Kuala Lumpur

After an interminable wait for my luggage in front of a sign reading “baggage claim,” which had spent the time circling a belt in an adjacent unlabeled room, I cleared customs. Nobody was around as I emerged from customs at some obscure side door. Seeing nobody around an exit door in an Asian airport gives one an extremely eerie feeling, as these places usually pack several hundred expectant families into a mob around the exit, making the walk to the taxi stand challenging.

I looked around and saw that the mob was clustered around the other exit. I worked my way through the crowd into the middle, then turned around and walked back out. Sure enough, I soon saw a sign with my name on it and introduced myself to Rafee Yusoff from the Malaysian Institute of Microelectronic Systems (MIMOS).

Rafee spoke perfect English, not surprising since he went to school in Iowa. We drove past palms and the heavy vegetation that grows in this steaming jungle climate. The traffic was a far cry from Singapore. Cars here easily turned three lanes into 4 or 5 as they darted in and out in increasingly complex geometric progressions.

Malaysia is the world’s top exporter of integrated circuits, the result of an aggressive government policy of free trade zones, cheap labor, and a strong work force. Malaysia had hoped that the huge manufacturing operations of companies like Motorola, Texas Instruments, and Sony would lead to technology transfer and increased value added by the Malaysian work force.

This didn’t happen. The Malaysian computer industry continues to be devoted primarily to chip manufacture and assembly of components. MIMOS was created to help increase the Malaysian R&D effort and thus increase the technology transfer into the local community.

Rafee deposited me in a waiting area and soon ushered me into a large conference room with a very, very large conference table, capable of seating groups of 40 or 50 people at a time.

Two women in chadors came in, followed by Chandron Elamvazuthi, a bearded UNIX guru. Finally, the head of the MIMOS computer systems division, Dr. Mohamed B. Awang-Lah came in with a very large pile of transparencies.

The purpose of my visit was a bit unclear, an understandable confusion since I was researching the Internet and Malaysia was not on said Internet. Dr. Mohamed gave a nice little speech, welcoming me to Malaysia and MIMOS for whatever reason it was that I had come. I then gave a nice little speech thanking MIMOS for their hospitality and thanking them in advance for whatever program they might have set up.

After the introductory formalities, Dr. Mohamed started pulling out transparencies and sliding them across the table so I could see them. Soon a large stack had been fanned out in front of me, explaining the purposes behind MIMOS and the various projects of the computer systems division.

One project that MIMOS had worked on was to help the Ministry of Education design the specifications for a PC to use in the school. Why not just buy some system that already existed? Chandran excused himself and ran upstairs to get a prototype of the Atom-1 computer for me to see.

The entire PC had been built into a wedge which fit under the keyboard, and included a 3.5-inch floppy drive, serial and printer ports, and even a network interface. When you set the computer on the table, the keyboard tilted up a few inches and used much less real estate than any normal desktop. You still needed room, though, for a display on the desk (or hanging someplace nearby).

After developing the prototypes, the Ministry of Education had then issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) and a private company took over the manufacture and delivered units for a fairly low cost. Sixty schools were in the process of putting in 20 PCs each and the Ministry had plans to computerize all 1,300 secondary schools.

At this point, we paused while cups of Nescafé were poured for all of us, accompanied by sticky green sweets and some spicy meat pastries. While sipping my coffee, I looked around the room and noticed that everybody had notebooks and everyone seemed to be taking lots of notes.

Between bites of pastries, we examined some more transparencies describing JARING, the proposed national research network for Malaysia. JARING means net in Malaysian, but I also learned that in English it had a much longer meaning, spelled out in a little poem at the beginning of a brochure I was given:

Joint Development IT Infra-structure Built Upon
Advanced Technology; Supports Multidisciplinary Collaborative
Research, Development, and Educational Activities; Reflects
Integrated Development Strategy Through Computer
Networking; and has Worldwide Connectivity for
Global Communication and Information Exchange.

