Friday, May 25, 2018

Puisi Padang


Saya sekali lagi berlibur ke Indonesia, kali ini Padang dan Bukit Tinggi, Sumatera Barat. Sekali lagi? Ya,  sekali lagi sebab saya baru saja melawat Jogjakarta,  pada akhir tahun lepas. Belum pun sampai enam bulan.

Saya suka melihat Indonesia. Negerinya besar dan berbagai. Kos kembara sangat berpatutan, makanannya sedap, bahasa pun hampir sama, dan tukaran Ringgit yang lumayan membuat kita terasa seperti seorang jutawan. Bila berbicara dengan orang Indonesia, kita akan terpegun dengan nada dan lenggok bahasanya yang sangat halus dan kemas. Setiap orang Indonesia boleh menjadi ahli politik. Saya pernah ke rumah sahabat karib yang mempunyai seorang bibik dari Surabaya, saya dapati bibik itu jauh lebih bagus kawalan bahasanya berbanding dengan sahabat saya.   

Sebenarnya ini kali pertama saya menulis blog dalam bahasa ibunda. Mungkin bukan bahasa ibunda pun. Bahasa ibunda saya ialah bahasa Kelantan, bahasa yang paling romantis di dunia. Bahasa Melayu adalah bahasa kedua saya. Mungkin tuan-tuan sudah terasa kejanggalan cara saya menulis, kerana salah atau kurang tepat di segi nahu dan sebagainya. Tapi selagi tuan-tuan boleh memahami apa yang saya ingin sampaikan, saya rasa saya sudah berjaya menulis dengan baik.

Saya selalu menulis dalam English. Bukan bermakna English saya bagus sangat dan tentunya bukan saya mahu mendewa-dewakan bahasa asing. Cuma English lebih kaya perbendaharaan katanya. Terdapat 170,000 perkataan English dalam Oxford English Dictionary. Untuk mencarut sahaja terdapat berbagai perkataan, rangkaikata dan peribahasa yang boleh saya pilih dengan impaknya yang berlainan juga. Mengikut guru bahasa Melayu saya dulu, perkataan Melayu yang asal cuma tiga: besi, padi, dan babi. Tetapi ada guru lain yang kata empat: besi, padi, babi, ubi. Bagaimana mungkin saya menulis dengan tiga atau empat perkataan? Hahaha. 

Bila saya mula menulis tadi pun saya termangu buat seketika. Apa harus saya panggil atau bahasakan diri saya? Saya, aku, ana? "Saya" agak formal dan terasa seperti di bangku sekolah. "Aku" pula lebih personal dan mungkin agak puitis, mungkin kasar juga. "Ana" bahasa Arab, nanti saya dikecam sebagai wahabbi.  Kalau English lebih mudah, "I" saja sudah mencukupi. Untuk lebih selamat, saya guna "saya". Lagipun saya sudah lebih 35 tahun menggunakan "saya" bila berhubung dengan isteri, di waktu siang dan juga malam.   

Berbalik kepada Indonesia. Saya ke Padang dan Bukit Tinggi selama empat hari pada bulan lepas (April). Saya bukan berseorangan, tetapi bersama enambelas ahli keluarga - isteri, anak, adik-adik ipar, dan anak-anak saudara. Agak letih juga saya kerana empat orang adik ipar perempuan dewasa yang ikut sama boleh tiba-tiba saja hilang entah kemana. Kemudian mereka akan muncul kembali sebaik saja supir menaiki bas. Mungkin mereka ni ada deria keenam atau ilmu ghaib yang boleh membaca pergerakan pak supir tu. Lawatan ini merupakan pengalaman yang penuh aksi (action-packed) dan tidak  mudah saya lupakan.

Kali in saya tidak akan menulis dan menceritakan perihal tempat-tempat yang kami lawati di Padang dan Bukit Tinggi. Tuan-tuan boleh baca dalam blog-blog lain atau Wikipedia atau mendengar terus dari kawan-kawan yang telah ke sana atau tuan- tuan boleh saja menonton sinetron. Saya cuma ingin meluahkan apa yang saya rasakan dan fikirkan semasa berada di sana, dalam tulisan yang berbentuk prosa dan juga puisi. Mungkin tuan-tuan tidak meminati sastera sebab sewaktu bersekolah dulu tuan-tuan berada di kelas sains tulin, tuan-tuan bolehlah memilih untuk tidak terus membaca blog ini. Tak apa-apa. Saya tenang saja.

Nama Padang sangat bermakna dan penuh nostalgia buat saya. Saya tidak pernah bercinta dengan orang Padang. Saya bercinta dengan orang Kg Pandan hahaha. Padang akan mengembalikan masa lampau saya. Masa saya bersekolah di darjah lima dan enam (tahun-tahun 60an) saya sangat meminati buku-buku Indonesia, terutamanya novel-novel yang ditulis oleh penulis-penulis agung Indonesia, antaranya ialah Hamka, Marah Rusli,  Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana, Abdul Moeis dan Mochtar Lubis. Mungkin nama-nama ni asing bagi tuan-tuan, seperti juga nama menteri-menteri kabinet Pakatan Harapan yang baru dilantik baru-baru ini.

Yang paling menyentuh perasaan ialah novel Tenggelamnya Kapal van der Wijck oleh Hamka dan Siti Nurbaya oleh Marah Rusli. Saya baca novel-novel epik ini berkali-kali. Hamka dilahirkan di Bukit Tinggi dan Marah Rusli di Padang.  Tidak hairanlah novel-novel ini bertemakan cinta dan pergeseran  di antara adat atau  tradisi Minangkabau dengan pemikiran moden dan progresif di daerah Padang dan Bukit Tinggi. Watak-watak utama seperti Siti Nurbaya, Datuk Maringgih, Hayati dan Zainuddin masih saya kenang sampai hari ini. Jalan ceritanya mungkin mudah dan klise, tetapi olahan, plot dan bahasanya sangat mengasyikkan. Anak-anak perempuan saya yang sudahpun tercandu dengan drama dan pop Korea yang panas, cerita klasik Indonesia sebegini mungkin hambar dan membosankan. Mereka ni memang tidak meminati novel-novel Melayu. Mereka lebih meminati Instagram.

Kami menyewa bas 25-bangku yang sangat selesa untuk sepanjang tempoh kembara kami. Perjalanan dari Padang ke Bukit Tinggi agak mencabar kerana jalannya yang sempit, mendaki dan berliku. Tetapi pemandangannya sungguh memukau. Pemandu pelancung kami (namanya Pak Unchu) tidak henti-henti menghiburkan kami dengan rentetan lawak jenaka. Kalau dia tidak berjenaka dia akan memainkan lagu evergreen Minang "Ayam Den Lapeh" berkali-kali. Dia kata ayam dalam lagu tu sebenarnya bukan ayam, tetapi simbolik atau metafora. Ayam tu mungkin cewek, cowok, isteri, suami atau apa saja yang boleh terlepas. Saya dah lebih 40 tahun dengar lagu ni, bagi saya ayam tetap ayam. Apa pun, saya rasa Pak Unchu mesti kemaskinikan sedikit lawak jenaka dengan bahan-bahan yang baru sebab banyak  lawaknya saya sudah dengar semasa saya masih bujang dulu. Kini saya telahpun mempunyai tiga orang cucu. Jangan marah Pak ya. Tenang saja.

Kami tempuhi bukit, lurah, tasik, sungai, air terjun, kebun buah dan puncak gunung. Adik ipar lelaki saya yang sangat mencintai alam dan pokok-pokok terus jatuh cinta  dengan daerah ini. Di sepanjang jalan terdapat sangat banyak masjid, surau, dan sekolah ugama, sesuai sekali dengan daerah yang dibangun dengan pegangan ugama yang sangat kuat. Saya dapat bayangkan Hayati dan Zainudin, watak utama dalam Tenggelamnya kapal van der Wijck,  juga pernah melalui jalan ini, walaupun mereka cuma dari khayalan Buya (Ayahanda) Hamka.

