Friday, March 29, 2013

China, Three Gorges Dam

 World-class engineering...
Third world housekeeping...


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...

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Lao-tze in Turkey?

Legend has it that Lao-tze (老子) road his mule - with his body facing backwards - to philosophical eternity. I took these two pictures when I toured Turkey some years ago. I saw that they also had a "Lao-tze" there!
However, their "Lao-tze" - Nasreddin Hodja - was more renowned for jokes than anything else. Certainly not Dao! Apparently, he has 202 jokes to his credit.

Chinese, Issues of Ethics and Etiquette...

Continued from before...

Little importance to Systems and Training

Back to the Chinese restaurant example…. To many, waiters and waitresses in Chinese restaurants are a very efficient lot indeed. They seem so busy. But are they really efficient? Look more closely or try to beckon them for service and you will find you are quite invisible to them! They are mostly “activities-oriented”, which we mistake for efficiency. Try comparing them with the young lads in McDonald’s, you will understand what I am trying to compare and contrast.

Few Chinese restaurants train their staff to lay the tables the way Westerners and the Japanese do. Look at the way they arrange plates, glasses and cutlery. Look at the way they pour your drinks. In a Chinese restaurant, everything is left to the devices of the individual waiter or waitress. To them, what’s the big deal? Only The Flower Drum in Melbourne understands the concept of service; not even John So’s restaurants. His waiters and waitresses are still of the “kei-tor-wei?

(In Cantonese: How many of you? - usually asked in a non-attentive manner) and “one-sauce-for-all-to-share” type. And John So is the ex-Lord Mayor of the very cultured city of Melbourne!

Germans spent years in apprenticeship before they dare strike out on their own. How many of our electricians, mechanics, and plumbers have gone through a formal apprenticeship programme? Many had been handymen to their “sifu” [师父] (masters) for only months before they also decided to set up shops themselves. No wonder, when you summon one of these tradesmen to fix one problem, you end up with two! Ethnic Chinese think they can pick things up on the job. That may be true when things were pretty simple. But the misplaced confidence persists.

Once I walked into a men’s wear store in Kuala Lumpur’s Mid-Valley Shopping Complex and as I was browsing through the selection, the young woman who was looking after the store asked, “chong e moh[1]?” (“You like it?”) What “chong e moh” when I have not even picked one to see!
In societies where attention on social etiquette is more diligently observed, you will find that the store assistants will most likely leave you alone or, if you are seen a little lost, ask “can I help you?” But ethnic Chinese shop assistants tend to follow you like a shadow. Or is it that I am a potential shoplifter?

Oh, we still have a great deal to learn from the Japanese…

When the then prime minister Mahathir Mohamed said we should look East, few dared to contradict him, although in the hearts of many ethnic Chinese, they must be saying, “why from the Japanese, of all people?” I believe not many people really understood his intention; they might have thought that he was prompting Malaysians to learn all the productivity gimmicks from the Japanese. But in reality, Mahathir wanted Malaysians to absorb the best of Japanese culture, values, philosophy and even rituals! To him, these are the stuff that will make a nation great.

It will cost you a bomb to take a taxi from Narita Airport to downtown Tokyo. If you are not in a hurry, the shuttle coach service is good and more affordable. Before the coach arrives, porters at the terminal will have finished tagging all the baggage and when the coach pulls out of the terminal, a chap will stand in front of the aisle, and with a deep bow, wish everybody a happy journey. There are no pretensions. And no tips, please! How refreshing! It may also make a number of passenger droppings, but it will deliver you to your destination right on the dot, unless you are really not in luck that day!

I cannot help admiring the Japanese (but NOT their Shinzo Abe and Yasukuni Shrine worshippers). I was watching a road sweeper in front of Daichi Hotel at work during one my rare visits there. The experience fascinated me a great deal. His uniform was smart, not the T-shirts and slippers stuff we generally see of cleaners. If not for his gears, he could be mistaken for a police sergeant. His strokes were so deliberate. He did his work like an artist. If you think this is just an isolated case, go to the Tokyo Central Station; it is as clean as many private hospitals!

I was once invited by a long lost distant cousin to attend a seminar organised by his firm at Subang Merlin (now Sheraton). This distant cousin of mine holds a PhD from Liverpool. He was lecturing at the National University of Singapore before he returned to Kuala Lumpur to start his information technology business. He provides IT consulting services to the manufacturing sector. The invitation said the session would begin at 6:00 p.m. sharp and end at 9:00 p.m.

