Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Acknowledgement...

It occured to me in September - in the midst and uncertainty of completing my studies - if there is any part of my thesis I would share in a blog, it must the part I enjoyed most in writing, and that is none other than the Acknowledgment. Writing the Acknowledgment is obviously less strenuous than the main body of a thesis - when you are scratching your head trying to figure out what to write, and what have you done to be able to humbly claim that you have contributed to knowledge, one of the academic requirement that shall be fulfilled - so they say - before the university can award you a research degree. When you start writing the Acknowledgment, it is a sign that you are almost finished with your writing... even though I start thinking of mine at the start of my studies!!! It must be the part in me that was trying to begin with end in mind. In one way or another, I thought I was inspired by Mr. Lee Kuan Yew's own tribute in his Singapore Story even though I am careful not to over do it considering that I am only writing for a year's worth of work compared to Mr. Lee's decades of dedicated work to build his country. Otherwise, I might have chosen to write with more style and sophistication!

It turned out that the part of research that is writing was more enjoyable especially after months of intensive laboratory work - working long hours on my own and repeating the same experiment over and over - and laborious data analysis.

While I was quite eager to share that "part" of my thesis, I was careful not to publish it until a condition has been met and now that the condition has been fulfilled, here it goes:

Acknowledgment

I would like to express my sincere appreciation to Dr. AAA for supervising me in this project and providing valuable guidance throughout my research. I would also like to thank Prof. BBB for his insight on certain parts of the research and CCC, Dr. DDD and Dr. EEE for all their assistance in my laboratory experiments.

I am grateful to the ZZZ for providing the financial support through YYY Scholarship without which I would not have been able to pursue this research degree. I am also grateful to my manager for his support enabling me to take leave for the purpose of pursuing this degree without losing a job.

Finally I would like to express my sincere appreciation to my family members and friends for their strong support, especially my wife and my mother. This work is dedicated to them and to my first child which is expected to be born in the next few weeks.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

One year later...

I have finally bought a flight ticket today to return home; less than 72 hours before the scheduled departure. I have found as though a heavy burden has been taken off me even though in reality, there is still a part of a burden I wish I could have get rid of before my return. To my relief, I now started to see lights at the end of the tunnel, even though the lights may not be as clear and as bright as I would have hoped for. That doesn't matter, at least at this juncture. I shall cross the bridge as and when I get there.

Less than 24 hours ago I have been in a slight state of despair, as the rides seems to get tougher and Murphy's Law seems to be in full force, I pushed a panic button early yesterday morning to seek some help.

I have been praying really hard lately, except that my prayer at times may appears only as a routine and lack of substance, as I loose focus. Today turns out to be a truly good day, as the events unfolds, a new hope has since emerged. I am truly grateful.

A turn of events do not normally conforms to what one would expect, I would say. And this is a fact of life. It is interesting that we would always recognise this fact and yet when we stumble upon a new set of challenges, we are as though taking a new learning journey. It is indeed a learning journey for life can only be meaningful when you learn something new every day. You would die when you stop learning.

Priorities in life change as circumstances change. I love change as it breath new set of challenges to work on, and keeps me going. Career move, physical transfer, career change all are examples of how we could learn new things. More importantly, it makes us realise the temporal nature of our life. It follows that we should all get out of our comfort zone, do something different, work on a new thing and strives hard to trigger a change in the life and the world that we live in.

I am extremely happy to be able to return home, as the past twelve months have given me a rare chance for a totally new exposure, and set a new standard on my own - I hope in some way, I have raised the bar. I have had a range of wonderful opportunities to make a real difference; these opportunties are those I never had planned for when I decided to start this journey over a year ago - from life-saving mission to rescue a flood victim (the victim is non other than my own beloved mother), to the opportunity to talk about race and race relations in an open and transparent atmosphere, to joining a public dialogue session at the House of Parliament, a trip to the Scottish countryside that has left us stranded over night at an airport, a short drive to Negombo and its idyllic fishing village, to a mini-mission to save a cute little puppy which I found most fulfilling (with a little encouragement from my wife and my mother). It was an amazing year: a mix of adventure and drama. I truly hoped through these experiences I have emerged wiser as a person, for this is the path I have chosen, for there shall be no regret, and there is no turning back.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Memoir of a Father...

