Father Sez

From and to parents - parental advice to our children on personal financial management and life.
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Archive for March, 2009

Our children’s weddings – is it going to be a major cash drainer?

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Asian parents normally bear the full cost of their children’s weddings. This cultural norm + keeping up with the Joneses + inflation + number of children can inflict serious damage on a parent’s finances. 

We have five children. The two eldest should have marriage in their plans over the next couple of years. The younger three are still young and have quite a number of years to go. So, as you can imagine, all aspects of weddings are an important part of our long term planning.  

Malaysia is still a young nation. Until recently we were still an agricultural nation, basically a rural economy, with a large number of people living in the villages. Development has resulted in the migration of many to the cities with the villages being left with the old or the very young. As this phenomenon is relatively new, many of us in the cities still have a strong rural background, at least in our minds.  

As they say, “You can take a Malaysian out of the village, but you cannot take the village out of him.” 

These days many weddings are held in hotels or halls. The grander the hotel or the hall the higher would be the price tag. This is usually the case for city folk.  Some just have it in their homes, often barricading off the roads to function as the dinner / lunch venue. Though this inconveniences the neighbours, it is taken in good spirit and everyone just goes with the flow. 

Village weddings are another thing. They are far cheaper, as there is no hall to rent, no caterers and almost everyone pitches in to help.  

I had an opportunity to be present at a wedding in Zai’s village last week. Whilst having lunch, I thought about the cost of the weddings for my children and wondered if going rural should be the way to go. After all, on my wife’s side, the grand matriarch of the family has a huge house which is lying empty now. It would be prefect for a wedding.    

On the negative side, attending the wedding would be a major pain in the neck for my friends who mostly live in the city.  Well, just thinking.  

Here are some pictures taken at the wedding. Enjoy.


The King and Queen for the day. The groom is from Zai’s village, whilst the bride is from another State. Her delegation was there is full force to lend support and to get to know the boy’s side better.


The official car park. The unofficial ones were any house which had space in their lawn, and there were plenty!

  the-kitchen.jpg The kitchen. All the cooking was done by men. It started at 5 a.m. and finished at 11.00 am, just in time for the guests.  Notice the firewood, it’s rubber wood from the nearby rubber smallholdings. Almost everyone in the kampung has a small lot planted with rubber.


We cannot have the function without the DJ, can we? This DJ was perfect for this crowd, speaking in Nogri slang for the groom’s people and Kelantan slang for the bride’s people. 


The ladies wearing yellow are from the village association. They help out at all the village functions and weddings with the serving of food etc.


The main lunch hall. With tall rambutan trees providing the shade and the cool kampung  wind providing the ventilation.


Guests having their lunch. Though the seating could take only abouy 50 people, the function spread out over 4 hours. People came, ate their fill, mixed with the other guests and left. Then others arrived to take their place. This is a great way to accomodate the late comers and the early birds.

Is my so called “Elixir of Life” a banned substance?

Friday, March 27th, 2009

I wrote about the “African Leaf” in my blog sometime ago. The name was told to me by my brother in law (who is no botanist, by the way). He, in turn, had heard the term from his neighbour. So I do not know the actual scientific name of this plant.

I planted a few cuttings back home last September. Since then I have harvested the leaves twice and have dried the leaves and used them to make tea. I drink this tea much like one would take a drink of water, and so far so good. 

A reader, Sam, wrote in asking me if this leaf was any good as a herbal treatment for diabetes. I told him that I had not heard of any such effects and since then I have exchanged a couple of emails with Sam. He dropped a bombshell when he sent me a picture of a plant that looked eerily like the African Leaf and said that it might be Ketum. A search on Google revealed that the English name for it was Kratom.  

Kratom is banned in Malaysia and every Malaysian and any traveller to Malaysia should know about the tough laws we have on drugs.  As I have no intention of tangling with our Anti Narcotics cops, I asked around.

A friend told me that this plant is grown widely by Chinese families in Malacca. (My brother in law’s neighbour was Chinese). It was used as some sort of herbal medicine though my friend did not know what were the particular uses of the plant. 

