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JUDGE A BOOK BY IT’S COVER

I’m delighted to say that I’ve a new book coming out very soon!

The good folk at Penguin gave me several cover alternatives. Choosing one was not easy, as, no matter the many, many hours I’ve put in writing the 15 stories, the cover is probably the most important part of the book.

It’s a sad reality but, as humans, we respond visually. We see an interesting cover and pick the book up or click the buy or sample button if on our ebooks.

Yes, we do judge a book by its cover!

So, for me, it came down to these two:

This one??
Or this one??

Both of them are really nice and eye-catching.

Which one do you like?

“I Contain Multitudes” – where Stephen King meets Bob Dylan

I won’t call them my heroes because they haven’t done anything heroic. But they are two people whom, through their immense creativity, have added so much to life. Not just mine but to millions.

They, however, stand on different mountains.

Stephen King, my favourite author, is perched on the Himalayas of Horror while Bob Dylan, my favourite singer/songwriter, eyes us from the tops of the Matterhorn.

What brings them together is the Walt Whitman’s 1,300 lines poem “Song of Myself” where in part 51 he writes:

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

In April 2020 Stephen King publishes his short story collection If It Bleeds where in part 3 of his story “The Life of Chuck” is entitled “I Contain Multitudes”.

Two months later, Bob Dylan releases his Rough and Rowdy Ways album and the first track is called, wait for it, “I Contain Multitudes”.

Wow!

A strange coincidence?

Most certainly for, although King is big fan of Dylan, I doubt the two are friends and tell each other what they’re working on. But, for me, this is an intersection of two minds meeting through their creativity, using the words of Walt Whitman written 165 years ago.

So now I must leave you and read “Song of Myself’ to see what other mysteries it might contain.

P.S Dylan’s album also includes the song “Murder Most Foul” about the JFK assassination which King’s novel 11.22.63 is mostly about. The assassination and the mysteries surrounding it remain unresolved and, while the unanswered questions remain, the country will never find closure over that tragic event.

Goodbye Mel …

Some time has passed and now I can write about this …

My brother, Tunku Dato’ Kamel bin Almarhum Tunku Tan Sri Abdullah (whom, we in the family, simply call “Mel”), passed away on 27 February 2022.

He died of Covid-19 after a harrowing two years in which he spent at Hospital Cancelor Tuanku Muhriz (HCTM) (formerly known as Hospital Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) undergoing treatment. Both his legs were amputated due to infection and he spent much of the time in semi-consciousness cause by his strokes. We all prayed that he would get better but he never did. Some would count his passing as a blessing.

Mel began his career in the hospitality industry and was a director of several companies. He mostly kept a low profile although he did cut a dashing figure and had somewhat of a colourful life. He married the Agong’s daughter in the 1980s but later divorced.

He was a supporter of my writing and often attended my book talks.

He leaves behind his wife, Datin Norehan, and three adult daughters from previous marriages.

My Sugar-Tax letter to The Star, NST & the Sun

A very sad and unhealthy situation

This is the letter I sent to the Star:

I WROTE the book So Fat Lah! six years ago to help Malaysians lose weight. Malaysia is, after all, the most obese country in Asia. Unfortunately, it seems we are losing the battle against obesity as more than half of us are now overweight or obese. And the problem is getting worse.

There are many reasons cited for this problem, including a sedentary lifestyle and consuming too much meat, dairy and refined carbohydrates (processed sugar). I would like to focus on one significant problem among Malaysians – our predilection for sweet drinks.

When I’m at a restaurant, cafe, food court, hawker stall or any food outlet, I tend to observe what my fellow diners are eating or, rather, drinking. There usually is the ubiquitous teh tarik and its other sweet companions including teh ais, kopi panas, limau ais, iced lemon tea, soft drinks, energy drinks, fruit juices, milkshakes, frappes and blended drinks.

