Good, fast or cheap — pick two


The bullock cart sculpture in George Town with a coin as its wheel, referring to an old saying that a 10sen coin is the size of a bullock cart wheel to islanders. – CHAN BOON KAI/The Star

MANY of my friends who are businessmen in the Klang Valley have a rule about Penang.

“Don’t do business with Penangites,” they would tell me during my seven years in the Klang Valley in the early 2000s. They did not know I love Penang as I listened to them with a poker face.

No fewer than seven seasoned entrepreneurs -- in food and beverage, construction, information technology, et cetera -- swore they would never do joint ventures with Penang business folk.

And I met several business contacts in Ipoh with the same perception. Penangites are stingy, petty and calculative, they would say.

And then there was something a professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) told me once.

According to her, when she was a student at USM, young ladies studying there would pass this advice around: Do not date Penangites; they take you only to hawker stalls.

Arching over all these allegations is the oft-spoken sentence: “A 10sen coin is the size of a bullock cart wheel in Penang”, meaning to say Penangites make a big deal over 10 sen.

It seems some Penangites take pride in this label because there is a sculpture in Jalan Masjid Kapitan Kling, George Town, to illustrate it.

It is an iron piece of a bullock cart with the square half-cent coin of the Straits Settlement days used as its wheel.

“That statement was once said by Penangites on the mainland about those on the island,” said former Jelutong MP Jeff Ooi.

Ooi, 65, a Kedahan, spent a good deal of his youth on mainland Penang. He was an IT consultant in the Klang Valley for many years and then spent two terms serving Penang as an MP.

He recalls that when this bullock cart wheel saying reached the Klang Valley, folk there modified it to say that the 10 sen coin was the size of a roundabout for Penang folk.

“This saying has been around for as long as I can remember and it was first spoken about the islanders,” said Ooi.

“Maybe Penangites of old were so careful with their money that it became a culture of sorts.

“I myself view Penang folk as having extra tight purse strings but I see this as a trait only among those in their 50s and above.

“Younger Penangites who have spent time working around Kuala Lumpur know they shouldn’t be counting pennies all the time.”

I began ruminating about this bullock cart wheel saying because of the Penang ferries.

Our grand old ferries are heading for a new future as floating restaurants, museums and tourist attractions, showing how much they mean to Penangites and visitors.

Then on social media, I read posts from Penangites expressing hope that these new attractions would be “affordable”.

Why should they be affordable? Why can’t they be wonderful, flashy, enriching and posh? Grand, well-designed and beautiful?

In the 1950s, there was a project management principle called the Iron Triangle, also called the Triple Constraint.

It states that the success or end-quality of a project is limited by cost, time and scope.

The Iron Triangle is now deemed obsolete because it cannot weigh in other facets of successful project management such as stakeholder values and environmental sustainability, but as a rule of thumb, the three constraints are today encapsulated into three adjectives: good, fast and cheap.

What is good and fast cannot be cheap. What is fast and cheap will never be good. And if you want it good and cheap, don’t expect it to be fast. However you do it, you cannot get it good and fast and cheap at the same time.

If we want the new future of the ferries to be affordable (cheap?), we get to pick one more. Do we want it good or fast?

We need to rely on the abilities of entrepreneurs to give the new ferries a bright future. The projects need to be rewarding for them, their employees and financiers to attract good talent and resources.

We need to make sure that what the ferries become will not be laughed at, made fun of, criticised.

So let’s not ask for “affordable”. Let us be willing to pay well and expect a good time on the ferries when they are reborn.

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