Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Customs Foibles and Christmas Dinner

Merry Christmas!

So in an effort to get misdirected with less frequency, I ordered a really nice Garmin GPS unit from the States and had it shipped to my mom in Colorado, who then shipped it to me. Flying the parcel around the world proved to be pretty straightforward – and quick, too. Once it arrived here in Malaysia, however, the wheels completely came off the process. Here is the account of what happened… I just have to get it all down in writing before I forget it. Honestly, I couldn’t do anything besides laugh throughout all this. The hardest part was keeping track of all of the steps in the process so I could get it in the blog. Hand to God, I’m not making this up or embellishing it at all. Forgive the epic length, I couldn’t leave anything out without detracting from the story. This was how I spent today… Christmas Eve 2008.

First, a little social history. As I’ve mentioned before, KL is a multicultural city, but instead of being a true “melting pot,” a better analogy might be three different foods on one plate. (The expats like me are in a breadbasket off to the side.) The foods intermingle and run together a bit at their respective peripheries, but for the most part, the main course stays put and doesn’t get mixed up with the vegetables, and the potatoes stay in their section of the plate, too. That’s KL. The three main ethnic groups generally keep to themselves, although there is some interplay at the fringes. It’s not unheard of, but it’s quite uncommon, to go out and see a large group of people with a mix of Chinese, Malay, and/or Indians. Most frequently, the group will be homogenous. A profoundly uneven distribution of wealth in the country led to long-simmering tensions and horrific race riots in 1969 (not too long after we had race riots of our own in America). This in turn led to new social policies and law that ensured a certain percentage of the nation's wealth would be held by Malays and indigineous peoples here. Even today, real estate is priced at two levels: the standard rate and the lower bumiputra rate, the word literally meaning "sons of the soil."

Nowadays, everyone seems to get along quite well in KL... the children are taught from an early age here that it's a multicultural society and that everyone must respect each other and get along. That notwithstanding, however, each group certainly has its opinions about the others and they've shared these with me, as well as critiques of their own race, too. One basic thing I'm told is that, if you're dealing with a company staffed by Malays (and I'm told this by Malays as well as Chinese), any hope of efficiency goes right out the door. Malays are as a nice a people as you could hope to meet, but they definitely don't get in much of a hurry. Ever. Conversely, Chinese seem very business-minded, and dealing with them in business is an entirely different kettle of fish.

So there’s your background information. My day today illustrates this social juxtaposition all too well. It actually began yesterday when I went to my mailbox and found a letter from POS Malaysia, the postal carrier/courier service here. My parcel had arrived! It only took six days, too. So according to the letter, I had to either self-clear the package through customs, appoint POS Malaysia as my agent, for the sparkling fee of RM49.50 (in addition to all the other myriad charges), or appoint a third party. I figured I could manage. So I drove down to the local post office and got some directions on how to proceed. Though it made absolutely NO mention of it in the letter, apparently I had to go get some sort of approval code from a third party before I could even consider claiming the package. So glad I asked.

SIRIM is the Malaysian equivalent of UL (Underwriters Laboratory) and they test and certify all things electrical. There are little “SIRIM” stickers on every outlet and switch in my condo, on appliances, power strips, etc. It’s just as ubiquitous as the “UL” in America, and the “CE” on virtually every piece of electronic equipment you own. So I was told that I had to go to SIRIM in Section 2 of Shah Alam (west of KL), get the required approval codes (two of them) for a non-electrical device (it’s electronic, a subtle but real distinction) that they had never seen nor inspected, and then, and only then, I could drive clear down to the airport, which is remarkably far from KL proper (an hour’s drive easily) and deal with customs to get my package. Now clearly the only thing preventing me from sucking down a double Scotch before embarking on this hellish journey was the fact that I’d be doing so much driving. So I set out for Shah Alam, a town to which I had never gone before. From where I live, it’s not terribly far… maybe 25-30 minutes to SIRIM’s campus. I actually have mobile GPS in my new handphone that I got two weeks ago, so it helped me find my way. It’s no replacement for a standalone GPS unit, but in a pinch, it’s much better than nothing. So I found Building 9 at SIRIM and then found the correct counter with the help of a genuinely kind Malay woman, all bedecked in her traditional gown and headscarf, who told me that it was lunch hour (1:00 to 2:00, and I arrived promptly at 1:30, naturally), so the counter was quite closed, but that I was welcome to go eat in their cafeteria if I hadn’t yet had my lunch, which sounded good to me. I had some beef rendang, steamed rice, a fried egg, and some clear soup with iced “teh tarik,” tea with sweetened condensed milk. All of this was laughably cheap, about $1.40 total, which is one huge advantage of eating where the locals eat.

