Celebrating Thaipusam in Malaysia

An Exotic Mix of Preparation, Sacrifice and Devotion

Malaysia is a country of over 30 million people. In peninsula Malaysia, there are three main races: Malays ( over 60% ), Chinese ( about 25 % ) and Indians ( about 8 % ).

In the East Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo, the races comprise Kadazandusuns with their own paramount leader and the Chinese, Bajau, Malay, Bugis and Murut. In Sarawak, the other East Malaysian state, the major races are Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau, Chinese, Malay, Tagal, Orang Ulu, and Penan.

Melting Pot of Races

As befitting a melting pot of many races, cultures and traditions, Malaysians celebrate a wide range of pretty diverse festivals. These range from the Gawai Festival in Sarawak, the Kaamatan Festival of Sabah, Hari Raya and Hari Raya Haji, Chinese New Year, Hungry Ghosts Festival, Moon Cake Festival, Wesak Day,  Deepavali, Ponggal, Thaipusam and Christmas to name a few.

Most of these are actually harvest festivals. Moon Cake Festival, for instance, is the 2nd most important festival for the Chinese. During the Hungry Ghosts Festival, the belief is that dead souls ( hungry ghosts ) return to briefly visit living relatives!

The above list is not all inclusive but it does give one an idea of the range of festivals that are celebrated in cosmopolitan Malaysia. One of these festivals is the subject of this blog posting. It is a truly splendid display of religious piety in an otherwise materialistic, hedonistic and imperfect world.

Thaipusam Leaves One Spellbound

Thaipusam is a grand and enthralling Hindu festival in the Tamil diaspora.  It is celebrated with much preparation, sacrifice and devotion not just in Malaysia but also in Mauritius, Singapore, Seychelles, Fiji, South Africa, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean.

Malaysia’s celebration is, however, among the largest in the world drawing over a million and a half devotees to the imposing Batu Caves on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. There are also similar celebrations in other major Malaysian cities like Georgetown in Penang and in Ipoh, Perak.

Thaipusam has, however, become less a strictly Hindu affair and more a distinctly Malaysian one. There are also a number of Malaysian Chinese devotees who participate in this festival, especially in Penang. Many foreigners and tourists alike gather along the route of the slow moving chariot procession from the main temple in Kuala Lumpur to Batu Caves to watch this amazing spectacle of deep rooted faith.

The Rituals that are Followed

Kavadi is a ceremonial sacrifice practised by devotees during the worship of Lord Murugan. There are a few types of kavadis from simple ones to more elaborate kavadis.

The simple kavadi is basically a short wooden pole surmounted by a wooden arch. Pictures or statues of Lord Murugan or other deities are fixed onto the arch. A small pot of milk is attached to each end of the pole.

The more elaborate alagu and ratha kavadis are carried by devotees during Thaipusam. Kavadis are affixed on a bearer’s body by long sharpened rods or by chains and small hooks.

Observing Physical and Mental Discipline

Devotees who wish to carry kavadis are required to strictly observe physical and mental discipline. Purification of the body is a must. This includes consuming just simple vegetarian meals and observing celibacy over a 48 day period prior to carrying the kavadi on Thaipusam day.

Piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with vel skewers is also common. This prevents the devotees from speaking and grants them great powers of endurance.

Body Should Not Be Harmed

There is some confusion over whether Thaipusam is banned in India. Some individuals think it is only the practice of piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks that is banned. Hinduism advocates that the body should not be harmed as the body is like a temple where the soul resides.

This extreme Hindu religious ritual lives on as a recognised holiday in some Malaysian states! An individual and a non-Indian who was truly captivated by this festival and Hinduism, in general, is Dr.Carl Vadivella  Belle.

Honorary Hindu Chaplin

Dr Belle, a career diplomat, had served in the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur from 1976 to 1979. ( High Commission is the term used to describe an embassy from a Commonwealth country. The ambassador is referred to as a High Commissioner ) Dr Belle has maintained a long-term interest in Malaysian social, political and religious issues.

His doctoral dissertation, ‘ Thaipusam in Malaysia: A Hindu Festival Misunderstood?’ was accepted by Deakin University in 2004. Dr Belle was appointed Inaugural Hindu Chaplin at Flinders University in South Australia in 2005. During Thaipusam 2017, he provided expert advice to a BBC television team.

Tracing the Layers of Meaning

In his second book,’ Thaipusam in Malaysia: A Hindu Festival in the Tamil Diaspora’  Dr Belle closely examines the popular festival from the ‘ inside ‘ and attempts to trace the layers of meaning and the recondite vocabularies of this multifaceted and complex celebration in terms of its continuing relevance to Malaysian Hindus.

Dr Belle concludes that far from being a cultural aberration, Thaipusam is a product of time, place and the peculiar circumstances of Hindus in Malaysia.

He believes that constructed from deep-rooted elements of South Indian culture, Thaipusam can be fully comprehended by locating it within Tamil history, philosophies and belief structures, in particular, those associated with Lord Murugan.

Dr Belle gave a talk recently on this interesting subject matter in Penang. Those who are keen on obtaining a copy of the book can write to Areca Books at info@arecabooks.com for more details.  Alternatively, you can purchase a copy from the heritage bookseller at its book shop at 15 Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, George Town, Penang 10200, Malaysia.

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RAAF Base at Butterworth’s Historic and Supportive Role

Lest we easily forget

Many young Malaysians may be unaware of the important and defining role played by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and its gallant airmen in Malaya, and later, Malaysia. When we progress as a nation and a people, it is always ever so crucial to know who were there to support and defend us when danger loomed on the horizon. In that respect, Malaysians should never forget the valuable services and sacrifices of the RAAF and its brave airmen.

What is the background to the involvement of the RAAF in this part of the world?

Only One Permanent Base Overseas

It is most interesting to know that the RAAF had an association stretching back to 1941! The RAAF Base in Butterworth was then used for care and maintenance purposes. The RAAF at some point during that period was the fourth largest air force in the world. Although the RAAF had some units based overseas, it had only one permanent base outside of Australia.

Butterworth in North Seberang Perai ( formerly known as Province Wellesley ) and within the state of Penang was chosen as the site for the RAAF Base. Although it was initially under the British, it was handed over to the Australians who managed the base. Later on, after we gained independence as a nation in 1957, it was technically jointly managed by both the RAAF and the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF).

Butterworth had a population of some 11,000 residents in 1910, and a century later, its population swelled to some 800,000 plus residents.

Commonwealth Strategic Reserve

In the mid-1950s, Britain, Australia and New Zealand agreed to set up a Commonwealth Strategic Reserve in Malaya. The primary purpose of this Strategic Reserve was for countering a growing and menacing Communist threat in South East Asia. The prevailing theory pedalled at that time was the Domino Effect.  It was the assumption, for instance, that if Thailand fell, then soon Malaysia and Singapore too would fall to the Communists.

