The Chinese-language community library Mini Oasis in Kepong has lost its heart with the passing of its owner Moan Wai Meng in August due to Covid-19 at the age of 51.
The library, which was established five years ago, has seen many parents sending their children during weekends to enjoy quiet reading time together in a conducive environment.
Moan was always a good friend to those parents and he welcomed the children with interesting stories about science as well as recommended them good books and events to follow.
Recently, Mini Oasis invited the public to share their memories of Moan through Facebook and many stories came to light.
Running a community library is not an easy task because of its non-profit nature, limited sources of income and the decline of the reading habit in the community, which were all already a challenge before Covid-19 made its impact.
Malaysiakini interviewed one of Moan’s best friends and the library's executive committee members to learn about the story behind the man who struggled to sustain Mini Oasis.
A man of science
The owner of Ipoh Oasis Library and director of Rawang Kota Emerald Library Yong Kam Foo recalls how Moan had the idea of running a library.
They first got to know each other in 1995, when Moan took a gap year from Taiwan’s Cheng Kung University after fighting with his professor. He was majoring in Physics.
Moan then joined Kelantan Chong Hwa Independent High School as a teacher and became Yong's colleague.
The two book lovers quickly became good friends and would engage in many topics of discussion after work.
“Moan was a man of science, he valued well-founded arguments. For him, a discussion should not just be in the air. Whenever we talked about a topic, we really figured things out,” said Yong.
A year later, Moan went back to Taiwan to finish his bachelor's degree while Yong settled in Ipoh with his family.
But their story did not stop there as Moan joined Ipoh Yuk Choy High School as a teacher when he returned to Malaysia and reunited with Yong who was managing an organic farm at the same school.
They founded a library in Ipoh which was named Mini Oasis and had the same interest in it.
“We talked about (having a) library together. We were living in the same city again,” Yong recalled.
“At that time, Moan said if he had a library, it must have a wide range of books and a good collection.”
Yong took over the Mini Oasis in Ipoh in 2004 when Moan was going back to his hometown of Kuala Lumpur for work.
“When I took over the library, Moan created a book management system for me.
“He was learning about programming after he made some money in the electrical engineering field.
"He bought hundreds of books on programming and stopped working to learn it all day," Yong added.
Moan created three versions of the book management systems since then and the second and third-generation systems are still being used by some Chinese independent schools and NGOs’ libraries.
Yong helped Moan to promote the system while he was a bookseller and he gave the system for free to about 30 schools.
“Moan liked to create things and his service was good and quick, but he wasn’t interested in promoting it,” he said.
The start of Kepong Mini Oasis
Eleven years after Yong took over Mini Oasis in Ipoh, another chapter was written in 2015.
Moan and his friends, Jessie Yap and a gentleman named Thai, went to Taiwan to collect books for the soon-to-be-opened Kepong community library.
The Taiwan National Library and Cultural Department donated some books for the library thanks to the help of Moan’s college friends.
Yap and Thai later became executive committee members of the Kepong Mini Oasis Library.
“I saw a news report about Yong’s library in Ipoh, and Moan told me Yong is his friend and we had tea together after that.
“Initially, Moan only wanted to run a library after he turned 50.
“But the more we talked about it, the more we realised that Malaysia really lacked such a space, especially a Chinese library,” Yap said in recalling how the Kepong Mini Oasis started.
“We raised enough funds in 2015, Moan shut down his company and sold his house to support the library. Our team members contributed tens of thousands of ringgit each,” she added.
With funds in place, Moan and his team decided on the location and started renovations. Moan built most of the bookshelves himself and the wood he used was sponsored by one of his teammates - Mandy Wong.
They decided to name the library Mini Oasis - inspired by Yong’s one in Ipoh, which also symbolised ‘an oasis in an urban cultural desert’.
The two-storey library was launched in September 2016.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, it attracted more than a hundred new members every year. Activities such as parent-child workshops, literature writing classes and film screenings were held every week.
Passionate teacher with his own style
Moan was officially running the library full-time and living on his savings. He handled trivial stuff such as repairs and maintenance so that the funds invested by the committee and membership fees could make ends meet.
He also started a science class at the library for parents who trusted him as he reminded them that the children's examination results may not be improved after joining the class since the syllabus is different from normal school.
Moan taught in three Chinese independent schools in the past but left because he disagreed with what he felt was a spoon-fed and performance-oriented education system.
He was a ‘misfit teacher’ in the eyes of his students - they said Moan had once taken three classes to explain a straight line and the whole class had even experienced failing their exams.
By holding his own classes, Moan could finally get rid of the regular syllabus and exams, using a lot of experiments and storytelling sessions to bring the children into the world of science.
Yap admitted that most of the parents couldn’t accept Moan’s teaching approach since it was too far away from the official syllabus and they couldn't foresee results in a short period.
“His education philosophy was to light a fire, not to fill a bucket.
"When he taught in schools, he was asked to evaluate the children's performance based on certain indices and it was ultimately to ensure his students could score good results in exams.
“For Moan, this is not education. The weaker the children's academics, the more he wanted to spend his time to help them,” she said.
Most of Moan’s friends could feel his passion for teaching. Yong said Moan’s ultimate goal in opening the library was actually to start his own science class.
A direct approach
In Yong's eyes, teacher Moan was completely different from the man who quit college due to a fight with a professor and refused to accommodate the education system when teaching in schools.