A University Science Malaysia publication showed a picture of a large Kratom tree. Thankfully, it did not look anything like my African Leaf shrubs. You can see the  comparisons of two pictures here.    


 My African Leaf. This picture was taken at my brother in law’s house.


I found this picture in www.kratomfarm.com. This looks like a tree and a huge one at that. I don’t think my African leaf will ever reach this size.

A lady reader has recently commented asking me where to get such plants. Apparently she wants to do some research. I have asked her to get in touch with me as I should be able to give her plenty of leaves.  

I only hope that my research is not wrong, and this lady is not actually an undercover cop.  

Did I spoil someone’s rice bowl or did I do the right thing?

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

In Malaysia the term rice bowl is often used to describe one’s livelihood or avenue of earning a living. A job is a rice bowl, a investment paying returns might be another. Spoiling someone’s rice bowl is to negatively affect the person’s livelihood.  

I was put into a difficult situation last week.  Everyone already knows that the economic environment is getting harsher, jobs are being shed left, right and centre and that lots of people are looking for jobs now.  I have often been asked to act as a character referee by my friends when they send out their CV’s. I always agree, since they are friends, which by definition means that I should be able to vouch for their character. 

A former colleague called me out of the blue a few days ago and told me that he had submitted his CV to a head hunting firm and listed my name as a reference. That was fine. He went on to add that he had listed a particular year as the year he started worked in the organisation and that he had been involved in certain types of projects. He ended by telling me that I should know how to weave some story around it. Some story I would have to weave, since the basic facts seemed a little too far from the truth.  

I was stunned. My immediate reaction, which I mentioned to my wife who was with me then was that this guy must have a very low opinion of me. I asked her what I should say should the head hunter call, since it appeared to me that I would have to stretch the truth a little too much for my tastes. 

I am all for helping others in anyway I can. In fact, this is one of the affirmations I read daily. But this grated a lot.  I thought deeply about this issue, as I truly wanted to help him, but not by agreeing to what I considered to be something a little too far away from the truth. I would have been more than happy to work around some little embellishment, though. 

My wife gave me a solid piece of advice. She told me that if the headhunter called, then I should evade questions that might expose the untruths, but instead just talk about what I was involved in. And let the headhunter piece things together.  

Well, the head hunter called, and that was exactly what I did. I just told him that I would tell him what I did and then he could ask me about my interactions with the applicant. I don’t know if the head hunter detected or would consider the discrepancies as “technical errors” or would put a question mark on the whole application. That has to be his decision. 

As for me, my conscience is now clear.  I sent the former colleague an email and told him not to use my name in this manner again. I would like to help him but not this way. He has not replied, either to state his side of the story or to apologise. Well, what he should do is for him to decide.  

The CV Store has an article on whether we should lie in our CV and also the results of a poll conducted on the same topic.

I am happy to know that the majority seems to have the same view as I do. 

My family and I offer our deepest sympathies to Liam Neeson. We were spared from such a tragedy by God’s Grace.

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

There have been lots written about the tragic accident to the talented and young Mrs. Neeson, actress Natasha Richardson.  The cause of her death was apparently an epidural hematoma caused by blunt-impact trauma to the head, as per the New York City medical examiner’s office. It seems the severity and the consequences of the accident was not fully understood as the family had thought it was minor and even turned down medical treatment.  

My wife and I went through a similar situation about 22 years ago. My wife and I were both working and our two senior girls were tots. Along was a year old and Azah was about 2 months.  

We returned from work one day to see Azah going into fits. We took her to a clinic who then referred us to a nearby private hospital. The doctor at the private hospital in turn referred us to the University Hospital, after his diagnosis that the child was having a blood clot in her head.  We got to the hospital around 9 or 10 pm and it was well after midnight by the time we got the doctors at the University Hospital to examine Azah.  

It was the most worrying 3 hours of our lives for both my wife and I.  

The lady doctor who examined my daughter, (I don’t remember her name, though my family will always remember her in our prayers) told us that there was a blood clot in her head and that she had to be operated on. Our precious Azah by then was turning blue.  