Probably the earliest memory I have of my father was when we were in a shop opposite the market in our small hometown. The shop is part of a terrace of small shophouses facing a rather oblong-shaped market and, behind it is a light brown, narrow river. It is the river that we would occasionally cross by a small boat during one or two special trips in a year: the one I remember was when we were going over to the other side to shop for our clothes for the upcoming festive season.

There was a bus "station" separating the shops and the market. Well, it is not really a "station", as the buses would be lining on the one-way road, giving just enough width for a car to pass through. There were not that many cars passing through that road anyway (to start with, there were not that many cars then!) except for the taxis (a taxi "station" was located on the other side of the market).

There was no purpose-built shelter or signage, passengers would normally be standing at the front of the shops waiting for their buses. In any case, there was no more than two buses at any one time. One would be a faster, yellow bus plying through the then new road between the town and the district capital, and another is a blue bus which goes to the same destination but through an older route, and stops more as it passes through many villages along the route. There was a makeshift fruit stall in the corridor opposite one of the convenient shop that sells sweets, biscuits and drinks among other things. The shop we were in was only several feet away from this place.

That was before 1982. I could not remember the year we were in the shop but I was not in school yet (I was quite fortunate to only start formal school at seven. There was no kindergarten in the village when I was five and six, it was only available one or two years later. By then I was old enough to be in primary school).

Mother was also there I remember. We must have gone there by my father's motorbike. As I don't remember the 2-miles journey and for what it was for, I guess I was sitting in front or in the middle during the journey between our home in the village and the town centre.

I was crying very loudly. I guess it wasn't not me at all! Years later, as I was reading The Secret Garden, I could only smile and relate to the behaviour (or rather lack of) of the "crippled" young boy who Mary had to deal with as she moved in from India.

There in a glass cabinet was a yellow, shiny huge Volkswagen Beetle. It must have been love in the first sight! It was such a wonderful piece with particular attention to details, the body must have been made from solid steel applied with paint of high quality. I must have thrown quite a bit of tantrum, but I didn't get the car. Not that car. I remember having a red car with a sturdy steel body but it was a lot smaller than the Beetle. That must have been the replacement my parent bought for me, I can only guess.

One other day, father returned home and brought two "butterfly", one for my sister and the other one, for me. It is not a real butterfly but it could really fly! I remember enjoying every seconds playing with it. There was a mechanism I thought it must be through some mechanical means as it didn't use a battery. It was really clever.

Father was a great fan of animals I must say. Once, he reared rabbits. There was a small wooden den to house those white rabbits in front of our house. There was this particular type of leaf that the rabbits eat and father would search for the leaves in one part of the village until he could grow the plant in our own yard.

Before long, we have a big family of rabbits. The wooden den was no longer sufficient to house all of them. It was then decided to move them to bigger place. It was to be on the ground where there is a small busut with metal wires as fence surrounding it. On the ground, there were holes everywhere. It was only then I knew that rabbits enjoy digging holes on the ground and probably create a cosy room underground. Once in a while there would be missing rabbit as he (or she!) decides to venture to new places in the neigbourhood.

At the back of our house about five minutes walk away, there is a huge man-made pond originally designed to rear fresh water fish. There is a rectangular well next to it for our water supply in a few dry years when the well next to the kitchen dried up and could not pump water for the household. The pond was one of his dreams I think but it didn't take off too well. We still have the pond today except that it is now probably grown with all sorts of wild plants and the water level must have gone down considerably. I remember enjoying a ride in a small wooden sampan in the pond with my siblings.

