Friday, April 20, 2012

Malaysia's loss, as usual, is Singapore's gain....

Yale World Fellow Huzir Sulaiman (formerly of Malaysia and now Singapore) works across different media, art forms, and genres, telling stories that allow people to access complex ideas in simple, personal, human ways. He is the Creative Director of Studio Wong Huzir, a brand communications consultancy, and a Joint Artistic Director of Checkpoint Theatre, which the Financial Times (UK) called "a repository of much of [Singapore's] best stage talent."

A celebrated playwright, his plays include the internationally acclaimed satire Atomic Jaya (1998), which asks what would happen if Malaysia decided to build an atomic bomb, and the forthcoming The Weight of Silk on Skin (August 2011), a meditation on women, beauty, love and loss.

Sulaiman also writes for film, television and newspapers, and teaches playwriting at the National University of Singapore. As a brand communications consultant, he has worked as the Creative Director of the observation deck on the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, and recently completed a book on the history of Temasek Holdings, the USD147billion investment firm owned by the Singapore government.

What follows is a book review I wrote for in December 2002... 

Antares accords Eight Plays by Huzir Sulaiman a vertical ovation

Huzir Sulaiman must be sick and tired of being called precocious, an enfant terrible, a veritable prodigy. But that’s only because people believe him when he says he was born in 1973. After reading his recently published Eight Plays, I’m convinced that Huzir must be at least several years my senior and ready to withdraw his EPF money.

Either that or he’s suffering from progeria - a wasting disease that grossly accelerates the aging process - because I distinctly recall acting with Huzir Sulaiman in a 1981 production called Struggles of the Naga Tribe when he claimed to be only seven. Well, even then, he seemed rather precocious - and a whole lot more approachable than the image of the enigmatic and disdainful savant he sports today.

But I’ll say this: few people I know deserve to be called “creative genius” as much as Huzir Sulaiman does, regardless of mental age or attitude towards his audiences.  I have no idea what his formative years were like. I know his parents are incredibly smart (his dad was one-time president of the Bar Council, and featured prominently as a senior member of Anwar Ibrahim’s defence team) - but what books did he read, was he good at sports, did he like girls? I’m told he was a top student at Princeton, though I haven’t a clue what his major was. All I know is that Huzir returned to KL in the mid-1990s looking like a tweedy middle-aged Ivy League professor.

But, boy, could he act! He was superb in every rôle he played, even when cast as a Malaysian “Mr Bean” in a silly TV sitcom series. Then he tried his hand at directing - and the results were outstanding. Next thing I knew, this prodigious enfant terrible had churned out a slew of plays - all of them excellent, damn him!

And now Silverfishbooks have published eight of them in an affordable paperback edition. Unfortunately the laminated covers curl as soon as you begin to read. Well, one either lives with this or holds out for a hardcover edition. And this collection undoubtedly deserves a permanent place in any library. Not everyone thinks plays are good reading but in this case I found the text extremely engaging as literature, and the exercise actually forced me to change my mind about some Huzir productions I’d seen (but more about that later).

It’s true Huzir’s first play, a one-man show called Lazy Hazy Crazy, was pretty much an Instant Café Theatre revue - but without the rest of the famous cast, of which he had been a member for a season or two. It was nonetheless hilarious and wackily inspired, and established his Straits Theatre Company as a cutting edge force. The playwright decided to omit this early effort from the collection - either because he prefers the numeral 8 to 9, or perhaps he felt it didn’t quite match the elegance and sophistication of his subsequent works.

A strategic move: because his second play, Atomic Jaya, was simply explosive. No, it didn’t bomb. On the contrary, it was arguably the most scathing, timely, and intelligent satire ever seen in these parts. The first version had the incredible Jo Kukathas playing all 14 parts. It was revised and restaged three years later in Singapore with the phenomenal Claire Wong as the entire cast.

Who can resist quoting a brief exchange between Dr Mary Yuen (nuclear physicist) and General Zulkifli (who commissions her to build the first Malaysian atom bomb)?

