Friday, March 31, 2006

Permanent Secretaries

Someone asked if there is a 'Permanent Secretary' how come there is no 'Temporary' Secretary? And why do we have Permanent Secretary in the government when the other type of secretary is the Confidential Secretary? In the government payscale, that means a difference of about $15,000 a month between the two there. Nowadays another creature emerges in the Brunei Civil service - the Deputy Permanent Secretary, at first there was only a few in Foreign Affairs, but now every other ministry seems to have it. Not only do we have to live with Permanent Secretary, we have to live with his Deputy as well. Man!

First and foremost, Permanent Secretary is fairly common in the Commonwealth world, being the legacy of the British, who left quite a large number of things behind including their governmental system. In fact, when I was at Harvard, I and my fellow students from India were able to speak the same language and quote the same regulations! You will be surprised. Remember our old Policemen uniform, the light blue and khaki? That's the police colours in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan and used to be the colours in Malaysia and Singapore as well.

But I digress. In the British system, the executive is run by the party who won the most votes. They will appoint their own politicians to be Secretaries of Departments - Secretaries being Ministers and Department being Ministries. Under the Secretaries, there will be appointed a number of ministers and junior ministers.

There will also be appointed a Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the duration of the government who will assist the Secretary. At the same time there will also be a Permanent Under-Secretary who is permanent because he is a civil servant. The two titles are shortened to Parliamentary Secretary and Permanent Secretary. The latter is the guy who actually runs the Department as governments in UK changed every 5 years. This is the post that we copy in Brunei even though we do not have Secretaries of Departments but Ministers of Ministries. Why did we do it? You have to ask someone who was in Government in 1984 as I am old but I was not yet appointed in the government then to be able to answer your question.

What is the equivalent of Permanent Secretary in other governments? Singapore and most other Commonwealth countries used the same title. Malaysia uses the Secretary General (Ketua Setiausaha or KSU) and Canada uses Deputy Minister (similar to most other non-Commonwealth countries such as Japan). Thailand, Denmark, Finland, Malta despite not being Commonwealth uses Permanent Secretary. Hongkong despite being handed back to China now also uses Permanent Secretary. Permanent Secretaries are fairly common creatures and if we were to abolish the post then we really have to find another job title and since the whole world is using Permanent Secretaries, that looks set to stay for a number of years yet. Now, what shall we do with Deputy Permanent Secretaries?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

I Love You (Without Breaking the Bank)

I took this from (my apologies to and I do hope that you go out and buy a book) which I found useful for the cash strapped lover. Whether it's Valentine's Day or the anniversary of your first date, here are ten simple ideas for expressing your love . . . without taking out a bank loan!

Baking heart-shaped food items
Preparing a heart-shaped anything is a romantic gesture. Make heart-shaped pancakes for breakfast, heart-shaped crispy rice treats for a snack, or a heart-shaped pizza for dinner. You can also use a heart-shaped cookie cutter to cut the crust off sandwiches. How romantic — heart-shaped PBJs for that special someone!

You can bake a heart-shaped cake without any special pans. Just make a cake recipe for a double-layered cake. Bake one layer in an 8-inch round cake pan and the other layer in an 8-inch square cake pan. After the cake is cool, cut the round layer into half-circles. On a large serving platter or cookie sheet, place the two half-circles along two adjoining edges of the square layer. Surprise — a heart-shaped cake! Covered in frosting, your loved one won't even realize the secret. (We mean when the cake's covered in frosting, not your sweetie, although that may be fun, too.)

Making a "100 reasons why I love you" list
Does he always put the toilet seat down? Does she remember your birthday? Does he wash the dishes regularly? Does she maintain the yard's appearance? Anything and everything can become an item on this list. Have some of the reasons be funny, some just plain silly, and some sentimental and romantic. Just make them all true!

Reading love poems together at a local bookstore
Browse a local bookstore that has a coffee shop, grab a latte and a stack of books of love poetry, and read quietly to each across a small, intimate table. Don't forget to play footsie under the table, too!

Sharing romantic greeting cards
Making cards for each other is simple and inexpensive. Use a card-making program on your computer or draw your own cards on scraps of paper. If drawing your own designs is beyond your artistic abilities, glue on magazine clippings, pressed flowers, dried leaves, photos, ticket stubs, or any other meaningful or romantic items.

Bringing chocolate
Even one single, elegantly wrapped, hand-dipped bonbon makes a heart-felt gift and shows that you care. And besides, nobody ever shot someone bearing chocolate.

Leaving love notes in unexpected places
Write "I love you!" in the fog on the bathroom mirror while your sweetie's in the shower. Pack a love note in his or her briefcase. Set one on the car seat while your honey is at work. A note is a tangible way to remind your loved one of your devotion.

Sending a singing love-o-gram
You may want to hire a real singing telegram company to serenade your dear one, but we're supposed to be talking frugal tips, here. How about hiring a group of neighborhood children to sing a love song to your sweetie? Have the kids ring the bell, hand Sweetie-Pie a note stating who the song is from, and then let them belt out the song. On-key or off, the song is a touching expression of your love.

Make a scroll-of-love
Use either a receipt roll from an office supply store or a paper roll from an adding machine. Start at the loose end of the roll and then write down romantic quotes, loving thoughts, or any number of favorite feelings you want to share with your loved one. Take your time. You can make your writings an ongoing project while you watch television or keep it by your computer so you can jot down ideas while you're browsing online (just make sure you work on it when your honey isn't around). When you finish, wrap each end of the scroll around a dowel cut to size, and then, when you give it as a gift, plan on reading through it together. Don't forget to bring a box of tissue if your honey's a sop for the emotional stuff.

Get sentimental at a wedding
Next time you're invited to a wedding, hold hands with your honey through the entire ceremony. Every time something sweet, moving, or romantic is said during the ceremony, squeeze your loved one's hand meaningfully. Try to catch your sweetie's eye and smile shyly at appropriately mushy times, too.

Say "I love you!"

The most frugal way of all to say "I love you!" is just to say the words. Some people think their love goes without saying, but you need to express your love in as many tangible ways as possible — through looks, small attentions, personal nuances, but especially through the actual words. Say it. Say it every day for the rest of your life. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Mobile Phones in Airplanes

I read somewhere that the American airlines are thinking of allowing passengers talk on their cellphones while they are in flight. You know when I read that I was thinking that at last, someone realised that cellphones do not interfere with navigation systems of aeroplanes! So called safety experts had long worried that cellphones can do that. I will let you into a secret, many of us don't actually switch our cellphones off during flights. For us flying from Brunei, it does not really matter as once you are over open water, there is no network to be connected to but if it is on, you can be automatically linked once your plane flies over land again. I have often thought that it was a bit ridiculous with these multimillion dollar planes, something as small and ubiquitous as a cellphone could interfere with the navigation systems.

