Monday, June 28, 2010

To scrap or not to scrap?

THE possibility of the Ujian Pencapian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) and Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR) being abolished as part of a review of the school examination system puts me in a jam.
My wife said it was a good idea.

I said it was not.

She said with the two exams out of the way, children would be less pressured.

They only had to deal with the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia at the end of Form Five.

At the risk of having my daily budu withdrawn from the dinner table, I argued that it could lead to a decline in the standard of education compared with our neighbours'.

Without a good system to ensure that after 11 years of education, our children knew as much as or more than those in, say, Singapore, we could lose our competitive edge internationally.

But my wife said the pressure on children as young as 11 was bad. Instead of becoming intelligent all-rounders, some had become bookworms who interacted better through Facebook than in person.

Competition is healthy, I said. The best way to measure academic excellence is to benchmark it against the public examinations we are planning to scrap.

Competition only becomes unhealthy when parents start to demand that their children get not only straight As but also full marks every time.

Some parents even resort to emotional blackmail, reminding their children to study hard because they had given up life's pleasures for the children to study in a good school.

Unreasonable ones even decide what career paths their children should choose, not realising that the choice is not what the child wants but a second chance to realise their own failed dreams through their children.

Most city parents take public examinations too seriously.

Look at tuition centre ads.

Their claim to fame is usually the number of top scorers they churn out.

Textbook publishers and authors, too, make good money from reference books. Check out the UPSR, PMR or STPM guides in the market at the start of a school year.

Even compilations of past year questions sell like hot cakes.

Not long ago, assessment tests were introduced to PMR and SPM students. Known as Ujian Intervensi (intervention test) and Ujian Diagnostik (diagnostic), these were held before the trials to identify the weakness of students in certain subjects and improve on them before they sat for the finals.

Over the years, these too have become a race for As.

Although the papers were set by the state Education Department, schools were not monitored nor required to hold the tests at the same time, one teacher told me.

Students pressured to do well by their parents resorted to exchanging test papers with their peers in other schools where the tests were held much earlier.

Unscrupulous teachers who had seen the papers earlier were known to discuss the questions at the tuition centres where they taught part-time.

As a result of the accurate "spot" questions, the tuition centres gained reputation for helping improve students' scores.

I told my wife that UPSR and PMR may be scrapped, provided educators came up with something that would not lead to the very situation we want to avoid.

If schools were allowed to self-assess their students in their own way, could they be objective and free from interference?

And who monitors the schools so that the academic abilities of the students they produce are of high standard?

Maybe we should ask our children if they think it is such a great idea that these exams be scrapped.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The arcane art of telling fakes from originals

IF you are looking for jerseys of your favourite soccer team now playing at the World Cup in South Africa, wait until late July if you want to get them real cheap. By that time, they will go a-begging, an expert bargain hunter told me.

Two weeks ago, jerseys were in season as I found out at the Uptown all-night market near my home. They had replaced Crocs shoes in popularity.

There was a shopping frenzy at the most crowded stall. The RM10 price tag of the jerseys in the bin must have been the cause for the enthusiasm.

One chap there says the soccer jerseys in vogue now come from the north. Prices range from RM10 to RM30 each, depending on the design and material. Of course, if you can afford it, it is better to get an original, failing which what traders call a "replica" or "AAA-grade" jersey will have to suffice. Triple-A grades are given to product samples for which new materials or designs are created by the original manufacturer to test the waters but in the case of jerseys at the pasar malam, your guess is as good as mine.

Apart from the price, some people say it is pretty difficult to tell the AAAs from the originals, although those in the know will tell you otherwise. One giveaway is the quality of the fabric used. In an original, it should feel silky and cool to the touch, and usually does not leave a crease when crumpled. The stitches should be uniform and equally spaced from the seams, and always done in an unbroken stream.

The best evidence yet is the badge. It should be embroidered and not printed. The symbols must be clear and correctly placed, and the letters legible. If they are not, it would probably be unwise for you to pay through your nose for the jersey. But I was stumped by the AAA jersey I was shown. It appeared to be genuine, right down to the collar label that says "Made in England".

One trader priced his AAA at RM65 a piece but said he would be happy to give a RM10 discount if I was really interested. He claimed that the AAAs he sold were just as good as the originals and no one would notice the difference, especially if other clothing worn measured up.

I was reminded of an accountant friend who needed a gold watch to match his expensive tuxedo when attending a black-tie function. He borrowed a "Rolex" from his brother's Petaling Street collection. My friend laughed when he related to me that someone prominent he met at the function actually complimented him on his good taste.

But what happened to the nasi lemak lady I heard about years ago was not so pleasant. She had a penchant for wearing gold bangles and one day the glitter attracted the attention of robbers.

Moments after the robbery, just as the woman was feeling a great sense of relief that all the jewellery she lost were fakes, the thugs returned and gave her a slap. They told her that if she could not afford gold, she should not wear fakes. I had a good laugh when neighbours related the incident to me.

