Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Toilet Food

We had a discussion in my office to prepare for the Student-Centred Workshop happening this weekend at Pulau Jerejak. So I said, let's go for lunch. Some one said that the noodle shop in Queensbay is offering 1 dollar chicken. Woah, let's go. Along the way, we discovered the offer is available only in the evening. So what to eat, what to eat? Then we saw this shop with toilet bowls all over. I thought they we selling sanitary ware. Say, it's a restaurant. Wanna try? Sure, why not?It has a glamourous label of "concept restaurant". The novelty is you sit on an actual toilet bowl and the food is served in miniature toilet bowls or toilet bowl covers. The tables are made from sinks.
I didn't finish my fried udon, which tasted like it had a ton of sugar added. The consensus was that the food is fit for the toilet. And damn expensive shit too (sorry). Our feedback on the form rated it 3 out of 10. Added comment "Get a new cook".

I remember a restaurant in Butterworth called Imperial Noodles. The name attracted huge crowds. We went once and said "never again". The shop has now gone under. This people don't understand. It's all about the food.

But Min Fey says he has a brilliant idea. His restaurant will be like a lab (you know, those places with test tubes and bunsen burners and pipette were things goes BOOM!). I offered to put in RM100 investment. Who knows? Could become a million when it goes public.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Indulgent Parenting

I think we were somewhere at the Gold Coast, the one Downunder. And I asked my eldest, Vivian (she called me papa!), "Are we indulgent parents". She didn't bat an eye and said, "Yes". I looked her --- and she said "OK, what?". So, we continue to be indulgent parents.

See me pulling the "Long Tea" in the picture below? Teh tarik, for us locals. It started when the boys were walking out of my house after one of their brainstorming sessions preparing for the inter-school debate (my youngest daughter is in the Chung Ling Butterworth school team). I said "knock them out. And I will buy you all teh tarik". And so they went on to not only knock out the other team but went all the way to the district finals. And came up champions. They beat St Marks, Dato Onn and Convent in the process.

So, I had to honour my promise. But getting them together is a logistics nightmare. They are not only so busy (I told my daughter her schedule is worst then mine) but it would involve several sets of parents driving their kid to the mamak stall.

Then my wife had a brilliant idea - "why don't you do the teh tarik yourself". OK, I am game. To make it authentic, we walked to the corner sundry shop to buy a can of condensed milk. Hey, this was what we used to feed babies and toddlers in the olden days. So, this is also an indulgence for me 'cos I usually take my evening tea without sugar.

Not bad for a wannabe mamak hawker. If you are wondering, this was not my first teh tarik attempt. I am actually quite good at it - something to fall back on if the university were to offer us all VSS. Picture courtesy of my wife.

Ah, but my wife was equally indulgent. She baked cinnamon rolls to go with the teh tarik. Lot's of sugar too.

The two boys fighting for the biggest rolls? Actually, the two of them shared one roll - too full from sumptious dinner (eh, not provided by me). Photo courtesy of Jillian.

So, knock them out again, I said! This time they are going up against Penang Free School tomorrow in the State-level competition. They are aiming to go only up to the semi-finals. My daughter told me she hopes they don't get into the finals. What? Why? For one, the final competition will be on thursday and she (and one other team member) is in the School Band parade for their annual school sports day on thursday. But the backup team (reserves) can take over, what? "I don't think they will let us win". Huh? Apparently, the winners at the State-level will go to the national level competition. And there is a rule which says that the state team must include a bumiputra member. Sure or not? Yes, for sure, I was told.

It is almost impossible (ok, make that totally impossible) for the Chung Ling team to find a non-Chinese (much less a bumiputra) student good enough to debate in English. You can probably count on one hand the number of non-Chinese students in a "Chinese" school. Heck, they have enough trouble trying to find ANY student willing to take part in debate, more so for English debate. Do you know how bad the English is in our schools? I know, 'cos I encounter many of the outputs from our schools in my classes.

So, of course you ask, if English is so bad in the Schools, how come these kids can go on to win even the District competition? Take my word for it, they are good. And you can be sure they didn't get that good from the English lessons in School. More so in a Chinese School. I think some of these schools even have a policy banning any spoken language other than Mandarin. They are not allowed to speak even in the Chinese dialects (like Hokkein). Those who are good in spoken and written English are mainly getting it from outside the School.

Anyway, I think the rule sucks. The people organising these events should figure out what is their agenda. National unity and integration? Or promoting excellence in language (English, in this case). Get your priorities right. Not everything has to be in the same bag.

Of course debate is only half about language. A major part of it is the "points", the arguments, and being convincing even if you think the topic is working against your position. In debate, it does not matter whether the topic seems to lean towards either "government" or "opposition". It's creative line of attack which wins the day. And these chaps from Chung Ling had caught their competition by surprise by stretching their imagination.