Initially, the RAAF Base in Butterworth had two squadrons of Sabre jet fighters, a squadron of Canberra tactical bombers and reconnaissance aircraft and a flight of Dakota transport aircraft. The RAAF Base commenced operations in June 1958.

At its peak strength during the 1970s, it had 1200 Australian personnel together with their families living on the island of Penang as well as in Butterworth. The RAAF Base, in addition, also employed another 1000 local Malay, Chinese and Indian support staff.

Extended Support during the Vietnam War

Unknown to most Malaysians at that time, the RAAF Base in Butterworth played a behind the scenes role in supporting a squadron that was deployed to Ubon, Thailand. The squadron played a pivotal role there along with medical and transport facilities during the Vietnam War.

Some senior citizens may well remember Harold Holt, the Australian prime minister at that time. Harold Holt gave tremendous, unstinting support to Lyndon Baines Johnson during the Vietnam War. Lyndon Johnson was then president of the United States.  What was Harold Holt’s infamous quote: ‘ All the way with LBJ ‘. Harold Holt later disappeared mysteriously when he went for a routine swim at a beach. His body was never found.

Crucial Role in Defending Malaysia

When Malaysia was formed with the merger of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak, the then fiery Indonesian president, made his displeasure and opposition to the idea publicly known. President Sukarno announced a Crush Malaysia campaign and proclaimed a period of Confrontation.

It was certainly a tense period for the new nation and things got much worse when over 100 plus Indonesian paratroopers were dropped into the state of Johor at the southern tip of peninsula Malaya. Thankfully, they were quickly rounded up.

The base, as such, was especially crucial between 1963 and 1966 during the period of Confrontation. The RAAF Base in Butterworth became the headquarters of the Integrated Air Defence System under the Five Power Defence Agreement. Its main role was to provide air defence for Singapore and Malaysia.

Australia’s Single Biggest Engagement with Asia

The RAAF Base in Butterworth was, without doubt, Australia’s single biggest engagement with Asia. Most young Malaysians may not know about this chapter in our infancy as a nation. But they should know and appreciate it because it is easy to gloss over, pretend otherwise and forget such matters.

The RAAF Base in Butterworth existed from 1955 to 1988. During that thirty-three year period over 50,000 Australians were based there together with their families.

It was Australia’s single biggest engagement with Asia.

Integrated Well with the Local Population

To their credit, the Australian airmen and their families integrated very well with Malaysians of all walks of life. I remember meeting a few of them in the mid-sixties mainly at social gatherings in Penang while I was training to be a certified teacher at St Joseph’s Training College ( STJC ), a La Salle institution in Pulau Tikus, Penang.

They were humble, friendly, socially adept and helpful. In that process, these Australians contributed to the rich, local social fabric of Penang society at that time.  To add to that unique cultural melting pot, we also had a steady infusion of lovely, young and fashionable Thai lasses from Bangkok and Phuket who trooped to Penang for classes in typewriting, stenography and secretarial studies.

George Town, Penang and Adelaide, South Australia: Sister Cities

Australia became increasingly connected to Asia and particularly to Penang and Malaysia I believe, to a great measure, because of their presence and contribution through the RAAF for over those thirty-three years.

It is still quite common to see many Australian families holidaying in Penang. For some, it is like a yearly pilgrimage to Shangri La, both literally and otherwise. For good measure, there are three well-known high-class Shangri-La hotel properties in Penang, two in Batu Feringgi and one in George Town.

In February 1973, the city of Adelaide, on the advice of the charismatic and forward thinking Don Dunstan (then premier of South Australia) proposed the establishment of a sister city (or twin cities) relationship with George Town, Penang.  Don Dunstan, you may be interested to know, actually married a Malaysian journalist named Adele Koh who hailed from Penang.

In December the same year, Dr Lim Chong Eu, a long-serving chief minister of Penang signed a sealed scroll attesting to this sister city arrangement. The sister city relationship has resulted in many enjoyable yearly programmes being hosted in both cities much to the satisfaction of the citizens.

Social History of RAAF Butterworth Base

KampongAustraliaBookDr. Mathew Radcliffe recently completed a fascinating social history of the RAAF Butterworth Base.

I am no historian but if what little I have shared has whetted your appetite for more on this unique history and contribution, do get his book, ‘Kampong Australia‘ which was published recently. (Read the Sydney Morning Herald review of the book).

Mathew was incidentally born at the RAAF Base in Butterworth and served in the RAAF for seven years.

He later went to university and completed a BA majoring in history before earning a Ph.D from Macquarie University.

Lest We Easily Forget

#malaysiahistory #malaysia #RAAF

Enduring Legacy of Tony Leow Sun Hock

Living a Life that Mattered

Sometime last year I was requested to write an article on Tony Leow Sun Hock by the Kiwanis Club of Kuala Lumpur. They had wanted to include a tribute to Tony Leow in the souvenir programme that was being published to mark the 40th anniversary of the Kiwanis Club of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I readily obliged the club leaders. I used that article later as a blog posting under the heading: Remembering an Unusual Friend – Tony Leow Sun Hock.

In mid-February 2017, Tony Leow who had gallantly fought to stay alive, after being in a coma for nine and half years, finally relented and passed gracefully into eternity.  He was 72 years old. While in this comatose state, Tony was provided with excellent round the clock care by two nurses/care givers who took turns to look into his needs. His wife, Anna and their four sons were also there for him. Tony’s extended family of brothers and sisters also visited him from time to time as did his fellow Kiwanians.

Tony was that incredible shining light, dynamo and trailblazer. He lived his life, writ large and bold, on his own terms.

A Light Has Been Extinguished

The family decided that three individuals should be invited to give eulogies at his funeral service in the church. His eldest son Kevin, the eldest granddaughter Felecia and yours truly were the ones who delivered eulogies. This is what I shared inter alia during the eulogy.

As a friend and a former classmate of his, I can say quite confidently, that a light has been extinguished and we are all that much poorer for it. Tony was that incredible shining light, dynamo and trailblazer. He lived his life, writ large and bold, on his own terms. He was also never afraid to take on challenges. Likewise, he also sought opportunities to grow his business.

In that exhausting process, Tony achieved a large measure of success. Lesser individuals would have thrown in the towel when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles but not Tony. He literally thrived on overcoming challenges. This was truly commendable because Tony ‘graduated’  from the well known and widely respected ‘University of Hard Knocks’ summa cum laude.

