We are number one - for the wrong reasons

Hong Kong just earned the unenviable position of being "the most toilsome" of Chinese cities, according to a poll by Xinhuanet, an online arm of the Xinhua News Agency.

Here is what the poll, for which Xinhuanet did not give details of its method and size, found out about Hong Kong:

Work is at breakneck pace.
Working overtime is the catchword of the people.
The more people work, the less time they have for workout, for having a good meal, for television, and for love.
The turnover rate of the labour force is high - in part due to mass layoffs and fierce wars for talents among companies.

Hong Kong people should not find the findings surprising. Many of us do have enormous pressure at work and little time to enjoy life. While Xinhuanet said Hong Kong merits "the vibrant and dynamic" tag, one has to ask whether it is worth it.


The easy thing versus the right thing

"There are only two kinds of people in the twenty-first century," Singer turned environmental activist Lowell Lo said when he was recently interviewed by a local magazine. "99% of the people do the easy things while 1% do the right things."

In examining the truth of the assertion, let us not quibble about the precision of the percentage as Lo probably just meant to talk about the overwhelming majority and minority. I think he is right about many people choosing to do the easy things, especially when the modern technology and affluence actually perpetuate it. How many people will walk when transport is so affordable and convenient? How many people will both to have a malfunctioning device repaired when buying a new one is not that much more expensive? How many people will bring their own box or bottle when purchasing food and drinks instead of buying the packaged items?

But I'm not so sure about very few people doing the right things. The problem is that rightness is judged differently by different people. Regardless of whether they fool themselves, hypnotise themselves or convince themselves into believing that they are doing the right things, in most cases people think or claim that they are doing the right things. It's always hard to get people to admit or accept that they are not doing the right things. Who is to judge? Who are we to judge?

Or, how about things which people wouldn't say is exactly right but is not wrong either. What's wrong with some means of making a quick buck which doesn't harm anyone, like compensated dating?

When it comes to what is right and what is not, things are not always very clear-cut. And finally, is it possible that the easy things and the right things are not mutually exclusively? Are easy things necessarily wrong?


A "panoramic life review"

The experience of coming back from the brink of death as recounted by CY Lam in the seminar I referred to two days ago is not uncommon. The following passage from the book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying talks about something similar:

"...how much have we really understood about life and death? I have been inspired by the reports that have appeared in the studies on the near death experience... A striking number of those who survive near-fatal accidents or a near-death experience describe a "panoramic life review." With uncanny vividness and accuracy, they relive the events of their lives... Sometimes the life review takes place in the company of a glorious presence, a "being of light." What stands out from the various testimonies is that this meeting with the "being" reveals that the only truly serious goals in life are "learning to love other people and acquiring knowledge." One person recounted...: "When the light appeared, the first thing he said to me was, 'What have you done to show me that you've done with your life?'... All through this, he kept stressing the importance of love... He seemed very interested in things concerning knowledge too..." Another man [said]: "I was asked... 'What had I done to benefit or advance the human race?'"

The tick that Mr CY Lam found himself deserving could then be the outcome of having loved other people, acquired knowledge or helped advance the human race in his lifetime, or a combination of these.

Would we get a tick like Mr Lam when we die or would we not? Maybe we should pay attention to how Sogyal Rinpoche the writer summed up the point and make a wise choice today:

"Whatever we have done with our lives makes us what we are when we die. And everything, absolutely everything counts."


Did you ever panic?

When CY Lam, the speaker of the seminar on crisis management I attended yesterday, was asked whether there was ever any situation in which he felt he was in crisis, he reflected for a moment and said: "I really can't think of any."

He went on to say that he didn't panic even when he fell off a horse in Mongolia and had to be rushed to hospital for a brain surgery. "Like what happened to many people who have rubbed shoulders with death, events in my life raced through in my mind at that brief moment. Two thoughts came up. The first was that I got a tick for how I had lived my life. The second was that I had been able to share my life with this woman who had started with being a stranger but was now worried sick about my life. I realised then that I had been very lucky. But no, I didn't panic at all."

Near death experiences like that can only be good for you, he concluded. That is in line with the views of many people who have got back their life after so nearly losing it.


You have to be untidy to be healthy

The title of this BBC article called "Untidy beds may keep us healthy" is music to my ears indeed.

Every morning, however much I am in a hurry, my conscience will stop me from following my urge of not making the bed before going to work. It keeps telling me that leaving the bedding in an unsightly heap is very sloppy.

