Friday, 19 December 2008

CEPT University - venue for APSA 2009

It's been decided. Mark your calendar for November 24 - 27, 2009. The Asian Planning Schools Association (APSA) will hold its biennial Congress and Conference at CEPT University in Ahmedabad, India. The first announcement and call for papers will be 1st January 2009 with dateline for submission of abstracts being 1st April 2009. Notification of acceptance by 1st June and full paper submission by 1st August. Only full papers submitted by 1st August will be considered for the Best Paper which be submitted for publication in the "Dialogue in Urban and Regional Planning".

The APSA EXCO at its meeting in CEPT on 8th December 2008 have decided to launch a membership drive through several activities including offering one complimentary (free) conference registration to APSA 2009 for each current Full Member Schools as well as those who submit their application for full membership by 1st August 2009 (subject to approval of admission by the EXCO).

The Steering and Coordinating Committees of GPEAN (Global Planning Education Association Network) are also scheduled to have their annual meetings in Ahmedabad in conjunction with APSA 2009.

The theme for the conference is "Future of Asian Cities". There will be numerous parallel tracks and sessions so I am sure you will be able find one which fits your area of interest. If you are in a hurry, you can contact Prof. Utpal Sharma (, the Chair of the local organising committee. The conference website will be up by 1st Jan 2009.

CEPT (Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology) started with an architecture school in 1962 while the planning school was started 10 years later. Since 2005, it has become CEPT University via an Act of law introduced by the Government of Gujarat.

The campus is very compact and lively. I love the relaxed atmosphere with the soft winter sun providing a feast for your eyes. The campus was designed by a famous architect Doshi who was student of Le Corbusier. Here's a few pictures to vet your appetite.

You can see more photos in my online photo album.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Amdarvad - the city that Ahmed flourished

This was my first trip to India (6 Dec 2008). Be prepared for some "culture shocks". Immigration was pretty straight forward but the queue was long. The first thing you might notice is that the immigration staff might be "telling each other off", through head and hand movements accompanied by verbal remarks ... if one or the other is a little slow. You wouldn't see this in Changi - everything is orderly and friendly, remember?

Then waiting for the bags was just as long, with some tempers flaring ... and these are by the returning Indians screwing up the local airport staff ... "I have been standing here for half and hour and the same bags are moving around and around" (probably a slight exaggeration). The few who had "priority" tags on their luggage seemed the most irritated. Next comes customs. There's the green lane and there's the other lane. Makes no difference because they x-ray every single bag, including handbags. They are looking for money ... i.e. tax dollars. And people jump queue, of course. When it was my turn (I think after some 20 minutes in line), the taxman detected some batteries in my backpack - asked me if it was digital camera or camcorder. I said "digital camera". Apparently not satisfied, he sent me to the counter to have my bag opened up. I waited patiently and the second taxman was apparently surprised to see me and asked quizzically why I was there to see him. I said the other guy asked to me to show him my bag. He asked "what's inside"? I said "digital camera" and "notebook". He said "one digital camera"? I said "yes". And he said "one is allowed". This was followed by hand movements and verbals remarks directed at the first taxman.

And so I cleared immigration and customs - after more than one hour. Welcome to Gujarat, India.

The next culture shock is the driving. There is constant honking but that's not such a shock - nor the speed of driving. The shock is when you get to a junction. Nobody stops. Syed Aidid (lecturer from UTM who happened to be also in Ahmedabad) and I agreed that we Malaysian drivers will never get pass a major road junction here. We would be waiting until all the cars have cleared! And in the meantime everyone will be giving us INTENSE direct stares. So that's the next culture shock. When my driver was zipping through an intersection, another car was coming from the other direction. The other driver obviously thought he had the "right of way" (not sure there is such a thing here) so he accelerated and came right into the path of my car - and all the while he was staring intensely at my driver - not sure how to interpret that - was it a dare, wanna see who's chicken kinda thing? Well, my driver was "chicken" (and I was glad for that) 'cos he slowed (almost stopped) to let the other daredevil pass. And all this near midnight. Meanwhile you can't talk to the driver because he doesn't understand English ... or Chinese or Malay.
This was the construction worker at the CEPT. See the stare? Multiply that a few more intensity.

Generally, I find that most people on the streets are happy to have their picture that. In fact, this old gentlemen came shuffling over when I was taking photos at the Jami Mosque and pointed to himself to have his picture taken. The hawkers on the streets are also very delighted when you make them the centre of your attention.

This young lady went out on the boat on the Nal Lake to fetch water and when I saw her coming back I jumped up and went shooting. In fact, she was a little self-conscious but put up a show for me, trying not to smile.

Kids are generally less self-c0nscious. Found these brother and sister (and another little tod) playing with a kite at the CEPT University. Their parents were working on a construction site nearby. Yes, they don't have the luxury of going to daycare or being left with extended family. Kite-flying is a big thing in Ahmedabad come January. Everyone is on the roof top flying kites - so, you don't need a big open space to enjoy kite-flying.

