Sunday, 21 June 2009

18 levels of Hell

My first "experience" with death or rather funeral was when I was in Standard Two, age about 8 or 9 years, when my "big mother" (tuah mak) died from self-medication. The ceremony was elaborate and I didn't understand a single thing that was happening. About 5 years after that, I went through another funeral - this time it was my father. My recollection as a kid was that funerals are scary like hell. And it is meant to be. It's traumatic. Even now, after almost 40 years, images from my father's funeral is still vivid. The coffin, for one, was huge and imposing, made of very thick wood. There is one scene when the heavy lid was finally placed on top of the coffin and sealed, with 6-inch nails. When the pounding of the nails are made, the family members must turn away. I remember there was loud wailing and anguish. The sound effect from hammer on nail was just incredibly heart-wrenching. There was also alot of pantan. Other people don't want you in their homes, and you are supposed to be wearing the attire (costume) of someone mourning the death of a family member, so you don't just walk into a coffee-shop to eat your lunch or dinner. Well times have changed. People don't cry anymore, except the very old ones. In fact, I was actually making fun of my sister-in-law during a ceremony where the dutiful daughter-in-law was fanning an earthen pot over a charcoal stove to brew medicine for her mother-in-law. The ceremony was being conducted by professional funeral organisers and the lady was leaning in close up to my SIL and "crying", trying very hard to make my SIL come to tears. Later, my SIL said she avoided eye contact with the person trying to make her cry so that she wouldn't end up in tears.

I still don't understand Chinese funerals but according to Taoist, Buddhist and Chinese folklore, if you have sinned in your life, you will be judged in 10 Courts in the underworld where there are 18 levels of hell. Wealthy people who do no good or waste food will be grind (so, I guess that's why the rich give alot to charity?); if you are a sexual deviant or pervert you will be boiled in oil; corrupt officials will be dismembered by chariot; cheaters and profiteers will be made to climb mountains of knives; cold-blooded murderers will be pounded; evil people will have their hearts dugged out; peeping toms will have their eyes gorged; crooks who use loopholes in the law will be eaten by maggots; if you ill-treat your parents and elders you will be frozen into ice; and more. Scares the shit out of you yet? Yes, it's intended to do so. If you ever visit Singapore, go the the Haw Par Villa. You will be able to visit the 18 levels of Hell in all its gory glory. My young kids at that time were quite distressed after the visit. Oh, after you have been punished, they give you a portion to make you forget everything. And then you could be be reborn - as a rat, a cat, a dog, some insect.

No, this is not what Hell looks like. This was the final night after all the ceremonies and the paper house is taken to a street intersection and set on fire (permit from Fire Brigade required). Chinese burn all sorts of stuff so that the departed will not lack anything in heaven. Definitely not carbon-neutral.

Paying respect.

Part of the ensemble of Teo Chew "opera-like" funeral services. I kinda enjoyed some of it. They put in a lot of effort in the music, the singing, the chanting, costumes ... Started at 6.30 pm on the dot and ended almost close to midnight. The poster on the right depicts some of the 18 levels of Hell.

Each of the children (and in-laws?) contribute a treasure chest of gold and silver (made of incense paper, of course). So, a lot of folding and sorting.

Hey, what's this, I thought there's a funeral going on? Well, dinner was not provided so some of us went for savory pancakes at a Mall. Times have changed.

Four grand children carrying a paper sedan chair. No idea who's spirit they are carrying.

The final journey. Nowadays its mainly symbolic and covers a very short distance. In the old days, the heavy coffin would be carried for several kilometres. The guy in front is throwing "kim chuah" or golden paper to pave the way for the spirit of the departed.

At the end of certain ceremonies, those who participate wash away bad luck with Huah Chui (flower water).

It's a tradition to provide snacks to family and friends who come to visit or attend the funeral services. At the end of the funeral, usually porridge is provided with some simple vegetarian dishes or even meat. In the old days, the favourite snack was porridge with meat (Bak Moi). In fact, Chiak Bak Moi (eat meat porridge) used to be a euphemism of going to attend a funeral or to say some one has died.

