Monday, 24 December 2007

We Die Everyday

I have been staring at it for the last couple of weeks. Not death... but the building you see below. Recognise it? Bet you don't.

This is what we do most of the time when we "redevelop" or "renovate". We get rid of the old so that we can have rebirth.

It just so happened that I was reading Deepak Chopra's The Book of Secrets which I admit was quite a struggle for me trying to grasp the concepts in the book. It has fascinating views. One of them is that we die everyday (our cells do) ... so that we can live. But another theme I have come across elsewhere which is also discussed by Deepak is the concept of attachment. When we become too attached to certain things, we become materialistic. There also some interesting ideas about time - its all about now, don't focus on the past and the future. Maybe I am not getting all of it but I thought about it and about how we should or could justify demolishing an old building so that we can have something new.

Which brings me to the building above. Those of you who studied in USM from the 1970s will remember the Security Guard Office at the first roundabout coming from the Minden Gate. The Pak Guards have moved to a new building and Persatuan Alumni USM is now renovating the old building (the signboard says "ubahsuai") . But it looks to me like wholesale destruction. Only the RC frame is left. If you look at the blue-coloured wall still standing in the picture above, that's the original double-brick load-bearing wall probably dating from the days of the Military Barracks. Some one or some committee must have made a decision that there is no historic or heritage value attached to this building. I was there with a group of people a few months back and I had drawn attention to the location of the old walls and opined that they should try to retain them. I guess my opinion was overruled. That's alright by me but how was the decision made? Who made it? Oh, yes I am sure they don't have old drawings and records to refer to but was it cost or convenience the determining factor?

And I am sure all the construction debris ended up in the landfill. If you look at the artist's sketch, you will wonder why they have to demolish all the walls?

Now here's a nicely (well not really either) restored heritage building which used to be occupied by Alumni USM but now covered with huge advertising signs.

Are we trying to detach ourselves from our past?

Four New Wheels

Ah, not those wheels you were thinking about. Following up on the decision at our Corporate and Sustainable Development Division's Green Office meeting on the 29th Nov 2007, we finally got 4 new wheels. I wanted yellow but the shop didn't have any in that colour. And it was a bit of a hassle buying bicycles. Most of the bicycle shops won't accept Purchase Order. So the Chief Clerk (Rahman) paid for it in cash out of his own pocket first to be claimed back later.

I took it for spin. Oh, man downhill was a breeze - in fact, a little too fast. And uphill got my heart pumping like mad. In fact, I had to push the bike up one of the steeper slopes. If anyone of you want to take it for a spin around campus, come on over.
Zaidi and Rahman trying out the new bikes
This is where I go cycling near my house. In another 10 or 20 years, this will be gone.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Fish Eyes

So you think you know a thing or two about fishing? Just throw in the line and wait for the bite? Yeah, maybe if you are using line and bait. It's all luck and patience. Or maybe you can read the water and know where the fishes are? Well, I met a guy with a net on the Port Dickson beach and was quite intrigued by his skills. He can read the water and see where the schools of fishes are. Something about the fish coming up to breathe. He showed me how. And I tried. "There, there, I can see it", I shouted. Nah, that's not it, he said. He watches the water and everytime he throws the net, he gets some fish. But quite often the fishes seemed to behave as though they did go to school (that's his joke, get it? School of fish?) cause they seems to be able to anticipate his movements and zip off in the other direction as the net closes in. On a good day, he can get even up to two baskets (see the basket on his back) full of fish in one single throw. No kidding. Why does he do it? For the thrill, he says. So is there a lesson here? Ah ... mmmmh .... let me think about it a little.

So why was I in PD? I was one of the facilitators for a third workshop for an examination body looking at the futures of exams. If you want to know more, wait for our book. But is there a future for exams? Well, it will take a long time but what's coming on the horizon is a shift to less exams and more on flexible assessments. Ultimately, assessment will focus on the individual's talents and capabilities. Very one is different and assessment will move towards what the "exam people" call "profiling". Don't be alarm. It's not the sinister profiling you read about that targets specific groups of people as being security risk. It's an exciting development which we should all look forward to.

Ah, PD. I remember when we were kids in Muar. When we talk about going to the beach ... its PD. PD now is I think over-developed with too many hotels and resorts along the beach. There does not seem to be that much demand except during the weekends. I managed to rent a bicycle for an hour but I could not ride on the beach and the road was just noisy and full of speeding vehicles. So I walked on the beach (that's how I met the man with fish eyes, 2020 vision). And I came across this sign put up by the local authorities.

It says "Please Note : The damages to the bridge WILL be repaired. Any accident is your own responsibility". How long do you think the sign has been there? According to man with 2020 vision, more than one and half years. Wow! And how serious is it? See for yourself. Kids are on the bridge. Newly weds are having their photos taken. Another disaster waiting to happen.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Clothes made from plastic bottles

Take a good look at the clothes you are wearing. Ever thought it could have been made from recycled plastic bottles? The next time you see a crumpled dirty plastic bottle, pick it up and send it on the way to the recycling plant. Who knows, you might end up "wearing the bottle" one day.

They sort them, wash them, cut them up and then cut them some more into flaks, pack them in sacks and send them to some factory (in China?) to be made into clothings. According to the operator of the waste recovery plant, they are made into thick winter clothings.

