to catch. The cabbie had no idea where Green School is (though he didn't hesitate about asking for the fare and agreeing to drive me to the school) and we spent an agonising hour getting lost and asking locals for directions. (Good thing I speak Bahasa Indonesia!) I arrived at Green School looking like I had crawled through a haystack, and hoped there would be a place for me to freshen up. 

The entrance to Green School was this gorgeous bamboo bridge over a pristine river. Thankfully, I was allowed into the school without any difficulty as my name was already on the guest list. 

 The river that nourishes the school and its neighbouring villages. 

 One of the event posters within the premises of Green School announcing Dr. Jane's visit and public lecture

Green School is reported to be the most eco-friendly school in the world, and I certainly approve of the organic vegetable patch, tended by the students themselves. 

The Heart of School lets in natural light and allows fresh air to circulate. What a wonderful environment to work and study in! 

Compost bins in the school cafeteria for banana leaves (i.e. to wrap food in) and for food scraps. 

A wonderful and inviting natural playground for the schoolchildren. 

Lecture participants settling down in the big bamboo tent to wait for Dr. Jane Goodall's arrival. 

Dr. Jane spoke passionately about our reasons for hope, reasons to keep trying and the indomitable human spirit. 

The book signing session, during which Dr. Jane very patiently listened to all of us gush about her and signed our books despite the fact that she must have had a long day. My friend Wai Pak requested Dr. Jane to sign his copies of "Seeds of Hope" and "Reason for Hope", and invited Dr. Jane to come to Malaysia and visit the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre. I really hope she takes him up on this offer, we would make her visit most memorable indeed!

Dr. Jane Goodall is my hero, and this is the happiest day of my life. I told her so. I asked her if she could kindly autograph my copies of "In The Shadow of Man" and "Harvest for Hope", and informed her that "Harvest" is my favourite book ever, and that even as a vegetarian-going-on-vegan, I will keep on "pulling threads" (it's a metaphor in the book, you pull threads out of the factory farming system to try to improve conditions for animals, one thread at a time). I told her I will keep trying to expand my compassion footprint (a term Prof Marc Bekoff coined) and that I will keep using my abilities for the greater good. 

Wai Pak and me -- All geeked out over our signed copies of the books! 

Stalking Dr. Jane even after getting our books signed. 

My signed copies of "Harvest of Hope" and "In The Shadow of Man" are worth more than their weight in gold, silver and lapis lazuli to me. 

To learn more about Green School Bali, visit their website here and official Facebook page here.
To learn more about Dr. Jane Goodall, visit her website here and official Facebook page here
To learn more about the Jane Goodall Institute, visit their website here and official Facebook page here
To learn more about Roots and Shoots, visit their website here and official Facebook page here.