Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Eat, Sleep, Write, Repeat (COVID Chronicles)

In mid-March, Malaysia went into lockdown. In early June, few extensions later, the lockdown lifted.

That left many of us stuck at home, with much less work to do. A pleasant staycation. More time with the family and kids. More time to catch up with 101 chores and tasks we've been putting off. But after awhile, boredom sets in, right? And then we fall back to our normal procrastinating ways...

Well, not me! I still woke up early in the morning. I still kept myself busy with reading and work as much as I can. And more importantly, I set myself some goals...

Here are my milestones during the 80+ day lockdown period:

  • Publication: Wrote 6 articles (1 journal + 5 online)
  • Evaluation: Read and graded 20+ moot memorials (30+ pages per memorial)

Eat, sleep read, write, repeat (sleep is for the weak!)

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

* * *

Not too bad, right?

I'm especially proud of my publication output. My peer-reviewed journal article is on the hot 'n spicy issue of fake news - running over 40 pages and 13,000 words (excluding footnotes).

My five online articles encompassed a myriad of topics: human rights, refugee and asylum, international law, and company law. I corroborated with a senior counsel in one article, and co-authored three others with one of my bright star students.

Originally, I only set myself to write 3-4 articles (a journal article is especially taxing due to rounds of edits). But my adrenaline kicked in, I got a routine going, and in the end, I exceeded my target.

As the cliche goes: "it's the journey, not the destination". So true. I thoroughly enjoyed the process. Researching on new areas of interest, expanding my knowledge base, and bouncing back ideas between my collaborators.

In between writing, I was reading (and re-reading) a bunch of memorials written by students for a renowned international moot competition (which unfortunately got cancelled due to COVID-19). The moot problem touched on yet another complex niche area - maritime law.

All in all, the whole lockdown felt like I had signed up for some extensive Masterclass boot camp...

* * *

Speaking about Masterclass, I'm proud to announce that I've finally enrolled into a Masters program.

It's something I've always wanted to do, but kept deferring due to 'work commitments'. Terrible as the pandemic is, the timing seems right now. Lessons have gone virtual, the next semester is delayed, less moot competitions.

I wouldn't say that I have 'less work' now - since work that you're truly passionate about never ends. But I guess I have 'less excuse' now to procrastinate on my Masters - since my workload is somewhat stretched out to leave more gaps of free time here and there...

The Masters program is purely research. That is, I've to write a much longer journal-worthy peer-reviewed article (max 50,000 words). According to the program guidelines, the research period usually takes between two to eight semesters (1 to 4 years).

My goal is to complete the program within a single semester (6 months).

Seems rather ambitious - if not even cocky - but I really think I'm up for it. After all, I've already warmed up my mental muscles, built up a routine, and know how to get my adrenaline flowing. Yes, I really believe I can speedrun through this research paper and take on the next challenge...

Fake it till you make it

* * *

So what's my research topic? Shhh... it's a secret now. I don't want to spoil it yet. Besides, my application and research proposal haven't been officially accepted yet. So my direction can still change.

Suffice to say, I'm steering into an evolving frontier. It's not just about the law. It's about the future. It's about saving humanity.

Don't worry. This isn't a cliffhanger. In the coming months, I will occasionally update on my progress (positive, I hope).

Anyway, I didn't write this just for humble-bragging and announcing my life plans. I just wished to get out of my comfort zone and truly challenge myself, for the next 6 months.

What about you? What did you do for the last 3 months? What's your challenge for the rest of 2020?

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Library Is Open... But Only To Librarians (COVID Chronicles)

Finally, the lockdown in Malaysia is technically over.

'Technically' because we're still under the Recovery Movement Control Order. Schools are still closed, and entry to public premises is subject to temperature checks, registration, and quotas to allow social-distancing. So there's still a slew of SOPs to follow. Life hasn't gotten back to normal, but has adjusted to a 'new normal' - a term which has caught on everyone's vocabulary and, to be terribly honest, starting to sound increasingly annoying to my ears as the term gets abused as an excuse for everything (together with words like 'traffic jam' and 'technical difficulties').

