Thursday, December 30, 2010

Exams Are Over, At Last!

Exams ended a little over a week ago, quite a bit later than usual.  With the Hari Raya holiday moving 12 days earlier each year, the semester calendars change and we get moving dates for registration, mid-term breaks, and exams.  With such a late end to this semester, the next one will begin later than usual also.

Exam Hall
Final exams for the program in which I teach are prepared by the parent body, a local Malaysian university that continues to do things the old-fashioned way, despite having a modern term in the university name.  As such, the final exam counts for 60% of the class mark, and final exams are given in a large auditorium with walking proctors and strict control procedures.
Crowded Work Space
I wish I could say that the strict control procedures meant for high-quality exams, but that is not the case.  Even though the parent body insists that all exam questions are sent to external examiners for quality verification, egregious errors are all too common on exam questions.  As proctors, we have to inform the parent body representative of the errors and allow him or her to make a decision as to how to inform the students in answering the questions.

Confiscate Crib Sheets from the Toilet
On one exam that I proctored, an electrical engineering question (give in both English and Malay) had different values.  In English, the values were something like this:
Voltage = 12V
Current = 2.0A
Resistance = 30 Ohms
Efficiency = 75%

The same question, in Malay, had these values:
Voltage = 15V
Current = 1.5A
Resistance = 40 Ohms
Efficiency = 85%

Since it is the same question, just in a different language, the answer will depend upon set of values you choose!  It is clear that exam preparers do NOT proof-read their questions, nor are the external quality control examiners on the ball either.

One of my subjects has errors every semester on the questions.  Typically, a parent body coordinator (who prepares the exam) will photocopy a diagram from a book -e.g., the one entitled 2500 Solved Problems in Hydraulics and Fluid Mechanics- and then write a question that goes with the diagram.  Several times now, the diagram shows oil (specific gravity 0.85) flowing in a pipe.  The question written out by the coordinator starts out, "Water flows in a pipe...."  So, which is it?  One semester, 50% of the questions were thrown out by the coordinator and not graded after I pointed out the errors on two and a half of the five questions.

Stamp the Date
As a proctor, in addition to finding this semester's set of errors, we walk around and watch students.  One task for me is to go into the Men's Bathroom after about 10 minutes and confiscate the crib sheets that are inevitably hiding in the water tank of the bathroom stalls.  Students haven't figured out yet that water causes ink and pencil to smear and disappear.

Another main task is to give students additional paper upon which to do calculations or answer questions.  Each piece of paper has to be stamped with the current date so as to insure that the paper was not brought into the exam hall by the student.

But, exams are over now and we are enjoying our Monsoon Vacation.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Photo of the Week: Monsoon Clouds over My Kampung

The northeast monsoon is in full swing here on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia.  We have had all-day rain several times now, and there are gigantic, beautiful dark monsoon storm clouds much of the day.  I shot this one on the way home one day, arriving minutes before the deluge began.

Monsoon Clouds over the Kampung

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cuti Sekolah di Malaysia

Vacation days....vacation daze.  Malaysia has a lot of vacation days during the school year and it often makes both scheduling replacement classes AND covering the syllabus difficult.  Just peruse the vacation days taken this year alone:

