Thursday, August 14, 2014

Toxic Political Culture

Malaysian politics is in need of serious fix if we are to get out of a potential disaster. I am writing this in the midst of a political and constitutional crisis affecting the richest and most developed state of Malaysia, Selangor, just an hour away. The chief minister was recently sacked by his party, Keadilan, or the Justice Party, but he refuses to step down. He has sought the consent of the state ruler, the Sultan, who is on good personal terms with him, to stay on. The Sultan holds the final power on who is the chief minister of his state and may not be queried. Yesterday the chief minister sacked six members of his state cabinet or Exco (executive councilors) from Keadilan and the DAP but kept four members from PAS. You need to understand the background of this development.

Keadilan, DAP and PAS had formed a loose coalition called Pakatan Rakyat to challenge the incumbent federal government formed by Barisan Nasional. Pakatan penetrated the entrenched power base of Barisan in the 2008 general election when they won over 1/3 of the total parliamentary seats. This was a crucial turning point as a 2/3 majority was required to amend any federal laws or introduce new laws. Barisan lost the privilege to change the federal constitution or enact new laws when they lost the 2/3 mandate in 2008. In the 2013 general election they again failed to wrestle back the trophied 2/3 majority. The process of government is centered not on delivering promises of their election manifestos but on undermining the opposition parties to destroy their coalition by whatever means. They have the resources and machinery, as well as cooperation from the civil services, police, judiciary and the military to assist as required. Pakatan was and is fighting an uphill battle to offering the citizens an alternative government.

Barisan itself is a coalition of many parties. In 1957 when Malaya received her independence, there were just three founding parties that grouped together called Alliance.

UMNO - Malay based party, founded on protecting the rights and futures of the Malays
MCA - Chinese based party, founded to protect the interest and welfare of the Malayan Chinese citizens
MIC - Indian based party, founded like MCA to look after the welfare of the Malayan Indian citizens.

In 1969 there was a serious race riot that nearly destroyed the delicate harmony among the races. The Malays are the majority, followed by the Chinese then the Indians. The ratio has changed to more Malays and dwindling Chinese and Indian populations today. After 1970 the coalition was expanded to become Barisan Nasional when other minority parties joined both to get recognition as well as funding to operate. These include parties from Sabah and Sarawak which joined Malaya in 1963 to become Malaysia. Most of all parties inside Barisan are race based. Some look after the indigenous people in Sabah and Sarawak. Nothing changed over the past 50 years. This race based politics appeared entrenched forever in Malaysia with the Barisan government dominated by UMNO bent on propagating the interest and privileges of the Malay race more than those of the minorities. Over time all the other coalition parties became subservient to UMNO and depends on its charity and mood to provide aids. Over time the federal cabinet also became more and more Malay centric with unimportant portfolios given as tokens to the non-Malay parties. There was a constant demand for federal representation which resulted in more and more cabinet positions created to appease the minority parties, done to ensure getting electoral support at both state and federal elections. It has now become a politics of patronage to 'king' UMNO which became arrogant and at times unreasonable.

In the meantime the opposition parties fought on their own and never won significant number of seats at state and federal governments to make impact on the lives of the people. Except for PAS which was founded as an Islamic party and secured victory in two east coast states of Trengganu and Kelantan, and in the 2008 election, the northern state of Kedah, which they lost in 2013. PAS was considered a village based political party with poor financial resources. The states they ran are among the poorest states but over time, with global Islamization it became more attractive to the Muslims here.

The queer and I think unusual combination is that the constitution defines Malay as someone who also practices Islam and follow the Malay traditions. That is the major cause of today's political and societal strife when it is Malay versus non-Malays making integration nearly impossible. After 1970 when the government introduced the New Economic Policy or NEP to level the playing fields by giving preferential treatment to the poor, especially the poor Malays, a new breed called the bumiputras came into being. They are Malays who enjoy special privileges, especially economic privileges. They get scholarships, financial aids to start small businesses (which may never get repaid), job opportunities in the civil services, the police forces and the military. The NEP was exploited by powerful and wealthy Malays to enrich themselves further. They worked with wealthy non-Malays to form companies to benefit each other. Cronyism was born in the 1980s under the Mahathir government and is entrenched in the way business with the government gets done today. During his administration privatization of government-owned utilities such as telecommunication, banks, electricity, highways and other modes of transport took place. Selling to individuals identified as cronies, the government received cash (banks were told to provide loans) which they use to fund their political activities. Some went into pockets of powerful individuals. From this era onward the culture of corruption and bribery became a Malaysian identity. From the top, lower level civil servants, police, immigration officers, custom officers, local council employees and even village heads and religious leaders found it inconsistent not to ask and take bribes, often done with great subtelity. It became as natural as expecting tips for services not rendered. Soon it crept into the private sectors dealing with government officials to expedite issue of licenses and permits and dealing with each other. Dirty politics beget dirty culture and dirty lifestyle. Education was not spared. Today the standard is below that of many new emerging economies.