Now that there is scientific evidence that not making my bed in the morning may actually make me healthy, I may perhaps be more true to my temperament.

According to a UK study, house dust mites, which are believed to cause asthma and other allergies, cannot survive in the warm, dry conditions found in an unmade bed.
Untidy beds may keep us healthy

"We know that mites can only survive by taking in water from the atmosphere using small glands on the outside of their body," Researcher Dr Stephen Pretlove of Kingston University said. "Something as simple as leaving a bed unmade during the day can remove moisture from the sheets and mattress so the mites will dehydrate and eventually die."

House dust mites are linked to asthma
Failing to make your bed in the morning may actually help keep you healthy, scientists believe.

Research suggests that while an unmade bed may look scruffy it is also unappealing to house dust mites thought to cause asthma and other allergies.

A Kingston University study discovered the bugs cannot survive in the warm, dry conditions found in an unmade bed.

The average bed could be home to up to 1.5 million house dust mites.

The bugs, which are less than a millimetre long, feed on scales of human skin and produce allergens which are easily inhaled during sleep.

The warm, damp conditions created in an occupied bed are ideal for the creatures, but they are less likely to thrive when moisture is in shorter supply.

Isn't it great news that being untidy does not necessarily mean being unhealthy!


Crisis management

Today I attended a wonderful seminar on crisis management given by C.Y. Lam, former director of the Hong Kong Observatory. Here are the points I summed up:

How problems and crises come about

  • Change is complicated. Change is happening faster and faster.
  • Human troubles began about 10,000 years ago when farming began. Farming led to humans having to guard their land, patriarchical society, system, management, conflict, etc.
  • Human society became increasingly complicated. Today It is like we are living in a state of "invisible serfdom" in which we are not in control and do not know who the boss is.

Fortunately for humans, we are well equipped to handle crisis. There are seeds of happiness in us. We have more answers than questions, otherwise we wouldn't have been able to survive the test of nature.

Here is how to deal with crisis:

  • Use teamwork and communication.
  • Operate on care, kindness and optimism.
  • Remain sober and do not get worked up.
  • Do not back off.
  • Let go of your ego. Accept that you have intrinsic limitations and that things do not always happen as youwish.
  • Change your perspective. Imagine how the crisis in the present will be looked at in the future, say thirty years later. Will it still matter? Will anyone still remember?
  • Crisis offers opportunities. New situations produce new possibilities.

I particularly like his conclusion that we can always enrich our intuition with rationalism, common sense and positive values. We can then try to solve any crisis with our intuition and optimism.


Selflessly serve others

In introducing the second virture of enlightening living, Robin S. Sharma used the symbol of a lighthouse to represent the purpose of life.

It is easy to say that "the purpose of life is a life of purpose", but it is not quite so easy to identify the purpose of one life. I am sure that there are some lost souls out there who have spent a lifetime without finding it or some who haven't even tried.

Different people may have different purpose in life, but Sharma dropped a strong hint through the voice of Julian, the fictional character in his book The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. Asked what his Dharma is, he replied: "Mine is simple: to selflessly serve others."

This message of selflessly serving others is expanded in the Gospel yesterday, which was about this passage from Isaiah that Jesus read to those who were present at the synagogue:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

Jesus followed up the reading by saying: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)

That passage from Isaiah 61 summed up the purpose of the life of Jesus. May the Spirit of the Lord also be upon us, and guide us to follow Jesus's example and make that the purpose of our life too.


The purpose of life is a life of purpose

Here is the second virtue of enlightened living introduced in Robin S. Sharma's The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari.

The Symbol

The Lighthouse: a symbol for the purpose of life

The Virtue
Follow your purpose

The Wisdom
‧The purpose of life is a life of purpose
‧Discovering and then realising your lifework brings lasting fulfillment
‧Set clearly defined personal, professional and spiritual goals. and then have the courage to act on them.

The Techniques
The power of self examination
The five step method for attaining goals:
1. Form a clear mental image of the outcome.
2. Create positive pressure to keep you inspired.
3. Attach a timeline to your goal.
4. Apply The Magic Rule of 21.
5. Enjoy the process.

Some Good Quotes
"Trust yourself. Create the kind of life you will be happy to live with all your life. Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into the flames of achievement." - Foster C. McClellan

"The secret of success is constancy of purpose." - Benjamin Disraeli
"Lasting happiness comes from steadily working to accomplish your goals and advancing confidently in the direction of your life's purpose. This is the secret to kindling the inner fire that lurks within you."