By the grace of the All Mighty everything went well and Azah was transferred to the child ICU ward early in the morning. Her mother stayed back with her whilst I went home to get her some stuff. The UH Child ICU ward was an open ward with a number of children with all kinds of chronic ailments.  

I asked the doctor if I could transfer her to a private hospital and I have never forgotten her answer. The doctor told me that whilst the private hospital may have better room facilities, UH had far better medical expertise, and what was more important for my daughter was medical expertise.  

My wife and Azah (with one year old Along in tow) spent about a week in the ICU before our daughter was discharged.  The doctor told us that this clot could only have been caused by a fall or someone knocking Azah on her head. There was no other way.

This incident resulted in my wife and I reviewing our priorities in life and my wife agreed to resign from her work to become a full time mother.  

Azah is now a fine young lady looking forward to living life to the full. No amount of story telling by my wife or me can ever let her know how terrified her parents were that fateful day.  

All these happened about 22 years ago, but reading about Ms. Richardson’s tragic death has reawakened those memories.  My family has been blessed by the All Mighty in that our precious daughter was saved in time. We are deeply grateful for this gift. 

My heart goes out to Mr. Neeson and his family. Our prayers are with him and we pray that God will give him and his family strength in this time of need. We are sure that the thoughts of families the world over, who saw Ms. Richardson in The Parent Trap as we did, will be with Mr. Neeson.  


An “interview” with a loan shark

Friday, March 20th, 2009

Vicky did not look anything like what I thought loan sharks would look like. He struck me as a cultured and soft spoken businessman. He certainly had the build to be pretty intimidating if he wanted to, though. 

I met Vicky whilst waiting for my wife to finish an errand. I wanted to have a tea at one of the local mamak shops whilst waiting for her. There was an empty seat at the table where Vicky was having his lunch. I asked his permission and he cheerfully asked me to take a seat.  

I mentioned that it was pretty late for him to be having lunch (it was already about 4 pm). One thing led to another and we got to talking.  

Vicky, single and 30 years old had been doing this for the past 7 years. He told me that his “brothers” had given him capital at 3 sen, and he lent out the money at 10 sen. His cut would be the 7 sen. Though he used the term “sen”, it basically meant % per month. 

7% per month return or 84% a year is no small return.  

Vicky told me that he had lived in Seremban all his life and he knew personally almost all the Indian small businessmen and traders. He only lent to people he had known for at least 5 years. People whom he was confident would not run off on him. 

He had a very low opinion of loan sharks who resorted to acts like throwing red paint in people’s homes etc. Vicky’s stand was that this was a business. He made his money by choosing good borrowers. This was the key and his USP.  

The second was to be reasonable in his rates. He claimed that there were some loan sharks who charged more than 200% per annum and a day’s delay in paying the monthly instalment would result in the repayment being doubled. He pitied people who had no choice but to borrow at these rates. They are doomed……were his words.  

I asked him about his bad debt rates. (Though I wanted to, I did not ask him what he did to people who did not pay). He mentioned that a 10% provision for bad debts should be enough. He gave an example of one person who ran off to another town and returned later to pay the principal plus interest. 

His “brothers”, who had invested the money with him were actually just investors. He considered them as his brothers as they had given him this means of making his living. (He also had a restaurant as well as a scrap metal business.) 

I told him that my religion forbid me from participating in this type of business. He had heard about this, but his view was that he was actually helping people get second chances.

It seems that Vicky hangs around this particular mamak shop often as his office was just around the corner. He was still single and he always had all his meals there.  

Though I hope to get to know Vicky better, it should not be for the intention of becoming a customer.

Our undrawn personal boundaries

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

We all have our own boundaries. Not the physical ones, but the mental ones. Boundaries that we don’t cross unless pressed to under really extenuating circumstances.  

I was reminded about this lately when I read the story of how one guy found some old pictures (taken more than 30 years ago) of his then girlfriend and sold them to the media. The pictures were taken when the girl was a teenager and showed her in lingerie and semi nude. Unlike the guy, the girl had risen up in life and was now a politician. Hence the pictures became so called “news worthy”.

