The old man laid on the floor next to his bed, curled up like an over cooked prawn. Buried in thick layers of quilt, he would have been mostly invisible if not for the violent shaking beneath. It was already the end of spring, yet winter stubbornly lingered on, adding misery and discomfort to the aged and the sickly. The room was pitch-black, distant light from street lamps were shielded by thick heavy curtains drawn tightly. The Mrs was sound asleep on the opposite side of their massive bed, undisturbed by his loud hoarse barking that violently pierced the cold night air with such regularity that sleep was becoming elusive for him. They used to hold each other close in bed until sleep took over and let air pass between their lithe bodies. But, they were newly weds then. The distance between the old couple when they sleep could be used as a measure of the length of their long marriage, the widening gulf between them a price of familiarity and staleness that inevitably envelopes any relationship that isn’t carefully and lovingly nurtured. He had slept on the floor for over three weeks, ever since she started coughing badly. The notion that he could avoid catching her germs by sleeping further apart proved to be wrong. That germs can be airborne and spread via sneezing or coughing did not stop him from trying anyway. Her throat had behaved like an aerosol can spraying with abandon throughout the house for weeks already. Besides, it was the only chance he had to sleep with his dog at his feet. The Mrs had insisted the dog had no rights to their bed.
That same morning, his 99-year-old mother refused to leave her bed when asked if she wanted her breakfast. The clock had already chimed eleven times half an hour earlier but she asked in her Ningbo dialect, “Chi so bo chee?” Why wake up?
“What should I do?” his sister asked.
“Let her be,” the old man said. “She is entitled to do whatever she wants, at her age.”
It is worrisome when a person cannot find a reason to wake up, the old man replayed that line of thought in his mind over and over again for the rest of the day. “There is always a reason to be alive, right?” I asked him. When we were kids, we could not wait to get up quickly to rush out to play with the other kids in the neighbourhood. As school students, we were keen to wake up to get ready for school, not because we looked forward to learning, but to avoid detention if we were caught arriving late. As adults, we had so many reasons to wake up – too many reasons, actually, and when we retire, we look forward to our hobbies or holidays or grandchildren. There is always a reason to wake up. “Life finds a reason for us to wake up until it doesn’t,” the old man replied.
The old man had always believed in the power of the mind. Mind over matter, he had told himself over and over again throughout his life. He spurned taking medicines for minor ailments. He avoided antibiotics like they were a plague. “Let my own body fight the germs,” he said when a hypochondriac friend suggested he go to the doctor. The old man had not read Henry Beecher’s classic 1955 work “The Powerful Placebo” but even as a teenager, he had told himself the power of the mind should not be underestimated. Today, of course, the placebo is considered a scientific fact. We can achieve great things if our minds tell us so.
“Why would nations go to war?” he asked. I could barely hear him even though he had found his voice back that day. His normally sonorous and somewhat mellifluous voice had deserted him. “You squeak like a church mouse,” I said. He had lost it for three days and had not taken any phone calls. A quiet man by nature, he savoured the peace in the silence.
“Because their leaders tell them they will be victorious?” I queried with a great uncertainty in my voice.
He looked up with an odd tilt to his head and opened his mouth to speak. No words came out from it and he quickly closed it. When you have nothing good to say, then say nothing. I could not tell if he thought I was right or wrong. But, it seemed logical enough. We do what our minds tell us. If our minds tell us it is right, we would go to war. For those who are less convinced, the people would unleash the force of God. Vox pouli, vox Dei. The voice of the people is the voice of God.
The old man’s belief in the power of his mind took a hit this week. Nothing his mind told him had worked. His cough had not abated. He caught it from His Mrs who caught it from her sister who caught it from her son-in-law who came from Toronto to attend a graduation ceremony for radiologists and oncologists. His mind had told him he was not going to catch the germs. He was wrong. His mind told him it would not be severe when he caught it. He was also wrong. His mind told him he would not need to see a doctor. He was wrong again, although a tele-health consult wasn’t exactly ‘seeing’ the doctor. His mind told him he would not need any antibiotics. He told his doctor that and surprisingly, she agreed with him. “If that is what you want,” she said.
Despite feeling poorly, he had been practising hard for the upcoming concert with his local orchestra. It was exactly eight weeks ago when he joined the orchestra as a tutti player in the second violins. In that time, he had been secretly pleased with his progress. The concert programme, two hours in duration with the usual interval, would be worthy of a professional orchestra. “I could have been a musician,” he told me. Had he picked Vienna instead of Adelaide when he was 19, he would be a professional violinist today. “Why do you think that?” I asked. Maybe he has no idea how competitive and demanding the classical music industry is. So, he told me his story. When he picked up his violin eight weeks ago to learn the music for the concert, he could hardly play any of the notes. The changes in key signatures, the frequent variations in tempo and the fast passages were all too daunting for him. “I almost gave up, ” he confided. “I had to ask what tutti con sordini means!” So, he used the power of his mind to convince himself he would be ready for the concert. “And it is working,” he said. “Now, I can run through the semi-quavers without fear,” he added. But, I knew he was lying. I heard him practise just the other night. He did breeze through the fast passages nicely three times consecutively but when I asked him to do it one more time, “but imagine you’re playing in the concert now,” he faltered. His weak mind failed him.