For the record, my roll, ooops, role is not just to pamper them when they brainstorm in my house. I also play the role of storm-maker. Ah, but I try very hard not to try too hard. It's part of their learning.

Friday, 24 April 2009

BANG! And your heart goes POP!

Driving on the Penang Bridge is life-threatening. The number of accidents on the bridge is very high. They have even put up a huge board which keeps track of the running total number of accidents in the year. I think it now stands at around 50 since the beginning of the year. I think last year, it was something like 280 or so accidents. That's like one accident every other day, with some to spare.

This morning on the approach to exit the bridge on the Island side, the queue was usual. I was on the left lane preparing to exit. There was maybe about 20 or 30 metres of clear space between me and the car in front. But on the right lane, the queue was quite packed. And then about maybe 10 or 15 metres ahead, I saw a Kancil bang smack into a Proton. I could feel the impact and my heart felt like I had just run a 100 metres at top speed. My first instinct was to touch my brakes to slow down. I looked into the rear mirror to make sure no one was bearing down on me. As I expected, a few drivers behind the Kancil started to change lanes - into my lane! Impatient idiots!

As I passed the Kancil I saw that the lady was "unhurt" but I am sure her heart must have stop for 5 seconds. Didn't get to see the guy in the Proton.

According to the "Road Safety Plan of Malaysia 2006- 2010" (Ministry of Transport, 2006), road accidents increased by 74% between 1996 and 2005 (328,000 cases). Road deaths increased by a "mere" 1.8% (6,188 deaths in 2005). Per 10,000 registered vehicles, the index went down from 8.2 deaths in 1996 to 4.2 deaths in 2005. Three cheers????

The report calculated that the total social cost (hhhm?) of road crashes (including more than 6,000 deaths) in 2004 was a stunning RM9 BILLION. And then it starts comparing with advanced nations like Great Britains and says that this is not satisfactory. Huh? Is there a satisfactory or acceptable level of accidents and social cost from road accidents? Like acceptable poison levels in food and plastics? What the heck, if you want to know, in 2004 the number of deaths per 10,000 vehicles are : Malaysia 4.5 deaths; Germany 1.23; Great Britain 1.18.

Want some more? The GOAL of the Ministry is to reduce roads deaths by 52.4% (from 4.2 in 2005 to 2.0 in 2010). Put it another way, the GOAL is to reduce from 23 deaths per 100,000 population to only 10 deaths per 100,000.

Hey, here's a thought. Why can't we have ZERO accidents? Why is it that we allow engineers to design and build roads which are accident-prone? Why do we allow car designers and manufacturers to make cars which are lethal weapons of destruction?

Not possible you say? Well think again. Penang State is trying to make the whole state WIFI-enabled right? Well, think 10 maybe 15 years into the future. Futuristics are talking about the day when there will be no accidents on the road. How, you ask. Technology of course. Specifically, WIMAX (WIFI on steriods) and GPS. For the uninitiated, that's Global Positioning System, the one you see on TV about the CIA being able to track criminals because handphones now have GPS. Also becoming very popular in Malaysia with some mobile phones and maps to guide you to your destination as your drive.

But how? Well, the first key is, you won't be allowed to drive. Ya, you are all hopeless when it comes to driving. Sensors in the car will use GPS and the local area network (WIMAX) to keep everybody (cars lah) at a safe distance from each other.

So, I guess if you want see that you and your loved ones don't end up as a crash dummy, SUPPORT PENANG STATE WIFI - the road to ZERO road accidents.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Happy Birthday, Mother Earth

Today is Earth Day, so something like a birthday of sorts, I guess.

So, what did you do for Mother today? Cycle to work? Plant a tree? Refuse that extra plastic bag? Started a compost heap? Damn good!

I volunteered one hour of my time to talk about becoming greener at the Dell factory in Bayan Lepas, Penang. They have a huge cafeteria which they partitioned into two for my talk. As I walked in, I asked, we're going to have the talk here? It's too big. Sorry, only place big enough. They are going to sit around the dining tables? Yah. Ehh, can we move the chairs in a line closer to the stage? They will be too far away and I will have to shout. OK, we can move the chairs, but we have to move it ourselves. The facilities people won't do it.

So, the clock is ticking. Getting closer to 10 am. Where's the crowd. One of the directors came and chatted with me. He used to be in-charge of greening Dell when he was in Singapore. Now he's here to say a few words of welcome. But he surprised me by staying for the whole show. Still waiting - and in the process I got to know a little about what the few thousand workers do in that factory. Actually, most of the staff at this facility operate the call center, giving technical support to customers. Many of them are also in sales, making sales pitch and taking phone-in orders. And they have quotas to meet. And commissions to earn. Ah, one hour to listen to green stuff is probably quite low in their priorities.

