Saturday, July 05, 2003

An Optimistic Day

Came out this morning from the hotel to see something I've not seen in Jakarta for some time: blue skies. The sun was warm and caressing, making me feel enormously happy and bouyant. As I walked past the Spanish Embassy towards Sarinah, I almost stepped on a teenage boy who was sleeping on the streets, blissful and oblivious to the passers-by.

I'm looking forward to a fruitful and productive day. I have some presentation slides to build and lots of reading to do. Haven't watched a movie since The Matrix Reloaded but I'm not sure if I'll have the time to catch one this weekend. I also have some unwatched VCDs back in my hotel room. I'm never short of things to do on a weekend.

I was watching Talk Show on BBC last night. Sir Martin Rees, a cosmologist was interviewed on his book Our Final Century: The 50/50 Threat to Humanity's Survival. I haven't read the book before but it is interesting to find out that an eminent scientist has a rather pessimistic view about the future of science and its impact on human society. According to him, the advance of science has created unprecendented risks for the human species with the possibility of small errors leading to global catastrophes. He's not just referring to the nuclear terror but things like biotechnology and nanotechnology. He is even putting a 1.000 dollar wager that there will be a major setback to human civilisation, with massive loss of life, by 2020.

That was food for thought for a Friday night. Maybe the human race will not survive this century, but I woke up today feeling very optimistic. Well, even the sky in Jakarta is blue.

Friday, July 04, 2003

Fridays are full of Possibilities

Traffic on a Friday in Jakarta is very unpredictable. Taxis are difficult to get in the evenings. Maybe I'll unwind with a slow beer at the Matabar opposite the office first. The bartenders there always tell me that the place is filled with ABGs ( acronym for Anak Baru Gede, pronounced "Ah-Bay-Gay" - teenaged or under-aged girls) late at night. Their promotional e-mail today screams: "Tequila Madness". "Ladies' Night". It's a pity that I've never been interested to stay later than 9 pm.

The single girls in the office would normally like to go out too. But I am in no mood to spend the evening listening to their office gossips. I have a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon waiting for me back in my hotel room; and Kafka's Letters to Felice sounds like more interesting company for a Friday night......

Thursday, July 03, 2003

Bathing by the Molenvliet

Today we took one hour to drive to Mangga Besar for lunch. This area in Chinatown or Kota, popular for its nightlife, is also where you could find some of the best Chinese food in Jakarta. The traffic was so bad along the way that I started studying the huge dirty drain between Jalan Gajah Mada and Jalan Hayam Wuruk closely. One could see lots of disgusting garbage floating in the dark-coloured slime that slowly oozes its way northwards towards the sea.

I shudder to think that this "drain", was once one of the key canals in Jakarta which stretches from Kali Besar near the port of Sunda Kelapa north of Jakarta to Harmonie. Bordered by present-day Jalan Gajah Mada on the west and Hayam Wuruk on the east, the entire stretch then was an upmarket Dutch residential area known as Molenvliet. The canal which diverts a portion of the Ciliwung river from its main course to the sea was initially built by the Chinese in Batavia for flood control and transportation purposes. This was during the days when Batavia was a bustling port and was known as the "Queen of the East".

Mention Molenvliet to any Jarkatan, you'll draw a blank look. But anyone would know Jalan Gajah Mada and Jalan Hayum Wuruk and they would vaguely refer to the "drain" there as the "Ciliwung river". It may sound unbelievable but this mucky canal was also one of the major public bathing places in Jakarta. Even up until the sixties, one can still find scantily-clad women in sarongs, cleaning and washing by the Molenvliet.

The "bathing beauties" are no more in sight along the Molenvliet. But late at night along Jalan Hayam Wuruk, one can see many "street beauties", bathed in neon-lights, soliciting for customers from passing cars. And the canal with its ooze and slime dribbles slowly to the sea, oblivious to its surroundings.


Every night I cut out my heart......but in the morning it was full again.

- Count Almasy, played by Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient.

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Remembering Rubber

Rubber used to be the main export of Malaysia. But nowadays, rubber plantations are becoming quite a rare sight in Malaysia, replaced by up-market residential housing projects and six-lane highways. A generation ago, life in Malaysia or then Malaya revolved around rubber. My hometown in the Malaysian state of Pahang was essentially a settlement of rubber tappers.

I grew up in a middleclass residential suburb - perhaps the first of such in the town, which itself was a sleepy hollow nestled away in the hills forty miles away from Kuala Lumpur. Even though my house was a relatively modern type of Malaysian "terrace house", it was located on the edge of the residential area, next to a large rubber estate plantation.

As a child growing up in the area, the rubber estate was my playground. I remember those rubber trees with dark green leaves and scarred trunks - tattooed by the tapper's knife, rising in formation like an arboreal army from a Tolkien fantasy. They looked oppressive and mysterious at night - hiding within its dark bosom a cacophony of insects and other strange nocturnal creatures. My hometown was also considered a "Black Area" - an Emergency era label for areas with active communist insurgencies. In some of the more remote rubber estates one could hear then the distant crackle of the occasional gunfire.

