Monday, May 28, 2012

Hunger for knowledge leads one to develop questioning mind

WHEN I entered secondary school in the 1970s, one of the things my form teacher told his students was if we wanted to lead interesting lives, we should try to improve our general knowledge. So serious was he that he dedicated a period each week to a "general knowledge" class.

During the "general knowledge" period, which was held on a Friday, students were divided into teams and pitted against each other in a quiz - with questions set by students themselves. Mostly the questions were about stuff not found in school books.

The "general knowledge" class was so interesting that it became the highlight of our school week, and absenteeism was zero. There were no prizes for "winners" except bragging rights.

The best were affectionately nicknamed "walking encyclopaedias", a titled worn with pride those days.

The weekly drill for things we did not know unconsciously made us hungry for general knowledge and the quest for more cultivated in us a curious, questioning mind. Those who knew most in school those days went on to not only do well academically, but also were successful in later years.

One chap surnamed Lim, whom my classmates and I nicknamed the "professor" because of the wide range of stuff he knew, later went on to become an adviser to a prestigious foreign-based financial organisation.

Although general knowledge did not make it as a subject in schools, like living skills, I recall owning a book written about it. Simply titled General Knowledge, the red book about the size of a desk diary was published by Preston, if I am not mistaken, and cost a princely $9.75 then.

I came across General Knowledge by chance at one of the bookshops in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman and my bamboo coinbox became the casualty. Although my savings were intended for a shortwave radio I had been eyeing for weeks earlier, the book got the financing first because the copy I found was the last the bookshop had.

One of the reasons I bought the book was to help me write better compositions. The other reason was because I could not afford the better "general knowledge" books my friends owned -- the Encyclopaedia Britannica. They were way out of reach for my father's finances.

But General Knowledge was just as useful in its portability as what it contained. The content was a storehouse of facts and trivia that ranged from general science to astronomy, and geography to world history as well as mathematical formulas to determine stuff like volume, surface area, distance, etc.

I have not seen books like it today and I regret that I have lost mine before my children could read it.

Of course, my children, like yours, are well-versed with the Internet today and they have access to information no encyclopaedia during my time could provide. But sometimes, I wish they had developed the same curiosity and thirst for knowledge my classmates and I had.

Perhaps it was easier those days for people to read meaningful books, newspapers and other periodicals when there was no Internet or entertainment to distract them.

Maybe people from our generation owe it to our teachers - the few rare ones who were highly knowledgeable and who took the trouble to plant seeds of curiosity to make us who we are today.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Do not make light of your child's safety

RECENTLY, on my way to work in the morning, while waiting to make a U-turn at the underpass near the Abdullah Hukum LRT station, I noticed a little girl about 5 years old running along the skirting of the building.

Walking behind her was a woman, probably in her 30s. It could have been the girl's mother since there was no one else at the ground floor of the station.

The woman did not appear concerned over what the little girl was doing. She was so engrossed with something on her handphone that she was not even looking where she was going, let alone pay attention to the little girl who was a leap away from the rush-hour traffic.

The first thought that came to mind was the safety of the child. If something were to happen, there was no way her mother, who was at least 30 metres away, could do anything to save her.

My thoughts were not of the girl being abducted. I was thinking of the obvious dangers on the road that morning.

With the heavy traffic at the time, a dash onto the road could have spelt instant tragedy for the young child and her family. And who would be blamed then?

When a tragedy befalls a child, we read of parents rationalising the incident by accepting it as fate.

Society, in cushioning the impact of the grief and not wishing to add more pain, also absolves itself of the guilt. We should not blame the parents, they have suffered enough, we console them.

But why not, especially in obvious cases of sheer irresponsibility like what I saw that morning?

It was not the first time I had come across such acts of irresponsibility. I had seen many parents take their eyes off their children in shopping complexes and supermarket, areas they presume to be safe just because they had been there countless times.

God knows how many times I have heard the public address system announcing cases of young children who had "lost" their parents. Sometimes, there were several cases within the hour. In most cases, the parents get so engrossed in their shopping, they did not realise their children had wandered off.

Once, I happened to be at the information counter when a crying child was brought to there. Minutes after the announcement was made, a woman with the child's several older siblings in tow came to claim the 5-year-old boy. I asked the mother if she was not worried that the boy would be abducted.

The mother replied that her son was mischievous, and without even thinking, said: "Maybe it will teach him a lesson not to wander off next time."

I was speechless when I saw how she had justified her lack of attention, and irresponsibility. Indeed, if the child had truly gone missing, the lesson would have been hers to learn, and one probably too late to benefit from.

Monday, May 14, 2012

When cleanliness of tableware matters most

A TOURIST, who shared our table at a packed restaurant recently, asked my friend Sham why he was eating using his hands instead of using a fork and spoon. Sham replied that it has been his habit.

