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.

The Cup That Changed My Life

Recently I discovered something that truly was life-changing. Now I don’t often say this. I’m not the type given to hyperbole and such. I rarely use the word “awesome” as I think it’s blatantly overused and sounds inauthentic.

I discovered something that made me look forward to my periods each month!

Actually I didn’t discover it.

I was given the product.

Olie’s Wa Cup – a remembrance of my special trip to Hawaii

Remember my Hawaii trip? Well, on that trip, I met Olie Body who is like a total Energizer bunny (you can watch her TEDx Wellington talk too). She was in our Changing Faces programme and the first time I saw her, she was hunched over her laptop in the lobby of the dorm that we were staying in.

Later we became good friends to the extent that I was holding her wet bikini bottom while standing on the streets of Waikiki! (Side story that’s hilarious and shows how spontaneous this gal is! – Olie had stripped down to her bikini and ran into the Waikiki sea with Tina, another friend that Friday night after we had danced at this American club. When she got out of the sea, she was dripping wet but she removed her bikini bottom as she was wearing undies under it. As I was going back to the dorm first I said, “Let me take your bikini bottom back with me” because she and Tina were going back into the club for another bout of dancing.)

Olie is as fascinating as she is brilliant and this New Zealander is as adventurous as they come. Do you want to know how brilliant she is? She managed to get herself into the Obama Foundation Fellowship Programme for 2020.

Well, I was having my period almost at the tail-end of the 2-week Hawaiian programme. My period wasn’t due for another two weeks but then again, staying in close proximity with 15 other women probably regulated our menstrual cycles that mine came a little early.

Luckily I had some sanitary pads with me but I knew I would soon run out. I went around asking my fellow Asia-Pacific friends for extra sanitary pads until Jaruza said, “Why don’t you ask Olie for the menstrual cup?” 

I was like, nope. I wasn’t mentally prepared for it. 

wa collective menstrual cup
The WA Collective menstrual cup

During our programme, I had heard Olie talk about the menstrual cup. After all, she ran a business – a social enterprise – that straddled the environment and women’s health by offering menstrual cups as an eco-friendly option to sanitary pads. 

I was intrigued by her love of this silicone cup. Shihoko, another fellow participant, also gushed about how she had been using one for the last 10 years and it was liberating. (Yes, the cup can last a decade.)

On the final day of our programme, I braved myself and asked Olie if I could buy one. Olie didn’t even want to hear of it; instead she gave me one as a parting gift!

When I came back, I couldn’t wait for my next period. I knew I couldn’t waste the gift. The first time I tried it, I felt uncomfortable. I could feel the stem of the cup poking out. Insertion wasn’t too difficult despite my initial fear that the cup looked too huge to go into me. After 2 days of using it and anxious about the discomfort, I went back to my pads. 

During my next cycle, I tried it again. This time, I had more confidence as I had spoken to Joanne, a friend who unashamedly that she is now a big convert of the cup. She was so excited that she even bought them for her sisters, egging them to try. I reassured her that I would try the cup again. 

It actually became easier once I got over my hang-ups about the menstrual cup. So now I go around advocating the use of the cup as it has brought me a new level of freedom that I didn’t know I had missed all this while. Pretty big claim huh.

The second time – it really became easier. I couldn’t believe that my other women friends were absolutely nailing it while I was like still unsure. So I watched a few videos and landed on a particular Youtube video where this woman was sharing her own agonizing moments and finally how she managed to insert the menstrual cup. 

She gave a huge tip which was my biggest a-ha moment – use your Kegel muscles to draw the cup into you! Now why didn’t I think of that! 

The type of fold mattered too. I used her punch-down fold and tried the “sucking it in” with the Kegel muscles technique and it worked! The cup literally disappeared up my vagina. I couldn’t feel it nor see its stem. And it didn’t feel uncomfortable either.

It felt like…nothing.

That was my defining moment. I was like, “Woah, where have you been all my life?” 

Using the cup, I can roll and toss on the bed at night and not a drop leaked. The cup forms such a tight vacuum inside that I have to “release” the air in the cup first before I slowly pull it out. (And if you don’t, you feel like you’re tugging at your insides!) At times I even forget I am having my period! 

I’m now like one of those mad cat ladies – I gush about the menstrual cup to any woman I know.

Yes, yes, the initial fear is paralyzing and you think the cup is too huge to be inside you. Or you think it’s disgusting to put your fingers inside yourself or be turned off by the blood that’s collected in the cup. Or the amount of blood. Or what if the damn cup gets lost and you can’t even feel the stem? 

The cup won’t get lost as there’s only one passage in you. It may ride higher but it certainly won’t be lost like a tampon losing its string. Unlike a tampon, the cup collects blood and doesn’t dry you up inside. 

I can now walk past the sanitary pad aisle in Jusco smugly. I never ever have to buy pads again and never feel guilty about all those pads piling up in the landfill. I can travel without worrying that I didn’t bring enough pads. I can have my period without feeling like the whole world knows about it.

And I can wear the clothes and pants I want without having this fear that I might just stain them! (Once I got my period while in the middle of a meeting with some very important people and I couldn’t even concentrate on the meeting as I felt wetness seeping through my skirt!) 

And yes, I nailed it in my third cycle after Hawaii and I am now a super proud user of the WA Collective menstrual cup. Olie’s product truly changed my life and now I actually look forward to having my periods. Crazy huh? 

There are sizes. I’m definitely NOT under 30 years of age but I have never had kids so this was the cup for me.

More of Everything Thanks To Changing Faces

I’ll be talking about my experience in Honolulu, Hawaii this 30 August 2019 during the WomenBizSENSE monthly meeting from 2pm to 5pm. It’s for women only though as it IS our women entrepreneur association meeting.

I could’ve done this talk on my own but I wanted to bring the benefits and exclusivity to the association that I co-founded. It will be free for WomenBizSENSE members but RM30 per person for everyone else.

I had the idea to conduct a sharing session even when I was in Hawaii as friends started asking me about the programme (after they saw my photos and updates on Facebook). I’m the sort of person who likes to maximize my time and I knew a one-on-one sharing was out of the question. I know, I could be having lunches and teas till 2025 if I did this on a personal basis.

