Monday, May 30, 2011

No discount for lawbreakers and bad paymasters, please

A COUPLE of weeks ago, a local TV station ran a documentary on a farming venture.

Towards the end of the show, as the anchorwoman was summing up her presentation, she was shown purchasing a bag of organic fertiliser.

As she placed the bag on the checkout counter, she blurted out: "Got discount?"

I am not sure if the question was in the script but the cashier seemed to be caught by surprise as he could only manage a nod and a meek smile in response.

I am sure the anchorwoman did not intend to embarrass the poor fellow, especially in front of his boss who was likely to be present on the set to watch the filming.

But the ease with which "Got discount?" left the anchorwoman's lips gave me the impression that it was a question she asked frequently, so much so that it had become second nature.

You know, like when you see someone getting into the lift at noon and you greet him or her with "Sudah makan?" (Have you eaten yet?) or "Sudah minum?" (Have you had tea?).

Or when you see someone holding that nice handbag that you have been eyeing for the longest time, and having ascertained that the price was still out of your reach, you quickly follow it up with "Got discount, ah?"

The two words "Got discount?" is uttered by many -- automatically and unthinkingly. The thicker-skinned among us would press further with "How much?" or "If I buy a lot, got some more discount, ah?"

I once saw a woman haggling with a petai seller over the price of the stink beans. When the seller asked how many dozen pods she wanted, she said three. The price was RM2.50 for three pods, she offered RM2.

When he refused to reduce the price, she chided him, little knowing that the petai is not easy to grow and harvest.

Would she have gone easier on the petai seller if she knew how high one had to climb to pluck petai? And if she had known the risks, would she have been too embarrassed to ask for a discount?

Recently, I read that the authorities were taking the offences of errant motorcyclists seriously. Those who break traffic rules by not wearing helmets, zipping past zebra crossings, using a mobile phone while riding, and jumping red lights will be slapped with the maximum RM300 fine. They will not be given discounts.

However, motorcyclists who commit what the authorities consider "less serious offences" such as making illegal U-turns, parking next to fire hydrants and on pedestrian walkways, and hogging right lanes, will get a discount on the fine if they pay early.

Why we should reward those who flout traffic rules, even if they pay early?

Why should we give discounts to bad paymasters such as errant property owners who do not pay their assessment taxes? Some local councils did exactly that to get these rate payers to settle assessment arrears.

Are we aware of what this "discount" mentality is doing to us? I am sure it is no less harmful than the "subsidy" mentality, which we should all learn to discount.

Monday, May 23, 2011

When a durian seller is a 'musang' in disguise

WHEN durians were seasonal offerings and cheaper, it was easier for durian lovers to pick their favourite fruit.
I remember when there were only durian kampung and durian hutan. The former were those grown in orchards and compounds of homes while the latter grew in the wild.

Among the best durian kampung was the tembaga variety. Each fruit was slightly smaller than a volleyball, had sharp spiky horns and dusty yellow skin. The flesh had the lustre of polished brass.

Each pod had, at the most, three clumps of creamy flesh that was also slightly bitter. When nature decided to give a treat, there were few or no seeds, or flattened ones, allowing you to enjoy the thick flesh.

Durian hutan was much bigger, greenish brown and the thorns were less spiky. The fruits were not so fragrant, the flesh usually thin and the seeds large.

The only place in Kuala Lumpur you could find wild durian sold by vendors in the 1970s was at Simpang Tiga in the heartland of Gombak. Until the mid-80s, it was the undisputed durian valley of Selangor.

Over the last two decades, durian species have come and gone.

How many of us can tell a D11 from a D24 from taste alone, or an ang hey (red prawn in Hokkien) from a durian kunyit blindfolded? More often we take the durian seller's word for it. Or we follow the crowd. But the crowd may not necessarily be right.

Recently, I stopped by a durian stall in Hulu Kelang.

Judging from the number of people by the roadside stall, it must have been either a good deal or good fruits that attracted the crowd.

It turned out to be both -- cheap durians going for as low as RM10 for piles of threes and there were some without price tags.

I asked the seller about the ones that had no prices and was told that those were the famed musang king.

He grabbed a fruit, whacked it with his durian wedge and handed it to me to take a whiff.

"Very cheap," he said.

"Only RM22 a kilo. How many do you want?"

The price killed my enthusiasm. Since a fruit would not be enough for the family and three would cost more than my weekly grocery, I politely declined.

"How about RM20 a kilo?" the seller offered. That was the lowest he could go he said, but only if I took half a dozen fruits.

