More than a child’s play – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 22 November, 2015

More than a child’s play
November 22, 2015, Sunday Peter Tan,

Photo shows Lego replicas of heritage buildings in Singapore and Penang.
Photo shows Lego replicas of heritage buildings in Singapore and Penang.

THERE was a time when children’s toys were played with by children only. From humble marbles to fancy remote control toy cars, they were either obtained by scrimping on pocket money for months, received as presents from pampering adults or hand-me-downs from older siblings.

From keeping the children occupied to stimulating their creative juices, from gifts on festive occasions to incentives for doing well in their studies, these toys never failed to light up those little faces. Whether they were do-it-yourself or bought from shops, toys have been a part of growing up that have appealed to their sense of curiosity and adventure.

But some of these playthings are not the domain of the young any more. Adults have shamelessly and unreservedly jumped onto the bandwagon too. I am especially referring to Lego. The little blocks with studs that can be put together to produce various objects have become prized possessions for grown-ups of every age as well as children.

Every time a limited edition Lego set is offered for sale or given away with purchases, there would be long queues outside the entrance to the shops way before they opened for business. These sets were snapped up quickly no matter how expensive they were or the amount one needed to spend to get them for free.

Scalpers made the matter worse by taking the opportunity to cash in on this craze. They generate an artificial scarcity by buying up as many sets as they can to resell at highly inflated prices, sometimes immediately after acquiring them. What is more surprising is that there are buyers out there willing to pay the prices demanded. Well, I guess different strokes for different folks. Even without scalpers, this is not a cheap hobby to indulge in. Retail prices can go as high as RM2,000 for a set depending on whether they are franchises of shows like the Star Wars and Avengers, both of which are popular currently, or Lego’s own range like City and Friends. Additionally, the other dilemma enthusiasts always have to struggle with is finding space to display fully constructed sets.

A Lego exhibition was in town recently and I still can’t believe I went there three times in two weeks to gawk in awe at the models on display. The only excuse I can offer for this “madness” is that my wife invariably suggested the shopping mall where it was being held each time I asked her where to go for meals.

Called ‘Dream & Build’ and billed as the largest Lego event in Malaysia, the models were submitted by members of the Lego User Group of Malaysia with a membership of more than 6,800 enthusiasts on Facebook. From heritage buildings to spaceships and scenes from Star Wars, the detailed miniature models were built by grown-up enthusiasts who fondly call themselves as AFOL (Adult Fans of Lego).

The heritage buildings were replicas of well-known landmarks in Penang, Malacca and Singapore. One section of the exhibition was dedicated to depicting a small city with shops and a fairground. There were also models of the Medieval period replete with castles and knights.

The models were not sets purchased off the shelves. AFOL painstakingly designed and built them from scratch with parts sourced from sets and loose pieces that can be bought in bulk for such purposes. In Lego-speak, these one-of-a-kind of models are known as MOC which is the acronym for ‘My Own Creation’.

I have to confess that I succumbed to this Lego obsession as well. It started with my first acquisition of the Marvel and DC Universe Super Heroes buildable figures in 2012 when the craze had not caught on yet. The popular sets were easier to get back then without the need to queue even for the rarer sets.

I am slowly moving into doing MOCs which I find more fulfilling after dabbling with ready-made sets for a while now, mainly from the Star Wars and City range. The things that I can build with Lego bricks are countless, limited only by my own imagination and the parts available at hand. I like the idea of being able to create something to call my own.

With my poor hand function, it requires a lot of patience, particularly when handling the small parts which is a great challenge because I have very little control over my thumb and fingers. What usually takes others 10 minutes to piece together takes me more than one hour. In a way, it is a form of physical and emotional therapy for me. The satisfaction of seeing the end result is priceless. This is the same feeling I am sure the other AFOL experience each time they complete building their sets.

