7 ways to change Malaysia (apart from voting in GE13)

Presented with the opportunity, we must certainly exercise our constitutional right and privilege to vote. However, there are others things that we, as citizen Joes and Janes, can do to combat rampant corruption, escalating crime, rising living costs and declining education standards.

Based in Australia, where people are not only encouraged to speak up but to get actively involved in community affairs, I’ve come to view societal participation of the individual as key to effecting change.

I’m not suggesting that these simple measures will wipe out RM500billion worth of national debt or narrow the divide between the super rich and hardcore poor, but if everyone adopts them, change will be imminent, even if at times, very hard won.

1)  Stop paying bribes.

This came to me when a friend said, “Even if there is a change of government, so what? There will always be corruption because we’ll choose to pay coffee money instead of receiving a summons from a traffic officer.”

If you feel corruption is endemic in society, then don’t be part of it. You can’t pay your way out of traffic infringements and around the bends in the law and then suddenly expect people to be honest mid-way through the food chain or at the top. If you want corruption gone, work within the framework of the law. Pay your summons; refuse to grease wheels to make them turn in your favour. If enough people put their hands back in their pockets, the bribe-taking folks will soon get the message they’ve to ask proper authorities for higher wages instead of moonlighting as toll collectors.

2)  Join your local neighbourhood watch (rukun tetanga). Know your neighbours. Watch out for each other.

Yes, it’s a dog eat dog world, but we can’t prosper, even if we can survive, alone. When you are friendly with the neighbours, they’ll watch your house for you and you for them. Someone will take in the mail when you are not around so you don’t alert the robbers to your absence. Someone will water the plants for you or feed the cat, so you won’t signal to low lives, “I’m not home. Come and rob me!”

By joining the neighbourhood watch and knowing your neighbours, you’ll know the faces that belong in your neighbourhood and those that don’t. Those that don’t, if not neighbour’s guests, are most likely thieves, robbers or similar scumbags.

3)  Call the police if you see suspicious behaviour.

This is common sense and they actually teach this in school, but how many pick up the phone if they see something untoward happening in the house next door? The old Chinese will say, “Less one problem is better than more one problem. Mind your own business.” Well, it will become your business sooner or later if you do nothing about it. I’m not asking you to be a vigilante or a cape and mask-wearing Marvel Comic Book hero; I’m asking you to exercise your civic duty as a concerned citizen. Pick up your handphone to record suspicious sightings when you are out and about to show to the police. Jot down car license plates of strange vehicles rounding your neighbourhood – they’re probably scoping out which house or person to rob. Police need tangible leads to work on. Be the eyes and ears that keep your area safe.

4)  Volunteer your time. Form Groups. Get involved.

Do you want to have greater say in your child’s education? Or perhaps have ideas to improve the education system? Apart from writing in to the papers to complain about the current system, ask your child’s school if you can spend some time volunteering in class. Get to know the current curriculum first, before tearing it down. If you still have reservations, join action groups to agitate the government for change. There is power in numbers. If none exists, consider forming your own group. Don’t have the time? Then you don’t have the time to complain either. Don’t be a backseat driver. Do something about your own complaints.

5)  Stamp out the money culture.

Sure, money makes the world go round, but did you know that overt materialism is also responsible for deforestation, poor air quality, poor water quality, corruption, blasé attitudes among the civil service…the list is pretty endless. And do you know why this is so? When everyone is focused on materialism, no one thinks that the new toys of today might end up in landfills of tomorrow, or the ink used to dye the perfect, must-have, pair of blue jeans might be polluting the drinking water of an impoverished riverside community somewhere…The desire for more money, more goods, just more of everything manifests as a money grab by everyone from the trash collector who demands his New Year ang pow all the way to the highest echelons of society who plunder the national coffers.

Ask yourself: are you contributing to the problem through conspicuous consumption?  

6) Vote with your feet.

Often, the price of essentials like flour, sugar, oil and salt, might go up a paltry couple of cents per litre or kilogram, but shopkeepers and restaurateurs see this as an excuse to raise prices across the board. If you think  a price hike is unjustified then don’t fuel demand. Use less, walk away, or find a substitute. If enough people react to price hikes by turning away, prices will come down to reflect a downturn in demand.

Similarly, there is no reason to tolerate shoddy treatment from your service providers or vendors. If they don’t value your business, take yours elsewhere.

How about rising petrol and toll costs? Car pool. It’d also help with the congestion on the road and protect you from would-be muggers who target drivers of single occupant vehicles.

7)  Enrol your child in a national type school.

As Chinese schools revert from teaching science and maths in English to Mandarin, another friend lamented the potential divide between those Chinese-educated and other Malaysians. As she rightly pointed out, people need language to communicate so how does only speaking a language not spoken by others, help national unity?

Even non-Chinese educated Chinese think and act differently to Chinese-educated Chinese. There may be a growing number of non-Chinese attending Chinese schools but they are still a minority. Unless Chinese schools halt the decision to return to teaching science and maths in Mandarin, I’d suggest you send your children to national type schools where they have better chance of picking up decent English and the official language of the country, Malay. Like it or not, Malay is the language used at all levels of government and their inability to read, write or express themselves adequately in the language won’t just make them aliens on home soil but also make them vulnerable to fraudsters who capitalise on this deficiency.

The bottom line is if you want a more caring, safer society, you are going to have to become involved. You are going to have to take a stand against corruption at all levels, not just the fat cats at the top of the tree. You are going to have to make yourself heard and visible somehow. If you keep saying, “I don’t want to get involved”, “It’s not my problem”, “I don’t want to court problems” then you have no one to blame for society’s decline but yourself.

P/s Do remember to vote on 5th May!

The Chinaman’s disease.

I’ve had a stuffed nose for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, Mum used to routinely remind me to breath through my nose. She used to say, “If you have your mouth open all the time, people will think you’ve down syndrome. They’ll think you’re mongoloid.”

Second sister called me a “gaping gold fish” and made onomatopoeic noises.