A group of students and some staff from USM visited a waste recovery plant in Juru to learn more about waste separation in preparation for our Green Office blitz next week. The boss himself obliged with giving us a guided tour. So here's what we learnt. The waste paper are separated into three major categories :

(1) black and white paper - this is white paper with black printing on it. It is the second highest quality (after completely white paper which are mainly from the cuttings of commercial printers). In Malaysia this is mostly used to make high quality tissue paper. Yes, tissue paper. What about recycled paper for printing (you know, the A4 paper for your printer and photocopier?). Well, apparently the quality is not good enough for recycling into white paper (a lot of black spots). What? We can't get recycled white paper? I was totally disappointed. But I am not giving up. Even 50% recycled paper is better than nothing. Those comics printed on kinda yellowish coarse paper (you know the Chinese Lao Fu Zhi comics?)- yes, those paper are recycled paper made from this category of waste paper.

(2) white mixed colour paper - this is paper printed in colour which can still be washed to get "white" paper. If you see any colour magazine, tire it up and look between the printed sides. If you see white in between then it is white mixed paper. Can be used for making low quality tissue (the operator said those "tissues" you find in Chinese restaurants). Also used for making brown paper or cartons. If you see printed brochures or flyers, turn it over and if it is white on the other side than it falls in this category. The brown cardboards in packing boxes (without printing) also falls in this category.

(3) mixed colour paper - this can only be used for making cartons or brown paper. Includes those pink, green, blue, yellow colour paper (for lecturers, the pink for SKT forms) and magazines.

Then of course there is old newspapers which a category by itself. These can be recycled in newsprint.

Other things you should know. If there is a plastic layer on the page (such as on the cover of magazines), it cannot be recycled. The plastic won't melt on the waste paper is boiled during the recycling process. The trick is to tire the page and if there is a plastic-like layer it will show. And those envelopes with windows - the plastic should be removed.

Tissue can also be recycled but tissues are already very low quality and have very few fibres. Even if you sneeze and blow your nose full of disgusting mucus into the tissue, it can still be recycled (according to the operator). They will be boiled and all germs will be killed. Disgusting.

Click on the picture above and see if your can find the two women sorting the waste paper? Can you identify the various types of sorted paper in the huges bags?

Burning question : is it worth our effort to have the USM staff and students separate the different types of paper?

See the pile on the left? That's about half a metric ton (500 kilograms) of mixed paper. You will be able to get about RM100 from the recycling agent for that stack. If you sort it, that stack of black and white paper can fetch RM250. Yeah, its worth it but I think doing waste separation should be a habit. In developed countries, if you don't sort your waste everything will be considered thrash and you will have to pay more to get rid of it.

The sorted paper are compacted into bales for transport to the paper mills. There are 2 or 3 such mills in the northern region but no one makes recycled paper for printing.

Hey, who says it it all thrash. See the guy enjoying a "quiet" time reading (old) newspaper?
Behind him is the machine to compact and make bales of sorted paper.

Keep a date for Green Office activities : 28th Nov 2007 at Eureka Building, 9.30 am for PPKT. 29th Nov 2007 at Corporate and Sustainable Development Division 3.00 pm. 30th Nov 2007 at Canselori with VC Office, Registrar and Bursar 3.00 pm.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

My Green Diary

I tried to be Green today.

7.24 am - Went bicycling with my youngest daughter. Took her to the padi fields across the road. The morning sun was beautiful, playing softly with the lush green fields of young padi stalks. If you are lucky you can see fighter jets taking off or landing as the narrow gravel road cut right across the end of the RMAF airfield runway. There is no traffic at all on these country roads. You get to enjoy the view of the hills in the distance and even see the top of KOMTAR. The only drawback is the smell of pesticide and weedkillers. The International Rice Research Institute has acknowledged that advances made in double-cropping and higher yield varieties have had negative impacts in terms of the pollution from chemicals used to control pest and weeds and the higher amount of fertilisers used. And did you know that padi fields generate alot of methane, a Green House Gas, when the fields are flooded? But we Asians can't do without rice right? Ah, but urban growth is encroaching into our rice fields. My daughter asked "what's going to happen to our food?"

8.24 am - made it back for breakfast. Asked my daughter if she wants to do it again? "Not tomorrow" she said. She needs to catch her breadth. Makes me feel that "hey, I am doing alright, (stamina-wise)".

9.00 am - straight to my computer to work on the budget for Kampus Sejahtera for 2008. Answer emails. Gave instructions to my RO and other staff to make preparations for the Green Office activities we are organising end of this month. I decided that I won't drive to the office this morning. That's one more green point for me today.

12.10 noon - went to cut up the yam, the meat, the mushroom, garlic, shallot in preparation for dinner. Told my wife I would be late this evening and she would have to take over the cooking.

12.30 noon - took a quick bath. Filled up a tumbler with water to bring along with me. Small foldable umbrella. Put them in a bag and ..

12.51 noon - started walking to the bus stop

12.56 pm - arrived at bus stop at Teluk Air Tawar

12.59 pm - got on the RapidPenang bus heading for the Butterworth Jetty. Fare RM1.50. As I sat down I noticed the sign on the window saying "Please keep the ticket for inspection". Damn, the driver didn't give me a ticket. I debated whether I should go up to claim my ticket or face getting jailed? I decided to be a green activitist - if the ticket inspector were to ask for my ticket I would claim that it is "against my principle to take the ticket because it generates rubbish". What do think? Do you think he will buy it?

