Saturday, 28 March 2009

Garuda Medan

(this entry started on 28th Mar 2009)

Garuda, a mythical bird of Hindu and Buddhist mythology is also the national airline of Indonesia. Garuda Plaza is also where I am staying with 14 masters in planning students and one colleague from USM on a study field-tour with Magister (masters) students of the Northern University of Sumatra (USU). Using the free Internet in the lobby of the hotel. This morning's breakfast was a disaster. No cups, no spoons, no food - it was all cleaned out by about 7.30 am and the staff were too damn slow to refill. And all this because of overwhelming support from Malaysian tourist. Apart from the small USM gang, there was one big contingent from another Malaysian university whom we encountered at dinner across the street last night and this morning about 100 trainee teachers from Terengganu were having a hearty breakfast before checking out.

At the Garuda Plaza, while waiting for the rooms to be assigned. See me in the picture?

Medan, we were told by the tour guide and the USU students, has a predominant Chinese population. But that is not very obvious even when walking around Medan's Chinatown. I went hunting for Chinese Noodles but was disappointed after about 1 and half tours walking around. Found a very upscale Chinese Restaurant but could not find the kind of kopitiam type shops with hawkers. I think the Indonesians were "forced" to assimilate into the Indonesia society, including chaning their Chinese names to Indonesian. But walking around on the USU campus and on the streets I could still catch snippets of Hokkein being spoken by both the older generation and some young Chinese-looking locals. (I discovered later from some of the USM students that there are places lined with Chinese restaurants in Medan)

I had always visualised Medan as a "small kampung". Hey, Medan is bigger than Penang. Population is 3 million. Like many cities, you will find the excessively rich and the downright poor. Corruption is rampant and Indonesia in infamous for being corrupt. It is accepted as a way of life by most but the previous Walikota or mayor of Medan is now in jail for corruption. So they are trying to fight it but it is difficult when you have to pay (we were told by the tour guide) about 75 million rupiahs (yes, you read it right) to get a priced job as a policeman. Yes, policeman are high up on the pecking order. Respected in fact with a princely pay of about RM600 or 2 million rupiahs a month. They are "respected" but also corrupt as all motorists will attest.

I inocently commented that the office is so packed with tables but no one is around. I was told that this is a common scene in government offices in Indonesia. Staff sign in and disappear for the rest of the day.

Soto Padang delivered to the office. Quite tasty but no vegetables, unlike Soto Johor which has lots of cabbage.

How much does a lecturer make? Only about as much as the policeman. Yes, RM500-600 per month. So most lecturers "moonlight" openly - either keeping multiple teaching appointments or open up their own business, even at their faculty homes. Long ago I was told that Indonesian lecturers will only get involved in a project if it brings additional income. Can't blame them. USU is a huge campus of 100 hectares with its first faculty starting about 60 years ago. The campus is minimalist and maintenance is obviously a huge problem. Rubbish is burnt on campus. I don't see a lot of polystyrene here and they use banana leaves on top of plates to minimise washing by hawkers. Plastic bags however is widely used. We passed a building under construction yesterday which appeared abandoned. Grass was growing all over and only the ground floor columns seems to have been completed. It seems the government has an ingenious way of funding projects. One year they will give you money for the foundation. Next year the columns for the first floor. And the following year, money for the first floor ...

(continued on 29th Mar morning, before leaving for Brestagi)

Ever had ganja-spiced mee? Last a lecturer from USU brought Ghani and me to a very popular stall (more of a shop) for Mie Acheh. When you first get to the front of the shop you are immediately impressed, not by the deco or building. By the huge number of tables occupied with customers. I estimated probably about 200 at that time. You can find Mie Acheh everywhere in Medan but this one is really special. I asked, "why is it special"? Our local counterpart says "people say they add ganja". It reminded me of the poppy seeds(?) they add to nasi kandar dishes in Malaysia. Was it good? Absolutely delicious. If you want to look for it, it's called "Mie Acheh Titi Bobrok" - titi is small bridge and bobrok means dilapidated. It is very close to USU campus but off the usual tourist traps.
Delicious Mie Acheh Titi Bobrok. Looks like Penang Hokkein Mee, right?

