The Penang Monsoons and Random Thoughts

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

It’s been raining almost continuously for the past 24 hours and shows no sign of stopping. September began with occasional showers and a few heavy rain storms. Now, I’m told, the monsoons here in Penang will intensify and continue throughout October. Last night’s deluge kept people indoors and put a damper on the first evening’s celebration of the Nine Gods Festival. Too bad for the hawkers and street vendors — shopkeepers, too. When the weather keeps people inside, their business gets washed out along with the streets and sewers. By dinner time many of the streets were flooded. As I ventured out to find a bite to eat I donned my poncho and grabbed my umbrella then walked and waded down to Little India for some curried chicken, rice, and cabbage.

The Indians, and most Malays, eat with their hands – I should say, hand. They use the right hand only. I’ve not quite mastered the technique of one-handed tearing, mixing, and stuffing. Separating chicken meat from the bone has been a particular challenge. I either cheat by using both hands, or opt for spoon and fork (knives are never seen). The latter is readily accepted, but touching your food with the left hand seems offensive to them.

One day early in the month, I took a walk along the sea wall that lies between the bay and the park. It’s a pleasant place to be, having some big shade trees and a cooling breeze that blows in off the water. I spent some time watching a handful of anglers fishing from the sea wall. The spinning reels and rods they used were familiar enough from my own sport fishing days, but I noticed that one fisherman was using a spark plug as a sinker.
That’s the kind of improvisation I can admire and Fritz Schumacher would be proud of. It gives a whole new meaning to the term “appropriate technology.” I have to wonder – are we really entering a post-industrial era? And if we are, what new ways of using familiar high tech items will people come up
with? Has anyone ever come up with a list of the ten most useful items? My friend, the late Jim Corbett (Goatwalking), noted that the most important item for him to carry on his excursions into the desert wilderness was a metal cook pot because it was durable and could serve a number of different
functions in addition to cooking.

Want to take a cruise? Try the ferry that shuttles between the Georgetown jetty and Butterworth on the mainland side. Brief as it is – twelve minutes from one side to the other – the twenty knot breeze provides a pleasant respite on a hot and muggy afternoon. Penang’s answer to the Staten Island ferry may not be as scenic — it has nothing to compare to the Statue of Liberty — but it sure is cheap enough: 1.2 Ringgit (about 40 cents, US) for the round trip. You only pay heading onto the island; the return to the mainland is free.

Human Unity

Human unity is, in my opinion, the requisite step at this stage in our evolution as a species. Richard Flyer is one of those visionary activists who is doing a fine job in leading us toward it. A recent message from him reminded me of the work he has been doing for the past several years in his home community around Reno, Nevada. Under the rubric of Conscious Community Weavers, Richard has been bringing together people of diverse backgrounds, faiths, and political ideologies. Here is their stated intention:

I am here for mutual support to practice the universal Virtues of Love,
Integrity, Courage, Service, and Respect as a way to grow spiritually and to
become a catalyst for the emergence of a new society.
Get more details at

Many such groups appear to be forming in various places, but we have a very long way to go. As Richard observes, “Because of our human nature, group identification sometimes leads us to hang around people who think like us or who have the same beliefs. Unwittingly, we participate in dividing our society and community into those who believe like us and those who don’t.”

“When we get comfortable around people who think as we do, especially in religious and spiritual groups, we can actually hinder our spiritual growth because we are not challenged by the “other”–people who are different than us in some way. We hang out in our own “ghettos”–it could be a Christian, New Spiritual, democratic or republican, social activist, or other ghettos— all the while believing that our way is the best. This false sense of superiority (spiritual pride) is like a cancer within the society and unless we consciously try to overcome it, we are part of the problem and not part of the solution.”

Ethnic Diversity and State Religion

Malaysia provides a little different perspective on this than does America. It is ethnically and religiously diverse in a way that presents somewhat greater challenges than Americans have had to face in recent years. While peaceful and harmonious on the surface, I’ve begun to see that there are significant racial and religious tensions here, which a few politicians try to incite. One of the things about Malaysia that is different from the U.S. is that Malaysia has an official state religion. It happens to be Muslim. While other religions are tolerated and freely practiced, Islam is favored. From an American perspective that seems rather odd. Americans take for granted the “separation of church and state,” and it’s hard for us to
conceive of a reason why it should be otherwise. One’s religion, after all, seems for the most part to be an accident of birth. I happen to have been born into a Catholic family, so my religious training and early belief was Catholic. I was well into adulthood before I began to think for myself and to question what I was taught. If my parents had been, Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist, I would have held and espoused the beliefs of that particular faith and practiced its rituals instead. The quest for the “one true religion,” therefore is vain. Ultimately, any thinking person must come to their own conclusions regarding the mysteries of existence, and make their own choices about their behavior based on that internal compass we call

