The Kam Raslan Factor: ASK YOUR QUESTIONS!

Fear of asking. Fear of getting it wrong. Fear of being labeled for making mistakes.

These are unmistakably the realities of Malaysian classrooms; be it in primary, secondary or heck, even in universities and workplace. Malaysians, as they say, are courteous in nature, but that doesn’t positively entail to our lack of critical insights to question whenever necessary. I was taken aback when my nature of seeking clarifications and comparing concepts in classes (law class, mind you) had somehow ‘annoyed’ my law lecturer, and the so-called lawyer-to-be colleagues! How hilarious!

Perhaps our society has yet to accustom to accepting views from different perspectives. It can be disappointing to note that even academicians would hesitate to deal with lingering doubts (or thoughts) to the core of it. It’s from this lack of inquisitiveness and thirst for the flip-side of the mainstream view that our society had always find it difficult to cope with differences, what more to unleash new spectrum of ideas. Often times, we tend to neglect our curiosity which then becomes a bane as the new generation becomes more accustomed to accepting literal, superficial and shallow explanations. Alternative or non-conventional views are sidelined and belittled upon, creativity is placed less importance, and eventually this trickle-down factor creates a spoonfed generation whom views are restrained to only within what is taught.

I was lucky to have known and worked with Kam Raslan during my previous semester break.

As how The Nut Graph pens it down:

Kam Raslan grew up and lived in the United Kingdom for some 20 years before returning to Malaysia. “I think I could say I was an economic migrant,” the one-time filmmaker and director says. “I was just starting out in film, and it was very hard to get in. Things [in Kuala Lumpur], on the other hand, were seemingly booming.

Kam Raslan is now a full-time writer who is well known for his Confessions of an Old Boy stories published in Off the Edge magazine and released as a book in 2007. He runs a weekly column in The Edge, and is currently working on a collection of writings on Malaysian history.

Kam Raslan also anchors a number of talkshows on BFM 89.9, the Business Radio Station.

Kam is someone I’d consider the epitome of a curious person who’d go all the way to critically analyze issues concerning him. While I’m not discarding others of their inquisitiveness, Kam’s unique perspectives and humorous nature never failed to enlighten the minds of his readers with an alternative view of looking at daily concerns of average Malaysians. One may argue that his opinions may not necessarily equate to sheer accuracy as he’s in no position to speak on behalf of the lawyers, engineers, politicians and the many status-concerned professionals out there, but his views are reflective to the idea that ‘there’s no right or wrong, we’re just different’ in giving out opinions.

It doesn’t mean that Law students can’t challenge what’s taught in class by a Law expert; the same analogy goes to in other aspects of life especially in areas concerning State-Citizen. Inferiority shouldn’t be a hindrance factor. As we progress to be a developed nation, our mindset must be tuned to tolerate clashing opinions and outlook of life without restraining ourselves to a specified framework of thoughts. We’ve let ourselves to be mainstreamed to such an extent that even an intellectual opinion by a Constitutional Law expert is considered as libelous that Prof Aziz Bari had to resign from his post.

During the two-month period of me working with Kam Raslan, I had the opportunity to ask him questions for his weekly-published column on The Edge. I’ve heard of people chiding him as a writer drained of ideas, but I beg to differ as his columns are meant to be reflective of this vigor of alternative, fresh, and critical ideas and thoughts that we are always expecting from young graduates.

Here are some of the interactions we had on The Edge, feel free to voice out your doubts and questions to and who knows, yours will then be answered on The Edge..rather than being dismissively ignored by another of your lecturer or friends in class!

His previous columns are available on

* * *

Dear Kam,
1) Would you choose a CGPA 4.0 local graduate (on the presumption that he speaks good English) or an Oxford graduate with so-so academic results?

Interesting question, but will it expose my prejudices? Fortunately I am naturally prejudiced against any graduate from anywhere, but I can be because I work in the media where qualifications don’t mean anything (presuming you speak good English). I have the same recruiting policy as the French Foreign Legion — it doesn’t matter what you did before as long as you perform now (presuming you speak good English). For me, qualifications are worthless (a hindrance if you studied Mass Communications), but if I were the manager of a hospital and looking to hire a brain surgeon then I would hope the candidate has more than a Boy Scout/Girl Guide badge for first aid. So I guess it depends on the industry you want to join.

