Metrication progress in Malaysia

Metric use in Malaysia in 2010 may give a foretaste of the situation in the UK in 2020 …or 2030 …or 2040. Our correspondent reports on a recent visit.

The UKMA YouTube Channel, www.youtube.com/user/UKMetric, has a news story in its documentary section entitled “US Switch to Metric System”. At one point, Elisabeth Gentry of the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Metric Program says that “the metric transition is on a continuum from zero metric to one hundred percent metric with every country somewhere along this continuum. It is not simply black and white, or yes and no”. Sceptics might see her as a bureaucrat trying to put a brave face on the dismal situation in the US. But the idea of a continuum does help to assess the progress a country has made and to compare it with others.

A recent visit to Malaysia suggests that it has moved further along the continuum than has the UK, but is still a long way short of 100%.

 “The Star” which is an English language newspaper published in Malaysia provides some relevant reading. Here are a few quotes from the edition of 31 December 2009:

“Europalm owns 1,500ha of plantation land in Jemoreng”. Later the article continues, “Sarawak plantation land is considered more expensive at … RM 20,000 per acre”.

Among the houses for sale on the property pages:

“Ampang Bukit Ampang 2 sty behind Carrefour 24×80 f/h f/reno kit cab RM 310k”

“Bkt Jelutong Kubah corner well kept l/a 4ksf b/u 3ksf 4+1lr 4b RM 880K”

“Cheras Damai Perdana 2½ s new 22×70 b/u 3000sf South kit extd RM 482k!”

(By way of explanation, RM is the Malaysian currency unit, sty is an abbreviation for storey, plot sizes are given in feet, and ksf means one thousand square feet)

On the Technology pages:

“The candybar phone, which measures 105.0 x 44.9 x 12.0mm in size and weighs 83g … has a 1.75in screen”

Among the offers advertised by Tesco (yes, they are big in Malaysia too):

“Panasonic 16” Stand Fan PSF-45B”

While in an article headed “Property Insights” in the Land and Property section of “The Star” on 2 January 2010 we read:

“Fortunately future supply is moderate, with only 4.28 million sq ft being added”.

Then lower down on the same page in an article about convention centres, we are told, “Among the more prominent ventures in Kuala Lumpur are the KL Convention Centre (KLCC) (9,710 sq m), the Putra World Trade Centre (PWTC) (23,504 sq m) and the Matrade Centre in Jalan Duta (13,000 sq m)”.

Clearly, the UK does not have a monopoly on metrication muddle.

Another feature of the UK scene which appears in Malaysia is a preference for abbreviations rather than symbols, exemplified by M, Km, KM and km/j (‘j’ being an abbreviation for ‘jam’ meaning ‘hour’ in Malay).

A visit to Carrefour (also big in Malaysia) to buy a measuring tape resulted in disappointment – all tapes were of the US pattern with inches on the upper scale. One suspects that Carrefour had entrusted its Chinese supplier with the specification of the tapes as well as their production.

However, in other areas where we have seen a cop-out by the British Government, Malaysia has made significant progress, for example:

• Temperatures are always given in °C
• Street markets are entirely metric
• Body weights are always given in kg
• Distances are given in km, and expressions such as “A few kilometres from here” are in general use
• Road signs are metric, although the signs themselves are of the US/Australian pattern.

The rather muddled situation seems to have become accepted as normal. As far as could be determined during a short visit, there is no plan by the Malaysian Government to complete the transition, and no private campaigning to raise the profile of the issue.

In contrast, Singapore, independent of Malaysia since 1965, has adopted SI for all purposes, encourages its citizens to do the same, and has switched to road signage complying with the Vienna Convention.

Will the UK ever catch up with Malaysia or Singapore? The recent statement by the UK Minister for Science and Innovation enthusing about the retention of the pint and mile does not inspire confidence, and the UK DfT is likely to remain an obstacle to the changeover of road signs for the foreseeable future.

Finally, a few facts about Malaysia, taken in part from the CIA web site:

Malaysia, a middle-income country, has transformed itself since the 1970s from a producer of raw materials into an emerging multi-sector economy. It is an exporter of natural gas and oil. For a short period, it possessed the world’s tallest building, the 452 m high, 88-storey Petronas Towers at Kuala Lumpur.

GDP per capita in 2008:  US$ 15200 (cf.  UK 35700, US 47500, Singapore 51600).

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5 Responses to Metrication progress in Malaysia

  1. Martin Vlietstra says:

    Looking at this article it would appear that the Malaysian Government is metric (their civil service probably follows the British model), but that consumer protection has few rules (or at any rate the use of metric units is not enforced). In contrast South Africa (and I believe Australia) made it unlawful to sell measuring devices that showed imperial units. You could weigh yourself in pounds on your old bathroom scales, but when it came to replacing them, you had to buy a metric set. It is possible that Singapore did the same.

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  2. Jeremiah says:

    I was in Malaysia a number times from 1990 to 1996. As far as I could tell the economy was fully metric. The things one encountered on a daily basis in both the consumer and industrial areas was metric. When you drove you saw kilometres, when you spoke of the weather it was degrees Celsius. When you shopped it was the kilogram, the litre and the metre.

    I wasn't looking to rent or buy property so I didn't notice if any advertisements used units that were not metric. I also didn't scan the newspapers looking for non-metric.

    Those who are opposed to metric will always search for those obscure and seldom encountered areas where obsolete units still hang on and make it seem like the obsolete units are not only alive and well but in daily use.

    For example, if one still measures their height in feet and inches, how often does one bring it up in conversation. To those who hate SI it might be a daily event like a greeting (Good morning! I'm blah feet/inch tall today and weight blah stone/pounds, how about you?). I can't remember the last time I was asked those figures and never ever bring up the subject in a conversation.

    How often does one shop for TVs or fans? Those who hate metric would no doubt run to the parts of the store that sell these items just to get the warm and fuzzies about seeing some imperial still in use. But unless you have a need to purchase a new fan or TV you are very unlikely to encounter these units.

    I'm sure that those who hate metric spend a lot of time making lists of where they can encounter obsolete units still in use. But if you were to study those lists, it would be in areas that are seldom encountered by most people in their daily routines.

    This is why it is important for the UK to change its road signage to metric. Road signs represent a daily experience. Once this is changed it would mean that the continued use of obsolete units would be regulated to obscure and rare uses.

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  3. eric says:

    The writer of this article does not sound anti metric at all, quite the opposite in fact. Maybe there is a distortion because that paper appeals to English speakers only?

    Using acres, Australia's rural land sales are pretty well stuck with this unit despite sales contracts in ha/m^2 only.
    Remnants of imperial: as long as America remains the biggest market USC will dominate in many spheres.

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  4. philh says:

    I stongly agree with Jeremiah's last sentence about road signs. They pervade our society and make it impossible for people to think in metric.

    Personal height and weight is another area. We may not talk very often about height but weight is very much on peoples minds. Most of UK society still think in stones and pounds including people in the health services.

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  5. Michael Glass says:

    While it is true that some rural areas are advertised in acres in Australia, in built-up areas, both land and building sizes are given in square metres. The main hold-outs in Australia are the measurement of screen sizes, which are measured in the diagonal and very often given in inches. I find this frustrating, but there does seem to be a tendency for television screen sizes to be given in both inches and centimetres and one popular chain (Bing Lee) just gives television screen sizes in centimetres.

    From the description above, it appears that Malaysia is not as far along the road to complete metrication as Australia.

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