Father Sez

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Drinking milk in a toddy shop…..

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

My late father was wise. He had his own simple rules on bringing up his children. Simple and graphic rules which have stuck in my mind despite my age having crossed the 5 decade barrier a few years ago. 

And one classic rule was the …….“Even if you drink milk in a toddy shop…..” 

Toddy is no more the commonly understood drink it once was. I suppose there would be plenty of youngsters today who have never seen a pot of toddy in their lives.  

Listed below is an extract of a scientific paper presented in 1952 on Toddy. 

“The partly fermented sap of the coconut palm (COCOnSu cifera), called toddy in Malaya, is a popular drink among certain sections of the population in south-east Asia and among the natives of the central Pacific Islands. The methods of obtaining toddy from various species of palm have been described in detail by Gibbs (1911) and by Browning & Symons (1916), so that only a brief account need be given here.  

The young inflorescence is tightly bound with twigs and beaten with a weighted wooden mallet, morning and evening, for a number of days. When the inflorescence begins to ooze its sap, the tip is cut and the sap allowed to trickle into an earthenware pot. Owing to the yeasts and other organisms already present in the used pots, alcoholic and other fermentations begin immediately. Each morning and evening a ‘tapper’ climbs the tree to collect the toddy, and at each visit he shaves off a fine transverse section of the inflorescence so as to leave a new oozing surface. The fermented toddy, which is milky in appearance, is brought to the Government toddy-shops for sale within a few hours of collection.”  

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A toddy tapper doing his thing. Note the collection pots that are still on the tree. Source: Flickr

Not far from where I grew up in Penang, there was a toddy shop. The fermented toddy, whilst looking like milk had a powerful foul odour. And it was a common sight to see many of the port workers and labourers staggering out drunk from this toddy shop most evenings. Being called a “toddy drinker” was a grave insult beaten only by being labelled a “toddy drunkard”.  

And my late father’s saying……”Even if we drink milk in a toddy shop…” meant crime by association.   

Even if we had the noblest of intentions and drank only milk in a toddy shop, we would still be labelled as a toddy drinker or worse a toddy drunkard. So we should just stay away from places like toddy shops. Of course this also extended to a number of other places, like where the young men of those days would gather to play cards or just talk shop. I should not even be seen there…period. 

Maybe sayings like this still have their usefulness.  

Many are the young of today who gather at shopping complexes and “happening places”. I am sure most of them start off with innocent intentions of having fun. Until the crime by association starts. Some of these kids end up trapped into the world of cigarettes and drinks and maybe even worse, drugs.

I don’t know how I would be able to bring up the issue of toddy with my children. They’ll probably look at me as if I had gone unhinged. At least I have been allowed to hammer home the dangers of smoking to them.    

In this, there are lessons for those who think…..

Friday, May 8th, 2009

Life is full of surprises, it is often said. But is this always true? Or are we given subtle warnings and guidance on what we should expect as we go on with our lives? 

Recently this phrase has been often playing in my mind.

It started when I was having tea with a friend, a retired senior official of one of our Banks. My friend’s children have all about finished school or are in University, except for the youngest, a girl who has just finished her UPSR. He is basically living a live of contented retirement and has increased his religious activities in place of the hours he put into his office work.  

I was talking to him about another friend of mine. An old friend, who is now fighting a valiant battle against one of the scrouges of our lives. A battle, God Willing, he will win. I mentioned that I had last met him about a couple of months ago and he was full of vitality, plans and hopes for his future. And since recently he has been in and out of hospitals.  

And my retired bank officer friend listened intently and said, “In this are lessons for those of us who think”. 

It was one of those statements, which though made in passing, has an extremely profound effect on us. I asked him what he meant, and his reply was that: 

“We should always have our affairs in order so as not to burden our loved ones in the event of anything untoward happening to us. As you can see, the future can be really surprising.”  

How many of us actually think about this possibility?  

The possibility of life as we know it no longer being there. About the so many things that we do and manage and keep the information to ourselves. About the so many things our loved ones would have to tackle and try to decipher and put the pieces together if anything untoward were to happen to us. 

I am not talking about just taking on adequate insurance and hoping that the loved ones we leave behind will sort themselves out somehow. I am talking about something a little deeper than that.

A life continuity contingency plan, so to speak.  

Yes, in this is a lesson for those of us who think. I have written earlier about writing my final letter and stuff like that. Now I feel that the letter would be woefully inadequate if I were to expect my family to continue living seamlessly if anything untoward were to happen.  

This may be a little morbid a subject to talk about, but it is about the same as that of going for regular medical checkups. 

A life continuity check should be in order, don’t you think? After all this is a standard practice in many companies.  

