Tuesday, October 29, 2019

A Whirlwind Tour of America

My wife and I have just returned from our almost month-long tour across the United States of America, including a side visit to the Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada. I have been to the States a couple of times before, but my visits were mainly business-related and, therefore, I did not have the opportunity to explore beyond city precincts. Saw Hwa had visited the West Coast before, but that was also many years ago.

This was indeed a whirlwind tour; by the time we ended at Los Angeles, we had forgotten the names of many of the places we visited! In the wake of the trade war between China and the United States, I was a little apprehensive before we embarked on the journey, especially so when we had signed up with Cosmos, where we knew most of our fellow travelers would be Caucasians. And we thought Donald Trump’s rhetoric might also create some degree of hostility from his countrymen towards yellow-skinned fellows like me. Our fears proved to be unnecessary. The people we ran into were generally very nice. One lady even offered her travel card to purchase subway tickets in one of the New York stations, when she saw we were hesitant about how to go about getting them from the machine. Safe for an incident, though!

The incident came from an unexpected quarter.

That was in New York and before we began our tour. We were on a hop-on-and-hop-off bus when a Caucasian lady, together with her partner, apparently a little clumsy, lost her seating priority to some Asian women. When she began to complain to the tour guide about “the f**king Asians”, I shouted at her, right in front of all the tourists there, "You racist, watch your language!". I gave her a nasty stare. She and her partner, to my satisfaction, remained quiet after that. 

Indeed, America is declining. The country as a whole looks tired. Of course, the monuments in Washington DC, the iconic architectural works in New York and Chicago, the national parks, and great mansions in California remain awe-inspiring. But they are falling behind in areas of infrastructure. The subway in New York is a case in point. Homelessness in San Francisco is particularly too glaring to miss. Even our tour coach is lacking in many respects. And surprise, surprise, even though Cosmos is a member of the global tour group, it is not as good - in terms of equipment and organisation - as its sibling Globus in Europe, which we have traveled with before.  

Central Park, Manhattan

No longer welcoming!
Niagara Falls

Washington DC

Grand Canyon
Somewhere in Wyoming
Yellowstone National Park
Where is Donald Trump?
Another National Park
With fellow travelers from the UK at Hollywood: Maria and David

Yet another...

Yet another
Feeding squirrel at Pebble Beach

Admiring Pebble Beach Golf Course
A new Genting in Las Vegas

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Jakarta's "New" International Airport

When I was helping Singapore’s IMC Pan Asia Alliance to develop its palm oil business in Indonesia, I had to travel to the country often. I even stationed myself in Jakarta for a couple of months. We were facilitated with an apartment near our office at Kuningan, one of the up-market precincts in Jakarta. Jakarta’s international airport was not great, but adequate. The traffic to and fro could be nightmarish, though. It could take hours.

I didn’t know their new international airport was ready when I flew in a couple of weeks ago. It is actually not a new airport but a new terminal arising out of organic needs. 

The distance from the gate to the Immigration hall seems endless. Fortunately, being amongst the first to disembark - thanks to my B class ticket - I was offered a ride in one of the carriages stationed halfway along the route.

Everything is confusing once you step out! 

Traffic was quite chaotic. On seeing some vehicles bearing top hotels’ logos, I asked if there was one from Grand Hyatt. Yes, but the fare was totally exorbitant. I decided to book a limo at Blue Bird’s booth. The receptionists were very courteous, but the system seemed silly. Those who came after me got driven off first. They apologized and smiled a lot but were quite clueless.

I didn’t realise that the new terminal is such a beast until I checked in to fly back the next day!

The terminal is massive. I dare say not much thought has been put in to design the terminal.

It is totally LINEAR.

I had no issues with the check-in arrangements. But one must walk past many many shops, kiosks and eateries before one reaches the Immigration hall. And after clearing Immigration, another long journey begins. I flew MAS and it offers its B class passengers to use a lounge which is located at almost one end of the terminal. The linearity was shocking; all the gates are on one side. From one end to the other, the new terminal must be more than a kilometer long.

And the local products are expensive! A modest box of Indonesia’s very popular “thousand-layered” cake costs something like USD20!

One thing, Indonesians are generally very patient; they don’t seem to complain.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Dr Leon Comber, A Living Legend

My late eldest brother Yew Seng often talked about his boss Leon Comber when he was alive. They were both in Heinemann Singapore, Comber the managing director, and my late brother, the general manager there. And it was from him that I learned that author Han Su-yin was one-time Comber’s wife. I also came across a preface written by him in one of the books about the ambush of General Henry Gurney at Frasers Hill.

