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Computerization in TELMAL

Although TELMAL embarked on computerization in the early 1970s, there has recently been major upgrading and the development of new systems to provide more functions and utilize more up-to-date technology. This includes designing and developing an integrated customer service order system, upgrading the systems for billing, financial management, human resource management, material management, and corporate and marketing information and areas of technical and network operations. Despite the attempts to computerize, the actual rate of diffusion is not very high. The proportion of our respondents who used computers 'most of the time' in their office tasks ranged from 72.5 per cent to as low as 6.3 per cent, depending on the respondent's task and gender. About 26.7 per cent of female respondents, and 42.6 per cent of the male respondents, spent one to four hours on the computer a day, while 69.9 per cent of the females used computers for five to eight hours per day, compared to 53.4 per cent of the male respondents. The perceived importance of their computer-related tasks differed according to gender. Women office workers ranked hands-on responsibilities such as directing mail and telephone messages, reading letters, processing records and data entry as their most important tasks, while male office workers were most involved in processing and maintaining records, data entry, information gathering and writing original materials. It seems that men are more involved in jobs requiring 'mental' concentration, as compared to the more routine tasks of the women. Table 9.2 depicts the ranking of office tasks in terms of frequency on the importance and the extent of computer usage of the respondents by gender.

Computerization and employment

As of October 1990, there were 28,015 employees at TELMAL compared to 28,168 in 1988. Thus there has been a slight reduction in staff (minus 154) despite the expansion of services and the customer base, and the substantial increase in profits through the years. Women comprised 24 per cent of the total staff in 1990. Some 78 per cent of all employees were Malays, compared to 9 per cent Chinese and 11 per cent Indians. The overall domination of Malays is a legacy of the colonial bureaucracy and recent state economic policies to narrow the ethnic gap, particularly in the urban sector.

Six per cent of the female staff and 4.8 per cent of the men are in the 'executive' category. This gives the impression that women are being given better opportunities to advance to leadership positions.11 However, on closer examination, most if not all of the top decision-making positions are held by Malay men. Of the female executives, 90 per cent are Malays, while 75 per cent of the male executives are Malays. Only 4 per cent of executives are Indians, and 16 per cent are Chinese. This contrasts to the situation in other sectors, particularly in the finance and computer vendor and service industries, where top management is predominantly male and Chinese. Five per cent of all staff, and 5 per cent of all Malay staff, are executives, whereas 9 per cent of the Chinese staff and just 1.6 per cent of the Indian staff are in the executive category. The majority of the Indian non-executive employees are labourers or lower level technicians.

Thus ethnic and class differentials are as important (and sometimes more important) than gender differentials. In TELMAL, the hierarchical occupational ladder prevents the majority of men and women from climbing to the top or being recruited to that limited space, but it remains easier for Malays of either sex or for Chinese men. Indians are barely represented, and in fact remain at the bottom of the non-executive levels. Feminist theories of work have to consider the complex interrelationship of the forces contributing to segmentation in employment and take account of how these operate in relation to specific sectors in society, rather than just focusing on gender per se. Table 9.3 shows the distribution of selected executive and non-executive employees, and of employees in computer-related occupations, by ethnicity and gender.

Table 9.2 Ranking of office tasks and computer usage at TELMAL by gender

Female respondents

Male respondents

Tasks (in order of importance)

% use computer most of the time

Tasks ( in order of importance)

% use computer most of time

1 Directing mail & telephone messages


1 Process and maintain records


2 Read letters or enquiries


2 Data entry


3 Process and maintain records


3 Information gathering


4 Data entry


4 Write original materials


5 Information gathering


5 Prepare charts, diagrams


6 Write original materials


6 Statistical computation


7 Statistical computation


7 Production control


8 Text input


8 Write standard materials


9 Filing


9 Billing


10 Write standard materials


10 Spreadsheet


11 Spreadsheet


11 Money handling


12 Prepare charts, diagrams


12 Support services


13 Money handling


13 Filing


14 Billing


14 Proofread/edit


15 Create a filing system


15 Bookkeeping


16 Fill in forms


16 Read letters or enquiries


17 Production control


17 Directing mail & telephone messages


18 Proofread/edit


18 Text input


19 Develop forms


19 Fill in forms


20 Bookkeeping


20 Develop forms


To a large extent, the gender differentiation of employment at TELMAL reflects the pattern at the national level. Decision-making at the executive level is dominated by men, particularly at the most senior levels. The technical slots are also the domain of men while women are concentrated in data-entry, clerical and telephonist occupations. While there are equal numbers of men and women in computer-related jobs, the majority of women are lower level data processing operators. Women are in a relatively strong position at the level of systems programmers, but the main decisions regarding computerization remain with systems analysts, three-quarters of whom are men.