Saya sangat terpikat dengan nama-nama bandar dan perkampunagn di sini: Padang Panjang, Pagar Ruyung, Batu Sangkar, Tanah Datar, Puncak Lawang, Lembah Anai, Paya Kumbuh dan banyak lagi. Kami makan di rumah makan Lamun Ombak. Nama-nama gabungan dan bersajak begini lebih sejuk dan segar berbanding dengan nama-nama tempat di Malaysia yang kering dan kaku, seperti Gombak, Gebeng, USJ, dan restoran Kak Wok.  Ternyata orang di daerah Minagkabau ini memang seniman semulajadi yang kreatif dan sukakan ciri-ciri estetika (Betul ke bahasa Melayu saya ni? Bunyinya seperti iklan ubat pemutih muka hahaha).

Seperti yang dijanjikan saya tidak akan bercerita tentang tempat-tempat yang kami lawati, kecuali dua tempat, iaitu Rumah Gadang Istana Basa Pagar Ruyung dan Tasik Meninjau. Istana Pagar Ruyung yang terletak di bandar kecil Batu Sangkar ini wajib dilawati jika ke Bukit Tinggi. Inilah istana peninggalan kerajaan Minangkabau Pagar Ruyung yang telah lama terhapus di Sumatera Barat. Mengikut sejarah, kerajaan Negeri Sembilan hari ini juga berasal dari Pagar Ruyung, termasuklah adat dan loghatnya. Maaf, itu saja yang saya tahu. Kalau tuan-tuan ingin tahu lebih lanjut, boleh hubungi Pak Unchu. Tuan-tuan boleh minta koleksi lawak jenakanya sekali. Hahaha.

Saya rasa siapa saja arkitek dan penggemar senibina yang melihat Istana Pagar Ruyung ini pasti akan tertawan dengan keindahan, kegagahan dan kehalusan seninya. Keanggunannya bukan terletak pada rekabentuk luarannya sahaja, tetapi juga pada makna yang tersirat di setiap bahagian atau elemen istana ini: tingkap, kamar, bumbung, tirai dan sebagainya. Sebenarnya istana yang saya lihat itu bukanlah istana ysng asal, tetapi istana yang dibina semula dengan rekabentuk asal pada tahun 2008 . Istana yang asal telah dipanah petir dan terbakar hangus kesemuanya.




Tempat kedua ialah Tasik Meninjau. Kami singgah di sini dalam perjalanan pulang dari Bukit Tinggi ke Padang. Panorama tasik ini dari Puncak Lawang sangat menakjubkan. Di daerah inilah juga tempat kelahiran Alamarhum Hamka, dan saya terasa seolah-olah beliau ada bersama-sama kami hari itu. Udaranya sejuk, persekitarannya amat tenang dan bersih, jauh dari keributan kota. Fahamlah saya kenapa Buya Hamka sangat versatile, kreatif dan expressive. Beliau dibesarkan dalam persekitarannya yang amat subur dan merangsangkan. Beliau adalah pelajar, pengajar, penulis, ulama, pendakwah dan pemimpin agung yang disanjung bukan saja di Indonesia tetapi juga di Malaysia. Tafsir Al Quran Hamka masih menjadi bahan rujukan sehingga hari ini.




Perjalanan dari Tasik Meninjau ke Padang mengambil masa hampir empat jam merentasi Banjaran Bukit Barisan yang sangat scenic. Fikiran saya masih di awang-awangan, berlegar di sekitar manusia berjiwa besar, Buya Hamka. Saya rasa terpanggil, bahkan tercabar, untuk turut menulis dan menjadi kreatif seperti beliau. Semasa saya di sekolah menengah saya pernah juga menulis puisi, semua berbentuk lantang, sosialis dan marah-marah. Mungkin sekarang masanya untuk menghidupkan kembali api yang terpadam selama hampir 50 tahun.

Saya bergegas membuka Samsung Note saya dan mula melakar puisi tentang perjalanan dan pengalaman singkat saya di Bukit Tinggi. Ahli keluarga yang lain leka menonton DVD filem "Tenggelamnya Kapal van der Wijck", diselangi oleh Pak Unchu dengan cerita dan jenaka dan disambut dengan hilai ketawa adik-adik ipar saya. Tetapi saya sebenarnya tidak mendengar apa-apa kerana dihanyutkan oleh cita-cita dan semangat baru yang meluap-luap untuk menulis dan berkarya. Hahaha

Hampir tiga jam saya memikir, memilih, mencari dan menggapai ilham. Saya menulis, memadam dan menulis lagi untuk dijadikan satu rangkaian puisi yang saya yakin tidak akan mengecewakan  Hamka jika beliau membacanya. Inilah hasilnya, puisi saya tulis di daerah kelahiran Almarhum:                                      
  
   
Puisi Padang 1

Apakah yang kucari
di antara batu dan bukit ini
lurah pecah dan liku seribu
kebun subur dan air dingin
tasik luas dan sungai deras.

Kususuri daerah lama ini
mengimbau lipatan sejarah
melihat pustaka silam
merungkai hasrat yang tersimpan
bukit tinggi padang panjang
pagar ruyung batu sangkar
seri menanti datuk tampin
kuala pilah kampung pandan.

Melewati rumah gadang
dan istana gagah
terhenti di tengah langkah
terdetik di puncak hati.
bagaimana akan aku maknakan
beratus isyarat dan aturan ini
bumbung tirus dan anjung lurus
tiang tegap tapi miring
tingkap lebar menyambut angin
tirai tujuh dan ruang sembilan
kamar sempit mengurung perawan.

Rapuh hidup ini
kuat dan kuasa hanya
singkat dan sementara
akhirnya kalah, rebah dan sepi
dilanda arus waktu
dan kudrat alam.


Baca sekali lagi rangkap terakhir. Ianya tercetus dari keinsafan diri bila melihat footage Istana Pagar Ruyung yang terbakar dan mengenang keruntuhan kerajaan Minangkabau setelah sekian lama berkuasa. Jujur saya katakan sewaktu menulis terlintas juga di fikiran saya tentang kerajaan Melayu di Malaysia yang sekian lama berkuasa. Saya tulis puisi ini pada 24 April. Pada malam 9 Mei, dua minggu kemudian, kerajaan Malaysia tewas, lantas hilang semua kuasanya.

Saya rasa saya tidak mengecewakan Almarhum Hamka.


Kami tiba di kota Padang waktu senja. Padang adalah daerah Siti Nurbaya, watak utama dalam novel Marah Rusli. Namanya telah menjadi seakan lagenda di sini, dan telahpun diabadikan. Sebuah jambatan panjang di muara sungai kini diberi nama Jambatan Siti Nurbaya. Kami lewati jambatan ini sebelum ke hotel. Tergamam juga saya melihat jambatan ini, dan sempat saya coretkan satu lagi puisi yang akan saya sempurnakan bila balik ke Malaysia nanti.


Cerita Siti Nurbaya berkisar kepada cinta di antara Siti Nurbaya dan Samsul Bahri, namun tidak kesampaian bila Siti Nurbaya dikahwinkan dengan seorang tua yang kaya bernama Datuk Maringgih sebagai menebus hutang ayahnya. Siti Nurbaya kemudian dibunuh oleh Datuk Meringgih. Samsul Bahri amat kecewa dan ingin membunuh dirinya sendiri tetapi tidak berjaya. Saya telah gambarkan karya sastera epik ini dalam bentuk puisi:

Puisi Padang II

Kulalaui jambatan panjang di muara
antara kelam dan bening malam
seakan tersentuh selendangmu, nurbaya
samar, jauh namun pasti
seperti kautau aku akan ke sini.

Cerita lara
dan cinta yang meronta
tidak akan terhenti
walau sekurun lagi.

Dengan apakah harus kubandingkan
pengorbanan yang sebegini
hati yang terlerai
rindu yang meruntun
kasih yang dipinggir
oleh jiwa yang dipaksa menyerah.

Biar kuakhiri saja hayatku ini
selamat tinggal segalanya
dunia yang sekejam ini
bukan tempat buatku lagi.

Tuhanku
apakah yang kulakukan ini
menafikan rencana dan urusan mu?
berikan aku keluasan
untuk diam, berfikir dan mencari
jalan pulang
dari kegelapan ini.

Subang Jaya
3 May 2018.














Thursday, May 24, 2018

A Royal Tour Of England: Imperial College, Royal Albert Hall, Crystal Palace, And Raja Petra.