One day two years ago or so Saw Hwa and were invited by Barry Clarke, who is the CEO of Routledge Asia, to his home for dinner. There we were introduced to two other guests: Comber and his friend Lee Su Ying. Comber was very generous with his knowledge; that evening I came to realise that he was an extraordinary man.

Despite his age and condition, he would make it a point whenever possible to attend the talks that we held at The HEAD Foundation. His direct involvement as a colonial officer before, during and after World War II and the Malayan Emergency of 1948-60 fascinated me. He was kind enough to accept a lunch invitation to answer whatever my fellow directors had wanted to know about some of the legendary figures during these periods of our history. His first-hand knowledge was truly awesome. I believe being a senior Special Branch officer then, he must have known the secrets of everyone. (Robert Kuok also mentioned him in his memoir.)

During World War II, he serves as a British officer in the Indian Army. He was among those who landed at Morib and witnessed the surrender of the Japanese forces. After the war, he became the head of the Special Branch in Johor. Comber saw the writing on the wall when he was summoned and be dressed down by the British High Commissioner to Malaya Field Marshal Gerald Templer about the writing of Han Su-yin, whom he married in 1952. (They divorced in 1958.) He left for a very distinguished publishing career after that.

Comber speaks fluent Cantonese. He is now a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asia Studies (ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute).

A couple of months ago, after hearing that he had been hospitalised in Melbourne, I visited him. He is now being looked after in an aged care home there. I paid him a visit and learning that he loved Chinese food, I arranged to take him out to share a meal at a restaurant nearby a week later.

Dr Comber was born in 1921, which makes him 98 today. Although a little hard on walking, his memory is still superb.

Below are his publications. The last two titles were written when he was 96. At his age, he still wants to publish more. He puts all of us to shame!

·        Chinese Ancestor Worship in Malaya (1954).
·        Chinese Temples in Singapore (1958).
·        Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya: A Survey of the Triad Society from 1800 to 1900 (1959).
·        Favourite Chinese Stories (1967; 1975; 1988).
·        The Strange Cases of Magistrate Pao: Chinese Tales of Crime and Detection. Translated from the Chinese and Retold by Leon Comber [with] Illustrations by Lo Koon-chiu (1970; 1972; 2010).
·        The Golden Treasure Box: Favourite Stories From the Orient (1979).
·        Malaya's Secret Police 1945-1960: The Role of the Special Branch in the Malayan Emergency (2008).
·        The Triads: Chinese Secret Societies in 1950s Malaya and Singapore (2009).
·        Through the Bamboo Window: Chinese Life and Culture in 1950s Malaya and Singapore (2009).
·        Singapore Correspondent: Political Dispatches from Singapore, 1958-1962 (2012).
·        Templer and the Road to Malaysian independence: The Man and His Time (2015).
·        Dalley and the Malayan Security Service, 1945-48: MI5 vs. MSS (2018).

Monday, June 24, 2019

Do Not Spit

 This picture was taken by my son-in-law who together with my daughter Monica visited Melbourne Law School recently. I hope you can read the line on the paper pasted on the wall.

Apparently, this was put up by the school’s administrators for obvious reasons. Melbourne Law School is one of the most prestigious law school in the world. Monica is an alumnus. It is now a professional graduate school, meaning, you must have an undergraduate degree to enroll.

Why did I say, “for obvious reasons”? If you visit the school now, you see Chinese students everywhere. Old habits die hard, spitting seems to be as natural as having to go to the loo.

I accompanied the founder of IMC Holdings Tan Sri Frank Tsao to visit one of the richest men in Malaysia in his hotel at Putrajaya. When we arrived, the traffic in front of the hotel was a little unruly. This tycoon, whom I happened to know since the early 1980s, when he was still up and coming, was well known for his hands-on approach. He immediately took control of the situation. He personally directed the flows to give our car a smooth. After this was done, he let go a spit right on the spot without any second thought. I must say I was taken aback.

He passed away recently, and on reflecting over this incident, I think I have reached a different understanding. He was not being crude or uncultured. I believe he was just expressing a sense of satisfaction with this act.

But that’s not the societal norm.

I remember I was a culprit of this form of crudeness or casualness as well. I was dining in a restaurant in Japan with a more worldly and refined colleague. I dropped some food on the floor and didn’t think much of it. He bent over and have it picked up. What else could I say. But from that day onwards, I would clean up everything I dirtied or messed up, including the stuff after a visit to fast foods or hawkers’ corners.

