Saturday, April 03, 2004

Matter over Mind

Matter over Mind

I've been trying to do some spring cleaning at home. Years of being away has turned my house into a bit of a warehouse and dumping ground for odds and ends that I had collected elsewhere. We tend to develop a certain sentimental attachment to the things we possess. Even when they are broken, we are reluctant to throw them away. But there comes a point when we have no choice but to discard them for they clutter up our living space. Once they are gotten rid of, we feel free of an encumbrance. We even feel rejuvenated.

Our external living environment reflects the inner state of our mind. The way we arrange our things in our workspace is unique to every individual; every bedroom reflects the peculiarities of its occupant. By our thoughts and actions, we consciously and unconsciously rearrange the material world to reflect the mental world inside.

This relationship between our mind and our surrounding actually gives us a powerful tool that can be used to change our mental state: If we could change our environment, then we could also change our train of thoughts and our outlook on life. Perhaps that's the psychological basis for Feng Shui.

It is difficult for us to change our thinking because we are creatures of instinct and habit. We fall back into the same pattern of thoughts again and again, and often self-defeating ones. Using the mind to change the mind is like trying to catch the reflection of a mirror using a mirror--you get an infinity of mirrors. To overcome that, we can try using deliberate physical action to change our state of mind.

I've mentioned in a previous posting that action is but the gross level of thinking--thinking and doing are but different ends of the same spectrum. Every action can be traced back to a single thought. If that is so, we can also reverse the process, by using action to induce a thought.

By rearranging our furnitures, immediately our minds are jolted from our familiar patterns of thoughts. By deliberately saying out loud what we want to achieve through verbal affirmations, we force these positive thoughts into our mind. By cleaning up our room, we get a sense of renewal and upliftment. If you like writing, then you can learn to "write" thoughts into your mind.

We often struggle in vain to change our lives because our minds simply do not possess the willpower to change. Changing the physical world can often be easier than changing the mental world for there are things that we can do mechanically without thinking. Sometimes it helps to use Matter to conquer Mind.

Friday, April 02, 2004

Saving the World Entire

Saving the World Entire

Perhaps Steven Spielberg's best work is his award winning film about the Jewish Holocaust, Schindler's List.

The movie tells the story of Oscar Schindler, a German industrialist during World War II, who saved over a thousand Jews from the Nazi gas chambers by offering them a safe haven in his factories using the pretext of hiring them as "cheap labour". As a result of his actions, 7,000 descendants of Schindler's Jews are living today.

Even though the movie, Schindler's List is shot in black-and-white, it is still a very engrossing watch, with not a single dull moment in it. There's a touching scene at the end of the movie which never fail to bring tears to my eyes: When Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) breaks down and laments that he did not do enough to save more Jews, his trusted accountant, itzhak Stern (played by Ben Kingsley) comforts him with some words of wisdom from the Talmud: "Whoever saves one life, save the world entire".

I believe that even the small things that we do in our mundane lives matter a great deal. No action is ever too small. The father who dutifully provides for his family, the mother who ensures that the children are safely tucked in bed--all of them "save the world entire" by their actions. We save the world everytime we make a difference in another person's life.

We often lament the fact that we are not as fortunate as some other people who are blessed with the talent and opportuniy to become famous and successful. That could be true, but no one can say that they do not have an opportunity to make a difference in another person's life. It is something that does not require luck for we all have loved ones and friends. And acts of love and kindness do not require heavy capital.

We are all born superheroes: Even by showing love and kindness to just one person, we are already saving the world entire.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Indonesian Immigration Woes

Indonesian Immigration Woes

I've said a lot of good things about Indonesia in my blog. Before anyone starts believing that I'm on the payroll of Indonesia's Ministry of Culture and Tourism, let me for a change write a bit about the ugly side of Indonesia.

NGOs are fond of ranking Indonesia among the most corrupt countries in the world. However, If you are just the average camera-toting tourist, you'll probably not encounter any unpleasant situations where you'll need to resort to bribery. You are more likely be charmed by the courtesy and grace of the people and wonder why you didn't visit the country a lot earlier.

But If you happen to be completely enamoured with Indonesia (like yours truly) and start entering the country every other week, then you must be prepared to handle the occasional "friendly" immigration officer at the airport. Flipping through the pages of your passport, they will ask you why you come to Indonesia so often. Are you here on business?

Obviously if you arrive in a shirt and tie carrying a laptop bag, you can't be a tourist. So you attempt to be honest and say that you are here to attend a few meetings with potential customers. But you just came last week... Then you try to explain that this is a follow-up meeting and you are meeting some other customers too.