1 January - New Year's Day
14 January - Birthday, Sultan of Negeri Sembilan (for those in Negeri Sembilan)
17 January - Birthday, Sultan of Kedah (for those in Kedah)
30 January - Thaipusam (Hindu festival, all of Malaysia)
1 February - KL Federal Territory Day (for those in KL)
14-15 February - Chinese New Year (all of Malaysia; some places take a week off)
26 February - Malidur Rasul (Islamic holiday, all of Malaysia)
4 March - Birthday, Sultan of Terengganu (for those in Terengganu)
13-21 March - Public School Holiday
30-31 March - Birthday, Sultan of Kelantan (for those in Kelantan)
Oh yeah, "Let's YTRAP" on holiday
2 April - Good Friday (Christian holiday)
8 April - Birthday, Sultan of Johor
15 April - Melaka Holiday (they have no official sultan, but certainly a DAY OFF)
19 April - Birthday, Sultan of Perak (yup, Perak residents)
1 May - International Workers Day (but, NO work that day)
7 May - Pahang Holiday (called Hari Hol, literally "Holiday Day"; no apparent reason; thats for us Pahangers)
17 May - Birthday, Sultan of Perlis (residents of Perlis)
28 May - Wesak Day (Buddhist Holiday, all of Malaysia)
30-31 May - Harvest Festival (for Sabah and Sarawak, I think, not sure)
1-2 June - Gawai Dayak Festival (Sarawak)
5 June - Birthday, King of Malaysia (all of Malaysia)
5-20 June - Public School Holiday
10 July - Birthday, Sultan of Pulau Penang (Penang)
10 July - Israk and Mikraj (??, but its on the calendar!)
20 July - Hari Keputeraan Sultan Terengganu (again, Terengganu)
11 August - Awal Ramadan (beginning of Ramadan, all of Malaysia)
27 August - Nuzul Quran (all of Malaysia)
31 August - National/Independence Day (all of Malaysia)
4-12 September - Public School Holiday
10-11 September - Hari Raya Puasa or Aid-al-Fitr (all of Malaysia, most schools take a full week off)
16 September - Birthday, Sultan of Sabah
?? September - Malaysia Day (not to be confused with Independence Day on 31 August; I forgot what this day was, but it was in September and I have NO idea why it exists.)
9 October - Melaka (again) but not sure why since they have no official sultan
23 October - Birthday, Sultan of Sarawak
24 October - Birthday, Sultan of Pahang
5 November - Deepavali (Diwali), Hindu Festival of Lights (all of Malaysia)
17 November - Quran Holiday (some parts of Malaysia)
18 November - Quran Holiday (other parts of Malaysia)
20 November - 31 December - Public School Holiday
7 December - Awal Muharram (all of Malaysia)
11 December - Birthday, Sultan of Selangor
25 December - Christmas (Christian holiday, all of Malaysia)

Now, you might say "Well, not all holidays are celebrated in all states."  That is true.  But, if you have some students from, say Terengganu, they may want to go back to Terengganu for their sultan's birthday, whereas those from Johor will want to do the same, but on a different date (their sultan's birthday).  And so forth.  And if you need to contact someone in a different state during work hours, you need to check the calendar to see if THEY are on vacation that particular day.

Students are quite good about turning a one-day holiday into a one-week (or more) vacation.  Witness the latest mid-week holiday: Hari Raya Qurban, 17 and 18 November (depending upon state).  With this holiday on a Wednesday in Pahang, I had students take off on Monday of that week, and not return until Tuesday of the following week!  They used a 1-day holiday to take leave of 7 days of classes!!  Of course, they try to justify this by saying "Bus tickets were all sold out except for....".  For this reason, we lecturers prefer holidays that are on a Friday or a Monday.  It is harder for students to justify leaving on a Monday or Tuesday for a Friday holiday.  (But some do.)

But, of course, those are the OFFICIAL holidays.  How about unofficial Must-Cancel-Class directives from Administration?  We get plenty of those every year also.

"Left, right,, no...right, left, left?"
Example: our "sister" school is having graduation but they want a CROWD at the event, so they make the lecturers cancel their classes and attend!  Great idea.  Or how about this? "We need to ensure that lecturers behave properly at our own convocation, so let's make them practice.  Yes, we know that they are only going to walk in and sit down.  But have them cancel classes on BOTH Thursday and Friday afternoon to practice .... walking in and sitting down!"

The December monsoon has begun.  Long live rainy weather!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Down the Sepat Highway - Part 2

Returning to Kuantan along the Sepat Highway, I decided to get some information about possible overnight stays.  The only two motels that I could find were 'The Saddle' and the 'Palm Suite Homestay'.

The Saddle looks to be an interesting place.  Advertising itself as a Riding Center, Lodge, Camp Site, and Kelapa (Coconut) Shake, it is situated right beside the Sepat Highway and across from the Sepat beach zone, that strip of land that has coconut palms, penaga laut trees, and Casuarina trees.