Want some more culture shock? On the day I was to catch my flight back, I went to buy some stuff (including a tiffin) and was in shop looking for a t-shirt for my son. All of a sudden an older guy came in and started having a heated exchange with some younger people in the shop. It was actually "shouting" conversation in the small confines of the shop. I debated whether to walk out or just play cool. By that time, I was already getting a little comfortable with this intense relationships. It seems the older guy was the boss screwing up his young staff (or sons?) - right in front of a potential customer. And the youngsters didn't meekly put their heads down - they shouted back. Well, I stayed and bought a t-shirt. Before that, we had witnessed a neighbourhood conflict on the streets in the old city - and our local guide refreshingly said that conflict is essential. I was also stared at when I took photos of a women construction worker all dressed up in sari. And when Utpal took me and some students to Nal Saravor (Lake Nal) to see the birds, some scruffy looking locals welcomed us with - what else, long deep intense stares. As it turned out, they were the owners who operate boats to ferry eco-tourists to see the birds.

But India is really a fun place. So rich in history, culture, sights, smells, sounds, traditions and ... very friendly people! I am not kidding.

On the first morning, after a hearty breakfast at the hotel, I decided to follow the instructions and walked to CEPT University where our meeting (and APSA 2009) would be held. Unlike Hanoi where you get a continuous annoying stream of trishaw riders bugging and following you, the rickshaw (motorised) drivers here are not so persistent or annoying. I asked how much for the ride and was told 20 rupees for 8 kilometres (or something). So damn cheap. But for only one or two rupees (yes, 1 or 2 rupees), locals will cramp into and share a rickshaw. I have seen a ricksaw with 5 adults and 4 children in it. One of my worries was that the rickshaw driver won't have change for my 500 rupee notes. Anyway, I walked, and walked and walked. I visited the CEPT campus (more of this later) and then started walking back, heading for the old historic part of the city. One thing about Ahmedabad - the tourist info sucks. So I had a very basic map trying to figure out which road to take. Road signs are almost non-existent except at major roads and intersections and mostly not in English.

So, I was at an intersection trying to figure out which way to go and then a car stopped, reversed and the driver asked where I was going, sensing I was "lost". I said the old city - for some history, culture and shopping. Guess what? He asked me to get in the car. Now, he speaks really good English. He's wearing khurta pyjamas (all cotton, white). Medium-sized car. Hhmm, should I? My instincts, from years of travelling, said "OK". So, I got in the car. I can't even remember his name (he didn't have a card with him). He said he had just gone for a haircut and that's why he was in his pyjamas (they call it pyjamas but you can wear it outside the house, very cooling). He suggested dropping me off at a place where I could do a self-walking tour of the old city. That would be great! And then at one roundabout, he pointed to a huge billboard and said "I put that up!". "Oh, you are in advertising", I ventured. "No, that's my social message to the people". So, sitting next to me was the owner of an ice-cream company (Havmor) and he changes the billboard frequently with such messages. When we got to the heritage hotel (The House of MG), he gave instructions to the hotel staff to get me on the self-guide tour. You pay a 100 rupee for the MP3 player and a small map and you take your time enjoying the sights. The major problem is that on the streets, the ambient noise is very loud so it is hard to listen to the narrative, which was actually very good. I never found out, but am not sure if non-hotel guests are allowed to use this service. According to Debashish, a local heritage advocate, when the owner of MG started out on his project to restore the building into a heritage hotel, he faced opposition from his family and people thought he was crazy. Now there's a long queue to eat at his rooftop restaurant serving traditional vegetarian food. Incidentally, the heritage tour ends at another heritage building - by the same owner of course (smart marketing) - called the Mangaldas ni Haveli. This latter is an old family house in the old walled city now converted into a shop (rather pricey clothes) and a rooftop restaurant which is also very popular at night. I had my lunch there on the first day - vegetarian of course. Ah, now you get it. Yes, Gujarat is vegetarian country, but you can still get meat here. There are no bars or pubs, alcohol is banned in public places and you even need a permit to have liquor or beer in your own house.

Back up a little to that bit of about social responsibility. Gujurat is actually full of very very rich people. The history of Ahmedabad itself dates back 600 years and it used to be called the Manchester of the East because of its booming textile industry. So what do you do with all that money. Giving is an embedded culture here, amongst the rich that is. And they gave back by funding many community projects especially education. For instance a huge area around the CEPT University (including the university) was donated in trust by wealthy industrialists for various educational institutions. The original owner of the CEPT property was a Jain so he degree that there shall be no meat on campus (Jains are strict vegetarians). I have been reading Ghandhi's autobiography and he talked about his trials and tribulations, tempted by a cousin to try meat and told that you have to eat meat to be strong like the English. Oh, yah, I think he said that one of the reasons he set up the Ashram in Ahmedabad is because of the culture of giving by the rich - the Ashram runs on donations. For those of you history buffs, this was where Ghandhi started his Salt March which broke the back of the British Empire in India.

The divide between the have and the have nots is huge. Right in the city you will also find slums. Over tea and coffee at the Haveli, I was quite surprised to learn that running water in the city is supplied only for 2 hours or so in the morning and I think an hour in the evening. "What, you have a problem with water supply"? Apparently, the supply is enough but not enough to supply to the slum areas. In the slums, water is supplied through communal taps but the tap heads are always stolen so the water will be continuously flowing. The solution? Restrict water supply to the early mornings. So the city folks have to store water in the mornings and I saw an amazing 40-foot well built into the side of the Haveli. So I guess the slums have been around for centuries? I am told that in one of the cities, they even have a heritage tour of the slums. Huh? Well, they will bring you to visit the houses of the gangsters in the slums. Reminds of Capital Chung Keng Kwee.
The Mangaldas ni Haveli, a restored heritage building. I liked the way they don't brush a new coat of paint over the wooden beams and windows. Gives it a really old-world feeling. Notice the narrow streets and the buildings almost touching each other? Amazingly, there has never been any fires. And these old buildings still stood after the recent earthquake while modern buildings cracked or tumbled down.