Worrisome development like the above led to more voters siding opposition parties in order to check the excesses committed by the Barisan government. In 1998 when Dr Mahathir sacked Anwar Ibrahim as his deputy and charged him with sodomy, it led to the formation of Keadilan while he was in jail. Keadilan was headed by his wife Dr Wan Azizah. Anwar was charged under a new sodomy charge 6 years ago, acquitted but recharged and convicted early this year and now awaiting sentencing.

The composition of Pakatan led by Anwar Ibrahim is

Keadilan - founded on the principle of justice
DAP - founded on the principle of democracy but started and is viewed as a Chinese-based party
PAS - founded as an Islamic party but comprise of religious and modern secular minded leaders.

The unequally yoked coalition survived 5 years but cracks started appearing when PAS resume the call to introduce hudud laws which was rejected by both Keadilan and DAP. This incensed non-Muslim voters who supported PAS in the 2008 and 2013 elections and now vow never to trust them again.

The problems with Malaysian politics centre on:

1. Race biasness. Invariably each party while publicly declare helping all Malaysians if in power will prioritize aids and preference to its own race.
2. Religion, especially Islam, plays prominent role. Both UMNO and PAS tries to outdo each other to win over the Malay votes by appearing more religious than the other, in the process create a society bent towards an Islamic state which the more secular UMNO privately do not wish it to happen. Malaysia is secular by the way the constitution is crafted and how the society live and business done.
3. Malays closing rank when they are threatened. UMNO and PAS are quite willing to forgo their ideological and political differences to unite against other non-Islamic and non-Malay parties, even Keadilan which is basically a Malay party that is inclusive of non-Malays. As they saying goes, blood is thicker than water.

Malaysia is being crippled by the kind of political system and culture that is at a deadlock. We cannot compete globally when our system is pro Malay race at all cost, even at the expense of becoming mediocre. Majority of the Malays don't care. So long as the Barisan government give them aids, education and employment opportunities that's all they care and will continue supporting them. They live for the day and trust their future to this government which is the only one they know. Pakatan is a new kid on the block, selling a vision and hope that the more urban and educated voters including Malays will accept but they are in the minority. Barisan is careful to keep the rural voters in the dark, isolated and dependent on periodic government cash aids and development projects usually pre-election. Most of them never heard of Pakatan and don't know how to trust them. The UMNO strategists and advisers had done a fantastic job of keeping their vote bank intact. Recently the use of cash bribes to those earning below a certain income help retain these poor voters loyal to Barisan whom they consider as savior of the day. They are unable to think of the future for their children.

Is it possible for Malaysia to wrench out of the Barisan gridlock? Unlikely as most Malaysians are indifferent and not overly concerned about their future. Those who are have mostly left the country. The older ones who cannot adapt or have no resources choose to stay back. It may take another race crisis to wake up the nation but sadly the subsidy mentality is too ingrained in the minds of yound Malays to even consider willing to give up. Plus the propaganda on Malay supremacy is gaining momentum among young Malays who think the country belongs to them and all others are aliens.

Coming back to the Selangor crisis. It reminds me of the Perak crisis in 2009 when the Pakatan led state government was stolen by UMNO when they engineered the switch of 3 state assembly persons out of Pakatan forcing the latter to lose the slim majority in the state government. With the consent of the ruler (who is more familiar with the workings of UMNO culture than Pakatan) an UMNO chief minister was installed illegally. This power grab has gone down our history as an infamous attempt by the prime minister Najib Razak to exert his power over his opposition and win support from his party. In the Selangor instance the game plan is different. It is popularly speculated that the chief minister compromised Pakatan's state  interest by negotiating a personal debt settlement deal with UMNO to favor state decisions towards UMNO and the Barisan government. When Keadilan which appointed him to the chief minister office in 2008 and again in 2013 got wind of his betrayal they sought his resignation from office. When he refused a move was launch to replace him by getting a senior Keadilan leader to be elected into the Selangor state assembly. That person was none other than Anwar Ibrahim who had earlier been acquitted by the high court of sodomy II charges and was confident of being elected in to replace the incumbent chief minister. But UMNO checkmated him, swiftly appealed the acquittal and had the attorney general recharge him. A UMNO friendly bench took just hours to convict Anwar. With the plan upset a replacement candidate who is above reproach is identified. That person was none other than Anwar's wife, Dr Wan Azizah, a former medical professional turned unwilling politician due to the incaceration of her husband for 6 years in jail. She won the by election comfortably but in conservative Malay society it is hard to accept a woman leader in very high positions. Her choice to replace the incumbent chief minister was hotly debated and rejected by the religious leaders of PAS although she is acceptable to the progressive secularly orientated PAS leaders. As of now there is disunity among PAS leaders towards the handling of the chief minister issue. The religious faction favors retaining him while the secular faction side with Keadilan and DAP. The unfortunate thing is the number of seats held by the 3 parties is creating a hung situation with no clear cut victory for either side. The chief minister is exploiting the impasse and is seeking support of neutral minded assembly persons from PAS and even Keadilan to support him. He has already won over the sultan who refused to grant an audience to Dr Wan Azizah who should be heard as the potential state leader.

