A Malaysian Journal:

Selamat Tahun Baru

(31 December 1998)

© Copyright 1998, D. Crocker, Brandenburg Consulting
A series of notes on living and working in Malaysia, during Jackie's Fulbright Fellowship to Universiti Putra Malaysia, near Kuala Lumpur. Copies may be freely distributed, but must retain this preamble. Previous notes are located at <http://www.bbiw.net/amj>. To subscribe send me a note. /Dave <mailto: dcrocker@bbiw.net>

OK, class. For our language lesson, I'll hint that "tahun" means "year". After that, you are on your own.

I only wish that my own Bahasa skills were progressing enough to view the exercise as trivial. Alas, travel and sloth have proved overly convenient excuses for doing little study. By contrast Jackie is making great strides although she thinks otherwise. In this short a time fluent speech is too much to hope for, but she is frequently able to translate the gist of things we want to read and often can generate useful connected speech. And, no, this is not damning with faint praise. It might be praising with faint praise, but that's only due to a developmental/cultural history of overly ambitious expectations.

I was in the U.S. for a month, most of December, with two days in London. Got back on Christmas Eve. The U.S. trip was filled with far too much intensity and changes in expectations. My father had his 80th birthday. Thanksgiving was at my stepsister's, Carol, who has had her own, remarkable medical saga over the past few years. Further, my mother had a major operation, as did her sister, Betty. All are doing well (relatively, and yes that's a pun) but the lessons on life's "passages" were pretty heavy-handed.

My third (and sixth) stop on the trip was Dallas. Given the type of travel I've been doing over the last couple of years, and especially since we moved to Malaysia, the jump from San Jose to Dallas was no big deal, except for a peculiar moment of disorientation. When I got off the plane, walked through the ramp to the terminal, and looked around to get adjusted, it took me a moment to realize that this stop was, in fact, extremely unusual. I didn't need to get my money changed.

The month also included one of the thrice-annual Internet standards meeting, the IETF. With everything else happening during the trip, I found myself reflecting on the evolution of the group, and decided that it is actually doing quite well. That assessment is in marked contrast to my usual critcisms of one or another aspect of its operation. The year included some incredible difficulties and set-backs elsewhere in the administration of the Net, but the engineering community that composes the IETF has managed to stay quite well-centered, getting its work done, and doing it in much the same way as always. Large organizations tend to ossify, so the IETF's ability to retain its culture and style is something I find quite heartening. Trying to retain core values, while undergoing massive growth, is a common theme. Obviously it applies to the CCN-, MTV- and HBO-drenched culture of Malaysia.

Nearly my entire career has been spent within the IETF community, and it has provided most of my professional 'life' lessons. So its growth from the 40-person meeting I attended in 1986, to the December, 1998 2,000 participant extravaganza gives a bit of pause. An end-of-the-year note like this promises to be far too maudlin for pursuing the matter further, but I'll comment that I was surprised to find myself feeling a strong sense that the group is doing so well… perhaps in spite of the Internet's success.

Criticising hotel service, on the other hand, remains easy, although sometimes a bit confusing. The hotel that I stayed at in London was chosen for a meeting I needed to have there. It turned out to be seriously upscale. Very expensive and fancy, although I found a good promotional rate on its web page. A major deficiency was that it did not have an in-room coffee maker. However the hotel booklet of services said they had complementary coffee 6-8am in the lobby. Wonderful.

I trotted on downstairs (at 7:30) to find the primary lobby area (Winter Garden) closed until 10. I asked Reception about the coffee and they said it had already been taken away. They pointed me at the restaurant around a corner. Went there and was told that they only had sit-down service but that the health club had coffee. Went there and they sure enough had coffee. So I set about pouring my usual two cups to take back to the room.

The attendant was friendly and chatted me up a bit, asking where I flew in from. So I said Dallas, the day before, and that I was flying to Malaysia that night. He of course commented on how long a trip that was and asked whether it was business or pleasure. I said that since my wife was in Malaysia it was definitely pleasure.

He gave me an odd look as I walked out with my two cups of coffee...

Took me awhile to figure out why...

It has been much easier to figure out differences in the experience of winter. During my latest trip I managed to miss the cold snaps that hit Dallas and London. Living in California, I often hear the claim that we don't have seasons but, of course, this just shows the speaker's ignorance. We have half of the year when the hills are green and half when they are barren. That the green time is winter, rather than summer, only makes for local distinctiveness. We have now noticed an even more significant marker, distinguishing California (and other) winters from Malaysia's: The length of the day. In places with real winter, the day is shorter. In Malaysia, it isn't. Days are pretty much the same length, all year long. The sun rises at 7am and sets at 7pm. Every day. That does not seem like such a big deal, but the contrast (or lack of it) astonishes us.

