Cinemas And Spas Are Open Again! Theme Parks to Follow On July 4

Hey guys!

We’ve officially entered the second half of the year. I don’t know about you, but I think the first half of the year was shite. Bushfires in Australia, COVID, social unrest in the States… I wouldn’t be surprised if an alien invasion is next on the agenda lol.

Malaysia has not gone unscathed. The economy has taken a hit, businesses have closed and people have lost their jobs. The one good thing is that we seem to have controlled the spread of the virus for now. By and large, the government’s measures have proven effective, and although we had over 8,000 confirmed cases, mortality was relatively low (121 deaths).

In the middle of June, the government announced that the country is entering a ‘Recovery’ phase. Since then, almost all sectors have returned to full capacity (but this means the traffic jams are back too, boooo). Non-essential services such as spas and cinemas have also reopened on July 1, and theme parks will resume operations on July 4.

Some of these businesses are also implementing safety measures to minimise the risk of transmission, which I laud. For example, Sunway Lagoon, one of Malaysia’s premiere theme parks, will only be allowing a 50 percent guest capacity for better crowd control. There will also be adequate distancing on rides and regular sanitisation of surfaces.

 

Cinemas are finally open to cater to another favourite Malaysian past time – watching movies.

While it’s great to hear that businesses are back on track (since this means the economy can recover!), I think it’s important to remember that COVID isn’t going away anytime soon, and we must stay vigilant. We certainly don’t want a theme park or cinema cluster. I know people (myself included) tend to have a tendency to return to old habits, but we must all adapt to a new way of life – one that includes things like being aware of social distancing and maintaining high standards of hygiene. At the end of the day, if you are still worried about going out for non-essential services such as shopping / entertainment, there’s always the option of staying home. 🙂

 

The Wonders of Technology

Back when I was a student in the UK (this was in 2012 – feels like a lifetime ago, lol), I remember walking into a Sainsbury and seeing self-checkout counters for the first time. I was absolutely mindblown. “Whoever invented this is a freaking genius,” I thought in glee, as I scanned my items, bagged them, paid with my debit and left the store, without so much as a hello to another human. This, my introverted self thought, was the pinnacle of technology. 

Fast forward eight years later, and this tech is finally picking up in Malaysia, as people opt for cashless, contactless transactions (accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic). Digitalisation has been on the country’s agenda for some time now, and while we’ve been slower to adopt it compared to countries in the West, or places like Singapore and China things are slowly but surely changing. Menus at restaurants are digital: you scan a QR code on your mobile, and order through the intranet. Delivery apps make it convenient to have food delivered right to your doorstep. You go to the movies, you order your tickets through a touch screen and pay through cards or mobile wallets. At airports, you check-in on a machine, get your baggage tags printed out and attach them on your own before sending them to the conveyor, without having to deal with the airport staff.

But technology is changing at such a rapid pace that it can be intimidating, even for millennials like me who are quite comfortable around machines and the digital space. I was at an autopay machine today and spent a good minute looking for an opening to insert my parking card – before realising that the instructions were to ‘scan the barcode’, and to pay via debit card. In time, I’m sure all of the machines will be replaced with this new mode of payment, and cash will be obsolete.

When I go out with my parents, they usually rely on me (because my brother is an airhead) to figure out anything to do with tech. My dad is good with gadgets, but my mom isn’t very literate in technology. She uses her phone to surf the net but does not know the difference between a Facebook account and a Facebook page. We were chatting earlier about Youtube, and I was explaining to her about subscriptions and the concept of ‘going live’. “Oooh,” she said, nodding after my third explanation. “I see. But I’ll probably forget it in a couple of hours.”

When we went to Yogyakarta a couple of years ago, AirAsia had just implemented a new contactless check-in system at KLIA2, and my mom was absolutely lost. She simply could not wrap her head around the fact that she now had to deal with a machine rather than a human. “You do it,” she said. “I’m not good with these things”. Leaving me to lug our suitcases alone to the self-check-in counter, tag them and send them on their merry way to the conveyor belt.