The coming days will see if the chief minister can garner enough support to split Keadilan and get all the PAS members of his embattled government to his side. He is currently without a party. Or will there be an internal revolt among PAS assembly persons in the state, who are in favor of removing the chief minister, to swing their support to Keadilan and DAP. The meeting of the supreme Syura council of PAS on August 17 will seal the fate of either the chief minister, denying him majority support and forcing him to resign, or Keadilan (as well as Pakatan) who will lose the state to a likely unity government to be formed by PAS and UMNO. Should this happen the losers will be the people of Selangor. This is not the government they had voted for in May 2013. But then many are disillusioned and angry at the internal strife in Keadilan which have gone awry. Some put the blame on Anwar and on his strategist Rafizi Ramli for mishandling the replacement move. Keadilan is caught in a catch 22 situation and neither option is popular but crucial to arrest the moral decline in the only state they won and govern. Others accused Anwar of nepotism by putting his wife forward, however, it was a collective council decision.

One man is able to destroy what thousand try to right. This man is being investigated by the anti-corruption agency but the investigation is not speeded up for obvious reasons. The agency would like to await the outcome of the PAS council meeting to sense which direction the wind blows. In the meantime the seasoned ex-corporate CEO turned chief minister is using his experience to entrench his position with support from UMNO which has openly supported him, and PAS religious leaders. Should he loses he will be left in the cold by both UMNO and PAS to resolve his personal problem with the anti-corruption agency. For reasons best known to the chief minister he is aware of his precarious situation. One slip he falls. UMNO loses nothing, they are just exploiting him. He is of no use joining UMNO. He is just a mole. And PAS is using him to strengthen their position within Pakatan. They will not take him in too as he is now tainted. In short the chief minister is going to have a very short tenure and he will not have any platform to stand after his term ends in 2018, that is if he can last that long. The big question is whether it is all worth it, losing his credibility, his image, his trustworthy and his legacy. In the process damaging the Pakatan coalition and the hope of a new government in 2018. From his point of view he may be just surviving a bankruptcy suit. That is his personal matter which should not affect the way the state is run under his watch.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Blogging Holidays

Just in case you want to know, the previous post took me two and half hours to write. It could have been done in less, perhaps in an hour or more but as a person who is fastidious on accuracy I need to check the facts and dates, especially if I've written on a similar topic before. So much time was spent referring to my pervious posts, Google maps and of course my daily journal entries without which I won't be able to recall accurately how the holiday was spent. In the process I discovered new information that help me enjoy my holiday better. The detailed Google map of London is just fantastic. It helped me see where we've been, how we traveled, and their locations in relation to each other.

Unlike previous holiday posts in which I wrote in greater details the present posts are more reflective as it's harder to go factual. Plus most of the information are now available by googling them so it isn't necessary for me to repeat, except a few key points for emphasis.

Blogging holidays serves me 2 purposes. Firstly, to enable me to refer back in years to come what I did and where I went. I can attest that as you grow older your memory becomes less trustworthy. Secondly, it keeps my brain active and purposeful. Being a mix of writing from real experience and giving my thoughts holiday blogging is fun and easier to write. But as the likelihood of holidaying gets less frequent in the coming years, such posts will be precious places to revisit when I want to cherish those places I went before.

London Holiday, Looking Back

It's exactly a week since my daughter and I returned from London. My body is nearly recovered though I still have some aches. My legs felt better and the blister in my right sole is healed. Looking back I admit the holiday went by just great except for the dreadful walk almost daily - apartment to train station, within central London, and again, after a dreary day, back to the apartment. Thankfully the weather was great. The wet forecast for 2 days we walked the streets of London failed to materialize. We just loved the fantastic summer temperature, sunshine and breeze. The sunblock we applied did half the job and I got a little burn on my face and arms.