I was travelling in England the whole first week of May. On paper it was a gallant end of spring. But on the ground, it was brutal winter. The temperature was tolerable single digits, but the wind wreaked vengeance. The weathermen were blaming an Arctic blow-over or Carbon Effect or Corbyn Effect or something scientific. The wind could well be from North Korea. But who wants to offend Supreme Leader these days?

Our tour troop had grown bigger since my last trip here in March 2010 with the addition of three grand daughters and two daughters-in-law. Time just flew. Those who were loudly complaining about our PM's wife's long luggage on her trip to Turkey last year should see ours. Strollers, car seats, car seat boosters, Peppa Pigs, you name it. If not for the airline industry's extortionate luggage rules, my two boys would've brought along their washing machines.

I've promised myself to depart from my usual verbose and alliterative writing style, at least for this entry. Readers nowadays are readers but in name. They don't read Wuthering Heights. All they do all day is reading half-English messages and watching anything that jumps off the phone screen. So I'll write less and have more pictures instead. If you think that's not exactly a change in writing style, it's fine with me. But let's start.


1. Imperial College London

Of all the famous and familiar sights in London, why this sad structure? We came here to attend my eldest boy's graduation here, that's why. For some unknown reason he'd found enough energy and intrigue to study while working and pandering to his bosses. And even managed to graduate.

The first time I heard of Imperial College was in early 1990's. I had lots of Tiger Lane classmates who left for England after Form Five in early 70's. But all of them went to Brighton. Well, not all. But almost all. It's hard not to confuse Brighton with Britain and Briton. Just remember this: Britons live in Britain, Malays study in Brighton. Repeat this jingle ten times and you'll get this minor mess off your head.

I'd thought Imperial College was an A Level College like the one near Tg Malim. Only quite recently I discovered that it's a full-blown and no-nonsense university with students at all levels except A Level. Its engineering school is purported to be among the world's top and toughest, up there with MIT and Caltech, with half of the students speaking only in numbers and Chinese.

Physically there was nothing to wonder and marvel here. No period landmark or architectural masterwork. The buildings were mostly of contemporary design, huddled tightly with hardly enough space in between for the creative mind to stand, stare, write poems etc. The male toilet can take only five normal-size students at any one time. What came to mind was the sprawling UPM and UTP campuses with lakes and trees and professors and cows roaming freely. To be fair Imperial sits on a princely piece of real estate and, please, don't compare it with Balakong or Tronoh.

Imperial also has a graduate business school as its cash cow preying on unsuspecting corporate warriors seeking the elevated Imperial brand. In truth, the business program here is only slightly more complicated than the one at UPM. But who wants to go to Serdang? My eldest was graduating from from the business school. You guessed it, I know.

Before I forget, Imperial College is in the South Kensington area, in the heart of London, close to Royal Albert Hall, Natural History Museum and  Harrods. Imperial College is an unofficial supporter of Fulham Football Club. Yes, this is funny.



2. Royal Albert Hall

Somehow lots of Malays are familiar with this hall, made famous by our legendary singer-actor-lawyer, the late Sudirman. He performed and won the Asian Music Awards here in 1989. Siti Nurhaliza went one better with a solo concert here in 2005 amidst controversies, like why was it not held at the more iconic Panggung Aniversari in KL Lake Gardens.

Don't ask me how people get to hold concerts at Albert Hall. I'm equally curious. Do they get invited or vetted by the Queen? Do they have to pay a rental? Who pays? The husband? And how much? How old is the husband?  Where are they going to get the audience? Ferried all the way from Pahang? Or Brighton?

My eldest's graduation ceremony was held at Albert Hall. What a place to receive your degree. You need no other motivation to attend. It bothered me somehow that Imperial College called it "Graduation" ceremony, while back in Malaysia we were stuck with "Convocation" or, worse,"Konvokesyen". So where did we get this word "Convocation" from? Shakespeare? As a full-time retiree, I get to worry about urgent things like this.

It was a glittering and glitzy occasion, colourful and steeped in tradition, complete with a string ensemble. The oval and opulent hall was filled to the brim, and the atmosphere just blew me away. The pace and timing were pitch perfect, no hitches or glitches, nothing over the top, just right. And, of course, the music. I almost choked when my name was called (hahaha).

I'll remember this one for a long time.






3.  Peak District

Not Peek District. This is a highland area and a national park bordering Manchester and Derby known for its scenic lakes, streams, farms, villages, sheep (scenic sheep?). We spent a good half-day traipsing round the area, savouring the splendid landscape and gorgeous geography. It's an exhilarating experience, which is really a pity because most Malaysians would rather visit the nearby Old Trafford and waste good money on Pogba shirts.

Peak District might not be as famous as Lake District, but equally enjoyable. No romantic poets and writers have chosen to live and die here though. The closest I could think of would probably be RPK, the refugee blogger now mired down in Manchester. Read his prolific tales of trysts and machinations and you'll understand why he's a romantic writer.
     
 


4. Manchester City FC

The 50 year-old dream came true. I finally got to watch Manchester City in the flesh at the Etihad, right before my very eyes. I'd been having these visions ever since I followed the team in 1969.  The feeling was simply unbelievable, shouting and swearing with 55,000 City freaks, watching David Silva waltzing and Yaya Toure bursting out, just twenty feet away.

But there was a downside to all this. Every time Aguero had the ball in the box with only half-decent chance of a goal, the whole stadium would stand up and cheer on. While this spontaneous act ramped up the atmosphere, it totally blocked my view since I'm physically challenged (political for short). Anyway, City ran out 5-0 winners against a hapless Crystal Palace. I completely missed the first four goals.




5. Hotel New Inn, Gloucester.

Gloucester was our last stop before our return flight to KL. Nothing special about this town, except that it was a medieval city only two hours away from Heathrow Terminal 4. It's cheaper and more convenient to stop here than going back to London (with all our bags and Peppa Pigs, remember?). It was Sunday and the town was deserted and it took us some time to find our hotel, the New Inn, although it was smack in the town centre.

The New Inn Hotel wasn't new. It was built in 1450. Just like Gloucester, there was nothing extraordinary about the hotel, except for a footnote in Wikipedia "The New Inn is supposedly haunted with at least one unexplained event captured on CCTV in 2010". It was too late to change our plans.

Stepping into the hotel you'd notice the intricate 500-year old timber and masonry. The toilet came with modern soap and flushing system. It took us some time to really settle in. We hardly talked.

Nothing happened. Sorry.      


6. Breathless Bread

What's more boring than bread? I love bread, and England is a bread heaven. Walk into any supermarket you'll see one big section with bread brands and varieties in full cry, from Allison's rustic white to Hovis wholemeal and all the way to Worburton's superseed. I had to catch my breath. And it's bloody cheap. A 600 gm of high quality multi-seed variety sells for only 79 p (RM 4.30). A plain white is RM 7.90 at Isetan KLCC Sun Moulin bakery. Gardenia or Massimo is RM 2.50 for 400gm of mind-fogging gluten and yeast.    

I bought plenty of bread and enjoyed every slice. Fabulous stuff. As to why it's so much cheaper in England, I don't have a ready explanation. Maybe the market there is bigger, while I am the only bread market in Malaysia.


7. Ah, Malaysia Airlines 

I flew Malaysia Airlines this time. I'd not flown long-haul on Malaysia Airlines for almost twenty years. Air Asia or some Arab airlines were always 50% cheaper. This was also my first flight on the A380. It was certainly big, with more space and air to breath, but nothing beyond my expectation.

With plenty of empty seats, it was hard not to notice the flight attendants (male and female). They all had the real knack of appearing busy at all times. Those in the idle oil and gas industry can learn a thing or two from these guys. But I must say that they were a bit of a let-down. I mean, the aircraft was all fresh and spanking, but the attendants looked older than Gloucester. A couple of them even had reading glasses. I thought it was an exception and I should be seeing something different and more inspiring on the return flight. It was different set, but from the same period.

I suspect these people were highly-paid holdovers from the platonic Malaysia-Singapore Airlines. They were nice and pleasant enough, but I'm sure there are eager and younger ones among the 120,000 Malaysia Airline staff with more energy and better eyesight to take over the job.

Sorry for this Trumpesque turn, but I'm sure most of you are with me on this.