Table 9.3 Distribution of selected employees in TELMAL by ethnicity and gender














Executive 790 375 197 34 52 8 1,039 417
  Technical 6,292 1,019 905 187 643 46 7,840 1,252
  Clerical 1,168 2,216 102 149 99 44 1,369 2,409
  Manual 4,692 101 256 21 1,573 33 6,521 155
  Teleprinter 34 212 1 24 3 34 38 270
  Telephonist 596 1.032 34 201 34 132 664 1,365
Computer-related Jobs
  Systems analysts 97 33 9 2 1 2 107 37
  Systems programmers 31 20 4 3 1 - 36 23
  Computer operators 36 17 1 4 4 1 41 22
  Data processing operators 10 97 - 9 3 9 13 115

The internal labour market

Internal promotion seems hard to come by for women employees. Of the female respondents, 64 per cent had been in their jobs for less than 10 years, 27 per cent for eleven to twenty years, and 9 per cent had been in the same jobs for more than 21 years. This was completely different for the male respondents, 94 per cent of whom had been in their jobs for less than 10 years. Men were promoted after working an average of 4 years, compared to 9.5 years for women.

Only about 25 per cent of women from the telephonist, clerical and managerial categories were 'quite satisfied' or 'very satisfied' with their chances of advancement in the company. None of the women computer operators was very satisfied with their promotion prospects, compared to 25 per cent of their male counterparts. When four new data centres were established, 'outsiders', mainly male, were recruited rather than relying on internal recruitment and promotion. Yet the TELMAL 1991 Annual Report recognized the importance of career opportunities and upgrading to lower level staff. It noted quite proudly that in the past year there had been twenty-two promotions from non-executive to executive levels. While this could provide an incentive to the lower staff, it should also be noted that this represented just 0.08 per cent of the total non-executive staff in the organization. The promotions were seen as reflecting the substantial increase in revenue per employee, from RM 80,500 in 1990 to RM 93,000 in 1991.

Computerization and employment

What is the impact of computerization on employment? According to the union president of TELMAL, management had stated that computerization has meant that between four and five thousand workers, mainly at the technical and clerical levels, are no longer required. However, there have apparently been no lay-offs so far, partly because of the strength of the union, and partly because of the political repercussions. Of the total West Malaysian non-executive employees in TELMAL, 94 per cent are Malays. Laying these workers off would be political suicide, as Malays provide the urban support base to the government. Indeed in the early to mid-1980s, public sector employment expanded considerably, relative to the other sectors, with the intake focused on the Malay population who are expected to provide support to the state.12

But it seems that while the union can save people, it does not necessarily save jobs. Nor does the union have a say in the hiring of new or contract staff. In early 1991 there was an intake of telephone operators in the international section, to meet rising customer demand. However, these workers, mainly women, were employed on a contract basis without the benefits enjoyed by regular staff.

Table 9.4 Respondents' satisfaction with their chances of advancement in the company, by gender and occupation (%)


Computer operators including data entry operators

Telephone operators (all women)

Clerical (typists, clerks, secretaries, accounts assistants)










Not satisfied 25 77 - 44 61 56 21 26
Quite satisfied 50 23 - 32 21 32 50 48
Very satisfied 25 - - 24 18 12 29 26

Computerization has in fact displaced labour in some cases. For example, the development of the rather sophisticated Customer Automated Services System (CASS) has led to the elimination of many routine clerical and technical tasks. The mechanized service order system automatically processes, records, updates and stores all information about the subscriber, eliminating time-consuming paperwork. Previously it took at least three months (if one was fortunate) to obtain a telephone line. With CASS, one can be confident of receiving a line within three days.