I was afraid my knees would give in during the holiday. I has bought a foldable walking stick just in case. Well, the case never came and towards the last 3 days I reprimanded myself for being untrusting on my knees and lugging the stick all over. As a person who just need to plan for the worst case scenario, even the assorted mini pharmacy I packed wasn't even looked at except my daily pill box which I take routinely. In spite of the heavy physical activity, and deprived of my afternoon naps which I needed, I was surprisingly fit and in great health. I think the weather contributed much. Even without air conditioning we slept comfortably in the apartment. And I nary sweat or smell being outdoor daily. I just love the long daylight hours. Can't believe the dawn breaking at 5am! And the skies darkening about 9pm. Seems like we're having a bonus time to spend.

We prayed that our MAS flights would be smooth and were grateful that the A380-800 Airbus gave us comfortable rides both ways. On July 28 both pilots were Chinese and the crew a mix of Chinese and Indians. I asked an attendant why and she replied, oh, it is the Muslim new year and they're letting their Muslim colleagues 'off' to enjoy their holiday with families. That's a great 'muhhibah' or goodwill spirit. I hope it gets reciprocated now and then. The outbound flight, though not full, was relaxed and well flown without turbulence. There was a 30 minutes takeoff delay but the pilots compensated and we landed at Heathrow on time. The passengers cheered and clapped when the wheels touched the runway. We were glad it was incident free. After two tragedies that struck MAS you can understand why we were nervous that we may be in the unlucky third flight. I had a great appetite and finished both meals served on board. I didn't feel tired or jet lagged upon arrival although moving backward by 7 hours meant it was bed time.

The day after was set aside to adjust but it turned out to be a shopping day! For my daughter. She targeted to check out Primark store along Oxford Street for any great deals. We spent two and half hours inside, which included queuing up to fill up VAT tax refund forms. I didn't plan buying anything but ended up buying some clothing for my grandchildren and myself. Feeling hungry and looking for a place to rest and use the rest room, we were recommended an Italian restaurant nearby. Service wasn't great so we paid exact amount. The waitress didn't appear pleased. Plus the bill already added in 20% service tax.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in Green Park, Buckingham Palace and St James Park. The Oyster cards were really handy during our rides on the Underground trains. Instead of cash and the need to buy tickets the preloaded cards were our daily tickets. We just topped up a little 3 days before we leave to ensure we have sufficient card credit to use.

The day ended with a happy fish and chips dinner at a tavern aka pub in Westminster. I had the first of many glasses of cold beer in London. It must be the fatigue, I always want to drink when I feel tired.

Our outings to Stratford, Cotswolds, the parks, Sunday service in church and public travel were covered in my previous posts so I shan't repeat them here.

The day after we returned to London from Stratford was slated for visiting the Portobello Road Market and then watching the Miss Saigon musical play. Worried over the rainy forecast my daughter brought along her umbrella which was never opened. Portobello wasn't as great as we thought. Apart from some light souvenirs and lunch there we took the trip as an eye opener. The Miss Saigon show was enjoyable. Fortunately I got good aisle seats. We had dinner at the Garfunkel Restaurant at St Martins Lane. I remember we ate at a similar restaurant in Regent Street during our 1999 family holiday. This was our most expensive meal of the holiday, paying £37 inclusive of about 10% tips. Most of the time our food were eaten in pubs and cafe which doesn't attract tips and cost in the region of £24-28 for two.

One of the holiday highlights is the planned visit to the Westminster Abbey on Sunday Aug 4 to celebrate Holy Communion there. I've written on this in an earlier post. Though brief it was memorable. At least I can tell fellow church members and friends I've worship at the Abbey. The rest of the day was spent strolling around London. Besides the usual tourist spots in Parliament Square, Whitehall and Trafalgar Square we chanced a visit to Regent's Park as we were around the area. I was really glad we did that and wondered how I missed out this lovely place in my itinerary planning. Maybe I thought it was too far away. But I will love to come back here again if I have the chance, and my knees are strong.

For the first time my daughter and I split after Sunday lunch at the La Roche Cafe at St Martins Lane. It was next to the Garfunkel. I said I would like not to walk too much. She left me at Trafalgar while she headed to the Covent Street Market area. Being a hot afternoon I decided to check out the National Portraits Gallery and the National Gallery both in Trafalgar Square. They are opened to the public even on Sundays. Admittedly I went in mostly to rest. The toll on too much walking is starting to get me. We stayed in touch using the free Lebara-to-Lebara local calls on the Lebara data SIM cards we bought at Paddington underground station upon arrival in London.

