Pirates, Bookworms & Six-Figures Later

Decided to write this piece for posterity. You know how stories that get told and retold become unrecognizable a few years down the road?

I never want that to happen.

I want to write this story down so that you know the real story. Not some story that someone else tells and cannibalizes it until it’s a poor shadow of itself. I have seen this happen with a local church set up as some people take credit as no one knows the real story. And the person behind the real story is too humble to correct the incorrect story! (But not me. This is why everyone needs their own blog/website. You own a piece of online real estate that’s your best media and your own media. You get to tell your story. And it lives on the Internet forever if you don’t delete it.)

The BAC logo that Nic designed for the FB Group.

Until today, I still get calls from regular aunties and uncles (who got our numbers from the Guang Ming and Sin Chew newspaper write-ups) about donating books to our TSN BAC. You will see a video I created about BAC when you click this link – Taman Sri Nibong Book Adoption Centre.

Even as recently as last Saturday, a Madam Ho called and excitedly asked in Mandarin if I was with that centre that took in books. I, in my most articulate Mandarin (ahem), told her about our BAC and what we did with books that were donated.

She said, “Oh good. You all are not going to take my books and turn them into scrap paper right? I have very good books but I am moving so I have to donate them.”

See? That was my (and Nic’s) sentiments some 3 years ago when we went to the Tzu Chi Recycling Centre in our taman. The taman is Taman Sri Nibong, Penang.

We had brought our plastics and paper to recycle and we saw a volunteer tearing up books!

To bookworms, it’s a horror movie on its own.

Nic even asked the volunteer if we could buy some of the books. The volunteer said no outright. He said that all publicly donated recyclables had to be recycled. (I know, it’s a facepalm moment.)

Yes, they tore up books that people sent to the centre because they said it was the policy that all contributed recyclables were to be recycled. We even asked if we could buy these books but they said, no, it is a policy that they had to recycle the books, no matter how good they were.

In our minds, we were thinking, what a stupid policy! Either the person we spoke to wasn’t a real Tzu Chi member or if he were, he was not exercising his wisdom.

How could anyone in their right mind tear up books that other people could read? Whatever happened to reuse, reduce and recycle (paying particular attention to ‘reuse’ or repurpose)? And by the way, they were always talking about 3Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle!

For the longest time, whenever Nic and I went to the recycling centre to drop off our recyclables we didn’t hang around much. I couldn’t bear the thought of good books being torn up and sold as scrap paper for a mere 30 sen per kilogramme!

We were upset with such a dumb policy and so for months after that, we just went to the centre just to sort out our own recyclables and didn’t really look in the direction of the paper scrapping section.

About a year later, we met with another Tzu Chi member whom we had spoken regularly to. He was a fatherly sort of man in his 60s by the name of Brother Goh. He was the second in command at the centre. One time when we were chatting with him, he led us to an area that was filled with boxes of books and asked us if we would like to do something with the books. Brother Goh had saved these books from being turned into mere scrap paper.

That was in March 2016.

Nic and I thought about this for a while and later decided to help do something about the mini-mountain of books. First, they had to be sorted. We started spending our weekends bent over hordes of books, separating them into English and Chinese books. Then we began to rope in EY who brought his daughters to help us sort books. It was messy, dusty work and we were often bitten by mosquitoes that lurked in the centre (it was previously an old food court that MBPP didn’t know what to do about so Tzu Chi leased it from MBPP to run the recycling centre).

We were given a small cubicle to arrange the books we’d sorted. Was it a library? Was it a free book section? How were we going to catalogue the books? What kinds of books were we going to accept or feature?

In the end, we decided that it was to be a book adoption centre. It was NOT a library given that we had no manpower to take care of the library nor did we have a catalogue system (and who was ever going to take charge of cataloguing the books?). It was not a free-for-all section as we wanted to give back to Tzu Chi.

A book adoption was the best system that we could think of. Yes, Nic and I thought about this and named it such and made it into a triple win system for the book contributor, the book lover and Tzu Chi.

Took my Kiwi friend, Olie Body, for a tour of the Book Adoption Centre recently when she visited me in Penang.

It’s a triple win because 1) you get a place to donate your beloved books, 2) the public that loves books get to have a chance to adopt books and donate towards Tzu Chi Penang plus 3) Tzu Chi gets the money they need for funding their dialysis centres.

The public loved the idea and that’s how we started to get so much publicity from reporters who happily came to interview us. We had NTV7, 8TV, Sin Chew and Guang Ming feature our BAC. The idea was novel and the fact that we were giving books a second chance and giving new homes to old books struck a chord with book lovers everywhere. (See Nic’s interview on TV when you click this link.)