I turned up at exactly 6:00 p.m. and was promptly ushered into the function room. The room was very empty; I was amongst the first there! The backdrop read: WORLD CLASS MANUFACTURING, VISION 2020.  SIRIM and MIDA were also the joint sponsors, besides my cousin’s firm. Guests trickled in slowly. At 6:20 p.m. or so, one of the staff, detecting some restlessness, went to the microphone and made this announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, sorry for the delay, blah, blah, blah, and thank you for your patience.”

By 6:35 p.m., there was still no sign of the session convening. I thought I had better go as I had another appointment in Kajang to keep at 7:30 p.m. On my way out, I walked towards my cousin who appeared a little lost.

“What’s the matter?”

“The key speaker, Mr (now Datuk) Jegathesan of MIDA, has not turned up yet.”

So much for our Vision 2020 and my cousin’s World Class Manufacturing. Can you achieve Vision 2020 if punctuality is still being taken for granted by the champions of management?

Have Fengshui will travel!

A TV interviewer was going round soliciting for opinions when Malaysia was besieged by the Nipah virus some years ago.

Everybody had some points to make. But this one was most mind-boggling…“You know what Nipah is in Chinese?” One excitedly asked. Interested only to say his piece, he went on to explain, “Pai [] in Chinese means hundred. One hundred people will die.” He said it in such a manner as if the figure was written in the stars already! Despite all the sciences, numerology still commands a large following. No wonder Lillian Too’s books on fengshui are still selling like hot cakes.

You have to go for the number ‘8’ if you want wild fortunes to drop on your lap (fatt) []. For high status, you have to seek out the number ‘6’ (lôke) [祿]. And if you are the forever rejuvenating type, then the number ‘3’ (sum) [] is pretty good. But the Fujianese will bet on the number ‘9’ (kaô) [] – I suppose it stands for “almost perfect”; Cantonese will say it is also not a bad number – “chance to play on”? Ethnic Chinese will want to steer clear of the number ‘4’. When I was a schoolboy in Muar, my family used to live near Othman Sa’at[2]’s kampung. I remember all his personal cars carried number plates of “4” (sei) []. Othman Sa’at went into political oblivion. Maybe Lillian Too will say this: I told you so.

One day I casually asked Lim Goh Tong’s fengshui consultant about his true feeling about the belief. He said he was very sceptical about it for many years. But there is something mystical about it that makes him now a practitioner; he calls it au-miao [奥妙] Chinese characters, two]. I suppose it pays to be vigilant; it is a little like insurance, don’t regret when things happen!


[1]Is it suitable?” in Cantonese
[2] The Menteri Besar or chief minister of Johor in the 1960s and 1970s.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Incredible Germany!

Somewhere in Germany. Have to leave it to your imagination...
The car looks very much like the man behind, doesn't it? BMW Museum in Munich

Indian? NO! A hotel in Weimar, Germany, said to be Hitler's favourite

Our Police will love this! Porsche Museum, Stuttgart, Germany

Somewhere in Dresden, Germany

Why not let's eat heres? Somewhere in Germnay

By Otto Dix - but you call this art? A museum in Stuttgart, Germany

When you have a board of chairmen, nothing moves...



This was exactly what happened to Highlands & Lowlands Berhad in the early 80s.

High & Low, as it was known to its fans[1], must have been one of the most envied companies then. It had a paid-up capital of about RM150 million, a big one during those days. But what made High & Low very exceptional were its formidable cash hordes and its highly visible landbank in the Klang Valley. RM250 million of its shareholders’ funds of RM500 million was operationally superfluous. It was in the form of cash and mostly placed with banks as fixed deposits to earn interests. During times when the prices of rubber and palm oil were low, High & Low could still hand out good dividends all the same – thanks to the interest incomes.

Ten of High & Low’s twenty estates were in Selangor. Some of these were right in the Klang Valley and became the obvious target of the authorities when they wanted land for “public” purpose. Shah Alam was in fact carved out from three of its Klang Valley estates: Sungei Renggam, Bukit Jelutong/Rasak and Midlands. So were Kuala Lumpur’s Subang Airport, the adjacent Malaysian Air Force Headquarters and Selangor’s State Sports Complex.

High & Low sold some of the land also. An example is the 1,500-or-so-acre property at the junction of Jalan Damansara and Jalan Kepong, once known as Edinburgh Estate. Today the township that has taken shape there is called Taman Maluri.

