Friday, April 28, 2017

JY Pillay, A Giant of Giants

I came face-to-face with a giant on Wednesday when The HEAD Foundation was hosting a lecture by Prof Tan Tai Yong who is going to be the new President of Yale NUS College in a matter of days.

Physically, this giant is no different from the members of the audiences we welcome to our talks on a regular basis in terms of vintage and simplicity. But the moment he walked in, I could recognize his face!

JY Pillay is a living legend. He is perhaps most remembered for his chairmanship at Singapore Airlines. But that’s just a side dressing! His has served as the top dog in all the important ministries before becoming the Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore and of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, among many, many others.

The following is carried in SGX on Mr Pillay:

Mr. Joseph Yuvaraj Pillay served as the Managing Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore and of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation from 1985 to 1989. Mr. Pillay held a variety of positions in the government of Singapore from 1961 to 1995, rising to permanent secretary in 1972. He served in the ministries of finance, defence and national development. Mr. Pillay serves as the Chairman of Commonwealth Africa Investments Limited. He serves as the chairman of Assisi Home & Hospice. Mr. Pillay served as the Non Executive Chairman of Tiger Airways Holdings Limited until July 31, 2014. Mr. Pillay served as Non-Executive Chairman of Singapore Exchange Ltd. from November 18, 1999 to December 31, 2010. He served as Chairman of PT Tigerair Mandala. He served as the Chairman of Council on Corporate Disclosure and Governance from 2002 to 2007. He served as the Chairman of Asia Converge Pte Ltd., and served as Director of Singapore Exchange IT Solutions Pte Limited, Securities Clearing and Computer Services (Pte) Limited and SEL Holdings Pte Ltd. Mr. Pillay served, in a non-executive capacity, as Chairman of the board of several government-linked companies, including: Singapore Airlines Ltd from 1972 to 1996, Temasek Holdings (Private) Limited from 1974 to 1986, Development Bank of Singapore Ltd from 1979 to 1984 and Singapore Technologies Holdings (Private) Limited from 1991 to 1994. He serves as Honorary Director of Securities Investors Association (Singapore). Mr. Pillay serves as a Director of Singapore Exchange Securities Trading Limited, Singapore Exchange Derivatives Trading Limited, The Central Depository (Pte) Limited, Singapore Exchange Derivatives Clearing Limited, SGXLink Pte Ltd., Singapore Indian Development Association (Life Trustee). He serves as a Director of Mount Alvernia Hospital, Temasek Advisory Panel of the Temasek Holdings (Private) Limited. He served as a Director of Tiger Airways Australia Pty Ltd. since July 8, 2013 until May 22, 2014. He served as a Director of Tiger Airways Holdings Limited from July 29, 2011 to July 31, 2014. He served as Non-Executive Director of Singapore Exchange Ltd. since September 2007 until December 31, 2010. He served as an Executive Director of Singapore Exchange Ltd. until September 2007. Mr. Pillay served as a Director of Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation Limited, Keppel Capital Holdings Ltd., KTB Limited (formerly known as Keppel Tatlee Bank Limited) from June 30, 2001 to June 29, 2004. Since 16 August 2001, Mr. Pillay has served as an Executive and Non-independent Director on the SGX Board. Mr. Pillay serves as a member of the Council of Presidential Advisers and of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights of the Republic of Singapore, Chairman of the Assisi Home and Hospice, Director of the Mount Alvernia Hospital, Life Trustee of Singapore Indian Development Association, member of the Investment Committee of the United Nations Pension Fund and Chairman of Commonwealth Africa Investments Limited. He serves as Member of Investment Committee of the United Nations Pension Fund, Asia-Europe Foundation and Financial Sector Development Fund Advisory Committee of the Monetary Authority of Singapore. He serves as Member of Presidential Council for Minority Rights, Singapore Hospice Council. Mr. Pillay was conferred with an honorary PhD in Law from the National University of Singapore in 1996 and with a Fellowship of Imperial College in 1997. He graduated with a first-class BSc (Hons) degree from Imperial College of Science & Technology, University of London in 1956.

Can we think of someone who can equal Mr Pillay’s accomplishment in life?

Yet the Pillay I saw was so humble in his demeanour. I ushered him to one of front row seats. And I saw he diligently took notes during Prof Tan’s talk. For someone of his age who still thinks he needs to listen, how can we ever say we have learned enough!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Desaru, how pathetic a destination it can be...

My wife and I decided to spend our weekend in Desaru. We booked a night at Tunamaya. The rate was about SGD100 per night. With breakfast included, that was pretty affordable.

I have been to Desaru about three times, but over a thirty-year span. The first was after the state government's intention to privatize it and I was asked by a potential investor to help look into its potential; that was in the late 1980s. I couldn't quite remember the best route there. I have therefore to count on the GPS I bought in Singapore for the car I am being loaned to go there. But it has lately gone a little crazy. The screen would go black for unknown reasons - just as you needed it most many a time. And it did after I cleared the Causeway.

The sound guided me on. I could vaguely remember the Pasir Gudang Road. We passed Penawar, which is the town before Desaru. I could also remember a little. It looked as if time had stood still there since the last time I visited.

We soon arrived at Desaru.