Horses at The Saddle

The Palm Suite Homestay is a little ways down a small tar road and consists of a beautiful-looking home sitting amongst a small plantation of oil palms.  Both were closed on this public (and religious) holiday, so I will have to make another trip down south to scout them out later.
Palm Suite Sign
Palm Suite Homestay
Like other areas close to Kuantan, the Sepat area has new housing developments going up seemingly in random places.  Some look abandoned, but perhaps the work is only moving along slowly and not completely stopped.
Lembu Korban and New Housing

Also, there are some interesting looking signs indicating small, home-based businesses.  Again, if this had not been a religious holiday, I might have looked in on what these businesses were doing out in the kampung.  Entrepreneurial activity is being strongly promoted amongst rural people so it is interesting to see what is working for those brave souls who have already taken the leap into self-employment.

Small business, home business, near Sepat.

Still, despite the upgrading of housing (from wood to brick), I love the old-style, wooden kampung houses.  They are beautiful and have larger compounds (halaman) in which the owners often take great care to plant flowers and raise small livestock (goats, chickens).  Lumber is quite expensive relative to brick and concrete, but I would not want to see the wooden houses gone from the countryside, these houses define what a kampung should look like.

Down the Sepat Highway : Part 1

Back in October I was invited to the wedding kenduri of a colleague's sister near the royal city of Pekan.  Since I had never been down that stretch of highway before, I decided to take the leisurely route, passing through small Malay kampung along the way as opposed to the highway.  Unfortunately, that day did not go well.  I did get to the kenduri, but the camera battery died, my motorcycle quit three times due to failing carburetor diaphragms, and finally, I ran out of petrol.  Still, I liked what I saw for scenery, and decided it was worth another trip, but this time with no time constraint (no kenduri), full tank of petrol, and a fully-charged camera battery.

Down the Sepat Highway
I chose to go on a rare mid-week vacation day, Hari Raya Korban (aka Hari Raya Haji and Hari Raya Aidl-adha).  No, vacation days are NOT rare in Malaysia (that topic for another time), but having one on a day other than Friday or Monday is rare.  Most families are busy at home preparing for the korban in the morning on this day, thus, traffic was light, except for the usual traffic.

Traffic Along Sepat Highway
The first kampung along the Sepat Highway is Kampung Sungai Soi, where several of my college colleagues live.  Kg. Sg. Soi is home to the Royal Pahang Tenun factory.  Tenun is a special loom-woven textile that integrates gold and silver thread with multi-colored cotton threads.  (Topic for another post.)

Royal Pahang Textile Factory
The distance between Kuantan and Pekan along the Sepat Highway is 51 kilometers.  Kilometer markers, therefore, show both the distance to Pekan (going in that direction) and the distance to Kuantan (on the back side, in the opposite direction).  Thus, once one gets to around Km38-Pekan (Km13-Kuantan), the road swings up next to the beach and parallels the beautiful Pantai Sepat (Sepat Beach) for several kilometres.
Sepat Beach Looking North
Of course, once you are there, at the beach, you have to share with the local "beach bums".

Local Beach Bums
And other, normal folks, were having their breakfast under the majestic penaga laut trees. (See:

Breakfast Time

Penaga Laut
Continuing beyond Kampung Sepat, I came to a fork in the road at Kampung Kuala Penor.  I took the left branch, towards the beach, and continued to the mouth (kuala) of the Penor River, where it meets the ocean.  Just upstream of the mouth was a prawn farm with a sign that indicated I was not to enter.

Do Not Enter - You Will Be Shot

So, instead of getting shot, I looked at monsoon clouds out over the South China Sea instead.  This is a beautiful time of the year for me, a cloud person.

Monsoon Clouds Over South China Sea
Backtracking, I met a man who invited me to the korban (sacrifice) of a lembu.  He had seen me photographing another cow and invited me to the house of a friend.
Berkorban Lembu pd Hari Raya Haji

Children Watching the Day's Entertainment
His friend, named Mat Isa, invited me to stay for tea and cake despite my being an uninvited stranger.  The Malays are one of the most polite and hospitable peoples that I have ever known, and they have time and again proven that hospitality.  We chatted a while over the tea and blueberry cake prepared by his wife and then I took my leave since family members were arriving for their Hari Raya Korban day together.

To Be Continued...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Photo of the Week: Reflection in Spoon

At the birthday party mentioned in the previous post, someone brought in a container of delicious chicken curry. They had a large spoon for serving and with my photo of the curry and spoon, fortuitously caught the birthday lady in its reflection.
Birthday Lady Reflects on Chicken Curry!