Though on the upside of it, having a ban on cellphones can be good too. People don't talk on the phone while they are in aeroplanes for instance. Unless you have the most unfortunate luck of being seated next to or right in front of extremely rude people - which happens surprisingly rarely - air travel is fairly quiet. Air travel is already not exactly the most comfortable of all journeys. The seats are tiny and cramped, the food is okay but nothing much to shout about, the air is dry and most frighteningly we discovered that probably laden with germs as well. So not having to listen to people gabble into their mobile phones at least mitigate or reduce some of the discomfort.

Come to think of it, maintaining the ban on cellphones would actually be to everyone's benefit. Imagine if you are trapped in your seat and have to eavesdrop unintentionally to phone calls to someone who talks on the phone telling his mother about his love life or to a woman quarrelling with her boyfriend. Imagine being seated next to these people for a couple of hours. This can mean yelling and screaming and boasting and complaining for almost all the time you're sealed in that sardine can of an aeroplane. If the ban on cellphones is no longer there, this scenario will become a reality. The only people who will benefit from this is the phone companies. At the moment, I have to admit that it's pretty peaceful.

I don't know whether the removal of this cell phone ban will ever be extended to other flights other than the American sectors. If this was to happen in Brunei, we have a choice of maintaining that ban otherwise I would suggest that we all take our ipods and our headphones because our quiet flight has now turned into a nightmarish market place.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Mayonnaise Jar and the 2 Cups of Coffee

A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, he silently picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the jar was full.

They agreed that it was.

The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the jar was full.

They agreed it was.

The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full.

The students responded with an unanimous "yes."

The professor then produced two cups of coffee from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.

"Now," said the professor as the laughter subsided, "I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things -- your family, your children, your health, your friends and your favorite passions -- and if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house and your car. The sand is everything else -- the small stuff."

"If you put the sand into the jar first," he continued,"there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff you will never have room for the things that are important to you".

"Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your spouse out to dinner. Play another 18 holes. There will always be time to clean the house and fix the disposal. Take care of the golf balls first -- the things that really matter. Set your priorities, The rest is just sand."

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the coffee represented. The professor smiled. "I'm glad you asked. It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there's always room for a couple of cups of coffee with a friend."

When things in life seem almost too much to handle, when 24 hours in a day are not enough, remember the mayonnaise jar and the 2 cups of coffee. Please share this with someone you care about.

Monday, March 27, 2006

UBD Dresscodes

I was reading Maurina's blog at wordpress about the posters on dress codes at UBD. That reminded me of my short UBD days. I was at UBD last year being one of the senior government officials forced to undertake a four month executive development program at UBD. The program is organised by the Public Service Department and carried out by FBEPS. Normally about 15 senior government officials (those hoping to be appointed as Heads of Government Departments) attend the annual EDP course. Failure to attend or complete the course will mean failure to be appointed to a Superscale (minimum $6,800 salary) position.

During that four month period at UBD, I must admit I enjoyed it tremendously. The course itself was humdrum and run of the mill kind of thing. I was better qualified (a Chartered Fellowship, 2 master degrees from an Ivy League) and have more experience than some of the lecturers, so I was not that terribly impressed by some of them. More than 2/3 of us have post graduate qualifications and some of us have more than 20 years working experience. Some of the younger lecturers looked terrified too by the look of apprehension on their faces. I guess you would be too if you are surrounded by 11 acting heads of large government departments or soon to be heads of departments, 4 army colonels, 1 police superintendent and the soon to be deputy head of the internal security. At that point I was taking time off from running a $1 billion retirement fund agency.

What I enjoyed most was not the courses but the going back to student life. The essay writings, the assignments, the readings were hectic but was not overly taxing. I completed all my assignments early as they were not particularly tough and spent practically all my time designing my website which is up and running now as the world famous (a bit of self promotion there) The website started as a portal for the course lecturers' powerpoints. So instead of everyone asking for a copy of the powerpoint at the end of every lecture, I thought I will do a service by providing a portal so that everyone can download it. I even put up all the groups' projects and papers there. It still is available if anybody wants to get hold of them.

What gets me is the reaction of the students to our presence. UBD students obviously know who we were. They also know our schedule which is normally 8 to 10 am classes, 10 to 11 break and the rest of the day classes. During the 10 to 11 am break, we have a room at the ground floor in FBEPS. Next to the room is an empty foyer facing the chancellor's hall. That foyer can sometimes be full of students and some lady students deliberately took advantage of the fact that these senior people are around having their cigarettes etc. I don't really know what they do as about half of us (the more model students) stay inside our break room whereas the other half, the more sociable ones go out and chat with some of the students. There was one time when one of the students in full compliance of the dresscode was able to be positioned in such a way and showed off more than she should (whether intentionally or otherwise) and that caused a bit of an uproar in the breakroom. There is a way to go round the dresscodes. Maybe I should leave it there for the time being.
(to be continued?)

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Golf Economics

My 6 year old and I went to the Empire Driving Range yesterday afternoon. It was an extremely hot day and we looked like lobsters being baked. My son's face was flushed red and so was mine. But we had to go and do our drives. It was the first time in about 3 weeks that I actually went to the driving range and boy, did my balls go haywire. My son was trying out the new kids golf set that I got for him from Surabaya. He hit about 50 meters and mine I think at most went about 100 meters (those that actually went that far). Some of course went a few inches at most. We envied those golfers that managed 200+ meters.

During the intervals, cooling down when the last 10 balls only went a few inches, I was working out how much a driving range and a golf course actually makes. I worked out that a driving range is really a money making venture. When you think about it, a golf range comprise of about a couple of acres of land, lots of fourth hand golf balls, mats, and a roof. I mean that's not really that much cost to making one once you have the land handy. In Japan, they don't even have the land but just use netting to keep the balls from going outside the driving range.

