Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Che’h, Japanese car!

Cheok is our honorary Class of 73 get-together organiser. When he wrote that Keong and PK would be in town and he would be arranging a lunch to welcome them, I told him I was allergic to PK and would not be joining them. PK was no-no to me!I bought Keong dinner separately and we had a good catch up. 

I am totally allergic to two university classmates: PK and AKK. Both graduated with first class honours. Friends may think that I was and am still jealous of them. I say this is not the reason for my contempt of them.

I joined MIDA after my graduation, that was in 1973. The starting salary then was M$1,040 which was actually not too bad compared to what was paid in the pure government services. But for those who were the good fortune of joining oil companies, theirs were much higher, maybe more than M$2K a month. My brother-in-law Guan who was my classmate was in that league. But you live with what you get, don’t you? And what’s there to compare, except to blame your own fortune (or ability)?

PK and Guan were, and still are, good friends. Guan was my next door neighbour then. The former visited Guan from time to time. During one of his visits, I happened to be outside the house. Looking at my Toyota Corolla while waiting for Guan to emerge, he scornfully exclaimed, “Che’h, Japanese car!” He was driving a Fiat 127 or 128 then, which cost a couple of hundreds more. I knew PK had always considered himself to be a more superior mortal. But that was outright patronising!

But what broke the camel’s back was another straw he threw at me in another get-together Guan organised for a schoolmate who had returned from UK for a holiday. PK and I were both invited. The conversation drifted to salaries and I remembered PK was curious to know how much we were being paid in MIDA. I avoided answering, save to say that he should know that semi-government bodies like MIDA didn’t pay very well. This chap from UK was a little tactless. “Oh, I know, you are paid M$750,” he proudly displayed his knowledge.

“That’s just my pocket money,” boasted PK! He was all out to humiliate. I can’t quite remember the rest, but I did walk out of them.

From then onwards, PK became a no-no to me.

Once he had to pick up Guan’s wife from my house. What was he driving? I was just curious.
It was a JAPANESE car!

* * *

AKK was another no-no to me.

AKK is very good in IT; he has an IT business. I ran into him one day when he came to Guthrie to solicit business.

“Oh, oh, oh… I know you. But I can’t remember you name….” He was acting like a clown trying to recall my name, right in front of my colleagues. I thought he should have the EQ to pull me to one side to jolt his memory.

Never mind; I have heard enough of AKK’s idiosyncrasy to ignore his antic.

When climate change became a hot topic, he and another first-class classmate of ours who was already an Engineering professor in a university in the States were having a “one-up-on-you” exchange over internet on the subject. Classmates were in their CC list. I was not interested in their debate at all and interjected to advise that I would like to be excluded from their intellectual battle, jokingly telling them that my brain was too small to understand what they were arguing about.

AKK's response was outright abusive. He said I indeed had a small brain and served notice that he would block my email henceforth.

He gave me no avenue to “f” him up!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

In praise of "Kneah-su-ism"

When I first arrived in Australia, I found colleagues were very generous in showering praises even though what had been praised on was actually accomplishment or achievement of little significance. Everything little deed seemed to be awesome, or great, or excellent. I felt quite uncomfortable using these words. Friends and staff there must be thinking that I was not a very grateful fellow.

Some contend that showering praises is indeed a way to motivate your staff or your loved ones. I have no issue with this, provided the accomplishment or achievement is of substance. Overdoing it, like what I see in the Australian society, is counter-productive. This culture breeds mediocrity. Expectations become low. I can see that many Aussies cannot take pressure. Many would take "sickie" after a storm-in-the-tea-cup issue in the workplace. I always joke about the need to send some of these Aussies to South Korea to learn how to work harder!

Many parents also tend to suffer the “my children are the smartest” syndrome. Everything his or her child does is fantastic or extraordinary, when in fact it is NOT. I was and am still a "high bar" parent; nothing less than real achievement would satisfy me. I remember I would even get upset if my children did not observe good table manners. (My two children must have dreaded my high expectations of them when they were young. Although we have not spoken about these things since their coming of age, I suppose we don't have to feel too sorry about the past.)

Therefore when I saw parents showering praised on their children for no real achievements or allowing their children to run wild in restaurants, I naturally tended to frown a little. If you don’t make your children a little kneah-su (Hokkien term; meaning afraid to lose), chances are they will turn out to be mediocre individuals when they grow up. Many friends will not agree with me on this though.

I am an admirer of Harry Lee’s kneah-su culture. Most Singaporeans are no great shakes, but for a tiny dot in the map to stand out the way it does now, much credit has to be given to Harry for his efforts to steadfastly instil this culture since Singapore's Day One. I say Day One to elaborate a point about the need to start things early in a nation's formative years.

After its separation from Malaysia, Singapore was fragile, economically, politically and socially. Precisely this was the time to make or break a nation. Democracy in its superficial form would surely destroy, like what Yeltsin did to Soviet Union. Basically only a benevolent dictator like Harry can transform the country in that situation. And without Harry’s kneah-su approach, Singapore would likely grow to become a mediocre society in terms of competitiveness - just like Australia. Why do I say Australia’s mediocre?

Australia is indeed a lucky country. If we can quantify all its resources, on a per capita basis, its society must be the wealthiest on Earth. But because of its laid-back and “praises for no apparent achievement” culture, Australia has become an Average Joe in the developed world – a high cost and low productivity economy. The country is already in its adulthood; it has wasted its formative years which are critical for the successful introduction of this kneah-su culture.

