Monday, September 29, 2014

GST

In the past few months, friends and business acquaintances have asked me quite regularly regarding the Goods and Services Tax (GST) which will be implemented beginning from 01 April 2015. Their questions revolve around the [possible] negative impact on the property market. Apparently, there are concerns of escalating property prices resulting from developers passing on the burden of the GST to the consumers.

I have glanced through some articles on the GST, and what I've discovered was that it's a confusing subject. I read some parts a few times and still found them not so easy to understand. I'm not sure if that's because I'm not an accountant. I've therefore decided to attend a one-day seminar next month in my attempt to get a better idea about how this GST thing works. Surely the subject can't possibly be more difficult than Level 677 of Candy Crush Saga? I mean, I've been stuck at that forsaken level for about 2 weeks now!

Notwithstanding the above, however, I find it interesting how people react to the impending 6% tax. The question is that even if indeed developers pass on the 6% tax to the consumers, would the resulting rise in property prices cause hardship to the latter? In order to answer this question, we will need to look back at past trends in the property market. There lies the answer to the question. And here, I would limit the scope of my observation to the property market in Sabah, although I suspect the same is also true for the rest of Malaysia.

In the past 5 to 10 years, the banking industry in Malaysia had been very competitive. During this period, the market saw the gradual fall of interest rates. And even if base lending rates (BLR) have been fairly stable, banks were adopting the concept of "BLR minus" for loan applications. What happened was that hardly any bank actually adopted the actual BLR. Instead, what they did was to minus some percentages from the BLR. In the end, the actual lending rates were kept low. The banks also came up with other strategies to make the loans more affordable, such as extending the loan repayment period so that the monthly installment would be kept low.

In most cases, housing is a necessity, not a luxury, and the vast majority of people would rather buy their own house instead of renting forever. What I've noticed was that price wasn't really an issue in the end. For as long as the intended buyer could get a loan from the bank, he is likely to commit to buy his dream house. After all, if he did not buy, he would have to pay rent anyway. And if he did not buy soon, the price will go up even higher in the future! Hence it's almost silly not to buy! As a result, the last few years saw prices soaring like never before. The appreciation in prices was mostly a double-digit percentage growth; and at any rate substantially higher than the 6% that consumers are suddenly so worried about.

My view is that a bigger factor that can affect the property market is the banking policy in Malaysia. Since the banks have become stricter in giving out loans about a year ago, there was an obvious drop in the volume of transactions in the property market, though there is yet no clear evidence of declining property prices. You see, when banks become stricter in lending, lesser people would be able to afford the ever-increasing property prices; and lesser people would speculate on property market. This will in turn result in a chain reaction—sales will become slower; developers may delay launching new projects etc. 

Effective demand, which is heavily dependent on banking policy, is a bigger factor in setting the trend of property prices. The effect of the 6% arising from GST, though may cause a shift in the equilibrium, is not a significant factor; at least not as significant as that of the banking policy. If the banks suddenly become lenient again, and people can easily qualify for loans as before, a much higher rise than 6% in property prices wouldn't stop people from buying. At least that's what could be observed from past trends.


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Winning A Lottery

My friends, Hana Harun and Felice Huang, ran the Toyko Marathon earlier this year. They both achieved their respective PBs, and they came home with a lot of good things to say about the event. Apparently, it's a well sought-after race, and because of its popularity, it's not easy to enter. Unlike many other marathons in the region, the organiser of the Tokyo Marathon had introduced a lottery system where interested runners were required to submit their names, and then chosen randomly at a later date. There were a few others within our circle of friends who had submitted their names, but only Hana and Felice were successful.

I was told that a limit of about 30,000 runners had been set for this year, but the organiser announced recently that more than 300,000 people have submitted their names to run the race. The race had in fact been oversubscribed by more than 10 times!

A couple of months ago, when the Tokyo Marathon opened for registration, a few of us from KK decided to try our luck. I've never been to Japan, and I reckoned that if I could get a slot in the Tokyo Marathon, it would be a good opportunity to spend a few days to tour the city. 

Those of you who've been following this blog would know that I'm not a very lucky chap when it comes to this sort of things. I've attended many, many events where lucky draws were on offer, and as far as I can remember, I only won once in a dinner party—I believe it was a fancy digital camera. But as fate would have it, I had already left the party when my name was called, and that camera was eventually given to someone else! So I guess I did not really win that lucky draw after all!

