“Saving the planet, weirdly, isn’t good enough”

Henrietta Thompson is the co-curator of “Everything Forever Now”, an exhibition of sustainable design initiated by the British Council and currently on display at Publika, KL. She is also Editor-at-Large at Wallpaper* and contributing editor at Tank.

Henrietta was a speaker at the 6th Poskod Talks, “Design: Making Things Happen”. Our editor Ling Low caught up with her afterwards to talk about sustainable design, improving cities, and why it’s okay to be lazy.

The word “sustainable” is thrown around a lot these days. What does it mean to you?

Sustainability is key because it’s not just about the environment. It also encompasses social issues and it can be viewed on different platforms and different levels. It’s a better word than “eco” or “green” or all of these other words. Essentially it means products, services and development strategies that do not deplete resources. They actually give back and may even put in more than they take out, which is where design gets really exciting.

Your book Remake It Home encourages people to take old objects and make them into useful and beautiful things. However, isn’t laziness is a real obstacle in getting people to remake things? Do designers take laziness into account enough?

Laziness is a huge factor in everything we do. This is a fundamental human trait which will always be there. People just want things to be easy. But that also feeds into the other major human condition – the need to have fun and enjoy ourselves. If it looks like it’s going to be entertaining and fun then laziness is out of the picture. So it’s about making an activity fun. The incentive of just saving the planet, weirdly, isn’t good enough.


“What if all designs could be downloaded?”

I read that you’re a fan of “open source” design projects where a simple idea can be widely adapted and distributed. Can you give me examples?

One that springs to mind, though it’s not exactly “open source”, is the Pallet Project by Nina Tolstrup of Studiomama. Tolstrup designed a chair and other furniture that could be made from simple wooden pallets. She didn’t want to reproduce them herself so she put the designs online and then charged people for the download.

This really changed how designs could be distributed. Some charities started using these designs to give training and help find people employment. One initiative in Brazil, for example, used the designs in a rehabilitation process.

Tolstrup herself went over to Brazil and she was really shocked by the conditions people were living in. So when she got back to London she made some of the pallet chairs herself and got some famous artists to customise them. She then auctioned them off and used that money to buy a new studio workshop for the people she’d met in Brazil. So it all came full circle.

That project is quite inspiring because it shows the possibility of designing and distributing in completely different ways. What if all designs could be downloaded? Or if we designed without dictating all the materials that our designs are made from? You could have a Norman Foster template for a shed, for example, and then people could make it in different materials in different countries.

It seems like Nina Tolstrup bridged the divide between the elite art world and the needs of ordinary people with her project. But do you think elitism is an inherent problem with the design community?

It seems to be changing. There are people who are working for very elite boutiques, making expensive products by commission. But then it’s often the same people designing things in order to change the world, make a difference and save lives. It amazes me that it is the same people doing both. Yves Béhar is one example: he’s designing office chairs for Herman Miler and chandeliers for Swarovski but then he also makes glasses for children in Mexico to help their eyesight.


“It’s not just about getting people in the same room but getting them inspired to see what the possibilities are”

Moving from product design to a bigger scale: cities. In your opinion, what is the most important thing that local governments and urban planners should consider to enhance liveability in a city?

One thing? Well assuming they have things like public furniture covered, I think it’s creating spaces and events that inspire more people to get involved and act together as a community. Finding ways to use those redundant spaces, much like the Urban Physic Garden project.

It’s not just about getting people in the same room but getting them inspired to see what the possibilities are, so that then they can do more and it causes a chain reaction.

How can designers contribute to a significant change in their built environment?

By looking at what spaces there are already and making the most of those. Seeing what’s there. There’s a lot of really beautiful stuff and ways of using found materials that can be very rich, although it takes time and creativity.

It’s not all about recycling, though. That’s only one part of the story. It’s also important to make sure we’re looking at new materials and technology. Rapid prototyping and 3D printing are really changing the whole landscape and it’s up to designers to look at how they should be used best.

Can you give examples of some standout Malaysian design projects from the “Everything Forever Now” exhibition you have curated?

I love the Bicycle Project by Studio 25: it’s something that’s so simple and done very impressively. I’m also very excited about The ULTRA 10 project by We Are Ultra.

“Everything Forever Now” is on display at the Boulevard, G2, Publika Mall, Solaris Dutamas, until 13 September 2012. For more details see the Facebook page.