The hanvdov, a vegetarian snack. Had this for lunch on my first day.

The Mangaldas Haveli at night with Utpal, Debashish, Syed and Yukio

Shopping - I had to contribute to the local economy, right? Consumption, the root of unsustainability. I was told that the traditional khurta, make of 100% cotton, are very comfortable and cooling. Ghandhi also promoted these traditional clothes to support the local industry. You can get very expensive ones but generally they are very cheap. A whole suit (pyjamas) for ladies can be as little as 200-300 rupees (thats about RM20-30). I see that it is still the clothes of choice for most Indians but popular culture is catching up with the younger, richer people wearing designer jeans and shirts.

Emmh, before I end this long piece, I must mention Salim. He's rickshaw driver - rents the rickshaw for about 300 rupees a day (can't remember). Speaks a bit of English but a survivor. After my heritage walk (where I got lost despite having a map), the hotel staff took me to the roadside where the rickshaws gather to help "negotiate" a trip to the Ghandhi Ashram. The driver wanted 350 rupee for three and half hours including a 2 hour stop at the Ashram and to take me shopping for traditional clothers. I said how much just to go just go the Ashram? 50 rupees. OK, let's go. Smart driver. Along the way he lowered his price to 300 rupees so I said, well, why not. I spent only a little over one hour at the Ashram. He met me when I was about to exit. Have you seen this? Have seen that? Take a picture with Ghandhi. Hey, I know what you are doing, but I am cool. Yes, yes, I have seen all those but yes you can take a picture of me with Ghandhiji.

Me and Ghandhiji. The rickshaw driver-cum-photographer asked me to put my arms around Ghandhi's shoulders. I thought that might be inappropriate, given his esteem status.

Let's go shopping, now. Along the way, he suggested this, and that. I said no, no, no - just take me shopping. And then he said "City Museum" - and I said OK. Turns out it was a building designed by Le Corbusier the famous French Architect who also "originally" designed the new city of Chandigarph. There are quite a number of buildings by such famous architects including Walter Gropius. The CEPT University was designed by an Indian (named Doshi who is now 84 years old and healthy revered in CEPT) who studied under Corbusier. After the museum, he took me to a shop - I said I don't like the clothes. We went to another - and I bought like 5 or 6 sets! All for less than 2000 rupees (less than RM200). When we went to pay, I took out my cloth bag and asked the cashier to put all the clothes in it. "You don't want this PVC bag? Very good quality" the cashier looked at me quite incredulously. My driver stretched out his hand to take the plastic bag. Seems have some value or status with that bag. Then the driver said he will catch with me. It's the same everywhere. These guys get a bit of a kickback from the shop. I don't begrude him that. He earned it. So he tried to drag the time a little and when we got back it was four hours of his service. I asked him at the hotel doorsteps "How much?". He smiled and said "up to you". Smart isn't he? I gave him 350 rupees. "Please, give me 400". I smiled. Very smart guy. He asked whether I was happy with his service. Yes, very happy. "Tomorrow again?", he smile widely. I said tomorrow "whole day meeting", sorry. Before I could get out of the rickshaw, a couple was already booking his next trip. Good luck, Salim.

On the boat at the Nal Lake. The driver came late so we missed the flamingos. It seems that in the early mornings the migratory birds will be close to the shores. We spent about 3 hours on the boat looking for the elusive birds. Wished I had more powerful telelens. Oops, 3 hours is a long time to be sitting on a boat, isn't it?

Lunch after the boat ride, cooked in the open with fire from dried twigs and cowdunk. I can't remember the type of flour, a bit darker than wheat. Water for cooking and drinking supplied by the lake.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Making friends with a little bird

This little noise maker is only about 3 or 4 inches in size but makes one heck of a noise. He's been keeping me company everyday, caught here sitting on my bougainvilla plant outside my kitchen. Right below that is my compose heap for yard waste and you can see the healthy green heliconia in the blurred background.

Since coming back from Ahmedabad (pronounced as Amdavad) last wednesday, I spent about a day with my sisters, brother and in-laws who came to visit (to see my new house). Then it was off to the beach again for another weekend workshop, this time on university-community engagement or projects. There's always new things to learn and new connections to make and new ideas to pursue. We learnt that there is community service (at the basic level), moving up to community outreach, then to community engagement and ultimately engaged scholarship.

And since coming back from the workshop I have been on looong vacation leave until next year. Ah, if you must know, I am just having lazy days (Omar said that my "inertia" will inspire the others), making friends with the little bird, reading (Thomas Friedman's "Hot, Flat and Crowded" and Ghandi's Autobiograpy bought at the Ghandiji Ashram), refusing to take phone calls, going bicycling at the padi fields, gardening of course and ... cooking!

I facilitated my group's discussion with this concept map. But when it comes to the presentation, they preferred the powerpoint's linear, point-by-point style.

This is what we call an "energiser". After sitting and listening passively for 2 hours, all our blood sinks to our bottoms so we need a "rush" to wake up our brains. I thought that quite a few participants were not very comfortable doing the energiser.

