Monday, November 30, 2009

Learning valuable lessons at the school of hard knocks

I WAS shopping for a backpack at a shopping complex near home a couple of weeks ago when I found one I had been wanting to buy for years.

I must have spent close to 15 minutes examining it but the price tag deterred me.

Paying over RM100 for a backpack did not appear too sensible, so I decided to return it to the shelf.

Just as I was about to do so, a young salesman came up and asked if he could assist.

I complained it was too pricey.

“All backpacks are just as expensive these days, sir,” he said.

“But this one is made of very good material, cordura.

The colour looks good, too.

This is the last piece.

It’s worth it, sir.

“Besides, we are giving discounts of up to 15 per cent to our regulars if you have our loyalty card,” he added.

My wife who was embarrassed at my indecision said I should just buy the bag sincemy current bag, which I had redeemed after years of accumulating petrol points, was s e ve n years old and coming apart at the s e a m s.

I finally agreed, not so much be - cause of her reasoning or thematerial the bag was made of, but more be - cause of the effort made by the sales - man.

Not many sales people take the trouble these days and this chap was yo u n g .

Curious, I asked him his age.

Sixteen, he said.

His father was a police constable and he lived at the barracks across the road.

He had just completed his Form Four final examinations and had started working part-time at the store a few days ago.

He worked five evenings a week and was paid RM4 an hour.

He started early, he said, because when the holidays began, jobs would be scarce.

I asked if his parents minded him working at such a young age.

He shook his head and added that he would be taking his SPM examinations next year.

He needed money to buy revision books and he did not want to ask his parents for it since they also had to consider the needs of his four younger siblings.

The fact that he was not shy to admit he wasworking because he needed the money impressed me heaps.

He had been brought up right, I thought.

Howmany teenagers his age would be brave enough to get a job and finance their own spendingwithout asking for handouts? How many would see working as a productive alternative to hanging out in cinema lobbies, cybercafes and street pavements during the school break? The sight of children from poor families trying to eke out a living at the food courts I go to daily touches me in the same way.

Whether they are helping their parents at their stalls or working for others for a pittance, without feeling shy or ashamed and braving the scoldings of impatient customers and nasty bosses, this tells me that many will go far in life as they learn the lessons of independence, resourcefulness and humility — lessons that cannot be taught in school but can only be learnt at the school of hard knocks.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Trapped in the web of inferiority complex

ARE you familiar with the phrase “to look down upon”? I have always thought that it was an Oriental phenomenon until I Googled it and found an online forum catering to people who had been looked down upon.

In Hokkien, it is simply known as “khua beh khee”, which means to have a lowly regard for someone.

The Malay version is more direct — “pandang rendah”, or simply, “to look down upon”.

The phrase means to regard one or a group of people with disdain or scorn, and even contempt due to real or perceived lack of certain material qualities.

For example, it is said that the rich were more likely to often look down upon the poor if status became an important preoccupation.

The beautiful may thumb their noses at the less endowed, for instance.

Usually, the disdain stems from material attributes, or the lack of it, and is rarely spir itual.

The impact can be far reaching for the recipient, depending on how inferior he or she is made to feel, and for how long.

Whenmy family moved into a village in Kuala Lumpur in the mid 1970s, I got to know a family of seven siblings living a destitute life.

The father did odd-jobs and the mother was believed to be mentally ill.

The villagers avoided the family and the children, a rowdy bunch who were often the suspects when a petty crime took place.

As a result, the family pretty much kept to themselves, the children playing near the shack made out of discarded planks and rusty metal sheets which they called home.

Passing by their home one evening while returning from school, I saw the siblings eating white rice mixed with condensed milk for dinner.

When one of the boys sensed my presence, he put down his plate, picked up a plank and waved it at me —as if to warn me not to look at them.

The hostility, I later found out, stemmed from their being frequently picked on and having the villagers looked down upon them.

Years later, when they grew up, got jobs and moved on to better lives, the chap who waved the plank at me remained trapped in the net of inferiority complex woven by those who had looked down upon him and his family.

I was told he later turned to a life of crime.

But society not only looked down upon the poor.

A friend related how one of her uncles had looked down upon her family because her siblings were not as good in their studies as their cousins.

The battles were not over financial status but over academic achievements by which success was measured in the number of ‘A’s one obtained.

In later years, the odds evened out and her family produced as many PhD holders as her uncle’s.

However, she said, her father was still unable to lose that inferior feeling at annual family reunions, treading carefully in words and actions lest the other party was offended.