Bringing up a child is no different. The best time to prepare your child to buy-in good values and face the competitive word is when they are young.

But too kneah-su a behaviour also makes one obnoxious to others. How do you strike a balance then? Ideally, one has to be internally kneah-su and tolerating or accommodating externally. Something maybe one can learn from Sun-tze?

Boycott Japan?

I have just received a “Let’s boycott everything Japanese” plea from a member of one of our WhatsApp chat groups. I share the author’s sentiment about Shinzo Abe, whom I consider the most dangerous politician in modern day Japan. Abe was totally non-remorseful or apologetic about the atrocities Japan committed during World War II. Under him, Japan is even trying to white-wash its schools’ history books. Unlike Germany which has long owned up and vowed never to repeat what Nazis had done to Europe, Abe is trying to sweep things under the carpet. A new generation of Japanese are growing up ignorant of the brutalities their warmongers had caused to their neighbours, especially Chinese in mainland China and Southeast Asia during the first half of the twentieth century.

But is the boycott necessary? Can a boycott bring Japanese to their knees?
I honestly doubt it can. It will make them more resolved to exercise their instinct, which is basically that very strong sense of superiority complex in them. Whereas for the offspring of the Yellow Emperor,  where "personal interest comes first" is innate in the race, can you believe this boycott will work?

The only nation that can prevent or contain Japan’s neo-militarism is China. It is far from ready to fight Japan and America now. Although it has the numbers in terms of war planes and ships, its armoury is still not sophisticated enough to overwhelm Japan’s, let alone that in America, unless it is a nuclear war. It still needs to 臥薪嘗膽 [wò xīn cháng dǎn] (persevere until one is completely ready). Maybe another ten to twenty years?

But I always believe unless China undergoes a form a Renaissance, this “catching up” ambition may just prove to be a pipe dream. There is much to be learned from your enemy; to turn a blind eye on what their real strengths lie is simply stupid. The real strengths of the Japanese are etched in their behaviours and attitudes. These are coded in their “genetics”. Perfectionism in anything they do is perhaps the most obvious trait you see in them. This perfectionist mind-set spawns quality consciousness and competitiveness. While Chinese by and large are very individualistic and linear in their family and clan relationships, Japanese are largely hierarchical and herd-driven. They are the true practitioners of Confucianism internally and Sun-Tze-ism externally!
Boycotting is in my opinion an emotional self-defeating action. If Japanese factories and business in China have to be closed, how many people will lose their job? Are they not things that the Chinese can learn from the Japanese there? To begin with, they can learn how to maintain cleaner toilets and more orderly offices, not to mention better etiquette and personal hygiene practices.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A BM? No thanks!

When my son decided to return to the country to teach and practice Neurology at the University of Malaya some six years ago, he was accorded the privilege to buy two tax-exempt vehicles. He duly exercised – both BMs, one a locally assembled 323i and another, BM118i I helped to ship in from Melbourne.

I have never been a fan of BMs, but these were his choices.
My first BM was a second-hand 320i bought during my wilderness in the early 1990s. I was too used to company cars and personal drivers; a lesser vehicle would have been quite hurting to my ego then.

One day, out of the blue, smoke billowed from the boot compartment while I was driving the family in Petaling Jaya. The antenna was causing a fire there! It was fortunate that I could put the fire out to avert a disaster. I decided to dispose of it. The registration number it carried – 3288 – helped a great deal; the buyer didn’t even bother to bargain down the o.n.o. (or near offer) price which I had put up. I suppose he was happy to pay a premium for the number, which apparently was great in Cantonese: Business prospers and prospers!
Two other BM320i followed; then a BM740iL before a BM730i provided by the Low Yat Group before I moved to Sydney. Except of the BM740iL which did not appear to have given me any trouble, the other BMs were less than so-so. I always think the people at BM are always trying to make simple things complicated. But how could I tell young people not to chase after BMs? “Without a BM, we have yet to arrive,” everybody seems to say!

Fast track to December 2014…
The price tag of my son’s BM323i in 2009 was M$275K. Because of his tax-exempt entitlement, he got his for M$175K. We looked into some used car websites and found that owners were generally asking for M$120K. What nonsense; the highest solid offer we finally got was M90K! What came next was even more shocking. Apparently, there is another M30K excise tax liability that he has to absorb. M$60K net for a five year old BM? Incredible!

I decided to keep his car and sell my one-year-old Mercedes A200.
A visit with this BM to a workshop reinforced my prejudice on BMs. My son’s BM had been serviced by Auto Bavaria according to its recommendations all this while, yet I was advised – to my chagrin – that many things were either faulty or are not working well. What was Auto Bavaria doing all this while? Changing motor oil oily? I have to fork out a couple of M$Ks to make it to a condition I trust!

As if to further strengthen my paranoia about BMs, the 118i which is being used by my daughter-in-law was flashing all sorts of warnings in on its screen. She sent it to Auto Bavaria. Oh, the PCB board is damaged because water has leaked into the system! It took them four days to tell me this. It would cost her more than M$3K to fix it; in the meantime, she was given a bill of more than M$1K for a service which she didn’t ask!
I was not convinced and took it to a friendly china-man mechanic. It didn’t take long for him to tell me this, “Sitau, see your rear lamp is broken. Water has apparently seeped in from there.” He did not want to be paid, nonetheless, I pushed him M$20 to him to go and “yum kopi”.