"You must know your life's aim and then manifest this vision into reality by consistent action."
"You change your life the moment you set your goals and start to seek out your Dharma."
"From Dharma springs inner harmony and happiness."

"Concentrate every ounce of your mental energy on self-discovery. Learn what you excel at and what makes you happy... Whatever it is, find your passion and then follow it."

"You master the art of goal-setting - and goal getting - by starting off small."

"Never do anything because you have to. The only reason to do something is because you want to and because you know it is the right thing for you to do."

"There is tremendous power in a ritual."

"Make sure that you have fun while you are advancing along the path of your goals and purpose. Never forget the importance of living with unbridled exhilaration. Never neglect to see the exquisite beauty in all living things."

"Stay focused on your lifework and on giving selfless service to others. The Universe will take care of everything else. This is one of nature's truest laws."

"There is a purpose for everything that has ever happened to you, and everything that will happen to you.. Every experience offers lessons."

"A burning sense of passion is the most potent fuel for your dreams."

"Take complete control of your life. Decide, once and for all, to be the master of your fate."

"Always remember that what lies behind you and what lies in front of you is nothing when compared to what lies within you."

"We all have been granted a unique set of gifts and talents that will readily allow us to realise this life work. The key is to discover them, and in doing so, discover the main objective of your life."
"You will never be able to hit a target that you cannot see."

"Enthusiasms is one of the key ingredients for a lifetime of successful living."

Key Words
achievement, Dharma, purpose, joriki (concentrated mind), ritual, passion


A culinary delight or an environmental disaster?

I very much share the predicament expressed in a recent article called Refusing to eat shark's fin at a Chinese dinner party by a BBC correspondent.

Having chosen to be a vegetarian for humanitarian reasons for some years now, of course I do not eat meat or anything that would lead to the suffering of animals. I would dearly love to see more and more people do the same, being convinced not only of the various benefits of vegetarianism but also the problems and suffering that eating meat and other animal products brings. But there are certain food items that are particularly bad in terms of cruelty to animals and shark's fin is at the top of the list, so whenever I am at a banquet and people are enjoying their delicious shark's fin soup, I will be so tempted to give them a piece of my mind. But I am by nature an introvert, and I have no wish to annoy or upset people by giving a lecture on what they should or should not eat, so unless other people bring up the topic at the dinner table when they become aware that I simply wouldn't touch meat, I would keep a low profile about my dietary preference.

Fuchsia Dunlop, the writer of the article, was not a vegetarian, but she decided sometime ago that she would not eat shark's fin for environmental reasons. Now at the height of that feast she wrote about, a platter of shark's fin placed on the table got her struggling internally:

Reasons why she should not eat the shark's fin

  • The Chinese appetite for fins is helping to drive many shark species to extinction. A fifth of the known shark species are now under threat.
  • "Finning", where fishermen slash the fins from the sharks and throw their bodies away, is a nasty practice.
  • Eating shark's fin is something a Westerner with a shred of environmental conscience would condemn.

Reasons why she could disregard her pledge

  • Serving the extravagant dish was her Chinese host's grand gesture to honour her and a refusal to eat it might appear rude and ungrateful.
  • The dish was already on the table, so the dirty deed was done, and she had had nothing to do with it.
  • Shark's fin is not illegal.
  • Eating shark's fin may not be any worse than eating any other fish from a non-sustainable source, so why should Westerners expect the Chinese to give up shark's fin while they do not give up their tuna sandwiches and sushi?
  • No one outside that room need ever know.
  • Shark's fin is astoundingly delicious.

In the end, she chose to "discreetly ignore" it, but inevitably her host noticed and asked why. She was then presented with another dilemma - whether to wriggle out of a confrontation or to start a conversation about the moral and environmental limits of consumption. She chose the latter.

And the consequence? First, an awkward silence. Then she was thanked for her honesty, and a long conversation about food and sustainability followed. The writer didn't give details about the conversation, but concluded by saying that "it was an uncomfortable end to the evening".

But I think she made good choices on both counts - not eating the shark's fin and discussing the reasons with her host. It takes self-discipline to stay true to what we believe in, and it takes courage to defend it. It may not achieve the result we hope for, at least not immediately, but it feels good knowing that we have done the right thing.