Yes, for those who know me well or read enough of my ramblings, you can already guess where this is going - yet another rant!

Well, since this is going to be one of those blistering 'no-holds-barred' and 'take-no-prisoners' hit piece, you can either stop reading or grab some popcorn. FYI this piece is the first of (probably) a long chain of stories called the 'COVID Chronicles' - about life during the 'new normal' ranging between dark comedy (like this one) and uplifting inspiration (next one, I promise). I added the cautionary caveat 'probably' because there's a high chance I'll receive a stern letter to cease-and-desist soon enough...

With or without social distancing

Photo by Ivo Rainha

* * *

Okay, enough of introductions. Story time!

So last week, I tried to enter the library, at the university where I work. The lights were on, figures hovered at the counter. Great! BOOKS, GLORIOUS BOOKS, HERE I COME!

As soon as I pushed the glass door, a shout rang out: "LIBRARY CLOSED!"

Oh, is that right? I stopped in my tracks. Another shout from the counter: "READ THE SIGN!"

Dutifully, I took a step back. My eyes furtively traced the many papers plastered on the glass door. True enough, one said: "Library closed until further notice".

I nudged the glass door open slightly again, poked back my head, and meekly asked: "When will the library again?"

The voice barked back brusquely "Waiting for orders!"

I walked away, dazed and confused. But the university is up and running. All staff (including myself) have to report back to duty, every day. So why is the library closed?

My mind ran through a few explanations. I used to be a Junior Head Librarian back at high school (not something that I'll proudly put in my CV). Just to highlight that I know a thing or two about, ahem, libraries (not something I'll put on my Tinder profile).

All learning has turned to e-learning and students are not allowed on campus, so no point opening? True, but other users like lecturers need to use the library too, right?

Maybe they're closed for annual stock-taking? Possible, but the university library never ever closed for this reason, stock-taking takes a few days or week at most (and surely not 'indefinitely'), and in any event, the librarians are just chilling around inside doing nothing.

Maybe they're worried books will get contaminated by our filthy virus-laden hands? Valid concern, but they can easily require users to send back the books at the counter for sterilisation after use (in Japan last year, I actually saw this cool sterilising device at a public library).

Er... rats? Okay, I'm really running out on excuses already...

* * *

Fine, closing the library is one thing. But then why even operate the library then?

So apparently, the library 'opens' every morning, and 'closes' at about 4.00 pm. All the librarians clock in and clock out as usual. They take turns sitting at the counter as usual. They're on duty as usual.

The only difference is that no-one else can enter the library. And no books can be borrowed.

Pretty silly SOP, right? The library is ordered to stay closed, but the librarians are ordered to come to work.

I get it. We need to slowly adjust to the 'new normal' (pfft... that word again!). We need time to get back to our old routine. We have to put SOPs in place before we throw our doors wide open.

Then just close the library. Why waste electricity? What's wrong giving the librarians an extended holiday (not like we do anything much on normal days anyway)? Why not open a few days a week for people to borrow books by request at the counter without entering the library?

Eat, sleep, read, repeat...

* * *

In the end, I managed to get the book I wanted from a (much smaller) private library of an office. And here's a funny irony - a friend who worked at the office dropped by the university library for further research, and got turned away the same way I did. When she told me about her experience, I signed: "I'm actually coming by your office later to get a book". Private library 1 Public library 0...

So that's my rant for the week. Left me in such a foul mood and inspired me to write a comedy skit about librarians. This one's purely fictional, of course. And not directed at librarians personally, but administrators as a whole. Stock up your popcorn, and enjoy!

Scene: Intern in a law firm library. Grumpy-looking bespectacled man on duty at counter.

Intern: I need to borrow this book

Librarian: Please enter this form.

Intern: Sure... *reaches for pen*

Librarian: Hm... I do not recall seeing you before?

Intern: Oh, I just came in this week for my internship.

Librarian: Intern? HOW DARE YOU!!! *snatches pen back*

Intern: Er... what?


Intern: Oh. Right. They didn't tell us during on-boarding. Anyways, I was just getting the book for my supervisor, Mark.

Librarian: Mark? Mark of the 12th Apostles? Mark Antony? Mark Twain?

