Being Woman, This Day and Age: An Optimistic View

Note: This is a post I originally wrote on International Women’s Day 2016 in March, updated and modified for submission as part of my application to an upcoming writing workshop. 

It’s International Women’s Day. Here’s to all the amazing and inspiring women in my life. And of course, to the wonderful men who have supported and enabled the success and liberation of women over the years. I am privileged to have them in my family and circle of friends. From my dad and brother, to the male bosses who hold doors and dates who share ideas and appreciate my intelligence while offering to carry heavy grocery bags for me, and close platonic male friends who are almost like brothers to me.

As a woman in this day and age and this part of the world, I have much to be thankful for. We have so much liberty. The liberty to run after our dreams. To succeed, and to define our own success. To vote and to speak up. To command a boardroom while going ga-ga over the latest kitchen gadgets and recipes. To run marathons, climb mountains, drive fast cars, paint our nails and lips bright red.

To own properties and stride our stuff on red carpets. To have polite men serve us coffee in VIP lounges. To be different from men and still be regarded with equal respect.

To wield influence in our own spheres, and still acknowledge the leadership and strengths of the worthy men in our lives, knowing that it will only bring out the best in them.

Oh what an exciting time to be a woman! As long as we support one another and are not held back by our own fears, or the words and judgement of the less progressive, both men and women.

I write all this as a woman who have led a reasonably comfortable middle-class life, in a reasonably privileged and peaceful part of a developing South East Asian country, where gender inequalities exist as tolerable undercurrents rather than blatant injustice. And perhaps, most of all, I write all this as a hopeless optimist who can’t help but see the glass as half full. Or maybe I am just too stubborn and carefree to be bothered by ridiculous policing attempts, or perhaps I have been sheltered from them.

Whatever the reasons may be for my optimism and upbeat attitude with regards to my place as a woman, complacency is certainly not one of them.

I now want to explore the other side of the coin – take a closer peek at the lives of people who may not have been as sheltered or privileged, and to walk in their shoes to find out what it really feels like to be discriminated against purely based on their gender.

To find out for myself – what the oft-mentioned systematic oppression of Malaysian women is all about, and finally, hopefully, to have empowering and uplifting conversations about what every individual woman can do to change her own life for the better.

 

 

That Little but Formidable Red Dot Down South

I am a Malaysian who sincerely admires our Southern neighbour, the tiny island state called Singapore – who is somehow always one step ahead, one pace faster. The bustling city state that used to be a part of my country till it was expulsed in 1965 due to ideological differences between its ruling party and Malaysia’s.

With a small disparate population, and even fewer resources – the tiny newly independent nation had to find its own way to survive.

And when you are small and vulnerable with so many disadvantages, how do you overcome the odds? Singapore ended up becoming an example of how a nation can thrive despite it all. Having traveled there regularly for work for the past one year, I observe a culture that I am convinced has enabled the meteoric rise of this country from 1965:

1. Wise picks of battles to fight
When your resources are limited you have to decide carefully where you want to focus them on – whether it’s your energy or money. I have yet to come across any colleagues in my Singapore office sweating the small stuff, for example worrying about form and not substance. Though Singapore is now way past its past struggles, the wise pragmatism seems to have remained. 

2. An absence of excessiveness
There is a fine line between making tremendous effort in the name of excellence and trying hard to impress. The city looks impressive, no doubt – but that is just the inevitable result of thoughtful and pragmatic planning done with the intention of inspiring the confidence of its own people and the foreign people whose skills, talent and investment would be needed to help Singapore prosper. Not to impress and boost fragile egos. No wonder I have yet to come across any kitschy or tacky looking buildings or monuments in Singapore. It is quite simply the epitome of elegance.

3. A strong focus on developing its uniqueness, and looking to others not to compare, but to learn and find strengths to leverage
This is closely related to picking battles wisely. Of course many would argue that Singapore is a competitive place – but we tend to forget that being competitive does not necessarily mean comparing with others. It is when we give our all to make the most of what we have that we become a force formidable enough for others to reckon with – and by then we find ourselves in our own league. I posit that Singapore does not focus so much on competing as much as it focuses on leading and leveraging its neighbours’ strengths. Any wonder why so many of my country’s best and brightest end up happily heading down south?

I love my country and I know Singapore has its own flaws. But there’s so much to learn from our excellent neighbour down south.

So this is how I have experienced Singapore. I would love to hear what you think, whether you are Singaporean or not.

