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Mandarin misadventures December 15, 2011

Posted by Siew in Education, Personal.
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I recently took an indefinite break from my Mandarin classes. There is a good possibility that this break will turn into a complete stop to be honest.

I am convinced that Mandarin is the hardest language in the world to learn, for 2 reasons.

1. Mandarin and all chinese dialects are tonal. This is one excuse that I cannot hide behind. I grew up speaking Cantonese, and spent my entire secondary life listening to people speak Mandarin. When I went to class, pronunciation was never a problem. But to the uninitiated, it can be a nightmare. I have watched people who never grew up with tonal languages mess up Mandarin as they try and learn. The worst part is, it seems like one of those things that you can either do or cannot do. I have watched the teacher repeat the word 5 times and every single time, the attempt at saying the word comes out completely different. Tonal languages are a bitch to learn.

2. When learning English, you learn what the word sounds like and then you learn the meaning. That’s only 2 things. With Mandarin, you need to learn 3; what it sounds like, what it means and what it looks like. There is no alphabet. There is only a very basic system that will allow you to guess some of the words (but at other times, lead you completely astray). That additional connection that needs to be made for every single word you learn is a hell of a lot of effort. You can never find someone who can speak English (or French or Spanish or German for that matter) who cannot read the language. But with Mandarin, its entirely possible.This one problem is enough to make Mandarin enough of an uphill battle to make me want to quit.

In all fairness, I don’t think I worked very hard at improving my Mandarin. I almost never did any work outside of the classroom. And perhaps the teaching , methods were not particularly suited to me. But this teacher is as close as I will ever get to someone who can teach Mandarin to an English speaker (most other teachers will treat their adult students like Primary 1 Mandarin students, which makes it much, much worse). The fact that this didn’t really work out probably means that I will never learn the language, unless I work a lot harder.

I haven’t given up completely yet. I will attempt to revert to book 1 of my lessons and see if I can improve my reading from there. If I can read the passages there without much problems, them maybe there is hope yet.

Of scholarships and not getting one. May 27, 2011

Posted by Siew in Education, Uncategorized.

Much has been said about the allocation of scholarships from the Public Services Department recently. Somehow, a media storm has emerged from the unfair allocation of such scholarships. It is a somewhat curious thing to note that the all the hoo-ha is only starting now when the skewed nature of the allocation has been clear as day for many, many years. Someone important must have gotten passed over.

But that is not really what I want to say. I have 4 points of contention.

1. Scholarships are not a divine right

I think a popular perception is that scholarships are the domain of the best and the brightest. I disagree. The point of Government scholarships is not to pay for the smartest kid’s education. It is to pay for the neediest kid’s education. If I look at the people who have grouses with the system, they are inevitably from the middle class with a decent income. The gripe is that my son/daughter scored perfect scores in the SPM and was a national junior something. He/she deserves to study medicine in Ireland. Their proof is that someone with an inferior record (inevitably, this example will be Bumiputera) managed to secure the place, and therefore, there is foulplay.

I do not deny that foul play very likely happened there. The lack of transparency at all levels of Government ensures that this will always be a problem. But I find this notion that a scholarship must be awarded purely based on merit to be a little arrogant and selfish.

We have to remember that these scholarships are awarded by the Public Service Department. Key words in that phrase being PUBLIC SERVICE. That means they serve the public, and while I am sure that a middle class family with a house in USJ and 2 cars can claim to be part of the public, they would do well to remember that we have a population of 27 million. Ultimately, the department’s job is to serve the greater good of the public, and I do believe that giving impoverished families a chance to get out of a cycle of continued poverty is a responsibility of the government.

2. Not getting a scholarship is not the end of the world

This is a point that I feel particularly strongly about. I was one of those passed over by the PSD. Thankfully, I wasn’t particularly bothered due to a complete lack of ambition. I went on to study at a local university, funded by my middle income parents. I could have gotten a student loan that charges a very low interest from PTPTN, but my parents were nice enough to foot the entire bill. I am now working as a professional, and supporting myself just fine. I contrast this with friends who have returned from overseas on PSD scholarships. They are doing the exact same thing as I am. If the whole point of a scholarship and an education is to raise your kid’s standard of living, then I really don’t see why the PSD scholarship is seen as the one and only ticket to a decent job.

The Government is not the only entity giving out scholarships. There are corporations out there that give out scholarships too. Funnily enough, most do not demand perfect results, only a reasonable level of character that would see a fresh graduate through the working world. I suppose it would fit that any kid that would kick up a ruckus and claim the end of the world just because life is unfair would end up failing a test of character.

