Saturday, November 01, 2003

The Hopeless Bibliophile

The Hopeless Bibliophile

Spent some time this morning at the National Library at Salemba Raya, perusing through books about Sukarno. Didn't manage to find anything interesting there. I had assumed that there would be a good collection of materials about Indonesia's founding father, but I was wrong. Later I went to Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) to check out the used book store there.

Found some really interesting stuff: one of them is an April 1969 publication by DAP, "Who Lives if Malaysia Dies?". Contains some interesting speeches and articles by opposition leaders then: Devan Nair, Lim Kit Siang, Goh Hock Guan and Chen Man Hin. It is intriguing to read about the issues that they debated about, and that was before May 13, 1969, that black mark in Malaysian history. This will be a good addition to my collection of books on Malaya/Malaysia back home.

I also bought a book about the Asian-African Conference in Bandung in 1955--useful material for my next project. My Indonesian collection is already piling up in my hotel room. I have to start carting some of them back to Malaysia before they completely fill up my already cramped space.

I also have two shelfs of my personal IT books in the office. These were shipped directly through DHL from Singapore when I moved to Jakarta. Managing books is a big hassle for me; space back home in Subang Jaya is running out. Some of my precious books have to end up in boxes under my bed.

I suppose a life filled with books is not a very healthy one. Even my Jornada PDA is filled with e-books. I have to try and "get a real life". Maybe I should go out on dates more often. But then I have this bad habit of treating everyone I meet as "interactive books".

In his three-volume collection of horror stories, Books of Blood, Clive Barker wrote:
"Everybody is a book of blood; wherever we're opened, we're red."
So I am not alone.

People usually complain about books being expensive. They could be right. But sometimes we are willing to spend more than the price of an average book on a single meal. I am the type who would rather skip a meal to buy a book. Meals last only a couple of hours whereas books last a lifetime. You see, books will always be affordable to me because I only eat two meals a day.

Yes, I am quite hopeless.

Friday, October 31, 2003

Ending Medication

Ending M-edication

The papers are filled with tributes to Dr M whose last day in office is today. There have been enough praises and criticisms levelled against the man who has led Malaysia for 22 years--all very well articulated by both his supporters and detractors. It'll be very boring for me to add anything to that.

I grew up during the Mahathir years. I remember having to discuss about "Pensyarikatan Malaysia" (Malaysia Incorporated) and "Dasar Pandang Timur" (Look East Policy) during our Form 6 Kertas Am (General Paper) classes. Our Kertas Am teacher is now the Chief Minister of Pahang (Even at that time, he was more interested in politics than teaching.)

I am old enough to know what Malaysia was like before and after Dr M came into power. I have been an ardent Dr M watcher for 22 years. I have read all the books that he has written and studied most of his speeches. Even when I wasn't in the country, I made sure that I downloaded and read all his UMNO assembly speeches in their original Malay, to get a better feel of their nuances.

When I was in Singapore, I lapped up everything written about him in the Singapore papers. Even afternoon tabloids like the New Paper often carry news about him and even there, one could sense a certain grudging admiration for this man.

I was in the States during the last general election but I followed all the going-ons in Malaysia through the internet with breathless attention. I smiled when I realised how Dr M. deceived everyone about the election date when he "pretended" to be going to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM 99), only to cancel it at the very last minute to declare general elections. That was the only election which I did not manage to vote since I became eligible to do so.

Sometimes I find him very repetitive. (Yes, yes, we know the trade in currencies is 20 times that of trade in goods). But one must compliment him on his consistency. His love for his people and country is evident even from his early writings as a medical student, under the pseudonym of Che Det. (In one of his articles, he describes the Malay dress as "picturesque").

Some of the criticisms levelled against him are naive, some of the praises, overboard. For better or worse, Dr M completely dominated our waking lives and shoved what he thought was good down our throats. For 22 years, he bombarded us almost daily with his exhortations, criticisms and chastisements. Even before he commented on anything, we would sort of like cringe in anticipation.

Having gotten used to all that, it felt strange for me when I was in living Singapore and Indonesia: Why is it that Goh Chok Tong or President Megawati never make a single press statement for weeks or months? I realised how different Dr M's style was from other leaders.

I had expected Dr M to declare his retirement before the next elections but the news still caught me by surprise. When I first heard it through an SMS from my sister in Malaysia, I realised, the old man couldn't have chosen have a better time and venue to make the announcement--it was vintage Dr M.

For 22 years we have been under Dr M's medication. It has been one long treatment. Our bodies are stronger now, we can walk with greater confidence and talk with greater coherence. Maybe we do not need such strong medication anymore. But after 22 years, who is to say we will not suffer any withdrawal symptoms?

Thursday, October 30, 2003

My Patron Saint

My Patron Saint

I try not to write about my work in my blog but my mind is currently filled with the difficult tasks ahead that I have to accomplish. Everytime I'm involved in a consulting engagement with a customer, I begin to appreciate Sukarno's contributions to Indonesia even more.

Sukarno managed to forge a nation--the fourth most populous in the world--from an archipelago of 17,000 islands that is ethnically diverse (over 700 languages), giving it a single language and identity and inspired its people towards a common destiny.