Now what's the odds of getting my name picked for the Tokyo Marathon? And beyond that, what's the odds of my friends' names getting picked too? Bear in mind that there's a less than 10% chance of it happening. Although I jokingly said to my friends that I was confident to be picked, the truth was that it seemed like a hopeless case!

That's why I was pleasantly surprised when I received an email from the organiser 2 days ago, informing me that I'm in. I thought that was quite amazing. But little did I know that there were several more surprises in store. One by one, my friends received emails from the organiser too, informing them that their applications to enter the race have also been successful! So now I guess it's time to start looking into flight options as well as booking hotels etc.

This would also mean that I will be spending my Chinese New Year holidays next year in Japan. I was told that hotels cost a bomb in Tokyo, so perhaps I should start saving from now. But the most dreadful thing is that I'll have to go back to serious training again soon. The thought of running and running and more running; the waking up in the wee hours of the morning over the weekends—Oh! I shudder just thinking of all those! This will be another PB-hunting mission!

The hole that's gonna appear in my pocket; the torture of the training; the wee-hour sleep that I'll have to sacrifice. Yeah, sure, my name has been picked. But how come I don't feel like I've won?


Friday, September 26, 2014

A Different Era

The recent case of an 8-year old boy that did not do his homework as reported here. His teacher tried to punish him by pulling his ears, but he tried to escape. Unfortunately, he lost his balance and fell down, knocking his head on the edge of a table, thus causing injuries that required several stitches.

The story quickly spread through facebook and Whatsapp, and of course as usually is the case, some sick people began twisting the facts, for the sake of, well, twisting the facts. Maybe they get their kicks by causing an uproar, and then watch in amusement how people would over-react because of them! 

And then in no time at all, the photos of the kid went viral and everybody, though not knowing the truth of the matter, became excited for all the wrong reasons! Police reports were lodged; inquiries commenced by several parties; heck, even a Yang Berhormat weighed in with his valuable opinions. Thankfully, however, the case has been resolved quickly.

Such is the nature of schooling life in this modern age. Except in some very isolated cases, kids are immune from punishments for their wrong-doings. It's because of the fear of abuse of our kids that there's that tendency to over-react. Teachers will have to be very, very careful with how to punish naughty or lazy students but remain free from serious repercussions from parents and the authorities.

I come from a different era, and it's interesting how much things have changed from all those years ago when I was still an 8-year old kid in school. Unfortunately, I wasn't an exceptional student then—in fact, I was a lazy bum and hardly ever did my homework. I was therefore one of those kids frequently subject to punishments from my teachers. They ranged from caning to something mild like standing throughout the whole 40 minutes of the class. But some of the teachers were quite creative; I was made to stand on one foot the whole 40 minutes. I sometimes smile to myself when remembering my typical school days when I was young.

However, things were different back then. Instead of reporting those punishments to my grandparents (I was living with my grandparents at the time), I was careful enough not to tell them. Otherwise, I would get even more beatings from my grandparents! I would gladly let it rest, live another day of being a naughty kid in school, and perhaps get more punishments while at it!

You see, parents of those good old days had a lot of faith in the educators. Whenever their kids received punishments from their teachers—and some of those punishments were quite severe—the parents had full trust in the teachers, and that those punishments were absolutely necessary! That's why it's a bad idea to report any punishments to the parents, because the parents would usually support the teachers instead of their kids.

It's amazing that kids these days are practically immune from punishments, because over-reacting parents can cause hell for their teachers. A different era, a different approach, but basically the same old naughty students.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

UPSR—A Different Kind of Test

The case of the leaked exam question papers of the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR), of which my daughter is one of the 470,000 victims. I must admit that I’m a little pissed off, as are many other parents, based on this article in The Star.

I find the suggestion by one of the affected parents, Saiful Bahri Ab Rashid, very interesting; he said the Education Ministry must investigate where the leaks occurred and only pupils from affected schools should have to resit the papers. Looking at the matter as a daddy, it’s very tempting to agree with Saiful Bahri.

