Saturday, 28 November 2009

Past, Present, Future

9.07 am, Changi Airport. A 4-hour layover on the way back from Ahmedabad to Penang.

I am now past-president of APSA. I was asked whether I felt satisfied with what I accomplished during my term as President. I said that, honestly, APSA is a conservative organisation. "We" (as in some entrenched individuals) are happy if we hold a successful Congress once every 2 years. And Ahmedabad was extremely successful, on many fronts. The local media gave prominent coverage. I was interviewed twice by the same reporter after she went back and did some more background. And then I had to go to three locations at the conference venue to get my mugshots taken. I signed more than 700 certificates of participation and attendance and appreciation. As usual, people submit papers but don't show up for various reasons. Many just want to get their papers into the proceedings and then plead all sorts of reasons not to show up. Some even pay the conference fees. This year 15 presenters from China could not get visa to India. Sri Lankans also had problems. Mostly it's the applicants' own doing for submitting the visa application late. Out the 150+ papers accepted (15% of the abstracts were rejected), a substantial 118 were presented during the 3 days of conference. Usually we have only 2 days but we allow the local hosts to have creativity. Some people grumble 3 days is too long. But I thought it was necessary because of the number of keynotes for all three days. And I thought the keynotes added value and brought people together. This year the host wanted to give out the certificates like a graduation parade (it was called a valedictory session). But we comprised and I gave out certificates and tokens to 15 best papers. I thought it was an excellent idea on the part of the organisers because I could see the pride on the faces of the recipients for being recognised in front of their peers.

In terms of total participation, it exceeded 500 with the student turn out from all over India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka being very large in numbers. And mind you, these are from the poor countries. Many students took the train for hours to get to Ahmedabad because this was once in a life time opportunity for them to attend an international meeting. Congrats Utpal. Congrats CEPT.

We were very well taken care off by the organisers, including assigning several cars and students to chaperon us around, even for the ladies to go shopping yesterday afternoon after we concluded all the business meetings. The students were fabulous. One student asked me how long I have been teaching. Sneaky, I know where this line of questioning is leading to. I played along. "More than 20 years", I said. After a short pause, the student said, "then you must be 40 to 45 years old". I laughed. I said, forget about how long I have been teaching. Just look at me and guess my age. The student said, based on the face, early thirties. I laughed even louder. I said, "getting colder, but thank you for the compliment". "Don't tell me you are more than 60", she said. Absolutely not.

I have also given up my seat on the GPEAN. I thought Utpal would be able to bring more colour and vigour to the scene. Will I continued to contribute to the global planning education network? (I was asked by several friends). My response is, "we'll see". But I have promised to helm a book effort on planning education world-wide. A two year effort which hope will be presented at the World Planning Schools Congress in Perth, Australia in July 2011.

Mumbai Airport is a mess. A real messy place. To get between the international and domestic terminals, you have to wait for the free shuttle which comes like once every half hour of so. Yesterday we were all queuing and when the bus came, a whole line of people from behind were guided through to the front into the bus. Naturally, that got me irritated so I protested. The young said, "don't worry, the next bus is 2 minutes behind". I got cheesed off and told him that "you can't be a progressive country if you can't even manage a queue". Yah, that was nasty you gotta to remember that some passengers have tight schedules to catch planes. If you are ever in Mumbai, make sure you have at least 3 hours between flights. The amazing thing is that there are endless number of planes on the tarmac. Mumbai is throbbing with activity. Construction is everywhere at the Airport. And the buses and vehicles seems to criss-cross with the planes. It's amazing accidentals don't happen; or perhaps they do? But the new terminal (what that is completed) is great. The immigration counters are endless (I am exaggerating, of course) and well managed and orderly. But their immigration officers behind the counter could do with softening of their image. Perhaps not?