Bakso, which is a kind of meatball soup. Very peppery and full of fat. I merely wanted a taste. The meatball wasn't that good. I gave up half way because of the floating layer of fat. It seems you can get Bakso near the Sunnyville flats in Sg Dua, Penang. There is a version called Bakso Gonyang Lidah (wagging tongue) - can you guess why?.

While the other students were off shopping at the Pajak Ikan (fish market, which doesn't sell fish but clothes and textiles) yesterday afternoon, four of us went looking for unsual stuff. Had Sate Padang by the roadside. There are many such stalls everywhere and they are pretty earth-friendly. No polystyrene. They put the satay and ketupat on a sheet of banana leave placed over a small plate. So, they just have wipe the small plate with a cloth for reuse.
Sate Padang by the roadside - about 10,000 rupiah (about RM3) per plate of 5 sticks and a ketupat.

The day before our USU guide wanted to bring us to visit the Tjong A Fie mansion but it was close. Name sounds familiar? Well, this guy is related to the famous Cheong Fatt Tze of Penang. It seems Fatt Tze is the uncle of A Fie (not blood relations though). Fatt Tze was a big shot representative of the Dutch Colonial Government based in Batavia so Fatt Tze allowed A Fie to control the Medan trade, and according to locals, that was primarily the opium trade. So, yah, quite an anti-social guy but that's then. The mansion is being restored and is reminiscence of the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion in George Town, perhaps less opulent, but nevertheless impressive for its excessive wealth. We managed to get in from the "backdoor" when we saw workers doing renovation work. After a little pesistence, we met the guy in-charge of the renovation for a brief look inside. I even made a generous contribution to the restoration effort to the tune of 100,000 (rupiahs of course).
Tjong A Fie Mansion
(OK, the guys are waiting so will continue another time, checking out, 8.07 am 29 mar 2009)

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Teaching is for losers

What has happened to teaching? It used to be a glamorous job. Teachers were highly regarded. In the Chinese culture, teachers were placed on the top of the pecking order, I think even higher than the farmers. At the bottom is the businessman. I remember a TV interview of Malaysia's own multi-billionaire, Robert Kuok where he was asked how he would like to be remembered. His response was showed humility, pointing out that as a businessman he is at the lower end of the pecking order.

So what has changed? Blame it on World University Ranking, i.e. TIMES Ranking. These rankings are totally biased in favour of research outputs - how many articles published in citation indexed journals, number of Ph.D.s graduated, number of patents filed and more - all research-oriented. And despite all the rhetoric about rankings being biased and that we should perhaps throw it out, Malaysian Research Universities are heading full steam in that direction. And in the process the teaching component has become the incident part of the academic's life. You won't get rewarded for excelling in teaching. Yah, Yah, I know there's the Excellence in Teaching Award and all that but don't get me started on that as well.

So should I have been shocked when a top management in the university said that "teaching is for losers"? OK, maybe he didn't say it exactly like that. What he said was "our problem is how to get people interested in teaching" and invariably, teaching gets "taken up by 'losers'". Hhm, maybe I am being "over-sensitive" about this but I am sure many lecturers would have cringed and even more would have shouted "hurrah, long live research". Hey, I am not saying forget research. I am saying what happen to university education? Is it not our responsibility anymore?

On the brighter side, here's a photo of a beautiful flower from my very modest organic farm. And if you know your science, flowers become fruits. And the "fruit" from this flower is the lady's finger (ocra).

