Monday, November 30, 2009

World AIDS Day in Kuala Lumpur

1st December, 2009 marks the 21st anniversary of World AIDS Day. The theme for World AIDS Day 2009 is "Universal Access and Human Rights". The theme was chosen to address the critical need to protect the human rights of people living with HIV/AIDS, and to lobby for all countries to remove laws that discriminate against people living with HIV/AIDS, women and marginalised groups.

Malaysian society has come a long way from the first year World AIDS Day was observed locally. Tremendous progress has been made in the treatment of HIV infection. However, efforts need to continue to ensure universal access to prevention, treatment, care and support for all.

Among the activities organised by non-profit organisations, healthcare agencies and interest groups in Kuala Lumpur include the following:
1. Distributing red ribbons to members of the public, to remind them of their stake in providing protection and enabling access to healthcare, information, justice and opportunities for people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS;
2. Poster and photo exhibitions;
3. HIV awareness sessions and dissemination of HIV/AIDS-related information and literature;
4. Health screenings and counselling services;
5. Outreach activities targetting people most at risk, such as intravenous drug users; and
6. Sports, games and activities for youth and children.

The PT Foundation, formerly known as the Pink Triangle Foundation, held its Red Ribbon Carnival at the Sungei Wang Plaza, Kuala Lumpur on Saturday and Sunday, 28th & 29th November 2009. As with the previous years, there were performances by local artistes, the distribution of red ribbons and leaflets, exhibitions, quizzes and surveys.

It is with regret that I report that I arrived at the Sungei Wang Plaza a little too late to catch the performances. I had been at the SPCA animal shelter the entire day, cleaning cages and kennels, and it was late when my buddy Nicole and I arrived at Sungei Wang. I had wanted to meet my comrades from PT Foundation and reminisce about the work we used to do as outreach volunteers.

The PT Foundation works with five vulnerable communities, namely:
1. Drug users;
2. Transsexuals;
3. Sex workers;
4. Men who have sex with men (MSM); and
5. People Living With HIV/AIDS.

I had opted to work with the PT Foundation while doing legal aid duty in 2004, as I realised that the aforementioned 5 groups are among the most marginalised and disenfranchised in the country. Of the five communities, I worked most closely with the transsexual community, which has its own drop-in centre in Chow Kit (which shares its premises with Positive Living, a halfway house for people living with HIV/AIDS), although occasionally, we would also spend some time at the Ikhlas Drop-In Centre for Drug Users in the same area.

In the evenings, the staff and I would carry out outreach work in the Chow Kit and Lorong Haji Taib area, distributing condoms and dispensing legal advice. Despite the misgivings of others around me, including other volunteer lawyers at the Bar Council Legal Aid Centre Kuala Lumpur, I still aver that I have never felt safer or more welcome in our world of traffic jams and burglar alarms than in the presence of my friends from these marginalised communities in the said areas. Until today, I cannot say for certain if I have ever rendered them any true service, but I know for a fact that I made some good friends.

(Note: The reason why I had to discontinue outreach work in 2006/2007 can be summed up in 2 words: Politics and Funding. Quelle surprise!)

PT Foundation's objectives, as listed in their official website, are as follows:
1. To help minimize the rate of infection of HIV/AIDS amongst the five target communities.
2. To help provide care and support and improve the quality of life for people living with HIV/AIDS.
3. To help reduce discrimination against the five communities that is based on ignorance and lack of information.

Besides providing counselling and care to persons of concern, PT Foundation also conducts talks, seminars and educational and awareness campaigns, and works together with the authorities and law enforcement agencies to find durable solutions to problems involving vulnerable groups. The core communities manage their own safe spaces, including the drop-in centres and halfway homes mentioned above.