South

An Evening with Tony Fernandes (old article, reproduced in solidarity with AirAsia)

My thoughts are with AirAsia, those onboard the missing QZ8501, their loved ones, and everyone who is saddened by this news. I wonder how AirAsia’s flamboyant and charismatic CEO, Dato’ Seri Tony Fernandes, is dealing with this–he calls it his ‘worst nightmare’ in a tweet–but I have a feeling that he is the sort of leader that people could find a measure of comfort in during such a crisis. Someone capable of coming up with solutions, and even in the face of tragic outcomes, he is the kind of leader who is the beacon of hope, providing strategies to restore hope and move forward.

Why do I say this? I do not know him personally, but six years ago, I attended his talk on the subject of branding, during which he shared many inspiring nuggets of wisdom and clever ideas. So this is how I developed an impression of him as an inspiring leader capable of steering his team through even the stormiest of storms.

I wrote about the talk on my now inactive old blog (www.alexischiuling.blogspot.com), so I now reproduce the article here:

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An Evening with Tony Fernandes, 30th of July 2008

Photo copyright belongs to Air Asia Berhad and is used here only for illustrative purpose.

Photo copyright belongs to Air Asia Berhad and is used here only for illustrative purpose.

Clad in light-coloured pants and a dark coat over an open-necked shirt, Tony looked every inch the charismatic CEO that we are used to seeing on the television and print media. He spoke with a slight British twang that surfaced every now and then, presumably due to the years he had spent in the UK, where he met and became good friends with the even more flamboyant Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin Group.

That aside, Tony was very much an Anak Malaysia (Malaysia’s son), the way he waxed lyrical about dangdut (a traditional Malay music genre featuring upbeat tempos), famous veteran dangdut singer Datuk S.M. Salim and nasyid group Raihan; getting mistaken for a ‘Bangla’ worker at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal when he went to work in casual attire; and offering roti jala (a traditional bread eaten with curry) on their flights (more on this roti jala story later).

Totally at ease in the limelight, he had the audience hanging on to his every word as he matter-of-factly related the Air Asia story – with a good dose of natural humour, tongue-in-cheek remarks and hilarious swipes at his competitors and detractors.

He made us laugh real hard and he fanned the fire in our bellies. Beneath every awe-inspiring, rib-tickling and casual statement, lied the humble passion and daring vision that so drew the masses to the Air Asia spirit.

Even those haughty ‘oh I will never fly Air Asia’ ones had to concede to the Air Asia charm that flowed from this man to the brand. Throughout the talk that lasted more than an hour, the one theme that ran throughout was “nothing is impossible as long as we have the courage to try”.

Coming from the former music executive with zero experience in the airline industry, but had enough courage and passion to acquire Air Asia from HICOM DRB complete with its RM 40 million debt, that message he carried was conviction rather than cliché.

Tony remortgaged his house to raise funds to get the company running, and in 7 years’ time Air Asia had grown from ‘no brand to global brand’; 200 staff to 6, 500 strong; and a company widely criticized to one hugely emulated and recognized. What is his secret?

“We are often our worst enemies. We often say something cannot be done before we even try it.”

There was thick silence as the audience took in the simple and yet profoundly true statement from the one who had been there and done it. And then, in the same breath, he continued: “I have said this many times before all over the world, but I have never had the pleasure of saying it in front of a Chief Minister.” (The Penang Chief Minister, Mr. Lim Guan Eng was also in attendance at the talk).

The Grand Ballroom erupted!

That’s Tony Fernandes for you. That was the first dose of verbal humour from him that evening, and there would be more to come as he took us through a learn and laugh, learn and laugh journey that ended in a fully-maximised Q and A question from so many who wanted a peek into his mind on various issues.

Among the most wonderful ‘transits’ along the whole learn and laugh journey that evening:

On building a genuine ASEAN brand:
We learned, from Tony, that problems are opportunities in disguise. The Air Asia brand, one can say, has been built through many hard times.
The SARS outbreak:
“During the SARS outbreak, we tripled our advertising because that was when our competitors were not doing so and this helped people to remember the Air Asia brand better.”

The Bali bombing:
“We felt we had to do something to help the place as they depended so heavily on tourism. Other airlines were cutting their flights to Bali, but we felt we should do something to help the island, so we gave away 10, 000 free seats which were snapped up in 3 hours. And 10, 000 people came back and told their friends how wonderful Bali still was.”

“So, the moral behind this is, Malaysians are not afraid of bombs, they’re not afraid of SARS – all they need is just free tickets!”
Back to the serious, inspiring note:
“You can always find a way out of problems, you can always market yourself out of a problem.” And that came from the CEO of the airline which is now the 5th largest in Asia, who later cheekily asked,

“And look who’s number 7 and number 8?”

He walked animatedly to the giant screen, pointed to Singapore Airlines and MAS on the chart on display, looked at the laughing audience and flashed his trademark grin.
“And these guys are like 40 years old. We’re only 7.”
Phew, weren’t we having fun!

