Friday, March 29, 2013

Chinese, Ethics and Etiquette...


Rolex is a must, even though it is a fake…

The first time I came across a degree mill was some 20 years ago when I was trying to recruit a technical assistant to help me manage the construction of a high-rise building in Kuala Lumpur. One of the applicants claimed he had a first-class diploma from Madras (now Chennai) Institute of Technology. He had a certificate to show me. Madras is a big city in India. The candidate was able to convince me that he was the right candidate for the job. We duly recruited him. But I soon found out that this person had never been to India before. However, since he could handle his responsibilities competently, I decided to leave him alone.

            A few years later, when a candidate for a vacancy in Genting showed me his master’s degree certificate in engineering purportedly from a never-heard-off university in the States, I did little to hide my contempt for the candidate’s “qualification”.  This person already had a diploma from Technical College, the predecessor of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. I just could not understand why he had to “dress” himself up unnecessarily. This time around, the candidate did not get the job – not because of the fake qualification he brought along, but because of his lack of knowledge in the area he was expected to perform.

            Degree hawking must be a lucrative business. There are many degree mills around. Some have also gone around conferring honorary doctorates on the less discerning public figures. A case in point was the one given to a chief minister by Pacific XXXXXXX University some years ago. The chief minister was reported to have felt “very humbled” by the honour. Someone should have told him that this university is essentially a degree mill. But we should not blame him really. He accepted the accolade in good faith; he did not solicit for the “honour”.  

            But what is disturbing are the many congratulatory advertisements you see in Chinese papers on such honours. “So-and-so” is the pride of our community, so the advertisement screams! They are like fake Rolexes!

            I was asked to interview a candidate in Beijing in the mid-1990s. Apparently he is related to the President of China. He claimed to have an MBA from Dallas University. What do you think of Michael Porter’s model? What about Peter Drucker? I asked. He gave me a blank look. Not sure if he had ever been to a university, let alone a graduate management degree!

            I do not think it is right for me to make any value judgement on these people. An academic degree carries with it the recognition of one’s knowledge attainment in a specific field. To be awarded a PhD, one must have acquired the philosophical depth on a subject matter. However, these acronyms will ring hollow if the bearer is not able to deliver the goods. After all, the test of the pudding is in the eating.  (Recently, the authorities have advised against (or disallowed for govt purposes) using the honorific Dr in front of names of those who have not earned their doctorate degree but are honorary degrees conferred on them.)

            On a per capita basis, Malaysians rank high in academic qualifications. (Is this not the reason why some without academic papers are anxious to acquire one with minimum efforts?) The more cynical lot had it that in some organisations, you might even hit two MBAs with a single stone. Learning is a life-long process. Knowledge is something that must be put to good use if you do not want to lose it. Knowledge is also dynamic as the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed to their limits every day. You will be surprised that many in the corporate world do not go beyond the New Straits Times or The Star for their daily information needs. Corporate Malaysia has poor reading habits. Books are bought but seldom read.

            The process of degeneration begins the moment we think we have learned enough. Degrees are therefore not an end in themselves. They give us the intellectual threshold to acquire more knowledge and skills. But are we wiser than, or superior to, those who have gone through the hard-grinds of the social university? Are we more ethical than those who do not have anything to show in terms of academic achievements? By stringing our names with those acronyms purchased from the degree mills, can we become better performers? Or are we just trying to project a false aura? Or do we have a very strong sense of inferiority complex?

            Awareness of our own inadequacies is strength by itself. It should prompt us to improve ourselves in the frontier of knowledge, skills and even attitudes. White-washing a fungus-infested wall is certainly not a long-term solution. The paint will peel off in no time.

Back Seat for Cleanliness and Orderliness

To a casual visitor, Malaysia is beautiful. Kuala Lumpur is comparatively one of the greenest and cleanest cities in the world. But wait till he sees some of the alleys in the “lesser” parts of Kuala Lumpur or “lesser” towns of the country.

            Malays, as a race, are very house-proud. Even in remote villages, they take good care of their surroundings, even though their dwellings may be very modest. Physical cleanliness is a religious prerequisite. Quality consciousness is, therefore, inculcated in them. Take these two adjacent suburbs as an illustration: Taman Tun Dr Ismail and SS2.

