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 http://www.mus.edu/ 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!