“What would you do if you’re travelling without me?” I asked half-jokingly, to which she replied in the utmost seriousness, “I wouldn’t be travelling. I’d be lost.

It’s a little sad whenever I hear these things as it conveys a sense of helplessness; not just from my mom, but from some people from the older generation (this does not include aunties who spread gossip and unverified info via Whatsapp – those people are experts) when it comes to adapting to the rapid technological changes that are being implemented in our everyday lives. It feels as if rather than providing convenience, tech limits some people from doing things, like the aforementioned travel. With my mom, there is also a certain degree of resistance – like how she still refuses to open an online bank account lol.

But then again, there’s one thing she has taken to like a fish to water: Online shopping. I currently have five or six orders pending on the Lazada account, from water bottles to cutlery and home decor items.

Maybe it’s all about the incentives? 

 

 

The ‘Death’ of the Physical Bookstore? – MPH to Close Multiple Outlets Across Malaysia

While the company has yet to make an official announcement, local bookstore chain MPH seems set to shutter multiple outlets this weekend (June 6, 2020). Netizens have posted photos of clearing out sales and empty shelves in several locations, including MyTOWN Cheras, JB City Square, Kinta City and MYdin MITC Melaka. More are expected to follow suit in the coming weeks.

MPH book store in Alamanda Putrajaya. Photo by Khairul hazim / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

MPH (an acronym for Methodist Publishing House – but this was later changed to ‘Malaysian’ Publishing House) has roots in Singapore, but became a wholly Malaysian-owned company in 2002. At its peak, it had over 29 stores in Malaysia and Singapore.

The current global pandemic is a difficult time for many businesses, including publishing – and we can expect the impacts to stretch into the near future. With less foot traffic and the convenience of online shopping, mome companies are going digital to stay relevant – and this seems to be what MPH is doing. In a statement provided to local news portal SAYS, the MPH group says it is upscaling to a more digital-centric model; hence the closure of non-performing retail outlets and the consolidation of resources. The pandemic may simply have accelerated this change.

For some time now, MPH, as well as some bookstore chains such as Times and Borders, have been struggling to keep afloat. In 2018, MPH closed down their OneUtama outlet, while Borders and Times shuttered their Penang and Citta Mall outlets, respectively. But you know what the surprising thing is? Malaysians are actually quite an avid book-buying bunch (according to this report by Picodi). Why then, is business bad? Is it really because more people are buying e-books, and physical stores are no longer relevant?

This is my perspective as a consumer. 

I spent a lot of time at MPH as a teenager – my mom would ‘drop’ me off for a few hours so I could read books while she went shopping, and I’ve always enjoyed their offerings. But over the years, I find myself frequenting their stores less and less – because I did not find it appealing anymore.

There are several bookstore chains in Malaysia, including MPH and the aforementioned Times and Borders. Borders did pretty well in the early to mid-2000s and expanded quickly, but it too suffered a gradual decline and is now left with only a few stores. But even so, you can’t say that there isn’t a market for books, because brands like Popular, Kinokuniya and Book XCess, are still doing pretty well. Why?

While Popular isn’t my favourite bookstore, I can see the appeal: they offer a vast selection of everything from academic books to fiction and non-fiction in all of Malaysia’s major languages (Malay, English and Chinese). Prices are fairly reasonable, and they have a presence in many malls, making Popular the go-to for the everyday Malaysian. Kinokuniya, a Japanese brand, is on the slightly higher end of the spectrum. This is where you go to if you want to look for more obscure or rarer titles and expensive volumes, or books imported from overseas.