After our rest at Regent's Park we ate dinner at The Globe on Marylebone Street before returning to the apartment. I was glad to be resting in a familiar place again.

I was looking forward to the River Thames Cruise the next day. As the forecast was zero chance of rain I left my jacket in the apartment and traveled light. The cruise was great. I've never rode on one in my previous visits. Although it was only from the Westminster pier to the Tower Bridge and back it was enough to enjoy the breezy ride and the photo shoots. The sightseeing tour on the open top bus was less useful as we passed by many of the places we were there earlier, but it took us back to the Regent's Park to see the Queen Mary's Garden which we thought would be prettier than the area in the Avenue Gardens before the Broad Walk area of the Park. Perhaps due to fatigue and lack of time we didn't explore much of the QMG but enjoyed a bit of the nearby Boating Lake.

Being our second last day in London my daughter said she'd like to check out Primark again so off we went after QMG. Again I said I'll wait for her and sat among similar folks outside the store and watched the passebys. One guy stood there for half hour distributing pamphlets on an upcoming religious talk. Not many were keen to take.

It was a pain looking for food on Oxford Street nearby Primark. We won't like to go back to the Italian restaurant again. The waitress might recognize us! We only managed to find Pizza Hut and ate there rather reluctantly. Imagine eating fast food in London? We over ordered our pizzas and had to doggy bagged what we couldn't finish for our breakfast. Returning to the apartment I counted one more day of long walk back to the apartment from the station.

It was bright and cheery on our last day which was set aside to be spent at Greenwich Park in the Docklands where we had lived the past week or so. We checked the credits on our Oyster cards and found them enough to travel even during peak hours, but we left after 9.30am instead. Greenwich is a nice quiet town to retire. A sustainable town by itself there is little need to go into central London unless absolutely necessary. We took the wrong direction to the Park after leaving the station. A nice man in work apparel used his GPS to point us to the town direction. Small town hospitality.

We ate at the Kings Arms in the garden setting which we love. It reminded us of the Hathaway Tea House in Stratford. So lovely. When we got back to the apartment we finished up our packing and brought our luggage down to wait for our taxi to bring us to the Paddington Rail Station. There was a road blockage due to repairs but the driver managed to get us in via another route. For that he earned a tip from us. Heading to the Heathrow Express platforms was easy. We just followed the arrows on the walkways. Once on the train we made use of the free wifi to update our Facebook and Whatsapp friends and families. We'd used up all our Lebara data limit so depend on free wifi to connect. At the airport, terminal 4, we joined a long queue at the check in line, got good seats even though I couldn't do web check in 24 hours earlier, then rushed to the VAT refund area to submit our tax refund claim. With less than an hour to reporting to the departure lounge we grabbed hot wraps from Pret a Manger outlet to eat then bought some duty free Guylian chocolates for my wife.

The return flight MH1 was fuller than our arrival flight MH4. As the flight time coincide with my night sleep I grabbed 7 hours of solid sleep during the nearly 13 hours flight. Thankful for the broad economy seats on the A380. This time it was a mixed race crew with Malay pilots. Because we were delayed at Heathrow we landed late at KLIA but only by 30 minutes. My daughter's family was eagerly waiting for her as we exit the customs. It must have been a very long 10 days for them, especially my son-in-law who had to take on some of the additional home responsibilities. Me? I was glad to board my own taxi back to my wife in Seremban. And my other grandchildren there, especially Andrew who missed me the most. He had been asking for me daily and crying.

It rained heavily on the drive from the airport. Did we bring showers of blessings home? I certainly hope so. Was I glad to be home again.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Stratford and Cotswolds

We built in a break to Stratford upon Avon not so much to learn of its Shakespearean history and visit the places he grew up, which you can read more HERE, but as a stepping stone into Cotswolds which is just 15 minutes away to the south. But Stratford by itself, I discovered, is good enough to spend a day or two outside of London even if you don't fancy the British country sides and old fashioned villages and towns.

We booked into a guest house along Alcester Road some 15 minutes walk from the Stratford rail station. It was an intentional choice as we want to avoid using taxis as much as we can but walk. We spent one and half day in Stratford town and rode on the Avon cruise to feel the sights and sounds of the river.

Stratford is a small town easily covered in a day, even by walking. It is complete by itself with most things tourists need, including the Morrison Supermarket nearby the rail station. In fact I think the locals are feeling the traffic inconvenience especially in summer when tourists flock into this tiny town to enjoy the boat rides, have picnics and pamper their eyes to hanging baskets of flowers all over the town. Even if you are not a Shakespeare fan you will be a fan of Stratford town and return to it for even an overnight trip just to 'get away' from city life. It is just 2 hours away from London and more affordable than going to Bath which is further away.

