Monday, June 29, 2009

Rest in peace, Michael Jackson

I was on the news channel on Thursday night while working on two assignments. At 10.30pm British time, BBC news paused for a breaking news. They said Michael Jackson was rushed to the hospital and that he wasn't breathing. 10 minutes later, a footnote wrote "TMZ: Michael Jackson dies".

I stopped my work and immediately called my brother and friends in Malaysia. It was 5.40am in Malaysia and I woke them up from their sleep. I didn't care as I was shocked.

People in my generation know MJ. We grew up listening to him. For me, I remember Billie Jean most because it was the first song that I came to know MJ.

Early this year when tickets to attend one of his 50 gigs in London was up for sale, I set my alarm to wake up early and queued for the tickets. I couldn't get a ticket in the end because the server crashed. So I told myself to buy it off Ebay nearer the time. Now I do not have to worry about it anymore.

MJ was a great artist. His talent was unsurpassed. He was one of the few artists whose music grew with the technologies of our time - from the days of cassette tape to CD and to downloadable music files now.

He is a legend. There will never be another Michael Jackson in our lifetime. This is exactly what kept me moody these couple of days. I engaged in conversations, see and listen to chat shows that was close or had anything to do with MJ. It was a great antidote to feeling depressed.

It's strange. I am not a big fan of MJ, yet his departure has left me feeling upset. I felt more upset when I heard people bringing up his past on child molestation charges and race inferiority. To me, I don't know if these allegations were true but neither do they.

It's shocking how much energy people waste paying attention to rubbish allegations and not on what is real and proven i.e his talent, struggle to get airtime for black music in the 80s and 90s, highest number of albums sold in history and the positive messages in his songs. Or even if nothing good could be said about him, for goodness sake, shut up and leave him alone, he's already dead!

People cry and scream in concerts not because of his alleged wrongdoings. People cry and scream because of how he touched their lives. Now people of all races and nationalities come together to mourn for his death. His death has united the world.

Now I feel old. After the passing of MJ, talking about him reminds me of how my parents used to talk about Elvis Presley. I am sure people in my generation will always associate MJ to the great music legend of our time.

RIP Michael Jackson.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

London's Mitsukoshi

Mitsukoshi is one of Japan's upmarket departmental stores like the in-between of Marks and Spencer and Selfridges. I would say it's more Selfridges than M&S.

To Malaysians, Mitsukoshi is like the Isetan. In fact, both of these stores have merged under one management last year.

In London, Mitsukoshi is tucked away at the southern end of Regent Street. Unless you go looking for it, the store can exist but stay unnoticed forever.

Last week I went to check out the store. To my surprise, a large proportion of the customers were Japanese. The sales assistants were mostly Japanese and greet "Japanese looking" customers in their language. The entire building were even signposted in Japanese! One would never have guessed I took these photos in London:

And as usual, even the translated English is unpolished

I felt like I was in Japan again. The customer service counter also mimicked the Mitsukoshi stores in Japan.

This place is catered for Japanese tourists wanting to buy European branded products especially British ones like the Burberry and Aquascutum.
Mostly Japanese tourists

Burberry displayed like a cheap brand here! What a mockery!

At first it didn't make sense. The items were not any cheaper and sales not any better. Why would people want to buy their Burberry in a small store like that?
Japanese flock here to get their branded goods

Japan is one of the most homogeneous countries in the world. That's why you can never find such a mix like an "Indian Japanese" or "British Japanese". Japanese look and talk the same. And when it comes to foreign language, they'd struggle. When the tourists in Mitsukoshi started communicating in Japanese with the sales assistants, it became clear that the only reason Mitsukoshi existed is for Japanese to shop in an environment which they can understand and be understood.

Unless there is a revolution to communication technology where a device is able to capture and translate the language of the speaker into the ears of the listener a language they can understand and vice versa, this is how Japanese tourists will shop and this is how Japanese stores will have their customers in a foreign country.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Trooping the Colour

The Queen has been the figure of unity in Great Britain.