Intern: No, it's Mark from Trade and Shipping. Er, senior associate, tall, funky specs...

Librarian: And I'm supposed to just trust you that no-surname Mark sent you? Do you have a Letter of Authorization? Signed and notarised?

Intern: Er, notarised? Are you kidding... Look, he was in a rush...

Librarian: REQUEST DENIED! No letter, no book! Library rules and regulations. Since 1999. Revised in 2003, 2009, 2012 and 2017. But none of the amendments are relevant to your request...

Intern: Er, well, I can just give Mark a call, and he can...


Intern: Omo... Er, I'll just zip up and tell Mark to call you... *panicking*

Librarian: CALL ME? Oh, does Mark think it beneath his stature to make a request in person? Perhaps he did not venture to read Regulation 23.47 which clearly sets out the procedure...

Intern: Oh no, I'm sure he would come himself, but just that he had a lot of work this morning...

Librarian: Oh? Are you suggesting that other people do not have work? *half-turns and waves a hand imperiously over the empty library desks and chairs behind*

Intern: Oh no, course not! I'm sure the library gets very busy later in the day... *flashes a weak smile*

Librarian: Most certainly, Intern! Books do not rearrange themselves, see? This is not Hogwarts. No AI robot can climb safely up the step ladder to reach the top shelf...

Intern: Er, yes. Ha ha. I'm sure you're very busy. I better leave... *slowly backs away*


Intern: Omo... I didn't see anyone at the counter when I...

Librarian: Hm... I do not see any name in today's column... *squints hard at log book*

Intern: Whoops.... Omo... Er, guess I better get going, thanks, bye... *slowly tiptoes away*


Intern: Omo, omo... *runs to the elevator and frantically punches the button*

Thursday, June 11, 2020

We Are Culturally Conditioned To Have Racial Bias

I've faced discrimination from all races that I've encountered all over the world - including my own.

Shocking? Hardly. The cold hard reality about life is that the majority of people worldwide - whether we care to admit or not - are racially-biased to a certain degree, consciously or subconsciously.

Racism is not a binary switch. Something that you can turn on or off by the press of a button. You can't be mouthing off racist comments at home, and immediately transform into the Angel of Equality as soon as you step out of the door. Racism is a scourge that infects every drop of our blood, every pore of our skin. We all discriminate against others, day in day out.

Childhood friends - how many of them are from your same race? Did you naturally deviate towards them? Or did Mommy and Daddy tell you to stay away from certain 'types' of kids?

Teachers can be racist. Lawyers can be racists. Politicians can be racists. Some more than others. Ultimately, it all goes down to upbringing. We're infected by racism ever since we were born. Racism begins at 'home'.

Yes, we may have all grown up now. Our social circle is diverse. But still, ask yourself - do you prefer to mingle with people who are more like you? 'Like' as in sharing common views in politics, economy, religion, or entertainment. A liberal activist won't get along with a businessman. A party animal ain't gonna chill out much with a devout Muslim.

This technically isn't about racism anymore. But this goes even deeper into human nature - that humans are tribal. Racial purity just happens to be one of the more prevalent form of tribalism. Just like sports, racism can breed a fanatical following - one that exhorts love among your fellow kinsmen, as well as hate against other tribes of different stripes.

The point is simply this: Racism isn't really a disease, but merely a symptom of a more intrinsic disease - 'cultural bias'. More importantly, this means that combating racism is rather futile because racism itself isn't the root cause.

Soul sisters

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

* * *

So what's the solution to 'cultural' bias? By deconstructing cultural barriers. By not being overly proud and protective about our 'culture'. By de-culturalism, that's how.

When I was in university, I was cajoled into joining the 'Chinese Community' (CC). They had a noble mission - protect Chinese culture. But ultimately, they operate more like an special interest group, union, and lobbyists. Can't get a place in residential college? They can fight for your cause. Not enough Chinese representation in a particular project? They'll talk to the heads of the 'other' groups to ensure equal representation.