But over on the other side of the dining hall was a lonnnnng snaking line of perhaps close to a hundred staff queuing up - for what? Freebees, of course. A foreign bank was offering 5 gifts (4 types of bags and one umbrella) for every applicant for credit card. What, everyone can get meh? Yes, as long as you show the bank your current credit cards. Of course, I used the long queue to point to excessive consumption during my talk.

Hey, its pass 10 am already, where's the crowd. Shall we start? Yah, I think this is all the crowd we will get. How many, do you think? Well, see the row of empty chairs in the picture below. Ah, it's not the numbers but the quality of the audience that counts.

And so the show began. But part way thru, I started to realise alot of people sitting on the chairs at the dining tables. I thought they were just passing by or waiting for the credit card line. But when I started doing the pop quizzes, hey, they were all listening and participating. And I started to realise that I had a fairly "full-house" of every enthusiastic participants.

I had a lot of fun. Every "lecture" is different. Maybe if I do it 2,000 times I can follow Al Gore's footsteps. Hhmm worth a shot.

Say happy Earth Day.
ps. can't upload the photo - will have to do it from home. The connection from campus sucks.

Waiting for the crowd. In the background is a long line waiting for freebies.

above : Front row audience warming up. I must have said something to make them smile. below : View from the back - full house.
photos courtesy of Siew Tin

Monday, 20 April 2009

Everyone is talking, No one is listening

The view from the stage. 19th April 2009, Komplex Penyayang, George Town Penang. The event : "To Ban or Not to Ban Plastic Bags". About 150 or so members of the "public" showed up. Not bad for a sunday morning crowd.

At the end of the so-called dialogue, I said that "there's obviously a lot of posturing. We need to talk to each other. Right now, I don't see that we are talking to each other". My student sent me an SMS saying that it was quite a "nasty forum". The plastic manufacturers gave an hour-long presentation, rebutting /refutting every single thing said about why plastic bags are bad. Then the greenies had their say (I was one of them). And then the plastic manufacturers immediately "seized the stage" to rebut a few new issues brought up by the greenies, especially in relation to health concerns and those related to plastics which are not plastic bags. The poor young MC could not control the floor. Some people got angry because the plastic manufacturers were seen to be abrasive and stealing the floor. All the speakers were asked to go up to the stage for the forum to begin. But even on stage, the plastic manufacturers wouldn't let go and continued to press their point of view. The moderator had mysteriously disappeared part way through all the presentations. The young team from the CM's office were stumped and had to bring in reinforcements by getting the State Exco member present to preside - in fact, to tell the manufacturers to stop.

And when the floor was open, the greenies repeated their stance. The reps from the manufacturers and recyclers were vocal and loud (even shoutingly loud), and a little threatening and intimidating. The plastic industry in Malaysia is worth RM1.8 billion. Much is at stake. There were some level-headedness by one or two speakers from the floor. A Malaysia Second Home participant made an interesting remark "if you are building a chicken coop, why bring along the foxes?"

When the organisers started talking to me about this event, I already had some reservations. For instance, they wanted a debate format. I said "No". They also wanted the audience to raise their hands at the end of the event to vote whether the State Government should ban plastic bags. I said it was not a good idea. They thought I was afraid that the plastic manufacturers would be able to sway the audience to vote against the ban. I said the plastic manufacturers were the least of my worries. I said that I was more concerned that the State Government would fall flat on its face because it would put the public in a corner. "We got to show the public some respect. Give them choices." In particular, would people voluntarily stop or reduce use of plastic bags? How many are already doing it? And the plastic manufacturers would probably denounce it as manipulation if the vote was in favour of a ban. The organisers followed my advice. And then came the draft resolution. I didn't think much of it but I kept my mouth shut. The plastic manufacturers suggested a revision to emphasise 3R - they say plastic bags have been made a punching bag - which I kinda agree.

Which is why I did want to talk about "to ban or not to ban plastic bags". I talked about the need to be greener. I even drew a concept map and put it on this blog. I talked about the need to look at this from the point of view of a sustainable lifestyle. I even started my presentation with "left brain, right brain" thinking. That we need to approach this from the various mindsets. The greenies are set in their thinking. The plastic guys are even more set in their thinking. The politicians and government guys - sorry, but they don't seems to understand what needs to be done. I was distressed on stage when the EXCO member berated the Federal Government (actually the Education Ministry) for instructing the schools not to cooperate with the State Government (even though I think the Ministry is making a mistake). 200 letters were sent out by the CM's office inviting schools in Penang to participate. Zero response. 90 phones calls were made (only 5 said they will think about it). In the end not a single school children were there. And I am actually happy about that because they would probably have been totally confused by the posturing. And the angry and loud outburst by the EXCO. I was ashamed. And then a brave young lady stood up to say that her headmistress sent here because the headmistress was very concerned for the environment. She did not give her name or position, but she was a teacher, not a student. Bravo to her for politely telling the EXCO off (well, to me, she was telling him off). There must be other ways to reach school children. We are using only the left side of brain.

