Some remarks about the Vǫluspá

In my previous post I made a casual mention of Tolkien. Those of us familiar with Anglo-Saxon get a slight kick out of watching The Two Towers—when Bernard Hill and Ian McKellen do the funeral scene (the long cut, not the theatrical release), we can make sense of the dialogue without looking at the subtitles. “Wæs þu Þeodred hæl” etc.

Here then, for those unfamiliar with Icelandic but know the Hobbit well, are stanzas 10 to 13 of the Vǫluspá. The text I reproduce here is from my copy of Neckel’s 1936 Heidelberg edition of the Codex Regius MS. There are better editions but I like this one. That said, I have put in brackets some modern spellings where they might alter meanings but for our purpose here it doesn’t really matter.

10. Þar var Mótsognir    mætstr um orðinn
dverga allra,     en Durinn annarr;
þeir manlíkon [mannlíkun]    mǫrg um gørbo [gerðu]
dvergar ór iǫrðo [í jörðu],    sem Durinn sagði.

11. Nýi ok Niði,     Norðri ok Suðri,
Austri ok Vestri,    Alþiófr, Dvalinn,
Bifurr, Bǫfurr,    Bǫmburr, Nóri
Ánn ok Ánarr,    Ái [Óinn], Miǫðvitnir.

12. Veigr [Veggr] ok Gandálfr,    Vindálfr, Þorinn [Þráinn],
Þekkr [Þrár] ok  Þorinn [Þráinn],    Þror [Þekkr], Litr ok Vitr,
Nár [Nýr] ok Nýráðr —    nú hefi ek dverga
— Reginn ok Ráðsviðr —    rétt um talða.

13. Fíli, Kíli,    Fundinn, Náli,
Hepti, Víli,    Hanarr, Svíurr,
Frár, Hornbori,    Frægr ok Lóni,
Aurvangr, Iari,    Eikinskjaldi.

Doesn’t matter if you don’t understand it. It’s a list of names—of dwarves specifically (“dverga”). See anything familiar?


Dvalinn (Dwalin)

Bifurr, Bǫfurr, Bǫmburr, (Bombur is the fat one)

Nóri, Óinn (in new editions)

Gandálfr (Aha! means, in my view “elf with staff of Power” from gandr (-s, -ar), m. magic staff; renna göndum, to ride a witch-ride.—this is from Zoega’s dictionary; but I have also seen “grey-elf” (Grándálfr) in some editions—maybe a bit of wishful thinking on the part of the editors.)

Þorinn (pronounced Thorin)

Þráinn (Thrain)

Fíli, Kíli,

Fundinn, (father of Balin, as I recall, the Lord of Moria)

and finally,

Eikinskjaldi. Oakenshield.


There you go.


Divided loyalties

When I was at University I could never decide which I liked better, Anglo-Saxon (the language, that is, also called Old English), or Old Icelandic (also called Old Norse). On reflection I know that I enjoyed Old Icelandic more primarily because of my tutor, Dr John S. Martin, who would tell all manner of interesting stories. You can learn a little of him from his obit, presented together with that of the late violinist Nelli Shkolnikova, here.

What the obit doesn’t say is that during his travels he learnt a thing or two from Sigurður Nordal and that he studied some of the Irish language under, well, Éamon de Valera near the end of Dev’s life. Is it all true? Dr Martin has been described as a ‘raconteur’, and he certainly was that, but he wasn’t particularly known for drawing a long bow and I doubt he would have bamboozled those in statu pupillari. He had been knighted by the King of Sweden in 1988 (Order of the Polar Star) and had the appearance—when I knew him—of a retired Viking.

“Don’t worry about what it means,” he would say about a difficult section of text. “Let it flow through your veins. The meaning will come soon enough.” He said it often enough that it has become my motto when dealing with any language I am trying to learn, as well as my advice to anyone (actors, for example) struggling with things like Elizabethan English or Beckett.

He insisted on teaching us the modern Icelandic pronunciation so that when we should one day return ‘home’ to that beautiful island, we would be understood even if our vocabulary was distinctly mediaeval. And I do consider Iceland home.

Down the yellow-brick road about half a mile was the English Department where my tutor held seminars that were entirely a different kettle of fish. Dr Muir, rather well known now for his edition of the Exeter Book, ran a seminar that was more aligned to the new school of scholarship. More linguistics than philology, science than art—at least, that’s the kind of student the seminar seemed to attract, or so it seemed to me: Hot bespectacled auburn-haired girls who had forgotten more about palaeography than I would ever know; bearded earnest gentlemen investigating the implications of u-mutation; literary theorists from another part of the Department looking to write their theses on Foucauldian readings (this was the early ’90s) of the Domesday Book—that kind of thing.

