So you want to work for MBf?

These webpages mainly addresses would-be expatriate workers, but doubtless has lessons for local MBf staff as well. More generally it aims to give the "expat virgin" a few pointers on what to look for when taking a trans-national contract by reference to a particularly unfortunate expating experience.

What is an expatriate worker?

Essentially it's someone who works on a contract basis, in a country other than his or her own. In general expatriate workers provide skills and experience that are not readily available in the country in which they work. This is what differentiates an "expatriate" from a "migrant worker".

It is important to realise that expatriate workers usually maintain links with, and have commitments in their country, of origin. This has profound implications for what you should look for in your contract of employment. But more of that later

Do you have what it takes?

To be a successful expat takes more than being skilled at you particular job or profession. Countries and national characters are not all the same, and unless you can adapt the way you do what you do (but still do it extremely well) you're probably going to create problems for yourself and have to work twice as hard to get the same result. If you're mainly concerned with management this is doubly important; but the technocrat is not immune. Darwin, and latterly Dawkins, tells us that adaptation is the key to survival. In this context at least, neither are wrong.

You should also be prepared for a significant amount of personal disruption. This is inevitable if you're moving from one country to another. If you are single, it's not so bad. A married couple can deal with it without too many problems. If you have children, you're looking at something approaching moving house 6 times with a week between each move.

That being said, don't let that put you off. As long as you know what to look for, and negotiate your contract properly the disruption can be minimised, if not totally eliminated.

Does The Company have what it takes?

Ok, you're up for a position abroad. What should you find out from the company whose your prospective employer? Useful questions to ask, include:

  • "do they have other expatriates working for them?" If they do, this can be quite an encouraging sign. You should insist on talking to a couple of them to get a general feel of their experience.

  • Accommodation. Will the company be providing a house or a flat? If not, will the company be providing the deposit that will be required to rent a house or a flat, including utility deposits? In many countries, the deposits required to rent accommodation can be as much as four months rent. In addition, the deposits for necessities like telephones can be high.

  • In general, you should seek to have your accommodation rented by the company on your behalf because this reduces your administrative burden. You should also insist that the company provides assistance in finding a house or flat should you have the option to rent your own. This is because you probably will not have a good idea of what areas are like and what fair rents are.

  • Transport. Will the company be providing you with a car? If not, what alternatives will they provide? In most cities a car is an absolute necessity

  • Shipping: do you have to front the money for shipping your personal effects to your destination, or will the company deal with this?

  • Travel to your destination. Always insist on return air tickets for your entire party. This will be extremely useful should you need to do a runner

  • Work permits. Many countries do not allow application for work permits unless you are in their country. While you're waiting for the permit to be processed, you cannot be legally employed, or paid a salary, by your employer. This means that you should insist on an "allowance" equal to your salary be paid to you during this period. It is worth thinking about a contingency agreement regarding what happens if your work permit (for whatever reason) does not come through. This would be along the lines of three months salary, tax free, return flights, and repatriation of all belongings.

  • Medical insurance. The medical facilities in some countries are not up to western standards and medical insurance is vital if you require first class care. Do not forget to insist on dental cover as well as medical cover, because this is more commonly needed, and can be extremely expensive.

  • Education. Do you have children, and are you taking them with you? If so you'll need details on schools and so on. Does the company provide any educational subsidy?

  • Salary. It's worth mentioning that if you have commitments in your home country you should be aware that exchange rates fluctuate, sometimes wildly. Between April 1997 and January 1998, for example, the Malaysian Ringgit dropped over 40% in value against the pound sterling. This is bad enough if you have a credit card that has to be paid in the currency of your home country, but if you have a mortgage of significant loan repayments to make, it can be an absolute disaster. Sometimes, you get lucky, and it works the other way around, as with the Kenyan Shilling during 1994-95.

The wisest course seems to be to negotiate at least a proportion of your salary to be paid in your home currency. This should not be a problem if you're working for a multi-national, and not unreasonable if your employer is a local company (if they're big enough to seek expat workers, they're big enough to talk to their bank about forward fx deals).

