Sunday, August 20, 2017

Interview: Mankind's Greatest Invention?

Today is a big day for my daughter Aida. She'll be attending a job interview.

Interviews are nothing to shout about nowadays. The way job market is heading, a fresh graduate going for interviews is as commonplace as a retiree tweaking his sugar strategy.

But this interview is a milestone for Aida because it'll go down as her first ever job interview. She was already up and about at 5 am, five hours ahead of showdown. I could feel her jitters and nerves snapping. She'd be 22 in December, and her first day at kindergarten felt like yesterday.

I drove her to the interview location at Selangor Dredging Building near Petronas Twin Towers, together with her mom and sister, as a show of solidarity. Or just to be around in case she broke down. An interview could swing from nice to nasty in no time.

On the way we were caught in the Sg Besi snarl-up, so there's plenty of void for me to carp and gripe. I wasn't too happy with Aida's joyless and cynical choice of a black tudung for this momentous occasion. The odds were already stacked against her, why make it worse. "It's blue black, not black" her mom chimed in with a defensive maneuver.  I hate technicalities.   

I'm sure there are hundreds of other interviews being held in KL today and every working day. Half a million fresh and frustrated graduates are looking for paying jobs now. Every job requires at least one interview. The rule of thumb is, the higher the position, the longer the interview hours. A CEO position might require one whole day or two and even include an eleven-course Chinese dinner. An interview for a lowly Malay movie extra or AF contestant may take all of five minutes, no food.

Interview as a concept isn't new. More than one thousand years ago Hannibal and Hammurabi had to run interviews to select soldiers from thousands of army aspirants. Their interview procedure looked a lot like modern medical procedures (blood etc). Ugly and uninspiring, I know, but it was an interview nonetheless.

I read somewhere that interview in its modern form and style was invented by the prolific inventor Thomas Edison, along with his one thousand other inventions. He mechanized the interview process with a structured test to winnow out the non-starters. I supposed it worked very well because even now most interviews employ Edison's early template, where job applicants are subjected to a battery of tests, tricks and simulations. Sometimes live battery is used for effect. Some of today's interview techniques can actually be more cruel than the one pioneered by Hannibal.

My first ever interview was in 1975.  I was just starting my undergraduate study at UKM. I'd applied for a scholarship from Bank Pertanian (now Agro Bank, for effect) to finance my study, and they thought I was good enough for a look-over. My hair was long and unruly, but the interview panel didn't seem to mind it because they didn't expect university students to be good-looking. The interviewers were a happy lot. They did their best to calm me down, beginning with what game I played in school. I thought it was a trick question, so it took me all of ten seconds to say football. As it turned out, they asked only straight questions. And that was it, no personality quiz or mensa madness.

I got the scholarship, along with another guy, also from Kelantan. (Those days half of university students were from Kelantan because the entire state was classified as very rural).  I remember him because he was majoring in animal husbandry at UPM, and was very proud of it. I'd no slightest idea what or how animal husbandry was at that time.

Scholarship interviews now are, of course, more elaborate. No more "What game did you play in school" stuff. Those who apply for JPA scholarships to study medicine now have to pass seven rounds of grueling interview. I can't quite understand the need for two rounds, let alone seven. To me, if they're all qualified academically, then give them all. One interview is enough, and the purpose is nothing more than to make sure that they're real, breathing persons, not cyber or virtual sort. If funds or places are limited, then use quicker criteria, like names. An applicant with complex and conflicting names like Aaron Putra Tabayyun is out.  Ibrahim is fine.

Petronas scholarships are among the most coveted in the country even with crude oil price at only $40. So no surprise that the interview borders on the dark arts. The short-listed applicants, mostly straight A+ students from Kolej Melayu Kuala Kangsar, are whisked away to a boot camp in agricultural Tronoh for a series of suspicious mind games, sing-alongs and role-plays. The idea was to size up the leadership potential of these 18-year olds and identify Petronas CEO for 2051. Half of those who fail have to carry on with their lives dispirited and badly broken, while the other half continue their studies in UPM.    

If scholarship interviews are that difficult, imagine job interviews. But why are interviews becoming more complicated and cold blooded? I think it all boils down to the classic interplay of supply and demand. Jobs are scarce while applicants with 3.85 cgpa are a dime a dozen. The objective is no longer to separate the wheat from the chaff, but to pick out the sexiest wheat. Academic grades or Ivy League are no longer a good predictor of workplace success. Companies are under pressure to spot the right talent at the entry point rather than risk the eventual unfolding of a Jeff Skilling or Jho Lo.

And there's always this belief that a modern, ground-breaking company must use the latest and the most sophisticated interview routine. Words would get around. The wisdom is, the harder the interview, the higher the pay. This is purportedly good for company image, brand and HR chief. This is also delusional.

To their credit, the job applicants are not taking all this sitting down. The market is now rife with interview self-helps (Dummies, Idiot's etc), online material and apps. An applicant with a mind can now arm himself to the teeth. He can game even the most difficult interview. He can conceivably answer before you ask. He can complete any test thrown at him in ten minutes.  He can mock and provoke the interviewer. Companies would shudder at the thought of landing a candidate whose talent lies not in money-making, but in money-laundering. The only way for a company to win this dogfight with the interviewee is to use a killer interview. (Or,  better still,  kill the interviewee).

It makes us wonder, if interviews are so critical, why are some plum positions being filled with no semblance of an interview? Like what? Like presidents, prime ministers, ministers, mursyidul am. I don't think Robert Mugabe was ever interviewed for president or for anything. Donald Trump has interviewed (and groped) lots of ladies, but not the other way round. Ahmad Maslan came with 3.85 cgpa, but without interview. They were chosen by default, not by interviews. I'm sure many rogue and rampant "leaders" would get found out early enough had they been subjected to a reasonably robust interview, with some personality software and IQ tests, don't forget.

Oh, yes, Aida. She aced the interview, got the job and will start next week.  Hard to believe this slice of good fortune. Must be that black tudung. Blue black, sorry.




Monday, June 12, 2017

A Royal Tour Of England: Imperial College, Royal Albert Hall, Crystal Palace and Raja Petra

I was travelling in England the whole first week of May. On paper it was a gallant end of spring. But on the ground, it was brutal winter. The temperature was tolerable single digits, but the wind wreaked vengeance. The weathermen were blaming an Arctic blow-over or Carbon Effect or Corbyn Effect or something scientific. The wind could well be from North Korea. But who wants to offend Supreme Leader these days?

Our tour troop had grown bigger since my last trip here in March 2010 with the addition of three grand daughters and two daughters-in-law. Time just flew. Those who were loudly complaining about our PM's wife's long luggage on her trip to Turkey last year should see ours. Strollers, car seats, car seat boosters, Peppa Pigs, you name it. If not for the airline industry's extortionate luggage rules, my two boys would've brought along their washing machines.