Me in my jeans and T-shirts with slippers. The chairman said I was too informal. Well, next time don't bring us to the beach. When I saw the picture displayed on the screen during our group's presentation, I suddenly realised I have lost a lot of weight. The secret? Oats in the morning, brown rice for dinner, vegetarian for lunch (with half rice), cut the sugar wherever possible and ... etc.

My daughter Vivian wanted yam cake so we went to the market this morning. Its not difficult really but it's been a long time so we tend to forget the proportions. Turned out OK though. Could do with a little more salt and perhaps a little more rice flour (note to self : 650-700 gms of flour to three-quarter water in 12-inch diameter 2.5 inch high tray).

I know, I have not written on Ahmedabad yet. Will try to do that tomorrow.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Friendly, Clean, Orderly and still a little kiasi

So, guess I am and where I have been. Sitting here at Gate 54, Terminal 2, Changi Airport watching the long queue going into the holding area for SQ530 to Ahmedabad, using the Free WiFi. Been in Singland since noon, took the 2-hour city tour, supposedly to the Heritage and River enclave. Started out very exciting, appreciating the rain trees along the highway from the airport, the crowns meeting in the middle of the highway. Long stretch of seaside park with extensive bicycles tracks and lots of seafood restaurants. The highlight was to have been a 20-minute walk along the river but we were warned that "if it rains", we stay on the bus. As with all tours, after 10 minutes you start to switch off, you just can't absorb all that information. My wife and I love the food channel on satellite TV, especially the two programmes which feature hawker food. If you believe what the hosts tell you, hawker food in Singapore is not only heavenly, but damn cheap. And the tour guide talked about everyone in Singapore eats out because it is too much a hassle to cook for one or two people (yes, family structure has changed alot) and also too expensive. So, most just go and eat out and be done with it. Some more got endless choices - Malay got, Chinese got, Indian got, spaghetti also got.
Rain trees reaching out to touch each other.

Well, we got to the city, got off the bus and it started to rain! The tour guide shooed us back into the bus. So what's a bit of rain? We live in the tropics. Must be old wives tale - you know you mum yelling at you not to play in the rain or you will get sick. Well, it seems the people in Singapore still stick to their traditions. I think the organisers should go the extra mile for this. Provide umbrellas or risk people like me giving them a thumbs down, despite all the friendly and good intentions. Lighten up guys. Along the way back, we were too early for our drop off so the bus driver was really slow going about 55 kph and we made a slight detour to see one of the "towns". I jokingly said they should drop us off for lunch at one of their famous markets (the tour guide talked about how convenient the shopping and facilities are). She was apologetic but firm - she has 38 other tourists to take care off. I think they should be send for some training on how to enjoy some light moments.

Well, I actually wanted to ask them to just drop me off in the city and I will make my own way back. What do you think would have been their reaction?

Anyway, we got back to the airport, and I still had about 3 hours to kill. So it was either the airport with my notebook and free Internet or back to the city. Guess which one I chose?

I went to the Tourist Information Centre again (a different one, they are everywhere, really everyway; I think KL and Penang can learn from these guys). And the guys (mostly ladies) are very very helpful - but again, quite "follow the book" type. They suggested I take the free shuttle to Bugis Street but looked at my departure time and their bus schedule and said "no, no". So I asked about going my MRT. One young lady gave me detailed instructions, together with a map, and on marked with a big X at the junction of South Bridge Rd and Maxwell Rd and said that the Tian Tian Chicken Rice is super nice. I had told them I wanted to go to Chinatown for some noodles or something. How long would it take? About one hour she said. Some one esle said the same thing to me earlier. I said, wah, Chinatown must be very far away, MRT should be fast, right? Many stops mah.

So, I timed the journey. It actually took only 40 - 45 minutes. So one hour is not far off.

On the train I hesitated about getting off at one stop. A young couple coming in saw my hesitation and asked "where are you going?". I didn't even asked. "Chinatown", I said. "Next stop", they replied. Nice, aren't they. The young people have lost their culture.
Chinatown is all about the tourist dollar.

Chinatown. Man, they have done a superb job if you look at it purely from the tourist attraction point of view. Will post pictures later.

So I went hunting for my heavenly chicken rice. Found it at the Maxwell Road Foodcourt. Saw a queue, not too long so I joined in and ordered a small chicken rice. Which turns out to be a generous portion of rice. And only 2.80 Sing Dollar. And the verdict. Very good lah. The kicker is the chilly. Walking out I counted another 2 chicken rice stall at the foodcourt. No queue. And then I looked back at the Tian Tian stall - 15 people in line.
Tian Tian (Everyday) Chicken Rice.

Time for me to go catch my plane. 6.29 pm.
If you are looking for the free city tours at Changi, go the Fern Garden.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

USM's Eco Team a.k.a Eco-Busters

I recently sent an email inviting more than 20 lecturers to the UKM-USM Dialogue on sustainable campus. Only about 6 showed up. After lunch, I was left to hold the fort. I am not complaining. Everyone's busy. To top that, I am a mere "coordinator" sandwiched between a Dean (or Director) and a Deputy Dean/Director. Ah, the pecking order is such a powerful tool. I cannot "order" the Deans/Directors around of course - I have to rely on my persuasive powers and charm. I often have to wait patiently for things to happen. Take for instance my little effort to rehabilitate our two lakes on the main campus. I have been pursuing it for more than a year and everytime I ask about it, the response is "coming". But when the Vice-chancellor asked about it, it was wrapped up within three days. Again, I am not complaining. There must a very good reason why someone invented bureaucracy.

