Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Some Last Words

So, it's been a year. I bet you never thought I'd make it this far. I know I never did. This is the day it all officially ends. I could go on...but I said I would do this for one year. Sometimes it's good to put things into a receptacle, made of crystal, to hold it in, to contain it, as it were.

And so, with all my love, I say to all of you who came long for the ride (even if you never said anything, merely showed up on my site meter)...thank you. It's been an honour and a privilege knowing my words were read.

Though not just my words. Mostly other people's words as well. Which were so much more profound than mine.

I know this year has changed me beyond belief.

Fare thee well.

So the sea journey goes on,
and who knows where!
Just to be held by the ocean
is the best luck we could have...

Why should we grieve that we've been sleeping?
It doesn't matter how long we've been unconscious,
We're groggy, but let the guilt go.
Feel the motions of tenderness
Around you, the buoyancy.


Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Goodnight My Angel

Goodnight my angel, time to close your eyes,
And save these questions for another day,
I think I know what you've been asking me,
I think you know what I've been trying to say,
I promise I would never leave you,
and you should always know,
wherever you may go,
no matter where you are,
I never will be far away.

Goodnight my angel now it's time to sleep,
And still so many things I want to say,
Remember all the songs you sang for me,
When we went sailing on an emerald bay,
And like a boathouse on the ocean,
I'm rocking you to sleep,
the water's dark and deep,
inside an ancient heart,
you'll always be a part of me.

Goodnight my angel now it's time to dream,
And dream how wonderful your life may be,
Someday your child may cry,
And if you sing this lullaby,
Then in your heart ,
There will always be a part of me.

Someday we will be gone,
But lullabies go on and on,
They never die,
that's how you and I will be.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Ripeness is All

Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither:
Ripeness is all.

King Lear, William Shakespeare

Sunday, 13 May 2012

A Brief Snapshot in Time

I bellyache a lot about the time I was a PR, saying it was the job I was most unsuited for and the one which made me the most unhappy. I'm remembering the broad strokes, but luckily, I kept a blog, which captured moments, when I was actually, for want of a better word, happy.

All wrapped up in my little cocoon, reading Anne Sexton, writing speeches, sipping hot chocolate with whipped cream, I feel a strange tug in my belly. So here is what I wrote on September 8, 2007.

It gives you some idea. Of the time that was, the person I was.

I'm curled up in one of the armchairs, a mug of hot chocolate with whipped cream cradled in my hands, reading my Anne Sexton. My laptop stands open in readiness for me the write the speech-du-jour, but I'm lost in the words. All around me, there are meetings happening, interviews happening, people discussing business plans, a few chatting over a coffee.

Starbucks. My new home. My new office. I am alone. I feel part of the crowd. Pretty people. Sexton talking to me from the pages. I disappear into her words.

An hour later I emerge from the torpor and tap out a few words on my screen. No cigar. So I pull out a notebook and write out an affirmation. This is the speech I want to write. This is how long I want it to be. This is how long I want to take to write it. This is how I want it to sound. Got it? Good. I rewrite the affirmation a few times to drive home the point.

Then get back to the screen.

I need some music.

Out comes the trusty iPod. There's Michael Buble singing Home followed by Amici Forever's So Far Away. How particularly apposite.

The model nearby is showing his portfolio to an agent. She has brown streaks in her hair and looks like she was once a model too. Pretty. She asks him if he's attached and he hems and haws and pretends. Finally admits to a girlfriend in Thailand. He's told that he must, under no circumstance, betray that he is already girlfriended if he is to take this job. It would offend his fans. He seems obssessed with a particular Korean model called Rain. Turns out, his girlfriend is obssessed with Rain.

I glance at his vapid pretty face and wonder if he would have fans and if they would be so dumb. But yes, fans are undiscerning after all. Once they decide to obssess about you, they will obssess about you.

I should know. Look at my boss. Four appearances in a reality TV show, in which he never smiled, spoke stiffly and calmly jumped down the contestants' throat for a misstep, and he has acquired a fan base. He has a boyish face and he's pretty smart, but even he's disturbed and amazed at the reaction of these girls. (We stumbled on a chat site that has discussed everything from his eye colour to underwear size).

So anyway, fans will be fans. Empty inside and seeking to fill the emptiness with some idol's perceived perfection. Ah well. Haven't I done it like a million times myself?

Feet of clay, Hal my boy, feet of clay.

So anyway, now I have my affirmation set, I start tapping with purpose. The speech emerges on the screen. I read a few times, edit, and think it's time to give myself a break. A barrista has come up to clear the tables. I smile winningly at her and ask if I can just order from where I'm sitting.

Sure, Ma'am, she winks. I wink back. I love this place. My new office. A little expensive (you can't get a simple drink for under RM10 and my parking comes up to nearly RM20 when I spend the whole day there) but you know, you gotta give something, to get something.

So it's back to Sexton and I feel my heart twist and turn as I follow her words, without wine, without artifice, telling it like it is. My friends wonder why I'm so obssessed by this suicidal poet. I think, suicidal poet forsooth. She was a poet. And that's what matters.

I want to get a book of Lorca. And his In Search of Duende. Love. Darkness. Love. And the world spins on...

Then it's back to the computer screen. This time, I've got to look at my boss's comments to incorporate into the second speech. His speech. I do it in about 10 minutes. Then it's back to Sexton. In between, of course, I check my Facebook to look at the Status Updates and see what all my friends are up to and what new applications they have loaded. It makes me feel connected somehow. In between, I answer all the emails coming to me from the office. I edit what they ask me to edit, unearth old files they ask me to unearth and send on.

And I think, all you need is a wifi connection, some good coffee, your Facebook, a book of poetry.

Who wants my job?

Saturday, 12 May 2012

The Loony Files

I just wanna stop, and tell you what I feel about you babe....

I'm huddled in a corner crooning to myself when Steve shows up and eyes me nervously. He seats himself far away enough to be out of reach, but close enough for a conversation. He's disgusted, but he's fascinated. It's not everyday you meet a loony you used to know before they crossed over.

Mind you, even in those days, he suspected, he saw through me...yeah, I didn't take him in. Not for an instant.

I nod affably and go on singing. I pause for the sax solo and he cuts in.

"Um, hi Jennifer, how's it going?"

"Wonderful, couldn't be better!" I wink at him.

I just wanna stop. The world ain't right without ya babe...

"It's been awhile..." he pauses, unsure how to continue.

"So, did you lose your mind all at once or did it happen gradually," I chortle, filling in the blanks. He doesn't get the reference (Fisher King, in case you were wondering) and moves a little ways away.


Except that it isn't.

Not to me.

We loonies notice everything.


"So, are you supposed to be out here, all by yourself, with no one to..." he trails off again.

No keeper. No one to look after me. No one to see that I don't attack respectable citizens at the train station, with places to go, people to see, things to do.

"No, no one, no one at all. I lived in a bubble and it burst!" I'm laughing so hard it's difficult to keep singing. But I manage nonetheless. I'm a trooper, I am.

For your love...for your love...for your love...

Hold on, I switch off the smile abruptly, narrow my eyes and glare at the respectable citizen.

"How do they classify you? Human? Subhuman?"

Steve recoils. I have offended his delicate sensibilities. He wishes he hadn't started this conversation. Curse his compassionate heart! It ALWAYS gets him into trouble. You can't talk to these people.

"Look," he mumbles, "I have to go."

"No!" I bellow. "Human or subhuman? If you're classified human, you have in effect, been breaking the law. Hear that? The law? The Law? The LAW? Humans are not allowed to talk to subhumans. You know that, Steve, you of all people, know that!"

(I'm a nice person but it really makes me mad when people break the law)

Steve has moved off. And I'm screaming into the emptiness of the train station.

In Cape Town you're always looking away into nothingness which accounts for the sharp precarious beauty of the city.

In Lappland, you dive into the snow and it absorbs all your noise. And angst. And poetry.

It's 10 below now. Hot, by local standards. Step into the sauna to heat off. Then into the snow to cool off.

Blow hot.

Blow cold.

That's me all over.

They said that the subs have to be euthanised.

They said it was for the best.

They said no one would miss us.

The song has changed. I don't know this one. I sit quietly and wait for my song to come around again.

You see, I lived in a bubble once.

And it burst.