Office Birthday Parties

In a college the size of mine, nearly everyday someone has a birthday.  But not all birthdays engender a party.  Parties are basically left up to the boss or the colleagues, and really, few people have birthday parties planned for them. For example, whenever it is my birthday, I usually bring cake in to share around with the colleagues sitting close to me (rather than expecting them to plan a party for me).
February 2009 Birthday Bash (Teak is on the left, out of sight!)
After a while, we discovered that within 20 feet of my cubicle were several people with February (or near-February) birthdays!  Thus began an annual tradition of us all co-hosting The February Birthday Bash (TFBB).  Basically, each brings in food or drink to share.  In the first photo you can see the spread from the year 2009, with chocolate cake, donuts, chicken nuggets and grapes (someone ALWAYS has to bring something healthy, eh?).  I take a photo each year, which we can send to former members of TFBB who have moved on to other locations.  We also found, that by including a colleague with a birthday in March (we call it 32 February) and one from January (-15 February), we get a larger crowd and greater food on offer.
Birthday lady and boss

The parties in my section are inevitably held in the office of a particular colleague, who is extremely generous and friendly.  This month she hosted a party for her young assistant, also of pleasant personality, and a good amount of food was served up with friendly conversation.
Bringing the food
As a foreign observer, and participant, in this office culture, I am both blessed and heavier as a result of this Malay hospitality!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

No Shoes? No problem.

Occasionally I get comments from readers who do appear to be interested in what life is like in Malaysia.  Any of us, truly, have interesting lives, to someone else!  Yesterday I gave an exam to 45 of my students and since I had no tasks to do while invigilating (overseeing the exam; 'proctoring' in US-jargon), I decided to take a few photos.

You might notice that the tables were scattered about, but I was in limited space and had to fit 35 desks into this particular room, and provide separation.  You will also notice the shoes under their chairs.

Girls especially, kick their shoes and sandals off immediately after sitting down.  I find this quite amusing since I come from a culture and climate where people have to wear shoes all of the time.  Sometimes I go around the room and select the prettiest shoe and take a photo (with permission, of course).  For this exam day, the Shoe-of-the-Day was a pretty brown pump with glitter on the toe end.

Shoe of the Day

Photo of the Week

I take a lot of photos for which there is either no, or little, story.  This photo was taken as I returned home one day for lunch.  This lizard was stretched out across my front gate like a circus performer.  Right after I snapped the photo, he (or she) shut his eyes and -like a child might- pretended that I couldn't see him.  I rattled the gate with my payung (umbrella) and he fled.

Click on the image for the original sized image.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Hari Raya Fests - Private

More relaxed atmosphere @ home
Yesterday I discussed public Hari Raya fests. Today, I want to describe those fests held by individual families at their houses.  Of the two, I prefer the private ones since it allows me to visit the homes of colleagues and friends and, potentially, see them in a more relaxed setting.  This is not always so, however, depending upon how formal the family makes their open house, and how many other people have been invited.

Children of a colleague
For example, this year I attended 17 different Hari Raya open houses of which only two were public fests.  The other 15 were all hosted in different homes and varied greatly in the formality and the number of people attending.

For example, in the house of one older man with whom I use for Malay language practice, only three of us were in attendance (including a housemate of his).  Despite their poverty, the two men had made an effort to make their simple abode presentable, putting out furniture that is normally in storage, and a simple set of snack items.  We chatted amiably for around 40 minutes and then I left for another house.

At the house of a female colleague, I got the date wrong.  She had invited me for a Monday earlier, but then changed it to the following Sunday with me still thinking it was Monday.  Still, they were polite and gracious and I didn't discover my mistake until about 20 minutes into the visit!  Malays are very hospitable and easy-going and so the visit went well.  My wife and I were later invited back to the Sunday get-together, which was quite formal and crowded, but I enjoyed myself more on Monday when the family was informally dressed, relaxed, and visiting with ME only.
Banana chips

Of course, unlike the public fests where multiple choices of food are served, private open houses offer a more limited set of food.  Still there are some good eats, and usually include snack items - biscuits, banana chips, tarts, small pieces of cake - and simple noodle and/or rice dishes.