For those of you who still think that the harm of plastics on animals has been blown out of proportion, just take a look at this nest from my iron tree. See the plastic strips which the poor bird has mistaken for dried grass and leaves?

p.s. will be contributing to global warming this evening as I fly to Medan with a group of students for an international field study.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Poor Man's Lunch

My son is back from MMU for one-week break. So we pamper him with home-cook food as well as restaurant food. Eating the same food everyday on campus sure is boring. On the first night home, he told his sister he hadn't eaten such good food in a long time. A couple of weeks ago, a couple of students came to talk to me (actually they were redirected to me for some reason) about wanting a "career change" (change course lah!). We talked about their dissatisfactions - with the course offerings, lecturers, facilities. I then asked one of the students, given all the above, would you still choose USM to study. She didn't hesitate - she said YES. I looked at her very surprised and asked why? "Because I can get Chinese food in USM. That is very important to me because I can not eat spicy food", she replied. So, are you university administrators taking note?

So, what's this poor man's lunch? Plain porridge - just add a lot of water and some rice to a big pot and let in boil until rice is soft (up to you how soft you want it). No salt, nothing. Two salted eggs, 70 sens each nowadays. Fried fish - the fish was bought at the wet market yesterday for RM6.00. Bean sprout (tau geh), 50 sen - pluck the roots and get rid of the bean shells (this is the time consuming part but it makes the dish more attractive). And optionally some toufoo, 2 pieces, 30 sen each. Two eggs, what, 40 sens each - fried with half a large onion and 4 ladies finger (ocra). Ladies finger is free because it comes from my backyard - totally organic. My first harvest of home-grown organic vegetates. Yippee.

This is what our Chinese ancestors used to eat - simple and cheap. I am sure one day some enterprising businessmen are going to open up a Poor Man's Lunch Shop and charge RM2o per head for the nostalgia. As kids, I remember we used to grumble a lot - porridge day-in and day-out. Morning porridge before school. Come back porridge again for lunch. Now, we really enjoy these simple things in life.

Now for some publicity on the public dialogue on whether "to ban or not to bag plastic bags". I will be having my 20 minutes of fame, so come and join us. You can pretty much guess what I will be talking about - "Choosing a greener lifestyle". If you want an alternative view, the plastic manufacturers will be there if you are interested to hear why plastic bags (or all things plastics) are good and safe for humans (and the environment?).

It's being organised in conjunction with World Environment Day. Seems kinda early to "celebrate" - I thought World Environment Day is in June. It's an excellent effort by the State Government but I have told them that the first thing they can and should do is to issue a directive to all government departments and agencies to stop using polystyrene containers for official functions. The response - ah, emmm, uhhh ...

Below is a photo I took of a PBA family event held at the MengKuang Dam on the 7th March 2009. My wife had ajak (invited lor) me for a morning walk at the reservoir and it is a very nice place where many people go to exercise. And you can see signs everywhere telling people not to do this and that - no swimming, no littering; call us if you see anyone dumping stuff. All well and good and then as we walked further we saw people feeding the fishes in the reservoir (should they be allowed to do that?). And then we came across an family event with a big banner saying it is one of the staff associations of the Penang Water Authority (PBA). From far away I could "smell" the polystyrene containers. And my wife and I sighed!

Friday, 6 March 2009

It's so Beauuuu-T-Full

I decided to take a short break to walk to the post-office from my HBP office and wow was it worth the break. This a creeper with yellow flower which looks very much like alamanda flower. When it blooms, it is luxurious. But it lasts only for 2 days or so. So, if you want to be amazed, its right in front of the Experimental Theatre (Panggung Sasaran). Of course next to it are the Schools of Education and Management.

Oops, emmh, definitely not in the same category. It's one of USM's Heritage building being rennovated beyond recognition.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Feel Good Post

Its been a very good week. So to offset the negativity of the previous post, this one is (generally speaking) a "feel good post".

First three cheers to my wife. She was attending a function at her office and they served food with polystyrene containers. She told the organisers she is boycotting the food. And this a local authority in Penang! Oh, and she called up her nephew to warn him to make sure that the caterer for his daughter's first birthday party next weekend don't use styrofoam ... or else ...