I've promised myself to depart from my usual verbose and alliterative writing style, at least for this entry. Readers nowadays are readers but in name. They don't read Wuthering Heights. All they do all day is reading half-English messages and watching anything that jumps off the phone screen. So I'll write less and have more pictures instead. If you think that's not exactly a change in writing style, it's fine with me. But let's start.

1. Imperial College London

Of all the famous and familiar sights in London, why this sad structure? We came here to attend my eldest boy's graduation here, that's why. For some unknown reason he'd found enough energy and intrigue to study while working and pandering to his bosses. And even managed to graduate.

The first time I heard of Imperial College was in early 1990's. I had lots of Tiger Lane classmates who left for England after Form Five in early 70's. But all of them went to Brighton. Well, not all. But almost all. It's hard not to confuse Brighton with Britain and Briton. Just remember this: Britons live in Britain, Malays study in Brighton. Repeat this jingle ten times and you'll get this minor mess off your head.

I'd thought Imperial College was an A Level College like the one near Tg Malim. Only quite recently I discovered that it's a full-blown and no-nonsense university with students at all levels except A Level. Its engineering school is purported to be among the world's top and toughest, up there with MIT and Caltech, with half of the students speaking only in numbers and Chinese.

Physically there was nothing to wonder and marvel here. No period landmark or architectural masterwork. The buildings were mostly of contemporary design, huddled tightly with hardly enough space in between for the creative mind to stand, stare, write poems etc. The male toilet can take only five normal-size students at any one time. What came to mind was the sprawling UPM and UTP campuses with lakes and trees and professors and cows roaming freely. To be fair Imperial sits on a princely piece of real estate and, please, don't compare it with Balakong or Tronoh.
Imperial also has a graduate business school as its cash cow preying on unsuspecting corporate warriors seeking the elevated Imperial brand. In truth, the business program here is only slightly more complicated than the one at UPM. But who wants to go to Serdang? My eldest was graduating from from the business school. You guessed it, I know.

Before I forget, Imperial College is in the South Kensington area, in the heart of London, close to Royal Albert Hall, Natural History Museum and  Harrods. Imperial College is an unofficial supporter of Fulham Football Club. Yes, this is funny.

2. Royal Albert Hall

Somehow lots of Malays are familiar with this hall, made famous by our legendary singer-actor-lawyer, the late Sudirman. He performed and won the Asian Music Awards here in 1989. Siti Nurhaliza went one better with a solo concert here in 2005 amidst controversies, like why was it not held at the more iconic Panggung Aniversari in KL Lake Gardens.

Don't ask me how people get to hold concerts at Albert Hall. I'm equally curious. Do they get invited or vetted by the Queen? Do they have to pay a rental? Who pays? The husband? And how much? How old is the husband?  Where are they going to get the audience? Ferried all the way from Pahang? Or Brighton?

My eldest's graduation ceremony was held at Albert Hall. What a place to receive your degree. You need no other motivation to attend. It bothered me somehow that Imperial College called it "Graduation" ceremony, while back in Malaysia we were stuck with "Convocation" or, worse,"Konvokesyen". So where did we get this word "Convocation" from? Shakespeare? As a full-time retiree, I get to worry about urgent things like this.

It was a glittering and glitzy occasion, colourful and steeped in tradition, complete with a string ensemble. The oval and opulent hall was filled to the brim, and the atmosphere just blew me away. The pace and timing were pitch perfect, no hitches or glitches, nothing over the top, just right. And, of course, the music. I almost choked when my name was called (hahaha).

I'll remember this one for a long time.

3.  Peak District

Not Peek District. This is a highland area and a national park bordering Manchester and Derby known for its scenic lakes, streams, farms, villages, sheep (scenic sheep?). We spent a good half-day traipsing round the area, savouring the splendid landscape and gorgeous geography. It's an exhilarating experience, which is really a pity because most Malaysians would rather visit the nearby Old Trafford and waste good money on Pogba shirts.

Peak District might not be as famous as Lake District, but equally enjoyable. No romantic poets and writers have chosen to live and die here though. The closest I could think of would probably be RPK, the refugee blogger now mired down in Manchester. Read his prolific tales of trysts and machinations and you'll understand why he's a romantic writer.

4. Manchester City FC

The 50 year-old dream came true. I finally got to watch Manchester City in the flesh at the Etihad, right before my very eyes. I'd been having these visions ever since I followed the team in 1969.  The feeling was simply unbelievable, shouting and swearing with 55,000 City freaks, watching David Silva waltzing and Yaya Toure bursting out, just twenty feet away.

But there was a downside to all this. Every time Aguero had the ball in the box with only half-decent chance of a goal, the whole stadium would stand up and cheer on. While this spontaneous act ramped up the atmosphere, it totally blocked my view since I'm physically challenged (political for short). Anyway, City ran out 5-0 winners against a hapless Crystal Palace. I completely missed the first four goals.

5. Hotel New Inn, Gloucester.

Gloucester was our last stop before our return flight to KL. Nothing special about this town, except that it was a medieval city only two hours away from Heathrow Terminal 4. It's cheaper and more convenient to stop here than going back to London (with all our bags and Peppa Pigs, remember?). It was Sunday and the town was deserted and it took us some time to find our hotel, the New Inn, although it was smack in the town centre.

The New Inn Hotel wasn't new. It was built in 1450. Just like Gloucester, there was nothing extraordinary about the hotel, except for a footnote in Wikipedia "The New Inn is supposedly haunted with at least one unexplained event captured on CCTV in 2010". It was too late to change our plans.

Stepping into the hotel you'd notice the intricate 500-year old timber and masonry. The toilet came with modern soap and flushing system. It took us some time to really settle in. We hardly talked.

Nothing happened. Sorry.        

6. Breathless Bread

What's more boring than bread? I love bread, and England is a bread heaven. Walk into any supermarket you'll see one big section with bread brands and varieties in full cry, from Allison's rustic white to Hovis wholemeal and all the way to Worburton's superseed. I had to catch my breath. And it's bloody cheap. A 600 gm of high quality multi-seed variety sells for only 79 p (RM 4.30). A plain white is RM 7.90 at Isetan KLCC Sun Moulin bakery. Gardenia or Massimo is RM 2.50 for 400gm of mind-fogging gluten and yeast.      

I bought plenty of bread and enjoyed every slice. Fabulous stuff. As to why it's so much cheaper in England, I don't have a ready explanation. Maybe the market there is bigger, while I am the only bread market in Malaysia.

7. Ah, Malaysia Airlines 

I flew Malaysia Airlines this time. I'd not flown long-haul on Malaysia Airlines for almost twenty years. Air Asia or some Arab airlines were always 50% cheaper. This was also my first flight on the A380. It was certainly big, with more space and air to breath, but nothing beyond my expectation.  