The staff at Tunamaya were courteous enough. But the whole property did look somewhat tired. The roof of the reception block, which guests have to walk past before entering their rooms, is most pathetic. We can't the management spruce it up a little with, say, potted plants? Because they tend to stain, mat-finished floor tiles are the worst for corridors for resort-type hotels. And this is exactly what they have done it with their floors in Tunamaya! Why Tunamaya as a name? Nobody in the hotel could give me an answer for that too!

But never mine about the hotel. It is pretty clean and adequate in terms of facilities. The beach looks good, but as usual with most of Malaysia's beaches, it was littered with empty plastic bags and bottles here and there.

But I asked myself, why was Desaru and its environs so quiet on an weekend like this?

Does one go to a seaside resort for its beaches only? Our sun is so burning hot. An hour or so would drive guests back to the air condition comfort of their hotel rooms! Why then are places like Penang and Langkawi popular?

Indeed, people don't just travel all the way to enjoy beaches!

There must be history, culture, shopping, sports, other scenic sights, etc to make a trip wholesome and memorable for visitors. There are definitely a few in the surrounding areas for Desaru to capitalize on. But the tolled highway from Johor Bahru's Pasir Gudang to Desaru, insultingly really a single-carriage two-lane road, keeps all the fishing villages, mangrove forests, aquaculture and vegetable farms, and other ways of rural life away from the convenient reach of holiday makers. There isn't much to visit in the immediate neighborhoods of the resort!

Our bureaucrats in Johor Tourism need to have common sense. Take a trip to Thailand or Singapore to see how people do things. Let's don't waste money on half-hearted projects like Fishermen's Museum or tourist souvenir shops - if there is hardly anything in them to interest visitors! 

I usually take some pictures when I visit a place. I came back without even a single shot. This speaks volumes of Desaru as a destination!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Tortoise and The Hare

Two recent talks I attended kindle my desire to share this piece with friends.

The first was given by retired professor Michael Heng on the need for Cultural-Intellectual Rejuvenation in Asia at the HEAD Foundation and the second, which was a dialogue organised by SMU (Singapore Management University) in collaboration with Stratagem Group on China’s new Belt & Road initiatives at Carlton Hotel, Singapore.

Michael was a long-lost friend; we got reconnected only quite recently, thanks to WhatsApp. He and I were classmates in our Junior high school days. I left for Kuala Lumpur and later Penang to do my upper secondary; he continued his at High School Muar. We met again at the University of Malaya – he did Science and I, Engineering. After a teaching stint in Malaysia, he left for UK to do his master’s and the Netherlands for his PhD. He has held academic positions in many countries – the Netherlands of course, but also Australia, Taiwan, China and Singapore, amongst others. He has also worked with one of the most eminent scholars of the day, the venerated Prof Wang Gungwu of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

But Asia is such a huge and diverse continent; when he accepted my invitation to speak, what I actually had in mind was simply this: If China wants to lead the world, it has to go through some form of rejuvenation, culturally and intellectually. Or a form of Renaissance really. Michael spoke much more than China. 

Sure, not every would agree with this. Present in the audience were some very distinguished scholars and thinkers. But there was one voice that made me very uncomfortable. A young man who hails from China and who has spent many good years stood up to opine in Mandarin that what Michael had lectured and what we had been discussing were no longer relevant! Under President Xi, he seemed to say, China was already on its way to be No 1 in the world. The arrogance was disturbing! Unfortunately, we did not have time to debate with him.

The keynote address in the dialogue at Carlton Hotel was delivered by a Chinese bureaucrat. He gave the impression that he had just woken from a deep slumber. He was just parroting China’s official lines on the Belt & Road initiative. There was hardly any soul in his speech. Of the four panelists, except for a certain Dr Xu, who apparently is a director at Beijing’s National Institute of International Strategy, the others are not unlike the Chinese scholars and thinkers you see in CCTV’s Dialogue programmes – officious, shallow and what-have-you. The substance of what had been given by one of them appeared to be a complete regurgitation of what he had learned in his MBA classes.

The kay-por (Fujian Ming-nan slang, meaning ‘busy-body’) lost no time in writing to this Dr Xu.

Dear Liping,

I did introduce myself to you at the end of the session. I am the head of The HEAD Foundation ( but I am giving you this feedback in my personal capacity.

Most bureaucrats from China tend to parrot your government's line. The chap who was giving the keynote address is a typical example. Moreover, he spoke with little conviction!

The danger I see with China is its sense of 'self-exultation'. Many of your thinkers and policy makers are really quite ignorant of your neighbours' true feelings. You cited the flag incident in Indonesia. If I may help explain:

The more educated natives in Southeast and South Asia during the Second World War saw the Japanese as liberators!!! The Japanese were able to win their empathy and hearts even during that short period of occupation. Chinese on the other hand were largely aligned with the colonial powers then. They had always been perceived as economic exploiters by the locals. That feeling persists today.

