When Ducks Can Make You Filthy Rich

We just got home from a lovely, absolutely lovely 6 days in Ubud, Bali. What have I been missing all this while? I always thought Bali was ultra commercial until Jeanette and Mariam kept urging me to go and experience it for myself. I am so appreciative that I did. I can’t believe this island has eluded me for so long.

nic sim & krista goon
Nic likes to make crazy faces when I take selfies. This is one of those moments when we were waiting out the rain at Wayan Kunang-Kunang’s.

Sorry if I sound like a complete fan-girl of Bali. I am enthralled. Head over heels. I think I shall retire there and start my resort.

A friend asked me what I found special.

Ubud has all the right architecture right down to the old, gnarled frangipani trees the locals call “pokok Jepun”. This is not to be mistaken with “Jepang” as Jepang is how the Balinese call the Japanese. So I am still puzzled about the difference between Jepun and Jepang.

bali temple statue

Perhaps I shall ask the Balinese the next time I get there (see? I am already planning my next trip despite the fact that I hate connecting flights. We had to take a Penang-KL flight, transit a few hours and then take KL-Denpasar. The same thing when we came back.)

Anyway, I loved that Ubud is like a village. It is small enough to feel familiar yet full of interesting nooks and crannies waiting to be discovered. Like the words I saw written on a white wall behind a goal post near Jalan Hanoman – “100% Love Is The Goal”. These little amusing moments strike me as whimsical yet fitted perfectly with the character of Ubud people (the angmohs and the locals alike).

Over the years, Nic and I realized that the vacations we craved weren’t just about going some place famous and taking snaps all day long. I was never that sort to begin with. Nic and I love meandering down little lanes, stopping for a chat and a drink, taking a longer time just to savour the day. That’s how our perfect little holidays end up anyway.

We never liked overwhelming ourselves with the must-do’s and the must-see. I think part of the reason is that we both strive to find meaningful connections with the people and the places we visit. So this time, we didn’t see Tanah Lot nor did we go up to Kintamani. We didn’t do Mount Batur or Goa Gajah or watch dolphins. We knew that we’d be back and we’d have plenty more trips to do so.

Ubud stone statues
Ubud is known for its excellent stone carvers

What we did do was make friends with the locals. We met Wayan Kunang-Kunang when we ran into his shop to take shelter from the tropical storm (you never want to ride a scooter when rain pelts you like bullets). We met Made Lasil at Neka Art Museum and he showed us how to play the bamboo instrument called ‘rindik’. We exchanged stories with Eka, Deksri, Mellany and Sari, the wonderful staff at Bali Dream Resort where we stayed and had a good time learning Indonesian words and finding that we had so much in common. Others like Wayan, our taxi driver, was so thankful when Nic gave him more than he asked for in taxi fees.

bali dream resort ubud
The delightful resort we stayed at…Bali Dream Resort, tucked away in Jalan Penestanan.

We learnt so much about Nyoman Sumetro, the owner of Bebek Tepi Sawah restaurant, when we toured the art gallery located next to the famous restaurant. Sure, we had stopped by to partake in the famous bebek or crispy duck (Mariam exhorted me to try it) and truth be told, Nic’s ikan gurami panggang tasted a lot better than my ultra-crispy half bebek! Bebek Tepi Sawah is so successful that it spawned more than a few outlets across Indonesia and there is even one in Singapore. That explained the Ferrari parked right out front! (It was covered modestly with a silver plastic car cover but nothing can hide the voluptuous shape.) Another bebek place that I didn’t get to try was Bebek Bengil a.k.a Dirty Duck Diner along Monkey Forest Road. Bengil is the local word for dirt (or “daki”) hence dirty duck. Perhaps next round!

ubud rice field
The rice paddy fields behind our resort

It is conversations with the locals that I loved best. It was funny to know that what we call “telur mata kerbau” is called “telur mata sapi” over there. It became a joke among the staff of Bali Dream Resort because each morning, as we ordered our American breakfast, they’d ask us how we’d like our eggs. We’d all laugh when we said “telur mata sapi” and then they’d repeat to us “telur mata kerbau” with a straight face but later burst out laughing because they couldn’t help it.

swimming pool ubud
The pool, just steps away from our room

Ubud is a slower pace of life, where shops are shuttered at 9pm (even Starbucks Ubud) and people are in bed by 10pm. The air is cool in the evenings because of all the rice terraces, trees and rivers.  Ubud is also the place where you will find a “pura” or temple every couple of steps. Religious and cultural events are a nightly feature.