Finally, make sure you get everything in writing from a company official who has the authority to guarantee what is written, for as they say, a verbal contract is worth the paper it is written on.

This might seem like a lot to ask of a prospective employer, but as expatriate working goes, it is fairly run of the mill. If the company wants you they must understand that by moving from one country to another you are taking a very big risk and demonstrating an up front commitment to them in extremely concrete terms. If they are not willing to at least partially match that risk and commitment, then they are, in the final analysis, not worth working for and I absolutely guarantee that you will regret the day you set foot in their offices.

With this in mind, let me tell you a story. It is not a "true" story is as much as it deals with the experience of several expatriates who were persuaded that it would be a good idea to work for a Malaysian company called MBf (Malaysian Borneo Finance). The reason for this amalgamation is to make it legally difficult to identify who is responsible this website.

The reason for doing that is that while what you are about to read is absolutely true, when one publicly takes moral issue with a company worth over half a billion US dollars, truth and morality play second fiddle to financial and legal muscle. The internet is thankfully, a great leveller, and since this site is located in the United States of the First Amendment, it is unlikely that they will be able to do anything besides bluster. In order to remain fair, I freely offer MBf the right of reply on this website, and observe that the legal maxim is "tacent constituare," or "silence gives consent". (It did not save Sir Thomas Moore from the vengeance of Henry the VIII, but it's the thought that counts).

MBf is the largest finance company in Malaysia, and probably in South East Asia. It is a widely diversified group of around 100 companies, whose core business remains finance. MBf employs over 15,000 people in 17 countries. As I said earlier, the group is worth over half a billion US dollars.

Want to work for MBf? Sure! A company like that just has to be professionally run and treat its staff fairly.

Do you have a lot to learn...

The first sign of trouble was that it took several months for MBf to get the paperwork together following the verbal offer of a job. At the time I was employed contracting and so this wasn't a great concern. This was not the case for another prospective employee < add horror01.html> who was left sitting around in a hotel (at his own expense for several weeks) and who was eventually informed "we've changed our mind".

In early 1997 the formal offer finally arrived. This was signed and returned to MBf the same day. More time passed, punctuated by occasional calls at two in the morning from the MBf Human Resources (HR) department (who apparently have great difficulty with time zones other than their own), while I tried to organise passage to Malaysia. It transpired that MBf expected me to pay for the flights of myself and my wife. "This is unheard of," I said, and after some argument they agreed to front the tickets. This should have been interpreted as a very bad sign, but the idea of Malaysia was very attractive and I brushed this off as inexperience, not malice, on the part of MBf. (There is an old saying that states: "never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence").

On the day of my departure, I faxed MBf HR with my flight number and arrival time. I arrive in Malaysia. I look for someone holding a sign with my name on it. An hour passes. I look some more. I try to phone MBf HR, there's nobody in. Another hour passes. I go to the gents and a man says "are you with MBf?" I say "Yes!". It was the head of the department I would be working with. MBf HR had not bothered to arrange any escort from the airport, and he'd come out on his own initive. Had he not done this I fully believe that I would be still standing at the airport waiting for MBf HR to get its act together.

The drive from the airport to Kuala Lumpur takes about 30 minutes, when there's little or no traffic. We arrived at the hotel, and I proceeded to check in. "Hello," I say, "My name is Mr. Smith (aha) - there should be a reservation for me made by MBf". The desk clerk, after a very pregnant pause, says words to the effect "never heard of you". By now really loud alarm bells should have been ringing, but it has been an 18 hour flight, and all I wanted was a bath, something to eat, an episode of Star Trek, and some sleep. I use my credit card to get a room for the night.

The next morning, I wander next door to the MBf HR department to make enquiries about the allowance that had been promised to me, getting a house or flat, and so on. Nothing happens. The next day, I try again. Nothing happens. By day four, I discover that they are unwilling to pay the allowance until the end of the month, and it is apparent that absolutely no assistance finding somewhere to live will be given. In addition, no car would be provided, (but they might give me a loan to buy one). To cap it all, MBf would only pay for the hotel accommodation, but not for any meals. "You used your credit card to get a room? Oh, well, there's nothing we can do about that now ".