General Zulkifli welcomes Dr Mary Yuen to the research laboratory of Syarikat Perniagaan Atomic Jaya Sdn. Bhd.

YUEN:  Yes, I was confused about the sign. You mean this is a private company?

GENERAL:   It’s not my decision. Everything they must privatize now. But it’s okay.
The directors of the company include seven generals and one Prime Minister’s son.
You must have Prime Minister’s son. Keep them busy. Otherwise if unemployed they will start the NGO.

Exquisite precision. Atomic Jaya had the same electrifying intensity as Stanley Kubrick’s classic Dr Strangelove or Terry Gilliam’s hyperrealistic Brazil. It was delightful to be able to read the script and be mesmerized all over again by the sparkling wit and sheer inventiveness of this brilliantly mad exposé of the psychopathology of Bolehland.

The Smell of Language - an involuted and priapic experiment in verbal synesthesia (no doubt inspired by the fractal semantic constructs of Jorge Luis Borges) struck me as one huge wank when I saw Huzir perform it - albeit a highly erudite one with serious political undertones. But as a printed text, it holds enormous appeal for anyone who takes pleasure in cunning linguistics and the ruthlessness of intellectual virtuosity.

It’s easy to see why Hip-Hopera - Huzir’s shot at writing and directing a feel-good rap musical - proved such a box-office hit, playing to packed houses for a full month. The characters are breezy and instantly likeable, the tunes lively, funky (and forgettable), but the lyrics… the lyrics are something else, check this out:

I’m a soap-box preacher, a lyrical teacher
And if you come into my theatre there’s an usher who will seat ya
And if you come into my parlour I’m sure I’m pleased to meet ya
And if you come into my bed you can see the main feature
Got a lot of philosophy that just might reach ya
Cause I dig Heidegger and Friedrich Nietszche
I need ya, I’ll feed ya, I’m never going to cheat ya
But if you lie like the President I am going to impeach ya

Genuinely capable and inventive individuals like Huzir Sulaiman are the only cure for Terminal Malaysiabolehitis. Their creative contributions rescue us from chronic cultural embarrassment or, worse, premature self-congratulations.

I regret missing Zahim Albakri’s performance of Notes on Life & Love & Painting, which received critical accolades. Reading it was truly an aesthetic experience and
further reinforced my admiration for the way Huzir Sulaiman has integrated his Ivy League education with an intrinsically Malaysian sensibility. His diatribe on the myth of artistic originality is worth framing as a poster and I feel compelled to quote a portion of it, truncated for brevity:

We have rubber trees because rubber trees were brought here from Brazil by the British. Chilli is not indigenous. Chilli was imported from South America 500 years ago. What comes from Malaysia? We buy our rice from Thailand now and our sarongs from Indonesia. Was the novel invented in Malaysia? No. Did we invent films and television? Is painting indigenous to Malaysia? No. Is abstract art an outgrowth of weaving mengkuang? Like fuck it is. So why should anybody expect me to be original? It angers me when after hundreds of years of importing aspects of other people’s culture some politician in a 4,000-ringgit Italian suit complains about Western values and such-and-such a thing is not from our culture. Our culture is everybody else’s culture. We’ve never had our own. Deal with it and grow up. Would you like some coffee? No? It’s Colombian.

He even succeeds in ending the monologue on a positive, life-affirming note. Awesome! It’s one of those wonderfully self-contained masterpieces one wishes one had written.

The neo-existentialist mood of Election Day annoyed and depressed me when I caught the play, staged as it was nine days after a bitterly disappointing election that saw business-as-usual triumph over ethical and environmental considerations. But in the ensuing years, I have come to accept that Huzir was right - the male ego’s desire to screw something terribly sexy, like an exotic woman or an entire country, transcends belief systems and underlies all acts of betrayal. However, I’m still unhappy with the way Huzir disposes of two of his characters, getting them hauled off by the cops for assaulting a police officer. Surely he could have found some way to invoke the dreaded ISA?