I also notice that not one of my fellow diners has ordered what I have – plain water. My humble drink has zero calories whereas the man at the next table sips a teh tarik that contains 200 calories. His son has a glass of soft drink and his wife has a fruit juice, both of which contain 130 calories each.

Having an occasional sweet drink is not a major health concern. The problem is most of us are drinking them daily, sometimes even twice or three times a day. When we’re on our lunch break, whether at a restaurant, cafe, food court or hawker stall, our habit is to order a sweet drink with our food. We even order sweet drinks with our meals for breakfast and dinner.

Sugar is addictive. Some studies have even suggested that it is as addictive as cocaine. From personal experience, I know that if I eat or drink something sweet today, I will crave for something sweet tomorrow.

Some of our fellow Malaysians will refrain from ordering a sweet drink if they are advised by health professionals or perhaps even through a government campaign to give up this habit. Most, however, will not. This is because of the addictive nature of sugar.

But more than that, consuming sweet beverages is deeply ingrained in our culture. So something more has to be done.

That something is a blanket sugar tax. We already have a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, but this can be substantially expanded to include processed sugar and all products that contain it.

This will immediately increase the price of handmade beverages including teh tarik, kopi panas, teh ais, frappes and all the other calorie-rich drinks.

Many of us will object as it will also increase the prices of chocolates, sweets, confectionery, desserts, pastries, jams, sweet snacks and ice cream. But there will be a sigh of relief from concerned health professionals because all these products are filled with too many calories and contribute to the obesity problem in this country.

Putting a tax on refined sugar and all sugar-sweetened products is an extreme measure which only a few countries have attempted, some successfully, others less so. However, desperate times call for desperate measures, and with more than half of the country being overweight or obese, it is hard to argue that these are not desperate times.

To prevent a public outcry, the tax should be introduced gradually, beginning at a low rate and then progressively increased every year. This will allow the public to get used to the idea and to slowly change their dietary habits. It will also allow corporations, suppliers and vendors to make changes to what they have on offer.

If we don’t counter our obesity crisis with desperate measures, our health system will be plunged into crisis. We know that obesity is the cause of high blood pressure, heart diseases, diabetes, stroke and some types of cancers. The government may have trouble funding a health system that could be overwhelmed in the coming years.

Any wise person will say that prevention is better than cure. This is something we should take to heart.

TUNKU HALIM

You’ll find the link here

As this is a subject close to my heart, I also wrote similar letters to The Sun and the NST to ensure wide coverage.

Another reason is that in a previous letter I had sent to the Star, some unscrupulous person had copied my letter and sent it to the NST under their own name which was that published. So this was to prevent that.

Sharing Session with POPULAR Bookstores BookFest

I was delighted to be able to participate in a live sharing session last night. Furthermore, it was great that Ranuka, my interviewer had read all 3 books in the Midnight Children trilogy and so had lots of insightful questions for me.

That made it an enjoyable session.

If you missed it, then here’s the link

Click the link above to watch it

Here are the 3 books that we discussed.

I hope you’ll enjoy my sharing session as much as I did!

Reviewing “Looking After the Ashes” in conjuction with The Peranakan Festival in Penang

The Peranakan Festival in Penang is happening from 17th to 26th December 2021 and, in conjunction with the event, I’m pleased to review Kopi Soh’s book Looking after the Ashes. 

Kopi Soh alias Cheah Swee Lian is an old blogging friend and she asked me to write this review several weeks back and, with the Penang Festival coming up, and knowing that the author’s family is originally from the island, I thought now would be the ideal time to write it.

The book is subtitled Old Wives Tales, Taboos, Supernatural and Childhood Superstitions which, having just finished reading the book, is an accurate description of what awaits. Being a “semi-biographical fiction,” therefore enticingly mixing memory and imagination, and being told from the point-of-view of young Swee Lian, makes the account interesting, highly personal and easy-to-read. 

What’s more, it’s a pleasure to read!