Poskod Talks 6: Design: Making Things Happen

Design makes things happen. Good designers are perceived as curators of their own craft and material, creating value and solutions for people. They are playing a more important role than ever in public spaces, community and cities.

But how can design and designers continue to make things happen, to add value for its users, and to sustain good ideas?

In our 6th installment of Poskod Talks, we invite four creative practitioners to share their creative processes and strategies to making things happen. This event is held in conjunction with ‘Everything Forever Now’, a sustainable design exhibition presented by the British Council Malaysia.

+++ADMISSION: FREEDate: Sunday, 26 August 2012
Time: 2.00pm – 4.30pm (entry from 1.30pm)
Venue: White Box, MAP @ Publika
Confirmed Speakers:1. Ezrena Marwan, designer/research at Malaysia Design Archive
http://www.malaysiadesignarchive.org/2. Kevin Mark Low, architect at smallprojects
http://www.small-projects.com/3. Henrietta Thompson, writer, curator, editor-at-large, Wallpaper*

4. Sali Sasaki, designer, writer, researcher at Cities x Design
















Please RSVP at our Facebook event page.











Highlights from Poskod Talks 5: Mapping Kuala Lumpur


Posted by Ling

The fifth edition of Poskod Talks was held on 28 July 2012 at Seksan Gallery in Bangsar. The theme of the talks was “Mapping Kuala Lumpur”. Around 70 people turned up to listen to our speakers – a record turn out for our series so far. The audience got comfortable and cosy, making use of all available floor space to listen to our four speakers.

As our moderator Sze Ying Goh pointed out, mapping a city is a process that highlights relevant cultural information and reveals meaningful patterns. Our four speakers are all involved in some form of mapping project, but each of their projects transcends a 2D representation of roads and buildings.

Our first speaker, Lew Pik Svonn kicked off the talks by introducing the project she co-founded: Chow Kit Kita. Pik Svonn gave up her business of 8 years in order to manage this 3-year community mapping project, where she worked with teenagers in Chow Kit to create unique maps of the area.

Left to right: Sze Ying Goh, Jeffrey Lim, Lew Pik Svonn

“The map itself is just a tool for exploring the area”, said Pik Svonn. “Chow Kit Kita is really to highlight their perspective and the diversity of Chow Kit.” These maps – now printed and available in the local area – are intended to share local knowledge, highlighting the teenagers’ favourite hang-outs and food stalls. Pik Svonn is currently working on a new mapping project based in Brickfields.

Our second speaker, Jeffrey Lim, explained how he is creating bicycle route maps in KL. Jeffrey is a graphic designer by training. He runs Studio 25, a design studio focused on graphic design, photography, and bicycles. Jeffrey started a local movement to support cycling, Village Bicycles, which he hopes will make people realise that it’s easier to cycle than we think.

“We live in quite a developed city but outside of KL we’re still quite undeveloped, and people still cycle in villages and small towns to get from A to B. I wanted to involve the community in this because we have so many shortcuts — running by the river here or crossing this road there, it gets you from A to B much faster. That’s the information I wanted to share.”

Image copyright Jeffrey Lim / Studio 25

Our third speaker, Tercia Goh, introduced her photography project #globalfootprints. Back in 1996, Tercia started taking photos during her travels, but rather than snapping tourist sites, she photographed the ground beneath her feet. She then built up a gallery on Flickr and through Instagram, amassing hundred photos taken all over the world. By using the hashtag #globalfootprints, Tercia has opened the project up to other people on the internet who want to adopt her idea.

The result is a global photography gallery that draws attention to what we often overlook, both in foreign places and on our own doorstep. “I’d like to do more in KL,” said Tercia. “I want to start mapping out walking trails or cultural trails where we find unique houses or street signs. To start getting people to explore and discover your city again, in a different way.”


Our final speaker, Mark Teh, talked about the way different maps of Malaya and Malaysia have changed through history. Mark is a researcher, educator, performance director and organiser. Mark’s diverse projects are usually concerned with issues of history, memory and participation in the Malaysian context. He teaches at the Department of Performance & Media, Sunway University, and is a member of Five Arts Centre.

Mark Teh

“Maps are a way of making yourself visible, your own identity, what you want to see and what we would like other people to see, ” said Mark. By showing different maps through time, Mark emphasised that maps are relics that capture a place at a particular time – they have value even when they are flawed or become defunct, because they reflect perceptions at any given time.