Those Four Sisters Fernandez represents the playwright’s exploration of his own Malayalee roots. There are many scintillating moments and memorable lines, yet the play leaves a great deal unresolved - but I suppose life’s a lot like that. As an attempt to document the collective psyche of a fascinating subculture and how it responds to change, the play carries considerable value. Nonetheless, it isn’t my favorite in the collection.

The last two plays - Occupation and Whatever That Is - have only ever been staged in Singapore. The former was commissioned by the 2002 Singapore Arts Festival while the latter was presented as part of an evening of 10-minute plays entitled Squeeze and Squeezability. Occupation is a masterful and disciplined exploration of internal puns and rhymes, and the nebulous nature of historical reconstruction. I found it a tad clinical yet strangely heartwarming. What impressed me most was Huzir’s knack of capturing the inflections of his characters’ speech in print.

If one must draw comparisons, it’s Salman Rushdie who comes to mind: I regard Rushdie as one of the most engaging contemporary writers in English, a happy and unexpected by-product of the late great British Empire, whose “native” soul fuses ecstatically with his “colonized” mind. Well, we don’t want a fatwa on Huzir’s head - but it definitely does me proud to claim dat young fler as an old friend (no pun intended). And to think he used to call me “Uncle.” This is ridiculously mature work for someone who just turned 29.

Whatever That Is reads like a miniature gem in the chic and cerebral style of Yasmina Reza (whose award-winning play, Art, was staged by Huzir’s Straits Theatre Company in June 2001). Huzir certainly knows how to play with pregnant pauses, making silence speak louder than his wonderfully crafted words.

An extremely hearty slap on the back to Silverfishbooks for making Huzir Sulaiman’s Eight Plays available in print. What an excellent public service. May it reach far and wide and redeem our pygmified intellectual self-esteem. I hope we don’t lose one of our finest creative minds to a neighboring country for lack of appreciation.

[A year after I wrote this review, Huzir Sulaiman decided to settle in Singapore, where he married Claire Wong, another former Malaysian and an absolutely superb actress.]

Thursday, April 19, 2012


First published 20 March 2008...
"Mati ayam, mati tungaunya (if the fowl dies, its ticks perish too)" - an old Malay saying.

As far as I’m concerned, Umno-BN is deceased. Finito. R.I.P. Kaput. What happened on March 8th was a gigantic Samurai sword that moved so swiftly the 10-headed hydra of Might-Is-Right that has terrorized us for the last 25 years lost all its heads. The BN survivors of the March 8th debacle are all operating in Safe Mode now, their operating systems having crashed big-time. Perhaps the Umno-BN hard drive can still be booted up a few more times and some useful data saved - but the motherboard itself is on the verge of terminal malfunction. So let's not speak ill of the dead.

Anyone who hasn’t been brainwashed by establishment pundits with vested interests can see that Anwar Ibrahim has got what it takes to steer this floundering ship back on course. And what it takes is intelligence, courage, stamina, adaptability, good humor, experience, and most importantly, ethical sense. His resilience has been proven over the last ten years by his capacity to transmute tragedy into triumph, transforming himself from victim to victor - all the while maintaining his dignity, clarity, and focus.

Whatever his early political agenda, the Anwar Ibrahim of 2008 has been forged in the furnace of personal pain and endurance. In 1998 he could have taken the money and run - become an academic or corporate CEO. But he didn’t. He stood up to Mahathir (right) and fought like a man. That’s how he gained my respect and admiration and trust. There are very few in our midst today that I can describe as “heroic.”

Is Chandra Muzaffar a hero? He might have been once, back in the early 1980s when he left academia to battle the monstrous menace of Mahathir. But after his ISA experience in 1987, Chandra’s spirit buckled. He left Aliran to establish JUST and for a few years he continued to say the right things. But he had lost his fire, his fighting spirit. He had gone the way of Lee Lam Thye.

