So, you want to be a popular columnist

Here is my big confession: there really is a ‘trick’ to getting stuff you write to be liked/emailed/circulated.

In my case, I have a whole bag of tricks which I am glad to share with all you columnist wannabes.

(Disclaimer: Following this guide is not a guarantee that you too, like me, will be dubbed Malaysia’s liberal equivalent to Anne Coulter.)

1. Write to be read.
Oh, thanks, Captain Obvious, I can hear you say. But some people who have spent decades in journalism have yet to understand those four words.

It is not about showing off your expertise in quantum mechanics or abusing the thesaurus. Writing to be read means simply to write in a way that makes what you have to say accessible. Don’t make your readers struggle to understand your points.

2. The title does matter
A snappy headline sometimes makes all the difference between your column being the very first thing the reader latches onto or being passed over for that fascinating expose about KFC.

I know my columns will have to compete with all the other articles on the site so I make an effort to keep my headlines short and punchy. Give them a reason to click on your link.

3. Know your audience
A paper in academic journal and a column in a national news site are going to need different approaches. Your fellow academicians may understand what you mean by autarky and mercantilism but the average layperson won’t.

Learn when not to use jargon or at least make the effort to explain terms not commonly used by the man on the street.

In the case of TMI, I know most TMI readers check out the site at work or while commuting. So I keep my articles short so they can quickly skim through the article and determine if it is worth reading. If I bore them before they even get past the first paragraph, they will find something else to do. Like forward cat pictures to colleagues.

4. Write with conviction

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”

― John C. Maxwell

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

― Maya Angelou

Whatever stand you make in your column, stand by it. Make people believe you are invested in what you write. To get people to think, it is far easier to win them over by first getting them to feel.

You can win over more people with your heart than you can with your mind. Sincerity and authenticity go further on paper than authoritativeness and being pedantic. (Note: I know it’s not fair but that’s how the world works, bub)

It is not easy to acquire smarts but you can, with imagination, learn empathy. Intelligence or academic expertise takes years to improve, but empathy takes only imagination and a willingness to explore what it means to walk in another person’s shoes.

5. Be gracious
Make the effort to thank people for sharing your links. If you are active on social media, engage your audience, be open, engaging and understand that your column is a starting point to conversation. Let it be a beginning to dialogue, an invitation to debate.

Your column is not a tablet on Mount Sinai from which you proclaim, “I am right, you are wrong, listen to me!”

Sometimes all it takes for your column to ‘ignite’ is for one person of influence to link to it. But it is far more gratifying if you connect with so many people that they, in turn, help connect you to others.

You do not win the war just by creating shareable content. Understand that your readers, not your talent, make you.

6. And etc.
Some people (unlike me) write so well that people can’t help but want to share whatever they write. Everyone else (like me) need to put in the extra effort.

I know I am not the best writer. I am not very talented. I do not have much of a vocabulary. I have neither intellectual rigour, nor artful wordplay. But I do the very best I can with the very little I have. And that, my friends, is something anyone can do.

May the pen and the world be kind.

You don’t have to listen to me

Free twitter badge
Free twitter badge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The best thing about Twitter: interaction.

The worst thing about Twitter: interaction.

Because I am on Twitter, people think that it is perfectly OK to do the virtual equivalent of spitting in my face.

Like this one dude who was catty enough to Tweet the following:

“alamak ada org naik darah, give way pls, coz kalau dia marah, people gotta “listen”.

Of course I could make merry of the fact that he Tweets like a 15-year-old girl, but that would be too easy.

The thing is I don’t always ignore my haters. While I don’t bother reading the comments on my column (I like keeping my braincells, thanks), I do take note of the @replies I get. Because sometimes my detractors do have points and I respect their freedom to disagree with my sometimes controversial/annoying opinions.

Also, sometimes it makes great fodder for my weekly column.

The way my detractor goes about it, it’s as though I scream to an audience of bound captives, forcing them to listen to me.

And the thing about my anger is, the angrier I am, the more impassioned my writing. The more I feel, the more it comes out in my words.

If I care enough to be incredibly angry about something, then it is probably worth writing about. So maybe my secret superpower is that the angrier I get, the more articulate I am.


The thing is, I would like people to be decent human beings when they interact on Twitter. To be polite to people even when they disagree with them. To be angry about issues, to hate injustice and wrong instead of hating on people just because they can.

But that’s like wishing on a star, right?

So basically I’m saying, it’s cool to disagree with me. But it ain’t cool to be a dick, know what I’m saying?

Especially if you Tweet like a 15-year-old girl, bub. Unless of course, you are a 15-year-old girl. (Then Tweet all you like, sweetie! Someday you’ll grow up and learn to spell!)


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Things I learned by 35

Another birthday, another milestone. Some women get a little sad about reaching this age and not being married/having kids yet. And I confess I did get a little bit mopey about it…last month.