BetterKL and Poskod.my would like to thank all speakers for their time, and Ng Seksan for kindly lending us his space for the afternoon. For more information on our speakers and their projects, see below:

Lew Pik Svonn Chow Kit Kita Projek and Rumah Ibadat Kita (http://www.facebook.com/RumahIbadatKita)

Jeffrey Lim Studio 25 (http://studio25.my), Village Bicycles (http://www.facebook.com/VillageBicycles)

Tercia Goh #globalfootprints (http://bit.ly/globalfootprints)

Mark Teh http://about.me/markteh

The Food Detective: How Many Calories in a Maggi Goreng?


A seasoned cook at a busy mamak restaurant scraping and tossing a wok of curly noodles is a familiar scene in KL. Many of these cooks measure their pride in the dish which takes topmost precedence on the Malaysian food pedestal – Maggi goreng.

Maggi goreng involves the mere action of frying instant Maggi noodles before a packet of seasoning is added. It may not be the most nutritious of dishes –the only fresh item on a typical plate is a cut of lime. But all health consciousness is thrown out the door when one is presented with a plate, particularly if the time reads 3am. The score of sour from the lime against the deep saltiness of noodles is a great joy, only enhanced by an oozing egg served sunny side up.

Take a look at the nutrition information on the back of a noodle packet, however, and you may just pause before your next order. A packet of Maggi goreng contains 330 calories and the addition of oil, fried egg and salt elevates the number to 470, almost a fourth of an adult’s recommended daily intake. According to Shanaz F.H. Mawji, clinical dietician at Subang Jaya Medical Centre, fat is one of the main components of the noodles.They are almost always 40 to 50 percent fat, because they’re nothing but flour stuck together with oil, plus some flavouring,” she tells me. Shanaz adds that Malaysia is ranked 13th in the world for amount of instant noodles consumed in a year.

The Malaysian Council for Obesity Prevention has reported that 20.7 percent of Malaysian adults are overweight and a further 5.8 percent are obese. In light of these statistics, I can’t help but wonder whether the people dishing up Maggi goreng are aware of its health implications. Apparently not, I soon discover. I visit Restoran J.M.T. Maju, a popular mamak restaurant, where Mohamed Mohaidul Baksi has been whipping up Maggi for three years now. When I ask him about the health implications of the dish, he just shrugs and darts his eyes elsewhere to avoid my asking of further questions.

Syedrasul, Restoran Taufiq Maju

Other cooks point out that maggi goreng does at least usually contain vegetables. At Restoran Taufiq Maju, the cook Syedrasul tells me he adds cabbage, mustard greens, carrot, tauhu and white onion to balance out the noodles and oil. As a vegetarian who treats himself to the dish twice a week, he tells me that Maggi goreng is okay to consume if cooked in a wholesome manner. Meanwhile, newly-opened Bangsar cafe Wondermama serves a variation of Maggi goreng, replacing the MSG-laden powdered flavouring with oyster sauce. Despite this, proprietor Edwin Yau tells me there is no such thing as a healthy Maggi goreng. “So long as the noodles are instant, nobody can say that it’s healthy.”

While adults across the nation apathetically shout out “tambah pedas” at mamak restaurant cooks across the nation, students have also taken to Maggi goreng as a cheap supper option. Richard, 20, student at Taylor’s University College says he’s aware the dish must not be very good for him. “I only eat Maggi when I’m craving it; it’s usually late at nights. So I don’t feel too bad,” he adds. If there was a healthier alternative of noodle in the market within the same price bracket, would customers opt for it? According to 23-year old student at The One Academy, Heshvin, it would “depend on how it tastes.”

At the same time, clinical dietician Shanaz is quick not to blame our nation’s obesity rate on this dish alone: “If instant noodles are deemed to be unhealthy, then so too are some of the local favourites such as roti canai, fast food burgers, nasi lemak and nasi biryani,” she says. It may be small comfort for Maggi goreng addicts, but the answer is clear: as with all our guilty pleasures, moderation is key. I for one will not be giving up my occasional dose of Maggi goreng. Despite the staggering statistics, we just can’t deny that the curly noodles will always have a special place in our stomachs.