Wow! I wasn’t quite able to discern from the poem, however, what the network might look like. There were plans to link all the major universities and cities, and JARING was waiting until Telekom Malaysia would be able to deliver a 64 kbps line, a process that would take some time.

In Kuala Lumpur, several institutions were connected together using X.25 with UUCP and X.28/X.29 protocols. An international X.25 connection provided the link to UUnet. TCP/IP links within Kuala Lumpur were running, but I was unsure of exactly where and what they were used for.

MIMOS was planning on making the network some mix of X.25 and TCP/IP. Apparently, they needed a solution that would allow some fairly ancient IBM computers in government ministries to participate in the network without requiring those ministries to spend any money, and straight X.25 solutions were old enough to work on all of these machines.

We broke for a fine lunch of curried chicken, shrimp sambal with chilies, and a delicious omelet stuffed with sweet and spicy vegetables. With some time to kill before the afternoon meeting MIMOS had set up, I was left in the MIMOS library. Perusing the shelves, I spotted a copy of the Internet Managers Guide right next to a copy of the Concise Encyclopedia of Islam.

My MIMOS experience was a bit different from my usual site visit. Normally, I asked people for help in a new country and got back a list of e-mail addresses, which I used to set up a series of appointments. Some appointments were time definite, others were vague promises of intent.

Rather than giving me pointers, MIMOS had set up my entire itinerary. In fact, they would be accompanying me to all meetings. Dr. Mohamed made it clear that the MIMOS name had been advanced on my behalf and it was understood that I should behave accordingly. Rafee continually probed to find out what the nature of my writing would be, perhaps hoping to avert a potentially embarrassing piece.

That afternoon, Chandran and one of the women in chadors, accompanied by a MIMOS driver, were my escorts to go visit the headquarters of Plus, a private toll road that would span the Malay peninsula from the northern border with Thailand down to Singapore.

I had heard that Malaysia was laying fiber optic cable when they built roads and it turned out that the rumors I had been hearing about for two years had to do with the Plus project. While the toll road was being installed, the corporation had planted a bundle of 36 fiber cores, each capable of operating at anywhere from 34 Mbps up to 140 Mbps. The business case for the fiber had been made for internal operation of the toll road, but it was evident that quite a bit of spare capacity had been installed.

I met with a team of five Plus MIS employees, headed by Rosli Md Tan. They joined our MIMOS delegation to form a fairly large party sitting around a large conference table.

The MIS staff estimated that they would take roughly 8 Mbps of the fiber capacity for their internal network. They would also use fiber for the toll plaza voice network. The 8 Mbps data bandwidth was being set up as a large extended Ethernet spanning the entire Malay peninsula.

The lowest unit of operation in a toll road is the lane in a toll plaza. Each lane in Plus would get a lane controller unit, a customized PC that connected to the cash register, the light on top of the booth to signal that the lane is open, and various other toll collection accoutrements.

Up to 17 lanes in a plaza would then be connected by 9,600 bps serial lines into a PC that would act as a data collection unit. An 18th virtual lane controller would be available inside the toll plaza headquarters to be used for collection of cash for things like monthly passes.

The PC concentrator would in turn connect to a µVAX, which would act as the central computing resource for the toll plaza. The µVAX would also support management terminals as well as a point-of-sale terminal.

The toll plaza microVAX would use the fiber infrastructure to periodically upload data to regional headquarters, which are equipped with a VAX Cluster.

In between the region and the toll plaza is an intermediate unit of management, the section. Section headquarters don’t have VAXen and must therefore go to regional headquarters for their data. Each section would have a set of terminals connected into the fiber patch panel, just as a voice phone would connect. At regional, a terminal server would take the incoming lines, thus connecting the terminal to the VAX cluster using the DEC LAT protocols.

One interesting aspect of the toll road is that it must break in Kuala Lumpur, since Plus does not have permission to cross the city. To connect the northern and southern segments, Plus had leased an 8 Mbps line from Telekom Malaysia. One more 8 Mbps leased segment linked the northern segment to a VAX 6100 located at Plus headquarters, a building located, for some reason I could not understand, away from the toll road.

