20180322 Of Kafka, coincidence and the KL monorel

Life's funny and the world is tiny. And there is no such thing as no such thing as coincidences.

Early this evening, I left a conference at the Hilton hotel in Kuala Lumpur, universally known as KL, at KL Sentral (Central) intending to walk the short 5km home. It's an easy walk through a lovely city, albeit on streets that are often broken, pavements littered with parked motorbikes and abandoned ride-sharing bikes and turned into cycle lanes by being painted blue over the dimpled stones embedded to guide the blind, kerb stones that are angled so that one slips off them into the traffic, electricity cables poking up through the pavement in loops into which feet are drawn like iron filings to a magnet and a host of other hazards. But as I headed to the toilets to change into my shorts, having learned the lesson of walking home from an event in a suit only two weeks ago, I spotted someone I'd met earlier and he was looking a bit lost, booking a taxi. Using a taxi in KL in rush-hour is very, very inadvisable.

Knowing he was from out of town (actually, out of country - indeed out of hemisphere) and in town for only a short time, I suggested he join me for dinner in Jalan Alor which TV programmes, and only TV programmes, wrongly call "Food Street," a name that absolutely no one who lives here recognises, unless they, like me, have laughed at the crassness of TV documentary makers who make things up and then present them as fact.

He aborted his taxi booking and we walked out of the hotel and through KL Central Station, via a shopping centre to the monorail (spelt Monorel on the sporadic signs in the shopping centre). There, a token purchased in the machine for him (Bukit Bintang, MYR2.50 - that's important information), I pressed my Touch and Go / Railcard to the reader. It became alarmed. I tried three other gates but they, too, screeched that I, or more particularly my card, was not welcome. I touched. It would not let me go.

Odd, I thought: I only reloaded the card last week and I've not used it since. A message on the gate's screen told me to go to the service desk. Looking around, there were the machines selling tokens but no service desk visible. The easy solution was to buy a token (also Bukit Bintang, MYR2.50 - still important information) and pass, and sort out the card later.

Coincidentally, last week, I was browsing the internet reading about the history of payment cards and opened an archived copy of a magazine the title of which I cannot now remember and, even if I could, I'm not sure if, under GDPR, I'd be allowed to tell you because I stored a copy for future easy reference (so now it's data we hold) and it's got the proprietor's name in it) reporting the launch, in 1995, of Malaysia's first pre-paid toll-road card being tested in Penang. It was the nascent Touch and Go. I suppose GDPR prevents me writing that, at the conference, I met someone who had been living in Penang in 1995, although when I learned that I didn't know it would turn out to be a coincidence. Oh, too late. I've written it now.

When a train arrived unannounced with no warning or destination on the information screens, someone confirmed it was going to Bukit Bintang station. On we hopped. Two stops later, off we hopped so my companion (who has not provided express confirmation that any personal identifying information may be used and so, to avoid data protection problems under both current UK and the imminent GDPR, I cannot mention anything that might tend to suggest who it was although, arguably, by referring to his gender and where we met I am already in breach) could go for a pee that he would have been unable to have had if he had taken the (as I later found not very) short distance, long time taxi ride he had been planning) and I went to the service desk to ask about my card. "You'll have to go to KL Sentral to have it checked," the man in the greenhouse said. "But I've just come from KL Central," I said, "and that was where it didn't work." "Not KL Sentral Monorel, KL Central MRT." The MRT is the primary underground / light rail system in KL and the monorail , for some reason that no one ever satisfactorily explains, uses the same pre-paid cards but you can't even top them up at a monorail station, much less get problems fixed. I had, of course, hoped that might have changed since the last time I asked about my card there.

No matter - I've got all the time in the world to trot around the rail network to solve a problem with the railway's own tech. Not. I wonder how much breakage (technical term for unspent balances on pre-paid cards) there is because people don't want to waste an hour or two going across town to get a card with only a few pounds on it fixed.

On the train, I have a rethink about the destination: instead of Bukit Bintang, we will get off a stop early. It's no shorter to the restaurant (which is actually plastic tables and chairs on the pavement outside the restaurant building most of which is kitchen) but we won't have to run the gauntlet of greeters outside the fake goods shops that no one ever talks about in this supposedly upmarket district and push through crowds that congregate at the north end of Jalan Alor, too polite to tell the greeters at the first few restaurants they come to to piss off and let them past without hindrance.