This experience reminds me of a story I read somewhere about NASA. Apparently it had to spend many good US millions to come up with a ball point that its astronauts could use in Space. As for the Russians, they provided their cosmonauts with pencil – made in China ones, maybe.
I suspect the bunch of service people at Auto Bavaria are really an incompetent lot. If you are a BM owner, you don’t feel good to ask what you have been billed each time you visit Auto Bavaria, do you? After all, BM owners don’t talk about small dollar and Sense, right?

But I must admit my admiration of the BMW museum in Munich. The displays are simply mind-boggling – as impressive as you see in Porsche and Mercedes museums in Stuttgart. But Auto Bavaria is no BMW, neither is Proton a true Mitsubishi.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Come on, don't sucker friends!

I did my Forms Four and Five in Kuala Lumpur's Technical Institute. Majority of the students were from outstations and for them, accommodation was provided in a hostel. It was eight to a room, except for those who were in the third year to complete an essentially two-year course. We called these people super-seniors. The two years of life away from home was a very memorable and nostalgic one for all of us. After our Form Five, a couple of us who had the fortune of passing the Sixth Form Entrance Examination were sent to Penang to join the Technical Institute there, others went on to do their diploma at the Technical College in Kuala Lumpur. For the rest, it meant the end of schooling and the beginning of working life.

An old boy decided to organise an old-boys get-together - 50 years after we have gone separate paths. I would be happy to see many of these old faces, even though some were very hostile to me in school.

Some days ago, one of these old boys gave me a call, "YB, would you like to buy some of my Organo Gold coffee? I am in the midst of a sales competition now." Apparently he was a member of this multi-level marketing scheme. If he could persuade me to agree, on the spot, to take up 20 packets at MYR50 each, he would qualify to go to the next round. Being one who has difficulty in saying no to friends, I was prepared to oblige. When he emailed to thank me, I noticed that the quantity had ballooned to 24 packs. "Never mind lah, since it is only another MYR200," I said to myself.

Not being a coffee connoisseur, I asked the consignment to be sent to our Class of 73 pool for distribution. (I am also an alumnus of the University of Malaya; 1973, Engineering.)

When the bill came, I nearly fell out of my chair; the amount was MYR3,960! I lost no time in telephoning him to give him a dressing-down!

You don't take advantage of friends, do you? He must have thought that I am a goose that lays golden eggs! Or have I given the impression that I am a tycoon ready to be ripped off? Silly me!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The "Syiok Sendiri" Syndrome

The recent "syiok sendiri" (self-gratification) pronouncements by some of our fiscal and monetary "authorities" in the wake of falling oil prices and shrinking Ringgit remind me of a book my son passed me to read some time ago. It is called "The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty" by Dan Ariely. I can't quite remember the theory part; but some of the illustrations of the author's argument still ring fresh and loud in my ears, especially Enron. Kenneth Lay could fool the world; after all, the world wanted to be fooled by him. But how could also the thousands in the organisation who were directly involved in the operations and the accounts help him to fool the world? The author says it has very little to do with "costs and benefits" in such an act of dishonesty on the part of those who helped to lie; rather, it was a case of "internalisation", i.e., they have also conditioned themselves to voluntarily help Lay to cheat the world. Our so-called "authorities" are really a case in point.

They know the truth, but they willingly succumb to speak out dishonestly.

These "authorities" are behaving like those lieutenants Lay had in Enron. They are telling us not to worry: Falling on prices has no impact on our economy! Cheap Ringgit is good for our exports! Etc. – as if all of us are devoid of any knowledge in Economics or Public Finance.

They, as well as many run-of-the-mill economists, are telling us that falling oil prices and weak Ringgit are not really bad for us. Lower oil prices will mean cheaper cost of energy, transportation and many raw materials that are used in the manufacture of chemicals and fertilisers for the agriculture sector. Weak Ringgit means we can export more and attract more tourists. Blah, blah, blah.
But really?

In the wake of these two precipitous developments, Malaysia is basically caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Everybody knows that Petronas’ contribution – in the form of taxes and dividends - accounts for about 30% of the government’s fiscal spending needs. How can the falling oil prices not have an impact on the economy? The CEO of PETRONAS was most blunt with his take of the situation. If I have read him correctly; he is simply telling us to get real and not be fooled by all these armchair experts. I feel for this CEO. Petronas is caught in the paradox of a NOC (national oil company): the need to make fuel prices affordable to the men-in-the-street on one hand and the desire for have a healthy margin for every barrel of oil extracted either in the country or overseas, since it is now a global player. Coupled with the fact that many of our companies are also going big in upstream and downstream pursuits all over the world, the economic equation of oil for Malaysia is no longer a simple question of our NET export-import position in this commodity.
Price of oil at less than USD60 a barrel, which we are seeing now, is making many big boys in this sector nervous. Many have merrily gone on to pick up assets and contracts – both upstream and downstream – in the wake of rising oil prices the last two years or so. Billions have perhaps been committed; many companies, listed or otherwise, are likely to see their balance sheet shrunk in no time, not to mention cash flow squeezes, thanks to banks’ about-turn and operational needs. The impact has not quite cascaded down yet, save those who are dabbling in the O&G stocks; but soon it will. Many jobs will be lost for sure. Billions have already been wiped off in terms of market capitalization.
There is also a price correlation between hydrocarbon and palm oil, which we were already seeing a steady decline for months before the present crude oil shock. And what do you expect Ringgit to behave? Down, of course.