And this brings me to the point of my story. 

I’ll never ever have considered doing this. (not that I have any such photos, anyway). No matter how down and out I was, putting another person into such an embarrassing position purely for monetary gain for me would be well outside my personal boundaries. And honestly speaking, I also think that the media house that bought these pics also had very porous boundaries.  

We must all have seen movies about people who swear to certain principles and lines that they would not cross, whilst the hero looks at them with a cynical look. At the end of movie, there would be a scene where these boundaries are crossed. One such movie was Rambo 4. A Christian missionary, who was part of a team illegally crossing into Myanmar to help some of the refugees, berated our John Rambo for killing some pirates, claiming that nothing justified the taking of human life. By the end of the movie, he had killed someone.  

But our life is not a movie.  

Our boundaries are defined by our upbringing, our education, our religious inclinations, our morals and conscience. Some boundaries are tighter and others may be a little more porous.  

Then there was a time when a colleague asked me to join him in a “side deal”. He was holding a very senior post in a subsidiary, whilst I was holding a senior position in the holding company. The deal was for both of us to work out a cut on purchases done by the subsidiary. And I must admit that it would have been quite lucrative. My friend’s logic was that the prices would be at the company’s budgeted levels, so any savings should not be missed. I turned him down. 

Let me assure you that I am no angel. Like my friend Jaya pointed out, all of us have a dark side. I also do. So I am not being judgemental at all by writing this article. It is just that I do have some boundaries that I won’t cross. 

The present difficult times can result in many of our boundaries being tested. There was a recent story in the local papers about a young mother caught stealing milk powder for her baby. And shoplifting was the only way she knew how to get milk to feed her baby. 

I am sure my children have already formed some boundaries. Some of these may change over time, and I hope that their boundaries will not veer far from the lines I have drawn for my life.   

And I pray that neither I nor any other member of my family will be tested like how the young mother was tested.


What I have learned from the Sandwich Man

Monday, March 16th, 2009

This morning I read an article in the local papers about the state of the economy in Thailand. Malaysia and Thailand have many similarities besides sharing a border. It’s safe to consider this Thai view as another opinion on Malaysia’s own state of the economy.  

Update: Our Government is now talking about bad times…finally.

The writer had talked to none other than the Sandwich Man, Mr. Sirivat, who found fame selling sandwiches made by him and his wife at Bangkok street corners, after tumbling from the lofty heights of being one of Thailand’s richest businessmen.   Mr. Sirivat had quite dire predictions for the Thai economy. His logic being that Thailand’s main earners are export oriented manufacturing and tourism. And the customers i.e. the rest of the world, are in too bad a shape to do much buying. He expects that the next quarter will start seeing serious pain being inflicted on the Thai economy.  

Mr. Sirivat’s website explains how after his highly leveraged business collapsed in 1997, he took to selling sandwiches. His first 20 sandwiches took over 6 hours to sell. Now, 12 years later, he has a number of coffee restaurants and has turned his economic fortunes around.  I am not sure about his current age, though his website says he is 59. Asians generally are a proud people. Very cognisant about face and social status etc. At this age, and from his prior position, it must have taken a tremendous sense of tenacity and courage for him to have taken on the sandwich business. 

I, too, am seeing tough times ahead for me. Though I believe I have my plans worked out and am implementing them to the best of my ability, it is clear that the traction has not taken place yet. 

Tough times never last, tough people do. This title of a book by Robert Schuller, is a really powerful phrase!  Being reminded about the Sandwich Man’s fall off his economic cliff and his climb back has given me renewed strength. An example of there is always another way. A guide to looking at every option available. A true life example of the phrase, “Tough times never last, tough people do!” 

Tough times never last, tough people do! This is what I should have said this morning to one my best friends, when I visited him in hospital. He has one of the highest levels of inner strength that I have ever seen in anyone and perhaps he was already running this phrase through his mind many times. 