Snapshots of That Individual

I would now like to share with you some interesting snippets of information that throw greater light on this strong minded and driven individual. Hopefully, these snapshots will give you a better idea of the many faceted personality of Tony Leow.

Champion Motor Rallying Enthusiast

Tony was an outstanding motor rallying exponent. He was one-half of a winning combination that roared to repeated victories in numerous motor rally competitions in Malaysia. Motor rallying in Malaysia is especially thrilling, exciting and dangerous to the uninitiated because of the challenges facing the newcomer. Drivers have to cope with slimy, thick mud, narrow rubber and oil palm estate dirt tracks, pock marked, abandoned tin mines trails and often a ‘ missing wooden bridge or two ‘ as well as night driving and the occasional heavy showers are all par for the course!

The driver of the Team Nissan rally car was someone with the surname Lim and Tony was the ace, daredevil navigator. Why do I say daredevil? You have to have supreme confidence in the driver to sit calmly in a racing car with your crash helmet on and in often hot and humid conditions here in the tropics.

In addition, the rally car is spartanly equipped with uncomfortable seats and the driver and navigator are secured in place by full harness seat belts. From the inside, one can see that there is a steel roll cage for safety reasons. The team are subject to being bounced about repeatedly because of the rough and uneven terrain and screeching round corners, ever so often in a thunderous, continuous roar. Under these horrible conditions, Tony still somehow managed to do a bloody good job navigating the route. Certainly, not my cup of tea!

Bravery Was His Middle Name

In his teens and during a picnic at a waterfall location or a mining pool (not sure which) somewhere in the Klang Valley, Tony without hesitation or a care for his own safety jumped into the water to save a friend. The friend and classmate, unfortunately, could not swim and he was clearly in distress and in the process of drowning. Failure to act decisively and promptly would have surely resulted in the loss of a young life.

How do I know about this incident? It was simply because that good friend who was saved told me about this on at least two different occasions. That friend who later became a doctor remains to this day, ever grateful for that courageous act. Tony’s instinctive and spontaneous action that day was an act of true heroism.

Committed Community Service Club Builder

I take pleasure in recalling that I had introduced Tony to the Kiwanis community service movement. Tony was a truly committed builder of Kiwanis Clubs in Malaysia. Do remember that this was a period when we had only a mother club i.e. Kiwanis Club of Kuala Lumpur with a membership of about twenty-five individuals. Of these, only a handful was truly active and totally committed to growing the membership as well as in building new clubs.

Together with three other stalwarts, namely the late Lim Eng Seng, Michael Wong Sek Peng and yours truly, these Kiwanians are credited with building eight clubs during a two-year building spree. It is important to keep in mind that Kiwanis International did not reimburse these individuals for their effort, their time or even for the expenses incurred.

Tony is credited with introducing the concept of a motor treasure hunt as a fund raising vehicle for the Kiwanis Club of Kuala Lumpur.

The club building exercise was undertaken and driven by a sense of mission, a deep commitment and a real desire to build more clubs. It was also to spread the joys and satisfaction of altruistic community service. In that high pursuit, the bonds of fellowship were also strengthened. All the expenses thus incurred in club building came out of the pockets of these individuals! Today there are more than 50 clubs in Malaysia. Tony went on to become president of the Kuala Lumpur club and later Area Coordinator for Kiwanis Malaysia.

Talented Organiser of Motor Treasure Hunts

Tony is credited with introducing the concept of a motor treasure hunt as a fund raising vehicle for the Kiwanis Club of Kuala Lumpur. He was a very detailed and precise in planning the treasure hunt route. He was equally adept at posing tricky and puzzling questions for the competitors.

Tony would go over the treasure hunt route twice… just think for a moment the man hours involved. That was no sweat for Tony – he always did it his way and his way was superb. Today, I am pleased to inform you that KCKL still organises yearly treasure hunts… more than 30 thus far. What a tribute to a far-sighted man.

Recollections from Family and Friends

Eddie Low Kah Hin

Classmate, Childhood Friend and Loss Adjuster from Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada

I recall with pleasure our carefree childhood days where we spent some afternoons swimming in disused mining pools in Kuchai Lama, off Old Klang Road, Kuala Lumpur. This is where we learnt to swim. On hindsight much later, we realised it was a very dangerous place to learn that skill!

When we finished high school, both of us entered the job market in related fields. Tony landed a job with Wall’s Ice Cream and I joined Cold Storage Supermarkets.

He next got a job with Mobil Oil as a sales rep and I joined Esso. Even at that stage, Tony was very enterprising and very determined to be an entrepreneur.

His first car was a cute, mini Fiat 600. Later, he bought a VW Beetle. He drove over to my place to show me the car. In early 2002, when I returned to Malaysia for a visit, he came to meet me in an impressive Mercedes Benz 450 S Class.

I shall forever cherish our friendship.

Ngau Wing Fatt –

Chartered Certified Accountant, Kiwanian and Treasure Hunt Collaborator from Kuala Lumpur

I volunteered to drive for Tony when he had to plan the routes for the 2nd and 3 rd treasure hunts. The distance for the third treasure hunt was over 300 km! These driving missions were usually carried out on Sundays and while I drove, Tony was busy planning the route and coming up with the tricky and sometimes difficult questions.

We got along well and I must confess that I learnt a lot about competent and safe driving from Tony.

From my association with Tony, I discovered that he was witty, hilarious, knowledgeable and a street smart guy. He was sharp-sighted in spotting funny sign boards, structures and buildings. He would coin/pose questions that tested your wits and knowledge. He once famously referred to road bumps to slow traffic as ‘sleeping policemen’.

Tony was a great leader who provided sound advice, proper direction and unselfish support to the Kiwanis Clubs of Malaysia.

Lau Se Hian –

Chartered Management Accountant, Kiwanian and Fellow Bon Vivant originally from Muar, Johore

I remember Tony with gratitude for his support in organising the yearly treasure hunts. This activity was a major source of financing for the Kiwanis Down’s Syndrome Centre in Petaling Jaya, especially in the early days.

Tony was a great leader who provided sound advice, proper direction and unselfish support to the Kiwanis Clubs of Malaysia. Kiwanians in Malaysia owe him a debt of gratitude.

Kevin Leow

Eldest of four sons and the one who gave the eulogy at the funeral service

It was a moving eulogy. Kevin shared the following information:

Most of you present may not know nor can you imagine that it was an easy task being a child of Tony Leow. Dad set very high standards for his children in many areas. ( It was Tony’s way of showing tough love ) He had accomplished many wonderful feats and had achieved great things in his life.

Dad was also a serial entrepreneur. Probably his greatest business achievement was in the public listing of his company, Hirotako Holdings Berhad.  Hirotako manufactures seat belts, air bags and many other car related products.