1.24 pm arrived at the Jetty, paid RM1.20, waited about 10 minutes for the ferry. Boarded and contemplated getting a bun for lunch. Didn't look too appetising.

1.50 pm (or thereabouts) - got off the ferry. No time to eat my favourite beef noodle soup at the Penang Island side of the Jetty. Too rush to check the signboards so asked a passing RapidPenang staff which bus to take to KOMTAR. He pointed to two buses and said anyone of them. I had contemplated whether I should go and support the poor Penang Yellow Bus. I decided my better bet was RapidPenang. Got one, confirmed that it is going to KOMTAR, paid RM1.00 and the bus left almost immediately. The Yellow Bus was still bleeping for passengers (they wait until they have almost a full load before leaving).

2.10 pm - the bus stopped right in front of an economy rice shop which seemed to be enjoying brisk business.
Oh, the RapidPenang buses seems to stop anywhere when the passengers "ring" the bell. So, I had my economy rice, easy on the rice, and three vegetables - cost RM3.30 plus iced barley (RM0.80). Still pretty cheap huh, lunch in Penang?

2.24 pm - already at the foyer of Auditorium A, KOMTAR. Registered and chatted with some old friends from my days working at the Municipal Council of Penang Island.

2.31 - 5.05 pm - listened to two presentation on greening the buildings organised by PUSPANITA (organisation of lady government servants and wives of senior government officers). Graced by the Chief Minister. Did I get anything out of it? On a scale of 1 to 5, I would say may 2. I think it is an excellent effort but it is an opportunity lost.

5.06 pm - looked at the tea spread out; grabbed a curry puff and headed for the bus stop.

5.20 pm (about) - boarded a mini RapidPenang for the Jetty. Ran to catch the waiting ferry. Sometimes you may have to wait quite a bit for the passenger ferry. I think the Penang Port Authority is more focussed on making money from the vehicular traffic.

6.10 pm (about) - slight drizzle and huge puddles of water at the Butterworth bus terminal. Didn't know which bus is going my way. Asked one bus driver and he said the other one. Some idiot at the back of the bus keeps pressing on the bell to make the bus driver stop quickly (instead of at the bus stops) and the irritated driver obliges. It happened a few times during the journey. Is this the new protocol - stop whenever the passengers presses the bell? As the bus approached Air Tawar and the traffic thinned out, the driver picked up speed. I was surprised because so far they seemed to be very calm and controlled. I was seated right behind the driver and saw the speedometer touch 80 kph. And the speed limit on that stretch? 60 kph. One down for RapidPenang.

6.30 pm - walking back to home sweet home. Got a phone call almost 50 metres from the house from my wife asking whether I needed a lift. Thanks, honey.

9.53 pm - end of my Green Day. Hope you will also have a green day. My next adventure will be to take the public transport to USM.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Greening your office

So, tell me, what do you see in the picture above?

Of course, you see the plants. They are green and they are living, not plastic. The curtains are not closed. The window invites natural light into your office. This not only saves energy (from not having to switch on the lights) but is also beneficial for your mental well-being. You can't see it well from this angle but the monitor is "black" (not on screen-saver with pictures moving around). Yes, switch off the monitor if you are going away from your work-station for a long time. Did you know that LCD monitors use only 10-20% as much power as CRT monitors? Put your computer on standby (energy-saving mode) when not in use; remember to off the computer before you leave your office and pull out the plug from the wall socket. A computer left operating for 24 hours a day dumps 1,500 lbs of CO2. It will take 100-150 trees just to offset this yearly emissions.

Ah, did you notice the tiny thrash bin? Yes, small is good. If you have a big thrash bin it suggests that you have a lot of thrash. But in fact, a lot of what goes into the thrash can be reused or recycled. Notice the green "sack" beside the thrash bin? That's my paper recycle bin I made yesterday. I was walking by a bag of thrash yesterday (see picture below) and saw a banner inside the bag. We had actually been trying for sometime to get hold of old banners to make into recycle bins.

The idea to reuse the banners was first suggested by some students from Kelab Alam Sekitar and Tzu Chi. I was wondering how to construct the bin without too much effort or having to use too much more materials like glue or cellophane tape. Then I remembered the huge gunny sacks used to store rice. I just folded the banner over to a suitable size with sufficient overlap at the ends to make sure the bin does not split open easily. One end (the bottom) I folded over a little (to make it stiff and "leak" proof) and stapled it (used a bigger-sized staple). For the top I just repeatedly folded the edge over (about 4 times) to hold the mouth or top opening. Simple. Very little extra materials needed. Easy to carry or transport. Colourful too.

Yes, we are initiating a Green Office (Pejabat Sejahtera) programme for USM. Stay tuned for more details. Meanwhile visit for interesting stuff.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

The bus driver(s)

It's just one tragedy after another. There was this horrific crash involving a bus on the highway. Then all the dirty secrets came out. Many drivers were high on drugs or had multiple unpaid traffic summons but still on the road. The drivers spend long hours on the road because they are paid a miserable sum per trip. Of course the authorities will come crushing down hard on the drivers (who will protest and refuse to drive) and the companies (who will probably bite their tongue pay up, create another company, walk the corridors of power, get another set of permits and the show goes on). Yesterday, a lady died when the emergency exit of a Penang Rapid bus burst open (throwing her out) and the bus company is baffled how that could have happened when the glass cover securing the latch was still intact. And more horrific was the fire on the Mersing-Tioman ferry two days ago killing 4 with 2 still missing. Survivors claimed there was not enough life jackets but the company insisted everything was in order. It reminded me of my recent trip to Langkawi Island by ferry (sometime in May 2007) from Kuala Perlis. I vowed never to take that ferry again. That is another tragedy waiting to happen.