Afterwards, I went back to the counter and filled out two forms, then was told (at 2:15) that they would call me around 5 p.m. with my approval code numbers. Once I picked my jaw up off the floor and expressed my profound disinterest in waiting three hours for a code, the guy asked me if I’d like it faster. I’m not kidding. Well yes, that would be lovely, I said. Wasn’t aware there was an Option B. Again, so glad I asked. No problem, I was told, just have a seat and it’ll take about 25 minutes. I was already laughing, but believe me, things just keep getting better. So I got my numbers, paid an eye-popping RM110 for a “special approval stamp fee,” a “processing fee,” and some other riffraff. Then, papers and codes in hand, I set off for the damned airport, which is nothing less than a road trip here. And we all remember how well my last road trip ended, right? Yeah. Wait for it… wait for it…

So, some days later, I arrived at the giant POS Malaysia complex by the Low Cost Carrier Terminal at KLIA. Pay careful attention, because you’ll lose the thread here if you don’t focus. I actually lived this story and my head swims at the attempt to narrate it. After parking, I first had to stop at the security kiosk and surrender my driver’s license, sign in, and be issued a vistor’s badge. Then I went inside to this big room with many counters, a side room, another side room, and an across-the-way room, down a hall. First stop was Counter 5, where they examined my paperwork from SIRIM and told me I had to go across the way and down the hall to Room 2. So I went to Room 2, gave them my paperwork, they produced a sheaf of customs forms which I had to sign, then I had to go to Counter 4. Back down the hall, across the big room, to Counter 4, where they looked at the papers, stamped them, then directed me to the side counter, Counter 2, where I actually claimed the package. Yes!! But no. We’re just getting started, kids.

I had to surrender my visitor’s badge here, which, I was told, would be returned to me after the package had been cleared. I now had to take the parcel and go back to Counter 5, where I got still more paperwork, was told to open the package. (Here, use our box cutter!) More stamping here, then off to the lady at Counter 6, about ten feet to the right, for a new computer printout and another stamp and a lot of questions about my GPS and how do I like Malaysia and do I mind not having seasons and what am I doing for Christmas and… well, at least the people were friendly. Then it was back to Room 2 for the mysterious customs duty calculation. I handed in my paperwork, waited and waited, then a guy emerged with the figure of RM104.76. I looked in my wallet and after gassing up my crappy car, topping up my stored-value Touch-n-Go card (for the toll gates), and paying the extortionate SIRIM fees, I had precisely RM103.00 in my wallet. I told him, “I’m sorry, this is all I have. It’s going to have to do unless you take Mastercard.” Which, naturally, they didn’t. ATM nearby? You must be joking. So he massaged the figures for another 15 minutes—again, no exaggeration—which resulted in a massive RM1 (exactly) reduction. Someone not only needs to brush up on his math skills, but I could have walked out to my car and found enough in coins to pay for that 15 minutes of my life back. Then I got to go to Counter 5 again so they could take their copies of the new ream of paperwork I had been issued, do some more fun stamping, then they sent me to Counter 1, where I was actually supposed to pay for this.

Now, if you’ve been following along, you’re possibly thinking, “He’s still RM0.76 short,” which was indeed the case. The poor woman just looked at me, and I was like, again, “I’m sorry, RM103 will just simply have to do. It’s ALL I HAVE.” I can’t even express how worthless 76 sen (cents) is, even here. It would be like paying for something that cost $35 in the States, and being like 18¢ short. It’s not nothing, but it’s certainly no big deal. So after a few tense moments, she accepted that I wasn’t kidding and didn’t actually have 76 sen stashed in my hair or anything, capitulated, and let me go. More stamping, more stapling, a signature. Sigh. So I went back to Counter 2, everything marked PAID, thinking I could reclaim my visitor’s badge, which would in turn allow me to reclaim my driver’s license. WRONG!!!! I had to go back to Counter 5 AGAIN for just ONE MORE FREAKING STAMP! (“Telah Ditaksir JK 6 Dikeluarkan” which is something like, “Estimate was issued by JK 6,” I think.) And then back to Counter 1 where the man stapled everything, took his copies, then gave me the visitor’s badge back. At this point, I just couldn’t help but laugh at how completely preposterous this had all been. It was almost a parody of actual business practices. Or something you’d see in a sitcom or a Saturday Night Live sketch. Literally one person could have done all of this. Sign here, stamp stamp stamp, here’s what you owe, okay thanks for all your money, stamp, staple, stampity stamp, here’s your package, have a nice day, Merry Christmas. Not even counting the two people in security, I seriously dealt with six different people over the course of 50 minutes and there was no other person being served in there. Just me. Fifty minutes. Six people. Finally, I left the building, exchanged my badge for my license, signed another book, then actually got in my car and left.

