Monday, December 12, 2005

A Gathering of Old Saints


It's time of the year again for our Old Xaverian Association annual dinner.  In spite of my early 4.00pm departure from SP to avoid the traffic jam on the Prai side of Penang Bridge, which is a regular occurrence on Friday evenings, it took me more than thirty minutes to get to the other side.  The queue started immediately at the turn-off from the interchange.  Anyway, I reached the Sandy Beach Paradise a quarter before 6.00pm and managed to locate the place in between 2 other hotels namely, the Corpthorne and the Crown Prince.  KS Khoo’s email mentioned Sandy Bay, but since that’s the only place called “Sandy” that must be it.  I wanted to arrive early on purpose so that I could drop by for a chat with my old folks at their apartment just a 5 minute drive from there.  Mum was preparing dinner and dad was at his favorite reclining chair in front of the TV.  Normally they'd maintain their youthful vigor by arguing about anything under the sun or compete for my attention with their opinions whenever I'm around.  But that evening they were rather subdued as if in reflection of the moody weather.  I hoped I brought them some cheer with my surprise visit.


When I arrived at the hotel later the 'car park full' sign was blocking the entrance.  A guard indicated an alternative parking space a bit further down the road on a vacant field next to the Dalat School next door.  On my way to the hotel from the car park it was drizzling, but I decided to leave the umbrella.  I noticed a lanky guy with clean shaven head behind me.  The face looked familiar.  My mind ran through the list of names and I guessed this must be Chin Soon.  I turned around and asked him and he said yes.  He couldn’t remember me, so I had to remind him.  We represented St Xavier's Branch School together in an art competition at Francis Light School when we were in Std 6.


We found we were the first to arrive at our table, followed by Gaik Im, the only rose among thorns at our table.  This bubbly lady got here all the way from Phoenix, Arizona, USA where she’s a property agent.  She's on one of her occasional visits home.  She was from our neighboring school, the Light Street Convent with whom we shared the playing field.  The common link we had was that she spent a few months in form 6 in SXI before she left for the US.  Ong was in SXI until form 4 after which he left for UK to pursue a course in fashion design.  He resided in UK for 11 years and then moved to Hong Kong where he now runs a boutique. That’s the gist of all the information I managed to gather from these early birds before the rest of our table mates showed up and the resident band struck up their oldies and goodies of the sixties and seventies trying to drown out our conversation.  We then tried to carry on by turning our voices up a few more decibels in between some photo-sessions and 'yam-seng' cheers.


There was Chin Kong back from Toronto, Canada.  We learned he’s into politics there.  I remember him as the guy who kept praising me for my artistic talents when he saw some of my works displayed in our school annual exhibition.  It looks like he's found his calling.  Too bad, I didn't follow mine.  I was glad to have also met Dean Liu, who generously supplied the Green and Black labeled whiskeys which put so much life into our little gathering in the midst of the larger gathering.  There also was Joseph Yong, Sik Kim, who's in civil-engineering, Swee Sim (MAS), our regular Cheong Tian the freight-forwarder, Choon Jin the low profile and humble tycoon and not forgetting JM Tan the security expert from Fairchild.  Our table was reserved by our OXA vice-president friend, KS Khoo former banker, now GM of Clarion. 


We were treated to the usual 8 course dinner complete with lucky draws offering prizes in cash and kind. To round off the evening, our vice-president got on the stage with the band and gave us his version of 'Secret Love'.  We assumed he wasn't singing about his personal life at this age. The guys decided that 10.15 pm was too early for them to crawl off home to bed.  They were just warming up and wanted to shift the party to another venue.  For me, I've had enough to last me till next year.  It felt great to sit among old friends and yak away the night, and I would have loved to continue but my neck wasn't really up to it yet.  I decided to call it a day, thinking about the usual jam in Green Lane and my long drive back to SP alone on the wet, drizzly night.