Dad was also a three-time Malaysian Motor Rallying Champion.

Richard Leow

Brother, Entrepreneur and Past President of the Kiwanis Downs’ Syndrome Foundation in Malaysia.

We come from a large family. Our parents had 11 of us… eight sons and three daughters. Tony was the sixth in the family and I was the ninth. Tony was three years my senior. Our dad was a wage earner. He was very strict, a man of principles and with a no-nonsense attitude. But he was also extremely kind and with a generous disposition. Our dad’s golden rule was: Go and help the poor. They need us. And God will bless us.’

Tony took dad’s advice to the hilt. We got along very well………not just as brothers but also as friends and colleagues in business and in community service. He was one of my partners in advertising and also in a trading company. Tony also approached me to be one of his partners in a decorative glass manufacturing company. He was also the one who introduced me to the Kiwanis Club of Kuala Lumpur.

We had our occasional differences and there was once when Tony came to our factory for a discussion on a certain matter. The discussion grew heated, and in the process, Tony lost his cool! To his ever lasting credit, Tony was big enough to telephone me later to apologise and he then invited me to join him for lunch. This is our Leow trait ……..having a short fuse!

Tony surprised me in August 2007 while he was in and out of the Damansara Specialist Hospital by saying: I would like to be baptised and be a Catholic and I want you to be my godfather!  I was honoured. His wife, Anna, is a born Catholic and their four sons are also Catholic. I have great admiration for my brother.

Footprints on the Sands of Time

There is a very well known saying that is most appropriate in this instance and I would like to share it.

Lives of outstanding men all remind us
   We can make our lives sublime
   And departing, leave behind us,
  Footprints on the sands of time

Rally on in the heavens above Tony and many thanks for those wonderful memories.

Like a Thief in the Stillness of the Night

When the truly unexpected occurs

On 27 December 2016, I received a telephone call at about 11.30am from an old friend who I have known for more than fifty years. David ( not his real name ) seemed to be very emotional and had some difficulty speaking coherently on the phone and I had trouble understanding him. Sensing his difficulty, his wife, Rosemary (not her real name ) took over the phone and informed me in a matter of fact manner that their eldest son, aged 38, had unexpectedly passed away that morning! It took a while for the devastating news to register.

No one ever prepares you to receive such unexpected, shocking and distressing news.

It is my belief, and that of many others too I am sure, that no parent anywhere in the world, should suffer the cruel and heartbreaking fate of having to bury a child. It is not in the natural order of things.

A Loving and Successful Family

This is a loving and successful family in every sense of the word. The father is a Malaysian Indian and was a prominent trade union official. He used to work for a well-known British plantation company in Kuala Lumpur and rose over the years to a senior administrative position.

He was also a respected union official both within the union as well as by the company itself. He had travelled to many countries on union business during his active years. He was also a responsible family man and a truly filial son to his parents. One of his uncles served as a parish priest in Penang for over 60 years and a nephew of his is a priest in Tamil Nadu, India.

The mother, a Malaysian Chinese originally from Malacca, was a secretary with a Malaysian bank for many years. Even after retirement, she continued to work for a law firm and is still very active in voluntary work.

She is a convert to Catholicism and today serves on a number of church committees.

Rosemary takes her faith seriously and regularly attends retreats locally as well as in India and the Philippines. She too comes from a big and close family.

Three Professionals Emerged

They have three children, two sons and a daughter. They provided a loving, conducive and nurturing environment and encouraged their children to excel. In the process, they made many personal sacrifices so that their children could succeed in school and university.

To their great credit, all three children rose to the occasion and became fully fledged professionals. The eldest son became an engineer, the second child, the daughter became a doctor and the youngest also graduated as an engineer. Both sons worked abroad… one in Newcastle, England and the eldest one ( the individual who passed away suddenly ) was based in Dubai. The daughter works in Kuala Lumpur.

What Actually Happened

The eldest son had gone out with a few friends to catch up on old times and to have a jolly good session at a restaurant in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. He returned home in the wee hours of the morning, at roughly 2.00 am, informed his French wife that he was tired and that he was going to hit the sack. Those were his last words.

The next morning, the family understandingly let him sleep for some time. At about 10.00 am, his wife went to wake him up. She tried her best but he did not respond. She thought his body felt cold and then immediately gave him CPR. At the same time, she shouted out for her mother in law. When the mother in law arrived, the wife simply said: He is gone! The mother in law retorted: What do you mean, he is gone?  It then dawned on them that sometime during the night, her son / her husband had tragically passed away.

It is not how long we get to live but more importantly how we choose to live that matters in the end.

They then went about calling for assistance. A number of the son’s close friends responded promptly and stepped forward to render assistance to the grieving family. First, the doctor daughter/sister had to come and ascertain the nature of the problem and to confirm the matter. Next, someone had to make a police report on the sudden demise of this relatively young man. Once the police officers came, they took the body away to the hospital for a post mortem. This is a standard procedure in such cases. It was all happening much too fast and the family was still in a state of disbelief and shock.

Some Incredible & Intriguing Facts

  1. The eldest son had not been back to his parents’ home for Christmas for four years. I believe he had some sort of premonition, desire or urge to return to his roots. He had initially worked in the United Kingdom before being posted to the Dubai office of an MNC. He chose to return last Christmas to be with his family. That surely is a blessing.
  2. He passed away in the family home where he grew up, was nurtured and was given the right values in life. He was back in familiar surroundings and when he did pass away, it was in the family home. He did not pass away alone in some foreign, distant land.
  3. His two close friends and his Scottish boss who flew down to Kuala Lumpur for the funeral service gave heart-warming eulogies extolling his fine qualities as an individual, as a friend and as a professional. His younger brother gave a eulogy describing him as a brother who truly cared. These eulogies spoke volumes about the man and the son/brother he was.
  4. The church service was packed with relatives, friends and colleagues. More than four hundred people were present. That, in itself, says a lot about the young man and the family.
  5. The funeral service was con-celebrated by five religious personalities: three priests, an archbishop emeritus and Malaysia’s recently ordained cardinal. That was indeed a high honour.

Where Do We Go From Here?

It is never easy to bear such a heavy cross! It is doubly hard for aged parents to have to deal with the loss of a child, especially a brilliant one with a most promising career. We have, however, been repeatedly told that death sometimes comes like ‘a thief in the stillness of the night’. And it was decidedly so in this case.

I believe we have to live our lives with this admonition always in mind. It is not how long we get to live but more importantly how we choose to live that matters in the end.

Have we kept the faith?  Have we been true to family and friends? Have we set aside time for our families? Not just immediate families but also extended families.

Whilst during our careers we naturally strive for success, let us remember that once we have passed that stage, it is time for us to move on to the next and better stage… the stage of significance.

