They were big oversized tyres, particularly the ones at the rear. They looked meaty, even when the tyres are just depictions on a blueprint. I wondered whether they would even be street legal….not that it mattered.

Tom the designer looked like a cross between the country singer Willy Nelson and the James Bond actor Sean Connery in his prime.

“He looks like a hippy!” a friend had remarked that Saturday, however.

I did not think so. With his greying beard, he had looked like someone’s grandfather…. and a rather concerned one at that after my one handed driving antics made him rather uncomfortable earlier, as I brought him around town in my Suzuki Swift.

Tom was in town, that time when I was 19 – looking for potential investors for his car company. He was old school – a craftsman who built sports cars…by hand.

“Enzo” he had told me, referring to the Ferrari founder. He had gone to Italy to build cars. After a stint of time roughing it, and building cars …. as he saw fit, Tom’s creations got the attention of Albert Broccoli, from the eponymous family that created that green vegetable (yes, that one!)….as well as producer for the James Bond movies. Tom’s sensuous and sleek machines were featured in 007 movies in the 70’s. 

I had asked him what he had done in the time period between making cars in Modena and getting his automobiles featured in the Bond Movies. 

“Nothing!” Tom had answered with a glint in his eyes, “I was busy making babies!!!” He had laughed.

Tom’s creation on the blue print was a study in a conglomeration and blend of several vehicles into one. The front end looked like a Ferrari Spider. The front gave way to a low roofline, resting on curved frames which in turn rested on powerful haunches above the exaggerated and ballooning tyres. The engine was to be rear mounted. Ferrari red was the order of the day.

Tom spoke with passion, telling me that he had a lot of interested parties for his undertaking in Brunei. He spoke about opening a factory that would help train the locals in making hand made cars, and how it would open up Brunei’s economy. He wanted to make use of my experience with 3D to bring his design process up to speed.

It was easy to get caught in Tom’s infectious enthusiasm. He had the skills and credibility, but I could see that he was more Tom the salesman than Tom the designer. He was desperate for funding and had wanted to get Prince Jefri to be interested.

Alas, it was not meant to be.

After the weekend was over, Tom’s momentum seemed to falter. Brunei did not support his cause.

Maybe it was his presentation? Maybe it was his access? Maybe it was a combination of other factors?

Whatever it was, there were no factories. There were no Bruneians trained in making hand made cars. There were no he had called his brand.

But for a moment, there was a glimpse of an American muscle car in Italian clothing. There were possibilities. There was hope.

When I look back, everything that had happened seemed like something that reality show producers would cook up to get the ratings up. To be honest, l believe if Tom had treated his undertaking like a reality tv show such as the likes of Orange County Choppers, he would have been successful. Imagine having something like that in Brunei : an American patriach trying to make exotic sport cars in a sleepy town, with rookie local carcraftsmen learning the tools of the trade. I would probably be the design kid parked permanently in front of the computer making digital car designs based on the patriach’s real world experience. There would be conflicts, insurmountable odds, problems and such. But then at the end of an episode, things would resolve itself…. unless of course this was to be a cliffhanger episode, in which case you would have to wait for another week before knowing what was to happen next!!

Tom – thanks for the brief moment in time. It certainly is worth a lifetime of memories.

R.I.P Tom Mead 1939-2014.


The Crossing

I saw the small dog from quite a long way off. He was waiting on the side of the road, standing still all too timidly. I sensed he was trying to cross the road. Traffic however was a lot, and was reasonably fast.

There were at least 4 cars in front of me that separated me from him.When my car finally reached him, I knew that I had to slow down and stop. I flashed my headlights, wondering whether the dog would understand my intention.

He saw me. And understood.

A second or two passed however before the little fellow plucked enough courage to start walking. He walked slowly. I flashed my headlights again to warn the oncoming car from the other lane to be aware of him.

Alhamdulillah , the car from the opposite lane complied, but I thought the driver must had been wondering whether I had been half mad to let the little dog through. Behind me, and behind the car in the opposite lane, traffic built up.

I laughed and relished the moment, watching our little traveller cross the road carefully and cautiously. He was such a well behaved dog. To the credit of everyone present, nobody was sounding their horns. It was as if the world had just stopped turning, and was silent for a moment – giving the right of way to one of its hapless creatures.