My typical assignment involves me having to recommend some kind of unifying IT architecture for my customers who are saddled with a multitude of legacy systems, built using different types of technologies and architectures.

In the course of my work, I also have to understand the intricate departmental politics within their environment to ensure that I do not make any particular party look bad. I am after all, only a vendor, trying to open up as much business opportunities as possible within an account. I try my best instead to cater for everyone's interests in my final proposal.

Furthermore, there are also different vendors--some partners, some competitors--who are eyeing the same customer account. I have to make sure that I do not derail a partner's plans and or put my credibility at risk by being overtly biased against any particular competitor.

It is a tough challenge that requires a lot of subtlety. But imagine the far greater challenge that Sukarno had to face with the multitude of political factions--communists, nationalists, religious fundamentalists, separatists, armed forces, ethnic minorities--that he had to unite; the economic poverty he had to tackle; and the sheer logistical difficulty of having to spread his message and agenda across a physically vast archipelago that spans from Sabang on the northern tip of Sumatra to Merauke on the eastern edge of Irian Jaya, in an age before the television and Internet.

Some historians call Indonesia, an unlikely nation. What Sukarno achieved was indeed something close to miraculous. He achieved it by giving the people a common vision based on common values. Bhinneka Tunggal Ika--Unity in Diversity--was the motto he exhorted. And the Pancasila--the five pearls of wisdom which he extracted and distilled from the oceans of ancient tradition--became the guiding principles of a newly independent nation.

I try to do that too--summarizing a complicated technical plan into few simple principles that are clear and relevant to the customer without appearing to sound too simplistic. It is a tough thing to do--expounding your vision. Sukarno had the great oratory skills to help him rouse the support of the masses. I don't think I can achieve the same effect without turning a corporate presentation into a political rally.

Now everytime I think of how difficult a task Sukarno had to tackle, I feel ashamed that I cannot do a better job of doing something so seemingly trivial as uniting the IT environment of a single enterprise. I strive to do my best. And each time, I would pray for inspiration and guidance from my patron saint: the Great Bung Karno.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Hunger and a Balanced Diet

Hunger and a Balanced Diet

When I was a primary school student, I loved geography and history. They were my favourite subjects: Ilmu Alam and Tawarikh, as it was called then.

I liked geography because the textbooks were picturesque and made good reading--it was like reading travelogue. And history is of course full of interesting people and exciting tales of conquests and explorations. When I was in Standard 5 (11 years old), I was a big fan of Napoleon Bonaparte. A classmate of mine worshipped Admiral Lord Nelson. Not unexpectedly, we were always at loggerheads.

But at that time, I thought those subjects were a bit of a luxury--they did not seem to have any practical value. How wrong I was. These days I am such a history and geography buff. When Dr M lamented in one of his speeches on how currencies were being determined by twenty-something yuppies with computers who do not possess a sense of history, I could empathize with him.

After my lower secondary, I was put in the science stream. That was when I fell in love for the first time: with mathematics and science. From Form 4 to Upper 6, my head was filled with theories, theorems, equations and formulae. Those were great years of growth and intellectual development; those subjects shaped my thinking and world view. That's why I'm holding such a geeky job now.

But where is my real love? Is it the sciences or the humanities? I have never been able to figure that out. But then again, why should we even have to choose? The love for knowledge should be expansive and all-encompassing. Every human endeavour is worthy of our attention and study.

To limit our knowledge is to limit the possibilities of life. The human mind has a great hunger for knowledge. And it is this hunger for knowledge that has kept human civilization thriving.

When it comes to eating, we are always keen to try new types of food. And we make an effort to balance our diet. Our hungry minds need the food of knowledge too. So let's also have variety and a balanced diet.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Levers of the Mind

Levers of the Mind

The upcoming two months will be hectic ones for me. I have lots of personal projects lined up, to be completed before the end of the year. Not a single second is to be wasted.

It is tough to maintain self-discipline. We procrastinate and we slacken whenever we are faced with a not-so-enjoyable task. How do we motivate ourselves to move forward? Millions of self-improvement books have been written to address this. But one must still possess the willpower to read these books and practice what they preach.

In the end everything boils down to how well we control our minds. I have written in a previous posting on how everything stems from a thought. Our minds are the wellsprings of thoughts. We must learn to master our minds.

It is the mind that strays. It loves to entertain diversions. Our minds latch on easily to things that give us immediate self-gratification--a bite of junk food, a lazy evening of TV and an idle chat with a friend over the phone. Finish that 100-page report? That's painful. It can wait.

But how do we control our minds and summon the willpower to tackle these unpleasant but necessary tasks? We need to find enough push and pull factors: Pain and Pleasure again.

We crave for certain food because we are very good at imagining and dwelling on the thought of how good the food will taste once it enters our mouths. We excrete saliva the moment we mention certain types of food. Why can't we use the same "ability" that we have to entice us to finish our work?

Advertisers know how to manipulate us by exagerating the good qualities of their products. We need to learn how to run similar "commercials" in our minds so that we see a difficult task as a cool adventure that leads to a glorious outcome. Dwell over and over again on the pleasures of completing the task.