Have we willingly and regularly shared some of our blessings with the less fortunate? Have we been big enough to forgive those who have hurt us, intentionally or otherwise?  These are some questions that we have to wrestle with honestly and in all sincerity.

Be a Blessing to Others

If we do answer these questions, then when the time comes for us to leave this world, we will not have any misgivings. We can go quietly and peacefully in the stillness of the night, knowing that we had tried to do our very best.

Whilst during our careers we naturally strive for success, let us remember that once we have passed that stage, it is time for us to move on to the next and better stage… the stage of significance.

This is that golden time and that phase in our lives to use our experience, knowledge, skills and expertise if any, to help others. We should carry out this assistance in a quiet manner, without fanfare and in all sincerity. In doing so, like best-selling author Bob Buford says, we become a blessing to others. This is the real source of that elusive significance.

A Singular Privilege to Have Been a Teacher!

at La Salle Secondary School, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur

On 14th January 2017, I attended an enjoyable La Salle Secondary School Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, Class of 1969 reunion dinner and fellowship event. Prior to that, a few former teachers and I had received many invitations over the years from various groups to attend their reunion gatherings.

Wherever and whenever possible, I try to attend these wonderful reunion gatherings for a couple of reasons.  If former students still remember me and make it a point to invite me to attend their reunions, then the least that I can do is to return the kind courtesy and join them at the event. The other reason is that we (  former teachers ) must have had a positive, lasting impact and influence on these former students.

Successful but still Down to Earth

Many of these former students, I am pleased to report, are now leading academics, successful entrepreneurs, busy professionals, senior government officers and seasoned corporate leaders. A number of them, at least ten by the last count, have been bestowed high state honours and in one case, federal honours.

If these old boys really wanted to have had a closed door event, then they would not have invited the former teachers. Some of these groups even go so far as to provide transport for these teachers to attend the events.

Who are these Amazing Teachers? 

Having served as a teacher at this school for fifteen years ( 1966 to 1980 ), these are the few teachers that I vividly remember. I will name them in no fixed order.

Diana’s commitment to the students was so deep that she even held special tuition classes after normal school hours for those who were weak in the subject. This was her idea and these students did not have to pay any fee for this extra service.

Mrs Diana Yeoh was the teacher who taught mathematics with an uncommon passion. She is married to Mr. Yeoh Jin Leng, a former art lecturer at the Specialist Teachers Training Institute in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur and a well known Malaysian sculptor. She was a teacher, who dressed very simply, tied her hair up in a ponytail and got down to teaching with great skill and determination.

Extra Classes for Weak Students

Diana’s commitment to the students was so deep that she even held special tuition classes after normal school hours for those who were weak in the subject. This was her idea and these students did not have to pay any fee for this extra service. This was truly service above and beyond the call of duty and thus was hugely appreciated.

Influence for Good

A former student, years later, even wrote to the editor of a mainstream newspaper to remark that he decided to specialise in mathematics while at the university because of Mrs Diana Yeoh.

Mr Denis Armstrong is best remembered as a teacher, a feared disciplinarian and a formidable athletics coach. When I first arrived at La Salle Brickfields, Denis was already the supervisor of the Secondary School. Technically speaking, we were not recognised as a school but as a number of secondary classes attached to La Salle Brickfields Primary School 1. The headmaster of the primary school, the late Mr Albert Rozario also doubled up as headmaster of the secondary school.

Why was Denis a feared but respected disciplinarian?

Brickfields at that time had a poor reputation. Our students came mostly from socio-economically disadvantaged communities in Brickfields, Old Klang Road and Bangsar. Petty crime was rife and small time thugs made life miserable for many residents. Denis did not want this situation to be the norm at the school. Denis, I must add, is a black belt Tae Kwan Do exponent.

Over the years many former students have commented that this strict discipline in school was truly appreciated.

Tough Love at La Salle Brickfields

He imposed his brand of discipline with an iron resolve. But he also knew when to relent and look the other way on occasions. Many old boys recall that when they entered Denis’s office, he would allow them to choose from among his range of canes. He had thin ones, slightly thicker ones and a thick one. The whole episode consisted of three parts: having to wait agonisingly for him to arrive; having to choose the right sort of cane; and having to endure the number of strokes.

Over the years many former students have commented that this strict discipline in school was truly appreciated. None surprisingly expressed any resentment whatsoever! In fact, I remember a former student, Jeffery Felix, now an accomplished musician and a well-known glass artist residing in Alabama, USA saying something to the effect that they certainly needed such tough love!

A Passion for Athletics

Denis was also a highly competent athletics coach as attested to by many old boys who excelled in athletics. During his tenure as a coach, La Salle Brickfields became a powerhouse in the district and in the state much to the chagrin of bigger and better-equipped schools.

Such was Denis’s fame and stature that I once heard an old boy remark that had Denis coached the US 4 X 100 metres track team in the 1968 Mexico Olympics they would not have fumbled with the baton change! It is high praise indeed. It is worth mentioning that in all these athletics-related activities, Denis had one faithful and reliable colleague to assist him, Mr. K. Raja from LSB Primary School 1.

Mr Yong Hin Hong was a Brinsford Lodge, United Kingdom-trained teacher with an uncanny ability to teach effectively especially the subject of general science. When it was time for his lesson, the whole class had to move over to the well equipped and spacious science laboratory.

For many keen students, this trip to the science lab generated their interest in the subject. You will recall that it was an era when the first man, astronaut Neil Armstrong, landed on the moon! Science was and still is an intriguing subject and greater emphasis was being given to that subject.

A Rough Diamond

I remain grateful to Hin Hong because he was a truly supportive colleague and we got along well. At my request, he willingly assisted me by covering a part of the agricultural science syllabus. He was small in size, had a short fuse but a truly big heart. It was something in his DNA because both he and his father suffered from heart problems.

Success on the Soccer Field

Hin Hong was also the able coach for the soccer team. He and many of our students then followed the English Premier League ( EPL ) with a passion that I could not understand. He cultivated this love for soccer, coached his players with skill and competence and this usually translated into success in the field. The La Salle Brickfields soccer team did very well in district and state level championship competitions. Hin Hong sadly passed away a few years ago.

Some Other Teachers

There were, of course, many other teachers like Mrs Suan Fredericks, the talented teacher who taught art and who was responsible for the lovely, striking mural on the outside wall of the new building block at La Salle Brickfields.  The others including Mrs Theresa Oh who taught history, Mr Eric Koh who taught physical education and Mr Low Kim Seng who taught agricultural science have all migrated to Australia.