In truth, Malaysia has its own form of winter. As difficult as this might be to believe, it gets quite cool here. Days often don't go much over 80. And compared with the early summer's average of 95, that's quite lovely. For that matter although we don't get snow, tonight had quite a nice God/Yahweh/Allah-proving thunder and lightning storm, complete with (unusually brief) power outage. On second thought there's nothing distinctive about that.

After again getting used to full-force morning showers and freedom from fear of drinking the water during my trip, it's actually nice to be back in Malaysia. Although the place has come to seem far more routine than I would have imagined possible, it still presents the odd quirk. One is that morning shower. We have an instant-heat shower unit and it has a feature that turns off the heater if there is not enough water pressure to ensure the safety of the heater coils. Most of this week, the beginning of the shower has been cold, because the water pressure has been too low. Mid-way through, the heater kicks in. Most of the time. Students of psychology will appreciate the variable positive reinforcement schedule this has put me on. Rather than feeling indignant about the poor service, I am deeply appreciative to get any hot water at all.

We found ourselves oddly appreciative of a cold shower from reality. I have a cousin living in Singapore. Holly is young enough that I never met her in Chicago, her home. Right now, her mother, Marilyn, is also visiting, so we called to see about visiting for New Years. They had tentative plans to be out of town, but the plans did not work out, so I made airplane reservations and was on the verge of making hotel reservations when my cousin called to say that that their out-of-town plans had suddenly materialized. We are entirely comfortable switching at the last minute, so the change was hardly traumatic. Especially since Jackie called a few minutes later to say that her passport and handphone had been stolen. Boy, isn't it lucky we didn't need to leave the country for New Years?

Yes, it's true. Malaysia has criminals. Just like the U.S. and pretty much everywhere else. Sad, isn't it? All these friendly people can lull you into thinking that they are, somehow, perfect.

We have had some small solace in believing that the criminal is likely unhappy. He knew he was getting a high quality handphone, but he had no doubt expected Jackie's wallet to contain serious money and credit cards. It didn't.

The U.S. Embassy only took 2 hours out of our lives to replace the passport, and they were even quite personable about it all. This was dramatically different from the 13.5 hour saga that I/we experienced a few years ago, in the height of a New York summer, when they made me show up at 4am to renew my passport. The one benefit of that experience, besides a new passport, was getting our picture in the New York Times Sunday magazine, while Jackie worked on her laptop at 5:30am, sitting on the curb, waiting for the passport office to open. A copy of the photo sits by my desk in Sunnyvale. I still can't believe Jackie got up at 3:30am to go with me.

Anyhow, she still must get a new visa and has decided not to get another handphone for the short time remaining. Hence the real "cost" of this experience is a bit of embarrassment at leaving the items accessible and perhaps a day of lost time. All things considered, it is difficult to get too upset about the event.

In fact the most difficult part is that Jackie had a slight suspicion about the identity of the thief. We discussed this with her boss, Nik, who informed us that naming a suspect would cause the police to bring him in and torture him.

Nik was not being apocryphal or dramatic, since he knew of a similar occurrence a few years ago. The suspect was subjected to such interrogation delights as being forced to lie on ice, naked, for hours and then having cold air blown on him, as well as the ever-friendly sleep deprivation and private-parts stimulation, amongst other classics from the handbook of torture. After a week, he confessed. Some time later he was proved innocent, but not before he was sacked from his university job. Needless to say, Jackie decided not to pursue the matter further, especially since her suspicions were so tenuous and our loss seemed comparatively minor.

On the other hand, this engendered some desire for a respite. Typically we do not venture forth for New Years. This year, we both seem interested in finding an event, somewhere, so we wangled last-minute reservations at a locally-famous 18-room retreat in Cameron Highlands, 3 hours' drive north of KL, and inland. No doubt it is a mark of the depressed economy that even one room was available, so we are glad to make our own, small contribution to improving the country's financial status. Government workers are going to be given the same type of opportunity, by having one Saturday a month off, so they can spend more time with family and the family can spend more money around the country.

Cameron Highlands is at 1000 metres above sea level. We are told it is seriously cool in the highlands. Also for New Years dinner, the instructions say to "dress smartly". (We always do, of course.) Should be interesting.


Dave Crocker

Brandenburg Consulting
Fax: +1(408)273 6464
Tel: +60 (19) 3299 445
Post Office Box 296, U.P.M.
Serdang, Selangor 43400 MALAYSIA

Tel: +1 (408) 246 8253
675 Spruce Dr., Sunnyvale, CA 94086 USA