Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Team Polaris

They were a joy to be with. Never failed to seize the moment to generate fun, they did it through cooking, cleaning and other daily rituals. They are NTU undergraduates, from different schools but united through a common cause: to give what they are called: Pieces of Love and Radiance in Smiles.

I was introduced to this expedition some months ago when I gave a talk at NTU for their Monthly Dose of Islam Series. Privately, I harboured the intent to do humanitarian work in Cambodia for many years when I watched the video produced by the YMS team for their expedition and community service circa 2001/2002. The team built a school building at one of the villages. So when I was informed that NTUMS is organising an expedition to Cambodia, I asked whether I could join the team without a second thought. Just soon after making this commitment, I realised it was not possible to be away from work for the entire expedition period. Nurfaiezah (or affectionately known by her team-mates as Faz) who is the team leader accommodated my constraints on the number of days I could be in the expedition. Later almost a week before departure she acceded my request for Muslim to join me on this expedition. Many thanks -- Faz.

Although I am acquainted with 3 of the team members (Faz, Acap and Abud), all others in the team were total strangers to me and Muslim. I reckoned some had felt uncomfortable and awkward by my presence in the team as we squeezed ourselves (including Pitou) in someone's bedroom for the nightly debriefs -- particularly those who have always saw the "serious" me at NTUMS. The generation gap was obvious, what more with the title "Dr" to my name.

During the introductory session (on arrival at Phnom Penh) I told the team that I came to learn from the young for me to be younger. When Muslim and I were addressed as their guests, I asked them not to accord us any special privileges, but to assign us duties just like any member of the team. Faz jokingly volunteered me to do dinner the first night at Sihanoukville -- and dinner we did (although I played a very small part, as a kitchen hand for that evening).

I tried to contribute and do whatever it takes to be part of the team, including dancing to the "hoky poky" song at the slump school, playing scissors-paper-stone with a three-year old girl, five stones (literally stones) with the children at the yard, kick-tossing the chap-teh with Zul and the boys, raking up the soil for the eco-garden, among other acts. Mariam, one of the team member, remarked that I am the epitome of "there's a kid in all of us", for her farewell message to me.

We bonded like family through Angels and Mortals, Blow Wind Blow, Tuki Tuki, Karaoke-ing and having meals together. These activities, the fun and the accompanying laughter re-energised our tired bodies, replenished our enthusiasm and kept our spirits high. The occasional tears and emotional intermissions, along with tasbih kafarah united us in spirit and soul.

I joined the team to learn from the young and to get some youthful inspiration. These young undergraduates had indeed taught me lessons. Their enthuasiasm, spontaneity, patience and resilience inspired me.

They strengthened the optimism I have on our young. I am deeply grateful to be in their team and very proud of each and everyone of them.

Team Polaris (and Polaroids: Faeizah, Nahri, Nafisah, Mira, Fasihah, Fiza, Nurul, Shila, Iz, Azzah, Mariam, Syuadah, Linh, Abud, Nadz, Shameera, Yaya, Zul, Khairil, Pitou, Ashraf and Muslim) -- You Rockz!

Monday, June 21, 2010

M'Lop Tapang Centre for Street Children

Founded by 4 young Khmers, M'Lop Tapang was conceived under the shade of a tree on the beach, hence its name. The organisation has been offering care and support to young people at risk in Sihanoukville since 2003. It provides access to education, medical care, counselling, vocational training and recreational activities while protecting the children from all forms of abuse.

We were greeted by Wanti, the education officer of M'Lop Tapang as he stood by a yellow coloured truck -- our transport from the guest house to the centre for the coming days. The ride was fun. We stood on the truck and enjoyed every bump as the driver negotiated the potholed roads and narrow lanes. But the fun was shortlived when we arrived at the centre. The sight of young children, many without footwears and shirts or tops sank our hearts. Later we saw babies in the baby room lying down on the floor without shorts and diapers. We were guided to the meeting room (on the upper floor of the building) for the welcoming remarks by the Director of the centre.

Despite the humongous challenge confronting them -- to provide non-formal education to the street children with the hope that they eventually be admitted to state schools, against the wishes of their parents who rather have them on the streets and beaches to beg or sell knick-knacks for an income to the family -- both Wanti and his Director appeared calm and collected sourced almost by an inherent inner peace, I reckoned.

The children crowded around us, everytime we arrived at the main centre, or at the slump schools. Many clinged to us, as though they found their long lost parents. Their deep eyes, troubled looks and erratic (and aggressive) behaviours were expressions of untold stories and psychological conditions. We came to offer help, but instead discovered our own human frailties as we wrestled our emotions, and the fear of giving these children the false hope and expectations of love.

Can we detach ourselves from the emotions and get the job which we came for, done? Should we not smile, hold their hands when they grabbed ours and play games with them to show that we care? Perhaps, this is what matters to them, and will make them happy.

We came to conduct art and basic numeracy classes at the centre, and build an eco-garden on the grounds of the slump school. Most of us were not prepared for the emotional roller-coaster but we took it in our stride. By the end of each day, many in the team "adopted" a child or children, and bonded with them.

It was selfless giving and receiving all day, everyday. We came to give, but I felt we were the beneficiaries instead.

A truly awesome life-changing experience for me.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Cambodia: First Impressions

First impressions have a powerful place in memory, and so it is that I remember with startling clarity stepping out of Pochentong Airport on 15 June 2010. I was an "unofficial" member of the POLARIS expedition and we had to spend a night in Phnom Penh before travelling to Kampong Som (Sihanoukville) where M'Lop Tapang is based.

Pitou, our contact in Cambodia greeted us on arrival. Slim-built, unassuming yet competent, gracious and extremely helpful. A student of tourism at the local university, Pitou organised our programme, accommodation, transport and acted as our translator.

Pochentong Airport is about 2.5 miles away from the centre of Phnom Penh, and given that there were 23 of us, and a heap of boxes (of rations, stationeries, and cooking utensils) as well as our luggages, I eagerly expected a coach to ferry us to our guest house. Instead, Pitou had us, our luggages and boxes on a motorcade of tuk-tuks, a six seater rickshaw powered by a motorcycle from the airport to Paragon Hotel. We were thrilled by the ride, as we sampled the architectural and demographic character of the city, its potpourri of scent and strong smell of barbecued meat.

We arrived at Paragon Hotel at sunset. The hotel overlooks the Tonle Sap river. Sandwiched by pubs, cafes and massage parlours, the hotel is attractive to budget travellers such as the middle-aged American (with a Macintosh in his hand) who was curious to know where I came from and the purpose of our visit. After a quick view of our room and dropping off our luggages, we marched along a dimly-lit road of shophouses and curious onlookers. Who could blame them. We stood out like black ninjas. With our black attire, and sisters in hijab, everyone on the street looked at us as we passed through the road, looking for the Halal restaurant. We found one, although not the restaurant in mind. The place was full, with Malaysians who had just arrived from KL. To make way for us, the Malaysians were nudged by the restaurant owners to leave the moment they finished their meals. The lady who acted like the manager-cum-waiter of the restaurant, suggested that we have the same menu as the Malaysians: tom-yam, omelette, fish, mixed vegetables with white rice. Too tired to think, and too hungry to argue, we agreed with her "instructions". We ate dinner for the stomach. For taste, I thought the tom-yam was too sweet for my liking and therefore complemented it with small cut chilli padi(s). After dinner we walked straight back to the hotel for our first briefing (and introductions).

We assembled at the hotel reception and walkway with our bags and boxes early next morning to wait for our chartered coach that will take us on the 4 hour ride to Sihanoukville. There was hustle and bustle on the corniche, and the road next to it. Foreigners and locals, joggers and peddlers, motorcyclists, and an elephant (with its keeper) were sharing the road, making it an eventful (and delightful) morning.

My first impression of Phnom Penh resonated with Yaya's (one of our team member). She described the city as broken and beautiful.

To me, the city may be broken, but the people are definitely beautiful.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Swings, Hammocks and Mosquitoes

Alhamdulillah, we've had a great weekend (well, my children may not totally share my sentiments). Inspired by an email from a very dear friend, I persuaded my family to spend the weekend at a homestay at Kampong Johor Lama (by the mouth of Johor River) run by a retiree, Encik Mohd Bahari nicknamed Bob, hence Bob's Homestay).

It took a while to get there. Not because of the distance, but due to my poor navigational skills (and travelling without a map). Our faces lit up when we saw the sign pointing the direction to Kampong Johor Lama. My children were not too impressed with our bedroom and the basic amenities (or according to them, the lack of it). But somehow the idylic setting and the sight of kelongs, fishing boats and mangrove swamp mitigated the initial misgivings.

We watched the fishermen (and women) unloaded their catch at the foot of the jetty from their sampan in the mornings, ate at the warongs at Teluk Sengat for dinner, munched keropok lekor and sweet pisang goreng on the jetty at sunset.