Once the dog was clear off the road, traffic returned to normal once again. I smiled, my heart as light as a feather : we had just witnessed something special. 

I continued homeward, and said a little prayer. I hoped that the dog would be alright, and that people would be kind and considerate.

After all, we are all God’s creatures.

My Dad lifted a house…


“Please release me….let me go…”

My late dad used to sing this Englebert Humperdinck’s song. Dad had a pleasant and an almost baritone voice that would accentuate the song further, so that phrases like…

“….for I don’t love you anymore….”

…would have a grand effect on whoever happened to be listening nearby.

In fact, that particular song was one of his regular repertoire, and we would listen to it with a certain understanding.

You see, if you happened to hear dad singing “Please release me, let me go….for I don’t love you anymore”, chances were he would be singing it while flushing the toilet !!

Dad had a nasty sense of humour. You could see it in his eyes but he was also a bit of a romantic, now that I think of it. He would go in the kitchen singing, spotted my mum cooking….and scooped her up in his arms…just for the fun of it.

When he was studying abroad in the UK, he was once asked by a Briton friend his opinion about the people there. His answer?

“I like them…” Dad had said. “They’re a lot like your weather.”

The friend broke into a smile and said

“Aahhh…yes, we have pleasant weather…thank you..”

“No!” said Dad “That’s not it…”

“I like your people” Dad had repeated, “They’re a lot like your weather……very unpredictable!”

The expression on the friend’s face had been priceless, I was told 😁

Beneath the rough and ready humour however was a tale of a person who had grown up in extraordinary circumstances and had learned how to be self reliant and creative. He had to: both his parents had died when he was quite young and he was brought up by his sisters in Kampong Sumbiling Lama.

His creativity and self reliance is best exemplified by an incident that happened when he was around 8 years old. At that time, his house at the Water Village or Kampong Ayer had listed to one side as a result of a few damaged stilts. Back then, house repairs of the magnitude would literally involve the entire village community. You would need lots of people to literally lift and shove new supporting pillars under the house. On that particular day however, the adults had been out and busy but had scheduled the repairs to another time.

Dad however, had other ideas and relied on his thinking skills and creativity.

During low tide, he got hold of some wood, tied them to the problematic stilts…and waited. When the high tide came, the wood bits – which are less dense floated…and as the water level rises, effectively pulled the tilting house just enough to give dad the clearance he required to prop the house up with some additional wooden supports.

It was a simple engineering solution, he insisted.

When the adults came back, to say that they were surprised would be an understatement!

“Nobody believed me!”, he had told me, laughing off the episode. “But I did alright!”

But those were different times and children were given far more freedom than I would even consider giving mine today. Back then, children had a grittier existence – a veritable school of hard knocks.

Dad had more than his fair share of incidents…and near mishaps that indicated a stubborn defiance to hardship. In that process, you could say that he lived hard, worked hard and played hard. You could also tell from interacting with him that he had that intensity about him that showed a tendency to leap fearlessly into a situation just because it needed to be done.

“What happened to you?” his elder brother Haji Sumadi once asked him.

It was 8 at night. My dad – then a teenager was wet from head to toe, and had just knocked on his brother’s door.

“There is no boat at this hour”, Dad had said.

Haji Sumadi lived across the river from the town of Kuala Belait in a village called Sungai Teraban. The river was quite wide ……… and had crocodiles in it.

“So I swam…”, Dad had added, breaking into a grin.

“Be There. Make it Matter…”


When I left her for my studies, she was only 3 years old.

Every attempt at talking to her over the phone ended in failure : my daughter would refuse to talk to me. She was that upset.

Interestingly however, when my family visited our other house in Telisai, my wife told me over the phone that Batrisyia would go around the house….calling for me.

My wife would tell me how she would walk around alone in the big house, going into every nook and corner, calling out for her dad.


Isha never did talk to me over the phone, preferring to see me in person when I come home on vacation. She preferred it that way, I know now. No matter how many toys or books that I had gotten her – there was simply no substitute for fathers to just be there for their kids.

My 3 year old daughter had taught me an important lesson…

“Be there, and make it matter”

The thing is … how many times have we been with our family?  How often are we with them in their activities, or just by simply having dinner or an afternoon out?