Restoran J.M.T. Maju 2, Jalan Solaris-4, Mont Kiara, KL (03 2274 4786)

Restoran Taufiq Maju 48, Jalan Alam Jaya 15, Taman Alam Jaya, Cheras, KL

Wondermama Restaurant & Cafe G6, Ground Floor, Bangsar Village 1, 1  Jalan Telawi 1, Bangsar, KL (03 2284 9821)

The Food Detective: Burger Bakar Kaw Kaw

Midnight burger binges along the street will never go out of trend in KL. We’ve all been there, waiting in line at ungodly hours of the night to stem that greasy craving. Noticing this hunger among KL-ites, two opportunistic individuals founded Burger Bakar Kaw Kaw in Wangsa Maju last year. The rest is delicious, perfectly grilled history: since Burger Bakar Kaw Kaw was founded, it has built a legendary reputation for its queues and celebrity fans: among them, Khairy Jamaluddin, Razif Hashim and Remy Ishak.

Before I begin, a warning you must heed. The burgers here are not for wimps. You know the beefy, high school football jock who can carry a bench, set it down and spit on the ground while everyone around him wolf whistles their admiration? That’s Burger Bakar Kaw Kaw.  Here, even just a single beef burger is a towering sight to behold. But dear reader, take note: for the adventurous or crazy, the burgers here can go up to ten tiers.

On my first trip here, I commited two rookie mistakes – I wore a white top and I had eaten a huge lunch.  The towering burger arrives, stacked with cheese and beef bacon, and what a sight it is. Tongues of bacon hang lazily around a chunky hunk of meat and the sliced cheddar casually droops outside the parameters of the bun. Yet, despite its promiscuous appearance, the ingredients are all well balanced. The patty is well-spiced and charred to perfection. It lacks the artificial juiciness I’m familiar with at a street burger stall, but I put this down to the hand-ground technique of preparing the meat. The mayonnaise is also hand mixed, and a recipe for homemade ketchup is also currently in the works, which should add the finishing artisanal touch.

Nita and Zul, founders of the wildly successful stall, have plenty to be grateful for. In less than a year, business has since shot through the roof, resulting in long queues, three-hour waits and two other branches. From initially rolling out 100 patties a day, the staff now produce up to 2500 patties a day at an average of 350 an hour. This explosion into the burger scene is not simply a matter of fate, as Zul explains. “Kan orang suka makan benda yang bakar-bakar macam ayam bakar, ikan bakar so kita buat burger bakar.” This realisation forced them both out of the telecommunications industry (a call centre to be exact) and into the mad business of food.

The issue of long waits have become a somewhat dire issue for Kaw Kaw fans and to solve this, Nita and Zul have given in to machinery. “The only machine we use now is the mixer but not the moulder”, they tell me. This means that patties are not identically shaped, as each is made by hand. The wait has now been reduced to a maximum of 25 minutes during peak hours. However, space is still a lingering issue, so customers often make do with takeaway. This brings me to the duo’s future plans of penetrating the fast food industry.

Nita says, “We are actually in the midst of rebranding. We want to bring it to fast food level. We want to become the first local fast food outlet in Malaysia. I wouldn’t say that we are big enough to compete with McDonalds or Burger King but we want to be the first local fast food.” Naturally, I twinge with scepticism. Will this compromise the quality? “I wouldn’t say so because we are importing some equipment from overseas to retain this quality. We’ll definitely still retain the handmade burgers.”

A pilot outlet featuring these rebranded products will soon be open at Ampang while they wait to qualify for application of franchising to the Malaysian Franchise Association. As Nita and Zul scurry from meeting to meeting to supervise the maintenance and growth of the brand, copycats stalls have unsuspectingly popped up in Wangsa Maju claiming to be the first stalls to invent the burger bakar. However, Nita and Zul are blasé about this matter as they have more important things to deal with, including social media monitoring, safeguarding of SOPs and keeping to KPIs.

Well, Nita and Zul best get used to such obstacles. With great burgers, comes great responsibility.

Burger Bakar Kaw Kaw, Jalan 4A/27A, Seksyen 2 Wangsa Maju, KL (www.burgerbakar.com)

Poskod Talks 5: Mapping Kuala Lumpur

This month’s Poskod Talks explores the theme, “Mapping Kuala Lumpur”.