A quick check on the internet shows that there are plentiful number of driving ranges in the US (approximately 16,000 total, 3,000 of which are off-course or stand-alone ranges). However according to the US sports economists, the business has long been characterized by lackluster revenue and low profits. This is in spite of the 20 million users generating 100 million visits as of 1999). Through information from ForeCast Golf, shows the median range generates less than $500,000 in annual revenue and approximately $55,000 in profit. Wow. That's the US version. I don't know if you can translate that to local market. But it is kinda profitable when you think about it even if the US don't think so.

It maybe is a different matter for golf courses. But recently when I was waiting for my bags in Korea after a flight from Kuala Lumpur through Kota Kinabalu, all I see are every other Korean with a golf bag. Half of the plane must have consisted of golf players of both sexes. The other half are shoppers with bulging shopping bags. You can hear the cash registers ringing here. Maybe with the slowly increasing number of tourists coming over here from Korea and Japan, it is high time for us to start considering building more driving ranges and for that matter building more golf courses. After a while, they do want variety and golf tourists get awfully tired of playing at the same golf courses over and over again. And the 5 that we have here currently are not enough.

Distance does not seem to matter too. In Surabaya, some of the golf courses were about a couple of hours drive from Surabaya and they still attract golf players. Even if we build all our new courses in Seria and Tutong, they will still be less than an hour away! If you build it, they will come. I don't know about you. But I do think someone better work out the economics of golf range and golf courses here and see whether these will be better investments than any smelting or methanol plants.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Legislative Council Sessions

The Brunei Legislative Council (Legco) has completed its second meeting of the 2006 session. Our local newspaper has no doubt kept its part in making sure that the debates are well covered as well as entertaining readers in hinting at certain policies (for instance, saying policy of no salary rises, when there was no mention at all about no salary rises etc - there was a speech saying that the present amount was made up of certain rises but nothing in that speech indicating that there was no salary rises). All in all, it was an interesting session and befitting the more mature level of the Brunei society.

I was lucky to be sitting in during the last two days of the debates. If it was not for the Surabaya trip and my principal's sudden health problem, I would have sat throughout the entire 5 day session. But 2 out of 5 is as good as it gets. Actually members of the public could have come and see the debates for themselves. I thought that was a bit of wasted opportunity not to have university students and school students (senior ones) not to have come during the debates. Hopefully when the new permanent building is ready, it would be fun to bring in visitors.

Most of us civil servants learn what it like to serve the ministers who sat in front. There was frantic note taking and speech writing amongst us. Laptops and pendrives abound. If there was a power supply, printers would have no doubt been brought in as well. Luckily printing can be done at the Secretariat. With sms from the ministers asking for facts and figures, it was indeed hectic and really reminded me of the situation in other parliaments. Public accountability is suddenly a key word that we civil servants have to remember.

Though the members are supposedly non partisan but the leftists are more vocal (those on the left) than the rightists - the chamber was divided into left and right. The left are the 'non-government' members and the right was the 'government' members made up of all the Cabinet Ministers and one Deputy Minister (Defence). The left members take the opportunity to raise issues and represent their constituencies and the right members giving the reply. So you have all sorts of issues being raised by the leftists - ranging from automatic citizenship to payhikes for civil servants, Islamic University in Temburong to grass cutting contracts to be given to Village Consultative Council. The range was indeed wide and befitting that of the public's concerns.

Though I was disturbed by the lack of debate on the more serious national issues like crime, unemployment, economic development and I really thought it was wasting the council's time to debate the $1 parking charge at RIPAS or even grass cutting on roadsides. These are no doubt concerns of the public but we missed the opportunity to raise those 'bigger' issues. Well, this is only the second meeting of the 2006 session. I hope that we will have a third meeting soon and there are more legislations to debate (I was given a figure of about 200 legislations in the pipeline by someone in the Attorney General's Chambers). To complete all 200 will be a very long debate indeed. But we all look forward to it.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Inventors Get Nothing

I was reading last night or rather rereading one of Bill Bryson's books. I have lost count how many times I have read his books, I still find the books humourous and refeshing. I am also afraid to say that I am beginning to copy that style which is really really bad. Not that the style is bad but copying is and this is mostly psychological (you read a person's work over and over again, you can't help but get it into you) and not deliberate. His dry sense of humour is something that I would love to have.

Anyway, he was writing about America and in one particular chapter about the poor success of some Americans. Americans have invented many things but sometimes neglect to be able to cash in on that invention. The more recent ones include the poor sod who wrote the original Operating System (OS) for practically all the PCs used in the world. It was definitely not Bill Gates. I remembered in the early 1980s when PCs were just going to be the rage, IBM wanted an OS and Microsoft (then a fledgling company) offered theirs. Microsoft got theirs from a company who was selling PCDOS and repackaged it as MSDOS (MS standing for Microsoft and D standing for Disk). Microsoft grew from there when their OS became the de facto world standard. And look where they are now. What happened to PCDOS? No one knows.

Bill Bryson mentioned Goodyear which almost everyone would know this tyre company name. It was Goodyear who invented the vulcanised rubber which literally enable rubbers to be put on roads. However Goodyear did not patent the process and earn nothing from being the inventor of rubber tyres. And the Goodyear tyre compan? The company was started by a couple of entrepreneurs who liked the name Goodyear and used it. The Goodyear company has no link whatsoever to the man who invented the tyre.

Another one is Morse. This is the famous Morse code. Morse was said to have invented the telegraph system and recognised as one and hence at the same time made famous the use of the Morse code to transmit messages. Remember in those days, there was no telephone yet. The poor sod who invented the telegraph is never mentioned. Only Morse got to keep the honour and reap all the money as well.

Surprisingly the most famous Americans was Alexander Graham Bell. He invented the telephone and probably changed the way we all lived forever. The only problem is that he is not American! Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1847 and moved to Canada in 1870. His patent for the telephone was granted in 1876. His company the Bell Telephone Company founded in 1877 became the biggest company in America. Bell's telephone actually grew out of improvements he made to the telegraph. And guess what? Bell is not the inventor of telephones. In 2002, the United States Congress officially recognized Antonio Meucci, an Italian as the inventor of the telephone, denying Bell's claim to its invention! (Though the Canadian Parliament retaliated by passing a resolution that Bell was the only inventor of the telephone).

I guess the only lesson here is that, you don't really have to invent something to be famous. But if you, you better make sure that yours is patented and protected. Now, where is that Patent Act?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Cigarettes Lesson

Cigarette factories are not places where most people got to visit often. I am not a smoker myself but I find cigarettes to be fascinating stuffs. Though admittedly there was a stage where one does try to experiment and during those times, one can discover a great many things. For instance, Japanese cigarettes are so tasteless that I don't even see the point of them having cigarettes at all. Whereas the Indonesians ones are so full of taste including having spices and all sorts of things in them that it is very difficult to keep in. Most others come in between.