With plenty of empty seats, it was hard not to notice the flight attendants (male and female). They all had the real knack of appearing busy at all times. Those in the idle oil and gas industry can learn a thing or two from these guys. But I must say that they were a bit of a let-down. I mean, the aircraft was all fresh and spanking, but the attendants looked older than Gloucester. A couple of them even had reading glasses. I thought it was an exception and I should be seeing something different and more inspiring on the return flight. It was different set, but from the same period.

I suspect these people were highly-paid holdovers from the platonic Malaysia-Singapore Airlines. They were nice and pleasant enough, but I'm sure there are eager and younger ones among the 120,000 Malaysia Airline staff with more energy and better eyesight to take over the job.

Sorry for this Trumpesque turn, but I'm sure most of you are with me on this.


8. A Final Word

It's been a brief and productive family outing, a mishmash of business, fun and ghosts. I guess my three granddaughters also enjoyed it. They didn't complain about the cold wintry air. They didn't complain about anything. Either their benchmark was low or their tolerance threshold was high. Maybe both, who knew. I'm not sure what they think of Peak District.

England is easy. The locals drive on the left and speak good English or good Indian, unlike the Italians who drive on the right and speak only loud Italian. And food is friendly.  Manchester has more halal restaurants than Subang Jaya on per Muslim basis. What immediately comes to mind is an old and intrepid friend named Yusof Hashim. He travels only to strange and difficult places, like Antarctica, Patagonia and Atlas Mountains, where locals don't drive. He's 70 now. I'm not sure how he copes. I don't think there's a halal restaurant in Antarctica.

Did I promise you plenty of pictures? Here's two more, shot in York. Spreading out on the steps like that, what a clever improvisation.    


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

My Johor Journal


I drove to Johor Bahru last week with wife, daughters Aida and Sarah and two granddaughters in tow. We were attending a nephew's wedding.

I've not been driving long-distance for quite a while now. Two reasons for this. One, I tend to get bored, grow older and fall asleep after only 10 km at the wheel. Two, I'd  normally get my son to tag along. It's safer for him to drive because he's free of prostate and sugar issues. He drives and swerves and swears.

But this time around, he and his hardworking wife could only join me later. Their two girls, Diana and Hanan, were just happy that at last they could follow us without their parents attempting, or pretending to attempt, to pull them away. Children all over the world are notorious for this delicate partiality. Maybe it's part of their defence mechanism or Blue Ocean, we'll never know. 

The journey was smooth enough. Not too many speeding Singaporeans on the road. We reached JB in four hours. I know some people did it under two hours, which I don't quite understand. I mean it's only Johor Bahru, and not Mount Everest or Las Vegas where you've to be there as fast as you can. JB in two hours and JB in four hours, I can't see the difference.


I've always been impressed with JB. The city looks well-planned, clean and contemporary, with old and new structures coexisting easily. Road network is excellent with sharp flyovers and ramps to cope with the burgeoning traffic. The highway system leading to the city and proximity is world-class, with many exits and interchanges leading to yet more highways that open up to more exits and interchanges, and this repeats until you reach your destination. Now with Waze it's easy to navigate. In the past I always ended up in Serangoon, Singapore. 

My first trip to JB was in 1972 when I was in Form Six. It's the trip of a lifetime, and the whole class were on-board. We hit the road in our school bus, from Ipoh town via the old trunk road, with one-night lay-overs in KL and Seremban. It was a slow but splendid journey with plenty of action and adventure. We sang our school song to beat the heat, and somehow it worked. We reached JB after three days, toasted and drenched in our school uniform. That was the last time I travelled in white shirt, white pants and white shoes. And a badge. And school song, don't forget.

JB at the time was just another sleepy town in Johor. All towns in Johor at that time were sleepy. For history freaks, JB was declared state capital by a Temenggong (I forgot his name) in 1855 after the other two candidates, Benut and Yong Peng, were disqualified on technicality. JB's advantage was that it was close to Singapore. In fact Singapore had always been part of Johor before it was donated away in a British-sponsored scam. But that's another story.

I remember my Johor classmates Sheikh Yahya and Ibrahim Mohammad bragging away in class about crossing over to the other side to buy duty-free lychees and underwear, which were very cheap because of the good exchange rate. Now the Singaporeans are crossing over to JB, normally at 230 km/hr, to buy lychees and underwear. But that's another story.

What struck me at that time was that JB wasn't that much bigger than Kota Bharu, the capital of my home state (you know this). I was in a way deflated and felt let down the first time I saw JB. I'd expected it to be much bigger, I mean, the way those Johor guys had touted and sold it. Maybe they were high on spiked lychees and got things all mixed up.

But today it's as clear as daylight. No contest here. JB is bigger and prettier, hands down. It'd be much, much bigger if you include Singapore (joke, sorry). JB has developed so much and so fast, while KB has been lagging and lapsing. JB is now officially a city. KB is still a town, pretty much the same way that Arau or Dungun is a town. I wonder how our (bn) government decides because Alor Setar and Kuala Terengganu are both certified cities although they are actually fish markets. KB fought this little injustice by unilaterally proclaiming itself Islamic City and strictly enforcing female-only queues at all Mydin supermarkets. This stroke of genius had effectively rendered other cities, including JB, unIslamic, non-halal, Mossad agents and all the sinister stuff.  

A day hardly passes now without some juicy bits of news breaking out of JB. And JB folks are not taking this new-found style and stardom sitting down either. They're already rubbing more salt by rebranding themselves as Bangsa Johor (although some of them, like Sheikh Yahya, are Bangsa Arab). This subtle act of grandstanding is necessary to differentiate themselves from the people of non-developed states like Terengganu, non-Sultan states like Melaka, and non-Malaysian states like Bangladesh. Rumour has it that Johor was planning to secede and rename itself Negara JDT FC. This would've gone down in history as the first state or country named after its football team. All this proved to be completely unfounded as JDT is still in the Malaysia Super League, winning all trophies with ten Brazilian players.

The simplest proxy for a city size in Malaysia is the number of flyovers. Don't laugh. The Economist newspaper uses the price of Big Macs to measure fair value of currencies across countries. There are so many flyovers in JB today that I've stopped counting. I'm fully retired, so i've all the time to count flyovers. There are no less than four highways with different names and different tollbooths leading into and out of JB. Let's compare that with KB. KB now has a grand total of one flyover under construction and no highway.

The JB-KB gap is getting wider on daily basis. A high-speed-high-cost-high-fare-unfair train will be built to connect KL with JB. This will make it conceivable for me to wake up in USJ and have my breakfast in JB. As to why I'd want to have breakfast in JB is another story. A China's Chinese company is building a massive Forest City or something offshore, not far from JB. Offshore forest? Typical Chinese ingenuity. This is not another story, because the new city will be populated by 700,000 (or is it 700 million, I can't recall) Chinese coming all the way from, you guess it, China. It's (bn) government's way of neutralizing the dap Chinese with more Chinese. So clever.