We should get our umbrellas ready before it rains

Monday, April 13th, 2009

umbrella-in-rain.jpg

Source:  Google

We have a saying in our country. Sediakan payung sebelum hujan.”  It basically means that we should get our umbrellas ready before it rains.  

We are an equatorial country with rain almost throughout the year. Torrential downpours are quite common. However it seldom rains without any warning. The clouds turn a little dark, then darker, and then it rains. Despite these warnings, we can often see people stuck without umbrellas. 

Of course, our forefathers did not come up with the saying with only rain and umbrellas in mind. The saying was more to teach us to prepare ahead. Like savings for retirement, studies before exams, practice before games, being adequately insured etc. 

I have to admit that I could have done with a lot more practice in following this wise saying. There are a lot of issues where earlier preparation would have helped me a lot. 

However, one thing my family is well prepared for is rain.  We have umbrellas in the front of our house and in our cars. The umbrellas are kept in the front passenger seat, slotted in between the gear controls and the seat.  I

t can be quite a tough job trying to get the umbrella opened whilst trying to get out of the car when it is parked besides other cars in open car parks. We can’t open the door too wide, as the door may dent the door of the car beside us. Additionally the rain often just pours, so we have to open the door a little, slot out the umbrella, open the umbrella and then wriggle ourselves out. Getting a little wet would be a given. The advantage is that we don’t get soaked. 

Keeping an umbrella handy in the car became second nature only after getting soaked a number of times earlier in life.  

Unfortunately for other situations in life, not to have sediakan payung sebelum hujan has far deeper and more permanent results. 

National Service Camps for Malaysian youngsters – my family’s experience

Friday, April 10th, 2009

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This is a picture I took from Az’s website from her collection of her PLKN photos. (Hope you don’t mind…Az.) I was not really into photos when my daughter attended the camp.

 The uniforms give them a sense of solidarity and purpose.

National Service or Program Latihan Khidmat Negara was started in 2003 with the objectives :- 

-         Of instilling and strengthening the spirit of patriotism,

-         Promoting racial integration and unity,

-         Instilling positive attitudes by the absorption of good moral values,

-         Nurturing the spirit of volunteerism,

-         Creating a generation of young who are active, clever and self confident. 

Quite noble aims, I am sure you will all agree. Since the program is over a period of only 3 months, I suppose they’ll just be able to lay some foundations. Still it’s much better than nothing. 

The children are selected via some computer program from a database of children born in a particular year. They are then allocated training camps where they have report on a particular date. Those who have been allocated camps far away, are directed to meet at a pick up point for transport. 

(This NS cannot really be compared to a draft, where the youngsters are treated as recruits for the armed forces. The Singapore Government, for example, has a program where all 18 year olds get conscripted for a 2 year program with the Singapore Police, Civil Defence or Armed Forces.)

My eldest girl was just about 17 when the NS was announced. My wife told me that she was so looking forward to being selected for the course. (I was working in India at that time.) Unfortunately for her the computers did not pick her name. 

Azah, my second girl was totally against the National Service. When the announcements were made, she was all about hoping not to be selected. As Murphy’s Law would have it, her name came up. Azah was so nervous and even tried to get her mother to try to get her name off the list. Well, this did not happen. 

Finally the day to report drew close. The whole family drove down to the camp area to scout out the place. Incidentally that was about the first time my family had ever been to Kuala Pilah, Negeri Sembilan, about 30 kilometres from where we lived. (I never would have guessed that this would be where we would end up buying a piece of land for our rubber smallholding.)

On the day the kids were supposed to report, I drove Azah (and a friend of hers) to the camp. It was like a carnival, anxious parents giving last minute instructions and advice, the camp administrators running hither and thither etc. Azah was very nervous and I must admit, so was I. Finally, I like the other parents had to leave our (little) children there and get back home.

along-and-azah-gambar-after-resize.jpg

This was the mental picture I had of my daughter as I left her at the camp. Yes, I realise the photo is about 18 years old, but then I am a parent!. Maybe that should explain everything…..hehe 

We brought her back twice during the program for the Chinese New Year and the Christmas / New Year holidays. By then she had adapted to the environment and was enjoying herself quite a bit. 

The experience for her was good. All the nervousness was gone and she came back a more confident and responsible young lady. She also made some good friends with whom she still keeps in touch. 

For our family, this first experience with PLKN was excellent. We have another 3 young children who are waiting in the wings. Our son should be in the database pool in 2011/12. This time, our family will be hoping that he gets chosen.  

Hopefully by then, a well tried and tested personal finance module would also be in place for the trainees.  

Read about the personal PLKN experiences of other young Malaysians here. 

- CandyGurl  

- John Diew  

- DJRay 

- Az (she has some great shots of her experiences.) 

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.