Such is how much I rely on my mouth for breathing that you’d be hard pressed to find more than 5 pictures of me with my mouth closed in my childhood album. Sometimes my nose isn’t just blocked, but produces blobs of mucous that flow down into my throat. It gets particularly bad after eating. Once I had such difficulty breathing post meal that F, who I mentioned in last Friday’s post, wondered if I was going to past out while driving her around. Yes, there have been a number of hairy moments arising from this, but I can assure you I’ve never passed out while driving, even if at times it appears I am trying to cough out a hairball through the nose.

I decided to do something about it when I moved to Brisbane. At F’s insistence, I booked myself in to see a well-known allergist. After a 5-month-long wait, my number was called. A bespectacled old chap, seemingly bored by my very presence, poked my arm with his arsenal of allergens, and pronounced, after a short wait, I have a mild dust allergy.

Perhaps sensing defeat in treating me – not that he really tried, as far as I’m concerned – he gave me a half-hearted lecture on an elimination diet I could try to pin-point my hypersensitivity. He said he can only run tests for known allergens. What I might have is a hypersensitivity to anything from food stuffs to chemicals in my environment. The upshot of this is I came out as clueless about the cause of my stuffed nose as I was when I went in.

F suggested I try a different allergist. Dreading another 5-month-wait for nothing, I went about life as usual, blowing out up to 10 tissues full of snot after each meal. My parents came from Malaysia for their annual visit and Dad, who suffers a similar predicament with his nose, said I might have inherited his sinuses. Since he had a spare bottle of prescription-only nasal spray, he gave me one to try.

“But you need to be monitored by an ENT for this,” he said. “Long-term use can be harmful. I have nasal scopes done every year at the hospital.”

Dad’s father and brother both had nasal cancer; one died from it, another suffered a fatal heart-attack before nasal cancer could claim him.

On my last trip back to Malaysia, mum and dad gifted me with 2 pairs of “special socks”. They look like regular thick socks except the pads have mineral-encapsulated micro pods stuck to them. Dad claims his nose is much better on the nights he wears them so I should give them a try.

Meanwhile, a mother from Amanda’s last school recommended I try washing out my sinuses with a Neti Pot, a small teapot-like contraption sold in most health-food stores. I gave it a go and for the first time in forever, the nose seemed under control; I could breathe reasonably well through my nose, the mountain of tissues post meal shrank to about a third or less. I improved so much, I postponed a trip to see my ENT friend in Sunnybank indefinitely.

Then HRH and I drove 9 days across country in our move west. During that time, the good ol’ Neti Pot was buried under so many of our belongings that I had no access to it. By the time I did, my nose was playing up again and a single wash wouldn’t work it’s sinus-clearing magic. I had to turn to the half-used bottle of prescription-only spray Dad left me. Except now, in addition to congestion, my sinuses were sore.

I took myself to see the GP across from where I live. He’s a nice, nearing-retirement, Aussie gentlemen who confessed that what I have is a “Chinaman’s disease.”

“I have only ever seen 1 case of nasal cancer in my entire career,” he said.

It’s a curious fact Chinese don’t get reproductive cancers as often as nose and throat cancers. Some have pointed to our diets and habit of consuming steaming hot food as a possible culprit. Anyhow, given my family history, it seemed only prudent to investigate the matter further so the GP ordered a CT scan for me.

“You’re a bit too young to be having cancer but we’ll check it out, just to be safe,” he said.

Ever since I caught wind of a former secondary school classmate with stage 4 lung cancer, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as too young. At 34 going on 35, vigilance isn’t just prudent, it’s necessary. I don’t want to die any time soon as I have a loving family and a lot else to live for.

I told a doctor-friend about the CT scan and she said, “What you need is a nasal scope. Sometimes Aussie doctors can’t even detect nasal cancer on a CT scan as they don’t see enough to know. Perhaps, they can’t take a biopsy with a CT scan.”

“Yes, but I already have an appointment,” I sighed. “We’ll see what the CT scan says.”

“The CT scan says you have no sinusitis but mildly bulky turbinates,” reported the GP a week later.

“What does that mean in English, doctor?” I asked.

The turbinates might be making more mucous than is desirable. It still doesn’t explain the pain you seem to have. How bad is the pain now on a scale of 1 to 10?”

“It’s a 2 out of 10. When I first came to you it was 7 out of 10.”

“And you’re still taking your antibiotics?”

“Yup. 2 tablets, 3 times a day. 2 puffs, 3 times a day.”

“You can stop the antibiotics.”

“But no cancer, right?”

“Not that I can see. I’m writing you a referral to a Chinese ENT who specialises in this Chinaman’s disease.”

And that, folks, is where we’re at. I’ve an appointment to see the Chinese ENT a month from now. HRH doesn’t approve of me taking this further – perhaps he’s in denial about my suffering (you have to have one leg in the ground before a surgeon thinks you warrant treatment) – but he’s asked me what I plan to do, even if the ENT can come up with a formal diagnosis.

“Do you want surgery?” he asked. “If he cuts your turbinates, you may lose some of your sense of smell. Food won’t taste the same anymore.”

“Are there no other options?”

“He might put you on medication but some will have serious side effects.”

AAARRRRRGGGGHHHH… More and more the Neti Pot is looking particularly alluring.



The magic of “Guanxi”: defining networks beyond race.

I am very excited about 2 things: one, after a 10 year belly crawl through surgical training, HRH will be convocating this May in Auckland, having passed exams for Fellowship to the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons almost a year ago. Two, one of my closest friends, F, will be coming with her family to stay with me for a week, upon my return from Auckland.

F, is a very private person, so I can’t disclose more identifying information, but suffice to say we have a close friendship that has defied geographical and cultural boundaries. F is a first-generation, born and bred Aussie, but unlike many, she possesses a deep knowledge of her “white” roots. I appreciate this about her; I particularly like people cognisant of their ethnic backgrounds because it seems the more that they do, the less threatened they feel about apparent and perceived differences between us.

Overwhelmingly, it is true what a cousin of mine said in response to a post I wrote much earlier about being the only Asian among whites: if you have interests in common with the other person, it doesn’t really matter what colour they are. It’s when you don’t that relationships become problematic.

