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!




Thursday, August 7, 2014

Boycott

Someone who had too much time, went through the trouble to conduct a research on which big companies are related to, or contributing to Israel's economy whether directly or indirectly; and of the many companies in the list, McDonald's caught the attention of many Malaysians.

Although not knowing what's really going on, too many people are eager to get involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict in whatever way they can, but the reality is that not very many of them would actually risk their lives by going to the war zone to participate in person. Instead, they choose to become heroes from the comforts of their homes by going through facebook, chain mails and emails, whatsapp messages, tweeter, and many other digital mediums to spread their support either for Israel or Palestine. Some of them have a curious obsession about it—they don't stop there—not only are they not so discreet about their opinions, they also try very hard to influence others to agree with them. And when others do not agree with them, they have the tendency to become violent, and act in such a way to force others to agree with them somehow!

Such is the case with the boycott of McDonald's in Malaysia. To be quite honest, I'm not even a big fan of McDonald's. Yes, I sometimes indulge in a Big Mac or two; perhaps some fries and chocolate milkshake too. But because I'm a little worried about all the calories, I tend to limit my visits to McDonald's. Incidentally, I happen to know that some of my "health-conscious" friends are also adopting the same policy. On the other hand, I also know of some people who're regular visitors to McDonald's. 

I'd like to think that I'm living in a country where I am free to eat what I like, and when I like to, as long as I can afford it with my hard-earned money, and that my indulgence in the food does not harm other Malaysians around me. I can understand that some people abstain from eating certain food, or certain types of food for numerous reasons, may it be religious or health reasons, and I shall not make it my business to control what others eat or do not eat. It is after all entirely their right to choose. But in return, I would also expect the freedom to have my choice, that is to say that I am free to eat in a fastfood outlet when and if that naughty cravings come every now and then, without that unfriendly stares from those around me.

I shall not attempt to debate on the merits of why some people are boycotting a particular fastfood outlet. We can all argue till the cow comes home, and we still won't come to any satisfactory conclusion anyway. In Malay, there is a saying: Rambut sama hitam, hati lain-lain.

I have issues, however, with people whom, having decided to boycott, try to impose their will upon others by force. I think something is seriously wrong with our society when innocent people trying to earn a decent living in a fastfood outlet are being harassed by others who're unhappy about an armed conflict in a faraway land. I'm guessing that these people who're working at McDonald's would gladly stay at home if those who're harassing them would pay their salaries. But we know that won't happen, don't we?

By all means, boycott McDonald's outlets if you felt justified, I'm not going to argue about your choice. I just hope that when the time comes, once in a blue moon, when and if I have the cravings for a McChicken Burger and the likes, I won't be harassed by people whom are trying to impose their will upon me.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Strength In Unity

About three years ago, I watched the movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes on a Sunday afternoon. Of course the movie was famous because of its special effects, which were mainly achieved with the help of modern movie-making technology—mostly computer and all those digital stuff. I mentioned briefly about the awesome special effects in a post here. But even without the special effects, it was still a good story in itself. In all the excitement, there was actually a very powerful message for the audience. 

The movie tells the story of Caesar, a male chimpanzee born with a high IQ, which eventually united a bunch of unruly apes from the confines of a primate shelter, from a zoo, and from a lab, for the sake of seeking freedom. 

There was a scene when Caesar was in the primate shelter, sitting on a rocky ledge with his orangutan friend. Caesar was sad looking at some apes fighting with each other down below. He wanted the apes to unite, and the orangutan asked him why. Here is a video clip from youtube; you can see for yourself how Caesar explains himself.

As I was walking out of the cinema that day, I knew that there would be a sequel to the movie. After all, most successful movies these days would almost automatically have sequels. True enough, its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, arrived at the cinemas about 2 weeks ago. I took the earliest opportunity to watch it; and again I was happy with what I saw. 

Of course Dawn is the continuation of Rise, and the story has developed up to 10 years apart. But again there is that same message to the audience—this time uttered by an ape named Koba. A short sentence consisting of just 2 powerful words: Together Strong!

It suddenly occurred to me that perhaps it would be beneficial if all Malaysians could be convinced—even forced—to watch Rise (and Dawn) of the Planet of the Apes. I think it's gonna be worth the few hours watching apes, and hopefully at the end of it, learn something about Strength In Unity.


Monday, July 28, 2014

Cycling With Mia & Pam

A few months ago, Mia and her friend, Pamela, registered for a half Ironman distance triathlon race to be held in Desaru around mid-August. For those of you who're not familiar with the sport, a "half Ironman distance triathlon" means an open-water swim of about 1.9km, followed by 90km bike, and then finally a 21km (half marathon) run. I was given to understand that the cut off time for the Desaru event is 8:30.

I think an average person who can swim, bike and run, and has been regularly active in sports for at least half a year, would find the half Ironman distance quite doable within the 8 hours 30 minutes, provided that he invests a bit of time training for the event. "Doable" here means able to finish within the cut off time—not "doable" as in to win the race. There is actually no need to be a fast swimmer, nor a fast cyclist, nor a fast runner—just average (or even slightly below average) speed in all those sports would do just fine.