By the way, Hong Kong is the world's largest trader of shark's fin.


The Na'vi people driven away... by Confucius

This week, the authorities in China announced that the 2-D version of James Cameroon's epic would be pulled from most cinemas there to make way for the film Confucius. It could be because the popularity of the film Avatar, whose imperialist theme is a parable for Chinese people who are forced to leave their dwellings by local authorities to make way for new construction, has touched the nerves of the sensitive government. But more importantly, the state-backed film Confucius represents the government's attempt at filling the nation's moral void by reviving the traditional moral value which guided the people's thinking in much of the Chinese history. The irony of this is that the act of forcing off an immensely popular film and replacing it with an indoctrinating one is reminiscent of the human attempt at demolishing the Na'vi people's home in the film Avatar. Equally ironic is the fact that the very man and philosophy the film Confucius extols is the same one that the same regime (or so it seems) condemned in the seventies. It is hard not to be a little confuciused...I mean confused!


Who took these pictures?

Unless you have seen them before and know their background, you will find it difficult to believe that these incredible pictures were taken by blind people!

UK charity PhotoVoice encouraged sight impaired people to take photos using the technique called sensory photography - taking photographs without depending on sight but using one's other senses.

The revelation from these amazing products is that whatever our specific individual situations are, we are endowed with different natural gifts and potentials. Our greatness, or the greatness of our work, is a matter of how we believe in ourselves and put our natural gifts to good use. Most of us have good sight, but has it served us well? Or how about our other senses, including our sixth sense? Do we always use them, lose them or abuse them?



through spiraling leaves
comes man with a toothless smile
lovely hiking scene


The call of nature

When nature calls, one couldn't but respond.

These days, a lunchtime walk at the lovely hiking trail near my office is my favourite activity. I seldom make arrangements for having lunch with others. The magic of the walk would beckon and the I would comply. For how could one resist the invitation of the lush green surroundings, the birds chirping, the aroma of plants, and the fresh air? It's all so refreshing and invigorating.

That 40-minute walk gives me the energy and strength to cope with the challenges of the rest of the day.


Best Holiday in the World

"The best holiday in the world!" claimed the new advertisement all over the MTR carriages today.

To many people, this advertisement about a holiday in Queensland is not much of a surprise. When Queensland cleverly captured the world's attention by advertising a six-month job as caretaker of Hamilton Island as "The best job in the world" at the beginning of the last year, some people had quite rightly pointed out that it was one of the best advertising campaigns in the world. It is just a matter of time that Tourism Queensland came up with this advertisement which makes reference to Hamilton Island as the "office" of the best job in the world.

Every penny paid to Ben Southall, the Englishman who got the job, was excellent value for money, not only because it secured the service of a very bright young man but also because of the excellent advertising effect.

And that job may not have been the best in the world after all. Southall, who has recently completed the contract, said he had had to work for 19 hours each day for six months! He insisted that he enjoyed the job though.


Cultivate the garden of your mind

Robin S. Sharma's The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari talks about seven "timeless virtues of enlightened living".

The Symbol
The garden: a symbol for the mind

The Virtue
Master your Mind

The Wisdom
If you care for your mind, if you nurture it and if you cultivate it like a fertle, rich garden, it will blossom far beyond your expectation, but if you let the weeds take root, lasting peace of mind and dee inner harmony will always elude you

The Techniques
The Heart of the Rose - strengthen or discipline your mind by staring at the centre or the heart of the rose each day

Opposition Thinking - become aware that you are thinking uninspiring, gloomy or negative thoughts; every time that happens, replace those thoughts with cheerful ones

The Secret of the Lake - use positive images to influence the mind; visualise mental pictures of all that that you want to be, to have and to attain in your life

Some Good Quotes
"Most people live - whether physically, intellectually or morally - in a very restricted circle of their potential being. We all have reservoirs of life to draw upon of which we do not dream." -
William James

"When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all of your thoughts break their bonds: your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction and you will find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive and you discover yourself to be a greater person than you ever dreamed yourself to be." - Patanjali

"The price of greatness is responsibility over each of your thoughts." - Winston Churchill

"Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued. It must ensue. And it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself." - Victor Frankl

"There is no such thing as objective reality or 'the real world'."

"No matter what happens to you in your life, you alone have the capacity to choose your response to it."

"The quality of your life is determined by the quality of your thoughts."

