A Tree Hit my Brother, or Malaysia at her ‘best’

Last week, my brother told me a story that left me unsure whether to smirk at him or shake my head at human nature.

First of all, he casually announces on Skype: “Don’t tell Mum and Dad yet, but I had a road accident.”

As someone who’s suffered the ordeal of three accidents myself (two of them were not my fault!), naturally I sat up with, “What? What happened? Are you hurt? Tell!”

Thank God he seemed all right save for slight whiplash, and after making sure he’d had it checked I started bombarding him with questions like the former nosy journalist I was. I had to egg him for answers, because my bro was being thick-headedly evasive.

“A tree hit me,” he drawled. At first he implied a tree had fallen across the road. And that he was alone.

Turns out he was just being a male too sheepish to admit he’d been driving a car with a group of friends, and they were listening and laughing at this catchy song named Black and Yellow (Warning: Known to Cause Embarassing Motor Accidents) for about 30 seconds when my bro Mart suddenly noticed he’d left the brake lock on. He couldn’t brake when he needed, and not wanting to collide into the other cars, he went over a curb, hoping the gravel there would slow his vehicle.

Not really. What did stop the car was the big mother-effing tree that embraced him like the arms of Mama Nature. He was too shocked to do anything, like, swerve.


The hood was completely totalled, and what made my bro – a Christian church youth counseller – feel especially bad was that one of the young people in the back hit his head after forgetting to belt up. Apparently the teen even blacked out a bit, and afterwards went on Facebook to change his profile picture to a badge declaring the words ‘Wear Your Seat Belt!’.

But thankfully, no one was seriously hurt.

“Oh it’s not over yet,” my bro wearily added.

The Vultures

As is always the case in Malaysia when you have an accident, the roaming towtruck drivers magically swooped in on the scene, offering to pull the vehicle for a discreet price to be worked out with the insurance people. My bro however had already called his dealer who would send their own towtruck. The street towtruck drivers however persisted, rattling off in Chinese, a language my brother doesn’t understand. When pestered, he claims he held up a hand to firmly but politely tell them in English he did not need their services.

One driver however took offense and started mocking him, thinking he was being snobbish. “Ohhhhh, like that one ah, ah you? Like that one, ah?” my bro mimicked for me, to my amusement.

The guy kept heckling my bro until the police arrived. The cops spent time directing traffic along and by their presence, shutting up the hecklers. My distressed bro was so grateful he later approached the policemen to thank them, only to be startled when they casually asked him for a little “contribution” for their hard work.

Unsurprised, I asked Mart what did he do.

“I pretended not to hear them and walked away,” he said.

Then the dealer’s Insurance Dude arrived, and he accompanied my bro to the police station to lodge a report. Before they went in however, Insurance Dude turned to my brother to say, “Oh by the way, this accident involves a 300 ringgit fine.” A whopping sum equivalent to US$100 or GBP£60. “But if you want, I can arrange to reduce it to 200, no problem.”

Mart, however, was sceptical. He hadn’t asked for a reduction, and what was the reason for it? My bro said No, that’s okay, he was in the wrong and he will pay the summons/fine.

Not the End of the Story

My bro's patented 'What the heck are you doing?' look. He says this to me a lot for some reason.

So Mart goes in to lodge the police report where they ask him the usual questions of how the accident could have possibly happened etc.

Everything squared, the cop turned to my bro to say, “Oh, by the way, if you want I can reduce the summons to 150 ringgit, no problem.”

That’s when Mart, telling me this on Skype chat, scrunches up his face to ask me, “Is there something going on in the air here!?”

A little background: The Malaysian government, promising to crack down on corruption and address the bruised reputation of the police force, have been running a series of anti-rasuah (bribery) campaigns. They spent money on anti-corruption commercials. Vowed to revamp the Anti-Corruption Agency (which has since changed his name some years ago). They’ve tokenly charged a couple of people for giving and receiving bribes, and sometimes hauled in some high-ranking blokes in government agencies for corruption – although rarely the Big Fish, one might notice. All to deter what is often seen as the Number One Problem in Malaysia.

To put this into perspective, in the 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, Malaysia ranked 56 out of some 178 countries – beating Cuba, Rwanda, Italy, Romania, Brazil and Greece, but losing to nations like  Saudi Arabia, Poland, South Korea, China and the US and UK.

For a while, Malaysian policemen were even required to wear ‘I am Anti-Bribe’ badges on their uniforms. Judging by the various accounts going around, this didn’t stop irony-loving cops from asking for “contributions” from motorists anyway. If these accounts were mistaken, there does  seem to be an awful lot of these stories going around.

But sad to say, it’s fairly common for cops to stop a motorist further down the road for, say, speeding, and for the motorist to agree and pay something to “make the problem go away”. It happens so often it just doesn’t surprise me any more.

The Answer

In any case, my bro was firmly against bribery and had the sinking feeling the policeman was going to take a cut somewhere from that “150 ringgit, no problem”. He tried to say No.

Naturally the cop asked why.

“This isn’t bribery, don’t worry!” the cop insisted in Malay. “This is how it’s done. It’s all legal. You don’t have to worry.”

I asked my bro what did he do. He was alone in a police station, in shock, whip lashed, battered, bewildered, a new father anxious to return to his baby and wife. He wasn’t exactly earning that much with his salary either.