            I had the opportunity to live in these two suburbs and maybe I can “patronise” readers a little. When I bought a two-storey link house in SS2 in the mid-1970s, houses in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, which had more or less the same geographical and demographic attributes as SS2 (incidentally, the developer of SS2 was also a 50 per cent shareholder of the company behind the development of Taman Tun Dr Ismail at the inception stage), were selling at a discount to those in SS2. This is not surprising; SS2 was an extension of the more mature township of SEA Park. Everything was more convenient in SS2 – shops, market, schools, mini buses, etc.

            Things turned out differently 10 years or so later. When I decided to upgrade to a bigger property in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, houses there were already commanding a premium over those in SS2. Why?

            Taman Tun is tree-lined everywhere. Homes are better kept – no used tyres in the garden, nor are laundry lines on the fences and colours more aesthetically applied. Roads are wide and parking is easy everywhere. If one feels like going for a morning walk, there are plenty of places to go. However there is less variety of shops in Taman Tun. Even McDonald’s had to pack up and relocate elsewhere.

            As for SS2, you can get everything there. The town centre is very self-contained. But parking is a nightmare as traffic is heavy. It is certainly a haven for business. But it is a place you do not expect to find much orderliness and cleanliness.

            Taman Tun has a high percentage of Malay population and SS2 is totally a Chinese enclave. This is the reason.

            Having been to China a couple of times and having had the opportunity to see Chinatowns in some of the great metropolises in the world, I believe I have seen the best and worst of Chinese-ness. A total lack of cleanliness and orderliness is the most glaring weakness of the Chinese societies all over the world. Moreover, civic consciousness is only skin-deep. It is more for “face” than from the “heart”.

            Chinese as a community is not short of men or women of great social graces. Many of its Mandarins are sophisticated to the extreme. But by and large, Chinese tend to be very casual when it comes to cleanliness and orderliness. Rural communities are worse; time seems to pass them by. Look at the way they dress their children; look at the way they clean their tables – everything to the floor!  And look at the way they clear their throats… But don’t Chinese schools teach all these things? I attended Chinese school when I was young. I remember we were taught all these things. But we simply don’t practise them!

            Airports fascinate me; I like to watch all the big birds. Air China, China Southern and China Eastern are making their presence felt everywhere now. But look at the way some of their male crew wear their caps… And try to compare the “whiteness” of their aircraft to those in the tarmac, say Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Emirates… Yah, the Chinese are flying the latest 747 and 777, but the “complexion” of their aircraft is always a little darker than others. Maybe, we like yellow, but then, Singapore Airlines is not Caucasian. It boils down to one fact – as long as it works, who cares how it looks; this seems to be our conventional wisdom.

Are Short-changing customers and Zero-sum games smart?

I believe if you have a chance to walk into the kitchens of Chinese restaurants, it will not be hard for you to see unsold food being kept for overnight resale. (Don’t forget to watch out for rats and cockroaches!). Luckily, most Chinese food is steamed or cooked to a boil!

            Walk into a supermarket; you will see new brands of tissue paper being sold at half the price of established names. Open one to see how the papers are packed. Chances are that only half of the box is filled. Looking for tidbits? Try the cuttlefish. I bet you when you open the plastic packaging, three quarters of it are inflated with paper rolls and the like.

            I am pretty sure some readers might have also lost their cool with the roadside durian hawkers. Not only are they capable of short-changing you in weight, you might even find the fruits that you took home were not the ones you had painstakingly chosen!

            There are simply too many horror stories to relate…

When one of the scions of a fortune tried to invest in China in the 1990s, he thought he could squeeze every concession out of the Chinamen there. After all, they were still country bumpkins! But behold; like typical Sun-Tze’s, they acquiesced to everything he demanded. Oh, I have got a fantastic deal! So he thought, until he remitted his USD30 million. It disappeared into thin air, together with those Chinamen!

            Having worked with a few Chinese entrepreneurs, I see there are many who are like this young man. They think people are stupid! But in truth, there are also many Sun-Tze’s in the other ethnic communities.

To be continued...

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