When computers were introduced to billing in 1986, clerical workers who used to write and type bills became redundant, and were relocated to other branch offices. Data entry operators were then hired to key in bills more rapidly. However with on-line billing from the various payment centres, under CASS, these data entry operators will one day themselves be redundant. The upgrading to a digital switching system, has also made some telephone operators redundant, and a cable plant assignment system has reduced manual technical intervention. One of the CASS managers estimated that 200 staff had been redeployed to other sections, while new outside staff, mainly systems analysts and programmers, had been recruited.

Changes in work organization, job content and skills

Office automation affects different levels and types of workers differently. The first applications of IT in TELMAL involved the simple mechanization of high-volume activities such as processing forms, billing subscribers and answering phone calls. These early systems involved keypunch operators using batch systems, typists and telephonists. The shifts from manual to computerized activities were fairly straightforward as task fragmentation, or Taylorization, had already routinized these functions. Thus this early phase of automation conformed to the pre-existing division of labour in a rationalized bureaucracy. The result was task fragmentation and the intensification of work, which was decentralized into geographically separated and gender segregated units.

Routine keyboarding was functionally and spatially separated from the rest of the clerical work. In a sense, the technology demanded spatial separation, due to the convenience of the computer infrastructure being centrally located. As a result of this fragmentation, the present data entry operators, some of whom were previously key-punch operators or typists, work on the machines all day, in shifts and with set production standards monitored by the computer.

In the TELMAL main office, forty-five data processing operators work three shifts, with a break of twenty minutes in the morning and a one hour lunch break. Often they work overtime after office hours and on Sundays. These workers, most of them women, are required to key in between 10,000 and 14,000 keystrokes per hour, and their productivity chart is posted on the wall the next morning. Tension and pressure to perform permeate the small crowded workplace. Adding to the tension are restrictions preventing them moving freely or speaking to their colleagues during working hours. One of the operators said:

With privatization there is more pressure to work. Work gets faster and the room is very cold and small. We have to do overtime a lot especially at the end of the month. I feel very tired . . . my eyes, my head, my back are all painful. When I go home I have to do housework again. Many women here have had miscarriages, but I do not know the exact number. We want a better place to work, an increase in pay and more staff. Before, the extra work was subcontracted out. But now this has stopped due to an increase in costs. It is cheaper to pay us overtime.

Similar intensification and control over work is also experienced by the international telephonists at TELMAL. Previously, these telephonists seem to have had more control over their work processes. They were required to write down customer information and bookings on ticket slips and collect the tickets, check, arrange them by country and then send the final accounts to the billing section. With the introduction of computerized exchanges in 1985-1987, and with privatization, they feel their work has intensified and that there is more control over what they do. Now they have to fulfil a quota of 3,000 calls per day or to complete a call within ten seconds. A computer checks their productivity, and makes a monthly report on their performance. At the same time, the telephonists, all female, prefer the present system which is easier to handle as the equipment is less heavy and cumbersome. Only now there is more work and they feel more pressured to perform. During one interview, one of them said:

My work is now more efficient with computers. However I have to answer more calls. There is more work and I have to work faster and non-stop. When I reach home I am so tired I do not want to answer any more phone calls! However my chances of promotion are poor. It is very difficult and I feel frustrated.

Typists, clerks and secretaries have been spared this intensification and loss of control. Although there is rationalization and increasing specialization, the work has become easier. This is especially so for small work groups performing both clerical and typing activities, such as the mobile maritime service group, which handles ship to shore communication charges. The five female clerks, under a female supervisor, work in a separate room. They check through an average of 1,500 dockets per month and used to type up the relevant information on typewriters. With the introduction of two personal computers in 1989, the work load has become lighter and easier. In fact there is a request for each typist to have her own personal computer. The person we interviewed seems to like her work and working environment - there is freedom of movement in this small and decentralized work group, although this is more restricted now with privatization. According to her,

I like my work and the environment here. However there are more restrictions now. For example, we cannot take an afternoon tea break there are specific times for breaks now. We cannot relax as people are eyeing you, or we are afraid that people are eyeing you. There is now more pressure to perform.

The information in Table 9.5, gathered from the respondents' responses, reflects this mood.