Contributions in cash to fund the projects and keep the safe spaces in operation are always welcome, as are contributions in kind (dry foods such as biscuits, tea and coffee, soap, shampoo, blankets, towels and even comic books and magazines). For further information, please contact PT Foundation to find out how you can support the noble work that they do:

PT Foundation
Address: No. 7C/1, Jalan Ipoh Kecil, Off Jalan Raja Laut, 50350 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-40444611
Fax: 03-40444622
Opening Hours: 10am-6pm, Monday-Friday (Except public holiday)

IKHLAS Drop-in Centre (Drug User Program)
Address: 30A-30B Lorong Haji Taib 4, Chow Kit, 50350 Kuala Lumpur.
Tel: 03-40451404
Fax: 03-40444622
Opening Hours: 9am-4pm, Monday-Friday (Except public holiday)

At a personal level, you can make a difference by pledging to do the following:
1. Lobby pharmaceutical companies to put their patents in the UNITAID patent pool to make HIV medication more affordable.
2. Get involved with local civil society campaigns.
3. Look beyond your own prejudices, and rid yourself of the "Us vs. Them" mentality. Remember that not everyone has had the opportunities and privileges that we have.

If we have the determination and commitment, each of us can be a mechanism of social change to assist and support the more vulnerable members of our society. This World AIDS Day, let us all take the lead in making HIV and AIDS seen, heard and attended to!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

SKBD Lends Seahorses A Helping Hand

Environmentalists like me have always felt quite ambivalent towards, if not openly mistrustful of, property development and resource extraction corporations such as YTL, but I have to concede that the KL Performing Arts Centre is one of the conglomerate's finest success stories in that it manages to fuse artistic elegance with the preservation of structures with historical value.

The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPC) complex is a reclaimed and refurbished old railway building. Some of the construction materials were salvaged from railroad tracks and buildings that were to be demolished. I like the fact that the building allows for natural light and ventilation.

Visitors can stop by for a book and a cup of tea at the cosy Resource Centre within the KLPAC complex.

The abandoned old colonial railway station adds charm to Sentul Park. Trees line the roads; silent sentries of the dusk. Treading gently on the good Earth has paid off handsomely for YTL Corp where Sentul Park and KLPAC are concerned.

Nothing stirs in the abandoned railway building. There is nothing here but the trees and the secrets they keep. Taking a stroll in Sentul Park frequently feels like stepping into the past, when the backwaters of Kuala Lumpur are filled with shade trees and residential homes.

I was invited to attend a play on Tuesday, 24th November. There was to be a special offering by Sekolah Kebangsaan Bukit Damansara, and one of the parents in the organising committee had very kindly given me a VIP ticket for a very minor service I had rendered on 10th July, when I had been one of the judges for a project the schoolchildren did on seahorses.

The school chooses an endangered animal as its focus animal each year, and pupils from Year 1 to 5 produce artwork, factsheets and skits on the focus animal. Funds would be raised from donations and the sale of handmade craft items for a chosen environmental charity, and this year the funds would go to Save Our Seahorses (SOS Malaysia), one of the non-profit organisations closest to my heart. Tonight, the school Drama Club would be performing a play, the proceeds of which would also be directed to SOS Malaysia.

I have always averred that I dig Harold Pinter, not Harry Potter, and have only ever been to KLPAC for serious plays and dance dramas. A school concert by children who are passionate about saving marine animals would probably be a refreshing change. I dragged my friend Lynette along, and we got ready to be entertained, fully aware that we were the only people in the audience who were not the parents, grandparents or teachers of anyone in the cast.

The play was original and quite witty, and the children even managed to incorporate facts on seahorse mating and reproductive habits in the performance. Lynette and I ended up laughing at the bits that were probably not meant to be terribly funny, because the children were so cute that they were entirely unconvincing as evil witches and greedy fishermen. There was even a singing clam, which had us in stitches. It was quite a riot. The children were earnest and enchanting, and I am glad that I had attended the play, at least as a representative of the Malaysian Nature Society, if nothing else.

On behalf of Save Our Seahorses and the Malaysian Nature Society, I would like to thank the parents, teachers and pupils of Sekolah Kebangsaan Bukit Damansara for the wonderful effort they have put into raising awareness and funds for a worthy cause. Your spirit and passion are admirable!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Universal Children's Day in KL

On 20 November 1959, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. On 20 November 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child was signed. For this reason, Universal Children's Day is celebrated on 20 November annually.

Malaysia typically observes Universal Children's Day with school parties, concerts, award ceremonies and various initiatives dedicated to children and families. The meaning of Universal Children's Day, however, goes beyond mere treats and parties. Universal Children's Day was instituted by world leaders to promote mutual exchange and understanding among children, and to initiate action to benefit and promote the welfare of the world's children.