Which brings me to a bunch of Aussie students from South Australia. They have been coming to USM in droves to work with my planning students for the past six years. It is not all work. We allow them to play too. Oh, actually, we join them as much as we can. One of our social and bonding activity was a half-day (actually one morning) trip to Pantai Kerachut which is reportedly the smallest National Park in the World.

OK, OK, so what has this got to do with bus drivers? Well, look in the picture below. Can you spot a couple of bus drivers in there? Hint : not Malaysians.

USM-UniSA students and lecturers
on the way to Pantai Kerachut on on 29 September 2007

We tracked into forest to get to Pantai Kerachut (the beach) which took us more than one and half hours - some faster than others. And I was last on the beach and my excuse was that I was constantly distracted (with camera in hand) and I was making sure that no one got left behind. It was a good track but I thought that the Park people are just trying too hard with the concrete steps. I also didn't get an overwhelming feeling about being in a national forest. In fact, I appreciated the forest more when I was standing on the beach looking into the hills and also on the boat ride back. I think we need to make nature engulf us as we track through the forest.

Alright, alright, back to the bus drivers. While waiting for the USM bus to pick us back to campus, I had a chat with some of the University of South Australia (UniSA) students and discovered that two of the students are bus drivers with a bus company in Adeliade. Wow, they threw me off a little. First you have to go for about 4 weeks training to be certified. They work 8-hour shifts. What's the take home pay, you want to know? Well, in Ringgit, it is about a hundred thousand a year (which is about 33,000 Aussie dollars a year) which is mind boggling for Malaysians but about the average income for a household in Australia. Don't believe? According to Peter (one of the student-bus driver), on a Sunday, his one-day shift will mean a take home pay of about RM900 - you are seeing it right!! Yes, there is big demand for bus-drivers down under and they are importing foreigners to do the job. Private bus companies are very profitable in Adeliade because they are 75% subsidised by the government. It seems this "privatisation" model has saved the South Australian government a couple of hundred million dollars a year. But conditions are very strict for drivers. There is a zero alcohol policy and random checks are conducted by the police - there is no second chance; drivers are sacked if they breach this policy. Oh, if they leave any bus stop earlier than the scheduled time as stated on the bus timetable, the driver gets fined.

Has the bus system changed the travelling habits of the people? Apparently not. The "rich" continue their love affair with their cars. Who is more likely to use public buses? Well, Peter is doing a thesis to prove that residents of lower income areas are more likely to use the public bus. So, to be profitable, the bus companies should put more routes and higher frequency of trips through lower income areas.

Any lessons for Malaysia? Can you imagine Malaysian university student driving buses or taxis to support themselves through university education? Well, even they want to, I don't think our university system allows them to work and study at the same time. It is one mad rush to finish lectures, assignments, exams every semester. And as for the bus companies, first we had public buses operated by the local government; we sold them off in the name of privatisation; now we are pumping millions in Rapid Penang, a government-owned company. Is deep pockets now the answer to public transportation. Of just another knee-jerk reaction to over-demanding Penangites.

Here's one for the album, ready to print, frame, hang and to remember ...
BTW, on the boat trip back, we insisted that everyone put on a life jacket.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

The taximan

I don't like to take taxis most of the time. But sometimes you have no choice. Sometimes you meet mean obnoxious guys who get upset that your fare is small because you are travelling a short distance from the train station. There was once at the KL Sentral where the taxi driver looked at the coupon I gave him, got a little agitated and "hijacked" another passenger for the same trip. According to him, for him to come back to KL Sentral after dropping me off who take a long time. Well, OK, it does make sense.

Yesterday I went to Putrajaya for a meeting and shared a taxi with a couple others. Along the way we saw an overturned airport limo and I started chatting with our driver about the life of a KLIA taxi driver.

The taxis are owned by the company and are supposedly leased to the drivers on hire-purchase for 5 years. Technically, after 5 years, the taxi would belong to the driver but usually after 3 years or so the cars would be in bad shape so the company will take back the cars and offer new ones with a new contract. Now at RM150 a day for 5 years, that works out to more than RM275,000 - compared to cost of Proton Wira of RM50,000? What do the drivers get? Insurance, yes. Medical, yes. Maintenance (I think drivers have to pay). On top of that, for coupons up to RM100 the company deducts RM1; for coupons above that, the deduction is RM2. And if the driver picks up passengers from elsewhere to KLIA, the company detects RM5. And if the drivers don't show up in the queue and there's a big backlog of passengers waiting for taxis, all hell breaks loose. The drivers are fined RM50.

The taxi driver pays RM150 a day, every day even if he does not drive. So, there is no holiday unless the driver can get some one to take over because he continues paying RM150 per day, regardless. Now, after paying RM150 how long does the driver have to drive every day? My driver's response was 24 hours!! What? Well, there are good days and there are bad days but on average, to earn a profit the driver has to make about 6 or 7 trips a day; making 3 trips can cover only the cost of the daily rental.