So, everyone is talking. No one is willing to listen - except for one or two. Of course everyone is entitled to express their views. But if everybody merely hold their ground, we won't get anywhere.

I did meet some interesting people. One was graduate in polymer from USM now working with the national petroleum company. They are concerned because what would they do with all their petroleum by-products (resins) if the demand for plastic bags dropped. I told the audience that futurists are telling us we should conserve our carbon for better use. For instance, carbon is seen as a replacement for silicon because carbon is super-efficient. In fact, the computer in humans (the brain, the brain), is made up of carbon. People came from as far as Seremban and Johor Baru (and I didn't like the way the Chair said that this is Penang, what has JB got to do with it? - something like that).

Was it a waste of my morning? I look at it as a journey. I now know at least what's not going to work. Some one needs to step forward to bring the various constituent groups together. Constituent groups, not stakeholders. I am learning the new-fangled language of being people-centred. Maybe this might be a good project to take for USM's People-Centred Sustainable Development.
Above : The Chief Minister of Penang was "ambushed" to sign the Green Pledge and of course he did. Now we will watch.
Below : about 30 USM Student Environmental Activists tried to get participants to sign the green pledge. In return, the signatories get a reusable cloth bag. Not very sure how they fared.

I told the audience at the beginning of my talk that the event was not so green - shrink wraps for the food and water in plastic bottles. One participant, probably from the plastic manufacturer stood up later to comment, saying what will happen to the people producing the bottled water if we all don't drink from those bottles. What about people who don't have access to clean water? I guess we still need to work on this idea of sustainable lifestyle.

Friday, 17 April 2009

On the road to people-centred sustainable development

Thank you, Chef Wong, for some memorable meals. Watched by the Special Branch.

Money well spent. A few of us (yes my taskforce members) grumbled, a little, about having to spend so much money just to come here to do this workshop. But I think all of us have accepted it could not have been done any other way.

So, we are done with the workshop. Now to have earlier lunch at 12 noon. Then leave at 1.45 pm, stop at the duty shop along the way to the airport. Make a contribution to the local economy and then Firefly out to Penang. By the way, the Firefly flight Penang-Langkawi was uneventful, except for a slight turbulence. We even reached 5 minutes ahead of time. But the flight was only half full.

We started here ... where are we going?

We got energised.

"Let a million flowers bloom" and the roadmap mushroomed into two.

Along the way, one member got distracted by this.

But we produced two masterpieces.
But this is only the slow beginning.

Endnote: first we said we wanted lunch at 11.30 am, then go to Kuah and then straight to the airport. So I talked to the hotel people. And then we decided, forget Kuah, eat at 12, leave at 1.45, stop for shopping then to airport. Now the hotel tells me the transport company (which is not part of the hotel; but belongs to the same owner anyway) says cannot. Need at least two days to make those arrangements. They need to arrange for driver and all that. So, alternative take taxi to Underwater world, 5 minutes away, then come back in time for the original 2.45 pm pickup to airport. Or shop at airport. Chocolate got. Bottle shop got. Corning, corelle no. Oh, but Underwater world also no corning. Where got? Kuah town lor. Sigh. It's hard being tauyou (chinese for tour leader/guide). See you all soon.

The Zen of doing workshops

Started 10.06 pm, Thursday night, 16th April.

This is the winding down to two and half days of intense talking, negotiations, friendly badgering and teasing to come up with the roadmap and action plan for the APEX U people-centred sustainable development taskforce. The energy has been amazing and the camaderie fantastic. I can see where it is going. And I am letting it go in the direction where it is being shepparded. Is it where I want it to go? It is not about me. I have to practice being people-led. No, we have discarded people-led in favour of people-centred. We have very opinionated individuals who are not adverse to making their views known but yet willing to allow themselves to be nudged. I am happy, because I have learned so much in these 2 and half days.

So what does it take to conduct a successful workshop. What is the Zen of doing workshops? Picking the right people is one. I think I made the right choices. Choosing the right location is another. Langkawi, far away from USM is a good choice but the damn handphones keep ringing. Still not far enough. Perhaps Bali will be far enough. Choice of hotel is another. I chose this one because it claimed to have a 100 green ways. And we asked for a tour of the grounds. We were guided by a gardener and an environmental engineer. We saw the detox pond where the fish we eat at the hotel restaurants are placed in cleaner water to allow the toxins to waste out. Huh? Well, the fishes are rear in a pond at the back of the gardens and guess what goes into the pond? Grey water. Know what that is? It’s waste water from the baths and sinks (not the shit bowl). There’s kangkong and water hycinths to absorb the heavy metals. Don’t worry, you can eat the kangkong because the plants just absorbs the iron (says our hard scientist Nasir, a chemist). Then on the other side of the pond is where they keep the fish. So, I guess the fish eat our waste. That’s why they have to detox. I wondered aloud whether the detox actually works. The environ guy says, actually it is just perception. If the pond was toxic, the fished would be dead already.

