Man at His Best

Oops! You’re welcome

A thousand words on our culture: From aunties to cookies and more, design is ruining the world.

BY kuah jenhan | Mar 21, 2017 | Culture


Like Whack-A-Moles, I’ve made many mistakes and poked my head out where it didn’t belong. Some mistakes, like peeling a stubborn barcode off a book, are small and regretful, and some mistakes, like the universe, continue to expand, and some mistakes, like the value of Pi, I will never hear the end of.

Often, in times of self-doubt and pity, I rewind and play, rewind and play again tapes of these mistakes in my head trying to find out why it had to happen in the first place. For example, years ago, in my attempt to make myself curry-flavoured pasta, I naively confused kaffir lime leaves with curry leaves. In another more complicated time, after disclosing my feelings for a girl, she compared hanging out with me less desirable than time with a drug dealer, and after a spell of miserably coping with self-shaming and hating, I decided to FTS (millennial speak for not care anymore), hated who I was, became a self-proclaimed badboi, and grew a beard.

One thing I realise though, is that most if not all of these mistakes happened because I wanted to achieve something — mistakes by way of attempting to be ‘better by design’, a term I was recently acquainted with and find rather hard to grasp or accept. Design is subjective, after all, and Better is a judgment unbounded by time. Here’s how being better by design recently didn’t work for me.

On my left was a box of a Chinese New Year snack sporting a label that read, ‘Fish Crisps With Seaweed’. Unlike in the past when snacks came in boxy aluminium containers glistening with finger oil or with the current staple red-lidded, transparent tubs (oil stains still present), this one was branded and exhibited its nutritional information accompanied with high-resolution images that boldly informed you, sans asterisk—snack may not resemble image. This CNY snack packaging had obviously been made to be better by design.

This box was given to me by the mum of a friend and it was delicious. When asked where she got it from, she said her other aunty friend gave her a few boxes and refused to tell her where she got it from because it was meant to be, like, her signature Chinese New Year gift. Whatever lah, selfish aunty! In my mind, that aunty is the amalgamation of all the scary aunties you’ve watched in all those online CNY advertisements—clothes that induce temporary blindness, permed hair, radioactive eye shadow, and that lopsided, crooked, pursed smile nesting below a hairy mole. Somehow, being better by design, this box of snacks had become some form of aunty commodity that I had no way of securing more of. I googled the brand on the box and it didn’t have a website.

Another attempt at being better by design exists in the form of local town planning—in the humongous suburb and now city in its own right, Petaling Jaya. The famed Rothman’s roundabout, since 2011, is now a Rothman’s traffic light junction. I’ve asked frequent users if it was indeed better and received many Yesses and a couple of Nos but my favourite response was from a friend named Monti: “At least now we know why we’re not moving.” So, the intentionally designed CNY snack box was a negative while the Rothman’s traffic light was, in Monti’s own way, better.

Meanwhile, my mistakes of being a badboi and growing a beard landed me a sold-out, stand-up comedy run and earned me involuntary kisses after a gig. It was badboi’s first appearance in the breezy island of Penang—I was yanked by my shirt collar and kissed! By two girls! Simultaneously. It was only on the cheeks but in my life, no one had ever kissed me first (without me asking).

Despite the surprise kisses, I’m still more pleased with my kaffir lime leaf pasta. Like salted caramel—which I’m convinced exists because someone mistook salt for sugar-—it was delicious. I swear.

Life as a comedian does make mistakes a lot more fun. I might use them as material someday. However, there are really way cooler mistakes that have ended up as way much more. Percy Spencer was attempting to research radar technology with new vacuum tubes when, during one experiment, he realised the candy bar in his pants had melted. Like any self-respecting scientist, he rushed for corn kernels and made popcorn as he watched the microwave oven come into existence. From something melting in your pants to rising, Pfizer researchers in the 90s were taking a stab at creating a treatment for angina which they found to be useless for the heart but good for making men hard (again) and thus Viagra was born.

Another cool mistake played out in 1974 in 3M Laboratories. Spencer Silver was trying to create adhesives when he made something way weaker than what was already available. About to be crowned underachiever of the year, his equally cool colleague, Arthur Fry, thought this lousy glue would make him semi-sticky bookmarks for his hymnal while singing in his church choir. Like two really blunt rocks butting each other, sparks formed and so did Post-It-Notes.

Therefore, if better by design doesn’t necessarily mean better, then mistakes can also sometimes be better. Ideally, everything should be made to be better anyway. So I say to hell with being better by design! Do whatever so long as you can do, make mistakes, but if you can’t grow a beard, don’t. Take it from me, some mistakes will forever remain mistakes. Otherwise, take it from Mark Twain, “Name the greatest of all inventors—Accident.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Malaysia, March 2017.