Friday, 11 May 2012


See thing is, I'm velcro.

And I've always been velcro.

It can be such a little thing, a trifle, a mere nothing. But it twinges. And then I start to make associations.

And so it goes.

And so it grows.

Until my belly is churning so badly if it were milk it would turn to butter.

And then war breaks out - there is screaming and insults and words so full of anger and hurt they burn right through my scalp.

If uttered in real life, they could kill.

If uttered in real life, everyone would know exactly how hateful I actually am.

And sometimes, I vomit them out before I can stop myself - whisky-flavoured bile, green pus, brimstone, crushed glass, rotten vegetables, rusty nails - it keeps pouring. And pouring.

How much vitriol can one body contain?

And then I turn it off. Freeze up. Absolute zero. (That's O Kelvin, not Celsius or Farenheit).

Now you have received the full measure of my hate you no longer exist. I command you to die. Never mind, even if you don't, I will act as if you did.

It's funny to think that I spent four decades, perfecting the technique. And that I thought this was normal. That to hate was normal. That to be interminably angry and cut people off, one by one, for the rest of my life, was somehow good.

Honourable even. Strong. Impenetrable. Fortress-like.

Har fucking har!

I don't know what happened to me when I fell sick this time around. I was comatose for most of the week. I relinquished among other things, my handphone, my will to live, my food, my friends, my stupid crushes, my need for something to happen to change all this around so I would be happy. I felt someone kicking me in the belly over and over again and I curled into a foetus and tried not to breathe.

It was dauntless.

It was unrelenting.

I wished I were dead.

I guess I had been digging myself deeper into the prison all this while and expecting a miracle - someone somewhere somehow would come along and rescue me. From me. Though how they were supposed to do that, only God knows.

Before I left Geneva, my friend Beatrix asked me to pick five cards. The first would denote the major problem in my life. The fourth would indicate the solution. The fifth, the way to the solution.

My problem? Living in the moment. I was too caught up in the past and the future to be in the present. Big deal. I'd heard that before. And frankly, I didn't know what to do about it. How do you change your hardwiring?

The solution? Rebirth.

Oh wow - that's great, that's really clear, that is. Rebirth. Die and be born again. Yeah, that would be a synch.

The way to the solution? Meditation. I didn't meditate. Instead, I fell sick. Much quicker and more effective.

So I died.

But I came back to life.

And things had changed. I couldn't find it in me to stay angry. Maybe there was no fight left in me. Something was missing, but whatever it was, I didn't want it back.

I wrote to tell Beatrix about it.

She said, illness as initiation, how interesting. And then she signed off to go on a five-day surprise birthday holiday with her husband.

And I thought, illness as initiation? Well why ever not? Nothing else had worked. For those like me, a mass of infected wounds under layers and layers of scab, nothing would, I guess.

I was velcro.

But I think I'm turning into teflon.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

The Other Mark

See, last time, when I said Mark, I meant this Mark, my favourite contact/friend of all time. I met him just before the financial crisis hit or we may have been partway through it by that time, interviewed him on boring things like the need for restructuring of the financial sector, and somehow, despite this, became friends, good friends.

This is the only personality profile I did of Mark and it was in conjunction with his book, World of Risk, which was published in time for the millennium. I liked the story, so here it is, one of the last few on this happy blog. Thank you Addy, for making this possible.

TRANSCENDENTALIST philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote in his essay "Circles": "Beware when the great god lets loose a thinker on this earth. Then all systems are at risk. It is as if a conflagration has broken out and no one knows what is safe or where it will end...."

He might have well been talking about Bain & Company (Asia), Inc managing director and "World of Risk" author Mark Haynes Daniell, who grew up in New England, home to the Transcendentalist movement in the mid- to late-1800s, and himself a thinker set loose to shake the foundations of the systems in place.

Daniell can't help himself. As a strategic consultant, it is in his blood to constantly seek a better, more efficient way of doing things. He has been living in Singapore for the past three years with his Italian ex-ballerina wife Ivana and two sons, Vinci, 14 and Christian, 6, having arrived in Asia two weeks after the July 2 1997 baht devaluation.

It was to him the most interesting point in Asian history, from a strategic consultant's point of view at least, and planted the seeds for his book "World of Risk".

"The book really came about as a result of the Asian experience starting in 1997 up until my writing the book. Until the crisis hit Asia I had never done a lot of writing or public presentations."

He said the book was built up from a series of articles he did for the Asian Wall Street Journal and an in-depth article in the Singapore Economic Bulletin on the crisis.

Publishers John Wiley and Sons, having heard Daniell speak and seen some of his articles told him that if he would like to write a book, they would be happy to publish it."And so with no manuscript and a one-page table of contents, I signed a contract to deliver a book in six months, not something I would recommend anyone with a full-time job and family."

He began writing in early 1999 and as he read up on such things as the "global architecture" and the management of challenges and crises, he began to see that although there was a lot of thoughtful analyses out there, there were no clear answers.

"I sat back and thought about what is happening. We live in a global world, we now have global crises. The economy is global, the Internet is global, crime is global, environmental crises are global, the poverty gap is global, cultural risk is global.

"Despite this, we don't have global solutions. We don't have institutions that function effectively, we don't have collaborations between institutions that function effectively and the Asian crisis in particular struck me as being an archetypical example of a larger problem.

"As President Clinton says, we have gaps in the global architecture. The nation state is too small to solve problems on its own while the international institutions like Asean are very weak in their ability to create bold strategies and implement them and the international institutions like the IMF (International Monetary Fund)
clearly don't get it right all the time and are often underfunded and too narrowly chartered to solve the problems."

His 20-year background in strategic consultancy came into play here. "It was clear that there was a need for a better approach and a clearer plan to drive change, to drive response to problems and to create a better global architecture to allow us to put our best resources into play in the best possible way to achieve the biggest
possible result.

"To create change in the dynamic global systems that have acquired a lot of momentum in the wrong direction is going to take a lot more effort, a lot more alignment, a lot more coordination, a lot more focus, a lot more vision and a lot better leadership than we are currently getting today."

"World of Risk" describes the problems, offers a state-of-the-art model of a global strategy and then applies it to existing social challenges. These are the economy, disease, crime, terrorism, the environment, cultural risk, the cyber world and the
poverty gap.

"What we see in the literature is identification of fault lines between civilisations but no prescription as to how to build bridges over the chasms or buffers between colliding continents.

"So what I've done in the third part of the book, in the applications, is to specifically set out alternative visions in these eight areas and to propose some specific initiatives that we could pursue to build a better and safer world for the next generation.

"It's really a very high level global strategy in the broader sense of the word, it is about global affairs, about restructuring what we have to make it work better in a very practical way," Daniell said.

And how has the book, which has only been out a couple of months, been received? Daniell said other than making various bestseller lists in Asia and the UK, it has also been picked up by some state leaders and actually sold out at the participants' section in Davos, Switzerland, this year.

"There are now two prime ministers and two deputy prime ministers who have actually had conversations about what it (the book) means," he said.

One of the most popular parts of the book has been the final chapter which contains a "message of hope" for the future. "As I wrote the book, something unexpected emerged from my thinking that was not part of the original outline. It was really that not only do we have what you could call gaps in the global architecture, but also gaps in our personal architecture."

Daniell pointed out that the old institutions of the church, family and state, to use the Western trilogy, have seen a great deal of erosion."The family is breaking down in a lot of areas, the church is playing a far less significant role in the lives of my generation than it did in the past and the state is no longer capable of making people feel safe or even eliciting respect.

"Given the situation, a lot of people have been severed from the notion of real purpose in their lives and you might call that gaps in the personal architecture."

However, despite the grim prognosis, Daniell does believe that people can make a difference in a positive and meaningful way. "By engaging in a process of building a better world, I believe we can not only fill the gaps of the global architecture but also those in our personal architecture and provide a sense of value, meaning, belief and purpose.

"So it's a message of hope that in that effort we will recover a better part of ourselves and find a sense of purpose, of belief and of value which will hopefully really make us better people."

He pointed out that it is important for people not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of challenges but to pick just one issue and take just one action at a time that will start to create exponential increase in the amount of effort that goes into overcoming these problems.

