Friday, December 4, 2015

Of Being Trapped, Born Privileged and Education

If you are locked away in a cell forcefully, you will be trapped for as long that incarceration remains. But, what if you are trapped in the cells that you wittingly or unwittingly got yourself in?

Was in Genting recently for the a Music Art Festival with my students. It was a relatively huge affair, if you count 3000 plus participants as many. There were some international invitees... and scores of teams from schools all over the country. Three days of continuous feeds of music, from recorders to Chinese traditional instruments, the halls were filled with sounds of musical instrument. The exposure was good for the students. They could measure themselves up against the really good teams as well as the struggling ones. In a massive hall like the Grand Ballroom, it was hard for the musicians to hear each other and so, some teams actually had a hard time keeping up with each other.

Three days of being locked up on a hill resort under renovation. The outdoor theme park is no more there cos it is making way for a new 20th Century Fox Theme Park. Genting is now limited to just that small space of hotels... and casinos. Everything else is being rebuilt.
The rooms we stayed in were really small. The bathrooms were so tiny that you can't even turn when you bathe. In that kind of space, you have no space to avoid the the scalding hot water. That means you actually have to stand outside the bathroom and let the shower run while checking the temperature.
Yet the place was crowded. This is the hotel lobby and I felt like I was in the train station. Everywhere was jammed pack with people. Yet this lobby was not like any other hotel lobby that I knew cos it did not lead to the outside clear sky directly. Instead the lobby led to this dimly lighted tunnel which brings in buses, cabs and vans. As a result, the lobby and the corridor adjacent had this odour of fumes hanging around all the time. By the second day, each time I went down, I was quite easily agitated. By the third day, it felt like I was perpetually drugged. This has to be one of the more toxic hotel lobbies I have ever been. Yet everyone wandered around, nonchalantly, unperturbed by the fumes or the noise.

Apart from the 3000 odd participants for the Second Malaysia International Music Art Festival plus their whole host of supportive Ah Kong, Ah Mah, Daddy, Mummy, Aunties, Uncles, Brothers, Sisters and other extended family members, the usual casino visitors were all there. The whole place was brimming with people. It rained in torrents on the first evening and I think most of the visitors in this. I had to walk to the adjacent hotel through a series of walkalators/escalators over a rather long distance before getting to an exit. The mist was thick and it was chillingly cold. I was cold to the bones.

The complex made me think of The Matrix. It is so easy for one to forget the real world once you are inside. And this is where I think they are hugely successful in getting people to come back and while there, spend. Casino entrances can be found at almost every turn.

Yet if you really observe the surroundings you find too, noticed a few things too. Casinos for the 'haves' and 'have less' exist here too. One hotel with cramp and tight spaces. Another hotel with a Lamboghirni had all these high ceilings, wide spaces and nice looking restaurants.
The Music Festival... it's quite clear that this is for the elite schools too. I don't think I saw any kampung schools here. MCKK was there and we all know how elite this school is. There were many Chinese vernacular schools too. This probably indicated that many of these schools could get outside funding for their students. Funding was necessary as there is a fee of RM100 per participant. The smallest group I saw was 8 people and that's RM800 for participation. Some bigger groups had more than 60 people. Also, the accommodation is not part of the fee. Each kid who was there had to fork out at least RM250 to take part if they are not able to find sponsorship... and that's just the minimum according to my calculation. The national schools which were there mostly belonged to the elite group - high performing, cluster. And many of the kids had a trail of family members up to this highland resort too. The parents could afford the trip and the stay up too. So, even in co-curricular activities, the line dividing the classes are very clear too. But the clear winner here I supposed would be the owners of where the competition took place.

A month or so back, I took students for the National Robotic Competition where I saw the same scenario more or less playing itself out. Lego Mindstorm is not exactly cheap. Only schools which can afford to spend tens of thousands will be able to give their students the opportunity of taking part. 
Generally rural schools will continue to lose out. Education as a great equaliser might not actually play out its role all that well. Being born in the right family, attending the right school, knowing the right people... all those play a more important role than one's IQ. Actually, many of us made it not because we are good or talented. The former play a more important role than many of us might care to admit.

As for Genting... for me, it was an artificial place. But despite all that, for a while, I too can just sit back and relax. After all, if the any of the bathroom fixture wasn't working, all I had to do was just to inform Housekeeping. If I needed a clean towel, just ring for one too. Oh ya... The same goes for cleaning the room. Put up the sign requesting for a clean-up and it's done by the time you get back to the room. At home, I have to see to all those.... The Matrix is not all that bad.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Aman Central - A Lifestyle Beckons

For many of us, an occasional trip to Penang often means going into a city with all its glitzy malls, branded goods and chic restaurants.

Aman Central opened on the 1st of this month. H&M, Chi, Sakae Sushi, Padini Concept Stores, Nando's, Starbucks... with one opening of this new upmarket mall, a new lifestyle is emerging. Coffee above RM10 a cup, gym in a mall, hawker food in a posh environment, everything shiny, bright and inviting. Where once, Alor Setar used to be a city with a town kind of lifestyle, this will surely and subtly infuse a lifestyle of branded names.