Is Raja Petra Kamarudin (left) a hero? Most certainly. He stood by Anwar Ibrahim in the early days of his rebellion against monumental odds and was arrested under the ISA for his efforts. He was a tireless webmaster for the official Reformasi website and that subsequently led to his launching Malaysia Today - a "no holds barred" local news portal that has played a crucial role in exposing the dark side of Umno-BN and gained an immense readership. Indeed, RPK grew to be such a thorn in BN's backside a police report was filed against him by an Umno hatchetman and he was interrogated for eight hours. He threw his energy into the Opposition campaign as a featured speaker at many ceramahs (political rallies). Although a bona fide prince, RPK has always been accessible, down-to-earth and his finger is firmly on the pulse of the people. A large part of the credit for what happened on March 8th must go to RPK.

[Since this essay was written, much has transpired that warrants the inclusion of a footnote: RPK was arrested under the ISA in September 2008 and sent to Kamunting; in November a courageous high court judge ordered his unconditional release, and RPK subsequently went into self-imposed exile; recently, RPK turned petulant and began attacking Anwar Ibrahim, although it appears to be more a personal than political feud. This has dimmed RPK's heroic lustre to a large extent, even if he remains a positive force for change.]

Is Tian Chua a hero? I would say YES! His career as a politician is only just taking off and he has learnt fast, especially after nearly losing his parliamentary seat over the ridiculous charge of biting a policeman. In any case, his fearlessness in the face of police violence has inspired many to speak up or march for justice. There are many other heroes I can think of: Lim Guan Eng, the new Chief Minister of Penang, for example, jailed by Mahathir for speaking up on behalf of a schoolgirl gang-banged by the former Chief Minister of Melaka; Tony Pua, who sold his successful IT business to launch his political career as an outspoken blogger and DAP candidate; Sivarasa Rasiah, who has spent the last 20 years defending human rights... it so happens they are all in the Pakatan Rakyat.

And then there's Steven Gan, managing editor of Malaysiakini, who stuck to his guns as a political journalist and quit The Sun when he rubbed the establishment up the wrong way. In 1999, at the height of Reformasi fervor, Steven teamed up with Premesh Chandran to launch Malaysia's first news portal. Over the years Malaysiakini has survived several police raids and the confiscation of its computers. For invaluable services rendered to truth-loving Malaysians, this news portal deserves a standing ovation - and a thousand-fold increase in subscribers!

But to my mind nobody can match what Anwar Ibrahim has accomplished: he has led us through the Chapel Perilous of racial politics and now, for the first time since Merdeka, we can look around and appreciate the beauty of our own diversity and say, “Vive la difference!” On March 9th I was blissed out by a tangible feeling that we are no longer stuck in the rut of ethnocentric tempurungism, that we have finally outgrown all that “Bangsa-Ugama-Tanahair” hot air. I went to town and felt the genuine goodwill and jubilation that shone from every face I saw - Malay, Chinese, Indian, Orang Asli, Dan-lain-lain!

What has been missing all these decades is the possibility that we can love one another as humans, regardless of skin color or creed - that’s because cold-blooded ambition and ruthless greed have no use for empathy and warm feelings, nor does it encourage compassion, kindness, and spontaneous joy. No, it feeds and fattens itself vampire-like on fear - other people’s fear. And now, on that bright Sunday morning after GE12, the fear had dissipated like a bad smell in the winds of change. PKR flags fluttered proudly against a glorious blue Selangor sky, proclaiming that the people's eyes were open at long last.

In the climate of fear Mahathir created during his 22-year reign, anybody who dared speak the truth became a hero - or martyr. Anwar Ibrahim, more than any other political icon in the country, succeeded in transcending his own childhood prejudices to embody the universal values that will unite rather than divide us as a nation. That is indeed the mark of a hero. Let us honor this hero (who nearly became a martyr) by giving him what he fully deserves - the chance to serve as prime minister (at least till he tires of it or we tire of him). At the same time, let us all aspire to become heroes too, so that we will no longer be scared children in need of a grown-up to lead us across the street. Let us each become, in time, self-governing individuals whose relationship to our political leaders is akin to an orchestra’s respect for the conductor, knowing full well that his job is to create a symphony from the potential cacophony of so many different instruments.

