Thursday, March 24, 2005

of brand, branding and selling

Yesterday, Pak Lah went on front page of the major dailies. I found it worth noting ‘yesterday’ for unlike Dr M, he wasn’t on front page often. ‘Go sell Malaysia’ he said. ‘We are an unknown brand.’ At least that’s my unqualified summary of his speech.

Cheekily, I hope that the wakil rakyat if not the rakyat will listen. Politicians too. With Pak Lah as the boss wakil rakyat and politician numero uno, they have little reason not to. They have been ‘branding’ too long but not selling. I mean selling Malaysia, contracts excluded.

We have been too long in our habit of branding people. Here in Terengganu (and I am sure elsewhere too) we especially the Malays brand people in either green or blue, ‘orang kita’ or ‘orang dia’. Then there was the branding of worse kind, ‘Mung kape! (kafir) – (You Infidel)’ and of late a much more sophisticated ‘ugly Malay’.

Perhaps if care to look at all the beauty and good qualities in the ‘goods’ around us then there’s plenty to sell. Let’s take from Pak Lah and be done with ‘branding’. Let’s go selling.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

the malay college

I went to MCKK at the age of twelve, spent the best part of my growing years until the age of eighteen and even after many years of having left it behind, felt like I have never been away from it; The Prep School, the Big Tree, Hargraeves Hall, Big School, M-Chop and Mutalib’s Highway. How can I ever forget ‘Fiat Sapientia Virtus’ – Let Manliness Come Through Wisdom’ – it’s motto. Last January 2, this year 2005, MCKK was a hundred years old. The celebration however was set on March 26. I would be there again InsyaAllah, to be among all those that had been there once upon a time, a boy among boys, proud of growing up in its ancient compound, walked out of its gate a man, older but not necessarily or maybe not even wiser.

MCKK began for me on a day when my excited father took me on his ‘basikal norton’ to tell the great news to my grandfather. For many-many years later, Aki would proudly tell everyone of the grandson who went to the ‘great school of the royals and leaders’; introduction that often had me squirming with embarrassment. I was amused with the special attention I was getting; all the preparation - the shopping for white baju melayu, white school uniform and white pillow cases and bed sheets and white ‘kelambu’. I was too young to understand that it would soon become my new home far away from home and much more. And I would be spending my first Hari Raya Puasa away from the family. An experience I would not want to repeat and one that cost me a ‘hands-on’ experience with M-Chop but that is for later. Now, I think I must have been very lucky. With only a 4A and a B in the Penilaian, I must have made it on the rural quotas, having later found out that almost all others went in with 5A’s. My sister went to Tun Fatimah two years earlier and I was kind of continuing with the boarding school tradition which almost all the fourteen of us siblings dutifully followed. I was too young to understand its significance and despite my seemingly studious nature, I was lazy to boot and spent more time scribbling away.

MCKK was to me so much more sophisticated than any environment I had previously known. There, beginning with the regal but squeaky floor boarded Prep School, I had learnt to live among boys of the same age; experienced living in a world of electrical light, took shower by piped water and do that ‘big’ thing in a ‘flush’ toilet. It was to me a whole ‘brave new world’. I am not exaggerating but the world I left behind was still a world of ‘air telaga’, ‘lampu gasolin’ and ‘jambang cuah’ (water drawn from well, gasoline lamp and bengal toilet).

MCKK was modernity in every sense.

MCKK too was a cradle for everything ‘Malay’ness. Baju Melayu with sarong and songkok every night, full baju melayu with ‘sampin’ on Friday and ‘BRU’ nights, and baju melayu with the maroon blazer over for those occasions I represented ‘Kolej Melayu Kuala Kangsar’ in debating.

Yet it too was a cradle for personal independence, or brotherly interdependence depending on which way you look at it. A brotherly spirit translated into a special lasting kinship of the old school tie as old boys. Those five years of learning everything or nothing (also depending on which way you look at it) made us leaders in our own way; vocal, bold and confidence to the point of snobbishness. We became the prominent sore thumb in the emerging boarding schools citizenry not so much for the way we carry ourselves but just by being a ‘budak koleq’. If even we were snubbed, we were what we were. We put our heart and soul in everything we do. We cried when we lost and we belittle others when winning. From the fringe of the playing fields or the halls whenever we won, we stood proudly to sing our school anthem against the jeering from the losers. And then came our turn to turn on our brand of the jeers. For the arch rival from Ipoh, the STARians we have the sweet ‘Twinkle, twinkle little Star….’ For standard fare, it’s ‘Bung Wak, Bung Wek wek, Bung Kak Bung Kek kek. Who are we? Malay College. Hoah!’