They were all very serious people. I, on the other hand, would be seriously hungover and would occasionally improvise juvenile translations to piss them off—but the joke would always fall flat and I would end up with egg on my face. Honi soit qui mal y pense: Honey I have a headache—different language, but I trust you get what I mean.

On another occasion, “clearly, the Beowulf-author has lifted from Tolkien! Shame!” And so forth.

Withering glare from bespectacled hot redhead.

May Day Malaysia 2013

All Malaysians have the democratic right to cast a vote but this has no meaning if it is divorced from the responsibility of holding ourselves accountable for that choice in the subsequent parliamentary and state legislative term.

But we are not in the habit of demanding information from our representatives or compelling them to put forward what we believe to be the national interest in Federal and state policy during the term. Instead we prefer to be led by the politicians. We seem to need them to tell us what to think, and we choose manifestos the same way we choose toothpaste. There are some who have told me that election manifestos and policies are the same thing. All I can say is that the standards I set for policy seem to be higher than theirs.

We don’t expect our representatives to cross the floor for reasons of conscience when voting on individual Bills. The Dewan Rakyat tends to divide only on money Bills, and even then the vote is taken by a rudimentary count of those sitting on the opposing benches—MPs are assumed to toe their respective party lines on every matter.

This does not deny that the Opposition can vote with the Government from time to time, as happened with the Constitution (Amendment) Bill 1983, but of the 40 Bills that passed in the Dewan Rakyat last year can we as a nation profess familiarity any more than (say) five?

Maybe five is pushing it. Some of us might have heard of the Evidence (Amendment) Bill (No. 2) 2012, which added the infamous s. 114A to the Evidence Act 1950, but how many were aware of it prior to its passage on April 18, 2012? How many were aware that cogent arguments were made that day by M. Manogaran (DAP-Teluk Intan), Azan Ismail (PKR-Indera Mahkota), and Gobind Singh Deo (DAP-Puchong) against the Bill’s provisions for the presumption of fact in publication? Read the Hansard report yourself if you like. The debate on the Second Reading runs from pp. 2-82.

What about the other 39 Bills that went through the House? What about state enactments?

An argument has been doing the rounds that goes like this: If you can’t be bothered taking an interest in voting, then don’t complain when politicians shaft you later. This is one of the daftest things I’ve heard. If you wish to vote, by all means do so. You have a right to it, just as you have a right to spoil your vote or (under our law) to withhold it. It really doesn’t matter a damn either way if you don’t take an interest in what the politicians do after they’ve been voted into office—and the higher the office, the greater the burden.

To argue the former without the latter is to argue that one’s democratic rights and responsibilities consist in and are limited to the single act of casting a vote every five years.

This is a patent absurdity.

We aren’t choosing between a panacea and a painful death, but this is what we’ve reduced the argument to. Likewise, we reduce the argument for things like the minimum wage to what the middle-class can afford. It is as if the national interest is simply middle-class interests writ large.

I am a left-wing conservative. I happen to think that the nation has a universal obligation to all who reside within its borders and that this obligation includes (for example) the same minimum wage and benefits for all workers, foreign and domestic. I hold this view in common with the Socialist Party, at least in principle, but this is not represented in any of the other parties vying for supremacy in the polls this Sunday.

Enjoy your May Day holiday. If you have domestic help in your employ, I’m sure they can look after your brats, cook, clean, wash your cars, etc. while you sip your latte and waffle endlessly about how oppressed you are and how it is time to change things.

Economy with the truth

UPDATE [10 Dec 2012, 2203]  Syopz has issued a statement  to the effect that “It is most regrettable that despite the presence of extensive Emergency Response Procedures at Syopz Mall, individual apathy towards a fellow human being in distress resulted in the non-compliance of health and safety measures in that moment of need.”

“Despite the presence of extensive Emergency Response Procedures”? And these “extensive” Emergency Response Procedures failed to detect a stroke for four hours? And they shift the blame to “individual apathy”? So much for your Emergency Response Procedures. Or does the blame lie with the contrite employer who has suddenly coughed up wads of cash? In any case they have repatriated her without informing the institution that, well, apparently does not own them anyway.