[Illustration by Antares from Two Catfish in the Same Hole; photos pinched from various sources]

Flashback to Puncak Alam, 19 October 2006...

[Brought to my attention by Hawkeye]

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


GREEN is for the Islamic Party, PAS, whose politics are founded on religion. A dangerous mix indeed. Politics concern the outer world and religion the inner. Ideally the inner and outer ought to be aligned and in dynamic balance. But who determines the parameters of inner space, the dimensions of belief and faith? A panel of ulamas (spiritual leaders)?

There have been many theocratic nations that have lasted hundreds, even thousands of years. Ancient Egypt flourished for millennia and it was a civilization built around the concept of the Pharaoh as a divine manifestation. Tibet was for centuries essentially a lamacracy ruled by lamas with the Dalai Lama as titular head. Constantine and, later Charlemagne, tried to establish a Holy Roman Empire with Roman Catholicism at its core. Salah ad-Dīn Yusuf ibn Ayyub aka Saladin had the same vision of conquering the world for Islam. America under the Neocons may be said to have been the reincarnation and modern manifestation of a 4,000-year-old dream of a Unified Judeo-Christian World.

RED & WHITE represent courage and purity, and it's probable that the Democratic Action Party (DAP) chose these colors as a nod to its early ideological links with Lee Kuan Yew's People's Action Party (PAP).

RED is also the color most frequently associated with Communism and Socialism as it's a martial color symbolizing passion, heroism, and victory and prosperity through sacrifice and struggle. The Chinese national flag is RED. Singapore's is RED & WHITE. So are the Canadian and Swiss flags - though the Canadians and Swiss are hardly into socialism in a big way.

Nor is UMNO whose official colors, interestingly, also happen to be red and white - making it an energetic match for the DAP. However, the UMNO logo is in blood red, indicative of strong racialism and an atavistic propensity to resolve disputes through brute force.

DARK BLUE is the color of Barisan Nasional and policemen's pants. Nobody (except perhaps a policewoman in heat) likes to be forced to look at policemen's pants closeup.

BN achieved a measure of popular support for many decades by putting the "development" agenda at the forefront at a time when people were eager to embrace modernity and prosper. Alas, internal weaknesses - mainly unfettered corruption, blatant cronyism and nepotism, and heavy-handed abuse of power - brought the ruling party into disrepute and it was shown the massive disfavor of voters in the last general election.

Panicked by the imminent prospect of losing power after more than 50 years, BN swung violently to the right by muscling the utterly corrupt Najib Razak into the post of crime minister.

Clinging desperately to the status quo through flat-footed police intimidation and high-priced image consultants, BN's dark blue banner with the archaic scale symbol has come to represent endless despair to young Malaysians who dream of a harmonious, joyful and wealthy nation managed by brilliant and talented individuals untainted by generations in power. However, almost all the brilliant and talented ones have long left BN or were never part of the defective and deficient government.

SKY BLUEWHITE & RED constitute the colors of Parti KeADILan Rakyat (PKR). The contrast between the light pastel blue of PKR and the dark blue of BN is like the difference between the clear sky of freedom - and the interior of a policeman's pants.

The blue and green fields of PKR and PAS appear to complement each other reasonably well. But red and green are either complementary or conflicting colors, hence the friction and frequent tensions that arise between the secular DAP and the religious PAS.

Now if the red and green polarities could learn to appreciate the workings of the chromatic spectrum, they would quickly discover that their differences are merely superficial. No deeper than the skin and tattoos of cultural imprints, really.