Still not done yet. Remember the ominous road trip allusion awhile back? Yeah, well, about three whole miles down the road, I heard this odd sound and looked in my rearview mirror to see this cord-like debris flapping about on the road. Did I just run over it? Was crap falling out from under my car? Should I be concerned?? About a minute later, I noticed my previously frigid air-conditioning was no longer frigid. Moments later, it wasn’t even cool. I didn’t run over anything… that was my fan belt being shredded and thrown out of my engine compartment. Honestly, this didn’t even remotely faze me. After blowing a head gasket, a mere fan belt is small potatoes. I just kept merrily on driving, roasting away in my car, and got back to the Damansara area about 45 minutes later where I was welcomed by six hundred thousand other drivers on the LDP (the highway near my neighborhood). By this time, it was nearly 6 p.m., five hours after I set off on this odyssey. I called my mechanic, a Chinese guy named Sim and asked him if I could bring the car by in 15 minutes or so for a belt replacement (his shop is a half mile from my condo). Sure, no problem… so I got there, he took me in immediately, had the new fan belt on within 25 minutes, it was only RM85 (about US$23) for parts and labor, and off I went, air-con ice-cold once again. The contrast between the package fiasco—all Malay staff at both SIRIM and POS—and the car service—all Chinese staff—was genuinely startling and I’d probably not have given it a thought had the two events not happened in sequence.

If you’re wondering at this point why I went through all of this grief and didn’t just buy a GPS here in KL, the reason is that they’re extremely expensive here as they’re somewhat new to the scene. A basic Garmin nuvi 205, for example, which is very entry-level, runs about RM1,300, close to US$370. I got one from the States, the nuvi 680, which is far better with a larger screen, a better GPS receiver, and loads of features such as Bluetooth and FM transmitter which allow me to not only transmit MP3 songs through my car stereo, but will let me take and make hands-free calls via the Bluetooth connection with my mobile phone, and the caller’s voice will transmit over the car stereo as well. Additionally, it has MSN Direct which, when I return to the U.S., will give me live traffic updates, gas prices, weather forecasts, local movie times, etc. As for maps of Malaysia, there’s a site with free downloads of good Malaysia and Singapore maps for Garmin devices, so I just download the data onto an SD card and pop it in the GPS. Even with all of the costs on this end—fees, duties, petrol cost to get there and back, tolls, etc.—it was still considerably cheaper for this much better unit (which I can happily use in the U.S. as well) than it would have been to buy a bare-bones model here locally.

So I got home at 6:40, took a very quick shower and got dressed up for my dinner with friends at the Westin Hotel in the heart of KL. It was a lavish Christmas Eve buffet, and it was the most twisted thing I think I’ve seen, and I’ve seen Christmas trees standing next to palm trees (witness the last picture below). I think that people here don’t quite know how to truly deal with Christmas. They’ve seen it on TV, they may have experienced it in places where it’s really celebrated, but it’s like taking a picture of a fine painting. The two just aren’t the same. One’s real, one’s a reproduction. It would be like the Denver city council trying to organize a big Chinese New Year festival. They may have read about it, some of them may have been to China or Hong Kong and experienced it, but it would still just be a one-off facsimile of the real thing. That’s Christmas in Malaysia. The hotel actually had a theme for the dinner, too. (“Christmas,” I guess, just wouldn’t do.) It was the Wild, Wild Westin Christmas 2008. Christmas trees, Santa Claus and his hot chick elf wandering around, and every staff member wearing a big Stetson hat. I’m not kidding. Mariah Carey singing “O Holy Night” on the sound system was followed by the live band doing a cover of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” Surreal. Disappointingly, there wasn’t a nativity scene with Baby Jesus in leather chaps or Joseph outfitted with a holstered Colt .45, but I did get a bandana and a sheriff’s badge at my place setting. It kind of took the glamour right out of dining on foie gras terrine, spectacularly fresh sashimi, and beef Wellington, but in all fairness, I had a wonderful time and was so grateful to have been invited. The food was great (click on the menu picture to see what we ate), the company was marvelous, I learned a little Cantonese, and as my uncle requested, here are some people pictures to go along with the food pictures. The girls aren’t Thai lovelies, but they are quite pretty all the same. (I’m going to Phuket, Thailand in two months, so I’ll fill that request then.) Note that, per my above observation, everyone in the group is Chinese. Except for that one weird white guy.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year -from Malaysia! As the street banners here proclaim, “Selamat Hari Krismas dan Selamat Tahun Baru!”

Bali stories and photos in the next entry, plus an answer to the question, "What in the world is a Prosperity Burger??"… :)


Barb said...

Great post...long but great...a lesson in patience...not only going through what you went through but reading all about it.
You were missed in Colorado Springs tonight for Christmas dinner at jane and Rick's..
holiday hugs

ps the word to post my comment is kidding...that is just sad!! haha

Kate said...

Sounds like you are confronting some Sisyphean challenges in a Homer epic. What an adventure!


Chad M. said...

Quite an adventure, but having that GPS has been totally worth it! Compared with the roughly RM2500 ($715) it would have cost me to buy a comparable unit locally, the RM650 for one from America plus RM225 in fees and tariffs ($250) seems like a veritable bargain.

Pkr said...

Getting things cleared from Msia Customs could be troublesome, knotty and tortuous. Things like cosmetics, health-goods and electronics to be specific. Heard that cosmetics required approval from Health Ministry...

Your epic customs clearance process sounds like a hard mission!