And finally they state: “The Management of Syopz Mall would like to record our apologies to Taylors University for having been wrongly assumed as the responsible party of this unfortunate incident.” So I shall assume that your Assistant Manager – Events & Promotions will not be employed by the Taylor’s Education Group and that the Jobstreet advertisement is a fraud.

Original post

I have read the report of Juana Jaafar (who, in the interests of disclosure, is my friend) relating to the incident at Taylor’s University on Dec 1. I have also read Taylor’s denial of responsibility and the hand-wringing displayed by at least one senior member of the Taylor’s Education Group, Chief Marketing Officer Lydia Wang, whom incidentally Yahoo! has reported thus: “Wang, however, could not provide an update on the condition of the Indonesian worker.’They (mall management) will be getting back to us,’ she said.”

Is it too much to ask that the University or its parent Group should enquire into the health of the woman involved?

With regard to the denial of ownership of the property in question (for the purposes of determining legal liability), I wish to know what the Taylor’s Education Group makes of it’s own Jobstreet advertisement for a management position at the property in question (Syopz Mall), which I reproduce below in two pages (I apologise for the midline truncation).

Unless Taylor’s University and/or Taylor’s Education Group proves that it is the agent of the Syopz Mall and not in fact its owner, I contend that:

a) the University and/or Taylor’s Education Group has misrepresented itself with regard to its ownership of the “Commercial Building” in question.

b) the University and/or Taylor’s Education Group has attempted to deflect responsibility to an organisation (Syopz Mall), which it purports to be a separate “privately owned commercial entity adjacent to Taylor’s University”, unconnected with the University, but which does in fact come within the management of Taylor’s University Lakeside Campus and the putative ownership of TEG Assets Management Sdn Bhd, as appears in the advertisement below.

c) the University and/or Taylor’s Education Group has, in bad faith, misdirected the public as to the nature of its liability, particularly in the claim “We have officially raised our concern and disappointment to the Management of Syopz Mall on this issue, and they have assured us that they will address this matter seriously and with utmost importance” without reference to its position of ownership of or mutual membership with Syopz Mall within the same corporate group.

d) the University has insulted my intelligence by trotting out its “Core Values”, such that “we believe in respecting and caring for each other regardless of nationality, religion and cultural differences. We certainly do not condone such acts of neglect. We are utterly dismayed by the lack of humanitarian action on the part of the community who were present during the unfortunate incident.”

Under these circumstances I believe that the University or its apparent owner Taylor’s Education Group has a public obligation at least to determine the current condition of the employee in question, and her course of treatment and prognosis, beyond the excuse that “they will get back to us”. I trust I do not have to point out that if the University has a duty of care to this employee, and has failed in this duty, what the implications will be for other employees, students and the general public who have the misfortune of setting foot in what appears to be 27-acre legal disclaimer.


Letter to Malaysiakini 13 September 2012, re: “neutrality”


I read with interest the two opposing views on the topic of “political neutrality”, respectively by Josh Hong and Cmdr (R) S. Thayaparan RMN.

I wish to ask Mr Hong to explain if he has arrived at the conclusion that anyone demanding social movements to be free from party political partisanship should necessarily be following the “BN script”, making them “plain stupid, or shrouded in his or her own elitist bigotry.”

It is unclear to me if he means that there are at least some “neutral” people who do not follow the Barisan Nasional script but if, as he recommends, one must “be cautious enough to not condemn blind loyalty to the opposition to the extent that existing abuses, transgressions and excesses by the powers-that-be are overlooked or made to seem as secondary”, then we must be fair and also apply this standard of caution uniformly to any consideration of public importance; and this will have to include the Barisan Nasional as well as the many political, social, environmental, gender, religious and rights-based initiatives that we have the privilege of enjoying today.

I should have thought it our duty as citizens to condemn outright and without reservation blind loyalty (or hatred) of any kind to any cause, however just, precisely because it is blind. That existing abuses should be overlooked is also, I should have thought, a result of the same blindness. I believe we are obliged to hold both the Barisan Nasional and the Pakatan Rakyat accountable for their actions past and present, as well as for their future intentions, but we can do neither if we will not first hold ourselves accountable as citizens.

In this, I believe Cmdr Thayaparan asks rightly that we should make our decisions with our eyes open and that the alternative media (for example) “has become one big echo chamber dealing mostly in the confirmation of bias, which is fine, but the problem is that any dissent or opposing voice is silenced when what the Umno years have demonstrated is that blind and selfish unquestioning allegiance to a political party is what got us into this mess in the first place.”