Yes, we’ve been there right? We are present during those times. Or are we? How many times have we been present, but then found ourselves busy working the phones, checking our e-mails or focusing on our social apps instead? How many times have dinner been disturbed by things other than family? We’re distracted, distant, virtually somewhere else.

Reality check, please everyone….

And Reality does bite, doesn’t it?!

We need to put down those phones, lay to the side those e-mails, fb statuses and WhatsApp messages. Focus on what matters most.

Be present.

“Be there, and make it matter”

Mom and Understatements….


‘Have you ever treated a person with a gunshot wound?’

I asked my Mom one night. She had been a nurse for the greater part of her adult life.

‘Yes’ came her answer.

I was impressed.

‘Several times I assisted the doctors in the operating theatre.’ she added.

I was very impressed.

‘Maybe around 10 cases or so’ – she was not finished.

Ok Mom. I was WAY impressed!!!

We’re blessed with peace, alhamdulillah : nothing of that sort happens in Brunei.

This had been….

‘….during the communist insurgency in Sarawak’ she said referring to that era in the 1960’s well before I was born.

‘Soldiers mostly’ she said in between carefully picked food. It was dinner after all. And now that I think about it, such a strange and rather inappropriate if not macabre subject for a dinner conversation.

‘Some communists too…’ she added, ‘One fellow escaped through the hospital’s toilet window.’

I raised an eyebrow. This was way past interesting.

‘How did that happen? Didn’t they have guards for that?’ I asked, focusing intently on her.

‘Oh, they did’ answered my mum ‘careless policeman!’

Apparently the communist who had been hospitalised for a gunshot wound to the leg had asked the attending policeman/guard to excuse him for a nature call. The rest was history: he had ‘naturally’ absconded through the toilet’s windows.

‘The next instant…’ continued my mum, ‘the Army ran through the hospital!’

In fact, the Army scoured through the hospital and then for good measure….the countryside for the conniving communist. But it had been quite futile…

‘Disappeared right off!’ She had concluded.

I watched her eat. She had worked in 3 continents including the UK in all sorts of situation. Yet these incidents no matter how extraordinary they were, were only described in her typical low key manner. She could as well be describing some mundane thing such as the act of folding a shirt for all I know.

Yet in the simplicity of her description, I manage to identify my mum’s methods of dealing with stressful situations: humour.

She was also adept at understatements, it seemed.

‘It was work’ she had once told me, smiling.

‘It was work…’

An ode to a luggage bag.


“Take that one,” my friend Redzuan Sane had said.

I stared at a big lug of a blue bag glaringly different and unique in an expanse of more conventionally styled and coloured luggages in the store. The name Lojel was prominently displayed near the handle.

“Seriously?”, I had asked perhaps a bit sarcastically.

“Yes,”, he had answered, “It’s easier to spot….and sturdy.”

$380 later, I went home with the blue bag in tow, already feeling the deadweight with hardly anything inside.

A few days later, I was in Pittsburgh. Sure enough, the bag was quite easy to spot as it made its way towards me on the conveyor belt. It was also in one piece and had survived the journey through Changi, Heathrow and JFK. My friends’ luggages were sadly slipshod looking. One had burst at the seams. Another looked as if it might not survive another trip. In short, the bag had delivered on all aspects brilliantly.

The bag – now affectionately called The Big Blue Lug travelled with me for quite a bit throughout the years, accumulating scratches, stickers of various places and contained diverse items from the usual clothing, books and electronics to …….

“….Mangoes!”, a Malaysian customs officer had exclaimed as the fruits were unmasked by the xray machine.

“Yup”, I had answered, “It’s from my trees at home.”

He was a bit puzzled as to the lack of smell emanating from the Big Blue Lug. I had scattered within the bag pieces of bread to absorb the smell. It had been a tip from my grandma Hajjah Jasmani and I had just confirmed that it worked.

I could see several principles at work with the Big Blue Lug – but the most stand out was that the bag was literally a Stand Out : I could spot the bag a distance away because it did not blend in with the other bags. When the US president Ronald Reagan gave his first few press conferences, a reporter keen for his attention decided to wear red. It worked. In a sea of blandly dressed reporters, she stood out like a sore thumb! … albeit an attractive one at that.