Maps have evolved beyond two-dimensional representation of roads, bridges, buildings. Well, not entirely. However, the process of mapping today shows more than just the geography or navigation of a place. Whether the visual representation is literal or relative, spatial or cultural, mapping a city is increasingly an important process that highlights relevant information and reveals meaningful patterns.
This is our 5th installment of Poskod Talks and we speak to four individuals who map interesting data in Kuala Lumpur. What are the data, methods, devices, applications and importance of these maps?
Confirmed Speakers:
1. MARK TEH, lecturer/performer
Mark Teh is a researcher, educator, performance director and organiser. whose diverse, collaborative projects are particularly concerned with the issues of history, memory and participation in the Malaysian context. He teaches at the Department of Performance & Media, Sunway University, and is a member of Five Arts Centre.
Recent projects include directing the documentary performances The 1955 Baling Talks (Singapore Arts Festival 2011) and Gostan Forward: a solo performance lecture by Marion D’Cruz (touring 2009-present); co-curating the Emergency Festival: sebuah darurat dua minggu (2008) and Save Our Placards! (Hyde Park and Museum of London, UK, 2011); and co-producing projects for Fahmi Reza (10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka, 2007), PopTeeVee (The Fairly Current Show and That Effing Show), and Liew Seng Tat (Projek Angkat Rumah).  He teaches at the Department of Performance & Media, Sunway University, and is a member of Five Arts Centre.
2. LEW PIK SVONN, co-founder of Chow Kit Kita
A Kuala Lumpur resident since the age of 5, Pik-Svonn, now 29, has only recently began exploring and learning about the city she calls home. In 2008, Pik-Svonn started conducting free classes for underprivileged children in Chow Kit. Two years later, she quit her business of 8 years and her voluntary work quickly evolved into a 3-year community mapping project with teenagers. Pik-Svonn co-founded Projek Chow Kit Kita and is currently working on a new community mapping project in Brickfields to promote religious understanding.
3. JEFFREY LIM, designer/bespoke-bicycle guru
Jeffrey Lim is a graphic designer by training. He runs Studio 25, a design studio focussed on graphic design, photography, and bicycles. An avid cyclist, he shares his passion for bicycles through Village Bicycles, a movement in support of local and communal cycling. Drawn to maps and driven by the lack of proper cycling routes, he has started a community-built map project to draw out different cycling routes within KL. The project is still on-going.
4. TERCIA GOH, nomadic copywriter
“Sometimes you find beauty in the most obscure places, but more often you’ll find it literally right under your nose.”
Tercia Goh is a nomadic copywriter in transition between two cities, Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur. She has been mapping out her journey for a personal project dubbed #globalfootprints since 1996, the offspring of her passion for travel and photography. A designer wannabe, an ex-bartender, marketeer, social media manager and all round social whore, she is blessed with the innate ability to sift out the closest bar within a 3 block radius. Tercia is currently a digital mad women at Tribal DDB.
Date: Saturday, 28 July 2012
Time: 4.30pm – 6.00pm (entry from 4.00pm)
Venue: Seksan Gallery, 67 Tempinis 1, Bangsar
For more information, please see our Facebook Event Page or email sze@popdigital.my.



The Neverending Lesson

My father is a smart man. He was sent to universities overseas, including an Ivy League institution. There are few things he can’t reason, few concepts he can’t grasp, few ideas he can’t debate. But here’s a little secret: my father may be a smart man, but he also received Cs for a few subjects in SPM. Granted, that was in 1962. These days you can’t even guarantee entry into a local university with 10 A1s.

What’s going on? Something must have happened between my parents’ generation and this one. The government is trying their best to revamp the education system, but has sent it into a tailspin. Students are barely coping with changing syllabi and languages of instruction. Parents are frantically making sure their children get ahead in every single way – more sports, more co-curricular activities, and yes, more tuition classes.

I’ve witnessed these tuition classes first hand, because I teach them. Like many other people, tutoring provides me a much-needed side income, so I spend a few hours each week teaching literacy and music to kids in my neighbourhood. As it turns out, starting up a tuition business yourself is easy. Make flyers, stuff them in mailboxes, and pray hard that someone calls your number. If they do, the pay isn’t bad: you can earn between RM100 and RM300 per class.