Looking for my daughter, Nana’s Science switch

Monday, March 9th, 2009

Nana, my daughter number 4, did quite well in her examinations in Standard Six. That was two years ago, and before I took any serious interest in any of my children’s studies. My son, Nana’s senior by a year, did not do so well. This was quite a surprise as Abang was identified by the school teachers as one of the better students. 

That’s the background. 

Now we use an online educational product at home. A product that allows the children to answer countless questions over and over and the results are instantly sent to an electronic report card that their mother and I can view and use as a base to monitor our kids’ progress. We are using the principle of practise makes perfect and so far I am very happy with the progress my son is making. (Incidentally, I am so pleased with the product that I have signed up on its MLM program. I have a blog called More Income for Malaysians on this issue.) 

Nana seems a little reluctant to practice as much as Abang. (True, Abang has had his days of being yelled at by his mother as well as me.) I am beginning to suspect that Nana has an aversion to some of the subjects, in particular Science. She is reluctant to tell me and so is using all her little feminine tricks to escape.

I have been focussing more on Abang as he has an important exam, PMR at the end of this year. Nana would be sitting for this exam next year.  

Malaysia is going through a traumatic period in its education system. Mathematics and Science have been taught in English for the past six years, and there have been some protests about this. These protestors want it to be taught in Bahasa Melayu, as some of the children as well as the teachers are more proficient in that language. I strongly disagree as I think that in this world of globalisation, strong knowledge of one of the world’s commercial languages is an absolute must. 

I do not know if Nana’s aversion is due to this hassle of the language. I am quite sure that many of the teachers are also struggling with English as they were schooled in Bahasa Melayu. Well, the teachers should sort themselves out, not revert from English.  

Today I have made a resolution to find her switch. And I think I know how. Nana is not a dumb girl. She is smart and is a real room warmer with her bright cheery smile and positive outlook towards life.  

I can already imagine the sense of feeling “I can do it!” in Nana’s eyes, as we jointly find the switch and turn it on. Perhaps I should write this post after Nana and I have succeeded, but I want a strong sense of accountability.  

God Willing, I shall write about our joint success very soon.   

How do we prepare our kids to handle stress?

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

Many adults are being seriously stressed by the current economic environment. Plunging retirement accounts, job losses and plunging businesses are contributors. These stresses are reflected in worried faces and forlorn looks at home, and often harsh responses to innocent questions by the kids. 

Children do get stressed too. And as parents, we often just brush it off and do not give it the attention it deserves. Children and young adults get stressed up about exams, relationships in and outside school, their parents’ relationships, parental expectations and a whole host of other things. Read Channel 4’s take on Young Lives under Pressure.  

We learn in our adult life that knowing how to handle stress is important, and in fact, often live saving. And we take steps to better handle this stress. Young adults start their working lives not really capable of handling stress. And we all know how stressful working life can be.  

Picture Credit: Google 

So shouldn’t we start talking to our children earlier on how to manage stress? 

My belated advice to my children on handling stress is to learn not to worry. Worrying will not solve anything. If it could, by now I should have solved the world’s hunger problems….hehe 

Sometimes we do get into situations which seem insurmountable. Then we should seek the help and guidance of the All Mighty. As Muslims, my family has the Quran to fall back upon as the ultimate guide. Reading and understanding the Quran and its advice when it comes to matters of “tests” upon us, is very soothing and calming. 

Third you can sing! Just open a window or go to a washroom and sing! People are happy because they sing, not that they sing because they are happy. A really great song that I strongly recommend is “Hakunama Tata”, the theme song from The Lion King. 

Fourth, exercise. A good brisk jog or a walk should clear away a lot of worries. Maybe it’s something to do with the pumping of oxygen into the brain, I don’t know. The doctors talk about endomorphins and stuff like that. They must do some good. 

Fifth, you can take time out and immerse yourself into an activity that you love. Like taking your rabbit out for a walk. Or watching a movie. Or listening to some songs. Or doing some gardening. 

Sixth, you can look at what would be the worst that could happen. Usually we realise that no permanent damage would be involved. Than why on earth should we worry? This rule can be applied in all those seemingly most important relationship issues.  

Life will be sure to bring about a lot of stressful situations.  

But most of them can be avoided as “we have to allow them to become stressful”.  All we have to do is not to give them permission!!!

Beware the law of immediate indefeasibility

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

One question that was often asked of me from my Ghanaian colleagues during the time I spent in Ghana was “How do we get rich?” We have to appreciate that the unemployment rate in Ghana then was very high, judging from the number of responses we got to our positions available ads. Apparently it was around 11%. And with a per capita GDP of USD1,500, wages and salaries were not high either.      

At that time my standard answer was “Buy land. Buy a piece of land that is cheap and outside city limits. Just leave it there. At least you would be trying to make sure that your children get a chance to get out of the vicious poverty cycle.” 