But the day’s arrived and funny enough, I just feel really calm.

Since it’s my birthday, here are some things I learned that might help some of you out, whatever age you may be.

1. Be yourself. In this world, people are looking for authenticity, people who are ‘real’. But at the same time, sometimes at work, you will need to put on a ‘persona’. Think of it as a suit of armour that you don for the battleship of work. Understand that this persona is not you but a means of coping with work. You may be a bit of a slob and fart joke enthusiast but that might not be what you want to show off at work.

Just remember to take the persona off and let people see the real you.

2. Learn how to make and keep friends. If you just can’t find people to hang out with, ask yourself: Are you doing enough as a friend? I confess to learning this the hard way. Woke up one morning and the only birthday message I got was from my dentist. Boo hoo. The simplest way of getting friends is being a friend. Really.

3. If you are always sick and having to take medical leave at work, your body is telling you quite plainly to quit. Either your job is too taxing on you physically or you are really, really unhappy. No job is worth the physical toll.

4. If you ever have to choose between keeping your health or your job, get rid of the job.

5. It’s not always about you. Remember the universe does not revolve around you and your misery. Sometimes if things are getting you down, maybe you just need to find something bigger than yourself. A cause. A project. A pet, even.

6. Life is too short for excuses. If you really want something, go all the way. Don’t just talk about things: make them happen. It is OK to clean the house every week instead of every day if it means you will have time to work on that novel/play/song/podcast.

Think about the legacy you will leave behind. Do you really want it to be “the chick who obsessively swept her floor everyday” rather than “the chick who wrote that really good book?”

7. If you’re suicidal and feel like there is no reason for you to go on living…find help. It’s as easy as going to HKL, going to the GP and telling them that’s how you feel. You’ll be referred to a psychiatrist…but the waiting list might be as long as 2 weeks. But until then, persevere. As a survivor of depression and someone who’s had many friends clinically depressed/suicidal, I know it can be hard. But when you can no longer help yourself, accept that you need help. It is there for you if you just reach out for it.

8. Everyone has their own cup of sorrow – big or small, it still brings them pain. So be kind, be compassionate and try to find the best in people. Though it is perfectly fine to ignore people being utter and total wankers.

9. Find something you’re good at. Find something you love doing. If they’re the same thing, then you’re lucky. If they’re not, use the first to support the other.

10. Sometimes, it is just nice to treat yourself to a solo meal at a place you really like. If you can’t enjoy your own company, why expect other people to? Being alone doesn’t mean being lonely. Treasure your solitude and your own companionship.

Yes, not exactly world-changing wisdom. But the best I can think of right now.

But if I had to sum them all up…Life is too short for regrets. Live so you will regret nothing. And love.



Please, try to understand us

Many of you Malaysians over in the Peninsula get quite offended when I quite bluntly tell you: “You don’t get it.” When it comes to Sabah, I mean.

Flag of the Malaysian state Sabah. Based on a ...
Sabah state flag (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The truth is, you don’t. I am not saying it as an insult so those offended people in the corner over there, have a cookie and don’t take it personally.

Now, let me educate you a little.

Some of you compare Sabahan anger over some PKR rep unilaterally bestowing the title ‘Huguan Siou’ on Anwar Ibrahim to the furore over using “Allah”.

They are not the same thing.

Declaring Anwar ‘Huguan Siou’ is the equivalent of naming a foreign worker Sultan of Johor.

Or giving Justin Bieber a British knighthood.

‘Huguan Siou’ directly translated means ‘brave leader’. In the old days, a ‘Huguan Siou’ was the leader of a tribe’s warriors (pangazou), chosen by consensus and after much deliberation.

Those were the days when the tribes were constantly at war and headhunting was still practised. The Huguan Siou could not just be any man: On his shoulders lay the safety and the survival of the clan.

Over time, the tribes eventually became the collective we know now as KDM or Kadazan/Dusun/Murut formed by the three main tribes. The Kadazan Dusun Cultural Association (KDCA) is now the keeper and bestower of the title of Huguan Siou.

It is not a title given out lightly, or one that can be bought or sold, like Datukships in this country.

The first KDCA-selected Huguan Siou was the late Tun Fuad Stephens, Sabah’s first chief minister, who had been instrumental in the state becoming part of Malaysia.

He had an interesting lineage: he was half-British and half-Kadazan on his father’s side and half-Japanese and half-British on his mother’s. To top it all off, he was Muslim but chose not to abandon his father’s surname when he converted.

Stephens was living proof that Huguan Siou is not about racial purity, nor was it about faith. It was about leadership. And he had proven himself, many times over. No Sabah leader has yet managed to win over both the largely Christian KDM natives while also being accepted by the Muslim Sabahans that included the Bajaus, Suluk and small minorities among the KDM.