I even told Liz (the Changing Faces programme coordinator) that I would be doing this. And as my StrengthsFinder analysis revealed, I’m the kind of person who would walk her talk just because she can and wants to!

If you’re curious, my top 5 themes from StrengthsFinder are: Strategic, Maximizer, Focus, Achiever and Relator. You can read about each of the 34 different strengths here.

After I did this analysis, I am now a lot more comfortable being who I am. I am just living up to what my strengths are! In the past I’ve done DISC profiling, LEONARD profiling, etc. but this particular analysis of who I am and what I am made of makes me appreciate the person that I am. Now I know why I’m me.

I decided that I would like to share my experience but more than that, to encourage more women to apply for the Changing Faces programme when it reopens in 2020. I learned so much and had such a life-changing experience that I want other Malaysian women to have the same experience too.

Daily classes from 8am to 5pm at the East West Center building on the Manoa campus.

Throughout the 2 weeks in Hawaii, the 16 of us had excellent lecturers such as:

Dr Susan Madsen, Professor of Organizational Leadership Orin R. Woodbury Professorship in Leadership and Ethics who taught the what, why and who of leadership particularly focusing on women, confidence and identity.

Professor John Barkai who taught us about the art of negotiation (which incidentally is one of my favourite topics). You can get more readings and materials about this topic at his link.

Judith Mills-Wong from the University of Hawaii who gave us a sped-up version of accounting fundamentals and financial modelling especially from the entrepreneur’s view (through her class I am now interested to pick up a book she recommended on finance for non-finance people).

Scott Paul, President and CEO of the Kleenco Group, Hawaii’s leading locally-owned professional facilities cleaning, janitorial, and building maintenance companies who taught us strategic planning for our businesses.

We were hosted at a dinner reception at the local community college.

They weren’t the only ones either.

Outside of class, we had the privilege of meeting Hawaii’s entrepreneurs and social innovators. We met the good people of the island of Oahu such as YWCA president, Noriko Namiki and her team who are helping incarcerated women get back into society again through their various programmes such as Dress for Success and Launch My Business.

Vietnam meets The Philippines – Ha Tu and Norhani – two of the spunkiest women I know

We also flew to the island of Maui for two days to hear from more innovators such as Pacific Biodiesel and Maui Economic Board. We also got to hear from non-profits such as IMUA Family Services (serving children with developmental issues) and for-profits like Ali’i Kula Lavender Farm (focusing on agrotourism and working with other businesses to grow the tourism sector and create products using their lavender in jams, balms, art, food and more).

Noho me ka hau’oli – “Be happy”.

These were just the tip of the iceberg of people we met.

The East-West Center that ran the Changing Faces programme also thoughtfully paired us up with our host mentors based on our action plan and interests.

I was thrilled to be paired with Dr Kathleen Kozak, a doctor who hosted her own radio show on Hawaii Public Radio.

But here’s the thing: I learnt about the concept of ‘closing the loop‘.

Much as we learnt from our host mentors, we were expected to do the same for the 40 high school girls who were in the Next Generation Service Project. They came from different high schools and as part of our programme, we had to plan and conduct a session with the Hawaiian girls and provide inspiration to them in the short time we spent together. And I met two teenaged Malaysian girls – Zoe and Kassandra – who were pleased to tell me about their Milo dinosaur and roti tisu (they spend their summer break back here where their mum is from).

Spending our morning at the Sacred Hearts Academy with 40 gals

My two mentees, Hunter-Bailey and Mahina, were gorgeous as most Hawaiian girls go. Exotic with smooth and tanned skin. Totally island girls! They were also interested to know about Malaysia, what I did, how I ended up doing what I’m doing.

Hunter-Bailey and Mahina from Sacred Hearts Academy, Honolulu

We met some of them two days later at Gals With Lei which was a conference to bring the women of our programme together with the local women and local girls for inspiration, leadership and ideas. During the conference, all of us Changing Faces participants had to be involved too. (Click this for the photos.)

I was tasked to moderate a panel of experienced women who had served on boards – I was excited but nervous too! You would be if you knew these power ladies of Hawaii – Crystal Rose of Hawaiian Airlines, Michele Saito of Alexander & Baldwin, Barbara Tanabe of Bank of Hawaii and Fiona Ey (my friend from the programme but also the chair of Apia International School from Samoa).

I wore my baju kurung because I felt I had to show my Malaysian side while being a moderator!

I had so many ideas to bring back home and so many new friends made.

With my China friend, Drolma who has so much of inner strength. I told her she was like a rock in a storm.

But I also felt that this solo trip of mine (I did 30 hours of travel each way with long stopovers at Narita) had broken some of my own internal fears about a lot of things. I feel less self-conscious than the day I left Penang.

Ever since I announced to the world and the Changing Faces gals that I was going to create my podcast, I had more confidence and energy than before. I received a lot of encouragement from my posse in Hawaii and their notes of “yes, I want to know when the first episode is out” to “please interview East Asia women too” made me contemplate that the journey isn’t as lonely or as frightening as it sounds.

I kept saying, there’s something magical about the land that’s Hawaii (which by the way is made up of many islands). It simply rejuvenated me and gave me a chance to explore and discover who I was inside. Taking the StrengthsFinder made things clear to me; now I know how to use my strengths to further fuel my own personal growth and stop being apologetic for who I am.

The cool, quiet mornings walking to class amidst banyan trees hundreds of years old made me ruminate on the wisdom of the past and how fortunate I was to be there at that point in time. Immensely grateful. Absolutely mahalo.

Meeting my Penang friend, Swe Ee and Saliza Abdullah from KL. Saliza was invited back to speak at Gals With Lei as she was one of the successful women from the 2016 Changing Faces cohort. It was so cool to meet fellow Malaysians on foreign soil!

“We are all meant to be here.” I had announced this simply and in a sage manner to my friend, Tina when we were in Maui. She stared at me knowingly. I mean, what stars/fate/karma had to align to bring 16 women from all over the Asia Pacific to be in Honolulu! We had to fly hundreds of hours and thousands of kilometres, fight jetlag and overcome all kinds of hurdles to get to Hawaii.