I never get tired of seeing photos of PAS spiritual leader Tuan Guru Nik Aziz and DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang sitting together at ceramahs. Ever since the Permatang Pauh by-election in August 2008 these two seem to have become firm friends. The Fearless General and the Foxy Ustaz: what a formidable partnership they form when they work together, united by a common dream we all share...

The dream of a glorious New Dawn for Malaysia where all the colors of Pakatan Rakyat combine to form a perfect picture of loving abundance for everyone under the sun. PAS can be the moral foundation, representing the aspirations of the grassroots and the humble folk who live close to the earth. PKR, a party founded on social justice - and the rejection of cruelty, inhumanity and injustice - can ensure that democratic rights and universal principles of freedom and truth are well defended against the power-hungry. And DAP, with its ambition to see the nation's wealth fairly distributed and wisely managed, will be the engine that thrusts Malaysia boldly into the future.

So hang in there, folks! Don't get up and leave just because the band hit a couple of wrong notes. The REAL party hasn't even begun...

[First published 3 July 2009]

UBAH MEANS CHANGE... and the Times They Are Indeed A-Changing!

Kudos to Anthony Loke & Yu Heng for the uplifting lyrics and inspiring theme; music video director Jia Keng for a competent, sincere and sensitive job well done; and the DAP for successfully rejuvenating and reinventing itself, just as PAS has done. Love the end sequence with the glowing orbs of revitalizing change.

Now that the Umno dregs from PKR have more or less been flushed out, leaving the true warriors, the party has proved its mettle by lifting the lid on so many massive scandals - it has truly earned its epithet of People's Justice Party.

Stick together, DAP, PKR & PAS - all the decent, justice-loving, freedom-cherishing voters of Malaysia are with you in this exciting time of CHANGE!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Interminable & Indeterminable Talkin’ Telekom Blues

Just got back online after another 4-day breakdown in phone & internet services. This is a tribute of sorts to Telekom Malaysia...

My childhood memories of Telekom go back to a time when it was still called Pejabat Telecoms and served the public as a government department. Those were days when you would find a big room full of telephone operators tasked with connecting one customer to another. When you picked up the phone, you would hear a sweet female voice saying: “Telecoms. Can I help you?” You would tell her the number or give her a name and address – and she would say, “Just a minute!” before connecting you. At night, you'd hear a male voice.

Later telephones came with a built-in dialer so you could make local calls directly without going through the operator – but for overseas calls you had to dial 108 and the operator would call you back when the connection was made. I didn’t have any personal dealings with Telecoms as a kid – although I met a telephone operator at a party and enjoyed a bit of harmless adolescent flirting whenever she happened to pick up my call.

My negative perception of Telekom Malaysia began in the mid-1970s when I first applied for a telephone account under my own name. I was told I would have to wait for lines to become available in my area. I wasn’t living in Puchong or Nibong Tebal at the time – I was smack in KL’s diplomatic enclave - 7 Pesiaran Ampang Hilir, just across the road from the Swiss ambassador’s residence.  I couldn’t believe there was a shortage of telephone lines in this prestigious area.

So I wrote a long but courteous and helpful letter to the Minister of Postal Services and Telecommunications. Dead silence from yet another rude and unresponsive public servant. In his shoes, I would have invited the writer of that letter to a personal meeting – and offered him a contract to help upgrade telephone services and improve the public image of Telekom Malaysia.

At the time I had just taken over as sole proprietor of a partnership company I had started in 1974 with two other friends. A phone was crucial to working from home. Without this basic lifeline I was forced to depend on public phones and messages left at a friend’s office. After more than a year struggling to keep the company going, I was offered a full-time job in a big advertising agency and decided to accept. Fortunately I had only one employee and he was very understanding when I explained that I was folding up the company.

The phone line was finally installed, nearly two years later, when I no longer urgently needed it.