We also started with a core group – Nic, me, EY and later, Alan and Eddie joined us. As our books started to pile up, we quickly ran out of space and we had to move from one cubicle to two cubicles and now, BAC takes up a quarter of the recycling centre’s space. That’s how many books we have in our BAC now.

When we had an official opening for our BAC, we pulled in a crowd and even NTV7 and 8TV reported about the uniqueness of our centre. We even managed to get our ADUN, Dato’ Saifuddin Nasution, to come for a visit.

Along the way, BAC started to grow as more people loved the idea and wanted to help out. We accept everyone willingly because there’s a lot to do in BAC. The physical centre needs managing too – from someone to water the plants and shrubs, sweeping the floor, dusting the books, sorting books, etc. Even the Tzu Chi recycling centre in Taman Lumba Kuda now keeps books for us so we get books from all sources.

Between me and EY, we started a Facebook Group called TSN Book Adoption Centre that is growing in numbers week by week. At this point in time, we have about 2,796 members from all over Malaysia. The volunteers who work with us also post up photos of newly contributed books in the Facebook Group so that online members or followers can ‘adopt’ the books. So it’s not just a physical walk-in centre, we’ve spread ourselves online too. And our books are in high demand because unlike a bookstore, we don’t know what kinds of books come in until they come in and are sorted! (Think of a treasure trove of books.)

So it’s like a fun adventure for all members online to stay glued to our FB Group, awaiting our VODs (volunteers-on-duty) to post up exciting new finds each weekend. They get to reserve the books for a flat fee and the books will be posted to them once they agree to contribute the amount directly into the Tzu Chi bank account.

Once the donation is given, EY and Eddie start the book packing process. Some book adopters are so consistent with their book adoptions that special shelves are allocated with their names. The reserved books will be packed, weighed and hauled off to Pos Malaysia by our strong man Eddie. When Eddie is unwell, we have a backlog of books to be packed! However, EY and Eddie are such a good team that most “orders” are sent out within a week or two. I call them our e-commerce team as what they do is essentially e-commerce.

EY basically is the COO of BAC. He arranges the weekly time-table for our volunteers, ensuring they turn up on time for duty. Duty means being there to oversee the centre and ensuring the public who come toddling into the centre know the rules of adoption.

We have had greedy and stingy people who sneak lots of good books out of BAC without giving a single cent. Once, I had to confront a woman in her 60s for taking out more than 20 books (“for her grandchildren” or so she says) and when I asked her pointedly and irately to donate, she said she had no money. There truly is no remedy for greed.

We have also had one so-called TCM practitioner who used to cart away lots of good Chinese books on medicine. EY later discovered that this same man was then selling these books on Facebook!

Because of these shenanigans, we have implemented a 15-book per individual policy.

But this blog post isn’t about the crazy shit that people do. It’s about something that I want to raise – about people in religious organisations. It’s the people that make things work and it’s also the people who make things worse!

We have always been transparent with the donations that we get from walk-in adopters, online adopters and adopters from our Occupy Beach Street as well as the children in schools when some of our team go to schools with books for the school outreach programme. To date, we have raised RM100,000 from BAC for Tzu Chi Penang. It is no small figure and no small feat. Imagine all these books being scrapped by Tzu Chi and sent to paper recyclers!

Nic, founder of TSN BAC, tells his story at our last gathering recently to the BAC volunteers

It was a perfect arrangement. When we started, Nic and I were not Tzu Chi members. We still aren’t. Organized religious bodies are not our kind of thing.

BAC started off as a rogue project, a pirate project if you like. We didn’t start with many rules. The only rules were – save books, give readers a chance to adopt and read books at a lower cost and prevent books from being scrapped and give the donated money back to Tzu Chi (since our source of books was from the recycling centre).

BAC is also successful because we started with few rules and we had the right factors in our favour (we live in an urban area, we had people who were middle-class and literate, we had volunteers who were folks who worked in the nearby multinational corporations, we had space to do this and a neverending source of books).

BAC is also what it is today because people believed in our mission of saving books and giving them new life and new owners. BAC is also an innovation that couldn’t have happened within Tzu Chi Penang itself because they themselves had too many rules. When you have too many restrictions, you cannot think out of the box. It’s the sad truth but this is what innovation is about – being roguish and a little bit pirate and everything ninja.

Nic and I came to the project without any rules in mind except one mission – to save books.

When I look back at the past 3 years and how we have become such a hit with readers across Malaysia, the money we have raised, the books we found new and good homes for, the team that came together for a mission, I am deeply thankful. (We had the chance to tell our BAC founding story to a group of Catholic students last year when we were invited as guest speakers at their church camp and we have also sent books to the orang asli in Negeri Sembilan who wanted to start a village library for their children. We have had volunteers who found more meaning in life by helping out at our BAC on weekends especially the young and single who want to do some community work.)

And yet, this is where Part 2 of our story comes into play.