I’ve been through a similar situation some years ago when I moved back to my hometown, Kota Kinabalu. You see, I spent 13 years of my working life in Brunei. I qualified as a Chartered Valuation Surveyor while I was in Brunei, and when I relocated back to Sabah, the Board of Valuers, Appraisers and Estate Agents, Malaysia insisted that I should go through the Test of Professional Competency again. So for the second time in my life, I went through the same test—in the Malaysian context. It was a painful process that took up over 2 years of my life, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I did try, however, request to be interviewed without going through the process of recording the practical experience (again), but the Board would not hear of it! Anyway, I went through the test and eventually became a Registered Valuer. I wanted to be able to stand in a crowd of professional valuers in Malaysia, and proudly claim that I’ve been through the same qualifying standard that they did.

My view is that the UPSR exam is not worth very much these days—certainly it is worth hardly anything in the job market. In fact, even the SPM cert is not worth much in the job market. But we are talking about integrity here. There will always be a stigma that my daughter might have had the benefits of leaked papers in her UPSR. Whether or not she did enjoy such benefits is not so important; the fact that the papers leaked may come back to bite her many years from now. It’s frustrating, annoying, and downright a waste of time, but it is absolutely necessary for everyone to resit the leaked papers, period.

This is not the first time we've had leakages in exam papers in our national education scene. All the other major national exams, including the SPM and STPM have suffered similar fate in the past. And this reminds me of the time when Mia sat for her CLP many years ago, passed it, and then had a major blow when it was announced that the exams had to be cancelled because someone tampered with the results.

One has to wonder how leakages are still happening up to now, and my view is that this, one way or another, is a reflection of the competency of the people in the Malaysian Examinations Syndicate. But an even more disturbing fact is that the leaks are now happening in the UPSR exams, thus indicating the Malaysian obsession in producing straight-"A"s students. It is almost like if a child gets anything less than straight-"A"s, there is something seriously wrong with him.

Well, I'm an exception from the norm—as usual—I'm not obsessed with straight-"A"s. In fact I'm immune from it! I've seen way too many of these so-called exceptional students arriving at our doorstep, and not measuring up to what's indicated in their exams transcripts. Don't get me wrong though, I'd be happy if my daughter can achieve straight-"A"s. But I'd be much happier if those "A"s are true reflections of her abilities.

So anyway, I suppose my daughter will just have to resit for her Science papers on the 30th September. Whatever will be, will be. If she gets an A, I'd be thrilled; if not, it's OK. All I want from her is for her to try her best. I'm not asking for anything more.


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Job Interview

A few days ago, it was announced that English will be made a compulsory-pass subject in Malaysian universities. Up to now I'm still not sure how to react to that news. It's not that I have totally lost hope in the Malaysian education system, but my guess is that that announcement probably means that we're gonna see a further decline in the standard of English in Malaysia. I come to that conclusion because I just can't believe that they would actually fail students because of the English language. So what do you think they would do in order to ensure that these students pass anyway?

I have of course raised the issue of poor English command in the younger Malaysian population in several articles in this blog, and this is gonna be another one of those. But before that, let me talk a bit about our national language first.

You see, I am one of those lucky Chinese citizens able to handle the Malay language—I can speak and write the language exceptionally well. If by any chance I wake up tomorrow and am compelled to do my job entirely in Malay, I would have no problem to cope. In fact, I dare say that I can do the job as good as the next Malay chap, if not better! That's how confident I am as far as the Malay language is concerned.

But the reality is that English is still overwhelmingly the most popular language in the private sector. Many, many documents and ordinary business conversations are still in English. There is no doubt whatsoever that good English command is an asset in the job market, but especially so in a professional firm.

We are currently recruiting, and have begun to conduct interviews for short-listed job applicants. Let me tell you that interviews are no longer a dreadful thing for the interviewees only; these days they are a dreadful thing for the interviewers too. We have so many people in the job market having what appear to be impeccable paper qualifications, but so very few of them are actually qualified in the real sense! All too often they are crippled by the lack of English ability. Don't get me wrong though; I'm not expecting these people to be a walking English grammar book or the Oxford Dictionary. I'm just talking about a decent English command. In that sense, I feel that our universities have failed to produce what they're supposed to for the job market in Malaysia. And quite frankly, I don't foresee this trend would change anytime soon.

There are tons of articles out there written by so-called "interview gurus" on how to ace job interviews. Those are good too, but only if these people have the means to pass the English-language hurdle first. For no amount of knowledge and skills will be of much use if the candidates can't translate those into something productive to earn revenues. 