       


8. A Final Word

It's been a brief and productive family outing, a mishmash of business, fun and ghosts. I guess my three granddaughters also enjoyed it. They didn't complain about the cold wintry air. They didn't complain about anything. Either their benchmark was low or their tolerance threshold was high. Maybe both, who knew. I'm not sure what they think of Peak District.

England is easy. The locals drive on the left and speak good English or good Indian, unlike the Italians who drive on the right and speak only loud Italian. And food is friendly.  Manchester has more halal restaurants than Subang Jaya on per Muslim basis. What immediately comes to mind is an old and intrepid friend named Yusof Hashim. He travels only to strange and difficult places, like Antarctica, Patagonia and Atlas Mountains, where locals don't drive. He's 70 now. I'm not sure how he copes. I don't think there's a halal restaurant in Antarctica.

Did I promise you plenty of pictures? Here's two more, shot in York. Spreading out on the steps like that, what a clever improvisation.  



Our Time. Our City






Manchester City have just won the English Premier League (EPL), without kicking a ball.

No surprise this time around. It's been coming for months. The contest had been reduced to a one-horse procession,  a formality, a fait accompli. Adrift and out of sight, title challengers Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs had all thrown in the sponge two months ago. Football writers are moving on to the plight of Jamaican migrants.

Everybody had resigned to the inevitable, but in this flat fashion. Smart money was on some semblance of romance, with City wrapping it up last week in their match against Manchester United at City's Etihad Stadium. That would've been a painful end to MU's challenge, and a rare chance for City to rub it in before their own fans. But City, with a rich history of big-time me botches, fluffed it after leading 2-0. Watching Pogba and MU supporters celebrating wasn't easy for me.

The plot somehow thickened and took an ironic twist. MU inexplicably lost the next game at home to rock-bottom West Brom, leaving themselves with exactly zero chance of catching City. After gleefully denying City the title at the Etihad, MU tamely conceded it to City at Old Trafford, before their own fans. It's not the most spectacular way of winning any title. But we'll take it all the same.

Oh, the season hasn't really ended. With five more weeks and five more games to go, and City could conceivably field their Women's Team for the academic kick-abouts. But no, we'll go all out to break all English football records still standing: Most points, margin, goals, goal difference, passes, possession, you name it. In many ways, it's going to be a surreal season for City.

I'm just happy to be a champion. I don't play for Manchester City, of course. I've been following Manchester City football team since 1968, when I was in Form Two at Tiger Lane, and never looked back. That was exactly 50 years ago. The first 40 years has been a tumultous rollercoaster ride, ups and downs, mostly downs, and out in the old Third Division for a year. A football writer called City of the old a "comedic shambles". If you're looking for a single proof of my strong faith and fortitude, look no further.

To support City, your heart must have extra veins and valves. Every year we were promised a new dawn, only to find ourselves battling relegation and watching Manchester United  taking the title. The team was consistently inconsistent, suffering from what City faithfuls called Citytis or Cititis. The classic sympton of this unique malaise is the uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

A new dawn finally broke. In 2007, out of nowhere, City was bought over by the ex-Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. I didn't know what was his motivation. I mean, there were nineteen other teams in EPL and many more in Spain. He could well be a victim of a scam. We, City fans, just had no time for much philosophical pondering. We embraced our saviour, showering him with affection, calling him Frank (after Frank Sinatra, the mafia crooner), while nervously waiting for his next step. Football folklore was littered with wicked and wayward owners, and this guy was an exile and highly wanted in his country. So we'd to exercise a maximum of restraint and common sense.

Frank's next move was bold and stunning - by City's standards. He signed the former England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson to replace manager Stuart Pearce, who was a border-line psychotic. In no time Eriksson brought in new players, including two Brazilian internationals, Elano and Geovanni. The long-suffering City fanatics took to the streets celebrating a forthcoming EPL crown. When the season ended, MU were the champions.

The next year, Frank sold City to an Abu Dhabi investment group, pocketing a tidy profit. I'm not sure what was behind all this, but Frank certainly wasn't a victim of a scam. I initially thought that the Arabs were out shopping in London, and buying City was an afterthought. We, City fans, had to pinch ourselves for the second time when we found out that the new owner, one Sheikh Mansour, was 20 times richer than Frank was. With a family fortune of USD 1 trillion, he could, hypothetically at least, buy the whole EPL and let City win every year.

As it turned out, the new owner was serious and single-minded in his ambition to turn City into a global brand, whatever it means. The name Coca Cola was even mentioned. It was a flight of fancy, of course. Who'd want to drink Manchester City?

The serious Sheikh quickly made a statement by prising the much sought-after Robinho from Real Madrid for a new British record transfer fee. Some City die-hards tracked Robinho's flights to Manchester, minute by minute, until he landed at the airport. More marquee names were added later, players like Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Yaya Toure, Carlos Tevez and, for some reason, Mario Balotelli. The good-looking manager, Mark Hughes, was later replaced by an even sharper-looking one named Roberto Mancini. The sight of suave Mancini in Zegna jacket fielding questions with full Italian swagger and bits of English was enough to prompt Arsene Wenger, the French economic scholar and part-time manager of Arsenal, into City-sniping with his elegant theory of "financial doping".   

Four years later (in 2012) City were EPL Champions, clinching it in a dramatic last game with a last-gasp Aguero goal. That killer kick was made all the sweeter by the sight of MU players celebrating, thinking that they'd bagged another EPL title. It broke the hearts of MU worldwide fans, all  6 billion of them, if you believe their statistics.

I've watched that Aguero video more than 120 times now. That serene scene of Alex Ferguson and MU players slumping in collective disbelief was priceless.

The euphoria of that incredible triumph didn't completely sink in. The very next season City meekly handed the title to....... MU (I thought you didn't know). Well, that's that.

After three seasons, Mancini and his Zegna was replaced by Manuel Pellegrini, a Chilean engineer with a heavy hair-do. Pellegrini was a picture of composure and he spoke English in full. Unlike some other managers, he never clashed with reporters or fellow managers or referees or ball boys. He led City to another EPL title in 2015, clinching it in the very last game, this time leaving Liverpool supporters, mostly Malaysian Indians, all sick and suicidal. In a show of restraint and chivalry, Pellegrini didn't jump and jig (unlike other managers).

I loved Pellegrini's easy and understated ways, and I was sad when City let him go just like that (like what?). In a press conference in early 2016 he calmly announced his impending departure and his full support for his successor, Pep Guardiola, purportedly the best coach on planet earth and the purveyor of pass-it-to-death football. An EPL manager backing his own replacement? That's Pellegrini for you. This won't happen again, not in a thousand years.

Now back to this brilliant season. I didn't in the least expect City to reach these dizzying heights so soon, especially after last season's hesistant performance, even with Pep's arrival. To be fair, third place in his first season wasn't a bad campaign. But the lazy media and detractors pointed out that City had already spent more than USD 1.5 billion on players, whereas MU, Liverpool and Chelsea didn't spend one cent!

Before the season started, fans of rival teams were already bandying about a new football phenomenon: Fraudiola. To them, Pep is fake. Their argument rests on the popular mythology that EPL is tougher than La Liga and Bundesliga combined, so Pep must fail in England. I could imagine the weight of expectation on Pep and his players when the season kicks in. My feeling is that the critics won't get off his back until he wins EPL and Bundesliga and La Liga all in the same season.

Pep's response was stunning and seismic. He bought more players! He, he. Well, he did spend USD 250 million on new, younger players like Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus. Of course, MU, Liverpool and Chelsea, according to their partisan pixies, didn't buy a single player. Lukaku, Salah and Morata were all coming through their youth academies.

But, seriously, Pep has reimagined and reinvented English football. He should be cited and  knighted for this. Now I know why people dubbed him the "ultimate solution". His idea of a football match is a 100% share of possession by one team - his team. I've been seriously watching English football for more than 50 years now, and I've not seen anything close to the way City is playing now. Exquisite, expressive, extravagant football.

At times I was left breathless by the way City players shuffled and shifted the ball around, leaving the opponents headless. There's so much guile and craft. Leroy Sane, is he real? The matches against Newcastle and Swansea ended with stats showing City with 81% possession. Not exactly 100%, if you want to argue.