"Every person can make a difference. It's what George Bush called a thousand points of light. When a thousand points of light come together in a coherent way, you can illuminate a much better path forward. You CAN make this a better world. And that's what the book is really all about."

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

A Long Night's Journey Into Day

I wrote this for Management@Work. I thought I should include it here as this blog wends its way to a merry close. Well, not to a close. But I won't be updating it every day, that's for sure. Anyway, here is the story of David Ong, Reapfield Properties' founder and CEO. See if it inspires you.

David Ong, the founder and president of Reapfield Properties Sdn Bhd, is a soft-spoken man. He considers each word carefully and his conversation is punctuated with references to God. He started Reapfield from scratch and it has since weathered two economic crises to become one of the largest real estate agencies in Malaysia. Ong sees storms as a way to build character. And he is remarkably candid about his own personal storms - the adversities he has endured - which made him what he is.

In 1974, he failed his Form Five examinations, fell in with bad company and started taking drugs. Very quickly, he went from smoking cigarettes and ganja to shooting up heroin. His parents were devastated. His father was the chief store keeper for United Engineers, which at the time was an old-fashioned Scottish engineering company; his mother, a homemaker. They were quiet, simple people who worked hard and tried to do their best for their children. They couldn't believe what was happening. A year later, a welfare officer came a-calling to tell them that their only son needed help.

Ong was admitted, kicking and screaming, into a detox ward at the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital. "An addict lives a life of lies, deceit and denial. I told them I was not addicted and that I didn't need any of this. But they insisted on keeping me there anyway. By that night I was suffering from one of my worst withdrawals ever. I even considered climbing out of my room, which was on the fourth floor, and running to the nearest pusher. But there was barbed wire on the windows. I guess they were used to dealing with addicts," he says, wryly.

He was sobbing in pain by the time a nurse took pity and called a doctor. The doctor gave him a sedative and from then on, he was continuously medicated. When Ong was released, he was physically over the addiction. But his feet automatically found their way back to the nearest drug pusher.

"It's like a monkey on your back. Even after detox, you cannot leave it alone.

For four years, Ong went through a series of rehab clinics. One was run by a gangster chief who threatened to beat him up if he relapsed. But fear was not a sufficient deterrent. Psychiatrists blamed his environment and advised him to get away from it. He tried.

Eventually, Ong gave up hope. "At one point I told a friend that I lived an addict and I would die an addict."

His mother, however, refused to give up. "That is the beauty of a mother's heart. She kept asking around, calling for help and finally uncovered a proramme in Singapore. The meeting was at the Salvation Army headquarters in Singapore and when I stepped into the room, I saw six men seated around a table. They told me that they each had served time in Changi prison. Some of them had been gangster chiefs. Others had been put in for criminal breach of trust. They shared with me how Christ had transformed their lives. I remember whispering a prayer in my heart, 'God, if you're really real, please show me.' They led me in what is known as the 'Sinner's Prayer'. When I finished, I felt a surge of joy in my heart. It was something out of the ordinary and it went on for hours. Happiness was just bubbling up inside me," he recalls.

Ong had a packet of cigarettes on him. He took it out and handed it to Ramalingam, the ex-gangster chief who had organised the meeting. "I said, 'Here. I don't think I'm going to be needing this anymore'."

Naturally, that was not the end of the story. But finally, jos feet were on a sustainable path. And he didn't relapse. Ong stayed with a church leader in Singapore for a month. When he came home, he enrolled in a Christian rehabilitation programme. He moved into a special house known as Joe's Corner in Section 11, Petaling Jaya, with other recovering addicts. And stayed there for two years.

"I needed to do this. An addict's life is one of great indiscipline and I had been involved with drugs for four years. Here, I had to surrender my rights over my time. I couldn't do whatever I wanted. I had to follow the schedule set by the house. We had chores and assignments. We studied the Bible. It brought about a great change in my character and gave me the discipline I needed to get on in life," he says.

Ong was 24 when he got out, and ready for a fresh start. His first job was as a clerk in a company that supplied building materials where he earned a princely sum of RM250 a month. After three months, he found he could not survive on the salary and started looking around for something else.

"I saw an ad for a car sales rep. Although I had no experience and they did not provide any training, I decided to try it. During that time, I saw an article in a local newspaper that said Communism was no longer the No 1 threat in the country; drugs were. I reasoned that if God could help me overcome the No 1 threat in the country, surely He could help take care of my career," he observes.

Ong was earning five times what he had as a clerk. But he realised he would not be able to go very far in that industry without training. So he went on to try other things. He sold forklifts for a while and later went into partnership to do home renovations.

Then in 1984, when his parents' neighbour moved out, she needed to sell her house and asked his parents if they could help find an agent. "I had two friends in church who were estate agents. When I asked them for help, they said they would get the buyer and I could represent the seller. The house sold for RM155,000 and soon, I was holding a cheque for RM3,100 for doing close to nothing. I thought wow, this seems like a good way to make a living. And that was my introduction to the industry."

Ong never joined a real estate agency. Instead, he felt his way around, picked up what his friends were willing to teach and in 1984, set up Reapfield Sdn Bhd. "The name was just two random words from the Bible. Many parables talk about harvesting and others talk of fields. So we put these two words together and that's how the company came about."

A year later, however, Malaysia was hit by a major recession. "The market was so bad that we could no longer afford the rent. I started working from home and my partner and I went our separate ways."

Ong struggled to make ends meet while the recession ran its painful course. In 1987, things began to pick up. He was invited into a partnership called PTL Realty. "I was with them for about two years. I decided to join them because these guys had more experience in real estate. I had hoped the partnership would last but partnerships are never easy. So in 1989 I came out and reactivated Reapfield."

He found a fully furnished office in Damansara Jaya on the third floor of a building, which was going for the modest sum of RM500 a month. "I stood in front of this very nice office and there was nobody there, just me and my wife, Serene, and we would have to start from scratch all over again."

He began to develop a team and by 1990, he received his first big break in the industry. "I was invited to a presentation by a US real estate company based in Singapore which wanted to bring its franchise into Malaysia."

The franchise in Singapore was headed by Harry Chua who, through collaboration with the US company, had built ERA Singapore into the leading property company on the island state. Ong was intrigued by what he saw. "The power of association is very important. Basically, it's who you mingle with. I was invited to their annual dinners, shown around their systems, exposed to their training. And after that, I was introduced to people from the US."

He began to learn that there was much more to the real estate business than he thought. "At the time, this was not a profession that people either respected or looked up to. They used to joke that if you wanted to look for an estate agency, it was either a basement ofice or in someone's home."

Reapfield made the most of this association and between 1990 and 1997, it grew from one office to three offices. Then came the Asian financial crisis and things got crazy. "The Ministry of Finance put a freeze on loans above RM250,000 and interest rates shot up to 14.5%. We were carrying a portfolio of properties and this really affected our business."

Every month, Ong had to figure out how he was going to meet payroll. "I prayed for a miracle, some big deal that would take us through, but there was a voice telling me to just take it one day at a time. There were some big deals I was looking at and although I came close, they always seemed to slip through my fingers at the last minute. My wife, who has always handled the finances, told me that money would come in and then go out just as fast to pay our bills."

It would have been easy to give up. But he was now captain of a ship and there were many people depending on him. "I focused on my work and refused to become disturbed emotionally. And when I look at Reapfield's financial records today, I see that we grew at an average of 20% year-on-year from 2000 to 2010. That was the miracle. We think miracles are supposed to be immediate - 'give it to me and give it to me now.' But this kind of stretching is better.

"What I like to remind my people is that smooth seas don't make skillful sailors. Adversity builds character. Without it, we would be feeble and weak," Ong points out.

Today, Reapfield has 14 offices in Malaysia, most of them within the Klang Valley.It has over 900 sales negotiators and has won the Malaysian Institute of Estate Agents awards for the past three years.

Ong's past has shaped not just him but his company's philosophy. "We believe in integrity, honesty and trust. Our mission statement for many years has been to honour God. With a mission statement like that, there are some thigns you don't need to ask me if we'll do. If it's a grey or dark area, I will say no. It's not negotiable. We are here for the long haul and we try to walk our talk."

This means that there are sometimes painful encounters if any of the staff is detected in doing something they should not be. "I have people who have stayed with me for over 10 years. But I also have people who leave quickly because their values are different. They were caught because of customer complaints and then I tell them,'This is wrong and if you want to continue doing this, we have to part ways. I do not want to have to make a police report, which will be messy'."