F and I both love books and I have always had the greatest admiration for her grey matter. She can say to me things I’d consider rather insensitive coming from another “white” Australian simply because we know each other well and I know she means no offence. In most instances, she just wants me to give some thought to her comments and respond, as she knows I will, in an honest and forthright fashion. Being exceedingly RATIONAL, her ego isn’t tied to my agreement or disagreement. Take for instance this conversation we had at the end of 2010.

Kevin Rudd’s confidential talks with Hillary Clinton regarding China had just became public knowledge and I was so incensed by what I read in the papers, I wrote to Brisbane’s Courier Mail, after which, of course, I told F.

“What did you do that for, Estella?” asked F, seemingly angry with me. “Politics is very dirty and politicians are very dirty people. You don’t go near them with a 10 foot pole.”

Coming from Malaysia, I am in complete agreement with that.

“Yes, but in his capacity as Foreign Minister, he should never have said that,” I went. “I hate how white people think they have the right to determine the rules and yet preach the benefits of democracy.”

I can’t quite remember what else we said but F replied, “Then I can say that the only people to gain from the rise of China are the sons (and daughters) of China.”

“That’s not true. Chinese are very dog eat dog. Others might think we’ll benefit our kind, but that’s not the way Chinese operate.”

Any real Chinese person will know what I’m talking about. It’s the “guanxi” or personal networks that determine who’s in and who’s out; it’s not race-reliant, it’s relationship reliant. Like I consider F to be in my “guanxi”, even though there isn’t the remotest possibility we ever came from the same family tree. For anyone who’s interested in knowing, my “guanxi” is made up of family, former schoolmates, former university mates, mums and dads from my daughter’s school, some of HRH’s university mates, and some of HRH’s former colleagues.

Having said that, unlike most Chinese who will walk pass you without the slightest hint of a smile if unacquainted, I am friendly to strangers. I smile and chat with them when queueing up for coffee, waiting for the bus or abroad a long flight to somewhere. But that’s how I am. F and I are very different persons but our relationship works because we have mutual respect. We also have a language which, in my entire “guanxi”, only she and I speak: astrology.

As example of this is when F expounded her findings on the solar eclipse which coincided with Julia Gillard usurping Kevin Rudd. Neither of us were all that interested in the event, but we both marvelled at astrology’s ability to predict such happenings. Similarly, when Kevin Rudd challenged Julia Gillard for the top job, and I cast a chart to ask the outcome to that (my chart said he’d not have the support of those under him),  F and I were more interested in the accuracy of astrology (or my ability to read charts at any rate) than we were about any actual outcome. You could say that we’re nerds and like nerds everywhere, “guanxi” is based on mental affinity with one another instead of superficialities like outer appearances.

Other than initiating me into the world of astrology, F has taught me to say “I love you” in a host of European languages (I still know it in French and German), shared with me a variety of dishes her mother brought with her from the old country, lectured me at length on the differences between Europeans, which I’ve found rather eye-opening. Before F, I used to think that all Europeans are the same, as in everyone is “white”, but thanks to her, I can even make educated guesses about where a person is from by looking at him or her.

What I’m straining to say is that F and I have never shied away from the topic of race for fear of alienating each other or allowed it define our relationship any more than 2 people of the same ethnicity would. We are different in obvious ways, and similar unobvious ways, but such is the nature of relationships with people in our “guanxi” that over time, we notice more of the latter than former. Over time, what was once the opening line between two people, becomes a footnote in a long, comfortable and mutually satisfying relationship.

Tiger’s second cousin parenting.

I chuckle whenever my Aussie friends call me a “Tiger Mum”, in reference to what they think is some version of Amy Chua’s method of parenting, as outlined in her famous, if polarising, book, “Battle Hymm  of the Tiger Mother.” It’s a book most Chinese mothers have never read because her methods, as far as we’re concerned, are hardly revelatory.

Compared to my own mother, I’m no tiger. I’m more of a regular house cat. Raised by a real Tiger Mum, the sort that comments on my (normal) weight as an adult, I’ve always wanted to have the sort of friendship with my child, I’ve only discovered as an adult, with my own mother. But as Dr. Phil, who I’m much a fan of, says, “It’s your job to be a parent, not a friend.”

I don’t need to score brownie points on the playground for being the coolest parent around. I am Amanda’s mother and that’s all there is to that. She and I will have plenty of time in the future to be girlfriends, but for now, my task is to raise a well-balanced, contributing member of society.

“How about happy?” you ask. “Don’t you want your child to be happy?”

Well, I have had teachers tell me, without any prompting, Amanda is the happiest child they know. She can break into song and dance at the drop of a hat.

“How about creative?” you also ask.

You should have seen my $5000 Italian-made couch before I wiped it down with JIF and sold it off to a friend of a friend for a mere $200; she not only drew all over it, on our toilet wall, while sitting on the throne, she drew herself a birthday cake, to which she stuck a drawing of another birthday cake, complete with candles.

Hence, from where I stand, it’s an absolute fallacy that children raised by strict parents aren’t happy or creative. As I’ve said to a Chinese friend, who completely agrees, “Happiness isn’t coming last in class or stretching your hands out to ask your parents, friends or the government for money. It’s about having choices in life.

I respect other parents’ rights to raise their children however they want, but there’s no danger of me joining hippies who allow their children to decide if they want to be vaccinated or schooled. You also won’t see me on xenophobic current affairs programmes complaining bitterly about other race children taking all the places at Australia’s top schools because if achievement were all about smarts (an insinuation that those who work hard mustn’t be smart) as many Aussies (and some Asians) seem to think it should be, then we’d have the equivalent of Stephen Hawking governing the country, instead of whoever we have.

No, folks, as a Tiger Mum’s second cousin, I tell my child it’s all about HARD WORK. At our house, we don’t praise Amanda every time she does her homework or reads a book. It’s expected that she does these things. It’s also expected that she apply herself to school. As her father explained to her last year, “You need to be in the top 1% to go to medical school like me. Do you know what that means?”

She shook her head.

“Out of 100 children, you have to be number 1. How many do you have in your class?”

“24,” I filled in for her. “There are 4 classes. Some have 24, others have 25.”

