FAMOUS LAST WORDS OR SOME SUCH

Election-talk hung in the air. It was 1999 and fresh from sacking Anwar Ibrahim – he was in prison without bail – Dr Mahathir’s term was nearing its end. 

We’d just returned from Kelantan and Terengganu where the mood seemed anti-government. My colleague, Simon, and I were now heading to meet Deputy Mnister Ibrahim Ali in the Pan Pacific Hotel.  

The place was packed, and Simon spotted Ibrahim having lunch with his officers. He wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.  But he could always be relied on for the suitably inflammatory comment, the racist dig that Umno believed would always unite the Malays behind it.  

In short, he had Dr M’s complete confidence.  

But the interview was disappointing. The politician didn’t admit there were problems in the party and predicted a thumping win for the government.  He was particularly disagreeable about Anwar, gloating about his imprisonment and waxing lyrical over Dr M’s leadership.

Ibrahim, an MP from Kelantan, then asked me what I thought: we told him of our trip north. 

“You won’t like this,” I began and told him a story about how he, personally, would lose his seat. Indeed, I said we thought Umno would fare dismally, especially in Terengganu. 

The deputy minister turned red and looked furious. Glaring, he slammed his hand on the table and bellowed a profanity.

If my Hokkien’s right, he was referring to a man’s unmentionable, but I digress. His roar must have been loud because it silenced the room, and every eye followed the politician as he stalked out in high dudgeon. 

I was merely lashing out at his boorishness. But it was ironic because Ibrahim not only lost badly but the Islamic Party of Malaysia swept both Kelantan and Terengganu. 

Who knew? 

Political mistakes can have consequence. No, we aren’t talking about Ibrahim, but one made by Dr M’s successor, Abdullah Badawi. 

Let me explain. The in-your-face racism of an Umno assembly can be jarring. I remember a rookie from the Star – a young, Malay girl – being comforted by colleagues from other papers after she was so traumatised, she broke down. 

That’s why, apart from some speeches, the gatherings are never carried live. 

Only Abdullah Badawi thought otherwise. It may have been the error that the National Front continues to rue.  

When thousands of, especially, Chinese -Malaysians witnessed Hishamuddin Hussein brandish a kris (ceremonial dagger) and uttering veiled threats – de rigueur for any Umno Youth leader – they were appalled. 

But they remembered.

It occurred in 2005 and an assembly has never been televised since.  

In 2004, Abdullah took the Front to its biggest win ever. No one thought anything might be different in 2008.  

But I remember Opposition MP, Teresa Kok asking me if anything had changed. When I looked puzzled, she replied: “The crowds at our rallies are 2 or 3 times bigger.” 

Michael Devaraj was a socialist who’d unsuccessfully challenged Works Minister S Samy Vellu in two previous elections.  Like Teresa, he too felt something had changed.  

Not Samy though. In fact, he was brimming with confidence when Nadeswaran and me approached him in his centre in Sungei Siput.

After assuring us that he would, indeed, thrash the hapless Michael, he asked if we knew him. 

Why?

“He is a very nice fellow,” said the late, great Samy sadly. “I’d hate to see him lose again.” 

He needn’t have worried. 

ENDS

THE DOGS MAY BARK BUT THE CARAVAN MOVES ON

You can’t fix stupid: there’s not a pill you can take, or a class you can go to. – US comedian Ron White  

One suspects a great many politicians in Umno thought of Ismail Sabri the way mathematician Von Neuman thought about arcane math, that there’s “no sense in  being precise when you don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

But the Malaysian premier may be a great deal craftier than anyone gives him credit for. 

It is generally accepted that Brother Ismail likes the job and wants to keep it. But a segment of Umno led by Messrs Najib and Zahid, twin heroes-tuned-zeroes respectively, want an early election. The two HTZs are, apparently, convinced than a snap poll will somehow bring them political survival.

Going by Darwin, the duo’s chances aren’t great: extinction is the rule and survival is the exception. 

Even so, they remain undeterred but, to use a chess idiom, Brother Ismail has maintained a Sicilian defence of such complexity, it’s so far repelled all comers.  

Much to the chagrin of the duo, the wily premier has ignored, evaded, parried, and procrastinated with the best of them.

And, occasionally, he’s come back swinging. 

Consider his position in the ever-spreading Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) scandal.  

Last week, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC)  revealed that the defence ministry and Boustead Naval Shipyard, the  contractor given the job,  had ignored the navy’s views on the project. 