One person didn’t make it – she couldn’t get her US visa. Jaruza, my Sri Lankan friend, stood her ground after being rejected for her visa and got it at the last minute after a second try but her visa was only valid for 3 months! (This makes me feel lucky as I got my visa in less than 5 minutes at the US Embassy in KL although the online form process was terribly tedious!)

Kulia i ka nu’u – Strive to reach the highest.

We felt like a mini United Nations – we were women from Fiji, Samoa, Malaysia, New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka, Japan, Vietnam, The Philippines, Northern Mariana, America, China. Bound by entrepreneurship and wanting to effect change in our own communities, we sat through each other’s action plan presentations and cheered each other on. They inspired me and moved me to tears! Such brave and beautiful women doing fantabulous things in their society back home. So proud to call them my audacious sistas.

At Makua beach, Oahu. We had spent the day touring the western side of Oahu island and listening to Lala Nuss’ stories of Hawaii (Lala is in blue, behind me).

We again sat through the reworked versions on the final day. I saw such dramatic improvements in the way we spoke, thought and planned our action plans and knew that the Hawaii effect was working! It’s still in me, many days after I’ve come home. It’s like a spirit of the ancient land has seeped into my bones.

Kahuna Nui Hale Kealohalani Makua   
Love all you see, including yourself.” 

What Hawaii Did To Me

While recovering from all that learning and magical experiences that I had in Hawaii, I wrote a piece on my other blog. (And if you don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, refer to this piece first.)

Check this out while I prep for more blog posts on Mayakirana.

It’s been a transformative journey.

Look out for my sharing session coming up on the 30 August at the WomenBizSENSE monthly meeting at JORA, Vantage, Tanjung Tokong especially if you want to know how to get into the Changing Faces programme for 2020.

changing faces program east west center hawaii
With fellow participants from the Asia Pacific at the life-changing Changing Faces programme offered by the East-West Center of Honolulu, Hawai’i

Designing For Good

I wrote this article below for a friend, Ann who runs the Penan Women Project in Sarawak. I don’t write articles per se as I truly have no time but once in a while, I get into my “yes, I’ll write one for you” mode.

krista goon nic sim
With Ann (far left) at a friend’s birthday party in 2017.

How I know her is one convoluted story.

Nic was her online friend when she was studying in the US back in the mid-90s. They both hit it off as they were both into art and design and yes, both were Kuchingites!

I knew Ann’s brother through his blog called Cooking Engineer which I used to read a lot as he was a funny Kuchingite who was working in the US yet hankered for Sarawak food! (Eddie even tried to grow “mani chai” in his apartment once.) It was only when Ann came home to Kuching in 2005 that we all met up for the first time in a Mardi Gras-inspired party at her house. Her brother, Eddie a.k.a Cooking Engineer flew home with lots of liquor and I think he even cooked us a jambalaya!

Anyway, Ann settled back in Sarawak after getting married and having her twins and she used her design skills for a truly good cause. I wrote this for her to be used in Happenings, a Sarawak-based magazine, but she felt that it was too much of highlight on her. I beg to differ so that’s why I’m featuring her article that I wrote right here on my blog. Note: We sponsored her a website for the good work that she is doing with the Penan women so if you want to help a real social enterprise, visit her website.


Ann Wong would have never believed it if someone told her that one day, she would be using her graphic design degree to help the Penan people of her home state, Sarawak.

Ann lived for 10 years in the US before deciding to come home to Sarawak with her cats in tow. An animal lover and one with a huge passion for everything design, Ann had settled down to married life in Miri where her husband, Winston, was stationed in the oil and gas industry. Soon, her twins came along and she fell into a natural routine of being a homemaker.

Fortuitously, she also met Shida Mojet, another woman who was also at that time living in Miri (Shida’s husband was also working in Miri). The indefatigable Shida, a Kedahan from Peninsular Malaysia, had started a community project to help the Penan women who were skilled weavers.

Shida felt a calling to help the Penan women after she had visited the many destitute, not to mention, unreachable villages in the years that she had been living in Brunei and Miri.  

Eventually, Shida established the Miri Women Weaving Association (MWWA), a registered association in 2016 to help more of these nomadic and semi-nomadic Penans in Limbang and Miri divisions through a structured production and sale of the Penans’ woven baskets and bags.

Shida’s aim was simple – through the association, she wanted to assist the Penans to generate a sustainable income and help their children get an education. The Penan Women Project (PWP) is the association’s project to achieve this aim.

The first sum of money they raised through the sale of woven products totaled RM10,774 and with this first optimistic kick-off, Shida knew she had tapped into something amazing. Wherever they went to sell their bags and baskets, hoards of excited urban women would be enchanted by the woven bags and more so when they heard the story of how the proceeds went back into a fund for buying weaving supplies for the Penan as well as helping them with food and other household needs.

Shida passed the baton to Ann as her family was relocating to The Netherlands, seeing how Ann herself was slowly but surely using her design degree to create unique designs for the Penans to weave.

The traditional designs were familiar enough to Sarawakians but Ann believed that to reach out to more people and to raise the value and perception of the bags as mere ‘market bags’, the Penan women needed to weave stylish, contemporary bags with colours and designs that appealed to the urban buyers.

At their first meeting together, Ann and Shida had an 8-hour coffee session! They were deliriously excited about helping more Penan women weavers and taking the age-old craft of weaving to the next level.

Today, the Penan Women Project has 60 weavers from Long Nen, Long Kevok and Long Latek. Its products have expanded beyond baskets and bags – they now include clutches, knick-knack holders, name card holders and more – designs dreamt up by Ann when she is not busy taking care of her school-going twins.

The designs are unique and each product is an improvement over the next as Ann works tirelessly with her weavers like Juanita (see Juanita and Nelly’s stories below) to ensure the bags and baskets are of the highest quality possible. Ann also has had to make executive decisions about where the Penan bags are to be sold in order to differentiate and position the bags strongly in the urban market.