In the morning, the rubber estate in front of my house would burst to life with activities. The trees, gay and resplendent under the morning sunlight, brimmed with bustling birds. Squirrels danced from branch to branch. One could see distant specks of figures in white - the rubber tappers - collecting the day's yield of milk-white latex from cups dangling from the tree trunks. In the rising heat, rubber seeds would burst out from their pods, falling like hailstones on the roof and road, with a sound like the popping of champagne in a pastoral feast. The rubber seeds have a hard outer shell, speckled-brown in colour. As children we collected these seeds and invented games with them.

Beneath the canopy of leaves, among the sentinel-like tree trunks, we played hide-and-seek. The floor was a carpet of rotting leaves, which when stirred, unleashed swarms of fiery mosquitoes. One could easily get oneself lost deep in a rubber estate; you only see the monotony of identical trees in every direction and the sunlight is shielded away by thick leaves leaving you feeling disoriented and lost like in some tropical twilight limbo.

It is an era already gone: the romance of colonial planters, estate bungalows and club houses - those characters and scenes that populate many of Somerset Maugham's tales from the Far East. What's left today are merely nostalgic references on bar menus like Planter's Punch and books like Out in the Midday Sun by Margaret Shennan, that recalls life in the colonial era fondly.

Now living in the middle of a concrete jungle here in this Third World squalor that is Jakarta, I remember those rubber trees next to my house in Pahang: they emerge like a dream in my mind, of a lost magical forest filled with the laughter and games of carefree children.

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

The Four Layer Stack

With the Matrix Reloaded doing successfully at the box-office, I guess the world has come to accept IT geekspeak as part of our everyday lives. The next time someone mentions about vampires or ghosts, we can assume that they are talking about particular types of rogue "programs" that have outlived their usefulness. We could also ponder whether a particularly charismatic religious leader is actually an "anomaly" of the system.

I am going to add to this pseudo-religious geek view of the universe by proposing that a human being is a "Four-Layer Stack". IT geeks are familiar with the term "stack" as used to refer to the TCPIP protocol stack or the seven-layer OSI stack. It is normally used to describe the architecture of a system in terms of vertical layers where each layer is an independent sub-system with well-defined interfaces between the layers above and below it.

The physical body of a human being is like the physical layer of the TCPIP stack or the hardware layer of a computer system. It is the lowest layer. It is something we can touch, feel and see. Our physical bodies define the first and lowest layer of the Four-Layer Stack.

What differentiates human beings from lower life forms is our ability to feel, think and aspire for greater things. We are more than molecular automatons whose only purpose in life is to hunt for food and to procreate. We are also emotional. Music moves us. We seek emotional contact with other people. We cry, laugh, love and hate. Emotions is something that sits on top of the physical dimension of our existence. It is the second layer of our Stack.

But is that all that is to being human? No. We are creatures of the intellect too. We are eternally curious about our environment and strives to learn new things. We read and write books. We analyze facts and figures and invent new products. We want intellectual conversations with someone of our equal. We want to be "stimulated" intellectually. Intelligence is something "higher" than emotions. Someone who thinks rationally and not react emotionally is looked upon highly. Hence it is no surprise that intelligence is the third layer on top of emotions in my Four-Layer Stack model of a human being.

What is the fourth layer then? It is something that is not so obvious: well-developed in certain individuals but vaguely defined in others. It is the Spiritual Layer. The most intelligent man in the universe will still find certain questions that perturbs him: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? What is the purpose of life? True, philosophy seeks to answer some of these questions but these are but intellectual attempts to answer questions that belong to the spiritual realm. If the mind is the home of intelligence, then the soul is the seat of spirituality. Of course, the soul is not something physical that can be pinpointed in space and time; It is something of the spiritual dimension. Even the best scientists in the world are driven by something more than intellectual curiosity. They long to comprehend the universe and seek to fathom God's mind. There is a spiritual dimension to all our human endeavours: peace, self-sacrifice and compassion are but glimpses of that yearning. The human species strives for something higher beyond our scientific, economic and social accomplishments. The highest layer of human existence is the spiritual one. And there are many ways for human beings to seek a connection with that layer. This is the domain of religion.

To bring things down-to-earth again, let's ask: Of what practical use is my Four-Layer Stack model? Well, for one you could use it to measure compatibility with your spouse or partner. Are you "connecting" on all four layers? Two computers communicate when all peer layers of a TCPIP protocol stack talk to one another. Is there physical attraction in first place? (Layer 1). Are there emotional feelings for each other? (Layer 2). Do you share certain intellectual pursuits together: Books? Movies? Hobbies? (Layer 3). And finally, do you share the same spiritual values: What is important in life? What makes life meaningful? (Layer 4). If you connect on all four layers, then the both of you are soulmates, destined to evolve together through space and time.