One of his more successful ventures is the cocoa plantation on the vast piece of land we have behind our house. He lived to see the fruits of his labour except that the yield wasn't probably the best, but I think it is not too bad considering that cocoa was only introduced then in the country to help farmers in the rural areas. It was a small scale project to make use of the land that we have. I was quite excited when I first knew about having cocoa on our own backyard, thinking of delicious chocolate only to be dissappointed to see cocoa bean does not have the slightest look and smell of chocolate!

A few years earlier, father grew a variety of vegetables. The yield was so good I remember we could put up the vegetables at various shops in the village.

In addition to cocoa, father grew considerable varieties of fruit trees in the piece of land that we have, mostly behind the house but we also have a number by the sides. I am not sure whether the mix of plants we have on the land could have contributed to the yield of any particular fruit tree. The best reward must be the huge yearly produce of one of the fruit, dokong that exceeds the "demand" of our big family unfortunately this reward comes only after father is no longer around. In a good year, we can also sell the fruit to generate some income. Not that we need that extra income now as much as we need twenty, thirty or forty years ago.

Father didn't watch much tv however he was a fan of world news. During those years, there was only one tv channel offering dedicated programme for world news and that was aired quite late at night. Occassionaly he would also watch American movie. I remember watching movie with him once in a while.

I stayed at home for the first twelve years of my life however there was only six years or less that can bring my memory of him while we lived together. At twelve I left home for boarding school therefore there was less opportunity to get to know each other.

The last time I saw him was on one hot afternoon in 1996, possibly in September as he was sitting on the wooden bench in front of the house. I was leaving after a few months of holiday break. I was waving to him from inside a car as we leave the front yard.

There is one gift I treasured most from my father, and that was for giving me my name, even though it might not be at all intentional. It may sounds strange, but that is probably the best gift of all.

Monday, 28 July 2008

The work-life balance: Where are we?

In the first post, the author describes the dilemma of working Malaysian women and suggests that the work-life predicament is related to ideology. In this part, the author argues why materialism has got to do with it.

The author does not suggest that all working women quit their job and be a full-time housewife. Such suggestion is hugely impractical and can be disastrous to many families in Malaysia, at least at this point in time. It may also have a significant negative impact to the socio-economic situation in the country.

Much of the issues related to the work-life balance can be pointed to the ideology embraced by many Malaysians today, irrespect of their religion. Ideology may be a big word here, however the author believes that the main root cause of the problem is due to the fact that many have embraced materialism, consciously or not. Obviously, this is not unique to Malaysia.

So what does it mean to embrace materialism*?

(Without going through any textbook definition on materialism) Material posession seems to be at the centre of everyone's attention - be it a good house or a new car. Over time, many are entangled in such situation as their financial commitments increase, for example, upgrade to a better house, or purchase of a new car. There are also additional costs associated with increased family members, healthcare and medical costs and increased expenditure for their child's education**. In the city, a typical tenure for housing loan is between 20 to 30 years. And this unfortunately takes significant part of their working life***. The cost of a new car in Malaysia is among the highest in Southeast Asia (reference required) and the loan tenure mostly lasts between five to nine years .

Many tend to follow this trend albeit unconciously, and therefore their life is centred towards maintaining this lifestyle. To some this means that a double-income is required and therefore both the husband and wife have to work for a long time through their life. Therefore, most people in the capital, men or women are caught in the rat race.

Rapid development and technological advances provide some explanation to the situation too. Rapid development translate to increased wealth while technological advances - through consumerism that brings mass advertising through the mainstream media - encourage many people to own such things as mobile phone, computer, satellite tv etc. Many now own a credit card, and a significant number have more than one. This certainly doesn't help especially those who are less wise in their spending.

Addressing the issue of ideology and belief should therefore be at the core of any solutions to be proposed and education seems to be the most viable way. This may take a long time, as the ideology is deeply embedded in the society. It is not surprising if it takes a generation or two to fix the problem.

In the mean time, men and women should increase their awareness about priority-setting, and husband and wife should carefully discuss what is really important to them in their life. There should be a concerted and guided effort to increase this awareness, as many may not realised that they could well be on the wrong track, even though the family income may suggest that they are highly successful men and women.