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Finally, Book XCess (above) retails new books that were printed in excess by their publishers –  which is why they’re able to offer them at a much cheaper price. While most of the titles aren’t new, an average book sold at BookXCess costs 1/3 or 1/2 cheaper than regular bookstores. Store experience is another tenet that sets Book XCess apart – they are often cool places to hang out at,  making them a lifestyle destination. (blog post about their branch at Cyberjaya hereAnd then, of course, you have the independent bookstores which cater to a very niche audience, like Tintabudi, Fixi, Silverfish and LitBooks.

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(Photo) Tintabudi at the Zhongshan Building, Kuala Lumpur. 

When you talk about MPH, Borders and Times, however (and this is my personal opinion so I understand that some might not agree), I cannot name anything particularly special. They’re not cheaper, nor do they offer a better variety, nor do they have a particularly outstanding store or customer experience. Perhaps in the early days of the 2000s, they were popular (see what I did there lol), but since then, other brands have taken over (at least in terms of the brick and mortar space) – because MPH has not thought of a way to differentiate themselves from the crowd, and still relies on an old business model that is difficult to sustain (if you’re interested to read more about how the publishing industry works in Malaysia, here’s an insightful article from Eskenstrika). 

I won’t comment too much on the digital side of things, as I rarely buy books online, and unlike with physical stores (where you can see through things like closure/ foot traffic if a business is doing well), I don’t have a gauge as to how well their online book-selling is (although they do claim to be ‘Malaysia’s No.1 online bookstore’). But then again, all of MPH’s competitors are also online, the same brands it finds hard to compete with in the brick and mortar space (Popular, BookXCess, Kino, etc.). So unless their branding and service (delivery, ease of use, customer service) are outstanding, I think the same issues will remain. Of course, if they are going full force into the digital space with innovative solutions and offerings, perhaps they will be able to establish themselves as a leader in that niche (like Bookurve, BookDepository, Amazon).

While E-commerce and digital disruption has certainly forced many businesses to adapt their models to cater to ever-changing consumer demand, this article by CNBC suggests that people are still very much into printed books, and that demand for e-books has tapered off in recent times (due to a complex list of reasons). At the end of the day, I believe physical bookstores will still be here to stay, and that they can still be profitable. Taiwanese book chain Eslite is planning a massive store in Malaysia sometime in 2021, and what company in their right mind would open in a foreign country if the market did not have potential?

 

 

 

 

 

Covid-19 : The Battle for Malaysia

Hey, guys! This is going to be a long post.

We’re coming to the end of the first quarter of 2020. To say that it has been a shitty year so far (for humanity as a whole) is an understatement, with thousands dying around the world, healthcare services overwhelmed, businesses shuttering and people getting laid off (I talked to a friend in Seattle a couple of days ago who told me he had just been let go from his job as a chef). It is extremely sad to read about how families in Italy have had to bury their loved ones without the chance to even say goodbye.

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On the bright side, the earth seems to be healing quite nicely without all the pollution and damage humans inflict on the environment. Although, NatGeo has debunked several viral posts about animals returning to empty cities (like swans swimming in the canals of Venice, as well as elephants in Thailand getting drunk on corn wine) – I understand that sometimes it’s nice to have a ‘feel good’ story to uplift one’s spirits, but spreading false news makes it more difficult to sift through the real ones, and can actually do more harm than good.

Tomorrow (April 1) marks stage 2 of the Restricted Movement Order here in Malaysia, which will run until April 14. The order was initially set to end on March 31, but we all know an extension was inevitable, as two weeks wouldn’t have done much anyway.

Malaysians in general are quite a laid back bunch. I don’t know if it’s a pro or con (perhaps a con in this climate where decisive and swift action should be taken). So for the first week or so, the government kept urging the public to stay at home, and for participants of the tabligh (the prayer session which was attended by thousands at the end of February – which is linked to most of the cases in Malaysia) to come forward voluntarily for testing. Of course, after pleading for two weeks, they’ve finally decided that the time for talk is now over, and have started arresting people who flout the order. Compliance is at 95%, but there is still 5% (which means a whopping 1.5 million) of the population that is not complying. I was out for a grocery run earlier (I’ve only gone out twice so far, both times for perishable goods because those can’t be kept long) and although many shops are closed, I still see quite a lot of traffic on the road.