"There are no mistakes in life, only lessons. There is no such thing as a negative experience, only opportunities to grow, learn and advance along the road of self-mastery."

"Stop judging events as either positive or negative. Rather simply experience them, celebrate them and learn from them."

"Begin to live out of the glory of your imagination, not your memory... When you learn to take control of your thoughts and vividly imagine all that you desire from this worldly existence in a state of total expectancy, dormant forces will awaken inside you. You will begin to unlock the true potential of your mind to create the kind of magical life that I believe you deserve."

"The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master."

"The boundaries of your life are merely creations of the self."

"...luck... is nothing more than the marriage of preparation with opportunity."

"The very fact that you have a desire or a dream means that you have the corresponding capacity to realize it... However, to liberate the power of the mind, you must first be able to harness it."

"The secret of happiness is simple: find out what you truly love to do and then direct all of your energy towards doing it."

"The best thing you can do for yourself is regularly move beyond [your comfort zone]."

"Discover your real reason for being here and then have the courage to act on it."

"Either you control your mind or it controls you."

"Thoughts are vital, living things, little bundles of energy... the quality of your thinking determines the quality of your life."

"You truly cannot afford the luxury of even one negative thought."

"...the mind works through pictures. Pictures affect your self-image and your self-image affects the way you feel, act and achieve."

"...your mind has magnetic power to attract all that you desire into your life."

"There is nothing noble about being superior to some other person. True nobility lies in being superior to your former self."


Fearless tennis

Dr John F. Murray, author of the book Smart Tennis, says in an article called Confronting Fear in Tennis that in tennis, fear is usually brought on by the possibility of making a mistake, appearing incompetent, or losing. The negative outcomes of fear includes dangerously high arousal, impaired concentration, reduced confidence, tense muscles, lost rhythm, indecision, expectations of failure, and lowered perceptions of control. According to Dr Murray, "the most threatening predator on the tennis court is often fear itself".

Here are some ideas suggested by Dr Murray to confront fear on the tennis court:

1. Forget about how others might see you. Your perceptions about yourself are most important.

2. Begin thinking like a winner both on and off the court. Frequently image what you would like to have happen while avoiding doubtful thinking about possible misfortunes.

3. Keep an active memory of times when you performed well and learn to eliminate memories of bad performances.

4. If you become afraid during a match, realize that your opponent may feel the same way. Focus concretely on what you are going to accomplish and then just do it.

5. Practice begining matches at 15-40, 4-5 in the final set. Learn to love this challenge. Maintain an aggressive style of play rather than becoming tentative.

These ideas are applicable not only for combating fears on the tennis court but also those in life. Wasn't my German friend I mentioned yesterday doing what the last idea suggested - taking fear by the scruff of the neck by choosing to do the very thing that gives you the biggest fear?


The only thing to fear is fear itself

In a letter a German friend of mine who now lives in Canada recently wrote to me, he said:

"I ask God for my birthday to confront me with all my fears so that I may challenge, heal, conquer .... them. There have been very many and probably there are still some left in my deep subconscious or even unconscious - it is said that fear is the absence of unconditional love - and so over the years many fears came up. Then last year one that I had forgotten showed up, namely getting in front of people and speaking publicly. So in October last year I signed up in our local spiritual church to speak..."

That is a very good strategy, one that I have been practising to some degree. As they say, the only thing to fear is fear itself. Robin S. Sharma says this in his book The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari:

"Identify the things that are holding you back. Are you scared of speaking or do you have trouble in your relationships? Do you lack a positive attitude or do you need more energy? Make a written inventory of your weaknesses. Satisfied people are far more thoughtful than others. Take the time to reflect on what it is that might be keeping you from the life you really want and know deep down you can have. Once you have identified what your weaknesses are, the next step is to face them head on and attack your fears."

He goes on to give some examples. Interestingly, the first one is: "If you fear public speaking, sign up to give twenty speeches."

I'll write to my friend to tell him that while he has made the right move, he still needs to given nineteen more speeches!


What is better - a free life or a captured life?

I always believe that elephants, like other wild games, are such majestic animals that it is only right that they roam free in their natural habitat. But add in the factor of humans and their greed and things become much more complicated.

The following photo shows slaughtered elephants in Zakouma, a 3,000 sq km park of central African avannah. In 30 years the elephant population in this habitat has shrunk from 150,000 to 550. Despite the worldwide ban of ivory sale, elephants are poached for their ivory, and most illegal ivory eventually makes its way to China.