During my Surabaya trip, we were taken to see the cigarettes factory at Soemporna. If you are a smoker, Soemporna produces about 8 different types of cigarettes. The most familiar is the A symbol and the Dji Sam Soe 234 logos. Just in case you are interested, the 8 are: Sampoerna A King (Filtered Kretek); Sampoerna A Mild (Filtered Kretek); Sampoerna A Mild Menthol (Filtered Kretek); Sampoerna Exclusive (Filtered); Sampoerna A Hijau (Unfiltered Kretek); Sampoerna Hijau AGA (Unfiltered Kretek); Dji Sam Soe 234 (Filtered Kretek); and Dji Sam Soe 234 (Unfiltered Kretek).

Sampoerna was founded in 1913 by a Chinese immigrant called Liem Seeng Tee and started its success story with the unfiltered Cigarette version of Dji Sam Soe, until today it is considered as one of the finest tobacco and clove combinations in the market. Cigarettes with tobacco and cloves are called Kreteks in Indonesia. The visit to the museum and factory of the House of Soemporna will be made up of the history of Liem and his humble beginnings. He was brave enough in those days to put up the 'Ong' or 'King' chinese character symbol on his Dji Sam Soe product and his favourite number of '9' made up by the 2, 3, 4 on the cover.

At the back of the museum is the factory. The Dji Sam Soe brand is still handmade apparently, rolled by Indonesian factory workers. It was a flurry of activities there. For every hour, each girl can roll 400 cigarettes, trimmed 1,200 cigarerettes and packaged 200 packets. We tried our hands doing it but it will be years before we reached the speed of those girls. The other brands are all machine made. But here is the thing. The Liem family despite the museum does not own the brand or the factory anymore. The whole thing - factory, brand, museum etc is owned by Phillip Morris. The family does not even own a single share of the company anymore.

What amazes me is the fact that an international company owned what is one of the most venerable brand in Indonesia and you would have great difficulty in knowing who the owner is. Even at PM website, it does not even list out the Sampoerna or Dji Sam Soe as one of their products. PM by the way makes 761 billion cigarettes in 2004, if distributed to everyone on earth, each of us would get 126 cigarettes (about 10 packs each). I am just amazed at how much the world's consumption of cigarettes is and just how much they keep their business activities quiet. Maybe there is a lesson somewhere here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Tourist Attractions

I mentioned the Churchill Museum in one of my earlier spaces.msn blogs on tourism spots. I would just like to bring the subject up again as I received comments on how nice the aquarium was and apparently there used to be a snake exhibits as well. I don't remember the snakes at first but now that it was brought up, I do remember vaguely some form of exhibits on snakes and some reptiles too. Though my better half says they were never there.

This is where this bad memories come in. When you look back nostalgically, everything looked fine and grand in the old days. I don't remember how it was at the aquarium or the snake exhibits. I remember going there and it was nice and fun but you also have to take into account that in the old days, there wasn't anything else to see so there was nothing to compare that too. Honestly speaking, I thought the Churchill memorial was fun too especially the toy soldiers that Churchill played with. I remember longing to be able to touch them and play with them at that time.

However it does emphasise the fact that you don't really need something grand and big for you to be a tourist attraction. The Geneva waterspout is a simple thing to put up. Teddy Bear Museums seemed to be popular and being put up all over the place. Little mermaid statutes in Denmark. Even an old submarine as in Surabaya - the monkasel docked on land and shown to the world became a tourist attraction. We have tried something like that, the old tractors at Damuan Park - my son loved those. Let's get those imagination going. What else is there we can put up and make them into tourist attractions?

Does anyone remember the snakes at the old Churchill Museum?

Monday, March 20, 2006

Long Walks at Airports

The trudging long walk to Gate F60 at the Changi International Airport to get to the RBA airplane is a real pain. I must have gone over like 5 travellators and still see no sign of F60, it's like climbing up the first bukit at Shahbandar. You go up this hill and everytime you looked up, you still have not seen the top but when you do reach the top and then you looked back, you realised how far you really are. That's what F60 looked like.

All sorts of things come up to mind during that long walk. I remembered at Heathrow Airport, if your flight gate is a long walk, they actually tell you that you flight gate is a certain time distance away like half an hour walk or something. So you do know what you are getting yourself into. So that's something to mark down Changi Airport for not having that facility. Another thought was, is the distance of the flight gate proportionate to the amount of fees the airlines pay? If so, either RBA is getting broke and unable to pay the high fees to be nearer the teriminal or RBA is not getting value for money by being given miles away gate.

Actually I have a strong suspicion, RBA is the one asking for the far away gate. When I was the PA to a VVIP, it used to be fun getting out early as that end gate is actually the first gate to the Changi Airport VVIP room. Presumably all flights which have VVIPs on board will end up on that gate as RBA does not use the end gate all the time. There are times when the plane does arrive at a gate slightly further up like F53 or F51. So I have not been able to verify that proportionate to distance fee yet. Though when one is lugging alone duty free stuffs and a hand luggage, forced to walk that mile walk, boy, you sure are not in an optimistic mood.

Though the Brunei Airport itself is no longer known as short walks. Gates 7 and 8 are also far especially when you are walking from the VIP room. I learned to ask the VIP pink ladies about gates and remind them if it is Gate 6 above, I have to start walking earlier as I don't want to be the cause why a plane is delayed. Mind you, we are still lucky RBA still operates. When if is no longer there and the replacement is the equivalent of a Brunei Air Asia, then be prepared to walk everywhere including down the airplane's steps as budget terminals are now built without aerobridges. Hmm, reminds me of Surabaya Airport climbing up and down those stairs.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Poverty and Power

Poverty, tenacity, inventiveness and ingenuity make an interesting combination and provides a number of people their meagre day to day living. In two days of staying at Surabaya, I have seen the various ways of making a living especially for those in the wrong end of the society's spectrum.

It started to rain yesterday when we were waiting for our car, other people started gathering at the foyer unable to get to their cars. And not a moment sooner, a bunch of kids turned up with umbrellas offering their umbrella services for whoever who wanted to use them for a small token fee. The rain was a bit sudden and surprisingly these kids have been ready for quite a while, otherwise they would not have turned up like ants when you unknowingly drop something sweet on the floor. Other ways of making money include the obvious selling newspapers and other what nots to drivers when their cars are stuck at the traffic lights; and helping to look after your cars when parked - a protection service.