Then came Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan. He defied Berjaya and Haris Salleh’s excesses, choosing to run as an Independent candidate in Tambunan.

“Against all odds and despite massive threats, insinuations and “vote-buying” through on-the-spot approval of development projects and other private amenities, incumbent Datuk Seri Panglima Joseph Pairin Kitingan retained his State Assembly seat with an overwhelming majority of 3,048 votes.” – (Source: The Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) website)

He went on to form PBS, helming it to victory in four elections. BN for years tried to paint him as anti-Muslim, as well as trying to stir up racial and religious sentiment in the state. It was unacceptable to the federal government that a non-Muslim could defy the status quo and helm the state.

But then 1994 happened and the great frog exodus occured, when Pairin was betrayed by his own men in PBS. He has never recovered, eventually ‘surrendering’ and returning to the BN fold. And I fear his courage and will to fight has been sapped by years of enduring BN’s attacks on his leadership.

Dear Jonathan Yasin: You so easily confer ‘Huguan Siou’ to the man who was rumoured to have been behind the ‘frog’ incident? You happily give one of our highest honours to a man who turned a blind eye to Sabah’s poverty and hardships all the years he was still with BN?

But I don’t blame Anwar. It’s not like he asked for the title.

Still, PKR has to stop pretending it understands the state. This latest incident just proves it doesn’t. Work with local parties, stop fighting with them for seats.

The locals will not forget you made Azmin Ali Sabah PKR chief for a while.

You complain we treat you like outsiders, but the truth is it takes a local to ‘get’ how complicated we are. It is a different world in Sabah and unless someone is willing to spend years in the state, (which Azmin clearly wasn’t willing to do considering how little time he spent there), West Malaysian politicians can never hope to get traction.

Sabah and Sarawak, by the terms of the Malaysia agreement, have autonomous rights that make each state the equivalent of the whole Peninsula. We are not just ‘other states’.

We are equal but not the same. There are rights that we have, traditions that we keep that we ask you politely to respect or at least, allow us to explain to you.

It is obvious that PKR has a lot of listening to do.





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From a hater of my ‘We are all pendatang, Dr M’ column

I don’t usually publicise the fan/hatemail I get but this is special case.

It’s funny he calls me an ungrateful Malay because…Aku bukan Melayu-lah, tolol. Aku orang Sabah, faham? Tulis email pun macam budak baru masuk tadika.

Name: saiful
Message: FUCK U ERNA

Time: Sunday January 27, 2013 at 1:02 am
IP Address:
Contact Form URL:
Sent by an unverified visitor to your site.

I only write, because you read

Gratitude Dime
Gratitude Dime (Photo credit: InaFrenzy)

Dear all,

I’m frankly overwhelmed by the response to “We are all pendatang, Dr M”.

Thank you for sharing it, the feedback and kind words.

It gives me hope to know that many people share my sentiments. Like how it is a great injustice that many who deserve citizenships are denied them while the powers that be give them away in exchange for votes.

My TMI column is over 2 years old now. It was a secret childhood dream of mine to have my very own column in a national paper someday. So that sort of came true.

It’s all Amir Muhammad’s fault for me wanting to grow up and write columns like his NST ones. Or maybe I’ll blame A.Asohan for my wanting to write about tech as well as he did. Thanks to him and Chong See Ming, I had my first byline in The Star’s In.Tech.

I just need to tell you that if it wasn’t for your support, I probably would have given up and, who knows, tried to make a go at IT again.

While we may not always agree on things/issues, I’m always glad for feedback, criticism when it is warranted and honest engagement about the things we all care about.

Like education, human rights, politics and children running around unattended in restaurants.

I’m also glad for social media because it lets me engage with the people I write for even if the occasional troll shows up for the party.

But I have one caveat: I will write about the things that I think warrant writing about. I don’t write to make you love me or earn your praise – even if flattery can be nice, I won’t deny.

And sometimes I’ll say things that have been said before (like this column).

That’s because, as my friend Calvin says, some things bear repeating.

I repeat again, I am so grateful to you for still reading my column even when I occasionally (or mostly, who knows) suck.

Here’s to a better Malaysia. For all of us.





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Because someone gave me a chance

Nobody “makes it on their own”. That is a lie.

When a business succeeds, it owes the success to its backers as well as its customers.

Writers are no different.

If my then-editor at Malaysiakini didn’t let me write the impassioned rant that became “Why is your Allah not my Allah?” I wouldn’t have gotten the exposure I did. That exposure opened a lot of doors, one of which led to my current workplace.

I wouldn’t even be at my current workplace if my current boss hadn’t decided, on the basis of a few impassioned op-eds and my tech background, to ask me to meet up for a chat.