The Penan bags and other products are made with polypropylene material in lieu of rattan and mengkuang as they are easier to obtain. The polypropylene makes the bags washable and durable, making them sturdy enough for a beach outing and still look chic at any high tea event.

Yet, what you see today are bags that have travelled a great distance. Ann drops off the polypropylene material at the remote villages where the Penan women live – the villages are an eight-hour drive from Ulu Baram. As she drops off the material, she also buys the finished products – the bags and baskets – and pays the weavers upfront before hauling the products back to her house.

One of the rooms in her Kuching house has been turned into a store room for these products before they are sent to selected partners and retailers such as Klein & Fine (Penang), Verdant Hill (KL), Wonderboom, The Pullman Hotel and Poppies (Kuching).

What is clear is that a potent combination of graphic knowledge, an ability to understand the urban customer’s ever-changing needs and the passion to ensure that the Penan legacy lives on through a sustainable product that’s much more sophisticated than the traditional weave appeals to the repeat buyers and ardent supporters of PWP.

Ann says, “It’s not easy. It took me 3 years to get the Penan women to understand what we need from them in terms of a product. We need to remind them all the time to follow the design. Each time I give them an order, I always monitor their weaving.”

Last year, Ann began to give the weavers specially made wooden boxes as she found that the bag sizes would vary from weaver to weaver. “This made our marketing efforts challenging due to the different bag sizes. So I thought, let’s give the weavers each a box that we call an insert so that they can easily measure if their woven bags were a standard size!”  

Other innovative approaches over the years include providing the weavers with colour charts and samples so that they understood what PWP wanted in terms of colour schemes and patterns.

“Once the bags are woven, we check each bag for quality. While it’s easy to say they’re handcrafted we also need to ensure we meet customers’ expectations of quality when the bags are sold,” Ann says.

For Ann and PWP, the most challenging aspect is still marketing and retail. “The Penan women still need us to help them on these two fronts as they’re still learning. But I am heartened that they now can tie the labels onto the bags they’ve made and price the bags. We make the pricing transparent so that they know how much they are making per bag when we sell them at the retailers we’ve identified or at the pop-up charity sale bazaars that we take part in. It’s all part of the process for them to learn about business.”

The guiding and teaching of the 60 Penan women weavers is an ongoing task.

“If I compare the bag quality from the early years, I can see that our work back then was unrefined. This is where I am most proud of as throughout the years PWP has enabled the weavers to not only earn an income for themselves but also refine their handicraft, bringing it to a level of excellent craftsmanship and design. Today’s bags are of such a high quality and we even have each Penan woman weave a little signature detail into the product – it’s not noticeable but it’s there if you look close enough,” Ann notes thoughtfully.

With so much going for PWP and the Penan women, the next foray for PWP is venturing into e-commerce as Ann knows it is the doorway to untapped markets and customers.

Juanita’s Story.

Juanita is currently a leader within her own Penan women group. She is in her late 40s and is married with 5 children.

““I joined PWP in 2017 and as soon as I did, I started to see real money coming in. In the past, I wove products like baskets and sent them to Miri to be sold. Or sometimes I would take a table and sell my products but I never made much profit after deducting table rent and my transport out to the city. But with PWP, I began to see that I could help myself as well as other Penan women. With the money I made, I could go back to the kampung and buy school uniforms for my own children. As a leader of my weaving group, there are many challenges and I try my best to help them. I always remind them that we need to talk about problems openly so that we can solve them so that we can make better products for PWP. Of course, there are times when I can’t solve a problem and that’s when I need to call Ann but I can see that through PWP, our Penan women can earn money for their families.”  

Nelly’s Story.

Nelly is a Penan weaver from Ba Purao. She is 24 years old and already has 2 children, a boy who is 6 and a girl who is 7. She dropped out of school when she was in Form 2. Nelly was a full-time housewife but now she earns a good income from weaving bags for PWP. In the past 2 years that her husband has been jobless, she has been the main breadwinner for her family. Nelly is smart and conversant in English and Bahasa Malaysia so she often helps Ann with translation when Ann speaks to the other Penan women. Nelly has also come a long way because PWP also sponsored her driving lessons, enabling Nelly to drive. This is important as Nelly needs to send the village children who are sick to the nearby clinic. “I am happy that I am able to make a living for myself without needing to depend on my husband. I also enjoy weaving and in the past, we were always in financial difficulties. Since I started making bags for PWP, I have become more financially stable. I really hope PWP continues because it helps us, Penan women, a lot.”

My Hawaiian Sojourn Into The Unknown

Although I’m not a Christian, I had a fantastic piece of news on Good Friday yesterday.

When I checked my email, I got an email from the East West Centre that I have been accepted for a 12-day Asia Pacific women’s leadership programme in Honolulu, Hawaii and the best part of all, on a scholarship!

“This 12-day immersive, leadership and professional development seminar is designed for innovative women entrepreneurs from Asia, the Pacific, and the United States to enhance their leadership skills and entrepreneurial capacity; experientially explore innovative entrepreneurship, leadership, and community examples; build a sense of self-efficacy; and expand national and regional networks.”

I thought I had wished so hard that I actually got the scholarship! But seriously, jokes aside, I had envisioned myself getting this when I was writing up my resume and application. Talk about mental vision board!

Nic also told me that I would get it.

So did my besties, Jana and Tammy. They encouraged me and said, if anyone deserved to get this scholarship and go to Hawaii and learn amongst other accomplished women from the Asia Pacific region, it would be me and the body of work I have done in the past decade. (Key lesson: always give first without condition and plants seeds of kindness along the way. The good stuff does come back to you!)

And I’m also happy to say that I’ll be representing Malaysia (I must ask the organiser who else is from Malaysia) and I will soon be part of the growing alumnae of 185 women from 34 countries who have participated in the Changing Faces Seminar.

It helped that I had endorsement letters from two powerful and influential women.

And that’s the power of the ask.

I’ve learned over the years that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. And what’s the harm of asking? The worse they could say was no. But these two women said yes. It also helped that I have worked with them in the past and they had seen the quality of my (pro bono/community) work, tenacity (haha, I’m always like a dog with a bone and a never-say-die attitude) and optimism.

