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.


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.   


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. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Polis Evo

Last week I bucked the trend. I watched a movie at a movie theatre! It was a Malay movie with a thoughtless title: Polis Evo.

The last time I watched any movie at any theatre was in 1984, when I was a student in New York. That movie was the original slasher "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre". I couldn't enjoy the movie. A lady seated right behind me screamed every time the freak with the chainsaw came on.

Don't get me wrong. I like movies. I even have my own list of "movies to see before you die", which I can show you if you're interested. Just ask. The first movie I watched at a theatre was a P Ramlee comedy flick "Madu Tiga" in 1964. It was truly a magical experience for me. Big screen, big crowd, big sound, in complete darkness. And P Ramlee was a genius. When I came out, I just couldn't find my way in broad daylight and almost fell over. My elder sister had to steady me.

I watched a lot of movies during my hostel days at Tiger Lane. The school showed one movie a week, every Friday,  free. Half of the films starred Jack Palance. He wasn't exactly a pretty sight, but he was 100 times more popular than our head boy. Sometimes we had a new guy operate the projector and the jerk would somehow contrive to start with the end part and give away the whole plot. In my eight years there, I must have watched at least 300 movies. But if I rope in the movies I watched with friends in Ipoh town, I could've easily racked up 400 in total, including the epic Haathi Mere Saathi (twice). I'm not sure what's the industry standard, but 400 seems a lot.

Now back to Polis Evo. Even with complimentary tickets in hand, I was initially quite reluctant, and even offended by the mere suggestion. It's a 32-year old record, remember? If I went ahead, I'd have to start all over again and I can only equal this record in 2047, when I'm 94. And what if I got found out by my Whats App groupies? These zealots have been posting all kinds of scriptures urging old and unsuspecting classmates to contemplate and repent and abandon all worldly pleasures. Watching Polis Evo is hardly the way forward.

But it's common curiosity that finally won the day. The film had been heavily marketed on all Astro channels and Rapid buses. The box-office collections had broken the RM10 million mental barrier in just two weeks. It's a lot of money, even at the current exchange rate. Some half-brain punks on H Live were raving with a rating of 11 out of 10. It's a Van Persie moment, and the curious little boy inside had to make the call. I finally relented. So there I was with wife, Aida and Sarah at GSC Summit USJ. The theatre, or Cineplex, nowadays is actually very small, much smaller than the old Lido cinema in Kota Bharu where I watched Madu Tiga.

Polis Evo is technically not a Malay movie. At least not the one that I watched. Half of the dialogue was in Trengganu tongue, the other half in deep Kelantanese. It had been bandied about as an action-comedy, with a tired formula that borrows heavily from Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys or even Rush Hour franchises. It fell flat. It was a waste of time and it's unworthy of any serious review and rating.

The premise and plot were outrageous and insulting all at the same time. Cliched and corny at every turn, with non-existent sub-plots to speak of. The movie was set and actually shot in Kuala Terengganu, and how's that for a mindless non-starter. Kuala Terengganu? Can you believe it? Tripadvisor has rated Kuala Terengganu way behind Gombak as a destination for tourists or for anybody. In real life nothing actually wants to happen in Kuala Terengganu. And now suddenly car chases, shootings, explosions, meth labs, drug running, hostages. What can be more implausible and improbable than this? It even showed Pasar Payang so that nobody would mistake it for some place else.

The performance of the entire cast was patchy and promptly forgettable, even by my pathetically low standard for Malay films. Give me Ahmad Yatim any day. The problem with all pelakon Melayu is that they try too hard and it shows. They come across as dysfunctional, farcical and altogether ineffectual. In Polis Evo the characters who really delivered were the bad guys who spoke and looked Kelantanese to the core.

Terengganu diction is dark and twisted and is never easy on the ear, but why let a non-Terengganu cast mangle it further? All of which begs the question as to why weren't real and able Terengganu persons used? In the whole of Terengganu Darul Iman, nobody except Zizang is good enough? My daughter-in-law is from Manir and I think she's pretty enough to walk into that sister part (Normally I'm owed a big dinner for saying something like this).   

All this has left me with only one viable verdict: that how hard Zizang tries to market his home state, Terengganu just doesn't have it.

