Here is a small article about my father. Most of my friends don’t seem to understand why my father isn’t like “indian, indian” people.
DAVID LAZARUS is not your typical Malaysian abroad. In fact, he is more of a Malaysian travel-a-lot.
The globetrotting former journalist left Malaysia in 1969 and with the exception of about six years when he was based in Kuala Lumpur, he has lived and worked abroad ever since. He has visited over 50 countries on almost every continent (except the Antarctica), worked abroad including in Canada, Kenya and Thailand, and was among the first Malaysians to visit Eastern Europe (including the former Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) as a journalist. He was managing editor for a brace of supermarket weeklies, as well as the Canada correspondent for Asiaweek magazine.
Today, Lazarus is the chief of the United Nations Information Services (Unis) for the Bangkok-based UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Unescap), a fitting job for this well-travelled man.
From Nairobi to Bangkok
When Lazarus was offered the job in Kenya, he couldn’t wait to go. “I was excited to go there because it was a huge challenge for me,” he recalls. He joined the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) in 1989 and was the programme communications coordinator at its headquarters in Nairobi, capital of Kenya.
“From a professional point of view, it was a new challenge for me, but it was great. I got to learn more about the UN, and I even worked quite closely with Wangari Maathai (the Kenyan ecologist who last year became the first African woman ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize).”
Lazarus also loved living in Kenya, and says it is a wonderful example of how humans and the environment get along. “The airport in Nairobi is the only airport in the world that is adjacent to a wildlife park. On a clear day, you can see the animals as the plane is landing.”
Strangely, the whole Kenyan experience did not include many instances of culture shock for Lazarus and his family. Most of this was due to the fact that Kenya is also part of the Commonwealth, and it reminded him a lot of Malaysia in many aspects.
“We all adapted well and did not experience any culture shock, mostly because of the village-type feel to Nairobi which reminded me of KL back in those days. Of course, this was many years ago, before all the supermarkets and sleek skyscrapers started coming up,” he says. “English was widely spoken there, and there was a small but close-knit community of Malaysians there.
“It was a totally different scenario when he was transferred to Bangkok, though. Despite sharing a border, Thailand is a completely different country compared with Malaysia, he discovered. “Thailand has nothing much in common with Malaysia, even though we’re neighbours,” he says.
Unlike in Kenya, Lazarus does find it slightly harder in Thailand, language-wise. “I had some problems with the language in the beginning. Even now, I can’t speak it fluently, only bazaar-Thai,” he says. “But I learnt to ‘survive’ with some help from the international community here. My staff also helped me a lot.”
All that globetrotting also had a great impact on his personal and family life as well. After all, he met the most important person of his life, his French wife Patricia, on a trip. “We met in Vienna many years ago. She was on a summer holiday while I was travelling around Europe after my conference in Yugoslavia,” he recalls.
One thing led to another, and the couple have been happily married for 31 years now, and have two daughters and a son. Considering how many countries Lazarus’s career has spanned, it is no surprise that his children have gained a somewhat multi-cultural outlook.
“They all speak fluent French, Malay, and English,” he says proudly. “They grew up in Kenya for five years, and then came with me to Bangkok. My eldest daughter and son are now studying in Australia, while my other daughter is still in Bangkok.”
All in a day’s work
According to Lazarus, part of his job is doing public relations work, organising press conferences, taking calls from the media, preparing press reports, and dispensing information about the United Nations in the region.
“My job is simply to project the best possible image of the UN, so people understand we have a valuable organisation that helps work towards peace and secure economical stability,” he explains. “I also run information programmes for Unesco, and publicise the work of the UN in the region, and at the same time gain support for issues that the UN stands for and communicate to people what the UN is all about.
“However, it can be frustrating sometimes when I can’t get the message through. It is a huge challenge for me when people are not receptive to what we tell them, especially when their minds are closed, or they have vested interests in something.”
Nevertheless, Lazarus does get a certain amount of satisfaction from his job. “I get satisfaction from knowing that, at the end of the day, someone somewhere understands the UN better,” he says.
He is also the author of two books – Winds of Change: Malaysian Foreign Policy, and A Crack in the Mosaic – A Study on Racism in Canada.
Unlike many frequent travellers, Lazarus is quite happy to be flying all over the world on his job.
“Travelling to different countries stretches your mind and keeps you on your toes, unlike if you stay at home, where everything is easy,” he said. “It keeps you going, and helps you feel young and alive. Plus, it’s fun to see all the differences between cultures.”
All the same, Malaysia is always on his mind no matter where he goes. One of the first things he does when he goes to a foreign land is to search for the nearest Malaysian restaurant. However, that can prove to be quite a task, even in a country as close to Malaysia as Thailand.
“I was actually quite disappointed that one can’t exactly get good Malaysian food as we know it in Bangkok,” he says. “We actually have to go quite far from our home just to get some, and even then, it tastes very different from authentic Malaysian food.”
Well, if you can’t buy it, cook your own Malaysian meal then. One of Lazarus’s hobbies these days is cooking, and he loves to cook Malaysian food for guests. “Cooking is one way of getting close to home and to relax,” he says.
He is nonetheless quite pleased to be so close to Malaysia now. He was particularly grateful to have the chance to be with his mother during her final years, before she died two years ago. He also plans to come back to Malaysia when he retires in four years’ time.
“When I retire, I will probably just pack everything up, jump in the car, and drive all the way from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur, and stay there,” he says with a laugh.
After retiring, Lazarus plans to get down to writing more books, this time, fiction. “It’s been my dream for years to write fiction, and I hope that I can finally get down to doing that when I retire,” he says. He might even go back to the stage. After all, Lazarus was also an aspiring actor, who was very active in the KL theatre scene.
As part of his job, he comes back to Kuala Lumpur quite often, but somehow, it just isn’t the same to him. “Usually when I come to KL, I am staying in hotels more often, because it is easier,” he says. “But sometimes I just miss the comfort of home.”
Nevertheless, according to him, home is what you make of it. “I conjure up KL in my own home wherever I go. I have furniture and items all around my house that remind me of Malaysia,” he says. “I even have a marble-top coffee-table that one usually sees in kopitiams.”
“After all, no matter where you go, your home is always in your heart.”