THE FAULT LIES NOT IN THE HEAVENS, BUT IN US

There is a relatively inexpensive Italian café Rebecca and I frequent. It’s within walking distance from the apartment and Paul, its headwaiter, is both friendly and a countryman, being from Petaling Jaya. 

We decided to have dinner there before Singapore shut down Thursday on “heightened alert” fears. Dine-ins would no longer be permitted then. 

Paul seemed his usual cheerful self until we wondered, as is our wont when we meet Malaysians, when we might all go back next.

Then he bemoaned the “challenging” times and let slip that his mother, sister and brother-in law were all down with Covid-19.

When I asked him how old his mother was, he broke down, weeping, and fled the scene. We were transfixed and I felt mortified for having asked the question. 

It turned out, as we found out later, that his mother, 70, was critical, having suffered a stroke last year. To compound matters, both his sister and brother-in-law had lost their jobs which made his job in Singapore absolutely crucial to sustain the family. 

But what made him break down was his sudden realisation that he was unlikely to see his mother again. The cost of the quarantines – both in Malaysia and Singapore – and the resulting no-pay during the period ruled out its possibility with a finality that crushed him.

Malaysia can probably claim an over-achiever’s share of ‘Pauls’, all unheralded, and mostly unlamented. The latter observation seems especially apt in the wake of some of the statements coming from our leaders. 

Consider the Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who exhibits the taste and sensitivity of a gnat. In a put down of the “white flag” campaign, the premier remarked that “if we were to go to the ground, we would probably find the kitchens of homes to be full (of supplies).” The Prime Minister was implying that the government was doing enough about aid. Hence, to his mind, the white flag campaign was pointless.

Here’s a news flash for anyone who hasn’t got it:  the premier may be delusional. In which case, we might want to worry because delusional people tend to believe in themselves. 

What’s he smoking? Does he honestly think that anyone would want to raise the white flag, to admit that they cannot provide for their family and turn to charity? No one likes to be pitied. The premier should know this more than anyone else: there were many in Malaysia who sympathised when he was sacked from the Cabinet in 2016 by then premier Najib Razak. 

It was one of the many reasons behind the government’s ouster in the general election two years later. The Moo would do well to remember this.

“There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the world and it has a longer shelf life.” The statement was by no less than Frank Zappa, a rock musician whose onstage act included biting off the heads of snakes while wearing enough make up to delight Alan Pereira. 

What would Frank have made of Malaysian politicians? 

A Minister who can’t differentiate Spanish Fly from Flu and another who’s singularly blasé about the fact that the food aid from his ministry comes with his photograph!

And what about Hadi Awang, a minister whose exact function is vague but, as an avowed Islamic scholar, took pains to explain the public’s growing distrust of politicians. 

It was the fault of the liberals, the great thinker observed with the aplomb of a Zakir Naik, those “demons in human masks.” 

There are a great many ‘Pauls’ in Singapore and they will remember all this. 

And, make no mistake, they will return to cast their judgments. 

ENDS

OF GOOD NEWS AND BAD

We have good news and bad news.

OK, it’s mostly bad news but there is a solitary ray of very good news that might ultimately prove our salvation.

It is this: Malaysia now can boast one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, second only to Canada on a similar-size basis and double that of Australia.

If so, we might just jab our way out of our current predicament given enough luck, nerve and a continued lockdown.

The initial signs are there. Out of Thursday’s tally of over 13,000 cases, fully 96% were asymptomatic or mild. That seems to indicate that the vaccinations are blunting the severity of the disease.

Even so, it does not get us off the hook. So long as the numbers keep climbing sharply, even a 5% rate of severity will continue to choke our health services.

That’s where luck and the lockdown come in.

We all know what the bad news is, but outside the reeling economy and the rising unemployment, other concerns are surfacing including a resurging Dr Mahathir.

OK, let me rephrase that with a question: What are the odds that Pejuang will throw its supports behind the Prime Minister, currently embattled by Umno’s withdrawal of support?

The only reason I ask is that the Home Ministry has suddenly been gracious enough to allow Pejuang’s registration as a “legitimate” political party while resolutely continuing to ignore Muda, a party of young, political aspirants, that has similarly sought registration.

Given that we are talking about Malaysia where there is always a political quid against someone else’s quo, there is ample reason to believe something is afoot.

Add to that Dr Mahathir‘s airy, and apropos of nothing, comment that he would quit Pejuang if offered the headship of the National Recovery Council, and we are left to ponder, once again, the Machiavellian machinations of Malaysia’s Mahathir.

In short, the man wants back.

You’d think he’s old enough to know better, having just turned 96. I mean, this is a guy who baby-sat Maharaja Lela, for God’s sake, and he still thinks he’s indispensable.

He once accused the Malays of being “easily forgetful.” In truth, most Malaysians aren’t. We remember all too well his odious assault on the judiciary and his dumbing down of the civil service. Then there were his deeply flawed ideas that cost the nation dear: the national car, the push for heavy industrialisation. None of these “Think Big” projects were successful but you wouldn’t know that, listening to him.

According to the late Barry Wain, who authored a critical book on the man, he once told Dr Mahathir that he’d estimated that the former physician had engineered over RM50 billion in wealth destruction during his tenure. Barry said that Dr Mahathir simply retorted that he’d “created more wealth than he destroyed.”

That might very well be true but it also speaks volumes about the country’s inherent wealth generating capacity, its industrious population and its resource-rich nature.

Immediately after the 2018 general election, a group of us were celebrating PH’s improbable victory when we were joined by another, an elderly arbitrator, a man who not only remembered British colonial rule but started his career during the period. Surveying our good cheer, he asked one question, clearly directed at the incoming Prime Minister: “Can a leopard change his spots?”

Apparently not.