Another interesting way was the singing with guitars at drivers. I thought this was fairly useless as most cars have got their windows wound up and can barely hear the singing. And besides you are only at the traffic light for a couple of minutes at most and even if you do request for a song, which I am sure those kids would not know, you would have move on. My officer's husband remarked that the fee they wanted to collect is to make them go away - a go-away fee! The kids figure if they annoy someone long enough, they might get a few cents. Do this the whole day, it might make a living for them. According to our driver, these people can make around Rp40,000 ($8) on a bad day. Mind you when graduates earn around Rp3,000,000 ($600) a month, $8 a bad is not too bad.

The one I have not yet seen is the help to carry your bags service. I saw this in Islamabad when kids and even adult men offer to carry your shopping for you for a very small fee. I have not been here long enough, I might see that.

I find it sad that a large powerful country like Indonesia are seen as a poor country. It is not easy looking after 200 million people with a large gap between the haves and the have-nots. In our region, we may need someone who can stand up for us. A country that we can depend on should things go wrong. It is a pity that Indonesia cannot play that role yet. Maybe one day I hope it will.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

European Invaders

The Indonesians still have a thing against the European invaders. It must have been due to those Dutch people who used to be the overlords in Indonesia. A lot of monuments have been built all over Indonesia commemorating their struggles for independence. In surabaya the most famous was the Heroes Monument (Tugu Pahlawan) which is the most well known of all heroes' statutes all over the city. Surprisingly it is not as big as you thought or even not as ornate or decoratve as you expect it to be. Its simplicity says it all.

Another monument is the Red Bridge (Jembatan
Merah) where apparently the bloodiest battle in the history of Indoesia took place - the Battle of Surabaya. Near the Red Bridge is the China Town where it is only open at night, during the daytime, it is a very busy trade area. The China Town surprisingly is known as Kembang Jepun in Surabaya which literally means Japan Blooming or if you want to be a bit insulting the Blooming Japanese, read in the spirit of anti-invaders, this may be it.

One celebrated hotel is the Mandarin Oriental Majapahit Hotel. It's one of four of a kind hotels built throughour the region. The others are Raffles Hotel in Singapore, Eno Hotel in Penang and one more which I can't remember. The Surabayar one had a bitter history known among others it used to be known as LMS, Orange Hotel (orange being the Dutch colour), Yamato Hotel, Hoteru Hotel and used to be the European and Netherlands center and during the Japanese occupation became a Japanese centre as well. Apparently sometime in 1945, there was a 'flag incident' when the Indonesians tore the white, red and blue of the Dutch flag to become the white and red of Indonesia. This incident made the Netherlands very angry.

Of course, the clincher of anti-Europeans are the labels in my hotel room at the Shangri La Surabaya. The first is the label in the bathroom above the washing basins. The label says 'tap water not recommended for drinking' which is obviously the hotel politely telling you, if you want the drink the water from the tap, go ahead, but we are not recommending it. The label was bilingual. The Indonesian version however says a more sternly 'tidak layak diminum' - translated as 'unfit for consumption'. That's like a major difference between "not recommended for drinking" (not drinking is optional) and "unfit for consumption" (there is no choice)! Whereas the label near the kettle - "we recommend you use the tap water in the kettle" - that same unfit for consumption water. I guess that's the Indonesian way - we hope you get sick drinking our water - serve you right for invading us all those years ago.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Are You Flying?

When you are on a plane at night getting ready to land and the flight attendants announced that they will dim all the lights and request us to open all the blinds, have you ever wondered what those instructions are for? I have always been curious about as to why should the plane's interior lights be dimmed as I thought the brighter the plane, it would be fairly visible to everyone on the ground that there is a plane coming down and not just some red lights. And at the same time, if the lights are switched off, so why bother to open the blinds since the lights are not seen anyway.

I have asked a few flight attendants, I think the answer I get the most is that, that's the flight instructions and the regulations and we have to follow it. Not the best of all answers obviously. Yesterday I finally got an answer. I was sitting next to a German gentleman and he said that the reasons are a bit morbid. Both are to help passengers and rescurers should the plane crash on landing. By dimming the lights, the passengers' eyes are used to the darkness and if an aircrash happen, the passengers will be able to find their way about. And the blinds - same thing - it is so that rescuers outside can see whether or not there are passengers still sitting trapped in their seats. Now that realy makes you wonder the next time the flight attendants announced that they are switching the lights off.

I was on a flight once and I saw a big family group whose father was an invalid. His children thought that by sitting him in the aisle seat, it would be easier for him to go out if he needs to go to the toilet. Apparently, according to the flight attendants, he is not allowed to sit in the aisle seat. Invalids have to sit near the window. The reason is that they may impede the others if he sat in the aisle seat should a crash happen. I am in two minds about this. By sitting him near the window, it's going to be harder trying to get him out during an emergency. Are we supposed to leave him there or what? I guess the rule is applying extremely cold logic - it is the price of two passengers life as opposed to one invalid passenger.

On my way coming to Juanda Airport at Surabaya, as always being a model plane collector, I love to see all the airplanes and guessing what models they were. However the one sight that stunned me a bit was actually a Lion Air plane that was left by the sides of the runaway which recently crashed two days ago! It must have overrun or skidded along the runaway as the nose of the plane is stuck in the mud. It was a sobering thought and what with all this talk about crashes and so on - it really makes me wonder whether I should reject any overseas meeting from now on.

PS. By the way I checked. The odds of being killed on a single trip on an automobile is 7.6 million to 1 and on an airliner is 52.6 million to 1! We are more likely to die in a car accident than in an airliner. Let's fly!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Responsible Lawmakers

I was one of few lucky people invited to attend the first day of the new Brunei Legislative Council session. It was interesting as I have never attended one anywhere else in the world before. Though I have visited a few parliaments or the equivalent of our legislative council in other countries but not while they are in session. Today's ceremony was full of pomp and ceremony. I was quite surprised to see one of the ICC halls being converted into a parliamentary chamber. In fact nobody would have recognised that room as I remember that room very well, we held one of the ASEAN ministers meeting there. The transformation was like entering one of Star Trek's 3-D room where they have this virtual reality thing.