China does not know how to project soft power even today. It is too self-centric in its dealings with the world. Chinese officials are generally poor communicators. I live in three cities - Melbourne where I call 'home', Kuala Lumpur where I have a second home and Singapore where my office is. There was this Beijing-based Australia journalist called John Gannault who kept bashing China unnecessarily. I wrote to Ambassador Fu Yin to alert her. You know what, I didn't even receive an acknowledgement from her office! Your tourists are swarming the world, but your government has made little effort to teach them social etiquette. You protested each time a Japanese prime minister visited Yasukuni Shrine but people in the West would ask, "What's the big deal?". Look at the way the Jews tell their Holocaust stories; they can
 teach the Chinese a lesson or two in Public Relations! (Do check out museums and see for yourself!)

Chinese museums and historical sights are generally poorly maintained; the English translations found there (even in Beijing) are atrocious! I feel embarrassed to be a Chinese!!!

But your Silk Road initiative is indeed visionary. President Xi is a great leader. But China and he need much more in terms of true philosophy instead of strategy, strategy and strategy to succeed. (The speaker from Cosco was just regurgitating what he had learned in his MBA classes!)

Incidentally, Prof Victor Feng of the University of Macao is going around to help explain China's BRI to the world. My question is: How many of you have heard of his good work?

Hope you don't feel offended by my ranting!

Kind regards,
Lim /YuBook
And this reply came promptly from him:

My Respected MR. Lim,
                       Thank you very much for your constructive comments to our presentations yesterday in Carlton Hotel. Indeed, I appreciate your frankness
and your honesty. Although China is already the world's second largest economy, we still have a lot of shortcomings. To our neigbours including Malaysia,
 Indonesia and Singapore, China should more listen to their voices, pay attention to how they feel. So, we have a lot of work to do in the near future.
                       I am looking forward to hearing your more voices and making more cooperation between us for promoting mutual understanding China-
                      Tomorrow morning, I will leave Singapore to Beijing, I hope we can meet in Beijing or Singapore in the near future.
Best Regards,
Xu Liping/Director of Center of South East Asia Studies, National Institute of International Strategy, CASS, Beijing, China.

China has a future!!!

The latest issue of The Economist runs an article entitled China and America: Tortoise v hare. The leader reads: Is China challenging the United States for global leadership? 

The tortoise will win the race, isn’t this what the fable has taught us?
Forever the tortoise?

I beg to differ somewhat, though. This is not a great outcome in my eyes.

Of course, with Trump’s “I know better than you” sense of superiority, the hare will lose. But if China’s win is a result of America’s complacency, this is not good for China!

Another animal besides the tortoise would have won the race if it could participate!

To me, China must shed off that heavy cultural and intellectual shell if it wants to lead the world! Notwithstanding the hare’s arrogance or stupidity, it should transform itself complete with a new mindset - culturally and intellectually, I repeat - to speed forward. 

Unless China can produce a Rolex or Mercedes totally on its own, it is still not "THERE" yet, let alone to lead the world. 

Friends are free to disagree, though.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

From Deity Worshiping to Christianity

I finally got reconnected with another long lost junior high school buddy of mine.

Leng Hong and I went separate ways after Form Three. I left for Kuala Lumpur and he, Singapore - for his senior high school as well as to seek medical treatment.

WhatsApp is doing wonders. I recently lost my eldest brother. Cedric has tracked down Leng Hong and he whatsapped me to say that Leng Hong would be coming with him for the wake.

Leng Hong I remembered was a pinweight. But the Leng Hong today is a big man. He also goes by a Christian name now - Peter. Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to reminisce with him long, since I had to leave these two old buddies early to fetch my son who was flying in from Kuala Lumpur.

Although Peter was in physique one of the smallest in the class, his demeanor gave the impression he was well-connected in the “adults’ world”. No one dared to bully him. But he was really a caring friend. I used to cycle with him to while away our time around our very sleepy town – Muar in Johor.

We met up for dinner with his wife at East Coast's Jumbo. We were also joined by Cedric and wife and my daughter Monica who was in transit in Singapore to pay last respect to her beloved uncle.  

The first thing I asked Peter was about the hole in his heart.

“The Lord has healed me!"

But wasn't he a very staunch deity worshiper?

"Yes, I was, but that’s history."

He showed me a photography of himself taken many many years ago. He was not shy to say that he looked like a drug addict. All of us had to agree; indeed, he looked like one in that picture.

This is his story:

In my earlier days in Singapore, I tried many things, including owning and running a temple. Devotees came to my temple to ask for “divine” favours. For each of these consultation sessions, he had to recite incantations to call upon a particular deity to “enter” the medium. Once in trance, the medium would dispense favours – 4Ds (a form of gambling), or issues that bothered the devotees (health, marriage, fortune, and what-have-you).

I finally met my wife. She took me to church. My health improved and my businesses started to grow.

* * *

I see that Peter is a wealthy man today. He has passed his business to his son and is going places with his wife. He owns properties in Melbourne, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur, I believe, amongst others.

“Do you still believe in all the medium stuff?” I asked.

“Sure, I do.”

“How do you reconcile this with your present devotion to Christianity?”

“The medium stuff is for real. Devils are roaming everywhere all the time. When you recite incantations, a passing devil will “enter” the medium and took it upon itself to masquerade the deity you wish to call upon. You think you are talking to your deity. No, no, no. You are talking to an opportunistic devil. But not all devils are bad.

“You see mediums in their trance would do all sort of self-inflicting acts – chopping, cutting, piercing, etc,, and blood oozes out everywhere, right? Yet there were few signs of injury when the trance stops. He looks all normal after that, right? 

