WEARING ONE’S IGNORANCE ON ONE’S SLEEVE

It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt – The Bible (Proverbs)

There is a reason why the Bible has such sayings. It’s the same reason that prompts people to cringe when they hear absolute imbecility from their leaders.

The latest salvo in a long list of jaw dropping absurdities dumped by an administration on its people comes from Zuraida Kamaruddin, Malaysia’s comely Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister.

The worthy was reported to have said at a January 5, Malaysian Palm Oil Council dialogue that the country still had many orangutans, contrary to the notion that the palm oil industry was killing off the primates.

And there, she let fly. “In Malaysia, if you see an orangutan, it will kill you first, not you kill the orangutan first, correct?”

We can only speculate over the appalled silence that followed. But she must have been made of sterner stuff for she forged on relentlessly, noting with gay abandon that the wildlife and national parks department (Perhilitan) did not “simply kill orangutans, tigers and lions,” but followed a policy of “making the animals faint” first, before taking them to the zoo.

What does she smoke, I wonder?

According to the literature, orangutans are among the most docile of all the great apes although your average orangutan in Sabah’s Sepilok sanctuary might want to snarl disapprovingly at Zuraida for her lamentable ignorance.

Indeed, among the large primates, chimpanzees and gorillas have been known to turn on humans if provoked. The worst offender, of course, is man himself. And it’s a wonder that orangutans don’t turn on him given his propensity to destroy their habitats and sell their young.

Local environmentalist Andrew Sebastian described the minister’s comments with terse outrage. “Bizarre and ignorant” were the words he chose and he was right on more than a few counts.

For one thing and as everyone, except Ms Zuraida, knows, there are no lions in Malaysia.

Malaysian orangutans are only found in Borneo, whereas Perhilitan only operates in Peninsular Malaysia.

Meanwhile, Sebastian also noted that the minister did not seem aware that orangutans were dwindling in number. He said that while there had been over 250,000 such primates in the jungles of Borneo back in 1973, it’s estimated that, by 2025, they will drop to 47,000.

For the record, Malaysia cannot be held responsible for said attrition in numbers. Borneo is the third largest island in the world and the Republic of Indonesia occupies 72% of the island. Malaysia makes up most of the rest (27%) while Brunei occupies a sliver (1%).

And what’s this about making the “animals faint” before taking them to “the zoo?” Presumably, the minister is referring to the practice of immobilising wild animals with anaesthetic darts before transporting them to a suitable location. In the case for, say, a tiger, it would probably be released deep in the National Park in Pahang.

It certainly isn’t always the zoo!

We cannot have this type of thing constantly embarrassing the country so I think there should be a basic IQ test for candidates before the next general election. Actually, I think it’s crucial given the level of inanity from the current administration after the floods recently.

It reminds you of what John Stuart Mill said. To paraphrase him, “although it is not true that all members of this administration are less than clever, it is true that most less than clever people are members of this administration.”

ENDS

GALACTIC MISTAKES ARE, APPARENTLY, UNIVERSAL

Is there intelligent life out there?
Yes, but I’m only visiting
– Graffiti spotted in Cambridge

If we contemplate the universe’s mysteries with the world in mind, we’d have to conclude the universe sold itself short. I mean, if we are the only intelligent beings out there, then the universe seriously settled for very little.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of short change.

In the US, ostensibly the Home of the Brave and the Land of the Free, the loonies threaten to take over the asylum.

And Loony-in-Chief Donald Trump continues to place his faith in Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels – “if you tell a lie big enough and repeat it often enough, people will eventually believe it” – because he’s still spouting the untruth that he won the last US election. Yet, he remains a contender for the next Presidency. Ye Gods!

Over in India, Premier Modi’s far-right, Hindu-First policies are sharply dividing a secular nation along religious lines. That’s a recipe for disaster.

