Monday, 31 December 2012

Christmas in Kuching

To avoid being misunderstood, let me first start off by saying that I do not celebrate Christmas, not in the religious sense of the word. I have been advised by some Muslim friends that even wishing my Christian friends a `Merry Christmas' is a wrong thing to do. There have also been opinions by some learned Muslim scholars that doing so would lead the Muslim greeter into shiriq. On the other hand, there are also views of other scholars who say that such an act is permissible. Whichever line of argument you may choose to follow, the important thing to keep in mind is that each differing opinion comes with its own basis or reasoning. Respect that others may hold a different view to yours. And as I mentioned earlier, while I do not celebrate Hari Natal, as what Malays call it, I do however respect that my Christian friends have the right to celebrate the occasion, just like any other citizen of this country.

But this post is not to discuss the issue of religion. It is to tell the story of how I made the trip to Kuching, Sarawak on 25th December, to meet up with a friend I last saw more than 30 years ago. Before that, let me relate the background story...

In January of 1980, a group of young teenagers fresh out of secondary school were selected to further their studies to the United Kingdom. Among this group were myself and an Iban chap from Sarawak named Gabriel Mason. When we first arrived at London for the A-level course, Gabe and me somehow got along with each other and we became close friends. After the initial week of sorting things out, we decided to share a rental flat together to save cost. To survive the high expense of living in London on a miserly student's allowance, we pooled funds to cook our own meals... actually I did most of the cooking while Gabe would do most of the cleaning-up. Gabe would eat anything that I cook without complain and he always respected my need to buy only the halal stuff. We shared stories about our families and learned about each other's hobbies and peculiar habits. We even went for a summer backpacking tour of Europe together.

Our paths separated when we went to different universities. Both of us graduated at the same time and returned to Malaysia but we lost touch. Over the years, I had wondered how my friend was getting along but I didn't know how to look for him... or perhaps I had not tried hard enough. Then in 2008, I went for an alumni event at our old school in Kuantan and met Gabe's younger sister Cordelia, who was also our junior. Cordelia told me that her brother is back home in Kuching and had fallen on some hard times. She knew of our close friendship and hoped that I could call him and lift his spirits a bit. She gave me her brother's mobile number and I immediately placed a call. My long-lost pal was surprised to hear my voice after all these years.

Over the past four years, I kept regular contact with Gabe through phone calls and FB messages. I had hoped that he could travel to the peninsula so that we'd have the chance to meet up. On my side of the equation, I was going through a roller coaster ride on the work front and couldn't muster enough spare funds to fly over to Sarawak. And then earlier this month, Gabe called me up and invited me to come over to Kuching and join his family for their Christmas celebration. I initially gave the excuse that I was busy with a new project that had just started and didn't think I could find the spare time. After thinking about it for a day or two, I realized that if I never put in the effort, then I will never find the time.

I quickly put in an application for 2-days leave during the Christmas period and once the leave was approved, made hotel and flight bookings for me and my wife. We flew in to Kuching on the evening of 24th December for our first visit to Sarawak.

The next day, Gabe picked us up at our hotel and took us to his family's Christmas dinner party held at another hotel. We were introduced to the other Mason siblings plus a whole lot of other in-laws and cousins and aunts and uncles. While primarily an Iban Christian family, some of the siblings and cousins have inter-married with people of other faiths and nationalities. Gabe's mother has a number of Muslim grandchildren, so my wife and I were not the only Muslims in attendance that evening. Indeed we were made to feel like family...

It was a very short visit to Kuching, so we really didn't have the time for much sight-seeing. Nonetheless, I am very pleased that I made the decision to travel to meet up with a very dear friend whom I've spent so much memorable time with.

I guess it's nice to end the year with a happy story. Wishing all my readers and friends a wonderful year ahead...

Cloudy sky over Sungai Santubong
Old pals... and I mean real old
Gabe with one of his cousins singing on stage
Me with the Mason siblings. Cyrus, Edith, Oldstock, Gabriel and Cordelia. All ex-students of MRSM Kuantan 
Footnote : Earlier stories in this blog where I've made reference to Gabe can be found here -> Finger lickin' delicious; and here -> A day in beautiful Belgrade.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Weekend family picnic

I have previously written of this holiday place called Warisan Bernam Agro Resort owned by a brother-in-law of mine, located on the banks of Sungai Bernam that forms the border between Selangor and Perak.

We went there again yesterday after last going there more than a year ago. My BIL invited in-laws from his wife's side of the family and we had a lovely picnic by the riverside. The weather also played its part... except for a five-minute brief spell of rain, it was a wonderfully dry day all along. The kids and parents had a splashing time dipping themselves in the cool running river water.

I had a brief dip in the river myself but spent most of the time trying to improve my photo-taking skills in capturing landscape and macro shots. Here are some pics from yesterday's outing.

Warisan Bernam Agro Resort, front view of A-shaped huts
Stream running at the rear
Purple flowers, but donno the name lah...
Smoky picnic site...
And the smoke coming from this BBQ pit
Bee on purple flower

Saturday, 15 December 2012

It's a nice feeling when you are proven right...

... and it sucks when you got it wrong.

Throughout our lives, we come to situations where we have to make decisions. The easy situations are a breeze : do we wear white or blue to work today, shall we have fish 'n chips for dinner or do we go for the lamb chops, would taking Jalan Tebrau be faster than taking Jalan Larkin to get us to town? These are the easy decisions because whichever choice we make, the outcome wouldn't have a significant impact.

It is the hard decisions that would set us back a bit. Such situations are sometimes called `problems'. Such problems would be even more difficult when the decision you make is on behalf of a higher authority (eg. your boss). Add to that, you don't have much time to consider your options and there is a huge financial impact involved. Intense!