3. The ‘deserving’ won’t be anywhere close to getting a scholarship if the rules of allocation were really applied.

If you look at the requirements for getting a scholarship, it is explicitly stated that people of a certain standard of living are not qualified. This is separation is normally done by checking monthly income, and as it stands, I do not know of a single person who has ever gotten a PSD scholarship who fits that criteria. Their parents’ combined income far surpasses the minimum income to qualify. It is a virtual certainty that those that are complaining of not getting a scholarship now are in the same boat. They are not impoverished, they are well off enough to have an internet connection. Sure, the system is broken.  None of the rules are really followed in the first place. The point is, we cannot pick and choose the rules we want to follow. We have to take them all, be they rules that dictate qualification based on grades or based on socio-economic backgrounds. Assuming that the Government cleans up its act and applies the rules as they should be applied, none of the people that are being denied now are going to get anything anyway.

Lets just assume, for the sake of pretending that its possible, that we revamped the entire PSD scholarship system and staffed it with fair personnel. What would you say is a fair income threshold before someone is disqualified? Lets give it a very generous RM3,000. That is far more money than any unskilled labourer will ever get in this country. (And those are the people whose kids that the money is for in the first place) Nobody who is now currently posting their frustrations on the internet now could possibly be earning less than that by the time their children are of university going age. So their application will get thrown out anyway. The reality is this: A middle income family cannot send 3 kids to study in the UK without making some very painful sacrifices. And yet, they want the best for their kids, and there is an avenue to get the taxpayers to pay for their education instead. Over time, the privilege of the PSD scholarship has mutated into a divine right. It doesn’t help that Asians tend to think that the only yardstick for intelligence is exams, and that the government officers themselves abuse the system for their own gain. I think the people who are protesting now should realize that they are also trying to exploit the system themselves. The difference is, they want to do it breaking a different rule.

Its even more interesting then the PSD offers them a local scholarship instead. They get all up in arms that they don’t get to go to the USA to study but someone else who did worse did. They are still getting an education. But that isn’t enough. They want an education abroad. Apparently, the quality of education there is better. Since they got better results, they deserve the better quality. Makes sense, but I cannot seem to shake off the feeling that it has more to do with the glamour of an overseas education and the four year holiday that comes along with it.

4. Wrong placement of scholarships is causing a brain drain.

I won’t deny that it contributes. But to pin this one problem on a much larger issue of talent flight is a bit of an over-reaction. People leave Malaysia for a huge number of reasons. Unfair policies do not only affect scholarship awards. It runs deep in every aspect of Government. I get very amused when I read responses from disgruntled parents who have had to spend their own money to educate their kids overseas. They say that the children deserved scholarships and didn’t get them. They were devastated. Now they are working overseas and are never coming back because the government was unfair to them before.

There are countless cases of scholars who flat out refuse to return to the country to serve even though they have used half a million ringgit of tax payer money. These parent write as if a provision of the scholarship would have ensured that their child would have returned to serve like a responsible citizen would. In reality, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference at all.

The PSD scholarship system is broken and needs to be fixed. There are likely to be some legitimate complaints in that big mess of voices claiming injustice. But I can’t shake off the feeling that a lot of the people complaining haven’t really thought it through.

Money matters May 26, 2010

Posted by Siew in Society.

Robert Kiyosaki is a man whom I knew about, but never really paid much attention to. I remember distinctly the kind of effect that he had on the assitant director of the student’s affiars department in my university, and I remember conversations with him turning quite unpleasant when discussions about student activities turned towards profit and money. That man waxed lyrical about the great Robert and the wisdom that he brought to the world, but I never did appreciate him trying to teach university students how to make money with student activities. But this isn’t about the somewhat distant past. Its about a rather dull lesson in personal finance that I had with a bunch of new colleagues.

I got an invite from a very excitable new friend to join in a boardgame session. I was told that it was a lot like monopoly. To be honest, I was already expecting what was coming, having seen an investment based boardgame being pushed to MMU students some time last year. And I was right. I went there with my housemates to be and within half an hour, they faked an incoming phonecall with their iPhone and left. Without me. Shrug. The bastards.

Anyway, the game itself was simple enough. You go round the board collecting paycheck after paycheck and decide what you want to do with that money. Once in a while share options and realestate option will crop up. You then decide what the economically feasible thing to do is. As a game, I admit, its pretty fun, although the financial planning element of the game is painfully simple. But I was a little weirded out by the way the game came packaged automatically with a flurry of financial advise. The game seems to preach on ‘leveraging’ on the labour of others and using ‘other people’s money’. According to the organizer of the session, Kiyosaki’s aim is to make more people richer. Apparently, the gap between the rich and poor is only going to get larger and you might as well get on the rich side.

I find that kind of thinking to be a bit unnerving. I actually asked the question “Do you realize that if your message reaches enough people in the world, we will ultimately reach an unsustainable economy?” She said she did. Then I asked her if the message is essentially speeding up the widening of the gap which would ultimately lead to political collapse once the gap is wide enough. She shrugged. It felt like I was talking to Bush. You are either with us or against us.

