What’s the second most common phrase after dah makan?
Personally, it’s “Sorry, I’m late.”
We hear this all the time after waiting for a friend at a mamak or arriving late for a meeting. It’s become so common that we’ve coined the term ‘Malaysian timing’ to make it socially acceptable.
It’s strange that punctual Malaysians are also enabling this behaviour by saying, “It’s okay,” or “Don’t worry, I only waited for five minutes,” but the second cup of teh tarik contradicts that.
Then again, there are punctual Malaysians who are more frank than most.
Muar MP Syed Saddiq happened to work with such a person.
Once, he was late for a meeting with a boss who is strict on punctuality – our Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir.
“Since I started working with Tun M, I have only been late twice, and he remembers both occasions. This is because he takes punctuality very seriously. No excuses, no Malaysian timing.
“Yesterday, I came in seven minutes late. [To cover up my mistake] I said, ‘Tun, sorry for being five minutes late.’
“He corrected me on the spot, ‘No Saddiq, you were seven minutes late’,” Syed Saddiq wrote in a Facebook post.
This can happen to anyone. As a Malaysian, I’m not spared from the events of tardiness.
Trust me, I’ve exhausted all kinds of excuses to justify myself. Caught in a traffic jam, got stuck in an elevator, the LRT broke down – basically, everything.
However, I’ve since decided to never be late for a meeting again. Two significant experiences made me realise the importance of punctuality.
I was late and missed a story
While I was an intern, I was assigned to interview Paul Teutul Sr. from the American Choppers fame.
Teutul Sr was in Kuala Lumpur to unveil the Tourism Malaysia chopper, and my editor thought it would be a good scoop for the website.
Off I went with a notepad and pens in hand.
Initially, I planned to take the LRT, but I chose the comfort of a Sunlight taxi that afternoon.
The distance between my workplace and the press conference is 20 minutes. For some reason, I had forgotten how terrible Friday traffic can get. If you’re a Malaysian, you would know that it’s the busiest day of the week – the roads are packed due to Friday prayers and lunch crowds.
I even considered jumping out of the taxi and run towards the nearest train station, but it was too late.
I arrived late for the press conference and missed the unveiling ceremony, together with my slot to interview Teutul Sr.
When I returned to the office, my editor heard what happened. As expected, there was a stern email waiting for me.
“Please DO NOT BE LATE for your next interview,” my editor wrote.
That was the last time I arrived late for an appointment – or so I thought.
I was late and made to wait
A few years later, my ex-coursemate, Sandra, called and asked if I could assist with article writing. The assignment was to interview the school principal about their recent achievement.
“This article will appear in the newspaper, so it’s very important,” Sandra said before I squealed in glee. Oh yes, my first news article!
Since Sandra was the school’s marketing executive, she scheduled my interview slot with the principal on my behalf.
The day before the interview, she reminded me to arrive early because her principal is strict on punctuality.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be on time,” I replied.
It takes about 30 minutes to reach the school from my place. I had timed my Grab perfectly, so I’ll arrive five minutes before my scheduled appointment.
Then, something happened.
While conversing with my Grab driver, he missed a turn. The mistake added up 15 minutes to my journey, and I knew I was going to be late.
“Are you on the way? Your slot is in five minutes,” Sandra texted me.
“Sorry, I’m stuck in traffic. I’ll be there!” I replied with a lie while praying to God that I’ll make it.
My little prayer didn’t work. God decided to teach me a lesson that day, and I missed the principal’s interview slot by 10 minutes.
You might think it was just 10 minutes. No big deal.
It was far from it, guys. Again, the principal was strict on punctuality and had a very busy schedule that day.
Since I was late, I waited 30 minutes for her next available slot before I conducted her interview.
Being the gracious friend that she is, Sandra said, “It’s okay” but it was clear from her expression that it wasn’t.
At the end, the article came through, but that was also my last assignment from Sandra.
What I Learned
When we’re late, it’s easy to normalise our actions by saying we run on standard Malaysian timing. It’s fine, we think. However, remember – there are consequences for being tardy.
1. You will be known for your tardiness
“Aiyah, he’s always late.”
Have you found yourself saying this about a friend or a family member? What if someone said the same about you? It sounds unpleasant, don’t you think?
Let’s examine this behaviour in a grander scale. Let’s assume you arranged to meet a Japanese client and arrived late for the appointment.
Since you made a bad impression and disrespected your client’s time, they went back to their country and said, “Wow, Malaysians are always late.”
That’s more disheartening to hear because you know that’s not true. There are punctual Malaysians out there.
Hence, tardiness is a trait that we shouldn’t take lightly.
Furthermore, reading articles like why chronically late people are actually more successful or people who are always late are more creative don’t help either.
Even if you’re more successful or creative because of it, you need to own up to the fact that you don’t value someone else’s time.
And I’m sure you don’t always feel this way about your friends or family.
Back in the days, I was known as ‘the friend who is always 15 minutes late’. They joked about it for a long time, but I never liked the label.
All that teasing motivated me to change.
For all the brunches and gatherings that followed, I made the effort to show up early. No matter what the occasions were, I waited for them, instead of them waiting for me.
And oh boy, it took countless meet-ups before they finally dropped that label from me. For a few months, in fact. The strategy was consistency and kiasu-like time management. Always arriving early and never late.
Of course, I wasn’t as kiasu as Shakespeare who once said, “Better three hours too soon than a minute too late.”
I try to be 15 minutes early at least.
2. You will make someone else look bad
Aside from how it reflects poorly on you, have you thought about how your tardiness affects others?
Back to my story about Sandra, she recommended me to her employers under the pretence that I was reliable.
During interview day, I proved otherwise. I arrived late and made excuses.
When that happened, Sandra wasn’t interested in my excuses. All she wanted was for me to arrive on time, and I didn’t.
Will Sandra’s employers seek another recommendation from her next time? I hope so because it wasn’t her fault.
However, in a professional environment where punctuality is important, it may affect how employers perceive Sandra’s judgement in recruiting potential hires.
3. You disrespect someone’s time
One time, I scheduled a meeting with a potential client in Midvalley. It was for a website copywriting project that he desperately needed help with.
When the day finally arrived, he didn’t show up. I sat in the cafe wondering what happened. I checked my email a few times to see if I got the date and time right. Yup, it was.
I called and texted him, but received no updates.
I waited for an hour and left in frustration.
After ghosting me the entire day, my client texted that he had an emergency which was why he couldn’t attend the meeting. He also asked if we could reschedule.
Things happen, I get it. I hoped he was being honest about the emergency. However, deep down, I can’t help but feel disrespected.
If someone were to take time off their busy schedule to meet you, shouldn’t you respect them by showing up and being on time?
That was probably the question that Sandra’s school principal had in mind for me.
‘Malaysian timing’ is a phrase we use a lot, but little do we realise the effects of our tardiness. People will start to think negatively of our time management, and it’s also disrespectful of others.
I get it – it’s easy to take on a takpe attitude when there’s always someone else who arrives late for meetings or mamak meet-ups.
You might wonder, “My colleague is always late for work. Why can’t I?”
Now that we’re living in the dawn of new Malaysia, I believe that change has to start somewhere. It’ll take a few generations to transform ourselves into a nation of punctual Malaysians, but it’s doable.
The most important thing is we try.
How about you try to be five minutes early in your next meeting, family reunion, or son’s football match?
Then together, we’ll take it from there.
Do you have a story of how you were late and how it affected you? Let us know in the comments below!