That will give them the opportunity to lecture you on the need to apply for a business visa if you are conducting business in Indonesia. They'll ask to check your return ticket. They'll ask you who your local partner is and if you are working for them. They will continue flipping through the pages, and give you some subtle hints on what is expected from you. Sometimes they'll ask you outright.

There are many regular travellers who routinely shove a 50K rupiah (20 over ringgit) note inside their passport to avoid any hassle at the immigration. Now if you are comfortable doing that, there's also a "fast lane"--the small office beside the immigration counter--where you can bypass the queue altogether and get your passport stamped immediately.

Malaysians seem to be hassled more often because they know that we understand Malay and in our innocence we attempt to be friendly by answering back in the same language. That is usually a big mistake. It is better to pretend not to understand what they are saying. They'll give up on you and stamp your passport immediately--they'd rather not waste time for there are a lot more fish in the queue behind you.

Which brings me to the next thing that one must remember--try to avoid being the last person in the queue. You will be in for a royal treatment if you are, for they have all the time in the world to "chat you up".

Having said all that, I'll have to add that the genuine tourist will never face any problems going through immigration if their papers are in order. It is the frequent visitor who gets harassed, on suspicion that they are actually working in the country without a valid work permit. Apparently a lot of foreigners do that.

I know a Malaysian who is married to an Indonesian woman and works there permanently on a social visit pass to avoid paying taxes. He has to travel out of the country and return again every 60 days (the maximum duration of stay for a social visit pass). How does he manage that without being harassed? Well, there are "agents" who can help you arrange for a hassle-free passage through immigration--for a fee of course. It's still cheaper than paying taxes.

Anything can be done in Indonesia if you are willing to pay for it. Well, that's part of the "charm" of Indonesia.

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The Sea of Selflessness

The Sea of Selflessness

Selfishness stems from our biological instinct for self-preservation. It is hardwired in our genes and it has to be conquered by software.

All of us are selfish; some more blatantly so than others. Certain acts of selfishness are subtle and are not so easily discernible. When we give to others expecting something in return, we are motivated by selfishness. Sometimes we claim that we are doing something without expecting any rewards, but deep down inside we are actually expecting praise for our supposed "selflessness". That is also selfishness.

There is nothing seriously wrong with that. By nature we will always care for ourselves and our loved ones first before we spare a thought for others. In a previous blog entry, I have equated ego with gravity. Every mass has a centre of gravity; similarly every individual is a center of selfishness. Our circle of friends or our loved ones to whom we give our selfish priorities to is but a natural planetary system of egos that cluster together for self-preservation and mutual benefit.

The word "selfishness" might seem to have some negative connotation, but it is not necessarily so. We must differentiate between its many levels. The famous Indian saint Yogananda describes three types of selfishness: evil, good and sacred selfishness.

Evil selfishness is that which drives a man to seek his own comfort through destroying the comforts of others. It is a win-lose thing. We sabotage someone else so that we might gain some advantage. We talk bad of others and criticise indiscriminately so that we look good ourselves. The easiest way to declare yourself smart is to say how stupid other people are.

Good selfishness is constructive action that feeds the needs of the individual and his family. We render a service to others so that we might get paid. Everyone renders some service that's useful to others and this results in everyone's "selfish" needs being met. It is what makes the world goes round. It is a win-win thing. We are all quite alright if we belong to this category of "selfish" individuals.

The third category of selfishness is the sacred kind. A man of sacred selfishness does not serve his own ego but the whole of humanity of which he is part of. He feels for others and all his sacrifices are done for the sake of the greater good. He identifies with the Universal Self, his own ego dissolves into God's Will. When one successfully attains this state, "selflessness" rather than "selfishness" is the more appropriate word to describe it. Such individuals are rare. The successful ones are well-known to us as religious figures whom many worship.

Perhaps it is fair to say that the average individual would have of mixture of these three types of selfishness. In our moments of weakness, we could sometimes be selfish in an evil way. When we perform our role in society responsibly, doing our job and feeding our family, we attain the level of good selfishness. Those with a religious impulse, aspire to the level of sacred selfishness.

Why do we want to move from a state of selfishness to selflessness? It is an inevitability. It is a law of nature. Like what I've written in a previous entry before, all rivers flow to the sea. Only in the Sea of Selflessnes, will we ultimately find peace.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

My Expensive Radio

My Expensive Radio

In Singapore, the BBC World Service is broadcasted in FM and I used to listen to it quite often when I was working there. I prefer listening to the radio than watching TV because it is less intrusive. You can leave it on and still be able to do your work.

When I was in Jakarta, I was staying permanently in a hotel, so I had a TV in my room. When the idiot box is so conveniently located, the temptation is always there to switch it on. So I didn't listen to the radio for two years. Moreover, my favourite station, the BBC is only available in poor quality shortwave transmission in Indonesia.