To support the Pakatan Rakyat to the extent of deliberately overlooking its faults, whatever they may be—in Mr Hong’s words, “PAS’ theocratic agenda or Anwar Ibrahim’s chameleon character [or] the way Lim Guan Eng conducts himself”—is to commit the same error that has kept this country in the thrall of political cults for so long.

If a politician wants my loyalty, he or she will have to earn it. To demand it merely because the other side offers a worse prospect for myself is to reduce the practice of our so-called democracy to the level of the kindergarten playground: give me your pocket money because the other fellow will take your money and beat you senseless whereas you don’t know me and I am obviously asking nicely. This is not, to be clear, what I suggest the Pakatan Rakyat is doing. It is, however, the kind of servile complaisance I believe Mr Hong demands of us.

I must also disagree with both Mr Hong and Cmdr Thayaparan in the way they define political neutrality, which they seem to equate with political apathy. Cmdr Thayaparan puts a shot across the bow of any who would advocate remaining “neutral on a moving train”, but what of the poor fool who demands that both the Barisan Nasional and the Pakatan Rakyat account for themselves and, finding both wanting, decides actively against supporting either?

There is nothing neutral in this action. It is certainly the position I have chosen for myself and, while I admit to being an elitist bigot, this has been the position I have abided by consistently to my own professional detriment regardless of whether a Pakatan politician or a known Mahathirist has played a part in my downfall.

Yours faithfully,

U-En Ng

Славься, Отечество наше свободное

I was about four years old when I discovered an old encyclopaedia-cum-atlas belonging to my grand-uncle, which together with a battered copy of the Chambers dictionary was all that survived him after he was killed in the Second World War.

I was intrigued by all the pink bits in the atlas and so my father taught me to read it. The first country-name I learnt to say properly was “Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics”. I learnt this before I learnt the names of the states of my own country, Malaysia.

It was 1979. This was the era of Brezhnev. Important events that year included the Iranian Revolution, Maggie Thatcher becoming PM, the Baader-Meinhof Group’s assassination attempt on Alexander Haig, the IRA’s assassination of Louis Mountbatten, and the debut of the first Star Trek movie at the Smithsonian. I got this from Wikipedia.

Together with the lesson in geography, my father told me about the Domino Theory, nuclear weapons, and the zero-sum game. I was four at the time. All I thought about thereafter was the constant possibility of utter nuclear destruction, how it might be achieved, and how it had so far been prevented. I learnt my first romanised Russian—Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti—before I learnt Malay. I learnt about the Central Intelligence Agency and our own Special Branch before my multiplication tables.

The lesson my father wished to impart was that our home lay fewer than 2,000 miles from a major Soviet satellite (Vietnam), that the Malayan Communist Party was still on active patrol in the jungle, and that our country would inevitably become little more than a diplomatic pawn in a superpower game of blindfolded chess. At worst, we might become the site of a nasty proxy war. Unless our people did something about it.

The only thing that lay between us and utter destruction was our pursuit of our national interest. This, for the moment, meant our membership in, and leadership of, things like the Non-Aligned Movement and the Association of South-East Asian Nations. Domestically, we expressed the same in things like our national airline (built despite a deck stacked against us), our merchant navy, and so on. Above all we had an enemy that posed a threat greater to us than our own collective petty differences.

We learnt to live with it. In many ways we thrived under it if only because it prevented the Malays and Chinese from slitting each other’s and everyone else’s throats. The question was survival and the fact of our survival as a mostly independent state was a matter of some pride.

We packed off the best of our people to study abroad or else they had the benefit of a colonial education. Those that went away came back to us. Cambridge, Oxford, Edinburgh, Kirkby, Brinsford Lodge, Sandhurst, Dartmouth, the Antipodes. Not as toffee-nosed weasels or complaisant politicians in bespoke suits but as people with backbones who hid iron fists in velvet gloves and did things in the national interest.

Today, we have no idea what the national interest is. What we have is a dominant middle class which sole reality, like the mythical Juju-bird, involves putting its head up its arse. We have both “friends” and “enemies” that change with the rapidity of Twitter-feed updates. We sneer at the very idea of “national”: the flag, the national car, the railway service, and so on. We have no conception of what our foreign policy is, otherwise we’d sneer at that too.

There is good reason to sneer. Bureaucratic rubbish and misguided political policy has cheapened or prostituted every one of these. The upshot is that the middle class is united above all in one way only: its inability to believe in a damned thing beyond itself.

