I love being your Mum

I love being your Mum

Friday, 9 December 2011

International Volunteers Week 2011 - Loyar Burok Feature

When life changed for Ghani, Adrian and I

This article was written for and first published in Loyarburok on 5 December 2011, and was subsequently published in the Selangor Times ( with different images) on 9 December 2011:

Life has always been good. Well, pretty good anyway, all things considered.

We lived a comfortable life, had a decent roof over our heads and enjoyed holidays locally and abroad. In many ways, we were typical Malaysians with the attitude that said – I am okay, so what the heck?

My first encounter with the Orang Asli of Malaysia was back in 1994, when my late husband and I joined a group of friends for a weekend trip to Tasek Chini in Pahang. It was a very touristy introduction and we never really gave a second thought about our indigenous brothers and sisters until 16 years later.

We left home when Ghani decided to study law as a mature student in 2000. After living abroad for 8 years, we decided to give up the rat race and return to Malaysia. We took 2 years off to track our way home via the scenic route on land in our trusty 4×4.

In 2008, we left London when our son, Adrian, was 3 years old and arrived in Malaysia just in time to celebrate his 5th birthday. We had travelled through 46 countries on 4 continents.

During our travels, we made a point to experience as much of the local lifestyle as possible, especially in Africa. For 5 months, we camped where possible in tribal villages, often welcomed into the homes and hearts of total strangers. We were offered food by families who could barely afford to feed themselves and shown such warm hospitality that I can’t even begin to describe how humbled and grateful we felt.

Upon our return to Malaysia, we settled back into a non-nomadic lifestyle with some difficulties. Not only did we have to integrate ourselves back into a society we had been away from for 10 years, we also had to deal with certain health issues faced by Ghani. We realised that our travels had totally changed our mindset and outlook of life.

Our involvement with the Orang Asli communities began in early August 20110, when Ghani saw an Al Jazeera report on television, entitled “Malaysia ethnic tribes ‘forced to convert’”, one evening. I was in the kitchen when Ghani called for me to come to the living room and watch the feature. He was gob smacked by what he saw and heard on the television. There we were, looking at villages in Malaysia, somewhat similar to those we saw in Africa. Surely this was not happening in Malaysia, and surely the report was not true?

The only way to know the truth, Ghani thought, was to find out for ourselves.

We lived just 15 minutes down the road from the Temuan Orang Asli Village in Sungai Buloh. One Sunday morning, we took a drive out to the village and spent the morning chatting with the villagers. This gave us a much deeper insight of some of the issues faced by the Orang Asli not just in the rural interiors, but also the urban fringe villages that are within close proximity to the city. They live without electricity, basic amenities and still depend on gravity-fed water supply.

Pus oozing from a 2-year old toddler's infected ear

We also found that in this particular village, healthcare services were poor despite being so close to the Sungai Buloh Hospital. The local government-run clinic did not seem to take their ailments seriously. A 2-year old toddler, with pus oozing out of his ear, had been given only eardrops for the past 4 months. Eardrops alone would not have helped to clear the infection as one would first need to clean the wound before applying it; something even we, who are not medically trained, knew.

It was our fateful encounter with Kedang Pil, brother of the village matriarch, that gave us the drive to do what we can for the Orang Asli communities.

Kedang had spent the past few months in and out of the local Klinik Desa, with complaints of prolonged cough, fever, chills and lethargy. Each time he visited the clinic, he was prescribed Paracetamol, cough mixtures and pain killers. He was told to go home and rest.

One morning I got a call from Kedang’s niece saying that her uncle had collapsed and was admitted to the Sungai Buloh Hospital. He was placed in an isolation unit and his family did not know what was happening to him. Ghani and I rushed over and were informed that Kedang had been diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB), and that he was in very critical condition.

Kedang fighting to stay alive at Sungai Buloh Hospital's isolation ward

Kedang passed away two days later. Trying to get his body released for burial was a challenge. Kedang was a Malaysian. He was no different from me and yet, because he was an Orang Asli, a different set of rules applied. Both Ghani and I were left feeling perplexed.

The release of his body for burial was delayed, as we first needed clearance from the Jabatan Hal-Ehwal Orang Asli (Orang Asli Welfare Department) and was questioned repeatedly about his religion and which burial rites should apply.

This was followed by yet another challenge to get the other villagers tested for TB, as they had lived in close contact with Kedang. The children, some of whom were coughing themselves had been exposed to other children in the local schools.