The PAC disclosed that not a single ship had been completed although RM6 billion had been paid out by the government,  adding that the navy should have received five of the ships by August, that is to say, now. 

Surprise, surprise, the project had not been publicly tendered out but simply given to BNS through direct negotiations, a much-beloved Umno practice first created during the tenure of one Mahathir Mohamad.

In many ways, the LCS scandal has aroused a great deal of public anger. Unlike 1MDB, it didn’t involve complex money-laundering webs, global banking rules or fugitive crooks who hobnobbed  with Hollywood royalty. This was a straight forward “RM6 billion spent and nothing to show for it!”

So, the public wanted to know, where had the money gone, and into whose pocket? It was stuff that the ordinary man understood, grand theft rooted in treason.

At the material time, the premier was Najib and the defence minister, Zahid. 

Jibby has been  sarcastic about the matter but, in fairness,  he’s got far bigger problems now. For his part, Zahid denied any link to the matter. Then he changed tack and brought up “security” as possible cover. 

He advised restraint, warning that the release of the project’s details might expose state secrets and jeopardise  national security. 

According to the Star, Zahid said that the government should handle the matter “wisely” and “not be influenced by public opinion.”

But it appears that Brother Ismail was being influenced by public opinion. 

On Wednesday, the government declassified all documents regarding the LCS investigations, effectively making them public.  

On Thursday, the NST had this headline. LCS scandal: Report reveals Zahid involved in procurement process.  

It might get  worse for the guilty parties.  Putrajaya is  considering a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the matter. 

It almost always ferrets out the truth. 

ENDS

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

Behind every great fortune is a crime – French novelist Honoré de Balzac

Jho Low, the plump pirate better known in select criminal circles as Felonious, was entertained by the joke and, as always, delighted in his friend’s masterly grasp of understatement. 

He’d just read that Fearless Leader, once a Malaysian Premier, had revealed to the Kuala Lumpur High Court that he had “only RM4.5 million in assets.” 

Politicians from every component party of the National Front government were moved. They knew the real root of all evil was a lack of money. 

But most people weren’t politicians, they were more cynical and distrustful and generally seemed unbelieving.  Fearless felt injured. “You think you’ve got problems?” snarled Malaysia’s once-most-powerful man. “What about me?”

It was a good, if pointless, question. Ever since 2014 amid the gradual revelations, the whispered rumours, and the increasing awareness of the gravity of the 1MDB problem, Fearless had had to deny, evade, duck, prevaricate, obfuscate or simply lie to Parliament and the Malaysian people about the matter.  

That takes a lot of nerve, an epidermis of no mean thickness and, surely, much heart-hammering amid the blood pressure of a giraffe. And, lest we forget, he had to return home to daily karaoke (Girls just wanna have funds) and occasional counsel (Can I advise you something?).

The extent of Fearless’ pre-emptive efforts to distance himself from 1MDB are slowly emerging. On Thursday, an anti-corruption agency officer testified that Fearless amended a 2016 audit report on 1MDB that was to be presented to Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee “to shield himself from legal consequences.”  

And what do you think he felt every time he attended an international meeting after 2016, after the US’ Department of Justice had made sure the 1MDB scandal had made the world’s headliners, when the magnitude of the fiasco was becoming clear?  

Are they giving me the cold shoulder and ignoring me, or am I imagining it? 

Oh My God, is that a knowing look in Lee’s eyes? 

It must have been a time to try anyone’s soul and Felonious sympathised because he knew the extent of the heist. Neither did he feel any remorse about the matter. In fact, he’d recently offered RM1.5 billion to Putrajaya to forget the whole thing but the ingrates had declined.

As for those who accused him of burdening future generations with debt, he charitably forgave them as they did not know it was condoned. Didn’t the Bible say, “Blessed are the children for they will inherit the national debt?”

Felonious considered himself a principled man because, principally, there were only two rules governing crime and Rule 1 was unambiguous: never get caught. 

The second, which he was particularly proud of, simply referred the seeker of knowledge to Rule 1.  

Fearless considered his friend’s position neither here nor there and thought it cold comfort. Meanwhile, his defence team anguished over his RM4.5 million “revelation” because they’d been calculating their bill. 

And so it goes. And, in this instance, only the Bamboo River remains.

Still, silent, waiting.

ENDS

BE AFRAID, BE VERY AFRAID 

Veteran oppositionist, Lim Kit Siang, has called on the Cabinet to freeze all increases in salaries and allowances in government-linked companies (GLCs) until the economy recovers.