After the funeral, I gave this Memorial Lecture to a group of secondary schools students ... about choosing a greener lifestyle. Attended by my wife, three children, 2 nephews, 2 brother-in-laws and 2 sister-in-laws.

Yes, I know. My brother-in-law had asked me whether burning the big house is green. Of course it is not. Some temples now forbid the burning of candles and incense paper. People are more conscious about health and environment and eventually many of these practices will die out. In the meantime, we must document them for our memories. One of the things we modified was the need to continuously burn incense paper in an earthen pot while the decease's body is waiting to be placed in the coffin. This is to guide the deceased's spirit; to make sure it does not wonder around and get lost. But the fumes from the burning was getting to us in the closed confines of the living room, so it was almost unanimously decided that it should just be symbolic.

Oh, yes, I checked. Apparently people in the olden days treated the environment will much respect. Otherwise there would have been a 19th level of Hell. Guess for what type of offenders?

Saturday, 20 June 2009

The kids need to learn how to listen

After the funeral in the morning, I kept my commitment to a bunch of school kids from various schools gathered at the Chung Ling High School in Penang. I guess I should have learned from my previous experience with a primary school kids in Parit Buntar. They are restless and can't sit and listen for long periods of time.

I was totally disoriented when the moment I started talking, the kids started talking amongst themselves. That really got to me. Shhhh, and they quieted down. But not for long. Soon they are buzzying away again. I asked whether they could understand my English. Yesssss, the yelled. By then, I was no longer in the proper frame of mind to inspire and be inspired. After one hour, I said we should stop. And I asked if they had any questions. Happily, one or two asked some questions, which I didn't quite have the answers to.

After the talk, my son said "dad, not bad lah". But we know better. According to my kids this is normal. Jillian told me that in her School, even if the speaker speaks in Mandarin, the kids will listen for one or two minutes and then start talking amongst themselves. Fortunately, quite a number of students responded to my questions during my presentation. Typically, everyone will keep quiet. Even my nephews who study in Singapore say it's the same over there. Nobody will want to response to questions from the speaker. So I guess I should be grateful.

Later, my brother-in-law who has four school friends who are now headmasters say the problem is these kids take part in these activities because of the 10% allocated for co-curriculum. They join the activities just to get the points.

So, back to the drawing board if we want to reach out to the students in schools.

Friday, 19 June 2009

The Long Goodbyes

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Mitch Albom's "The Five People you Meet in Heaven" and "Tuesdays with Morrie". Both are about dying. The book on Morrie Schwartz was also turned into a TV movie and I think it was called "The long goodbye". It's about a professor who was dying of Lou Gehrig's disease which is medically referred to as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). What is it? It is a slow death, where you eventually lost total control of all the muscles in your body. The last organ to go is the lungs - it will collapse and suffocate you. But Morrie chose to let the world experience his "pain", to let people learn how to deal with dying, so that they can start learning how to live. He was interviewed by Ted Koppel three times on national TV. And his former favourite student, Mitch, visited him every tuesday (flying in from Chicago to Washington everytime) to write a final thesis. Each week they talked about life (marriage, the world, feeling sorry for yourself, family, emotions ... and of course about death). Morrie's medical bill was huge but the advance from the book Mitch wrote helped to pay the bills.

And as they say, the only sure thing in life are taxes and death. We know we all want to stay alive. We want to prolong life even when we know the diseases are going to get you, eventually. Cancer. Anyone of you had never had a family member die from cancer? My mom died from a brain tumour, but she lived a long life (81 years, I think). My eldest sister died from cancer which spread from the gall (age 67). Another sister is fighting stomach cancer with chemo (now finished) and Qigong. My father-in-law died of lung cancer (from years of smoking when he was younger, aged 83). Just heard that a cousin-in-law is going through chemo AND radiotherapy for brain tumour and it is driving him crazy (and everyone else around him). The costs are even crazier. A single dose of chemo at Mt Miriam Hospital is RM500. And if you are stage four, the chemo can be everyday. First they try to operate. That will put you back 60,000 to 70,000 ringgit at a private hospital (blood-suckers, aren't they?). And whether they can remove every bit of the tumour or not, you still need chemo and radio-therapy, just in case. Most of the time, the battle was lost before it started - the doctor may tell you the success rate is like less than 30%. Why do we still do it? Because we want to prolong life.

