Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Let the celebrations begin

Yes, its that time of year. One festival after another. The second semester is always the "worst" ... endless celebrations. So lectures are always disrupted. But the university came to its senses and scheduled the mid-term one week break to coincide with the Chinese New Year (usually, mid-term would be the 8th week but next week is only the 6th week).

The traffic on the bridge is crazy. I leave my house before 7 am and it takes me one hour to get to my office. They tried to control the traffic flow after the toll plaza for one day, it was a total disaster and they gave up. I can see that the bridge contractor is furiously tarring the brand new third lane leading from the toll plaza. My guess is they are trying to get some good vibes in the press by opening up the new lane in time for the CNY mad rush. Yes, I am sure it will relief the bottle-neck, but for how long? My sense of it is that the bridge will flow nicely for a few months when the expansion is fully completed. Then it will choke up again. If it doesn't choke real soon, we don't really need the second bridge do we? And then of course the second bridge will choke up in a few years, and Penangites will whine again ... and before you know it there will be four bridges across the channel, maybe five. And Penang Island will be a haven for cars.

On the domestic front, I have declared that there shall be no sticking of new year cards or any other new year decorations on the "freshly" painted wall in the house. Got my daughter a little piffed ... yah daddy is a party pooper. But we have two red streamers (plastic) and two pineapples (plastic) hanging in the living room (no nails, no scotch tape) and a red lantern (paper) at the entrance plus the red banner (cloth, ang chai). My daughter promised not to buy plastic decorations next year.

Ah, and apart from the "traditional" jam tart (my wife's specialty), we ventured to make crispy ngaku (arrow root or arrow head). Again it was my daughter's (Jillian) initiative. She wanted to have a more festive feel. Not as difficult as we were told but my wife got knicked in the finger slicing the ngaku. Really very tasty, much nicer that potato chips but ... high cholesterol and salty.
The ngaku root, washed and dried, ready to be peeled and sliced. Comes all the way from China; a lot of food-miles there.

Brian and Jillian droppng the sliced ngaku into the hot oil. Takes about 10 minutes (less if you have a huge pot of oil). Use a paper towel to soak up the excess oil, and sprinkle some sea salt on it. Yummy.

Speaking of which, we had mee udang (prawn noodles) yesterday at my friend's house. Hassim is an old friend and colleague. He's iman at two mosques. Loves to cook. Rides a big bike. Has several cars ... and is a transportation planner. We were trying to figure out how to inspire the students to reach higher. I mentioned mee udang. Hassim offered to cook. All I have to do is pay for the prawns and ingredients. So yesterday we had our studio presentation and crit at Hassim's house followed by mee udang for lunch - two big prawns each but I noticed a kaisu student who lumped his plate with another three prawns on his second helping. Two of the Chinese students brought mandarin oranges. So it was also a CNY celebration.

Did it work (energise the students to reach for the sky)? Hmmm ...
Hassim on the left with students at his house. Work, then sustenance.

Want to know the secret of Mee Udang? Hassim's father used to sell the mee for 20 sens a plate. The father's secret recipe is baked beans. Quite simple. Heat oil in pot, fry some shallots til fragrant. Then add can of tomato paste. Blend a can of bake beans and add to pot. Add water (the soup is not thick so you can add a lot of water). Add chilly paste. Salt to taste. No MSG. Simple yah? You can add vegetables and other stuff. Add the prawns to the soup followed by the noodles when ready to eat.

The climax - kampung style.

On the other side of the World, the celebrations are coming to a climax. There is much expectation and hope. Will he lead the World to peace and prosperity and a greener planet? 70% of respondents in a survey thought he would by the end of his first term. Today's the day - the start of a new tomorrow? CNN, CNBC, Aljazeera, BBC, Australian Network even HBO is stopping everything to telecast the inauguration.

At USM, we are also embarking on a new journey - as the APEX University. The university has set up 8 Task Forces to come up with action plans to implement our APEX U agenda, to transform higher education for a sustainable tomorrow. I got roped in to work on "people-led solutions". Got any views? Want to contribute?

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Are you a professor, yet?