And how about captured elephants? Whenever I go back to Thailand to see the elephant I once learned to care for when I served as a volunteer in the elephant camp some years ago, I feel that it is not right for her to be captured, separated from the family, sold, chained and made to work for humans. But she is safe, well fed and well cared for.

Or look at this baby elephant playing with sawdust in a zoo in Munich. After his mother has rejected him, he is now being bottle-fed and well taken care of by the zoo.

Maybe after human presence has destroyed their homes and their natural way of life, a life in captivity is the best alternative?


"You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased."

After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

While this scene has been engraved in my mind since I first saw the illustration in my primary school Religious Studies textbook, it didn't have any impact on me. Fascinating, I thought, He's the Son of God so He's entitled to something so extraordinary happening to Him, but what does that have to do with me?

As I mellowed, I began to see that it was not a spectacular show God put on to extoll a son He favoured but an invitation for us to follow His example. I began to reflect on what it was that made Jesus God's "beloved Son" - one with whom God was "well pleased". I began to realise that in Jesus we have a perfect role model of obeying God and serving others. By emulating Jesus we too can please God and become His beloved son.


The "Impossible Black Tulip"

No wonder Matteo Ricci was revered in China. This map he created more than 400 years ago showed the world with China at its centre.

The map, nicknamed the "Impossible Black Tulip of Cartography" because of its rarity, is the second most expensive map in the world. It was bought by James Ford Bell Trust in October last year for USD 1 million.

Talking about the second most expensive, I recently learned that the second most expensive painting ever is "Woman III" by Willem de Kooning. It was sold in 2006 for USD137.5 million - 30 percent more expensive than the most valuable Picasso and almost twice as much as the highest-priced Monet.


"The Cat Like Fish"

Being a cat lover, I naturally pay attention to artwork using cats as the theme.

I discovered this lovely piece in an art magazine in Malaysia. At first I thought it was a painting, but when I read the article, I learned that the work, called "The Cat Like Fish", is a piece of batik art. Batik is an ancient art form which involves the application of wax in dyeing fabric. While the artist, a Malaysian Chinese called Chuah Thean Teng, is well known for his batik art, it was, according to the magazine, a cruel turn of fate that led to him practising the art. During the 1940s, the batik factory that Chuah Thean Teng and his relatives closed down after only one year of operation because of stiff competition from Indonesia. In ordeer not waste the unused materials, he started picking up the art. The rest, as they say, is history.


Listen to the flowers

I remember how when I was in university there was the general concensus that when the azalea blossoms it was time for some serious study. The beautiful white, orange and magenta azeleas in full bloom in March were a timely reminder that we needed to prepare for the exams in April. However, as our weather is steadily warming, this 'alarm' system may not work anymore.

According to Leon Lau Man-chung, an arborist who conducts tree surveys in different areas of Hong Kong, plants are changing their growing cycle because of the climatic change. Some plants which usually bloom or sprout their leaves in Spring now do so as early as in December.

That's one piece of solid evidence of global warming. Another source of evidence is that six the 11 hottest years in Hong Kong history - 2001,2002, 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2009 (2009 is not quite offical yet as the Hong Kong Observatory has yet to confirm the average temperature for December) are in the past ten years, making the past decade the hottest one since the Observatory's records began in 1885.

Some people argue that there is no concrete proof that carbon emissions have led to global warming, the plants and the mercury are telling us otherwise.


Welcome back, and don't look back

Welcome back to Hong Kong

Where everyone's individual needs have to be ruthlessly served - thus the deadly efficiency, the swarm of people barking away on the mobile phone on public transport where the phone users' privacy and the other passengers' convenience are immaterial

Where there is, even in the brightest of days, a layer of greyness they poetically label as haze

Where everyone wears that expression of "I don't give a damn" on their faces

Where public announcements blast away in public places to give an impression that you cannot take care of yourself without the well-meaning instructions and guidance

Where tombstone-like tall buildings and their prices shoot up sky high

Welcome back, and don't look back


VIP treatment

The last day of the conference saw us visiting a school in Kuala Lumpur. Amazingly, during our trip to and from the school, the conference organisers arranged for a policeman on a motorbike to clear the way for us. It was quite remarkable to see the motorbike weave through the lines of cars with the siren blaring, the policeman directing the heavy traffic and beckoning our coach to follow in an animated way. It brought out lots of oohs and aahs and of course endless clicks of camera shutters from the mesmerised passengers, who no doubt were suddenly made to feel very important. We were like some sort of royalty or diplomats.