(stopped at 10.30 pm and went for drinks with some buddies. Now 6.30 am, Friday morning. I keep waking up before 6 these few mornings.)

It’s still dark. Am sitting on the front porch with the porch lights on. The waves keep pounding. In the distance, lights flicker. I am told that they are fishing for cuttle fish.

Back to the Frangipani, the recycled hotel. Frangipani has been here for sometime. And then the current owner reburbished it to become green. So based on my earlier post and the subsequent tour, it looks a little like green wash. But we are divided. Kabilan gives the hotel a B+/A-. Janet gives it a C+. On the generous side, I would give it a B-, mainly for trying. There’s a lot of big plastic tanks on stilts collecting rain and grey water. Recycle bins everywhere. Vegetables, only about 40% comes from their garden. Manggo trees are abundant. There’s composting using old long bath tubs. The corn field is irrigated with perforated pipes underground feeding the it with grey water. What? There’s soap (not organic yet, but coming) and sampoo in the grey water, right? Our chemist says, no problem. Soap is just sodium. I was concerned about the water contaminating the ground water. I remember Adelaide tried storing the grey water in the ground and found out that the water became excessive salty and not suitable for watering the lawn. There’s chicken and geese everywhere, some 100 or 200 of them (they started with 20) and they eat the kitchen waste. I am not sure that it is a great idea given the composition of the food. Wan Fauzy’s family is in the catering business and they usually have leftovers which they pass to a friend rearing chickens. One day, the farmer said he could not take the left overs anymore. Why? The chickens are getting too fat from the fatty food! Oh, but did I say that the Uncle Wong’s (not Tong) fried kampung chicken is damn good?

(ooo, I see Lean Heng walking by, in the dark, with hands raised, working the Qi. 6.48 am)

And the pond. Wonderful idea. Treat the waste. The solid waste (the shit lah) goes to the sewerage treatment plant. Only the grey water goes into the wetland. But its green in colour. Its full of algae. So its not healthy – the eco-system of the pond. I asked again, What about seepage into ground water. They admitted that there is no waterproof lining under the pond. And the fish? We had it twice. The first time I skipped it but not because I was suspicious. I was told it was good. Yesterday we had fish again for lunch, western style and it was good.

After the 1 hour or so tour, we had frangipani tea on the beach. Hhhmm. It’s just “tea” – didn’t make an impact on me.

Yes, they are trying. And they are selling green. They need to work out the issues.

Alright, again it’s the long-winded way to what I am getting to. The Zen of doing workshops. Frangipani has nice beach and I managed to swim in it twice. The big sign that says “Beware of Jelly Fish” is like rumour-mongering – it scares people from going into the sea. While in the water yesterday with Matthew and Kabilan (and Janet and Lean Heng joined for a while), we found big and small plastic bags at the bottom of the sea and pieces of polystyrene foam on the beach. So you think we can solve this with recycling? The architecture is crappy. The staff here are all friendly. But there are little little things that take the stress off the intense brain work. Apart from the bottle of red wine, I will let these pictures tell the story.

The perfect Zen position.
Yoke Mui makes sure every word spoken counts

The second position is called the Frangipani pose, ala-Titanic. Lean Heng happy to be outside the ballroom.

Janet in the far away pose ... revitalising her Qi.

Matthew talking under the stars. He was a rascal and bad boy in another life. But making amends by taking the reflexivity route.

Here's where the fish gets detoxed. Also a place where a guy from the team got friendly with the actress shooting on location late last night. Did he get lucky? I understand the attraction was mutual. (update : he did get LUCKY)

This was lunch yesterday - fish . Looks good? Wait ...This was dessert. Cheese cake. Looks beautiful. Tastes good too. And all because we told Uncle Wong how much we enjoyed his cooking. And because Janet asked very nicely. (Sorry, I am told it was Lean Heng who asked; Lean Heng says the "greedy one"; Lean Heng says "requested persuasively")

Ah, but where does the fish come from? Right from this very green pond (wetland lah_.

Grilled kampung chicken with brown rice. The secret is the yoghurt.This was on the first day. Rojak with manggos from their garden. The sauce was all sugar and soya sauce, no prawn paste. But I couldn't tell.

My dinner on the second night. Damn good too. The first night we went out to eat and was terribly disappointed. The fish was fishy. The crab was crappy. And they charged us RM80 for the steamed garlic grouper. We thought it was night robbery. Janet told the staff we will never go back. It was too much hassle finding a good restaurant. There are many around but mostly desserted. It's either the off peak season of the effects fot the global economic meltdown.