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For those who follow Malaysian politics, you might be aware of the political shenanigans that went down just before the COVID-19 blew up here. Literal GoT. Long story short, there was a power struggle between different political parties, switched alliances –  and the party that was voted democratically by the people lost their majority due to ‘frogs’ leaping to form other parties.

All eyes are on current Prime Minister Muhiyiddin, to see what this leader whom we did not elect will do in times of crisis. While I’m not an economic expert, nor do I understand the intricacies of how an economy works, I don’t begrudge that there have been policies in place to help households, which are, all things considered, quite generous. (Where they’re going to get that money I don’t know, since they’re always talking about how empty our coffers are. Borrowing? More debt?)

The Malaysian population is divided into three sections based on income – Bottom 40 (B40), Middle 40 (M40) and Top 20 (T20). The most vulnerable group in times of crisis is, of course, the B40. I’ve detailed in a previous post how difficult it is to survive on RM2,000 if you’re staying in KL where the cost of living is high (the official national poverty line is RM980), and with some places offering barely the minimum wage (I once saw an ad hiring waiters in Puchong for just over RM1k wtf), those who fall into this category are now most vulnerable. With businesses shuttered, they are not able to work. What more those who survive on a daily wage (hawkers, etc.)

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The government’s move to help this group out is to offer financial aid in the form of cash hand outs, to help them tide over this period.

  • Singles earning RM2,000 and below – RM800 cash aid. (RM500 in April, RM300 in May). Includes single senior citizens.
  • Families with joint income below RM4,000 – RM1,600 cash aid. (RM1,000 in April, RM600 in May).

We have a large middle-class population, and SMEs are a huge part of the economy. N once said he was surprised to find the number of bustling mid-tier businesses in Malaysia, which is apparently not as common in the Philippines, where he is from. The M40 is the larger driver of the economy, so there are also initiatives to help them out:

  • Singles earning between RM2,000 and RM4,000 – RM500 cash aid (RM250 in April, Rm250 in May)
  • Families with joint income between RM4,000 – RM8,000 – RM 1,000 cash aid (RM500 in April, RM500 in May)
  • Deferment of loans from banks for six months, although interest rates still apply

To help SMEs and businesses, as well as try to prevent lay-offs, the government is also providing a subsidised wage of RM600 for three months for employees earning less than RM4,000 and employers who have experienced a 50% decrease in income since January 2020. However, this is provided they do not dismiss the employees or force them to take unpaid leave for three months. They are also not allowed to deduct an employee’s existing pay.

All in all, the government has announced a whopping RM250 billion economic stimulus package – some of which will be channeled into the aforementioned handouts, others in other sectors. I can’t fault it because it is quite a generous plan, but how it will be in the long run, nobody knows.

The biggest problem is perhaps reaching out to everyone – obviously some groups will fall through the cracks. Rather than relying on the government, some private corporations and companies have stepped in to fill the gaps. Lazada Malaysia, for example, has stepped in to do deliveries for fresh vegetables from Cameron Highlands (our main source of veggies), because the RMO meant problems with logistics and tonnes of veggies were just left to rot. There are also 3-D printing companies stepping up to create PPE equipment for front liners at hospitals, as well as various NGOs coming together to distribute food to the vulnerable such as the poor in PPR flats and the homeless. If you are not able to volunteer outside, here’s a list of verified NGOs that you can contribute to here. 

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Image from NST.

I must also commend our Director General of Health, Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah. Datuk Dr Noor Hisham has proven to be a swift, decisive and effective leader who thinks ahead. He has been the face of the fight against COVID 19 since it started, and his calm and efficient manner has earned him praise among the public. He has already put into action plans such as converting the Serdang Expo Park into a temporary hospital, in case beds at hospitals nationwide run out.