When I got the email, I almost cried in joy. The first person I told was of course my husband, Nic. He said the same thing – “I knew you’d get it!” – as Jana.

Then I called Jana.

And she was like, “I knew you’d get it! You’re a true feminist at heart and your work shows it.”

Of course, I had to message the people who helped me with the endorsement letters (the East West Centre needed endorsement letters on letterheads). I always update the people around me especially those who are helping me. They need to know the status of their contribution too. By doing so, people feel appreciated and these small touches go a long way in the future (especially if you need their help again).

When I sent off my application on 2 April, I felt a flood of relief too.

While the requirements and paperwork weren’t difficult, it did take some strategic planning. I had to rework my resume to fit 2 pages (they said they wouldn’t read anything beyond 2 pages). On top of that, I had to get 2 endorsement letters on letterhead. And finally, explain in a 3-pager why I believed I was qualified for this programme and what I intend to do after I attended the programme.

The 3-pager was interesting as the questions reminded me of an interview (which was exactly what it was). It also asked for a solid commitment of what I planned to do after the 12 days. I was thinking of a million things I could do but I settled on a podcast on entrepreneurship. Now that I’ve publicly announced it here on my blog and wrote about it in my application, I have no choice but to jump right in to do it!

I also told my best friends that regardless of the outcome, I enjoyed the exercise of writing down what I have done, what I believe are my strengths and why I am most suited for the scholarship. I had the option of submitting my application and agreeing to pay my way for the 12 days but I raised the bar on myself.

I told myself that I would use my body of work to help me get a full scholarship. If I couldn’t, at least I knew I lost out to a more accomplished Malaysian woman. If I got it, I would get it on my own merit. I know, I can be stubborn.

I also wanted to prove that I am not the typical entrepreneur.

I guess I have never been the typical entrepreneur because my interests in the community and women’s issues (particularly empowerment and entrepreneurship) are so strongly ingrained.

Just two days ago, a friend in the arts called me and said that when he thought of me, he thought immediately of women entrepreneurship!

That’s what I call relevant branding.

But aside from women entrepreneurship, I wrote in my application about my community involvement with the setting up of a book adoption centre in 2016.

Nic and I are proud and amazed at how the centre has grown (and the money it has generated for charity).

The secondhand books get a new life and new owners (and this fits right in with the Tzu Chi concept of reusing), Tzu Chi Penang gets monetary contributions to further fuel their charity work in Penang and our volunteers get to do the kind of community work that they love.

Our tiny project has grown to a 30-volunteer strong team who go on duty each Friday, Saturday and Sunday and has been featured and written up by the media. The fact that Tzu Chi Taiwan has recognised that this model is something they want to replicate and encourage in other Tzu Chi recycling locations globally is truly heartening.

I’ve never done stuff that I’ve never believed in. So I’ve done the things that stirred my interests – enabling women in business and later, saving books. What’s more, I have discovered that tiny ideas can become avenues for others to serve as well.

I am thrilled that my crazy ideas have served me well and done what I felt to be right at certain times in my life. And I’ve never done them for money although the results can be tied back to money or quantifiable.

I believe community projects benefit from an entrepreneurship point of view as we would generate more funds to help the ones who most need help.

Self-sustenance is one of my tenets for projects. I never believe that we should have any deficits or loss when running projects, community or not. Each project must start off envisioned like a business and managed like a business. Like Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats methodology, I believe we should all have an Entrepreneurship Hat with a Marketing Hat!

If I don’t get excited and my sense of impetuousness doesn’t quiver, it’s not for me.

When a friend sent the link to the Changing Faces seminar via WhatsApp in a group chat, I clicked the link and read the page and I instantly knew I wanted to be in this programme. I would be able to learn so much from other women from other countries and the networking would be incredible.

Those points flashed across my mind.

And I wanted it.

And I also did the 10-10-10 method based on Suzy Welch’s book to help me with my decision – Should I apply? If I didn’t, would I regret this decision in the next 10 days, 10 months and 10 years?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of not doing. Procrastination is always the culprit. It’s easy to say “forget about it” as the application warranted lots of writing. Or that I couldn’t take time away from business – it was after all a 12 day programme. And I don’t even have a US visa ready.

But I knew if I didn’t try applying, I would regret this.

Last year, I won a ticket to an international conference in Melbourne as I participated in a contest via Twitter but I had to let go of the chance to go as it was too last minute and I had many plans lined up. I felt dismal that I had to let go of such a good opportunity but I had to.

I’m trying to live my life by getting out of my own comfort zone and having as many colourful experiences as I can. And I am also cultivating upwards and outside of my regular routine so I get to learn much more so that I can use the key learning in my business, my community and my life.

I also want to do the uncomfortable (not necessarily the unpleasant) so that I keep myself curious about life. I volunteered to partake as a trainer in a series of workshops for grassroots women who were appointed by the Penang State Government to run community projects. I spent 4 weekends with other fellow trainers conducting these women leadership workshops in March and early April.

It was fulfilling but more than that, I learnt about grassroot problems. I discovered that women in urban and rural areas pinpointed problems unique to them and not all were what I had assumed. Some openly spoke family issues, others spoke about certain types of social problems that they wanted to tackle.

Funnily enough, when I shared photos of the workshops, a male friend was piqued enough to call and ask if he could do the same too. He felt that there must be more to life than the work he was doing in the corporate sector. He felt he needed to put some meaning and purpose into his life.

And that brings me back to the idea that if we all tried to do something in our own community, no matter how small, we could impact a lot of people if people believe in our mission and participate in our dream.

Would I ever imagine WomenBizSENSE as it is now, a thriving organization with a healthy bank balance and run by capable women? I could never have done so on my own. But enough people believed in the dream that Jo and I started and now we have brought together so many women in business and connected so many businesses up that it’s becoming quite surreal! Each year as we celebrate our anniversary, I am always so grateful that other women have joined us in our dream. Our culture has been of women advocating for other women and in this, we are unique. Even as I no longer helm the organisation, I’m still very much involved as an adviser and Jo and I have always had the same goal – to raise women up as leaders.

But I can’t expect others to challenge themselves to do this if I didn’t walk my talk or take action.

