We say we are a progressive society, yet we remain superstitious when it comes to numbers linked to possessions.
IT sounded like a terrible curse: Die, die and drop dead. That’s what the number plate of the first car I could afford meant in Chinese dialects.
But NG 4464, the 11-year-old Mitsubishi Lancer with the cute telephone handset-shaped rear lights bought in 1985, turned out to be such a blessing and joy to drive.
But one person did die in the jalopy – an Indonesian worker who succumbed to toxic gas from a leaking pontoon used for reclamation work at Kota Laksamana in Malacca.
He and four other welders had gone into the hull of the vessel and all of them were overcome by gas emanating from the rust and rotting matter inside.
By the time two other reporters and I got there, an ambulance had already taken three of them and the fourth was just being pulled out.
I decided to drive the man, who was by then frothing at the mouth, to the hospital. The ambulance arrived just as I turned into the main road after racing 2km across the dusty and bumpy stretch of newly reclaimed land.
We were told later that the man, like the three others, was already dead before reaching the hospital. I’m quite sure that it was the gas that killed him and not my supposedly cursed number plate.
Despite our claims to being a progressive society, many Malaysians are still very superstitious when it comes to numbers linked to their possessions.
It’s a common fixation for all – from royalty and politicians to the man in the street.
The brouhaha over the Sultan of Johor’s WWW1 number and the Health Minister’s aborted WWW15 plate has predictably extended into political fray with cyberspace awash with much mockery and subtle innuendos.
The logically-minded may be dismissive of faith in numbers but they do seem to have incredible power in controlling how we lead their lives.
The most obvious is the dread of number 4 among the Chinese. The number is definitely out when it comes to car numbers.
To omit the homonym for the word “die” in Chinese, almost all buildings have floors named 3A while house addresses are also changed likewise.
In the West, it’s more about triskaidekaphobia, the fear of number 13. The number is least favoured for car plates.
Hotels and office buildings don’t have 13th floors or rooms with the number.
The worst form of this trepidation is friggatriskaidekaphobia – the fear of Friday the 13th. Between 17 million and 21 million people in the United States are affected by the date, according to the Stress Management Centre and Phobia Institute in North Carolina.
The fright comes at enormous economic cost. The estimated loss of business resulting from people too fearful to do anything on such dates is between US$800mil (RM2.5bil) and US$900mil (RM2.8bil).
Many in people in Malaysia also avoid “13” but my oldest friend, film industry doyen Tan Sri L Krishnan, regards it as his lucky number.
Since taking a used Volvo stretch limousine with a 13 number plate as repayment for a debt, he has always bid for the number. He once owned five cars with 13 but now it is just two.
Yes, numbers seem to be our obsession. Each year we spend about RM150mil for the car numbers of our choice.
It is set to be higher this year with the coveted WWW prefix series (symbolising the World Wide Web) already raking in RM12mil.
But we are nowhere near the United Arab Emirates which holds the record for the most expensive number plates.
In 2008, a “1” plate was sold for a staggering sum of Dh52.5mil (RM44.9mil) during a charity auction.
UAE also holds the global record for the second, third, fourth and fifth expensive number plates – collectively sold for Dh63.1mil (RM54.3mil).
Hong Kong comes second in the number-crazy rankings, followed by the UK where the highest grossing number is “F1”, sold for about £500,000 (RM2.28mil) to luxury car designer Afzal Kahn.
Among the showy plate buyers in the UK are Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich who paid £285,000 (RM1.4mil) for “VIP 1”.
We might be able to bid for such vanity numbers from as early as next year when the Road Transport Department (JPJ) introduces the personalised number registration system as another means of earning added revenue.
Owners of all types of vehicles, except taxis, can bid for unique numbers, provided they pay for the privilege.
There would be two categories of such plates – exclusive, issued specifically to one person; and non-exclusive, which can belong to more than one, like those from a company.
Existing vehicle owners would also be able to apply to change their ordinary numbers into fancy plates.
The plates may be based on names or witty abbreviations like in the US and several European countries but we can expect strict rules on characters linked to religion or race.
The JPJ is yet to decide on details such as the number of characters or the minimum cost of bids but it must be firm on one thing: Nobody should get it for free.
So, while waiting for numbers such as UTD 19, 2LV4FVR or GR8PL8, I suppose we should be happy that some people are spending a lot of money to impress or amuse us with their numbers. Like MAT 1, PEN 15 and TAH 1, bought for RM14,300, obviously by someone with a wacky sense of humour.
> Associate Editor M. Veera Pandiyan likes this observation by Sigmund Freud: “Just as no one can be forced into belief, no one can be forced into unbelief.”
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