I remember in my political study days in UK, that the pomp and ceremony actually are part of the culture and work of the parliamentary process. It keeps the civility and the checks and balances. I remembered back then, around early 1980s, we had this fierce debate whether or not to televised the parliamentary debates. Nowadays it is televised but the glamour seems to have been lost and the BBC never shows the pomp and ceremony side of it but only the rowdier part. Of course it's worse in Korea and Taiwan, fist fights occur frequently that everytime they showed it on television, nobody is shocked anymore. I guess that happens when the pomp and ceremony is gone. Legislative council arguments became common arguments and not privileged speeches anymore.

Unfortunately I won't be able to watch the Brunei Legislative Council sessions during my absence the next few days but I will be back by next week and I will want to watch the debates. And hah! I have already got my security pass to get in. This will be the first time in more than 20 years that the government budget will be debated and it will be interesting to see how our fledgling lawmakers deal with the budget. Without the budget, the government will not be able to operate by the coming fiscal year starting April. It will even be more interesting to see how the lawmakers deal with other legislations later on. Supply Bills (that is how budgets are passed) are easy, other legislations as they become more complex are harder.

That is an issue which we as the people have not grappled with. Legislative chambers discuss policies and in doing so passes legislations. There are a number of infrastructure that we need to put in place. The Legislative Council supporting staff need to have a whole legal team in place, the members of the council themselves need to have an office with its supporting staff hopefully legally trained as well. Otherwise our legislative council will not not be able to carry out the task it is supposed to do which is to legislate. So if you know of any aspiring lawmakers, please help by keeping the professionalism of our legislative chambers by reminding them of the need for them to know of the legal system and the legal infrastructure. It's not enough just to sit down and represent the people. We need to make sure that they passed the right laws and that they represent us well.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Brunei's First Public Debts Through Sukuk Al-Ijarah

The Brunei Government will have its first public debt very soon. The Finance Ministry officially launched the short term Brunei Dollar Islamic Bond Sukuk Al-Ijarah yesterday. The questions which a lot of people are asking - what is sukuk and why is the government issuing this?

To the completely uninitiated, a bond is basically an IOU note issued by the government which you buy and the government promises to pay you back after a specified period with an interest, or the government pays you a yearly interest or a combination of the two depending on the type of bond you buy. In the meantime the government uses your money for whatever purposes it wants to do. It may be used to balance the budget, to build new schools or whatever. This is essentially an overdraft by the government with only the trust of the government as its collateral. The interest which the government promises to pay depend on how much you trust the government. A poor and not so trusted government may have to pay higher interests so that you as an investor will be willing to buy its bonds. However in the Islamic Principles, any type of bond that contains the element of interest (or riba) is prohibited.

An Islamic Bond (known as sukuk) is, on the face of it, similar to the above. You as the investor will still get whatever returns the government promises when you buy the government bonds. The government still gets its hands on your money to do whatever it wants. But the major difference is the principles behind it. Unlike a conventional bond, the Islamic bond will be dependent not just on the goodwill of the government but will be based on an income or returns made by the government. In the case of the Brunei Islamic Sukuk, the government will base the bond on an income stream or revenue from the rental of government buildings built on government lands. You as the investor is indirectly part owner of the income stream and should the government default, then you can go to the court and force the government to pay that income stream to you to compensate for the sukuk that you bought. Unlike the conventional bond, where you have only the goodwill of the government, in the Brunei Islamic sukuk, you actually have a handle on something tangible.

Back to the most important question - why is the Brunei government doing this? Doesn't the government have enough money? I can assure you that the government in the present $60 a barrel oil price, has more than sufficient revenues. The Brunei Government is probably one of the few countries in the world that will be issuing debt notes but actually has no use for the revenues that it generates.

It issues the Islamic sukuk because of several technical reasons - firstly, to create a capital market as currently there is not much financial activity to stimulate the market and hence the government has to step in. Secondly, it is to generate an international rating as rating agencies have not been able to rate the country's sovereign rating and by having sovereign rating, then private sector issuance in Brunei can also be rated. Thirdly, this is to help the private sector be able to raise capital directly from the market by issuing bonds and other instruments cheaply as compared to borrowing from the banks and with rating agencies providing ratings, those instruments can be marketed internationally.

At the same time, even though the government has no immediate use for the additional revenues generated from the sukuks, the government may invest the revenues and keep whatever profits it make after paying off the investors. The government may also opt not to use its own investment savings to pay for government expenses and continue to earn a higher rate of return by investing those savings. In the meantime it may be able to use the 'cheaper' funds from the bonds. So, by issuing the sukuks, the government will have for the first time, public debts in its books but at the same time, there will be much more intangible gains that can be had by issuing the sukuks.

So I do hope today's rather serious blog compared to the usual light hearted one, in a nutshell enables you all to know what the Brunei Government Sukuk Al-Ijarah is all about and why the government will be issuing the first B$150 million worth of sukuks by the end of the month. To find out more about sukuk, you can logon to to read the Ministry of Finance's statement as well as to read about an article written by lecturers from Universiti Brunei Darussalam.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

What's in a Name?

I was passing by the Lambak Kanan area and I saw this brand new primary school called the Lambak Kanan Primary School Jalan 19. You probably thought that this is a temporary name. Nope, you are wrong. The name is emblazoned in front of the school gate with big bold brass lettering. So it is permanent. I cannot remember that many schools nowadays having names derived only from the places where they are located. Almost all schools and colleges in Brunei have fancy names. One of the few that I know of that is named after the place is the Berakas Secondary School. Apart from that practically every other ones have some royalty, religious figures or other VIP names in front of it.

Surprisingly, the newly opened Business School in the former UBD campus in Gadong also has no other name. The newly opened Form Sixth Centre in Lambak Kiri, Berakas also has no official name. I am not sure whether this is the latest trend or a deliberate policy by the Education Ministry not to provide names for schools. Previously the Ministry was quite fast in providing names. I am not sure whether we have run out of names but I am sure they will be able to think of something up later on. We don't want to reach the stage in America where a number of schools are just numbers like Primary School Presinct 379 or something like that.

Most other public buildings such as mosques on the other hand are not named very often. We have a number of smaller mosques like the Kampung Kilanas Mosque, Kampung Bunut Mosque and even Sengkurong Mosque. It's only the bigger ones that are named. Post Offices and clinics are not often named. Though the Bunut Health Centre has a name, Golden Jubilee Health Centre or something to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the opening of Kampung Bunut. This may have something to do with the fact that a certain former health official lived there. On the other hand the post office opened at about the same time in Bunut is not named, I guess the Bunutians failed to ensure that one of their own works in the postal ministry.