The Big Blue Lug eventually started to disintegrate as it clocked 10 years. The wheels gave way first and while I commiserated to have them replaced, the seals followed suit shortly. That errr…sealed its fate and my beloved bag was reluctantly retired soon after.

As a child, I had sat on these big boxes or shipping trunks as they were called. They came from an era where people go to places via ships. When you open them up, they have these distinctive whiffs of having being stored for a while. Some say it is the smell of neglect! But i say it is the smell of the ages, of going through different places and of travel.

The Big Blue Lug is a modern iteration of these trunks. In terms of space, it cannot hold its ground against them. But it had gone the distance and had always met the mileage with confidence in keeping its entrusted contents safe and dry from the elements.

Thanks, oh faithful traveling companion! Thank you for your years of service! 😄

Many bags have I used since…but none have come close to your calibre, character and downright indestructibleness.

Travel forth my dear companion.
Into the expanse of the Eternal Travel.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light! 😄

To Saturn and Back…


She looked like the manager who had just briefed us on the company that morning. Now she had the apron on in addition to her corporate suit, looking out of place behind the counter serving lunch.

As if knowing what I was thinking, she said “Yes, this is my other duty!” and plunked some gravy onto a staff’s food tray.

Apparently managers are expected to serve lunch as well in Saturn (by the way, I am talking about the Saturn motor company, not the planet)

“Ok”, I had thought. These things were supposed to impress upon me. Yet strangely I felt oddly detached and devoid of awe. In my opinion, it was fine for managers to serve their subordinates but it was not an earth-shattering fact. However, in an environment usually set for a pecking order, what Saturn did to turn the tables around and get the Managers to come down from their high horses and join the rest of the workforce, to serve them even, must had been quite epic.

When we came into their building that morning, the Spring Hill Tennessee, USA based company had displayed their latest vehicle models near the entrance: what else would they be doing? You would certainly not put them at the back! These cars were the reason for the company’s existence.

However, the story ran deeper. General Motors – the parent company had wanted to compete with the Japanese manufacturers like Toyota and Nissan. So enter stage right – the Saturn motor company that was run in a similar manner like the Japanese companies. The cars were smaller, heck…Saturn even called them ‘different’.

Spring Hill was chosen as the site of the factory with a sizable chunk of the population there supplying the labour. The initial core expertise came from General Motors of course. However from the get go, Saturn was run like a perpetual experiment in motion.

“We have a corporate university”, the manager had also said earlier, reflecting an uncommon method to retain staff. Corporate students sit for courses in the evenings and earned credits that could be used to enter external universities.

During lunch, we discussed about their methods and compare them to what similar companies were doing. Saturn was building an ecosystem for their workforce’s development. Its ability to compete was directly related to how dedicated its people were in pursuing success in the market. Dedication in turn was earned via a set of support systems that allowed the individual to feel at home, to feel encouraged in self development and to be immersed in a relatively non hierarchical culture. Heady stuff!

And the results showed: Saturn got to be so successful in its corporate approaches that they were able to compete with the Japanese manufacturers for a share in the US market.

However rather than just rattle the Japanese companies, Saturn actually did an unthinkable: it actually grabbed the market share from General Motors. Yes…it competed with the parent company!

And that sadly marked the beginning of the end for Saturn. General Motors closed down the company in 2010, effectively killing a competitor which it had helped create.

Oh, the irony!

Sometimes I wonder whatever happened to the manager in the apron.

I suppose she would have relinquished both her duties as the manager and lunch server. In an environment where corporate culture and experimentation coexist, it was good to see human factors and good will being exercised and considered. But by those same tokens but seen from General Motors’ perspectives, Saturn also paid dearly and unfairly for its efficiency in the market.

Companies come and go. Great companies sustain and stay around longer. Saturn’s demise was after only 25 years since its inception. It was a brief life, no doubt caused by an unclear vision of General Motors and the inability to decipher market dynamics. Saturn had the financial backing and muscles to implement its corporate culture and various workforce benefits and operating principles. But when it came to dollars and “sense”, its very success against the hand that fed it ultimately became responsible for its demise.

And no “corporate apron” in the world however well meaning and large can save it.

