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Kyyern

They say that time heals everything — sorrow, pain, anguish and agony. I think the saying shares a common feature with legal rules – it is generally applicable, with certain exceptions or caveats. Certain powerful memories from the past, however distant, have a way of clawing back at us and haunting our minds forever.

A few moments ago, I felt a bout of melancholy. My mind wandered back many years, bringing to mind someone who was a really close friend. I used the past tense because he has passed away. He passed away ten years ago, in a tragic accident, while heroically trying to save his drowning friends. I was 17 at the time, but the memory of our friendship and his death still features so strongly in my mind.

We got to know each other when I was twelve. He was two years younger than me, but we really got along. He was really mischievous as a kid, always thinking of creative ways to pull pranks on others. Some of the things he thought of and did – seriously, you couldn’t make them up. Imagine frozen slippers, toothpaste-decorated leather shoes, coffee seasoned with soy sauce, tea infused with chili sauce, etc. A very good-looking boy, he was always flirty with the girls (usually older than him!). The worst thing I could do to him was to ruffle his meticulously-gelled hair at a social function – he would go berserk. But really, deep down inside, I knew that he was a kind, gentle and perspicacious boy. At times, he was childishly naive, but that made him all the more unique.

We shared some amazing times together. He really was like a younger brother to me. We used to arrange for our parents to have supper together at random restaurants and stalls, so that we could see each other and talk nonsense. He enjoyed annoying and teasing me, but was splendidly gifted at making me laugh when he apologised. I always knew that he looked to me as an older brother – I deeply regret the fact that as I became busier in secondary school, I had less time to mess around with him. A very talented and almost self-taught pianist, he inspired me to pursue my own musical interests more vigorously. By dragging me to his church youth camp when I was twelve, he was the first person to properly introduce me to Christianity.  

Today is the tenth anniversary of his death. I find myself shackled by powerful emotions as the memories from our past swerve through the recesses of my mind. I recall my horror and grief when he died. I trembled and wept as I delivered an eulogy at his funeral. But yet, somehow, I am not entirely surprised by the circumstances of his death. I could totally see him risking his life for his friends, and that was exactly how he died.

My dearest brother Kyyern, I miss you so much and I shall never understand why were you taken from us so soon. I can only pray for God’s blessings upon your soul.

Today, I watched – on large screen TVs at my office – the Inauguration Ceremony of Barack Obama. Before millions of viewers, he took the oath of office, albeit a little jumbled up by the nervousness of himself and Chief Justice John Roberts. It was a historic day, and I felt moved, despite me not being a U.S. citizen. It is truly amazing that from the days of slavery over a hundred years ago, through the civil rights movement a few decades ago, America has progressed so much in such a short time to see an African American enter the White House.

At my office, it was a dignified moment – with partners, associates and other staff all staring at the TV screens. Annoyingly enough, the historic moment was punctuated by the buzzing of a blackberry, and the blackberry owner’s immediate response of checking it.

It was me. Sigh.  

Happy New Year 2009!

A little while ago, New York heralded the arrival of 2009. The celebrations at Times Square were as euphoric as ever, but of course, I am now smart enough to just watch on TV in the comfort of my living room. I was hardly going to spend 10 hours waiting in the bitter cold just to watch that ball drop!

2008 was an eventful year. The United States elected its first non-white President. The global economy has crumbled in an unprecedented manner. In Malaysia, for the first time ever, the ruling coalition lost control of four states and its two-thirds majority in Parliament. 

Layoffs are happening everywhere, especially at the once mighty investment banks. People say that the full bloodbath will occur this month, after the Christmas and New Year holiday period.

Oh well. It is what it is. I can only hope that the top law firms remain steady in these tumultuous times. Here’s to a great New Year!

 

President Obama

Yesterday, the United States elected its first ever non-white President. It is really amazing – a half white, half Kenyan guy, born in Hawaii, called Barack Hussein Obama, was elected to hold the most powerful position in the world. Whatever else is said, this is truly a historic event. I feel very fortunate to have been able to live and work in the United States during this momentous period – witnessing Obama go through a tumultuous primary race against the former First Lady, Senator Hilary Clinton, and finally defeating the septuagenarian former Vietnam prisoner of war, Senator John McCain. This date will be remembered and cemented in the history books, and I got to watch it live (the cheering crowds, the vicous advertisements, the endless debates and commentaries).