The above discussion suggests that the introduction of computerization in TELMAL has brought about changes in work relations and organization among the various categories of office staff. The effects of the first stage of office automation seem to be in line with the Braverman hypothesis that, for certain categories of workers, tasks are fragmented, and deskilled so that production becomes more controlled and centralized, with increased occupational segregation. But this does not mean that the organization of office work is technologically driven. There is simply a meeting of interests between capital and automation, the computer builds on processes which were already present. In other words, computerization extends and intensifies the pre-existing division of labour so that productivity and profits can be increased. However, some are not affected, others have their work transformed in the classical Braverman fashion, and there are some who are still involved in a variety of tasks and skills without undue loss of control over their work.

Reorganization of work

Recently, with the introduction of integrated and more sophisticated systems, there seems to be a reorganization of work which is reversing some of these trends and creating new work processes. However it is difficult to evaluate the new organization and processes as the integrated systems have just been introduced. Nonetheless, it is clear that certain data processing functions will soon be eliminated. The data entry operators who are inputting the billing information from the Post Office will soon become redundant, when the Post Office is connected on-line to the CASS system. These operators will have to be redeployed. When the billing system for employees' clinic bills is computerized, typists will no longer be needed there. According to one of the respondents, typists and clerks are a dying breed in her particular section. New staff are accounts assistants, with accounting certificates or diplomas.

Table 9.5 Respondents' perceptions regarding productivity, freedom of movement and decision making


% agreeing with statement

Computer operators











The computer keeps track of my productivity quite a bit/a lot 75 62 93 40 43 38 19
The computer has increased my work output quite a bit/a lot 100 95 97 94 83 80 80
Freedom of movement
I can take breaks when I want to:
  - never 25 50 96 29 33 16 29
  - once in a while 50 50 4 68 60 74 56
  - often 25 0 0 3 7 10 15
I can talk with other workers from where I sit
  - never 0 22 61 6 3 4 12
  - once in a while 50 61 39 41 61 28 44
  - often 50 17 0 53 36 68 44
I can walk around when I want to
  - never 25 39 97 15 14 6 7
  - once in a while 25 50 3 53 62 40 51
  - often 50 11 0 32 34 54 42
I can make decisions about my work flow
  - never 25 56 96 32 41 10 14
  - once in a while 25 28 2 44 31 31 32
  - often 50 16 2 24 28 59 54
I can make decisions without the supervisor's OK
  - never 25 56 84 32 36 16 23
  - once in a while 75 44 13 50 51 60 42
  - often 0 0 3 18 13 24 35
My opinions are listened to by management
  - never 25 39 88 9 32 12 7
  - once in a while 75 61 11 74 51 60 58
  - often 0 0 1 17 17 28 35
I am asked for my comments on proposed office changes
  -never 75 72 67 59 63 52 30
  - once in awhile 0 28 27 29 22 28 44
  - often 25 0 6 12 15 20 26

New skills can also be added to workers' functions, as has happened with the book-keeping clerks. With integrated accounting, previously fragmented tasks in the various accounts units are more integrated. In TELMAL's international section, the book-keepers used just to 'input' the receipts from various sources e.g. salaries, allowances, refund, leave, fines etc. These would then be sent to the central accounts section which would produce daily and monthly reports (output). Since 1987, a new section called 'Input/Output' has been created, and staff have acquired new skills in areas such as preparing balances and budget forecasts. The male bookkeepers in this section work as a team and enjoy their work as they can 'see what they are doing'. While there is more work, they do not mind as it gets done more efficiently and there is no pressure as they are their own bosses. In another sense, there is also less work, as the earlier routine paper work has been eliminated. According to one male book-keeper: 'Although I have more work to do I learn something new. I can see what I am doing as I have now my own programme for budget forecast. I have more control over my work now.'

With more advanced systems, the centralization of command seems to allow for more decentralized control, and thus more flexibility at the middle and clerical levels. At the middle level, systems analysts, programmers and their end users have been found to work together, albeit mainly in implementing new systems on a trial basis. It is possible that clerical staff, as end users, could meet with the systems designers to change existing systems or to suggest new ways of obtaining information. At the lower levels, the position of the pure typist is being eliminated as clerks take on their responsibilities. Here again, earlier fragmented tasks are reunited into single multitask operations. Clerks become more independent as they are put in charge of specific operations.

