A brief history of counting

by Goh Keat Peng (

With so much counting activity going on in Malaysia these days, it sets me thinking of … NUMBERS. Of the first counting most normal human beings began with. We would have started with our fingers, one, two, three, four five, before we realised there were five more fingers on the other hand, making it ten!

Then we discovered that our counting can even be extended with our toes, which took us to twenty, doubling our counting capacity! Then came the apparatus of rows of beads mounted on a stand which helped us to count way beyond our initial ten fingers and ten toes.

Then much later on came the electronic calculator presenting us with any imaginable total at our finger tips. Only for us to discover when we know better that with the ancient abacus – with neither battery nor electronic circuitry – we could count to almost any number!

These days of course our nation is embroiled in a frenzied  counting exercise.  How many human beings can an old historic sports stadium contain?

The powers that be have their own inimitable way of crunching numbers.  They saw the crowd and thought 80,000 but declared it to the world as 45,000. (Just as it used to be done when a returning citizen’s luggage was actually, physically checked by custom officers: “Berapa harga itu, pak?” And the traveller keeping as straight a face as he (or more likely she) could manage, replied, “Oh itu! Sikit sahaja, tuan. Beli di pasar murah!”)

The authorities do have a certain history about counting things their way. A sleight of hand performed on the calculator or more likely on their own inventive minds. It takes a David Copperfield to fathom what only a David Copperfield can do. Magic which defies the comprehension of ordinary minds.

Welcome to psychological counting! For which the figure could be anywhere up to 500,000 in the mind of the wistful organising committee who dream of future possibilities (in the fashion of Don Quixote) all the way down to 45,000 thousand according to wistful authorities desperate to bring the figures to a manageable, psychological size to facilitate their much-needed sleep and provide relief to their worried minds and hearts.

We ordinary non-David Copperfield, non Don Quixote-type of Malaysians, however,  are very much less sophisticated calculators of numbers.  Our starting point is with given realities. In the stands, it is generally accepted that 40,000 can be seated, given the series of extensive refurbishments done to the original artifice over many years (where this writer, first time in a stadium,  sitting in awe next to his father, saw Malaysia beat the fancied South Koreans to lift the first Asian Youth Football trophy!).

Plus the number of human beings (regardless of ethnic origin or religious or political affiliation) who could occupy a seat-less padang (normally occupied by the athletes or footballers). Plus the many more who were in the vicinity surrounding the stadium and in nearby streets because they could not get in.

Sekurang-kurangnya, 150,000. Aiyah, between friends, put it down as 120,000. And then again, to better ease the path of the powers that be to slumber-land since this writer believes it is better they be asleep than awake for the sake of the nation, as a friendly gesture, let’s agree on 100,000! (“Tak boleh kurang lagi ka, boss?” “Tidak boleh lah, puan. Ini memang last price. Ada sepuluh orang anak di rumah. Perlu cari makan lah, puan. Tolong lah, kesian kepada keluarga aku.”)

In this exercise, the English saying about counting sheep to court sleep is proven wrong at last! Because the more sheep the powers that be count, the further away sleep seems to be for them. And since they are wide awake in their frenzied counting, they might as well start counting how many goats (or is it cows?) would need to be brought in to report to the polling booth in order to offset the staggering number of votes represented by the 100,000 who turned up at Stadium Merdeka last Saturday.

On the basis of the formula that for every one who actually took the trouble to turn up on Saturday, fifty more with the same voter sentiments would have stayed at home! (At the last general elections in 2008, the voter turn-out was 76%, that is, 8,161,039.)

These are numbers that keep both side of the election equation awake. For one side, awake thinking WHAT WILL BE; for the other side, awake thinking WHAT MUST NOT BE!

Yet in all this, our present psychological state of the nation, why don’t we come to an agreement? Let’s stop thinking of NUMBERS. Chuck the numbers.

And for this critical phase of the nation’s history, let us appreciate why human language has so kindly come up with a numberless term: COUNTLESS.

  • Think, the COUNTLESS extent of corruption and robbery of the nation’s hard-earned resources for the personal greed and ego of the favoured elite class!
  • Think, the COUNTLESS years the nation has endured the whims and fancies of a single ruling class!
  • Think, the COUNTLESS cases of those of every ethnic – minority or majority – community within this nation who truly deserved but never got financial aid for study and small businesses!
  • Think of the COUNTLESS trees inscrutably cut down for the profit of a favoured  few!
  • Think of the COUNTLESS neighbourhoods in the nation who are still without adequate supply of electricity, running water, roadways, medical facilities ….!
  • Think of the COUNTLESS problems, after the coming elections,  that will still plaque those who are presently receiving “generous” cash hand-outs from the powers that be for want of serious, properly-planned, sustainable development programmes on the ground to close the gap between the have’s and the have-not’s!
  • Think of the COUNTLESS more years that the nation will be subjected to such anomalies and discrepancies if this time round, we still persist with status quo and fail to bring in overdue CHANGE!

My readers can add COUNTLESS other examples of unrestrained violation of good governance.

For the sake of our children’s future, STOP figuring out NUMBERs, START thinking in COUNTLESS terms!

The impact of Saturday 12 January, 2013 in Kuala Lumpur is not how many came to the gathering. What COUNTS will be how many who will come to the polling booth will be voting for CHANGE. Then, we need to put on our counting hats and watch HOW the counting is being conducted. Never mind if they don’t get the numbers at the stadium right. But it MATTERS that we ensure that the COUNTING of the votes are meticulously correct.

(NB. For the readers’ information, this writer did not get through his maths paper at the Overseas School Certificate exams in 1963.) 

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