The push factors? Remind yourself how difficult life will be if you don't execute the task--loss of credibility, money or reputation; also the utter sense of hopelessness of having wasted your life. Dwell on the pain. To me the biggest push factor is the fact that time is always ticking away. The meter's running. So use your lifetime wisely.

But I can't control my mind! These stray thoughts keep barging in. I can't concentrate! Well, that's why we need rituals. Rituals help us to start something without us having to even think. Writing daily is a ritual for me. Writing is a "mechanical" task: I type, and voila, thoughts appear in my mind. My fingers become the levers of my mind.

Let your fingers do the thinking.

Monday, October 27, 2003

The Pain of Pleasure

The Pain of Pleasure

The world is full of pleasurable things and our appetite for them is insatiable. We want our pleasures to last forever. We want to maximize them and limit pain to the minimum if not eliminate them entirely. Is that possible?

As the Buddhists like to say, all pleasures in this world are impermanent. Attachment to these pleasures is a certain cause of pain. Everything--from the beauty and charm of a woman, to the shine and lustre on one's expensive new car to the glory and grandeur of empires--ultimately desintegrates and die. Nothing escapes the Second Law of Thermodynamics. All pleasures contain the seeds of pain.

But isn't that a rather morbid way of viewing life? Are we not entitled to enjoy the pleasures of this world? At least while they last? The answer is yes; but we must also realise that pain and pleasure always come in equal proportions. Put in another way: everything has a price.

The man who wants nothing suffers nothing. But his life might as well not be lived at all. On the other hand, the man who wants the world must also be strong enough to endure " the whole of the world's tears, and all the sorrows of her labouring ships", to use the words of Yeats.

Hardwork is pain. But the rewards are always pleasurable. We want the pleasures of those rewards to remain there forever without additional pain. But that is not possible. Losing those rewards become a painful thing. The continuance of these rewards also require the constant pain of hardwork.

A windfall is a pleasure. But that comes with the pain of having to protect oneself from all the parasites who want a piece of it too. We sometimes also suffer the pain of feeling undeserving of such rewards. We have not proven ourselves. Fear, worry and self-doubt are great pains indeed.

The greater the pleasure, the more intense the pain or potential pain that one must be prepared for. The old cliche that there is no free lunch is true because it is in total accordance with the laws of nature. For every bulge in the ocean somewhere, there must be an equivalent trough elsewhere. We sink and swim in this ocean of karma.

Pain and pleasure come bundled together. We can never have one and not the other. We just choose the pains that we are willing to endure, in order to get the pleasures that we want. And ultimately what is happiness? It is just manageable pain.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Nongkrong di Kota

Nongkrong di Kota

Having been able to finish my work yesterday afternoon, I decided to reward myself that evening by going to Kota. Well, not to party with friends at one of the many nightspots, but to visit the Gramedia bookstore there located on Jalan Gajah Mada.

Gramedia sells mostly local books in Bahasa Indonesia. Unlike in Malaysia, there are also many English titles that have been translated into Bahasa: books on management, self-improvement, religion and philosophy--there are such an abundance of such titles.

I was surprised to see Bahasa Indonesia versions of not very well-known books which I had enjoyed: like Through the Narrow Gate by Karen Armstrong (Autobiografi Spiritual Karen Armstrong) and the Freud/Jung Letters. I found a copy of Bung Karno's famous "Living Dangerously" speech delivered on August 17, 1964 and promptly bought it. (Had a good time reading it last night.)

From Gramedia, I walked across the pedestrian bridge spanning Gajah Mada and Hayam Wuruk, overlooking the dirty and smelly canal, formerly known as the Molenvliet Canal. Snapped some pictures there under the fading light. The bridge brings you right in front of Plaza Hayam Wuruk, close to the popular nighttime playgrounds of Stadium and Seribu Satu.

I love the neon lights that adorn Diskotek Stadium. Took pictures of that too and made a mental note of posting one to a friend of mind in Malaysia who is especially fond of the bustling alley in front of Stadium.

The people of the night were just stirring into action--streetside peddlers selling cigarettes and condoms, China girls having porridge at hawker stalls, ceweks in clunky heels taking ojeks and bajajs to work. I myself had my dinner of Medan-style kari bihun at one of the Mangga Besar stalls.

There was a strange sign there that says: "PENGAMEN GRATIS". Gratis means percuma or free. I assumed that it indicates that the place is free from pengamen (street musicians can be quite a nuisance when you are eating outdoors in Indonesia). I wonder if any pengamen would take it to mean that they are entitled to free meals at the stall.

It was fun doing some nongkrong (loitering, Indonesian style) around the area watching the tumult of vehicles and the throng of people going about their businesses. It was Saturday night and Kota was just coming to live.

And I marvelled at the sight of it all: Across the road at the Gramedia bookstore, there were people flipping through Bermalam di Rumah Tuhan (Spending the Night in God's House) by Prof Ibrahim Amini; right here across the canal, the early birds were already making their way into that house of sin and flesh that promises a thousand and one delights.