This comes after FGV Holdings,, which is 80% owned by the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda), agreed to increase its chairman’s annual allowance from RM300,000 to RM480,000 at its annual general meeting yesterday.

The hike came into effect yesterday. Meanwhile, the six board directors’ also saw their allowances increase from RM120,000 to RM150,000 a year. 

Most people would not even know of these proposals were it not for a social media post that went viral. The commentator, who wrote the post in Bahasa Malaysia, was grimly sarcastic about these pay increases at a time of   economic uncertainty amid steeply rising living costs. 

It appears that Lim was following up on the apparently popular rant.  

Even so, the government seems oblivious to the situation because no one, least of all in Putrajaya, has uttered a word about GLC salaries or anything connected to the economic situation.

Actually, our leaders  have said very little about anything meaningful which, given the economic climate, makes me believe that things will get a lot worse before it gets worse.

Indeed, I suspect  that’s the main fear of people: they worry that their leaders don’t  know what’s going on, and they believe they wouldn’t know what to do even if they did.

What are they all thinking  about anyway?

Messrs Najib and Zahid aren’t worried about the cost of living; they note that despite its increasing cost, it remains popular. 

They both think an early general election, preferably sometime around now,  will see a resounding victory by the National Front. This will somehow get them off  their respective  legal hooks. The exactly how is unclear but whoever is the premier after the election will presumably provide the answer.

For that reason, it appears that the current incumbent is quite happy with the status quo and sees no reason for an early general election. Dr M and most of the country is happy with this proposition. 

All the Finance Minister seems interested in is to be a candidate in said general election. It’s a wish that he telegraphs with increasing urgency to Umno and to the general public which, quite frankly, doesn’t give a hoot.  

All the Islamic Party, or Pas,  cares about is an electoral pact with Umno, without which, it will be soundly  thrashed in the election. It also worries about increasing national immorality which it defines as the morality of anyone having fun.

Tajudin, the boorish MP for Pasir Salak is so mightily chuffed with his ambassadorial appointment to Jakarta that he’s graciously forgiven his critics. They haven’t though and continue to assert his only credentials are idiocy veering on buffoonery.

Meanwhile, Nazri still hankers for a posting in Paris while sulkily insisting that floods in Malaysia could be the next big thing for tourism in the country. In fairness, no one’s ever accused him of sound reasoning in any shape or form.  

Now you know why everyone should worry.

ENDS

BETWEEN THE MIRAGE AND THE REALITY 

We were in Langkawi over the weekend and there’s something about the island that the rest of Malaysia might do well to emulate. 

We saw little, or no,  migrant labour, with locals doing everything from manning the hotels and waiting the tables to driving taxis – lots of female drivers, too – and working as guides. They were polite and, if you could speak reasonable Bahasa, were a lovely lot, always eager to help.   

There isn’t a trace of Pas’ influence on the island and thank Heaven for that. By way of explanation, the chief minister of Kedah state, where Langkawi is located, is  from the Islamic Party of Malaysia, or Pas, which frowns on anything that’s remotely connected to joy or feelings of good cheer.  

We went to Bon Ton for dinner one night to hear Joy Victor front a jazz band so smoking that  the appreciative  crowd of wall-to-wall Caucasians were besides themselves in rapture. But Norelle, the beanpole Aussie owner of the establishment, told me they were all “locals.” Norelle herself had  been in the country for over twenty seven years. 

In our party that night was a South American  Ambassador who’d taken up his assignment two years ago and seemed fascinated with all things Malaysian. 

But it was a comment he  made that struck, and quietened, us.  

He said before he arrived, the picture he’d envisaged of Malaysia was that of a Third World Southeast Asian developing economy. Not quite Singapore but not Somalia either. Which, if you think about it, isn’t far off the mark. 

Then he landed and as his embassy’s car rolled towards Kuala Lumpur, he began asking the same question: “Where are the shanty towns?”

These were the unmistakable  signs of urban blight, the slums indelibly associated with developing economies the world over, from Rio to Delhi, from Manila to Jakarta. 

“My mother came down recently,” he told us. “And she asked the same question. Your country is fantastic and I don’t see what all the Malaysians I meet are constantly bitching about?” 

I do because I’m in my sixties and I remember. 