Hari Raya open houses begin on the first day following the end of Ramadan.  Called Hari Pertama (First Day) and Hari Kedua (Second Day), these open houses tend to be the most formal.  Politicians and Sultans host quite large gatherings that can run in the tens of thousands of attendees.  Following the first two days, which are national holidays, further open houses tend to be hosted on subsequent Saturdays and Sundays.  Many of my colleagues balik kampung (return to their home villages, i.e., parents' homes) for the first two days of Hari Raya.  After coming back from their home villages, they may or may not host in their own homes depending upon whether or not they have a house to host in.

I particularly enjoy interacting with the children of colleagues.  Hari Raya is a joyous time for most of them; fireworks are shot off or waved around (boys) or new clothes shown off to friends (girls).  I like to bring balloons to some houses as these prove to be a big hit with the 2, 3, and 4-year-olds.  I can see why Hari Raya carries such warm memories for Malay families.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Hari Raya Fests - Public

Indoor Food Booths (and Entertainment)
Tents (with fans) for Outdoor Raya Fests
At the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, Malays in Malaysia will celebrate the end of Eid al-Fitr with Hari Raya open houses that consist of eating, visiting, and more eating.  This year I attended 17 public and private hari raya open houses.  The public ones were hosted by various organisations to which I belong.  The private ones are those hosted by colleagues and friends at their houses, and will be detailed in a separate blogpost.

If one works in a Malay organisation or company, certainly the invite will come for that organisation's open house.  Some are held outdoors, under tent canopies fitted with fans.  Some will be hosted indoors, with food booths surrounding the VIP seating.  Most will have some type of "entertainment", but it won't be rock-n-roll!  Singers, supported by either "Music-minus" backing tapes or small ensembles of musicians, will belt out evergreen favorites, including M. Nasir's "Satu Hari, Hari Raya" and hits from Malaysia's sweetheart of singers Datuk Siti Nurhaliza.
Ketupat rice
Not Rock-n-Roll

The college where I work has a vocational branch that hosted a Hari Raya feast, prepared by the students.  One might think -student cooks?- but in fact this campus produces excellent meals.  Before the feasting began, I made a circuit around to photograph some of the items on offer.

Typically, the main dishes will involve the various forms of rice and noodles.  Some different ways of serving rice are:
-nasi putih (plain white rice)
-nasi minyak or nasi tomato (oil or tomato rice)
-nasi ketupat (rice cooked in triangular pandan-leaf wraps)
-nasi lemang (rice steam cooked in bamboo tubes)
-nasi What is it?
Nasi What Is It?
Lemang rice
The noodles come in a wide variety, but I know them as white (plain wheat), yellow (wheat, but with added flavorings) and very thin mee hoon noodles, which can be rice or mung bean flour.

Toppings are many and range in flavours, covering the taste range of sweet-to-sour, bitter-to-tart, and back again.  Meat can be heavily spiced, such as rendang, or simply grilled, such as satay.  Satay tends to be a crowd favorite, and most other food is ignored until diners have stacked multiple skewers of chicken or beef satay upon their plates.
Rush for the Satay

Beef Rendang
Apart from the eating, it is fun to chit-chat with colleagues.  Female colleagues come dressed in brand-new baju kurung, purchased especially for Hari Raya.  Men wear the traditional Malay costume, with baju Melayu, songket (decorative blanket worn around the waist), and Islamic songkok (black or white cap).

Basically, protocol for these functions is to arrive and wait for the VIP (very important people) and VVIP (very very important people) to arrive.  VIPs need to arrive before VVIPs, in order to greet the VVIPs and also show Who is Important.  Once the situation of Importance Level has been established, eating commences along with the entertainment.  ("Satu hari, Hari Raya.....")

Men's Outfits
Women's Lineup
I walk around, with my camera in hand.  People eating intently, or chit-chatting, or taking photos of each other, are not always aware of other camera-people.  This allows me to take photos of people in NON-poses.  Some of the best photos are NON-poses.  My favorite from the public Hari Raya fests that I attended are of a group of school girls.  They spied me at the balcony railing overlooking the indoor fest and giggled as I took a photo.  Smiling, I gave them the "thumb's up" signal, and they replied in kind.  If pictures are worth a thousand words, then non-verbal smiles and gestures can be worth millions.

School girls giggle at the Orang Putih