Pay or We’ll Cut Supply

By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

Well, this is nothing new. When one is vested with so much power it tends to get into one’s head. We see this happening with the former ruling coalition which was in power for over 61 years until a 93-year old man forced it out into the cold. That is poetic justice, so to speak.

My rambling today has nothing to do with Barisan Nasional or Najib or his corpulent wife. It has nothing to do with how Perak is being administered or why Pakatan Harapan lost in the Cameron Highlands by-election. It is about a mundane matter which affects you, me and the people around us. It is about a public utility company using its might to brow-beat or more appropriately, bully its customers. We have been on the receiving end of government service providers for far too long. All of us have our own story to relate. And the punchline is almost identical – “pay or we’ll come down hard on you”. Being powerless and without recourse to react meaningfully what options have we but to comply.

This was the dilemma faced by the management of Meru Valley EcoVillage, which is located within the Meru Valley Resort in suburban Ipoh. The upscale residential property consisted of villas, townhouses and apartments of varying sizes and specifications. Some 166 have been taken up by both locals and foreigners who are drawn by the resort-like ambience of the property.

In mid-January national power provider, Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) alleged that the management had tampered with the power supply to the residential complex. This was made following an inspection of the TNB substation by its staff. A letter to the effect was sent to the management requiring them to settle the matter with TNB’s northern region office in Bukit Mertajam. Getting an appointment with the Bukit Mertajam office was a hassle in itself, but met them they did. However, the encounter was not pleasant, as the desk officers insisted that a penalty be imposed contingent to TNB Act. And based on the Act any tampering of meters, offenders will be slapped with a penalty amounting to five years back payment.

How could it be five years when Meru EcoVillage was only in existence for barely three years? Upon checking, the figure was reduced to one year but the amount was still staggering – RM70,000. Although TNB is still owing the property developer RM43,000 in excess payment, an offer to deduct the said sum from the charged amount was rejected. Meru EcoVillage has to pay the said amount, regardless of the difference.

They were damned rigid. No acceptance of early payment plus a reconnection fee by the client. The utility company insisted on cutting the electricity supply the following day and Meru EcoVillage must go through the hassle of getting a bill for payment. And once this was done only then would a receipt be issued for purpose of reconnection. The reason was obvious – to inconvenience the end-user. Period.

The amount was duly paid on the day the utility company threatened to cut supply to the complex. But payment was made under protest and was objected by the utility company. They insisted that, since payment was made, Meru EcoVillage was culpable and was complicit in the commitment of tampering. An offer to show video footage taken from the developer’s closed-circuit television was dismissed, as it was of no relevance to the issue. As the customer had made a payment it was proof that they had tampered with the meter.

Meru EcoVillage felt cheated. They were forced to fork out RM70,000 through no fault of theirs. Add the RM43,000 that they had overpaid TNB, a sum of RM113,000 has been unwittingly paid due to the action of some overzealous officers of the utility company.

And to rub salt to wound, the officer told Meru EcoVillage to use an alternative source of power supply if disconnected. They suggested a mobile generator. Fancy using such a contraption in a placid surrounding like the EcoVillage. It is not only ridiculous but out-rightly immoral.

Judging from the “altercation” the long-cherished marketing adage about customers being the king does not feature in TNB’s scheme of things. To them, as with other service providers, this well-tried threat looms large and menacing in the background. And it always works since minions like you and I do not want to tangle with a behemoth for obvious reasons. So, we meekly pay up and withdraw to a corner to cry. End of story.

Incidentally, Tenaga Nasional Berhad is the only electric utility company in Peninsular Malaysia. It is the largest publicly-listed power company in Southeast Asia with almost RM100 billion worth of assets. It serves nearly nine million customers in Peninsular Malaysia, including corporate clients like Meru EcoVillage. The states of Sabah and Sarawak have their own utility companies.

TNB’s core activities are in the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity. Hopefully, they can exercise a little flexibility when dealing with their customers, especially those who pay big money, on time and with minimum fuss.

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