Recently I attempted to work out an approximation of how much I have paid since 1976 for the use of the basic telephone – a communication tool that has been around since 1876, though telecommunications only became a viable industry many decades later. It’s hard to get a precise figure because the fluctuations over the years have been dramatic (ranging from an average of, say, M$36 a month in the 1970s to as much M$800 in the 1980s when I acquired a taste for long-distance girlfriends). A conservative estimate would be something like RM60,000 – but it wouldn’t surprise me if the actual amount topped RM100,000.

In May 2002 I optimistically applied for a land line when I relocated from Kuala Kubu Bharu town to Pertak Village about 8 miles up the Fraser’s Hill road. I was told no lines were available – the area was too remote. I wrote several letters to editors of various newspapers lamenting the poor attitude of Telekom Malaysia. None ever saw the light of day.

When Mahathir privatized the phone company in 1987, Syarikat Telekom Malaysia Berhad inherited the existing infrastructure along with all existing customers, which must have numbered in the millions. The company, even though now a profit-making enterprise, had a moral obligation to provide telecommunication services to all Malaysians, regardless of their location.

If Telekom Malaysia had been farsighted, it would have invested at the outset in wireless telephony using communications satellites. Instead, the company opted for optic fiber cables, which they installed piecemeal – so that the high-end urban customers were able to enjoy broadband services while low-end rural users had to settle for the existing copper cable network. The result was a haphazard, piecemeal telecommunications system fraught with maintenance problems, connectivity issues, and extremely patchy service.

Three years after I applied for a phone line I noticed that telephone posts were being erected along the Fraser’s Hill road from KKB. Eventually the posts reached the entrance of Pertak Village – and then stopped. Ever hopeful, I enquired at the KKB Kedai Telekom about the prospects of finally getting some service. I was informed that there was no plan to pull a line into the village just to serve one customer.

I pointed out that the telephone posts had reached right to the entrance of the village - and my house was only a few hundred yards away. “Oh, that’s for the exclusive use of the Sultan,” I was told. I was incredulous. TM had just spent close to a million ringgit setting up an optic fiber line to the Sultan’s weekend lodge and they weren’t bothered to satisfy one paying customer by extending the line a short distance further…

Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah
This prompted a letter to the Sultan of Selangor, c.c.’ed to a couple of dailies and the CEO of TM, pointing out the absurdity of the situation: TM had bent over backwards to provide a broadband connection to someone who only required it on very rare occasions and probably never had to pay his phone bills - yet they were unable or unwilling to extend the service to a regular paying customer. The silence was deafening.

For three years I had been going to a local internet café on a daily basis, spending RM4-10 each time, and on top of that I had to fork out an additional RM60 a month on prepaid mobile top-ups. One afternoon at the internet café, somebody approached me, requesting that I park my van a little further down the road (it was right in front of the MIC branch office).

G. Palanivel
“What’s going on, why are so many people coming to the MIC office?” I asked. I was told the deputy minister of rural development, Dato’ G. Palanivel, was arriving soon to meet his constituents. When I finished my session, I noticed there were still a lot of people milling around the MIC office. On impulse I went up the stairs and asked to talk to Palanivel.

I explained my telephone woes to the deputy minister, who responded by asking me to exchange mobile numbers with Mr Rama, his personal assistant, who was tasked with following up on our brief discussion. To my utter surprise I got a call from Rama the very next day, informing me that his boss would be in the vicinity the following Monday and asking if I would be at home because the Dato’ was thinking of dropping by. “Most certainly I will be waiting for him,” I said.

I had anticipated that Palanivel would arrive with a small entourage – but I burst out laughing when I saw that he was accompanied by a large convoy of vehicles, including a Bernama TV crew and a clutch of reporters from the vernacular press. Also in spritely attendance were officials from the Rawang branch of Telekom Malaysia, a couple of JKR engineers, and two senior JHEOA officers.