"These are certainly no play-play acts; the devil has actually taken possession of the medium's body.

“But the Lord reigns supreme. He could send all these devils scurrying for cover. He is therefore the only one we should worship!”

I couldn’t help asking, “I thought there is only one devil in Christianity. Isn’t that Satan?”

Peter corrected himself, “No, no; the devils I am talking are actually angels.”

I suppose he meant “spirits”, but never mind, I really do not want to know all these. He has his logic, though.

Before we parted, Mrs Lee said to me, “Do go to church.”

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Some kind of sickos?

My letter to the CEO of Malaysia Airlines and the reply I got...

20 February 2017

Mr Peter Bellew
CEO Malaysia Airlines Berhad
Kuala Lumpur International Airport
64000 Sepang

Dear Sir

I thought I should give up writing complaints to Malaysia Airlines’ CEOs since they had always been answered by the lesser mortals there without really bothering to find out what I had written. (Their answers were usually lifted from, I believe, standard templates.) Nonetheless, I still use Malaysia Airlines for a couple of simple reasons: (a) I live in three cities – Melbourne, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore – and your airline offers the most convenient schedules, (b) your departures and arrivals are generally quite punctual, and (c) your cabin crew are quite service-conscious. (But honestly your food is deteriorating.)

However, an incident on my arrival in Changi Airport on Saturday, 18 February evening prompts me to write to check whether you are in fact no different from your predecessors.

I was travelling with my wife on MH148/MH609 from Melbourne to Singapore (transiting in Kuala Lumpur) on that date. At the Melbourne airport, the lady at the Business/Platinum Card check-in counter was most careful; she took pain to stick “Platinum” and “Priority” labels on the three bags my wife and I checked in, even though she said the “Platinum” ones alone would do. She assured me that it was their procedure also to alert receiving airports of all “Platinum” bag arrivals.

At Changi arrival hall, two of the three bags promptly came out first. What happened to the third bag? It emerged with the last lot of the flight’s arrivals! My question: What’s the use of giving priority to two and I still have to wait for the last one like everybody else? As a matter of fact, it did pose anxiety since we had some important stuff in that bag!

This is NOT the first time I have experienced this pseudo priority promise. A couple of months ago, in Malaysia Airlines’ home airport KLIA1, my bags which carried the “Platinum” labels also came out amongst the last ones.

On the recent flight we flew to Melbourne (Thursday, February 9, MH129), you might also want to know that the aircraft forgot to carry Australia’s arrival forms. They were only distributed at the arrival gate at Melbourne! Just imagine the anxiety of the passengers!

Once in a flight from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur, I wanted to find something to buy in your inflight duty-free sales. But there was no Temptation magazine; one of the crew members said Kuala Lumpur had forgotten to put it in that new aircraft!

I can only conclude that you do have many fundamental problems in your own backyard, i.e., MAS’s SOP in KLIA1.

There are also many many more; in fact, your cabin crew are quite casual about the need to draw up windows when the plane is gearing for landing. Our MH148 flight in the Business Class cabin is a case in point.

Yours truly,
LIM/Yu Book

* * * * *
This is the reply I get from the airline on my mailbox:

Date : 28/02/2017

Case reference : GTS00154615

Dear   Lim Yu Book

Thank you for your compliment on the exceptional service you experienced with Malaysia Airlines.

Your kind and encouraging words have always been a source of inspiration for us to serve you well.  We are truly delighted to show you the Malaysian Hospitality.

We look forward to your continued support.

Yours sincerely,

Mohd Asmawi Alias
Customer Care
Malaysia Airlines

* * * * *

Some kind of joke? Where did I in the letter compliment MAS? And "exceptional service'? Or they don't understand English at all? Or these people some kind of sickos?

Monday, February 27, 2017

A Fake Advisory, but...

I am getting a little annoyed!

This is the latest fake advisory I received from a friend on WhatsApp. There is so much of this stuff around now. Can't she see that it is a fake through and through?

Consuming banana and egg kills???

I have been doing for years! I am still alive!

I forwarded it to a few friends and tell them to be wary of stuff like this.

One friend says he sees it differently. "Can't you see it is all about manhood?"

He is absolutely right! But at that state, it is certainly not dangerous, don't you agree?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Unconventional Wisdom

My neighbor in Singapore is a devout Buddhist. There is also a large painting of Kuan-ying, the Goddess of Mercy, in her very tastefully furnished home.

Mrs Cheong lives with her husband; they have a Filipino maid. She is perhaps in her 70s, and her husband, 80s. Mr Cheong is always immaculately and stylishly dressed. In his suspenders, he looks stately! I see that they are a wealthy couple – this upmarket condominium of theirs in Singapore, a house in California, investments in China and Papua New Guinea, etc. Their daughter and Canadian husband live in the adjacent block.

Usually people living in condominiums don’t quite care about their neighbours. Mr Cheong is different. One day I struck a casual conversation with him on the ground floor lobby and hearing that I also hailed from Malaysia, he immediately invited me to join him for his family’s lunch gathering which he was about to host at an expensive restaurant in Orchard Road’s Paragon. I was in shorts, but he insisted it was completely fine. He is very knowledgeable; we had many things in common.