After a few weeks, I distanced myself. I can understand the important role they play in 'student politics' and their appeal to minorities far from home looking for social acceptance. But for me, the choice was very clear. I wanted to stand on my own feet - to be judged by my merit alone, and not because my exclusive membership to some 'special club. They eventually left me alone and stopped dragging me to their meetings. I wasn't treated as an outcast, but remained as an outsider.

That's the choice I made for myself. Whenever juniors inquire on whether they should be active in CC, I give them a fairly balanced answer - pros and cons, benefits and sacrifices, and so on. In the end, I'll just shrug and say "Well, I have told you everything that I know about them, totally up to you to join them or not, which all depends on where your priorities are at". I don't go forcing my life choices on others.

Personally? I'm against the proliferation of 'cultural' groups. I don't mean museums, or societies that promote Chinese folklore and tradition, of course. I'm referring to groups that have morphed into political bodies. I don't think they're healthy. I think they breed more division in society, rather than diversity. Fanaticism, rather than tolerance. Hate, rather than love.

Even more annoying is how culturally-biased groups take on the cause of anti-racism. Look, it's fine to be culturally-biased and be honest about it. It's not fine being culturally-biased yet accuse the whole wide world of being culturally-biased except yourself and your own tribe.

* * *

To put it bluntly, the people calling out against 'racism' are often racists themselves. They won't admit it. They're blind to their own bias. They'll come up with 101 reasons why their words and actions are not 'racist' but others are. Worst of all, they'll use these 101 reasons to justify their hypocritical double standards - why Tribe A deserves all our support (but not Tribe B and C). They become the judge of what's racism and what's not, and who's a victim of racism and who's not. But ultimately, just because you can justify your bias based on some philosophical mumbo-jumbo doesn't make you less of a racist.

I'm well aware that I'm equally vulnerable to cultural-profiling as much as anyone. That said, I like to think of myself as being less racist than the average person.

How do I self-condition myself to be non-racist? Here's my trick - I stop trying to spot 'racism' in others. That doesn't mean I can't notice when someone is being 'culturally biased' against me or a friend. What it means is that I don't immediately call the cops or stir drama on social media.

Instead, I examine myself. Am I giving people a reasonable basis to stereotype and discriminate me? Something I said or did? Like sticking to my own Chinese cliques? Or conversing in Chinese dialect in a group consisting of Malays and Indians? Or being 'kiasu' (selfish and competitive) at school or work?

In short, we must start examining ourselves first before judging others. People may treat us differently because of the way we act, not because of the way we look. Is there something in our behaviour that screams "I'M PROUD OF BEING [insert race here]"? Do we want to be identified by our own race? If yes, then we can't complain much whenever people see you as a representative of your race first, as an individual second. You can't walk into Anfield wearing a Manchester United jersey and not expect to be stared at. Or wearing a Kanye West mask at a Taylor Swift concert.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying we should adjust our behaviour because people's perception and expectations. Rather, the reality is that racism is a two-way street. Yes, other people can be racist. But we can be equally reinforcing their bias by our own actions. To cut out racism, we can't merely expect people to stop being racist; we have stop doing things that exudes 'racism' too. We need to check our own privilege first.

Band of Brothers

Photo by Nicholas Swatz

* * *

Back in university, at the residential college, I befriended a Malay guy (and also a devout Muslim). He was my closest friend for 3 years - even more impressive considering we're not even studying the same course at the same faculty. Our friendship has endured until today.

For more than a decade, we still catch up regularly. We talk about everything - politics, religion, work, and our personal encounters with racism in the course of work and our daily lives. We're well aware of each other's privileges, and disadvantages. We're quick to condemn the racial bias practised by our own tribes. Whenever one of us muses about race-swapping, the other would roll his eyes and go like: "Look, let me list down the cons of being [insert race here]...". And then we'll realise how every tribe has their own set of problems, and it's pointless comparing who has bigger problems.

We see the light and dark side of racism. We often crack jokes about racism. When discrimination gets serious, we deal with hardships as they come, advise each other accordingly, and get on with our different lives as best we can.

What makes our relationship work? What keeps us from hating and fighting each other?

It's simple, really. We don't let our cultural differences get in the way of our lives. Culture may affect how people behave around us, but we never allow culture to define who we are.