Monday, November 27, 2006

Paying for Electricity

This morning (on my day off!) the doorbell rang while Mr K-E was in the shower. It was the man from the electricity company come to read our meter. Normally our bills are all estimated bills, but once in a while the electricity company has to check that everything tallies up. Anyway, I got dressed and went downstairs to let him in - but he had gone. Drat. Now he's bound to come back while I'm in the shower.

This reminds me of the "electricity man" who used to come to our house to read the meter while I was growing up in Brunei. Brunei Darussalam (to give it its full name) is a small country in SE Asia on the island of Borneo. Most people have heard of the Sultan of Brunei, and they associate it with the Middle East. NO. It's NOT anywhere near Saudi Arabia.

Here's a photo of Brunei. (I'll put some more up hopefully)

When we were kids the system was like this - every month or so a government meter reader would come round to our house with his clipboard and record book. He would read the meter and then write out the bill, which my Dad would take to the town and pay. Anyway, when we were young, the only adult at home during the day would be my grandmother. This guy would hint that the bill was enormous and say things like "we will have the cut the supply soon, as the bill is so large". Complete crap of course. What he really wanted was a "tip" and in return he would write a bogus figure on the bill. He was absolutely blatant in the way that only minor civil servants can be - mock friendly with a whiff of official intimidation.

Sometimes my granny would give him some money or a packet of biscuits or a tin of Milo. And he would go away happy, leaving us with a bogus bill.

I remember that my father was never happy about this. He told my grandmother (his mother) several times not to give the "electricity man" any money. To tell the truth; the issue wasn't the bill itself (electricity rates in Brunei are but my grandmother's ingrained fear of "government" officials and how they could "make trouble" for you. (My family are Chinese and the majority population of Brunei are Malay - but that's a post for another day)

Looking back now, I wonder how many families used to give our meter man money or food? Did he try it on with everyone? I remember he had eight or nine children, and these guys don't earn very much, so he probably needed to supplement his income.

Anyway, when Brunei modernised it's electricity metering system all these dodgy practices came to an end. My grandmother passed away about 10 years ago - but the story doesn't end there. A few years ago, the Brunei government cracked down on people who weren't paying their electricity bills and as part of this, must have reviewed everyone's electricity bill for the last thirty years or so. My parents, to their horror, received a bill for nearly B$5000 (about £1500). My mother went to the Department of Electrical Services, and a very nice, well-educated young government officer explained that the actual meter reading at our house did not reconcile with their records. Well, we all know why that is - because in the 1970s and 80s, the "electricity man" was making up all the meter readings.

Apparently everyone on our street was affected. And thousands of other people in Brunei have been affected by the new government policies.

My parents have settled their bill now and for them everything should be all paid up electricity-wise. Although it has caused a lot of hardship for some people, I think this is a real step forward for Brunei. Non-payment of utility bills is a serious problem for the Brunei government, and part of the problem has been corruption at grassroots level. So although some people may feel the pain now, hopefully the whole country will feel the benefit in the future.

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