“Right. But if you only put in the same amount of work everyone else does, how do you expect to be better than them?

Amanda doesn’t have to do medicine, but if she can get in, she can do just about any university course she so desires. I reiterate my earlier point: happiness is about choices.

As a Singaporean friend of mine who completed 4 degrees in 7 years, while working full-time, once told me, “It’s not about how smart you are. It’s what you do with your smarts.”

Being smart is an inherited quality, not one we have control over, or can improve on. Research has shown we have an IQ of between 10 and 15 points of our closest relatives. Simply put, if your parents are not Einstein, it is unlikely you will be either.

At any rate, I don’t put much currency on Amanda being smart, although since she’s already doing Year 5 work in Year 3, you might contend that she is. For her 8th birthday, HRH and I presented her with a 288 page NAPLAN work book, expecting her to finish it in a month (because that’s what we ourselves would do), and when she finished it 6 weeks after we bought it, I simply took to writing out 50 questions on a single sheet of paper for her to do, then tiring of that, I bought her NAPLAN Year 5 books instead. She’s been cheerfully doing them, oblivious to the titles that suggest she might not be able to.


Dear Future Government of Malaysia.

Dear Future Government of Malaysia,

I have no interest in politics or politicians. However, since Malaysia’s General Election is once more upon us, I see it fit, as a proud, if absent, daughter of the country, to share with you the average Malaysian’s dream for our beloved country.

Many might contend I am the wrong person to speak for the average Malaysian, since I live abroad, and have done so for close to 15 years, but believe you me, the human heart knows neither reason nor geography. Although Australia has graciously housed my family over the years, affording me the freedom of speech and expression you see here, a large part of me still hankers for the familiarity of roots, of home.

It’s true what they say about childhood: it’s the time of our lives when foundations are laid. In my childhood, I played hopscotch and  “five stones” under trees raining red saga seeds, lost a couple of baby teeth munching on leathery keropok lekor, and every monsoon season, especially on the East Coast where I lived for 3 years, wondered if the Malay boys kicking football in the rain were going to catch anything more than a cold.

Thanks to the national-type schools I attended, I made many friends of different races who I’ve kept in contact with until today. My Malay friends in particular, are often surprised I not only still speak Malay but do so rather well, choosing to do so when communicating with them, even though we can all speak English. Given the persecutory policies that led to my being based in Australia and the generally tense state of affairs between Chinese and Malays, I’m glad our friendships have survived time and distance. It’s testament to the fact that regardless of race or religion, Malaysians have more in common with each other than we do with anyone else.

Outside of Malaysia, or at least in cyberspace, away from the racial polemics typifying Malaysia’s social and political landscape, we get on like a house on fire, united by concern over the same issues: increasing costs of living, declining personal safety, affordability of education for our young, welfare for the old and infirm. Over here, we’re all minorities, indistinguishable by the local population from one another. On the world stage, we are one among many Asian nations – something I hope voters think about when they arrive at the polling booths this 5th of May, for Malaysia’s General Election. Regardless of race or religion, we are all bound for the same destination. As a people, we can put our racial and religious differences aside and concentrate on the important issues at hand, or we can bend to the will of those who will use our differences against us and go backwards.

It is my fervent wish that one day, when I speak of Malaysia, I won’t have to qualify my statement with, “But I’m Chinese,” (actually, I’m Peranakan) or give my audience a synopsis of the many issues hindering our progress from third world nation to first. I want you, the future government of Malaysia, elected with the mandate of the people this General Election, to address these issues without resorting to blame or racial polemics. Restore the people’s faith in you. Roll up your sleeves and get the job done. Make good on your election promises, whatever they are. Let the peoples of other nations, who achieved independence when we did, see us as equals, worthy of their respect and (positive) attention.

Thank you.





Q & A with a Humanist.

The firestorm of comments on By Estella Dot Com’s facebook page resulting from yesterday’s post has caused me to think critically about the objectives of my writing. Summarily, one reader, SL,  accused me of propagating nonsense because worse things happen to cows. SL claims to be an animal rights advocate. I told her I love animals but am not their champion. Unlike her, I haven’t given up on HUMANITY; I believe much harmony can be achieved across the mosaic of races that make up the face of humanity through OPEN and HONEST dialogue. This is what www.byestella.com is all about. This is what I am about. I write FOR people interested in people.

For once I will be both interviewee and interviewer. I conduct many impromptu interviews to write the stories I do, but it’s time I sat in the hot seat. Based on my heated exchange with SL, I feel the questions below need answering:

1) So why is your subject matter humans? Why not animals?

Obviously I am human. I embrace every aspect of being human – be it challenges of  finding fulfilment and overcoming frustrations, or making myself heard amongst a din of voices.  My special interest is human adaptation and environmental transplantation. Put simply: I’m a migrant from a long line of migrants. I want to know how people like myself can make an alien environment, home.

2) You write about home in many of your stories. Do you not think some might say your writings are based entirely on your own experiences?

They most certainly are based on my own experiences. All literary works are, to a large extent, biographical. The difference with a blog is that I openly and publicly stake an ownership to all opinions expressed. I make myself a lightning rod to public opinion instead of hiding behind a facade of made-up characters.

3) Wouldn’t it be better to lead a QUIET content life since you have THE MEANS to do so?

I believe privilege entails certain responsibilities. Having been raised in an environment in which racism is rife, and discovering ethnic and cultural heritage through unusual means as an adult, issues relating to the discrimination of people based on skincolour really irk me. For better or worse, multi-culturalism is the way of the future. To know what sort of a future this is, it doesn’t help to bury our heads in the sand and pretend there are no issues arising from the mingling of people. There are issues and there will always be.

Here’s a quote by Martin Niemöller which expresses most aptly why I speak out:

“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

4) But aren’t these generalisations though? Why can’t people all just get along?

Individuals may be as infinitely varied as the nuances of shades on a colour wheel, but in groups of people with the same background and upbringing, certain observable characteristics emerge. Hence when people tell me my observations are generalisations, I respond by telling them that generalisations are so called because they apply to an identifiable group of people. Are we all 100% different from each other? No. But the amount of difference is enough to cause deep-seated mistrust and make for testy relationships.