Because character is such an important part of his organisation, the company runs a "Character First" programme for its staff, where they delve into a different positive character trait every month. "There are 49 traits, and first, the staff watch a video by Tom Hill, the founder of the movement, talking about that particular trait. Then, we have something called character recognition where we pick a member of our staff and tell them why we recognise them for that particular quality."

Through the years, Ong has had many mentors - when he was in rehab and after, when he was in business. Perhaps one of the most significant is an American businessman, Dwight Hill. "In 1994, someone called me and asked if I would like to meet this American guy based in Singapore. My friend said, 'Don't worry, he doesn't want your money, he just wants to invest in men' lives'.

"So I met this man who was 20 years older than me and we struck up a relationship, meeting once a month for about four years. He was a rather unusual man and would ask things like whether I had ever thought of slowing down, and whether after 10 years of marriage I was still dating my wife, and what about my three daughters? He said if their names were not in my organiser, they were not important to me."

This was a revelation to Ong. Before, he thought life was about working harder, but now he was learning that less is more and that the richest people are not the ones with the most money but the best relationships.

"At first, I felt very strange taking my daughters out for one-on-one time. But I realised that it meant a lot to them. They thought, 'Daddy is so busy but wow, he has time to sit with me in a restaurant and give me his full attention'. Today, my daughters are grown up but we are still fairly close."

His eldest daughter Christine, an accounts executive at the digital media company Integricity, agrees: "At first, we had to get used to it. We hadn't done this before and we had been a little afraid of Dad. In this more relaxed atmosphere, I found it easier to just talk to him and tell him things. The conversations were not father-daughter, but friend-to-friend."

Having gained so much from mentorship, Ong tries to pay it forward. He mentors young men in the same way Hill mentored him. "I try to be authentic and tell them the good, the bad and the ugly. People appreciate honesty. We live in a world that's too shallow and there's a cry in people's hearts for real connection. They have real issues. Do you? Nobody dares to talk about it."

One of the young men Ong mentors is Jeff Ong (no relation), the CEO of Reapfield Technologies Sdn Bhd. Jeff talks about how David coached him when he was 22 and encouraged him to move out of his comfort zone and take a chance.

"I was 22 and deeply unhappy in my job. I like messing about with technology and David encouraged me to leave my job and start a technology company with him. Although he is a property, rather than technology guy, he does his best to impart his business experience."

In addition, Ong spends time with people in Christian drug rehab centres. "I do some one-on-one mentoring with leaders of these rehabs. Oftentimes, the leaders of these NGOs do not have a sparring partner.

"They need someone who will put up a mirror to their lives and show them their flaws. Can imagine living a life without mirrors? And yet many times we journey without human mirrors, someone who will say, 'Hey can I tell you this so you will become a better person?'"

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Angel Unawares

Next time you pass a source of light, pause and look at it carefully. There are angels hovering around it like moths. And you'll know there are angels because there will be a pause in the ever deepening darkness around you, like someone cut in, distracted you, and suddenly, just like magic you're focused on something else.

Something totally different.

Sometimes, the angels even come when you forget to call.

And the light sources are never what you think. No, not that fluorescent hovering above you. Not the yellow lamp pulsating benignly. Not the candle in all its mellifluous effluence.

None of that.

Sometimes it's a dog.

Sometimes a person. The kind of person you don't notice because they are not insecure enough to be conspicuous. The kind of person who has a walk-on role in your life, and in the space of that minute, you pass them, you feel better, you're indebted, but you don't know who you owe.

And that's the way it's supposed to be.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Abundantly Free

I saw this on Yahoo news yesterday and just had to post it here. Since I skimmed through How To Be Free by Tom Hodgkinson, people like these have held more of a fascination for me. I live in a materialistic world and can't go for breakfast without spending more than RM10. And that too at the mamak. And I'm sleepy now, and there's no water (a pipe burst and gradually all our water dwindled and nobody, not even us, thought to call Syabas and report it, fondly imagining it was just another water cut and the water would be up and running a few hours later like it always was...five hours later and it wasn't so I called and this was the first they'd heard of it. I mean to say, what?)

Daniel Suelo is 51 years old and broke. Happily broke. Consciously, deliberately, blessedly broke.

Not only does he not have debt, a mortgage or rent, he does not earn a salary. Nor does he buy food or clothes, or own any product with a lower case "i" before it. Home is a cave on public land outside Moab, Utah. He scavenges for food from the garbage or off the land (fried grasshoppers, anyone?). He has been known to carve up and boil fresh road kill. He bathes, without soap, in the creek.

In the fall of 2000, Suelo (who changed his name from Shellabarger), decided to stop using money altogether. That meant no "conscious barter," food stamps or other government handouts. His mission was to "use only what is freely given or discarded and what is already present and already running," he wrote on his web site, Zero Currency.

The question many people wonder: Is he insane, or a mooch, or simply dedicated to leading a simple, honest, dare we say, Christ-like existence?

They're good questions. And depending whom you ask, the answers vary.

Suelo wasn't always a modern-day caveman. He went to the University of Colorado and studied anthropology, at one point considering medical school. He lived in a real house, with four walls, a window and a door, and shopped in stores, not their dumpsters.

But over time he says he grew depressed, clinically depressed, mainly with the focus on acquisition. "Every time I made a resume for a job, signed my name to a document, opened a bank account, or even bought a banana at the supermarket, I felt a tinge of dishonesty," he said.

He was born into an Evangelical Christian home in Grand Junction, Colo., and took his religion seriously. Eventually, he started wondering why "professed Christians rarely followed the teachings of Jesus--namely the Sermon on the Mount, namely giving up possessions, living beyond credit and debt--freely giving and freely taking--giving, expecting nothing in return, forgiving all debts, owing nobody a thing, living beyond payback of either evil-for-evil or good-for-good, living and walking without guilt (debt), without grudge (debt), without judgment (credit & debt), living by Grace, by Gratis, not by our own works but by the works of the true Nature flowing through," he said.

Although he considered himself a Christian, he discovered that the same principles applied to Taoism, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, Mormonism, Shamanism, and Paganism.

One year he went to Alaska and worked on the docks. But that, too, he says, felt dishonest. Instead, he and a buddy decided to live off the land—spearing fish, foraging for mushrooms and berries. (Think Castaway, but with snow). Suelo (which means soil in Spanish) eventually hitch-hiked back to Moab with $50 in his pocket. By the time he arrived, his stash had dwindled to $25. He realized that he only needed money for things he really didn't need, like snacks and booze.

He began toying with the idea of living full-time without money. He traveled to India, and became fascinated by Hindu Sadhus, who wandered without lucre and possessions. He considered joining them, but then he realized that "A true test of faith would be to return to one of the most materialistic, money-worshipping nations on earth, to return to the authenticity profound principles of spirituality hidden beneath our own religion of hypocrisy, and be a Sadhu there," he said. "To be a vagabond, a bum, and make an art of it - this idea enchanted me."

And soon, that's exactly what he did. He says he left his life savings—a whopping $30—in a phone booth, and walked away.

But he didn't do it in a vacuum; he maintained his blog for free from the Moab public library. Rather than just sitting on a mountain and gazing at his navel, he wanted to have an impact on others, to spread his gospel.

In 2009, Mark Sundeen, an old acquaintance he'd worked with at a Moab restaurant, heard about Suelo through mutual friends. At first, "I thought he must have lost his mind," Sundeen, 42, said in a telephone conversation. But then he began reading his blog, and grew intrigued. Sundeen divides his time between Missoula, Mont., and Moab, where he was once a river guide, and he paid a visit to Suelo's cave.

Gradually, he said he realized that much of what Suelo was saying made a whole lot of sense. This was right around the time the economy crashed, and "It felt like a lot of what he was saying was prophetic," said Sundeen. "That money is an illusion, an addiction. That resonated with me after the collapse for the economy."

Sundeen was so intrigued that he decided to write a book about Suelo, The Man Who Quit Money, which was published in March.

While the book reviews have been generally positive, Suelo has come under fire by some who say he's a derelict, sponging off society without contributing. They are valid criticisms: This is a guy, after all, who has gotten a citation for train hopping (what would Jesus say about that?). And he's not opposed to house sitting in winter--not exactly living off the land.