Back for one week rest and then off again to burn some carbon. Next stop Sinaia, Romania. More stories to tell on the misadventures of the globetrotter. But here's the thriller. I booked my ticket online with Singapore Airlines. I could get reasonably cheap ticket to Zurich, about RM5,000+. Then the organisers told me last week that part two of the programme have been postponed to Feb or Mar next year. So, I tried to change the return flight. As it turns out, I have to change the whole trip, including the departure date. I thought that was really stupid for an airline like SIA. I can't keep my original departure dates. But here's the insane part. The price of the ticket has doubled. So, to come back earlier, I would have pay a 100% more. It just doesn't make sense. I could use that extra RM5,000 for instance to have a one-week holiday in Switzerland and still have pocket money. What's wrong with these business?

Some pics from Ahmedabad for your viewing pleasure.

 The APSA Exco 2009-2011. From left Nguyen To Lang (Vietnam), Yukio Nishimura (Japan, Vice-President), Utpal Sharma (President, India), Anthony Yeh (Sec-Gen, Hong Kong), Lee Lik Meng (Past President, Malaysia), Mack Joong Choi (South Korea).

 Me giving the valedictory speech.

At the planning education forum

Prof. Doshi, 80+ young, disciple of Le Corbusier.

 Nihal and Me having ice-cream at Manekchok, pass midnight.

 A stall selling Chinese food.

Keeping a tradition started in Hanoi in 2003 alive - walking the streets of the city in the dead of the night.

Gujarat is a dry state, out of respect for Gandhi (I am told). But the blackmarket for liquor is vibrant. No, we did nothing illegal. A small group of students, facilitated by a security guy (the one on the right) went on a mission to kidnap foreign visitors of GPEAN to get the required tourist liquor license. The students just wouldn't give up. "We are Indians", they said. I like the spirit. So, watch out, the rest of the World. Witness the rise of the next world power.

Mission accomplished.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Licensed to drink

It's 6.57 pm, my 4th day in Amdarvad. Using the Tata Indicom WiFi at CEPT University to finally get connect back with the World. Have not read my email since arriving here on Sunday. Ah, Tata is everywhere. Tata is also at the Country Inn & Suites where we are staying. At the hotel, you can opt for hourly, 4 hourly, 12 hours, 24 hours or one week rates. The one week rate is 2,700 rupees (almost RM200). Being cheap skate I did not subscribe, 'cos I thought I would be too busy to make full use of it anyway. And I was right. It's being meetings, official dinners, keynotes, opening ceremonies, launching ceremony (I was asked to launch the extension building at CEPT; I had to crack a coconut).

Just finished a roundtable about 15 minutes ago. And then heard that the cultural show had been postponed by one hour to 8 pm. So, thought I would update the blog. Late night there was also a fabulous show put up by the students. Tonight the show would be by professional dancers.

I will just make it a pictorial report.

 Me buying a khurta at a stall at the exhibition pavilion for the APSA 2009. "Hand-made by the differently abled" - that's what it says on the label. Three of the ladies in the picture are differently abled.
 Me with the khurta at the cultural show and dinner last night.

This was the opening ceremony on the first day. I was up on stage and looking down the crowd was impressive. About 150 papers accepted from around 28 countries. Total attendance estimated at close to 500. Students paid only 1200 rupees, heavily discounted to provide a golden opportunity for Indian students to be part of a global event.

The Chief Minister of Gujarat (bearded), the Chairman of CEPT (right) and Utpal Sharma (on the left) looking at the publications. I first met Utpal in Hanoi. We walked the streets of Hanoi at midnight with Nihal Perera, looking for beer!

Chairing my last APSA EXCO meeting yesterday afternoon. By tomorrow this time, I would become "past president".

The reporters and photographer of Ahmedebad Mirror who interviewed the APSA EXCO. The lady reporter actually googled me before the interview and saw photos and the webpage of my family I put up long ago. She said she wants to do that too. There's a lot coverage of the APSA congress in the local media.

The combined GPEAN committee members. This is their first attendance of the APSA Congress.

I surrendered my greenness this week. I boiled water in the hotel and took it along for the tour on sunday. Everyone, especially the local students, advised me against drinking the water from the tap. It does taste weird (hard water) and there's the worry about contamination. So its bottled water for the whole week.

 At the dinner hosted by Nihal Perera.

 Attending the final crit of the Industrial Area design workshop. Seated on my right is Nihal who is visiting professor at CEPT.
 The students at the crit.