We drove to Desaru Fruit Farm, and Tanjong Balau, visited the Ostrich Farm at Teluk Ramunia (we saw photos of FM and Mrs George Yeo, and Minister Dr Yaacob with an ostrich egg) -- and were given an interesting and insightful briefing on ostrichs, and their living habits.

On sunday morning, after subuh, I asked my wife to give a short tazkirah to me and our children -- the best reminder we've had for a long time.

I didn't manage to do what I partially came for -- BBQ and canoeing with Muslim and Mus'ab. We were too tired from my (bad) driving and the tide was low, until when we were just about to leave yesterday.

InshaAllah, we intend to return to this kampong, and offer a rejoinder to the pantun that stood at the jetty to bid farewell to the seafarers:

Asal tembaga menjadi dulang
Asal kayu menjadi peti
Andai jodoh masa mendatang
Moga kita berjumpa lagi

Muslim and I will be joining 20 NTU students for the POLARIS expedition at Kampong Som, Cambodia tomorrow, till Sunday. The students will be in Cambodia for 18 days to share their love and smiles with the children at M'Lop Tapang and later at a school in Phnom Penh. May POLARIS inspire them to develop a vast love for all human beings and for all creation, and thus live their whole life in the ebbs and flows of an all-embracing love.

May Allah weave the lace of our lives on the canvas of thought and action of the many heroes who have won His pleasures.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Cybernetics of Commitment

David Whittaker’s anthology of Stafford’s papers titled “Think Before You Think” was my companion during the flight to Jakarta. Earlier this week, I thanked Denis Adams for putting the book into the jiffy bag for it to be couriered to me. In that e-mail I asked Denis to convey my gratitude to David for sharing what he “saw” when he stood on the shoulders of giants.

The meeting in Jakarta was a commitment made some weeks ago – to accompany the postgraduate students to UIN Syarif Hidayatullah for them to present their thesis proposal and develop the first draft of their thesis.

Commitment is said to precede action. Without commitment, there will be no action. But commitment is a commodity short in supply these days …. Interestingly, many want to do or act but without making any (further) commitment.

Prof Azyumardi Azra asserted that intention (read: “inna ma a’malu bin niyyah”) is synonymous to commitment for there will be no action without commitment, in the same vein, there will be no action without intention.

Interestingly, the Vice Rector of Universitas Hamka discussed the different models of ownership between Muhammadiyah and NU for their institutions: schools/pesantrens, hospitals, child care centres and universities. Muhammadiyah’s members and activists raised funds and sought donations to purchase land and buildings but later bequeathed the properties to the organization. Muhammadiyah the organization, hold all titles to the properties, voluntarily handed over by her members.

He shared a story of a (lady) member who started a child care centre next to an empty plot of land. When the owner of that land told her that he is selling the land and offered to her, she hesitated to purchase until when she found that it could possibly end up with an unfriendly party. To avoid such possibility, she purchased the land without a clue how she will raise the funds to pay for it. She succeeded to raise the funds, built an extension building for the child care next to it and handed over the properties to Muhammadiyah.

I found the story fascinating but inspiring, no less.

Cybernetics of commitment does not require a complete blueprint to initiate action. Instead of specifying in full detail, you simply ride on the dynamics of the system to where you want to go.

That dynamo is commitment.
Hence act therefore commit.

Sekolah Pascasarjana
UIN Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta

Sunday, March 15, 2009


They are extraordinary. Taking on several roles all at the same time - trusted advisor, teacher, counselor, friend and/or parent - they are there when you need them.

Kunich and Lester in their article "Leadership and the Art of Mentoring: Tool Kit for the Time Machine" cited several mentors and illustrated their mentoring process as if it were an acronym:


One of the most remarkable mentors in history is Anne Sullivan, the teacher of Helen Keller. Immortalized in the play and film The Miracle Worker, Sullivan exemplified all facets of an ideal mentor as she worked with her young deaf and blind protégé.

The mentor nurtures the protégé as a farmer tends the wheat, providing seeds, nourishment, protection and the room to grow, each in its turn, in the proper amount, and in its own due time.

It is not a title we can arrogate to ourselves or bestowed upon us through a simple administrative act.

It is an honour that must be earned as we diligently strive to make a positive change in the life, attitudes and behaviour of our young protégés, and through them, in ourselves, no less.

APEX (especially @MWTI), MGN, TMSN, IM4U, YKI and many others out there -- know that the ride is uphill and bumpy, but it is most satisfying (and humbling) to witness our former protégés in turn become mentors.

And what could possibly be a better amal jariah than that?

With admiration, as always.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Economic Crisis: A New Social Regulation?

Jim Wallis in his blog God's Politics posted an interesting piece:

Every morning when I wake up in Davos, I turn on my television to CNN in my hotel room. And every morning, there is the same reporter interviewing a bundled-up CEO with the snowy “magic mountain” of Davos in the background. The question is always the same: “When will this crisis be over?” They actually have a “white board” where they make the CEO mark his answer: 2009…2010…2011…later.

But it’s the wrong question. Of course it’s a question we all want to know the answer to, but there is a much more important one. We should be asking, “How will this crisis change us?” How will it change the way we think, act, and decide things —how we live, and how we do business? Yes, this is a structural crisis, and one that clearly calls for new social regulation. But it is also a spiritual crisis, and one that calls for new self-regulation. We seem to have lost some things and forgotten some things — such as our values.

We have trusted in “the invisible hand” to make everything turn out all right, believing that it wasn’t necessary for us to bring virtue to bear on our decisions. But things haven’t turned out all right and the invisible hand has let go of some things, such as “the common good.” The common good hasn’t been very common in our economic decision-making for some time now. And things have spun out of control. Gandhi’s seven deadly social sins seem an accurate diagnosis for some of the causes of this crisis: “politics without principle, wealth without work, commerce without morality, pleasure without conscience, education without character, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice.”

If we learn nothing from this crisis, all the pain and suffering it is causing will be in vain. But we can learn new habits of the heart, perhaps that suffering can even turn out to be redemptive. If we can regain a moral compass and find new metrics by which to evaluate our success, this crisis could become our opportunity to change.

(See: http://blog.sojo.net/2009/01/30/davos-how-will-this-crisis-change-us/)

I pondered what, and how may a new social regulation, moral compass and new metrics by which to live and evaluate our success, take shape and effect.

What came to mind was Professor Gatze Lettinga, who chose not to patent his invention so that his water treatment technology can be universally available.

That's Prof Lettinga.
But what about me?
I ask myself.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

'Eidul Fitr Prayer, Reunion and Good Life

We (my wife, children and I) performed our 'Eid prayer at Toa Payoh Stadium. It has become a family tradition passed down from my parents for us to pray in an open ground for 'Eid - a sunnah of the Prophet (saw). This is the first 'Eid without my father, and I felt his absence both in my heart and at the field during the prayer. My parents and I would wait for each other - my siblings and their family to arrive before we walked together into the stadium, over the years. This morning, it was just me, my wife and our children. Perhaps my mother could not bear the grief to be at the stadium without my father, and my sisters obliged her and prayed at Darul Ghufran.

Alhamdulillah, I am glad we were at the stadium, despite not having my parents and siblings with us. We met old friends and almost like a reunion, we were (re)acquainted with the children of our friends, and acknowledged how time had passed not to mention how much we have aged - many were babies when we last saw them, and now in their teens and even taller than their parents. It wasn't just a gathering for congregational prayer but a celebration of friendship over decades and generations - friends of my parents, our (me and my wife) friends and our children's friends too. It was a community, albeit one that meets twice a year for the two 'Eid prayers. Not strangers who stood in rows for prayers but not knowing anything about each another.

The 'Eid sermon was simple yet inspiring. Titled Hayaatan Tayibah, it expounded the meaning of the verse in Surah Al-Nahl: "Whosoever acts righteously - whether a man or woman - and embraces belief, We will surely grant him a good life; and will surely grant such persons their reward according to the best of their deeds." (Q 16:97)

Like the icing on the cake, the sermon outlined four types of people:

Wealthy and generous (kaya harta dan kaya hati)
Poor but generous (miskin harta tetapi kaya hati)
Wealthy but miserly (kaya harta tetapi miskin hati)
Poor and miserly (miskin harta dan miskin hati)

An interesting permutation - which one of the above types will be able to do good and gain a good life?

Generosity is a virtue.
The hand at the top is better than the one below.
Let's give so that we will be able to give more, and much more.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Ramadhan in Eternity

It is difficult to express how much I am already missing Ramadhan, even before the blessed month leaves us this evening. Some days ago into the second week of Ramadhan, I broke into tears when I first sighted the decorative lights at a house near Darul Ghufran on the way back from Tarawih prayer. It hit me like a thunderbolt - the thought that Ramadhan is almost coming to an end and Syawal is ushered, while I fear my sins are yet to be forgiven and my prayers answered.

Like a loved one who is leaving and will be dearly missed, I can only pray and hope that I will be meeting Ramadhan again, although death may precedes us.

How I wish I am able to live Ramadhan in eternity.

