Modern Times

CLOSE TO THE Equator the stimulation level is low. In moving from Tokyo to Kuala Lumpur, latitude 3 degrees north, my family changed from the hvperactivity and constant challenge of the super—First World to a hazier, more detached life.

There are newspapers here in Malaysia, but it’s quick work to read them, since, with a few brave exceptions, they embrace the government’s view that news should be “constructive” and upbeat. Several times a month the foreign papers are kept out; in my mailbox I find a mimeographed notice: “This issue has been detained by the Police.” On the shortwave radio the English-language broadcasts are dominated by Radio Moscow (“ . . . health levels are also rising rapidly in the Ukraine ...”), which drowns out the feeble BBC and Voice of America. After a few weeks of being sheltered from news and controversy, I hesitated to open the first box of magazines and books that arrived, by sea mail, from home. All those opinions! All that heat and passion about trends I didn’t even know were under way. I was surprised that the box, with the magazines stacked on top of one another, didn‘t melt down.

Isolated, we are thrown back on our own resources. We read books straight through—no one is going to call to interrupt us, and mostly the phone doesn’t work anyway. We take our children to see jungles and beaches, and we watch the monsoon-season squalls blow across the sky. I cling to my one true lifeline to the rest of the world.

In the old, colonial days the expatriate’s lifeline from Malaya was the Singapore packet ship, bringing tinned biscuits and the weekly mail. In the “old,” pre-computer days it was the Telex machine, expensive but quick. On arrival in Malaysia I initially relied on the Telex, scrawling dispatches in big block letters and taking my sheaf of papers to a downtown office, where I could chat with the Telex girls. Now I have “advanced to a more stylish and direct connection.

My new lifeline is MCI Mail, the computer network that in theory provides a cheap and immediate link to anyone with a computer and a modem, anywhere in the world. In the United States using it was quick and painless; here the gap between theory and reality threatens to swallow me up.

Malaysia has a brand-new “public data network.” called Maypac, which in principle allows me to call a number in Kuala Lumpur to be connected with MCI Mail. But for obscure reasons MCI and Maypac couldn’t make connections during my first two months of trying. My fallback plan was to attach my modem, brought from America, to my home phone and, on the days the phone was working, to call MCI’s number in the United States. But the connection, via satellite, was too fuzzy. To make matters worse, on my second try the modem blew up when my 240-to-110-volt transformer failed. I tried another modem, bought in Japan, which ran on batteries and did not explode. This one clamped onto the rounded telephone handsets that are standard in the United States and Japan. But residential phones in Malaysia are squared off, and the modem won’t fit.

I refused to be denied the convenience of a modern computerized link. I learned that Singapore has a data network—and no disagreements with MCI. From pay phones in Malaysia you can reach Singapore, and the pay phones have rounded handsets onto which the modem, with some shoving, will fit. I signed up with the Singapore network. My preparations were complete.

This is how I now use advanced technology to keep in touch: I leave home in the morning dragging a big blue canvas sack. In the sack arc the clamp-on modem, a small Radio Shack computer, a modem-to-computer cable, and eighteen to twenty pounds of Malaysian coins. The coins are each worth twenty sen, or about eight American cents, and they’re thick and heavy. One of them is good for seven seconds of connection to Singapore, so I need them in bulk. When my supply gets low, I stop at Bank Bumiputra Malaysia (“Bank of the Original Sons of the Soil of Malaysia”), where I can walk in with a 100-ringgit ($40) bill and walk out an hour later with my coins.

I go to one of Kuala Lumpur’s busiest streets and set up shop under the sign that says TELEFON. (Malaysia has perfected simplified English spelling. Where you go after high school is to kalej; a big undertaking is a projek.) The modem goes on top of the phone; the coins get piled in big mounds wherever I can find a flat surface. The ones left over sag in my pants pockets, making me list.

I raise my right knee and brace it against the bottom of the phone, rest the computer on my now-horizontal right thigh, and connect the cable. I’m ready to begin. I dial the number in Singapore, wait to hear the computer tone, and slam the handset down into the modem before the tone cuts off and my first twenty sen’s worth of time expires. Then comes the hard part: shoveling twenty-sen pieces into the phone every seven seconds, and digging spares out of my pockets when the mounds dwindle down, while trying to type the commands necessary to make contact, “NQJFXPM03106004759” is only the first part of the elaborate sign-on code. Every four or five minutes the phone’s coin box fills up and I have to break contact, disassemble my equipment, and move to the next phone in line. I’ve chosen this location because I don’t know any other with so many phones in a row.

There is a bus stop right by my telephones, and a hangout favored by offduty police. To the regulars I have become an institution, a major spectacle, a dependably hilarious diversion to replace the rock concerts that Malaysia recently outlawed. As I fumble to keep the money going into the slot, coins inevitably fall to the ground. Little children with backpacks, waiting for the bus to school, dart between my feet, filching twenty-sen pieces and skipping away in glee. Women in beautiful saris, sober Moslems going to work in the nearby Tabling Haji (“Fund for Pilgrimages to Mecca”), young toughs on their loud motorbikes, all laugh openly at the sweaty, red-faced foreigner doing his Modern Times routine at the phones. The humiliation of the West is complete. Then the daily inch-a-minute downpour begins, and I try to hold an umbrella with my chin.

When I have finished, I carefully repack my equipment, sweep the remaining coins into the bag, and walk off looking straight ahead, with as much dignity as I can muster. Tomorrow I will do it all again.

On my way home I pass the Telex office. Through the window I see my friends the Telex girls, in their smart tan uniforms, smiling as they sit at their machines. I am too modern to need the likes of them.

—James Fallows