And then there's the Deputy Vice-Chancellors. If they say "jump", you don't ask "how high". Just reach for the sky. Sorry, lighten up.

Case in point. When the DVC for Research and Innovation called up about 30 experts for a workshop on Eco-systems, Landscape and Heritage over the weekend at the Batu Ferringhi Beach (28th -30th Nov), they not only showed up but stayed until the end, working until past 1 am and 3 am. Yes, you are reading that right. What more if the DVC said that "no one is going home" until she gets the plan for action. So Mashhor equated the DVC with the Iron Lady of England. Of course Asma was sporting about it. We actually had a lot of fun, the way academics know how to have fun - Listening to lectures! But these experts were so full of passion and love for their area of expertise you couldn't help being infected. And we learnt a lot.

The workshop in progress. If you notice the plastic bottles of water on the table, I have already "scolded" (nicely) the organisers. They promised that if they ever invite me to their workshop again, they will make sure that there will be no plastic bottles of water. I wanted to tell them "hey, you are still not getting it", but patience, they will eventually come around.

Here's the USM Eco Team at the conclusion of the workshop.

What's this thing about the Eco-Busters? Well, the DVC was having a hard time making decisions on projects related to eco and landscape and heritage buildings and didn't know who to call. You see a ghost, you call the ghost-busters, right? You have problem with termites and fungus and water monitors or pigeons and snakes, who do you call? The Eco-busters of course.

Out of this workshop, some ten projects have been suggested including documentation using state-of-the-art software, an Eco House near the Durian Valley, restoring a couple of heritage buildings, research and management of fungus in buildings, infestation and diseases on trees, and an Eco Trail with information on medicinal value of trees, ants moulds (yes, they give you an itch for a week but are vital to the eco-system), coffee table books and others.

Here's breaking news. USM will be rehabilitating the two lakes (Tasek Aman and Harapan) and the river (Sg Gambier) over the next nine months as part of the celebrations for our 40th Anniversary. One of our problems is how to deal with the huge water monitors (biawak). They are thriving because of the Tilapia fish in the ponds. And the Tilapia is thriving because no other fish can survive in the oxygen-deprived water in the lake. Got any bright ideas - on how to deal with the biawak or lake?

Don't throw away your future

One week ago I went to the Dell factory in Bukit Minyak to give their staff a talk. Their Environmental Health and Safety unit had contacted me earlier about collaborating with them to help reduce the use of plastic bags. The factories in Penang with the help of the Department of Environment has been carrying out campaigns to "Say No to Plastic Bags".

When they asked for a title for my talk, I thought I should be creative so suggested "Don't throw away your future - Stop using disposable containers". So this is going to another of my trademark thingy.

Dell's staff listening to my one-hour presentation.

I love this gift set they gave me after the talk. Not sure if I can carry it into the plane. Will try it when I fly to Ahmedabad this weekend. Flying again? Yah, what to do. We have so be 'international'.
Notice anything else about the gift set?

After the talk I walked to their canteen for lunch. They have stopped using polystyrene containers. I sort of instigated them to ban straws as well. Everyone bus their used plates and cups to a conveyor belt where a box is placed to collect the tabs from aluminium cans and a plastic bag for the cans itself. I peeked into their thrash can (seriously I did) and saw a polystyrene container. Yes, people still do sneak them in when no one is watching.

That place is very security conscious, to prevent pilferage of parts and also theft of computer notebooks. Each of the staff's notebooks have a hologram sticker with a matching sticker on the staff's badge (name tag). To bring out any notebook, the stickers must match. Its not really for data security. I speculated to the Dell staff that very soon each notebook will have an embedded RFID chip for inventory control (USM uses barcodes now) as well as to speed up assembly. The downside? Job loss.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

"The White Coffin" wins award for creativity in Ichikawa

This is the cover of the monograph containing a collection of creative writings by our student volunteer activists. I also wrote a very looong piece. It was the "evidence" submitted to the AFHC for the creative developments award.
You can download the PDF from the Healthy Campus website (>7MB)
I am hoping that this Award will encourage more students to write. We hope to get it printed for posterity. We always want to print on recycled paper but the printer will tell us it is impossible to get recycled paper or say that the quality of the printing, especially if you have nice photos, will be lousy.

And here's the certificate sent via courier. International validation.
No, I decided not to attend (something about too much CO2 emissions already) but 111 papers were presented from 10 countries with about 300 participants at the conference on Healthy Cities in Ichikiwa, Japan on 25th October 2008. 15 cities, 1 university (USM of course) and 2 individuals won AFHC Awards. Membership in AFHC now stands at more than 100 which includes cities and universities, etc.

So what does this all mean? For one, it means that the students have contributed one small point (or mark) to USM's KPI in terms of "international recognition and awards". Well, at least I hope it counts.

But more important is we have provided a channel to recognise student's efforts and creativity beyond mere mugging to pass exams. Read the document - I am sure you will be suitably impressed at the energy our students have; and you will be surprised at how creative they are in their writing. If you are one of those who nitty-pick on the grammar and sentence construction, try to just enjoy the journeys. Remember that not everyone is a language expert. And not everyone is in love with English.