Indeed Ramadhan has brought with it much blessings - the recitation of the Quran, the night vigil and prayers, the charity and more significantly His presence in our thoughts and action. We are in constant and continuous state and act of worship, earnestly seeking His mercy and forgiveness.

But the Lord of Ramadhan is the Lord of everyday, all day, in this world and the Hereafter.

Let's continue to seek and worship Him even after Ramadhan.

Let's not regress into heedlessness and disobedience, and choose darkness over light.

May Allah strengthen our resolve to brighten the world with the light of Ramadhan, and make us the torch from which it radiates.

Taqqabalallahu minna wa minkum.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tribute to SIM's MCMS and APEX

Almost 6 years ago, I walked through the courtyard of SIM's HQ at Clementi Road to deliver lectures/tutorials and summer school on Management, Systems and Change for UK Open Uni's programme. Today, I was back at SIM on the invitation of the Malay Cultural and Muslim Society for a brown bag session with the newly admitted students. This would be my third meeting following the first meeting with Sis Nadiah at An-Naeem Mosque and subsequently with her EXCO members at Starbucks@FullertonOne.

My session was prefaced by a presentation by APEX or Ace PSLE Exams. Led by a group of NUS and other tertiary students, these 30+ mentors provided small group clinics/tutorials to prepare madrasah students for the PSLE. They did not limit their contributions to academic enrichment, but extend it to include motivation camps and goal setting. Their video clip and powerpoint slides moved many to embrace their cause - to empower individuals by becoming role models and providing academic help. The Pri 6 Madrasah Irsyad students featured in their video truly had benefited from APEX's programme, judging from their playful antics yet decisive on their career aspirations. How could we not respond to APEX's invitation to contribute as tutors or role models, I asked MCMS members to break ice before the talk proper.

APEX is a student-led initiative that in my view, have proved critics wrong - that apathy or indifference, and our educated young are synonymous. I applaud their effort and contributions. Initiatives such as APEX offered optimism and hope for the future. I sincerely hope that more students will come forward to give back to society even while they are still in campus.

I tried to expound the notion of success and attempted to answer the question given, as the title of the talk: Am I a successful Muslim?

Success is simply defined as an achievement of a given target or goal, and is the opposite of failure. But success today is no guarantee for success tomorrow. And as Muslims our definition of success is a subset of a wider definition of the Quranic term "Falah". Our ethics for success include actions that do not compromise prohibitions, such as at the expense of others; ends justify means and other Machiavellian tactics. As Muslims, we have responsibilities and its fulfillment is a measure of our conviction. We must be proud of our Muslim identity, but it must not led us to shy away from others or worse, create enclaves to "protect ourselves" and not contributing together with, and for the wider society.

A successful Muslim student, must meet the stringent criteria of the President's Scholarship, I argued. Perhaps a Muslim students' category to make it appropriate in this case. Through an interactive round, participants offered the following attributes and qualities: a) attain excellent results consistently, b) possess leadership qualities, c) made significant contributions to society, d) optimistic and passionate with a cause, e) manifest a pioneering spirit, and last but not least, f) have a good knowledge of Islam. That was our answer to the extended question - Am I a successful Muslim student?

We prayed Zuhr and Asr together, before and after the talk - a significant and important aspect of any programme, to connect and bind our souls as we stood in rows, shoulder to shoulder before Him. The physical, emotional and spiritual significance of praying together in a jamaah may not be obvious and understood by many. It is the building block for collective action and cements everyone together particularly in difficult times.

From the side talks and positive vibes, I gathered that we have managed to energise and motivate the students who stayed on. They need to keep their flame alive, and hopefully maintain the fire in their belly.

Self motivation is the best motivation.
They have what it takes.
I saw several first class honours and first class iman in the making.

May Allah assist them in their endeavours and grant them success in this world and the hereafter.


The Early Hours

The taxi driver remembered the old Alkaff Kampong Melayu Mosque at the top of Kaki Bukit when I mentioned that I wished to be taxi-ed to the mosque at Bedok Reservoir. He even remembered the old clinic housed in a building made of wood, nearby the old mosque and the surrounding Malay village. It was just before 4am and the conversation brought back childhood memories. I hoped it had broke the monotony of the quiet morning and the deserted road for him, as he searched for the next passenger after we exchanged thanks and goodbyes.

When I reset the alarm on my handphone to wake me up for this journey, it was just over 3 hours left to fulfil its function. I almost shrieked at the amount of time left for sleep. But it was indeed a good sleep despite how brief it was. Perhaps a hypothesis may be apt here: The quality of sleep and the ease to wake from sleep depend on the significance attached to the task or activity to be done after waking-up. Or put it another way: The task and its significance determine the quality of sleep that precedes it.

The early hours are precious but often neglected time during the night. This is the time during which Allah is closest and most receptive to His servants. Rasulullah (saw) said: Our Lord descends each night to the nearest Heaven when only the last third of night remains, and says: "Is anyone praying that I may answer him? Is anyone seeking forgiveness, that I may forgive him? Is anyone asking, that I may give him?" and this continues until dawn (Tirmidhi).

The later part of each night is the most conducive period for reflection and self-development. It is the occasion with the most potential for the heart to be present, alert and free of worldly concerns as the Quran declares: Lo! The vigil of the night [a time] when impression is more keen and speech more certain [al-Muzzammil 73:6].

The beautiful recitation of Al-Baqarah for the Tahajjud prayer nourished the soul and energised the mind. It was opportunity to check what I had memorised in the past. Beyond the exercise of the mind, the prayer - its recital and supplication was a Mi'raj for me. I wanted to ascend to Him, to seek forgiveness and mercy.

The 1.5 hours Tahajjud and Witr prayers were completed without noticing time and as though time did not matter. How different it was compared to other prayers in the day when worldly affairs dictate the time to spend for prayers - and even during prayer, these affairs occupied the mind. It was pointed out by Ustaz Zainal Abidin during kuliah subuh (the Talk after Fajr Prayer) that we never think of Allah when we go shopping, but we think of shopping even during our prayer, when we are supposed to be praying in a state of khusyu' (full concentration) in Allah's presence. I am no exception. Only Allah knows how I wish my heart trembles and my faith increases when His revelations are recited [al-Anfal:2].

Yet it was not just another ordinary morning. There was the eclipse of the moon, something that rarely takes place. It is another sign of Allah's Greatness. We performed the Prayer of the Eclipse (Salatul Kasuf) and it was my first.

A bountiful morning, indeed. Tahajjud, Witr, Kasuf and its sermon, followed by Fajr and a talk. Accompanied by the beautiful recital of the Quran, believers who came and prayed together to seek His forgiveness, and angels who witnessed the beautiful gathering.

What better way to spend the early hours?


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Best Friends Forever

It was difficult to explain the silence or disappearance, since the last entry some two weeks ago. Many thoughts, issues and ideas nested in my tired mind as neurons fired and competed with each in my overworked brain.

The entry on UMMA Community Clinic generated several interesting responses, including comments from friends who I thought had given up on me. I had prompted whether we should focus our energy, resources and attention to build an institution akin to, and taking inspiration from UMMA. From a "leadership training institute" to "it should be about championing a cause than an institution - a cause galvanises people, not an institution", the responses were passionate and assertive. I particularly favoured the call and claim that we share a common cause - to create leaders. Comments were also made and appended to the entry, which I am most thankful for.

There were many other happenings worthy of sharing.

A discussion on forgiveness after the reading of a hadith on the subject and The Forgiver (Al-Ghaffar) surfaced many instances when we felt hurt and angry, yet recognised the need to forgive. Easy said than done. To err is human and to forgive, divine. At work, we were reminded to "clear (or clean) the account" between colleagues so as to strengthen our relationship and soul. Put simply, we must settle any issues or disagreements before it gets worse, before bad blood rears its ugly head and be manipulated by Satan. Surah Al-Hujurat offers useful pointers and lessons to maintain a healthy interpersonal account.

To celebrate ND observance at Madrasah Aljunied, I wore a pink shirt (sorry: I don't have a red shirt, and didn't have time to get one at Mustafa Centre) for the first time in my life! For many years I wore my usual grey and black (for a formal and distinguished look) but it looked like I am dressed for a funeral when everyone else is dressed to party. And the pink shirt worked. I blended with the colours, songs and atmosphere, and even cheered the Madrasah student who read a poetry in Malay to salute our nation. Zainul, our Corp Comm maestro and one of many best friends at work, remarked that I have gone mad that morning, at the madrasah. It was a joyful event - thanks to Musliha's SRC team and Madrasah Aljunied.

The Famous Five met as agreed and we renewed friendship that spanned over decades. Interestingly our conversation meandered into the "No Permanent Friends, Only Permanent Interests" question. Against the backdrop of our effort to strengthen social cohesion and harmony, to develop good relationship with neighbours and friends - NPFOPI appears to be a paradox if not an irony. We agreed to continue our conversation and I was tearful when they decided to rename Famous Five to Usrah Pak Mat in the honour of my father.