“He was impatient in many things, but he could really teach children slowly, little by little, to make sure they understood the basic concept of science.
“Before opening the library, he had planned to return to teaching after a career in programming and had bought a flat beside a secondary school in Kuala Lumpur.
“His computer was full of physics teaching materials and some of them he designed himself," said Yong.
In addition to teaching, Moan was also good at playing with children, including Yong’s three children.
Xiao Xian, who is Yong's eldest daughter, described Moan as a friendly person with smiling eyes.
However, the amiable and friendly Moan has another side in the eyes of his best friend.
“He was always straight to the point in more serious discussions. Many people did not get along with him because of this,” Yong said while laughing.
For example, the duo almost clashed on the issue of the Hong Kong protest in 2019.
“He was speaking for the Hong Kong police (who attacked the protesters), saying that they were just receiving orders from above.
“That was a dispassionate argument. But I was more emotional when looking into the incident, I couldn't accept his remarks at all!
“After that incident, we didn't talk much about these subjects,” recalled Yong.
Moan and Yong attended two Bersih rallies together. However, Yong said Moan did not really like to talk about politics although the latter always kept an eye for it.
“Social science is not as simple as science after all - in science, most of the answers can be found through calculation or evidence and it is impossible to be refuted.
“But in politics, you can say anything and many of the arguments make sense. He was not a big fan of these things, including philosophy and religion," Yong added.
Great friends but no photos
Yong and Moan never had a photo taken together despite knowing each other for more than 20 years.
"We met so often that we didn't think about the need of taking pictures,” Yong said.
Unexpectedly, Moan contracted Covid-19 in late July and was admitted to the intensive care unit a week later. His blood oxygen level dropped to 80 plus and he passed away two weeks after he tested positive.
In comparison to Moan who ran a library because of passion for teaching and sharing, Yong attributed his ties to the library for more than two decades to fate, as well as a sense of self-satisfaction.
From 2004 to 2014, Yong witnessed the best days of Mini Oasis in Ipoh which opened another branch and also experienced the hardest time when the library was forced to move to a smaller place due to loss of members and financial issues.
Yong then decided to leave his library and switched careers between 2014 and 2018.
In 2018, a committee member of Kepong Mini Oasis intended to open a new library in his hometown Rawang and Yong was invited to manage it.
That was the first time he became a paid library director. He took the chance and merged thousands of books and the classic movie collections from Ipoh Mini Oasis into the Emerald Library in Rawang.
"As it happens, I'm back in this field. And I'm not going to give up this time.
"Collecting good books is interesting and enjoyable for me. I feel happy to see my library every day as I’m living here too.
“To share them with the public and to open classes here are just its side benefits. I just love this place so I’m willing to keep it alive by my own effort," he said.
Contemplating closure due to Covid-19
For now, due to Covid-19, Yong is no longer a paid director but has to take charge of the future of the library by working as a Grab driver.
Sources of income like venue rent and membership fees dropped drastically during the pandemic. Donors also reduced their capital injection.
Even the Mini Oasis in Kepong which is located in the heart of the city has been struggling for the past 19 months when it was forced to close down several times.
According to Yong, Moan was learning stock investment due to financial pressure before he contracted the fatal disease.
“He was worried about the rent and bills of his library and thought of shutting it down.
“I didn't stop him, I just said that I won’t shut down mine. This is a nice space and there is still a lot of potentials when life returns to normal. He could continue his science class too,” said Yong.
Moan was not alone in having such thoughts. Thai and Wong, who have funded the Mini Oasis for years, echoed his view.
However, things changed after Moan’s passing.
Thai said he had wanted to shut the library down before.
"But after he left us, I changed my mind," he added.
Wong shared that Moan had thought of closing down the library since there was no income and as his friends, they poured cold water on it too.
“When discussed with other committee members, I even suggested letting our members take some books home as a souvenir and end it all.
“But after he left, I decided to try my best to help sustain the library which I didn't do much before," added Wong.
Currently, Wong and Yap are the acting directors of Kepong Mini Oasis.
In the past five years, Wong, Yap and Thai visited different libraries when they travelled domestically or abroad and always exchanged information with each other.
“This is a place for lifelong learning where the public can access books and keep the reading habit after graduation from schools,” said Wong.
Uncompleted mission: A new branch
The trio revisited their stories of Moan with laughter even on some sentimental topics.
Wong quipped, “Moan told us from time to time about his ambition to open a new branch, and we were scared!”
Thai said he ‘pretended’ that he didn’t hear anything when Moan suggested it.
“Don’t mention it, it hurts,” he laughed when pressed on how much funds he had put into Kepong Mini Oasis.
“Moan and I are from two different worlds. I always prioritise reality over ideals.
“I knew we would probably fight with each other if we worked together, so I would help him in terms of funding if I could, but I don't get involved in it. I believe his ideas are right."
According to Wong, Moan had withdrawn his EPF last year to support the library and learn about investment.
“Before that, he had already said he wanted to withdraw his retirement fund for the library when he turned 55. That really made me angry,” she added.
Yap shared how the library lost its income, including venue rent and tuition fees.
“Moan insisted on sustaining the library while many businesses and hotels shut down during the pandemic.
“He practised a very simple life, his car was used for decades but when buying books for the library and our members, he was always generous.
“He stopped us from joining the white flag movement and said that there were many hungry people out there that need to be helped and that we were still okay.
“How much do you think we should pay to hire such a director?” she asked.
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