Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Australia 2

(Follows "Australia 1").

Glimpses of Malaysia and Australia – from the perspective of an Indian-born.
As a part of saying our goodbyes before leaving for Malaysia, I met a senior physician in Bombay. When he heard that I am going to Malaysia he expressed surprise and asked, “Why are you going to Malaysia? These are such corrupt countries”. His statement was probably a generic one for south-east Asian countries… I did not react.
A few days later we landed at Kota Bharu. The university had arranged for accommodation for three days in a respectable hotel. During this period we were expected to prepare for the move into a house allotted by the university. The university owned some houses which were rented to employees who wished to avail of them. My good friend Amol was already working there, and helped us get the essentials – a refrigerator, washing machine, gas stove and more. The house had a basic telephone instrument – all I had to do was to go to the Telecom office, complete some formalities and the phone was functional. For the year 1994, this was a big surprise for me. But this was just the beginning. The local grocery shop also functioned as an agent for domestic gas. All we had to do was to pay a deposit equivalent to the cost of one refill, plus the cost of the first cylinder (bottle) and that was all. With recent Bombay and Nashik experiences so fresh in our minds, this was another shock.
The university also had a scheme for employees to purchase cars – a loan at a ridiculously low rate of interest. For expatriate employees the EMI (equated monthly instalment) was calculated for full repayment over the period of one contract of three years. University jobs are government jobs in Malaysia (Ministry of Education). That a government employer runs such a scheme was a novelty.  We booked a car – there was a short (about five weeks) waiting period, during which I had to obtain a Malaysian Driver’s Licence. My road experience in India was limited to a two wheeler (Enfield Bullet) and I had no international licence. There was a written test, driving lessons and a road test. The day I finished the driving test I went to the Transport Office, armed with the test result, photographs and copies of my passport. In five minutes I had my licence in my hands. This was indeed a shock.
Expatriate workers were subject to an “Immigration Levy” in Malaysia, but University staff were exempt. However, the exemption became operational retrospectively after the filing of the first tax returns. With great apprehension (natural for an Indian!) I went to the tax office. The officer studied my documents and said, “Well, you see, I am on leave tomorrow, and a weekend follows. You will have to come on the next working day”. I thought, “ah – at last… this the beginning!” on my next visit, the receptionist began with “the officer has gone for a medical check-up today, he is not well”. I prepared myself for multiple trips to the tax office or… Just then the lady said, “wait! Is your name Avinash?”. I affirmed it was. “Oh – my apologies – here’s your letter”. She handed me a sealed envelope with my name on it, along with the day and time I was expected to collect it.
I could not see corruption as an Indian understood it. This is not to say that it does not exist. Greed is a human attribute, and no place can be exempt. Compared to the Indian milieu, in Malaysia it does not hit the common man at every step. It is possible that in the small city of Kota Bharu, expatriates were held in esteem, because the only expats living there (at least then) were doctors, either at the University or at the General Hospital (Ministry of Health).
Malaysia is a “developing country”. It has its rich and poor; and there is a significant gap between the very rich and the very poor. Yet, the basic necessities of life are available to everyone. In Kota Bharu there were hardly any beggars. Nor were there any in other cities. Metropolitan areas like Kuala Lumpur did have some, but far fewer than you would see in Mumbai.
Most Government and public utility offices were pleasant. And they were air-conditioned. Hardly anyone honked on the road, even with traffic jams. There are two rainy seasons – effectively, it rains all round the year. Yet there are no potholes on the roads. Public toilets were generally very clean, even at petrol stations on highways. Driving 500 km to Kuala Lumpur in a day was a pleasure, even though a major part of the road was in mountainous territory. Telephone failures were extremely rare, and power failures were attended to with great speed.
During the economic crisis (allegedly engineered by George Soros), Malaysia suffered, but not to the extent of Thailand or Korea. Prices did go up, especially those of imported goods. Some industries suffered, notably hospitality. But Malaysia overcame that by heavily promoting domestic tourism. Day-to-day life was largely unaffected.