I’m excited with my Hawaii adventure as I know I will be meeting amazing women from whom I will discover more wisdom and experiences. I also know that each step I take, I have many more women cheering me on and many more women that I can help and impact.

One year from now, how will I be transformed? How will I be impacted?

It should be an interesting way to discover what I am capable of.

The Inevitable Question of Questions

It was past midnight that I ordered a Grab to get to Happy Garden where my cousin lived. I needed to bunk a night with her before heading home to Banting.
I don’t know how I looked in my orange kebaya blouse (I had removed the kerongsang) and my Uniqlo jeans (yes, those super comfy jeans that don’t need zipping) but I hoped I didn’t look like some GRO off shift. After all, I was hailing a Grab from Le Meridien Sentral.
My thoughts raced to those horror midnight ride stories so I was rather relieved when I got into the car and the guy started chatting with me. He didn’t seem creepy though it was 12.30am.  And I made sure I sat at the back. In the past, I used to sit right next to the driver, at the passenger side but I figured it is not too smart a move if the driver tries to do something funny.
Inevitably, he asked me what I was doing and where I was from.
I told him that I’m from Penang and I was at Le Meridien to attend a USM alumni gathering/dinner. And of course, he had to ask about kids.
For me, this is the question that most people ask me harmlessly and expect me to say, “Two kids – a boy and a girl.”
I said I don’t have kids.
Dead silence follows this in most conversations.
The other person is usually thinking – oh gosh, what do I say to her?
When I say this, I always prime myself for the reaction. Malaysians generally assume if you’re married, you must have kids. It’s a given.
In the darkened car, I couldn’t see the guy’s reaction but he followed up with a mumbled and muffled sorry.
I reassured him I am in no way embarrassed or depressed about not having kids, to which he brightened up a bit and resumed his chattiness. He started telling me he had 4 kids and soon, he shared that his sister had difficulty getting pregnant despite multiple checkups. As a Muslim, he said he felt sorry for his sister and her husband as they really wanted children.
I can understand her predicament. It’s not easy when everyone tells you, no, demands that you have kids the moment you tie the knot. And when you don’t, there’s something awfully wrong with you.
Just last week, I was again talking to a newfound friend – a friendly Malay girl from KL – and she asked that question again.
And when I said I have no kids, I saw her flustered face and her quick, embarrassed “sorry, sorry”. I was so inclined to pat her hands and say, there, there. Why should you be sorry that I have no kids?
And lest you think it’s only the Malay-Muslim community that’s hung up about kids, no, it’s not.
When we were chatting during our USM coursemates’ gathering over the superbly delicious buffet dinner (amidst some fantastic North Indian curried mutton and briyani actually), Karen decided to survey some of our friends why they decided to turn up last minute to the dinner.
Karen, me and two other friends had banded together to organise this dinner but in typical Malaysian fashion, many of our ex-coursemates had to wait till the last minute to RSVP which made our arrangements difficult.
So when a few last minute folks turned up, Karen couldn’t help but ask outright – “What made you decide to attend tonight’s dinner?”
One of the answers came from a friend who is a researcher and academician. She pointed out that she decided to come because of Nir who had flown back all the way from Germany to be at this dinner. She felt if someone took the effort, she would make the effort too. And we had friends who had flown in specially from Hong Kong and China too.
That was a good response.
A little later, she said that she believed she would attend because we were all OK and open about our lives. For instance, about either being single or not having kids.
And I had earlier remarked to Karen, sometimes we are 44 but we act like we’re still 24!
Class reunions are not supposed to be shaming episodes about who is successful or who is not. I know some people who stay away from class reunions because they believe they are not good enough or high enough on the corporate ladder.
Many of my USM friends are accomplished in their own right. They’re successful where they are and I’m super proud of them.
But sometimes the stigma of being single or not having children (perhaps to some it’s a shame, to others it’s a badge of honour) prevents people from seeing that there are other things in life that people can be contented with.
Once many years ago, two friends had a long lunch with me and they asked me if I had considered adopting. I said no.
I’m perfectly fine, thank you. I am happy if you have kids. Just because I don’t have any doesn’t make me hate kids. I love my nephew and niece and take every chance I get to go home and cook for them. Vincent and Vinnie love me for my egg mayo sandwiches and all manner of Cantonese food that I cook for them.
I will sound rather selfish saying this but I relish my freedom. Of course many have asked me, “Don’t you miss being a mum?” And I think, you don’t miss what you have.
I don’t really crave being a mother if that’s what most women want to be. I am also fine if you want to be the best mother you can be to your kids. Most of my friends are excellent mothers – I’m surrounded by nurturing women who think mothering is the best job in the world.
I am such an anomaly that people don’t know how to decipher me.
Perhaps sometimes I should lie when people ask me if I have kids. I should nod and smile and chatter on about my two kids – a boy and a girl. I can probably bring out photos of my nephew and niece to add to the drama. It’s a lot easier than having to explain why I chose not to.
Perhaps I should pacify everyone by saying, yes I tried but nothing happened and I think God has a bigger plan for me. I think people just want me to say that I tried and shrug it off as God’s will.
Funnily, people frame the world accordingly and make up their own reasons.
Once when Nic said that we don’t have kids, the other person quickly responded, “You mean, not yet right?” Whatever floats your boat, people.
I’m not crazy and neither is Nic. We both feel that there’s a lot we want to do in life and perhaps God is being kind to us by not giving us kids.
I laugh when I think of a possible kid that we would have – a kid that takes after Nic and all his idiosyncrasies and rebelliousness?
Oh God. I would be busy getting called to the principal’s office to explain why my kid is such a motor mouth with attitude.
Now that would be the death of me!