Is a weak Ringgit good for Average Joe?

I live in both Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur. Iron ore and coal prices peaked in 2011. Australian Dollar was even stronger than US Dollar those days. Without exception, everyone in the policy domain was trying to "talk" down the Australian Dollar. “Oh, it is good for our economy!”
Really? How much more wine and beef and lamb can Australia export? I happen to be  also involved in wine-making in Victoria. Everyone is still struggling to keep his farm afloat! And ask the Average Joe in Australia now that its Dollar has sunk close to US 80 Cents: Are you better off now? No, my friend, Australia is close to zero growth. If not for the hot money that is flowing in from China and Southeast Asia, Australia - with its low productivity culture - should already be a basket case by now.

Our political and policy "authorities" can always patronise us with "cheap Ringgit is better" rhetoric. But the reality to Average Joe in Malaysia is simply this: a higher cost of living.

If you earn RM20K a month, an extra RM200 to 300 per month is unlikely to make you feel poorer. But for a fellow citizen who earns about two to three thousand Ringgits a month, to feed a family is, mildly put, tough!
To these "authorities", please tell the truth and prepare the country for challenges.

And, don't forget to go down to talk to Average Joe! 

A kurang-ajar of the highest order

Some days ago, a well-intentioned friend forwarded me something about Alvin Tan’s brilliance – a conclusion based apparently on an article by this chap’s on the on “evolution” of mice. I thought it was basically a very rudimentary stuff which he had plucked out from books on Darwinism.

I have written about “kurang ajar” (lack of good upbringing) before. If there is any candidate whom I think is best suited to wear this hat, it has to be Alvin Tan. I wouldn’t care a hoot if he decided to show off his sexual prowess in YouTube or Facebook or even all the social media in the world, but his bahkut-teh  (pork-rib tea dish) posting to taunt Muslims made me think this chap was mentally sick. Of course, this would have been a small matter elsewhere, but friends, we are living in Malaysia! I could fully understand his decision to seek asylum in the States, since his liberty is totally at stake. But he couldn’t control his big mouth. No sooner had he landed than he started to taunt the powers that be again. “Come and catch me if you can,” he loudly brags.
He is certainly safe now. But his antics also speak volumes of his immaturity. As it is, many have been hauled up on seditious charges for speaking out courageously on just issues, his childishness might just make life even more difficult for the real heroes.

Alvin Tan is certainly NO hero! To me he is a "kurang ajar" of the highest order.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Tax-exempt cars, beware when you have to sell...

When my son returned to the country, he was allowed to buy two tax-exempt vehicles, a privilege that he happily exercised. He recently decided to replace one of them - BMW323i - with a SUV. The five-year-old salon was getting a little tight for his three boys.

Even though the original price tag for this vehicle was $270K, the highest offer received was no more than $90K. There is simply not much second-hand value for BMs!

What followed was even more shocking. We found that a buyer would have to pay Customs duty to get it transferred to his or her name. I checked with a friend who had done this before. He told me that he had to pay $20K for a10-year-old car under a similar situation. There is a website which appears to be able to help one estimate the damage. I tried it and just couldn't believe the amount my son might have to pay. With the vehicle loan that was still outstanding, he might end up netting nothing.
I decided to sell my one-year-old A Class Mercedes and took over his BM instead. I always condemn BMs but am using one now! How ironical!

Friday, December 5, 2014

The trouble with Uncle Low

In our recent Class of 73 anniversary do, one figure sat pathetically in one of the tables, surrounded by fellow ex-lecturers and a couple of ex-students. The table was largely shunned, largely because of this figure. He was close to 90; yet many still find it hard to forgive him!

He is Dr George Low, whose callousness caused untold damage to the future of many of his students.

In the 1960s and 1970s, gaining a place in Engineering in the University of Malaya was no mean feat. It only accepted 120 or so students from Malaysia as well as Singapore. (The Engineering faculty of the University of Singapore only started shop in 1969.) I entered Engineering in May 1969 – at the height of the racial riots in Malaysia. The class was dominated by a couple of top schools in the country – Kuala Lumpur’s Victoria Institution, Penang’s Free School and Chung Ling High School, Perak’s Anglo-Chinese School and Johor’s English College. The rest, though from lesser known schools, were no push-overs; with few exceptions, they were the top boys of their respective schools. (Some ten Malay students were admitted under the affirmative action policy of the government; unfortunately, none could make it to the second year.)

Dr Low thought Thermodynamics in our second year. His reputation preceded him. “Watch out for Uncle Low” was the fear of the day. His subject was not really difficult, neither were his examination questions. But his warning: Draw a square block around each of your final answers; if an answer is wrong, you lose three-quarter of the marks for that question!

We used slide-rules then to compute our answers. In an examination setting, many tended to fumble. Many ended having to re-sit his paper. Out of those who resat, quite a number failed his paper again. Failing a resit was a very humiliating thing those days. It meant one had to repeat the year again. To add salt to this injury, repeat students were denied any class of honours then, even though he might have scored many distinctions in that or other years. This scarred the psyche of many. How can you blame those who still harbour the bitterness or rancour against Uncle Low?