Americans can be grateful for the fact that the Founding Fathers were, for the most part free thinkers and NOT religious fundamentalists, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or any other brand. One of our greatest freedoms is the freedom to believe what we want, to practice the rituals we want – or NOT, provided we don’t injure anyone, infringe their rights, or disturb their peace. There are many in the United States today who would like to impose their Christian fundamentalist beliefs and practices upon everyone else, and unfortunately the Republican Party has been pandering to them as a way of gaining support to win close elections.

What does it mean for a country to have an official religion? It means that the government supports financially that particular religious establishment, using public funds to build places of worship for that faith only, and basing civil laws upon its particular religious laws. In a country where the population comprises a diversity of ethnic and religious traditions, that’s bound to cause resentments and trouble sooner or later. Being forced to support someone else’s religious organization is patently unfair, and having to live with laws that may be in opposition to ones beliefs invites lawlessness and breeds corruption. One interesting observation I made a couple weeks ago was a sign posted outside a massage studio. It says,

“Public Notice: Male Muslims are prohibited from getting the services of female masseurs. Offenders will be prosecuted.”

Georgetown Excursions

The longer I stay in Georgetown, the more I like it. Although whole blocks are being cleared and rebuilt, much of the city, especially the areas close to the jetty, remains as it must have been a hundred or more years ago. In my walking explorations I see whole streets lined with old buildings pressed against one another that house various kinds of shops and warehouses. These are mostly Chinese neighborhoods that retain their ethnic character and old ways. One interesting fact that I discovered is that the Chinese in Penang and Malacca, because of their origins, speak the Hokkien dialect rather than Mandarin. Both of these cities have been designated as UN World Heritage Sites.

In bahasa Malaysia (the Malaysian language), pulau means “island” and tikus means “rat,” but the Pulau Tikus neighborhood is neither an island nor rat infested. In fact it’s a rather modern and pleasant middle-class area with apartments, shops, restaurants and cafes situated just a few blocks inland
from the luxurious hotels and condos that overlook the bay along trendy and expensive Gurney Drive.

Couch Surfing

Staying in Penang for several weeks now, I’ve had the good fortune of making several friends among the locals, besides socializing with a steady stream of foreign visitors. Last year, someone told me about a social network for travelers called It provides opportunities for people who like to travel to make friends around the world, and maybe save a little money by offering and accepting hospitality to/from one another. There is a fairly active CS community here in Penang and I’ve enjoyed meeting many of them. A couple weekends ago, one local CS member hosted a party at his Gurney Drive condo, which was well attended and lots of fun. You can see pictures at my photo gallery.


I have a preference for the food offered at the Indian restaurants here over that provided by most of the Chinese eateries. Even the Chinese themselves jokingly claim that “the Chinese will eat everything with four legs except the table,” and that’s not to mention most everything that swims, crawls, slithers or flies. Although I was a vegetarian for many years, I’ve long since added fish (with fin and scales) and poultry (mainly chicken) back into my diet. I try to avoid red meat, pork, and shellfish, which disqualifies most of the Chinese restaurants and food stalls around these parts, but one of the other guests here told me about a couple vegetarian Chinese restaurants up in Pulau Tikus. These are places where the food is good and nutritious. It only takes about 15 minutes by bus, so now I make it a point to go there to eat at least once a week. There are also a number of Chinese Chicken Rice specialty shops that I frequent, usually for lunches. These serve a few slices of roast chicken or duck on a bed of rice accompanied by a bit of plum sauce and hot pepper sauce, plus a bowl of thin broth, all for three or four Ringgit.

One thing I do miss here is popcorn. It’s my favorite snack and I eat it frequently when I’m back home,. I’ve not seen it anywhere since leaving California. I use an air popper, then drizzle the popcorn with olive oil,
add a bit of salt and grated Italian cheese or nutritional yeast. Yum. Other than peanuts, nuts are also not easy to find here. The 7-Eleven and a few other vendors do sell some roasted cashews in small packets but I don’t like the taste. I think it may have to do with the kind of oil they use in the roasting process.