The Joy of Making One's Own Soap

I started learning how to make soap from Soap Cart about a year or more ago. I have always been fascinated by the idea of making soap so I signed up for Soap Cart’s class one day.
When I told Nic that I was going to a soap-making class, he said that soap is so affordable. Why do I need to make my own?
I like making things with my hands. I like learning how to make things. And soap was something that I felt like doing at that time.
And I am stubborn. I never listen to my husband anyway. (This is what happens to girls who are brought up in households with strong mothers. My late mum never bothered much with dad’s opinions. She just went ahead to do what she pleased. I guess I am more similar to my mum than I’d like to believe!)
So I did. I found it incredibly fun to take sodium hydroxide (a caustic alkaline) and mix it with oils and make soap. It was both science and art. And the end result is something I could use.
The basic idea for soaps is to take sodium hydroxide and mix it with either water or milk. Once the sodium crystals have melted, the solution can be added into oils of your choice such as olive oil, palm oil or coconut oil. Then all you have to do is whip the whole thing until it thickens like pudding. Once it comes to ‘trace’ (when you drizzle the batter on the surface of the batter and the strands seem to stick to the surface), your soap is ready to be poured into moulds.
I found a loaf silicone mould from Mr DIY (that’s my kind of store for all types of knick-knacks and useless made-in-China household gadgets but I love going there) and have been using this mould since. It’s actually a mould for cake but silicone is so easy to unmould, compared to the harder plastic moulds. I think I bought it for RM12.

olive oil soap batter in mould
Olive oil soap hardening in the silicone mould. It takes about a day to harden.

When I first started making soap, I was much too nervous. I feared that my soap batter wouldn’t emulsify. I feared that I wasn’t precise enough with my measurements. And I got nervous when my soap wouldn’t unmould properly after a day.
I believe all these are newbie issues. I took soap-making too seriously. I felt that I had to be perfect at every step of the way.
And after many times making soap, I figured out a faster way.
I didn’t have to beat the soap batter continuously. I would now whip it a bit, leave the batter for 15 minutes, come back and whip it a bit and repeat this process over an hour. When I leave the soap batter, it thickens slowly on its own. It was such a refreshing way to learn that some things need time.
And if my soap couldn’t slip out of the mould after a day, I just popped everything into the freezer for 30 minutes. After that, the soap slides out easily! No more pushing and pulling the silicone mould like crazy. Sometimes it’s like life. No point forcing things along. And at times, you need to ‘freeze’ some stuff in life too. Deal with it later.
curing olive oil soap
Sliced up olive oil soap bars. They need to be “cured” for 60 days at least. The longer you cure your soap, the better it is. Curing means letting the water evaporate off from the soap. 

Of course, the soap needs to be sliced and cured.
I am a rather boring soap maker.
I only make 2 types of soaps – pure coconut oil soap which is superb for washing oily hands and pots and pan; and olive oil soap which is an incredibly moisturising soap for the face and body. All without fragrance/essential oils. Just plain Jane soaps. Both soap recipes came from Soap Cart and I’ve stuck to them religiously.
The olive oil soap needs a curing time of 60 days minimum but even the soap sceptic of a husband now raves about the olive oil soap.
It has helped him reduce the oiliness on his face and even moisturises his skin, leaving it supple. The soap contains olive oil, coconut oil and palm oil in different ratios as well as fresh milk.
If you ask me why I make soap when I can easily buy them off the shelves, I say I like knowing what goes into my soaps. I also appreciate the effort that goes into my own soaps and they’re pure and good for me.
Homemade soaps that are cured properly lasts a long time, unlike commercial soaps. They don’t soften or melt that fast in the shower. And when I make a batch of soap, they last me a year!

Berkhidmat Untuk Negara

You know that song we used to hear on RTM a long time ago? That Francesca Peters song called Setia? If you’re not that old, watch this.
Anyway, I wanted to say that yes, this year, I am volunteering as a polling agent and counting agent (PACA) for the upcoming general election.
I thought I wouldn’t, after what happened in May 2013.
After such devastating results, everyone felt depleted. A friend said she heard the results in Germany and started crying.
Everyone cried.
It was like we had nothing more to go on. Like all our energies were given to this one time, this one opportunity and it fell flat.
But I think what makes us humans is hope.
We hope for a better tomorrow.
And even though I said I wouldn’t become a PACA in GE14, I have decided to step up.
I have decided that if it is meant to be, it is up to me.
Maybe you’re thinking – silly gal. You’re only one PACA. Yes, but have you read the story of that boy who just helped throw starfish back into the ocean? He couldn’t help all the starfish but he helped as many as he could.
And I can get my friends to join me. Never underestimate the power of influence among friends.
And honestly, what would you do anyway on election day, after you’ve cast your vote?
Stay home? Binge? Hang out?
Why not be in the thick of the action and help out? We may not be the main players or the big ones but we can do our part. If everyone did a little here and there, we would have a much better nation.
And if you’re unsure what goes on in the voting centre, read my blog post from 2013 when I was a PACA. I was a complete newbie and yet I did it. So can you.
Don’t give in to your excuses or fear. Your country, my country, our country is far more important.
Some 30 years from now, your grandkids will ask you: what did you do on the election day of GE14, the most important milestone for Malaysia?
Are you going to say, well, I napped after I cast my vote?
Or that you were part of the history in the making, no matter what history it would be.
I’ve always been political starting with reading Aliran magazines when I was 16 (thanks to my dad). And there is nothing wrong with wanting a better country.
I always tell others, our country is amazing but we have leaders who are not. And if there’s something to change, we must change it. Of course, everyone tells me it’s gonna be dirty this time (when is it ever not?).
So if there’s one thing to do this GE, please sign up as a PACA and go for trainings. It’s the least you could do for your motherland.
This is really “berkhidmat untuk negara”. Not a crappy tagline in some Government letter.
If you want to do your duty for Malaysia, please sign up as a PACA. Get your friends and families. Anyone above 21 can be a PACA. There are trainings going on weekly so you never need to be afraid of not knowing what to do.
The worst attitude is that “other people can be PACA” and give a tonne of excuses like you’re away, not free etc. It’s only 1 day in 5 years that you get into the action and if you’re a polling agent, maybe the most 2 hours of duty. If I, a complete newbie, can do it in 2013, you can do it too.
Email: p52bbpaca@gmail.com or call 019 443 2088 or 04 641 3088. This is for the Bayan Baru area but if you prefer to be in town or elsewhere on Penang, do let them know when you call them. I am sure PKR shares resources like PACA with DAP and the rest.