You will start to get the sense that students really want and need to be "allowed" to roam free, to do the things that matters - to them and to the World. Students want more than just attend boring powerpoint lectures and turning in assignments that are the product of "cut and paste" (Hey, did you read the news that half of the high and mighty Cambridge U students admit to plagiarism?). Students want to make a difference. They want their presence felt. They are so bored that some even skip lectures - they can catch up just reading lecture notes.

So, congratulations to all my heroes - the student volunteers. This is for them.

We should celebrate. But we won't just want to have another boring lunch - do we?

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Biggest Tupperware Party @ USM

OK, it doesn't look like a party, does it? Serious stuff was discussed concerning safety and sustainability of plastics. On the Panel was Jan Steven and David Kasuma from Tupperware USA and Jamil Ismail from USM. At the end of the party, everyone got a door gift from Tupperware Malaysia - so in my book it was a tupperware party.

About 100 participants showed up on a Saturday morning (1st Nov 2008). The Malaysian Plastic Manufacturers Association (MPMA) sent a big delegation led by its President. PEWOG, CAP, SERI and others were there. Don and Mylene made a U-turn from another conference and headed straight for our Plastic Forum, giving me an earful about not inviting them (come on, of course we did, they are our favourite NGI as they call themselves, non-governmental individuals).

One of the main objectives was to address concerns about the use of plastics. We prepared a set of questions and gave it to the panel and the two Tupperware guys came back with a slide presentation which was good and informative. Of course the MPMA jumped in at every opportunity to defend plastic. I was rather hoping that they would just sit and listen to all the concerns but to be fair, many in the hall felt enriched by the information given. It was an excellent meeting of opposing views. And depending on who you talk to you will go away either thinking polystyrene is safe or otherwise.

During lunch I told the Tupperware rep that I was still ambivalent when comes to making a recommendation about whether it is safe to use plastic ware. I delayed writing this entry so that I could review the video recording of the forum. And I searched the blogs and web for more information. Yes, we know Tupperware sets very high standards for its products. But I was concerned more with the fundamental issue of plastic. In my summing up at the end of the forum, I said that it is just too difficult - give us something simple. Did you know that melamine ware should never be put in the microwave? (We used to do that at home) And you know those clear plastic containers called PP (polypropylene) which is claimed to be microwave safe? Yes, turn over the container and look underneath. Well, they should not be used in the microwave. If you still insist polystyrene is safe, please, don't use it in the microwave. Boiling ketupat and lemang in plastic bags? The local plastic manufacturers were insistent that it is safe. In fact, they were alarmed that the ministry had banned the plastic ketupat and lemang based on "hearsay" which badly affected the business of the manufacturers producing these "delicacies". Also badly affected were the pasar malam hawkers and caterers. Me, I am still staying away from plastic food.

So, here's the gist :
  • Plastics are made from chemicals (now you know?)
  • All chemicals are inherently toxic, at a certain level
  • It is safe (really?) if the chemicals detected in the plastic ware is below a certain level
  • And there is no question about it. Chemicals will leak or leach from the plastic container when you use them. This is not disputed by the experts. In fact, they said so.
  • So, reputable companies (like Tupperware) go through extensive testing to make sure that the leaks are within safety regulations. p.s. do you think our backyard factories in Malaysia do any of these stringent tests for plastic bags and polystyrene containers? Or for that matter those plastics from China?
  • And do you know why it leaches? You know that plastics are made by joining up long chains of monomers, into, what else, polymers. Guess what? Not all the monomers join up nicely to become polymers. So what do you get? Residue monomers. These rascals are the ones that will get into your food under the right conditions. In particular during high heat such as when heating oily food in microwave.
So, bottomline, plastic - use with care. Not all plastics are equal. As a consumer, we should not be burdened with having to be overloaded with so much information just because inventors and manufacturers has produced all these beautiful products using toxic chemicals. I want green. I hope I live another 25 years. Know why? Because my daughter Vivian went to an EcoFilm Fest in KL and told me that plastic is not going to be a problem by then. You guess it. Petroleum will either run out or be too expensive to make cheap products you just throw away. Hurrah for the green generation.

Alright, melamine. I found it hilarious that the biscuit manufacturers in Malaysia got an expert from Imperial College to tell the public that you would have eat a ton of biscuits to die from melamine poisoning. Alright, I exaggerate but the point is they should instead assure the loyal consumers that there shall not be any melamine or any toxic chemicals in their food products. And that is always the position of the manufacturers whether it is plates, or bags, or canned food, or pesticides in vegetables, or tupperware or rubbermaid - within safe limits. And hey, did you know that to make melamine ware, they also use formaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen? And no, you cannot make melamine ware without formaldehyde!

BPA - Bisphenol-A. If you have not heard of this, you must be totally blissful unconcern about poisons. It is added to make hard transparent plastic called polycarbonate commonly used in plastic baby bottles. And also needed to get you to Maldives or Hawaii or Bali. Ha, it's used to make the windscreens of aeroplanes. Yes, that hard. Can't imagine why they need such resistant plastic for a little baby. The Canadian government has banned the plastic baby bottle. And the latest is that the FDA has been lambasted by an independent advisory panel for not looking at the scientific evidence properly when saying that BPA is safe. The jury is still out but there are concerns raised (just like polystyrene) and they are going back to the labs. Meanwhile, which Tupperware products uses BPA? I got to take my hats off to these consumer agitators in the U.S.A. They know how to squeeze your, eh (censored)... well, Jan Steven, the expert who came to USM, after much persuasion released the whole list (?) of Tupperware products and the type of plastic used. Most of their containers are made of PP but some contain BPA. Take a look yourself. Way to go Jan.

p.s. perhaps all plastic ware manufacturers should emulate Rubbermaid.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Don't know, Don't care

I had a meeting with senior manager of the University a few days ago and learnt a new terminology. You could even call it a philosophy for management. "Don't know, Don't care". Ironically, the philosophy, if you will, though crude and shocking, is meant to facilitate decision-making. Just get it done! Don't bother me with all the procedures and red tape. Bent the rules, ignore it? Get it done now.