I had also never given any thought to hygiene when I shared meal with friends. We swam the dishes with our chopsticks.  It was just our “culture” of sharing. Nobody complained or bothered to enlighten us. It was not until I was dining with some acquaintances in Hong Kong in the 1990s when one politely facilitated me to use the pair of common chopsticks that was placed there then I realized his intention. Now whenever I have an opportunity, I would always try to bring this food sharing practice – as subtly as I can – to friends. Some did pick up instantly, but many remained oblivious no matter how hard I tried.

Back to the Melbourne Law School incident. My son-in-law was brought up in the old-fashioned way. Chinese Indonesians are more “Confucian” than most of us in traditions. He told me that when they were going into the lift, no Chinese students there bothered to give way to the elderly, let alone guests like him and Monica. Don’t the kindergartens and junior schools in China teach such basic Confucian or “li” or manners? And these are not peasants; they are studying in a highly regarded graduate law school!

My son-in-law’s anecdote reminds me of an incident I had in Greece during my recent tour with my wife there. In Athens, we had some on-your-own time. We decided to try the city’s metro. The train was pretty packed when it pulled up. We stepped in notwithstanding. On seeing me with a walking cane, an elderly gentleman immediately stood up to offer me his seat. How could I take up his offer? He needed it more than I! I politely declined but thank him, nonetheless. No sooner, several others also offer theirs. I accepted one of the younger passengers’ offer. That’s a civilized behaviour! And it has no correlation to the ancientness of one’s civilizational claim. This is just my opinion, though.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Melbourne, the most livable city in the world?

The Economist has consistently rated Melbourne as the most livable city in the world, so have a few other newspapers and lifestyle magazines. Is it for real?

In many respects, it is very livable. The CBD has many beautiful parks. It is quite easy to navigate in the city; the streets are in rectangular grid. (First timers can be intimidated by many of its hook turns, though.) Local motorists generally exhibit a very high standard of road etiquette. Many are happy to give way. People are quite helpful. You are even offered help unsolicited if you appear lost at the street junctions.
The new "cathedrals" and their stunning "stained glass" claddings!
Most of its suburbs are also clean and orderly. Zoning and building heights are strictly controlled; you don’t see outlandish houses or commercial buildings. They usually have their own shopping precincts. Comprehensive shopping and hardware malls are within easy reach.

Melbourne also have some of the best universities in Australia. The University of Melbourne ranks among the top 30 or in the world. Monash is equally world-class. Many of its private schools are highly coveted by parents both local as well as overseas.

Melbourne is also well-known for its restaurants and coffee culture. The popularity of Victorian wines has also spread beyond Australia.

Even though Tullamarine Airport (Melbourne's main gateway airport) is not connected by trains to the city, it is one of the most efficient airports I have come across. There is no long taxing way to the gates, in-and-out is pretty swift. But be aware, Immigration and Quarantine can be difficult if you have issues with your visas or the food you are bringing in.

I am indeed happy to live in Australia, even though Winter can be a little too cold for someone who hails from the tropics like me.


Its trains are perhaps the most archaic in the First World. The same type of trains has been there for decades. Much of the service is above-ground. They cause havoc during peak hours at crossings. I took this picture a couple of days ago. We had to wait for three slow trains to pass. Previous governments, be it Liberal or Labor, just did not have the will power to eliminate these bottlenecks. Fortunately, it now has a premier that is prepared to do the difficult things. But Aussies being Aussies, there will always be objections – just because your view is affected by the proposed elevated crossing, or some frivolous reasons that you feel like championing. He bulldozes them through, nonetheless.

Patiently waiting for three slow trains to pass...
The trains themselves are not impressive in looks and comfort. The stations are the Wild-west type. And the fares are not cheap. It is a couple of times Singapore’s.

The trams have always been touted as an iconic feature of Melbourne. I think otherwise. They are monstrously inefficient, except during peak hours. They are huge and heavy and unlike their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere, they are designed to run at the outer part of roads. When one reaches a pick-up point, every vehicle behind it must mandatorily stopped to allow passengers to have safe passage. They build up long queues. It can be very frustrating if you follow one.

Hopefully the premier's Change momentum can sustain.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Revisiting Greece

When my wife suggested that we signed up for a tour of Greece, I gladly agreed.

I have been to Greece, that was about 25 years ago, when I was stationed in Athens for about a month to help Genting bid for a casino licence. It decided to abort the pursuit; instead it went ahead to acquire two ships which led to the launching of The Star Cruises.

It was a fourteen day tour – first half by coach of Greece “mainland” and the other, by cruise of a number of islands, including a stopover in Turkey’s Kusadasi port, some Anatolia ruins of which my wife and I have visited before – when we did our Turkey tour some years ago.