From then on, my wife and I got invited to their beautiful home from time to time.

Mrs Cheong believes in yīnguǒ bàoyìng (因果报应), a Buddhist-Chinese cause-and-effect concept in explaining the fortunes and misfortunes of all living beings. To her, every life is a reincarnation of a previous one. Your present good or bad fortune is a result of how you conducted yourself in the previous life. It is not dissimilar to karma in Hindu belief. “Look at those poor children in Africa, have they done anything since birth to deserve those sufferings?” She asks. 
Yīnguǒ is not about this life. It is about your next life! I don’t want my next life to be like that, hence my determination to do good in this life!”
 Can you argue with her on that? Mr & Mrs Cheong are a loving couple. But apparently, he was a Casanova when he was younger. She amused us with tales of his infidelity with him laughing them off embarrassingly in front of us. “I had to spend months on end overseas. My husband had a tendency to stray. He had even brought back women to stay in this very apartment. They knew I knew; but I didn’t say a word. One woman was bold enough to try to plot to make him leave me. I knew he would come to his senses and he did. “People are always talking about revenge or how to spite their husbands or their lovers when it comes to things like this. I don’t do such things. “And many wives lose their husbands, why? “They forget to also love their husband’s parents! “They grumble if their husband is partial to his own parents. How can they do that? You should also love them the way you love your parents!” How wise this lady is!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Ostentation in the name of Religion?

I always try to stay clear of religion in my postings, but I just couldn't help keeping my mouth shut this time. 

A member of one of our WhatsApp chat groups has posted several photographs of a Lunar New Year celebration in a town called Jenjarom near Banting in Selangor, Malaysia. I am taking the liberty to produce four of them here.

I am nominally a Buddhist, not as a religious follower, but a general believer of Buddha's philosophy - more on the account of his sense of compassion than anything else. He witnessed human sufferings and decided to give up everything to seek enlightenment and finally he achieve Nirvana. I really do not know much about the detailed teachings of Buddha to try to preach anyone. The little I know about Buddhism, besides compassion, centres around these few words: A mind that is pure and devoid of individual passion, hatred or delusion. 

Great Buddhist monasteries and temples are usually austere in form and substance. I really don't think Buddha would want to be remembered or worshiped in the manner shown in the first picture. I also don't think a monk, no matter how accomplished he is, should also cultivate the type of personality cult shown in the other three pictures. And honestly, when I went through the wordings in the posters, aren't they of the motherhood wisdom type? I particularly take strong exception at one of the lines which reads: Speak Good Words. If it is an intention, it certainly sounds somewhat phony, or put-on, or fake to me. Isn't this somewhat contradictory to what the great sage's teachings are all about? 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

A Visit to Laos

I had never given Laos a thought as a tour destination until a month or so before the Lunar New Year. My wife and I are usually in Melbourne at this time of the year. There my daughter Monica would organise a reunion for all of us. Since she and her children had just visited us in Singapore, we thought we might as well go to Kuala Lumpur to hold one with my son Yang this year. Unfortunately, he had to go somewhere.

We decided to visit a tour agency to find out where we could go for a holiday. But we could only spare a few days.

Hwa had never been to Myanmar, but the tours were all booked up. Maybe Laos?

Why not?

It was meant to be an 8D7N tour. We had to pay a surcharge for a two-person tour. On top of that, we had to forgo two nights because of an appointment which I had inadvertently forgotten when we confirmed the booking.

Our first destination was Luang Prabang. The Lao Airlines flew there via Vientiane. I have never heard of this airline. But it turned out to be pretty good – the Airbus 320 was new and the in-flight service was reasonably good. Transit experience in Vientiane was a little Third World-like though. The airport has aprons but none seemed to be working. I had to limp along from one building to another.

Luang Prabang was the country’s capital when it was still a kingdom. It isn’t much of a town in the manner we see in the more modern part of Asia. There are no clear commercial precincts; shops, eateries, residences, hotels, monasteries, markets, schools, government offices, etc crop out all over the places. However, it is a world heritage site not without reasons. It is charming in its own ways. The roads, though narrow, are lined with generally well-kept French style buildings; the “esplanade” running parallel to the Mekong and its tributary Nam Khan is clean and beautiful. Our hotel, Victoria, is situated more or less on the peninsula at the confluence of these two rivers. It is a boutique hotel, very French in décor and service. (It became a French protectorate in 1893 and briefly gained independence in 1945 but returned to French rule until it was granted autonomy in 1949. Laos became independent in 1953. When Pathet Lao came to power in 1975, the monarchy was abolished. To this date, nobody seems to know where the royal family has ended up.)

There are many beautiful Buddhist monasteries in Luang Prabang. Before dawn, the hands of the monks from monasteries would march out for alms. Devotees would line their path to make offerings, which usually mainly of cooked glutinous rice.

Another “must” destination in Luang Prabang is its museum. Ironically, most of the exhibits there are about the Royal family.