“Ah, Dato’ Palanivel, how sweet of you to come all the way here,” I smiled. “Sorry, we have a very tiny veranda and can’t accommodate everybody.” So, while Palanivel and the media corps crowded round the table on my veranda for an impromptu press conference, the rest of his entourage milled about the village. With cameras flashing and rolling, Palanivel declared that it was unacceptable that there wasn’t even a public telephone in Pertak Village for use in case of emergencies. He announced that within two weeks he wanted a couple of solar-powered payphones installed – one near the sundry shop and the other in front of the headman’s house. After that, he continued, we will see to it that a proper line is pulled in.

True to his word, the solar-powered payphones were installed within a couple of weeks. It took several more months for the copper line to be set up. When a TM technical crew arrived shortly afterwards to install my land line, they sheepishly told me the copper line was two poles short of my house, and that it would take another few weeks before they could extend it.

And so it passed that after a 3-year wait, I finally got the land line I had applied for in May 2002. However, I had to wait another 18 months before my Streamyx account was activated at the end of July 2006.

For his prompt action in facilitating my phone line, I will always have a kind word for G. Palanivel. He struck me as a savvy, down-to-earth politician, who immediately saw my complaint as an opportunity to gain a bit of PR mileage for himself. The Star carried the story the next day and I believe the press conference with this pro-active deputy minister of rural development was televised nationwide too.

So this is how things work in Bolehland. You have to rope in at least a deputy minister just to obtain something as routine as a phone line. Why didn’t it occur to TM to do what they are supposed to do? Because they didn’t see me as a VIP. A totally unhealthy attitude, I must say, since most VIPs don’t even pay their own phone bills.

However, this is not the end of the story. It appears there will never be an end to my telephone woes so long as TM exists as a privatized monopoly and doesn’t give a damn for any customer who doesn’t qualify as a “VIP.”

When TM set up the Sultan’s optic fiber line, they decided to install the terminal right within the compound of his weekend lodge. The outcome was that every time there is a breakdown, the technicians must first obtain the keys from the Sultan’s security guards before they can access the terminal. And since the Sultan is so rarely present at his RM6 million lakeside retreat, the guards aren’t always where they are supposed to be. Sometimes it takes up to 3 or 4 days before the TM repair team can gain access to do their work.

I experience a service breakdown approximately once every two or three months. What ought to be a 30-minute routine repair job usually takes at least a week to get done. And if sections of the optic fiber cable happen to be missing (due to vandalism or theft) I end up having to wait two weeks or more for the service to be restored.

I don’t blame the TM personnel on the ground for their endemic lack of motivation. Most of them have the attitude of civil servants because they joined TM before it became privatized and many are close to retirement. The younger ones usually don’t stay very long with TM because the top-heavy management is too steeped in the feudal ethos to notice their individual abilities and reward them appropriately.

Another stumbling block issues from the near-sighted manner in which TM resolved the problem of overstaffing during the privatization process. To streamline the workforce, TM must have offered an early retirement option to the veterans, while the younger staff were encouraged to start their own businesses as suppliers and given exclusive contracts with TM to install and maintain the system. With no real competition, these small-scale suppliers tend to acquire a rent-seeker mentality and become complacent.

Illustration by Stephen Nix
And the red tape doesn’t help either. The obsession with centralized control creates a 9-headed hydra that may appear fearsome but is in fact a clumsy, inefficient monster that easily loses its sense of direction. Whenever a breakdown occurs, the local technical team often has to call in contractors from Rawang who, in turn, have to order replacement parts from Shah Alam - so repair jobs that ought to be accomplished in a couple of hours can take up to two weeks.

A sorry state of affairs, unavoidable when you have an absolute monopoly and analog minds operating in a digital universe.

It would be tremendous challenge indeed to be assigned the Herculean task of sorting out Telekom Malaysia. Much easier, I believe, to open the market up to innovation. Let other players in. TM could be reinstated as a public sector agency responsible for ensuring maximum access to telecommunications at minimum cost; this way it can stop focusing on profits and be content to generate enough revenue to maintain itself. As a government department TM could play a coordinating role to ensure compatibility and to ensure that vital infrastructures are efficiently maintained.

There can be a happy ending yet to the sad saga of Telekom Malaysia.