Friends like family are the oxygen to our life. Like oxygen, we take them for granted and in so doing do not accord its rightful place and value.

What is life without friends and friendship?
Let's be BFF to someone else and many others.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Faith In Action

One of the institutions I visited on my IVP Program on Community and Religion was a community clinic in Los Angeles. Established by a group of young medical graduates to serve the community and the neighbourhood, the UMMA Community Clinic is the first free standing Muslim Free Clinic in America. The mission is to promote the well-being of the underserved by providing access to high quality healthcare for all regardless of ability to pay.

The University Muslim Medical Association (UMMA) was started in 1990 by UCLA graduate and medical students in collaboration with Charles R. Drew University. From the start, the goal of the organization was to establish a free clinic in medically underserved South Central Los Angeles. With the administrative and logistical support of UCLA, Drew School of Medicine and L.A. City Councilperson, the UMMA secured $1,383,000 in grants to make its vision into a reality.

When my team and I entered the clinic (then), we were welcomed by the many patients waiting to see the doctors. The basic fittings and fixtures in the clinic complemented the hopeful and dignified smiles of the patients, doctors and staff alike. I was deeply impressed by the effort and salute the founders and volunteers for their remarkable achievement. Since then, I have shared the UMMA Community Clinic story with students and youth, whenever I am invited to be in their company.

Today, Ust Hannan e-mailed me a videoclip to go "beyond ourselves". I thought it was a brilliant clip to demonstrate the selfless efforts of young professionals who articulated Islam by deeds.

Actions speak louder than words.
They give without asking anything back.
Truly inspirational!

Anything we can do, together?

Monday, August 4, 2008

In Need of Him

It suddenly felt as if I was losing control of time. My days went without any reflection and much rest. I went from one meeting to another, often back-to-back without any interval in between. From MClub to REA, to Aloha Loyang for Perkemas to Darul Arqam to Taman Warisan, my weekly class with Daniel and weddings among several others, I hardly had time to read the daily papers, let alone blog. The baking heat on Saturday afternoon and lack of rest had its effect on me. I nearly went "black-out" at Sultan Mosque, if not for the zuhur prayer and the attendant supplications that occupied my mind and heart, and kept me conscious.

It may not get any better, I feared. To break the cycle (or perhaps compound the problem) I added 3 books to my collection - The Southeast Asia Diversity Dilemma by Sree Kumar and Sharon Siddique, Presence by Peter Senge, et al, and The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. What have I achieved?, I asked myself. Well, I have delivered my commitment to facilitate a strategic retreat for Perkemas to develop their action plan. We also launched the REA website and through it opened invitation for applications and nominations for the award, after some months of gestation.

On the outset, I need not feel any guilt since I have earned and deserved my keep, without a doubt. To be busy is better than lazing around passing time. Only if the busy is worth being busy for. But how do we measure or assess it? Am I trapped in busyness but of no significance or impact for the greater good? Should I not consider doing one, or two, or even perhaps three things that I am good at, and with it comes greater and more meaningful contribution to society. Should I focus to do less for more? And hopefully I will have a little bit more time for my prayers and to feel His presence.

Amidst the list of things to do, which gets longer each day, I cannot help but wonder whether all this running around is doing good for my soul.

I need to keep trying to find myself in need of Him,
to connect the state of my heart and the nature of my act,
"as if one sees Him" to inspire my being and doing.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Only for the Love of Him

How do we love the Prophet (saw)?
Can we love someone who we have not met?
Do we love the Prophet the same way we love another person, say our parents or even our sweetheart?

These questions and many others occupied us last night. We read and shared our understanding of Surah Al-Maun and Al-Kauthar after maghrib prayer. The discussion was honest and lively. And while we recognized our limited knowledge it did not deprive anyone from sharing his/her understanding and thoughts. We were eager to learn and share and accept that there may be many readings, meanings and interpretations from a single phrase or an idea.

The “we” refers to NTUMS exco members and I. They invited me to share reflections on niyyah (intentions) since they will be completing their term soon. But we tangent off into discussing the verses of the two Surah, and spent some time on what it means to love our Prophet (saw).

“I found a book Senyuman dan Kenangan Manis bersama Rasulullah and it contains stories of Prophet’s life”, said a sister – and paused. She’d lost for words to describe her joy of knowing the Prophet through the stories. “Like he’s perfect. And I so want to marry him…” quipped a brother. “Ya”, the sister concurred, instantly.

How do we know we are loving the Prophet (saw)?
Is it by practicing his traditions and living the way he lived, thinking what he thought, doing what he did?

Can we love him by loving what he loved?
To plagiarize predicate logic: A=B, B=C and therefore A=C

Can we love him by replicating how others loved him?

Is this love that reciprocates?
Is this love personal?
That each has its own way of loving the Prophet (saw)?

I was thankful for the questions. Without questions there will be no answers, and a search for its meaning. I reminded myself to keep yearning for his love and to love him even if I have yet to discover what that means. Hopefully, I will discover and experience it, in whatever state appropriate - subliminal, metaphysical or in the depth of my dream.

It was not all questions and no deeds, or love unconcretised! – I was delightfully surprised when they presented me a cake, a card and a pencil box made of straw from Cambodia (I thought) for my birthday, at the end of the session just before I took my leave. It was very thoughtful of them and I truly appreciate the effort.

Not to mention, the love amongst them only for the love of Him.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Weekend Whoosh !

It was a super-hectic weekend, but a fulfilling one, I must say. It begun on Friday evening to prepare for my niece's nikah ceremony and reception, at my sister's house, to Lagun Sari where it happened on Saturday. From Lagun Sari we rushed home for a change before another drive to Yishun Safra for the reception hosted by the groom's family. By the time we bid goodbye to our host, my head was spinning and all it needed was a good crash on the bed. Over this morning's breakfast, I pondered and replayed the thoughts that went through my mind at the wedding reception. Interestingly, weddings (and funerals) brought family closer and drew distant relatives and long lost acquaintances for the ocassion. I met and re-established old family ties, including distant cousins whom during our younger days were not best of friends, always trying to get at each other, if you know what I mean. But I have forgiven all, and let bygones be bygones. Time will heal, and absence makes the heart grew fonder. How true!

In the midst of receiving and welcoming guests at Lagun Sari, I received a phone call from another almost long lost friend - a brother who some time back called me out of nowhere to learn about Islam. Since then, Daniel and I have been meeting every Sunday at Al-Ansar Mosque to go through Islam 101. Last year just before Ramadan, I accompanied him to Darul Arqam and together with Dr Siti Mariam, we witnessed his conversion to Islam. More recently I answered many of his queries on the Malay culture in preparation for his marriage to his childhood friend, a lady by the name of Ayu. They were both from the same village in Kedah, but work has brought Daniel to Singapore and Ayu to Kuala Lumpur. We have not met for some time since it was not easy to align our schedules: my overseas travel and his weekend trips to Kedah or KL, to attend Marriage Preparation Course, wedding arrangements, and family matters. We agreed to resume our weekly class (ps: he called me Cikgu).

Whilst sipping tea at Al-Ansar's cafe with Daniel, I saw another long lost friend, a former colleague who was walking on the road with his wife on their way to the market. We exchanged happenings in our life and I introduced him to Daniel. He invited us to his house as and when we are at the mosque, just like during the time we were working in the same office when he invited me (and other colleagues) to his house after Friday prayer for lunch prepared by his wife. He took early retirement to focus on his other interests - reading and writing, although he spent more time swimming and running now.

After lunch with Daniel, I went home to put my thoughts together for my next engagement - the talk on Rumahtangga Dakwah, an invitation I initially declined but later agreed to deliver, for reasons best left unknown. It continued on the bus and all I managed to put together were squiggles and phrases, which later somehow unfolded itself into phases of (marriage) life and some sense of coherence.

As I paced myself just before the talk, it became clear that the participants had all they needed to build Rumahtangga Dakwah. The previous speakers did an outstanding job to share their experiences and insights, and to match ideals with realities. The groupwork, with its attendant drawings on mahjong paper and presentations by representatives from respective groups, prior to my talk heightened their energy level but that made it more difficult for me, since mine would just be plain rambling.

I will not do justice to attempt a summary of my talk in this entry. But suffice to say, it came straight from my heart - and I hope it did some good to our younger brothers and sisters as they pursue their journey of life, as du'at with their spouse or spouse-to-be, including the singles who will one day enter into marriage.

Back at home, I felt the fear of not being able to live up to those ideals I espoused during the talk. All we can do is try, and ask Allah for His mercy and guidance. Not to try is not an option.

It felt like the week passed in a blink.
And certainly a weekend that went in a whoosh!

May Allah accept our deeds and our yearning for His forgiveness.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Happy Birthday, Dr B

My wife wished me a Happy Birthday just before I dozed off into dreamland. My handphone beeped sms just after midnight. There was a text message in my inbox. It was the first birthday wish from my niece. I received several birthday wishes through Facebook, e-mail and sms, throughout the day. Grateful and elated, I also felt humbled by these messages since it came from friends I most admired and some least expected.