And besides: How is he actually helping others by going without? It's not like he's solving world hunger, or curing cancer.

Sundeen disputes these arguments. "He doesn't accept any government programs—welfare, food stamps, Medicare," he said. "The only ways in which he actually uses taxpayer funded derivatives is walking on roads and using the public library. So in that regard he's a mooch--he's using the roads and not paying taxes. But if you try to quantify the amount of money he's taking from the system—it's a couple of dollars a year, less than anyone's ever used."

Instead, he is actively promoting "his idea that money is an illusion," Sundeen said. "The Fed just prints it up, it doesn't mean anything and it's going to lead us down the road to serfdom." Suelo simply doesn't want to contribute to that, and so he lives life on his own terms.

That said, Sundeen wouldn't live the way Suelo does. "The appeal to me is the living outdoors part, but I feel like I got my feel of that working as an Outward Bound guide," he said. "At this point I have other priorities."

Suelo, for his part, has no plans to bring money back into his life. "I know it's possible to live without money," he said. "Abundantly."

Sunday, 6 May 2012

A Tale of Three Muketis

One day Adel told us how she came to be wearing a nose stud. Being Adel, she had us in stitches until we were rolling all over the floor in Devi's Corner, clutching our tired stomachs.

Anyways, fast forward a few years and I have this blog and I think I want to tell the story here. So Adel and I meet for dinner. And the following conversation ensues:

Me: Why did you decide to get a muketi?

Adeline: Simply. (laughs) No, no, I’ve always wanted to get a muketi. I think it looks nice and attractive, gives someone that additional edge…but I didn’t dare do it for a long long time, obviously because I’m Cina and got a flat nose, right? So it was no, no, no, no, no and then one day I’m like, just screw it and do it ...that’s it lar, that’s why I got a muketi.

Me: OK, how did you go about screwing it and doing it?

Adel: OK the first time I did it was back in (my) kampong. I just went to one of those jewelry stores in the shopping mall. So just went there and the lady marked the spot with a marker pen, took the gun out, chose the stone and just hit the nose. And then just one teardrop (flowed down). Damn painful, OK? Damn painful.

So my mother said, happylar now? So I was very smug and happy and it was swollen for a few days, then I kept it for some time. But the thing didn’t go through all the way. It was a very short muketi and it kept coming out. When I started diving again after some time and I had to press my nose to equalize (the air between my nostrils) that thing kept coming out. At that point Sree was still diving with me and she used to get really irritated and say, Adel, the muketi is out, put it back again.

(sounds of raucous laughter from interviewer and interviewee)

Adel: So it kept coming out in the boat and stuff like that. So that was it. And after a while I was like, forget it, so I just took it out and threw it away. So that was (both together in sing-song voice) muketi number one.

Adel: There story of muketi number two was in Pakistan. I was there for work, work, work and as you know in Pakistan, every woman has a muketi, right? I was like, OK, I think I should do it here. They seem professional enough. It was painless. Painless! You won’t know that they’ve done it, OK? So, so easy. You just go, you just pick whatever you want…and I picked a very fine one. What they did was rub some alcohol on your nose, and it was like a long, well, it’s tiny but it’s longish and they just twirl it at the back of your nose, that’s it. So they pierce it through and just twirl it. So that was muketi number two. When I came (home) to Malaysia all my friends said, wah, you are so brave to get a muketi done in Pakistan. You don’t know what level of sanitation there, blah, blah, blah.

So muketi number two. I kept it for a while. I can’t remember for how long but it was very tiny and it was red in colour and then when I came back to KL, a friend of mine said, come, let’s go to Little India, in town. So I said, OK, just went for fun. She had gone to get her earrings changed, or whatever. So I followed her and I saw this guy selling muketis. So gatal-lar. Went and asked, 'Uncle, uncle, how much, how much everything?', and he said, 'You want to do it, can.'

So I got it done, there and then. He took out the old muketi, snipped the top off, (me cringing in alarm: aiyo!). Adel (hastening to reassure me): No, no, it’s not painful. It’s all entangled at the bottom so there’s no way to remove it except by cutting off the top. So he cut it off, threw it off, no pain, then he put this in. I chose the stone.

Now this one (pointing to muketi presently on nose) has a longer story. Because Cina nose a bit fat, right? (we both laugh)

And I already had muketi number two. So I was thinking that OK, muketi number two already there, all you need to do is replace and put the new muketi in. But no, you see, this one (pointing to present nose stud) is fat. The other one was thin, maybe the same size as a toothpick. So, I was thinking to myself , go there, just put the other in, no need to pierce through. I was wrong. It was like a fresh piercing. But in my mind, it was like, nolar, it’s just like exchanging your earrings, I mean how painful can it be, right?

Totally (painful)! He removed it (my old nose stud), he put the new one in, just a little bit of alcohol, he pierced through and I criedlar. As in my eyes turned red and my friend Yoges was like, ‘Are you OK? Are you OK?’ And I’m like, ‘Don’t talk to me, don’t talk to me, pain, pain.’ So screw it (this is a screw-on ah, so screw it, paid Uncle, thank you very much, went home)

A bit shylar, because I was the only Cina girl there. You know in Little India there are all these little Indian jewelry shops, right? All these ladies with these fat fingers, buying their gold and diamonds and all that. And there’s this Cina girl sitting there in the corner and crying and her friend asking her over and over again, are you OK, are you OK? Nose swollen, saying, OK let’s go.

That was the funny part lar, and the embarrassing part.

The next day was a Saturday. The first thing I did was wake up and feel for the muketi. It was not there. (Me: What????) Adel: The muketi was not on my nose, where it was supposed to be. It was on my pillow, away from my nose. It dropped, because fat nose. The nose is fat, right? It screwed on right but it didn’t go in all the ay, because my nose was so swollen. And me like a dungu. I mean I knew it was swollen, it was painful, right? And I panicked because I was thinking that freshly pierced, if you remove it, the hole will close. And my friend was telling me, the hole will close quite fast. The nose is different from the ears.

So here I was in the morning, didn’t brush teeth or anything. Just put on my glasses and tried to put the muketi on and couldn’t do it because by then my nose was so painful and so swollen and so tender, so I was like, ‘Shit! What the hell am I supposed to do?’, right?

So that’s it, lar. I got up, showered, drove all the way from Subang to Little India, went to the shop, told Uncle, here, see, you pierced for me (of course he remembered me, right? Not every day some random Cina girl comes to do a muketi) and he said, 'What happened? And I told him, and he said, oh, very easy. You have to pay a bit more and I will extend the muketi for you.' So he went to the back and did his magic. Basically, extended the stem to make it a bit longer. Then he pierced it through and there was another round of tears, then I went home. And he told me, after a few days, when the swell has gone down, come back and I can shorten it for you.

But I have NEVER gone back since.

Me: You must have really wanted a muketi if you were willing to go through all that to have it.

Adel: Yes, so now I only remove it, clean it and put it back on.

Me: And what does your grandmother say?

Adel: My grandmother? Well, she’s got Alzheimer’s, you know right? Every now and then when I go back she will come and say, 'oh cantik ah, batu kilat-kilat? Bila buat?'(Oh how pretty, that shiny stone. When did you do it?) And then she will ask me how much and all that. And five minutes later she will ask me the same question. So every time I go back, she will ask me at least two or three times, 'oh itu batu cantik, kilat-kilat, bila buat? Berapa ringgit?' (How much) So she will ask those sorts of things lar.

Me: So, berapa ringgit?

Adel: I can’t remember now. It’s been six, seven years since I had this muketi number three. It’s diamond. Maybe about a few hundred? I can’t remember. I mean, I really, really can’t remember how much it cost now.

But one funny story is, a few years ago I had this problem with my nose as in I couldn’t smell. I had very bad blocked nose and it’s not a sinus thing so I had gone to see the doctor and my father swore it was because of the muketi. And I had the whole works. I went to see an ENT, I even had a head scan. Basically it was nothing to do with the muketilar. It’s basically, I’ve got crooked drains. So when it’s aggravated like when I got flu or inhale very bad fumes and all that, it just blocks my sense of smell. So it was nothing to do with my muketi.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Your Heart Will Lead You Home

I absolutely love this song, maybe even more than (and this is sacrilege) Return to Pooh Corner. I think the message is one we need to hear from time to time.