I was fortunate enough to be involved in organising and executing a Universal Children's Day event at an aid agency in Kuala Lumpur for vulnerable children from marginalised communities. (Note: I cannot disclose locations or names for reasons of confidentiality).

Universal Children's Day celebrates the resilience of children-at-risk, who can still smile and play despite the trauma and adversity they have been through. These boys have just won a 'Duck Walk Race'.

This means WAR! In spite of the dangers and harm faced by children caught up in armed conflict, many would not pass up an opportunity for a good old-fashioned water bomb war, especially against adults! These kids are pretty sharp throwers!

Older children participating in an art competition.

The younger children have been given free rein over these plywood panels.

Volunteers touching up a mural where the children left off after being distracted by sweets and games.

A palpable hit! A little girl has a go at hitting the pinata, as her friends cheer her on.

Paint me a story: Children putting their thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams on paper.

Freedom of Religion: A poignant tale is told in this illustration. The youngster had painted houses of worship, which are important to him, with guns and gunmen pointing at them. All children should have the right to profess, observe and practice their religion without fear of reprisal.

Freedom to Dream: A little girl illustrates her ambition of becoming a doctor. All children should have access to education and should be in a position to earn a livelihood when they attain adulthood.

Freedom of Recreation: A young boy draws what matters most to him -- playing in a rock band! Children should have the right to pursue their interests and develop their talents.

In an ideal world, laws and society, and not aid agencies, should protect children. Let us all work together to address the specific needs of children at risk, and institute laws and enforcement systems to protect them.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Going Meatless In Kuala Lumpur

In observance of International Meatless Day, which falls every 25th November, this blogpost will be dedicated to the topic of vegetarian and vegan eateries in Kuala Lumpur.

The International Meatless/Animal Rights Day was started in 1986 by the Sadhu Vaswani Mission in Pune, India, in honour of Sadhu Vaswani's birthday. Sadhu Vaswani was a spiritual leader who championed animal rights and vegetarianism, among other causes.

Interestingly, many of the prime movers behind 'Meatless Day' campaigns are not the vegetarians, but non-vegetarians, environmentalists and animal welfare advocates. A vegetarian diet, even if only once a week, has the following benefits:

1. Benefits to human health: Vegetarians have lower rates of cancer, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, kidney stones and gallstones.

2. Environmental benefits: According to the UK government’s Climate Change Programme 2006, if everyone in Britain were to abstain from meat one day a week over a year, this would save 13 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. The carbon savings would be greater than taking five million cars off the road. Nitrous oxide used in fertiliser applied to crops grown to feed cattle with, and the methane generated by livestock in their waste, are all potent greenhouse gases. Livestock farming is an energy, water and fuel intensive industry. Reducing the meat you consume will save precious natural resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

3. Animal welfare concerns: The existence of alternative media has made more people aware of the cruelties of battery farming. We eat, utilise, domesticate and raise animals; therefore, we owe them a better life.

As my friends at Food Not Bombs KL aver, vegetarian food is ideal because it is 'non-denominational' and 'non-violent'.

Vegetarians, vegans, piscetarians and 'occasional vegetarians' in Kuala Lumpur are spoilt for choice when it comes to vegetarian eateries in the City.

The following is a list of my favourite vegetarian eateries in KL:

1. Tian Yan Café & Restaurant
Address: 5, 7 & 9, Jalan 3/93, Taman Miharja, Jalan Cheras, 55200 KL.
Open daily (11am-9pm) except during Chinese New Year.

This café serves fast food as well as Chinese food. The mushroom 'twinkles' and 'chita' salad are highly recommended snacks.

2. Annalakshmi Restaurant
Address: 46 Jalan Maarof, Bangsar.
Contact: 03 2284 3799

Annalakshmi is an international chain of vegetarian restaurants operating in a unique concept of "Eat to your heart's content, pay what your heart feels". Their buffet meals are delish, and their ulunthu vadai are addictive.

3. Giant Bowl Vegetarian Restaurant
Address: 10, Jalan Klang Lama, Batu 4 1/2, 58000 Kuala Lumpur
Contact: 016-3322-949, 03-3323-9949

Giant Bowl is famed for their noodle and rice dishes, but don't be surprised to find meatless dim sum and satay on their menu!