The monarchy is the heart and core of the country's political system. 76% of the population are still in favour of the monarchy after the Queen. The British love and revere the royal family.

Yesterday was the "Trooping the Colour" in honour of the Queen's 83rd birthday. It is a custom of over 200 years old where members of the royal family and the public gather to celebrate this day.

The flag indicating the Queen is in

Initially I thought calling it Trooping the Colour was quite a misnomer because it didn't quite describe about the Queen or her birthday or anything near at all. It would have sounded much better as "The Queen's Birthday Parade"; simple and straightforward.

However, Trooping the Colour was never meant to be a celebration of the Queen's birthday. Based on history, it was an enactment of the traditional preparations for battle when the colours, or flags, were ''trooped'' down the ranks so that they would be seen and recognised by the soldiers. Hence, "Trooping the Colour". But there are no more battles to be fought in modern times, so this is now celebrated as the Queen's birthday.

I watched two-thirds of the pageantry on TV and walked over to Buckingham Palace towards the close of the event to see it live. I knew there would be a fly-past of vintage and modern fighters based on last year's experience.

Fly-past at Buckingham Palace

It was very crowded at St James' Park, a stone's throw from Buckingham Palace. When I arrived facing the palace, I just made it to catch a glimpse of the Queen. She was about to leave the Palace Gate and make her way into the building.
Queen making her way into the Palace after the final salute

Then she appeared from the balcony with the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip. They greeted the public and were reciprocated with a loud cheer and applause from us.

Princes Charles, William and Harry joined in from behind. Camilla was beside Prince Charles. More members of the royal family joined in.

I was really excited because this was the first time I've come so near and meet so many members of the royal family in one place. It was also the first time I met Princess Anne and the younger Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice. I am glad I had my camera with me at the time and managed to get many close-up shots.
Princes Charles, William and Harry joined in

Members of the royal family

The event closed with the royal bands playing the national anthem "God save the Queen".

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Tube strike

Imagine the crowd twice the size of Kuala Lumpur's population or 35x the capacity of Bukit Jalil stadium descended upon the streets of KL. Absolute chaos!

That was exactly what happened in London this morning. The tube was not running and will remain so until Friday morning because of an industrial action taken by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) workers .

The first unusual tube update I received yesterday evening

As a result, commuters had to walk, take the bus or taxi, drive to work or cycle.

People walking to work at the Southbank

Many people cycled to work too

The strike was in response to a breakdown in talks between the tube bosses and union leaders. The union was demanding that the tube bosses assure them that there'd be no compulsory redundancy in this time of uncertainty. In this day and age, this must be the biggest joke I've ever heard.

The recession is bound to cause some job losses and everyone is at risk of being made redundant. None of us can be assured of our jobs. So what makes these tube workers any more special than us who are equally fearful of our jobs or those who have already lost their jobs due to the recession? I simply cannot see their point.
People forced to drive today causing a gridlock in London

If anything, they are punishing the wrong people. Passengers are the victims.

The tube strike hasn't affected me in any way because I cycle to work. If I may be selfish, I wish it could be like this everyday so that more people will switch to cycling and provide a strong case for City Hall to provide better and safer cycle routes for Londoners.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

English for all Malaysians!

I was appalled reading an article from home that the English language is no longer a mandatory subject to pass the SPM (UK's equivalent of GCSE) . This means, 17 year olds are allowed to fail the subject and be awarded with an SPM qualification. If and when this happens, the quality of the SPM will go down the drain.

Already our country is faced with the poor quality of our English teachers and command of English among our young Malaysians. Making English a less important subject is not going to help. Yes, it will increase the number of SPM passes in the short term but it will make worse the quality of our graduates in the future.

We've been complaining that our graduates couldn't string a full sentence in English in job interviews. I wonder how producing more passes in SPM will improve the situation.

