Guest column: Cockroach Ken & Co. battle Y2K in Asia

Asian countries are ready for the year 2000; their citizens, apparently, are not.

Countries all the way from New Zealand to China have issued statements reassuring the international community that their computerised power, transport, logistics, health and banking systems will survive the change to the new millennium.

Equally, many of these countries have felt obliged to mount expensive promotional campaigns to reassure their own citizens that there is no need to retreat into hastily built bunkers with a year's supply of canned food.

The reason is that, in Asia, the fear of the year 2000 computer problem will most likely cause more chaos than the actual effects of year 2000 problem itself. The nightmare scenario runs something like this: someone suggests that year 2000 problems may cause food shortages; the rumoor spreads, and people begin panic buying in supermarkets; supermarket shelves are stripped empty, creating genuine fear of food shortages; disturbances break out among the citizens.

No one who understands the power of rumor in Asia would discount the possibility of some, at least, of the above events occurring in certain countries -- hence, the need for early action to reassure citizens.

In New Zealand, this job has fallen to Ken the Cockroach, the star of a $NZ1.3 million ($US657,000) TV and print media campaign put on by the country's Y2K Readiness Commission. Ken got the job due to the cockroach's noted hardiness, which includes the ability to live without water for two weeks, without food for a week, and to survive a nuclear war.

"Ken the Cockroach's message to New Zealanders is to prepare a Be Ready Kit containing the things they need," commission Chairman Basil Logan said in a statement issued at the campaign's launch. "Ken's constant reminder to New Zealanders is: all it takes is a little bit of planning, a little bit of thought."

In highly urbanised and relentlessly modern Singapore, the government has prepared a gloomy document called the Y2K Home Guide.

With a black cover and ghostly, irregular type suggesting it was printed on Gutenberg's prototype printing press, the guide starts off with detailed instructions on how to check PCs, VCRs and other domestic appliances for year 2000 readiness.

It goes on to advise citizens how to behave in particular circumstances over the millennium -- whether to stock up on food (no), whether to withdraw extra cash from ATMs (no) and whether to give your bank account information and PIN to an interested passerby (no).

Malaysia has found the ideal way to ensure everyone ignores year 2000 -- it has hired a public relations company to handle things. The local head of the public relations company said it planned to enable the population to treat January 1, 2000, as business as usual -- a task thought to be within its powers.

Elsewhere in the region, there is less publicity surrounding year 2000. There is, however, a considerable amount of year 2000 weariness in Asia's more developed economies -- not just about the computer-related year 2000 problem, but also about the festivities that have been planned to mark the millennium.

A fashionable item to possess in Hong Kong these days is apparently a ticket for a millennium eve concert that doesn't exist. Featuring leading Chinese pop singers, tickets for the nonexistent event cost around $US5 and are something to put on the mantelpiece to show that you were there -- even though you weren't.

It will be a major surprise if systems fail over the millennium period in any of the advanced Asian economies - the main threat still comes from people creating problems out of thin air, which is why Cockroach Ken and Singapore's Gloom Monster have an important part to play.

In Asia, solving the year 2000 computer problem doesn't just have to be done - it has to be seen to be done.

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