But that's only cancer. What about dementia and alzhiemer? The old people's diseases, we always say that. These diseases just suck the life out of you, and leave you bedridden (for years!), unable to eat (patients eventually have to be fed liquids through tubes stuck into the nose), and you are totally oblivious to everything that goes on around you. But we still have to prolong life - only there is no quality of life. We always joke about it : "oh no, I'm getting alzhiemer!", whenever we forget stuff or don't remember names. When do you really know when it's coming? Can we stop it dead in it's track?

Shall I go on? Diabetes, stroke, kidney failure, heart attack ... They are the "rich man's" diseases. We put too many toxins in our bodies. Don't believe them when they tell you "don't worry, it's a safe level, approved by the government and the WHO and the FDA". Yes, they are all foodgrade poisons. Classic oxymoron.

Goodbye, Ah Poh
I hope the 5 people you meet in heaven bring back the memories.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Keep a pet to achieve zero waste

I must say they learn really fast. For many of them, it was the first time they were introduced to the idea of zero waste. One of them told me during lunch that all this while they were under the impression that recycling is what they should do to reach sustainable development.

After lunch, one of the students started to collect the chicken bones from the plates. I asked her whether she was going to feed the cats. I wanted to start a discussion about how the action of "encouraging" the cats will make the cats bolder and they will start jumping on the table and all that. But then she changed my perspective completely.

She said "yes", and then added : "this is zero waste", pointing the cat coming for the bones. And it gave me a jolt. Hey, yes, that's what we used to do back in the good old days. Keep a dog or some chicken or cat and all your leftovers are gobbled up, including all the bones. Nothing goes into the garbage bin.

And I started thinking, "perhaps this should be part of the sustainability agenda". Instead of looking at the cats (and dogs, and there many at the hostels) as the problem, we should look at it as an opportunity. I saw how they girls loved the cats. When we first came down to eat lunch, there were at least 8 or 9 cats all ready to jump on the tables. One of the girls made some sound and all the cats zoomed in on her. One of the other girls had gone back to her room and came back with some friskies. When we were eating I suddenly realised that the cats were nowhere near our tables (except for one or two manja ones). The girls used the friskies to distract the cats so we could eat in peace.

So, I said to the ladies. Hey, this should be integrated into their Eco-Desa Saujana Project. Sustainable development is not just about the ecology and the economy; or recycling and organic garden. Human development is a key component. One of the things we have talked about in the people-centred agenda is defining and developing a set of values of the "sustainable person". Caring for pets and animals is definitely one of them. Of course, we would have to have some programme for neutering (Hey, Vivian, hear this?) to control the population.

Me in action, talking about "Choosing a Greener Lifestyle" to the Saujana ladies. The hostel is 100% ladies only. These are volunteers for their Eco project.

The Eco-Desa Saujana is an experimental project to turn the whole hostel "sustainable" (so to speak) and the students have been arranging talks to help them better understand the issues and concepts. (My Airbook is making one helluva a racket now; the fan is spinning very noisily and this machine is only one year old; am afraid it will crash anytime now). Next talk will be to all the first year students of Saujana on 3rd July to introduce ideas to them. Some of the students told me that before they entered USM, they had never even taught or heard about sustainability. The Schools are not doing much to prepare our young (but this may be changing - am going to Chung Ling High School Penang for similar talk this saturday 20th June).

After my talk I sat down to chat while waiting for lunch to be ready. The next item they brought up to me was a total surprise. Husna posed the issue of what can they do to reduce or remove the environmental impact of sanitary napkins. Ah, but I quite quick on my feet, even when sitting down. And I remembered my conversation with Leh, our lecturer specialising on paper. She talked about developing an environmentally friendly "pampers". And I said, hey, this is something USM should also pursue under our APEX agenda. Research on environmentally friendly sanitary pads. I also encouraged them to agitate the companies and even government agencies to ask them to develop products which all the green ladies would like to use. This could be the next "white coffin".