Sunny days and starry nights
And lazy afternoons
You're counting castles in the clouds
And humming little tunes

But somehow right before your eyes
The summer fades away
Everything is different
And everything has changed

If you feel lost and on your own
And far from home
You're never alone, you know

Just think of your friends
The ones who care
They all will be waiting there
With love to share
And your heart will lead you home

Funny how a photograph can take you back in time
To places and embraces
That you thought you'd left behind

They're trying to remind you
That you're not the only one
That no one is an island
When all is said and done

If you feel lost and on your own
And far from home
You're never alone, you know

Just think of your friends
The ones who care
They all will be waiting there
With love to share
And your heart will lead you home

There'll come a day when you're losing your way
And you won't know where you belong

They say that "home is where your heart is"
So follow your heart and know that you can't go wrong

If you feel lost and on your own
And far from home
You're never alone, you know

Just think of your friends
The ones who care
They all will be waiting there
With love to share
And your heart will lead you home

If you feel lost and on your own
And far from home
You're never alone, you know

Just think of your friends
The ones who care
They all will be waiting there
With love to share
And your heart will lead where you belong
I know your heart will lead you home

Friday, 4 May 2012

When Nayati Came Home

So we spent the whole week with this picture pasted everywhere; petrol stations, shopping centres, lamp posts with signs screaming "Kidnapped!" or "Abducted!".

Briefly, Nayati had been on his way to school in the posh Mont Kiara area. As he lived close by, he was walking as usual. It was about 7.30am, and there was traffic on both ends, just an ordinary day. Except that it wasn't. A Black Proton Gen 2 (which was later discovered to have been stolen) drew up alongside and a man got out the car and pulled the boy in. Right in front of Chubs's apartment. He said it couldn't have been at 7am as they had said earlier or he would have seen the commotion when he left for work.

Nayati's father appeared on the national news channel appealing for the return of his only son. He was willing to do anything, pay anything and not even make a police report. They just wanted the boy safe.

I have to tell you, the fate of kidnapped children in Malaysia is generally not good. The kids are usually pulled in the child porn rings and used until death. Or used and then killed. But most of these kids who had been kidnapped before had been poor. There would have been no hope of ransom money. The one thing this kid had going for him was that his father, an expatriate was well-off. So maybe, there would be a ransom demand. Anything was better than finding the boy discarded in some drain.

The thing went viral. Not just in Malaysia but all through the world. His picture appeared everywhere. A cute kid, his wistful smile touched so many hearts. People prayed, sent good vibes to the boy and the parents. Every time I got into the car I would feel a sort of twist in my heart. And I would say, God keep him safe. Make some miracle happen. Let him come back.

I don't know why he touched so many people. Just that he did.

His classmates at the Mont Kiara school held a candlelight vigil. They plastered his picture up and down the street. They plastered his picture everywhere. Along with the mobile numbers of his Indian father and Dutch mother. And an email address.

I don't think the kidnappers knew what hit them.

And they must have been eager to get rid of the boy. A ransom demand was made. The father paid. And in the early hours of Thursday, roughly a week after he had been kidnapped, the boy was dropped off at Rawang with a handphone. He called his dad. His dad came to get him.

This is the picture his Dad tweeted when the boy got home. Hugging his little sister.

And here he is, reunited with his classmates:

His father wrote a blogpost thanking everyone for their support. He could not release much information as the police was on the trail of the kidnappers, except that the boy, though traumatised by the whole thing, was fine. And he said he hadn't expected the kind of support the family had received from people they didn't even know from far flung corners of the globe.

But all this has been merely for background. I wanted to tell you what happened last night when I went to Backyard to see my friend Marcel. Albert was playing. Busy the whole day trying to close my section, I hadn't logged on to Facebook and learned of the news until evening. And I let out a whoop. I was overjoyed. I texted Marcel who had invited me the day before to Backyard where he would be going with his friends. I said at first I didn't think I could make it. I didn't know what time we were going to close (we did at 7pm which is way early). Now I had something to celebrate. Now I wanted to celebrate.

When I got there, it seemed that the jubilation was universal.

"The boy is found," Marcel told me, not bothering to specify which boy. There had only been one boy for the past week. "Our first toast was to that."

"The boy is found," said Albert, later when he had finished his set. "Do you know the story?"

I told him what little I knew. Which was not much. But we were both smiling. Of all the things that might have been...the boy was found.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Highbury Tales

Today, we have a guest blogger. I met Isaac on assignment...I was headed out to Penang for an interview and he was the accompanying the cab over there, on the way to China House (which the cabbie hadn't heard of) I heard about how he ended up a PR...he had started out as a software engineer...but when he won the trip to Highbury to see Arsenal play and wrote up his experiences for the advertising agency, he got two simultaneous job from Grey Advertising and the other from Tiger Beer. I mean, how cool is that?

I asked him if he would send me what he had written and he graciously agreed. And so here it is. And here's Isaac with Matt Lucas (of Little Britain fame)

By Isaac Lee Mathew

On the 3rd of April 2006, my day started just like any other day; get up for work circa 7:45 in the morning, get to the office by about 9:15 for long day of work. You see, I work as a consultant for a Malaysian IT firm, which means that my job pretty much revolves around doing testing, documentation, training and basically servicing support requests from clients. Little was I to know what was in store for me that day…

It about 10 AM, I received an unexpected phone call from someone from Asia Pacific Breweries (APB) telling me that I was short-listed as a winner of the TigerFC/ESPNstar contest sending me to watch Arsenal’s final home match!!! At first it was sheer disbelief and shock at having actually been short-listed…this doesn’t happen to us “normal people”. Besides informing me of my candidacy for the prize, she also wanted to find out if I could leave in two days time (Friday) to England for Sunday’s match.

Could I?? I would answer a resounding yes. Nothing was going to stop me from seeing my team in action. Our short conversation was ended on a high note as she said she will confirm with me shortly. A second phone call from the same lady followed a short while later to confirm that my passport was in order for the trip to England.

The third call came from a certain Mr David Lim, who was the Senior Brand Development Manager for APB in forming that I had indeed won the prize and as such, would be going to London for the auspicious final match @ Highbury!!! That moment will forever be etched in the back of my mind as one of my happiest ever. I was going to HIGHBURY!!!

The next 2 days were a flurry of phone calls and last minute preparations for Thursday night’s flight to London. I learned that there were 2 other winners, one also from Malaysia and the other from Singapore.

I had actually graduated in London in 2003 and worked there for a short while, so it wouldn't be my first time there, but boy was I looking forward to going back to Ye Olde England. My flight would be at 11.40 pm from KLIA direct to Heathrow Airport, London.

Fast forward to 10.00 Thursday night and I’ve just checked in @ KLIA for flight number MH0002 to Heathrow. I’m sitting @ McDonalds with my family enjoying a late meal and still wondering to myself…how did I manage to win this amazing opportunity of a lifetime!?!? Many an Arsenal fan would give his left arm to get a chance to go to visit the hallowed ground at Highbury and here I was, going there for their last ever home game. Would they win their last game at their historic ground? Would they be able to overhaul their bitter rivals Tottenham in the race for the coveted 4th spot? Would Thierry Henry stay with the club that brought him from being a relative unknown at Juventus to (arguably) the world’s greatest striker? Well, most of those questions would be answered in the course of the next 4 days, and I would be there!!!

Anyways, I boarded the plane with 15 minutes to spare and found myself seated to this charming English lady by the name of Kate. She is a property salesperson operating out of Islington and was just returning from a surfing holiday to Bali (transit in Malaysia). We talked about many things, in particular football (but of course), London and South-east Asia. I was glad that not only did I have company for the 13 hour flight (yes, there’s a TV with tonnes of programming, but it does get a little tiring on the eyes after a while), as I was definitely too excited to sleep. In the end, I did manage to get maybe 2 hours of sleep.

We arrived in London early Friday morning (5.05 to be exact). Going past immigration was a breeze and I soon found myself in the Arrivals hall, awaiting pick-up by a representative from the organisers. While waiting, I managed to locate the other Malaysian contest winner. We had checked in and boarded the airline separately at KLIA, so this was my first time meeting Mr. Francis Lye.