COVID cases in Malaysia are expected to peak in mid-April, but even then, the good doctor has already said that this is something that requires cooperation by all – not just the government, but the people. In the meantime, for those of us who are privileged enough to just stay at home/work from home without worrying for the next couple of weeks, please. Be patient, and help by staying at home. Where you can, support local businesses, like ordering delivery from your local hawker stall if they offer it. There are people out there who are struggling to feed themselves. It’s difficult for everyone, but as the saying goes in Malay, berat mata memandang, berat lagi bahu memikul.

Stay safe and healthy, peeps!

What Do You Think Of Disney’s New Mulan Trailer?

So. The trailer for Disney’s live-action Mulan was just released a couple of days ago; and honestly? I have mixed feelings about it.

As a kid, Mulan was one of my favourite Disney heroines. I remember coming home from school and watching it religiously every other week on VHS (Yes, I existed in the era of VHS. lol). Being somewhat of a tomboy myself, I completely related to Mulan’s struggle to conform to what her parents wanted for her, but still stay true to who she was on the inside. She was also one of the few Asian characters in Disney, and I loved everything about the film – the art, the characters (Mushu and Cri-kee’s dynamic), the humour (Mulan’s ragtag gang of soldiers, ie Yao, Chien Pao and Ling) and of course, the music.

Disney has been in the habit of making live action remakes lately, like Beauty and the Beast which played it pretty safe by following the animated film’s storyline, and Aladdin, which screened earlier this year to mixed reviews. Of course, another Disney remake that has gotten a lot of flak lately is the Little Mermaid, after it was announced African-American actress Halle Bailey would play the titular character of Ariel, who has always been portrayed as white with red locks – launching the #NotMyAriel hashtag on Twitter.

Coming back to Mulan, the less-than-two minute trailer seems to indicate that the film would depart significantly from the original animation, with most of the notable characters missing (aforementioned Mushu, Cri-kee, grandma, and Mulan’s team in the army). There is apparently no love interest either, as we don’t see Li Shang.

All accounts considered, the upcoming Mulan seems to more about her own journey, which would fit the feminist element which Hollywood is pushing strong these days with films like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel (I fkin hate that film and nothing you say will dissuade me). While I can’t necessarily say it’s a bad thing until I’ve watched the actual film, if this is how it’s going to be, I can’t help but feel a pang of loss and nostalgia – that Disney would take away so many elements that essentially made the original animation such a well-loved, everlasting classic.

Sure, we all want a strong and confident Mulan who doesn’t need no man, but we also want all the other stuff that made us laugh and relate so much to the 1998 version. Perhaps the argument is that Mulan is based on a Chinese legend, and they want to stay true to the source material, but there are plenty of other films out there that have already covered that angle – like the excellent 2009 Hua Mulan starring Vicki Zhao Wei. I want my Mushu and Cri-kee!

Another argument is that concepts/values in old animations have changed, and in order to showcase diversity and the values of today, they should be updated to reflect the current times (eg how Jasmine ended up ruling Agrabah in Aladdin rather than in the original where she was just a ‘princess’).  The thing is, Mulan has always been a strong, independent and badass character – heck, the Emperor bowed to her after she saved China – and she still had time to go home and bring honour to us all. I find there is little need to change what was essentially a perfect film on its own.

Disney’s need to ‘push diversity’ is a bold move,  but it risks alienating a large group of Disney fans who have waited for years to see their favourite films come to life in live action reenactments, only to find they’ve been changed to the point that they lose their essence. For me, I’d love to see more original Disney films with new and fresh characters promoting diversity (like Moana) – rather than trying to shoehorn stuff into what is supposed to be a ‘remake’.

BTW one of my favourite scenes from the original. Pure, raw, powerful emotions – no dialogue needed.

Also this:

Time to go rewatch the cartoon!