One night, we witnessed a full procession of traditionally-dressed Balians as they celebrated yet another religious festival in full pomp. A Caucasian lady with a yoga mat slung over her shoulder asked us if we knew what was being celebrated (Ubud attracts a lot of Caucasians on a health and rejuvenation mission – yoga, vegan food, smoothies, retreats, the full works). We had no idea. But the procession went its way and finally she stopped a Balian and asked him what it was all about.

Pengosekan in Ubud is where Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love found Ketut Liyer, the palm reader whom we were told, only read foreign palms (he also charges higher rates). Ketut Liyer is old, in his 80s and still ranks as the most famous palm reader in all of Bali, thanks to the book and the movie.

ubud bali pool

Family life, having kids and being spiritual are a mainstay of the Ubud people. Nic and I felt a bit like oddities because Wayan, our taxi driver thought we were both on our honeymoon as we didn’t have any kids tagging along! (Ubud is very family-friendly. Families with kids in tow are everywhere, mostly Caucasian. This is not the sleazy Bangla Road of Phuket where lady boys are openly parading. I read later that there is a happening gay scene in Ubud which I seriously witnessed not!)

So consider this an amuse bouche for more of Ubud tales to come. I shall be back with more!

My Interview With Mak Lan of Lidiana

I interviewed Mak Lan of Lidiana’s in Tanjung Bungah for the 8 March International Women’s Day exhibition.

This is the full interview which I wrote up as a feature story, well, for myself. I did journalism in USM but I never worked for any newspapers so in a way, this is my way of keeping my chops lean and working. Enjoy!

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Lidiana nasi campur Tanjung Bungah
My friend & photographer taking photos of Mak Lan

“I’ve been in this business for 36 years and I started due to poverty. Due to poverty, I will stand and work like the Chinese. And like the Chinese, I never give up.” 

The interview with Kak Lall Bee binti Ibrahim starts this way. And despite my valiant attempts to speak to her in Malay, she smiles and says she can speak English. And so the rest of the interview happens in English, a language that she’s comfortable with. 

“You know, there is this young Chinese boy who comes and talks to me every day. He is so amazed that a 60 plus year old Malay woman can speak English so well!” She laughs. Her eyes gleam impishly. 

nasi campur with ulam Penang
Nasi campur with fresh herbs and ulam

Kak Lall has come a long way from the days of being a divorcee with 3 children – 2 girls and a boy. 

“It’s a different kind of feeling when you’re a divorcee. It’s different than being a widow.” Her eyes soften as she says this. 

Today, she drives an SUV with the number plate PLA II. She cheekily remarks that the number plate spells “La ll” – her name. 

It is far removed from the days she started with a tri-wheel push cart, selling her nasi campur,  by candle light from 6am to 6pm everyday to ensure she had money for her siblings and her children. 

And she had 16 siblings to feed. These were the two simple reasons that made her start her nasi campur business. And in the early days, it wasn’t the bustling stall with workers busy frying chicken or dishing out piping hot nasi tomato. 

Malay style stir fried vegetables
Malay style stir fried vegetables at Lidiana

It was a simple push cart with some 10 dishes she’d cook with the help of her aunt. She’d set up her stall opposite the old Tanjung Bungah bus stand. She’d also sell by candle light. 

“I borrowed RM100 from a chettiar to get my business started. Every month I’d pay him RM20 in interest. Back then, RM100 was a lot of money!” she exclaims. Pointing to the fried and sambal-stuffed, plump ikan terubok (one of her bestseller dishes), she said that when she started her business 36 years ago, ikan terubok was only 10 sen each. Nowadays fresh ikan terubok costs RM60 per kilo. 

fried ikan terubok
Fried ikan terubok, a bestseller at Lidiana

Kak Lall says she managed to pay back her chettiar loan in 4 months. 

In the early 80s, it was rare to eat out. Tanjung Bungah was a quiet stretch, unlike today where it is peppered with hotels, apartments and restaurants. She often struggled to sell her dishes. Things improved considerably when the hotels started opening up, starting with the Rasa Sayang Hotel. Her customers comprised hotel employees as well as the Chinese who lived around the area. 