Much of our six days were spent on the road – from Luang Prabang to Xieng Khouang, maybe a hundred kilometers as the crow flies, took us like seven hours to travel, and from Xieng Khouang to Vang Vieng, another seven hours. The road winds around the mountains of the region. Though thick with vegetation, they don’t look lush green. Villages dotted along the “highway”; many of the houses are pretty well-built and brightly painted. The highlanders are the Hmong and Khmus. The Hmong, who are animists, were at one time ostracized for their allegiance to America during the Vietnam War. Many fled to America. The Khmus are more or less of the Cambodian stock. Khmus and the Laos, who makes up 55% of the country’s population, are Buddhists.

Xieng Khouang is the nearest town from the Plain of Jars. Nobody seems to know for sure what these big granite bowls were made for. But one thing was certain, it became a clear target for the American bombers.

We could only have a very cursory tour of Vang Vieng (where we were supposed to spend two nights). The town is dusty, even though it is surrounded by limestone hills. (Not surprisingly, the town houses a cement plant.) With its many outdoor attractions, Vang Vieng is a destination for the young set.  

Laos is said to be a poor country, but it didn’t appear to me to be so. Tourism is a major foreign exchange earner. The country is still popular with Western tourists, but Mainland Chinese are bringing in the bigger bucks. They come in convoys of the latest models of Audi, Volkswagen, Lexus, BMW, Mercedes Benz and what-have-you. And Chinese hotels and restaurants are springing up to capture some of these bucks. Our tour guide told me that his people love the Chinese money, but not the way they behave at times.  

The Laotians are not a very entrepreneurial lot. Every stall you see in tourist sites seem to be selling the same thing. Scarves seem the most popular souvenir on offer.

Notwithstanding its poor country image, there is much the rich Asians can learn from the Lao people. Even in “cowboy” towns, tables and chairs in eateries are neatly laid out. Service etiquette in the more up-market restaurants can put many in East and Southeast Asia to shame. Crockery and cutlery are flawlessly laid out as if staff have been trained in Buckingham Palace. Every dish would come with a common spoon.

But do bring mosquito repellents along when you visit Laos! You certainly do not want to contract malaria or dengue, do you?
Lao Airlines, quite good really

The frontage of the hotel where we stayed in Luang Prasang. Victoria is supposed to be fairly luxurious boutique hotel
Thoroughly French!
Muscle power!

Luang Prabang, a city of monasteries

A typical street in Luang Prabang

First day of the Lunar New Year: Greeted by roosters and their hens, before going down to tour the Mekong!

The mighty Mekong
Care for a drink?

The Cave Temple along the Mekong

The Museum at Luang Prabang

Teak plantation

Not Jiuzhaikou!

A Hmong village

Yum-seeeng at Plain of Jars

Have trench will escape!

The footings were recycled from bomb shells 
More bombs dropped in Laos than anywhere else had ever experienced?

Our hotel in Vientiane - Mosquitoes!
No wonder they don't like Mainland Chinese! Look at where his feet are! In Vientiane Airport

Thursday, January 26, 2017

No, It is the Year of the Fowl, not Rooster

We of the Chinese descent are generally a very chauvinistic lot. Year of the Rooster; Chinese New Year, etc.

In this New Year of the Rooster, may I champion the role of the Hen? Shouldn’t we call the New Year “Year of the Hen”? I believe the original intention of the Chinese zodiac designer was not a sexist lot. I think he or she meant Fowl; but the male chauvinists, maybe not knowing the proper English term for it, used Rooster to depict the species. I may be wrong, though. But hasn’t the better half of the Chinese population stood up to correct this?

Again, the lunar calendar is also observed by many non-Chinese. The Koreans, the Vietnamese and, I understand, a few minorities in Indochina also celebrate Lunar New Year. Aren’t we too self-centric to think that it is Chinese New Year? I suspect Japanese of the past eras also had this tradition. Maybe it is because of its “Chinese” label that the new Japanese are now turning to the Gregorian count, i.e., January 1 to celebrate New Year? Again, I stand corrected on this!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

This is not China, we have rules

I just read this headline on China’s CGTN: 'This is not China, we have rules': Chinese behavior abroad back in the spotlight
A video about a Chinese mother who took her daughter to a clinic in Singapore has gone viral.  Apparently, the mother has returned to the consulting room to ask a few more questions after collecting some medicine, as she was not sure how to follow the instructions regarding taking the treatment. The doctor rejected her request and asked her to get a new number and return to the back of the queue, and said something like “this is not China. We have rules.” An argument ensued and police was called.

This all sounds very familiar. To the mother, it was something very natural for one to act in this circumstance. I suspect the doctor’s response must have been a result of a prejudice that he has built over the years – after seeing similar behaviours day in and day out.

Each time I saw someone jumping queue, I would also not hesitate to remind the culprit of the need to observe good practices. But it had to be done with some diplomacy or politeness lest an ugly response might result.

I just returned from Bangkok. I saw people queuing to go into lifts. Ditto in many places in Singapore. Many of them are Chinese. The question is, why Chinese in elsewhere can do it and Mainland Chinese cannot do it?

I suspect Mainland Chinese have lost their sense of “right” and “not-so-right” in so far as norms that are acceptable to educated people in the more “cultured” world. Many Chinese, no matter how educated they are, seem quite oblivious of the need for give way to elders, say hello when paths are crossed, tone down their voices if there are also other guests around, cover their mouths with handkerchiefs or tissues when coughing, on fox-trot their chopsticks on dishes, etc.