I have actually had the honour of seeing Obama speak live. Only three years ago, while he was a young and new Senator, he spoke during a lunch at Harvard Law School, his alma mater. Humble students like me got to attend and many of my peers were mesmerized by his eloquence and intellect. I was extremely impressed, and many of my friends immediately predicted that he would one day become the U.S. President.

While I do not wholeheartedly embrace all his views (on economic and social policies), I nevertheless respect his intellect, eloquence and charisma. More importantly, I now have a profound admiration for the American people, who were truly able to vote without regard for race.

Congratulations, President Obama! May you lead and govern America well, in these extremely turbulent times.

This morning, Lehman Brothers, one of the largest and most prestigious investment banks in the world, announced that it has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Last night, Bank of America announced that it has reached a deal to acquire Merrill Lynch for $50 billion.

As expected, the markets around the world reacted violently this morning. This represents one of the most shocking shake-ups on Wall Street since the 1920s. The repercussions on the global financial sector are colossal. Thousands of previously high-paying jobs in the financial sector will be lost. The world economy is headed for dark times.

Back home, the Malaysian government is in panic mode and is losing the plot. They arrested a blogger, a senior Opposition Party Member of Parliament and an award-winning journalist (who has since been released) under the Internal Security Act, an archaic statute originally designed to deal with violent terrorist insurgents in the 1960s.

Holidays – the Americans use the term “vacations” instead. I love them and it is unfortunate that the capitalist Wall Street is not as generous with them as the socialist British or Europeans. Particularly as I now embrace the working life, leisure and free time is ever so precious.

I believe in the necessity of quarterly vacations. As I get four weeks off a year, I take a one-week vacation roughly every three months. In February this year, I spent Chinese New Year back home in Malaysia. In May, I visited Chicago for a friend’s wedding (my friend, a lawyer, is now married to a doctor – the perfect match for an Asian family!) and spent time at my flatmate’s family home in Austin, Texas.

Chicago was charming – a splendid forest of magnificent skyscrapers, towering over each other, creating a delightful display of architectural brilliance. It was a very clean city, bordered by the lovely Lake Michigan. I could not miss the Art Institute of Chicago (immortalized by the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), which had a very impressive collection. I was captivated in particular by one piece – The Captive Slave, by British painter John Philip Simpson. It was on loan from a gallery in England at that time, so I was not allowed to photograph it. It was striking because it depicted a sorrowful-looking African man in red-orange overalls, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the outfit worn by U.S. enemy combatants held in Guantanamo Bay. This was in 1827, and the artist must have took a huge risk in expressing such anti-slavery views during Britain’s mighty empire days. How uncreative we must be – after 180 years, the United States is still clinging on to the red-orange outfits!

Austin was memorable for the huge portions of food, especially the awe-inspiring Salt Lick BBQ! Of course, the unforgetable experience for me was the opportunity to fire a gun at a shooting range. Seriously, that is an awful lot harder than it looks. They make it seem so easy on TV. The pressure, energy and force that the gun expels upon fire is indescribable. I cannot even begin to imagine how people use that on other living beings.

That brings me to my most recent pseudo-vacation. I had planned to go to Miami for a few days, then move onward to The Bahamas for a lovely beach holiday. Of course, growing up in Malaysia (with all its frequent textbook reminders about how fortunate we are because our country is free from natural disasters or severe weather), I checked everything (currency, visa requirements, best hotel, cheapest flight, different ways to get to the hotel from the airport and even which restaurants are good) EXCEPT the fact that mid-August till mid-September is the PEAK of the hurricane season in the Caribbean. And of course, after worrying and scrutinizing the Hurricane Center website every few hours for weeks (watching Tropical Storm Fay and Hurricane Gustav whiz by) and learning more about hurricanes and tropical storms than I care to know, I fly right in to Miami at the time that Tropical Storm Hanna is projected to hit The Bahamas. So my vacation is interrupted, for the first time ever, and I return home to New York. Sigh, at least I had a good time in Miami. It is sad when you pay $5 for a beer at a beach resort and think it’s good value (only happens to New Yorkers!).

A friend (an economics student, of course) once told me that students should take out loans to travel extensively and go on adventures during their student days because the only cost was the money. I scorned him, as a good calculating and ambitious Asian scholar should. Now I see the wisdom of his words. I long for a few months to just go travelling slowly through France and Italy, stopping in little villages to try wine and cakes. I want to take the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia, visit towns in Eastern Europe, see the pyramids in Egypt and the Taj Mahal in India. But alas, the opportunity cost of me not working for those few months would far outweigh the cost of such trips.