Our frustrations were brought to the attention of Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan, the Chairperson of the Malaysian Bar Council’s Committee on Orang Asli Rights (COAR). She surprised me with a phone call one evening asking details of the issues faced by the village, especially in relation to their healthcare. She then brought this to the attention of Tan Sri Datuk Dr. Hj. Mohd Ismail Merican, the then Director-General of Health under the Ministry of Health.

This marked the beginning of Ghani, Adrian, and my active involvement in working with different Orang Asli communities. We served as observer members of COAR and co-founded a community support group with some members of COAR and leaders of the Orang Asli network.

Arts and craft session with pre-schoolers in Kampung Peta

The support group seeks to provide school supplies, guidance and support to several community-run pre-schools in Orang Asli villages. The pre-schools are set up and facilitated by the Orang Asli themselves. The aim is to give each child an opportunity for literacy and not to be at a disadvantaged position once they start their formal education in government-run schools.

Teaching Orang Asli children how to make bean shakers out of empty plastic bottles

Since Ghani’s passing in March this year; Adrian, our now 7 year-old son, and I have carried on with our volunteering work with the Orang Asli Learning Centres Community Project, COAR and other initiatives involving Orang Asli communities. All these are carried out on a pro bono basis, something we have always been grateful for. We have been blessed in life, and this is just a small way for us to give back to society.

Working with Orang Asli communities at grass roots level in Kuala Koh

Volunteering our time and energy has benefitted us greatly. Very often, we find that we receive much more than we’ve given. We have much to learn from our indigenous brothers and sisters, even simple life’s lessons on humanity, humility and the grace of giving when you do not have enough for yourself.

Adrian feeling very much at home with the Orang Asli children

Many have asked how I’ve managed to drag my 7-year old along on field trips to the interior villages, sometimes up to 3 to 4 days, with no proper water supply, electricity, sanitary facilities, access to medical amenities and often without substantial food. Well, we manage. You learn to live without the mod-cons we have in our everyday life; and more importantly, we learn to appreciate what we do have, knowing how fortunate we are to have them when others at our doorsteps are living without.

The world has always been a classroom for Adrian

Adrian spent two of his most formative years living a nomadic life, travelling overland through different countries, experiencing different cultures with different traditions and belief systems. He adapts as all children will, when given the opportunity to experience different environments. He plays with the local kids, and they look out for him. He joins in their traditional celebrations, and can Sewang as well as any Orang Asli can.

As a mother, I cannot be more thankful for the experience Adrian gets from our work and the wealth of knowledge shared with him by other volunteers, field workers and local villagers we work with. The world has always been his classroom and it continues to be so.

There is still so much to be done. There are still so many wrongs to be corrected and so many issues to be addressed – from land rights to just basic human rights. From creating awareness amongst the communities, advising them on their rights as Malaysian citizens, to walking with them in their efforts to preserve their unique identity, culture and traditions.

As volunteer field workers, we work with the grassroots communities, doing what we can in our own small little way. One thing is for sure though, no matter how small a part anyone plays, it is never insignificant.

You don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by many people, can transform the world

– Howard Zinn

Alison Murugesu-Ghani is a hotelier by profession. She gave up her corporate life in London to spend two years travelling overland with her late husband and their young son in 2008-2009, taking the scenic route back to their homeland through 46 countries in 4 continents. She is currently living a non-nomadic life in Kuala Lumpur.

Posted on 5 December 2011.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Capt Ghani Ishak, 2 Jun 1947-21 Mar 2011

Capt Ghani Ishak 2 June 1947 - 21 March 2011

It will be two weeks tomorrow. I can't even say if it feels like yesterday, or if it feels like forever. It's a day that I somehow knew at the back of my head would one day come. But the 21 March 2011 was not supposed to have been that day.

Ghani has had a heart condition for as long as I have known him. He was on his 3rd pacemaker and it had a good 3 years left on it, before it was due for replacement. He had an enlarged heart (or he was big hearted, as he would say), a leaky valve, low platelets and an enlarged spleen, amongst other things. He also survived a stroke which he suffered in Norway, in 2008, 3 months into our travels. The stroke left him completely paralyzed on his right, but the medics in Bodo, some 200km north of the Arctic Circle got him talking in 6 hours and moving in 9 hours. 2 weeks later we were back on the road, and a month and a half later, Ghani himself was driving us from London to Cape Town.

That Monday morning, Ghani woke early, around 4-5am, mumbled something about football and board paper and stumbled out of bed. I awoke at 7.30am, heard footie on the tv and lazed around in the room till Adrian awoke at 8.30am. As I tidied up the bed, I heard Adrian's voice in the living room and the next thing I knew Adrian came barging into our room saying, 'Mum, there's something wrong with Dad'.