This was my 2nd attendance in this annual dinner and to think that I haven't seen some of these guys for more than 35 years.  Except for some receding, greying or missing hairlines, thicker glasses or reading glasses where there were none before, nothing much has changed over the years.  These guys still tried to insult each other without anyone taking any offence for that matter.  In spite of the din going on all around, this gathering was to me, to sum up in one word: nostalgic.  Looking forward to next year and I hope to see more new (old) faces showing up.


Sunday, December 4, 2005

People can be heartless?

Is it true people are heartless nowadays?  If so, how do we explain the millions in cash and kind they collect for earthquake and tsunami victims?   Or is it institutions and organizations with rules and regulations and the necessity to define everything to a “T” that create the dilemma we’re in?


I’m talking about the case of the student who died while waiting for a relative to come up with RM5000 before the private hospital could proceed to save his life, here are my thoughts.


Is it a tragic catch 22 situation we’re looking at?  Or is it the chicken and egg?  The question begs answering: To provide emergency life-saving procedures without the deposit or red tape or look at every admission as a $$$?  Standard Operating Procedures may be necessary, but when it comes to a decision as to what constitutes an “emergency case” who can decide on that?  As soon as a doctor is called he starts charging his time, and the administration counter starts ticking.  The trouble is; people who handle the admissions may sometimes get ticked off if they made the wrong decision.  And to protect themselves they put things on hold.  Or they stick fast to the so-called rules.  If the “case’ expires at the doorstep, the admission guy may just say it’s the rules, or he may suffer the guilt of having “killed” someone because he had to follow the rules. 


So, the question to ask is: Is there a clearly defined condition as to what constitutes an “Emergency Case” or should it be imperative for all hospitals to alleviate pain and suffering before the question of payment is asked?  I’m not familiar enough with such things but I believe these definitions are usually not so clear cut.  Those in the profession should know better.  To save lives as well as to save the health industry from being run down to the ground by dubious cases and bad debts, the Health Ministry and private hospitals must come to terms with the conditions and find a justifiable solution. 


Continuing my train of thought, about SOPs being clear cut; how detail can you get to ensure the elimination of error in judgment or to prevent deviations from the procedure?  All this goes back to the human factor.  Has our rote-learning educational culture produced a breed of workers and decision makers who can’t think out of the box?  Are our people now operating without their powers of reasoning, but depend solely on operating procedures (which is what some department managers and auditors argue about when they think certain instruction manuals are not detailed enough)? 


As in the previous case of the naked ear-squatting issue that rocked the two nations involved, we will probably be back to arguing on the point of procedures, principles, personal responsibility, accountability leading to decision making and risk management. 


Perhaps it should be the top of our agenda to teach the future generations that power comes with responsibility.  And if one is not willing to accept the responsibility, then one should not be given that power.  Recent events have shown that some of those in power don’t seem to be even remotely responsible for what they said or did and instead come out with all kinds of lame or side-stepping excuses.  Maybe I forget that it is the bottom-line or the almighty dollar that dictates every decision everyone is taught to make from the moment he/she starts to learn how to think?


Nice sunny Sunday afternoon, but my mind is still rambling over all these issues.  Wonder if I think too much.  Any volunteered opinions?


By the way, I forgot to add that this is how students are taught in here: Think_only_what_I_Tell_You and they are definitely getting fed up about it.

Friday, December 2, 2005

Stories from the workplace III


After I quit the nightmare job in Jakarta in 1985, I returned to Malaysia.  It was a bad year for job-hunting.  But by sheer good luck, a friend of my wife told me to contact her friend, a Managing Director of a plastics injection molding factory called Exzone.  My job involved anything that came along; from product and process designing, trouble-shooting, to delivery and debt collection.  The pay wasn't enough to cover our daily expenses, but I took it.  I set up a classroom in my rented house and taught Art and English in the evenings and took on any other part time job that friends could come up with.  Those were my new friends in SP town but they willingly helped me out when they heard my story.


