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Monday, 5 January 2009

Happy New Year!

This is the first post for 2009. In recent weeks the falling price of petrol looks set to bounce back to astronomical highs. Thanks to efforts at the OPEC oil cartel, petrol production has been cut. Petrol prices are set to soar once again. Oil is presently about $46 per barrel. This means that we, the ordinary consumerism-entrapped member of public, must watch how our money is spent.

The world's economy is roiling in turmoil. At the same time, many people are losing their jobs. Some of us are fortunate and live in relatively cushioned conditions. For these people, instead of an extravagant party at a night club, they can make do with a quiet dinner for a few friends in the comfort of their own homes. Instead of taking a plane to Hong Kong for the weekend, they may choose to visit the waterfalls in Ulu Yam and Ulu Langat. But for many others, priorities like children's education and healthcare will outweigh considerations of entertainment and relaxation. Credit card debt will evince many a silent tear. Steep drops in the price of stocks will cause many to fall into the vale of a sad tale.

Yet all is not lost. There is much that can be done. Instead of costly trips to shopping malls, the very act of being frugal can be the fun activity that will entertain the many. Being frugal does not necessarily yield branded items and flashy cars -- although, given the right factors, it could. It means looking out for bargains. The frugal person is a bargain hunter at heart. A good bargain is struck when you get more bang for your buck. But then again the man who willingly spends two to three times more getting "branded", will tell you that you are paying for reliability and the assurance that the branded company will give you something reliable. That man has his point, but the sullen economy demands that behaviour patterns be changed for survival.

Let us celebrate this very act of being alive. Being alive, and choosing to stay alive, are conscious choices. I recently suffered a nasty cut at the swimming pool. My leg plunged through the plastic covering of a drain (it broke) and a portion of my left shin was well skinned. It measured about 1 inch x 2.5 inches. At the moment, I felt a slight sting but did not panic. The area was white. Soon however, blood drops began to form. The sting was more pronounced when I showered, exiting the pool. My girlfriend panicked. I smiled. She wondered how I could smile at a stinging pain. Yet my answer was simply that I was rejoicing in the fact that I was still alive. How a little pain makes us realise the simple fact that we are alive. We are always more in touch with our senses when there is a little cut in the flesh. Touch, taste, sights and sounds become more vivid. 

There must be a realisation amongst us that wealth and frugality are closely tied. Frugality is a hallmark of many a rich man. Few became rich by spending like dukes. More often than not these men of marked distinction usually came by great wealth by conserving their incomes and clever reinvestment. The point is that I just had a holiday recently in Kuala Terengganu. It was monsoon season and I was not aware of it. I booked two plane tickets for me and my significant other. She helped to book a room at Hotel Grand Continental Terengganu for three nights. To be honest, it was a good hotel with breakfast (worth RM23 per pax). But I could have saved a bundle if I had put up at Hotel Ming Star (next to Wisma MCA) or even better at Hotel YT Midtown. The Grand Continental was charging RM224.50 whereas other hotels were charging RM108 or thereabouts. But then again, it depends on what you want. Good service and good ambience? Go for the whole nine yards.

While in the hotel room, I watched Mira Nair's "The Namesake", about twenty something Nikhil Ganguli, of Bengali descent, trying to make his mark as an architect in New York. It was more than that, of course, but somehow one line summaries always make people comfortable. When he was younger his parents, who had migrated from India, would take him on road trips. They would pull out "9 course Bengali dinners" from tiffin carriers when all he wanted was McDonald's. What spoke to me was how these road trips would become a huge part of his memory of his childhood with his father. At the later part of the show the Nikhil's father passes away. Nikhil remembers his father bringing him to the seaside, where a cluster of rocks extend toward the sea in a tiny peninsular. Halfway there, his father asked, "Where is the camera? Where is the camera? There is no camera, Gogol. (Nikhil's name was Gogol but was later changed to Nikhil) You will have to remember it all." Young Nikhil asks his father, "How long do I have to remember it, father?" His father replies: "Remember it always. You must remember that you and I went on a journey together, and we came to a place where there was no place left to go." The lights turn hazy and the squawking of seagulls is heard. It is as though it was the last thing that was to be remembered.

This is why sometimes it is good to make the journey of life, and hence, the journey of frugality and simplicity, together with a companion. Simplicity is a frame of mind that is frequently misunderstood. Simplicity means keeping things less and less complicated, to avoid the complications that arise from complexity. Imagine if all mobile phones had only one button. Just think of what you want, and press the button. That would be the epitome of simplicity. Imagine if roads brought us where we wanted to go. That would be simplicity. Shirts with less buttons. Less clutter on your desk. Files that show you everything in one page. Simplicity. Simplicity means trimming the branches of your fruit tree, so as to keep the unruly branches in beautiful shape. Simplicity means elegance. And simplicity need not cost money, although these days many designers charge premium prices to impart the sense of order that only simplicity can give.

It's the new year. Live life free. Live life green. Simplicity and frugality can be your companions. With this new year, consider going the path of recycling. Simply sorting out your trash into paper, plastic and metals can help you build up a pile of raw materials that can be sold to recycling centers. This in turn translates into dollars and cents over the long run. A certain lady I know, would gladly accept your old newspaper and plastic bottles. She gets some pocket money out of the payment for the old newspaper and plastic bottles. At the same time, she is also doing a wonderful job of clearing out the rubbish at her neighbourhood.