Friday, 26 August 2011
I had no expectations when buying a KTM (Malaysian Train Company) ticket online for Aidilfitri. Getting a ticket was lucky enough for me, as I was the purchaser of the very last ticket available for the day. But the anticipation grew larger and larger as the day arrived. The first surprise came as I first arrived at the brand-spanking, sparkling new Johor Bahru train station, aptly re-named JB Sentral. Thanks to my two cool housemates for driving me all the way there :)
JB Sentral is located in between the Sultan Iskandar Building (handling traffic to and from Singapore I supposed) and the City Square shopping mall. It is almost 2 times larger than KL Sentral in terms of built-up, but not as busy I think. The railway station itself was opened on 21 October 2010. It is also said to house a bus station, but I did not see any parts of the building dedicated for this.
Inside the station, there are many shops selling food, drinks, a few restaurants, a bakery. Very convenient, especially during Ramadhan when you need to have the facilities to break the fast. I wandered around, grabbed a KFC Zinger, popcorn chicken and a wrap, then waited at the lobby to board the train. About half an hour before the train departure, the passengers were invited to the 'departure lounge' a floor down. The station officers lined the entrance, handling over food packets (plenty of dates and a bottled water). The fact that there was a photographer taking photos of us made me think that we might be among the first few passengers making a trip home via trains from the station. I boarded the train a few minutes before the scheduled departure time, straight to the first coach. My ticket is for a shared-cabin, sharing with a nice brother working in Singapore. He is more of a frequent train traveller than me. The cabin has a sink, a TV that 'can only be operated by a member of staff', and a cosy double-decker bed.
This was when another surprise came. Boarding the train makes one feels like transported back in time. Not much has changed since the first time I took the train, about 10 years ago. It is still a diesel-engined locomotive, with overwhelming noise from metals clanging, and doors left ajar. But at least the toilets are clean (relieved!) with plenty of water supply unlike those on planes. Seeing these, my mind travelled back perhaps 20 years to the time when trains were a main mode of transportation and featured heavily on teles. What a nostalgia...
Not much could be seen outside on the way north, as it was a night train. So I spent more time inside the cabin, reading mags and watching movies. A movie in particular caught my attention, called The Last Train Home. It is about a mass migration in China every Chinese New Year, where migrant workers in big big cities make their way home (very much like our 'balik kampung'). The only difference is that many are from villages thousands of miles away. So every year there is this exodus of people, trying their best to break into stations to get that precious tickets. And once tickets obtained, there is another challenge of squeezing into limited number of trains. So the ownership of tickets does not guarantee a seat on board. Many people even fainted in the stampede, for the sake of going back to their hometown to celebrate the New Year as one family. Watching this in the comfort of my own cabin makes me realise that we are still lucky to have enough trains, buses, flights to get us all back home safely for Aidilfitri.
As night gave way to daylight, after the pre-dawn meal, I had the chance to wander around the coach. The train was approaching the town of Tanah Merah and fortunately I still had not missed the opportunity to see the countryside. And having the chance to see the train crossed the great Kelantan River was really a bonus! At exactly (or more or less) the time stated on the ticket, the train arrived at Pasir Mas, where I alighted. That completed my journey home for Aildilfitri this year, and an opportunity to see the country from a different point of view.
Along the way, I kept on wondering is it not the right time for us to upgrade our train system. Given the number of passengers it serves, change is imminent. I have had the chance to experience the smooth and efficient train system in the UK. Every time I step foot on the Virgin train, I could not help but imagine how good it is to have such a system here in Malaysia. The journey time from Johor Bahru to Kota Bharu could be shortened to up to a few hours only. I have also let myself be mesmerised by the amazing Japanese Shinkansen. From the bullet-like design to the flawless point-to-point travel, it is arguably the best train system in the world (with of course a hefty fare to pay). But I think again, some things are meant to be preserved. I would not have the opportunity aforementioned if not for KTM trains. Perhaps it should just remain that way for years to come...
Wednesday, 24 August 2011
This is the latest movie that I saw. Comment? Not bad really. A twist from the typical alien or cowboy movies. Combining both seems to work for me, even though the war is obviously one-sided. The cowboys are only equipped with primitive guns and spears, and the aliens with a highly sophisticated supersonic laser watch-style arm-gun. Then comes Dan Craig to the rescue. The movie is also not cliche-ended, and believable storyline. But a question comes to mind, why do all aliens have to be ugly? Are they really that ugly? Until the SETI mission finds something, we will never know...
Curiouser and curiouser: managing discovery making
Beware the urge to direct research too closely, says Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail. History teaches us the value of free scientific inquisitiveness.
On a recent official visit to southeast Asia, a prime minister asked me: "What does it take to get a Nobel prize?" I answered immediately: "Invest in basic research and recruit the best minds." This curiosity-driven approach seems increasingly old-fashioned and underappreciated in our modern age of science. Some believe that more can be achieved through tightly managed research — as if we can predict the future. I believe this is an unfortunate misconception that affects and infects research funding. I hear repeatedly, particularly in developing countries: "Applied research is what we need." There is nothing wrong with a nation having mission-oriented research and development to solve specific problems or to dedicate to an outreach programme, such as space exploration or alternative energy. During my visits as a US science envoy, I have emphasized that without solid investment in science education and a fundamental science base, nations will not acquire the ground-breaking knowledge required to make discoveries and innovations that will shape their future...
Aidilfitri will be in just 5 days time. I am looking forward to it as this is going to be my first Aidilfitri at home after two years abroad. A novel mode of 'balik kampung' makes it all the more memorable. But in spite of all the festive mood, my Genetic Engineering lecture notes are in the pipeline. Thanks to Dr Chan and Prof Noor Aini for inputs. I will see you new students in the new semester, a few days after Aidilfitri!