I'm writing this at the risk of offending my opposite numbers, I mean people I know who, for some unknown reason, are still stuck with MU (Hamid, Moru), Liverpool (Yuzer), Arsenal (Puzi), Spurs (Mad Darus), Chelsea (Azlan) and, you've to believe this, Southampton (Said. Just because he went to University of Southampton). They were one-time classmates at Tiger Lane. We're now all retired and redundant.

So, guys, sorry if you're not too happy with what I've written. It's my time and my turn. Live with it until the new season starts in August. But, hold on, what if City's cakewalk this season is only a warm-up act? And there'll be a new dawn next season, a real new dawn. And another new dawn the year after, and so forth.  I mean, what if City are just starting up and will get better and better, more and more formidable? Scary theory. Arsene has just announced that he's leaving Arsenal. There's no better time.

I think you all have to wait a little longer.


 
Pep Guardiola: The Ultimate Solution



Updates

EPL season ended yesterday, 13 May. City set new EPL records for Most Points (100),  Away Points (50), Wins ( 32), Successive Wins (18), Successive Away Wins (11), Goals (106), Goal Difference (+79),  Points Ahead of Second Placed Team (19).

There are more. Most passes (28, 242),  Most Passes in a single game (975), Highest Ball Possession in a single game: 82.95%.

There's no accounting for positive football (attacking) and negative football (bus parking) football. If there's one, City would've easily been first (attacking) and last (bus). Pep has been voted the best manager. And he would've been the best-dressed manager, hands down.

With all those mind-blowing statistics, some football fans and football writers have insisted that the Arsenal team of 2003/04, the so-called Invincibles, are the best EPL team ever.  These people are deep in denial and delusion. I can feel their pain.

Oh, Manchester United were runners-up,  Spurs (3rd), and Liverpool (4th). Arsenal? 6th.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Inspired By Isymam: A Talaqqi Story


Six years after I'd retired, I received two academic certificates.

One conferred by Masjid Sultan Salahudin Abdul Aziz Shah in Shah Alam for completing its one-year Talaqqi/Tajwid Course. The other one for attending a four-month Tajwid class at Rehal Islamic Studies Centre.

No, no, these are not fake PhD's. Hahaha.

The Shah Alam certificate was a sheer beauty. It's inscribed 100% in Jawi calligraphy, including my name. When was the last time I'd my name written in Jawi? Standard Six, 1965. That long ago. So I'll keep this certificate for the rest of my natural life, for both its intrinsic and extrinsic value.

Everybody knows the blue-hue Masjid Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah. But not many have heard of Rehal. It's a small, privately-run Talaqqi centre in Kota Damansara. The owner and teacher-in-chief is one Dr Surur Shihabudin, a two-time PhD who also lectures at UIA. Dr Surur has written a widely read text entitled  "Ilmu Tajwid" (pink hard cover, 342 pages). The book is about, hold your breath, Tajwid. What do you expect?

Religious gurus are never known for marketing craft and guile. Their books all look drab and dreary. And the titles leave very little to imagination. They should take a leaf out of literary frauds with funky titles like Blue Ocean or Freakonomics that have sold millions. "Talk Tajwid And Get A Second Wife In Two Weeks" would have been a runaway bestseller. Anyway I'd been using Dr Surur's "Ilmu Tajwid" for some time now and I've to admit that I was motivated to attend the course on the weight of this book and its author. Nothing beats the horse's mouth.

Frankly I'm proud to receive these certificates, even at the tender age of 62. I've lost count of all the certificates I'd received for all kinds of courses I attended when I was with Petronas. Lateral Thinking, High-Impact Speaking, Finance For Finance Haters, Business Leadership, 7 Habits, 5 Asses, you name it. But none really compares with these two humble certificates.
   
I'm writing this not to show off my religious fixation and credentials. I'm in fact exposing my failure and frailty. Children as young as six now learn the Quran and know all the finer points of Tajwid.  At my age, I'm supposed to teach.

So what's the point? In short, I want to share my late-life learning joys and trials. And if I can get  one more person to just think about learning Tajwid, I'd consider this blog entry a major triumph.

Tajwid is, admittedly, a very dry subject matter. Think theoretical Physics. Or Cost Accounting. It's highly technical and more potent than sleeping pills. Some of the charts and pictographs used are suspiciously similar to the periodic table.  You can't compare Tajwid with, say, Sirah, where you get to learn and turned on by our Prophet's love life with wife Aisyah, or marvel at the bravery of Khalid Al Walid and awe at the exploits of my favourite all-conquering warrior-archer-wanderer Saad Abi Waqqas.

One of my friends knows an awful lot about Syiah and Wahabbi, which, I think, are both juicier than Tajwid. He can expound on Nikah Mutaah, or temporary marriage, in the way that E Channel explains the premise behind the much-celebrated gender migration from Bruce to Caitlyn.

When I completed early Quran reading classes in standard six, I thought I'd mastered Quran reading. Mom could just pick any page and I'd read it aloud. I grew up with this mistaken belief that Tajwid was just an option, something for those who want to win the international Quran reading competition. So it was left on the back burner for fifty years. When I began to learn Tajwid,  I  rudely discovered that, for fifty years, I hadn't been reading the Quran the right way. I'd been reading the Quran not in Arabic, but in Kelantanese.

How did I "discover" Tajwid? It wasn't exactly Fleming and penicillin, but it was similarly fortuitous. Or serendipitous, if you don't mind. The story is screenplay stuff and wrote itself.

It was in 2002 when about 20 of us, close classmates who went to Tiger Lane in 1966, descended for a reunion and Iftar. We had a brief tazkirah, where, by default, the most qualified of us led the session. He reminded us of the intrigues and intricacies of Quran reading, and, to prove his point, he picked out Isymam, a Tajwid rule applied at Ayat 11 Surah Yusuf. We've to purse (muncung) our lips when we recite ta'- man-n-na.  Man, this is something, I thought. I'd been missing lots of fun !

From then on, I began to sniff around for basic Tajwid books. "For my son" I told the bookseller. He'd heard this routine before, so he just nodded. Reading the books was uphill. Tolstoy's two-volume War and Peace was easier and faster.

I finally retired in 2009, but it wasn't until two years later that I began to make some inroads by attending formal and informal Tajwid classes, including our monthly Tiger Lane usrah sessions led by, yes, the Isymam Imam. Every lesson was a sobering self-discovery.

I found out that learning at my age is extremely challenging for three reasons. One, I'd lost most of my thinking skills (not a lot to begin with). So it took me longer than forever to get the hang of the strange concepts and to memorize new names. Two, I was among the oldest, if not the oldest, in class. My Shah Alam and Rehal classmates were mostly half my age, mentally sharper and, worst, they all had more hair. Three, most Tajwid teachers had very little talent in the complex art of teaching. The Rehal program, in particular, was stressful not only because the classroom felt like a Cambodian sweatshop but also because the teacher (Dr Surur) used a teaching technique made popular by the Japanese army during their brief occupation of the old Malaya. He didn't believe in soft sell. He'd drill and grill, regardless of your age. If you're the sensitive sort, you'd drop out and become a "syahid" before the third week.

But after the initial scares and jitters, I began to enjoy the Tajwid classes. Even Dr Surur's hard-hitting military style didn't scare me. With age advantage, I could ask any question I like, like why huruf "Dhod" is Rokhowah and not Syiddah? I always believe everything has its soft and sweet side. In a class of 20 students, you'll listen to 20 different ways of reading. High notes, low notes, poor pitch, terrible tone. I can tell you it's more fun than Akademi Fantasia audition.

We learned from our teachers and from each other, driven by one common and singular ambition: to read the Quran the way our beloved Prophet read it 1400 years ago. What's not to like?

The test of Tajwid is not in the terms and theories, but in putting it to practice. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, remember? Not the prettiest of parallels, but you get my point. Mastering the Makhraj, Mad and the stuff is only the starting point. It's how I apply it when I get down to actually doing it. It was mentally and physically draining, tougher than treadmill. But once I get in the groove, it's hard to stop. You could even get high. Try the graceful Surah Maryam, and you'd soon find yourself doped and drowned in the rhyming verses. Reading the Quran would never be the same.