Later she’d move to where the now “tsunami flats” were.  

Back then, she’d open her stall from 6am to 6pm, making a meagre RM40 a day. She’d go to the wholesale market at midnight, buying fresh produce like fish and vegetables. She’d come home, sleep a few hours and wake up at 3am to prepare her dishes with her aunt’s help. 

When the food court (where she is now based) was built and opened, she decided to rent a proper space at RM100 per month. 

At this humble and nondescript Medan Selera, she recounted that her business in the first year was bad as her regular customers couldn’t find her. 

Over time, they discovered her stall and business resumed its brisk pace. Until today, the majority of her customers are Chinese who live around the Tanjung Bungah area. Each Raya, she invites all her best Chinese customers to her open house to thank them for their support. 

She has so many Chinese customers eating at her stall that many out of town people have asked if the stall was started by a Chinese. 

Kak Lall laughs and believes that her dishes are of quality and with plenty of good variety. That’s the reason why her customers return again and again. Although she isn’t hands-on in the kitchen now (her daughter Nordiana has taken over from her mom), she still visits the stall every day to check on the quality of the food. 

“My specialities are my kerabu, black chicken and fried terubok. You know, a few months ago, a TV crew from the UK came to film me making kerabu mempelam. Their chef wanted to learn how it’s done.” Kak Lall points at the black chicken, a dish of sticky, sweet and savoury chicken slow cooked for 5 hours. If the food is not cooked well, she sends the food back to the kitchen. 

“I don’t know what to do if I retire! I am so used to being here, at my stall. If I don’t work, it’s hard to pass time!” 

Lidiana has about 30 dishes and more laid out in typical nasi campur style. A good many were stir-fried vegetables and ulam (fresh basil, fresh mint, cucumbers). Her nasi campur stall now opens from 7am right till 9pm daily (except Sunday). Her employees start to prepare and cook at 4.30am in order to open for the breakfast crowd at 7am. 

Customers lining up for lunch at Lidiana Tanjung Bungah
Customers lining up for lunch at Lidiana Tanjung Bungah

What is striking is that the dishes are cooked in small batches, ensuring as Kak Lall says, quality and freshness. As we talk, her employee (and this is quite interesting – her employees are all women) scoops up a batch of fried chicken from a hot kuali. Dishes are replenished quickly. Kak Lall tells me there is a particular Australian gentleman who buys and eats 8 pieces of this fried chicken from her stall daily! 

Lidiana, the name of her business, comes from the names of her 2 daughters, Nordiana and Lidia. At the moment, the business is run by her daughter and her son-in-law. Her grandson, she says, is interested in the business. A lanky teen, he was seen discussing what to buy and how much with his grandmother, as a catering order from a Chinese customer comes in. 

“Prawns are expensive these days but my Chinese customers still want to order prawns.” When I told her that Chinese love prawns for their symbolism, she nods. 

Despite the rise in fresh ingredients, Lidiana’s has never raised its prices. 

“You know how expensive red chillis are these days? But we still make our sambal belacan every day. We may not make as much money but it’s OK, give and take some.  It’s nonsense when people say you can’t make money in the food business.” 

Many of her KL and Johor customers have no problem hopping on a flight to Penang just to eat at Lidiana. As her food prices are reasonable, many of them would even tip her employees saying that they would never be able to get such good food at such prices in their own cities. Lidiana is packed during school holidays with customers lining up beyond the gate of the food court. On Fridays, Lidiana serves a special dish – nasi tomato and dalca. 

I also note that she’s an astute business woman. As the food court gets unbearably warm during noon, Kak Lall invests in cooler fans and places these strategically at her stall so that her customers can eat comfortably.  

lidiana tanjung bungah nasi campur
Lidiana’s is open 6 days a week and is Tanjung Bungah’s best place for nasi campur

She reveals that her mother was a good cook and her sisters also have their own food business in Tanjung Tokong and in town. 

Lidiana also does catering and special side orders if advance time is given. Some dishes are not on the menu but can be ordered by special request such as crabs. 

“I am thankful to God for good health, strength and determination,” Kak Lall says. She also says that the food business is a good business to run because of the cashflow. 

