The sin of tsundoku – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 7 December, 2014

The sin of tsundoku
Posted on December 7, 2014, Sunday

Bookshelf with books
Books bought fro the Big Bad Wolf Sale

DECEMBER is the month I tread with a little trepidation.

No, I have not been bad. I also have not made a list of things I want from the chubby guy with snowy white beard and ridiculous red costume. Even when I did, I never got what I asked for.

The season of giving is not the reason too. I like the notion that people are reminded to make extra effort to be generous to those who have less than us. After all, it is a blessing to be able to share what we have. This act enriches the givers as much as those who receive.

It is neither the thought of unfulfilled plans made at the beginning of the year that troubles me. I have stopped calling them New Year resolutions because I realised these personal goals I set required more than 365 days to come to fruition. I am ambitious in that way.

After all, noting ventured, nothing gained. Rather, this is the time of the year when the word ‘tsundoku’ rings loud and clear inside my head. It is the Japanese word for the act of buying books, leaving them unread and piled up together with other unread books.

I am a book hoarder and I admit it. But I want to state that my wife initiated me into this obsession. She used to get me to accompany her to book fairs organised by major publishers and retailers where the prices were so dirt cheap they cost only a fraction we usually paid for at bookshops.

What got me hooked was the Big Bad Wolf Book Sale. First held in 2009, it has since evolved into the world’s biggest event of such nature offering three million books of all genres and with discounts of up to 95 per cent.

How can one resist the temptation of buying books that usually cost between RM30 and RM50 for less than RM10? So, being suckers for bargains, we have been visiting the fair annually and always return home lugging cartons filled with books.

For the past two years, it has been held in December at a convention centre within a 20 minute drive from where we live. The proximity made it extra difficult to restrain ourselves. I would tell her that I would just drive her there and wait while she browsed. By the time she was done, I was the one who ended up buying most of the books.

My wife has no preference for genre and selected whatever caught her fancy. I am a fan of Asian fictions and syndicated comics. Between us, we have bought over 300 books, most of them gathering dust on shelves, untouched and unread since we brought them home. By my estimate, I have read less than 20 books from those forays.

I grew up reading classics like ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’. Although those books had seen better days, having lost their crispness when I found them in a long forgotten nook, the tales within called out to me the moment I held them in my hands.

The yellowed pages and stale smell of paper coupled with the occasional scurrying of silver fish made the adventures in lands faraway even more gripping. These stories stirred the restless spirit in me to seek out my own escapades which I enjoyed very much as a child.

Nowadays, reading for pleasure has become a luxury. Work and declining eyesight are stripping away the one leisure activity I have always enjoyed. Where I once could read a book from back to back in one go, I can now only manage a few pages at a time before eye fatigue and sleepiness set in.

Still, I continue to buy books at fairs with the intention of enjoying them later and also fearing I may not be able to get the same titles for the same bargain price at other times. In some wicked way, I find spending money on books gratifying, perhaps the vestige of a time when reading was fun and stimulating. They still are if only I can find the time and vigour for them.

There is no more shelf space for another shopping spree. It does not help that the 11-day Big Bad Wolf Book Sale has just began and my wife is already making plans to go. I can resist as much as I want to but in the end I know I will still succumb to the sin of tsundoku anyhow. If I have one weakness, this must be it.

Since there is very little probability of circumventing this obsession, I am going to go with the flow. If I cannot beat it, I might as well jump into the fray and get myself some good books. And since this is the season for giving, I am going to indulge and buy books to give away as presents to friends as well. At the very least I will feel less guilty for this extravagance.

I hope they will not call me cheap for getting them presents at steeply discounted prices. After all, it is the thought that counts and reading is a good habit to cultivate. Nevertheless, I will tread gingerly lest I go hog-wild and burn a big hole in my pocket like I have done in previous years. The only spanner in the works now is where and how I can make space for the new batch of books.

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Doing the mundane but needful to bring about change – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 30 November, 2014

Doing the mundane but needful to bring about change
by Peter Tan. Posted on November 30, 2014, Sunday

Donald Law and Peter Tan at the International Conference on Disability Studies in Kuching
Sharing a light moment with Donald Law before the conference.

DONALD Law and I got acquainted at a conference on disability in Selangor six years ago. With him being in Kuching and I based in Kuala Lumpur, we did not get to meet often.