My bed for another 2 nights

 My breakfast on my first morning. Glorious vegetarian food. I had masala thosai this morning. Heaven.

At the Mausoleum and mosque of the sultan who built Ahmedabad.


Oh, licensed to drink? Gujarat is a dry state. There are no pubs and to buy liquor you need a licence. We kidded with the students about getting some beer. But they were serious. So, I had to bring my passport, letter from the hotel to say I was staying there from when to when and then go to licensed liquour shop, pay 100 rupees for a licence (after a lot of queries). And guess how many bottles of beer I was allowed to buy? Ten (10). I had actually told the GPEAN that the first beer in Ahmedabad would be on me. And they were reminding me about my promise. But ten is not enough. So the students had to get another willing participant in this game to quench our thirst.

Bye for now, the cultural show is about to start.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Best Airport in the World. Really.

As I got off the plane at Changi a while ago, I got the beep on my mobile. The message said :
"Dr. Lik Meng. We missed the person who contributed alot to greening campus in Malaysian universities or can we say the most influential person. Man where are you? Are you huffed with us?".
The sender of the sms knows how he is. Wow, thank you, you made my day. I do feel a little embarrassed with the accolade. Am I huffed with you guys? Man, what's with me these days. I seems to be getting people pissed off with me (including a few of the bosses). Or people think I might be pissed off with them. Not good, man! Anyway, thanks for the text. I shouldn't apologise for blowing my own trumpet here. If I seemed to be huffed with anybody, it must be due to the hormones.

Am on my way to Ahmedabad again for the APSA (Asian Planning Schools Association) Congress and series of meetings with the Global Planning Education Association Network (GPEAN). Will be back next saturday.

It's 5 pm here at Changi. My flight is 7.05 pm to Mumbai and than a long lay over of more than 7 hours before the connecting to Ahmedabad at 5.30 am the next morning. Air travel can be really very taxing. Especially if you have idiots working at the travel agency (let's name them, MIVS in Penang).

Want the long story? First thing I did was tell the HBP clerk to tell the travel agent make sure that there is enough time between connecting flights. The last time I got back from Paris, the bag decided to stay back in KLIA. I had actually asked my other clerk to confirm whether the 1 hour between flight at KLIA was sufficient. Apparently the agent said no problem (that one was Tabung Haji Travel).

Well for this trip, the first thing I noted was the connecting at Changi to Mumbai would be only one and half hours. I asked the clerk to ask the travel agent. The clerk at the travel agent said no problem just tell the check-in staff to check the bag in all the way to Ahmedabad. Sigh, she didn't understand the problem. But never mind. The flight the travel agent gave me was from Penang to KLIA, wait for 3 hours, then hop on another MAS flight to Singapore and then to Mumbai and finally Ahmedabad. Query, query, query. Response : no seat. Not even Penang-Singapore direct? No seat.

This morning at Penang Airport checking in, chatted with the lady. She was surprised why I wanted to stop over in KLIA on the way to Changi. I said the travel agent said no more seat on the direct flight. She checked, still got seats. In fact, there were still 20 empty seats. Good thing I don't blow my top so easy now. The MAS lady took me to the other MAS ticket lady, got me on the direct flight to Singapore. Hey, that's Malaysian Hospitality. MH you know?

So, the day started well. My flight was now 1 pm instead of 12 noon. So the two love birds went for some expensive cappucino (RM27 for 2) and chatted still almost 12 noon.

Changi Airport, I discovered walking around just now, tries really hard to make the air traveller happy. There's free movie (I sat in for about 15 minutes). There's transit hotel. Reflexology. And just outside that is a place with a sign of a lip with a finger indicating no noise please, people sleeping here. Internet is free, except you have to go to the information kiosk to get a username and password, unless you have a Singapore mobile phone. And there are numerous standing Internet kiosk which you can use for free (with time limits). Ooo, there's a butterfly farm. Go Kart. Shopping, Food. And for the kiddies ... funland everywhere (actually, the kids are really noise in this corner). Oh, they give out sweets too. And you must also love the orchid garden.

