Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A fine kettle that was put out to pasture

LAST week, when my house's mains tripped each time I powered up my electric kettle, I knew it was time to get a new one. Never mind if it was only a week past its one-year warranty. The last one I had, also of the same brand, lasted 13 months.

When I took it back to the shop, the salesman told me water had gone into the switch where the cord was plugged into the kettle. To get it repaired, I would have to pay as the warranty period had expired. Since the cost would be about half the price of a new kettle, he advised me to get a new one instead.

With two kettles breaking down just past their warranty periods, I was beginning to have doubts on the quality of the brand.

What about the Japanese brand that produce a wide range of kitchen appliances?, I asked. The man laughed and said the company was now into home entertainment products and no longer produced kettles. Just pick any one, he urged. The only differences would be in the aesthetics and how much electricity each would consume. There would not be much diferrence in terms of durability.

I remember the brass kettle we had when I was a kid. It lasted years before water started to leak from the joint between the spout and the body. We fixed that by stuffing a few grains of cooked rice into the pinhole and rubbing soot into it. It was then left to dry.

When we next used it, the combination of heat, moisture and soot turned the rice into a plug that sealed the joint. The kettle served us for another decade.

Of course, back then it was a long wait for the water to boil over the firewood stove. Starting a fire on moist firewood in the morning was an exercise in patience, too. Cleaning the kettle was also a dirty experience. You scrubbed it with wet ash to remove soot from the body and by the time you were done, you would think twice before calling the kettle black.

To remove stubborn soot -- stains made worse by cooking oil drips -- wet river sand could do the job but the shine would only last two days at most if you used a firewood stove, and twice that period if you used a dapur arang (charcoal stove).

When my father brought home an electric kettle of a British make one day in the '80s, we retired Old Brassy. We could now do other things while the water was coming to a boil. We did not have to keep feeding firewood into the stove or fanning the flame so that the water would boil faster.

With the electric kettle came the electric iron, the electric rice cooker and the gas stove.

In those days, modern appliances were a luxury. Expensive by the day's standards but the products were also made to last. Usually you did not have to buy new ones unless they were beyond repair. There were also many repair shops back then.

Today, salvaging faulty household appliances is a different kettle of fish. Unless you are able to do it yourself, you would think twice about sending damaged ones for repair. Not only is it cheaper to get a replacement, you would be lucky to find a repair shop that will do the job without overcharging you.

Technology has brought with it the conveniences of living but the economies of scale have also made some things so cheap that you can afford to use and discard them like paper tissues. It makes you wonder if that has not contributed to your wasteful ways at times.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Fee defaulters make living in high-rise condo a nightmare

HOW do you get errant condominium owners to settle their maintenance fees and charges? A friend who was living in a medium-cost condominium in Kepong asked me this at dinner the other night. The condominium's management committee, of which he is a member, had been grappling with the issue for years. Because of insufficient funds to manage the high-rise, everything is falling apart.

The lifts frequently broke down and garbage not collected regularly. Last week, the security company quit and two foreigners who could barely understand Bahasa Malaysia or English were engaged to man the gates as a stopgap measure.

The problems that he was facing are nothing new, I said. They were as old as the Strata Title Act introduced in 1985 to spell out the roles and responsibilities of property owners and the managers for the proper management of a stratified property.

Even after the Building and Common Property (Maintenance and Management) Act 2007 was gazetted and the Commissioner of Buildings (COB) established to adjudicate recovery procedures against errant property owners, problems related to non-payment of maintenance fees and charges continue to plague highrise owners.

New high-rises do better. Some developers make property buyers pay maintenance fees and charges up to a year in advance to stave off problems years down the road. But the older premises continue to suffer because a vicious circle has developed. Insufficient fee collection leads to poor service which in turn causes more residents to stop paying until maintenance comes to a halt and everyone suffers.

Right now, building managers employ various means to collect debts. A common one is to bar defaulters from driving into and parking their cars in the compound by not renewing their electronic entry cards until payment is made. Another method is to cut the water supply to defaulters' homes. Although the legality of the latter is questionable, some swear it is quite effective in recovering bad debts.