Monday, 15 June 2009

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to recycle paper

I usually walk to the Red House for my "vegetarian" lunch - half portion of rice and three types of vegetables. And I have to pass this spot on the road side near my office which is a designated drop-off point for rubbish to be collected by the garbage truck. In fact, I can see it from my window. Everytime I pass by, I sigh. What's so difficult about recycling paper? So, today, me and my sidekicks decided to look inside the bags.

Abe and I really sad to find perfectly reusable and recyclable envelopes and paper in the thrash. I know, the garbage men will retrieve the recyclables right there at the roadside but it's just not right. Abe is an aqua biologist, who does deep sea diving, is going on a 1-month top secret scientific voyage (oops, not secret anymore) soon, who's agitating for action on climate change.

It does not take a genius to know which department did this. Don't worry, they are just empty envelopes. Zol told me about the case of another local university in the Shah Alam which caused a hue and cry when the public discovered that some applications for places at the University was not even opened - the whole application was just thrashed.

Michael Peter Foo - Christmas came early. We took the bag of "thrash" back to my office to put in the recycle bin at Korporat. And then discovered there was left-over durians and food packaging mixed together. So, we just took out the used envelopes and some recyclable paper. BTW, Michael is a chemist, budding scientist and a self-acclaimed "Kah Poh Chee" (busybody) - guy behind the proposed revival of the USM clock tower.

So, here's the deal. The University at our retreat the previous weekend had agreed to make our Green Office (Pejabat Alamiah) an APEX project. Something which everyone from the VC right down to the clerks and cleaners can take part. One of the things we will target is paper. Every department and school will have to : i) demonstrate reduced consumption of paper (show us how you did it, supported with statistics); ii) make sure not a single piece of paper goes to the landfill (zero waste); and iii) increase the use of recycled unbleached paper.

Honestly, recycling isn't so difficult. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to do it.
  1. Get hold of any box, such as a cardboard box from you last purchase of a computer or equipment. Stick a label that says "Recycled Paper"
  2. Everytime you are about to throw out a used piece of paper or envelope, ask yourself "can this paper be used?" - can you write on the other blank side?. If yes, keep it in a drawer near to you. If not, ask "can this paper be recycled?" - almost any paper can be recycled. Even the tissue which you blow you snuffy nose in.
  3. Put the used paper in the recycle box.
  4. When it is full, bring it to your department's central recycling bins or box. If your department does not have one, ask you BOSS why NOT? On second thoughts, don't ask him. Just DO it yourself.
  5. Call the "old newspaper" man (or woman) to come collect. You won't make alot of money. Used to be you can get 45 sens for one kilo of old newspaper. Now it's only 15 sens. DO IT for your children. Do it for the future. Do it for Mother Earth.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Eggs to die for

Five meals a day. Breakfast, morning tea (usually accompanied with kueh and bee hoon and stuff), lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. That's how much we eat whenever we are at a hotel doing official business. Been here at the Hydro Hotel since Friday and leaving on Monday morning. I am lucky. Some of them will leave here on monday and check in straight into another hotel for another round of working and shopping, err, make that workshopping.

My poor family (wife and three children) took two hours to travel from Teluk Air Tawar, via the broken ferry service to Batu Ferringhi to have dinner with me last night. We went to the Ship and everyone's food was good. By the time we finished dinner there was a long queue waiting at the door. Penang is being invaded by tourists, local and outstation, everyone heading for Batu Ferringhi. Don't we have any better attraction than the pasar malam?

Oh, in case you are wondering, I am multi-tasking, listening to the presentation on talent mismatch and blogging via the WiFi (cost RM30 for 24 hours; I insisted that the organisers pay for it; the pipe is a little slow). I did my presentation on "people-centred sustainable development" yesterday afternoon. I thought it was well-received.