In spite of all these, High & Low was and still is the biggest owner of land with real estate potential in the Klang Valley. You do not see High & Low’s signboards anymore because the company is now a member of the Guthrie group. But Bukit Jelutong/Rasak, Midlands (now Shah Alam), Subang, Emerald (now Zamrud), Highlands (now Bukit Tinggi), Vallambrosa (now Kapar) and Elmina are High & Low’s and if you know where they are, you will agree with me that they are real-estate gold mines.

With its resources, High & Low could have taken over a bank or two if it had wanted to. (There was no ownership restriction then. Moreover, you could count with the fingers in your hands the number of local banks that had bigger net worth than High & Low’s at that time.) There were indeed many take-over opportunities: many listed companies were on the block; prime properties across the Causeway were also not expensive; many estates were being sold cheaply because of depressed commodity prices, etc. But all High & Low could manage was the acquisition of a small 1,000-acre oil palm estate in a very remote corner of Perak before the company was itself taken over by Guthrie in 1985.

Why was it so?

High & Low had a board of chairmen, not directors!

* * * * *   

I was High & Low’s manager of corporate planning. It was essentially a one-man show, discounting my secretary and driver.

The first task I set for myself was the preparation of a corporate diversification plan, and thinking that property development would be an obvious starting point, I mapped out a framework with which High & Low could systematically realize the real estate potential of its vast landbank in the Klang Valley. The executive committee and the board duly accepted the recommendation. But after that it was paper after paper, and review after review. Nothing moved.

I also approached merchant bankers, stock brokers, investment authorities, venture capital companies, overseas manufacturers and friends for business leads and possible joint ventures. Initially we were deluged with offers, but soon people saw through us. We were just wasting their time.

Decision-making in High & Low was a mind-boggling process. The board comprised Dr Syed Mahmood, who was the chairman, the late Tun Ismail Mohd Ali, the late Tun Tan Siew Sin, Raja Tan Sri M Alias, the late Tan Sri Lee Loy Seng, Tunku Shariman, Datuk Syed Kechik, Charles Letts, Tengku Robert Hamzah and the late Yeoh Chin Hin. Every one of them was a company chairman in his own right.

On day-to-day operational matters, there were two general managers – one looking after Plantations and the other, Finance and Administration. There was no chief executive. The general managers had little authority and most matters were referred to the directors. But few at that level had time for High & Low. What the board did was to entrust the authority to an executive committee made up of Dr Syed Mahmood, the late Tun Ismail, the late Tan Sri Lee and Raja Tan Sri M Alias which would meet once in about two months. All proposals and decisions required of the executive committee had to be formally prepared in a prescribed format and submitted to the company secretary a week or so before the committee met. It was the prerogative of the executive committee either to make a decision or to refer the recommendation to the board.

A proposal could win approval one day and had it withdrawn the following day. Very frustrating indeed!

When you had a board of chairmen, meetings were usually a free-for-all affair. At their level, it was natural that everybody had a big ego. Some were quite petty also. I should not forget to mention their prejudices too – you have to believe me!

I had the opportunity to “defend” my papers in the executive committee meetings. I was, however, rarely given a chance to do so at the board level. Our kind Cik Halimatus, High & Low’s company secretary, would come to see me after each board meeting. “Hard work down the drain, I suppose?” I would ask. If there was good news, she would give me a big smile. Otherwise, she would always console me by saying, “Mr. Lim, I don’t know why they are always like that…” The reason could be anything, ranging from patronizing reservations voiced by one of the directors out of his personal prejudices to a typographical error in your paper, or to outright proxy intrigues between the different interest groups in the boardroom (none of High & Low’s big shareholders, namely Permodalan Nasional Berhad, Felda (Federal Land Development Authority), Kuala Lumpur-Kepong, and PERNAS was in a position to exercise full control of the board) or to, guess what, the unfavourable mood of the late Tun Ismail, who was really the first amongst equals there. But what was particularly frustrating was the fact that one had to live with the type of ignorance displayed by some of the leading captains of the corporate world of the day.

Maybe I was naive; the stakes were too big for me to understand. Maybe they were just play-acting?

* * * * *    


High & Low’s Midlands Estate sat visibly along the Kuala Lumpur-Klang Highway. However, its size kept shrinking, thanks to the rapid pace of urbanization in the Klang Valley. Even after the completion of the Federal Highway and the finalization of the Shah Alam municipal boundary, Midlands remained vulnerable.

