TNB should engage customers

By Terence Fernandez, The Sun

RECENT reports in this paper on overbilling by Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB) resurrect the argument against monopolistic agreements that may not benefit the consumer.

Two exposes on consumers saddled with inflated bills and TNB’s lethargy in addressing them head on to quell public concern do not augur well for what is the corporate responsibility of the sole power supplier in the country.

Granted that Chong Sook Tak had his RM31,000 “arrears” reduced to RM900 following this paper’s involvement, but TNB has yet to explain how his bill was calculated and how it had come to that figure.

Inquiries by this paper only proved TNB’s high-handedness in addressing complaints overall when we were tersely told that the matter would be resolved directly with Chong.

The question is how many other Chong Sook Tak’s are out there? Here is one consumer who took the initiative to question the company and bring the matter to the public’s attention.

How many others suffer in silence and just pay up without checking – due to ignorance or simple lethargy in dealing with profit-oriented corporate bodies?

Just how much has TNB made from overcharging its customers? Now with the so-called tampering with meters, the national power company is introducing new devices, which in the experience of some customers mean higher charges.

One example is Lee Siow Eng who blew the lid off the infallibility of these meters. He was charged RM10,000 in arrears after his meter was replaced due to alleged tampering.

According to TNB, Lee’s meter reading showed “lower charges” which the former decreed was incorrect.

There had been several other similar complaints – albeit regarding lesser amounts – to the media on higher charges once the new meters are in place.

The question is how is it when the readings are low, the device is deemed to have been tampered with or faulty, but never when the readings are high?

Can TNB honestly tell us that it had, on its own initiative, looked up customers with unusually high meter readings and adjusted their bills? Or are such efforts reserved only for low readings?

In the same breath, in the case of Lee, why did TNB wait five years before informing him? The National Consumer Complaints Centre had stated that billing issues form the bulk of complaints that come to its door.

Random checks show that accusations of “tampering with meters” are among the main excuses given by TNB when consumers cry foul. This is akin to adding insult to injury.

Perhaps it is about time that the Energy Commission of Malaysia steps in – after all consumer protection and dispute resolutions are among its responsibilities.

As I am writing this, TNB is in crisis mode, holding meeting after meeting with its ground crew and technical advisers.

This is good. But it is not enough if the people are left in the dark. Media inquiries are also given scant regard, with the poor corporate communications guys being made to face the wolf pack.

Just like it spends money on “awareness campaigns” – in one case “silencing” at least one consumer group with generous grants – TNB should take the initiative to engage with its customers and explain the switch to new meters and how readings are conducted.

What constitutes “lower readings” and when can we get a reasonable explanation on estimations? It is ridiculous for a person who has been away for a month to be charged the same amount he usually pays when he is at home.

But the truth is we the consumers are to be blamed. Big corporations, including ones with bullying tendencies, only thrive when people are indifferent to their own welfare.

“Just pay and get on with life” seems to be the mantra many Malaysians live by, until the likes of Chong and Lee blow the fish out of the water. It also does not help when so-called consumer groups compromise their agenda for the almighty ringgit.

It is perhaps time for people to be more aware of what they are paying for and ensure that they get the service that is expected. Tell me, how many of you actually know how to read your electricity bill?