You’ll not only find out about taboos and superstitions but there’s also lots about food. With all the vivid descriptions of Peranakan sweets and savouries one can’t help but salivate over its pages. There’s also a fair dose of Hokkien so you can pick up a word or two and say chiak (eat), chiak!

As it is right up my dark street,I found the spooky goings-on in her book highly intriguing. One of her scarier memories is of the “ghost child” which is a doll infused with the spirit of a dead baby that died pre-childbirth which her parents brought back from Thailand. This was not a doll one leaves in cupboard but it’s a doll that’s lovingly spoken too, is fed yummy snacks, given sweets and comics!

What brings the book alive are wonderful black and white drawings by KULit Baru. They are indeed a delight to mobile-phone weary eyes. 

This is an intimate family story with many events which are told in a mostly light-hearted way but there are sad and traumatic moments too. There is a richness here with so much to discover. 

As an outsider, the book allows you transcend time and to step into the household of a Penang Peranakan family several decades ago. The author laments that their language and culture is sadly fading fast and so I’m glad that she has written it to keep its memory alive and to leave a legacy for future generations. 

We need more books like this!

So if you’re unable to attend the Peranakan Festival in Penang, then at least get a copy of Looking After the Ashes.

But better still, do both!

For most MM2H retirees, their residence here is their only home

This is the unedited version of the letter published in today’s Star newspaper:

The Sultan of Johor and many others have lamented the new Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) requirements. Other than an increase in the liquid assets needed and dropping the visa’s validity from ten years to only five years, retirees now need a monthly income of RM40,000 instead of the previous requirement of RM10,000.

You may well ask how can a retiree earn RM40,000 per month?

To answer that question, let’s look at interest rates. In the past few years, interest rates have kept falling and with the pandemic have plummeted globally to almost zero. Many Malaysians now struggle to obtain a fixed deposit rate of above 1%. 

So to earn RM40,000 a month based on a 1% return would mean that a retiree would need assets of RM48 million (40,000 x 12months = 480,000. Then 480,000/0.01 = 48 million).  As such even many wealthy retirees will find it impossible to earn RM40,000 monthly based on interest earned on bank deposits. Even if they plunge into riskier investments, perhaps through units trusts or a bond fund, say with a return of 3%, they would need to invest RM16 million. 

Stipulating a monthly income of RM40,000 means that only the super rich can retire in Malaysia. I wonder what was the purpose behind the changes. Are there too many foreign retirees in Malaysia so that we need to cull their numbers? Have they caused a social problem in this country? If we do persist with these new requirements, perhaps the MM2H program could be renamed MMUH, which would be short for Malaysia My Unaffordable Home!

It would be interesting to compare our program to what is on offer overseas. You can retire in the Philippines with a deposit US$10,000 (RM42,000) which can be used as part of a property purchase with no limit on your length of stay. Just across the border, Thailand offers an annual renewable visa with a deposit of 800,000 Thai baht (RM103,000) in a local bank, those funds being available to cover your expenses during the year. 

Choosing to go further afield, you can retire in Portugal with the D7 annual visa merely with proof that you are earning 7,200 Euros (RM35,500) per year, which is to cover living expenses. There is also Panama where an annual income of US$1000 (RM49,800) gets you in. So our MM2H program which now requires an annual income of RM480,000 doesn’t stack up well against the competition.

So what does the new requirements mean for retirees already living in Malaysia?

When their visas do come up for renewal, most of them will be forced to leave the country. This would be pity as they would have made friends here and have become part of our community.. Some have married locals and these circumstances may well force them to live apart If they’ve bought properties locally, they would have to sell them which will take time, effort and may suffer financial losses because of our now softer property market. Some even have children enrolled in our schools and they will have to be uprooted.

To many foreign retirees, Malaysia is not their second home, but their only home. They are our guests and deserve to be treated fairly.

Tunku Halim

The writer is an author of numerous fiction and non-fiction books including A Vanishing (part of the Midnight Children trilogy), Scream to the Shadows and A Children’s History of Malaysia.