Over the years, we’ve bumped into each other several more times at similar events but seldom had the opportunity to talk other than the cursory hi-and-bye encounters.

The conference we attended in Kuching last week was different. Spread over three days, we had ample time to hold decent conversations.

While chatting after the conclusion of the second day’s proceedings, Donald told me, “When I first met you, your hair was all black. You were taking about accessibility issues.”

That got my attention.

“Now you have white hair,” he pointed to the sides of my head where grey has stealthily taken over, “I still hear you talking about the same issue.” Those were hard hitting words. Whether they were said in jest or not, it was the painful truth. Progress on accessibility in the built environment and public transport for disabled people has been moving at a snail’s pace.

I am neither the first nor will be the last to talk on issues of accessibility. Many disability rights advocates before me have been actively pursuing this agenda. They have been pushing for it long before the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Malaysian Persons with Disabilities Act 2008 came into the picture.

When the first light rail transit system STAR LRT in Kuala Lumpur was completed in 1994, wheelchair users were barred from using the line as the rail operator said evacuation in the event of an emergency would be difficult.

That sparked outrage among wheelchair users who staged a street protest against the ruling, pointing out that none of the public transport at that time was accessible, making it difficult, if not impossible, to move around for those who do not have their own transport.

To add insult to injury, the government at that time concurred with the operator. Both the Minister and Deputy Minister of National Unity and Social Development were reported in the press to have said accommodating the needs of disabled people was not practical and that it would be expensive to include accessible facilities into the system respectively.

Subsequent to the protest, PUTRA LRT, the second light rail transit system announced provisions for disabled people had been incorporated into the design of all the stations and trains that were under construction then.

To date, PUTRA LRT remains the only fully accessible rail system in the country while facilities for STAR LRT and the KL Monorail (the other urban rail line built with accessible facilities) are being upgraded in phases.

History was to repeat itself 12 years later when disabled people were again ignored in the development of public transport system. Government-owned stage bus operator RapidKL announced the addition of 1,000 buses into the fleet in 2006 but none were accessible.

It took public protests and five years of negotiations and consultations to get the company to bring in 400 low floor buses fitted with restraining system for wheelchairs.

Even then, most bus stops do not comply with accessibility standards. They have yet to be upgraded and there are approximately 4,000 bus stops in the Klang Valley alone.

I shudder to think how long that is going take. As far as I can see, absolutely no effort has been put into upgrading any of them at the moment.

Advocacy for disability rights and equality is a long and tedious struggle. Imagine the amount of work that has gone into pushing for accessible public transport since 1994 and yet many of us are still nowhere near to being able to use it conveniently and safely.

Indeed, advocacy is like a deflated ball that needs to be kicked continuously in order to keep the momentum going.

Those of us who are committed to this endeavour know we have to be in this for the long run. We may not even get to experience the day when the built environment and public transport system becomes fully accessible in our lifetime.

Yet, we still soldier on with the realisation that if we do not do anything now, future generations will continue to suffer the fate we are experiencing now.

As most of the advocacy activities are concentrated in the Klang Valley, the slow changes happening are limited to that region only.

There is a lot more work that needs to be done with regards to access including education, employment, cultural life, and assistance in situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies and other rights recognised under the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008.

Therefore it is necessary for advocates in other parts of the country, especially in Sarawak and Sabah to join forces and elevate the disability rights movement to one that is genuinely cohesive and effective at the national level. We need to speak with one voice to be heard loud and clear.

Donald is right. Advocates like me have been talking about these issues so many times that we sound like broken records.

We have no other choice. We need to do whatever is necessary to keep the issues alive. Unless there are more effective ways of advancing our cause, we have to continue using the tried and tested ways of garnering attention and getting our rights respected. If we keep quiet, nothing will happen going by past records.

Having said that, the government, with its wide-ranging powers and resources, can play an active role in hastening the process of inclusion and full participation by enacting laws that prohibit discrimination or establish a commission to investigate and take punitive actions against those acts, including government agencies without fear or favour.

The question now is whether the government is serious enough in upholding the rights of disabled people by taking proactive actions or do disabled people have to continue pushing for inclusion by holding street protests every time we want to get our voices heard?

Donald, here is hoping we do not need to wait until I have a full head of white hair before we get to see meaningful changes.

I know how boring it has become having to hear me give presentations about the same issues every time we meet at conferences.
Unless and until the situation changes for the better, you will have to bear with me still.