On using technology and innovation:
“When we started selling tickets on the Internet, everyone said we were crazy, and that it wouldn’t work.”
Well, everyone knows what happened to booking flight tickets on the Internet.
“And we also came up with innovative services like selling hot meals.”
As well as direct flights to destinations that no other airlines ever thought of, such as Bandung and Macau.

On monetizing the brand:
“Once you’ve built a strong brand, then you’d want to start monetizing it. This is what we’ve done by coming up with our Citibank-Air Asia credit card, our insurance for travelers, in-flight magazine for the advertising revenue, as well as our Go Holiday packages”

“We also decided to market our long haul international flights under the brand name Air Asia X to retain the uniformity in branding.”

On attitude:
“Attitude is 50% of the game,” the Dato’ philosophized.
Air Asia definitely has a lot of it, especially when taking on their competitors and detractors.

On Malaysia Airlines, with their World’s Best Cabin Crew?
“We advertise our ‘World’s Best Engineers’, and that got MAS hopping mad because most of our engineers were trained by them!”

On Singapore Airlines, with their famous Singapore Girls?
An Air Asia ad in Singapore goes like this:
“There’s a new girl in town. She’s twice the fun, and half the price.” Well, smacks a little bit of sexism, but you can’t deny the humour – and for Tony’s charm Salt n’ Light’s feminists agreed to let this one go! So, no, we will not write to the Women’s Aid Organisation.

On Tiger Airways, with the SGD1 fare?

Air Asia ran an ad featuring a tiger subdued by tranquilizers, flanked by two Air Asia hostesses and a caption that reads:“Air Asia tames even the wildest tiger with low fares” – on top of their SGD 0.49 offer!

By then the Grand Ballroom was roaring with laughter, and then he took a swipe at MAS’s Tony-bashing (then) CEO, Datuk Idris Jala.
“MAS has Idris Jala, so we decided to sell roti jala on our flights.”

Hahaha, now that’s a winner!

And they were daring enough to take on the Singapore government. When Air Asia coaches were banned from entering Singapore across the Causeway, the cheeky airline ran an ad that read:

“No chewing gum. No smoking. No AirAsia coaches. Thank God low-fare flights are still legal.”

Boy, oh boy. Who says it is tough for Malaysian brands to do well in Singapore? You just need to have the spirit and chutzpah a la Tony Fernandes.

He reiterated, “You can always market and brand yourself out of a problem, be it SARS, bombs or the Singapore government.”

“Never take ‘no’ for an answer. To every problem, there is always a solution.”

Now Air Asia is working on getting the Penang-Singapore route, and we can almost bank on their never-say-die spirit to see this materialize!

Dato’ Seri Tony Fernandes’ talk on “Branding: Jazzing Up Your Business” turned out a huge success with the participants going home entertained, informed and inspired.

In a nutshell, we learned that when you have a dream, even if it is as lofty as starting a low-cost airline, you should not ever let any of the following stop you from pursuing it:

· Lack of experience
· Lack of connections (political ones, especially!)
· Lack of capital (Tony remortgaged his house, remember?)
· Doubt, usually from others (Our dear Dato’ shared that when he told his wife of his high-flying plan, she took a while to stop laughing and then said, “Why don’t you start a roti canai stall?’)
· Fear of failure
“I only had one fear : When we first started, my greatest fear was letting the 254 staff down. The fear would be there somehow, but ultimately, you don’t want to sit there when you’re 65 and say, “I should have done this.”

Wow. We couldn’t agree more. This may sound clichéd’ coming from a lesser person —but when Tony said it, the conviction was so real, it simply reached out and grabbed us by our hearts. Could it be that when Air Asia came up with their tagline “Now, Everyone Can Fly”, they were talking about more than just boarding an airplane?
Thank you, Dato’ Seri, and to our readers and ourselves: Just go for it!

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I hope AirAsia and Tony Fernandes will keep their spirits up, because it is now time for them to remember his own conviction that: “You can always market and brand yourself out of a problem, be it SARS, bombs or the Singapore government.”

My thoughts and prayers will be with the ones affected, especially our neighbour, Indonesia. It has been a trying year for Malaysia, and I hope and believe that we will all pull through.