"It's a once in a lifetime experience - police motorbikes are usually behind us, not in front of us," I quipped and drew some laughters from my fellow passengers.


Supporting a family in Malaysia

In its column "Smart with Money", the Sun yesterday published the following analysis of the financial situation of a Malaysian couple with a little baby. Given that the GDP of Malaysia is USD8,118 (based on IMF figures in 2008), which can be converted to be about RM27,400 (Malaysia Ringgits) per person per year and RM2,280 per person per month, the combined monthly income of the couple, at RM9,000 is above average. Their financial situation may reflect the situation of a middle class family:

(Exchange rate as of today: 1 RM=0.3USD or 2.3HKD)

Income: RM9,000

Expenses: RM7,100
Food: RM1,500
Home instalment: RM1,300
Clothing and entertainment: RM600
Life insurance: RM700
Repayment of higher education loan: RM300
Utility bills: RM300
Quit rent, assessment and Ins. (?): RM50
Gift to parents: RM1,000
Car maintenance, road tax & insurance: RM200
Petrol & toll: RM500
Phone bill: RM200
Baby expenses: RM450)

Savings: RM900

Balance of income: RM1,000

It is obvious that the cost of living of Malaysia is much lower than Hong Kong. On a monthly income of about HKD20,000, the family can manage to have a mortgage and a car and raise a baby. A mission impossible for a Hong Kong couple.


Diversity is the key

There is another good way besides speaking to the taxi driver to offer a good look into the life of a country and that is to read the local paper. Regarding the issue of the multi-lingual capability of the Malaysians, here are some paragraphs extracted from an article entitled "Our diversity holds the key" in the Sun today:

"The fact that most Malaysians speak at least two languages is itself proof that every individual has the ability to communicate effectively in more than one language. But if we define "mastering" a language as having the ability to speak as a native speaker would, then I would say that this is an unrealistic goal to begin with. Malaysia has never been a homogeneous country and historically, the people have been open to foreign influences, in all our lifetimes, different communities have spoken various tongues in varying degrees of fluency..."

"Given our multicultural society, it may never be possible for us to fully 'own' a language. One may speak Malay better than English, another may speak English better than Mandarin while a third may speak Tamil better than any other tongue. Rather than continuing to suppress our diversity, we should consider promoting it..."

The writer was responding to former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's lament of the poor command of English among many Malaysians and challenged the notion that the country should choose only one language and stick with it. I totally agree with the writer that the linguistic diversity of the country, just like its cultural diversity, is something to be valued and protected at all costs.


Speak five languages? No problem.

My impression that the Malaysians speak good English is confirmed during my short visit here.

Two Malaysian Chinese friends I knew in Hong Kong gave me the impression. The English of one of them was so good that she was employed as a Native-speaking English Teacher in a Hong Kong school.

Here in Kuala Lumpur, anyone you meet in the street can respond competently when you ask him or her for directions. And the Malaysians who are well educated are even more impressive. Like the friend I just mentioned, they speak flawless native level English. I think this has a lot to do with the country being multi-racial, like Singapore, and English serves as a common language of communication that the people have to master.

Another advantage of the country being multi-racial is that the people are not only good in English but also multi-lingual. The other Malaysian Chinese friend I mentioned above was able to converse in English, Malay and three Chinese dialects - Cantonese, Putonghua and Fukienese. And this is exactly what I can see in some Malaysian Chinese I meet here.

In this respect, the Malaysian Chinese are like the Singaporean Chinese, but credits to them, they don't seem to be as snobbish as the latter.


It's the driver again

I remember my very first blog - my only blog in 2007 - was about what the driver said when I was in Xinjiang, China. A couple of weeks ago, I also wrote about what the driver said during our trip to Pattaya. Today I am writing about what the driver said on my way from the airport to Kuala Lumpur. Drivers always gives an interesting perspective of the place you are visiting.