So I've mastered Tajwid. No, no, no. Not even close. Never. There's still a lot left to learn. Dr Surur kept reminding us "Bergurulah walaupun kita seorang guru".  It's not possible to unlearn and relearn 50 years of work in six short years. The trick is to train. Serena Williams has won 23 Grand Slams and she still trains with a coach, six hours a day. Now you're excited.

I'll never be a champion. But I'll keep on learning: twisting and turning my tongue, tweaking my speed and breath, and even trying out a new tune. The divine virtues and rewards of reading the Quran are never in question. But I can promise you one immediate payoff when you read the Quran the right way: your wife loves you a lot more.  

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Sojourn In Shenzhen




The landing was faultless. But the moment I stepped into the airport and looked around, my stomach dropped. Everyone here except us was a Chinese. I'd nothing against the Chinese as a people or a concept, it's just that I'd never seen so many Chinese in my entire life. My wife sensed my abeyance and pressed my shoulder. "Come on, this is China. Not Italy". I knew, but, I mean, all these Chinese and so many. "China, Chinese la" She reasoned out. This line of logic left me with almost nothing to argue.

Last month I was in Shenzhen and nearby Guangzhou. Nearby was actually 150 km away. These two cities are now China's boom towns, growing at breakneck rates, and home to 23 million people, all Chinese (What do you expect? 23 million Italians?).

It's hard to find another place more sanguine than Shenzhen. And so devoid of character and charisma. If you love museums, castles and art houses, don't go down to Shenzhen. Go to Leuven. Or Leiden. Nobody here has time for contemplation. Culture and theatre are a waste of space. This is the soulless motherland of finance, factories and fakes feeding off world's rapacious greed and relentless consumption. Only 50 years ago the mantra was fish, farm and fight for the country. Now? Let's make more money.

I was part of a touring party of 17 fine-looking people, all my family members, including wife and daughter Aida. The youngest was nephew Umar, 10 years old. We'd been travelling around together quite a bit to whet the wanderlust. Well, not to Las Vegas or Las Palmas, but mostly the more affordable local and regional hotspots. This time we broke our long-held tradition of self-styled backpacking and bespoke itinerary by taking a guided tour. Backpacking with a guide? Now that's embarrassing. Why? Because this is China, that's why.

In case you've forgotten, China is officially a communist state, you know, Marxist-Leninist, Mao Zedong, Falun Gong, Gang of Four, Shaolin Temple, and all the scary stuff. We heard that government officials in China are summarily shot even for petty crimes like corruption. So quite naturally, we were worried. Who knew, we could get jail term in China for laughing or reading. We'd to agree with Ronald Reagan's pearl of wisdom: Why take chances?

Our Chinese tour guide, named Felix, could speak English and a smattering of Malay. He was a native Shenzhenian or Shenzhenese or simply Chinese and very proud of his city. According to him,  the average age of the Shenzhen population was only 31 years. I knew I was the oldest person in my group. Now I was also the oldest person in the whole city of Shenzhen. I quickly told wife that she was technically the second oldest person in Shenzhen. She dismissed it offhand, accusing me of conspiracy, hangover, late-life lapses and so on. All too familiar.

After five days and four nights in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, we came away mixed. Well, no place in the world has all pluses. Not even Paris. And certainly not Ottawa. (One of my brothers-in-law still thinks Ottawa is in Japan). You'd always end up with a bone or two to pick. So there's this nagging and uneasy feeling that we might not have seen and done enough. Or, in Obama's language, we weren't getting the biggest bang for the buck. Guangzhou especially deserves more time. The jury is still out, so to speak and I hate this phrase. We've to really sit back and think hard before passing a verdict.

In the meantime, I've put together some takeaways from our tour, if you're interested. If you're not, then just scroll ahead for some Android-quality photos. This list is strictly my opinion.  The 10-year old nephew may have other ideas. PM him if you want to know. 

1. A Guided Tour Is A Time-Waster.

A guided tour of any part of China requires that you visit a number of state-sponsored "craft or cultural centres". The Shenzhen jade factory that we were taken to had the uncanny feel and atmosphere of Hotel California. Yes, that part "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave..." and the searing guitar licks.  Lucky thing a sister-in-law bought something. That probably was enough to save us and let us live to fight another day. Hahaha.

What's worse than one jade factory? Two jade factories. We'd to visit another jade factory, in Guangzhou. Same bloody scripts and tricks. But this time around we were all prepared to fight back, communist or not. It all ended peacefully though, with nobody buying anything. 

Then there was this Chinese herbal medicine centre or clinic in Guangzhou, where they had a professor from Beijing touch our hands and size up our state of health. Apparently everybody seemed to be down with at least one chronic condition. A sister-in-law seemed to be critically short of oxygen. Hahaha, thanks prof, finally we knew why she was what she was. But no worry, because the kind professor, as expected, would prescribe the necessary (and expensive) concoction. I know a scam when I see one.

We'd easily wasted precious eight hours on these state tours, which we could have easily spent exploring Guangzhou's Muslim quarter, fruit markets, the subway, and the old city with its narrow alleys and quaint shops. Both Shenzhen and Guangzhou were safer than Subang Jaya and taxi drivers eat and live by their meters. We would survive on our own.

Felix the tour guide was a part-time bait-and-switch artist. He was so good at his trade that he managed to lure us into buying bags of nuts, Longchamp purses, and watches from him.

Hwang He, the Chinese River of Sorrow, shall be my witness as I promised myself to never ever again take guided tours and go near tour guides.

2. Muslim Meals Are Marvellous

Chinese Halal food or Halal Chinese food? Doesn't matter. Heaps of horror stories about this. Bland, tasteless, sticky and so on. Don't listen. The food was glorious and out of this world. It was vegetable based, with superb soy and only touches of meat and fish. Very healthful. My weight and pulse rate fell after two days.

3. Fakes Are Fine

Shenzhen and Guangzhou are full of fake stuff, with miles of malls plying the bogus high styles. I'm all for this counterfeiting and bootlegging. I think for far too long the much celebrated European haute couture are getting away with exploiting unsuspecting Asians through clever marketing and subtle branding. Those designer labels are never worth their extortionate prices. They are the real fakes, not the fakes. A fat girl flagging a 100,000 dollar Hermes bag is still a fat girl.

Louhu Mall near Shenzheng railway station was a five-storey affair choked with fakes and knock-offs. The action here was thick and fast. The goods were excellent value, at less than 5% of the "real" thing. The Chinese "designers" have really come a long way. The stitching and sewing was splendid and it'd tough to separate the wheat from the chaff. If your friends can still tell it's not Chanel, you're the problem. Not the bag.

Bargaining here was more intense than watching Lee Chong Wei. Price of anything starts at 850 Yuan (RM 500). You must poke back with only 50 Yuan and then watch the sales girl feigning (or actually going into) fits or short comatose. You must hold your ground and walk away. She'd bolt after you and this fast furious sequence should last for ten minutes before you and the girl finally settle for 100 Yuan, a discount of 80%. The process takes plenty of energy. But well worth it. You get a fake bag and lose 400 calories of real fat. What's not to love.

4. The Magnificent Mosque Of Saad Abi Waqqas

The name alone conjures up the mystique. You simply have to see this old mosque in Guangzhou, a shoo-in in traveller's bucket list. The blatant collision of Arabic and Chinese architecture, set among lush gardens, will just blow you away. The dark red panels and pillars were bold, defiant but delightful.

Saad was Nabi Muhammad's close companion and relative, warrior, archer, traveller and diplomat extraordinaire, all in one. He purportedly travelled all the way to China with his kabilah in the 7th century to propagate the Islamic faith, 700 years before Marco Polo and his gay brothers.

Climbing up the steps, I hesitated. I was overcome by the poignant thought of the old mosque of Kg Laut, where I grew up. It's  not as old, but the warmth and welcome were strikingly similar. I could still picture the mosque standing triumphantly where it was 50 years ago, just like this very mosque in Guangzhou.

5. Beijing Street, Dongmen Market, Baima Wholesale Market, Mangrove Park (or Whatever).

A standard tour will happily drop you off at these (in)famous places. These are duds and dreadful and should be officially certified as state tourist traps. My lawn is bigger than the Mangrove Park, and more birds. Skip if you can. That jade racket was more fun. Go to Sungai Wang instead, when you come back.