Naming convention is something we have to consider. In UK, I remember if you want to name something after a person, that person must no longer be alive. To me that is useful. If you are still alive and something is named after you, and if you somehow commit a faux pax later on, then it can be quite embarrasing to have to rename that particular place or to call it another name. I am sure you can think of at least one example. I am not saying we should not honour a person but it is better if the honour is given after one's funeral. That way that honour is safe. Afterall it is very unlikely people would want to withdraw something named after you when you are already dead. It would look mean or something.

But a number of important places remain unnamed in Brunei. Some important roads such as the Berakas Link Road or the Tungku Link Road remained with those temporary names. Some simpangs (side roads) become so important but remained numbered as Simpang 1016-20-30-40 or something like that. The government offices complex is a nightmare if you have never been there. Everybody knows that these buildings exist either in Old Airport area or Jalan Menteri Besar area. But try describing their exact locations and you would really be lost as all these buildings don't have exact addresses apart from the general area they are in. Maybe the next time you meet someone in Public Works, remind them.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Government Employee

A Government Employee tired after surfing the internet and reading the day's blogs, sits in his office and out of boredom, decides to see what's in his old filing cabinet. He pokes through the contents and comes across an old brass lamp.

"This would look nice on my mantelpiece," he thinks, so he takes it home with him.

While polishing the lamp, a genie appears and grants him three wishes.

"I wish for an ice cold diet Pepsi right now!"


A Pepsi appears before him on his desk, so he picks it up and guzzles it all at once.

Now that he can think more clearly, he states his second wish. "I wish to be on an island where beautiful nymphomaniacs reside."


Suddenly he is on an island with gorgeous females eyeing him lustfully.

He then tells the genie his third and last wish: "I wish I'd never have to work ever again."


He's back in his government office surfing the internet and reading the day's blogs.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Simple is Best

I have often argued that simple is best. Too complicated sometimes put people off. By moving to this new blogsite I have decided to go back to simple stuff. Spaces@msn was going too complicated but here it is almost like back to nature.

And that goes the same with attracting people to Brunei. We have already mentioned a few ideas such as including changing of the guards at the Palace, our Royal Regalia Building and a few other things. It struck me of a few other things that I have seen in my extensive travel these last 40 years. I have seen places which tries to think big - Islamaba
d with its wide open avenues but absolutely no traffic and no airport too; some trying to accommodate too much history but with not much development; some doing all sorts of things to stave off the approaching depression etc. Yet the most charming tend to be those that did not really do much.

What is the tourist attraction of Geneva? Other than it being a beautiful city by the lake in Switzerland, there is not much going for it apart from a tradition of watch making. Even then with today's electronic watches, what good is an expensive hand crafted model unless you happen to be a multimillionaire. Interestingly what they have is the tallest manmade water fountain gushing at the lake. Most Geneva photos will have this panorama. And this is nothing. It's just a pump, for goodness sake! A pump pumping water gushing into the air. It doesn't even do anything. No colour, no nothing. Yet millions of people who go to Geneva every year will have his photo taken with that gushing water in the background.

What is there in the city of Copenhagen in Denmark? Other than the biggest flap in the Muslim world about the cartoons published by Denmark's newspaper, Denmark is not really among the most prominent country in the world. And neither does Copenhagen. I have never been there but my father has. He told me it's a beautiful city with one famous tourist attraction. It's a statute of a naked mermaid supposedly the mermaid in one Hans Andersen's fairy tales. You betcha if you end up in Denmark, this is the statute that you will be searching for to have your photo taken with this as a background.

Every places in the world has small statutes or something unique that people want to associate that with the place. Everything has a value that people want. Everything has a price. Sometimes this unique item is not even that old. A culture and a tradition can be started. All you have to do is keep it up. Everything has a beginning. So, think about Brunei. What is it that is unique about Brunei that tourists want to associate with Brunei? Think about our own villages and kampungs. What is there to associate our places? Most importantly, can we keep it up? Sprucing something up or building something up is easy. The hard bit is keeping it up.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Bad Brunei Bookshops

The Singapore Straits Times had an interesting article called the good bad books. The good bad books just mean books that are very poor in terms of accuracy of details but are just plain good reads. The most famous currently being the Da Vinci Code written by Dan Brown. A movie starring Tom Hanks is currently being produced but this is pending the outcome of the trial of the infringement copyright as another author had claimed that Dan Brown wrote Da Vinci Code based on his book The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail. I thought the book was an interesting read and since I don't know anything about the conspiracy theory with regard to that aspect of the religion, it was an eye opener. The Harry Potter books are also good. Some would argue that the Harry Potter series are included in this good bad books categories. To me, does it matter? What matters, is that the books sell.

So, is there a bad good book? Yes, according to the ST, though I won't repeat the lists here. I haven't read any of those books myself so it would not be fair to prejudge these so called bad good books. Though it's kinda a misnomer to call something bad good books.

Anyway, I don't know about you. I am not really bothered with accuracy in fictions. Afterall, it is a fiction we are reading. If you want accuracy, read a documentary book or watch the Discovery Channel or something. Fiction writers are supposed to explore their world and make use of those imagination. They don't call it creative writing if you have to stick accurately to whatever is going on. Though the danger of sticking to something accurately is that your book will age very quickly. Events passed and your books will pass too. Jeffery Archer's books are cases in point. Written mostly during the Thatcher era, if you pick up the books again, you know the setting is 20 years old.

I would love to argue about books but there is hardly anyone to argue with in Brunei. Our bookshops are, if I may use such a word, crap. We don't have the equivalent of a small Kinokuniya or MPH or Borders or Barnes and Noble. I am not asking for a huge mega one but just a small store will do. But I am waiting in vain. Booker International is about the best one there is and will be, some would argue Best Eastern too which I have to grudgingly admit (though reject books P&E will never be one). But these are no where near the standards of bookshops that I would want to have in Brunei.

The question is - is it us in Brunei that do not want all these? The last Book Fair which took place at the Indoor Stadium as all previous few years' Book Fair is an indication of the kind of books that we read in this country. Honestly I walked in and out in about 10 to 15 minutes flat. If it wasn't for a couple of books that my son wanted to get, none of the book vendors would have received a single cent from me. Am I being snobbish? I don't think so. The quality of the books being presented is simply awful. If you wanted a text book exhibition, by all means have one. If you want a religious book exhibition, go ahead. But to lump everything under one and called it a Book Fair is something which can get you sued for false advertising.