Unless he was at a formal function or when situations did not allow him to do so, like partaking in a Japanese dinner where chopsticks are used, he said, he would rather eat with his fingers.

"I feel more comfortable using my fingers," Sham said.

"Food tastes better when you eat with your fingers. If you are eating fish, you can also feel for the tiny bones, which you otherwise could miss if you used fork and spoon."

I agree with Sham. Sometimes you can trust your fingers better than the fork and spoons provided by the eateries. People who eat with their fingers are in control of their hygiene provided they always wash their hands properly.

You can't say for sure the forks and spoons at eateries are clean these days. I have seen my fair share of stained ones, both at the stalls and at the 24-hour restaurants -- even if some of them are nicely wrapped up in colourful serviettes.

Of course, the stained forks and spoons would have easily escaped notice had I not make a habit to give a closer look.

At the stalls, I have been put off by dirty little baskets that gleaming forks and spoons are kept in.

I have seen too many ants and cockroaches crawling out of these containers which have been left overnight in the open.

These days, I make an effort to clean the forks and spoons with plain water first before using them. I also asked my wife and children to do the same, for you can never tell if the owners of the eating places take the trouble to wash the utensils properly before storing them.

I know some food operators who just leave their forks and spoons on the tables when they close at night.

Who can say that the improperly wiped tables and unseen food scraps left there did not attract rats onto the tables where these utensils are and soiled them with their urine or faeces?

Of course, there is no point in getting too paranoid over cleanliness. You might even say that taking the trouble to wash these may not guarantee full protection. But at least, you would have reduced the odds of getting ill, wouldn't you?

When eating at the Chinese stalls where the chopsticks are not properly kept but left standing in open chopstick holders, another friend often looked for preserved green chillies. She often dipped her chopsticks into the vinegar solution used to preserve the chillies.

Apparently she was discreetly using the vinegar to "sterilise" her chopsticks, especially when the stall did not have tap water for washing them.

A 15-second dip, she said, was enough to kill most germs. So far, she has been free of food poisoning. My only worry is she may get herself into trouble with the stall keepers one of these days.

Monday, May 7, 2012

No free ride for parking-lot hogs

THE rampant hogging of parking bays in space-challenged commercial areas continues to plague local councils, especially those with booming commercial districts under their jurisdiction. Whether it is in Wangsa Maju, Kelana Jaya, Pandan Jaya, Puchong or Klang, the culprits are usually business owners who claim the parking space in front of their premises for their own.

Understandably, some businesses such as motor workshops and car accessories retailers need to keep the space in front of their shops free for customers's vehicles in for service.

Supermarkets, too, sometimes reserve space for suppliers to unload goods.

However, when the proprietors peremptorily cordon off these parking bays without the respective council's consent and without paying rent, they are not only depriving the public of parking facilities, they are also robbing the local authorities of revenue.

Some seal off parking bays with makeshift no-parking signs, cones and chains. The braver ones even paint over the existing parking bays to claim them as private property.

Perhaps, the biggest abusers of public parking space are the operators of eateries. While business is good, the cost of a proper extension or renting bigger premises would eat into the profits; thus these clever businessmen set up more tables and chairs on the five-foot ways and the adjacent parking lots.

Parking space hogs are not a new breed. These spectres have made their rounds in the newsrooms, and risen their heads at many council meetings. How they have eluded capture is anyone's guess.

By law, placing any form of obstruction on a designated public parking lot is illegal. Unless you have rented the space from the local authority, you cannot simply make it your own.

Those who occupy parking space illegally can be slapped with a fine -- but only if the local authorities choose to act.

Most local authorities are relaxed about it -- until the issue is highlighted by the media. Otherwise, those who hog parking space continue to do so blatantly, causing congestion and giving errant motorists the excuse to double park.

Local councils take into consideration population density before they approve the development orders of projects, Can they not consider vehicular traffic density before approving the licences of businesses that are likely to hog parking space?

Visit any new business district and chances are, you will see that the motor workshops, car accessories dealers, vehicle exhaust installers and tinting shops have zoomed in there as quickly as the eateries, there.

Before you know it, the parking bays in front of these business premises have become their private property that they reserve for their clients.

At the very least, those hogging parking space should be made to pay rent. This way, even if the public is deprived of parking space, the local authority is not losing parking revenue.

After all, the facilities need to be maintained, and maintenance needs money. Surely the ratepayer need not pay for the upkeep of facilities that he may not use.

Local authorities, which allow such blatant disregard for the law to continue by not acting against the culprits, are losing the ratepayers' goodwill, and worse, the public's faith in their integrity.