ENDS

WE ARE IN GOOD HANDS, AREN’T WE?

I remember an interview we had with Dr Mahathir Mohamad. It was during the height of the Asian financial crisis in early 1998 and he was premier at the time.

That he was distracted was obvious. Every so often, an aide would come up and show him a slip of paper. He would glance at it and then turn back to us. After 40 minutes of this, I couldn’t contain my curiosity and asked him what it was all about.

He explained that the aide was bringing him the latest greenback-ringgit quotes. The exchange rate had been frenziedly volatile, and the premier wanted to keep his eye on the ball.

The Lord knows I’ve frequently been critical of Dr M but during the Asian financial crisis, he kept his eye firmly on the ball.

These are the times that try men’s souls, wrote Thomas Paine over two centuries ago. We have entered such a time now and what a horror it is! The crisis we face now makes the 1998 one appear frivolous, almost Winnie the Pooh-like in both its scale and its scope. Like it or not, we are looking down the barrel of a gun.

And can we confidently say our leaders have their eye on the ball?

If that ball is power, then yes. That’s all that seems to interest Umno or Bersatu these days and people are sick of their shenanigans.

Consider the following.

The Prime Minister is admitted to hospital over a week ago. The poor man seems very sick right up to Wednesday night, when Umno threatens to pull support from his fragile coalition.

Lo and behold, he makes a miraculous recovery and dashes to his residence where the first “crisis” meeting of the pandemic is held: TV footage shows limousines coming and going amid an air of urgency. Reporters assert that Weighty Matters of State are Unfolding.

The Attorney General is summoned and pronounces, with all the grave impartiality of a Lord Denning, that because there “are no clear” facts showing that the PM has lost the support of a majority of MPs, he can continue governing. Carry on, McMoo, he advises and the PM duly declares victory.

Hallelujah!

Over at the Putra World Trade Centre, Umno President Zahid Hamidi also declares victory, satisfied that Umno had fired a shot across the Prime Ministerial bow.

Two cheers for democracy!

Meanwhile, Ismail Sabri is promoted to deputy premier. It isn’t clear why, but it might have to do with his sadly lugubrious delivery of bad news.

Similarly, foreign minister Hishamuddin Hussain is promoted to senior minister for equally vague reasons. Insiders in the know, however, insist that it’s due to his masterful handling of foreign policy, noting that he kept Malaysia out of war for 16 months.

But hark, what of Master Azmin, a Master of the Universe and the Schemer behind the Sheraton Strategy?

But there is no joy in the Ministry of International Trade. Mr Azmin himself is spotted in contemplative prayer in a mosque in the Middle East, from where he will, doubtless, return, bearing much foreign investment and good cheer.

But before that, he will take a well-deserved holiday in Austria to unwind from the stresses and strains of holding high office.

Meanwhile, the rocket scientists in government continue to rock. On a day that Covid infections hit a new peak of 8,868 – a number that sent punter hearts aflutter – the Minister of Religion said that all mosques and suraus would be opened forthwith.

The future so bright, we’ll have to wear shades.

ENDS

IT’S A CRY FOR HELP, STUPID

Occasionally, this country comes up with something that sparkles, that provokes an involuntary smile, that cheers you up no end.

I refer to the geniuses who came up with the white flag campaign.

Now here’s an idea whose time has come. To avoid the humiliation of “begging” or pleading for government aid, distressed families have been asked to raise a white flag outside their homes and aid would, like the mail, arrive.

The idea was born out of the minds of creative Netizens on social media, and it’s taken off big time. Businesses have also pitched in with pledges to help.

What’s tactfully unsaid in all the commentary is the fact that the government has been found wanting. Because it failed to step up to the plate, Malaysians took matters into their own hands. There would have been no need for this campaign if the government had done what it’s supposed to.

The prolonged lockdown has seriously damaged the economy and pushed thousands into poverty.

These are very troubled times and nowhere is it more starkly demonstrated than the statistics for suicide which listed 336 deaths over the first three months of the year.

More than anything else, it was those appalling figures that prompted the “white flag” movement, that tugged at enough heartstrings to compel action.

Our politicians love to dwell on our differences, the better to create perceived or imagined threats that promise to forever keep some segments of society insecure, so that these politicians can continue to justify their existence, their grip on power.

The white flag initiative promises to transcend these petty notions. And the people behind this campaign instinctively grasp what the government seems incapable of: you cannot do kindness too soon because you never know how soon will be too late.

Meanwhile, if you’re not part of the solution, then don’t be part of the problem. Or at the very least get out of the way. Better still, shut up.

Take the MP from Bachok, Nik Abduh Nik Aziz. As a child, he fancied a career in counter-intelligence. Looks like he made it, too.

The MP chided people for hoisting the white flag as those who admit defeat to challenges “from God.” He then brightly added that they would be better served “by praying.”

Unsurprisingly, this rocket scientist hails from Pas, an obscure party of obscure people with obscurantist views that have, apparently, never heard of the phrase “God helps those who help themselves.”

The same God also gave people a brain so that they might use reason and act with kindness aforethought.

But Mr Nik could be the exception that proves the rule, being proof himself that God does, indeed, have a sense of humour.

And then there is the Chief Minister of Kedah who seems to have a worldview shaped by the Cro-Magnon period. He’s threatened to deny state aid to anyone who hoists the white flag. Reason: it’s “propaganda” against the government.

Well, if the shoe fits…

As a former journalist who’s covered enough Pas ceramah to know, it might be instructive to share this.

When any Pas event is unfolding, the organisers literally pass a bag around. That’s how the party raises its money. You might say it’s its white flag.

This bag-passing should cease and desist. That would be conceding defeat, wouldn’t it?

No, these God-fearing people would be better served by prayer.

ENDS