A Malaysian Journal:


(11 April 1999)S

© Copyright 1999, D. Crocker, Brandenburg Consulting
A series of notes on living and working in Malaysia, during Jackie's Senior 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>

Ending roughly where we began, on the northern tip of Borneo. Or, at least, getting some closure in the place Southeast Asia came alive for me.

Internet experience came alive for me in the spring of 1972. I had dropped out of UCLA and was looking for something a little more challenging than the computer operator job I had held for three years. Actually, the job hunt didn’t happen until fall. In the Spring I started learning to use the Arpanet to get to a new and interesting system up at Stanford Research Institute, which let you develop documents and cross-reference them with "active" embedded citations. It was the first real instantiation of what was later re-invented as the World Wide Web. (The term "hyperlink" that is used for the Web came from an east-coast research project that paralleled the SRI work, but had less systems development and far less use.) Doug Engelbart’s SRI project invented the mouse and was the parent to most other personal computing efforts.

That computer operator slot was the first long-term job I had held, and it supported me for most of my undergraduate years. My boss had been an Army mustang, entering as an undisciplined, trouble-making private and leaving as a full-bird colonel. Doug had an easy-going style, but no one ever made the mistake of trying to cross him. The other part-time operators once nominated me to ask him for permission to buy a fold-up cot, so our no-work-to-do, weekend graveyard shifts would be more comfortable. Doug responded that I hadn’t asked him the question because if I had, he’d have to worry that we weren’t doing our jobs, besides of course having to say no. I of course concurred with his assessment, said I had no idea what question he was referring to, and got the hell out of his office as fast as possible.

So we were very careful to hide the cot in an obscure place, under the raised computer room floor, and never told Doug about it. A year later in casual conversation with a few of us, the topic came up and one of the other operators taunted him that he’d never find it. He pointed at my colleague, who was rocking back and forth on a chair, and said he was sitting on top of it. The chair did not topple over. Only barely.

Doug also gave me my first really important management lesson: Hire people who are hungry. He didn’t much care what they hungered for, but he wanted them to have a drive to do their work well. I keep re-learning the lesson, and Malaysia has shown the benefit when the hunger is present and the problem when it isn’t. Jackie came with me to the INet conference in Kuala Lumpur so she could interview at one university there and one over in Eastern Malaysia in the state of Sabah on the island of Borneo. Both places had Fulbright Fellowships available and permitted the work to be done in English. The university just outside KL is the one she eventually went to. They had never had anyone come for an interview and they took note of her practical work experience, her home in the startup capital of the world, Silicon Valley, and her association with my own activities in Silicon Valley startups. Since her job would be to help form commercial ventures, they were eager for her to come and contribute.

This was in marked contrast with the elitist, credential-oriented reception Jackie got over on Sabah. The interviewing professor was quite well traveled, but had the sort of pedantic orientation that prompts clichés about academic detachment from what is important. Since Jackie had no formal credentials in the specialty they wanted to have taught – and they had and entire degree program in "entrepreneurialism" – they were lukewarm about her participation.

Unfortunately, this difference in "hungers" was exactly the opposite from what we found outside the two universities. Around KL, my very limited experience is that things frankly seem pretty complacent, more interested in espousing vision than in doing the hard work of achieving it. Around Kota Kinabalu (KK), the center of commerce in Sabah, we found folks who seemed downright ravenous for activity and progress. As usual our discovery was pure serendipity. I wanted to pick up my email and eventually got vectored over to the six-week old Cybercafe, the first on the island. (Two years later, there are many more, but I’m told the original is the only one making a profit.) The owner didn’t quite know what to do with my request to plug my own computer into his network and just at that moment his consultant walked in. Yap is not all that far out of college but is one of those embarrassingly bright and accomplished people who make me feel genetically slothful. Besides having a day job building Internet services, he plays a mean Chinese guitar and fills idle moments casually turning out delightful sketches. Even more astonishing was that he had read the Internet standards documents, making the association between my name and the dubious work published under it. So my effort to convince him that I had some technical competence became easy… as soon as he verified that I actually did know how to configure my computer.

That contact led to meeting the Deputy Minister of Sabah – and having one of the best fresh-fish Chinese meals we’ve ever eaten – and later an invitation to participate in a strategic review workshop for the government-sponsored Internet project, called Sabah.net. Malaysia has a couple of commercial Internet service providers, so the Sabah.net project has a focus on more than basic access. After the first year of building the basic capability, the purpose of the workshop was to consider next steps, especially since usage was not as great as they had anticipated.

