July 19, 2017
June 8, 2017
COMMENT: What do Farouk A. Peru, a much younger man at least a few decades apart chronologically speaking, and I (78 years old last May) have in common? Well for starters, we are Facebook pals; we love to read and pen our thoughts in print; we appreciate culture and the arts and all things of beauty; we are unafraid to express our views openly and critically; we are Muslims; we are Malaysians and we enjoyed reading ZEN.
We admire Singapore’s Pak Othman Wok, and Robert Prisig who wrote Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (first published in 1974 and that was when I read it). Both men have since died, and May God Bless their souls.
I stumbled upon Farouk’s article on Prisig’s magnum opus and also learned of his passing in The Malay Mail this evening (see below).
Like Farouk, I recommend the Zen book (which is subtitled An Inquiry into Values) to my young readers. It is tough reading at first, but it gets easier as you go along with the help of a good English dictionary. But to assist you, I would recommend The Guide Book To ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE by Ronald L. DiSanto, Ph.d and Thomas J. Steele, S.J., Ph.d (New York: William Morrow, 1990). I congratulate Farouk for reading the book and for his article.–Din Merican
Legendary Motorcycle Author Robert Pirsig Dies Aged 88
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance author Robert Pirsig has died at the age of 88. Pairing motorcycles with philosophy, Pirsig was responsible for inspiring countless motorcycle journeys and road trips.
The book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” sits on bookshelves all over the world. It’s by no means a book about Zen, nor is it a book that tackles the mechanics of motorcycles – it’s a story about a father and son journey aboard a motorcycle that takes them across the western United States. It’s not necessarily a road trip book either. In fact, it’s hard to classify exactly what the book is, but that doesn’t matter – and that’s the beauty of it. It was a book that appealed (and still appeals) to audiences over the world, and is an essential book for any motorcyclist. If you’ve ever been drawn to the road, you and Pirsig would have a lot in common.
Robert Pirsig: 1928 – 2017
An announcement by Peter Hubbard, the Executive Editor of William Morrow & Co, recently announced the death of one of our favorite authors. Robert Persig passed away on April 24th 2017, “after a period of ill health.”
Zen was first published back in 1974. Pirsig had been rejected by more than 100 publishers before the iconic, semi-autobiographical book ever hit the stores. Despite the difficulty finding a publisher, Zen became a best seller. Pirsig described the nature of the book as an effort to “set out to resolve the conflict between classic values that create machinery, such as a motorcycle, and romantic values, such as experiencing the beauty of a country road.”
Born in Minneapolis, Robert Pirsig was very well educated and went on to earn a degree in Philosophy, working as a technical writer and English teacher before suffering from mental illness. His battle with mental illness resulted in a motorcycle trip with this son Christopher in 1968 through the western United States, which would become the inspiration for his story.
The preface to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is the best way to sum up his iconic book: “What follows is based on actual occurrences. Although much has been changed for rhetorical purposes, it must be regarded in its essence as fact. However, it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.”
If you haven’t read it, we urge you to pick up a copy and enjoy Pirsig’s journey along with him and his son. It’s a great American story and should be celebrated – and a fantastic read for all of those who appreciate the liberty and freedom associated with the open road.
Here’s to you Robert Pirsig, and thanks for your wonderful insights. You will be missed.
“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility, it’s right. If it disturbs you, it’s wrong, until either the machine or your mind is changed.” – Robert Pirsig 1928 – 2017
Read Robert Prisig’s ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENCE
By Farouk A. Peru (April 28, 2017)
Not one but two writers whose works made an impact on me died. It seems that 2017 is doing to authors what 2016 did to artistes! I had written about the death of Othman Wok and now I find out Robert Pirsig has died.
Often at times, authors or film-makers are defined by a single work but that work is a true magnum opus. They never again replicate the sheer tremor of these works but they do not have to. The deed is done; they have imprinted their names in the annals of literary history.
In the case of Robert Pirsig, that work is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (henceforth, Zen, first published in 1974 ). This narrative has been available in Malaysian bookshops since my own childhood, as I remember. However, it was only in the early 90s when I picked up my first copy. It was after my SRP and the bookshop was the MPH in Section 14 which has long since closed down.
It was in the New Age/spirituality/philosophy section and I needed something completely different from the boring schoolwork I had been ingesting since the beginning of 1991.
Zen was not about actual Zen (the Buddhist originated tradition), as I found out on the bus home. Rather it was about a journey undertaken across the American north from Minnesota to California by the unnamed narrator and his son, accompanied by their friends for the first half of their journey.
It was set in the 60s or early 70s. What attracted me to it at first was the journey itself. I loved narratives of long-forgotten places. America, being the gigantic nation that it is, has plenty of places which are unknown even to Americans themselves.
One could liken the geography and culture to the milieu found in Annie Proulx’s works and the visuals akin to the film Brokeback Mountain. Of course, the tagline of Zen being “An Inquiry into Values”, one would rightly expect a philosophical discussion.
One would not be disappointed either but Pirsig delivers it so surreptitiously that readers would feel as if they had “gone under” in surgery and woken up with some philosophical knowledge!