While a permanent solution is found, there should be more agressive move to lobby for a more conducive working environment for working women; such as option for prolonged leave to take care of her baby (without losing the job!), longer maternity leave, proper regulations for childcare provider with sufficient enforcement in place, increased opportunity for women to work from home for some sectors of the economy, increased opportunity for part-time job etc. And such proposals should be implemented sooner rather than later for the benefit of each citizen, and for the continued peace and prosperity of the nation. Without swift actions, the nation may be falling apart in the future, as the family institution, the building blocks of the society, is fast failing.


*It is interesting to note that Madonna was a role model for the Western women as far as work-life balance is concerned (refer previous post). The author can't help but remember that the pop star also sang "Material Girl", a popular song in the 80s. In the lyrics, it was mentioned somewhere that she is a "material girl in a material world". This, to a certain extent, provides a supporting proof that materialsm is indeed the most widespread ideology in the modern world and Madonna or whoever she represents, once a role model for work-life balance for Western women indeed promotes materialism. Consumerism, globalisation and free-trade provide a good vehicle for materialism to conquer the world. It should be noted that materialism is a result of secularism (reference required).

** It is unfortunate that healthcare and medical services and tertiary education are becoming more like a commodity in Malaysia. There are many private clinics and hospitals in Malaysia, and many Malaysians opt for their services for quick and better service at additional cost. Education fees have increased over the years, and many university students have to resort to education loan that comes with interest rate.

***In Malaysia, employees in the goverment work until they are 55 or 56 years old whereas those in the private sector may work until they are approximately 60 or slightly older.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

The work-life balance...

An article appearing in the Style, a supplement to The Sunday Times (July 20, 2008) provides an interesting perspective about a topic of interest to many, the work-life balance. Aptly titled "The Work-Wife Balance", the article provides a good flavour about some of the current thinking in the West about the subject.

Relating to Madonna's alleged marital problems, the article went on to state that she was a role model to modern Western women on work-life balance. Pointing to the emergence of feminism decades ago and its fight for women's power, it is not hard to see how the Western society has evolved, particularly in relations to women's role and what constitute women's success.

Back home (Malaysia), working women, mostly in the capital are finding it increasingly difficult to manage career and family lives. While Madonna is not the role model, and cultural and religious values are vastly different, there are signs to show that there are similar trends. Modern Malaysia is quick to embrace materialism in the name of development. Life style of Malaysians have changed tremendously over the past decades. As the standard of living improves, so does the cost of living. While direct comparison between the West and Malaysia is obviously inappropriate, possibly unnecessary, it is important to gauge the progress in the country with respect to those of developed ones, as Malaysia aims to be a fully developed nation by 2020. After all, the world is dominated by liberal capitalism, and Malaysia is no stranger to it.

Malaysian women benefit from an education system originating from the colonial days. Contrary to some conservative nations, there is nothing to limit any woman in Malaysia to pursue her education to the highest level. Malaysian society also encourages education irrespect of gender. Many Malaysian women attain tertiary qualification, and considerable numbers are educated overseas - many in the West. In recent years, it has been reported that the number of women in Malaysia's public universities has considerably outnumbered those of men. In short, the opportunities are vast for women in the country.

Having gotten a university degree, it is a natural progression to enter the employment market. At this stage, women also contibutes income to their families: single women send money to their ageing parents on regular basis - this is part of the values which is quite different from the West - while married women serve the parents as well as their new family. Many will also have to serve the loan that was used to support their education while studying at the university or college.

The work-life conflict likely develops when a woman starts a family; and this happen when she is in her 20s or 30s. They will also start to have children at this stage. For professionals, this is a stage of primary importance as this is the time to develop their career if they aspire to be somebody. Regardless whether a woman decides to be a career woman or not, an 8-to-5 working hours is still the norm and this in all likelihood will be at the expense of the family*. The hectic environment in the city does not help, and so is the high cost of living.