Tough times never last, tough people do! This is what I should tell my eldest daughter as she tries to find herself and merge her love for applying psychology on children with the earning requirements of her everyday life.   This is what I should also tell my second daughter as she works her way through unrealistic and unreasonable deadlines.  

Tough times never last, tough people do! This is going to be my mantra for these economic times.

Links – The Stimulus Package for Malaysians Edition

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

On the 10th March, the Deputy Prime Minister cum Finance Minister announced the long awaited 2nd stimulus package for Malaysia. We have dithered for quite a while under the impression that we were “more insulated” against the worldwide economic turmoil. 

The sums bandied about are huge by Malaysian standards. Well, we are going into deficit, on the basis of “let’s live first and resolve our deficit later”, a formula that should be followed by many other countries. 

I only pray that the announced packages are spent with integrity and not wasted away on some useless harebrained projects that enrich a few.  

Moving on to other interesting reads from my reader:  

Ron points out the “real reasons” why State and County governments may be short of cash. And he has suggested good solutions. Solutions that I wholeheartedly agree with. Wonder how things would change if people like Ron were the overwhelming majority in Government! I am sure it would be for the better….far, far better.

David discusses the reaction to schools offering cheese sandwiches to kids whose parents did not pay their lunch tab. I suppose in these harsh economic times, there may be some who can barely make ends meet. Even for these people, I cannot understand why there should be complaints if the kids do get fed.  

LOD writes about the median prices of homes in Detroit now reaching USD7,500. Sounds really cheap! Well, the market is usually well informed. Is there a reason why house prices are falling so low? Other than the normal downward pressure due to foreclosures and the like. 

We have developments like this in Malaysia. Townships built and sold and now lying empty…..just like a ghost town. Somehow the township never attracted a population, and the few who came left after a while. Yes, the houses are cheap and have been cheap for more than 10 years or so now. Yet, there have been no takers.  

David is looking at the possibility and the savings that could be racked up if he carried his own trash to the landfill rather than using the local contractor. He lives not too far from the landfill and his household’s trash generation rate is very low. Perhaps if he joined hands with a couple of his neighbours, the savings might really add up. 

Ishita Gupta of the Samba Team reassures those of us who feel fear when we set our goals and get to work on achieving them. He says that this fear is good, as it shows that we are actually getting nearer to the truth. The issue is that, this time, we have to overcome the fear.

Read about what an Alabama pharmacist did to create a local stimulus package. I love news like this, makes me feel much better than all those “hats in hand and lining outside the doors of Washington” kind of talk.

The CHO gives us an example of how one great guy steered a company through a rough recession, without laying off a single employee. If only there were more of the visionary Wim Roelandts around. 

Well, this is it for the week folks. Have a very happy and productive weekend.

A penny for your thoughts

Friday, March 13th, 2009

This is an often made statement in everyday conversation.

Have we ever wondered how deep a meaning this statement holds? 

Last week, a lady currently embroiled in a highly public spat with her former mentor, a powerful Malaysian politician made this statement: 

“I was given a party post. At the various meetings, I’ll just keep quiet and watch the rest of the faces at the table, and wonder just exactly what they were thinking about.” 

This statement made quite a deep impression on me. No one knows what anyone else’s thoughts are.  

For example, I may be having a discussion with my daughter. My feelings are that she is weak in a particular subject in school and should ask for help. She refuses and keeps on saying that she is all right. I get more concerned and become more forceful in my “persuasion”. She on the other hand just clamps up. 

I may be at a bank and see some old people coming forward with a tattered and well worn savings book to either deposit or withdraw some money. I may think that these people must be living very frugally and be very careful with their money. In actual fact, this person could be the owner of several acres of banana plantations and make more money in a month that I would in six. 

Yesterday I spent some time with a dear friend who is about to undergo some delicate surgery. He has done all the required tests and the surgery is to be done by the best surgeon in Malaysia. He is well taken care of in the hospital with his wife and his 3 sisters by his bed all the time. I did wonder exactly what his thoughts were, just as he might have wondered what mine were. 