I am writing Part 2 of this story because I want people to know the truth about people, power and control.

For the longest time, as a rogue project, BAC was called TSN BAC where TSN stands for Taman Sri Nibong – the place we are in. When we concocted the name, Nic and I believed that as a rogue project, it is good to distance ourselves from Tzu Chi because what we were doing didn’t fit into their rules.

Originally they said that they HAD to scrap and tear all books that the public brought to the recycling centre.

We figured that this was a stupid idea and policy. Where’s the wisdom in doing so?

As a rogue project, we could be a separate entity to do what they couldn’t do or be seen doing. Most of our volunteers weren’t even Tzu Chi members; many were friends of mine who had seen and heard about the project and wanted to be part of it. They really didn’t care much for Tzu Chi, truth be told.

Things started to get disturbing when some of the volunteers went to schools for the school outreach programme. They were asked to wear the Tzu Chi vests over their BAC shirts. Apparently, if we were out to collect donations, it is best to go out under the Tzu Chi brand. A few of our volunteers were really upset as they were not Tzu Chi members!

Once BAC started to grow in popularity and became more well known than the recycling centre, one person inside Tzu Chi decided he was going to set the rules. He said that now BAC was under Tzu Chi. He claimed this project (which was created and started by Nic and I) to be theirs. That wasn’t the part that riled us. The part that pissed me off completely was that we couldn’t reprint or redesign new BAC t-shirts for the volunteers!

I understand how little Napoleans work. Before the project was successful, he didn’t care if BAC lived or died. Now that the revenue from BAC was far more than the recycling centre, people started to take notice. This particular person decided to claim it all for himself and park BAC under Tzu Chi. I really don’t care much but what they forget is that if it was still a rogue project, they had lots of leeways. If it really parked under Tzu Chi, they have some major problems they cannot explain or solve.

Why couldn’t they leave BAC as a rogue project and happily pocket the monthly RM5K to RM7K that we were bringing in to them? By the way, our BAC is the one and only book adoption centre in all of Malaysia and the only one in Tzu Chi so much so that other Tzu Chi chapters such as the one from Melaka came to study our model. Unfortunately, they haven’t replicated BAC yet. It looks simple but it takes the right thinking to get it started.

Because we are the one and only BAC in Malaysia and perhaps even globally, I can see why this person wants to claim this rogue project as his own – conveniently forgetting to inform the people in Tzu Chi Taiwan that two non-Tzu Chi people thought of this brilliant idea.

Now here’s the dumbest part.

One day, someone from Tzu Chi Taiwan came to visit BAC. He spotted a book with a so-called unsavoury cover. He started questioning the people in charge why such a book is allowed in BAC. We accept all books of all genres even holy books like the Quran and the Bible. These books are donated by the general public. We believe that you should be given a democratic choice in deciding what you want to read or adopt. This is not the Tzu Chi bookshop. At one point, we had lots of Japanese manga and again, this disturbed the higher-ups as manga contains graphics that offended their puritanical sensitivities. If they had let BAC stay a rogue entity, they could have easily wash their hands off such issues.

But money, fame and power are so addictive and enticing.

I’ve stayed away from the BAC now for these reasons because it is so disappointing to know that the very folks who talk about “gan en” (gratitude) or helping others are just another bunch of hypocrites. Nic and I are slowly removing ourselves and distancing ourselves from BAC now as the internal leadership is nothing but a farce.

I am thankful for my own space in this blog that I can write about this openly. I want others to know this story and see for themselves how people who are selfish will always be selfish no matter which organisation they are in, religious or otherwise.

Nic and I have created and started many initiatives in business and for our community and this is but one of them. We have some interesting plans for 2020 with regards to our original mission of saving books. Stay tuned.

We decided that BAC now is no longer the original pure BAC that we envisioned. It’s a tragic truth but with all endings, new beginnings arise. There’s always opportunity and this may be a blessing in disguise for me, Nic and some of the pioneer team members.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth that Tzu Chi Penang doesn’t want to hear – Nic and I started BAC because we didn’t like seeing how the Tzu Chi volunteers at the recycling centre were tearing up books! They were just very good rule followers, never once questioning the archaic and ridiculous practices (this is exactly why innovation is about being rebellious – you can’t work in the system that locks you down and shuts you up).

In the future, they would erase the founding story too precisely because they can’t tell the founding story as by telling the founding story, they would be branding them as rigid, unwise and inflexible. You see, that’s the problem with claiming something that’s not your own.

Anyway, I’m optimistic about our next phase with our BAC – no one can stop a good idea from spreading and in 2020, we will share with you what’s brewing. And if you are interested to be on our pirate ship, contact me. We won’t make you walk the gangplank but we are surely geared up for a damn good adventure!

The BAC team of volunteers today. We have grown to 30+ volunteers.

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