Many years ago, I was posted to work at my former employer's branch office in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates. I was there to handle a coastal project for a resort hotel. After a few weeks in Fujairah, another job opportunity came along, this time to construct an effluent discharge pipe from a new sewage treatment plant, laid from the outlet on the beach and buried underwater for a few hundred metres to the sea. My colleague and I prepared the price quotation and after obtaining agreement from head office, we submitted it to the Arab main contractor.

We were then called for a price negotiation meeting. Now... for those of you who have been in price negotiations before, you would surely have in mind a top target value (ideal case), a mean value (kira ok lah) and finally, a bottom limit (cukup makan saja) below which there's no deal. There were two Arab gentlemen from their side. Me and my colleague on our side.

The Arabs started off aggressively... complaining aloud that our price was ridiculously high and that we were out to make a huge profit. I guess it's their standard tactic but in my daily dealings with the locals, only a few of them I would consider to have grace and politeness. I calmly asked them back what would be their reasonable counter-offer. They didn't offer any but pressed me to reduce our price. So I indicated a reduction to my middle value. Still no go but plenty of harsh words. Heck, I thought... no wonder God sent a prophet to these people. I kept my cool and made a final offer at my basement price. Unacceptable, one of the Arabs shot back... you must reduce lower, he said with a glaring face as if he's a headmaster reprimanding a schoolboy. And then he mentioned a breakdown of costs for machinery and material, in a move to justify why he thought our price was high. Well I thought, if you already know what it's going to cost, why don't you go ahead and do the work yourself?

I did not budge and the situation was becoming tense and intimidating. I could feel my blood pressure climb up a notch or two. I turned to my colleague and purposely spoke to him in Malay, "Aku rasa Pak Arab ni dah main kasar. Kita balik aje lah. Buat apa nak dapat projek tapi nanti rugi. Kau rasa macam mana?"

"Aku rasa kita takyah buat projek ni," my friend replied. "Tapi kau tak risau ke apa nanti Dato' kata?"

I had already considered that part in my mind. My boss would probably be not pleased that we did not secure this job. But if I had taken on the work at a very low price and then completed it at a loss, he would be even angrier. So I made up my mind, that was it. I told the Arabs, "I am sorry that our offer price is too high for you and regret that we could not form a working relationship. But thank you for giving us the opportunity to give a quote in the first place."

I then packed my files back in to my bag, stood up and coolly left the meeting room. The Arabs were stunned and speechless.

As we left the building and walk to the car park, one of the Arabs called out to my friend. I continued walking but my friend turned back to talk to the Arab. I waited in the car while this side discussion was going on. When my friend returned, he said that they would be asking our local sponsor to talk direct to our boss in Malaysia. They hadn't expected us to walk out.

"Tapi Pak Arab tu terkejut lah yang kau berani keluar macam tu," my friend said. I finally managed to smile for the first time that day.

I had already guessed that they would try to approach my boss after this, but I wasn't worried. If my boss agree to offer them a discount just to secure the job, then that is his right as the owner. It will then be his risk.

True enough, a call was placed from UAE to Malaysia the next day... and my boss was made to promise to come to Fujairah the following week for further negotiation.

When my boss flew in the next week, he asked whether I could accompany him for the second round of negotiations. I declined, saying that we have already offered them the best price and we should not be going any lower. Stubborn, aren't I?

To cut a long story short, my boss went for the second negotiation meeting alone, agreed to a huge discount and then got the job. He went back to KL, declared to the other head office staff on the good news of a new project he secured and arranged for another colleague to be sent to Fujairah and be the project manager. Fine by me.

The new project manager arrived a month later and handled that project separate from mine. From the very start, a few technical problems surfaced. I helped out as much as I could in sharing of resources, but otherwise kept myself out of it. The problems became worse as time progressed and the project ran into delays. I returned to Malaysia and later resigned from the company. But information from my ex-staff in Fujairah told me that the project that I initially declined to take on, had now run into losses.

Not for me to gloat about but I do feel sad for my former boss. As I said, it was a risk he personally took... and that I have been proven right.

Ok then, perhaps I should also share with readers on the times I have been proven wrong. I do still wince when I recall the occasions when I made bad judgements... but let's leave that for another day.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Another good makan place in JB

There is this wonderful page in Facebook which I just joined last week. It's called Johor Sedap and features the suggestions and contributions from group members on the various halal food outlets in Johor (with JB in particular). If you are new to Johor Bahru city and wish to know of any restaurant selling say, good laksa johor, then just pop the question on the page and pretty soon some members will respond with suggestions.

So far, I have tried 2 new places from the many that have been recommended and I quite agree with the reviews. I still have a few more in the list that I wish to go to... but I hope not to bore readers with too much of my gastronomic adventures.

Last night, we went for dinner at this place called Din BBQ Station located in Taman Nusa Bestari. This restaurant serves fresh seafood, chicken wings and lamb chops grilled over charcoal fire. To go with the grilled stuff, you can also have fried rice or nasi lemak plus some fresh greens (ulam). The selection of drinks are not too bad too.

For our maiden visit, we had grilled sea prawns, squid, chicken wings and some lamb. There were some fish on offer but I thought I'll try them on my next visit. The prawns and squid were tasty, the chicken wings not bad but the lamb was just okay. The home-made BBQ sauce was just the way I like it, mild and not too strong. If there is one minus point that I can mention, I do hope they can use a proper plate for my nasi lemak.

Din BBQ also opens for lunch. The owner told us that they still serve BBQ during the day, in addition to the standard fare of nasi campur and lauk pauk. Maybe one of these days I drop by for lunch and see how their daytime food tastes like.

The shop front
Grilled sea prawns
Grilled squid
BBQ chicken wings