We were there for about 10 minutes when I spotted a burly man holding a placard with our names. I introduced myself and he told us he was a cab driver tasked with picking us from the airport. We followed him to the car park, onto his cab, which was a Fiat Ulysse and thus began the 45 minute ride to central London. The weather was very pleasant (as far as England goes) and it was a good thing we arrived as early as we did, because we managed to beat the traffic jam into London. We may be on our dream holiday, but the rest of the world still has to work on Fridays J

Day One – Welcome to England

We arrived at the Cumberland hotel at Marble Arch after a pleasant journey at 6.15am and proceeded to check in. However, there weren’t there weren’t any rooms ready as our check–in time was at noon. We left our luggage with the concierge and proceeded for an impromptu tour of the surrounding vicinity. Because our hotel is so central, I was pretty familiar with the area around it from my university days. There was so much to see the moment you step out of the hotel, and we went to Oxford Circus, which is like the centre of the shopping district, and just up the road from our hotel. We also went to Trafalgar Square, took pictures outside the National Gallery, walked through Hyde Park and went by Leicester Square (and Chinatown). Phew…all that in the first 3 hours of arriving there.

At 11.30, we returned to the hotel to check in and meet up with our host for the duration of our stay, Mr. Neil Callaghan. We also met with the other competition winner, a Mr Shi Min. After a quick briefing on our itinerary and getting our tickets (including THE ticket to Highbury) over light refreshments, Francis and I checked into our respective hotel rooms. The rooms were well furnished and pretty luxurious with all the amenities expected from a four star hotel and then some. After check in, all of us gathered in the lobby for lunch and the tour.

We had decided during the briefing that we would want to go for the Highbury tour on the first day and have the London tour only on Monday (essentially a swap), as the football ground would not be open come Monday.

As such, after a hearty breakfast at the PrĂȘt-A-Manger (excellent sandwich and coffee joint) next door, we hopped on a cab to Charing Cross Train Station, where we got on the London Underground, more commonly known as the Tube (using the Piccadilly line) to the Arsenal station. When we arrived at the station, we were pleasantly greeted by long mural depicting the milestones and highlights of Arsenal’s illustrious past. After a 2 minute walk from the station, we could already see the grounds. It was a beautiful, steeped in history. Although not the biggest stadium, it still looked imposing as it rose above the surrounding buildings (residential mainly). We were finally here…at Highbury!!

There were already many fans milling about snapping pictures at every opportunity as even though there was no event today. After taking bucket loads of pictures ourselves, we proceeded to the Highbury gift shop for an hour long session of souvenir shopping. Although, there were still tonnes of merchandise to purchase, a large number of the high-demand items were sold out in anticipation of the upcoming game. Nonetheless, we managed to score some excellent deals and the store personnel were most helpful.

After purchasing our merchandise, including jerseys, photos, trinkets and other keepsakes we proceeded to the Arsenal museum for a short history lesson on Highbury and Arsenal. While there wasn’t a lot of exhibits, those available were very intriguing indeed, most notably Vieira’s autographed jersey and boots from the FA Cup final last year (his last penalty kick of the game secured the trophy, but it was also his final action in the club colours). Although we didn’t get much time to wander around the museum (due to it being about to close for the day), it was still an enlightening experience from a club with a rich historical heritage.

From Highbury, we proceeded back to the hotel via the Tube again to get freshened up before we headed to the Haymarket area, near Soho for drinks at a trendy bar called Tiger, Tiger. There we met up with some of our host, Neil’s colleagues and shared a good laugh over some bottles of Tiger while chatting over everything from work, sports (not only football, mind you), girls J and so on.

After about an hour, we departed from Tiger, Tiger to a nearby Indian restaurant, called Soho Spice. The cuisine there was excellent, with my Chicken Tikka Masala having the perfect combination of spice and flavour to go along superbly with our Tiger beers. After the scrumptious dinner, Francis and Shi Min wanted to get some rest in anticipation of our trip to Birmingham the next day. I however was still excited about being in London, and wanted to meet up with some of my friends from my days as a student at the University of Greenwich.

As such, after getting a cab back to the hotel for the other two, Neil and I went to meet up with my friends at Zoo Bar in Leicester square. I hadn’t seen them in almost 3 years, but it felt like only a couple of months as we were soon talking and joking about the old times and catching up on the new ones. After a few more drinks (Tiger, of course), and an “interesting” bar top dance by some of the other patrons, Neil and I left the bar for other engagements. Neil was going to meet some mates, whilst I was going to meet an old friend from Malaysia, Adrienne who was currently working in London.

We met up at about 10:30 in Leicester Square and went to Haagen Daz for some drinks (non-alcoholic for a change…J). We had a great time catching up and ended up talking till past midnight. At about 12:30, we finally parted ways and I took a long walk back to the hotel, remembering the times gone by. Honestly, I really miss the life in England…

I finally reached the hotel at about 1.30 and needless to say, slept like a baby through the night.

Day Two – Birmingham Fight Club

On the second day, we were scheduled to go to leave for the train station to Birmingham at about noon. As such, we spent most of the morning shopping and taking pictures nearby the hotel. At 11:45, we took a taxi to the Euston train station, where we boarded the 12.37 train direct to Birmingham International for the Seni Exhibition.

The Seni Exhibition is basically a yearly martial arts exhibition, which also happens to be the largest in Europe. With Tiger beer as the main sponsor to this event, we were given VIP passes for the duration of our sojourn to Birmingham.

Anyways, after a 1.5 hour long journey, during which we got to see much of England’s countryside, we arrived at the Birmingham International station, which is unique in that it’s attached to the Birmingham Convention Centre at one end and the Birmingham International Airport at the other. A very strategic location indeed.

We were met at the station by 2 representatives of Tiger Beer UK, Graham Charlton and Bennett Neo. From there, they took us straight to the convention centre, which was actually in the same complex as the station. There, we were given the opportunity to have a look around the exhibition area and see martial art equipment as well as live demonstrations. After that, we had a photo opportunity with the martial artist/actor, Gordon Liu (Jia Hui), who has starred in many Eastern and Western movies, including the Kill Bill movies. I also managed to get him to autograph my exhibition programme.

We then proceeded via cab into the heart of Birmingham city, where we walked around for a bit before having an early dinner at a stylish eatery known as Zinc. The food there was excellent, blending English cuisine with Mediterranean flavour. I especially enjoyed the carpaccio appetiser which was served there. After the delicious meal, we stopped by some other bars like Wetherspoons and Vodka Revolution for some beers (and vodka shots) before heading back to the exhibition centre for the main event, Pain and Glory.

When we arrived, we entered the arena, and were pleasantly surprised to find that we had rind side seats for this martial arts fight night. The event started off at about 7.30 and we were treated to 10 separate bouts featuring proponents from the mainstream martial arts disciplines like K1 kickboxing, muay thai, boxing and MMA (which is kinda like grappling).

The fights were mostly very evenly matched, with the best match-up being a muay thai bout between 2 very even opponents, Micheal Showers and Richard Cadden, which lasted all 5 3-minute rounds before ending in a well deserved draw for both sides.

Whilst going for a drink break, I managed to meet Danny John-Jules, a veteran British TV actor, known best for his time on the sci-fi comedy classic, Red Dwarf. He was a very friendly chap and was more than willing to pose for a photo opportunity with us.

Back to the fight night, the main event was a K1 bout between an Englishman and Japanese contender which was pretty brutal and was finally won by the Japanese exponent, albeit by a slim margin. Overall, it was a very entertaining evening and I was glad to have gotten the opportunity to witness this unique event. We left Birmingham at about half past 11 in Bennett’s SUV to head back to London.

Besides a short stop for coffee and refreshments, our 2 hour long trip to London was uneventful and we arrived back at almost 2. After a long and eventful day, sleep was a most welcome companion.

Day Three – Henry Is King, Arsenal Wins…A Fitting Tribute, A Fond Farewell

Ah, the day we’ve been waiting for has finally arrived…Highbury beckons!!! After a hearty breakfast and a little bit of morning shopping (yeah, can’t seem to stop buying stuff), we got on the Tube to Highbury at about 11.30. Because we were Hospitality guests, we were expected at the stadium by 12-ish to have lunch and an address by some notable Arsenal fans.