We’d like to think that all graduates are judged equally, but the Oxford graduate will usually win because there is an assumption that his degree comes with a whole package of skills like the ability to read and write in complete sentences and a certain worldliness. But the assumption is misplaced. My brother went to Cambridge University and I visited him when he was there. I assumed that people at Cambridge must be the smartest people in the whole world so I was really shocked when I discovered that many of them were really stupid (not my brother and his friends). I was talking to somebody and he said something that I knew was wrong, but then I thought that I must be wrong because he was at Cambridge University and I was not. It made me doubt myself.

Be able to read and write in complete sentences and show that you know that Malaysia is not the only country in the world and you’ll be fine.

2) Do you think that people in journalism and the broadcasting industry are underpaid? If yes, what’s their commercial value then? Like lawyers, engineers?

This question is music to my ears. The answer to the question is, yes. We (me) are underpaid. Our true commercial value should be the same as, let’s say, the CEO of a major bank. So please send the extra money (cash only) to the usual address: 3rd Cubicle, Gent’s toilet, Pudu Bus Station.

But seriously, I do think the whole industry is undervalued but that’s partly because the Malaysian market is ultimately quite small compared with Jakarta or London. It’s not really that people in broadcasting are undervalued but that broadcasting itself is neither given nor particularly deserving of respect. Things will only change when the media industries show that they truly reflect the concerns and aspirations of their audience, and don’t treat the audience like they are a bunch of overgrown children. But things are changing.

3) I’ve been to most Asean countries, and each of their capital cities has some sort of sentimental value that the people can emotionally and historically relate to. For example, one can visit (and pray) at the magnificent Golden Palace in Bangkok, the many well-maintained pre-war buildings in Singapore, beautiful ancient temples and palace in Phnom Penh and French architecture in Ho Chi Minh City, to name a few. In comparison to these major cities of Asean countries, I personally feel than KL lacks this edge, and even if we do, there’s no real effort to preserve and show the whole world our sentimental value. KL is beginning to be more about shopping complexes and high-rise buildings. KL does not seem to emphasise its cultural aspect, don’t you think so?

It takes time. Very occasionally I take people on a walking tour of old downtown KL and I like to start by asking them a question. I ask how many of them were born in KL and most put their hands up. Then I ask how many have both parents born in KL and the number goes right down to very few. Then I ask how many have all four grandparents who were born in KL and so far I’ve only had two people who can say that their families really are from KL: one girl whose family is from Kampung Baru and one from Chinatown. They were able to tell me what used to be where, who used to live over there and other things like, “Excuse me, Mr Kam, but what you just said is completely wrong.”

Not that many people living in KL are really from KL, so they haven’t had time to build a sentimental attachment to the place, and certainly not to old downtown KL where their families have never lived or worked. Lots and lots of people have moved to KL from somewhere else and when their families first moved to KL in the 1960s or 1970s, they probably lived in one of the new suburbs, so perhaps people have a stronger attachment to, say, PJ or SS2 where they grew up and where the food is good.

My mother told me how she and my father were early pioneers in PJ Section 5 back in the 1960s. It was desolate, hot, treeless and without any character because it was brand new. She couldn’t see how anybody would ever want to live in such a soulless place and it wasn’t as if there was much of an attempt to give it soul because even now, PJ makes me think of the old U2 song, “Where The Streets Have No Names”. But now the trees have grown and now I have many friends from PJ who grew up there and who see themselves very much as PJ people, a separate and distinct subdivision of KL with an emotional attachment to PJ.

Penang and Bangkok are much, much older than KL. Several generations have lived in the same city (sometimes even the same house) so the inhabitants will naturally treat their hometown differently because that’s where they come from and that place defines who they are. You can’t fake a sentimental attachment to a place – it has to grip you.

I think that KL people are beginning to become interested in their town. The worry is that it’s coming too late because just as they are becoming fond of KL, the city itself is being destroyed. If we have any more shopping malls that sell the same stuff as the other shopping malls then we’ll need to look in the history books to see what KL was. Fortunately, for now at least, you can still go to old downtown KL and you’ll find it much as it has been for the last 100 years. But you’d better hurry because I don’t think it will last forever.