Surely the leadership in China must be aware of the prejudices against their compatriots. Why not start a national campaign to highlight and correct these Chinese “deficiencies”? (They have done a few, but I thought they were quite mickey-mousy and will not produce the results intended.) Such a campaign must be sustained; not just with a few PR or half-hearted efforts.

In Singapore, they can cane people who mess up places with chewing gums. Maybe this is the way to discipline?

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Wisdom of Sages - The Cynic in Me

With WhatsApp, you get to read all sorts of stuff. I got this from one of my chat groups:

Ex-President of India Dr. Abdul Kalam says: 
"When I was a kid, Mom cooked food for us. One night when she had made dinner after a long hard day's work, Mom placed a plate of 'subzi' and extremely burnt roti in front of Dad.

“I was waiting to see if anyone noticed the burnt roti. But Dad just ate his roti and asked me how was my day at school. I don't remember what I told him that night, but I do remember I heard Mom apologizing to Dad for the burnt roti.

“And I'll never forget what he said: ‘Honey, I love burnt roti.’

“Later that night, I went to kiss Daddy good night and I asked him if he really liked his roti burnt.

“He wrapped me in his arms and said: ‘Your momma put in a long hard day at work today and she was tired. And besides... A burnt roti never hurts anyone but HARSH WORDS DO!’

"’You know Son, life is full of imperfect things... and imperfect people...I’m not the best and am hardly good at anything! I forget birthdays and anniversaries just like everyone else. What I've learnt over the years is: To accept each other’s faults and choose to celebrate relationships. Life Is too short to wake up with regrets. Love the people who treat you right and have compassion for the ones who don't.’”

Of course, there is a good moral behind the reminiscence. However, the cynic in me is hardly impressed.

First, this is purportedly said by Dr Abdul Kalam. Did he say it? There are plenty of fake stuff going around in WhatsApp now. (The other day there was this anti-Muslim article purportedly written by Julia Gillard, the former prime minister of Australia. She “invoked” Christian God to support her argument. Of course, “her” article got many excited and it went viral and made many rounds on WhatsApp. Everyone is Australia knows she is a professed atheist! She is not the Donald Trump type. She would never have said it!)

I say the Dr Abdul Kalam piece is a little “plastic” – may not be authentically his lah!

Such type of incidents happened everywhere. Most loving husbands would do the same. Unfortunately, they are not Dr Abdul Kalam and therefore would not have a chance to get quoted or be credited.

Politicians love to relate anecdotes to their audiences on the “wisdom” they have acquired from their grandfather, grandmothers, fathers or mothers to mesmerize the less discerning. I am not saying Dr Abdul Kalam is one. But if you dig deeper, chances are that many of these wisdom stories have been made up by their speech writers or actually originate from someone or somewhere else.

Some years ago, I helped a friend to write his autobiography. I couldn’t help throwing in some of my personal values into the script. To the readers of his book, naturally they would think these are his!

Next time when you hear Confucius said this and that or Gandhi said this or that, I urge you to just ask yourself this question: Do you need Confucius or Gandhi to teach you those things?

Friday, January 20, 2017

Ling Ch'i Ching - A Classic Chinese Oracle

This book, probably owned by a predecessor of my office, has been lying on the shelf without my bothering to take a look until today.

I have heard of I-Ching, loosely translated as the Book or Scripture of Change, but Ling Ch’i Ching?

The authors are Ralph Sawyer, a MIT- and Harvard-schooled intellectual, and his wife Mei-Chün Lee. The authors described it as a classic Chinese oracle.

I am not a fan of oracle stuff. But it does arouse my curiosity.

Apparently, the authorship is unknown. It was probably written in the Wei-Chin period (222-419 AD).

The oracle comprises four each of the following: Heaven, Man and Earth. By tossing the twelve disks, 125 outcomes are possible. Each reveals an oracle and for which a verse is provided. The rest is your “hope” or “fear”.

I thought I should share this newfound knowledge with friends.

From Fengshui to Environology, Master David Koh

I have always adopted an ambivalent attitude towards Fengshui (風水 – wind-water; study or practice of Chinese geomancy. Some of my earlier bosses were staunch believers of Fengshui. One of the practitioners who used to advise the late Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong (of Genting fame) told me that he was not a believer until he began to study it in depth. He used the term ào-miào (奧妙; mystique) to describe the feeling that finally converted him to the cause.

It is now a big business. Lilian Too has published many books to “help” people to practise good Fenghshui. So has Joey Yap and many others from Hong Kong. And there are dedicated shoplots in malls to sell Fengshui stuff that will help you to enhance your geomantic future or overcome earlier oversights.  

When we Removers[1] of High School Muar 1961 finally got reconnected after 55 years, I saw that one of our mates had become an authority on Fengshui and had been accredited by some top universities in China as a professor in that study. Isn’t China the home of Fengshui? We are able to bring ice to Eskimos; fantastic!

Our Fengshui professor is David Koh. He is better known as Master Xi-I-Tze (虚一子) in the Fengshui circle.

Fengshui is something few mainstream academics would like to indulge too much in. But whether one likes it or not, it is a serious matter to many. The rich and famous in East Asia would spare no efforts in consulting experts in this branch of “metaphysics” if they are thinking of moving to a new home or office, erecting a new building, or even recruiting a key executive.