Ghani was sat upright in his favourite spot on our brown sofa, an empty glass of water next to him, and an empty jar of 'rempeyek' (a local savoury snack which was his favourite) in front of him. The jar had been half full. He had his reading glasses on, his board papers for his 10am meeting were on his lap and his pen was still in his hand. It seems that Ghani had suffered a massive heart attack some two hours before. So massive that he didn't even know what hit him.

In accordance to Muslim rites, the burial took place the same day. Everything that happened after the time Adrian and I sat with him on our sofa for about 10 minutes, hugging him for the last time, before the paramedics and family and friends started arriving became one fuzzy, surreal experience. At 8.30am, we were sat with Ghani on the sofa and at 2.30pm, Ghani was laid to rest. There were hundreds of people paying their last respects to this wonderful man at the Bukit Damansara Mosque, where he was prepared for burial and lay in state, before Adrian and I accompanied him on our last journey together, in the back of the hearse to the Kiara Muslim Burial Ground.

Family and friends have helped us get through these past 14 days. Mum is now with us and will be with us till we get our feet back on the ground. So many have reached out to us and we are ever so grateful and humbled by the outpouring of care, love and concern. And the prayers.

Ghani was hugely respected and very much loved for the person he was. He touched many lives during his teenage years at HMS Conway; at sea as a Master Mariner; when he was at MISC practicing ship management and human resource and in the oil and gas industry; as a biker; a law student and a barrister at law; as a traveller; a neighbour; through his outreach work with Orang Asli communities in Malaysia and most of all, as a friend.

We spent 17 years together, 12 of them as husband and wife, with Adrian making us complete in 2004. Ghani was my 'confinement man' after Adrian was born in London, and he probably spent more time with Adrian in his 6.5 years, than many of us spend with our fathers in a lifetime.

What gives us the strength to let go of Ghani is the fact that he left us in the most dignified, painless way, with no suffering, no hospitals, no tubes and no needles. He ate the foods he loved, right up to the last minute and did all the things he wanted to. Most of all, he left with Adrian and I knowing without a single doubt, that he loved us.

Ghani's favourite song had always been Frank Sinatra's My Way. I last heard him sing it at my Godpa's 80th birthday celebrations in Penang on 12 March 2011. When I reflect on the lyrics now, they truly speak of Ghani's life and how he lived it - His Way!

And now the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend I'll say it clear
I'll state my case of which I'm certain

I've lived a life that's full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

Regrets I've had a few
But then again too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption

I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

Yes there were times I'm sure you knew
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out, I faced it all
And I stood tall and did it my way

I've loved, I've laughed and cried
I've had my fill, my share of losing
And now as tears subside
I find it all so amusing

To think I did all that
And may I say not in a shy way
Oh no, oh no, not me
I did it my way

For what is a man what has he got
If not himself then he has not
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way

Yes it was my way

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Grand Uncle Sonny turns 80!

by Adrian Ghani

My Grand Uncle Sonny celebrated his 80th birthday on 10 March 2011. Mum and her cousin, Uncle Jonathan hosted a surprise dinner party for him on the 12th March, in Penang and invited the entire family!

I met so many relatives. I never knew we had so many people in what Mum calls our extended family.

I led everyone in singing the Birthday Song. I had fun.

Thursday, 10 March 2011


I Don't Like Being Sick

By Adrian Ghani

I don't like having a fever or a cough and runny nose. I don't like it when I can't breathe properly. I don't like taking medicines and not being able to go outside to play.

The only thing I like about being sick is sleeping in Dad's and Mum's bed and sticking that cold gel thing on my forehead.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Adrian's Field Trip Report : Elmer The Elephant Live on Stage

We had a good morning on the 4 March 2011, at PJ Live Arts, watching Elmer the Elephant, performed by the Blunderbus Theatre Company, based on the children's book by David McKee.

Here's Adrian's report on it:

Elmer The Elephant

by Adrian Ghani

Mum and Cahaya's Mum got tickets for us to go to the theater. We watched Elmer the Elephant. I had an Elmer book when I was younger. The actors chatted with us before the show. We had the front seats.

Elmer make an appearance

Elements of shadow play

There was lots of singing and dancing and we got squirted by a water gun. Elmer wanted to be the same colour as all the other elephants, instead of patchwork. I enjoyed the show very much.

Nelly, the 200 year old matriarch

Elmer and Baby Lion as he was off to look for the
Elephant Coloured Berry Bush

After the show we went downstairs for ice cream.

The Last Polka's Nutella Ice Cream at the Bee cafe