It sneers at the new “Nons”. The Non-Us. The poor. The rich. The conservative. The wrong type of pious. The dispossessed. The foreign.

The poor are so uneducated that they keep voting in their oppressors. The rich are in bed with the oppressors and besides, all their money is really mine what with the taxes and monopolies (what a damned Bolshie idea). The conservatives hate gays. The wrong type of pious hate everyone. The dispossessed smell funny. The foreign can’t seem to do simple tasks no matter how many times I beat them and hamahgahd they still want a day off each month. What cheek.

What have we become?

We predicate particular desires onto general needs. We equate the Universal Good with whatever particular Want comes into our heads. We equate single days of protest with “moral-political action” on the scale of the Everlasting Cosmic Orgasm. We are liberal/homosexual/socialist/nationalist/Islamist/Christian without fear and if you don’t like it you can get the f. out of Malaysia. Only our interests matter because we know best. In the same vein, we grant that middle class desires are what our country should aspire to (political change, social reform, accountability, transparency, etc. etc.).

What we really are is a nation of losers.

We demand cheap flights and excellent service because The People deserve it. We demand LGBT rights of recognition under the law because The People deserve it. We demand cheap housing, high salaries, easier access to underpaid labour, whatever the hell we think of, because We the Right-Thinking People deserve it. “Vote Wisely” we like to say. What the blazes does that mean?

We demand everything because we deserve it. We demand not a damned thing because it is in the national interest. We care not at all to step outside ourselves just for a moment regardless of all that hypocritical nonsense we like to spout.

Before you Vote Wisely, pay your domestic helper the wage you would demand to do the same job.

The Cold War was a terrible time. But I knew who our enemies were. And I knew who we were. And we brooked no slavery either to the West or the USSR. Or to anyone.

(Letter to The Star, 15 June)

I refer to Tunku Abidin Muhriz’ piece “Concept that still appeals” (15 June).

In hoping that “the historic flavours and identities of our sultanates and states would be reinvigorated by the unprecedented scenario of different political parties […] having to compete to show their effectiveness,” does Does Tunku Abidin mean to say that Federal power should ideally devolve to, and be concentrated in, the hands of the Malay Rulers?

I note that he does not ask if there should be a reinstatement of local government elections, and that he chooses instead to relate two concerns stemming from his organisation’s research, to wit, firstly, that “having too many elected politicians at different levels of government might make it confusing for citizens (and elected representatives themselves) unused to the notion of powers being separated across different levels.”

What are we to make of this? Does he think that power should be concentrated in a particular estate, or any single estate at all? Is the average Malaysian too immature for democratic participation at all three levels of government that one should cast one’s eyes at a more traditional and absolute form of government?

Tunku Abidin then reports ”decentralised corruption” as the second concern, but does this not beg the question of whether “decentralised accountability” should be entirely absent from the considerations of the Rakyat in this matter?

In the context of Tricia Yeoh, the author whose book he was reviewing, I should like to ask on behalf of your readers if she would agree that her argument in any way favours the reinvigoration of the sultanates by way of “political competition amongst commoners”, and if this should be a positive result of her view of decentralisation.

While it seems to me increasingly fashionable that “civil society” should defer to, and even demand, monarchical activism and intervention as a means of solving political problems that are entirely the creation (and thus the responsibility) of the Rakyat, I beg to remind readers that we founded our country on wholly different principles. We are all—monarchs and commoners—bound to the Federal Constitution.

Unless I am mistaken, the spirit of our Constitution compels each of us to bear individual responsibility for our actions and intentions and not to seek solution in another.

Tunku Abidin also writes that, “it is heartening to see the political class finally re-engaging with an issue that has been championed by the Malay Rulers consistently for ages: from the objection of the Rulers […] to ever-increasing centralisation, to the coming together of the Rulers and their people in rejecting the underhanded Malayan Union.”

I beg to remind Tunku Abidin that all nine Rulers signed the MacMichael Treaties establishing the Malayan Union without reference to the Rakyat, and that it was UMNO under the leadership of Dato’ Sir Onn Jaafar that agitated and thereafter delivered them the ultimatum, as related by Harry Miller (the biographer of Tunku Abdul Rahman), that: “If the Rulers insisted on meeting the Governor [Sir Edward Gent] they would be disowned by the people, who were determined to boycott the Malayan Union.”

Yours faithfully,
U-En Ng
Kuala Lumpur