My wife is a convert too. However, she is more into modular buildings which can be joined together to form a city block. These sets containing more than 2,000 pieces are suited for more advanced builders and are considered toys for adults. The box states that they are suitable for those aged 16 and above as compared to regular Lego sets which are usually for children of ages six to 12. And yes, our predicament is also in making space in the house for our increasing collections respectively.

The interest in toys like this is proof that there is a child in every one of us who will never grow up. Adults are no longer limited to pampering themselves with big boy toys like high-powered motorcycles and cars. Cute little things like Lego have become equally appealing too.

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Misleading signs – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 15 November, 2015

Misleading signs
November 15, 2015, Sunday Peter Tan,


HAVE you driven around in an unfamiliar area, depending on the road signs to lead you to your intended destination, only to find that you are hopelessly lost and totally disoriented in a strange place? Well, there is no need to be embarrassed. You are not alone.

This is not a matter of men too proud to ask for directions or women being better navigators. Women and men friends alike have had to call for directions when visiting me for the first time. My house is located between several arterial roads with heavy traffic during rush hours. There are plenty of road signs along the way but they would somehow end up a few housing estates away.

Simply put, Malaysian road signs are notorious for being unreliable. Many times I have overshot exits on the highway because there are no proper signs to forewarn of them. Other times, they were placed too close to the slip roads and by the time I saw them, it was too late to slow down to take the turn.

There were instances of overgrown trees obscuring entire signs. It also doesn’t help that we have a penchant for changing British-era road names to that of local personalities. The need to replace a road name that has been in use for half a century is beyond me. This adds to the confusion for someone who has no inkling the names have been changed.

I have been driving around the Klang Valley for the past nine years but still get lost occasionally even with the aid of a GPS navigation device or Waze. I once missed an exit and had to drive 20km to get back to the same point. Luckily for me, I still made it in time for the important appointment. Nowadays, I make it a point to leave one hour earlier for appointments at places I have never been to just in case I lose my way.

Road signs are simple but crucial for way finding, safety and to provide information about facilities and services available along the route. There is even a multilateral treaty known as the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals to facilitate international uniformity of road signs, signals and symbols and road markings.

Likewise, signboards are essential in public spaces. Their importance is always overlooked. We pass by them all the time at train stations, airports and shopping malls without giving much thought about their purpose until we need to use a toilet or an escalator.

A young man approached me a few days ago while I was waiting for the lift and asked if I knew where the parking ticket machine was. My car was parked in another building. I had no idea where the machine in this particular building was located.

Trying to be helpful, and clever, I hazarded a guess and directed him to another floor where I presumed the machine was only to realise a short while later this particular car park has a manned booth at the exit. I felt guilty for sending him on a wild goose chase and went back to look for him but he was nowhere in sight.

The man’s futile search could have been avoided had the management of the car park put up signs at strategic points to inform drivers where they could pay. Little touches like this are a convenience, and can save a lot of time and legwork. This is particularly true of large buildings where amenities are spread out. The medical centre I go to for my quarterly check-up is a huge complex of many interconnected buildings. Each time I am referred to a doctor of another speciality, I would get lost in the maze of corridors looking for the clinic. The directional signs are not of much help as they point in all directions, making little sense.

Putting some thought into the design and placement of signs can ensure their usefulness. The text must be concise and easy to read from a distance. Symbols can be used in place of text but they must be universally understandable. Using fancy symbols that make no sense would serve no purpose except to confuse people who are looking for a specific facility or place.

Most importantly, signboards with information on emergency situations in buildings should be placed prominently and include formats that different disabled people can access, like Braille and audio. Exit paths for wheelchair users and people with other mobility impairments should be clearly indicated to facilitate an orderly evacuation if there is a need.

I wish the people responsible for putting up signboards, be it on roads or buildings will take more care in designing and installing them. They should put themselves in the shoes of people who depend on these signs to find where they want to go quickly and easily. If only they knew how frustrating it was for those who diligently followed the signs and ended up somewhere else.

