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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Bureaucracy Turns A Kilometer Land Trip Into Hours

 Bureaucracy Turns A Kilometer Land Trip Into Hours


M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.blogspot.com


(First Of Two Parts)    The Northward Journey



Economist Milton Friedman once said that if the federal government were to be in charge of the Sahara, in five years there would be a shortage of sand!


That is what English instructors call hyperbole, an exaggeration. However, I do have a more proximate and real-world example of the capacity of governments to grind things down, if not muck things up.


The bureaucracies in Singapore and Malaysia combined have succeeded in making the 1,056 meter journey across the causeway linking both nations to last over an hour by rail. By road even longer, and unpredictable.


You could walk or even crawl across faster. However, you cannot because the bureaucracies on both sides prohibit that. Besides, only the reckless few would attempt, what with the traffic. Some, as those with a death-wish and a back-up desire to be arrested, still try.


One could blame the bureaucrats, but that would be true only for Malaysia. Consider that former Prime Minister Najib was convicted of massive corruption. With that, what do you expect of his civil servants. That excuse however would not apply to Singapore. Its government is clean and efficient. Its ubiquitous towering public housing projects which rival luxury condominiums of developed countries are testament to that. Its Changi Airport is an oasis for weary travelers.


So what gives?


I made a recent overnight return journey from Woodlands, the northern-most part of Singapore, to Johor Baru, Malaysia’s southern-most city for a family wedding. From the glut of reviews in cyberspace as well as on the advice of locals, I chose the train, The Tebrau Shuttle, for its purported predictable timetable.


I had no difficulty booking online with KTM, the Malay initials for Malayan Railway, except for two quirks. One, KTM charged my credit card right away but could not guarantee me my tickets. Be patient, watch your e-mail, was KTM’s website advice as I clicked “Proceed to buy.” Two, the trip north was $5 Singapore dollars, and the return was also $5, but in Malaysian ringgit. At current exchange, that would be about $1.65 Singapore, or US $1.20.


The next day I received my confirmation, complete with seat assignment (for a five minute ride!), but only for my return (or southward) trip. My credit card would be duly credited for the unsuccessful northward journey, but expect that to take up to two weeks, the e-mail continued, after its mushy “Thank you for choosing KTM” message.


I re-booked, choosing a different time. Again, a day later, the same “Unsuccessful, your card would be credited” message.


When you have a corrupt Prime Minister, what do you expect of his government-owned railway? So I switched to an on-line Singapore travel agency with its extra booking fee. The same “Unsuccessful . . .” response a day later, as with my earlier KTM experience. Worried that my stateside credit card issuer would cancel my card for what looked like “suspicious activities,” I gave up and explored the Singapore Bus Service (SBS) option, with its clean, punctual, and air-conditioned coaches.


I had no problem deciphering the bus routes and schedules, but the fares? What a convoluted exposition and bewildering color coding system! I could not comprehend much beyond the need for “exact change only.” I have some familiarity with spoken Singapore English–Singlish–but I did not realize that there is also a written variety!


Singapore students score high on international tests. Those bus blurbs, on the various websites as well as at the bus stops and in the brochures, must have been outsourced to China.


As a tourist, the blurb continues, I could get a day or week pass at attractive prices, but those could be bought at only a few locations, and none near to me.


So with my pants’ pocket sagging with coins, I was ready. The first No: 950 bus that stopped was full and only a few could board. No problem, the next bus would be only ten minutes later, so said the schedule. The next bus came, fifteen minutes late and full. It just whizzed by our stop!


My friend who had volunteered to guide me despite my earlier protestation that I did not need one as the signs and instructions were so clear, suggested going in the reverse direction to the Woodland Bus Interchange, only three stops away, so we could board the bus at its source. We did, and found a long queue already waiting but we managed to squeeze in. We congratulated ourselves for our foresight!


As we passed by our original bus top, our full bus too just zipped by without stopping. I felt sorry for those still waiting with indoctrinated patience, but I could not conceal my smug smile.


Singaporeans are very good at following instructions and not deviating from the rules. They have to; the city is after all “Fine City,” a fine for everything, including if you were caught with a half-empty gas tank crossing the causeway, lest you might be tempted to take advantage of the cheaper gas in Malaysia. There are huge billboards reminding you of the severe penalty for failing to “top off” at the border.


At immigration for exit out of Singapore, my Singaporean friend cleared with no difficulty in the “Singapore Passport” line with its automated machines. I, together with the hordes in the “Other Passports” queue, took much longer, with the lines fast lengthening.


That finally cleared and we headed back to our Bus 950, this time a different coach, perhaps the fourth or fifth after ours, one that had just disgorged its passengers at immigration only minutes earlier.


The bus drive across the causeway took less than five minutes with the light traffic. We disembarked and proceeded down a long corridor (at least it was air-conditioned) to the cavernous Malaysian Immigration Hall. The multiple lanes under the “Other Passports” were already long, and also growing fast. There were the inevitable few who shifted from one line to another trying to anticipate the fastest moving, just like at Walmart checkouts.


An hour later we cleared this bureaucratic hurdle. Then down to our buses to continue the journey to the terminal. There were dozens of buses waiting but no signs. That was not the only oddity. Despite the mob of passengers earlier, there were none looking for their buses except for a few bewildered folks like us. We found our 950 bus empty with its doors closed and without a driver.


A worker suggested that we take any SBS bus as they all would end up at JB Sentral terminal, the final stop. We did, and we were the only passengers.


Later I discovered that the other passengers had chosen to just walk to the terminal after clearing immigration. If I had known it was a short distance, I too would have done so.


My bus trip cost under Singapore $4. That included the return journey which I would skip as I had purchased the train ticket on-line days before.


Next:  The Return Journey (Second of Two Parts)




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