Mr Lucas Wong who taught general science, Mr V Sequerah who was the class teacher of Form Three Blue and Mrs Amarjeet Mahendran who taught English Language still live in the Klang Valley. Mrs Thana Ponnudurai, a state level hockey player and who was the class teacher of Form Three Blue now lives in Switzerland.

Some Quotes on Teachers

An arrogant individual in the past is reported to have famously made the following mean statement: ‘ Those who can, do; those who can’t teach.’ Be that as it may, there is always another side to that argument.

There is the celebrated case of how a primary school teacher in the US once put a high-flying chief executive officer in his place when he talked down to her at a social event.  He had cheekily asked her what she makes i.e. her salary.

She coolly, calmly and in a measured manner said: I teach children how to read, I teach them mathematics, I also teach them about the importance of good manners and civility. In addition, I teach them about respect….for their parents, for elders etc. I make a difference in their lives. What do you make sir? There was a stunned silence from the duly embarrassed individual.

I would, however, take some measure of comfort in the thoughtful statement attributed to Lee Iacocca, former celebrated chairman and chief executive officer of Chrysler Corporation. He said: ‘ In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something less.’

And as you and I know, in these days, we do not live in a completely rational society.

No Text Book for Agricultural Science

On my part, I was tasked with the teaching of agricultural science in my very first year at La Salle Brickfields. It was a newly introduced subject in some Malaysian schools and none of the teacher training colleges had prepared budding teachers for this task.

There was not even a text book out at that time but I was nevertheless required to teach the subject to the best of my ability! It was a tall order indeed.

With the kind assistance from a senior agricultural science teacher at Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur who willingly lent me his notes, I was able to carry out the task with some success.

Promoted Debating Activities

In addition, for many years, I was also the class master for Form Three Yellow.

I also taught English Language to my class. I enjoyed teaching that subject and perhaps did it with some degree of success. This assessment is based on the feedback I received many years later from some of my former students. I also actively promoted debating activities. Many students were reluctant and shy to engage in debate but over time, they somehow got the hang of it.

These were not just reunions of old boys but also occasions to sincerely acknowledge the contributions of their teachers in no uncertain terms.

It is good to keep in mind that many students spoke dialect at home i.e. either Malay, Cantonese or Tamil. Thus, debating in the English Language was seen as a task too far! But I persisted, coached and cajoled them and over time they came to appreciate the merits and joy of that activity.

Acclaimed Actress’s Words

At a recent academy awards ceremony in the US, one of the greatest actresses of our time, Meryl Streep, said something to the effect that being an actor was a special privilege. She added that this remark originally came from another well-known actor, Tommy Lee Jones.

Taking that as my cue, I now feel somewhat along the same lines. The few teachers and I from this school have been on the receiving end of a seemingly endless series of reunions / dinners.

These were not just reunions of old boys but also occasions to sincerely acknowledge the contributions of their teachers in no uncertain terms. These former students, to their great everlasting credit, have been unfailingly courteous, kind and grateful for all that we did.

It was for them, I believe, the sum total of the whole edifying La Salle educational experience where due emphasis was given not just to academic activities. The unique mix of ethos, culture, traditions and extra mural activities played a huge part in the whole educational process. In addition, by being in a small school with a small enrolment and a small group of teachers, everyone got to know each other pretty well.

In that La Sallian spirit and on looking back with a degree of nostalgia, I cannot help but feel that teaching and teaching at La Salle Brickfields, in particular, was a singular privilege that I shall treasure for the rest of my life.

What do you think? If you like what you’ve been reading, I hope you will consider following me on either Facebook or LinkedIn

Too Lazy to Really Think

Why Many Choose Instead to React 

I read somewhere recently that the true purpose of thinking is to understand our world as best as is possible. It is a fact that our minds have evolved over the centuries to think… if we care enough to exercise that important activity in earnest. When I say think, I mean really and seriously think about a matter or matters in a mature, careful, considerate and thoughtful manner.

Need To Engage in Thinking Seriously

Why is it necessary for us to indulge in the act of thinking seriously?

This is because we can then better understand and adapt to our environment. By indulging in the serious act of really thinking, rather than mindlessly reacting to issues, individuals or situations, we are better able to make smarter decisions.

In this manner, we are better able to ‘ survive ‘ and live regardless of whether this is a family situation, an office environment, a neighbourhood association or even in a social club setting.

Biased, Distorted and Uninformed

It is a fact that a lot of our so called low level, what I term as Division 3 thinking is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed and / or downright prejudiced. Just listen to the speeches or utterances of hate mongers throughout the world and you will understand what I am trying to convey.

They shamelessly and recklessly peddle their version of ‘ the truth ‘  badly disguised as information. In this manner, they appeal to those low-level Division 3 individuals who are much too lazy or indifferent to think and evaluate the speech or utterances for themselves.

Politicians Appeal to This Segment

In recent general elections held in Australia, a number of countries in Europe and the United States politicians from the far right and the extreme right were quick to seize the opportunities presented by a biased print and electronic media. Some of these media companies have impressive but hollow tag lines like: ‘The Most Trusted Source of News’.

Many news organisations have chosen to conveniently forget or ignore the basic tenets of professional journalism! A quick check to discover who are the owners of these news organisations will reveal why they have opted to adopt this biased  and unprofessional approach.

The fact that these organisations have to broadcast this tag line repeatedly is an indication that many do not trust these bodies to give clear, unbiased news to their viewers / readers. Many of the hate speeches and utterances were repeated with annoying frequency on television as a daily diet for Division 3 thinkers.

And it worked because these individuals voted en masse for such candidates and also on important issues in their respective countries. In addition, because these politicians understood the mentality and the poor thinking skills of Division 3 individuals, they were able to tailor their messages for such lazy thinkers.

Benefits of Critical Thinking

One must understand that the desire by an individual to engage in critical thinking has to be both self–guided and self-disciplined. The onus is thus on the individual to first carry out an honest audit of his current level of thinking skills.

When we engage in critical thinking, we are indulging in reflective and independent thinking. Mobs of lawless individuals running around causing havoc and mayhem are often under the influence of a puppet master.

None of these individuals is able to think for themselves and readily take their cue from the puppet master. When asked the reason why they participated in the protest or demonstration, they appear clueless and stunned.

These then are some of the benefits of critical thinking.

  1. it improves our ability to better understand logical connections between ideas;
  2. it assists us to carefully identify, propose and evaluate arguments;
  3. it assists us to detect inconsistencies in reasoning; and
  4. finally, it helps us to solve or overcome problems with a degree of confidence.

From my experience, it takes humility, patience, courage and maturity to develop the ability to think and that too, to think critically!

It is important to note that most problem-solving efforts will require one to engage in creative thinking as a natural consequence. The same is also the case for proper planning and decision making.