My Running Journal: Pounding the Grounds of Vivanta by Taj, Rebak Island

3_TCSNYCM_Instagram_Team-for-Kids-Member-Fundraising_2_for WP Widget23rd of November 2014, Sunday
This morning’s weather was again sunny and gorgeous, and having been more accustomed to this resort I had a more 20141123-163212.jpgproper training. I covered some of the hiking trail (without going anywhere near the jungle) and ran to the marina, shipyard and then back, and then covered the part on the left of my unit. 20141123-122709.jpgI did the walk and run routine since running on real grounds outdoors was quite a different ball game from pounding the treadmill. My legs felt heavier and I got breathless faster. It could be the stunning sceneries around me, but I am not 20141123-122833.jpgsure. But according to the Nike running app I did 1.75 miles (around 2.8 km) in less than 22 minutes — not too bad for me. But I also felt the strain on my thighs after the run, perhaps this was because of parts of the track that were slightly uphill.

As usual, it was shower and then heading to the cafe for the buffet breakfast. I won’t bore you with food pictures again, but it was still a wonderful breakfast.

Next time I will have a more serious training yet by carbo loading before my run, and I will see what difference that makes to my stamina.

It’s time to check out soon and say goodbye to the lovely Vivanta by Taj Rebak Island Resort and Spa.

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This is an entry into the running journal I have created to chronicle my experiences as I train and prepare to run the TCS New York City Marathon 2015 and fund raise for Team for Kids, an international running group that is committed to supporting health and fitness programs for underprivileged children in the US and Africa. Read my introduction entry where I share how this journey started, and if you would like to donate to the cause, simply go to my secure fundraising page here!

My Running Journal: Nature’s Track and Runner’s Binge

3_TCSNYCM_Instagram_Team-for-Kids-Member-Fundraising_2_for WP Widget22nd of November 2014, SaturdaySo this was my training ground on this sunny morning at Rebak Island, a small island off Langkawi Island, a popular tourist spot in the north of Peninsula Malaysia. 20141122-102936.jpgKudos to me for getting up early for a 7.50 am run on a Saturday! But then again, with such gorgeous surroundings, it would have been a crime to sleep in — even on a weekend.

20141122-103159.jpgI decided it was a good time for an outdoor run because I have only run in the gym since I started training for the marathon. But I must admit that today I ran only for twenty minutes, and I am not sure how far because I wasn’t using any app to track my distance. I also brisk walked in between and stopped a few times to snap photos and to decide where to turn since I was not familiar with the grounds of this resort cum marina.

20141122-103328.jpgBy 8.30 am I had already showered and was well on my way to the cafe for my breakfast. It’s 10.30 am now and I have just finished eating. It’s lovely how running enhances my appetite.

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This is an entry into the running journal I have created to chronicle my experiences as I train and prepare to run the TCS New York City Marathon 2015 and fund raise for Team for Kids, an international running group that is committed to supporting health and fitness programs for underprivileged children in the US and Africa. Read my introduction entry where I share how this journey started, and if you would like to donate to the cause, simply go to my secure fundraising page here!

Why I Love the JW Marriott Kuala Lumpur

If luxury equates warmth and comfort, as opposed to the pressure to look perfect and have it all together, JW Marriott Hotel Kuala Lumpur is an excellent place for some top-notch self pampering.

Arriving at the flagship hotel in the capital of Malaysia in my skinny jeans, gray long sleeved men’s T shirt, and sandals, I promptly had the cab and then hotel door opened for me, with a polite “Good afternoon Ma’am, would you like to go and check in and we will take care of your luggage for you?”

In the lift to go up to my 10th floor deluxe room, I bumped into hotel staff who helped me scan for access using my room key card and wished me a pleasant day as they got out at a lower floor. Entering the tastefully furnished room, a quick slide of the key into its slot and the lights came on, along with soothing instrumental music from the television as it showed JW Marriott commercials by default. It was only around 11.30 am, thanks to the early check in I was given–so I had one whole day of me to just relax and do whatever I wanted!

(To be continued)

Seven Things I Love About Being Malaysian

1. There is sun all year round!
2. I will never have trouble finding things to eat when I do not feel like cooking – there are shops, hawker stalls, cafés, restaurants. And food delivery 🙂
3. The wide use of English here helps me navigate the rest of the world with relative ease.
4. I am close to food, massage, cultural, and shopping haven – Thailand.
5. I get to grow up speaking three languages and a few Chinese dialects.
6. Women are generally heard and respected, with governmental and non-governmental bodies advocating and creating equal opportunities and flexible working environments.
7. I get to practice my faith.

Today, 22nd of August 2014 – A National Day of Mourning

Today the remains of 20 of the Malaysians who perished in the MH17 tragedy reached home.

My somber mood will never come any close to the grief that their loved ones must be feeling. At work we do our part by flying flags at half mast. Some co-workers are wearing black. I stay away from bright colours and have no makeup on.

Hopefully the knowledge that the rest of the country is standing in solidarity with the bereaved will bring some consolation to them. Sometimes the only words we need to say in times like these are as simple as “I am here with you.”