It too was (at least in my time) a fertile ground for Islamic Revivalism. For this MCKK had his own hero, one no other than ‘Saudara’ Anwar Ibrahim. BRU I had mentioned earlier stood for Badan Revolusi Ugama, an Islamic student movement founded in MCKK by Anwar. The late Allahyarham Ustaz Rahman, personally and endearingly told me once that even when he was in Form Six, Anwar was sought after by the Special Branch for giving ‘talks’ in local suraus and printing T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Badan Revolusi Ugama’. Revolusi Ugama? That brother sure knew how to be in trouble.

Problem was, there were little to separate heroes from trouble makers. In the long history of MCKK, the heroes or the ‘terror’ as they were known were as popular as the ‘terrorist’ on the other side. Then in the seventies MCKK had plenty of both; kings and sultans, ministers (at least one with the distinction of being convicted for murder of political opponent), civil and corporate leaders; their name abound. On the other side were the ‘terrorists’ like (then jailed) Anwar and (then on exile) Hishamuddin Rais. be continued.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

on the bicycle again

A few days ago, my youngest son Adlan, pestered me to take off the extra wheel from his bicycle. At six, he was still riding with two side tyres; earning ridicules from his brother and sisters. At the same age, they were all cycling and swimming like duck to water. I didn’t believe him as he was normally afraid of roughing out but he persisted. Because I don’t have any tools, I took the bicycle to the shop. As soon as the side wheels were taken off, he took to the bicycle and zoomed away. Now, he was beginning to surprise me. Swimming lessons, next.

Adlan and his bicycle remind me of my own cycling lessons a great many years ago. Then there were only three types of bicycles. The ‘basikal norton’ or ‘basikal tua’ some would call, ‘basikal laki’ and ‘basikal pu’ang’. ‘Basikal laki’ (the male bicycle) was called so as it has a ‘batang’. [Batang, bar in English has a different connotation in Malay language]. The ‘batang’ of a bicycle has endeared itself to elderly Malay men. Ask them (discreetly) and they might tell you what it means.

A gender for bicycle was for those days of grace, elegance and strictly 'baju kurong'. Ladies’ pants, was yet to make its entrance. Then, ladies don’t ride ‘kekeng’ on a bicycle. So the top bar was removed and they have two lower bars for ladies bicycle instead. The adventurous girl who rode ‘basikal laki’ anyway was regarded as ‘macang jatang’ (tomboy) and any boy who ride a ‘basikal pu'ang’ would be sneered as ‘pondang’ (sissy).

Most of us learn to ride a bicycle on a ‘basikal norton’. The name ‘norton’ I guess was after the famous huge motorcycle long before we ever heard of Harley Davidson. Because it was huge, we have to ride ‘celah batang’ – between the bars. That requires a great balancing act and quick jumping off should the bicycle veered away. We all learnt the science of center of gravity pretty early. Once we master the balance, it was time to ride on the saddle. Because it was so high up, a sudden stop means landing hard, groin on the ‘batang’. ‘Aduh’!

Those years, the only brand of bicycle I recall was a ‘Raleigh’. Walk into a bicycle shop these days and bicycles were so varied its’ like a shampoo display. There are bicycles now for toddlers up to the big boys. Brands from local made to America to Italy to China. There are still some lady-like bicycles but even my daughters don’t take a second look at them. The choice was between ‘road-bike’, ‘mountain bike’ or ‘BMX’. Call it gender equality but Atin must get what Amir had. The big boys’ bicycles price mind you, can get you a secondhand Kancil. Then there were the gadgets, jerseys, helmets, sun-glass etcetera. If golfers wear Tiger Wood’s attire and use his endorsed golf clubs, the big boy cyclist competed on the latest of Team T-Mobile. Cyclists look to ‘Tour de France’ as golfers look to PGA for style.