I took a calculated risk in deciding to stay in Stratford to tour the Cotswolds. At the time of booking my room (using www.booking.com which I trust for not charging me upfront) I had no idea who can show us the Cotswolds, which is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or AONB in 1966 by the British government. Read more about this HERE.

I was fortunate to get help from TripAdvisor. Tom Benjamin of Go Cotswolds was about to launch his tour business in June/July. I signed up with him for the Aug 1 trip. Tom is the only tour operator into Cotswolds from Stratford and is getting good reviews from his customers. Driving a 16 seater minibus he offers both group and private tours. We're happy with his services.

Tom arrived on time at our guest house soon after we checked out. After picking up two other couples he drove us into the Cotswolds. Some people think Cotswolds is a definable place like a town. Instead it is a huge area covering 2038 sq. km. which is nearly 3 times the size of Singapore at 716 sq. km. But the entire population is around 150,000 compared to 5.4 million in Singapore. It is completely country spotted with little quaint towns and tiny villages with populations in hundreds and low thousands. My first impression of Cotswolds is vastness. We saw wheat fields and barley fields. Farming is the principal economic activity. Other agricultural produce are oilseed rape, oat and grass. Rearing of cattle and sheep are on diminishing scale. We saw only a small flock of sheep up on Dovers Hill, the first place we visited. I asked Tom about orchards. He said no, the Cotswolds doesn't produce fruits for sale.

The 7 hours tour took us only to the northern area of Cotswolds. We visited Chipping Campden, Broadway Tower, Stow-on-the-Wold, Bourton-on-the-Water, a secret off-the-beaten track village and the Rollright Stones before we returned to Stratford. You can google about these names to find out more.

The Cotswolds has a quiet beauty and charm uniquely its own. It isn't exciting nor stupendous. But it makes you small and traps you in a world you are typically not used to unless you were born and grew up in similar environment. For me it was somewhat like revisiting my childhood years. Cotswolds is worth a visit. Make it a double treat with Stratford and Tom can help you make the outing memorable.

Stratford upon Avon


Cotswolds

Saturday, August 09, 2014

The London Transport System

My fear of getting lost in the maze of underground lines was unfounded. I did spent many hours pre-travel looking up how to move around London and its suburb. I'd hope someone had written a simple 101 for inexperienced travelers like myself on the British public transport. But thanks to many websites, especially www.tfl.gov.uk, I learnt how the system works, sufficient to enable me to more fearlessly in London.

There is one word that aptly describe the London Transport System. It is integration. Nowhere have I experienced such seamless connectivity among road, rail, tube and river transport as in London. You can check out for more tourist friendly information below.

http://www.visitlondon.com/
https://www.tfl.gov.uk/travel-information/visiting-london/

My top concern was how do I use the public transport as the locals do and save money without the inconvenience. The first concern is traveling from Heathrow Airport to the apartment in the Docklands area where we're staying (zone 2). The best way is a two stage approach. Taking a taxi may be expensive and is not the option I considered since the price fare is estimated. Plus there is the unknown factor of reliability of the driver and paying a tip. We could take the full London Underground train from airport but was advised against as we have to lug our luggages from station to station. The advised option is take the Heathrow Express (Not the Heathrow Connect which is slower) train into central London (Paddington Rail Station) from where we walk a short distance to the Paddington Underground Station which will take us to the nearest station closest to our apartment where decide to walk or take a taxi. To save time I purchased the train tickets online which offered a slight discount. Very convenient too as there is no physical ticket. I just need to scan the QR code into my smartphone and produce it to the train conductor who will scan it to confirm we've got valid tickets to ride.

I have to consider how to pay for my Underground (or popularly referred as the Tube) travel. It is an ongoing exercise to encourage cashless payments. Travelers can choose to buy preloaded Oyster cards or season Travelcards. In both cases they are much cheaper than cash which travelers use to buy paper tickets from counters or vending machines inside the stations before the entry turnstyles. I was advised, based on my travel pattern, to buy Oyster cards, which, because we're tourists, came under the Visitors category, and can be purchased online and the physical cards airmailed to me. The process takes up to 12 days and I was relieved to get them 3 days before we fly.

Using preloaded Oyster or Travel cards entitle users not only hefty discounts over paper tickets, but also incentives to travel during off peak hours. On top of these there are daily caps which guarantees users a maximum daily charge no matter how many times they travel on routes where such cards can be used (Tube, Docklands Light Rail or DLR, London Overground and National Rail services).