The best bet, I told my friend, is to turn to the COB for help. Under the law, defaulters can be fined RM5,000 upon conviction and RM50 daily until payment is made. If an errant property owner has owed the maintenance fees for over six months, the COB can issue a warrant of attachment on his apartment. If he still refuses to pay up within a given time, the assets within his property can be auctioned. And in the case of a badly managed property, the COB can also appoint a professional property manager to take over from the errant management committee.

My friend said that it was easier said than done and wondered if the COB had the means -- logistically -- to deal with his problem swiftly and effectively given the fact that more buildings are coming up in the city, and along with them, new problems are surfacing each day.

He was also sceptical that the management committee -- which comprised resident volunteers -- would want to take it to the COB for fear of retaliation. As much as they hate bad debts, they fear bad hats more. Threats to life and limb are real, he said.

He could move, I said, into a landed property where there would be no fee payment issues. Or pray for the culprits to mend their ways, or move out. Until that happens, he has to live with the deterioration that is fast setting in and turning his condominium block into a slum. The choice is his, really.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Getting more than you bargain for at cheap sales

JUST before the Chinese New Year, I decided to update my wardrobe.

A sale was held at one of the shopping complexes near my house and I decided to check it out.

I had always wanted checked short-sleeved shirts of a particular brand because of the ruggedness associated with it but the prices were always out of reach.

Since I was not willing to pay through my nose, I had to drool every time I saw a new shirt being promoted.

When I saw the shirts that I had been dreaming of were only priced at RM19 instead of RM90 at the sale, I was overjoyed.

I reasoned that at that price, I could not even buy a piece of kain pelikat to make one shirt. So I bought a dozen.

After the first wash, the seams of some broke loose and I had to double stitch them.

Then the threads that held the buttons together started to give way. I had to stitch them by hand.

Thankfully, my sewing skills were still intact and I could still thread a needle.

My only worry now is whether the fabric will hold. Old stock? Rejects? Your guess is as good as mine.

It's not about shirts alone, watch out for the shoes, too. When they offer huge discounts on branded ones, be careful.

Unless you know your shoes well, watch your step even if they fit -- or you will be stopped in your tracks in months to come just like what happened to my wife a couple of years ago when she bought a pair during a shoe sale at a hotel in town.

We were so taken in by the supermarket crowd rummaging through the upmarket brands that we joined in as well.

When the salesgirl found my wife a pair she liked among the mound of odd-sized ones, I was so thankful.

When I was told that it only costs a quarter of its RM500 price tag, I was so happy I could kiss her feet.

But in less than three months of wearing it, my wife found that the left sole had cracked.

Even the cobbler was not sure how to fix it.

Later, when I asked another shoe salesgirl why soles gave way like my wife's pair did, she said because the shoes were near the end of its product life when we bought it.

The bargain we got turned out to be the price we paid for, being taken in by the cheap sale pitch.

Retailing is not what it seems and the price tags you see may not reflect what the products are worth.

Only sound reasoning and experience will help, but with marketing science staying one step ahead all the time, you don't have much of a chance to get away with a bargain if the marketers can help it. There is always a price to pay.

Ever wonder why you find checkout counters selling stuff like sweets and other small fast-moving goods that you often buy but could do without?

Or have you asked why some supermarkets place the more pricey products at eye level while the cheaper ones are displayed at knee-height?

Go figure that one out.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Trees have to be maintained for motorists' safety

LAST Thursday marked the anniversary of my father's death 15 years ago.

My father died while travelling in Jalan Tun Razak when a thick branch of the yellow flame tree, one of the fast-growing trees planted in a bid to quickly beautify the city years earlier, fell on the car he was in during heavy rain.

The impact crushed the roof of the passenger's seat of the Datsun 120Y where my father was seated and killed him instantly. My brother and mother, who were seated in the back, were also injured. Ironically, the incident happened a stone's throw away from the Kuala Lumpur Hospital. They were returning from Johor after visiting my sister. The car was driven by my father's close friend and long-time trucking buddy Lee, who was not injured.