5) And you believe speaking about racial issues to be the key to overcoming that?

Certainly peaceful co-existence cannot exist in a vacuum of communication. For us to empathise with someone very different from ourselves, we must first understand them, and we cannot understand them unless there is dialogue. Many Asians are not in the habit of speaking out or up for themselves. Through my writings, I allow the western reader to know what and who we are. I’ve been told I give my fellow Asians abroad a sense of community; it’s a bond forged through the shared experience of being a perpetual visitor in someone else’s land.

6) Why do you say you’re a visitor? Aren’t you already home?

I once considered Malaysia my home but I was often told to “balik tong san” (go back to China) even though my family has been there since the days of Hang Li Po, the 1500s. I consider Australia my home, but as recently as yesterday, was told by SL, a white Australian, preaching tolerance and harmony, I can “go back to where I came from” if unhappy with the country. I’m happy with Australia; just unhappy with NAIVE, UTOPIAN, HYPOCRITES.

I’d like to point out to SL and others like her I have just as much a right to be here as you do.  Australia is a nation of migrants, built on the blood, sweat and tears of migrants. The only people who can claim ANCESTRAL ownership are the aboriginals.

7) But does racism exist in Australia? Why tar everyone with the same brush?

I’d ask you to trust me on this, but you don’t have to. Here’s an ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) interview with prominent Sydney neurosurgeon, Charlie Teo, who touched on racism in his 2012 Australia Day address. Here’s his interview with the Herald Sun, claiming racism is very much alive in Australia:

Here’s the tail-end of a recent racial rant by a white person in Sydney captured on video. NO bystanders stepped in to stop his verbal attack on a group of Asian tourists. Here’s an article on the “subterranean” nature of racism in Australia. The title says it all: Noisy bigots drown out silent bias. The author includes some interesting statistics on the matter.

The fact is racism is everywhere because people allow their ignorance of those different to themselves to dictate their behaviour. To say ANIMALS have it worse and we should just disregard issues arising from the meshing of peoples and cultures is to say that doctors shouldn’t save people because we are all going to die anyway.

8) Do you just write about racism or can I expect to read about other issues on www.byestella.com?

I write human life stories with a significant cultural bent to them. If you trawl through my over 200 posts, you’ll see I often write about the clash between East and West. It’s NOT all about racism, but about DIFFERENCE. Why this particular theme?

Difference feels like sand in your shoes. You want to get rid of the irritation because it keeps rubbing against you, but human difference is something that cannot be eradicated, only managed. Wherever you go, you are going to come across differences arising from race and culture. There are few certainties in life but that is a given. Those differences will only become more pronounced with increased globalisation, and feel more personal, with intermarriage and subsequent reproduction.

9) What is your ultimate aim for www.byestella.com?

It is perhaps overreaching for me to say this but I’d like to leave my daughter, Amanda, a more racially tolerant world. I’d like my readers to go away knowing more about “others” or at least “people like me” than when they first happened upon my blog. I’d also like for them to pick up on that thread of humanism running through stories, to view similarity in people through the lense of difference. 

“I have no brown skin” and other dilemmas of raising an Asian child in the West.

Amanda had her first play date for 2013 when Chloe, her classmate came over one Wednesday after school. I have no idea why but most children seem to like me, often confiding stuff they’d keep from their own parents. Chloe, for instance, shared she wants to be an air hostess when she grows up.

“An air hostess?” I asked, perhaps with furrowed brow.

“Yes, someone who serves food on the plane.”

I know what an air hostess is, and have nothing but great admiration for their ability to navigate time zones and get over routine jet-lag, but there’s just one problem with this: Chloe’s a little Chinese girl.

“SSSHHH…You can’t tell your mother,” I said.

“Why not?” she asked, wide-eyed.

“Have you told her?”


Then you can’t because little Chinese girls cannot tell their mothers they want to be air hostesses.” Or supermodels or singers or actresses… Frankly, there is a prescribed list for these things, unless you want to worry your mother unnecessarily.

“Yes, but air hostesses are needed to take care of passengers on the plane.”

And I definitely AGREE with the Australian notion every person is useful, every job, important. “But you just can’t tell your mother! You’re a Chinese girl.”

Her sister is doing dentistry at university, having always been a top student, so she got what I was saying – the parental expectations that comes with being Chinese.

But I’m NOT Chinese,” she said.

“Of course you are! Your mother and father are Chinese, aren’t they?”

“Yes, but I was born in Australia. That makes me an Australian, not a Chinese.”

I smiled at Chloe, remembering Amanda’s assertion at age 5, “I am NOT Chinese because I have no brown skin. I am white.” I even recorded the affronting statement as part of a yearly interview I do with Amanda to gage her mental development.

Whereas most people in Brisbane would ferret out a beach or ride the Citycat to explore the river, newly-arrived from Australia’s north, HRH and I made many trips to the Chinese enclaves in Brisbane’s southeast to show Amanda people like us.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry,” said my Aussie mate, F, at the time. “When I was a little girl, I wanted to have pink hair just like Barbie.”

Yes, but F could dye her hair pink to look like Barbie. Amanda and Chloe can’t look like Barbie even with pink hair. Many Aussies are complimentary about Asian faces, but  most Chinese, except the die-hard narcissists who invest in circle lenses and photoshop, have always thought themselves ugly. It doesn’t help that over here, we don’t often see faces like ours in the media. Pick up a random magazine at a news stand and you’d be hard-pressed to find one. Very occasionally there’s  the token “different” person, who’s often Eurasian, or no part Asian, to represent the very many different physiognomies found under the Asian umbrella.

“They’d be plenty of work for you as a gangster’s doll, or a doctor or one of those lab-coat wearing types,” said one of my Aussie actor acquaintances about acting roles for Asians. “Many of my Asian friends get offered these roles over and over again.”

“But I don’t think we (Asians) need more representation in the media,” said a fellow Chinese when I told her. “It’s their country. What Australia needs is more aboriginals in the media.”

I’m not arguing that Australia doesn’t, but this fellow Chinese is married to a white Australian. She will have her own set of issues, pertaining to ethnic and cultural identity, when she and her husband have kids. Either that or Australia will have a growing number of people with “other” ancestry who are totally clueless as to what “other” means.