The gates became alarmed at the tokens. Both tokens, all gates. The gates were right next to the service desk. Ah, it's not like the whole world is ranged against this simple enterprise, I thought. I was wrong. This was where it began to become Kafkaesque. "It's an extra 1 ringgit 60 sen," the woman (sorry, GDPR regulators, sometimes one just has to give up and write facts and you're going to have to get used to it and take a real-world view) said. I explained "the tokens are for Bukit Bintang. We have come from KL Sentral and we've got off a stop early." "I know but it's still extra," she said from behind a glass wall.

Dinner done (and reet lovely it were, too, lad, Meng Kee grilled fish - always a treat) we set off to find a taxi for my …

(I've run out of accurate words to describe someone I'd just met and was having a random meal with before he left for a looooooooong flight home - Damn GDPR: if only I could just use his Christian name, or refer to a physical characteristic, life would be so much easier. If he were a woman, there would be so many more words to use but to apply any of those to this evening would have connotations that neither of us would want)

… acquaintance (now I really have run out of suitable words) I needed to make sure we chose a taxi that was already going in broadly the right direction. If not, the combination of one-way systems and carefully planned traffic congestion would mean a long ride for a short journey. I looked at his hotel card and had a light bulb moment. We were already in the correct postcode.

It was a dim light bulb, I did not recognise the name of the hotel but, in a city where tourism is big business, that was hardly surprising and new hotels open, seemingly, daily. But .. it was in Changkat Raja Chulan. Aha, I thought. I live in Persiaran Raja Chulan and the big road with the pavements painted blue so cyclists can mow down blind people at the end of my road is Jalan Raja Chulan. So we are within, maybe, 500 metres.

And so it turned out, proving that there really are coincidences and the world really is a tiny place. Not only was his hotel less than 250 metres, as the bats fly but not as humans walk, from my place and about 500 metres from the restaurant, it was in one of the city centre office blocks that have been converted into hotels. That's not the weird coincidence. Well, it's a bit weird: who could have predicted that I'd have bumped into him, suggested dinner at a restaurant so near the hotel that I didn't know and he had literally no idea where he was in the city while we were at the restaurant and no idea where in the city his hotel was?

The really weird coincidence is that, until 2011 when we closed our KL operations, my office was in the building that has been turned into a hotel and that was where he was staying. I mistakenly said it was on the 18th floor (in fact that was an office in a different building) and, incredibly, the 18th floor was where his room was.

And the coincidences kept piling up: the conference was a superb event organised by The Economist to talk about "Illicit Trade." I put it in quotation marks because, as was explained, the term is an umbrella term that has no clear purpose except to cover lots of specific topics. When I arrived, I walked to the back of the pit and took a seat two seats away from a man I didn't know. A few moments later, his colleague, who I also did not know, sat in the seat between us. We did the conference thing of shaking hands and staring at each other's badges. He sat up straight and exclaimed "I was looking at your website and going to contact you." We talked for five minutes, did a deal, and we'll work together in April.

There's even more: one of the event's hosts, an editor at The Economist (note to the Information Commissioner - can I name him? Articles in The Economist don't have a by-line but his name was on a big screen along with his title so it's not only not a secret, it's in the public domain) mentioned that the newspaper used to have classified adverts in the back with a disclaimer that the publisher was not responsible for the adverts and people responded at their own risk. I almost laughed out loud. Indeed, it did.

This is why I laughed: in the mid-late 1990s, there were adverts for formation of offshore companies in places that would soon become pariahs as the OECD and others attacked their tax regimes, adverts to form companies in Nevada, Delaware and other US states that, hypocritically, were not subject to criticism despite the tax avoidance (and evasion) and hidden corporate ownership structures that they afforded and still afford, adverts to buy banks (with no credentials or substantial capital required) in some of the offshore jurisdictions (that was DODGY, but exactly why that is so is a story for another day) and even, from time to time, an advert, larger than most others, offering the chance to buy a US BanCorp for USD10,000. But that's not the coincidence: the coincidence is this - every week, in a classified ad running over, I think, about three vertical column inches, was an advert, made prominent by its size and large print, for Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian-based global legal and tax advisory business at the heart of the Panama Papers which, it has been announced, will be dissolved and cease all business within the next week.

And there's more: my day of stories was caused by the random posting by someone I don't know of details of the conference on a social media platform that I happened to check at the time when that posting was at the top of my "feed" and, thinking "I need to get out more," decided, on a whim, to respond to.

Investigators, prosecutors and regulators like to say there's no such thing as coincidences. Go on, convince me. I think I have clear evidence to the contrary.