I remember having a leader like Hussein Onn who set great store on honesty which struck me as very impressive then. Yet I remember later assessments  of his tenure being denigrated as slow and indecisive. Would that we still had that, rather than the grandiose megaprojects, the massive debt and the corruption that would characterise later leaders. 

In the 70s, I remember attending a local university that was ranked higher in quality than its peer in Singapore, a time when our educational excellence was right up there with the best of them, a period when standards mattered, when English was taken matter-of- factly and not treated as some dirty word.  

“Patriotism,” wrote Samuel Johnson, “is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” That is self- evident in today’s Malaysia. In the name of nationalism, merit is shunned, corruption is tolerated if not quite extolled and smart people migrate the first chance they get. They don’t want to because what’s not to love about this country, but they see a future where they are not wanted. But most don’t have a choice. 

If we are honest with ourselves, the signs of decay are everywhere. Potholes aren’t fixed, the water supply keeps breaking down. It’s scary the way the local colleges turn out graduates that are unemployable. It’s what happens when you drop standards and ignore merit. 

Meanwhile, a resigned population accepts everything thrown at them because we have learned to live with third-best. 

That’s what we’re bitching about Mr Ambassador. 

ENDS

THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING PAS

I’m an atheist…thank God – Comedian Dave Allen

Who knew that Malaysia’s counter-terrorism chief Normah Ishak had a dry sense of humour?

Take this statement for instance: “The recognition by an Islamic party for the Taliban’s struggle augurs well for fans of terrorism in Malaysia,” Normah was quoted as saying in a recent webinar on Afghanistan.

The counter-terrorism chief was talking about that group of people who know an awful lot about very little – the Islamic Party of Malaysia, or Pas. More specifically, she was referring to Pas’ admiration for, and recognition of, the Taliban government of Afghanistan.

The party was, apparently, banking on the Taliban to improve its Islamic image. Its head of International Affairs Abdul Khalil Hadi had tweeted his party’s congratulations to the Taliban after the hard-line group had taken over Kabul in August.

Khalil is PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang’s son, which reinforces the notion of the apple not falling far from the tree.

True enough, the father echoed the son’s sentiments two weeks later. In a statement published in the party’s organ Harakah on August 25, Hadi claimed that the Taliban’s leaders had “changed” and were heading in the right direction.

He also urged Muslims not to be influenced by the coverage of the Taliban by the Western media, which he described as “evil”.

Normah explained the method behind Pas’ madness. “They are creating narratives to the party’s advantage, forming opinions and perceptions among Muslims in Malaysia, so that they will think the Taliban are okay now,” Normah said.

To paraphrase her, “fans of terrorism” will undoubtedly be dancing in the aisles. People who think that the danger of terrorism in Malaysia is much exaggerated should think again.

Three years ago, I was invited to a briefing by a very senior cop to the senior management of a listed company. The briefing was about terrorism.

In the beginning, we were shown slides of training camps, young people using guns and other weapons to, essentially, learn how to kill.

Most of the camps were in the Middle East, while I supposed the last two to be camps in the Philippines or Indonesia because their backdrops were “green.”

I was half-right. The last slide, we were told, was in a camp somewhere in “the vicinity” of Kuala Kangsar that “we’ve been watching for some time.”

God bless our Special Branch: they’re ahead of the curve.

That’s why the Islamic Party’s narrative is confounding. It flies in the face of the Malaysian government’s refusal to recognise the Taliban. It’s yet another reason to kick it out of the government.

Pas is still a part of the federal government although its contributions are generally in the “Less is More” category.

It’s safe to say that Messrs Hadi and Hadi don’t read widely because they were clearly unaware of the Kandahar commander who ordered all the women employed in a bank there to go home while their jobs were filled by men whose only ideas of banking or finance were previously gleaned from the business end of a Kalashnikov.

It isn’t clear if the same order applied to all the female doctors at Kandahar General.

“I’m sorry, I’m unable to do your hernia op right now, Commander,” says Dr Ayesha as she divests herself of mask and surgical gown. “But here’s my cousin, Ali, who’s got lots of experience with sheep.”

Who says I’m kidding?

Thus far the Taliban have grimly forbidden all things Gillette, quietly encouraged opium cultivation, and continued to discriminate against women and minorities.

And this is the model Pas holds up as its exemplar?

It’s got to be kidding!

ENDS

OUR FRIENDS, THE FANATICS

Reason has been a part of organised religion, ever since two nudists took dietary advice from a talking snake – Political satirist, Jon Stewart

A bemused British television presenter introduced it as a Malaysian minister’s advice on “how to strike your wife.”