So here are the points to take home:

  • Check your basis and reason for being.
  • Check them always.
  • Check them well.
  • Make sure they map properly to your operating principles and culture.
  • Commit and persevere.
  • And reach out and sustain your successes!

Innovation – a Formula


“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Steve Jobs of Apple understood people and their wants and was able to orchestrate the creativity and design flair of those around him into innovative and highly desirable products such as the ipod, iphone, ipad and iwatch. But that capability came at a cost: Jobs could be a difficult person to work with. Walter Issacson – Jobs’ biographer described how brutally honest Jobs could be when confronted with designs, ideas or processes that were not up to his standards. Jobs was also not the type to “sugarcoat” shortcomings – doing away with niceness and coming across as abrasive instead to those who were ill prepared to deal with him.

Sir Jonathan Ive, Jobs’ longtime collaborator and Chief Design Officer at Apple can attest to the legacy that Jobs left behind when it comes to honesty. “We can be bitterly critical of our work. The personal issues of ego have long since faded.” said Ives in a Time magazine interview, referring to the process of giving honest feedback when going through the creative process.

Companies like Apple have a relatively closed creative process. Its innovation is achieved through a culture that utilises a pool of talented engineers and designers, and because the stakes are high and competition is stiff, product developments are shrouded in secrecy. “Innovation is the driving force behind every successful business,” said Max Messmer, the chairman and CEO of Robert Half International. “Managers should do their best to stretch and challenge their teams to combat complacency.

Messmer – also the author of Human Resources Kit for Dummies, lists six tips to get the innovation juice flowing in work teams:

• Engage the entire team
• Remove the red tape
• Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate
• Do not filter the brainstorm
• Take a break
• Seek inspiration

According to Messmer, when employees are empowered, they will be more innovative and dedicated towards the organisation’s success. It comes as no surprise that in environments where the bureaucracy level is high, innovation becomes a difficult trick to pull off.

Within the organisation, a healthy balance between competition and collaboration is also essential to enable team members to contribute their suggestions and creations. Think of collaboration as a way to leverage the differences in the group: different strengths, different knowledge and different levels or posts. Instead of focusing on the differences, they can be utilised for the benefit of the task at hand. However, managing such varying traits can be difficult particularly in hierarchical organisations that favour position and seniority over knowledge and capability: allowing equal participation would be very challenging. In such situations, there is a need for a culture of innovation and a paradigm shift towards embracing that culture. Too many ideas that are potentially groundbreaking have often been discarded or pre-filtered when differences come into play. It is a good idea to introduce ground rules that give everyone his or her fair share of time to be heard. It is also a good idea to give employees a break once in a while as well, since overworked employees tend to do more harm than good.

This is where inspired leaders can come in and make a difference. Support from the top and setting of the right tone have been described in various situations as being vital for getting the rest of the organisation mobilised to a particular arrangement, standpoint, understanding, approach, perspective or even culture. Organisations come and go. However, the survivability and sustainability are also dependent on the ability of the organisation to reinvent itself. There are inherent risks associated in leading an organisation through difficult but necessary change. A lot of the time, it requires moving out of one’s comfort zone – made up of long held habits, perspectives and ways of working. However, in return for such sacrifices, one does get the possibility of a better future, which in itself is such a profound reason for achieving innovativeness in the first place.

This article was published in the Apr-Jun 2016 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!

To Be or Not To Be

Ayah London

The bus stopped, dislodging me at a rather nondescript part of an English town in front of a plain looking food-shop. Curious, I walked into the smallish shop; only then realising that it was a pizzeria. Inside, there were no tables or chairs: just a counter, a cash register and a bald, bearded tough looking man.

That had been my first encounter with Abdullah. Beneath his seasoned exterior was an enlightened survivor. Abdullah had arrived in the UK as an Afghanistani child refugee. He had braved through the initial culture shock in very trying conditions, adapted, grew up and became owner and proprietor of the little shop that I had just entered.

Such resilience was a characteristic I would know too well as I attended the town’s Loughborough University. Academic life was already stressful enough with its scholarly obligations. To complicate matters, international students were transplanted far from their familiar environment and their usual support structures of family and friends. Those who could not cope would mull badly over trivial matters such as sorting out their accommodation, paying bills or even completing assignments. The resilient ones knew how to roll with the punches. These were the ones who would reach out for support and continue functioning despite experiencing anger, grief or pain.