ARE BOOKS A WASTE OF TIME IN THIS DIGITAL AGE?

Reading books is a waste of time. Especially fiction.

If you want to find information it’s all online. So why bother with books? As for short stories and novels, they’re just stories and how could they even begin to help us?

Such disingenuous thoughts, unfortunately, are to our and our children’s detriment.

There is, of course, unlimited information online. Studies, however, show that we only absorb a small percentage of what’s on screen. We don’t properly read the article but rather our eyes scan through the page, only seeking out the relevant information. That’s because when we’re online, we cannot fully concentrate. Our minds are too ready to be distracted by the next thing, whether it’s a message, a notification, social media or the latest news. It’s craving to move on. Even as I’m writing this, I’m tempted to check today’s headlines, but I have to force myself to continue writing.

Reading a physical book is different. 

With our phones put aside on silent mode, we can give full attention to what’s on the page. We can fully absorb the information, arguments, nuances and conclusions. That’s because we’ve given it not only our full concentration but also our time. There are no distractions. Our minds are in contemplative mode, ready to receive and to learn. So, if we want our children to be properly educated, let them study from a real book or, at least, have the information printed out.

It’s the same with fiction. Online stories are not properly read. The characters, descriptions, settings and plot are not fully absorbed. Once again, the mind is in distraction mode, ready to jump to the next thing. A physical book, limited in its paper and ink, keeps you bound to it. Books allow us to be alone with the writing and our thoughts. It promotes contemplation and peace of mind.

But what are the use of stories?

A few months back, I was on a panel at an online conference held by the psychology department of the Malaysia-Wales University entitled “Reading Fiction: How does fictional literature help us to understand the human person?” At the conference, we all profoundly agreed that stories are extremely useful. They provide a simulation of real life. Research shows that those who read fiction are much better socially, have better empathy, creativity and have a stronger grasp of language. These are all qualities that can help us in work and business, attributes our children can have if they regularly read fiction.

A few months ago, as one of several judges, I attended the online prize-giving of the Maybank Foundation – Perdana Leadership Foundation Writing Contest. The quality of the entries were sound but, honestly, could have been better. Although writing does improve with practise, reading copiously is a cornerstone of good writing. If we can write good fiction, our overall writing, whether it’s an essay, a report, a sales presentation or an email, will improve considerably which will help us in school, university, our career, work and business.

So is reading books a waste of time?

Definitely not. Some years ago, I said to my son: “The day you stop reading books, is the day you stop learning”. And that, in this age of screen and, particularly, social media addiction, is the sad truth.

So I encourage you and especially your children to use the time at home, during this MCO period, to read physical books, to educate and improve ourselves and to find greater peace of mind.

Tunku Halim is the author of the children’s books The Midnight Children – The Vanishing, History of Malaysia – A Children’s Encyclopedia and A Children’s History of Malaysia.

This letter was originally published in The Sun newspaper in Malaysia on 13/7/21

Midnight Children Trilogy in The Star 25/4/21

Tunku Halim’s ‘The Midnight Children’ trilogy is a series of dark fantasy novels for children combining Asian mythology and Gothic elements.

When you think about horror fiction and dark fantasy in Malaysia, Tunku Halim is a name to crop up first on any blood-stained list.

Since the 1990s, the 56-year-old author – with a legal background – has been spooking readers with his brand of “world gothic” tales and collections, including Dark Demon Rising, Horror Stories and Scream To The Shadows

In these pandemic times, Tunku Halim has put on a new – frightful -mask and taken on the challenge of writing stories for children.

He has written for a younger demographic before, focusing on history in books such as History of Malaysia, A Children’s Encyclopedia and A Children’s History Of Malaysia.

With the recent release of The Midnight Children trilogy (published by Penguin), Tunku Halim has turned his attention on spooky-based fiction for children.

“It all began when my publisher told me that her daughter had said that she really wished I wrote children’s stories. I thought it would be wonderful if her daughter could read a children’s story of mine,” says Tunku Halim in a recent interview.

