Saturday, August 28, 2004

Isolated Nation of Islands

Isolated Nation of Islands

Indonesians who travel out of their country frequently will be very happy to hear that the government is scrapping the exit tax ("fiskal" to the locals) soon. Visitors to Indonesia are often surprised to learn that locals have to pay a 1 million rupiah (RM 400+) tax at the Sukarno-Hatta airport everytime they take a flight out of the country. Though the exit tax has been around since the late seventies, the government has quadrupled its amount since the Asian Financial Crisis to prevent currency outflow and also to beef up its coffers.

When I was working in Jakarta and holding a KITAS (Kartu Izin Tinggal Terbatas), I also had to pay 1M rupiah everytime I travel back to KL. Of course, there are always "agents" who will offer you a backdoor for 700-800,000 rupiah. I didn't bother with that because most of my trips (including fiskal) were paid by the company.

The 1M rupiah fiskal virtually limited overseas travel only to the well-to-do. It has become a bit ridiculous recently when budget airlines started offering tickets to Singapore and KL priced at around 400,000 rupiah. Imagine having to pay more than twice the ticket price for exit tax!

Sometimes when you live in Indonesia, you feel a bit isolated from the rest of the world. There are many people who are still afraid to travel to Indonesia. The lack of broadband Internet access further accentuates this feeling of isolation. It didn't really bother me that much because isolation was exactly what I sought for when I decided to live Jakarta. It was a good place for my "exile". But the isolation is very bad for the development of the people there. Indonesians always feel that they are lagging behind countries like Singapore and Malaysia.

This isolation actually breeds a feeling of inferiority complex among the population. For the past 8 years, I've had the opportunity to work with many engineers in Indonesia, and to me they are equally capable if not better than their counterparts in Singapore and Malaysia. Perhaps they lack a bit of exposure, but somehow I always feel that they tend to give a little bit too much respect to their foreign counterparts.

To me, Indonesia is a country with an abundance of talents and resources. The diversity of the country is its greatest strength and sadly, its biggest obstacle too. Hopefully, with political stability and a strong leadership, this isolated nation of 17,000 islands will one day realise its full potential and enjoy the prosperity that it truly deserves.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

The Distorted Soul

The Distorted Soul

I mentioned casually in a previous blog entry that negative emotions like hate, fear, anger and jealousy "distort" the soul. Let me examine further what I mean by that and why such distortions are ultimately painful.

When something is distorted, it is basically "out of shape". If your physical posture is out of shape, you cannot walk or sit properly without suffering a certain amount of discomfort. Distortion can also happen to a car--if the wheels are out of alignment, some severe amount of wear and tear is expected on certain parts of the car. Basically distorted systems are not in their optimum state of operation; they cause friction, abrasion and breakdown. Pain.

A soul that is distorted is not so self-evident, because we only see a person's physical appearance. And our perception of another person's behaviour is coloured by our own distorted view of the world.

Which is why some psychologists say: when two persons meet, six different personalities actually interact. Who are these six personalities? Basically three from each side: the individual's real personality (which is often partially hidden, sometimes deliberately), the personality which the individual hopes to project to the other, and the personality that is actually perceived by the other party.

If every individual in this world love each other unconditionally, then there are no distortions--every soul is in harmony with the rest of the world. But such a perfect world does not exist; we all have our "personalities"--likes and dislikes. There are people that we like and people that we dislike. Feelings of hate, fear, jealousy, pride and prejudice would inevitably arise. These are all soul-distorting elements. The moment any one of these feelings stir in our soul, the distortions they cause would ultimately result in pain.

The highly distorted soul gets angry easily when someone disagrees with him. An angry man is a man in pain. Jealousy would stir in his bosom when his colleagues get recognition instead of him. Jealousy is certainly not a pleasurable experience; it is another pain. He comforts himself by proclaiming that all the people he is dealing with are stupid. With that prejudical stance he sets himself up for even more pain in the future. The cycle of pain is endless--every interaction with a fellow human being would result in a lot of friction. How could such an individual ever be happy?

If we learn to eliminate hatred in our hearts and instead cultivate an equanimous state of mind, we will experience a lot less pain. You see, the balanced soul is a super-efficient vehicle which suffers a lot less wear and tear. We are able to transcend the petty emotional upheavals that impinge on our daily lives. We are like a well-aligned car with a good suspension system.

If by some miraculous strength, we summon enough courage to learn how to forgive our enemies and even love them--like what Jesus encourages us to do (Matthew 5:43)--we do not only eliminate a lot of these distortions, we radiate out positive energies that help to smoothen the kinks in our enemies' hearts. Buddhists have a special type of meditation called Metta Bhavana, or lovingkindness meditation, where the individual learns how to send out loving thoughts to all beings--loved ones and enemies alike--in the universe.

When a Catholic confesses and seeks forgiveness for his sins, and does so sincerely, he is basically allowing all negative energies in his soul to be released. To forgive and to seek forgiveness are acts of strength--they release a lot of trapped energy and allow the soul to unfold back to its natural state of peace. When the soul does not have to waste so much energy harbouring all these distorting emotions, it becomes free and starts to blossom like a lotus, unleashing its divine potential.

I cannot imagine people keeping so much negative emotions inside them--they have to face the world everyday with a soul that is painfully distorted. If we have the ability to see such a person's soul--it will probably look like a haggard face with a perpetual scowl. No wonder, such people grow old very fast.

A harmonious soul, at peace with the world is like a freshly made bed--clean, smooth and uncreased. It is so inviting that you cannot refrain yourself from collapsing on it and burying yourself in its warmth and comfort. But all beds get creased from use--you'll have to smoothen them everyday.