From the simple yet profound Happy Birthday Doc! Be good do good, the longevity May you have another 49 wise years to the do’a wishing good health, panjang umur and murah rezki. I also received a bookmark from Musfirah when I arrived home in the evening. Against a soft green floral background, the phrase Smile is language of love, both in English and Hindi was printed on the bookmark. Muslim sms-ed his Happy Birthday Ayah, God Bless message from Tekong.

It was difficult to reciprocate their wishes and greetings, other than the usual from Thank you for your wishes. I am touched and moved by the gestures. To relate to an earlier assertion on birthdays, I had added the invitation Let’s renew our beginnings, to sign off my reply. It was also impossible to express gratitude to them through text. I was unable to transmit raw emotion through words over limited bandwidth, hence the channel interference.

The number of wishes and greetings overwhelmed me. I truly did not expect such traffic. In fact I preferred a quiet birthday even better if no one noticed it. But how can I remained private yet enjoy Facebook and blogging. I cannot have the cake and eat it (at the same time) so goes an expression introduced to me by my Econs teacher during my school days. Unless if I had opted for pseudo names and encrypted identities, a practice I do not subscribed (and encouraged).

My family and friends had so generously wished for all that is good on my birthday. May Allah reward them with the best of rewards.

I prayed for His mercy and guidance.
It remains for me to make it come true.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Renewed Beginnings

He was deep in thought. How best to spend tomorrow when he turn a year older, was the question upmost in his mind. Recollecting what little snippets and images of previous birthdays was one option. Listing all his feats was another. But that will not be good for the soul and serves no purpose, his heart and mind wrestled to maintain humility. He even contemplated a bucket list, but that too may be misconstrued as achievements, post-dated. Back to square one and to the drawing board.

The easy option is to live just like any other day. After all, a day passed is a day older. Why the need for an annual marker and celebrations on the date he was born? Perhaps to express joy for the gift of life. Some find it a good excuse to throw a party! Poor kids, they were the ones made to put on the silly party cones on their heads and left to be entertained by the clowns while their parents and adults were busy networking and talking Great Singapore Sale.

But to go through the day in auto-pilot is not befitting a birthday. Maybe he should get himself a gift, to mark the special day. And for all the hardwork and sacrifices, he certainly deserved it and more. This will capture the moment and freeze the day for posterity, but it is too easy a task. Not to mention that it may not be too meaningful. Unless the gift is a seed that will grow grains to feed the poor in the world, or a mixture that will produce tablets to heal the wounds from decades of anger and hatred among nations.

He can take a day off from work and visit a home for the elderly to entertain them. Or make their wish whichever possible, come true. Such acts are for "others", a public act, however noble it may be. It is not a private one-on-one act with himself, an autopoiesis of sorts.

What difference does it make? Whether it is a public affair or a private act, community service or personal trance. What matters is how he will spend his remaining life to leave behind good deeds that multiply itself in his absence, impart knowledge that benefit others and raise a family that is pious and with good morals and character.

Any further analysis will lead to paralysis, he reckoned.

Birthdays should give birth renewed beginnings.
Not passing through life adrift.

Have a blessed and blissful beginning, Dr B.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Keeping To Schedule

We had an earful for not keeping to schedule. There was in actual fact no schedule to keep in the first place, although we once mentioned that the building will be ready in December. Nonetheless we accepted our failings and the brunt for taking things lightly, or so it was perceived. Keeping to schedule was the lesson for the day. It was a painful lesson, from someone who is known to be unforgiving to those who are not punctual or prompt.

"You are not prompt! I waited and no one came, so I paid my students to do the job. This is the problem of our community. We are not prompt", he raised his voice and his eyebrows stretched in synchrony. He could not wait for us. There were other projects on the line and engagements overseas including his trip to Japan.

I took it in my stride and bore no grudges. How could I? It was after all, a pro quid pro for the beautiful artwork on the clay tiles produced by his students. We could not produce anything close to those pieces, I told myself. He showed us a basketful of rejects - our clay tiles that did not make to the furnace, or failed to withstand the heat.

We thanked him for his patience and understanding. I also promised to be prompt from now on although it may be mission impossible since delivery could only be made when several parties, each with different level of resources and capabilities have completed their part.

It is not as though we have not experienced it ourselves - the inconvenience of late delivery or poor quality work over and above missing deadlines. Today I had a repeat. The website due last week and later rescheduled for today did not arrive. Although I can be generous to make allowances and accept whatever reasons given, I will not be truthful if I say I am not disappointed. Particularly when the delay had dented my credibility, even more after today.

Our interconnected world and work form an extended production cycle. The work we do (or don't) affect other cycles too. The 'output' we produced became an 'input' to another process in the cycle. Similarly the output produced by other processes are input to ours.

Unless the work we do is self-contained and a closed system, we must accept the fact that our actions (or inactions) will have an impact on the work of others, and by extension, its outcomes.

There could be many reasons for failing to deliver or keep to schedule. A very common mistake is overcommitment. Taking too much work beyond the limited resources at our disposal, without malice and often because we are not able to decline requests or say 'no' to the other.

We may not be aware the extent of inconvenience caused by our late delivery or delay to others.

Do not do unto others what you do not want others to do unto you.
And make no promises if you cannot keep them.

Some golden rules to live by.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Bicycles for Birthdays

This Friday is Murshidah’s birthday, and so is mine. What is the probability for father and daughter to be born on the same date, albeit 40 years apart? I guessed it’s because I have repeatedly forgotten my birthday (year after year when I was much younger), and perhaps the best way for me to remember my birthday was by a gift of a baby girl from Allah. I blamed it on my profession (an absent-minded computer programmer). It’s not just my birthday I forgot, there were some years I forgot my wife’s too. Deep trouble, hey!

She wanted a bicycle for her birthday, just like what Musfirah got for hers. I contemplated over its significance and meaning. While doing so, I have decided to get one too for Mus’ab. This is my grand plan to get him out of his bedroom and stay away from his playstation, TV and computer. Perhaps a bicycle will get him outdoor to enjoy the real instead of roaming the virtual.

My contemplation brought me to the days when I first got my bicycle. I could not remember where my late father bought and how he paid for it. But I have vivid memories of the lanes and drains over which I cycled to get to Jalan Eunos School. My bicycle was my true companion since I started cycling to school from my house in Jalan Pasir. I was in Primary 3 then. If you think that’s too young an age to cycle to school, it’s even a wonder how Noraini, my younger sister cycled to school from Primary 2, initially led and accompanied by my father (on his own bicycle) and soon we went solo, the two of us on our own bicycles.

I continued cycling when I went to secondary school. By then I had my second bicycle. Yet again, this blue “Ali Baba” bicycle was vivid in my mind. It was a rare item then and I felt a sense of individuality since I was the only student in the school who had a mean machine of a make and model envied by others.

But the bicycle was not for showing off. It was my only means of transportation to school and to deliver the glass jars of krepek ubi sambal homemade (by my mother) and packed into plastic packets (glued over a candle light by her children), to the mamak shops for them to sell it among other items in their stores. Once two jars filled with krepek fell off my bicycle and broke on the road. My heart sank as the broken pieces of glass buried the packets of krepek rendered it unsafe to eat and unsaleable. My mother lost two jars worth of revenue and I was numb from guilt for many days.

I now understood the significance and meaning of my bicycle. It was more than a toy. In fact it made me a delivery boy for my family’s very small time business – kind of an empowerment programme we initiated as a family to supplement my father’s income as a dispatch rider. While my father was on his motorbike dispatching newspapers, I cycled to deliver jars of krepek. Almost learning the ropes at a young age, I was taught skills to prepare myself for the future – the basic competency necessary to earn a living, just in case I didn't get very far in life.

We are about to leave for Giant at Tampines to buy the bicycles.

I have yet to find the meaning for their birthday gift.
Hopefully, my children will discover it themselves, some day.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Common Sense

We can decide to go on doing the same thing, or even doing nothing but pretend that our contributions are far reaching, changing lives and building communities. Like performance review exercise, sensemaking is necessary to review and make sense of the things we do. In fact, sensemaking precedes performance review exercise. The former is about doing the right things and the latter, doing things right. Admittedly it is difficult to excite ourselves if we have not done much to make sense out of it in the first place. To paraphrase, how do we go "upstream" if we have no handle on the "downstream"?

Nonetheless this is what leaders are expected to do. To tackle the entropy head-on or take the bull by its horn, so to speak, although oftentimes it is lonely up there, or down somewhere.

To assist our sensemaking exercise, a simple matrix of four quadrants is a useful start to posit questions and to cohere the entries or responses to these questions. Notwithstanding the one dimensional limitation of this entry, the quadrants are dedicated for responses to the following questions:

What is our role?
What is the content to deliver?
Who are the target audience?
What are the goals to achieve?