I'm not sure if anyone still listens to shortwave radio anymore; but during our parents' time, that was cyberspace. Surfing over shortwave could be your only means of connecting to the world, if you happen to be in some remote location without TV, Internet and cellphone coverage. When David Beckham sent England into the 2002 World Cup with a last minute equalizer against Greece, I was listening to its live commentary over BBC radio huddled in my coffin-like sleeping berth on the night train somewhere between Singapore and KL.

For a while, I even considered satellite radio when I was in Indonesia. Not many people are aware of this service. Worldspace has satellites that broadcast digital radio programs worldwide--it is free and the audio is near CD quality but you need to have a satellite radio receiver, which is only available in specific stores. Most of the popular radio stations such as CNN radio, BBC and Voice of America are available through this service.

Even though the service is targeted chiefly towards Third World countries in Asia and Africa, of which a great portion of the population still does not possess TV sets, let alone Internet connection, I'm not sure if this service is catching on. I hope it does, because it is a good replacement for unreliable shortwave broadcasts.

In Malaysia, BBC World Service is only available in shortwave. But I found a workaround: because it is also streamed on the Internet, I could also receive it live over my 512K Streamyx connection. I have a Wi-Fi LAN installed at home and suddenly my Centrino notebook can conveniently receive my favourite radio station anywhere in my house.

Imagine the sheer extravagance of it: All that expensive high-tech equipment just to get a service that one could receive using a 10 ringgit shortwave radio set!

Monday, March 29, 2004



In my former company, we often joked that the job of a manager is to forward e-mails. These days, when we say we are "working", it usually means that we are reading/answering/forwarding/deleting e-mails. Having cleared our mailbox, we feel that we have accomplished an honest day's work.

Everyone has a different perception of what constitutes "work". For some, it is making phonecalls; for others, it is attending meetings. For the knowledge worker today, it is "clearing" emails.

E-mails can be used to great effect to give the appearance that you are doing a lot of work. One of the most common tricks is to cc your bosses on every work-related communication, no matter how trivial they are. And of course, never, never miss the opportunity to announce a "success story" thanking everyone in the world for it, including the OB (short for office-boy, pronounced "oh-bay" in Indonesia) who helped to bungkus nasi padang for you while you were too busy to go out for lunch.

For sure a flood of congratulatory e-mails will soon follow, praising everyone involved in a frenzy of mutual masturbation. It is the duty of every good manager to highlight successes: More people higher up the food chain are cc-ed, followed by more congratulatory messages. This goes on round after round until you start to wonder if it is ever going to end. Usually it only abates when someone in his infinite wisdom, mentions the magic word: "It's all due to TEAMWORK".

Work accomplished, everyone returns dutifully to their mailbox to await the arrival of their next e-mail. In a typical day, there will be a huge amount of e-mails that require our attention. It is very important to prioritize: those with the word "URGENT" in the subject line can be safely ignored. If it is really urgent, your handphone and not your mailbox should be beeping. Priority is always given to e-mails that contain large jpeg attachments. Usually, those e-mails need to be urgently forwarded to a special mailing list which includes people from outside the company--mindful of the age-old maxim that in giving, ye shall also be receiving.

Forget about reading Sun Tzu's Art of War or Steven Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The busy executive doesn't have time for that. Do not under-estimate the educational value of e-mails: If one is dilligent enough to read every company e-mail announcing new products or "go-to-market" plans, one will pick up a vocabulary of corporate cliches rich enough to carry oneself impressively at the highest levels of boardroom meetings.

I really miss the e-mail culture of the corporate world.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Have Book Will Travel

Have Book Will Travel

I haven't been reading much since the beginning of this year because I've been busy with my work and the logistics of settling down in KL again. But I did finish Colin Thubron's Lost Heart of Asia, which is an enjoyable read, even though the pace is very slow. Colin Thubron writes beautifully; there's so much that I could learn from his prose. I think I will definitely read more of him in the future.

The Lost Heart of Asia details the author's travels in the countries of Central Asia in the old Soviet Union, countries that used to lie along the Silk Road. I remember reading a similar but no less engaging book early last year by Vikram Seth (Through Heaven Lake) about his overland journey from China to India.

Travel books are fun and easy to read. Whenever I travel, I would normally bring one or two travel books along with me. Paul Theroux has always been my favourite but I seem to have exhausted all his books already.

Part of the joy of travelling is the reading that you can do on the journey. Time waiting at the airport and train station is quality reading time. I find it difficult to read on a travelling bus; hence the train is always my first choice. Being on a flight without a book is probably worst than losing your luggage.

I will be travelling again probably in two week's time. Not sure what books I'll be bringing with me this time. Sometimes it is very difficult to decide. But that is a good problem.