Ah, eggs to die for. Eggs have been getting the bad press. Especially if you are a little older (like me). You got to watch your cholesterol! But half-boiled eggs is a weakness for me. I don't do it at home. I usually don't go to the coffeeshop for breakfast. Yesterday I went to the egg station and asked "do you have half-boiled eggs?". "Yes", the chef said and walked to the other end of the counter and opened a food warmer and I got a shock. "Is this half-boiled?", I asked, quite incredulous. Of course, a whole container; must be several hundreds in it. Wow, must be a popular dish.

Simple. Put eggs in a container, pour boiling water on to it (careful, the eggs can crack). Cover and leave for 3 minutes - too long and it becomes too firm. Crack the egg and put into dish. Add a little light soya sauce and some paper. Just eat it straight or with bread (below). Emmmmm yummy. We used to have this for breakfast when we were school kids.

Plain porridge with a preserved bean, pickled vegetable, spring onion and fried garlic in oil. Another simple dish.

I went for a walk on the beach in the morning before breakfast and saw plastic bottles and polystyrene foam discarded on the beach. Met three monkeys, really, monkeys. They we eating the food in polystyrene containers thrown away by some idiots. You can see the corners and hole, probably bitten and ate by the monkeys. My wife told me there was a news item in The Star that the Penang Government has given a directive that all government departments and events are banned from using polystyrene containers. Ahem, I can claim a tiny bit of credit for triggering that initiative.

This are the top shots of the University at the Hydro Retreat.

Had lunch with four of my side-kicks at the Jetty Gau Lam Koay Teow (Beef noodles) on Friday after my not so inspiring talk at the SP Setia World Environment Day event. They promised that the projection would be clear in enough but I had to abandon my slide presentation and go low-tech. So that threw me off. The previous day I was at the Motorola Student Academy Award to celebrate their 35th Anniversay. I was asked to go talk about The White Coffin but they had a slight phobia but I managed to speak for 15 minutes about "the white coffin" without mention it even a single time. Ah, but my slides had visuals of The White Coffin. That 15 minutes was inspired and fun, just looking at the faces and reactions and attention of the young faces.

I thought I should put this up too. My SIL came some 7 years ago and still remembered this special fried bean-paste and fried banana (pisang goreng) and other fried stuff. Opposite Heng Ee School along Jalan Hamilton (near Convent Green Lane School)

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

You are not Hired to Think!

NCH pointed out that ISO9000 is not environmentally-friendly because it forces you to waste paper. ISO's also makes the staff brainless. It trains and requires staff to just follow procedures even though the procedures are downright stupid. Don't follow the rules and you lose your ISO certification.

This is not my first encounter with Maxis' red tape. Went with my wife to switch my line to her Family Plan line (you can call family members for free). My wife is right in front of them and they have to fill in a form, get her to sign and then photocopy her IC. Straight forward, right? Bureaucratic but not too bad. Then I told the staff, "make sure you keep my international roaming". "Oh, in that case I need your passport", she looked at my wife. That's when I got really annoyed. I said you fellas are worst then a government department (offence intended). She repeated and continued with the response she was trained to give. "This is procedure. I am just doing my job". I said, "I have been a customer for 11 years and WITH international roaming". My wife also has international roaming. Why do you need a copy of her passport. "Oh, now we allow you to fax the passport to us", she said. I said that is not the point. Note that they are not asking for MY passport but my wife's - oh, didn't I say she already has international roaming for 11 years? The clerk stood her ground and say, "you go to any company also it is the same".

I asked to see her superior. I think she was trained to try to resolve the issue herself. She ignored me and repeated the standard response - "this is procedure". I think I asked three times before she brought her senior officer. The officer came and click around the screen. I asked if she can see my 11 years of unbroken record of prompt payment using my credit card. I doubt they have those information on demand. The senior repeated that it is a requirement. I repeated that they are worst then a government department. And I said if they don't want my business, I am happy to take it elsewhere. She mumbled something, disappeared behind the door, came back a few minutes later and instructed the counter staff to activate the account. She must have consulted HER superior.