There's no stopping JB as it is all poised to become another Shenzhen. Apparently one Shenzhen is not enough. At this rate, there's no way KB can ever catch up with JB. Unless Donald Trump finally decides enough is enough and takes the Chinese by the horn and builds a Trumpcity in KB.


Nephew's wedding was an absolute riot with all of us deep in purple. I don't know whether it was (bn) government who actually started this, but it's quite a fashion nowadays for close family members to carry a colour. Our side was purple. I don't know what to make of this, but for the first time I relented and played along in my new purple baju melayu. What a sight it was, a sweeping sea of purple people. A brother-in-law came by and hit me with the old reliable "you looked gorgeous" . I knew him long enough not to get too carried away. He was hopping from table to table, complimenting everybody, including his glorious wife. Sorry, I can't recall the colour on the bride's side. But I can find out if you're interested.

It was a truly joyous occasion. Everyone talked and ate non-stop, all at the same time. And why not, we'd come all the way and pay all the tolls for this. The venue, a memorial hall in the historical part of the city, was an impeccable choice. It was a Chinese New Year holiday, so I could hear firecrackers outside, which added more clatter and colour to the whole festive atmosphere.

Ah, what a day.

I'm sure Hafiz and Amirah will remember this day and remain faithful and productive husband and wife for ever.


While in JB, I decided to look up a close friend and campus gang who was unwell. When I phoned him, he just screamed my name. It was so loud that his wife mistook it for a JDT goal.

In less than five minutes he was right at the door of my homestay at Kampung Melayu. On the way to his house in the same neighbourhood we passed by a warong named "Singgang Mek". He touched my arm and ribbed me "Ok ke kedai tu?"

He'd not lost his sense of humour. Kelantan and anything Kelantanese had been the staple of our jokes since we first met and hit it off way back in 1975 (sexy pic above).

He was so happy to see me and I could feel the warmth. Visiting friends in these golden years remains high on any retiree's agenda, and I can tell you it's worth every minute. Looking at him, I'd to really contain myself. Physically he was but a brief shadow of what he used to be, sharp, swaggering, athletic and all. The only mitigation was that I myself wasn't exactly a pretty sight. But he remained bullish and upbeat just like he was forty years ago. You've to admire the unmistakable fortitude and forebearance in trying times.

We settled down for a lengthy exchange that he easily dominated, as always. He was highly engaging throughout as we rolled back and forth, from campus days to his time with Johor Corp to football to his ongoing treatment, Umrah trips, back to campus, and finally his hero, Tok Guru Nik Aziz (a Kelantanese, no less), alluding to him in the most glowing terms. Apparently he'd been making regular trips to KB by train just to meet and listen to the late teacher.

After a quick dinner, he drove me back, very slowly, to the homestay. It was only a short distance but long enough for parting wits. He promised to come to KL to see me and others after his full recovery. I reminded him of his "favourite" Kelantanese colourful jelly called "belda". He laughed generously, but quickly added that he could no longer enjoy eating. Everything seemed tasteless. I quickly pounced "Maybe you should try Singgang Mek!" We roared.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Inspired By Isymam: A Talaqqi Story

Six years after I'd retired, I received two academic certificates.

One conferred by Masjid Sultan Salahudin Abdul Aziz Shah in Shah Alam for completing its one-year Talaqqi/Tajwid Course. The other one for attending a four-month Tajwid class at Rehal Islamic Studies Centre.

No, no, these are not fake PhD's. Hahaha.

The Shah Alam certificate was a sheer beauty. It's inscribed 100% in Jawi calligraphy, including my name. When was the last time I'd my name written in Jawi? Standard Six, 1965. That long ago. So I'll keep this certificate for the rest of my natural life, for both its intrinsic and extrinsic value.

Everybody knows the blue-hue Masjid Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah. But not many have heard of Rehal. It's a small, privately-run Talaqqi centre in Kota Damansara. The owner and teacher-in-chief is one Dr Surur Shihabudin, a two-time PhD who also lectures at UIA. Dr Surur has written a widely read text entitled  "Ilmu Tajwid" (pink hard cover, 342 pages). The book is about, hold your breath, Tajwid. What do you expect?

Religious gurus are never known for marketing craft and guile. Their books all look drab and dreary. And the titles leave very little to imagination. They should take a leaf out of literary frauds with funky titles like Blue Ocean or Freakonomics that have sold millions. "Talk Tajwid And Get A Second Wife In Two Weeks" would have been a runaway bestseller. Anyway I'd been using Dr Surur's "Ilmu Tajwid" for some time now and I've to admit that I was motivated to attend the course on the weight of this book and its author. Nothing beats the horse's mouth.

Frankly I'm proud to receive these certificates, even at the tender age of 62. I've lost count of all the certificates I'd received for all kinds of courses I attended when I was with Petronas. Lateral Thinking, High-Impact Speaking, Finance For Finance Haters, Business Leadership, 7 Habits, 5 Asses, you name it. But none really compares with these two humble certificates.
I'm writing this not to show off my religious fixation and credentials. I'm in fact exposing my failure and frailty. Children as young as six now learn the Quran and know all the finer points of Tajwid.  At my age, I'm supposed to teach.

So what's the point? In short, I want to share my late-life learning joys and trials. And if I can get  one more person to just think about learning Tajwid, I'd consider this blog entry a major triumph.

Tajwid is, admittedly, a very dry subject matter. Think theoretical Physics. Or Cost Accounting. It's highly technical and more potent than sleeping pills. Some of the charts and pictographs used are suspiciously similar to the periodic table.  You can't compare Tajwid with, say, Sirah, where you get to learn and turned on by our Prophet's love life with wife Aisyah, or marvel at the bravery of Khalid Al Walid and awe at the exploits of my favourite all-conquering warrior-archer-wanderer Saad Abi Waqqas.

One of my friends knows an awful lot about Syiah and Wahabbi, which, I think, are both juicier than Tajwid. He can expound on Nikah Mutaah, or temporary marriage, in the way that E Channel explains the premise behind the much-celebrated gender migration from Bruce to Caitlyn.

When I completed early Quran reading classes in standard six, I thought I'd mastered Quran reading. Mom could just pick any page and I'd read it loud and clear. I had this mistaken belief that Tajwid was just an option, something for those who want to win the international Quran reading competition. So it was left on the back burner for fifty years. When I began to learn Tajwid,  I  rudely discovered that, for fifty years, I hadn't been reading the Quran the right way. I'd been reading the Quran not in Arabic, but in Kelantanese.

How did I "discover" Tajwid? It wasn't exactly Fleming and penicillin, but it was similarly fortuitous. Or serendipitous, if you don't mind. The story is screenplay stuff and wrote itself.

It was in 2002 when about 20 of us, close classmates who went to Tiger Lane in 1966, descended for a reunion and Iftar. We had a brief tazkirah, where, by default, the most qualified of us led the session. He reminded us of the intrigues and intricacies of Quran reading, and, to prove his point, he picked out Isymam, a Tajwid rule applied at Ayat 11 Surah Yusuf. We've to purse (muncung) our lips when we recite ta'- man-n-na.  Man, this is something, I thought. I'd been missing lots of fun !