Well, you say, what's so difficult about making 7 trips a day? If you are unlucky, you could get stuck in the KL crawl delivering a passenger to the city centre during peak hours. And drivers do not get to choose their passenger or where they want to go. They follow the queue. And the queue is something else. Yesterday was actually a slow day - in fact according to the driver, the number of flights coming in and going out has dropped drastically. But anyway, as he sent me back to the airport after the meeting, he pointed to the waiting area where all the drivers have to queue in carpark waiting for their turn. The holding time (at that time, about 1 pm) would be about 2 hours in the carpark. And then they move up to the arrival exit for perhaps another queue of about 1 hour. So, working from 6 am to 12 midnight is normal to "make ends meet". Which is why accidents like the overturned taxi (in heavy downpour) happens.

But wait, what is this I hear about this driver having a daughter in a European school doing medicine? Apparently, its very cheap, about RM20,000 a year. Oh, just a minute, he's got another one in A-levels aiming for law. Wow, I was really blown over. This guy is really sweating in out to give his children a head start. In a couple of years, hopefully he can relax a little when his daughter graduates. Ah, but he regretted opting for early retirement from the government service. Said he would have stayed put if he had known the government would give such a hefty pay rise recently. Good luck Mr. M!

Friday, 31 August 2007

The (Long) Road to Galle

"Galle remains the best example of a fortified city built by Europeans in South and Southeast Asia " - statement from the ICOMOS recommendation for World Heritage List No 451, dated Dec 31, 1986.

The APSA 2007 Conference Organisers gave participants two choices for a post-conference tour - to the Ancient City of Sigiriya or Colombo. Only one registered for Colombo so that was cancelled. I could not take up the trip to Sigiriya because they will be back only at about 9 pm while my flight was 10 pm. I chatted with the people organising the trips and was convinced that I should go to Galle (pronounced "Gall" not "Gallee") because it is a World Heritage site. Eventually, Angelique (originally from Kerala, now in Cardiff) and her two sons joined me on the long journey to and from Galle.

Sanjeetwani, a recent planning graduate from the University of Moratuwa and now an instructor at her alma mater, was our guide for the day. She, like most (probably all) Sri Lankans I have met are extremely polite and even-tempered. I told her my goal that day would be to make her angry. She smiled and said "yes sir". I asked her to pray for the sun to come out so that my photos will look great, and she said "I will try sir". I also said I missed my noodles and she said she will try to find me some, sir. But honestly, even the hotel staff are very polite - even then I observed an overbearing foreign tourist telling the counter staff to make some copies of documents within "the next five minutes" (he was apparently annoyed with the Internet service). The journey to Galle took longer than expected (more than 3 hours I think) but it was bearable because Angelique and I were still fresh and had the energy to chat about academic stuff (what else?). I actually first heard her presenting a paper at the Hanoi APSA 2003 but we didn't get to talk until this trip.

Along the way, the subject of toddy came up (I think it was a picture in a tourist guidebook showing ropes tied across coconut trees used for harvesting toddy). We all wanted to try, including Sanjeeni (who's father had not allowed her to try). The driver spotted a roadside vendor and we all excitedly went down to have a taste. But when we saw the condition of the wooden barrels used to store the toddy, we all decided against risking a stomach upset. The driver told us that they are all like that but getting a stomach upset is not a trivial matter when you are travelling (Terry McGee politely said "he had a reaction to the food" the morning after the Conference Dinner). Some of my fellow APSA colleagues actually travel with various medication, including for stomach upset, in their suitcases.

One of the stops we made was at a Buddhist temple. The stopover itself was not very eventful but while waiting for the van to pick us up again, we observed two interesting phenomenon. The first was a group of school boys and girls visiting the temple (see picture on left). Nothing special about that until you notice that they are all Muslims students on a school field trip. It was a very powerful image of religious tolerance in Sri Lanka.

The other interesting phenomenon was that the road in front of the temples (actually there is another temple on the other side of the road) was embedded with lots of coins. Yes, embedded into the road. It is a Buddhist tradition to give donations when asking for blessings from Buddha. So how come the coins are on the road and not in the donation box? Sanjeetwani explained that villagers travelling on buses passing the temples would throw the coins out of the bus windows because the buses won't stop for them. But the most incredible thing is that nobody else will pick them up and put them in their own pockets. I didn't even see any beggars around the temples.

Now, Galle. We didn't get to see much of it because we spent so much time travelling and then it started to rain heavily. But through Sanjeetwani's connections we managed to visit the inside of one of the houses and even talked to the Chairman of the Galle Heritage Foundation. One thing which seems to stand out is that it seems to be the only place in the World where old Dutch architecture is still standing. So, the irony is that the Dutch (Government) is pumping a lot of money to help preserve its own heritage thousands of miles of away.
Typical Dutch buildings from the 18th Century in Galle

One of the questions the Chairman of the Foundation asked us was what we thought of Galle. I said that I could see some very nice buildings but also saw that there were restoration works which appeared to be a little insensitive to the architectural heritage (in terms of materials used for instance). He defended the Foundation's position in permitting those restorations and I guess they have a legitimate right to adopt a more dynamic approach to allow changes in culture, traditions and even current construction materials. For instance, did you know that the walls were constructed with corals and sand from the nearby beaches? That's causing a lot of problem for current restoration works. Galle has also become more predominantly Muslim who prefer to have houses which are not so open. But things can get out of hand like the foreigner who was refused permission to put a swimming pool in his house but did it anyway. When the enforcement people came to demolish the pool they demolished some parts of the old heritage walls as well. Sanjeetwani can just look at the front of the building and know whether a foreigner has bought over the house and made changes out of character with the original. It seems that after the Tsunami, many foreign relief workers have taken a liking to Galle but are not too sensitive to the architectural heritage.
On the left is a house which has been restored but I felt it was not very sensitively carried out (note the gutter and sunshade and absence of a deep verandah in front)
In the middle is a rundown courtyard house

