Wednesday, 1 April 2009


Korupsi is Indonesian for corruption. Before you hammer me for "targetting" Indonesians, let me acknowledge that corruption is alive and well in Malaysia. Look what happened in the recent UMNO elections. A friend of mine said his son gave up working as an engineer to free-lance as a photographer because the son couldn't live with the dirty habits of the construction industry in Penang.

Corruption can be in many forms. For instance, our Indonesia tour guide suggested that we visit a breath-taking waterfall near Brestagi which is a hill resort. We were all excited. And then came the bombshell. We will each have to pay an extra 50,000 rupiah. Why? Because it is not on the agreed itinerary. He of course put it nicely "not compulsory" ("bukan paksa"). He asked the group whether we were willing to pay. A couple of students immediately said no. So, we visited the famous fruit/vegetable market in Brestagi and then had lunch (meager but not bad). And then we were told that was it. The whole afternoon nothing. What about the visit to a scenic spot on top of the hill which is part of the itinerary? Sorry, there's a landslide and condition is too dangerous for buses (which was true).

So, the whole afternoon was free and easy. There's a great pool at the hotel. But not a single person in it. I wondered why? At 5 pm, I put on my shorts, walked to the pool and jumped it. I was out of the pool in 10 seconds (honest). It was freezing cold. Then so we had dinner (very simple dishes but OK). And then my colleague told us he had taken the Angkut Kota (a minivan-type public transport) to Brestagi town. And suggested we ask the bus to drop us all in town after dinner. So he went to talk to the tour guide. What do think happened? The guide asked for money of course. Reason? They are given only a limited amount for petrol so we have to compensate them. Ghani kicked up a fuss. The tour guide then invited the representative of the Penang agent which organised our trip (who accompanied us to learn the ropes, I think) for private consultation. And so it was agreed. But we were not happy about being force to pay (even if the Penang agent was paying) so we told them to forget it. So only Ghani and I took the angkut kota to the town which is less than 10 minutes away and cost only 2,000 rupiah (less than one ringgit) each.

Next morning, we were told the happy news that the guide would take us to the hotspring. Our antenna started twitching. And we were right. The Penang rep had agreed to pay another RM200 just for this little side excursion which actually is on the road back to Medan. So, is this corruption? Our suspicion is that the tour companies gives the driver and tour guide a specific amount for fuel so these guys will find ingenious ways to make some extra buck. This was actually the culmination of our outrage with both the Indonesian and the Penang tour agents (we were already a little unhappy with them for various reasons; including having to insist on providing another room for the students).

But this is not a tactic unique to Indonesian tour guides. You will find a little more sophistication with tour guides in China. So can you see why not many westerners visiting Medan and Lake Toba?

During lunch, I sat with four students and asked them to assess the success of the trip. Thumbs down for the tour agents on both sides of the Straits. The hotels in Medan and Brestagi were rated good. Shopping was very good (cheap lah). Food was rated good. Brestagi was rated nice for it's nature and rolling hills - but not as nice as Kundasang at the foot of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah.
Minang food. Very tasty. And colourful.

The academic component was rated "not good". Language was a problem because the Indonesian language is very very different from Malay. The Indonesian students were all much older (30 years and above compared to early 20s for the Malaysian group) so there was a generation gap. All of the Indonesian students are working (and mostly have families) so have different priorities. They were more interested to just get the project done with rather then explore the frontiers.
USM-USU students having group discussion at the USU campus

So, in future should we bring students back for this type of study tour? The USM students said No. Or if come, don't really need to work with local university students - they felt they didn't benefit much from the interaction compared to working with the UniSA students last year.

My take is that it is still a valuable experience for our students because it opens up their minds to other cultures, way of life, values and belief systems. I didn't go with earlier groups (which used USU bus for their travel) so I can't compare. Of course, given the choice they would rather visit Australia.

For me, this trip (and all my trips) are always opening up new vistas. I enjoyed knowing the students better. One girl ate three bowls of porridge one morning (plus other stuff) so I wondered why - must be something to do with her roots. Unfortunately this is already at the end of their studies so perhaps such trips should be earlier in their study programme.
Me in a becak (motorised trishaw) reacting to a bump on the road. Shared the ride with two students.

My biggest nightmare was the number of plastic bags collected in the course of their shopping. Endless. Despite my constant harrassment, they ignored me and continued to collect plastic bags for every single purchase. I had a small victory on the last afternoon when I pointedly asked one student to figure out how many plastic bags she had collected in the last two days. She removed the plastic bag from her latest purchase and gave it back the to shop assistant who was taken by surprise. I think we need to set some policies and guidelines for future travels by students and staff - responsible travel.
Shopping paradise. Environmental nightmare. Notice all the plastic bags?
See the colour board at the back? It's used widely to send congratulatory messages such as during wedding dinner. I had thought it was a good practice thinking that it is fresh flowers. Actually, the all made up of small plastic flowers. I hope they reuse them. Quite expensive (for them) like 300,000 rupiahs each board. Only for the rich.

AirAsia was delayed for more than two hours on the return flight. So all passengers got a snack box (cardboard box with 2 pieces of kueh and a plastic cup of drinking water). Every single one thrashed the empty box and plastic cup after eating. Except one! Guess who?


ToPoL said...

Interesting post!

Abe said...


Abe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Peter Foo said...

Needless to say, he is nobody else but the author la ....