Seeing my hesitation, he asked me to check with a group of durian lovers happily tucking into what he claimed to be musang king durians.

A pile of well-formed durian seeds left by the group caught my attention.

A Datuk, who owned musang king trees in his orchard in Janda Baik, told me that a genuine musang king came with flattened seeds -- seeds that did not have well-formed cotyledons, which allowed the flesh to be thick.

If anyone claims that it is a musang king, just look at the seeds to tell a real one from a fake, he said.

Since I have never tried a musang king, I decided not to take chances. The durian seller might turn out to be a musang in disguise.

Maybe in the next season, when the musang king is cheaper, I will get some.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Thank you, teacher. You made a difference

ONE of my primary school teachers I remember well was the discipline master who also headed the prefectorial board. I remember him not because of any significant contribution he made but for the one incident that showed his cruel side. The victim was a boy in Standard Two who was often late for school, wore heavily soiled shoes, and crumpled shirts that were usually not tucked in. Despite repeated warnings by the prefects, he kept to his ways.
That day, when the discipline master saw the boy in slippers again, he was incensed. When the boy could not explain why he wore slippers, the teacher grabbed him by the pants and shook him so hard that it snapped the raffia string the boy had used to hold his pants in place. When the teacher let go, the pants dropped. Some of the pupils who saw the incident laughed. The boy cried. I did not know if it was out of fright or embarrassment.

Later I found out that the boy came from a very poor family. They had lived on handouts. Finally I understood why he appeared the way he did. He probably had only one pair of shoes, which explained why they were often soiled. And on days when the shoes were wet, he had to wear slippers.

Instead of embarrassing the boy, I thought the teacher could have been kinder. The incident affected me so much that when I entered Form Four, I decided not to be a prefect but a librarian instead. However, luck was not on my side or was it?

Although I had passed all the practical tests for librarianship which included book arrangement and repair, and cataloguing them according to the Dewey Decimal System, I failed the interview. A safety pin was the cause.

The morning of the interview, while rushing to class, my shirt's sleeve was caught on the handle of a bicycle. The uppermost button snapped loose. Since I had no spares, I used a safety pin in place of a button. The teacher who interviewed me was a stickler for dressing. Instead of asking me why I had a safety pin on my shirt, she failed me because I was not "presentably attired".

I found out about it a week later from my seniors, after the librarians were installed.

Fortunately, I had more good teachers to remember than bad ones. Among them were Mrs Chan Wing Mun and Mr Chin Peng Weng, who both taught me English at Setapak High, and were my form teachers in Form Two and Three respectively.

I remember Mrs Chan because she had the habit of recording names of students who had more than three mistakes in the weekly dictation and spelling tests.

Those whose names were noted down for three consecutive times would be asked to sit under the table. Although she never did carry out the punishment, the fear of ending up the laughing stock of the class improved our vocabulary.

Mr Chin, who had a booming voice often threatened to cane the more recalcitrant among us. But he never did, no matter how badly we behaved.

Instead, he would regale us with stories of his younger days to motivate us. One of the phrases he often used was: "Aim for the stars so that if you did not reach them, you would at least have reached the moon."

Mr Chin's wife, whom everyone called Mrs Chin Peng Weng at school, taught science and art.

During her art classes, she never belittled any student's painting, no matter how horrible it looked. One day, when I asked her what to paint, she said I should paint what I liked.

"If I had to tell you what to paint, then it would not be art," she said.

Although I did not understand what she meant then, my friend Maamor did. And if Mrs Chin is reading this, I am pleased to inform her this Teacher's Day that her student Maamor Jantan is today an accomplished artist.

And it was Maamor who told me that if he had not met Mrs Chin, his life might have turned out differently.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Bus Rapid Transit can solve congestion woes in KL

THE Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) is studying the feasibility of introducing dedicated bus lanes with barriers in the city.
If implemented, this could well be the answer to the worsening congestion woes in the capital. And if workable, perhaps the system can be replicated in other jam-plagued cities in the country too.

According to reports last week, the dedicated bus-only lanes will have barriers all along the route to separate stage buses from busy traffic on main roads. The concept, to be known as the Bus Rapid Transit or BRT, will allow stage buses to ply their route without obstruction.

Currently, the yellow-lined bus lanes in parts of the city that were supposed to be used only by buses and taxis daily, except Sundays and public holidays, are not being taken seriously. Errant motorists and motorcyclists have been encroaching onto these lanes, especially during heavy traffic, and obstructing bus movement. Buses and taxis that were supposed to use the lanes have also not stayed on their side of the deal.

