Eventually it had to happen. Residing in Penang for over a year now, sometimes Diane and I forget we’re on the other side of the world. Strangely resembling western nations, Malaysia’s infrastructure is surprisingly good and up until last week, we’ve had no bad experiences with the power grid, internet service, landlords, phone, noise or public transit. Often forgetting we live 7,000 miles from home, we listen to internet radio from San Francisco, use Viber for phone calls to U.S, companies at ridiculously low rates and stream almost anything we want from U.S. TV including pay TV series’, network comedies and the entire two months of NHL playoffs. Once concerned about paying for local cable with channels we don’t care about, we don’t subscribe to anything and even get twelve channels of uninterrupted commercial free Olympic coverage free as part of basic internet service. Enjoying sports we never even knew existed, Asian coverage includes weightlifting, archery, shooting, field hockey, water polo, badminton, table tennis, cycling, and the few things they show on NBC like swimming.
But ultimately, expats living in developing countries are bound to run into some typically “developing world” issues that can frustrate, annoy and test an anal “type A” personality’s patience. (Me, not Diane). And when it rains, it pours (Literally and metaphorically). After a trouble-free thirteen months of condo living, in the course of one week we had a broken air conditioner/landlord repair issue, three nights of overnight street drilling that kept the entire condo awake and the first power outage we’ve experienced in Asia. Ironically, some incidents that seem bad on the surface ultimately lead to fast resolutions that blow away anything you’d ever get in North America. Here in Malaysia, the relationship you establish with a property agent becomes important one because unlike back home, you gain a contact that helps you with any issues throughout the entire term of your lease. Acting as a third-party liaison between the tenant and owner, the property agent is your first course of action when something goes wrong. Professionalism and help varies depending on who your agent is so make sure you find a good one before signing a lease. Using a two-part post for easy readability, today I’ll share the best example of the three blunders and explain why bad situations often lead to fast resolutions.
Always hot, my body is unlike normal people who cool down as they climb into bed. Annoying Diane, who’s the exact opposite, we always sleep with air conditioning and ever since returning from our Australian work exchange trip last winter, I noticed the air flow getting warmer by the day despite keeping the thermostat low. Eventually the little yellow light came on and it began shutting itself off. Contacting our trusty property agent, we asked her what to do and we engaged in a four-way WhatsApp chat that included the owner (she lives 300 miles away in Johor). Utilizing the building management’s local contacts, Penang condo owners usually call them when they need a fast repairman and a few months ago, a “technician” came to look at the problem.
Clarifying one big difference from the developed world, here in the ASEAN’s highest ranking nation on the economic scale, the Malays feel they’ve graduated from grunt work so they often use day laborers from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and other poorer nations to do work usually reserved for skilled tradespeople so when the air conditioning repairman arrives, don’t expect much. After climbing out the window and stepping over the mounds of pigeon poop, he came back in and mumbled something undecipherable to us but we figured out he wanted to replace a part. Unsure what to do, we texted our agent who suggested a conference call with the owner. Apparently speaking Hokkien Chinese, the owner agreed to pay for whatever part the “technician” said needed replacement and after an hour they resolved the issue. For a month.
Keeping in mind that Malaysian solutions usually involve patchwork rather than replacement, last week while I was cooking the power went out. Coincidentally, the national electric company was updating the nations’ account numbering scheme and they cut off our internet banking bill pay so we had to pay manually in-store. Thinking they somehow missed our payment, we asked our Malay speaking neighbor to call the 24 hour line (which is amazing that they even have one) but they assured us they never turn off service after hours. Noticing the main circuit breaker tripped, we restarted it and after turning on the air in our master bedroom, it tripped again. Testing out everything else, it appeared something in the patchwork repair job caused the power to turn off so we texted our agent again. Unfortunately, our agent uses a co-agent who actually controls the relationship between us and the owner and she was on holiday in Europe but texted back the owner’s phone number Offering no solutions, our agent suggested calling the owner.
Accustomed to western solutions, we searched in vain for a 24 hour emergency service electrician or air con repair service and discovered there’s no word for “emergency service” in the Malay language. Disgruntled, we phoned the owner who promptly lashed out at us for calling at night. Asking us “why would you call me at 9 PM?” we explained that it’s 90 degrees with scorching humidity and we can’t sleep in the heat but her reaction was “There’s nothing anyone can do until tomorrow”. Threatening to withhold rent gets you nowhere in the developing world because there’s no such thing as litigation, small claims court or anything resembling compensation for failure of contractually agreed upon services. But unlike the west, they know the faster it’s resolved, the easier their lives will be so we slept in the small bedroom with working air con and by the time we went to see the condo manager the next day, the owner already called in asking for another “technician”.
