READING the headline of this week’s column, many perhaps would argue that I regard fellow Malaysians as generally lacking on punctuality.
For those who are punctual, I salute and take my hats off to you, but for the others who are not or still cannot care less about being punctual for their appointments or routine chores, it is time to change.
Punctuality is something close to my heart. In all humility, I would say that I walk the talk on it. It has a lot to do with my training as a journalist, where we have to be punctual for press conferences, fixed appointments or assignments, or else miss it.
Imagine the embarrassment if I were to arrive late at a press conference of a prime minister or VVIP, while they are in the midst of speaking to the media. It is a given that I have always been the first or among the first to arrive at such events, sometimes way ahead before the event starts. At times, even the organisers are not there yet.
The usual lame excuse among many Malaysians who are late or not punctual, especially in a busy city like Kuala Lumpur, is that they were held up by “traffic jams”. In my long years in this profession, I have had more than my fair share of having to tolerate non-punctual events, some of which are etched in my memory.
If there is any takeaway I wish to impart to readers, it is for us all to make it a habit, or implant it in our DNA, to be punctual. The dictionary defines “punctual” as: Strictly observant of an appointed or regular time; not late; prompt. The catchword here is “strictly”.
When we discuss punctuality, there can be no better role models than the Japanese. Few days earlier, I texted Dr Makio Miyagawa, who served for five years as the Japanese ambassador to Malaysia until two years ago, on what punctuality means in the Japanese value system or psyche. His response is indeed illuminating. He begins by saying: “Time is not just your money but everyone’s”.
“The problem created by one member of a society who does not comply with the agreed time is that it wastes the time of other members of the society who comply with it.
“Regarding the result of time non-compliance of one member, if there is only one member who suffers a waste of time, the waste caused by time non-compliance is only one unit. However, if 10 members are kept waiting, the waste will naturally increase 10 times. If 100 participants have to wait for the arrival of one speaker, the waste will become 100 times”, says Miyagawa.
He points out that the problem created by time non-compliance, in addition to wasting time available to society as a whole, is that it creates inequality among the time given to each member. The late members are making good use of their late time but the waiting members have lost the opportunity to make use of that time.
He further says that the discipline of observance of time has taken root among the Japanese as a common rule of society. It has been established in the Japanese society as an ordinary disciplinary rule, that no one now questions the background as to why the rule is needed, and therefore, no one seeks an explanation.
In the realm of industry, the just-in-time method is a production method that minimises inventory between processes. This is an efficient production system developed by Toyota, and it aims to systematically reduce the total cost of the entire product and manufacturing process with the aim of eliminating waste. It is the only efficient mode of production possible in a time-sensitive society like Japan.
Malaysian Ambassador to Japan Datuk Kennedy Jawan told me that arranging for meetings with government officials in the Land of the Rising Sun is a given, and he has encountered requests from the Japanese side that allocate specific durations for the meetings, such 15 or 30 minutes, and later to see them stick to their words and end the meetings as planned.
He cited one Asia-Europe Meeting in Japan as an example, saying that he had attended the event before being posted to Tokyo, and that it was scheduled to end at 5pm but ran over time. Even though the chair of the meeting and the attendees were not done yet, the venue’s management personnel had begun clearing the place on the dot at 5pm.
One other incident was in 2018, where the Japanese bullet train, or Shinkansen, departed just 25 seconds earlier than scheduled. The representative of the railway company declared the incident as “truly inexcusable” and apologised, while workers were trained not to repeat such incidents.
Japanese punctuality is not restricted only to trains but is seen everywhere, from students’ arrival in schools to shops and restaurants opening exactly on time.
“Time regulates the life of Japanese citizens, and it is one of the reasons that Tokyo, which is one of the most densely packed cities in the world, can still manage to sustain a remarkable sense
of order, and function so smoothly,” said Kennedy.
Miyagawa also shares some of his unforgettable experiences of him being on the receiving end of Malaysians’ disregard for punctuality during his stint here. Foremost was the day when he had to fly on a morning flight to one state for an appointment with a VVIP.
“I was first given a slot at 2pm, then changed to 4pm, followed by 5pm and later changed to 7pm. In the end I was received (by the VVIP) at 9pm!” says the ex-ambassador.
I cannot imagine how he felt then and the impression he had on how punctuality was taken so lightly, even among VVIPs. Do not forget the fact that as foreign ambassadors to any country, they are the No. 1 representative of their countries’ head of state or government.
I cannot thank Miyagawa enough for sharing his inspiring thoughts on the importance of punctuality.
Personally, I have my own story to add. Some years ago, I was among several journalists from Asean countries invited by the Japanese government for a visit to Okinawa, where among other things, the United States still maintains a military base.
I came face to face with the Japanese intolerance of those who do not keep to their side of punctuality. We were to be taken on a field tour and the coach was waiting for us at the hotel by 8am. But several of the journalists were no where to be seen at the lobby. I pleaded with our tour guide to give them time to show up, while I made some calls to their rooms.
“No, if they don’t turn up in five minutes, let them take a taxi to the place,” he said. This is how strictly observant the Japanese are with punctuality.
I sign off this column by relating another incident.
In 2017 here in Kuala Lumpur, a minister was supposed to launch a new car model, and among the guests were some top executives of a leading Japanese carmaker who came all the way from Japan.
After over an hour of the scheduled start of the event, the minister had yet to arrive and I was about to leave when it was announced that he was on his way.
I avoided looking at the faces, especially of the Japanese guests, to spare me the guilt feeling of what they must have been talking about in regard to our disrespect for punctuality.
My only thought at the time was why did the minister not ask his deputy or senior ministry official to officiate the event, instead of keeping so many people waiting?
Looking back now, how elucidating Miyagawa’s words of wisdom are to those who are still adamant about not being punctual.