I’m getting good advice from my editor at Chelsea Green, and am making good progress with the revisions to my book manuscript, which I hope to complete within a couple weeks. I plan to remain in Penang until then. In any case, I’ll have to leave Malaysia when my visa expires around the end of October. That may mean a month or two stay in Thailand, or I may decide to come right back.

Many people are asking what’s going to happen with the economy and the US dollar.

Near-term, I have no idea; long-term, I’ve been saying that the global elitist system of money, banking and finance is unsustainable, not to mention unfair and corrupt.

I see it as a good thing that Congress has refused to pass the bailout bill, but that may be just a temporary setback for the powers that be. We could be in for a wild ride.

Just remember, whatever happens in the realm of human structures, like money and finance, does not necessarily need to disrupt our ability to feed, clothe and shelter ourselves if we do not allow fear to separate us.

Sharing and cooperation will be the way toward survival and a better world.

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2 responses to “The Penang Monsoons and Random Thoughts

  1. Dear Tom,

    good to know your blog. I got in here doing websurffing 🙂
    I am living in Penang and got impressed with your essay here.

    I will visit here on a regular basis. thanks 🙂

  2. Richard Flyer makes good points on human unity. Part of the confusion we experience is the inability to recognize mechanical processes of organization versus biological processes of organization.

    Our thinking for centuries has centered on the mechanical “cog in the machine” process, which has been explored brilliantly by Eric Hoffer in his classic “The True Believer”.

    In the preface, Hoffer writes: “There are vast differences in the contents of holy causes and doctrines, but a certain uniformity in the factors which make them effective. He who, like Pascal, finds precise reasons for the effectiveness of christian doctrine has also found the reasons for the effectiveness of Communist, Nazi, and nationalist doctrine, However different the holy causes people die for, they perhaps die basically for the same thing”.

    The emergence of the Industrial Revolution produced an emphasis on mechanical repeatability and precision, with a strong emphasis on standardization. We seek unity by following mechanical thought processes that emphasize strength through numbers.

    Philip Slater wrote in “EarthWalk” that a machine-like response in the face of danger had no value until men began to make war on each other. War, the mechanical, standardization, elimination of human biological patterns in the pursuit of mechanical laws, rules, dogma, and doctrine, produced a mechanical zeal for unity that sacrificed humanity.

    The machine-like response in the face of danger was a powerful adaptive response that ensured human survival but alienated us from our biological roots. It also became the source of the impulse for religious unity. As Hoffer writes:

    “When we renounce the self and become part of a compact whole, we not only renounce personal advantage but are also rid of personal responsibility. There is no telling to what extremes of cruelty and ruthlessness a man will go when he is freed from the fears, hesitations, doubts, and the vague stirrings of decency that go with individual judgement. When we lose our individual independence in the corporateness of a mass movement, we find a new freedom–freedom to hate, bully, lie, torture, murder and betray without shame and remorse.”

    The fact is, there exists no mechanical process by which we can capture all truth. This is demonstrated by Godel’s Incompleteness theorem, which states, roughly, that “In any consistent axiomatic formulation of number theory, there exists undecideable propositions”.

    Even in formal mathematics, based on a consistent set of axioms, there exist undecideable propositions. Not only that, but more recently it was discovered that in any axiomatic system, there exists an infinity of undecideable propositions!

    In seeking human unity, there is no mechanical process by which we can get “there” from “here”! It simply cannot be reduced to a mechanical process of laws, dogma, doctrine, religion, or any standardized process of logic. There exists no single mechanical process by which we can capture all truth.

    On the biblical side, the apostle Paul wrote that the carnal(natural, fleshy, biological) mind is enmity against god, and cannot be subject to god’s laws.

    That being so, it has at least two results:
    1. No one can claim physical authority as God’s servants, since no physical mind can be subject to God
    2.Any attempt to do so will result in infinite speciation of ideas about God and truth.

    With over 30,000 cults, sects, and denominations within christianity, it seems that paul’s statement is not only true, but corresponds with Godel’s incompleteness theorem. We can’t get there from here, using mathematical or mechanical processes of organization.

    There must be a recognized tolerance for diversity, difference, humanity, respect for feelings of others, in short, LOVE, before we can begin to discover unity. Godel has demonstrated that there is no “right way” for unity. All of us must learn to understand and respect the ways of others.

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