Sometime in 1980, High & Low received a land acquisition notice from the state government of Selangor. A piece of land in Midlands had been identified for some public purpose. The land, measuring about 84 acres, is a developer’s dream. Its southern front is close to the Federal Highway. On its right, it has Shah Alam as its immediate neighbours…

The public purpose the state government had in mind turned out to be the extension of the adjacent Shah Alam municipality. High & Low was renting two floors at Wisma Budiman for its head-office use. When it was known that the land was intended for the extension of the municipality, the board decided that the company should approach the government to rescind the acquisition order. After all, High & Low had the resources to help develop Shah Alam.
A team, comprising the chairman of the company Dr Syed Mahmood and two directors - the late Tun Ismail and Tengku Robert Hamzah - was duly dispatched to see the Menteri Besar, who was Dato’ Rafei Hormat then. The Menteri Besar saw the merit of the proposal. He was glad to leave the development of the land to High & Low.
Tengku Robert, who is also an architect, was given the task of coming up with a comprehensive development plan for the area. Besides the head-office building, he was told to look into having a hypermarket, a private school, a private hospital, etc. Someone suggested that part of the land could be turned into a High & Low “village” – a kind of residential complex for the executives and staff. The board was agreeable to this. I was told to organize the development. Obviously the first thing to do was to draw up an implementation schedule. I also saw the need for the early appointment of a project manager. To me, you cannot leave the project to the consultants alone. Although they are professionally accountable to the client for their designs and the progress and quality at site, their priorities are different. Moreover, with due respect, few of them are good managers. My experience in handling the construction of the Bank Pertanian building at Lebuh Pasar Besar taught me an important lesson in project management: You have to be fair to the contractors. Consultants tend to wield their big sticks and contractors, on the other hand, will find every excuse to claim VOs, or variation orders – works that are originally not in the contract but commissioned out of site or other necessities. Their approach to issues is always confrontational or “we-versus-they” in both form and substance. Priorities are lost and projects invariably get delayed.
In one of the executive committee meetings, I argued my case for the recruitment of a suitable candidate for this position. The late Tun disagreed with the job specifications outlined in my paper.
His concept of a project manager was someone who would diligently check the materials and construction practices at site. We were far from starting the construction work yet. I knew I had been misunderstood.
As I was trying to explain to the late Tun the difference between the two roles, he cut me out and said, “Young man, I know what I am talking, you know! I am talking from my experience…”
You couldn’t argue with the late Tun.
* * * * *
The late Tun had strong likes and dislikes. He did not forgive easily, I was told.
I have no means to verify the following story, but I believe there is some truth in it.
The story went this way:
There was this senior economist in the Central Bank who was asked to prepare an analysis for the late Tun, who was the governor then.
His day was ruined after he got the report back from Tun.
In one of the pages, Tun had made a circle around a term, drawn a line all the way to the bottom of the page and written, “Is there such a term?”
The term that was circled by Tun was NEGATIVE RETURNS. This term is commonly used by those in financial circles to describe a loss-making situation. But sure if you examine the term closely, you will realise that Tun was absolutely right. Returns are always positive. How can one have negative returns? Think about that.
I was told this senior economist did not stay with the bank. Apparently, it was also a blessing in disguise for him. He is now someone big in the corporate world.
* * * * *
My colleague Khairil was asked to coordinate the preparation of the chairman’s statement for High & Low’s annual report. He was supposed to edit all the inputs and add coherency to the text.
The draft was presented to the board for approval.
Tun’s annoyance was immediately noticed.
What was this term “add value”? “Who wrote this?”
“Is he local?”
“Yes, Tun.”
“No wonder!”
Khairil was not in the meeting. I do not know how he would have reacted if he had been there.
Tun did not go to Harvard Business School. In Harvard, saying “add value” can be as easy as going to the loo.
Khairil’s MBA was from Harvard.
* * * * *
My experience with the late Tun on the use of English was no happier either.
High & Low’s landbank in the Klang Valley, as I have said, is the envy of many. I described some places as “developable”; I did not forget the close-and-open inverted commas.
He turned to me, “Why can’t you say land with development potential instead?”
I had no answer.
* * * * *  
Tun was however tolerant to some.
I was told his right hand man at PNB was quite casual with his use of English and yet the late Tun did not mind.
But how can you compare yourself with Datuk Khalid whose scope of responsibilities is so vast that his misuse of English is excusable.
* * * * *  
It was sometime in 1984.
There was this big dinner to raise funds for the Tun Hussein Onn Eye Hospital at the Kuala Lumpur Hilton. Being one of the top ten companies in the KLSE, High & Low was expected to be generous for a worthy cause. It  “bought” a RM25,000 table.
Dr Syed Mahmood was to be the host of the table, since he was the chairman of the company. It was supposed to be an “all-directors” function.
Once it was confirmed that the late Tun and the late Toh Puan would be able to make it, the other directors began to send their RSVP regrets to Dr Syed, although some had earlier indicated their willingness to grace the occasion. Excuse? – Last-minute urgent matters to attend to lah! All very coincidental!
You cannot leave the table half-empty, can you?
The two general managers had naturally to oblige. They should bring along their spouses too. There were two more places to be filled. The “privilege” fell on yours faithfully and his madam.
* * * * *    
The dinner was a grand event, virtually every who’s who in town was there. But the mood of our table was a subdued one. Except for a few occasions when the witty Toh Puan would take aim at Tun and make us misbehave ourselves in front of Tun, it was just food, food, and food.
When Tun was on your table, you could be sure few would bother to approach you.
I remember a Datuk Somebody that night. When he spotted Sayed Mohamed, one of High & Low’s two general managers, from afar, he decided to waltz his way through the crowd to greet an old friend. As soon as the familiar bald patch surfaced before him than he froze and stammered, “Tun”, took a 360-degree turn and marched back. I cannot recall if he had said hello to his old friend Sayed Mohamed.