One day, after I had been with Exzone for a year, I was told to report at Euston, an American owned contract manufacturing plant.  (The owner resided in Hong Kong.)  I had, on a few occasions met executives from Euston as we were one of their vendors.  I had often wondered to myself whether I could get a chance to work in there.  I went to meet the General Manager called Andy.  He wanted me to make sketches of Euston, the people at work, the machinery, the facilities etc.  His intention was to create a brochure to promote the factory's facilities in the USA.  He wanted something unique, artistic and low cost.  He hired me for a month to do the job.  I finished the sketches in about ten days and handed them to him.  He said he'll get someone in the US to take care of the rest of the job.  I don't know till today what happened to those sketches.  I never saw any brochure either.


I just knew that I wouldn't be short of anything to do with the rest of the time.  While looking around the factory, I met a supervisor who was wringing her hands in frustration.  She was struggling to meet a deadline to deliver some painted toys but the Tampon-Printer broke down and she had no replacement–part available.  The replacement part had to be ordered from Hong Kong.  She asked me if I could think of something.  I took a look at the machine and realized all she needed was a wiping blade.  I asked her to find me a box-cutter blade.  I replaced the broken blade with the cutter blade after leveling off both slanted ends on a bench grinder.  It worked just fine and she completed the order without a hitch. 


Then she asked if I could help her with another problem.  She was short of some spray paint of one particular shade.  To order it from Hong Kong would take at least 2 to 3 weeks to arrive.  I told her to get me all the colors she had.  I then mixed a few colors together until I got the right shade needed.  This and other little problems helped make my days get by easier.


Euston's temporary canteen was in bad shape.  The original canteen was turned into an office after a fire burned out the factory office and store earlier that year.  Andy suggested that we built another canteen.  He wanted it built like the attap huts he saw at the beach hotels in Penang.  So we threw in whatever we got in terms of experience in building a house with nipah roof.  One morning, Andy was trying his hand at tying the nipah leaves up on the roof and he yelled, "Ouch, Shit!" 

I asked, "What's that?" 

He said, "Oh, it's something soft and brownish and smelly..."  I laughed.  He then said he poked on his thumb with the sharp end of the split rattan string. 


He asked me what to do if a piece of split rattan string ran out.  I said to join it with another length of string by tying it in a weaver's knot.  That way we get the smallest possible knot.  After that I kept hearing him swearing away at weaver's knots until we ran out of split rattan strings.

We did not finish even one-third of the roofing when we gave up and he called in a guy who could do it professionally.  He used rafia strings and a big needle and finished the job two weeks later.


Before the end of that month, Andy asked the secretary to make out a check for me.  I was told that the company's cash in the bank was in limited supply.  There was also the guy who repaired the canteen waiting to be paid.  As soon as I got the check, I said to Andy, “I’m going to the bank.”  He remarked that I seemed eager to get my money first before anyone else got it.  I laughed and said I got a wife, a 3-year-old kid and a new born baby at home.  I needed the money.  Andy followed me to the bank.  He helped me to get the check deposited into my account.  It was the first time I used an ATM card.  He followed me to the house and I showed him the new baby, our second daughter.


On what was supposed to be my last day, Andy said to me.  “How would you like to work for us permanently?  We seem to get along pretty well”.  I thought he was joking, especially about the 'getting along' part, but I said I'd love to.  We discussed my salary and he said I’d get whatever Exzone was paying me.  I said it would be an insult to my current boss.  He raised the offer by another RM100.  I took the job.  I was to learn later that it was a colleague, who suggested to him about taking me on.  But a few days later, before he could give me an official appointment, he resigned as GM.  I was left without a post but he told me not to worry about my job status. 


One day the Managing Director came over from Hong Kong.  He told the secretary that as he was walking around the factory he noticed a "Chinese guy" who was working even after everybody else had gone home.  The secretary then explained to him the precariousness of my position.  The next day she gave me an appointment letter signed by the MD which I immediately accepted.  That was August 1986.  I was placed in charge a lawn-sprinkler production line as a "Project Manager". 


Three months later, I had the good fortune of accompanying a colleague who wanted to ask the MD for some extra benefits, and I raised the fact that my probation was up.  He immediately promised that I’d be confirmed in my appointment.  The next day I received a confirmation letter stating that my pay has been raised by another RM350.  For the second time in my working life I was earning a four-figure salary.