Some Excellent Examples of Lazy Thinkers

A Company Scenario
A manager walks into the office of his chief executive to discuss a relevant problem or issue. He proceeds to inform his boss of the problem and the resulting implications of not being able to overcome the problem. He then very conveniently passes the buck to his boss and requests him to deal with the matter.

What is wrong here? Has he correctly identified the problem? Has he thought through the problem or issue and has he come up with a proposal(s) to deal with it effectively? Is he now wishing to get his boss’s opinion on the best way forward? It is none of the above.

He is simply much too lazy to engage his brain in this manner. It does not seem to matter to him that he seems to be a manager in name only because he is clearly unable to manage. This is essentially because he is unwilling to think and to think seriously!

A Political Scenario
An individual proposes a line of action to deal with a pressing social issue. This is debated within the party and the issue is given a proper airing. After much discussion and debate, a way forward is proposed. This is then announced to the print and electronic media by way of a press conference.

In an immediate reaction, an individual from another party, who does not agree to this proposal, threatens the other party. He also issues veiled warnings, indulges in intimidation and for good measure delivers a personal insult to the other leader. What is wrong here?

Has the individual concerned sought clarification from the other party? Has the individual proposed to have a meeting or discussion with the other party to get more information, in a civil and decent manner? Has he proposed any counter measures? It is none of the above.

Once again, rather than exercise his brain, this so-called leader chooses to react emotionally instead of thinking rationally. This modus operandi is then followed by other rabble rousers who delight in showing the community and the nation, the might of their puny brains! They are like drug addicts, always with an unquenchable craving for publicity, the more the better and it does not matter that this is often mere cheap publicity.

A Nugget of Wisdom
More than thirty-four years ago, I was chosen to attend a six-month course in Applied Research and Educational Developmental Planning at Innotech in Manila, Philippines. Innotech is one of the South East Asian Ministers of Education Organisation ( SEAMEO ) training facility. There are such training facilities in all ASEAN countries. Malaysia has one for Science and Mathematics ( RECSAM ) in Penang and Singapore has one for English Language ( RELC ).

One day, I went in to see the director of Innotech on a matter of some concern. While waiting for her to look up, I noticed a prominent sign behind her chair and on the wall. It read: Are You Here with the Solution to the Problem or Are You Part of the Problem? It was certainly food for thought.

Many years later when I was heading a professional body in Malaysia, I thought it would be good to have that sign on the wall behind my desk. And whenever someone chose not to think about an issue properly, I was sure to ask him or her to read that sign. It had a sobering effect on the reader and he or she often left my office sheepishly.

So are we all ready to be self-guided and self-disciplined? This is because that is precisely what is called for if we are to seriously and deliberately engage in the art of thinking in earnest. It will also liberate us from the shackles of being manipulated by sinister forces. Finally, being able to really think and see issues in their true light will be an eye opening and mind liberating exercise for many of us.

 

What do you think? If you like what you’ve been reading, I hope you will consider following me on either Facebook or LinkedIn

Going on a sea or river cruise

A one of a kind experience

 

In a 1996 Harper’s magazine essay initially titled  Shipping Out  celebrated novelist, short story writer and essayist, the late David Foster Wallace was critical of cruising as a holiday option. David was also a professor of English and creative writing. This article of his appeared in the magazine with the revised title ‘ A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again.’  That was David Wallace’s opinion.

However, there are literally thousands who are regular cruisers who beg to differ. Some have gone on five cruises; others have been on more than 12 cruises!

There is even one senior widow with means to match, who rather than stay in an upmarket retirement home, chooses to go on cruise after cruise in the same ship. She likes the way she is treated by the crew, all the cleaning is taken care of in a professional manner and the meals are excellent. There is nothing more she could ask for.

My wife and I embarked on our very first cruise some years ago when we went on a  Royal Caribbean International cruise from Shanghai, China to Fukuoka and Kobe in Japan and then to Seoul and Jeju in South Korea before returning to Shanghai. It was a short cruise lasting a mere seven days. It was a unique and joyful experience.

Many Intriguing Stories

We had heard many intriguing stories about cruises… both good and bad and were, therefore, somewhat apprehensive.  However, we both really wanted to experience this holiday option for ourselves.

We also took the necessary precautions and brought along some special pills to take to prevent sea sickness. We were joined on this cruise by a couple from Australia. The husband happened to be a schoolmate of mine from St John’s Institution in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Both my wife and I took the special pills as a precaution before the ship sailed from the port of Shanghai. My friend and I enjoyed the experience but both our wives were initially affected by the cruise. It was not all that plain sailing for them.

They felt seasick, wanted to throw up and decided to retire to their cabins to lie down. By the way, cabins on cruise ships are given grand names i.e. stateroom. However, I must say that both recovered soon enough to enjoy the rest of the cruise.

Rough Seas and Stabiliser Fins

Crossing the seas to get to the Japanese port cities proved to be quite an experience as the seas were quite rough. However, modern cruise ships are equipped with huge stabiliser fins on either side of the ship. When conditions warrant it, like in this case, these fins were deployed and that helped a lot. I must also add that the rest of the cruise was plain sailing and enjoyable all the way.

Major Benefits of Cruising

We have gone on two other sea cruises since then and recently we experienced our very first river cruise. That is a whole different experience altogether.

So what are the benefits of cruising?

1.It is a very relaxed and enjoyable way of having a holiday

Yes, as you might have suspected most of the passengers are retired senior citizens…  some in their seventies, others in the late eighties and a few in their nineties too! Quite a few are with their walking sticks and a some get around in their comfortable, high-tech motorised wheelchairs.

2.There is a wide variety of good food in the various dining locations on board the luxury cruise ships

Passengers can choose to dine in a formal setting for breakfast, lunch and dinner or they can choose to go for the informal, buffet options. We chose the formal settings because in the Royal Caribbean International cruise ships, you are assigned a particular table for all your meals. You are also assigned a particular waiter to serve you during the meals. In addition, there is no pushing and shoving especially by some uncouth passengers in the buffet locations. In the buffet locations too, you can also invariably witness a few passengers displaying their ugly side by piling food on their plates!

In addition, food is available at no extra charge throughout the day and even late at night, if you are still hungry. However, you will need to pay for beer, wine and martinis if those are your preferred poisons!

3.We were able to keep up with our exercise regimen throughout the cruise

We went for brisk walks on certain decks and were able to walk all around the huge ship. We normally aimed to complete three rounds. This was certainly a most pleasant way to exercise while taking in the lovely scenery and at the same time watching the ship sail majestically through the calm waters. At times, in the morning and also at sunset, the views were simply breathtaking.