Plus hoped to have the first segment, going 100 kilometers northward from Kuala Lumpur, up by August 1992. The entire road, and thus the management network, would be completed by 1994.

How would the spare bandwidth be allocated? Plus was owned by a holding company called the Renang Group, which also owned an electromechanical consulting organization known as Time Engineering.

Time Engineering had applied for a license and was about to become Malaysia’s second telephone company, providing at least long-haul data communications and possibly other services such as voice. The fact that Time Engineering had applied for a license was somewhat of a formality as the Renang Group was owned by Malaysia’s ruling party, a group that had been in power since 1957. As one embassy official sardonically put it, approval seemed “likely.”

The next morning, I passed up the opportunity provided by my hotel for a “western breakfast buffet” featuring such delicacies as beef bacon, stale toasted white bread, and a tray of what was labeled “exotic tropical fruits” but contained instead grapes and honeydew melon.

Maybe honeydew was exotic in Malaysia, but I opted instead for a dish one-third the price of the buffet (but still an order of magnitude more than I would have paid on the street) of teocheow, a rice porridge accompanied by small portions of chicken sambal, dried anchovies mixed with peanuts, a pungent fish with black beans, and half a salted egg.

Later, Rafee picked me up to bring me to Telekom Malaysia, the recently privatized government PTT. I was interested to see the status of their fiber infrastructure given the bold moves by Plus and Time Engineering.

I noticed that everywhere we went, people always spoke to Rafee in English, even though I stood in the background. Even parking lot attendants would break into English, asking Rafee how long he intended to stay, as if he had turned into a foreigner by being with me.

We reported to the 21st floor of the Wisma building only to find that the head of the Network Technical Services Division, whom we were supposed to meet, was not in that day. Suddenly, the conversation switched into rapid Malay. After a few minutes, a deputy division head was produced and we were ushered into the division director’s office to meet with Ahmad Tarmidi

Rafee made a nice speech thanking Mr. Tarmidi for seeing us and introducing MIMOS. I introduced myself as a reporter for Communications Week and explained that I was interested in the status of the fiber infrastructure.

Ahmad Tarmidi then made a short, indefinite speech explaining that fiber played an important role in Malaysia’s future, as did technologies like ISDN. The PTT was pulling fiber down the major north-south roads (with the obvious exception of Plus) and hoped to have coverage of the Peninsula by 1995.

As to the specific services or the specific infrastructure, the conversation was more than a bit vague. Yet, on the way outside, Mr. Tarmadi called Rafee back for a hurried conversation. Rafee explained that the fact that I was a reporter had hit home and Tarmadi was worried I would give away sensitive business plans. I assured everybody that no strategic business advantage would be lost as a result of our little chat.

After a nice lunch in the MIMOS caféteria, where I decided to skip the fish head curry in favor of less exotic fare, we headed off to visit Tenaga Nasional Berhad, the national electric company and another group that was laying a fiber infrastructure.

At Tenaga, a group of only four people met us, still outnumbering our own delegation of three. The assistant general manager for information systems, Abdul Rahman Bin Shafi, welcomed us and gave us all, including his own staff, a document describing the Distributed Source Data Generation Project.

I flipped through the four-page document, scanning it for information. Abdul called the meeting to order and asked us all to turn to page 1, where he commenced to read the entire text aloud.

Tenaga was proud to have what it called the largest distributed systems project in ASEAN. Implemented over a 36-month period at a cost of 18 million ringgit (U.S. $7.2 million), the project had connected 135 district offices and power stations of the electric utility system.

Processing oomph for the system was provided by a pair of fault-tolerant IBM 4300s. Distributed processing was the realm of Nixdorf computers, the prime contractor on the project. Telekom Malaysia’s X.25 network, Maypac, was used to connect district offices to headquarters at speeds ranging from 2,400 to 4,800 bps and occasionally at 9,600 bps.