Speaking of handling interviews, those of you seeking to secure a job interview anytime soon, please, for heaven's sake, at least make an effort to find out what the company is all about. I can understand that sometimes when one is desperate to find a job, he is willing to take any job and worry about doing the job later. But take it from me—not knowing anything about the job you're applying for is not going to impress the interviewer. And you know what's gonna happen when the interviewer is unimpressed, right?


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Racing Strategy

I have experienced The Most Beautiful Thing (TMBT), a 100km ultra trail marathon, twice before. I joined the first one, which was also my very first ultra trail of that distance, in 2011 as reported in two parts, i.e. Part 1 and Part 2; and the second time in 2012 as reported here. I have since gone on to do the Vibram Hong Kong 100km ultra trail twice, and the Sundown Road Ultra 100km last year.

Of all the ultra races that I've joined so far, I would say I enjoyed the first TMBT the most, not only because I was racing together with Mia, but also because I knew practically nothing about ultra trail then—the thrill of discovery was both exciting and a little scary. But because failure is not an option to me when I do this sort of thing, I had to come up with a proper game plan with whatever little knowledge I had about ultra trail running. I had to provide for everything and both Mia and I ended up with the heaviest backpack each, much to the other participants’ amusement. It was like we were going camping for a few weeks!

The latest TMBT had just finished a few days ago, and while the majority of the reviews from participants have been positive and encouraging, I'm sad to note that a fair number of my runner friends failed to finish the race. These are those who had to drop out of the race at numerous stages. There were many reasons, but the most popular being unable to meet the cut off times at water stations or checkpoints. Of course there were also cases of fatigue and illness etc.

Those who joined the TMBT, although some of them were first-timers for 100km, are not exactly new to long-distance running or endurance sports in general. I suspect most, if not all, of them would have conquered several road marathons. But here's the thing about road marathons in general—they basically boil down to 2 main things: 1) Endurance/fitness, and 2) Cut off time. The other factors such as course terrains, weather conditions etc are also important, of course, as those can slow down the runners a bit. But they are rarely significant enough to result in failures. In the event of minor injuries such as cramps or blisters etc, medics are just minutes away.

In an ultra trail marathon, however, terrains, weather conditions and injuries (minor or otherwise) can very easily mean the end of the race for the participants. Those who don't take into account these factors when formulating a racing strategy may well find themselves in trouble on the race course up there in the mountain. In the event of injuries and illnesses or whatever other emergencies, it may take significantly longer time for help to arrive. All these may potentially mean life and death. An adventure which is intended to be a fun outing can quickly turn into a tragedy.

Therefore, the kind of preparation (both physical and mental) and training for an ultra trail marathon is much more complicated and demanding than the ordinary road marathon. But I suspect not very many people actually realise this. Or if they did, they did not seriously take these factors into account.

Unfortunately, I am neither a fast nor strong ultra trail runner. I'm horribly weak and slow when climbing hills. But long before the event, I would make sure that I train to improve on my weaknesses. I would go over my game plan over and over again. When the race day arrives, if I think I can't meet the minimum time requirement, I'd rather opt out. There is bound to be another race, another day. It is just not my style to beg the marshals at the checkpoints to bend the rules and let me continue with the race when I have clearly failed to meet cut off. Call it pride or ego if you like; it's just not me.

The most important factor is of course timeHow much of it is available from flag off to the finish line? That is a fixed figure, and whatever game plan one has in mind, it must fit within that timeframe. It can be less, but not more. After allowing for a buffer of say 2 hours (for 100km), there is an even shorter time available for the race. Then the allocation for each section between checkpoints; as well as how much stop time at checkpoints, perhaps to top up water bottles. Allocations must also be made for nutrition stops. Step by step. Be honest about your strength and endurance, and don't try to plan for a speed that is obviously beyond your ability! You will only burn out too soon and then have to throw in the towel long before reaching the finish line.

I do realise that some people have no intention to win. They just want to finish the race for the sake of the experience and adventure. That is fine; there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But still, this is a race, and there are strict cut off times between sections and overall from start to finish. So even if there is no intention to win, the participant must train to at least be able to meet the cut off times. 