An example is a senior clerk who handles international accounts dealing with leased circuits. Previously he had a few typists in his section to write the bills, with each typist completing twenty billings a day in triplicate. It took more than a month to generate the bills to the 270 subscribers (500 circuits). However with the integrated billing system, the time spent on manual labour has been cut by 80 per cent and he feels that his staff is now redundant. This is because he can now key in the information himself and the computer will generate the bills. This has simplified his work and he feels there is more control. He has also learnt new computer skills in the reorganization of the work processes in his section. While the work has become lighter, privatization has meant that staff have to be more disciplined as quotas have to be met every month.

In another accounts section dealing with pay, the introduction of the human resource management system has made the payment of salaries, income tax, housing loans, and other payments to staff more efficient. The time required to process changes has been reduced from ten weeks to two weeks, the workload has been reduced and tasks are centralized. Where previously the various kinds of information were typed up by different typists who specialized in their own little area of work, now there are only two clerks, who have to do everything. According to the chief clerk:

The clerks are independent now and can run the whole show. By having to relate to more agencies, they also pick up more skills. They are more competent. However, sad to say, there is no increase in their salaries or grade structure.

Typists are also made redundant with the clerks taking over their jobs, and in fact typists who retire or resign are not replaced. Although the work is easier there is more pressure to perform in a profit-making company, and more reports to prepare. This chief clerk has worked for twenty-six years in the company, and reached her maximum grade nine years ago. In fact she is doing the work of an accounts officer. However it is difficult to get promoted as: 'Promotions are based on the book. Only with a Diploma can one be promoted to be an accounts assistant. I have taken computer classes outside my working hours to improve myself, but all this is not recognised.'

The introduction of IT in office work does not inevitably entail work intensification or deskilling. The negative consequences fall mainly on the shoulders of data entry workers and typists, whose work is routine, monotonous and highly stressed. They also suffer more in terms of health and safety due to the nature of their working conditions. At the same time flexible multifunctional jobs are possible, at least in certain clerical sections.

Our survey of the clerical workers' skills revealed that women ranked abstract and interactive skills (concentration, cooperation with others, problem solving. good memory) above technical skills such as good spelling and good grammar. In fact the performance rating of telephonists at TELMAL focuses primarily on these 'invisible' skills and abstract, interactive and caring characteristics, such as knowledge of the company, initiative, cooperation, patience, and ability to communicate (Table 9.6). This affirms the positions taken by Goodman (1985), Lie and Rasmussen (1985), and Pullman and Szymanski (1988), who criticise current discussions of office skills for focusing too much on routine, and on tasks which are easily visible, measurable and male constructed. However despite TELMAL's recognition of the importance of these traits in its telephonists, they are not customarily categorized as skills, and are thus not rewarded accordingly.

Union demands and gender issues

In TELMAL, the union seems to be an important arena in which social conflict is negotiated, particularly in collective bargaining. Some of the union members felt that it was important to be in the union to fight for their rights, as management did not care about the workers. Some of them voiced their opinions about management during our interviews: 'They only care about workers' output and do not inform workers about health and safety issues regarding computerization. Management and union are far from each other.' Because of the strength of the union, the collective agreement negotiated as a result of privatization guaranteed that no jobs would be lost. Moreover, when the company was floated on the stock exchange, the union also negotiated for shares to be sold first to the workers. The union was successful in obtaining shares which were allocated proportionately according to the occupational grade of the workers. While this was a victory, it was a small one due to the huge disparity between shares allocated to executives and lower level employees, even those who had served for a long time. The lowest-ranking worker was only allotted one unit of RM 5,000, even if he or she had worked for shiny years in the organization. Clerical workers were entitled to three units, supervisors to four units, and executives were entitled to between ten and thirty units each. However, the union has recently been seeking an extra share for the lower level workers. According to our clerical interviewees, the allocation was unfair as those who really worked hard, for example the labourers, did not get what they deserved, compared to the executives who received the maximum benefits.