4. Sangeetha Vegetarian Restaurant
Address: 65, Lebuh Ampang, Masjid Jamek, Kuala Lumpur
Contact: 03- 2032 3333

A South Indian thali meal followed by falooda or kulfi for dessert at Sangeetha's -- now that's a meal fit for a king!

5. Bakti Woodlands Vegetarian Restaurant
Address: 55 Leboh Ampang, 50100 Kuala Lumpur
Contact: 03-20342399

This is where my friend Amril and I used to come for uthappam and bajji. The food is inexpensive and tasty.

This International Meatless Day, please make a pledge to go meatless at least one day a week!

"To a man whose mind is free, there is something even more intolerable in the sufferings of animals than in the sufferings of man. For with the latter, it is at least admitted that suffering is evil and that the man who causes it is a criminal. But thousands of animals are uselessly butchered every day without a shadow of remorse. If any man were to refer to it, he would be thought ridiculous. And that is the unpardonable crime."
- Romain Rolland, author, Nobel Prize 1915

Energy Efficiency Carnival 2009 at the PWTC

Energy Efficiency Carnival 2009
Organised by the Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water
Venue: Putra World Trade Centre (PWTC)
Duration: Saturday, 21 Nov 2009 – Sunday, 22 Nov 2009

As soon as I learned of the Energy Efficiency Carnival 2009, I knew it would be of interest and of benefit to the members of the Malaysian Nature Society, and to me personally as a volunteer and a consumer.

Households use over 1/5 of the total energy consumed in the country. An average suburban family creates 4.5 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) from home electricity use every year.

Efficient energy use and alternative (renewable/sustainable) energy sources would not only reduce the amount of CO2 generated, but also reduce the economic costs associated with the construction of energy generation, supply and transmission infrastructure, and at a more domestic level, the cost of replacing and repairing inefficient appliances and of energy consumption.

Energy Efficiency: For a cleaner, safer future!

Booths offering energy-related products and services received lots of attention from patrons. Although I found many of the booth operators reasonably helpful, many did not seem particularly well-informed. Perhaps I am just too used to Malaysian Nature Society volunteers who are formidable Know-It-Alls. There is, however, a glaring lack of information on the management of electronic waste. It’s all very well to urge us to replace inefficient appliances, but where would the waste go? There is only one licensed scheduled waste management company in Peninsular Malaysia, and their fees are way too high for domestic users. Perhaps the Ministry could work with City Hall and the local authorities to set up centralised electronic waste collection centres for urban municipalities.

The Smart & Cool Homes energy-efficient model house drew many interested visitors.

Visitors checking out energy-saving refrigerators offered by a vendor. I can attest to the energy consumption habits of decrepit old fridges. The pre-Falklands War refrigerator unit we used to have at our bachelor pad had a rubber seal so leaky that we probably ended up refrigerating the whole street. When we finally replaced it, our electricity bill went down by a whopping 30-40%!

Wind turbines for energy generation would be ideal for coastal areas.

A CETREE (Centre for Education, Training and Research in Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency) volunteer obligingly poses by their Energy Efficiency Snakes and Ladders Board. Our friends at CETREE were kind enough to give me two sets of the board game for our MNS Green Living booth and Eco Kids projects.

The Green Building Index rating and certification programme is an initiative under the Persatuan Akitek Malaysia. I ended up engaging in a friendly discourse with the booth operator on why it would make more sense to certify retrofitted existing buildings than exclusively certify new construction. Think of the fuel and energy costs involved in the clearing of land for development, transportation of construction materials, and the construction and transmission of energy and water to a new building!

The Energy Commission booth has a multimedia display and information boards on the Energy Star rating system. I hope the rating system will be made compulsory for all appliances in the market.

Human well-being, we have learned, is linked more closely than most people realise to the great marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Carbon emissions must not exceed Nature's capacity to withdraw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and neutralise the carbon.

The challenge is that the world's inhabitants will need to find politically acceptable ways to reduce their CO2 emissions level by 80%.

Personal choices are not a substitute for political action. Global problems could only be comprehensively solved through actual reforms in public policies that engage most people and institutions.