Leadership & Lessons From My Curry Leaf Tree

krista goon
From left, Anita who was a speaker and Gina, my friend and client and me.

This week has been very eventful. I started it by attending a John Maxwell conference on leadership at G Hotel and these days, leadership is a big topic. It’s classic. It’s evergreen. Leadership never goes out of style.
I had debated with myself whether I should go. After all, I had been reading his books for a while now. His books were insightful and full of good reminders that the key to leadership is always self-leadership.
john maxwell seminar penang
With friends at the John Maxwell conference.

I have been struggling with this for a while too.
Leadership isn’t always about a position or a title. I remember attending Robin Sharma’s workshop years and years ago in KL and he kept hammering this point over and over. All of us can lead even if we’re not the CEO or the COO. Even the tea lady can be a leader if she decided to do so.
john maxwell seminar penang
The ticket wasn’t cheap but sometimes we have to invest in ourselves especially these days.

In business, I have had to lead alongside Nic. While he takes care of the strategy, design and what-not, I usually take care of the communications which include everything from emails to what we say on our Facebook, website and WhatsApp. It also includes designing programmes, following up with potential partners and collaborators and ensuring things are done and on time.
In the community, Nic leads as the chairman of our residents’ committee. He ended up being voted in as the chairman because we were once so upset that the previous committee wanted to cut down trees within our resident compound.
I have a curry leaf tree that’s 12 feet tall in my garden. I grew it from a sapling when I moved into my ground floor apartment. So imagine our indignation when a bunch of hired workers came around one morning and started looking at our tree. They were speaking in Tamil and wondering why they were asked to cut down a perfectly healthy tree!
We stopped them. And after we stopped them, Nic and I went around knocking on residents’ doors and asking them to join us at the upcoming AGM to protest such crazy decisions. That was the start of our crusade to keep our tree. The reason given was that our tree might fall during a storm and damage cars. This does not hold water as our tree is far away from the secondary car park lot.
So that was really how we ended up being the overzealous couple who walked up flights of stairs in each block and knocking on doors and talking to people! We just wanted them to attend the AGM with us (because each AGM, there will never be enough quorum and residents all shy away from attending and voicing what they thought!).
When the AGM rolled around, there was such a huge turnout of residents that we even shocked ourselves.
And we asked the then committee why in the world would anyone want to cut down perfectly healthy trees? I shall spare you the illogical answer.
Long story short, my tree is still standing. (Yay!) But not the shrubs and plants of other residents. One lady had her soursop tree chopped down; another had her fir tree lopped off! (This is also why I am so glad I work from home and I stopped the men from hacking my tree. We have to speak up when it matters.)
It is always a storm that makes us want to take up a strong position. A strong position can turn into leadership. A strong position can also transform how things are done.
In a way, my curry leaf tree propelled Nic to the chairmanship! In the past, no one knew who the chairman was (he was so afraid that other residents would come knocking on his door!). In the past, we had no communication with each other as residents.
I said to Nic that things have got to change when he agreed to become chairman. For one, we started a Facebook group and later, a WhatsApp chat group.
It has been 2 years since he held the position. And I think things have become so much better and I don’t think I’m biased.
Neighbours know each other better now and we’re more open and transparent about communications (yes, me being the communications freak). We started having residents’ gatherings – a catered buffet is a great way to get people to come out of their apartments and start saying hello to one another.
One elderly lady said that it was such a lovely way to bring together people who would normally never even know each other’s names!
So that’s leadership for you. It doesn’t need to come clothed in regal robes. It just needs someone to say, “I’m going to step up and do my best.”
It’s hard, of course. It’s hard when residents come knocking on our glass doors at 3am and 5am and 10pm. It’s hard when people get upset that they cannot park 3 of their cars inside the compound. It’s hard when people write poison letters and circulate them (and I thought only politicians get ‘surat layang’) saying nasty things about Nic when he is doing work that no one wants to do, on a voluntary basis.
He had to wake up at 3am once when water pipes burst and water came cascading down the stairs like a waterfall. He woke up at 5am once when two elderly men on their way out to their morning walk found an unconscious man on the road inside the apartment compound! He also had to go to Komtar’s Lembaga Rayuan 6 times just to attend the hearing as a representative of our apartments – we were protesting the use of our residential roads by a developer.
I had to a miss an important appointment just this week too because of Nic’s role. We were just about to go out for a quick lunch and my appointment when my neighbour came to call for Nic. It was a little after 2pm and a ground floor apartment unit was on fire! Luckily many people came around to help and we called the fire engines and the police.
apartment after a fire
What’s left of the apartment after the fire

I expected nasty flames (like the movies) but this was a lot of smoke and heat. By the time the firemen came and put out the fire, I had already missed my appointment! Dang.
And I was hungry as hell.
(Later, we went and grabbed McD and decided to spend whatever’s left of the day at a friend’s tea shop. All in a day’s work…NOT!)
chinese tea shop penang
Decided to get some pu-erh tea!

So leadership is a tough calling.
I underwent all that jazz when I was called upon to be the president of WomenBizSENSE. I had to expel a member a few years ago because she was simply not fit to be in our association. I had to sit down with her and tell her why our association could no longer have her as a member. That’s as bad as firing people (which I have also done before, and I fired someone much older than me which is unpleasant by all accounts).
Then again, I’ve also squared up to a hefty guy with a beer belly and looked him in the eye when his friends said they would like to fight with Nic. Being female can be a strength at times. He’d probably hit a guy but to hit a woman? That’s got to be lower than low. So I stood in front of him and dared him to. But I also had hit ‘record’ on the audio of my phone so that I had audio evidence just in case.
Most people think of leadership as countless photo opps with the creme de la creme of society, rubbing shoulders with the popular.
It’s really not.
It’s about facing the heat, the brickbats, the complaints, the grouses, the shit that hits the fan sort of thing. The stuff that everyone runs away from but the stuff that you have to do because you’re the leader.
Leadership is about doing all the challenging things that are full of consequences. It’s having to be brave when everyone else isn’t or doesn’t want to.
And sometimes, it starts with something as simple as wanting to prevent my curry leaf tree from being chopped down.