By now, alarm bells were ringing at red alert level. What I should have done was get on the next plane out of there, but, in many senses I was committed. All my personal effects where on the boat to Malaysia, I had rented my house out, and spent a small fortune on settling all my bills before moving out. Moving back to the UK would have been a major undertaking which I simply didn't have the financial resources for. Then there was the 15,000 ringitt penalty clause in the contract, which at that time I took seriously.

MBf were prepared to pay for three weeks accommodation in the hotel. My wife put her mind to finding us a flat, and succeeded. The deposit would be just over 9,000 ringitt, (at that time around 2,200 sterling). I go to MBf and say "Ok, we've found a flat. Here's the contract, can you do the necessary". The answer was "No - you arrange that yourself". At this point I go ballistic, and eventually MBf agrees to loan me the deposit, taking a significant amount of my monthly salary to settle the debt. That was the beginning of the end.

Here I have to point out that the refusal to provide the deposit was sheer bloody-mindedness. A deposit is precisely that, a deposit. It is returnable. In the worst case for MBf to provide the deposit for the flat would have cost them the theoretical interest on the sum in question, and they are a finance company for God's sake. But no, "that wasn't possible".

We move in. The flat was 30 minutes drive from KL when there was no traffic and an hour and a half when there was. Flats closer in cost a lot more. Happily there was a railway station a few minutes walk from the flat. The bad news was that it was necessary to get a taxi from the closest station to the office, and while taxis are cheap in KL, they are difficult to come by in the early morning. Getting back home in the evening was much worse. From certain parts of KL, trying to get a taxi after 17:30 is like trying to get a drink in Saudi, possible, but very, very difficult. The long and the short of it was that I needed a car.

"So what about a car?" I said to HR? "Sorry," they said "you're not on a high enough grade to get a car". "What about my colleague," I said, "He's got a company car". They responded "He's on a higher grade than you".

In point of fact this was a lie. The colleague in question had been planning to bring his entire family to Malaysia (a wife and several children). As I later discovered, he had said point blank to them that he needed a car, and if he didn't get one, he wasn't coming. MBf gave him a car. I was forced to settle for yet another loan to buy a clapped out old banger. Because of import duties and high demand, cars in Malaysia are extremely expensive. Second hand cars tend to keep their value, but they are expensive in the first place.

Buying the car is a story in its own right. After much pushing, following an agreement in principle, I arrive at the car dealers in the company of a representative of the MBf hire-purchase division. We find a car that's doesn't look like it's in too bad a condition, and settle on a price (21,000 ringitts or about 5,000 sterling for a 1984 Nissan!). I then discover the maximum loan that MBf was prepared to give (and permitted to give by law) on a second hand car was 90% of the purchase price. This meant that I had to find 3,000 ringgit (about 750 pounds) so that the deal could go through.

Had anyone told me this? Am I an expert on Malaysian hire-purchase law? Finding 750 pounds was a real struggle, but I managed it and I got the car.

It's at times like these you start asking Malaysian friends about the penalty for murder in Malaysia and start doing a cost-benefit analysis on the possibilities, comparing the innate satisfaction of the act against the possible jail time.

Things go on quietly enough for a few months. Then the Asian financial crisis begins. The exchange rate goes from about 4.3 ringitts to the pound, to 7.5 ringgets to the pound in the space of a few months. Given all the money employment with MBf has cost me, this is the final straw. I, and the few expatriates who have chosen to remain with MBf, write a letter to the HR department, pointing out in fairly polite terms the problems we have all had with MBf, and in light of the considerable expenses we have incurred, could they please see their way clear to going some way towards compensating us for the extreme pressure the exchange rate change has put us under, bearing in mind that had we not been forced to spend thousands of pounds in order to live in Malaysia, then the rate would not be such a great problem as it is.

No Answer.