We used a long way to go to Athens – by British Airways from Kuala Lumpur to Heathrow and Heathrow to Athens. It was a long journey. There are other airlines flying to Athens by shorter routes, but none offers Premium Economy class, which I need because of the condition of my injured left foot. Business Class was simply too expensive for us to consider.

The airport is pretty modern and efficient; I couldn’t remember how it looked 25 years ago. The people were quite friendly.

The tour was operated by Globus, which we signed up through Flight Centre in Melbourne. Organisation was superb. The tour director in the first leg was an elderly but elegant lady. We had a good teacher; she has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Greece. Little did I realise that Greek civilization was that sophisticated. I was especially impressed by what I saw in the artefacts during the Mycenaean Age (1600-1100 BCE). From what I saw, the civilization might actually be more advanced than China’s Shang which spanned around the same time (16th Century to 1046 BCE). No wonder, they were able to produce Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, not to mention great scientists like Pythagoras, Euclid, Archimedes and Hippocrates, and staged the first Olympics.

The revisit to Kusadasi’s Ephesus ruins reinforces my thoughts about Greeks and Greece. Kusadasi is a beach resort on Turkey’s western Aegean coast. The whole of Turkey was actually part of the Greek civilization. But the Byzantine Empire lost it to the Ottomans. Under the Ottoman onslaught, the whole Greece could have turned Islamic if not for Greeks’ fierce patriotism and their strong devotion to Orthodox Christianity. I see that the Greeks are generally a little laid-back in the way they go about their lives. I remember an experience with taxis during my last visit to Athens; none would want to pick up fares during lunch time. That’s siesta time for them! You can even notice the difference between the Greeks and the Turks in tourist sites. There isn’t much on offer in Greek spots, but on the Kusadasi stop, the Turks spare no efforts in emptying tourists of their dollars. One is spoilt for choice there.

Many parts of downtown Athens are still very un-First World. Unemployment is said to be 25%. Our cruise’s tour guide is a holder of a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. Many university graduates can only find employment in supermarkets and paid something like 3 to 4 Euros an hour. And unlike the malls and supermarkets you see in our part of the world, theirs are generally sparingly stocked.  

he monasteries
Mykonos, Santorini and Milos, Oia & Thira
Greek versus Turks
Celestyl Crystal Crew 

Synonymous with Athens
The sophistication of Greek Civilization....

The most desired man to the "God" of the time

Engineering beyond imagination

Venue of the First Olympics

One of the mountain-top monasteries... Awe inspiring...
Beautiful beyond words...

Where Venus was unearthed

How vines are grown there

Greek's once upon a time...

Elvis was even loved during those days!

Romantic Turks...

The pathetic parts of Athens today...

Sunday, May 12, 2019

A phenomenon on Corruption...

Why many of our countrymen are so tolerant about corruption?

Everyone knows corruption is a crime. And everyone knows Najib Razak, our former prime minister, is now on trial for charges involving not millions, but billions, of Ringgit. Notwithstanding, he is still the boss-ku to many of his die-hard supporters and admirers. You can understand if these people are not the well-educated or read type, since any figure beyond 3-zeroes is largely beyond their grasps. But to my utter surprise, I see some of my acquaintances in Facebook still think Najib is a victim of slander. These people are senior professionals and well-placed in society, albeit some in retirement now.

I started to think hard…

To Chinese, corruption is a serious crime. It doesn’t mean the Chinese societies are free of corruption. Chinese history is full of stories of corrupt officials and how they met eventually had to pay for their crimes. But corruption is viewed quite differently by Chinese. Corruption involving public money is as bad as robbery. It carries capital punishment in China. The phenomenon you see in Malaysia will not happen. Once you are caught, everyone will treat you like a leper. Nobody is going to help you, no matter how high you once were. And you live with the consequences. But punishment is only a part of the whole cause-and-effect (因果) “ecosystem”. The shame is not on you alone; it cascades down for generations – your children, your grandchildren, your great grandchildren.  That’s where Confucianism ethics differ from other cultural norms. Not only you suffer, your offspring too!

We even had a minister who said corruption is not a crime until you got caught. This speaks volumes of the attitude towards corruption in Malaysia. When a policeman or a uniformed officer received a gratification, he might actually believe that he was doing the corrupting party a favour, lest the latter would have to be charged for some offences. When millions ended up in a minister or a top government official’s personal account, no actual misery was felt. The “losers” are usually not individuals, but the country or the economy as a whole. But the taker does not feel it when he takes. If the plundering was true, does Najib Razak feel any remorse? After all, some had actually benefited from his “philanthropy”. No wonder!