Friday, January 30, 2009

Mourning My National Museum

I had read in the Utusan Malaysia today on the plan to bring the Mona Lisa to be exhibited at the National Art Gallery. How exciting! Although I am pretty darn far from the artsy-fartsy lover, I am of the school of knowing-what-I-like-and-appreciating-it when it comes to art. I enjoyed immensely my few visits to the National Art Gallery to look at the Lat retrospective exhibition and the Tun Dr Mahathir photography commemoration. There were other stuff there which were pretty nice and I loved the Mobius strip-like central staircase of the gallery. However, I will admit to not enjoying the 3D sculptures: if I can't identify immediately what it is, I'm not interested.

I must say that the National Art Gallery is very well organised and planned to enhance the contribution of the arts to the collective national agenda. Granted they don't appear to publicise their doings loudly enough, but my visits showed that the exhibits are well-presented and current by changing the exhibit themes. This brought to mind the sad state of the National Museum.

The last international level exhibition to be found at the museum was I think in 1994: the Beauty Through Suffering exhibition. It was mostly a collection of photographs and artifacts showcasing the various methods and instruments used in the pursuit of beauty from the world over. Every continent was presented in colour and gore. The African scarification, the South American porcupine needle piercing to name a few (not to mention insane plastic surgeries of the West). It was a fantastic exhibition and you walk away with something new and thoughts to ponder.

When you speak of the heydays of the National Museum, you must recall the fantastical Khazanah dari Kubur or Treasures from the Grave exhibition in 1991. It was astounding. Funerary artifacts from the world over was gathered at the National Museum: from shrunken heads, to mummified remains from South America to the glorious golden sarcophagus of Tutankhamun. The entire exhibited smelled of earth, suspended decay and rot, but that did not deter visitors from gazing in awe at how inventive man has been in honouring and processing the dead. They even extended the showcase due to the tremendous response not just from Malaysian citizens but also from foreign visitors.

These glorious past can be laid down to the doors of Dato' Shahrum Yob, the then-curator of the National Museum. He braved lambasting from religious leaders and cynical detractors to bring history to life in the museum. His exhibitions were often innovative, well-designed and comprehensively researched with an artistic eye for presentation. He did not only look abroad for inspiration of his exhibits, but also at the local flavours; quite literally when he had the durian exhibition in the 1980s. I remember a cartoon by Lat of this momentous occasion of him eating durian with the ministers outside the museum, impeccably clad in a well-cut suit and an immaculately knotted bow tie.

I met him once at the University Malaya library and I bitterly regretted not having anything on me for him to autograph (I doubt the librarian would let me keep the book I had on me for momento sake). His tall and lean body was as immaculately dressed as his Lat caricature, and he spoke carefully and courteously in his well-modulated voice (I seem to use the word well a lot in relation to Dato' Shahrum). His Malay bore traces of his youth in Perak, the cadence and words so familiar to me as those from my father's lips. Ah, Dato' Shahrum, how I missed your curatorship.

My last visit to the National Museum was to the Misteri Alam Ghaib exhibition. It was touted to be an exploration of the mystical supernatural beliefs of South East Asia. I didn't have high expectations of it but my God what a horrific disappointment. The exhibit looked as though it was researched and constructed by a team of school children (which is an insult to all school-going children, mea culpa). The highlight of the exhibition was this tiny bottle said to contain a jenglot and a hantu galah sculpture. You walk through the exhibit in less than 10 minutes: there was nothing of note to see. The research was one-dimensional and shoddy; something amazing considering the richness of mystical lore of the region. There was so much more that they could have done: include the books and films done in horror genre produced in the country for example (e.g. Sumpah Pontianak, Sumpah Orang Minyak, Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam, etc.), use a different approach to present the material, include more details and so on. But what can you expect when from the museum when the Ming vase exhibition artifact was labelled thus,"Mangkuk. Biru. China" (i.e Bowl, Blue, China).


*tears out hair by clumps*

The very least you can do is include the dating of the specimen and the region it was found, for the love of God. If you are not colour blind, you can see that it IS A BOWL THAT IS BLUE IN COLOUR. When I saw that label I was nearly tearful with rage: how could you prepare an exhibition with such hideous labelling at THE FREAKIN' NATIONAL MUSEUM!!!!!

*expletives deleted*

Sigh. I should look up the curator and write him a letter, no?


Cock of the Walk

While being driven to work this morning,I confessed to my parents this morning that I have a blog and am actively writing in it. My father's comment?

"Stay away from political and religious issues. You don't know enough about religion to comment on it."