Cycling reminded me of the story of Malaya’s early entrepreneur – Boon Siew, who started with a bicycle shop and ended with an empire of Honda agency. It reminded me too of Ah Kiang, the bicycle shop men in my village. In his standard attire of singlet and khaki shorts (they call it Bermudas these days) he was there making a living mostly by ‘tapung tiub’ for thirty cents or changing the ‘sumbu’ for ten. We would not change the tyre until it really ‘pancat’. I can still picture him, sitting on a wooden stool, pumping the leaking tube with air, dipping it in the trough, a 'tin minyak gas’ cut in half; of oily blackish soapy water, checking for bubbles, once found he set to sand with a ‘kikir’, applied the stinking glue and pasted a piece of cut tube over. He would turn to you and say, ‘Bocor sikek je. Mung tunggu kejak ah. Biar kering betul dulu. Baru buleh pang anging.’ He could have like the present days mechanics simply ‘tukar baru’ but he didn’t. He knew that we are all poor as he was not much better. Once in a while, when the fish catch was good would he be able to sell some bicycles. But he was always there to keep our bicycles moving, even on a Friday when a shout to him upstairs on his shop would see him coming down. ‘Mung sokmo’ he would say, ‘kacau aku nok tido je’. He was and will always be to me a picture of honesty. I wonder if he is still there, I wonder if it is still thirty cents to ‘tapung tiub’ of the bicycle.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

‘the free extra’

As someone who spent twenty years outside Terengganu, my homecoming was in itself a journey of self-discovery. Suddenly, my classrooms were everywhere. ‘Pasar Maghrib’ included.

I returned after being away for twenty long years since the tender age of twelve. Against such background, Kuala Terengganu was to me a strange place. To my other half, a Kedahan, the environment was even more alien.

Within the quiet environment, I found more time for reading, for attending the ‘baca kitab’ sessions or talks after the prayers, and to join in quiet ‘lepak’ at the ‘lambor’ of ‘surau’ waiting for isya’ when the speaker fails to turn-up. I took up cycling too, but that’s years later and another story.

As strange as it may be, this was a lovely place to be, the sky is always blue (even when KL was shrouded in haze), the air fresh, the beach captivatingly beautiful and best of all the people are very friendly. They are your friends after just a single encounter, even without you knowing their name. That friendship means raising your hand greeting the guy at the other end of ‘Kedai Payang’; waving at the driver in the next car, calling each other ‘boh’ (for boss), a ‘salam’ and shake-hand all around. That friendship means consistently free lunch when eating out, that you soon join in the race to 'belanja' or to pay first. And that friendship means an extra fish or two at the market; extra scoop of ‘beras siam’ (siam rice) at Pasar Payang; extra packet of ‘nasi dagang’ and extra ‘tulang’ over the half kilo of meat you bought. Those are ‘free extras’.

That ‘free extra’ I later discovered was more than just a friendly gift. It underlines a deep understanding of religious principle of purity in wealth, of right and wrong and of things ‘halal’ (permissible) and ‘haram’ (forbidden). Principles so deeply ingrained in their life that it became a culture. Principle based on the doctrine oft repeated in the Quran; ‘Perfect thee, thy weight and measure’ (sempurnakanlah timbangan dan takaran). Something we all had taken for granted and even dismissed as petty.

These days of profit orientation, shareholders return and growth percentage, we took to all means to better the margin. Even if that mean denying the rights of others, trampling on the environment and forgoing all sense of human decency. How else can we explain why on the day a major conglomerate announced a profit of billions, it too front-paged a major dismissal plan of their workers, once their very source of existense. Call it retrenchment, VSS or whatever, it is still as good as taking away their dignity. How, automated, computer generated bills must be paid without fail even if the week supply of food rot in the fridge after a black-out and murky water in the pipes stink to high heaven. We have all lost the virtue of others above self.

But here, in the small market hall, there are people who still care. People who still worry that their weight and measures were reduced somehow and the money earned blemished to a point it is ‘haram’, and they want no part of them. Let it be to them that they give more, the more to made up the shortage and as a ‘sedekah’ – gift of ‘ikhlas’ and from the heart.

That was truly the lesson and challenge of the ‘free extra’.