TELMAL workers have also won year-end bonuses. Worker consciousness, at least for economic gains, seems to be fairly high. During the research, many of the staff, aware of the increased profits that the company had made in 1990, were preparing to take to the streets to demand their bonuses. Indeed, management appears to recognize the vital role of labour in 'their contribution to the success of privatization'. As stated in the 1989 report: 'Union activities are encouraged in the genuine belief that these contribute to healthy industrial relations and provide for the effective resolution of issues on a collective basis.' It seems that employment prospects and working conditions will to a large extent be determined by how social conflict is resolved. In the case of TELMAL, at least during the transition period (which fortunately occurred during a period of high growth), capital was open to trade union demands since it also realized the vital contribution of labour to its corporate goals. The direction of change also depends on the level of trade union consciousness of the leadership and members, who are at the moment more bent on economic advantage than broader political goals such as worker participation and democracy. Perhaps this is not surprising, since trade unions' voices have become somewhat muted due to repressive and anti-labour measures of the state.

Table 9.6 Ranking of skills most important to TELMAL workers


Clerical workers


Very important (%)


Very important (%)

1 Accuracy


1 Accuracy


2 Good memory


2 Good memory


3 Tact and diplomacy


3 Concentration


4 Concentration


4 Problem solving


5 Ability to communicate


5 Cooperation with others


6 Cooperation with others


6 Tact and diplomacy


7 A good sense of timing


7 An eye for detail


8 An eye for detail


8 A good sense of timing


9 Good spelling


9 Ability to communicate


10 General knowledge of the workings of the firm


10 Ability to coordinate workflow


11 Explaining policies and procedures


11 Explaining policies and procedures


12 Good grammar


12 A good knowledge of workings of company


13 Problem solving


13 Good grammar


14 Ability to coordinate workflow


14 Ability to read other's handwriting


15 Proper dress


15 Knowledge of maths


16 Ability to read other's handwriting


16 Ability to format (text, charts)


17 Knowledge of maths


17 Creativity


18 Creativity


18 Good spelling


19 Ability to format (text, chart)


19 Proper dress


Source: List of skills adapted from Pullman and Szymanski (1988)13

The TELMAL union is not making gender issues a priority: the tendency is for gender to be either subsumed under economic demands or influenced by ideological constructs and images of the role of women. Rather than recognizing the undervalued skills of office and the difficulty they face in going up the career ladder, given the level of redundancy as a result of computerization, the union has been satisfied simply to retain their grade which is one of the lowest in the job hierarchy. They start with a basic salary of RM 407 per month with annual increments of RM 17, compared to a starting salary of RM 2,002 with annual increments of RM 66 for officers.

Much the same applies regarding health and safety. The union has asked for a hazards allowance for workers exposed to microwave and/or radiation emissions, rather than for the participation of workers in the safe and ergonomic redesign and reorganization of such systems. The majority of the women workers will not know how, if at all, radiation affects their reproductive health. Respondents who worked with computers, particularly those in their forties, complained of headaches and stress. Due to stress, they say that there is a tendency for them to eat too much. While the union has training sessions on health and safety aspects of computers and VDU, these sessions reach only a few workers, and the VDU hazards which affect mainly women workers are not priority issues. According to our interviews, management is reluctant to release workers for training sessions because of target outputs and deadlines.

Women employees are still viewed primarily as homemakers. While there are positive union demands in relation to pregnancy and day care centres, the specific training activities which have been recommended for women workers are in Home Economics and Domestic Science classes.

The union's failure to take up gender issues, and women's lack of interest in the union, reinforce one another. Several female union activists we interviewed said that women are scared to join the union. Apparently women are unaware, have too much work to do, and are afraid to appear in the forefront. Some workers feel that the union is not doing much, particularly for those at the lower levels. Women are poorly represented in union leadership positions - there were only four women out of a total of sixty-four members at the Executive Committee level. Moreover, according to a Malay woman union leader, it is difficult for women to join union activities, especially outside office hours, because of the need to find a babysitter and resistance from some husbands. Nevertheless, she is keen to start a women's wing to make the women realize their rights and act upon them. According to her, another problem in the union is the pro-Malay orientation of members, who vote according to ethnicity rather than on the quality and commitment of the candidate.

However unions are not the only means of dealing with office workers' concerns with computerization. Non-union initiatives can and have been taken by women's groups to bring the issues and problems to the fore. For example, an education and training programme regarding the social and health impact of computers has been initiated by the Women's Development Collective, a women's group based in the capital. A major conference was organized in November 1993, which brought about 170 office workers together to share their experiences and problems. This will be followed by a series of smaller workshop sessions for more intensive sharing and action. An increased awareness of current issues is emerging which, it is hoped, will lead to more networking among women office workers facing new technology.

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