There’s a story I haven’t told many people: When my current boss rang me up, I was probably at the lowest point of my career. I was broke. Jobless. And pretty much convinced I was unemployable and washed up. (Those jobless weeks pretty much ruined my credit but that’s another story altogether)

I’d made four back-to-back attempts at a career change and they were disastrous. Two PR gigs, subediting alternative news and heading a doomed local news website. I think I did my best but ultimately, my best just wasn’t good enough.

After finding out I wouldn’t be confirmed at the last gig (despite being there for nearly 11 months), I went to KLCC and blubbered into a cup of New Zealand’s Natural ice cream.

The next few weeks, I just sat around in my pyjamas writing ghost stories trying to jump start a freelancing career…which wasn’t working out all too well. I had precious few leads and very little confidence left.

And then a phone call changed everything.

So I’m grateful. Grateful for great bosses and colleagues. Grateful for an arrangement that makes me happy. When things were at their worst, when I thought there was no hope, things turned around.

Thinking back, at every point of my career, someone had to take a chance on me.

I’m just glad someone did.

Resolution Numero Uno: Learning to blog again

My cat Wally indulging in my own favourite pastime: Lying down and pretending the world doesn’t exist.

So my first resolution is to start blogging again. The Procrastination Monster has however kept me from actually starting until, oh, today.

In other news, have also started up another blog at

I have enough trouble keeping one blog updated and I go start another one. Brilliant!

Am also supposed to start teaching at OUM again but there is one small problem: it’s not entirely sure what or who I’ll be teaching. The course I’d been prepping for seems to be entirely different from the course I’ve been assigned. Oh, boy.

I’ve been a subeditor exactly one year. Am glad to say I now suck 10 per cent less at it. My column at The Malaysian Insider is now nearly 2 years old, TMI will be five years old next month…coincidentally the month when I turn a Grand Old 35.

Besides blogging again, have also the goals to lose the 10kg I should have lost last year, pick up a new language and finish writing a novel that isn’t for NaNoWriMo.

Those resolutions sound suspiciously like the ones I had last year. Well, anyway, 2012 was a mixed bag but I’m grateful that I start the new year with good friends, a good job and the iPad Mini.

Now, go away I have a shit ton of iOS games to catch up on.

There & Back Again: Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit reviewed

Bag End, as used in the Lord of the Rings films.
Bag End, as used in the Lord of the Rings films. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Lovers of Middle-earth: welcome home. Peter Jackson’s first instalment of The Hobbit is the next-best thing to a nostalgia trip, other than actually rewatching The Lord of The Rings trilogy.


Haters of Middle-earth: The Hobbit isn’t going to make you like it better. So do yourself a favour and maybe wait for Quentin Tarantino’s latest, coming around Christmas.


While some people have accused Peter Jackson of ‘cashing-in’ on The Hobbit by stretching it to three films, if you have actually read the book you would know there is actually a wealth of material to be tapped.  Author J.R.R Tolkien after all created quite a detailed world, with some of the swords having more back story than some of the characters in the film.

There are many things alluded to in the book that are never really fleshed out in the LOTR books that came later, but revealing those things would spoil it for those who haven’t read it.

The Hobbit’s vistas and stunning scenery certainly will transport you back to Middle-Earth as it was, though enhanced with 3D magic. It was shot in HFR 48fps 3D but it isn’t necessary to watch it in that format to enjoy it. The 3D does add some element of realism to it, though my personal preference is to view it in IMAX as the wider screen really does help you ‘fall into’ the movie. Be prepared to flinch when flames or projectiles come your way.

Not that fire and debris flying about is a spoiler as this is a fantasy film. What fantasy film is complete without some measure of messy battling happening? The action sequences are fun, fast but somewhat ridiculous. Nothing like the epic march of the Rohirrim in Return of the King or Aragon doing some major swashbuckling in Fellowship of the Ring.

As far as casting goes, Peter Jackson was right in saying Martin Freeman was perfect for the role of Bilbo Baggins, the loveable everyman. Or make that ‘everyhobbit’. His performance is nuanced and subtle; so balanced that you just can’t imagine anyone else who measures out just the right amount of pathos and brevity, whatever the need of a scene.

The best bit of the film is of course when Bilbo meets Gollum: the setup of LOTR. To Jackson’s credit, he adds enough little in-jokes that make The Hobbit a very plausible prequel to the earlier trilogy.

But though The Hobbit is fun, it suffers from the typical Peter Jackson bloat. Too many lingering long shots, extra backstory and extraneous characters (Did we really need Sebastian?) and the film would have benefited from more rigorous editing.

Still, as a friend of mine said, I’m glad to declare The Hobbit is certainly not The Phantom Menace to this generation’s Star Wars. It’s much, much better but the only sad bit is that Jackson settled for an adequate film instead of creating a great one.

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