Pasar Maghrib is located at Jalan Pasir Panjang close to Maktab Perguruan Pasir Panjang. It was called so as it operated late afternoon and well pass the sunset, time for Maghrib prayer; something extraordinary in Kuala Terengganu as other markets are usually closed at five. It was a group of shanty huts until its redevelopment in 2001. Despite being renamed ‘Pasar Bukit Besar’ it remain to the locals as Pasar Maghrib.

Friday, March 04, 2005

‘pil samo’

Malaysian health care has certainly come a long way.

Every time I took my kids to their favorite doctor, I shudder at the thought of having to pay a considerable amount of RM for medicine and consultations. But it had to be at their favorite doctor because the clinic is beautiful, complete with a play area and the lady doctor was always generous with ‘lollypops’. While the consultation has not improved much from the standard, ‘Adik, apa sakit?’ (What’s wrong with you?), the medications were now aplenty. It certainly was a far improvement from the day of ‘pil samo’.

When I was a kid, there was only a government’s ‘Pusat Kesihatan Kecil’ in my kampong. The ‘doctor’ was a ‘H.A’ and he was so assimilated in the community that the clinic is virtually open 24 hours a day. Best of all we don’t have to pay. Everything, from consultations to medicines were free.

The medicines available then were limited. If I recall correctly, there were only ‘pil samo’, ‘ubat biru’ and ‘air-ding’. Plastic medicine bottles were unheard of. To visit the clinic, one must always bring a clean bottle or two. Bottles can mean ‘botol kicap’, ‘botol air lamned’ or ‘botol tomato’. The latter preferred because of its clear glass and come with a reuseable cap. But ‘tomato’ was a luxury and you can find few of them bottles. If you have to bring ‘botol kicap’, don’t worry because the clinic will provide you with the ‘gabus’ (cork).

‘Air-ding’ (iodine) was the brownish orange liquid used to clean cuts, as well as a cure for it. Getting cuts were frequent occurrence because most of us kids were using ‘selipar jepun’. The only shoes we have were the white school shoes; it must be kept clean and white so using them for playing was out of question. ‘Selipar jepun’ are also not good for running so we played ‘kaki ayam’ (bare footed) thus, the frequent cuts on the sole. If the cuts were dirty, the attendants will first clean them with spirit methyl. It was ‘pedih’ like hell. Because it was so dreadful, rather than visit the clinic, many of us kids would just put in the ‘serbuk kawe’ (grounded coffee) on the cuts, wrap them with ‘kain buruk’ (old cloth) and played on. Amazingly it does work wonder. In a sense, iodine was significant in a Malay boy’s journey to manhood. Ask them about their great adventure of ‘bersunat’ (circumcision) and you will know what I mean.

‘Ubat biru’ (literal translation - blue medicine) was an ultramarine blue liquid used for ‘kudis’ – all kind of skin diseases then common.

The panacea of all ills then must have been the ‘pil samo’.

‘Pil samo’ as the name implies were tablets pink in color. I remember them being the only medicine prescribed be it for fever, headache, toothache, flu, whatever. If adults were given pills, we kids were given ‘obat air’ of the same ‘pil samo’ but grounded in water. So shake well before use. Amazingly the same ‘pil samo’ were grounded into paste for ‘ubat gatal’ (skin disease medication). I knew this because I was always a curious kid, and the attendants don’t mind me peeking into their ‘laboratory’.

The ‘laboratory’ – if you can call it such, was hardly one we are now familiar with. The basic they had were probably the ‘stone and mortar’ for grinding the pills into everything else; the pots for boiling utensils, needles, syringes, knives, scissors etc; a stainless steel container for sterilised utensils and a fridge for keeping some special medicines, mostly those applied by injection. It scares the wit off you, when the H.A opened the fridge and said ‘Ning kena cocok ning’ (I need to give you an injection).

Despite the rudimentary facilities and dependency on ‘pil samo’ we survived. There were no ‘lactose intolerance’, ‘obesity’, high cholesterol or diabetes. Most of us survived the environment to now be the ‘forty-somethings’.

Sometimes I wonder aloud, if the advancement in health care and medicinal technology came because of the new diseases or was it the other way. Maybe, just maybe, we should take a good re-visit to the days of ‘botol kicap’ ‘air-ding’, ‘ubat biru’ and ‘pil samo’.