From then on, I began to sniff around for basic Tajwid books. "For my son" I told the bookseller. He'd heard this routine before, so he just nodded. Reading the books was uphill. Tolstoy's two-volume War and Peace was easier and faster.

I finally retired in 2009, but it wasn't until two years later that I made some inroads after a chance encounter with a Tajwid teacher. I attended his weekly classes with a few other like-minded "late bloomers" I met at the local masjid. The teacher was a godsend. He turned a good part of his house into a private college. Every Tajwid lesson he delivered was a sobering self-discovery. Our learning curve was slow and painful, but he took it all in his stride and rewarded us with home-made pastry and free-flowing coffee after every class. In my book people like this will go straight to heaven when they die.

We completed the syllabus after two years, but there was still plenty of fire in my belly. I was so inspired by what I'd learned that I decided to enrol in a one-year Talaqqi/Tajwid program at Masjid Sultan Abd Aziz in Shah Alam, and a four-month Tajwid classes at Rehal the following year.  At the same time, my Tiger Lane group were having our monthly usrah, led by, yes, the Isymam imam. The half-day session would include Quran reading with friendly Tajwid tips. So effectively I was learning not from one, but four, different teachers. Had I been this serious in Form Five, I would've aced Biology and Chemistry and become a famous brain surgeon.

I found out that learning at my age is extremely challenging for three reasons. One, I'd lost most of my thinking skills (not a lot to begin with). So it took me longer than forever to get the hang of the strange concepts and to memorize new names. Two, I was among the oldest, if not the oldest, in class. My Shah Alam and Rehal classmates were mostly half my age, mentally sharper and, worst, they all had more hair. Three, most Tajwid teachers had very little talent in the complex art of teaching. The Rehal program, in particular, was stressful not only because the classroom felt like a Cambodian sweatshop but also because the teacher (Dr Surur) used a teaching technique made popular by the Japanese army during their brief occupation of the old Malaya. He didn't believe in soft sell. He'd drill and grill, regardless of your age. If you're the sensitive sort, you'd drop out and become a "syahid" before the third week.

But after the initial scares and jitters, I began to enjoy the Tajwid classes. Even Dr Surur's hard-hitting military style didn't scare me. With age advantage, I could ask any question I like, like why huruf "Dhod" is Rokhowah and not Syiddah? I always believe everything has its soft and sweet side. In a class of 20 students, you'll listen to 20 different ways of reading. High notes, low notes, poor pitch, terrible tone. I can tell you it's more fun than Akademi Fantasia audition.

We learned from our teachers and from each other, driven by one common and singular ambition: to read the Quran the way our beloved Prophet read it 1400 years ago. What's not to like?

The test of Tajwid is not in the terms and theories, but in putting it to practice. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, remember? Not the prettiest of parallels, but you get my point. Mastering the Makhraj, Mad and the stuff is only the starting point. It's how I apply it when I get down to actually doing it. It was mentally and physically draining, tougher than treadmill. But once I get in the groove, it's hard to stop. You could even get high. Try the graceful Surah Maryam, and you'd soon find yourself doped and drowned in the rhyming verses. Reading the Quran would never be the same.

So I've mastered Tajwid. No, no, no. Not even close. Never. There's still a lot left to learn. Dr Surur kept reminding us "Bergurulah walaupun kita seorang guru".  It's not possible to unlearn and relearn 50 years of work in six short years. The trick is to train. Serena Williams has won 23 Grand Slams and she still trains with a coach, six hours a day. Now you're excited.

The best way to train is to read in groups, Tadarus style. The Kenyans run and pace in groups, and they break all world marathon records. Our group of "late bloomers" meet five days a week to read and pace each other. Every one of us leads, learns and motivates, all at the same time. We are not world champions, but we are better today than we were yesterday. You're welcome to join us. No annual fee, and loads of fun.

There's no stopping this. I'll keep on learning: twisting and turning my tongue, tweaking my speed and breath, and even trying out a new tune. The divine virtues and rewards of reading the Quran are never in question. But I can promise you one immediate payoff when you read the Quran the right way: your wife loves you a lot more.  

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Shenzhen, Caution

The landing was faultless. But the moment I stepped into the airport and looked around, my stomach dropped. Everyone here except us was a Chinese. I'd nothing against the Chinese as a people or a concept, it's just that I'd never seen so many Chinese in my entire life. My wife sensed my abeyance and pressed my shoulder. "Come on, this is China. Not Italy". I knew, but, I mean, all these Chinese and so many. "China, Chinese la" She reasoned out. This line of logic left me with very little to argue.

Last month I was in Shenzhen and nearby Guangzhou. Nearby was actually 150 km away. These two cities are now China's boom towns, growing at breakneck rates, and home to 23 million people, all Chinese (What do you expect? 23 million Italians?).

It's hard to find another place more sanguine than Shenzhen. And so devoid of character and charisma. If you love museums, castles and art houses, don't go down to Shenzhen. Go to Leuven. Or Leiden. Nobody here has time for contemplation. Culture and theatre are a waste of space. This is the soulless motherland of finance, factories and fakes feeding off world's rapacious greed and relentless consumption. Only 50 years ago the mantra was fish, farm and fight for the country. Now? Let's make more money.

I was part of a touring party of 17 fine-looking people, all my family members, including wife and daughter Aida. The youngest was nephew Umar, 10 years old. We'd been travelling around together quite a bit to whet the wanderlust. Well, not to Las Vegas or Las Palmas, but mostly the more affordable local and regional hotspots. This time we broke our long-held tradition of self-styled backpacking and bespoke itinerary by taking a guided tour. Backpacking with a guide? Now that's embarrassing. Why? Because this is China, that's why.

In case you've forgotten, China is officially a communist state, you know, Marxist-Leninist, Mao Zedong, Falun Gong, Gang of Four, Shaolin Temple, and all the scary stuff. We heard that government officials in China are summarily shot even for corruption, which, in our country, isn't really a crime. So quite naturally, we were worried. Who knew, we could get jail term in China for laughing or reading. We'd to agree with Ronald Reagan's pearl of wisdom: Why take chances?

Our Chinese tour guide, named Felix, could speak English and a smattering of Malay. He was a native Shenzhenian or Shenzhenese or simply Chinese and very proud of his city. According to him,  the average age of the Shenzhen population was only 31 years. I knew I was the oldest person in my group. Now I was also the oldest person in the whole city of Shenzhen. I quickly told wife that she was technically the second oldest person in Shenzhen. She dismissed it offhand, accusing me of conspiracy, hangover, late-life lapses and so on. All too familiar, if you know what I mean.