The workshop was a retreat at the base of Mt. Kinabalu, highest mountain in the region and pretty darn beautiful. My reaction to the presentations, discussions and summary of accomplishments was that the team had done great work and their first problem was in expecting too much too soon. On the other hand, impatience breeds progress. They certainly needed to keep the pressure on, looking for services and constituencies (markets) but my main reaction was to really enjoy their enthusiasm and competence. Growing up professionally in the hyper-charged environment of the Arpanet/Internet community was distorting; my sense of "average" was badly skewed. Over time and over a broader range of experience, that sense became a little more balanced, but still, professional expectations tend to be high. So it was peculiar to be in the middle of a Southeast Asian jungle – with air-con and computer displays -- participating in a technical and market planning meeting pretty much the same as I do back home. The process and the enthusiasm (hunger) were as exciting and addictive as always. One measure of success is the deployment of the Internet service. Another is the "deployment" of the technical and operational culture. The folks in the Sabah.net project have that culture.

At the end of the first day of the retreat, we were all in a pretty great mood for dinner, which was served lazy-Susan style at tables of 8 or 10. Sitting next to me was a young Chinese woman. She had gone to school in the U.S., had a good sense of humor, and was more outgoing – almost bold – than most of the other woman who participated. (Malay/Muslim women tend to be particularly shy, although some manage to indulge in real boldness, hidden behind a shy exterior.) At every place setting was a very small saucer, for mixing your personal preference in soy, chilies, hot sauce, etc. At one point, my friend reached over to the lazy Susan, picking up the bowl of my favorite hot sauce, a combination of chili, vinegar, sugar and salt. (I bought a bottle of it in Geneva, labeled "Singapore" hot sauce. Jackie bought one in KL labeled "Thailand" hot sauce.) The balance of sweet, sour and heat is lovely. So I was taken aback when my friend finished dishing out her portion and reached across me to pass the dish to my neighbor on the other side. I quietly shouted "excuuuuuuse me!" and then it was her turn to look astonished. I asked whether I might have some hot sauce and her eyes went wide. "You like our hot sauce?" she asked in utter amazement. "I love the hot sauce," said I, most vigorously.

She paused, carefully considering her response. Finally she said "but white people don’t like hot sauce." Truth be told I had already guessed the source of the problem, but decided to have some fun with her. "What white people?" asked I. "The ones I went to school with." "Where did you go to school?" "University of Michigan."

I nodded sagely, then smiled broadly, explaining about the culinary deprivation historically rampant throughout the Midwest of the United States. By now others at the table had joined in, telling her about the popularity of Mexican food and jalapeno peppers, as well as Cajun and Creole cooking. I’m not sure, but I think she achieved a major cultural breakthrough as a result. Perhaps whites aren’t all that different?

The beauty of Eastern Malaysia and the great fun of our experiences with people there make it not surprising that I wanted to include Sabah in our "exit tour". As my available time reduced, that tour got compressed into two weeks and we prefer not to change hotels frequently. So it was interesting to see how much I wanted to include Sabah. On the other hand I was typically casual about the planning and was very late in sending a note to my friends, there, asking to take advantage of their offers for our next visit. I simply said we wanted a couple of days at the same hotel near Mt. Kinabalu that had held the retreat and several days at the orang utan sanctuary on the eastern side of the state. Twenty years ago, I had a girlfriend who was interested in non-human apes and that led to my having the extraordinary experience of being in a cage at the Milwaukee Zoo with a couple of very young orang utan, born on Halloween and named Trick and Treat. One of them got very friendly, holding on to me and eventually offering me some pieces of carrot.

I should note an awkwardness in the following discussion. In the U.S., the reference to orang utan would get shortened easily to "orang". The problem is that the word is regular Bahasa, meaning person. Jackie and I are "orang putih" meaning white people. One might say "Se orang memandu" meaning the person who drives (a car). So shortening the reference about the person of the forest (orang utan) leads to the possibility that I’m referring to some other orang than the type that swing from Borneo trees.

At any rate vague specifications can result in interesting experiences, especially when it is the peak tourist season -- due to Easter vacations, apparently – making bookings difficult. We arrived without knowing where we were staying and without being all that clear what we’d be doing. The brief emails on the topic were, well, brief.