“Sir, may I have your order please?” After the waiter had completed taking the ladies’ orders, I was the first to be given the honour.

“Vodka lime.” I suddenly realised everyone was looking scornfully at me. How indiscreet of me. “The Korean 747 has just been shot down over the Sakhalin Peninsula. Don’t you know that we should boycott everything Russian?”

Next was the late Aziz (the other High & Low GM)’s turn. “Coke.”

What? Coke for this occasion? I thought he liked something else.

Tuan Sayed, how about you? Can’t be Coke I suppose.

“Coke, please.” Coming from Sayed’s mouth, it was unbelievable.

Had I committed an unforgivable sin in front of Tun and Dr Syed?

Everyone knows Dr Syed does not drink. It did not surprise me when he asked for water.

When it was the late Tun’s turn, he asked for what he desired, no more, no less. And I know it was no fruit juice.

* * * * *    
I was comparing notes on the late Tun with someone the other day.

He updated me with this story:

There was this board meeting. Tun had excused himself to go to the loo.

Without him, no major decision could be made. Everybody was happy as they could stretch themselves a little. Soon the boardroom was full of life.

Ten minutes passed, no sign of Tun, good! We can continue talking or do some catching up.

Half an hour later, still no sign of Tun. Maybe Tun has a bad stomach.

One hour later, how come ah? Something must be wrong

A search and rescue team was promptly dispatched to the executive restroom.

No trace of Tun either.

Quick, call the house.

“Yes, Tun is in.”

Apparently, after easing himself, Tun headed for home straight. He had forgotten that the board meeting had yet to be adjourned!

* * * * *


High & Low owned 26,400 shares in H&C Latex, a very small holding indeed, compared to Harrisons Malaysia (now Golden Hope)’s how-many-million shares.

Harrisons wrote to enquire if High & Low would be prepared to part with its shares in H&C Latex. Harrisons wanted 100% ownership in H&C Latex. It was prepared to offer a price of RM63.71 per share.

Why so good a price? Wasn’t the investment carried in the books of High & Low as RM29,370.35 or RM1.11 per share only?

I went back to the records.

The answer was there.

When High & Low was “Malaysianised”, values in Pound Sterling had to be converted into Ringgit. Someone in the accountant’s office forgot to multiply the figure by 7.5, which was the exchange rate then.

But it meant a difference of RM1,652,573.65.

Peanuts to High & Low, but it was hell of a substantial oversight by any standard.

* * * * *

[1]           High & Low’s shares were traded in KL and London. It was one of the bluest of the blue chips of the day.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sarawak Head Hunter

We all know that natives in Sarawak used to practise headhunting. There are many skulls amongst the exhibits in the state's museum in Kuching. Recently a friend there forwarded this picture to me. Do look at the particulars carried in this sea dayak's document; I didn't know that Head Hunter was in fact a "legitimate" occupation!
My mother-in-law's family hailed from Sarawak. Her father was apparently a victim of this practice.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Days in Indonesia

I traversed the length and breadth of Indonesia from 2005 to 2008 - to identify land for oil palm cultivation for the IMC Group. Below are some of the pictures I like to share with friends...
With my manager in Kutai Barat, East Kalimantan
At the Jakarta airport's domestic terminal. The two clocks on the wall tell different times!