She claims she had little education but upon probing, I found out that she had studied in Convent Pulau Tikus up to Form Three. Her eyes grow a bit misty as she talks about how race relations have gone badly. An elderly Chinese lady, clearly a customer, comes by and pats her back. Kak Lall seems fond of all her regulars, whispering to me that the lady was a widow of a rich towkay. She comes by regularly to eat at Lidiana. 

“You should see my business on the first day of Chinese New Year,” Kak Lall says. All the Chinese patrons who grew up with her food would come with their families. 

“Many people tell me, it’s hard and tiring running a food business. I say, how can you be tired? I was a one woman show when I started. I did the marketing and cooking and setting up stall. I had to drive to the wholesale market at midnight, and start cooking at 3am. It was like this, day in day out.”

“A woman can succeed because she has responsibilities. I’ve seen men who run food businesses. Once they get a bit of money, they tend to spend it all either on gambling or other activities. Over time they’ll spend all their money and then stop running the business.” 

“In life, one must struggle against all odds, yet you have to be honest and live up to your own expectations.” 

I ask her about travel. This feisty lady has travelled for her umrah, and happily recounted that she’s visited Israel, Turkey, Jordan and China. She thinks she wants to visit India and Syria. A moment later, she shakes her head, “Syria is too dangerous now to visit. Maybe India is better!”

As the fourth child in the family, she was considered one of the elder siblings. When her sisters were about to marry, she’d always help out with the marriage expenses, noting sensibly that a woman should never start her married life with debts! 

In retrospect, Kak Lall’s determination seems to stem from her divorce. 

At the end of our interview, she pauses a while, collecting her thoughts. Finally she says, “I want to advise divorced women that a divorce is not the end of the world. It is not the end of the world when your husband leaves you.” 

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Lidiana is at No. 5, Arked Tanjung Bunga, 11200 Tanjung Bunga, Penang. They open everyday, Monday to Saturday, 7am till 9pm (closed on Sunday). They do catering for private events too (please call Mak Lan’s daughter, Nordiana at 016 415 8686 for enquiries). 

Living On One Dollar

Nic and I watched an interesting yet thought-provoking documentary last week called Living On One Dollar. The one-hour documentary chronicled 4 American boys, in their early 20s, who decided to spend their summer in Guatemala – living in a village of 300 people atop a mountain. The village people didn’t speak much Spanish but communicated via a local dialect.

The reason these boys  – happy, optimistic fellows – did this was to research if it was possible to live on one dollar a day. They had learnt about this fact in their studies and with funding, decided to experience if this was indeed possible as 1.1 billion people around the world did earn one dollar or less a day and managed to survive. 

Sean, Zach, Ryan and Chris recorded their 56 days via video as well as journals. They decided to also draw a number, any where from 0 to 9 each day from a hat. This number represented the amount in dollars they could spend that day, assuming that was the amount of dollars they had earned that day. 

They also wanted to lease a plot of land, a small piece, just to plant radishes. This satisfied their need to know what it took to be farmers, as most of the villagers grew their own produce for sale. One woman grew onions while others grew other crops. 

As much as the research factor kicked in, reality also dawned on the four of them that it was not easy subsisting on a few dollars a day. On the days they drew 9 which meant they had $9 to spend at the local market (which was a bumpy truck ride down the mountain), they bought firewood, beans, rice and bananas.

What initially started out fun (eating plain cooked black beans and rice) turned out to be dreary and you could see it as the gaunt faces of the 4 boys became more evident day by day. 

One of them also contracted parasites in his intestines which gave him stomach pain and gas! 

On days they drew zero which meant zero income, they started to feel like the villagers – hopelessness. When they spoke to the villagers, they realised that most of the villagers depended on farming and they depended on their children to help with farming. Thus, a boy called Chino had to stop school because his father couldn’t afford to buy school books – he was asked to work in the plots of land which grew produce for the family’s subsistence. 

When 12 year old Chino was asked what he wanted to be, he answered that he wanted to be a farmer. Upon probing, he finally said he wanted to be a pro soccer player. 