Like most bad movies, Polis Evo did have its bright moments. Two actually, both in Kelantanese. One, the part when the baddest of the baddies counseled Zizan for pretending to be a fool, "Bo la buak bodo nyoh, takuk jjadi bodo sungguh". That's brilliant. Zizan would be wise to take this seriously. Two, when the same guy took Zizan's sister as hostage and he warned Zizan "Aku keno ambik adik mu buak koletero (Collateral)". Koletero! Hahaha. Sounds like cholesterol.

Any of you reading this, there's still time to change your mind. Don't fall for the hype and vibes. Better never than late.


Monday, October 5, 2015

Thai Story 2


I was in Hat Yai recently to attend a nephew's wedding in nearby Songkhla. For those who still think Ottawa is the capital of Japan, allow me to enlighten. Songkhla is about 30 km from Hat Yai, and Songkhla or Singgora (its Malay moniker) is the name of both the Thai town and the province bordering Kedah and pseudo-state Perlis.

Songkhla and Kedah were once a single Malay kingdom with an Indian name and a Thai ruler. It only became a firm Thai province after a 1900 treaty where the British gave up slow Songkhla in exchange for the more colourful Kelantan. Revisionists have surfaced recently with claims that the British were drunk at the time: it should've been the other way round.

Anyway, Hat Yai is bigger and livelier than Kota Bharu and Alor Star combined, with its own international airport and floating market (not as big as the one in Bangkok, but it floats). I couldn't help but notice the city now crawling with Malaysians who'd come in busloads to escape Malaysian monotony and paranoia.

Now back to my nephew Azri. He's my elder sister's son, one of her nine children. Nine. His bride, who goes by username Fern (I can't recall her longer name offhand), is a Thai.  She was born into a Thai Muslim family who still live in Songkhla and speak, well, Thai (Hahaha, sorry. What do you expect?). Azri and Fern both work in Petronas. More than 50% of Petronas staff now are married to each other or one another or whatever and, at this rate, it should hit 100% by 2019. Azri was 33 or 34 and Fern was so fair and so much prettier than Azri. It's certainly worth the wait.

Weddings as an event have long ceased to motivate me due to their lack of imagination and creativity. I'd try to avoid mostly the laboured Saturday evening weddings, you know, the staple part where they bring on grainy clips on bride's and groom's early years and a scripted banter on how they, for some unknown reason, met and liked. What passes for speeches are mostly delirium in disguise. All this while Manchester City is bullying and bamboozling Chelsea on Astro.

But I've been looking forward to this wedding since it was announced early this year. It's already exciting and imaginative because it's in Songkhla, and not, say, Gombak.  So I flew all the way with wife and Aida and Sarah to Hat Yai. For a bit of romance, we decided to stay in Hat Yai and commute with the locals by mini bus to Songkhla for the two-day do. The short rides were pleasant and the fare (RM3.60 per person) was so affordable even with the  ringgit as it was (you choose the word).

The akad nikah on the first day got a little complicated because I'd to wear complete baju melayu, with sampin, socks and all. (Me and wife both had peach numbers. In hindsight, it wasn't a bad idea, I mean, we actually looked hot even at a combined age of 120 years. Hey). Otherwise it was a straight-forward affair, starting with a short and moving Quran recital, and it was all over in under an hour. Azri and Fern were proclaimed husband and wife. Just what they'd asked for.  

And the wedding the next day, I didn't quite get half of it, I mean the Thai half. A real pity because I actually took a one-semester Thai language class during campus days and got an honest A. All I could muster now was one word "mai". But I could feel the energy and atmosphere. Unmistakably festive and upbeat. The noise level was a notch higher but really nothing not to like. Thai people are decidedly a happy and expressive lot.

Both sets of parents watched and wept. Nothing was said between them. I guess joy and jubilation needs no language.

Finally the proverbial moment of truth. Speech by Azri's father. Haha. He swaggered up the stage with Mourinho's nonchalance and sprang the tactical masterstroke - the speech was in Thai. I wasn't quite prepared for anything like this. And I thought this part alone was value for the good money I'd given Tony to come here. I didn't understand it one bit, but what the hell. It was brave, creative, inspired. I could hear Fern's crowd cheering on. He must've nailed it.

