Archive for February, 2013





Published in The Sun 17 February 2013

THE Chinese horoscope is a wealth of folksy wisdom, intertwining animal attributes with people’s characteristics, matching human personality and character traits with their propensity for acquiring worldly fortune, and generally predicting life’s choices for the wisest and most foolish of the species.

In a way, it’s no different from the western zodiac in describing what we are and what we might be. We have great faith in our zodiac signs, swearing by the symbolic traits they identify and the human characteristics they signify. Being a Leo and a Dog, I swear I was born to be a leader like the lion, inspiring loyalty like the dog.

The Snakes among Malaysians born in 1917, 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989 and 2001 must be sharpening their fangs and intensifying their venom to extract the most out of the Year of the (Water) Snake as their cunning and keenness, intelligence and wisdom will be tested in the different spheres of their lives.

Of special interest will be work and business as Snakes are said to be great mediators, working modestly in the business environment but privately scheming and plotting to ensure things turn out to their advantage.

Beneath the slick exterior, the Snake is said to be one of the most intuitive, introspective, refined and collected of the animal signs. Apparently, Snakes take adversities with ease and do not become flustered easily; they are attractive and graceful people, exciting and dark at the same time.

Being a bit of a folksy linguist I’m curious to know how the word “snake” is used in Chinese, both literally and metaphorically. Presumably the Chinese character for “snake” … Shé refers to the animal called “snake”, ie it is the literal meaning of the Chinese word/character. But it would be most interesting to know if the word is also used in an idiomatic or metaphorical sense. If so what are its figurative permutations and meanings? Is the metaphorical snake represented by the same character in Chinese?

An article in the Journal of Language Studies Volume 12(1), January 2012 A Corpus-Based Study On Snake Metaphors In Mandarin Chinese And British English by Wei Lixia and Wong Bee Eng of Universiti Putra Malaysia studies the cross-cultural use of snake metaphors.

The researchers conclude that while there is a marked difference in the number of metaphors identified – 1,152 in Chinese and 113 in English – they are similar in identifying a negative meaning (83.4% and 77% respectively) when the snake attributes are mapped on to humans. There is apparently a gender-bias too with the negative meaning being stronger for women (“treacherous”) than for men (“greedy” or “cruel”).

Not knowing Chinese, I shall turn my attention to the word “snake” in English, its literal and figurative references and the meanings associated with them. A dictionary definition of the noun “snake” might sound something like “a long limbless reptile (suborder Ophidia or Serpentes) that has no eyelids, and jaws that are capable of considerable extension” and the verb “snake” means “move or extend with the twisting motion of a snake”.

Among the physical attributes of the snake are its slippery skin, its zigzag movement, its vicious tongue and prickly bite, its oft-poisonous venom and its combative attacks. By extension, the words that describe them can be mapped on to humans as in “slippery character”, “zigzag political stance”, vicious slander”, “poisonous hate” and “combative attitude”. In the examples, the natural animal qualities assume a negative connotation when applied to people.

The more imaginative a language user, the more he or she is able to find synonyms and collocations to create new and extended meanings from the basic repertoire of words. Thus the maligned person can be described as “a slippery, sneaky and furtive character”; an unreliable politician can be said to have “a zigzag, flip-flop and shifty stance”; the hate one feels can be at once “poisonous, spiteful and vindictive”; and an aggressive person can launch a “combative, contentious and hostile” attack.

The choice of snake-related words can be as extensive as your imagination and a good thesaurus allows you to be. From experience I’ve learnt that one can be quite snakey in one’s use of language, shifting between an indirect, convoluted, meandering style to one that is less surreptitious.

The best-known English idiom is snake in the grass referring to a treacherous or deceitful person. In most cultures, the snake is not a well-liked creature stemming from the animal’s role in the religious and cultural traditions of the people. It’s interesting, therefore, that the Chinese horoscope identifies many outstanding attributes that Snakes have which they can use to advantage to achieve positive outcomes.

Among politicians especially, the snakey characters can resolve to be less snarky and nasty. Instead, they should scheme and plot to mediate a better society.









Published in The Sun 4 February 2013

I WONDER how many of us will pass an integrity evaluation if there is a comprehensive, all-encompassing test? If there is one integrity index with different indicators and levels to measure a person’s integrity, it will be telling indeed.

Let’s face it, integrity can be measured at many levels and occurs along a continuum. As human beings we are far from perfect. We falter on life’s multifarious journeys in our bid to reach the state of moral soundness or integrity. Yes, at its most generic level integrity refers to moral qualities viz uprightness, honesty and trustworthiness, and the consistency of one’s principles and actions.

How many of us can honestly say we have all of these values or at least some of them? How many can truthfully say they have never erred on the side of weakness in every aspect of their life? If we are lucky, we were influenced to walk the straight and narrow by the people we grew up with – our parents and elders, teachers and mentors, peers and friends. In childhood, the books we read or the films we watched which depicted outstanding characters can leave a lasting impression. In the workplace, we know colleagues who have outstanding character traits. But there are also nice people we like and respect whom we know have slipped along the way.

Frankly, we are as pure or impure as the role models of integrity we look up to and associate closely with plus the circumstances of our life. Some people who are said to have the highest professional integrity crumble when their personal integrity is in question. They may show exemplary standards of conduct and behaviour in the office, but at home they are unethical husbands and fathers.

I therefore do not agree with Tunku Abdul Aziz when he said at the recent Leadership and Integrity forum “You either have integrity or you don’t.” I agree more with the floor speaker who pointed out that it is the “lapses” in integrity that we should seriously worry about. Why did we allow our guard to slip? Why were we persuaded to compromise our principles? What personal considerations tempted us to make a less than professional decision? Why are we not consistent in manifesting good character traits?

Which leads to the question of good character and how to define it? And more importantly, how do we determine whether people have character and integrity and high ethical standards? A simple test is to observe people’s behaviour when they admit they are wrong. Observe the people who cannot admit they are wrong and constantly blame someone else. This tells you a lot about their values and principles. Another is to observe how people treat subordinates or those lower in status whom they do not have a need for.

Googling integrity evaluation and testing on the internet revealed the usual mundane questions that are asked to evaluate honesty such as:

  • In the past 12 months, how many times have you lied to a spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend or the significant other about something significant?
  • Have you told the truth knowing it would be personally costly even when you could have gotten away with lying or concealing information?

It would certainly be worthwhile to design a comprehensive integrity index with the relevant indicators for personal integrity and more specific indicators for the professional, academic and political spheres within which there will be specially designed open and multiple-choice questions to elicit the relevant answers.

Among the indicators for personal integrity could be: honesty and truthfulness; principles and values; beliefs and ideals

An ice-breaking question such as “What family values are passed down by your mother and father?” is often an acid test of character. The general assumption is that individuals uphold the same values and qualities as their parents.

In the professional sphere of academia the indicators of integrity could be: honesty in research; diligence in teaching; and respect for student development.
A pertinent question university lecturers and professors should answer is:

“What is the main priority in your academic career?” or “Whose needs would you place higher – students or your own?”

In the corporate sector, the influence of character on decision making has become all the more important in the wake of corporate scandals. The character factor has assumed new prominence and subjective character assessment must precede the more objective integrity indicators. The normal résumé, references, interview performance are proving to be unreliable indications of character and require a more rigorous multi-pronged evaluation by superiors and peers alike.

The political arena where decisions are made by the government for its citizens must surely take precedence. An all-encompassing integrity index must be in place to evaluate our political leaders especially when we are about to face the general election. We must elect leaders who have good character and high standards of integrity.

February 2013