So here I am, on a gloomy Saturday afternoon, marking up legal documents in my office. Sigh.

Turning 26 …

Today I turn 26. I am now over a quarter of a century old. I can no longer describe myself as being in my “early 20s”. It scares me a little because I still like to consider myself a kid. I still have childish thoughts and I long to behave like a teenager at times.  

I had a good celebration this year. Nearly twenty of my friends turned up for dinner to celebrate my birthday at one of my favourite Japanese restaurants near St Mark’s Place. We all sat on either sides of a long table, very reminiscent of the last birthday party I had (my 19th birthday party buffet at Kelab Shah Alam Selangor, where about 20+ friends sat along a long table as well – I really have not changed much!). Good times indeed. 

I was also pleasantly surprised and touched to wake up this morning to over thirty posts on my Facebook Wall wishing me “Happy Birthday”. Very few, if any, of them will read this, but I should say thank you all the same.

Ah well, this may be my last birthday in New York, so I pray for another great year ahead!

It has been a while since I wrote anything here. Ah well, life has been interesting.

The US credit crisis has finally metamorphized into a recession. The whole of Wall Street knew and expected this; it was only the White House and Federal Reserve Bank which were trying to be in denial for a while. But in contrast to a bygone era whereby the whole world would have been dragged down into a global economic depression, the strength and independence of the international economy is now clear. We see sovereign funds from the Middle East, China and Singapore snapping up good deals in the US (buying nice chunks of troubled American financial institutions for a good price). We also see the emerging markets still holding their ground. We hear whispers of ditching the US dollar for oil trading, in view of the spiralling fall of the US dollar and the corresponding crescending rise in oil prices. Interesting times indeed.  

As to its effect on me personally, well, work somewhat slowed down in my last days doing credit work. However, after much consideration and discussion, I have now permanently joined the Capital Markets group at my firm, having completed my three 6-month rotations (in Capital Markets, Mergers & Acquisitions and Credit). Convertible debt is definitely one of the popular ways to raise capital now. PIPEs, RDs and rights offerings are also resurfacing. Cash-rich strategic acquirers are stepping up their buying again, after being sidelined in the last few years by private equity firms with their huge leveraged buyouts.

So I am still busy in Capital Markets. Now that I am no longer a rotating junior associate, I am expected to take up more substantive and challenging work. This has a bit of a learning curve, but I definitely prefer it and welcome the challenge. My friend suggested that this is also inspired by a psychological shift in my mindset. I think he is right. My mark-ups of documents drafted by opposing counsel have suddenly become a lot heavier and supposedly a bit more meaningful (or so I have been told). I am more confident in addressing incessant technical questions from clients. It is all good.

Also, I am now better able to manage my time. I try to make time to properly enjoy all that New York has to offer. Sipping milkshakes in a park, spending hours in a dusty second-hand bookstore and trying Tibetan cuisine – all in one weekend! A flamenco dance performance by the masterful Pilar Rioja, a hitherto unpublished play by Mark Twain (Is He Dead?) and a splendid concert by the very talented students of the celebrated Juilliard School are some of the performances that I have attended recently. This is the life. If only income taxes were lower … sigh.

How could I write on without touching on my beloved homeland, Malaysia? My friends do not believe me when I say I read Utusan Melayu everyday. It is very interesting to see their views on things, especially the editorials, opinion pieces, choice of emphasis in news and selection of published letters. I read Malaysiakini to know what is really going on.

Malaysia recently completed its general election. The hitherto unchallenged dominance of the ruling coalition (Barisan Nasional) has been broken for the first time. They retained control of the federal government (only with the support of East Malaysia, which they take for granted all the time!), but lost five states (including two key economic centers and essentially the federal capital).  Much has been written about this, and I certainly do not wish to offer my personal analysis. I would make only two observations.

First, I believe that many analysts are correct in saying that this was more of a protest vote against the ruling coalition, than a vote of support for the Opposition. A few major national issues like the rising cost of living, increasing crime rates and the perceived rise in corruption have really hurt everyone. The untempered racism and wanton arrogance of UMNO (the backbone party of the ruling coalition) has clearly gotten out of hand and are alienating all non-Malays and many educated and moderate Malays.

Second, I would nonetheless argue that the Opposition has a chance to transform this “protest vote” into a vote of support. They need to run those states really well. They need to show everyone clearly that they are different and would do things differently from the ruling coalition. Equally importantly, they need to stop or at least hide their politically damaging inter-party bickering. It has become increasingly obvious that the ruling coalition’s greatest fear and nightmare at this point is the Opposition governing really well and impressing all Malaysians. This is not to say that I am an Opposition supporter – I certainly have not made up my mind on that issue. However, I strongly believe that this move towards a two-party political culture in Malaysia is good and necessary for us in the long run. The concepts of checks and balances, the separation of power and transparency are crucial to a functioning and meaningful democracy.  