By using physical barriers to prevent other motorised traffic from encroaching onto the dedicated lanes, hopefully the buses will arrive on time and move commuters from one busy part of the city to another without delay. The separated lanes, I think, should also be opened to emergency vehicles such as ambulances and fire engines during peak hours when there is congestion of the main traffic stream.

Although the system can reduce jams and improve commuting by bus, the dedicated lanes with barriers should also be made at least two buses wide to cater for any bus breakdowns. If you have been driving around the city, you will notice that a week seldom passes without seeing a stalled bus on a busy thoroughfare that adds to the jam.

The authorities will also have to make sure that bus drivers do not turn certain spots along the dedicated lanes into ad-hoc depots for them to have a tea break or wait for passengers when commuting traffic is low.

I think the current dedicated lane system for buses and taxis has failed because of the lack of enforcement by the authorities. You only need to stand at any area along Jalan Raja Laut at 6pm on workdays to see how the errant motorists break the law and treat the dedicated lane as their own and get away with it. Bus drivers too can be seen moving in and out of the lanes to get ahead of their competitors.

If the barrier system is to be successful, the authorities should also expect challenges from the city's ever increasing number of motorcyclists. Will the barriers be made high enough to prevent encroachment by motorcyclists? Already, some of them are riding on the fast lane of busy roads and riding on pavements meant for pedestrians when encountering jams on main roads.

Who is to stop these errant motorcyclists from using the new dedicated bus lanes as their racing track?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Strong current to rehabilitate KL's rivers

IN the early 1970s, when the southwest monsoon hit Klang Valley without fail annually, heavy rain that came with it at the beginning of the year was much feared by villagers living along Sungai Mulia in Gombak.
At the village where I spent my childhood, villagers often lost the back portions of their houses to the swift currents. Toilet renovations were often an annual affair.

Sungai Mulia was one of the two rivers upstream that fed -- and still feeds -- Sungai Gombak. The other river is the Sungai Batu which meets Sungai Gombak at the Putra World Trade Centre.

Sungai Gombak joins the Kelang river a few kilometres downstream at Masjid Jamek from which confluence Kuala Lumpur got its name.

In the days when most houses were powered by kerosene lamps and water came from wells, families who lived along Sungai Gombak depended quite a lot on the river.

From the bridge along Jalan Kampung Bandar Dalam, which linked Gombak to Sentul, womenfolk could often be seen cleaning their laundry on the rocks under the shade of the Lian Hin rubber smokehouse.

I recall hot afternoons and during school holidays, the area became a children's playground.

A dhoby operator used water from the river to clean its laundry and clothes were dried in long lines along the bank.

That section of the river teemed with life. Small river carps that belonged to the lampam family could be seen in the almost crystal clear water. Freshwater shrimps, too, were plentiful. Freshwater turtles, or labi-labi in Malay (or tsui yue in Cantonese), were found in abundance during the months when the ara trees upstream bore fruit.

White-breasted waterhens, known as wak-wak or kedidi in Malay, were also many. They could be seen foraging along the waterline with their chicks in tow. Village folk used snares or bird traps called jebak puyuh to trap these birds.

Pollution those days came mainly in the form of domestic rather than industrial waste. The only big factory upstream was Lee Rubber.

As I remember it, Sungai Gombak remained visibly clean until the late 70s when pockets of small factories and workshops sprouted.

Its demise came, I think, around the 1980s when housing estates came up and more people found it easier to dump garbage into the river than throwing them in communal garbage bins.

Recently, when I read that the Selangor Government had appointed four companies to carry out a RM50 billion project to rehabilitate the Kelang river, I was delighted.

Having seen how the Malacca river had been successfully transformed, I cannot help but feel hopeful that Sungai Kelang and Sungai Gombak can be returned to their glorious states in the 1970s.

However, unlike the Malacca river, which is shorter and less populated, save for the section when it ran through town from Kampung Morten to the estuary, the upper reaches of Sungai Gombak and Sungai Kelang will be a bigger challenge, especially with many illegal factories and squatter areas still dotting the riverbanks.

To clean up the rivers, it will take more than just stretching floating rubbish booms across them.

Those responsible for rehabilitation must first clean up the mentality of city folk and riverine dwellers that the two rivers are not open sewers.

They may even need to employ a river warden like some countries do to patrol the rivers to nab litterbugs.

The state government's projected 15-year rehabilitation period looks like a reasonable time to do so, if they start now.