I was praying for the best of what is good for him. I have no idea what his thoughts were. Last night I tossed and turned again wondering about this. Perhaps he was thinking of his family (he has provided well for them), thinking about the uncompleted parts of his dreams, and thinking about what he should do differently after his surgery. 

Daily we go about our lives, each of us with our own thoughts, thoughts about our problems, thoughts about our successes, thoughts about the next pressing things we should do etc. The people standing next to us or even the people nearest and dearest to us have no idea. 

We are told, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood”. “We have been given two ears and one mouth, there is a reason for this”.  We are told to ask and slowly draw out the feelings and real thoughts of the other person.  

Well, I for one am going to make a stronger effort to adopt Dr. Covey’s 3rd Habit as a daily affair. It may not be of much use in a case of understanding the person next to us in a bank, but should help us when we deal directly with others.  

We all should!    

What I have learned about the morals or the honour of borrowing

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

My very first experience with “debt” was when my eldest brother helped me take a study loan to fund my University studies. I cannot remember the details of how we went about this, though my signature must have been required every step of the way. I suppose my brother must have wondered how on earth I would ever make it in life, much like I now wonder sometimes about my children…..hehe. 

When I graduated and started working, my brother would every month, without fail and like clockwork, take a bus, go to the office of the lending agency and pay the instalment. This was for a period of two years (tertiary education in Malaysia those days was cheap!) I can still remember him mentioning that almost all the staff there knew him because he was amongst the few (very few??) paying regularly. 

The point is, not paying or postponing an instalment never ever entered our minds. This mindset was something that somehow my parents had hammered into us from very young. 

I started working and my third job was with one fairly large group which was mired in debt. And one of my job functions was the so called restructuring of debt. You know, the normal formula, sell some assets, pay down some debt, conversion of bonds into equity, seek new repayment schedules on the other loans so that they could be met etc. 

One of my perks when I joined the company was a housing loan. The company took over a housing loan that I had with my previous employers. This was also during a period when our country was going through a tough time and basically my loan was under water. 

I got into the job with real gusto and soon realised that not everyone had the same mindset on the obligations taking on debt entailed. I was introduced into the world of using legal methods of holding creditors at bay and just dragging them along. And, boy, you could hold them off for quite a number of years. 

Then another transaction which the company had entered into about 3 months before I had joined exploded. In my view that transaction had been done to sort of screw some of the creditors but unfortunately the counter party screwed the company instead. Another legal front opened, alongside the many we already had with banks and other creditors.

As one can imagine, this “culture” clashed violently with all that I that held dear. I lasted about 5 months at that job. I left with a very sour taste in my mouth and a deep dislike for that company and its senior management. 

When I left, I was requested to repay the housing loan. As the loan was underwater, no way I could have refinanced the loan. But unfortunately for them the mortgage documents had gone missing! With God as my witness, I was never the custodian of the documents and I had nothing to do with their disappearance.

But I flatly refused to do anything to legitimise the loss and as a result they could do nothing. I just stayed in the house for 2 years without paying rental or loan instalments.  

About two years later, a new management took over that company. A representative came to see me to negotiate on the loan settlement. It took him about a minute to get me to agree to pay! All he did was to ask me, “Did I take the loan?” My answer was “Yes”. Then he replied “Then you must repay”. End of discussion.

It helped that this guy was a person I respected and he had nothing to do with the shady characters of the past management.  Still I could have just ignored him and this unfairly favourable state of affairs could have gone on for quite a while longer. I suppose they would need a court order to compel me to sign the documents allowing them to obtain a replacement copy of the title. And I had learned quite a bit about legal kung fu in my 5 months with them to delay this by another year or so. 

But in the end, what my parents had hammered into me prevailed, and I refinaced and repaid the loan.  

These events, which happened almost 2 decades ago, went through my mind when I read Brip Blap’s “Produce the Note”, and in particular this sentence…… We throw any concept of honor (i.e. paying one’s debts) out the window due to legalese, of course.  

Well, I am happy that I climbed out of the window and picked back my concept of honour. Though it was two years later!


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