Similarly, however, political action is no substitute for leading lives that reflect our environmental values. As long as people keep buying energy guzzlers (e.g. big vehicles as status symbols, power-hungry electrical appliances), businesses and manufacturers will continue producing them.

The Energy Efficiency Carnival 2009 is a step in the right direction and it would be heartening to see more collaboration between the public and corporate sectors on environmental initiatives in future.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Kuala Lumpur’s ‘French Quarter’

Mention ‘French Quarter’, and the Spanish and French-influenced mansions of New Orleans will no doubt come to mind. Most of the structures in the French Quarter of New Orleans were constructed after the great fires of 1788 and 1794. The buildings before the Great Fires were heavily influenced by French design and architecture, and sported peaked roofs, wooden siding and ironwork balconies and galleries. The Spanish overlords rebuilt the Quarter after 1794 and replaced the damaged roofs and sidings with flat-tiled roofs and fire-resistant stucco walls. In the early 20th century, the French Quarter of New Orleans attracted a large artistic and Bohemian community. The colourful walls and elaborate ironwork balconies and galleries of the French Quarter are still around today to be admired and gazed upon by tourists and history buffs. Since the 1920s, the buildings of the French Quarter have been protected by law and cannot be demolished. Any renovations and new construction in the Quarter must be done according to the regulations to match the period’s architectural style.

How delightful it is, then, to find that Kuala Lumpur has buildings that evoke the Old World charm and colonial appeal of the New Orleans French Quarter!

My father was driving past Wisma Fui Chiu (more popularly known as the puzzlingly named S&M Shopping Arcade) with me one evening in 1996 when he pointed out the ironwork balconies of the Neoclassical/Art Noveau shophouses along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock and Lebuh Pudu.

“Look,” Dad exclaimed jocularly, “French Quarter balconies!”
And so they were!
I have been fascinated by the architecture and history of the 1920s shophouses in downtown Kuala Lumpur ever since, and have lamented the destruction and ‘renovation’ of each heritage shophouse as I would the departure of an old friend.

This shophouse along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock now houses a ‘Jukebox Shoe Shop’ on the lower floor. The upper floor opens up on the side to a colonial-style balcony with lace-like ironwork railings. I say ‘balcony’ and not ‘gallery’ despite the size, because this particular balcony is suspended off the ground by means of support extending from the walls, and not by means of poles and pillars extending to the ground. Note the Art Moderne / Art Noveau portholes and swirling decorative moldings that defined much of 1920s architecture!

Fah Num Textiles Sdn Bhd used to have the same architectural details as the other Pre-War shophouses in the area, before its renovation. However, I am glad that they retained their ‘French Quarter’ balconies, if nothing else. I am not sure of the correct terminology, but I call these ‘gratuitous balconies’ because they are purely decorative and do not have doors that open up from the inside to the balconies. However, even the flowing organic shapes of the original ironwork balconies have been replaced with plain geometric ones.

A gentle reminder of the opulence that once defined Lebuh Pudu, this turn-of-the-century shophouse, with the writhing plants in the ironwork of its balcony, hyperbolas and parabolas in the windows, and nature-inspired stucco moldings, remains beautiful despite the state of disrepair that it is in.

It would be praiseworthy indeed if City Hall and the tourism authorities could look into the restoration of the pre-War buildings in Lebuh Pudu, Medan Pasar, Petaling Street, Jalan Tun H.S. Lee and Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock to at least half their former glory. These historical buildings exude such grace and quiet pride that it would be a terrible loss indeed if we were to replace them with sterile structures that lack history and character.

There is so much we can do to improve the state the area is in. We could, for instance:
1. Make it compulsory for all food and beverage operators in the area to install grease and rubbish traps;
2. Clean up and cover up waste disposal and wastewater discharge structures to control the vermin and disease vector population;
3. Institute stormwater management measures to reduce the incidence of flash floods;
4. Repaint, restore and maintain old structures that they remain serviceable and tenantable; and
5. Monitor new construction and any renovation projects to ensure that the architectural and design style of the particular historical period is retained or at least replicated.

With a little effort and the participation of city-dwellers, the heritage areas of downtown Kuala Lumpur could be as attractive and as worthy of visitors as the New Orleans French Quarter.