Notwithstanding, many would say it is nothing but a form of superstition, or at best, “buying insurance”, but David Koh who has spent more than forty years studying Fengshui says there is really more to it than what we sceptics think.

David has accepted my invitation to speak at The HEAD Foundation. More about David below:

David teaches regularly at Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University and Tongji University. He developed and wrote the Geomancy Degree syllabus – perhaps the first in China and probably the world -  for these universities. He has also lectured, amongst others, Tsinghua University (Beijing), China University of Designs (Hangzhou), Shuzhou University (Shuzhou), Jia Xing University (Hangzhou), Universiti Tunku Abdul Rathman (Kuala Lumpur) and Universiti Technology Malaysia (Johor Bahru).

He has formulated a scientific system of Fengshui calibration which he calls the ‘four-step method’ and has devised an English version of the Lopan (Fengshui compass) incorporating binary language ‘1’ and ‘0’. He is perhaps the only Chinese Fengshui master who has extensive knowledge on Muslim geomancy, called Tiang Seri, Tajul Muluk and Ilmu Ramal. He has also given talks on these subjects.

The first ever Diploma Course in Environology  (Fengshui) that he designed and is now adopted by the Pertubuhan Arkiteks Malaysia (PAM), which has approved to set the Malaysian Institute of Environology Studies to conduct scientific research and formulate procedure, equations, and eventually set standards to regulate practitioners.

David also writes for The Star and Nang Yang Siang Pao.

His knowledge and experience comes from more than 45 years of study into this ancient Chinese science of geomancy and Yi Jing.

David is the founder of the Malaysian Institute of Geomancy Sciences (MINGS) a society involved in research and teaching of Fengshui. He is currently the Honorary Life President of MINGS.

[1] During that era, many students in Malaysia who had completed their primary education in Chinese schools had to do an extra year in “Remove Form I Class” before they were phased into the normal stream in English secondary schools. I was one of those who had to do this “Remove” class.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

China and Ballpoint

BBC carried this article in its 10 January 2016 release: Pen Power: China closer to ballpoint success. It began by saying “It [China] has sent rockets into space, produced millions of the world’s smartphones and built high-speed trains. But until now, one bit of manufacturing had perhaps unexpectedly eluded China: the ballpoint pen.

Some might see it as another China-bashing rhetoric by a western medium. I thought the article is being too polite!

China is still NOT there yet; that’s my point.

Apparently, the tip of the ballpoint requires high-precision machinery and very hard, ultra-thin steel plates. Without that ability, China’s 3000 penmakers have to import this component from abroad. The cost to the industry is actually minuscule – something like 120m yuan a year. But the symbolic implication is tremendous.

BBC spoke to Professor George Huang, head of the University of Hong Kong’s department of industrial and mechanical engineering, who explained that precision engineering was thriving only in certain sectors such as aerospace and defence where the Chinese government had placed a high priority. China simply lacks a culture of excellence in precision engineering.

Unless China can make watches like the Swiss do and medical optics like the Japanese, it still has a long way to go.

I visited the Three Gorges Dam a couple of years ago, many were held in awe by the scale of engineering there. But on closer examination of its control sites, you could straightaway conclude that notwithstanding the grandeur, China was still very much Third World in mentality and practice.


I spoke about this to my good friend Rocky Wong, a very distinguished engineer who has helped put up many big power plants in the region. He gave a hearty laugh.

“Chinese can churn out 300MW turbines like making sausages. These plants work well. But if you look at their control and instrumentation, they are really not up to scratch. And their operational manuals are horrendously compiled.

“I usually had to help address these two deficiencies if the investor was happy to settle for the Chinese power plants.”

This brings me to an experience I recently had with Chinese medicine. My principal rushed me a generous supply of Bien-tze-huang (see picture) after I had foot surgery at Singapore’s Tan Tock Seng Hospital. I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t make anything out of its English instruction. (My Chinese is half-baked.) The nurse cautioned me against taking it unless I had cleared it with my surgeon. A certain Dr Yong, who must have seen it many times before, just waved me to go ahead.

I must say, it really helped! The injured part began to “miraculously” granulate. And the wound appeared to heal quite rapidly. Later, a friend who is familiar with TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) told me that it was a form of natural antibiotics and highly sought-after for its after-surgery healing properties. It does not come cheap, though; a little box for one or two days’ use costs about USD100.

But another towering figure in Kuala Lumpur related a comment he got from some Chinese when this “bad translation” issue was brought up.

“Did you find operational manuals in Chinese for the America or German or Japanese you bought?”

No wonder! Friend, you are not able to produce things like these people yet!

Of course, quality of China-made things is better now. As much as 30% was sub-standard and ended up as throwaways soon after you bought them.

Jonathan Spence is a Yale professor who specializes in China’s Ming-Ch’ing to 1949 history. He is a prolific writer. Amongst the books that he has authored are: The Search for Modern China (1991), God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiquan (1996), Mao Zedong: A life (2006), Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-His (1998), Treason by the Book (2002), To Change China: Western Advisers in China (1980), From Ming to Ch’ing: Conquest, Religion, and Continuity in Seventeenth Century China (1981). He knows China and Chinese-ness more than many of us!