After five days and four nights in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, we came away mixed. Well, no place in the world has all pluses. Not even Paris. And certainly not Ottawa. (One of my brothers-in-law still thinks Ottawa is in Japan). You'd always end up with a bone or two to pick. So there's this nagging and uneasy feeling that we might not have seen and done enough. Or, in Obama's language, we weren't getting the biggest bang for the buck. Guangzhou especially deserves more time. The jury is still out, so to speak and I hate this phrase. We've to really sit back and think hard before passing a verdict.

In the meantime, I've put together some takeaways from our tour, if you're interested. If you're not, then just scroll ahead for some Android-quality photos. This list is strictly my opinion.  The 10-year old nephew may have other ideas. PM him if you want to know. 

1. A Guided Tour Is A Time-Waster.

A guided tour of any part of China requires that you visit a number of state-sponsored "craft or cultural centres". The Shenzhen jade factory that we were taken to had the uncanny feel and atmosphere of Hotel California. Yes, that part "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave..." and the searing guitar licks.  Lucky thing a sister-in-law bought something. That probably was enough to save us and let us live to fight another day. Hahaha.

What's worse than one jade factory? Two jade factories. We'd to visit another jade factory, in Guangzhou. Same bloody scripts and tricks. But this time around we were all prepared to fight back, communist or not. It all ended peacefully though, with nobody buying anything. 

Then there was this Chinese herbal medicine centre or clinic in Guangzhou, where they had a professor from Beijing touch our hands and size up our state of health. Apparently everybody seemed to be down with at least one chronic condition. A sister-in-law seemed to be critically short of oxygen. Hahaha, thanks prof, finally we knew why she was what she was. But no worry, because the kind professor, as expected, would prescribe the necessary (and expensive) concoction. I know a scam when I see one.

We'd easily wasted precious eight hours on these state tours, which we could have easily spent exploring Guangzhou's Muslim quarter, fruit markets, the subway, and the old city with its narrow alleys and quaint shops. Both Shenzhen and Guangzhou were safer than Subang Jaya and taxi drivers eat and live by their meters. We would survive on our own.

Felix the tour guide was a part-time bait-and-switch artist. He was so good at his trade that he managed to lure us into buying bags of nuts, Longchamp purses, and watches from him.

Hwang He, the Chinese River of Sorrow, shall be my witness as I promised myself to never ever again take guided tours and go near tour guides.

2. Muslim Meals Are Marvellous

Chinese Halal food or Halal Chinese food? Doesn't matter. Heaps of horror stories about this. Bland, tasteless, sticky and so on. Don't listen. The food was glorious and out of this world. It was vegetable based, with superb soy and only touches of meat and fish. Very healthful. My weight and pulse rate fell after two days.

3. Fakes Are Fine

Shenzhen and Guangzhou are full of fake stuff, with miles of malls plying the bogus high styles. I'm all for this counterfeiting and bootlegging. I think for far too long the much celebrated European haute couture are getting away with exploiting unsuspecting Asians through clever marketing and subtle branding. Those designer labels are never worth their extortionate prices. They are the real fakes, not the fakes. A fat girl flagging a 100,000 dollar Hermes bag is still a fat girl.

Louhu Mall near Shenzheng railway station was a five-storey affair choked with fakes and knock-offs. The action here was thick and fast. The goods were excellent value, at less than 5% of the "real" thing. The Chinese "designers" have really come a long way. The stitching and sewing was splendid and it'd tough to separate the wheat from the chaff. If your friends can still tell it's not Chanel, you're the problem. Not the bag.

Bargaining here was more intense than watching Lee Chong Wei. Price of anything starts at 850 Yuan (RM 500). You must poke back with only 50 Yuan and then watch the sales girl feigning (or actually going into) fits or short comatose. You must hold your ground and walk away. She'd bolt after you and this fast furious sequence should last for ten minutes before you and the girl finally settle for 100 Yuan, a discount of 80%. The process takes plenty of energy. But well worth it. You get a fake bag and lose 400 calories of real fat. What's not to love.

4. The Magnificent Mosque Of Saad Abi Waqqas

The name alone conjures up the mystique. You simply have to see this old mosque in Guangzhou, a shoo-in in traveller's bucket list. The blatant collision of Arabic and Chinese architecture, set among lush gardens, will just blow you away. The dark red panels and pillars were bold, defiant but delightful.

Saad was Nabi Muhammad's close companion and relative, warrior, archer, traveller and diplomat extraordinaire, all in one. He purportedly travelled all the way to China with his kabilah in the 7th century to propagate the Islamic faith, 700 years before Marco Polo and his gay brothers.

Climbing up the steps, I hesitated. I was overcome by the poignant thought of the old mosque of Kg Laut, where I grew up. It's  not as old, but the warmth and welcome were strikingly similar. I could still picture the mosque standing triumphantly where it was 50 years ago, just like this very mosque in Guangzhou.

5. Beijing Street, Dongmen Market, Baima Wholesale Market, Mangrove Park (or Whatever).

A standard tour will happily drop you off at these (in)famous places. These are duds and dreadful and should be officially certified as state tourist traps. My lawn is bigger than the Mangrove Park, and more birds. Skip if you can. That jade racket was more fun. Go to Sungai Wang instead, when you come back.

6. Finally, Oh My English!

The Chinese love the English language. They've a long way to go. But, believe me, pretty soon they'll speak English better than our public university graduates. Notices and signs everywhere carry the English translations. The intention is noble enough, but you'll almost always end up bemused and amused. You've probably read and heard loads of cruel jokes about this. I can confirm they are all real, not a joke. Here's a selection. Enjoy !      

Whatever It Is, Just Don't Do It.

Warm Prompt? Heat Spout? Mirror Burst? Be Afraid.

So Profound. Haha
If You Don't Brush, The Door Won't Open

Take Your Time To Rise.  Man, Never Thought Of This. Thanks. 

Kg Pandan Backpackers In Action (Plus A Tour Guide)

 The Great Warrior Was Here

Tiap Hari Sayur Dan Air Kosong. Tak Ada Milo Ke? Aparaa.

This Big Guy Is Blocking My View. Wait I'll Tell My Husband.

The Girls Were Laughing At Jade Jokes
"You've Too Little Oxygen, But Too Many WhatsApp Groups" 
Feels Like Taiping. Please Take Us To Jade Factory.

Just In Case You Don't Believe We were In Shenzhen

The Oldest Couple In Shenzhen


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Dalam Kenangan: Yusof Dohab (1953 - 2016)

I lost a friend last week.

A very good friend, and a quietly remarkable person. I thought I'd write a few words in memory of our friendship and the good times we'd had over the years.

I met him for the first time on the very first day we checked into UKM campus way back in 1975. His room was next to mine. We hit off in no time. Not sure how, but we just bonded and ganged up.

We shared the same name, so our fathers had to come in. Our old IC both started with 44. Beyond that, we'd nothing much in common. He was from Kedah, and me, well, you know. I loved football and music and books, while he could never hit a decent tune. I stayed up late, he'd sack out at 9.30. But I could pass along in perfect Kedah tongue. That probably rubbed his sweet spot and sealed the deal.