6. Finally, Oh My English!

The Chinese love the English language. They've a long way to go. But, believe me, pretty soon they'll speak English better than our public university graduates. Notices and signs everywhere carry the English translations. The intention is noble enough, but you'll almost always end up bemused and amused. You've probably read and heard loads of cruel jokes about this. I can confirm they are all real, not a joke. Here's a selection. Enjoy !      

Whatever It Is, Just Don't Do It.

             
Hotel Room: Warm Prompt? Heat Spout? Mirror Burst?

So Profound. How About The Grandfather?
Hotel Door: If You Don't Brush, The Door Won't Open


Toilet At Shenzhen Airport: Take Your Time To Rise. Thanks. 


Kg Pandan Backpackers In Action (Plus A Tour Guide)


 Saad Abi Waqqas Was Here

The Oldest Couple In Shenzhen



Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Not-Very-Curious Case of Starving Students And The Very Curious Case of A Billion Donation




Sorry for the lavish and longish title, but, really, our university students are starving.

A recent survey of 25,632 students in six public universities revealed that more than half are actually living on RM 5 a day, while three-quarters have been in situations where they're too broke to eat.

The very next morning, the Ministry of Higher Education dismissed these survey results as nonsense. 

A "Freemeals" program at UKM recently saw all 100 free food packs gone in 600 seconds. A similar program at UPM produced similar results, only faster. Another "Freemeals" variety called "Suspended Meals"  is ongoing at UPM.

In the wake of widespread outcry, the voluntary groups who organised these free-food programs were harassed by the universities. They were hauled up and quizzed and questioned. Apparently the authorities weren't too happy with the name "Suspender Meals".

"No students will go hungry on my watch", declared the Minister of Higher Education on 10 January. Brave words. "On my watch"! Wow. This guy sounds like President Donald Trump. Our ministers are all masters of the atmospherics. You could almost feel the hot air and the hollow ring. He forayed further by suggesting that students should seek part-time jobs. Like what? Housemaids? Uber grabber?

Another minister, this time a blue blood, rejected offhand the whole notion as sensationalism and theatrics. According to him, nobody's starving in this great country, not even the homeless. Hard to believe that a minister for youths can be so out of touch with the youths. Maybe he's still busy consoling last year's SEA Games female gymnasts.

If these ministers don't already know, students go to universities and colleges to do one and only one simple job: study. That's why they're called students, and not pump attendants, or surgeons. If they have to study AND work at the same time, we have a problem. Just imagine a surgeon who has to cook while doing a coronary bypass.  Or a chef doing a bypass while cooking. Either way, the food wouldn't turn out good. I can't find a better analogy, but I think you get my point.

The public are again divided on this.

Why I said again? Because people are already divided. We're already divided over the RM 2.6 billion donation. We're literally, figuratively, badly beaten, shaken, broken. It's like a big fat hole, with those who believe on one side and those who don't on the other side.

Going by the social media dynamics and statistics, the ratio of believers to disbelievers is roughly 1 to 99.  Loudly lopsided, I know. But don't be discouraged by that 1%.  If you understand mathematics, 1% of 30 million population is actually 300,000, including some newborns and Nepalese. This is one hell lot of people, equivalent to the entire population of Kuala Terengganu. Imagine, the whole boring people of Kuala Terengganu believe that an Arab has donated RM2.6 billion, while the rest of the country don't. In my 60 over years, we're never this divided.

On this case of starving students, we're again split into believers and disbelievers. The line is less clear though. Those who believe that students are starving are mostly those who don't believe that there's an Arab somewhere throwing away RM 2.6 billion, while those who doubt students are starving are mostly those who believe in mad Arabs.

Believers are naturally sympathetic and very angry. They felt that the government had wasted loads of money on floating submarines, illegal speed traps and Mongolia mines, starving the students of funds. They also believed that RM 2.6 billion, mad Arab or dead Arab, could've been mobilised to feed the students for the next 100 years.

While the doubters or disbelievers came down hard on the students themselves, levelling the blame squarely on the students for their financial profligacy, you know, things like iPhones, prepaids, Starbucks, girl friends and so on.

If you asked me, I think there's a strong and valid case of hungry students. Even if you didn't ask me, I still think there's a strong case.  A couple of old classmates with children in public universities are grappling with the classic opportunity cost dilemma: anak vs mamak. More money for anak means less for mamak. With cruel cutbacks on Mara and Ptptn handouts, the parents have to fill the void. We'd never know whether the students would starve without their parents' financial lifeline. No parents would run a trial to find out.

I went to UKM for my degree way back in 1975. A local bank fell for my charisma and handed me a handsome scholarship of RM 2400 a year. I won't shame and name this unfortunate bank. The government scholarship was about  RM 2000.  I thought could live like a king. 

After one semester, I discovered that I was actually a king on a shoestring. At the time, a full-blown breakfast cost under RM 2.00. No smart or stupid phones to make you go mad. Water was free from water cooler. We used payphones and public transport. We ate pretty much what the prehistoric men ate. But still there were days when we'd to dig deep and dip below United Nation's recommended daily dietary intake. I stayed off campus, ten or maybe fifteen of us in one house. Yes, we pioneered this communal concept, not the Banglas. It's a basic and spartan lifestyle. Lifestyle, yeah. At the end of every day, I only had enough left to fight another day.

So I'm the least surprised that some students are hungry now. Education is mentally and financially draining, even in the heavily subsidised public universities. Private colleges are even more intimidating. Premium brands like Sunway, Taylor's, Nottingham, Monash etc charge upwards of RM 90,000 for a 4-year degree. QS recently ranked our private tertiary education the fifth most expensive in the world (cost relative to income). Father PTPTN will never give you enough to cover your fees, let alone your feed. If you go to these colleges, you'd die of starvation.

Thing is, university life is not supposed to be a walk in the park, at least not for most of us. Occasionally missing meals is no big deal.  It's par for the course during my time and more so now with GST in full flight and Ringgit in freefall. Plain roti canai is RM1.60 a pop now and you've to compete with the cash-rich Bangladeshis and Indonesians.

So I'm not sure why the ministers or the universities or just about anybody would've to be up in arms and deny this. Just accept this as part of education. It preps the students up for later life. I know you can pinpoint a lot of ugly things to Umno, but starving students isn't Umno's doing. The grand old party has done a lot of good, building 20 public universities in the country, with another five new ones if they win in 2018. It's unfair to expect them to feed the students as well.

Hungry students are pretty much everywhere, in India, in Mongolia, in Malaysia, and  even in richer countries like the US.

Which reminds me of the inspiring story of Indra K Nooyi, the current CEO of PepsiCo. She's championing the "performance for a purpose" management mantra, which espouses responsible business. Pepsi now has less calories than Coke. She left Tamil Nadu for Yale to do her MBA in 1978, and, in her own words, "I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I was totally, completely broke. I'd no money to buy clothes". She worked on campus on minimum wage and probably survived because she's a vegetarian.

She's quite rich now, of course, and has been generously giving back to her university. Yale is just happy to reciprocate her generosity with a Classroom and a Deanship named after her (Nooyi Classroom, Nooyi Dean). "My gift to Yale pales in comparison to the gift that Yale gave me". Such humility. I'm sure there are fewer hungry students in Yale now because of her gift. She gave again early this month, her biggest so far. No numbers were disclosed, but it's thought to be between 20 to 30 million. US Dollars!

It would be nice if our own ex-starving students who make good take a leaf out of Indra Nooyi's playbook and give back to their universities. They may start with RM2 and work all the way up to RM 20 million.

I must admit that, with depleting retained earnings and a girl deep in college and another very soon, I can't afford much. Maybe Ahmad Maslan, a fellow UKM alumnus, can. I don't think he was starving when he did his MBA at UKM. No hungry students would graduate with 3.85 CGPA. I'm sure he's fairly rich, I mean, he's a deputy minister with three or four jobs, and Umno, don't forget. If he wanted to, he could start his own legacy in UKM with Ahmad Maslan Suspender Meals!

Believe me, there's hardly a cause greater and godlier than giving. Donate to your alma mater. Don't donate to your prime minister.   