You walk into the mall and you can feel the difference. Baskin Robbins at RM10 per scoop. We used to balk at such prices for ice-creams. Yet if you look at the traffic at the ice-cream parlour, you would think that the people don't seem to be batting any eyelids where the price is concerned. Expensive clothings are flying off their racks too. The economic slowdown doesn't seem to show yet.

But perhaps that lifestyle has always been there. It was just that there were no avenues for it to be gauged. I was admiring a pair of shoes which was almost RM400. There were at least 5 pairs hanging on the rack. A few days later, they were gone, replaced by another series. Maybe the opening of this mall is good for the local economy. It is too soon to tell but already hawker centres in the viccinity are undergoing their own facelifts.

Yet there are still little tell-tale signs of small town here. Patrons who seem lost in the vast multi-tiered parking lots. One pakcik even drove against the traffic coming down the multi-tiered carpark. Toilets are smelly and wet. It feels as if those using it don't quite know how to keep the floors dry mostly. But these will surely change.

The official opening will be held in November. Not all outlets are operational. Not all business space is occupied. It is almost a month down the road. Cars still jam up the place, albeit at specific times now. Some businesses are thriving but there are those which are struggling too. But whatever it is, this mall heralds something new to this town-like city.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Parking Lot

Son started work this year. Like many of young adults entering the job market, the place to start.... the bottom. It's a place devoid of perks. And like most parents whose kid has just started work, conversations evolved around his new phase. In one of our conversations, it got to the parking. When you are a junior, you sometimes don't even get a parking pass. You find your own parking sometimes. So, he told me.... some day he is going to have his own parking lot.

A parking lot. Those in the senior positions often get their own parking lots. Senior management have designated parking lots. The bigwigs get paid parking lots. Small people with limited $$$ pay for their parking lots.

The parking lot conversation made me think about leadership. Contrary to what people say about being given the opportunity to serve as a leader, I think it is more about privileges than anything else. A parking lot is just one of many.

I once parked my car in a shaded car park by mistake. Being new, I did not realise that some of the further lots were designated parking lots too. I only parked there for a day as the usual place I parked was undergoing some construction. I am usually very early to work. In the gray light of dawn, I missed the sign above. A few days later, as I was walking, a voice called up to me and asked whether a certain number plate was my car. I said yes. And immediately after, I was reminded that it was his parking lot. A parking lot serves too as a reminder of position. When that position is deemed to have been tresspassed, there seemed to be this need to reaffirm that position.

Parking lots are symbols of power too. Go anywhere and you will see designated parking lots. In olden days, the division of our social structure was very clear. The world seems to have move on but the feudal mindset has remained entrenched as ever. Leadership comes with even more privileges. In the olden days, generals and kings would lead the charge in a battle. They stand an equal chance of dying in the battlefield. History is filled with stories of such leaders. Fast forward a few centuries, leaders these days hide behind an amazing array of defenses.

Service.... If at all it is service that is the core of leadership... Privileges and recognitions. I think they ring truer for reasons to lead. A leader gets a private jet. Small people never get that.

Parking lots are about wealth and power. Take a walk in a condo and an apartment. The difference is clear for all to see. Designated and none designated. Shaded and road side parking. Parking lots... We need to buy them or get them designated to us. Either way, they point not to humble leadership but arrogance of power and wealth.

Sunday, September 20, 2015


When you are a kid, you tend to think that things would remain very much the same. You can't wait to grow up cos it seems so far away. Then you finish school, university (for some) and then work. Everyone around you goes through almost the same path. Most get married, have kids, move on. Time begins to whizz past. Before long, a few decades would just pass by. 

We talk about kids growing up... then we feel a sense of pride when they move on too. Then they leave, just like many of us long ago. We encourage them to spread their wings, fly high, reach for the stars, as our parents did so long ago. 

We set them on the path of life as we know it. That's where I sometimes wonder the wisdom of the way we perceive things should be. Kids fly high and far... I am okay with the 'fly high' but far? These days I am not very sure. Kids who are far... one in a while we pop in to see our parents. The further they are, the less often they pop in. The old adage, "out of sight, out of mind" rings true. The old ones get left behind... bur that cycle plays itself over and over again, maybe pushed by the insatiable drive for a better something.

Used to think that things are set. These days, am not sure whether it's yet just another thing manufactured, invented by us. Ideals can be manufactured too, like many things. For the sake of social order, perhaps. 

Seasons come and go. But perhaps while they come and go, how we live those seasons or how we celebrate them might not need to be similar as in the ages before us.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Mid Year... Another One Come By

Time flies when you are busy... and crawls when you are not.

Busy is the word these days and so time tends to feel like it is whizzing past. Ringgit is at a very low point. GST is in full swing. Cost of living is high and everyone feels the pinch. And petty issues hog the newspaper. Sarong, towel and even a guy in a cute pink shorts denied entry to KLIA office to claim a lost baggage. What is becoming of the country that we dwell on the outward appearance.