To summarise, its a Role-Content-Target-Goals (RCTG) matrix.

Let's try to fill up the matrix.

Role = Befriender
Content = ?
Target Audience = Youth-At-Risk
Goals = Keep them in school, better academic achievements, improved social skills

There are several possibilities for content and process for the befriender to work with the youth-at-risk to achieve the specified goals. These include learning skills, personalised tuition for subjects that required attention, team-building exercises, outdoor endurance games, to list a few.

For many of us who had dabbled with strategic plans, scenario planning exercises and horizon scanning endeavours, this matrix looked overly simple and simplistic to capture the rich and multifaceted dimensions of the 5Ws and the How, to make a good strategy.

I agree.

However sensemaking begins with common sense.
Unfortunately common sense is not common anymore.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Farhana and Yunus: Baarakallahu laka ..

My wife and I exchanged smiles when we saw our wedding photos. These photos were among the collection of photographs in the album, left by my late father in my sister's house. We were invited this evening to my sister's house for a video recording in preparation for her daughter's (my niece's) wedding next weekend. It appeared that all the uncles and aunties had offered their best wishes on video and we were invited to do the same. Amidst the gifts and the wrappings, the living room was turned into a recording studio complete with cameras and lights, and a professional video-photographer.

After a brief "syura" in my mother's bedroom, my wife and I braved ourselves to face the camera. I had warned the video-photographer to be prepared for several cuts, to get the best video clip possible. At the count of three and the cue by the video-photographer, I introduced myself and shared a brief citation for my niece - her special qualities and how proud I was when she took upon herself to pursue her university education while working in the social service sector - championing the yellow ribbon cause for public to embrace former prison inmates. I ended my three minutes rambling with a do'a -- To Nur Farhana:

Baarakallahu laka wa baaraka 'alaika wa jama'a bainakumma fi khairin.

May Allah bless for you (Yunus, your spouse-to-be), and bless you, and may He unite both of you in goodness.

My wife then shared how she first met Farhana (then a baby in my sister's arm) and recollected how our niece had grown into a lady. She offered her advice and reminded that marriage requires not only love but also lots of patience and understanding.

We smiled because the task of wrapping the gifts for the groom, and the gifts itself were unconventional to say the least. There was no actual wrapping - all the gifts were placed in woven baskets for all to see. The free-sized maroon and black organza cloth served as linings for the trays to place some smaller gifts. And we could never have guessed what those gifts were, until we saw it ourselves - Playstation 3, Nokia Handphone, Newcastle United Football Shirt, cologne along with a shirt and 2 pieces of prayer mat (sejadah).

It used to be shoes, shirts, belt, wallet, watch, cologne and sejadah, I thought. That's what I got from my wife and we certainly did not have a video-photographer to produce a montage and capture the wishes for viewing on the wedding day. And not to mention the wedding planner - that which was unheard off, when we got married some 25 years ago.

Playstation or not, we pray for their future happiness and a marriage that will last in this world and the Hereafter.


Let's Be (Good) Trees

It was a strange feeling. I never thought I would have an opportunity to plant a tree in Singapore's public park. This morning's tree planting event at Stamford Green, Fort Canning Hill Park next to Singapore National Museum to celebrate Religious Harmony was simple, short but very meaningful. After the speech by Senior Minister, we recited the Declaration on Religious Harmony and subsequently moved to the dedicated plot in the green to plant our trees.

Every year the Inter Religious Harmony Circle (IRHC) with the support of MCYS and other agencies organised an event to celebrate Racial and Religious Harmony day. This year they decided to create a permanent landscape to symbolise religious harmony in Singapore. The event was well attended by religious and community leaders from the different faith groups.

I thought the event was very meaningful. Despite the presence of Ministers it was not an overkill. And more importantly we had a part in it - planting and watering the tree. Something I look forward to show to my children and friends when we are in the vicinity.

Trees have always reminded me of life and creation. When we were living in the UK, the four seasons (or almost) showed us the transformative cycle of life -- autumn was when trees shed their leaves, winter gave the impression that nothing grew on the tree and when spring arrived, new flower buds appeared to blossom in summer. It was said that the trees went into "meditation" in winter to renew itself for spring, although it appeared as though nothing visually happened.

The Quran also used trees for numerous purposes and carried different meanings. One of the many oft-quoted verses is:

"Do you not see how God makes comparisons? A good word is like a good tree whose root is firm and whose branches are high in the sky, yielding constant fruit by its Lord's leave -- God makes such comparisons for people so that they may reflect -- but an evil word is like a rotten tree, uprooted from the surface of the earth, with no power to endure. God will give firmness to those who believe in the firmly rooted word, both in this world and the Hereafter, but the evildoers He leaves to stray: God does whatever He will." [Q 14:24-27]

Kun kasshajar yurma bilhajar wayu'ti atyabu thamar.

Be like a tree.
When stones are thrown (at it),
the tree replies with fruits.

ps: Just in case you're wondering - the tree in the picture was not the one I planted at Stamford Green. It was one of the many beautiful trees we found at Lake Tekapo in the South Island of New Zealand.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


What you see is what you get. WYSIWYG (pronounced we-see-wig) is the shorthand for human-computer interface of mouse, pull-down menus and objects. I have modified it to become what you SEEK is what you get to impress upon students the need to set academic targets before their departure for overseas studies.

After listing the Muslim students who gained 1st class honours from local universities, as reported in Berita Harian recently, I asked them whether it had occurred to them to set their sights at 1st class honours, summa cum laude or in their case, mumtaz sharaf. Only a few hands were raised representing a small percentage of the entire cohort that participated this year's Pre-Departure Programme.

I tried very hard to excite them and to make them appreciate the significance of good academic grades. We need religious officers and leaders who excelled in their studies to lead and shape the religious life of our community, I stressed. Somewhat I felt the students were not "hungry" for good grades, with the exception of a few female students. I also shared that law graduates of overseas universities will need to achieve a 2nd upper honours for them to be admitted to the Bar. Perhaps we should suggest to the Asatizah Recognition Board (ARB) to recognise only those with at least Jayyid Jiddan (Very Good) as asatizah for gainful employment, to change mindset and attitude.

It is worrying when students who are able to gain good grades and are expected to lead the community do not possess the drive and determination to realise their fullest potential. It is even more worrying when they do not have an inkling of how important it is to set high standards and the expectations the community have on them, never mind the perception that students in the Middle East do not take their studies seriously.

I told them to remember WYSIWYG and they will not get what they did not seek. Almost in desperation, I told them to be a) focus, b) consistent and, c) determined along with the simple formulae of dividing their life into three one-thirds, for three tasks - studying, socialising and sleeping. And if they can divide their 24-hours a day for these three activities consistently, I have no doubt they can gain a breakthrough over what is currently a self-imposed glass ceiling.

The Q+A segment was dominated by the female students.
I didn't think that I managed to get my message and excitement across to the other gender.

To console and comfort myself, I hypothesised that the law of magnetism prevailed during the session: opposite poles attract and similar poles repel.

Not because the male students were not interested.
I wished this was true.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


"Mus'ab wrote a poem on Saidatinah Khadijah (ra)" was the breaking news after the salam when I stepped into the house. I was pleasantly surprised since I never knew he is into poetry and is the one with the few words among his siblings. Perhaps his reflective self is expressing itself and poetry may just be the right medium. My wife retrieved a sheet of paper from his schoolbag and here it goes:

The mother of believer

Saidatinah Khadijah,
the mother of believer,

she trusted Muhammad when he was spreading Islam,
she treated her slaves kindly,
she donated money to the charity,
she was generous,
and even offered money to Muhammad,
she fed her children well,
I think that she won't go to hell,
she did not say bad words,
she would even feed birds,
she was not stingy,
she acted kindly that you could say she was shiny,

Saidatinah Khadijah,
the mother of believer.

By Mus'ab Albakri

Not bad for a start. I read it again and was tickled by the innocence of the child and the attempt to rhyme the lines. But deep down my heart, I was pleased with it. Particularly over the effort and the expression to describe Saidatinah Khadijah, the beloved wife of our Prophet (saw) without inhibition and fear of (making) mistakes.

I have always admired poets for their ability to express thoughts and emotions through the limited yet elegant stanzas. And more so for those who are able to create poems from just a single word offered by a passer-by or a flash in the mind.

Back in 2004 when we were first introduced to the M3YP (Muis 3-Year Plan) I offered a poem to my OE colleagues in response to their call to create stories using words inherent in the M3YP. The poem was later read during the Staff Contact Day.


I like to see it deepen our souls
And practice what we preach
As we set our minds to higher goals
Our agenda must be within everyone’s reach

Religious conviction is a must manifold
To forge and connect with the Divine
Through our actions our identity will unfold
Credible yet humble, prosperous yet generous, we are define

Are we effective one may ask
Can it be gauged by the blessings endowed upon us?
Without integrity these are but an illusive instance
The M3YP stands before us to renew our existence

Albakri Ahmad
2 Mar 04

Well done Mus'ab.
Enjoy poetry!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Putting It Together

"If everything else fails, we can become event managers!" remarked a colleague while we were trying to tie loose ends and putting the event together - the stage, the movements, the video and the cues for the Master of Ceremony. After about three years of organising large scale conferences, lectures and receptions, we have developed the standard operating procedures (SOP) into fine art.