Can you believe this is the place where they put comfy chairs for travellers to sleep? Of course, they don't say that is for you to sleep. It's called "Rest Area". Man, I wish Mumbai would have place like that when I reach there this evening.

Nice design huh? It some kind of company doing community service or something.

The Singapore Postal Service fighting for survival in the electronic era

For the record. Terminal 3 is not the Low Cost Carriage Terminal. Low Cost Carriers operate from Terminal 3 but so does other "expensive" airlines. I remember Tony Fernandes (the AirAsia guy) complaining that the Malaysian authorities provide low quality terminal for the low cost carriers at the LCCT, compared to Changi.

And Jet Airways (which I am flying with next) is not a low cost carrier. I was surprised when the USM clerk said that the travel agents wanted to know whether I wanted to order food on the Jet Airway flights. I said of course. And that made me think it is a low cost carriage. But I asked the guy at the check-in at Changi - no, it is not a low cost carriage and food is included. What the ...? Oh, and Jet Airways is Indian owned.

For the record, the wireless here is good, but uploading photos to the blogs takes a bit of time. Still good. And there have lots of places where you can plug in and sit and surf with your notebook. Wait a minute. I think I paid for all these services in the Airport Tax, right? Hey, Charles De Gaulle Airport - are you reading all this? Calling Chicago and LA Airports, please take note.

It's 5:42 pm. Time to go walk around a little. And check out the best airport in the world. Bye.

Friday, 20 November 2009


How many participants do you think will refuse or reject these "I am not a plastic bag" plastic bags this weekend?

And how many will not drink from those mineral water plastic bottles?

The irony? It's a UNESCO Chair Higher Education for Sustainable Development conference.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The sky is falling

Am in my Corporate office. Outside is a guy with a long pole. At the end is a thin saw. He is up on a very thin tree, sawing away, pruning out the rotten branches. Yes, we need trees maintenance as well. The problem is they don't seem to have any specialist knowledge about how to prune. They saw the branches from the top and then when it gets near the bottom, the weight of the branch pulls it down, leaving ugly scars. The angle of the cut is not right. The distance from the main trunk is also not right. Its all brute force.

This morning I got a call from a colleague who was really upset that workers sawed off the huge branches (and I mean huge, like the size of an adult body)  of the Pokok Getah at the Red House. Earlier, one central branch had toppled because wasps had built a nest in the trunk, weakening it. And when it rained, the whole branch toppled, hitting a car, I heard. Fine, chop off the rot. But where do you stop? A substantial portion of the huge branches have been retained. But how much is too much? Where are the experts who should be overseeing this?

Elsewhere, the sky should also be falling. Elections are being held throughout the campus to select the Deans. Well, not elections really. The school can send up to three names each for the positions of Dean and 2 Deputies to the VC who will make the final decision. Will he choose the one with the highest votes? He doesn't have to, otherwise there is no sense submitting three names. Can he choose from outside this "pool"? Why not? Like doing a search for the best person in the world (or region) to fill the post.

From my vantage point as an observer and voter, there are various kinks which needs to be worked out in the future. Some one raised the issue of why only people who have previously been at least the Chair of a Programme are eligible? "Its not democratic", he said. OK, we get it, the Dean should have administrative experience. But the Dean should be annoited because of his leadership and vision not administrative capability. Administrative duties should be taken care of by the professional administrators. Deans should set directions and policies in consultation with the staff and students. Implementation should be carried out by professional administrators or managers.

I think the current process is too focussed on the voting. We should have a process where candidates should declare their interest (they don't have to be nominated by someone else). And then give at least 2 weeks for the candidates engage with his colleagues and students (repeat, students) to talk about his vision and how he intend to propel the School forward. What is his game plan? To get more post-graduate students so that the supervisors can get the incentives and have high scores in the KPI (apparently, getting the incentives from supervising a research student is the fastest way to improve the Schools' KPI). But what about improving the quality of teaching inside and outside the classroom? How about contributing to the community? How will he lead the School to support the University's APEX mission? What are his plans for turning the School GREEN? What is his interpretation of the APEX U vision?