Indonesia's own KFC, somewhere in Sumatra

Papaya flowers - cure for malaria? Central Kalimantan

Kutai  Barat, a Dayak long house

Impromptu ferry; Central Kalimantan

Temple in Lombok

Chinese heritage showcase, Jakarta
Pulau Rimau, Sumatra - Circus de Soleil

Chinese Etiquette Issues, continued...

Many a time, we Chinese inflict all these ridicules, contempt and scorns upon ourselves. Not too long ago, a bun-maker in China was said to have used old paper cupboards to make the inner ingredients for his buns. The news was beamed all over the world – CNN, BBC, etc. The story turned out to be engineered a local reporter. By the time the truth emerged, damage had already been done. Hardly any of these global news channels bothered to retract the story. Why we ourselves have to do such a thing?


China-bashing is a fair game in the Western media. CNN’s Jack Caferty is most blatant about it. During the height of the street violence against ethnic Chinese in Tibet just before the Beijing Olympics, he placed the entire blame on the Chinese leadership and called them a bunch of goons. Chinese diplomats attempted to put on a more balanced perspective in the global media; but they didn’t sound convincing, largely because of their inability to articulate their cause in good English, a concern which I will discuss again later.


In Australia, we have John Garnaut who writes a regular column on China in The Age in Melbourne. This chap is believed to be stationed in China, yet little of what he has written is positive about China. He is forever talking about human rights and democracy, or the lack of it, in China – events like the Tiananmen incident, and his belief that there is really little or tangible in China’s so-called growth, etc. Even though these issues are pretty stale, undiscerning Aussies think all is gospel truth in whatever rubbish he writes.


But Chinese are not helping themselves. Tune on to CCTV9 (Now CCTVNews), China’s only international English channel, and you will understand what I mean. Besides a few anchor presenters, most of their correspondents spoke mickey-mouse or sing-song English. It is neither American English, nor Australian English, nor English English. It is Chinese English! They read English in the manner as if the text is in Chinese. It really irritates those who understand the nuances of English language. On the other hand, take a look at the Al Jazeera presenters, you can’t help feeling impressed. 


A high degree of self-centredness

A sense of misplaced self-centredness appears to be particularly strong amongst the Chinese. If you are ethnically a Chinese, you are likely to be greeted with “Kei tor wei?[1]  when you enter a Chinese-run restaurant in any part of the world. (You may also notice that it is not much of a greeting either; chances are that the waiter or waitress is also nonchalant when he or she says those words.) To a Cantonese, everyone who looks like him or her, or is yellow in skin, is a Cantonese!


            When you go for your yum-char[2] [饮茶], do you see that the restaurant will only provide a little plate of chilli sauce? It is for the whole table to share. Restaurants also seldom provide separate spoons in the dishes they serve. Why? The Chinese are used to sharing the dishes with their chopsticks and spoons. You can pick and choose with your chopsticks and spoons even though they are laced with your saliva and debris of food. Try asking them for separate spoons; they will think that you are “par-pai’ (or almighty)! What so unhygienic about sharing your food? And observe the way they dish out the plates to you; you might think that they received their training in casinos! They dish out the plates like dishing out cards!


            It is evident that Chinese generally do not bother to make a good attempt to understand their customers; they are simply too presumptuous. The Japanese, on the other hand, will study every need of their customers. The Caucasians, for example, have longer limbs than they do; products meant for this market will reflect this knowledge with the most intimate attention. We think everybody behaves like a Chinese! Of course, I have to rest my case if any reader argues that this is efficiency – something we should be proud about!


To many a Chinese, every Caucasian is a kwai-loh [鬼佬] (foreign devil); every native is a huan-knea [番仔]. Every one seems to be some kind of a kwai []or kwi (ghost), knea or chye (little fellow) to us. We are also very racist, aren’t we? We should do some soul-searching. Are we that superior? Or are we just trying to hide our inferiority complex? I think it is more of the latter. Averagely, we are less articulate in the way we express ourselves; we are either more over-dressed or under-dressed, and are either more over-groomed or under-groomed. We are “less-straight” than Caucasians, are we not? 

To be continued...

[1] “How many of you?” in Chinese Cantonese
[2]Drink tea” in Chinese Cantonese, but actually it is a form of breakfast-cum-lunch outing with friends or family members in Chinese restaurants where steamed buns, delicacies and sweets are served on trolleys.