I was shocked at the reply that my colleagues gave me. Apparently the land title system in Ghana (then at least) was not very dependable. You could get 2 or even more people with seemingly valid titles in their respective names for the same piece of land. 

Secondly land encroachment was fairly rife. Land left idle for some time might see someone coming in and building a house on it. And the risks were higher the further out the lands were. 

I was shocked because Malaysia had an excellent land title system. Once you had a valid title in your name your proof of ownership was unshakeable. 

So I thought. Looks like I have to rethink my faith in the Malaysian land title system.  

There is a “Adorna Properties Sdn Bhd v Boonsom Boonyanit” case where it seems that someone forged a land transfer and got a title registered in their name. Then they sold the land. And the original owner found out and sued. It seems that the buyer of the land got to retain the land because of this law of immediate indefeasibility. 

I have to take note of this. Though I feel something is not right with the logic of this judgement, this is now the legal precedent in Malaysia, I think.  

At present only my wife and me know about the titles to the land that we own. None of our children, including the two elder girls know the details. If someone quietly forges my wife’s and my signature and somehow gets the land transferred, it looks like the land is gone for good. 

Maybe I should pledge the titles to some bank for some loans. With the pledges registered, the forgers and, I am sure, their accomplices in the land registration offices may not be so successful. 

Does your family make consultative decisions on major issues?

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

Last week, I had a meeting with a person who had, in the last few years, built up a fair sized oil palm plantation. My family also has a piece of land not far from his plantation and the meeting was on a possible collaboration. During the course of the discussions, I mentioned that once he had made his written offer, I would have to discuss it with my “partners” and only then could I revert to him. Later I told him that my partners were my wife and my 2 elder girls.  

He expressed surprise and told me about how he single-handedly made decisions in his company. (He had earlier told me his two sons were involved in his business.)  The thing did not work out and on the way back I mulled over what he had said about decision making.  

Many years ago, I read an article in the Accountancy magazine about the pros and cons of companies that made their moves based on the decisions of one person as compared against companies that depended on checks and balances in their decision making. The article concluded that whilst those single driver kind of companies moved fast and were agile, they ran the grave risk of making that one fatal mistake that would sink them forever.  

This statement has stuck in my mind all these years. 

My wife and I have long decided that major financial decisions should be jointly discussed. Our two elder girls are also directors of the family company and I often inform them and seek their views. It has nothing to do with shareholdings or the like; its just that such consultations make plain common sense.  My daughters and wife may have a point of view that I had not thought about. They may have knowledge that might be very relevant to the issue at hand. And I have absolutely nothing to lose by consulting them. Not even pride! 

One of my former bosses had a policy. To every money decision that anybody insisted that he should make on the spot, his answer would always be “no”.  

I have many examples of personal bad decisions I have made without serious thought or consultations. I have thrown away that habit for good now. After all I am not an open heart surgeon or a elite commando who might have to make such decisions as part of their normal day. 

Consultative decision making does not have to involve lengthly meetings and pages and pages of minutes. It may be just a tea time talk or a five minutes kind of thing. I would wager that a normal person’s life seldom, if ever, involve having to make a split second decision.  

I urge my two elder girls to practice this. So far they have consulted their mother or me in their major decisions. I suppose a time will soon come where parents might not be their choice of sounding boards. Still I urge them to seek someone out and most probably a better decision would be made.

Unemployment numbers looking grimmer and grimmer for Malaysians

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

On Monday the 19th, one of Malaysia’s more influential blogs posted an article titled “1 million Malaysians could lose jobs this year”.  

This forecast had been made on the basis of estimates by the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) and news reports on expected job losses for Malaysians working in Singapore.  

Current official Malaysian unemployment statistics are at 3.1% or an estimate of 343,700 people. Increasing this by even another 300,000 people is going to cause a terrible strain on the Malaysian people.  

The highest unemployment rate that I could find for Malaysia was for the year 1986 when it was 8.3%.  Though I had already been working for a few years when this 1986 recession hit us, I was quite blissfully ignorant. There were no retrenchments done at my workplace and I did not know anyone who had been affected. I wonder how my mindset would have been affected had I been retrenched or suffered some set back this early in my working life.  

My two elder girls have just started working. The eldest is doing some part time work teaching an autistic child, and my second girl is in a fairly recession proof industry. At this stage in their lives the parental umbrella is still available to them. In addition, their expenses are still low and they have yet to be burdened with car loans, housing loans and such. 

I have my doubts if my girls will truly understand the difficulties faced by many others in the work force. They might if some of their peers have been affected by the storms in the job market.  I hope that my girls will hear, learn and try to understand the flimsiness of the job markets and the resultant devastating impact this can have on incomes and lifestyles.

This would be one of the best lessons one can have for maintaining a frugal lifestyle and always earning more than spending.

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