What does that tell you? We don't allow the staff to think. We don't train them to think. We don't empower them so that there can be a higher authority who supposedly do all the thinking. So, down the line, they just follow instruction and then all hell breaks loose like what happen with the "uploading" of the list of successful applicants to USM. We don't make them part of the decision-making. "You tell me to upload, I upload. I am not required, or allowed, to ask whether it is the correct list. Someone else is responsible for making sure it is the correct list. I just upload. I don't have to think." And like me at the Maxis office, the customers get bloody mad.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Remember to stop and smell the roses

While I was walking the streets of George Town on Saturday evening, I got a call on my mobile asking if I could help a friend's niece who had been offered a place in USM but had difficulty logging on to the web to confirm acceptance. I told him to ask the niece to go straight to Unit Kemasukan (Adminission) on Monday morning to sort it out in personal. "Will they entertain her?", he asked. I said, "you tell her to go and demand to be entertained". "I will be on leave on monday, but she can call me if she has problems with the officers". Then the next day sitting down for dinner at Queensbay, my wife was on the free WiFI and top of the news was the havoc created by the so-called "technical error" in the offer of places for the new batch of students under the APEX programme. Apparently some idiot uploaded the entire shortlist of applicants (>8,000) instead of the actual successful list of candidates (numbering only 3,500). This morning the newspapers had a field day. The Chinese newspapers were especially sarcastic and vicious ("What APEX University?"). The parents and candidates are all angry as hell. USM offerred "unreserved apology" but I think an apology is not good enough. When we insist on moving too fast, we don't allow things to settle, we don't get enough time to learn, mistakes get amplified and can't be corrected satisfactorily. These poor kids were only given two (2) days to confirm acceptance. In my view, it was a total systems breakdown. And incompetence by those handling the system. The saving grace is that USM has told everyone in the University not to be defensive and to stay cool and calm. But I think the official response from the University is too dry in the mouth. We just can't blame it on a technical error. Why has university admissions come to be associated with so much stress for students and parents?

So, as the say, more haste, less speed. Slow down. Remember to smell the roses.

We were up early and was at the Mengkuang Dam again before 7 am this morning. These two ladies are in training for their August tour of Europe (well parts of it). The Mengkuang Dam is calm and placid with beautiful rolling hills and greenery. You can see ripples in the water as lots of water monitor (biawak) slither effortlessly in the water. We took the jungle path (actually old rubber plantation) to the other end. It took only about 20 minutes.

Yesterday I stopped to check a cobweb to look for spiders. Today my SIL found this giant spider. These are also in USM Durian Valley. The trick is to look for giant spiderwebs. This one was about 10 feet in the air.

This plant looks deceptively like one single species but is actually one tree (with small yellow flowers) and a creeper with red fruits. The yellow flower is very fragrant and if you pay attention you will be rewarded with free perfume.

This was from yesterday. The sign says no swimming, no fishing, no littering. The sign should also tell people to leave nature alone. When you feed the fish you are disturbing the balance of nature. Some species will become dominant and wipe out the other species. In this case, the fish won't even eat the bread.

After Mengkuang we dropped by the Bagan Ajam wet market to pick up some stuff. This is our favourite breakfast on Saturday mornings when we do our marketing. Char Koay Kak is made of rice (not rice flour) and steamed into a thick cake. Then it is cut into strips and fried with preserved radish (chai por), chilly, dark soya sauce, taugeh, koo chai and eggs. This is what hawking is all about - the father is in blue stripe shirt, now watching, having passed over the family business. When the son takes a break (too tired) the master takes over for the day. You won't find this in KL or elsewhere. The guy is filling up our tiffin.

This is the best char koey teow in Butterworth. Available only occasionally - when my wife decides to give us a home-cooked treat.

Evening, we are heading for the Botanical Gardens to see the Floral Fest and then for dinner at Gurney Drive, but not at the hawkers centre. They are all fakes. And they all use polystyrene foam plates and bowls.

Remember, stop and smell the roses.