But there's one more thing that we both passionately shared right to the end: Sense of humour. I'd never met a guy with a sharper sense of humour. Nothing that he couldn't joke about. He had this special talent of seeing the lighter side of anything. His friends, lecturers, brothers, food, sugar readings, and even me, and himself. Nothing escaped his perceptive mind.

When we last met, at a class reunion at Shah Alam, we were making fun of, you've to believe this, Waze. I knew he'd problem locating the venue, but he took it all in his stride "Senang cari tempat ni?" I provoked him. "Senang sangat. Aku pakai Waze". We burst out laughing. He was old-school to the bone, literally scared of  gadgetry and  anything even remotely complicated. His secretary turned on his desktop and did the emails for him. He'd be the last person in the world to use Waze.  

It's hard to be serious whenever we met. There was always something to laugh about. Nothing offensive, just pure, clean fun.       

During those "dark" college days, he'd contrive to occasionally bring a group of Tabligh guys in full garb and gear from the nearby Masjid Al Rahman to my room. He'd call me out as if it was life and death and more. Then he'd stand well behind to watch my reaction as the men-in-white launched into a full-blown sermon. He'd nod repeatedly and smile when I said "In Sya Allah". When it was all over, he'd slip back into my room, trying his best to appear apologetic "Sorry la tadi, tapi aku suka la tengok hang serious dok dengak depa tu lecture", and we both roared with laughter. Nobody else could pull off pranks like this.
We stayed off campus in the second year.  Our lair was a spacious four-room real estate at Lorong Maarof, Bangsar we shared with six or maybe seven other students. He had a sexy Vespa for class commutes and occasional getaways to the old Lake Gardens. I was his PO1 (pembonceng number one).

For some strange reason, I still remember the Vespa's number to this day: KF 5278. The old workhorse is still around at his house in Kedah, tip-top, raring and ready. I'd never expected it to outlive its master.

He didn't graduate first-class or first in class. Neither did I. But he found his true calling as a "government servant", turning in first-rate performance that deserved not one but two Datukship (three if you count the grandchildren, haha). I heard his boss, the minister, just couldn't operate without him in the mix. Of course, he could operate without the minister.

I think what set him apart was his humility. You didn't have to deal with his ego because he didn't have any. The only thing he "bragged" about was his massive cocktail of medications, which, according to him, the doctors prescribed in kilograms. Even with his social standing, he'd remained faithful to his simple tastes and minimal sophistication, no airs and graces, and no fancy philosophies to flaunt. Showy stuff like culture and architecture would never motivate him. He was driven more by his rural and religious roots. With him, you only get what you see. No wonder he was so easy to like and enjoy.

Last year he did me a favour. Although retired, he still had useful connection in high places. My daughter had applied for a Mara loan to do a degree in UK. It was turned down outright. I thought she had a solid case because she was accepted straight into the second year.

So my last resort was to appeal to the minister, incidentally his former boss. He got me an appointment with the minister's personal assistant (his friend). The minister approved and signed, not one question asked. The following week the minister was sacked. No, not because of that appeal letter, but because of 1MDB.

If you want to know, my daughter is now at KDU College, in Damansara, not England. What happened to the letter? Use all your imagination.

A few weeks before the fasting month, he called me just to catch up. He was all over, up and running about his little orchard around his house in Kedah. I accepted his invitation to a fruit-picking and sleep-over at his house after Hari Raya. This time we were serious. I was all game and looking forward to this exciting event. Who knew, we might even get randy enough and hit the road again. Yes, a retro ride on that old Vespa. Man, I couldn't wait.

It was not to be.

I had very little sleep that night of 16 July. Tossing and turning, my thoughts were with his family. He was very ill and had been under intensive care since afternoon. I woke up at 3.30 am. At about 4.30 the message came in, from his phone. His wife Ani wrote.

My heart sank as I looked on, speechless, shaken and swamped by a deep sense of loss and despair.

Happy And Hippie Hairdays. YD And Me (Back)



Monday, June 20, 2016

In The Land Of Brooke And Honey

I was in Kuching for four days early this month.

Nothing new or ground-breaking about that. I mean, Sarawak is still part of Malaysia. And Kuching isn't Dubrovnik. Or Mostar. I've been literally at the receiving end of lots of real-time photos and footage of old city Dubrovnik and new old Mostar bridge from unsuspecting fellow retirees lured into technical tours of the Balkan states. I'm happy enough to be on the mind of these well-meaning friends. The only gripe is that the pics tend to pop up at two in the morning. The last thing I want to see at 2 am is an old bridge.

Now back to this subject of Kuching. My youngest, Sarah, was enrolling in the Asasi Sains program at Unimas. For the less initiated, Unimas is short for Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, not another PAS offshoot. It's the country's eighth public university, with a sprawling campus at Kota Samarahan, just outside Kuching. Well, it's not as renowned or revered as UM or UKM, but it's a fit and proper university nonetheless, with a fit and proper chancellor, medical school, logo, colour, university song and other frills. Unimas has been ranked 200-250th in Asia by QS, higher than any university in Mongolia. All QS rankings are borderline fraud. So don't bother. 

Sarah was 17. She'd never gone to any school further than 500 metres from home. So Kuching felt like Kunming. I went to a school more than 500 km away from home when I was only twelve. I could feel the sense of separation. Sarah's mom and I just thought we should be there with her, at least for the one-day registration. But like all vintage parents, we brought along enough shirts, socks and some cash to hang around in Kota Samarahan for another couple of months, if it ever came to that. I could still picture baby Sarah sleeping tightly in my arms. It all seemed like yesterday. Now I'd to leave her on her own. 

I've only fond memories of Kuching. My first flight ever was to Kuching, way back in June 1979, just two months into Petronas job. My boss knew it was my very first flight and he had a dandy time watching me gripping the seat whenever the plane jerked. We checked in at the Holiday Inn, now renamed Grand Margherita, right on the banks of the Sarawak River. Back then, Kuching was just a sleepy backwater still struggling to free itself from the clutches of Brookes the crooks.  Shops were few and far between. Kuching had, in total, one Malay restaurant.

I'd to fly to Kuching a few more times, the last one was in 1999. But it never occurred to me that one day I'd be sending my daughter off to study here. No, I'd no grudge against Kuching or Sarawak River, it's just that I couldn't come to terms with the idea of Sarah not coming home for lunch. 

Apart from the much-celebrated waterfront and three more Malay restaurants, I must say that Kuching hadn't really changed all that much, even with two full-time mayors running the city. To their credit, the city's old charm and character was untouched, and there had been no attempt to build the world's sexiest structure here despite the oil and gas riches. The town remained relatively unhurried and understated, a stark contrast to, say, the fast-pace USJ, where I'm now, barely breathing, with dust and noise and break-ins every single day since 1991.