      




Thursday, December 3, 2015

Masalah Ayam: The Problem With Our Education System


The above is an actual, and cruel, PT3 exam question. Now pit your thinking skills against Form Three students. The students were given ten minutes.

Like my opening gambit? Stay with me. We're into some serious business.

My youngest Sarah came home today all happy and jolly. Why not? Her SPM is finally and truly over, with the final paper (Biology) put to bed. She'll never ever have to read, study and think again for the rest of her life. Well, not really. But it surely feels that way.

How the sadists at the Ministry of Education had found it necessary to spread the nine subjects over 28 days of exam is beyond belief. I mean, she's taking the normal Science and Maths stuff, no special papers like Art History or Basic Wahabbi. Twenty-eight days!

All I need is three more days to go completely mad.

It's been a nervy and edgy two, three months for me. I wish I could help Sarah along in some substantive way, like showing her the finer points of Physics. That's out of question, you know why. I've never felt so helpless. All I could do was to find her tuition teachers, provide her with enough food, and buy her the much needed stationery without asking silly questions, like why buy stapler every week?

Actually I'd also bought her a brand new iPhone early last year in return for a promise that she'd study hard and devote all her waking hours to SPM. She studied very hard and devoted all her waking hours to SPM from January all the way to February - two months.

Now that SPM is safely behind her, she can now devote all her waking and sleeping and eating hours to Korean TV.

Roughly 98% of our education system is SPM. (100%, according to DAP). So, sitting for SPM is a do-or-die mission for .....the parents! Like it or not, SPM results are the gold standard in this country. If your child doesn't get 9 A+, you're a failure as a breathing and warm-blooded person. You can't walk into Mydin, you can't make police report. As for the children, they'd be just fine, happily getting by and living with whatever they've "accomplished". They've already got their iPhone, remember?
     
Because of SPM, our secondary education system has been badly broken up into two classes of schools: the daily schools for normal students and Sekolah Berasrama Penuh (SBP) for paranormal students. The SBP is further split into SBP and MRSM. You'd know an SBP by its feelgood nameplates like Sehebat, Semashur, or Integomb (gomb rhymes with bomb). Each SBP is given RM100 million a year to do whatever it fancies. Students get a seven-meal plan complete with vitamin supplements and dental floss.  

The truth is, these elitist schools have now turned into slow slaughter houses. They're totally driven and doped by SPM. Teachers would see off the two-year syllabus in two months and then start on something out of US Navy Seal: practising past-year questions. For days on end they'd pore over hundreds of thousands of questions dating all the way back to Isaac Newton. Students' performance is measured through weekly trial exams and weekly GPA. This business model works like clockwork as most students actually ace the exam with 9 or 10 or even 28 A+, thanks to those past-years questions and spot questions (not to mention, ahem, leaked questions).

The daily schools are the underclass. They are pretty much left to fend for themselves. With 90 students packed in one class, the teachers take one full year to memorize each student's name and IQ level. Every other month the school would hold a jogathon or poetry reading to raise funds for new toilet doors. A typical daily school set-up consists of an overweight headmistress, 35 lady teachers and one good-looking ustaz. A typical daily school gets a straight A student once in 100 years.
       
That's our secondary education system in a nutshell, a simple two-caste structure, as close you can get to academic apartheid. Never in the history of humankind have the less gifted been so deliberately marginalised.
  
Oh, I almost forgot the tertiary education, I mean the universities, colleges, university colleges and college colleges, which provide a wide range of diploma and degree programs, some useful, like Medicine, some less useful, like Law. Like its secondary brethren, this supposedly higher education system comes in two varieties: public and private.

The public universities are founded and financed by the government and run by Umno. Leading this lot is Universiti Malaysia Pahang, known the world over now for its cutting-edge spiritual engineering and its flagship anti-hysteria kits. For some unknown reason, 90% of students in  public universities are Malays and female. UiTM has the biggest Malay population (105%), more than Sheffield University's Malay population (60%). Half of all public university students are Kelantanese who speak only Kelantanese. The long-standing notion that public university students speak only Malay is inaccurate.

Private universities and colleges, on the other hand,  are run like normal Chinese businesses with one noble objective: to make profit. English and Cantonese are spoken widely here. They typically charge extortionate fees for tuition, registration and air-conditioning. The fees hit the roof for joint-degrees with branded universities like Oxford (Brookes). A good example of a private college is Segi College Subang Jaya where 90% of its student population are Chinese and Nigerian nationals on tourist visas. They attend classes once in six months and you know them by their short shorts and half-shirts.

                                                             II

Based on the latest statistics, we have now 100,000 unemployed graduates waiting and vaping, half with CGPA of 3.85, half speak half-English like Wayne Rooney, but all vote PKR. To solve this problem, the government is "importing" 1.5 million loyal Bangladeshis to vote BN.

More damning statistics emerged recently when the deputy dean of Melaka Manipal Medical College alleged that 1000 medical graduates and housemen had quit because of poor English. Undead deans and dons like this are partly the reason why our universities are floundering in global rankings. Manipal is a glorified nursing school. Don't listen. Medical English isn't Shakespeare. Finish the antibiotics, drink a lot of water, your sugar level is 39. That's about  it.  
    
Our education system was recently ranked 50th in the world, lower than Kazakhstan but higher than South Sudan. Malaysia is also 50th on a corruption index. A coincidence, if you asked me. To be fair, there have been plenty of churns and chops over the years to trade up our education system. A new policy or program would normally coincide with a new minister and end invariably with a wasted expenditure of RM1.2 billion.

Remember English for Science and Maths? Cluster schools, familiar? Now the Ministry is purring about the DLP or Dual Language Program and HIP or Highly Immersive Program (HIP). Last month the deputy education minister P Kamalanathan went further, talking about SHITE or Sharing Hot Indian Teachers for English. As the name suggests, the project will involve recruitment of well-trained Indian English teachers from India to improve our English standard. We do have our own Indian English teachers, of course, problem is they're from Gombak, not from India.  Go ahead and guess how much this SHITE will cost.

But nothing fires up my imagination more than KBAT. It stands for Kemahiran Berfikir Aras Tinggi, an unimaginative name for an unimaginative idea. Well, the objective here is to encourage students to think rather than memorise log table or watch Kardashians. (Never mind the teachers). How does the Ministry go about doing this? By asking students trick questions like Masalah Ayam above. Hahaha.

My niece Hana with A* in A-Level Maths and Physics is still trying to solve this problem after two months. It requires trial and error which, in turn, requires time and divine intervention. Students might get locked into this one moronic question for two hours and easily forget that there are 49 other moronic questions to solve.

SPM Add Maths last week was littered with killer Kbats. One top Chinese student in KL didn't sit for Paper 2. He took his own life immediately after Paper 1. This is tragic, sad and absolutely unnecessary. Our PM extended his condolences and quite rightly pontificated that exam is not everything. Agreed 100%,  it's "hard work" that decides our success and wealth in later life, not SPM results. I think PM and all his ministers should make their SPM results public to prove this important point.   

                                                            III

With education standard drifting about and the government turning and twisting with all kinds of tricks to stem the slide, teachers are bearing the bulk of the brunt. Their workload has been piling on - an average teacher now is busier than a hypothetical  hard-working cabinet minister. As a result teachers are forever confused and disillusioned. It's only a matter of time before they'd start asking for ministers' plum benefits (car, smartphone, talking nonsense etc).

Good teachers are a God's gift. But I don't think we're overly blessed. Malays in particular are born inarticulate and untalented and clumsy. Our Indonesian maids can speak far better than us. So teaching becomes a burden, a bother, and never second nature. Teachers are well prepared for pitched battles, but way short on the softer skills and the craft to motivate students away from Instagram. Ask any teacher their idea of teaching, the answer is unequivocal: thankless and tiring. A teacher today  has to eat one whole chicken to replace the calories lost through a half-day of teaching. 

So where does this leave us? Well, how about teachers taking dancing and dressing lessons to perk up posture and poise? Or theatre and taranum classes to sharpen vocals and speaking skills? Our teachers have to shape up fast. Bollywood teachers are coming.


The solution to Masalah Ayam, if you're interested:

8 chicks @ RM5  = RM 40
11 chicks @ RM3 = RM 33
81 chicks @ 3 chicks for RM1 =RM 27

Total: 100 chicks for RM 100.