When we arrived, the stadium was already buzzing with excited fans, media and police alike. The police were maintaining a cordoned off walkway to the stadium for ticket holders only and once within the cordon, there were hundreds of Arsenal fans in full gear milling about, sampling commemorative merchandise, posters, and so on. The atmosphere was already so lively, but there was still more to come. We made our way to the South Stand entrance, where we were taken to the Hospitality lounge and the Mezzanine suite. The suite was done up very nicely with Arsenal-themed table numbers, napkins, drinks and so on. We were served refreshments before a 4 course meal with our choice of red or white wine. The meal was great, and so was the camaraderie between all the fans in the suite. They also presented all the hospitality guests with a miniature Highbury replica as a memento of this momentous day.

At about 2 o’ clock the guest speakers, Matt Lucas and Ian Poulter took centre stage. For those of you not in the know, Matt Lucas is the creator of the comedy series Little Britain and a livelong Arsenal supporter. On the other hand, Ian Poulter is a fellow sportsman, albeit in the arena of golf. However, his Arsenal supporting credentials should not be questioned, as his support of this great club include wearing the maroon home jersey at the Abu Dhabi golf championship earlier this year. They engaged in some entertaining light-hearted banter for a good 20 minutes before ending the session.

At about 2.25, we were all ushered out of the Mezzanine suite and to our seats via the South Stand reception. We had great seats, smack in the middle of the West stand, where we were able to catch a very central view of the pitch. There was also a commemorative T-shirt for the last match @ Highbury taped to our seats along with a request to wear the t-shirt for the entirety of the game. This is because there were both red and white t-shirts placed in alternate columns of the seating so that when all the spectators wore their shirts, the stands would be draped in Arsenal’s red and white colours. A novel approach and an effective one at that.

Both the Arsenal and Wigan players were already on the pitch warming up and practicing shots and passes. The atmosphere was amazing as once the fans started to come in at about 2.50 pm, the stadium was filled with a buzz. The buzz reached a crescendo the moment the announcer started commentating about the upcoming match and introducing the teams from either side. Needless to say, both Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp received the loudest cheers as Arsenal captain and their longest-serving player respectively. This match would also be Bergkamp’s final competitive match for Arsenal, with the possible exception of perhaps the Champions League final in Paris on the 17th of May, so he was given a fitting round of applause when his name was announced. They don’t call him the Dutch Masterclass for nothing.

Anyways, after the team announcements were made, the game started to much fanfare and anticipation. Seated at the West stand, we got to see a lot of the midfield action, with Arsenal’s central midfield and wingers proving a constant threat to Wigan. The wall of sound coming from the supporters was deafening, especially from the North End. Clearly, we all wanted a goal fest from Arsenal and we didn’t have to wait long. In the eighth minute, Pires scored a goal in the confusion at Wigan’s goalmouth. Add to that the fact that news had been trickling in about how Tottenham, our hated derby-rivals were a goal down to West Ham, and Highbury was in raptures.

That however was not to last very long. Wigan weren’t planning on letting the Gunners just waltz in and take all 3 points. We were going to have to work for it, after Paul Scharner scored off a David Thompson free kick in the Arsenal half. To make matters more frantic, they doubled their score in the 33rd minute with another early free kick from David Thompson finding the goal. The shot was taken early and as such caught Lehmann unawares as he was organising the defence. However that is of little consolation, in a must-win match. Could King Henry press his youthful troops to stage a comeback? Why, most certainly yes, as Henry himself raced clear on his favoured left flank just 2 minutes later to score a vintage Thierry goal. This was the lifeline Arsenal needed to get back into the game, and the game went into half-time at 2 goals apiece. However, news that Tottenham had equalised at Upton Park before the break also was a cause of much consternation among the Highbury-faithful. The positions could not have been more finely poised, even if they were scripted. A nail-biting second half awaited us.

I’m not sure what Arsene Wenger might’ve said to the players in the dressing room over the break, but when they returned, they seemed to have more purpose about them. Maybe it was also us fans, who had been rallying and chanting ever louder in support of our beloved club. They took control of the match and the midfield was breaking up Wigan’s strafing runs with greater authority now.

However, our third goal came out of the blue about 10 minutes into the second half. David Thompson, who had been the architect of the two away goals thus far inexplicably performed a back pass to no one in the 56th minute, and you do not make that kind of mistake with Henry lurking around. With consummate skill and pace, Henry collected the ball, rounded the keeper with unbelievable ease and slotted the ball home to send the stadium into a frenzy of songs not only praising Arsenal and our talismanic captain, but also taunting Tottenham (can you see us, can you see us Tottenham!!! J) . Arsenal’s comeback was complete in the 76th minute when Ljungberg was brought down in the penalty box allowing Henry to slot home the resulting penalty and complete his hat-trick. After that, he bowed down to the ground and kissed the pitch, a fitting farewell perhaps. The game ended at 4-2 to Arsenal and minutes later, when it was confirmed that our rival from White Hart Lane had lot to West Ham, our celebrations were complete, as we had clinched the final Champions League spot.

The atmosphere was sublime and this being my first English football game, it was an eye-opener, especially to the traditions of the club as well as their bitter rivalry with Tottenham. When watching the match on the TV in Malaysia, you miss out on so much of the Arsenal experience. I will definitely remember this day for a long time to come.

After the match, there were a number of presentations and performances, including a marching band, a tribute song sung by Roger Daltrey from the Who, and a tribute to former Arsenal/Highbury legends such as Charlie George, David Rocastle Ian Wright and so on. Besides that, there was a presentation highlighting Arsenal’s achievements throughout the years as well as the evolution of the club crest. Also, Henry was presented with the Premiership Golden Boot award, which is given to the most prolific EPL striker every season. What was interesting is that most of us in the crowd though that he would also sign his club contract extension, which has been the cause for much speculation in recent weeks. Lastly, Arsene Wenger led us all in a countdown to set off a fireworks display during which streamers also rained down from each of the stands. Goodbye Highbury, we will miss you dearly.

After the game, there was a sea of currant, red, white and the occasional yellow/blue as the fans streamed out of the stadium and into the Tube stations. Because I’d stayed on a little longer then the rest of the competition group, it was almost impossible to get to the station with all the traffic. As such, I walked to Finsbury Park (the next station) along with what must be thousands of fans and took a bus to Angel station. There I boarded the Tube to Gloucester Road where I had a pre-arranged appointment to meet my aunt and uncle there for dinner.

They met me at the Tube station, which is just a stone’s throw away from their apartment and we walked down the road to an upmarket Italian restaurant for dinner. They were very excited about the match, especially since they purchased an apartment in Highbury Square (the apartments which will be built in the Highbury stadium). We had a good meal, talking about family, work and the like. After dinner, I adjourned to their apartment for a brief tour of the place before hopping on a bus back to Marble Arch.

It was an eventful day, and I don’t think anyone of us could’ve wished for more. Long live Arsenal.

Day Four – Can I Not Go Home?

It has been a great 3 days and as they always say time flies by when you’re having fun. Today was the first day where we had typical English weather. Read: Rainy. Nevertheless, there was last minute souvenir shopping to be done (some of my co-workers would never forgive me if I returned empty handed) so we braved the rain. We checked out before leaving for lunch and left our luggage with the concierge.

For lunch, we met up with Neil at his office and went to Garfunkel’s for lunch. We had a most filling meal there, before going for a short walk around Trafalgar Square the surrounding area. It was there where Neil bade us farewell and left us to see London at our leisure.

We walked around Piccadilly Circus, Bond Street and found our way back to Marble Arch. Along the way, we made a long stop at Lillywhites, a sports warehouse kind of store where we picked up a lot of sports gear, Arsenal or not. When we finally arrived back at the hotel, I recharged my camera for a bit before going out for one last romp around the parks in the vicinity to take more pictures.

When the cab came at about 645, we were pleasantly surprised to find out it was a Mercedes E-class. Now that’s being ferried about in style. Anyways, we reached the airport within about an hour and checked in without a hitch. Before our separate flights, we said our goodbyes and exchanged contacts so that we could keep in touch. The plane touched down in Malaysia at about 5.15pm on Tuesday.

It was good to be back, but one can’t help missing Highbury.