Since I started teaching private classes, I’ve met a whole range of kids and parents. Some families have been hard to handle, but others have been lovely. Suri and Ahmad, for example, are sweet people who dote on their 10-year-old son Muiz. He appears a relatively smart kid, but Muiz humbly thinks he “could be a lot smarter. There are 37 people in my class and the teacher only comes in for half an hour or an hour. Teachers in school don’t have much time for us.”

Suri echoes her son. “The syllabus these days is different. It’s more advanced than my time. I’m afraid he might not get the concepts in school.” A quick flip through a Standard 6 Mathematics textbook will tell you exactly that – 15 years ago, we were learning how to calculate areas in Form 1. Now they’re being tested on just that for UPSR.

It’s advances like this that get to most parents. The ones I meet more these days are white-collar professionals like Zulaika, who is gung-ho about getting her kids ahead. She states that “almost all” of her friends send their children to tuition classes, especially those sitting for major exams like UPSR, PMR, and SPM. Her daughter Nadira is sent to almost every single class imaginable. There’s swimming, art, religious classes, with barely enough time in between to get homework done.

It’s a full schedule that Nadira takes into stride. But she occasionally has sleepy tears in her eyes during my lessons, and spends every free moment watching cartoons and music videos to relax. While her mother means well, I can’t help but wonder if there is a deeper reason as to why parents like Zulaika are working their children so hard. Is it fear that their kids will grow up without the necessary life skills? Or are the parents themselves under social stress to make sure their kids get those straight As?

Shireen, principal of MasterMind Training Academy, notes that parents usually send their children to school after a drop in performance. “But the definition of ‘bad’ is relative,” she comments. “A lot of students in the city seem to be taking tuition now. Some parents define getting a ‘B’ as bad and poor. Some define a fail as simply a bad grade.”

When more and more students are scoring straight As, these perfect grades become the baseline for achievement, rather than the peak. But it really isn’t a surprise that so many students do well on paper. Emphasis on critical thinking was already poor when I was in school 15 years ago, and there seems to be almost none now. With bell curves being adjusted every year during exams, there seems to be little importance placed on learning beyond tests.

Wardina, who has been teaching in secondary schools for the past 20 years, attests to this observation. “The attitude of students today is very different compared to when I first started out,” She tells me. When asked about why the teachers themselves are not tackling this problem, she notes wryly, “A lot of younger teachers today have different attitudes themselves! They are products of an exam-oriented system.” The education approach is therefore part of a vicious cycle.

I see this for myself when I tutor children. Most of my students can hardly think laterally when they come to me, or draw their own conclusions from texts or math problems. When I ask them to teach concepts back to me, or to think about how different grammar rules or mathematical formulas link to each other, they blink at me surprised. “You want me to… what?” they ask. They clearly struggle to respond to a question that doesn’t have a formulaic answer. Meanwhile, some sceptical parents will stop my tuition classes if they don’t see immediate, quantifiable results.

Priscilla, a lecturer at a local college, says this grade driven approach doesn’t help kids later in life. “Many students come into college with a poor grasp of basic concepts in maths and science, and we would have to spend time teaching the fundamentals again. They have good SPM results, but end up struggling in college.” Poor command of English and regard for general knowledge, along with lack of critical thinking, affect their performance. This in turn, influences employability once they graduate.

I’m not a parent yet myself. However, I can’t help but feel that whatever reasons these kids are being sent to tuition are the wrong ones. Tuition classes only treat the symptoms, not the cause of this educational and parental problem. Responsibility to educate children gets passed to tutors like me, the last buck in a long chain of things that don’t work. Parents need to accept that their kids have different methods of learning and skill strengths. At the end of the day, real learning is about more than getting an A.

The names of the interviewees have been changed.

The Food Detective: Mysteries of Kopi Luwak

Kopi luwak to Indonesia is the equivalent of durian to Malaysia. It’s an enigmatic national treasure that greatly divides its citizens. Declared as the most expensive coffee in the world, kopi luwak is drunk across Indonesia by the wealthiest and choosiest of coffee connoisseurs. But in the last year or two, Malaysia has also seen an emerging trend for this pricey brew. As local coffee addicts began to take interest in specialty coffees, a few cafes here in KL have begun to serve kopi luwak.

