Monday, February 16, 2009


LONG before there was Facebook, I wrote on my parents' wall.

My siblings and I – there were three of us at the time – grew up in Kajang. Both our parents were working so we were left under the care of a maid.

It was the early 1980s. The house was still new. The walls were pristine off-white.

We had pencils lying around the house. Walls, pencils and bored children – it was a recipe for… a mural.

Why is it that children draw on walls instead of on paper? One theory is that it is actually easier for them to draw with their hands out in front of them rather than underneath. It affords better hand-eye coordination.

Children are short people with even shorter arms and legs, but they make up for their shortcomings with an innate ability to tell what is natural and what is not. Proof: when you give them paper to draw on, they do so while lying on their belly. It must be because it feels natural.

We adults, on the other hand, have no qualms about slouching over a desk. Which as well it should be. If all the females in the office did their work while lying on their belly, the males will never want to go home.

So there we were, my siblings and I, drawing on the walls. We could't spell yet so resorted to hieroglyphs to tell stories. Like, we would draw this long, uninterrupted line from one end of the wall to the other and it was supposed to mean something.

Other times, we would measure our heights. We would stand with our back against the wall and mark the top of our head. Over time, we could actually see growth. It was quite cool.

The walls gave me my first break in cartooning. I still remember the first picture that I drew on one of the walls. It was of my younger brother peeing.

And guess what? Even back then, I displayed an inherent understanding of one of the principles in cartooning: exaggeration. To draw things out of proportion. I knew exactly which part of my brother to accentuate in order to get my message across.

The result, I would say, was Dali-esque. My brother was horrified when he saw it. I thought he looked like that screaming guy in those Edvard Munch drawings.

It wasn't just the walls inside the house that became our 'canvas'. We also got working on the walls outside the house (do kids these days still have this much fun?).

I remember we made our own 'paint'. We found a hole in the garden which we filled with water and stirred. After a while, the water turned brown. I called the colour beige.

"It is the same colour as an IBM personal computer," I told my siblings to murmurs of approval, although I didn't even know what a computer was.

As we were painting the wall, my siblings joyfully remarked how beautiful our house would be in the colour of an IBM PC.

But as the eldest brother, it was my duty to burst their bubble. "Twenty years from now, this colour won't be so cool anymore," I said. They seemed quite disturbed by the prophecy. They asked how I knew, to which I mumbled something about being able to think different.

Now I realise you can't always tell when I'm kidding, so I'm gonna be completely clear here: this exercise really did take place, although without the computer industry exchanges with my siblings.

When our parents came back from work, it was their turn to look like the Edvard Munch character. Pulling us by the ear, they got us to clean the mess and promise to never do it again.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Call of the wild

OF all the news reports I have read, the funniest ever must be this particular one involving handphones and monkeys.

The New Straits Times reported many years ago on the problem of macaques mounting raids on the quarters of a Royal Malaysian Air Force base in Subang, looking for food (‘Monkey woes at air force base’, July 26, 2004).

Soldiers guarding the base have been told to keep a sharp lookout for any monkey business, the report said.

The animals have been spotted rummaging through dustbins for food. Some have even entered kitchens.

“One family was even held hostage in their home when a large troop commandeered the roof and compound and refused to budge. The family was freed only when a bunch of bananas was tossed at the troop as a diversionary tactic.”

Ah, such choice words.

But the funniest part must be this paragraph: “One officer lost his handphone, which was last seen in the hands of a monkey as it swung through the branches to freedom. Calls to the handphone were not answered.”


Dilbert creator Scott Adams in his book The Joy of Work offers a few simple tips to writing humour.

First of all, he says, it would be ideal if you could pick a subject that in itself is already funny, one that makes you laugh even before you start writing.

Monkeys is a good example of this. They’re cute and they make you laugh without even trying. Other examples of funny subjects include Bush, pramugara terlampau and the Nigerian e-mail scam.

Second, keep it simple. And here in the NST report, we have a textbook example of how to keep it simple. Allow me to explain.

When I read the line, “Calls to the handphone were not answered,” I laughed so hard that I hurt myself in the back of the head (the only other time that happened was when I watched the Girly Man video on YouTube).

When I stopped laughing, I wondered about how that line could have come about.

I imagined myself as an editor. A reporter comes to me with a story: army guy loses handphone to monkey.

“The guy was frantic,” says the reporter during debriefing. “It was a Motorola Razr V3 clamshell phone costing RM2,799 and made of aircraft-grade aluminium.

“At 13.9mm, it is one of the thinnest phones in the market but for that price, you definitely pay for the style,” he says. Obviously the reporter has just joined the newspaper from an AiSeeTea magazine.

“Never mind the technical details,” I say. “What exactly happened?”

The reporter then shows the story he has done, the complicated version.

Complicated version of story (not funny):

After he lost his handphone, the officer was baffled for a while, unsure about what to do next. Then, he thought perhaps the monkey had dropped the phone somewhere and someone in the jungle might have found it. So he proceeded to call his handphone, hoping that someone would pick up the call. The calls, however, were in vain.

I take one look at the copy, hit Delete repeatedly until the whole para is gone and type this simplified version of the story.

Simplified version of story (funny!):

Calls to the handphone were not answered.

Then I burst out laughing. I laugh so hard until the back of my head hurts and I fall with a thud from my chair. This scares the reporter. He knows better now than to submit stories full of unnecessary details.

The NST report is a textbook example of how humour can be written. The subject itself was already funny to begin with, and the reporters, working with the editors I’m sure, managed to take the humour level up a few notches.

In the process, such exquisite humour was created.

So the lesson here is if you are looking to make an impact, do away with the details. People don’t remember them anyway. Someone once told me, “People will not remember the things you say or do, but they will remember how you make them feel”.