While many in the country continue to believe that families are the fundamental building blocks of the society, and women continue to play a pivotal role in developing a successful family, there are signs to suggest that these "blocks" are falling apart. Crime rate is on the rise, social ills are getting worse and values that were once the strenghts of the society are fast depleting.

People are working harder each day, many women included, and that is the way it goes. It is interesting to note what was said by journalist and author Rosie Boycott, mentioned in the same article "What is wrong with the society we live in is that success is all about money....." and this statement unfortunately is becoming more and more relevant to the Malaysian society today.

There are reasons to believe that this predicament is not unintentional; it is very much a result of a system based on underlying ideologies - name it whatever you like: globalisation, free market, equality, rights - they are all the same, and that is materialism based on liberal capitalism.

* Childcare is a major concern in Malaysia. As many women opt to work to support the family, many have to hire maids to take care of the small children. There have been many cases to suggest that maids are generally unreliable. Many children spend most of the time with the maid with little background known about her, albeit the fact that she was provided with some mandatory training before being hired. Nursery is an alternative for parents unfortunately the service provided by most is a far-cry from the basic standards required for a childcare provider.

Monday, 21 July 2008

One day in 1990...

1990. As the wind was blowing, the grey afternoon sky was getting darker. It wasn't the type of weather we would usually expect there. I remember standing on the road, many students were walking on the same towards their own houses. After lunch and a short rest, we would normally had our prep between 2 and 4; we had this from Sunday to Thursday. It must have been after the afternoon tea in the dining hall when I met her. The meeting was very brief, I remember we were standing all the time right in the middle of the road. It wasn't a busy road as it is one of those located in the residential area. I don't remember seeing cars plying that road throughout my one-year stay there except for the occasional few that were owned by parents who came to visit their children.

Students were housed in single storey terrace houses rented by the school. It was a boarding school like no other! I enjoyed it very much though. The classrooms, the library, the dining hall and the assembly hall were all terrace shoplots. They didn't have the conventional doors...there were those metal sheet that goes up and down which covers the entire width of the classroom. There was no playing field except for the one (with overgrown grass!) facing the row of houses where students lived. This must have been provided by the property developer for the residents.

It was a very small school by any standard, there were less than 140 students in 1990 all of whom were of the same age. Despite the lack of proper facilities, the environment was very good . The principal was a very nice lady, a motherly figure for every students. There were around 20 teachers and they were all very likable; in fact many were popular with students. There were no major rival groups probably because there's no seniors or juniors - everyone was very much on the same level. There were small factions here and there but in general they didn't cause much troubles. The food was excellent too, a drastic departure from what I was used to 2 years earlier. Despite its humble beginning and the fact that it was relatively unknown in the national education scene, it was not a big surprise that the school successfully produce many straight As students that year, the highest in the country*.

During the meeting I don't remember each of us talking very much. She seems to be in a rush. I don't quite remember how she got there, and how was she going to get home. I thought she said she was coming from somewhere with some friends, was it a school-organised trip? Before leaving, she gave me a fountain pen. And off she went. It was a very brief meeting. I then walked to my room. It didn't rain the way the colour of the sky would have suggested although there was probably some drizzle. I must have then taken the pleasure to examine the pen in the room which was located at the farthest end of the house, next to the kitchen which was never used. It was a gift, one of which I probably didn't full understand the intent and purposes then, but it certainly is one of those treasures that inspired me...one that I will always remember. By then, it was quite clear that she would be leaving, for a better future.

* In 1990, the school produced 14 straight As students in the national exams known as "SRP" for the 15-year olds. Typically students take 8 subjects for the exams. 1990 was the last year SRP was offered before it was replaced by PMR in 1991 which was based on a new curriculum. Recently there has been suggestion to eliminate PMR altogether.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Dreams, interests...and ambitions

As grown-ups, I guess we don't go around asking friends or colleagues what their ambitions are . If you do, people would most likely laugh or stare at you. Either way, it won't be a pleasant point to continue a conversation. While a person might be very ambitious, a question about ambition may be quite irrelevant or rather out of context except in those job interviews where they would ask "Where do you see yourself in five years?"*.

