Friday, December 10, 2004

Tha Inner Voice

That Inner Voice

Dr Stephen Covey's latest book--a sequel to his classic The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People--called The Eighth Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness has finally hit our bookstores.

I am not exactly a big fan of motivational books in general, even though the things I write in my blog might give the impression that I habitually consume them by the dozens. Actually, I find most of them quite boring.

I first read the Seven Habits more than a decade ago. Initially I was turned off by its title--it sounded a bit too prescriptive and simplistic for my taste. But I read it anyhow because its reputation was too huge for me to ignore. I was glad that I did--its many insightful lessons have remained with me all these years.

Today the Seven Habits are staple reading for most executives, even though I'm quite sure not many seriously understand and adopt its principles. Nevertheless one certainly hears lots of Coveyesque phrases like "win-win", "proactive" and "first things first" being spouted all the time in business meetings. They have sadly become quite trite and meaningless through abuse and overuse.

Critics of Steven Covey have accused his writings of being pseudo-religious values cloaked in business garb. Indeed, Dr Covey himself is a devout Mormon. But that doesn't take away anything from the many rich conscience-based principles and lessons that are actually quite universal, which he elucidates so well in his book.

Even more lucid is Dr Covey as a speaker. I have listened to a couple tapes by Dr Covey before; as a matter of fact, I have just finished listening to the unabridged audiobook version of The Eighth Habit, read by the author himself. He is quite a joy to listen to, for sincerity and humility rings clearly in his voice.

The Seven Habits are already part of our popular culture; but what is this brand new Eighth Habit? Well, I wouldn't want to include too many spoilers here but the Eighth Habit is something that encompasses and underpins all the rest of the other habits. In one sentence, it is about "finding your voice and inspiring others to find theirs".

Well maybe, I'll blog about this Eighth Habit in greater detail someday. But I believe there'll be many who will cringe at what Dr Covey teaches and accuse him of sounding like an over-preachy spiritual teacher who had somehow found a pulpit in the boardroom. They will scoff at his values as being too straight, too soft, too old-fashioned for today's world.

But to me Dr Covey is refreshing; simply because there have been an over-emphasis on a culture of glibness, posturing and self-exaltation in the corporate world. Dr Covey's ideas and teachings are in complete concordance with my personal moral philosophy--those often twisted nuggets of wisdom which I splash throughout my blog. OK, I agree that I am perhaps too idealistic in some of my beliefs; but reading and listening to Dr Covey to me is to nod in complete agreement and to have many of my core principles reinforced.

It looks like the older I get, the more old-fashioned my values have become. But that's alright, I'm comfortable with that. In the end, what matters most is one's own voice, conscience, that spark of divinity or whatever one chooses to call it, which one must somehow find deep inside, within this brief lifetime given to us.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Lingua Franca of the Archipelago

Lingua Franca of the Archipelago

Yesterday a Malaysian friend who was on a business trip to Jakarta SMSed to ask me where's the best place to go for nasi padang. I replied: Sari Bundo, Jalan Juanda--and couldn't help feeling a pang of envy.

I had planned to make a trip to Jakarta this month; but it doesn't look like my schedule will permit it. Half my life is still in Jakarta: my new QBWorld membership card is still waiting to be collected from their Jalan Sunda store, my Sarinah VIP card is with Marlyn, I'm still maintaining my bank accounts and credit card over there and I need to top-up my XLcom prepaid account!

Back here in Malaysia, I still haven't really settled down to living like a local KLite yet, and am still using my odd mish mash of Melayu and Indonesian. My command of Malay, which was never good in first place, is I think now, completely hopeless. Sometimes I inadvertently address Malay salesgirls here as "mbak"; words like "nggak" and "bisa' keep rolling out from my tougue; I'm always worrying whether I can find "parkir" rather than parking and I ask waiters for the "bon" instead of the bill everytime.

No matter how bad my Malay has become, at least I'm better than some of my Singaporean friends who don't even understand what the lyrics of their national anthem, Majulah Singapura mean. The older generation of Singaporeans could at least speak some pasar Malay; but they are a dying breed, which I think is quite sad.

Malay is a beautiful language and one that is not difficult to learn, as many foreigners would testify. I often find bules in Indonesia who had the benefit formal bahasa classes speaking the language quite flawlessly, albeit with an accent.

No one would have blamed Sukarno had he chosen Javanese as the national language of Indonesia; but he made the wiser choice of choosing Malay instead, which is more egalitarian, easier to learn and had for centuries been the lingua franca for trading in the Malay Archipelago.

Does the Malay language have a future? Our Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka would certainly like to think so. Let's say that the language will still be around in 300 years time. Now, if we are able to travel forward in time to the 23rd century and happen to bump into someone who speaks the Malay tongue, somehow I have a strong feeling that the person will most likely address you as "Pak" (or "Ibu") and greet you with a "Selamat Siang".

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Stolen Moments

Stolen Moments

Whenever we say that we don't have time to read or to do certain things we like, what we actually mean is that we cannot find a major chunk of time to accomodate them. In a typical day, we have meetings to attend, reports to write and phone-calls to make. That takes up our whole workday. It doesn't leave us much time to indulge in the things we enjoy doing.