Of course, if you see the pictures from the Kampar Landfill, that phrase seems to be how the general population thinks about thrash. Especially all that plastic thrash we generate everyday. I sent a group of students on a field trip and they came back with these photos (courtesy of Desmond). To be fair, Kampar (or more accurately, the Kinta Selatan Municipal Council) has the second highest rate for recycling (at 7%) in the whole country. Penang Island leads with 15%. Small local authorities don't have the funds and are out of the public eye, and so that don't get the funds. Recycling is NOT the answer. Cutting down on those useless stuff that you take or buy. That's the solution.

We should offer free trips to the ordinary folks, say to Genting or maybe Tangkak (shopping lah) and then on the way make a quick stop at land fills. I think it would be money well-spent. Mountains of thrash with plastic bags everywhere. And in the background green rolling hills.

Remember that plastic bag you took when you went shopping some time ago? Yah, look closely in the photo. See it?

Yakky, isn't it? So what are going to do about it?

Me? I am organising a Plastic(s) Forum @ USM on 1st November 2008 (9 am - 2 pm) with the cooperation of Tupperware Brands Malaysia. Two of their experts and a USM professor will answer questions on safety and sustainability of plastics. Interested? Drop me a line (

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Home-made Noodles

I have tried making hand-made noodles (ramen or la mein, which means stretched noodles) sometime ago but never quite got the hang of it. There's a time-tested easier way. This, we have been doing since I was a kid. My mother used to knead the dough and the boys (me and my brothers) would be called upon to roll the dough flat for cutting into strips. We used glass bottles filled with water (to add weight). I remember it was quite strenuous and we boys often grumbled. And there was a lot to roll because we had a big family. But it was a family favourite. Wholesome homemade noodles, no melamine or any kind of chemical or preservative or colouring. Just flour, egg (if you like), water and a little salt. Add the water in small portions when kneading the flour so that it doesn't get all soft and mushy. Well, you can just knead until the ingredients are well-mixed but still hard. Or, my wife kneads a little bit more to make it a little more elastic. Yes, she does the kneading.

This is the delicious bowl of home-made noodles. Lots of green vegetables, some black mushrooms, prawns and meat. Essential are pair of chopsticks and spoon (these were bought in Chun Cheong, Korea) and you can't have noodles without piping hot red fresh cut chilly. The test of a good bowl of noodles is the sweat, after you finish eating the noodles and drank all the soup.

Here's the apprentice Jillian. The table-top was specially designed for making noodles. Put some flour on the table-top and just roll the dough until it is the thickness that you like. We like it thin.

When the dough is flat, fold it like you are making a paper accordion fan. Then use a cleaver (or heavy knife) and use slicing motion to cut the noodles into strips. Don't press down hard when cutting or the noodles will stick together. Remember, slicing motion.

For the soup we like to make some fried shallots and garlic. You can also stirfry lightly the prawns and meat with the shallot and garlic; gives it extra flavour. Fish ball or chicken balls are great. Remember lots of vegetables. You don't even need any stock or bones for the soup. When ready to eat, just put the noodles straight into the boiling soup. Serve hot. Make sure you don't overload the soup with too much noodles or you will just get a sticky mess.

In memory of all the mothers who gave us home-cook wholesome meals.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Youths talking to Youths about going Green

I have made student environmental activism my pet project under Kampus Sejahtera (well, at least until March 2009, when my term ends). And today, a small group of like-minded students got together at the Lecture Hall S to conduct workshops about what they want to do and what USM should do for sustainability. It is still going on right at this moment as I type. I spent the morning with them and left them to do their own thing in the afternoon. We hope that this will become an annual event.

I was asked to talk to them to sort of give them a warm-up.
I talked about "A Future Without Cars" using the above concept map. Click on it. Go ahead, I dare you!
I spoke for about 50 or 55 minutes. Most of them were locked on to what I was saying. A few took the opportunity to catch up on a few winks. I was worried that I was too "academic". But the general consensus from the students (OK, if you must be fussy, a few students) was that it gave them some food for thought.

Here's me blending in with the crowd.

Here's the crowd, about 60 - 70 stutents of USM, various years of study and disciplines.
They sacrificed their weekend to do something for the Earth.
Actually, it was a challenge trying to get the crowd. Out of the 72 Clubs and Associations the student organisers managed to get only 9 participants. One of things many student leaders from the clubs ask is "is this compulsory?". Yes, I can understand. Sometimes I see the student leaders walking around in a "zombie-state". There's just too much demand on their time. But we are happy with the numbers because they are all the committed ones. Next year maybe we can get 500? Oh, wait, this time next year ... hmmm, where will I be? what will I be doing?