Was he serious or what? Methinks the statement should strike any wife as sinister, if not downright threatening.

But not, apparently, if you’re from that benighted Malaysian political party called Pas, or, in English, the Islamic Party of Malaysia. It gives religion a bad name and was probably the one that inspired Dave Allen to “thank God” he was an “atheist.”

The party is made up of individuals who think, nay, know they alone understand, and are fully committed to the ideals of Islam. Unfortunately, they think this qualification gives them the right – God-given, too – to shove their brand of conservative Islam down the throats of their fellow citizens.

Ironically, it is a trait they share with one Donald Trump who also knows that only he understands Christianity; “Nobody reads or understands the Bible better than I do.”

But I digress. We were talking about the bemused British television presenter, weren’t we? Yes, he was referring to Siti Zailah Mohd Yusoff, Malaysia’s deputy minister of Women, Family and Community Development whose gratuitous advice to married men two days before Valentine’s Day provoked outrage in Malaysia, and ridicule overseas.

Zailah suggested that husbands had a “right” to use a “gentle but firm physical touch” on their “undisciplined and stubborn” wives.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realise that such unthinking comments only serve to perpetuate an already-entrenched culture of misogyny in some parts of Malaysia. As parliamentarian Nurul Izzah correctly called it, it’s a “disservice” to women at a time when over 9,000 cases of domestic violence had been reported.

And this Zailah is tasked with looking after the affairs of women and families in the country?

If her post were ever reduced to credit, for instance, Moody’s would doubtless have rated it as an “F Double Minus” with a “You-Have-Got-To-Be-Kidding-Me” outlook!

In an aside, the rating agency apologised for “using capitals” but said it felt “compelled to scream”.

To be sure, this is the inanity of a single person but, truth be told, for real bona fide stupidity there isn’t anything like teamwork of the numbers represented in Pas. Ever since some of its members became part of the Federal Government, one thing has become abundantly clear. The party is singularly unfit, ill-equipped and hopelessly unsuited to rule any country.

It is clueless about economics, finance, foreign affairs, trade, exchange rates or anything to do with the workings of a modern economy in the 21st Century. Its idea of a weighty matter of state is the attire of airline stewardesses, or the fact that sharia law still isn’t practiced in Malaysia, or the reality that a renegade group like Sisters in Islam continues to flourish in the country.

In 1999, I once asked a senior Pas leader if he seriously thought hudud law was practical in this country. “Surely, it would be difficult enough to get people to chop off hands,” I argued.

His looked me straight in the eye. “You’d be surprised,” was all he said.

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

DO THEY KNOW IT’S CHRISTMAS?

What was apparent by the time a cautious dawn emerged on Sunday was that the only serious disaster buffeting the country was the one inhabiting Putrajaya.

Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in the responses by local netizens to a tweet by Apple chief executive, Tim Cook. Mr Cook had promised aid to flood victims in Malaysia and the Philippines which was nice. But even Cook must have been bemused by the Malaysian responses: they urged Cook to direct the aid to non-government groups rather than Putrajaya.

It’s a stunning indictment of a government that’s clearly perceived as not only inept but untrustworthy.

You’d think such a revelation might have given pause to the rocket scientist currently leading our country. No chance: said RS was smilingly photographed Thursday “leading” a Thanksgiving ceremony at the Tropicana Golf and Country Club to celebrate his first hundred days in office.

Given his cheer and general good humour, he thinks it’s been wildly successful. Move over delusions of adequacy, we’re talking d’s of greatness here!

Ok, I’ll phrase it gently. It’s said that women sometimes make fools of men but you had to hand it to Ismail; he was strictly a do-it-yourself type.

I mean, it’s ridiculous. At least 27 people are dead from the worst floods in the history of Selangor and Pahang, a great many Malaysians are confronting wrecked homes and lives, and the premier thinks nothing of spending more taxpayer money to pat himself on the back. Doesn’t he, or his advisors, read social media?

It’s the season of giving, a celebration of God’s love for man. But did they know it’s Christmas?

Not if you go by the carnage and misery unleashed on the people of Selangor and Pahang. And certainly not if you go by the disproportionate self-importance displayed by some of the overpaid ministers of Ismail’s bloated Cabinet.