Amanda has since grasped the concept of duality, she struggled with when we were living up north, where there are few “other” type peopleI remember fondly, being invited to participate in all “multicultural events” at her school there because I was the only parent in her class of a distinctly different culture. With plenty of explanation, Amanda now understands what it means to be an ABC or Australian Born Chinese: she is still a Chinese person, but one living in Australia. She’s confounded though,  by what her father and I are: MBCs living in Australia.

What’s Malaysian?” she once asked us for the M in MBC.

Good question. That’s something many Malaysians, after more than 60 years of independence, with the general elections once more before them, are asking themselves.

Food on the Chinese mind at Perth Zoo.

Next to the French, Chinese are probably the most food-obsessed. We start out our days thinking about dinner, feasts to be had at the weekend and closest holiday, and in many cases, plan road trips and holidays entirely around the sampling of various foods. In fact, if you were to tell a Chinese there’s NO food at an event – like in Australia, where most event organisers only serve tea and coffee – it’s unlikely you’ll see him or her. Even when there is no food to be hand, our minds still conjure up images of juicy roasts, succulent braise meats and other delectable morsels a long history of hunger and deprivation has inspired.

Case in point: moi, strolling through Perth’s Zoo with the family, thinking of all the wonderful meals I could have from the various creatures on display. This constant thinking of food I assure you, has nothing to do with me being on a diet. It springs itself on me even when full, at the most inconvenient of times – this being one of them.

Surveying God's generous bounty at Perth Zoo.

Surveying God’s generous bounty at Perth Zoo.

“Aren’t those birds lovely?” observes Amanda aloud.

“Yes, most certainly. Especially covered in BBQ sauce,” I say. “Or pan-fried with a bit of salt and pepper.”

“Mama! How can you look at the birds and think of food? ” she says in mock disgust.

Us with dinner, maybe? A picture of Amanda and I with Ibises at the Perth Zoo.

Us with dinner, maybe? A picture of Amanda and I with Ibises at the Perth Zoo.

How can I not? Aren’t the crispy pigeons served in Chinese restaurants birds too? Or have they morphed into plants since they no longer flap their wings? Amanda has never liked chicken or eggs so she can’t make the mental connection. She has the Aussie affliction of liking chicken breasts, the driest and most tasteless of meat. To get her to eat some meat (only monks, the poor and enlightened individuals are vegetarian), I’ve to resort to cooking chicken breast, and so, have to consume it myself. O’ the sacrifices of motherhood.

“How about that turtle?” says Amanda, pointing to a great big shelled thing.

How old do you think this thing is? I'm guessing 100!

How old do you think this thing is? I’m guessing 100!

“Delicious too,” I say, ribbing her, although I can distinctly remember having turtle soup in childhood. It tastes much like beef, only stringy.

In Malaysia, there are forest shacks you visit to have your fill of game without any hunting. I’ve heard of someone dying after consuming deer cooked in herbs or some other wild animal. Some of those are spirits and NOT really animals, they say. Or the human victim must have offended one of the local deities guarding the forests.

"What's the giraffe doing, mama?" asked Amanda. "Testing the female's giraffe's urine to know if they should make baby giraffes." EEEWWWW, was her answer.

“What’s the giraffe doing, mama?” asked Amanda. “Testing the female’s giraffe’s urine to know if they should make baby giraffes.” EEEWWWW, was Amanda’s answer.

“And how about the Tiger?” asks Amanda. “Don’t tell me you want to eat it too!”

“Tigers eat people so people eat tigers,” I say, teasing her, which is unfortunately true.

Tigers hunt humans when they are no longer able to hunt other animals. Don’t be offended but, unless they’ve developed a taste for humans, we aren’t their first choice of meat. A fit, healthy tiger in the wild much prefers to kill fit, healthy deer or antelope than a fat, sluggish human being, although I don’t suggest you court one to test my theory. Due to the Chinese practise of using tiger parts as cures for an assortment of ailments, they’ve since become a critically endangered speciesEven though we lack in-built, physical weaponry, we, humans, are still the greatest predators to walk the earth.

Aren't they juicy, erm, I mean docile?

Aren’t they juicy, erm, I mean docile?

“Ok, now don’t tell me you want to eat the lizard,” says Amanda, pointing to a close relative of the iguana.

“Actually, I’ve eaten one of those,” I say, not joking.

The statue looked so real, my mouth was watering. Just kidding! I didn't want to go near the thing.

The statue looked so real, my mouth was watering. Just kidding! I didn’t want to go near the thing.

Again, in Malaysia, where iguanas are commonly found, some motorists just stop their cars to abduct these creatures for their pot. They definitely take home those run over by vehicles instead of leaving them roadside to rot. Many years ago, my mother’s friend gave her some iguana soup to try and so that evening, she fed us a chunk each for dinner. It also tasted like beef. As a matter of fact, and I don’t know if it’s God’s joke on us eat-everything buggers, but all wild meat tastes like beef.

A  picture of a grumpy orang utan at the Perth Zoo.

Enjoying quite time alone. A picture of a grumpy orang utan at the Perth Zoo.

“How about the snake?” asks Amanda, pointing to one in the dim-light of the night-animals enclosure.

“What about it? Chinese eat snakes too. It must taste a lot like eel.”

Eel tastes like fatty fish. I once saw this documentary about soldiers in the Singapore army, gutting and skinning a python to make a BBQ. What can I say? I’ve eclectic viewing habits. At least I know what I’ll be eating if I find myself lost in the jungle.

“How about the otters?” says Amanda, by now eyeing me with the same level of suspicion Aussies regard many of the foods originating from animals identified here.

“Don’t know. Never had one. Although I imagine sauce makes everything edible.”

This elephant tries and tries, to avail, to get what's in the hanging basket.

This elephant tries and tries, to no avail, to get what’s in the hanging basket.

Her "promo board" says: sorry but Tricia cannot stop for photographs.

Her “promo board” says: sorry but Tricia cannot stop for photographs.