At which point I had to smugly point out that my e-mail to Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, the ex-mufti of Perlis had been placed in his website as an e-mel pilihan (insert giddy cackle). I continued on to explain that the e-mail was a long(-winded?) commentary on the sad state of the religious education for our young.

I held court in the car to my captive (literally) audience on how no one should blame the sad state of the Malay Muslim youths' moral judgement to the lack of religious education. Seriously, the national religious education curriculum (of which all Muslim children are subject to at all Government schools) is a rigorous one and covers all the basics that a Muslim should know: from aqidah, fardhu ain, sirrah nabawiyah and tauhid. There are even practical classes on how to pray. I remember being scolded by my ustazah for failure to bring the requisite telkung to school for the practical.

So why is it, with the well-crafted religious education curriculum that is taught from Primary One to Form Five, do we still say that our social ills are due to lack of religious education? Is it because our religious teachers adhere to the medieval teaching style whereby all dissent will be awarded with hell? Or the lack of a sensitive and well thought-out approach to inculcating our religious values?

Man, I could go on and on. But I had already arrived at my lab.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

At the Frontline of Healthcare

If you join the armed forces or the police department, you are expected to be exposed to assaults and other bodily harm in the course of your job. But evidently, nursing is another job whereby not only are you subjected to verbal abuse, you may expect to go home with a broken nose or worse.

Boy, oh boy.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Standing on the Shoulder of Giants

No one learns in isolation. Even the best philosophers get illuminated by watching and learning the world around them. And when you are a dunce, it is very important to learn from someone who knows. When I came across this link, I nearly wept in gratitude.

For the past few weeks, I've been struggling to re-educate myself with matters of molecular biology and genetics with hopes of making a go of my pharmacogenetics project. As a person who is an audio-visual learner, looking for the right medium to get your wheels going can be a right pain. And isn't it fantastic that the world is populated by kind people who are generous with their knowledge?

Thank you so much Drs. Tyra Wolfsberg, Kris Wetterstrand, Mark Guyer, Francis Collins and Andreas Baxevanis.

*dances with joy at the marvel of the Interwebs*

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

An Excuse for Blimping Out?

The Washington Post reported that my decision to take the last brownie on the pan is hardwired into my genes/hormones. Whatever.

*gobbles down the lunch-time lasagna*

Shagging Real Early?

No, not that lunch time nookie you had planned with a naughty lover.


This article in the NYTimes paved the way to debunking the myth of teenage shagdom. In Malaysia, the biggest obstacle to a reasonable sex education is the fear that teenagers, upon learning the "right way" to do "it" will be hell bent for leather for the bedroom Olympics.

Never mind that sex education is also about respecting your body and your partner. Never mind that research shows that young individuals who are armed with knowledge are less likely to engage in risky behaviours. Never mind that simply telling teenagers that premarital sex will send them straight to hell has never worked as method of prevention.

The accessibility of pornography (via Internet and pirated media) means that children are exposed to sex at a much younger age. Relentless exposure leads to desensitisation; sex are no longer taboo and may even be a normal recreational activities. The thing is, when adults are reluctant to be honest to children about something so important, it doesn't mean that children are not keen to experiment.

They do not understand that watching pornography can be akin to watching a superhero movie. There are special effects and that the characters are played by actors who are paid to do certain things according to a specific storyline. The activities perpertrated in pornography may be unhealthy and dangerous. Issues of consent is commonly pushed aside in pornography; in fact, some porn cater to non-consensual acts as a draw. This means that children may not understand that full consent is very important when engaging in sexual activity. That when someone screams "NO!" it really means no. Hence, the increasing number of young people being charged with rape; some of them barely in their teens.

Porn is not the way for them to learn that sex is an expression of emotional intimacy and that it is the best thing that two people who love each other can share. Porn does not tell you that sexual activity is something that should only be shared when the body and mind is mature in tandem. Porn does not tell you what to do when you are pregnant and your boyfriend (of the day, week) disappears. Porn does not tell you that you are responsible for your genetic element and fathering a child should be done responsibly.

Anyone who remembers their teenage years with any kind of clarity recalls what a roiling cauldron of hormones you were then. It was the time of exploring curiosity and what is more curious than this body that is changing daily with all this new sensations? How do you deal with these urges? A lot of people have experienced or heard of boarding school shenanigans (or even day school shenanigans, at that); how did that affect their future sexuality or sex life? How did you process all the information? Who told you what? Was the information correct? I had a classmate in secondary school who claimed that babies come out of their mummy's navel. I also had classmates who frenched same-sex classmates and were making plans to go further (in the interest of being better lovers to the opposite sex).