I admit to being somewhat concerned about my financial security, but I have never once asked myself if I could ever continue my lifestyle if I were to be fired tomorrow. I have never given a thought to passive income. I just think it makes for a very lonely world, where people think primarily about taking care of themselves and making sure that they don’t need to rely on other people. This is going to sound philosophical, but I think it erodes the biggest competetive edge that humans have over the rest of the life and that is the social intergration that we have. We no longer complement one another, we compete against one another. And at some point, I think we will find that there is no one competing next to us, and eveyone is fighting for themselves. There is no more team. Just me and you.

Reality sucks.

Miri – 1 May 6, 2010

Posted by Siew in Uncategorized.
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Okay, let me first get some things straight. Miri is not a backwater town like some people would describe it to be. Before I left, I was told that there is one Starbucks in Sarawak, and that is in Kuching.

An hour into my arrival I saw one in Miri, somewhere in the shopping complex. The next day, I saw a Coffee Bean in my own office. And there is a Secret Recipe within walking distance to the hotel I’m living on now. Miri is not Mar Sara.

So far, life here has been everything I was expecting it to be. Miri is mostly quiet, with small pockets of happening-ness that caters to the oil and gas employees that come from all over. The drive to work is pleasant in the morning, but I can’t help but feel like I’m late for work everytime I step outside. By 6.30, the sun is out.

Integrating into Shell has so far been a very good experience. Somehow, the company has managed to make it so that everyone seems to be happy to see someone new come in. No sulky faces, no mono-syllabic grunts of acknowledgement when I was introduced to all the people in my department. I’ve already had a game of squash with some Shell fellows and some others have asked me to play tennis. Apparently, with the lack of a nightlife in Miri, most of the people here just turn to sports. I can definitely live with that.

When I got here, I found out that I will be doing procurement for IT services, which was a bit of a surprise. I’m working in Finance, and I didn’t even know that until I stepped into the office. Whats even weirder is the fact that there were 2 other engineers coming in at the same time as me going to reservoir and production engineering. Both of them got hired later than me. Can’t help but to feel that I should be in their office instead.

But then again, all things considered I am pretty happy with my current position. My supervisor is really nice, and more importantly, efficient. I got my smart tag (Shell calls it a GID card) on the first day, and by day 2, I was beeping myself in and out of the office. Plus, having been a graduate trainee before, I know what its like to constantly feel like a deadweight in the company because people are constantly training me, but during that time I’m practically useless to the company. Engineers in Shell tend to be in training for the first 2 years or so. If I got into engineering, I’ll feel the same way I did in MOX all over again. I’ve had enough of going from one place to another and having everyone there look at me like they can’t really give me anything substantial to do (which they can’t because of the limited time I have in the departments).

I’ve been asked to sign to about 6 different training sessions relevant to my department, but then that would have to await my entry to the Shell Open University.

Owh, and the best news I got was that Shell Sarawak observes the Gawai holidays, and so the office shuts down for 10 days at the end of May. I’m coming home at the end of the month!.(Flight bloody expensive though, but its 10 days. I’m not going to pass up a holiday like that. I’ll only be back for about 7 days though.)

So I guess I might be seeing you guys pretty soon then. Heh. I’ll blog again about Shell soon. It’s a very interesting company indeed.

I fucking hate fortune tellers March 18, 2010

Posted by Siew in Personal, Society.

Its amazing how people can believe that somehow the date of birth of a person will dictate how his life will be. Its even more amazing when this belief goes beyond just fun dabbling in mysticism and people start making life decisions based on these predictions. I mean, its one thing to avoid wearing a certain colour because some guru asks you too, but to decide who to marry and what job to take based on how the fucking stars align is just frustratingly dumb.

Apparently, my girlfriend is bad for me. She will control me and drive a wedge between my mum and I. She will cheat on me and sleep with her boss to get ahead in her career. All that apparently because we are both Tigers. Fucking genius isn’t it? Oh, and apparently, she will try to convert me. Never mind the fact that she has become increasingly disillusioned by the church over the years.

The fact of the matter is that I have never been the type to bow down to my mother when it comes to things that are important to me. I make concessions all the time just to keep the peace and to prevent her from exploding into a raging fit. But when it comes to something as important as who I marry, I’m not going to fold just because she believes some crack mystic who studied in China for a few years. Its my life. I am allowed to make my own mistakes.

The biggest problem now is that its likely to be a self fulfilling prophecy. My mum already made up her mind not to like her because she is a feisty character and a little darker than your average china doll. (Which is a fucking irony since she herself is one strong-headed woman. And she has Thai blood, making her dark-ish too). Now with some mystic telling her that the gods have dictated that our marriage will fail, she is going to be determined to see the relationship burn. And the best part is, when I try and reason with her about why the predictions are very unlikely to come true, she dismisses me with “Aiya, don’t want to talk about it la. You already made up your mind about it. I say what also you won’t listen. Blinded already, see what you want to see.” There is so much irony here I think even Oscar Wilde will cringe if he heard my story.