And over here in Malaysia, we continue to pursue policies that, deep down in places that we don’t want to acknowledge, we realise are failed ones.
The monetary black hole that is oil and gas firm Sapura Energy is an Illustration of said policy.

In the mid-2000s, Sapura Energy was a high flying energy firm, which, not unlike Renong in the 1990s, grew rapidly through leveraged acquisitions. Like Renong before it, Sapura was also considered a Bumiputera company and so could always rely on the public sector for regular contracts although, in fairness, Sapura did splash out globally as well.

Everything remained fine as long as the oil and gas market remained bullish. But the markets got roiled starting in June 2014 and global investment in the industry’s upstream sector, which Sapura was heavily dependent on, crashed.

Caught between the pincers of steadily increasing debt commitments and declining revenue, the group began posting losses and by 2018 was in dire straits. As a Bumiputera firm with “strategic” assets, the market solution -bankruptcy – was out of the question. Thus, in September of that year, Permodalan Nasional Bhd, a government-linked trust agency set up to improve Bumi equity in the corporate sector, shelled out RM2.7 billion to take up a commanding 40% in the firm.

Even so, it didn’t stop RM84 million being paid to the firm’s CEO and founder Shahril Shamsuddin as compensation for the year. That was relatively more generous than the RM72 million he received a year earlier.

Despite a general recovery in the oil markets, Sapura continues to languish largely due to its crushing debt burden: RM10.7 billion at last count. Government contracts notwithstanding, it isn’t easy to make money when your annualised finance costs top RM550 million.

Sapura continues to bleed. For the nine months to October 2021, the group posted a loss of RM2.28 billion. Meanwhile, it’s become a penny stock trading at around 5 cents apiece – PNB’s entry was at 40 cents – from over RM2 in its heyday.

It’s having serious cash flow problems. But don’t look to its former shareholder for aid. The bathwater is all but gone and it will probably be up to PNB to save the baby.

Otherwise the knock-on effects could be serious. The firm’s four biggest lenders are Maybank, CIMB, RHB and AmBank. And the firm has over 650 vendors, many of whom are Bumiputera.

History has a knack of repeating itself. And Malaysia’s New Economic Policy’s past is littered with billion dollar bailouts. Whether any lessons have been learnt is doubtful.

What would our long suffering universe make of that?

ENDS

WHEN YOU HAVE NO LEG TO STAND ON, IT’S BEST NOT TO KICK

Growing up I took it as Gospel that the Courts would hand down decisions that were fair. It never occurred to me that a decision might be flawed, dubious, or dishonest.

It was simple: we believed in our institutions back then. If the then Anti-Corruption Agency saw fit to charge Harun Idris, then the chief minister of the richest state in Malaysia, for corruption, then it must have been the right thing to do. Indeed, Harun was found guilty and served time.

The erosion of trust in the country’s institutions can be traced back to the 1980s. When Dr Mahathir took over, it became apparent, beyond all reasonable doubt, why leaders, like a baby’s diapers, should be changed frequently. 22 years is way too long and Dr M is, by no stretch of the imagination, an Angela Merkel.

It was during his tenure when the doubts began. About the way contracts were handed down; about the way the courts behaved; about the way questionable practices were simply ignored; about things that we once held sacred like Malaysia’s secular status being suddenly called into question.

Dr M showed that even in a democracy, one man can still call the shots. During his second incarnation as premier, he couldn’t do as he liked which is always a good thing. It’s the main reason why check and balance is vital for a country such as ours.

But the PH government imploded in 2020 – again, no thanks to the old man – and nothing’s improved. If anything, it’s gotten worse.

History, wrote Israel’s Abba Eban, teaches us that men and nations only behave wisely once they have exhausted all possible alternatives. It appears that Premier Ismail seems bent on exhausting the latter option.

Indeed, his style of leadership resembles an ostrich with its head in the sand. He prefers to simply ignore problems until they go away.