Fares are charged according to zones. There are 6 zones altogether. Heathrow is in zone 6, central London is all inside zone 1 and where we stayed in Docklands is in zone 2. Peak and off peak fares apply only from Monday to Friday and peak hours cover the period from 7.00-9.30am and 4.00-7.00pm. Judicious planning help save money in the long run. One good news is one fare covers all services across the zones. For example we travel to and fro Docklands (zone 2) and Central London (zone 1) and pay once upon touch out at the destination station even though we used two separate train services. If we travel during morning peak hours into Central London we pay £2.80 per person and if we return off peak hours we pay £2.20 for a total daily fare of £5.00. Additional tube travel in Central London is charged separately at £2.20 if during off peak. If we travel twice the total fare for the day comes to £9.20 but will be capped at £8.40 which is the peak fare cap. You can get the tube map from one of the websites listed above.

The train schedules are extremely efficient and punctual. There is no necessity to rush to catch a particular train since the next train will arrive at your designated platform in 5-10 minutes depending on the route and the line. High traffic routes run more frequently and during peak hours be prepared to stand. Courtesy is common on the trains we used and travelers are well mannered. Smoking is obviously banned and we don't hear loud music played to disturb the peace. The only music are from buskers along the tube walkways who played for donations from passerbys. There are designated seats for older people, pregnant women, those with walking sticks and on wheel chairs. In the absence of these people the seats are occupied by the general public.

The tube system reminds me of ant colonies with interconnecting tunnels to different lines and platforms which are very clearly signboarded. Unless you don't understand English you should be able to adjust quickly to how to move up and down the escalators (stand on the right to allow overtaking on the left) and look for which exit to go. Of course you need to know which connecting line to take to which intermediate station (if that is not your final station) and how to connect to the next. Instead of a tube map which is not 100% helpful and unfriendly to those with poor eyesight like myself I use an app that runs on both iPhone/iPad and Android smartphone. It is the London Underground Free - Map and Route Planner by Zuti developed by Visual IT Ltd. It is free but cannot help you if a station or line is closed for maintenance or upgrading. I used it extensively to help me get to the correct line without mistakes. Had I discover it earlier I won't have to print our journey planning directions.

I've covered only the tube and DLR above. They are in separate stations nearby to each other. You exit from one and enter the other to connect. However if you travel within the same line in a trip you need not have to leave the station and 'way out' to street levels. You follow the signs to get to the next connecting train.

Traveling intercity is different, just as to and from Heathrow. You have to use connected services - tube/rail or taxi/rail. We used another intercity route when we travel to Stratford upon Avon. In this case we took the DLR and tube to the Marylebone tube station which adjoins the rail station, bought the rail tickets and wait for the announcement on which platform to board the train. The station is equipped with food outlets and bookshops like a mini airport. We didn't try the public buses. The bus route maps frightens me. Also they are not suitable for our traveling style.

Talking about trains, they offer free wifi and charging ports for your phones and laptops. A sensible British idea which all travelers appreciate. Punctuality is a hallmark and every stop has a cafe to snack up. The trains we traveled in are clean, especially the seats and free from human odors. Public announcements are regular and consistent. It is a joy to travel on the British public transport.

We did sat on two other public transports, the sightseeing buses in Stratford and London and the Thames cruise boat. Except for one instance of poor PA speaker we've nothing to complain about the British efficiency and hospitality.


The Westminster Abbey Communion Service

We decided to make our London holiday memorable by attending a church service on Sunday. It was a toss between St Martins in the Fields (in Trafalgar Square) and the Westminster Abbey. The choice of the Abbey was easy. It is over 700 years old and where English kings and queens were crowned. It is not every Sunday that any visitor to London can worship there, and partake in the Holy Communion.

As the service begins early at 8am we decided to leave our apartment at 6.45am to be ahead, giving some allowance of losing time along the way like missing a train connection on the London tube or losing our way to the Abbey. As fate would have it we couldn't get to the nearest tube station, the Westminster. Instead we had to disembark at the station prior to that, the Waterloo, due to engineering works, which means maintenance, on the connecting line. Asking for directions we walked towards the Abbey across the Westminster Bridge. There weren't many people at that time and the Elizabeth Tower (which housed Big Ben, the clock bell), the London Eye and the House of Parliament beckoned to our cameras. We fished out our Canons and my HTC smartphone and snapped away. The Thames was particularly quiet with just two or three barges coasting by. It was getting close to 8am and I reminded my daughter we mustn't be late for church.