  

I like to think that I have properly settled into my new apartment. Of course, it was not really a “new apartment” in the customary and general sense of the term. I moved to an apartment with the same dimensions as my old one, in the same building and on the same side of the building! I am really glad I found this place – it’s great.

My new room has an attached bathroom, and that really does make a difference. I think I have always generally been a little tidier than the average British university student (which is really not saying much), but I have somehow transformed into a more fussy and meticulous person with respect to cleanliness and tidiness. A clean and nice bathroom is so crucial with the stress of my work. It’s really not that hard – wipe the mirrors with paper towels, wipe the wash basin and rinse/wipe the bath tub after each use. The entire procedure takes no more than 3 minutes for me. The result of this being done regularly is astonishing.

The Thanksgiving weekend is now over. I did something crazy by driving up to a huge shopping mall with a bunch of friends (all young female professionals in New York – made me feel like I was playing a part in a scene from “Sex and the City”) in time for the start of the post-Thanksgiving Sale at midnight after devouring turkey and pie! It was American consumerism at its best – thousands of cars jamming up all the way to the mall, throngs of aggressive people lining up in front of the popular stores (tension was high in the bitter cold). I am almost sure that if I had accidentally delayed some of these ladies there who were after the Gucci jacket or Coach handbag on 50% discount, they would have physically attacked me!

So now we are moving towards Christmas. Yes, I insist on calling it Christmas. I cannot understand this American insistence on calling December 25 “the Holiday” (Happy Holiday, the Holiday Season, the Holiday Party, etc.). It is political correctness gone mad! Everyone knows what December 25 is – who are you kidding? I am just waiting for them to call it “the Rockefeller Center Holiday Tree” (and I would not be remotely surprised if they did!). Ah well.  

On the work side, they tell me that US and global credit market is in a slump. Well, if it is, it is certainly not affecting my workload (or that of my firm!). I am on an acquisition finance deal and a project finance deal, and have been as busy as ever.

Yesterday night, Jason, my best friend at university and roommate of three years, left after spending a week visiting me in the US. We had so much fun together in New York and Las Vegas. I was really sad to wave goodbye as he walked through the security checkpoint at JFK Airport.

Sentimental as I am, I never found it easy to be separated from my close friends. A few years ago, I would have felt miserable for weeks at such an event. However, I think I have now grown accustomed to this way of life that I have chosen. I have moved around quite a bit in the past six years – from home in Malaysia to London, from London to Cambridge, MA and from Cambridge, MA to New York. 

I can still remember the very first day I arrived at Connaught Hall in London to begin my degree studies at UCL. I looked super geeky then, with a dreadful pair of glasses and my hair parted right in the middle. But those were great days. Alas, how I miss them: nights of covert cooking with Jason (mi goreng with 39p Princess sausages, lap cheong rice), meditation over whether to spend 3.50 pounds to buy that coveted sliced duck chow fun with black bean sauce at the Chinese takeaway nearby (on the not infrequent nights when the Connaught Hall kitchen decided to serve fish and chips with bones or some other dismal main course), endless supplies of custard cream (from the now defunct Safeway), the occasional walk to Chinatown for supper in the middle of winter, starting essays on the implications of an EU directive or a recent House of Lords decision at 2am after hours of random chats with hall mates, iron-fisted negotiation with the UCL Union Finance Office (Mary remains the greatest!) to restructure the finances of the Union Debating Society (I am sure I spent more time dealing with Union bureaucracy than actually debating; note: the Inner Temple I.V. must be commended for their very excellent meals and interesting debating motions!) and answering questions from various law students at Connaught Hall who took turns knocking on my door towards Easter.  

Time has certainly flown past ever so swiftly. But if I were to spend all my time reminiscing about the past, I would be engulfed in nostalgia forever. After all the moving around, I think I have now learnt to let go and move on. Transitions will always be difficult, but the cherished memories will always help cushion them.

On a totally separate point, I have been assigned to the Credit/Finance Group for my third and final rotation as a junior associate at my firm. Although the outlook on the US (and global) credit market is somewhat gloomy at this point, I hope that this will still be a great experience. Tomorrow I return to work after my vacation. Here we go again.

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