I find it sad that we as a nation with a very high level of literacy rates (98%) cannot find the time to appreciate good books. Until we have decent enough bookstores, I am still relying on
and to provide me with the books that I need.

Friday, March 10, 2006

How to Make a Woman Happy


To make a woman happy..... A man only needs to be:
1. A friend
2. A companion
3. A lover
4. A brother
5. A father
6. A master
7. A chef
8. An electrician
9. A carpenter
10. A plumber
11. A mechanic
12. A decorator
13. A stylist
16. A psychologist
17. A pest exterminator
18. A psychiatrist
19. A healer
20. A good listener
21. An organizer
22. A good father
23. Very clean
24. Sympathetic
25. Athletic
26. Warm
27. Attentive
28. Gallant
29. Intelligent
30. Funny
31. Creative
32. Tender
33. Strong
34. Understanding
35. Tolerant
36. Prudent
37. Ambitious
38. Capable
39. Courageous
40. Determined
41. True
42. Dependable
43. Passionate

44. Give her compliments regularly
45. Love shopping
46. be honest
47. be very rich
48. Not stress her out
49. Not look at other girls

50. Give her lots of attention, but expect little yourself
51. Give her lots of time, especially time for herself
52. Give her lots of space, never worrying about where she goes

53. Never to forget:
* Birthdays
* Anniversaries
* Arrangements she makes



1. Leave him alone

Airplane Security

I will be leaving for Surabaya next week to attend a central bankers meeting. Central bankers love to have meetings. I noted that the agenda even though heavy with materials but was also heavy with social programmes (one that involves a stick and a tiny little ball which you play on acres of spaces). I think it's something to do with the fact that in most countries, central bankers are the highest earning people in the entire government infrastructure. Unfortunately, I am only representing the equivalent of our central bank, so we don't earn as much as in other countries.

Whenever I travel, what always tickle me will always be the security checks at the airports. It's not just our airports but airports all over the world, the security people have been briefed that nothing sharp should be carried on board. And this includes of all things, nail clippers, tiny little scissors, nail file and any other sharp stationeries. I have seen too many cases where all these have been confiscated and most people could never be bothered to ask for them at the end of the flight from the captain and so all these items end up at airports. I am just wondering where the storage site is for all these things because these will pile up. The funny thing is, once they have taken all these stuff away from you, the airline will serve you food with cutlery far deadlier than all the stuff that the security people have taken from you. The knife and the fork can really be more dangerous than a nail clipper. I smile about this everytime the airline served me.

I once flew from Zurich bringing in one of RBA's new Airbus A320 plane. The brand new A320 was at Zurich undergoing last minute fitting of the entertainment system before flying to Brunei. The work was done by Swissair Technics. Swissair Technics incidentally was formerly the engineering arm of Swissair. The engineering arm actually made lots of money but Swissair itself did not. So the airline closed down but the engineering spinoff continue until today. Maybe a lesson there for RBA. Anyway, we did not have that much spare time in Zurich to go round shopping and when the Swissair Technics people hear that we did not have the time to search for the famous Swiss Army knives, they were a bit upset. So, the next day, when it was time for us to fly back to Brunei, at the door of the airplane (we flew from the factory runaway and all of us were very unlikely to hijack our own plane, so there was no security check), the Swissair Technics people was handing to each of us, a Swiss Army multipurpose knife! Each of us (about 10 of us) are now armed with the most dangerous of all weapons getting on board that flight. We had a good laugh about it on the way back to Brunei. That was the first time (and probably the last time) I ever had a real knife with me on board a plane.

I guess the lesson here is, whoever it is that is going to do a bad deed will know what to do. I am least worried about the little nail clipper someone brings on board but I am more worried about other things including all those other personnel who goes in and out of airplanes, I sure hope someone monitors them carefully.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Much Ado About Nothing

I never realised just how infuriarating spaces.msn has become of late. I am not sure whether it's because I have so much material or there is a conflict between spaces and mozilla or something. I have been looking to move out for quite a while. Maybe I should do so now. A couple of bloggers have persuaded me that spaces.msn is not the place to be in. One of my loyal commentator also noted his difficulty in making comments, maybe I will just take the plunge. Blogger, here we come!

Anything Mircosoft touches always become cursed somehow. In one of my earliest blogs I mentioned that I was once a subscriber to MSN when I was studying in the USA in the 1990s. Man, I can assure you JTB will beat MSN hands down when it comes to service. MSN tries very hard to be the in-thing but you can always sense the insincerity that they exude. Which is a pity because that's not what you want them to be. I remember during the Clinton reelection. I could not even log on after dialing hundreds of time (there was no broadband at that time). The only respond I could get from them was when I wrote in for the last time to tell them to cancel my subscription. They only ask why and my answer was something quite polite of telling them that I was leaving US instead of the many interesting &*&#$&#()?>"}+%# verbs, adjectives and adverbs I wanted to use. It wasn't that cheap either at that time. It cost me about US$19.95 ($35) a month then.

Life in the US was interesting. The Americans can be so damned innocent sometime and they can be so bloody ignorant like the Malay proverb 'katak bawah tempurong' or frogs under coconut shells. Some of them despite working in a travel agent have absolutely no idea whether Brunei existed! True, I kid you not. And this is in the City of Boston. If you go somewhere like Wichia or something, they probably thought the world is made up of only two countries, America and not America. Though I loved their supermarkets! They are so huge and so ... undescribable. I would spend hours just going through miles of cereals shelves. You won't believe the number of cereals that are actually available there. Live lobsters only cost $3 or less a pound. $10 can get you a huge cooked one complete with butter and lemon. Their food portions are scary too. Food is mountain high. Amazing. And surprisingly cheap too. I remember you can get a bushel of strawberries for about US$2 and when an immigrant strawberry worker died in California (about 3000 miles away from Boston), strawberries prices plummeted down to about US$1 for two bushels. I was buying them by the crateload and have absolutely no worries.

So, what's today's lessons? Nothing, I guess. I think I will just become a blogger like the Seinfeld tv series - the tv series about nothing, so in this case the blog about nothing. I don't have to be under pressure all the time to ensure that all of you are entertained.

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