4) Malaysia has the status of having the most public holidays in the world: ruler’s birthdays, festive season, religious celebrations, etc … Heck, even winning the Suzuki Cup is adding up to national figures. Are we getting too much rest from work? What’s your take to solve this problem without being inconsiderate and disrespectful?

I don’t think it’s entirely true that Malaysia has the most holidays in the world. If you add up all the different holidays from all the different states then you can say that Malaysia has the most, but nobody lives in all the different states at the same time so nobody gets to enjoy them all. If you live and work in only one Malaysian state then you do not get the most holidays in the world. I think that Sri Lankans enjoy the most holidays but a resident of, say, Selangor is still very high up on the global list.

Is it a good or bad thing that we have so many holidays? I don’t really know. I think it’s important that each significant Malaysian community is given something to show that it is recognised as an important member of Malaysian society. Productivity is important but so is the well-being and fabric of society. I’m more concerned about other issues like the employability of graduates. When they are at work then they should be capable of doing the work. Otherwise, we’d have to give them a job that is one long paid holiday. I wonder if such a job exists?


5) Could you give your advice to those out there who want to freelance as their career path? How do you face uncertainties and financial insecurity, and can one own a BMW 3 Series and posh bungalow by just freelancing?

Some people don’t want to live life with a safety net. Some people are too dumb to know that a safety net was available and that all they had to do was ask (er, that would be me). It’s not for the fainthearted, or anybody who wants a regular income, or any kind of security. In fact, now I come to think of it, it’s a really stupid thing to do. What was I thinking? Damn!

But times are changing and more people are freelancing and now it’s even possible that many parents won’t suddenly start sobbing and wailing, “Why [name of your deity here]? How did I fail you?” when you say you want to be a freelancer. I think that a freelancer’s advantage is that he can learn the best practices of many organisations and not just the bad habits of one.

I’m not going to recommend freelancing. Do it if you feel you have to and that working full-time for only one organisation would kill your soul. Otherwise, don’t. Perhaps a better thing to do is politics because it might have the best of all worlds: part-time, business, preferential parking, pension and some “fact-finding missions”.

6) A while ago we had a Look East Policy. Ever since then, we have seen how China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea have begun to strengthen their economic influence worldwide. Samsung is now on a par with California’s Apple. Toyota is America’s biggest-selling marque on the road. What has gone wrong with Malaysia? Where have our past 20 years gone? Our biggest multinational corporation is still Petronas and our resources are depleting … not to mention that they are expected to run out by 2030.

You paint a depressing picture. Is it really that bad? If we go back to the 1950s and look at where South Korea was compared to us, then it does look depressing. Korea had suffered not just World War II but also the Korean War. In the 1950s, the entire country was destroyed, divided, occupied and had refugees everywhere. Meanwhile, in Malaya, things weren’t too bad by comparison. The Emergency was being wrapped up successfully, the economy wasn’t too bad and P Ramlee was about to entertain us (and Saloma was hot!). Now South Korea is, well, South Korea. Samsung is a must-have tablet, K-Pop is happening while Ramly is a burger. Where did it all go wrong?

But I’m sure it’s not that simple and that there are other factors involved, from things like climate to Cold War foreign direct investment. Malaysia isn’t doing too badly, although we have had a lot of, er, wastage. Toyota might be the best-selling car in America but Proton is the best-selling car in Malaysia, and that’s something we are all very proud of.

I know that K-Pop is very popular but sometimes I find it a little disturbing. I’ll happily watch K-Pop on TV but only if the sound is off because all the songs are utterly mind-numbingly inane (I didn’t know “Baby” was such a common Korean word). I have no problem with the fact that Korean boys are even prettier than Korean girls but I really cannot distinguish one singer from another. I guess I’m used to something like The Beatles where John, Paul, George and Ringo all had very separate and distinct personalities. Sometimes I think that the mass-ranks of K-Pop singing, dancing groups are like a very pretty version of the North Korean rallies. Having said that, South Korean movies are funny and clever.

There is a very loud but beautiful bird that wakes me up every morning, but not during the summer months. I looked him up on the Internet and found that he probably flies to Korea every summer. I like to think that although he goes there for the work he always chooses to return to Malaysia.


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