The royalties seem to be a little different this time around. A dig into the archives of an old treaty highlighting the right to secede, pardons for the activists who took part in an unlawful assembly back in 2009, an idealistic young man just back from Geneva to face a possible jail term... there might still be hope yet for us.

Being stuck... ever feel like you are stuck? Feel that a lot too. Institutions around us feel like jailhouses actually. Inequality resides in even the most sacred of them too. How does one get out of being institutionalised for life? Yet everyone of us is a jailbird, one way or another.

Adolescents.. how is that I feel there is a general deterioration of everything. Met many parents over the week too and this stood out. There are more disappointed and a number of angry ones. The reason... their kids. Kids seem less able to empathise with the struggles of their parents. Parents too don't seem to be able to connect with their kids. Majority suffer from the lack-of-time syndrome. Tuitions, school activities fill one end of the spectrum. The busyness of life fills the other. 15-year-olds still go to after-school-daycare. Parents can't leave them at home. Fifteen!!! Babysitting still needed.

I've done some new things too this year, things I never thought I would do. Learned a lot about bricks and mortars. There are so many types of cements out there! Sat and watched cranes and mixers work. But skills... oh, they still do matter a lot. Attention to big and small stuff... they sap your energy and attention span too.

Mid year.. mid term at midlife. The coming of the autumn of life...

Monday, June 15, 2015

Keeping To A Standard

What does it mean? Standard? Yardstick? Rule? Law? Just watched a video on TED of a song presented by lifers, people with incarcerated with no hope of parole. 30, 40, close to 50 years in prison, for a wrong done. No hope out. Lifers... one might be excused for thinking that the word implies something that is eternal in a positive way.

Made me think. A sin is a sin.... big or small. Still a sin. No compromise. Yet we still measure them with different yard sticks. Made me think too. If all these ideas that we have are all just a brew made from the ingredients we put in.

This coming at the heels of the slew of comments of a gold medalist gymnast whose attire became a subject of criticism. Yet the same people reserved their comments when it came to cigarettes or footballers who are also not 'correctly' attired... if the same yardstick is used.

There are so many different standards actually.

Or we could just say all these are just efforts to strive for perfection, which all of us, I suspect, know will fail miserably. I guess some sins are just not pardonable. Pearly Gates and Hades work along that premise too, I supposed. There is always an if, a caveat, an exception.... So, these lifers are condemned a lifetime.

Haves and the have-nots, rich and poor, the leaders and the servants, one gender role and the other gender role.... there is always this great divide. Woe is the one on the other 'wrong' or lesser end of the divide.

Just some ramblings.....

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Of 3D Printing, Lego Bricks and Stuffs...

Teaching is so filled with help these days. I do formative and summative assessments online with my students. I keep in touch with my students via the communication network... email, What's App, iMessage.... I can't keep up with all the new apps. I collaborate with students in the cloud which comes in all kinds of names these days. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook.... the list seems endless... There are Dropbox, Box, Drive... again another long list. From the big bulky desktops, we have moved to chromebooks and who knows, perhaps tablets will be making their presence felt soon too. They are already in many places.

I use AppleTV to transmit lessons on the screen, write on little tablets instead of chalkboards. Mind maps make appearances with great ease because apps make it possible. Videos and animations too with great frequency. Students submit homework online. I still use the exercise books, though but they seem such a waste. Papers come from trees and we waste so many pages in an exercise book each year.

When I started teaching, cyclostyling was how we did the printing. You type on stencils with the clunky typewriter and had this red liquid which worked like an eraser for mistakes. It was a wow moment when dot matrix printers made their appearances at work places. Then came the laser printers. These days I mostly print my own worksheets. But most of the time, it's a mix of digital screens and papers. I try to minimise the use of papers whenever possible.

Then the Overhead Projectors came about.... followed by the visualisers and projection panels. Then as computers became more common, projectors made their presence felt. Chalkboards will probably be a thing of the past soon. LED screens, AppleTV,  Chromecast, smart tv and the most recent addition is the 3D printer. It is quite amazing what a 3D printer can do. From chocolates to titanium, these printers are able to print I have read. And they print even complete houses too, cars as well and homemade toys. As a kid, I think I never imagined such changes. Goes to show how small my world is.

My students play with Lego bricks, lego with brains, NXT, EV3... And these are for co-curricular activities. When I was a student, I knew only of one type of band and my school band was already quite special back in the early days in the sense we had a bagpipe section. These days kids in my school are spoilt for choice... 24 Seasons Drums, Chinese Orchestra, Brass Band and even a Symphony Orchestra. 

Lessons used to to teacher dependent within the four walls of a building. These days we have the world wide web to help us. All kinds of gurus reside there, in places like Khan Academy, Crash Course, UdaCity, Coursera and so on. If you want a visual instruction for a hobby, YouTube is available. We are even beginning to have our own homegrown versions. Recently students in Kedah were given access to Kedah ETutor where the video content is based on our very own curriculum.

However I guess too, if we are to ask the generation before us how it was like... I think their tale will probably be in the same tone too, albeit about different things. After all, theirs was a generation of huge leap in transportation and communication too....

But despite all these amazing development, I wonder too whether we have all become wiser and more resilient? Point to ponder.