“But I’d never written a story for kids and I wondered if I could do it. So I sat down one morning after breakfast and wrote a story about a vanishing dad, ” he adds.

Three books, pandemic productivity

To Tunku Halim’s surprise, the story not only took on a life of its own, but started to multiply. The author ended up writing three short stories, before realising he could expand the collection.

“About three quarters of the way through, I thought it would work better as a novel. After, all I had been using the same characters throughout the stories, and all I needed was an overarching narrative to link them all together.

‘Gothic elements are found in mystery, the unknown, a hidden secret, an old mansion, omens, a female in distress, all of which unfold in the trilogy. So there’s a lot to enjoy!’ says Tunku Halim about his new books for children.


‘Gothic elements are found in mystery, the unknown, a hidden secret, an old mansion, omens, a female in distress, all of which unfold in the trilogy. So there’s a lot to enjoy!’ says Tunku Halim about his new books for children. Photo: Filepic

“And then as there was so much exciting stuff happening in the first novel, I realised that it would have to be a three novel series, ” he elaborates.

The Midnight Children comprises (in order): The Vanishing, Cemetery House and The Moonlight World. Tunku Halim wrote the first two books during the first movement control order last year.

Each book follows the stories of teen siblings Zak and Min, and the strange adventures they get into after their father mysteriously vanishes one morning.

In The Vanishing, Zak is trapped in his bedroom by vicious snakes, while Min encounters scary spider-like creatures. To make things worse, a man gives them a box with a finger bone inside!

Things get scarier in the next book, where Min is forced to move to the mysterious Cemetery House, while Zak, chased by terrifying creatures, can’t get home.

It all builds to a climax in The Moonlight World, where the two siblings face off against creatures known as Yak-Yaks, and their king.

“I used creatures and spirits from Malay and South-East Asian myths in the three novels. But you’ll also find unique creations from my own dark imagination. I won’t want to go into the details as I don’t want to spoil the story for readers, ” says Tunku Halim.

Enough to scare, not scar.

A child-friendly Tunku Halim

While Tunku Halim does have a daughter and a son, he insists he didn’t base the characters of Zak and Min on them. They did, however, give him great insights on writing the sibling dynamic.

The author assures us that his new books were more in the realm of spooky fantasy rather than being outright horror.

He is mindful that he is writing children’s books, and did not want his readers to get nightmares.

“Having said that, the wonderful thing about books, compared to movies, is that if things gets too scary, we can always skip a paragraph or page which you can’t do with a movie.

“Nor are there any jump scares in books, which I think is a cheap way of scaring viewers. But I don’t think there’ll be any reason to skip paragraphs in the Midnight Children trilogy, ” says Tunku Halim, who as a child enjoyed the Narnia Chronicles before moving on to the Lord Of The Rings and Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant in his teenage years.

In many nostalgic ways, he adds that it was a fulfilling experience to realise his new children’s book project.

“I enjoyed reading about what Ragdoo gets up to, a character that doesn’t appear until the third book. I also quite like the horrid Uncle Obb, whom we don’t really get to know until the second book, Cemetery House. I like the way how everything comes together in the last book.”

The feedback for the Midnight Children has been encouraging, and Tunku Halim admits “it is better than for my adult tales.”

Which does the author find harder: writing for children, or writing for adults?

“Both have their own set of challenges and I wouldn’t say one was harder or easier than the other. You have to be disciplined when writing for kids. You have to stay within the boundaries of children’s expectations, comprehension, and values, ” says Tunku Halim.

“You have to write from a children’s point of view, which means often having to recall your own childhood. You have to be very focused when writing for kids which makes it harder but also, in some ways, easier too.”

In a time-tested book industry observation, Tunku Halim also feels children are more unforgiving than adults.

“If kids don’t like a book, they’ll just put it away, never to return to its pages. Adults, having paid good money for the volume, will try to finish it, ” he concludes.

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