I was told that when they arrived in Kuala Lumpur, it was pouring and the rain got worse when they were in Jalan Tun Razak. As there was no place to seek shelter and being an experienced driver, Lee decided to keep to the left lane to avoid posing a danger to the other vehicles. However, his decision proved to be one which he would regret for years to come. Although my family and I had put the incident behind us, come March each year when the hot spell brings on violent thunderstorms in the afternoons, I avoid driving in the rain and tell others to do the same. If I was caught in a storm, I would instinctively plot a path where there were few trees, doing so with calculated risk that the roads would not be jammed. Even when traffic was smooth, I would still switch my attention between the road and the swaying tree branches overhead.

I worry especially for those driving along certain stretches of Jalan Mahameru, Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman and several other roads in the city where the Angsana trees planted a decade ago have grown tall and have a thick foliage. I keep my fingers crossed that their branches will not snap from the sheer weight of their rain-drenched leaves and land on some unfortunate motorist trapped in the jam.

Each year, around this time when rain is a welcome respite from the hot spell, I pray that the contractors tasked with maintaining the city's greenery had done their job diligently and not like what one reader who wrote to this paper last Monday had claimed. According to the reader, the roots of a tree had allegedly been cut so that the pavement around its base could be levelled. The tree had toppled and crashed onto a car. Thankfully, no one was hurt in the incident. Otherwise, there could be a family out there who would be grieving as mine did on March 4, 1995, with City Hall's public liability insurers claiming it was an act of God that caused my father's death.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What does it take to stop taxi drivers overcharging?

HAVE some of Kuala Lumpur's taxi drivers become festive robbers?

That was the impression two taxi drivers gave my wife and children last week when they decided to take a trip to Suria KLCC from Wangsa Maju.

One wanted to charge RM20 to go to KLCC while another, hailed outside KLCC, wanted double the amount for the return trip.

Neither wanted to use the meter and one scolded my wife for not agreeing to his request since it was Chinese New Year.

Fortunately for the unscrupulous taxi drivers, my wife and children did not take down their vehicle registration numbers.

When cab fares were revised not long ago, one thought the daylight robbery would stop.

Apparently, it hasn't. And it may take a while if the behaviour of the two drivers is any indication.

Perhaps it's a festive thing -- like how the kuih seller raises the price of ang koo (turtle-shaped dumplings) by 10 sen each or the fishmonger charging RM10 more for each kilogramme of prawns.

Those who provide a service seem to think it is alright to raise prices, knowing that they will get away with it because of high demand during the festive period.

In my wife's case, she decided not to use the taxis and waited for buses instead although it took her and the children two station changes.

They also had to walk some distance under the blazing sun.

But there is never a shortage of victims for the two rogue taxi drivers. Some of their victims, like tourists visiting KL for the first time, could be caught unawares.

Sometimes, even locals unfamiliar with other alternatives are forced to put up with it.

What will it take to rid the city of these unscrupulous taxi drivers?

Short of noting their vehicle registration numbers and reporting them to the Commercial Vehicle Licensing Board -- a process that not many are keen to undertake because of the potential disappointment it presents if the complaints department cannot be reached -- is there a more sensible way to discourage taxi drivers from overcharging?

Recently, I saw a number of stickers on some taxis which stated: "This is a metered taxi. Haggling is prohibited. Request for your receipt".

I hope this is a sign of good things to come and not just lip service so that when you flag down a taxi, you need not do so with a silent prayer that the cabbie who acknowledges your wave is not out to "rob" you.

Back in the early 1990s, courtesy campaigns were held to educate KL's taxi drivers in good driving habits and the importance of courtesy and honesty.

We can see today how far we have succeeded. Sure, those driving old Peugeots and Datsuns do not roam the streets anymore and most vehicles are air-conditioned now. But the bad habits of some taxi drivers still linger.

I have met enough city taxi drivers to know of their hardships in making ends meet daily. It's a constant struggle which depends on luck, traffic conditions and passengers.

High rental, fuel costs and bad jams can cause them to end the day with a pittance to take home.

However, despite their daily struggle, there are taxi drivers who manage to earn an honest living without having to resort to overcharging. So, if they can do it, why can't the others?

These honest cabbies certainly do not deserve having their reputation ruined by the black sheep in their midst.