I’m also wearing a pendant that cost RM280 because I need protection. Argh!

I don’t think I will ever tire of saying it.


I might have died January 7, 2010

Posted by Siew in Personal.

I’m starting my blogging here on a fairly gloomy note, but its only when we have a big accident that the urge to write comes again.

If you all don’t already know, I was recently involved in an accident. I was driving back from the Curve when I nodded off at the wheel and promptly steered my car into a divider. The car went into a tailspin after the impact on the right side and ended up in a bush. I remember little else about what happened during the crash. I know when I came to a stop, I was groping about for my glasses. Someone eventually found them, I can’t really remember who. It might have been one of my friends who weren’t very far behind me, headed in the same direction. One of the lenses was gone, and I was half blind for the next 18 hours or so, until my mum and brother brought my my spare pair from Malacca. In that 18 hours, I had to choose between being disorientated by opening both eyes and having only one behind a lens, or going round with one eye closed and looking like an idiot.

My car is very banged up. The front right wheel came off and the driver side door caved in. I suspect the chassis might be damaged as well. The insurance claims are going to be pretty big, probably half the value of the car or more.

I had turned a quarter or my car into scrap metal. I can’t say that I really loved that car. I love it the same way I love my stove. It serves an important purpose in my life. I don’t have an emotional attachment to the thing, which probably makes the sight of seeing it mangled a little easier. But now that I have reverted to using my old Wira, I find that I kinda miss that little thing.

By some miracle, I escaped somewhat unscathed. I took one day off to make a police report and see the doctor, but I was back at work the next day. The major injuries include a 30cm bruise on my stomach that the seatbelt left and whiplash injuries on my back and chest. The doctor gave me a quick once over and proclaimed that all my ligaments are intact and that all I had were soft tissue injuries. I hope she is right.

Anyways, I think I’ll go to the main lessons learnt over this experience.

1. It is impossible to judge if you are too sleepy to drive.
I have driven when I was sleepy before. I got home safe every time. Those times, it was just general tiredness that was the problem. I wasn’t nodding off or anything. Having gone through that, it is easy to conclude that you would know when you are too sleepy to drive. The reality is that reaching that conclusion is impossible when you are sleepy. I knew that I was not fit to drive at some very basic level while I was at the wheel. The problem is, at that point, it was already too late. My brain was incapable of processing anything beyond basic reflexive responses. The critical step of forming the conclusion that I was too sleepy to drive was impossible to reach. If I don’t form the conclusion that I am too tired to drive, I cannot actually pull over. I think its one great danger of driving that no one bothered explaining.

2. If I ever become a soldier, I think I’ll be one of the few atheists in foxholes.
I know its very vogue to suddenly realize just how lucky I am and attribute my luck to the gentle hand of my creator saving my skin. But it didn’t happen. I didn’t have a religious revelation after my highly improbable escape from death and injury. I did not find God, I did not even subconsciously entertain the possibility of divine intervention. And no, I didn’t intentionally suppress any religious thought because it would contradict my pre-existing beliefs. I don’t think I am arrogant enough to refuse to admit that I am wrong about something as important as this. If I had felt some divine cocoon protecting me, I’d be happy to admit it and start going to church or something. But I didn’t. It does worry me a little to think that I might have reached the same point of blind faith in atheism as some fundamentalist theists have in their dogma. I am a little concerned that I had become so hardcore that would become completely dismissive about religion. I hold people with blind faith in contempt, so I really dread the day I join their ranks. But for now, I think I am safe. I think I have enough intelligent friends who will happily point out that I have gone off the deep end of atheism should it ever happen.

All I thought of when I got out of the car was, ‘Dammit this is inconvenient’. And of course, ‘Thank you Hyundai Getz safety design team’.

3. There is no hope for the PDRM.
Yes, this is an admission of guilt as much as it is a rant against the system. And yes, I know what a huge contradiction it is for me to be playing the system on one end while wishing it were different from the other end. But facing potential jail time and really big fines, I succumbed. I am not proud of it, but I would not do any different if I were faced with the same scenario again. I’m not that much of a hero.

4. Some touts are actually looking for an honest living.
I think I got lucky that I decided to trust a bunch of touts that were not out to fleece me. I have to admit I was very relieved to find out that their workshop is a panel workshop for my insurance. Makes things a whole lot easier. They even volunteered to bring me to the doctor after I made the police report. This accident is one of those experiences where I found myself in a situation where the fast talking gangster-looking fellow with brown hair is actually trying to help me more than the smartly dressed officer of the law.