I feel very strongly of this issue and then wrote to the Ministry of Education today during lunch. I'd like to share this with you:

"Dear Minister,

I am a Malaysian who is very concerned that we are in a situation where the status of the English language in our education system is being questioned and reviewed.

We need not be reminded of the importance of the English language to the development of our country and to communicate with the rest of the world.

Malaysia has always come from a position of strength by the ability of its people to communicate in multiple languages. We have convinced investors from all the world and for half a century that we can provide the market for their products and services because we can communicate effectively across a diverse range of people and yet understand each other.

This confidence did not happen by accident. For this to come together, a common language, the English language was the glue that binded all of these attributes and presented us as the one-stop nation of trade and investment.

Therefore the importance of the English language to us can never be over-emphasised. This means English should neither be made a matter of choice nor a question of "if" when deciding a pass or fail in the SPM exam.

If the candidates are worried that the English language will affect their grades, then they must work hard to attain the required level of proficiency, as they would for other subjects. Doing away with the mandatory requirement will not help in any measure. It will only demonstrate that we are regressing in our efforts to improve the command of the language among Malaysians.

Reducing the exam criteria is a short-term solution to the problem but a long-term problem to the solution. There is a net outcome from this solution. At best we will have a few more youths getting into the job market with an SPM qualification and at worst Malaysia will lose out entirely in competitiveness to other countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.

I hope I have convinced you with my thoughts and I am sure there will be many more who are concerned with the situation, will write after me or have already written.

It is better for the candidates to acknowledge their failure and take corrective measures now to correct and improve their proficiency than failing in other aspects of life post-SPM.

Thank you


Friday, June 05, 2009

Cycling to work

I have started cycling to work since I bought a bike two weeks ago. It used to take me 40 minutes by bus or 50 minutes by foot. Now it takes me 25 minutes by cycle, the same time it'll take by tube. Not only do I save time, I save money too!

I was initially hesitant to cycle through central London. Cycling through the city means sharing the bus lane with the red buses which I cannot avoid when crossing Waterloo Bridge everyday. The danger is when I had to weave out of the bus lane and into the vehicle lane whenever a bus stops in front.

Shared cycle lane at Waterloo Bridge

However, records have shown that cyclists in London were mostly killed by heavy goods vehicles rather than by red buses. So that should be a consolation, right? Yet, the worry of being run over by a 12-ton machine from behind is still very real.

Seeing cyclists take on the roads freaks me out. However, I have told myself that it was only fair that I should try cycling to work for at least a week before I misinform myself and dismiss this as an impossible task. If I don't like it, I could always switch back to public transportation. But I was also aware that I may not have the life to do so if anything goes wrong! It only takes a knock.

On the first day of the trial, I wore a hi-vis, a helmet and clipped a blinker at the back of the bike. I looked like an idiot as compared to the "lycra cyclists" but at least I was guaranteed 90% chance to survive through the journey.

I started trying out different routes the following days. I made mistakes like getting into the wrong flow of the traffic and overshooting the junction I had to turn into. This was time consuming. In the UK, cyclists will be fined if caught cycling on the footpath or against the flow of the traffic on the main roads. Cyclists are only allowed to push their bikes at the footpaths to retrace and there's an element of danger too. I can't be expected to stop suddenly when there's a red bus trailing behind! That is why it took me 40 minutes to reach the office on the first day.

Red bus following closely from behind is quite intimidating

I am thankful that I could make and learn from the mistakes. The more mistakes I made the more routes I found. The route to work was different from the route home. It took me two more days to discover the best routes to and from home. Finally I found the quieter and safer routes to cycle. Still I could not avoid the red buses but at least there are less of them and far between. The best routes now cut journey time to work by another 15 minutes! A drastic improvement.

I still wear a hi-vis, a helmet and clip a blinker at the back of the bike because they're the appropriate things to do.

Cycling to work is more interesting and rewarding than I expected. Not only have I found that I have saved time and money, but I have also realised that it is not as dangerous as I initially thought.