But have we considered making better use of those bits and pieces of time that we have in between our major tasks? Most of the time, we waste them by surfing the Net aimlessly or by over-indulging in idle chit-chat with colleagues. Those odd fifteen or twenty minutes can cummulatively amount to quite a lot over time.

These tiny but precious chunks of time are often discarded like those 1 and 5 cent loose change that clutter our pockets and purses. But if we take the trouble to accumulate and use them, we'll be pleasantly surprised by how many extra cups of coffee they will buy us.

You don't have to learn knitting or crochet to make full use of them, there are many tasks that fit in very well into small time-chunks. Blogging for instance is one. Reading is another. Which is why I always carry a book with me wherever I go; whenever I have to wait--for my food to be served, for someone to show up for an appointment or for my turn in a queue--I can always use the time productively by reading my book. Do not under-estimate the accumulative power of time.

That way too, one is never bored. There's always something to do. Sometimes I'm even happy to wait because to me these are stolen moments, time you are not supposed to have--like finding a dollar note on the sidewalk.

Like now: I'm back in KL and I'm supposed to meet a friend at KLCC; but she called up last minute and told me that she's going to be an hour late. No problem. I opened up my notebook, sat down at the nearest wi-fi hotspot and started typing my blog entry for the day...and I'm done!

Monday, December 06, 2004

Diversity & Differences

Diversity & Differences

Celebrated sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke, who made Colombo his permanent home, described Sri Lanka as "India without the hassle".

From impressions garnered during brief stay in the country, I can perhaps understand a little bit of his sentiment. The capital city of Colombo is not as congested as Delhi or Mumbai. Unlike in India or even Indonesia, pitiful sights of abject poverty are also not so evident.

The other major difference between India and Sri Lanka is religion: Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist. In Colombo, one can see many stupas and statues of Buddha adorning various parts of the city. Sri Lanka is in fact the center of Theravada Buddhism--one of the three main branches of Buddhism (also known as Hinayana)--that is also practiced in the Indochinese countries, including Thailand.

It is not easy for casual visitors like me to distinguish between the Buddhist Sinhalese--who form three quarters of the population--and the minority Hindu Tamils; it's a bit like how non-Indonesians are not being able to tell the Sundanese from the Javanese. To me, the interesting part about knowing a foreign country is learning these subtle differences. The irony is that the Sinhalese and the Tamils don't see these differences as subtle--the two ethnic groups spent the last twenty years waging a bloody civil war over it.

In any South-East Asian country, I would be able to blend into the masses and pass off as a local, but unfortunately not so in Sri Lanka. Even though I face no communication problems here, physically I stand out in the crowd like any Mat Salleh or bule in an Asian country, which makes me an easy target for touts, who are forever offering themselves to be my tour-guide. I cannot walk a few meters alone outside my hotel without someone approaching me: Hello sir! Are you from China? How do you like Colombo? You want to see temples? You want girl?

I'll need many more trips to Sri Lanka before I can thoroughly appreciate the soul of this beautiful country. Despite the hassle of having to constantly fend off touts in the streets, my first impressions are good. Even my more xenophobic Singaporean friends (who were not so appreciative of India) have good things to say about Sri Lanka.

Sometimes I feel being born and bred in Malaysia ("Truly Asia") has its advantages--one is not so aversed to foreign cultures because growing up in a multi-cultural society, one is already accustomed to such differences.

Why would anyone want to live only among his own race and accept only one single culture? Diversity can be, and should be a source of strength rather than strife. Diversity makes the world interesting and enriches the possibilities for the human race. In an increasingly globalized world, it's diversity that makes all the difference.

The Soul of Colombo

The Soul of Colombo

I'm always attracted to the nostalgic charms of old hotels; and in Colombo, the Galle Face Hotel, established in 1864, ranks up there together with the grand dames of Asia, such as Raffles Hotel in Singapore and E&O in Penang.

On Tuesday, we held a cocktail reception for one of our clients at the Galle Face Hotel. I had earlier made a presentation in one of its huge echoey ballrooms. Standing there amongst its many ornate pillars and chandeliers, it felt strangely anacronistic to be talking about the subject of IT.

Located in the heart of Colombo city, to me this Grand Old Dame is also its soul. The hotel has a magnificent open-air terrace overlooking the Indian Ocean where guests can sit back with a cool glass of whiskey on-the-rocks and surrender to the gentle caress of the sea breeze under the golden evening sunset. One cannot imagine a more Maughamesque setting.

In terms of location, architecture and history, I think the Galle Face Hotel ("oldest hotel east of Suez") surpasses that of Raffles and E&O. Unfortunately, it too has fallen into a bit of neglect; the rooms I am told, are badly in need of a facelift. But then again, that can also be said of many of the business-class hotels in Colombo.

Colombo feels like a city that is just awakening; stunted by years of separatist violence, it has fallen behind the other capital cities of Asia. But a cease-fire is seemingly in place now and the tourists are arriving again; I could see that a new wing to the Galle Face Hotel is already being constructed.

Having survived the ravages of war and terrorism, can Colombo withstand this equally frightening onslaught of globalization without sacrificing its rich cultural heritage--its very soul itself? Only time will tell.