Why does Tengku Zafrul, the Minister of Finance, find it necessary to commandeer a boat, stuff it with his officials, security and cameramen and go over to the flooded areas if he does not intend to help anyone? Did he think that having a photo-op counted as aid? Or that gawking was an expression of sympathy?

Some people are born important, some achieve self-importance and some have hubris thrust upon them. For Ahmad Faizal Azumu, the minister of youth and sport, the latter moment arrived when he saw it fit to launch his ministry’s squad of flood-relief volunteers in a glittering, expensive-looking, but wholly unnecessary photo-opportunity that was immediately seized upon by netizens as yet another example of ministerial preening.

It’s no small irony that it took a rebuke from the nation’s First Klepto, Ah Jib Gor, to awaken the minister to the absurdity of his excess.

The general self-congratulatory attitude cut across racial barriers. A video of Human Resource Minister, M Saravanan checking aid parcels emblazoned with his face would have struck any reasonable person as tasteless in the extreme.

And yet it was the season of hope and charity, peace and goodwill to all man. Did they know it’s Christmas?

Ordinary Malaysians surely did. The spirit of caring and sharing, of mutual goodwill was evident when Malaysians of all races came together in a glorious recognition of their mutual humanity to help one another without fanfare, self-glorification or reward.

The spirit of the season fairly crackled in the air over Shah Alam and Mentakab among ordinary people and for a single, transcendent moment in time, the government politician was about as extinct, and useless, as the dodo.

It renews our faith in the country and it should give all of us hope.

Merry Christmas everyone.

ENDS

GOING BACKWARDS INTO THE FUTURE

Having lived here for almost two years, I can safely say Singapore is not only rich but well managed.

Despite widespread construction, its roads remain clean, green, and remarkably pothole-free. Better yet, crime is negligible, and the streets are safe at any hour.

Its public housing projects – where over 60 per cent of people reside – are attractive, landscaped, and free from the incipient grot that characterise most public housing in Malaysia or, the West.

And things work. The buses and trains run on time. And water disruptions of the frequency and magnitude witnessed in the Klang Valley the last two years, were last felt by Singaporeans in the 1960s!

Indeed, heads would have rolled had the same thing happened here in Singapore. But we continue to accept inept management because we have become inured to mediocrity. Simply put, we’re accustomed to it.

Why am I going on like this?

Well, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts, Vietnam’s GDP in 2020 was estimated to have reached US$340.6 billion, exceeding that of Singapore with US$337.5 billion and Malaysia with US$336.3 billion.

This makes Malaysia the sixth largest economy among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ahead only of Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Brunei.

How the mighty have fallen!

In the 60s, Malaysia was the largest economy in the region but by the 90s, I became used to describing the country as “Southeast Asia’s second largest economy” after Indonesia.

And what about The Philippines, perennially the region’s “sick man?” Not any more, it seems, glass houses and all that.

In fact, the IMF estimated The Philippines’ GDP to have reached US$367.4 billion, while Thailand will remain way ahead with its US$509.2 billion GDP.

The elephant in the room is undoubtedly Indonesia with the IMF predicting that it became a US$1,088.8 billion economy in 2020.

What are we to make of these trends?

The only conclusion we can reach about Malaysia is that we seem to have been in “decline mode” for some time. The pandemic merely served to hasten the process.

How else are we to explain our gradually declining economic status in the region?

To what do we ascribe the continuing deterioration of our currency, the ringgit, and the steady build-up of our national debt?

Why is there a worrying pull-out of foreign investment from Malaysia to other places like Indonesia, Singapore or Vietnam?

These are the facts and they are irrefutable. If we are to connect the dots, we have to conclude that out policy makers, our leaders, have failed us, and are continuing to do so. We simply seem to be doing something wrong.

Penalising successful companies by extra taxes simply results in seriously escalating tax avoidance methodology.

And taxing those who bring money back from abroad will inevitably result in them creating offshore accounts.

Neither is anything gained from nit-picking matters of morality, drinking, gambling, et absurdum. It irritates everyone including investors who might wonder why the same care and concern isn’t directed at, say, corruption or public waste and profligacy?

What’s needed are bold measures. Scrap fuel subsidies and impose a tax on fuel instead. That will be green and bring in money in a hurry!

The world – both governments and companies – is marching to a different drum nowadays. And future outcomes will be judged against how they stack up against environmental, social and governance yardsticks, the so-called ESG standards. Dyson’s recent booting out of a Malaysian supplier over alleged labour issues is a case in point.

We will have to measure up or risk abdicating the future.

ENDS