We used to call lecturers of such behaviours “snakes”. There were quite a number, but few were as lethal as Dr Low. The one who taught us Engineering Design was particularly sadistic. His whole mission was to “trap” you. In our Third Year we were supposed to design a gear-and-pinion transmission. It involved some complex metallurgical calculations before one could go to the next easy step of designing the “teeth”. Out of the four-hour or so paper, the last hour had to be spent to putting the design on proper Imperial-sized drawings. I was still fumbling with the complex metallurgical computations when I saw my fellow students already starting to mobilize their T-square and drawing kit. How can? I read the question again.

I didn’t have to do the complex calculation at all! Right at the end of the question, it said, “Assume Big D over small d to be 4.” My gosh; I had wasted two solid hours! I did manage a straight pass, even though Engineering Design was one of my favourite subjects. A couple of my classmates were less fortunate. Luckily, though, they didn’t have to repeat the year.

Our Fourth and Final Year’s Engineering Design was again handled by this lecturer. The final examination was the design of an air-conditioning system. The word “brine” popped out of the examination paper. I froze! What is the meaning of “brine”? I have never heard of it? A quick whisper to my neighbour saved the day. “Water, but salty one lah!”

A classmate didn’t learn from his Third Year experience. He ended up with a General Degree, even though he was a top student in my Sixth Form class. He could easily have obtained a first class honours in any of the top universities in Australia or UK. But not in the University of Malaya! There were simply too many snakes there.

Oh, Another Conman!

I have been conned a couple of times, earlier today’s was not that hurting, notwithstanding, it represents another episode in life!

Our son had bought a new car, so we decided to help him dispose of his older his car, since he is so very busy with his work. We promptly bought a classified advertisement in The Star.
A Mr Wong called. “Can you bring the car to Pudu where my shop is?” Selling a used BMW323i is not easy. I was happy to oblige, but Pudu was quite foreign to me.

“Can we meet at Ampang Park instead?” He was happy to compromise.
I led him to where the car was parked. His lack of interest in the car was a little suspicious, but he looked very decent. He told me that his name was Wong. Since I was not conversant in Cantonese, we spoke in English. His was passable.

We adjourned to the nearby fast food outlet to talk. I had advertised the car for RM105K ono. He suggested RM102K, but we agreed to settle for RM103K.
He asked me to give him a lift to his shop in Pudu. In the car, he gave the impression that he was ringing his wife to arrange for a cheque of RM13K as deposit. The wife appeared to be asking him to pick up some medicine at Sungei Wang Complex. My wife who was accompanying me was not too happy with the detour, since traffic at Friday lunch time in that part of the world has always been very dreadful to us. However, I was prepared to oblige.

I stopped by a side road for him to run up to pick the medicine for his wife. A couple of minutes later, he rang up to ask me to meet him at the side entrance.
“Mr Lim, I have not brought enough money, can you please lend me MR245?”

“Sorry, Mr Wong; I don’t know you at all. Even though it is a small amount, how can I possibly lend you money just like that?”
“Oh, oh, never mind, I will buy 4 instead of 16 my wife has asked me too.” He “telephoned” his wife to advise.

I returned to my car and told my wife that we might have encountered a conman.
True enough, he didn’t appear again. His number had also gone out of service immediately after that.

Saw Hwa was pretty upset. I told her that’s life! It was HIS way of earning a living!
We even forgot we still had not had our lunch yet!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Living Buddha

I was at Kuala Lumpur Sentral to change my return flight a couple of days ago. I did't realise that it now houses a huge mall.

As I was passing the TUMI outlet, a figure in there caught my attention. What's a Tibetan monk doing in that shop? I have always admired TUMI products, but honestly I can't bring myself to buy any. I have plenty of its toiletry bags, though - thanks to MAS, for they give each B class passenger one each time you travel long-distance with them. This monk surely has good and expensive taste. Maybe he was buying as a gift to his girlfriend?

Talking about monks' new-found up-market tastes, I remember joining my boss in "entertaining" a "living "Buddha in Singapore's Four Seasons Hotel some years ago. It was certainly not a vegetarian treat. The food was not interesting, neither was the conversation or enlightenment. What made this encounter particularly memorable is that I found him coming down the elevator with a very sophisticated lady - two hours or so after our dinner. What was he doing with this lady up there??? He couldn't be preaching Sutra to her in the room, or could he?

After reading so much about the sexual exploits and abuses by priests and monks of all shades and denominations, the rendezvous by this living Buddha is just understandable. Isn't he just another human being once he takes off his robe?
Of course, there are many genuine chur-jia-ren () whom I hold in great esteem. But with so many of these charlatans around, not to mention the many more who prey on the kind-hearted souls in pasar malams (night markets), I just thought wasn't it time that something be done to curb this nuisance or nonsense?

Half-baked, or out to fleece?

My son is trying to dispose of his BM323i and since I am now working for KLKK (kneah-lai-kneh-ker – Hokkien, meaning nothing much to do; walking here and there), I decided to help him out.

He has been servicing this car regularly at Auto Bavaria since he bought it in 2009. There were a couple of things that needed to be dressed up. The hand rests were sticky; apparently, the plastic was melting away. (Coming from a BM, this was surprising.) I promptly had them replaced. I thought there was something not quite right with the air-conditioning as well, since it would take a while for the cooling effect to be felt. I decided to send it to an S8 Auto outlet nearby. I had used its service before; the people there looked professional enough.