The UMT (Universiti Malaysia Terengganu) student (probably Nuur Azreen) dropped by my blog to say thank you to the 5 USM students who went over to help them get rid of the white coffin. Thanks Ker Shin and friends. And Foo of MMU in Melaka dropped a line to find out more about getting rid of polystyrene on their campus thru their Social Awareness event. Asked for permission to use some of our stuff ... go ahead, an acknowledge would be most welcomed.

And then of course there were the two final year projects of mass comm students (Smart Fuel and Green Generation) who did a great job pushing green inside and outside the campus.
There were some tiny slips along the way but I tell them to be never afraid to make mistakes ... just to learn from them.

Then there was my focus group discussion with a small group of students from our three campuses talking about what university means to them. This is the first of hopefully a series under the People-Led Solutions Task Force of our APEX University journey.

Finally, a group of 34 UKM students and 4 staff came over for a talk on ... going green, of course.

This was thursday afternoon, 26th Feb. I got hijacked with an SMS message to take a RapidPenang bus ride from the Chancellory building with VC to the Smart Fuel campaign closing at DTSP. Notice the small slip ... or two?

The night before, I got a phone call from one of the organisers saying they managed to get some sponsors for prizes in the form hampers. I laughed, I knew immediately the reason for the phone call. He asked my opinion about the plastic wrapping. I told him he probably knew my answer. He said yes. So they got rid of the plastic wraps but I hope they remembered to send them for recycling. Ah, but the bigger question is really why do we still need all these prizes?.

This what I would call a "green prize". And I believe I paid for it. Well, not me, USM.

Four EcoKnights.
Actually, the only EcoKnight is the lady (Yasmin) who is with an NGO by the same name, famous for their EcoFilm Fest in KL. Next to me is Kwang Soo from South Korea who is President of EcoBuddha, an organisation which has been promoting sustainable lifestyle for 20 years. And at the far end is Kanda Kumar, Chairman of Malaysian Nature Society, Penang. We were speakers at the Kick Off Green Generation seminar, everyone of us talking about being green (and green washing). Friday morning, 27th Feb.

I decided to go low-tech without the slides. This was a "test" I developed to "measure" how green the audience was. I offered them a choice of polystyrene, EcoPak made from oil palm waste and another made from sugarcane waste (from Thailand). Which would they choose? I had three possible response which I would consider "green". I was totally blown away by the first student who answered. He got it right ... and won a cloth bag. So, what's YOUR answer?

A section of the students and invited guests. I believe they all got door gifts, including a so-called non-woven bag donated by a sponsor. If I remember Tupperware also donated some stuff. I told them not to offer me any souvenirs so that nobody gets embarrassed.

27th Feb, about 9 pm, Rumah Tetamu, USM.
Focus group discussion with USM students on what university means to them. The students surprised us with their openness and frank views. Looking forward to more such discussions in the future. What came out? Lecture, Lecture, Lecture and more Lecture - that's not what they want. Me, Me, Me & Me - some students are like that. SHE? total waste of time because it's not doing what it is supposed to do - racial integration. Facilitated by lecturers Lean Heng, Janet, Yoke Mui, Nasir and myself (as concept mapper).

I thought having the discussion at night would encourage higher participation. I was wrong. Students have so many activities and assignments, there were many latest minute apologies. This resulted in a lot of leftover food which the caterer packed in plastic bags. The students did not want to take any of those.

Saturday 28th Feb, 2.30 pm. Gave a briefing to UKM students about Kampus Sejahtera and our sustainability efforts. I tried the "green test" with the 3 types of packaging with this group also. I was totally blown away again when the first student to response got it spot on. I guess the young generation are really in tune with wanting to be green. I will try it out next week when I give a similar talk to new admin staff and lecturers and see the outcome.

Good Luck UKM. Wish you all green without the wash.