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Room with a view – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 23 November, 2014

Room with a view
by Peter Tan. Posted on November 23, 2014, Sunday

Datuk Fatimah, Dr Ling, Dr  Meekosha , Gill, Donald Law and Peter Tan

IN the serenity of the morning, the iconic Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Building glowed golden in the embrace of the rising sun, perfectly complemented by the silvery whiteness of Fort Margherita just a stone’s throw away.

Greenery, man-made structures and paved surfaces slowly warmed up to greet another new day. The mighty Sarawak River glimmered as it wound its way to the South China Sea. A lone boatman steered his craft near to the bank, leaving an expanding wake behind.

Along the Waterfront, an old couple ambled, he holding a walking stick and she holding on to his other free arm. My wife Wuan came and stood behind me. We watched in silence from our hotel room on the sixth floor until their frail figures were eventually obscured by the canopy of the rain tree.

That was a loving and beautiful sight on our first morning in Kuching and one I do not mind waking up to every day. Indeed, it is great to be back in this beautiful city. What is even greater are the rekindling of old friendships and the forging of new ones.

We are here to attend the three-day international conference on “Disability Studies: Heading In The Right(s) Direction?” that began on Thursday. This was organised by the Centre of Excellence for Disability Studies (CoEDS) anchored at the Faculty of Social Sciences of Universiti Sarawak Malaysia (Unimas) and is the first and only institution of higher learning in Malaysia promoting the programme on disability studies.

I would like to note with appreciation that our journey to Kuching, lodging and participation in this conference were made possible by the generous sponsorship of Sarawak Consolidated Industries Berhad in close coordination with Director of CoEDS Associate Professor Dr Ling How Kee and Unimas Senior Social Work lecturer Gill Raja who made sure that my accessibility needs were met.

My contribution to the conference was a presentation titled “Where Rights Are Being Ignored & How Equality And Full Participation Can Be Realised” during the plenary session on the first day. The organisers had also allocated a two-hour slot for me to facilitate an introductory Disability Equality Training workshop for today (Saturday) which concluded a while ago.

After following the proceedings by the presenters comprising academics, researchers and advocates for the entire duration of the conference, I discovered that the field of disability studies is wider and more diverse than I previously thought. It involves the entire spectrum of life and living, cuts across all levels of society and affects more of those who are marginalised and disadvantaged by poverty.

The amount of knowledge shared in this conference was staggering. It was here that I was suddenly struck by the realisation my knowledge in disability is a mere drop in the ocean. The more I learnt, the more I found out how little I knew. This humbling discovery has again perked the desire to deepen my understanding in this area in order for me to do what I am doing more effectively.

A previous endeavour at pursuing disability studies through distance learning with a university in the United Kingdom renowned in this field fell through because I did not possess sufficient academic qualifications. Moreover the tuition fees for foreign students were beyond my affordability.

This time, I want to seriously consider how this renewed interest can be seen to fruition.

Since the day we arrived, Wuan and I have been fortunate to experience Sarawakian hospitality at its best. I especially relished meeting Welfare, Women and Family Development Minister Datuk Fatimah Abdullah. She is all the good things I heard so much about – that she is approachable, affable, unassuming and more.

Most importantly, Datuk Fatimah’s passion in working towards the inclusion and full participation of disabled people has earned my utmost respect. From the brief conversation we had, her genuine desire to change the situation for the better was apparent. I would love the opportunity to work with her and my peers in Sarawak to achieve that end.

Wuan and I are also blessed to have very good friends who took us out and fed us with delicious food in the evenings. We loved it. The flavours that are uniquely Kuching have made us want to savour more this city has to offer. And I am happy to have made new friends with the same orientation in advancing disability rights.

This is one conference that has enriched me in so many ways. Wuan and I cannot stay back to listen to the summation and witness the closing ceremony due to the timing of our flight back to Kuala Lumpur although I wish we can.

It has opened my mind to new perspectives that will prove useful to the advocacy activities and trainings I conduct in the future. Dr Ling and Gill deserve the credit for the transformation and opportunity to develop myself further by extending the invitation and arranging the logistics to enable me to attend this conference.

As I looked out the window for one last time before checking out, I know I will be waking up the next day missing the familiar scenes of the river and activities of the Waterfront. The next time we return, it will be to explore the heritage and follow the food trails the city is famous for.

Unknowingly and unsuspectingly, Kuching has grown into me. My life will never be the same again after this.

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