The car was plugged to a sophisticated looking machine. The mechanic advised that it would take two hours for the machine to do the diagnosis. The cost would be RM250, including flushing the system. Fair enough.

“Your compressor is not working well; it is flooded.” They telephoned me two hours or so later. Since it was well past six in the evening, I agreed to leave the car with them. Oh, if it is the compressor, it is going to cost me a bomb! I said to myself.

Next morning, I telephoned to check. “No, it is not your compressor but the condenser which is faulty.” I was told that the cost of a replacement was a couple of thousand dollars; nothing is cheap as far as BM parts are concerned.

“Let me see it before you do it.” I advised.

I was met by a so-called air-con expert upon my return to S8 Auto.

“Nothing wrong with your compressor or condenser; your fan was not working well.” He went on to shine his torch light on the culprit. I felt a little relieved; fans should not cost that much.

“Oh, you have to replace the whole housing.” For the BM original, it was close to RM5K, but I could make do with a German equivalent, which would cost close to RM3K.

I was a little sceptical after the series of changes in diagnosis and decided to check things out first.

I took the BM to another workshop specialising in air-con nearby. The mechanic said there was nothing wrong with the fan. When I mentioned S8 Auto, he smiled and gave me a you-know-lah look! And the system seems to be working well. Maybe BM didn’t do a good job in cleaning up the system earlier on!

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Reincarnation Poser

I was relating about a reincarnation mural I saw in one of the temples in Bhutan to a white Aussie colleague over a cold beer one day. I was given to understand that reincarnation works like a clock; if you do good, you get promoted and keep moving upwards until you reach XII. If you are a no-good fellow, you keep slipping down and end up in VI. I can't remember whether the climb and the slip is clockwise or anti-clockwise. I suppose it doesn't matter.

At the end of my description, Jeff asked: How then does a human, having slipped down the ladder to become a worm, now hope to crawl back to be a human? What's the redemption path?

But I suppose you may be able to do "it" with the help of the good elephant and the holy monkey...
This talk reminds me of the Singapore Airlines' KrisFlyer PPS status I used to enjoy and the MAS Enrich Platinum card I now hold. SQ was quick to elevate me to PPS, but soon I found myself demoted to Gold the following year and Silver the next! MAS is now threatening me that I need to travel more to maintain my Platinum!

Climbing back is sure a hard slog. In the case of the "once-upon-a-time human" worm, is his (or its) brain still intact for him to repent his (or its) way back?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Romania and Bulgaria

Romania and Bulgaria, two of our first tour destinations of the Balkans, have a number of things in common. They were both under the suzerainty of Ottoman before the two world wars. Both aligned themselves with the Nazis in the second. After that they became members of the Warsaw Pact, until the breakup of the Soviet Union. Both are now members of the European Union.

I was hoping to be greeted by Roma, or the gypsies, when we arrived in Bucharest, the capital of the former. We have heard so much about these Indo-Europeans and all of us were told to be extra careful with our wallets. To my disappointment, we did not get to see any, except for a small village from afar during our coach journey across Bulgaria. Apparently, only some 3% and 5% of Romanians and Bulgarians, respectively, are gypsies.
Romania was notorious for its dictator Nicolae Ceausescu during the Cold War. He and his wife were eventually executed.

The "monument" commemorating the overthrow of Communism in Romania
The local tour guide claims that the building in the picture below is the second biggest in the world – after the Pentagon. He may well be right, but I really do not see the basis of the claim.

Second larges building in the world?

The Castle of Dracula. I didn't see any vampire there!

Even though Bulgaria was a member of the Axis, Tsar Boris III, the reigning monarch was said to have declined to participate in the deportation of Jews to concentration camps. His sudden death in the summer of 1943 is believed to be the work of the Nazis. Today, he is a saint to Bulgarians.

The following is a picture I captured in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Why the capsule at the road junctions?
Look carefully and you will see a traffic controller in it. We were told that the controller actually intervened in the change of the traffic lights to ensure better traffic flows. Maybe our road transport department people should go there to take a look.



I have already – some years ago – read from somewhere that Muslims in Albania ate pork. But this is too sensitive for me to say it in our country. It is like telling Javanese that the founder of the Demak sultanate in the 16th century was in fact a Chinese (Radin Pateh; a Muslim though).

To me, it was perfect understandable. Albania was a Communist country, but strangely not a Soviet Union satellite. It had been a close ally of Maoist China for many years. Religions were swept largely underground, so even though Albanians are now free to practise Islam, pork and wine are no longer taboos to them.

Our tour guide Lito was not shy to disclose the fact that he is a pork-loving Muslim. He claims that pork is eaten by most Albanians, even though they are Muslim. He said he had to hide this truth from Muslim tourists though. He was candid enough to share with us a couple of anecdotes where he found himself totally lacking as a Muslim to his charge.

Tirana, which is the capital of Albania, still retains the “Soviet-era” ambience. We were quickly shooed away by a guard when we walked too near to a rather dull building purported that of the president’s. The monumental building designed by the ex-dictator’s daughter is still there, but in a state of total neglect. Surprisingly, we were told that she is now one of the richest individuals in the country!