She wished her father would one day take pride in the fact that his children had not only grown up to be successful but also did not lose their human touch and had not looked down upon anyone.

Being looked down is of course nothing to be ashamed of.

Positively taken, it can be a powerful catalyst to drive one towards success.

Otherwise, it traps us in the web of inferiority complex and self-doubt that can also be likened to looking down upon ourselves.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Not wasting food is also part of good eating habits

MY colleagues and I were aghast at a recent buffet gathering when a group of guests left behind a plate of at least 15 sticks of uneaten satay, piled together with used plastic forks and spoons, and a polystyrene cup of half-drank syrup.

When the waiter arrived to clear the table, most of us were embarrassed, wondering what he must be thinking when he saw the wastage.

But perhaps he had seen so many instances of such wasteful leftovers that he was no longer troubled by it.

I now recall why I stopped going for high-tea.

While eating was never my favourite past time, I think it was the sight of food being wasted that had kept me away.

I avoided high-tea events because I figured that they were for people with huge appetites and super-efficient metabolism, or simply deep p o c k e t s.

Otherwise, it would take quite an effort to down as much food as one could stomach without feeling the guilt of having spent a bomb and not eating every sen’s worth.

I remember one amusing incident in which a young woman was alternating between her table and the food counter.

She piled her plates with all the “e x p e n s i ve ” food as if it was an eating challenge — much to the embarrassment of her partner at the table.

He was trying to hide his face behind a menu as she prodded him to go “grab some food before everything is taken”—despite having literally brought half the food from the counters to her table.

I also recall an occasion when a boisterous chap with his midriff spilling out of his pants told his children to take as much food as they fancied because they were all paid f o r.

He didn’t even notice the disgusted expression of the waitress when she came to clear the table of food left by the children who had turned the dining experience into a food tasting session, leaving food half eaten food as they went for more.

I salute restaurant owners who were brave enough to make the diners pay for uneaten food that they had left on their plates.

However, many places in town still shy away from this practice because they do not want to offend their clients.

Although the costs have been factored into the pricing and a tidy profit is made at the end of the day, allowing willful wastage is simply not right.

My friend Panir tells me that cooking is a labour of love and good food cannot be served if the chefs do not put their hearts and souls into the cooking.

To put more on one’s plate than one’s palate could handle and later discarding it because the food is free or paid for is an insult to the chef and his kitchen crew.

Good eating manners, like good nutritional habits, start from young.

If a child is not encouraged to waste food, he or she will grow up mindful not to take more than he or she can eat.

Dining with my friend’s daughter is such a joy as I watch her dutifully eat up every bit she has taken.

Not even a grain of rice was left when she was done.

I asked her what made her to literally clean up the plate.

She said she had once watched a documentary about hungry people in drought-ridden countries on television.

When she asked her father why they were so skinny, he told her that they had nothing to eat and would give anything to just have a grain of r ice.

Since then, she said, she had made it a habit not to waste food.

Remarkably, she is only 9, and I am praying that she will never outgrow her habit.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Scary urban legends fail internet test

DURING the recent Halloween gathering, someone asked what had happened to our urban legends.

You know, the tales that seem to have a life of their own, turning up now and then to take our attention away from our dreary existence and provide a topic of conversation at the coffeeshops between friends and even strangers, regardless of age, creed or skin colour.

Some of these stories came from folklore.

For instance, those concerning neighbourhood ghouls and ghosts such as “pontinak”, “t oyo l ” and “han - tu raya”, while others originated from anecdotes told by our elders and peers.

Many were also hoaxes created to fool the gullible, and sometimes, told out of spite.

Those who grew up in the Klang Valley in the ’70s would remember the story of the Batu Tiga lady who apparently took the life of a Good Samar itan.

According to one version of the story, a young motorcyclist stopped to offer a lift to a lady at a bus stop as he passed by the stretch one late night.

She asked to borrow his jacket because she was feeling cold and said she would return it the next day.

The following day, when the man returned to the spot he had dropped her off, he had a shock.

The village he thought he saw last night was a graveyard — and his denim jacket was hung on one of the gravestones.

He died several days later.

It was said that his soul had been taken by the lady ghost who returned to haunt the spot where she had been fatally knocked down by a motorcyclist.

No one knew how the tale started.

Some say it was spun out of mischief to frighten the girls who worked nightshifts at the factories in Batu Tiga.

Over the years, however, as Batu Tiga lost its prominence as the main industrial estate in the Klang Valley, the tale died with it.

But not all such tales disappear over time.