It is a wonder that we spent months of preparation and hours of rehearsal for an event which lasted less than two hours. But if we did not spend the time to prepare and rehearse, the outcome would be obvious: embarrassment and possibly heads will roll, for the damage on corporate image. But somehow I felt that we are continuously raising the standards by our own doing.

I have always found myself taking up the coordination role and for my debut at the last Workplan Seminar I almost earned the honorific title Mr Put It Together (PIT for short) - trying to put it all together to make the segments seamless and the whole event a harmonious interplay of speech, multimedia, awards presentation, group photography, etc. And it will only work when everyone is willing to be bullied into rehearsals after harsh criticisms.

And I too have been criticised for what appeared to be an unacceptable act of micro-management. The function of coordination has often be ignored or considered unimportant. The many independent and separate items or segments will need to be put together to make the "story" complete and interesting.

I sometimes asked myself whether this is all necessary. The months and hours of planning and practice. And there were moments when I felt that perhaps we should just take it easy (and chill out) and pray that everything will fall into place. But how can that be so?

We had ourselves in the past, attended a function or event that started later than scheduled, perhaps because the actors were still trying to tie loose ends. When the sound system did not deliver the necessary decibels and the stage was quite a circus (forgive the expression).

I am now convinced the way to honour our guests who had forgo other engagements to grace our ocassion is to ensure our events run smoothly and even with military precision. If we stated in our invitation card that the event will start at 9.00 am and end at 11.00 am, it must start and end on time, as a matter of principle.

Taking up this role implies taking responsibility for the effective and successful execution of the entire event, something many usually did not consciously realise and understand its implication. It also means that we must not lose sight of the objectives and outcomes while we pay attention to stage work and programme details.

The importance of going through the sequence and rehearsal repeatedly until everyone involved understood their scripts and internalised their roles cannot be overemphasised.

No one leaves the rehearsal until everyone has given their best.
And only when objectives and outcomes are clearly understood.

Putting it together is doing it all together.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Spirit Is Willing ..

.. but the flesh is weak. But for these students, the assignments were piling-up past deadlines. Without doubt, it must be a challenge to work in the day and attend classes over the weekends. And juggling time between work, family, study and community must be difficult, if not impossible. I understood their predicament as I had been there and done it, for some six years before university. Hence they deserved plaudits and admiration, no less. Together as a group they encouraged and supported each other to move on and move ahead.

We discussed the possibility of an offer by the university to vary the programme to assist them to complete the programme and graduate. It meant that they will no longer be required to write a thesis but a shorter and less demanding essay, instead. Additional courses will be offered to facilitate their independent study to develop and write their essay, and to meet the credit hours for graduation.

To their credit they were not keen to take the "easier" route. And I was surprised at their response. I personally did not consider it an easier route but an appropriate route considering their circumstances. To continue with the more demanding thesis option will be risky for most of them given the assignments they have yet to complete. To be honest, I was relieved when the university offered the essay option notwithstanding the consequence that these students may not gain admission to the doctoral programme, after their Masters. But thinking about a PhD before completing the Masters will be putting the cart before the horse.

Perhaps going for anything less than the "full" load was less macho or even caused a dent in self-esteem. Almost an irony, the effort to match capability with reality became the steroid that inflates their self-worth and moved them to "go-for-broke". We decided to allow them to choose one of the two options: a) thesis and b) essay plus additional courses to meet the number of credits. I wished them well, truly and sincerely. The essay option does not make them a lesser graduate, I reiterated.

It is interesting how we (humans) react to such challenges.
We rise to the occasion when we risk "losing face" or self-worth.
Is it because we knew what our potential are but felt no reason to realise it? Or on the other hand, denial of reality?

It is human to know our limits.
It takes much courage to acknowledge it.

ps: Limits <> Weakness.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Yesterday I declined an invitation to speak on Rumahtangga Dakwah. I cannot remember the last time I turned down an invitation to deliver a talk or declined to be a GOH. Almost by default, I will oblige and do my very best to share what little I know of the subject matter.

It took me a couple of days to come to terms with that decision. The dissonance was primarily because the lessons of ‘abasa wa tawalla were etched in my mind. I feared the consequence of giving attention to other VIPs and luminaries over requests by friends and peers. But this was not the case. “I cannot overemphasise the importance and significance of Rumahtangga Dakwah (best translated as a da’wah household) as a key institution for du’at. It therefore deserves a practitioner and role model, which regrettably I do not fit the bill” I wrote in reply to the invitation.

Rumahtangga Dakwah (RD) means many things to many people. For a start, is it a noun or a verb, or both? The working definition encompasses the intent or purpose of marriage, the individuals to make the marriage and later the children in the family too, the focus of the family or household and the imaginings of that household over time.

Conventional wisdom suggests that RD begins with a marriage meant for da'wah. While I value its inherent altruism, I do not believe that when two persons decided to get married, they actually intend it for da'wah. The married couple may contribute to da'wah or continue to participate in da 'wah activities actively and with much vigour, but it does not make the household or family or marriage a RD.

Wait a minute .. why do two people get married any way?
It is Sunnah, is the straight and simple answer.
Islam encourages marriage when we fulfilled the necessary conditions.
That's the "theological" or religious reason.

What is the reason that moves two people into marriage?
Love? Attraction? Moment of madness? Fate? Jodoh? Cari pasal?
Or all of the above.

What if the marriage was not meant for da'wah in the outset, but to help a widower and his children to recover from their loss and look ahead in life?

But what is marriage meant for da'wah means?
Put simply, what is RD?

Let me attempt an ideal.

It is a marriage of two committed da'wah activists who vowed that their marriage and family will not affect their current commitment but will amplify and intensify their focus and efforts for the cause, instead. Together as a family, they grew and developed, nourished with love and happiness and brought joy to others and wherever they are. They contribute to the larger community they belong to and serve as role models for others who are building their own families. Beyond who they are, what they have too are meant for da'wah. It is a household of sakinah, mawaddah and rahmah. Perhaps one made in heaven.

While RD may be a heavenly entity, it exists in the real world with all its hard knocks and challenges. Therefore it is exposed to the trials and tribulations faced by any other married couples and families. But RDers must be resilient and become stronger in faith and as a family by it. Undespaired, they turn to Him for solace and hope whatever the weather may be.

Rain or shine, RD moves others to seek from Him for them to be bestowed qurrata' a'yun from their spouses and offsprings.

And RDers themselves, the comfort of His eyes.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Deeds Over Voice

It was supposed to be a short and simple interview. All we need to do was to ascertain whether the candidate was capable of completing course successfully, the funds needed to pay for tuition and living expenses, and what would be his contributions to the community upon graduation and return to Singapore. But it took a different turn instead.

I found interviews, whether it was for a job or scholarship, a learning experience. Often times, it was unpredictable. It may start on a high note but ended low due to the probing questions, the jitters and the unconvincing responses. As first impression lasts, many candidates tried their best to impress the interviewers. The "first look" factor is also a determinant for good chemistry and will influence outcome. Since interview is a two-way process and a human activity, the response or reply offered by the candidate will in turn influence the energy and enthusiasm of the interviewers. Through interviews I learnt to assist candidates to close information gaps or clarify their own thoughts. Not to outdo, outperform or outlast them.

Although we tried to be helpful candidates must also realise that they have to make the interview work in their favour. Never answer a question with another question.

Consider this:

Q: "Will you return home upon completion of the course, or continue to stay on overseas?"
A: .... [a long pause] "Do my community need me?"

What followed was an expression of disappointment over the community and the lack of opportunity to contribute views and opinions, or a voice, as it was referred to. The pursuit of a higher degree was meant to give him a voice that is credible and taken seriously.

I am of the view that one need not require a voice to make a difference. They are many unsung heroes who are contributing to society through small and simple but meaningful deeds, I said.

"That can be deafening" he rebutted.

What good is voice without deeds? I asked myself.

And I went on to remind myself the warning:
Why do you say that which you do not do? [Q 61:2]

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Treasure Hunt

They were playing treasure hunt when I arrived. The place: Aloha Loyang Resort. The occasion: Welcoming BBQ for our undergraduates who have just returned to Singapore for their summer holiday. The BBQ-cum-engagement session was one of the many activities for us to develop, engage and equip them with knowledge and skills, beyond their religious studies, to prepare them for religious leadership in the modern world.