All spiritual practices--meditation, prayer or confessions--help us to smoothen the distortions in our souls. A soul free from distortions is a happy soul indeed. And heaven is but a freshly made bed.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

The Taxi Driver Game

The Taxi Driver Game

In Jakarta, I enjoy chatting with the taxi drivers. A taxi ride is the perfect opportunity for me to practise my Bahasa Indonesia and also a good way for me to learn about the geography of the country as most of the drivers are migrants from outside Jakarta. In the many hundreds of taxi rides that I've taken in the city, only once have I encountered a Chinese driver. I'm sure even many native Jakartans themselves have never met a Chinese cabbie before.

In KL, the only occasion when I would take a taxi is from the airport to home. At the airport, sometimes it is difficult to tell from the driver's appearance whether he is Malay or Chinese. Unlike cab drivers in Jakarta, those in KL are usually more reserved and do not have a habit of greeting you.

Occasionally you would meet a chatty one but that's the exception rather than the rule. They are not necessarily unfriendly, just that it is not the nature of Malaysians to open up easily to strangers. They don't even acknowledge you verbally when you tell them your destination; they'll drive away with you sitting inside wondering whether they really heard you correctly.

Often I'd end up in the backseat of an airport taxi trying to figure out whether to converse in Malay or Cantonese with the driver. During the course of the journey, I'd normally play a game with myself: I'd try to guess the driver's race by observing the things that he keeps in the vehicle.

Sometimes there are obvious clues: If there are Quranic verses pasted on the dashboard or Islamic ornaments hanging from the rear mirror, then the driver is obviously Malay.

Now, if these clues are not there, what kind of things would tell you that the driver is Chinese and not Malay? The most obvious giveaway is a calendar. Enter into any Chinese home or office, you can be quite sure you'll see so many calendars hanging on the wall. For some reason, the Chinese have an obsession with dates and numbers.

The other clues come from the appearance of the taxi itself. Malay taxi drivers like to "customize" their interiors; there's a certain neatness and homeliness about it--often you'll find lacy seat covers and decorative ornaments. Chinese taxis in comparison are sparse and functional--sometimes even untidy. You'll see pieces of receipts, coins, old newspapers and pieces of rags lying around. Chinese homes are a bit like that too--no-fuss and practical.

It is a fun game to play and it makes my ride home not so boring. There's always something that one can learn from a taxi ride.

Monday, August 23, 2004

The Science of Self-Honesty

The Science of Self-Honesty

A recent acquaintance of mine--married with two kids--asked me whether it is risky for him to come out to work as a freelance consultant. He recently got a good job offer from a multinational in Penang and was preparing to move there, when he was suddenly presented with the opportunity to take up a freelance contract job.

He wasn't sure whether he was ready to face the uncertainty and risk of not having permanent employment. With two young kids to support and a house loan to pay off, he was understandably apprehensive. He wasn't mentally prepared, even though the thought of being his own boss and not having to answer to anyone else, is an attractive one.

it takes a bit of courage to sever one's umbilical cord from the corporate world, especially when one has a comfortable job with a big multinational: the expense account, the boondoggle trips, the training opportunities and the prestige of being associated with the leaders of the industry--all these can be quite difficult to give up. There's a huge psychological barrier one needs to overcome.

In the end, one has to ask oneself--what exactly does one want to seek from one's life and career? To some people, having a steady job with a good prospect of steadily climbing up the corporate ladder is a very fulfilling life . There's nothing wrong with that and I personally do know a lot of good people in the corporate world who contribute positively to the companies that they work for. They are often well-recognized and well-rewarded for their efforts. Within such a stable environment, many individuals are able to successfully balance work and leisure; allowing them to also enjoy a wonderful family life. That is a fulfilling life.

Some people appreciate the structure that an established company imposes on them. It gives them purpose and direction. Without it, they are aimless. To others, the structure is a prison, limiting their freedom and imagination. They feel suffocated and stiffled as a cubicle creature. These are the people who aspire and think they'll be better off as their own bosses.

But hang on: one must be very careful here. One must first ask oneself why one dislikes a regular nine-to-five job. A lot of people think that they are better off on their own simply because they lack the self-discipline to work diligently within the structure imposed on them by their employers. Some are just plain lazy. They hate all the rules and social subtleties of corporate life; they are spiteful of their hardworking colleagues, accusing them of sucking up to their bosses and for being blind lackeys of their companies. They think that if they have their own business, they will realise their "true potential". When in actual fact, they are subconsciously looking for a means to escape from responsibility.

In the end, it is only wise to follow Socrates' advice: "know thyself". One must be honest with oneself: analyze one's inner tendencies and examine one's underlying motives. What is our real motivation? Are we driven by fear, greed, hate and pride? Too often we lie to ourselves; or sometimes, we are simply unaware of our subconscious impulses.

I always feel that I have no right to offer advice to anyone as I'm just a fellow traveller. The paths that led us to where we are now are different for each and every one of us. My principles and beliefs are shaped by my own personal experiences--they are only "true" in my universe. All I can offer are my own personal hypotheses, which comes from my own personal experiences. Sometimes they can be pretty twisted. Take it for what it's worth.

I say "hypotheses" because there are no absolute truths. Life is an on-going experiment; we assume something to be true, test the hypothesis, observe its results, make corrections and test again, ad infinitum. When some hypotheses have proven to work very well, we treat them as "principles", but they are still not absolute truths. That's the scientific spirit.

Everyone has to figure out the rules of their own universe and come up with their own hypotheses. One needs to examine one's past experiences and peer deeply and objectively into one's own soul: Why are we the way we are? Brutal self-honesty is needed. We owe ourselves at least that.