We should, no, we must, teach our children to treat their body with respect and to educate them to make responsible decisions that will affect their future.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Taking the Joy Out of Watching Mindless Violence

I have always enjoyed action movies; the more gory the mindless violence the better. Explosive stuff aplenty? I'll be there with bells on. You never really think about the gun stances that the actors take and I'll bet a lot of people thought those things can and really do happen.

Chuck Dixon very kindly disabused me of those notions in his post here. Now the next time I watch something with gratuitous gun violence, all these details will pop into my head and take me out of the story.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

The Chinese lunar new year will be celebrated next Monday (January 26th) the world over.

I am blessed to live in a multi-cultural country where this is another new year that is a national holiday (we celebrate the secular calendar, the Chinese lunar calendar and the Islamic calendar). In my old neighbourhood, we can expect a great deal of noise in the nights preceding the Chinese new year's (CNY) eve and for up to three weeks after with the celebratory fireworks and sparklers. Fireworks and sparklers are actually banned in my country, but the police are rather tolerant of festival firecrackers as long as no one loses a finger (or an eye, or a limb or any part of their body).

With every festival season, all my countrymen look forward to the celebratory advertisement put out by Petronas. I was lucky to have caught it on screen tonight as I was chatting with my parents. All of Petronas' festival advertisement are like micro features; a superbly crafted story executed fluidly in about two minutes. Laden with meaning, beauty and emotion, these advertisements serve to remind us that the most important thing in life is love; be it family, lover or country. If I am not mistaken, all or nearly all of the ads are the handiwork of the incomparable Yasmin Ahmad. She is a film-maker of renown who often deals with subjects such as love and betrayal and compassion for fellow man so passionately and beautifully. Unfortunately, her "unconventional" expressions often lands her in hot water with the national censorship board. Thanks to their overzealousness, our neighbouring Singaporeans get to watch her films much earlier than any of her own countrymen.

This year's CNY ad reminds us how fleet time is and how sorrowful regret can be. The muted tones, the lowered voice ... tres fantastique. The actors are very fine and did a wonderful job at telling the story. The backdrop is Ipoh, with its old world charm and idiosyncratic features.

It is said that the year of the Ox will be a better one than the last. Here's to that!

Yam seng!

Monday, January 12, 2009

I vote for Hospital X ...

Getting the best of healthcare treatment should be the rights of all individuals. Unfortunately, the healthcare market is skewed to favour those with the more moolah. But is money alone the sole determinant of getting the best treatment when you are dealing with cancer, hypertension, cardiovascular issues etc? How do you know to shop for the best place to get your gall bladder out?

This article in NYTimes indicated that it is important to shop around for the best treatment and that physicians should be ethically obligated to disclose whether or not the institution that they are affiliated with is the best place for the patient to receive the treatment indicated. But when you consider how little interaction the physician wants to have with you, as a patient, it renders this a moot point. Many physicians are still of the old school, paternalistic style: I know what's best for you and you should trust and not question my judgment/recommendation.

I was just glad that when my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer, he agreed to go to a teaching hospital that my mother frequents. Not only is the cost reasonable (hehehe, we cheated on this one as my sister is a government servant and could get massive discounts for the treatment), the surgeon (a scary and uber competent woman) does the operation on a weekly basis and thus, is well-trained for the occasion.

The thing is, many patients are still unable to communicate their needs well with their physician. It is easy to point the finger at the physician for not being better listeners/willing to spend time with the patient etc., but do we, as patients, pay attention to what and how we tell our problems to our doctors?

Point to ponder.

I am my gene, not my ethnicity

This article by Jerry Adler in Newsweek gave me pause. I'm in the middle of constructing a proposal to look at the pharmacogenetics of diabetes in the Malaysian population. One of the parameters that I plan to collect during the course of the investigation is ethnicity (or race, except that race sounds so ... racist.). Living in multicultural Malaysia where you have a box in any given form to indicate your ancestry(Melayu, Cina, India dan lain-lain), identifying yourself as part of an ethnic group is pretty much a way of life.

For those who are of mixed parentage, things can get pretty squeaky. As Asians, you are expected to identify yourself per your father's ethnicity (paternalistic society norms still prevail in the 21st century). But what if your father is a mere sperm donor and you do not want to link yourself to him at all? Or you're a dyed in the wool feminist who believes in aligning yourself with your maternal lineage?

Anyway. A number of the work done in disease genetics in Malaysia do indicate certain patterns that relate to a person's ethnicity. I guess I will not be going all gung-ho about not being "racist" in my project.

*crescents fingers*