Then there's the problem of guidelines being too restrictive. We visited a house which is leaking all over the place and the wooden beams and timber floors are rotting away. The occupant (who's father operated a guest house from that building) claimed that the current owner refused to allow him to renovate or restore the house. There was also claims that the Authorities and the owner are at loggerheads, each with their own ideas of how to restore the building.
Inside of the rundown leaky courtyard house

BTW, we had Chinese fried noodles (4 or 5 huge plates) for lunch in a nice restaurant in Galle. The restaurant was nice, but the noodles ... emmph, it was a little too much and not Chinese enough. After that, we were off to some souvenir shopping. And then Sanjeetwani asked whether it was OK if she did not accompany me to the airport (her family has a house in Galle and her father is a tea farmer) - I told you they are just really polite. I said "yes, it is perfectly alright!" - what else did you think I would have said?. If the situation were reversed, I would probably have told my guest "hey, this is where take off, have a nice journey, see you again".

The journey back to Colombo was uneventful - because we were all tire out and trying to sleep, which was difficult because of the not so comfortable seats and lack of air-conditioning. By the time we reached Colombo to drop off Angelique and sons, I was quite thoroughly numb but nothing compared to the next one and half hour ride to the airport which I can only describe as noxious. My driver suddenly became a demon on the road, driving fast, zigzaging in and out of traffic and persistently beeping on the horn as though telling everyone to make way for a VVIP. When we reached the airport, he pointed to his watch to say it was 7 pm and we are at the airport. Then I understood. He must have somehow got the impression I had to reach the airport by 7 pm. Lesson learnt? People in Sri Lanka take their promises seriously.

So I spent like 7 hours (or more) on the road to spend perhaps only 2 hours in Galle. Wish I had more time to walk and absorb the streets of Galle. I slept throughout my plane ride from Colombo via Male to KL, skipping all the meals and then more sleep back home in Air Tawar.

Incidentally, did you know that Sri Lanka has 6 World Heritage Sites?

Happy 50th Birthday Malaysia

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Poya & Apo

The luscious eyes of a Sri Lankan beauty
(since you are asking, I took the photo of this traditional dancer at the Conference Dinner)

Yes, I did say I would be coming back this way. Been in Colombo since Sunday afternoon for the APSA Congress 2007 as well as the various Executive Committee meetings.

Food in Ceylon (old Sri Lanka) is not much different from back in Malaysia. In fact there was Tong Yam for dinner, nasi goreng, fried noodles, brinjals and curries, of course.

Breakfast at the hotel is more modest compared to Maldives and hotels in Malaysia but still generous except I miss my chicken porridge but than there is the "string hopper" - apparently a British name for "apo" but Malaysians will be more familiar with apom. Over here it is served in the shaped of a bowl and you can have an egg in it. Eat with chilly and curries. I would say this has been my favourite breakfast for the past 2 mornings.

So, what is "Poya", you ask? This is one day every month where alcohol is totally prohibited - during full moon. Poya is also a monthly holiday to allow the Buddhist to fulfill their religious obligations. That was yesterday (Tuesday) and the restaurants and bars (even those in the hotels) do not serve liquor - and the streets are quite deserted. This law is observed religiously. I thought it a great idea - gives people a chance to detox.

Conferences are about meeting up with old friends and meeting new ones. Nihal, Utpal and I walked the streets of Hanoi at midnight in 2003 and we continued our "tradition" again on Monday night except we now had a tour guide (Nihal was born and bred in Colombo). We try to appreciate and not be judgmental. We walked for 2 hours through tight security around the old fort area which is residence to the Prime Minister. Every street leading to the area has soldiers on the streets and in bunkers keeping a watchful eye. Vehicles are flagged down at random to look for suspicious characters. We were flagged down when we took a "toot-toot" or taxicab (those modified scooters) and our guide was "interrogated" (ok, a bit of an exaggeration here) and had his passport checked. Apparently, they leave foreigners pretty much alone. If you are wondering why all the fuss, its their way of staying vigilant against Tamil Tiger attacks. From what I see, the locals seems to take it all in their stride. I am told that other parts of the island are less stressful for travellers. I will know tomorrow when I go a day trip to Galle, an ancient World Heritage Site.

Lik Meng renewing friendships with Nihal and Utpal and making a new one.
The old gentleman (2nd from right) is Terry McGee, a household name in academic circles. He used to teach at Universiti Malaya in the 1960s or 70s.

Part of the APSA Executive Committee right after the elections yesterday evening
from left : Yukio Nishimura and Utpal Sharma (Committee Members)
Lik Meng (President); Mahanama (Vice-President) and Anthony Yeh (Secretary-General)
Missing from picture are Do Hau (Past President) and Hsia

Time to go catch some sleep. Leaving for Galle at 6 am (2 and half hour journey) and from Galle straight to the Airport for home. I have not really seen much of Colombo but the people are very friendly and the streets seems safe though full of rubbish and homeless people in some parts. At the conference I heard some animated discussions about the work being done by planners and others to improve the life of the local people. Politics however seems to be the spoiler here too.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

A Little Older, A Little Wiser

Malaysia celebrates 50 years of Nationhood in 6 day's time. Yesterday evening, we had our Merdeka Campus Walk (but without the walk) at the Sports Stadium.