In our school, we chose the third option for voting. That is, write down one name each for the position of  Dean and the two Deputies. In a sense it is highly empowering and democratic. But it also splits the votes. In some posts, there 12 names written.

I guess the sky hasn't fallen yet.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

There is hope

 This maybe my "last hurrah". A montage of three photos taken at the Conference Hall just before I gave my "last" talk on Kampus Sejahtera and Sustainability ... 

My first remark was "you all look so young". They are the future, the new staff who will (if they don't quit) serve the university for the next 20 or 30 years. My talk is same thing I have been talking about for the last 2 years or so. But of course, with upgrades and updates along the way. I like to interact with my audience. Get them to participate. Because verbalising your thoughts is a way of learning. It is also a way for the speaker to know how much the audience already knows so that you don't bore them with the same old things. It also helps the speaker to reinforce (or validate?) what the audience knows, but is perhaps not sure or is vague about it. It takes some time for them to warm up. You need to remember to pause long enough to give them a chance to response. You need to know when to prompt them with tentative "answers" - maybe this, maybe that? You need to be open to answers which are not what you expected to hear - don't say "wrong answer", if you can avoid it. If you do, they won't open their mouths again. You must know when to praise. You must know not to show preference or favouritism. Praise should go to the whole group. But recognise individuals who shine. Make eye contact with those we are quiet - let them know that you notice that they are listening.

So you must have guessed I had a good outing yesterday afternoon. Response was very good, after the initiate hesitation. They also showed concern. They showed that they know the issues. And they have the knowledge. But they are not empowered. I asked them "if you go to a function and they are using polystyrence containers and plates, would you write an email to the VC to complaint?'. Everyone said no. Yes, everyone. Perhaps it is too small a problem to write or complain all the way to the CEO. But I think the main reason is that we have not made it OK to make it our business to mind other people's business. I can almost guarantee that the staff who complains to VC will get called up by Head of Department for insubordination. Will the Whistleblowers provision in our APEX University Constitution do the trick? Having the law is one thing, creating the culture it something else.

But there is hope. In change management lingo, it is not just "buy-in" that we need. We must enable ownership. We must make all the staff make it their personal agenda to go green. To live the lifestyle of less waste, less consumption. So, we must make it OK for everyone, especially from the bottom up, to engage in disruptive behaviour - not business as usual.

I sometimes have a gift to encourage participation. Yesterday I had a Tupperware Sports Bottle and one lady "won" it based on her (repeated) responses. As I was leaving, I approached her with the bottle. And I said out loud "It's OK to reject the gift. You don't have to accept it". She had started to reach out for the bottle. Then hesitated. Then she said she already have a water bottle, she didn't need another one. Sure?, I asked. Yes, she confirmed. So, I turned around asked who didn't have a water bottle and would like to have the bottle (earlier, I found out that half the audience didn't carry a water bottle with them, which is OK, if they choose to drink in the pantry with a glass). I gave it to one of the guys who raised his hand.

As I was leaving, I grinned at the lady and gave her the thumbs up. Yes, there is hope. I got the message through this time.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Spot Check

A group of ladies from a hostel (Desa, in USM lingo) came to see me, asking for some sponsorship for their 4-country tour (by train, plane). Travelling is good. It enlightens. In fact, a whole bunch of them went to Japan last year. They are really good at fund raising. So, naturally I asked what was the benefit from the Japan trip? Well, they have implemented the ideas at their hostels. They have carried out a lot of programmes. Recycling, composting, campaigns to eat at the canteen or bring own containers, organic farming, energy saving campaign. They want to make their hostel a model sustainable community of sorts. My next question was, have you succeeded in your effort to become sustainable? "Yes". Can I have a 2 page report? "Yes". Can I make a surprise visit to see for myself? "Yes, you are most welcome. After all you are head of Kampus Sejahtera".

So we gathered a group of students to do an "audit". Facebook, mass emailing - not much response. In the end, the personal touch by one of the students brought in about 7 or 8 volunteers.