Pirsig ingeniously used the literary device of a third person, thought to be the alter ego of the narrator. He named him Phaedrus who, like the Phaedrus coined by Plato in his dialogues, was an interlocutor, midwifing the truth for readers through his own experiences.
Phaedrus had mental health issues like Pirsig himself but was a child prodigy. These similarities are obviously telling us who Phaedrus represents.
Rereading this book in 2014 (I had found a milestone edition with an introduction by Pirsig himself), I found that Pirsig may have oversimplified philosophy just a little. His East/West dichotomy saying Eastern is more intuitive and the West more rational had become too simplistic for my liking. Perhaps if he meant dominant trends in each tradition, I would have been more amenable to his view.
To me, philosophy as a subject cannot be extricated into several self-containing traditions. Rather it is a complex network of ideas which feed off its own nodes which we may not even be aware of. Plato, for example, may have derived his ideas from Egyptian thought, thus undermining the very idea of Western philosophy!
Be that as it may, I would still highly recommend Zen to anyone who is looking for a digestible story while at the same time expand his philosophical mind. The book has, after all, sold five million copies. No small feat for a manuscript rejected 121 times before finally getting published!
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.
June 6, 2017
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May 30, 2017
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May 21, 2017
Corporate governance has long been a hot topic for investors worldwide, but it is still a new concept in Japan. The increasing number of Japanese corporate scandals points to the need for a new approach to management. Many once-prominent companies seem to be unable to adapt to the pace of global change. The domestic market no longer offers much growth potential, so Japanese firms need to actively engage with the world or perish.
There is strong global interest in Japanese corporate governance for two key reasons. First, from the point of view of investors, the fact that rates have been low or negative in virtually all major developed economies has encouraged a sharper focus on equity markets for real returns, and Japanese companies fall woefully behind their global competitors in terms of profitability.
Second, as the pace of global competition accelerates, management is under constant pressure to react quickly to changing opportunities, such as the development of new technologies or the consolidation of capacity in maturing industries. Dialogue with outsiders, from shareholders to independent directors, is a prerequisite to navigating this terrain safely.
Japanese companies are at a distinct disadvantage in this new world because of key features of their organisational structures that served them very well in the past, such as lifetime employment. Decision-making is slow and dominated by consensus-seeking groups of senior men who have never worked outside their own firms, who rarely have specialised expertise and whose loyalties are first and foremost to each other.
The first of the major traumas at Toshiba, which came to light in 2015, involved the 152 billion yen (US$1.33 billion) deliberate overstatement of earnings between 2008–2014. This scandal illuminated the unspoken trade-off inherent in a lifetime employment contract: staff must not question decisions made by top management.
Japan is No Longer a Tiger Economy
An independent investigation into Toshiba’s overstatement of earnings revealed that no CEO during that period directly instructed anyone to falsify the accounts. Rather, there was a long-standing corporate culture which mandated that managers ‘couldn’t refuse’ the profit targets set by the CEOs, no matter how unrealistic. Nevertheless, after the first accounting scandal, Toshiba chose Shigenori Shiga as the new chairman after his predecessor resigned in disgrace. Not only was Shiga yet another lifetime company man, but a former head of Toshiba’s subsidiary Westinghouse — which is now in the process of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States.
Many Japanese companies have raced to create better governance on paper — Toshiba was in fact a trailblazer in this respect, having chosen to replace a traditional Japanese system of governance with US-style executive committees, including independent directors on the board. But despite appearances, an inability to encourage and respect independent thinking has led to the collapse of the former world leader in high-tech products.
Failure by Japan’s corporations to embrace both the letter and the spirit of Prime Minster Abe’s new governance reforms will jeopardise Japan’s future prosperity. CEOs must encourage challenges by their subordinates and aggressive supervision by their independent directors.
Investors are the other key class of outsiders who need to be welcomed into the discussion. The traditional silence of friendly shareholders is yet another wall that insulates management from outside competition.
Much attention has been paid to the unwinding of friendly cross-shareholdings by banks. But most of these shares have been transferred from friendly banks to friendly corporations, who will likely never vote against management; to the Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF), whose size makes it ill-equipped to exercise any positive influence; and to the Bank of Japan, who cannot be a force for better governance. The protection afforded by acquiescent shareholders does not seem to have changed very much.
A survey undertaken by GPIF indicated that 21 per cent of executives regarded investors’ increasing scrutiny of capital efficiency to be a positive development, while 32 per cent regarded this as a very negative trend. Clearly, Japanese managers are a long way away from being comfortable discussing fundamental strategies with investors who own shares in their firms, or with their junior staff. But they had better hurry up.
In the case of Toshiba, lawsuits have been brought by several foreign investors, the world’s largest public pension fund GPIF, and several of the largest domestic banks. Refusing dialogue with your outside stakeholders can carry a devastating price when mistakes are made. It’s better to choose an openness to new ideas and critiques from your independent board directors and your investors, and thereby reap the benefits of dynamism and sustainability.
Alicia Ogawa is Director of the Program on Corporate Governance and Stewardship at the Center on Japanese Economy and Business, Columbia Business School.
May 8, 2017
When Giants Fail
What business has learned from Clayton Christensen.