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The pursuit of happiness – Breaking Barriers – The Borneo Post – 7 November, 2015

The pursuit of happiness
November 7, 2015, Saturday Peter Tan,

Happiness is a choice. This I learnt through along tumultuous journey.

When I was a mere child, I was given the impression that life would be complete with good health and great wealth. I was taught to kneel before the altar every morning and evening to pray that my parents would live to a ripe old age and make lots of money.

I was also taught to pray for myself to be studious and pass all my exams with flying colours. With that drummed into me at an impressionable age, I grew up believing if I prayed hard enough, I would do well academically, get into a profession that paid well and the money would come rolling in.

When I became paralysed, I thought it was the end for me. Many nights, when I was alone, my suppressed sobs broke the quietness in the bedroom as I mourned for all the things I could never do again and all the money I could never earn.

It didn’t help that disability was portrayed as a tragedy and disabled people as despondent and helpless. I bought into that and saw my paralysis as an illness and a barrier that prevented me from making something out of my life. As I gradually recovered, I tried to move on but I was perpetually enveloped by a cloud of sadness.

There was always a reason to be miserable. I saw my schoolmates graduating and building their careers one by one, then getting married and having families of their own. I looked at myself and saw no future. What could a man with such crippling impairments as mine ever achieve? The more I thought about it, the more depressed I got.

The discontentment I experienced was as debilitating to the spirit as my impairments were to my independence. I was never satisfied. How could I when I had to depend on other people for the simplest of tasks? Even after I came to terms with the permanence of my condition, I still suffered from moodiness and depression. It was awful. I would do nothing but brooded all day long.

This went on for many years until I seriously got involved in the field of training. I took a step back and took stock of my life. It was then I grasped the extent I have allowed myself to be consumed by episodes of discontentment. It had gone on for such a long time that I didn’t know how else to feel. I was always focusing on what I couldn’t do rather than what I have achieved.

With a steadily deteriorating kidney disease and an uncertain mortality, I asked myself if I wanted to continue to live a life filled with unhappiness or look at the brighter side and celebrate what I have left. Being sad all the time was emotionally draining. It takes the same effort to be sad or happy. And I decided I wanted to be happy.

The food tasted better with this change. Everything I was doing became meaningful. I found contentment in the smallest of things. My dour appearance was replaced by a cheery smile. It felt as if a burden that had been holding me down for years was suddenly lifted off my chest.

I realised no one can make me happy except myself. Likewise, no one can make me feel sad or angry if I don’t allow it. My perspective of a situation determined my frame of mind. When I didn’t succeed in an endeavour, I could either look at it as a failure or as a lesson and an opportunity to be better the next time. Now, I take the latter path. Although I still feel bad for not giving my best, I am consoled by the fact that I will not make the same mistakes again in the future trainings I conduct.

We often hear people say they want to be happy and equate that with getting a new car, a designer handbag or the newest smartphone. In my experience, bought happiness doesn’t last. I have gotten many things to cheer myself up whenever I felt down. When I did that, I discovered I had to continuously feed myself with material things to keep feeling good. It is true that money can’t buy happiness, well, not in the long term anyway.

Happiness doesn’t come from possessing but by letting go. It is not about having all we want but being contented with that we have. It is not a goal to be achieved but has always been there for the taking. We can be happy even in the direst of circumstances. Happiness is a choice we make. All it requires is some practice in changing of the mind-set. It must be a conscious decision. We must want it to get it.

Martha Washington, the wife of the first president of the United States, said it best when she wrote, “I am determined to be cheerful and happy in whatever situation I may find myself. For I have learned that the greater part of our misery or unhappiness is determined not by our circumstances but by our disposition.”

Now that I have made my choice, my chronic health issues and my physical limitations have become less significant and doesn’t trouble me as much as they used to. I wish I had found out about this earlier instead of having to spend half of my life wallowing in sadness and misery. Still, it is never too late. I have chosen happiness and that is how I will live come hell or high water.

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