Heard about the one that says you should not consume alcohol and eat durians at the same time? I first heard it in the late ’70s but someone said it started much earlier.

Apparently, several people were found dead foaming at the mouth after having a beer-drinking-cumdurian party.

Till today, the tale will be circulated every durian season as fruit sellers will tell their customers to avoid washing down the durian with liquor.

Even if you survived, they say, you would be blind.

Since not many people, except the foolhardy, would test the validity of the claim, the urban legend continues to make its rounds at durian parties—not to create mischief but perhaps as a warning against overindulgence.

While most urban legends were rooted in horror, others were hoaxe s.

Do you remember the one about a worker of a beverage company who fell into a mixing silo and died while she was adding cola syrup? By the time her remains were recovered, thousands of bottles of the soft drink had been shipped out.

The tale made its rounds in the late ’70s and the brand’s image suffered because public relations was still in its infancy at the time and crisismanagement virtually unheard of.

Later, someone explained that a worker who was sacked from the company had spun the story out of spite.

Another said a business rival had perpetuated the tale to gain a bigger market share.

I later found out that a more likely source would be an adaptation of a Western hoax of a brewery worker who had fallen into a vat of beer.

It was probably Malaysianised by the more widely travelled among us.

Today, with the Internet at our fingertips, myths are easily debunked and the origins of urban legends demystified.

Neither stands a chance against Google.

By the way, did you receive an email from a telephone company urging you to quickly forward the message to eight close friends and you will be given a free laptop for participating in its viral marketing effort?

Monday, November 2, 2009

The unfortunate offenders in Ops Halang

THE Ops Halang campaign carried out by the Kuala Lumpur City Hall and the traffic police since the middle of this year has proven to be “Ops Malang” for those who habitually park as and where they please.

At a cafe in Central Market last week, one chap was overheard lamenting how “malang” (unfortunate) he was for parking his car at his usual spot to grab a quick cuppa during lunch hour.

His carwas towed away.

Not only did that lead to him missing an important appointment, he was also left poorer after having to pay the summons and reclaiming his car.

And just as he thought his nightmare was over, his wife called.

Her car, too, had been towed away after she had left it by the roadside to withdraw some money at theATMand bank in some cheques.

His friend, who was listening with some degree of amusement, told him that he should look at the experience as a lesson learnt and never to “halang” (block) traffic or he could find himself even more “malang” should the authorities raise the fine for repeat offender s.

The fines, his friend said, should be treated as payment for the accumulated parking fees he owed City Hall over the years for “free” parking.

Last month, a colleague who was returning to her car after sending her son for vaccination jabs at a clinic found her legally parked vehicle blocked by another car.

As a result, mother and child had to wait in the car for nearly an hour before the inconsiderate chap turned up.

You can imagine her frustration of having to pacify a fretful child after his vaccination jab, trapped in the parking lot under the hot sun.

Even the best air conditioning can do little to stop her blood from boiling.

Fortunately for the culprit, my colleague did not blow her top.

In Jalan Liku, Bangsar, where the New Straits Times office is located, inconsiderate motorists are a daily nightmare.

Many would conveniently leave their vehicles behind those legally parked and restrict traffic flow along the one-way road.

Never a week passes without a lorry driver having to blast his horns because he could not negotiate the bend due to cars which were double and even triple parked.

Some motorists are courteous enough to leave their phone numbers on the dashboard if they had parked illegally but many would just leave their vehicles as if they owned the roads.

Tempers would flare but usually the habitual offenders have become so impervious to scoldings that leaving their cars where they pleased had become second nature.

Kudos to City Hall and the traffic police for continuing with Ops Halang.

The former has fulfilled the m ayo r ’s promise that this year would be the Year of Enforcement.

Hopefully, by towing away the obstructing vehicles, the owners would toe the line the next time.

Carried out regularly, Ops Halang might even cultivate a culture of good parking manners among some of the rude motorists in the city.

Of course, City Hall has to be fair to motorists in areas where there is an acute shortage of parking space.

In business districts, greedy business owners have worsened the parking shortage by claiming the parking lot in front of their shops as their own, usually by placing boxes and broken chair s.

In the case of workshops and car accessories shop, several parking lots are sometimes marked using tyres and other tools of the trade.

City Hall should also take action against restaurant operators who stake their claim on parking lots by setting up tables and chairs for the night’s alfresco dining.

In areas where parking space is scarce, gobbling up parking space is worse than obstructing traffic.

If City Hall turns a blind eye to this Ops Halang, then it will be very “malang” indeed.