Some of the villagers also remarked that it has hard not to feel tired or lethargic – all they had sometimes was salt and tortillas for their families. The better-off ones like a 24 year old family man called Anthony (because he had a job in town as a cleaning person) could afford to cement the floor of his home. Small improvements like this helped to prevent water flooding their houses when it rained. In most villager’s homes, such as Chino’s, the floor was just plain mud. 

Anthony’s wife, a 20 year old, was already a mother. She had harboured dreams of becoming a nurse but had to stop schooling as her family couldn’t afford to pay for school. It was tough being poor as she said she didn’t have the nice dresses to wear to school and it made her feel bad. She seemed to console herself that it was just as well she stopped schooling. 

But she did the next best thing. 

She took a loan from the local Grameen bank to start her weaving business and started using the profits to slowly fund herself through classes to see if she could get a licence as a nurse. 

One of the American boys went to the local bank to find out how or if the villagers could get a loan. What they found was that the bank set such high criteria that the poor villagers could never afford to get a loan! Luckily there was the Grameen bank which gave small loans to the village women to get their small businesses started. 

Now what got me thinking was – why was it that women had the brains to think of starting a small business while the men didn’t? Apparently, women are the best people as Grameen loaners – they did not default and were reliable enough to pay back their loans in small instalments. And what do the men do?

This documentary was touching because not long after, I had tea with Jana, my bestie from school who had now relocated to Penang. She works for a regional NGO called PANAP involved in helping ensure our food sources are clean and safe. In other words, pesticide-free food, food that was not genetically modified and food that honoured the farmers, the people who cultivated our food. 

She had just returned from Nepal where she did a short program with the children of a Nepali school called Snowland Ranag Light of Education School. This school is in Kathmandu and offers education to the disadvantaged children of the 13 districts of the Upper Himalayan region.

The school was founded by Guru Ranag Tulku Rinchen Rinpoche who is also known as Dolpo Buddha in 2002. He believes that education improves lives and started this school in Budhanikantha, Kathmandu. 

The brochure notes that: “Life is hard for the 5.85% of Nepal’s total population of 26, 494,505 people living in the region. Income generating activities are very low and literacy rate is also very low ie. 52.67%.

“Cultivatable land is very little and whatever pastoral land there is used for cattle grazing. Lack of communication and transportation has made the region inaccessible….children are compelled to work wit their families to provide more hands with little knowledge that education could provide them with the means to a better future even in such challenging condition.”

The school offers free education thanks to the donations from well-wishers and supporters of Dolpo Buddha. 

Jana tells me that the children have had to trek for one month to reach the school! The children live at the school as their homes are just too far away. When I heard she was going to this school in Nepal, Nic and I asked her if she could bring two boxes of Faber-Castell gel ink pens for them. 

More than 10 years ago, Nic had backpacked to Nepal and he had seen how everyday items we take for granted, are in much demand. Items like sewing needles, pencils and pens. We didn’t want to overburden Jana’s luggage with too many things so we figured two boxes of pens would be light and easy. 

As a child, I used to write with red pens, copying the answers from the borrowed library book “Tell Me Why” into my battered school exercise book. I didn’t know why I did that but the memory of writing down words thrilled me to no end. 

I was gratified to hear that the children were indeed pleased to be gifted with pens. They used the pens to draw and write. But most of all, the children made us two simple gifts – friendship bands! I was deeply surprised at their gratitude. After all, the pens were a simple, inexpensive gifts from Nic and me. 

But it also dawned on me that what we take for granted – black pens, going to school, a cement floor – were important to most people whose lives are challenging. 

Just like it is challenging to live on one dollar a day. 

I think it isn’t just in Guatemala. I bet you there are Malaysians who are also poor, living hand to mouth. 

But I am always thinking: what makes one person get out of poverty while the rest don’t? Do they need money to get started? Or they need something other than money? 

The other thing I am always thinking and asking – would it help if people had role models? 

I’ve learnt a lot from House of Hope, a drop-in centre in Rifle Range which provides food and assistance to the people who live in Rifle Range particularly the children, single moms and the elderly. My WomenBizSENSE members hold annual parties at House of Hope and this year, we’re doing a steamboat dinner for the elderly on 13 February using funds that we have accumulated under our Social Responsibility fund as well as donations from generous friends and members. 

Many of these children come from broken homes – they either only have their mother or if they don’t have parents, they live with their grandparents. Some of the children are bright but they lack opportunities. 