The old man was born in Malaysia. Naturally, when the country reached an impasse with a result that did not produce a majority win for any of the political parties earlier this week, he was upset by the knowledge that the ex-PM who called for the early election but failed to win his own seat would remain as the caretaker PM whilst the King sorted out the mess. “So, Malaysia now has an unelected guy as their caretaker PM after the people have voted. This is not democracy,” he said. It’s so demonic he coined the word demoncracy.
“The people have voted. When there’s a stalemate with no party attaining a simple majority, the King gets to do his job,” a friend said.
“This is where it’s so wrong. Even you buy this crap, bro. The Agong doesn’t get to decide. The people do, in a democracy. The people have already decided. The party that has the highest vote can choose to form a minority government,” the old man replied.
“When in Rome, do what the Romans do. Australia may have a different system than ours which is designed after Westminster. The stalemate of not having a simple majority is unprecedented for Malaysia.
Further, our Constitution which is the highest form of law in Malaysia has defined the rules upfront. To me, there’s nothing wrong with applying due process of the rule of law. So, please, have some respect for our Constitution,” his friend said.
Instead of biting his tongue and sealing his lips, the old man continued with the discussion about what he thought was relevant given the circumstances the people were faced with.
“What does the Malaysian Constitution say? I do not think it specifically covers minority governments but that in itself does not mean minority governments are not allowed. Even the UK had minority governments before. Australia’s system is also a hand-me-down from the same colonial master; we are famous for our hung parliaments,” the old man said. Troubled by the fact that his good friend had found him disrespectful, he asked his friend to show him the clause in the Constitution that says the King must decide on which party can form a majority government, believing that nothing in the Constitution expressly excludes the formation of a minority government. A minority government can still govern as long as it has the support of the majority of the House.
Another friend advised the old man not to be angry. “I know you know a lot but you don’t know all. If I were you, I would live happily in Australia and enjoy playing your violin….. Please don’t get angry, we should be more concerned with how best to carry on living.”
The old man, surprised by that, replied, “I am not angry at all. I try to be stoic and Stoics do not get emotional so easily. I was merely engaging in discussing current affairs that are important to Malaysia but I was disturbed that an old friend would find me disrespectful of the Malaysian Constitution. At what point did I become disrespectful?”
Knowing that he had inadvertently upset a close friend, the old man was quick to apologise. “Sorry, I am wrong to misunderstand you. You said the King gets to do his job. You didn’t say he gets to decide who will be PM. Ascertaining numbers and then appointing the PM is not deciding per se because I like to believe that voters decide the outcome in a democracy. Not a single individual, not even the monarch.”
The old man looked fatigued and withdrawn. But, there would be no self-pity, although there was a moment when he looked too self-absorbed to listen to my advice. I comforted him by reminding him he always knew himself to be annoying, and “when you annoy people, what do you expect to get?” I asked. His silence emboldened me. So, I asked again.
“What do you expect, my friend? Was it not you who told me even your wife found you annoying that you can’t kill a garden snail?”
“A snail is harmless. It doesn’t kill a living thing,” his brain scrambled to justify himself.
“You may think you have no hurtful or harmful intent, but you’re useless to her when you won’t even protect the veggies in the garden!” I said, revealing my bias that even I found that annoying.
“When I was younger, I would not even dream of apologising if I felt I had done or said nothing wrong. Today, I am often the first (the quickest) to apologise. It does not matter if I believe I have done or said nothing wrong, but the fact remains that the other party is aggrieved. That alone deserves an apology,” the old man said.
“True, I suppose,” I said, finally finding a reason for a truce.
The old man continued. “I used to rationalise that we can’t control how others think or feel, if they are upset by an innocent remark, one made without any ill intentions, then so be it. But, as I grew older, I just did not want to lose any more friends or make new enemies. Peace is what I seek.”
“I hope you won’t lose this friend,” I said. “He will find it in his heart to forgive you. You guys go all the way back to 1965!”
We are like pellets of incense falling on the same altar.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.15
We are all the same, living in this world for only a very short time. Some may be taller or shorter, richer or poorer, younger or older, faster or slower, stronger or weaker. None of it matters. Measuring against one another is not only foolish, it is toxic and a waste of time. Like pellets of incense, some will fall sooner than others but we will all duly fall and turn to dust. As insignificant as dust but as equal and no different as one another.