I was still trying to figure out what would be appropriate talking points and useful messages to share with them after the Maghrib prayer. My mind was still occupied with the earlier meeting I had with a humanitarian aid worker over a proposed educational project in Aceh. And the traveling from Woodlands to Pasir Ris was no less relaxing to the mind. The taxi driver was in top form giving his analysis and commentaries on the fuel hike, the ERP, the charges for the attractions at Sentosa and rides at Downtown East, throughout the entire journey. By the time I arrived at Aloha I was approaching a mental shutdown – perhaps because I’ve had four big meetings earlier in the day. Just two years ago, I would not feel an ache even with double the load.

Between supplications at the end of Maghrib prayer, I had an "aha!" for the welcoming remarks due just minutes away. After the invocations and pleasantries, I shared Prof Azyumardi Azra's observation of graduates from the Middle East. It was intended to shed light on the competency and capacity gaps between graduates from ME and those from Western Universities - not because they are incompetent, but only because of the educational approach and pedagogy which emphasised more memorisation and less critical enquiry. Hence I explained the rationale for the various initiatives and courses organised by SRDS for them to participate to develop the intellectual skill and acquire the tools to systemise thought, analyse, dissect arguments and review articles or books.

And before they could use busy as an excuse I told them tentunya kita harus sibuk, kerana nabi juga sibuk sewaktu hidupnya, (it is obvious that we must be busy, since the Prophet (saw) was busy too during his lifetime). As in previous years, I encouraged them to pick-up a new skill, learn a new language or read a new book (beyond Islamic science) while on vacation in Singapore. To idle is to degenerate and to be busy is prophetic.

To give them an example of the challenges religious leaders will be facing in future, I highlighted the ongoing debate on the issue of Sale of Human Organs. This issue, I mentioned, may split the country, led by the high priests of ethics and those who call for the legalisation of sale of organs to alleviate suffering. And we too have been asked to come down from our high horses to understand the pain and suffering of patients and their families.

I concluded the talk with a hypothetical phone call by Senator Barrack Obama asking anyone of them to draft a speech for him, to be delivered during his visit to Germany at the invitation of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Certainly we could decline the request, but doing so will be giving away a great opportunity to be part of history - and be known as the President Obama's speechwriter for his European tour, should he win the election in November.

So let's accept the assignment. But what would be the main points to include in the speech, or what are the tasks to be done to draft the speech. Research into previous and current trans-Atlantic relations, Germany's contribution to the US. Nato, etc. And we must not forget the key messages to include in the speech for Senator Obama to win the hearts and minds of the German public and politicians.

This assignment is not totally unreal. Very soon they will be required to write speeches at work, deliver khutbah and lectures and moderate panel discussions.

The treasure hunt game they played earlier was meant for bonding.
The assignment was also a form of treasure hunt, I thought.
A hunt for gems that glitter "aha!".

Monday, July 7, 2008

Read and Write

Once I wrote in my CV for the organiser of a talk which I was invited to deliver, that I dream of running a second-hand bookshop for my retirement so that I am able to continue reading the books that I have yet to read in my collection. Indeed the wall-to-wall bookself at home, is now pregnant with books, not only placed vertically but also horizontally concealing those that were already there.

Today I received another 10 books from Pascasarjana UIN Syarif Hidayatullah and its Centre for Study of Religion and Culture, when we visited senior academics and researchers at these institutes for further collaboration. These books were authored by their academics and researchers for use by their students and the reading public. Fortunately I meant it for our students and therefore I did not have to crack my head to find space on the shelf.

Before our meeting with the researchers of CSRC, I requested to visit Batu Bara - a small bookshop but lumayan (well stocked) according to Dr Fuad Jabali who accompanied us to this shop. Not obvious from the outside on the gang (narrow lane), without Dr Fuad I will never be able to locate it. I had wanted to spend more time going through the books in the shop if not for the meeting at CSRC. I left the bookshop without buying any book. I felt less-than-generous and the visit, incomplete.

Bookshop-crawling (to plagiarise the British's Pub-crawling) has always been my hobby and a must for all my trips and travels. And the consequence is obvious. I purchased (and collected) books more frequently and in larger numbers than for my wardrobe. So you can find me in Waterstones in the UK, Periplus in Jakarta, the AUC Bookshop in Cairo and certainly Borders and Kino in Singapore and KL. My latest find was Page One at Vivocity and what a wonderful view of the waterfront facing Sentosa. And the books had now taken up all available shelf space in the living room, the study and my bedroom.

As I glanced the books everyday the urge to write a book (some day) became stronger. Not for the ego, but to contribute to the existing body of knowledge in a domain that cuts across and transcends the compartmentalised faculties and subject matters. My colleagues had asked me often times when will I be writing my book. My reply for the interim was: I am still brewing it!

The young researchers at CSRC were insightful and generous with their findings. I was very impressed with their research outputs and going by the books they published, I am convinced that the educational process and intellectual drive at the tertiary institutions to produce thinkers and scholars were effective. In fact I had wanted to ask Pak Azra and his senior academics how they created the vibrant culture of intellectual development and scholarship to continuously sail in the sea of knowledge, to quote Oliver Wendel Holmes who said:

Greatness is not in where we stand,
but in what direction we are moving.
We must sail sometimes with the wind
and sometimes against it -- but sail we must,
and not drift, nor lie at anchor.

I have always maintained that in order to write one must read.
Are we (only) reading parts rather than the whole,
Or are we reading the text but not understanding its meaning?
hence we are unable to systemise our thoughts, as Dr Fuad argued.

Will I ever be admitted into the circles of local Literatis?
I will, when I set my sail and not lie at anchor indefinitely.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Let's Make Poverty History

We decided to have Soto Betawi Ayam, Sate Padang and Nasi Bebek Chabe Hijau for dinner at the food court in Plaza Indonesia. I remarked that Jakarta appeared to be much cleaner than I remembered during my past visits, when we were chaffeured from Suharto-Hatta Airport to Aryaduta Hotel. The condition of the road and the taxis too were much better than it used to be. Indeed times have changed. The popular Hotel Indonesia where I used to stay on my visits and several other buildings had made way for newer hotels and shopping malls, one of which is Plaza Indonesia.

I was hoping to immerse in the traditional batik, wood-carvings, paintings, kek lapis and other Indonesian knick-knacks when the Concierge at Aryaduta Hotel recommended Plaza Indonesia for our nightout. Far from a shopping spree, I had wanted to feel local in Jakarta. Hence the smalltalk with the taxi driver on traffic condition, jalan tikus as alternative route to beat the congestion and whether there are rumah makan Nasi Padang (eating places serving Nasi Padang) in the vicinity of Plaza Indonesia.

The friendly taxi driver obliged our 4/5th-Malay and 1/5th-Bahasa Indonesia to keep the smalltalk alive and meaningful. Halfway through the conversation he asked where did we come from. I had an uneasy feeling when we told him that kita dari Singapore. Such question and its reply frequently gave me a frisson down my spine. Why? You may asked.

Earlier on the way to the hotel Ustaz Mahmoud asked me whether I make regular visits to Sumatra, where my uncles, aunties and relatives on my mother's side live. I hardly remembered the last time I visited them, in Binjai, North Sumatra. But what I remembered clearly was that they imagined and believed that we were wealthy. Hence we were expected to be and behaved as generous philantrophists and obliged to meet their overt requests for financial help. Understandably, it may be an opportunity of a lifetime to meet close relatives from Singapore, and on top of that, who had also travelled and studied overseas - perhaps a proxy for "the haves" and wealthy, to them. How I wished they were correct and that was true.

As the taxi stopped for the red light at the traffic junction, street peddlers offered their wares - newspapers, magazines, masks and gloves, and bottled drinks - approached the stationery vehicles and hoped to make a thousand rupiah or two. I lamented over how fortunate our children are - not because they are fortunate to enjoy the little luxuries of life but the taken-for-granted attitude, instead. It is almost "by default" that they get what they desire, often without having to work for it.

When we arrived at Plaza Indonesia I was both disappointed and surprised. Disappointed because it was not what I had imagined, and surprised to see rows and floors of shops carrying branded products - Armani, Vuitton, Mont Blanc, Zara, Hugo Boss, among many other names. And the plaza was buzzing with shoppers both singles and families - young, trendy and affluent. Is there an emerging upper class or increasing number of the rich and famous? I asked myself. Not for us and certainly beyond our means, we passed by the shops without making a stop until we found Periplus, my favourite bookshop. We happily browsed the books from one cluster to the last.

As the taxi exited the Plaza and the adjoining Grand Hyatt Hotel, I saw street peddlers with their mobile warongs, and an old woman in rags, sitting with her legs stretched out on the pedestrian, catching glimpses of the passers-by between intervals of hopelessness. This sight gave me a second frisson down my spine - over how two worlds existed in a single city, just within metres away from each other.

I once shared in a lecture not so long ago of the danger of a socio-economic divide and widening income gap. Left unchecked, the poor will envy the rich, and consequently the rich will be fearful of the poor.

Not an easy problem to solve, I will be the first one to admit.
But still, a problem that requires solution.
Before vulnerability overtakes and compels the inhuman.

Allahu musta'an.

Aryaduta Hotel, Jakarta.