In the University of Minnesota’s study on developmental psychology, Professor Dante Cicchetti found that resilient individuals usually had good self-esteem, were able to control their ego and impulses, and were flexible in adapting to their environment.

I could observe those traits when I worked for a local publishing company early in my career. The owner – Hj Zainal Bin Ibrahim was indeed a study in resilience. His company had gone through several difficult business challenges but he was determined to plow ahead. He was courteous, seemingly unfazed, had endless patience and an exemplary “Never Say Die” attitude. He was creative in reinventing his company, and in continuously adapting to the local business situation. He made posters and signboards, published magazines, and even produced 3D advertisements for television. But it would take some time and phases before he could find the right conditions that matched his creative ability and business dynamics. His textile company Batik Mas is a fusion of his artistic expression, mastery of medium, and creative collaboration. It is also a testimony of his hard work and persistence.

There are patterns from the experiences of such individuals that we can adopt to improve our own resilience. Here are a few:

Resilient people have a good support base of people they can reach out for support. This acts as a pressure valve and helps them to cope.

We can learn from past experience, and apply it to our future actions. Think of how you have dealt with a previous difficulty. What skills or approaches have helped you?

Resilient people know what works and what does not: they reinvent themselves to adapt to the situation.

Goals help in facilitating accomplishments, and they give a sense of purpose and meaning.

Change is unavoidable. Accepting it patiently and dealing with it the best way you can makes it easier to adapt.

Stephen Covey – The acclaimed author of the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” once said “We are not a product of what has happened to us in our past. We have the power of choice”.

Like the Shakespearean soliloquy “To be, or not to be….”, resilience can be seen as a choice. Being resilient is not easy, but the intrinsic rewards are certainly worth the effort.

This article was published in the Jul-Sept 2016 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!



We were running in the old school field during break – a group of 8 year old boys and girls. We did not have any set objective – these things rarely do. I recall somebody wanted to play tag and so it started that way. But before long, it became a race. And there we were – running without a care in the world, in the middle of the soccer field flanked by the school and the mosque.

And that was when it hit me – this notion that I was Superman. I raised my arms, gave a burst of speed and flew off…

I felt the wind blowing against my face as I embraced the air, looking expectantly for the horizon to change as I leave the ground.

Instead, I saw a flurry of green as the ground connected with my face. I tasted grass, earth …. and blood. I pushed up with my hands and lay on my back, eyes closed.

“Oi….”, I heard the voice of a concerned classmate.

I opened my eyes and found the faces of 5 kids above me. One grabbed my hand to help me up. Another touched my lips.

“Oww, oww, oww”, I said as I felt my bloodied lip.

A girl – Latifah gave me a handkerchief for the bleeding. It was embroidered and edged with laces. I took it gratefully, and walked slowly back to class. Nobody asked why I decided to “embrace” the ground, thank God.

But no thanks to Superman!

In a few days, I would return that handkerchief – laundered and ironed back to her. She smiled. I think she knew.

I’ve told this story to my kids several times when they were little. It’s funny to see how they look on in disbelief as the story progressed. Unlike me, they have more common sense and wouldn’t just “fly off” on a whim!

“That must have hurt bad, Daddy”, said Danial.

“Yes, it did…”, I answered.

It was an example of situations that some people might refer to as “being lost in the moment” – characterized by a temporarily pause on reality. It caused me injury, definitely.

But there are those who could tap into the “moment” utilising it to reach a certain objective. Steve Jobs was one of them. His “Reality Distortion Field” or RDF was a term to describe Jobs’ charisma and how it affected those working on the Mac project at Apple. With RDF, Jobs’s could convince himself and others to believe almost anything via a slathering of charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement and persistence. It could also distort an audience’s “sense of proportion and scales of difficulties” and made them believe that anything was possible.

Interestingly, the term has also been used  in industry to describe managers and leaders who try to convince their employees to become passionately committed to projects without regard to the overall product or to competitive forces in the market.

But back to me….  yes, it hurt when my face connected with the ground.

But hey … for a moment there, I was Superman!