4. The Eagerly Awaited Shore Excursions

We were able to make brief visits to interesting places when we docked at the ports of certain cities. These excursions were quite enjoyable but I must confess that these were often fairly rushed visits and somewhat overpriced. The best part, however, is that they are properly organised and comfortable transport is provided. The onus is on the ship’s crew to see to it that we return to the ship in proper time and before the ship sets sail again.

We are also advised by the ship’s crew in charge of the shore excursions on the difficulty level of each shore excursion. They even recommend the type of shoe to be worn for certain walking tours. In a few cases, even bicycle tours are arranged for the more athletic types!

There are cases of individuals who decide to go on their own to explore the city and in some unfortunate instances get lost or arrive late at the port. The ship does not wait for such passengers. It is their responsibility then to get to the next port of call in order to rejoin the cruise! Hopefully, it is a lesson well learnt.

5. Pack – Unpack – Repack

Unlike well conducted and escorted tours of cities with reputable travel and tour companies like Trafalgar and Insight in the United Kingdom, there was no need to pack, unpack and re-pack at each port of call. This was a real hassle during escorted tours. Here your stateroom travels with you and it gets properly cleaned and maintained twice a day by the housekeeping staff.

6.  Entertaining Shows Every Night

Every night there are two shows that one is able to watch in the ship’s large, grand and comfortable theatre. If you decide to go for an early dinner, then you can opt to catch the second show for the night. Those who decide to go for a later dinner are able to catch the first show.

These daily shows last for about an hour plus and feature mostly talented crew members. Occasionally, some of the entertainers come on board at certain ports. Though these are not great shows, they are nevertheless quite entertaining. There is a different show each night. While the show is on, waiters and waitresses walk up and down the aisle taking your orders for drinks.

7. Other Facilities and Services

For those who love to gamble, all these cruise ships have casinos which only operate while we are in the open seas. The casinos are closed while the ship is in port. We gave this activity a miss because it is not our cup of tea! There were many who we noticed making a beeline for the casino when the ship was at sea. We chose instead to spend time in the comfortable library which was most conducive for some light reading. At other times, we joined a few passengers and played deck games.

8. Shop till you drop

And for those who like to shop, these big cruise ships have shops where you can shop till you drop. There are shops selling watches, pens, clothes, liquor, sweaters and shawls etc.

9. Swimming pools

There is also a decent sized gym on board and usually at least two swimming pools within the ship.

10. Personal care

In addition, these ships also have a beauty parlour for the ladies and a spa for those who wish to be pampered with a variety of massage options.

11. Delightful Champagne Jazz Brunch

Finally, for those looking for that extra oomph, there are usually a few speciality restaurants on board each cruise ship. One has to pay a fee of between US 10 to US 25 per head to dine in these restaurants. We felt the food was good enough on board the ship and so did not opt for this extra.

However, on one of our cruises, we opted for a promotion i.e. A Champagne Jazz Brunch for which we paid a mere US 10. It was well worth the price because the brunch and drinks were delightful and the jazz music by the 7 piece band was simply wonderful.

River Cruises Are Also Interesting

In addition to that first cruise, we also went on a Baltic cruise with RCI and a Mediterranean cruise with Norwegian Cruise Line. Of the three cruises, I rate the Mediterranean Cruise the best thus far.

It was simply very relaxing, the seas were super calm and delightful and the seas seemed to shimmer with a beautiful shade of blue and green. By the way, NCL is partly owned by a Malaysian gaming company that is based in Genting Highlands in Pahang, Malaysia.  Cruising with NCL offers one the opportunity to enjoy their version of it, minus the formality of other cruise lines. They refer to theirs as “ Free Style Cruising ‘. They do not assign you a table, nor a particular waiter throughout your cruise. You are free to choose your table. In addition, there is less formality on board.

Cruising On The River Rhine

In September 2016, we went on our first river cruise with another company called Ama Waterways. This is a fairly established company and they offer cruises not just in Europe but also in Asia and Africa.

We decided that we wanted to experience a different type of cruising. We also thought that the majestic River Rhine would be a great way to enjoy this new experience. Our 7 night The Enchanting Rhine cruise began at Amsterdam and took us on a leisurely trip initially to explore the legendary canals of Amsterdam.

After that, the cruise proceeded to Cologne, where we were able to catch a city tour and view the imposing Cologne Cathedral. From Cologne, we moved on to Koblenz where we had the pleasure of a pleasant evening walking tour of the small city. From here we moved on to the impressive Rhine Gorge. We saw many quaint medieval castles here as the ship sailed slowly past them.

We had two options to choose from when we arrived at another ancient city called Rudesheim: either a Wine Tasting session or a Gondola ride. We chose the gondola ride and we were surprised when what was on offer was a ride up to a hillside in a cable car!

Well, I guess, the choice of terminology can sometimes give you a wrong impression.  The ride up the hillside was exhilarating, to say the least, and the weather was just perfect for such an outing.

We continued on to other interesting towns like Heidelberg, Speyer and Strasbourg in France before returning to Breisach. The last leg of our journey was to Basel in Switzerland.

Differences between These Two Types of Cruising Options

In a sea cruise with the more established cruise lines like RCI, NCL and Holland America , it is quite common to have as many as 2,200 plus passengers on the ship together with a crew of 1,200. However, on a river cruise, the ship is much smaller and can accommodate only about 130 plus passengers with a crew of around 60.

The river cruise is much more sedate. There are no rough seas to deal with. There are, however, locks to contend with. So from time to time, we have had to patiently wait to go through locks before proceeding to the next destination. This marvellous engineering option allowed the ship to travel both upstream as well as downstream.

The staterooms are about the same size and like in sea cruises are thoroughly cleaned twice a day. On our ship, there was a tiny swimming pool, an even tinier gym where at the most only two people could exercise at the same time and a hair salon plus a spa.

All the meals were served in the main dining room which was small compared to the ones on sea going vessels. Those who did not wish to have a proper lunch or dinner could go to another part of the ship for a light meal. I must add that there was a free flow of wine and beer during lunch and dinner at no extra charge. At other times, one had to pay for a beer or a glass of wine.  Water, coffee, tea and biscuits were always available for hungry passengers in the common and comfortable lounge.

As you can see, cruising is gaining in popularity and they even have cruises for young adults who wish to have a more rugged and less costly experience. In addition, to further differentiate, there are also cruises for the more well-heeled passengers …. these are more like 6 or 7-star cruises, with a much smaller passenger load and with loads of extras thrown in.

So do consider taking the plunge and go on a cruise. My advice is to opt for a relatively enjoyable and safe cruise especially in the Mediterranean, the Baltic region or even the Greek islands. Then go for a river cruise to experience the difference. And finally, if you are prepared to brave the seas and the unexpected, go for an ocean cruise.