Problems don’t vanish. That is the nature of the beast. During the recent floods, the premier and his Cabinet were about as useful as grave robbers in a crematorium. He might start to rectify that by acting decisively in the current controversy swirling around the anti-corruption agency.

Its chief Azam Baki ignored calls to explain his involvement in the ownership of millions of shares until public pressure got too much.

He then said that he didn’t see any reason for a reply as he’d already explained to the agency’s advisory board that he’d allowed his brother to use his trading account to trade in shares. And that he had no idea of what his brother had been doing.

Quite apart from the manifest incredulity of Azam’s explanation, what he’s ignoring is the agency’s reputation, its status as a national institution.

The Azam’s of the world come and go but the institution remains. And for it to remain, its integrity must be unscathed and unquestioned. Indeed, it has to be the public’s perception of the MACC.

That’s why the PM should order Azam to go on leave until the results of an independent inquiry into the matter be made public. The agency’s board of advisors has cleared Azam. Ergo, the agency has cleared itself. This is manifestly conflicted.

It also screams an obvious question: who watches the watchers?

ENDS

IF YOU’RE LOST, LOOK FOR THE AULD LANG SIGN

Good riddance to 2021!

As Queen E might have put it, it was certainly an “annus horribilis.” The floods alone would have been bad. Throw in an implacable pandemic, a reeling economy and less than intelligent leadership – and that’s being kind – and one is driven to despair.

But we’re more fortunate than many others: there are Malaysians whose plight is truly harrowing with ruined homes and wrecked livelihoods.

It’s been bad everywhere, even in Singapore where I’ve been living the past two years. There was, for example, a record number of suicides in the city state during the year.

Now that we’re all agreed that 2021 was the Year of Living Dangerously, let’s hope that the new year will bring a smile to our lips, a song in our hearts and cheer to our lives.

Maybe it will too.

Ironically, the hope could lie in the Omnicron variant of the coronavirus. There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests that the variant is, in itself, attenuated with few hospitalisations and a generally lower virulence. But its enormous infectivity holds the promise of displacing the deadly Delta variant and the prospect of wiping out the pandemic altogether.

Or, at the very least, it might just reduce Covid to nothing more than the common cold. It went away just like that a century ago. Why shouldn’t it happen again?

OK, fingers crossed.

I have one wish for the country as well. For one thing, I wish the level of stupidity, especially from the religious right, will be greatly reduced.

In fairness, the general level of intelligence among such people in any country isn’t exactly overflowing. Consider this inanity from Pat Robertson, an American Southern Baptist minister of such fiery piety that it would make Hadi Awang blanch. Robertson was the one who encouraged Christians to vote for Trump because “the Holy Spirit” told him.

Clearly, he didn’t think much of the movement in general or in the particular. “It (feminism) is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

And we thought Jane Fonda was merely beautiful. Who knew?

Compared to Robertson, Ustaz Nazri Karim is a mere dolt in the intelligence sweepstakes. But he wasn’t averse to displaying his ignorance for the world to see when he ascribed the cause of the floods in Selangor to its “numerous wine bars and its beer factory.”

Idris Jala, Heineken’s chairman, thought the Ustaz was grossly ignorant which was a dreadful rebuke because everyone knew that gross ignorance was 144 times worse than ordinary stupidity.

Which reminds me of the Islamic Party of Malaysia, or Pas. It seems to me that the party has only four, near-obsessive preoccupations. They are as follows:

  • Booze, its existence and sale in the country
  • Gambling, its existence and practice in the country
  • The attire of stewardesses on Malaysia Airlines’ flights, and
  • The deplorable lack of sharia law in the country

Quite apart from these pet peeves, they seem to have no ideas on corruption, the economy or anything remotely useful towards helping to govern a multiracial, multi-religious country of 32 million people. In short, they are about as useful as the G in lasagna.

Happy New Year people, and remember, the secret to life is honesty and fair dealing: if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

ENDS