Now you needn’t worry for the animals of Perth Zoo for they are protected by high walls, high fences, and if that were not enough, security cameras on the outside to deter any would-be Chinese hot-pot enthusiast. I suggest the administrators of Perth Zoo pass out celery sticks and other vegetable crudites to Chinese visitors to help us stave off (and perhaps rewire our brains to not think of all animals as food) our meat-cravings while there. Jokes aside, Chinese do love animals and have a deep appreciation for animal conservation which is why HRH and I brought Amanda to see those big and small, furry, scaly and grizzly things that live lazy, snooze-filled days at the Perth Zoo.

Another critically endangered animal.  A picture of HRH's beloved Red Panda at Perth's Zoo. We spent 20 minutes at its enclosure just to snap this photo since the thing wouldn't sit still.

Another critically endangered animal. A picture of HRH’s beloved Red Panda at Perth’s Zoo. We spent 20 minutes at its enclosure just to snap this photo since the thing wouldn’t sit still.

Best diet secrets from around the world.

We’re so lucky nowadays because there’s a smorgasbord of food choices in most major cities around the world. Even in country towns, the effects of human migration are slowly making themselves felt, if at times inauthentically, across menus. My quest to lose 10 to 15 kilos and live healthier has led to me to examine the different dietary practices of some of the healthiest people on earth. Here are some of my favourite, which I’ve used to formulate a do-able eating philosophy:

China (the traditional Chinese diet, not the modern one with many “experimental” dishes)

  • Eat like the typical peasant of yore, as opposed to an Emperor all the time.

    Peasant-eating. Picture courtesy of http://www.npr.org

    Peasant-eating: mostly vegetables and soupy dishes. Picture courtesy of http://www.npr.org

  • Eat several traditional stir fries (eg. saute garlic with leafy greens, bean sprouts with salted fish) in the one meal. Dark leafy greens such as Chinese kale don’t just provide plenty of fibre but are also high in calcium – great for vegans.
  • Eat less meat, less often, bulked up with non-starchy vegetables (refer below)
  • Incorporate traditional ingredients such as lotus roots, gingko nuts, black fungus, black moss hair, glass noodles, bamboo shoots and assortment of herbs (eg. ginseng, dong guai, dragon eyes, wolfberry, red dates, honey dates, north and south almonds) to enhance nutritional profile of dishes.
  • Have broth-type soup with most meals, at least 1 plate of green vegetables at ALL meals. Sweets and sugary foods MUST be eaten very rarely.




  • No foods are forbidden. We can eat all foods in moderation. However, by “eating in moderation” they mean single serves in small amounts. As my French friend says, “You can have fried chicken, Estella. Just the one piece is okay.”
  • Small serves of indulgent food spaced throughout the week is less damaging to the waistline than 1 huge serve once.
  • Enjoy “the moment” when dining out. Don’t rush through meals. Instead, savour them. If dining at home, use nice China to liven up the dining experience.
  • You can have a glass of wine with meals. Remember, just 1.
  • End meals with a small leafy salad. Here’s a video on French salads from my favourite French Canadian Chef, Laura Calder.



  • Koreans place a great emphasis on eating healthily. Even their junk food caters to the health-concscious consumer with benefits of the ingredients used listed on the front or side of the package.
  • Most Korean meals come with many vegetable-based side dishes, adding to the variety of foods eaten at each meal. This means that we have a higher chance of getting the nutrients we need throughout the day.
  • Instead of regular polished white rice, Koreans frequently consume a boiled blend of grains to up their intake of minerals and fibre.
  • Foods are seldom fried; most often foods are boiled, BBQ-ed in such a way as to allow excess fat to run off. Fatty meats are cut into very thin slivers so the average diner doesn’t really eat much of it.
  • Pound for pound, Koreans eat their weight in Kimchee a year. Kimchee’s been found to be one of the world’s healthiest foods, providing the gut with a dose of good bacteria, often found in other fermented foods like yogurt and miso.

South American

  • You’ve probably already heard of Quinoa, Chia seeds and Acai berry. But did you know they, along with Cacao, the purest form of chocolate (yes, chocolate!) are South American superfoods?
  • Their cuisine, while varied across the vast region, typically features tomatoes, bell peppers, garlic, onions and black beans. Tomatoes are known to protect men against prostate cancer, while bell peppers are high in Vitamin C. Garlic and onions are antibacterial, while black beans very high in fibre.


Living in a country with a mostly Anglo-diet, which I too enjoy from time to time, I’ve found ingredient substitution key to enjoying many foods. For instance, did you know you can make creamy Cabonara sauces and soups using (unsweetened) condensed milk? To thicken the consistency of these sauces or soups, simply add a heaped tablespoon of cornflour to the mix. I guarantee you, your taste buds won’t know the difference.

Instead of starting off the cooking process with butter or oils, use it at the end to flavour food. You will taste the ingredient, certainly smell it, but use far less than you would with conventional cooking practices.

And there you have it: some of my “thin-spirations” (inspirations for being thin and healthy) from around the world. Although non-exhaustive, it will provide you with a spring-board to launch into healthful eating. Bon Apetit!

The forced road to skinniness.

You must be thinking I’ve a couple of screws loose in my head to want to be thinner than what I already am. For the record, I was quite happy about my body, even if I denied the existence of tuck-shop lady arms (yes, thin people have those too), a cute little roll of abdominal fat (I put that down to having Amanda), and other wobbly bits best left to your imagination. Not that I’d want you to imagine me naked, but you get what I’m saying.

When I did a straw poll among friends, no one voted me as needing to shed weight. The common consensus was, and still is, I have a pretty decent bod for my age, what more being a mother. We, child-bearers, can’t hope to compare our bodies with our fruitless sisters because anyone who’s birthed and nursed a child will know the toll that takes on your body: the stretch marks, the loose bits…okay, enough of scaring you.

Well, as you might have gathered from reading my other posts, my mother is fat-phobic. Even when I was less than 45 kilos, she’d say, “Of course you MUST be thin. You CANNOT be fatter than your mother. I’ve had 4 children, you’ve only had 1.”