The first thing I noticed when I reached the Stadium (after almost half hour of walking from my office at Korporat) was the row of familiar-looking packages of food laid out on a long table. "Not again" was my first reaction. When I got closer, I noticed that the packages were not white but brownish. Ah, we have become wiser. This time around they used EcoPaks which are totally biodegradable since they are made of palm fibre and has no wax coating. Still alot of thrash but let's take it one step at a time. Good job to the organisers of the event.
Remember my earlier post "Please, Walk on the Grass"? I am happy to report that the new pedestrian walkway at the Aman-Damai hostel area (closeby the Stadium) has been completed. They covered up the open drain and now we have walkway which is shielded from the traffic by huge beautiful christmas trees. Another great job, guys. Now let's remove the old pavement of interlocking blocks and plant more grass instead.

Below are some images from the senamrobik that evening.

University top management including
the Deputy Vice-chancellor (Student Affairs),
staff and mostly students at the senamrobik.
Hey, I still haven't got my rhythm

Now we all want to fly - the Jalur Gemilang

The ladies - making their presence felt

More ladies - old friends from HBP

Yes, we are little wiser and we are happy with that. But much more can be done. I had an earlier conversation with Anwar Fazal in my office that morning and we talked about the recent RCE Conference and what more could have been done to internalise our habits and practices, such as not handing out drinking water in disposal plastic bottles and containers. And yes, there were boxes and boxes of drinking water in plastic boxes at the senamrobik. Let's think about how we can overcome this.

I also chatted with Azman, our Registrar. And this is the second time he has surprised me with his ideas for sustainable development. At almost every event, we must have a lucky draw to attract the crowd. But why give them hampers with junk food and wrapping which ends up in the thrash? He suggested giving the lucky participants food coupons to be used in the canteen. I think that is a great idea. We could also give them vouchers to buy books from our USM bookstore or other bookstore - after all, we are a community of intellectuals, right?

The Aliens are Here!

Just attended (part) of the Seminar organised by the Malaysian Nature Society, sponsored by the Economic Planning Unit here in the lecture hall across from my office.

If you have been to Australia you would have noticed the huge signs welcoming you saying "Declare it or thrash it" and right underneath the signs are huge thrash bins. You can't bring in any meat products and other fresh produce. An alien species could wipe out their whole agricultural industry. I also remember when we were traveling by car from Washington State to California and was surprised to see a checkpoint where all they wanted to know was whether you have any fresh fruits in your car. I looked around our car, saw the plastic bag of some left over cherries (grown in California, bought in Oregon), showed it to the officer, who took it and promptly dropped it into the thrash bin.

Malaysia is full of alien species. The best known are the rubber and and oil palm trees but these have economic value so we welcome them. But did you know that the British introduced crows to control insect infestation of coffee plants (another alien) in the Klang area? Now of course crows are everywhere in Malaysia - and coffee is dead. Cats are aliens and so are many types of pets. They are pretty to look at but when their value drop or people got tired of them, what do they do with the pets? Remember the Lohan fish which was the craze just a few years ago and fetched hundreds or thousands of dollars? Well, when the market for Lohan collapsed, the owners released them into the rivers. These fish are predators - they eat up all the algae and the eggs of other fishes. Now, it seems they have become the dominant species in many rivers in the Klang Valley. So, what is the problem with that? Lost of bio-diversity and this can have severe ecological and economic consequences. Mashbor calls this biological pollution. Kumar of MNS who's office is near the Botanical Garden in Penang reports very often seeing well-meaning owners releasing their pet fish and turtles in and near the Garden, severely disrupting the local ecological system. All the hycinths plants (which are also alien and invasive but have tide and erosion control uses) are now gone, eaten by the turtles.

The beautiful angsana and flame of the forest are all aliens. In fact, all the flowering plants in Malaysia are imported; even the national flower, the hibiscus (bunya raya). Yes, we want diversity but alien species can dominate and wipe out indigenous species.

What can we do about it? Nothing - once the aliens have a foothold.

USM's Main Campus in Penang Island is a Bird Sanctuary and the scientists are quite happy about the biodiversity on campus - 130 species of plants, 17 species of mammals from 9 families, 106 species of birds from 34 families, 26 species of reptiles from 11 families and 8 species of amphibia from 4 families. Pretty impressive, don't your think?

But I think the worst invasive species are OURSELVES - the humans. It gives me a heartache whenever I pass by the two lakes near Desa Harapan (see picture below).

Sunday, 19 August 2007


Maldives (Mal-deeves) is a string of more than 1100 islands of which only about 100 are inhabitated. So, what has it got to offer? "Sun, Sea, Salt" - and I would add "Wind". The waters are crystal clear. The sky is a beautiful blue. The fishes are colourful. The corals are ... well, in some parts pretty, in other parts broken but I am not sure how much of it was caused by the tsunami and how much by snorkellers.