Applications consisted of various ways to input paper records, such as allowing the fact that a bill was paid and money collected to be transmitted to headquarters. Previously, the data had been input at headquarters, meaning that errors in entry codes and the like had not been caught until the data was well downstream.

After the briefing paper was read, a huge TV was wheeled in. While it was being set up, Rafee made polite chitchat about the recent renovation of the MIS office space. We all commented on how well-lit the offices were, certainly an appropriate attribute for the offices of a monopoly electric utility.

The video was then displayed. Ten minutes and forty-eight seconds long, the in-house video explained the success of ASEAN’s largest distributed project, accompanied throughout by a driving disco beat. Near the end, the disco turned into an anthem (though still accompanied by the disco drums), the hyperbole flew thick and fast and then finally the lights went back up to monopoly brightness.

I looked around the table and saw that everybody in the meeting had a briefing packet, consisting of my resume, a Xerox of the cover of Stacks, a letter from MIMOS, and an internal Tenaga memo with a very long routing slip on it.

Next on the agenda was a description of a home-grown communications system, used to control the power substations. Substations could be located in very remote areas, so it was not possible to count on the telephone company to provide even voice service.

The system consisted of twisted pair lines running along with the power lines and providing data transmission at 100 and 600 bps. One function of this communications system was to allow central headquarters to activate an emergency cutoff switch at a substation to prevent damage to the larger network.

Tenaga was in the process of replacing the control system with a fiber optic network running along the power lines. The fiber would support cascaded, automated remote power substations and would even allow transmission of video images for monitoring and security. Tenaga was laying cables of 10 fibers, giving it a huge capacity for future expansion (or sale to a telephone company).

We finished our meeting just before 4:00 P.M., allowing Rafee to drop me at a taxi stand a few minutes after four. Government employees are released at precisely 4:15, and a 20-minute ride immediately turns into a 90-minute ordeal. I caught my taxi at 4:08, hitting the airport just ahead of the wave.

Kuala Lumpur, like many airports in developing countries, has an acute shortage of terminal space, meaning that you cannot check in until two hours before a flight. It was a hot, humid jungle afternoon and I had several hours to kill before I could check in.

I found a cart with a broken wheel and piled my garment bag and computer case into it and took off my jacket and rolled up my sleeves. I jumped my cart over the high curb, played chicken with a taxi (he won), and went across the street to find a bar.

The airport hotel had a choice of stairs and an elevator. The stairs had a big picture of a durian, with the circle and the slash around it spelling out in terms suitable for international tourists that this hotel was a “No Durian” area. The elevator, used by westerners to get into the main lobby, had no need for such a sign. The picture of the durian reminded me that I was soon going to be in Bangkok, where I would be able to get my fill of this strange, odoriferous fruit.

After a snack in the restaurant of baby octopi on a bed of shredded jellyfish, I went to find the bar. Sitting in the small crowded bar, I watched a TV special on the wonders of Malaysian industry, focusing in this episode on the life of a pineapple.

At 7:23, the screen went blank and was replaced with a picture of a big clock. How handy, I thought, a time service that randomly appears. The clock was soon replaced by pictures of Mecca and the sound of the call to prayer. Arabic and Malay subtitles started filling the screen and rolling off, accompanied by an upbeat, yet inspirational soundtrack. Around me, the bartenders continued preparing drinks. Prayers finished, the screen did another context switch back to the marvelous Malay miracle, now in the middle of a scene of pineapples getting lobotomies, interspersed with shots that featured happy foreign tourists on idyllic beaches eating pineapple.

I left to stand in line and check in, cleared immigration, and walked past the endless row of duty-free shops, including one selling bags of dried mangoes and prunes, items that I couldn’t recall falling under the duty-free exemption in too many countries.

With great relief, I found the doors of the CIP lounge, a cool plush oasis for Commercially Important Persons. Making a living as a writer is kind of the antithesis of the CIP, and I take great delight in making myself at home in such facilities whenever I can fool the authorities into letting me in.