I send another letter pointing out the serious nature of the situation and ask for a hearing.

Resounding silence.

My colleague phones the head of HR, one Llena Yeow, and asks for an appointment. "No, can't do that until after Christmas". I phone, and get told a different story, that the matter is being dealt with by the head of my department, (who, incidentally is on holiday and won't be back until the new year). In the mean time another colleague has left for the UK to spend Christmas with his family, and I hear from several different sources that he will be fired while in the UK (as it turned out this didn't happen). I know that the HR department is moving buildings immediately after Christmas and surmise that this will be the next excuse to prevent any discussion of the matter. I was not wrong.

Around the 10th January, I finally hear that the guy delegated by MBf to make the response will not be responding formally because the letter was not originally addressed to him, and he sees that as a "breech of protocol".

And that's the story to date, apart from the fact that I will be doing a runner from MBf just as soon as I secure a halfway decent contract elsewhere.

I feel fully justified in doing this. MBf has treated me and my colleagues like pieces of shit. They have never once rendered any assistance with out it being dragged out of them with the semantic equlivilent of wild horses.

From the first meeting with them they have been deceptive, duplicitous and manipulative. They refuse to understand that we are professionals who have demonstrated significant and concrete commitment to MBf and personally invested significant amounts of money, time, goodwill in making our various contracts a success. They want everything, and are prepared to return nothing. This may well be how very rich companies become very rich, and may well be good for the stockholders and owners.

It isn't good for their staff and it isn't good for MBf's reputation as an employer.

MBf will, of course, reply: "It wasn't in the contract," and that "we never said that". You will of course judge for yourself how seriously you can take the word of MBf. The other excuse that will be made is that "this is Malaysia and we do things differently here".

It's worth taking a little time to examine this frequently made (by MBf) claim.

One might begin by noting that in the first problem with this statement is that, in general, Malaysians are scrupulously honest and this does not appear to be the case with MBf. It is true that different cultures have different ways of working. In the business community there is considerable debate about which is the best way of working. Whatever the truth of the matter it is undeniably true, both in theory and practice, that one must adapt ones way of working in order to be effective in a culture that is different to ones own.

However, when all is said and done, being honest means being honest. It does not mean making promises that one has no intention of keeping.

In closing this section, I should like to observe that if you are thinking of working for MBf as an expatriate, or indeed as a local, you should think very carefully about it. Don t take my word for it, ask around. If you're a local worker, it shouldn't take too much energy to find someone who works for MBf, and if you can't, or are a prospective expatriate try <news:alt.soc.culture.malaysia> or < news:jaring.general> and the British High Commission. Watch out for any answering messages posted from an IP address in the [xx] range, for this belongs to MBf, and they have been known to run misinformation campaigns on the internet.

My own personal feelings on the matter are obvious, and conceivably biased by my experience. While I have no evidence to that effect, it is vaguely possible that my experience has been something of an exception to the general rule. "Shit," after all, "Happens".

However, while preparing to do a runner, I made enquiries of the British Embassy here in KL, and discovered that the horror stories experienced by myself and my colleagues were, ah, unexceptional.

The British High Commission have a long line of complaints going back years about MBf's employment practices with regard to expatriate staff, and should you doubt this, I suggest you phone them yourself (Fax No: +60-3-248-0880; Chancery +60-3-248-2122; Commercial Section phone number: +60-3-248-2354) and ask. Try something along the lines of "I am thinking about working for MBf, and wonder if you have had any reports on them from expatriate staff".

Shame I didn't think to ask before I left for Malaysia.

That being said, Malaysia is an extremely nice place to live in. It is not, however, nice enough to compensate for a pathological employer who clearly believes that the object of the exercise is not to work with their employees to produce a mutually beneficial end, but to, fu*k them over backwards at every possible opportunity.

While I remember the old saying that "it is difficult to distinguish between incompetence and malice" in the final analysis it makes no difference what it is, and the end result is the same: If you choose to work for MBf, you the employee will be exploited to the nth degree, and more, you will be expected to smile while it happens. And they don't even wear a condom.