But the trouble with Mia is that although she can swim and run, she's not a very good cyclist. She bought a road bike a little over a year ago; and then recently she surprised me when she bought a tribike too. That's when she told me that she's gonna attempt the half Ironman distance in August. If it were any other cyclist, I wouldn't have been surprised in the least. In fact, it is almost expected that after riding a road bike for a while, it's just a matter of time before one upgrades to a tribike. However, Mia has never really figured out her road bike yet up to now. Yes, she did finish an Olympic Distance triathlon, but she still can't ride steadily up to now.

To give you a better idea of Mia as a cyclist, she can pedal of course, but she's not very good in balancing on her bike. She must have both her hands on the handlebar at all times, except for the fraction of a second when she needs to shift her gear, or try to reach for her water bottle. Whenever she wants to drink or consume food (such as energy gels) she has to stop her bike. Otherwise she risks losing her balance. It's even more challenging for her to get into the so-called aero-position, that is to say to rest her elbows on the handlebar while gripping the aerobars. She also bought a pair of cycling shoes—the type that can be engaged to matching pedals on the bike. I told her that she's not ready for cycling shoes, but, y'know, she's an ex-St. Franciscan girl, so of course she went ahead with the shoes anyway. But after several falls, resulting in nasty bruises that took several weeks to disappear, scratches on her new bike, as well as damaging her shifters, she eventually abandoned the cycling shoes for now. But only for now, mind you!

Things were not looking well for Desaru, and she's fast running out of time to deal with the bike leg of the race. She went for short rides with her friend, Pam, on several occasions, but as you probably already know, riding 30km to 40km isn't really good enough in anticipation of a 90km ride in the race. So 2 weeks ago, I decided that I should accompany her for a longer ride with the view of addressing some of the issues about her cycling skills. I told her that she didn't really need to ride 70km, and she probably couldn't ride that far anyway. So I got the desired response—she said she wanted to go for that 70km ride because she needed the training. Sometimes, you need to know how to deal with ex-St. Franciscans, you see.

So off we went for that 70km ride. Soon, it was obvious that she wasn't comfortable on her bike. She had it set up at the shop where she bought it from, but it's only when one rides beyond 40km-50km before one is able to know if the setup is really good. We exchanged bikes. Once she got on my bike, she could immediately feel the difference; the setup was almost perfect, except that the seat was a little too high for her. It was then that she decided she'd use my bike for Desaru. I spent no less than an hour repeating myself like a million times before she got so sick of my instructions; in the end, she realised that I wouldn't stop unless she force herself to try the aero position. At first she did it for a few seconds, and I expressed a soothing "Goooood!". Eventually, she spent longer and longer in the aero position, and each time she was rewarded with "Goooood!" from me.

So both the coach and the ex-St. Franciscan were very pleased at the end of that workout, but I felt like the latter walked around with her eyes on her forehead that day. I seized the opportunity to set another bike workout, this time much closer to the 90km distance of the race. Well, that workout happened this morning, and her friend, Pam came along too.

About 20 minutes into the ride, however, I had a puncture. I suspect it must have been God's idea to include that as a learning process for the ladies. Changing the tube isn't very difficult once you get the hang of it, but it can be quite tricky if you haven't tried it on your own. It reminded me of the time when I first started cycling some years ago, and I was trying so damn hard to impress a young woman with impossibly sexy legs who went cycling with me. It was an epic failure of course, as reported here, but I swear I've learned quite a lot about bikes since then. 

Now, at this juncture, I just wanna share a strange mystery about many women—but I'd rather not mention names here, or I may end up getting shot!—they would spend time and efforts to train for cycling. Perhaps spend a big chunk of their savings to buy a dream bike; apart from spending a bit on air travels and hotel expenses when joining races out of town. But the one thing that they simply refuse to do is to learn how to fix a puncture. They'd rather DNF upon getting a puncture! Makes no sense to me, but then again women are not meant to be understood!

Anyway, Mia and Pam had a so-called intensive tube-change clinic at the roadside this morning, although Pam had apparently decided to be one of those girls within the same category as those in the preceding paragraph above, at least for the Desaru mission. Who knows, with any luck, she may decide to want to learn how to change a tube in the future.

Well, Pam went on to finish (albeit barely) 82km; and Mia and I did about 88km today. Mia spent a good deal of the workout in aero position; and she also made the breakthrough of drinking and eating energy gels without stopping her bike. Now I'd be much happier if she would only ride in a straight line, as opposed to a zig-zag fashion, while she's drinking or eating, but I guess I should be happy with whatever improvement she's making on each ride.

Well, in 3 weeks from now, I'm going to Kuching to run a marathon, while Mia and Pam will be heading to Desaru for the half Ironman distance race. Before this I was excited for the Kuching marathon, but over the last few weeks, I'm becoming increasingly excited for Mia and Pam too. It does seem like an uphill task for both of them, but after all you never know if you're able to do it until you try it!

I shall be keeping my fingers crossed.