We spent one night in KK and then flew to Sandakan on the eastern side of the state. It is another small, dense city set against the jungle, having 300,000 people and an absolutely spectacular deep-water ocean bay. The orang utan sanctuary was some distance away and the experience was far less personal than the Milwaukee zoo, of course, but interesting nonetheless. The purpose of the sanctuary is to reintroduce previously captive orang utan to the wild. Many have been abused. Reintroduction is a four-stage affair, taking up to 8 years. Tourists are only allowed to be present during feeding of the second-staged animals, who are wandering around that area of jungle and come swinging in and 10:30am and 3:00pm every day, if they wish. Food is bananas and milk, intentionally boring so as to motivate searching for other food independently. Four orang utan showed up, along with a mass of macaques. The orang utan stayed off at the feeding platform, some distance from the human spectator section, except for one older orang who suddenly showed up on our platform, probably hoping for special snacks, but quickly giving up and moving over to the feeding platform. The macaques were around us all the time and neither Jackie nor I like them very much. They are nasty and aggressive. They tried to steal our lunch one afternoon at a beach, during our first visit to KK. That sounds like fun, but nothing intimidated them except a large stick – Teddy Roosevelt was right, except that we also had to make loud noises. Anyhow, nothing bad happened during the morning feeding we attended, but the macaques did add some drama.

Then we were taken to a very large and tall cave from which nests are taken for making Chinese bird’s nest soup. The nest is constructed of bird saliva, which does not sound offhand all that interesting, even for someone interested in more than food from the Midwest. Still, it is considered a great delicacy and they have laws protecting this rare source of the nests. The entire base of the cave is covered with a huge layer of bird dung, left there to ensure maintenance of the ecosystem in the cave. The layer was entirely alive with cockroaches making their contribution to this effort. My visceral reaction was pretty predictable, but then it occurred to me that this was not my home, it was theirs. I was the intruder.

Our final stop of the day was a short ride on a precarious river boat to a place called Proboscis Lodge, in a reserve that protects, among other things, the ugliest monkeys you are likely to see. I’ll let you guess their name and what makes them ugly. The lodge has electricity and pretty good food, so this was an adult summer camp, not all that tough to take. Late in the afternoon we were part of a tourist flotilla of small boats, taken out on the river and up a tributary, to watch the monkeys jump from tree to tree, including across the river. As nearly as I can tell, these monkeys only sit and scratch, do the usual mutual grooming, and perform occasional, spectacular jumps. Jackie and I were pretty impressed with how boring their lives must be, although I suspect that all those strange creatures they see floating on the river every afternoon must provide some entertainment.

The next day, we were taken to an island sanctuary for turtles that are laying eggs. These are pretty large turtles and this island is one of very few they come to. As a tourist operation, it’s pretty slick. The turtles show up every night and there are hatchings every night, so this is a full-year source of tourist fascination. They tell you the turtles might not show up till quite late, but we were lucky. We had dinner at 7pm and at 8:30 were told we could come to see the latter stage of the laying process. The operation on the island strikes a good balance of being interesting for the humans, but enforcing requirements of the turtles first. Hence we are not allowed to show up until the laying process is mostly complete and we only get to see one – there were 15 turtles that night – and are prohibited from using our flashlights most of the time, since it affects the turtles. The hatchlings are released on the shore, with some of the staff shining flashlights while standing in the water. The hatchlings make a turtle-line (since they aren’t bees) for the water. On top of all this the night sky was spectacular.

Last night we got back to KK in time for the Chinese wedding banquet of one of the folks from Sabah.net. The most useful description I was given beforehand was that a Chinese wedding banquet is about food. There were eight courses, mostly meat, and all wonderful. At the beginning of the event, the bride and groom came into the ‘here comes the bride’ music and then the room got very dark, with a stream of wait-people walking in carrying platters of food and a candle on each platter. Loud, dramatic music, reminiscent of Thus Spake Zarathustra, hammered away to a crescendo, and finally at the stage, three ‘invisible’ people dressed in black (including covering their faces) raised a series of signs that said "Congratulations Hock Song and Ruth" and "Let the Eating Begin". I’m wondering whether I have some Chinese genes somewhere in my background.

How could I not want to return here?