In case you think its all good food and fun. Here's proof we work hard too. We are thinking maybe Bali next time? What do you think boss?

Endnote : we like uncle Wong's food so much we asked for a special dinner last night. He suggested duck. Yes, we all agreed. It was Chap Chuan (10 herbs) duck soup. It was great. And then came organic white rice and two vegetables. Hmm, sorry uncle Wong, it wasn't how we envisionaged it would be.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Frangipani, the recycled hotel

It’s 6.55 am, 15th April 2009. Sitting outside the little “chalet” on the beach in Chennai, Langkawi. Woke up before 6. Couldn’t get back to sleep so decided to take a walk on the beach at 6.30 am. Our porch light was switched off by someone in the middle of the night. That’s good ‘cos this hotel claims to practice 100 green ways. But it’s too dark to walk along the path ‘cos all the lights have been switched off except for two dim lights in the distance. So I walked along the beach, with the waves pounding and the moon shining, reflecting on the sand to guide me along. It took only 20 minutes to walk the whole stretch and back. The air is cool but there’s hardly any breeze. Not a single leaf is moving. You sweat a lot here.

Of course there’s air-conditioning but the architect or designer of Frangipani really has no idea what is good beach architecture in a tropical island climate. Matthew says its just a box. Further down the beach I saw one resort which looked really nice.

So if the design is so lousy what are we doing here? Certainly not the price. The sea-view rooms are reportedly priced about over RM800 per night. And the one’s further inside are published at RM400. The one they gave me originally looked into an unsightly “backyard” from behind while the front balcony looked over the rooftops of some “chalets” and no seaview. If that was RM400 a night, that totally was not worth it. But of course they gave us a package which is below RM300 – but it still is not value for money. So we called the manager who tried hard to please us. So I am in a seaview “chalet” with the beach just 30 metres away. And the sunset yesterday evening was spectacular. Say, anyone knows why the sun seems to get sucked down very quickly once it “touches” the water?
Can you hear the sizzling?

Matthew wondering whether he should have my share of the fried bananas.

Four of us (out of 7) requested for a room change. We all got our rooms changed. But the others are not so lucky because they got rooms that are no better then the earlier ones – and they had to put up with the hassle of moving their stuff. Janet got her bags moved – but without her clothes and stuff. Lean Heng is pushing for a better deal – she says hotels always bully their government clients because we don’t know how to negotiate with them. I totally agree. I don’t like the negotiation part. So, I don’t know where this story will end. We will be here until Friday, working on our APEX University People-Led Agenda (and so far I am very happy with the energy and team spirit).

The meeting was another hassle. It’s a huge ballroom but there’s only 7 of us. Lighting was an issue. We took down one of the layers of curtains to allow more natural light in. Ventilation and air-conditioning was an issue. So we moved our working top closer to the air-con unit and open the glass doors for ventilation. We had to ask for drinking water. But to their credit, the staff respond very well and are very friendly.

Green. What’s green about the rooms. Well, you can go check their website of the one hundred green things they do. But when I first received the email (forwarded by my boss) and checked their website, I sent an email to the hotel owner asking about drinking water in the room. One of the things they claim is that for meetings, they don’t provide water in plastic bottles. Hurrah. But I asked – what about in the rooms? I said I have issues with boiling water in electric plastic kettles (if you must know, we have switched to boiling water in a metal kettle using gas at home). So I asked, what is Frangipani’s solution? What do you think? Plastic electric kettle, what else. And drinking water in plastic bottles? Yah, there are there too in the rooms. Talking about plastics. When the tea was served, the fried bananas and cut fruits came in plates – shrinked wrap. We advised them to stop doing that (as of yesterday, 16th April, two days after we arrived, the food was still shrink-wrapped).

So we turned out to be bullies too. Some of us are real picky about food. Me included. Lean Heng wanted brown rice (or something other that white rice). No, they don’t have brown rice. How about yellow rice? Nah, that’s just white rice with tumeric. Got vermicelly (tang hoon)? Yes, they have. And out comes a plate. Oh, but it’s just boiled. Not fried ah? Nevermind. We will try it with the beef curry. Turned out it was quite good.

Ah, we even invited the cook, uncle Tong, for consultation. Uncle, the fried chicken is damn (sorry) good. But a little too salty. Wait, wait, wait – but it’s perfectly ok for us, said Nasir, Kabilan and Zol.
Damn good kampung chickens!

(stopped at 7.30 am for breakfast. Now 9.00 am, waiting to start the storm again. Lean Heng, Janet and Yoke Mui are rearranging the layout to reduce reflection on the white board and so everyone faces the projection screen.)

Ah breakfast. Usual fare – nasi lemak, sausage, pancakes, cordial, fruits, cereal, bread … but no porridge. Asked for 2 half-boiled eggs, my little indulgence when staying at hotels. And horrors, I saw two Mat Sallehs (Caucasian) doing tau pau (take-away) – guess what type of containers? The White Coffin!! Hhmmm. This isn’t going well is it?