My wife and I spent three nights of glorious peace at the Club Med, Kani - an island 800 metres long and 200 metres wide. When you buy a vacation at Club Med, everything is paid for (unless you want extras). We arrived after midnight (partly due to the delayed departure at KLIA because some idiot checked in but did not board so they spent one hour digging through the luggage compartment to throw out his bag before we could take off) - and like most resorts checkout time is 12 noon. But guess what, guests (called Gentle Members, GM) can stay and enjoy all facilities and eat and drink until we board the boat to take us to the airport for our departure (we left the island at 10 pm). Yes, all you can eat and drink (expresso, capucino, beer and wine inclusive) throughout your stay. Snorkelling, windsurfing, kayaking, boating - all "free". If you want a Balinese massage, that's extra.

All in all, the food was fair, not excellent - we expected better for the money we paid. Sigh, we didn't see any lobster (not even big prawns) on the table but there's plenty of fish around. And even if you miss breakfast or lunch, they make sure you don't go hungry because snacks are available.

The traditional-looking huts (picture above) cost a bomb to stay in. They look lovely but that's not where we stayed. Most of the other buildings on land are rather plain looking concrete structures with metal roofing which I thought rather "ugly" given the authentic island architecture of the buildings you see in the picture above. I have no complains about the inside - modern, easy maintenance, clean and comfortable - and all have a view of the sea and beach.

Wonder how they get water and electricity? Drinking water comes from the sea (desalinated) so it tastes a little different which is why everyone goes for the bottled mineral water and that is so bad for the environment. By the time we left, the dustbin in our room was filled with empty plastic bottles. Electricity is generated on the island using diesel which is smelly and noisy (but luckily we were quite far away). The good thing is that almost every building has a solar water-heater on the roof. And where do they throw their trash? I am told that they burn it in an incinerator on a small island. Now that's not good.

The people who run the show are something else. They are called GOs or Gentle Organisers. They do everything including putting up a fantastic show. I tried to ask a few of them, "What makes a GO? What drives them?". Is it all fun and games? Carefree lifestyle? Is it because they love the sun and sea? They like meeting people? No one gave me a straight answer. But they work long hours sometimes from 8 in the morning until 12 midnight - and I am told for very low pay (compared to what, you may ask). And they are on half-year contracts and out they go if they don't measure up. Some are more friendly then others. But what I like is that there seems to be a deliberate effort to make sure the GOs come from all over the world. They have some 80 GOs and 4 of them are from Malaysia. There was even one "English" girl GO who was born in Singapore and shouted "Malaysia Boleh" when she discovered our roots.

Ah, and the highlight of our stay? Well, we were trying to catch the sunset but was quite disappointed because of the cloud cover. And along came Yuka, a GO, and the next thing we knew, we agreed to become models for the fashion show for the night. The dress Moong Nah wore cost more than a thousand Rufiyaa (that's about RM300) - see picture below. No we didn't get to keep the elegant clothes - just the memories.

Will we go back to Kani? Probably not. Will we go to another Club Med? Probably yes.

BTW, I will be going to Maldives again next week - enroute back from the APSA Congress in Colombo. Nah, I won't be stepping off the plane in Male.

p.s. Kanimoon is actually the name of a drink (it is said to have its roots in the Singapore Sling).

Saturday, 11 August 2007


Been here at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre (KLCC) for 2 days attending the World Innovation Forum 2007 held in conjunction with PECIPTA 2007 (an exhibition of research and inventions by local universities).

KLCC is spanking new and is like a highly oiled machine with multiple conferences, exhibitions, conventions, etc going on at the same time. The food is good, staff are courteous, well-trained and mainly locals but I hear the big boss running the show is a Mat Salleh (foreigner). I am impressed – but we (participants) also asked some probing questions about sustainability issues.

We can’t say the same for some of the hotels we are staying in, especially the one where I stayed. One participant lost her digital camera and notebook – from her locked hotel room with no signs of forced entry. A colleague (guy) reported knocking on his hotel room door at 9 pm but he was tired so he ignored the three knocks. Then he heard the electronic key being inserted and the door being opened. Fortunately he had the security latch on so the intruder went away empty-handed. Another reported lots of cockcroaches in his room. And which hotel is it? It claims to be 4-stars and located along Jalan Ipoh very close to Vistana and PTWC and a stone’s throw from the Monorail terminal at Pekeliling. Enough hints? They are not going to get any more USM business.

For this entry, I have decided to just share some of the portrait shots I took in the last 2 days at the WIF 2007.

Hamoon & Dzul - he's the man!

Anees - looking sharp

We call him Che Mat, the PRO. Where do you think the eyes are looking?

Omar & Zinaeda

Rene - then (10 years ago) and now

Aida - very pleased ... with the attention ... from my camera

Soraya & Soraya (I'm not kidding)

Tisya - radiating brilliance

Sharifa - the star attraction

note : Uploaded to the blog from MAS Golden Lounge at KLIA. Superfast wireless Internet, unlike the rest of the KLIA wireless Internet which is hopelessly slow. Ah, had Soto Ayam at the Lounge, expected cubes of rice but was given mee hoon instead but the soup is great. Will try another bowl of curry mee (hey, they give only small portions). Also had some Hokkein style fried mee at KLCC before I left just now and it was good. I am a noodles kinda guy. BTW, did I say that the food at the Penang Airport MAS Lounge really sucks? And the result? See photo below.

Omar, Shukri, Izham, Norpisah and Lik Meng
supposedly having a meeting at the cafeteria at level 2, KLIA
on arrival from Penang 2 days ago