Some people connect well in certain layers but not others. Certain people are better developed in some layers and are completely clueless in the rest. A healthy human being is one who strives to develop in all layers. Do a complete stack-check of yourself. Don't blame me if one day your partner tells you that it is all over because you are "not connecting at all on layers 2 and above".

Monday, June 30, 2003

Of Corporate Cliches & Cubicle Creatures

Has your boss ever told you that you need to think out of the box? Or perhaps he mentioned casually in the team gathering that times are tough and non-performers will be managed? Or someone's success is due to teamwork?

For anyone who has worked in a corporate cubicle long enough, they will notice that all the expressions in italics are common corporate cliches which are trite soundbites used by corporate ladder-climbers to sound impressive during meetings or euphemisms to subtly remind subordinates who is actually in-charge.

We who have spent our lives working for big corporations could be forgiven for falsely believing that we are actually contributing something meaningful to the company and society at large. Didn't the company constantly remind us that people are our greatest assets? Imagine the employee's shock when bad times do come, these are the very assets that gets disposed of first.

No wonder Dilbert by Scott Adams is one of the most popular cartoon strips these days and has become the mascot for those who are victims of inconsiderate bosses, backstabbing colleagues, know-it-all consultants and endless corporate mission statement brainstorming sessions. The Dilbert Principle is the bible of the modern corporate cubicle creature who's sole purpose in life is to navigate safely from one payday to the next and avoid the next round of layoffs (the euphemism varies from voluntary severance scheme to reduction in workforce to plain simple cost-cutting).

We, modern men are deprived of the adrenalin rushes our hunter-gatherer fore-fathers experience as part of their daily lives. The fight for survival has been transferred from the savannah plains and medieval battlefields to the corporate boardrooms of multi-national corporations. Our violent instincts, ego, desire, lust and hunger are still as primitive as the ape-man; only our weapons and modus operandi have changed. How else could one explain why Sun Tzu's The Art of War is considered essential reading for every executive?

The Corporate Animal is appropriately called so because we are in essence still locked in a Darwinian struggle for survival; the size of our office cubicles is a reflection of our territoriality instincts. The Human Zoo by popular zoologist Desmond Morris is a humorous account of how similar the behaviours of modern urban people are to animals confined in a zoo.

We shouldn't be prisoners of the corporate cubicle. Life is elsewhere. We must unshackle ourselves from these false comforts and shallow pretensions. Only out there in the wild does an animal realises its true splendour.

Sunday, June 29, 2003

Driving with a Dead Dog

Had the strangest of phone-calls from my colleague Edwin last night. Edwin is a flamboyant account manager who has a taste for the fancy and the luxurious. Usually busy with one of his many girlfriends on a Saturday night, I was surprised when he called me and told me that he is driving around the town with a dead dog in his car!

Apparent his pet dog has just died from sickness and he is looking for a place to dispose off its body. My sympathies, but why call me? He then told me that he was looking for the best river or canal in Jakarta to dump the body but couldn't find a suitable one as most of them were hardly flowing at all and were choked with garbage. He wanted to consult me be because he considers me an "expert" on the kali-kali (canals or rivers) of Jakarta!

Well, the reason why he considers me so is because I have often taken a keen interest in the history of old Jakarta - then known as Batavia. The Dutch had great plans for the city - they wanted to build an Amsterdam of the East with canals serving as transportation waterways into the heart of the city. It was a bad idea. In the tropics, the canals became open sewers and breeding ground for all sorts of diseases. But still in the old days one can find many boats and prahus transporting goods to and from the port of Sunda Kelapa north of Jakarta using these canals.

Today the canals serve the functions of monsoon drains and sewers. The many squatters that sprout up beside them contribute further to the ugliness and pollution of this drainage system. One can see many of these canals choked with black stinking sewage criss-crossing all over Jakarta city like festering wounds. I do admit that I am quite fascinated by them because to me, they define Jakarta: the dirty canals are symbollic of the poverty and filth that seem to ooze out from every pore of the city. Most locals do not bother to give them a second glance but I have spent weekends poring over maps and hiking across the city tracing their routes!

My friend Edwin, being an environmentally conscious fellow, did not want to dump his dead dog into a canal that does not flow. For an eerie moment I had the nagging suspicion that perhaps the dead body in the trunk of his car is not a dog but one of his jealous girlfriends. Shrugging the thought aside, I suggested a couple of options to him. Perhaps Kali Grogol which is wider than the others? Or the Ciliwung on its approach to Tanjung Priok? Maybe the one beside Shangrila Hotel, which supposedly was built to alleviate floods?

None of the options seemed to be appropriate for one reason or another. Like a couple of first-time murderers, desperation and panic began to creep in. Finally I jokingly suggested to him that perhaps he should sell the carcass to the Bataks. The Bataks are an ethic group originating from Sumatra, well-known for their fondness for dog meat. Edwin latched on the idea enthusiastically and told me that he is heading right away to the nearest Batak restaurant in Senayan!

Knowing what a good salesman he is, I won't be surprised if he tells me in the office tomorrow that he managed to clinch a good deal for his dead dog.