Thai language is fun. My Thai teacher cautioned us that a Thai word may vary in meaning with its tones. One note higher, it could mean the exact opposite. The word "klai" means far and near in different tones! "Kai" means chicken. One note lower, it's egg. You don't speak the language, you sing it. "Mai mai mai mai mai" spoken in five different tones would roughly translate as "new wood doesn't burn, does it?"

The flight back was brisk, but long enough for me to reflect on how well things had panned out. The wedding was nothing short of memorable, something to look back on fondly later. Songkhla was still part of Thailand. And Azri's father had hit the right notes and nuances when he actually said, in Thai, that Azri and Fern are "new" husband and wife. Not "wooden" husband and wife ! Hahaha.......

My best wishes to Azri and Fern.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Thai Story 1


On 17 August, Bangkok was once again rocked by bomb blasts. Whatever was the idea behind this barbaric act, collateral damage was grim: 20 dead, 125 injured.

Apparently explosives were planted at a shrine in Erawan, a popular tourist area in the heart of Bangkok. Violence and strife have been breaking out with almost predictable regularity in Thailand. But Bangkok continues to lure more tourists than Paris does, thanks to its go-go girls.

Normally I'd react to news of Bangkok bombs with an air of detachment or resignation. But not this time.

I'm very familiar with Erawan area. During my final years in Petronas, I made regular trips to Bangkok, about every other month. Petronas had founded a company (Petronas something Ltd) to look after its 200 service stations in Thailand. My last trip was in June 2009 for a meeting with Thai Oil, our local supplier. Whenever I'd to be in Bangkok for meetings, I'd put up at Hyatt in Erawan area. In fact the official name of the hotel was Grand Hyatt Erawan (pic above, glass broken).  The shrine was right outside the hotel.

So when I heard the news and watched the sad footage, my heart sank. I've to thank God that nothing like this happened when I was there. I've lost count of how many times I walked past the temple on my way to Chit Lom Sky Train station or nearby Central World Plaza. There's a couple of shops just across with a fine collection of Thai silk. I'd to navigate my way through the temple throng whenever I'd to get Thai silk for dear wife. I'd go back and forth at least three times as part of my bargaining strategy.

I always remember my sweet stays at Hyatt Erawan. It wasn't the very best hotel in Bangkok because no wayward English writer had ever slept here, but still it was lush and luxurious, with all the facilities you need and didn't need, available 24 hours. Its breakfast was a gastronomic galore. I'd spent more than an hour every morning trying out every variety of bread.   

I still remember the night I couldn't sack out and went down for a round on the treadmill and was shocked to discover that the gymn was full. I thought I'd be alone. It's three in the morning.

Petronas finally quit the Thailand market as good sense reigned. Good money was chasing bad money. We were technically subsidising the Thai motorists while half of Kelantanese households were coping without running water. With so much cash pile to burn, Petronas had developed this habit of going on misguided safaris here and there only to come out licking its wounds. Nobody got rapped for these ego trips, of course, as Petronas ruled with unfettered impunity. The generous dividends and taxes repatriated into government coffers had clearly gone all the way. Malaysians are a forgiving lot.

Even today I'm still in touch with a couple of Thai friends I worked with in Bangkok - Mukhdawan and Pipop. (One was a lady. Guess). These people were quietly convinced they knew the market better, and KL staff should only come to Bangkok to visit crocodile farms. Whenever we met we'd sit down and argue and have dinner by the Chao Phraya. And then we'd argue again. Man, I how I miss the good times.

It was the height of the Red Shirt/Yellow Shirt standoff in Bangkok. I took the opportunity to hit Pipop and Mukhdawan whenever the Red and Yellow shirts took to the streets of Bangkok to face each other down. I'm not sure what colour these two guys were. But I was less than subtle with my digs and jibes. I'd message:

"Khun Mukhdawan, hahaha Yellow and Red on the streets again? Hope you're OK. Stay safe now".

Mukhdawan would reply with a short "Thanks. Don't come to Bangkok now".

On 31 August (last month), one day after Bersih 4, I received a message from Mukhdawan:

"How are you, man? Hope you are OK. Stay safe now"