One of the opportunities is the access to role models. I’ve felt that role models can be a catalyst, that one spark that could transform someone from never aspiring to much to someone who is excited to follow in the footsteps of her inspiration. 

I am still tinkering with this idea. Based on my networks, I know I can easily get people, from friends to clients, to give talks to these kids as a way to open up their worlds and most importantly, their minds.

You can only be who you want to be if you know it can be done. You need to know that someone just like you has done it. You need to know you’re not the only one forging the path.

I once remembered Nic and I talking to 4 teenagers – 3 boys and a girl – what entrepreneurship was about. They were off to college soon but they weren’t quite sure if what they wanted to study was important or worth it. One boy quietly noted that he was going overseas to do medicine because his father chose it for him! If he enjoys medicine, he’ll be an inspiring doctor. If he despises his chosen field, his parents will be disappointed. 

Yet all of them expressed surprise that business could be a viable option besides the traditional occupations – doctor, lawyer or engineer. A degree is always important but what you do after you complete your degree is as important too. After hearing us speak so excitedly about our business and the principles we hold, they now knew that (small) business wasn’t always about the boring stuff. 

Part of what my blog does is my own self-reflection – to note down my ideas and perhaps to connect with people like me who want to do better for our community. 

I don’t want you running off to Guatemala to help; in fact, my friend’s spunky daughter joined the Raleigh Project in Sabah last May and had a grand time helping build water pipes for the villagers in Sabah.

Can you imagine that 50+ years after Merdeka there are still villages in Borneo without proper access to something as basic as clean water? (And here I am dissing the slow Internet speed!)

Anyway, Sher Ryn had such an incredible learning experience that she gathered a group of friends (which included her mom’s friends and that meant Nic and me) and had a small presentation where she showed us photos of her month-long trip and what she learnt from her jungle experience.

The expedition influenced and touched her immensely. She saw with her own eyes, how getting water was never easy and what piped water could do for the kids and families of that Sabahan village. She learnt how to understand the quirks of other people – people of other nationalities who joined the expedition. 

I know she’ll do great things in time to come – she is such a fireball of energy plus she has amazing attitude – and she is an inspiration to me! She’s only 20 but she had the guts and the spunk to rough it out in the jungles of Sabah. 

But more than that, she has supportive parents. I know Peter and Fidel, her parents, and they’ve brought her and her brother up to be spontaneous, well-mannered and considerate young people. Fidel even backpacked with her daughter to Myanmar! 

Anyway, part of why most people feel disconnected and bored stiff today is that they’ve never thought about anyone but themselves. They’ve never realised how fortunate they are. They don’t know how the rest of the world lives. They don’t see the world, cliche as it may be, from another person’s viewpoint. 

When I was a Girl Guide back in my secondary school days, I went for a week-long camping trip – a jamboree in Templer’s Park with Girl Guides and Scouts from all over Selangor. During the entire camping experience, we had to do our “business” in a large trench about 5 feet deep. We squatted on planks placed across the trench. The four corners of the trench was covered with tarpaulin – sans roof. The sky was our roof. You never want to look down into the trench. We liberally sprinkled baking soda over our poop once we were done. My bestie tried not to go to the open-air toilet because it stank badly. 

The trip was eye-opening. At least for me. I never took my bathroom for granted ever again. 

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Find out more about the documentary at www.livingononedollar.org 

Find out about the Snowland Ranag Light of Education School at www.srleschool.edu.np or email: db.rinpochetrust@gmail.com 

Of Russian Spies & Kenching

I’ve just finished reading a few books and by books I mean, fiction. In any given week, I’ll be plowing through a bunch of books (online and offline) but these days I read a lot of business and marketing and social psychology books.

To me, fiction is a respite from the business stuff, though I must say these days, some business books can be hilariously good.

I’ve been reading 2 books – one was loaned to me by Lerks and the other I dug up from god knows where.

The first book – my introduction to Anthony Burgess – is called The Malayan Trilogy. I have never read Burgess. I had no idea what sort of writer he was.

The only thing I knew was he wrote that magnificently famous Clockwork Orange which was turned into a movie (which I have not watched) and he used to live in Malaya.

Some googling brought me to this a local blog which said that Burgess’ book was supposedly banned in Malaysia.

Ah!

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