What we thought was the Westminster Abbey was actually the St Margaret Church. We were misled by the Welcome to Westminster Abbey signboard outside. The real Abbey where the service is being held is the adjourning bigger cross-shaped building. There was no sign of worshippers and we were looking for the entrance. We passed the visitors entrance and walked further and spotted a lady greeter donned in a traditional costume at a smaller gate. We enquired and she replied, yes, the worship has just started inside. She asked what we had in our bags and let us in. At the entrance door a male usher also in traditional gown led us into a chapel like sanctuary with a capacity of maybe 100-150 people. I made a quick check that this cannot be where kings and queens were crowned. It is solely for public worship services. I counted about 80 attending this service, mostly whites and few Chinese. Photography and video recordings were prohibited. As we sat down the priest was reading the Service of Word and Table 1 with the congregation responding. I realized it was almost like the one we use in our Methodist church communion service. Word for word I think it is almost 98% similar. Perhaps it was because Methodist church was an offshoot of the Anglican church (Westminster Abbey is Anglican). When the invitation was given we went forward to the communion railing under the guidance of another usher to receive the communion wafer and wine (which represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ who died for our sins), the wine partaken either by sipping from the goblet or by dipping in our wafer. We chose dipping. After the 'feast' was over the service ended without any message from the priest. It took about 30 minutes to conclude the service. I was looking forward to hearing a message that Sunday but it was not to be. Still the significance and remembrance of this time of celebrating our faith in Jesus Christ couldn't be taken away.

We left the Abbey to take photos outside and then moved on to Parliament Square, Whitehall, 10 Downing Street, Household Calvary Museum, Trafalgar Square and beyond this Sunday morning to enjoy the London weekend, including our first visit to the Regent's Park. The weather was picture perfect and August 3, 2014 permanently etched into my memory.


The Royal Parks

According to www.royalparks.org.uk there are 8 royal parks in London. We went to St James, Green, Regent's and Greenwich Parks. We didn't have time to check out the rest. The Brits are fortunate to have vast open grounds to enjoy the peace and tranquility of nature especially in summer when the weather is conducive for outdoor living. We went to experience this English lifestyle which Malaysians can only dream with envy. Perhaps our weather is unsuitable to be under the sun due to the high humidity. So when I planned the itinerary I worked in the parks and recommend visitors to London to not only shop, visit the museums, see live shows and sightsee popular tourist spots, but also relax and recharge in as many public parks as time allows.

All the parks we visited are designed to be family and senior friendly. Apart from maintenance vehicles no public vehicles are allowed so users can move about safely. No fees are charged and they open late into the evening. We don't see any security guards so presume there is no necessity. The park layouts were designed for walking, picnicking, resting on benches, enjoying the beauties of trees, shrubs and flowers. There are vast tracts of open ground, shaded and open, for visitors to lie down to rest, read books, listen to music and sound of nature, socialize with families and friends or just having fun. There are also ponds and man made lakes with ducks, crows, pigeons, geese and vaious types of birds to feast our eyes and ears. I was impressed by the total absence of litter. Park users including tourists have adopted the culture of respecting the need to keep the place clean. I don't even worry over the cleanliness of the benches I sit down to rest or the grass I lie down to enjoy the cool summer breeze, the clear blue skies and fluffy white clouds. I treasure the moments I spent in the parks and should I return to London I will surely go there again. It's the most economical way to enjoy England.

Of the 4 parks we went we love the Regent's Park most. It was there I found happiness of lying on English turf unprotected from ants and other insects. It was there I needn't have to look around or fight for a spot to sit down for the park management thoughtfully placed many strong wooden benches under the shade trees along the broad avenues where people walked past each other without having to consciously avoid bumping into the opposite traffic. Regent's Park also deserve praise for the lovely flower terraces, water fountains and shade trees to make a visit there soul refreshing and physically invigorating. While the other parks also provide rest and recreation they cannot meet the pleasures I derived from entering Regent's which I recommend you to go when in London in summer. I'm sure it will be pretty too in spring and autumn but check out the website above for updates.

We also found Green Park interesting and memorable. Just adjacent to St James and Buckingham Palace, this park offer visitors opportunities to rest either lying on the grass or use the available reclining deck chairs. We found two vacant chairs and happily laid down to rest our tired bodies. Moments later a park employee in uniform approached us and tactfully asked for payment for the use of the chairs. They cost us £3.20 for an hour of use which we paid ungrudgingly. Of course we stayed the full hour not only to recoup our money but to chat and feel the ambience of British park life. It was fun as we whatsapp our family members how we enjoyed our first full day in London.

I won't miss the shopping for I can buy most of the goods back home. I won't miss the accommodation for home is still the warm place to be. I won't miss the food as I can find them in western restaurants. But I will miss the London parks and forever remember being there. Breathe in country-like air, listen to the chatters of people around, and soak in the atmosphere that cannot be recreated but recalled with much fondness.


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