As a child, we would be asked what we would like to do (be) when we grow up. It is a logical question since children have their future and a whole life in front of them. They are full of energy, they learn a lot quicker and have many opportunities to grab. And obviously, time is on their side. On the contrary, adults are well...I would not say that they are "gone case" even though some probably are. Suffice to say that adults have less time, less energy and less optimistic.

As a child, I remember I was a lot more inclined in arts. Drawing and painting were something I was very passionate about. In spare time, I would love to draw, most of them would be beautiful scenery. These are imaginary places, locations I have never been to before. I guess children in general have a lot of imaginations so it was quite natural for me to imagine those beautiful places especially beaches where I would always love to go.

Typical of those times, children in that small part of the world where I lived would love to draw a view by the beach with the sun shining and a flock of birds flying high above in the bright blue sky, or a scenery at a typical Malay "kampung" where a traditional wooden house would be drawn. To complete the piece, a coconut tree would almost always be in the picture!

While primary school children during those times were mostly taught to paint in coloured pencil, my paintings were mostly done in watercolour. I never had to buy any brushes or paints as there were always sufficient supplies of them at home - they were owned by my elder sisters who at that time were in secondary school. I think I must have owed it to them for there were always words of encouragement that must have helped nurtured my talent.

In hindsight, I don't think my drawings and paintings were very good at all but the constant encouragement must have boosted my confidence and developed the creative side in me. And I think that really matters for children. Words of encouragement build their confidence and take the fears away.

As I grow older, I still enjoyed the art classes eventhough I attended a school heavily biased in favour of science**. I learned quite a number of new skills, including paper-mache (which stink!), canting to produce batik (which I enjoyed very much) and various painting techniques (including one in which an old tooth brush was used!). I never got an A in arts and the art teacher once commented that my work was quite dirty.

When I was 16, I picked copper tooling as part of my extra-curricular activities. It wasn't very easy to master and requires quite a lot of hard work but it was another enjoyable activity nevertheless. I regretted I didn't buy my own design project - it was a bunch of imaginery flowers with some leafs around them - each student could opt to buy his own completed work if not the art work would be recycled for use as base material for next year's batch of students.

I didn't take arts as a major subject so I did't have to take an exam for it. There were not that many students taking arts anyway at the school it must be less than 10 people altogether. By then, my interest must have swung into something more promising.

I remembered my elder sister putting chemical engineering as one of her preference a few years earlier so I decided to put that same subject as my number one preference when I started applying for places in 1992 (my sister certainly had a great influence on me!).

On the other hand, my chemistry project on lycopodium (a native plant, available abundantly outside our school compound) and its healing properties, co-developed with a classmate and friend (original idea was all mine!) was selected as the top three projects that would represent the school at a national level science competition. It was a big boost to me as I was never a good achiever in chemistry let alone near the top! It was probably another big influence on my decision to take up what I later took up. The artistic side of me didn't want to give up easily either so architecture came as preference number 2!

By then, it was almost clearly charted that my university degree would be in science, and not arts. I tried not to leave arts completely though. At 17, when I was in some foreign land, despite taking pure science for all my subjects, I decided to take painting as one of my extra-curricular activities...

* I wonder whether they still ask this question these days as I didn't get this question in the subsequent interviews years later. I presume it is only reserved for those seeking their first job!I answered mine more than ten years ago during my first job interview. I don't think I turned out to be the same person described in my answer back in 1997 five years later but I got the job anyway!.

** I think it is quite unfortunate as far as developing talents are concerned to have a school heavily biased in favour of science, and vice versa. In the school I attended, the only arts subjects we have then were art and history. I opted out history when I was 16 as I was very keen in geography and we could only choose one between the two. In hindsight, I think literature and economy would prepare us "science stream" students better for the future.