A lazy stroll along the waterfront was decidedly liberating without merry migrants hovering and crowding us out. I heard the all-conquering state immigration would deport them on sight, the way they would bundle off Nurul Izzah and the Penang DAP hustlers on arrival before every election. Kuching can now claim to be the only city in the world with two mayors but no Bangladeshis.

How did Sarah end up here? Well, Malaysian higher education is more complex and cruel than crude oil blends. If you don't rack up enough A in your SPM, you've to navigate your way through literally hundreds of public and private and fake universities offering hundreds of diploma and foundation courses. Only those with 10 A+ or more are deemed clever and socially competent and given scholarships to study at Warwick. It's ok if you don' t know where Warwick is.

Getting into private universities is easy. You just show up with your money. Applying to the public universities, on the other hand, can be unnerving. You must select and rank eight courses from some twenty universities with rapping names (UM, UMP, UPM, UPNM etc) and pray that UPU doesn't get them all mixed up and accept your hipster son for a nursing program. The process is simple enough but a wrong course or university choice means your talented child will study to be a lonely radiographer instead of a lonely radiologist.

Sarah took all of ten minutes to decide. She ticked Unimas as her top pick, breaking down the 500-metre barrier. Bravo, girl. 

Why? Why not? Think Leicester City winning the English Premier League. Shock, adventure, romance, intrigue. We knew this place wasn't in the league of UPM, the old agricultural college. But it's just a one-year foundation program, not a degree in low-temperature Physics. So, what the hell. And we thought there'd be plenty of, you know, culture and nature on offer.  True enough, smack in the middle of Unimas campus, there's a 140 million-year old virgin jungle with a live and active Iban village. Don't ask me how a jungle can remain virgin after 140 million years.

The registration Friday morning was over in a jiffy. In 1975 I'd to stand up for two hours to register at UKM. Sarah got to meet her roommate for the first time. She wasn't from Bau or Bario. She was from Bangi. So much for nature and culture.

The advantage of being my age (60+) and in my profession (retiring) is that I could just go around talking and working the crowd with virtually zero risk of being taken too seriously. With 50 years experience in almost anything, I could immediately sense that something wasn't quite right here: nobody spoke Kelantanese. Not one student from Kelantan out of 1000 new students in this foundation program? This pained me.

In 1975 all incoming students in UKM were from Kelantan. Fine, not all, but you get the idea. Seriously, this is a travesty of justice. Unimas is an equal-opportunity university with a world-class campus. It was set up not just for Sarawakians, but for the worthy and willing minds from all states and all corners of the world. 

Even with three airlines flying into Kuching twenty times daily, logistics is still prohibitive for the average Kelantanese household. This is sad. How about free one-time return airfare for these students then? Forget it. This is neither important nor urgent for our leaders. There are more important matters, like forming new parties, slandering one another, the Wall Street Journal etc.


We flew into Kuching on Wednesday, 1 June, without realizing that it's Gawai holiday in Sarawak. There are now 151 public holidays in Malaysia, and it's impossible for a retiree to keep track. My small entourage included my wife, Sarah, Aida and wife's sister, and only six bags (hey).  These people had never been to Sarawak, and all they knew about Sarawak was Sarawak Report.

Kuching was deserted. We decided that we needed a few more items to turn Sarah's dorm into a Ritz Carlton. We were lugging away Sarah's pillow, bolster and extension plug at a Parkson when a girl appeared out of nowhere and stopped us on our tracks.

"Pakcik nak daftar kat Unimas?" She enquired.  It had to be the extension plug.

"Bukan saya. Anak saya ni" I pulled Sarah over.

She's a local and a Chemistry undergraduate at Unimas. (For the record, I had P8 for Chemistry in Form Five). We immediately blitzed her with the usual and unusual questions. She tried her best to encourage and assure us that Unimas was a good choice. Her survival tip for Sarah: "Ko orang jangan lewat".

This girl really warmed our hearts. I forgot her name, you know, one of those modern names that tend to slip off your random access memory faster than five minutes. But we won't forget her. We wouldn't have done in KL what she'd done here.

We were about to exit when a lady with four or five children in tow greeted us with the same question. "Nak daftar kat Unimas?"  Either I'm good-looking or the Sarawak people are all God-sent angels. Or both. And the extension plug.

Her name was Sa'diah. A classic and original Malay name like this is hard to come by these days. She happened to work in Unimas HR. She gave us her number and offered us a ride to Unimas campus for registration Friday morning, "but we've to be very early". At the mere mention of the word "early", we quickly declined. Our notion of early is about 9.30 am.

The next day (Thursday) was still a Gawai holiday. Those guys really need time to come around. Sa'diah called us. She wanted to show us around Kuching and sample the local cuisine, buy kek lapis etc. Again we declined. But she called again in the afternoon, and we'd run out of excuses. So we relented. I decided to stay back and Whats App. But the rest were just happy to hit the town and savour mee kolok and see all the must-see-before-you-die landmarks. Sarah's mom was particularly impressed with the Astana, the official and historical (and probably romantic) residence of the 80-year old Governor (and his 30-year old consort).

Sa'diah came to see us Friday morning during registration to help Sarah settle down. The next day she insisted on taking us on another round of sightseeing. Not even a token resistance this time since we had eight hours to kill before our late evening flight. The trip was shorter than the Balkan technical, but it was pleasant enough.  We veered as far out as Damai Beach passing the iconic Gunung Santubong along the way before swinging back to the airport for our flight to KL. I just stood by, overwhelmed and deeply moved, as the ladies hugged and bid goodbye.  

On board the idle mind had to work overtime as the undercover economist in me was struggling to make sense of it all. What had we remotely done to deserve the random kindness and extraordinary generosity from a complete stranger? We're nothing special. I'm no Prime Minister and, by extension, my wife is not Prime Minister's wife. We're plain and pedestrian, duller than ditch water. So what exactly had driven Sa'diah to go out of her way to make our Kuching visit fun and memorable, leaving her four young children at home to fend for themselves?

Forget all the fancy theories. She's simply a true and virtuous Muslim blessed with a gift of giving. (Gift of giving? Not sure about this expression. But sounds good). The message for me here can't be any more subtler: I've to be kinder, gentler, and ever more gracious. And more grateful, yes. Aida, Sarah, you read it here first.

I was losing all hope when 1MDB was being investigated in seven countries. But this sweet and selfless Sarawak lady has restored my belief in this country.


Sarah has been away from us for more than two weeks now. Everything's fine with her. She's loving her new life. Unimas is every bit what she'd imagined. Wifi could be faster though. Fasting away from USJ is fun. Kak Di (Sa'diah) brought loads of food last weekend. "Ayah, my Bio teacher is a riot. Teka dia orang mana, ha ha?". She posted a pic, with a Bidayuh friend named Myra Ridu. A classmate from Kedah keeps calling her "hang" or "hangpa". Now that looks like culture.