During this five-year period of my job in Kota Bharu, we visited India twice. By 1997 the winds of globalisation and liberalisation were blowing strong in India. I do not understand concepts like GDP and GNP. But what I experienced was this : most prices were comparable to those in terms of dollars, but the income of the common man did not keep pace with them. If I had been a medical college teacher in India in those days, I would have been disappointed. I heard that private tuitions would take care of the inflation, but private tuitions in medical colleges had other undercurrents that I did not find compatible with my temperament. (This is not a criticism of many of my friends, nor is it ‘stereotyping’. No misunderstanding please!)
During later visits I realised that things had not really changed. In a ‘public utility’ office in Pune, a clerk bluntly told me : “go to that man outside the office (an ‘agent’) – he will guide you”. Obviously there was a ‘surcharge’ (read ‘bribe’) involved.
As I said earlier, we reached Australia in 2002. According to the rules then, we had Malaysian driving licences, and were required to pass only a ‘written’ (computerised) test. I wentin for the test, completed it and came out to see the officer. He checked my results on the computer and told me to pay the fee for the licence, the licence would be sent by post. And it did come in less than a week. After we got our PR visa (Permanent Residence, like the US Green Card) we purchased a house on loan. No ‘black and white’ there, the entire transaction was conducted by an authorised ‘settlement agent’ in the presence of a bank officer. Later we needed to add a room to our house. We got the plans certified by a licenced engineer and submitted them to the planning officer of the local council (municipality). The planning officer pointed out that our extension did not fit into certain rules and advised a slight modification. We did that and resubmitted the plans. The officer informed us that the new plan was OK, and that we shall receive the building permission by post within a week. That was all. Income tax refunds are credited to the bank account within a week. The healthcare system works by rules. One cannot have a pathology test or a specialist appointment without the referral letter from a GP (family physician). Prescription medicines are dispensed strictly by prescription and the sale is recorded on a computer. This is not to say that the healthcare system is perfect – but any shortcomings are those of the system, mostly due to shortage of medical manpower.
Contrast this with my very recent experience in India : During one visit I needed to take antibiotics (I usually avoid them!). I went to the chemist and asked for the antibiotic. It is my usual practice to tell the chemist that I am a doctor and that this is a self-prescription, and give the chemist my Indian registration number. When I did this on this occasion, the chemist remarked : “Oh that’s OK. Agreed, you are honest and want to keep my record straight. But even if I keep all records, what happens? The inspector visits my shops, takes 5000 Rs,, picks up some expensive deodorants and perfumes… that’s it”.
I often hear from my friends that all this will change. There is now a mass awakening. I have heard of this ‘change’ for the last forty years. Some thirty years ago, I had a flat. One day the neighbours informed me that the municipal officer would visit within a week to assess the taxable area of each flat. It was ‘agreed’ that each flat owner should contribute 50 rupees (not a small sum in the 1970s!) and in return the officer would reduce the taxable area. I said that I would rather pay tax on the correct area. A friend of mine gave me sagacious advice : “You are honest, fine! Don’t accept bribes. But there is no escape from giving bribes”. Recently I heard that in one of the smaller municipalities, the ‘going rate’ for approaching a corporator for any work is Rs 7000, and that people rarely go to the municipal offices for their work – they approach the corporator!
I often wonder – how many of these people wore Anna Hajare caps during the recent tamasha! Nice to see Anna targeting the big, corrupt politicians, but who will stop the corruption at the common man’s level? I am sure that the sum total of the ‘common man’s corruption’ far exceeds the amounts involved in Adarsh and CWG! Has anybody bothered to imagine this?
I guess one gets ‘used to’ this lifestyle after a while. Even ‘clean’ persons can live in such conditions, maybe with some frustration, a lot of irritation and a phenomenal loss of time and energy. After all, most of friends are ‘straight’, and they manage somehow. Recently in Nashik, after just one day I developed a philosophical attitude to the harassment by autorickshaw drivers. Caste politics seems to get more and more bitter day-by-day. Even in Orkut communities where I follow the discussions regularly, bitter casteism raears its ugly head despite ‘control’ by moderators.
As I have emphasized, I came to Australia by chance, not by predetermined choice. When my friends ask me about a return to the land of my birth, the answer is a sad, unfortunate “no”. I just do not have the energy and the will to accept that bitterness.
Do I still miss the land of my birth? Am I proud of my culture, my heritage? The answer to all these questions is an emphatic YES… But with reservations – there is a large canvas of background, an evolution of a persona. More about that later, soon!

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