He finally let the cop have his way.

“I wasn’t sure what to do,” he sighed. He sounded ashamed of himself.



Filed under Family, Malaysia

7 responses to “A Tree Hit my Brother, or Malaysia at her ‘best’

  1. Thank you for sharing, Chris.

    When even Christian youth counselors are forced to give into corruption, you know that it has well and truly hit endemic levels.

    Whenever my parents face a situation like this, their response is simple but effective: ‘I’m sorry, sir. I’m a Christian, and I cannot be involved in ‘rasuah’. If you can let me go, please let me go. Otherwise, I’ll pay the full amount.’

    More often than not, the officer is shamed by this, and he lets my parents off. It is a good way to extricate oneself from a difficult situation without compromising one’s principles.

    Tell your brother to give it a shot if there’s ever a next time.

  2. By and large, corruption in Malaysia is not a political problem. It’s not even a law-enforcement problem. Rather, it’s a cultural problem.

    Malaysia, in many respects, is still a feudal country practicing a shame culture, which is in stark contrast to the West, which practices a guilt culture.

    Shame is external; guilt is internal.

    Shame: “If I don’t give this bribe, I won’t be able to secure this business contract, and I’ll be so ashamed at the next family gathering.”

    Guilt: “If I give this bribe, I will feel guilty. I won’t be able to live with myself.”

    That’s not to say that the line between shame and guilt is clearly mapped out. It’s just that both Asian and Western cultures place different emphasis on shame and guilt and do so at different times.

    This is the thing that the Corruption Perceptions Index doesn’t quite spell out — it uses a Western-centric methodology and treats corruption as an aberration in culture.

    In Malaysia’s case, that couldn’t be further from the truth! It is, in fact, the culture, not an aberration. There’s never been a point in Malaysian history where the public service wasn’t corrupt.

    • I agree that it is indeed the culture in Malaysia. During my time as a reporter, I remember struggling to differentiate and resist attempts from people and companies to “gift” reporters with things, favours, lunches in the hopes of good coverage.

      Some might call that outright bribery, but I’ve heard others argue that it’s just a token of goodwill, even something related to Chinese or Malaysian custom. And where does one draw the line when it comes to angpow (money packets) and Deepavali hampers given out by politicians and companies to the public during the holiday periods? Do you justify it to yourself and say, “It’s alright to take these since it’s the festival season”? Reporters are bombarded with these offers, day in and day out, and it doesn’t help that they – like the police or much of the civil service – are not well paid. Perhaps that’s why whenever I do bring back these hampers, I usually distribute it to my colleagues at the office.

      One time, I remember drawing the line at a press lunch for reporters organised by a developer. The developer distributed a press release to publicise their new housing, and after the lunch, their representatives actually gave out angpows to the reporters. And it wasn’t even Chinese New Year! I remember being aghast, and when people weren’t looking, I stuck the packet under my plate and left. “There,” I thought. “That solved.”

      Which made it all the more embarrassing when an hour later, back in my office, one of the developer’s representatives hurried in, waving my angpow. “You forgot this!”

      I ended up donating the angpow to charity organisations, and since then, it’s become the practice for me and another reporter colleague to donate “gifts” like these to charity. I’ve tried declining politicians when that happens, but I also had to remember that as a journalist I had to maintain cordial relations with these people and refusing their gifts might be considered an insult. It’s troubling, but that’s how it is in Malaysia.

      Bribing the police rank and file is another thing. One has to remember a Malaysian cop is paid pitifully low, and some choose to ‘supplement their income’ somewhere – usually with the cooperation of folks who are okay with perpetuating this culture. I’m not a saint. There are times I’ve been weak and times when I pretended to be a dumb female and pretended not to understand what the cops wanted 😉

      As for my brother, you have to remember that he was in shock and not in the right frame of mind at the police station. I may be biased, but he is one of the few I know who works hard to stick to his strict principles. He’s the guy who frowns on lying and swearing, who – sometimes annoyingly! – tells me to stick to the speed limit, who dutifully slows down at a traffic light turning amber when many Malaysians would rush through. If he had to pay the full fine, I believe he would even now, now that he’s had time to think.

      I suspect that when he agreed to accept that “lower fine” it was because for a moment he actually did believe that police officer who claimed the reduction was legal. When you’re in a weakened state, it is very hard to resist the easy way out or remember what is the right and Christian thing to do, and frankly I don’t blame him. One lives and learns.

  3. DebE

    Thanks for this piece. It was a real eye-opener. What a sheltered world I live in. Corruption and bribery usually seem to be the stuff of movies to me, but I see that many people live it as a reality every day.

    • Thank you for dropping by again and reading!

      Yeah, I was speaking the other day to my US friend who made me realise this kind of culture was pretty much alien to them. I didn’t realise that until recently, or how I had been taking it for granted when I shouldn’t.

  4. I can’t blame your brother – what would I do in that situation, right? Yeah, I really think it has something to do with culture too. Maybe I’m just too Western etc, but I really cannot stand the feudal mentality at all. So much so that I just want to escape it 😉 Is your bro better now? I’m just glad he isn’t seriously injured! THough he should take care of his neck and have it x-rayed or something.

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