Naturally, the normal air conditioning contractor serving the condo was unavailable that week and a unit on the 17th floor also needed similar service. Unlearning what you know about home ownership problems is essential in developing nations and while we insisted that the problem had to be electrical in nature, the manager first sent up the building handyman. Recently hired due to a shakeup with the management company, the handyman is a big burly Indian guy that barely speaks English so we demonstrated how turning on the air con in the master bedroom tripped the master power circuit breaker and he kept mumbling “air con problem”. Refusing to even consider anything involving the wiring, he went back to the manager and said we need an air con guy. Phoning the owner again, she agreed to let yet another technician come in.
Another aspect of developing world thinking is to always have a backup plan and even though the guy with the contract was unavailable, in Malaysia someone always knows someone who knows someone and the manager and handyman diverted a service person from some other appointments elsewhere on the island all the way out to our condo at the shit end of the world (they all refer to the town as being so inconvenient despite the fact that it’s only 15 kilometers from the main city). Telling us they’d be here some time during the day but had to go to apartment 17 first, another thing to lean about Malaysia is how to be a bit aggressive but not overly pushy. Using our Asian advantage once again, Diane politely argued to the Chinese manager about how hot it’s been and pushed the sense of urgency just enough and sure enough she agreed to send them up to our unit first even though the other people were waiting three days for service.
Not less than a half hour later the manager phoned and gave us an 11 AM estimate which translates loosely in Malaysia to “sometime before it gets dark“. But strangely, the phone rang at 11:15 and this time a Chinese guy came up. With due respect to the guest workers and Indians, when something in Penang gets technical, they send a Chinese guy who usually has more experience and resembles skilled tradespersons. Climbing back outside, he determined the last guy didn’t do something right and told us that a compressor failure was causing the power to trip off as a safety feature. Explaining our choices in broken English, option one was fixing the compressor with replacement parts. Not yet mastering the art of retail merchandising, this meant waiting for the next delivery truck to drive from Kuala Lumpur and the estimate was three days to two weeks. Option two was a brand new air conditioner that “might be available” the same day, Translation: Depends on whether the guy feels like sending his grunt back to town or not.
Needing permission to do anything when you’re not the owner, we asked the guy if he’d speak to the owner. Reluctantly agreeing, we used the manager as a go-between to speed up the process but she indicated her role as middleman limited her authority and she left it up to the owner. Unclear what they were discussing, the air con guy made several calls to suppliers and relayed the prices back to the owner. Taking over an hour, he goofed off and smoked cigarettes and the manager translated the gist; the owner was deciding if she’d splurge for a new air conditioner. By 1 PM, the good news came. Agreeing to pay about 1,200 ringgit (about $300 USD) and all installation costs, the owner decided the Malaysian patchwork solution was probably more costly since it was probably going to break again so she gave in. Yanking the old unit out of the wall, we went to the pool while the grunt guy drive back to town for a new unit. Meanwhile, the people who needed service were no doubt shut out for the day proving the need for mastering the art of negotiation in developing nations.
An hour later the driver returned with a new air conditioner and the installation took about an hour. Testing it a few times, the power appeared to stay on and the air was much colder than it’s been in months. Having never seen a house or condo fire in Malaysia, perhaps they wire everything so that the power simply fails when things go bad. Or maybe the developing world understands safety features more than the $50 an hour union guys in North America. Either way, let’s put this in its proper context. When we rented a house in California, the owner was nice guy who rented his deceased mother’s house because he was too busy to sell it. While we rarely had any problems, he came by once a month or so and if something went wrong, we’d need to wait until he had time to deal with it. Given how North Americans spend their lives working, good luck getting a new air conditioner delivered and installed less than 24 hours after the first one breaks.
Then there’s the logistical advantages of the developing world. Although wealthy people like to tell us that “time is money“, they’re not going broke if one of their tenants, investors or customers needs something and they take their time attending to it. Here in the developing world, time really is money and if we decided to subtract rent from one month, it would create hardships for cash strapped owners who need the rent to pay the mortgage. Willing to drop what they’re doing, Malaysians always find solutions to problems quickly and efficiently because they can’t afford not to. Imagine getting a cable guy to forego a scheduled appointment simply because you convinced them they should take you first. It’s kind of like that here and now it’s so cold in the bedroom, Diane kicks me out of bed even earlier than I want to get up so she can lower the thermostat. Granted not everyone gets a quick resolution to problems like we did but knowing how to negotiate through the bullshit goes a long way.
In part two, I’ll share some incidents where you have less control (power outages) and no control at all (overnight street drilling) but even in those situations, we think we fared better than similar cases in our homeland. And climate change is sure easier to deal with when the air conditioning is new and the infrastructure works. Here’s my lone political note for those still somehow supporting The Republican Party. Scientists just released new information showing that July 2016 was
Unlike our power outage, we humans can control global climate change but the planet simply can’t achieve anything with an official policy from the United States that denies its existence. Thankfully, sanity appears to be winning and today’s polls show a large lead for Hilary Clinton in every battleground state and she’s also comfortably ahead nationally so the joke known as the Republican nominee for president appears to be in serious trouble.
Cheers from a very hot and humid tropical nation where it hasn’t rained much this year.
Comments, sarcasm and criticism are always welcome.