And yes, I’ve heard too many times the story of her emerging, post-delivery, wearing her pre-pregnancy jeans home. I must have my father’s genes because I went home fat, swollen and oozy after having Amanda – proof Asian girls are not naturally thin.

You can only imagine what she said when I went home the December just past, weighing a very hefty (for my height and bone structure anyway) 56.5 kilos! Actually, you don’t have to imagine that either because I’m just going to tell you.

You’re obese,” she declared, right in front of Amanda.

“What’s obese?” asked Amanda, who’d only ever heard me refer to myself, jokingly, as “fat.”

“That’s whale-sized,” I told Amanda, who responded theatrically with enlarged eyes, raised eyebrows and gaping mouth. “Sumo wrestler size.”

What’s a Sumo wrestler?

“Ssshhh…I’ll tell you another day.” To her grandmother, I said, “What do you mean by obese? In Australia, the average woman is a size 14.”

Of course, the average woman in Australia is also supposedly 5 feet 7 inches tall. At 5 feet 3 inches, I shouldn’t be more than a size 10. But I was only wearing a size 8 to 10, so how could I possibly be obese?

“Think of all the illness you’ll be getting,” she said. “You have to be responsible for your health, especially since you are someone’s mother. If something happens to you, no one will love Amanda like you do.”

Ignoring my protestations about being healthy and curvaceous, sort of like Salma Hayek but yellower, my mother had my father, who colludes in all her schemes, take me for a COMPREHENSIVE blood test, where I was duly informed, I have HIGH cholesterol. Wait, it gets worse. You can have HIGH cholesterol even if you eat plenty of Avocados, but my BAD CHOLESTEROL was very, very HIGH. Good cholesterol, very, very low.

You know what that means, don’t you? I was on the fast track to getting a heart attack, a stroke, Type 2 diabetes… It was hard denying the numbers in front of me, even if by Australian standards and the increasing waistlines of many Asians – due to our growing portion sizes and burgeoning love affair with Western food – I was rather slim; my BMI an acceptable 22.7.

As you may recall, when I returned to Malaysia in December, I was greeted at the airport by my sister-in-law who’s now in direct sales, that is, apart from working full time as a tax consultant. To support her growing business, her brother, my husband, HRH, reluctantly agreed to buy me Nuskin’s The Right Approach (TRA) programme. Even at cost price, it is roughly AUD 1505 (RM 4800) for 3 months worth of shakes, supplements, and other odds and ends.

I was skeptical because I had tried Herbalife more than 10 years ago, and within a year, had put back on the 5 kg I’d lost. But since HRH had agreed to buy the whole package for me…

While waiting for my package to arrive, with my sister-in-law’s first entry into Australia as a permanent resident, I devised my own weight loss programme using everything I know about nutrition. Here’s what I did:

  1. Limit daily calorie consumption to 1200. Why 1200? It’s based on my OMRON-machine reading courtesy of sister-in-law. It’s the amount of calories I need a day to sustain my activities. Any less and I lose weight. 
  2. Make meals more flavourful, less fatty. I said goodbye to my beloved fish crackers, which I’ve been indulging in almost from birth. Also sayonara to pig innards, all other obviously greasy foods. Making over favourite foods became a new hobby.
  3. Eat vegetables at EVERY meal time. It’s a no-brainer, but we don’t eat nearly as many vegetables as we should. I recommend you find a tasty low-fat dressing (Sushi Su, balsamic vinegrette etc) and eat that giant salad tonight. Skip the croutons. If having a decadent dressing like Caesar, put it on the side and use it to “flavour” the odd bite or so.
  4. Control portion sizes. Up until the last 20 years, we used to have big feeds only on celebratory occasions. With improved standard of living, we’re celebrating all the time, hence eating more than ever. A quick trick to getting yourself used to eating less is using smaller plates. Research also shows that the more people you dine with, the more you tend to eat. Try dining alone.
  5. Make eating better a game. It’s a fun one too. You’ll be standing in the food aisle thinking, “What can I put in place of fatty ingredient X, to make it taste just as good, if not better?” With this way of thinking, I’ve turn out creamy pies with less than 400 calories, bangers and mash with less than 400 calories…It doesn’t have to be rabbit food all the way, but being thin does require meal-planning and/or an acute awareness of what you put into your mouth.

When my sister-in-law turned up with my Nuskin TRA package 2 months later, I had already lost 2.4 kilos. It wasn’t a whole lot but I was very proud of my efforts since I had identified some of my dietary weaknesses and was able to partake in family dinners as usual. With her help, using the OMRON machine, I found that my muscles had increased by 0.7%, visceral fat (abdominal fat) decrease by 1, total percentage of body fat decrease by close to 2%. That may not seem like a lot to some, but if you are more than 1/3 fat like me (yes, it’s truly mind-boggling how someone seemingly thin can have so much fat), every little bit counts. It should be noted that for long-term weight-loss, healthy-eating habits have to be established and maintained. As for exercise, it  can make you feel good, but undertaken at the amount needed to loose weight, will make you age a lot faster, due to the extra free-radicals generated by the body during exercise. Perhaps, with exercise alone, you will gain back the weight once you stop.

1 month later, on Nuskin’s TRA programme, incorporating my own method of healthy-eating, I lost 3 kilos (4 kilos if you take my measurements first thing in the morning), 3 cm on my tuck-shop lady arms, 7 cm from my waist, 5 cm from my post-baby pouch aka abdomen, 6.5 cm from my hips, 3.5 cm from my thighs, 6.5 from my calves. I don’t have the OMRON machine so I can’t tell you what my visceral fat, percentage of fat or percentage of muscles are, but I can definitely say that I feel a lot better; much lighter.

PLEASE NOTE: I am NOT selling Nuskin or any other product. This is neither a paid endorsement, nor is it a recommendation for the product.

Obliging Asian daughter that I am, I’m simply chronicling my journey to become the thin person my mother has always wanted for a daughter, and perhaps inspiring a few of you, with a few extra pounds of pudge, to embark on health-finding journeys of your own. If my story has taught you anything, it should be that even seemingly thin people can be fat inside. As for visceral fat and the OMRON machine, here’s a snippet on Youtube about it:

May you find your inner thin person!