Well, first of all, Happy New Year. The global outlook seems gloomy. One Feng Shui master says things will look better in the second half of the year. Another disagrees. The economist and financial gurus are not going to be of much help either. I remember reading in a Singapore Daily (on the way to Ahmedabad) that the Prime Minister (Lee Hsien Loong) was telling the Americans to spend less, save more and invest more on infrastructure. To his fellow countrymen (and women), he advised them to "spend more". Money makes the world go round. Consumerism and consumption drives our society (economy). But it is also the root of unsustainability. The Americans (i.e. USA folks) have the biggest ecological footprint, consuming 5 times the Earth's bio-capacity. The richer you are, the more you spend, the more you consume ... and invariable the more you waste.

Which brings me to an interesting conversation I had with a lecturer (in one of our beach retreats) about career promotions. She does a lot of community-based programmes and the community is also her source of intellectual and academic development. But such community-oriented work does not quite "qualify" as academic work (in the eyes of academic purists). So, naturally, promotion eludes her. I asked why she does bring this to the attention of the "higher" authorities in the university (I thought her work was great). What she said surprised me. It was also refreshing. She said "what for? I have enough money. If I get promoted I will just have more money to spend. What is more important is that I enjoy my work". I was stunned.

Which brings me to Ghandhi. Just finished reading his Autobiography, written in 1920s. I think that if we want sustainable development, we should all read Ghandhi's writings. His philosophy and experiments to simplify his lifestyle convinces me that if we could even just go one-quarter way to meet his aspirations, there would so much less consumption and waste. He was also a master agitator, prepared to go to jail for the good of the less fortunate. Public service seemed to "obsess" him as well as so many of his conspirators. The rich was prepared to contribute generously - money and time. Some individuals earn just enough to sustain life and devote the rest of their time helping the poor and the oppressed. Ghandhi himself allocated 75% of his earnings (when he was practicing lawyer) to help the community. Integrity, honesty, trustworthy ... ah, values which we all need.

So, "are you are professor yet?". I get asked that question a lot. Friends ask when I go back for school reunion in Muar. Family, relatives, colleagues from other universities (local and abroad) and of course some of my own colleagues, including professors, at USM. Sometimes it is embarrassing. At times a little irritating. After awhile you get used to it and learn to joke about "not getting it, yet".

Getting promoted seems to preoccupy most academics (not all, of course). Opportunities for promotions in local universities are much better now. In fact, if you have a PhD, have done some research and "published" a paper or two, you automatically get "promoted" to Senior Lecturer. New lecturers with these minimum qualifications go straight into the senior lecturer scheme. So, "senior" really doesn't imply seniority. And the pay is really not bad - very good actually. All in, a senior lecturer easily takes home about RM4,000 - RM5,000. Associate Professors of course gets more, up to almost RM10,000 - that's per month. Professors? Something like RM12,000 - RM15,000, per month (much more for senior professors). About 40% of the professor's salary is in the form of allowances. You won't believe it, they get a maid allowance as well as a yearly allowance for house maintenance. And all the allowances are tax-free. So being an academic is not bad at all, financially speaking. BTW, you can get all this information from the JPA website so don't worry I am not breaching any ethics or official secrets here.

So, is it any wonder almost everyone lecturer is so damn focussed on getting promoted? Money, more money, that is, is the primary motivation. Of course, being accorded the title of Associate Professor and eventually "Professor", that's the ultimate accolade and recognition of your standing amongst your peers. You have to excel in your area of expertise to be give that title. Naturally the success rate is low, something like 1 in 5 - out of one hundred who apply, maybe less than 20 will be successful. USM of course is famous (perhaps notorious) for being the most difficult when comes to promotions. And everytime when the results are about to come out, there is a lot of anxiety amongst the aspirants. SMS will fly around. Emails too. You can sense the tension and the stress. Those who are successful are jubilant. For those unsuccessful, the big question is always "WHY?". This is a malady which afflicts not only USM but universities all over the world. There is this incessant drive for the universities to be the top 10 or the top 200 rank. Publish or die. Research grants. ISI. Impact factor. Post graduate supervision. International standing and networking. Keynote address. Editorial Board member.

If you think USM is tough, wait till you hear how much more difficult to even get a promotion to senior lecturer in countries like Australia. Have you got what it takes?

So, finally, to answer the original question. The answer is YES. But also NO.