Dictator's pride
Lito was proud to tell us that the accommodation that was afforded us was a five-star hotel. Apparently there were only two hotels with such classification in Tirana. In reality, it didn’t have much of a class; two of the three lifts were out of service. The lobby smelt of age. Even though we wanted to support tourism, there was hardly anything that can qualify as a representative “souvenir” from there.

Out of service - at least they tell you

But Albanians are a hardy lot. They formed substantial minorities in the adjacent countries. And I believe they are a very shrewd lot. The tour company that is taking us through the Balkans is actually owned by Albanians.
Can you see "UFO' on the wall of the university? A faculty/school dedicated to that study in Albania?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Macedonia, which one?

When our real estate acquaintance Leon old me that he was a Macedonian, I was quick to show off my understanding of his ancestral country.

“Oh, I have been to Greece once. I actually spent a couple of weeks there.”

He looked at me and said, “My mother-in-law would kill you if you say she is Greek!”

I was still trying to show off. “Isn’t Macedonians in Greece the same as the Macedonians in the new country that was once part of Yugoslavia?” I thought I knew the geography as well as the history of the area!

“They are totally different!” Unfortunately, Leon had to rush off somewhere and did not have the time to explain to me.

Until my recent visit to the Balkans…

Indeed these two peoples are different. The Macedonians that I was seeing are Slavic, and those in Greece region of Macedonia are Greeks. Until today, Greece has consistently vetoed the country’s use of the name “Republic of Macedonia” and insisted that it uses the name the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”.

And whose national hero is Alexander the Great? Both countries claim him to be theirs! Apparently he was from the ancient Kingdom of Macedon, which is now part of the Macedonian region of Greece. No Wonder!

Alexander the Great: Who does he belong?
A good lesson in geography and history. (I should have consulted Wikipedia instead of travelling across seven or eight time zones to learn this “fact”!

There is a tendency for less developed countries with big ego politicians to build monuments. Macedonia is a classic example. Our approach to Macedonia was by coach via Bulgaria. As we travelled closer to Skopje, sun was already setting. I thought I was in Indonesia. Both sides of the road were lined with unruly shop houses selling all sorts of wares in a very Third World-like fashion.

This is not a town in Indonesia!
However, as we crossed the 15th Century Stone Bridge across the city’s Vardar River, I thought I was seeing Putrajaya! Statues after statues and new buildings of monumental proportions suddenly appeared before your eyes. I was told by the tour guide that the country is spending one quarter of its annual budget on these structures! Maybe they can recoup their investment from tourist dollars but I don’t seem to see that many there.

They also have a Dr M
Apparently the city fathers want Skopje to look like London where double decker buses are iconic of the landscape. Even though it has its own coach building industry, it chose to buy them from China, at something like €300K a piece. They are certain not rockets. I suppose someone has made a great killing out of the contract. Hello China, this is one sure way of losing friends and influence in the long run!

At 300K Euro a piece, it should be able to fly?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A journey through the Balkans

Tirana, Albania: A university dedicated to the study of UFO?

A reminder of the conflicts after the break-up of Yugoslavia

The best lamb roast in Bosnia

The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria here (Sarajevo) in 1914 triggered the First World War

Time for pomegranate juice!

The Muslim-Christian divide in Sarajevo - Noticeable?

Time to catch up!

A casino?

It works perfectly!

Zagreb's tram service can put Melbourne's to shame

This manhole cover is made of brass; it would be long gone if it is found in our part of the world!

A sidewalk café; how creative!

Croatians, the people that invented necktie

Consider first before you walk in...

Only for those who love Armani

Jiuzhagou of the West

The new monuments in Skopje, Macedonia

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Quiz

My brother-in-law showed me this quiz. What's your answer? (The English in the original version was pretty bad; I have taken the liberty to correct the grammatical mistakes.)

Richard is selling slippers. His cost is $20 a pair, selling at $30. There was a 20% discount during a certain festive period. One customer came and bought a pair and paid him $50. Richard had no small change so he changed it with his neighbour. The next day, the neighbour came back with the $50 and told him that's counterfeit note. Richard paid the neighbour back $50. How much did Richard actually lose?

For those who love such challenges, I urge you to read a book by Noble laureate Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Time for a Quiz with MAS

 MAS never ceases to amaze me!

The three pictures on the left were taken by me three weeks ago - on MH148 Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur.

The first picture says that the plane is 679 miles from Kuala Lumpur. The second picture shows the position vis-à-vis the geography of the area.

But look at the third picture.

It says:
Time to Kuala Lumpur: 0:00
Local Time at Kuala Lumpur 6:50pm
Estimated Time of Arrival: 6:50pm

I leave it to readers to figure out what I am hitting at! (The pictures were taken with my iPAD; readers may find the numbers too blurred to read.)

Hours earlier, I did alert one of the crew  members of this "donkey". He said the cockpit was aware of the mistake but was unable to do anything. I suppose the computer was still a little groggy - after an over-night visit to the wineries in Victoria's Yarra Valley!

A year or so ago, I flew SQ - Singapore to Melbourne. Guess what, the destination on the screen was listed Sydney. I asked one of the ground crews whether we were going to Sydney. He came back sheepishly to apologize on behalf of his captain. I am not sure the captain was able to keep his job!