Lunch was on me. I paid for it mah. OK, the university paid for it.
It was all vegetarian (well, meatless lah) and all the participants knew why and there was no protest.
Taking a break and networking. I know you see the plastic bottled water. They are learning.

These are the organisers and facilitators, all students of course.
We had some preparatory meetings, I met with them and talked to them. And they talked amongst themselves. We talked about how to facilitate. And each group (six in all) went back and did some homework. So, now we wait for their report.
So what is youths talking to youths without the youths talking?
Above is one of the twins (Kah Hing, I think) and below Abe. Desmond (the other twin) and Mervin also did their bit to motivate and inspire. And these guys were good.
In the centre is Kwang Soo, a lecturer from Korea spending his sabbatical in USM.
He is the Presiden of EcoBuddha, an NGO. Seems to be enjoying every bit of the student environmental conference. He seems to have a fascination for nasi kandar.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Things are made not to last

Sorry guys. I was going to put up some pictures of home-made noodles but the SD card in our brand new camera went kaput. So, here's the story below.

Dear Mr Lim
Managing Director, SenHeng

We bought a Panasonic Lumix from one of your shops (at Sunway Carnival, Seberang Jaya) on 1 Sept 2008 (receipt no Q25*ORN06362). We were offered an upgrade of the SD card to 4 GB for RM2.00 only (Kingston brand). I thought it was too good to be true and asked what was the brand of the original SD and was told that it is also Kingston.

Today (11 Oct 2008), after taking some photos, I took out the card and inserted it into my card-reader. The computer could not detect the card. I thought the card-reader could be spoiled but it could read my other cards. So, I inserted the Kingston 4 GB back into the camera and used the cable to connect the camera directly to the computer. When I switched on the camera, an error message appeared saying that there was a problem with the card.

I took back the card to your shop at Sunway. And after testing by your staff could not get the card to be read. I also spoke to your shop manager.

He told me that there is no warranty on the SD card. And refused to offer a replacement.

I would like to know :
  1. What is the brand of the original SD card which comes with the Lumix camera, if any.
  2. Why does your company sell products which do not last, and provide no replacement even after less than one and half months of usage.
You manager insinuated that we might have dropped the card into water. I am happy to provide you with the defective card if your company would like to carry out any extensive forensic tests to verify the integrity of your customer. Whatever it is, a product that cannot even last one and half months is very poor quality.

I look forward to your response though I have wasted enough petrol and time not to mention generated more greenhouse gases just going to your shop to be dissappointed.

Lee Lik Meng
Butterworth, Penang

p.s. please cancel my membership in your company and please ask your chaps to stop sending me those enticing offers through SMS.

The above email was copied to the people at Panasonic, Kingston and Ministry of Domestic Affairs. Let's see what they have to say.

Update as 18th October :
  • Kingston generated and auto reply saying they would response to me the next working day (monday), but never did.
  • The GM of SenQ responsed first thing on Monday asking his staff to attend to me (good show GM)
  • The staff responded that the Manager at Sunway Carnival will replace my SD card. I think he has been trying to calling me but I have been "too busy".
  • Nobody else has responded.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Crime does not pay?

No, no, no. They are not the criminals. They are my students.

Now, the one on the right is Chung Keng Quee (or Kwee), the famous gangster leader (OK, they are called secret societies) from the late 19th Century, leader of the Hai San secret society who fought in the infamous Larut Wars, all for the sake of a few tin mines. Oh, yes, the British loved him and he was respected, millionaire philanthropist, founder of modern Taiping, member of Perak Advisory Council and a survivor in the face of adversity. So, let's just ignore the gangster bit.

In October 2007, I wrote about the bus drivers from Adelaide. Well, they are back. OK, not the same guys, except for Matthew. This is six years in a row that the University of South Australia students have come to work with my students at USM under their international Planning Visit Study course. This year the heritage walk started at the Peranakan Museum which was beautifully restored at a cool RM4 million. It used to be the mansion of Mr. Chung or Kapitan Chung.

This is the air well. Quite inspiring opulence.

The USM and UniSA students being given a tour of the museum by a heritage guide. We had the same guide (Mr Yap) last year and he is so full of interesting anecdotes we have to constantly remind him of the time. Can you guess which one he is?

There's this courtyard painted green with lots of green plants so if you just sit there like a Mandarin (like Matthew here), you also become green.

One of the places we stopped at was a joss-stick maker. He is a living heritage. He looks very healthy at 80 years of age and still makes joss sticks at a prewar shophouse near to the Goddess of Mercy Temple. He's been there for 71 years, doing the same trade which he learned by secretly observing the workers who used to make joss sticks at the Temple nearby. He still lives in the double-storey shophouse with his wife, all his children having moved out. The building was rented for about RM20 per month in the good old days, then went up to about RM50 until the Rent Control Act was abolished in 2000. He now pays RM300+ per month (on a two year contract) to Ban Hin Lee, the owner, which is a holding company of a famous Penang family founded by a barber (Yeap Chor Ee). The joss-stick maker remembers that as a youngster he saw Yeap visiting the Temple regularly but by then Yeap was already a very old man walking with the aid of his wife (probably a young one?).

Before I left, I asked for his name. He said Lee Meng Chuan. Wow. So, I told him my name. He instantly jumped up and went inside and took out some joss-sticks with Chinese characters written by him wishing me luck. Apparently I am "chin lang", or relative.