As for the jerseys, I think they will look odd on me because I do not play soccer and am not the fan of any club. An Eagle Pagoda T-shirt will suffice for now. At least I can be sure that it is an original.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Dumplings bring back memories of days gone by

AT one time, if you were a Chinese woman but did not know how to wrap a chang (Hokkien for glutinous rice dumplings), you risked being ridiculed for it was one of the skills that women were expected to acquire by the time they were of marrying age - along with the ability to make nienko (sticky glutinous rice cakes) and prepare tongyuen (sweet rice dumplings).

Before raffia strings came about, a mangrove reed called kiam chow was used to tie the dumplings. The reeds and bamboo leaves used to wrap the dumplings had to be soaked overnight to make them supple before they could be used.

Folding the bamboo leaves to wrap the dumplings is an art even origami experts would not dare to belittle. Two or three bamboo leaves are first overlapped and folded by crossing the ends to form a cone into which the glutinous rice and fillings are placed.

Then the protruding section of the leaves is folded down neatly to cover the fillings to form a pyramid.

The strand of reed is whipped twice around the girth of the pyramid, tightened just enough and secured with an overhand knot or two.

Tying the reed is just as tough. If it is pulled too hard, it will snap. Wrapped too tight and the dumplings may not cook, or worse, they may burst at the seams when the glutinous rice expands.

Even the boiling process is a lesson in patience. It is usually done over a slow wood fire to ensure that the dumplings do not split.

Of course, you may laugh when I tell you that in those days dumplings were only available during the Dragonboat Festival.

To ask for one before the fifth day of the fifth Chinese lunar month would raise eyebrows among those brought up in tradition-steeped families.

Elders would not be shy to tick you off and tell you that only those who were eager to depart their earthly existence would desire to eat a chang earlier than its intended time. There was a time and season for all things.

Preparatory work for the dumpling festival usually started as early as a month before the celebration, with the sourcing of bamboo leaves. They had to be plucked green, wiped clean and dried in the shade for a day or two before being stored for use.

Although imported bamboo leaves were sold, we did not buy them if we could find them in the wild, along the foothills of the now-forgotten Mimaland and even as far as Genting Highlands. Only mature leaves were plucked because they could stand hours of boiling without splitting.

A wedge-like knife tied to one end of a long bamboo pole is used to nudge the leaves off the stem.

You were not allowed to fell the entire bamboo stalk to strip the leaves. This was to ensure that the bamboo would still be there for the following year's festival.

Today, dumplings are available all year round. Commercialisation has taken the bite off custom and tradition.

Visit a hawker centre any day and chances are you will find many types of dumplings being sold.

And if you wish to learn how to make some before the Dragonboat Festival on Wednesday, you will probably find just as many videos on YouTube to teach you as well.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Need for Wikipedia-like database on local herbal remedies

MY colleague's son came down with a bad throat infection recently. Mouth ulcers caused the boy so much pain that he couldn't even swallow his saliva. Worried about the likelihood of dehydration should this continue, my colleague asked if I knew of a home remedy that could help. I know of a number of herbs, I said, but they might not be suitable for the boy. I suggested that she seek a doctor's advice.

When I was young, my grandmother used what the Terengganu Hokkien call ban tay gim whenever anybody had a sore throat. I don't know what the herb is called in English. I have scoured the web for pictures of the herb but have yet to find any.

A Malay friend suggested that it might be the pegaga Cina, a smaller species of the common pegaga (pennywort) used for ulam. He could be right, since the leaves of the herb look like the pegaga but are much smaller. The largest is about the size of a one sen coin at most. When crushed, the leaves give off a fruity fragrance similar to that of the jambu air (water apple). The herb can be found in the foothills and along streams. You can grow it in pots but you have to keep it in the shade and water it well.

For sore throat, several handfuls of the entire plant are needed. They are pounded into pulp and the juice is squeezed by hand. Wild tualang honey is added and the concoction is drunk immediately. It stings a little as it goes down the throat, but if it works, the soreness will be gone in a matter of hours.

When my family moved to Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s, we had the good fortune of living next door to a herbalist who had a shop in Lebuh Ampang.

The elderly lady taught me quite a bit about medicinal herbs, including a local herb used traditionally for sore throat relief. It was known as snake grass among the Hokkien. The herb is planted around the home not only to keep snakes away, as it is commonly believed, but also as a cure for sore throat and other ailments caused by excessive heat in the body.

Two or three mature leaves are collected and infused in hot water. The infusion is drunk warm and if you can get it past your throat without throwing up, chances are relief will come soon after. Usually those who find the remedy a bitter pill to swallow will soon learn to take better care of their health so as not to chance getting another sore throat. They will also understand why the Malays call it hempedu bumi or "gall of the earth".

In the old days, families living in the villages used many plants as herbal home remedies.

Most have been forgotten not only because sugar-coated pills are widely available and easier to swallow, but partly because of the fear of side effects modern medicine has instilled in us.

I wish there were a database in cyberspace on local herbs, set up along the lines of Wikipedia and updated by anyone who has expert knowledge of them.

This collective knowledge shared in the public domain would provide an insight into the diversity of our medical flora and hopefully inspire research on herbal remedies.