This driver, on hearing that we spoke Cantonese, asked in perfect Cantonese that I was soon to learn he picked up through watching films in Cantonese: "Are you from Hong Kong?" And he went on to give us an interesting unofficial account of Malaysia from the eyes of a local Chinese. It is a country dominated by the Muslims, who seek to maintain their domination by importing Muslims from neighbouring countries such as Indonesia. While these immigrants serve to guarantee that the Muslims get the majority of votes in elections and to provide cheap labour in some industries such as construction, they also lead to more crimes. Another kind of imported 'labour' is women from China and they are engaged in what some people say is 'the oldest profession in human history'. The reason why these women are imported from China, is that as a Muslim country, Malaysia does not want its women to be engaged in prostitution, a sort of dealing which should lead to severe punishment according to the Muslim law.

Asked how common it is that the Chinese men here marry Muslim girls, he said that it is not so common as there are numerous commitments the man has to make, such as converting to Muslim, undergoing circumcision, and losing his family name in the next generation as his children will have to use his wife's family name, etc. Were it not for these various challenges, many Chinese men would have gone for Muslim girls, as they are more numerous (due to Muslim families typically having more children than Chinese families), more innocent and less materialistic than Chinese girls. "The Chinese girls here, like the Chinese girls in Hong Kong, look at how much money you make, whether you have a flat and a car," he whined.

He was spot on about Hong Kong girls, I have to say. Obviously, those Cantonese films he has watched has taught him more than just the dialect.


Late nights? No thanks.

Teenagers who go to bed late are more likely to have depression and suicidal thoughts, according to a recent research study.

The research conducted by Columbia University Medical Center in New York found that, of the 15,500 12 to 18-year-olds studied, those who went to bed after midnight were 24% more likely to have depression and 20% more likely to think about suicide than those who went to bed before 10pm, and those who slept fewer than 5 hours per night had a 71% higher risk of depression and 48% higher risk of suicidal thoughts than those who slept eight hours.

On average the teenagers were having seven hours and 53 minutes sleep a night - less than the nine hours recommended at that age.

Study leader Dr James Gangwisch said that a lack of sleep could affect emotional brain responses and lead to moodiness that hindered the ability to cope with daily stresses. This moodiness could affect judgment, concentration and impulse control.

"Adequate quality sleep could therefore be a preventative measure against depression and a treatment for depression," he added.

I am no teenager, but I am sure that the research findings apply to people irrespective of age. One thing I would like to achieve in 2010 is exactly to have enough sleep.


A resolution for the new year (and decade?)

One good resolution for the new year is to seriously examine "the seven timeless virtues" detailed in Robin S. Sharma's book The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. The seven virtues are represented by corresponding symbols within this mystical fable:

You are sitting in the middle of a magnificent, lush green garden. This garden is filled with the most spectacular you have ever seen. The environment is supremely tranquil and silent. Savour the sensual delights of this garden and feel as if you have all the time in the world to enjoy this natural oasis. As you look around you will see that in the centre of this magnificence stands a towering, red lighthouse, six stories high. Suddenly, the silence is broken as a loud creaking door at the base of the lighthouse opens. Out stumbles a 9 foot tall, nine-hundred-pound Japanese sumo wrestler who casually wanders into he centre of the garden. he Japanese sumo wrestler is almost totally naked. He has a pink wire cable covering his private parts.

As the sumo wrestler starts to move around the garden, he finds a shiny stopwatch which someone had left behind many years earlier. He slips it on, and falls to the ground with an enormous thus. The sumo wrestler is rendered unconscious and lies there, still and silent. Just when you think he has taken his last breath, the wrestler awakens, perhaps stirred by the fragrance of some fresh yellow roses blooming nearby. Energised the wrestler jumps swiftly to his feet and intuitively looks to is left. He is startled by what he sees. Through the bushes at the very end of the garden he observes a long winding path covered by millions of sparkling diamonds. Something seems to instruct the wrestler to take the path, and to his credit he does. This leads him down to road of everlasting joy and eternal bliss.

Here are the virtues and the symbols:

Virtue 1: Master your mind
Symbol: The magnificent garden

Virtue 2: Follow your purpose
Symbol: The towering lighthouse

Virtue 3: Practice Kaizen
Symbol: The sumo wrestler

Virtue 4: Live with discipline
Symbol: The pink wire cable

Virtue 5: Respect your time
Symbol: The gold stopwatch

Virtue 6: Selflessly serve others
Symbol: The fragrant roses

Virtue 7: Embrace the present
Symbol: The path of diamonds

These are virtues worth devoting one's time developing if one is to achieve "a life overflowing with inner peace, joy and a wealth of spiritual gifts".