And we visited the hostel lunch time today. The long story is that you can see they have tried hard. Posters are everywhere (especially on the tables). You can see the store for the recyclable items. The student volunteers thought it was a great idea to have recycling bins in all the pantries. There's lots of greenery in pots and they look lovely.

The farm looks a little sad. The flourescent lights in the canteen were all on. The LCD screen was "talking" to nobody. But the most depressing scene was at the canteen. Despite their best efforts, we saw brown paper and plastic sheets used to tapau food - this was extensive. One store used the polypropelene containers. I chatted with a few students. One girl in the queue was holding a plate with a plastic sheet on it. Are you from this hostel. "Yes". I went to another who had a packed lunch in a PP container with two plastic bags (drinks and some other liquid stuff). Are you from this hostel? "Yes". Don't they have a campaign not to use these containers? "Yes, but sometimes very inconvenient; forgot to bring". I met one girl who had brought along the GoFlex tupperware given to first year students last year. Good. But she was also enjoying sticks of chicken balls from two plastic bags.

If you didn't know, you would think this was just like any other hostel. The short answer - not there yet. Still a long way to go.

BTW, polystyrene comes in various forms. There's the famous polystyrene foam. And there's the hard polystyrene. Picture below was taken at the USM Museum function this morning, attended by the Governor. If you are ever not sure, just look for the chasing arrows with the number 6 on it. Or you should see "PS". Does it make any difference whether you use polystyrene foam or hard polystyrene? They both end up in the landfill.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Please, will you step on my toes

Yesterday I had a long conversation with a third year student from Industrial Technology, talking about the ten year history of PUCS. Never heard of them? The name is new but they have been around for 10 long years, untapped, unrecognised - because they cannot be registered under current policies which bars "raced-based societies or organisations" on campus. But that's another story. What was illuminating was that she told me straight in the face that "lecturer's life is boring". I had a good laugh. Then she said, "except the researchers". But she quickly observed that all the researchers she has seen at her school are walking around like zombies (my characterisation) with dark patches around their eyes. Not her kind of lifestyle. She's one of those students who look at life beyond books and grades. Every year, for ten years, their group has gone to the new villages, stayed with the villagers for one week, organised motivational camps for the school kids, bridged the generation gap between parents and children, educate them on recycling, collected money for charity and now they are volunteering at a home for special children (handicapped, if you are old school) to tuition them one-on-one. So, I here, today, pay tribute to the selfless USM students who have made a difference in the community - the Penang Undergraduates Community Service (PUCS). These student volunteers come from many different disciplines and schools.

Which brings me to the topic of this entry. Territory. A few days ago I was "dragged" to a meeting (I avoid most meetings these days). Apparently these guys were concerned that what they proposed to do would encroach on my "territory" as head honcho of Kampus Sejahtera. I know all about territory. I encroach into other's territory all the time. But I am not stupid. I know many managers don't look too kindly when you mind their business. My business however is to make it our business to mind their business. So far, I have been called up once by a dean for a slow talk about what I should or should not do. Essentially, not to shout so loud when I see mistakes, misguided actions or violations of policies. (BTW, starting 1st Jan 2010, Deans will be elected by his peers.) And I also know, from second-hand sources, that people talk behind my back. A couple of days ago, I saw a lady and guy chatting at the carpark. "Hi, prof", oops too late. So, I walked towards them. She smiled and said to the guy "This is the angry man, but today he is smiling". I know what she was talking about; I got irritated  about some form which was passed down from the VC to a professor who passed it to the staff who passed it to me! Well, never mind about the incessant bugging to fill the form, which I had to re-write, I got irritated about priorities. Anyway, that's history, so I said "nice car". "Thank you", she smiled.

Well, back to the meeting. I told them not to worry 'cause I have "given two months notice". So, don't worry about my small toes. Of course, there would be overlapping work. As long as the right hand knows what the left foot is doing, we should be fine. Afterall, we all serve the common good.

 This what I want to recreate in my garden. Informal, exuberant, colourful. Place : Sinaia, a hill resort in Romania. Where I will be in December 2009. I know, more carbon.
Also taken in Sinaia at the street fair. Maybe we should have volunteers walking around the campus with The White Coffin on the apron. Any takers?