Now back to lunch yesterday. On the table were home-made placemats providing information about plants and chickens and ducks on this hotel. It seems the chicken we had for lunch was “free-ranch” (kampung) chicken – organic lah! And it was damn good. According to Janet – no smell lah! The dragon fruit and mango is also organic from their garden.

OK, got to stop now. 9.11 am. Got to go back to work. Will put pictures and other stories later.

Monday, 13 April 2009

The Problem with Plastic Bags - Stop thinking you can recycle

Remember the date : 19th April 2009 Sunday, 9.00 am, Komplek Penyayang, George Town, Penang

Above is my talking points for the dialogue "To Ban or Not to Ban Plastic Bags".

The plastic manufacturers' association says that plastic bags have been made the punching bag, the scapegoat. I kinda of agree. Their solution is to step up recycling. I absolutely disagree. Stop thinking that you can recycle. The first rule is REFUSE. Forget 3R. The key is to stop waste in its tracks. Go for 4R. First Refuse (do you really need that plastic bag? do you need to print those notes?).

If you can't do without the plastic bag or the printed notes, then REDUCE. That's the second rule. Take only one plastic bag for the whole shopping trip (but always remember to bring reusable bags). Print on both sides of the paper.

The 3rd rule is REUSE or Repair. Yes, I know, reuse the plastic bags as trash liners. I do that still. But that still ends up in the landfill and they stay there forever (perhaps a 1,000 years but who knows? Plastic bags have been around only since the 1980s). I must start more composting of the organic cooked food waste which I am not doing at the moment (am only composting the fruit peels and uncooked vegetables and yard waste). That has been bugging me. Once I can compost the food waste, I will have almost zero waste (when I factor in the recycling - yah, you got me there).

The last resort is recycling, when everything else fails. The idea is to keep the stuff working for as long as possible - because recycling really uses a lot of resources too.

So, what do you think? Message loud and clear? Yeah, I know, the concept map is probably too complex for some. Not to worry, I will still have slides with lots of pictures. I will try to touch the various multiple intelligences.

See you there. A group of USM students will be there to lobby the crowd. Want to make a difference?

Monday, 6 April 2009

Tipping Point


When is enough, enough? When is it one time too many? Well, today's the day I finally succumbed. The tipping point.

My old faithful refused to start again this morning. This after sending it for more repairs a couple of weeks ago. Remember I got stuck on the Penang Bridge? Well the fuel pump was changed. But it sprang a leak, after about only half a year. What about warranty? No such thing any more, even if you get genuine parts. Of course if you go to Nissan they will give you warranty, but charge you a bomb. And I hate the people there. I vowed never to buy another Nissan. Sorry guys. So, anyway I noticed spots of oil stains on the floor of my car porch. I ignored it at first. And then the engine started getting jerky when slowing down. Got the mechanic to come back. He took it to check and I also asked him to check the jerking. Could be the leaking fuel pump?

When he brought it back he said he patched up the hole with glue. Test it first and see if it leaks again, he said.What? Well, OK, let's try it. And then he said that while driving, he found that the car was still jerky. He checked and suspects the ignition coil is going bananas. He said he removed the cap on the coil and it is working now but if jerking continues will have to replace ignition coil (this is the one which sends out some 22,000 volts to ignite the petrol). So, OK, I am game to try.

Still jerky in the last few days. And then this morning, it went, ehehehehehehe. It won't start. SMS my colleague saying I will be late for meeting. Wanted to cycle to the mechanic nearby to see if he's already open. Both tyres on the bike are flat. So I walked. No luck, too early, its only 7.20 am for heavens sake.

Called my wife, who called the mechanic. He came over. Probably the battery. But better take it back to check in case it's the ignition coil.

So, that's the last straw. The tipping point.

Hhmm, so we are now actively looking at the Getz 1.4, Korean techonology, assembled in Kulim.

Hybrid car? No way. The only model available is the Honda Civic which is really too expensive.

BTW, we thought we would be having twins but somehow the birds decided to take away the second egg. One moment it was there and then it was gone. I think maybe we scare them a little with our peeping.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

We're going to have a baby!

Was watering the plants in the morning and found another bird's nest in my garden. With a tiny egg in it. Will keep a vigil and update you on the newest addition to the family. Oh, and this nest also had plastic strips and parts of plastic bags in it too.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009


Korupsi is Indonesian for corruption. Before you hammer me for "targetting" Indonesians, let me acknowledge that corruption is alive and well in Malaysia. Look what happened in the recent UMNO elections. A friend of mine said his son gave up working as an engineer to free-lance as a photographer because the son couldn't live with the dirty habits of the construction industry in Penang.