So, yes, by all means, take as many selfies as you like, savour the beauty of the countryside, but at the end of it all, don't forget that it is a race, and time is the biggest enemy! A seemingly brief stop to replenish the water bottles at the checkpoint can easily consume up to 15 minutes, if not more. If one is not a fast trekker or trail runner, then train to be a little faster; not to win, but at least to make the cut offs. The rules are there to be adhered to. The rest of the participants who made it to the finish line were also subject to the same rules. In that sense, it is truly a level playing field.

Racing strategy, a step-by-step game plan from start to finish, is imperative for a long race such as the 100km ultra trail. An apparently weak person can conquer the distance with a sound game plan; whereas a strong athlete can crumble long before even reaching the halfway point because he thinks he can run the trail like running in a straight line on a flat surface.

So the next time you attempt anything akin to TMBT 100km, come up with a proper racing strategy, and make sure you stick to it all the way to the end. Nobody says it's gonna be a stroll in the park, but it is doable. You just have to trust me on this.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Kuching Marathon 2014

I arrived in Kuching during the mid-morning last Saturday to run the inaugural Kuching Marathon yesterday (Sunday) morning. I went together with my niece, Ramona, but she ran the half marathon. After checking in to the Harbour View Hotel, we spent about 10 minutes to walk to Plaza Merdeka for brunch at the food court, and then proceeded to collect our race packs. 

 If there’s anything about the Kuching Marathon that stood out from the rest of the marathons that I’ve joined so far, it must be the unusually long time spent at the race pack collection—1 hour 16 minutes, easily a new record for race pack collection. I dare say it would be extremely difficult for other marathons in this region to beat that record too, if ever! 

Although I kept an open mind about the event, I have to admit that I didn’t find the long wait for my race pack very amusing. Obviously, there is room for improvement here. It quickly gave me a negative impression on the event. I’d like to believe that I am a reasonable participant, and I don’t expect every single thing to be perfect. Something is bound to go wrong at the very last minute due to unforeseen circumstances, and it is just impossible to anticipate everything that could go wrong. But still, 1 hour 16 minutes is just ridiculous; it seemed like an eternity as far as race pack collection is concerned. 

I spent the afternoon watching a bit of tv and had about an hour’s nap. I’ve been lacking of sleep the whole week, so that nap was such a relief for me. Then I went back to Plaza Merdeka again in the evening for a lousy fish and chips dinner. The race was to start at 3am the next day, and I had intended to be in bed by 10pm, but I knew that my body clock would not cooperate. I finally fell asleep at about 11pm. I woke up again at about 1:30am. A strong cup of coffee, and then I changed into my running gear. Then the slow walk to the race venue, reaching there at about 2:30am. 

I had expected a chaotic situation during the race, but I was pleasantly surprised that everything went smoothly. The flag off was on time, and the water stations along the way were appropriately set at regular intervals. They also distributed energy gels at 2 water stations. But I only took one, as I had my own supply of gels. I took the one just as a spare. 

The weather was fine, and at numerous points during the race, there were very slight drizzles. But it was a humid morning which made running a little uncomfortable. As for the terrain, it wasn’t exactly flat. There were a good dose of gentle ups and downs and a couple of short sharp climbs, but it is not what one might describe as a “hilly” course. I fancy that the scenery would have been great if the race had started a little later in the day. But starting the race at 3am had resulted in at least 70% of the race run in the dark. 

I ran a steady 5:35min/km pace, thinking that that should be slow enough to sustain. But I somehow felt tired beyond the halfway point. Accordingly, my pace eventually dropped, and the last few kilometers became quite a challenge after all. Running marathons “for the fun of it” isn’t very stressful to me these days, but racing marathons is a different story. I’ve been racing a number of events this year, and somehow I’m feeling tired and desperately in need of a break. In the end, I finished the 42km in about 4:09, which is a decent time, but not a spectacular performance. This is my last race for 2014; I’m taking a long break from races and will be focusing more on my swim and perhaps work on my cycling too. Oh! I’m so tired! 

In the end, my verdict is that the Kuching Marathon was a well-organised event, especially for an event organized for the first time, and I must congratulate the organizer for a job well-done. I would certainly recommend this event to my runner friends. But it would be even better if they could do something about handling the race pack collection. 

I hope to be able to come back again for another shot at running a faster marathon in Kuching. Hope to see an even bigger group from KK!