Kopi Luwak, also known as “civet coffee”, has a very unusual production process. The coffee beans used to make kopi luwak are sourced from the droppings (yes that’s right, poo) of the Asian palm civet cat, native to Indonesia. The civet cat or luwak consumes coffee berries and the indigested seeds are separated from its droppings, which are then washed, dried and roasted to make coffee beans. This process was first practiced by Indonesian farmers in the 18th century under Dutch colonialism. To value its low-level production, the coffee was priced exuberantly. It still is: in KL, a cup of kopi luwak will set you back a cool RM180.

Kopi Luwak beans

Why so expensive? Well, production levels are kept low because of the rarity of these wild cats and the labour intensive process of procuring the beans. Then, because most beans are harvested in Indonesia, there are the costs of importing them to Malaysia. Finally, once the beans have arrived, they are treated with extra care. Mei Ying, a coffee siphonist based in KL, insists that using an espresso machine instead of a siphon will compress the flavours. “Siphon kopi luwak gives off a spectrum of flavours like a rainbow but using a coffee machine will make it like a single beam of light.”

I decided to try for myself. As I take my first sip of kopi luwak, I am taken aback by the sweetness which hits me. This sweetness is completely natural, as I haven’t added a single grain of sugar to my brew. This is followed by a lingering aftertaste of citrus and caramel complemented by a well-rounded smoothness. It’s a rainbow of flavours indeed. The level of caffeine in kopi luwak is also significantly lower than of Italian coffee so you won’t find yourself bouncing off the walls after a triple dose.

Understandably, kopi luwak remains a luxury in Malaysia, but its popularity does seem to be increasing. I drop in to Typica Cafe, one of the few places that serve it in KL. Manager Kai Yin tells me she makes regular trips to Sidikalang in Sumatra to procure beans. An average month at Typica sees the sale of just three cups of kopi luwak but Kai Yin tells me the number of curious customers (both local and foreign) is rising. In February this year, members of the National Council for Fatwa Islamic Affairs in Malaysia declared the coffee ‘lawful’ in accordance with cleanliness and purification standards. It is therefore officially halal.

Meanwhile, a few Malaysians are venturing into rearing their own civet cats for native production. Jeff Tan, a supplier in KL, harvests and produces kopi luwak beans from his land in Yong Peng, Johor. I ask him why exactly he decided to venture into such a risky business. “Why have to sell Italian coffee when Malaysia has better coffee?” he answers, patriotically. Jeff produces the beans from his own civet cats, and then ships them off for packaging in other countries, before bringing them back to be distributed in Malaysia.

As with any luxury item, there are some ethical issues with kopi luwak. Because civet cats don’t like to eat the coffee berries all year round, they are sometimes captured, caged and fed coffee berries, in order to keep up production during the “off-season”. In line with the worrying commercialisation of civet cat caging, Andrew T Crum, an artist based in KL, decided to hold a public art exhibition this month, ‘Escape from Luwak Plantation’, to raise awareness of this kind of inhumane caging. “Because of consumerism and the way it is, people have gone in different directions and a lot of animals have been captured and caged,” Andrew tells me. “It’s kind of a counter to what kopi luwak was initially about. When something’s good we tend to f*** it up as humans, you know?”

While cases of civet cats being force-fed in Indonesia is increasingly common, most licensed coffee producers in KL refuse to support this culture. “It is important to let the musang roam naturally in virgin forests and eat natural food”, says Kai Yin from Typica, while Jeff Tan assures me that the cats in Johor are also “free range”. As the popularity of kopi luwak in KL increases, however, these ethical issues will only become more pressing. A coffee drinker will not be able to tell if their kopi luwak is free range, so it’s best to clarify this information with the barista or supplier prior to a purchase.

For now, I am strangely grateful for the kopi luwak’s lack of accessibility. As long as it remains under the radar, the commercialisation of civet cat farms should not reach inhumane levels. It also means that kopi luwak will always be a treat to be savoured on special occassions. Having said that, I might sneak in another cup this weekend.

Typica Cafe, GL-08, Ground floor, Shaw Parade, Jalan Changkat Thambi Dollah, KL (03 2145 0328).

Jeff Tan also manages Lonbay Coffee, Lot LG-13, LG Floor, Paradigm Mall, Jalan SS7/26A, Kelana Jaya, PJ (03 7887 5258).

“Escape from Luwak Plantation”, Mojo Cafe, D-19-G, Jaya One, Jalan Universiti, PJ. For more information on the exhibition, see the Facebook page here.