Corruption can be in many forms. For instance, our Indonesia tour guide suggested that we visit a breath-taking waterfall near Brestagi which is a hill resort. We were all excited. And then came the bombshell. We will each have to pay an extra 50,000 rupiah. Why? Because it is not on the agreed itinerary. He of course put it nicely "not compulsory" ("bukan paksa"). He asked the group whether we were willing to pay. A couple of students immediately said no. So, we visited the famous fruit/vegetable market in Brestagi and then had lunch (meager but not bad). And then we were told that was it. The whole afternoon nothing. What about the visit to a scenic spot on top of the hill which is part of the itinerary? Sorry, there's a landslide and condition is too dangerous for buses (which was true).

So, the whole afternoon was free and easy. There's a great pool at the hotel. But not a single person in it. I wondered why? At 5 pm, I put on my shorts, walked to the pool and jumped it. I was out of the pool in 10 seconds (honest). It was freezing cold. Then so we had dinner (very simple dishes but OK). And then my colleague told us he had taken the Angkut Kota (a minivan-type public transport) to Brestagi town. And suggested we ask the bus to drop us all in town after dinner. So he went to talk to the tour guide. What do think happened? The guide asked for money of course. Reason? They are given only a limited amount for petrol so we have to compensate them. Ghani kicked up a fuss. The tour guide then invited the representative of the Penang agent which organised our trip (who accompanied us to learn the ropes, I think) for private consultation. And so it was agreed. But we were not happy about being force to pay (even if the Penang agent was paying) so we told them to forget it. So only Ghani and I took the angkut kota to the town which is less than 10 minutes away and cost only 2,000 rupiah (less than one ringgit) each.

Next morning, we were told the happy news that the guide would take us to the hotspring. Our antenna started twitching. And we were right. The Penang rep had agreed to pay another RM200 just for this little side excursion which actually is on the road back to Medan. So, is this corruption? Our suspicion is that the tour companies gives the driver and tour guide a specific amount for fuel so these guys will find ingenious ways to make some extra buck. This was actually the culmination of our outrage with both the Indonesian and the Penang tour agents (we were already a little unhappy with them for various reasons; including having to insist on providing another room for the students).

But this is not a tactic unique to Indonesian tour guides. You will find a little more sophistication with tour guides in China. So can you see why not many westerners visiting Medan and Lake Toba?

During lunch, I sat with four students and asked them to assess the success of the trip. Thumbs down for the tour agents on both sides of the Straits. The hotels in Medan and Brestagi were rated good. Shopping was very good (cheap lah). Food was rated good. Brestagi was rated nice for it's nature and rolling hills - but not as nice as Kundasang at the foot of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah.
Minang food. Very tasty. And colourful.

The academic component was rated "not good". Language was a problem because the Indonesian language is very very different from Malay. The Indonesian students were all much older (30 years and above compared to early 20s for the Malaysian group) so there was a generation gap. All of the Indonesian students are working (and mostly have families) so have different priorities. They were more interested to just get the project done with rather then explore the frontiers.
USM-USU students having group discussion at the USU campus

So, in future should we bring students back for this type of study tour? The USM students said No. Or if come, don't really need to work with local university students - they felt they didn't benefit much from the interaction compared to working with the UniSA students last year.

My take is that it is still a valuable experience for our students because it opens up their minds to other cultures, way of life, values and belief systems. I didn't go with earlier groups (which used USU bus for their travel) so I can't compare. Of course, given the choice they would rather visit Australia.

For me, this trip (and all my trips) are always opening up new vistas. I enjoyed knowing the students better. One girl ate three bowls of porridge one morning (plus other stuff) so I wondered why - must be something to do with her roots. Unfortunately this is already at the end of their studies so perhaps such trips should be earlier in their study programme.
Me in a becak (motorised trishaw) reacting to a bump on the road. Shared the ride with two students.

My biggest nightmare was the number of plastic bags collected in the course of their shopping. Endless. Despite my constant harrassment, they ignored me and continued to collect plastic bags for every single purchase. I had a small victory on the last afternoon when I pointedly asked one student to figure out how many plastic bags she had collected in the last two days. She removed the plastic bag from her latest purchase and gave it back the to shop assistant who was taken by surprise. I think we need to set some policies and guidelines for future travels by students and staff - responsible travel.
Shopping paradise. Environmental nightmare. Notice all the plastic bags?
See the colour board at the back? It's used widely to send congratulatory messages such as during wedding dinner. I had thought it was a good practice thinking that it is fresh flowers. Actually, the all made up of small plastic flowers. I hope they reuse them. Quite expensive (for them) like 300,000 rupiahs each board. Only for the rich.

AirAsia was delayed for more than two hours on the return flight. So all passengers got a snack box (cardboard box with 2 pieces of kueh and a plastic cup of drinking water). Every single one thrashed the empty box and plastic cup after eating. Except one! Guess who?