Sunday, October 12, 2014

On Products and Services

I used to have a lot of respect for Korean products. I have also been quite impressed with Korean dramas. And having visited Korean, albeit on a package tour, I was quite convinced that Koreans have “arrived” – until my wife bought a Samsung’s iBot – a robot that can take over the chores of a maid: cleaning up your floor and return to its base after the work is done. In short it is an i-Maid. But this Samsung iBot proves to be dump maid. Surprisingly it is not sensitive enough to detect drops in floor levels. It would tip over and hangs up when it comes to one. When it meets an obstacle, like the base of a chair, it would struggle and try to climb it – like a dogged mountaineer trying to climb Mount Everest! And from the following picture you can see how ridiculous it can behave when it goes near a bed. It would mobilise its entire might to squeeze itself into the gap, only to lose its power and ends up stranded in that place. Samsung should have offered it in golden colour!

Dumb Blonde, where are you going?
If your product is not ready, it is best that you don’t introduce it to the market. It will cause irreparable damage to your brand. Ask me to buy a Samsung phone or a tablet now?  I will certainly think more than twice.

I have never bought a car from Cycle & Carriage Bintang before. When Mercedes Benz introduced its new A-class, I thought it suited me – small, economical and, of course, “prestigious”, at least my ego told me so.
Mine was the lower end version. The car turned out to be disappointing. The accelerator response is worse than the Perodua I replaced. And its frugality in fuel consumption was nowhere near what the brochure claimed. Its appetite is in fact as big as the C-class I use in Melbourne. I wrote to give them the feedback. Guess what? A lukewarm response from both Cycle & Carriage Bintang, followed by Mercedes Benz AG, but nothing useful was offered. One day I took the car for a trip up north – the first long-distance run – and found that the car keep towing to one side. A Chinaman mechanic told me the obvious. He suggested that I sent it back to Cycle & Carriage Bintang to have it fixed, since it involved camber adjustments. The service consultant confirmed it was the case, but slapped me with a huge bill. The car had only done less than 10,000 km, including the long trip to Penang. I wrote in to protest. Guess what? A case number was given to me, but it has been months, I have yet to hear from Cycle & Carriage Bintang. Ask me to patronize the company again? You must be joking!!!

ASUS’s Wifi thumb drive is another case in point. It asks you to connect, then you are supposed to enter your password, next it asks you to save, which attracts another question like: Do you want to override the old one. You can click yes or no to your heart’s content; it will take you back to the same series of questions one more time!
It is strange that these IT designers don’t get users, especially those who are new, to walk through the process. Sure, such silliness is not a problem since they know the system. But others, especially older dinosaurs like me?

Microsoft likes to hit you where it hurts most. As recent as last month, even though my Office suite was the 2010 version, for Outlook, I still used the 2003 vintage. Outlook, as we all know, is the most expensive component of Office and I was too stingy to change, since the old "Morris Minor" was still very much functioning.

Lately I was attracted by Microsoft’s new offer. For A$9 a month, I could have its Office 2013. I lost no time in signing up. The next couple of days were very frustrating. Error messages kept popping up: Error 40x800blahblahblah. They were worse than Greek to me. Its Technical Support was not available during weekends and non-office hours. I went to its web notes to look for solutions. I got nowhere. Finally, I spoke to their support team. Despite my handicap in Filipino English, I managed to get the programs activated. However, I have yet to be able to access my contacts with one click, a feature which Microsoft proudly claims.

The gold medal for the most laughable brochures in English, I reckon, has to be awarded to suppliers of Chinese products and services. Many volumes have been written on this phenomenon. I would just like to contribute a little here. I love to cite CCTV’s English Channel. Is it for the West? If it is, then its producers have certainly not been doing their job. I have yet to come across any westerner who bothers to tune in to this channel. If it is for English-speaking Chinese, then I must say that it is also a very mediocre do, notwithstanding the money spent. Even I find the commercials irritating; same voices are being used over and over and they sound as if they were doing a drama! The so-called experts that have been brought in to talk about global issues would always start their sentence “I think” or “You understand” or the likes. These are direct Chinese translations from the way we Chinese tend to speak. Even the former chief economist of the World Bank, who is supposed to have a PhD from one of the top universities in the States, also displays the same thought process.
Jia Qing Ling was a governor and later party secretary of China's ujian Province before he went on to become the mayor of Beijing and later a politburo member. I thought I had made a friend out of him when he visited Genting. I wrote to him to suggest that China should start a clearing house for English translations of the products and services that it exported. Guess what, it must have ended up as a piece of junk mail in his secretary’s rubbish bin.

I can go on and on with examples like these. Fortunately, there are still many good companies around.
If you forget to turn off data-roaming when you are overseas, you are likely to end up with a fat bill after your return. I believe Maxis, Digi and all their buddies don’t alert you about this; they only want to trap you to pay more. I like my Optus. For an old man like me, I tend to forget things. The moment I turn on my Australian phone overseas, I am sure to see a message from Optus that my data roaming facility was on and this would incur costly charges. Why do you need this on when Wifi is quite readily available in many places nowadays? Turn the feature off! Before Optus introduced this alert, I was hit by a couple of hundred Aussie dollars because I was overseas and did not turn off data roaming. I telephoned to explain; the lady over the line was happy to credit much of the amount back. There are also another two occasions when they informed that their internal audit had discovered that I had been overcharged. Credits were promptly given.  Do you get that from Maxis or Digi or their likes in Malaysia? Fat hope!